Disclaimer: I do not own, nor am I in any way associated with, PR. I take no monetary benefit from this story.

AN: This one's for DJRocca for many reasons: she started the ship (thank you!), I was talking to her when I got the idea, and (most importantly) she's really sad right now, so I hope this cheers her up.

Operator Series Red

"How's it going?" Colonel Truman asked, setting a cup of hot chocolate down beside her. She had requested coffee and he had politely denied her. Whether that was because he thought her too young or he just didn't want her working the night through she wasn't sure. Either way she took a sip and a small hum of appreciation escaped her before she could silence it. She really was tired.

"Well," K said, ignoring his pleased smile and focusing on the computer screen. "I have narrowed down the candidates for the series Yellow and Blue morphers."

"What about Red?" he asked.

She bit back a sigh. "Red is the most important. He must be the heart of the team, its rock. He must be able to lead the team in times of extreme crisis but also follow orders --"

"You need to like him," Truman interrupted.

She blinked at him. "My likes and dislikes are not important. What matters is the welfare and survival of the human race, which is best served by a Red Ranger who is capable of living up to the demands of the position."

"I beg to differ. You will have to work closely with the team. Even though you'll be sequestered in that insane Wizard of Oz room of yours, you'll still be communicating with them, keeping them apprised of the situation within the dome and keeping them physically up to snuff. The Red Ranger needs to be your most trusted ally. He, above all others, must be able to put his faith in you and vice versa."

"You make a reasonable argument, Colonel, however it is my decision whether or not these matters will affect my ability to work with the Ranger team."

The doors across the room slid open and Colonel Truman stood quickly.

"Whatever you say, Doctor," he whispered. More loudly he spoke to the person who had entered, "Scott! I assume you're here to use the training simulator?"

The boy nodded stiffly.

"I'll have Hicks --"

The intercom buzzed. Truman gave Scott an unidentifiable look and went to his desk. "Yes?" he asked, pressing the button to speak.

"Colonel," Hicks' voice crackled over the speaker. "Venjix forces are attacking the dome."

Truman shot K a look before saying, "I'm on my way, Corporal." As he passed he gave a nod to K and said, "Stay put," to Scott.

When the doors slid shut behind him K went back to her work, reviewing the files for the Ranger candidates and ignoring the obviously perturbed young man standing by the doors. After she'd eliminated the first candidate she heard him ask, "So who are you?"

She glanced over her shoulder at him. "A survivor."

"I mean, why are you in the Colonel's office? What are you doing for him?"

She closed the window on the computer screen and turned to face him. "I am investigating."

"The virus?"

"No."

He met her challenging gaze for several moments before walking to the tall windows at one side of the room. He clasped his hands behind his back as he took in the city beneath him. K sighed and went back to her work. Why the Colonel had thought it prudent to leave the boy in the room she could not understand. As she eliminated three more candidates the sounds of battle above the dome grew louder.

"Sounds like he's trying to break in from above," Scott said.

K fought the urge to roll her eyes as she ducked farther behind the monitor. Why people insisted on stating the obvious …

Out of the corner of her eye she caught him turning and rushing across the room. The next second she was tackled to the floor and a deafening crash drowned out the sounds of her cries. Scott dragged her beneath the Colonel's desk and held her tight, pushing her head into his chest and protecting her with his body as glass rained down around them. The metal supports of the building groaned and the floor shook violently. Beneath his arm she saw the monitor she'd been working on crash to the floor and sparks flew. She found herself clutching the boy's jacket and, as the sounds died down and the battle moved away, she heard him consoling her as he would a child.

"It's all right," he said, gently rubbing the space between her shoulder blades. "They're moving off now, it's gonna be all right."

She pulled away quickly, backing as far back as she could beneath the desk. She did not want or deserve his comfort and, regardless, she was not helpless. For a moment he simply stared at her before crawling out of the confined space.

"Stay put," he said, sounding eerily like the Colonel had earlier.

Heedless of the broken glass and bent metal he straightened and looked carefully around. He held his hand out to her, keeping his eyes up in search of any danger. She ignored his hand and stood on her own, brushing off her lab coat as she did so. The table she'd been working at was propped upside-down against the far wall. Where the window had been there was now a clear view of the dome and the metal around the gaping hole was mangled and charred.

Scott opened one of the Colonel's drawers and pulled a blaster out. "Come on," he said and led the way through the rubble.

She stared, wondering how he'd known the blaster was hidden there.

Glancing out the door he said, "We've got to get somewhere safe in case they come back."

"The city's defenders will do their best to keep Venjix away from the command center."

He looked back at her. "Yeah, and Venjix will try his best to attack the command center. Let's go."

She followed after him, carefully avoiding the jagged pieces of metal that had burst through the floor. The hallway was deserted and she wondered if it was because people had fled or because they were now unable to. The damage to the building lessened the farther they went until it looked as though nothing at all had happened.

"We'll have to take the stairs," he said, pulling the door open. She walked past him, deciding it was best not to chastise him for pointing out the obvious.

As they descended he waited for her, keeping his pace slow so that she wouldn't tire, though she could tell that he wanted to go more quickly. After the first ten floors she noticed that he was becoming more and more stoic. Determining it was best that they hurry she opened her mouth to tell him that they could go faster.

"There's trouble ahead," he said, cutting her off. He was glancing down the stairwell and she joined him at the edge. The attack had hit deep in this part of the building and the remains of a Venjix Drone had plowed through part of the stairs two floors down.

Scott turned to her and shrugged. "Might as well get it over with."

She shook her head at his eager attitude and followed. The Drone had been practically shredded by its journey through the building. Scott carefully led the way down the remaining steps, warily looking the machine over as he went.

"We'll have to jump," he said, looking back up at her as if questioning her willingness to do so.

She nodded, there was no other option. At least eight steps were missing and they would have to climb over the twisted and gnarled metal otherwise, which was neither safe nor secure.

He looked back at the distance and grimaced. "I'm going to have to throw you," he said, setting the small blaster on the ground at his side.

That, too, was the only option, as displeasing as it was to her. There was no possibility of her making the leap unassisted.

He took her silence as reluctance and smiled encouragingly. "It's gonna be okay. You can trust me. I won't let anything happen to you."

She nodded.

"Okay, just run down the last couple steps and I'll take it from there."

She did as she was told, focusing on the thought of landing rather than the danger or -- when she stepped off the last step into air -- how his hands momentarily grasped her waist, heaving her high into the air. She hit the lower landing on her feet, but stumbled and had to spin quickly around to avoid knocking her head against the wall. As it was she hit her back and slid halfway to the floor before catching herself.

"Are you all right?" Scott called.

"Fine," she said, her ego was bruised more than anything.

"Good." He tossed her the blaster. "Move down a few steps," he told her and she did so, giving him room. As he backed up to take a running leap the sound of creaking metal filled the stairwell and the Drone shuddered. The two shared a worried glance. "It's just settling," he said and ran.

Unlike her he landed solidly in a crouch. He smiled at her as he stood and she returned the blaster, letting him lead the way down the stairs once more. They had only made it halfway around the stairwell when the Drone shuddered again. She looked up to see a Grinder disentangling itself from the wreckage. Scott put himself between it and her, his hand gripping the blaster tightly.

"When I shoot," he whispered, "I need you to run."

"Are you that bad a marksman?" she asked.

"No, but there's no way I can disable it in one shot, not from this angle and with this weak a weapon. It'll come at us and I don't want to risk your life when that happens."

"If it disarms you, do you intend to defeat it on your own?" she asked. "In a battle between a single human and a single Grinder, the advantage is the robot's."

"You think I don't know that?" he asked, a harshness entering his voice for the first time. "When it comes, just run. I'll give you time."

She was going to argue with him, point out that there was little chance of either of them surviving regardless of what she did, when Scott brought his blaster up, leveling it at the still disgruntled robot. The blast hit it dead in the chest, but its armor was too thick for the small blaster to penetrate with just one shot. The Grinder leapt at them and Scott seemed to catch it before it landed, using its own momentum to throw it into the wall. K was forced to back down the stairs to give him room. He managed to dodge the first blow but the next three -- a vicious left hook and two kicks to his abdomen -- caught him off guard. The blaster went flying and he fell into a crouch, clutching his stomach and wincing in pain. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of her still standing there.

"Run," he grunted breathlessly and, faster than she'd thought he could move in his current state, rammed the Grinder, forcing it up to the next landing.

K raced down the steps, her lab coat whipping behind her. When she reached the set of stairs directly beneath the Drone she found the blaster. Without a second thought she grabbed it up, turned, and aimed. She caught the Grinder in the head, disorienting it before it could bring its fist down on Scott's head. The boy didn't even spare her a glance before ramming the robot once more, this time forcing it over the railing. The two of them watched as it tumbled down, K cradling her aching hand. When they could no longer see it they looked up at one another.

"Thanks," Scott breathed.

It wasn't long after that before a squad of soldiers found them and they were escorted to the temporary command center. When they entered the room Colonel Truman looked up and K saw his eyes flood with relief. For a moment he seemed lighter than before, the weight of the day lifted off of him, then he regained his composure and his stoic demeanor slipped back into place. Scott approached him first, returning Truman's blaster and giving K time to consider the Colonel's reaction. She would not have thought that her safety was so important to him, but today's incident had proven the necessity of Project Ranger. As Scott hurried away, K watched him go.

"Are you all right?" the Colonel asked, approaching her.

K looked up at him. "Fine. I would like to continue my research into the Operator Series Blue and Yellow candidates."

"Not Red?" he asked, ushering her to a relatively quiet corner of the room.

"I have no need to search further for the Red Ranger."

Truman jerked back as if she'd struck him and turned away. "Scott?" he asked, his voice void of the strength it usually held.

She looked up at him in confusion. He was watching the doorway Scott had exited through as if he had seen a ghost.

"Yes," she said. "He has proven himself capable."

"You can trust him." It was not a question.

"Yes," she admitted.

"You like him?"

"I believe we could work together without incident."

Truman nodded, regaining his composure once more and looking down at her. "Then I'll leave you to your work."

"I assume you will tell him of his new position?" she asked as he turned to walk away.

"Yes," Truman said, "I'll tell him tonight at dinner."

K blinked as the pieces fell quickly into place. It was not often that she missed something so obvious. But, she decided as she sat down and began sifting through the city's database once more, it didn't matter. She had no doubt that a child raised by the Colonel would be capable of the physical demands and he would be better able to understand the full weight of his new mantle. And, as the Colonel had pointed out, she could trust him.


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