Chapter 17 - For Tomorrow

"It's almost time," Tommy said over the cell phone. He sounded serious.

"Okay, okay," Hayley said. She lowered her cell phone for a second as she worked the machine in front of her. "Cam and I have our hands full over here. We'll get there when we can."

"Hurry," Tommy said. "We're counting on you."

"Alright!" Hayley said. "Calm down. We'll be at the game!" She smiled, shaking her head as she hung up and put her phone aside. You're getting there, she thought. Just gotta learn to have fun again. That was a lesson that she had taken to very quickly over the last two weeks. It felt good to hear Tommy pressing her about a football gathering, instead of another weapon design or world-saving mission.

"Come on..." she said, as she watched the last of her two espresso shots drip out from the machine. Hayley picked up the shots and turned to pour them into the clear cup of foamy caramel milk sitting on her counter. She took her time, releasing the espresso in a slow, delicate trickle.

"Hey Hayley," Cam called from his table. "Any day now."

"Hold on," she said. "Scientist at work." She finished pouring the espresso, watching it float a third of the way down from the top, not quite mixing with the milk. "Hayley's famous caramel macchiato, coming right up!" She picked up the frothy drink and hurried over to Cam, watching its lovely brown and white layers sway from side-to-side as she moved. "Enjoy," she said, smiling as she slipped the cup into his hands.

Cam took a long sip, before lowering the cup. "Hmm." He stared off to the side like he often did, looking as if he were deep in thought.

"So what do you think?" Hayley asked.

"'s okay," Cam said.

"Just okay huh," Hayley said as she crossed her arms and looked him dead in the eyes. "Well you better get used to it. Because that's the kind of caramel macchiato you'll be getting from me."

Cam burst out in laughter. "Relax Hayley! Relax! It tastes great. I was kidding."

Hayley lowered her arms and laughed. "Me too," she said as she sat down and put her arms around him. The two of them leaned their heads against one another as they sat there, giggling for several seconds. After they had settled down, Hayley turned her head to look him in the eye again. "But I meant every word of that."

Kira put her hands on her head as she watched Dax fumble the pass.

"That's third down," Hayley said from the sidelines.

"Time out," Kira said, as her teammates gathered in a huddle. It was a beautiful autumn day at Reefside Park. The soccer field where they were playing was well kept, with nothing but neatly trimmed grass on it. Yellow and red leaved trees stood just outside of the field, adding a sense of liveliness to the scene. On the bleachers, Tommy was watching and cheering even as he nursed his sore leg. Hayley was there as well, standing next to Cam as he grilled some delicious-smelling burgers. It was great to be around so many friends, on the Friday after Thanksgiving. But right then, all Kira could focus on was the next play.

For a touch football game, it was remarkably competitive. Nearly two dozen former Rangers were there, organized around the kids from Reefside and Blue Bay Harbor. It was like the old school rivalry, only everyone knew each other. The game was first to thirty or over. At that moment, it was twenty-seven to twenty-six, Team Ninja. Bragging rights were on the line.

"Alright guys, shotgun formation," Conner said. "Wide receivers spread out. I'm throwing a long one."

"Dude, you're risking it all on a Hail Mary?" Trent asked.

"Our passing game's been off all day," Kira said.

"Yeah, you're way better at that other type of football," Ethan said to Conner.

"You guys got any other ideas?" Conner asked.

"I got one," Kira said. "We'll do the shotgun. But instead of going long, I'll run back so you can hand it off to me. Then I'll loop around the right side. They won't see it coming."

"Ah, a sweep," Conner said, smiling. "You know your stuff. Never seemed this interested in our high school games."

"I wasn't," Kira said. "But my dad and my three brothers were crazy about football. They made sure I knew what was going on every Sunday."

"Looks like a good plan," Ethan said.

"Thanks, but I'll need you guys to block," Kira said as she pointed at Ethan, Trent, and Jason. "Clear a path on the right side of the field so I can take it to the end."

"You got it," Ethan said.

"Yeah, we got your back," Dax chimed in.

Theo groaned. "No Dax. You're a receiver too. Just stay outta her way."

"He can help," Kira said, standing up for him. She looked right at Dax. "Loop around to the left. When we run by each other, I can hand you the ball."

"A reverse?" Conner asked. "Sounds risky."

"It is," Kira said. "I can still carry the ball up as Plan A. Dax will be our backup."

"Alright, let's do this," Jason said.

"Team Dino," Kira said as she reached into the middle of the circle.

Everyone followed suit. "Team Dino!" they all shouted.

The players broke from the huddle and headed for their positions. Conner caught Jason before he walked off. "Hey, glad you subbed in for Dr. O."

"Thanks man," Jason said. "I told you guys. Tommy's great at a lot of things. But I was always better at football." He laughed as he turned and walked to his spot on the field.

Kira looked Conner in the eyes and nodded. She did the same to Dax, before heading off with Theo to the left side of the field.

"Come on guys!" Tommy shouted from the bleachers. "Let's get it done!"

Words like those really used lift Kira's spirit. She still appreciated them, but she was already quite confident in herself and her team.

"One last down," Tori said as she faced off against Kira. "Before it's over." She narrowed her eyes, playfully pretending to sneer.

"Oh, it'll be over alright," Kira replied.

"Hut!" Conner yelled, calling for the play to start. Theo sprinted forward, giving the impression that Conner really would go long. Kira started in the same direction, before suddenly jerking back.

"Hey!" Tori yelled as she stumbled, flailing her arms as she tried to change course.

But by then Kira was already bolting into the backfield. She ran in a tight arc toward Conner, not wanting to lose any more ground than she had to. She grabbed for the football just as he held it out, ripping it away with sheer forward momentum. Kira didn't look back, but she could hear Tori's feet pounding on the ground behind her. She's fast, Kira thought.

Jason charged across her path to add his big body to the blocking effort up the field. Kira didn't slow down one bit, narrowly avoiding a collision with him. Further out, Dax was coming right at her. Tori was so close now that Kira could hear her rapid, powerful breaths. She turned her head to glance up the field. Several Ninjas had already slipped through her blockers. If Tori didn't get her, they probably would. Kira looked forward again, seeing Dax charging in with a perplexed look on his face. So this is what it comes down to, she thought. Dax hadn't played well all game. Her instinct told her not to hand over the ball, but to take it up herself. All the way into certain defeat...Here goes, Kira thought as she slipped Dax the ball.

She kept running after she passed him, tucking her arms closer to her body to make it look like she still had the ball. It worked. Tori kept closing in, until she finally tagged Kira on the back with both hands. "Gotcha!" Tori yelled.

"Yup," Kira said as she slowed and turned around. She smiled as she raised her empty hands and shrugged. "You got me." Tori's jaw dropped, a moment before she spun around to look at Dax. He was already charging up along the other side of the field. The defenders, who had all converged on Kira, tried their best to catch up to him. But it was too late.

Dax leaped into the end zone, spiking the ball as he came down. "Wooh!" he cried as he raised his head toward the sky. "Oh yeah! That's right! In your face!" He swayed his arms and hips as he paced back and forth in a goofy victory dance.

Despite Dax's touchdown and theatrics, the middle of the field was where everyone had gathered. "Great job," Trent said as he put his arm around Kira's shoulders. He held her close as he proudly smiled at the rest of the team.

"Let's give it up for Kira!" Ethan yelled. Everyone on the team cheered.

Kira waved her hands for them to settle down, a bit embarrassed by their overwhelming praise. "Thanks guys. But really, this was a team effort."

"Aw man, I gotta go."

"Come on Tommy," Hayley said. "Stay a while longer."

"Yeah, have another burger," Cam said. "You know you want to."

Hayley smiled as she rolled her eyes. "Please Cam, they aren't that good."

Tommy walked back toward the grill. "I really have to go guys. But I'll take another burger for the car."

Cam wrapped one up in some paper towels and handed it to Tommy. "Alright. Here you go big guy."

"Thanks Cam," Tommy said. "These burgers were awesome man. Don't listen to her. She's not impressed with any food she doesn't cook herself."

"Hey!" Hayley said, playfully hitting him on the arm.

Tommy and Cam laughed. "Glad I got to see you guys before I went off," Tommy said as he shook Cam's hand. He turned to Hayley and gave her a hug. "Let's get together again when I come back, okay?"

"You can count on it," she said, sounding a bit sad.

"It'll only be a few months," Tommy said as he patted her on the back. "It's not the end of the world. And if it is, I know you guys will be on top of it." He let go of her and waved goodbye as he headed toward his car.

Tommy reached the parking lot on top of the hill overlooking the soccer field. He decided to take one last look at the bleachers before getting into his car. There was Jason, his oldest real friend, chomping on another burger as he told stories to the youngsters gathered around him. Jason had moved to Reefside a few days ago. It's easy to move around when there's nothing holding you down, Tommy thought. Jason had left Angel Grove behind to help Conner with his soccer camps and mentoring programs. It was his way to do something meaningful with his life. Glad you found something to live for, Jason.

He turned to Kira, who was hanging out with the rest of the old Dino team just like they had all those years ago. Their lives had taken them all in different directions, but they still remained as close as ever. Tommy felt more admiration for Kira than he ever had before. There she was, happy, self-assured, and seemingly capable of doing anything. Yet she didn't try to do it all herself. Kira worked so well with others, lifting them all up with her. She trusted her friends, more than he ever had. Tommy was filled with fatherly pride - but he knew then that she was not his daughter. She was a grown woman, not really that much younger than he was. Kira had found her own path in life, and reached it on her own. For that, Tommy was proud to count her as a friend.

Tommy got back into his car after filling it with enough gas to get to the airport. He immediately reached for his BlackBerry. He and Eric had texted each other just ten minutes ago. But Tommy was too excited about the peace conference not to check up on it again.

He had been very eager to organize it, inspired by Nick's accomplishments in the Mystic Realm. After the battle in New Harbor, Tommy had expected a drawn out campaign to mop up the remnants of Karnac's army. He made plans to seek out and besiege pockets of Karnac loyalists, even as he dealt with the mess on Earth. But those plans proved to be unnecessary.

Before Tommy could get involved, Nick and Phineas were able to talk the rogue army into laying down their arms. With their king dead, the war weary tribe agreed to talks with the new troll leader, as well as with the goblins. Mystic Mother herself even descended upon the assembled factions, convincing them to push for an end to their millennia-old feud. Things had turned out far better than Tommy could have imagined. He realized that while force might solve an immediate crisis, long-term solutions were hammered out at the peace table.

The fact that Mystic Mother had taken care of things was as amazing to Tommy as the accomplishment itself. He had hated her for years, harboring a grudge over what she had done to him as Rita Repulsa. He had been disturbed by her return to the Mystic Realm. But now, Tommy felt thankful for her. She proved that people could change. That things could take care of themselves, without the need for forceful intervention. Mystic Mother had brought peace to her people, as well as to Tommy himself.

Tommy's BlackBerry showed one new message. "Everything is ready for the peace conference," it stated. "The State Department wanted to take their sweet time on this. But I twisted a few arms and got everyone scheduled for this weekend."

"thanks eric," Tommy typed into his BlackBerry. "see u tomorrow." He wasn't keen on all the text speak that kids communicated in, but he also wasn't the stickler for grammar that Eric was. Eric had adamantly declared that he was too smart and disciplined to ever type like that. It was something that the other members of the Power Chamber had even joshed him on.

Take it easy Eric, Tommy thought as he plugged his BlackBerry into his hands free system. He started up his car and drove out of the gas station, back onto the highway leading to the airport. Don't let this consume you. Everyone had worked hard over the last two weeks. Dealing with the aftermath of the New Harbor incident, cleaning up their operations, and paving the way for a new international status quo were no small tasks. But as some members of the Power Chamber expressed their intentions to step back after dealing with these matters, Eric only took on more and more.

He wasn't wrong to do that either. Wes had announced his retirement altogether, earlier than he had originally planned. While Tommy quickly accepted Wes's nomination of R.J. as his replacement, Wes's departure left a short term void. Eric eagerly picked up all of Wes's duties, both in the Power Chamber and in CGD. He had thrown himself into those responsibilities, pulling all-nighters and constantly speaking about his ambitious plans for the future. He's doing things just like I did, Tommy thought. He hoped that Eric would avoid making the same mistakes.

We've all got to let go a little. Those words brought the Samurai Rangers to mind. Their powers had been spared the turmoil that had disrupted most of the Morphin Grid. Although Cam was working on restoring everyone's powers, the Samurai were currently the only full team of Rangers left. Despite that, ending their strict schedule of training and indoctrination had seemed like the logical thing to do. No longer would those poor kids be pushed by their parents, as Tommy and Cam had once directed. Soon they would live free together, only loosely supervised by the servant Ji.

Free, if they choose to be. So thorough was their upbringing that Tommy didn't know if the Samurai could ever truly be free. The Shiba clan had successfully molded them into obedient soldiers, achieving on a small scale what Tommy had once only dreamed of doing throughout the universe. The Samurai's lives were entirely devoted to their Ranger duties. Fighting against evil was the first and last thing on their minds.

But a life that was all about fighting was no life at all. Tommy realized that now. It broke his heart to hear about the Samurai Rangers living reclusively, still training around the clock without questioning what had been laid out for them. The damage has been done, Tommy thought. Those kids might never live normal lives. But at least they have a chance now. Everyone needed a chance. What they did with that chance had to be their own decision.

Tommy suddenly snapped out of his thoughts as his cell phone rang. He quickly pushed the button to receive the call.

"Dr. Oliver, you're a hard man to get a hold of."

"Hey Cassidy. How's it going?"

"I'm good, I'm good. Thanks to you."

Tommy chuckled. He appreciated the compliment, but he was also on to her game. "No problem. Don't mention it."

"Come on Dr. Oliver." Cassidy playfully pressed on, ever the journalist. "Give me something I can mention on TV."

"Sorry Cassidy. Not this time. Some stories would never work on television."

Cassidy sighed. "Oh, all right." She sounded disappointed, but she clearly understood the reality of the situation. "Just promise me you guys will come back on TV sometime."

"We'll see about that." Tommy grinned as he considered the possibility.

"...So, what's next for the man who's done everything? Off the record, of course."

"I don't know. I was thinking of taking some time off after next week and going somewhere. Got any suggestions?"

"Los Angeles maybe? Nah, what am I talking about. You've probably been there all the time. How's about Japan?"

"Eh...anywhere else?"

"Hmm, let me think...New Zealand? Or maybe Australia, I hear it's really nice this time of year."

Tommy's mouth opened in surprise, before closing into a cheerful smile. He couldn't believe that he hadn't thought of that himself. "Thanks Cassidy. That sounds like a great idea."

Come my friend. There's nothing to be afraid of. The Phantom Ranger sat still as he felt the arrival of a troubled soul. He had been expecting this one for weeks, ever since the great battle for the Corona Aurora. But this soul had clung to the mortal plane despite the beckoning of his Power Ruby. It had traveled throughout its homeworld, before wandering off into the stars. Searching, desperately, for some way to redeem its actions in life. The Phantom Ranger had never dealt with a spirit as dejected and self-loathing as this one.

It had meandered for as long as it could, finally coming to him because it had no one else to turn to. But this meeting was for their mutual benefit. Just like every other time the Phantom had encountered the soul of a fallen Ranger. The Phantom's secret was that he was but a vessel, a composite of all the Rangers who had died in the line of duty. Their spiritual energy fueled the ruby that powered his robotic form. Their accumulated knowledge filled his memory banks, and their total consciousness composed the very essence of his being. Numerous souls had entered his Power Ruby before, contributing to the Phantom Ranger's whole before passing on into the afterlife. So to would this one, if it would only let go.

There's so much I still need to do. So much I can't do...

The Phantom Ranger opened himself to the approaching soul, doing what he could to console it. Please Tom. I can help you. He communicated with the spirit in a calm and certain tone. But for once, the Phantom was hesitant to go forward with the merging process. A part of him deemed Tom shameful and unworthy of entrance. Another part feared the changes that would result from melding with such dark and disturbed soul.

But the Phantom's collective wisdom told him to invite the outsider. I know this is different, he thought as Tom entered his body. But come. Don't be afraid to face something new. The Phantom Ranger understood himself, and the things that he stood for. Though he might change yet again, he knew that he would persist. Exposure to new ideas could not destroy the whole of who he was. Not if that whole were solid, and worthy of preservation in the first place.

So much I've done wrong, Tom thought. So much I need to make up for...

It's alright, the Phantom thought. I'll be able to do it for you. He struggled to hold still as Tom began to merge with him. The pain. The frustration. The desire to set things right. The Phantom could feel it all. He could understand Tom, even though he had never encountered him before. That was because the Phantom Ranger had thought and felt similar things himself.

He had operated from the shadows for years, helping people with an invisible hand. Coming out to save them when they had no other hope, but remaining careful not to disrupt the natural development of the universe. The Phantom did not believe that it was a Ranger's place to control people. Because of that, he was dismayed by Tommy's obsession and expanding influence. He contemplated the idea of taking action to halt the growth of Tommy's operations, forcefully if he had to. But that was just a thought. The better judgment that he had acquired over time kept him from acting so rashly, even as parts of him yearned for change.

The Phantom had decided instead to wait and observe. He knew that the Power Rangers would not survive a civil war, if forced to take sides in a conflict between him and Tommy. Things would never be the same again if he went down that path. The Phantom knew that it wouldn't be right for him to pursue his vision, only to destroy everything that had been built over the years. He was sorry that Tom hadn't realized that, though he was glad that he himself had possessed such restraint.

Thank you, he thought as the melding process concluded. Tom's thoughts, feelings, and desires were now an inextricable part of him. The Phantom detached himself from Tom's soul, freeing it to move on to the next phase of its existence. Now go on, my friend. We'll take care of our goals. He watched as Tom slipped away into the light.

"You okay over there?"

The Phantom Ranger snapped out of his trance. "I'm alright Cassie. Everything's alright."

"You are so weird," Cassie said.

The Phantom's heart lifted as he saw the concerned look on her face fade into a warm smile. Cassie was always able to lighten his mood. She was a true friend, one that he felt very fortunate to have. Her schoolgirl infatuation with him had faded long ago. But Cassie never stopped supporting him, even after learning of his true nature. Her friendship had pulled him out of his ironically lonely existence.

But the Phantom was lonely no more, something that he appreciated as he looked around the bridge of his Astro Galactic Megaship. He had acquired more companions over the years. All of them were trusted friends and teammates. Just hours ago he had picked up two more, while fighting to reimprison the Chaos Elementals located there in the heart of the Virgo Supercluster. They were a curious pair: A young man with far more enthusiasm than wits, and the eccentric old scientist whom he faithfully followed.

"I'm telling ya, Professor, I got a funny feeling we're missing something." Skull stared upward, as if he were deep in thought. "We shouldn't have jumped through that portal so fast."

"Perhaps you're right," Professor Phenomenus said. "Did you remember to tell Bulk to -" He suddenly stopped and gasped.

"Buuuulk!" the two of them cried.

The Phantom Ranger heard some laughter coming from his second-in-command, the veteran space officer Michael Corbett. "Don't worry guys," Mike said. "We're just three months from the Milky Way."

"Make that three weeks," Karone said as she returned from the engine room with Carlos. "The battle damage wasn't as bad as we thought."

"Yeah, it was nothing I couldn't handle," Carlos said. He smiled as he tossed a hydrowrench to himself.

"Excellent," the Phantom Ranger said. He looked down again at the list of potential hot spots displayed on his computer console. The number of locations within quick and easy reach was now immensely greater.

Cassie read him like a holobook. "Hey guys," she said as she turned toward Skull and Phenomenus. "Mind if we make a few stops along the way? Lots of places can use our help."

"Alright," Skull said. His sad expression gave way to a smile. "Bulk will be expecting some stories anyway."

"Where to, Captain?" Mike asked.

"Let me see." The Phantom went through various images on the bridge's main viewscreen, gazing upon the myriad galaxies of the supercluster. There was the so-called Local Group, where the Milky Way and most of the known civilized galaxies resided. Its name amused him, for it was small compared to the surrounding universe, and probably as uncharted to other sectors as they were to it. Further away was the M51 Group, whose namesake galaxy had just been liberated after millennia of oppression. Its future brimmed with promise, even with all the trials that still lied ahead for it. The same could be said for any other place that appeared on the viewscreen.

There was evil in every sector, but there was also the beauty and wonder of the universe's countless civilizations. The Phantom had seen things that he could scarcely believe. Artificial planets as alive as any natural world. Psychic races hailing from different galaxies, all focusing their powers through strangely similar gem implants. Colony ships cruising through space on the backs of titanic dragons. The universe was an amazing place, of which the Phantom had seen so much, yet so little. But so long as he lived, so long as there were Power Rangers, it would be protected.

The Phantom turned off the slideshow, allowing the viewscreen to revert to what was directly ahead of the ship. There weren't any world-threatening crises going on at the time, but a case could be made for going to any place on his list. He couldn't make a definite decision with so many factors involved. "Computer," the Phantom said as he sat back in his chair. "Select a planet for our next mission. Surprise me."

"Acknowledged," the ship's computer said. It had already completed its decision-making algorithm before it had even uttered that word. The ship banked and turned, before blasting off into hyper rush velocity. The Phantom Ranger watched in admiration as the stars streaked by. Anywhere, and anything, was possible.

"I don't care where you came from. I wanna know where you're going."

-Summer Landsdown, "Fade to Black"