Disclaimer: "We should have brought more snacks." Isn't that the truth! I have been influenced by Diane Duane's The Wounded Sky, Mercedes Lackey's Winds Of Change, and Buena Vista's production of Power Rangers, formerly owned by Saban.
She came in low over the night side of the planet, dumping speed with a little more finesse than she had once been able to manage. Her zord's velocity had dropped below the speed of sound before they were deep enough in the atmosphere for compression waves to carry. They trail of their descent would still illuminate the sky, but it would be less conspicuous than breaking the sound barrier.
She knew she was approaching dawn, but the Keyota hills were approaching faster. Her cat lifted its head out of its compact delta wing shape and extended its legs, preparing for touchdown just east of town. There was no sign but that of the instruments when their trajectory rose, flattening out over the ground as they made the transition from air to land--that and the shadows flashing past outside.
Ashley couldn't see well enough to navigate in the semi-darkness, but she let go of the controls and let her cat race them toward the hangar. The zords still returned there whenever they set down, inhabited or not, and she supposed she should be grateful that they didn't have to find an orbital parking space for them. The cats seemed to prefer being grounded, anyway.
A flicker of light caught her eye as her cat slowed, and she looked up from the instruments to scan the forward screen more thoroughly. Judging by their velocity, they must be right on top of the hangar. Her cat had slowed to an easy lope, pace still falling off until they were slinking across the ground toward a looming shadow that could only be their destination.
No planet tonight,she noted absently, trying to remember when it would be back. RS-42 was on the sun side of its sister planet for another day, when a waxing sliver would appear in the early morning sky. She had never bothered to keep track of the moon's phases when she was on Earth, but here... well, the cats cared, and that made it seem important.
Two lights. There were actually two lights on at the hangar; she could see them now as her cat came to a complete halt. There was one on outside, a light above the door the Rangers used and the one that was traditionally left on for anyone out late. Whoever came back last turned it off. She was sure it hadn't been on when they went up to the Megaship days before.
There was another one around the corner, one that she couldn't see from here but probably the same one she had seen at first. It looked like one of their room lights. It had been coming from the upper level--the only place they had windows, after all, so if it had been an interior light it had to have been coming from the catwalk. But who would be in their rooms at this hour?
Her cat was settling right where it was, clearly not about to roll the doors open and enter the hangar of its own accord. They slept outside sometimes, and she thought they had done it more these last couple of days. Reluctant to go inside, or just wistfully waiting for spring? Did the cats even care what the weather was like?
"Thanks," she said quietly, patting the console in front of her. "Sleep well, Cat." She hesitated, then added, "I promise, when I think of a name good enough for you, I'll tell you what it is."
To her surprise, the instrument lights in front of her lit from left to right, a sparkle that ran across the board and then vanished. Not an error, or a warning, or even part of the diagnostic code that often ran automatically. Not a shutdown message, either, since that happened simultaneously rather than in sequence like this.
She smiled to herself, giving the console another pat. An acknowledgement of her words, then? Magic talked to Kerone, after all. Not in words, but in movements: a flick of the ear, or a twitch of the tail. Sometimes the cat meowed at her, which was cute in a really strange way. Maybe Ashley's zord was doing the same thing.
Looking out the front at the hangar again, she decided she'd better investigate the lights before she went up to the Megaship. She'd expected the other Rangers to be asleep, but it was possible they had gotten up early to work on the hangar. They certainly didn't have much time for it during the day right now.
Getting up early?Her brain repeated the thought back to her as she teleported out of her zord, pointing out how unlikely the scenario was. Neither Andros nor Zhane was exactly known for their fondness for mornings. Maybe Kerone was around somewhere. With or without Kyril...
She headed for the door, long shadow stretching behind her as she walked into the light. She couldn't help thinking to herself, Sure, someone's left a light on in an abandoned building recently overrun by evil. I'll just go check it out. At night. Alone. The thought made her giggle. The hangar was still home, still familiar no matter what state it was in. It didn't scare her.
She unclipped her digimorpher and held it up to the scanner by the door, waiting for the lock to click open. There was a light on inside, too, and she didn't take more than a single step before stopping to stare. The hangar was empty. Not just empty of the zords--they must all be out tonight--but empty of everything.
Not everything, she realized after a moment. She could still see the colored lining of the practice mats in the shadows on the far side of the hangar. She could pick out the outline of the doors that closed off the storage and workrooms. They were doors that had been missing yesterday, torn out of their accustomed places by over-enthusiastic quantrons. The kitchen alcove, too, seemed relatively intact.
The furniture was gone. Table, chairs, old couch, and the bookshelves that had run along the far wall. All had been damaged or destroyed by quantrons or crossfire and she had thought it would take longer to clean the place out than it would to refurbish it. Not to mention the quantrons, deactivated or demolished and left behind when the hangar's shielding prevented their retrieval by whoever had sent them. There wasn't a single piece of silver scrap metal or a Q-blade to be seen.
"Surprise," a quiet voice said from the stairs, and she turned sharply.
Kerone was sitting there, chin propped on her hand as she watched Ashley stare around the echoing expanse. She smiled when Ashley caught her eye, but she didn't move. "Ty and I did some cleaning," she said casually. "It's not quite up to standard, but it's getting there."
"Kerone... this is amazing." She hoped she sounded as grateful as she felt. "I thought it was going to take us forever just to get everything out of here, never mind fixing it up again."
"Well, it's not totally clean. Wait till you see it with more light on it. The walls need a lot of paint, and the floor's pretty burned up in some places. We need new mats, too, but no one will convince Andros to stop working out until we get them. I figured the old ones were better than nothing for now."
"At least we have a place to start," Ashley said. The prospect already seemed less daunting. "At least we can start, now, instead of just looking around and thinking about what a mess it is."
"I did a lot of that, too," Kerone admitted. "But Ty needed something physical to do, and Kyril didn't care what he did as long as it was different. I got them to help haul the quantrons out, and most of the bigger stuff, and then I got rid of it all. Then we started cleaning and repairing. It was a bonding experience," she added with a smile.
Ashley climbed up on the steps beside her, noting that the comm behind the stairs was still dark. She didn't ask about the computer system. "You guys are awesome," she said sincerely, putting an arm around Kerone's shoulders and hugging her sideways.
"We know," Kerone agreed, but her voice was warm and fond as she hugged back. "I magicked your room, too. I hope you don't mind."
"You what?" Ashley asked, resting her head against Kerone's shoulder. "Don't tell me you cleaned out everything upstairs, too."
"Actually, upstairs was easier. Except for the hauling part. We worked up there first and just tossed stuff down--you'd be surprised how much fun it is to smash things when you know they don't matter anymore." Kerone sounded just short of giggling. "Ty got a little too into that part."
"How's he doing?" Ashley asked softly, smiling a little at the picture Kerone had drawn. She could just see Kerone directing the demolition: Kerone would be happy because she was in charge, and the boys would be happy because they got to break things. It had probably been worth recording.
"He's... okay." Kerone hesitated. "Maybe a little bit like the hangar. He's cleared out most of the bad stuff, I think. He just has to build the good stuff back up. He's talking again--you know, you saw him yesterday morning. He's participating. Andros even dragged him to lunch yesterday afternoon."
"Andros did?" Ashley repeated, lifting her head.
"I know, not what I expected either." Kerone sounded amused. "But maybe they're good for each other. They both blame themselves for a lot of the things that have happened lately. Maybe that makes it easier for them to forgive each other, and for them to really believe it when the other says it."
"I hope so," Ashley murmured. "It's not like they listen to the rest of us when we say it's not their fault."
"We have to say it," Kerone pointed out. "At least they think we do. Because we're their friends. Maybe it means more coming from them because they never really liked each other to begin with."
Ashley rolled her eyes. "Guys bond over the strangest things," she said with a sigh. "But as long as they do bond, I guess. That's worth something."
"It's worth a lot," Kerone agreed quietly, tightening the arm she had around Ashley. "Sometimes I think there's hope for us after all. That we really will be a team, someday."
Ashley smiled to herself. "We're already a team," she corrected softly. "Someday we'll just be a better one."
They sat there without words for a few minutes. The hangar was barely lit, but as her eyes became accustomed to the dimness, she could see what Kerone meant. The scars weren't gone from the walls, anymore than the memory of the devastation was gone from her memory. But the neatness, the simplicity of what remained was enough to make it seem more welcoming.
A light flickered beside the stairs to their right, and Ashley glanced over automatically. There was DECA, the translucence of her form a testament to the sporadic nature of the remaining projectors. The AI said nothing about the holographic quality, though, choosing instead to grace them with a small smile.
"Welcome home, Ashley," she remarked. "Thank you for your updates from Elisia. I am pleased to hear that Cassie and her children are well."
"Us too," Ashley said with a contented smile. "It looks like they're all going to be okay after all."
"Just like us?" Kerone suggested quietly, and Ashley hugged her again.
"Just like us," she agreed.
"Shall I turn off the outside lights?" DECA inquired.
It was Kerone who nodded. "Yes, please. We're all here now," she added, exchanging glances with Ashley.
"Everyone's sleeping down here again?" Kerone was very efficient. "Did you 'magic' everyone's rooms?"
"As best I could. I didn't do as good a job with Andros' and Ty's," she said regretfully. "I didn't see them as much, before, so we mostly just cleaned up. I fixed what I could, but they're not like they were before."
"Well, of course they couldn't be," Ashley reassured her. "But this is good; it will force the guys to come furniture shopping with us. They ducked out last time, remember? This time we're going to do it right. Everyone's going, and we're not coming back until we can make this place decent. A place where we can actually bring visitors without scaring them."
A delighted smile spread across Kerone's face. "I think that's a great idea," she declared. "We don't have anything to start with, so Andros can't say it's 'good enough.' Oh, I know! Let's get Cricket to help!"
Ashley couldn't help giggling at the idea, but only because it was so perfect. "We should! She's like an adult, and plus, even Andros admits that she's better at getting the right 'image' than he is. She'll seem more objective!"
"And it'll be three to three," Kerone pointed out. "Ty and Andros never want anything. And Zhane lets Andros push him around too much. This way we'll have a fair female representation."
Ashley nodded, satisfied. "I like it. Let's do it right away." The words were interrupted by a yawn she couldn't stifle, and it was Kerone's turn to giggle.
"Maybe after you get some sleep," she suggested. "It must have been a long night. Where did you guys go?"
"The city arboretum," Ashley said, letting her arm fall from Kerone's shoulders as she pushed herself to her feet. "And a restaurant I can't remember the name of. The Elisian Rangers took turns showing us around. And Shei came with us to the arboretum... Raine and Azmuth's daughter? She's cute."
"She must have gotten a lot bigger since I saw her last." Kerone stood up too, clearly intending to walk upstairs with her. "Thanks, DECA."
"Yeah, it's good to be home," Ashley told her with a genuine smile. "It's good to see both of you."
DECA nodded once. "It's good to see you as well," she answered gently. "I like to have all of my Rangers where I can keep an eye on them."
"Thanks for looking out for us," Ashley said softly.
DECA smiled back at her. "It's my pleasure to do so, Ashley."
She waved a little as she turned to follow Kerone up the stairs, and she saw DECA incline her head in return. She really did watch out for them. It was even better to have her in the hangar than it had been to meet her on the Megaship. Back then she had just been one more thing to get used to, but now... now she was something familiar, one of their teammates as much as Kerone or Ty.
Something struck her as odd as she stepped onto the second landing, and she paused. Glancing back, she took one step down and then up again. "That stair doesn't squeak anymore."
"I had to fix it," Kerone said apologetically. "Someone hit it during the fighting and it was partly vaporized. The one below it, too. When I fixed it I had to make it just like the others."
"So no squeak," Ashley surmised.
"Good," Ashley decided. "It was annoying anyway."
They made their way up to the catwalk, and along it until Ashley reached her own door. She took a deep breath, exchanging glances with Kerone. Bracing herself for what she might see inside, she opened the door.
The light she had seen from the outside had been hers. It was the first thing she noticed, and she wondered who had left it on for her. Then the rest of the room registered, and her mouth fell open in surprise. "Kerone!"
The room was almost exactly as she had left it the morning DECA's intruder alert had sounded and she ran out the door into the middle of a firefight. Bed in one corner, beanbag chair by the window, table next to the door and one of Ty's plants perched on the other side. There was her sweatshirt on the bed, a reader on the floor next to the chair, and Kerone's butterfly still glowing by the window.
There was a rose on the windowsill.
"The rose is from Andros," Kerone said, following her gaze. "He apologized to everyone yesterday--individually, even. You'll probably be getting a visit from him today."
"But you--he did what? What did you do? This is..." She trailed off, not able to do much more than stare.
"I told you I magicked the room." Kerone sounded a little amused at her surprise. "What did you expect?"
She managed to find her voice. "Not this! This is--it looks just like it did before!"
"Well, not quite." There was real regret in Kerone's voice when she explained, "Most of your clothes were ruined, and the plants didn't survive. Ty lost about half the ones in his room. He was pretty upset... that one's from him. He said he needed the space for new seedlings anyway."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Ashley murmured. She knew how important Ty's plants were to him. "Did you just--" She gestured abstractly. "Make all this stuff? Fix it? How bad was it?"
"Bad," Kerone said seriously. "I think the quantrons must have been looking for something. Without knowing what it was, we can't tell whether they found it or not... but they did a pretty good job of trashing the place in the process. The furniture, the computer system, personal things, they didn't discriminate.
"I could recreate a lot of your stuff because I knew it so well. Like I did with your parents' yard, remember? I couldn't do the books or some of the other things you brought from Earth, but the big stuff was easier. If all the parts are here, and I know what it's supposed to look like, I can sort of... reassemble it. I wouldn't have been able to make it from scratch, that's for sure."
"Wow," Ashley said softly. Now that she was looking for it, she could see the things that were missing. The room wasn't neat so much as it was stripped down to the essentials. The sweatshirt on the bed wasn't actually hers, she realized now, but it was for her. The reader on the floor was probably the same. And the rest of the team was in exactly the same situation.
She tried to blink away tears, caught between disappointment at the illusion and gratitude that her teammates had gone to the trouble. "Wow," she repeated, her eyes resting briefly on the rose in the window before she turned to Kerone. "Thank you," she whispered, pulling her into a fierce hug. "Thank you for doing all this. All of you... but especially you."
"You're welcome," Kerone murmured, hugging her hard. She didn't say anything else, no further explanation of the room or apologies for things that were gone. Kerone didn't dwell much, and somehow the matter-of-factness made Ashley feel better.
Let it go and move on. The former princess of evil had had to become very good at that. The least Ashley could do was to try in return.
She didn't let go of her friend, not wanting Kerone to see her face. No mental pep talk could erase the tears that were escaping despite her best efforts. She tried not to sniffle, felt Kerone squeeze her harder, knew that her distress had not gone unnoticed. "I'm sorry," Ashley murmured. "I'm glad, I really am. It's not what you did..."
"It's what they did," Kerone finished soothingly. "I know. They came into our home. The one place no one should be able to touch. But it isn't the things that make it home, Ash."
Kerone drew back a little, holding onto her shoulders when Ashley tried to scrub her tears away. "It's the people," she said softly. She pressed her fingers to Ashley's face, wiping away tears and tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "Home is us.
"Remember back on the Megaship," she added, "after Dark Spectre and the dreams and the honor ceremony? When we were all trying to figure out where we belonged?"
Ashley nodded wordlessly, trying to smile. Fall semester their senior year of high school. It seemed like another lifetime, now.
"Saryn asked me what I wanted," Kerone told her. "He asked me, when KO-35 was re-established, would I go back? And I told him yes--but not because it was KO-35. I said I'd go because Andros and Zhane would go, and I belonged with them.
"Just like you," she added quietly, playing with Ashley's hair again. It was a comforting gesture. "We all belong together. Even Ty, now. Wherever we are, that's where home is. This other stuff... it's just things that distract us, really. From what's important. From each other."
Ashley just looked at her for a moment, hazel eyes just like her brother's and a smile that was all her own. She reached out and embraced her best friend again. "Thank you," she whispered, the ghost of a laugh sneaking out between sniffles. "You're right... we're what's important."
Kerone just held her for a few minutes, rubbing her back. When Ashley released her, wiping the tears away as she straightened, Kerone said gently, "Get some sleep, okay? We're all going over to RS-42 this morning, but we should be back this afternoon and maybe we can go out to dinner or something."
Ashley just nodded, taking a deep breath. She should probably go with them, but she wouldn't be any use like this, with no sleep and a tendency to burst into tears. "Yeah," she agreed with a grateful smile. "That sounds good."
Kerone smiled back, running a hand down her arm and giving her elbow a squeeze before she let go. "I'll see you this afternoon, then. Sleep well."
"Thanks. Good luck with everything this morning," Ashley added.
Kerone just waved, apparently unworried, and stepped out into the hallway. Ashley watched the door close behind her before taking another deep breath and letting it out in a sigh. She glanced around the room again, trying to ignore the tears welling up in her eyes again. She should be happy that they had gotten so much back. But she had never really faced what they'd lost in the first place, and trying to do it after a long, emotional day and a night of no sleep wasn't helping.
Go to bed,she told herself firmly. Just go to bed. It'll look better in the morning.
She sighed again, not sure what she would find if she went looking for pajamas. But she wasn't going to sleep in her uniform, so she supposed she didn't have much choice. She drew back the curtain in front of the "closet" shelves, grabbed the first sweatpants and t-shirt she saw, and was mildly surprised to realize that they were actually clothes she wore. She had expected to find, if anything, the spare clothes she had left on the Megaship last year.
Go to bed,she reminded herself. It was a little more convincing when she said it this time: It'll look better in the morning.
She changed slowly, tiredly, trying not to look around when she went down the hall to the bathroom. It was amazing how easy it was to pretend that nothing had changed. That this was the same hangar they had been living in for most of the winter. Everything was were she expected it to be, worked the way it should, and bore few obvious signs of intrusion as long as she didn't look too closely.
She didn't notice the dawn through her window until she went to turn off the light. Then she hesitated, watching the early glow that preceded sunrise as it penetrated the darkness of the hills. Shadows were lighter, the cheeps and trills of awakening animals were louder, and the clouds glowed in brilliant hues against a steadily brightening sky.
As she sank to her knees in front of the window, the scent of the rose Andros had left teased her awareness. She reached out to touch it, gently, reverently, amused that he had conned DECA into such a realistic representation. If she didn't know better, she would have sworn it was real. Lifting it to her face, she breathed in the scent as she stared out at the reflected light of sunrise on the horizon.
"Thank you," she whispered suddenly, feeling somehow calmer for the vista. Calmer, and maybe a little more respectful. She wasn't the only one who'd lost something in that attack, and everyone she loved had come through it all right. Not everyone had been so lucky.
"Thank you for the Rangers," she whispered. "For keeping them safe. And for keeping us together."
There was no answer, of course. Or maybe, she thought with a small smile, she had already gotten her answer. She stared out at the sky until it was easier to close her eyes than keep them open, and she pushed herself reluctantly to her feet. She had forgotten the rose she held so carefully, and its thorns pricked her skin when she clenched her fingers. She winced a little, wondering if he'd really had to make one with thorns.
Silly question, she decided with a sigh, stroking the petals before replacing it in its narrow vase. It wouldn't be a rose if he hadn't. She leaned down to breathe in the rose scent once more, took a last glance out the window, and pulled the comforter back on her bed. Its other side was peach-colored. She just stared at it for a moment.
Had Kerone done that on purpose? The old one had been yellow on both sides. This one was two-tone, gold on top and peach on the bottom. She must have known what Ashley's old comforter had looked like; she had been there when they picked them out. She had changed it on purpose.
Ashley shook her head, deciding to be amused rather than annoyed. So things changed. It wasn't the end of the world. As she climbed into bed, she thought absently that maybe gold and peach would be better than solid yellow. She'd never know if she didn't try it.
Bright light was spilling through her window by the time she was coherent enough to think about it again. She twisted under the comforter, secretly delighted by the luxurious feeling of being in bed during the daylight hours. Maybe she would just stay here a little longer...
She didn't dream, and she wasn't really aware of the passage of time, but she must have drifted off because the sun had completely shifted by the time she rolled over again. She considered it with something like alarm, recognizing the mid-afternoon pattern of window light on the floor. If she didn't get up now, she would never be able to sleep tonight.
It wasn't until she pushed the comforter back and sat up, catching the contrast of peach against yellow in her peripheral vision, that she got it. Peach. Orange. Yellow and red. Very funny, Kerone. She almost giggled right then.
She did giggle a moment later, recognizing the color possessiveness that seemed to affect every Ranger she'd ever known. Sometimes a color was just a color. They all read more into it, though, and by doing so they made things like this mean something. You couldn't do it on purpose and then claim that the same thing was an accident when it happened again. And they did do it on purpose. Frequently.
Ashley was already sliding out of bed when she saw the piece of paper by the door. She almost looked away, not even realizing it was out of the ordinary, until her brain caught up with her and pointed out that there wasn't anything else on the floor. The room was entirely too devoid of random objects for a fallen piece of paper to be overlooked.
She grabbed her digimorpher off the windowsill and stuck it in her pocket, brushed her fingers against the rose idly, and padded over to the door. It wasn't just a piece of paper, it was an envelope. An envelope that had been pushed under the door--or appeared to have been. It was maybe a little too far into the room for it to have really happened like that, and suddenly she remembered the time she had done the same for Andros. An "I'm sorry" note that she had left on the floor one morning, as though it had been shoved underneath the door but actually placed there when DECA opened it for her.
She smiled to herself, picking the envelope up and wondering why he would go to the trouble of putting a note in something. Andros had never shown any inclination to write at all, actually. She liked notes because they proved she had put some thought into them instead of just talking to a video screen. But for Andros, talking was hard enough without having to plan it out beforehand... or maybe he was just more used to video messaging than she was. Having grown up with it, maybe it seemed more natural than writing something down?
She pulled the paper inside out, surprised when a card fell out from between the folds. She bent down to pick it up automatically. An animated ID card, the logo spun and sparkled the moment she touched it, and as she watched the rainbow-colored sphere unfolded into a larger scene. The image zoomed out on woman with silver streaked grey hair, her upraised palm held beneath the same floating plastic sphere.
Ashley watched, transfixed, as the scene shifted to two younger men constructing what looked like a sandcastle made out of soap bubbles. A parent diverting an irridescent seed cloud toward a child just by pointing at it. A group of children passing the same rainbow-colored sphere around their circle without touching it... the image began to zoom in again, and the sphere sparkled back into a logo as the background faded to white.
Telekinetic Travels,the card read. Where thoughts are put into motion.
She looked back at the note. It was Zhane's handwriting, not Andros', and he had written Lovely Ashley at the top. She smiled to herself. He hadn't called her 'Ashley' in a long time. Not that she minded... it was just different.
It's not college,the note said. But if you're interested in telekinesis, this is a place you could go to learn more about it. I spent a week there one summer, and our class went once when we were ten or so. It's fun.
He had signed it Yours, Zhane. She touched the words as though she could feel him writing them, then dropped the card on top of the note and picked it up again. The logo turned and lit up once more, running through the same sequence of images it had displayed before. She watched until the rainbow-colored sphere was still again.
"Thank you," she said quietly. The reference wasn't lost on her. The night they had talked about their dreams, what they had wanted before becoming Power Rangers--before meeting Andros. Or in his case, at least, before being serious about Andros...
The knock on her door startled her so badly that she almost dropped the card again. "Come in," she called automatically. She looked down at herself even as the door opened, making sure that she looked decent, if not truly dressed.
Andros poked his head in. "Hi," he offered, smiling a little at her expression. "Welcome home."
She couldn't help laughing at the way he acted, like he had been caught at something he sort of wanted to be caught at in the first place. "Thanks," she said, smiling back at him. "I missed you guys. Is everyone back? What time is it?"
"Almost four," he answered idly. "No, it's just me. I came back to talk to the Council, and I thought I'd stop by and see if you were awake. We missed you too... I missed you," he amended, with a self-conscious shrug.
She didn't think she could hear that too often. "Come in," she invited, when it became clear that he was waiting for her invitation. "Or are you on your way out? What does the Council want now?"
"I already talked to them and I still don't know," he told her, sidling into the room and letting the door close behind him. "But that's nothing new. The others should be back from RS-42 soon."
"Kerone mentioned maybe going out to dinner tonight," she suggested hopefully.
"Yeah," Andros said with a sigh. "She mentioned it to us too." The sideways look he shot her was so familiar that she stifled a giggle. He was only pretending to be annoyed, probably because he knew it got him ultimate veto power in the selection of dining establishments.
"Come on," Ashley coaxed, playing the game anyway. "You know you'll like it once we get there."
He rolled his eyes for added effect. "Which part?" Andros wanted to know. "The stares of strangers, or the incessant chatting of people you all manage to drag into conversation with us?"
"All of it," Ashley said firmly, unable to keep the smile off her face. "It's good for you. It's good for all of us to go out. Thanks for the rose, by the way."
He had already opened his mouth to argue the point, but her last remark caught him off guard. Her smile was perfectly innocent as he blinked, reconsidering. "You're welcome," he said at last. "I... well, I wanted to apologize for the way I've acted, lately."
"You didn't have to," she said quietly, fondness creeping into her smile as she watched him watch her. Kerone had been right--he was apologizing to each of them. Individually. "It wasn't just you. I haven't been the most understanding person in the world lately either."
Andros only sighed. "I was a little more... confrontational about it," he told her ruefully. "I guess--maybe we've all had our own ways of dealing with things, and I just feel like mine was one of the least... helpful."
"It's nice of you to apologize." She meant it, and she meant what she said next just as sincerely. "But you really didn't have to. We're all in this together, you know."
"Yeah." He hadn't taken his eyes off of her, but he dipped his head in acknowledgement. "That's why I'm apologizing."
"Well, then I accept your apology," she said with a smile. "And I apologize too, so we're even. I apologize for... getting upset over little things. And asking you the same questions over and over. And for--sometimes taking my jealousy of Zhane out on you."
"You don't have to--"
"I know," she interrupted. She gave him a pointed look, waiting for him to understand. "You didn't have to either, but it was nice of you to do it. Now it's my turn."
His expression brightened a little, and he finally smiled back at her. "In that case," he replied, "I accept your apology."
She nodded, strangely relieved. "Good," Ashley told him. "Now I have a rose and a clear conscience. And an invitation to study telekinesis," she added, holding up the note and the card belatedly. "Did you know about this?"
He peered at the card curiously. "No. What is it?"
"Zhane gave it to me." She handed him both, sure that Zhane wouldn't mind having the note passed around. "It's... it's about something we talked about, a little while ago. Our dreams when we were little kids. I said I always thought I'd go to college and have a family, but I'm not in college, anymore..."
And that whole "family" thing is turning out a little differently than I expected,she added, in the privacy of her own mind. She didn't say it aloud, though, and Andros didn't comment. Instead he was watching the logo on the card, apparently unimpressed except for his rapt study of the image succession it displayed.
"And this is a place you can go to learn things," he guessed a moment later. Lifting his gaze to hers, he waited until she nodded to return the gesture.
"He's right," Andros admitted, glancing at the note again before handing it and the card back to her. "It is fun. I went there with him once, for that class trip he mentions. I haven't been back since, but I wouldn't mind going again."
"We could all go," she said without thinking about it. "Team field trip."
"Kerone might not like it so much," Andros remarked, his gentle tone a reminder despite the humor in his voice. It was true, and she had forgotten. That was what happened when she joked first and thought second.
"I forgot," she confessed. She folded the top flap of the envelope over to keep its contents in, setting it down on the table to his right. "She wouldn't, would she. We'll have to find something more magic for her to do."
"She seems to be keeping herself busy," Andros said dryly. He gestured at her room, the door, the hangar beyond. "Do you know, I've asked her more than once exactly what her abilities are? And I think each time, she's told me something different. Then she goes and does something like this."
"Well, she did say her magic was changing," Ashley pointed out. "Growing. She can do more now than she used to be able to. Why," she added innocently. "Are you complaining?"
"I'm not complaining," Andros informed her, amusement and a hint of exasperation in his voice. "I'm just curious. You have to admit, it would be useful to know just what her capability is in battle."
"To be honest?" Ashley shrugged a little. "I don't think she really knows what she can do, either. I think she just tries things, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. I don't think she tells us half as much about the things that don't work."
"I don't think she tells us half as much about the things that do," Andros insisted. "I had no idea she had decorated her entire room with magical holographics until I saw her recreating it last night. And that stuff is just for show--what about those virtual grenades she drops on groups of quantrons? Or the lightning that vaporizes things?"
"What about Ty's genetically engineered plants?" Ashley countered. "The way you spar, or the way Zhane can sweet talk almost anyone into doing whatever he wants them to do? We all do strange and potentially dangerous stuff. She just does... unique strange stuff."
Andros' half-smile was rueful, like that was an understatement, but he nodded slowly. "Sure," he agreed at last. "It's a good point. And hey, I know Zhane will be glad to hear that you think his jokes are potentially dangerous."
He startled a laugh out of her. "That's not what I meant!" she exclaimed, and he knew it perfectly well. "Zhane's convincing, that's all. He's... you know. A good person to have on your side."
"Yeah," Andros said, unexpectedly serious. "He is. Sometimes I wonder--"
He broke off abruptly, and Ashley waited for him to continue. When it became obvious that he wasn't going to, she prompted, "You wonder what?"
"Nothing." Seeing her expression, he added, "Well, it's just... Kerone's strong. She's smart, and she's really strong. Zhane's smart and... well--" He frowned. "I don't mean this in a bad way. But he's... manipulative. And sometimes I wonder..."
The pieces just clicked into place in her brain. "What if he had been kidnapped instead of her?" she finished.
Andros' startled look said it all. "Yeah," he said uncomfortably. "I mean, I don't lie awake at night thinking about it. Often. But--you saw what happened to Ty. What if..."
"What if it had been Zhane," she said softly. Now she knew where he was going with this. "Do you really think Zhane's..." She didn't know what word to use. "Charm, I guess, would be stronger than Kerone's magic? I mean, you said it yourself. She vaporizes things with lightning!"
Andros shrugged, a small, tight movement that said he'd thought about it a lot more than he was letting on. "Sometimes influence is more dangerous than destructive force," he said cryptically. "I just worry, that's all. Not just about him, but about all of you. All of us. What happened to Ty could happen to any one of us, and he proved that we're not even close enough to notice it happening."
"We weren't close enough," Ashley corrected. "We'd notice now. I'm sure of it."
Andros hesitated, then managed a quick nod. It was hard to tell whether he was really agreeing or just acknowledging what she'd said, and his digimorpher chimed before he could comment one way or the other. He rolled his eyes at her, reaching for his morpher when she just smiled.
"Hey, Andros." It was Ty's voice, and Andros didn't look as surprised to hear it as Ashley felt. "You around?"
"I'm at the hangar," Andros answered. "What's going on?"
"So are we." Ty sounded more normal than he had in days--even if his idle chatter with Andros was a first. His reply made Andros catch her eye and cock his head at the door. Her smile widened, and he gestured for her to go first as Ty continued, "The cats are going out to hunt. You want to come?"
She caught the tail end of Ty's question in person as she leaned over the railing on the catwalk and saw him standing to one side while Kerone and Zhane goofed off on the practice mats. "Hi to you too!" she called down to him.
He looked up, and to her surprise, lifted his hand in acknowledgement. It was almost a wave. And that was as friendly as Ty had been to any of them lately. As if that wasn't enough, his voice replied, "Hi Ashley. Want to hunt?" The words echoed oddly from Andros' morpher until he snapped it shut and joined her at the railing.
"Count me in!" she called back. She glanced at Andros, and he nodded once. "We'll be down in just a minute!"
"I'm hungry," Andros remarked noncommittally and not quite loud enough for it to carry.
"Me too." She hadn't actually had breakfast, or dinner, or whatever the food she hadn't eaten before going to bed would have been called. "We'll have to bring snacks. I'm just going to change, and then I'll help you forage."
"Zhane went shopping yesterday," Andros told her, still leaning on the railing as she straightened up. "So we have real food and everything."
"Or at least, what Zhane considers real food," Ashley said with a laugh. "Enough to make it until dinner time?"
"I'm pretty sure," Andros agreed. "Meet you downstairs?"
"Sure." She leaned over to kiss him, only noticing after the fact how easy it was. He opened his eyes and smiled at her, and for just a moment, they shared a look of total understanding. "See you in a few minutes."
He winked at her before pushing away from the railing and heading for the stairs. There was a bit of a saunter there, she thought fondly, a confidence that maybe she hadn't seen enough of recently. Who knew, back when they first met Andros, that there might come a day when she would miss his old arrogance?
Who knew a lot of things, back then?
Why do things have to change?she remembered asking Carlos one morning. And as always, he had come through with an answer that she hadn't realized the truth of until later. To show us what's important, he'd said. Hold on to the best and deal with the rest.
Well, she was dealing. She left the "Telekinetic Travels" card on the table by the door and put Zhane's note under the rose Andros had given her. She changed into regular clothes, of which it seemed she still had a few--more reasons to shop with Kerone--and checked on the plant Ty had left for her. It looked happy enough, well-watered and shaded on the opposite wall from the window... one of his "special" plants, then. She would have to ask if it needed anything its successors hadn't.
She could hear Zhane holding court below when she ducked out of her room and headed down the catwalk to the bathroom. She didn't quite catch what he was talking about, but it was Kerone's voice she heard when she reemerged. "The problem with Rangers," she was saying, "is that they don't like to do more than they have to."
Ashley blinked, then heard Zhane's indignant exclamation. Another idle battle of wits? He and Kerone were really two of a kind when they got going. They were both ridiculously quick on their feet, thought fast and argued faster, and seemed to enjoy testing their reasoning on each other. She had never really liked verbal sparring, and Andros seemed to think it was a waste of time. But Zhane was unexpectedly good at it, and Kerone challenged him where no one else would.
"They're lazy, that's what it is," she went on, and Ashley stifled a giggle. It was a fine line between challenge and pointless provocation. It was a line that Zhane would prefer to respect, but Kerone seemed to ignore it altogether.
"If you have a megazord, why don't you use it?" Kerone's voice demanded, not as though she expected an answer. Ashley listened as she made her way down the steps, catching Andros' attention before she made it past the first landing. She didn't have to be any closer to sense the eye roll he threw in her direction.
"You don't see evil saying, 'Goodness me, I have this giant battleship but I think I'll break it into five or six pieces and see if the people I'm attacking can handle it. If they can, well, then maybe I'll think about putting it back together.'
"No," Kerone continued. "Evil throws whatever it has at you, and if Rangers were smart they'd just take whatever really big space gun they had and blast it before it could do any damage. There wouldn't be any of this, 'I know, let's try to take them on hand-to-hand first. If that doesn't work, we'll use a blaster or two, or maybe all of them together, and if that doesn't work I guess we could get our little megazord pieces, which we'll only put together if that doesn't work--"
"Hey!" Zhane finally figured out that she wasn't going to give him an opening, so he just made one for himself. "Do you know the meaning of collateral damage? Just because we could blow a giant whole in the surface of the planet doesn't mean it's the best way to get rid of one little monster! There's such a thing as a surgical strike, engaging the enemy in the least costly way possible while taking into account environmental and civilian casualties--something evil doesn't worry about, which honestly puts it a lot higher up on the 'lazy' scale than Rangers!"
Kerone seemed to consider this as Ashley walked across the deserted hangar floor toward them. At last she said lightly, "That's a good point."
Zhane shrugged, as though he hadn't been vehement enough for both of them just moments before. "Thanks. I liked yours about taking a battleship apart and putting it back together.
"Hey, Ash," he added cheerfully.
"Did you sleep well?" Kerone wanted to know. "You're lucky you missed RS-42 today. I think Kristet and Marsie are finally starting to get along."
"And they're a terrifying pair," Zhane put in.
"I slept fine," she said, glancing from Kerone to Zhane in amusement before assessing Ty's expression and finally settling on Andros. "Where's Kristet now?"
"Taking the evening off," Andros answered. "Or that's what she said. I think she has some things to work out with K-Wind."
Ashley frowned, hoping that wasn't a bad sign. "What things?"
"Contract, freelance work, agent notification..." He shrugged as though the words didn't mean much more to him than they did to her. "I don't know. We want her, they want her--basically everybody wants her right now and she's trying to make them all get in line."
"Behind us," Zhane put in. "We found her first."
"Actually, K-Wind found her first," Ty said quietly. "If you want to be technical."
"And they didn't know what a good thing they had," Zhane finished. "Too bad for them. Good for us. She and Marsie are really clever," he added smugly. "Put them in the same room together and bang, public endorsements just waiting to happen."
Ashley just looked from one to the other, mentally prioritizing in her mind. "Okay," she said aloud. "Someone catch me up while I find some snacks."
Zhane actually turned out to be more of a help with the snacks than the catch up, but between Kerone and Andros, she thought she wound up with a fairly decent picture of the day's events. The re-occupation of RS-42 was already in the planning stages, with the first orbital platform to be classified as a military base as per the terms of KO-35's treaty with the Frontier Defense. New fighter patrols with a zord rotation and planetary flybys had been agreed upon, and Ashley gathered that the Council was starting to realize just how much the Rangers and the KPD together could influence public opinion.
Andros and Kerone were still talking about it, in fact, as they all made their way outside--with snacks as appropriate. Ashley let the two of them get a little way ahead before diverting Zhane's attention. "Hey," she said quietly. "Thanks for the note."
He flashed a brilliant smile at her. "You're welcome. Just thought of it this morning."
"I'd like to go sometime," she told him. "But there's something I'd like even more."
"Name it," he said immediately. He gave her an expectant look, but his smile didn't fade.
"You don't have to say yes." His unconditional agreement made her a little shy, but she went on regardless. "But I'd really like it if you'd start teaching me again. Telekinesis, I mean. You used to help me a lot, when I was having trouble thinking around Andros... I miss that."
"Sure," he said without hesitation. His smile was warm as he reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "I miss it too."
She smiled back at him, delighted and maybe a little relieved. She had known he would say yes. She just hadn't been sure he would say it with so much enthusiasm.
A shadow flashed by overhead, momentarily interrupting the sun as a giant bird wheeled in out of orbit. The sound it made, half-song, half-screech, made Ashley put her hands over her ears with a laugh. Farther down the hillside, one of the cats paused, lifting its head with a rumble that could have been an answer or a warning. The pack stuck together, loosely bound by line of sight and some intangible communication no one had been able to identify, while Kyril's zord continued to wing its way across the hills.
"There's something I want to ask Astrea," Zhane said abruptly. "I'll catch up with you in a few minutes, okay?"
"Go," Ashley said with a smile, pushing him affectionately in the direction of Andros and Kerone. "Be nice!" she called after him, when he proved that he needed no encouragement.
The barest hint of a chuckle made her look over her shoulder, catching Ty's amused look as he stared after Zhane. "He always is," he offered, by way of explanation when his gaze caught hers.
"Yeah," she agreed, slowing a little until they were walking side by side. "I don't know how he does it."
He didn't answer right away, but the silence was companionable. "I like to think," Ty said after a moment, "that as long as we have people to look up to, we can't help but become better people ourselves."
It was her turn to let the silence linger, considering what he had said. "I like that," she said at last. "There's always something more we can be."
"Which I guess is comforting," he said softly, "since there are always things we can't get back, too. It has to balance out somehow."
Ashley glanced over at him, but he was staring off toward the horizon now. He didn't seem to expect an answer, and yet she understood what he meant so well. She didn't want him to think he was the only one.
"Where I come from," she said, following his gaze, "there's a saying." She paused, watching the far-off cloud shadows drift over the hills, interrupted by the occasional sparkle of reflected sunlight from the town spread out across the valley floor.
"You can't go home again," Ashley said. She could feel Ty looking at her, and she smiled a little, her gaze drifting from the near side of Keyota to the cats playing on the hillside below them. Zhane and Kerone had almost caught up to them, climbing down over the rocks and scrub while Andros lagged behind. "It's not true, though."
Even as she watched, Andros turned to look back at her, lifting a hand when she waved in his direction. "You can't go back," Ashley said softly. One of the cats raised its head, a gold ear flashing in the sun as it raced to catch up with the others. "But you can always go home."
Bound and determined to get back on track
To where the heart is, where it's been all along
Sometimes you don't know where you're from till you leave"
"Sing Me Home"
Author's note: This series is dedicated to Marci, my own first love. I was two and a half years old when you came into my life, and to this day I don't think I know how lucky I am. Congratulations to my bright, beautiful, and talented sister for being a presidential scholar in the graduating class of 2004. "You are sosmart!" "And you are so pretty!"
Thanks to everyone who took the time to talk with me about this series. Thanks especially to Marci, for frequent discussions on the significance of relationships, to Adri, for continuity checks and steadfast character loyalty, and to Kat, for detailed character analysis and insight into the Kerovan Power. Thanks also to the Saturday morning Ranger Comm chatters--Adri, Red, Tigger, Stitch, and Zee--for their commentary on the nature of love.
Finally, I used to think that one of the most random things I could say would be, "No thanks, I've already got a penguin." But now I've learned that there's something even better: "Penguin, dust!" My favorite weather is wind, my favorite color is blue, and I believe that loving is the most important thing we can do.