Years of relying on sound and touch to navigate had taught Wes a great deal about moving silently. R.J. had commented once that he reminded him of someone he knew. The way he'd chuckled as he said it had made Wes decide that it was probably better not to ask. He liked R.J. well enough - particularly for his ability to drive both Eric and Sky up the wall in less than five minutes - but there were times he just didn't want to know.
Wes grinned to himself as he remembered when he and Vanessa had actually timed how long it had taken R.J. to annoy them both. Eric and Sky had been irritated at R.J. and furious with the two of them when they finally noticed the stopwatch. R.J.'s response had been "Whoa, I'm getting a lot of negative vibes over here. Why don't we all just take some deep breaths, and spend a little time focusing on some calming thoughts?" Eric stormed off with a frustrated growl, Sky proceeded to lock himself in his room, and the remaining three laughed themselves sick.
His grin widened as he noticed two figures outside of the labs. And according to his SightMap, a certain someone was blushing. He moved in, silently vowing to never let her live it down.
Vanessa's scream of surprise as he grabbed her from behind and tickled her was music to his ears.
R.J. chuckled, getting a glare from Vanessa. He held up his hands in defense. "Whoa ... Mellow out, Minx. It's just a joke."
Her scowl darkened. "Don't call me that."
"But it's who you are," Wes and R.J. said in unison, R.J. sincere and Wes mocking.
She elbowed Wes and continued to glare at R.J. "Cute. I'm going back to work." She hesitated, glancing warily at Wes before sighing at last. "See you Saturday at eight, R.J." she muttered as she quickly went in to her lab.
Wes smirked to himself. "So things are going well?" he asked.
"The flow of energy between us has been surprisingly steady," R.J. returned almost thoughtfully.
Wes just nodded, used to R.J.'s ... R.J.-isms. "No fighting?" he asked suspiciously. He loved Vanessa, but her temper was almost as bad as Eric's.
R.J. grinned. "I never said that. But what's romance without passion?"
"Is that what you're calling it?" Wes snorted. He smiled after a moment. "But I'm glad things seem to be working out for you two. Vanessa needs someone more than she admits."
"The Minx needs someone to share her wisdom with, not someone to watch over her," R.J. corrected him, raising a finger.
Wes raised his eyebrows. "Which is why I'm glad it's you," he returned. "You're probably one of the few people in the world patient enough to be able to maintain a relationship with her."
R.J. smiled. "And with you, Eric, and the young Weasel as well."
Wes just shook his head at R.J.'s name for Sky. "You're a great guy R.J. and I like you, but I don't think I'll ever get you."
He nodded amiably. "Learning to understand someone on all levels is one of the most difficult achievements in life."
"I'll take your word for it. I've gotta get going - monthly status meeting. I'll catch up with you later, R.J." Wes smiled faintly as he turned and began to make his way to the main conference room. "And don't drive Vanessa to try and kill you again!" he called back over his shoulder.
"But that's half the fun."
He chuckled to himself as he walked. Casey had introduced R.J. to him during one of the Red Ranger Reunions not long after he'd woken up. He claimed that if anyone could help him get back to the shape he'd been in Before, it was R.J.
Wes liked R.J. He was funny, patient, and a great guy. And he'd been an amazing teacher; in some ways, Wes was actually in *better* shape now then he'd been Before. He'd given Wes a lot of his self-confidence back, and even more than that. Now that Wes could not only fight once again, but was also trained in a special combat style, he'd finally gotten his job back with S.P.D.
It wasn't quite the same; while he was in charge of H Squad again, he now only handled their training on his own. When it came time for missions, his Squad was usually paired with another for 'safety reasons'. It frustrated and annoyed him to no end, but it was the most Cruger had been willing to bend the rules to get him back at S.P.D. As somewhat of a compromise, he also was given time to offer a special class for anyone who wanted to learn his specific fighting style, whether they were from another Squad, or an entirely different department. The class was surprisingly popular, and while he still hated being treated as a lesser teacher when leading his own Squad, he felt a certain satisfaction with his specialty class.
Vanessa and R.J. had met not long after R.J. had begun to teach him, and sparks had immediately flown - literally. He'd made the mistake of introducing them in the labs, and Vanessa had become so annoyed with R.J.'s manner of speaking that she'd accidentally knocked over a burner and set off a small fire. Needless to say, the day R.J. had stopped training to ask him quite seriously if Wes minded if he asked her out had shocked Wes. But it was the cryptic response he'd gotten when he assured R.J. that he had no claim on Vanessa that had convinced him that there could be something between them if they both wanted it.
"I'm not asking to make sure she doesn't belong to you. I'm asking out of respect for her family, to know that I have your permission to know her better - if she allows me to."
He found it interesting that R.J. had also asked Sky and Eric as well before he actually approached Vanessa herself.
"Hi, Rocky," Wes said absently, holding the door open for the other man.
Rocky sighed in frustration. "One of these days you're going to jump, Wes."
"Sure, Rocky. Sure."
The meeting room was more than full. Most of the department heads had already arrived, and it sounded like everyone but Shane had shown up from the Drill Sergeants. Wait - that wasn't Vanessa in the Tech Head's Chair; she was fidgeting too much.
Wes grinned and waved at Nerina Cranston, and heard a soft whisper of "Greetings, Sergeant Collins." While an amazingly brilliant young woman, Nerina was still painfully shy and soft-spoken. Which was what was so fun - cruel, about the way Vanessa would sent Nerina to meetings in her place when she didn't feel like going.
Wes slid into his seat, leaning over to his left towards where Eric always sat. "What's her reason this time?" he asked, nodding towards Nerina.
Eric snorted. "Some new experiment - unstable molecular fabric or something."
Wes raised his eyebrows, amused. "Spending some time catching up on the classics?"
He could hear the smirk in Eric's voice. "Gotta get in some good reading while the minions are off running themselves ragged."
Wes rolled his eyes, chuckling at Eric's nickname for his Squad. 'Minions', which he'd shortened from 'S.P.D.'s Minions' when Tommy had warned him not to let Cruger hear it - while trying not to laugh himself. They'd managed to keep the original name a secret among Rangers, but more than once someone had gotten an odd look for laughing too hard when they heard it.
Wes paused, tilting his head. "Shane and Dustin finally remembered what time it is," he remarked as he listened to the pair hurrying down the hall.
"If they have the smell, I don't wanna hear about it," Eric warned.
Karone glanced up on his right in mild interest. "I do."
"Sergeant Clarke, Captain Brooks," Cruger spoke up as they slipped into their seats. "So good of you to join us."
"We got held up," Shane said quickly.
Rocky snorted, and Wes could hear Zhane and Ashley trying to muffle their laughter.
Karone leaned closer. "Did they? They look like it," she said softly.
Wes smiled faintly. "No," he murmured. "I'd be able to smell it from here if they had."
Karone made an amused noise, moving back to her seat. It wasn't the first time he'd been asked to check for something like this, and he doubted it would be the last. He didn't mind *too* much, although Eric always seemed to be annoyed when someone asked.
There was a long silence, and at last Cruger cleared his throat. "Very well, now that we're all here, let's commence with the meeting."
Status Meetings, by default, were boring. Mind numbingly, painfully boring, and everyone knew it. They all hated them, and yet they all had to be here. But the fascinating thing about being a Ranger was that it taught you an extreme form of multi-tasking *very* quickly, and it was a skill that never left, even years after giving up the Power.
It was a skill that kept them all from falling asleep.
Currently, Wes himself was involved in a game of hangman with Eric, which was interesting because he had no way of knowing if the other man was cheating - and he suspected he was. He would sign the letters into Eric's hand below the table, and Eric would sign back Yes and tap out a number, or No. So far Eric was winning, hence the reason he thought he may have been cheating. Just how many words used two 'a's, a 'u', and an 'o', with only four more open letters, anyway?
Beside him, Karone was doodling on her notes. Rocky and Dustin were playing something he suspected to be tic-tac-toe because of the way they kept exchanging notepaper between them. Shane was apparently groping Dustin's knee under the table to make him squirm, and Adam had been designated note-taker for the meeting on behalf of everyone else who was distracted. Jason and Zack had snuck in some sort of electronic mini-game, and Billy was busy scribbling on his own notepaper. He apparently wasn't taking notes, because the pauses in his writing weren't in time with what was being said. Zhane and Ashley were trying not to giggle as they played a hand game of their own, with Andros trying and failing to ignore them and actually pay attention to the meeting. Kimberly wasn't shy about her glances at Zhane and Ashley's game, and in between Wes could hear her tapping a rhythm out with her pen and marking something down.
Only Nerina was actually paying close attention to what was going on, along with Cruger and Tommy by default as they were the ones running the meeting. If Cruger knew what was going on, he pretended he didn't. Tommy seemed amused, but he didn't pause in his update of the current budget numbers.
"Captain Andros, are you prepared to share the details of A Squad's last training mission?"
Wes blinked at Cruger's words, forcing himself to put more of his attention into the conversation as Andros stood up.
"The mission went better than expected, Commander," Andros began with a note of pride. "The hostages were rescued without incident in record time, and no casualties were recorded. All three kidnappers were contained and brought in with relative ease."
"Relative?" Tommy repeated, sounding curious.
Andros hesitated. "Well ... there was ... a minor incident. One of the kidnappers made a derogatory comment in reference to Ran, and Michael took offense." He sighed, muttering "And when Sara and James finally removed him, Charlie punched him."
There was a round of soft snickering.
"Is Ran all right?" Ashley asked, sounding concerned about her best friend's daughter.
"She's fine," Andros assured her. He hesitated again. "Although Charlie was upset that she didn't get the chance to ... 'correct' his behavior before he was contained."
"And the punishment given to Cadet Charliesia for assaulting the accused?" Cruger asked.
"Night detail for three weeks."
Zack let out an angry hiss. "You sunk my - "
Jason snorted hastily, trying to cover Zack's exclamation. "You're always too lenient on Charlie, Andros. Admit it; you favor her because she's Kerovian."
"I do not," Andros returned, annoyed.
"A Squad *does* seem to be getting a bit ... " Ashley hesitated.
"Big for their britches?" Zhane suggested.
"Hah!" Rocky crowed, pointing across the table at Zhane. "Earth-ism! You owe me twenty bucks!"
Zhane cursed under his breath.
Tommy coughed awkwardly. "Moving on ... "
"Oh, dude!" Dustin perked up suddenly. "I have a request." He paused. "Well, technically it's Taylor's request, but I said I'd bring it up for her."
"Yes, Captain Brooks? What is it?" Cruger interrupted, sounding impatient.
Dustin flushed and fidgeted as everyone turned to look at him, their interest caught by the idea that Taylor had actually requested something. Shane elbowed him gently, and he straightened. "Uh ... Right, dude. Well, you see, you guys all remember about Danny and Max, and how Danny started that thing with helping kids living on the streets, right? Well, they haven't seen a couple of them for awhile, and Danny's like, real worried, so Max asked - "
"*Max* said something?" Adam interrupted incredulously. "Max hates Danny helping out those kids. He keeps complaining that they cost too much money and one of them is going to rob them blind one of these days."
"Oh dude, they did," Dustin responded cheerfully. "They woke up and all of Max's clothes were gone. And most of Danny's old stuff. Anyway, Danny's all depressed about it, so Max called Taylor, and Taylor asked me to ask if we could keep an eye out for them."
Cruger considered for a moment, and to everyone's surprise, nodded. "That shouldn't be a problem. Do you have a description of these children?"
"Oh! Uh, yeah." Dustin quickly shuffled through some papers. "Uh, Jack Landors. African-American Human, presumed age is around seventeen years old. Here's a picture - " He passed over a small photograph. Tommy projected it onto the screen in center of the table for them all, and everyone leaned in to study it. Wes squinted, wishing his SightMap had better reception for finer details.
"The girl next to him is Z Delgado. Uh, Hispanic Human obviously. Presumed age is seventeen, too. Danny says they're both good kids, but they don't really trust anyone. Max says they're both trouble and not to trust a word they say, but I think he was like, still steamed over the whole clothes thing. Although he did say something about them having some kind of special abilities, and to be careful about surprising 'em."
"Does anyone else think they look familiar?" Zhane spoke up, sounding puzzled.
"No," Andros returned, glancing at him. "Why?"
Wes could *hear* the way Zhane rolled his eyes as he spoke. "Not you. You and Karone don't count. You two wouldn't notice if your own pants were on fire."
"I could set yours on fire," Karone offered almost casually.
There was a pause. "I'm good, thanks," Zhane said finally as everyone else snickered. "But seriously. Does anyone with any observational skills think those kids look familiar? Ow! Andros, I'm serious!"
"You're right," Eric said slowly. "I can't put my finger on it, but that girl ... I feel like I've seen her somewhere before."
"You said they stole clothing, Captain Brooks?" Cruger asked suddenly.
"Uh, yeah. Why?"
"I believe I may have a lead on where they might be. We'll send someone in immediately to track them down." Cruger sounded strangely almost thoughtful.
Jason raised a hand. "B Squad volunteers. Sky's been whining about being bored again; they could use something pointless to do. Or a good workout, whichever these kids happen to be."
Adam looked at him. "You just love torturing our kids, don't you?" he asked, sounding amused.
Jason shrugged. "If they want to be Rangers, they're going to have to work for it."
"Yeah, like it was so hard for us," Kimberly teased him. "Come on, Jase. What was it Zack? 'We're gonna save the world?'"
"'Hey! Nice stereo!'" Jason mocked in return.
"A fully sentient, multi-functional automaton," Billy murmured with a faint smile, barely glancing up from his design.
Tommy coughed. "So we'll send B Squad after the lead to see if they can find Danny's kids. Is there anything else anyone wanted to bring up?"
There was a moment of silence.
Wes could sense Eric stiffening beside him. After a moment, the word look was spelled into his hand.
He frowned. His SightMap couldn't pick up finer details like facial expressions, so Eric and Vanessa had taken to letting him know silently when Tommy and Cruger got their 'we know something, and you won't like it' looks. If they were doing it now, that wasn't a good sign.
"We've just received word that Emperor Grumm has left the planet Alandria," Tommy said quietly. "Or rather, left what *was* the planet Alandria."
There was a long, heavy silence as they all bowed their heads in respect, silently grieving for the loss of life.
Eventually, Cruger cleared his throat. "We've now learned that Grumm is on his way *here*; to the Sol Galaxy, and Earth."
"We need to prepare for the worst," Cruger went on as Wes fought down the urge to shudder. "As of now Grumm cannot enter this galaxy due to the Sirian Web covering the only wormhole close enough to give him access to us. However, there are ways to counteract the web."
"A proton accelerator," Billy agreed, sounding worried. "If Grumm manages to appropriate such a device, it would be, for lack of a better term, child's play for him to bypass the security net the Sirian Web has erected and enter our galaxy."
"Can he get to us without one?" Zack asked, leaning forward.
Nerina shook her head. "That would be impossible," she said softly. "The Sirian Web is so complex and thoroughly secure that only the proton accelerator would have enough power to overload it, allowing Emperor Grumm and his forces to pass through the wormhole."
"So we *have* to keep him from getting that proton accelerator," Tommy said grimly.
"I have some people I can talk to," Kimberly spoke up. She glanced at Zhane. "We can call in some favors, ask around for people willing to help protect Earth."
Zhane nodded. "I've got plenty of contacts I can go through," he agreed, sounding grim.
"In the meantime, we must plan for the chance that Grumm *is* able to get through," Cruger warned them again. "It is clear that A Squad will not be able to handle Grumm's forces alone. They will need help." His turned to Jason, staring down at him. "Do you believe B Squad would be up to the challenge?"
Billy stiffened. "Do you intend to implicate the secondary set of Morphers we had prepared in case of emergency?"
"I believe this situation would quality as an emergency, Captain Cranston," Cruger reminded him. He looked at Jason again. "Well?"
Jason hesitated. "Honestly? I don't know. They can fight, and they've defeated every training sim we put them up against. Bridge is a technological genius, Syd's a lot tougher and more compassionate than she looks, and Sky has great leadership potential - if he'd stop quoting the S.P.D. handbook every five minutes. But outside of training, they have little to no teamwork capabilities, they're always bickering, and Bridge and Syd have short attention spans. Sky on the other hand pays too *much* attention to detail - he refuses to think outside of the box, and that's a bad quality in a leader. But Sky *is* their Squad Leader; Bridge would never stand up long enough to take charge, and Syd could care less most of the time."
"Do you think they're ready?" Tommy asked him quietly, watching his best friend. Somehow, he seemed to understand that there was something Jason wasn't saying.
Jason sighed. "Do we have a choice?" he muttered. He shook his head. "Look. We've all started out worse than they have. From the S.P.D. standpoint? No, I don't think they're ready. I'm not sure they'll *ever* be ready. But as a Ranger? I know what Rangers are capable of, and I know what a true Ranger looks like." He looked at them all solemnly. "They may not be a team yet, but those three kids have more heart and determination than anyone I know. Put a morpher in their hands, and they'll make us proud."
"Very well. Thank you, Sergeant Scott." Cruger said at last, nodding quietly. "Captain Cranston, I apologize for further disrupting your vacation - "
"*Forced* vacation," Wes heard Billy mutter darkly under his breath.
"But would you please inform Ms. Manx to retrieve the secondary S.P.D. morphers, and begin preparing to promote B Squad to their new status," Cruger continued.
"Of course, Commander," Billy returned.
"I believe that concludes our meeting. You are all dismissed."
Everyone stood, swiftly saluting. "Sir!"
For as long as it took to fill, it took surprisingly less time for the meeting room to empty once again. Wes took his time, not in any particular hurry. Or interested in squishing his way through the halls for that matter.
After a moment, whispering between Tommy and Cruger caught his ears. He found himself listening out of habit, and tried not to make it obvious that he was eavesdropping.
"I have a bad feeling about all this. I don't know why, but something just doesn't feel right. I think we need to prepare for the ultimate worst-case scenario."
There was a sigh. "I'll call Hunter," Tommy murmured as the door shut.
He blinked, turning to Eric. "What?"
He shook his head, deciding in an instant that it was better not to share his commanders' worry with anyone else at the moment. "I'm fine." He paused, tilting his head suspiciously. "What was the word, anyway?"
"Chuàn dào," Eric returned, sounding smug. "It means 'boring'."
Wes stopped, turning to stare at him for a moment before his eyes narrowed. "You used Chinese? That's cheating!"
"Never specified what language we had to use," Eric said absently.
Wes turned to hit him, and found himself chasing the other man down the hall as he laughed.
And for a single moment, he could pretend that the world wasn't about to fall down around him again.