"We have a war room?" Wes asked, looking at Tori in surprise. "Since when?"
"It's mostly for meetings," she told him with a shrug. She frowned. "We've never needed that much space to use it, really."
They exchanged concerned looks. "You think this is big?" Wes wondered.
"Very big," Dax piped up from behind them, looking uncharacteristically worried. "The big dog called *all* Rangers. That can't be a good sign."
"Way to keep us calm, Dax," Tori told him with a wry smile, patting his shoulder.
He blinked at her. "What?"
"It's nothing, Dax. Don't worry about it," Wes muttered as they went in.
Dax paused just inside the doorway and groaned. "I missed *another* one?"
"It's not news, buddy," Rocky reminded him as he passed, giving his shoulder a friendly pat.
Dax sighed, flopping down in a chair with an expression that bordered on a pout.
Tommy moved to stand before them all, putting his hands behind his back in a way that normally made him look intimidating. But something in his expression and the grim tone of his voice made them all sit up and pay attention. "We have some serious news," he informed them, looking troubled.
"Emperor Grumm has reached Galaxy 334-ARA1," Cruger announced solemnly.
Rose sat up straighter, frowning. "That's only two galaxies away from us."
Wes stiffened, as did several others. Emperor Grumm was not new to them; all of S.P.D.'s officers knew the story of Grumm's wave of destruction, even how their own commander's home planet had fallen to him. They'd been monitoring him for several years now, keeping a close eye on his location and conquests. They all knew what he was capable of, and what had happened to the people who had tried to resist him.
Tommy shook his head. "It's more than that. We have allies under attack in that system."
Aisha sucked in a breath. "Aquitar?"
He nodded reluctantly. "We received a distress signal from the Aquitian government only hours ago. We've decided to organize a team to - "
"Let me go!"
Everyone looked at Billy in surprise. The normally placid former Blue Ranger shot to his feet, his eyes wild and desperate as he stared at Tommy. "Tommy, please," he pleaded. "I - it has to be me! *Please*!"
Tommy's expression was torn. "Billy ... I .... "
"And would you like to explain why that might be, Captain Cranston?" Cruger asked, narrowing his eyes at Billy.
The look Billy shot him was one of sheer panic. "Because my daughter is on Aquitar!"
"I can't believe Cruger!" Tori burst out furiously the moment they knew they were too far away for the Sirian to hear. "How could he do that? It's Billy's *child* for goodness sake! He has a *right* to go find her!"
Blake rubbed her arm soothingly. "But Cruger has a reason to be concerned," he pointed out carefully. "He can't be sure Billy would be able to stay calm in that sort of situation."
She scowled at him. "And if it was Hunter or Sora?"
"I'd sneak onto the shuttle if I had to," he answered immediately. "But as Commander, Cruger has to make the decision to keep Billy here. Besides, we'll need his expertise for keeping in touch with the team that goes."
"They said they wanted a KIA and an Ambassador for sure," Wes murmured, still shell-shocked at the news that Emperor Grumm had turned up so close to their own galaxy, let alone Billy's sudden revelation. "Since it's Kim's niece, it'll have to be Zhane, and either Karone or Chip. And then whoever they decide to send with them."
"They'll need strong Rangers," Dax commented, looking thoughtful. "Ones who can handle working with a strange team, since the Mighty Morphin Rangers can't go."
"Or Zeo," Wes commented absently. "Tommy, Rocky, and Adam are all Morphin, and Katherine can't leave Garrett."
Blake frowned. "What about Tanya?"
Tori shook her head. "She's not S.P.D.," she reminded him. "Ranger or not, she doesn't have the training to go. And Cruger doesn't have the authority to send her."
"So that leaves the rest of the Astro team, Justin, Rose, Ryan, and the three of us," Dax counted off on his fingers.
"Astro will go," Wes said immediately. "Andros is the best Red we've got after Tommy, and Ashley's a Doc. They'll need her."
"But what about Marinda?" Blake wanted to know. "They can't both go; what if something happens?"
"But that's the chance we take as Rangers, isn't it?" Dax asked quietly. "We all knew what we were getting into when we joined S.P.D. Never mind treaties, can we really say we won't help Aquitar just because we don't want to leave our kids?"
The other three regarded him in surprise. "That was very insightful, Dax," Tori told him at last.
He blinked, then shrugged, offering them all a bright grin. "I have my moments."
He turned, blinking at the solemn look on Tommy's face. "What is it, Tommy?"
Tommy sighed, shifting his stance slightly. "Come with me. We need to talk."
"You want *me* to lead the team to Aquitar?" Wes demanded, his voice nearly cracking in shock. He stared at Tommy and Cruger in disbelief. "Why me?"
Tommy sighed. "It came down to a decision between you, Andros, or Jason. And to be completely honest, your Squad will be easiest to cover while you're gone." He looked up with guilty eyes. "This mission is going to be sending you straight into a war zone. The few specifics we were able to get from Aquitar were, well ... " He hesitated, then passed over a file.
Wes read silently, feeling the blood drain from his face. This was .... He fought the urge to grab for a chair.
"You do of course, have the right to refuse," Cruger informed him.
But was Wes already shaking his head. "No. I'm a Power Ranger. I can't just leave those people to die." He took a deep breath, trying not to think of Sky and Vanessa, and what they would think of the news. "Who's on my team?"
"Zhane and Chip for sure. We're sending two more with you; any suggestions?" Tommy asked.
Wes considered for several minutes. "Tori," he said abruptly. "She's a strong Ranger, good fighter, and she has healer training."
Cruger nodded. "A good choice," he agreed.
"Do we have a Tech?"
"It'll have to be Justin or Rose," Tommy told him regretfully. "They're the only ones available."
"Justin," Wes said quickly, and tried not to wince when Tommy looked amused. "He's the best at not ruffling feathers, and he's more used to working on his own as a Ranger than Rose is." He hesitated. "And I'd like to request Dax as well."
"Sergeant Lo?" Cruger raised his eyebrows. "For what reason?"
"Rangers work best in teams of six, Sir. And out of the other available active Rangers in this base, it comes down to Ryan or Dax."
Tommy winced slightly. "And Ryan has Sydney."
Wes nodded. "Dax is one of the most loyal Rangers I know, and he notices things no one else sees. I think he'd make a valuable addition to the team."
"Do you truly feel you need a six-man team, Sergeant Collins?" Cruger asked, studying him intently.
Wes met his gaze straight on. "I do, Sir. It's the way Power Rangers are meant to fight."
"He's right," Tommy said quietly. He looked at Cruger for a moment before nodding to Wes. "Permission granted."
Wes let out an internal sigh of relief. Then he frowned, doing some mental calculations. "What about Chip? He's the only inactive Ranger on the team."
Tommy gave a very faint, slight smile. "We've got something in the works for him. In the meantime, inform your team, head home, and get some sleep. We're sending you out at 0800."
Wes saluted. "Thank you, Sir. Tommy," he added with a quick nod.
As he headed for the door, one thought rang through his mind. *How* was he going to tell Sky and Vanessa?
He glanced back. "Yeah?"
The expression Tommy gave him was pained. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
Wes shook his head. "I'm a Ranger, Tommy," he reminded him. "It's what we do."
He walked out before he could tell them he changed his mind.
"Sky! Sky, please open the door," Wes pleaded.
It remained stubbornly locked before him, and he leaned his head against it with a sigh. "Sky ... I'm sorry," he said quietly. "But this is what being a Ranger is about. People need my help, and I have to go whether I want to or not."
He waited a few more moments, hoping. But the door stayed closed, and at last he sighed. "I love you, Sky. I'll miss you."
Vanessa met him at the front door, looking up at him with a solemn expression. "You're not packing anything?" she asked.
He shook his head. "S.P.D.'s providing all the equipment." He hesitated. "Vanessa, I - "
She kissed him.
He froze, and whatever he had been about to say was suddenly no longer important. It was a several moments before she pulled away, her hand resting on his cheek as she stared up at him. "N-Nes ... " he stammered, bewildered.
She covered his mouth, shaking her head. "You're hopeless, Wes." Her eyes searched his for a moment. At last she sighed, leaning forward again to give him another brief kiss. "Come back to us," she whispered. Her hand was shaking.
He caught it, feeling torn. He wasn't completely stupid, but he'd never even thought ... "Nes, I - "
"You're going to be late," she reminded him softly.
Something in her expression told him the last thing he wanted to know. She already knew his answer, and she wasn't expecting him to fall in love with her. But unlike Sky, Vanessa understood *exactly* what he was heading into.
Swallowing hard, he pulled her into a tight hug. And feeling like a complete jerk, he turned and kissed her cheek. "I - "
"I love you too, Wes," she murmured in his ear, squeezing tight. "Be careful."
"Yeah," he whispered, hating himself all the more.
He pulled away after a moment, hesitating one last time before heading out the door. His hand was on his bike and his keys in the ignition before he heard Sky's panicked yell.
Turning, he found himself nearly tackled to the ground as his son sobbed against him. He closed his eyes, leaning down and holding Sky as tightly as he could. "I love you, Sky," he told him again, wondering if he could say it enough. He brushed back Sky's hair, kissing the top of his head before lifting his chin to meet his eyes. "You be good for your mom, okay?" he reminded him, trying desperately not to sound as choked up as he felt.
Sky nodded, sniffling. "I promise."
He gave him one last hug and gently pushed him back towards the house and Vanessa's waiting arms. As he turned on the bike's ignition and pulled on his helmet, he fought to keep himself from looking back again. He tried not to wonder about how long it would be before he came back, and what his son would look like then.
He didn't think he wanted to know.