Disclaimer: There are people who own the rights to PR, but I am not one of them. I didn't create the characters, but I sure have fun messing with their minds.
"Andros; I’ve got more bad news." TJ’s voice, routed through the Megaship’s onboard comm system, sounded as grim as Andros felt. It did, however, lack the edge of panic that was creeping into the Red Ranger’s thoughts the longer DECA was silent, and for that he was grateful. His fear for Ashley’s safety would cloud his judgement if he wasn’t careful, and TJ’s calm strength had been the team’s anchor in the past.
"Let’s hear it." Andros boosted the gain on his morpher so Cassie and Phantom would be able to listen as well.
"I can’t get an accurate report on the condition of our port thruster," TJ told them. "DECA’s maintenance sensors must have been knocked out in that part of the ship by that first hit we took. It’s possible that the thruster is fine, but there’s no way to know until we try to use it."
Before Andros could answer, DECA broke in with the news he had been waiting for. "I have a visual on Carlos."
"Show me," Andros ordered. The forward viewscreen lit up with an image of his black-clad teammate, sprawled across the metal deck, unmoving and apparently unconscious.
"Andros?" Cassie’s voice asked.
"DECA’s found Carlos," Andros said, punching a few buttons on the console so the image would be relayed to TJ as well. "He’s unconscious, but it looks like he’s breathing. I can’t see any sign of injury."
"No," TJ agreed from the engine room. "He looks fine--but the decompression belowdecks must have been explosive. I’m betting the bulkheads just couldn’t seal fast enough to prevent oxygen deprivation."
"The area is being repressurized now," DECA informed them. "Carlos should recover momentarily."
"What about Ashley?" Andros asked, trying not to let the tension show in his voice.
"Ashley’s last reported location is concurrent with the first hull breach," DECA replied. "The only camera in that location went dark four minutes ago."
*Right when the hull breached,* Andros thought, and the panic again tried to push all rational focus aside. *How could I have let her go down there? *I* should have been the one working belowdecks--if only we had waited until we were on the other side of the gateway to perform repairs...*
He slammed his fist down on the console, angry with himself and terrified for her all at the same time. TJ’s voice brought him back to the task at hand with a sharp, "Chill, Andros. We’re all worried, but taking it out on the Megaship isn’t going to help."
"TJ’s right," Cassie put in. "Right now we have to concentrate on securing the ship, and then we can help Carlos and Ashley."
"What is the status of the Megaship now?" Phantom’s voice inquired, over Cassie’s communicator.
Andros took a deep breath, letting their strength bolster his. "We’ve got multiple hull breaches, and possible damage to the port thruster."
"The bulkheads on the main decks can be raised without too much trouble," TJ added, "but we’re going to have to land somewhere with an atmosphere before we can get to Carlos and Ashley."
"We’re in the gateway now," Andros said, as it occurred to him that Cassie and Phantom would not know how they had escaped the previous attack. "I know enough to get us through it, but not enough to have any idea where we’ll end up." He paused. "Phantom?"
"I have never navigated a gateway before," Phantom answered, and suddenly Andros wondered if the other Ranger’s voice sounded less distorted than usual, or if it was only his imagination. "You know more about it than I."
Andros nodded, though he knew Phantom couldn’t see it. "We’ll do our best. You and Cassie will have to stay where you are--the access tunnels around the hangar bay will have been sealed off from the rest of the ship as soon as a vacuum was detected in the hangar."
There was a pause, and then he heard Cassie’s voice, as if from a distance. "No…"
Andros frowned. "No?"
"No, sorry, Andros," Cassie said, sounding flustered. "I didn’t mean you."
"Will you be all right down there?" TJ asked from the engine room.
"Of course," Cassie assured him a moment later. "Just keep us informed, okay?"
"We will," Andros promised, glancing toward the tactical monitor. It was showing a singularly uninformative field of static right now, as the scanners were unable to resolve the essence of the gateway surrounding them into any sort of useful information.
Closing his morpher, he asked TJ, "Can you get a distance estimate from the engine readouts?"
He heard TJ’s exasperated sigh. "According to this information, we’re not moving at all. The engines went offline as soon as we entered the gateway, and nothing I do seems to have any effect."
"It won’t," Andros warned. "From what I’ve heard about gateways, we’re not actually travelling in realspace. We’re in some sort of extraspace, an interdimensional bridge between two points in our own dimension."
He could practically hear TJ raise his eyebrow. "And this has to do with the engines because...?"
"There’s no fuel consumption," Andros told him, entering navigation commands despite the apparent lack of response from the Megaship. "All the power comes from the gateway itself."
"Course adjustment confirmed," DECA announced. So the computer, at least, recognized a difference in their flight pattern--hopefully, that meant the nav controls were still sending and receiving reliable information.
"I’m going to try bringing us out of the gateway," Andros told the comm panel, more to alert TJ than because he wanted any assistance. *He* barely knew what he was doing; he certainly didn’t expect TJ to have a clue.
There was a pause, while Andros concentrated on piloting a powerless ship. Suddenly, TJ said, "I thought these gateway trips took no time at all."
"They do, if you know what you’re doing," Andros muttered, seeing the tactical screen waver and flash as the scanners detected realspace on the other side of the gateway.
That was the only warning he had before the world went white around him.
Cassie heard the click as Andros cut off their communication from the other end, but she couldn’t look away from Phantom--*Saryn*, her brain reminded her, but sometimes it was hard to think of him that way. Now was one of those times, with his hand frozen inches from the ruby that hung around his neck and his eyes inscrutable as he stared back at her.
"I’m sorry," she said at last, wanting to lower her gaze but afraid that if she did he would morph while she wasn’t watching. "I don’t have any right to ask that of you."
He looked at her a moment longer, then, slowly, lowered his hand. "You have every right, my love," he told her quietly, and the words brought unexpected tears to her eyes.
Reaching out to stroke her face, he added, "If it is what you wish, I will remain unmorphed."
She tilted her head, leaning into his touch. "You never told me why you stay morphed all the time," she murmured, hoping she wasn’t violating some personal code with her comment.
"It was a decision made some time after the first attack on Elisia," he said softly, leaving his hand against her cheek. "I did not plan to rejoin the Rangers there, but I could not live without my crystal, so it seemed I was meant to do some good with it yet. I morphed for the first time two months after my team was lost... and found that my uniform had changed.
"The fact that I was no longer recognizable as an Elisian Ranger gave me the perfect opportunity to leave the life I had known behind, and I took it." His voice this time was steady, and she wondered if he was distancing himself from the memories, or if he was just too drained after the story he’d told earlier to feel anything.
"No one knows who you are," Cassie guessed, watching his eyes for a reaction.
"A few on Eltare know." His expression went distant, and she wondered what he was seeing. "But as far as Elisia is concerned, Saryn vanished soon after the attack that destroyed his team and was never heard from again."
"And the Phantom Ranger is a mystery no one can solve," Cassie finished, her tone low as she realized what a gift he had given her by telling her about his past.
"You have managed," he answered, his gaze returning from wherever it had been. He smiled at her, and she thought she had never seen a more beautiful sight.
Colorless sparkles flooded her vision, and a wave of white obscured everything.
TJ stared across the room that housed what was normally the driving force behind the Megaship’s strength. Now though, in the shadows created by the dimmer than normal emergency lighting, the pale, unflickering luminescence of engines on standby was all too obvious.
"I thought these gateway trips took no time at all," TJ remarked abruptly, ready to be out of this bizarre extraspace. He didn’t trust power that came from the medium through which they were traveling half as much as the Megaship’s own engine core.
Andros’s reply was not very comforting, either. "They do, if you know what you’re doing."
TJ opened his mouth to ask exactly what Andros’s experience with gateways consisted of--and his surroundings went snowy white, obscured by an impenetrable curtain of blankness.
There was a roaring in his ears; the boisterous cheers of a crowd that had just seen their home team win the championship. The familiar sight of his old school’s baseball diamond stretched out around him, and he laughed aloud, yanking his cap off his head and throwing it up into a clear blue sky.
*Old school?* his mind wondered. He had never gone anywhere but Sanborn Regional High--and this was why. The dream he had worked for three long years to achieve had finally become reality, thanks to the best coach he could ever have asked for, and he owed it all to this team and the man who ran it.
Someone grabbed his arm, and before he realized what was happening, he felt his teammates lifting him into the air. He couldn’t stop laughing--he thought that if he did, he might cry. He and his friends would go down in SR history as the first team to win the championship since the baseball program had taken off in this little town ten years ago, and his performance in this game would cement his place as the most sought-after baseball player among college recruiters.
A glint of sunlight on blond hair caught his eye among the cheering fans in the first row of bleachers, and he started to struggle against the hands supporting him. "Let me down!" he shouted over the yells of his teammates, and they obligingly lowered him to the ground.
He shoved through the crush of enthusiastic players, returning high-fives and ducking good-natured slaps on the back as he fought his way toward the edge of the field. He escaped the team and jogged across the sand that surrounded home base, searching for the one face that would make all this worthwhile.
The Events Staff looked official enough, posted at both corners of each section of bleachers, and they had managed to keep fans from flooding out onto the field--barely. But one of them saw Tessa and looked the other way while the petite girl slipped under the yellow tape that marked the edge of the playing area and raced across the grass toward him.
He caught her up in his arms, swinging her around as she laughed. Setting her down at last, he hugged her tightly, glad she had been able to make time in her crazy schedule to see him play.
"Congratulations, TJ," she said at last, pulling away to grin up at him. "How does it feel to have single-handedly carried the Tigers to victory?"
He laughed at her. She knew as well as he that it had been a team effort, with no "carrying" involved. He tousled her hair affectionately, and she stuck her tongue out at him.
Wrapping an arm around her shoulder, they turned to walk back across the field. "Oh, my," Tessa gasped, as she caught sight of the trophy even now being presented to the team’s coach. "What will you find to do with that monstrosity?"
"You’re the only trophy I need," he told her with a smile, and she giggled.
"Don’t let your teammates hear that. They might insist your name be taken off the plaque on the bottom."
He grinned. "That’s all right. You know what this means, don’t you?"
She turned inquiring eyes toward him, and he tapped her nose. "Those recruiters will be beating down my door."
Her eyes twinkled. "Don’t think you’ll get away that easily. My grades are good enough that I can follow you anywhere you go."
"No way," he objected, the smile softening his words. "Athletes come along every day--your education is more important than my games, and I’ve already told you I’m not going to make a career out of this. You just tell me where you want to go, and that’s the school I’ll play for."
"Oh, TJ," she sighed, a contented expression on her face. The promise ring on her left hand glittered as she draped her arms around him, smiling. "Never leave me."
"Never," he promised, leaning down to kiss her...
TJ’s eyes snapped open as the feel of Tessa’s arms around him disappeared, and he found himself once more in the engine room of the Megaship. He shivered in the abrupt strangeness of the confined space, the ghostly illumination a poor substitute for the grassy, sunlit fields of Earth--the coolness of the air a poor replacement for Tessa’s warmth.
*What the *hell* was that?* he demanded silently, of no one in particular. Not prone to swearing, his language was more a reaction to the shock of the vision than anything else.
If it *had* been a vision... For the few minutes it had lasted, he would have sworn it was as real as the place he found himself now.
His hands were shaking as he reached for the comm panel, and he drew in a deep breath, trying to forget the sparkle of her ring and the sound of her words. *Never leave me...* How could he keep such a promise to someone he’d never met?
"Andros?" he asked, his voice catching. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Andros? What in the name of all that’s good just happened?"
Andros stood alone, one foot on the stone circle that surrounded the town fountain. He stared into the plume of tumbling water, feeling the sun on his back and hearing the delighted shrieks of children playing tag on the other side of the commons. The day was so perfect it was almost unbelievable, coming as it did on the end of a weeklong rainstorm.
He felt a smile spread across his face at the sound of his friend’s voice. It was a cocky tone that he hadn’t heard in far too long, and he turned around to make sure his ears weren’t deceiving him.
Sure enough, there was Zhane, confident stride carrying him briskly across the stone mosaic that radiated outward from the fountain. He raised a hand when he saw Andros turn, a grin on his face, and Andros waved back.
*What am I thinking?* he wondered, greeting his best friend with the handshake they had perfected years ago. *I just saw Zhane this morning, after breakfast--even for his ego, that’s not long at all.*
"How did the exam go?" Andros asked, knowing his friend had been dreading the physics test that had been scheduled for this morning.
Zhane made a face. "Hey, it’s over now, right?" He slapped Andros on the back. "I’m dragging Kerone to the park for a study break--come with us?"
Tempted, Andros hesitated. "No," he said at last. "You two go ahead. I have a history exam tomorrow, and you know how bad I am with that stuff."
"Andros," Zhane said patiently, as though explaining to a small child. "Let me define the phrase ‘study break’ for you: a time in which you stop this incessant cramming and enjoy life for a little while. They’re only exams, after all."
The truth was that Andros thought his sister would want a little time alone with his friend. Between training and final exams, they’d all been too busy for a social life lately, and he didn’t want to get in the way of what few moments they could find to spend together.
Zhane must have taken his silence as refusal, for he sighed. "Wait here. I’m going to go get Kerone to talk you into it."
Andros opened his mouth to protest, but Zhane had already taken off across the smooth stones. Faintly, Andros could hear his friend calling mentally for Kerone. The call was soft to Andros’s mind, but to Kerone it must have been deafening.
She appeared almost immediately from one of the science buildings on the other side of the commons, short blond hair shining in the noonday light and colored blouse billowing in the breeze. Andros smiled fondly at the sight, and watched Zhane wrap her in a bear hug.
A distant memory tugged at his heart then, and a face swam before his eyes. The image of another girl in yellow teased his thoughts, with a smile to warm the coldest day and an expression of heartbreaking tenderness as she gazed back at him from somewhere far away...
"Andros?" Kerone’s voice, suddenly only a little way away, startled him out of his reverie. She looked concerned, and Zhane was frowning.
"Are you all right?" Zhane wanted to know, standing at her side, and Andros was touched by their worry.
"I’m fine," he assured them with a smile, banishing thoughts of the strange girl from his mind. "Really; just worried about tomorrow’s exam."
*That’s the only good thing about finals,* he reflected wryly, watching sympathy dawn on their faces. *Everything can be excused by blaming it on stress.*
"In that case, you *definitely* need a study break," Kerone said firmly, linking one arm through his in a move that triggered another feeling of déjà vu.
He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. Zhane took it as protest, and grabbed his other arm. "You can’t say no to both of us," he informed Andros cheerfully. "You’re coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it."
Kerone laughed, and the gentle sound soothed him with its familiarity. "Come on, brother mine," she said, pulling him away from the fountain. Zhane helped, and Andros found himself grinning as they dragged him toward the park. It was good to have friends like these...
Andros jerked away from the console as though he’d been burned, staring at the tactical screen--now showing realspace outside the Megaship--in complete shock. The coordinate readout in front of him displayed their location in bright red numbers, but he didn’t even notice.
"Ashley," Andros whispered, struggling to sort through the conflicting emotions the last few minutes had inspired. His sister, safe and smiling, and all grown up... His best friend, awake and uninjured, and cocky as ever... The paradise his life would have been if Darkonda and Dark Spectre had never come to KO-35.
*But no Ashley,* his mind cried, and his eyes went inadvertently to the screen where Carlos’s motionless form was still being monitored by DECA.
Remembering this morning, her smiling face staring up at him as she asked him what he was thinking, he hated himself for not telling her. "I love you, Ashley Hammond," he murmured desperately, willing her to *know* how he felt.
*Why is it so hard to say?* he wondered, and the thought that he might never get the chance now scared him beyond reason. He had seen himself without her, and the person he had been had not even known what he lacked.
Andros vowed that as soon as he found Ashley, he would tell her what he had been too timid to admit this morning. *For better or worse, she *will* know what I'm thinking.*
"Andros?" TJ's voice interrupted the determined bent of his thoughts, and Andros glanced down at the comm panel automatically. The Blue Ranger sounded as shaken as he felt.
"Andros, what in the name of all that's good just happened?" TJ demanded, and Andros almost smiled at his tone. The other Ranger sounded as though he had taken the transition from the gateway to realspace as a personal affront.
"We're back in normal space," Andros told him, unable to resist another look at the forward screen, as though by sheer force of will he could make Ashley's image appear there.
"I can *see* that," TJ replied, with some asperity. "I mean, what was that…" He trailed off, obviously at a loss for words.
"Vision?" Andros suggested, and he could almost hear TJ nod.
"That's the word I was leaning toward. What *was* it?"
"Another reality," Andros said simply, staring out at the stars. Somewhere out there, in some other universe, he had never met Ashley Hammond. Despite his happiness, he had been incomplete…
"*What*?" TJ sounded exasperated.
"I told you the gateway was a bridge," Andros said, dragging his focus back to the present in an attempt to explain.
"An interdimensional bridge, between two points in our own dimension," TJ cut in. "Yeah?"
Andros raised an eyebrow. Clearly, he wasn't talking fast enough for TJ. He said nothing, however--whatever TJ had seen must have rattled him badly for him to be this impatient, and Andros wouldn't help matters by delaying the explanation further.
"When I tried to bring us out of the gateway, I must have done something wrong," Andros told him. Hard as that was to admit, he continued without pause. "On our way back here, we caught on another dimension--sort of like jumping down stairs. If you misjudge, you either land on the wrong one, or your foot just grazes one of the others on its way to the stair you were aiming for."
"You're saying we hit another dimension by accident?" TJ asked incredulously.
Andros nodded. "Another reality, where things happened a little--or a lot--differently, and we all ended up as different people. For a moment, we *were* those people, at whatever moment they were at in their lives… then the Megaship 'slipped' the rest of they way out of extraspace and back into our own dimension."
"Cassie," TJ said suddenly, and Andros reached for his morpher.
"Riding off into the sky/ with you here by my side/ I see a world I'd never have known/ without you to call my own"
Arms wrapped around Saryn's waist, Cassie hung on for dear life as the jetcycle raced across the desert, spraying sand at every turn. She half-sang, half-screamed the words into wind that stole the sound from her lips almost as soon as it was out.
Not quite, though, because he caught some of the song and turned his head a little to shout, "What are you singing?"
"Just something I made up," she yelled back, unable to contain the joy that raced through her as they sped toward the oasis where they'd agreed to meet the others. Joining the Eltaran Exchange Program had been the best thing that had happened to her since she'd left Earth with the other League students.
The jetcycle slowed minutely as Saryn craned his neck to catch her eye briefly. "It is beautiful," he shouted over the shriek of the wind, and she grinned at him.
He returned his attention to the track in front of them, and she squeezed her arms tighter, leaning her head against his back. She'd had her doubts about Elisia, when she'd found out that the program had placed her out here on the frontier. But two days after arriving, she and the other three exchange students had been introduced to the planet's Ranger team.
The first time she had seen Saryn, she had almost stopped breathing. He had been so calm and self-assured, confident in who he was and who his friends were. He had named his teammates and started to introduce himself without the slightest hesitation--until his eye caught hers, and he stumbled over his own name.
That had been a year and a half ago, and the two had been inseparable ever since.
As the jetcycle roared up to the edge of the oasis, Saryn spun the front wheel and skidded to a halt amid a shower of sand. As the engine's whine subsided, another came to life just inside the nearest stand of trees. Cassie saw a flash of blue and pink on a second jetcycle as it darted deeper into the oasis, disappearing along the wooded trail.
"I think we've just been challenged," Cassie said, shading her eyes to squint after Saryn's teammates.
"I have no doubt of that," he agreed, gunning the engine once more. "Hang on!"
She flung her arms around him again as the cycle jumped forward, gaining new traction as grass invaded the sandy floor of the desert. The cycle hit desert cruising speed--dangerous enough, in the steadily increasing vegetation of the oasis--and continued to accelerate. The wheels slipped a few times on the narrow trail that wound through the trees, but Saryn compensated and their speed kept on climbing.
Terrified though she was, she trusted him and, by extension, his skill with a jetcycle. She even found she was enjoying the ride, in a bizarre sort of way--there was something liberating about putting your faith in someone else and letting go of all control.
The rocky crag that was to have been their landmark flickered past, and seconds later the trail spilled into an immense clearing. On the other side lay the river, which sustained this streak of green in the middle of otherwise barren plains--and a conspicuously empty jetcycle.
Even at the speed they were traveling, something in the trees caught Cassie's eye, and she shouted, "Ambush!"
Saryn veered off immediately, arcing around and sending them hurtling back into the surrounding forest. This time there was no track to follow, and their velocity fell sharply, slowing to almost running speed in a matter of seconds. Behind them, the clearing burst into light, showering sparkles that would stick to clothes and hair and glow for longer than anyone in their right mind would spend trying to get them out.
Cassie had seen the prank played once before--by Timmin, on the same two Rangers who had just tried to do it to her and Saryn. It was impressive when successful, but she was just as glad to have avoided the brunt of it herself.
Saryn brought the cycle to a stop, and the engine sputtered out. She slid off the back immediately, and froze when she saw him put a finger over his lips. "Let them wonder for a little while," he whispered, a mischievous smile on his face.
She winked, pulling his helmet off over her head. "It's no more than they deserve," she agreed quietly, shaking her hair out.
Standing, he stabilized the jetcycle and stepped a little closer to her. He reached out and ran a hand through her hair, coming up with one of the clingy sparkles. "You have some in your hair," he murmured unnecessarily.
She tilted her head and smiled up at him. "Take them out for me?" she suggested, and saw an answering smile spread across his face.
He took the helmet from her hands and placed it on the jetcycle. Stepping around behind her, he combed his fingers through her hair, stopping when they caught on a sparkle to disentangle it and pass it over her shoulder to her. She accumulated a handful of the shimmering snowflake-like things before he brushed her dark hair forward over her shoulders and plucked two more sparkles off of her shirt.
One in each hand, he encircled her with his arms and dropped the sparkles simultaneously into her hands. This time, he didn't withdraw his arms, and instead leaned down to kiss the top of her head gently.
Letting the sparkles fall to the ground, Cassie turned within his embrace to face him. Reaching up to wrap her arms around his neck, she lifted her face and felt his lips cover hers. The kiss started softly enough, but she wove her fingers through his hair and pulled him closer, feeling her heartbeat speed up as he responded to her unspoken request.
She moved against him, knowing after their months of dating exactly how to get a reaction out of him. He groaned, and kissed her long and hard before pulling away with an effort. He stared at her with eyes that burned as intensely as they had that first time, and his voice was strained as he said, "We can't."
She smiled, closing the gap he had put between them. "Why not?" she murmured, letting her left hand slide across his chest.
"The others," he said breathlessly, not making any move to step away this time. "They are waiting for us."
"Kris and Timmin are always late," she reminded him, kissing his mouth gently. "And I think Lyris would appreciate the time alone with Jenna more than you think."
His startled expression didn't last long, as she kissed him again and again, soft kisses that teased more than satisfied. He closed his eyes, and she knew she had won even before his arms went around her and his mouth sought hers with a vengeance, intent on making her pay for that teasing…
His lips were soft and warm, even as they pressed hungrily against hers, and it was several moments before she was aware enough to realize that their surroundings had changed. He must have noticed at nearly the same moment, for he drew away with a gasp, staring at her with shock and chagrin playing across his face.
"Cassie," he murmured, an apology on his lips. The same look that she had seen back in the oasis lingered in his eyes, though, and she covered his mouth with her hand.
"Shh," she whispered, the memories of that year and a half that they had had together already fading. They would have to make their own memories.
"Just kiss me," she told him softly, leaning into him as she buried her fingers in his hair. She felt him stiffen, trying to resist, but unable to keep himself from responding when she pressed her lips to his.
He relaxed slowly, and she felt his arms encircle her once more, hands moving over her back as he started to return her kisses with the same passion he had shown in the oasis on Elisia. It felt right, somehow, and she wondered exactly where they had just been…
Then his hands slid under her shirt, and all other thoughts flew out of her mind. She pressed closer, wishing she dared to do to him what he was doing to her--
She heard her morpher go off, and she ignored it, wanting only to stay here with Saryn for the rest of the day. But whoever wanted their attention would not be put off, and her morpher beeped again, the signal repeating until she silenced it with a touch.
Twisting a little herself, she felt him pull away. Andros's voice was saying something to her, but all she could think of was the way her body burned even after Saryn's hands had left her skin--and the ache of her heart when she saw the self-recrimination on his face.
*Not your fault,* she mouthed in his direction, but he only closed his eyes.
"Cassie?" Andros was asking.
"I'm sorry," she said, eyes still on Saryn. "I was… distracted."
"The vision," he said, sympathy in his voice. "TJ and I had them too--are you and Phantom all right?"
The most insane thought raced through her mind at that--obviously, TJ and he had not had the *same* vision she had had. Or if they did, she probably didn't want to know.
"We're okay," she answered, fighting to get *that* mental image out of her head. "What--what just happened?"
"We passed through another dimension as we left the gateway," Andros said, as though he had been through this before. "For a few minutes, we were living the lives of our alternate selves in that other dimension."
TJ cut in, "Don't try to understand, just accept it. We'll straighten it out later."
Even in her preoccupation, Cassie could hear the grin in his voice, and she appreciated his attempt at humor. "Right," she acknowledged wryly. "Other dimension, just accept. Got it."
She saw Saryn's eyes open at the words she had chosen to repeat, and she stared back at him, willing him to give her some sign that he did not regret what they had started. He did not move, but neither did he look away.
"There's a system nearby that contains at least one planet with a breathable atmosphere," Andros interjected, sounding a little distracted himself. "We'll try to land there, and see if we can get these bulkheads up."
"Good," Cassie said, wanting to end this conversation and have one of her own. "Let us know when we can move around again."
He either didn't notice her shortness, or chalked it up to the "visions" he had mentioned earlier--although personally, "vision" was not a term she would have picked, considering how real the experience she assumed he was referring to had felt. "Will do," was all Andros said, and she heard the comm link click shut.
"Saryn," she began immediately, reaching out to touch him.
He flinched away, and she tried to hide the dismay that filled her at his reaction. "Saryn," she repeated, this time in a pleading whisper.
"I am sorry, Cassie," he said, bowing his head to hide his eyes. "I have behaved inexcusably."
"No," she said sharply, and had the satisfaction of seeing him start at her tone. "*This* is inexcusable--withdrawing after something we clearly need to talk about, and not telling me what I've done wrong!"
She had managed to surprise him into meeting her gaze. "You have done nothing wrong," he told her, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I am the one who has forced myself on you."
"What?" she exclaimed. "Excuse me--" Cassie couldn't keep the indignation out of her tone. "Who kissed whom first?"
"That does not matter," he muttered. "You could not have been expected to know what effect you have on me. You are young--"
"Stop right there," Cassie interrupted. "You *can't* be that much older than me, so where do you get off telling me that I can't possibly know what I want because I'm too young?!"
She hadn't planned to shout at him, but somehow she couldn't help it. He was just so exasperating sometimes.
"In your years, I would be twenty-three," he admitted quietly, and she threw up her hands.
"Since when does six years make a difference?" Cassie demanded. Her parents would never care, any more than they had cared that she had decided to live in Angel Grove instead of Stone Canyon, with a family they still had yet to meet. And after months on the Megaship, jaunting about the universe, she couldn't convince herself that something as insignificant as that should bother her.
"It *does* make a difference," he insisted, staring at her with the same heated look he had had before.
*He's trying to spook me,* she realized with some amusement. *After what almost happened on Elisia, I can't believe he thinks that will work.*
"You are still innocent," he told her. "You can not understand."
*Not in that universe, I'm not,* she thought, unbidden, but didn't say so aloud.
Instead, Cassie sighed. "All right, you've made your point. I'm younger than you, and I've never slept with anyone. When did that become a *bad* thing?"
"I told you," he replied, "you have done nothing wrong."
She could hear him about to continue, and she laid a finger across his lips before he could say anything else. "Neither have you," she said firmly.
He had obviously not expected her to do that, but he didn't push her hand away. Instead, he waited--a little nervously, she thought--while she tried to figure out how to get this through his skull.
"Saryn," she said at last, the name almost a sigh. "If you really think I would go along with something I wasn't comfortable with, you don't know me at all. Everything that has happened between the two of us has been something I think we both wanted.
"We've kissed, and we've touched--but frankly, you need more than that. I can feel it every time we're together, and I *know* you would wait for me, if that's what I wanted. But…" She tried not to blush, knowing how forward this sounded but unable to think of any way to reassure him without revealing her own feelings. "What happened, just now, made me even more certain that *I* want more than that too."
He was watching her with an expression somewhere between amazement and guarded hope. Her heart went out to him--he had never allowed himself to believe that she could love him the way he loved her, at least not now.
"You're not alone in this," she promised quietly, running her fingers over his face. "You never have to be alone again, if you don't want to be."
He caught her hand, and pressed it to his lips once more. He kissed her fingers without taking his eyes off her, as though he was afraid she would disappear the instant he looked away. "I do not," he admitted softly. "Not as long as you are here to be the one I will spend my life with."
She didn't even blink. Of course they would spend their lives together--that had been their plan on Elisia, hadn't it? It been all she'd wanted practically since the day she'd met him…
"I love you," Cassie whispered, thankful for whatever miracle that had brought them together again after those uncertain days following Hercuron.
"And I you," Saryn answered, twining his fingers through hers as he held their hands aloft beside his face. She put her other hand on his shoulder and kissed him gently, and he let go of her fingers to draw her into his embrace.
Her communicator beeped.
"How do they know?" he demanded, and she dissolved into giggles.
"Just lucky I guess," Cassie managed, pulling herself together but not able to bring herself to step away from him. She turned so she was leaning against his chest, and she smiled as he adjusted his arms so he was still holding her.
Tapping her morpher, she heard the tail end of TJ's comment to Andros: "--guarantee we can even crash-land."
Then Andros's voice entered the narrow tunnel. "Cassie, we're about to land, but we still don't know the status of the port thruster. We're not sure how smoothly the Megaship will respond when we try to set down."
"He means it'll probably get a little bumpy," TJ interjected impatiently, and Cassie smiled.
"Thanks for the warning," she said, and when neither appeared inclined to add anything she snapped her morpher shut with finality.
"Couldn't they just say 'hold on' and leave us alone?" Cassie complained.
"Hold on," Saryn whispered, tugging her to the ground with him. He braced himself against the hatch they had come through earlier, and she squirmed closer, putting her feet against the wall and leaning on him for support. His arm wrapped around her shoulders, and she smiled, perfectly secure as they waited together for the Megaship to set down.