She was in her cubicle, digging into the latest search, when the hair at the back of her neck stood up. The low chatter in the office had stilled, and that could only mean one thing.
'Officer on deck', as Ram put it. Ram had been in the navy.
They stared at one another for a moment, and she forced herself not to look him over, knowing he'd see her do it. She'd drool, and that was embarrassing.
"I have an assignment for you," he started.
She rose an eyebrow at him. He flashed a grin and tossed a big manila envelope on her desk. "Organise RangeDay. It's our annual outing."
There was an outing? Like a company day? Mental image of the RangeMen playing minigolf. She blinked, trying to banish it.
"To what do I owe this dubious honour?"
"You're the closest thing I have to an organisational talent."
"Last time the guys left it far too late and Ella and I ended up doing most of the organisation."
"Oh. When is it?"
"In two months."
"Pretty short notice."
"I have every faith that you'll think of something."
Bastard. He said that just so she'd feel flattered instead of pressured into organising. Oh well, the idea of the guys on a day out was appealing, she had to admit. Maybe she'd feel less awkward between them if they'd all spent a day outside the normal work environment.
She'd been working for RangeMan for three months now, mostly doing research and phone work. Sometimes she'd go insane with being inside all the time and run some errands.
Right now, she wasn't sure if she wanted to get back to real field work. Yes, she occasionally went insane in her cubicle, but the Stiva incident still felt too recent, too raw, to feel good about being back in the real action. She'd figured it was time to get serious about training. Ranger had given one of his quiet 'proud of you' reactions and made some arrangements for her.
Lester coached her twice a week at the gun range. The dayshift guys dragged her along for their lunchbreak workout, and that meant she had to think of an excuse if she didn't want to go. A good excuse. Since the atmosphere was good and she'd been starting to enjoy the sessions, she bothered less and less with the excuses. It was hard to keep hold of her I-hate-exercise attitude in the face of Ram and Bobby's relentless energy and enthusiasm.
Ranger had also set her up with a self defence teacher in a dojo downtown, and she spent her Wednesday evenings being taught formal karate, whatever-works improvisation and everything in between. Her confidence was growing.
Morelli had been pleased to hear about her going to a dojo. Guess he'd been worried Ranger was going to teach her himself. Then he'd blown a gasket when he'd heard which dojo, shouting that it was under investigation for Yakuza – Japanese mob – contacts.
She'd finally told him that she needed some time for herself, to figure out what she wanted from life, let alone a relationship. She'd told Ranger the same, and he'd eased off the pressure, going from smoking hot to simply warm around her. She missed the occasional hot kisses, but for the moment warm felt good. Her life wasn't an emotional rollercoaster for a change.
She smiled at Ranger, warming up to the idea of a company outing.
"Alright, so what sort of thing do you usually do?"
"Paintball is always a safe bet. Or you could ask around to see what everybody wants to do."
She sat back and shook her head.
"Nuh-uh. If I organise, we're not paintballing."
One of his eyebrows went up a fraction of an inch.
"If you really think I want to crawl through the woods with a bunch of ex-special forces guys looking to paint me, think again."
His lips quirked a little, and she figured he was enjoying the mental image.
"All the info about previous years and budget is in that envelope. If you think you have something we'll all enjoy you're welcome to keep it secret. You can use my office to organise without anyone snooping."
She nodded. Hell, surprising the Rangemen might be fun.
"What about my normal work?"
"Hawk will need to keep off his leg for a couple of weeks, he can take over some of it."
Hawk had caught an unfortunate kick in the knee from a skip. She looked at the envelope again, wondering what on earth you did for a company outing with guys whose idea of fun was an 'interior decorating' job?
"I have to warn you," Ranger said lowly over her ear, making her breath catch momentarily. "If you want to keep it a surprise, the guys will take that as a challenge to find out about it."
"I'll keep it in mind," she said, trying not to shiver. He may have backed off, he was by no means letting her forget about the frightening levels of carnal attraction between them.
And he was gone.
The rest of her day flew by with some searches and the new project. Previous years had seen successes of the simple, guy-activity type. Paintballing, lasergaming, go-karting. She wanted something really cool for this year, something that would help her feel more like a part of the crew. Something she would be able to do on the same level as they. That ruled out quite a few physical things. At the same time it would have to appeal to the men.
She typed the budget, requirements and some ideas into a word document and then sat thinking for a while. If the guys would be trying to find out about it, it wouldn't be safe on her computer account. Hell, probably it wouldn't be safe anywhere. Not much point worrying about it at this stage. She'd ask Ranger later if she should take any digital precautions or if her computer account was off-limits. For now she called the file and saved it away in the folder called STUFF TO SORT OUT.
She got a small chicken sandwich from the kitchen and ate it sitting on one of the control room tables, legs dangling, chatting with the guys.
"Hey Steph!" Bobby came into the room, glancing at her sandwich. "That your dinner? Tell me you're not dieting."
She laughed because Bobby shared her love for fast food. No doubt to Ranger's irritation when the occasional take-out bag entered the office.
"Dojo tonight. I usually eat afterward."
"How is it going with the training anyway?"
"It's going. Feels like very slow, but going."
"Impatient as always. It takes a while for that stuff to become second nature, you know. And you've only been at it for what, a couple of months?"
"I think this is the eighth or ninth time."
"Well, all I know is that Ranger was pretty goddamn impressed with your teacher. Said she knocked him onto his ass, and there's not a whole lot of people who can manage that."
Stephanie paused mid-bite.
"Really? Tsuy never told me that. I mean, I knew he'd been over to talk to her…"
The dojo she went to was one of the small, old fashioned places with a membership almost exclusively of Japanese locals. It was owned by the Yatsumi's, a closed-faced family that didn't speak a lot of English and instilled a rigid and traditional regime in the training. Steph had been incredibly relieved when it turned out her teacher was a niece of the Sensei, a slim woman in her late twenties that used the smaller dojo room to teach her own form of self defence. And thankfully, Tsuy didn't insist on the discipline as it was wielded by her uncle.
They talked for a bit longer, and when she was done with her sandwich it was time to get going.
"Kick like you want to hurt something, Stephanie," Tsuy goaded. "It's not a Labrador puppy. Remember your breathing."
Steph gritted her teeth and struck out again, kicking a lot harder this time. The cushion moved timely to block the blow, and she kicked again.
"Let's take a moment," Tsuy said when Stephanie felt a trickle of sweat run along her spine, sitting down and motioning for Steph to do the same. "Did you feel that if you breathe right, you can kick a lot harder?"
"Yeah. I just can't imagine that if I'm in a situation in the field I'll remember to breathe right." Tsuy just nodded, waiting as if she knew she had more on her heart.
"It just seems like all the things we do are good to know, but wouldn't really be any use if a skip went crazy on me. Feels like I've been practising for months and still wouldn't be able to defend myself."
Tsuy smiled. It annoyed Stephanie like little else could.
"It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop."
"Is that whatshisname again? Confusicus?"
"Confucius. And you may not wish to hear it, but he was right."
"So are there any of those old guys who said things like 'boldly go forth and kick his ass'?"
That smile again.
"You should read Sun-Tzu some time. The Art of War. Very interesting."
Stephanie gave her the yeah-right look and Tsuy flashed a grin.
"Ranger said you might grow impatient with the pace. I'll tell you the same I told him: this isn't a crash course. I'm not teaching you a few handy tricks."
"I know that."
"Maybe you do. I'm telling you all the same. Really being able to handle yourself with confidence and safety means that your body needs to take over in a crisis. You don't think, you just act. You need body memory, and the only way to gain that is to build skill over time, repeating everything until you can do it in your sleep."
"So you're telling me to be patient."
"You're improving though, I hope you see that yourself. At some point soon I'll arrange someone to come practise with us."
Stephanie nodded. She'd been taught a couple of ways to deflect an assailant, but Tsuy was smaller and lighter than herself. Almost all of the people she faced were larger. Sometimes a lot larger.
"Let's go. We're going to do a couple of different throws, and then we'll call it a day."
"Stick a form in me, I'm done." Steph flopped backward against the mat, staring up at the ceiling. She was exhausted and her entire body ached. It'd be worse tomorrow.
There was a hand-written sign on the ceiling. She nodded at it.
"What does that say?"
"It doesn't translate too well. I suppose you could say 'Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall'"
Tsuy chuckled quietly and reached a hand down to her.
"Want to go have some dinner?"
"I'm starving." She let the smaller woman pull her to her feet.
"I'll take that for a yes."
Sometimes Tsuy sounded disturbingly like Ranger. How well did those two know one another? She'd have to fish into that some time. Actually, over food sounded like an excellent time.
"Lobby in twenty minutes?"
Stephanie nodded that that would be fine.
They were both freshly showered when Tsuy met her in the lobby downstairs. She looked almost formal, neat slacks and an open dress jacket over a blouse. She gestured for Stephanie to follow her out.
"I usually eat with the family. They're two doors down."
A nod. "Unmarried nieces can't possibly be expected to cook for themselves. They need to eat with the family as often as possible."
"Sounds like my family."
"They mean well, and most of the time it's convenient for me. My aunt just keeps grasping it as an opportunity to make me swim in the Japanese gene-pool."
Stephanie laughed, reminded of her mother's desperation to get her married off. It seemed to have died off for now. More likely because her mother had run out of suitable candidates than that she had given up her efforts to get her daughter married off.
The restaurant was a nice place, not very large. There were three tables that were build around a large cooking plate. At one of them a cook was working while a company was seated around him, watching him cook their meals. There were a few normal tables alone the sides. Tsuy walked to a table in front of the window and gestured for Stephanie to sit down.
"I'll be right back. Is there anything you don't eat?"
She didn't think it'd be okay to say 'vegetables' so she just shook her head. She'd never had Japanese before. She watched as Tsuy greeted the cook with a slight bow and approached the elderly woman behind the bar. Rapid-fire Japanese was exchanged and Stephanie smiled. If you mentally inserted the hand-gestures it was just like an Italian family.
Before long dishes started to arrive from the kitchen. Round bowl with some kind of light broth, rice balls coated with sesame seed, chicken in a delicious smelling sauce, all kinds of things coated in batter and fried. Tsuy briefly explained what everything was, then took chopsticks out of their paper wrapper and poured them both a cup of warmed sake.
Stephanie pulled the wooden chopsticks apart and wondered how on earth she would tackled the food with them before it grew cold.
The cook that was working nearby said something to Tsuy, and she answered, then turned to Stephanie.
"My cousin reminds me to give you," she snapped her fingers, trying to find the right word. "cutlery?"
"Cutlery yes, and that would be great," she said in relief. The food smelt far too nice to let it grow cold. A moment later she had tools she knew how to use, and discovered dish by dish that she really liked the Japanese kitchen. They even fried vegetables! Tempura was delicious. Ranger would laugh if she told him about that. Well okay, maybe he wouldn't laugh, but probably his eyes would.
"I want to learn that," she said, watching Tsuy's fingers operate the chopsticks.
"Lifetime of practise."
"Like the martial arts?"
"Pretty much. Doesn't mean you can't learn it as well though. Just takes time."
"Bobby says you, and I quote, 'knocked Ranger on his ass'."
"I did. Don't think I'd manage it again though."
"You and I," Tsuy gestured to include them both, "the best thing we have going for us is the element of surprise. We look like we couldn't knock over a…" she said a word in Japanese, gesturing to the pretty-looking vase that held the warmed sake. "So if we have to take someone out, do it hard. Don't hesitate, give it all you have. You're only going to get one chance to surprise."
"You surprised Ranger?"
"And if you didn't surprise him?"
"That I don't know. Probably an ambulance would be involved."
Stephanie nodded. It had been explained to her that sparring and full-force fighting were very different things. Tsuy had also expressly forbidden her to demonstrate her new skills on anyone she liked. Sparring style she wouldn't win from the guys at Rangeman, and full-force she'd risk serious damage to herself or her opponent, and probably both.
"I was wondering how you met Ranger in the first place."
"He had a few documents he needed translating a while ago, and I mediated in a meeting with a local Japanese business."
"And then he decided you were going to teach me self defence?"
Stephanie ate some more of the tempura, feeling the other woman's eyes on her. She expected a question, but it didn't come. Guess Tsuy wasn't much into prying. Or, and judging from this look, she didn't need to pry.
She answered the unspoken question with a little wave of her fork.
"He just wants me to learn to take care of myself in the field."
Tsuy made an 'oh yeah?' sound and took a sip of sake.
"Guess he's tired of saving my ass every time," Stephanie continued, fishing a little. She wanted to know what Ranger had said about her.
Damn her. Was there a Blank-walling 101 class she could sign up for somewhere? Probably it was standard RangeMan training.
"It's nice of him though. I appreciate it."
"If it was just that, he could have sent you to any dojo."
HAH! Stephanie hid her triumph as the other woman continued. Some information at last.
"He spent a lot of time making sure that you would not only learn, but be comfortable doing it."
She found herself staring at Tsuy and quickly covered with a sip of sake. It was strangely flavourful for something that looked like warm water. Her tongue tingled a bit.
Damn, was she having the warm-fuzzies over the fact that he'd found her a self defence teacher?
She understood what Tsuy meant though. Any dojo could have taught her the basics, but Ranger had looked for someone who taught without the rigid discipline that would no doubt have put her off the lessons. He hadn't just wanted her to learn, he'd wanted her to enjoy it.
He wasn't in her bed, or kissing her, or making her see crosseyed with lust, but he was still showing her he cared. It was something she knew wasn't between Morelli and her. If Morelli wasn't in her bed, his efforts were centred almost exclusively on getting back into it.
"Speaking of Ranger…" Tsuy interrupted her thoughts. "could you ask him if he can lend us someone to practise with?"
"You want me to practise on one of the Rangemen?"
God, what if she landed more of them in the hospital?
"Yes. Someone you're comfortable with, and whose ego won't be bruised if a couple of girls make him hit the mat."