"I had to escape
the city was getting too cruel"
It was their last night in the Bay area when he finally got the time to watch the fireworks. Cam came with him, bought them both ice cream, and they sat up on a hill overlooking the track while the fog rolled in. The air was just cool enough to feel good on his skin after the heat of the day, and man, the ice cream vendors hadn't skimped with the soft serve. He was comfortably cool and pleasantly full when the first of the fireworks exploded overhead.
Cam hadn't actually finished his ice cream by then, which Hunter didn't realize was a good thing until he did finish. He immediately began to analyze the actions of the ground crew and the resulting pyrotechnic show, commenting both on what must have been the original plan and the way it was being carried out. It seriously detracted from the fun of watching parts of the sky blow up.
"See, they lit those too soon," Cam was saying. "They shouldn't have gone off so close to the ground, and the pause between that round and the next one is--"
"Cam," Hunter interrupted. He didn't take his eyes of the sky. "That's really annoying."
There was a startled pause. "Excuse me?"
"Stop analyzing it," Hunter ordered. "They're just fireworks. They're not gonna be any better just 'cause you spent all your time figuring out what's wrong with them."
"They could be," Cam pointed out. "Progress is a direct result of humanity's tendency to improve itself."
"Shut up," Hunter told him. "Redesign the fireworks display in your head, okay?"
"Maybe I should have called you first
but I was dying to get to you"
"Hey, it's me," he told Cam's voice mail. "You forgot to give me that CD, you know. Now I'm gonna be in suspense for weeks. I'll make you play it over the phone if you don't at least tell me what it's called--"
"Have you already left?" Cam's voice interrupted.
Hunter grinned. Score. "Yeah," he said, switching his phone to the other hand so he didn't have to chose between steering and shifting. "I'm on my way out of town now. I'll have to catch you next time we're in the area."
There was a brief pause. "So you called me because...?"
"Because I can," Hunter replied.
"Ah." Cam didn't sound particularly annoyed. "Interesting rationale. Presumably, though, there are plenty of other things you can also do, which makes me wonder why calling me at eight-thirty in the morning somehow moved to the top of your list."
"You're just lucky, I guess." He could feel his mood lifting, and he decided that getting Cam to pick up the phone this early in the morning was some small compensation for missing the weekend. "So tell me what the song is."
Cam stayed on the phone with him for almost twenty minutes. Hunter kept expecting him to hang up, to just stop answering questions or at least tell him to focus on the road. Cam didn't approve of mixing cell phones and driving. But he kept talking, even promised not to see the movie until Hunter could see it with him, and when Hunter finally let him go he decided that Cam deserved the good coffee for that phone call.
"I was dreaming while I drove
the long straight road ahead"
The group kind of split up after that, which was probably a good thing. Blake and Tori wandered off to look at the murals. Cam made some noise about wanting to get away from the crowd for a while, and Hunter followed him. That left Shane with Dustin and Marah and some really goofy looking 20-07 glasses, but he figured Shane had been friends with Dustin for years. He could take it.
They'd meant to regroup outside of Storm Chargers just before midnight. But Cam got sidetracked by, of all things, a bubble-blowing demonstration. A couple of people with pans of something soapy and large elaborately shaped wand-like structures had drawn a small crowd on the corner, and Cam stopped to watch without a word.
It was actually kind of cool, Hunter decided a few minutes later. Sort of hypnotic, even when they didn't manage to make a bubble that detached completely from the wands. The colors were lazy and shiny on the surface of the soap, and maybe it wasn't his usual speed but it was meditative and calm in the midst of a party crowd that Cam didn't really seem to be enjoying.
Funny, Hunter thought. He hadn't seemed to mind so much in years past. Or was it just that Hunter hadn't been paying such close attention then?
They were still standing there, watching, when he heard Kelly's group starting their countdown a street away. He and Cam exchanged glances, and he shrugged. Cam smiled, and they went back to staring at the soap bubbles.
The crowd around them eventually picked up the chant, too. By the time they got to ten, even Cam was calling out the numbers. They shouted their way down to one along with the strangers gathered around them, and instead of pulling his noisemaker out of his pocket, Hunter found himself grinning at Cam.
Cam was smiling back. He looked happier now. Hunter didn't really think about it, he just leaned forward and kissed him. One hand on Cam's shoulder to warn him and a gentle kiss that was meant to be a token gesture, an acknowledgement of the past year, and maybe a wry nod to the fact that they were the only queers in their old circle of friends.
Cam tilted his head to accept the kiss, eyes closing briefly, just like the romantic he claimed to be. It was... easy. Cam had anticipated him, same as he always did. And suddenly Hunter wanted to kiss him again.
It was a strange and somewhat lonely thought that drifted through his brain as he drew away. It had been a while since he'd had kissing rights to anyone, let alone someone he cared enough about to spend time with. And Cam was... well, just like that--Cam was someone he could see himself kissing.
"The taste of your kisses
your arms open wide"
"Here," Cam said, his voice still low. "Prescription'll help your head too."
He was holding out a pill, Hunter realized groggily. And water.
He took them, then leaned back against the wall behind his bed until they started working. Cam left again, apparently taking his closed eyes as a hint. Which they weren't, but he didn't even realize Cam was still out there until he heard stuff being shuffled around in the kitchen. If he made breakfast, Hunter thought with a sigh, then he would officially invalidate the last of Hunter's pity party.
Cam made breakfast.
Hunter stumbled out of his room when the bathroom started to seem more comfortable than his bed, and the smell of food disturbed his stomach. By the time he came back, though, Cam was sitting at the table alone with toast and raspberry jam. Hunter lowered himself carefully into the chair opposite him and watched him for a long moment.
Cam finished his first slice of toast, then put jam on the second and slid the plate across the table without a word. He got up and poured more juice for himself, more water for Hunter, and brought both glasses back to the table in silence. Hunter dared a bite of toast. Bread and water, right? How bad could it be?
It wasn't bad at all, as it turned out. He managed to eat, and drink, and even feel weirdly grateful for a Sunday morning that didn't suck as much as he'd expected it to. Cam didn't say anything about the drinking, and Hunter didn't ask about the sleeping.
He dug out a piece of paper after breakfast and started writing down his medical information while Cam washed the dishes. It wasn't easy, trying to do it left-handed. When Cam realized what he was doing, he came over to hover by Hunter's chair.
Cam watched over his shoulder for a long moment before commenting, "I don't mind writing for you."
"Why?" Hunter muttered without looking up. "Can't read my handwriting?"
He felt Cam's hands settle on his shoulders, and he inhaled sharply when warm fingers started rubbing soothing circles into the tense muscles of his lower neck. He tipped his head forward automatically, suppressing a moan as the hands started moving outward. He let go of the pen before it could slide out of suddenly slack fingers.
God... could he keep this one, please?
"This fever for you
is just burning me up inside"
He didn't know when it finally penetrated his brain that this was bad, because it was clearly a ludicrous idea under the circumstances and so he ignored it for a long time. But Cam had asked him, Cam had said, Cam had said this is what I want, and he couldn't push that aside just because he thought it was a lie. He had to push Cam aside instead.
He swore at his stupid conscience, his body staged an all-out mutiny, and finally he swore out loud because this was fucking nuts--but he pushed. "Wait," he panted, turning into the couch as much as he could to prevent the friction that Cam was just so fucking good at and it really barely helped.
"Cam, stop, cut it out," he gasped, trying not to let the fact that he was getting seriously hot kisses through his shirt turn him on anymore than he already was. And maybe it worked, because he wasn't sure he could be anymore turned on. And maybe it didn't, because Cam was always so happy to prove him wrong.
"God, I'm gonna kill you for this," he muttered, grabbing Cam's hands. He pulled him up and pressed their mouths together hungrily, making sure he got at least one more savage, groan-inducing kiss out of this before it ground to a halt.
When he was sure he had Cam's attention he pulled away. He glared at him with every ounce of agony that stopping was going to cause and snarled, "Cut it out."
Cam made a wordless sound of protest, tugging hard on his arms and almost breaking the grip Hunter held with pained determination. He subsided slowly, catching sight of Hunter's expression, and finally he was just sitting there, pinned in place by an extremely pissed off would-be lover. "What?" he whispered, his voice breaking in the middle.
"You said," Hunter reminded him through gritted teeth, trying without success to ignore the disheveled look of a guy that didn't do disheveled for anyone but him. "You said, you didn't want to do this."
He could see Cam swallow, and then he jerked away like Hunter's touch was suddenly hurting him. "I said, just dating," he mumbled, and the words were anguished and barely audible. "No sex."
"You're fucking crazy!" Hunter howled, scrambling into a more upright position. He was effectively trying to fold his body in on itself. "What's wrong with you!"
"You said it was okay!" Cam shouted back. "Just like that, you said, it was fine!"
"Well it was fine before!" Hunter yelled. "When you were standing three whole feet away on a public street, not when you're lying on top of me in your apartment kissing me like you're a fucking sex god! Then it's not fine! Then it crosses the line from fine to not even remotely anything like fine!"
"I wrote all night to get to you
Is that all right?"
"Cam?" He frowned at the troubled look on Cam's face when he lifted his head. "What do I have to do, here?"
A faint smile acknowledged his effort, but Cam still sounded upset when he muttered, "Probably marry me."
Joking, Hunter wondered? Cam had said it like it was a joke, like it was just another way to make fun of himself, but Cam had also said something that Hunter couldn't believe he would ever joke about. Marriage was important to Cam in a way Hunter didn't totally understand.
"Not until we talk about kids," he said at last, watching Cam's face carefully for his response. If it had been a joke, Cam would either smile or roll his eyes and they would just be standing here in the kitchen teasing each other. If it hadn't been--
"You're not serious," Cam said finally.
Hunter considered all possible interpretations of that statement. "Yeah," he said slowly, not taking his eyes off of Cam. "I think I am."
"I wrote all night, crept in your room
To wake you from your sleep to make love to you"
"My dad loves kids, but my father wasn't so sure about having their own. Father likes to say that Dad wanted two kids, and he wanted none," Michiko added, "so they compromised and had two."
Jenni smiled. "That's silly," she declared. "I bet he saw you and fell in love with you instantly."
The only reason her father could joke about it was because it was so ridiculously untrue now. "He changed his mind pretty quickly," Michiko admitted. "He says he knew we were the kids they were meant to adopt because of our names."
"Oh!" She could see the moment when Jenni understood. "I like that," she signed more softly. "That's really nice."
"I like it too," Michiko signed, very small.
"You know," Jenni said after a moment, "my name means 'clear spirit.'"
"Clear spirit?" Michiko repeated. Mostly to make sure the meaning wasn't totally obvious and she'd just missed it. "Clear like, clean, or pure?"
"Easily seen," Jenni corrected. "Bright and evident."
"Which it is," Michiko finished with a smile. "Perfect."
"It's connected to my family too," Jenni offered. "I was named for my..." She signed something that looked like "angel mother," but that didn't make any sense to Michiko.
"Sorry," she said. "I don't know what you mean. Angel mother?"
"It's something my mom says," Jenni said. "I thought it was from Earth. Someone who isn't your mom, but watches out for you like she is."
"Is that all right?
I wrote all night"
It couldn't get any worse.
That was what she told herself, the mantra she had repeated over and over until she found herself outside a door she had never allowed herself to visit before. Stupid. They were so stupid, letting this hang over them. She could make that decision for herself--but not for anyone else.
Cassandra pressed the chime set into the wall outside the Elisian Rangers' apartment. Relations between their teams couldn't get any worse. She couldn't get any lonelier. And she couldn't have any less of him than she had right now. There was no reason to try to hold onto a situation that was deteriorating almost daily.
She could do nothing and watch it continue to fall apart, or she could do something and take the chance of blowing it up... or maybe, just maybe, fixing some of what had gone wrong. She was so tired of being powerless. She was tired of letting guilt dictate her actions.
Most of all, she was tired of being alone.
Cassandra knew the door would open before it did, she sensed the approach of the person who lived in her mind from inside the apartment. It was late by both their schedules. She wouldn't have blamed him for not coming to the door at all. Even--maybe especially--when he knew who was on the other side as well as she did.
The door opened. Saryn stood there, dressed in comfortable, wrinkled clothes that had clearly been slept in but nonetheless bore the Elisian Ranger logo on the sleeve. It was as close as any of them came to pajamas, she guessed. The shirt she wore to bed had her Ranger insignia on it too. All of them had to recognizable at a moment's notice.
"Saryn." She didn't even mean to say it, but at the sight of him the words tumbled out and she couldn't stop them. "What the fuck are we doing?" she whispered. Staying away from each other. Pretending there was nothing there, pretending that they deserved this. That anyone deserved this.
He just stared back at her, his eyes an impenetrable echo.
Cassandra swallowed. She had no right to expect anything from him. "Is Jenna here?" she asked, trying to raise her voice to a more normal level and failing miserably.
Almost imperceptibly, he nodded.
She took a deep breath, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice. "I want to talk to her."
"What in the world
keeps us from tearing apart?"
"They'll be here in the morning," Cam muttered. "And Hunter and Blake are sparring!" He punctuated the sentence with a fist to the railing, a blow that made a satisfying clanging sound but probably didn't relieve any of his frustration.
"Testing their new powers?" Ashley guessed.
Cam's exasperated silence was all the answer she needed.
"Look, Cam, morphers leave you with energy to burn. You can't sit around all day, you'd go crazy if you tried. Rangers aren't just athletes, they're good athletes--maybe the best, and you know why? Because they practice all the time. Constantly. They have to, or they'd never sleep.
"Sometimes they don't sleep anyway," she added ruefully. "Rangers are made for battle, for a fighting intensity that most people can't imagine. When they don't get that, when they aren't challenged enough, they have to find something else to take its place."
Cam glared down at the bay below. "He's injured," he informed the cavernous space. "He was attacked and beaten; did you know that? He was fucking mauled, and he's in there letting his brother throw punches at him."
Ashley looked at him, wondering if he had given this any thought at all. "What do you think Rangers do?" she asked quietly. "It's not all zords and space battles--and even when it is, there's g-forces and decompression and inertia. When it's not, there's blasters and sharp-edged weapons and our bare hands. We fight, Cam. The Power is used to healing pretty much any abuse the body can take."
She saw Cam swallow. Maybe she had been too harsh. She wasn't sure how to make it better, and she didn't know what else to tell him. He'll be all right? Everything will be fine? He knew as well as she did that there were no guarantees.
When Cam spoke, his voice was so quiet that she wasn't sure he meant for her to hear. "What if he dies because of me?"
"What if he doesn't?" Ashley braced her elbows on the railing and looked down at her hands. "What if you change your mind now, put him somewhere else, tell him not to do something, and that gets him killed?"
She glanced over at him, but he still wasn't looking at her. "Don't second-guess yourself," she told him. "It'll only paralyze you."
"No matter where I go
I hear your voice inside my heart"
The dizzying rush of someone else's memories came flooding back into his mind, and he saw his own planet through her eyes--his own planet as it might have been, had the forces of evil left them alone just a little longer. He saw Kerone, a young woman in yellow with an astromorpher and a ready smile. He saw Andros, the confident leader of a Ranger team that had grown up together in the farthest reaches of Border space.
He saw himself. He saw himself as she had seen him, a rebellious dockworker who had caught the Red Ranger's eye by disobeying an evacuation order and sticking around to watch his back in a quantron battle. No connections, no responsibilities, not even a steady job or a permanent place to live. A drifter, potentially dangerous, his motives for charming Andros past all caution or common sense a mystery...
Until the day he told her he was in love. Until the day he said the words and she believed him, and she promised to do anything she could to get the media off their backs. Until the day she told Andros what he said, and Andros worried and wavered but didn't walk away.
That was when she had known that this drifter might become one of the most shattering things to ever happen to their team.
Zhane couldn't change what he was seeing. He couldn't affect the flash of memories too swift and sharp to be controlled. He had no choice but to follow along, no real conscious thought outside of her own remembered curiosity--and somehow, that was enough.
Somehow, she had found out who he really was, and the part of their shared flashback that was Zhane could see where it diverged from his own memories. Somewhere along the line, he and Andros had missed each other, missed the connection that had held him when his parents died, missed the bond that would keep him from becoming a runaway at an impossibly early age. Never taken in by his grandparents, never rescued from the rubble in the wake of an attack by the only remaining Ranger...
He had made it on his own. He had never known the odds against it, and somehow that orphaned, identity-less child had made a place for himself among the anonymous crowds of the seasonal sea trade. He had taken what he had and reveled in it. But when he and Andros finally encountered each other, years later, the widening gulf between them should have been impossible to bridge--save for that one little coincidence, hand of fate, act of god, or lucky circumstance that caused their eyes to meet.
"It's calling me home
pulling me through the dark"
"Hi," Kerone whispered. "Have you come to save me from myself?"
The way she said it made Ashley giggle, even if she didn't have the faintest idea what Kerone was talking about. "Only if you need it," she whispered back. "Is Kae sleeping?"
Kerone nodded. "And I'm driving myself crazy with 'what ifs'," she murmured. "I'm so worried. I just want it to be tomorrow, so we can take him to Keyota and get him registered and get it over with already."
"Oh..." Ashley reached out to hug her instinctively. With everything that had happened since they'd been back, she had completely forgotten that there were other things to worry about. And everyone knew that Kerone would be Kae's guardian, but not many of them had really thought about what it meant.
Kerone hugged her back and didn't let go. It was as comforting for her as she'd wanted it to be for Kerone, so she just stood there and held on. Kerone knew everything there was to know about her and she didn't think it was weird or terrible or wrong. She just accepted it and moved on.
To Kae. Kristet had told them to take this chance to tell Kae's story as truthfully as they could. Say he came from the other dimension, she'd urged them. Say you found him on a slave ship that crashed. Say he's attached to Kerone because she's the one who rescued him.
Just don't tell anyone that it didn't happen yesterday.
"I love you," Ashley whispered impulsively. "I love you dearly. I'm so glad you're my friend."
Kerone held onto her, but Ashley heard her murmur, "Will you tell that to the adoption center tomorrow if I need a character witness?"
"I'll tell anyone who asks that you're the most wonderful caring person I've ever met," Ashley promised, squeezing Kerone's shoulders as she finally drew back. "But they're not going to ask. You're a Power Ranger, and that's pretty much the best character reference anyone could want."
Kerone didn't quite meet her eyes. "Just because I can fight," she said softly, "that doesn't mean I can raise a child."
"Nothing can move me the way that you do
It reaches across any distance between me and you"
The older man stumbled to his feet, giving Hunter's hands a nervous glance as he backed away. He kept his head down, flinching when Hunter hissed, "Keep your pack away from me and mine."
Cam flowed over to his side, certain and for once untroubled that Hunter's "mine" included him. He watched silently as the group drifted away, sticking close to each other and keeping their gazes carefully covert. A recently defeated wolf was an easy target, he guessed.
He heard the change in Hunter's breathing before he registered the smell of blood. He looked up in concern as Hunter made his way back to the table, carefully righting both their chairs before sitting down again, and the way he moved wasn't natural. Cam padded after him, nudging Hunter's knee with his muzzle in mute question.
"You'll be all right," Hunter muttered under his breath. "Just relax."
He growled softly. It wasn't him he was worried about. He put one paw on Hunter's leg, waited a moment, then pushed himself up when Hunter didn't object. He sniffed Hunter's face quickly, reassuring himself, then dropped his head in search of the source of the blood smell.
It wasn't hard to find. Hunter's t-shirt was torn open at the top and ripped all the way down the left side, and he jerked when Cam pressed his nose against the bloody gashes underneath. He couldn't help licking them, the urge to comfort, to clean, to stop the flow of blood was too instinctive to fight.
Hunter inhaled sharply. He was rigid, utterly still as Cam nosed his head up to investigate the claw marks that had bloodied his collarbone. A moment later, though, he felt Hunter shift, and a tentative hand buried itself in the fur behind his ear, rubbing the back of his head gently.
The bleeding wouldn't stop. Cam whined softly, anxious, and Hunter's fingers dug deeper into the back of his neck. It was oddly reassuring.
"I'm fine," Hunter said under his breath. "Just leave it alone."
He backed off reluctantly, putting his front paws back on the floor and resting his head on Hunter's leg. Hunter smoothed the fur on top of his head, fingers lingering at the back of his skull for a long moment. He lowered his ears to encourage the caress, nosing the air a little and then drawing back to bump Hunter's hand with his muzzle when he didn't seem inclined to continue the petting.
He could hear Hunter's smile when he took the hint, stroking the top of his head again and murmuring, "Thanks, buddy."
"I wrote all night to get to you
Is that all right?"
"Princess," he said softly. He actually moved toward her, and she kept her gaze where it was as though she could somehow keep him from being frightened away. "I'm not embarrassed when I stand before you," he told her, his tone gentle enough that she almost looked up. "And I know you're not ashamed of anything you've said to me. So tell me what happened back there, in my room."
"You're wrong," she whispered. "I am ashamed, Merrick." She stared at the ground, her voice gaining strength even as she refused to look at him. She had seen too much of his unforgiving expression. "I'm sorry for what I said to you two years ago. I'm sorry for taking back what I gave to you. And I'm sorry for sending you away."
She lifted her gaze to the trees, aware that he hadn't moved since she started talking. "I'm ashamed whenever I think of it," she said fiercely. "And all I ask is that you acknowledge that, even if you can't forgive me, that you realize I know I was wrong and that I would give anything to do that day over again."
Sometimes, one made one's own chances to apologize.
"Would it change anything?" he asked, his voice oddly quiet.
Startled, she caught his eye. He didn't back away, didn't look away, didn't do anything but add, "What if I offered what I offered then? Would it change anything, if we could do it over again?"
She knew it wouldn't. She had said what she said for reasons that were as true now as they had been then... but she also had two years of experience with the consequences of that action. She had to say yes.
She had to say yes, because to say no would be to send him away all over again.
"Yes," she said.
"You're lying," he replied.
"I wrote all night, crept in your room
To wake you from your sleep to make love to you"
"Well," she teased, "no one is ever moody on this team."
He took her more seriously than she'd expected. "We live together, Ash. We see each other at our best and at our worst."
Her smile fading, she studied him for a moment. "I still love you at your worst," she said at last. Quietly.
"Back at you," he said easily. She had no doubt that he was just as serious as she was.
Ashley took his hand and kissed him impulsively, warmed from the inside when he smiled at her. His expression remained bright and happy over the tiredness as he made their hot chocolate, and she was glad to see it. But it wasn't until she was helping him carry the mugs over to the library that she realized what it was that Carlos thought he had seen between her and Zhane.
She stopped, sudden understanding making the mugs in her hands momentarily unimportant. But no one looked at her oddly. Andros and Ty were idly debating the merits of a product front versus a service front for their now less politically-neutral effigy business. Zhane was annoying the game characters by dragging his hand through the holographic display. And Ashley was just standing there watching them, wondering when she had started taking their acceptance for granted.
She hadn't "started," she decided after a moment. She just always had. Ever since the Turbo team, she'd had friends who would support her no matter what. She had not only gotten used to it, but she had broadened that trust to include everyone she had gotten close to since.
She still had friends like that. But as she sat down next to Andros and set his hot chocolate within easy reach, she thought that maybe they weren't the same ones she'd started out with.
"Is that all right?
I wrote all night..."