Author's Note: Good evening, everybody! I'm still alive and so is this story. It's far from over yet. So, I'm completely stuck on my latest one shot and instead of continuing to ram my head against the solid, painful brick wall of Writer's Block, I'm gonna focus my attentions elsewhere. God knows that I have plenty of other fandoms and stories that deserve it. I know it seems like an obvious solution but sometimes, I can be really stubborn and dumb. I'm trying to do better.
A very special shoutout to LilyGhost and her plethora of healthy, happy BABE stories. I'm sure y'all already know who she is but if you don't, please show her and her stories some love. There are so many to choose from and each one of them are top shelf. I'd especially recommend The Call and Baby Steps. I've been reading them over and over again & they've served as wonderful inspiration. Ranger and Stephanie deserve to be happy solo and together. They deserve to be written with dignity and while I haven't read a JE book since Sizzling Sixteen, I've a feeling that canon hasn't been very nice to them. Actually, I'm pretty sure it hasn't and that's what fic is for.
Just a few reminders as this fic continues on: I don't like Joe Morelli as a person, a cop, or a romantic interest for anyone, especially Steph. The Burg and its champions for its nonsense can burn to the ground. Helen Plum isn't a mother, she's an Incubator. As for Frank Plum? Typically, I redeem him in my stories but I'm thinking that in this one, I'll write him as the truth: not bad but far from good. He's just meh. What Ranger said to him and Steph's description of him will continue unless The Muses say otherwise. On the bright side, Val and Steph will definitely become real sisters. Enjoy the latest!
Disclaimer: "Honestly, it's not mine!"
3 Weeks Later...
"You're quitting?! You can't quit!"
"Why not? You didn't even want to give this job in the first place."
"Like you need the money...what are you gonna do? Start acting like one of those Kardashians?"
"Nope. I'm gonna go work for RangeMan."
"Are you serious?"
"Why wouldn't I be? The insurance is better, the workplace is better, I can have help that knows what they're doing whenever I need it. I get to spend more time with Ranger and most importantly, I get to spend less time with you and in The Burg. That sounds like a multi win situation to me. I'm not asking for permission. It's done. I'm on the payroll and I'm actually on the clock so if you could give me the files so I can leave, that would be great."
"For fuck's sake, Stephanie..."
"If you've got a problem, you can come outside and take it up with Ranger. He said that he already had breakfast but I'm sure he'll be glad to give you a knuckle sandwich topped with a fried egg real quick. No? That's what I thought. Give me the files."
"...and just what the hell am I supposed to do for a bounty hunter in the meantime?"
"Do it yourself, put an ad on Craigslist, or just hire Joyce full time. She's got a CCW and nothing better to do with her time between sucking off racehorses. Plus, her working here would be a perfect cover story for your ongoing shenanigans with her. You know that if Harry the Hammer finds out that the rumors are true, you're a dead man, right? You would be in a pair of concrete red bottoms before dinnertime if he didn't just strip you for parts in one of his chop shops."
"And you'd just love to see that shit happen, wouldn't you?"
"Give me the files and we won't have to find out. Again, I'm on the clock and I have better things to do than deal with you. Move or be moved and you better give me all of the files. My Skips are weird but good people and I don't trust you or Joyce to do right by them."
If looks could kill, I would be a pile of smoking ash right now but I don't care. I'm not asking for anything unreasonable and Vinnie knows that. He can be mad at me all he wants but he can't do anything to stop me from leaving. If he tried, I wouldn't need Carlos to shoot or stab him. I'd do it myself. Carlos would help me with the clean up and make sure that I had an ironclad alibi in case the little shit decided to try to press charges.
Plus, the mere threat Vinnie pissing me off enough to tattle to his mob boss father in law about his constant cheating on Lucille with Joyce and other women like her? I've got the high ground and I'm giving him way more time than he deserves by coming to him in person.
Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful that Vinnie gave me the job at the Bond's Office. It gave me something to do and the job led to me meeting Carlos. That counts for something but not enough for me to stick around. The Bond's Office doesn't hold a candle to RangeMan and I refuse to work with Joyce. Connie has been great in keeping me from crossing paths with her but I want to cut out the possibility altogether. Only me moving away from Jersey would keep Joyce and others like her from bugging me but now, they'll have to put a lot more effort in to find me.
I know my worth. I finally know my worth and I'm not going to let anyone stop me from doing what's best for me. That attitude was what led to me divorcing Dickie and turning Joe down flat when he tried to get something started. He hasn't tried anything else since the steakhouse but as soon as this latest news hits the Grapevine? Well, life wouldn't be life without a little bit of drama, would it? If he were smart, he'd steer clear of me but Morelli men aren't known for being smart. Shooting him would be just as wonderful as shooting Vinnie but with far more paperwork and lawyers so...well, I'll use him as the torch to burn that bridge when I get to it.
After making sure that I had all my files, I took a last look around. Vinnie slumped heavily in his cracked vinyl chair and looked like he was going to cry. As much as the little weasel gets on my nerves, I couldn't just walk out without trying to make him feel a little bit better. There's a silver lining for every cloud in the sky, even the ones made out of New Jersey smog.
"Hey, think of it this way: me quitting this job is one less thing for Helen, Shirley, and Lucille to bitch at you about during Sunday Dinner."
"And it's gonna add 20 more things...you're really Ranger's girlfriend?"
"What the hell does he see in you?"
"I have no idea but I'm not gonna complain about it. I'm happy with him and that's all that matters. Anyone who has a problem with it can take a long walk off of a short pier."
"...damn, you really fucking hate her, don't you?"
"Joyce? Of course, I do! Jeez..."
"I wasn't talking about Joyce. I'm talking about Aunt Helen. You hate her guts and hell, you hate Uncle Frank now, too. You told Ranger that he was a lazy piece of shit and you wouldn't talk to him on the phone when he called. You only talk to Grandma Mazur and Val now."
"I didn't say that he was a lazy piece of shit. I said that he was good man but not very useful."
"Oh, that's so much better!"
"What's your point, if you have one?"
"I know that the family hasn't been good to you but..."
"That's an understatement and you helped hurt me, too so shut up. I don't need an Intervention."
"I told Ranger the truth about my relationship with them and it's not my fault that it's fucked up. It's theirs. It sucks that I'm never gonna be as close to them as Val is. It really does but I'm better off without them. Besides, all she does is call me the family embarrassment with his full blessings, anyway. I stress her out so she should be happy that I do my best to stay away from them. Speaking of staying away from places, I'll be staying away from here from now on. Bye."
Stopping at Connie's empty desk, I set down a box of banana bread from the Tasty Pastry and a thank you card. Connie's part of the Rizzoli family but not the Rizzoli Family, if you know what I mean. She's a Burg girl through and through but not a sheep. She's tough as nails but kind to her friends. She and I have never really interacted outside of the job but we're still friends. Hopefully, she'll save the new number I wrote down inside the card and we can hang out on the regular. As you've seen, I keep my Circle tiny. There are less chances for drama that way but I desperately need more female friends. Mary Lou definitely counts. She's my chosen older (by 32 hours) sister and I absolutely fucking adore her but she's only one woman.
Plus, Connie was critical to me getting to meet Carlos and that is major. I owe her big time for helping out and I'm not one for leaving my debts unpaid. I learned that lesson the hard way long ago. Pay off all debts right on time and with interest if need be. Any other way lies sadness.
I still can't believe Carlos turned down Morelli's bond just so he could have an excuse to meet me. I still can't believe that he had been harboring a crush on me since The Little Molotov that Couldn't. He had his pick of whoever he wanted to be with and he chose me. He wants me.
I've got trust issues coming out the wazoo. I've got a squad of neighborhood gossips judging me, toxic parents, a crazy grandmother and a Past that's part of local lore but Carlos wants to be with me, anyway.
I don't get why. I don't think I ever will but I'm not going to ruin it, not on purpose.
I'm not going to let anyone else ruin it either.
Joining him by the SUV, I gave Carlos a thumb's up before hugging him. I love hugging him. He's warm and smells like safety mixed with Bulgari. As had become the norm, he lifted me off the ground and squeezed me gently. Most people could never put the words 'gentle' and 'Ranger' together but I can. After putting me down, he opened the passenger side door. Once I was safely inside, he buckled my seatbelt for me. That's another thing that I've had to get used to. Carlos puts full effort into taking care of me in all ways without being a jerk about it. He doesn't think I'm helpless. He doesn't want to clip my wings. He just wants me to be happy.
As soon as he got in the driver's seat, I buckled his seatbelt for him, giving him a toothy grin after he arched a questioning brow. Hey, even Batman needs to be fussed over sometimes and no one is immune to car accidents, especially around these parts. People drive like they're playing drunk Mario Kart on a good day and just did a bump of heroin during GTA on a bad. Just hitting a pothole at the wrong speed could send someone flying through the windshield.
"That went better than I thought it would. I didn't have to pull my gun on him or anything."
"What a shame."
I giggled at his deadpan reply and the faintest of smiles curved his lips as he drove towards Haywood. Lots of paperwork awaited him and I'm sure that there will be a stack of searches as tall as me in my inbox. I don't mind the work. RangeMan has excellent resources and it's like solving a puzzle every time. I've always liked puzzles. Also, I really like working with all the guys, especially Hector, Tank, Lester, Bobby, and Cal AKA The Core Team. All of the RangeMen I've met have taken me in like a little sister and I appreciate that. They respect me as a person, a colleague, and as Ranger's serious girlfriend.
I can tell that a lot of them are lonely in a crowd. Like their leader, they're seen by the locals as little more than bedwarmers and street thugs, which is totally unfair. I want to try and make them feel better about themselves. I know what it's like to be judged. I know what it's like to feel defective so if I can help them out, I will. I don't know exactly how but I'm going to try.
"Did you get everyone?"
"Yep. I told Vinnie I was on the clock but that was just to get me out of there faster. I don't get it. He didn't even want to give the job in the first place but he acted like I burned his favorite fleshlight when I told him I was gonna go work for you full time. What gives?"
"You're great at your job, Babe. He won't find a better bounty hunter without coughing up some serious cash and he knows it."
"Eh, I do all right."
"You do better than all right. Did you know that you have a 100% capture rate?"
"I've got home field advantage. I know just about everyone in town and who I don't know, someone else does and they point me in the right direction. Plus, I don't take on big bonds. Morelli was an exception. If I ever tried to do the bounty hunting gig in another city, I'd just..."
Carlos stopped in the middle of the street, put the hazard lights on, and kissed me hard. His hands cupped my face and all I could do was go with it. I couldn't get away from him if I tried and god knows that's the last thing that I want to do. If I could, I'd kiss him forever, regardless of where we are. Fortunately, it's still pretty early in the day so the streets are traffic free but...wow...
"...I...what...why did you...holy fuck..."
"You were tearing yourself down again. I don't like it when you do that."
"So, you've decided to help me have better self esteem with kisses?"
"If that's what it takes."
"...okay, but try to warn me before you do it. I'm not trying to ruin all of my panties..."
"Where would be the fun in that?"
5 Hours Later...
"Hey, Val. What's up?"
"Could you go and pick up the girls from school? Albert and I are still at the OB..."
"How come? Are you okay? How's the baby doing?"
"We're doing fine. It's just that the office is overbooked and school gets out at 2:45 and..."
"I'll be there. Is it all right if I get them some ice cream before I take them home?"
"That'd be great and don't worry about babysitting. Grandma's been staying with us."
"Wait, what? Why? What the hell happened?"
"I'm not sure. She wouldn't tell me but she moved out and she swore on Grandpa Harry's grave that she wouldn't live with them again. She was looking into nursing homes and everything so it had to be really bad. She was staying with her friends and going out to Atlantic City on the weekends. Mom's been calling but she won't talk to her. She won't even listen to her voicemails. I thought about having her over for brunch so they can try and work things out but..."
"Don't. Whatever drama that's going on has nothing to do with you or your family. Let Helen work it out with her on her own. How long has Grandma been staying with you?"
"Almost 3 weeks. It's actually really nice. I mean, she's Grandma and she still does crazy Grandma things but the girls love having her with us. Albert, too and she's been a big help with getting things ready for the baby. To be honest, I don't think Mom and Dad are really happy about her. I mean, they still help out but it feels like they're faking it sometimes. Maybe if Albert and I were married before I got pregnant or if I were having a boy...but Grandma's happy and she helps me stay calm so my blood pressure doesn't get too high. She doesn't judge and anyone who says anything bad gets shut down quick."
"She's always been our champion. I wish you had told me sooner. I would've helped."
"Of course. Things may not be good with Helen and Dad right now but you're still my sister and...wait, are you crying? I didn't mean to make you cry! Is that gonna hurt the baby?"
"...don't worry, they're good tears. Thanks, Stepphie."
"You're welcome. I might have Ranger with me if he's not busy. Is that gonna be a problem?"
"Not at all. I like Ranger. He's a little scary but he does right by you. He makes you happy and that's something I've always wanted to see. You just had to find your own way, that's all."
"Oh, my God...is that really necessary?"
"Yes. Girls, get inside."
"Are you going to shoot him, Aunt Stephanie?"
"If I have to. You and Mary Alice shouldn't be around to see it, though. Go inside and lock the door behind you. Make sure that Gram knows what's going on in case things get ugly."
"I could turn the sprinklers on him. That's how we got rid of Mrs. Gilles' stupid pooping dog."
"That's okay, M.A. I got this. Inside. Both of you. Say goodbye to Carlos."
"Bye, Mr. Carlos."
"It was nice to meet you. Thank you for the ice cream."
"You're welcome. Do as your Aunt says."
I hate gossipers.
I hate whoever opened their big fucking mouth to let Morelli know that I was with my nieces. I hate that he felt that it was a good idea to wait across the street for us to come back and I especially hate the fact that I currently have my gun unholstered. It's not pointing at anything but the sidewalk right now but it's unholstered and fully loaded.
As I've said before, I don't like guns. I'm good with them but I don't like using them. They're a necessary evil. As good as shooting Morelli would feel, it would cause so much drama. I'd have to hire a lawyer and all of my past with him would be dredged up in a courtroom when he decided to press charges. Still, I will do whatever it takes to protect my nieces from danger.
Just because Joe is a cop doesn't mean that he's a good man. Cops do horrible things all the time. Just because he's a cop doesn't mean that he's not a Morelli man. The only people that Morelli men treat worse than the women around them are children. There's never been a molester in the family that anyone knows of but bruises could be seen, sometimes and they had no qualms against yelling at their kids in public like they were yelling at the TV during a baseball game. I remember Joe's dad and uncles doing it all the time to them when we were kids.
Mary Alice and Angie have been through enough hell.
Their sperm donor abandoned them for a barely legal little slut. Their mother had to move them clear across the country to start over and I know that the kids in their school are making fun of them. Angie is a voracious bookworm and Mary Alice is obsessed with horses to the point of galloping around instead of walking. They're completely different from the other kids and being different is bad, according to the Rules of Middle School/the Rules of The Burg. Combine that with Helen and other people like her's "well meaning" words and...
"Why are you here? What do you want?"
"I need to talk to you, Stephanie."
"About whatever the hell you're calling yourself doing with Manoso."
"It's called a relationship and it's none of your business. You don't get a say and neither does whoever sent you to "talk sense into me". After all, if I'm happy, something must be wrong."
"Yeah, you're happy now but what are you gonna do when he gets bored with you?"
"I don't know...what am I gonna do when you get bored with me, Carlos?"
"Nothing because that's not going to happen, Babe."
"Well, there you go. Now, you don't have to worry, anymore. Please leave."
"Goddamn it, Stephanie..."
"Stay away from my sister and keep Carlos' name out of your mouth. He's worth 12 of you and so are the people who work with him, which officially includes me now. I quit the Bonds Office this morning so you can let Helen know since she's the one who gave you the perfect excuse to come over here and bother me. She called your mom crying about how unfair I've been to her, you conveniently overheard, and now you're here to try and save the day. Awesome."
"She's just worried about you, Cup-"
"I am not a Cupcake and Helen doesn't give a damn about me for me. It's all about her and what the neighbors are saying. With went down with my marriage, Val's marriage, and now Gram moving out, folks are starting to ask what she's doing wrong. God knows that we can't have that. Of all the people she could've sent to do her dirty work, she sent you. You. Wow."
"...what is wrong with you? Why do you always think the worst of everyone?"
"Not everyone. Just the people who have always shown me the worst of them."
This conversation is going nowhere fast and it needs to end.
As wonderful as it is to hear Stephanie stand up for herself, I know that Morelli isn't going to listen to her. He's stuck in his ways, just like the rest of the sheep in this neighborhood. All he sees is a woman who won't give him what he wants. All he sees is someone who needs to be put back in their place and it disgusts me. Joe Morelli doesn't deserve to breathe the same air as my Babe or any other good, strong woman. It's all about what he wants, what he feels entitled to. I've seen "men" like that while growing up and during my tours of duty. I know that Stephanie can take of herself. I appreciate the fact that Stephanie can take care of herself but this pendejo has taken up enough of her time today. He's taken enough of her peace...
"We should leave."
She holstered her gun and kissed me on the cheek before getting into the truck.
Morelli being Morelli couldn't just walk away with his tail between his legs. He had to save face, especially since people are watching from behind their curtains. Stephanie hadn't been exaggerating about The Burg's gossip network. This was going to be the hottest topic yet and I completely understand why she's doing her best to keep her distance.
"You've think you won, huh? Turning her against her own family..."
"I haven't done anything but support and respect the decisions that she made long before we met. You should've done that when you had the chance. I'm not using her. I'm not going to get bored with her and I'm not going anywhere, no matter how much you want me to. What I said to you at the steakhouse still stands, Morelli. It would be in your best interests to leave her alone and let her be happy. You can pass that message to whoever feels the need to hear it."