The stars spot the thick, eternal blanket of the heavens in a sporadic, unformed pattern. It almost looks like a sheet of black construction paper, with little pinholes pressed randomly into the material, and then held up before a light bulb. Still, with all the apparent randomness of outer space, there's definitely order to it.
And now that evil has been vanquished... order will reign supreme.
I love relaxing in the lounge, on the upper deck of the Megaship. The entire ceiling is dome-shaped, and constructed of clear glass (or a glass derivative), allowing me to see the majesty of outer space. It reminds me of the clear nights back home, staring at the night sky in the summertime, lying on the cool grass and just thinking.
It's great to know that, in a couple of hours, I'll be back home. For good.
Sure, being an Astro Ranger has been a fabulous experience for me... one that I wouldn't trade for anything. It opened up the universe to me, displaying countless cultures, artifacts, and legends. Yet, despite all the different species I've encountered, there is something innately similar. Even the ones who don't look very human have the same quality.
Every sentient being seems to have heart. Whether it be loyalty, courage, faith, love, fear, hatred... or anything else, there was always heart. Sure, there was knowledge, but any computer had plenty of information stored on it. But heart was something only living beings could achieve. Well, Alpha is an exception, but any of the Edenoid androids are far more than mere machines.
Aliens and humans... humans and aliens. It doesn't really pay to make the distinction, because we're so much alike. Having worked with a few, I've come to feel comfortable with them. Zordon, a being I've come to respect, despite the fact I never knew him, was like a father to all those who had ever worn the Power Ranger armor. He was an alien, yet... a member of the family.
And then, there's Andros. As a Kerovan, he's genetically as human as any one of us, but when we first met, he had an air of difference. It set him apart from the rest of us. But that air didn't last too long. He became a member of our little family as well... like a brother. Yeah... with Ashley it's a bit different, but you see where I'm going.
Karone and Zhane are the same way. Yeah, Zhane was asleep for two years, and Karone was a power-mad villainess most of her life. Different former lives, but a unified destiny to preserve justice.
We're all united in that.
Yet, there's one being I've met that isn't quite friend or foe. Well, he certainly has won the right to be seen as a member of "the family," considering the many times he's saved all our butts. He distances himself from the team, but he was still there for us when we really needed him. Besides, he's even a Ranger.
But, the Phantom Ranger is much more than an ally. To me, he has a far different role.
Sometimes it's hard to make things clear
Or know when to face the truth
And I know that the moment is here
I'll open my heart and show you inside
My love has no pride
The Phantom Ranger seems to possess the one thing I've longed for earnestly, but couldn't seem to win. Cassie Chan's heart.
How did he do it? It was a question I've asked myself time and time again. The Phantom had just appeared one day, saved the Rangers' lives, and flashed out of existence. He kept this routine going for a while, and then left again, this time... apparently for good. He said that we no longer needed him. That's it. Just a few weeks contained the entire duration of his visit to Earth.
In those few weeks, he somehow managed to steal Cassie's heart.
I couldn't do it, even though I'd known her for months.
It's gotta be different... what the Phantom Ranger and I feel for Cassie. Yes, it's pretty clear that Phantom cares for Cassie. He was willing to surrender his life-sustaining ruby to save her life.
But... that just means Phantom cares for her. It doesn't mean he loves her. Maybe he respects her, or acknowledges the asset she is to the team as the Pink Ranger. Or, maybe Phantom is just... very selfless. He probably would have done the same if I were the one in danger.
It could mean a lot of things.
On the other hand, I'm certainly in love with Cassie. Unlike the Phantom, I know her. I know about her biggest dream, to be a singer. I know all her little idiosyncrasies that make her who she is; like her love for her dog, her love of writing and reflecting, her diary, her skill at song-writing, her strength of character, her love of children and nature, and her devotion to what she held dear.
I even know what stores she likes to shop at most!
I know her as a complete human being... and that's what I love about her.
My love developed over time. It took a lot to make it grow. It didn't just spring up over night. Yeah, there was an initial attraction, when I first met her on the bus to Angel Grove. But, it grew from that, becoming a lot more than a first-sight crush.
I love her as a complete person. Could the Phantom possibly love her like that?
I feel with you, I've got nothing to hide
So open your eyes and see who I am
And not who you want for me to be
I am only myself, myself
And what about Cassie's feelings toward him? I mean... she doesn't even know what he looks like! Yeah, yeah... I know physical attractiveness isn't what's key to a relationship. Cassie's a lot deeper than that. But still, she hasn't a clue what he looks like. He could be a lizard, for all we know!
She doesn't know him all that well in other respects, either. We don't know his species, which mean we don't know his culture. There are dozens... no... hundreds of obstacles holding them apart. He may have a life span of ten years, or ten-thousand years! Either one would sure put a damper on their relationship. Or, maybe Phantom can't even breathe in our atmosphere. I've never seen him without his helmet. Oxygen may be toxic!
But Cassie knows me as well as I know her. She knows what I look like, where I'm from, what values I treasure, and what I hope to do with my life. She knows about my baseball infatuation, my sense of humor, my love for pizza and video games, and my karioke hobby.
Maybe that's why she doesn't seem to notice me. Maybe I'm too much of a "guy next door" for her. Maybe she really longs for mystery.
Yeah, mystery's fun and all... but surely that's not what a sensible person would base a relationship on.
I don't wanna lose you now
We're gonna get through somehow
I don't wanna lose you now or ever
The truth is, I don't really know what she feels for me. I never got up the courage to ask her.
It's a scary thing... laying your heart on the line. What if she steps on it? Man, and considering that we live on the same ship, it'd be really tough if I don't feel comfortable around her. It could put the entire team in jeopardy.
But... the war's over. We're going back to Earth, to be normal teens again. No more galactic battles, or going to sleep each night knowing that the next day might be your last. No more lying to parents, or fighting for our survival. We'll have time to do normal things... like have relationships.
Now's my chance. The battle has been won. And even if she's not interested, there' still so much bonding us together that we can remain friends.
I'm sure of it.
Baby I've finally found
The Courage to stand my ground
But if you want me
I'll be around, forever
"Cassie?" I call, stepping onto the bridge. Oddly enough, everyone else is gone. More than likely, Ashley and Andros are together, and Karone and Zhane are too. Maybe the four of them are just talking. And Carlos isn't here either.
Wow... even Alpha's gone!
"What's up, Teej?" she asks, turning around.
She looks at me with those deep, dark, inquisitive eyes. It feels like she can see right through me. I can feel my resolve slipping away, like sand under your feet when a wave passes beneath them.
"Nothing," I answer passively, taking a seat beside her at the helm. I grin at her... my most artless, innocent grin. My mother always told me I could melt stone hearts with that grin. Maybe I can melt an indifferent one?
"You're not going to believe this one," she says quietly, leaning closer to me with a wide smile on her face. I lean closer as well, waiting for the news she was so eager to relate.
I blink in disbelief. Suddenly, it's very hard to swallow. "Who called?" I manage to say.
"The Phantom Ranger," she answers, biting her lower lip to contain her excitement, "He's on his way to rendezvous with us before we arrive on Earth. He wants to congratulate us on our victory against Astronema."
I smile, but anyone paying attention can see that the smile doesn't really reach my eyes. I put it on for her behalf. "That's nice of him," I comment, leaning back in my chair, "He probably wants to say good-bye to us, before he goes home."
Cassie's bright smile instantly converts to a thoughtful expression, and I immediately feel regret building for saying that. If she loves him, that's probably the last thing she wants to hear.
But, it's the most likely possibility. I mean, what are the chances that he'd stay on Earth, just to be with her.
I suddenly feel dizzy when a realization hits me... Andros was willing to do it for Ashley.
Maybe the Phantom is as well.
And if he does... I'll lose Cassie forever.
We all make mistakes,
We all lose our way
But we stood the test of time and I hope
That's the way it will stay
He's here. Just like he promised, he returned.
Cassie's with him in the lounge, at this very moment. And... I've never felt so nervous in my life.
It all depends on this moment. Just what is happening behind these locked doors?! I know I should respect their privacy... but I'd give my right arm to know what was being said.
After all... it matters to me as much as it does to them.
Still, I'm not going to invade their privacy. I respect her too much to stoop so low.
"Hey man," I hear a voice say, as a hand tightly clasps my shoulder, "You okay?"
A false grin returns to my face as I turn around, and lock eyes with my best friend. "Hey, Carlos."
Carlos looks at me for a moment, and then turns his gaze to the lounge door. "Are they still in there?" he asks me.
"It's been half an hour!" he utters, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Actually," I contradict, "it's been forty-seven minutes."
Carlos smirks at me, although I'm sure he doesn't mean to seem insensitive. "You're really hung up on her, aren't you?"
My silence is all the answer the former Black Ranger needs.
"You know, Teej, if we had never become Astro Rangers, all our romantic problems would be over," he said with a heavy voice, shoving his hands in his pockets.
Forgetting my own problems, I follow my best friend with my eyes. "You're not over Ashley yet," I say. It's not a question, but an observation.
"No," he answers, exchanging his usual, easy-going smile for a grimace, "I'm still working on that. Maybe, once we get home and put all this fighting behind us, I'll have more time to work out my feelings."
Carlos tilted his head, and locked eyes with me once again. "Look, T.J., I certainly don't want to dash all your hopes, but I'm going to take the voice of reason for once. I'm talking from experience. Don't... hang on her every word like this. You've got to take a step back, and prepare yourself. At least that way, rejection will be easier to accept, and if she does love you, then things worked out even better than you'd hoped for. The more you expect, the easier it is to be let down."
He means well, but it... just doesn't work for me. I can't do it. I can't take a step back, and be nonchalant. That'd just be trying to fool myself.
The truth is... Cassie's got my heart in her hand. There's nothing I can do but wait, and see if she accepts it.
It's all up to you, to tell me to go
'Cause it won't be me to walk away
When you're all that I know
And I know...
It's been over an hour now, and I've resorted to sitting in the hallway, leaning against the wall as I count the tiles along the floor.
Yeah, I know it's pathetic... but what else can I do?
Suddenly, I hear voices, and a door sweeping open beside me. I leap to my feet, and quickly straighten my flight jacket. I try to look as casual as possible, as my eyes drink in Cassie's appearance as she gracefully glides into the hallway. With a smooth motion, she turns her head back, a bright smile on her face and her hair floating on currents of air behind her. She reaches out her hand to someone who is still out of my field of vision.
I see a bare hand take it.
I swallow hard.
The man who steps out of the lounge is the kind of guy you'd love to hate. He has black hair, smooth and curly, hanging about his ears carelessly. Piercing green eyes, unnaturally green by human standards, rest their gaze on Cassie warmly. He's got a noble chin, distinctive nose, broad shoulders, and muscular form, that is very much displayed by the black spandex uniform he wore.
He looks like he just stepped out of one of those cheesy romance novels or something.
I don't wanna lose you now
We're gonna get through somehow
I don't wanna lose you now or ever and ever
Baby I've finally found
The courage to stand my ground
"Teej!" Cassie calls, when her almond eyes finally sweep in my direction. I'm stunned, as if finally realizing that this was really happening.
Oh boy... how can I face her now?
"Hey, Cass," I say weakly, watching as the pair approaches me. Despite myself, I can't seem to pull my eyes from the tall man standing behind Cassie.
"Hello, T.J.," he said, extending his hand, "I am pleased to finally meet you... out of uniform. I am Zebulon-Astrid of Eltar, granted honor as the chosen Phantom Ranger."
I look into his eyes for a moment longer. Typically, that shade of green would look creepy and cold to me. Yet, for some reason, they glow with warmth.
I can guess why.
I enclose his offered hand in mine, and shake it briskly. "A pleasure to meet you, Zebulon."
He smiles at me. "Zebulon is my family name. Astrid is my given name."
"It means Divine Strength," Cassie comments, "Isn't that cool?"
Astrid shrugs slightly. "It is only an approximate translation of the Eltarian, Cassie."
My smile is still plastered on my face, and I observe the warm expressions passing between the two of them.
My heart continues pounding on my chest, like it's begging to escape. I don't know how much more of this I can take.
Man... it hurts. It hurts more than I was expecting it to.
For the briefest of moments, I'm angry at Cassie. I'm angry that she doesn't see what she's doing to me. Can't she tell that this is slow torture?
No, she can't see it. All she sees is the Phantom Ranger, now unmasked before her.
But the anger doesn't last long. It fades as quickly as it erupted.
I could never be mad at Cassie for long.
But if you want me
I'll be around, forever...
Forever, yeah , yeah
"Well," said the Phantom Ra... uh, I mean Astrid, Mr. Divine Strength, as he pulled his hand from my firm grasp, "I must make my introductions to the other Astro Rangers now. I don't mean to hurry, but..."
"It's okay," I say, my plastic smile remaining a mask of my churning feelings, "I understand."
I feel Cassie's eyes on me, and I turn my gaze to meet hers. She looks at me with such confusion! I wish I could just blurt out all that I'm feeling!
"Uh," she says, pulling her eyes from me to turn to Astrid, "why don't you go ahead to the bridge. I'll be right behind you."
Astrid smiles, and salutes us as he went on his way. Cassie then turns back to me, shaking her head slightly.
"You're awfully cold today," she comments.
My eyes went wide. What does she want from me?! "What makes you say that?"
Her eyebrow arches. "Oh, c'mon, Teej... you're not fooling anyone! That smile's as fake as Mr. Caplan's toupee!"
My lips purse, as my eyes scan the room, looking everywhere except at Cassie. How am I supposed to respond to her?
Should I tell her the truth? Could I?
Well, it's either now, or never. I chose the former.
"I... can't say I'm... happy Phantom came back," I whisper. I suddenly feel the shame of bearing so much bitterness toward the Phantom Ranger. After all he's done for the team, all I can feel toward him is... jealousy.
I thought I was more mature than that.
"Why?" she asks, completely innocent of the mental torture I'm enduring.
"Because..." I croak, closing my eyes and bracing myself, "Idon'twannaloseyounow!"
Cassie frowns at the Word Soup I spewed at her. "Uh... a little slower this time?"
I swallow hard, and force my eyes open to look directly into hers. "I don't wanna lose you now," I repeat, in clear English this time, "Especially not to some Space-Cowboy Casanova from Eltar."
Don't wanna lose you, lose you now
We're gonna get through somehow
Don't wanna lose you now
Don't wanna lose you
Don't wanna lose you
I was expecting her to be completely shocked by what I had said. I was expecting her to be tongue-tied, and maybe even to apologize for not noticing my feelings earlier, or just out of pity for my broken heart.
I wasn't expecting her to laugh.
But that's what I get.
"Teej," she says gently, grabbing my upper arm as she fights off laughter, "don't worry. I'm not going anywhere with that... Space-Cowboy, as you put it."
I blink in confusion. She sees my distress, and smiles warmly at me.
For the first time ever, I think I see something a bit more than friendship in her smile... in those eyes.
Just a little bit more than friendship...
"Astrid is going back to Eltar," she explains, pulling me toward the lift so we can join the other Rangers on the bridge, "He just wanted to say good-bye to us all. Remember, Eltar is millions of light-years from here. He needs to catch that wormhole before it closes."
"So, he's not staying with... us?" I whisper, incredulously.
"You mean with me," she observes. A guilty grin tugs at my dry lips. "No, he's not staying. He's got lots of responsibilities at home... including a betrothed."
If a truck had suddenly materialized in the hall, and had run me over, I wouldn't have been so shocked. "Betrothed?" I breathe, "As in... a fiance?"
Cassie nods. "You got it. He's going home to his loved ones, and I'm going home to mine. It's better this way."
I may be dumfounded, but I still can detect the sense of loss in her silver-bell voice. "I... I'm sorry it didn't work out."
Okay... I'm lying to her. Sue me.
Cassie shrugs. "Don't be. Actually, I wasn't as upset about it as I thought I'd be. I guess I wasn't really as interested in him as I thought. I was... curious. I wanted so much to know more about him... what he was like, where he was from, and what he was fighting for. Once I found out all that I wanted to know... the attraction just died."
She's leaning against my body, so closely that I'm sure she felt the sigh of relief that escaped my lungs. She giggles slightly, snuggling closer into my arm.
"Don't worry, Teej," she whispers to me, "You're not losing me anytime soon. And I'm not going to lose you, either."
I wanted to ask her exactly what she meant by that... but I realized that I didn't need to.
She told me all I really needed to know.
Don't wanna lose you
Don't wanna lose you now...