Fran loved her friends. She loved working with them, she loved covering for them, and she loved hanging out with them off the clock. But, well, they were all very physical people, and sometimes she just wanted to sit quietly and decompress. So sometimes, mostly on her days off, she wandered around Ocean Bluff until she saw a place that looked interesting or unusual, somewhere she could relax without her team.
That was how she found the Ranger's Rest.
It was down a quiet side street, almost hidden in an alcove. Fran had walked past it half a dozen times without really noticing it, and she'd have walked past again except that today, for some reason, the sign caught her eye.
A large man in a bright shirt nodded when she came in. "Sit wherever you like," he told her. "Be with you in a minute."
"Thank you!" She settled into a booth, looking around; it wasn't all that different from JKP in layout, if more brightly lit, but there was no sign of pizza on the handful of occupied tables.
A basket of fries landed on her table and she looked up in surprise. "I'm sorry, I didn't order those."
"No one ever orders them," the waitress agreed. "But everyone always wants 'em. Try one, they're good."
Fran obeyed, smiling. "They're great."
"Told you. What else can I get you? We have a pineapple-guava smoothie, very good."
"Sounds great, thank you. Anything but pizza." The waitress raised an eyebrow and Fran added quickly, "not that your pizza isn't great, because I'm sure it is, but it's just that I work in a pizza place and sometimes when I've been around it all day I just want something else, but I'm sure yours is delicious –"
"Breathe," the waitress ordered. "No pizza for the nervous girl. Got it. Enjoy your fries." Fran meekly took another handful of fries as the waitress wandered off.
A smoothie and a salad appeared after a while. Both were delicious, and Fran finished the book she'd had with her without anyone interrupting her.
That probably should have been her first clue. Fran worked in a restaurant, and there were noises that always made her look around – dropped cutlery, raised voices, trays falling. Nothing like that seemed to happen here.
She came back often after that. It wasn't exactly a secret – the Rangers knew she'd found a new hangout – but after some mild teasing from Dom, and a discussion with RJ about carrying her phone because Dai Shi might choose to attack her, none of them asked her and she didn't volunteer. It wasn't a secret, not really. She just liked having somewhere that was hers. In a surprisingly short time, it had become the place she automatically came to when she wanted some time alone. No one ever disturbed her here.
It took her a long time to figure out the secret behind Ranger's Rest. It wasn't until she finished her book one day and started people watching that she really started picking up on the oddities.
For one thing, no one ever paid. She'd managed to miss that; she was used to eating at JKP, of course, where RJ only remembered to charge anyone half the time anyway and hadn't charged her personally in years. But somehow, she'd missed the fact that she wasn't paying for food here, and neither was anyone else. The guy behind the bar and the waitress both had order pads, and they even wrote out bills, but they just ended up on a spike on the counter. No one else seemed to think this was strange.
The second thing took her longer to pin down. It wasn't until she noticed one particular patron that she really figured it out; because sometimes he had short hair, and sometimes he'd grown it out. He tended to sit alone, working on something, but he had a friendly word for everyone and sometimes he came in with a group, or with one particular other guy.
Fran nodded whenever she saw him, but she didn't speak to him until the day she saw him reading To Kill a Mockingbird. They talked about it over a basket of the really very tasty fries, and from then on they'd occasionally discuss each other's books. He was clever, her short-long-short man, and he always had good insights and opinions; eventually they started recommending books to each other, and she never failed to enjoy one he'd suggested.
There were two boys who always came in together; Fran had somehow learned they were adopted brothers, though she had no idea who'd told her that. They tended to keep to themselves when they came in; one actively glared at anyone who happened by, the other was polite but dismissive. Very, very rarely, she saw the polite one with a girl; the girl was much friendlier, though they were unmistakably a couple.
Sometimes the girl came in with two other boys. The first time she saw them Fran had felt bad for her boyfriend; but the three were unmistakeably friends, reminding her strongly of Casey, Lily and Theo – without the crush Theo was nursing, anyway.
Once – and only once – the girl had dragged in another guy. He'd tolerated it, and clearly done his best to have a good time, but at the end of the meal she'd laughingly declared it a failure and he hadn't been seen since. At least, not in her company; Fran was almost sure she'd seen him lurking in a far corner booth a few times.
There was a tall, lean man who always came in alone; he was cordial with the barman, polite but distant to the waitress, and ignored everyone else. Sometimes he played a solitary game of pool; sometimes he just ate and left. Fran sometimes caught his eye, and she'd get an acknowledgment, a tilt of his head or a finger to his forehead, but nothing else. She'd never tried to talk to him.
Very occasionally, he'd acknowledge the tall girl in the Air Force uniform. She never tried to talk to him, either, and if he was in she was always alone and reading; otherwise she had any of a revolving group of eight others with her, sometimes all at once. None of them ever met the pool player.
There was a young boy, the youngest she'd seen here, who came in unaccompanied every so often; he spent his time diligently studying out of a book. Fran had contrived to pass behind him once, and it wasn't even in English. It looked like kanji, though she wasn't familiar enough with any Asian writing system to say for sure. Whatever it was, his study seemed to consist of carefully copying particular symbols over and over.
The day his pencil broke, Fran had never seen a kid look so upset. Scrabbling in the bottom of her bag, she came up with another and passed it across to him; the smile on his face made her day, and if she took to carrying a spare pencil and a little notepad just in case, so what?
Sometimes an older boy would come in, usually accompanied by another guy. Complete opposites, those two; one so serious, one always goofing and flirting and dragging the girls in the room out to dance. Fran watched them together and started silently rejoicing when his loud antics drew a smile from his mostly silent friend. She even let herself be dragged out to dance, just for the chance to help draw out that smile.
There was a thin young man with curly hair; she only saw him once or twice, and only noticed him because he was nervous and talked even more than she did. He was always reluctant to leave, often hanging around to help tidy up or chatting unendingly at whoever happened to be around.
There were groups, too; a group of six, or sometimes five or four or seven, who were loud and cheerful and greeted the waitress, but not the barman, by name. They somehow managed not to be annoying even as they laughed and yelled and one of them flirted with any girls who happened to be present; the occasional seventh of the group was clearly his girlfriend, but she only laughed when he flirted with other people, and he was so outrageous about it he clearly didn't mean anything. Fran had had some fun conversations with him, but he never seemed to recognise her from one time to the next. She spent most of their conversations now teaching him perfectly normal phrases that he never seemed to recognise.
There was a group of three, or sometimes four, who compared the place to another cafe and ordered bizarrely named drinks that were somehow always delivered. Their occasional fourth was a waiter, Fran gathered, and he usually managed to be the one sent to fetch their drinks or meals, no matter how much he protested that he came out with them to get away from work. Sometimes the sole girl in the group helped him out; sometimes she berated the other boys into doing it; sometimes he was left to fend for himself. Fran got in the habit, on the days he looked extra tired, of checking whether there was anything for them if she was coming from the bar to her booth; she really didn't mind, and he seemed like he had enough to worry about without bothering about his friends' drinks as well.
Sometimes he came in on his own, and he always sat alone and brooded. Fran often asked for something to be sent to his table, a pastry or a treat of some kind; it made him smile and look less tired, less as though the weight of the world was on his shoulders.
There was a group of five, or sometimes six, usually in matching jackets. Their occasional sixth really was occasional; Fran rarely saw him. When he was there, one of the girls tended to sit with him or stay close to him, and he glared whenever anyone tried to flirt with her. Fran occasionally caught the flirt's attention accidentally-on-purpose to spare him; no one here ever made her feel threatened, or like they were out for anything more than a dance or conversation.
If he wasn't with the group, the others tended to fill in despite the girl's occasional exasperation. Sometimes the other girl distracted them, or the guys started loud conversations, mostly about flying or swimming. Once or twice the guy in the cowboy hat had actually sent people away.
Once or twice their sixth came in on his own. He was always tired and grimy, and ate as though he was starving; but he never lingered, only eating and leaving.
There were plenty of others, some who were in all the time, some she only saw once or twice. There was a group of ten or twelve who came in in varying combinations, including her short-long-short man. There was a group who came in in some kind of military uniform; there was a group with a complete mix, including one in a Sheena outfit and one in a biker's jacket. There were people who were wearing really well made Halloween costumes all year, for some reason.
Because Fran was naturally curious, she started keeping notes. Because she wasn't stupid, she disguised them; she sprinkled them in with other topics, she used code words that made sense in context, she disguised them as song lyrics or quotes from books. Her friends were curious but accepting, and after the first couple of times Dominic stopped trying to decipher them.
RJ raised an eyebrow when she asked about earlier Ranger teams, but he didn't question it and two days later she had a DVD put together from his files. "Make sure no one knows you have it," he told her, "and I'll need it back when you're done."
"Got it." She smiled at him. "Thanks, RJ."
"You ok, Frannie?"
She smiled again. "Course, RJ. I'm just curious. I mean, you guys are what, the fifteenth team? I'd like to know about the other ones."
"Have fun." He was still watching her oddly when she left.
Fran watched the DVD that night, frequently pausing to refer to her notes. The next day she returned it to RJ, brushed off his enquiries about whether she'd learned anything, and headed straight for Ranger's Rest.
For the first time ever it was empty, lights low and music very soft. The waitress was desultorily sweeping under the pool table, and the barman was wiping at a spill on the counter.
Fran marched up to him, folding her arms. "Is this place even real?" she demanded.
He raised an eyebrow. " 'Real' is not easy to define, Fran."
She didn't remember telling him her name. She didn't remember telling any of them her name. "What would happen if I brought my team here?"
"This isn't the kind of place you bring people."
"I see groups coming in all the time!"
"This isn't the kind of place you bring people."
She caught the emphasis that time and blushed. "What, just because I'm not a Power Ranger? You're not a Power Ranger either, and neither is she! And neither is the kid with the book, or the little nervous one, unless they're going to be one in the future or something, because this place moves in time or the door isn't in the same time as the building or something, I haven't quite worked it out..."
"Breathe, Fran," the waitress interrupted her, amused. "You are a smart one, aren't you? Told you," she added to the barman.
"Yes, you're brilliant," he agreed. "We knew there was a reason."
"A reason for what?" Fran demanded.
"A reason you came here," he told her. "You're the only non-Ranger has ever come in here."
"The only...?" she repeated.
"So far," he corrected himself. "We've had a lot of Rangers, but there's only ever been the two of us until you started coming here."
"And how long ago was that?" Fran asked quickly.
The waitress laughed delightedly. "Well done," she said with a grin. "You're right; it's different in here. They come here when they need to; they relax, they eat something. If they need company they're with someone, or they find someone here. If they need to be alone, they're left alone. They spend as long as they have to here, and they return to the world at the time and place they need to be."
"And they don't remember it," Fran filled in.
"They don't remember specifics," the barman agreed. "But they remember that they had a good time; a fun lunch with friends, or a dance with a pretty girl, or a quiet time alone to unwind and decompress. They feel better for it. This is a resting place, and they find it when they need it. And when they need it again, it's there."
"I don't understand," Fran protested. "If it's Rangers only –"
"And future Rangers," the waitress reminded her. "We've watched some of them grow up. Or – down. It's hard when the timelines don't line up."
"I'm not a Ranger! I'm not Ranger material! I wouldn't know what to do!"
"Breathe," the barman told her. "You're not a Ranger."
"You didn't realise?" the waitress asked, smiling again. "You're staff, Fran."
"We've been watching you," the barman said. "You've been helping them in a hundred tiny ways; you talk books or find a pencil or distract the teasing or whatever. Little things add up, you know; a dozen tiny things can make for a much better day than one big thing."
"But I haven't even – I've never even spoken to most of them!"
She glanced at the pool table without thinking. The waitress followed her gaze, shaking her head. "He doesn't want company, and he doesn't need it. Neither does the one in the corner booth, or the quiet one – other than his friend, anyway. You've never gone near them because they don't need conversation; just the presence of other people. They need to be alone in a crowd and that's what you give them."
"What happens if I walk out now?" Fran asked. "Because this is a lot, and I'm not sure...I think maybe I'll walk out."
"You can do that," the barman agreed. "People only stay as long as they need. But just remember, a pencil at the right time can make all the difference."
"Can I come back? If I leave now?"
"Ranger's Rest is always here when it's needed, Fran."
Fran nodded, and left, and for days and days afterwards she didn't go near the Ranger's Rest. Her team noticed. Of course they did. But none of them said anything; Lily took her shopping, and Casey sat with her at lunch, and Theo mumbled through a conversation that she only realised later had been an offer to hurt whoever had upset her.
RJ didn't say a word. Neither did Dom, but his silence seemed different.
Fran was working in the kitchen one day when RJ breezed in. He grabbed a ball of dough and started working beside her, idly discussing his latest experiment.
"Are you in trouble, Frannie?" he asked eventually.
"What? No, of course not. Why do you ask?"
"Well, you've been quiet, you've been upset, you've been avoiding that cafe you liked so much, and you're putting chocolate chips on that Hawaiian."
Fran glanced down in dismay. "Oh. I keep doing that. I'm sorry, RJ."
"That's all right. Save it, I'll eat it later. Fran?"
"I'm not in trouble."
He considered her for a moment before nodding. "Well, all right then. Shall I make the Hawaiian?"
On impulse, Fran threw her arms around him for a hug. RJ laughed softly, returning it. "Not that I don't like a good hug, but what's the occasion?"
"Because you believed me. The others all think I'm hiding something terrible."
"They worry about you. But I know you'd come tell us if something awful had happened."
"Of course I would. RJ, can I ask you a hypothetical?"
"I love a good hypothetical."
"Is..." She shook her head. "Actually, no. I'm going to ask Dom."
"Also a good choice. Run along, now."
"Thanks, RJ." She grinned, stripping her apron off and heading for the door.
Dominic was working, but it wasn't hard to persuade him to take a break, and Casey agreed to cover for him with only a token protest. Fran took him to sit outside, away from any customers or overzealous teammates.
"How can I help?" Dominic asked, watching her.
"I have a hypothetical."
"Do you think..." She twisted her fingers together, watching them. "Do lots of little good things make you happier than one big good thing?"
"Can I get an example?"
"Like – someone gives you a pencil when yours breaks, or you're a dollar short and the next customer pays, or someone sees you need to be alone and makes sure you're not disturbed..."
"Or a pretty girl smiles back at you?" Dominic was smiling, she thought, though she was still watching her fingers. "Yeah. Little things can mean a lot; they can turn your day completely around. You know that, one nice customer can make up for five bad ones."
Fran nodded slowly. "Right. I hadn't thought of that. Thank you. I'm going to go for a walk."
Dominic scrambled to his feet. "Can I come? Please," he added quickly. "I'll be quiet."
"Eh, I'm nearly done today. Anyway, no one's going to argue if I tell them I was gone with you."
Fran smiled slightly. "No?"
"We're worried about you."
"I'm fine. I promise. Come if you want, but I'm probably just going to walk around."
"Cool. Let me tell Case, and I'll grab a couple jackets."
They did end up just walking around. Fran even brought them down the side street, but Dominic didn't notice the Ranger's Rest sign and she didn't feel any impulse to test what would happen if she brought him to the door. Anyway, walking with Dominic was fun; he couldn't keep quiet for longer than half a block, but he was funny and sweet and, perhaps inspired by their conversation, he kept doing things like dropping money for people to find and holding doors for people and smiling at anyone who looked tired. Fran was a lot happier by the time they got back to JKP, and even Theo didn't argue their absence.
Well, not much, anyway.
She still didn't go back to Ranger's Rest. It wasn't really deliberate, this time; Dai Shi sent several monsters on each other's heels, and she spent a lot of time covering for her exhausted teammates. Even when the restaurant was closed she stayed around, cooking and fetching and cheering them up any way she could think of.
Dom smiled at her at one point, accepting the cup of tea she'd been bringing him. "Just so you know?" He lifted the cup. "Little happy thing."
"Are you happy?"
"Yeah." He glanced up as Casey bobbled a punch, getting a sharp reprimand from Theo and replying just as sharply. "Well, sort of."
Fran didn't realise she'd made the decision until she was already speaking. "Come out to lunch with me."
"Out. Lunch. Me. With?"
She shrugged. "Because it's good to get away. And I'd like to show you."
Dominic's eyebrows went up. "I get to see the secret hideaway? Awesome. I'm there."
"Good. Go and distract Theo for a bit."
"Aw, can't I distract Casey instead?"
"No. I'm distracting Casey. Go!"
Dominic pouted, but he went and sparred with Theo for most of the next hour. Fran took Casey into the restaurant to 'tidy' and instead chatted for the hour, letting him lead the conversation. He didn't talk about anything Ranger related, but he seemed lighter when Dominic came to find her and he smiled as they left.
"So where are we going?" Dominic asked.
Fran smiled. "I want to see if you can guess. When you see the sign, you'll know it."
"Treasure hunt. Excellent." He caught her eye and added more seriously, "If you want to go somewhere else..."
"I want you to see this place."
He didn't argue again, only chatted as she led him down the side street. For a moment she thought he wasn't going to see the sign; then he blinked, shaking his head, and laughed. "Really, Fran? You don't get enough of this on a regular basis?"
"There's not as much rest at JKP." She smiled, taking his hand, and drew him through the door of the Ranger's Rest.