*cracks knuckles* OK, folks. Here it is. 10 years after Taking Root, I give you the third installment in the Forget Me Not arc of my Power Rangers stories. *thud* It's been a long time coming and I hope you'll enjoy it. ^_^

Fandom: Power Rangers
Pairing: Andros x Zhane, TJ x Ashley... and beyond that, I'm not telling. ^_~
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: Total -- 56,556; shortest part is 3866 words, longest is 6831, most fall somewhere in between. I tried to keep them uniform... it just didn't quite break down that way. :-P
Warnings: Slash. Not mine. Don't sue.

Summary: Andros and Zhane have fought many battles together, both with and against each other. And no one can cause you pain like the one you love, a lesson they have to learn the hard way. Add in three other Ranger teams and a long-lost sister and even that lesson won't be easy. Sequel to Taking Root and Forget Me Not.

April 11, 2010: OK, everyone -- here's where we finally tie in "Forget Me Not" and "Taking Root," so I remind you that while each of those could stand on their own, this one can not. It won't make sense if you haven't read the other two. So, if you haven't, you can find both on on the PR page, or on on my profile page. ^_^ This fic takes place in time almost immediately after "Forget Me Not," and includes the Space Rangers (Lightstar Rangers), what remains of their predecessors (Darkstar Rangers), the Earth Rangers and the Zeo Rangers. For those of you counting, that's 19 Rangers. O_O At times, writing this fic felt like herding a group of demented sheep... or three year olds. ^_^ I had originally intended this to be the last fic in the trilogy, but unfortunately, after 89 pages, I hadn't even come close to the point where I originally wanted to get. So, instead of deciding I was insane and taking another 10 years to finish the thing, I decided to lop it off here and do a fourth fic. I know... you're so disappointed. ^_^

Finally, to all those of you who said it could not (or worse, would not) be done... I say "Hah! See? I do sometimes finish promised fic sequels!" ^_^

A Rose By Any Other Name
by Renee-chan

Zhane awoke abruptly, with the sudden certain knowledge that something was wrong. After a moment of bleary contemplation, he identified the muffled whimpering that had interrupted his dreams. Certain that the desperate little noises had not come from his own throat, he turned to face his partner. Andros had been sprawled all over him when they went to sleep, comfortably making a pillow out of his chest. Now, his lover was curled up on his side, backed as far into the corner of the bed as he could get without becoming part of the wall. His knees were tucked to his chest and his eyes were squeezed tightly shut. Another soft whimper escaped his lips.

Zhane lips pulled down into a frown. It had been a long time since Andros had awakened him with his nightmares. He'd thought them gone for good. Apparently, he'd been wrong. He reached out a hand to gently brush Andros' hair from his face. The younger boy actually winced, pulling away as though burned. A wash of hurt spread through Zhane's chest at the move. He knew that Andros shouldn't be held accountable for what he did when asleep, but that didn't mean that his lover's reaction hurt any less.

Andros started to shudder, his whole body shaking as he curled in tighter on himself. The formless whimper became a name. "Karone..."

Zhane brought one hand up to rub at his head, defeated. Of course... How could he have forgotten? He glanced quickly over at the chronometer on his night table. And there it was. Exactly 17 years to the day of Karone's disappearance. He sat up, quietly watching over Andros as he battled his nightmare. He knew from experience that nothing would wake the younger boy until the dreams had run their course. All he could do was watch while his lover suffered... again. He settled back to wait.

Andros opened his eyes on a sunlit clearing. Everything was exactly the same as he remembered it. The trees, the flowers, the quaint forest path leading off into the distance. Yet, instead of inspiring joy in him, these familiar images invoked nothing but fear. Not again... He shrank away from the clearing, hiding himself behind a nearby tree. He didn't want to see this. He desperately didn't want to see this. Unfortunately, past experience had taught him that that was not an option. This horror would play itself out to the end whether he willed it or not...

"Karone! Come on, let's go play! It's so nice out!" exclaimed a youthful male voice. No, not youthful -- even younger than that. It was a child's voice, an innocent child. A boy who should have known better than to play that far from home without his parents' watchful guidance. Andros fought the desire to hide his head and instead forced his gaze in the direction of the clearing. He wouldn't be able to do anything, but he could at least bear witness.

"Not so fast! I can't keep up!" was the answering cry. The voice was equally child-like, but pitched higher. This voice belonged to a young girl. A beautiful, sweet, innocent girl. A girl of tawny-gold hair and an angelic disposition. A girl who could make anyone happy just by smiling at them. Andros choked back a whimper, feeling the familiar grief rising up with eager arms to envelop him.

The boy laughed and ran up the path towards the clearing, "Catch me if you can, Karone!"

Moments later, the sounds of a light crash and the ensuing tussling match resounded through the glade. Moments after that, Karone's voice pealed with laughter, "Pinned ya!"

The boy's voice rang with irritation, yet no small amount of pride, as he answered, "Yeah, yeah. You got me. You win." The two children stood up and the boy produced something from his pocket. Andros winced when he saw what it was: a kinetic ball for practicing telekinesis. The girl didn't have that particular gift, but she had one that she could use with it just the same. She was a weather-worker and was able to produce gusts of wind that would hold the ball aloft as well as the boy's telekinetic powers.

The boy continued, "But I bet you still can't beat me with this!" He tossed the ball playfully into the air, using his telekinetic power to hold it in place and expand it.

The girl tossed her hair over her shoulder and laughed, green eyes flashing with her answering challenge, "Oh yes, I can. I'll bet I can push it higher than you can!"

The boy tossed the ball higher into the air, lightly "pushing" it towards the girl, "So prove it, Karone... I dare you."

And prove it, she did. The lithe little girl created such a strong gust of wind that it pushed the kinetic ball straight out of the clearing. And that foolish, foolish boy went running right after it, leaving the girl alone, her delighted laughter ringing in his ears. Andros lurched out from behind the tree, still desperate to somehow stop the next event, even though he'd never been able to in the past... because he knew the boy wouldn't make it back in time.

The girl's delighted laughter turned into a shriek of pure terror as the lumbering form of a large monster burst into the clearing towards her. Andros reached for his morpher then cursed as he discovered it wasn't there. His wrist was bare, like always. He rushed the intruder, yelling for all he was worth, "You stay away from her!"

The intruder brushed right past him, knocking him aside as if he were nothing. The golden-haired girl continued to scream as the monster lifted her over his shoulder and carried her off, her desperate cry like a clarion call in the wilderness, "Andros!!!!!!!"

The boy finally made it back into the clearing, the ball dropping from benumbed fingers as he stared at the empty space where his twin sister had stood a moment before. The older Andros buried his face in his hands and wept. Too late... Always too late... The boy continued to search for his missing sister, a search that Andros knew would take him a lifetime -- a lifetime of desperately searching for the missing piece of his soul that he would never find. Never.

Several minutes later, the boy fell to his knees, threw back his head and screamed, "Karone!!!!!!!" Andros screamed with him.

Zhane nearly fell off the bed in shock as Andros bolted up from his fetal position, screaming Karone's name for all he was worth. The only thing that saved the Silver Ranger from this ignominious fate was that Andros had grabbed onto his arms as he shot upright, as a drowning man would cling to a piece of driftwood. Zhane tried to catch his lover's wildly flitting eyes but to no avail. Those warm brown eyes were wild, unseeing, still caught in the nightmare grip of unreality. He forced his voice to stay calm, soothing and steady as he spoke, "Andros... Easy, love. It's all right. It was a dream. Easy..."

Andros' grip on his arms slowly loosened, and Zhane all but winced as the blood rushed back into them. He'd have a nice set of bruises there, for sure... As Andros' hands finally fell completely from their death grip, his eyes regained their sanity. It has been said by many a scholar that the eyes are the window to the human soul. If Andros' eyes were any indication, then his soul was breaking.

Andros whimpered slightly, as if he hadn't the strength to rein in his grief. It was rare that he was so vulnerable. Zhane slowly pulled the younger boy into his arms, rubbing soothing circles around his bare back. Andros was stiff in his embrace for a few moments, but slowly began to collapse against him, weary and heartsick. Zhane just kept up his soothing backrub and his calming words, trying to ease the pain induced by his lover's nightmares. It didn't really work. Though he didn't break down, neither did he really relax. He just held himself loosely tense in the circle of Zhane's arms.

After a few more moments he pulled away, eyes red and bloodshot from the effort of holding back the tears. Zhane lifted a hand to smooth Andros' hair from his face, keeping his voice as non-threatening as it had been before, "Better?"

Andros looked up at him, finally gaining the control over himself that he'd been seeking, "It's never better, Zhane. I'm always too late..." His voice trailed off.

Zhane shook his head sadly, "You can't still blame yourself-- "

Andros cut him off sharply, "Who else is there to blame? I was responsible for her. She was kidnapped because of me. It's my job to find her. Wherever she is."

"Andros..." Zhane reached out a hand to his lover, trying to find some way to connect with him, even knowing that he was bound to fail. This was one grief, one fear, one obsession, that he just couldn't touch. No matter how much Andros loved him, he wasn't Karone, and he couldn't take her place. In a way... it hurt. Not because Andros loved someone more than he, but because he wouldn't allow Zhane to share in the grief. It was one part of his life that he cut his lover out of completely.

As if to emphasize the point, Andros slowly pulled himself out of bed and got dressed, pulling his hair back into a tight, functional ponytail. He shook himself thoroughly, then bent to tie his boots. When Zhane moved to speak again, he shook his head, "No, Zhane. Go back to sleep. I... I'll be on the bridge."

Zhane frowned, "Searching."

Andros nodded, quietly, "Searching. Good night, Zhane." He spun on his heel and all but marched out of the room.

Zhane lay back on the bed, trying to settle back in to get to sleep. After several minutes of tossing and turning he cursed, giving it up as a futile attempt. There was no way he'd get back to sleep tonight. He glanced over at the chronometer -- 3 AM. Damn... Why couldn't Andros do this closer to a normal wake-up hour? Grumbling softly to himself, Zhane got up and headed for the shower. If he was going to be awake, he could at least put the time to good use. The Silver Cycle could use some work...

Cassie stretched sleepily as she made her way down to the repair bays. Her Galaxy Glider had taken a hit during the last battle and she'd promised herself that she'd repair it before breakfast. Lord only knew when she'd need it again, so it wasn't safe to leave it damaged as it was. She waved her hand over the entry panel and growled good-naturedly as DECA chirped a good morning at her. She didn't care if the damned thing was a computer, no one had a right to be that cheerful in the morning.

She ignored the computer's further efforts to draw her into conversation and moved over to the Glider bays, easily picking out the bright pink of her Galaxy Glider. Before she could begin her repairs, however, she noticed something extremely out of the ordinary. Sprawled out next to the Silver Cycle, fast asleep, was Zhane. Once over the momentary fear that the older Ranger was injured in some way, Cassie's curiosity rose to the fore and one eyebrow rose up into her hairline. This was... beyond interesting.

She knelt down next to the Silver Ranger and gently shook his shoulder, "Zhane... Zhane... wake up!"

He came awake all at once, eyes wild and confused. They only grew more confused as they landed on her. She moved to explain, but he shook his head, taking in their location with a quick glance. He then slumped back against the Silver Cycle as understanding seeped into his eyes. He sighed.

Cassie felt her eyebrow climb once again as she queried, "Trouble in paradise?"

Zhane let out a short laugh and shook his head, "No. No trouble," he paused, then amended, "At least, not any more than usual."

She settled herself down next to him and patted his knee, "So why are you sleeping with the Silver Cycle? You gotta admit that that's not exactly SOP, no matter how dedicated a Ranger you are..."

Her words only provoked a small grin this time, "You're right, but it's a private matter, Cassie. It's not really my story to tell." Seeing the determined look in Cassie's eyes and realizing that he was not up to matching wits with the Pink Ranger on so little sleep, he capitulated, "OK, OK, you win. Andros had a nightmare and woke me up. Once he decided that he wasn't going back to sleep, I couldn't sleep either, so I so I thought I should put the time to productive use and do some work on the Cycle." He gave her a sheepish grin, "I guess my body was smarter than my brain for once, though, and decided that it needed sleep regardless of my intentions."

Cassie frowned, picking out the one part of that story that he had hoped to gloss over, "Andros has nightmares?"

Sighing, the Silver Ranger nodded, "And that's the part that's private, Cassie. And Andros wouldn't thank me for spreading that tidbit around the ship, so I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't, either." He picked up his tools, ran one last diagnostic on the Cycle and walked over to his locker to put his them away. "I'm going to go head up to the bridge and check on him. Good luck with your repairs, Cassie." When he was halfway out the door, he paused and turned, a wide smile spread across his features, "Oh. I almost forgot... Good morning!"

Cassie grumbled as he left the room. She'd forgotten how chipper Zhane normally was in the morning. Darn it. Why am I forever surrounded by morning people?

Zhane walked onto the bridge, feeling very much like an intruder. The lights were dimmed and everything was so damned silent. It was as if he'd walked onto the bridge of a ghost ship. The only light came from the small monitors that were currently running through basic surveys on the nearby solar systems and DECA's sole operating eye. That glowing red eye slowly turned to face him and he could almost sense the computer's relief. It was eerie, how human the ship's AI could seem at times. As a child he hadn't questioned it, he had simply found it comforting. He still did -- in many ways, DECA had taken the place of the mother he had never known. But still, as he'd gotten older, he realized that sometimes DECA was just too human for her own good.

He let his eyes wander the room, trusting his instincts to guide him to his partner. Andros was sitting stiffly in the center seat, eyes occasionally flickering around to each of the computer screens. A flicker of gold caught Zhane's eyes and he allowed them to drift towards Andros' hand. Oh. The locket. He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. Andros still hadn't noticed him standing there...

Almost as if the thought had prompted a response, Andros turned his chair just enough to include Zhane in his peripheral vision, "Are you going to hang around in the doorway all day or did you need something, Zhane?"

The very tone of that voice screamed: "Stay Away!", but Zhane was never one to listen to warnings like that, especially when Andros had already been up here moping for several hours. He plastered his widest grin on his face and sauntered over to Andros' chair. That smile had been his saving grace more than once, especially where Andros was concerned. The only trouble was that, these days, the smile was fake so often that Zhane, himself, almost couldn't tell when it was real... He shook off those thoughts as he reached his partner and widened the grin, causing his cheeks to dimple. Andros just frowned at him, unimpressed.

Inwardly, Zhane sighed, Going to be difficult, are we? Well... two can play at that game. Keeping the grin fixed to his face, Zhane tossed a glance at DECA's visible eye, "Hey, DECA, would you turn up the lights? It's a bit too dismal in here, wouldn't you agree?" When she complied -- rather quickly -- Zhane almost laughed. Instead, he said wryly, "Thanks."

Andros was not impressed. Irritated at having his sulk-fest interrupted, he all but growled at Zhane, "I'm in the middle of something."

Again, Zhane forced the hurt away. It wasn't Andros' fault. It really wasn't... In the privacy of his own mind, Zhane suddenly had to wonder why he made up so many excuses for his lover. It wasn't fair... but it was the way it was. So rather than fussing about it, Zhane simply nodded, "I know, Andros, but you've been in the middle of it for..." he glanced over at the bridge chronometer, "...five hours, now. Surely you must be hungry after all that time?"

Andros shook his head, still as closed off as a bank vault, "No, I'm not. Why don't you go do something useful and stop wasting my time?"

In spite of his having expected Andros to say something to that effect, the words still stung. For just a moment, Zhane entertained the notion of snapping back in kind. After the abuse he'd taken last night and this morning, he was almost ready to admit that Andros deserved to be given an equally hard time to that which he was doling out. But, as usual, Zhane's compassion won out over his irritation with the treatment he was receiving, so he buried the pain, checked to ensure that his smile was still in place and draped his arms around Andros' shoulders from behind, "I already did my useful deed for the day. I fixed the Silver Cycle. Now I want breakfast and I want company with my breakfast." He leaned down and kissed Andros' cheek, "So what do you say?"

He could feel Andros' shoulders sag beneath his arms and, already having counted the battle half-won, was thus totally unprepared when he was shaken off. In fact, Andros stood up so abruptly that Zhane ended up overbalancing and falling to the deck with a yelp. The Red Ranger spun to face him, hand still clenched around his locket, eyes angry, "Which part of the word 'No' didn't you understand, Zhane? I'm busy here and I don't have time for your silly games."

Zhane stared up at his partner, shock sprawled across his face. The smile fell and despite all his attempts, he couldn't revive it. He tried to speak but nothing emerged from his normally articulate lips. Finally, unable to come up with any way to respond that didn't involve screaming or bursting into tears, he stood, quivering lightly. He raised his eyes to meet Andros', still trying to come up with some glib reply... and couldn't do it. He just couldn't. He took a step back.

Part of him wanted Andros to come after him, to realize what he'd done, take him in his arms and make it better. But Andros was as dense as they come when feelings were concerned. Seeing that Zhane was no longer pressing for his attention, he sat back down in his seat to resume his work, considering the matter closed. Zhane took another step back, and another, and another, until his back was pressed against the wall of the corridor.

Why did it feel like the world was spinning out of control? He pressed his back against the wall, one hand pressed to his chest as he tried to control his rapid breathing. He hadn't misjudged Andros' emotional climate this badly in years, since the beginning. Why now? Had Andros changed that much? For the first time since awakening from his cryogenic sleep, Zhane found himself feeling a sliver of doubt... and it felt like a shard of ice in his heart.

Hearing footsteps in the corridor, he did his best to get his breathing back under control and forced the grin back onto his face. Nothing happened, nothing happened... Just keep thinking that and you'll be OK... Everything's fine. Nothing happened. Just keep smiling... By the time TJ and Ashley rounded the corner and saw him, he was able to give them a jaunty wave and a somewhat more sincere smile, "Morning!"

Ashley grinned in response and offered him a peck on the cheek. Now that she'd finally gotten over her dashed hopes regarding Andros, Zhane was happy to say that she was turning into a true friend. It was good to have someone else he could go to... especially now when, more often than not, Andros was shutting him out. It was good to be with someone who would actually talk to him. TJ, on the other hand, was still greatly an enigma to him. He was like Andros in a lot of ways: very alpha-wolf, very strong. The only difference was that TJ, at least, could still express an honest emotion. He might not do so often, but did do so. Once Ashley stepped back, he grimaced good-naturedly at Zhane -- like Cassie, he wasn't much of a morning person. In spite of the vice squeezing his heart, Zhane found what it took to give the two Rangers a real smile. It warmed him to see the pair together -- they were working their way towards being a good, solid couple. And TJ was smart. He not only realized that he had to handle Ashley's feelings with care, but he also knew that the best relationships were based on strong underlying friendships and was building a sturdy foundation underneath the tender love and affection that he lavished on her without reservation.

All that aside though, what was the point of being a friend if you couldn't tease a little? Feeling the joker's mask finally settle comfortably back into place, Zhane winked at TJ, "So, how are you two lovebirds doing on this fine morning?"

Ashley blushed and TJ sighed, used to Zhane's heavy-handed jokes by now, "We're doing just fine, Zhane." Knowing that there would be no way to stop the teasing once Zhane got on a roll, he quickly glanced around to find way to shift the attention off the pair of them. After a moment, he smirked, "Speaking of lovebirds -- where's your other half?"

Unprepared for the pain induced by that simple question, Zhane felt the joker's mask slip. Damn it, you'd better get used to it. They've only just accepted your relationship with Andros -- they're entitled to tease now that they're comfortable with it! Shoving the hurt down, again, he recovered some semblance of his normal smile and waved a hand in the direction of the bridge, "Working, as usual. Where else would he be? Actually with me?" Damn it, he hadn't meant to say that last. Seeing Ashley's eyes narrow in concern over the uncharacteristic bitterness lacing his voice, he offered them a bright smile and turned to leave, "Well, I'm off to grab breakfast. See you later!" He could practically feel Ashley's confused stare boring holes into his back as he left, but he continued walking. I need to get away from everyone before I lose it completely... He then hurried his steps, quickly getting out of sight around the corner.

Ashley frowned as she stared after Zhane, remembering a similar moment weeks ago when she'd been convinced that his smile was just a facade. She'd begun to think that she'd only imagined it, but just now... For a moment, she'd seen the mask crack again and she was suddenly certain that Zhane was desperately unhappy. Something was very wrong here. She turned to TJ, wondering what her former leader thought of the situation.

TJ, oblivious to the undercurrents in the corridor, merely smiled as she caught his eyes, "Always the joker, isn't he? While I appreciate the effect on morale, I also can't wait until the novelty of having another couple on board wears off and he backs down."

Well, clearly he hadn't noticed. She frowned, "TJ... All joking aside, didn't something seem a little... off... about how he was acting? Just for a minute, there, when you asked about Andros. Did you notice?"

The young man shook his head, confusion wrinkling his brow, "Can't say I did. He seemed just as chipper as always. Why?"

Ashley turned her head towards the corridor Zhane had used to flee from them -- for there was no denying that was what he'd done, "I don't know... Maybe I should go talk to him." She leaned up on her toes and gave TJ a quick kiss on the cheek, "I'll catch up with you at the Simudeck later, OK?"

TJ smiled and pulled her close for a moment, reveling in the fact that he was allowed to do so, "I'll hold a picnic bench for us."

Ashley gave him a bright grin in response, then took off after Zhane. He mentioned that he was going to get breakfast... I guess I should check there first on the off chance that he wasn't lying just to throw us off the trail.

As she headed down to the cafeteria, she pondered the situation. Andros and Zhane had seemed so happy together the past few weeks, especially once all the Rangers had accepted their relationship. And surprisingly, seeing the two of them happy had made Ashley happy. It wasn't something she'd expected -- far from it. But now that she'd stopped fighting the reality of his presence, she'd found a kindred spirit in Zhane. The more time they spent together, the more she understood how Andros could have fallen for them both. In many ways, they were almost scarily alike. She smiled as a thought occurred to her, I also have Zhane to thank for his foresight about TJ. Who would have ever thought? Certainly not me. All this time, I thought he'd had his eye on Cassie.

Returning her thoughts to their earlier track, she tried to figure out what she'd seen that morning and if it had really been anything at all. She distinctly remembered seeing Zhane's face pale slightly at the mention of Andros, and then his smile had wavered, if only for a split second. His answer to TJ's question had also been... strange. There had been a hard edge to the response that was completely unlike him. She paused outside the doors to the Rec lounge, heart suddenly pounding. Could something have gone wrong between them? Lord, I hope not... Not after all they've already been through...

Crossing her fingers at her side, she stepped through the open doors to the cafeteria. Zhane was sitting at the table, food untouched in front of him, head buried in his arms on the table. His shoulders were shaking slightly. Ashley cursed to herself. She'd been right. She took a step forward, deliberately making noise as she entered the room. Zhane jerked his head up off his arms, wiping his eyes furiously before he turned to face her. He tried to dredge up one of his disarming smiles but the tear stains on his face and his bloodshot eyes ruined the effect.

Sitting down across from him, Ashley sighed. Zhane wasn't going to let her in on this one -- not easily, anyway -- because it was concerning Andros. He'd had "loyalty to the pack" drilled into his head since he was five... and like it or not, in moments of stress, Andros was still his only pack. He would do whatever it took to conceal a potential weakness, even from a friend... even if it would kill him to do it. Preparing herself for a fight, Ashley fed him the opening line, "I don't suppose you want to tell me what's wrong?"

Zhane sat back in his chair, grin once again firmly in place and arms crossed over his chest, "Why do you think there's something wrong?"

Here we go... Ashley snorted, a disbelieving look on her face, "Because you were crying. You can't really believe I'm that dense, can you?"

Zhane shook his head slightly, grin fading, as he realized he'd been caught out. He ducked his eyes, "No... But I was hoping that you would take the not-so-subtle hint that I don't really want to talk about it."

Ashley reached across the table, taking one of his hands into her own, "Come on, Zhane. We're a team, remember? All of us together. You don't buy into Andros' 'I'm perfectly fine on my own' policy, either. You need people as much as the rest of us do. You don't have to be fine all the time, Zhane. I want to help. What are friends for?"

Zhane shuddered slightly as he drew in a breath, still fighting the inevitability in her words, "I know, Ashley, but..." He stopped and hung his head, "No. That's no excuse. Ashley... it just isn't that simple. Not for me, not about this. It involves betraying a confidence and that's something that I just won't do."

She got up from her side of the table and moved around to sit next to him, "But Zhane... what good does it do you to keep that confidence if you destroy yourself in the process? Would Andros really ask that of you?" Eyes widening in sudden understanding, she asked, "Does he even realize he has asked that of you?"

Zhane shook his head, ruefully, "Sometimes, Ashley, you see too much." He sighed, "And you're right, on all counts. I'm not fine, and no... Andros doesn't see it." He shook his head, then reaching a decision, said contemplatively, "It's funny... as often as this happens, it shouldn't even bother me, anymore. I should expect it by now. He's always like that where Karone is concerned: Cold, unreachable. Even to me. It's just... this time, it's worse."

Ashley frowned, certain she was missing something very important. She didn't want to press for details, especially with what he'd said earlier about betraying confidences, but she need to understand if she was going to help, "Who's Karone?"

Sighing heavily, as though he knew he was defeated, Zhane answered her, "She's Andros' twin sister. She was kidnapped when they were three. He's been searching for her ever since. He considers it almost a sacred responsibility and he won't let anyone else interfere. It's as though he thinks that asking for help will mean he's failed. And when he gets that focused on the search... nothing else matters. He'll say anything, do anything, to get rid of interruptions."

Ashley nodded in understanding, hiding her shock at learning about Karone as best she was able, "And you interrupted him... and he said something that hurt you."

Zhane shrugged, eyes miserable, "He's gotten worse. I didn't see it at first, but it's damned obvious, now. He was always single-minded about this search, but now he's grabbed onto his grief so tightly it's become an obsession. That isn't healthy. I see that, but he doesn't... and he won't." He paused, eyes hardening with his next words, "And the worst part is, I know why it happened and it's my fault." At Ashley's disbelieving look, he hastened to explain, "I was the only thing keeping him from becoming that obsessive before. When he lost me, he lost the only protection he had against being engulfed by this thing. Now that I'm back... it's a different dynamic. On some level, I've already lost him to it. I just didn't realize how far he'd fallen until now." Letting out a bitter laugh, he said, "The true irony of the situation is that I know he doesn't mean to hurt me, and if I could get him to realize that he's doing it, he'd probably try to stop. But if I say something... G-d, Ashley, I can't say anything because I don't want to hurt him. He's been through enough already."

Ashley couldn't think of a single thing to say in response to that bitter pain. Couldn't Zhane see that Andros wasn't the only one drowning in this thing? Meeting his eyes, she finally understood -- yes, he did see. That was why he was fighting tooth and nail to drag Andros back from the undertow. Because, at this point, if he couldn't, it would sweep them both away. Before Ashley could respond, they heard footsteps outside the cafeteria. Silently, she cursed, sensing that her moment to do some good here was about to be lost. Moments later, TJ and Andros came into view. TJ smiled brightly at the two of them, completely unaware that he'd shattered something fragile and important, "I see you found him."

Andros also offered them a small smile, silently wondering what he'd do without the two people sitting at that table. He leaned over to give Zhane's shoulder a squeeze, "Well, here I am. What were you saying about breakfast?"

Zhane stared at him a moment, mouth gaping and eyes almost comically wide. His lips moved as if he wanted to say something, but nothing came out. Andros leaned closer, eyes concerned, "What's wrong?"

After a few minutes of trying, Zhane finally got his voice to work. Sadly, he couldn't force anything significant past his lips, "You... You..." Ashley could see the problem. For the first time in... G-d, maybe forever, Zhane had opened up to someone to reveal how much of a lie the smile was. He couldn't just jump back behind the jester's mask that quickly now that he had. But above and beyond anything else, he desperately didn't want Andros to know how much pain the mask was hiding. And so, he was stuck. Saying nothing would raise a red flag, but what he wanted to say... what he needed to say, would cross a line that he wasn't ready to even step up to, yet.

Andros, completely oblivious to anything other than the fact that his partner wasn't acting his usual chipper self, sat down next to him and took hold of his shoulders lightly, "What is it, Zhane?"

Finally, Zhane shook off his paralysis. It had been a foregone conclusion which way this would go... Now that Zhane had finally owned up to the fact that he was hurting, he wasn't going to be able to tuck it away and pretend it didn't exist. He was too honest a person for that. But the coming explosion was going to gouge more than a few holes in their team, and Ashley just hoped they were up to dealing with the aftermath.

Zhane stood up, knocking his chair over with a loud clang, "You don't even... How could you...? Damn it, Andros!" His fists clenched at his sides, his arms quivering from tension, "How in the world do you not notice? You can't do what you did to me this morning, then spin a 180 and decide to act concerned about it once it's convenient!" He felt his voice rising in volume but didn't care. The stress he'd been under since awakening from his cryo-sleep, with the added topper of this morning's incident, had finally pushed him to the breaking point.

Andros had a trapped look in his eyes. He hadn't seen this coming, of course he hadn't. Desperate to find some sort of stable ground on which to stand, he reached out a hand in entreaty, "I... I don't understand... Zhane... What I did this morning? I remember you coming up to the bridge. I was busy... You know with what. I thought you found something else to do..." His voice trailed off, then emerged again, hesitant and confused, "Didn't you come down for breakfast?"

Zhane's hands clenched tighter, his fingers now white-knuckled with strain. It was at this point that the remaining two Rangers ambled their way into the cafeteria. Seeing the tableau, they froze. Zhane stared at Andros another moment, not even noticing that they had an audience. His voice was a harsh whisper when it emerged, "Do I mean so little to you?" Before Andros could speak, he continued, "Do I mean so little to you that you can push me away, time after time after time, and expect me to be all right with it? What am I to you? A human punching bag? After having to live all this time without me, I would have thought that that, at least had changed! Instead, it seems to have gotten worse." The tears had broken loose a second time and were now streaming freely down his cheeks.

Andros stared at the tears in horror, "I... I didn't know... I thought... By the gods, Zhane..."

Zhane laughed bitterly, "You thought? No. That's the problem, Andros. You didn't think. You took me for granted. Like you always do." When Andros moved to protest, Zhane shook his head, "Don't argue, Andros. It's fact. You take me for granted. And normally... normally I don't mind. But, I can't take it anymore, Andros. I know I'm not Karone. I know I can't replace her." He ignored the tightening around Andros' eyes. He knew he was in risky territory here, but... damn it. It was too late to back out of this conversation already. He pressed on, "I don't want to replace her, Andros. I want to help you find her. Because anything that makes you unhappy makes me unhappy."

Seeing Andros sitting silent and shocked pushed Zhane into a fit of desperation, "I have been trying to save you from this thing for years, Andros, this tendency of yours to become so wrapped up in an obsession that it chokes you. You're no good to anyone like this, especially Karone. But you've shut me out completely on this one. You won't even talk to me about it, anymore. You're going to drown us both in this thing if you don't start letting me back in to help."

"Andros... I want to help. She matters to you and you're not whole without her. But when you close me out... Andros, I can't just care about you when you're not thinking about Karone. I can't just turn my love off when it's inconvenient for you. It doesn't work that way. I either love you all the time..." He paused, then finished, "...or not at all." That was when he stopped speaking, as if horrified by what he'd implied. One hand flew to cover his mouth, the other pressing against his stomach as if he was going to be sick. It was then that he noticed Carlos and Cassie. His eyes flew from Ranger to Ranger, growing more panicked with each one they landed on. When they landed on Andros' equally horrified face, he bolted.


Zhane: *horrified look* After 10 years of waiting... this is where you choose to end Chapter 1? That's just... by all the gods, that's just wrong.

R-chan: *shrugs* You think this is bad? Wait until you see where I ended Chapter 2. *eg*

Zhane: O_O

^_^ Questions, comments, coconuts?

Coming Soon: Our heroes ask the question, "Can things possibly get any worse?" And, of course... the answer is a resounding, "Yes."