Koren sat on the front porch of his home, watching the sun moving slowly to the west and coloring the city with golden light. It felt strange to be home again, after being gone so long. Everything looked just the way he had left it, which was no surprise. The city had always been the same, from the time when he was very young up until the time that he had decided he had to leave, that he couldn't stand staying in this self-absorbed little social circle any longer when he knew he could be of some help in the never-ending fight against evil... only now the fight HAD ended, and so he was back home again. Even if the city hadn't changed, he had. Everything felt so small, now, after seeing the vastness of space and traveling to so many other worlds, wielding awesome powers and battling dire threats, working alongside legendary people like Zordon and the Power Rangers... he especially remembered the Power Rangers. He was honored that they had chosen to include him as a part of their team, calling him the Phantom Ranger. He liked and admired all of them... one Ranger in particular.
"Koren?" asked a soft voice, interrupting his thoughts. "Koren, where are you?"
"I'm out here," he called wearily.
Moments later, a young woman, barely out of her teens, stepped through the front door and out into the sun. The bright light flashed on her golden hair and cast highlights on her pretty face. No, she was more than pretty, she was beautiful, but Koren had never exactly felt comfortable around her. Strange how he felt nothing more than a vague sense of attachment to her when he was expected to feel so much more, but a girl who was supposed to be nothing more than a comrade to him stirred up emotions he had never felt before. Tarina looked at him expectantly, and he turned quickly away from her green-eyed stare.
"What is it, Tarina?" he asked, trying to sound more interested than annoyed. He didn't want to hurt her feelings. She was such a sensitive creature, trying so hard to be pleasant.
"You're brother has come to see you," she said in her usual breathless way. "If you're indisposed, I can tell him to come back later..."
"No, it's all right," said Koren, still looking at the sunset instead of at her. "I'll speak to him out here, if you don't mind."
"Very well. Will I be seeing you later?" she asked, with a slight tremor in her voice.
"Don't count on anything," answered Koren. "Perhaps I will at least come and talk to you."
She nodded, though he couldn't see it, and tiptoed back into the house. Koren sighed. He couldn't understand what his father had been thinking when he chose her. She was trying her best to live up to her duties, but she just didn't seem to be cut out for the job at hand (though it didn't help that Koren didn't feel like cooperating). Well, that wasn't his fault, was it? Koren's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door opening a second time, and this time he did turn to look. His younger brother, Altus, came out and sat down beside him. Physically, the two were so alike that they could almost pass for twins. Both were dark haired and dark eyed, with very much the same open, honest expressions. Altus, however, was a few inches shorter and a bit thinner than his brother, and his hair had blond highlights where Koren's was completely dark brown.
"I think Tarina missed you while you were gone," Altus began.
"I don't really want to talk about her," said Koren tiredly.
Altus looked at his brother in irritation. "Why do you treat her so badly, anyway? She's a good girl with a kind heart, not to mention beautiful. She's trying so hard to please you. I, for one, think you're very lucky to have her."
"Maybe I would have thought so before I left," said Koren. "Now that I've gotten away from this planet for a while and seen so many new things, I can't even feign an interest in her, no matter what Father would like."
"She's better than Marsa," said Altus teasingly.
Koren rolled his eyes heavenward. "Don't even talk to me about Marsa. At least I'm not expected to have anything to do with her, except maybe issue an order once in a while."
Marsa was the female head of his household, a young lady of no particular distinction except her ability to mind all the day to day business with practiced efficiency. When she had first arrived, she had entertained a notion that she could begin at least a mild romance with Koren, but those dreams had been quickly squelched - and that had been long before his first encounter with the Pink Ranger.
"Well, you have to admit, what she does, she does well," Altus said.
Koren gave his brother an accusing look. "Did Father send you here to talk to me?"
"No," said Altus, shaking his head, "but I do wish you'd at least make an attempt to behave. Father is starting to get annoyed with you."
"I can't cheat my heart, Altus," said Koren. "No matter what Father would like, my heart is given."
"Really?" asked Altus with a show of interest. "Why is that a problem? Father would be so happy to see you show an interest in anyone, he'd probably let you marry a street sweeper's daughter."
"Maybe he would," said Koren, "but would he let me marry an alien?"
"What?" Altus asked. "Koren, have you lost what mind you have?"
"Perhaps," Koren replied. "There isn't much difference between going crazy and falling in love."
"Sounds like you've got it bad," said Altus sympathetically. "Well, if you like her that much, she must be nice. Tell me about her. What's her name? Where is she from? What is she like?"
"Her name is Cassie," Koren replied. "I met her on Earth. She's the Pink Ranger there, a woman with a true warrior's soul. She's everything I ever wanted, Altus - brave, resourceful, intelligent, caring, AND beautiful. Not only that, but she's also a musician. You should hear her sing. I used to follow her around, sometimes, just hoping to hear her..."
Altus laughed. "Settle down, brother! I'm convinced; you're definitely in love. And I can sympathize with you. If I was in love like that, I wouldn't want anyone else, either," he added seriously.
"Really?" asked Koren.
"Of course!" Altus replied. "What about this girl, Cassie? Does she feel the same way about you?"
"I don't really know," Koren admitted. "She's risked her life to save mine, but I know she would do that for any of her teammates. That's just how she is, you know. I have no idea if she sees me as anything more than that - a teammate. It's been so long since I've seen her, and I never even told her my name..."
"Well, it seems to me that your first item of business should be to go to Earth, find her again, and find out," said Altus.
"Oh, I don't know if I could do that..." said Koren, staring at the ground uncomfortably.
"Kor, you're a hopeless romantic," Altus said. "And you're a glutton for punishment. Why sit here and make yourself miserable when you could be out winning the hand of your dream girl? At least find out for certain how she feels about you, and if her heart is in accordance with yours, bring her back here."
"Do you really think I should?" asked Koren.
"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't," Altus replied. "You spend too much time feeling sorry for yourself, and not enough time getting anything done. Take a chance, for once in your life."
Koren took a deep breath. "All right, then. I'll do it."
"That's the spirit!" said Altus. "Don't worry about a thing, Koren. I'll look after everything while you're gone."
"Thank you, brother," Koren replied. He smiled a little. Already, he was making plans for what to say, what to do. Just the thought of seeing Cassie again set his heart to beating a little faster. With a smile and a wave, he jumped off the porch without bothering to use the stairs, making his way swiftly to his spaceship. Before anyone could see the heir to the Yartean fortune dashing down the street like a frightened rabbit, he gripped the ruby pendant he wore around his neck, and he was suddenly gone in a silvery blur.
Night lay gently over the city of Angel Grove, a dark, soft blanket that encouraged the good citizens to lay aside their worries and find peace and rest. However, there could be no rest for some. One such restless soul wandered aimlessly through an empty, shadowed park, hardly needing to see her surroundings because her sight was turned inward. In a moonlit clearing, she paused to stare up at the starry sky, her eyes reflecting their light as she followed their patterns.
*He's out there, somewhere,* she thought, *light-years away from me. I wonder if he even thinks about me anymore? Will he ever come back, or will he stay away now that it's all over?*
Cassie sighed. She didn't know why she was thinking about the Phantom tonight, the man whose true name she had never learned, who had been forever hidden from her by night-black armor with starlight-silver trim. Maybe it was just because she was lonely now that she was no longer living constantly with her friends. Maybe it was the letdown after the excitement of that final battle and the jubilant chaos that had followed. Or... maybe it was just because it was hard not to miss the man you were in love with.
*In love? How can I be in love with someone I never really met?* she scolded herself. But there wasn't much sense in reasoning with emotions. She had been intrigued by him since the very first time she had met him and heard his voice. She felt certain that if she ever got the chance to know him, he would be kind and gentle, warrior though he was. Even with his superhuman powers, he had never shown any trace of pride. He was eternally willing to sacrifice himself for others, never giving a thought for himself. Wouldn't she be justified in loving him just for that?
"I wish I could find out for sure," she said aloud. She stared out into the far reaches of space, and in a brief flash of her usual humor, she called, "Hey, Phantom! Are you still out there?" More softly, as her emotions caught up to her again, she added, "I'm still here. I'm waiting for you."
Though she didn't know it, the Phantom was listening, close but invisible. He could see her, though, with the moonlight shining on her dark hair and turning it into a cascade of onyx and pearl. She looked more beautiful in that moment than he could ever remember her being, and when he heard her last words, he felt a rush of joy. He had made the right decision; Cassie really did care for him, after all! Blessing Altus for his brotherly interference, Koren slipped out into the open, out to where his beloved could see him... as soon as he made himself visible again.
"Cassie!" he called to her.
"What?" She jumped and looked all around in shock. Had she just heard what she thought she'd heard? "Who said that?"
"Cassie, it's me," Koren replied. There was a shimmer in the air around him, and he suddenly fluxed into visibility. Cassie gasped.
"Phantom Ranger?" she whispered.
He nodded. "Call me Koren. I've come back to you, just like I said I would." He smiled shyly.
"It really is you!" she exclaimed. She would have known that voice anywhere. She had imagined hearing it speaking to her so many times... "This can't be for real. I'm dreaming."
Koren came closer and ran a hand through her hair, then gently touched her cheek, guiding her to look up into his eyes. "Does this feel like a dream to you?"
"No," she said, a little breathlessly. "I just can't believe it. I've been waiting for so long."
"I'm sorry, Cassie," Koren replied. "I'm sorry I made you wait so long... but I'm here now. I had to come back. I had to see you again."
"I missed you."
"I missed you, too."
Koren drew her forward and held her close, and she pressed herself to him in a warm embrace. For a little while, time stood still in that perfect moment, with only their hearts beating so close to each other to mark its passage. This was so perfect, just how it was meant to be. There could be no more joy in life than this, and Koren was suddenly certain of what he wanted to say.
"Cassie," he said gently, "do you know why I had to come back? I came here because I knew that I could never feel for another what I feel for you. I love you, Cassie."
Cassie turned to look into his eyes, her features alight with joy. "I love you, too."
"You mean it?" asked Koren, almost afraid to believe his ears.
"Ever since the first time I saw you."
"That's all I ever wanted to hear," Koren replied. "My heart belongs only to you. We've been apart so long. I never want to lose you again. If you really feel the same way..." He looked into her eyes, and read the answer more clearly than words could express, a resounding, "Yes!" "...then would you be willing to come back with me to my world? The time has come for me to choose a bride, and I could never take anyone but you."
Cassie blushed. "I - I don't know what to say..."
"Please say yes," Koren begged. "All you have to do is say the word, and I'll start arranging at once to make you my third wife."
"What?!" Cassie jumped backwards in shock. "Did you just say what I thought you just said?"
"I - I think I did," asked Koren, a little confused. He had expected her to be a surprised - after all, he was a little surprised at his boldness himself - but he hadn't expected a reaction quite this extreme.
"What are you thinking?" she demanded. "Third wife?"
"Well, yes," Koren replied. "I mean, I know this is a little sudden, but I know it's what I want."
"It's not what I want," said Cassie, nearly shouting in outrage.
"Why not?" asked Koren, now thoroughly confused. "Didn't you just say you loved me? Did you not mean it?"
"I thought I did until you said that," Cassie replied.
"I don't understand," said Koren. "If we love each other, why is this such a terrible thing? What has gotten you so upset?"
Cassie looked into his eyes and saw his utter confusion. He really didn't know. Strange as it seemed, he had honestly believed she should have been happy to accept his offer, and he wasn't understanding why she was turning him down. She turned away again miserably.
"I can't do it," she said, choking back tears. "I just can't do it."
"Is there someone else, then?" asked Koren.
Cassie just shook her head. There was no one else. Of course there wasn't - she had been distancing herself from any male admirers because somewhere, in the back of her mind and the depths of her heart, she really had believed that her Prince Charming would come back for her. Well, now her prince was here, but no one had ever told her that he already had a harem waiting for him back at home. And this had seemed so much like a beautiful dream at first. Now it had turned into a nightmare, one she knew she couldn't wake up from.
"Can't you tell me what's wrong?" Koren persisted. "Whatever it is, I'll make it right. Cassie, I'd do anything for you if you'll just ask."
"No," said Cassie, fighting to control her voice, "there's nothing you can do. Just... go away."
"Please, don't say that," Koren begged. He took a step forward, wanting to hold her again and comfort her, but she avoided his touch.
"Go away," she repeated, and this time there was real anger in her voice. "Just go away and leave me alone.
"Go away," she repeated, and this time there was real anger in her voice. "Just go away and leave me alone."
Koren stood silently for a moment, watching her expression, seeing her wracked with pain whose source he couldn't identify. He only knew that he had done something to her, something terrible.
"If that's the way you want it," he said softly. There was a shimmer in the air, and then he was gone again, leaving behind only his final parting words, "I love you, Cassie."
Cassie stood rooted to the spot for a moment with an emotion that was almost like horror. Then she broke down in tears and ran away crying. She didn't see - couldn't see - that Koren was doing the same thing. He ran blindly through the dark until he stumbled on a root and fell. He didn't even bother to pick himself up. He crawled as far as the nearest tree before breaking down completely, lost in tears. Finally, blessed oblivion came to him, and he slept.
Meanwhile, Cassie continued to run, back into the lights of the city, not even looking where she was going. It was late and dark, and she was all alone as she flew down the shadowed sidewalks, her footsteps seeming to echo in the empty streets. She ran until she barely had the strength to breathe before finally collapsing on the steps of the Angel Grove Public Library. She sat down next to a stone ashtray, with a few smoldering cigarettes still casting unpleasant-smelling smoke to the sky like incense to an evil god, and she struggled to get her emotions under control. Up until now, she had believed that she would have given anything to be with the Phantom, but she had never reckoned on this! She wasn't quite sure how to deal with it, now that her initial reaction had played itself out, so she sat there in a daze as she tried to force herself to think. There had been times when she had tormented herself with the idea that the Phantom might already be married, but... two wives already? She shook her head in disbelief. It was just too much to deal with right now - her brain kept skirting around the issue every time she tried to nail it down.
The door to the library opened, and the librarian working the night shift came out and locked the door. Turning around, he noticed Cassie sitting in the cold blue light of a street lamp, her face still somewhat tear-stained.
"Are you all right, miss?" he asked in concern.
Cassie forced a smile. "It's okay. Just... guy troubles, you know."
"Oh, yes," said the librarian. "I remember what it feels like, being a teenager in love. Keep your chin up. It will all work out somehow."
"Thanks," Cassie replied, feigning a cheerfulness she didn't feel.
The librarian looked at her for a moment. He was a quiet-natured, elderly man, grey haired and bespectacled but not far into the declining of his life. He had known many people during his lifetime, and he still saw them, young and old, as they came in and out of the library, dropping him a few words as he checked out their books. He was a wise man, and he read the look in her eyes as clearly as he had once read words on pages before his sight had begun to fail.
"Come on, now. Cheer up," he said kindly. "How bad is it? Can you tell me what's wrong?"
"Ummm...." Cassie cast through her mind, trying to find a way of explaining the situation with some semblance of truth. "Well, it's like this... he's got someone else."
"Ah," the librarian replied. "So you love him, but he loves another."
"Well, no, not exactly..." said Cassie. "He said he only loves me."
*The Phantom - Koren - he loves me,* Cassie thought to herself in wonder. Hadn't she seen it in his eyes, heard it in his voice? But still...
"If that's the truth," the librarian replied, "than everything else is inconsequential. Old as I am, I've never yet ceased to be amazed at how much can be accomplished where love is involved."
"I hope you're right," Cassie said wistfully.
The librarian smiled. "Us grumpy old men are always right. Don't get too down. Things will work out. They always do."
"Thanks," said Cassie, managing to smile back. She really did feel a little better now. There was something about the elderly librarian that radiated serenity. She felt like she could trust him. Maybe things would be all right in the end... but fixing a mess like this was going to take a lot of work. She hoped she would be strong enough to do it.
Koren woke up shivering with early-morning cold. His clothing was drenched with dew, he had a crick in his neck from sleeping propped against a tree all night, and his eyes still felt hot gritty from crying. At first, he was disoriented, wondering what had happened to him and where he was. Then he looked around, and the memories came crashing into him with force enough to start the tears pricking at his eyes again. He tried fiercely to wrest control of his emotions.
Cassie had turned him down. There was no getting around that. He had seen the look on her face, that look of utter shock, even revulsion. He had done something terrible to her, and she would never be able to even look him in the eye again unless he could figure out what it was and how to fix it - and he was going to fix it, he resolved. What did he have to lose? A life without Cassie wouldn't be much of a life. Anything it took to win her would be worth it. So... where to start?
A few moments of quiet thought didn't give him any useful answers - he was completely baffled, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't quite get himself to think clearly. Where had it all gone wrong? Everything had gone so well, up until the proposal. But why should that be so offensive? He had made her the best offer she could have hoped for... hadn't he? A light blinked on in the back of his mind, and he pursued the thought. Somewhere, he had picked up the notion that not all societies treated the notions of love and marriage the way his did, but he had never given that idea much thought. He might have been more open-minded than some of his people, but his upbringing had still taught him that the way of his people was the best way, and he had more-or-less assumed that most other civilized societies would behave in very much the same way. Now, however, he was beginning to realize the full implications of the fact that his true love was, when you came right down to it, an alien. He must have inadvertently violated some kind of taboo. If that was the case, then the best thing to do would be to figure out what he had done, find out how he should have behaved, and then apologize and explain his mistake. Cassie would have to understand. He really hoped she would, anyway.
Gripping the Power Ruby that hung on its golden chain around his neck, he slipped into invisibility. No one even noticed the slight warping in the air as he made his way down the streets of the city. He had overslept after his eventful night, and at this hour, the streets were already full of people. Koren watched them as he had never watched them before. The last time he had visited Angel Grove, they had meant very little to him. Yes, he would have protected him when they needed it, but they weren't his primary interest. Now he watched them almost avidly, hoping for clues that would help him solve his problem. He wandered randomly, not even caring where he was going, and he was somewhat surprised when he wandered into a grocery store. He glanced around with only mild curiosity - he had seen marketplaces before, and this one wasn't much different than one on his own home - but as he turned to leave, his attention was caught by a rack of books against the walls. They were mostly cheap paperbacks, and they didn't look like anything that would interest him under ordinary circumstances, but the title of one book caught his eye and made that light in the back of his head spark again. He walked closer and picked the book up.
Just looking at the cover made him wince. It was a romance novel with a face that made Koren glad he was invisible, so no one could see him looking at it. It was mostly pink, decorated with lots of frilly floral designs, and the title was written in such elaborately curlicued letters that he was amazed he'd been able to decipher them. There was a picture amid the frills of a shirtless man embracing a curvaceous and thinly clad woman. Koren quickly flipped the book over. On the other side, he found words - a summary of the book's plot, which was what he was interested in. He scanned it, and then read it again more slowly. He flipped the book over and looked at the title again. He opened the book and read the excerpt on the front page. He turned it over and read the back again. For a moment, he stood there and stared at it. Then he placed the cheap, tacky, paperback romance almost reverently back onto its shelf, and then he ran out of the store as fast as his feet would carry him.
Nearby, a middle-aged woman with a shopping cart full of squealing kids and sugar cereal pressed a hand to her face, allowing a stress headache to subside just a little. She must be working too hard; she needed a vacation. She could have sworn she just saw a book take itself off the shelf a minute ago and then put itself back. Looking up again, she abandoned her children for a moment to inspect the book more carefully. It seemed like a perfectly ordinary book... though it did look rather interesting. The woman thought she could use some romance in her typical middle-class life. She carried the book to the cart and dropped it into the shopping bag furthest from the reach of her offspring's dirty hands. The flourescent lights reflected off of the upraised letters of the title: My One and Only.
Cassie was amazed, in a distant sort of way, that she hadn't had any nightmares that night. She'd often had nightmares about the Phantom, dreaming that he had died, that he was hurt and suffering and she couldn't save him, that he didn't care about her and never wanted to see her again, or that he was in love with someone else, or even married, and taken out of her reach forever. What she had just been through was even worse than that, but she didn't dream about it. Her dreams that night were beautiful, half memory and half fantasy, bright and vivid. She had dreamed she was back in his arms again, with the moonlight shining in his dark eyes, and hearing his voice whisper to her that he loved her and no one else, that they would be together forever and no one would ever tear them apart... Cassie replayed the dream in her mind until she finally broke down in tears. This was worse than a nightmare. This was the truth. Just for a moment, she'd had everything she wanted, and now it had been snatched away from her in a way that made it seem like it would be impossible for her to ever get it back. So close, and yet, so far...
She got tired of crying a lot faster than she thought she would. She had already done enough of that last night, and she didn't really feel up do doing it again. Anyway, with a night of solid sleep and deep dreams behind her, the strange moonlit scene that had played out the previous evening now felt misty and unreal. If she'd been having bad dreams, she might have passed the memory off as part of her nightmares. As it was, she could only accept the situation as ugly truth, and Cassie wasn't good at accepting things like that gracefully. By the time she was dressed and groomed, she was already beyond crying and well on her way into anger.
Cassie ate her breakfast without really tasting it, or even realizing what it was. She had already turned herself inward, and all that mattered now was what was happening in her mind and heart. That kind of turmoil couldn't be contained by the four walls of her home, so she went out and walked.
The overwhelming thought in her mind was, *How could he do this to me?* It didn't seem fair. How could the Phantom go and let her fall in love with him when he was already married? How could he not know that she could never degrade herself by becoming someone's - even the Phantom's - third string wife? Why couldn't he content himself with just one, anyway? What was he, some kind of barbarian? Well, Cassie wouldn't stand for it. If he wanted to add someone else to his collection, he was going to have to find someone different. She could do without the Phantom. She could. She gritted her teeth and blinked fiercely as she tried to convince herself that those tears reforming in her eyes were tears of anger.
It took her a little while before she realized that her feet had led her back to the park, back to the scene of the crime. Cassie got ready to turn around; she didn't want to be here again, but she was suddenly blocked by the strange shimmer in the air that marked the arrival of...
"You again," Cassie muttered.
"I figured it out," said Koren without preamble. "I just figured out what's wrong. There's only one here, right?"
"What?" Cassie replied, caught completely off-guard.
Koren realized he wasn't making sense and tried again. "The men on your planet are only allowed one wife. That was the problem, right?"
"Well, yeah..." said Cassie, still somewhat confused by the abrupt turning of tables.
"And you are angry because you think that if I'm already married, I can't really love you."
"But I do love you, Cassie! Didn't I tell you that? Don't you believe me?" asked Koren. "My heart belongs only to you. I can't live without you."
Cassie gave him a bitter stare. "Is that what you told the other two?"
"No! You don't understand. I don't care about them at all," Koren replied. "Let me explain. Just listen. On my world, it is the custom for young men from good families to take three wives - only three. The first is the housekeeper. She minds the house, oversees the servants, and keeps track of the accounting. I have nothing to do with her. The second is to tend the children..."
"And how many are there?" asked Cassie coldly.
Koren turned red. "None! I haven't... I never... Cassie, how could I ever want anyone else after seeing you? The point is, the other two... they mean nothing to me. Those were arranged marriages. I got no choice in the matter, and I didn't even meet them until a week or two before the wedding! I hated it! You have no idea how much I hated it, but I couldn't not do it. It would have shamed my family, and I didn't know of any other options. But this is different. The third wife, the last, is chosen for love and love alone. She is to be honored and cherished above all other things. That was what I was asking you, Cassie. I'm not trying to degrade you, but to lift you up."
Cassie stood in stunned silence. There was something she hadn't even dreamed of: an explanation. A good explanation. And now there really was no doubt about it, Koren really did love her, maybe even more than she thought he had back at the beginning, when things were perfect. The next thing she knew, she had his arms around him, and he was holding her tightly, and neither one could tell if they were laughing or crying. There was a long, dizzy, incredible moment.
"What are we going to do now?" asked Cassie.
"I'm not sure," Koren replied. "What do you want to do?"
"I want to stay with you."
"Really?" he asked, surprised. "Even after what I told you?"
"I think so," Cassie replied.
"Cassie, reconsider what I asked. Please... come home with me," Koren begged. "I know if we try, we can make this work somehow. Won't you at least give this a chance?"
Cassie considered carefully - or tried to. There were so many warring thoughts and emotions going on inside of her that it was hard to think clearly. What would it be like on his world? What about those other two wives? The thought still gave her a slight flinch. How could she ever hope to adjust to that idea? Would the other two resent her because Koren loved her and not them? Would the make her life a misery over it? Or would they even care? Maybe she would be like him and never have anything to do with them... but she wasn't sure her compassionate nature would let her do that. Cassie thought about all of this, and it almost made her say no, but a look into Koren's eyes made up her mind for her, completely and without doubt. She took a deep breath.
"I'm coming," she said.
The high afternoon sun beamed down on a happy pair who strolled leisurely through the streets of the city, talking and laughing like old friends.
"...Next time you're on Earth, you've absolutely got to see that movie," Cassie was saying. "It's got to be the best I've ever seen."
"Better than A Night Without Moonlight?" Koren asked.
"Never saw it. What's it about?"
"Oh, it's got everything! Action, suspense, romance, magic... some great music too. I'll bet you could sing it," said Koren.
Cassie grinned. "You'll have to take me to see it while I'm here."
The mood of the couple had improved drastically over the last few hours, owing to the talk they'd had on the long and otherwise uneventful journey. They had been shy at first, but in a small spacecraft where there was nothing to do but stare out the window, and the scenery in space is only that of thousands of slow-moving stars. Once some initial awkwardness from their earlier arguments was overcome, therefore, they became deeply involved in conversation. The topics ranged from battles to favorite books and everything in between. By an unspoken agreement, neither one made any mention to the other two women in Koren's life. He did, however, speak a little of his father and a lot about his brother. Cassie got the feeling that the two were very close friends, and after hearing Koren talk about him, she felt like she had known him for years herself. Of all the members of his family, Altus was the one she was most looking forward to meeting.
She didn't have long to wait. Only a short while after their arrival, a young man who bore a striking resemblance to Koren came dashing up to them with a harried look in his eyes.
"Brother!" he called. "You're going to have to hurry home! Everyone is in a panic!"
Koren looked puzzled. "What do you mean? I was gone longer than I meant to be, but you knew where I was..."
"That's not it," answered Altus, shaking his head. "You'd better come see for yourself... Wait. Is this the Cassie you were telling me about? This might not be a good time for her to be here."
"What's going on?" asked Cassie. "It can't be that bad, can it?"
"Not bad, exactly..." Altus prevaricated. "Just inconvenient."
"Cassie isn't some fragile noblewoman, Altus," said Koren with a touch of irritation. "She's a Power Ranger! She can deal with emergencies. Come on, Cassie. Let's see what's going on."
Cassie nodded, and they both hurried down the street toward Koren's house. Altus followed more slowly, his expression one of both worry, fear... and a surprising touch of awe.
The Yartean mansion was a formidable thing, and Cassie almost wanted to stop running long enough to stare at it, but Koren urged her forward, up the impressive front steps and through the door into a lavish parlor. Upon their arrival, Cassie and Koren found themselves confronted with quite a large number of people. A tall, stern looking gentlemen dressed in what looked like very expensive clothing was presiding over everyone with hard eyes and a smug expression. His resemblance to Koren and Altus was unmistakable. Women of various ages were fluttering around in anxious excitement. A few servants were darting around in all directions as orders were shouted at them from nearly everyone assembled. A mousy-haired girl with a plain face and unspectacular figure but surprisingly intelligent eyes was lurking in a corner, looking bored. An elderly man with a long beard and glasses was cackling to himself and rubbing his hands together in a proprietary manner; he was doing more shouting at the servants than any three of the others combined. In the middle of all the hubbub, a youngish looking lady was sitting very still and very silent in an elaborate chair.
"Where are they?" Cassie whispered. "Are they here?" No need to explain who they were. Koren nodded and pointed.
"That's Marsa," he said, indicating the bored-looking girl. "And that's Tarina."
Cassie stared at Tarina, the girl at the center of the crowd. She was pale-skinned and delicate, with shining waves of golden hair that pooled around her where she rested. She had a perfect rosebud mouth, shining aquamarine eyes, and a figure most girls would have killed to possess. Cassie's first thought on examining her was, *Wow, she's so beautiful.* Her second was, *She looks so scared!* She turned Koren to see what his reaction was to seeing her, and was a trifle relieved to notice that he didn't seem to be appraising the girl's beauty. His expression was only that of mild concern.
"Koren!" exclaimed one of the women, possibly his mother. "At last, you're here! You aren't going to believe the news."
"He's going to believe it," said the old man in a cracked voice. "I've been a doctor for nearly fifty years, and I know a case like this when I see one!"
"A case like what?" asked Koren. "What's wrong with Tarina?"
"Nothing is wrong with her," said his father calmly. "It's perfectly natural."
"Then will someone please explain what's going on?" asked Koren.
"You of all people ought to know," his father answered impatiently. "The fact of the matter is-"
He was interrupted by a quiet voice - Tarina's voice, but the weight of her words cut through anything else he could have said more effectively than an explosion.
"Koren," she said softly, "I'm going to have a baby."
"WHAT?!" There was a simultaneous outburst from Cassie and Koren. They looked at each other in mutual shock.
"Why are you surprised?" asked Koren's father. "After all, you're the one responsible, and it's about time. I was starting to wonder what was wrong with you."
Cassie was starting to recover from her shock. She turned on Koren with anger burning in her eyes.
"Koren, could I have a word with you?" she asked dangerously.
Thoroughly bewildered, Koren looked from Cassie to his father to Tarina, back to Cassie, and then back at all the onlookers.
"I'm going to talk to you later," he said to Tarina. With that, he beckoned for Cassie to follow him to another room.
As soon as they were both safely behind closed doors, an argument broke out.
"Would you like to explain that to me?" Cassie demanded.
"I can't!" answered Koren. "I swear, I don't know what's going on!"
"Am I supposed to believe that?" shouted Cassie. "How could you lie to me like this? You said you never..."
"But I didn't!" Koren protested. "I honestly have no idea what's going on!"
"How do I know that?" Cassie replied. "You're going to have to do better than that if you want me to buy that."
"If that's what I've got to do, then that's what I'll do," Koren replied. "Wait here. I'll get to the bottom of this." He turned and marched resolutely out.
Cassie started to call out to him, but changed her mind and slumped tiredly into a nearby chair. For a moment, she just sat there thinking, replaying what had just happened. Now that the initial shock was wearing off, she was starting to wish she hadn't spoken quite so harshly. She was realizing a little too late that Koren had been just as surprised as she had - he really didn't know what was going on. She had to admit to herself that somewhere inside, she still hadn't completely believed Koren when he said he loved only her, and hearing Tarina's announcement had sounded like proof of her fears. So now she had made her accusation, and she was probably completely off-base. Actually, she knew she was completely off-base, and she was just about to get up and go looking for Koren so she could apologize to him when the door opened. Into the room came Tarina.
"Cassie?" she said hesitantly. "That is your name, right? Can I come in? Can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Yeah, I guess," Cassie replied, unable to find it within herself to be upset with this poor, frightened girl who spoke only in question marks.
"Thank you," said Tarina, taking a seat in a chair across from Cassie. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I think there are some things I need to tell you." She wrung her hands nervously in her lap.
"I think you do, too," Cassie answered gently.
"Please don't be angry at Koren. He's not at fault," said Tarina. "He doesn't even really care about me. He's not like other people, you know. He's always been... different."
"What do you mean?" asked Cassie.
"He was born wrong, somehow. I don't really know the details," Tarina said. "The doctors said he would die, but his father wouldn't have his first child dying. He sent for powerful sorcerers to find some way to heal him. They combined their magics to create the pendant he wears, the Power Ruby. It gives him life as long as he wears it, but it's power has changed him, somehow. It makes him... more sensitive than some others. Matters of the heart mean more to him than to many people. He cannot cheat himself, Cassie. If you are his true love, as I believe you are, then he could never feel anything for anyone - not me or anyone else."
"Then what's all this about?" Cassie persisted.
"It... well, it was Altus's idea," Tarina admitted, blushing bright red. "It is wrong of us, but we can't help it... we love each other."
"Ohhhhh," said Cassie as the pieces suddenly fell into place. "So the baby is his?"
Tarina nodded. "He didn't want to wait any longer... he said we were doing the right thing. Koren's father has been pressuring him for an heir, but he's got no interest in me. Altus looks so much like Koren, he said no one would be able to tell."
"I would think Koren would know," Cassie said.
"We were trying to work it so he wouldn't know the difference, either," said Tarina, "but that didn't work. We were going to explain it to him, but we seem to have run out of time. Altus said we would be doing him a favor."
"Well," said Cassie, "I guess he's going to find out now."
Koren moved through the house like a runaway storm cloud. Servants, having acquired nearly instinctive conflict-avoidance techniques, sensed his approach and moved out of his way before he even came near. He stalked the hallways alone... until he found Altus.
"Where is she?" asked Koren coldly.
"I don't know," Altus replied, "and it doesn't matter. She's not the one you want to talk to."
"What do you..." Koren began, and then stopped. "Oh. So you're the one who was responsible for this?" His tone was almost casual, but his eyes were blazing with cold fire.
"Don't be too hard on her, Koren. It was all my idea. Put the blame on me," said Altus. "Hurt me if you want to, but leave her out of this."
"You're right. I have every right to hurt you," said Koren. "Just what do you think you were doing, anyway? Were you crazy enough to think I wouldn't find out?"
"We knew you'd find out. We were going to tell you," Altus replied. "Why are you so upset? I know you don't love her. I do - and she loves me. Our hearts beat as one. You know how that feels. This works out in all our interests."
"It would have," said Koren, "except that what you've done has cost me my honor in the eyes of my beloved."
"Well, I tried to warn you," said Altus, subdued.
"You didn't try hard enough," Koren replied. He sighed, abruptly deflating. "Altus, this is such a mess. How can we ever straighten this out? I'd let you have Tarina if I could, but there's just no way... and how am I going to convince Cassie of my loyalty? She just doesn't seem to understand. Honestly, Altus, I think I'm cursed."
"You're not cursed. You've survived this long," said Altus. "Believe me, Koren, if there's anything I can possibly do for you, I will."
"I know. Thank you," said Koren. With the faintest beginning of a smile, he added, "Well, since this is a result of your brilliant idea, what do you suggest I do now?"
"For starters?" Altus replied. "I'd say talk to Cassie. Really talk to her. See if you can get this worked out with her, one way or another."
Koren sighed. "That is good advice. I hope it works as well as it sounds."
"What other choice do you have?" Altus replied. "Anyway, your situation is almost simple compared to mine. I mean, what am I supposed to do? The laws of the whole world are stacked against me."
"We're both caught in a lurch," said Koren. He pounded his fist into his hand in frustration. "There is a solution! There's got to be - something simple that we're all missing. I've got to think..."
"Good luck," Altus replied, "and if you come up with any answers, let me know."
"I will," Koren replied.
Meanwhile, Cassie had been trying to relocate Koren. She came around a corner just as he turned to continue his search for Cassie, and nearly tripped over her. They both stumbled back in surprise.
"Cassie!" he exclaimed. "How much of that did you hear?"
"Only the end of it," she replied, "but it's okay. Tarina explained the whole thing for me. I'm sorry I shouted at you, Koren. I'm just... so confused."
"It's okay," Koren replied. "I'm beginning to feel sorry I ever got you into this mess. It might have been better if I hadn't come to you..."
"That's not true," Cassie replied. "I would have gone on waiting for you. I always believed you were the one for me. I still do."
"I think I'll leave you two alone," said Altus, turning and heading down the hallway.
"It's okay. We'll leave you," Koren replied. "I think I want to get outside for a while... if that's okay with you, Cassie."
"It's fine," she said. "I can think better when I'm walking."
"All right. I'll see you two later, then," Altus said. "I wish you both the best of luck. You'll find a way out of this, if anyone can."
Cassie and Koren wandered out into the falling twilight. It was growing dark in the city, and most people were already safe at home, leaving the streets quiet and empty. Even without people around, the press of buildings with windows lit like curious eyes made Koren uncomfortable, and he wordlessly indicated to Cassie that he wanted to leave the metropolis and head for more solitary places. She nodded, and he led the way. They followed the main road for a little while, then turned and wandered through a twisty maze of alleys and narrow lanes. Suddenly, the buildings came to a sharp end, as if someone had sliced them all away. Spreading out before them was a rough and rocky wasteland, dotted here and there with a few trees. The setting sun cast dramatic shadows away from the jutting stones. Off in the horizon, the city lights could be seen twinkling faintly, like a preview of the oncoming stars, but her at the center of the metropolis, there was nothing but rocks and rubble.
"What is this place?" asked Cassie.
"I guess you could think of it as my world's version of your park back in Angel Grove. I come here sometimes when I want to think," Koren replied.
"It's so lonely and empty," said Cassie, "but it's beautiful, too."
"I love it here. It's been my sanctuary since I was very young. Come on," urged Koren. "This isn't all of it. Let me show you something else." Beckoning for her to follow, he started bounding across the plain. Cassie followed closely behind, so closely that she almost ran into him when he stopped.
"Careful!" he cautioned. "This place isn't entirely safe. Look!"
Cassie was already looking, staring in wide-eyed shock. What she was seeing was a huge gap in the earth, a jagged, gaping gash that tore through the pale stone like a bolt of black lightning. She had seen the Grand Canyon before, and while this wasn't nearly as wide, it almost seemed to surpass it in depth.
"Wow," she said.
"This is Eternal Canyon," said Koren. "No one has ever really measured how deep it is. No one who goes down ever comes up again. That's part of why the city stops back there - they don't want anyone getting too close to it. It was caused by earthquakes, and it's not very stable. Sometimes it still resettles itself, so they can't even build over it. Everyone stays out of its way."
"Isn't it a little dangerous?" asked Cassie nervously.
"Don't worry," Koren assured her. "I've been coming here since I was a little boy, and I've never gotten in any trouble. It's safe enough if you're careful, and we can talk privately here."
"Yeah, we really do need to talk," Cassie agreed. "Do you have any ideas as to what to do? I can't think of much."
"Me neither," said Koren glumly. "I don't want to pressure you into doing anything you don't want to do, but I don't want to have to live apart from you. Are you sure you couldn't...?"
"I'm sure," said Cassie. "Why can't you leave here? Let Altus marry Tarina and come back to Earth with me."
Koren shook his head. "It wouldn't work. You're forgetting about the laws and customs here. If I run away, it will bring dishonor on my family, and on Tarina and Marsa. If I leave my family, it would imply that I consider them unworthy somehow. No one would be able to take them without accepting that stigma. I'd be cursing them, and they don't deserve that."
"Yeah, I guess. Tarina's too nice for that," said Cassie. "Looks like we're stuck."
Koren sighed. "It does, doesn't it? Well, I'm not going to give up. There's got to be a solution somewhere, and somehow, I'm going to-"
There was a sudden crumbling sound, and Cassie shrieked as she saw Koren start falling into the gorge as the earth beneath his feet suddenly gave way. Without thinking, she made a wild grab and managed to latch on to one of his hands. She winced at the pain of trying to support his weight by one hand, but he quickly managed to grab hold of the wall. Between her pulling and him climbing, they managed to get him back to safety. They both retreated several feet away from the cliff and sat down to catch their breath.
"So, what were you saying about the cliff being safe?" asked Cassie.
Koren shrugged and smiled sheepishly. "Well, that never happened to me before."
"I wouldn't have happened twice," Cassie replied.
"I know, I know," said Koren. He sighed. "Maybe it would have been better if you'd let me fall. That would solve everyone's problems."
"Really?" asked Cassie, suddenly curious. "How?"
"Well, it's like this," said Koren, a little taken aback. "If I died, custom requires that my brother take over for me. That would include looking after my wives. And you could go back home and find someone else who wouldn't give you so much trouble."
"Oh," said Cassie. "Do you think Altus would let me borrow your spaceship if that happened?"
"Well, I don't know. Probably... Hey, wait just a minute!" he exclaimed. "What's going on in that head of yours, anyway?"
"Just this," Cassie replied. "If you fell into that hole, no one would ever find you again. That means no one can prove you didn't fall, so if you needed a good excuse to vanish without a trace..."
"Cassie, you're brilliant!" said Koren. "I knew there had to be a solution somewhere. It's not perfect, of course, but it's a lot better than the alternative. We should tell Altus about it, though. And maybe Tarina... I don't think my father will mind much, as long as he knows the family name will go on," he added, trifle bitterly.
"That's kind of sad," said Cassie.
"We were never close," Koren explained. "I disappointed him, I think. He wanted a carbon- copy of himself."
"He should be proud of you," said Cassie. "You're a brave warrior and a good person. If he can't accept that, it's his problem. Come on. We need to find Altus and get this started."
"You're right," said Koren. "There isn't a lot of time."
Hand in hand, they hurried back to the city.
"... so that's what we decided," Koren finished. "It will hurt me to have to leave you, Altus, but it's the only way Cassie and I can be together. I hope you understand."
He sat back and looked at his brother expectantly. It had taken a lot of time and emotional strain to get the situation clear to his sibling, but there wasn't much help for it. He waited anxiously for a reply.
"Don't be so gloomy, brother!" said Altus. "All will be well. I'm sure I can manage to visit you on Earth sometimes... and I will not be too lonely if I can be with Tarina," he added with a wink.
"You are entirely selfish," Koren laughed, relieved, "but thank you for helping us."
"You are welcome," answered Altus, "and I am not selfish. I have my child to think of, you know."
"It's been nice meeting you," Cassie replied. "I hope I see you again soon. Are you sure you don't need me to stay and help explain things?"
"I think I'll manage," Altus replied. "I don't think you look like the type to be properly hysterical. I'll leave that to Tarina."
"That might be wise," Koren agreed. There was an awkward pause. "I guess this is goodbye, then."
"I guess it is," Altus agreed. There was more silence. Finally, Altus rushed forward to embrace his brother, and Koren returned the gesture.
"I will miss you, brother," said Altus.
"I will miss you, too. Don't worry; we'll see each other again someday."
"I know. Be happy in your new life."
"You be happy in yours."
There was nothing left to say. The two brothers stood apart again, wondering what else to do. Cassie broke the silence, touching Koren's shoulder gently.
"Come on," she said quietly. "Time to go."
Koren nodded. Waving one last goodbye to his brother, he turned and walked away. A few minutes later, there was a soft rushing sound, and Altus looked up to see his brother's sleek silver spaceship tracing a blue line of light across the dark sky, up to the stars and out of sight.
"Goodbye, brother," he said softly. "Good luck to you, and may the Power protect you both."
Koren's planet was far behind, and Cassie's was still far ahead. They were alone again, and there was much to talk about.
"Do you really think I'll fit in on your planet?" asked Koren. "There's still so much I don't know about it."
"Don't worry," said Cassie, grinning. "I don't think you can mess up any worse than you did last time."
Koren laughed. "That's true. And this time, you'll be here to help me, won't you?"
"Of course," Cassie promised. "After all this, there's no way I'm going to leave you again."
"Me neither," said Koren. "I always want to be with you, and only you. I love you, Cassie."
"I love you too, Koren," Cassie replied, smiling. "Man, I can't wait to introduce you to my family. They're going to be really surprised when they hear about this. You'll be my first husband."
"First?" repeated Koren, alarmed. "How many are there supposed to be?"
Cassie laughed. "Just one! I'm only kidding."
Koren looked offended for a moment, but then he saw the funny side of it and laughed, too. "Okay, I deserved that! But I promise you, Cassie, you're going to be my one and only, now and forever."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Cassie replied.
Surrounded by the vast infinity of space, gliding through the
stars in the tiny silver ship,
they were more isolated than they would ever be, and yet, they had
never been less alone. The
stars outside seemed to move a little closer to the window, peering in
with unblinking intensity
and seeming to hold their breath, watching as the happy pair leaned
forward for that first, perfect