Disclaimer: It's Saban's sandbox. I just play here because
Author's Note: This chapter is set in some general time after the ski trip but before the Gold Ranger starts appearing. Each chapter will continue to move forward through the Zeo universe (with minor alterations).
"William James Cranston!!! Get down here right now!"
**Damn** Billy winced as Kat's commanding voice echoed throughout the Zord bay. She had definitely learned to make good use of the acoustics.
For a split second he contemplated not responding. The only other time Kat had used his full name was half-jokingly, right before she had given him a lecture on the fact that a candy bar did not constitute a meal. There was absolutely no humor in her voice this time.
Heaving a mental sigh at the argument that he didn't to want have, but knew was unavoidable, he called back, "I've got a lot of work to do, Kat. If you want to talk to me, you'll have to come up."
Silence. For a moment he thought she might have actually left, and a tiny shiver of disappointment went through him. **You wanted her to** He reminded himself.
The momentary regret was quickly replaced by a tense defensiveness, as he heard her soft steps on the ladder. Muffled words that he couldn't make out, but was pretty sure were not at all complimentary, heralded her arrival.
He heard her swing around the ladder and step onto the platform, but still he didn't turn. If he turned and saw the worry in her eyes it would be game over. Kat would win without saying a word, and he still had far too much work left to let that happen. So instead he kept right on repairing the damaged wiring in front of him.
"I thought I might find you here."
"You should be in bed, Kat." The remark came out far harsher than he intended.
"I will be, as soon as I get you there too."
**Oh God** His whole body froze for a fraction of a second. Instinctively, he knew what she meant, but it took a moment for his sleep-deprived mind to push past the innuendo. **Wiring, think wiring and to do list a mile long**
"I'll sleep as soon as I have everything done."
"You promised that last night *and* the night before."
"And I'm still not done. The Zords took a lot of damage this time."
"Have you gotten any sleep?" Kat questioned, her voice thin with exasperation and worry.
"I took a nap on one of the cots sometime yesterday."
"God, Billy..." Kat came and crouched down beside him, "Is this a critical system?"
Billy shook his head. "I finished all the critical systems early yesterday. Critical, then backup, then auxiliary, you know how it works, Kat."
Actually his repairs usually went critical, backup, Lynn, and then all the other auxiliary systems, but he wasn't about to tell her that. It had taken him long enough to stop his own guilt at that minor alteration to his repair schedule.
"So is this backup or auxiliary?"
"Then you can afford to sleep. We'll come back tomorrow, and you can finish then."
"And if there's an attack tomorrow? What then?"
"Then we go into battle with well repaired Zords. They're *auxiliary* systems Billy, not everything has to be perfect."
**She doesn't understand** Billy sighed. Of course she didn't understand, how could she? He had never told her, never told anyone...
"Billy? What is it?"
Resting his head against the top of the open panel, the young engineer closed his eyes, reliving the painful memory that had recently transformed itself into one of his worst nightmares. "When I repaired your communicator, after you were hurt in the woods... the only damage was to the outer casing and a circuit that didn't have a backup because it *should* have been auxiliary... nice to keep your voice steady but not necessary... only with all the interference from the trees... God, Kat..."
"Hey, I'm here. I'm fine. We're Rangers Billy, things happen."
"No!" He slammed the flat of his hand against the wall. "No, things do not just happen, not things like that. Not on *my* watch."
Ashamed of his unintended outburst, Billy went to turn his attention back to wiring he had been working on.
In true Kat fashion the Pink Ranger got to his pliers first, forcing him to face her for the first time that night. "You can't plan for everything, Dr. Cranston."
Snatching the pliers out of her hand, he snapped, "I can try."
"And you can make yourself sick in the process," Kat grumbled.
Billy wasn't listening to her however; instead his entire attention was focused on the wiring that he had just done. Nothing was rightan entire half-hour's worth of work, for nothing.
"Damn." He threw his pliers down in frustration and ran a grease-smudged hand through his hair. Deciding that one epithet just didn't rise to the occasion, he cursed again, "Damn!"
"You're making mistakes aren't you?" Kat asked, in a way that told him she already knew the answer. She tugged on his arm. "You need sleep."
His mind running a hundred different scenarios where this would be the difference between Adam's safety and something unspeakable, Billy shrugged off her insistent grip. "No, what I *need* are fewer distractions. Just... just go home Kat."
Turning his back to her, the young engineer began to undo the tangle of wires, ignoring the pit of guilt that was forming in his gut. He had almost succeeded in pushing it away completely, when he heard Kat's choked sobs and heavy steps on the ladder.
**Crap** Fresh disgust and self-loathing swept over him, and suddenly all the repairs in the Zord bay seemed unimportant. Dropping his tools, Billy scrambled down the ladder after her, berating himself the entire way down. **Very good Doctor, excellent bedside manner. High marks all around. God, how could you be so stupid?!**
She hadn't deserved to be the brunt of his anger. It had been his own stupid mistake, but he had spoken out of frustration without thinking, and if he didn't catch up with her, he might pay for it in the dearest way possible. As he neared the bottom, he caught a glimpse of pink running across the Zord bay at high speed.
She didn't even slow down.
Jumping down, Billy hit the ground running. "Kat! I'm sorry!"
He caught up with her at the access doors.
"I can't remember the exit sequence." She murmured, her body still shaking with silent tears.
Never in his entire life, had Billy been so grateful that they had double secured every door. Placing his hand over the keypad in case she suddenly remembered, his touched her shoulder. "Kat, please look at me."
The Pink Ranger shook her head, and remained facing the doors.
"Okay, I deserve that. I'm sorry, Captain." Seeing her relent a little at the nickname, he continued softly, "You didn't deserve anything I said up there. You're right. I'm tired, and I let my lack of sleep speak for me. Let me make it up to you? I don't think I should have any more coffee... but I could make you some. We can go up on top of the old Command Center and look out at the stars. What do you say?"
Billy felt his heart stop and all the air go out of the room. He couldn't lose his best friend over this. He wouldn't. Preparing to launch into serious begging, he was stopped by Kat's next words.
"What?" This was some strange dream. He had fallen asleep making repairs, and he was dreaming all of this. Kat turned to face him with a determined, slightly angry look on her face. **Okay... not a dream**
"You want to make it up to me? You stop working. We go back to your apartment, and I make sure you get some sleep. That's the dealtake it or leave it."
"I'll take it." How could he not? One look at her tear-stained face, and he would have done anything to keep those tears from returning. "Just let me put everything away."
Kat stopped him. "Don't worry about it. I'll come back and do it once you're asleep."
"You don't ha---"
She cut him off. "That's an order, Doctor."
Sighing in resignation, Billy punched the exit sequence into the keypad. "You, Captain, are the most stubborn woman I have ever met."
Kat smiled at him. "Only because you force me to be."
Billy sighed as the warm water of the shower swept over him, easing out some of the tension in his muscles. God, it felt so good to be clean! He hadn't even realized how dirty he was until he had seen the grey color of the water.
Stepping out of the shower, he dried off and pulled on a pair of pajama pants. He could feel the beginnings of sleep play at the edge of his consciousness. Kat had been right. He really was far too exhausted to be working.
The thought of his friend sent little warning bells off in his mind. Kat was still out there in his apartment, and he was in here... without a clean shirt. Usually he slept without a shirt, so when he had gathered up everything to take a shower he didn't even think to grab one. It suddenly seemed like an incredibly stupid mistake.
He reached over for the shirt he had been wearing, but promptly discarded it. It was filthy, and he just couldn't bring himself to put it back on. **Okay, stay calm. You're reasonably decent by modern social standards. Just walk out there and pull out a clean shirt like nothing's wrong** Yanking open the door before he had time talk himself out the plan, Billy stepped out into the room.
"There you are. You know, I was beginning think you had fallen asleep in th--" Kat stepped out of his kitchen and stopped talking.
At that moment, the ex-Ranger was enormously grateful he didn't have on his glasses. Trying hard not to blush, which was no doubt a dismal failure; Billy moved over to his dresser and pulled out a clean white t-shirt.
"I made you some soup."
Putting on his glasses, he turned to find that Kat had moved back into the tiny kitchen. Walking over, he leaned in the doorway and watched her, trying to figure out what he had ever done to deserve her friendship.
Moving around the kitchen like she owned it, the Australian beauty set out two glasses and filled them with milk. Placing them on the trays with the steaming bowls of soup, she looked up at him and smiled. "I know it's pretty late at night and isn't usually good to eat anything right before you go to bed, but if I know you"
"And you do."
"You haven't eaten anything remotely nutritious in days."
"Guilty as charged."
"This was the closest thing to real food I could find in this entire apartment. Do you buy anything besides frozen food?"
Billy shook his head, "I can't make toast, remember?"
Kat laughed, "Of course. Well, here." She handed him a tray and pointed to the table. "Sit down and eat."
Sitting down, Billy took a gulp of milk and looked over at her. "Kat, you do know that I'm supposed to be the one apologizing here, don't you?"
"I know, and you're going to." Setting her tray on the table, she sat down across from him. "Talk."
Billy ate a spoonful of soup. "About what?"
"I want to know what you meant in the Zord bay when you said things like that don't happen on your watch."
"I just meant that I don't like to see things go wrong technically."
Kat looked at him. "No you didn't."
Billy set down his spoon and met her gaze. "No... I didn't."
"Why do we always pretend that other doesn't know exactly what we're thinking?"
"Force of habit?"
They fell silent, and Billy went back to eating his soup, knowing that as soon as he finished, he'd tell her everything because that was just the way it worked.
When they both had finished, he picked up the dirty dishes took them over to the sink, needing the distraction of doing something with his hands, so that he could let his thoughts flow freely. Kat followed him and stood in the doorway with her arms folded. "So?"
"So..." Billy turned on the water and began to scrub. "You're right. I don't just dislike seeing things go wrong technically, I hate it. Every time there's a malfunction, I feel as though I've let the team down. That's my responsibility, that's my watch, and if can't keep it then what good am I?"
"All kinds of good! You've saved our lives more times than I can count. Billy, you're doing everything you can."
"Doesn't feel like it."
"You all go out there almost every day and risk your lives, while I sit in the Power Chamber in perfect safety and just pray that I picked the rights systems to upgrade, the right weapon to develop..."
"You're far from just sitting around in perfect safety."
"I've been a Ranger, Kat. I know the difference between being on the front lines and staying at the base."
"And you want to be on the front lines again?"
"No! Yes... I don't know anymore." Billy ran a hand over his face in frustration and leaned against the counter. "At least when I was active, I always knew that whatever happened I was there with all of you, fighting alongside you, putting myself in the same danger, but now... God, Kat if anything happened to you... any of you, I'd never be able to forgive myself."
Stepping over, Kat placed a hand on his arm, and with one touch shattered what little resolve the ex-Ranger had left. Breaking down in defeated sobs, he felt her pull him close, felt her cradle his head against her shoulder, heard her whisper repeated words of comfort, but he wasn't really conscious of anything except the release of pain.
They stayed that way for a long time, even after the tears had stopped, standing there in the kitchen, simply content to hold each other up. Tonight one was taking comfort and other giving it, but they both knew that the roles could so easily be reversed.
Finally pulling away, almost reluctantly Billy looked at her and smiled. "Thank you, Captain."
Kat smiled back, "Always. Do you want to talk about it some more?"
Billy sighed, "Not really, but I probably should. You'll have to ask the questions though."
"Do we have to stand in the kitchen all night?"
"Wow, good question, high marks for perception." Kat swatted him playfully, and he smiled. "We could sit at the kitchen table."
The Pink Ranger made a face. "No offense Billy, but you're chairs are really uncomfortable."
"I know, it's the only thing keeping me awake sometimes. It's a one-room apartment Kat, I don't exactly have a plethora of seating. I guess we could sit on the floor or the bed..."
"Bed." She pronounced in a way that broached no argument.
Fighting not to lose his focus at her decision, Billy followed her over to the bed and sat down, propping one of the pillows against the wall for support.
Mimicking his actions, Kat sat down beside him and wasted no time, "Why did you give your crystal to Tanya?"
"I think I liked the kitchen question better."
"Okay, okay. The truth is I look horrible in yellow."
She just gave him a withering glare.
"I know. I'm avoiding... can you blame me?" Staring hard at the opposite wall, Billy thought for a while and finally responded. "I think mainly because I felt it wasn't my crystal to give up. I know everyone said I should have it. I know I called it mine, but the truth is it was Aisha's. She quested for it. She found it, and in the end she sent it back with someone who she thought should have it. If she had come back with it, it would have been her power without question, who was I to question her choice?"
"You mean besides being the most experienced Ranger on the team?"
"Most experienced doesn't mean best. I am definitely proof of that."
"Stop it! Just stop it. You were an amazing Ranger Billy. Okay, so you aren't Tommy. Who is? You were a good fighter, and more importantly you were a smart one. I've never seen anyone able to think during a fight the way you were."
Blushing a little at the compliment, Billy replied, "Thanks. How are you and Tommy doing by the way?"
"Oh, very subtle." Billy grinned sheepishly, and Kat relented, "We're fine, still in the same weird holding pattern, but fine. And that is all I am telling you. You're not shifting my focus that easily, there's more to this whole crystal thing than you're telling me."
He let out a sigh. "Not really. I meant what I said. The work I did on Aquitar showed me that I could be of more value working in a support capacity. Intellectually I know it's true"
"But I didn't count on it being so hard. I didn't count on the fact that I'd have to stop watching your battles on the viewing globe because it killed me to do so. Everyone else made giving up their powers look so easy..."
"Everyone else moved on to pursue a personal dream."
"And I moved on to pursue grease." He let out a wry chuckle.
"No, you didn't move on. You gave up your powers, but you're still part of the team, and you're a really important part."
"I know. Just sometimes, I can't help but wish that I could go back and change my decision. I don't want to take away Tanya's powers, she's too good a Ranger for me to want that, but I would do anything to be able to fight alongside you guys again."
"Even wear yellow?"
Billy laughed, "Kat, I'd wear pink if it meant not having to watch from the Power Chamber."
Apparently finding the image of him in her signature color, just too amusing, Kat doubled over in laughter. When she finally caught her breath, she looked up at him. "I wish I could do something."The former Ranger shook his head. "It would just be so much easier if I was a little more removed."
"Is that why you're pushing us away?"
Billy looked over at her sharply, "What makes you say that?"
"Because you haven't been around for weeks. You don't come to the Youth Center. You don't come to the park. If I didn't come to the Zord bay at night, I'd never see you. I think the last time you and Tommy spent any time together was on that ski trip, you don't even know Tanya, and who knows how long it's been since you've had a good time with Adam and Rocky."
Thinking back over the past month and a half he realized she was right. Billy shook his head in amusement. Of course she was right, it was the theme of this entire night. "Have I ever told you that you are a remarkably perceptive woman?"
Kat giggled, "Oh, only about every time we talk. Seriously though Billy, you can't keep going on like this. I won't say that I understand how hard it is because I don't, but withdrawing yourself from your friends isn't going to make it any easier. It's just causing different kinds of pain."
"What if I promised to start coming to the Youth Center once a week?"
"Twice a week."
"You have to promise me something else."
"When do I ever get to have you promise me something?" He grumbled in mock indignation.
"All you have to do is ask."
"Fine, what am I promising now?"
"You have to promise me that you'll stop spending so many nights in the Zord bay."
"I can't do that Kat. There's too much that has to be done, and I won't let you all go into battle without knowing everything's online and operational."
"You're right." Leaning back up against the wall his friend was silent for a long time. Finally she looked back over at him. "Billy?"
"What if you had help?"
He shook his head. "Alpha doesn't have enough dexterity to handle these kind of repairs."
"What if you had human help?"
He looked over at her incredulously, "Who?"
"Me." She rushed on before he could protest, "I know I probably won't catch on as quickly as some of the others, but I've been watching, and it looks like a lot of the work that you do is pretty routine. Besides I'm going to come anyway."
Billy just stared at her in astonishment. It was a simple solution. She was right, a lot of the work was routine, and he had the sneaking suspicion that she'd catch on a lot faster than she gave herself credit for. But still... it just wasn't the type of work you let your warriors do, and his Captain was definitely a warrior. Did her desire to help never end?
"So what do you say?"
He looked up to find her smiling at him, no makeup on, her hair disheveled from laughing, the start of dark circles underneath her eyesshe had never looked more beautiful. "I say thank you, and when would you like to start?"
Kat squealed in delight. "Two days from now. You're going to sleep for whatever is left of tonight, and you're sleeping tomorrow. I'm going to check on the Zord bay sometime tomorrow night just to make sure. Now under those covers mister."
Pulling down the covers, and climbing under them, Billy murmured, "Never let it be said I disobeyed an order."
Sleep began to press against the edges of his consciousness as soon as his head hit the pillow, and he was only vaguely aware of Kat tucking him in and turning out the kitchen light.
"Billy, I just thought of something."
"What?" He mumbled sleepily.
"Would you wear the little skirt on the pink uniform too?"