Disclaimer: Once, long ago, there was an entity called Saban. This entity created the Power Rangers, and should not be mistaken for me.
Thinking Out Loud
Carlos slumped against the back of his chair, waiting for DECA's long distance phone tap to connect. Finally, through a series of satellites and a tunnel of hyperspace, the ISP on his laptop linked up with the servers back home and signed him on.
The volume was muted, but he saw the little flag on the mailbox icon pop up. *No kidding I have mail,* he thought wryly, double clicking on the icon and watching a list of e-mails appear on his computer screen.
He felt badly about it, but he didn't have time to read all the messages from his family--or, more accurately, from his younger brother, who was the only other one in his immediate family computer literate enough to *send* e-mail. He glanced at the subject lines, then started his own letter.
*Hey, little bro--sorry I haven't been keeping up. We've been a little busy out here, but everything's under control now. I'll tell you all about it when I get home, but I've got to do some serious studying tonight. Thanks for the e-mails, and give Mom and Dad my love--I'll see you soon. --Carlos*
He sent it off to "Vargasfam" and skimmed through the other e-mails, looking for a particular address. "KarenC" appeared near the end of the list, and the time stamp on the e-mail put its arrival time at about two hours before. He opened it, bracing himself for her tirade.
*Carlos Vargas!* He was not disappointed. *I handed in the homework assignments you forwarded me, but if you don't get your butt in class by Friday, I'm not going to have any sympathy when you fail the final. How could you miss two classes in a row?
*But I'm calm now.* Reading her words, Carlos grinned. *And I'm not asking what was so important, cause I know you won't tell me. I hope whatever it is got done, but you darn well better be here Friday--the teacher's not too pleased with you guys already, and I think missing the last class would be a *bad* idea.
*Anyway, here's the review for the final. It doesn't look too bad… Gioski's going to go over it next class so we can correct our mistakes before the exam. Good luck--hope I see you Friday.*
She didn't sign her name, but then, Karen never bothered with formalities like that. She claimed, rightly, that her e-mail address identified her to anyone who knew her, and anyone who didn't shouldn't be getting mail from her anyway.
Carlos downloaded the attached file and forwarded it to TJ before writing a quick thank you to Karen. He crossed his fingers when he told her they'd be in class Friday--the way things were going, he wouldn't be surprised if Astronema herself appeared with the Dark Fortress and enough fighters to ground the Megaship permanently. But he knew that if he and TJ weren't back on Earth in two days, they would risk failing the summer trigonometry course simply by virtue of excessive absences.
*Which would *not* be good,* he thought, sending the e-mail and logging off. TJ was only taking the class to get a college requirement out of the way before his senior year, but Carlos had signed up for pre-calculus for the coming school year. If he didn't pass this prerequisite, he'd have to take trig in the fall--and pre-calc was a full year class. He wouldn't be able to take both.
*Ah, stop worrying,* he chided himself. He printed out the review assignment Karen had sent him and dragged his backpack over to the desk. Digging out a pencil and calculator, he settled down to see how much he remembered from what they had supposedly been learning.
He had worked through the first two pages of the printout when he heard a knock on his door. "Come in," he called, not looking up.
"I hate i," TJ complained, entering the room with his own papers in one hand and pencil in the other. "Who invented imaginary numbers, anyway?"
"You mean, who discovered them?" Carlos asked, amused. He hit the sine button on his calculator and copied the readout onto his review sheet.
"No," TJ said. "I mean who invented them. They're not real; you can't discover them. Personally, I'd like to have a long talk with whoever thought they were a good idea."
Carlos finally looked up. Used to TJ's venting about math by now, he only asked, "You got the e-mail?"
TJ sighed. "The review for the final? Yeah. Like we didn't have enough to worry about."
"No kidding," Carlos agreed with a smile.
"You can smile," TJ said, dropping his affronted act. "I still don't understand most of chapter ten."
"I thought Cassie was helping you with that." For all that she pretended not to care about school, Cassie was one smart girl. She'd taken an advanced level math course last year, a combination of second year algebra and trig--which meant that she'd done the stuff they were struggling with in less time, *and* while she was taking other classes.
"She was," TJ agreed. "But that was last weekend--she's had other things on her mind since then."
Carlos glanced down at his own homework, but so far, it was under control. He'd only had to look back at his book once or twice, and he figured he could memorize that stuff by Saturday, no problem. So he had time…
"Want me to try?" Carlos offered, and the relief on TJ's face made him feel guilty for his hesitation.
"Would you? That'd be great--I just don't get complex numbers. And I can't believe the exam's in three days."
"It's no problem," Carlos assured him, pushing his laptop further into the corner of the desk and clearing a space for TJ to set his stuff. "This whole summer went by way too quickly, if you ask me."
"Yeah," TJ agreed fervently. "Here, wait one sec while I get a chair."
Carlos nodded, and his friend ducked out of the room. TJ was back a minute later, chair in hand, and he seated himself in front of Carlos's desk with an expectant look. "All right. I'm ready to be impressed."
Carlos grinned. "I'm not that good, but I'll do my best. Which problem are you on?"
TJ pointed it out, and Carlos shook his head. That had been one of the ones he had to look up, and he told TJ as much. "I think it's one of the hardest things we have to know how to do, really," he said, and TJ made a face.
"Tell me again when the root of a complex number will ever matter in our lives," he asked rhetorically.
"Three days from now," Carlos replied. "When the final's sitting in front of you."
Carlos explained his own answer to TJ, and as usual, it turned out that TJ wasn't having half as much trouble as he claimed. Once he remembered how to start the problem, he could finish it on his own, and he did have a basic grasp of the chapter. Carlos helped fill in the details by walking him through the next few problems, and soon he found he could go back to his own review sheet while TJ worked through the second page of problems.
They sat in companionable silence for a while, the only sound the scratching of pencils and the shuffling of paper. TJ asked to borrow Carlos's calculator at one point, and Carlos put it between the two of them so they could both use it.
At last, Carlos found himself on the last page. "I may get through this review yet," he commented, leaning back in his chair and stretching.
"Yeah, well, don't rub it in," TJ said wryly, putting his own pencil down. "I have another fifteen problems to go."
"Sorry," Carlos said with a grin. "I vote for a study break. Want to get something to eat?"
TJ raised an eyebrow. "We just had dinner."
Carlos shrugged. "But no dessert."
"All right," TJ agreed, laughing. "You don't have to tell me twice."
They left the math behind and wandered down to the Glider holding bay. Carlos noticed the Blue Ranger staring off into space in the lift, but, assuming the other was simply preoccupied with the review assignment, he said nothing.
Perched on a stool in the holding bay, though, popsicle in hand, the blue-clad boy was still strangely silent. Carlos debated whether to ask or not, thinking it might be thoughts of Cassie that kept his friend quiet. TJ had spoken of her only in the most offhand way earlier, but Carlos had learned long ago that that didn't mean he wasn't troubled.
"Hey, Teej," he said finally, and saw TJ blink, refocusing his gaze to look at Carlos. "Anything you want to talk about?"
After a pause, the other asked ruefully, "Am I that obvious?"
"Only to your friends," Carlos assured him, smiling. "What's up?"
TJ sighed. "It's not really anything important."
Anything that troubled his normally carefree friend had to be pretty significant. "It's important enough to distract you," Carlos pointed out.
TJ didn't answer right away. "Did Cassie tell you guys about the gateway trip?" he asked at last.
Carlos tried to remember what Cassie had said. "Not really--something about not using it right, I think, but that was it."
"It was getting out of it that was the problem, actually." TJ stuck his popsicle back in his mouth for a moment, then said, "Andros says we hit some other dimension on our way out--for a few minutes, we saw ourselves in another universe, a place where things turned out differently than they did here."
Carlos considered that. "It's no weirder than some of the other things we've seen, I guess."
"No," TJ disagreed. "It *was* weirder. I didn't just see myself--I *was* the TJ in that dimension. I didn't remember the Megaship at all."
"Wait--you weren't on the Megaship?" Carlos asked, frowning.
TJ shook his head. "I wasn't even a Ranger. In that universe, I never came to Angel Grove."
*Never a Ranger…* Carlos couldn't help wondering what his own life would have been like if Adam Park hadn't chosen him to be the next Green Turbo Ranger. "Didn't like what you saw?" he suggested.
"No… that's just it," TJ said, his expression serious. "I did like it. I was happy there--really happy."
Startled, Carlos raised an eyebrow. "Happier than you are here?" he asked, trying not to let his surprise show. TJ had told him once that he had always wanted to be a Ranger, and that being picked to lead the Turbo team had been a dream come true.
"I don't know," TJ admitted, shifting a little to look at Carlos. "We've given up a lot to be Rangers, you know. I didn't really think about it until today."
"Well…" Carlos took a bite out of his own popsicle. "I guess that's true. We sure don't have as much free time as we used to, for one thing."
"That's part of it," TJ allowed. "We can't count on having study time, or time for practice, like everyone else. And it's hard to hang out with anybody who isn't on the team, especially since we went into space."
Thinking of Karen's e-mail, Carlos had to agree. It was hard to be running out on people every other day, without being able to tell them *why*. "But would you really want to be like everyone else?" Carlos asked. "We're so incredibly lucky to be where we are--would you give this up for a normal life?"
A movement by the door made him look up, and TJ turned to see what had gotten his attention. Ashley stood there, one shoulder braced against the doorframe as she watched them.
"Hey, Ash," Carlos greeted her. "I thought you were going to bed."
"I was," she said with a sigh. "It didn't seem like such a good idea when I actually tried it."
She didn't elaborate, but Carlos assumed she was worried about Andros. It was TJ who motioned her in, pulling out a stool and inviting, "Come on in. We were just talking about the good and bad of Rangerhood."
"What bad?" she asked in all innocence, sitting down next to them, and TJ laughed.
"That's what Carlos said, too," he told her.
"Well, not exactly," Carlos protested. There were certainly things that they didn't get to enjoy as much as other teenagers, and they did put their lives on the line with an alarming degree of frequency. But-- "I just said that the positives outweigh the negatives."
"Definitely," Ashley agreed. "We all had our chance to stay on Earth a few months ago, and we didn't. Being a Ranger was too important to us."
"Justin stayed," Carlos couldn't help reminding her. He missed the former Blue Ranger, but he knew Justin was glad he had stayed with his dad.
"Yeah," she said. "And I don't always get to see my family as much as I'd like. But with us it was different. We would have been leaving for college in a year or two anyway--our parents could handle the idea of us being away from home for indefinite amounts of time."
"Your parents could handle you being Rangers, period," TJ said ruefully. "But there's a difference between choosing to keep the Power, and doing what we did--going into space because there was nothing else we *could* do."
"Did you want to stay on Earth?" Ashley asked, looking as surprised as Carlos had been earlier.
"No, of course not," TJ answered immediately. "We had to leave--the Turbo team was history, and we needed to find a new way to defend Earth. Zordon gave the first team their powers, and he was the obvious place to start."
"But if someone had been willing to go in your place," Ashley said slowly. "Say one of the old Turbo Rangers had offered to take the responsibility--would you have stayed behind?"
TJ was silent a moment. "At the time, I would have said no way. But… sometimes I wonder what it would be like if none of us had become Rangers--what we'd be doing now, back on Earth."
"Studying," Carlos volunteered, even as Ashley suggested, "Sleeping?"
They looked at each other, and Carlos grinned. "Sorry, Teej," Ashley apologized. "But honestly, I can't imagine any place I'd rather be than out here on the Megaship."
"Me neither," Carlos agreed. "I've never had friends as close as you guys, and I wouldn't have even met you and Cassie if not for the Turbo team. You said we can't hang out with people who aren't Rangers, but we can--it's just that we can't be as close to them as we are to each other."
"We couldn't anyway," Ashley remarked, standing up. "Saving someone's life--and having them save yours--gives you a bond with them that you can't really have with anyone else."
She went over to the Synthetron, and TJ and Carlos exchanged glances. "She's right, you know," Carlos said at last.
TJ smiled. "Yeah, I guess so." Propping his left elbow on his knee, he put the grape popsicle back in his mouth.
"Besides," Ashley continued, coming back with a mug in her hand, "Look around you. We're on a *spaceship*, Teej. How many teenagers even know for sure there's life on other planets? We don't just know, we've *been* there." She glanced at Carlos with a smile. "As Justin would say, 'how cool is that?'"
Carlos had just taken another bite of his popsicle, and he tried not to laugh at her imitation of their younger friend. "He would," he agreed, swallowing. "We have to remember to have him on board again sometime soon."
"Last time, I didn't think I was going to get my Galaxy Glider back," TJ said with a grin.
"See?" Ashley said, setting her mug down. "You wouldn't give up gliding, would you? There's so much stuff that we can do that other people don't even dream about…"
"Yeah," TJ said. "But--there's things other people take for granted that *we* don't have."
"TJ," Carlos said, regarding his friend intently, "what did you see in this other universe? Or do you not want to talk about it?"
"What?" Ashley asked, looking from one to the other. "What did I miss?"
TJ sighed. "The gateway we came through to get away from Divatox is some sort of interdimensional space, and when we left it to return to normal space, we hit another dimension by accident. For a little while, me and Andros and Cassie were living the lives of the people we were in that dimension. And--if mine was anything to go by--they were pretty different."
"Whoa," Ashley said. "You were in another *dimension*?"
He nodded. "That's what Andros says."
She thought about that for a moment. "Then what happened to the TJ, Andros, and Cassie of that universe? Were they here?"
That hadn't even occurred to Carlos--and judging from the look TJ gave him, he hadn't thought of it either. "Maybe," TJ replied at last. "I don't know."
Ashley shrugged. "Just wondering--I didn't mean to interrupt… What did you see?"
He swallowed the rest of his popsicle before he answered, and Ashley glanced at Carlos. Carlos shook his head, suspecting TJ was just trying to decide how much to tell them.
"I was on the baseball team at my old school," TJ said finally. "We'd made it all the way to the championship game… and we won. It was--a great feeling."
He stopped. Carlos couldn't believe that was it. TJ had always loved baseball, and it had been the reason he'd come to Angel Grove--but ever since he'd accepted Tommy Oliver's Turbo key, he had made being a Ranger his top priority. Carlos had assumed that his place on the Ranger team had superseded any other dreams.
Ashley looked surprised too, but she wasn't willing to let it rest. "Is that what's been bothering you? You still play baseball."
"Not like that," TJ said, shaking his head. "But no, that's not what's bothering me. There was this girl…" He trailed off, and Carlos resisted the urge to glance at Ashley's expression.
"Her name was Tessa," TJ continued after a second. "She was nice, and funny; really pretty…"
When he paused again, Ashley asked, "And you two were going out?"
TJ looked over at her, a smile on his face. "Actually--I think we were engaged."
Carlos was glad his popsicle had been gone for some time, because he was sure he would have choked on it at those words. "*Engaged*?"
"Well, engaged to be engaged, anyway," TJ amended. "She was wearing a promise ring, and I distinctly remembered giving it to her."
"Wait," Carlos interrupted again. "What's a promise ring?"
Ashley rolled her eyes. "It's a ring you give someone when you're planning to be engaged. Guys never know about these things," she added.
"Hey!" TJ exclaimed. "Who gave his girlfriend one?"
"Yeah, but whose idea was it?" Ashley countered. "Did she have to tell you what it was first?"
He paused. "I don't remember," he admitted. "It's weird, but the memories I had then have faded. I still remember what I was thinking about at the time, but that's it."
"Doesn't matter," Carlos opined. "He still gave her one, no matter whose idea it was. So no more derogatory guy comments."
"But it's so easy," Ashley protested, giving him a sly look.
"Hey," TJ interjected. "We were having a serious discussion here before you came in. We don't need to hear 'guys never know about these things'."
Ashley laughed at the good-natured teasing. "All right, all right; I'm being quiet." To prove her words, she picked up her mug and took a sip.
They were all quiet for a few moments, then, until TJ shrugged into the silence. "Anyway, that's what I was thinking about," he said awkwardly, playing with his popsicle stick. "I wouldn't give up being a Ranger; you're right about that--but I can't keep from wondering if I would have met Tessa if I'd stayed on Earth."
"She was really special, huh?" Carlos said sympathetically, remembering a time when he had felt that way about Ashley. He glanced at the Yellow Ranger, and she smiled at him over the rim of her mug.
TJ nodded. "Yeah… I had a steady girlfriend back at Sanborn, and I've gone out with a few girls in Angel Grove--but Tessa was different. I--" He hesitated. "It seems weird, now, but--I loved her. I can remember exactly how I felt every time I looked at her, and I've never felt that way about *anyone*."
Carlos shifted uncomfortably, not sure what to tell him, but Ashley leaned forward. "TJ, If Tessa existed in that dimension, she's probably here too. If she was that important to you--maybe you could find her on *our* Earth."
"Believe me, I've thought of that," TJ told her ruefully. "But I was a different person there. She probably was too--and I'm not sure I could handle meeting someone just similar enough to remind me of here but not *be* her."
"But if you don't try, you'll just keep wondering," Ashley insisted. "It's not that likely you could find her anyway--but if you could, wouldn't it be worth it to talk to her, just to see?"
TJ offered a one-shouldered shrug. "If I could find her… yeah, I guess it would."
Ashley smiled. "Well, next time you go visit your folks for a weekend, check around your old school. Or get one of your sisters to do it for you. Maybe someone would know her name. It's a long shot, but lately I've started believing in that whole 'meant to be' thing. Maybe you and Tessa are."
Carlos watched TJ's expression turn thoughtful. "I might do that," the Blue Ranger said at last. "I'll think about it, anyway."
"Well, my work here is done," Ashley said, winking at Carlos. "I really am going to try to sleep now. You guys have a good night."
"You too, Ash," Carlos said, smiling, and TJ echoed him. She wandered out of the room, mug in hand, and Carlos glanced at his friend. From the look on TJ's face, there would be no more studying tonight.
For the third night in a row, there was no starlight on his face as he dozed. But for the first time, he did not care. He would give up the stars if it meant he could stay in this moment with her forever.
"Saryn?" she whispered, not moving.
"Yes," he answered. She was curled against him, skin pressed against skin, her soft hair gentle on his chest. "I'm here."
"Good," she sighed, and he felt the rise and fall of her breathing beneath his arm. "I love you."
He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again, he would have sworn he could see the outline of her body even in the darkness. "I love you, too," he promised quietly, kissing her bare shoulder.
She snuggled closer and breathed, "See you in the morning?"
He closed his eyes again, feeling a contented smile spread across his face. "Always."
Ashley stared up at the bottom of the bunk above her, musing that it never seemed to change from night to night. It had never bothered her before--she had always been too tired to care, or too distracted to notice. But last night, from within the comforting embrace of Andros's arms, it *had* seemed different, and its return to normalcy depressed her.
*I can't believe I miss him already,* she thought, turning on her side so she wouldn't have to look at the bottom of the other bunk. *He only left a few hours ago…*
She was never going to be able to sleep until she stopped thinking about him. Sighing, she tried to think about the repairs the Megaship would need tomorrow.
The prior damage had been almost completely repaired, with the exception of the laser array she had been working on. She couldn't remember how far she had gotten on it, but Carlos had told her it still wasn't working.
That was minor, though. The most important issues now were the two hull breaches. The holes in the Megaship's hull needed to be patched as soon as possible, and they'd have to take a look at the malfunctioning thruster. No one knew yet whether it was salvageable or not.
*And then there's our morphers,* she thought, rolling onto her other side to look at her bureau. The damaged device sat next to the yellow-banded communicator she'd been given when she joined the Turbo team--but it was the multi-colored sphere behind them that captured her attention.
*No,* she told herself firmly. *I'm trying to sleep.*
She found herself reaching for it anyway, picking up the telekinesis ball and flopping back down on her bed. She hadn't had time to play with it since yesterday, but its presence in her room was a constant reminder of Andros, and she treasured that.
She stared at it, trying to make it expand, but it refused to listen. Concentrating harder, she realized after a moment that she was giving it the evil eye. A smile tugged at her lips, and she tried to imitate the Look that Andros used from time to time.
The ball expanded, and she blinked. *I should have tried that the first time,* she thought, amused.
Letting go, she held her left hand a few inches from the ball and willed it away. As before, nothing happened, but she could almost hear Andros's words, *"Picture it in your mind… expect it to move away from you."*
A moment later, the ball started to move away. She watched it go, knowing she wouldn't be able to bring it back, but unable to tear her eyes away from its rainbow colors long enough to go after it.
She tried to stop it, just for entertainment's sake, but the ball kept moving. She kept trying, knowing it didn't always work right away, but her efforts were in vain.
*Andros,* she thought with a sigh. *You make it look so easy…*
Still, the sight of the ball moving made her smile. Even if it wouldn't respond to all her commands, she *could* make it expand. She could push it, too, and that was major progress as far as she was concerned.
Something occurred to her, and she pushed the ball harder. Its speed increased almost immediately, from a gentle drift to walking speed. Slow walking speed, to be sure, but walking speed nonetheless. She watched it approach the opposite wall of the room, smiling with satisfaction as it bounced against the metal and headed back in her direction.
It wasn't exactly success, but it was a temporary solution. Unfortunately, the telekinesis ball lost a lot of momentum in hitting the wall, and it looked like she'd have a few minutes to wait before the lazy pace of the ball brought it within her reach again.
*"She can do telekinesis,"* Carlos had said earlier. She smiled now, proud of the ability, however limited it was. *I'll get better,* she promised herself. *Eventually, and with a lot of practice--hopefully with Andros,* she thought, muffling a laugh against her pillow.
*This is *not* helping me sleep,* she realized, trying to calm down. She couldn't help it--thinking about him got her on a high that was hard to come down from. And telekinesis would be forever linked with Andros in her mind…
*Telekinesis--and telepathy,* she thought suddenly, a wild hope dawning. It had worked once before… at least, Zhane had said it did, and for a moment, she had been positive she could hear Andros's voice very, very nearby.
She closed her eyes, letting thoughts of Andros sneak back into her mind and overwhelm her consciousness. She remembered him watching her when she woke up this morning, a smile that was becoming more frequent on his face. She remembered his shock when she tickled him, and how her heart had soared when his serious expression dissolved into laughter.
Then, later, he'd been looking down at her when she woke again, this time on the less comfortable surface of the Megaship's deck. In the quiet dark of unconsciousness, she had heard his voice, coming from somewhere far away. She had listened with all her heart, until suddenly, it was less quiet and much less dark as she found herself blinking up at his worried expression.
*"I love you,"* his solemn voice had told her. *"I think I've loved you for a long time…"*
He'd said it again, at dinner, but so nervously she wondered if he thought she'd changed her mind since she last saw him. *I love you, Ashley…*
*I love you, too,* she thought, wishing with all her heart that he could hear her over the light years between them. He had so much trouble believing that what they had together would not fall apart, the way so many other things in his life had. She just wanted to say those three words over and over until he believed…
*I've always believed in you,* his voice told her, and she smiled, trying to remember his exact expression when he'd said that.
She couldn't. Her eyes flew open. "Andros?"
Lying in the starlit silence of his old room on Rayven, Andros stared up at the ceiling. It had been a while since he had had starlight while he slept--the Megaship's living quarters were in the more protected interior of the ship, making it impossible for the rooms to have windows.
At first, he hadn't liked it, but Zhane had pointed out that the stars were there, whether he saw them or not. The thought, simple though it was, had comforted him when he was younger and staying on a strange ship.
Then, after Zhane had been injured--fatally, Andros had thought--he had been grateful for the absolute darkness. It kept the real world from intruding on his solitude, and he realized now that it had made the perfect hiding place.
Ashley and her friends had changed that. Their noise in the hallways had kept him awake at first, for they never went to bed at the same time. Someone was always up later than the rest, and everyone had to walk past his door on their way to their room. Their footsteps and muffled voices had reached into his peace and turned it inside out.
*And those silly stickers,* he thought inadvertently, remembering the night he'd gone to his room and seen colored stars next to the other Rangers' doors. The stickers, strange food at breakfast, civilian clothes on the Megaship--
No matter what they did, it affected his life, to nearly the same degree that the seasonal patterns of the stars had once dictated life on KO-35. With the Earth Rangers in his life, turning it upside down, he started to notice the passage of time again. And with Ashley's smile greeting him every morning, he started to care.
Ever since, he'd been missing the stars when he slept.
He turned over, lying on his stomach with his head turned toward the window. The quiet whisper of trees moving in the night breeze reached him through the screen, and he smiled a little as the movement of the leaves made the stars above twinkle on and off. The place hadn't changed much in the months since he'd last been here.
It was strange, he reflected--it felt both more and less like home than it had then. The room next door had been vacant for almost three years, since before the Kerovan Rangers had left to help with the recolonization effort, but tonight Zhane was sleeping there again. That knowledge brought a feeling of security that he hadn't had in a long time.
At the same time, though, he couldn't help feeling disconnected. The other Rangers were back on the Megaship, grounded on a desert planet far from their own home. His mind assured him that they would be all right, but he still felt guilty for leaving them. They were his team now too--not in the way Zhane had been, but they had broken through his shell even as the Silver Ranger had all those years ago, and he owed them.
He owed *her*, if it came to that. She had made him smile again. She had convinced him that exuberance and idealism could exist in a universe that he had thought unforgiving of such traits. She saw the good in everyone, and had made him finally see it in himself.
Lifting his head, Andros tugged his pillow closer. He tried to forget the warm comfort of the night before, when he had had Ashley so near.
Even now, he wasn't sure she knew how important she was to him. He had managed to say "I love you" to her face twice now, but it ran through his mind constantly when she was around. He had yet to find a single thing about her that he *didn't* love, and he was becoming more entranced by her presence every day--but he each time he tried to tell her, he found himself hesitating.
*I love you, Ashley,* he thought, and heard her voice in his mind, repeating the words with the ease he envied.
He sighed without realizing it. If only it were that easy… Saying things out loud made them so much more real, and reality had never been very kind to him. But he knew that what they had was too important *not* to acknowledge--she had said "always" this evening, and he had been amazed to realize he agreed.
"Always" had been his sister, and then the colony, and then Zhane--and one by one, "always" had ended. But when she told him tonight that she thought the two of them were "always"… he had believed her. He had believed *in* her--for always.
A vague awareness at the edge of his mind, noticeable only as it changed suddenly, made him reach out, thinking Zhane was awake. *Andros?*
He sat straight up, and the thoughts that had been growing more and more incoherent as sleep encroached scattered to the wind. Adrenaline brought him back to full alertness, and he stared into the dimness as though he could see the source of the voice there in front of him.
There was, of course, nothing there but shadows. And the sound of her voice had not reached his ears, but had echoed in his mind the way Zhane's telepathic call did. But she couldn't--
This afternoon hadn't been his imagination, he realized suddenly, his mind flashing back to the moment on the Delta Megaship's Bridge when he had been sure he heard her voice. Zhane had tried to tell him, but he had been too busy to listen…
*Ashley,* he thought, focusing on her bright presence, even farther away now than it had been then. He tried to remember exactly what he had been thinking of a moment before, when he had heard that first murmur of another mind.
*I believe in you,* he thought again, searching for the awareness that would let him broadcast those words to her. *I love you. I have from the beginning, and I will until the end. Ashley--*
He held his breath, concentrating on her as hard as he had once had to concentrate on his best friend to make himself heard. And the slightest whisper came back, not nearly as clear as his name had been a moment ago, but barely recognizable as her voice repeating the words "I love you" back at him.
It could have even been his imagination--but if it wasn't, he was determined not to give up so easily. *Ash,* he thought, *I can't read your mind. You have to think *at* me, hard, or I can't hear you…*
This time when he heard his name, a little more clearly but no less uncertain, he was sure it was real. Somewhere, she had been thinking the same things as him, about him, even as he thought of her, and without realizing it, their thoughts had drifted together.
*That's better,* he told her, feeling an unstoppable smile spreading across his face. *Ash?*
*Tell me I'm not dreaming,* he heard her whisper across the distance. Her voice was so quiet he had to strain to hear, but the words were distinct enough now that he was sure he was *was* hearing them.
*You're not dreaming,* he answered immediately, hands clutching at the blanket he had thrown off earlier. *But I might be…*
At first, there was no answer, only the same dim stir of thought that had fist clued him in to the awareness they were sharing. Then, *What?*
He was still grinning like an idiot, and he couldn't help being glad no one was here to see it. *Do you have any idea how amazing you are?* he asked, staring straight ahead and not seeing the walls of his room. *You should have grown up with us--you'd have been the envy of every kid on KO-35.*
*I wish I had,* came back to him, the words a little slower than her normal speaking voice. That, and the faintness of her sentences, was the only thing that belied her inexperience. *But why?*
She really doesn't know, he thought, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. *Because you can talk like this,* he said simply. *Because you can move things without touching them--do you know how long that takes to learn?*
*Yes,* she answered, and her voice was a little louder on that word as some of her indignation came through.
He wanted to laugh, but the semi-darkness around him was too quiet to disturb. *Longer than *you* took,* he thought, *trust me.*
For a moment, his mind was as quiet as the room, but the feeling of brightness on the edge of his perception did not abate, and he knew she was still there. *Always,* he heard at last, and he wished she could see how much he smiled at the word.
*You said "always" before,* he said, before he could lose his nerve. *And I was just thinking how--much that meant to me.*
He closed his eyes, knowing his heart hadn't been quick enough to say the words before his mind edited them. *What I mean is--* Andros swallowed. *I love you. I always have, and I always will.*
*I know,* she answered, and this time he thought the softness of her voice was deliberate. *You said that before… I think you weren't sure I could hear you--from the beginning until the end, you said.*
He nodded into the darkness, not even registering how long and clear that last sentence had been. But she couldn't see his response, and he drew a deep breath. *Yeah…*
*Me too,* she told him, and he let out his breath in a sigh of relief. No matter that she'd said it first, he couldn't stop being nervous about revealing his own heart.
He couldn't believe how hard the longing hit him, then, but suddenly he had to see her, had to know she was still real. *Ash? Were you--on your way to bed?*
There was a pause, and it was the strangest thing, but he could almost hear her giggle. Telepathy didn't work like that, but it might have been the amusement in her tone when she answered that made him think he had. *I'm in bed now.*
There was a pause, and he bit his lip, wondering if he shouldn't ask. Then she added, *I couldn't sleep. I'm…* There was another hesitation, as he felt her focus turn away from him for just a second. *I'm playing with your telekinesis ball.*
That did it. She was thinking of him, and he wanted to see her smile. *Could you do something for me?*
*Anything,* she replied immediately, and this time he did notice how much clearer her words were becoming. He wasn't straining to hear her anymore, and her voice sounded almost as though she was in the room with him.
*Have DECA contact KERI,* he said. *I have KERI's access code here--call me, just to say good night?*
Her focus must have shifted again, because there was silence for a moment or two. He found himself holding his breath as the feeling of her presence dimmed to a mere spark on the border of his conscious mind.
Then his morpher beeped and he clapped his hand over his wrist automatically, even though the sound had come from the table by the window. He lunged toward it, snatching it off the table and flipping the catch open.
"Incoming video transmission," KERI announced calmly. "Please input access code."
Grinning, Andros scrambled off his bed and went over to the workstation by the door. He flipped on the light and punched in the code before he even bothered to sit down. The Astro Rangers' five-colored bar appeared on the screen, and he waited impatiently until the logo dissolved into darkness that was quickly replaced by an image of Ashley.
"Hey," she said, smiling out at him. Her hair was tousled, and she wore a sleeveless t-shirt over gray sweatpants, but her eyes sparkled and her smile melted his heart.
"Hi," he answered softly, reaching out to touch the screen. It was a futile gesture, but she mirrored it, and they stared at each other, two sets of fingertips pressed against screens light years apart.
"So how's Zhane?" she asked, after a moment, and he smiled. She didn't want to just say good night anymore than he did.
"He's doing all right," Andros answered, letting his hand slide down the monitor to rest beside it. She let her fingers fall, too, but didn't withdraw her hand completely. "I think it's harder for him to see the changes in people here than it was to see people he didn't know at all on the Megaship…"
She shifted in her chair as he spoke, getting more comfortable, and he found himself doing the same thing. He told her about their arrival on Rayven, and the welcome they had received; about the way Zhane had melded back into the atmosphere easier than he himself had, despite the time the other had been gone.
It had often been that way, though, when their Ranger duties had called him and his friend away for long periods of time. He confided that he hoped Zhane would look at the last two years as just another time away that he had to catch up on. She listened, nodding in the appropriate places and sometimes asking questions about the past he spoke of.
The conversation shifted subtly from Zhane to KO-35, and from there to childhood in general. It meandered through anecdotes from Earth and Rayven, comments on life as a Ranger, and turned toward dreams from times past and how they compared to life now.
Only as the seconds slid silently past the midnight mark did Andros realize how serious the conversation had grown. But it was far from depressing, and he wouldn't have given up the time with her for anything. The video link between the two computers stayed open, even as the stars traced their nightly paths across the sky outside.