Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters or situations presented here and am not making any profit off of them whatsoever.
Story Title: Aftermath
Rated: PG-13
Word Count: 2,435
Romance: Cassie x Carlos
Notes: This takes place shortly after the end of Countdown to Destruction, Part II. Comments and criticism gratefully accepted.
Summary: Even a victory such as the Countdown to Destruction cannot be had with the loss of some life, as Cassie has just found out.

Trying to explain holidays to people who had never heard of them before was not an easy task. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Zhane, Andros, and Karone had holidays, but they didn't have Christmas. They'd heard of it in the abstract, such as 'I got that as a Christmas present', but this was the first time that the holiday had passed and the Rangers had been relaxed enough to actually notice.

Things on Earth were settling down as well. The damage done to Angel Grove was almost completely dealt with, and the ex-villains were being assimilated into whatever societies they chose to join. Earth society had been shaken up, but humans being humans, they were coping with it.

All over Earth, this time of year had been declared a time of fellowship, healing, and being with one's family. People who hadn't seen each other in years came together to celebrate not just surviving the invasion of Astronema's forces, but a new wave of peace and understanding that had swept over the entire planet. It looked as if Earth could be on the verge of an enormous leap in culture, compassion, tolerance, and science.

And none of that meant a single thing if you asked the Pink Astro Ranger, Cassie Chan. She spent the weeks prior to the holiday season curled up in her room on the MegaShip, staring out at the stars. She ignored the food left by Alpha, and had politely requested DECA not to bother her. Ashley was busy introducing Andros to her family, and Zhane and Karone were frequently on Earth, stocking her a new wardrobe with the help of some former female Rangers, and introducing the two of them to the ways of their new home. T.J. had picked up a girlfriend somewhere, and he was completely oblivious to anything but her for the moment.

That left Carlos, and he stood quietly in the doorway of Cassie's room, watching her. He knew something was wrong, and he wanted to help her feel better. He wasn't really certain of why, he just knew that to see her lovely face so sad and regretful made him want to put a smile on it, somehow. I wish I were T.J. He always seems to know how to cheer her up. He knew that the Blue and Pink Rangers had had a bond of some kind ever since they'd met on the bus to Angel Grove, but with T.J. not there, it fell to him to help her. And I'd do it anyway.

He took a deep breath, and decided to take the plunge. "Cassie?"

The dark-haired girl made no real response, only lifted her fingers in something that may have been a salute of some kind. He stepped a little further in, choosing to take that as a motion to do so. "Cassie, what's wrong? And don't tell me nothing, I know something is on your mind."

"It isn't anything you can change, Carlos." She replied, which was more of a sentence than any of them had gotten out of her in almost two weeks. "It just...it's just my problem, that's all."

He frowned; there was something in her voice... "Cassie, have you been crying?"

"No!" Her reaction was sharp. "What makes you think that?" She raised a hand to her cheeks, obviously to wipe away tears, even as she said that. "Just leave me alone, please, Carlos. I don't want to see anyone."

He frowned again. "Cassie, we're friends, please talk to me. I know we haven't really talked all that much before..."

"This has nothing to do with you, Carlos." She still stared out the window, pain virtually radiating off of her. "It's no one's fault. Just...just something that happened."

The Black Ranger watched her for a few moments, then shook his head. "Talk to me, Cassie, please." When she didn't so much as move a muscle, he sighed. He was just about to leave when he caught sight of an envelope on the table, and a letter on top of it. The phrase we are sorry to inform you caught his eye, and something told him it wasn't something as trivial as a rejection letter from a college. With a quick flick of his eyes towards Cassie to see if she'd notice, he quietly stepped over to check the letter out.

"Dear Miss Chan,

We are sorry to inform you that your parents, Richard and Denise Chan, perished in the attack on Angel Grove. Their bodies were identified by family friends since you could not be located at the time. Please accept our sincere condolences.

The City of Angel Grove
Mayor's Office

Carlos stared in shock, then looked over at Cassie. She was still staring out there, out to space, and he acted on sheer instinct. He stepped over to her and wrapped his arms around her in a hug. "I'm sorry, Cassie," He whispered into her ear, noticing in the back of his mind there was some kind of delicious fragrance about her hair. "I wish I'd known."

"Why?" He could hear the tears in her voice now, and how rough it was. She must have been spending all her most private moments in tears. "Would it have done any good?"

He held her tighter; she had never seemed close to her family, so this emotion was really taking him by surprise. The last I heard, they'd disowned her for moving to Angel Grove without permission. Maybe they were closer than I thought. He searched for some way to talk to her about it. He knew how it could be to lose a family member, it had happened to him before.

Before he could utter a word, however, Cassie snapped at him, "You don't know anything about this, Carlos! Sure, we had fights, but we were going to make up! I'd told them to come before it all started, I wanted them to be here, and it's because of me that they died! If it wasn't for me talking them into coming, coming to see me, to try and patch things up, then they'd still be alive! It's all my fault!!"

He stared at her for a moment, then tightened her arms around her. "No, it isn't, Cassie. Dark Spectre was the one who ordered the attack, so this is all just a case of really bad timing. You didn't know what was going to happen. You're not at fault here." He tilted her head up to look into her eyes, hoping to impress on her all the sincerity he felt. "You were only trying to be a good daughter. To help them. To make amends. You were trying to do something good and it went wrong. It wasn't your fault."

The Pink Ranger stared at him; the things he was saying rang true against the inner litany of blame that had been swirling about her mind ever since she'd heard about her parents' death. She wanted to believe what he was saying, she wanted to end this nightmare that had become the holidays. The holidays are supposed to be a time for family...not mourning family.

"I..." Words failed her. She wanted to say something, but her mind was a complete blank. She could think of nothing to express the myriad of emotions twisting inside of her. "I...Carlos..."

"No." He smiled a little as he squeezed her hand. "I Carlos. You Cassie."

Her lips twitched in the first faint hints of a smile she had done in days, if not weeks. "Tarzan, you are not. I can kick your butt in practice, and don't you forget it, soccer boy."

He couldn't help but smile back at her. "Should I put on an apron and start doing the dishes, then? If you're so much 'manlier' than I am?"

"Nah, we want to keep them around to eat off of again." She retorted, finding a touch of her spirit. "If you get near them, they'll all be pieces in minutes."

"Hey!!" The Black Ranger attempted to pout, and he was very good at it. "I'm not that bad!"

She grinned, feeling lighter inside as she did. The wound caused by her tragedy was still there, but the guilt that she had caused it was gone. He was right. I only wanted to help. It's just a horrible coincidence, that's all. It shouldn't have happened, I wish it hadn't happened, but it did, and I'm still alive. I have to go on with my life...no matter who isn't here to share it with me.

"So where did you say the others were?" She wondered. She hadn't really heard that much of what he had said before; lost in her own dark abyss of grief.

He ticked them off on his fingers. "Ashley and Andros are with her parents. Zhane and Karone went shopping again with Kimberly Hart and Katherine Hillard. T.J. is off with that new girlfriend of his...I can't remember her name, honestly." He shrugged a little. "And we're here."

"So we are." Cassie didn't even consider the usual holiday habits of decorating a tree or making cookies or anything like that. She was feeling drained; all the energy had been drained right out of her by recent events. "So what do we do?"

Carlos looked quietly at her, compassion and friendship shining in his deep, dark, mysterious eyes. "We talk. We are friends, aren't we?" She grinned quietly at him, and laced her fingers about his.

"That we are."

He smiled back at her, and the two of them stood up. A slight shift of air currents later, and Carlos blinked. "Um, Cassie, how long has it been since you had a shower?"

She turned bright red at that, and murmured something that he took to mean roughly 'far too long'. "Give me a second," shTo keep his mind distracted, he glanced around the room, wondering why he'd never come in here before. He wandered in and out of T.J.'s and Zhane's rooms at will, and they did the same for him. He knew the girls traipsed in and out as they wished, except for Karone, who was still learning the finer points of trust, and Ashley walked into Andros' room as easily as she did her own.

The room was a small disaster area, but he couldn't be certain right now if that was it's natural state or if she'd just neglected housekeeping because of what had been going on. He had the feeling it was the latter. Wonder if she'd need any help cleaning it up... He glanced around and spied a few feminine undergarments out in plain sight. Then again, maybe I should let her do it, it is her room after all.

"Hey!" He looked up to see Cassie standing there, clean, dressed, and with her hair damp and tangled. "Well, any better?" There was a twinkle in her eye that hadn't been there before, and he found himself simply staring. She wore a simple pair of black jeans and a pink silk top, and was toweling her long ropes of hair dry. "Carlos, are you all right, you look like you stopped breathing."

He blinked for a moment, then shook his head. "I'm all right. You look awesome."

"Thanks." The Pink Ranger blushed a deep shade of red at the compliment. "I just threw on the first thing I had. Could you hand me that brush? I need to work on this hair before I do anything else."

Carlos smiled quietly as he brought the brush over to her. "Let me do it. You've got too much hair; you're going to need the extra help."

There wasn't all that much she could say to that as he started to work on her tangles. She sighed softly in pleasure; having her hair brushed for her was something that didn't happen that often. "Where'd you learn to do this?" She managed to mumble. "You haven't pulled my hair once."

A chuckle came from behind her. "My sister Maria has hair about twice as long as yours. She taught me how to help her take care of it, since she failed to grow three extra arms to do it herself."

Once Cassie's hair had been restored to it's usual glorious splendor, Carlos looked at her. "So, what was it you wanted to do again?"

"Talk. And I think I know just the place." Cassie took him by the hand and led him out of the room and through the winding corridors of the ship until they got to the Simudeck. "Here."

The Black Ranger looked curious. "Why here? What program, I mean?"

"You'll see." Cassie's nimble fingers danced across the keypad and a moment later it slid open to reveal something inside that Carlos had never once thought was programmed into this thing. He couldn't imagine why someone would want to do it either. It was just...weird.

Spread out before them was the old Power Chamber. Just as it had been the day that the two of them had been transported there to assume the mantles of the Green and Pink Turbo Rangers. The only things that were really missing were Alpha-6 and Dimitria. Carlos looked all around. "It's amazing. It's like...going back in time."

"I think I was happiest here." Cassie trailed her fingers across the consoles. "I was a Power Ranger."

"You still are." He reminded her. She shook her head slightly.

"It's not quite the same thing now. Now we wander across space. Then we were the heroes of Earth. I know this is bigger...but that was home." The dark-haired woman smiled a bit sadly. "I wouldn't really change things but I miss what we used to be."

He watched as she walked around, obviously lost in her memories. His eyes never left her. He didn't think he could if he tried. The light gently caressed her face as she walked, and he found himself wishing he was that light. She turned to him as he stepped a little closer involuntarily. Their eyes met.

It had never been love at first sight. It had been built of a thousand sights. Of moments that they had shared as Rangers and as friends. A million memories passed between them in that moment. Neither had seriously thought of the other as more than a friend until that moment.

But as Cassie reached out to take his hand, and he pulled her gently into his arms, each knew that this was only the beginning.

And as she brought her lips up to touch his, they both knew...the beginning was beautiful.

The End