Disclaimer: Well, what can I say. Saban created these characters, their worlds, their ships, and lots of other stuff that I could technically get sued over, if someone were so inclined.
"This is your requested wake up call," a voice that sounded a bit louder than usual announced. "It is time to get up."
TJ groaned, pulling his pillow over his ears and trying to ignore the computer's voice. The dream of Earth had not completely faded, and he tried to shut out the sound calling him away from the vision of happiness he had seen so briefly the day before.
"This is your requested wake up call," DECA repeated, and this time there was no mistaking the fact that her volume was louder than normal. "TJ, you asked to be awoken at this hour. It is time to get up."
"I changed my mind," TJ mumbled, still hoping she would go away.
"That is not acceptable," DECA informed him. "Previous experience indicates that it is unwise to trust the words of someone whose judgement is clouded by sleep. It is time to wake up, TJ."
TJ flung his pillow away from him, resisting the urge to growl at the computer again. After all, she was right--he had asked to be woken up now. And the reason…
A smug smile spread across his face, and he started to feel a little better. He dragged himself out of bed, finding his blanket on the floor again. He deliberately did not pick it up. *Serves her right,* he thought, with an evil look for the camera.
He made his way toward the door, rubbing sleep from his eyes and not bothering to change out of his pajamas. It was half an hour before DECA's standard wake up call would alert the others, and with the way this week had treated them so far, there was no way anyone else would be up before she woke them.
TJ stumbled down the hallway, blinking in the bright lighting. Normally, DECA turned the lights down overnight, but he suspected this was another of her subtle ways of reminding him that she was in charge. He couldn't help smiling again. *Not for long,* he thought gleefully, stepping into the lift and enduring the short ride to the Bridge.
Stepping out into the Megaship's control center, he went to the right and paused by one of the auxiliary console banks. Before DECA could realize what he was doing, he reached out and punched two buttons on the panel in front of him, effectively silencing the onboard computer until someone reactivated her speech circuits.
Glancing up at the nearest camera, he found the red light on and glaring accusingly at him. But there was nothing DECA could do. She wasn't allowed to override commands from the Bridge without provable safety concerns. The alarm was still working, and the sensors were enabled, which meant her enforced quiet had no ramifications other than an uninterrupted morning's sleep for five very tired Rangers.
Smiling in satisfaction, TJ turned around and headed back to his room. He had hoped to do that last night--he hadn't finished the trig review until two this morning, and he had known then that *he* wasn't getting up at seven, no matter what anyone said. But according to DECA, someone other than him had still been up at that hour, and he hadn't wanted anyone to know what was happening until after it occurred.
So DECA had gotten to annoy him with her unnecessarily loud wake up call. *But,* TJ thought, yawning as he entered his room, *the outcome was worth it.*
He grabbed the blanket off the floor and collapsed onto his bed. Pulling it up over his shoulders, he buried his head in his pillow and went back to sleep, content in the knowledge that there would be no synthesized voice to wake him up for the rest of the morning.
Carlos woke with a start, certain he had overslept. He stared into the darkness, trying to remember if this was a day he was *supposed* to be sleeping late. No--today was one set aside for repairs to the Megaship, but other than that, there was nothing particularly special about it.
"DECA?" he asked, then cleared his throat. "DECA, what time is it?"
There was no answer, and he frowned. "DECA?" Carlos asked again.
Across the room, he saw a red light blink at him, but no other reply was forthcoming. Knowing the alarm would have sounded if there were anything wrong, he grinned. *Someone turned DECA's voice off again.*
He stretched, enjoying the peace that pervaded the darkened room. *I could stay in bed all morning,* he thought, amused. It was nice, every now and then, to have control over something so simple as when he got up.
*Is that what TJ meant last night?* he wondered suddenly. *We do have less control over some aspects of our lives than other people our age. But… I think it evens out. We have a lot of liberties, too.*
Shrugging to himself, he decided he might as well get up. As one of the earlier risers on the team, he didn't expect anyone else to be awake yet--except for whoever had silenced DECA, of course, and that person had most likely gone back to bed. But he could at least have something to eat, and see what this world looked like in the morning light.
Rolling out of bed, Carlos stretched once more, realizing as he did so that he had fallen asleep in his uniform again. *Bad habits die hard,* he thought ruefully, wondering if it was even worth it to get a new one out.
He decided against it. Andros wasn't here, and simple logic favored civilian clothes. The work the team had to do today would be mostly external repairs, and the planet on which they had crash-landed didn't look like the type to be forgiving of long sleeves and pants.
Carlos changed quickly, reveling in the comfort of khaki shorts and a sleeveless black tee. *Something else we give up aboard ship,* he thought, then shook his head. *TJ's got me looking for things to dislike,* he thought with a grin.
He put it out of his mind and went to find some breakfast.
His eyes snapped open, and his whole body tensed in the absolute darkness. He didn't dare move, uncertain where he was or who had captured him in the brief time while he slept.
Movement nearby startled him into turning his head, a futile gesture in the unlit blackness of the room. Then the soft sound of her breathing registered, and he caught his breath as the unmistakable warmth of another body pressed against his.
He shifted without thinking, wanting to feel as much of her as possible. "Cassie…" He let his arm slide across her stomach, barely able to believe where he was waking up.
*Still dreaming?* he wondered, feeling her sigh. He held his breath, but nothing changed with the thought. He was still here, on the Megaship, next to the only person he had loved since the day he laid eyes on her.
She made no sound, though, and he resisted the temptation to kiss her awake. She needed her sleep as much as he needed her, and as always, her needs came first.
He tried to relax, letting her peace seep into him. He couldn't help remembering the night before, when she had been everything he had wanted. It bothered him that it had been so much about him, but he had not been in control of himself, and he wished desperately that he could make it up to her now.
She moved again in her sleep, shoulder rubbing against his chest as her breath teased his face. He found himself caressing her arm longingly, and he knew he wasn't going to be able to lie here beside her for much longer.
He drew away with reluctance, sitting up and staring into the darkness. "DECA," he whispered, not wanting to disturb Cassie. "Would you turn the lights up, just a little?"
He squinted in anticipation, knowing he should do it himself. After their conflict two days ago, he half-thought she would brighten the lights to normal strength, just to get even with him. But nothing happened, and he frowned. "DECA?"
There was no answer, but after a moment, dim illumination emanated from the lights overhead. It was just enough for him to see by, and he edged toward the end of the bed, slipping off and leaving the warmth of his lover behind.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth at the word, and as he dressed, he hoped fervently that she would not regret last night. There was no way they could go back to what they had been, nor would he ever want to. He could only pray that she would feel the same way when she woke.
"DECA?" he whispered again, wondering how long it would be until the others were up. "What time is it?"
Again, the computer did not reply. "DECA?"
The silence alarmed him, and he padded over to the computer terminal. It refused to allow him to run a diagnostic, telling him that the station he was at was not authorized for that kind of activity.
*Not authorized,* he thought, amused. He was the one who had set up that restriction for Andros, years ago, after an accidental entry into the computer database by one of the Kerovan colonists had played havoc with DECA's internal scanner sweeps.
It took only seconds for him to get around the lockout, but a diagnostic turned up nothing wrong. He sighed, glancing back at the sleeping form still curled up on his bed. He hated to leave before she woke up, but if there was something wrong with the ship's computer, someone needed to investigate.
Returning to her side, he knelt down and gazed at her untroubled features. "You are everything to me," he murmured quietly, stroking her hair. "Sleep well, my love."
Standing, he pulled the blanket up over her shoulder and tore himself away. He left the room without a backward glance, knowing he would not be able to go if he looked at her again.
The Bridge was not as empty as he had expected, however. The Black Ranger stood by the pilot's station, gazing out at the dusty plains currently displayed on the main viewscreen. He turned when the door to the lift opened, mug in hand and curiosity evident in his expression.
Phantom stepped out hesitantly, but Carlos greeted him with a smile. "Good morning," the other Ranger said, indicating with a nod that Phantom was free to join him.
"Good morning," he answered, moving forward to stand at the second row of stations. "I do not wish to intrude on your solitude…"
Carlos shook his head. "No, that's all right. I was just enjoying the view. Since someone turned off DECA's voice, I figured no one else would be up for at least another hour."
"Someone--turned off the computer's voice?" Phantom repeated, startled.
"You didn't notice?" Carlos inquired, raising an eyebrow.
"I did--I thought there was something wrong."
Carlos smiled again. "No. It happens fairly often, actually. I don't know if you've had the 'privilege' of hearing DECA's wake up call yet, but it gets a little grating day after day."
"And… the same person turns it off, each time?" Phantom had known that the Earth Rangers were much less formal than his Kerovan friend, but he had never seen such a blatant demonstration of that fact. It also struck him as odd that DECA hadn't caught on to the prank yet.
"Well," Carlos admitted, looking a little abashed, "I was the one who did it last time. But this time I don't know who it was. It wasn't me, and I'm guessing from your reaction that it wasn't you. That only leaves the girls and TJ."
"Not Cassie," Phantom replied automatically. From what he knew of the other two, and the now-Blue Ranger's sense of responsibility, Ashley seemed the most likely choice.
Then he realized what he'd said, and he gave the other Ranger a nervous look. If yesterday evening was any indication, Cassie probably did not want to broadcast their relationship--but Carlos did not appear to notice anything unusual about the statement.
"I think you underestimate her," he said, grinning. "We're talking about the girl who pranked the *principal*--she wouldn't have any qualms about doing it to DECA."
"The principal?" Phantom repeated, and it suddenly came home to him how right Cassie had been when she said that the two of them didn't really know each other. Contrary to Carlos's belief, he had no trouble believing that Cassie would do something like that--he knew her *spirit*--but he knew so few of the details of her life.
"Don't ask," Carlos told him, taking another swallow of whatever his mug held. "Trust me; it's a story only she can tell."
Before he could press the subject, Carlos gave him a critical look. "I don't mean to sound rude, but… those are the only clothes you have with you, aren't they?"
Phantom glanced down inadvertently, and nodded. "I did not expect to spend so much time unmorphed. I apologize if my appearance bothers you."
"Of course not," Carlos assured him. "You seem--I don't know, more approachable this way." He hesitated. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I--" He shrugged uncomfortably. "I didn't realize you were so young."
"Young?" Phantom repeated, bristling.
"Well, you know," Carlos said. "Our age. I had this impression of you being older than us, I guess."
Phantom did not correct him. He had no way of knowing whether Carlos was Cassie's age or not, but if they were anything like the Elisian team, the Black Ranger might well be older.
"Anyway," Carlos went on, "I only asked because some of my clothes would probably fit you, if you want. I don't want to break any taboo by offering, but…"
The other trailed off, and Phantom just stared at him in surprise. "Thank you," he managed to say at last. "I--I would appreciate that."
"No problem," Carlos assured him, and Phantom smiled a little, surprised again to see the other return the expression. He had been months without companionship, and far longer without the companionship of people who knew his true form. It felt strange-- but not quite as uncomfortable as it had been the day before.
The note on the table greeted the "sleepyheads", and told anyone who happened to get up for breakfast that both Carlos and Phantom were already working on repairs. If the others felt like helping, they'd better get themselves in gear or there'd be nothing left to do.
Cassie smiled at the Black Ranger's teasing and set out to find the two Rangers. As soon as she stepped through the hatch, she was glad she'd chosen not to wear her uniform today. The heat was intense, and the sun shone unforgivingly down on her bare arms and legs.
Carlos was down by the site of the first hull breach, using a magnetic wrench to pull bolts out of the ruined section of hull. He waved as he saw her approach, holding up one finger to indicate he'd be with her in a minute.
She nodded, watching him struggle with a bolt only inches from the jagged metal tear. It looked to have been not only fused, but twisted as well by the decompression, and eventually he gave up and flipped on a laser cutter to slice it free.
The hum faded from the air as he powered both tools down, and she walked closer. "How's it going?" Cassie asked, looking more closely at the hole in the Megaship's exterior.
Carlos shrugged noncommittally. "This one's big enough that patching it would be a waste of time. I figured we'd just replace the entire plate; save ourselves the trouble of doing it later."
She nodded. Her mind was far more concerned with Saryn's whereabouts than with any hull breach, but she didn't want to be too obvious about it. "Want some help?"
"Not yet," Carlos said, his refusal cheerful enough that it could not possibly offend. "Eventually, yes--but right now, I bet Phantom could use it more than I could."
Her eyes met his, startled, and Carlos smiled. "He's on the other side of the ship, doing something to the thruster. It didn't look repairable to me, but," he shrugged, "he said he could do it."
She smiled back, well aware that Carlos had never thought much of her "crush" on their ally. His tacit approval now meant a lot to her. "Thanks," she said softly, and he nodded.
Cassie wound her way around the outside of the Megaship, ducking into the shade as soon as she came around the end of the starboard nacelle. She walked underneath the forward section, slipping a little in the sand that had been swept into miniature dunes by the ship's rocky set-down.
Approaching the edge of the port thruster, she marveled at how big this ship really was on the outside. It had taken her a good five minutes just to go this far, and she'd been moving quickly.
She caught sight of Saryn as soon as she rounded the end of the damaged thruster. He was working not too far away, his back to her as she walked closer. She stopped about five meters from him, not confident in her ability to get any nearer without him hearing her.
She smiled as she leaned against the ridge in the metallic casing of the thruster, watching him. Carlos had not mentioned that he had loaned some of his own clothes to their friend, and he looked undeniably less alien in blue jeans and sneakers. Even his black t-shirt was tucked in, looking far more Earthly than the tunic he had worn loose before.
"There is no doubt in my mind that you are more empathically sensitive than I," he said suddenly, not turning. "But I can still tell when you are nearby."
Cassie blushed, embarrassed to be caught staring. He turned around, then, before she could look away, and she scuffed her foot in the sand self-consciously. "Morning," she offered, feeling like she should say something but not sure exactly what.
His expression was worried as he came toward her. "Cassie? Are you--is something wrong?"
She shrugged, and felt a sudden fear stab at her heart. She gave him a startled look, knowing the feeling was his, and hurried to assure him, "No, I'm fine; really."
The feeling of being afraid did not go away, and she had to concentrate to ignore it. "You are not fine," he contradicted, searching her expression. "Please tell me… Do you--do you regret last night?"
"No!" she exclaimed, feeling a smile spread across her face at the memory. "Is that what you thought? No, not at *all*."
He smiled too, and the fear was gone as abruptly as it had come. "Then what?" he asked, reaching out to run his fingers through her hair. "Tell me what's wrong."
She looked down, digging her toe a little further into the sand. "It was Jenna, wasn't it," she said softly.
He was quiet for a moment, and she glanced up to find him regarding her intently. "Yes," he agreed finally. "We were very close."
He hesitated, then added, "I loved her, Cassie. I loved all of them. But I've never felt about anyone the way I feel about you. You are more special to me than anything in the universe; a part of my heart--a part of my soul that I could never live without."
She just looked at him, wondering how she could ever respond to something like that. He had done this to her the night before too, rendering her completely speechless with his words. "How do you do that?" she asked, finding her voice at last. "Where do lines like that *come* from?"
"Straight from the heart," he murmured, leaning forward to kiss her. She turned her face upward, closing her eyes and feeling her breath disappear with the first touch of his lips.
He pulled away a moment later, though, giving her a worried look. "You are still troubled."
"It's not that," she said hastily, not wanting him to think she was that jealous. "It's just…" She trailed off, feeling herself blushing again, but unable to prevent it. "Last night was my first time. Did you--did you ever wish… that you were with Jenna, instead?"
He stared at her, and then, to her surprise, he burst out laughing. She had never heard him laugh before, and she listened, entranced by the sound and almost forgetting her own discomfort.
"No," he managed to say at last, calming down enough to catch his breath. "I most certainly did not."
"Gods, Cassie," he added, his eyes still sparkling with amusement as they met hers. "You have no idea what you do to me, do you? No matter how many times I've told you… you can still ask a question like that."
She shrugged, relieved but still a little embarrassed. "I just wasn't sure…"
"Cassie," he told her, smiling a little, "if it had been up to me, neither of us would have slept at all last night. But we were both tired, and as you say, it was your first time. I am sorry that--" His eyes clouded over, and the smile faded. "It was not the way I would have wanted it, for you. I hope that you can forgive me, and that you will let me make it up to you."
She couldn't help the childish giggle that escaped. "You want me to *forgive* you?" she asked, gazing into his eyes. "For last night? I don't know… that's going to be pretty hard."
She was teasing him, and she could tell he knew it. She moved closer, so that she could feel the heat of his body even in the warmth of this planet's midday. "But letting you make it up to me?" she murmured, putting her hands on his shoulders. "I think I could do that."
Staring at his face, so close, she couldn't help but savor the moment. He was here, with her at last--and he was hers. She had no more doubts about that; he was hers for as long as she wanted. And she wanted him forever.
She hadn't realized how long she'd been staring at him, without moving, until he closed his eyes for a second and swallowed. "Please kiss me," he begged in a voice barely above a whisper, and she was only too happy to oblige.
He responded the instant their lips touched, arms going around her and crushing her against him. She couldn't even breathe, but she didn't care, clenching her fingers on his shoulders and opening her mouth to his.
She could feel the hard metal of the Megaship's nacelle behind her, and suddenly she felt Saryn's hands slide down to her hips, lifting her up onto the shallow shelf she'd been leaning on earlier. She flung her hands out to steady herself, but he did not let go, and, finding herself as stable as she'd been on the ground, she leaned into his kiss once more.
Her perch gave her just enough height to make her as tall as he, but she couldn't press her whole body against him the way she had before. She wished he hadn't set her there--until she felt his hand caress her bare leg. She edged closer, running her fingers along his neck and over his back and feeling her legs tingle with every touch of his hand.
Then he was drawing back, slowly, but far enough that she could no longer kiss him. "You," he said, the stern effect somewhat lost in his rapid breathing, "stay here."
She stared at him, not understanding, until he tipped his head to the side, indicating the burn marks on the thruster. "I did--" he paused for breath, "tell Carlos that… I could fix this. And… no offense--you're not helping."
He smiled at her to show he was teasing, and her heart rate jumped again at the heart-warming tenderness in his expression. His hand still rested on her knee, and she deliberately shifted her position a little. He looked down inadvertently, rubbing her leg before he withdrew his hand. "You had to wear shorts," he murmured ruefully. "You never used to."
She shook her head, pleased that he had noticed. Ashley had always been the pretty one, with her fashion sense and designer skirts. Cassie knew her own style of dress was more practical, less elegant--and it had rarely bothered her that her friend drew most of the stares. But with him around, she had thought a little more carefully about what she put on.
"You have never been anything but beautiful to me," he said quietly, as though he could read her mind, and she smiled at him.
"Around you, I've never felt any other way," she told him, gazing into his blue eyes and meaning every word. He sighed--she wasn't sure he even realized he had done it--and she reached out to touch his face. "One more kiss?" she pleaded, running her fingers along his jaw.
He hesitated, catching her hand and pressing it against his cheek. He turned his head just enough to kiss her palm, even as she had done the night before, but did not take his eyes off her. "You know I can't say no to you," he whispered.
She leaned forward, and their mouths melded together once more.
Whistling, TJ made his way down deck six for the second time this morning. Only this time, he was considerably more awake, and in a far better mood. Strolling into the Glider holding bay, he waved to Ashley, already seated at the table.
"Hi, TJ," she greeted him, looking up from her muffin. "You did it, didn't you?"
Affecting an innocent air, TJ punched a few buttons on the Synthetron. "I know nothing, I tell you. Nothing at all."
She giggled. "It was you. I hope you're not expecting to get what you want for breakfast."
In point of fact, he wasn't, and he was as surprised as she when he pulled a plate stacked with pancakes out of the Synthetron. "Wow," Ashley said, when he joined her at the table. "DECA's turning over a new leaf."
"Yeah--a forgiving leaf," he added, digging into his pancakes. He took his first bite cautiously, fully expecting the computer to have "improved" the recipe somewhat. But there was nothing wrong with them, and he gave Ashley a surprised look. "They're good."
She shrugged. "Maybe she's trying to get on your good side."
"Or maybe she's plotting something even worse," he said suspiciously, giving the camera a dark look. "I'm not apologizing until I know which it is."
Ashley grinned, reaching for her juice. "What did you do to start all this, anyway?"
"*DECA* started it," he countered. "Not me."
"All right," Ashley allowed. "So what did DECA do?"
Pausing to swallow, TJ tried to remember. Finally, he looked at Ashley, and she burst out laughing. "You don't even know, do you?" she asked, between giggles.
He shook his head. Her amusement was infectious, and he found himself grinning. "I don't remember," TJ admitted, glancing over at the camera.
Ashley just shook her head, still smiling as she set her glass down. He kept thinking about it for a minute, but could call to mind no particular incident that had started the grudge match between him and the ship's artificial intelligence. Finally, he gave up and devoted his full attention to his breakfast.
"Hey," Ashley said all of a sudden. "Did you decide what you were going to do about Tessa?"
TJ froze, fork halfway to his mouth. The name triggered a memory of the dream DECA had woken him from earlier this morning. It had been the night after the championship win, and he and Tessa had been out star-gazing…
"Teej?" Ashley asked, and he blinked.
"Yeah," he said, setting his fork down abruptly. "Sorry, I was just thinking of something else."
"Are you all right?" she asked quietly, pushing her plate away from her and leaning a little forward.
"Yeah," TJ assured her. Lifting his own glass, he took a swallow of juice to wash down the food that suddenly stuck in his throat. "I'm fine; thanks."
She didn't look any less concerned. "Actually," he admitted, "I e-mailed my sister about her last night. She said she'd ask around."
Ashley smiled. "I'm glad--I hope she finds something."
TJ shrugged, trying not to let himself hope. "It's not all that likely. But at least it gives Ali something to do to keep her out of trouble."
"Mmm," Ashley agreed noncommittally. She raised an eyebrow when he started to pick up his dishes. "You don't have to hurry; I'll wait."
"Nah, that's okay," he said, smiling to reassure her. "I'm done."
It was Ashley's turn to shrug, collecting her own dishes and following him to the Synthetron. "I guess we'd better turn DECA's voice back on," she remarked, as he moved out of the way to allow her to stack her plate and glass on his.
Trying to forget about Tessa, TJ gave her his best devilish grin. "Do we have to?"
They did end up reactivating DECA's speech circuits, but the computer refused to stop sulking over the prank. It took some amount of coaxing, mostly on Ashley's part, to convince her to tell them where the other Rangers were.
Carlos was closer, so Ashley and TJ headed down to the first hull breach to see how he was doing. They found him seated in the sand, eyes closed and back against the metal plating of the hull.
"Well, I'm glad to see you working so hard," TJ said loudly, but Carlos just smiled.
He didn't even bother to open his eyes as he replied, "If someone hadn't shut off DECA's voice, you could have gotten up to help me."
"Hey, I was up till two this morning doing that trig review. Don't expect any sympathy from me," TJ told him.
"Yeah?" Carlos replied, opening his eyes at last and catching sight of Ashley. "And what's your excuse, Ash?"
She looked down sheepishly. "I… was up late, too?"
Suddenly TJ was looking at her too. "Oh, come on, Ash. You can tell us."
She couldn't help smiling at his too-innocent tone. "I could," she agreed. "But I'd never hear the end of it."
Carlos chuckled. "Now you *have* to tell us. What were you doing that kept you up so late you had to sleep till noon today?"
She tried to hide her smile, knowing how this would sound. "Talking to Andros," she admitted at last.
TJ grinned, and exchanged knowing looks with Carlos. "I see. I wonder what Andros would say about losing all that time on repairs…"
"Hey," Ashley protested, blushing. "*I* wasn't the one who turned DECA's voice off!"
"Aha!" Carlos pointed at TJ. "You, my friend, are busted."
TJ held his hands out to the side. "How do you know it wasn't Cassie? Or Phantom?"
Ashley couldn't help giggling at that. "Right, Teej. I can just see Phantom doing it…"
"Give it up," Carlos advised. "We know it was you."
"All right, all right," TJ said, settling down to sit next to Carlos. "I confess. Let's move on."
Carlos just smiled. "That means you're going to have to do some work, you know."
"What, you're not done yet?" The Blue Ranger looked surprised. "I thought you'd have finished everything while we 'sleepyheads' lazed around in bed."
"I didn't want anyone to feel left out," Carlos told him. "Now that everyone's up, you can all help get the new plating into position."
Ashley took a good look at the gaping hole off to right of the Black Ranger. It was even, rectangular, and at least six feet wide. What was left of the original plating lay in a heap nearby, and her eyes widened at the debris.
"That was a major breach," she said, amazed and glad he had decided to replace rather than patch the plating. To reinforce a patch that size, on metal so structurally unsound, would take almost as much time as what he had started to do--pull off the damaged section and replace it completely.
"Yeah, it was," Carlos said, suddenly serious. "You were really lucky, Ashley. You must have been right beside this when it happened--if you hadn't been knocked backward before the bulkheads came down, you wouldn't be here now."
TJ frowned over at the pile of twisted metal. Getting to his feet, he walked over to inspect the remnants of the plating more carefully, and Ashley folded her arms across her chest. The idea of being sucked out into the vacuum of space was not something she really wanted to think about this soon after getting up.
"Hey," TJ said, kneeling down next to the old plating. "Am I missing something, or are the burns on this really weird?"
"They're burns," she reminded him, shivering. "They're not supposed to look normal."
TJ looked up, surprise on his face at her tone. "Ash," Carlos broke in, "would you go get Cassie and Phantom? We're going to need their help to get the new plating in place and sealed."
She nodded, glad to leave the scene of the breach for a little while. She turned away from the damaged area, heading around the ship without looking over her shoulder. Her memory of exactly what had happened yesterday morning was still vague, and to be honest, she was trying not to think about it.
*Everyone's all right,* she reminded herself, rubbing her arms as she stepped into the Megaship's shadow. *We're all okay, and Carlos has the repairs under control. There's nothing to worry about.*
She was still trying to convince herself of that when she came around the end of the Megaship's port thruster. The strangest sense of disorientation came over her when she saw no one there. *But DECA said--*
Yes, this was where they had been before. She walked slowly down the length of the nacelle, seeing the jagged tear in the metal casing as she got nearer. Then her eye caught a flicker of light--from inside?
At first she was afraid, unlikely as it seemed, that some part of the thruster had actually caught fire. Aside from endangering the rest of the ship, that would also pretty much ruin any chance they had of getting it operational again--although, looking at it for herself, she couldn't believe Phantom had said it could be repaired at all.
But then the flash of light came again, and she realized it was far too steady to be flames. It looked like the glow of a flashlight, shining from the other side of a metallic rip almost as tall as she was, and comprehension dawned. Whatever Phantom was trying to do to make the mechanism operational again must take better access than was afforded from the outside of the thruster, and he had probably taken advantage of the casing breach to get inside.
She walked over to it, a little curious. The one other time a thruster on the Megaship had been damaged, it had been completely replaced, rather than repaired. She'd never seen the inside of the thrusters before, and she had to wonder what it looked like. She blinked into the dimness, trying to get her eyes to adjust from the sunscorched sand outside.
She didn't even recognize Phantom at first, dressed as he was in Carlos's clothes. He was lying on his back beneath an intimidating cluster of wires and interfaces whose purpose she couldn't begin to fathom, working with one of the small welders. Cassie sat at his side, on knee drawn up to her chest as she squeezed in between the casing and thruster components.
Despite the close quarters, the Pink Ranger looked perfectly comfortable. The flashlight was clutched in her hand, though she didn't seem to be paying much attention to where it shone. As Ashley looked in, Phantom reached up and took Cassie's wrist, adjusting the angle of the light's beam.
"Sure, everyone's a critic," Ashley heard Cassie mutter, and she was surprised to see what looked like a smile on Phantom's face.
He took Cassie's arm once more, lifting his head to kiss her hand before moving it again so he could see. Her free hand dropped down to stroke his hair, and Ashley smiled, suddenly understanding why Phantom was spending so much time unmorphed.
She rapped on the outside of the nacelle, her smile widening as Cassie jumped. "Hey, guys," she called cheerfully, for all the world as though she had just arrived. "Want to come give us a hand? We need some help replacing the hull plating."
Cassie craned her neck to meet Ashley's eye, and Phantom grabbed her hand again, holding it in place. "Sorry," she murmured, looking back, and he shook his head.
"It is all right," he assured her, not letting go of her. "But this juncture is critical. You go ahead--I can finish this part on my own."
"We'll wait for you," Ashley told him, surprised. "There's no hurry."
His concentration did not waver, but she thought he sounded a little surprised himself as he asked, "You wish me to help?"
"Well, yeah," Ashley said, taken aback. "If you're not too busy."
He didn't answer for a moment. Then, flipping the spot welder off, he tilted his head to look in her direction. "Thank you," he said quietly. "You and your friends have gone out of your way to make me feel like part of your team, and I appreciate it."
Ashley shrugged. She hadn't really thought about it, but she was glad it meant something to him. "You've always been one of us, Phantom; in spirit at least. That's what being a Power Ranger is about."
He smiled a little. "I will join you in a moment."
Cassie passed him the flashlight, and he took it with a murmured thank you. She patted his shoulder, putting her other hand behind her to push herself to her feet. She scrambled out of the tight space, and Phantom watched her go with an expression that made Ashley raise her eyebrows.
Then he blinked and looked back at the interface he'd been working on, and she and Cassie moved away from the nacelle's black scar. As they rounded the end of the thruster, she looked over at her friend. "So?"
"What?" Cassie asked, but the smile that spread across her face gave her away.
Ashley laughed. "You know what I mean. What's he like? Is he as nice as he seemed when we were Turbo Rangers?"
"He's nicer," Cassie answered with a sigh. "He's the most amazing person I've ever met."
Privately, Ashley was relieved. She had hoped Cassie would not be disappointed when she actually had the chance to meet the object of her longtime affections. None of them had ever really known anything about the Phantom Ranger, and it had worried her to think that he might not quite be everything Cassie had imagined.
"Good," Ashley said, linking her arm through her friend's. "You're glad you waited for him, then?"
Cassie nodded emphatically. "I really am, Ash. I don't know how to explain it, but… I feel like I've been waiting for him all my life."
She laughed suddenly. "That sounded really silly."
"No," Ashley assured her, smiling. "It makes sense to me."