April 20, 2010: And here we have arrived at the final part to the fic. ^_^ I hope you've all enjoyed the journey with me and that it was worth the 10 year wait. O_o I have more to tell in this ficverse, but I'm not making any promises about when that'll happen. We know what kind of trouble I get in when I make those promises. ^_~ Anyway, thanks for sticking around and I hope you enjoyed!

A Rose By Any Other Name, Part 11
by Renee-chan

With a loud whoop and a cheer, Justin leapt from his seat by the communications relay. The other Zeo Rangers immediately dropped what they were doing to run over and join him. With a beaming smile, Justin said, "They're coming to visit! The Space Rangers are coming to visit! Guys, isn't that great?"

Aisha put a hand on Justin's shoulder and smiled down at the diminutive Green Ranger, "It's wonderful news, Justin. I think we could all use some company that isn't our own." She knew how much Justin had missed the other Rangers, having spent time being on a team with them. It was also hard on the younger Ranger being alone on a planet with four people who were many years older than he. Genius he might be, mature beyond his years without a doubt, but he was still a child in the place it counted most -- his heart.

Rocky grabbed the younger boy into a head-lock and ruffled his hair, "You just can't wait to see Cassie again, right?"

With an indignant squawk, Justin tried to throw the older boy off him. This soon degenerated into a no-holds-barred brawl. Aisha couldn't help an appreciative smile as she watched the two. They'd been training hard this last month and the occasional monster attack had helped hone their skills back to fighting form. She was beyond proud of all the work they had done.

Tanya and Kat stepped up next to her. Tanya smirked, "I just love it when you get that proud 'mama bear' look to you. It's really just too cute."

Aisha answered that with a laugh and a well-placed elbow, "Oh, knock it off. I'm just happy and proud of everything we've accomplished in such a short time. And why shouldn't I be?"

Kat smiled, "You should be proud, Aisha."

A small bounce accompanied the Red Zeo Ranger's beaming smile, "Exactly! Nothing wrong with it."

Tanya smiled a knowing smile, "Nothing at all."

Staring at her two friends who were now both smirking at her, Aisha threw up her hands, "Oh for goodness sake!" Laughing, she pulled Justin out of the rough-and-tumble and turned him to face her, "Was there any more to the message than that?"

Blinking for a moment to reorient himself, Justin frowned, "Now that you mention it... no." He frowned, "Huh. That's weird, actually. The message came over on Ashley's private channel and all it said was that they were heading this way. No ETA, no other data."

The four older Rangers eyes met. Long held instincts raised a small warning bell. Aisha frowned, "Maybe we should contact Andros and get some further details, Justin."

As he settled down to call up the AstroMegaship, the others gathered around behind him, a solid wall of support for whatever they might find.

So, no one could have said who was more surprised when Andros answered their communication with no more fanfare than usual, just a simple, gruff, "Andros, here. What's your status?"

Another shared glance, this one of startlement, as Aisha stepped up to the viewer, "I think that should be our question, Andros. Ashley just contacted us to tell us you were on your way out here, but didn't give us any other information. Everything all right?"

It was amazing how fast that boy could downshift and switch gears. Abruptly the Red Ranger's full attention was on the Zeo Team, an intense look on his face, "How did that message arrive?"

Resigning herself to giving more information than she would get, Aisha said, "On her private communication line. Why didn't she just use the ship's system?" An irritated scowl joined the intense stare, "I'm not at liberty to say right now. We're nearby, so it won't take us long to divert to KO-35 at maximum hyperrush. We can be there in 4 hours." He paused, looking off screen for a moment before nodding and turning back, "I'll disclose the rest of the details to you in a coded missive. In the meantime, if you should receive any further communications from Ashley, record them carefully and contact me at once. Andros out."

As the screen went blank, the Zeo Rangers let out the collective breath they'd been holding. Rocky was the one who said it, "Oh man... what the hell are we getting into now?"

Astronema had finally managed to extricate herself from the knot that was the Power Rangers. How they managed to function as an elite fighting unit when they were as undisciplined as they were was just beyond her ability to understand. At least the Red and Silver Rangers could act like the soldiers they were. The rest of the Lightstar Rangers, though... she shook her head. How had they managed to survive this long?

Finding herself in yet another unfamiliar corridor, Astronema let out a string of inventive curses. She needed to get away and she had no idea were Ashley's room was. She was leery of asking the computer for directions -- the damned AI was too nosy for its own good. Finally selecting a door at random, she punched in the "open" command. Relieved beyond measure when it followed through without demanding a code, she slipped inside. And what she found...

Staring around herself at what she did not yet know was the default setting of the Simudeck, Astronema felt a heady sense of dj vu. She knew this place. To the marrow of her bones, she knew it. As she stared around at the trees blowing in a gentle breeze that had just a touch of autumn chill, at their leaves just turning their hues to red and gold, at the waves of soft grass fragrant beneath her feet, Astronema found herself without words. This forest was not unknown to her. She couldn't say how she knew that, but she did. Just as she knew that if she walked up the footpath upon which she stood, she would find a house at its end-- no... a home. And something was telling her... that home had once been her own.

Before she realized what she was doing, Astronema had already taken several steps up the narrow, dirt trail. Thus it was with supreme shock that she found a woman blocking her path. The sense of recognition here was even deeper than the one she'd felt when she gazed out at the forest. The woman had shoulder-length golden hair and eyes as green as the grass beneath their feet. Only an inch or two taller than she was, they would have stood eye to eye had Astronema been in her own body. The woman wore a black AstroMegaship uniform with a purple shirt beneath.

Before Astronema could utter a single word, the scene around them faded away, revealing what she now understood to be the Simudeck. The woman, however, did not disappear. Finally, Astronema blurted out, "Who the hell are you?" A fair enough question, she hoped. After all, this woman's face was in none of the intel reports she'd seen and no one had mentioned another of the Darkstar Rangers still being alive. She could only hope that Ashley didn't know this woman.

Fortune seemed to favor her as the woman responded, "My apologies, Ashley. I did not mean to startle you. This is merely a program I am working on to expand my capabilities in interacting with you Rangers. It is not yet ready for trial outside the Simudeck, nor was I intending to reveal it to you in this way. I am sorry for any fright I may have given you."

Feeling herself finally back on firmer ground, Astronema forced a smile onto her face. Though she had never seen a holographic interface, now that she knew what she was looking at, she understood. This was a program that the ship's AI was working on. Fascinating, truly, that a computer -- even a sentient one -- could seek to better itself in such a way. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she answered, "No problem, DECA. I didn't mean to be so rude, but you did scare me." Seeing a golden opportunity, she continued, indulging her own curiosity for once, "But DECA... the rest of the program... Where was that?"

The woman lightly clasped her hands behind her as the computer brought the program back online. Her husky alto voice almost faded into the background as Astronema again lost herself in the scenery, "This is KO-35, Ashley. This forest was part of the lands owned by my Creator and her husband."

A frown, "Your Creator and her husband?"

"Yes... Decka and Roland. The former Purple and Red Darkstar Rangers..."

Astronema abruptly turned, eyes wide, ready to beg the computer not to say what she suddenly knew it was about to...

"...And Andros' parents."

And that was when Astronema felt the floor abruptly drop out from beneath her, for she now knew her earlier feeling had been right. It was one of the few memories she had managed to retain from the life she'd led before being taken to serve Dark Spectre. These woods... she'd played in them often with her brother, the brother she had been told that the Red Ranger had killed. This path... the one she knew led to the place which had once been her home... the home of the Red Ranger's parents... and her own. It wasn't possible. It just wasn't possible. That would mean that all these years, her guardian, her Ecliptor, her sword and shield, the one being in the entire Universe she had felt she could trust... he had lied to her. Her brother wasn't dead by the Red Ranger's hands...

Her brother was the Red Ranger.

Mind and heart racing with a deep sense of betrayal, Astronema ignored the woman's calling out after her and fled the Simudeck.

Two hours later, Astronema felt the ship slowing to curve into orbit. She didn't know where they were and she almost didn't care. Suddenly, the plan wasn't important. The mission wasn't important. Her own life didn't seem important, based as it had been on such a monumental lie. She had gone to ground in the one place she'd been able to find her way back to -- the Jump Tube Room. The rest of the Rangers would have to come down here eventually. She would just pretend she also had just arrived when they got here. Not that it mattered.

She couldn't continue this charade, not knowing what she now knew. How could she face the Red Ranger again? Knowing how desperately he'd been searching for his sister -- for her -- understanding, now, the lengths to which he'd almost destroyed himself... for her... she couldn't do it. She could not look him in the eye, knowing who he was, and lie to him again. She had lain awake too many nights pining for the brother that she'd lost before she had a chance to know him, too many nights grieving for the lost potential of a life cut too short, too many nights weeping for the twin whose ghostly touch she could almost feel... and now she knew why. And that deeply buried and hidden desire to have her brother back... now she knew she never could. For how could a Ranger, especially this one who saw the world in such intense divisions of black and white, ever accept her? Curling her knees tighter to her chest, she clamped down the desire to howl as she fought within herself to even acknowledge the thing that she wanted.

Luck, however, was most definitely not on her side today. The corridor doors slid open to frame the very person she was most terrified to encounter: Andros. He stared down at where she was sitting, a confused frown pulling down the corners of his lips. Before she could explain, however, she could see him come to some conclusion and clearly choose to ignore the oddity of the situation. He nodded his head towards the Jump Tubes, "Ashley, the Zeo Rangers received a very strange transmission and they'd like some help checking it out. The others are staying up here to monitor. I want you with me."

In light of recent revelations, Astronema found herself seeing the Red Ranger with new eyes. Business-like, emotionless, living for the mission and nothing else. No joy in getting to see his home planet or his fellow Ranger team... what had happened to turn him into this? Astronema may not have had much in her life, but she'd had Ecliptor, and she knew that he had loved her the best he was able. As evil as she was, she could still feel that connection... How had she never noticed before that the Red Ranger could not? So, in a way... Ecliptor had been right. The Red Ranger had killed her brother. Her heart began to race for an entirely new reason as the wild thought occurred to her... maybe there was hope for them both. She would just have to be careful how she did this or she would lose her brother again -- this time, for good.

Pasting a cheerful smile on her face, she bounced to her feet to join him at the Jump Tubes, "All right! Let's go!"

Ecliptor couldn't help but stare at the young woman practically dancing in place in front of him. She looked like his Princess. She sounded like his Princess. She certainly didn't act like her, though. This gregarious, bouncy, almost air headed girl was nothing like his Princess. It was beyond disturbing. Finally, he could take it no more. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed her by the upper arm and hauled her firmly back down behind the bush. She let out a rather undignified squawk, then quieted. Another truism -- his Princess would never have let that manhandling of her person go without a fight. At least she wouldn't now that she was older. In truth, he almost missed the earlier days when she would follow his instructions without a quibble. It had made her so much easier to protect...

He felt a tentative little finger tap his arm. Looking down, he found his Princess giving him a bright, innocent smile. The sight was almost enough to make him want to gouge out his own eyes. He growled, "Yes, Yellow Ranger?"

A smirk for the slight jump she made at the noise before responding, "Well... I just thought that since we have almost an hour before they all show up, we could maybe find a way to pass the time?"

Ecliptor sighed as he raised a hand to rub at his forehead, "You are truly incapable of sitting here and waiting in patient silence, aren't you?"

The young woman offered him a sheepish grin, "Well... I could try..."

Shaking his head, Ecliptor settled himself into a more comfortable posture. He delivered his next line accompanied by a wry grin, "And if you mean it as well as the lady who normally wears that form did when she was young enough to utter that phrase, then the answer should more accurately be, 'Not in a million years,' should it not?"

At least the girl had the decency to blush -- no matter how wrong it looked on his Princess' face. She shrugged, "I've never dealt well with uncomfortable silences."

Finally giving in to the inevitable, Ecliptor said, "No... I can see that. Well, then, Yellow Ranger, how shall we pass the time if not in quiet contemplation?"

He should have expected her response to be what it was -- she wanted to talk. He shook his head in disbelief, "And of what shall we converse? We share no common interests and the topics upon which I would most like to hear you expound, you would no doubt prove very reticent... and vice versa. That will make this a very brief, unfulfilling talk."

She frowned for a moment -- an expression he was far more comfortable seeing on that visage... until it turned into a sunny smile, "How about the time before you joined Dark Spectre?"

A cough covered the laugh that threatened to break forth, "My dear Yellow Ranger... I am Evil. There was never a time in my life that I did not serve Dark Spectre."

That last seemed to make her quite sad, "So you've never known goodness? Or love?"

After taking a moment to consider that, Ecliptor was forced to concede, "It is true that I have never known goodness... but I believe that in some small way, at least, I have known love."

With the intuition that only a Ranger could possess, this one understood immediately to what he referred, "Astronema." At his nod, she continued, "Is it true, then? That you raised her?"

A somewhat tender smile graced his lips as he contemplated that question, "Since she was very young, indeed. She was given to me when she was a mere three of your years old. I have raised her as my own ever since."

Again that sunny smile -- presumably for his tender expression. It was odd, but with the many repetitions, Ecliptor found that he was finding it less disturbing to see with each passing one... and wondering what it would be like to see such a joyfully carefree expression rest on his Princess' face for real. She had used to smile like that all the time back when she was young. It was with a small shock that he realized... he had missed it.

The Yellow Ranger answered him quietly, "If that pride in your voice means what I think it does, then I guess you have known love. Does she care for you the same way?"

Ecliptor was forced to shrug, "She respects me as the one who raised her and trained her. Beyond that... I do not know. It is not our way to speak of such things."

The Ranger's eyes took on a sad cast, "No... I suppose not. No wonder you hate us so much."

"I beg your pardon?" was the only answer he could come up with to that apparent non-sequitur.

She shrugged, "Well, if I love someone, I want them to know it. If they love me, I want to know it. It must be really hard to feel those things and not be able to share them. At the same time, though, to have your enemies constantly doing in front of you the one thing you wish you could, but can't... Well, I'd hate them, too."

Ecliptor looked away, "I had truthfully never thought about it that way."

With a gentle smile, the Ranger patted his arm and said, "Oftentimes other people see our problems more clearly than we do ourselves."

When the dark warrior's heart clenched with envy at the sight of that smile and with the wish that it could have truly been Astronema placing her small hand in sympathy on his arm, he was forced to admit that the Yellow Ranger had a point. He cleared his throat, "And on that more than uncomfortable note, I believe it is time we drew this conversation to a close. The Rangers should be arriving any minute now."

The understanding look that the Yellow Ranger bestowed upon him made his heart clench, yet again, this time with guilt. This is what his Princess could have been had he not had the rearing of her. Not for the first time, he wondered if he had done right by not returning her to where she belonged. Also not for the first time, he hoped she never had cause to find out. For, he didn't think he would be forgiven the necessary lies he had told if she ever did.

All seemed quiet as Andros and "Ashley" arrived on KO-35. He had deliberately not set them down near the Zeo Rangers' headquarters -- no need to give Astronema any more of an edge than she had already -- and had started walking them towards the designated meeting place. What he couldn't help but notice, however, was that Astronema was acting quite strangely indeed. Even more strangely than her attempting to be Ashley would have accounted for. She kept jerking her head to stare at things. It was making Andros more than a little twitchy. When her most recent twitch had him pulling his Astroblaster on an innocent piece of shrubbery, he decided he'd had enough. Speaking a little more sternly than was perhaps prudent, he snapped out, "Ashley! This is a routine mission, Astronema has no idea that we're here and this planet is uninhabited except for the Zeo Rangers. Are you actually seeing something or are you just trying to make me lose what is left of my mind?" Then with a smirk that he kept purely mental, he tacked on, Let's see how you handle that one, "Ashley"...

To his surprise, the faux Yellow Ranger seemed truly discomfited. She fidgeted and shrugged, "Sorry, Andros. Maybe it's just that the planet is deserted." She paused and seemed to struggle with herself for a moment before finishing in a quiet voice, "Maybe... I feel I know this place, somehow."

Well... now that was interesting. Rather than giving her the easy out of explaining that this forest was the Simudeck's default setting, Andros decided to let this play out and see how far she would take it. To the best of his knowledge, Astronema had never been to KO-35... so either his information was incorrect, or this "Ashley" was not Astronema. The next few moment's exchange should be enlightening, "How do you mean?"

A puzzled frown settling onto her face that looked far more comfortable than that expression had any right to be on the visage of the sunny Yellow Ranger, she answered back, "I can't explain it, Andros. I just feel that somehow I've been here before." Turning in a seemingly random direction, she pointed off into the trees, "It's hard to see anything with it being so overgrown, but I just know that there used to be a path through here."

At Andros' utter lack of response, she turned to face him, challenge in her gaze, "I'm right. Aren't I?"

All the Red Ranger could do was mutely nod. There had indeed been a path through those trees -- it had once led to his home. But how would Astronema know that? The only one of her retinue that he knew had been to this area of KO-35 was Darkonda and that one was not known for sharing information. Andros forced himself to pause in his thinking -- he might not be known for sharing information, but one thing that Andros had managed to learn about the reptilian dark lord was that he could change his shape. Perhaps this "Ashley" wasn't Astronema at all... He let a level of coldness settle into his gaze, "You are. Perhaps you can explain how you know that?"

"Ashley" clenched her fists in obvious frustration, "That's what I've been trying to tell you all along! This place is familiar, but I can't explain why! I just know I know it."

Feeling the Zeo Rangers and the rest of his own Ranger team finally in place around the edges of the clearing, Andros gripped "Ashley's" upper arm and allowed that coldness into his voice as he practically spat out the words, "You are lying... And you are not Ashley. Who are you and where is the real Ashley?"

"Ashley" dropped her gaze downward and let out a rueful little laugh, "I didn't think I had you fooled, Red Ranger." Eyes flicking upwards and around the clearing, she locked eyes with Zhane, "Nor you, I think, Silver Ranger."

Zhane stepped forward and shook his head, "Not for more than a moment, no. But you still haven't answered our questions: Who are you and where is Ashley?"

An amused chuckle, "One track mind, I see. Well, before I answer your questions, Silver Ranger, perhaps you could answer one of mine?" Batting her eyelashes at Zhane, she said, "What gave me away? Was it the giggling? The pouting? Too much? I tried not to overdo it... but you're all always so sickeningly cheerful, it was hard to tell."

That was Andros' cue to slam her back against a tree, arm tight against her throat, "You are wearing my patience very thin, imposter."

"Ashley" let an evil smirk play across her lips, "Am I? I wasn't aware you had much to begin with. The only patience you have is for your Search, is it not?"

Zhane stepped into the sudden frozen silence that last sentence induced with a growled, "Now you're wearing everyone's patience thin. It's enough. Where is Ashley?"

And that was the moment that they heard Astronema's voice shout from the other side of the clearing, "Hey! Ecliptor! This was not part of the plan! Let me go!" Then, perhaps the strangest sight that most of them had seen marched its way into the clearing -- Ecliptor, dragging Astronema to the edge of the circle of Rangers with a sword held to her throat.

Andros turned to Zhane, "I can't speak for you, but I am sincerely not amused."

The Silver Ranger rubbed his forehead, "No, my friend... this time you most certainly can speak for me. I'm not amused, either."

Astronema gave them all a nervous wave, "Hey, guys... Miss me?"

Andros let out a breath that he'd been unaware of holding at the expression on "Astronema's" face, "Ashley, I presume?" At the other girl's nod, Andros turned back to the one he had pinned, "Then you would be Astronema." At the responding melodramatic sigh and eye roll, he shook her once, "Then why all this business of acting like you knew this place? That was only going to make you look more suspicious."

To his surprise, Astronema turned her cold glare on her guardian with her answer, "I don't know, Ecliptor... Why would I go through all that nonsense of telling the Red Ranger that I know this place? For I couldn't possibly... right?"

From the look in the dark warrior's eyes, if his skin could have paled, it would have. His voice shook as he spoke, "My Princess...?"

Astronema smiled brightly at her guardian's discomfiture, "Problem, Ecliptor?"

He shook his head, "No, my Princess. No problem."

Smiling a secretive smile, she said simply, "Good." Turning back to Andros, she widened her smile, "Unfortunately, I no longer have time to play with you, Red Ranger. But you and I will meet again and in the meantime, I leave you with this riddle: If I know where that the path of which I spoke earlier is... do I know where it leads?" Then with an impish grin worthy of the real Ashley, Astronema materialized her staff and with one concussive blast sent them all reeling backwards, "Until next time, Rangers!"

As she and Ecliptor disappeared, the illusion placed over the real Ashley faded away, to her obvious relief. Deliberately removing himself from the reunion, Andros pulled the Green Ranger aside. At her lifted eyebrow, Andros said simply, "You, me, Zhane and a select few of the rebels. We know where that path leads. How on Earth could she?"

Aerin bit her lip, "Andros... I don't know. But you're making the grand assumption that she does know. What if she was just taunting you?"

An angry growl in response, "I know that. I know she could be... But I also know that it was Darkonda that kidnapped my sister. And once he knew who I was, he baited me with the knowledge that she was alive and well and that I would never guess where she was." He spread his arms to take in the clearing, "Lady Aerin, if I had to name the last person in this Universe that I would think could be Karone... it would be Astronema."

Aerin sighed, "Andros... don't you think he might have been setting you up for this even then?"

Rubbing his forehead in frustration, Andros nodded, "Of course I've considered that. And he could certainly have told Astronema about the path, but even he doesn't know where it leads. Our home was the Ranger headquarters -- only the Rangers knew where it was. He couldn't have found that out, so how could he have told her?"

Laying a gentle hand on Andros' shoulder, Aerin spoke in a hushed voice, "But Andros, she didn't say that she knew what was at the end of the path. She just asked you if you thought she knew. The Dark Princess is a past master at using an enemy's own hopes against them. She could very well just be playing you."

It almost killed her to hear the heartbroken tone break through with his next words, "But what if she isn't? What if she does know? What if Astronema..." The Red Ranger was forced to pause before uttering the next words, as though he couldn't quite bear to acknowledge what they would mean, "What if Astronema... is Karone?"

Feeling his partner in quiet anguish on the edge of the circle, the Silver Ranger could not stay away, no matter how much he might want to. Zhane's hand landed on Andros' other shoulder in quiet empathy. With a sense of quiet foreboding, all three glanced up the path and shuddered. Zhane squeezed Andros' shoulder, "Then may the gods help us all, Andros. We'll need it."

Later that night, with Ashley safely on board, Andros made his way secretly down to the Jump Tubes. So intently focused was he on his task, that the figure that stepped out of the shadows by the door nearly caused him to jump out of his skin. Zhane merely frowned.

Andros sighed, already preparing for another lecture. Zhane did not oblige. He simply said, "I thought we'd been through this," disappointment layering his voice like honey.

The Red Ranger slumped against the wall, "We have. Remember -- I don't want to place you in danger."

A rueful shake of the head, "Andros, I just love how you only remember the parts of a conversation that are useful to you."

A small smile in response, "You can't blame me for trying..."

That last earned him an equally small laugh, "No, I don't suppose I can. All right, Andros. Here's your grand moment to earn my trust. If you tell me that you are not planning to go down to KO-35 and do something ridiculous like meet with Astronema alone, I will believe you and go back to bed." Crossing his arms over his chest, Zhane lifted an eyebrow and waited.

Andros considered it for all of two seconds, then slumped, "I would love to tell you exactly that, Zhane, except for the part where that is exactly what I was planning to do. I won't lie to you, again."

Zhane sighed, "Andros... I appreciate your honesty, but I can't let you do this-- " Andros opened his mouth to protest, but Zhane raised a hand to forestall the Red Ranger's words as he firmly finished his own, "...alone."

That being the last thing that Andros expected Zhane to say, he could only blink in astonishment. Zhane continued on with, "I know how much your sister means to you. I know how important it is that you find her. Having loved you as I have all these years, how could I not? But you're twice a fool if you think that I will let you go down to an abandoned planet to meet with our sworn enemy on the off-chance that she may be the answer to your life-long search. No matter how mad I may be with you right now, I will not risk losing you like that. For as important as Karone is to you, Andros... you are equally as important to me."

For a moment, Andros could only stare at his friend in mute shock. Zhane had never spelled it out for him quite so clearly before -- or maybe he had and Andros had just never realized. That level of love and devotion, it was certainly something he could understand. Somehow, he had just never realized that Zhane felt that strongly for him. And rather than making him uncomfortable, rather than feeling like an intrusion, for the first time... that emotion made him happy. Words were still not his friends, but as he'd discovered over the last several months, actions often spoke louder and more clearly. He stepped up to where Zhane was leaning back against the wall and slid one hand up to cup the Silver Ranger's cheek, then leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss to those stunned lips. And in the shocked silence that followed that simple act, Andros found that he did have the words after all, "Zhane... there is no one that I would rather have at my side tonight, whether I go down there to face a fight for my life... or whether I go to meet my sister."

And for once, that had apparently been not only the right thing to do, but the right thing to say. Zhane's lips trembled, then broke into a wide, beaming smile -- a smile that Andros only now realized that he hadn't seen since the day they had fought. Zhane threw his arms around his partner and whispered fiercely into his ear, "Can we just forget this whole fighting thing and let everything get back to normal?"

Sweeter words were never spoken and it was with something akin to shock that Andros found himself denying them. He pushed Zhane back so he could meet his eyes square on, "No, we can't." Before the Silver Ranger had a chance to get too disappointed, Andros rushed to explain, "We can't just forget the fighting, Zhane, because you were right. I took you for granted and I shut you out of my life whenever it was convenient for me. You were right to do what you did and it was something that I needed. You can't carry the entire weight of this relationship without me and you should never have had to. We can't just forget this fight, because I don't want you to let me off the hook that easily." Gripping the Silver Ranger's shoulders tightly and giving him a little shake, Andros finished with, "I don't want to hurt you again, even by accident. If there's one thing this has all taught me, it's that you're too precious to me, Zhane... in many ways, more so than Karone could ever be."

That did it. Zhane's eyes filled with tears and he threw his arms around Andros a second time, "If this is a dream, I sure as hell don't want to wake up..."

Andros allowed himself a small smile as he gripped his partner tightly to him, "This is no dream, Zhane. This is real. I can't promise that I'm finished screwing up and the gods know I'm not perfect, but this time around, I can at least promise that I'll try. Is that enough?" At Zhane's almost frantic nodding against his shoulder, the Red Ranger's smile widened, "Now, don't you dare let me off easily from now on, Zhane. If I do screw up, you'd damned well better tell me."

Zhane leaned back enough to give him a watery smile and another nod. Andros lifted a thumb to gently brush the tears away from the other Ranger's face, "Good. Then let's go get this thing over with so we can get back here and make up for lost time."

Zhane's hearty laugh was accompanied by a twinkling grin as he followed him up to the Jump Tubes, "But Andros... if we're still in this fight, there really shouldn't be sex..."

And to his everlasting surprise, Andros merely shot him an answer over his shoulder before whipping out of sight down the tube, an answer that nearly had Zhane doubled over in hysterical laughter: "Sure there can be -- hasn't Kimberly ever explained to you the twinned phenomena of 'angry-argument sex' and 'make-up sex'?"

So perhaps it wasn't in quite the right frame of mind that Andros and Zhane approached the old Ranger headquarters, but the joy in the Red Ranger's mind and the soothing pulse of their recently healed bond wouldn't allow it to be any other way. As they rounded the corner and stepped up to the house, however, what they saw was not quite what they expected. There was no one there.

Zhane frowned, "I don't understand. I thought she was to meet you here...?"

Andros, merry mood draining away, also frowned, "She was. I can't have misread that signal. There must be something..." Frustrated irritation written in every line of his form, Andros started to stalk the perimeter of the entrance alcove. Finally he paused, eyes locked on a formation of rocks just to the right of the door. "No... it couldn't be that simple."

Zhane stepped up next to him, "What is it, Andros?"

With a contemplative look, Andros knelt down next to the pile of rocks and started sifting through it, "When we were younger, we used to leave each other things like this -- I suppose we thought we were being extremely clever..." With an 'a-ha' look crossing his face, Andros finally fished something out of the pile. It was a locket. Wordlessly, he held it up for Zhane to see while pulling his own out of his shirt. Anyone could see that the pictures held safely within each were identical. Closing the locket again, Andros reached for the spot where the secret compartment of his own was located. No surprise... there was a data disc in this one, too. Using his other hand to activate the lock mechanism of the door, Andros led Zhane into his parents' home.

It didn't take long to find a vidscreen, though even Andros had to admit to a small amount of surprise that it still worked. As he slipped the disc into the reader, Zhane stepped up behind him and slid his arms around the younger Ranger's waist. And like before, it didn't feel like an intrusion -- it felt like welcome support. Leaning back against the Silver Ranger's strength and letting one of his own hands rest on the ones clasped around him, Andros hit 'play'.

Immediately, what Andros could only assume was Astronema's form filled the screen. It was the Dark Princess as neither had ever seen her before. She was wearing a simple, long-sleeved black dress and there was no make-up, no wig to hide the beauty of her now obviously human features. Tawny gold, shoulder length hair whipped about as she looked furtively around her, then focused on the camera with her grass green eyes, "Red Ranger, if you have found this locket, and more importantly this message within it, then you know that I am who I hinted that I might be. Even now I don't dare say it out loud for fear of who may overhear -- not all on this Dark Fortress are my friends. I have, myself, only recently discovered this connection between us and was as dismayed as you no doubt were this afternoon. I asked Ecliptor to verify my conclusions and he has done so to my satisfaction."

She paused to glance around her once more before returning to the recording, "For obvious reasons, this quite changes things between us. I don't believe I need to tell you that. But exactly how it does... I am not yet sure. I am still Evil and you are still Good. One night's revelations can not change that fact. But I also know this... I have spent too many nights grieving the death I thought you had suffered and I do not wish to grieve it again. What I can do to prevent it... I will. I will watch and I will plan, and perhaps... perhaps... I can prove that I am worthy of you, after all."

Another glance around, then she hurriedly tapped out a few commands on the control panel. Not sparing another glance for the monitor as she typed, she finished with, "If I have proven my identity to your satisfaction, you will now help me to prove yours. Simply replace this locket where you found it with your own message and I will come retrieve it when you have gone." Her last glance at the camera betrayed a grin as mischievous as Zhane's could often be, "I've apparently led you a merry chase these last 17 years. Congratulations on finding me... Andros." The screen went black.

Zhane's voice whispered in his ear, "And what message will you send in response?"

Andros merely slipped a new disc into the recorder and flipped it on. With a smile of warm welcome, he said, "Ollie, ollie oxenfree, Karone. I'm ready for the next round if you are."


Zhane: *relieved sigh* Well, thank goodness that's over with. _;;;

Andros: I agree.

Jason: *grumps* Speak for yourself! Whatever happened with me and Billy?

Billy: *leans over to whisper in Jason's ear* Don't push that particular button. It makes the fic author embarrassed.

Jason: *blinkblink* Really?

Billy: *sigh* Really. She assures me that she's working on it, but refuses to make any promises as regards a self-imposed deadline.

Jason: In other words...?

Nuriko: *scowls, crosses arms over chest* In other words, "Keep dreaming."

Andros: *twitch* Who are you, anyway?

Questions, comments, rutabagas?

Final Thoughts: I'd just like to thank you all for reading and I hope it didn't disappoint. ^_^ Ghostwriter, I thank you for the lovely reviews -- I'm sorry I didn't respond to them all, but they were appreciated, nonetheless. ^_^ I'm sure Jason will sort himself out eventually... and I have plans for Trini. *eg* ^_~

Thanks again, all! It's been a fun ride!