Notes: Written for Rare Pair Fest 2013. The song Cassie and Tanya sing is "Anytime You Need a Friend" by Mariah Carey which is also where I pulled the title from.
Love Will Be There (To Light The Way)
"Your world is beautiful." Andros spoke softly into the dawn, his back to her. "I'm glad I got to see it."
"Hey," Ashley said gently, stepping forward to join him at the roof railing. "Me too, okay?"
The early morning breeze was cool against her face, and the bars were cold and slippery with dew. Ashley shivered, wishing she'd thought to wear a thicker sweatshirt. She hugged herself and leaned forward against the railing, staring out at the quiet buildings and empty runways.
From here, they could see the whole of the NASADA complex. It, at least, had survived relatively unscathed. Ashley tried not to think about the mess that was downtown Angel Grove right now.
The Megaship, flightworthy again thanks to NASADA, loomed nearby. As her eyes settled on it, she sighed and lifted a hand to Andros's shoulder.
"And I'm glad I got to see yours," she said.
"I wish you could've seen it the way it was," he said, and though he still wasn't looking at her, homesickness was heavy in his voice.
"I will," she promised. "We all will. It's not like we're never going to see you guys again."
"No," he agreed. He shifted, turning so that she caught a glimpse of his face and she was glad to see that he was smiling. "There are so many things we'll have to show you."
"Us too," she said. "There's so much more to Earth than just Angel Grove."
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "Sorry that we can't stay any longer."
"No," she said. "I get it. I do. You need to go home."
"My home is with you guys," Andros said, softly, sadly. "All of you. Some of you are here and some of you will be there, and... I'll miss you."
The sun rose behind the Megaship, all the more beautiful through her tears. "Come on," Ashley said tightly. "We should get going."
The sun warmed the air a little, but it was still chilly enough that exhaling sent little white puffs of smoke into the air. Cassie shifted her grip on her cocoa, letting the mug warm her cold fingers equally. She was alone, for the moment; Carlos and TJ had left cleaning out their rooms until the last possible moment, Ashley was saying goodbye to Andros, Karone was doing the engine check, and Zhane was...
Cassie frowned around the circle of folding chairs, twisting around in her seat for a look around. Zhane was standing alone in a patch of sunshine beyond the shadow of the Megaship, staring off into the distance with his fingers tucked beneath his armpits. Rising, Cassie went to him.
"Hey," she said softly. "What's up?"
When Zhane turned to face her, he was all smiles. "Is that for me?" He nodded towards her mug.
"No way," she said, stepping out of his reach. "Get your own. Come to think of it, you had your own. Four of them."
"What can I say?" He shrugged, and drew his arms close to his body again. "They just don't make chocolate this good on KO-35."
"But you guys do have chocolate?"
"Of course," he said in mock horror. "I'll have some for you, when you guys come visit."
"You'd better," she teased. "You've promised now."
"I'll take you to a holoshow too," he said, his eyes drifting to the side again. "One of the good ones, with all the big stars. I can't believe you've never seen one."
She opened her mouth to ask why their movies weren't good enough for him, but motion over his shoulder distracted her. Cassie followed his line of vision just in time to see two figures, one in red and one in yellow, step out of view on a nearby roof. Zhane shrugged when she glanced at him, his face carefully neutral, and then she understood.
"You should tell him."
"Who?" Zhane held up a hand when she opened her mouth. "No, I know. That wasn't very convincing, was it?"
"It was a little weak," she admitted.
"I'm out of practice." Zhane sighed. "Have you ever... waited for someone?"
"Yeah, actually," she said, frowning down into her mug of cooling hot chocolate.
"Was it worth it?"
"He never came back."
"It's all right, though," Cassie said. "I never really knew him. It's... sort of complicated."
"Long story?" he asked.
"You could say that."
"I'm an excellent listener," Zhane told her, completely serious, and she smiled in spite of herself. "You remember how I showed you to work the vid-com?"
"I remember," she said. "I'll call you."
"Every day," he said. "If you don't, I'll comm you. Tell me all your long stories."
"Really," he insisted. "And... comm Karone too, okay? She could use some friends right now."
"I will," she said, patting his arm. "I promise."
"And remember everything we told you about reporters and the media, okay?" he continued. "They're excited now because you guys are new, but soon something else will be new and then they'll back off. Some."
Cassie spotted Andros and Ashley coming around the side of the Megaship together, and sighed. "Come on," she said softly, sliding her free arm through Zhane's. "I think it's time."
And then they were four.
The last time they'd been four, Ashley remembered, it hadn't been so different. They'd been standing side-by-side then too, waving good-bye as the Megaship had risen up into the air and flown away. This time, Ashley stood with one of Carlos's arms strong around her waist and her own arm around Cassie, who stood with TJ on her other side.
They all lifted their free hands together in farewell and waved until the Megaship disappeared into the clouds.
It was so... sudden.
"I can't believe you told them to write," Cassie said, sniffling a little as they all slowly lowered their hands.
"Yeah." TJ cleared his throat. "Intergalactic mail is a little slow these days."
"Do they even have mail on KO-35?" Carlos said, and his voice sounded steady but thick.
Ashley managed a weak smile as she blinked tears out of her eyes. "Like email, but better?"
"Whoa," Cassie said, as TJ wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "What if you could, like, send things through email?"
"What, like books or something?" Ashley asked.
"That'd be cool."
"Yeah," Carlos said, and the arm he had around her tightened to draw her into a hug. "It'd revolutionize take-out."
Despite herself, Ashley giggled a little as she tucked her head against his shoulder. She lifted an arm to make room for Cassie in the hug, and TJ wrapped his arms around them all from the other side.
"Hey," he said, "you guys remember that time with the giant pizza?"
They all laughed then, harder and longer than was necessary (because it wasn't that funny, if it was even funny at all), but when Ashley found her voice again she sounded almost like herself. "Ugh, how could we forget?"
Adelle reopened the Surf Spot a week and a half later, banned cameras and microphones from the premises, and promised them all free burgers for life. So as strange as it felt to be going out to lunch when there was still so much work to be done, that's where Cassie found herself with TJ after a long morning of work.
"And then they ask me," TJ was saying around a mouthful of fries, "is it safe to go in? I tell them, I don't know, wait for the building inspector and then they all look at me like I should be an authority on building foundations."
"I know!" Cassie nodded, twirling a fry around in her milkshake. "I told someone before I was a Power Ranger, I worried about failing geometry because I was too busy composing songs in my head to pay attention to the teacher, what do I know about structural integrity?"
"Failing geometry?" TJ tsked at her with a grin. She'd noticed, before, how his whole face smiled, but she'd never really... paid attention to how charming it looked on him.
"I know, I know." She popped the fry in her mouth, savoring the salty sweetness. "Does that make me a terrible role model?"
"Well, I once told a teacher I didn't see how the Revolutionary War was going to help my game."
"You did not!"
"Sure did," he said. "Fifth grade."
"Ooh, you were a rebel," she teased. "I like that. What happened afterwards?"
He grimaced. "My dad didn't let me play the rest of the season."
"Yeah." He laughed. "I thought he'd understand, you know? He's the reason I'm so into it."
"I'm guessing he didn't see it that way?"
"Nah." TJ reached for another fry, his fingers brushing against hers as he snagged it. "He and my mom sat me down and gave me a lecture on the importance of education and said I'd understand when I was older. I was so mad."
"That was about the age I started getting the lectures too," Cassie said, wrinkling her nose. "My parents weren't convinced that punk rock was an acceptable career aspiration."
"They came around in the end, though, right?" he said. "If they were letting you move to Stone Canyon."
"Eventually." She nodded. "Though it was a little harder to explain to them why I came to Angel Grove instead."
"'cause you met me and I was just irresistible, right?" He batted his eyelashes at her.
"Did Zhane teach you to do that?" She threw a french fry at him, but she had to admit it was an oddly endearing look. "And yeah," she said, only to be rewarded with that smile again, "something like that."
"Who knew two days of total destruction called for a month of clean up?" Carlos grumbled, massaging the back of his neck with one hand. "Doesn't seem fair, does it?"
Ashley meant to reply, really she did, but all that she managed was a sort of "mmph" as she stretched out across the couch with her eyes closed. The living room was blessedly cool and empty. Her parents were at work still, and though the shades were still drawn there was no one camped out on the front lawn.
It was Bulk and Skull's latest venture—private security. She couldn't think of a way to thank them.
"I guess we don't have much to complain about, though," Carlos said, once he'd worked up the energy for more words. "There's so much more work that needs doing on KO-35."
His hair tickled her arm as he tilted his head back against the couch. Ashley smiled a little in response, and cracked an eye open. "You've been talking to Andros, then?"
"Yeah," he said, arching his back into a stretch. "Haven't you?"
"Yeah," she said, and that wasn't as weird as it could've been, talking about her ex-boyfriend with her ex-almost boyfriend. "Zhane too, and Karone sometimes."
"Does Zhane just... call everyone whenever he's bored?"
"Comming," she corrected him, idly admiring the way his hair caught the light. "That's what he calls it. But yeah, he does."
"You miss him?" Carlos asked carefully, and Ashley opened her eyes all the way because this wasn't a conversation to have half-heartedly.
"Of course I do," she said. "I wish they could've stayed. But I always knew he couldn't, and it's not like I could've gone with them. And how long have you ever seen me stay broken-hearted?"
"Not long," he agreed ruefully. "It isn't what you do."
He stretched again, arms over his head, and groaned. When he reached around to rub the back of his neck this time, Ashley sat up and slid off of the couch, tapping him gently on the shoulder. "Scoot," she ordered. "Let me."
He was warm to her touch, and her fingers skimmed over his muscles as she worked her way slowly up and down his back and around his neck. Funny how she'd never noticed before, how dark his hair was or how good he smelled.
He lifted a hand, touching her fingers.
Maybe now was the right time, she thought, tracing a finger up his spine. And if it wasn't, then it never would be, because they knew each other too well now.
It was a tricky thing, falling in love with your best friends.
Ashley hesitated, but only a moment because when had she ever been one to hold back?
"I was thinking," she said. "And this might sound totally crazy, and if it does that's okay."
"Okay?" He twisted a little to look at her, but she nudged him forward again.
"You remember when my grandma was here?"
"That'd be hard to forget," he said dryly. "She was kind of intense."
That was probably the nicest word for it. "Yeah," Ashley said. "Well. That wasn't completely terrible, was it?"
"Not for the others, anyway," he said. "TJ was having a field day. I swear he was giving her suggestions."
Ashley suppressed a smile. "Probably."
"But, um," Carlos said, clearing his throat. "That's not where you were going with that, was it?"
"Not exactly." She took a deep breath. "What do you think it would be like, if we... you know. Went on a real date?"
In the heartbeat before his answer, she added, "We don't have to invite TJ."
He laughed then, breaking the tension, and he turned around to grin at her. "Sure," he said. "We can do that. Go on a date, I mean. Not invite TJ."
"I don't understand," Karone said, staring blankly at them through the screen. "People volunteer for things like this?"
"That's what I said!" Andros, too, looked confused. The expression had appeared the moment TJ had started to explain the concept of reality TV and hadn't yet left. It seemed they'd been too busy with saving the universe to introduce him to The Real World.
"Not everyone is as socially avoidant as you two," Zhane reminded them, but his tone was affectionate. From the position of his arms, Cassie thought he had one hand in Andros's. "But it does sound a little..."
"Strange?" TJ suggested, leaning across Ashley to fit himself better into the picture. They'd crammed themselves into her bedroom and crowded around the screen, but it was tiny and it seemed even magical alien technology had its limits.
"Yes," Karone said emphatically. "It's very strange."
"That's what we thought, too," Cassie said, rearranging her legs. She folded them and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "Just... really... weird."
"Yeah, I said, no way, man," Carlos said. He and Ashley sat thigh-to-thigh with their backs to the wall, and one of his palms rested lightly on her knee. "We are not reality TV material."
"They get even weirder, though," Cassie said, shaking her head. She glanced over at Ashley. "Do you have the—"
"Yeah, right here."
"Weirder than having your daily lives filmed for entertainment?" Andros sounded skeptical.
"Look at all these," Ashley said, holding a stack of papers up towards the screen. Some were typed letters, some were scraps of paper in their own handwriting. "One of them is an offer to release a limited-edition neon pink strawberry Pepsi if Cassie will do an advertisement declaring it the—what was it, again?"
"The official super beverage of superheroes," she said with a snort.
"I don't understand," Karone repeated. "And what's a Pepsi?"
"Trust us, neither do we," TJ assured her. "Things are a little crazy still."
"There were also movie pitches, book deals, and a couple of—"
The beep of a communicator cut Ashley off. It seemed three months wasn't long enough to break them of the habit; the four of them started to attention and Cassie reached for her wrist automatically. On the other side of the screen, she saw a look pass between Andros and Zhane.
"We have to go," Andros said. He'd lifted his arm and was frowning down at his communicator.
"Talk later?" Zhane asked, with the same distracted frown. "Same time tomorrow?"
"We love and miss you guys!" Cassie said, over the chorus of goodbyes. "We'll talk to you soon!"
Andros and Karone waved, Karone a little more shyly. Zhane blew them all a kiss (he had to have learned that one from Ashley), and then he leaned forward and touched the side of his screen.
As always, there was a moment of heavy silence after the screen went dark.
TJ broke it this time. "So," he said, "if we took those guys up on their offer, who do you think would play me in a movie?"
Cassie reached around behind her to grab Ashley's pillow off of the bed and throw it at him.
"Hey!" he and Ashley protested in unison. "That's not fair!"
"That's my pillow!"
"Pillow fight!" Cassie shouted, and tackled him.
They took Carlos's mother's car; their own were too recognizable by now and neither of them were in the mood to be recognized tonight.
They got in the car and drove and drove, out of Angel Grove and past even Stone Canyon, up the coast aways where there were fewer people and they could be truly alone. The press had died down quite a bit since the beginning but there were still curious stares and they'd already been on one date with people watching them with binoculars.
That was something Ashley cared not to repeat.
And they lay down on the beach, breathing the fresh air and talking quietly under the stars, with sandwiches and cookies and juice to share between them, and it was all so utterly normal and easy that she hardly knew what to do with herself.
And there were kisses, sweeter than honey and warmer than sunshine, that made her sigh and shiver, kisses she returned wholeheartedly, kisses that spoke of making up for all the almosts and not-quite's between them. Those were behind them now, and life was good.
Smoke had lingered in the air long after the fires were doused and the rubble cleared away, but that seemed almost a memory now with fresh air breezing in from the ocean and the sky a clear twilight blue. Cassie closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, contented with the little things like clean air and a quiet evening alone in the Hammonds' backyard.
Red and purple flames licked their way across the sky. Cassie sat on the stoop with a long-empty glass of lemonade beside her and watched the sky darken to a deep velvet blue. The stars were coming out for the night.
Idly, she wondered if KO-35 was visible from here. She filed the thought away as something to ask the next time she talked to Zhane and then she picked the brightest star in the sky and tried to imagine Andros and Zhane and Karone there, happy and together and alive and home at last.
It made her smile but it didn't make her miss them any less.
It was strange how hard it was to remember what life had been before. Before she'd stepped off of a bus a few stops too soon, before spaceships and robots, before talking cars and alien crushes who broke your heart... A year and a half ago, she'd been a girl with normal dreams, some of which had even come true.
Though she had to admit, when she'd been ten years old and singing into shampoo bottles and hairbrushes, fame had seemed a lot more glamorous than it did now, on the other side. Be careful what you wish for, right?
Behind her, a sliver of light appeared. It widened as the door opened and Ashley stepped out onto the porch. "Hey," she said softly. "Mind if I join you?"
Cassie patted the space beside her on the step. "You just get back?"
"Yeah." Ashley settled beside her.
Ashley gave her a sidelong glance, but Cassie saw the corner of her mouth turn up before she turned away again. "Yeah," she said again, quietly this time.
"It was good, then?"
"It was." Ashley wrapped her arms around herself. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees. "It was just me and him and no one else around. I forgot how nice that was."
"I know," Cassie said. "Believe me, I know."
Ashley gave her head a little shake. "Don't laugh," she said, "but I used to dream about being a movie star. When I was a kid."
Cassie nudged her with an elbow. "Tina Turner, remember?"
"Right." Ashley laughed despite herself. "I thought... it seemed like it would be fun. Everyone caring about your life."
"I know that people are curious, but sometimes you just want a little privacy, you know?"
"Privacy." Cassie sighed, a little wistfully. Things were certainly better now than they had been before, but still. "I miss that."
"It'll eventually die down completely, right?" Ashley actually sounded a little worried. "In a few more months?"
"I hope so," Cassie said. "You know that you and Teej don't have to do all of our interviews, right?"
Ashley hmphed at her in obvious amusement. "You and Carlos don't exactly behave yourselves for the press, and besides, it's not the interviews I mind. It's just nice being able to go out without someone wanting to talk."
"Maybe it'll help your career someday," Cassie said. "Miss Fashion Designer. You could have everyone wearing neon spandex. It could be your thing."
"Oh god, could you imagine?" Ashley laughed. "I'm not sure the world would thank me for that. Not sure if that was really spandex, either."
"Probably not," Cassie agreed. That was something else she'd never thought to ask.
"Speaking of careers," Ashley said, "do you think you're going to stick around here awhile? Or are you finally going to Stone Canyon?"
"I... don't know yet." Cassie felt her smile fade. "I put a lot on hold to be a Ranger and part of me wants to pick up where I left off, but on the other hand..."
"Yeah," Ashley murmured. "I know."
"It's hard to live like... like this is all there is, when I know what's out there."
"You want to go back? Into space?"
"Yeah." Ashley smiled again. "We never really got to enjoy it, did we? There was always something. I just... want this to be the place that I come home to."
Cassie nodded slowly.
"You could go to NASADA." Ashley hesitated. "Do you want to go looking for him?"
There was no question who they were talking about. Cassie let out a deep breath, long and slow, and shook her head. "No," she said slowly. "I don't think I do. I'm tired of waiting."
Ashley waited until she was sure Cassie and her parents had gone to bed before she crept out of bed and into the hall, closing the door carefully behind her. She tiptoed down the corridor and down the stairs, into the living room where the phone hung on the wall between the living room and the kitchen.
She dialed the number, and he answered on the first ring. "Hey."
He'd been waiting for her to call. The thought made her smile a little giddily. "Hey," she whispered back. "This is a little inconvenient after—"
"The communicators?" He laughed. "Yeah, tell me about it."
"I knooow." She sighed. "I'm going to have to get my own phone now."
"You could get one for free," he suggested. "Just offer to endorse it as, I don't know, the official telephone of the Power Rangers."
She stifled her laughter with the back of her hand. "But which one should I go with? There were three offers in that pile."
He laughed with her. "So how was the rest of your night?"
"It was nice," she said. "Cassie and I had a good talk."
"Ash?" Something in her tone must've given her away.
"She's... thinking a lot," Ashley said. "About what she wants to do next."
"Oh, you mean her singing?" Carlos said. "I always felt bad for her, having to give that up."
"Yeah," Ashley said. "Just... she'd have to leave, too."
"Stone Canyon's less than an hour away," he reminded her gently. "It's not another planet."
"I know," she said, stupidly, irrationally sad. "I do. And I'd be so proud of her, if she went for it."
"You just wish everyone could find what they're looking for in Angel Grove?"
"Exactly!" she said, a little louder than she'd intended. But no sound came from upstairs, and she lowered her voice. "I know it's ridiculous when I don't even know if this is where I want to stay for college. But... it's all happening so fast."
"I know," he agreed. "But for now, we're all here together, okay?"
She smiled into the phone. "Thank you."
"Anytime," he said, his voice low and deep. "And Ash?"
"I want to teach PE," he said. "Right here in Angel Grove. I'm not going anywhere."
He'd never been far away. Ashley exhaled, and let him ground her for now. "I know," she said quietly. "And Carlos? I had a good time tonight."
She heard the smile in his voice with his reply. "Me too."
The next morning, Cassie shrugged into a blue sweatshirt borrowed from Ashley's father and hid her hair beneath an Angel Grove baseball cap, adding sunglasses for good measure. She stole out of the house early in the morning, before Ashley's parents were up. She knew Ashley would be in bed still—Cassie had gotten up to go to the bathroom around midnight and heard her downstairs on the phone. With Carlos, no doubt.
It was a short walk to TJ's house. She knew better than to knock this early in the morning and went around to the side door instead to rap gently on the door. TJ would be up, she knew. Cartoons started early.
He opened the door with a bowl of cereal in one hand and Batman on the TV behind him. "Hey," he said, and if he was the least bit surprised to see her he didn't show it. He stepped back, giving her space to enter. "Come on in."
"Hey yourself," Cassie said, helping herself to his untouched glass of orange juice from the table. "Are you busy today?"
"What, don't I look it?" He gestured in her direction with the bowl.
"I would hate to interrupt you from your Cheerios and Saturday morning cartoons."
"I was thinking about making bacon and eggs too."
"I see," Cassie said seriously. "Sounds like you've got a full day."
He shrugged. "You know how it is."
"Uh huh." She eyed him over the rim of the glass. "I was hoping you'd want to head out to the park with me, but I can see that you've got no time for that today."
"Weeeeell." TJ grinned at her. "I could find the time."
She smiled back.
"Have you eaten yet?" he asked. "Because I was serious about the bacon and eggs."
Little things, she thought again. Like watching him cook while the kitchen slowly filled itself with delicious smells. The Synthetron food hadn't been so bad once she'd gotten used to it, but she'd missed the sense of being in a real kitchen. For all that they'd made it a home, the Megaship was a battleship first and it was lacking that lived-in feel.
But TJ still upended half of a ketchup bottle onto his plate, so maybe it was just her.
She slowly ate her way through two slices of bacon, thinking as she ate and trying not to be too obvious as she watched him. It seemed a little silly now, that she'd been so caught up in the romantic fantasy of a man she'd never really known, and forgotten the one who'd been here all along.
TJ was real, and he was beautiful.
"You okay, Cassie?" His voice broke into her thoughts, snapping her out of it. "You look a little far away."
"Hmm... no, I'm good," she said. "Just thinking."
"Anything on your mind?"
"Ashley asked me last night," she started slowly, "if I wanted to go on to Stone Canyon, like I planned on before all this."
"Stone Canyon?" TJ repeated. "That's not so far. You could always visit and Justin would be happy to see you."
"No, I know, just..." Cassie shrugged. "I don't know, man. What about you? Are you sticking around for baseball?"
"I don't know," he echoed her. "I was thinking about having another go at it now that I can really commit, but... "
"But," she agreed.
"You ever regret it?" he asked. "Coming here instead?"
"What, and miss this?" She gestured in his direction with her last slice of bacon. "Not for the world."
"I do make killer bacon," TJ agreed easily. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah." Her smile faded a little. "And I really, really don't. Regret it. Even if things have been a little crazy lately."
"They're calming down," TJ assured her with a grimace. "At least, I think so."
"Even so," she said. Impulsively, she reached forward and laid her hand atop his. His skin was warm to her touch, smooth and soft. "I'm still glad you had to go and do something crazy like run off and come to Tommy's rescue."
"And that you had to go and do something crazy like follow me." His fingers curled around hers, sure and strong. "So am I."
And then, because there was at least one thing in the world she was sure of, Cassie leaned across the counter and kissed him full on the mouth.
"I got you a drink."
"Ooh." Ashley dropped into the seat beside Carlos, and felt his arm settle around her shoulder like it belonged there. "My favorite!"
He leaned in for a quick kiss. "Last week the lemonade was your favorite."
"My favorite is whatever I'm drinking right now," she said. "But I did like the lemonade."
He rolled his eyes at her affectionately, and slid his fingers through her hair.
Ashley took a sip of her drink. "Where's TJ?" she asked.
"Obviously." She craned her neck, looking around. "I saw him earlier, he said he'd—oh, there he is. Teej!"
"Hey guys," TJ shouted over the crowd, waving. "Sorry I'm late! I ran into a few friends outside."
"Friends?" Ashley whispered to Carlos.
He shrugged. "News to me."
Then TJ finally elbowed his way through the crowd and Ashley found herself on her feet with an arm around a boy who'd grown a foot since she'd last seen him. "Justin!" she said, laughing in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"Hey Ash," he said, hugging her as he ducked the hand Carlos reached out to ruffle his hair. "Tanya invited me. I caught a ride down with her and Adam."
"It's good to see you, man," Carlos said, settling for a high-five instead. "What are you, graduating next year?"
"He'll finish college before you all too, at the rate he's going," Adam said, a hand on Carlos's shoulder. "I heard you're going to AGU in the fall."
"Education major with a full sports scholarship," Carlos said proudly. "I'm trying out for the JV team. And Teej here is going for baseball."
"Niiice." Adam grinned at the pair of them. "You too, Ash?"
"Undeclared major, for now," she said. "What about you? Still at the dojo?"
"For now," he said. "But, I, uh. Rocky and I've been talking. We might expand a little. I was thinking he'd take over for me here and I'd open up a new place in Stone Canyon. I've been trying to get ahold of Jason too, to see if he wants in but I think he and Zack went on vacation."
"Stone Canyon?" Ashley repeated with a grin. "So you're finally officially moving?"
"I've been practically living with Tanya anyway," he said, a little sheepishly. "So, we, um. Well..."
"Hey, now." Adam covered Justin's mouth with his hand. "Don't ruin the surprise."
Ashley exchanged glances with Carlos, then spotted the widening smile on TJ's face. But it was the way Adam blushed that really gave it away. "Are you—?"
"Yes, okay?" he said. "Just act surprised when she tells you later, all right? I'll never hear the end of it otherwise."
He was still trying to squirm his way out of their hugs and congratulations when Cassie's voice sounded out from the stage. "Good evening, everybody!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Ashley noticed that Adam looked distinctly relieved to be able to sit down at the table with a drink. She settled back in her own seat, twining her fingers through with Carlos's under the table as Tanya came to join Cassie onstage.
"Thank you all for coming out tonight," Cassie continued. "Some of you know my friend Tanya—" She was cut off by cheers from the crowd and applauded with them. "Well, her debut album is coming out soon—which, by the way, is amazing and you should all go out and listen to it, so this is a special performance we have for you tonight."
When Tanya lifted a hand to the microphone, the light glinted off of her ring. Ashley's smile widened to see it there.
"And it's been something of a year for my friend Cassie," Tanya said, and the cheers were louder this time. Cassie and Tanya exchanged a knowing, secret look, and Tanya continued with a smile. "And I'm so proud of her for that, and even prouder that she's doing what she loves by putting together her own original album. She'll demo on of her new songs for you later tonight, but we're going to start with something you'll recognize—but we've given it our own spin, okay?"
Cassie adjusted her grip on her guitar, played a few warm-up chords to check her tuning, and then started to play, her fingers sliding across the strings in the intro bars. "If you're lonely and need a friend," she sang, soft and clear while Tanya hummed the harmony. "And troubles seem like just never end..."
Carlos's fingers brushed lightly against her arm. Ashley smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder, closing her eyes as Cassie and Tanya sang the chorus together.
Tanya picked up the second verse, and Cassie blew TJ a kiss from the stage.
Ashley made a happy hum to see it, and Carlos squeezed her hand. He'd noticed, too.
If she could make this moment last forever, she would.
The sun was setting. Cassie squinted into the sunset. It was another beautiful one, full of reds and purples, deep orange and pink clouds that stunned her with their loveliness.
It almost distracted her from what she was really looking for, but Carlos's joyful shout of "There!" brought her back to reality. TJ cheered and Ashley clapped her hands, bouncing on the balls of her feet, and Cassie laughed and joined in their excitement.
When they'd left, it seemed like they'd been gone in an instant. Now it seemed to take the Megaship forever to touch down on the runway, and it was an extra eternity of waiting for the hatch to slide open. But then Andros and Zhane were walking down the ramp towards them, Zhane's hand holding Andros's, and Karone was at their side and suddenly time was moving quickly again as they all launched themselves at each other and buried their friends in shouts and hugs.
There was a great deal of shouting and laughing and talking Cassie couldn't pick out a single word of, but by the time they untangled themselves she somehow understood that they would all be spending a week on KO-35 and Zhane had tickets to all the best holoshows.
"Here," he said, shouting over the others as he pressed something into her hand. "Real Karovan chocolate!"
Remembering that conversation, she laughed.
"I'll explain later," she said, when TJ looked at her inquisitively, and she laughed harder as a forgotten memory surfaced. "Do you remember," she said, sliding the bar of chocolate into her pocket, "the sunglasses?"
"Sunglasses?" he repeated blankly, and the others paused too to look at her in confusion.
"At the bus stop," she said, and saw comprehension dawn in his face.
"Yes!" he said, and his head came back as he laughed too. "She was trying on all these atrocious looking sunglasses, and—"
"I asked you what you thought of them, and you said—"
"Only if you were trying to summon alien life forms!" he crowed, and clapped Andros on the shoulder. "I'd say they worked."
"Wait," Karone said. "We're all here because Cassie liked ugly sunglasses?"
"It appears so."
"... What are sunglasses?"
"I'll explain later," Ashley promised, squeezing her shoulder. "Come on, everybody. Group hug!"