"So, when are you going to ask Aisha to the dance?" the quiet, water-touched voice of Kim Hart asked. Zack blushed as close to fiery red as he could manage with his dark skin. It was the next best thing to impossible to keep a secret not just from the people who knew him from the time he was in diapers, but from being linked to him as he was to them through the Avatar bond.
"I don't know," he admitted. "I've been thinking about it almost since she got here, and I don't know what to do."
Kim smiled. "Try opening your mouth and asking. And you'd better hurry, the dance is tonight, remember?"
"You're going with Tommy, right?" he asked, and she nodded. Billy and Trini would be going together, having returned just the day before from establishing their existence as a couple, and Adam and Tanya would be going as well. Jason, Kat, Rocky, and Kyle were the only four among Avatars and Rangers who didn't have dates, and Zack had been seeing a particular gleam in Kat and Jason's eyes as they looked at each other, a gleam that neither was aware of just yet. It was the same way he had once looked at Angela, the same way he now looked at Aisha.
He spared a thought for the girl he'd once chased so valiantly, Angela Clearfield, when he was a Ranger. They had wound up dating infrequently, with most of the dates being interrupted by his Ranger duties, and finally broken off entirely when he went to Switzerland. They had exchanged letters for a few months once he first arrived at the Peace Conference, but they had tapered off after a while, and the last he had heard, she was dating his cousin Curtis, and the two of them were having a great time together. He wished them both well.
"Zack?" he almost jumped out of his skin when he heard his name being spoken by Aisha's familiar voice. Kim grinned for a moment, then wandered away with a wave to sit at the neighboring table with Tommy. It was plain that everyone was going to leave the two of them to talk together.
"Yeah?" he swallowed hard, trying to maintain the famous calm he'd always possessed. Nothing had ever ruffled him, even in the darkest hours that the Rangers had ever seen during his tenure he had maintained a sense of humor. The only thing that came close were snakes and bugs, and he had been working hard to eliminate that as well.
"Can I sit down?" asked Aisha, obviously as nervous as he was for some reason. He nodded, feeling as if his entire body were set afire as she sat next to him. "You've seen the posters for the dance tonight here, haven't you?" she figured it was as good a place as any to start.
Zack nodded; she'd been the one who had drawn everyone's attention to it the previous day. He'd wondered if she had someone in mind, and maybe that was why she hadn't said anything to him. . .how could someone as beautiful as she was not have a date by now, anyway? Then again, she had only been back in Angel Grove for a few days. Maybe the guys just hadn't recognized the fact that a goddess walked among them yet. "Everyone else is really looking forward to it," he said quietly.
"Yeah," he nodded. "I don't have a date yet, though. Do you?" never before had he felt so tongue-tied! When he'd been dating Angela, the words had just slid off his tongue smoothly. Maybe this nervousness meant that this relationship was going to work out better? He hoped!
Aisha raised one eyebrow quietly. "No, I don't," she said. "In fact, I was sort of hoping you didn't have one."
"Yeah," she nodded, looking directly into his eyes with her own warm brown ones. "Because I was wondering if you'd want to go with me."
Zack stared at her, not daring to believe his ears. "You're asking me?" he breathed the words out. Maybe he'd fallen asleep somehow, and was dreaming? That would explain it. . .
"Yes," she looked away, trying not to let the fear and the nervousness in her eyes show. Her heart almost stopped when she felt a warm hand wrapping around her own, and heard Zack's voice.
"I'd love to," he said, the old confidence and joy back in his voice. "I'd absolutely love to."
She smiled. "Want to go for a walk first? To. . .get to know each other better?"
He was on his feet a moment later. "Sounds like a great idea to me!" a grin split his face practically in half, and the others gathered at the other table could just barely stop themselves from laughing. It was the first time Zack had really sounded like his old self since the moment they had defeated the Dark Avatar.
The two Avatars walked silently through the park, trying to find things to say to each other. Neither was by nature very quiet, but the sheer amounts of nervousness coursing through them stilled their tongues more than usual.
"Angel Grove's a nice place, isn't it?" Zack finally said. He'd felt like he'd been walking on pins and needles for the last five minutes, and finally forced the words out of his mouth. Maybe if they at least started talking, things would flow better.
"It is," Aisha nodded. "Africa was all right, but I like it better here. I'm glad the animals are all cured so I could come home."
Zack nodded. "I'd heard about that. I guess being an Avatar just made it more. ..possible?"
"You could say that," Aisha smiled a little. "I think I would've come back anyway, though. I wasn't needed there anymore, and I missed everyone here so much."
"I know how that feels," Zack agreed. "That's how I felt in Switzerland. The Peace Conference wasn't really going anywhere anymore, and Trini, Jason, and I had done quite a lot of work already there, but we were needed here more. Besides, there's really no place like home."
Aisha nodded. "I missed Angel Grove a lot while I was there. I was kept busy a lot of the time, but I still had time to think about everything that I'd been through here, and I never forgot all of my friends."
"Fighting for your lives together tends to make some very strong friendships," he said almost blandly. "And romances in some cases."
The Avatar of Magic nodded. "I guess if you trust someone with your life. . .you also feel you can trust them with your heart."
Zack smiled faintly, reaching down to take her hand again. She didn't move away, as he'd almost been afraid she would. "I can trust you," he whispered. He'd only known her a short time, but something more powerful than even their Avatar powers was whispering in his heart that he and she were going to be meaning a lot more to each other in the future.
"And I can trust you," she whispered back, squeezing his hand. The two of them paused for a moment, gazing at each other, wondering why they never said or did anything to get to know each other better before he had left for Switzerland. Slowly, they drew closer together, little thrills of electricity and excitement running all through them. Zack bent his head a little, and Aisha tilted hers up, both anticipating the kiss they knew was only seconds away. ..
Then both of them were gone from the park, surrounded instead by a sparkling field of stars. Both of them looked around in surprise, not quite certain what had happened. Then, they could see something moving against the stars. Zack opened his mouth, trying to talk, but nothing came out. Aisha gripped his hands a little tighter, her eyes pegged on the thing that was moving, and Zack turned to look at it.
It wasn't darkness. It wasn't shadow. This was something darker than both. It was unlight, the denial of all that was in existence. It had no shape, yet was all shapes in one. In it they could see the forms of all that they had ever feared, and all that they had ever thought was even the slightest bit frightening. It was more than fear, though, in it was also pain, anger, hate, denial, rage, and more dark emotions than either of them had ever thought possible.
And it turned to look at them.
I am coming, Avatars. I am coming to devour and destroy, and there is nothing that you can do to stop me. Enjoy your small pleasures while you can. For they will be your last.
Zack shrugged. "I don't know," he gulped a little, trying to refocus and concentrate. "I think it's what we have to face next, though. And it makes everything we've gone through look like nothing."
Aisha bit her lip. "We have to tell the others about this," she said quietly. "They have to know."
"Yeah," Zack closed his eyes for a moment, trying to shake off the feelings of darkness and fear that had enveloped him at the sound of that creature's voice in his mind. It had felt so slimy crawling around in his thoughts; he was almost nauseated by the very concept of it. "This won't be an easy fight, you know."
The Avatar of Magic gazed suddenly and sweetly at the Avatar of Earth. "No fight we've ever been through has ever been easy, Zack. But that's what makes the victory all the sweeter. We risk death and more for the safety of this world, and we'd do it no matter what. It's what we do. What we are."
"That we do," he smiled at her, letting the purer emotions of friendship and love overwhelm the shadows that threatened his heart. "That we do."
Slowly, they bent towards each other again, and this time, nothing interfered with the kiss that they both felt as if they had waited forever for. When they finally moved apart, it was only to the length of their joined hands. Quietly, they headed back to the Youth Center, to tell the others what they had seen.
Not far from where the two of them had stood, a shadow was watching them. It was a literal shadow, cast by nothing, existing only as a negative place in space. A quiet, soft, spectral laugh sounded. "Enjoy yourselves, Avatars. My time is coming soon."
And then it was gone.