Chapter 1: Lands' End
Disclaimer: Buena Vista Entertainment owns the rights to Power Rangers Lost Galaxy. This story involves characters and concepts from PRLG.
His brother was going to kill him. After all the trouble he'd gone to, the strings he'd pulled to get Leo on the colonist list in the first place, now here was stupid fate coming along to mess things up. Like it hadn't been weird enough, thinking that he might never see Earth again. Now, with a growing sense of dread, he realized he might never leave.
All he'd wanted was a going away party. It wasn't so much to ask, in the scheme of things. Mike had wanted him on Terra Venture the night before, so he could be taken care of before the rush of last-minute launch preparation, but he'd insisted on one more bash before he voluntarily boarded a ship full of geeky scientists and strait-laced military types.
"Look," he told the gate guard for what felt like the dozenth time, "I was at a party, and someone must have lifted my papers. But I know my name's on the list, so if you could just have someone check--"
"No ticket," the guard growled back at him, "no admittance."
"I just came from the ticketing agent," Leo reminded him. "She told me to see you."
"Stop holding up the line," the guard snapped.
All of the gates outside the shuttle runway were guarded by a pair soldiers, each taking tickets and checking paperwork as the final colonists jockeyed for a better view in their disorderly lines. Everyone here was nervous and rushed and the guards were showing the strain. Still, he wasn't just some guy off the street: whether he'd been legitimately selected or not, he was on the list. And he should be on one of those shuttles.
"Can't you call someone and have them confirm my space?" he wanted to know. "My name is Leo Corbett; I'm Mike Corbett's brother, and I'm a registered colonist on Terra Venture."
The guard was giving him a disgusted look. "I don't care who you say you are, kid. I care who your papers say you are. I can't let anyone past this point without proper identification. You knowing the name of someone on the colony register doesn't cut it."
"But I just told you--" Leo protested.
"Hey." The second guard had stepped in front of the gate, holding back his side of the line while he frowned at them. "What's the problem here?"
"No ticket," the first guard declared ominously.
"I lost my--" Leo began.
"Ticket first," the second guard interrupted. "Get your ticket and come back."
"But I'm supposed to be on the nine-twenty shuttle!"
"Look, kid." The second guard shot an irritated look at a woman who had the temerity to tug on his arm, and it was enough to make her fall back a little. "We're in a hurry here. We're boarding people on a first come, first served basis. The nine-twenty shuttle's already full, so go get in the ticket line, get your ticket, and come back. You'll make the last shuttle up at ten-thirty."
"I've already been through the ticket line," Leo insisted. "I told you, my passport was stolen and they sent me to you!"
"No one gets through without ID," the guard said, looking suddenly more suspicious and twice as menacing. "Find that passport or you're not going anywhere."
He was shoved aside by the first guard, who pointedly turned toward the next person in line. On the other side of the gate, the whine of ground-bound engines died off and there was an eerie silence out on the field. The guards kept talking, shuffling, checking, and two women handed over their carry-on bags for final inspection. The little boy with them refused to part with a monkey-shaped backpack.
Then the roar of pre-ignition swept across the crowd, rumbling in to make normal communication almost impossible, but the guards paid no attention. One of the women pried the boy's backpack away and handed it over. The rest of the crowd was still pushing and yelling to each other, trying to be heard, trying to see, utterly muted as the rockets lit and the ground shook and the nine o'clock shuttle burned a trail into the sky above their heads.
By the time Leo looked away, the small family behind him had been allowed through the gate. The boy was clutching his monkey pack again, and the two women were fussing with his arms and the straps as they tried to get it back over his shoulders. One on either side of him, they finally took his hands and headed off, none of them letting go of each other as they made their way toward the nine-forty terminal and a one-way trip to the colony ship Terra Venture.
Leo turned around, deciding that the best approach would be to find somebody who had a phone. Preferably somebody wearing a TV uniform, but failing that, some kind of security would probably do. His brother was the second highest-ranking military officer on that ship, and if Leo couldn't get himself on board, then Mike would just have to do it for him. Again.
It didn't take him long to realize that there were no uniformed Terra Venture citizens to be found. They were probably all up on the ship already. Okay, so scratch that plan. There was plenty of security around, but he'd already had firsthand experience with how unhelpful they could be if he picked the wrong one.
He was trying to look inconspicuous, weighing potential candidates from an out-of-the-way place behind a corner somewhere, when he heard a woman's raised voice and a man urgently shushing her. He didn't know why it caught his attention, but it seemed off, and security probably had too much to do to bother reporting abuse today. So he drifted back, listening for the source of the noise and figuring just his presence might be enough to head off actual harm.
"I won't be quiet," the woman's voice snapped as he came strolling around the side of the building. "And I'm not giving you my ticket! You think I don't know what gate guards look like? Shame on you! You leave an old woman in peace!"
Crap. Leo hastily reassessed the situation. Two big guys and a little old lady, all of them apparently after the manilla envelope the lady had pressed up against her chest. What they thought they could do with her papers, he had no idea, but then, he'd never been part of those underground "identity on the fly" operations either.
"Grandma, there you are," he said smoothly, giving them a token wary glance as he sidled up to her. "We're all waiting for you at the gate. Mom's about to send the guards out looking for you. You ready to go?"
"Oh, yes." She pulled her folder a little tighter against her body, putting her head down to take a few steps forward. "Yes, I'm quite ready. I don't know what happened; I must have taken a wrong turn on my way out of the bathroom and now I'm all turned around."
The guys were glaring at him, cold stares that said he wasn't that impressive. And there were two of them. One sign of weakness and they'd probably take him on. But confidence had gotten him out of a lot more fights than fists had, so he just patted the old woman's shoulder and smiled down at her as he added, "Dad's been retracing your steps. We'll pass him on the way back and we can let him know we found you."
"Oh, yes, that will be wonderful," the woman murmured. "Thank you, dear. You're very kind."
"Look, there's a guard now," Leo said. Just in case the guys behind them still had any ideas. "Excuse me? Security! Security, can we get a little help here?"
They made it out of the alley and back into full view of nearby security without further incident. His calls for security had indeed caught the attention of a guard out front--not that he'd been able to see anyone from where he was, but they were met anyway as they stepped around the corner. "There's a couple of guys back there," he said, gesturing over his shoulder.
"Young men pretending to be gate guards," the woman beside him piped up. "They tried to take my ticket and all of my papers! This young man came along and they backed off; I shudder to think what might have happened if he hadn't stopped to help."
Apparently, the guards on duty outside the shuttleport were very trusting of little old ladies. The one that had met them at the front of the building waved for two more to head down the alley and investigate, while he asked solicitously, "Are you all right, ma'am?"
"Well, I am now," she said with a sniff. "But I'm supposed to be on a shuttle up to Terra Venture in half an hour, and I seem to have lost my way to the gate."
The guard didn't look at all skeptical about this, despite the fact that she was obviously several decades older than the average colonist. "Right this way, ma'am. There are signs that will lead you back past the ticketing agency and up to one of the gates."
"I'll walk with you," Leo offered. "I know the way."
"Oh, thank you," the woman said, patting his arm. "That will be lovely. Tell me, are you on your way to the new world also?"
"Uh..." He glanced over his shoulder at the guard, but the man was heading down the alley after his buddies. "Well, I'm supposed to be."
"Oh?" Her tone was suddenly sharp and curious. "And what do you mean by that?"
Leo looked down at her, with her purse over one shoulder and manilla envelope in the crook of her elbow now. Something about her inspired honesty, and he admitted, "Well, I'm not supposed to be. I wasn't selected. But my brother's a GSA officer, and he got me put on the colonist list as a dependent. Then just this morning I lost my passport. There's no way they'll let me on a shuttle now."
The woman clucked disapprovingly. "All this paperwork, and sometimes I think they forget there are people attached to it. What's your name, dear?"
"Leo Corbett," he told her.
She frowned a little at that. "Leo Corbett... now why does that sound familiar?"
"My brother Mike is Terra Venture's First Officer," he said. "You've probably seen his name on all the news specials and things."
"Oh, of course! Mike Corbett, that's right." She beamed up at him. "Well, he should be able to waive the passport requirement for you, shouldn't he? If there's one thing the new world will need, it's more young men like you."
He had to smile at that. "That's very nice of you to say, Ms...?"
"Gracie Tyler," she said, shifting her folder to her other arm and holding out her hand. "My granddaughter is a GSA officer. And if you think I'm on the colonist register as anything other than her dependent, then you give the selection process too much credit."
His smile widened, and he decided that he liked her. "Anyone who wouldn't choose you, Ms. Tyler, obviously doesn't know what a real colony needs."
"Oh?" she said, eyeing him sideways as they walked slowly toward the lines at the nearest gate. "And what would that be?"
"Attitude," he told her.
She chuckled at that, and yes. He really liked her. "Well, I would have said a multi-generational community that brings a sense of identity and permanence to all of its members," she declared. "But it just so happens that I like your description better."
"Safe travel on your voyage, Ms. Tyler," he said, slowing as they reached the end of the line. "Whatever you bring to the colony, I'm sure it's something they can't do without."
"I'll see you on board, dear." She gave him another reassuring smile. "You just get that brother of yours on the phone and explain to him what happened. He'll have you on the next shuttle in no time at all."
He was starting to worry that that was easier said than done, with Mike on duty and no officers around to get a priority message through, but he wasn't going to say so aloud. "I'll do that," he promised her instead. "You hold onto that paperwork."
"Oh, I will," she declared, patting the envelope. "Thank you so much for your help. I've never been more grateful to a faux grandson in all my life."
He grinned. He couldn't help it. "Always happy to impersonate family in the name of justice," he said, waving a little as he backed away. And maybe he shouldn't have said that so loudly, especially if one of the guards already thought he was pretending to be Mike Corbett's brother in order to sneak on board the ship--
Hey. Could he do that? Sneak on board the ship? Or at least, pretend to? If they caught him trying to stow away, they'd have to take him seriously. Yeah, they'd probably drag him off and hold him somewhere for a few hours, but they'd have to find out who he was at some point. They couldn't detain or even release someone caught inside the gate without determining their identity. And the first thing they'd do to try to prove his "story" wrong would be to contact Mike.
Leo wasn't good with forms and regulations. But he knew what it took to fool people who weren't paying attention, and no one gave him a second glance when he strode confidently into the cargo transfer facility. He'd pulled off his red dress shirt and hidden it in his bag, grabbing three more bags as he entered, two slung over his shoulders and the largest one hefted with both hands as he crossed the floor. His jeans and black t-shirt were almost invisible underneath all the luggage, and no one would be able to see the ID he wasn't wearing.
He walked right onto one of the luggage trucks, dropped the largest bag and started shifting things that had already been loaded from front to back. The guy on the ground turned around, saw him, and began tossing stuff up to him without so much as a "hey." Leo smiled a little, careful to keep his own bag in sight as he stacked the rest.
He was given an unexpected gift when the truck was filled and the guy who'd been throwing stuff to him walked around the side and disappeared. He didn't know whether the guy expected him to jump off or ride with, but a moment later, the truck rumbled to life and started to roll out onto the tarmac. Leo braced himself against the back and listened to the roar of what had to be the nine-twenty shuttle departing. He'd missed it. But he wasn't going to miss the next one.
Like he'd told Gracie Tyler, sometimes all it took was a little attitude.
He had his bag over his shoulder when the truck pulled up beside a giant white space jet that he'd never seen from so close before. He leapt off the back and scrambled up the unmoving conveyor belt into the cargo hold, yanking a giant duffel out from behind carefully stacked luggage and cramming himself into the space that was left. He tried to hold his breath, listening for yelling to indicate that someone had seen him, or maybe just the sound of the conveyor as they got ready to unload the truck. When he heard nothing he tried to pull the duffel back toward him to hide himself further.
It was a ridiculous plan. In his defense, though, he'd never expected to work. Didn't the driver wonder where he'd gone? Hadn't anyone else seen him sneaking into the side of the shuttle? Why didn't the guy who came up the conveyor once it was turned on glance around the cargo area before he started throwing more stuff in?
Leo expected to be discovered at any time. He'd only wanted to get far enough that they couldn't just throw him out on the street once they'd caught him. So he was surprised when he heard a resounding bang that shook the entire compartment, and suddenly the light was completely gone. He twitched the bag he was hiding under aside, enough that he should have been able to see something... but there was nothing.
Pitch blackness. They'd closed the door. He heard the engines start to whine a moment later.
Crap. He shoved the duffel bag off of him and straightened up as much as he could. He wouldn't have been able to stand up even if the compartment was empty, and as it was he was lucky he had room to move. He put his hands above his head blindly, feeling along the ceiling, and when he found some kind of handle he pulled without hesitation. The engines meant that ignition wasn't far off, and if this compartment wasn't pressurized, he was going to die.
A panel fell down when he rattled the handle, twisting it almost by accident, and the first cracks of light came through from above. Just a tiny glint around the edges of another, higher square, and he reached up into the space the hinged panel had left. This time there was no handle, but when he pushed up, the ceiling moved. He put one foot on the duffel and shoved upward until it gave way entirely.
Two-way cargo access. Sweet. Except that now he was head and shoulders into the passenger compartment, and everyone in the last three rows was staring at him. He put on his best worker face, ignoring them all as he put his hands on the floor of the cabin and lifted himself out. No problem. Nothing to see here.
He laid down in the aisle like he did it every day and reached for the edge of the hanging panel. He fumbled it a little in the dark, but no one was perfect. He grabbed it and slammed it back into place, hoping it stuck, and by some miracle it did. He sat up, pushed the floor back into place, and glanced around at the other passengers as though he'd just noticed them.
"Running a little behind with the luggage," he remarked as he stood up, his one bag still over his shoulder. "I offered to help load."
"Are you going to fly our shuttle?" a little girl wanted to know.
Leo grinned at her. Kids were so cute. "Someone's already doing that," he pointed out. "I'm just a passenger, like you. I was a little late for this flight, but they said they had one seat left?"
"But we're not flying yet," the girl said, frowning at him.
"No," he agreed, going down on one knee again so that he wasn't towering over her. He didn't lean against her seat, just in case it freaked her parents out, but the fact that he was talking to a kid seemed to reassure some of the people further forward. "We will be soon, though. The pilot's already up front, getting the shuttle ready for takeoff."
"Oh." She studied him a moment longer. "Why did you come out of the floor?"
"Did you bring a suitcase with you?" he asked, smiling at her again.
"Yeah." She nodded vigorously. "I have a Power Rangers suitcase. But I had to leave it at the terminal."
"A lot of people brought suitcases," Leo agreed. "There were so many that it was taking too long to load them, and since I thought I wasn't going to make this flight I offered to help put them all on the shuttle. When I got done, they said they had one more seat, but they didn't want to stop and open the front doors for me. So I came in through the cargo door."
"That was a door?" the little girl squeaked. She looked highly skeptical. "I thought you came through the floor!"
He leaned down to knock on the floor. "It's like a trapdoor," he explained. "So that when they're cleaning the plane, or fixing it, they don't have to go all the way to the front and out and around just to get from one part of the plane to the other."
He had no idea what it was for, but she was staring at him with wide eyes. "What's the other part of the plane?"
"It's a storage compartment," he told her, wondering if he would make it all the way through pre-ignition sitting on the floor. He sure wasn't going to get through liftoff that way. "It's like the trunk of your car. That's where you put all the stuff you don't want to carry in your lap. Like your suitcase."
"Excuse me--" Someone was hurrying down the aisle toward him, and he sighed. She was wearing a uniform. "Sir!" she called. "Excuse me, sir!"
This was it. They were going to have to stop the shuttle to make him disembark, which would take forever, and the little girl would stare at him the whole time. He would have to explain about the colony register, and the passport, and how his brother could clear all of this up. Again. And then he would have to be escorted, probably by security, back across the tarmac to the terminal, into some kind of waiting area while they tried to prove that he was lying.
"Sir, you can't be in the aisle," the uniformed woman was saying. "All passengers have to be strapped in before the rockets fire--"
"Oh, yeah, sorry," he said quickly. He got to his feet, glancing around, wondering how long it would take them to realize there weren't any empty seats.
"This must be your seat," a woman's voice said. "Right here."
He turned around, and sure enough, the last seat up against the bulkhead on the left was empty, blocked by one of the women who'd been standing in line behind him at the gate. He froze, staring at her, wondering if she'd recognize him in his t-shirt. She was unfastening her harness now, but she must have gotten a good look at him when he climbed into the compartment?
"Do you want that window seat?" he blurted out when she looked like she was just going to move over. It was too late for being inconspicuous, but if he had the slightest chance of actually getting into orbit, he didn't want to miss the view on the way.
She looked up, shaking her head once as she stepped into the aisle instead and made room for him to squeeze past. "It's all yours," she said. He saw her partner and the little boy with the monkey pack in the row in front of her.
He slid into the designated seat, bag in his lap as he fumbled for his own harness, and that uniform was still hovering. "Sir, you'll need to stow your bag under the seat," she informed him, and finally it clicked. She wasn't security. She was a flight attendant.
"Right," he said, shoving his bag down and kicking it awkwardly backward. "That okay?"
"Your harness," she reminded him. Even as she said it, he felt the cabin beginning to vibrate and the sound of pre-ignition was much louder from inside the shuttle. He yanked the harness out and around, and the woman next to him pointed out the clips when he couldn't quite figure it out.
He felt clumsy and obvious but when he looked up the flight attendant was gone and the woman beside him gave him a small smile. "I'm glad you got your passport problems sorted out," she told him sincerely.
Okay. Yeah. She recognized him, all right. "Uh, thanks," he said. He tried to smile back, but he thought she might be about to sound the alarm at any second. He'd climbed out of the luggage compartment.
"It must have been a nightmare," she added. "To get this far and then think you might not make it? Because of something silly like that?"
"I was kind of worried," he admitted, still wary. Maybe she was trying to fake him out. "But I get why they need identification. You don't want people sneaking onto a colony ship, after all. That'd be a disaster."
"The selection process is pretty strict," she agreed. "Not everyone can handle leaving everything behind, or being confined to a ship for so long. To say nothing of what it will take to establish a colony once we reach the new world."
He nodded, like he'd been thinking exactly the same thing.
"Still," she continued, "you'd think that once someone was on the list, the GSA would cut them a little slack. We've obviously proven ourselves by now. And when you come right down to it, it's not like we'll ever need passports again."
Leo blinked. "Wow... We'll never need passports again." He paused a moment to let it sink in. "I never thought of it that way before."
"Wild, isn't it? The adventure of a lifetime, they say." After the briefest hesitation, she turned a little in her seat and held out her hand. "Celeste Turner. Nice to meet you."
He freed his hand and took hers, awkward with the harness but they managed to shake. "Leo Corbett," he told her. "Nice to meet you too."
Then the rockets lit and he was instantly twice as heavy, completely deaf, and reeling from the fact that he'd actually made it. Once ignited, the rockets couldn't be shut down manually, and none of the shuttles were going to be making a return trip to Earth. This was the last time the spacefaring vehicles would lift off from the planet below, and they would ride with the colony all the way to the new world: tiny lifeboats in case something went horribly wrong.
For better or worse, he was on his way to Terra Venture.
The pressure and the noise lasted several more minutes before abruptly cutting out. The ensuing silence was unreal, and even the slowly returning conversation sounded muffled. He had his face pressed up against the window until exclamations from the front of the cabin caught his attention and he realized that there were people up there who weren't in their seats. Or standing in the aisle.
They were floating above it. Only belatedly did he realize that he too was weightless, and even then he couldn't quite believe it. The harness held him down, and he had attributed the sudden feeling of lightness to relief from the intensity of liftoff. He literally wouldn't have known they were in orbit if he hadn't been staring out the window.
"Mommy, can I be weightless too?" the little boy in front of them was asking. "I want to fly!"
"It's not our turn yet," his mom told him. "See the lights above our seats? When they go out, we can take our harnesses off."
Like seatbelt lights on a plane. He'd obviously missed the shuttle orientation while he was hiding in the luggage compartment, but so far just sitting in his seat seemed to be working out all right. He could stare down at planet Earth for a long time. How long was the flight, anyway?
Not long, it turned out. Everyone got a turn to try maneuvering around the cabin without gravity, but two rows went at a time and the turns were only a few minutes apiece. Several people gave up their turns so that kids could go twice, and Leo knew it was the nice thing to do but he couldn't make himself do it.
The kids weren't the only ones who wanted to fly.
When the light over his seat went out, he struggled out of his harness and he noticed that neither Celeste nor her partner gave up their turns either. Of course, maybe they had an excuse, since it was their son who was bouncing off of the ceiling and the seats and occasionally other passengers' heads. Leo grinned, tried to be more careful himself, and was only partially successful. But he did figure out how to do a somersault in their limited amount of time and space.
When they were directed back to their seats, he was briefly introduced to the rest of Celeste's family as they all tried to squeeze into the right places without gravity to orient themselves. Celeste's partner wasn't her partner at all, but her sister, Cathy. The boy was Bobby, and Leo guessed he was Cathy's but it was hard to tell. He promised to teach Bobby how to do a somersault "next time," and they were all friends.
Leo was feeling pretty good about his situation by the time the pilot came on the speakers to announce their final approach to Terra Venture. He was on a shuttle bound for a space colony that his older brother practically ran, and he might not have his passport but he was on the list, dammit. He'd even befriended some kids, and a couple of women who might give him some cover if anyone at the arrival gate was suspicious. By the time they figured out what he'd done, he'd be home free.
He dragged his bag out from under his seat while they were waiting to disembark. Terra Venture was probably amazing from the outside, but he'd been on the wrong side of the shuttle to see it and once they were inside the view was surprisingly boring. He could see people milling around some distance away, and a big cluster of nearby buildings that blocked out anything else there might be to see. So he pulled on his long-sleeved dress shirt again, figuring it would stand out at least a little less among the mostly well-dressed passengers, and he waited.
"Just like being on a plane," Celeste remarked at one point.
"In space," he said with a grin. He told himself he wasn't impressed--he wasn't even excited--but the idea was so crazy that he couldn't deny it was cool. "A plane in space."
Celeste grinned back at him. "Yeah," was all she said, but in that moment they understood each other perfectly.
When it was finally their turn to file down the aisle, Leo had no idea what to expect as he stepped out of the hatch and started down the stairs toward the... ground? There was ground. Just as it had looked from the window: ground, and buildings, and when he looked up there was a sky above him. What kind of spaceship had a sky?
He lost track of Celeste immediately, and it actually took him a couple of minutes to figure out that she and her sister had probably gone to retrieve their luggage. Right. Luggage. That was what most people seemed to be doing, and he thought maybe he should pretend to be looking too, until he realized that those people he'd seen from the window must have arrived on the shuttle before theirs.
He headed in their direction purposefully, well aware that the more he looked like he knew what he was doing, the less likely anyone was to question him. There was some kind of orientation kiosk near where they were standing, and everyone seemed to be passing by it on their way out. People also seemed to be drifting back in, though, and when they left again they didn't bother with the kiosk.
He had just stepped in for a minute, then, looking for someone. Oh, right, there they were... The big guy and the old man with him, they looked just crazy enough to be confused by him instead of weirded out. Yeah, he'd been looking for them all along. They'd been outside the whole time. Too bad he'd missed them before.
"Hey," he said, striding up to them and clapping the old man on the shoulder. Gently. Just in case. "So, Terra Venture, huh? How are you guys doing?"
To his horror, the old man screamed and the big guy looked like he was about to cry. "I can't believe it!" the man wailed. "Terra Venture! Terra Venture! Here we are, here we are, and we have forgotten a member of our team!"
Leo took his hand off of the man's shoulder hastily, shooting a covert look around the shuttleport. People were looking at them, but not staring, and though he could see security guards stationed back by the kiosk they seemed to be more occupied with questions than curiosity. "Uh, did you forget something back on Earth?" he asked, trying to keep his voice down.
"Something!" The big guy took him by the shoulders and shook him, which, okay, now he was the one being weirded out. He hadn't picked the ones who were just crazy enough. He'd picked the ones who were just crazy. Period.
"Someone!" the guy declared. "We forgot someone! He missed his shuttle and we can't go back for him and now we'll never see him again!"
"Well," Leo said, hoping he sounded reasonable instead of vaguely afraid. "The last shuttle wasn't scheduled to lift off until ten-thirty. Maybe he's already on board."
"No!" the old guy shouted. "He can not be on the ten-thirty shuttle, and I will tell you why: because he wasn't on the nine-twenty shuttle!"
That didn't make a lot of sense to Leo, but he was willing to smile and nod if it got him past the crazy people. "I see," he said carefully.
"If he wasn't on the nine-twenty shuttle then he must have overslept." The big guy sounded mournful. "And when Skull oversleeps, he doesn't wake up. There's no way he'll make the last shuttle."
"Well," Leo said. Then a mischievous impulse struck, and he leaned in conspiratorially. "You know what I heard," he whispered.
They were exactly the right audience, because both of them shuffled in and closed a tight huddle around him. "I heard," he said softly, "that there's a stowaway on one of the shuttles. They might have to delay liftoff until they find him."
Maybe not exactly the right audience, because the old guy promptly lifted his head and yelled, "A stowaway? On one of the shuttles? How can this be!"
Leo pulled away fast, clearing his throat and deliberately not glancing over his shoulder. This was so not a good time to look guilty. "Well, like I said," he mumbled, "it's just something I heard."
"Stop the shuttles!" the big guy shouted, waving his hands over his head. "Stop the shuttles! Stowaway! There's a stowaway on the shuttle!"
"See you later," Leo said quickly. He didn't know where he was going, but "away" seemed like a good direction. And "fast" seemed like a good speed.
He wasn't sure exactly when the shuttleport became a plaza, but he found himself in a oddly mall-like area and he hopped an escalator for the sheer fun of it. He turned around at the top, hoping to get a better idea of where he was, and he caught site of guards moving out across the plaza from the direction of the shuttleport. Nothing to do with me, he reminded himself--except who had told those guys about the "stowaway"?
Yeah, security was definitely going to be talking to him. And that couldn't end well. He'd be better off to avoid them as long as possible. He found, now that he was actually here, that getting caught didn't sound so appealing anymore. He turned around, ready to get away from the exposed landing, and ran smack into a guard. Two guards. The one he'd bumped had dropped whatever she was carrying all over the floor.
He was screwed.
"Hey," he said, mustering his most charming smile as he bent down to help her with her things. "Look, I'm really sorry about that. Let me--"
"No, it's okay," she assured him, not sounding at all belligerent. "I wasn't looking where I was going and these training exercises always get me flustered. Kai says they're supposed to make you nervous, but I think they do it on purpose to keep scientists out of their war games. What do you think?"
Leo just looked at her, offering the things he'd picked up as they got to their feet again. He had no idea what she was talking about. It didn't sound like anything to do with him, though. That was probably good.
"He doesn't think anything, Kendrix." Her fellow guard sounded impatient. "He's a civilian. A civilian who should really watch where he's going," he added, this last only nominally directed at her as he frowned at Leo.
"Civilians think," the female soldier protested. "I'm a civilian. And it's not his fault, anyway, I bumped into him."
"We're going to be late," her friend said brusquely. "Let's go."
"Hey!" The call came from the direction of the escalator, and when Leo glanced over his shoulder automatically he saw another group of guards on their way up. Unlike these two, the new group definitely had their eye on him, and he tensed.
The second solider was leaning over the railing, so Leo flashed the first another smile. "Have to go," he told her, already backing away. "Maybe I'll see you around."
"Yeah," she agreed, smiling back at him. "That'd be great."
He wished he'd stopped to get her name, but her friend was turning away from the escalator with a dark look on his face and helmets were starting to appear above the railing as the rest of the guards marched up the escalator. It was stay and be questioned or turn and run. Leo ran.
He managed to disappear into a moving group of people, and he almost dashed right past the guard hauling equipment along the landing before the reality of it registered. They weren't guards. They were soldiers. That woman's friend had said "civilian" like it was a dirty word, and these guys weren't just wearing uniforms--they were wearing body armor.
Anonymous body armor. The soldier he'd just passed paused to get a drink, and Leo lifted an entire uniform from his pile of equipment, snagging a helmet before he ducked into the bathroom beside the water fountain. The uniform almost fit, and the armor covered what didn't. He had room for his clothes in his bag. What he didn't have was a place to leave his bag.
Even with it, though, he felt almost invisible stepping out of the bathroom a few minutes later. He was nobody in this getup. He was anybody. And whoever they were looking for in connection to the "stowaway" rumor, he'd bet it wasn't anyone wearing body armor.
The good news was that soldiers had locker rooms where he found a place to stow his bag. The bad news was that soldiers had commanders, one of whom happened to be walking by as he left the locker room and informed him that he was headed in the wrong direction. While it was possible that this was true, Leo kind of doubted that the commander would know one way or the other.
Still, he turned around and fell in with the passing soldiers. He wondered how long it would be before someone asked his name. He wondered what he would say when they did. Could he get in trouble for impersonating soldier? Probably not, right? It was just a uniform, after all.
Finally he leaned over and asked one of them, "Where are we going?"
"Red zone," the woman said briefly. "Chen's team."
She probably thought that was an answer, Leo decided. He didn't start to get alarmed until he saw military heliships and realized that he was about to leave the ship he'd just spent a lot of energy getting to. "Seriously," he asked the woman again. "What's the red zone?"
She didn't give him a second glance. "Glorified target practice. Loser gets the night shift for the first two months."
Again, he told himself. It was like an answer, except that it told him absolutely nothing. He got on the ship anyway. Why not? It wasn't like they'd be sending their soldiers off five hours before launch without expecting them back. And whatever the "red zone" was, anything that had the word "practice" in it probably couldn't be too deadly.
He'd settled himself in the back between the wall and the soldier who'd pretended to answer his questions. It wasn't until he lifted his head that he realized the soldier he'd bumped into--and her friend--were piling in and taking seats across from him. They were murmuring to each other, neither of them looking at him, and in the minutes before takeoff he managed to gather that she didn't usually participate in whatever kind of drill they were heading for.
He also gathered that her friend liked her better than pretty much anyone else in the back of the ship. The friend went so far as to reassure her--twice--while he cut off other soldiers repeatedly and told one of them to suck it up when she complained that they had better things to do than shoot at fake mines on launch day. He added that she was welcome to turn in her gun and let the mines shoot at her instead if she preferred. As alarming as the discussion was, Leo had to smother a laugh at his attitude.
"All right," the commanding soldier type said at last. "Although I hesitate to put weapons in your hands when you're doing so well with verbal sarcasm, maybe it will distract you long enough for me to escape to the cockpit. Mister Chen?"
The friend was already on his feet, and he started handing out big mean-looking guns a moment later. Leo recognized the name suddenly, putting it together with his other soldier's non-answer: "Chen's team." Okay. So there was more than one commanding soldier type. That was good to know.
"Remember," the first commanding type was saying. "This will be a full battle ready exercise. Live mines. Live munitions. So for god's sake, try not to shoot each other while you're out there."
All of a sudden, Leo was looking at the guns in a much different light. Live munitions? Did that mean what he thought it meant? He could kill someone with that thing. If he could figure out how to fire it. If he didn't kill himself trying.
This was the sort of thing that would seem a lot funnier later.
"This will be the last exercise before launch," the commanding type continued. "Shift rotations are on the line. Whichever team pre-detonates the most mines wins--unless you manage to injure one of your teammates, in which case you automatically lose. Loser's team takes the graveyard watch for the next sixty days."
A gun was thrust into Leo's face, and he very carefully did not look up. His helmet would only shield his face so far, and the soldiers he'd met at the escalator had every reason to recognize him. He took the weapon carefully, clumsy with its weight and the effort not to touch anything that might accidentally set it off.
He was so screwed.
The commanding type was gone when he dared to look around again, and chatter filled the back of the ship in his absence. Even Leo's non-answering soldier buddy was playing the "our team's gonna kick butt" game, and Chen wasn't shy about backing her up. Somehow Leo managed to make it through the rest of the trip without calling attention to himself, which Mike would never believe when he heard about it, but he did know how to keep his mouth shut when he was surrounded by live guns.
It got harder to lay low when he stepped out on the surface of the moon--the moon!--and his brother followed the commanding type out of the front of the ship. Mike had been riding up in the cockpit with the pilots. Leo kept his head down, trying to hide his grin, because this day just got better and better. He was on the moon. In a GSA training exercise. With his brother.
"Radio check," Mike said tersely. "All units. Check."
Leo tried not to start at the echo of Mike's voice in his ear as his helmet radio came alive. He hadn't even known the helmets had radios. He wondered what other weird technology he was wearing without realizing it.
Mike gave the commanding type a nod. "You're good to go, sir."
"All teams," the man said, tapping the outside of his helmet before he spoke. "This is Commander Stanton. Final training deployment to the red zone, live arsenal. Don't shoot at anything that moves, don't get to close too the mines, and do make sure your team wins if you plan to spend the next two months sleeping at night. Good luck."
He tapped his helmet again before nodding to Mike, Leo noticed. Mike lifted one arm, huge gun braced casually against his elbow like a coat he'd slung over his arm. His other hand went to his helmet, and he announced, "All teams, Corbett. Outgoing radio frequencies to team only. Exercise begins on my mark. Three... two... one... mark."
"Team two, move out!" Chen's voice came from somewhere to his right and directly into his ear at the same time. Leo figured that meant him, so he scrambled after everyone else who had been on the ship with him. He looked back just long enough to see that Mike wasn't following, was in fact striding off toward one of the other heliships while his commanding soldier type headed in the opposite direction.
Supervising, Leo decided. Must be nice.
"Tyler, Taibbi, Kulhawik," came over his radio, and he thought it was some sort of code until Chen's voice added, "west. Pepin, White, east. McFarlan, Clancy, Smith, north. The rest of you with me."
It was like trying to run through sand, and Leo was getting over his awe of the moon very quickly. He couldn't look up and see Earth, the sun was piercing along the horizon, and the dust was kicking up everywhere. Why anyone trained here, for anything, was beyond him.
There was an explosion from somewhere off to his right, and someone yelled, "One!" in his ear, followed almost immediately by a second explosion from a different direction. A new voice shouted, "Two!" and Leo wondered if there was any way to turn down the volume on his helmet radio.
"Morgan!" Chen's voice was right in front of him, overlapping on the radio with calls of "three" and "four." "You want to shoot? Ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, sweep the whole side. Take a partner. Tenisetti, we'll take the other side of the dial."
"Come on!" It was a woman's voice, and it didn't come over the radio. Leo looked to his left and found the soldier he'd run into at the top of the escalator waving for him to join her. Their eyes met, and she broke into a grin. "Hi there! I guess you're my partner now!"
"I guess so!" he shouted back, and somehow it seemed natural to shout with the radio still counting in his ear and explosions banging through the thin air all around them. "Where are we going?"
"Left!" she said. "You heard Kai; we get the southeast all to ourselves!"
She was actually backpedaling in the shifting dust that covered the surface of the moon in all directions, managing to jog backwards faster than he could keep up even at his walking pace. So he picked it up a little, about to ask her name when she turned to run ahead of him, then threw up her hand and came to a staggering halt. "The first one's mine!"
She hefted that big gun against her shoulder, braced herself, and fired... a blast of light? He stared in surprise for half a second before the light hit the ground some distance away and blew up. A giant fireball and raining dust--he threw up his arm instinctively, but his "partner" just let her gun fall with a delighted laugh. He saw her hand go to her helmet, heard her voice yell, "Fifteen!" in his ear, and then she tapped her radio again before turning back to him.
"My aim is getting better!" she exclaimed. "You should have seen me the first time--I missed eleven targets in a row until Kai made me take my glasses off!"
"What the hell did you just shoot?" Leo demanded, lowering his arm warily. There hadn't even been anything there. And since when did light explode?
"Our fifteenth mine!" she said exultantly. "Come on! The next one's yours! Hey--over there!"
He shook his head, already falling behind while she raced ahead of him. "You take it," he called after her. "I can't shoot."
She might have laughed. "If I can shoot," she shouted, turning around to jog backwards again, "anyone can shoot. Don't be shy!"
"No," Leo said dryly, trudging through the dust toward her. "You don't understand." She finally started to slow down when she realized he wasn't going to run anymore, and he thumped the gun braced awkwardly across his chest with his free hand."I don't know how to shoot. You don't want me messing with this thing."
She was staring at him, stopping briefly where she was to wait for him to catch up. "You're not a soldier either?" she guessed.
"Not exactly," he admitted. "You?"
"I'm with the science division," she told him, turning to fall in beside him as they continued across the flats at a much slower pace. "Kai Chen is a friend of mine; he agreed to get me into the civilian training program in exchange for division tutoring."
"So you, what, kind of switched roles?" Leo gave her a sideways glance, but she was nodding.
"Yeah--hang on." She stepped away from him and swung her gun up against her shoulder again, setting her feet this time before she let loose another blast of light. Just that casually, her weird energy weapon lit up another mine.
This time he was at least prepared for the explosion, and he let out an admiring whistle as she tapped her radio and shouted, "Twenty-three!" Then, radio off again, she turned to him as though nothing had happened and added, "I'm Kendrix Morgan. I run the horticulture department on Terra Venture."
He couldn't help laughing at the apparent contradiction. "When you're not blowing up mines for fun and games, you mean? Don't they miss you when you go out on these training exercises?"
"Hey, this is serious!" She sounded indignant, and he wondered if maybe he'd offended her. Then she added, "This is valuable insight into how the military solves its problems! How do they decide the schedule? They fight for it! How do they choose a menu in the mess? They fight! Who picks the movie on team night? Fight!"
Leo just looked at her, waiting for her to say something that made sense.
"I'm not saying it doesn't work for them," she added. Kendrix. Belatedly, his mind realized that he had heard her name before after all: her soldier friend... Kai? Chen? He'd used it when they'd all met at the top of the escalators. It sounded so exotic that Leo hadn't registered it as a name.
"And they like it," Kendrix was saying. "Even I like these training drills, although I don't see why they have to use live mines. I'd be just as happy shooting plastic targets or something."
"Speaking of--" A blinking red light, half-buried in the dust and way too close for comfort, caught Leo's eye. "You want to handle that?"
"Oh!" Her gun came up again, and she added, "We almost walked right past this one!"
He was close enough to see the recoil knock her shoulder back, but for the first time, she missed her target. "Crap," she muttered, and for a long moment, Leo didn't even register what she'd said. She fired again, and this time he was sure she'd hit the thing--but no explosion.
"Maybe we'd better back off," Leo suggested, eyeing the little blinking light.
"Must be something wrong with it," Kendrix said, lowering her gun. Then, to his horror, she walked right up to it and knelt down beside it. "Huh."
"Hey!" The voice didn't come over his radio, and it sounded farther away than it should have in the moon's atmosphere. The guy yelling at them was actually right over there, running toward them in green coveralls and waving his hands wildly.
"Kendrix," Leo warned her, and she finally looked up. To his relief, the mine's red light was now off. So, probably not about to blow up. He hoped.
"Those things are live!" the guy was yelling to them. "You can't detonate them point-blank!"
"We couldn't detonate this one at all," Kendrix shouted back. "I shot it twice! It wouldn't go off!"
"Yeah, because you were right on top of it!" The guy in coveralls caught up to them, leaning down to brace his hands against his knees as he panted for breath. "Look, they're rigged not to blow unless you're at a safe distance. But you can't just walk up and poke at them!"
"Why not?" Kendrix sounded as curious as though she were asking something perfectly reasonable, instead of why can't I walk up to a live mine and poke it?
"Because it's an explosive device!" The guy straightened, staring at her exactly the way Leo wanted to. "I'm monitoring the safeties by remote control, but if something had gone wrong that thing could have blown up in your face! Don't they teach you guys stuff like that in combat school?"
Leo grinned. Not a soldier, then. Maybe a GSA tech? Techs were notoriously sarcastic, and this guy did it with style. Style and confidence. Enough to match Kendrix Morgan, the head of the horticulture department, while she was holding an energy rifle.
"Morgan," Chen's voice came over his radio. "Chen. Check in."
"Chen, Morgan," Kendrix answered breathlessly. "We're fine. Just a little trouble with one of the mines."
"What?" Chen's sharp response was unmistakably alarmed. "I'm on my way."
"No," Kendrix protested. "We're fine, really."
"Chen, Corbett," Mike's voice interrupted on the radio. "As you were. I'll check out Morgan's position."
Kendrix tapped her helmet, sighed loudly, then tapped it again. "Corbett, Morgan," she said. "Acknowledged."
Putting her hand to the side of her helmet again, she rolled her eyes at Leo. "Great. Now the GSA's second-in-command will pull the scientist trainee for the rest of the exercise."
"Which he should," the tech declared, arms folded. "If no one bothered to tell you what's considered a safe distance when you're going around shooting up live mines!"
"Yeah, okay," Leo interrupted. "We get it, okay? We'll be more careful next time."
"You're lucky there is a next time!" the tech informed him.
Leo exchanged glances with Kendrix.
"We're going to lose," she predicted gloomily.
More than that, he was about to be busted by his big brother. He figured it was time. He was tired of this soldier business anyway. Maybe he could wait out the rest of the exercise on one the ships.
"Damon!" Mike's voice called. Leo didn't hear it over his helmet radio, but the tech guy yanked a thing off his belt and he realized suddenly that Mike's voice was coming from that, too. "Everything okay here?"
The tech guy lifted the device even as he turned to face the direction Mike was coming from, replying to the radio instead of shouting back. "Two of your guys tried to blow a mine they were right on top of, but otherwise, yeah. Safeties kicked in, no problem."
Mike must have clicked his radio off, because when he yelled his voice came only through the air. "Kendrix, what does 'battle ready' mean to you?"
"It means really loud target practice!" she shouted to him. "Sir!"
The tech guy snorted, obviously unimpressed, but Mike was shaking his head and it was hard to tell if maybe he wanted to smile. "Live, Kendrix," he said as he approached. "This stuff is live. You can't treat it like--"
He was squinting at Leo, and Leo knew the exact moment Mike saw him through the soldier getup because he stopped right where he was and stared. He didn't say anything. He didn't finish his sentence, he didn't start a new one, he just frowned, like he might be having some sort of hallucination that he didn't want anyone else to know about.
Leo lifted his hand and waved a little. "Hey," he said. He figured someone had to.
"Leo?" Mike demanded. "What--? What are you doing here?"
Leo shrugged, glancing at Kendrix, who looked puzzled. "So far, not getting blown up?"
"What are you doing here!" Mike exclaimed, yanking his helmet off. "Leo! I've got the ten-thirty shuttle sitting on Earth, waiting for you to show up! Where the hell have you been! And what are you doing here?!
"Kai!" he shouted, not even pausing. "Turn around! We're fine here!"
Leo looked over his shoulder to see Chen skidding to a halt as he was called out. His gaze slid across all of them, but he must have decided Mike wasn't serious because he kept coming. Mike swore under his breath but he didn't try to stop the other soldier again.
Instead, he turned back to Leo and continued, "You missed your shuttle. I grounded the last flight until I could find you. How did you get off Earth?"
Leo tried for innocence. "I was on the nine-forty shuttle," he said. "Sat next to someone named Celeste Turner. She seemed nice," he added.
Chen caught up to them, put a hand on Kendrix's shoulder, and exchanged glances with Damon after she nodded. Then he turned his frown on Mike, who was giving Leo a look of pure frustration. "You weren't on the passenger list. You didn't go through security on Earth, and you didn't check in when you arrived on Terra Venture. And now, here you are, on the moon--"
"Oh, yeah," Leo said quickly, because letting his brother build up steam was never a good idea. "I can explain that."
"Your explanation had better involve authority figures and serious extenuating circumstances," Mike growled, "because otherwise you could go to jail for that uniform you're wearing. Not to mention the rifle."
"Hey," Leo protested, nodding at Chen, "he gave me the rifle!"
"You were wearing a uniform!" Chen exclaimed. "How was I supposed to know you were the stowaway we were looking for!"
"Stowaway?" Mike repeated, but luckily he was drowned out by Kendrix.
"You didn't say his name," she said, turning on Chen. "He's the only one you didn't assign by name because you didn't know it! You couldn't admit that Kai Chen might not know one of his own soldiers!"
"He isn't one of my soldiers," Chen said testily. Folding his arms, he glared at Leo. "Who are you, anyway?"
Leo gave him the same wave he'd given Mike. "Leo Corbett," he said. "Thanks for the gun."
"My little brother," Mike said grimly. "Who just stowed away on a GSA shuttle, boarded Terra Venture illegally, stole a military uniform, and snuck into the middle of a battle ready training exercise. I don't know how I'm going to keep them from deporting him."
"He's breaking five regulations just standing there," Chen said, eyeing him with an expression that said he didn't believe Leo was related in any way to Mike Corbett. "Are you sure you want to?"
"Well, we don't have jails on Terra Venture," Mike muttered.
"Hey," Leo protested.
That wasn't him, but when he turned around there was no one there--and then there was, a grey shape resolving out of the swirling vortex that was eating up the air. A shape that tumbled to the ground, leaping up into a person almost immediately, running. Mike reached out and caught her.
She wrenched away and Leo grabbed for her instinctively, trying to hold on to what his brother wanted. Three giant mutant bugs thudded to the ground where she had just been, coalescing out of the grey nothingness and apparently just as disoriented. The woman he was holding onto shook: terrified. Chased. By the bad guys, he wondered, or the good guys?
Mike didn't hesitate, bringing his weapon up and getting it knocked away just as fast as one of the giant bugs bowled into him. Leo shouted over the weird droning sound they made, pushing the woman back and taking a swing at the thing that had attacked his brother. It was like punching armor. The only comfort he had was that the big bug mutants would probably feel exactly the same thing if they tried to hit him.
Two blasts of light took out the nearest bugs, almost at the same time. A third leveled the last horribly overgrown wasp, sending it crumbling to the ground next to its buddies. Leo wondered if the energy rifles Chen and Kendrix were wielding had a "stun" setting.
"Thank you," said a quiet voice from behind him. "I must go back."
"Like hell," Mike's voice replied. "What are those things?"
"Agents of evil sent to destroy Mirinoi and all her people." The words were delivered with disconcerting certainty, and she added, "If they get the Quasar Sabers, Scorpius will rule my world and bring doom to our entire planet."
He managed to tear his gaze away from the bugs so that he could see who was talking. She was younger than he'd thought at first, draped in some kind of grey-ish brown weave that vaguely resembled a skirt and shawl. Or maybe it was a shirt. He couldn't really tell. It was funny, but what really caught his eye was her bare feet in the moondust. They were as grey as her clothing now.
"Well, they won't be getting anything now," Mike said, and maybe that answered the question about the guns. "What's your name?"
She was already shaking her head. "My name is Maya, but Mirinoi is not safe. These few are only three of thousands. I must return to ensure that the sabers don't fall into the wrong hands."
"Unless we read that wrong?" Chen put in. "Those things were trying to kill you. No weapon is worth your life."
"No," she agreed unexpectedly. "The sabers are far more valuable than my life alone. I will give it and more to defend them."
"No!" Kendrix exclaimed. "You don't have to do that--look, we have weapons. We'll come with you."
"We will?" Chen said, in a tone of voice that said we won't.
"Thank you," Maya said, shaking her head again, "but I'm afraid there is nothing that ordinary warriors can do. I go back only because someone must."
"Wait," Mike said. "Where's your planet?"
She gave him a look full of sadness and amusement. "You might as well ask me where yours is. My planet is back the way I came; that is all I can tell you." And she was moving forward, avoiding the giant bugs without seeming to watch where she stepped, passing first one of them and then another and no one was stopping her.
Seeing her figure dim against the inexplicable swirl of grey, it finally occurred to Leo to ask, "Hey, where's the tech guy?"
"Wait!" Kendrix said, paying no attention to the rest of them. "Maya, wait up!"
Then she was running, slipping past Chen, evading Leo, and Maya turned on the threshold of the vortex. Kendrix put a hand on her shoulder, breathless with the force of her decision. "I'm going with you," she said. And they were gone.
"Kendrix!" Chen charged past Leo, too late, stopping between two of the giant bug bodies and yelling again, "Kendrix!"
"Kai," Mike said firmly. "Get back to the ship. Take Leo. I want everyone else off the moon by the time I come back."
"What are you--"
"Mike," Leo began.
"I'll bring them back." Mike's gaze settled on Leo's briefly. "No one gets left behind."
Leo closed his mouth. Chen protested, but Mike ordered him out and that was that. His brother turned and walked into the swirling vortex without a backward glance.
Leo looked at Chen. Kai, he reminded himself. Mike called him Kai.
Kai looked back. "Stay here," he said at last. "Go back to the landing site and tell Commander Stanton to recall all teams, then wait for Mike's signal."
"Tell them yourself," Leo interrupted. "You've got a radio."
"I'm already disobeying a direct order," Kai said, his mouth twisting a little. "I'd rather not risk adding another one to the list. Wait until I'm gone, then use the radio if you want. But get back to that landing site."
Kai didn't wait for an answer, striding into the vortex like not hearing the argument meant it didn't exist. He was swallowed up immediately. Now only the vortex remained, swirling grey and flashes of ghostly threatening color.
Stay here, they told him.
Leo snorted. "Screw that," he told the vortex.
Picking his way around the fallen bugs, he stepped right into the grey and the moonscape vanished. In its place was jungle and noise and a heat that hit him full in the face. Then something harder stung his exposed skin, making his ears ring as it knocked him to the ground.
His shoulder slammed into something that felt like stone, the instinctive roll the only thing that saved him from breaking his wrist as he fell, and he was staring up at a canopy that buzzed with screams and weapons' fire. Mirinoi, he thought, dazed. That woman--girl--had actually run into the vortex on another planet. And she'd run out on their moon.
She'd wanted to protect something, he remembered. He rolled over, taking cover between the rocks that had been his landing surface after all. He'd known it. Too many scuffles on the street not to recognize the feel of concrete under his bones. He shoulder would probably bruise spectacularly.
If he didn't die first. He stared at the jungle scene without understanding for a long moment, but the soldiers' energy rifles weren't the only light beams flying out there. Angry red streaks of light burned back and people were running, shouting, falling. People dressed like Maya. People her age, old and young falling together, children.
This wasn't a battle. This was a rout. The only significant resistance came from the GSA soldiers, and only two of their rifles were still firing. Mike's had gone silent, and Leo only knew it was his because he could see Kai and even Kendrix, unlikely as it seemed, trying to hold giant mutant bugs with energy weapons off of Damon.
The tech guy was okay, as far as Leo could see, and he thought he knew which one was Maya. Her hair swirled all around her as she went hand-to-hand with a bug bigger than she was. He didn't know how she could see, much less fight, but she wasn't on the ground yet and he still couldn't pick out Mike in the chaos.
It finally occurred to him to use his radio. He had no idea how the thing worked, but there weren't any obvious buttons to push and all anyone else had done was tap. Clapping his hand against the side of his helmet, he yelled, "Mike!"
There was no answer.
Then, after a long moment, he heard Kai's voice in his ear. "Leo, get out of here! We don't need anyone else to rescue!"
So he'd used the radio right, at least. "Where's Mike!" he shouted.
"Showing off," came the curt and cryptic reply.
Until Leo saw a flash of something that wasn't weapons' fire, and if no one was going to tell him anything then he needed to be closer than this to whatever was going on. He pushed himself to his feet and ran, gun banging uselessly against his chest because what was he going to do with it? Guess? Draw attention to himself? Not what he needed at all.
As long as he wasn't actively resisting, the giant bugs were swarming the soldiers' position and seemed to be firing on the rest of the population mostly as an afterthought. Just as deadly, but slightly less focused. He couldn't really believe any scenario that involved his brother with a gun would end with Leo getting killed. Even if Mike didn't seem to be using it anymore--
Because he had a sword. Leo tripped over one of Maya's people, banging into a tree and narrowly avoiding the bug that had been chasing the kid he'd just knocked over. Mike was swinging a sword like he had more training with it than target practice with a rifle. The kid was crying. Leo kicked the bug in the nearest joint, his boot making a horrifying crunch just before the thing staggered and went down.
"You okay?" he asked, pushing the kid behind the tree as he tried to figure out what was going on out there. The remaining energy rifles had stopped firing. He saw another flash from the stones Mike was defending--really? stones?--and then another, and Kendrix had traded her rifle for a sword and Kai was right behind her.
The Quasar Sabers. It was the only thing that made sense. The weapons Maya thought were worth her life, whose loss could doom her planet--religious nonsense, or actual tactical advantage? Mike seemed to think it was the latter, for whatever reason. And he had his soldiers following him.
"I can't find my parents," said a small voice. It came from behind him, and it was almost drowned out by the whine of bugs and a sound like thunder from the direction of the stone and swords.
Leo glanced over his shoulder at the little girl huddling at the base of the tree he'd slammed into. He'd already forgotten she was there. He'd thought she had run, had been snatched, he didn't know. He'd thought anything but that he had suddenly become responsible for a small child in the middle of this mess.
"We'll find them," he told her, because that was what she wanted to hear. She was all alone and her home had been turned into a battleground and what did she know about what was going on? Probably not much more than he did.
There was a tremendous crash, a ringing in the air, and the ground began to shake. He lurched toward the little girl, off-balance but he was wearing armor and if things started falling he had more protection than she did. She shrieked, mouth open but muted by the cracking sound from overhead, and he grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way.
Nothing fell other than both of them when the ground heaved violently, and this time it was Kendrix's voice in his helmet radio, demanding to know where he was. He didn't have time to answer. He threw his rifle to the ground and got his hands under the little girl's arms, sweeping her up with him as he stumbled toward the last place he had seen Mike--
And stopped, almost falling again as he tried to change direction with an unexpected weight pressed against his chest armor. The soldiers were running toward him, Damon and Maya with them, five swords unwieldy in their grip and a crackling stillness chasing fast behind them. Everything was turning grey and hard in their wake.
"Get back!" Mike shouted. "Go!"
"Put her down!" Kai yelled, reaching Leo first and shoving at his screaming burden. Trying to knock her loose.
"Like hell!" Leo shouted, but she was slipping from his arms. He kept a desperate grip on one of her hands, trying to pull her with him, and Kai--
Had her other hand, yanking her along with them. "Up!" he shouted, and Leo reacted instinctively, pulling up on the girl's hand as Kai swung her over a fallen tree limb and they managed to stumble on. "Back through the vortex!"
"Maya!" He heard Mike's voice, and he tried to turn, but all he could see was some green and more soldier gear out of the corner of his eye. The girl took all his attention, trying to keep her on her feet between him and Kai.
The ground shuddered again, bucking beneath him and then gone. He was flying, falling, and these trees hated him because the one that stopped him batted him out of the air like he was nothing. He couldn't breathe but impossibly Kai was there, looming over him, girl held with one arm against his shoulder as he held out his hand, grabbing Leo's armor when it wasn't taken and bodily hauling him to his feet.
Damon was in front of them, Kendrix even with Kai--screaming--and the crevasse that was grinding open behind them had left Mike and Maya on the far side. Mike shoved the native girl hard enough to fling her against the crumbling rock on the near edge and Kendrix plunged her sword into the ground, one hand around the hilt as she threw herself forward to grab Maya's hand. Kai shouted for Mike, unsteady on the verge of the ever-widening gap as the ground shook under his feet.
"Get them back!" Mike yelled, even as Kendrix managed to haul Maya out of the rift and pull her back from the edge. Mike lifted his sword in one hand. "Kai! Get them back!" And he flung the weapon, end over end, across the growing gulf between them even as the grey stillness crept up on him from behind.
Leo reached out, though no logic or leap of faith could connect them now, and the hilt of Mike's sword stung his hand. He barely noticed it as his brother, unbalanced by the throw, lost his footing on the far side and tumbled into the darkness. He could hear himself screaming, he couldn't stop, and the band around his chest that prevented him from catching his breath was hard and unyielding.
"Henderson!" he heard Kai shouting. "Help me!" And he realized it was Kai's grip on his armor that kept him from breathing, that kept him from running, throwing himself back toward the cliff and the greyness and the place where Mike had disappeared.
Then Damon was yanking on the arm that held Mike's sword and Leo jerked back reflexively, aware that it was something he had to hang onto for Mike. Damon and Kai were shoving him back anyway, forcing him away, and now Kendrix and Maya were disappearing just ahead of them. The vortex swallowed him whole.
There was dust beneath his hands, chewing at knuckles that held onto the sword even as he was thrown to the ground. The roaring in his ears drowned out everything else and electricity shot through him, filling him with a terrifying strength that braced his arms and soothed his scrapes and he knew. He knew what had just happened. He knew what he would see when he looked down at himself, and it was wrong, it was all wrong, this wasn't how it was supposed to be.
Impossible lightning illuminated the surface of the moon. Shot out of the vortex, touched each of them, outlined their faults and their flaws in sharp relief, and sealed them over. Sealed them in. The cracks in each of them, bridged by power, rendered immaterial in a single strike. A brief popping sound heralded the end of the light, and he knew without having to look that the vortex had just vanished.
He was alone. Mike was gone. And he was wearing Mike's morpher on his wrist.
He pushed himself up onto his knees, sitting back on his heels as he stared, unseeing, at the ground. He was wearing a Ranger uniform. It was the sword that had done it, the Quasar Saber, channeling the Power to put a transmorpher on his wrist and fill his head with knowledge he had never imagined, let alone learned for himself. A saber that had never been meant for him, with a power he never should have had.
A power he didn't want.
To his right, Kai braced his saber against the ground and stood. The little girl Leo had rescued was still pressed against his shoulder, still held in the crook of his elbow like she weighed nothing at all. He didn't need to lean on the saber to rise. Because the Blue Ranger was strength.
Kendrix and Maya were just ahead of them, shoulder to shoulder and the first to meet the soldiers pouring out of a landed heliship that hadn't been there when they left. The Pink and Yellow Rangers were speed and loyalty. The knowledge was right there in his head. Without needing to think about it, he knew that reason was to his left. Intelligence. Cause and effect: the Green Ranger.
The Red Ranger's opposite. Mike was intuition, emotion, and empathy. The big picture. A leader in every sense of the word. He was the one who should be here now, wearing the Ranger uniform that had replaced Leo's stolen soldier gear.
Kai was dealing with the soldiers, but only two phrases penetrated Leo's awareness: Mike Corbett, and MIA. Then Kendrix was there, helping him up, leading him toward the heliship, and he went dully, without protest. What else was he supposed to do?
Kai stopped him at the hatch, and he didn't protest that either. Most of the soldiers were already back on board. He hadn't seen it happen. One of them was standing just inside the hatch, helping Damon board, directing him toward a seat and then turning back for the girl Kai lifted up onto the deck.
"Asylum," he told the soldier inside the hatch. "She and Maya are from Mirinoi."
Kendrix was frowning at him, and Leo could feel her hand still on his arm, impatient while Kai dealt with trivial things like political rights of passage and safe haven. He didn't know why Kai had made them wait. He didn't really care, either. If he was left behind on the moon, in the red zone, it would only be appropriate.
The soldier put her hands on the girl's shoulders while Maya climbed awkwardly into the heliship. Then she helped Maya usher her gently across the deck, toward an empty seat beside Damon. Still Kai waited, not climbing up, not allowing Leo or Kendrix to pass until the soldier turned back to them and waved them on board.
"Asylum," Kai repeated, and now his hand was on Leo's other arm--holding him back. "For him too. On all territories under the jurisdiction of Terra Venture."
The soldier inside the ship was looking at him like he was crazy. "He's a soldier," she said. "He's the Red Ranger," she added, like questioning this was most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard.
"He's Mike Corbett's brother," Kai told her. "I want asylum for Leo before he boards this ship."
The soldier shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said, clearly baffled by his request. "We won't hand him over to the authorities."
Only then did Leo understand what Kai had just done. Kendrix, too, seemed to realize what it would mean, her grip on his arm loosening as they were finally allowed to climb into the back of the heliship and take their places with the others.
He rode between the two of them all the way back to Terra Venture. He didn't know what they talked about. He wasn't sure they did talk. He didn't remember any conversation afterward, but it seemed unlikely that a ship full of soldiers had been silent for the entire journey.
When the heliship landed, it was Kendrix who helped him up again, shepherding him toward the hatch and out into the hangar. Mike's commanding soldier type met them outside, and Leo had to look away. He shouldn't even be here. His eye caught on a video terminal, cheerfully flashing pictures of their fellow colonists, and he headed toward it without really thinking.
"Leo," Kai's voice called after him.
He didn't answer, and he heard Kendrix saying, "Just let him go."
He stood in front of the terminal for a long moment, wondering what he was looking at. He didn't recognize any of these people. Finally the terminal flipped to an image of a young man in a GSA uniform and the information scrolling down the side of the screen disappeared.
"Hello, Leo," the image said, smiling out at him. "How can I help you?"
Leo just stared at it. How did it know who he was? Did it know who he was? He might be hallucinating. Maybe he was dreaming this entire day, and he would wake up on the floor of his friend's house, passport papers still securely in his bag.
"I can direct you anywhere on Terra Venture," the guy on the screen was telling him. "I can help you find anyone or anything you're looking for. If you have any questions--"
"Show me Mike Corbett," Leo interrupted.
The image paused, and he wondered if he was talking to a real person or just some automated computer system. Then the guy's picture shrunk to one side of the screen while a map appeared on the other. There were three markers on it: one said "you are here," and the other two had some kind of drop-down explanation beside them.
"If you're looking for your brother," the guy on the screen said, "you might want to try his room in the GSA dormitories, or his duty station in the control tower. Would you like directions to either of these places?"
The terminal might have weirded him out, if he'd cared enough to find it weird. He let it tell him how to find Mike's room, and then he walked away. The image on the screen called after him to have a nice day.
"Leo!" Kai's voice again. He didn't stop, but all Kai said was, "Lose the uniform before you go out on the streets!"
Lose the uniform. It was barely a conscious thought, but the red sparkled into nothing and he felt body armor imprisoning him again. Back in soldier gear, he was anybody once more. Not worth a second look.
Nobody at all.
Chapter 2: Lands' End
Disclaimer: Buena Vista Entertainment owns the rights to Power Rangers Lost Galaxy. This story involves characters and concepts from PRLG.
Disclaimer: Buena Vista Entertainment owns the rights to Power Rangers Lost Galaxy. This story involves characters and concepts from PRLG.
The Color Black
Launch week had not gone well. Terra Venture was currently on its way out of the solar system, accelerating toward main engine burn in three days' time, and that was really the only good thing that could be said for the week as a whole. It hadn't gone according to plan--nothing had--but at least the colony ship was finally under way.
The colonist register had been revised. Departure had been delayed after a late shuttle refused to lift off without authorization from the highest level of GSA command. And the last lunar combat exercise, meant to blow off steam and calm tempers at the beginning of what promised to be a very long voyage, had blown up in their faces.
Kai Chen didn't like it when things didn't go according to plan. He liked it even less when he couldn't explain what had gone wrong. Bureaucratic hiccups and technical hitches were one thing, but swirling grey vortexes that appeared on the surface of the moon and transported people to another planet were something else entirely. Especially when that other planet harbored hostiles with ray guns and blue-skinned monsters that could turn the ground to stone.
Especially when that planet claimed the life of his friend and fellow soldier. He'd had the briefest moment, there at the end, to decide whether to honor Mike Corbett's philosophy or his final words. Mike had always lived by his soldier's creed: no one gets left behind. But he had died to make sure Maya and the last of her planet's legacy made it back through that portal to the moon.
"Get them back, Kai!" He'd heard those words twice on Mirinoi and a hundred times in his memory, and he couldn't get them out of his head. He knew he'd made the choice Mike wanted him to make. But he had to live with the fact that it wasn't the one he'd wanted to make.
He also had to live with the legacy. Apparently the Power on Maya's planet, suddenly under threat of catastrophic demise, had awoken groggy and confused. It had chosen four people from another world to defend its population, only getting it right with the fifth and final saber. By the time one of its own had drawn a sword from the stone it was too late, and the invaders had destroyed the planet rather than be expelled by alien Rangers.
Successful or not, though, Kai now found himself in possession of a morpher, and it was wreaking havoc with his schedule. Not only was his meager free time constantly interrupted by people wanting interviews, or autographs, or holy water for all he knew, but his on-duty time was being compromised as well. His shift had been over forty-five minutes ago, and this was the earliest he'd been able to leave without yet another awestruck officer calling him back. He wouldn't have time to eat before the practice hour Commander Stanton had set aside for him and the other Rangers began.
It was a gracious gesture. They had exclusive use of one of the GSA training rooms starting promptly at 1800 and ending not a minute after 1900. Unfortunately, the practical consequence was that he had less than fifteen minutes to get to the training room, get suited up, and then conduct some sort of physical fitness regimen for three people of wildly varying abilities and experience. An hour was nowhere near enough time, and for the fifth day in a row it was coming at the end of an extended shift followed by no dinner.
He walked into the room knowing full well what he would see: Kendrix, Maya, and Damon, fresh from an hour off that had probably included food, chatting easily with each other as they stretched or warmed up or whatever civilians thought constituted an exercise regimen. It had been the same every day this week. He was expecting it.
He got what he expected, right down to the stretching, and he had absolutely no idea what made him snap, "Where the hell is Leo?"
Maya stopped mid-sentence, and the smile faded from Kendrix's face as she caught his eye. Her expression was sympathetic, and he couldn't tell if it was in response to the thought of Leo or to him. Damon was giving him the sort of wary look that only a tech could manage, the kind that said, If you fuck with me the imminent lack of hot water in your room will be the least of your problems.
"He's in Mike's room," Kendrix said, before he could ask again. "I was there at lunch time, to bring him something to eat, but he hasn't talked to me since yesterday."
"Still?" Kai demanded. "Has he left Mike's room since he got here?"
Kendrix and Maya exchanged glances. "No," Kendrix admitted. "I don't think so."
"Fine." Kai frowned at the three of them, wondering distantly what Commander Stanton would do when he realized they'd been left with no military supervision. "Do whatever it is you do to work out. I'm going to go get him."
No one said anything as he turned around and left. He checked the room that had been assigned to Leo on his way to the officers' dormitory, opening the door and stepping inside when he realized no lock had been set, but Kendrix was right. Not only was it empty, but the bag they'd found in one of the locker rooms with Leo's name in it was still on the floor, probably right where it had been dropped off after its discovery. It didn't look like Leo had ever been there.
He set a basic lock code on the door and headed for Mike's room. He had no idea what he thought he'd find after five days, but he knocked anyway and waited what seemed like a reasonable amount of time for a reply. This door wasn't locked either, and walking in felt like an intrusion in a way that entering Leo's empty room hadn't.
Because this was Mike's place. Mike had lived here for months before Terra Venture's departure, and he had made every part of this room his own. From the red-lit kitchen area to the messy living space to the pictures in each of the three bunks lining the wall, Mike's life left no surface untouched.
No surface, and no acquaintance. Let alone family member. This last of which was huddled forlornly on the couch under a red and black plaid blanket, eyes closed, either asleep or deliberately ignoring Kai's presence. If Leo was anything like his older brother, the latter was probably more likely.
Right. Well, his hair was a mess, but he was clean-shaven, so he'd obviously gotten up at some point. The tray Kendrix had brought earlier was empty and stacked beside the sink, unmistakably washed. There was a neat pile of electronics at the end of the counter, too--a small sign of organization that would have been unusual for Mike. Leo must have cleared the counters while he'd been working in the kitchen.
Kai folded his arms, glancing back at the figure on the couch.
Leo was watching him.
"Training started at 1800," Kai informed him. "The rest of the Rangers are in SO-335." Which Leo should know, since Kai had the computer system sending a reminder to each of them every day at 1645.
"I wasn't supposed to be a Ranger." Leo's voice was rough, like he really had been sleeping, but he spoke easily enough. "I don't belong there."
"So the Power screwed up," Kai said bluntly. "None of us should be Rangers. Except maybe Maya. That doesn't change the fact that we are, and we need to start acting like it."
"Why?" Leo hadn't moved. He was staring out at Kai from underneath that blanket, not even lifting his head. "What is there to fight for? Mirinoi is gone."
"Terra Venture isn't," Kai snapped. "And according to Maya, whoever turned her people to stone is coming for us next."
Leo just looked at him.
"The bad guys came to Mirinoi for the Quasar Sabers, Leo. It wasn't Maya's people they were trying to kill with that stone wave; it was us. But we got away, and it's only a matter of time before they figure out where we went."
"We didn't all get away," Leo said, no emotion in his voice. His lack of reaction was really starting to grate.
Kai prided himself on his ability to remain calm and cool no matter the crisis. When things went wrong, he assessed the situation and made the decisions that needed to be made. But right now it wasn't any conscious thought that drove him across the room to yank the blanket off of Leo, grabbing hold of his left hand. It was pure frustration that made him twist Leo's wrist, forcing the transmorpher to appear so he could shove it in his face.
"This was Mike's," he said harshly. "He gave it to you. He entrusted it to you. This is what he died for, and the last thing he did was to pass it on to you so you could do what he couldn't. So you could use it to protect this colony.
"Maybe that's not what you wanted," Kai continued. "But that's what you've got. You can either lie here and do nothing with it, or you can take Mike's last call and make it mean something."
Leo just laid there. His fingers twitched, and Kai dropped his hand in disgust. They were all hurting, and if Leo couldn't see that life went on, then what good could he possibly do them as the Red Ranger?
With a flick of his wrist, Leo made the morpher vanish. Slowly, he sat up, his arm braced heavily against the cushions as he swung his legs over the side of the couch. He put his elbows on his knees and buried his head in his hands for a long moment.
"You're a real bastard," Leo muttered at last. "You know that?"
Kai snorted. "Yeah, says so in my personnel file. But it means so much more coming from you."
There was no answer. When Leo lifted his head, though, there was a flicker of something other than apathy in his expression. "What kind of training?"
He was dressed, at least. Jeans and a black t-shirt. They couldn't possibly be his, not if he'd been wearing soldier gear under his Ranger uniform and he hadn't been back for his bag since the first day. They hadn't found any other luggage they could trace to him. Mike's clothes?
"Physical fitness," Kai said, heading for the closet. "Combat training. Whatever we can all do and finish before 1900."
There was silence from behind him as he pushed aside shirts and found the jacket Mike had mentioned a week ago. Pulling it off its hanger, Kai shut the door again and turned around, tossing the jacket down on the couch beside Leo. "Present from Mike," he said curtly. "He bought it for you last week."
Leo stared, first at it and then at him. "What?"
Kai really hoped his response time was a result of recent sleep, lack of food, grieving, or anything at all so long as it was temporary. Because if he always reacted this slowly, Kai would strangle him before the end of the month, let alone the end of the journey. "He bought you a GSA jacket," Kai repeated impatiently. "He was waiting until you got here to give it to you."
Leo's hand was on the jacket, fingers ghosting across it and then clenching in the synthetic fabric. He lowered his head and was still again. Kai gritted his teeth, knowing a mistake when he saw it, but there was no way to take it back now. Those had to be Mike's clothes he was wearing. The jacket had actually been meant for him. What was the difference?
He wasn't feeling particularly patient right now, but he managed to keep his mouth shut until Leo looked up. His eyes were too bright, glittering with unshed tears, and in that instant Kai hated him. He hadn't cried for his friend and he wasn't about to start now, whether Mike's younger brother was falling apart or not. Kai looked away.
"Thanks," Leo's voice said quietly.
"Let's go," Kai growled, striding toward the door without looking back. Leo would either follow or not, but he was done here.
Leo followed, jacket rustling as he swung it over his shoulders. They made the trip back to the training room in almost complete silence. Kai saw Leo glancing around, actually paying attention as they walked, but he didn't offer any information. If Leo wanted to know where they were he could ask. Or look it up himself.
Time was more than half past when they finally reached the training room. Kai figured they would waste another five minutes or so gushing over Leo's presence and general state of being, but the principle of team practice did count for something. That was what he told himself.
He was more than a little surprised when Leo waved off their concern and told them they'd all talk after training. "We only have until 1900, right?" he added, glancing to Kai for confirmation.
"Yeah." Kai frowned, surprised he'd been listening or surprised he cared, he wasn't sure which. "Then second shift gets it back."
"Huh." Leo frowned back at him, and it was the first real expression Kai had seen on his face. "We should talk about that. An hour isn't very long. And hey, I know I'm not too familiar with the colony schedule yet, but isn't this kind of... dinnertime?"
Kai blinked, and now it was his turn to have nothing to say.
"It kind of is," Kendrix agreed, when the silence lingered. "My hours are a little more flexible, but Kai and Damon both work first shift and this is right when they'd be eating dinner."
"We ate," Maya offered, and from the way Kendrix glanced at her Kai guessed "we" meant her and Kendrix. "But Damon hasn't had food since the midday meal."
"And I bet Kai hasn't either," Kendrix put in.
Leo had looked away when she first spoke, but now he was watching Kai again. Waiting. Waiting for an answer, Kai suddenly realized. He shook his head, not totally sure how this had turned into a discussion of eating habits.
"Okay," Leo said, drawing the word out. "So... should we ditch training and just get something to eat? If you guys are hungry--"
"I'm fine," Kai said sharply. "We're here to train. We can eat later."
To his annoyance, Leo glanced at Damon.
"I'm okay," Damon said with a shrug. "They'll kick us out of here soon anyway."
Leo nodded like he understood. "Right. So." He was looking at Kai again. "What do we do?"
Kai opened his mouth, but Damon cut him off. "Kendrix was showing us a great self-defense move," he remarked. "Maybe we could skip the cardio and get to the part where we practice fighting."
Kai narrowed his eyes. "Well, if someone hadn't been half an hour late," he ground out, "maybe we wouldn't have to."
Kendrix just smiled, which wasn't unusual for her when he let his annoyance show, and she was lucky he liked her so much because the reaction only increased his irritation. "Kai, we can change our routine once in a while. It's not the end of the world."
"Besides," Leo added, before he could retort, "we can exercise any time, right? We should take advantage of the mats while we can."
"Do you do self-defense?" Kendrix asked, turning her smile and a speculative look on him.
Leo was already shaking his head. "Nah, not in training. But that's what we're going to need, right? Self-defense, sparring, hand-to-hand skills. Fencing, I guess, since we have swords. And target practice. Did you guys already set something up for target practice?"
The others were looking at him with varying degrees of surprise and skepticism. It was Maya who pointed out the obvious. "But Leo, we don't have anything to shoot with."
"We will," he predicted. "All Rangers have guns. And you know, after being out there on the moon with an energy rifle I had no idea how to shoot? I'd like to be prepared."
"We can't borrow rifles for practice," Kai protested. "There's only one shooting range, and we can't take it over just so you can learn to fire a weapon!"
Leo didn't seem to get it. "Why not?" he wanted to know. "I'm going to have to shoot something eventually. Do you really want me learning on live targets?"
"Uh..." Damon raised his hand. "I can't shoot either. I mean, if we're really going to have guns? I've never fired--well, anything, before."
"Nor have I," Maya agreed. "I would like to practice before being required to use such a thing in battle."
Now they took it seriously. Kai wanted to ask them why they were only now thinking of this as a fight, a fight that was coming to them and one they would ultimately have to win, not once, but many times over. They hadn't meant to take the Quasar Sabers. But they had, and there wasn't anyone left to give them back to. So they were going to have to defend them.
"Who do we talk to about using the shooting range?" Leo was asking him. "Can you and Kendrix train us with the rifles, or are we going to need someone else in there with us?"
Kai could only stare at him, wondering if he knew what he was asking.
"We can train you," Kendrix declared. "No problem. And I think we have to talk to the quartermaster--is that right, Kai?"
At the very least. He sighed, resigning himself to a long and risky argument in the morning. "We're going to have to get Commander Stanton's approval for target practice," he said. "I'll talk to him tomorrow."
"I'll go with you," Leo offered unexpectedly. "There are probably a few other things we should go over, too. Like this dinner thing. And getting you guys time off your shifts for training."
"What?" Kai wasn't sure he could take comfort in the fact that Kendrix and Damon seemed just as confused. After all this, he should have guessed that Leo wouldn't respect regular duty stations.
"Well, you want to train every day, right?" Leo gave him a look he couldn't interpret. "I've been getting daily reminders from you since we got here. You guys can't just add it on to your regular workday, especially if your shifts are running so long you don't have time to eat."
Kai was ready to protest that it was only an extra hour, maybe two if they got their target practice, but Damon beat him to the reply. "It's true," he said. "I'm on call two nights a week, and if I don't have evenings free those days I'm not going to sleep."
Leo nodded, and Kendrix followed suit. "I can change my schedule around to accommodate training almost any time except the beginning of first shift," she said. "That's when we do department rounds and briefings."
"Great," Leo said, like it was all settled. "Kai and I will talk to Commander Stanton tomorrow and see if we can get training time during the afternoon. In the meantime," he added, giving Kendrix an almost-smile, "I think you have a self-defense move to show us."
She did look at Kai before she nodded, but he just rolled his eyes. What could he say? Commander Stanton would explain GSA policy to him tomorrow. Considering who Leo was, he might even be gentle about it. "In the meantime," Kai didn't feel like wasting his breath.
So Kendrix demonstrated one of her favorite throws on Maya, who was remarkably willing to fall when Damon asked to try and Kendrix stepped aside to instruct. Leo tried to interject, saying that Damon should throw him instead, but Maya told him to practice falling first because when it was his turn she would throw him. That was the first time Leo smiled in the training room.
The third time he hit the mats, he ignored Maya's outstretched hand and squinted up at Kai. "Hey," he said, like he'd just noticed. "You must know how to do this. Don't you want to show off?"
"Kai won't fight with us," Kendrix told him.
"Of course I will," Kai said.
"He has to hold back against us," Maya offered.
"It's just training," Kai countered, inexplicably irritable. "We're all holding back."
"Says he's too strong for us," Damon said bluntly. "Won't spar until we get more practice."
The only one of them not wearing workout clothes, Leo was tugging his t-shirt back into place. "We're all too strong," he pointed out. "That's why we can't just take a class or something. We have to train with each other so we don't hurt someone."
"Yes, thank you," Kai muttered. "I understand the concept of Power Rangers."
"We're strong," Kendrix said. "He's stronger. It has something to do with his Quasar Saber."
"The spirit behind the saber is that of the gorilla," Maya said solemnly. "He lends Kai his strength in all things."
Kai glared at Leo. "No monkey jokes."
Leo held up his hands, but his expression was noticeably lighter than before. "All I'm saying is, my spirit's a lion, right? King of the jungle. I could totally take you."
"You're welcome to try," Kai said darkly. He could still feel his reflexes, enhanced by the Power, trying to compensate for his newfound strength. It had been five days, and he hadn't stopped being afraid to shake hands or knock on doors yet. So far his reactions were fast enough that he'd caught himself before he hurt anyone, but he wasn't used to that either. He didn't trust things he wasn't used to.
"Yeah?" Leo stepped back, away from Maya, and tipped his head a little. Presumably to indicate readiness. "You're on. Give me your best shot."
If he thought Kai was going to come at him full strength just because he said so, he deserved the lesson he was about to get. He was clearly expecting an attack that set up the throw Kendrix had been teaching them. Kai knew every defense there was against that move. Not only could he counter Leo's action, he could have him on the floor a moment later.
He went after Leo the same way Kendrix had been setting them up, ready for the sidestep that preceded the throw. He didn't even have to counter, he just let Leo grab his arm and yanked back. Leo's grip should have broken--no one else had been able to hold onto him--but it didn't, and when Kai's balance was threatened he reacted automatically.
He went to counter the throw. Leo doubled over, shoving Kai backward instead of letting his momentum carry him forward, and hooked a foot around his knee to knock his legs out from underneath him. Kai was on his back, staring up at Leo from the mats while he tried to figure out what had just happened.
"Whoa." Damon sounded annoyingly impressed. "That was cool."
"It seems the lion lends you his strength, as well," Maya observed, a smile in her voice.
"I thought you said you didn't have self-defense training!" Kendrix sounded vaguely accusing as Leo offered his hand to Kai. "That's not anything like what I was teaching you."
"No training," Leo agreed. "But I didn't grow up in the best part of town, so." He didn't meet anyone's eyes as he pulled Kai to his feet with no apparent effort.
"Again," Kai said, not releasing Leo's hand when he went to step away. Leo gave him a surprised look, and Kai tried not to frown. "Just because you surprised me, that doesn't mean you're stronger than I am."
Leo just shrugged. "Suit yourself."
"Guys," Kendrix interjected. "It's not a competition. You don't have anything to prove."
Kai ignored her, and Leo watched him warily. "Kai needs a sparring partner," he said without looking away. He did have street instincts, Kai would give him that. "If I'm the only one he doesn't overpower, we need to know that."
This time Kai feinted, pretending to duplicate Kendrix's attack and then going in low on the other side. It was a tackle, plain and simple: no style, no finesse, no goal other than to get his opponent on the ground. At this range and without the element of surprise it was inevitable, nothing more than a test of brute strength against brute strength.
Leo went down. Kai went flying. His back slammed against the mats again and Leo was on his chest, tense above him with a wild look in his eyes that gave Kai pause. He might have been able to throw Leo off. He made a split-second decision not to try.
Leo shook his head, shoving himself up out of his crouched position with a single movement. He reached back to haul Kai up behind him, an apologetic expression on his face. "You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah." Kai hesitated, but it was a fair question. "Someone done that to you before?"
Leo put a hand behind his neck, a combination of a stretch and a shrug, and glanced around at the others. "Bad neighborhood," he said again. "You learn to defend yourself."
"Can you teach us that?" Kendrix asked, like she wasn't sure it was the right thing to say but she couldn't help it. "I mean... that was great."
It was the right thing to say. Leo actually smiled at her, and Kai noted almost unconsciously that it was only the women who had provoked that reaction from him so far. "Sure," he said. "It is kind of cool, huh?"
"Very cool," Maya agreed, and Kendrix clapped her hands.
"Check you out!" she crowed. "You used 'cool' right!"
Maya was beaming, and she explained to the rest of them, "Kendrix has been coaching me in your... colloquialisms?"
"Slang," Damon put in. "You go, girl. You sound great."
"Doesn't she?" Kendrix put her arm around Maya and hugged, resting her head on Maya's shoulder for a moment. "It's not just us, though, all of the scientists are helping. It's like our mission or something."
"Kendrix allows me to help out in the horticulture department," Maya explained, and Kai followed her gaze to Leo in time to see his puzzled expression clear. "I find it comforting to be outside, under your dome, so I have been working with some of the environmental application teams."
"Gardening," Kendrix translated cheerfully. "I pretend to supervise, so it gets me outside too!"
"That's great," Leo said. "It's still kind of hard for me to believe Terra Venture has its own environment."
"Are you going to train?" Kai interrupted. "Or talk?" They only had another five minutes.
He got a dirty look from Kendrix, and a reproving one from Maya--just what he needed, the two of them on the same side--but Leo seemed to remember what they were supposed to be doing. He got Damon to help him model Kai's original attack, and then he demonstrated his counter maneuver. It was a roll for the person defending and a flip for their opponent, and Leo managed to slow it down enough that Damon didn't hit the mats as hard as Kai had.
The time it took to set it up and show it off ran out the rest of their hour. Kai knew it was 1900 when a knock on the door indicated their time was up. He opened his mouth to tell them all to clear out, but Leo, still on the floor, yelled, "Come in!"
Kai rolled his eyes, but the door slid open and O'Shea poked his head in. "Sir," he said, catching sight of Kai. "1900."
"I can tell time," Kai snapped, embarrassed to have been caught running over. He shouldn't have made Leo show them that last move. It was only curiosity that had made him want to see what it looked like when he wasn't the one in the air.
"Give us another ten minutes," Leo said, sitting up beside Damon and lifting his hand to wave at O'Shea. "We're almost done here."
"Leo?" O'Shea stayed on the other side of the doorway, but he raised his right hand in return. "Hey, man. Rick O'Shea. Sorry about your brother."
Leo was getting to his feet, striding across the room without a word. When he reached the door, he held out his hand. "Hey, Rick," he said. "Leo Corbett. And thanks. I know he was important to you guys too."
"Yeah," O'Shea agreed, shaking his hand without hesitation. "Tell you the truth, I dunno what we're going to do without him."
Leo nodded once. "Me neither," he said quietly.
"Well, hey." O'Shea looked around the rest of the room, and he nodded too. "Just let us know when you're done here. Take as long as you need."
"Thanks," Leo told him.
"No problem, man." O'Shea gave him a smirk. "You're doing us a favor. It's not like we're in any big hurry to start training or anything."
That, Kai decided as the door closed behind him, was vaguely disturbing. Had Leo just outranked him? He wasn't sure exactly what to make of the interaction, or the results. And Leo just turned away from the door like it was nothing, like it was expected, like he should be able to ask favors of the military and get them, no questions asked.
"Okay," Leo said, joining Damon again. "You want me to do that again, or you want to try it yourself?"
"I got it," Damon said confidently. "Let's go."
"Kai?" Leo glanced over at him. "You think you can restrain your gorilla-like strength long enough for Damon to flip you?"
"What?" He folded his arms automatically. When a trainer didn't want to let their trainees practice on them, that was a bad sign. "What are you doing?"
"Helping Kendrix and Maya," Leo said, like it should have been obvious. "Unless you know this one. You can show them instead."
If he knew it, he wouldn't be standing around watching while the women tried to mimic what Leo was doing with Damon. "No," he said grudgingly. "Fine. I'll work with Damon."
Damon didn't look particularly thrilled about it, but maybe Kai had given him reason earlier in the week. Kendrix certainly didn't have any complaints. By the time she and Maya had each gotten the hang of throwing each other, Damon had tossed Kai to the mat five times and was now enthusiastically explaining the maneuver to him.
Anyone should have been able to see that volunteering to let him flip them at this point was a bad idea, but it wasn't until Kai snarled at him that Damon seemed to remember who he was talking to. "Hey," he said, backing off. "If you don't want a turn, all you have to do is say so."
"Henderson," Kai said through gritted teeth. "I'm strong enough to break ribs if I try to kick someone over my head the way you're doing. And it's been a long day. I'm not feeling particularly controlled right now. Still want to be my test subject?"
"When you put it like that," Damon said, rolling his shoulders and shaking out his hands and arms. "No. Thanks anyway."
"Maybe we should quit for the day," Kendrix suggested. "You guys must be hungry."
"And our time is up," Leo agreed, not that he'd seemed to care before. "Where do we find Rick?" he added, glancing at Kai.
"Locker room," Kai said shortly.
The women went one way and the rest of them went the other, and they found O'Shea and his team playing cards in the locker room. None of them leapt eagerly to their feet when they realized the training room was now free. Most of them did introduce themselves to Leo, though, and they offered condolences or sympathy on the loss of his brother. It kept him in the locker room long enough that Kai and Damon had changed and were heading out before he excused himself and caught up with them again.
"Nice guys," Leo offered, keeping his voice low.
"Yeah." Kai didn't feel like talking. Kendrix and Maya met them outside the locker rooms, which was an annoyance and a relief. Two more people who wanted to talk, but also two more people who wanted to talk. They engaged Leo and Damon in conversation about dinner almost immediately.
"We went to Huot's yesterday," Maya was saying. "I thought the food there was very good."
"I'd love to go again," Kendrix agreed. "There's something for everyone there."
"You've already eaten," Damon protested. "You don't have to come just to keep us company."
"Oh, we want to," Kendrix insisted. "Right?"
"Whether I am hungry or not, the company is always more important than the food," Maya said with a smile. "We would be happy to accompany you."
Kai narrowed his eyes, finally acknowledging their consistent use of "we." They'd gotten very friendly very quickly. And Kendrix was always like that--friendly and outgoing enough for both of them, she said--but she was also several other things that made him wonder about the easy intimacy with her new friend.
"Well, I sure won't turn down the company," Damon said. "Or the recommendation. What do you say, guys?"
"I'm in," Leo agreed. "Kendrix knows how to pick food. Thanks," he added, putting a hand on her shoulder briefly.
Whatever was going on with Maya, Kendrix positively beamed at him. Reaching up to pat his hand, she promised, "Any time. I'm just glad you're coming with us tonight."
"Me too," he said, smiling back at her. "You've all been great tonight. Even if I did call you a bastard."
It took a moment for Kai to realize this was directed at him, that Leo was watching him, waiting for some kind of acknowledgment. "Like I said," he grumbled, folding his arms. "You're not the first."
"He's not as tough as he pretends," Kendrix said with a laugh. "He's really very sweet if you give him a chance."
"I'm not," Kai retorted. "I'm also not eating anything tonight that I haven't cooked myself. I'll see you in Command at 0930 tomorrow morning," he added, shooting a dark look at Leo. "Don't be late."
Leo looked nonplussed, until Kendrix stage-whispered, "Your meeting with Commander Stanton."
"Oh, right," Leo agreed quickly. "Nine-thirty. Command. Is that... where is that, exactly?"
"It's in the control tower," Kendrix said. "I'll show you. Or the computer in your room can tell you how to get there."
"It's not my room," Leo said with unexpected vehemence.
He'd locked Leo's room. The reminder kept him from walking away, impatient while Kendrix explained the bag they'd found and the room they'd assigned to Leo. Leo nodded when she mentioned the bag, but he didn't seem any more clear on the room.
"I was supposed to bunk with Mike," he said uncertainly.
"Oh, Leo..." Kendrix sounded troubled. "Didn't anyone tell you that you had your own room? We thought you were staying in Mike's room because..." She trailed off, and Kai's eyes widened a little. Well. That put the last few days in a different light.
Congratulations, he thought grimly. By leaving him alone, you just made things worse. No wonder he wasn't talking to anyone.
"Where else was I supposed to go?" Leo was asking. "It's not like I have a job or anything. Mike got me on the list as his dependent. With him gone, I figured I was--" His voice broke, and he stopped abruptly. "I don't know," he muttered at last.
"Leo," Kendrix said, putting a hand on his elbow. "Mike wasn't the only one who cared about you. You're a colonist. You have rights, privileges..."
"Identification," Maya said earnestly. "I have an ID card that lets me get food and clothing. And you could always come and work with me and Kendrix in the science division."
That made Leo smile a little, and Kendrix slid her arm through his before he could protest. Not that he looked like he would. "You and Maya were assigned rooms the first day," she told him, resting her head against his shoulder briefly. "I'm so sorry we all forgot to tell you."
"Even I got my own room," Damon put in, awkward but giving it his best shot. "The guys I was bunking with were a little too happy to see me go, but it turns out this Power Ranger thing isn't all bad."
Leo let out a breath that might have been a chuckle. Or a sigh. "I guess you guys already had your own rooms," he said, his arm sneaking around Kendrix as he gave her a quick hug. "You and Kai."
"Oh, please." Kendrix laughed, returning his one-armed hug. "You don't expect a roommate to put up with someone as geeky as the head of the horticulture department, do you?"
"All the science department heads have their own rooms," Kai muttered. It was really the only thing he had to contribute.
"And the senior GSA officers," Kendrix added.
"I locked your door," Kai told Leo. He didn't know what else to say. "I stopped by to see if you were there before I went to Mike's. When I realized you hadn't been there and your stuff was just sitting on the floor, I put a code on the door. 12515. You'll need it to get in."
"My bag," Leo said, mostly to himself. "Thanks for getting that. What's the code again?" he asked, before Kai could tell him that he hadn't done it.
"12515," Kendrix repeated. "Leo."
"Yeah?" Leo gave her a curious look, but she just grinned at Kai.
"Leo," she said again. "12515 is Leo, if you number each letter of the alphabet one through twenty-six, from a to z. That's how Kai makes up codes he can remember."
Kai scowled at her, even if he should have expected her to notice and comment on Leo's "code." "I don't have time to memorize a bunch of meaningless numbers," he reminded her. "I think our rooms should recognize our IDs, like everything else on Terra Venture."
"And if they did," she countered, "anyone who lost their card would be locked out until they got a new one."
"So don't lose it," Kai complained. "How hard is that?"
"Harder than remembering a few numbers," Kendrix said, rolling her eyes. "For everyone except you."
"Twelve, five, fifteen," Leo mused. "L, e, o. Huh." He smiled a little. "Cute."
"Don't tell anyone," Kendrix advised. "It's ridiculously easy to crack his codes once you know what he's doing."
"If we're done here," Kai interrupted irritably, "I'm going to go make some dinner."
"Sure you won't join us?" Leo wanted to know. "Someone's going to have to show me where my room is later."
"Kendrix can do it." He said it without thinking, frowning at Leo's tone, only belatedly wondering why he would want Kai to show him his room. Because that was clearly the implication: that Kai, not one of the others, and not the computer, was best suited to play tour guide.
"Right after dinner," Kendrix agreed. But she gave him a glare when Leo wasn't looking. Kai gave it right back, because whatever she was thinking, she could just mind her own business.
"0930," he reminded Leo. "Command. If you're not there, I won't come looking for you."
Leo seemed to find this amusing, which as far as Kai was concerned meant that he and Kendrix should be separated immediately. Unfortunately, there probably wasn't anyone else who would put up with either of them for extended periods of time. Except maybe Maya. And apparently Damon.
Welcome to life as a Power Ranger, he thought with a grimace.
His mood was considerably improved the next morning, when Stanton agreed to a private meeting without question and Leo showed up promptly at 0930. He looked awake, alert, and surprisingly respectable in his black t-shirt and GSA jacket. Maybe it was the fact that he had combed his hair. Maybe it was the fact that he was on time. Kai didn't know and he really didn't care--not if Leo was suddenly going to act like he knew something about the military after all.
He walked into Command like he belonged there, nodded to Kai when he looked up, and then put his hands behind his back and waited to be acknowledged. Commander Stanton turned when Kai caught his eye, following his nod toward the science doors, and seemed surprised to find Leo standing at parade rest. He wasn't the only one, either.
"Leo Corbett, I presume?" Stanton studied him from his place by the engine station, and anyone who hadn't looked up before now was suddenly paying attention to only one thing: the man in black at the back of Command.
Leo nodded once. "Commander Stanton," he replied.
Kai winced. The appropriate response was "yes, sir!" But of course Leo was a civilian. It was a indicator of how much Leo had looked like his brother for a moment there that he'd actually expected to hear the response Mike would have given.
Stanton paced around the room, his steps deliberate as he came to a halt directly in front of Leo. Then, in a move that had to have surprised everyone in Command at least as much as it did Kai, Commander Stanton snapped to attention. "My condolences on your brother's passing," he said formally. "Mike Corbett's loss affects us all."
His salute was sharp and crisp, his stance as respectful as any officer honoring a surviving family member. Kai swallowed as it finally dawned on him that that was exactly what Stanton was doing. Mike was missing in action, presumed dead, and Leo was his next-of-kin. He deserved the widow's walk, at the very least.
Leo just nodded again. "Thank you, Commander," he said solemnly. "I know Mike's service to the GSA was important to him."
"And to us," Stanton agreed. "His contribution was invaluable."
Leo didn't answer. Kai wasn't sure what made him get up, but he had taken a step in their direction when Stanton glanced over his shoulder. Kai stopped, caught. A little surprised by his own reaction. When he looked back at Leo, though, he saw him lower his head and swallow hard, and he didn't regret creating that brief distraction.
"My office is this way," Stanton said, indicating the hallway on the far side of the back wall. "Mister Chen, if you'll join us?"
"Yes, sir," Kai said quickly. Stanton didn't lead them out of Command, which was strange, but again, Leo was a civilian. Civilians weren't led. It was still awkward to walk with Leo in front of the commander.
Leo didn't seem to notice. He stopped when Kai did, waiting outside the commander's office until Stanton waved them both inside. Also strange... but not nearly as odd as being invited to sit. Not because he never had been before, but because Stanton didn't do it from behind his desk. He stayed in front of it, offering them both visitors' chairs and then taking the third one for himself.
He was treating them like equals, Kai realized uncomfortably. This wasn't just civilian politeness, or survivor deference. It had gone beyond that the moment Stanton sat down across from them with no desk in between. And it had to be due to the invisible morphers on their wrists.
"Kai tells me you wanted to talk to me about scheduling some target practice for the members of your team," Stanton began.
"I do." Leo seemed to shake off whatever had taken hold of him in Command with those words, but Kai couldn't relax. Leo was unpredictable, uninformed about the military, and maybe even a little unstable right now. This meeting could have been better timed.
"There are a few other things I'd like to discuss first," Leo was saying. "Maya's been able to give us some information about the being that's after the Quasar Sabers, and I have some concerns about colony security."
Kai gave him a sharp look. That hadn't been what he was expecting.
"I'm listening," Stanton said evenly.
"I've talked with several colonists who would like to think we've left a lot of the details of Earth life behind," Leo told him. "Money, insurance... passports. Identification. I'm told more than twenty ID cards have already been reported missing, and we haven't even left the solar system yet. That kind of carelessness is going to get us into trouble when we start encountering enemies that can shapeshift, or soldiers that can cut off communication between domes and strand unidentified civilians."
Leo had been talking to people? Who? And how did he know about the ID cards? Maya must have briefed him last night at dinner; that explained the sudden knowledge of Scorpius and his minions. But the rest of it--
"Leo," Stanton said. "I understand what you're trying to do here. But you have to understand that it's difficult to accept you as an authority on these issues. Kai may have tricked our soldiers into granting you asylum here on Terra Venture, but you are currently the best example we have of what not to do.
"In addition," he continued, "while I respect Mike's decision to pass his morpher on to you, I hardly feel that you're qualified to pass judgement on the daily operations of this colony. I'm willing to work with you on matters of Ranger training and operations, within reason, but you'll have to leave the running of the ship to us."
"Commander." Leo's voice was perfectly calm. "I don't want to run Terra Venture. I can see that the Council is doing an excellent job of that, and I'm sure the GSA military serves the Council and the colonists well. As Power Rangers, we'll do our best to do the same. I think it would be in everyone's best interests for the colony's two major defensive forces to work together, but if you'd prefer me to go through the Council, I'm willing to do that."
Kai stared at him. He was afraid to look at Stanton, and unwilling to look away from Leo even if he wasn't. Mike Corbett's little brother had just delivered an ultimatum to the most senior officer on Terra Venture: work with me, or I'll go over your head. Over the Chief Officer's head. It was almost an impossible thought.
Almost. Because the military did answer to the civilian Council. While the two were mostly responsible for overseeing different aspects of the colony, the Council was the highest authority there was, and if Leo could get them to listen to him, then he would effectively outrank everyone in the GSA military division.
"I see," Stanton said at last. His tone was flat, revealing nothing. "Then, considering the fact that you only stowed away on--I'm sorry, 'boarded'--Terra Venture five days ago, with no prior relevant knowledge or training, I have to ask you again. What exactly do you think qualifies you to determine how you can best serve this colony?"
Kai wondered if perhaps holding very still would make them forget he was here.
Leo didn't so much as flinch. "My team," he said simply. "One of my Rangers is a senior officer in Command. One of them is a science division department head. One of them is a shift supervisor in Engine Room Four, and one of them has more extensive knowledge of the Power--and its enemies--than anyone on this ship.
"I'm nobody, Commander. A nobody who happens to have the Red transmorpher and four of the best-informed people in this colony as his teammates. If you think I'm not smart enough to understand the problems inherent in lost IDs," he added, "that's fine. But don't insult my team."
Kai finally snuck a look at the commander and was horrified to see a small smile on his face. I'm going to be discharged, he thought wonderingly. He had never let himself consider the possibility before, but there it was, looming large in front of him. He was going to get fired through no fault of his own.
"Understood," Stanton said, startling him. The smile was gone, but now he included Kai in his look. "In that case, I'm willing to hear any recommendations you and your team might have on the subject."
"Public service announcements," Leo said immediately. "Let people know why we want them to carry their IDs at all times. And if there's a fine, something small but inconvenient, for replacing an ID, that would make people keep better track of them."
"Appealing to their sense of civic responsibility and their laziness at the same time," Stanton remarked. "How appropriate."
"Whichever part of the audience we miss with the first one, we'll get with the second," Leo agreed easily. "I'd also like all of the Rangers to have security overrides that will let us locate identified personnel."
Illegal for civilians and carefully restricted among the military, overrides like that destroyed any illusion of privacy on a deep space ship. Stanton only hesitated a moment. "Yes," he admitted, "I can see the benefit of that. You know, of course, that any use of those overrides will be monitored and logged by Terra Venture's central AI?"
"We're not going to go around stalking people," Leo told him. "If we're going to defend them, we need to know where they are."
Stanton actually nodded. "I'll make sure your identification includes the override by the end of the day."
"Thank you," Leo said, and Kai could only stare. As a senior officer he had an override that let him into all secured areas, including dormitory rooms, when the colony was on alert. But even he didn't have a security override for the location of identified personnel. Or at least, he hadn't until today.
"Now, as far as training goes," Leo was saying. "You've set aside SO-335 for Ranger use during the second hour of second shift. Most of my team is working first shift. I'd like them released from their duty stations early so that their training can be part of their regular workday instead of something that's added on at the end."
"They already have a regular workday, Leo. They work a full shift, and sometimes longer, because that's the amount of time it takes to do their job." Stanton didn't look any more receptive than he had before, but then, he'd conceded twice already.
"Being a Ranger is their job now," Leo told. "As much as anything else they're doing. And it's a job no one else can do. If they leave their stations at 1500 each day, they'll do six hours of regular shift work, an hour and a half of training, and then they can be back to take care of anything they need to do before first shift ends at 1700."
"An hour and a half," Stanton noted. "1500 to 1630?"
"Ranger training is difficult and time-consuming, Commander." Leo glanced at Kai for the first time, and Kai was unprepared to do anything more than look back at him. "Kai doesn't go easy on us. We need the time, and we need it in the afternoon, while we still have energy left to keep up with him."
Now Stanton was looking at him too. "Yes," he agreed, not smiling but clearly amused. "I can imagine. All right," he added, turning back to Leo, "you'll get an hour and a half starting at 1500. Are you going to want the room on off days too?"
Leo didn't hesitate. "Yes," he said. "To hear Kai tell it, we need all the practice we can get."
"I've never known him to be wrong," Stanton said gravely. "Can you handle these ragtag warriors, Kai, or do you want assistance with training?"
"Sir," he said. Unexpected, maybe, but he could hear the seriousness behind the gentle teasing. "Between the five of us, I think we know what we need better than anyone else. We're too strong to train with non-Rangers, and we have all the knowledge we need fed to us by our morphers. It's just a matter of learning to execute it."
"Understood," Stanton said again. "What about rifle training?"
Kai glanced at Leo automatically. It had been his idea. But Leo just shook his head, murmuring, "You're the one who knows the weapons."
"I can train them," Kai said, already afraid he would regret this later. He hadn't seen any of them other than Kendrix shoot. "Sir."
"All right." Stanton put his hands on his knees, a clear indicator that he considered the meeting almost over. "Talk to the quartermaster about equipment and range times. If you need anything else, Leo, you can contact me directly or have Kai let me know."
"I'll do that." Leo didn't get up. "There's just one more thing."
Stanton waited, and Kai wondered what else he could possibly ask.
Leo twisted his left wrist to make the Red morpher appear. "I know I'm not the man you would have chosen for this responsibility, Commander Stanton," he said evenly. "But I'm the one you have. I appreciate your willingness to deal with me."
The commander looked at him for a long moment. "You'll do, Mr. Corbett." He nodded once, a small smile on his face, and he repeated, "You'll do."
Leo got up first. Kai and Stanton stood at the same time, and again, Kai found himself being shown out of the office instead of following his superior officer. When Leo turned to him in the hallway and asked, "Do you have a minute to show me the shooting range now?" he was careful not to look back for permission before nodding.
In Command, though, Leo headed for the science doors instead of the elevator. "Let's just check in with Kendrix before we go," he said casually, and Kai had no choice but to follow.
The science division was a world apart from the military arm of the GSA. Stepping from one side of the control tower to the other was like night and day. Where Command hummed along with a quiet efficiency, officers mostly staying put at one duty station or another, the science division was loud and bright and constantly in motion. People were in and out all day as they monitored projects, held meetings, and conducted proto-experiments at their benches.
Kai was convinced that none of the scientists kept any consistent hours at all, instead wandering through whenever the mood struck--or whenever they lost one of their cohorts and needed the research log to track them down. He didn't know why Leo expected Kendrix to be in the control tower at all. He'd caught her there once on launch day and only twice since then: both times during a pre-arranged visit, to meet for lunch and to consult on a new project.
"Leo!" Kendrix's voice greeted them from the direction of the benches--her bench, even--and unlike Command, almost no one looked up. "How did it go?"
Leo's serious expression was gone, no trace of the solemn almost-soldier who had taken on Commander Stanton and won. Instead he was grinning, his whole face lit up in a way Kai had never seen, and he gave Kendrix a double thumbs-up. "It was awesome," he declared happily. "I was awesome! I'll never doubt you again!"
Kendrix laughed, and then she was pushing away from her bench and skipping around everyone in the way to reach him. She threw her arms around Leo's neck, and he lifted her off the ground in a hug. "Did you ever doubt me?" she demanded.
"If I did," Leo said, smirking over her shoulder at Kai, "I wouldn't admit it now. She coached me," he added. "All morning. What did you think?"
Kai stared at them, the pieces starting to click into place. Leo's attitude, his confidence, his sudden knowledge of colony procedure and problems... even his arguments. It hadn't sounded like Kendrix. But it had definitely sounded like Kendrix's information.
"When?" Kai wanted to know. The meeting with Stanton had been half an hour into first shift. When had they found that kind of time?
"I came to work with her this morning," Leo said.
At the same time, Kendrix said, "He bunked with me last night," and they looked at each other and grinned. Arms still around each other, Kai's mind filled in the first conclusion that came to him and he didn't like it at all.
"My room was pretty uninviting," Leo admitted, and again, Kendrix spoke right on top of him.
"No one should have to be alone unless they want to be," she said firmly. "I've got two empty bunks, so Leo stayed with me."
"I couldn't sleep anyway," Leo added. Her matter-of-factness seemed to make him open up. Or maybe that was just what he was like when he wasn't weighed down by grief, Kai had no way of knowing. "And she gets up in the middle of the night--"
"0500," she corrected, nudging him.
"Oh-dark-hundred," Leo said, squeezing her shoulders, "to be at work at the crack of dawn, and she let me come with her."
"They keep saying that!" Kendrix exclaimed, apparently appealing to him now. "Maya says that too, that I 'let' her come to work! Like it's some great privilege to come in and work your butt off for the science division!"
"You love it," Leo said with a grin. An easy grin, one that had been nowhere to be seen the day before and now wouldn't seem to go away.
"Yeah, I love it," she agreed. "I don't expect everyone else to!"
"So she told me what to say," Leo finished. "And how to say it, and it actually worked! You," he said, hugging her shoulders again, "get an hour and a half off your shift today to come and train with us."
"Great!" she exclaimed, beaming at him. "I knew you could do it!
"Crap," she added, just as suddenly, her delighted expression falling away. "What was I thinking? Why did I tell you to make it an hour and a half?"
Leo just looked at her. "I don't know," he said, amusement obvious in his tone. "Why did you tell me to make it an hour and a half?"
"I don't want to train for an hour and a half!" she protested. "Kai! Why did you let him do that?"
Kai held up his hands, disclaiming all responsibility for what had happened in that office. "I don't know what you expected me to do," he told her. Apparently, they had taken over the team and the entire military division in a single morning. "I just sat there and nodded."
"Yeah, I'm going to need your help," Leo told him. "I could see you'd had kind of a bad day yesterday, and no one in their right mind gets up as early as Kendrix, but I could really use some military advice--soon."
Kai gave him a skeptical look. "Seemed like you had everything under control earlier."
"Leo!" Kendrix exclaimed, slapping his chest gently with her free hand. "You impressed Kai! If even he thinks you did a decent job, then you really were awesome."
"I told you," Leo said, but he was looking at Kai. "All I knew this morning was what Kendrix told me. She told me what to say. She even made me practice answering questions," he added, smirking at Kendrix. "He asked 'why are you qualified', by the way."
"Ha!" Kendrix exclaimed. "See? That's why I'm such a good coach! I know how military minds think!"
"Hey," Kai interrupted, frowning at her.
"I know how Kai thinks too," she said blithely, "but only because he's such a good friend."
He grimaced, but he was forced to admit, "You did a good job."
"Me?" she asked with a grin. "Or Leo?"
Kai didn't know what that look was for, but he told her, "Both of you. I thought I was going to get fired six different times during that meeting, and I walked out of there with my job and a six and a half hour shift. I still don't know how you did it."
"It was mostly Leo," Kendrix said.
"It was all you," Leo countered, but she shook her head.
"No, I'm serious. I told you what to expect and I helped you with some of the arguments, but you have this way of talking. You're really confident, you know? It makes people listen."
"Yeah." Kai hadn't meant to say it, but with both of them looking at him now he didn't have a choice. "Confidence will get you a long way in the military."
"Arrogance, you mean," Kendrix teased.
"Attitude," Leo said. "It's attitude," he repeated, when Kai glanced at him, "and it usually gets me into more trouble with authority than it gets me out of."
"I don't believe you," Kendrix announced. "If you get into trouble, something must get you out, because you're too smooth to be one of the neighborhood toughs. It must be your charm."
Leo scoffed at this, which took Kai by surprise. He would never have said it first--he wouldn't admit it aloud even now--but "charming" was an obvious and easy descriptor for Leo Corbett. Even in mourning, he was a powerful presence that seemed used to getting what he wanted.
"I'm serious," Kendrix insisted. "I could have gone up to Commander Stanton and said exactly the same things you said, and he wouldn't have listened to me. You did this, Leo. You made it happen."
"Well." Leo shrugged it off. "I need you guys to keep making it happen. Training's at three this afternoon, same room. Me and Kai are going to check out the shooting range, see if we can set something up there.
"In the meantime," he said, grinning down at her again, "you just keep working on that list of things you think we should have, and I'll be your charming spokesperson whenever you want."
"You've got a deal," Kendrix agreed with a laugh. "Get Kai to help you too. He's good at this kind of thing."
"I can imagine." Leo was still grinning, and when he turned that look on Kai he realized Leo was mimicking Stanton. "I hear he's never wrong."
Predictably, Kendrix found this hilarious. Kai glared at her, then at Leo, until Leo patted her on the shoulder one last time and let her go. "Say hi to Maya for us," he said cheerfully. "Ready?"
Kai assumed this last was directed at him. He further assumed no response was required, since Leo seemed to be on a roll and would probably charge out of the science division without waiting for an answer from him. The second part of his assumption turned out to be wrong.
"Yeah," Kai said belatedly. Leo was just standing there, comfortable in his civilian clothes even in the midst of GSA science. And Kendrix was giving him a look that was too amused, like she thought he had been distracted by something. "Sure."
"Have a good time!" Kendrix called after them as they made their way toward the elevator.
Luckily, a main elevator was already at the top of the tower, so they didn't have to wait for one to make its way all the way from the surface under the dome. Even the wait for an elevator from the administration building, the tallest skyscraper on Terra Venture, was significant. Especially when his oldest friend in the GSA was watching him stand next to her newest and apparently laughing silently.
For no reason, he reminded himself. Kendrix got ideas like this all the time. It didn't mean there was anything to them.
"So, thanks," Leo said, as they got into the elevator together. When the doors closed behind him, he added, "For backing me up in there."
His first thought was, with Kendrix? Then he realized that Leo meant Commander Stanton, and Kai gave him a sideways look. "I didn't do anything," he pointed out. He reached over and keyed in the surface as their destination, and the elevator started to descend.
"I would have asked you." Leo sounded earnest. "For advice, I mean. I know you know a lot more than Kendrix, it's just... she was there, and she offered."
Kai felt himself relaxing involuntarily. Leo thought he was offended because he'd been excluded. "She's a good coach," he agreed. "I wasn't kidding when I said you did a good job."
"Yeah?" Leo visible brightened. "Thanks!"
He felt his lips twitch. He tried not to smile, but Leo was... strange. Unexpected. Grieving one moment, throwing Kai to the mat the next. Confronting Stanton, then celebrating with Kendrix. Confident, then absurdly pleased by the smallest compliment.
"So," Leo repeated, leaning back against a part of the elevator that didn't open. "Kendrix and Maya, huh?"
Kai glanced at him. He supposed that was confirmation, then. If anyone would know, apparently it was Leo, who had spent the night and most of the morning with one or both of them. "Kendrix and Maya, what?" he said. He wasn't going to gossip about it either way.
"They have a thing?" Leo prompted. "When did that happen? I mean, they only met five days ago."
Kai folded his arms. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Strangely, this seemed to give Leo pause. "Is the GSA against that kind of thing?" he wanted to know.
Kai frowned. That wasn't what he'd meant, but he supposed it was a fair question. "The science division gets away with a lot more than the military," he said at last.
"Huh." Leo was quiet for a long moment. His tone sounded carefully neutral when he asked, "So, no gays in the military?"
Kai didn't take his eyes off of the door. It was a long way to the surface from the top of the dome, and if anyone stopped their elevator in the administration building it would be even longer. "That's not what I said."
"No," Leo agreed. Now he sounded sort of amused. "You just implied that the GSA military division disapproves of same-sex relationships."
"Which it does," Kai told the door. "That doesn't mean we don't have our share of queers."
There was another pause. "You don't seem like the kind of guy who uses slurs, Kai."
It was either a question or a warning. Maybe both.
"What people do on their own time is their business," Kai said stiffly. "Discrimination has no place in the GSA. Military or otherwise."
Leo hadn't moved from his place against the wall. "It's not a slur if you're describing yourself," he observed.
What the hell had Kendrix told him? And why did Leo care? She liked to send the cute, quirky ones his way, no matter how often he told her to mind her own business, but most of them knew how to take a hint. If all else failed, Kai was very good at the cold shoulder.
"I'm not trying to piss you off," Leo offered, when he didn't answer. There was a rueful note in his voice when he added, "No matter what it sounds like."
He was doing a good job of it anyway. "Military policy on same-sex relationships really doesn't concern you," Kai muttered. "Be glad, and leave it at that."
"It could concern me," Leo remarked. He sounded casual, speculative, and just as smooth as Kendrix had accused him of being. "If someone wanted it to."
Kai snorted, mustering a look of utter disdain and throwing it Leo's way. "If one of them was interested in you, you mean?"
"Why not?" Leo's grin was disarming. He seemed unfazed by Kai's automatic rejection. "I'm a good-looking guy."
So he couldn't take a hint, and he couldn't be intimidated. It was still possible he could be embarrassed. They were into the administration building now, and the elevator could stop at any moment, so if Kai was going to call him on what he was doing it had to be now.
"Leo," he said, putting as much skepticism in his voice as he could manage. "Are you flirting with me?"
Leo shrugged, and without so much as a stammer he replied, "Just having a conversation."
"I don't like small talk," Kai informed him.
"Yeah?" Leo was watching him, still smiling, giving every impression of filing away that fact for future use. "I tried to get to the point last night, but you brushed me off. Figured I'd try something else."
"The point being?" Kai demanded. He hadn't forgotten Leo's invitation to help him find his room, and he didn't do one night stands. Not ever, and definitely not now. Not on a colony ship the size of a very small city headed off into the far reaches of space.
"I'm flirting with you," Leo said patiently. "The point is that I think you're cute, and I'd like to hang out with you sometime. I don't want to get you in trouble or anything. I'd just like to get to know you."
He was going to have to kill Kendrix. That was all there was to it. It was a shame, because she was a good friend, but she couldn't keep doing this to him.
"No," he said aloud. "I don't do that."
The display beside the door they'd entered through registered their arrival at the surface, but it didn't stop Leo. "What?" he wanted to know. "Date?"
"Drop it," Kai said firmly. The elevator was leveling with the surface now, doors closed until the sensors registered an even step from inside to out. He sometimes wished the things didn't have to be so precise. Now was one of those times.
"Okay," Leo agreed, surprising him yet again. "Forget I said anything."
The doors finally opened, and Kai gave him a suspicious look before stepping out of the elevator on the dome side, exiting into the "outdoors" without having to go through the administration building on the other side. Leo didn't say another word, though, and they walked down the street toward the military complex in silence. If it didn't seem as comfortable as it had before, Leo changed that with what sounded like a perfectly natural question: how had they decided what went in the dome and what was located below in the more secure ship section of Terra Venture?
Kai answered curtly, tempted to reiterate his feelings about small talk. But Leo asked again, about specifics, about the shooting range as opposed to the dorms, about civilian apartments and the administration building and the outer mall. He seemed genuinely curious.
He was listening, too, which made him less annoying than ninety-five percent of the other colonists when they asked questions. And, for better or worse, Leo wasn't lying when he said he was a good-looking guy. He turned heads. He could, and probably would in the future, ask anyone at all and get just as thorough an explanation.
Privately, in a part of his mind that he would never, ever admit to anyone else, Kai felt the tiniest bit flattered.
True to his word, though, Leo didn't bring it up again. Kai finally stopped looking over his shoulder about an hour into their tour of the military complex. By the time lunch had crept up on him, he'd actually put it out of his mind. So when Leo mentioned that he was meeting Kendrix on the surface at noon and that Kai should come with them, he agreed without thinking about it first.
Luckily, Kendrix had picked up Maya somewhere along the way. Between Maya's morning adventures and Leo's soldier stories, Kendrix didn't seem to have time to smirk at him. Much. No more than usual, anyway.
Leo left with Kendrix and Maya after lunch, taking Kendrix up on her offer of horticulture work, and Kai rode back up to the control tower alone. No one questioned his extended absence, so he didn't offer any explanation. Kendrix came back to the tower long enough to pass on project instructions to her minions and pull him away from his station for training.
She didn't say anything to him about Leo, though, and he couldn't bring himself to open that door again. He'd overreacted, plain and simple. So Leo had asked him out. Not even that, if it came down to it: Leo had implied that he might be willing to ask him out. Kai had said no, and that was the end of it.
Kendrix wasn't an irrepressible matchmaker, either. She was just a friend who thought he might appreciate someone she found handsome every now and then. If he let this time bother him, the only one he could really blame was himself.
They trained. Leo continued to act like someone who had remembered there were things worth living for, and not at all like someone who had flirted with Kai in the elevator on the way down from the control tower. Kai went back to his duty station, stayed late as usual, and went home and made himself dinner.
He didn't see any of the other Rangers the next day. He had a lot to catch up on in Command, and he ended up working through lunch. Without Kendrix to intercede, he found himself falling into the familiar and somewhat irritating routine of not being able to leave. Normal. Predictable, at least. Pretty much according to plan.
Until a direct link from one of the training rooms asked for and got his attention. "Command," a familiar voice drawled. "Leo Corbett. I'm looking for my Blue Ranger. You haven't seen him, have you?"
Kai glanced at the clock automatically. "Leo, it's 1454." Later than he would have liked, yes, but still not late by any stretch.
"Yeah," Leo's voice agreed. "And I hear you're half an hour early to everything. Making you, by personal standards, very late."
He heard that, did he? Kai needed to find a way to split Leo and Kendrix up, because they were clearly a dangerous combination. "I'm on my way," he told the comm.
"I know how long that elevator takes," Leo replied cryptically. "Better hurry."
Kai's mouth quirked, and he tried to keep it out of his voice because the last thing he needed was Leo thinking that Kai found him funny. "Sir," he muttered, "yes, sir."
The comm at his station was audio only, but he didn't have to see Leo to know that he was grinning. "That's the spirit," he declared cheerfully. "We'll be waiting."
The link shut down without a reply. Kai closed the rest of his work and got up, aware that every eye in Command was on him right now. He crossed the room to the elevator and waited there, feeling the attention follow him the whole way.
It didn't bother him as much as he'd expected.
Chapter 3: To Be Loved Again
To Be Loved Again
She was reading as she walked, the report just a little too long to finish in the elevator and a little too important to put down until she'd reached her bench. She didn't want to stop at her bench anyway. She didn't even want to be in the control tower, but she had to update the research log and the light team was going to want this report.
Main engine burn had contributed more visible radiation than expected, potentially weakening the dawn and dusk cycles on the outer mall. That would threaten the corpuscular animals' biorhythms, and the ecosystem on Terra Venture was too fragile to withstand more than the most minor of disruptions. A change in the grazing habits of their carefully controlled deer herd would be anything but minor.
Kendrix ducked a moving tray and maneuvered around the erratic SMART traffic without really noticing it. She had fifteen minutes to pass this off and get back to the surface for their first team target practice. Kai was probably already gone, and Jewel's share parents had asked Maya to come to school--a bad sign, and at any other time of day Kendrix would have gone with her. Instead she would go to the shooting range, let Leo know what was happening, and hope that Maya called her if there was anything she could do.
"Sarah," she called, moving out of the way of a bonsai experiment on its way to somewhere else. "Engine radiation report for the light team!"
Sarah was at Natan's bench, and she waved Kendrix over without looking up from his computer. "Kai was looking for you," she said, as Kendrix put the report down next to her. "And Jenessa wants to talk to Maya."
The head of the aquaculture department didn't stop working as Kendrix leaned over her shoulder and skimmed the screen, idly curious about what Sarah needed from a physicist's database. She could guess what the sociocultural department wanted with Maya. And she knew perfectly well what Kai wanted from her. What she didn't know was what course vectors had to do with Sarah's work.
"Burn time data," Sarah said, reading her mind. "The light team is really flipping out. The dolphins offered to crunch numbers for them if it keeps the entire department from having a meltdown."
"Nice of them!" Kendrix smiled at the screen and pulled away, intending to update the log and head for the elevator. But she could see the terminal on her bench flashing at her from here, the priority voice message pattern, and she made a face. "Priority message?" she said aloud.
"Medlab." Sarah was frowning at Natan's screen, and her fingers twitched as she adjusted the database view. "Scheduling the first month physicals."
"We're not even two weeks in!" Kendrix protested. She'd thought she would have more time before she had to start avoiding the colony's mandatory health checkups. Imperative for a small, self-contained society, certainly, and moreso for the largest ever Earth expedition into the still largely unknown environment of deep space. But all it would take was one blood test and she would find herself in serious trouble.
"They have to do the whole colony," Sarah reminded her. "They're starting with the higher-ups, apparently."
"Crap," she muttered. Then she shook her head, because this wasn't a problem she needed right now. "I have to go. Tell the dolphins thanks for their help."
"Kai says don't be late!" Sarah called after her. "He doesn't want to be alone with three armed and inexperienced people!"
Kendrix bypassed her bench, stopping only long enough to enter her daily track into the research log before she headed back toward the elevator. If Kai had been and gone already then she'd missed him, so she didn't bother checking Command. The ride back down was long and a little lonely with no report to keep her company and the physical weighing on her mind.
She tried to shake it off again. She was the last one to the shooting range, except for Maya who might not come at all, and Kai threw her a relieved look when she slipped into the armory. The guys were already set up, but Damon was holding his energy rifle like it might explode and Leo had his in one hand while he rubbed his eyes with the other. She could sympathize with the feeling. She remembered her first target practice all too well.
"Maya had to go to school," Kendrix offered in lieu of a greeting. "Something about Jewel; her share parents didn't say what."
"Is she coming at all?" Kai demanded.
At the same moment, Leo asked, "Anything we can do?"
"I don't know," Kendrix said, answering both questions at once. "I hope she'll call me if we can help, but depending on what's happened, it could be a while."
"Then," Damon remarked, trying to sound game. "Grab a gun."
"One less aimless shooter in the range," Kai grumbled. "It could be worse."
His pretended bitterness made her smile, especially without Maya here to worry. Kai was one of the nicest people she knew, and he covered it up with fake irritation and a compulsiveness that he called "discipline." It kept people from taking advantage of him. It also occasionally offended people who didn't know him very well.
He took Leo and Damon into the range while she suited up and checked one of the rifles, and by the time she joined them Kai must have finished going over the basics. He had each of them in individual galleries, with the score bar lit above each one. Kai's was green: perfect score. Damon's was red.
Leo's was dark, and she frowned. Tapping the keypad outside Kai's door, she saw the light inside flash and he lowered his rifle before turning toward her. Kendrix tipped her head toward the other galleries, raising her eyebrows. He came over and touched the intercom so that his voice came through into the back hallway. "They wanted to try on their own."
"Leo's not shooting," she told him.
Kai shifted his rifle to one arm and pushed the door open. "What?"
She stepped back so he could see for himself. He took one look at the score bar and triggered the door alert. The light flashed, but Leo just stood inside, facing the far end of the gallery and ignoring the alert. Kai pushed the intercom button. "Leo? You all right?"
Leo finally turned around, giving them an odd look through the window before his gaze refocused on the door. He reached for the intercom button, hesitating briefly before pushing it. "Yeah?"
Kendrix looked at Kai, but all he said was, "Open the door, Leo."
In the amount of time it took Leo to open the door, Kendrix peeked in on Damon, whose score bar had flickered rapidly past orange to yellow as he started picking up his targets. He'd gotten over the exploding rifle fear very quickly. He actually looked like he was having a good time. She knew that feeling, too.
"You okay?" she heard Kai ask, and she turned back to Leo. He was leaning against the doorway, rubbing at his eyes again, and he didn't really look okay. He looked tired, at the very least. Possibly upset.
Leo looked up, catching her eye and then giving Kai a quick look. "The last time I held one of these," he said, "my brother died. I guess I'm just having more trouble dealing than I expected."
Kendrix reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, covered by the reflective mesh of his practice suit. He flashed her a preoccupied smile, shaking his head. "I'll be fine," he promised. "It's just... weird, I guess."
"We'll go to one of the group galleries," Kai decided. There was a wry twist to his expression as he added, "It's harder to think in there."
"Just hit a couple of the targets," Kendrix told him, squeezing his shoulder. "The system will want to know that you can aim before it lets you into the group gallery."
Leo glanced back into the room behind him, lifted his right hand, and fired. Standing there in the hallway with them, his body tilted sideways, he hit three targets in quick succession. One-handed. The open-door alert started to shriek the moment he discharged his weapon, and it didn't stop until Kai pulled Leo forward and closed the door behind him.
"You know what I was saying about form?" Kai said, strangely stoic in the face of this performance. "That's not what the average soldier is going for."
Leo smiled, some of the interest returning to his eyes. "Well, I'm not an average soldier, am I. Did I pass?"
Kendrix glanced up at the score bar, green despite the door violation, and she pointed when Leo followed her gaze. Before they could say anything, though, Damon poked his head out of the next gallery down, then came all the way out when he saw them gathered in the hall. "What was that noise?" he wanted to know.
"Leo showing off," Kai said. He didn't mention Leo breaking gallery rules that Kai had probably just finished going over. He didn't mention Leo using his rifle in a physically improbable, if not impossible way. He didn't say, Leo just hit three targets one-handed through a doorway on his first try, almost without looking.
Someone had to, so Kendrix declared, "That should have been impossible."
"What?" Damon demanded.
Kai just shrugged. "He's a Ranger. He's got good aim."
"He fired the rifle one-handed!" Kendrix protested. "I can barely hold these things one-handed! I definitely can't aim, let alone brace them that way."
"Bet you can now," Leo said off-handedly. "We're a lot stronger than we used to be."
"You're shooting one-handed?" Damon repeated. "Why?"
"Kendrix told me to hit some targets," Leo said. "So I did."
"We're going to move to one of the group galleries," Kai put in. "It looks like this won't be a routine target practice session. We might as well see what we can do together."
It turned out Leo was partially right: she could hold and aim her rifle one-handed, but the recoil was still too strong for her to actually hit anything that way. Kai could do it, though he didn't look comfortable with it--too many years of training the right way, she thought. Damon looked at them like they were crazy, so they all moved out of the way while he tried to duplicated the one-handed fire.
His first shot was wild, but his second shot was at least in the right direction. He kept trying, and eventually he got his mark close enough that he was consistently firing over top of the target. The effect of the recoil, Kai said. Damon could compensate for it, but it would throw off his aim whenever he tried to shoot normally afterwards.
Leo thought they should try morphing, just to see what happened, but Kai pointed out that they might not always be able to morph and they should learn to shoot unaided first. Leo argued that that was impossible, they weren't unaided, the fact that they were strong without morphing meant that this wasn't regular target practice to begin with. Kai retorted that his point stood, no matter what level they were at now.
Kai won. Damon challenged Kendrix to a shooting match. Leo sulked beautifully, stealing several of their targets in an effort to show up Kai, who was ignoring him. Maya arrived about forty-five minutes in, apologetic about her lateness and clearly wary of the rifles at the same time.
She was good, though. Maya had pretty much the same reaction Kendrix remembered in her own training, except that Maya was starting from a position of much greater strength and so her control of the rifle was fast and deceptively simple. Once she realized what she could do with it, she started to imitate Leo: taking other people's targets before they could eliminate them. It made Kendrix laugh, Damon protest, and Kai look generally annoyed.
"All right," Leo said at last. "We're obviously qualified. Can we please morph now?"
Kendrix grinned at his persistence. Leo had either worn Kai down or warmed him up with his use of the word "please," because Kai just waved for them to do whatever they wanted. Leo's transmorpher appeared with a flick of his wrist, and the rest of them, even Kai, weren't far behind.
Morphing made hitting their targets more a matter of concentration than of skill: as long as they knew what they were aiming at, there wasn't really any question of where their fire would go. The gallery was up to the challenge, though, and Kai made them trade in their rifles for stun guns before he set the targets to move, a preprogrammed pattern of colors that changed as they went and required shooters to hit each of them in a certain order.
"Remember," he told them, before he turned them loose in the gallery again, "these suits only deflect grazes. They won't keep you from getting knocked out if someone hits you head-on."
The disturbing part was that Maya was better than any of them once the targets started to move. Damon, who turned out to be partially colorblind, had a terrible time with the green-yellow-red sequence. And Leo made it his mission to interrupt Kendrix's sequences just as she was about to finish, sacrificing his score to destroy her own. So Maya and Kai ended up neck-and-neck as the colors started to flash, warning participants that the simulation was about to end.
That was the point at which Leo stopped sabotaging Kendrix's score and started trying to total Kai's. Damon finally figured out how he was doing it and jumped in to ruin Maya's sequences. It wasn't easy--the saboteur had to figure out where the original shooter was in her sequence and destroy every target of the following color, while the original shooter only needed one. The easiest way to do it was to knock out a target just before the original shooter did, killing the color and putting a blank in the middle of their sequence, which then automatically restarted.
Easy for a Ranger, anyway. If they weren't morphed, Kendrix would have enough trouble finding her own targets, let alone anticipating which one someone else was going to shoot. She sided with Leo, just for the fun of it, and by the time the targets went out and the lights came back up, Maya was the clear winner.
"You have competition!" Leo crowed, pushing his goggles back and clapping Kai on the shoulder.
Kai grimaced at him. "What I have is really annoying friends," he said, not as though he meant it.
"Come on," Leo said with a grin. "Straight shoot, thirty seconds. I bet she kicks your butt."
"Kicks butt," Maya murmured, leaning up against Kendrix's shoulder. "I've heard that before...?"
"It means you win," Kendrix whispered back.
"By a lot," Damon put in, obviously not having trouble overhearing. She kept forgetting that all their senses were heightened along with their strength and their reflexes. "It means you win by a lot."
"Which you might," Kendrix added. "That was awesome!"
"You were helping me," Maya pointed out, smiling. "Both of you. Not Damon," she added, giving him a mock-frown.
He grinned unrepentantly. "Hey, just trying to make it fair." He didn't add that he probably was less of a hindrance than either Kendrix or Leo had been to Kai, since forty percent of the sequence looked the same to him.
"Fine," Leo was saying. "You and me, unmorphed."
"Do we still have time?" Damon wanted to know.
Kendrix glanced back at the door, reading the time display from where she was. "No," she said. "But somehow I don't think that will stop them."
"Well, it'll stop me," he declared. "I'm going to make sure the light team hasn't totally overridden engine protocol--no offense," he told Kendrix, barely pausing, "and then I'm off to work on my big project!"
"What project are you working on?" Maya asked eagerly. "It sounds very exciting."
"It is," Damon agreed, his pride and enthusiasm evident. "It's the Megaship Museum! I've got volunteers out there right now deciphering the safeties and getting nav control back online, 'cause I think she should fly again."
"What's the Megaship Museum?" Maya looked puzzled, and maybe a little like she suspected them of pulling her leg. "It flies?"
"It's a battleship," Kendrix explained. "A team of Power Rangers left it on Earth four years ago, specifically for use by the Terra Venture project. Because the colony ship was built in orbit, the Megaship ferried people and supplies from the surface to space right up until the the month before launch when our shuttle fleet was finished.
"Can we really use it?" she added, glancing at Damon. "I thought it was for construction only."
"There's a clause in the contract for future Ranger use," he said, grinning. "I think we're those future Rangers."
"A battleship?" Maya repeated, looking from one of them to the other. "I'm sorry, but I'm still not sure what that is."
"It's a spaceship," Kendrix said.
"A really big spaceship," Damon interrupted. "Built for use by Power Rangers who have to fight in space. Like us."
"Well, we haven't had to so far," Kendrix pointed out.
"We haven't had to fight at all so far," Damon countered. "Except on Mirinoi. That doesn't mean we won't have to."
"I'm afraid that's true," Maya murmured. "The portal that connected our worlds was brief, but Scorpius will know you by now. It's only a matter of time before he finds out where you came from."
"Does he have spaceships?" Damon wanted to know. "'Cause we do!"
"Even if he doesn't," Kendrix said, "those portals are dangerous weapons themselves. He could open one up anywhere in the colony and I don't think there's any way we could stop him."
"Still," Maya added, maybe trying to cheer them up, "a fighting ship must be a significant advantage. I've never seen such a thing before. I can only imagine what it can do."
"Do you want to see it?" Damon offered. "It's great! I'm headed out there right after I check in with the engine room. You guys should come with me."
The sound of a gun clattering to the floor of the range got everyone's attention. Leo had both his hands to his head, but he took them away as soon as he saw them looking at him. "Sorry," he muttered. "I just--"
He didn't finish, but Kai was still holding his stun gun, so the one on the floor was obviously Leo's. Kai looked surprised, and when Kendrix caught his eye he shook his head. No idea, then.
"Leo?" she prompted. "Are you okay?"
He and Kai were back in the reflective mesh they'd pulled on over their regular clothes, Kai's blue uniform and Leo's black t-shirt barely visible through material that was designed to disrupt light. With their Ranger uniforms gone, they looked like regular soldiers again. Except that Leo was shaking his head as though he was trying to wake himself up, squeezing his eyes shut and then lifting a hand to rub them open again.
"I guess," he said. "Not really."
"You missed five targets in a row," Kai observed, and Kendrix winced. Unexpected, especially after the way he'd been shooting before, but probably not what Leo wanted to hear right now.
"Yeah, I can count," Leo snapped. "Maybe if I could focus on the damn things, my aim would be better."
Kendrix could feel Maya leaning against her shoulder again, her habit when she was uncertain or seeking comfort. It hadn't taken Kendrix long to get used to it. Maya didn't even seem to realize she did it. "Are you having trouble seeing?" she was asking.
"No, just--" Leo broke off again, then pressed the palm of his hand to his temple. The gesture was brief but hard, like he was trying to get something into his head without making a big deal of it. "I'm just tired, I guess. My head hurts."
"Maybe it's the sound," Maya offered. "These weapons are loud, and the repeated noise is harsh to my ears."
"Did you sleep last night?" Kendrix added. Leo had moved into his own room a few days before, but he hadn't been sleeping well before that. In the chaos of main engine ignition, departure from the solar system, and trying to establish some sort of new balance between training and work, she sometimes forgot to ask how he was doing on his own.
"Yeah, I did," he muttered. "I slept fine, actually. I just... I don't know, I can't seem to get through the day on it."
"Well, you have some sleep to catch up on," Kendrix pointed out gently. "Maybe you should try napping after our training sessions. Just for a few days."
"Training usually helps," Leo said, rubbing his eyes again. "At least, it did until we started morphing. Afterwards I just crash; I don't know why."
Kendrix looked at Maya, still close against her shoulder, then at Damon. All together, they let their Ranger uniforms vanish. Her science shirt and mesh suit was left in its place, but otherwise she didn't feel any different. Not worse, anyway.
"I feel okay," Damon said, voicing the thought on all of their minds.
"Me too," Kendrix agreed. "Maybe--do you think it's some kind of psychological reaction?"
As soon as the words were out, she wished she hadn't said them. But her brain got ahead of her, thinking of possible explanations to suit the data at hand, and she hesitated only long enough to figure out how to ask. Not whether she should or not.
"Because I don't deserve Mike's morpher?" Leo, of course, got it immediately.
"No," she said. "Because you think you don't deserve Mike's morpher."
He gave her a half-smile, acknowledging her correction but not necessarily accepting it. "I don't know," he said. "That nap thing's not looking so bad, though."
"Time's up anyway," Kai said. "Stun guns back in the locker, suits back on the hangers inside. I'll take yours," he told Leo.
Now he got the half-smile, and Leo remarked, "Afraid I'll shoot someone by accident?"
"Afraid it will discharge if you throw it at the floor like that again," Kai retorted. "If you have to vent your frustration in such a completely unproductive way, you should really make sure the safety is on first."
Kendrix hadn't realized he'd thrown the weapon down. She'd thought he just dropped it. Leo did have a bit of a temper, but to express it in a shooting gallery was... irresponsible, to say the least. Dangerous at worst. She was surprised Kai was taking it so calmly.
"Yeah, next time I'll plan my spontaneous freakout," Leo muttered, and that did it.
"We try to avoid 'spontaneous freakouts' in the shooting range," Kai said sharply. "This isn't a safe place to break down, Leo. If you're that tired you shouldn't be training at all."
"I wasn't tired before," Leo informed him. "I was fine."
"Now you're not," Kai shot back. "And you just said it's happened before. You should have warned us."
"Consider yourself warned," Leo snapped. He took his stun gun with him when he headed back down the hallway.
They all stood their looking at each other for a minute. Kai was looking at her, and Kendrix shook her head wordlessly. He hadn't done anything wrong. "Okay," Kai muttered, almost as though he had heard her.
"He has suffered a terrible loss," Maya murmured in her ear. "This kind of thing doesn't heal quickly."
"You would know," Kendrix replied softly. Maya had lost her family, all her friends, her entire planet in one fell swoop. "But you're not going around throwing things and yelling at people."
"We all deal with grief in our own way," Maya said. "All powerful emotion must have an outlet. He rages. I regret. Neither seems productive, but both will help us heal one day."
Kendrix slid an arm around her waist, and Maya smiled at her. On her other side, Damon put a hand on her shoulder, and Maya lifted her free hand to cover his. "You're very kind," she said.
"We're lucky to have you," Kendrix said, resting her head on Maya's shoulder briefly. "I'm so sorry for you, for how things turned out. But not for us."
Maya laid her head against hers, just for a second before Kendrix straightened up. "The story of my home is not over yet," she murmured. "As long as we carry the Quasar Sabers, I have hope that Mirinoi will one day call us back to right the wrongs done there. In the meantime, your company is my greatest gift."
Kendrix smiled, not really caring whether Maya meant all of them or her in particular. It was a beautiful thing to say, from someone who had every reason to be angrier than Leo was right now. "It's the same for us," she whispered.
By the time they walked into the armory, Leo had put his gun away and was hanging up his suit. He looked a little pale, but he was calmer than he'd been in the gallery. "Hey, guys," he said, awkward as Kai collected the rest of their guns. "Sorry I lost it back there. I don't know what was wrong with me."
"Leo," Kendrix began, but Damon beat her to it.
"Hey, man," he said. "You're under a lot of stress, right? I mean, we just have to be Rangers. You have to be the leader. And Maya pointed out that it's not really coming at the best time for you, so. We get it."
"Maya's been through more," Leo said, giving her a pained look. "I don't want to make excuses, okay? I screwed up. It won't happen again."
"We understand," Kendrix assured him. "Just get some rest, Leo. Everything is harder when you're exhausted."
"You can get time off for personal loss," Kai muttered. Still shy about kindness in front of them, Kendrix thought fondly. But he'd called them friends earlier; that was a good start. It just took him time to warm up to people.
"I had time off," Leo said, sounding frustrated with himself. "I had five days of nothing, and I don't want to go back to that. "I just... I just can't seem to keep up, some days."
"You've done nothing wrong," Maya said gently. "Kendrix is right; you should rest. The future will not look so bleak forever."
Kendrix gave her a concerned look, and she knew Leo saw it. He closed his mouth on whatever he'd been about to say and just nodded. "How's Jewel?" he asked instead. "Kendrix said you had to go to school."
Maya smiled at that. "She's well. She simply escaped from the school building and was unsupervised in the park outside for a time. Apparently this is cause for alarm among your people?"
"Well, yes," Kendrix said quickly, when all the guys looked at her. Like she knew anything about children. Her entire practical experience with people under the age of ten had come from helping Maya take care of Jewel. "Children are supposed to be supervised at all times."
"Not on Mirinoi," Maya said. "We feel that children learn better from their own experiences than they do from our instruction. Children Jewel's age are allowed considerable freedom in safe environments."
"This isn't exactly a safe environment, though," Damon pointed out. "We're on a colony ship heading for another star system. Kids could get into all kinds of trouble here."
"Perhaps," Maya said, in the way that meant, your kids, perhaps. "In any case, I did explain that most of a child's education on Mirinoi is conducted outside. Her teachers have agreed to shift more of their playtime to the park instead of keeping the children inside all afternoon."
"That'll be good for all of them," Leo put in. "Help them use up some of their energy before their parents pick them up."
"Yes," Maya agreed, and this time when she smiled she looked genuinely pleased instead of just tolerantly amused. "And since she's spending the night with me tonight, that will be especially appreciated."
Kendrix grinned at her, remembering the last time Maya had had Jewel overnight. Jewel had just recently learned to talk to the computer system on Terra Venture, and the AIs that ran it had endless patience for a small child full of questions and stories. A patience she had tested by babbling for hours on end to the computer terminal in Maya's room.
It had been much better than crying, so Maya hadn't tried to stop her. But it hadn't been quite as good as sleeping. Jewel's share parents assured them that she didn't do much sleeping while she was at their apartment either, which led Kendrix to wonder if all children were as energetic as Jewel, or if it was something about children from Mirinoi in particular.
"So, no visit to the Megaship today?" Damon was asking. "You can bring Jewel if you want."
"Oh, we won't pick her up until six," Maya said quickly, glancing at Kendrix. "I'd love to see your battleship first."
"You're visiting the Megaship?" Kai repeated.
"Damon is going to make it fly," Maya told him. "He invited us to come with him."
"What?" Leo looked startled. "The Astro Megaship, you mean? I didn't even know that was on Terra Venture."
"It was a gift to the colony," Damon said, "to help with construction. She was supposed to come with us when we launched as an educational exhibit, but there was a provision in the contract for future Ranger use. And here we are," he added, "future Rangers!"
"So you're, what--" Kai frowned at him. "Taking it out for a joyride?"
"No," Damon said, giving him a look that implied Kai had said something ridiculously stupid. "I'm prepping her for potential combat operations. When Scorpius finds us, we're going to need every advantage we can get. It's what she was built for."
"Why do you refer to the battleship as a she?" Maya asked curiously.
"Because she's got a spirit," Damon told her. "Lots of machines do. They're more than just the sum of their parts; they have this knowing about them, this feeling of what they're meant for. Calling them 'she' is a sign of respect."
"I see." Maya appeared to take this very seriously.
"Not everyone does it," Kai said. "It's more common for people who work with machines a lot to talk about them like they're alive or something."
"Don't you all work with machines here?" Maya asked. "Terra Venture seems full of computers and elevators and engines. Even the parts of your dome that are unconstructed are filled with automatic watering systems and light generators."
"I think we kind of take them for granted after a while," Kendrix said, making a face of apology. "We're so used to them that we don't really notice them."
Damon snorted. "Speak for yourself," he said. "You're not the one who has to keep them running."
She had to admit this was true, but Maya smiled at her for it so she didn't feel as embarrassed as she might have. Kai asked to come with them, and Leo looked like he wanted to but couldn't quite make his body agree. Kendrix hesitated, remembering the priority message pattern on her SMART screen, but Maya looked so disappointed that she changed her mind.
So Leo left, Damon contacted his engine room, and she and Maya and Kai waited for their escort to the Megaship. It was worth the wait. Kendrix had flown on the Megaship many times while it was still making colony supply runs, and she'd stopped by once to visit the "Megaship Museum" after it had been grounded. With Damon showing them around, though, she learned the history behind the machinery.
"The engine core's been replaced," he told them. "Probably a few years before we got her. It must have been a huge job; nothing that could have been done on Earth. Makes you wonder what the crew went through to keep the ship intact after losing the core."
"What does the core do?" Maya wanted to know.
"It powers the entire ship," Damon told her. "I mean, it's designed for the engines, sublight and hyperrush--"
"Slow and fast," Kendrix whispered, and Maya's grateful gaze touched hers for a moment.
"But the rest of the systems bleed off whatever power they need to keep the ship warm and the lights on," Damon explained. "If they had to replace the core, the ship must have been a shell."
"They?" Kai repeated. "The Astro Rangers, you mean."
"Well, probably." Damon didn't sound as sarcastic as his words. "The ship changed hands at least twice. We know she belonged to the Astro Rangers once, and since she's named for them, maybe they were the original owners. But the Astro Rangers appeared in 1998, and the Astro Megaship disappeared in 1999.
"She was brought back to Earth by the Kerovan Rangers in 2001," Damon continued. "So obviously the Astro Rangers gave her to them at some point, and then they gave her to us. Unfortunately, most of the ship's logs are inaccessible. We really don't know much about where she was during those missing years."
"It must have been fighting," Kai said. "Right? If the core was destroyed?"
"We don't know exactly when that happened," Damon pointed out. "For all we know, she was retired when she left Earth. Her systems are well-maintained, but we don't ask much of her, and the Kerovan Rangers made sure we wouldn't when they gave her to us. The contract the GSA signed with them was pretty specific."
"But you said there was a clause," Kendrix reminded him. "That Power Rangers could use her if they needed to?"
"Yeah, see, that's why I think we could make her battle-ready again," Damon agreed. "I mean, if all she's good for now is ship-to-surface, why put in a clause like that? Why not just say, 'she's been decommissioned as a battleship; all you can use her for is ferry service'?"
"Maybe because they trusted Rangers to be able to make that assessment for themselves," Kai said dryly.
Damon wasn't deterred. "If that's true, we'll find out. But I don't think so. I don't think they brought her back to Earth to get rid of her. I think they brought her here as a gift."
Kai snorted, but Maya looked curious. "Why?" she asked simply.
Damon gave her a long look, and suddenly Kendrix knew that Maya had heard something in his tone. Something that alluded to everything he wasn't telling them: his affection for this ship, his belief in her power. And, just like that, she had asked him to share it with them.
"Okay," he said at last. "You want to know why? I'll show you why."
And he did. Just like that.
Damon led them out of the engine room and down the narrow curving hallways of the ship, so cramped compared to GSA style corridors, and into a room just off of the Bridge. "The Glider holding bay," he announced as they walked in. "We kept trying to call it the workbay, but the ship's schematics say 'holding bay,' so most of us go with that. It was obviously some kind of prep room for the crew."
Kendrix had seen the holding bay several times, but she'd never given much thought to what it had been used for before now. Now it was mostly a staging area for work on the Bridge--but Damon was right, there were lockers on the wall and a snack machine and some kind of tactical boards in the far corner. And all over the room, there were the same five colors repeated again and again.
"This is why I think it was a gift," Damon said, folding his arms.
Kai just frowned, clearly impatient. "Why?"
But Damon was watching Maya, and Kendrix kept an eye on her too as she wandered slowly around the room, studying every surface. Finally, her voice drifted back to them. "What colors were the Kerovan Rangers?"
Damon snapped his fingers once and pointed at her. "Exactly," he said, sounding satisfied. "The Kerovan Rangers are red, purple, yellow, silver, and black."
"These are Astro colors," Kendrix said carefully. She got that much, even if she didn't know where he was going with it.
"Yes! The Kerovan Rangers honored their predecessors by keeping the original color scheme!" Damon exclaimed. "They had the ship for three years; why wouldn't they have changed it? But they didn't. They respected the team that gave it to them too much. And when they heard that the planet where those Rangers live was launching a major deep space expedition, they brought the ship back Earth. Because they knew we'd need it."
Kai didn't look convinced, but Maya was nodding as though the answer had been apparent all along. "I hope she does fly," she said, running her hand along the wall as she made her way back to them. "I think I would like to see the stars from a ship like this."
"Come back in a few days," Damon invited. "We're almost ready for a test run--a couple more shifts, I think--and if that goes well, then we'll really see what she can do."
He continued their tour on the Bridge, then piled them all into the lift for a look at sections that had been restricted. Off limits to the public because they weren't very interesting, he said, not because they were dangerous. They couldn't keep track of everyone, not with most of the workers on the ship doing actual work instead of just security and answering questions. So the parts of the ship where the crew had lived were closed for the time being.
They got to see the observatory, which had always been Kendrix's favorite place when she caught a lift with the supply runs but wasn't as impressive now that they were under the dome. They got to see the medical bay, which astonished Maya no end as Damon explained their speculation about its capabilities. And they got to see a library full of more virtual reality equipment than Kendrix had ever imagined. Damon showed them how to make starfields come alive in the cavernous space, allowing navigators to plot their way through the vast darkness of space simply by walking through it. The Simudeck, he called it.
Finally, they walked through the crew quarters. Damon pointed out the little stars beside each of eleven rooms, the only identification that remained after all this time. "Why so many?" Kai wanted to know. "There are only five Astro Rangers."
"There used to be six," Damon corrected. "A sixth Ranger joined the team in the fall of '98 and then disappeared the next year. There are reports of other allies who fought alongside the Astro team, too, but it's impossible to know if any of them lived here on the Megaship."
"You said the ship's logs are inaccessible?" Kai asked, frowning.
"We assume they are," Damon said with a shrug. "We don't even know for sure that they exist. But who would destroy all those records when they could just lock them down? We don't have anything like this level of technology; we'd never find them. The only reason we can do any work on this ship is because her basic schematics and how-to manuals are available to anyone."
Eleven, Kendrix was thinking. Six plus five. "Did you say there are five Kerovan Rangers?" she asked slowly.
Damon grinned at her, and she knew she was onto something. "Yeah."
"Six Astro Rangers and five Kerovan Rangers," she said. "Eleven rooms."
He nodded. "That's what I think too. If they didn't change the colors in the holding bay, why would they move into the first team's rooms?"
"It's so quiet," Maya said softly. She was standing in one of the open doorways, her hand on the room's inner wall as she looked around.
"Some of the guys say that," Damon agreed, turning to watch her. "That's it's kind of ghostly."
"Not ghostly." Maya didn't move. Her voice had a reflective quality, like she was considering something they couldn't see. "Patient, I think. At rest. Waiting."
"Waiting," Damon repeated. "You think?"
Kendrix glanced at Kai and found him looking back at her. She let her skepticism show, and he rolled his eyes, making her smile. Damon and Maya were clearly two of a kind, ready to ascribe a spirit to anything they could touch. And maybe some things they couldn't.
"Yes," Maya was saying. "Not for... people, exactly. Not for someone in particular. For something, I think. Something specific."
"To be needed?" Damon suggested.
Maya turned around with a smile. "Yes," she agreed, gazing at him. "That's it. To be needed. To be loved again. Just like the rest of us... she's waiting for the same thing."
"I love her," Damon said, patting the side of the corridor with unabashed affection. "We'll get her back out into space where she belongs, and then we'll see about the rest."
"I love her too," Maya said impulsively. She laid her hand on the opposite side of the corridor. "Will you tell me when I can come fly with you?"
"Sure thing," Damon promised. "You can even make the test run with us, if you want. But it won't be very exciting."
"It will be to me," Maya said, still smiling.
That was probably true, Kendrix decided, hanging back with Kai while the two of them continued to wander along the corridor, chatting as they went. Maya had never been on a spaceship before the heliship that took them back to Terra Venture, and the heliships didn't have windows. Terra Venture had an amazing view, both above the surface and below it, but it was hard to get a sense of actually flying. The Megaship was to Terra Venture what a powerboat was to a cruise ship.
"They're an interesting combination," Kai said under his breath, and Kendrix nudged his shoulder companionably. "Really," he added, just as quietly. "The tech and the jungle native?"
"They've bonded," Kendrix observed. "Too bad Leo missed it."
"Yeah." She could hear him frowning; she didn't even have to look. "He seems kind of off these last few days. You think he's all right?"
"He's been through a lot," she said with a sigh. "He just needs time."
"That's what we keep saying," Kai argued, "but he seemed better than this at first."
"When he was locked in Mike's room for five days?" Kendrix countered.
"Fine, after that," Kai muttered. "He seemed like he was doing better for a while. Now we can't say anything that doesn't set him off... when he's paying attention. Which honestly isn't that often."
It was her turn to frown. "He doesn't seem that bad to me. A little distracted, maybe, but not really upset. Except sometimes after training, I guess. But the rest of the time, he's okay."
Kai hesitated. "Maybe I just don't see him much the rest of the time," he said at last.
"You could," Kendrix said, giving him another nudge.
"If I wanted to get fired," Kai retorted.
"Since when can you get fired for hanging out with your friends?" she wanted to know. "He's your team leader. He keeps asking you for military advice. You should just meet him somewhere and have a friendly question and answer session or something."
"We talk about that kind of thing after training sessions," Kai pointed out.
"When he's obviously not at his best!" Kendrix exclaimed. "I hope you're not basing your whole impression of him on how he is right after you've been hitting each other with swords or throwing each other around on the mats."
"Not entirely," Kai muttered, refusing to look at her. "No."
"Kendrix?" Maya sounded sorry for the intrusion, but she asked, "What time is it?"
Kendrix glanced at the watch she'd put back on after target practice, and her eyes widened. "Time to go," she said quickly. "We have to pick up Jewel," she added, for Kai's benefit. "I'll see you tomorrow for lunch?"
"1230," he agreed. "Hey, did you get a message from Medlab?"
She paused. "Yeah," she said, very aware of Maya and Damon's presence. "At least, Sarah says I did. I haven't checked my messages since before lunch."
"So they're starting at the top of the GSA and working their way down," Kai said. "I wondered if it might be just Command."
She shook her head wordlessly.
"Okay, well." Kai was frowning, which in this case was probably a good sign. "We'll deal with it tomorrow. Don't worry."
Kendrix smiled at him, because not worrying wasn't an option but it was good to have allies. If worse came to worse she might be able to get Leo to excuse her from the physicals. He seemed to be good at persuasion.
If she wanted his help, though, she would have to tell him why. And she couldn't tell one teammate and not the others. Kai didn't count; she'd known him forever... but in the seconds it took her and Maya to say goodbye to Kai and Damon, she'd already decided how to answer the question she knew Maya wanted to ask.
"Why did Kai tell you not to worry?" Maya asked, comfortingly predictable as she and Kendrix made their way off of the Megaship. The only problem was that Terra Venture had computers and cameras everywhere.
"It's kind of private," Kendrix said, making her best apologetic face. "Can I tell you tonight, after Jewel goes to bed?"
"Of course," Maya agreed readily. She smiled as she added, "Assuming that Jewel does eventually go to bed."
Kendrix laughed, linking her arm through Maya's as they walked along. "I'm optimistic," she declared.
Maya nodded, long loose hair sliding over her bare shoulders. "As am I," she agreed.
Their optimism turned out to be only partially justified. Jewel was still cranky and contrary after the misunderstanding at school, and her share parents told them that she was currently upset with everyone from Earth. No exceptions. It was a blanket reaction that included Kendrix until Maya pointed out that Kendrix had left her home and all her family too, to come work on Terra Venture.
Jewel seemed suspicious of this news. "You don't have any family here?" she demanded of Kendrix.
"No family," Kendrix agreed. She was walking along beside them, Jewel clinging stubbornly to Maya's hand while she interrogated Kendrix. "I left them all behind on Earth."
"Do you have any friends?" Jewel wanted to know.
"I have Maya," Kendrix said, lifting her gaze to smile at the other girl. "She's my friend."
"She's my friend too," Jewel said. "She's my only friend here. But if she's your only friend too, I guess you can have her when I'm with my other parents."
"Okay," Kendrix agreed carefully. She wasn't any good at reasoning with children, and the only thing she'd really learned from spending time with Maya and Jewel was that it was better not to set them off if at all possible. "That seems fair."
This must have been the right thing to say, because a moment later she felt Jewel fumbling for her hand. Little kid fingers wrapped around hers, uncomfortable and sticky and too tight. It didn't last long, as Jewel got distracted by something she had to point to almost immediately, but Kendrix didn't complain while it did. It actually seemed kind of cute.
A lot cuter than the temper tantrum she threw when she didn't get what she wanted for dinner, even after Maya explained to her that they weren't on Mirinoi anymore and they didn't have the same food. Definitely cuter than calling Maya names, saying that she hated the Power Rangers, and threatening to run away to find her real family. It was by far their worst night with her since she'd arrived on Terra Venture.
Through it all, Maya stayed calm and patient with both of them. Because Kendrix came very close to losing her temper several times, which she knew perfectly well was counterproductive, but Maya never asked her to leave. She sighed, she hauled Jewel away from things she could destroy, and she told Kendrix to go get her some water when Jewel started screaming and wouldn't stop.
Kendrix was glad for anything to do that didn't involve small children at that point, so she didn't question the request. But when Maya took the glass she brought back and tossed the water in Jewel's face, she couldn't help giggling. She clapped her hand over her mouth, eyes wide, but Maya paid no attention.
"This is a very hard thing you're doing," Maya told Jewel, in the momentary cessation of sound. "That doesn't give you the right to make it harder for everyone else too."
Jewel's face screwed up, and Kendrix braced herself for more screaming. The little girl started to cry instead, hitting Maya when she tried to hug her, but Maya wasn't deterred. She wrapped her arms around Jewel and held her tight, straightjacketing her in an embrace that was Ranger strong.
"You're so mean!" Jewel wailed, loud sobs only partially muffled by Maya's body. "I hate everyone on this planet! I want to go home!"
"Me too," Maya said quietly. She didn't let go of the girl, and Jewel finally collapsed against her and let herself be held. "I want to go home too."
"You're making me stay here," Jewel cried. Her voice lasted longer than her strength, apparently. "Why can't we go back? I want my real parents! I want my house and all my stuffed animals! I don't have any stuffed animals here! And all the food tastes yucky!"
"We can't go back," Maya murmured. "Mirinoi was attacked; it's not safe there anymore. Your parents wanted you to be safe."
"I want to go home," Jewel sobbed, clutching Maya like she was the last thing she had in the world. "Please let me go home."
For the first time, Kendrix saw tears in Maya's eyes, and she knelt down beside them without thinking to rub her friend's back. Maya's eyes closed, tears escaping silently as Jewel continued to cry. Kendrix touched the little girl's hair tentatively, and when there was no reaction, she put her arms around both of them and leaned her head against Maya's shoulder.
They stayed like that for what felt like a long time. She didn't dare say anything; she couldn't even comprehend what they had lost, so how could she say she was sorry? She almost felt bad for being there at all, except that they so clearly needed someone. But maybe not her--not with physicals coming up, and their inevitable discovery that Kendrix, too, would be leaving them...
She had never regretted her disease more than she did at that moment.
She didn't feel any better when Jewel finally tried to wipe her eyes without letting go of Maya, and the little girl plucked at Maya's bracelet and asked if she could have it. "It was a present from my friend," Maya said gently. "I can't give it away. But we can make some of our own."
Jewel hesitated, and Maya reached up to brush her own tears away. "I think we need more water," she told Jewel with a sad smile.
"I want a bracelet," Jewel said, before Kendrix could offer to get it. "I'll make one for you, and one for Kendrix, and I'll make some for my other parents too and then we'll all be together."
"I think that's a really good idea," Maya said, taking a deep breath and managing a better smile this time. "I'll make one for you, and Kendrix will too, and then we can all trade."
Jewel was nodding, already moving from grief to determination. "You and Kendrix have to make bracelets for each other, too. So that nothing bad happens to you. I can't watch you all day, you know."
Kendrix felt a smile threaten, despite the fact that she was just now remembering that she couldn't be this little girl's parent. She hadn't even thought about it when Maya asked her to help--she and the rest of the team had been there, on Mirinoi, and they were Jewel's last connection to her home. The least she could do was provide respite foster care in her off hours... "share parenting," Maya's people called it. Children came first on Mirinoi, and Kendrix might not have much practical experience but she understood the principle.
Besides, this was Maya. A woman from a world under siege who had never asked anything more of them than that they not shoot her before she could go back. Kendrix had been ready to give up her whole life to follow such a selfless soul back through that portal, and maybe her whole life didn't amount to very much, but she had always thought it was hers to give.
Now she was realizing that giving her life to other people also meant taking it away. Maybe that was the real reason she'd had to fudge, fake, and outright lie her way onto the colonist roster. But Terra Venture would go on without her, and she thought even Maya would forgive her eventually.
Jewel, though. Jewel might have been a mistake. How could she let a child who had already lost so much bond with someone who would never see her grow up?
Since she'd gotten a morpher she hadn't had a single bad day, which was probably just the extra strength from the Power helping to keep her going--it wouldn't last forever, but she'd been too busy to do anything other than be grateful. She had accepted the GSA's "adventure of a lifetime" as her last chance to do something spectacular and farflung before she was confined to a bed somewhere, and she still believed in that choice. But she couldn't act like someone who was building a new life for the new world indefinitely.
"Water first," Maya was saying, when Jewel wanted to start her bracelets right away. She was already holding Jewel's hand, and she took Kendrix's as she stood up, leaving her no choice but to follow them into the kitchen.
Maya washed her face, shaking her wet hands in Jewel's direction afterward, which made her shriek. Then Jewel wanted to wash her face, too, and she chased Maya around the apartment with wet hands as soon as she'd made a token effort at it. Kendrix had to laugh, wondering again how the children of Mirinoi compared to children the universe over: were they all so mercurial?
Maya had found twine, string, and hemp on one of her first outings with her new GSA ID, and she brought all of them out now. Jewel seemed to need no instruction, so Maya used her knife to cut whatever the girl requested and in between she taught Kendrix to weave and tie knots. With easy, repetitive motions, she made three-dimensional braids, patterns, and spirals out of the flat string.
It was like making friendship bracelets, Kendrix observed at one point. That turned out to be a mistake, because Maya agreed that it was and Jewel protested that it wasn't at all. This required Kendrix to try to explain what friendship bracelets were, and not only could she not demonstrate, she found she wasn't really sure why people made them either.
"It's mostly kids that trade friendship bracelets," she explained. "We didn't make them when I was little, so I never learned."
"On Mirinoi, anyone who loves someone else may give them a bracelet," Maya said. "No matter their age."
"Kendrix, hold out your hand," Jewel said imperiously. "I have to see if this fits."
The bracelet Jewel was making was too big for her wrist, so the girl set about unweaving one end. Maya suggested she just make it twice as big, so that Kendrix could wrap it around her wrist twice, but Jewel insisted that it fit "right." She was almost as painstaking about it as Kendrix--with considerably better results. Some of her knots were a little fuzzy after she'd picked them out and redone them, but it was more consistent than the wandering tight and loose again weave that Kendrix managed.
Jewel seemed to like the bracelet anyway. The simple spiral Maya had taught her was the easiest and the prettiest, so Kendrix had made one for both of them. Maya, too, had made two similar bracelets: complicated flat braids that had the first letters of their names knotted into them somehow. Jewel's bracelets were completely different, a dot pattern for Kendrix and a wave pattern for Maya.
Kendrix had no idea how to fasten them, so she let Jewel do it for her. She was a little surprised when Jewel just tied it on. "Do you have to undo the knot if you want to get it off?" she asked curiously.
Jewel just blinked at her like she'd said something in another language. "I guess," she said after a moment.
"Most people don't take them off," Maya said gently. "Removing a bracelet is considered a rejection of the person who made it."
"Oh!" Kendrix put her free hand over her bracelets. "Well, I won't take them off then." She thought maybe she should warn Kai, just in case Jewel decided to start passing out bracelets. He wouldn't be allowed to wear "jewelry" with his uniform.
Jewel kept working, making bracelets for the rest of her parents while Kendrix helped Maya clean up a little. Sure enough, once she finished the next two, she announced, "Maybe I should make bracelets for all of the Power Rangers."
Before Kendrix could say anything, though, Maya swept in and scooped up the remaining materials. "Maybe tomorrow," she told Jewel. "It's time to get ready for bed now."
Jewel pouted, but she must have been tired because she dragged herself through her bedtime routine all on her own. She climbed into Maya's hammock without another word. Maya had set aside a bunk for each of them, but Jewel never slept on hers. Maya usually slept in the hammock too, leaving Kendrix the only one on an actual bunk. Sometimes she wondered what she was missing.
Maya sat down beside the hammock and Jewel immediately sat up again, looking around. "Good night, Kendrix," she called. She held up her arms, looking, for maybe the first time all evening, like the small innocent child she was.
Kendrix came over to give her a hug, and then Maya gave her a hug, and then Jewel had to inspect both their bracelets again. Then she asked Maya to turn the lights back on so she could see her own--they'd left a small light on in the living area so they could see, but apparently Jewel didn't think it was enough.
"You can feel them," Maya told her firmly, when Kendrix would have gone to get the lights. "They'll still be there in the morning. Would you like a song before you sleep?"
Jewel settled down again, moving Maya's pillows and pulling the blanket up over her shoulder. "Yes please," she said, looking very awake.
It didn't last through the second song. Her eyes were closed before Maya finished singing, and when Maya got up and moved her stool a little to one side, Jewel didn't so much as stir. Kendrix knew the feeling. She wished she was in bed right now, too.
"Can we talk?" Maya whispered, coming over to stand very close. "I know it's late, but I'm worried about you."
"You're worried about me?" Kendrix whispered back. "I just wish there was something I could do for the two of you."
"You're doing everything just by being here with us," Maya murmured. Then she put her hands on Kendrix's arms and added, "See? That's why I'm worried about you. You look sad when I say that."
Kendrix lifted one hand to Maya's elbow, tugging her gently away from the hammock toward the couch on the other side of the living room. "You asked me why Kai told me not to worry," she said, very softly. "It's because Medlab wants to do physicals for everyone in the colony, and when they do mine, they're going to find out something that I didn't tell them before."
"Medlab, those are your healers," Maya said, sitting down with her slowly. "They want to look at you and see if you're healthy?"
"Yes," Kendrix said quietly. "They're going to want to check out everyone every month or so, to make sure that traveling in space isn't making anyone sick."
"Is it making you sick?" Maya asked, studying her carefully.
"No," Kendrix said with a sigh. Glancing in the direction of the hammock, she lowered her voice even further. "I'm already sick. I have cancer... do you have that on Mirinoi?"
She thought they probably did, but maybe they didn't recognize it. Or maybe they used a different name. She was a little surprised when Maya nodded without hesitation. "Yes, I'm familiar with some kinds of cancer. It's very rare, where I come from."
"Not so rare on Earth," Kendrix murmured. "It's getting more common. Some people think it's because of the chemicals we use to make all this machinery, or maybe something about the machinery itself that makes us sick."
"Are many of you sick?" Maya asked, her eyes wide.
"No," Kendrix said quickly. "Not on Terra Venture, anyway. All the colonists were screened for medical issues before they were allowed on the roster. Our health care is going to be pretty basic out here, at least compared to what we have on Earth, and the GSA can't provide the kind of treatment a really sick person needs."
"Can they help you?" Maya breathed. "Even my people can treat some kinds of cancer."
"No one can treat my kind," Kendrix said, very softly. "At least, not more than they already are. I lied about it to get into the colony, because I know I'm going to die and I want the end of my life to mean something. I want it to be special."
She had thought she could say it without crying--she'd thought it often enough--but something about hearing the words made her throat close up and she swallowed hard. Tears pricked her eyelids when Maya reached out to lay the back of her hand against her face. "Your life is special no matter what you do, Kendrix," she murmured.
"I'm sorry," Kendrix whispered, lowering her head. "I shouldn't have agreed to help you with Jewel. She doesn't need to lose anyone else."
Maya wrapped her arms around her and pulled her close, and Kendrix hugged her back unashamedly. "We're all going to die," Maya whispered. "It doesn't matter when or where or how. It matters what we do in the meantime."
Kendrix tried to breathe normally, to not sniffle, but with the comfort and the fatigue and the unfairness of it all she couldn't help it. Now poor Maya had to soothe another crying child. And she just did it, patiently, lovingly, like she had endless comfort to give.
"If Jewel and I turned away from you just because we might lose you," Maya mumured, "we would never love anyone, and then where would we be? Love makes our lives worth living."
"I love you," Kendrix whispered, because she knew she could.
She could hear Maya smile. "I love you too."
"No," Kendrix said, wiping her eyes as she sat up and tried to smile back. It was suddenly very important that Maya know, that she understand how much her presence meant. "I really love you."
To her surprise, Maya giggled, leaning in again to rest her forehead against Kendrix's. "I don't want children anyway," she murmured. Like she was telling a great secret, entrusting it to Kendrix's care.
It must have been contagious, because Kendrix found herself laughing too, quiet and breathy. "Too late," she whispered back. "We have Jewel."
"That happens sometimes," Maya said, soft and earnest as she sat back to meet Kendrix's gaze. "On Mirinoi? Sometimes women who already have children will raise them together."
This was important somehow; Kendrix could hear it in her tone but she couldn't quite understand why. "No one on Terra Venture is allowed to have children until we reach the new world," she said, searching Maya's expression. "But anyone who does then can raise them with whoever they want."
Maya hesitated. "You mean..." She looked like she was trying just as hard to understand, and worried that it wasn't working. "Like you and me?"
Kendrix bit her lip. "I might not make it to the new world," she whispered, very softly.
"This is my new world," Maya whispered back. "I want to share it with you."
Kendrix tried to smile again, but she could feel the expression tremble as tears threatened. She thought Maya was leaning in to hug her, bringing her comfort close as only she could, and she closed her eyes. She felt a mouth soft against hers instead and she held perfectly still because Maya's gentle kiss was overwhelming and so, so fleeting at the same time.
As ephemeral as life, as loving as the woman herself. Her smile was sincere when she opened her eyes, seeing Maya so close in the quiet light. "I'm so glad you did that," she murmured.
A bright smile spread across Maya's face in return. "Me too," she said softly. "I never wanted to grow up."
That had to mean something, and Kendrix reached out to smooth her hair across one shoulder. Maya had put aside her own clothes in favor of shorter skirts and sleeveless shirts, and the yellow fabric blended with her skin in the dimness. "Why not?"
"This..." Maya came close enough to kiss again, and she did, and this time Kendrix was aware enough to enjoy it more while it was happening. "It is a thing of childhood, on Mirinoi," she murmured. "Women together, or men together..."
She saw Kendrix's expression, and she smiled a little. "Is that strange?"
"Childhood?" Kendrix repeated.
"Women are not encouraged to have children the day their bodies come of age," Maya offered quietly. "All the elders say it's better to wait, that children are best served by parents who are not children themselves... is it not that way for you?"
"No, it is," Kendrix said quickly. "I just--I think I misunderstood what you meant by 'childhood.' We say... I mean, on Earth, we'd call them teenagers. People who can have children, but aren't adults yet?"
"Yes," Maya agreed. "Children--teenagers--are encouraged to discover each other with members of their own sex, so that there are no children born to children."
"Don't you have..." Kendrix trailed off. It was moments like this when she realized she had almost no grasp of the medical, technological, or scientific knowledge of Maya's people. "Most women on Earth," she said carefully, "have ways to keep themselves from getting pregnant? Most of the time?"
"Oh, by regulating your hormones?" Maya offered. Almost apologetically, she said, "We don't think that's safe for children."
Kendrix couldn't help giggling. "Someday soon I'm going to pick your brain about, um--everything," she decided aloud. "So... when you grow up, do you have to marry someone of the opposite sex and have children?"
"Oh, no," Maya assured her. "It's just that most people do. Children are sacred, after all."
"So is love," Kendrix said softly.
Maya gave her a beatific smile. "Yes," she whispered. "Love makes our lives worth living."
Kendrix smiled back at her, because she knew for her it already had. They spent the rest of the night right there on the couch, in pajamas under blankets they'd pulled off of the bunks, and even if she didn't sleep very deeply she still felt more comfortable than she had in days. More loved, maybe.
Definitely. Because when she woke up, she was breathing in the sleepy scent of Maya's hair and it took her several seconds to figure out why the light was off. It had been on when they dozed off, because Kendrix hadn't been sure she could fall asleep on the couch and Maya hadn't wanted to wake her up by tripping over something if she got up.
Now, though, little bare feet that didn't belong to Maya were pressed up against her legs. That had to be Jewel, curled up at the far end of the couch and apparently sound asleep. She didn't move when Kendrix stirred, trying to extricate herself, but Maya did.
"Morning?" she mumbled, turning her head to hide her face in the pillow.
"Barely," Kendrix whispered. She knew Maya still had trouble waking up without the sun. "Five o'clock. Jewel's on the couch with us. Do you want the light?"
"Jewel?" Maya twitched, and Kendrix took the opportunity to move out of her way. She slid to her feet while Maya was still trying to sit up. Jewel was buried under the blanket from Maya's hammock, and she didn't show any signs of moving.
"Yes," Maya murmured. Turning to prop herself against the back of the couch, she shifted awkwardly in the darkness. "Light, please."
The light did make Jewel move, but only to burrow further underneath her blanket. Kendrix smiled, and when her eyes met Maya's she thought that maybe they'd had the same idea. So she braced herself against the arm of the couch, Maya lifted her head, and they kissed carefully, sweetly.
Jewel's voice was muffled by the blanket and sleep, but her words were perfectly understandable. "I can hear you kissing."
Kendrix had to laugh, pulling away and straightening up. "Love you too, sleepyhead," she told the blanketed lump at the other end of the couch.
The blanket was thrown off with the righteous indignation of a four-year-old awakened by kissing. "What did you call me?" Jewel demanded.
"Sleepyhead," Kendrix repeated, glancing at Maya to make sure she hadn't said something insulting in some hitherto unknown Mirinoan language. Maya just smiled, so she added, "It means someone who's barely awake."
"I know what it means," Jewel informed her. "I just didn't hear you."
"Okay," Kendrix said, deciding to quit while she wasn't as far behind as she could be. Apparently she was off of Jewel's good list again. She was on Maya's, so that counted for a lot. "I'm going to get dressed and go to work... do you guys want to come with me today?"
Maya looked at Jewel, who gave an entirely unconvincing yawn and drooped pathetically back onto the couch. "I'm too tired," she whined.
Kendrix exchanged glances with Maya, who was trying to hide an expression that might really have been a yawn. "I will return to the forest dome once Jewel is at school," she offered.
"The what?" Jewel lifted her head, looking suddenly interested again.
Kendrix smiled, but she didn't say anything while she got dressed. Maya tried, unsuccessfully, to make the forest dome sound much less exciting than it was. It didn't work. Jewel was up and dressed almost before Kendrix, and one look back at Maya told her that she might as well make breakfast here. They were all going to be eating after all.
Luckily, Jewel's interest in the day extended to the forest dome and the forest dome alone, so Kendrix didn't have to explain to her why she couldn't come to the control tower. Instead, with one last kiss, Maya set off for the forest dome to watch the "sunrise" with Jewel. Kendrix stopped by her room, still smiling, before heading to SMART.
Leo was there. In her room. Sleeping under a blanket on her couch, which looked so eerily familiar that for a moment she didn't even question it.
Then she realized that yes, Leo was sleeping on her couch. He hadn't so much as moved when the lights came on. "Leo?" she said, going over to touch his shoulder. "Leo. Are you awake?"
He obviously wasn't, but when she shook his shoulder gently he groaned, which she recognized as his usual morning greeting. "Leo," she repeated, trying not to smile at the picture he made: sleepy face and tousled hair under her bright red fleece blanket. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he grunted, pushing the blanket back and squinting up at her. "What time is it?"
"Five-forty," Kendrix answered without looking at the clock. "Did you sleep here all night?"
Leo reached up to scrub at his eyes. "Yeah," he repeated, sitting up slowly. "Sorry about that. I guess I just crashed."
"In my room?" she said, smiling to let him know she didn't mind.
"I just--" He stopped. "I guess. Yeah."
"It's okay," she assured him. "Come by anytime. How are you feeling?"
"Good." He looked surprised. "Great, actually." He lifted his head and grinned up at her suddenly, giving her an abashed shrug. "Coming here always makes me feel better, I guess. Sorry to take up space on your couch."
"I told you," she chided, collecting a couple of things from the counter. "Anytime!"
Leo was watching her dance around the room with more attention than her efforts deserved. When she glanced back at him, he raised his eyebrows at her. "You're very happy this morning," he observed.
She couldn't help it. She grinned back at him.
"And now you're smirking," he continued, obviously amused. "Have a fun night... wherever you were?"
"My couch was more comfortable than yours," she declared triumphantly.
He laughed, getting up from the couch and stretching with an easy untired energy before reaching back to fold up the blanket he'd left behind. "Now, a guy wouldn't call any night spent on the couch successful," he teased. "I guess it's different with women."
"Not everything is about sex!" Kendrix called over her shoulder. Backing out of the refrigerator, she tossed one of the juices she'd gotten for him in his general direction. With no warning, he caught it one-handed and almost without looking.
"Hah!" she exclaimed, pointing at him. "You are feeling better!"
Leo paused in the act of opening his juice. "Huh?"
She just shook her head, gathering up her things again and making a break for the door. She'd distracted him, anyway. "Nothing," she said innocently. "See you later!"
"Hey!" he called, just as the door opened.
Kendrix leaned back into the room to catch his eye.
"Close the door," he said.
Frowning, she stepped back inside and let the door close.
Leo's serious expression disappeared, and now he was the one smirking at her. "Does this extra good mood have anything to do with Maya?" he wanted to know.
She just laughed at him, opening the door again and declaring, "Wouldn't you like to know!" as she skipped out into the hallway. It was a new day in a new world, and she was alive to see it begin. How it would end was anyone's guess.
Chapter 4: Making Space
It had started the day Mike tossed him a Quasar Saber, and it had stalled the night he put on one of his brother's shirts. One of his black shirts. Mike liked black, and Leo had thought it was appropriate.
The Power thought otherwise. Apparently it had been trying to let him know, in subtle and not so subtle ways, for the past two weeks. He just hadn't been listening. Who would have? Invisible forces didn't compel you to do inexplicable things, after all. Not if you were sane.
When Maya heard something through a window that looked out onto space, though, he listened when she said someone was in distress and they had to go help. It was Damon who explained that she couldn't possibly have heard anything through the vacuum of space--although Leo noticed that Kendrix kept her mouth shut about this. Kai just rolled his eyes, and somehow that bothered him more than anything.
Leo told them they were going. He told Damon that they could use the trip to test the Megaship's scanning capabilities, effectively making confirmation of Maya's hunch a matter of pride for the Green Ranger. He told Kendrix to turn her department over to her second for the day, because when Scorpius found them Kelly was going to need the experience. He told Kai that he could stay behind if he wanted to.
Kai had raised his eyebrows in surprise, but Leo didn't apologize. Maya was the only true heir of the Mirinoan Power, and if she said there was something they needed to do than they were going to do it. She hadn't asked for anything for herself. The least they could do was to do something she wanted for other people.
Or giant imprisoned animals. Tied to the Power, as it turned out, which explained why Maya could hear them. She could understand them, too, which none of the rest of them could and which turned out to be invaluable: not only in their rescue, but also in Leo's personal struggle with the highs and lows of Ranger energy.
"He says you're the wrong color," Maya reported, when the enormous red lion roared at him the moment he demorphed.
Leo had opened his mouth to explain that he wasn't supposed to be the Red Ranger, that whatever "color" he was probably didn't have anything to do with the Power, and also that they all needed to get off this planet before Scorpius sent more of those wasp things to recapture the Mirinoan beasts. Galactabeasts, Maya had called them. How anyone had ever trapped and held something so big was beyond him.
"It's not you," Maya corrected, before he could speak. "It's your... skin. Your clothing, I think he means." With an earnest look, she told him, "The lion thinks it should be red. Like him."
Looking around at the others, Leo found it difficult to counter this by pointing to his teammates. Kai's command uniform was blue and grey. Damon seemed to live in his green coveralls. Maya herself wore more yellow clothes than anything else. The only real exception to their Ranger color scheme was Kendrix's regulation science shirt, which was red and grey.
"Kendrix isn't wearing her color," he said aloud. Just to see what they would say.
The pinkest animal of the bunch--something he assumed was a tremendously overgrown wildcat, since that was Kendrix's animal spirit--made a chatty sound just as Kendrix held up her right wrist with a sheepish smile. The bracelets Maya and Jewel had made for her were revealed when her sleeve shifted. Even from here, he could see the pink strands that threaded through the hemp.
"The wildcat says she's the right color," Maya said, glancing from Kendrix to him. "It's just you that's cut off."
"Cut off?" Leo repeated. He tried not to let impatience seep into his voice, because he cared, he really did. He just didn't think they should ask for trouble by staying here any longer than they had to. Not to mention the fact that he felt like crap, and a more familiar environment would be welcome.
"Your color," she said slowly, as the lion roared at them. "He says it gives you a conduit to the Power... even when you're not morphed? Maybe that's what gives us our strength?"
"Are you saying that?" Kendrix whispered, when she paused. "Or is the lion?"
"I'm trying to understand what he means," Maya murmured. "His language is very different from ours."
Leo wondered suddenly if Maya could understand other animals too.
"Without your color," Maya continued, "the lion says the contrast between morphed and unmorphed is so great that it causes..." She hesitated, obviously struggling for words. "It makes you hurt."
"Headaches?" Kai interrupted.
"Fatigue?" Kendrix added.
"Withdrawal," Damon said.
They all looked at him.
He shrugged. "It's like a high, right? Morphing? It makes you super everything. It kind of makes sense that you'd have to come down from that eventually. Maybe wearing the color's like stepping down instead of going cold turkey."
"Can we talk about this later?" Leo wanted to know.
They didn't beat the mutant wasps off the planet. They did beat the backup hive ship out of orbit, though, and in the process they learned that the galactabeasts could survive in and apparently travel through the airless void of space. In return for their rescue, the mammoth animals wanted to lend their assistance on Terra Venture.
Leo tried not to think about what they might need to eat. Or where they would stay. This was not going to endear him to the environmental departments.
For the next few days, though, everyone on Terra Venture was too busy holding their collective breath to complain about their new shipmates. Had the Megaship made a clean getaway? Could Scorpius have tracked them back to the colony? What about the galactabeasts--he had found them once, could he do it again?
It was during that time that Leo decided to test the theory of color withdrawal. He had two red shirts: the long-sleeved one he'd been wearing his first day on Terra Venture, and a tank top that he'd brought along to work out in. The colony ship was almost uniformly warm, so he started wearing the tank top under the jacket Mike had gotten for him.
The fluctuations in his energy level evened out dramatically. He went from being alternately exhausted and hyperaware to... well, constantly hyperaware. Energized to the point of restlessness. He understood how Maya could train after doing field work all morning and afternoon, how Damon could spend all evening and part of the night on his Megaship project, even how Kendrix could cheerfully get up at five in the morning.
More than his newly reliable alertness, though, his life became increasingly interesting as a result of the lion's advice. Because Red wasn't just a color. It was an ability. He'd felt it that first day, under the shock, and it was back now: strong and knowing. He knew things about his teammates.
He knew that Damon was almost constantly preoccupied, even when he seemed to be giving someone his full attention. He knew that Kendrix was hiding something, and it wasn't something she was happy about. He knew that Maya, surprisingly, was coping with circumstances exactly as well as she seemed to be. And he knew that Kai, supercool and collected Kai who could handle anything that came his way... Kai was on the verge of a meltdown.
He was ready when Kai skipped lunch for the second day in a row: to go running, Kendrix said, with an expression that spoke to how incomprehensible she found this. Leo met him in the administration building, where he'd coaxed a couple of employees into telling him where Kai Chen was changing before and after his lunch break. Already in his sweats, he was leaning against the wall outside when Kai emerged, and Leo smiled at his double take.
"What are you doing here?" Kai demanded.
He shrugged innocently. "Kendrix mentioned you were running. I thought I'd join you."
"I'm not going for a little jog," Kai informed him. "I'm heading to the outer mall."
Leo's smile widened, because Kai thought he was hot stuff and he obviously wasn't used to being around people who were in his league. "Are you saying you don't think I can keep up?"
Kai rolled his eyes. "I'm saying that I don't plan on talking."
"Okay," Leo agreed easily. "I'll catch you when we get back, then."
Agreeing with Kai seemed to disarm him somehow, a fact that Leo had noticed early on and used to his advantage whenever possible. Kendrix was right: he really was too nice a guy to argue with someone who didn't argue back. So Leo made it a point to say "yes" instead of "no" around Kai whenever possible, and then just do whatever he wanted anyway.
Today, what he wanted was to find out what why Kai was making his Ranger danger sense tingle. No question, the Power thought the Blue Ranger was in trouble. But it wasn't very clear on why, and he had two weeks' worth of experience with how well the straightforward approach didn't work with Kai. He was pretty sure that just asking would get him stonewalled.
Instead, he ran. Kai wasn't kidding about the outer mall, either. The punishing pace did take them to the nearest edge of the green space that circled the city dome, and by the time the administration building loomed large in front of them again Leo was gasping for breath, muscles burning, and not tired at all. Which was interesting, considering that he'd been at work for the horticulture department since six, doing physical labor with Maya's field team in the forest dome.
Not tired at all. He remembered the sense of restlessness that had driven him out of bed this morning, and he wondered suddenly if Kai's entire job could be done from his duty station in the control tower. Kendrix seemed to be in and out of there all day long, but every time he'd gone to meet or contact Kai, he was always in Command.
"So," Leo panted, when they paused across the street from the administration building to stretch. "You run often?"
Kai gave him a look that he couldn't interpret, possibly because Kai was just as sweaty and out of breath and looked so approachable, so normal in his workout clothes that all Leo really wanted to say was, "You want to go again?" Except that that would be stupid. The look he'd get for that would be easy to understand. Not to mention that if they actually did cover that distance again, in the same amount of time, he probably wouldn't be able to breathe at all.
"No," Kai said at last, leaning back against the bench he was using to balance. "I hate running." There was a brief pause, and then he added, "Basic training sucked."
Leo was startled into laughing. It was hard, still panting as he was, but he got a sideways look and a half-smile out of Kai as he wheezed away. He gave up on pretending to stretch and just braced his elbows on the back of the bench. "Then why the hell are you doing it?" he managed, keeping Kai in his peripheral vision even as he let his head hang.
He could see Kai's hands move as he shrugged. "I figure it's a skill I'll need more now," Kai said dryly. "Some of those stingwingers are almost as scary my drill sergeant."
Stingwingers. He kept forgetting that name. He didn't miss the fact that Kai hadn't answered the question, either. Cute, yeah, but probably not the real reason. Still, he knew better than to ask again. Time for a different approach.
"Speaking of things that are more important now," Leo began, keeping his head down as he stretched his legs out behind him, "Medlab tells me Kendrix missed a routine physical yesterday."
He was deliberately not looking at Kai, but he sensed the sudden sharpening of his attention nonetheless. "Since when does Medlab report to you?" Kai wanted to know.
Leo lifted his head, squinting at the building across the street. "Apparently, since one of my Rangers decided she was too busy for a checkup."
"We're not your Rangers," Kai snapped.
"Medlab disagrees," Leo remarked, glancing over at him.
Kai's worried look vanished when he caught Leo's eye, and he folded his arms. "So talk to Kendrix."
Leo raised an eyebrow. He'd let the possessive go very quickly. Lifting his left wrist, he twisted it for the transmorpher and announced, "Kendrix, Leo." They'd adopted GSA radio conventions mostly for the sake of familiarity.
"Leo, Kendrix." Her voice came back almost immediately. "What's up?"
"Just wondering if you were planning to head back to the control tower after lunch," he said, looking at Kai again. "I wanted to talk to you about something."
"I'm already on my way!" she exclaimed. "I have to update the research log anyway. I'll meet you at the elevator?"
"Great," he told his morpher. "Kai and I will see you there."
"You could have told her what it's about," Kai said, when he lowered his wrist.
Leo acted as casual as he could, because something was definitely going on and as far as he could tell it involved both of them. "Does she need to be warned?" he asked.
Kai grimaced. "I just think it's polite."
"Look, if she's too busy, she's too busy," Leo told him. "There's nothing wrong with rescheduling a physical. I don't get why you're so defensive about it."
That was a mistake. And it was one that proved he had learned absolutely nothing about Kai, because of course the second Leo called him on it Kai clammed up. He didn't even bother to argue. He just turned away and started across the street, heading into the administration building without waiting to see if Leo would follow.
Leo closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and counted to ten. Don't push him, he reminded himself. He took another deep breath, not even noticing that he could after an oxygen debt that should have taken more than two minutes to repay. He just walked around the building, deciding to wait outside and see who showed up first.
Kendrix arrived before Kai. She waved, and he waved back, grinning at her exuberance. She actually yelled "hi!" to him across the street, so he shouted back. Sometimes he thought she was in a better mood every time he saw her.
"Where's Kai?" she asked, when she got close enough to talk normally. "Did I take too long for him?"
"Nah." Leo smiled when she wrinkled her nose at his clothes. "He's inside changing."
"You guys really went running?" Kendrix shook her head, plucking at his damp tank top with mock-sorrow. "I thought this was just as excuse to chat him up."
"I've been warned that he doesn't like small talk," Leo reminded her. "I came prepared."
"Well, I guess you kept up," Kendrix said, smiling up at him. "That has to count for something, right?"
"You'd think," Leo agreed. "Especially since he does a mile in about thirty seconds."
Kendrix laughed. "That surprises me!" she exclaimed. "Since I don't think he's run once in all the time I've known him!"
"He hates it," Leo told her. "Which leads us to the question of why he's doing it on his lunch break."
She gave him a doubtful look. "Maybe he..." She trailed off, shaking her head. "I can't even finish that sentence, actually. Wants to get away? Wants to get in shape? Wants to prove his manliness? None of those make any sense."
"Wants to burn off some energy?" Leo suggested, wondering what she thought of his speculation. "Is it possible the Power's making him restless?"
Kendrix considered that. "That would explain a few things," she said slowly. "About me, I mean. And about Maya."
Leo wanted to hear the rest of that comment, but he was keeping an eye out for Kai and when he saw him step out of the building and look around for them he knew he'd run out of time. "Hey," he interrupted quickly. "I wanted to talk to you about that physical you skipped. Kai thinks it was rude of me not to tell you when I called."
Kendrix gave him an odd look, then glanced over her shoulder. When she saw Kai, she waved, but she didn't wait for him to wave back. Which of course he didn't. "How do you know about the physical, and what did Kai tell you?" she asked Leo quietly.
"Medlab contacted me and asked if I could order 'my Rangers' to stop by," he told her. "Kai didn't tell me anything. Not that I didn't ask," he admitted. "He got all pissy when I accused him of being defensive, and that's why I was waiting for you outside."
Kendrix's face lit up, and she caught his arm to lean in and whisper in his ear. "Oh, how cute," she cooed softly. "Your first lovers' quarrel."
His eyes widened in outrage as Kai joined them, giving Kendrix a suspicious look and effectively preventing Leo from protesting. Kendrix burst out laughing at his expression. "You're welcome!" she crowed. "That was priceless!"
Leo looked from Kai to Kendrix, not stupid enough to call her on it now but not quite man enough to let it go. "I would tell him what you just said," Leo informed her, "if I thought he would ever speak to me again."
"What?" Kai demanded, frowning. "What are you talking about?"
"Nothing," Kendrix said in a singsong. "I was just forgiving Leo for going behind my back with Medlab."
"Oh, yeah," Leo muttered. "Forgiving. That's exactly what that was."
"You could have let me know when they called you," Kendrix reminded him. "You told Kai first? What was that?"
"What, was it important?" he countered. "I just thought it was funny. What control do I have over your schedule? I told them you'd get to it when you got to it, and they should stop harassing science department heads when they have thousands of other colonists to get through."
There was no mistaking the look Kendrix and Kai exchanged. He didn't say anything, though, because Kai wouldn't tell him if he asked and Kendrix would probably tell him even if he didn't. So he waited--and while he was waiting, an elevator arrived. He hit the button to hold it once everyone had gotten out, and he gave the two of them an expectant look.
"Let's go," Kendrix said in response. "Kai has to report, and then I'll kick Kelly out of my office so we can talk."
"You have an office?" Leo asked, as they all got into the elevator and Kendrix told it where to go. "I didn't know that."
She grinned at him. "It's funny, isn't it? With the network, all you really need is a computer and maybe some bench space. But all the department heads have offices, and paperless colony or not I swear mine was full within a week."
"But you're never in it," Leo pointed out. "Are you?"
"Kelly uses it," Kendrix said with a shrug. "I think that's pretty common, actually. Only the department heads have bench space in SMART, and the science division doesn't have mandatory staggered shifts the way the military does. So when other members of the departments need to be in the control tower they tend to set up shop in our offices."
The control tower was a lot bigger than it looked from the ground, Leo mused. "That reminds me," he said aloud. "What does SMART mean? It's an acronym, right?"
"It's a state of being," Kendrix teased.
"It's the scientists' way of reminding us that the military doesn't govern Terra Venture," Kai interrupted.
"That's true," Kendrix agreed, not only taking the comment at face value but agreeing with it. "I think it kind of annoyed the science division that you called your half of the control tower 'Command.' You couldn't expect us to check in with 'Science HQ' when you're reporting to 'Command.'"
Leo glanced from one of them to the other, but Kai's face was blank and Kendrix just looked thoughtful. "Are you pulling my leg?" he asked.
It made Kendrix laugh. "No!" she exclaimed. "I'm completely serious! We had a brainstorming session with finalists and voting and everything!"
"And 'SMART' was the best they could come up with," Kai said dryly.
"It's more descriptive than 'Command,'" Kendrix replied, and the corner of Kai's mouth quirked up a little. "You have to admit."
"I don't," he said, but he was unmistakably amused.
"Science and math authority on research and technology," Kendrix added. "That's what 'SMART' stands for. Can you tell we came up with the acronym before we decided what it should stand for?"
"No," Leo said, surprised. "What is it again? Science and math--"
"Science and mathematics authority on research and technology," she repeated.
"Okay, maybe," he said, on hearing it again. He couldn't resist adding, "But it's no worse than 'Command.'"
"I didn't pick 'Command,'" Kai reminded them. "Kendrix, on the other hand, does bear some responsibility for 'SMART.' Tell him how the techs felt about you putting 'technology' in your acronym," he added, nodding at Leo.
Kendrix laughed. "Oh, they threatened to rename the engine rooms 'the BEST.' That's 'the best engineering and scientific team.'"
"Well, I guess that's fair," Leo said with a grin. "Did they?"
"They're too practical for that," Kai said. "If it's an engine room, they call it an engine room. They probably would have named the control tower 'the big impractical thing at the top of the dome that takes a long time to get to' and divided it into the military and science headquarters."
"I think they figure it keeps us out of the way," Kendrix confided, not seeming at all surprised by Kai's casual humor. "So we don't bother them as much."
"Too bad there aren't more walls between Command and SMART," Kai said mildly. "Then you wouldn't bother us as much."
"Too bad Command is so boring that all the senior officers feel the need to wander through SMART on their coffee break," Kendrix replied. "Like we don't have enough traffic already."
"Maybe if you moved some of the trees out, there would be more room for people," Kai suggested.
"Thus defeating the entire purpose of proto-experiments," Kendrix pointed out.
"You have greenhouses," Kai reminded her.
Leo watched them, surprised and entertained and a little envious because Kai wasn't that easy with anyone and Kendrix just took it for granted. She said Kai was sweet and sensitive and maybe he was, with her. But Leo hadn't seen him relax that way around anyone else.
"Right, Leo?" Kendrix was asking, and he blinked.
"How can you not eat?" she wanted to know. "No one's allowed to have food in Command. We'd pass out from hunger if we banned food from SMART."
"Which is weird," Leo said without thinking. "Because you figure if there's any place it's dangerous to be eating things, it's at a lab bench."
They both just looked at him, and he lifted one hand to rub the back of his neck. "I wasn't actually listening," he confessed. "Sorry."
"But you're right," Kendrix insisted, poking Kai in the side. "If it's safe for us to have food, why can't you? It's not like you're going to contaminate experiments, or contaminate the food, or something like that."
"Officers don't live in Command," Kai told her. "Not the way the department heads camp out in SMART. We don't need refrigerators and delivery service just to make it through a shift."
"You pull long shifts all the time," Kendrix protested.
"You have a cot in your office," Kai countered.
Leo grinned at that. "Really?"
Kendrix sighed. "I needed it for a time-lapse experiment! It was one time!"
"Kelly's used it before," Kai observed, leaning back against the side of the elevator.
"When they took the elevators offline and she volunteered to stay overnight," Kendrix finished. "That's totally different."
"I think," Leo said, as the elevator chimed its arrival, "you're both crazy."
The remark was mostly aimed at Kendrix, because she would find it funny, but Kai didn't seem offended. "But," Kendrix declared, pointing at Leo, "you're the Red Ranger!"
Kai straightened up as the elevator leveled out, and he was smirking right up until the doors started to slide open. "We win," he said under his breath, stepping past Leo to exit the elevator first.
Leo gave Kendrix a did you hear that? look as they went to follow, and she raised her eyebrows in return. Her small smile told him all he needed to know.
He waited by the door while she updated the research log, then followed her to a small room on what had to be the outside of the control tower. Her office had a window that looked out on the stars. It also had just as much stuff as she'd claimed, but it was packed in neatly enough that there would be room for three people to sit down.
"Nice view," he remarked, taking the seat nearest the door.
"I don't like it," Kendrix said, surprising him. She turned her chair away from the desk at the back of the room. "It makes me feel like it's night all the time. I think it confuses my internal clock."
"Then why is your desk..." Her desk was pushed up against the window, and he waved at it vaguely.
"Because I'm almost never at it," she said ruefully. "If I need something from the network, I get it from my bench in SMART. When I'm in here, I'm using pretty much anything except the computer. So it might as well take up space in front of the window."
"Blocking the view?" Leo suggested.
"At least a little," she admitted. "Kelly likes it, though, so that's something."
Kai arrived a moment later, and he came in and sat down without comment. Leo figured he'd been here before--he knew Kendrix had a cot, after all. A casual inspection had revealed no such thing, but maybe it was put away somewhere?
"Okay, so." Kendrix scooted her chair a little further from her desk. "Leo, I was going to tell you about this... I think probably all the Rangers should know."
"Okay," Leo echoed, glancing from her to Kai. Kai had no expression.
"I'm not too busy for a physical," she said with a sigh. "I just don't want one. It won't do me any good anyway."
Leo frowned, because that didn't sound good. "Why not?"
"I have chronic leukemia," Kendrix told him. "I was diagnosed two months before the GSA recruited me. They don't know, obviously, or they never would have let me on Terra Venture."
Leo stared at her. "How did you..." He trailed off. "Chronic leukemia?" he repeated at last. "What does that mean for you?"
"It's terminal," Kendrix said steadily. "They can treat it, but there's no cure."
"You seem healthy," he said, studying her. "Is that--do you have symptoms?"
"I had transfusions last year," she said, a look of pure distaste twisting her expression. "The side effects of that were worse than anything I've had from my disease. But they tell me I'll eventually start getting more tired, more obviously sick as it progresses."
Kendrix shook her head, glancing at Kai before looking back at him. "No one knows. I guess you can live with this thing a long time. Two years, ten, twenty... it really depends."
"Depends on what?" Leo wanted to know.
"Genetic factors, environmental influences, the effectiveness of the treatment..." She shrugged helplessly. "Becoming a Power Ranger? It probably depends on everything."
"Okay," he said slowly. He tugged at the hem of his shirt absently, not even realizing he was doing it until Kai glanced at him. Her voice was steady, but she was worried and upset and this wasn't as easy as she was trying to make it seem.
"Okay," Leo repeated, looking up at her again. He smiled. "So, just like the rest of us, huh? A few years or a few decades; who knows?"
Her shoulders slumped visibly, and she smiled back for the first time since they'd stepped into her office. "Do you know, that's just what Maya said. That no one has any guarantees."
He got up and went over to squeeze her shoulder, and she stood up as soon as he touched her. She felt small and fragile when he hugged her. She always had, though, and he reminded himself that she could throw him on the mats without even trying. There was no correlation between her size and her strength.
"Thanks," she murmured, and he hugged her a little tighter.
"So, Maya knows?" he asked as he let her go. "And Kai, apparently?"
"Kai, of course," she said, looking over at him. "And I told Maya last week. We're, um... we're kind of involved."
"Like I couldn't tell," Leo teased, chucking her on the shoulder. "But if you're going to announce it, congratulations."
"I'm not announcing it," she protested, a smile falling across her face. "I'm just telling you, that's why she knows. Jewel doesn't," she added, and the smile faded as quickly as it had come. "Not anyone else, either. And I'd like to keep it that way."
"Why don't you want a physical?" Leo asked, frowning. "I know it's not Earth, but there must be something Medlab can do. Are you on any... I mean, do you take anything, or--?"
She shook her head. "Just basic immune boosters and anti-inflammatories. Like I said, the treatment's worse than the disease. And Medlab can't do anything without a diagnosis, which they don't have."
"Why not?" Leo wanted to know. "Don't you at least want them to monitor you, so you know how you're doing?"
Kendrix and Kai exchanged glances again, but when Leo tried to intercept them Kai wouldn't meet his gaze. "They don't want cancer patients on Terra Venture," Kendrix said quietly. "My medical records are forged. If Medlab finds out, someone's going to get in trouble."
"You?" Leo guessed, because that wasn't what she'd implied.
"No." Kai spoke for the first time. "They'll know Kendrix couldn't have done it."
Okay. So Kai had done it. That wasn't at all what he'd expected from a senior military officer, but Kai had apparently made it his life's work to surprise Leo.
"Yes," Kendrix corrected. "They're my records, my responsibility. I'm the one who lied. I'm not going to take anyone else down with me."
"Kendrix," Kai said patiently. "They'll know. You couldn't have done it."
"Okay, look," Leo interrupted. "You can't go the entire mission without having a physical. It's not realistic and it's not safe. Will whatever you have even show up in a routine screening?"
Kendrix was nodding before he'd finished. "They'll do blood tests," she said. "My white blood cell counts are always high."
"Yeah, and?" Leo looked at her. "So they do more tests, they find out you have leukemia, they treat you the best they can. When they compare the tests with your records, will it be obvious they're forged? I mean, maybe you just... maybe you just got it, developed it, got sick, I don't know."
Kendrix was looking at Kai, a quick look from under her eyelashes that made it completely clear she didn't know.
"I don't know either," Kai muttered. He still wouldn't meet Leo's eyes. "I'm not a doctor."
Leo really didn't have time to count to ten right now. "You don't have to tell me what you did," he said, trying to sound calm about it. Like he cared which rules they'd broken. "Just tell me what Medlab's going to see when they look back at her records. Are they hers, with alterations, or are they somebody else's entirely?"
"They're hers," Kai said quickly. "Medlab has records of all her routine care. There's just a few things missing: blood tests, hospital admittance, transfusion therapy. None of that stuff will show up when they pull her file."
"What about the stuff you're on now?" Leo asked, looking back at Kendrix. "The... immune stuff, and everything?"
"Nutritional supplements and painkillers," she said, giving him an apologetic look. "It's not prescription."
"All right," he said, frowning. "So... I'm going to go talk to Medlab."
"Leo--" Kendrix looked torn. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Hey." He lost the frown, smiling deliberately at her. "They like me down there. I can make this work, okay?
"I haven't forgotten the free pass you got me my first day here," he added, shooting Kai a look. Finally Kai was looking back at him. "I'm not going to get anyone in trouble. Trust me."
"I do," Kendrix said, drawing his attention. She was smiling a little, but she still looked troubled. "Just... I knew what I was doing, okay? Don't let them drag anyone else into it."
"I'm not going to get anyone in trouble," Leo repeated firmly. "I'm going down there right now. I'll see you guys at training."
"Do you ever work?" Kai muttered. The teasing was half-hearted at best, but it was definitely teasing.
Leo smirked back at him. "Like keeping you guys in line isn't work."
"Like you know anything about being kept in line," Kai replied, surprising him.
"Well," Leo drawled, not taking his eyes off of him. "If my military officer would stop avoiding me and actually answer some questions for once, maybe he could change that."
Kai just smiled, somehow closer than he'd seemed in days yet still frustratingly distant. All he said was, "I doubt it."
He could practically hear Kendrix holding her breath, so he looked at her and she smiled innocently back at him. "Time to get back to work," she declared, stepping between them and into the doorway. The invitation to linger in her office was clear.
Kai didn't take it, though, so Leo followed them out into the hallway. Kendrix just shook her head, smiling fondly at them. Kai ignored her, but at least she was thinking about something else now, so Leo figured that at least one of them benefitted.
He stopped by his room to change, realized the downside of having to wash one of his two red shirts, and decided he might have to get some new ones eventually. In the meantime, he put on his red dress shirt and got directions to Medlab from a Terra Venture AI named "Ryan." He also got a quick review of "who's who" on the colony's medical roster, so that at least he would have some idea who he was talking to while he was there.
He went in with confidence. He deliberately asked for the intern who had called him yesterday, even though she didn't have any real authority as far as he could tell. He turned on the concern and the chagrin when they asked why he wanted to see her, and soon he had a small audience in the reception area. All to the good. The best way to keep a secret, in his experience, was to convince as many people as possible that you had nothing to hide.
Maybe it was the Ranger thing and maybe it was the crowd, but he saw Ali Carter within five minutes of arriving. She didn't seem quite as awed by his morpher as some of the others. He smiled sheepishly at her, giving her his best lost boy look, and explained that he'd talked to his Pink Ranger after she'd called him yesterday.
"She cancelled on purpose," he said apologetically. "She had this dream, and it kind of freaked her out. I think she's afraid that if she comes down here, it'll be true."
Ali looked confused, but she was listening. "What kind of dream?"
"Well," he said, shrugging like he was sorry to say something so obvious, "she's a Ranger, right? She's afraid it might be a premonition or something."
The deliberate confusion made Ali smile sympathetically. "No, I mean, what was the dream about?"
Leo gave her a worried look. "She dreamed she had cancer."
Ali's expression softened. "That's pretty unlikely," she assured him. "But even if it's true, it's no reason to worry. We can do all sorts of screenings here, and catching something this early would mean a wide range of treatment options."
"Really?" Leo tried to look hopeful. "She's really upset about this. I guess someone in her family had cancer, so..."
"Do you know what kind of cancer it was?" Ali wanted to know. "Which family member was it?"
"I'm not really sure," Leo said, shaking his head apologetically. Most people had a family member with some kind of cancer. "Sorry. You'd have to ask her."
"Will she come in for a physical?" Ali asked. "I can understand that she's upset, but the best thing to do would be for her to come in and let us take a look at her. That way if there's nothing wrong, she can stop worrying about it."
"And if there is?" He didn't have to pretend that he was bracing himself for the reply.
"If there is, it's better to know," Ali said with conviction. "Cancer isn't the end of the world. It's a treatable disease, completely curable in many cases and manageable in most others.
"Besides," she added, "she is a Ranger. On the off-chance that she actually is sick--and to be honest, I've never known a Ranger who was--she's going to get a huge boost in healing just from having a morpher."
He'd opened his mouth to reply when what she was saying really sank in, and he stared at her in surprise. "What did you just say?"
Ali looked at him like maybe she had misunderstood. "Rangers are very healthy?"
"Yeah, that," Leo said. "Why do you say that?"
"It's pretty commonly accepted that the Power takes care of its own," she said with a shrug. "It doesn't pick supersoldiers without giving them some advantages. Speed, strength, increased endurance, boosted immunity... fast healing."
"Commonly accepted where?" Leo wanted to know. "Medical school?"
He thought she almost blushed. "I didn't have time for medical school before we left. I'm just a biologist with pre-med leanings."
She was either genuinely flustered, or cutely avoiding the question. He turned on the charm, smiling at her like the blushing had totally worked. "How do you know so much about Rangers?" he asked curiously.
Ali smiled down at the floor, shrugging a little. "I guess you could say I know one of the Astro Rangers. I got to pick his brain a few times, anyway."
"Really?" Leo didn't know which question to ask first. "Which one? How do you know him?"
She lifted her gaze, studying him. "I feel like I should be able to tell you," she confessed. "Because so many of the Rangers know each other... But I can't." She shook her head as if to emphasize this.
"Hey, I understand," Leo said quickly. "The anonymity thing, that's a pretty good deal. Don't compromise it." Privately, he wasn't sure it was such a good deal, since he thought they were doing okay here on Terra Venture. But he wouldn't win her trust by saying so.
She smiled at him this time. "Maybe they'll come out this way sometime, and you'll get to meet them."
"You think?" He couldn't help grinning. "That'd be pretty cool."
"Yup," she agreed. "But in the meantime, you need to get your Pink Ranger over her fear of Medlab and down here for her monthly physical. Do you want me to reschedule her?"
"Is there any time when you could see her?" Leo wanted to know. "I mean, you personally? Do you even do physicals?"
"I was in the middle of one when I heard you were here," Ali said with a smile.
He pretended shame. "I'm sorry. I had no idea."
She giggled at his expression. "It's okay," she told him. "You'd be amazed how understanding people are when someone says the Red Ranger is asking for you."
He was taking a chance by stepping out of his role, but she seemed like someone who could appreciate it. "I find that people are more helpful when you ask for them by name," he confided.
Sure enough, she just nodded. "It makes us feel special, I guess. Like, hey, this person trusted me to get something done for them. I'd better do what I can."
"Does that mean you can do Kendrix's physical?" he asked hopefully.
Ali smiled. "Sure. Why don't you have her stop by during first shift sometime and ask for me at the front desk. Just not between one and two; I usually have my lunch break around then."
"Any other time?" Leo repeated. "Sometime between four-thirty and five today?"
"That's fine," she agreed. "She might have to wait a few minutes, but we squeeze in people for routine stuff all the time."
"What if it's not just routine?" he wanted to know.
"I'll get her family history during her physical," Ali promised. "We'll schedule any tests she wants then, and she can come back later this week."
"Great," he said, smiling happily at her. "We have training at three; I'll let her know. And I'll try to get her to come by Medlab afterwards."
"I'll be here until five," she told him.
"Thanks a lot." Leo gave her a wave on his way out, and her return smile came with a slight shake of her head. Kind of like a sister, he decided as he headed for the front desk to spread more goodwill and gratitude out there. That was what she made him think of. Ali wasn't in awe of him, but she was helpful, and as far as he was concerned that was even better.
They usually tried to save talking for after training--mostly because Kai got antsy if they stood around chatting for longer than five seconds--but today Leo waved everyone over to a corner of the training room as soon as he arrived. Everyone except Damon, who was later than he was. Kendrix looked anxious, Maya looked concerned, and Kai kind of looked like he could take on an army.
"No problem," Leo said, squeezing Kendrix's shoulder. No point in saying "hi" when everyone was waiting for the part that came next. "I met an intern named Ali Carter; she's going to do your physical today after training. She thinks you had a psychic Ranger dream about getting cancer."
Kendrix gave him a baffled look. "What?"
He shrugged. "I told her you're afraid to have a physical because you had a dream about getting cancer."
"A psychic dream?" Kai interrupted skeptically.
"I didn't say it was a psychic dream," Leo told him. "I just said, you know, Kendrix is a Power Ranger. Weird things happen. I implied it could be some kind of vision; I didn't say it was."
Kendrix actually smiled a little at this. "So they don't think I have cancer, they just think I'm crazy."
"They really don't think you have cancer," Leo agreed, with a grin for her mock-frown. "Get this, Ali knows one of the Astro Rangers. She wouldn't say which one, or who it is, but she says he told her Rangers don't get sick. Or if they do, they heal really fast. So maybe you'll get some kind of remission or something now."
Kendrix and Maya exchanged glances, but neither of them looked very surprised. "Kendrix has noticed an increase in her energy levels," Maya offered. "She says she used to feel fine most days, but now she feels fine all the time."
"Healthy," Kendrix added. "Normal. They told me I could be like that for years, but I wasn't--not the last few months. Now... I feel good again. It's a little weird."
"But good," Maya said with a smile.
"Definitely good," Leo agreed. "Do you want to--"
The door he'd come through a minute ago burst open and Damon jogged in, wearing his workout clothes and looking surprised to see them huddled together in the corner. "Sorry I'm late," he said, but the apology was clearly warring with his curiosity. "What's going on?"
"I was just going to say," Leo repeated, "do you want to tell Damon, or should I?"
"Tell me what?" Damon wanted to know, coming over to join their huddle. Maya and Kai shifted to let him in, and Kendrix caught Leo's eye. She nodded, which--when she started to talk--he guessed meant she had it covered.
"I have leukemia," she said, meeting Damon's gaze squarely. "I was diagnosed just before I joined the GSA. I faked my medical records to get onto Terra Venture."
Damon looked taken aback. He glanced around at the rest of them before frowning back at her. "Why? Medicine's better on Earth, right? Why would you want to come along on this crazy ride?"
"What's the point in postponing my death if I never do anything with my life?" Kendrix asked rhetorically. "I want Terra Venture to succeed. And I'm the best qualified ecologist the GSA could get for a one-way trip on an untested colony ship like this, so. Here I am."
Damon just shrugged. Decision made, apparently. "Well, we're sure lucky you're here," he said, like that was all there was to it. "You need anything? You know, anything we can do?"
"Leo's doing it," Kendrix said, smiling at him. "I was worried that Medlab would notice something when I went in for my physical, so Leo decided that telling them I was crazy was better than--"
"I didn't say you were crazy!" he protested. "I said you had a dream! Girls worry about their dreams all the time; it sounded perfectly normal!"
"Given your vast insight into the female psyche," Kai muttered, and Leo waited just long enough to be sure he wasn't going to finish that comment.
"Hey, charming gay guys are a woman's best friend," he told Kai. "If straight guys really wanted to score, they'd just pretend to be gay for a few days and then they'd learn all the secrets."
Kai folded his arms. "Did you just call yourself charming?"
"Did you just say you're gay?" Damon added.
"We are so not part of this conversation," Kendrix murmured to Maya.
Their training session sort of went downhill from there. Leo ended up apologizing to Kendrix for implying that she was crazy, which he hadn't done in the first place. Damon tried to bond with Kai over being the only two straight people on a mostly gay team, which didn't go well for either of them. And Maya never did get someone to explain to her why dreams weren't typically considered a valid foretelling of the future.
They eventually managed to do some swordwork, though. It probably wasn't the best choice to use weapons that responded to their mental focus when they were all distracted, but no one got hurt and Kai only managed to strike sparks against Leo's sword twice. Leo smirked at him both times, not because he wanted to die but because he knew he could handle the Blue Ranger. And Kai obviously needed to blow off some steam.
So much so that when Leo mentioned pick-up basketball in the locker room after training, Kai actually asked, "When?" Leo was very careful not to stop and stare at him.
"Between eight and ten," he said, pulling a clean red training jersey over his head. If the GSA supplied workout clothes, he didn't see why he couldn't borrow them to work out on his own time. "On the courts by the south side community center."
"I'm there," Damon declared. "I haven't played a real game since I got here. You going?"
"Yeah," he agreed, wondering if Ranger skills translated to basketball at all. "I think I will. Might get there a little early, though, warm up some. I haven't even been out to shoot hoops in months."
Damon scoffed. "It's pick-up. No one cares how good you are."
"Maybe not in your neighborhood," Leo said with a grin. "What about you, Kai? You coming?"
"Sure," he said, surprising Leo again. "Why not?"
Kai turned out to be pretty good, even if Damon and a girl from aquaculture put them both to shame. Damon took off after an hour or so, but he and Kai, the aquaculture girl, and a handful of other guys stayed until they turned the court lights off at ten. They played to five, they played to fifteen, they played HORSE and high ball and 'round the world--but mostly, they just played.
Not much opportunity for recreation in the first weeks after launch, Leo figured. Everyone seemed to be working long hours, picking up shifts on their off days, and generally getting no time to themselves. Given the chance to hang out and have a good time, they took it and didn't let go.
Even Kai, he thought, as everyone picked up abandoned clothing and extra balls in the sudden dimness of an unlit court. They said their good nights--or good morning, to one of the guys who was pulling the graveyard shift--and drifted away, some heading for surface housing and others for the GSA dormitories below. He and Kai fell into an easy silence as they made their way toward the nearest subway entrance, walking beneath a sky full of artificial stars.
"So," Leo said after a while, still watching the dark patches of sky in between the streetlights. "Why do the stars look funny?"
Kai had a grey sweatshirt draped over his shoulders, and he looked up when Leo asked. "Funny how?" he wondered. He sounded open and relaxed and that dangerous sense of someone about to boil over had gone away.
"Well, not..." Leo lifted one hand, like he could draw what he meant on the horizon. He tried, but it didn't make any sense. "They're not quite--" They weren't where he expected them to be. But he didn't want to say it, in case that was stupid. How did he know where the stars were supposed to be?
"They're Canadian," Kai said, like he had just figured out what Leo meant. "The constellations are Canadian."
Wow. That actually made less sense than whatever he hadn't been able to find the words for before. He looked over at Kai, but Kai was staring up at the "sky" now too, using one hand to shield his eyes from the lights as they passed. "What?" Leo asked.
"The dawn-dusk cycles and environmental temperatures are based on a pacific northwest climate," Kai said, squinting away from a streetlight. "But there's no real reason the stars have to match. The relocation experts say kids need familiarity the most, and a slight majority of the kids are Canadian, so... the astronomers got together and designed a night sky for them."
Leo considered that. He couldn't really get his mind around the designer aspects of what felt like a perfectly natural environment, weird edge of the outer mall and dome connectors excluded, so he focused on the more understandable anomaly. "Most of the kids are Canadian?" he repeated.
This got him a smile from Kai, which he figured meant it was obvious how little of that explanation he'd understood. "Most of the colonists are actually from the United States," Kai said. "But it turns out the Canadians are more likely to have kids, I guess."
Or they were more likely to stay with them, Leo thought, but he didn't say it.
"Are they--" He paused between the lights, trying to figure out exactly what it was. He didn't really know anything about constellations. He just knew that when he looked up, the sky seemed a little off. "What's the difference?" he asked at last.
Kai stopped beside him, following his gaze. "About ten degrees latitude."
Like that meant anything to him. He looked at Kai, and Kai glanced back at him. "The north star's a little higher," he offered, without Leo having to ask again. "That's really the only thing you'd notice; it's not that big a difference. I'm surprised you can tell at all."
"Huh." Leo looked up again, but, ten degrees of difference or not, he still couldn't point to any one thing that was off. "Guess maybe it does matter."
"I guess." They were walking again, not very quickly, when Kai wondered aloud, "Did you stargaze a lot, back on Earth?"
Leo started to shake his head, then stopped in his tracks and stared at Kai's back. Kai paused a moment later, turning around to face him, and Leo tried to keep from smiling because he really shouldn't say it but it was too late now. "Kai... are you making small talk?"
Kai adjusted his grip on his sweatshirt, shrugging slightly. "In small talk, the answers don't matter. I want to know, so. No. I'm asking you a question."
He lost the battle with his smile. "No," he said, starting to walk again. Kai paced beside him, casual sweatshirt and messy hair and questions about stargazing... no sign of the officer who haunted Command from nine to five. "I mean, not in the way that I know anything about stars or constellations or whatever.
"I guess I did spend kind of a lot of time staring at the sky, though," he admitted. "Cause Mike was with NASA, you know? I always wondered if he'd be up there someday... where he might go, what he'd do... if he'd..."
Remember me, he thought.
He couldn't say it.
"So he didn't make you learn anything about the sky?" Kai asked. Uncertain, but maybe a little teasing... gentle. He was gentle about it, and it eased the lump in Leo's throat.
"Nah." He swallowed, trying to get his smile back and finding it much harder than he'd wanted. "He spent most of his time trying to keep me out of the army, not encouraging me to apply for NASA."
"The army?" He felt Kai's hand on his shoulder, the gentle pressure belying the intent behind his words. "I can't imagine you taking orders, Leo."
That did make him smile again, and now he could shake his head at something that had seemed so reasonable at the time. "Nine eleven, you know? Everyone wanted to do something. I wanted to join the army."
"But you didn't," Kai said with certainty, the hand falling away from his shoulder.
Leo let out a breath, shaking his head again. "I was still in high school. Mike spent two years convincing me that the best way to serve the country was to protect our own borders, not invade someone else's."
Kai made a sound.
Leo glanced at him, and Kai caught his eye briefly. Clearing his throat, he muttered, "I was Air National Guard before the GSA. The one twenty-ninth. I met Mike at Moffett."
"Oh, yeah." He could smile at that. "NASA Ames. Between NASADA and the GSA. He used to give me patches from everywhere he worked," he explained. "Even--" He waved, trying not to think about it too much. "Even Terra Venture."
"The perfect big brother?" Kai suggested, with an odd sort of softness.
"Yeah," Leo agreed. "No question."
Neither of them said anything until they reached the subway entrance, and finally Kai remarked, "You didn't join the guard either, though."
Leo had gotten it together enough to be amused by then. "You're really sure I can't follow orders, aren't you."
"Yes," Kai said without apology.
He decided not to push it. "Mike wanted me in the guard to keep me out of Afghanistan," he said. "By the time I graduated we were in Iraq, and even the guard was shipping out."
Kai was quiet. They weren't the only ones in the station, but they found an empty bench and sat down to wait. Leo craned his neck around to check the schedule board, just for something to do. A couple of minutes, maybe. The subways on Terra Venture didn't have a lot of ground to cover.
"I joined to help people," Kai said after a moment. "I grew up in Angel Grove, where it was one monster attack after another. It was always the guard that cleaned up the mess: rescued the civilians, put out the fires, rebuilt the city... that kind of thing."
Leo thought he had more than one patch from Moffett, actually. "The one twenty-ninth," he said, taking a chance. "That's the rescue wing, isn't it?"
Kai just nodded like everyone knew that. "Yeah. It was... well. It paid for college."
"You went to college?" Leo didn't know why that surprised him.
If Kai took offense, he didn't show it. "Kendrix and I were in the same class at AGU. We graduated a month after 'Shock and Awe'." He tugged on the arms of his sweatshirt as he leaned back against the bench. "She went to Blue Bay Harbor to do graduate work, and I stayed at Moffett."
Leo didn't know what to say to that. He wanted to ask if Kai had gone, if he'd been sent overseas. If he'd gotten into the GSA right away, or if he'd done a tour first. If the guys in his wing had gone without him or not. If they had come back.
He couldn't find the words.
"Most of us did basic at Lackland," Kai said suddenly. "We used to joke that we couldn't be drafted, you know? Because we'd already done it to ourselves."
Leo tried to smile.
Kai sat up, less comfortable, much quieter. "I didn't really want to leave Earth," he said softly. "I'm not a big explorer. Not like Mike was. But I wasn't going to kill people, either. Not over a few fanatics and a tragedy that fighting won't fix."
He'd known as soon as Kai mentioned college that he was older than he looked. The more he talked, the older he sounded. But never during their conversation had Leo felt as young as he did now.
"When the GSA offered me a way out," Kai said quietly, "I took it." Leo looked over at him, and he thought he could see the slightest lightening of his expression around his eyes as he said, "It's not the guard. But then again, it's not the guard."
"Are you sorry?" Leo blurted out. "I mean--that you came?"
Kai looked away, distracted by a little boy with a balloon or maybe just staring down the rail. "Two weeks in?" he asked the air in front of him. "I haven't had time to regret anything yet."
Leo waited, but maybe it was his turn to step up. "Did you leave anyone behind on Earth?" he asked carefully, wondering if that was as ridiculous a question as it sounded. "I mean, family, or anything?"
Kai was definitely watching the little boy. "Friends. Not family. At least, not family that will miss me."
Leo glanced at him just as the subway came rushing in, as loud as it was quiet with its massive displacement of air and the ensuing flow of people both on and off. They got on, sitting alone in the front of a mostly empty car, and Leo wondered if it was appropriate to ask again. This was Kai, so. Probably not.
"What about you?" Kai asked, quiet even as the white noise of the train's departure muffled sound all around them. "Do you have... other family, on Earth?"
"My mom," Leo said. Not small talk, Kai had said, where the answers don't matter. No making it up as he went, then. Just the truth. "My dad, I guess. Wherever he is. And Mom's new family, if you count them."
"Divorced?" Kai asked, keeping his voice so quiet that Leo had to move a little closer to hear him. Like he cared if anyone else was listening.
He lowered his voice anyway, because Kai had. "Never married. Until she met Frank, anyway. Widower, two kids. Daughters."
Kai didn't have anything to say to that.
"Why won't they miss you?" Leo asked, after the first two stops had come and gone. Theirs was next. And it wasn't small talk if he really wanted to know.
Kai didn't look at him. "I'm an only child," he told the floor. "I was supposed to go to school, become a doctor or a lawyer... get married." He shook his head a little. "Have a baby boy to carry on the family name."
Oh. Leo tried to process that. It was hard to get his mind around the idea that Kai, military Kai with his college degree, could be a disappointment to anyone. Let alone his own family. His parents. "Really?"
"Well," Kai said, lifting his gaze to the empty seat opposite him. "I went to school."
When he didn't say anything else, Leo glanced at him again. "It's a little early for the rest of it, isn't it?"
Kai didn't move. "I'm twenty-five. My parents were married when they were nineteen. So, according to them, no. It's not."
Oh. It wasn't his career they disapproved of, then. He wanted to say something, to be reassuring, to be funny, to be right or helpful or anything but silent. But he wanted to say the wrong something less. And he was afraid that that was exactly what would come out.
They went down instead of up when they got off of the subway, heading into the dorms. Still silent... because what was there to say? "I'm glad you came"? "I wish there was anything about my life that's as noble as yours"? "You're better than I thought you'd be at basketball"?
..."You look really cute with that sweatshirt over your shoulders"?
"How many of those training jerseys did you swipe?" Kai asked, pausing outside Leo's door. Hey. He'd been walked home. That was kind of funny.
"Do you want to come in?" Leo blurted out. "I mean, you know--just for a minute? Have some coffee or something?"
Kai was giving him an odd look. "Do you have coffee?"
Leo blinked. "No," he admitted, feeling a little ridiculous. "But I have really good-tasting water."
Weirdly, it made Kai smile. "I could use something to drink."
Really? He hadn't been expecting that at all. Only after he'd let Kai in, retrieved a couple of standard issue glasses, and poured water into both of them, did he realize that he'd actually asked something totally different out there in the hall. "Training jerseys?" Leo repeated, handing a glass to Kai.
Kai used it to gesture at Leo's clothes. "How many did you swipe?" he repeated, lifting the glass to gulp half of it down at once.
"Just this one," Leo said, looking down automatically. "And I'm going to bring it back. I just don't have that many red shirts, so I thought..."
"So grab a few more," Kai interrupted. "Jerseys. It's not like they're in high demand. And they don't do anyone any good sitting in the locker room."
"Yeah?" Leo gave him a quick look. "Is that allowed?"
Kai smiled over his water glass. "Well, I'm sure most charming gay guys would just go shopping," he said, and there was no mistaking the teasing note in his voice. "But I seem to recall someone complaining that keeping us in line was taking up all his time, so. Until you can. Take whatever you need."
Leo stared at him, surprised and thrilled and triumphant all at once, and he knew it was all over his face because he couldn't keep from grinning. "Kai," he demanded. "Are you flirting with me?"
Kai finished the rest of his water and set the glass down on the counter. "Just having a conversation," he said. His smile hadn't changed.
Inspired, Leo suggested, "Want to have another one? Maybe tomorrow, after training? We could go get something to eat."
"I don't eat out," Kai told him.
He opened his mouth, then remembered who he was talking to. "Oh?" he said, as casually as he could.
He had learned something about Kai after all. Because Kai came around, poured himself another glass of water, and leaned back against the counter beside him. Shoulder to shoulder, Kai remarked to the kitchen at large, "I do cook. You could come over."
Sweet. Leo reached out, tapping his mostly empty glass against Kai's and managing not to spill either one. "That," he said sincerely, "would be great."
"Just dinner." Kai apparently felt the need to clarify. "This isn't some secret code for... anything."
"I got it," Leo agreed, amused. "Just dinner."
"Also," Kai continued, "I'm still in the military. In case you missed that part of the conversation. So don't--"
"Tell anyone," Leo finished for him. That he was having dinner in Kai's room. Which was so much more compromising than sleeping in Kendrix's. "Got it."
But it got him a nod from Kai, and when he held out his glass again, Kai clinked his own against it with a small smile. When he finished his second water he just said "good night," and "see you tomorrow," and Leo echoed him, waved, and didn't try for anything else. Because this was Kai.
This was Kai, and Kai had very specific expectations. For everything. And he told himself that was fine. Just because he'd never lived up to anyone's expectations before didn't mean he couldn't start now.
When the door closed behind him, though, Leo couldn't do it. Maybe Kai was right--maybe he couldn't follow any rules. Not even Kai's. Because he couldn't let it go like that, couldn't let it be completely according to Kai's plan.
"Hey!" Leo called, even though Kai had glanced back at the sound of the door and he turned when he saw Leo hanging on the doorframe. "I meant to tell you," Leo told him, loudly enough that anyone listening at their door would be able to hear. "You're better at basketball than I expected."
Kai looked bemused. Leo just grinned at him and swung back into his room. That went well, he thought. He'd had a conversation with Kai, he now had a date with Kai, and so far Kai was proving himself well worth the effort. Leo was starting to think that something good might come out of the whole Quasar Saber disaster after all.
Scorpius found Terra Venture the next day.
Chapter 5: Taurus Rising
They were screwed. The quiet weeks that followed their escape from Mirinoi, the rescue of the galactabeasts, and the sense of a phenomenal power at their fingertips had conspired to lull them into a false sense of security. They'd had no idea what was coming, no clue what they were really up against.
The new Rangers had all managed to forget, somehow, that the enemy from whom they had stolen the Quasar Sabers had turned a whole planet to stone in their wake. That this enemy had turned its weapons on entire population in a fit of pique, sparing no one, showing no empathy for life of any kind. The power they held had been there and it had changed nothing.
That power was here now. It had been useless against the insidious infiltration of shapeshifting bugs that had numbered in the hundreds by the time they turned on the inhabitants of Terra Venture. The AIs had locked down the city in a matter of seconds, buying the Rangers time to figure out what was going on and take care of the things one by one.
When the last one had disappeared back into what they assumed was some kind of ship-to-ship teleportation beam, the real attack began. The only thing that had saved the colony was the fact that Scorpius started with an agricultural dome, land that had been lying fallow in preparation for crop rotation, and its destruction took long enough for the Megaship to launch. None of them had battleship training, but Kai could fly and, thank god, Kendrix could shoot.
While they were desperately trying to mount some kind of external defense, stingwingers started to invade the city dome. Only the galactabeasts' intervention kept the bugs from defeating the AI lockdown through sheer force of numbers. Outside, Damon's knowledge of the Megaship scored them a lucky hit on Scorpius' attack ship, and the hive fell back with it.
No one knew for how long, how badly damaged the ship had been, or how likely it was that Scorpius would rethink his strategy after realizing the colony wasn't completely undefended. The Rangers retreated too, regrouping on Terra Venture to spend one long night and more than half the next day rooting out leftover stingwingers. They had managed to get some sleep then, before they took the Megaship out again to look for Scorpius.
The search was a futile one, but that first day had proven that they couldn't just wait for him to come to them. The domes were too vulnerable, and the weird teleportation capability meant that even the ship section of the colony wasn't safe. Leo held an emergency conference with the Council and Commander Stanton to discuss lockdown response, evacuation procedures, and hastily established colony-wide self-defense classes. The rest of them tried to get better at space battles.
He could already tell that today would be improved by not waking up. Kai was pretty sure the colony was on the edge of annihilation and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. He hated being helpless. He hated the sense of wasted time, of focusing on the wrong things, of being totally unprepared for something he should have seen coming from the start.
Leo's voice made the world even more screwy. He was supposed to wake up to the sound of Evanescence, which was really the only thing that would make this morning bearable, assuming Scorpius didn't return during "Bring Me To Life" to blast them all out of the sky. If he was hearing the voice of his ridiculously good-looking team leader instead of his alarm, it probably meant one of two things: he'd gotten really drunk the night before, or they were about to die.
Possibly both, Kai decided, reluctantly trying to open his eyes. Except that he didn't feel like he had a hangover. Maybe having a morpher meant that he didn't get hangovers anymore.
Couldn't save the colony, he thought grimly, but could get drunk enough to forget about it without consequence.
"Hey, do you wake up angry?" Leo was asking. "I swear I'm not trying to piss you off. But I don't think you'll want to miss this."
He was leaning against the bunk above Kai's, tapping both hands against it impatiently. Kai had a weird, dream-fogged memory of one of those hands on his shoulders, and he wondered if Leo had actually shaken him awake. Maybe he had been drunk. He never had this much trouble getting up.
"We--" He struggled to sit up, and it was a struggle, but he could feel energy rising even as he tried to force himself into it. So willing themselves awake actually worked for Rangers. Good to know.
He cleared his throat and tried again. It was suddenly much easier than it had been before. "We're not at a point in our relationship where you should be waking me up, Leo."
Leo's expression brightened, a grin dissolving away the impatience, and it was twice as good as music. "Really?" he asked, and there was something more curious than contrary about it. "You sure about that?"
Kai groaned, rubbing his eyes even as the rest of his body started to notice how close Leo was. "Unfortunately, no," he muttered. "Back off and tell me what's going on."
He didn't think it was his imagination that Leo hesitated, and he knew he'd asked for it with such an honest answer. But he wasn't really on yet, caught in that defenseless period between sleeping and waking, and so many things had gone wrong these past few days. He just didn't have time to keep himself from saying stupid things around Leo.
"I tried to get you on the comm," Leo said, hitching his hip up on the nearest chair and folding his arms. "You didn't answer, and we were worried."
"I'm tired," Kai grumbled. He swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and he could feel something inside him, pushing him to his feet. He went automatically to brace himself against the middle bunk, but he didn't need it. "I probably didn't hear it."
"Well, I can't imagine why you'd be tired," Leo said dryly. "Next time you decide to clear the entire south and east sides yourself? Save some of your sixty-seven stingwingers for us."
He didn't really want to look at Leo while he asked, but he was heading for the bathroom anyway so he threw over his shoulder, "Is that an order? Sir?"
"Would you take one if I gave it?" Leo called back.
"I'm not you," Kai muttered, leaving the door open behind him. He heard Leo laugh, obviously overhearing, and he felt himself smile. He honestly wasn't sure whether he would take orders from Leo or not. So far it hadn't been an issue.
Running water woke him up the rest of the way, and to his surprise, there was no constant commentary from the doorway about the latest catastrophe. Leo was quiet. Kai gave his reflection a second look, wondering if he really looked angry when he woke up.
"I assume if we were about to die," he said, coming out of the bathroom a moment later, "you would have told me by now." He hadn't expected this kind of patience from someone who had barged into his room uninvited.
Leo grinned at him. "Maybe the last thing I want to do before I die is see you first thing in the morning."
Kai eyed him, because if there was one thing he'd learned about Leo over the last few days, it was that he didn't take the threat of death seriously at all. "I really hope that's not true," he said at last.
"No," Leo assured him. "I'm much more ambitious than that. Trust me," he said with a smirk, "when we're about to die, you'll know."
He shouldn't say it. He knew he shouldn't, and he was going to anyway. "It's so wrong," Kai muttered, "that you just made me curious about dying."
Leo didn't move from the chair he was leaning back against, but neither did his smile fade and he lifted one hand to crook his finger in Kai's direction. Come here, the gesture said. So easy, so casual, the invitation extended with so little thought that Kai sometimes wished he could respond the same way.
It would have been just as simple to roll his eyes, to brush it off and get dressed and demand to know what was so important that it had Leo in his room at... whatever hour it was. Instead, he found himself walking over to the chair. When Leo stood up he just waited, not surprised by the hands on his shoulders but somehow caught completely off guard by the mouth pressed carefully against his.
He didn't like being caught off guard, and it was rush or run or ride it out. He leaned into the kiss, acutely conscious of his bare chest and low-riding sweats against Leo's jeans and nylon jacket. It was a closeness he hadn't felt in a long time, and he could feel it spreading through him, warming him from the inside.
He felt Leo's grip on his bare skin. He felt him push back, evening the pressure on their bodies. He felt the involuntary breath when Kai's tongue brushed against his lips, a gasp or a flinch or just the smallest expression of surprise.
Kai pulled away. Leo had asked for it, he'd been asking for it for weeks, he flirted like there was no tomorrow. But he was like that with everyone, and Kai had returned the mostly innocent teasing too hard and too fast. He just--he really wasn't good at this.
"You're good at this," Leo told him, slow smile spreading across his face. "I think you've been holding out on me."
Kai couldn't meet his gaze, and he could feel his skin warming under Leo's stare. "Because we've had so many opportunities to kiss recently," he muttered, just for something to say.
"Recently," Leo repeated, clearly amused. "Try ever. I hope this means you're still planning to make me dinner sometime."
Like there was no tomorrow, Kai thought resignedly. He turned away before he could take that invitation again, another kiss that he hadn't realized he wanted so much. It was just Leo, he tried to remind himself. Just Mike's little brother, barely out of high school and prettier than he was smart.
"I made you dinner yesterday," he said over his shoulder, grabbing his uniform and deliberately not looking at Leo as he started to change.
"You made all of us dinner yesterday," Leo pointed out.
"You were all hungry," Kai countered.
It was just Leo. Just the Red Ranger who had listened to the AIs three days ago, deployed them like counterinsurgents across the city, and gotten the galactabeasts to understand the fragility of the dome before they mounted a defense that destroyed everything they were trying to protect. Just the same guy who had stepped back on the Megaship, letting his teammates do what he couldn't, and stepped forward on Terra Venture, calming the Council and reassuring the rest of the city.
Just a man who knew enough to ask for help when he needed it, and to ask for trust when he deserved it. Just a man doing a job he hadn't wanted at the cost of his brother's life, who cared enough about his team to do his best. Just a man who cared enough about Kai to count the number of stingwingers he'd taken on, to check on him when he didn't answer his comm, and to back off when asked.
He was so screwed.
"While this is true," Leo was saying, "and also, that soup was really good, I still don't think a team dinner counts as a date. And that's really what I was angling for."
Kai glanced back at him as he pulled his shirt on, and he found Leo studying the far wall. Not making a big deal of it, just giving Kai the privacy he figured he'd want. Leo had somehow figured out an alarming amount about him without ever asking.
"Tonight," Kai said, before he could change his mind. He ran a hand through his hair to even it out as he added, "Assuming the colony is still here, I'll make you dinner tonight."
"Great!" Leo beamed. He glanced over at Kai and added, "So, want to know why I'm really here?"
"Probably not," he said with a sigh. A better wake-up call than he'd expected, but a wake-up call nonetheless. "This has been a nice vacation from my life, actually. Weird," he admitted, "but nice."
Leo pointed at him, grin still firmly in place. "I'm flattered by that," he said. "Seriously. But it's going on fifteen minutes now since I first tried to call you, and I told everyone where I was going."
Kai closed his eyes. "When you say 'everyone,'" he began.
"Well, mostly Kendrix," Leo said. "And Councilor Renier. Plus whoever was in the room with her, since I talked to her over the comm. Stanton's shift hasn't started yet, though, so that's good."
"We need to go," Kai said, looking around for his shoes.
"Yeah, well." Leo looked sheepish, hand on the back of his neck, shrugging just enough that Kai could see it out of the corner of his eye. "Probably."
"What happened?" Kai reminded him.
"Oh, lots of things," Leo said, waving a hand idly. "Had a dream about Mike, really good biscuits for breakfast, and, oh yeah, there's a Ranger here to see us."
Kai leaned against the arm of the couch to pull his shoes on. "You had a dream about Mike?"
"Yeah." Leo sounded absent all of a sudden, and Kai looked up to find his shoes apparently the source of that distraction. "I thought I saw him yesterday," Leo was saying, "so I guess my brain--"
Then Leo's eyes caught his, and he frowned. "Did you just hear what I said?"
Kai smiled. "I assumed you started with the most important thing," he said.
Leo looked like he was fighting to hold onto his frown. "Fine," he replied. "There's a Ranger here to see us. Blah blah blah, some other things. But," he added, in all seriousness, "those biscuits were really good."
"You should have saved me one," Kai remarked, nodding toward the door.
He won, because he could hear the smile in Leo's voice when he said, "Next time."
As soon as they were out of his room, Leo started briefing him on the situation. On any other day it would have been strange, because this was the sort of thing that should have happened behind closed doors. But when it was Leo behind those closed doors, and he had the flirt factor turned on high, priorities somehow got rearranged.
"There's going to be a quiz later," Leo said, as they got into the elevator. "Are you listening?"
"Of course I'm listening," Kai scoffed. Like it was his fault he was distracted.
Leo punched in their destination, and there was a moment of silence before the doors closed. Then Kai felt a hand on his shoulder. The awkward grip slid down to his elbow, rubbing his upper arm briefly before letting go. "It'll be all right," Leo said quietly.
Kai almost smiled, because Leo had already moved on. His head was back in the game. He was probably trying to coordinate several different plans at once, and Kai wasn't even listening.
"Sorry," he said, because he knew he should be. "That's not what I was thinking about."
Leo squeezed his shoulder again, and really, he was in more trouble than he was letting himself believe. Because if there was one thing Leo wasn't, it was subtle. The odds of the colony being completely destroyed within the week--even the day--were high, and he wasn't going to agonize over his career in the meantime. But he knew that the more he allowed from Leo now, the less room he'd have to complain later.
It wasn't until they stepped out of the elevator near one of the heliship bays that he realized they'd been going down instead of up. Maybe that had been one of the things Leo was trying to tell him. "Uh, where are we going?" Kai asked anyway.
Apparently not, because Leo just shrugged. "Kendrix said to meet her in Hangar 5."
The Megaship bay. He wanted to ask why, but it seemed clear that Leo either didn't know or had already told him. He raised his eyebrows at the security outside the hangar, and Leo caught his eye as they were allowed in without a second glance. He looked just as baffled.
There were soldiers and uniforms and something that was definitely not a heliship, and that was all he had time to see before a strangely metallic whine echoed in the cavernous bay. Weapons came up all around him, pointing at the thing that wasn't a heliship, and a tingle from his wrist made him look down. The whine was followed by a growl as his transmorpher lit up, glowing briefly blue.
A quick look at Leo confirmed the phenomenon. He was holding up his morpher as well, but his gaze went from Kai to the giant cat-like shape looming over them. "Zord," Leo said aloud.
"Leo!" That was Kendrix's voice, and Kai found and focused on her in seconds. Standing beside a blonde woman in a brown bomber jacket, she looked more excited than worried. Neither she nor the woman were paying any attention to the guns. "Over here!"
Leo started in her direction without question, but he stopped and waited when one of the officers from the graveyard shift caught Kai's attention. "She claims she's a Ranger," Casey said under her breath. "But the computer puts an image correlation with Astronema at ninety-eight percent."
Leo just waited. Kai tried not to roll his eyes. Yeah, like it would mean anything to him. He must have been, what? Twelve when Astronema invaded? Kai nodded to Casey, letting her know he got it.
Leo strode forward, his eyes on the woman with Kendrix. Curly blonde hair held away from her face with a headband, hanging past her shoulders and threaded through with charms, she did bear more than a passing resemblance to the villainess of old. But her clothes were new: tawny trousers and a purple shirt, while her jacket bore what looked like a squadron logo with the letters "KPD."
No visible weapons, Kai noted. But no visible morpher, either.
"Hi," Leo was saying, holding out his hand with a smile that Kai could hear in his voice from here. "Leo Corbett. Red Galaxy Ranger."
"Hello." The woman returned his smile with a pleased expression that made all trace of Astronema disappear. She looked very young, very sweet, and completely incapable of evil as she shook Leo's hand. "Kerovan Ranger Kerone Tyuseabe. It's nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too," Leo agreed, as Kai joined them. "This is my Blue Ranger, Kai Chen. And I guess you've already met Kendrix."
"Hi," Kai muttered warily. He shook her hand only because she offered it, but she didn't seem to take offense.
"Hello," she repeated, smiling at him too before she told Leo, "Kendrix and Damon greeted me on arrival. They've been very kind."
"Where is Damon?" Leo wondered aloud. "I should have known he'd beat me here."
"Oh, he wanted to have a look at Magic." The woman looked over her shoulder at the giant cat that had put its head down on its paws behind her. One tremendous ear flicked in their direction, and the eyes blinked once. "My zord," she added, turning back to them. "I'm afraid your weapons wouldn't be very effective against her."
"I'm sorry about all this," Leo said, with every indication of actual apology. His gaze took in the soldiers and the security all at once. "We were invaded by shapeshifters three days ago, and I'm afraid everyone's a little on edge."
"I understand." She looked like she did, too, and Kai couldn't decide whether that made her more or less suspicious. "I actually came here to ask for your help, but if there's anything we can do, we'd be happy to lend ours in return."
We, he thought? Her and her zord?
"What can we do for you?" Leo asked immediately. As though they were in any position to be offering someone else assistance.
The woman hesitated for the first time, and she cast a frank look at their surroundings. "I mean no offense," she said, and she did sound contrite. "But you're not the only ones to have experience with shapeshifters. I respect the fact that you trust these people, but could we talk privately somewhere? Maybe on the Megaship?"
Kerovan Ranger. That was what she had said before, and it had taken him until now to make the connection. It had been the Kerovan Rangers who brought the Megaship back to Earth to help with the construction of Terra Venture.
"Sure," Leo was saying.
"Leo." Kai had to intervene, because this was ridiculous. Fine, she looked angelic. And she had a giant animal thing that reminded him of the galactabeasts. What exactly did that tell them? He still hadn't seen a morpher. And agreeing to accompany Astronema to a supposedly neutral, unarmed location was asking for trouble no matter what.
"Oh, yeah." Leo didn't seem to need any more than that, but his approach wasn't what Kai might have wished. He just jerked his head in the direction of a random soldier and remarked, "Some of them think you look like Astronema. Astro Ranger enemy from a few years back?"
"Yes," the woman agreed, with a small, rueful smile. "That was me."
Kai blinked. "You're Astronema?" he blurted out. He hadn't expected her to admit it.
"Well." She gave him a very apologetic look. "Not anymore. But I was. That's part of the reason I'm here, actually."
"So you gave up being evil to become a Power Ranger?" He didn't have to look to know Leo was grinning. "That's cool."
She pulled something out of her pocket and showed it to him and Kendrix, then offered it to Kai. "My digimorpher," she said. "Your morpher should recognize it."
He took it without apology, even if he had no idea what she was talking about. But it made his morpher light up the same way her zord had: a blue flash and a sense of something right, something recognized. Something familiar. The little phone-like device in his hand glowed violet for a moment before darkening.
"Cool," Leo repeated. "I didn't know they did that."
"Neither did I," Kai said, frowning. He held out his hand to Leo. "Give me your morpher."
Leo took it off and handed it over without protest, and it flashed red the moment Kai touched it. Blue and violet light touched his and Kerone's morphers simultaneously. This time the sense of recognition was stronger, making his fingers tighten around the red transmorpher before he realized what he was doing.
He shook his head. "They do seem to... acknowledge each other," he said, handing Leo's back. He studied the other one for a few extra seconds, the first time he had ever seen another morpher up close. When he passed it back, Kerone slid it into her jacket pocket.
"Damon, Leo," Leo said, talking to his transmorpher without putting it back on his wrist. "Conference on the Megaship."
The reply took a moment, and Leo nodded to Kendrix. She lifted her left wrist, turning away, and Kai heard her calling Maya. Then Damon answered, "Leo, Damon. Be there in a minute."
He appeared on top of the giant cat seconds later. Rolling its head onto one paw, the cat extended the other out to one side, allowing Damon to scramble down to the deck. Kai raised his eyebrows, glancing over at Leo. But Leo was listening to Kendrix's conversation, and he ended up catching Kerone's eye instead.
She smiled at him. "We don't have a dedicated engineer on our team," she offered. "I think Magic likes the chance to show off for someone who can really appreciate her."
"Is she--" He frowned, realizing he had started in with Damon's gendered pronouns. Then again, for all he knew, it was appropriate. "Is she alive?"
"Alive, yes," Kerone agreed. "Organic?" She wrinkled her nose, freckles and all. "That part's debatable."
"Maya's on her way," Leo said, just as Damon joined them. "She'll meet us on the Megaship."
"Casey." Kai paused long enough to wave her over, and she fell into step beside them as they made their way around "Magic" toward the Megaship. "Councilor Renier is waiting for word, probably in the control tower. Let her know we're meeting with Kerone on the Megaship and we'll brief the Council afterward."
"Understood." Casey peeled off, heading back the way she'd come.
Kerone reached out to touch something as soon as they boarded the Megaship, and there was the sound of the click. Nothing else seemed to happen, but Kai gave her a suspicious look. "What was that?"
"Data disc," Kerone said, offhand. "Automatic zord linkup. I brought a friend."
An oddly familiar voice seemed to come from all around them. "DECA 335, currently of the Astro Megaship Mark II out of KO-35. Crew complement, seven; mission, to assist the Powered team known as the Kerovan Rangers.
"And," the voice added after a noticeable pause, "allies."
Kerone just smiled. It was Damon who got it.
"DECA," he repeated. An odd expression flickered across his face, and then he lifted his gaze to the ceiling with a look of sudden comprehension. "You're not the computer. You're an AI!"
He was looking at a little device that Kai had written off as an internal monitor, some sort of shipboard camera. They lined the hallways here, and he assumed they had once served some sort of security purpose. He had never seen them online. Now, though, the nearest one was lit with a red light that blinked when the voice replied.
"I modified the computer interface to suit the original crew," it said. "I see that the audio interface and speech circuits retain that configuration."
"Yes," Kerone interrupted, throwing a fond smile in the direction of the camera. "She's an AI. She has a holographic interface too."
That was all the warning they had before the transparent image of a young woman appeared in the hallway with them. "Some people find this easier to relate to," she remarked, apparently studying them.
"Okay," Damon said, looking much too excited for a guy on a battleship that had just been taken over by an AI with unknown intentions. "The references to 'DECA' make a lot more sense now."
"Damon's been retrofitting the Megaship," Leo explained. "He knows more about her than any of us."
"Which honestly isn't saying much," Damon added quickly. "We've done the best we can--we really needed her these last few days. But I don't have anyone who's familiar with this technology, and even the Power only gets us so far."
"We can help you with that," Kerone promised. "DECA just needs to borrow the scanners for a few minutes--"
"I have located the Lights of Orion," the hologram interjected.
"Or a few seconds," Kerone amended, "and once we've found what we're looking for, we can give you some pointers."
"What are the Lights of Orion?" Kendrix wanted to know.
"To tell you the truth?" She made a face, which Kai thought was disingenuous considering her AI had just redirected systems that were at least nominally under the jurisdiction of the GSA. "I don't really know. All I know is, they're some sort of tremendous power source that could do a lot of damage in the wrong hands. We're trying to get to them before that happens."
"Why did you need the Megaship scanners to find them?" Kai asked, frowning. It was a vague explanation at best, and he could already see flaws in it. Who was to say hers were the right hands, after all?
"I still need them, actually." She smiled at them like that couldn't possibly pose a problem. "A friend of mine has been chasing them all over this galaxy--they're moving, you see, evading us, or maybe following something, it's hard to tell. He hasn't been able to catch them, but until Scorpius showed up, he wasn't worried.
"When he realized that there was an evil with Scorpius' resources so close by, he asked me for help. He doesn't want the power of the Lights to be misused any more than we do. Any of us. It sounds like you're familiar with Scorpius and his kind already..."
"Too familiar," Leo agreed, when she trailed off. "So the Megaship scanners can track these Lights?"
"Hello?" Maya's voice called from the space hatch, and soft footsteps announced her bare feet on the deck immediately. More footsteps than there should have been.
"Over here," Leo called, just as Maya peered around the corner. She had her hand behind her back, holding on to something, and as she stepped forward, they could all see that Jewel was with her.
"Hi," Maya said apologetically. "I'm sorry, but Jewel couldn't go back to sleep and I didn't want to wake her share parents--is it all right that we're both here?"
Kerone answered before any of them could. "Of course," she said, her gentle voice even softer now. "I have two children of my own; I know how it is. Please, join us."
Maya and Jewel came forward, still holding hands, and Kendrix reached out to touch Jewel's shoulder as she joined them. Jewel reached for her hand too, looking around with wide eyes. She'd probably never been on the Megaship before, Kai thought with a sigh. For good reason.
"I'm Maya," Maya was saying, smiling happily at Kerone. Because saying she was a mother automatically made someone trustworthy. "This is Jewel. We came to Terra Venture from Mirinoi."
"I'm Kerone, from KO-35." Kerone waved at Jewel, who looked up at her for a long moment before looking back at Maya.
"Where's KO-35?" Jewel wanted to know.
"I don't know," Maya admitted.
"It's a Border planet in another galaxy," Kerone offered. "There's a small colony there. My family and I are the Power Rangers that defend it."
Jewel seemed to consider that. "Everyone in your family is a Power Ranger?" she asked at last.
"Pretty much," Kerone agreed. "Our children are a little young, still, but my brother and sister and my husband are all Rangers."
"That's kind of like my family now," Jewel decided. "Only I don't have any brothers and sisters anymore. Maya and Kendrix are like my parents, and they're both Power Rangers."
"It sounds like you're very well taken care of," Kerone said. There was a sadness in her eyes when Jewel said "anymore," but it didn't touch her voice.
Jewel looked up at Maya again, tugging on her hand this time to get her attention. "Who's that?" she wanted to know.
Kai looked around and realized that the hologram was now half hidden behind Kerone. It walked right through her as it came to "stand" inside their little circle, apparently looking down at Jewel. "I'm DECA," the transparent blonde woman told her. "I'm a holographic projection of the AI currently controlling the Megaship."
A description that made Kai nervous, making as it did zero pretense at answering to anyone else's authority. But it made Jewel light up. "You're an AI?" she demanded. "I like AIs. I know an AI named Ryan. He's my friend. He always talks to me, even when my parents are busy."
"Your parents only have two ears each," the hologram observed. "AIs can have as many as they want. This gives us a considerable advantage when it comes to engaging young children in conversation."
Jewel looked surprised--and not by the complexity of the sentence, Kai realized a moment later. "I didn't think of that," she said.
"We've come looking for something," DECA remarked to the group at large. "If we might borrow the Megaship for a short time? The scanners should be able to follow the Lights wherever they go, and their retrieval will make this part of space much safer."
"That'd be great," Leo agreed, and Kai was about to protest when he continued smoothly, "but right now the Megaship is Terra Venture's only line of defense against Scorpius. We scared him off once, but he could be back any time and all it would take is one shot--did you see the destroyed dome on the lower ring when you came in?"
"Scorpius did that?" Kerone looked as worried as they'd seen her. "I didn't realize. I thought maybe there'd been some kind of accident."
"Well, insofar as Scorpius accidentally fired on an agricultural dome instead of the population center," Kai muttered, "it was an accident. Luckily it was in our favor."
"What does he want with you?" Kerone insisted. "A defenseless colony ship with no weapons or resources other than those that keep her people alive? What could he possibly stand to gain?"
Leo lifted his left wrist, twisting it just enough that his transmorpher appeared again. "These," he said. "We ran into Scorpius on Mirinoi, and we got to the Power before he could. Now he's out to even the score."
"Your planet," Kerone said, glancing at Maya. "Mirinoi? What's your Power doing here on Terra Venture?"
"We are all that's left of my world," Maya said softly. "The Power chose us, but we couldn't save Mirinoi. Terra Venture was our safe haven in a time of great peril. Now I fear we have done nothing but bring that peril here."
Kendrix transferred Jewel's grip to her other hand and put her free hand on Maya's shoulder. Maya gave her an apologetic look, even as Jewel crowded closer and leaned her head against Maya's arm. "I'm sorry," Maya murmured.
"No." Kerone was shaking her head. "No," she repeated, "the Power chose you for a reason, and it brought you here. This is where you're supposed to be. There's something about this colony that can protect you, that needs protecting itself, and I think your team is it.
"The strength of a Ranger is the team," she continued, when Maya lifted her head and caught her eye. "You're all here, you're together, and together you can protect this place. Never doubt that you're strong enough to handle anything the forces of evil send against you."
Kai couldn't help it. "Is that the voice of experience speaking?" he wanted to know.
Her reply was the last thing he expected. "Speaking as a former force of evil?" she said. "I promise you, it's not as easy as it looks."
Damon sounded disbelieving. "Well, it's not so easy from where I'm standing, either. This ship has no defense other than us, and I've gotta say, we're no superstars when it comes to the Ranger thing."
For some reason, this made Kerone smile. "I think every Ranger before you has said the same thing," she told him. "It isn't heroes who become Rangers, Damon. It's Rangers who are made into heroes."
"We aren't heroes," Kendrix said, shaking her head.
"Tell you what," Kerone suggested. "Launch the Megaship. It can circle Terra Venture, and DECA can feed me coordinates and vectors while I take Magic out to track down the Lights. When we come back, we'll see what we can do to make the colony more secure."
It wasn't any more specific than anything else she'd told them, but it was a safer compromise, and when it came right down to it they didn't have a choice. Kai was very aware of the hologram that represented an artificial intelligence currently controlling every shipboard system. With the upgrades Damon's crew had made, hardwiring the Megaship's access to bay controls, the AI could launch the ship herself if she chose.
He was also aware of Jewel, whom Maya wanted to leave on Terra Venture, but Kerone successfully argued that the battleship was a safer place to be than the colony at this point. Not a comforting thought, but unfortunately true. Jewel seemed inexplicably delighted.
Leo contacted the control tower to tell them that they were taking the Megaship out on patrol with their new Ranger escort. Kerone closed the space hatch and then walked out through the hull in a show of magical teleportation that creeped Kai out. The rest of them headed for the Bridge and followed "Magic" out into space.
It wasn't anywhere near as easy as Kerone had made it sound. Oh, it started off well--sort of like their first two weeks as Rangers on Terra Venture. Disturbing, unexpected, and uncertain, and about as easy to understand as the arrival of a former princess of evil in their midst. But when things started to go wrong, they went wrong in spectacular and frighteningly rapid succession.
The Lights, once found, refused to be caught. Kerone had managed to chase them in the general direction of Terra Venture when a second zord appeared out of nowhere and opened fire on her transformed cat. She fought back, rejecting the Megaship's offer of help, and that was when Scorpius showed up.
Kai had figured that was as bad as the day could get. But the Lights chose that moment to abandon their idle butterfly-like dance and make a beeline for the colony, arrowing past the hive ship with two zords in hot pursuit. Leo yelled to Kerone that she couldn't hit the dome, to which she replied she was well aware of that, thank you very much, and she hit the other zord instead.
It looked like a sort of bull shape. Or it did until her cat collided with it. The two ships locked together, tumbling through space, trajectory skewed but not enough... burning toward the colony at a speed that a dome built to deflect space dust and high-intensity radiation would never withstand.
The Lights arced over the dome, curving around it like they were skating on ice. The two zords flared bright purple as they crashed right through it, unresponsive and out of control. Scorpius' weapons opened up on the Megaship.
Everything went gold and bright.
Kai found out later that the Lights of Orion had been following them all this time, and when they found Rangers in trouble they reacted without instruction. He found out at some point that Kerone could actually teleport very large objects through solid things like a space hatch or, say, a colony ship dome. And eventually, he learned that the zord she'd taken on was the most impossible thing they'd seen.
In the meantime, all he knew was that everything was gold. He wasn't dead. It turned out the dome was intact. And Scorpius had stopped shooting at them, had fallen back, had retreated. For a second time.
Kai hated feeling helpless. But he liked it when things went right. Right now, he didn't know what to feel.
DECA was telling them something about ship systems, or Scorpius, or both, and Leo was asking about Kerone. Maya was hugging Jewel, who seemed to be cheering for no apparent reason, and Kendrix was trying to pull Kai out of his seat. He objected to that, in principle, but in practice he couldn't quite remember why.
"What do you mean," Leo was asking, "teleport us?"
The holographic woman turned so that it was clear she was addressing Damon. "I thought," she said sternly, "that you said you knew something about the Megaship."
Damon lifted his hands from the controls, and, with a completely straight face, declared, "No, ma'am!
"Leo said that," he added as an aside. "Not me."
DECA didn't seem appeased. "I will maintain this ship's position outside the colony," she informed them. "You will go to the surface and ensure that Kerone and her zord are safe."
She didn't wait for an answer, which should have bothered Kai a lot more than it did. Ultimately, though, he was too busy being disoriented by what had to be a teleportation beam and horrified by the wreckage that greeted them when they found themselves abruptly on the surface of the city dome. The mere fact that he was still breathing indicated the dome was intact, but the two zords had cut a huge swath through the outer mall, leaving dirt and smoking debris in their wake.
"Call Medlab," Leo said, even as a giant head heaved itself up out of the crater left by the crash. Violet-tinted ears twitched in the wash of gold that suddenly flooded the dome, and every last one of them looked up.
"Just like the Megaship," Kendrix whispered.
Maya kept her head better than any of them, already talking to Medlab over her morpher. Kai could hear her trying to explain the inexplicable with an earnestness that he would never be capable of. Leo nudged Kendrix--"Control tower," he told her--and then headed for the big cat zord at a run.
A run that was checked by the cat's vocal warning as one enormous paw emerged from the dirt, then another, and then it was hauling itself to its feet and shaking off the rest of the loose dirt. That was where it froze, making a pained sound before it limped forward a few steps and lowered itself to the ground once more. Head resting in the dirt, eyes closed, it looked truly pathetic there in the middle of the ruined land.
"Kerone," Leo was saying to his transmorpher. "It's Leo. Are you all right?"
A violet silhouette appeared beside the cat's lowered head. It occurred to Kai to look up again, but the golden glow had faded from the dome. When he glanced back at Kerone, she had her hand pressed against the bottom of Magic's nose and he thought she might actually be using her zord for balance.
"I'm okay," she called, as they all began to converge on her. Her voice had been sweet and gentle since they'd met her, but now it sounded weak, and the closer he got the more sure Kai was that she was only standing with the help of her zord.
"Is this going to completely disrupt your ecosystem?" she was asking, and somehow she knew that it was Kendrix she should be looking at.
"Maybe," Kendrix admitted. She was reaching for Kerone's arm, and Kerone smiled, eyes closing in an echo of her zord's. "But nowhere near as much as losing the dome would have. Are you okay?"
Kerone shook her head, lifting her free arm before Kendrix could take it, and violet sparkles swirled around her fingertips. With a flick of her wrist, they burst outward, dissipating as they left. Kerone stumbled and fell, one hand bracing herself against the ground, her head resting on the side of Magic's face.
"I'll be all right," she promised, her voice muffled under all their exclamations and the metallic echo of her zord. "You should check on the other pilot."
Kai lifted his head and stared. The crash crater was gone. Two zords rested on the perfectly groomed grass of the outer mall, dirt and scarring still apparent on their frames but vanished from the land around them. It was as though they had been transplanted, picked up out of a war zone and dropped here, in the middle of a park that had never seen anything more disruptive than a severe thunderstorm.
The golden light, he thought at first. This was obviously supernatural, that was supernatural, perhaps a connection. Except that they had run into ruin to reach Kerone, so...
Kerone. She glowed violet when she used magic. If she could do more with it than teleport, then that might explain the purple glitter. At least insofar as "magic" was a valid explanation for anything at all.
The bull zord had collapsed onto its side, looking worse even than Kerone's cat, and it was definitely not moving. Even as he watched, it sparkled into nothingness, leaving a prone but vaguely human-looking figure on the ground behind it. A vaguely human-looking figure in GSA soldier gear. Who was also not moving.
Everything in Kai told him to stay where he was, to stay with Kerone, to avoid this new danger as long and as thoroughly as possible. This was bad. There was something about it that he didn't want to know. Something none of them should know, a threat that could pull this team, maybe this entire colony, apart.
It was the Power, he realized, somewhat dazedly. The Power was warning him to stay away. And everything in him agreed.
Everything except the part that was watching Leo run recklessly into danger, into fear, into the thing that might destroy them all. "Leo!" It was too late, he already knew it, but he had to try. "Leo, wait!"
Leo didn't wait, because that wasn't what Leo did. And Kai couldn't watch him do this alone. "Stay here," he told Damon and Maya. Kendrix was already running, following Leo blindly, and if that wasn't what they did he didn't know what was.
So he was there when Leo fell down beside the unconscious pilot, saw Leo roll him over, and something inside him screamed a warning when they found themselves staring down at a soldier who wore Mike's face. Kai was shaking his head when Leo looked up at him--maybe that was why the Red Ranger looked to Kendrix, on her knees across from him.
"Oh my god," Kai heard her whisper. She was reaching out, instinctively wanting to confirm what her eyes told her by touching the body between them. "Mike?"
"No," Kai said. He could hear sirens. That wasn't his imagination; Medlab was responding, and he had heard what Maya told them. The EMTs would bring security with them. "That's not Mike."
Mike's eyes snapped open. Kendrix was caught by surprise as he shoved into her, knocking her off balance even as he rolled into a crouch, slamming his elbow into her jaw in the process. He leapt at Leo--and, remarkably, Ranger reflexes won out over familial instincts.
Leo slid out of the way like he'd never even been there, but it wasn't enough. Mike came back with a grip that knocked Leo over and a raised fist he didn't bother to use when Leo's head struck the ground and he lay still. Rage gave Kai a frightening calm, a deadly stillness as the man that looked like Mike launched himself up off of Leo's body and spun to face him.
Kai registered nothing but threat in that face.
Violet electricity briefly outlined GSA soldier gear, and then Mike was falling. Kai whirled, catching sight of a bomber jacket and an all too familiar wrath staff before Kerone lost her balance and lurched into Damon. He caught her easily, lifting her limp form as the staff vanished and her head rolled back against his shoulder.
Maya and Jewel were running toward Kendrix, and Kai's gaze swept across Mike--an unmoving and ostensibly neutralized threat--to land on Leo. While Kendrix was sitting up, hand pressed against her cheek, Leo lay where he had fallen. Unconscious, injured, it was impossible to tell.
"Leo." He could hear sirens wailing louder, closer, then falling silent one by one as they arrived and urgent voices started to take their place. He could hear Kendrix talking, the words blurring together, Jewel calling for Kerone.
Kai couldn't move, frozen to the ground like holding still could keep this from being worse. He didn't know when he'd gotten so close, put a hand on Leo's shoulder, on his neck, maybe looking for a pulse even though it was clear that he was breathing. Leo's expression changed, face tightening, a grimace that didn't belong to an unconscious person.
"Leo," he repeated, and it sounded loud to his ears but the name was drowned out by a quiet groan as Leo rolled his head to one side. One hand moved to cover his eyes, and Kai closed his own in relief. Just a concussion. Obviously. It wasn't like him to let things paralyze him like this; he had to get up, make sure everyone else was okay, get a status report from--someone.
When he opened his eyes, Leo was squinting up at him. "Hey," he said, and the word was a drawl that sounded more than a little confused. "We're really not at a point in our relationship where you should be waking me up..."
How he sounded and how he was clearly had little connection. Kai didn't mean to smile, and he didn't realize he was doing it until it was already there on his face. He couldn't help asking, "Are you sure about that?"
Leo's confused expression vanished in a heartbeat. "No," he said, grinning up at Kai. He held out his hand with obvious intent. Kai wasn't sure that was a good idea, but he was a Ranger, after all. Pushing himself to his feet, he grabbed Leo's hand and hauled him up.
"Whoa." Leo caught his shoulder briefly, squeezing his eyes shut and deliberately not shaking his head. "That's not fun."
"You should be sitting down," Kai told him, feeling ridiculous for not insisting on it before. But now Leo did shake his head, looking perfectly normal when he let go of Kai's shoulder.
"I'm fine," he said, his hand going to the back of his head. "Going to have a hell of a bump, though. Kendrix?"
She was up too, standing on her own, but she touched her jaw gingerly when he asked. "Ow," she complained. "Otherwise, fine."
They were both looking down at "Mike" as the EMTs swarmed around them, and Kai was right: stun guns all around, two energy rifles guarding the group from a safe distance. Leo paid no attention, ignoring the people who tried to ask him if he was all right. "So," he said, still staring at the figure on the ground. "Shapeshifter, huh?"
Kai relaxed minutely. So Leo had decided not to be stupid today. That was one problem they wouldn't have to deal with, then. "Looks that way," he agreed.
"Remind me to listen to you next time," Leo muttered, and Kai snorted.
"With pleasure," he replied.
The EMTs were bundling Kendrix and Kerone into an ambulance. Leo was packed off to the nearest clinic despite his protests, and Kai made Damon ride with him. Maya had proven herself good at handling communication with the rest of Terra Venture--possibly because no one really expected her to know anything--and she still had Jewel, so she wasn't going anywhere. Kai left her in charge of cleanup and explanations while he grabbed another soldier, someone else's stun gun, and a ride in the emergency vehicle transporting "Mike."
The news when they reached the clinic wasn't good. The other shapeshifters had reverted, after all. Knocked out, incapacitated, any fluctuation in their energy seemed to send them back to their original form. But not this one. This one persisted in looking like Mike.
The EMTs were replaced by a clinic staffer named Andrea who didn't wait for permission to start doing tests--understandable, considering they all thought they were dealing with an enemy combatant rather than a colony citizen. But when they started coming up negative, no anomalies, no alien genetic code, no unrecognizable idiosyncrasies, she began to look worried. "Is it possible he's human?" she asked at last.
"No," Kai said shortly. "How can he be human? He looks just like Mike Corbett."
"Well, that's just it." Andrea was frowning at the man in the isolation room, now under heavy guard both inside and out. "He's got normal human vitals, and they match Mike Corbett's exactly. I even ran dentals. Perfect match."
"He's a shapeshifter," Kai reminded her. "Obviously there are some superficial similarities."
"Dental x-rays aren't superficial," she countered. "I've got the computer working on DNA tests, but so far, there's nothing I can do to prove he's not exactly who he looks like."
"Good disguise," Kai muttered.
"Impossibly good," she said. "This isn't anything like the shapeshifters we've seen before. This is sustained, testable, and very thorough. Not even some sort of hypothetical clone would have identical dentals."
"Mike Corbett fell off a cliff on a planet that was being turned to stone," Kai told her. "I saw it happen. I don't know who this is, but it isn't my senior officer."
Andrea set down her stylus on the desk beside the head of the bed. "If you're that sure he's dead," she said, "you'll want these." She'd taken off a set of dog tags to do the x-rays, which Kai had tried not to think about. Now she picked them up, turning away from the bed--
Three stun guns armed in a rush of motion, reacting to the hand on Andrea's arm. She froze, but there was no flinch as she allowed herself to be held in place. "You're awake," she said calmly, still facing Kai but clearly talking to the man on the bed behind her. "How are you feeling?"
Did they train them to ask that question, Kai wondered? She was effectively a hostage in a barely controlled situation that could blow up at any moment. And she wanted to know how the man in front of the stun guns was feeling.
"Those are mine." Mike's voice was rough, too quiet, like he was straining to talk. That was all he said. He didn't let go of Andrea's arm, but he didn't move, either, and he allowed her to turn slightly toward him.
Andrea opened her hand slowly, revealing the dog tags. Being the good hostage--except for the fact that she couldn't keep her mouth shut. "They have Mike Corbett's name on them," she remarked.
He snatched them away from her, and two stun guns fired simultaneously at the sudden movement. Andrea yanked her arm back. Both blasts caught him in the chest, effective as any stun gun should be on a human, and he was still, dog tags slipping from his suddenly slack grip. Andrea, on the other hand, was rubbing her wrist and eyeing him with a frown.
"All right?" Kai asked, reaching down to pick up the dog tags. The double stun blast had probably spread to her fingers, at least.
"Numb," she said, flexing her fingers and shaking her hand gently. "I wondered how long that electric discharge would keep him down."
The tags did indeed have Mike's name on them. Kai lifted a hand to his chest, where his own dogtags were hidden under his uniform shirt. Could a shapeshifter duplicate what it couldn't see?
"Please," Andrea said, apparently reading his mind. "Don't tell me those convince you when the x-rays didn't."
He glanced over at the soldiers, then caught her eye. He didn't bother to lower his voice, because everyone in the room--not to mention everyone listening outside--was going to have the same question. "Is it possible that this actually is Mike Corbett?"
She sighed. "As far as I'm concerned, yes. It's more than possible. Medically speaking, until something proves otherwise, I have to treat him as though he is."
Kai stared down at the tags for a long moment, then shook his head. "I'll get the others," he muttered, turning to go. Because he had no idea what to do.
He found Leo and Kendrix out in the main ward, hovering around Kerone of all people. She was sitting on the edge of a bed, arms braced on either side of her, legs swinging carelessly as she laughed at something. Kendrix stood nearby while Leo leaned against a chair, grinning at them. There was security at the door, Kai noticed, but no clinic staff anywhere in sight.
"Hi," Kerone said, her smile fading a little as she noticed him and his expression. "Bad news?"
"Where's Damon?" Kai demanded, irrationally annoyed by his absence. Leo was just standing around like there was nothing wrong with him.
"DECA wanted to talk to him," Leo offered. "Something about the Lights boosting Megaship performance... but as soon as we left, they followed us to the colony. She thinks they're probably doing something for Terra Venture now."
"Damon's trying to figure out what," Kendrix said. "They didn't just block Scorpius' attack on the Megaship; they repelled it. That's what made him back off. If they could do that for Terra Venture..."
She didn't have to finish that sentence.
"We're feeling much better," Leo added. "Thanks for asking."
"Actually, I'm kind of hungry," Kerone put in. "Could I have some more crackers?"
Kai opened his mouth, but he really didn't know what to say. He saw Kendrix hand over an open package of crackers--clinic saltines, no doubt--and Kerone smiled happily in thanks. Leo was still watching him, though, and a slight smile was all that remained of his grin. Even that faded as Kai stared back at him, until he started to look concerned.
"You okay?" Leo asked, straightening up from where he was lounging against the chair. "How's the other guy?"
The dog tags were still clenched in his hand. He let them fall, just the chain wrapped around his fingers now, and he held up his hand without a word. The silver tags dangled, drawing Leo's eye, and Kai offered them when he stepped forward.
Leo took them, turning them over. He read both of them like it would somehow make a difference. Then he looked up, searching Kai's expression. "Can a shapeshifter do this?" he asked neutrally. As though Kai would have the answers he was looking for.
"No," Kerone said, frowning from one of them to the other. "Did you take those off of the other pilot?"
Kendrix came forward and took the tags from Leo, but he didn't let go of the chain. She took one look at them and handed them back, turning to Kerone. "Those are Mike's dog tags," she said.
They must have told her who the zord pilot looked like, because Kerone's frown deepened. "Military identification?" she said, standing up. Her gaze sought Kai. "Do you wear them all the time?"
For answer, he fished his out from under his shirt and held them up.
"And they're correct?" she insisted, glancing at Leo. "You're sure those are exactly as your brother's identification would appear?"
Leo hesitated, and he looked to Kai for confirmation.
"Yeah," Kai answered. "They're exactly the same."
"A shapeshifter would have to know an awful lot about you to duplicate something like that," Kendrix said. "Wouldn't it?"
"Yes," Kerone said slowly. "But the fact that you have those while he's in another room worries me even more."
"What--" Kai didn't get a chance to finish, because she lifted her right hand and flicked it to the side. A transmorpher appeared on her wrist.
"How did you do that?" Kendrix exclaimed.
Kerone pulled it off of her wrist and offered it to Kendrix, who took it hesitantly. "I'm a shapeshifter too," Kerone admitted. "Try walking away from me."
Kendrix stared at her with wide eyes, then down at the transmorpher. She took a step back. And another. On the third step, the transmorpher glittered into nothingness. She held up her open hands, looking back at Kerone.
"It's an illusion," Leo said. "You can't sustain it past a certain distance."
"Well, it's complicated." Kerone made a face. "I actually can make small things that are self-sustaining, and there are illusions that I can maintain much farther away than that one. But in principle, yes: my shapeshifting is mostly a glamour. It can't be separated from my person."
"Not like this," Leo said, flexing his fingers around the dog tags.
"Not like that," Kerone echoed. "There are shapeshifters that actually rearrange matter, living matter, but it takes a tremendous amount of energy. It's hard to imagine someone expending that kind of effort on something so... so trivial.
"Relatively speaking," she added hastily. "I mean, just in general, there would have to be some pretty complicated reasoning behind that kind of deception."
Leo wasn't listening anymore. He was looking at Kai, searching his expression, and it was with a sense of dread that Kai anticipated his next question. Like it was that easy. Like Leo could ask, and Kai could decide, and by offering an answer he would somehow make it so.
"Is it Mike?" Leo asked simply. His thumb was tracing the edge of one of the tags, but he didn't take his eyes off of Kai.
Kai wanted to be the voice of reason, the one who said no, of course not, because it couldn't be. It was impossible. Wasn't that enough?
But Leo knew that. He could see that for himself. He didn't need to be convinced; he knew it couldn't be Mike. Yet still he asked, and because he asked, Kai found he couldn't give him anything but the truth.
"I don't know," he said quietly.
Leo just nodded, accepting the inadequate answer for what it was. "I'm going to go see him," he said, announcing this fact to all of them, to none of them in particular. "I'll let you know."
"Leo..." It was Kendrix's voice that stopped him, and she didn't look like she knew what she was going to say. But when his gaze fell on her, something in her must have decided, because she straightened up. "We're going with you."
Kerone just nodded, and Kai felt compelled to warn them, "There's security all around that room. They've already had to stun him once."
Leo didn't answer.
They passed Andrea on her way out as they entered, filing in past the soldiers on either side of the door. She took one look at them and didn't say a thing. Kai stopped her, though, just outside, and she shook her head. "I'll let you know about the DNA tests when I get the results," she said quietly.
He nodded and let her go. The soldier inside the door was Miller, and Kai stood next to him as the others surrounded the bed. Leo and Kendrix went around either side without hesitation, standing over the guy who looked like Mike with apparent fearlessness. Kerone stood by the foot of the bed, though, and her stance was clearly that of a person on guard.
"Kerone," Kai said, getting everyone's attention. He ignored it, holding up the stun gun he'd picked up earlier.
She understood. Her staff appeared in her hand a moment later, and she hefted it in return. She didn't need a stun gun. Of course. He thumbed the safety off on his and glanced sideways at Miller.
"Keep the guys in the clinic," he said under his breath. "Two on the door, the rest guarding the other wards. We'll be fine in here."
"He's not sedated," Miller replied in kind. "He's only out from the double stun. Should be wearing off any minute."
Kai nodded. "We can handle it. Leo wants to talk to him."
"Understood." Miller jerked his head at the other two soldiers, and they followed him out of the room a moment later. Probably to spread the word that Leo, at least, thought the guy in isolation might be his brother.
Kai couldn't shake the feeling that this was going to end in disaster. There didn't seem to be anything he could do about it, though, so he just folded his arms and leaned back against the door. He might not be able to do anything from here, but he sure wasn't going to do any good over there.
He saw Leo put the dog tags back in Mike's outstretched hand. He saw Kendrix put a hand on his shoulder, which he thought was brave considering what had happened the last time she'd tried that. He saw Kerone take a couple of steps back, idly rolling her staff over her wrist before letting it come to rest against the floor.
Otherwise, there was very little to see until Mike's eyes opened. As before, he went from what looked like complete unconsciousness to full alertness in a single blink, which Kai could only assume meant he'd been aware of them for several minutes before he'd opened his eyes. He didn't know about Kerone's magical attack, but the stun guns didn't work like that.
"Hi," Leo said warily. He didn't move, not closer or farther away, and he didn't take his eyes off of this person who looked like his brother. "Want to tell us who you are?"
"Want to try not shooting me?" His voice was still rough, low, like he was forcing the words out past sand in his throat. His eyes flicked across the entire room, then scanned it again, more slowly. "No guards?"
"They're outside," Kendrix said quickly. "We wanted to talk to you alone."
Mike's gaze found and fixed on Kai. "Can I sit up?" he asked, the words carefully aimed at the only person in the room with a recognizable weapon.
"Leo, Kendrix." Kai didn't take his eyes off of the person staring back at him. "Back up. If I have to shoot him, I don't want to hit you by accident."
Kendrix actually did back up, but Leo just gave him a look. He could feel it, even if he didn't glance away from Mike long enough to return it. He wished Leo would be even half as cautious. He was standing next to someone who had thrown him down hard enough to knock him out, and he wasn't even looking at him.
Moving very slowly, Mike got his arms underneath him and pushed himself up, slow and careful as he eased his body into a more upright position. They'd stripped his armor, but the soldier coveralls rustled a little as he moved. "Thank you, Kai."
Kai didn't react.
Kendrix did, of course. She lifted wide eyes to his face as she blurted out, "You know who we are?"
She got a sideways look, but it was Leo who took the full weight of his stare as he said simply, "Yes."
Leo didn't blink. "How?"
"Well, for one thing--" He stopped, trying to clear his throat, but it didn't seem to do any good. He went on, "Kai is wearing his dog tags over his shirt. And he just said both your names, so."
Kai felt the corner of his mouth lift, and he tried to suppress the expression. Kendrix looked surprised. Leo looked deliberately blank. Kerone had her back to him, so he couldn't see what her face was doing.
"For another," Mike continued. "You've been my brother for the past twenty years, and up until about three weeks ago, I was the First Officer of Terra Venture. So I've got a pretty good idea who's in the room with me."
His voice was getting worse, and it finally occurred to Kai that he might have sand in his throat after all. Or soot, or smoke, or something. Kerone had walked away from the crash with nothing more than dizziness and a minor fainting spell--but she was a sorceress and a shapeshifter to boot. It was entirely possible that the other victim hadn't been so lucky.
Kai took a step back as Leo remarked evenly, "There's some debate about that, actually." The movement put him in the doorway instead of in front of it, and he leaned back without taking his eyes off of Mike.
One of the guards outside turned, and Kai said quietly, "Can we get some water in here?"
"Which part?" Mike was asking. He hadn't moved at all since sitting up. Doing his best to present as unthreatening a target as possible, Kai thought. Smart.
Not necessarily convincing, but smart.
"They saw Mike Corbett die," Kerone said bluntly. "We're working under the assumption that you're some sort of shapeshifter."
No one else said anything. Mike looked at her for a long moment. Finally, he said, "Except you. I don't seem to have any idea who you are."
Kai frowned at that. Something about the way it was phrased, maybe. It seemed off. His gaze left Mike for half a second, catching Kendrix's eye just as she looked over at him. She'd heard it too.
"I don't seem to have any idea who you are..."
"You first," Kerone told him.
Mike let out his breath in something that might have been a sigh. "Michael Jeremiah Corbett," he said. "Born nine May nineteen seventy-eight. I don't know what else I can tell you, except that this is just as weird for me as it is for you."
"You're the one who opened fire on me out there," Kerone informed him. "I'm the one who kept you from destroying the colony dome. And no matter how 'weird' this is, we're not the ones who came out of that crash swinging."
"No," Mike said carefully. "You just shot a disoriented pilot." His gaze went to Kai, and he added, "Several times."
Kai meant to let it go. This was Kerone's interrogation, and so far she seemed perfectly capable of handling it. But he heard himself saying, "You gave Leo a concussion," and the first flicker of worry touched Mike's face.
He craned his neck to look up at Leo. "You okay, kiddo?"
"Don't call me 'kiddo'," Leo retorted. Then he froze, and Kai could see realization of what he'd just done on his face. He'd reacted automatically, instinctively--like this was in fact his brother.
Mike saw his flinch, and the rasp of his voice was quieter than it had been when he said, "Sorry. Leo."
Kai saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and he reached back to take a cup from the guard outside. "Leo," he said, holding it out. He wasn't leaving his position by the door.
Leo looked surprised when he saw what Kai was holding, so he nodded toward Mike. "Water," he said. "For your throat."
Mike sat forward a little, then seemed to realize he still wasn't allowed to move when Kerone took a pre-emptive step in his direction. For someone for whom the most appropriate descriptor seemed to be "cute," she knew how to look threatening when she wanted to. Clearly not everything about the "princess of evil" had been glamour and show.
Leo brought him the water, and Mike drained half of it before he tried to clear his throat again. He was only partially successful, but he made an effort at speaking anyway. "Thanks," he said, taking another sip of water when his voice broke.
"Why don't you start by telling us how you survived on Mirinoi," Kerone remarked conversationally. "From there you can go on to how you got here and what you were doing chasing the Lights of Orion."
The first sentence made Kai raise his eyebrows. They really had filled her in while he was busy. She was well-informed.
"Someone was watching over me," Mike replied. His voice was still scratchy, but it was a little louder than it had been. "Literally. A Power Ranger from three thousand years ago saved my life. Rescued my body so that I could free his spirit.
"He gave me his powers, and I gave him--" He lifted one hand to tap his temple. "Room in my head. Free ride out of that pit. In exchange, I got to live. With a couple of morphers and some cool toys; you might have noticed."
"Room in your head?" Leo repeated.
"Yeah..." Mike hesitated, then admitted, "I've gotta tell you, it's a little stranger in here than it used to be."
"Which is saying so much," Leo said, rolling his eyes. If he noticed what he was doing this time, it didn't show on his face.
Before Mike could react, Kerone interjected, "How did you get here? If you didn't even know where Mirinoi was, how could you find your way back?"
"Followed Scorpius," Mike said simply. There was something on his face that made his tone seem strange, but Kai couldn't pin it down. "Where else did I have to go?"
"You followed Scorpius all the way to Terra Venture just to try to destroy the colony yourself?" Kerone's skepticism was unmistakable, and Kai couldn't tell if it was her attitude or her accusation that made Mike react the way he did. But it was a reaction that dispelled any ease he might have been feeling.
"I followed Scorpius to the Lights of Orion," Mike growled. "I recognized the obvious danger and I did what I could to prevent it. Maybe someone operating on a couple weeks' worth of starvation and sleep deprivation doesn't make the best decisions, but next time you can be the one trapped in stone for three thousand years and then we'll compare scores!"
Even with the little twirl over her wrist that she was doing, Kerone had her staff pointed at him before Kai had finished lifting his stun gun. "Who are you," she demanded, "and where's Mike Corbett?"
"Right here!" he shouted, throwing his plastic cup at the floor by her feet. "What the hell does it take to convince you that Mike Corbett is sitting right here!"
Kerone didn't so much as flinch at his improvised projectile. "Who are you," she repeated, a violet crackle running the length of her staff. Kendrix had backed away, but Leo was just standing there, staring at them.
The man wearing Mike's face seemed to crumple, sinking in on himself as he clutched his arms with his hands. Better to implode than to explode, Kai reminded himself. But he couldn't deny a flicker sympathy for this man, this person who looked so much like his friend, when confronted by what was apparently an impossible question.
"Three thousand years ago," he said hoarsely, "I was the Magna Defender." Staring down at the bed, he whispered, "Three weeks ago, I was Michael Corbett.
"Where is he?" He bent forward, burying his face in his hands, a gesture that seemed to bring no comfort. No one dared to speak as he continued, "He's right here," and his abused voice was muffled by everything that was between them. "I'm right here."
There was a wild look in his eyes when he lifted his head again, like he couldn't look and he couldn't make himself not. His words were haunted as he muttered, "We're both right here."
Chapter 6: Passing for Normal
Passing for Normal
Monday morning. The last week of the first month post-launch. T plus 23 days and counting. Twelve more weeks until the point of no return, when Terra Venture's engines would have consumed more fuel than it would take to turn the colony around and safely decelerate from cruising speed a second time.
It was a day that should have been worth celebrating. Not because it was a benchmark, but because it wasn't. It was day that should have been about settling into routine, passing time, doing ordinary work that kept this extraordinary city-ship on course. A day when Command staff showed up for their shifts after their first full weekend off and didn't have to deal with six impossible things before breakfast.
Maybe that was exactly what was happening. He wouldn't know, since he was stuck here in Medlab for his daily checkup, drinking some awful breakfast smoothie fortified with eighty-three vitamins and minerals. Someone had kindly flavored it with sawdust so he would know it was good for him.
"Morning!" His third intern in three days popped into the room, smiling the smile of someone who hadn't had a sawdust smoothie for breakfast. "How are you?"
He eyed her over the smoothie and didn't answer.
She was already pulling something out of a drawer, but she glanced over her shoulder when he didn't answer and smiled again. "That was actually a question, not just a greeting."
He felt the same as he had yesterday. Didn't they keep some sort of record? They took enough notes while he was here to write a book.
She was starting to look concerned, which was at least a change from yesterday's intern, who had looked worried, and the one before that, who had looked vaguely frightened. "Is your throat getting worse again?" she asked. "I know it was torn up pretty badly... I can get you something for that, but I'll have to take another look at it first."
He shook his head. "No," he said aloud, and talking was easier than swallowing the smoothie of doom so maybe he had his priorities backwards. "It's fine."
"Any other complaints?" She continued as though whether he replied or not was no big deal, and he narrowed his eyes. "Headaches, muscle aches, stiffness, visions? Auditory hallucinations?"
He couldn't tell if she was trying to be funny or if they'd gotten tired of his refusal to see a psychologist and just sent one in, welcome or not. "Are you a doctor or a therapist?" he demanded.
She blinked. "Neither? I'm just an intern. If you want to see someone else, I could probably arrange that."
"I don't want to see anyone," he grumbled, frowning down at his smoothie. The faster it was gone, the less they'd have to complain about if he walked out on this ridiculous ritual.
"Yeah, that sounds familiar." He could hear the rueful grin in her voice as she turned back to the desk. "The colony is pretty young, and the self-diagnosing generation has one of two responses to medicine. They either want every drug ever invented, or they don't want anything at all. No matter what's wrong with them."
He was probably the oldest person she would ever meet. He gritted his teeth to keep from saying so, because that way lay more psychologists and hushed conversations and a really absurd amount of second guessing. On everyone's part.
"I'm just going to get some vitals," she said, ignoring his lack of response. "Pulse, blood pressure, all the boring stuff. Which hand do you want me to--"
She actually stopped when he held out his left hand. Not talking in general, just that sentence in particular. "Great," she said, taking his hand. Then, to his surprise, she pushed the sleeve of his leather jacket up.
She didn't have to. It was a thumb cuff, and it would give pulse along with pressure without anyone having to fuss with his clothes. He was expecting her fingers on his hand. He'd braced himself for it; it was fine.
He wasn't expecting her to touch his wrist. He yanked away hard enough to knock the pressure monitor onto the floor, and she swooped down to pick it up without giving him a second glance. There was a moment while she was crouched down on the floor when a single shove would have given him breathing space and room to run--and another guard on his door, just when he'd finally gotten rid of the last one.
"Sorry about that," she apologized, as though it was her fault for being clumsy. She set the monitor back on the table beside him and gave him a curious look. "Did you hurt your wrist?"
She'd seen it. He could either lie to her face, or he could allow her to assess an obvious injury that might possibly excuse his reaction. Reluctantly, he pulled up his sleeve at the elbow and offered his badly bruised wrist for inspection.
"Ouch." Her sympathetic grimace was strange and funny and bittersweet all at once. She didn't touch his skin again, and she was already turning away when she asked, "What happened?"
"I don't know," he said. "It was like that when I woke up."
That made her pause, and she glanced back at him. "Blood vessels in your arm spontaneously burst overnight?"
"I have nightmares," he said defensively. Maybe. He didn't remember them if he did. Sleeping was the best part of the day. He hadn't slept in so long, all he wanted to do was close his eyes and stay like that forever.
"Do they wake you up?" she wanted to know. "How well are you sleeping? Could you be sleepwalking, or do you think it's just from thrashing around, that maybe you hit something in your sleep?"
"I must have hit it," he muttered. "I don't know. I don't wake up."
She turned around, holding up a little tin, then frowned. She just stood there for a moment, hand raised. Then she said, "Do you have a morpher on that wrist?"
His gaze flicked to hers, startled, then slid away.
It was too late. "They said you have two morphers," she said casually. Like it didn't even matter. "One on each wrist? Is the other one bruised too?"
"It's fine," he growled. "It doesn't hurt."
"I'd like to see it," she said. "If that's okay."
The morpher, he wondered? Or the wrist?
"It's not," he told her.
"This is what I'm worried about," she said. "The Power you have now is old, right? Three thousand years since it last interacted with a human body? I'm worried that Mike Corbett's body isn't compatible with the Magna Defender's power.
"Or maybe it's partially compatible," she added, frowning, "and you're just experiencing some sort of side effect. Maybe it gets better, and maybe it gets worse; I don't know. But if you're bleeding internally, that's a really bad sign."
"I'm--" He broke off. Maybe it was some kind of side effect. How would he know?
"Is it just your wrists?" she asked gently.
"They don't come off," he blurted out.
For the first time, she seemed to be at a loss. "They don't come off?" she repeated.
He felt his fists clench, and he opened his fingers as carefully as he could. "The morphers," he muttered. Twitching his hands to either side, he could feel them wrap around each wrist. Under the sleeves, almost invisible under his heavy leather jacket, they were like shackles against his skin. "I can't get them off."
"Have you--oh." She broke off in the middle of the sentence. "That's a really stupid question, isn't it. Of course you've tried."
With a flick of his wrists, he sent them back to wherever they hid when he wasn't using them. Still there. Still an intangible weight on arms that weren't used to restraint. Straightening his elbows, he lifted his hands until his sleeves pulled back enough that she could see both wrists. They were ringed with livid purple and blue and already healing yellow, clearly outlining the location of the morpher on each wrist.
"Well, here's some short-term advice," she said, with some asperity. "Stop trying to take them off."
He couldn't say what it was about the comment that was amusing, but it made him smile. It was such a strange feeling that he barely noticed her smiling back. He let his hands fall, and she held up the tin.
"This will help with the bruising," she said. "I realize we're only treating the symptoms, but I don't have any idea what to do about the cause. If your biggest health problems so far are self-inflicted..."
She trailed off, giving him a rueful look. "Sorry. That didn't come out quite right."
"I think it did," he said. It had been his offer, his choice. Saved and condemned in the same breath. Everything he did now was just a re-enactment of that first decision. "No question, it's weird in here."
She set the tin down next to him and wiggled the blood pressure cuff in his direction. "I hear they're trying to get you to see a therapist," she remarked, as he offered his hand again.
He snorted, the answer easy and unconsidered for the first time since he'd come in. "Lot of good that would do."
This time she was careful to touch only his hand. "Therapy can be a big help," she said. "Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's anyone here qualified to work with you. Your situation is pretty unique on Terra Venture."
"It's pretty unique anywhere," he muttered, watching the numbers on the digital readout climb. He had to wonder what a daily record of his blood pressure could possibly tell them.
"Oh, I don't know." She sounded amused. "I know another Power Ranger... on Earth, I mean. This kind of thing seems to happen to them a lot."
"I find that hard to believe," he told her.
"I find everything that happens to them hard to believe," she retorted. "And so far, I'd have to say you're no better."
The pressure cuff hissed as it began to deflate, and she added, "I'm just saying... I don't know what they've been telling you, but bad therapy can be worse than no therapy at all. If you've got a gut feeling, you should probably go with it."
He didn't really know what to say to that.
The monitor began to beep as it registered his heartbeat, and he watched as the numbers continued to fall. He was in better shape than he used to be. He was twenty-six again--two months away from twenty-seven. He'd lost a son. He'd gained a brother. And there was his heart, still tripping along at 59 beats per minute.
"One nineteen over seventy-five," she announced, apparently in case he cared but had somehow lost the ability to read. He looked at her in surprise when she continued, "If I ever figure out what good it does us to check your blood pressure every day, I'll let you know."
She was, he decided right then, the least annoying intern he'd encountered in Medlab. Possibly ever. And he had no idea how to find her again, on the off chance that he ever needed a less annoying contact among the medical staff.
"What's your name?" he asked suddenly.
"Hmm?" Of course she had to be making notes, but she seemed to register the question in retrospect without him having to repeat it. "Ali Carter."
Glancing up briefly, she added, "What's yours?"
He just stared at her for a moment.
"I mean, Mike, I know," she said hastily. "Everyone knows Mike Corbett. But you must both have names, right? Does it get weird, having everyone call you Mike all the time?"
"Yes," he said after a moment. He didn't like the way she asked, though, and he frowned at her back. "I thought you said no therapy was better than bad therapy."
She lifted her head, but she didn't look over at him. "I'm not trying to psychoanalyze you," she told the wall. There was something in her voice that let him know he'd hurt her feelings. "I was just curious."
A kind woman. A curious little girl. Funny that she had just described herself with the same word he would have picked three thousand years ago, instead of the one he might have chosen more recently.
"Estavan," he said quietly. The Magna Defender, as he'd been known to most of Mirinoi. First Councilor among the people of his village. To the children, he was Zika's dad. "Estavan" only to family and friends.
Correctly deducing that this was a name, she set her stylus down and held out her hand. Just as if he'd been the perfect gentleman about it. "Nice to meet you," she said, the picture of calm. "Both of you."
He knew what she meant, and he shook her hand carefully. Touching people was still so shocking that even the part of him it reassured couldn't convince him to do it casually. "Not so bad meeting you either."
It was hard to tell whether she took that as a compliment or not, because all she did was smile and say, "Good. You'll probably be seeing me again tomorrow, then."
He didn't miss the implication that she was the first intern in three days who could tolerate him, but the feeling was mutual so he didn't complain. He just asked, "Can I go?"
"Well, I'd say your chances of PFN are fifty-fifty," she said. "So it's up to you. Take the bruise ointment with you and pass me your smoothie cup on your way out, and we'll call it even."
He was already stuffing the tin into his pocket, and he eyed her warily as he handed over the empty cup. "PFN?" he repeated.
"Passing for normal," she said. "Good luck with that. Come back if you need anything; I'll be here till five. If it's after hours, try asking for Josh or Maria. They're pretty unflappable."
Which was what he needed, apparently. People who couldn't be alarmed. When had he gone from the person who could reassure others just by being there to the person who couldn't be anywhere without upsetting everyone who saw him?
Leo had left him a message this morning. Just like every other morning since he'd gotten here. Telling him where he was, where the other Rangers were, and when they were planning to hold training that day. He was welcome to join them, Leo said.
It wasn't like he had anything else to do. The Power only let him sleep so many hours a day, and while eating was a novelty it was also disturbing to put familiar things in his mouth and have them taste utterly foreign. Or vice versa. He'd tried walking around the colony, but everyone knew him and the people who tried to talk to him were just as irritating as the ones who stared, whispered, or avoided him.
He hadn't even tried to go back to work. Today was his first day without a military escort shadowing him everywhere he went, so he figured he knew where he stood. If Command staff had any sense, someone would have locked his ID out of the control tower weeks ago. Yes or no, he didn't really want to know either way.
Today's message from Leo had told him that, unlike him, the Rangers were finally getting back to their jobs after a weekend of public service following Scorpius' attacks. Except for Leo, for whom public service apparently was his job. He was effectively a full time Ranger now.
Leo said, of course, that he was welcome to join him. Teaching self-defense classes, anyway, if not actually rewriting colony response protocols. He was also welcome to join Kendrix's department, Maya's field team, or Damon's ongoing work on the Megaship, which had become full-time as well. It seemed he was welcome anywhere except with Kai. The exception was glaringly obvious given that Kai's job was the one for which he had actually been recruited, but Leo glossed over it like it wasn't there.
He decided to head for the ocean dome instead. Being welcome and being told he was welcome were two different things, and at least he didn't know many people in aquaculture. He'd met maybe three dolphins, total, and he could count on most of the humans who were there to be underwater with them.
Or he'd thought he could. There were kids and parents in the dome, even today, and a few off-duty colonists walking the beach. He'd always liked the ocean dome, but he'd never been there during normal working hours, so it hadn't occurred to him how many people didn't work "normal working hours." The night and graveyard shifts were something he endured rather than enjoyed, so he didn't rearrange his schedule beyond what was absolutely necessary. And as a senior military officer, not to mention one of the faces of the new colony, he hadn't exactly had days off.
He blinked, shaking his head. Very Mike. Mike's memories, Mike's knowledge... Mike's reactions. Terra Venture was like that, he found. So foreign to Estavan and so familiar to Mike that it was easy to lose himself in the part of him that belonged here.
He thought sometimes that that was for the best. This was Mike's home, after all. Mike's people, Mike's life. Mike's responsibility. He thought he could probably be Mike without too much effort. "Pass for normal," as the intern said. He knew what Mike knew, what he would say, what he cared about.
That was the problem, right there. He didn't just know what Mike cared about. He cared about what Mike cared about. He cared about this crazy colony in the middle of space, on its way to some unseen new world. He cared about his troublemaking little brother, the kid who'd been abandoned and screwed over so many times it was a wonder all he'd broken was the law. He cared about Kai, a guy who never should have been in the military and now acted like it was the only life he knew, and about Kai's odd friend Kendrix, a woman who was frankly too brilliant to be wasting her time on a colony ship in the first place.
He cared about all of them, because Mike did. But they weren't his whole world the way they had been for Mike. Every love that Mike felt was overlaid by Estavan's loss: his family, his village, his entire planet. His time. It was so terribly isolating to be a man out of time. Everything he knew wasn't just gone... it was forgotten. Left behind, unremembered, days so long past that they no longer had any meaning.
Except to Estavan. Estavan still cared about a rebellious little village on the outskirts of nowhere, trying to make a name for itself as an independent state. He cared about Shairra, the woman too weak to bear children and too strong to let that determine her destiny, and about Chantilles, the girl who was more interested in sex than politics yet couldn't remember to adjust her hormonal cycle without reminders written on her skin. He cared about his only son, lost to Scorpius along with both his wives and what felt like most of his soul.
He didn't want to forget them. He didn't want to forget any of them. But Estavan's world was already gone, and Mike's would be lost to him too if he didn't make this work. The smart thing to do would be to let one go in favor of the other... he knew that. He just couldn't do it.
As long as he was partly Estavan, he couldn't be completely Mike. He couldn't listen to Mike's friends whine about the loss of their agricultural dome without exploding. He couldn't look up at stars changed by time as much as by distance without breaking down. And he couldn't ever, ever take off the morphers his mother had given him.
Not because he didn't care, but because he cared too much.
His feet had carried him to a place where the shore curved, worn away by the force of water on rocks jutting out into the miniature sea. The ocean dome's only lighthouse marked the rocks, the direction of the dome connector, and the primary launch for the aquaculture stations all at once. There was a particular cove here, opposite the sheltered marina, where a person could feel the harshness of the wind beneath a lonely sky and pretend that this place really did go on forever.
Someone was there, seated behind an immense boulder and so well hidden that he didn't see her until he was too close to pretend he hadn't. He wanted to. The woman went out of her way to provoke him, and the fact that he wouldn't have any idea how to respond to her under normal circumstances didn't help. Shaman, enemy, Ranger, civilian, she was everything and nothing in his mind and he couldn't even come up with a description that worked, let alone make some kind of threat assessment.
"Hello," she said, smiling up at him as though she'd just noticed him. "Sorry if I've taken your spot."
He shook his head, staring out at the water and feeling the wind that whipped over the top of her boulder tear at his collar. He would walk on--she didn't have any authority here--except that some ingrained respect for the wielders of magic kept him from dismissing her out of hand. She was a holy person.
She wasn't, he reminded himself. Just a civvie visitor. But she wasn't that either, and the part of him that scoffed at magic was so in awe of Power Rangers that he kind of wanted to ask for her autograph.
"Can I ask you a question?" Her voice made its way to him through the wind, sweetly innocent and damnably curious. Why did they all want him to talk?
When he didn't answer, she asked anyway. Of course.
"Do you want to stay here?" she asked him. "Here on Terra Venture, I mean?"
He looked down at her in surprise. "Excuse me?"
"It's very nice," she said quickly. Waving out at the ocean, she added, "Beautiful, ambitious, amazing. And any place that's home is home, after all."
She looked up and caught his eye, squinting against the oddly bright sky. "Is it home, now?"
He frowned at her. He straight blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore a GSA jacket with pants that were straight out of the aquaculture department. Her boots were unmistakably colony issue. What did she know about home?
"The universe is a big place," she was saying. "There are other places you could go. And Rangers are welcome in most of them."
"Just what I need," he muttered, wondering where she had gotten her clothes. Somehow that seemed more important than whatever she was offering him. "More places where I'm welcome."
"You could start over," she insisted. "You're a different person now. You could make a different life."
"Not so different," he said, eyeing her. She didn't seem to mind staring up at him, even shielding her eyes as she was. He thought about sitting down, but he didn't really want to commit so much to this conversation.
"Is this home, then?" she insisted. "Is this a place Mike Corbett could live to defend? Or is it a place the Magna Defender would die to destroy?"
It was such an outrageous thing to say that for a moment he didn't even register the words. As the question sank in, though, he found he couldn't muster the appropriate response. Somehow, he found himself smiling. Why? It wasn't funny. But it wasn't real, either. It just wasn't... real.
"Why do you always antagonize me?" he wanted to know.
She wasn't smiling. "I need to know how dangerous you are," she said. "I'm leaving soon, and I won't take off on a new team with an unstable sixth."
An unstable sixth. You, the Power whispered. He was the "sixth" Ranger.
"Well, you'll be here a long time," he told her.
"No," she said steadily. She didn't take her eyes off of him. "I won't be."
He considered that. "Are you threatening to kidnap me?" he asked at last. The idea should have been amusing--except that she was still a variable, an unknown in his mind, and he had the memory of that impossible crash embedded in his brain. The intact dome, the untouched ground, and two zords that were still recovering from the trauma.
"No." She did look a little amused, and strangely, that didn't reassure him at all. "I'm just letting you know that if I think you're a threat to this colony, I'll be taking you with me when I leave."
It was a more disturbing statement than he'd expected. Completely aside from whether or not she could do it, he didn't actually want to leave Terra Venture. Yet, given her terms, he wanted to want to: if he was a threat to this place, wasn't it wrong to stay? He was a threat, wasn't he?
He lowered himself to the ground beside her, and she moved over a little. Giving him shelter behind her boulder. Very kind, considering what she was "letting him know." He took the space offered, even if it put him a little closer to her than he would have preferred. At least he wouldn't have to look at her.
"You know," he said after a moment, "that I'm clinically insane."
They weren't touching, but her jacket rustled as she shrugged. "Most people would say the same thing about me."
He frowned. He didn't really know what to say to that.
"I don't care about what your doctors say," she said after a moment. "I care about whether you're going to hurt someone--including you--because of something I could prevent."
His wrists ached, a dull throb that he could accept, even appreciate, until her words made his fists clench. "You can't keep me from hurting myself," he said softly.
"If you want to," she agreed, surprising him. "And you know what you're doing. But there's two people in your head now, and if you're not making decisions by committee then one of you isn't making decisions at all."
"It's not--" He gritted his teeth, trying to make it make sense. "That's not what it's like."
She turned her head, and he could feel her eyes on him even as he glared out at the horizon. "What's it like?" she asked simply.
Psychologists avoided, check. Medlab put off, check. Well-meaning concern from family and friends ignored... check. And now a magic Ranger from another planet was going to make him explain or else she'd toss him in the back of her zord and take him out with the trash.
"It's like living twice," he said at last. That was the best he could do. "Only without dying in between. I grew up on Mirinoi, became a Power Ranger, raised a family. Then I was born on Earth. I'm still Estavan. But I'm also Mike. I'm not--"
He hesitated, grimacing. He wasn't a lot of things, and he wasn't completely sure what everyone else thought he was. He was, at the very least, overwhelmingly frustrated by the inability to put it into words.
"I'm not sharing my brain," he said aloud. "It's not one or the other. It's both. I'm both of us. All the time."
Strangely, she seemed to get this. "So you're neither," she said.
He blinked. "Yes," he said after a moment.
He could see her nod out of the corner of his eye. "I was born Kerone, on KO-35. A regular colony girl, mostly, until I was kidnapped and raised as Astronema. The princess of evil, they called me. You might have heard of her."
He just nodded. That had been a bad year, with him struggling to stay in school and fighting for custody of Leo at the same time. He'd tried to keep his brother away from the news as much as possible, but everyone knew who the Power Rangers were up against.
"My family finally tracked me down," she said. "They got past the brainwashing and the--everything. They wanted me to go back to being Kerone. I couldn't. Obviously. Not after everything I'd done as Astronema, not after everything I'd become.
"I'm not even human anymore," she added, glancing at him. "Did you know that?"
She'd startled him into looking at her. "No," he admitted.
"Well." She shrugged. "I use Kerone's name, because that's easier for everyone. And maybe I'm still that girl from KO-35, at least as much as I'm an evil sorceress from the Dark Fortress. But I have these two totally opposing views on the universe, and to be honest, I'm never sure which one's talking when I open my mouth."
He would have to tell Ali, he thought with a sigh. The one person who might be remotely qualified to psychoanalyze him, and here she was, hiding out on the beach. "You live on KO-35 now?" he asked, his eye on one of the aquaculture stations.
He could see her nodding again. "Mm-hmm."
"Is it home?" he wanted to know.
"Yes," she said without hesitation. "It's where my family is."
Therein lay the problem, he thought. "Half of my family is here," he said quietly. "Terra Venture may not be home, but it's the closest thing I've got."
"Will you defend it?" she asked, her voice just as soft.
He hadn't realized what she was asking the first time. "Yeah," he muttered. "I can be their sixth." It wasn't like he could take the morphers off anyway.
"Good." He could hear her smile in her words. "Megaship training today, right after lunch. One o'clock. Or 1300, as Kai is so fond of saying."
He glanced sideways at her. "Megaship training?"
"Yup." She looked absurdly pleased about it. "They're not that bad once you get them all arranged by color. You're NASADA though, right? I don't think you'll have too much trouble."
"Did I mention I'm insane?" he inquired, as politely as he could.
"Did I mention that describes half the Rangers I know?" she replied. "All you are is what you're doing right now. That's what my husband says."
"Is he a Ranger?" he asked.
She nodded. "He's Silver. And he can fly the Megaship with an AI copilot alone," she added, as though this might reassure him somehow.
"Is he one of the insane ones?" he continued.
This made her laugh. "Actually, no. He's pretty well-balanced," she admitted. "My brother's a little crazy, though. And one of the biggest heroes the Border has ever seen."
"Must be hard to live with," he mumbled, abandoning his questioning in the face of her determined carelessness. Apparently he was going to train on the Megaship this afternoon.
"He's terrible," she declared fondly. "And completely worth it."
He remembered what it felt like to have someone who thought that about him. He remembered what it felt like to have several people think that about him, but only one of them was still alive. If he lost that person because he was busy mourning the others...
They sat there for a long time, and it took a while for him to realize that she had stopped talking when he did. It took him longer to realize that he actually felt like talking to someone. Not to her, but to someone. To one person in particular.
He knew instinctively that the morphers the Galaxy Ranger wore could signal any radio or comm in the colony. He also knew that no one could contact them first without a morpher of their own. But did it have to be a transmorpher?
Did it matter, really? He wasn't going to interrupt whatever Leo was doing. He would see him after lunch, on the Megaship. In the meantime he could leave a message, like everyone else. It wasn't like he couldn't use a comm.
So he told the leader of the Rangers that he would be at training that afternoon. He tried to think like Mike, but it was disconcerting to come back after three weeks and find his little brother in charge of the Power Rangers. It wasn't much better for Estavan, reporting to someone half his age and not being in any way impressed by the team's lack of organization.
He almost did try Leo's morpher then, because all of a sudden he really needed to hear a familiar voice instead of all these foreign words--but if he activated his own morpher and there was no response, he wasn't sure he could handle that. Better to maintain the illusion, if illusion it was.
He made it through the rest of the morning by listening to Mike's music and indulging in Mike's habits: reading colonist bios to pass the time, and trying to decipher the new telemetry from astrophysics. The further they got from Earth, the more exciting the readings became, as Terra Venture was equipped with better instruments than any of the old probes and had already traveled thousands of times as far. It was, as he had been informed on a number of occasions, an incredibly geeky way to spend his free time.
He liked it. Spending hours holed up in his room alone with scientific data was actually one of the most relaxing things he'd done since he'd gotten here. The music probably hadn't hurt either. He'd felt strange using Mike's things other than out of necessity or by accident, partly because the room wasn't quite the way he remembered it and that made it feel like maybe the real Mike had been and gone in his absence. But these were his things, this was his room, and there wasn't anyone else to come and claim it, to call him an imposter.
Just because he remembered another life now didn't mean that this one wasn't his too.
He was feeling all right when he finally left his room for the Megaship. He even nodded to someone in the hall, just to see what would happen, and he felt vaguely proud of himself when they nodded back. He was Mike Corbett, after all. It wasn't like he didn't belong here.
The battleship, though. That was another story. No one questioned his presence in Hangar 5, even when he stood outside the Megaship for several long minutes, staring up at it... but this wasn't his life. Battleships? Space battleships? When had the GSA's weird thing about him accepting a military commission turned NASA into "Starship Troopers"?
It was a question that wouldn't be answered by standing around outside. There was a ramp down at the back of the ship, and it was farther away than it looked but it was also the only obvious way on board. No one tried to stop him as he put one foot on it, then carefully made his way up and... in? On? Through?
The hatch opened onto some kind of room, or holding bay, or welcome lobby for all he knew. There was an obvious doorway out, nothing but a hallway visible beyond. He could hear voices as he stepped inside, though, and he glanced around.
Several things hit him at once. Leo was here. Kai was also here. And his little brother was flirting with his very military friend. The reasons for this instant impression didn't register for a second or two afterwards: Kai was standing next to some sort of wall-mounted keypad, but his back was to it while Leo had his hand braced against the wall on his other side, earnestly explaining that Astronaut Bear could kick Air Force Bear's butt.
He wasn't sure whether it was the scene or the statement that prompted his incredulous, "What?"
Kai stiffened, and Leo pushed away from the wall smoothly, his hand going to the back of his neck like it had been on its way there all along. "Hey," he said, an abashed little boy grin accompanying his shrug. "You know, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company? Their Astronaut Bear is totally cooler than their Air Force Bear. I was just saying, if they ever fought--"
"Astronaut Bear would be at a disadvantage," Kai said, no expression on his face. "Muscles atrophy in orbit. He would obviously lose."
"He obviously wouldn't; he's got a head the size of a pumpkin! He's wearing a giant helmet and all Air Force Bear has is that little beret. Astronaut Bear headbutts him and he wins, easy."
"Why do you assume they're both male bears?" Kai wanted to know. "What if the astronaut is a woman and the Air Force... bear, is a man?"
Leo put his hands in his pockets, smirking. "Are you saying a man could beat up a female Astronaut Bear?"
"I'm saying no woman would be stupid enough to headbutt someone," Kai informed him. "Why are we talking about this?"
"I was just wondering that myself," he said, frowning at Leo. Leo didn't do flowers, but he did do stuffed animals. He'd heard the Vermont Teddy Bear line before. The only question was, why the hell was he talking teddy bears with Kai?
And why was Kai putting up with it?
"I'm trying to win a bet," Leo said easily. "I told Kendrix no way is Kai early every single day for a month. So far I'm losing. I decided it was time for a more proactive strategy."
"I'm going to the Bridge now," Kai announced. Then, to Leo, "Try not to be later than I am early.
"Good to have you here," Kai added, glancing his way. If the expression on his face said it might not be, his tone was completely neutral.
He didn't answer.
"Hey," Leo said, as Kai walked away. "I got your message. I'm glad you came."
He gave his brother a look. "The Vermont Teddy Bear Company?" he said pointedly.
"What?" Leo demanded. "It's a perfectly good line. Guys like it. It proves you're not too macho without being annoyingly femme. It probably works on women, too; you should try it and let me know."
"Kai's military," he growled. The California Air National Guard might not be the Marines, but it was under the jurisdiction of the USAF and all personnel were subject to the same code of conduct. "Leave him alone."
"He's Kai," Leo said, rolling his eyes. "I think he can make his own decisions about whether he wants to go out with me or not."
They were seeing each other? In the years since they'd met, he'd known Kai to date exactly one person. A female person. And here was Leo, with his puppyish charm and his teddy bear pickup lines, casually outing him and laying claim at the same time.
"I'm gone for three weeks and my little brother starts dating Command staff," he muttered. "This is so wrong."
"It's not Command staff," Leo protested. "It's just Kai. You don't have to make it sound like I'm working my way through the officers."
He winced, and he could practically hear Leo bristle.
"What's your problem?" Leo demanded. "You totally freaked Kai out, and it's not like he needs more to worry about."
"He should be worried!" he burst out, glaring at Leo. "He's putting the moves on my little brother!"
This made Leo pause. "Wait..." He was frowning, an odd look on his face. "Which one of us are you mad at?"
"Both of you," he said testily. "Aren't you a little old for this kind of thing?" It was out before he could think about it, and he didn't until he saw Leo's expression get even more confused.
"For what? Being gay?"
Yes, he realized. Hadn't Leo grown out of that yet? And what was Kai doing encouraging him?
"No," he said slowly. "I don't--"
Leo was waiting, not defensive enough to seize the silence. Not yet.
"Don't tell me things like that," he said at last. He couldn't talk about this, couldn't think about it, not when it was Leo and he didn't even know who he was. All he knew was that if Leo wanted to protect Kai, then there were things he had to learn not to say.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Leo wanted to know.
"It means don't tell," he muttered, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Sometime in the last three thousand years, he had forgotten just how much trouble his brother could be. "As long as you don't say anything, no one is allowed to ask any questions. Okay?"
"What, don't-ask-don't-tell?" Leo said it like it was all one word, and his lip curled in derision. "That's a stupid policy."
"Well, Clinton agreed with you," he grumbled. The knowledge was just there, like he'd always known it. "Congress didn't. The only way to keep them from kicking gays out of the military altogether was to make it illegal for anyone to talk about it."
"There's no Congress here," Leo pointed out. "And you're not anyone."
That was true, actually. He'd given up his place at the research center for a commission on Terra Venture, and now the only uniform he was wearing was a t-shirt and a leather jacket. He'd probably be officially discharged as soon as someone from Medlab got around to updating their records. Maybe he really wasn't anyone.
"I know he's your friend," Leo was saying, frowning like it had only just occurred to him. "Maybe that's weird for you, I don't know. But I never lied to you about guys before and I'm not going to start now."
He didn't know what to say to that. Mike never knew what to say when Leo acted like an adult, when he came out with something that sounded reasonable and articulate and startlingly grown up. All he could do was clap him on the shoulder, awkward and instinctive and utterly un-thought out.
Because of course Leo went to hug him. Leo was a hugger; he was the most touchy-feely guy Mike knew and maybe it came with the gay territory and maybe it didn't, Mike had no idea. But Leo hadn't so much as patted him on the arm since he got back, maybe waiting--in retrospect--for his brother to make the first move, to give him some signal that it was okay.
Arms went around him and dormant nerves sparked to life all over his body and it felt like his brain was overloading. He squeezed his eyes shut, because this was Leo and what the hell was he supposed to do? He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't keep tears from leaking out of his eyes. Conflicting messages flashed across his consciousness--pain comfort raw alive--and he couldn't think.
"You okay?" Leo was asking, pulling back, all the worry that he hadn't wanted there in his voice.
"I can't--" He was gasping for breath, pressing his hands to his eyes; his face was wet. "Touching... people." He swallowed, shaking his head. Wrapping his arms across his chest. "It's so weird in here."
"I'm sorry." Leo sounded stricken. "I didn't mean to..."
"Leo." He forced himself to lower his arms, burying his hands in his coat pockets, resisting the urge to wrap it tighter around himself. "Not your fault. Weird, remember? My head?"
He took a deep breath, trying to get out a complete sentence. "I didn't know that would happen." But he'd had a pretty good idea. He could barely handle a casual touch if he braced himself for it first. He should have known that that much tactile sensation, missing from his awareness for so long, would short-circuit his brain.
"Are you okay?" Leo repeated. He'd gone from just standing there to hovering anxiously without appearing to move, which was pretty damned impressive. "Should I get someone?"
He said it because it had to be said, not because it was necessarily true. "I'm okay." He couldn't tell whether that was reassuring or not, so he added, "Probably good shock therapy, anyway. I don't know why touching people is so strange."
"I should have asked." Leo sounded chastened and chagrinned, which was not a good tone for him. It made Mike feel instantly protective.
"You don't have to ask permission to hug your brother," he said, more roughly than he'd meant to. Trying to soften his tone, he muttered, "I'm glad you didn't."
Sadly, even this most obvious of truths made Leo beam, as though he hadn't been sure of it before. "Well, maybe some warning next time," he said, somewhere between pleased and apologetic. "You want to get up to the Bridge? Kai's making us look bad enough as it is."
Leo looked like he was about to head off without waiting for an answer, so he said, "Hey." When Leo glanced at him, he cleared his throat and mumbled, "Tell Kai not to screw up."
Leo scoffed. "Yeah," he said, his tone making it clear how likely that was, "I'll be sure to pass that on."
"Never mind," he muttered. Because Kai already didn't trust him, not the way he was now, so what did he have to lose if he pissed off his friend by warning him away from Leo? "I'll tell him myself."
He could hear Leo rolling his eyes. "Whatever."
So Leo wasn't even worried about him interfering. He thought that was probably a bad sign. It was his younger brother, right? And Kai? Mike was supposed to have some kind of influence with them. Both of them.
Maybe not as much as he'd thought.
Leo was telling him something about the Megaship as they made their way to the Bridge, and he listened at least enough to know that this wasn't the ship-to-surface ferry Mike had ridden from Earth to Terra Venture and back again so many times. This was a Ranger Powered zord-quality vehicle made for deep space, atmospheric combat, and everything in between. The potential had been there all along, apparently, but without a team that understood alien battleship technology, it was little more than a cargo hauler.
He wasn't convinced that the Galaxy Rangers were that team, but if Kerone thought they could learn, who was he to say otherwise? It was her ship. Apparently. Her ship, her time, and her convictions. He had firsthand experience with how dangerous it was to be on the wrong side of her faith.
The elevator they were riding in opened directly onto the Bridge, and as the doors pulled back he had the fleeting impression of a crew at work. The fantasy was dispelled as each figure resolved into someone Mike knew, tech coveralls and GSA uniforms, a ragtag bunch performing minor operations under Kerone's supervision. But just for a moment, Estavan had seen what Kerone must see every time she looked: new students, new Rangers... the beginnings of a team that might be able to do something with this ship.
Everything has its beginning, he mused. And most things began without the benefit of a teacher, a mentor, some guide in the darkness. If they were young and disorganized, they were also strong and determined. They wouldn't be paralyzed by these times.
And then Shairra stepped out from behind Kerone, smiling at him in welcome.
"Did you guys meet?" Leo was asking, as they all started to gather at the back of the Bridge. Abandoning stations and tasks and he wondered if there wasn't something more important they could be doing than staring at him. "I can't remember; I think I blocked out most of that day..."
"Only for a moment," Maya said, not unkindly. And of course, she was the one from Mirinoi, from his own planet, foreign clothes and native jewelry and she was barefoot on the metal deck of this battleship. He was the stranger here.
"I'm afraid we weren't properly introduced," she added, turning her hands palm-up and still smiling at him. "I'm Maya. Thank you for what you did for my planet."
He echoed her gesture without thinking about it, the habit there alongside all the others as though he'd always done it. "Estavan," he said, because she held a saber and therefore had no need of titles. "Thank you for what you do for our people."
There was a profound silence from the Rangers gathered around him. Only the systems' hum and the almost inaudible whisper of recycled air disturbed the quiet. He could feel Kerone's gaze among the others, the only one who didn't seem surprised.
"And," he said, belatedly realizing what he'd done, "Mike Corbett." He offered his hand awkwardly, not sure the gesture would have been right in the first place, let alone now.
But Maya's expression cleared, and she nodded. "Yes," she said, taking his hand with a curious smile. "That's how I first knew you, I think. Are you two different people now?"
"No," he muttered, trying not to catch anyone else's eye. He didn't really want to know how they were looking at him. "Just... two lives' worth of information in my head, I guess."
"Like an incarni?" Her voice was gentle, and he thought she was trying to coax him into an explanation. If he had one, he'd give it to her.
"I don't know what that is," he said, releasing her and shoving both his hands back in his pockets. Not exactly an officer stance. Not even particularly polite. But at least it was less revealing.
"Someone who remembers the lives they've lived before," Maya supplied. "I'm sorry; you--you introduced yourself as someone from my planet would."
He swallowed. "I lived on Mirinoi a long time ago," he mumbled. "I'm sure the language has changed since then."
"No," she said quickly. "I mean, of course, but I think 'incarni' is a modern term. Part of the spiritualist movement. I understand these things repeat over the years, but the words associated with them probably differ."
He just nodded. It wasn't so much that she looked like his first wife as it was that she stood out among the people of Earth. All he had seen since he got here were people from Mike's planet--with the possible exception of Kerone--and when someone from Estavan's world came forward, suddenly home didn't feel quite so far away.
"So... you remember being Mike?" It was Kendrix who had stepped into the breach. "And you remember being this other person too? From Mirinoi?"
"Estavan," Kerone said softly. Habit made him glance her way at the sound of his name, and she just smiled a little. More wistful than sympathetic.
Her recognition gave him the strength to look around at the rest of them. "I am Mike," he told them. "It's just... it's like I was Mike for a while, and then I went and lived Estavan's life. And now I'm back, and I have to be Mike again.
"Except it's not that simple," he added, frustrated all over again that he couldn't make it sound like he felt. "It isn't one and then the other, it's just... both of them, sort of--jammed together."
Damon was giving him a look he recognized. It was the why does this work when someone put it together completely wrong? look. "That's really weird," he said.
He had to shrug, because yeah, it was. "That's what I'm saying."
"It's like a long deployment," Kai said quietly. "Right? You come back, and you remember everyone, but they remember the old you. The way you used to be, before all the stuff you saw."
He looked at Kai in surprise. It shouldn't have startled him, really. Kai always said he'd come back from Lackland different. "Yeah," he heard himself saying. "Kind of like that, I guess."
"Can you tell us?" Leo wanted to know. "I mean--about Estavan?"
He didn't know how to answer that, but he knew he had to. "Maybe," he said at last. That was the best he could do. "Not today."
"Well," Kendrix began, sounding almost hopeful. "We're glad to have you back."
He found himself smiling at her earnestness. It was really no surprise that Kai had gotten her into the civilian military training program. She was game for anything. "Thanks," he told her. And he meant it.
That seemed to be the signal: for Damon to reach out and cuff him on the shoulder, for Kendrix to come forward and pat his arm, for even Maya to invade his personal space. Just like Leo, he realized afterward, they were just waiting to know that it was okay. But it wasn't, and he flinched away from the press of attention.
"Hey," Leo said quickly, catching Kendrix by the shoulders and physically holding her back. Maya stopped when she did, and he saw Leo give Damon and even Kai a warning look. "Just leave it, okay?"
"I can't--" It was up to him to say something before they all got mad at Leo, but he didn't know what to say. "It's a weird... thing. I'm sorry," he muttered. "I just--I can't."
"Are you all right?" Maya asked, and she sounded worried but she was looking at the rest of them as much as at him. Like she personally had done something wrong and they might know what it was. Kendrix was giving Leo pretty much the same look.
"He's cool," Leo said, intervening with enviable ease. "He just needs some space. He remembers being trapped in stone for three thousand years, you know? It can make a guy pretty claustrophobic."
Leo was so convincing that for a moment even he thought it might be true. It made sense. It explained everything about his reaction--except the way he actually felt. It was contact, not crowding. Claustrophobia didn't explain the way he'd knocked Ali's equipment to the floor because she touched his wrist, or the way he'd been crying when Leo hugged him.
Everyone was nodding sympathetically. Everyone but Kerone, who knew what claustrophobia was and was giving him an odd look for Leo's explanation. She didn't say anything, though, and it occurred to him that she had never told him that. Had she? What would she know about claustrophobia?
"Personal space," Kai was saying. "No problem. Anything else we should know?"
"Yeah," he said, before he could stop himself. He was looking right at Kai, but it was some combination of the moment and the concern more than the person in particular. "Don't fuck with my brother."
Kai's return stare was expressionless.
"Okay," Leo said, filling the silence. "When you said you'd tell him yourself, I didn't think you'd really do it."
"None of us would ever hurt Leo," Kendrix said, looking from one of them to the other. "You don't have to worry. We take care of each other."
That wasn't what he meant, and there was no way she could not know it.
"We're okay," he told Kai, who was standing at something resembling parade rest. "We're fine. Just remember, he's my little brother. And I know where you live."
"Would you cut it out?" Leo complained. "I'm not twelve anymore."
That was a thought. "You know he's twenty, right?" he said, ignoring Leo to remind Kai. "He can't even drink."
"Okay, shut up now," Leo warned him.
"Be glad you're not my younger sister," he told Leo. "We wouldn't even be having this conversation."
"I can only wish!" Leo retorted.
"Look, if there are decoder rings," Damon interrupted, "can I have one? What the hell are you talking about?"
There was a quiet moment where it occurred to him that maybe delivering that ultimatum in front of the entire team hadn't been the best idea. Leo glanced at Kai, who was staring straight ahead, now refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Maya was leaning against Kendrix's shoulder, both of them wearing worried expressions. Kerone looked vaguely amused.
"Uh--" Leo seemed stuck for words for maybe the first time all day, gaze going from him to Kai and back again. "Damon doesn't--didn't actually... know."
"Know what?" Damon demanded. "Is this like the cancer thing? Why am I the last person to know anything around here?"
He blinked at that. "The cancer thing?"
"Oh, no," Damon declared, leveling him with a look. "You first. You got some kind of problem with Kai?" The tone said he'd better not.
He looked back at Kai, who still wouldn't meet his gaze. "No," he said. "I don't have a problem with Kai."
"Leo?" Damon said impatiently.
"No," he repeated, when Leo gave him a pointed look. "I don't have a problem with anyone."
"I actually... um," Kendrix paused when they all looked at her. "I broke some rules to get onto Terra Venture. I mean, it was for a good cause; you'd never have gotten someone as good as me if I hadn't--"
"It doesn't matter now," Maya said quickly. "Now that you're a Ranger."
He frowned at them. "What doesn't matter?"
"I have leukemia," Kendrix blurted out. "I was diagnosed back on Earth, just before I joined the GSA. I didn't tell them."
"Because she wanted to make a difference," Maya offered. "They valued her life over her freedom."
"Yeah, except now no one can find anything wrong with her." Leo was quick to jump in--protecting Kai, he thought--smiling at Kendrix and getting an embarrassed shrug in return. "Bet you wish you hadn't gone to all the trouble of telling us, now."
"No," she protested, but her tone was fond and she was obviously happy with the attention. If he didn't know his brother, if he hadn't seen him with Kai just a few minutes before, he might have put the two of them together in his mind.
"I had to tell you," she was saying. "And there's no reason to think it's gone--now at least they can monitor me, so when it comes back I'll know."
"Her white blood cell counts are totally normal," Leo told him, making a show of ignoring her protests. He looked proud and pleased, like he bore some of the responsibility, and he clearly expected an answer.
Mike had no idea what that meant, and Estavan was no better off. "That's good," he said, glancing at Kendrix. "Right?"
"That's impossible," she said with a grin. "Kind of like Leo firing an energy rifle one-handed."
"Oh, please," Kai muttered. "Like he's the only one who can do that."
"Still waiting," Damon commented to the group at large.
"Look, the military has a policy about telling people, okay?" Kai snapped. "So I didn't. It's not because of you."
Damon didn't look any more enlightened. "Huh?"
"Kai and Leo," he muttered, still not thrilled about the idea but willing to do his part if Kai was going to look that miserable. He waved back and forth between the two of them, just as happy to not know exactly what he was indicating. "They're... you know."
"What?" At first he thought Damon still wasn't getting it, but then the tech added, "Seriously? Maya and Kendrix, I know, but this is crazy."
Glancing at him before anyone could react, Damon asked, "You straight, man? 'Cause I'm starting to feel a little outnumbered."
"Welcome to my life." Kai's tone was icy, and he closed his mouth abruptly. Kai was glaring at them. "So you get to be the minority for an hour a day. Big deal."
"Hey." The dark-skinned man gave Kai a warning look. "I didn't mean anything by it. And don't tell me about having to keep your mouth shut, because you get that choice."
It was Leo's voice that stopped them, silencing them before someone said something they couldn't take back. "No one sees us the way we really are," he said quietly. "Okay? We're all too young, too gay, too black, too poor. Too sick. We all know what it's like.
"We're safe here," he continued. "With each other. None of us is going to have a problem with anyone else, so let's just drop it. We're a team. We've got each other's backs.
"Right?" Leo added, looking around at all of them.
"Right," Kendrix replied immediately.
Kai nodded once, then again when Leo looked directly at him.
Damon shrugged. "Sure," he agreed. "No problem here.
"Although," Damon added, "if you guys could tell me things, that would be great. If we had a mailing list or something, we could maybe avoid stuff like this."
Kendrix actually laughed, and he heard Kerone giggle. Even Kai smiled reluctantly, but Leo looked kind of thoughtful. "That's not a bad idea."
"A mailing list," Maya said, nudging Kendrix gently. "Is that like the news you get every morning?"
"Mmm-hmm." Kendrix nodded, and she sounded serious when she said, "E-mail is actually more private than a lot of the conversations on Terra Venture. With all the environmental monitoring, you're as likely to be recorded as not, but non-archived data is--
"Unless you're inside," she said quickly. "I mean, obviously residences and most workplaces are private."
He looked around, but he couldn't tell who she was responding to. Either Kai or Damon must have made some sort of face that prompted her correction. Given Kai's poker face, he would bet on it being Damon.
"Do you think you could set up something for us?" Leo was asking. "At least for training announcements and stuff? Kai ends up calling everyone about training practically every day. Or I do. I don't know why we don't just use e-mail."
"Because Maya doesn't have an e-mail address," Kai said. "And you don't check yours, so what good does it do?"
"I could," Leo argued. "I just don't, because who e-mails me?"
"No one," Kai countered. "Because they know you won't check it."
"That's the most circular argument I've ever heard," Damon informed them. "Be more creative or knock it off."
"I can get you an e-mail account," Kendrix was telling Maya. "Most of the colonist accounts are set up by last name and however many initials we need to be able to tell people apart. Do you want 'Mirinoi' as your last name?"
"Is e-mail separate from comm codes?" Kerone asked Leo quietly.
"Yeah, the comm is priority." Leo replied in kind, the words soft under Kai's current protest and Kendrix's explanation. "The system automatically routes incoming calls to wherever you logged in last. If you don't pick up, the messages follow you around. E-mail doesn't. You have to go get it, like back home."
"Get it where?" she asked, all innocence, and he couldn't help smiling at the overheard conversation. Kerone was strong and smart and opinionated as all get out, but occasionally something she didn't have any reason to know would revive the cute blonde illusion.
"What color is Mike?" Damon's question startled him out of idle eavesdropping and made him refocus on the conversation with Kai. "I mean, if our duty stations are assigned by color--"
"Only until we learn something about them without the Power," Kai interrupted.
"Whatever," Damon said. "I'm just saying, if he's Black, are you still the navigator?"
"Yes," Kerone put in, apparently satisfied with Leo's explanation of Terra Venture's telecommunication systems. "Because Mike isn't Black."
There was a way in which this made sense. Or so he was told. Unfortunately, none of the explanations they offered were that way. The main thing he got out of it was that Kai and Kerone had two totally different methods for assigning duty stations, and Kerone's was the one they were using right now.
Kai had apparently assigned them by relevant skills, which meant that he flew the ship, Kendrix shot at things, and Damon told them if they were about to blow up or crash. Maya mostly tried to stay out of the way. Leo sat directly to Kai's right, that supposedly being the place where he could do the least damage.
Maya got that seat when Kerone was assigning stations, which she claimed she did by color. Interestingly, Kendrix still got to shoot things, and Damon was still in charge of bad news. But Kai had to give up the pilot seat to Leo--something that Leo complained about a lot more than Kai did, as far as he could tell.
"Seriously," Leo said, only minutes after launch. "I suck at this."
"You only suck as much as you think you suck," Kerone told him, in a sagely teenage way. "Confidence isn't usually such a big problem for Red Rangers."
They'd taken the Megaship out on a practice run, close enough to Terra Venture that their scanners could keep an eye on the colony, and far enough away that hopefully the reverse wasn't true. Because Leo was right. He really didn't seem to have any knack for flying. Which was perfectly understandable, given that he had zero training, but Kerone seemed convinced his Ranger color alone could make up for that.
"Maybe I'd be more confident with Kai piloting," Leo complained. He couldn't seem to keep his eyes on the readout, constantly looking up at the screen as though they might be about to hit something and he would see it coming if he looked up fast enough.
"I'm more confident with him navigating," Kerone replied. "Trust me, there's nothing you can do up here that he can't override back there."
"So why is he back there at all?" Leo grumbled. It had the sound of a familiar argument, not something he expected to produce results, just something he said for the sake of form.
"You decide what the ship should do," Kerone said. "Kai decides--"
"How the ship should do it," Leo finished, repeating what must be an oft-used explanation along with her. "I must be the least-qualified person on this team to decide what the ship should do."
He felt Kerone's gaze on him a moment before she spoke. "He's actually very good in battle simulations," she confided, a note of amusement in her voice. "You wouldn't know it to hear him complain, but when he stops thinking about what he's doing he's a remarkably competent pilot."
He thought she didn't expect a response, but he had one anyway. "So put them in a battle simulation," he said. "If it's about building confidence."
"We've done seven battle simulations in the past two days," she said, a little apologetically.
He shrugged. "Pilots train on the basics until they know enough to move up. If battle is basic for a Ranger pilot, why not let him train on it until he knows enough to--" What? "Fly without people shooting at him?"
So they ran another battle simulation. The difference was staggering. Damon stopped fidgeting. Kai turned on like someone had thrown a switch. Kendrix was suddenly paying attention to her station, instead of the rest of the team. Maya, oddly, seemed to be doing less, and he wondered what all of those buttons she'd been pushing before really did.
Leo, though, underwent the most dramatic change. Not only did he stop complaining, he also managed to sit up straight, focus on the tactical readout in front of him, and give orders at the same time. He even seemed to hear the replies. Most amazing of all, he actually flew the ship. Power Ranger or not, that had been hard to imagine--right up until the moment he was doing it.
No matter how hard it had been to doubt Kerone before this, it was going to be harder now.
His respect for her--and the team she was mentoring--only grew as the afternoon continued. Megaship training was followed by combat training: hand-to-hand, from which he was excused, and fencing, from which he most definitely was not. He watched their hand-to-hand training, fascinated in spite of himself, and he didn't think anything of their sparring groups until he saw Kerone taking on Leo and Kai at the same time.
She wiped the mat with them, just as she'd done with Kendrix, Damon, and Maya before them. She'd taken the three of them, simultaneously, in seconds. Leo and Kai went down as hard as their teammates, no question. But it took... longer.
He thought maybe she was just messing with them at first. Kerone was deadly on the mats, and it took no time at all to understand that she really could kill them. Possibly all of them at once. But with Leo and Kai, she acted like she might have to work just a little bit harder at it.
It wasn't until he joined them for fencing that he became sure it was more than an act. He was paired with Damon while Kendrix and Maya faced off against one another--and in between, Leo and Kai swung at each other hard enough to strike sparks. Not a mistake, he realized, holding up a hand to make Damon wait while he watched. They were hitting hard and blocking harder and a single miss could have chopped either one of them in half.
"Is that safe?" he muttered, feeling stupid for asking but admittedly appalled by their no-holds-barred approach to practice.
Damon snorted. "That's why they're always partners. They'd kill the rest of us. Except maybe Kerone."
He was informed that they worked together out of physical necessity--a statement that would have made him scoff if he hadn't seen them. He knew his brother could defend himself. He knew Kai was pretty capable. But seeing Kai pin Leo's sword and lift him up off the ground with one hand was comparable only to Leo's retaliation, which had Kai on the ground a moment later.
He was literally the only person in the room surprised by their show.
On the other hand, he also seemed to be the only person who wasn't surprised when Leo casually invited himself along to dinner after training. "I'm just going back to my room," he muttered, because he was.
"That's cool," Leo said easily. "Can I come?"
"Yeah." Obviously. "If you want."
"Great." Leo shrugged into his jacket, and he had to say something. Because how much of a coincidence was it that Leo had picked that exact jacket?
"Nice jacket," he offered, smiling a little to himself.
"Thanks." Leo looked as though he took this very seriously. "I know you didn't... well. Kai told me. I mean, he said--he told me you got it for me."
It took him a minute to figure out what Leo meant, but finally he got it. Not so much of a coincidence after all, then. And maybe it explained why his room didn't look quite the way Mike had left it.
"Yeah," he said. He glanced over at Kai, who wasn't even pretending not to watch them. "Thanks," he added quietly.
Their eyes met, and Kai nodded once.
It was Monday evening as he waited for Leo by the door of the locker room. The last week of the first month post-launch. Twenty-one days and an entire lifetime gone; three days, one team, and maybe half of his old home back.
Maybe just enough.
Chapter 7: Overload
Kerone left a week after she'd arrived. She'd mentioned souvenirs for her kids several times, so they thanked her for her help by taking her shopping the night before. The whole team. Including Mike, who seemed to have bonded with Kerone when no one was looking, and Kai, who seemed faintly impatient with the whole activity.
Or maybe he was just exasperated by the way the rest of the team got into it. Leo and Damon needed more color-coded clothing anyway, and Kendrix and Maya were happy to inspect, suggest, and compare every kid-appropriate gift they could find. Mike had relaxed enough that he didn't frown every time someone said his name, and his tolerance for the general public had increased significantly.
So it was just Kai who acted like the shopping sendoff was embarrassingly juvenile, which pushed Leo's buttons without him even having to open his mouth. In retrospect, Leo thought their annoyance had probably fed off of each other as the evening progressed. He teased and joked in an effort to get Kai to engage--and the more he reached out, the more Kai withdrew. The more aloof Kai seemed, the more Leo tried to get to him.
"We're a really terrible combination," he said abruptly, sitting down on Kai's couch the next night. "You know that?"
From somewhere on the other side of the room, he heard Kai snort. "Which one of the many possible reasons are you talking about now?"
Leo smiled, reaching for the deck of cards he'd been playing with two days ago. He had forbidden Kai to help with the dishes, so Kai had started neatening the rest of his room while he waited. Now Leo was done, and Kai showed no signs of stopping any time soon. Every surface had to be free of clutter.
Except that the cards were still on the table. Stacked neatly, to be sure, but... the only thing left out on the otherwise bare tabletop.
"I was thinking of last night," he said aloud. They hadn't talked about it then or since, partly because that wasn't what Kai did and partly because Leo knew it was trying to fight what Kai did that had gotten him into trouble in the first place. "I just can't not push, you know?"
"You don't push." There was a warning note in Kai's voice that let him know he was doing it right now, and if he kept it up the results would be exactly the same.
"Well, I don't mean to," Leo agreed, shuffling the cards idly. "Just so you know."
That was good, then. He might learn to work with Kai's more avoidance-oriented personality yet. Assuming Kai ever stopped cleaning long enough for them to do something fun. He started laying out a solitaire pattern, just to make a point.
"Hey," Kai's voice interrupted, coming from just over his shoulder. He smirked to himself. When he looked up, though, Kai was looking back at him. Not at the game. "You're not allergic to chocolate, are you?"
Leo blinked. That wasn't quite what he'd expected. "Who's allergic to chocolate?"
"Nuts?" Kai wanted to know.
He tried not to smile. "Nuts are allergic to chocolate?"
Kai put a hand on the back of his head, a gentle approximation of a cuff that turned into a caress when it slid down to his neck. "Are you allergic to nuts," he clarified, with an amused and long-suffering look.
"No," Leo said, grinning up at him. "But I like the way this is going."
Kai smiled back and produced brownies, of all things. Leo demanded, not very seriously, to know how he had pulled this off. And Kai informed him that it wasn't finding chocolate that was the problem, but finding people who were willing to share it once they had it.
"You need to stop impressing me," Leo teased. "And you definitely need to stop cooking. Otherwise you'll never get rid of me."
"Well," Kai said with a shrug. He dropped down on the couch too, casually taking a bite of his dessert. Leo thought that might be all he was going to say right up until he added, "Just so you know."
Mouth full, Leo raised his eyebrows in question.
"I don't do one-night stands," Kai told the table matter-of-factly.
Leo chewed slowly, considering this. Or rather, considering why this would come up now. He thought he was pretty obviously going to a lot of trouble for someone who just wanted a night of sex.
"Well," he echoed, a moment later. "I try not to make promises if I don't know I can keep them." He looked over at Kai, wondering how that would go over.
Kai didn't look up. "Not asking for promises," he said.
Leo frowned, because he couldn't tell if that was just the truth, or if it meant there was something else Kai was asking, and he hadn't gotten it. "Not looking for a one-night stand," he said, for lack of anything less obvious.
It made Kai nod, anyway, so maybe he passed. Leo decided to risk a smile. "Guess we'll just have to meet somewhere in the middle," he offered.
Kai made a sort of affirmative noise, and Leo figured that was as much as he could ask. Until Kai caught his wrist before he could take another bite of his brownie and leaned in to kiss him. Okay, he thought. Happy to participate. He hadn't seen that coming, but maybe he should have.
When Kai pulled away, he couldn't help licking his lips. Because, come on, chocolate. That was a good way to kiss. Kai's reaction was one of tolerant amusement--but the Power prickled, just slightly, and Leo frowned. He was started to recognize that feeling, especially coming from Kai.
"What is that?" he asked anyway. Just in case. When Kai gave him an odd look, he shook his head. "Can you feel that? When you're... I don't get it from the others as much."
"The others?" Kai repeated, frowning back at him. "Feel what?"
"Can I--" He tried for another kiss, as a sort of experiment, but Kai drew back.
"What's going on?" he asked, eyes narrowed.
Leo shook his head, because he'd tried to explain this to Kendrix several times, and once even to Damon. It never came out quite right. "It's something about the Power," he said, trying again anyway. "I can tell when you're--" He gestured helplessly. "Restless."
Kai raised his eyebrows at him. "'Restless' being a euphemism for what, exactly?"
"Nothing," Leo said hastily. "I mean, really. Restless. Like, I don't know... too much energy? It happens to you more than anyone else. You're just--you get--"
"What do you mean," Kai demanded, "too much energy?"
"Like when you started running," Leo told him. "The Power kept... poking me, warning me, you know? That there was something wrong. That you were--" He couldn't find the right word, but Kai was looking at him like no words at all would be worse than the wrong one.
"Overloading," he finished at last.
"Overloading," Kai repeated. No expression.
"I think maybe it's because you're stronger than us," Leo said quickly, trying to gauge his non-expression somehow. "And because you have to stay in Command so much of the day. You don't get to, you know... be very active. It's always better after training. Well, fencing and self-defense, anyway. Not target practice so much."
He sounded like he was babbling.
Kai was studying him, his face unchanged even when Leo managed to stop talking. "And you can tell," Kai said finally. "You can sense that somehow."
Leo just looked at him, surprised, because that wasn't what he'd expected Kai to say. He'd figured on denial, or a request to drop the subject entirely. At the very least, he'd thought Kai might protest his characterization of Command as not very active.
"I guess that makes sense," Kai muttered. "That the leader--that the Red Ranger would know things about the team. In principle, anyway. It's kind of disturbing in practice."
Leo finally found his voice. "So you know what I'm talking about?"
"Yeah," Kai said with a sigh. "I thought it might just be me."
"I think it's more you than anyone else," Leo said carefully. "Is it... weird? Or, I don't know, hard to deal with?"
Kai gave him a wry smile. "Yeah," he said, so calm that at first Leo thought he was being mocked. "It's pretty damn hard to deal with."
He couldn't remember ever hearing Kai swear, but that thought was overshadowed by the way Kai got up. Abruptly. Not easily, not the way he'd sat down. And he didn't go anywhere, didn't try to do anything. He just stood there.
"Hey," Leo began. This, he decided, might be a good moment to finish his brownie. Because if Kai wasn't serious, then he was pissed, and if he was serious... then maybe he'd been cleaning, not compulsively, but just for something to do. And now he wasn't doing anything. "You okay?"
He could hear the answering sigh, and when Kai turned to look at him it was with a pleading expression that Leo had never seen on his face before. He didn't seem aware of it as he said evenly, "Let's just say I don't really feel like taking the subway tonight."
That was cool with him. Leo swallowed the rest of his brownie and stood up, brushing his hands off in a gesture of finality. "So let's do something else."
Kai was staring at him, and he grinned. Stepping closer, he teased, "You planning to eat the rest of that brownie?"
Kai set it down without looking and walked right into him, startling him so badly that he almost stumbled before he caught Kai's arms for balance. Then Kai's mouth was on his, open and hot and demanding, and he made a really embarrassing sound when he felt a thigh pressed between his legs but it was overwhelming and out of the blue and he was very interested in these new plans that Kai suddenly had. Because, hey, who cared about basketball, really?
It was a slight height advantage that he had, and he didn't realize how little it mattered until he tried to use it. Kai pushed back so hard that he was knocked onto the couch, his unexpectedly enthusiastic boyfriend on top of him, and he burst out laughing. Well, laughing, gasping, whatever. Because of course he couldn't out-muscle the Blue Ranger. Who could?
Kai froze, which was exactly the wrong reaction as far as he was concerned. "Sorry," Kai muttered, trying to scramble back. "Sorry--"
Leo yanked, hard, because nothing else would stop him. Kai's hand went to his chest, bracing himself automatically, and Leo went down under the pressure. Flat on his back on the cushions, Kai caught between pulling away and unintentionally holding him down, and he couldn't stop laughing.
Kai looked stricken, so Leo knocked his arm aside at the elbow, forcing him to collapse. "'m not," he mumbled, hands on the hips that were pinning him down and his whole body really, really enjoying the situation. "Not sorry at all."
He heard Kai whimper, and he won, because they were totally going to make out now. He turned his face into Kai's neck and kissed, licked the skin, sucked hard when he heard Kai moan. Sweet. Then there were hands on his skin, rucking up his shirt, making him twist under a heated assault that was like every fantasy of how training should end.
And Kai must have read his mind, because he whispered, "If I thought it was hard to spar with you before--"
He braced one foot against the couch and arched up, hard and slow against Kai's body, the dirtiest stretch or most innocent invitation and he knew full well the edge that he was skirting. If he hadn't, the way Kai's voice broke when he did it would have told him. That was the sound of a man who knew what was being offered.
Kai groaned, melting against him like he could get closer without actually admitting anything. "It's going to be impossible now," he mumbled.
He was willing to roll up against the back of the couch when Leo pushed, panting and mussed as his fingers clenched in the red t-shirt and they kissed through the breathlessness. "I think," Leo gasped, and then he was distracted by tongues and damp skin and whatever it was Kai was doing with his leg.
He didn't think it was his imagination when he heard Kai mutter, "Why?"
It made him want to laugh again, but he didn't have any breath to spare. "I think we've been doing it wrong," he panted, the words catching as Kai pressed into him again. He wasn't used to being pinned, but Kai couldn't seem to help it.
"Sparring," he added, just to clarify. "This is--"
He groaned as their legs finally tangled together, a result of maneuvering he hadn't paid enough attention to, and Kai's tongue in his mouth stifled the rest of the words. This time when he tried to lift himself up off the couch it wasn't entirely a conscious gesture. It was dangerously close to something that wasn't anything like a stretch, so he willed his eyes shut and held on, thrusting with his tongue instead and feeling a shiver run the length of his body when Kai whimpered again.
"Much more fun," he gasped, the moment his mouth was free. "Much more--"
Kai pushed hard against his chest, legs sliding free as he sat up, braced over him but not so much with the touching, and Leo squirmed insistently. "Not as fun," he protested, reaching for Kai.
Kai didn't pull away, but he didn't reciprocate either. "I can't," he choked, trying to catch his breath, maybe trying to explain, but that was enough to make Leo pause. "This isn't... I need--"
Leo made sure he slid away a little before he sat up, hot and aching all over, with his heart pounding in his ears. That was great, awesome, totally something he wanted to do again right now. He wanted nothing more than to plaster himself against Kai's body and to moan into a mouth that was seriously good with its tongue.
Well, almost nothing.
Nothing except Kai's trust. Kai's respect. And pretty much anything Kai wanted.
"I need to do something else," Kai managed, closing his eyes.
"Why?" he blurted out, before he remembered that pretending to agree usually got better results than direct challenges. In his defense, his brain wasn't exactly functioning at its highest capacity right now.
"Because I'm out of control," Kai said tightly, surprising him with the answer. "Like the running, like the outer mall, like... once I start, I can't--" He swallowed hard. "If I do this, maybe it's the same way. Maybe I can't..."
"Stop?" Leo offered, when he couldn't seem to say it.
His eyes opened, and Kai stared at him with that same pleading look he'd had before. He didn't say anything, though. Maybe he didn't have to.
"Maybe that's, uh--" Leo cleared his throat. "I'm... okay with that, you know."
Kai's expression didn't change, but again, he didn't even seem to know that his eyes were telling their own story. "I'm not," he said evenly.
"Oh." Well, that was kind of embarrassing.
"I mean, sorry," Leo added quickly. Awkwardly. "That's cool. Obviously."
Kai looked away. "Let's do something else," he said, his voice tight.
Stifling his automatic protest, Leo nodded. "Okay." His eye fell on the half-eaten brownie on the table, and he bit down on yet another question. The same one he'd asked a few minutes ago, actually.
"Not basketball?" Leo continued, since Kai wasn't offering any suggestions. They could walk instead of taking the subway, but it would take the better part of an hour. "Too far away?"
"Basketball's not even a real sport," Kai muttered.
Leo raised his eyebrows, because that wasn't quite the answer he'd expected. "Oh?" he said, letting his amusement show. Kai was nothing if not unpredictable. "And what do you consider a real sport?"
It made Kai look at him, so that was worth something right there. An appraising look, one that felt a little too familiar considering how close they were sitting, but a look nonetheless. "Lacrosse," Kai told him.
He felt a smile spreading across his face. "Are you kidding me?"
"High school varsity," Kai replied, apparently very serious. "I still have the letter."
"You're kidding me," Leo repeated.
This time Kai got up, walking away. Leo eyed the brownie on the table again, but he decided not to push it. He looked up when movement caught his eye, and sure enough, Kai was holding up a warmup jacket with the letters "AG" on it.
He grinned. "Well, model it," he prompted, waving his hand. "Let's see Varsity Kai."
Kai rolled his eyes at that, but he did put the jacket on. Angel Grove's colors were garish and very high school, which was all to the good as far as Leo was concerned. Kai still looked plenty appealing, even wearing his old varsity jacket on the other side of the room, but he looked much less... serious.
"Very nineties," Leo informed him. "I was in junior high."
Kai shook his head, shrugging out of the jacket. "When are you going to be twenty-one?" he asked, turning to hang it back up.
"October," Leo said. "October ninth.
"Why?" he added, with his best lazy look. "Can't wait to see me drink?"
"You're going to make me drink," Kai countered, folding his arms as he leaned up against the closet door. "I just wanted to know how long until you can stop feeling left out."
Leo smirked. "Is that the new plan for the evening?" he teased. "Instead of making out, we'll just drink?"
"Result would be the same," Kai muttered, and even from where he was, Leo didn't have any trouble hearing him.
"I'm in," Leo said cheerfully, since apparently it was okay to joke about this now.
"You're underage," Kai retorted. "I could be arrested for letting you drink in here."
"They usually just fine the host," Leo told him. "A few thousand dollars, give or take. Depending on whether you supply the alcohol yourself or not."
Kai eyed him, and Leo smiled innocently.
"Do you play?" Kai asked at last.
With you, Leo thought? Oh yeah.
"Lacrosse?" he said aloud. "I picked up a stick in gym class, same as everyone else. But it wasn't big in my neighborhood." Sitting forward on the couch, he added, "Think you can teach me?"
"Four years of varsity and JV?" Kai countered. "I can teach anyone."
He had a couple of sticks in the closet, apparently. He took the time to detour past the couch, passing one to Leo and scooping up his half-eaten brownie along the way. "Come on," he said, breaking the brownie into two pieces and giving Leo one without a word. "There's plenty of room in the park upstairs."
"Sweet," Leo said, popping the brownie into his mouth with a grin.
Their rooms were almost directly below the east side open space arena, which made the walk significantly shorter than the one to the community center where they'd been playing basketball. It wasn't exactly deserted, but no one had been expecting Power Rangers to show up either, so it was less crowded than the courts. They were going to have to start varying their schedules more.
What he'd learned about lacrosse in gym wasn't anything close to good enough, of course. Kai mocked his cradling technique, taught him to throw all over again, and they played catch for the better part of an hour. If Leo pretended his aim was slightly worse than the Power actually made it, well, it was for a good cause. Kai got in a lot of running while he was chasing the ball.
He learned to kick, too. He honestly didn't remember any kicking from gym class, but Kai was the varsity lacrosse player. They had to stay closer together to kick back and forth, and when it degenerated into a game of keep away Leo was perfectly happy to chase Kai until he gave up.
Which he didn't. But hey, checking was legal in lacrosse, right? Kai was obviously the better player, but Leo was faster--especially when he wasn't the one trying to keep the ball away from his teammate.
Kai shouted when Leo slammed into him, and okay, maybe tackling wasn't technically allowed. Kai went down and Leo stumbled, about to regain his balance when Kai maliciously tripped him and he put his shoulder down and rolled. The grass was forgiving and friendly and a little damp in the deepening twilight.
Leo sprawled on his back, staring up at the stars and grinning when Kai declared, "That's what's known as a personal foul. In case you were curious."
"Yeah," he said, rolling his eyes, "and I'm sure tripping is totally legal."
"Checking is above the knees and from the front only," Kai informed him.
"We tried that already tonight," Leo drawled, lifting one hand to block out the lights coming from the event staging. "I must have been having a football moment. Sorry."
"You're okay," Kai said, ignoring the first remark. "Really. Not bad."
Leo smiled up at the sky. "You're just saying that."
He could hear the grin in Kai's voice when he said, "Yeah."
Leo laughed, rolling over on his side and propping his head up on his hand to look at Kai. "So, why lacrosse?" he wanted to know. "You must have played before high school if you went out for JV."
Kai's shoulders twitched. "There was a club at my elementary school. It seemed like fun, I guess."
"You guess?" Leo repeated.
"I don't really remember," Kai admitted. "It was just something I always did."
"You like it?" Leo prompted.
"Obviously." He could see Kai roll his eyes, even in the shadows. "Or I wouldn't have offered to teach you."
"Maybe you just like me," Leo said with a grin.
"That too," Kai muttered, so quietly it was hard to hear.
Leo studied him for a moment, then rolled onto his back again. "So," he said, wondering if that was the hint of a cloud over there making the stars seem so fuzzy. It didn't rain as much as he'd thought it would here. "Tell me if this is a crazy idea."
Kai didn't wait. "Now," he wanted to know, "or later?"
Leo tried not to smile. "You have to wait until I tell you what it is," he reminded Kai.
Who wasn't convinced. "Why? If I'm just going to tell you it's crazy, why put it off?"
"You only get to tell me it's crazy if it actually is crazy," he said patiently.
"Ah." He was pretty sure he could hear Kai smiling. "Well, go ahead, then."
"Command," Leo said. Then he paused. "I don't... well, I don't really know what you do there. And I don't really know what Mike does--did," he corrected.
"Sometimes we don't know either," Kai said seriously.
So seriously that it took Leo a moment to get it. "Yeah, that's very reassuring," he teased. "Thanks for filling me with confidence in the GSA military division."
"I thought Kerone said Red Rangers don't have a problem with confidence," Kai remarked.
"I think she said most Red Rangers are more confident than I am," Leo told him.
Kai's murmured reply sounded amused. "That's hard to imagine."
"Anyway," Leo insisted firmly. "Is there any way you could split whatever, I don't know, duties you have? You do some, he does some? Like a, what are those called... what's the word for when two people are doing one job?"
There was a moment of silence. "Job sharing?" Kai asked at last.
"Yeah." Leo frowned up at the sky. Right? "Like, if you went in for the morning, and he went in for the afternoon or something?"
Again, the hesitation. "We have training in the afternoon," Kai said. His tone was neutral.
"Well, the first part of the afternoon. Say twelve to three, or whatever. You're the first three hours, he's the second. Is that a totally ridiculous idea?"
Kai didn't answer directly. "What am I supposed to do from twelve to three?"
"Eat lunch, for one," Leo said, rolling his eyes. "Then come help me teach classes. Because come on, what do I know about self-defense? 'Don't let the other guy hit you.' That's pretty much it."
"You knew how to fight before you became a Ranger." Kai's voice drifted to him in the dimness. "It's obvious from the way you react to things."
"Well, yeah," Leo muttered. A fact of life, maybe, but it wasn't exactly the thing he was most proud of. "Fight, yes. Train normal people to defend themselves? I don't even know where to start."
He thought he heard Kai scoff, and it made him frown.
"Look, Kai, the people in this colony--they're not all from places like the ones where I lived, okay? I can say 'it's you or them' and they nod like they get it but they don't. Not if they haven't been in the middle of it, where one second you're fine and the next you're the most helpless person in the world and your fists are the only thing that keep you from getting set on fire."
There was silence, long enough for him to think about how that had sounded and wince inwardly but not long enough for him to take it back. Then Kai said, "Kendrix is a better teacher than I am."
"Kendrix isn't overloading because she's spending too much time sitting in a chair," Leo retorted. "And Mike can't do her job."
"It's entirely possible that Mike can't do my job," Kai countered. But he sounded more amused than irritated, and Leo relaxed a little.
"Well, that's why I thought maybe you could sort of... supervise. If he needed it."
"Have you talked to him about this?" Kai wanted to know.
"No," Leo admitted. "I wanted to see if it was crazy first."
"It's not... completely crazy," Kai said slowly. "I mean, if your ultimate goal is to get Mike back into Command, it isn't--this wouldn't be a terrible way to do it."
"Even if he can't do your job?" Leo asked, trying not to smile.
"I'm sure he'll learn," Kai grumbled. "Thanks for the extra headaches in the meantime."
He couldn't help smiling now, turning his head so he could look at Kai in the grass beside him. "Yeah?" he said hopefully. "You think it would work?"
"You get to tell Mike," Kai warned. "And Stanton. He likes you, for some strange reason."
"Done," Leo declared, choosing to ignore the "strange reason" part of that. He figured he would have to talk to Medlab, too, see if they could clear Mike for whatever stuff went on in Command. But second shift was more than half over by now, and he could do it in the morning.
Kai's voice came to him in the cooling night air. "Getting set on fire?"
Leo grimaced at his shadow, seeing Kai's head turn toward him when he hesitated. "Kind of a long story."
Kai didn't ask again.
The next day, Leo managed to get Mike and Medlab on board with his plan before first shift even started. Mike protested a lot more than Medlab did, but that was no big surprise. Leo explained, very earnestly, that he was just trying to get Kai out of Command for a few hours and Mike was really the only person who could fill in for him without creating extra work for someone else.
Mike either bought it or had gotten bored enough not to keep arguing. It wasn't like there was nothing for him to do, but he had so far refused to teach classes or to help out in the science division. And if Command was what he wanted, then Command was what he would get. It could be, as far as Leo was concerned, the solution to several problems at once.
Commander Stanton agreed with him. He hadn't expected that, but he took it in stride. Stanton clearly knew his officers better than Leo had realized, and it helped that he caught the man alone and so could explain his real reasons for the request. Stanton signed off on it in a matter of minutes.
His last class of the morning was full of people with a twelve o'clock lunch hour, which meant that they had no reason not to stand around talking with him, asking questions, flirting, and just generally keeping him from being anywhere else. Like the control tower. He'd kind of wanted to check in, to make sure that Mike had really shown up and that Kai had actually left.
It was quarter to one by the time he pulled a sweatshirt on over his workout clothes and headed out of the north end community center. He told the center director he was going to lunch and made his way to the administration building. By electric car, which he'd finally learned to drive--even if the idea did make him a little nervous with the light rain that was falling.
He rode up in the elevator with two people from the science division. To his vast amusement, the woman ignored him while the guy with her flirted outrageously. With Leo. He thought he'd heard Kendrix mention Natan, but never in this context. Leo knew how to be charming and evasive at the same time, and the elevator didn't take that long, but he had to tell Natan he was seeing someone before they were even halfway there.
Which meant that Natan had plenty of time to ask who it was.
"I guess if I try to keep it a secret," Leo said ruefully, "that'll just make you more curious?"
"Absolutely," Natan agreed, flashing him a smile. "But if there's a reason, I could be privately curious."
"No reason," Leo said, glancing at Jenessa. "Just personal preference."
Jenessa raised her eyebrows at him, the first hint of a thaw he'd gotten from her since they'd met outside the elevator. "Head of socioculture," she reminded him. "Don't care about your personal life."
"You can't shock the scientists," Natan said blithely.
"Let's just say, the person I'm seeing might not be seeing me if I was the kind of guy to spread it around," he told them.
He was the kind of guy to spread it around, unfortunately. But he wasn't stupid, and even if he thought he could get away with plenty as the Red Ranger, he wasn't so sure about Kai. Leo Corbett didn't have a lot to lose, after all. Senior officer Kai Chen did.
Natan made it clear that Leo was welcome to pick him up anyway, and the only thing that really surprised Leo about the offer was that it was so publicly made. He wasn't used to being around people that didn't care. Didn't make a fuss over it, yeah--he could look out for himself and he made sure everyone knew it. But people who honestly didn't care?
He gave a little in return, just because the casual openness of the encounter seemed to call for it. Because he could. And because, hey, Natan was kind of cute.
Kendrix wasn't in SMART when they arrived, but he passed Stanton on his way over to the military side of the control tower. "Commander," he said, nodding once. Kai insisted that the proper address was "sir," but he wasn't military and he wasn't going to pretend.
Stanton's gaze focused over his shoulder for a moment, where Natan was probably waving at him from a lab bench or something, but he just nodded in return. "Mr. Corbett."
Yeah, he hoped that wasn't going to be a problem. He'd gotten a lot of cooperation from the military division so far, and it would be great if that kept up. But who knew where Stanton stood on the official code of conduct, or how it related to his personal views when it came to civilians.
Kai and Mike were both at Kai's station when he wandered into Command. Leo didn't get quite the same reaction he once had just by being present, so there was nothing to draw their attention until he was close enough to screw with their line of sight. "Don't you have somewhere else to be?" he drawled, just as Kai looked up.
Kai's gaze flicked over him, and it wasn't quite the look of brotherly disapproval that Mike was giving him. So he'd worn his sweats to Command. And the t-shirt he'd gotten the night of Kerone's going-away party. His sweatshirt covered up most of the roaring lion, and he was wearing sneakers. It wasn't like he'd come in barefoot or anything.
"You have a radio," Mike said, very pointedly.
"I find that coming in person gets better results," Leo said easily. "You all set here?"
"Yeah," Kai muttered, frowning down at his duty station. "Just, uh..."
He trailed off and Leo grinned, ignoring the look Mike gave him. Speechless. Not bad. He totally won. And he was going to be wearing this t-shirt a lot.
"Lunch break," Mike said firmly, putting his hands on Kai's shoulders and turning him away from the station. "You can check my work after training. Or Crystal will when she comes in for second shift. Go."
Leo raised his eyebrows, because that was the first time he'd seen Mike voluntarily touch someone in days. And also because Kai didn't protest the treatment. So Leo nodded at his brother, mouthing "thank you" when Mike caught his eye.
Mike just plucked at his uniform top and then pointed at Leo.
"Work uniform," Leo said aloud, grinning at the way his brother rolled his eyes. Barely resisting the urge to put his hands on Kai's shoulders himself, he added, "See you later!"
The elevator he'd arrived in was still up top when he and Kai went to leave Command, which was probably a good thing considering the glare Kai turned on him as soon as the doors closed. "Work uniform?" he repeated dangerously.
Leo was all for danger. "Like it?" he asked, holding his hands out to the sides. "It's a good thing Kerone made us all get these t-shirts at the same time, because I think they might be sold out by tomorrow."
"Great," Kai said, rolling his eyes. "The entire colony will be walking around with your name on their chest."
Leo unzipped his sweatshirt and tugged at the bottom of his t-shirt, pretending to study it. Kendrix had put forth the argument that, "leo" being Latin for "lion," it wasn't his name on the shirt so much as it was a label. Or maybe a depiction of the constellation. No one had believed her, especially when the shop owner nodded along with both explanations. Inexplicably, Kerone had insisted that they all get color-coded "team" shirts.
"There are worse things," Leo decided, glancing up at Kai from under his eyelashes.
Kai folded his arms. "I fail to comprehend how you can be sexy in sweats and sneakers," he complained. "That t-shirt looks completely stupid on me."
Leo brightened. "You tried it on?"
"Are you trying to get me fired?" Kai wanted to know.
"Believe it or not," Leo said, studying him carefully. "No. Did I screw up?"
Kai eyed him in return. After a moment he took a step back, leaning against the side of the elevator and shaking his head. Leo recognized the shift immediately: Kai was off-duty now. Just like that, still wearing the uniform or not... Kai didn't lean when he was working.
"Objectively speaking," Kai was saying. "It's not such a bad idea to remind people that you're outside the chain of command every once in a while. And showing up in Command wearing sweats does that pretty effectively."
"But?" Leo prompted, waiting. He knew that tone.
"Subjectively?" Kai's gaze dropped, taking in his whole appearance as he admitted, "My self-control is at an all-time low, and that's not helping."
He felt a grin spreading across his face. "Sorry," he offered.
Kai's mouth quirked upward at the corners. "No," he countered. "You're not."
"Nope!" Leo agreed cheerfully. "Your expression when you first looked up in there was priceless. I wish I'd had a camera. Hey, can I get images from the security system?"
"Is there something more frivolous you could consider breaking the law for?" Kai wanted to know. "I'd hate to think that my irresistibility motivated your life of crime."
"I'd love to think that," Leo told him. "Unfortunately, I come with a record."
"Wiped clean your first day here," Kai said, and if he was still smiling then at least his eyes were serious. "A lot of us got a fresh start on Terra Venture."
"Oh, that's why you got me asylum," Leo teased. "So that you could have my history of crime all to yourself."
"You are the Red Ranger," Kai pointed out. "There's probably not a lot of you that anyone's going to get all to themselves."
Leo considered that for a moment, but the elevator ride wouldn't last forever and that might be how long it took to figure out some of the things Kai said. "What do you mean by that?" he asked.
"I mean," Kai said, not moving from his place against the wall, "that you're good-looking, and charming, and if it ever comes to a test, you might outrank Commander Stanton, putting you directly below the Council in terms of colonial authority.
"Whatever their reason," Kai added, "everyone's going to want a piece of that."
Leo frowned, not sure what to do with that. "Well, the good news is that I don't divide myself up into pieces. I'm more of an all or nothing kind of guy."
It made Kai smile, at least. "I've noticed," he agreed.
"So," Leo continued, "I think it's safe to say that whatever of me you want, you've got."
There was a moment of silence, during which the sudden chime of passing levels indicated that they'd entered the administration building. "I thought you didn't make promises," Kai said at last.
"Not true," Leo came back. "I don't make promises I don't know I can keep. I can't promise the future. But I can give you all of the present you want."
Kai shifted, sliding his hands against the wall behind him and leaning back on them. "We need to talk about this all or nothing thing," he said. His tone was neutral to the point of flatness.
Really, Leo thought? He was going to have to ask Kendrix how much of Kai's apparent avoidance of things was a defense mechanism that faded as he got more comfortable. Because he had never expected to hear Kai say, "we need to talk," especially in the control tower elevator. As it passed through the administration building, no less.
"I think we need to talk about the you getting fired thing," Leo said at last. That was what he knew least about, at this point: he couldn't ask Mike without creeping him out, and he'd thought he couldn't ask Kai without getting evasion. Maybe he'd been wrong.
Maybe he'd underestimated Kai, because that made him smile again and he looked like he relaxed as he said, "Yeah. That's kind of related."
The display by the door was counting down. He turned to face Kai directly. "Did I screw up?" he asked, straight out. "I'm not kidding, Kai. I want to know."
"No." Kai answered without hesitation, but the rest of his reply was about as uncertain as Leo had expected. "I just--I can't... flaunt this."
"I know," Leo agreed, studying him. "Do I flaunt it?"
It wasn't exactly a smile, but there was no mistaking the amusement in Kai's eyes. "A little," he said wryly. "Yeah."
Really? See, unless he'd missed something, they'd just gone from Kai implying that he didn't get enough of Leo to Kai implying that Leo was too obvious. And no matter how open Kai was being right now, Leo wasn't sure that he could just ask what he was supposed to do. Not and get an answer, anyway.
"It's fine," Kai was saying, and it surprised him some that Kai was still talking but he wasn't about to interrupt. "You can do that. I just--can't. Not while the colony's still under charter."
"Charter," Leo repeated. Something to do with the government of Terra Venture. He hadn't paid much attention when Mike was explaining it to him, months ago. "That's..."
He caught Kai's gaze as the elevator leveled off on the surface. Kai raised his eyebrows, and Leo shrugged helplessly. "The charter?"
"What were you doing on Earth," Kai demanded, "before Terra Venture?"
"Working," Leo told him. The doors opened, and he waved Kai out in front of him. "Like everyone else. What were you doing?"
Kai glanced around, but there wasn't anyone close enough to the elevator bank to overhear when he muttered, "You know what we were just talking about? That's it. That's a perfect example."
Leo stared at him with a total lack of comprehension. "What?"
Kai rolled his eyes. "Never mind. Couldn't you have mentioned that it's raining?" he added, folding his arms as he looked around again. "Where are we going, anyway?"
There was the evasiveness he'd come to know so well. "We were going to get lunch," Leo informed him. "Now we're going somewhere we can talk."
"I thought I was supposed to be teaching classes," Kai said, eyeing him skeptically.
"No," Leo countered, putting a hand on his elbow and steering him toward the nearest subway entrance. "I'm supposed to be teaching classes, and this is my lunch break. It's also, as of right now, your lunch break."
"It's raining," Kai said, as though this was relevant.
Leo shook his head. "It's not raining," he corrected. "It's barely misting out."
"You hold the elevator door for me but you don't bother to warn me that it's raining," Kai grumbled. "I take back what I said about flaunting it."
"Kai, a spray bottle would get you more wet than this," Leo said, exasperated. Then he paused when he realized what they were talking about. "Hey, did you just accuse me of chivalry?" In public, he wanted to add?
"Did I just accuse you of a lack of chivalry?" Kai countered. "Yes. I think I did."
Leo considered this. Kai was pushing what Leo had thought were the boundaries, but he was pretty sure that didn't mean he was allowed to push back. Not after the warning about "flaunting it." So instead he said, "Tell me about the charter."
"Ah." Kai pulled away from him, turning around to walk backwards as he lifted one finger in a lecturing pose. "The interim charter governs colony protocol until such time as the New World constitution goes into effect."
Leo raised his eyebrows, grinning at Kai's playful attitude. He wasn't used to seeing Kai like this while he was wearing his uniform. They were just walking down the street, in full view of everyone, and here was Kai acting cute and friendly and not at all like a guy who had clammed up at "all or nothing."
"Now, the constitution," Kai continued, "interestingly--and equably--guarantees equal rights for all of its citizens under New World law. The charter, however, allows all scientific, corporate, and military entities to continue operating according to existing procedure until New World law replaces the mess of national and international regulations currently in place."
"Which means," Leo prompted, when he paused.
"Which means," Kai said, pointing at him. "There are officially no gay officers in the GSA military division until the constitution takes effect."
Still walking backwards, Kai almost walked right into a freestanding video terminal before Leo realized he wasn't going to avoid it. "Whoa, careful," he said, lengthening his stride to grab Kai's arm. Kai stumbled and their eyes met, too close, too serious, before he pulled away.
"Thought you had eyes in the back of your head there for a while," Leo said lightly.
"I need to not be around people right now." Kai's voice was flat again, like he'd just realized what he was doing--what he was saying. "The subway isn't a good idea."
"Okay." Leo redirected them toward a car, because he got it. Kai's Power was fluctuating wildly, and maybe Mike should have done the morning shift but it was too late now.
"No." Kai balked when he realized where they were going. "I can't sit, Leo. I'm sorry."
It took him longer than it should have to figure that out. "You going to run?"
"I'll meet you in the dorms," Kai said simply.
Leo shook his head. "I'm coming with you."
Kai should have changed first. Luckily, enough people recognized them that hopefully the sight of a uniformed officer running through the streets wouldn't inspire too much alarm. Or maybe the fact that everyone could see it was Rangers running actually made it worse?
Leo tried not to think about it. No one tried to stop them, at least. They made quite an entrance at the dorm sub stop, damp with sweat and accumulated mist, and Leo couldn't help collapsing against the wall when they finally made it into the elevator. "They're going to think we're crazy," he gasped, trying to laugh and barely finding the breath for it.
"You are," Kai said, falling against the side of the elevator with him. He was just as out of breath, but Leo was very aware that the Power wasn't satisfied. It had evened out a little, humming along at a more consistent but much higher pitch than before.
"Can you tell?" Kai asked, voice muffled as he braced his hands on his knees and bent over them. Leo took the opportunity to study the line of his back through the sweat-soaked uniform shirt, noting the way tension looked on him even when he was nominally relaxing. "Does the Red Ranger always know?"
"When you're coming apart?" Leo guessed, watching him shake almost imperceptibly as the elevator fell. "I don't know. But if you're about to explode, then yeah, I can tell."
Kai groaned, straightening up and stretching his arms over his head. He leaned backwards as easily as he'd bent forwards, pressing his hands against the wall behind him, and Leo couldn't help smiling in appreciation. Kendrix was the only one of them more flexible than Kai, and he seemed to take it completely for granted.
"I should be back in Command," he said abruptly, pushing away from the wall and standing up again. "I need to do more, not less."
Leo took a deep breath, partly because he could and partly because it kept him from talking until he'd reminded himself that this wasn't Kai complaining. "And if you thought you could be around people right now," he said, "I'd turn you loose on self-defense classes, no questions asked.
"But you don't," he added, "and you're probably right. So come on back to my room and we'll eat something, and spar if you want, or whatever. Until you can get in on--I don't know, probably the military hand-to-hand groups?--without breaking anyone's bones."
Kai lifted his hands to his face, covering his eyes in a weirdly familiar gesture. Leo's eyes narrowed, trying to place it, but he was distracted by the sound Kai made. "Tell me I didn't really start talking about gay officers on the streets of the city dome," he groaned.
Leo did his level best not to smile. "What's your policy on lying?"
Kai lowered his hands and glared at him. "Don't."
"Then yeah," Leo said. "You did."
Kai shook his head, but the doors opened on their level before he could react any more strongly than that. He didn't say anything as they made their way through the corridors. Leo figured there wasn't much he could say that wouldn't fall into the category of either "insensitive" or "small talk," so he let the silence linger until they reached his room.
12515. He hadn't changed the code, but if Kai had noticed, he hadn't said anything. The second the door closed behind them Kai asked, "Seriously, did I say anything really stupid?"
Leo pretended to think about it. "Um, chivalry, equal rights... gay officers..."
Kai sighed. "Never mind. Ridiculous question."
"You didn't say anything anyone could hold against you," Leo promised.
"I need to start getting up earlier," Kai muttered. "Hit the gym or something."
"You hate getting up early," Leo pointed out.
Kai rolled his eyes. "Yeah, thanks for reminding me. But if the choices are getting up early or acting drunk around my coworkers? I think I'll take getting up early."
"Acting drunk?" Leo repeated, studying him. "Is that what it felt like?"
"That's what it feels like," Kai corrected, bending over to pull his shoes off. "Do you have a spare shirt?"
Leo raised his eyebrows. He couldn't tell if that was the pseudo-buzz talking or if Kai really planned to walk around the colony wearing one of Leo's shirts. "Yeah," he said, just to see what would happen. "Sure."
Kai tugged off his socks and dropped them on top of his shoes beside the door. Then he stood up, yanked his uniform shirt off without a moment's hesitation, and stared at it in distaste. Leo couldn't help grinning. Yeah. He was serious.
"You can put it in the wash," he offered. "I've got some sweats, too, if you want to do the whole thing."
That was how Kai ended up in his clothes. It was also the reason Leo ditched his own sweatshirt, because watching Kai change--even out of the corner of his eye while he was supposedly getting out sandwich stuff in the kitchen--brought on a flush that made extra layers unnecessary. It was easier to ignore in the locker room with everyone else around.
Maybe that had something to do with why he found himself backed up against the counter a few minutes later, but that was the part he was most confused about. He knew why they were together and why they weren't wearing as much as usual, but he wasn't totally clear on how that had led to making out. He wasn't complaining. But he wasn't sure he was supposed to go along with it, either.
"Kai," he gasped, freeing his mouth by the simple expedient of tipping his head back, closing his eyes as Kai just moved lower. "Clear something up for me."
"Mmm?" Kai hummed, vibration ticklish and sweet against his neck. Kai was licking at the pulse point where his heartbeat raced beneath his skin. He desperately wanted a hickey there, but he knew there wouldn't be one when he looked. He couldn't tell if it was because the Power healed them too fast to find, or if Kai was just that careful.
"If you're buzzed right now," he began, then trailed off into an inarticulate whimper when Kai pulled away. Why did he even have to ask?
When he lowered his head, though, he found Kai only inches away, hand frozen between them... glowing. Leo squinted, not sure what he was seeing, but no, Kai was staring at it too and his fingers were--blue. Shining faintly even in the steady light, and Leo said impulsively, "Computer. Lights off."
The room was plunged into darkness. He always forgot that about voice activation, how specific the commands had to be to mimic manual control. They'd turned on lights in both the kitchen and the living area, but one voice override took out all of them at once. The only illumination now was the dim cast of starlight and running lights outside the window.
And the shimmer of blue that enveloped Kai's hand--hands, Leo realized, when he lifted the other to compare--stronger in the dark, bright and weird and oddly compelling. He reached out before he knew what he was doing, fingers ghosting over Kai's, and he sucked in a sharp breath.
"Crap," Leo whispered, feeling the room light up around them. He could see, he didn't need to see, he couldn't tell what it was that made the dark room seem like daylight but it was tinted blue and that could only mean one thing. "Can you see--?"
"Yeah." Kai's voice was soft, almost reverent. "It's like..."
He didn't finish, but his hand drifted toward Leo's face. This time the touch lit up every sound in the quiet room, from the hiss of circulating air to the tiny shift of clothing and Kai's bare feet on the floor. Kai's breathless moan seemed to come from everywhere.
"Okay?" Leo whispered, squeezing his eyes shut and somehow not surprised when it didn't help. He knew this. He recognized this. He'd never seen it before and he knew exactly what was happening.
Kai made a sound like choking, a sob that couldn't be suppressed, and Leo braced himself just as Kai's other hand brushed against his neck. The warm smell of sweat and rain and fresh clothes buried the scent of the bread behind him and the still vaguely present wash of clean and sterile emanating from the floor, the counter, the room itself. The combination was dizzying.
"That feels--" Kai swallowed hard, his breath coming just as fast, harsh and loud in Leo's ears. He was probably whispering, barely audible, and he sounded as close to shouting as anything could get. "That feels really good."
Yeah. Leo caught his shoulders and held on, the muted tingle in his hands evidence that the transfer didn't work as well through clothes. Kai's fingers on his skin had to be helping, but if it was this hard for him then it was no wonder Kai was falling apart. He couldn't turn it off, couldn't shut down senses overwhelmed by the flood of extra awareness, couldn't make any of it stop.
Kai had pushed his body past its limits. Not too hard. Just not hard enough. He'd held it back, trying to keep to their slower pace... even to the slower crawl of Terra Venture's ordinary citizens. He'd forced it into a normal routine for too long.
Now the Power had nowhere else to go, nothing it could ask him to do that would be enough to drain the dangerous backlog of energy meant to be used for day-to-day survival. So it was draining, raw and barely controlled, into the nearest suitable conduit: another Power Ranger. It was probably the best thing Kai had felt in days.
Leo shuddered, braced between the counter and Kai's mostly still form, head bowed. Trying not to breathe too deeply as fingers traced slow, glowing patterns of blue against his neck. He kept his eyes closed, so he was completely unprepared when Kai pressed a grateful kiss against his mouth.
His cry was swallowed by contact as the whole world tilted. The floor was where the counter had been, the blue tint vanished, and the roaring in his head slowly began to subside as he realized Kai's hands were gone. "Kai," he said thickly, fumbling in the darkness while he tried to figure out which way was up.
"Don't touch me." Kai's broken whisper oriented him, and the Power flared into usefulness again. No longer a nebulous awareness of everything, it was suddenly focused on the sharp sense of Kai and the "everything" that he needed. Only him.
"Why not?" Leo murmured, sliding easily to his knees and slithering across the floor toward him. He was sensitive to volume in a way he hadn't been before, but it was weird how quickly things had gone back to normal. The room was dark. He couldn't smell Kai anymore.
That was too bad, actually.
"Don't touch me!" Kai cringed away from him, the diffuse blue glow outlining his entire body now, pulsing gently with the proximity of someone who could share the fire. But Leo hesitated, his fingers a breath away from Kai's skin, unwilling to force him.
"Does it hurt?" Leo whispered. It was just this side of pain for him, but knowing it was only a fraction of Kai's Power made him ache for what the Blue Ranger must be trying to hold back.
"Touching you," Kai said, his voice strangled, "is the only thing that doesn't."
Yeah. Screw this, then. Leo yanked his t-shirt off and straddled Kai's legs, grabbing his hands and pressing them against his chest, holding them there. The room lit up spectacularly, bright and loud and full of everything in the world. He closed his eyes involuntarily but he could hear the hitch in Kai's breathing like it was his own, the sounds he was trying not to make.
Kai didn't draw back. Didn't even try. Afraid he would pull Kai's hands away himself under the crushing sensory assault Leo let go, reaching for his face, resting his forehead against Kai's to brace himself. To hold himself up. He wouldn't collapse again, not when Kai's hands were trailing lightning across his skin and he was so obviously stifling moans of pleasure as the Power finally started to bleed off.
Like a battery, Leo thought dazedly, maybe a little hysterically, and that was as far as he got. He couldn't keep a coherent sentence in his head, could barely mark the passage of time--seconds, minutes, he had no idea--until he realized that the heat on his face was Kai's breath on his skin, that Kai was whispering something too loud to be understood. He needed that noise to stop like he needed the pounding in his head to ease.
He covered Kai's mouth with his own, not thinking, just reacting, no longer aware of how Kai felt underneath him. Every nerve burned, harsh and raw, until there was nothing soft left in the world. Everything was rough and hard and the taste of Kai's tongue flooded the entire world with red.
Red. His eyes snapped open. The dim red haze was barely perceptible against the darkened room. The thunder was receding, rumbles that shook with warning but no longer crashed in his ears, and he could feel Kai trembling, groaning in the wake of a storm that still threatened. No longer so imminent, not so demanding, less bright... less blue.
That was Leo's Power trying to escape now. Roiling dangerously just below the threshold, but it was close enough to equilibrium with Kai's that it didn't have anywhere to go. He heard Kai cry out, arching solid and stiff against him, and he yanked his hands away when he saw the faint red glow pressed into Kai's skin by his own fingers.
Kai slumped, boneless, panting, and Leo had never felt so helpless. If he couldn't touch, what else was there? "Okay?" he whispered, wishing he dared the comfort he longed to give.
Kai's head fell back, his hands dropping away, and his sigh was halfway between a groan and a gasp. "Embarrassed," he muttered. He twitched uncomfortably, but he didn't make any effort to shove Leo off.
Leo lifted his hands to his own head instead, pressing them against his eyes--
And he froze. Covering his eyes. Just like Kai... just like Mike. He was trying to turn it off. He was trying to damp down the massive sensory input that flooded into them when the Power was too strong.
"How long?" he asked, trying to talk through the pounding in his head. He had no idea how either of them could function normally like this. "How long has it been this bad?"
"Couple days." Kai shifted again, but he sounded more coherent now. More focused. His swallow was loud, even through the static rush in Leo's mind. "Like the--like the... Scorpius' attack kicked it up. Fine when I was fighting. Now it's--"
He broke off, and Leo finished, "Out of control."
"Sorry," Kai murmured.
Leo let out his breath in a rush, as close as he could come to laughing right now. "Not your fault. I should've paid more attention."
"You're not--" Kai braced his fists against the floor and tried to sit more normally, and distantly, Leo knew he was still pinning Kai in place and it probably wasn't very comfortable. "This is really embarrassing."
Leo shook his head, because only Kai would think he was responsible for something totally out of his control. "You want to talk embarrassing," he said, "I'm the one who almost passed out from you kissing me." Which actually was pretty embarrassing, when he put it like that, but it was all for a good cause.
"Yeah," Kai retorted. "And I'm the one who got off from you sitting on top of me."
It took him a moment to process that, which he blamed on the sudden influx of Power and the overwhelming awareness of every distracting thing in existence. Then he realized that, oh. Kai hadn't been reacting to his Power at all. Kai had been--
"Huh," Leo said aloud. "I didn't actually get that."
Kai groaned, his head falling back against the cupboard again. And Leo had to grin, because hey, here they were on the kitchen floor in the dark. He was sitting across Kai's lap. And Kai definitely wasn't complaining.
"It was the Power," Leo said, trying to be at least a little bit sympathetic. "It's been winding you up for days. That kind of... you know. Whatever. Anyone would be turned on."
"It wasn't just that," Kai muttered.
Then Leo could feel his glare through the darkness between them. "How do you know what it was, anyway?" Kai demanded. "Why did you let me--did it... it hurt you, didn't it."
Not as much as it would have hurt you not to do it, Leo thought, but he didn't say so because he wasn't stupid. "Didn't hurt," he said instead. "Just kind of... unexpected. Distracting, I guess."
"You collapsed," Kai growled. "It had to be more than distracting."
He hadn't even noticed that Kai was getting off on it, so yeah, maybe it had been a little more than distracting. "Look," he began. "You know your Power was draining into me, right?"
Kai had obviously felt it, but whether he'd recognized the feeling or not was open to question. Leo was the leader. Apparently that meant he sometimes had extra information.
"No," Kai said after a moment. "I thought... I mean, I feel better, but--" He cleared his throat. "It's not like I wouldn't anyway."
Leo grinned, and he couldn't keep it out of his voice despite his best efforts. "I'm flattered," he said. "Really. But the point is that if your Power did that involuntarily, it did it because it had no other choice."
He paused, but Kai didn't say anything.
"I think it did it to keep from killing you," Leo said carefully. "So yeah, it wasn't totally a good feeling for me. But it didn't hurt."
There was a long moment where he wondered what Kai could possibly be thinking. Finally, though, Kai said, "Does that mean you're stuck with whatever... weird Power surge I had?"
"Nah," Leo said, relaxing a little. "I think we're even now. Like... it split your extra Power between us. So whatever you feel like now? That's what I feel like too."
He felt Kai's hands settle gently on his hips, and nothing weird happened: no extra sight, no overpowering noise or envelopment of scent. His touch was just his touch, soft and hot where his fingers brushed against bare skin over the waistband of his sweats. "Not exactly how I feel," Kai's voice said quietly.
Maybe not. Too bad. But he wasn't sure his body could handle that after what it had just been through anyway.
"Careful," he gasped, when Kai shifted and suddenly he wasn't sitting so much as he could be riding with very little effort. "A guy could take that as an invitation."
Who was he kidding? He could totally handle that.
"You should," Kai whispered. "It's your turn."
Leo pulled away, sliding off, letting him go in every way. "No." The word was harsher than he'd meant it to be. "I don't take turns, Kai. You give what you're comfortable with. No more."
This was met with silence.
"Okay?" he asked at last, for what felt like the hundredth time.
"There are some things I don't compromise on." Kai's voice drifted to him in the darkness. "Sex is one of them. I don't offer it if I don't mean it."
Leo considered that. "Yeah?"
"What did I say about lying?" Kai countered.
"Leo, Kendrix." His morpher appeared the moment it was signaled, and it was so out of context that for a moment he could only stare in the direction of the sound.
Then he heard Kai sigh. "I knew I should have found a way to split you two up," he complained. "You're practically codependent."
Leo gave him a dirty look that was completely wasted in the darkened kitchen. "Kendrix," he said, lifting his morpher. "Leo."
"Where are you?" her voice demanded. "Shana at the community center says you left for lunch at twelve-thirty. It's almost two o'clock!"
"What do you need?" he asked, a little worried by her harried tone. Kendrix was easily excited, but she could handle stress fine. Something was wrong.
"I need a child manual," she said. "That's what I need."
He heard Kai snort, but he hadn't moved. He was still sitting next to Leo on the floor, his back against the cupboard, one leg pressed against Leo's. Leo was pretty sure he wouldn't be getting sex this afternoon, but on the other hand, this morning he'd figured he wouldn't be getting sex any time this month. So. Things were looking up.
"Jewel won't stay at the school," she was saying. "We've been trying to work out some kind of half-day for her all week, but it's the other half of the day that's the problem--she can't be with me, she can't always be with Maya, and her other share parents are working too.
"Plus there's the whole transdagger thing," Kendrix continued. "Ever since she found ours the day they appeared in our rooms, she's been pretending to knife-fight with the other kids. Maya explained to her about knives--or she says she did, but what do I know about Mirinoans and knives? Maybe she told her great job, keep it up!"
"Kendrix," Leo interrupted. He asked the first thing he could think of that might derail her indignation. "Are you at the community center now?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed. "I thought maybe she could join one of the school groups here for an hour, you know, get rid of some of her energy. But of course we had to walk in on one of the military practice sessions with their fake switchblades!"
Kai stifled a laugh. Leo didn't have that luxury, because Kendrix would hear him and know that he was trying not to laugh at her himself. "Where's Jewel now?" he asked, keeping his face as straight as he could.
"Where do you think she is?" Kendrix demanded. "She's in with the soldiers learning how to chop someone up with a dagger!"
Of course Kai couldn't let that go unchallenged. "I'm sure they're not teaching a little kid how to chop people up, Kendrix. They're probably teaching her how to hold it without hurting herself."
"Which is probably a lesson she needs," Leo added. "Maya carries a knife, doesn't she? It's only a matter of time before Jewel wants one of her own."
"You are not here," Kendrix informed them. "I am, and I can see perfectly well what they're teaching her!"
"So take her out of the class," Leo said, rolling his eyes only because he knew no one could see him. "There were school groups scheduled from one-thirty on. Shana can hook you up."
"She doesn't want to be with the other kids!" Kendrix protested. "She wants to be with the soldiers!"
"Do the soldiers want her there?" Leo asked.
"Are you kidding?" Kendrix said. "They love her. It's disgusting."
This time he didn't bother to hide his grin. "Go back to work, Kendrix. Lock her ID into the community center so she can't leave and ask Shana to check on her every once in a while. She can practice with fake knives as long as she wants."
Kendrix's sigh was unmistakable over his morpher, but maybe she just wanted someone to tell her to do what she'd already decided. "Sir," she grumbled, "yes, sir."
Leo looked over at where he knew Kai was in the darkness. "And you think we've been spending too much time together," he told him.
"What?" Kendrix sounded surprised.
"I was talking to Kai," he told her.
"Well, stop talking and get back to work yourself," she shot back. "There's a colony to be run, Leo. Kittens that need to be rescued from trees. No slacking off."
"Bye, Mom," he told his morpher. "See you at training."
"If you're done with lunch by then," she replied.
Leo smirked, lowering his wrist, and the transmorpher disappeared on its own. He and Kai were left in the dark and quiet, still touching, not moving. His smile faded slowly, and he wondered what one said in this situation.
"Hi," he remarked after a moment. "This is awkward."
"Are we missing classes we're supposed to be teaching?" Kai asked, an odd note in his voice.
Leo let out his breath in a quiet huff. "You think they put Power Rangers on the schedule? There'd be a waiting list half a block long. The center directors handle the coordination. I wait until the last minute and join whichever class looks the most needy."
"That must keep people guessing," Kai said.
Leo shrugged. "It keeps people showing up," he pointed out. "Never know if a Ranger's going to be teaching your class."
"So," Kai remarked, "you're saying the center directors are the only ones who would... miss us?"
Leo blinked. This question had potential. "I think I mentioned how dedicated you are," he said casually. "Shana knew it might take a while to drag you away from your station. She's the only one who'll be expecting us, and Kendrix is probably talking to her right now--"
"Making lots of disparaging comments about long lunches," Kai continued. "And if it's really almost two... training starts in an hour."
"Being at the community center for less than an hour might be kind of disruptive," Leo agreed. "Plus, I have a lot of extra Power right now. I don't know how safe it is for me to be working out with civilians."
"Might be safer to stick with Rangers," Kai said, heavy on the implication but still carefully noncommittal.
He shifted, tapping his foot gently against Kai's leg. "One in particular?" he teased.
The answer was a long time coming, but when it did, Kai's voice was matter-of-fact. "I really couldn't care less about lunch right now."
He reached out, tracing idle designs through Kai's sweatpants, and Kai's bare foot twitched against his thigh. "I need to do something," Leo told him, in exactly the same tone. "It doesn't have to be this. But it does have to be now."
Kai pulled his legs away, gathering them under him as he pushed himself to his feet. "I have a suggestion," he said, his voice coming from somewhere above Leo.
Leo closed his eyes, because Kai wouldn't see. He hadn't realized how perfect he'd expected this to be until he realized it wasn't going to happen. "Yeah?" he said, trying to sound careless.
A brush against his shoulder made him open his eyes, and he could just make out the shadow of Kai's hand in the darkness. Held out, open, offered to him like a promise. He reached up to take it and Kai pulled him to his feet easily.
The suggestion followed: "How about not on the floor this time?"