Disclaimer: Cheevah cheevah! I think it's funny that some birds sound like cats, but I suppose that isn't particularly relevant. SOTPR. That's my new version of the disclaimer. "Some people say that there's a woman to blame..."
"We're not riding in a limo."
"Yes, we are," Ashley argued. "My parents already set it up."
TJ rolled his eyes. "So you and Andros take it."
"We're going to. So are Cassie and Carlos and you and Tessa."
"Tessa and I are going in Max's Tracker," TJ informed her. "We've already talked about it."
"She'd rather go in your uncle's car than a limo?" Ashley demanded.
"I don't know, because I didn't ask. We're not going in the limo."
Ashley let out an exasperated sigh. "Why not!"
"Because I've been replaced by an evil space alien," TJ told her. "We're all having dinner together; why do we have to ride together too?"
"Why shouldn't we?" Ashley wanted to know. "We'll be coming from and going to exactly the same place!"
"Which is why I don't see why we have to do it in the same vehicle." He shook his head, knowing his refusal to give a concrete reason wasn't helping anything. "Look, Ash, give a couple ten minutes alone on prom night, okay?"
She gave him a surprised look. "Okay. Sorry--I thought you were upset that my parents were paying for it or something."
The final bell rang, and he pushed his chair back as he got to his feet. Most of the class made a token attempt at rearranging their chairs back into a circle, but getting out of the room seemed to take priority. The "discussion period" had been a laudable attempt on the teacher's part, but no one could forget that there were only five days left. Or rather four, now.
"It's not that," TJ said, shoving his book into his bag and swinging it over his shoulder. "I just want to have a few moments alone with Tess when I won't have to shout over the music, that's all."
"Yeah," Ashley agreed with a smile. "I can understand that. I'm a little worried about what Andros is going to think of it all, actually."
TJ slung a companionable arm over her shoulders as they stepped out into the hall and headed for their lockers. "He'll love it," he promised. "You got him to go to that dance last fall, remember?"
"Yeah, but that was different." She wrinkled her nose at him when he laughed, and added, "It was! The prom's all formal and... kind of boring."
"Boring?" He hugged her shoulders affectionately. "Now you tell me! After you and Cassie went dress shopping three separate times? Think how much trouble you could have saved yourselves!"
She shoved him back. "Getting ready for the prom is fun," she informed him. "Going is anticlimactic."
"Someone's been studying their Lit terminology," he teased, and she rolled her eyes.
"I'm just saying that it's not really Andros' thing," she said, ducking out from under his arm as they reached her locker. "He doesn't like crowds, he doesn't like dancing, and he's not a really big fan of having his picture taken. What else do you do at the prom?"
"Doesn't matter," TJ remarked. "He likes you, Ash, and that's all he's thinking about. Trust me."
"Oh?" She slammed her locker shut again and turned toward him expectantly. "And since when are you psychic?"
"Since I started hanging around with you guys," he replied, grinning. "Guilt by association, you know."
"Hi guys!" Cassie's voice preceded her from the throng, and she slid through a chattering group of girls to join them at Ashley's locker. "What's up?"
"I'm ready to go," Ashley announced. "Are you coming home, or do you have big plans with Quiet Boy?"
Cassie sighed. "'Quiet Boy'?"
"Well, you got mad the last time I called him 'lover boy'," Ashley pointed out. "I'm just asking."
"I need to go home to get some more clothes, anyway," Cassie said, apparently deciding that evasion was the best response. "Are you walking with us, TJ?"
He roused himself from his lounging position against the lockers, pulling his backpack on over his other shoulder. "Yeah, I'm all set. Carlos ditched me for the afternoon, so unless I get DECA to--help me out, I'm walking."
"Where'd he go in such a hurry?" Ashley wanted to know, linking her arm through his as they headed down the hallway. "He was barely awake at lunchtime."
TJ shrugged. "He didn't say, but I'm guessing it wasn't soccer practice."
The control room looked exactly the same as it had two weeks ago, if less empty. Although two Rangers were "on call" at any given time, the Aquitian team no longer tried to maintain a round-the-clock presence in control. Their duties often took them elsewhere, and the last time Carlos had been here it had been deserted.
Today, though, Cetaci leaned idly against the comm console as she chatted with someone working underneath it. She didn't acknowledge his presence in any way, which, not so long ago, he would have taken as normal. They were used to him coming and going, and Cetaci tended to be the least likely to engage him in conversation.
Now, he could only assume that she was deliberately ignoring him. She couldn't think that he was here to talk to Aura, and if he were looking for any of the others he wouldn't have come here first. This would certainly be interesting.
"And furthermore," Delphinius was saying as he slid out from under the console, "I don't see why your technological expertise was never broadened to include basic repair and maintenance. Greetings, Carlos," he added, catching sight of their guest.
"I never said it wasn't," Cetaci told him, making no effort to echo his greeting. "I said that this was more your area."
"Something she'll admit you're better at," Carlos put in. "Don't take it lightly."
Delphinius looked amused, but Cetaci just glanced casually down at the console. "Anyone in the appropriate mood would put forth a better effort, no matter their skill."
"I'm doing this because you don't *feel* like it?" Delphinius demanded, not missing the implication of her remark.
Cetaci smiled, and there was a distinctly smug cast to her expression.
Carlos cleared his throat. "Could I interrupt for just a second?"
"You already have," Cetaci pointed out, catching his eye for the first time. "Is there something you require?"
"Yeah. Five minutes." Her tone had the edge of a challenge, and he didn't ignore it. "I need to ask you something."
Cetaci considered him for a moment, then shrugged slightly. "Don't break anything while I'm gone," she told Delphinius.
"You're lucky I'm fixing it at all," he retorted. "If anything else gets broken it will be intentional, to give you some practice."
"I don't need practice," she answered, motioning Carlos to follow her out of the room. "I know how to delegate."
As they stepped into the hallway that led to the mess hall, he could have sworn he heard Delphinius mutter, "Delegate this."
"I heard that," Cetaci said loudly, pausing outside the nearest of the conference rooms.
"Good!" Delphinius called back.
Cetaci didn't answer as she waited for him to join her inside the conference area. She keyed the door shut behind him, then leaned back against the doorframe and waited. Her posture said that she had a thousand better things to be doing right now--among them, apparently, trading insults with her lover--but she was humoring him because it amused her to do so.
He wouldn't put it past her to be timing him, either, so he got right to the point. "Aura told me she broke up with me because I'm xenophobic. Saryn says she's telepathic and she's been discriminated against for it, and he thinks that might have something to do with what she said to me."
Cetaci just looked at him.
"Does it?" he asked, point blank.
"Why are you asking me?" she countered. "Why are you not asking Aura?"
"I've tried to talk to her," he said, frustrated. "She's gotten really good at vanishing into thin air. And the few times I've run into her by accident, she doesn't even seem to see me."
"What makes you think I will tell you anything she won't?" Cetaci wanted to know. "It isn't my place to speak for her."
He couldn't keep himself from glaring at her. "Do you know how incredibly tired I am of hearing that? I know I'm not your favorite person, but *someone* is going to tell me what's going on! I'd rather get it from you, but if I have to corner Aura and drag it out of her, I will!"
Cetaci didn't move, but suddenly she reminded him of nothing so much as a cat with all its fur bristling. "It was never you I didn't like," she informed him coldly. "It was seeing Aura unhappy. Your threat does nothing to convince me that I was wrong."
He stared at her, startled into listening. Was it fair, after all, to hurt someone to help them? And who was he to say what she needed, anyway? *Was* this actually about what she needed--or what he wanted?
He sighed, folding his arms across his chest defensively. "Is it really that bad?" he had to ask. He doubted he could ever bring himself to "drag" anything out of Aura, but it worried him that the idea so alarmed Cetaci.
She regarded him in stony silence, and he tried not to sigh again. "Look," he said. "You said you didn't like seeing her unhappy, and I know I hate it. So is she happy now? Because if she is, I'd rather have her stay that way than find out what I want to know."
Cetaci hesitated, and after a moment she looked away.
"Cetaci," he insisted, when she still didn't answer. "Is she happy?"
Finally, she shook her head. "No," she said, lifting her gaze to his again. "She is not happy, and she does not hide it particularly well."
He was torn between relief and dismay. "Then tell me what I can *do*!"
Cetaci looked as indecisive as he'd ever seen her. "I... will tell you what I know," she said at last. "But I am not convinced that it will help you. She has not been very communicative of late."
"Anything would be more than what I know now," he muttered.
To his surprise, Cetaci sighed. "While we were in school, Aura was in a relationship with another student. He--" She paused again, frowning. "Some people said that he only went out with her so that he could say he was dating a telepath, but I thought at the time that there was real affection between them."
Carlos shifted, not sure he liked that particular revelation. Aura had never mentioned anyone else, and he had just assumed... It was selfish, he supposed, but he had liked the thought that--
*Okay, okay,* he acknowledged silently. *It was selfish and stuck-up and just all around stupid to think that she'd never fallen for anyone before me.* Someone like her would have had her choice of romantic interests. Just because she'd been single last fall didn't mean that she'd always been that way.
"After they graduated, though," Cetaci continued, "he began to realize that their association was... not advantageous to his career."
"What was this guy's name?" Carlos interrupted. "Just out of curiosity."
"His name is Centori," she answered. "When we knew him, everyone called him Cen--I do not know if he still accepts that or not. I do know that his presence became more and more rare after graduation, and his invitations to Aura almost nonexistent. What little time they did spend together was spent with her friends, not his."
"It's only cool to be a rebel when you're too young to know better," Carlos muttered.
Cetaci considered that for a moment. "Yes," she said at last, regarding him thoughtfully. "I believe that may be the conclusion he came to."
"So they broke up?" he wanted to know. "How long ago?"
Cetaci frowned again. "Almost two years ago, now. Before she was chosen to be a Ranger. It was a painful experience; they did not part--amicably. But it was better that it happened when it did."
"Before she was chosen?" Carlos surmised. "Yeah, no kidding."
Cetaci straightened, giving the impression of a shrug. "She was hurt, but she is stronger than that. She went on, and I suspect she got more than one kind of satisfaction from being chosen. Still," she added, catching his eye again. "You can see why it did not help her heart to get involved with an offworlder. Especially with someone from Earth."
"Especially someone from Earth?" He raised an eyebrow, trying to keep his tone even. She was being unusually open with him, and he couldn't forget that. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Your world is as biased toward aliens as ours is toward telepaths," she said matter-of-factly.
"It's not bias!" he retorted. "It's just--ignorance. You can't accept what you don't know!"
"Either way, the result is the same," Cetaci informed him. "She can not know your home, or your school, or any of the places or people that are important to you because of who she is. It is not a pleasant thing to live with."
"But--that's..." He stared at her as the full import of what she was saying started to sink in. "It's like I was ashamed of her," he realized slowly. "Like Cen was."
She tilted her head slightly. "Maybe," she admitted. "That is only what I saw when I watched you together. She will not share her feelings with any of us lately, so I have no idea how accurate the impression is."
"Why didn't you tell me!" he exclaimed, unable to contain his growing horror. "She must have been miserable!"
"Why did you not ask?" she countered. "Surely you knew she was uncomfortable."
"Yeah, but--I didn't..." He threw up his hands in frustration. "I did ask! She never mentioned any of that! I didn't know--"
She cut him off. "It's as well that you did not. We cannot help where we are from."
He frowned, but he didn't say anything as she turned and keyed the door open. She walked out of the room without another word and he stared thoughtfully after her, wondering.
"Any luck?" she asked, joining TJ and Tessa at the end of the Hammonds' driveway. She already knew the answer; she had just come from the Jenkins'--the last house on the street before the Hammonds', and probably the most likely to have kittens. If they didn't know anything about Ashley's stray, no one would. But it didn't feel right not to ask.
TJ shook his head, exchanging glances with Tessa. "No one we talked to even has cats that young," he said, confirming her suspicion. "There were a couple of people that weren't home, though; we can go back and check with them later."
"I hate to say this," Tessa put in, glancing at her watch, "but I've got to get going. I've got class in a few minutes."
"We'll tell you what happens," Cassie promised, and Tessa sighed.
"I hope the little guy's okay," she said, sliding her helmet off of her handlebars and settling it on her head. "Give him a pat for me, okay?"
"We will," Cassie said with a smile. Secretly, she hoped the ragged looking piece of fluff that Ashley had hauled out of a ditch managed to survive that long. But Tessa was sure he looked worse than he was, and she and Ashley had refused to consider the alternative.
"Thanks for stopping by after school," TJ said, sounding a little guilty. "Sorry we got kind of sidetracked."
"Don't even say that!" Tessa admonished. "I'm just glad Ashley heard him meowing. I wouldn't have found him, that's for sure. I'll see you tonight and you can give me the full update, okay?"
"Right," TJ agreed. "Have fun in class."
She made a face at him, but she gave him a kiss anyway. "Good luck with the kitten!" she called, wheeling her bike out into the road. She put a foot on the nearest peddle and swung her other leg over the back, turning to wave once as she headed back toward the AGU campus.
Cassie glanced over her shoulder, as though she could see inside the house behind her from where they were. "So do we check here first, or do we go straight to Janet's?"
TJ shrugged. "We're already here. We might as well make sure Ashley didn't stop at home on her way back or something." Ashley had taken the injured kitten to Janet Rai, their neighbor and part-time vet, while the rest of them went door-to-door searching for its owner. She hadn't been seen or heard from since.
Until Cassie pushed the front door of the Hammonds' house open and found Ashley sitting at the kitchen table with her father. Behind her, she heard TJ say wryly, "Glad to see you working so hard, Ash."
She pushed her chair back quickly and got to her feet, a guilty look on her face. "I was about to come find you guys," she explained. "I just stopped to drop my backpack off and my dad wanted to know what we were doing."
"Sorry for diverting part of the search force," Joseph Hammond said, looking amused. "Blame me; I distracted her. Did you have any luck?"
Cassie shook her head as she slipped out of her backpack. "No... no one has kittens right now; not even the Jenkins. I don't know where he came from. Ashley and I will have to go check the other end of the street in a little while."
"I'll help," TJ said firmly. "That's a lot of houses to visit by yourself. How's he doing, by the way?" he asked, glancing over at Ashley.
"Janet thinks he's going to be okay," she said, resting her hands on the back of her chair idly. "She said she'd keep him overnight to make sure."
"Does anyone want something to drink?" Cassie offered, heading over to the sink and helping herself to a glass from the cupboard.
Ashley said "no" just as TJ said "yes", and he added, "I'll just have some water, if you don't mind."
"I'm fine, thank you," Ashley's father answered, when Cassie gave him an inquiring look.
Cassie poured some water into two glasses, wondering out loud, "What's going to happen to him tomorrow, then? If he's fine, but we can't find his owner? Are we just going to let Janet find a new home for him?"
"That's not her responsibility," Ashley's father interjected. "We'll have to take it to the animal shelter if we can't find its owner."
She fully expected Ashley to object at that, but her friend said nothing. Cassie gave her a surprised look, and the other girl only shrugged. "That's how it goes," her expression seemed to say.
"I wonder if Max would like a kitten," TJ mused as Cassie handed him his glass. "Thanks, Cass." Before he could do more than thank her, though, his expression fell. "Oh, man! I forgot to ask Tess to bring Max's CD with her tonight!"
Cassie had to grin at his expression. "What CD?"
TJ sighed. "She borrowed Max's 'Alabama' CD last week, and he's been hounding me to get it back ever since. I forgot to say anything before... do you think I could use your phone?"
She had to laugh. "Sure, go ahead. But isn't she in class?"
"I'll leave her voice mail." TJ accepted the phone as Ashley's dad passed it to him, moving a little way from them as he punched in her number. "If I don't, I'll just forget again, and I'll have to listen to Max complain about it every time I see him."
As he lifted the phone to his ear, she joined Ashley by the table. "So where are Andros and Kerone?" she asked, hoping to give TJ at least the semblance of privacy. "Did they suddenly 'remember' something they had to do on the Megaship?"
Ashley looked surprised for just a moment, glancing around the kitchen as though she expected them to appear at any moment. "Andros and--I don't know," she interrupted herself, shooting a helpless look in her father's direction.
"They're in the backyard," he said, a bemused look on his face. "At least, they were the last time I checked. Kerone seemed very interested in the gardens, and when I ran out of things to tell her, Andros said they just wanted to look for a while."
"What do you mean?" TJ's voice, startled and clearly not responding to an automated message, caught her attention before she could respond. He was frowning at the floor when she looked in his direction. "I just saw you five minutes ago."
There was a pause, and then he said, "You were right outside the school. You walked back to Ashley's house with us--Ashley found the kitten, and we went up and down the street looking for its owner?"
She exchanged glances with Ashley, returning her friend's puzzled grin with an uncertain look of her own. If they were playing some sort of game, they had picked a strange time for it. And if they weren't... she frowned, and looked over at TJ again.
"Tess, you had your bike," TJ insisted. "I saw you. I talked to you. You were here--guys," he said, turning back toward them. "Back me up here. I wasn't hallucinating Tess this afternoon, was I? She met us outside the school, right?"
"Yeah," Cassie agreed, an odd feeling in her stomach.
TJ wasn't looking at her, and she wasn't even sure he'd heard her. "It was what?" he said, an uninterpretable look flashing across his face. There was silence for a moment.
"Tess," TJ said at last. There was a grim note in his voice that she hadn't heard in a long time. "Don't go anywhere on campus alone, okay? Get your roommate to walk you to class, and find someone to walk back with.
"Actually," he amended suddenly, "don't. I'm going to pick you up for dinner early. I'll meet you outside the physics building at five, all right? I'm serious, Tess," he added after a pause. "It's important."
She was clutching her glass too hard, and she had to force her fingers to relax. She lifted the rim to her lips and took a tentative sip. The water slid soothingly down her throat, and the act of swallowing seemed to restore a little bit of perspective. Tessa was all right, after all, and none of them were in immediate danger.
"Yeah." TJ agreed with something she couldn't hear, and then he added, "I'll explain the rest of it later, okay? Five o'clock, Tess. Stay with other people."
Ashley's father stood up and went into the living room. It took a moment for Cassie to realize what he was doing, but when she heard the sliding door open she understood. A moment later, Andros and Kerone's voices were audible through the door.
"I love you too," TJ was saying. "And Tess? Max is making lasagna for dinner. Don't go with anyone who can't tell you that."
Cassie caught Andros' eye as he entered the kitchen, and she must have looked worried for he demanded quietly, "What's going on?" Kerone was right behind him, and Ashley's father followed them out of the living room.
"I'm not sure," Cassie said, when Ashley didn't answer. She kept her tone just as quiet, but she stopped and looked at TJ expectantly as soon as he put the phone down
"You guys," he said, glancing around at them. "Tessa's bike was stolen this morning. She hasn't had it since yesterday, and she's been in her room doing work since lunch."
"So?" Andros wanted to know. "What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong is that we just saw her," Ashley said, tipping the chair in front of her backwards so she could lean on it. "She walked back here from the high school with us. With her bike."
For a brief moment, no one spoke. Then Andros said the words that had to be on everyone's mind: "Psycho Ranger." He glanced at her and added, "Is Saryn busy?"
She shook her head mutely.
"Have him come down here. We're going to need everyone together at once." Andros looked around the room again, as if taking a mental headcount. "Where's Carlos?"
"He took off right after school," TJ answered. "He didn't say where he was going."
*Saryn?* He didn't always hear her, especially over distances, but he had been distracting her all day and she wasn't surprised when the answer came back immediately.
*Is something wrong?*
She almost sighed with relief, glad to hear his reassuring voice fill her mind. It was funny, but talking to him that way made it impossible to feel anything but good--it was as though there wasn't room for anything else. *Yeah. We think one of the Psycho Rangers impersonated Tessa. Can you meet us at the house?*
*I'll be there in a moment,* he promised. *Is anyone else there?*
*Just Ashley's dad. You can teleport straight in.*
"Carlos took Mega V2 at 2:35 this afternoon," DECA's voice was telling Andros. "Aquitar is logged as his destination."
"Thanks," Andros said, just as a red glow from the doorway announced Saryn's arrival. "Go to security level three, and have Carlos contact me as soon as he gets back."
"Acknowledged," DECA's voice replied.
Cassie knelt down, holding out her arms as Jetson bounded over to her. "Hey, Jetson," she murmured, hugging him and patting him at the same time. She giggled as he tried to lick her face, and as she pushed him back she heard Saryn sigh.
She had to laugh when she looked up and caught sight of his expression. "Just when I'd gotten used to seeing you smile," she teased, putting her hands on her knees and pushing herself up.
He caught her hand and pulled her close, and Jetson, forced to leap out of the way, let out an indignant bark. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him bound over to Ashley, and then Saryn turned her face toward his and kissed her gently.
Jetson growled, and she pulled away in surprise. But he wasn't growling at Saryn--he was crouched in front of Ashley, hackles up and teeth bared. The Yellow Ranger had pulled her hand back in surprise, but the idea of Ashley looking unintentionally menacing was laughable.
She met her friend's wide-eyed gaze with her own before rousing herself enough to jump forward and grab Jetson's collar. "Bad dog," she scolded, dragging him back. "Ashley's our friend, remember? You like Ashley!"
He only continued to growl, and Ashley got to her feet and backed away from him slowly. "Sorry, Jetson," she said apologetically. "It must be the cat smell you don't like, huh? I'll wash my hands again, okay?"
Cassie shook her head. "He's never had a problem with cats before. I don't know what's gotten into him, Ash; I'm sorry. I'll put him out in the backyard."
"Saryn." Andros tilted his head in her direction. She rolled her eyes, but Andros' expression didn't change and Saryn fell into step beside her without a word as she headed for the door.
"Nothing is going to happen to me in the backyard," she informed him, pushing the sliding door open again. She knew that wouldn't stop him from coming, but she felt it had to be said.
Saryn just shrugged. "Good," he said simply.
She smiled as she clipped Jetson's sliding leash to his collar. "Have I told you how nice it is to have you around during the week?"
"Yes," he said, and there was a smile in his voice too. "Several times. The feeling is mutual."
She reached for his hand as they turned back to the door, and he squeezed her fingers. The gentle pressure triggered the spell on her ring, and she giggled as his words tickled her mind. "I love you," she whispered.
He pulled the door closed behind them, and this time it was his real voice that answered, *I love you too.*
She squeezed his hand again, and he tugged her a little closer as they stepped into the kitchen. She leaned willingly against his shoulder, catching the end of Andros' explanation as he said, "It's inconvenient for Saryn and Kerone, but until we find a way for DECA to recognize them, it's the best we can do."
"What's inconvenient?" she asked, frowning a little.
"Level three security only lets people with astromorphers onto the Megaship," Ashley offered. "And the people accompanying them. It'll lock Saryn and Kerone out unless they're with one of us."
"It's temporary," Andros said hastily. "Have DECA scan your ruby next time you're on the Megaship, Saryn; she should be able to isolate and confirm its signature. And Kerone..." He paused, looking uncertain.
She rolled her eyes, tossing a sphere of violet light into the air and letting it dissipate into fading ripples. "Andros, I promise none of the Psychos can do that. I'll talk to DECA later. But we're going to have to be sure of each other when we're not on the Megaship, too."
"Is a password too obvious?" TJ offered. "That's basically what I gave Tessa."
"No," Andros said slowly. "I don't think it's too obvious... as long as no one overhears you using it. And as long as it's password-password response, instead of just a single word."
"How about a name?" Ashley suggested. "First name-last name. We could use a different one of our own each day."
"I vote for using Carlos' first," Cassie said with a grin.
Ashley laughed. "That sounds fair," she agreed. "But do we use his last name, or his real last name?"
"Last name," TJ put in. "I can't even spell his real last name."
Andros looked from one to the other. "Should I know what you're talking about?"
"It's a Spanish thing," TJ told him. "Don't ask."
Footsteps on the porch caught Cassie's attention, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Ashley's dad glance that way with a frown. He obviously wasn't expecting anyone, and she gave the crowd gathered in the kitchen a quick assessing look. They all looked relatively normal--for once, she thought wryly--and she figured they could pass at least casual inspection.
Instead of a knock, the doorknob turned, and she frowned. Who would just let themselves into someone else's house?
The front door swung open and Ashley stepped through.
Andros heard Saryn's blaster power up before he even saw the other Ranger move. The Ashley in the doorway stopped in her tracks, staring wide-eyed at his blaster before her gaze slid across the others to trade identically startled looks with her double. Cassie, with slightly more presence of mind, drew her stunner and trained it on the Ashley standing by the kitchen table.
"Whoa!" TJ exclaimed instantly. "Everybody hold it! What's going on here?"
"She's a Psycho Ranger!" Both Ashleys pointed at each other simultaneously, and Andros gave his head a shake.
*Ash?* he demanded silently.
They both turned to look at him. "Yeah?"
He could almost feel the blood drain from his face. That was impossible. No one but Ashley--the real Ashley--should have been able to hear that. He didn't know which was more horrifying: the fact that a Psycho Ranger could hear his thoughts, or the fact that he couldn't tell which one the Psycho Ranger was.
"If you're Ashley, where've you been?" Though Cassie's question was clearly directed at the girl who'd just come in, she didn't take her eyes off of her stunner's target.
"At Janet's," Ashley answered, looking bewildered. "She's been raising two abandoned kittens, and the one we found got out this morning. She's been worried about it ever since."
Andros saw Cassie's gaze flicker briefly toward Saryn, then back toward the girl at the table. "She said Janet didn't know whose kitten it was. She says she stopped here on her way to catch up with us."
"Because I did!" the first Ashley exclaimed. "I came here straight from Janet's house twenty minutes ago--call her if you don't believe me!"
"TJ," Ashley's father said, looking from one to the other. He looked considerably less stricken than Andros felt, and he could only be grateful that someone was still thinking clearly. "Give me the phone."
Suddenly, Andros' brain caught up with him. "Wait," he said. It was strangely important to him that he be able to do this without someone else's help. "The note you left me this morning--what did it say?"
At the table, Ashley wrinkled her nose thoughtfully. It was such a familiar gesture that he almost took a step toward her--but the words "thanks for yesterday" stopped him.
"Thanks for yesterday," Ashley repeated, staring at him from the doorway. "I'm glad we can still talk like that. Sometimes it seems like we're apart more than we're together, lately. But I love you with all my heart, and that will never change."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Saryn shoot a glance in his direction. His expression must have said it all, for the Phantom Ranger swung his blaster around. "What do you want?" Saryn growled, glaring at the girl by the table.
"To destroy your pathetic world," she said cheerfully. She tilted her head a little, her smile still firmly in place. "And in the meantime, Power Rangers, I want you to know exactly how helpless you are against us."
Cassie's stunner hummed, powering up, and "Ashley" melted into a warped version of their own signature teleportation before she could fire. Saryn didn't lower his weapon immediately, but Cassie let hers fall with a sigh. "That was *so* much freakier than anything I wanted to see this afternoon."
Ashley's gaze locked with his, and he held out his hand silently. It was more a plea for forgiveness than anything else, but she threw her arms around him without hesitation. He returned her embrace gratefully, holding her as tight as he could.
He didn't see Saryn's blaster vanish, but he heard the other offer quietly, "My apologies, Ashley. I should have been able to distinguish between the two of you."
"Yeah, you should have," Kerone informed him. "You'll sneak into my mind, but not hers?"
"That was different," Saryn muttered. He sounded distinctly uncomfortable, but Ashley spoke before he could say anything else.
"It wouldn't have helped," she said, not moving. "She knows everything I know. She even knows Andros well enough to hear him think. It's no wonder you couldn't tell us apart."
Saryn didn't look convinced, but it was TJ who answered.
"Not quite everything," the Blue Ranger reminded them. "That was good thinking, Andros."
"It won't work next time," Andros muttered. He loosened his grip on Ashley at last, but he kept a possessive arm around her shoulders. "She was right. We're going to need a better way to recognize each other."
"DECA," TJ offered. "She's never been without an idea before."
"Can she rig our morphers with a recognition code?" Ashley asked. "That's what Carlos says they used at the conference."
"She can do it," Andros said slowly. "But if they're siphoning our Power, how do we know the Psychos can't activate the same code?"
No one said anything for a moment.
Finally, Ashley shrugged a little. "We won't know unless we ask. Let's go find out." She managed to spoil her nonchalant act by leaning her head briefly on Andros' shoulder, but he was grateful for the closeness.
"Just a second," Cassie said quickly. "Let me get Jetson."
Saryn shadowed her from the room again, and Ashley's father got to his feet. "As much as I trust you to handle this situation, I can't say I'm not worried. I was talking to that... girl, one on one for a good ten minutes before you showed up. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I couldn't tell she wasn't my daughter. How will I know it's you next time?"
He felt Ashley sigh soundlessly, but she gave her father a wan smile. "If we knew that, Dad, we wouldn't have to go ask DECA."
TJ folded his arms, a hint of humor flickering across his face. "Try telling her what's for dinner," he suggested.