Disclaimer: Disney, and more specifically Buena Vista, now owns the Power Rangers. Does that mean they also hold the copyright on Saban-adapted series? I don't know, but I do know that Diane Duane created the Hamalki.
The atmosphere was too thin to support much in the way of wind, but air whispered over his hands and face nonetheless. It took a phenomenal amount of energy to support artificial geothermal processes, and the sun was a distant sparkle that offered little light and less heat. The ambient temperature of the asteroid was so low that any opening in the structure behind him created a breeze as warmer air escaped.
Andros leaned over the railing, staring down into the heavily shadowed crevasse. The lights of the balcony on which he stood were the only significant source of illumination, and they didn't do more than cast his immediate surroundings into sharp relief. The breeze gusted momentarily as one of the doors opened, and the raucous noise of the bar washed over him again.
He lifted his gaze to the opposite side of the canyon, where the stars shone bright and piercing just above the hulking stone. He had nothing against KaliKay's; in fact, there were times when he thoroughly enjoyed both the atmosphere and the company. Tonight was not one of those nights, but he couldn't begrudge the others some much-needed time away.
*Hey.* The single word was all the warning he had, but it was enough. He didn't stiffen as someone ambled up behind him, bringing light and warmth to the chill night air as another pair of hands came to rest on the railing. *You okay?*
He nodded once, keeping his eyes on the stars. *Yeah,* he said silently. *Just needed to get away from the crowd for a while.*
Zhane leaned forward and bounced up on his toes, supporting most of his weight on his arms before dropping back down to the ground. Andros couldn't help giving him an amused glance. *Restless?*
Zhane stilled abruptly. *Not... exactly.* He didn't catch Andros' eye, though, and his fingers clenched on the railing again. *Maybe a little.*
Andros frowned, distracted from his own thoughts by his friend's evasiveness. *Zhane?* he asked, studying the figure at his side. The silver shirt shone in the bright lights, making him look almost luminescent with his white-blonde hair. *Are you okay?*
*Sure,* Zhane said easily. He was staring into the darkness, ignoring Andros' scrutiny. *This is my kind of crowd, you know.*
Andros' frown deepened. Zhane was brushing him off. *Is it?* he insisted. *Then what are you doing out here?*
That made Zhane look at him. *You're here,* he pointed out.
He was ready to argue their different ideas of "fun" when he realized what Zhane meant. The pause lingered longer than he wanted it to. *Oh,* he said awkwardly, looking out over the railing again.
Zhane just sighed.
When he didn't say anything, Andros had to ask. *What?*
*Can't I say things like that to you anymore?* Zhane, too, was gazing toward the far side of the canyon. He put his elbows on the railing and leaned forward, clasping his hands together without looking at them. *I love you. You used to just accept that, but now it makes you uncomfortable. It doesn't have to mean any more than it ever did, Andros.*
He shifted his weight, peripherally aware that he was mimicking Zhane's posture. Playing with the band that encircled his wrist, he admitted reluctantly, *It used to mean more than it does now.*
Zhane shrugged, not contradicting him.
*I want that back,* he continued, keeping his eyes on his hands. *I want it to mean more, but I don't know how to make it. Not anymore. Maybe not ever... you were always the one that knew what to do, that read my mind somehow.*
Zhane pulled his fingers apart and folded his arms, still leaning on the railing. He peered over it as though the bottom of the chasm was more interesting than anything Andros might say. There was no exasperation in his posture, but then, there never was.
*I'm not saying you still should,* Andros said quickly. *I'm trying to figure out how to do this myself, honest. I'm just saying... that's why I'm uncomfortable. It's not because of you. It's just me.*
*Just you?* Zhane said at last. He lifted his head and settled back on his heels, rocking a little as he contemplated the darkness. *Just you.*
He studied Zhane worriedly, wondering what he had said this time. Saying the wrong thing was better than saying nothing at all... wasn't it? It would have to be, if he ever wanted to be able to tell people how he felt.
Finally, Zhane's expression became something more readable and he smiled a little. *Just you is enough. You know that, right?* He turned his gaze on Andros, returning his friend's scrutiny with one just as intense. *We'll vow to fight as a team forever.*
Andros swallowed, remembering that long ago day in the Keyota hills. Zhane had probably done that on purpose, offered him their familiar routine as a way of confirming their feelings without actually having to say the words. He had been the one to push "forever" that day... when had he lost that certainty?
*Not just a team,* he insisted, refusing to take the easy way out. *I love you, Zhane.*
Zhane's smile brightened instantly. The transformation from withdrawn to effusive was startling in more ways that one. Andros hadn't even realized how closed down his friend had been until his feelings shone out through his eyes again, and it had taken so little to make that happen. Why had he hesitated?
He offered his wrist automatically, but Zhane clasped his hand instead and pulled him into a hug. He didn't resist, glad to feel the reassuring strength that had seen him through the hardest moments of his life. Without thinking about it, he rested his head on Zhane's shoulder and hugged him closer.
They stood that way for longer than he had expected, but he didn't want to be the one to let go. When Zhane shivered, his embrace tightened instinctively but he made himself draw back to catch his friend's eye. *Cold?* he asked, frowning. The Silver Ranger never had liked the cold much, but he hadn't been out here that long.
Zhane nodded, making no move to step back. He offered a rueful smile when he shivered again, but he didn't quite meet Andros' eye. Since when was Zhane the quiet one?
Zhane chuckled, obviously overhearing whether Andros had intended him to or not. He caught Andros' gaze at last, and one word echoed between them. *Hypersleep.*
His tone held explanation and apology all at once, and Andros' eyes widened as the meaning of that sank in. *Are you still having those nightmares?* he demanded, angry with himself for not having noticed. *Why didn't you tell me?*
Zhane didn't flinch. *I talked to DECA about it. She says it's normal for them to come back every once and a while, especially when--things happen that I don't expect.*
*Especially when what?* Andros recognized one thought superimposed on another, his friend's clumsy attempt to keep him from hearing what he didn't want to say. Zhane actually diverted his thoughts faster than Andros could, but he wasn't quite convincing enough to make it seem natural.
Zhane's fingers tightened on his, and he looked down at their clasped hands self-consciously. *Look... it's not a big deal, all right? It's just that I've been missing you lately. And let's face it, most of the major trauma in my life involves losing you somehow.
*It's not like I can't sleep at all,* he added, not looking up. That assertion by itself was enough to dismay Andros, knowing as he did that it probably meant Zhane wasn't sleeping. *Being cold just brings back bad memories right now, that's all.*
He had talked to DECA about it, but not Andros. More than that... Andros had been sleeping in the same room with him until just days ago. How could he not have noticed? Zhane shouldn't have had to tell him about it.
"Let's go inside," Andros said abruptly. The words sounded strange out loud, and though he had spoken in a normal tone he couldn't help lowering his voice a little. "Want to catch up with the others?"
"They were playing 'Seven Up' last I knew." Zhane's reply was as noncommittal as it was confusing, and Andros gave him an odd look.
"Seven Up?" he repeated. Zhane's wry grin told him that he probably didn't want to know, so he just shook his head and added, "Never mind. I'm sorry I asked."
They turned away from the railing anyway, and he felt a flash of disappointment when Zhane let go of his hand. A moment later, though, the Silver Ranger's arm draped companionably over his shoulders and he smiled to himself. As casually as he could, he slid his own arm around Zhane's waist.
The door shimmered open in front of them, and they paused to allow a couple from the other side to emerge. One of the pair looked strangely familiar, and Andros took a second look. He thought he ought to know those slitted eyes and green hair from somewhere, and the look she gave him was clearly one of recognition. But he couldn't place her face.
"Someone you know?" Zhane asked quietly, as they made their way inside.
"I don't know." Andros frowned a little, sifting through his memories. Without even a starting point, it was probably a futile exercise. "She does look awfully familiar, though."
"Ranger, maybe." Zhane drew him to one side, making a token effort to avoid people who made way as soon as they recognized Andros. "She was wearing a no-charge bracelet."
Andros glanced down at his own wristband, catching sight of the stars that spilled across the floor as he did so. The glittering lights tumbled out of the door across the hallway as someone exited the room, and his steps slowed. Zhane followed his gaze curiously, and he knew the Silver Ranger was smiling even before he spoke.
"Want to go in?" Zhane asked, his tone indulgent. He knew how much Andros liked the capitol taverns from Eltare. He was already steering him toward the door, not waiting for an answer.
Yes,Andros admitted, if only to himself. And not only because he liked the setup, either. He had some good memories associated with places like this.
Tiny sparkling spheres continued to roll across the floor, winking and vanishing several at a time, until they left the hallway and stepped into a virtual starfield. The floor dropped away, the walls dissolved, and only the close press of other bodies kept the sense of vertigo at bay. The door didn't just close behind them, it disappeared entirely, creating the illusion of a completely uncontained expanse.
He felt Zhane take a deep breath, and his grip relaxed almost imperceptibly. He glanced sideways at his friend, nodding toward the stairs when their gazes met. No matter how indulgent Zhane sounded when he suggested coming in here, Andros knew this was his favorite room too.
*Who turned up the volume?* Zhane wanted to know, as they made their way through the crowd. *Even the Earth bar isn't this loud!*
The ringing effect of dissonant chimes had barely penetrated, mostly because it was the music Andros had been most accustomed to before meeting the Rangers from Earth. The volume wasn't conducive to regular conversation, but that had never been a problem for him and Zhane. *Maybe they're trying to prove that sound does travel in a vacuum,* he suggested.
The stairs were nothing more than a series of glowing platforms, apparently floating free but completely motionless in the middle of the room. Though they were all mostly the same size, several of them extended out beyond the "staircase" as it wound its way upward, indicating an invisible floor. The Eltaran environment was one of the largest at KaliKay's, due as much to popularity as to atmospheric space requirements.
*Want to dance?* Zhane asked, pulling him off of the stairs as soon as they reached the first level. *I don't think I can sit down yet.*
Andros gave him a concerned look. *Still cold? Or just restless?*
Zhane's blue eyes flickered to his, and the corners of his mouth quirked. *Which one will make you say yes?*
Andros almost choked as he recognized the flirtatious expression on his friend's face. *You--you're coming on to me!* he burst out, too flustered to do anything more than notice.
Zhane threw back his head and laughed. *Yes,* he managed at last, patting Andros' shoulder in amusement. *Yes, I am. Congratulations, Andros. There's hope for you yet.*
Surprised, he let himself be drawn into a loose embrace. Like several other revelations he'd had recently, this one was so obvious that it was embarrassing. It was one of those things that other people must have not only noticed, but assumed that he was perfectly aware of. No wonder everyone was so curious about Ashley...
*What are you thinking?* Zhane prompted at last.
Truth or not, he wasn't sure there was any safe way to answer that question. After all, Zhane must have known all along how things looked to the rest of the world. It would probably hurt him more to know that this was one more thing Andros had failed to pick up on. And they had gotten this far without too many awkward silences--he really didn't want to mention Ashley right now.
*Remember the first time we came here?* Andros asked instead.
*I don't think the staff has forgotten yet,* Zhane replied wryly. *That's the real reason everyone's getting out of your way, you know. Not because you're intergalactically famous, but because you're locally infamous.*
Andros tried to hide a smile. *First off, I'm not famous. And second, I'm not the one who started that whole mess!*
*Yes you are,* Zhane retorted. *On both counts.*
Choosing to ignore his first remark, Andros reminded him, *You're the one who insisted on baiting that guy. You're a Ranger; you know he wouldn't have swung at you if you hadn't provoked him.*
*Who did the swinging, again?* Zhane demanded. *I think your memory's getting a little hazy there!*
The smile was getting harder to hide. *He wouldn't have insulted you if you hadn't made yourself the perfect target. And I wouldn't have had to hit him if he hadn't insulted you. Obviously, the whole thing was your fault.*
*Obviously!* Zhane echoed indignantly. *Like I cared that he insulted me! I made him look like an idiot; I could take a few insults in return!*
Andros shook his head, but the smile had snuck out and there was nothing he could do about it. *We were so young they almost didn't let us in,* he mused.
*And they sure regretted it later,* Zhane added with a smirk. *They must have hated having to be so polite to a couple of kids. "On behalf of the KaliKay staff we apologize for the deplorable behavior of our patron..."*
*I couldn't tell if they were talking about you or him,* Andros interrupted.
*They wished they could be talking about you!* Zhane exclaimed. *I bet that was the first and only time a Ranger has ever hit one of their customers!*
Andros shrugged, staring pointedly over Zhane's shoulder. *I was young,* he repeated idly. He was still secretly proud of that incident.
*You were fierce,* Zhane corrected. *And they were ticked!*
*Fierce?* He caught Zhane's eye and found he couldn't look away. *I was fierce?*
It was Zhane's turn to shrug. *It was cute. Did I ever thank you for defending me?*
*No,* Andros said comfortably. *You didn't have to. It was just what we did.*
They held each other's gaze a moment longer, to the point where Andros had almost forgotten what they were talking about when Zhane asked, *Is it still?*
Andros blinked. *I hope so,* he said at last, when his brain finally caught up with his ears. *At least... it is to me.*
*Me too.* Zhane didn't hesitate, and he had succeeded in distracting Andros enough that he didn't see the kiss coming. Only afterwards did he realize they were now motionless in the middle of a fairly crowded dance floor, drawing little to no attention even with their Ranger jackets and silent intimacy.
*Remember what DECA used to say about this place?* Zhane prodded, watching him through half-lidded eyes.
*She hated it.* He was, in all honesty, paying more attention to Zhane's mouth than he was to the question at hand, but he did remember--vividly--DECA's threats about imposing a curfew. *I think she wanted us where she could keep an eye on us.*
Zhane smirked, and the expression drew Andros closer. The Silver Ranger met him halfway, and this time the kiss lingered between them. The music had changed while Andros wasn't paying attention, and the people around them were more respectful than they had any right to be because not a single one bumped into them.
The details flitted through Andros' mind as his awareness escalated, capturing the smoothness of Zhane's shirt and the strength of the grip on his shoulders. A "star" lantern drifted by overhead, momentarily illuminating them and burning the colors into Andros' mind. The kiss was gentle and undemanding, but it still did strange things to his perception of time. Not to mention the feeling in his stomach...
The smugness was gone from Zhane's expression when he pulled away, and in its absence his smile was lazy. *DECA never liked the idea of us coming here alone.*
*She didn't understand how it could be more private than the Megaship,* Andros agreed, glancing around in an effort to collect himself. They hadn't moved or, for all anyone else knew, spoken for several minutes. Yet here despite their Ranger insignia they were just another couple, and who would intrude on that?
He couldn't really hear Zhane chuckle over the sound of the music, but he felt the motion nonetheless. *Oh yes she did,* the Silver Ranger informed him. *She knew exactly what we liked about KaliKay's.*
Andros caught his eye in surprise, and just like that, the words clicked into new focus. Zhane wasn't joking around so much as he was flirting! *Am I the most clueless person in the galaxy?* he blurted out, blindsided by the obvious for the third--or fourth?--time tonight.
Zhane's eyes sparkled, reflecting the stars, or maybe revealing some inner amusement if his grin was anything to go by. *That depends,* he said at last. *Which galaxy?*
Andros almost laughed, though more in disbelief than humor. "I--" The instant he spoke he realized it was nearly impossible to make himself heard, but he needed something to do with his energy. "I need a drink," he said firmly, repeating himself mentally to make sure Zhane would catch the words as he pulled away.
*Haven't heard you say that in a long time,* Zhane replied good-naturedly. He felt the Silver Ranger catch his hand as they headed for the stairs again, and Andros squeezed his fingers in silent gratitude.
*It's something about having you in my life,* Andros retorted. He didn't have to turn to know that his friend would be amused by the idea.
*Funny,* Zhane remarked, following Andros up the stairs. *You'd think I'd be the one saying that about you!*
*I was perfectly responsible kid until you!* That wasn't necessarily true, but he needed the space that their usual banter provided right now. Being here made it all too easy to forget everything but Zhane, and he couldn't do that.
*There are so many things wrong with that statement that I don't know where to start!* Zhane complained. *I don't even remember a time before I knew you, so how exactly can you judge our influence on each other?*
*I'm not judging our influence,* Andros replied promptly. *Just yours, which was notoriously bad. Everyone knew you were a troublemaker.*
*That's not true! I was a fantastic student!*
*Which didn't mean much when you had detention every day!*
*As I recall, I served a few of your detentions, too,* Zhane argued.
*Because you got me into them!* Distracted, Andros didn't notice the giant glass spider making its way down the stars until Zhane yanked him out of the way.
Looking down was a mistake. There were no railings on the stairs, and even if the crowds of people obscured some of the simulated infinity below them, there was still plenty of evidence for multiple-story height. His balance spun for a moment, trying to reorient him, and suddenly he was drawn up against Zhane's chest.
*Honestly, Andros,* the Silver Ranger was saying, guiding them both up the last few steps to the top level. *You're the only person I know who can miss a Hamalki barreling toward them. Want me to get your drink?*
He shook off the remembered dizziness and let go of Zhane's hand. *No, I'm fine. Thanks. You want?*
*Yes.* Zhane gave him an expectant look but didn't elaborate. When Andros just looked at him, he added cheerfully, *Oh, you mean a drink! Sure, I'll have a sparkler.*
Andros blinked, trying to process the subtext without looking too bewildered. Zhane's grin wasn't helping, either, so he turned and retreated to the bar. He knew, without having to wonder, that Zhane had always been like this. What he was trying desperately to remember was whether the Silver Ranger's attention had ever been so blatantly focused on him before.
He was more than a little dismayed to realize that he wasn't sure. Zhane had been noticeably more physical since the quest, and some of his remarks on the publicity tour had been downright possessive. Andros hadn't paid much attention at the time, more concerned with questions about Ashley than with the way Zhane was coming across.
Now he was paying attention. Zhane was kissing him, flirting with him, and he couldn't help but see it in the context of his relationship with Ashley. When it had been just him and Zhane, their closeness had been a given. Things were different now--yet Zhane still chose him. It was as inexplicable as Ashley's attraction to him, and he wondered, not for the first time, what they saw that he didn't.
He was so preoccupied that he ended up with two drinks in his hands and little to no memory of how they had gotten there. They were what he wanted, so he must not have been quite as lost as he felt. He shook his head as he looked around for Zhane. It was that propensity for distraction that led his friend to tease him about single-mindedness. He suspected it was also the same thing that got him into situations like the one he and Zhane faced now.
*Over here.* Zhane's voice was clear in his mind, and with the words came an unmistakable sense of direction. He followed the tug without conscious thought, threading his way through the crowd before he had even caught sight of Zhane.
The Silver Ranger was perched on the edge of a luminescent table, paying no attention to his approach. He was smiling blithely at a pretty, long-haired Aquitian who seemed to be trying to demonstrate something to him. Andros recognized the hand gestures that comprised a large part of some Aquitian subcultures. Zhane had coaxed Cestria into showing him some basic phrases, and now he was watching raptly as the girl in front of him tried to correct his "pronunciation".
Raptly? As in, completely absorbed? Andros halted where he was, drinks in hand as he considered the scene before him.
The moment he stopped, Zhane looked up and his intent expression dissolved into a welcoming grin as he caught Andros' eye. Andros couldn't suppress a slightly smug smile as he started forward again to join them. Zhane put on a good show, but he had been paying enough attention to know exactly when Andros turned away from the bar and to see his confusion through the dancers and the darkness.
The Aquitian made a gesture of greeting, and he just nodded politely. He handed Zhane his drink without a word. The Silver Ranger put his hand to his mouth in a motion that even Andros recognized as "thank you", and the girl clearly got the message.
She smiled, motioning farewell, and Zhane mimicked her gesture. He settled into the other seat as soon as Andros sat down, but he watched the Aquitian go with an admiring gaze. Andros only shook his head, smiling a little as he stirred the ice in his drink.
*Thanks,* Zhane said suddenly, turning back to him with an odd look on his face. Before Andros could say anything, though, he added, *You don't mind when I flirt with girls, do you.*
It wasn't a question, but Andros found himself frowning anyway. *What do you mean?*
*That.* Zhane gestured vaguely with one hand, not really indicating anything in particular. *Her. You didn't mind me talking with her.*
*Why should I?* Andros asked, a little defensively. *You can talk to anyone you want.*
Zhane's gaze didn't waver. *As long as they're a girl?*
*What?* Andros blinked, trying to figure out whether he'd missed part of this conversation.
*You couldn't care less who I flirt with, from Ashley to Taikwa to half the population of Keyota. As long as the person I chat up is a girl.*
Andros closed his mouth, abruptly catching on. He had a sinking suspicion that he knew where this was going, and that he understood too late. How did Zhane pull things like this out of thin air? One minute he was trying to hold his own in the face of a frontal assault, and the next Zhane was sneaking around the back to ambush him with this.
The next words out of Zhane's mouth were no less than he had expected. *Why Ty?* the Silver Ranger asked, point blank. *You never said a word about anyone else.*
Zhane paused, then amended, *Well, to anyone else, anyway. I've never seen you warn anyone away from me until Ty. Why him?*
*I didn't warn him away,* Andros told his glass. Staring down at the table, he tried to keep the rest of his thoughts to himself. Thoughts like, but I would if I thought it would work.
*You know what I mean.* He could still feel Zhane's eyes on him. *You told me you hated him. You told him none of us were any of his business. You said--*
*I was there,* Andros interrupted, glaring at the tabletop. *I know what I said.*
*So?* Zhane prompted.
*So sleeping with someone is a lot different than flirting with them,* Andros said curtly.
There was a quiet moment, but he didn't look up.
*Okay,* Zhane said at last. *Yeah, I'll give you that.* He hesitated, and for the first time he sounded uncertain. *Is that it?*
His finger was white on the surface of the table as he pretended to trace a design against the glow. Gritting his teeth, he demanded, *Isn't that enough?*
This time, though he waited, there was no answer. He had finally managed to end the conversation, and he was already regretting his words. Lifting his gaze, he found that Zhane had looked away too.
*No,* he admitted with a sigh, watching as Zhane's eyes flicked back to his. *That's not it.*
Zhane's eyes asked the question for him. Then what?
Andros shifted uncomfortably, but there was only one true answer to that. "He's not me," he said, letting the music drown out his words as he gazed back at Zhane.
Zhane must have read the sentence on his lips. *He's not you?* he repeated, just to be sure.
Andros nodded silently.
Zhane studied him for a moment, then his mouth quirked in a half-smile. *Good thing,* he remarked, once more offering Andros a way out of awkwardness. *One of you is bad enough. Imagine what we'd do with two!*
*You've flirted with girls as long as I can remember,* Andros said, determined to explain. *Sometimes you don't even mean to; it's just... the way you talk. But you've never, ever looked at a guy like that, except--*
He swallowed, but he couldn't change the truth any more than he could hide it. He tried to ignore his self-consciousness as he finished, *Except me.*
Zhane's smile faded, and Andros had to look away. The Eltaran/human distinction was a subtle one, and it was difficult to tell the difference unless one was looking for it. Or if one was surrounded by a room full of one or the other... They were hardly the only aliens here, but as humans they did seem to be in the minority.
*Andros.* His attention was drawn back to Zhane involuntarily, and he found himself being watched just as closely as before. *I didn't do it to get back at you, you know. I was just...*
The Silver Ranger looked down for the first time. He didn't want to finish that thought, but the word hung in the air between them anyway. Lonely.
*Me too,* Andros admitted. He could only hope it wasn't the wrong thing to say.
Zhane smiled a little, but he didn't look up. *You have Ashley.*
*Is it...* Andros hesitated. He knew it was far harder for Zhane to be alone than it was for him. He knew, too, that Zhane's use of the present tense when it came to Ashley was uncertain at best. *Is it selfish to say that's not enough?*
Zhane remained motionless, staring at his drink. *Not to me.*
There was more to that than just negation, and Andros thought back over their words. Kerone. Kerone and Zhane had already had this conversation, about Ty. *What is enough?* he asked abruptly, then tried not to blush when Zhane looked up.
Zhane didn't answer, just looked, and Andros tried to explain. *Kerone didn't mind that you were seeing Ty,* he said awkwardly. *She said you wanted your relationship that way.*
*What way?* Zhane's expression was perfectly calm and maybe a little too neutral. Andros knew his friend expected him to say something he wasn't going to like, but he wasn't sure how to avoid it.
*Open?* He knew it came out as a question, but he couldn't help it. He didn't think he could stand having Zhane mad at him again, not now. *She said you had an open relationship.*
*And you assume that was my idea?*
*Was it hers?* Andros asked tentatively.
Zhane shrugged. *I don't remember who said it first. But we both agreed.*
*Why?* The question was out before he had time to figure out what he meant.
Zhane's gaze didn't waver. *Because I love more than I should, and she loves less. We'd never be able to stay together if we both demanded that the other be everything we need.*
Andros blinked, and his brain locked on to the only part of the answer that seemed to relate to his question. *You love more than you should? How much more?*
*What do you want to know, Andros? Stop saying vague things like "what's enough" and just get to the point.*
He swallowed. *Are you still sleeping with Ty?*
That wasn't what he meant to say. Or at least, he had tried to keep himself from asking. It was too late now, and he still couldn't read Zhane's expression.
*What if I am?* Zhane wanted to know.
*You told me to get to the point,* Andros said quietly.
Zhane considered that, and a rueful smile flashed across his face. *Okay,* he agreed. *You're right. No.*
*You're not sleeping with him?*
Zhane's smile lingered, but he didn't look happy. *Are you sleeping with Ash?* he countered.
Slowly, Andros shook his head.
*Is it the same thing?* Zhane pressed.
*Maybe,* Andros admitted.
*No,* Zhane corrected after a moment. The odd smile was gone from his face, and now he looked apologetic. *It's not the same thing, and I shouldn't have jumped on you like that. I just feel like...*
Zhane trailed off, his expression twisting. Andros' breath caught at the glimmer of utter unhappiness that shone through before Zhane shrugged it off. *When Astrea and I talked about our relationship, we agreed that no matter how in love we are we don't own each other. But you do--you own me, Andros. That's not a comfortable feeling, sometimes.*
Andros stared at him, that simple declaration delivered in the most straightforward of ways. He could think of absolutely nothing to say.
*Like now,* Zhane added glumly, propping his elbow on the table and resting his chin on his hand. *I can't help resenting you for not seeing how much you mean to me. And then I feel bad, because I know you're more confused than I am and there's nothing I can do to help, and even if I tried it would only make things worse.*
Still at a complete loss, Andros finally managed to at least voice the truth. *I don't know what to say.*
Zhane shrugged again. *I know.* He tapped his glass idly, setting off a cascade of sparkles in the dark liquid. *You don't have to say anything. I just thought I'd tell you, since you're asking all these "what's enough" questions. I told you that you were enough, before. And I meant it.*
*But...* Andros felt guilty for pushing this now, but he knew he'd never have the courage to bring it up again later. *We were together, once. And you still dated.*
Zhane tapped his glass again. *You never asked me not to. And it's fun.*
*So if I asked you not to now, would you do it?* He hated the way Zhane was fidgeting, but he couldn't keep himself from asking. *Even if I was seeing Ash?*
*I swore an oath to you once,* Zhane said, not looking up. The set of his shoulders said that he hadn't known then what it would cost him to keep that oath, but he added doggedly, *I'd do it again.*
*The oath was supposed to be to KO-35,* Andros reminded him, somewhat helplessly.
This time, Zhane flicked his finger against his glass so hard the entire drink glowed. *What can I say? I care about you more than I care about KO-35.*
"What can I say" was one of Ty's phrases, and Andros tried to ignore it. Zhane glanced up at him from under his eyelashes, and the look on his face meant that he'd only just realized what he'd said. His faint smirk said that he now knew Andros had noticed, too.
*I wouldn't ask you not to see other people,* Andros blurted out. He hadn't realized himself how hypothetical the question was until Zhane answered it.
Zhane stilled. *Even Ty?* he asked at last.
Andros stared down at his own untouched glass. Zhane was testing too. *Even Ty,* he agreed reluctantly. Even if he would be "Tixe" again the minute Andros found out about it.
*But would it bother you?* Zhane wanted to know. He was looking at Andros again, though considering the intensity of his gaze it was almost as disconcerting as it was comforting. *I don't mean, "can you live with it?" I mean, honestly, how do you feel about me going out with Ty?
*I'm really, really bored,* Zhane continued, before he could even begin to answer. *And alone. And there's absolutely no one on the team I can talk to right now. If you don't mind me hanging out with Ty... I need something to do!*
Andros stared back at him, dismayed by the heartfelt loneliness of that plea. To him, it didn't feel like that long since they'd been surrounded by the Astro Rangers and the chaos that was life on Earth. It had been more than half the season since then--almost two months on Earth--but they had been busy, first with the tour, then with the moving...
Had it really been half the season already? The length of time his mind supplied was incontestable. He and Zhane and Ashley had been getting nowhere for half the winter. No wonder Zhane was going out of his mind. But he hadn't said a word...
"I'm sorry," Andros whispered, knowing Zhane wouldn't hear him. *I'm sorry.*
*Don't be sorry!* Zhane protested. *I know you have to think things through. That's fine. Do what you have to do. But...*
*Don't avoid Ty because of me,* Andros interrupted. *You can hang out with whoever you want.*
*You don't like him,* Zhane pointed out, just as quickly. *I'd rather be bored than get the glare every time I see you. Not to mention the way you treat him.*
*I don't glare,* Andros grumbled. Catching Zhane's eye, he amended, *Well, I won't. And I'll try to be... nicer.*
*I'm not asking for nice.* Zhane's lips twitched, but he managed to maintain a serious expression. *Just civil. Civil is fine.*
*Fine.* Andros frowned at him, but he knew Zhane's amusement was probably justified. What irked him more than anything was that Zhane had to ask. How oblivious was he that he couldn't even see what his friend wanted without having it spelled out for him?
Zhane was frowning back at him. *You're glaring.*
*I am not!* The protest was automatic but futile. He reached out to pull his drink closer, numbing his fingers against the sweating glass. *I'm sorry,* he repeated. *I don't... I wish I knew how to be what you see in Ty.*
*I don't want you to be Ty!* Zhane was on his feet before Andros knew what was happening, and he looked up in surprise. The Silver Ranger looked angry and flustered and about two seconds away from laughing on top of it. *How do I make you listen to me, Andros? Just tell me how!*
Andros stared at him, eyes wide as he tried to figure out what he'd said.
Running a hand through his hair, Zhane cast his gaze restlessly around the room. When it finally landed on Andros again, his shoulders rose and fell in a silent sigh. *Would it freak you out if I kissed you right now?*
Startled, Andros shook his head automatically.
*Come here.* Zhane was pulling him up before he remembered to let go of his glass, and he stumbled a little as he was drawn up against the Silver Ranger. Then Zhane's mouth was on his, hot and hungry, undeniably demanding.
Andros stiffened, instincts betraying him even as his mind told him furiously to go along with it. Caught off balance both literally and metaphorically, he was completely unprepared for Zhane's insistence. Even as he tried to pull away, though, he found himself returning the kiss.
Zhane's grip loosened just as Andros relaxed. The rest of the world disappeared in a rush of sensation, and he let it go without a second thought. Zhane's mouth on his was good, dizzying, and definitely something that didn't happen enough. Especially like this.
Fingers clenched on his shoulders, and he eased back of his own accord. Zhane stared at him, struggling for breath as he searched Andros' expression. *I like Ty,* he said deliberately. *But I love you. What do I have to do to convince you?*
*Zhane?* Kerone's voice made them both jump.
He drew in a breath and took another step back before answering. For all that the communication wasn't face-to-face, he managed to compose himself quickly. *Hey, Astrea. What's up?*
*I think we're kind of winding down here,* she answered. *Did you find Andros?*
Though she was addressing Zhane, she hadn't bothered to focus her thoughts so that only he could hear. Andros wondered suddenly if KaliKay's was as noisy on a telepathic level as it was on an auditory one. How many people could overhear her conversation with Zhane?
*Yeah, he's right here.* Zhane caught his eye and one corner of his mouth lifted in an irrepressible smirk. *We were just... talking.*
Andros pointedly folded his arms and looked away, but he couldn't completely suppress a smile. Zhane knew it, too. He hadn't had to say anything; he had done that solely to amuse Andros.
*Want to talk on the way home?* Kerone offered, in all innocence. *I don't want to interrupt, but if you guys are ready to go... it's been a long day.*
Andros frowned a little, catching Zhane's eye again. If Kerone was bored, she would have already gone back to the Megaship. She must be talking about the others. They had spent a long day painting and rewiring; it was no wonder Ashley and Ty were feeling the effects.
The same understanding showed on Zhane's face, and he gave Andros an inquiring look. When Andros nodded, he told Kerone, *We're on our way. Are you guys all together?*
*Yes,* Kerone answered. *We'll meet you outside the main exit?*
*Sounds good,* Zhane agreed. *See you in a few minutes.*
*You were good,* Andros remarked, when Zhane's attention shifted to him again. *You didn't even take advantage of the "talking on the way" home suggestion.*
Zhane's face broke into a wide grin. *You noticed that, huh? I wanted to tell her that we "talk" better without an audience.*
Andros gave him a wry look. *Of course, if she knew what you meant and saw where we are, she wouldn't believe that anyway.*
Zhane only shrugged. *Kissing me is probably the only thing you're more willing to do in front of a crowd than your own teammates,* he remarked lightly.
Andros froze, but Zhane was already reaching for Andros' glass and apparently expected no answer. He gulped some of the icewater before setting it back on the table, then turned back to Andros. *Ready to go?*
Zhane's own drink was untouched, Andros noted distantly.
*Andros?* Zhane prompted. *You ready?*
Why was what Zhane had said wrong? He was running it over and over in his mind, and for once his brain cooperated. Abruptly it clicked and he lifted his gaze to Zhane's in startled realization. *You don't kiss me in front of them!* he accused.
Zhane went very still. *What?*
*You kiss me more than I kiss you,* Andros blurted out. *I'm not saying that's the way it should be but it's true, and you don't kiss me in front of the others!*
*No,* Zhane said after a moment. *I guess that's true.*
Neither of them spoke until finally Zhane asked, *Do you want me to?*
He shouldn't have said anything. He just hadn't been able to let the reproof slip by unchallenged. Andros took a deep breath and offered awkwardly, *I don't... want you not to, if that's what you mean.*
Zhane seemed to take that at face value. *All right,* he agreed, smiling happily. *I'll remember.*
He looked so pleased that Andros couldn't find it in his heart to regret what he'd said. He had never asked Zhane not to kiss him in front of the others--specifically Ashley--but the Silver Ranger had obviously taken his cue from Andros' own reticence. He was right: Andros wasn't sure he wanted to do that to Ashley.
Unfortunately, he couldn't take Zhane being disappointed in him either. He didn't know how to make both of them happy, and he only seemed to be succeeding in making everyone miserable. If he could do this one thing for Zhane, wasn't it at least a step in the right direction?
Andros was so preoccupied that he almost didn't notice Zhane's arm over his shoulders as they headed for one of the upper level doors. Zhane had been doing that a lot lately: walking with him instead of just beside him. He hadn't been this physically demonstrative since--well, since just after he'd woken up from hypersleep.
Zhane didn't say anything as they made their way toward the outside of the dome, apparently content to let him mull things over in his mind. Or maybe he was doing some mulling of his own. It was hard to say with Zhane, who often wore the same expression whether he was contemplating the nature of existence or counting blades of grass.
The others were waiting when they stepped out into the thin, chilly air of the terraformed asteroid. Ty nodded, and Ashley welcomed them with a tired smile. Andros' heart went out to her, and he let go of Zhane to wrap her in his arms without even thinking about it.
She allowed the hug without the slightest hesitation. He saw Kerone smile approvingly, and Zhane tipped his head back to stare up at the stars. "Miss us?" Andros asked, loud enough that everyone could hear.
"Maybe," Ashley murmured, but she was overridden by her teammates.
Kerone and Ty said "no" at the same time, and promptly exchanged smug looks. Zhane regarded them suspiciously. Ashley giggled, pushing Andros away, and he raised an eyebrow in Zhane's direction.
"I'm not sure they appreciate us," he said, wondering if he looked convincingly wounded.
The smirk on Zhane's face said he did. "Story of my life," he sighed dramatically. "Ow!" he added with feigned indignation, rubbing the side of his head when Kerone cuffed him.
"Can we go somewhere warmer now?" Ty wanted to know, pretending not to notice when Zhane moved around to his other side--where Kerone couldn't reach him. "Where were you anyway, the basement?"
"We were talking," Zhane said defiantly, and Andros glanced in his direction.
"Ooh, story!" Ashley nudged him, but she was grinning at Zhane. "You just got the Look! What did you do to deserve that?"
Andros busied himself searching for his digimorpher. He had thought the whole "Look" thing was over and buried, until Zhane happened to mention it in Ty's presence several weeks ago. Ever since, he hadn't been able to so much as glance at one of his teammates without someone laughing.
"Cold," Ty reminded them, a bit plaintively, and this time Zhane backed him up.
"Yeah, let's get up to the Megaship where DECA can make it feel like summer. I hope the heaters are working by now, because if the hangar's as cold as it was this afternoon there's no way I'm sleeping there."
"DECA," Andros said, flipping his digimorpher open at last. "Five to teleport."
Sometimes Kerone teleported them, sometimes not. If she volunteered, no one complained, but there was an unspoken understanding that any magical favors she did were just that: favors. It was, possibly, the only thing they'd been able to unanimously agree on so far.
"Acknowledged," the computer's voice replied. "Teleporting now."
The night vanished into a shower of crimson sparkles.