Having said that, DON'T PANIC! This is not your standard songfic. I got the idea after watching "Countdown to Destruction" and listening to the song one too many times. It originated as a TJ/Cassie fic, but I got so many good ideas that it expanded WAY beyond the song lyrics. Translation: There's a plot! I swear!
I say this in every disclaimer I write, but this time I really, really mean it. I WANT FEEDBACK!! I'm under the impression that not a lot of people read my fanfics in any fandom, and I don't have a psychic connection to tell me if people read my stuff or not. You don't have to say why you did or didn't like it, just tell me you read it. Oh, well, I had to try. Thanks for a great year, PRiS!
Carlos couldn't resist a smirk at DECA's intonation. "...at the tone of the beep, the time will be 2:15 P.M. Beep!"
The other Rangers, except for Zhane and Karone, started laughing. Andros had made enough trips to Earth to get that joke by now, and was chuckling at the comment. Ashley glanced over at him, then over at Zhane, who grinned at her amazement. It was hard to believe that this Andros and the sullen Red Ranger they'd first encountered were the same person. It hadn't even been a year since then, and yet it seemed like eons ago. So much had changed in eight months, and that was just the team.
"Please refrain from comparing me to an Earth telephone recording," DECA said acidly. "Unlike a simple chronometer, I am highly intelligent and self-aware." This only set off another volley of laughter, and Zhane could almost hear DECA sigh.
"All right already," TJ said after the laughter had finally subsided. "Since everybody's agreed on getting back to Earth, we're going to have to figure out what we're going to do when we get there."
The others exchanged glances. He didn't have to explain what he meant. Now that half of Angel Grove knew who they were, things were going to be just a bit different. "Yeah," Carlos sighed. "I can just hear Dad now. He's going to kill me."
The other three Terrans murmured their assent, the mood turning solemn. Although Andros and Zhane didn't have to worry about their parents, now the secret was out in Angel Grove, and it would eventually leak to the parents of the other four.
If they didn't know already.
"Mom and Dad aren't going to be thrilled with me either." Ashley sank into a nearby bridge chair. "You know, I'd rather face Divatox again than have to explain this to them."
TJ gazed at the console thoughtfully before speaking. "There weren't any news crews around there, were there?"
"I don't think so," Carlos said. "I didn't see any. Why?"
"If there were, then there's a good chance that more people know about us than just Angel Grove," TJ answered. "And I know Uncle Jake's going to make sure Mom and Dad find out. I think it'd be easier if they found out from me first instead of seeing it on the news."
Andros was whispering something to Karone, whose eyes lit up. "I don't think so," she added, surprising everyone assembled. "The Dark Fortress had equipment for blocking transmissions." She paused. "That--that thing in my head probably blocked all transmissions off from Angel Grove."
DECA chose that moment to butt into the conversation. "Sensor readings indicate that the Dark Fortress was indeed blocking off all transmission from the town."
"So even if some news crews did manage to film through the rubble," Ashley concluded, "it wouldn't have been broadcasted. Yet."
"We should probably stop at the Angel Grove news studio and make sure it isn't," Zhane suggested. "I mean, even on KO-35 only a handful of people knew who the Rangers really were. Having the entire planet know would make life difficult for everyone."
Cassie suppressed a smile. "That's for sure. I know I don't want to have the Smoking Man come after me."
"Shut up," Ashley teased, elbowing her friend. "And I thought TJ watched the X-Files too much."
A small smile quirked at the corner of TJ's mouth. "Since I'm in a good mood, I didn't hear that."
Cassie pointed an accusing finger at T.J. "Well, it's your fault! You're the one who conned me into watching it in the first place!"
Andros shook his head with a sigh. "DECA, at hyperrush, how long until we reach Earth?"
"At hyperrush speed, approximately one hour and nineteen minutes," DECA answered. "But at sublight speed, which is currently the most prudent speed to initiate, two hours and forty-five minutes."
Carlos frowned at the computer's electronic eye. "Prudent speed?"
DECA actually sounded smug. "Since there are no Quadrafighters or any evil forces standing in our way, there is no need to tax the Megaship's power cells."
Andros opened his mouth to say something, then shook his head. "Forget it. I should know better than to argue with you by now, DECA." More laughter rippled through the room, although this time DECA did not take offense. "Set a course for Earth...sublight speed. Auto navigation."
"Well, that's it," Carlos said, almost running for the exit. "I'm going to go get a snack from the Synthetron. Coming, Teej?"
TJ shook his head vehemently. "No thanks. I've had more than my share of its bacon and eggs."
"It finally got to you, huh?" Ashley asked as Carlos jogged down the corridor. At TJ's nod, she giggled. "Even the Bottomless Pit himself has succumbed!"
"Get outta here," TJ drawled, rolling his eyes. "I'm in a good mood, not a great mood." She shrugged and walked the way Carlos had gone, but not before giving Andros' hand a quick squeeze.
Cassie got to her feet. "I'm going to find something to do with my time." She entered the lift, the doors closing behind her before Andros could suggest an activity.
Karone leaned her head against her brother's shoulder, her fatigue apparent. "Come on," Zhane said, slipping her free arm over his shoulders. "I think you need some rest."
She smiled at him wearily. "I'd have to agree."
"Not without me," Andros added, supporting Karone on the other side as the three turned towards the lift. "I don't trust you around my sister for a moment."
Karone snorted as the lift doors closed. "Boys!"
TJ abruptly found himself standing alone on the bridge. For a moment, he watched the lights flickering across the consoles and listened to the faint hum of processors and circuits. "Well, at least we've got some time to think," he remarked to the empty air.
There was no answer. DECA wisely remained silent, knowing that a response was not required. After a few more moments of silence, TJ turned and left the bridge.
As the warm greens of the woods solidified in the Simudeck, Cassie smiled with satisfaction. "Perfect. Activate program Chan-925."
Abruptly, the scene came to life with a light breeze, warm sun, and the occasional bird call. Cassie stepped into the Simudeck, kneeling to retie her sneakers. She had changed from her uniform into Nikes, black bike shorts, and a pink tank-top, tying her long black hair into a ponytail.
Whenever she was stressed or tired or anxious, the best solution was usually exercise. Since karate reminded her too much of Rangering, Cassie had taken up jogging instead. One of the first successful programs she'd created for the Simudeck was a running track. Andros had explained it to her, and after a few tries she'd cornered TJ to help her figure it out. Now, she'd moved on to more complex landscapes, with scenery that changed to give the impression of greater space.
Right now, the woods outside Angel Grove was just the setting to fit her mood. Despite the cheerfulness on the bridge, something was nagging at her, something that required a good, hard run. But there was one thing missing. "Computer," she commanded. "Dub in random musical selection, file Cassie-26."
A moment later, music filled the Simudeck. "Perfect," Cassie repeated, breaking into a jog.
Karone opened her eyes.
She'd grown familiar with the Dark Fortress over the years, and could immediately identify any room or corridor with only a glance. But as she looked around, the hallway she stood in was completely unrecognizable; the walls were scarred and pitted, any recognizable markings stripped away. Debris littered the floor, and nothing moved beneath the dim green glow of the emergency lighting system. Even the air, which was regularly circulated by the ventilation system, was still.
Inhaling, she choked on the stale, smoke-filled oxygen, coughing uncontrollably for a few seconds before recovering. Confused, she began to pick her way through the debris, trying to find a spot of cleaner air. She turned right down a corridor, then left, then right, then right again. Nothing looked vaguely familiar. Then she rounded a curve, and suddenly found herself standing in what had been the main control room. Now the power was out, the walls pockmarked with smoking holes, the consoles were burnt beyond recognition.
How did I get here? she wondered, The last thing I remember is going to sleep on the Megaship...
A chilling thought struck her, and she looked down at herself, a hand automatically going to her head. Relief filled her as she found that she was still wearing her normal Kerovan clothing. Her fingers, instead of falling on cold metal circuitry, found only the smoothness of skin. She was still herself. It had really happened. She was free. But then what was she doing here? And why was everything so badly wrecked?
"Because you destroyed it."
Karone whirled, adopting a defensive stance, but couldn't stifle the gasp of fear when she saw who was standing there.
The Princess of Evil stepped from the shadows, violet wig cascading over her shoulders, back in armor, the circuitry on her forehead glinting in the dim light. At the sight of her warped twin, advancing on her with venom in her eyes, Karone took a step back. The other's face was a mirror image of her own, twisted with maddened rage. What caught Karone's immediate attention was the Wrath Staff pointed at her. "Who--"
"Who do you think?" Astronema hissed. "I'm you. That is, I should have been you. There was so much potential, so much power. I could have held it in my hand, crushed the universe, and you had to fight me!"
Karone took a step back. The other's voice was cold, sharp, and evil, more devoid of compassion than hers had ever been. Except when you were under that mind control, an inner voice reminded her. Anger flared at the memory, and she clenched her fists, readying her stance.
"If not for you, I would have killed that brat Red Ranger on the spot," Astronema continued. "But no, no, you had to start carrying on and screaming, trying to get control, making me HESITATE!" Her eyes flared red. "You actually think you're safe now? Didn't you see the looks the KO-35 rebels gave you? You've been evil for so long it's too late to try to make nice."
Karone glanced around quickly, trying to find a weapon, trying to stall for time. "You're lying. You don't know my brother. You don't know my friends. They know the meaning of a second chance!"
"Second chance? Don't make me laugh. You can't go back. Almost all your life you've been evil. It may not be what you were born to be, but it's all you've succeeded at. It's all you know." A predatory grin crossed Astronema's face. "Give it up. Give in to me."
Sneering, Karone glared at her. "Give in to what? You're not real! This is just a nightmare! You've already lost!"
A spark of violet light jumped from the tip of the Staff. "You don't even believe a word of what you're saying," Astronema chuckled. "Pathetic, really."
With that, she fired a blast from the Staff. Karone dived out of the way, rolling and jumping to her feet, snatching up a fallen beam as Astronema attacked again. She dodged and leapt at her opponent, trying to knock the Wrath Staff out of her hands. Staff and beam collided with a clang, and both opponents kept their grip until Astronema pushed Karone away. Karone dropped and swung at Astronema's legs, knocking her to the ground. But Astronema did a flip, landing back on her feet as Karone scrambled up. Before Karone could regain her balance, Astronema knocked the beam from her hands and delivered a kick to the other girl's stomach, sending her crashing to the floor.
The next thing she knew, the point of the Wrath Staff was resting at her throat. "You're such a weakling. If not for me, you'd be nothing," Astronema snarled. "Would Zhane ever have paid attention to a timid little whiner like you? You'd probably have been killed in Dark Specter's attack. You owe me everything. If you'd just let me have my way, it wouldn't have to be like this."
As she glared defiantly down the length of the Wrath Staff, Karone spoke the first words that came into her head. "Go jump out the airlock."
Astronema smiled and lifted the Staff a few inches, preparing for the final blow. Unflinching, Karone couldn't help biting her lip. This must be a dream. It has to be. Please let it be a dream.
"Andros," Ashley mutttered under her breath, "where are you?"
Naturally, there was no response save for a muffled pounding and cursing down the hall. She threw up her hands in exasperation, turning and stalking off in the direction of the sound, her frustration put on hold as curiosity overtook her.
As she entered the Megaship's small dining room, she had to clap both hands over her mouth to keep from giggling at the sight that greeted her. Carlos was not having much luck with the Synthetron. An assortment of unrecognizable dishes and items were lying on the table behind him as he pounded and cursed at the machine. "I said a Snickers candy bar! I know it's programmed in here, dammit! Teej and Andros spent two hours adding new stuff a month ago!"
"'Snickers candy bar' is not on file. Searching for match in databanks," a toneless voice droned from the machine. Unlike DECA, the separate CPU of the Synthetron had no capacity for reasoning or emotion. Although DECA had insisted that emotions were not programmed, Ashley was positive that the AI unit had picked up some along the way, especially after dealing with Andros for two years.
It must have picked up a warped sense of humor. The assortment piled on the table had to be seen to be believed. There were bars of soap, a crowbar, a few pieces of bark, a few hand weights, a bouquet of flowers, packets of paper--everything except the one thing Carlos wanted.
A shape appeared in the slot, and Carlos snatched it up--only to find that the bar under the wrapper was a slab of hard candy. "Geez, what do you want me to do, recite all the ingredients?" he snapped, kicking at the paneling.
This time Ashley did laugh heartily. "That's the same fixing method you used in auto shop!"
Carlos whirled in surprise, turning bright red in embarrassment. "Uh, hi, Ash," he said, rubbing the back of his neck and looking at his sneakers. Glancing up, he returned her wide smile with a sheepish grin. "You try getting what you want out of this thing and see how well you do. At least I got candy." He licked the bar experimentally and made a face. "Yech. Guess not."
"It's not your fault. Zhane went and updated the files last time he was here." She reached into a pocket of her uniform and retrieved a small disc. "He sort of forgot to upload them back into the main memory." She slipped the disc into a slot. "DECA, please update Synthetron databanks."
"Working." After a moment, the disc popped out again, and Carlos took it, peering at it suspiciously.
Ashley pressed a few buttons on the Synthetron's console. "Two Earth candy bars, brand Snickers." Two wrapped bars appeared in the slot and she pulled them out triumphantly. "See?"
"Sure, Ash. How do you know the real thing's in there?"
She unwrapped one of the bars enough for him to see the candy bar inside, taking a bite. "Tastes right to me."
Carlos pounded his head against the wall. "I can't win."
"Shut up and eat your candy." She handed him the other one. Sitting down at the table, she cleared a space at one end, brushing the pile to one side. Idly, she noticed that there was now a miniature bar stool in the corner.
He didn't unwrap the bar, but sat down across from her, curious. "Hey, what are you doing here? Where's your significant other?"
"Who knows?" She sighed. "It shouldn't take half an hour to escort Karone to a room, but I guess for him it does."
Carlos raised an eyebrow. "He did just get his sister back. Again. Can't be easy to deal with."
"It's not Andros I'm worried about."
"What?" He clutched his chest in mock horror. "Ashley's crabby, and it's not about Andros! We're in the Twilight Zone!"
She took the unwrapped bar from him and smacked him on the head with it. "Will you shut up?" He snatched it back, sticking his tongue out at her, and she sighed. "It's just--it's just that I can't believe it's all over. I know it's been over a year since we became Rangers, but it's gone by so fast, and now it's all over."
"I know what you mean," Carlos sighed. Ashley suddenly realized that he wasn't wearing his uniform, but jeans and a flannel shirt. The odd thing was that the shirt wasn't his usual black, but green. He glanced down at his clothes and grinned. "Oh, yeah. I'm living in the past."
"What do you mean?"
"I've been thinking about this for a while, and sometimes it feels like I just found out that Adam was a Ranger yesterday. Any minute now I'm going to wake up and the bad guys will still be there." He shrugged. "Not that that would be a bad thing."
Ashley swallowed a bite, nearly choking. "You've got to be kidding! You want the bad guys to come back??"
Carlos was unwrapping the Snickers as she spoke, and took a thoughtful bite. "Not really," he said through a mouthful of chocolate and peanuts. "But with the bad guys gone, what're we gonna do?" He frowned. "You know, being picked to be a Ranger, fighting Divatox--it was the first time I've ever felt like there was a reason for me to be around."
Ashley opened her mouth to contradict him, but he continued, taking another bite. "Ash, you know what I mean, we've known each other since the fourth grade. You know Mom and Dad, they think I'm the family loser. When Adam picked me--me, of all people, to be a Power Ranger--it was only the second time in my life I felt like someone finally believed in me, believed I could do something that really mattered. And now that it's over, I keep wondering: Now what?"
"You know, that would've been more profound if you hadn't had your mouth full," a voice said from the doorway. Both teens turned to see Andros standing there.
Carlos was about to defend himself, but Ashley got in first. "And just where were you?" she inquired, narrowing her eyes.
There wasn't any anger in her tone, but Andros' smile faded as he turned crimson, somewhat embarrassed. "Sorry. Karone--Karone's not doing so well. I needed to think." He noticed the candy bars. "What are you eating?"
"Snickers," Ashley answered. "I got the Synthetron files updated."
"Thank goodness." Andros turned to the machine. "Chocolate milkshake." The milkshake materialized, and he took a tentative sip. "Good, it's finally working. Thanks, Ashley."
Ashley beamed with pride, and Carlos sighed, resigning himself to his fate. At least he'd had some private time with his best friend. "Need to talk?" Andros stared at him, startled. "No, really, pull up a chair. We've got nothing better to do."
Cassie crested a rise, starting to speed up and really put on the pressure. Her thoughts were matching the tempo of her feet, and the faster she ran the more random they seemed. Mostly, she couldn't get TJ out of her head, probably because of the incident with Erutan. Every time she passed through this part of the woods, or someplace that reminded her of it, she always thought of that, for some reason.
...and here you are, fawning over a phantom who won't tell you his name...
It killed the tempo. Abruptly, she slowed to a walk, trying to make sense of the thought. "Where did that come from?" she gasped to no one in particular, quickening her pace so her heart rate wouldn't drop too low. Why would she be worrying about that?
Well, for one thing, because the fight was over and she still didn't know who the Phantom Ranger was. Cassie sped back up to a jog. He hadn't contacted them on KO-35, not even to let them know if he was all right. She'd simply assumed he was. And it wasn't as if he didn't know; they'd contacted the Gold Ranger to see what had happened to Rita and Zedd, and Phantom had been with Trey. He hadn't said a word.
She broke into a full run. I am not going to do this to myself! Why was she angry at Phantom? She had no right to be. He had a reason for keeping his identity secret, that was for sure. Maybe he had to keep the suit on to stay alive. But then how am I ever going to know what's under there?
Cassie focused on her feet, trying not to think about this. It was ludicrous! Why would she be angry at him?
You're angry at yourself for getting involved with him and overlooking the obvious.
"What obvious?" she gasped, turning her thoughts entirely to the pounding of her feet. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four...
But she couldn't shake the anger.
Zhane leaned against the window with his eyes closed, pressing his forehead against the cool surface. He wasn't worried about falling; even morphed, if he bodily threw himself at one of the windows on the Megaship, he probably couldn't break through. But it felt good to press his forehead against the unbreakable glass.
He opened his eyes and was literally staring into space. The stars and planets consumed his field of vision, and he watched them pass by. At only sublight speed, they merely glided past instead of whizzing by in blurry streaks of light.
How many planets had he visited? A while ago, he would have said plenty. But as he watched each bright orb and speck cross his field of vision, he felt more and more as though he were staring at an unfamiliar universe, alone in a strange galaxy. Of the multitudes of worlds that were out there, he only knew a handful. And now his travel brochure was two years out of date.
Not that it hadn't bothered him before. But there was always something else to distract him--Ashley, then trying to restore his powers, then Astronema--who had turned out to be Karone after all, he thought with a smile. She'd seemed vaguely familiar to him when they'd first met, which was part of the reason he'd tried to make nice. Aside from the fact that she was beautiful.
He was right about her being familiar. He and Andros had been friends for as long as either could remember. Zhane could clearly remember a third person in the group, a little girl in yellow who continually demanded to be involved in their games. She usually ended up being included, because when they ignored her, Karone had almost always devised a way to make them regret it. One of the most vivid endeavors had involved rope, Andros' telekinesis ball, and a can of glue. As angry as they had been after the fact, Zhane and Andros had been impressed enough to let Karone tag along on their adventures. She usually figured out how to get her way, no matter how overprotective Andros was.
Some things just didn't change. If Andros had his way, Karone would still be on KO-35. His sister, however, still stubbornly refused to be excluded. That stubbornness and Zhane's whispered reminder of "Remember the glue ball trick?" were the main reasons she'd been allowed to return with them. Then again, even if Andros had put his foot down, she would have stowed away.
That stubbornness was what also had caused her to sneak aboard the Dark Fortress in the first place. Zhane clenched his jaw at that thought. Don't think about that, he scolded himself. Let her deal with it first.
His attention shifted back to the cosmos. None of the planets looked vaguely familiar. Two years wasn't a lot in the whole scheme of things, but for Zhane it was an eternity. The team as he had remembered it before his cryogenic sleep consisted of himself and Andros. It hadn't been a full team then; the Council hadn't had time to select four others who had the required training before the United Alliance of Evil started attacking.
He'd been wounded in a full-scale attack, and as the world went black he'd expected to meet his death. Instead, he'd woken up to a completely different world. KO-35 had been evacuated. The Megaship was well past the test phase. Zordon of Eltar had been captured. Andros had his own team finally. It wasn't just Zhane and Andros anymore. Somehow, while he'd been asleep, they'd grown apart.
The Andros he remembered probably wouldn't have flipped him on his back for the joke he'd played when the Psycho Rangers were defeated. The Andros he remembered knew how to take a joke. The Andros he remembered didn't have a girl like Ashley. Zhane sighed. No, they hadn't grown apart; Andros had grown up, leaving his friend behind.
Maybe he hadn't. He was starting to regret trying to charm Ashley, joking around when things were serious...well, it was that or moping about being an outsider all of a sudden. Goofing off helped him forget about that. But the feeling of being alone had prevailed, and he had to go join the rebels, feel as though he belonged.
An outsider. He repeated the words in his mind like a litany, shutting his eyes again to block out the starscape. That was the other thing that had attracted him to the girl beneath the armor and the wigs. Astronema had been an outsider too, even to the evil she served. She wasn't a part of it, not really. If she had been truly evil, she wouldn't have been charmed by toasted marshmallows. But with them, Karone was back where she belonged.
An image flickered behind his closed eyelids, of her pale face. Karone hadn't been looking well on KO-35; too pale, too tired, too distracted. A nagging whisper inside him was telling him that maybe it wasn't just rest that she needed.
Zhane opened his eyes and stood up. He spared one last glance at the stars before turning and walking away.
"Wait a minute," Ashley said. "You think she remembers what happened?"
Andros stared into his drink. "She says she doesn't. But that look in her eye--I don't know. I think she just doesn't want me to worry."
"She's not gonna be able to just deal on her own," Carlos pointed out. "It's got to be traumatic for her." They just stared at him. "No, really! She had to watch herself do all these things and be unable to stop it. It's like she was Borg-wired like Captain Picard and now she's got to deal with it. It freaked out the captain of the Enterprise, it's got to freak her out too."
There was silence for a few moments. "Carlos," Ashley said, "that does it. You have got to lay off the sugar." She turned back to Andros. "Let's just give her a little time, and if she doesn't talk about it, we'll have to confront her. But you can't just hover over her, Andros. She might need a while before she can talk about it to someone."
Andros suddenly grinned. "Thank you, Dr. Ruth."
"I don't believe this!" Carlos exclaimed. "Andros made a joke!" He clapped a hand to his head. "Man, this is too weird!"
Ashley laughed and nudged Andros. "Hey, he's learning from the best."
The Red Ranger smiled and shook his head. "I guess you're right," he admitted after a moment. "But I can't help but worry."
"You're not the only one," Carlos said. "Wait until I have to deal with my folks." He sighed. "It's going to be so weird when we get back to Earth."
"Zhane and I can head off the TV stations," Andros assured him.
"So? People in Angel Grove'll never look at us the same way." Having finished off the Snickers, Carlos stood up. "What do you think's going to happen when we try to go back to living normal lives? Every time I walk out the door now, Ma's going to have to know where I'm going, how long I'll be, and if it's Ranger business, can they hold on without me?"
"But Zordon's tube--" Ashley began.
"Wiped out all the evil in the universe, I know, I know. But you think our parents are going to settle for that explanation?" His shoulders sagged as he let out a deep breath. "Look, I'm sorry. I think I need to take a walk. I'll leave you two alone."
Ashley tried again. "Carlos, you don't have to--"
"Yeah. I do." With that, he left the dining area.
Ashley jumped to her feet, but Andros put a hand on her arm. "Ashley, let him go. He just needs some time alone."
"Like you did?" She reached over and gently pried his fingers from her arm. "You had over a year of time alone, and that didn't help much. I've known Carlos since we were nine years old, and letting him be alone isn't the answer."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive." She bent over and gave him a peck on the cheek, smiling at the thoroughly stunned expression on his face. "Something for you to think about until I get back." She hurried after Carlos.
Andros sat there for a few moments, rubbing his cheek thoughfully, before his stunned expression gave way to a silly grin.
Synthetron food was the last thing on his mind.
TJ sighed as he glanced up at the calm blue glow of the Megaship's power core, running his fifteenth and final diagnostic. Again, he found nothing wrong. Everything was in perfect working order, with not a glitch to be found.
"Damn it," he muttered, setting the pad down on the console and rubbing his eyes. "This can't be right."
It was too perfect. He kept expecting something to go wrong, some sabotage, some remnant of the evil that was being wiped out across the galaxy. TJ almost wanted to find a glitch now. It would give the persistent nagging feeling a reason for being.
Sure, it could be the problem of his parents. But deep down he knew that after all the initial panic and the interrogations, his parents would understand. He'd probably take a ton of grief before they did, but they'd come around. And after his dad had thrown a fit about his "wasting your life away" in professional baseball instead of making a difference, maybe, just maybe, he would be proud to learn that his son had. Miles Walker would never admit it, but TJ knew his dad too well to buy the hard-ass police sergeant routine. He complained constantly, but he had allowed TJ to stay with his uncle to train. As for his mother, well, she would probably moan and wail and eventually become resigned to the idea. And since it was football season, his brother Rick wouldn't hear a thing about it for a while.
Nah, his family wouldn't disown him or anything. They weren't the reason he felt so anxious.
He gave up on the diagnostics and left central engineering, passing through a series of corridors before stopping by the lockers. Opening, his, he thumbed through the stuff in there before his eye fell on the picture in the back of his locker, almost hidden behind the pile of stuff. It was the only photo not on the door of his locker, placed in the back for fear one of the others would see it and put two and two together. Actually, he mused as he plucked it out and stared at it, it was more like putting one and one together.
It was his favorite picture of Cassie, taken shortly after they'd become Rangers. They had been eating lunch in the park, and TJ had been wasting film so he could get last few pictures taken and the roll developed. Everyone had been posing and doing stupid things for the camera; Carlos balanced a spoon on his nose, Justin pretended to be strangling Ashley (after a teasing argument about the last chocolate chip cookie), and they had done every balancing act imaginable until TJ had demanded a few "normal" pictures.
Cassie was sitting on the picnic table with her feet on the bench and her long hair falling freely about her shoulders, a few strands lifting in the breeze. One hand was brushing it back from her face, and she was turned towards the camera with a shy, sweet smile. TJ stood there for several seconds, just looking at the picture of the Pink Ranger, his teammate, the girl he'd had a crush on since he'd first met her on the bus. Who was mooning over a phantom in armor.
He frowned, putting the picture in his pocket. "Oh," TJ sighed. "I was afraid it was that."
"Carlos Vargas, hold it right there!"
Sighing, Carlos stopped in his tracks at the sound of the voice behind him. He knew the "don't-even-think-about-ignoring-me-or-you'll-regret-it" tone too well to keep going. If he had, Ash probably wouldn't have any qualms in tackling him from behind.
He simply stood there, not turning around, keeping his face calm and emotionless. She jogged up behind him and spun him around. "What's wrong with you?" Ashley demanded, her voice made shrill with worry.
But not with the anger he'd been expecting. Carlos let the mask slip a bit. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. And don't even try to pass this sudden attitude off as a sugar overdose." She put her hands on her hips and eyed him suspiciously. "You get weird when you OD on sugar, but you're never a jerk."
Carlos gaped at her. "Wait a minute. A jerk? When did I act like a jerk?"
"Well, what was that attitude all about? 'I'll just leave you two alone?' And don't you think that I'm not worried about my parents, my family, my friends, too?" She snorted. "You think your friends are going to look at you strangely? Most of my old school friends were cheerleaders!" Carlos tried and failed to hold in the snicker that escaped at that comment. "What are you laughing at?"
"Nothing," he lied, laughing into his hand. "Can you imagine if they wanted you to cheer again? You know, the Yellow Ranger waving around a pair of pompoms?"
Ashley shoved him lightly. "Carlos, this isn't funny!" He kept snickering, and as the image popped into her head, she burst out laughing as well. "Okay, maybe it is!" She wiped her eyes as the giggles died down. "Oh, God, I'd probably be able to have Suzie Jacobs on my shoulders without feeling like I was going to break my back for once!"
"Why'd they ever put her on top of anything?" Carlos wondered. "She was, what, six feet tall? They should have kept her on the bottom."
"They usually did, but she complained about it. Until we tried that and found out the chiropractic bills wouldn't be worth it." Ashley shook her head, coming back to the subject at hand. "Come on, Carlos, it's going to be weird for all of us. Even Zhane and Karone and Andros."
"Yeah, I know." He leaned against the bulkhead. "Everything's just changed so fast. I can't keep up with it. As soon as I get a grip on what, exactly, is going on, everything turns inside out. Becoming a Ranger, changing color, going into space, you and Mr. Moody, you and Zhane, Astronema is Karone, Karone becomes Astronema, we kill the Psycho Rangers, they come back to life and we kill them again, Astronema becomes Karone, Zhane drooling over Karone--my brain hurts just thinking about it all."
"Wait a minute," Ashley said. "Me and 'Mr. Moody?'" She pursed her lips. Was Carlos actually jealous? "Carlos, I--"
Carlos shook his head. "Nah, I'm not jealous," he said, cutting her off. "We settled the 'friends' thing in middle school. Geez, Ash, you know too much about me for us to go out in the first place!" She smirked at that. "I don't know, but, well--you're still my best friend, and a lot of the guys you went out with in high school were major losers. Who didn't deserve you," he added quickly before she could comment on that.
Ashley leaned against the bulkhead beside him, wrapping a friendly arm around his shoulders. "Carlos, Andros is nothing like the guys I went out with in high school."
"Hey, I know that." He frowned. "I'm just too used to always looking out for you to stop now. Just promise me you'll be careful, okay? Smack him if he does something stupid?"
Ashley rolled her eyes. "I don't know about the smacking, but okay."
An idea came to Carlos. "You know, we've got over an hour. We could always check out what else got updated in the Synthetron files."
"A pig-out fest?" As they stood up, Ashley looked down at herself dubiously. "I don't know, Carlos. I sort of like having my uniform fit."
He put an arm over her shoulders as they walked back towards the dining area. "Come on, we might as well enjoy it while it's working right." As she hugged him, he added, "You'll probably burn it off explaining this to everybody when we get home."
Ashley sighed as they continued down the hall. "Carlos?"
"Yeah?" He stiffened, waiting for the snide comment.
"Shut up." She smiled. "And thanks."
Carlos grinned from ear to ear. "Anytime, Ash. Anytime."
"ETA until reaching Earth is one hour and fifty-six minutes," DECA was saying as Zhane entered the locker room.
The Silver Ranger rolled his eyes. "Since when were you keeping a countdown?" He suddenly realized that he wasn't alone in the room. "Oh. Hey, Teej. What are you up to?"
T.J. jerked up, an almost guilty expression on his face as he hastily slammed his locker shut, still clutching a photo in his hand. Seeing who it was, he relaxed somewhat. "Nothing. Just killing some time."
"I know how you feel," Zhane muttered, sitting down on the bench. "I hate playing the waiting game like this."
"What do you have to wait for?" T.J. asked. "I've been rehearsing how I'm going to tell Mom and Dad for half an hour."
Zhane raised a curious eyebrow. "Perfected it yet?"
"Begging for forgiveness comes to mind, but that's about it." T.J. stared at his locker blankly before continuing. "What about you?"
Zhane shrugged imperceptibly. "Nothing really. I'm just wondering what to do now that it's all over."
"Go to Disneyland," T.J. joked. "Never mind," he added, seeing Zhane's confusion. "I don't know what I'm doing either, but I guess we'll figure it out."
He sat down next to Zhane, and a few moments passed with neither one saying anything. "Are you going to talk to her?" Zhane said out of the blue.
This time T.J. really did jump. "What? Who?"
"You know who I mean." Zhane pointed at the photo in T.J.'s grip. "You really like Cassie, don't you?"
At first, T.J. declined to answer, studying the photo in his hands. He absently rubbed a thumb over the glossy image. "Yeah. Not that it matters."
Confused, Zhane scratched his head. "Wait a minute. I thought she and you--"
"So did I," T.J. said, shaking his head. "For a while it looked like I had a chance. We were both Rangers, hung out together all the time, told each other almost everything." He sighed. "And just when I got the guts to tell her how I felt, guess who showed up." He stood up, still holding the photo. "After that, all she could talk about was Phantom this and Phantom that. She even got in trouble at school daydreaming about him."
Zhane whistled. "Ouch. You should have told her."
"Yeah, right," T.J. muttered. "It wouldn't have really done any good. I was just her best friend who she went to cry to every time she was worried about him. She never daydreamed about me." He stuffed the photo in his pocket. "I almost told her, you know. Last night, when we were hiding out. But she just kept worrying about him."
Zhane tried again. "You have to tell her. I know what you're going through, but you can't just keep it bottled up."
"You don't know," T.J. snapped. "You got Karone back in a second."
"After she was kidnapped again, brainwashed, and nearly died," Zhane snapped, frustrated. "Look, Teej, I don't know what your problem is, but don't take it out on me. It's not my fault that you're too much of a coward to tell her how you feel." T.J. whirled at that comment, eyes blazing. Zhane winced at the glare, immediately wishing he could take it back.
But the tirade he was expecting never came. T.J. stood there for a moment, fixing the Silver Ranger with a fierce glare. Then he turned away, muttering something under his breath, and stormed towards the door. "I need to take a walk."
"T.J.," Zhane started, but his teammate was gone. "Great," he said to DECA. "Between him and Andros, I'm either going to be strangled in my sleep or become ship's counselor."
"I hope the latter does not occur," DECA answered primly.
"Hey!" Zhane exclaimed indignantly.
DECA continued. "Since you are too shortsighted to see that you should take your own advice."
Zhane opened his mouth to protest, but closed it, choking back the words. For once, DECA had a point.
Andros was putting the empty glass in the carbon breakdown unit when he spotted a golden glow out of the corner of his eye. Getting to his feet, he moved to the window in time to see a stream of hazy golden light converging on the Megaship. "DECA, what--"
He didn't get time to finish before the Megaship plunged right in.
The beam lay on the floor, just out of her reach. Karone swallowed as the blade of the Wrath Staff hovered inches from her throat, trying to figure out what to do. Dream or not, she wasn't going to let it end like this. If she could create a diversion, or a distraction, she could buy some time, maybe get the upper hand. If Astronema was really supposed to be the programmed personality, then she had the same inflated ego.
"You're calling me pathetic?" she snapped, glaring defiantly up at her attacker. "Here you are, hiding behind your armor and your weapon to take out little weak me. So I'm not you. At least I'm not a complete coward."
"How dare you call me a coward!" Astronema hissed, her eyes flaring red. The Staff in her hands wavered, and Karone tried to hide a knowing smile. "What do you know, you sniveling--"
"I know everything!" Karone shouted, cutting her off. "You were inside my head, remember? I watched every decision made, every little twisted thought process." The blade was lifting ever so slightly. Another inch, and she would be able to roll out of the way. "Dark Specter programmed you to be the embodiment of evil? Well, he did too good a job. He gave you all the attributes, and all the flaws."
Astronema cut her off with a screech. "Liar!"
But the hands holding the Staff were shaking, and Karone suddenly realized that perhaps this alter ego wasn't the one in control. So it is a war of words, she mused, going in for the kill. "Greed, hatred, pride, the biggest ego in the galaxy. You couldn't cooperate or compromise since you wanted all the glory! I lived among evil for years; I know all the tricks!"
The Staff finally rose one more inch. Seeing her opening, Karone kicked up with both feet, nearly knocking the Wrath Staff from the other's hands as she rolled out of harm's way. Snatching up the beam, she leapt to her feet and swung at Astronema, parrying the other's thrusts until she knocked the Wrath Staff to the floor. "Who's pathetic now?"
Her hesitation cost her as a roundhouse kick from Astronema sent the beam clattering to the floor. Before Karone could retaliate, Astronema pulled the bladed boomerang out of nowhere. "I don't suppose you saw this one coming," the Princess of Evil jeered as she cocked her wrist and let it fly at Karone...
...only to have it explode into golden ash inches from Karone's stomach. Astronema shrieked and dived for the Wrath Staff, scooping it up only to see the figure appearing in the shadows. "What the--"
She had no chance to finish as Karone's savior came at her with sword drawn, one swing snapping the Wrath Staff like a twig and cleaving through Astronema, who disintegrated into a shower of golden sparks.
The light brightened, filling Karone's vision, and as the Dark Fortress disappeared in the brilliance, she managed to utter one word of disbelief.
The sun-dappled earth pounded at her feet as Cassie increased her speed, as if trying to outrun her irritating thoughts. But the faster she ran, and the harder she pushed, the faster they came.
"I'm going insane," she gasped, slowing to a walk. As her heart rate slowed and her panting eased, so did her train of thought. What was going on?
She continued to keep up her heart rate, walking at a fairly brisk pace as she tried to get her thoughts in order. Whatever was nagging her couldn't be related to the battle. It had started sometime before Astronema's ultimatum, but now that it was all over, she couldn't get rid of this strange feeling. Cassie couldn't describe it; it was as though one unconscious part of herself was angry at the other part, and she couldn't figure out why.
Then she remembered when it had started.
When they had received news of the danger the Phantom Ranger was in, Cassie had expected to be agitated. She had waited for her heart to jump into her mouth, or her pulse to quake, or her panic levels to rise the way they always did when he was in serious danger. It was inevitable.
But that last time, nothing happened. Sure, she was concerned, but there had been no spark of passion. It was the same kind of concern she would have felt for any distant ally. She'd been shocked, and confused as well. She had barely seen anything of him, been disappointed by his elusiveness, but how could her feelings have dulled so much?
And now she was angry at herself for spending so much time mooning over him. Where had this come from? It wasn't as if there was anyone else.
The sunlight filtering through the trees brightened, becoming warmer, golden-hued. Absently, Cassie picked up speed again, but was too late to escape the memory that sprung to mind.
T.J. stormed down the corridors angrily, muttering to himself. Suddenly, he slowed his pace, exhaling deeply and shaking his head. What's wrong with me?
He sighed, feeling guilty. Maybe he should have bit his tongue back there. He didn't know Zhane that well, but that didn't mean he could say what he wanted, not like that. But he wasn't in the best of moods, to say the least.
How could he tell her?
Every time he got up the courage, it never seemed like the "right" time--it was usually in the middle of a battle, when there was barely time to talk, or when Cassie was immersed in thoughts of Phantom. Breaking the news to his parents was becoming simpler and simpler. Compared to letting Cassie know how he felt, it now seemed like a cakewalk.
Now the battles were over, and they were heading home. Maybe he could tell her when they got back to Earth. After they were finished calming down their parents, of course. And after they got the news broadcasts under control. After everything calmed down.
T.J. stopped in his tracks. Who was he kidding? It would be ages before anything calmed down. And in the meantime, what if Phantom popped up again? Despite himself, T.J. scowled; if that happened, his chances would be shot. Phantom wouldn't have the excuse of a mission to pull him away from Cassie.
"What the hell am I thinking?" he wondered aloud.
He knew the answer as he spoke. Sure, he wanted Cassie to be happy, but at the same time he couldn't ignore the jealousy that flared whenever he thought of them together. It was just painful how easily Phantom had captured her heart.
T.J. was so lost in his thoughts that he walked smack into the stream of golden light that flooded the corridor, and the real world vanished into a memory.
"Cassie! Get down!"
He leapt towards her, slamming into her and knocking them both out of the path of tumbling mortar. The stone facade of the professional building that had just been hit was raining down in chunks, the overhang collapsing on top of the space where Cassie had been standing a moment ago. As the last of the debris crashed to the ground, the front of the building was swallowed in silence and a thick cloud of dust.
After a moment, T.J. lifted his head, looking down at a somewhat bewildered Cassie. Belatedly, he realized that he was unconsciously shielding her with his body. "Are you okay?"
She nodded, coughing as he got to his feet, helping her stand. "Nothing that a hot shower and a nap won't heal." As the faint sound of marching feet and people's screams reached their ears, she grabbed his arm. "They're still coming! Come on!"
They stumbled from the dust cloud into the nearby alleyway, darting through a network of narrow pathways. T.J. knew Angel Grove pretty well by now, but even so, this part of the business district was barely recognizable. Cassie didn't seem to know where they were, either, but they kept running, buoyed by the sounds of pursuit. They dashed from street to street, navigating a twisted maze on blind faith.
Suddenly, T.J. spotted a red-and-white awning that had collapsed, spreading out over debris and wood like a badly-assembled tent. Beneath it was a dark opening that might be enough for both of them. "This way!" He pulled her towards the awning, and they scrambled into the dark crevice, letting the awning fall back down behind them. There was more space than T.J. had expected, so they scooted backwards, burrowing deeper and deeper into the concealing darkness until they found refuge in a pile of fallen crates.
Still, it wasn't far enough. All the Quantrons had to do to find them was to lift a corner of the awning, and they would be perfectly visible. T.J. grabbed blindly, his fingers closing around what looked like a broken crate. They were using a produce stand for shelter, and his hand slipped on smashed fruit as he struggled to pull it across the visible gap.
Another pair of hands joined his, and leaned over to grip the edges of the crate. "Let me help," she whispered in his ear. A few strands of her dark hair fell forward as they pulled, finally managing to drag the crate across and cover the opening in their small hole. As darkness closed around them, T.J. was almost sorry to feel her body withdraw as they crouched down, barely moving. The Quantrons' steps were growing heavier now, and they were almost upon them.
At that moment, a squad came around the corner and stopped, confused at the lack of prey. They circled the awning, prodding and poking with their swords. T.J. froze, barely daring to breathe as he felt Cassie tense up beside him. Her free hand was feeling along the ground, searching for something to grab on to. Without thinking about what he was doing, T.J. took her hand in his own, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
Despite the fact that both their hands were slimy, Cassie squeezed back.
They remained together in the darkness as the Quantrons prodded and poked and peeked. One of them lifted the corner of the awning that they had crawled under. Cassie gasped faintly, and T.J. bit his lip as the Quantrons peered in, waiting for the inevitable rush.
But nothing came. Letting the cloth fall, the Quantrons shuffled around some more, then conferred, and began to march away, their footsteps becoming fainter and fainter until they were gone.
For a full two minutes, neither T.J. or Cassie moved or spoke. It was Cassie who broke the silence. "You think they're gone for good?"
T.J. shrugged slightly as the tension eased. "I have no clue," he whispered back. It suddenly occurred to him that they were leaning against each other, almost holding each other in their shared panic. "Seriously, are you okay?"
She nodded. "Better than I would be if that explosion buried me." Cassie shifted position and froze. "Ew."
"I think I got a kneeful of banana."
T.J. had to snicker at that. With the Quantrons gone, he was becoming more and more aware of his surroundings, most notably the scent of rotten fruit. In the dim light sifting through the slats of the crates, he could barely make out the outline of her face. "Not the greatest hiding spot, I guess."
She turned to look at him, and their faces were only an inch apart in the crammed quarters. "It worked, didn't it?" Cassie paused as she realized how close they were. "First you save me from falling stones, now from Quantrons. You're on quite a roll today."
"I didn't want you to get hurt," T.J. whispered. The fingers of his free hand gently brushed her cheek, and he was silently grateful that there was no slime on that hand.
A sound from outside shattered the moment as footsteps dashed around the corner and gasping could be heard. Cassie jerked away as voices filtered through the awning. "Do you think we outran them?" That was Carlos.
"I doubt it. They probably found a different target." Definitely Zhane. "Have you seen any of the others?"
Cassie was scrambling up as he spoke, pushing back the crate lid and lifting the awning. "Zhane? Carlos? Is that you?"
As they emerged from the shadows to embrace their friends, T.J. couldn't help but feel a twinge of bitterness. Sighing, he wiped his hand off on his jeans and followed the others.
"DECA, status?" Andros smacked at the electronic eye. "DECA, answer me!"
The ship's computer was silent. "Andros?" Ashley asked, entering with Carlos at her heels. They looked to be in much better spirits, but their smiles faded when the panicked expression on his face registered. "What's wrong?"
"We just entered some sort of energy anomaly about a minute ago," Andros said, frustrated. "I can't reach DECA at all, although our trajectory hasn't changed."
Carlos and Ashley glanced at each other before Carlos spoke. "Energy anomaly?"
"See for yourself." Andros gestured towards the window.
Amazed, the other two moved to get a better look, and Ashley scooted to stand beside Andros. Outside, the stars and planets glided by as usual, but they were surrounded by a swirling, shifting golden haze. "It's beautiful," Ashley said after a moment.
"Yes, it is," Andros said almost dreamily before catching himself. "Um, sensors say it's harmless, and we've still got navigational and climate control, but I don't know why DECA isn't responding."
Carlos couldn't hide his smirk. "There's something wrong with that?"
"Very funny," Andros said as his communicator beeped. He raised it to his lips. "Go ahead."
"Andros?" Zhane's voice came through the commlink loud and clear. "Can you hear me?"
"We can all hear you," Ashley answered.
There was a sigh of relief. "Good, because DECA's ignoring me."
"DECA's ignoring everyone," Andros sighed. "What's up?"
Zhane paused for a moment. "You wouldn't happen to know where T.J. is, would you?"
"He just stormed off about something." Zhane sighed. "I kind of ran my mouth off again. Look, if you need help with DECA, though--"
Carlos shrugged. "I'll go look for him. You two can stay here." He turned to leave, but not before turning back to Ashley. Seeing that Andros was looking elsewhere, he started raising his eyebrows up and down suggestively.
"Carlos!" Ashley grabbed up a bar of soap from the pile of Synthetron rejects and pitched it at him. Carlos ducked just in time, and it hit the wall as he jogged down the corridor.
As Andros turned to stare at her, Ashley sighed. "That's it. Everyone on this ship is nuts."
"I've always believed that too," Andros deadpanned.
It took Ashley a moment to get it. Before he could say anything more, Andros was assaulted with a deluge of bar exams.
Cassie abruptly shook herself out of the memory, nearly running smack into a tree as she did so. She corrected course just in time, veering off and jumping over a fallen log to regain her balance. This is crazy!
But she could still feel the way he'd touched her cheek, the warm tingle that had passed through her. It was in the middle of a battle, she chided herself. I was scared. It was just something in the heat of the moment.
Still, something about it had felt so right. So real.
"But, come on," she gasped out loud. "T.J.?"
Cassie bit her lip and forced herself to focus on her running. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two--
The four-beat rhythm of her feet was cut short by a tree root. It almost seemed to appear in her path. Cassie didn't have time to catch herself as it snagged her foot, knocking her off balance. With a startled cry, Cassie pitched forward, arms flailing. Expecting to hit the hard-packed ground of the jogging trail, she squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for the impact.
Instead, she landed on a clump of soft heather and grass, so long and wild and tangled that it cushioned her fall perfectly. Cassie sat up, blinking in confusion, spitting out a blade of grass as she did so.
The scene around her had changed. Instead of the small patch of woods outside town, she was now in a valley surrounded by massive trees, strong and healthy and looking as if they had never been affected by pollution. The background music had faded, and the temperature had risen to a summer warmth. Confused, she stood up, glancing around. "Computer, end program." There was no response. "DECA, abort Simudeck protocols!"
"This isn't a program," a voice said. "DECA's not running this."
Cassie spun to see the source of the voice sitting on a boulder. Until that moment, she had been the only one in sight. "You?" Cassie gasped. "But how--why--"
"I had to get your attention somehow," Erutan said apologetically. "Sorry about the tree root."
Zhane had intended to come up to the bridge, so he was surprised to suddenly find himself in front of Karone's quarters. But he didn't stop to correct himself. This was exactly where he was originally headed.
He pressed a hand to the door lock, smiling as it slid open quietly to reveal Karone's sleeping form. As he came closer, though, he noticed how pale she looked, and she was thrashing a bit in her sleep. "Karone?" he whispered softly, not wanting to jolt her awake.
She didn't respond. Tentatively, he reached over to press a hand to her forehead, frowning as he felt the warmth. Karone wasn't burning up, but she did feel a little warm. It could be the nightmare, but still, it was best to play it safe. He nudged her gently, brushing a strand of blonde hair out of her face. "Karone, wake up."
Still no response. Zhane reached over to take her hand in his, wondering whether or not to get her to the medical bay. While the problem might lie in a nightmare and nothing more, it could also be serious. On the other hand, Karone had made him promise to keep Andros from hovering over her, and if she woke up in the medical bay, she wouldn't be a bit pleased.
He pulled a chair up beside the bed, never letting go of her hand. She says she doesn't recall what happened, Zhane thought to himself. I don't believe a word of it.
"Karone," he whispered again. "Wake up. Talk to me. Let me help you."
She didn't respond, and he leaned back in his chair, yawning involuntarily. A wash of fatigue flooded his senses, and everything suddenly felt three times heavier. Before he knew what was happening, Zhane was fast asleep.
The smells and sights of the destruction were suddenly ripped away, and T.J. was standing in the corridor again. "What the?"
T.J. blinked, looking around for someone who could be playing tricks on him. But there was no one to be seen. He was alone in the corridor, and the only sounds he could hear was the faint hum of the Megaship's servos and the sound of his own breathing. Nothing more.
...you're too much of a coward to tell her how you feel...
He winced as Zhane's angry words came back to his mind. As much as it hurt, Zhane could be right. But what good was there in telling her if she loved someone else? His thoughts were a confused jumble, buzzing and conflicting, almost blending into static as he tried to make sense of it all.
But through the white noise, a gentle voice whispered, calmer than the rest, clearer and sharper with the air of truth. The air suddenly seemed a touch warmer, and T.J. paused, feeling as though a familiar presence was passing through. He shrugged it away.
...tell her how you feel...
If it were only that easy. Cassie loved someone else; all that the truth would do was hurt her now. Maybe later, after everything calmed down. Then again, he reminded himself, that might be never.
...not much time left...
Suddenly the very air he breathed was charged with energy, almost afire with emotion. He bit his lip as worry surged through him. Once they hit Earth, his chance would be past. They'd be mobbed the minute they got there. It was now or never, wasn't it? If he didn't act now, let the truth out soon, he wouldn't be able to again. But he couldn't. T.J. sighed; he was truly a coward.
You just don't want to hurt her.
The voice was clearer now. T.J. groaned and pressed his head against a panel. "I can't hurt her," he whispered hoarsely. "I can't take that chance. She loves someone else."
Does she really?
He lifted his head, suddenly aware of his surroundings. The air wasn't just charged with energy; the corridor was suddenly filled with a pale yellow haze, with sparks of energy flitting here and here. Yet instead of obscuring his vision, the haze seemed to be clearing his thoughts. "What--who--"
Who else, Blue Ranger? The golden light coalesced into a hazy figure, the edges of its shape blurred and wavering, but her identity was unmistakable. Zordon is connected to those who serve the cause of good. Why would he not let us help you with his sacrifice of energy?
T.J. opened and closed his mouth like a fish several times before speaking. "Dimitria, what are you--"
It is my job to ask the questions, Dimitria responded, smiling beneath her veils. But I cannot stand by and let two of my Rangers ignore their feelings.
The meaning of her sentence registered. "Two?"
Yes, T.J. What you both have been blind to, I have seen. Go find her.
With that, the golden light--and Dimitria--were gone.
The dim, smoky air was sucked away, and the brilliance of a clear sky caused Karone to shield her eyes as they adjusted to the brightness. Blinking in confusion, she glanced around, half expecting to see the dingy walls of the Dark Fortress. As she sucked in a deep breath of air, she realized that it was too pure, too clear, to have come from those corridors.
Finally, the world came into focus, and Karone choked back a sob as she took in her surroundings. It was KO-35, but not the deserted colony she had wandered through as Astronema. Nor was it the colony that the rebels were slowly rebuilding now that Dark Specter was defeated. The settlement looked exactly as it had before the invasion and evacuation, before any of the fighting had even reached the rumor mill. It was the KO-35 of her childhood.
People were milling about the streets, laughing and talking and getting about their business. None of them recognized her presence as she passed them by; she was walking through a piece of her past, but not participating in it.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she recognized places long-buried in her memory. The primary education building for the western half of the colony, where she had reluctantly trudged into with her brother each day and dashed out with the rest of the excited children once the classes were over for the afternoon. The courtyard of the Research Institute, where she had played tag with her friends while waiting for her father to finish his work for the day.
And the meadow where she would play with her brother and her friends on long, lazy afternoons when there was no class to worry about. She crested the hill and stopped short, looking down at the children below her. Three small children were running to and fro, engaged in whatever sort of game they'd just invented, a telekinesis ball swerving and dipping and looping around them. Two boys, a long-haired one in red and one in grey with short-cropped blond hair, and one girl in a yellow jumpsuit. A lump caught in Karone's throat as she watched them play, and this time her tears flowed freely. If it could have only been that way forever...
"It brings back memories, doesn't it?"
She turned and gasped to see the figure standing a few paces behind her. He looked exactly as he had before Dark Specter had his way with them, only the green light that usually criss-crossed the facets of his form was replaced with a warm golden light. Ecliptor was smiling at her, one of the rare fond smiles that he'd only bestowed on his Princess when she'd done something exceptionally well. Like her, he was ignored by the passersby. "E-ecliptor?" she finally managed. "What are you--how--I thought you were dead!"
"I would have been if not for you," her old mentor answered. The passersby around them faded as he beckoned her over. "Do you remember what I told you? That I was manufactured for evil, but that you were born for good?"
Karone nodded, still bewildered. "I remember."
"I was only half right. You were born for good, and you proved that to everyone." He looked up at the blue sky before speaking. "But although I was manufactured for evil, that didn't guarantee I was destined to be. If not for a little girl being placed into my care, I might have lived up to those specifications."
"I don't understand."
Ecliptor sighed, the sound muted from its usual harshness, like the rustling of dead leaves. "My orders were to merely prepare and train you for evil. Caring was not in my directives, but I grew quite fond of you, and cared for you--and still do."
Karone bit her lip. "You lied to me."
"I know." He gently lifted her chin. "And I am truly sorry for that. I should have let you know the truth sooner. But what's done is done, and I am glad to been your guardian. I wanted to make it up to you somehow, and I have taken this one chance."
"What do you mean?" She cocked her head. "This isn't just a dream, is it?"
"No, not a dream. Just a wish. You wanted that evil out of your life forever. You wanted to go back to the way it once was." He frowned. "I can't turn back time. But you of all people deserve a chance to go on with your life. Of all the achievements you accomplished, on the day you turned against Darkonda, I was more proud of you than I ever have been."
She merely stared at him for a long moment, then flung her arms around him, sobbing. "Oh, Ecliptor, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!"
He did not answer, but hugged her in return, holding her until her sobbing subsided. "You have nothing to be sorry for."
Karone felt him pulling away, and as she stepped out of the embrace, she realized that Ecliptor was slowly fading, becoming more and more transparent. "What's happening? Where are you going?"
"To a better place. I can rest now that I know you'll be cared for."
"No!" She dashed forward, trying to grab his arm, but her fingers only passed through air. "Ecliptor, you can't go!"
"I will always be with you." He chuckled at the thought. "And you have your brother and your friends to support you now. You don't need me anymore."
"But I do!"
Ecliptor shook his head. "No. Now we are both free." He was becoming hazy, indistinct. "Promise me one thing."
She swallowed a sob, straightening, trying to look brave. "Ecliptor--"
"Just remember me," he finished, "my Princess..." As those last words reached her ears, the golden light brightened, swirling and spinning about Ecliptor's form. It flared brilliantly, then winked out.
Karone stood there, staring at the open space where he had once stood, finishing her thoughts with a whisper. "--don't leave me alone."
"Which left was it again?" Carlos muttered to himself. Startled, he looked around. "Wait a minute." The section of corridor he was walking down looked exactly like the last segment. The open panel to his left was just like the last one.
Confused, he turned left again and dashed down the hallway--and stopped when he saw the exact same open panel, with a readout of the climate controls throughout the ship and several switches. "Great, I'm hallucinating now," he muttered as he continued around the next corner.
And found himself passing the same exact panel. "What the--" Carlos began, then stopped. Of course. This was probably one of Zhane's pranks. He'd probably opened a number of panels throughout the ship and set the switches and screen readouts to the same calibration to confuse anyone who took this particular route.
Two could play that game. Grinning, Carlos tapped a few keys, and the climate control diagram vanished, replaced by a blank screen. "Nice try," he remarked, confidently heading down the next section.
This time, he wasn't surprised to see the panel. He strode up to it, expecting to see the climate control readout.
Instead, he was greeted by the sight of the blank screen. On closer inspection, he realized that this was truly the same panel he'd just passed. "This is crazy," Carlos muttered, turning left again. And running into the panel again. And flipping a couple switches. And going left again. And running into the exact same panel again.
"All right, this isn't funny!" he shouted to the empty corridor. "I mean it!" No one answered, not even DECA, who was truly ignoring the crew. Carlos stormed up to the juncture and started to go left--then stopped. Every time he went left, he ended up where he'd started. But what if he went right?
Well, that was probably just what the mastermind behind this wanted him to do. But he really couldn't think of a better way to solve the problem. It was so absurdly simple that it had to be the solution, although it could also be a trap.
Any trap was better than going in circles. Sighing, he squared his shoulders and headed right, walking down to a door at the end of the corridor. No panels were to be seen, so Carlos hesitantly reached over and pressed the open button.
The door slid up, and Carlos stepped into darkness. As the door shut behind him, he realized that it must be the Megaship's starkly bare cargo bay. Most of the supplies that had been on board were back on KO-35, donated to the residents trying to rebuild their settlement. As far as Carlos knew, there were only a few barrels of chemicals remaining. But he couldn't tell at all in the pitch darkness that surrounded him. "Lights!"
At his cry, a pair of bright white lights burst to life before him, nearly blinding Carlos. He staggered back, shielding his eyes, unable to see the source. "I meant overhead lights! Come on, DECA!"
The ceiling lights snapped on then, and it took Carlos a few moments for his eyes to adjust before getting a better look at what was right in front of him. When he finally realized what it was, his mouth dropped open. Sitting on the floor of the cargo bay, in perfect condition, was the last thing he'd expected to encounter here and now. As Carlos gaped, Desert Thunder merely sat there, revving its engine impatiently, waiting for him to make his first move.
He finally regained control of his senses enough to let out a whoop of joy.
"Hello?" Zhane called for the fifth time, not expecting a response. His expectations were fulfilled, and he sighed, sitting down beside a fountain.
He'd woken up on an abandoned KO-35, and had been wandering empty streets and silent buildings for what seemed like hours. Although everything was clean and undamaged, the only life to be found were the memory-images that flickered here and there. Zhane scratched his head, wondering what he was doing there in the first place. The last thing he remembered was going to see Karone, and--and--then what?
He couldn't quite remember. Frowning, he dipped a hand into the fountain, splashing his face with some of the clear water. Nothing made sense. It wasn't that he couldn't recall what he was doing there, but that he felt that someone should be there, aside from himself. It was too quiet.
Standing up, he wiped his face with his sleeve and turned away from the fountain. With a yell, he jumped backwards in surprise at the telekinesis ball hovering inches from his face. Sheer luck saved him from knocking himself into the fountain, managing to catch himself on the rim. The telekinesis ball merely hovered there as he got to his feet, peering at it curiously. There didn't seem to be an owner anywhere about, and he certainly wasn't controlling it. Cautiously, he gave it a mental nudge, trying to see where it would go.
The ball didn't respond. Instead, it continued to hover, spinning on an axis as Zhane approached it. He reached up to grab it, and it floated out of his reach a few feet away. Zhane followed, trying again, and again the ball moved away. Another attempt, and it picked up speed, heading past the fountain and out of the Institute's courtyard. Zhane ran after it, sprinting down the empty halls and vaulting over the railing of the stairs leading out of the Institute's main gate.
He pursued it through the main square, threading through the pillared archway to the school, and then out towards the outskirts of the western colony. Just as he thought he'd lost the ball, he spotted movement across the field, heading into the trees. Grinning, Zhane rushed down the hill and across the grass, almost enjoying the pursuit.
The telekinesis ball weaved through trees, crossing a river and over a rise before it hit the grass, coming to a rest at Karone's feet. Surprised, she bent down and picked it up, thoughtfully kneading it in her hands, expanding and contracting it manually. A sad smile bloomed on her face as she remembered how she had chased such a toy through the woods like this.
She'd wandered down the hill and through the woods to their special place--the little patch of land where she and Andros had played in secret, had inhabited their own fantasy world. Where she had been captured, so many years ago, by Darkonda's slimy claws.
Tears glimmered in her eyes at the memory. It was all completely clear in her mind now: the kidnapping, the long trip in Darkonda's brig, the fearful nights, and eventually being handed over to Ecliptor for training. Giving her into Ecliptor's care was the biggest mistake Darkonda had ever made, and a great blessing for her in the end.
The holes and rough spots in her memory were mended now, a last gift from Ecliptor. In a way, she was glad to have them, glad to know them for what they were. No more lies.
She remembered the ball in her hands, and glanced around, looking for the owner. The memory-images were long gone, and a real, tangible telekinesis ball should have an owner to go along with it.
"Hey, is that your--"
Karone whirled at the sound behind her. Zhane emerged from the bushes, dusting himself off as he slowed to a stop, the words he was about to say dying into silence as he saw her standing there. She turned to face him as he finally untangled himself from the brush. "Are you all right?"
She clutched the ball in her hands involuntarily, nodding as he approached her with slow and unsure steps. He was probably wondering the same thing that she was. Karone merely stood there for a few seconds, her feet fixed to the ground.
An eternity passed before her words came out in a whisper. "Are you real?"
At that, he smiled slightly, the easy, lopsided smile that had first broken through her guard that evening beside the campfire. "I was the last time I checked. Are you?"
"There's only one way to find out," Zhane decided.
Still moving slowly, cautiously, he reached out to her, his hand falling over her own as she clutched the ball. At the warm touch of his skin, she let go of the telekinesis ball and clasped both of her hands tightly in his own, elated to feel the solid grip of another's hands. Karone let out a sudden, hysterical giggle that erupted into a laugh as she allowed him to pull her into a warm embrace, grabbing her by the waist and spinning her into the air. "Stop that!"
"I guess this proves we're both real," he quipped as he set her down. "You don't know how long I've wanted to do that."
"Well, you could have warned me," she gasped. "What are you doing here?"
Zhane frowned. "I have no idea. Where is here?"
She stiffened in his arms at that question, and pulled away. "This is where," she answered after a moment, "it happened."
"It's over now," Zhane began.
"Is it?" She turned to face the meadow, the place where Darkonda had grabbed her in the first place. "Back on KO-35, I was so afraid--afraid that the truth would come out, that I was Astronema for so long. But Andros didn't say anything, you didn't say anything, and I was still so scared!"
"You've got to give them some credit." Zhane came to stand behind her, but he didn't touch her. "They'd understand."
She shook her head. "It doesn't matter. I'd still be an outsider there. And the truth would have made it even worse."
"I understand," Zhane insisted. "I fell in love with you."
"You fell in love with someone I was pretending to be. The wig's off, the armor's gone now." Karone stifled a sob, wrapping her arms around herself. "I've never belonged anywhere! Almost my whole life was a lie. I was born into one world, raised into another, and now everything's changed again. I don't fit anywhere. I'm alone."
She felt his hands on her shoulders as he answered. "No you're not. I don't fit anywhere either."
Karone turned to look at him. "What?"
"Come on. I was on ice for two whole years." He tipped her chin, looking into her eyes as he spoke. "I woke up, and everything had changed. KO-35 had been evacuated, Zordon was captured, and Andros had his own little team. I suddenly didn't fit in anywhere either."
"That's not true."
Zhane shook his head, continuing. "Then I met this girl, who was hiding under a wig and armor and all that who was supposed to be my enemy. We fought, I ended up saving her. Then this girl, who was supposed to be completely evil, actually sat down with me and talked over toasted marshmallows." He smiled. "That's who I fell in love with. Someone else who didn't fit in, who had the heart to ignore her training to do what she felt was right. I fell for the girl under the wig and the makeup and the lies. Then when she turned out to be you, how could I resist?"
She gave him a wide, delighted smile. "How many times did you rehearse that?"
Zhane turned red. "Um, about six or seven times, although I kind of had to ad-lib most of it since I meant it." He looked sheepish. "Did it work?"
Without hesitation, she took his head in her hands and kissed him soundly. "What do you think?" she answered as the kiss finally ended.
Dazed, he shook his head, smiling down at her. "I think we fit together pretty well."
"Dimitria?" T.J. asked the empty corridor.
Silence was his only answer. With a groan of frustration, T.J. sank to the floor, leaning against the bulkhead in disgust. "I don't believe this." He stared up at the ceiling. "Okay, where am I going to find her?"
Again, no answer. His frustration flared, this time at himself. What was he doing just sitting here? Okay, he was head over heels in love with Cassie. He'd admitted that to himself a long time ago. But what good was that if he didn't admit it to her as well? The worst thing that could happen was that she didn't return his feelings and would give him the silent treatment for a while. But knowing Cassie, that wouldn't last forever. He had to tell her how he felt, if only for his own peace of mind.
Gritting his teeth, T.J. leapt back to his feet, starting to pace. Where would Cassie be right now? Anywhere, really. She could be in the dining area, or in her quarters, or on any of the five Simudecks. And with DECA ignoring him, he would have one hell of a time finding her.
Idly, he checked his watch. It read 4:30 p.m., in Earth time, since he hadn't reset it since the battle. Which meant that they would reach Earth in only half an hour. That wasn't enough time to search the entire ship on foot.
Suddenly, he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye. A golden shimmer, faint and rippling, moving away from him and down the corridor. "Doesn't mean I can't try to find her," T.J. said to no one in particular, turning and running after the golden light at full speed.
As he ran towards it, the source moved away, playing its own twisted game of tag. T.J. kept on running, refusing to give up, following each flash and hint of the light as it turned corners, seeped into lifts, just barely out of his reach as he chased it. Instead of breaking off, it only urged T.J. to run faster, faster, determined to catch up. He knew somehow--no, he felt--that this would lead him where he was going.
He seemed to chase the light for hours, keeping pace with it, barely breaking a sweat. Time ceased to have any meaning as he ran, and memory after memory flitted by. First meeting Cassie on the bus to Angel Grove, and feeling slightly better about moving to a new town afterwards. Going to find the Phantom Ranger with Cassie. Agonizing over a way to stop the Psycho Rangers, and having Cassie come in and tell him to stop beating himself over the head with it and get some rest. The way she smiled and laughed, the way she said what she thought, the way she made him feel.
Rounding a corner, he came face to face with the light--and stopped. As the flash of bright golden light faded, he found himself standing in the glare of headlights. "Carlos?"
"Hey, Teej!" Carlos crowed, sticking his head out of Desert Thunder's window. "Check it out!"
T.J. didn't know whether to laugh or gape at the sight of the Turbo Zord parked right in front of him, about to drive out of the cargo bay. At last, he managed to speak. "What the hell is Desert Thunder doing here?"
"I don't know!" Carlos exclaimed. "Isn't it great?" The Zord honked a few times in agreement.
This time, T.J. did laugh, a loud, delighted laugh, and Carlos joined in. "Yeah, Carlos," he said once he'd calmed down. "It's great."
At that, Desert Thunder honked again, more impatiently, revving its engine and flashing its headlights expectantly at T.J., the only obstacle between it and the world beyond the cargo bay. Carlos glanced down at the Zord, then at T.J., a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Need a ride?"
Cassie couldn't help but stare at the apparition. "Get my attention? About what? And for that matter, what are you doing here? Why are you talking to me?"
"Yes, about T.J., I got a little help, and because he's in love with you and too scared to tell you since he thinks you're in love with someone else." Erutan rattled off the answers calmly, almost smugly, looking for all the world like a precocious little kid who thought he knew more than he did.
Cassie stood up, brushing the grass off of her clothes. "Okay, okay, one thing at a time. What do you mean, 'a little help'?"
"Zordon's essence is trying to wipe out all the evil and misery in the universe as we speak," Erutan answered patiently, sounding for all the world as if she was the child and he was the adult. "Why not pass through here, after everything the Rangers have done for the cause of good?"
"Because there's no evil or misery here."
"Maybe not," Erutan countered, standing up, "but you've got your fair share of tragedy."
Cassie didn't answer for several seconds, looking at him curiously. Even knowing Erutan for what he was, a nature spirit who had probably been around far longer than she had, she was still shaken by his presence. Hearing such adult tones coming from the mouth of a fair-haired boy who looked to be no older than eight or nine was unsettling at best. Which was why she couldn't just dismiss what he was telling her. "What tragedy?"
"That now that all the fighting's over and done with, you still won't admit your feelings towards one another."
"There's nothing to admit." She sighed, turning to face the valley they were standing in, a green and lush bowl surrounded by tall trees and mountain peaks. "What is this place?"
"This is what Angel Grove looked like before settlement," Erutan answered wistfully. "Well, the mountains, anyway." For a moment, he looked sad, lonely, the sorrow in his eyes making him appear to be a child in mind as well as form. But the moment passed as he shook himself and turned back to her. "But this has passed on, destroyed by people's impatience and unwillingness to admit the truth." As she stared at him, he shrugged. "Well, everyone on Earth knows by now that the Earth is being polluted, but do you see a lot of people trying to end the pollution? It's all denial."
Cassie shook her head, sitting down on the boulder. She didn't know whether to be confused, guilty, or irritated with the nature spirit. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"It's sort of the same thing," Erutan said. "Except this isn't in the past; it's a possible future. You just have to try for it."
"I'm not in denial," Cassie snapped stubbornly. "I have someone else."
Erutan rolled his eyes, "Uh-huh. Does he have you?"
She frowned, staring at her feet. "I'm not sure." Tears suddenly sprung to her eyes. "Who am I kidding? I don't even know if I have him!"
This time, Erutan remained silent as Cassie sat there, wiping her eyes, letting the tears come. "I don't know when it happened. I don't know why it happened. I think I just got tired of dreaming! What did I have to do to make him stay, throw myself at him? Even when we saved his life, he didn't stay, even to recuperate. He'd tell me not to worry, then disappear for months, and he never let me or any of us get close to him. What was I expecting?"
"It's not your fault," Erutan said quietly as he stood there, looking smaller than usual amidst the lush grass and tall pines.
"Erutan, I can't just go tell T.J.," Cassie sniffed finally, getting her tears under control. "I just blew him off for so long and drooled all over some stranger who wasn't worth it!"
Erutan shrugged again. "You fell for a dream," he said. "It happens."
She sniffled, rubbing the last tears from her eyes and trying to compose herself. "Some dream. What am I going to say to him?"
"We kind of went over that already," Erutan said. "It's not too late to get a hold of reality, Cassie. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here."
Again, she stared at him, this time with curiosity. "How are you here? I thought you were the spirit of Nature or something."
"I'm a nature spirit," Erutan replied. "If I was the spirit of nature, would I hang around Angel Grove Woods?"
Cassie didn't argue with that as he sat down beside her. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"I don't see why not."
She cocked her head. "How old are you, really?"
Erutan thought about that for a while. "I think I lost track after several hundred years. Why?"
"I'm not sure. I guess I'm just surprised that you go around looking like a nine-year-old."
"Oh, that." He reached down to brush his fingertips against the grass. "It gets people's attention, I guess. If I looked my age, would you have even listened to me in the first place long enough to know me for what I was?"
Cassie frowned. "I never thought of it that way."
"Of course not." He sat up again. "After all, you're just a teenager."
She smiled, a brief, wry smirk. "I'm not listening to you anymore." The smirk vanished and she buried her head in her hands. "I just don't know what to do."
Erutan opened his mouth to speak, but the faintest whisper in the air, a sound muffled by several walls, silenced him. He nodded and disappeared. Cassie didn't even notice that he was gone.
Zhane opened his eyes, yawning as the ceiling of a bunk on the Megaship came into focus. It took him a second to realize that it was Karone's bunk, and that she was lying beside him, her head resting on his chest. A possibility flickered through his mind, but it faded away as he noted they were both dressed, his uniform and her long pajamas.
Had it all been a dream? If it was, how had he gotten from the chair to the bed in his sleep? Zhane wasn't prone to sleepwalking, as far as he knew. Karone didn't seem to have noticed.
He glanced down at her sleeping face and felt a twinge of relief. She was smiling in her sleep, looking far more peaceful than she had before. Zhane sighed contentedly, stroking her hair. He marveled at how lucky he was, how well they fit together. It seemed he wasn't all that alone anymore.
Karone stirred then, lifting her tousled blonde head and blinking sleepily as she took in her surroundings. As she turned to face him, realizing just who she was using as a pillow, Zhane tried to look as innocent as possible. "I fell asleep in the chair. I swear."
"Good morning to you, too," she teased, yawning. "I had the strangest dream..." Suddenly awake, she stared at him. "Wait. It wasn't a dream, was it?"
"I don't think it's morning, either," Zhane joked as they sat up and managed to climb out of bed, rubbing sleep out of their eyes, a little wrinkled but none the worse for wear.
Karone looked down at herself and sighed. She was wearing a matching purple pajama top and long pants that Ashley had been all too eager to design and make through the Synthetron for her. Taking in the wrinkles in Zhane's uniform, she grinned. "I wonder what Andros is going to think?"
Zhane looked down worriedly, brushing at his uniform. "I was supposed to be on the bridge. It's that bad?"
"No, you're fine. But I've got to get dressed." She turned to the mirror and desk in the corner, then glanced back at him. "I'm not going to change with you watching."
"Huh? No, it's not that," he said hastily, pushing past her to get to the set of drawers built into the wall, opening the bottom one. "I was going to wait to give this to you when we made it to Earth, but I think now is a good time." He stood up with a familiar gray bundle in his arms.
Karone took it curiously, unfolding it and beaming as she recognized the uniform identical to the rest of the Rangers', with a purple shirt beneath the jacket. "Zhane, this is wonderful! Thank you!"
"Ash redesigned it," he admitted as she hugged him tightly.
"I love it, though!" She glanced at the uniform again, then up at him. "But you still have to leave."
He looked disappointed. "Do I have to?"
"Yes, you do." She sighed as she steered him to the door.
"Just one peek?" He was undaunted, although it was mostly teasing. "I'll treat you to marshmallows later."
She grinned. "Maybe next time." His eyes widened at that, and she shook her head, laughing. "I'll be out in a minute!" With that, she lightly shoved him into the corridor, the door shutting behind him.
Zhane leaned against the door and sighed. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a flicker of golden light. "Thank you," he murmured as it faded away.
Ashley's eyes sparkled with triumph. "Do you yield?"
"Never." Andros grinned up at her.
"I don't see why not, considering I've already used all the artillery." She smiled. "Not to mention I've pretty much got you at my mercy."
The dining area was a mess. Almost all of the assorted Synthetron rejects had been used in what had become all-out war. The floor was strewn with papers and feathers and debris, piles of junk scattered everywhere but the tabletop. In the center of the chaos, Ashley had Andros pinned down on the table, with the help of a few throw pillows and the fact that he didn't seem to mind their positions at all. His grin turned sly. "I wouldn't say that," he said. "I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve." With that, he freed one of his hands and reached for her.
Ashley let out a shriek. "Not fair!" she cried out between giggles, trying to fend him off. Her attempts failed, and soon he was tickling her mercilessly. "Andros, you fight dirty! Stop! Ack!"
The last word was uttered as they tumbled off the table and crashed onto the floor, lucky enough to land on the pillows and cushions discarded in the battle. The impact still knocked the wind out of them, and for a moment, the two of them lay sprawled there, dazed. Finally, Andros rolled over, and they sat up. "What have we been doing?" Andros asked. "I thought I was going to fix DECA, and you went and ambushed me."
"You asked for it," Ashley said. "Besides, I didn't see you trying to get down to business either."
He shook his head, dazed. "I don't know what came over me."
"Insanity's contagious?" Ashley suggested.
Andros pulled a feather out of his hair. "Maybe. Alpha's going to have a fit when he sees this."
She reached over and turned his head to face her. "But it was fun, wasn't it?"
"Yes." He smiled, realizing the truth of his words. "It was. I haven't had fun--really let myself have fun--in a long time."
Ashley nodded. "And now you don't have an excuse not to."
His next words tumbled out in a rush. "Ashley, I love you."
As he spoke, her eyes widened, and the teasing grin gave way to surprise. "Andros, what did you just say?"
"I said I love you." The words came clearer this time, more certain. "I've known it for a long time, I just couldn't say it before now. I should have said it that night before I went up to the Fortress, but if I failed--I didn't want to risk hurting you, to be lost to you. And I--I was still afraid."
"'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,'" Ashley quoted. "That's Shakespeare."
"Why do you quote this 'Shakespeare' so much?"
"Because he knew what he was talking about." Ashley smiled brightly. "I love you too."
He clasped her hand. "Tell me again."
"I love you."
With that, he leaned forward and gently, carefully, pressed his lips to hers. After a moment, he pulled away, looking uncertain. "Ashley, I--"
She put a finger to his lips. "Don't say a word." He didn't protest as she returned the kiss just as gently.
The roar of engines broke the moment, and they turned in time to see a green blur speeding past the open door to the corridor and the flash of passing headlights. "What on Earth?" Ashley exclaimed as they scrambled to their feet and dashed out into the corridor in time to see the Turbo Zord go flying down a corridor that was far too narrow for it, its sides passing through the walls like an apparition.
"We're not on Earth yet," Andros said absently. "But what was that?"
"It was Desert Thunder," Ashley realized. At his perplexed look, she explained, "One of the Turbo Zords. But what's it doing here, and where's it going?"
Andros shrugged. "Let's go find out." He took her by the hand and they ran down the corridor in hot pursuit.
"Carlos!" T.J. shouted over the engine as the Zord swiftly navigated the Megaship. "Notice anything odd?"
Carlos turned to look at him. "No, what?"
"I don't know, maybe the way we just went through a wall?" T.J. responded as Desert Thunder emerged from the wall of the Simudeck into the brightness of day, the tires landing on a path of hard-packed dirt winding through the trees. In the rearview mirror, he could see the holographic wall ripple and solidify back into the image of the woods, completely unharmed. "Never mind."
His teammate's concerns were elsewhere as Desert Thunder pulled to a stop. "So where are we supposed to be?"
T.J. opened the passenger door and hopped out, stirring a few dead leaves with his shoe. "Looks like Angel Grove Woods to me." He paused, listening. "What's that noise?"
Carlos shrugged. "I didn't hear anything." He turned back to Desert Thunder. "What's with you? Why can't we go?" The Zord only flashed its headlights in rapid succession. "Come on, you know I'm bad at Morse code!"
A voice answered from the nearby bush. "He said," Erutan answered, stepping from the brush, "it's because T.J. has to follow this path."
The Black Ranger opened his mouth to respond, then shut it again. He couldn't think of a thing to say.
T.J. heard none of this, his attention focused on the faint sound in the distance. At first, he thought it was just the wind in the trees, but as he strained to hear, it almost sounded like someone crying. Forgetting completely about the Zord, he started walking down the path, heading in the direction of the sound.
He only had to step through a thick clump of bushes to see who it was.
Cassie was perched atop a large boulder in the clearing, her knees drawn up to her chest and her head buried in her hands, sniffling slightly. She wasn't crying, but she looked like she was recovering from a good, hard cry. More importantly, she looked miserable. T.J. frowned, his initial nervousness giving way to concern. Cassie didn't look up as he approached, slowly, quietly, not wanting to startle her.
Reaching into the pocket of his uniform, he pulled out a clean napkin and stared at it briefly, wondering where it had came from. He dismissed it just as quickly, deciding it would work. "Cassie?" he asked in a low voice.
She lifted her head then, brushing her dark hair out of her face as her eyes, red-rimmed from crying, met his. T.J. proferred the napkin hesitantly. "You all right?"
Cassie froze, taking in her surroundings in confusion before her gaze came to rest on T.J. She shook herself, then took the napkin from him to wipe at her eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine. Thank you." As she finished up, she looked at him curiously. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I--" He paused as he helped her hop off of the boulder to land safely on her feet beside him. "I came looking for you."
Her brow furrowed. "Why? Is something wrong?"
"Not really." T.J. faltered. "Well, maybe something, but it's not what you think." He bit his lip and turned away, unsure how to broach the subject. Just tell her, you moron!
Cassie put a hand on his shoulder. "T.J." At her touch and the sound of her voice, he turned to meet her concerned gaze. "Are you all right?"
"I don't know." He suddenly thought of something. "Cassie, do you remember when we were cut off that night? The, uh, the fruit stand?"
Her light grip on his shoulder loosened at that. "Yes, I--why?"
He reached up and put his hand on top of hers, trying to pull together his resolve. "Cassie, I've been going crazy over this for almost forever. I can't keep it to myself. What happened down there--"
"--it wasn't just the heat of the moment," Cassie finished. "T.J., what are you trying to say?"
Right then, his apprehension faded. "I love you," he blurted out. "I just had to tell you how I felt before we got home and had to deal with everything. I know how you feel about the Phantom, and I won't--"
T.J. fell silent mid-sentence at those words. "You don't what?"
"I don't feel that way about him anymore." She sighed, looking up at the canopy of trees above them. "It just happened somewhere along the line; whatever I felt just died. Not that he was much help." Cassie frowned as she looked back at T.J. "Would it have killed him to at least let us know if he was all right?"
T.J. shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."
"He wasn't real," Cassie admitted after a moment. "I fell for some stupid fantasy, the knight in shining armor. And here I was harassing Ashley for falling all over Andros at first sight. At least she was chasing someone who was there."
He didn't say anything for a moment. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" She smiled then, a fond, almost sad smile. "And you were always there. Of course, I didn't pick up on that. No, that would have been the smart thing to do."
"Hey." He reached over and touched her cheek. "I'm here now."
Cassie smiled up at him, and without thinking about it, he leaned in to kiss her. It was a brief kiss, and somewhat awkward, but the delighted look on her face as he pulled back made it worth it. "What have I been missing?" she quipped.
T.J. snorted. "I've had a crush on you since we met on the bus."
"Then we've got a lot of time to make up for." The next kiss was nowhere near as brief.
"So this is what you do in your spare time?" Carlos asked the nature spirit in a hushed voice. "Sneak onto spaceships and spy on people?"
Erutan snorted. "I'm helping out a pair of friends. Now be quiet or they'll hear us."
Carlos craned his neck to get a better look. "Wish I could hear what they're saying." He ducked back down, peering up at the small figure sitting on a tree branch. "Can you read lips?" Erutan shrugged. "Great."
He almost gave their position away in his surprise as a booted foot nudged him in the backside. "Just what do you think you're doing?" Andros inquired as he and Ashley came up behind them.
Regaining his balance, Carlos gestured at them wildly. "Shh! They'll hear us!"
"Who?" Andros asked, puzzled.
Ashley, however, saw what they were looking at, and tugged at the sleeve of his uniform. "Get down," she murmured, kneeling down behind the bush and pulling him with her. She pointed at T.J. and Cassie, standing in the nearby clearing. "See?"
Andros saw, and turned to stare at Carlos. "You're spying on them?"
"Do you have anything better to do?" Carlos shot back.
Ashley saw Erutan then and gaped. "Erutan? What are you doing here? I thought--"
"Shh!" Carlos hissed. "He kissed her!"
Ashley and Andros turned to stare at the pair in the clearing, just missing the brief kiss. "Are you sure?" Andros whispered.
As engrossed as they were in the scene unfolding before them, the three didn't notice as Erutan and Desert Thunder vanished.
After what seemed like hours, they broke the kiss, staring at each other as if they'd never seen each other before. "Now what?" Cassie whispered.
"Whoo-hoo! Go Teej!"
The spell broken, they turned to see Carlos cheering and clapping, with Ashley and Andros beside them. Ashley was clapping and grinning like a Cheshire cat, while Andros was wearing his embarrassed, "you-know-them-too-well-to-pin-this-one-on-me" look. But from the way he was standing beside Ashley and the slight smile on his face, he wasn't entirely in a sour mood.
Cassie moaned and hid her face in her hair, burying her face in T.J.'s shirt. T.J. sighed. "Like I said, Ash, I'm not in that great of a mood."
Carlos was laughing. "Teej, you ought to see your face right now!"
"Carlos," T.J. said, "when we get home, I'm going to kill you."
Cassie didn't lift her head. "Are they gone yet?" she asked T.J.'s shirt as the three remaining Rangers joined their friends.
"No, they're not," Andros sighed. Cassie looked up and turned bright red with embarrassment.
Ashley patted T.J. on the shoulder. "Come on, Teej, lighten up. It's been a weird trip for all of us."
"And what a long, strange trip it's been," Carlos quoted. Cassie rolled her eyes, and he shrugged. "Come on. It was too easy."
She sighed, pulling away from T.J. "Speaking of which, how long have we been heading for Earth? I'd have thought we'd have been there by now."
Everyone turned to stare at Andros. The Red Astro Ranger blinked a few times before checking the chronometer on his wrist. "Actually, we should be there in ten minutes." He paused. "That is, we would be if DECA was still operational."
Cassie frowned. "DECA's not operational?"
"Either that or DECA's decided to ignore everyone for the past two hours," Ashley answered, grinning. "Can you imagine DECA sulking?"
"Probably learned it from Andros," T.J. quipped, holding his hands up in supplication as Andros glared at him. "I'm kidding. Relax."
Andros still looked annoyed, but the annoyance faded as Ashley reached over and linked arms with him.
"Forget DECA," Carlos said suddenly. "Where's Desert Thunder??"
The other four Rangers turned to see that the Zord was gone. "Wait a minute," T.J. said. "Even if it drove out of here on its own, we would have heard it."
Carlos opened his mouth to speak, but the words never came out as a familiar voice interrupted. "Desert Thunder is currently in the cargo bay," DECA said matter-of-factly.
"DECA?" Ashley cried. "What happened? Where were you?"
"This unit has been connected to the Megaship at all times," DECA answered.
Carlos snorted. "So you were ignoring us!"
DECA actually sounded perplexed. "I do not understand, Carlos."
Before Carlos could let DECA know exactly what he thought of the AI unit, Andros interrupted. "DECA, at our present course, how long until we reach the Earth?"
"Approximately six minutes and thirty-seven seconds."
The Rangers exchanged glances at this. "Guess we weren't drifting," T.J. murmured in a low voice.
"Alpha!" Ashley cried, startling Andros out of his thoughts. "Of course! DECA, please locate Alpha Six."
DECA hesitated several seconds before answering. "Alpha Six is currently located on the bridge."
Andros turned to look at Ashley, evidently picking up on her train of thought. He offered her a small smile before turning back to DECA. "End simulation."
There was another long pause. "DECA," Andros repeated, "end simulation!"
A few more seconds passed, and Carlos leaned over to T.J. "I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that." Cassie clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter, and T.J. let out a snort as the forest scene finally dissolved, and they were back on the Simudeck again.
They stood there for a minute, staring at each other. Finally, Andros shrugged and turned towards the exit, pulling Ashley with him. "Let's get to the bridge."
As they filed out, Carlos turned and started to head in the wrong direction. He was jerked back as T.J. grabbed him by the collar of his uniform. "Where are you going? The bridge is that way."
Carlos opened his mouth, and shut it again as he found himself under the scrutiny of four Rangers. "Um, well, I thought I'd make a pass by the cargo bay," Carlos said. "Just check to make sure DECA isn't going senile or anything."
"Please do not compare me to a human in advanced years with questionable mental health," DECA began.
"Shut up, DECA," Andros and T.J. said in unison.
"Thanks," Carlos began, but his good humor faded as T.J. and Cassie grabbed him by the arms and started to drag him off. "Is this really necessary?"
T.J. grinned, meeting Cassie's amused gaze. "We just want to make sure you get back to the bridge in one piece."
"Which means no joyriding," Cassie added.
Carlos moaned melodramatically as his two friends mock-dragged him off, with Andros and Ashley leading the way. He peered at the pair for a moment skeptically, as Andros took Ashley's hand in his own, squeezing it gently. She turned to him with a warm smile, and for once, that warmth was reflected in Andros' face. Andros said something that Carlos couldn't hear, but it only brightened the smile on Ashley's face.
She was really and truly happy. They're going to be all right, Carlos assured himself, grinning as he repeated the mantra he'd repeated when so many of Ashley's past boyfriends had appeared to be halfway decent.
But this time he believed it.
"Oh, it's so wonderful!" the little robot gushed, watching the scenes play out on the viewscreen of the bridge. "They're so happy!" He let out a mechanical sniffle and a sigh. "I promised myself I wouldn't cry!"
"Cry if you must, Alpha Six," one of the three figures around him advised. Dimitria patted the little robot on the head.
Erutan spoke up from the other side of Alpha. "No one would blame you for crying. It's as natural a reaction to happiness as to sadness."
Alpha shook his head. "It's not that," he explained. "I don't want to rust!"
Erutan and Dimitria exchanged puzzled glances at that, unsure what to say. But behind Alpha, a booming laugh erupted, rich with compassion and good humor. ALPHA SIX, YOU HAVE BRAVED MANY BATTLES WITH THE RANGERS. HOW COULD A LITTLE RUST STOP YOU?
Alpha turned to where the hazy image of Zordon hovered, right above the captain's station in the very center of the bridge. Instead of the cool blue glow of the stasis tube, the interdimensional wizard's features were lit by warm golden light, surrounding him in a small corona that faded into hazy nothingness at the edges. Even freed of his tube, Zordon chose to materialize as a floating head, a habit that he had decided was too old to break now.
Zordon continued, his head cocking as if listening to something. AND IF I AM NOT MISTAKEN, THEY ARE RETURNING TO THE BRIDGE. He paused, then smiled. AND ALL IS AS IT SHOULD BE.
"Wait!" Alpha Six cried out before Zordon could vanish. "Will I--will we ever see you again, Zordon?"
Zordon glanced over to Dimitria and Erutan, who looked down at the floor sadly. I AM AFRAID THAT YOU MAY NOT, ALPHA. THE UNIVERSE IS A VAST STRETCH OF SPACE TO COVER, AND I STILL HAVE FAR TO GO.
Alpha sighed. "I understand, Zordon."
BUT THERE IS ONE THING. A GIFT.
Alpha looked up. "What?"
YOUR BROTHER ALPHA FIVE SPOKE VERY HIGHLY OF YOU ON ELTAR, Zordon explained. BEFORE DARK SPECTER ATTACKED, HE WOULD TALK OF GOING BACK TO EARTH AND JOINING YOU IN ASSISTING THE RANGERS. BUT IN THE DESTRUCTION THAT FOLLOWED, THAT DREAM WAS MADE IMPOSSIBLE. HE ASKED ME TO GIVE YOU A GIFT FROM HIM, AND I SHALL NOW FULFILL THAT LAST WISH.
Before Alpha could ask what that meant, he was enveloped briefly in the golden light, which faded as quickly as it had come. The little robot started as an influx of memories, of places, of people he had never met rushed through his data banks. "Zordon--Alpha Five's memories?"
INDEED. Zordon was smiling widely. REMEMBER HIM FOR ME, ALPHA SIX. REMEMBER THOSE WHO HAVE FOUGHT AND SACRIFICED FOR THE CAUSE OF GOOD.
He began to fade, taking Erutan and Dimitria with him. I MUST RETURN OUR FRIENDS TO THEIR HOMES AND CONTINUE ON. FAREWELL, MY FRIEND.
"Goodbye..." Alpha Six began, but the wizard was already gone. "Goodbye, Zordon. And thank you."
The viewscreen blanked out only a second before the lift doors opened, and Zhane and Karone stepped out. "Sorry I'm late--" Zhane began, then stopped in surprise when he saw that Alpha was the only one there. "Wait a minute. Where is everyone?"
"Maybe we slept through everything," Karone suggested. "They're probably already on Earth now."
"Of course not," Alpha said cheerfully, tapping at a console. "You're the first to return to the bridge. And just in time, I might add."
Zhane blinked, still trying to get a handle on what had just happened. "But Andros told me to come up here an hour ago!"
"Well, I haven't seen anyone," the little robot answered, as the doors at the other side of the bridge opened to admit Andros and Ashley. Right behind them came T.J. and Cassie, who were all but dragging Carlos along between them. Andros and Ashley were talking, and Andros was actually chuckling at something she had said. Zhane and Karone exchanged confused glances.
Once on the bridge, Carlos shook off T.J. and Cassie, standing up straight. "Enough already! Do I always have to be the butt of the joke?"
"You are frequently the simplest target," DECA noted.
Carlos ignored the jibe as the seven friends clustered together in the center of the bridge. "You know, I hate to break the mood," Cassie said, "but does anyone here have any idea what, exactly, just caused all this weirdness?"
Looking at the rest of the Rangers, Ashley smiled. "I don't think it matters. Everything fell into place just as it should have."
"Isn't that a little too convenient?" Carlos wondered.
T.J. tentatively put an arm around Cassie's waist. She gave him a reassuring smile, and he relaxed. "I'm not complaining."
"Says you," Carlos shot back. "I'm the Lone Ranger in this bunch."
Letting go of Andros for a moment, Ashley burst out laughing and hugged her friend. "Never!"
Alpha interrupted their mirth, standing at the viewscreen. "Rangers, we've arrived."
They turned to see the Earth right below them, a vast blue-green orb among the stars. "This is it," Karone said after a moment. "There's no turning back now."
T.J. glanced over at Ashley. "Ready to face the music?"
"Actually," she answered, "yeah. I think so. Everything I've been worrying about suddenly doesn't seem so terrible."
Zhane took Karone's hand in his own, looking out at the planet before them. "Why not?" he asked. "After all, we've got all the time in the world."