Disclaimer: It's possible that I could come up with an idea as silly as Power Rangers--but I could never make it work. Saban does that, and they have my respect and thanks.
"Man, those quantrons were tough," TJ declared as they demorphed.
"You're just out of shape," Cassie teased, springing down the steps of the Megaship to the deck below their glider tubes.
"Either way," Carlos interjected, "That was *not* what I had in mind for my morning workout."
Ashley reached her hands up to massage her shoulders. "I'm with you, Carlos. Even morphed, I took some serious blows from those guys."
Already on his way out the door, Andros rolled his eyes. He couldn't help it--something about Ashley Hammond made it impossible to take her seriously. No matter what she said, she could contradict it at a moment's notice, and no matter how much she complained, she'd be in there swinging whenever they needed her.
"I'll be lucky if I'm not stiff as a board by lunchtime," TJ commented, and as Andros escaped into the hallway and headed for the Bridge, he heard Ashley's irritatingly cheery reply.
"Time for some backrubs!"
Andros shook his head. *I don't think I even want to know,* he thought, but his curiosity got the best of him. When he'd finished the routine Bridge chores, he wandered down past the Rangers' living quarters, looking for the others.
He found them in Carlos's room, aligned on the floor in various sitting positions. Each faced the left-hand wall, and they all had their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them--except for Ashley, who sat at the front of the line.
*Some bizarre Earth tradition?* he wondered, watching them knead each other's shoulders and backs. *What's the point?*
"Andros!" TJ exclaimed, finally noticing his silent presence in the doorway. "Come on in, man!"
"Yeah, Andros," Cassie agreed, "you look like you could use a backrub as much as any of us."
Before he could answer, Ashley twisted a little to look at him and gesture. "C'mere; you can sit in front of me."
He hesitated, not sure how to decline gracefully. "Come on," Ashley insisted. "It feels great, I promise."
Andros sighed. It looked like there was no getting out of it--and he was still curious as to the purpose of the exercise. He entered the room cautiously, and lowered himself to the floor in front of Ashley, back turned as the rest of them had done.
"I'm not as good as Carlos," she warned, the ever-present smile audible in her voice. "But I'll do my best."
He didn't know what she was talking about, but didn't want to embarrass himself by asking. Then her hands touched his shoulders, and Andros jumped.
"Hey, relax," Ashley said. "It's just a backrub."
"Haven't you had a backrub before?" Cassie asked from behind Carlos.
He just shook his head. He was too startled to attempt any other kind of reply.
"Well, we'll change that," Ashley told him, her tone decisive. She moved her hands over his shoulders, massaging muscles that only became more tense at her touch.
"Mmm," he heard Carlos murmur, "that feels good, Cassie; thanks."
"Anytime," she answered, and Andros wished he could turn around to see their faces.
Ashley sighed. "Andros, you're supposed to *relax.* Sheesh; you've got to be the tensest person I know."
"Sorry," he offered, not sure why that was a bad thing. Being tense meant you were alert, and being alert kept you alive.
"It's okay. Look, just forget whatever you're thinking about and concentrate on something soothing," Ashley instructed.
"Like rain," Cassie volunteered.
"Rain's not soothing," Carlos objected. "It's wet."
"It is too soothing," Cassie retorted, giving him a playful push.
"Try the stars," TJ spoke up. "That always works for me."
Andros tried to envision a starfield, but all he could concentrate on was the almost painful prodding of Ashley's fingers. He hunched his shoulders, wishing he hadn't come down here to investigate.
"It wouldn't hurt if you weren't so tense," Ashley accused, reading his body language.
He shrugged, pulling away. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
"Stay," Ashley commanded, and her voice was so firm that he aborted his attempt to stand and just crouched where he was on the floor, not looking at them.
"You guys switch if you want," Ashley said. "I plan to make Andros relax if it's the last thing I do."
Andros sighed, hearing the mock-threat in her voice. The others shifted positions on the floor, and then Ashley was there again, closer than before, and he let her pull him back down to the ground. She pushed his hair forward over his shoulders and placed her palms flat against his back. Rubbing small circles, the warmth of her hands began to seep into him, and almost against his will, he began to relax a little.
"Hey, TJ, did you study for that math test yet?" Carlos asked, and Andros started at the sudden noise in the once-quiet room.
Ashley blew out her breath in exasperation. "Don't you ever slow down?" she whispered, as TJ launched into one of his tirades against trigonometry.
"What do you mean?" Andros asked.
"I mean, *relax.* Stop thinking about the hundreds of terrible things that *could* happen, and focus on what *is* happening now."
He tried to do as she asked, losing himself to the feel of her hands on his back while TJ's words washed over them all. To his own amazement, he found himself yawning.
"Thank you," Ashley said with satisfaction. "You're probably as close to calm right now as I've ever seen you."
Cassie's offer of math help overrode Ashley's comment, but Andros still caught it. He said nothing, though, uncertain suddenly about the questions her innocent statement evoked. *Is it only because of the backrub that I'm "calm"?* he wondered. *Or--is it the person who's giving it?*
He didn't want to deal with the kind of responses that query could lead to, and he found himself drawing away from her ministrations once again. He flowed to his feet as quickly as he could and stepped back from the group. "Thank you," he said, eyes flicking between Ashley and the others. "It was… nice."
He left quickly, before they could question his departure, and retreated to his room. Once there, and safely alone again, Andros didn't even bother to turn on the lights. He simply collapsed on his bed and stared at the bottom of the bunk above him. *What just happened?* he wondered. He had run out of Carlos's room; run away from the other Rangers--away from her. *Why?*
He tried to tell himself that it was a silly ritual anyway, this human need to soothe each other after combat. *But I'm human as well…* The thought rose, unbidden, to the surface of his thoughts, and he shook it away. *It wasn't the backrub that made me leave.*
He couldn't possibly have feelings for her. Could he? The one person on the ship that irritated him more than any other? He had only recently accepted that he could have friends; the thought of anything more terrified him. He, who had once been strong enough to stand alone, now relied on others to fight with him. And Ashley…
His eye had been drawn to her from the beginning, but he told himself it was only because she wore the color his sister should have had. And her enthusiasm for everything, whether it was a simple game of pool or the vast wonders of outer space, disturbed him as much as her superficial resemblance to Kerone. That naivete of hers could yet get her killed.
Still--her ebullience drew him to her, almost against his will, and he had found himself at her side more often than not. Innocence was a trait Andros had lost a long time ago, and sometimes he found that… well, he missed it. Seeing that quality in her bothered his rational side, for he knew it would not serve her in their fight against evil--yet there was another part of him that hoped she would never lose it.
It had never been his goal to mingle with these new Rangers, least of all Ashley, but it had happened. It had never been his intention that they know of his past, or the private search he conducted alongside theirs, but it had happened. Somehow, they had become teammates, and finally friends. Would his dawning realization about Ashley prove to be just as inevitable?
*No,* he thought firmly. *There's nothing to realize--I like her, even if I won't admit it to anyone else, but that's as far as it goes. She's… my friend.* "Friend" was the right word, and he decided that some of his discomfort with its use stemmed from his long isolation on the megaship. *I'm not used to having people around me who are my friends, and Ashley's around me more than any of the others. That's probably why she makes me uncomfortable.*
A gentle rap on his door startled him, and he turned his head instinctively toward the sound. "Come in," he called without thinking, still unused to having other people on the ship with him.
The door slid open to admit light, spilling across the floor and making him squint at the silhouette framed in the doorway. It didn't move at first, contemplating the darkness and what it might mean, while Andros cursed himself for not turning the lights up before responding to the knock.
"Andros?" Ashley's voice emanated from the silhouette, sounding rather worried. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he replied shortly, turning his head away from the door and staring at the upper bunk again.
Instead of going away, as he had hoped, she stepped into the room, her shadow lengthening across the floor until the door closed behind her. His eyes, which had been accustomed to the dark, were now useless after the flood of light from the corridor. Ashley had to be in much the same situation, but she didn't complain.
"It's just that you left so suddenly," she remarked cautiously. "We wondered if it was something we did that made you take off like that."
"You did?" he asked, feeling stupid for the question but not knowing how else to answer.
She hesitated for a moment, and he heard her scuff her foot against the floor. "Well… I wondered if it was something I did, actually."
He thought of his recent reflection, but dismissed it just as quickly, knowing he could never tell her any of it. "No," he managed to say. "It wasn't anything you did."
"Then why are you hiding in your room with no lights on?" Ashley persisted, and he heard her careful footsteps edging closer to his bunk.
"I'm not hiding." His voice sounded sullen even to him, but he made no apology. *She shouldn't be here in the first place,* he thought, conveniently forgetting that he had invited her in.
He could practically hear her roll her eyes. "You *are* hiding. What's wrong, Andros?"
He shivered in the darkness, despite the warmth of the room. The genuine concern in her voice unnerved him, though not as much as his reaction to it. He found himself frighteningly close to telling her the truth. "It's just… you were so nice," his voice lowered to a whisper. "I'm not used to it. I had to be alone for a while."
"Oh, Andros," Ashley murmured sympathetically. Kneeling beside his bunk, she put a hand on his arm. "We'll always be here for you, you know."
His vision, he realized suddenly, had adapted once more to the dim light, for he could see the caring look in her dark eyes. "Thanks," he managed, feeling silly with her leaning over him like that. He swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and sat up, avoiding her gaze.
They waited a moment in uncomfortable silence, then she did something she'd never done before: she reached out and gently touched his face. He started, but it had the desired effect--he looked at her, meeting her gaze with wide eyes. She seemed as though she'd been about to speak, but at his expression she stopped, biting her lip.
Andros didn't move, trapped in her gaze but not knowing what she was expecting. He sat, frozen, as Ashley leaned closer--and then, just for a moment, her lips touched his.
Drawing back, she whispered, "Have you ever been kissed before?"
He shook his head, too startled to speak.
"I'm surprised," she told him, smiling faintly. "If you ever want to do it again, let me know." She laid her hand alongside his face once more, then got to her feet and walked toward the door.
He wanted to call out to her, to stop her from leaving, but he didn't know what to say. So he watched the door slide open, wincing a little as light streamed in from the corridor. She hesitated for a moment, as she had on the way in, then she was gone, her footsteps fading as she walked away.
All he could think when the door closed again was, *Friends don't kiss--do they?*
Ashley paused outside Carlos's room, hearing the others within and not sure she could face them just yet. *What did I just do?*
Not only had she made a complete fool of herself, she'd been incredibly selfish. She'd wondered what it would be like to kiss Andros for quite a while now, but she'd never acted on it, knowing how uncomfortable their gestures of friendship had made him at first. Anything more, she'd figured, would scare him away for good.
*Then, he finally talks to me, and I go and do a stupid thing like that…* She sighed, more loudly than she'd intended.
"Hey, Ash?" Carlos called. "You out there?"
At that moment, she knew exactly how Andros felt when one or more of them came and dragged him away from his brooding to go do something fun. "Yeah," she answered, sighing again.
She stepped into the room, trying to put on a cheery face. Her three friends had abandoned their earlier positions and were now lounging about the room--all their attention now focused on her.
"Are you okay?" Cassie asked, her expression worried.
"Sure," Ashley answered, trying to shake of the gloomy fog that she felt had attached itself to her. "I'm fine."
"Where's Andros?" TJ wanted to know.
She looked away, shrugging. "I think he wants to be alone for a while."
She didn't see the knowing look Cassie shot in her direction, but she heard Carlos clear his throat. "Why don't we all go down to the Surf Spot for a while, see what's going on?"
Grateful as Ashley was for his intervention, she wasn't sure she felt like facing all those people. *But it would be a nice distraction…* "Sure," she agreed, glancing at Cassie, then TJ, who both nodded their agreement.
They teleported to a place directly behind the Surf Spot--an alley no one but cats frequented on a regular basis. It was deserted, but as soon as Cassie landed, she knew she was in trouble. She glanced at her wrist, just to make sure.
It was as bare as it had been seconds ago when she'd first realized something was wrong. Cassie had looked down at her communicator out of habit, even though Carlos had had DECA teleport the four of them down. The absence of her wristpiece had startled her, but it had been too late to abort the transport.
During her momentary preoccupation, the others had gotten ahead of her, and Cassie sighed to herself. She'd never hear the end of this.
"Guys," she called, hurrying to catch up. TJ slowed, and shot her an inquiring look. Even Carlos and Ashley stopped talking long enough to give her their full attention.
"You're not going to believe this," Cassie said, holding up her left wrist. "I left it--" she looked around as they emerged from the alley, and hastily edited the end of her sentence. "Behind," she finished awkwardly.
To her surprise, and immense gratification, no one laughed. "You'd better go back for it," TJ said, looking over his shoulder. "Here, take mine. We'll meet you inside in a few minutes."
He passed his communicator to her, and she nodded in understanding. Any of them could simply have called the Megaship and asked DECA to teleport her aboard--but it was early afternoon, and the youth of Angel Grove were swarming around the Surf Spot. Their alley would be safer, and much less conspicuous.
The others continued around to the front of the popular hangout, while Cassie darted back the way they'd come. Once out of sight of prying eyes, she activated the blue-banded communicator and disappeared in a sparkling shower of pink.
The Megaship was quiet, but not eerily so. Cassie was often up late, and she enjoyed the peace that blanketed the hallways when TJ's laughter fell silent and Ashley's cheery voice no longer echoed through the corridors. She loved her friends dearly, but sometimes all she wanted was to stare out at the stars in solitude and silence.
*They're truly beautiful,* she thought, glancing through a window as she passed by on her way to Carlos's room. *I know why he spends so much time out here…*
Cassie shook her head, trying not to dwell on thoughts of the ship she hoped to see at the Megaship's side someday soon. *Not now, anyway,* she thought, as Carlos's door slid open in front of her.
Her communicator, of course, was on the floor where she'd left it; she'd taken it off because she'd always hated wearing watches while giving backrubs. They jabbed into her skin and often scratched the person she was working on. Now, though, she was glad to have the familiar weight back on her wrist where it belonged.
Closing the clasp, she moved back toward the door, not feeling right about teleporting directly into or out of someone's room while they weren't there. The corridor greeted her, much the same as it had been moments before: bright, clean--and suddenly less empty.
*Does DECA tell him when we leave?* Cassie wondered, amused. *So he knows when he can haunt the hallways without having to worry about running into anyone?*
At the sound of the door opening, Andros looked up from the electronic datapad in his hand. He stopped when he saw her standing there, and she saw surprise, then chagrin, flash across his face.
"Hey, Andros," Cassie greeted him, hoping to alleviate the tension she could sense emanating from him. "The others are down at the Surf Spot; want to join us?"
He hesitated, obviously torn. The pause went on, and still he didn't react in any way.
Now concerned, Cassie tilted her head and frowned at him. "Are you all right?"
For another long moment, he didn't answer. Then, abruptly, he looked straight at her, and she was surprised by the distress in his eyes. "Cassie, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," she said, her curiosity growing. Andros had never asked permission to question her before.
His next question was even more of a surprise than the first: "If someone… kisses you, what does it mean?"
Cassie blinked. "Well, I guess it depends whether it's a family member or a friend."
"Not a family member," Andros responded emphatically.
"Well," Cassie continued, "on Earth, kissing is a sign of affection." Andros nodded; apparently KO-35 wasn't so different.
Unfortunately, she wasn't sure how to word the rest of her reply. "If someone kissed me--someone who'd been my friend for a while--I guess I'd assume they were trying to tell me that they had feelings for me. Feelings stronger than friendship, I mean."
Andros had a faraway look in his eyes, but she couldn't blame him. Her look was doubtless equally distant, for she too was thinking of someone else… *"Don't forget me, Cassie. I'll see you soon."*
Andros's voice broke into her reverie, and she startled. "Thanks, Cassie," he said, looking at the datapad in his hand, but not, she suspected, truly seeing it.
"No problem," she murmured, watching him walk away. Her gaze returned to the window and lingered on the stars a moment. Before she could get lost in the search again, she touched her communicator and returned to the planet below.
The sun had retreated behind the clouds when she rematerialized, but the crowd at the Surf Spot had not diminished in the slightest. Weaving through students who looked less familiar every time she returned, Cassie saw TJ and Carlos sharing fries at a table in the corner. She made her way over to them, realizing briefly how isolated she and her friends were becoming from their "peers" on Earth.
Carlos waved when he saw her coming, and she smiled in return, but her attention was elsewhere. She slid TJ's communicator into his hand, but her eyes were searching the crowded establishment. "Thanks, TJ--where's Ashley?"
A telltale flash of yellow caught her eye, and she squinted across the room. "She went to the--" Carlos began, then cut off as he too, spotted Ashley. "There she is. Hey, Ash!"
Ashley waved back, but as she approached the table, Cassie didn't give her time to sit down. "Ashley, I need to talk to you," she said firmly, grabbing her friend's arm and dragging her farther into the corner. "Excuse us, guys."
TJ and Carlos exchanged glances, shrugged, and returned to their fries. She was conscious of their silence, though, and knew they would do their best to overhear the ensuing conversation.
"What's going on?" Ashley whispered, puzzled but just as aware of the boys' keen hearing.
Cassie put her hands on her hips. "Ashley… did you kiss Andros?"
"What?" Ashley exclaimed, then clapped a hand over her mouth when she saw Carlos look in their direction. Lowering her hand, she asked more quietly, "How did you know?"
"I just saw him on the Megaship." Out of habit, she looked around to make sure no one was close enough to over hear the word. "He looked pretty confused."
"What did he say?" Ashley asked, nearly inaudibly. Before Cassie could answer, though, the brunette groaned. "I can't believe I did that! He'll probably never talk to me again--he'll just give me The Look."
"`The Look'?" Cassie repeated, diverted.
Ashley rolled her eyes. You must have noticed it. Remember back when we first met him, and he wouldn't listen to any of us? No matter what suggestions we offered, he'd just give us this disgusted Look and remind us we were *planetary* Rangers." She sighed. "He respects us more now, and it's been months since he gave any of you guys The Look. But I still get it, any time he thinks I've said something particularly stupid."
Cassie didn't answer right away. Now that she thought back, Ashley was right--Cassie did remember the expression Andros had had whenever he had gotten impatient or frustrated with them. Which, in the beginning, had happened approximately every five minutes. That look had become less and less frequent as time went on, and lately Andros had almost become tolerant of his fellow Rangers' antics.
"I think you're exaggerating a little," she said, but Ashley shook her head vigorously.
"I'm not!" Sighing, Ashley admitted, "I like him, Cassie, I really do, but I get the feeling he's just putting up with me."
"No one ever said Andros was good at expressing his feelings," Cassie muttered, indignant on her friend's behalf. "I bet he just doesn't know what to say to you."
"What did he say to *you*?" Ashley asked, bracing herself.
Cassie looked around uncomfortably, knowing nothing she said would placate Ashley at this point. "He wanted to know… what kissing means, on Earth."
Ashley didn't react as violently as she'd expected. Instead, she just stood there, a bewildered expression on her face. Finally, she asked, "Why didn't he just ask me?"
"I don't think he wants to look ignorant in front of you," Cassie said, remembering Andros's silence when they invited him to join their backrub line. "Andros does respect you, whether you know it or not, and your opinion obviously matters to him--probably more than the rest of ours."
Ashley sighed in frustration, then the meaning of Cassie's words seemed to sink in. "Are you saying you think he likes me?"
Cassie couldn't help but smile at the hopefulness on her friend's face. "Yeah," she said, nodding. "Yeah, I do."
Ashley returned the gesture with a brilliant smile of her own. *Andros's regard really does mean something to her,* Cassie realized. "Tell him how you feel, Ashley," she urged. "Maybe he's just waiting for you to say something."
Ashley's eyes widened. "I can't do that!"
Cassie raised her eyebrows. "Ashley, you *kissed* him! What did you expect him to think?"
"I don't know!" Ashley wailed. Suddenly, she glared past Cassie's shoulder, and Cassie turned to see Carlos and TJ watching them with interest.
Lowering her voice, Ashley continued, "I didn't mean to do it--I was just going to check on him, to make sure he was all right. But then he told me he wasn't used to people being so kind to him, and he looked so sad…"
She trailed off, and Cassie almost laughed at the dreamy look on her face. "You look just like Andros did, when I told him kissing was a way of showing affection."
Ashley's focus returned to the here and now, and she was opening her mouth to speak when their communicators went off. Frowning, she and Cassie looked at each other, then over at the boys, who were straightening and exchanging puzzled glances of their own.
The morning's quantron encounter was on everyone's mind, and they shared a single thought: *so soon?*
Simultaneously, the four of them headed for the nearest exit, hoping to find a quieter place in which they could respond to the call from the Megaship. They were almost to the door when the quantrons came pouring through.
"Everybody back!" TJ yelled, disregarding his own command even as the other Rangers followed his example. They all knew his words weren't directed at them, but at the panicking teens still inside the establishment.
Over the shouts of astonishment and the scraping of chairs, Adelle's voice boomed, "Out this way! Move it, everyone!"
Adelle's drivers, Suzy and David, started herding people in the direction of the second exit. The Rangers were busying holding off the quantrons, and Cassie was grateful for the levelheaded Surf Spot staff. *If they get everyone out, we'll be able to morph,* she thought, ducking out of the way of one quantron and slamming an elbow strike into the chest of a second.
A flash of red in her peripheral vision alerted her to Andros's arrival--he stood in the doorway in full Ranger uniform, gesturing at the staff and stragglers to hurry. Then Carlos's black blurred past her, obscuring her view and sending a nearby quantron sprawling on the floor.
Cassie fought on, barely pausing for breath until she registered Andros's presence in their midst. "Morph, guys!" The Red Ranger yelled, spinning his spiral sabre in a dizzying pattern that was somehow unslowed by its contact with multiple quantrons. "I'll keep them busy!"
Cassie wasn't sure Andros could take on all of the quantrons in this confined area, much less keep them away from the other Rangers, who would be defenseless for the few seconds it would take them to morph. Nonetheless, there was little choice, and the sooner she morphed, the sooner she would be back in the fight.
She ducked another swinging metal fist, backing toward the elevated level of the Surf Spot. Then Andros was there, harrying the quantrons away, and she found Carlos and TJ at her side. They exchanged glances, and at TJ's nod, the three of them extended their right hands and yelled, "Let's rocket!"
*Three?* Cassie thought suddenly, as the morpher appeared around her wrist. *Where's Ashley?*
Her eyes searched the room, as her hand found the catch on her astromorpher and flipped it open. There was Andros, his sabre locked with the spiked blade of a quantron--while another approached from behind, weapon raised.
Cassie opened her mouth to shout a warning, but a yellow streak knocked the second quantron to the ground before it could reach the Red Ranger. Unmorphed, Ashley had remained in the fight, watching Andros's back.
Cassie returned her attention to her morpher, punching in a sequence of numbers as familiar to her as her own name. She heard Andros shout at Ashley to get out of the fight, but she missed Ashley's reply as the surge of Power rushed through her, augmenting her strength and increasing her energy.
The Blue, Black, and Pink Rangers rejoined the battle, and Cassie worked her way to Ashley's side. "Ashley, go!" she told her friend, "I'll cover you!"
Ashley didn't need to be told twice. Cassie stood in front of her, staying on the defensive now rather than going after anything silver that moved, and in a matter of seconds, the Yellow Ranger was with her again. "Let's send these quantrons back where they belong!" Ashley shouted, over the noise of the fighting, and Cassie grinned, giving her a thumbs up before diving back into the fray.
It wasn't long before the five of them stood in the middle of an empty room, panting for breath. They looked around at each other, then, without a word, Andros walked to the door that Adelle had been evacuating people through and looked out. "They're gone," he reported.
Carlos shrugged. "Can you blame them? Half the time, Astronema sends down some monster with the quantrons, and it trashes the place. They probably didn't want to be caught in the crossfire."
Ashley nodded in agreement, and TJ sighed. "Let's get back to the ship."
Andros raised his left hand. "DECA. Five to teleport."
Back on the Megaship, the Rangers gathered on the Bridge while Andros played with the scanner controls. "Something's not right here," he muttered, pushing a few more touchpads.
"Yeah," TJ agreed, "it's not like Astronema to send down quantrons without a plan."
"And twice in one day," Cassie added.
Andros didn't respond to either comment, and Carlos watched him poke at the console. He hadn't missed the fact that Ashley was also watching Andros--or that Andros would sneak glances at her when he thought she wasn't looking. The whole situation would have been rather amusing, if the happiness of Carlos's best friend hadn't hinged on the outcome.
"I can't find indications of any kind of disturbance on Earth," Andros announced at last. "If Astronema sent a monster down, it's not showing up on the scanners."
"But the scanners have been searching for Zordon," Carlos pointed out, speaking for the first time since they'd returned. "They're set for maximum accuracy at interstellar distances, not the few hundred miles between us and the Earth's surface."
"They're still good enough to detect an attack," Andros told him.
"Not if it hasn't happened yet," Carlos said, an idea beginning to form. "What if Astronema's just distracting us, while she gets something in position? If there's a monster down there, but it's not expending any energy, we wouldn't be able to pick it up."
He saw Cassie and TJ exchange glances, probably unaware of that particular failing in the scanners. "That's true," Andros admitted reluctantly.
"I can recalibrate the scanners," Carlos offered. "Not all of them, just a couple, so we'll know if there's anything down there."
Andros nodded. "All right--use the forward scanners. I want to use the main scanner array to backtrack Astronema's course of the last few days; see if there are any clues about what she's up to."
Carlos nodded back, then turned to the auxillary scanner bank, set into the wall of the Bridge. "Is there anything we can do?" he heard Cassie ask.
There was silence for a moment--*maybe Andros gave her The Look,* Carlos thought, amused. Then Andros's voice said, "We'll let you know if we find anything."
After a minute, Carlos heard footsteps leaving the Bridge, but he was already too deeply involved in the scanning grid to pay much attention. Separating the controls for the forward array from the main scanners was no problem--usually the difficulty lay in getting more than one scanner array at a time to accept programming.
Once he had the forward scanners responding, Carlos typed in the recalibration command. The target prompt appeared, and he entered the Megaship itself as ground zero, and the Surf Spot as the target distance.
"Is that Dark Spectre's ship?" he heard Ashley ask suddenly. He looked up from the console, surprised. *I didn't think she was still here…*
"Yes," Andros answered, staring at the screen. Carlos, too, recognized the distinctive form of Dark Spectre's vessel, hanging ominously in front of them. He had to remind himself that it was a recorded scanner image, thousands of light years away and probably several days old by now.
Carlos glanced back down at the computer readout in front of him. "The scanners are recalibrated," he told Ashley and Andros. "They're still not picking up anything strange, though."
"Well, that's a good thing, I guess," Ashley said, looking uncertain.
"But we still don't know what Astronema's planning," Andros muttered, obviously frustrated.
"What about that visual of Dark Spectre's ship?" Carlos asked.
Andros shook his head. "She was near his ship about two days ago--that's all we know." In a move that surprised Carlos, Andros slammed his fist down on the console. "There has to be something we're missing!"
Ashley put a tentative hand on Andros's shoulder. "We're doing our best, Andros. Whatever she's up to--"
Carlos was standing across the room, but even he saw Andros give her The Look. Ashley broke off, dropping her hand. She glanced quickly at Carlos, who knew that expression--she was asking him to leave.
Curiosity warred with loyalty to his friend, and, as always, loyalty won out. "I'm going to go tell Cassie and TJ what we found," he said, edging toward the door.
Ashley flashed him a grateful smile, and a corner of his mouth lifted in response. Silently wishing her luck, Carlos left in search of the others.
"Andros?" Ashley tugged gently on his shoulder, trying to get him to turn. He let her push him, but he refused to meet her eyes. "What's wrong?
"Nothing," he muttered, staring at the console.
"It's not Astronema," she said, studying his face. She didn't even bother to make her words a question--he didn't get this upset over Astronema's monsters, let alone a few quantrons.
"It is Astronema," he insisted. "She could be up to something dangerous…" He trailed off, probably realizing how weak that sounded, and his eyes flicked up to hers for just a moment before looking away again.
She sighed, certain now what the problem was. "Look, Andros, I'm sorry about… this morning."
He looked up, startled enough that he met her gaze without self-consciousness. "I didn't really--*mean* to kiss you--it just sort of… happened," she continued uncomfortably. His sudden regard made her stumble more than ever, but she was determined to clear the air between them.
"I know, I shouldn't have done it," Ashley said, wondering what he was thinking behind those brown eyes. "I'm really, *really* sorry--"
"You… didn't mean it?" Andros asked slowly, his face still unreadable.
She sighed. "Well… I did… I like you, a lot, but you've seemed sort of distant--I thought you were upset."
He didn't say anything, and she sighed again. "See, I knew you were upset. I'm sorry, and I promise not to do it again--"
"Ashley," Andros said quietly. She spoke over him, knowing she was babbling but unable to stop. "Ashley, I'm not upset," he said, still speaking softly, almost as if he didn't want her to hear.
She paused for breath, and his words registered, warm and unexpected. "You're… not?"
He just shook his head.
"Well…" she didn't know what to say. He wasn't helping any, either--after a statement like that, didn't he owe her at least a little explanation?
They stared at each other for what seemed like forever. Then Andros lifted his hand, and she held her breath as he reached out and stroked her cheek, in a move eerily reminiscent of the one she'd used earlier in the day.
She found herself leaning closer to him, and he was doing the same… She closed her eyes, as their lips met for the second time that day. It was a gentle kiss, and over far too soon--but when she opened her eyes, he hadn't backed away. He was still standing close, and she smiled up at him.
"Ashley…" Andros trailed off, as though he didn't know how to continue.
She held her breath, hoping she'd understood what he meant when he said he wasn't upset. "Yes?"
"Thanks--for defending me, down there."
She had the feeling that wasn't what he'd started to say, but she just shrugged a little, still staring into his eyes. "I couldn't let you get hurt." That was true, but it wasn't what *she* wanted to say, either. "Andros?"
He made a questioning sound, and she took a deep breath. "Thanks for kissing me."
He glanced down, but she saw the smile when he looked back at her a second later. "I should thank *you*," he said softly, and she couldn't stop the delighted smile that spread across her face.
Then the alarm went off.
"Come on, Carlos," Cassie said, leaning across the table. "You can tell us."
TJ shook his head. "Man! I still can't believe it. Andros and Ashley?"
Carlos sighed. "There's nothing to tell. Andros was upset about something, and Ashley was trying to cheer him up."
"And you *left*?" Cassie exclaimed.
TJ let them trade remarks, deeming it wiser not to interject any more incredulity into the conversation. Neither of Cassie nor Carlos seemed particularly surprised by the thought of their two friends getting together, but the idea had never occurred to TJ.
*Andros is so… reserved.* TJ couldn't picture the newest member of their team in a relationship. *And Ashley--I always thought she and Carlos would start going out. I suppose they've grown apart some since we left Earth… but Andros?*
Just then, the red emergency lighting flashed throughout the room, and the sound of the alarm rang through the hallways. Carlos stopped midsentence and looked around, as if he could see the attack from where he sat.
Cassie's exasperated expression faded, to be replaced by one of irritation as she jumped to her feet. "Doesn't Astronema know when to give up?"
TJ was already out of his chair and halfway to the door. "DECA! What's happening?"
"Astronema has sent quantrons to Earth," the ship's onboard computer responded in an annoying monotone.
TJ rolled his eyes. *I'd guessed that much, * he thought sarcastically, but said nothing. To get DECA mad at you meant that you'd find wilted spinach on your breakfast plate instead of pancakes.
The three of them raced into the Glider holding bay, to find Andros and Ashley waiting impatiently for them. "Quantrons in the park," Andros informed them, as TJ vaulted over the railing to land on the deck in front of his jump tube.
Up and down the line, the five of them exchanged glances and looked to Andros. He nodded, and they thrust their right hands out before whirling to grasp the bar above their respective tubes.
Power surged through TJ, and blue light momentarily obscured his vision. Then the metal beneath him slid away as he landed, fully morphed, aboard his Galaxy Glider. Bending his knees, he leaned forward and launched into the tunnel of hyperspace through which the Gliders traveled.
Wide and uncluttered, the tunnel was nonetheless his least favorite part of gliding. He increased his speed, and burst out into the sun and warmth at the other end. The wind screamed in his ears, drowning out the hum of the other Gliders right behind him, even overpowering the noise of his own Glider--but he could still feel the vibration through his boots.
The exhilarating ride was over too soon. Leaping off into the grass below, he didn't have to turn to know that his Glider was gone almost instantly, already swallowed up by hyperspace on its return voyage to the Megaship. The others dismounted as well, Andros executing a casual flip as he did so, and TJ glanced toward Ashley. *Showing off?* he wondered.
But Ashley's gaze was on the dozens of quantrons that had beaten them to the park--anyone not at the Surf Spot had apparently come here, and the families situated throughout the formerly peaceful picnic area were slower to disperse than the teens at Adelle's restaurant.
Luckily, the arrival of the Power Rangers drew the quantrons' full attention, and the ensuing battle gave the civilians the time they needed to escape. TJ threw himself into the fight, knowing that he and his teammates were all that stood between Astronema's forces of evil and the inhabitants of his home planet. It occurred to him to wonder how different it must be for Andros, who wasn't in this to defend his home--more than any of the rest of them, the Red Ranger was fighting *against* Astronema, rather than *for* someone else.
A chokehold from one of the quantrons reminded TJ how dangerous it was to let his mind wander in combat. He stepped to the right and crouched lower to the ground, grabbing the metallic arm as he did so and dropping his shoulder to throw the offending quantron to the ground.
Another bowled into him from behind, and he went crashing through the remains of a festively decorated pavilion. He rolled to his feet, bringing his hands up to defend from the expected follow-up attack--but it didn't come. Carlos was there, twisting the quantron's arm behind its back and giving it a kick hard enough to send it stumbling away.
"Thanks!" TJ called to him, and the Black Ranger nodded.
"Anytime--what's *he* doing here?"
TJ followed Carlos's nod, and, to his horror, saw a small boy crouched under one of the tables set up beneath the pavilion's canopy. "I'll take care of him," TJ promised, and Carlos nodded, throwing a roundhouse punch that knocked another quantron off its feet.
TJ turned his attention back to the child, grateful to Carlos for taking the heat off his back. "Are you all right?" he asked the boy, who nodded, wide-eyed.
TJ looked around, but right now, the pavilion was surrounded. There was no escape route that didn't involve numerous encounters with quantrons, so TJ turned back to the boy and held out his hand. "Will you come with me?"
The boy nodded again and scrambled out from his hiding place. TJ took his hand and pulled him over to the base of the tree that shaded the large tent. Scooping the child up, he set him on the lowest branch of the tree--hopefully, just above the quantrons' eye level. "Stay here, all right?" TJ told him, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was sneaking up on them.
"Yes, sir!" the boy said quickly, speaking for the first time.
TJ glanced back at him in surprise, then smiled, though both reactions were hidden from the child by his helmet. "We'll keep you safe," he assured the boy, who nodded vigorously.
TJ rejoined the fight, careful not to stray too far from the kid's tree. Carlos was still nearby, and he was probably the reason that TJ had been able to get the boy to a place of relative safety without being attacked once. Cassie soon worked her way over to them, and the three Rangers managed to keep a respectably large area around the tree clear.
Knocking one quantron into another, TJ didn't stop to watch them go down. Instead, he searched the park for Andros--Ashley would yell for help if she needed it, but Andros was too stubborn to admit when he was in trouble. He could have been knocked unconscious minutes ago, and TJ might not have even noticed.
A swirl of red confirmed that Andros was still on his feet, and the yellow that was Ashley wasn't far away. TJ saw the flash from her Star Slinger take down a quantron, and a sparkle of metal from the Andros whirlwind said that his Spiral Sabre had been drawn as well.
*And no wonder,* TJ thought, ducking a blow and catching the off-balance quantron with one of his own. *There's twice as many quantrons around those two as we have over here…* The quantron managed to evade his punch, but Cassie felled it with a chop to the neck, and he signaled to get her attention.
"Andros and Ashley are having trouble," he said, speaking loudly enough to be heard over the grating sound of moving metal joints and kiyahs.
Carlos wasn't so absorbed that he didn't hear TJ's comment, and, with a kick that sent another quantron to the ground, he turned in their direction. "Let's try to head our quantrons toward the others--the five of us should be able to take the ones that are left."
"Right," Cassie and TJ said, and they set the plan into motion. TJ didn't like leaving the boy undefended, but they managed to rejoin Andros and Ashley, making a line of defense that the quantrons couldn't breach.
"Thanks for the backup, guys," Ashley called, and TJ gave her a thumbs up.
"No problem," Carlos answered. "Hey, Andros--duck!"
Without question, the Red Ranger dove out of the way as Carlos's astroblaster cut through the air overhead. Sparks flew among the quantrons' ranks, and they must have decided the odds in their favor had fallen to an unacceptable low. They retreated across the grass, and the twin sparkles of Astronema's teleportation system erased them from view.
"Sometimes, I can almost hear them yelling 'Run away!'" Ashley muttered to no one in particular.
"What?" TJ heard Cassie ask, as he headed back toward the tree where he'd left the little boy.
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail," Ashley explained. "When King Arthur yells 'Attack!' and then the catapult starts firing, and he changes his mind and shouts 'Run away!' instead?"
TJ had never seen Monty Python, but Cassie started laughing. "Ashley, I'm going to think of that every time we beat them."
TJ found the boy right where he'd left him, and he reached up to help the child down.
"Did you win?" the boy asked eagerly, and TJ looked up as the others quietly gathered around.
"Yes, we did," he said at last, when no one else seemed inclined to answer. *Except that we still don't know why the quantrons were attacking in the first place…*
"Wow!" the boy exclaimed. "This was the best birthday party ever!"
"Is it your birthday?" TJ asked, smiling at his enthusiasm.
The boy nodded. "I'm eight years old today!"
"Happy birthday," Cassie offered, and Ashley echoed her a moment later.
The boy swelled with pride. "Thanks. Wait till I tell everyone I met the Power Rangers! Can I have your autographs?"
He didn't wait for an answer. Pulling out a pen and a slightly crumpled piece of paper from his pocket, the boy looked up at them hopefully. TJ didn't know how to refuse, but they couldn't exactly sign their names for him… He looked over at Cassie, but she just shrugged.
To his surprise, it was Andros that answered. "Sure you can," he told the boy, and the kid beamed. Andros took the proffered writing utensil and paper and bent over one of the few still-standing tables to scribble something.
*Of course,* TJ thought wryly, *Andros doesn't have to worry about *his* name being recognized…*
Then Andros passed the paper to him. It was a birthday card--and the words 'Happy Birthday' had been inscribed over a fuzzy but recognizable picture of the Megaship. TJ smiled--and his smile widened when he saw how Andros had signed the card: *Red Ranger.*
*Simple, obvious--why didn't I think of that?* TJ wondered, accepting the pen. He wrote *Best wishes, Blue Ranger,* and passed the card to Ashley. They each signed, and the boy, whose name was Jeremy, according to the card, thanked all of them again.
"It was our pleasure," Carlos told him. "But you'd better get home now. You're mother must be very worried."
Ashley nodded. "I'll walk you home, if you like," she offered.
TJ hadn't thought Jeremy could get any more excited. "Would you, really?"
"Sure," she said, and TJ grinned. Jeremy would brag about this for weeks…
Ashley took Jeremy's hand, and the two of them moved slowly out of the park. TJ saw Jeremy look over his shoulder and wave just as he and the others teleported away.