Disclaimer: It's not my fault! PHANTOM made me do it! And Saban started it…
The house was quiet, not surprising on a summer Saturday morning. Her mother didn't work weekends, and Jeff didn't have to be at the pool until the afternoon. Ashley would have been surprised if anyone *had* been up already.
She knocked on the guestroom door quietly, knowing it probably wouldn't do any good. Anything loud enough to wake Cassie could rouse the entire household. But she made a token effort before giving up and pushing the door open.
"Cassie," she whispered, wincing as the sunlight hit her eyes. Cassie's room was on the east side of the house, and she never drew the curtains.
Ashley took only three steps into the room before her vision adjusted enough for her to make out the figures on Cassie's futon. The *two* figures… She wasn't sure whether to be startled or embarrassed when Saryn's unblinking blue eyes met hers.
"You--you're back," she stammered, realizing how foolish that was even as she said it.
He nodded wordlessly, and Cassie stirred a little in her sleep. "I could not stay away," he murmured, glancing at the girl beside him.
Ashley smiled as her friend turned within Saryn's embrace, still asleep, and buried her face against his chest. He closed his eyes for a moment, arm tightening around her and a smile of his own creeping across his face.
"I'm glad," Ashley said at last, her voice quiet. "She needs you as much as you need her."
"I doubt that very much," he murmured, looking at Ashley once more. "But I, too, am glad."
She hated to disturb this peaceful scene, but the others were going to start wondering what had happened to her. "TJ's uncle offered to make breakfast for all of us," she said quietly. "I was coming to find Cassie, but you're more than welcome to join us."
He looked just the slightest bit surprised before his expression smoothed out--if she were to guess, she thought he probably kept forgetting that people could see his face now, instead of only his armor. He had an impeccable poker face… when he remembered to use it.
Instead of answering, he touched Cassie's shoulder. "Cassie," he whispered, leaning over to kiss the top of her head. "Are you awake?"
Ashley's eyes widened as Cassie murmured, "No…"
"Do you want breakfast?" he asked, stroking hair away from her face.
"No," she repeated, nestling closer to him.
"Um, Cassie?" Ashley wasn't sure how long Cassie had been awake, and she didn't want to startle her. "I'm sure the others would understand if you want to sleep in, but TJ's uncle is making pancakes for everyone…"
Cassie didn't say anything for a minute. "Real food?" she mumbled at last, and Saryn smiled.
Cassie sighed. "I guess I could get up. Morning, Saryn," she added, almost as an afterthought. She tilted her head, and he kissed her mouth gently.
Ashley looked away. Cassie was wearing his tunic over her nightshirt, and Saryn had apparently slept in the clothes Carlos had loaned him, but if she had had any doubt about them being lovers before, it was gone now. The simple fact that neither of them thought twice about such an intimate gesture convinced her.
"I'll just wait for you guys in the kitchen, okay?" She backed out into the hallway, pulling the door shut behind her. *This,* she thought wryly, *is *so* unfair. They really *are* sleeping together, and all anyone can talk about is me and Andros…*
Touching her communicator, she smiled involuntarily when Andros's voice asked, "What's up, Ash?"
"Cassie's coming," she said, "and Saryn's here, too. But we'll just be a minute--I want to leave my parents a note to tell them we'll be coming over for dinner."
There was a pause, and she could hear Andros relaying her words to the others already at TJ's place. "Phantom's there?" she heard TJ ask, in the background, and she could almost see Andros giving him The Look.
"All right, then--we'll see you in a few minutes," Andros said at last, and she smiled.
"Love you," Ashley said quietly, hoping he hadn't closed the link yet.
He hadn't. "I love you too," Andros answered without hesitation.
Then, from somewhere in the background, she heard Carlos yell, "Stop chatting and get over here, Ash! There won't be any pancakes left by the time you get here!"
She tried not to giggle. "All right, all right, tell him I'm coming. See you soon."
She broke the link before she was tempted to talk to Andros longer. For once, no one had walked off with the pen left by the phone for taking messages, and she used it to scrawl a quick note to her parents.
Andros had met her parents before, of course; all the Rangers had, except for Zhane and Saryn. But they hadn't seen him in a while--heck, they hadn't seen *her* in a while--and she hoped it would be a good thing for them to get to know him as her boyfriend instead of just her friend.
She left the note on the table and went to knock on Cassie's door again. "Come in," Cassie called, and Ashley peered in. Her friend, in jean shorts and a pink t-shirt, jammed her feet into sandals as Ashley came in. Holding her hair away from her face, she added, "Just let me find a scrunchy, and we can go."
"A 'scrunchy'?" Saryn repeated, folding her comforter in half once more before setting it carefully on her futon.
"You know, a hair thing," Cassie said distractedly. "An elastic, to keep it out of my face."
She grabbed one out of a bureau drawer, and Ashley saw her slip her birth control pills into her pocket before she twisted the scrunchy around her hair. "All right; I'm ready."
TJ's house was scene of controlled chaos by the time they arrived. Or at least chaos; the control was debatable. The door opened before they could knock, and Andros grabbed Ashley into a hug. "I heard you coming," he whispered in her ear, and she laughed, hugging him back.
"Glad you missed me," she replied quietly.
Carlos, coming around the kitchen counter with more pancakes, teased, "Aw… Aren't they sweet?"
"Shut up, Carlos," Ashley said calmly, letting Andros pull her out of the doorway so Cassie and Saryn could enter.
Carlos mimed being stabbed in the heart. "She doesn't value my opinion!"
"No one values your opinion; just your pancakes," TJ told him, taking the plate away from him. "Hi guys," he added with a grin, ducking as Carlos swung at him. "Come on in."
"Hello!" another voice called from the kitchen. "I'd come out and say hello in person, but my duties as cook would be compromised."
TJ laughed, leading them into the living room. It extended into a screened off porch on the other end, and was separated from the kitchen by a waist-high counter. "Ashley and Cassie are here, Uncle Max, and this is Saryn. He's the Phantom Ranger."
The man in the kitchen just waved over his shoulder. "Give me a minute, and--aha!" Ashley tried not to giggle as he flipped another round of pancakes onto a plate beside the stove with a flourish. "There we go," he said, satisfied.
"Hey!" TJ exclaimed suddenly, as Carlos grabbed the plate he had been holding out of his hands again.
"Well, you weren't eating them," the Black Ranger said. "And Ashley and Cassie haven't had any yet."
"Oh, so it was a purely charitable act," TJ suggested skeptically.
"That's right," Carlos replied, giving the plate to Ashley. He pointed at Cassie. "Share," he instructed, and she giggled.
"Yes, sir." Ashley looked around. "Um--another plate, please?"
TJ's uncle came around the counter as Carlos got another plate and silverware for them. "I'm Maxwell Carter," he introduced himself, holding out his right hand to Saryn. "But everyone calls me Max."
Saryn returned the gesture, somewhat uncertainly. "I am--" He hesitated. "My name is Saryn."
Max sighed. "Great. Another alien name I'm bound to screw up. I apologize in advance for my pronunciation; took me weeks to figure out how to say Andros's." He paused. "Sairn?"
"Saryn," Saryn corrected, glancing at TJ.
Ashley raised her eyebrow at Carlos. "What, we don't get any syrup?" she demanded quietly.
"Am I your slave?" he replied indignantly. "No, don't answer that."
"Two syllables," Cassie said, taking on seat on one of the stools by the counter.
"Thank you," Max said, glancing briefly in her direction. "Saryn?" he tried again, and this time Saryn nodded.
"Or at least close enough that you won't correct me," Max remarked with a smile. "Zhane is the only otherworldly name I've gotten on the first try."
From where he was lounging against the sliding door to the porch, Zhane waved in acknowledgement. "Oh, I just remembered," he said, coming over to sit next to Cassie. "Thanks for letting me borrow this."
He held out the barrette Cassie had been wearing yesterday, and Ashley saw Saryn look in their direction. "Thanks," Cassie murmured, and Ashley couldn't figure out why she was suddenly so flustered. "I mean, you're welcome…"
Zhane smiled. "It really helped."
She nodded wordlessly, eyes on her plate, and Carlos broke the quiet by appearing at Ashley's side with the syrup. "Here," he said loudly, passing it to Andros. "You can be her servant now; I'm quitting."
Andros took the bottle, looking somewhat startled, and Ashley giggled. "Thanks," she said, but before she could add anything sarcastic, Max intervened.
"Every woman needs more than one servant," he reproved Carlos. "Might as well learn that now."
"Hey, are these for me?" TJ called from the stove, and Max looked over his shoulder.
"Of course not," he answered. "Saryn still hasn't had any--where are your manners?"
"I left them on the Megaship," TJ answered good-naturedly. "Saryn, do you like pancakes?"
"How would he know?" Ashley asked wryly. "He's never had them. They're good," she added, glancing at Saryn. Still staring at Cassie, he did not answer. "Saryn?"
"I'll take them if he doesn't want them," Zhane spoke up, leaning over the counter.
Cassie glared at him, looking more than a little annoyed, and he aborted the gesture, holding his hands out to the side. "What?"
She sighed. "Nothing; sorry." She reached over the counter and took the plate from TJ. "Saryn, c'mere."
To Ashley's surprise, he did, and she made him sit down. "Hey, what did you put in this batter, anyway?" TJ demanded, still standing by the stove.
"TJ!" Max yelped, hurrying back into the kitchen. "Have I taught you nothing? Never, ever, touch another artist's work… and certainly don't stick your finger in the pancake batter!"
TJ took his finger out of his mouth and hid it behind his back guiltily. "Sorry," he offered.
"Hey, Zhane, where'd you hide the syrup?" Carlos demanded suddenly.
Zhane gave him an odd look. "You took it."
"I have it," Andros added at the same time, and Zhane looked at his friend automatically.
Catching his eye, Ashley tilted her head, trying to get him to join them. He frowned, but he got up nonetheless and joined them by the sliding door. "Zhane," Ashley whispered when he was close enough. "Do me a favor and don't sit next to Cassie, okay?"
"What?" he asked, giving every indication of being startled. Could he really not know what she was talking about?
Carlos had seen it, too. "You're making Phantom jealous," he told the Silver Ranger quietly.
"That's not my fault," Zhane objected, bristling, and Ashley motioned to him to lower his voice.
"Who wants more pancakes?" Max called from the kitchen, interrupting their whispered conversation.
"I'd love some more, if you don't mind," Carlos answered, stepping away from the group. "Thanks, Max," he added with a smile, heading into the kitchen.
"No problem," TJ's uncle replied, and Ashley frowned at her own plate.
"Do you have a microwave, Max?"
"You are *not* microwaving my pancakes," came the reply. "Bring them over here."
She shrugged at Andros and did as she was told. As she walked around the counter, she heard Cassie telling Saryn quietly, "You have to trust me, Saryn. I can't deal with feeling that every time I look at someone else…"
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Andros talking to Zhane, and she figured that was a good sign. "What are you going to do with these?" she asked skeptically, handing her plate to Max.
He cleared the pan, giving the new pancakes to TJ, and tossed hers, one by one, back onto the pan. "Old-fashioned reheating," he said smugly.
"Yeah, right," TJ opined, cutting into his stack of pancakes. "Modern gas stove, techno pan and all--very old-fashioned."
"You're one to talk, spaceboy," Max retorted.
Ashley choked. "'Spaceboy'?" she repeated, amused.
"Andros, how 'bout some of that syrup?" TJ called, giving Ashley a mock-threatening look. "Don't even think about it."
"What, calling you 'spaceboy'?" Max asked blithely, expertly flipping her pancakes back and forth to avoid cooking them anymore. Pushing them back onto her plate, he held it out to her and winked. "I think it has a certain ring to it, personally."
She grinned at him. "Definitely." She looked over in surprise as Andros handed her the syrup. "Oh, thanks."
"Hey!" TJ exclaimed.
"Ladies first," Carlos reminded him, a smug look on his face.
TJ waved a fork in his direction menacingly. "Stop corrupting Andros with chivalry!"
"Don't have to." Carlos grinned. "Zhane already did it. I'm just reminding him."
"Yeah, well, he was never very good at it," Zhane remarked, leaning nonchalantly on the end of the counter.
Ashley set her plate down carefully and put her arms around Andros. "I think you're perfect," she murmured, and she felt him hug her back.
"Not as perfect as you," he whispered, and she squeezed him tighter, smiling.
"You didn't tell me they'd finally gotten together, TJ," Max commented, pouring more batter onto the pan.
Ashley pulled away from Andros to give TJ a look. He just shrugged sheepishly. "Well, everyone else knew you two had feelings for each other."
"And I love gossip," Max added, unrepentant. "So why wasn't I informed of this latest development?"
"We've been a little busy," Carlos put in wryly.
"Guys?" Cassie interrupted the banter with such a serious tone that Ashley looked in her direction curiously.
"More pancakes?" Max asked over his shoulder, and she blinked.
"No, thank you," Cassie answered. "But they were really good," she added hastily. "Thanks for making them."
"No problem," Max replied good-naturedly. "Please, continue."
"Umm…" She glanced over at Saryn. "I was wondering what you guys would think about me going to Aquitar for a little while."
No one said anything for a moment, leaving the kitchen eerily quiet in the wake of her words. "Why?" Andros asked at last, and Ashley elbowed him gently, resisting the temptation to roll her eyes.
Cassie lifted her chin. "Because Saryn asked me to. And because I want to."
Ashley exchanged glances with TJ, and saw him catch Carlos's eye. She was surprised to see the other smile a little, knowing as she did that Carlos had never been particularly impressed by either the Phantom Ranger or Cassie's reaction to him.
"Look, I know it leaves the team short," Cassie said with a sigh. "But Zhane's here, and it would only be for a day or two."
TJ broke the silence first. "I don't see why you shouldn't," he said with a shrug. "It's no different from one of us going on vacation, after all."
Andros nodded. "TJ's right. We can always call you if we need you."
"You can, too, remember," Ashley said, going over to hug her friend. "Call us if you get in trouble."
Max offered a plate to Carlos. "Yours, I believe," he said quietly.
"Thanks," Carlos said, looking surprised and pleased at the same time. "I really appreciate it, Max--these are great."
"My pleasure," TJ's uncle said with a smile.
"So when are you leaving?" Carlos asked, reaching around Ashley for the syrup.
Catching sight of her plate, Max poked her unceremoniously in the shoulder. "Eat your pancakes before they get cold again," he rebuked, and she reached out to pull her plate over to her, smiling.
"After breakfast, I guess," Cassie said, glancing at Saryn again.
"Whenever you are ready," he responded.
"Ah, young love," Max said with a dramatic sigh. "I remember what it was like…"
"You're not old, Uncle Max," TJ said, chuckling.
Max eyed him. "No, but I feel old when you call me 'Uncle'. How many times have I told you to knock it off?"
"How many times have I told you not to call me 'spaceboy'?" TJ retorted. "It hasn't stopped you yet."
Savoring her pancakes, so much better than DECA's synthesized breakfasts, Ashley tried not to giggle. It was so nice to be normal, sometimes. It was nice to forget that they were responsible for the safety of an entire world, and just be able to laugh with each other over breakfast.
She knew she would never have had friends like these without the Rangers. But at the same time, they were friends first and Power Rangers second--sometimes, they could get so caught up in the battle that they forgot that. It was good to be reminded.
"Zhane!" Andros yelped, glancing over his shoulder at the ten meter drop behind him. "Watch it!"
"Sorry," came the sheepish reply. "I slipped."
"Well, don't," Ashley said from her place of relative security on the staging set up outside the Megaship's hull. "I'd like to keep my boyfriend in one piece, thank you very much."
"I'm sure you would," Zhane's voice answered from the other side of the replacement plating, and the smug amusement in his tone made Andros blush.
"If *you* want to stay in one piece," he threatened, "you'll move back about three steps."
He heard his friend mutter something about "pushy" and "Red Rangers", and his lips quirked upward. "That's the problem with a Silver Ranger," he confided to Ashley, just loud enough for Zhane to overhear. "No Astro morpher. He thinks that means he doesn't have to take orders."
Zhane snorted, but he backed up, giving Andros a little more room to maneuver. "What orders?" he demanded. "Since when do you give orders?"
"As soon as I met people who actually listened to them!" Andros shot back.
"And I was thinking so well of your new teammates until now," Zhane teased.
"Too bad we don't return the favor," Ashley interjected, a smirk on her face. "Andros may think you're good, but the rest of us know better."
"Hey!" Zhane exclaimed. "Don't mock me--I don't have to worry about falling anywhere, remember."
Ashley surveyed her perch. "You couldn't knock me off of here if you tried."
Andros heard his friend sigh. "Well, not right now, no. But if Andros ever decides where to put his feet, it'll be another story."
"Take your time, Andros," Ashley advised sweetly, and he smiled.
*Zhane, this has to be a little higher on the right,* he thought, and the plating tipped further onto its side. *I'm going to back up two steps, all right?*
*Picture me saluting,* Zhane answered.
Glancing over his shoulder again, Andros stepped backward carefully. The first step took him to the edge of the hangar bay, into the hole they'd left when they tore the unstable patch off of the hull. The second put him outside, on the staging NASADA had generously loaned and helped them set up.
"I'm going sideways now," Andros said, using his hands to steady the plating while he and Zhane telekinetically dragged it into position. With the insulated metal sheet outside and nearly vertical, he asked, *Ready?*
*Let's do it,* he heard Zhane reply, and between the two of them, they managed to heave the plating upright against the hull. The opposing sides locked into an overlap pattern with the surrounding hull, and Ashley quickly leaned forward to attach the magnetic clamps that would keep it from sliding while they bolted and sealed it.
*I've got it clamped from this side,* Zhane told him, and Andros nodded.
*It's set out here, too,* he said, watching Ashley grab hold of the staging and sit back from the hull. *We should be able to take it from here.*
*Great,* Zhane answered, sounding satisfied. *I'll go see what I can do with that laser array.*
*Thanks,* Andros said. Knowing Ashley could hear at least his side of the conversation, all he could say was, *I appreciate it.*
*You got it,* Zhane replied. *No problem.*
Ashley was more mechanically inclined than Zhane, and could probably have it finished in less time. But the nightmares she had had last night made him hesitant to ask her, and Zhane had volunteered for the job before he could decide.
"All set?" Ashley asked, looking up at him.
He nodded. "Zhane's gone to work on the laser array."
She looked down, and he realized that she knew perfectly well why Zhane had volunteered. "Thanks, Andros," she said quietly.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," he answered, dropping down beside her. "It takes time to get over something like that. You don't have to go anywhere near the lower decks until you want to."
"Thanks," she repeated, smiling at him a little. He reached out to hug her, and they embraced on a staging platform high above NASADA's secured facility grounds.
It took him longer than it should have to replace the laser array, and by the time he rejoined Andros and Ashley, they were sealing the inside of the hull. They were both sealing the *same* side of the plating, standing far too close, and he watched in amusement until Ashley caught sight of him.
"Hey, Zhane," she said, a warm smile on her face.
Andros looked up too, with a slightly guilty expression as he edged away from Ashley. "Hey guys," Zhane answered, grinning. "The starboard lasers should be operational again, but we'll have to test them once we get out of the atmosphere."
Ashley gave him a wry look. "You mean as opposed to testing them here? What a good idea…"
He tried to give her an Andros Look, but he couldn't get the smile off his face. "Yeah, well, every now and then I come up with something brilliant."
Ashley giggled. "I guess that wasn't it."
He just shook his head. "I suppose not," he admitted good-naturedly. "Need any help?"
They exchanged glances, and he couldn't help feeling a little disoriented. Andros had never been one to open up to others, and seeing him so comfortable with someone else took some getting used to. Zhane reminded himself that there was no reason to be jealous--but *convincing* himself was another matter.
"We're almost done, actually," Andros answered, giving the hull a token glance. "It'll probably only take another few minutes."
Zhane shrugged, keeping his smile in place with a little more effort than usual. "All right. If you've got things under control, I think I'm going to go for a walk."
Andros gave him a concerned look, and Zhane knew his friend had noticed. "If you want to wait, we can all go have lunch or something as soon as Ash and I finish this."
Zhane just looked at the two of them for a moment, Andros as relaxed as Zhane had ever seen him, standing with his… girlfriend. Things had changed so much in such a short time; it was unbelievable. "Actually--I hope you don't mind, but I sort of feel like being alone for a while."
*Zhane…* Andros's voice echoed in his mind. *Are you okay?*
*I'm fine,* he promised. *Still reeling from the time change, you know? Your "two years" still feels like yesterday to me, and I just need to work things out in my mind.*
Andros nodded reluctantly. *We're still best friends, Zhane,* he said firmly. *Nothing will change that.*
*Forever,* Zhane answered automatically, and Andros echoed it with a smile.
"Have a good afternoon," he told them lightly, waving as he turned to leave.
"You too," Ashley responded, and he smiled. Andros couldn't have found a better person to complement his own reserved personality.
*Once I was that person,* Zhane thought, unbidden. His world filled with a rain of silver as he teleported into the park he had walked through with Cassie only the night before. Wandering out into the open, he found a sunny spot and seated himself in the grass even as she had.
Although he had told Andros he wanted to think, what he really wanted to do was forget. Forget that it had been two years since he had last sat in the sun like this, forget that everyone he knew had gone on with their lives while he hung in a timeless limbo… forget that Andros had grown up while he, for all intents and purposes, had died.
Zhane was seventeen now, but his fifteenth birthday had been only two months ago. Andros had been there, as always, and just as he was now--but subtly different. He had been *Zhane's* Andros then… was he now? Did sharing him with Ashley make him less accessible?
Zhane sighed, wishing he had answers to *any* of his questions. How much had he missed? How old was he now, really? *Who* was he, really?
A slight movement made him look up, and he blinked. The girl he had walked through the park the night before stood there, leaning casually against a tree trunk and regarding him with no expression on her face. "Hi," he said finally, when she didn't seem inclined to speak.
"Hi," she replied after a moment.
He tried to smile. "I'm Zhane," he offered. "I don't think I caught your name last night."
"Ast--" She hesitated midword, as though surprised she was telling him. "Astrea."
"That's pretty," he said, but he couldn't muster any of his usual charm. "Look," Zhane told the girl, sighing. "I really don't mean to be rude, but I… I don't really feel like talking right now."
She didn't answer right away. Then she straightened, and instead of walking away as he had expected, she paced carefully toward him and sat down a short distance away. "Neither do I."
He looked at her in surprise, but she was no longer watching him. Instead, she stared out across the park, apparently as lost in her own thoughts as he had been in his a moment ago. The corner of his mouth quirked a little, and he shrugged to himself, following her gaze. The sun continued across the sky, casting dark shadows between the two of them.
"Have fun at the beach," Karen said with a smile, tossing her bag into the passenger seat.
"Thanks," he said, stepping back. "Good luck at work--see you tonight."
"You'd better," she said, her smile unfazed. "Me and Tessa went to a lot of trouble to set this up."
He grinned. "Wouldn't miss it for the world," Carlos promised, hoping the world--and more specifically Astronema--didn't decide to test that statement.
She pulled her door shut and waved through the open window as she started the car. "See you!"
He lifted a hand as she drove away, smiling as her car came to an abrupt halt at the parking lot entrance. Karen drove the way she did everything else--fast, and just carelessly enough to be endearing.
TJ was waiting by his black Explorer, leaning against the passenger side and watching him with an amused expression. "Sorry," Carlos apologized, unlocking his own door and climbing in to get TJ's.
"No problem," TJ assured him, pulling the door open and shoving his bag into the back. "I just barely finished. Hey, what did you think of that exam?"
Carlos shrugged, leaving his door open as TJ joined him in the front seat so some of the heat could escape. "Not as bad as I expected."
TJ breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Good--it was easier than I thought it would be too, and I thought maybe I was missing something…"
Carlos laughed. "Nah. Just good study habits. You ready to go?"
TJ hesitated. "We'd better check with Andros; make sure he and Zhane and Ash got the hull repaired first."
Carlos nodded, and TJ reached for his communicator. The last thing either of them wanted to do after taking a two-hour trig exam was to seal hull plating, but it was only fair. It was their ship too, after all.
TJ touched a button on his morpher, now disguised as the same color-banded communicators they had used as Turbo Rangers. "Andros, how are the repairs coming?"
There was a longer than normal pause, and then Andros's voice came back, sounding a little--breathless. "They're all done, TJ."
Carlos raised an eyebrow, exchanging glances with TJ. He had never, in all the months they'd known him, heard Andros breathless. He almost asked if the other was all right--before the memory of Andros and Ashley sharing an intense kiss outside her room that morning made him pause.
"Andros, are you--" TJ began, and Carlos hit his shoulder gently, giving the communicator a significant glance.
TJ looked puzzled, until Ashley's giggle carried clearly over the open comm frequency. His eyes widened, and Carlos asked quickly, "You're sure you don't need any help?"
"No, we're fine, thanks," Ashley answered, sounding almost as out of breath as Andros. "How was the exam?"
"It was all right," Carlos said. *I *bet* they don't need any help…* "We didn't mean to interrupt--you two have a good afternoon."
"Back at you," Ashley said, just before the comm link clicked off.
They just sat there for a moment, until Carlos looked over at TJ. The Blue Ranger just shrugged. "No comment."
Carlos shook his head, a smile on his face as he slipped the key into the ignition. "Let's hit the beach," he said, pulling his door shut. TJ flipped the radio on and followed suit. The sport utility vehicle leaped forward across the sunlit lot, music up and windows down as it headed for the ocean.
Ashley burst out laughing as Andros broke the link with TJ's morpher. Throwing her arms out to the sides, she let herself fall backward in the grass from her seated position, giggling uncontrollably. "Oh, Andros…"
He gave her a puzzled look. "What?"
That only set her off again, and she pushed her helmet off her head as she lay in the short grass that lined the paved park paths. Echoing her motion as he sat beside her, he pulled his other wristguard off and ran a hand through his hair. He was waiting for her to explain, his expression a study in patience, and she tried to get her laughter under control.
"It's TJ and Carlos," she managed at last, still giggling a little. "They think--" She tried to get the grin off her face, but she couldn't quite do it. "They think we're making out."
Andros didn't look any less puzzled. "'Making out'?" he repeated, and she realized he had no idea what the phrase meant, or why Carlos had been so quick to end the conversation.
"Umm…" She sobered a little as she wondered how to explain *this* one. It hadn't even occurred to her that he wouldn't know. Sitting up, she pulled her own wristguards off, drawing her feet closer to her until the wheels on her rollerblades clicked against each other as she stalled for time.
"It's like--it's like last night, when we were kissing… just before we went back to the Megaship," she explained, trying not to blush. "It's… not sleeping together, but--more than just kissing."
"It's what you were doing," Andros said softly, reaching out to stroke her face.
She swallowed, hoping he wasn't upset. "Yeah," she admitted. "That's what I was doing."
He brushed a strand of hair away from her face and leaned closer. She closed her eyes as he kissed her, feeling his lips warm on hers and the heat of his body radiating into her after their mock-race down the skating path. Drawing back the smallest fraction of an inch, he whispered, "Show me?"
Her eyes flickered open, and she stared at him, wondering if he was serious. Then he kissed her again, and she returned it without hesitation, her hand running up his arm to caress his shoulder. She felt his arms go around her, and she leaned into him, heart pounding as she kissed him harder.
They held onto each other, lost in love and an embrace that could keep them together for the rest of their lives. Oblivious to the stares of passersby, heedless of the communicators wrapped around their wrists, they were, for a few brief minutes, just two teenagers enjoying the careless freedom of youth.
High above, a clear blue sky hid the stars beyond. Refracted sunlight lit the atmosphere, covering the myriad points of sparkling light that were satellites, planets, other stars, and distant galaxies.
It obscured the route taken earlier by two teleportation beams, one bright pink and the other a red so deep it could barely be separated from the inky blackness of space. It muffled the glow of a battleship, a fortress in close orbit above the peaceful planet. It drowned out the far-off laser fire, battles in a war this world did not know existed.
It wrapped the Earth in a comforting sapphire shine, sunlight bringing growth and new beginnings to the life below.
Author's Note: So that's the end of "First Kiss". Some awesome people have helped me in a big way with this series, and since I have a terrible habit of not thanking them, I thought I'd do that now. (Feel free to leave at any point ;) )
Thanks to my sister Marci, the coolest person in the world, for about a hundred thousand brainstorming sessions. Thanks for sharing the insanity, and just for being there.
Thanks to Adri, my fellow stalkee, for, um… Shared psychic psychosis? Thanks for sharing the obsession, and teaching me a thing or two about evilness.
Thanks to Dawn, Lenni, and Jewel, for their support, encouragement, or just plain witty comments. Thanks to all those cool people who took the time to let me know what they thought, and thanks to website-running people for all the time and effort they put into their libraries. (And pic archives… but that's another story.)
Thanks to Saban, for, uh, ripping off Toei, and bringing these characters to the US. Thanks to my muse, Zeke, for turning me into a PRIS writer like another victim I could mention, and for bringing home all those penguins… I think…
And thanks to you, for reading :)