Relationship/: Andros/Ashley, Zhane/Karone, mentions of Cassie/Phantom

Warnings/: emotional trauma, mentally disturbed people, depression

Disclaimer/: If I owned the Power Rangers, this universe would exist. We would have known who the Phantom Ranger was - and it would have been a girl because I'm weird like that - and team snuggles would be mandatory every episode. As none of that is cannon, it's safe to assume that I don't.

Author's Notes/: This idea hit me after watching Countdown to Destruction for the umpteenth time, shortly after plotting a prequel for Bright Skies. Somehow that turned into three Bright Skies prequels, of which this is the first. While I have an idea of where it's going, I'm not sure of much else. So ... strap in? Hope you like it?

And of course, love to phantom_blue and Challon86 for beta, as well as purplestripe66 and BlackCrimsonLight for additional encouragement and support.

Chapter 1: Shine

-- The moment of relief was slowly subsiding as they rejoiced in Karone being brought back to them, to Andros, that they were both alive. That the whole team had survived, and won. That Dark Specter was gone, and they were safe.

With the fading relief slowly came the realization that they were surrounded. The citizens of Angel Grove had remained back at first out of respect, but now that the Rangers had calmed, their curiosity had made more than one press closer. Their consideration wouldn't last much longer.

Andros was too busy enjoying the fact that Karone was alive to notice, touching her hair, her arm, any part of her he could reach, as if letting go at any point would make her disappear again. Karone seemed confused by his attention, but she hadn't pushed him away yet. Ashley was focused on the two of them more than anything else, nearly in tears for Andros' happiness and the safe return of them both.

It was Carlos who noticed the nearing crowd first, but T.J., Cassie, and Zhane weren't far behind him. They exchanged glances, silently agreeing to protect Andros and Karone and electing a temporary leader in one look.

Cassie moved to stand, only to find a blur of blue standing firmly in front of her before she could so much as blink. She barely had time to acknowledge the presence of the Blue Turbo Ranger before she noticed other Rangers gathering around them. Two ... Zeo Rangers wasn't it? The ones who'd been there before the Turbo Rangers. Blue, Yellow, and Green. At their center was a man in red with white diamonds on his chest, a man even she recognized, despite her lack of interest in the Power Rangers when he'd first shown up.

"I need everyone remain calm, and step a few steps back please," the Red Ranger announced, raising his voice just enough to be heard. Even without knowing who he was, people instinctively responded to the sound and tone of his voice. This was The Red Ranger. Not just any Ranger, but The Red. The one that had protected Angel Grove, and Earth, for three years.

"You guys need to get out of here, fast," Blue Turbo hissed, kneeling beside Cassie "We can take care of things from here, but we'll only be able to hold them off for so long."

She blinked at him. "Jus - "

He cut her off with a sharp shake of his head. "We'll handle Earth. But you guys need to get out of here before you get swamped."

"The Dark Fortress," Karone murmured, looking up at the ship as if she'd just noticed it.

"It's empty," Andros told her, and for a moment they exchanged a look before Karone nodded. "You can use it as a temporary base, while we take the Megaship," Andros said finally, glancing up at Blue Turbo. "We need to get to KO-35."

"The Rebels," Cassie said without thinking, biting her lip anxiously.

"Can you teleport to your ship from here?" Blue Zeo spoke up, looking back over his shoulder at them.

Zhane shook his head. "Most of the main systems are down. She'll get us home, but that's about it."

Cassie winced, and most of the team seemed shaken at the thought. Andros looked stricken.

"The Dark Fortress should still have teleportation," Karone said softly, reaching out to squeeze Andros' arm hesitantly. "We can use that to get to the Megaship."

Andros looked at her, swallowing hard and nodding. His hand caught hers, squeezing tightly.

"Let's get you two up off the ground, huh?" Yellow Zeo suggested gently, reaching down to offer Karone a hand. Something about her voice was disturbingly familiar, and Cassie frowned at her as she tried to place it.

"We need to move guys," Green Zeo cut in, shifting anxiously. "They're not gonna stay back much longer."

"This way," Karone said softly, her hand still caught in Andros' as she lead the way up the ramp and into the Dark Fortress.

Cassie swallowed hard, exchanging glances with T.J. and Carlos, and followed. --

"Approaching Earth," D.E.C.A. announced abruptly.

Cassie blinked, shaking her head to clear the memories. She glanced around and found the others looking just as uncertain as she felt. "So ... I guess this is it," she offered uncertainly.

Ashley bit her lip. "I guess so."

"Incoming transmission," D.E.C.A. interrupted.

Andros frowned. "From who?"

There was a pause. "It appears to be coming from the Dark Fortress."

He sat up straighter in his seat, tugging his rumpled jacket down. "Onscreen," he ordered, sounding much more awake than he should have. They'd headed straight for Earth after leaving KO-35, but the last week of repairs and negotiations and storytelling had worn everyone down.

The face that greeted them wasn't one anyone had expected. "Adam!" Carlos called, looking startled.

Adam Park smiled wearily at them. "Hey, guys. Good to see you made it back okay."

"What are you doing on the Dark Fortress?" T.J. asked, frowning.

Adam's smile faded with a slow sigh. "That's a long story. Let's just say it's my shift. You guys okay?"

"We're fine," Andros interrupted. "How's Earth?"

For some reason that made Adam sigh again, reaching up to rub a hand over his eyes. "She'll survive," he said finally. "You guys should be more worried about yourselves right now."

"Ourselves?" Cassie echoed, frowning.

Adam seemed about to say something, but he shook his head instead. "It's late. You guys should get home and get some sleep. We'll bring you up to speed in the morning." He paused. "Just ... don't go out alone, all right? Things are pretty crazy right now."

"But ... " Ashley glanced over at her. "Cassie lives alone."

Cassie shook her head. "I'll be fine, Ash," she promised. "I can handle one night by myself, right?" She offered a smile she was too tired to really feel.

"Actually, I don't think that's a good idea," Adam said with a frown. "I'm not sure you'd even be able to get inside."

"Get inside?" T.J. repeated, eyes narrowing. "Why wouldn't she be able to get inside?"

Adam sighed, seeming troubled. "Guys ... things are ... a little different than the way they were when you left. You can't just - " He cut himself off, running a hand over his hair and looking agitated. "Look. It's really late. You guys need to get some sleep before we deal with this."

"Adam ... " Carlos took a step forward, looking worried. "What's going on?"

Adam closed his eyes briefly. "Guys, seriously. Go home. Sleep. It'll wait until tomorrow, I promise. The problem's not going anywhere."

"Problem?" Zhane looked alarmed.

Adam was starting to look like he was ready to strangle someone now. "Yes, there's a problem," he ground out at last. "No, you can't fix it tonight. Go home. Tell your families you're okay. We'll talk tomorrow, I promise."

"Thank you, Adam," Andros said quickly. "For everything."

That got a smile. "Hey, it's my planet, too," Adam returned. The smile turned wry. "Once a Ranger, Always a Ranger," he muttered, more to himself than anyone else. "Good night, guys. Ranger Base out."

Everyone blinked as the screen went black.

"Ranger Base?" Andros echoed, looking puzzled.

"Maybe they didn't like saying Dark Fortress all the time," Zhane suggested, giving Karone a grin.

She gave him a stare that made her look disturbingly like Andros. Despite the last week that they'd been getting to know her again, the similarities between the two of them still caught everyone by surprise sometimes. Knowing that Karone and Andros were twins was one thing; seeing Astronema glaring exactly like the Red Ranger did was another.

"You can stay the night at my house, Cassie," Ashley offered. "My parents won't mind."

Cassie hesitated. She wanted to check on Jetson more than anything, but the idea of spending the night by herself wasn't so appealing, especially with Adam acting so oddly. "I guess my neighbor can watch Jetson for another night," she said finally, giving a faint smile. "Thanks, Ash."

Ashley leaned in to wrap an arm around her. "Don't mention it," she said cheerfully. "I didn't want to spend the night by myself anyway."

Cassie grinned in spite of herself. Somehow Ashley always seemed to know just what she was thinking.

"Thanks, Ash," T.J. said wryly, making a face at her. "You're making me feel real good about going home by myself now."

"Tell me about it," Carlos groused. "My mom's not gonna let me out of the house for at least a week."

Andros shook his head, fighting a smile. "Good night, guys. We'll see you in the morning."

"Bright and early!" Zhane chirped with a grin, knowing how his morning habits drove everyone but Ashley nuts.

"Try it. I dare you," Carlos warned him with a dark look.

Cassie chuckled, shaking her head as she got up. "Night, guys."

"Good night everybody!" Ashley called, wrapping an arm around Cassie's shoulders as they headed down to the Holding Bay.

She glanced over at Cassie once they were out of earshot. "I meant it, you know,"she confessed softly with a sheepish smile. "After everything that's happened ... well, I really didn't want to be by myself tonight."

The corner of Cassie's mouth lifted. "Me, either," she admitted. "Thanks."

Ashley's arm squeezed as she gently bumped their heads together in silent understanding. Cassie squeezed back, closing her eyes briefly as she sent another quiet thank you to whoever was listening that they had all made it out of this alive.

They had expected everyone to be asleep when they landed in the backyard, so they made sure to be extra quiet as they slipped into the house. Ashley knew how to navigate through her house blindfolded, so she kept a tight grip on Cassie's hand as she led her through the kitchen and into the living room. Cassie managed not to swear aloud when she stubbed her toe on the doorframe.

The moment they stepped into the living room however, the lights came on.


"Mom! Dad!" Ashley looked startled as her parents rushed toward them. "What are you two doing up?"

Cassie released her, taking a step back to allow them privacy, but found Melanie Hammond swooping her up into a hug of her own. She made a noise of surprise, automatically moving to hug her back.

"We've been so worried about you girls!" Melanie gushed, sounding near tears. She released Cassie to hug her daughter, and Cassie found Kevin wrapped around her in Melanie's place.

"I'm glad you're both okay," Kevin murmured, squeezing tighter as he said 'both'.

Cassie blinked rapidly for a moment, resisting the urge to cling to him. Kevin wasn't her father, but for a moment ...

For a moment, she wished he was.

"You are okay, aren't you?" Melanie pressed, stepping back again to look them both over worriedly. "You're not hurt?"

"We're fine, Mom," Ashley promised with a smile. "Just tired. It's been a long week."

Kevin and Melanie exchanged glances. "That it has," Kevin murmured.

Something about his tone seemed off, and Cassie frowned. "Is everything all right?" she asked hesitantly.

Melanie forced a smile that didn't reach her eyes, reaching out to stroke Ashley's hair and squeeze Cassie's shoulder. "It's nothing that can't wait until tomorrow. Do you girls need anything? Are you hungry?"

Ashley shook her head. "I think we're just gonna go to bed," she said apologetically. "We didn't expect anyone to be up."

"Well, then don't let us keep you," Melanie said quickly, leaning in to kiss Ashley's forehead, then Cassie's, to her surprise. She gave them both a warm smile when she stepped back. "We'll see you in the morning."

"You're not going to work?" Ashley asked with a frown.

"Taking the day off," Kevin corrected. "So we'll both still be here when you wake up.

She looked troubled. "You guys don't have to - "

"We want to," Melanie corrected, giving her another faint smile. "We'll talk more in the morning, okay sweetheart?"

"Okay," Ashley agreed reluctantly. She leaned in to hug them both. "Good night. I love you."

"We love you too, sweetheart," Melanie murmured, and Kevin kissed the top of her head.

Cassie swallowed hard.

Ashley caught her hand again as she stepped back, leading her back towards the bedroom. "Good night, Mr. and Mrs. Hammond," Cassie called softly.

Ashley's room hadn't changed much since the last time she'd been over, and her extra change of clothes were in the same place Ashley always kept them. "Here," Ashley said quietly, and she caught a pair of light shorts and a shirt on reflex.

They changed in silence, and she was only marginally surprised when Ashley pulled back the covers on the bed without getting out the sleeping bag Cassie usually used when she spent the night. Ashley climbed in, looking up at her expectantly, and she smiled in spite herself. It took a moment for them both to get settled after she crawled in, but finally they found a comfortable position that allowed them to hug without squashing each other.

"I'm glad you're here, Cassie," Ashley whispered in the darkness. She smiled, and even in the shadows Cassie could see the tears shining in her eyes. "I'm glad ... I'm glad that everything's okay."

"Me, too," Cassie whispered back, squeezing.

Sleep took its time in coming that night, even as she heard Ashley's breathing even out beside her. Her mind just couldn't seem to shut itself off. She thought of her teammates, of Carlos trying to calm his mother, of T.J. trying yet again to explain to Jake just where he'd been for so long. Of Andros, Zhane, and Karone on the Megaship, Andros and Karone still learning what it was like to be siblings, Zhane thinking of new ways to keep their spirits up.

She thought about Adam's odd behavior, the way Ashley's parents had ambushed them the moment they'd come home. She wondered where the other Rangers she'd seen when they left Earth were, and if they all knew what was going on. She wondered what was going on, and why it had them all so evasive and nervous at the same time.

She dreamed about her parents. About her dad's warm laugh, her mom's gentle smile even as she scolded. She dreamed about her brothers, about her sister. About Sammy, lifting his chubby little arms and crying for attention.

She was crying when she woke up.

It took a moment of laying quietly to reorient herself. Ashley was surprisingly still asleep; apparently she'd been even more tired than she let on. It was the sunlight coming in through the window that had woken her, shining down across her face.

With a sigh she slipped carefully out of the bed, tucking the blankets up around her friend with a soft smile. She stretched, moving to the window to adjust the curtains again before she grabbed her clothes for a shower.

Something bright caught her eye.

Frowning, she pulled open the curtain to get a better look. For a moment she was blinded by the shine of the early morning sun. Then she realized the sun was flashing.

Then she realized that someone was standing in front of the window with a camera.