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Disclaimer: All property of JE

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"Lester?"

"What?"

"We've got a problem."

"Not now, Hal." Lester frowned. If only...

"Lester."

"What?" he snapped. And then he smelled it:

Smoke.

Oh shit.

-.-

6 Hours Before

Lester Santos was not a quitter. Even as a toddler, he had always ended up devising ingenious tactical manoeuvres to divert his mother's attention while he sneaked away with the jar of cookies. It was no different now.

And, although Lester would never admit it, he also felt that he had taken on the role of their romantic guardian. It was his job – nay, his duty – to ensure that true love prevailed, evil fates be defeated, and, most important of all, that he, Lester Santos, be crowned the title of Trenton's most mysterious and most eligible bachelor after Ranger was neatly booted off that pedestal.

"I donno about this, Lester."

Hal's morose voice interrupted Lester's daydreams, which had involved a date with Miss Trenton and Miss April on a beach in Santa Barbara.

"Of course you don't, Hal. You know thinking makes your head hurt. Now, you just leave the thinking to me, okay?"

"But, Lester, I'm scared."

Lester looked over at the six feet tall, muscled security man who seemed capable of crushing whole walnuts in his hand.

"Scared?" he repeated.

"I don't think Ranger bought that whole rats chewing through the circuit box story-" Hal began, before Lester clapped a hand over his mouth.

"Hal, I don't know what you're talking about," Lester said, slowly, glancing furtively around the bar. Ranger had ears everywhere.

"Lester, I'm talking about how you bribed the electrician to say that rats were the ones who chewed through those wires when it was you-"

Lester slapped Hal across the face. Then, he grabbed a fistful of Hal's shirt and yanked him forward.

"Hal. That never happened," Lester repeated. "Do you understand? That. Never. Happened."

Hal's eyes were wide as he nodded in ascent.

Lester relaxed. The look in Ranger's eyes on that day...He internally shuddered. If Ranger were ever to find out what he did, he would undoubtedly be at the bottom of a river. With a sack over his head. And a bullet in his cranium, just for good measures.

"But, that's not going to happen this time," Lester continued, partly to reassure himself. "I've got it all figured out. Nothing's going to go wrong."

Hal nodded. Hal did not want to be slapped again.

And it was an ingenious plan. An ingeniously simple plan with all the potential of a home run.

They would take Bombshell to the bar. Once she was liquored up to the point of incoherency, they would escort her back home. Hal would convince Stephanie to put on a sexy dress (hence the need for her to be as drunk as possible) while Lester decorated the apartment with rose petals and candles. Then, they'd use Stephanie's phone to text Ranger over and leave. Ranger would come, find the candles and roses and assume Stephanie had arranged a romantic tete-a-tete.

And then...

Lester grinned. In the morning, Stephanie would have no recollection of the previous nights events, courtesy of a killer hangover. Hell, she'd probably assume that she had arranged the whole thing.

The plan was perfect. Flawless. Nothing would go wrong.

While Lester glowed with confidence about his new tactical manoeuvre, Hal was making plans of his own. Plans that involved booking a flight to Mexico, where Ranger couldn't find him and kill him after this was all over.

-.-

At a quarter to 11, they were dragging Stephanie through her front door. She collapsed on the sofa, giggling like a wind-up doll.

"Hal?"

"Huh?"

"How many shots did she have?"

Hal looked like he sincerely wanted to count on his fingers. "Um...I think...ten?"

Of course it was ten. That was when his fingers ran out, Lester thought bitterly as he looked down at Stephanie, who was currently singing about My Little Ponies. This was not the seductive image he had envisioned would be awaiting Ranger.

"Okay, you get her into the bedroom and get something nice on her. I'll get the candles and shit from the car."

Lester went out the door, leaving Hal staring down at the still chorusing Stephanie.

Hal had mixed feelings about Bombshell. On one hand, she was a great sport, good for a laugh and a beer.

On the other hand, she'd once stun-gunned him.

Hal approached Stephanie as if approaching a wild bear.

"Bombshell, c'mon, we gotta get you into the bedroom."

Stephanie made a raspberry and giggled.

A few months before, Hal had watched a survivalist show about what to do when dealing with wild animals. The reassuring voice of the survivalist came back to him now: never show fear.

Hal squared his shoulders. "Bombshell," he said in a firmer voice. "We have to go."

In response, Stephanie stuck out her legs and tangled them with Hal's. Hal lost balance, tipped forward, and found himself sprawled on top of Stephanie.

Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no oh no. This was not a position he was supposed to be having with the boss's girl.

Stephanie's legs coiled more tightly around him, like a python coiling around its hapless victim.

His brain went into full alert. His brain wanted to save him from being ripped into little pieces if Ranger were to walk in and see him in this position. Panic and adrenaline surged through him, and, with Herculean strength, he ripped himself out from the Stephanie's legs. Yes! Success! He had escaped from the python's grasp!

And then he promptly lost his balance again, tangled with the legs of a chair and smacked his head of the edge of a table.

When the dizziness had gone and Hal had managed to get up, Stephanie was skipping around the living room, on the third verse of My Little Pony, and Lester was standing over him.

Lester did not look pleased.

"I fell," Hal explained.

"I could see that."

"Bombshell's legs - pythons-" he babbled.

Lester rolled his eyes. Obviously, the big guy had had too many shots himself.

"Whatever. Just get her into the bedroom."

Hal nodded. Blood speckled on the front of Lester's shirt. Hal stared at it, agog. How had that -

"You've got a cut on your forehead, Hal. It's bleeding."

Hal touched his forehead. Oh. He was bleeding.

Lester rolled his eyes again and stalked off, muttering darkly about incompetent sidekicks.

Hal's cut could wait for later. Right now, he had a more pressing problem. He watched as Stephanie conducted a half-pirouette that ended with her lying on the floor. Study its behaviour, the survivalist had said. Then approach with the utmost care.

Hal slowly stalked towards Bombshell, picked her up, ran to the bedroom, and deposited her onto her bed.

On the comforter, Stephanie began to roll around and make baa-ing noises.

"Baa, baa, baa," she bleated.

Hal stepped back in alarm. Drunk women were not supposed to act like livestock. His hand inched towards his gun in an involuntarily act of comfort, but he stopped himself.

He turned and surveyed Stephanie's closet. It was even more alarming than Stephanie's bleating. There were clothes everywhere, bursting in every direction. He gingerly picked up a purple one and lifted it up for inspection. It seemed okay. Purple was a very good colour, Hal had always thought. Like Barney.

He tossed the dress to Stephanie. "Put this on, okay?"

"Okie-dokie," Stephanie giggled.

Hal gave an internal sigh of relief and left the bedroom, closing the door after him.

"Help me light the candles over there," Lester ordered. He was in the process of distributing rose petals artistically over the floor.

Hal didn't see the point of candles and everything, but then again, he didn't understand a lot of things, as Lester had pointed out. Sighing, he picked up a lighter and began lighting the spindly candles lining the room.

A few minutes later, they heard a banging coming from the bedroom.

Lester and Hal found Stephanie, still fully-clothed, but now with the purple dress pulled half-way over her head. She was thrashing around on the floor.

"What is that?" Lester asked, repulsed.

"Huh?"

"That thing. Don't tell me you got her to wear that."

"It's nice," Hal said, defensively.

"She looks like an eggplant." Lester walked forward and pulled the dress off of Stephanie. She gasped and shrieked, "I see the light!"

Lester sighed. "Shit. Do I have to do everything myself? No, don't answer that. I'll get this sorted out and you finish with the candles."

Hal walked off, mumbling something about Barney.

Lester selected an appropriately short and black piece from the closet. He speculatively surveyed Stephanie, who was swaying on her bed like a drunken sailor.

He was torn. There was no other way. But if Ranger ever found out...

No. He couldn't think like that. Focus on the mission, he steeled himself. What has to be done, has to be done.

He stepped forward, moved Stephanie so that she sat facing the opposite direction and began to pull her shirt over her head.

Lester had undressed countless women. From the age of 15, he had become adept with handling zippers, buttons, and fastenings with the ease of long practice.

He had gotten the shirt halfway up her stomach when Hal called from the living room.

"Lester?"

"What?" Lester snapped. Stephanie had begun thrashing around again. He tried to ignore the baa-ing.

"We've got a problem."

"Not now, Hal." Lester frowned, trying not to be distracted by the black bra that now peeked out at him.

"Lester."

"What?" he snapped. And then he smelled it:

Smoke.

Oh. Shit

He ran into the living room and found flames licking up the living room curtains. Hal was using a dishrag to beat at the flames.

"Use something bigger!" Lester screamed.

Hal dropped the dishrag and picked up a chair.

"Not that, you idiot!" Lester wrestled the chair out of Hal's grasp. Hal's eyes were glazed with panic. Blood trickled from his still open cut. He looked like a newly animated Frankenstein.

"Get the fire extinguisher from the hallway!" Lester yelled.

The front door open and an elderly woman poked her head in. "What's all this racket-" She stopped, mid-sentence, staring open-mouthed at Lester, who was holding a chair aloft, Hal, whose face was now covered in blood, and the curtains, which were quickly becoming consumed by flames.

The old woman turned and ran out, screaming: "FIRE!"

Up and down the hallway, doors began to open. "Fire?" "What fire?" "For Christ's sake, what's all this racket?"

The old woman returned. She had a fire extinguisher, and was brandishing it in one hand like a machete

"Get out of the way, sonnys!" she screamed, and let loose the fire extinguisher.

It all proved too much for Hal. What with the concussion and the stress of this entire episode, Hal's brain took pity on him and promptly decided to disengage. With a groan and a "I should never have gotten out of bed", Hal fainted dead on the floor.

-.-

Stephanie slept through it all.

She slept through the screech of the three fire squads as they screamed into the parking lot. She slept through the parade of people who came to gawk at the ruined wreckage of her apartment. She slept through the hasty cleanup of the roses and candles and the unceremonious dragging of Hal out the door.

When she woke up, her head pounded with a killer hangover.

Stumbling into the kitchen, she poured herself a cup of coffee. The coffee splashed onto the counter and she realized she'd forgotten to open her eyes.

When she did so, she noticed the burnt scraps of curtain clinging to her now scorched window frame.

She closed her eyes.

She didn't want to know.

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A/N: Hope this chapter didn't disappoint. Reviews are much appreciated!

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