Disclaimer: SOTPR, even when they fight. Of all the Rangers, I thought Cassie and Ashley had the most credible catfights. Zhane and Andros couldn't pull it off because Zhane was too laid back. I suppose fanfiction exists to fix canon problems.
She should have knocked.
It was easy to see that in retrospect, of course, but she really should have thought of it beforehand. She'd been so relieved to finally get Zhane and Ty out the door that she'd forgotten they might not be the only ones in a compromising position. Or maybe she had just gotten so used to Andros' distance of late that she had forgotten he knew how to be passionate.
Either way, the door had been opened and there was nothing she could do about it now. Ty looked a little startled, but Zhane, to his credit, bounded into the room as though there was nothing out of the ordinary. "Hi, Ash," he said cheerfully, with the voice of someone who had walked in on them countless times before. "How've you been?"
Her face was flushed as she pulled away from Andros, but she recovered her composure quickly. "Busy!" she answered, sliding off of Andros' lap with a breathless smile. "How about you?"
"Lonely and bored without you," he declared, throwing himself down on his bed. "For lack of your company, I've been forced to go places with Astrea, and you know very well she still has trouble comprehending the concept of 'fun'."
"I do know," Ashley said, suppressing a giggle as she exchanged amused glances with Kerone. "Poor Zhane... It must have been hard for you."
Kerone rolled her eyes as Zhane sighed dramatically. "You have no idea!" he exclaimed. "I finally had to give up and make new friends!" He gestured at Ty, who offered a bemused nod when Ashley turned her gaze on him.
"Hello," she said readily, smiling in welcome. "I'm Ashley Hammond, from Earth."
"Nice to meet you," Ty responded, returning her smile. "My name's Tixe, but my friends call me Ty."
Kerone caught Zhane's eye behind Ashley's back and mouthed Tixe? He just grinned at her and put his hands behind his head, glancing idly around the room. Or it seemed to be idle--it didn't take her long to realize that he was watching Andros' reaction as Ashley and Ty exchanged introductions.
Andros regarded Ty as he might a hard-wired quantron: scathingly, but with a certain amount of wary curiosity. How much, how hard, and how far, if the bomb went off right now. He didn't seem to realize that the explosion, if it came, wasn't going to come from Ty at all.
The moment Ty glanced in Andros' direction, Zhane stepped in, probably to mitigate Andros' glare. "And this taciturn fellow," he drawled, "is Andros. I'm sure you recognize him. Former Red Ranger, commander of the Megaship, all around child prodigy. Not very good with the social skills, though."
Ty's lips quirked, but he nodded as politely to Andros as he had to Ashley. "Nice to meet you," he repeated, smiling at little.
Andros didn't smile back. In fact, he ignored Ty altogether as he turned a stern look on Kerone. "I told you to get Zhane."
She raised an eyebrow at his tone. "I did," she pointed out.
"Andros," Ashley scolded. "You could at least say hello!"
"He's always like this," Zhane told Ty carelessly. "Don't take it personally."
Andros narrowed his eyes, but he didn't look away from Kerone. "This is about the Rangers," he told her. "We don't need extraneous people getting involved."
"Since when do you decide who's involved and who isn't?" Zhane inquired, staring up at the ceiling. "Is this another of your Supreme Mandates that you conveniently forgot to tell me about?
Kerone could feel Ashley's wide-eyed gaze on her, looking for some kind of explanation, but she wasn't going to back down from Andros' glare. "We need anyone who's willing," she informed him. "Ty knows the risks, and he's volunteered to come anyway. It's as simple as that."
"You want him to come with us?" Andros' expression was one of sheer disbelief. "He's not even a Ranger!"
"Neither are you," Zhane told the ceiling.
"Excuse me," Ty put in. "Could I say something here?"
"No," Andros said firmly, still not looking at him. "Kerone, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but there's a reason that civilians don't go on Power quests. If we fail, we don't just get sent home with a slap on the wrist. We don't come home at all. Do you understand that?"
"Stop talking to her like she's a child!" Zhane burst out, abandoning all pretense of lounging. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say! Of course civilians go on Power quests! If they didn't, spoiled brats like you who had a morpher handed to them on a velvet pillow would be the only ones to ever hold the Power, and the forces of evil would have long since conquered anything worth having!"
Andros stared at him in shock, and Kerone sighed, very quietly.
That was it, then. It was too late now--maybe it had been too late the instant she stepped through the door with Zhane and Ty. She caught Ashley's horrified look from across the room, and in that brief moment of silence she wondered what her friend was thinking.
"I didn't..." Andros' words were heavy in the quiet room, but there was an edge of controlled anger in his voice. "I didn't mean you, Zhane."
"That's the problem, isn't it," Zhane retorted. "You never do. You didn't mean me when you said friends were more important than the Power. You didn't mean me when you said you were going to start treating people like they mattered again. And you don't mean me now, when you say you want Rangers on your stupid quest. You just want little copies of you, obedient followers that will do whatever you tell them to!"
"That's not true," Andros said through gritted teeth. He was clearly fighting a losing battle with his temper, and Kerone wondered what had happened to his resolve to reconcile. Was he really that upset that Zhane had slept with Ty instead of her? Or was he upset that Zhane had slept with Ty at all?
"I want people who know what they're getting into," Andros was saying, his voice still carefully even. "I want people who have had experience with the Power and know how dangerous it is. If we get into trouble we can't exactly start over and try again--"
"Don't lecture me!" Zhane shouted. "I died for you, Andros! I know the consequences of this life a hell of a lot better than you do!"
He'd hit a sore point, and Andros snapped. "Then you know why I don't want him coming! Most people stay dead! I don't want that on my conscience!"
"I'm sorry I couldn't do that for you, too," Zhane shot back. "Next time I won't bother coming back. But in the meantime you're stuck with me, so stop treating me like I'm not here!"
"I'm not the one sleeping with strangers," Andros hissed. "He's not coming just so you have someone to adore you while you ignore all your friends!"
Kerone clenched her fists, shifting as casually as she could to hide involuntary violet sparkles behind her back. There were times she really did wish she could hurt her brother. Just a little bit.
"Who died and made you the sole power in the universe?" Zhane demanded furiously. "Oh, wait, I did! Well, I take it back. As the only one here with any actual authority, I say Ty can do whatever the hell he wants!"
Andros stared at him in surprise. "Is that what this is about?" he wanted to know. "Who's in charge?" He frowned, his anger waning a little in the face of this new puzzle. "You never complained before."
It was amazing how completely he could miss the point, Kerone reflected. She glanced over at Ashley and found her looking at Ty oddly. She followed the other girl's gaze, making a mental bet with herself concerning the number of minutes it would take Ashley to ask her if she and Zhane had broken up.
"That's because I don't care who's in charge!" Zhane exclaimed. Ty was watching him with an expression of dawning comprehension, and Kerone wondered if Andros was the only one who couldn't see it. "You know I never wanted to lead! All I wanted--"
He broke off abruptly, his jaw working. "All I wanted was to be a Ranger," he said at last. It was clearly not what he had started to say. "I just wanted to help you." His voice was lower but no less angry--if anything, he sounded more dangerous than he had when he was shouting. "If you want to take that for granted from me, that's your choice, but don't do it to other people."
His tone had no effect on Andros, who shot back instantly, "It doesn't help me to have untrained civilians whose only qualification is that they're head over heels for a uniform!"
Kerone stiffened, and behind her back her fingernails dug into her palms. She saw Zhane pale, and she longed to do something--anything that would make Andros take those words back. He didn't even know what he was saying.
"Shut up," Zhane whispered at last. His rose uncontrollably as he repeated, "Shut up, Andros. Just shut up! I didn't ask for things to be this way! If you don't want me around you could just say so and save me the trouble of pretending to be your friend!"
Andros' eyes widened in outrage, and Kerone was on her feet before she knew what had happened. He paid no attention to her, all of his focus intent on Zhane. "I don't want--"
That was as far as Andros got before a violet glow flared around him and he was silent. He continued to form the words for several seconds before he realized he wasn't making any sound, and he turned his glare on her. What did you do? The question was clear on his lips, but she ignored it.
"Zhane's right," she said calmly, relaxing her fists with conscious effort. "Until you can speak without hurting people, I'd rather you not speak at all. Now tell Ashley where we're going and the two of us will demonstrate how to have a conversation with someone you respect."
He closed his mouth and glared at her, making the silent message clear. Kerone only shrugged. "Fine. If you're going to let your personal issues put the entire planet at risk, what do I care? The Frontier Defense will be better off once KO-35 has been conquered anyway. They don't have the resources or the motivation to defend an insignificant colony on the outskirts of nowhere."
Andros' eyes narrowed, and for a moment there was complete silence. She had seen the same thing on the Bridge of the Dark Fortress, when the tension was too thick to measure. No one dared move, uncertain what the repercussions of attracting attention would be. There were too many variables in the room right now.
Then Ashley shifted, a subtle movement that drew every eye as effectively as if she'd shouted. "The skyport," she said, her gaze flicking from one person to the next. "We're going to Cayeron."
"Thank you, Ashley." She made her tone deliberately polite. "It's nice of you to relay Andros' information to us. I'm sorry to inconvenience you this way."
Ashley's expression looked torn between worry and bafflement, but her mouth twitched at Kerone's precise courtesy. "It's all right," she said automatically. Then she added, "You are my best friend, after all." She glanced at Andros just in time to catch his exasperated Look.
"We don't have to go to the skyport." Zhane's voice was strained, but he was thinking, which was more than she could say for Andros. "My hover's parked outside. And Andros' isn't charged anyway."
For some reason that made Andros turn his glare on Zhane, who studiously ignored it. It was definitely better not to have her brother talking. At least Zhane knew how to control himself.
"Thank you, Zhane," she said, still carefully formal. "May we take your hover?"
He gave her a weak smile for her effort, and she saw his shoulders relax slightly. "Why yes, Astrea," he mimicked, a flicker of amusement in his eyes. "You're always welcome to use my hover, but it's nice of you to ask."
She winked at him before turning her attention to Ty. "I wouldn't blame you for changing your mind," she told him seriously. "It's not always like this, but it's not all picnics and parties either. We love each other, and we'll love you if you give us a chance. But you can't love this much without hating just a little. We might not even live long enough to show you what it's really like."
"I'm not changing my mind," Ty answered. His reply was firm, but it was quick enough that she knew he'd already considered the possibility. His gaze slid to Zhane, and he added, "I'm going with you."
Ashley stirred at that, and out of the corner of her eye Kerone saw her frown at Andros. She could just imagine what he was thinking right now. Luckily, she could *only* imagine it--she should have tried silencing him a long time ago.
"Astrea," Ty said suddenly, and his use of Zhane's nickname for her surprised her.
It clearly surprised Andros, too, but she ignored her brother's frown. "Yes?"
Ty gave her a small smile. "Thank you."
She smiled back. "You're welcome." Glancing around at the others, she inquired mildly, "Is everyone ready?"
Ashley cleared her throat. "Andros would like to know when he can speak again."
"Maybe tomorrow," Kerone said, not looking at him. She doubted anyone in the room would complain, except possibly Andros, and luckily he couldn't.
When no one else said anything, she shrugged and turned toward the door. "Let's get going, then."
He loved Zhane's hover. It was comfortable and old and it smelled funny. It was exactly the opposite of his, which was why his sat uncharged at the skyport while Zhane's got older and more comfortable with every trip. And sometimes, when Andros drove, it acquired a new scratch here or there that made it all the more glamorous.
When he didn't drive, he worked on the design carved around the passenger controls. It had grown quite elaborate over the last few months, and he was actually rather proud of it. The places where Zhane had added to the carving himself were noticeable only if one knew the artists, and Andros was sure the person currently inspecting the designs couldn't tell the difference.
He frowned, glaring at the back of Tixe's head as the scenery flashed past around them. The other boy rode up front with Zhane this time, and Andros resisted the urge to kick the back of the passenger seat. No one rode shotgun in Zhane's hover but him.
*Are you going to sulk the whole way?* Ashley asked silently, settling against the backseat. She had leaned forward to talk with Zhane and Tixe a few minutes before, and he had deliberately tuned out their conversation. If he wasn't allowed to speak then he didn't see any reason to listen.
He turned to stare out at the hills, avoiding her gaze. *I'm not sulking.*
He heard Ashley sigh. *Whatever you say.*
She asked Kerone a question about agrec then, and Tixe turned around in his seat to listen. Andros glared out at the scenery, silently reminding the other boy that the question hadn't been directed at him. He ought to face forward and mind his own business.
But of course Kerone referred the question to him, which had probably been Ashley's intent all along, and even Zhane listened when Tixe offered an explanation. They were certainly going out of their way to make him feel comfortable. No one got to be a Ranger by being coddled, yet that was exactly what they were doing.
"We'll love you, if you give us a chance."
Some of them already were, he thought, narrowing his eyes. And Kerone and Ashley seemed eager enough to please. It didn't look like Tixe would have to give them much of a chance at all. No, anyone that Zhane liked was automatically good enough for the rest of them. He supposed he should be thankful Zhane didn't bring more people home with him, or they would be overwhelmed with pretty, chatty people who felt welcome everywhere they went.
Zhane would like that. He grimaced, remembering the parties Zhane had finally stopped trying to get him to attend. Ashley had gone in his place, and the two of them would come back in the ridiculously early hours of the morning with laughter and exhaustion spilling off of them in waves. He was just as happy to sleep, once they finally came back and he knew they were safe.
"You can't love that much without hating just a little."
If the reverse was also true, maybe that explained why he was here. He hated Zhane. He really hated him. He hadn't hated his best friend this much since they were fifteen and the Silver Ranger had stolen his morpher. Literally stolen it, hidden it, and dissolved into hysterical laughter when Andros threatened to beat the location out of him.
They had fought until they were too tired to hit each other anymore, wreaking havoc on the holding bay with their recklessness. He caught himself about to smile at the memory, and he frowned instead. The two of them had ended up sprawled on the floor together, and he had woken with his morpher in his hand. It had been in Zhane's pocket the whole time.
That was a long time ago. More than three years, now, and he and Zhane hadn't sparred since they'd lived on the Megaship. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Zhane laugh that hard. Why did things have to change?
Zhane didn't change.
He didn't know where the thought came from, but he hated it instantly. He hated it almost as much as he hated Zhane. Although he had been trying to think about Kerone and what he would do to her once she lifted her stupid spell, somehow he couldn't keep Zhane's words from echoing in his head.
"Save me the trouble of pretending to be your friend!"
The old Zhane never would have said that. The idea of the old Zhane pretending anything would have been laughable anyway. Old Zhane didn't hide things, and he was terrible at lying. His blue eyes would go wide, and his expression would be so free of guile that he couldn't be anything but guilty... It was a look Andros knew well.
I don't know who threw that water balloon! No, of course I didn't take the last cookie. I have no idea where your morpher is... did you check your room?
The hover jolted a little, and he heard Zhane laugh. "The port thruster controls on your side are weird," he was telling Tixe. "Basically don't try to steer left unless you have to. This thing doesn't do dual flights much anymore."
Andros' fists clenched, and he bit his lip to keep from speaking before he realized it didn't matter. No one would hear him anyway. He had always been able to make Zhane's hover do what he wanted. The port thruster controls worked fine when he was in the passenger seat.
Kerone. He yanked his concentration back to his sister. If she could silence someone just like that, at will and with no apparent effort, what else could she do that she had forgotten to tell them about? He had never asked about her magic, assuming she would share what she was comfortable sharing. He was beginning to think that had been a mistake.
Why had she done it, though? Granted, his argument with Zhane had no place on a power quest, and it was certainly no one's business but their own. But Zhane had started it, and Zhane was still talking. And quite frankly, she had better reasons to be angry with Zhane than with him.
*Ash,* he thought suddenly. *Ask Kerone why Zhane can talk and I can't.*
He felt her glare at him, and he realized belatedly that he had interrupted her. *Sorry,* he added, a little annoyed by her reaction. He hadn't been paying attention, after all. *Please?*
She relayed the question loudly enough that everyone could hear it, and he kept his gaze pointedly on the landscape. Apparently, whatever Kerone had against him was contagious. He should have expected the girls to side with each other.
His sister's answer was short and to the point. "Because Zhane didn't hurt you."
His eyes widened, but he didn't turn to look at her. Zhane didn't hurt him? After calling him a spoiled brat, telling him he had no authority, and implying that Zhane was only pretending to be his friend? What had Andros done that even came close to that?
He had implied that Tixe didn't belong on a power quest. And maybe he had been a little bit condescending about it. Still, Zhane knew he did that. He didn't mean to talk down to people, but he repeated things as much to verify his own thought process as to inform others. Either way, though, it seemed that Kerone thought the slight to Tixe had hurt Zhane more than anything he had said to Andros.
It was a distressing thought, because Kerone was seldom wrong on the few occasions when she ventured an opinion about someone else's emotions. The months with Saryn had made an impression on her. And Zhane had certainly seemed upset--far more upset than the situation warranted, if it came to that. The two of them had to be a lot closer than he'd thought if Zhane had taken the insult that personally.
Why didn't Kerone care? He could almost hear her response. Why do *you* care? He cared for the same reason she ought to, of course: Zhane was breaking her trust. Or maybe "trust" was the wrong word, since her trust seemed unshaken... but he was doing *something* wrong. Of that Andros was sure.
Someone poked him, and he glanced around involuntarily. Ashley was giving him a concerned look, but she covered it with a casual smile when he caught her eye. *What are you thinking about?*
*Zhane.* He was about to turn away when he saw the flicker of uncertainty in her gaze.
*Is he--sleeping with Ty?* she wanted to know.
He frowned, and this time he did look away. *Yes.*
For a moment she didn't say anything, and despite himself he was curious about her reaction. He found himself waiting for it, wondering if she would take the news in stride or muster the same outrage he felt whenever he thought about it. Would her reaction contradict or confirm his own?
*Kerone doesn't seem upset about it,* she said at last, and he suppressed a sigh. He should have known better than to think Ashley could be outraged about anything.
*No,* he agreed shortly. *She doesn't.*
He thought she had given up on talking to him again, but then out of nowhere she said, *He's not replacing you, you know.*
Andros looked at her in surprise. *What?*
*You're jealous of Ty.* She studied him as though she could read his feelings through his eyes, and he lowered his gaze quickly. *I don't think you have to be,* she continued. *Ty's not taking your place--he means something different to Zhane.*
*Like what?* Andros demanded. He looked up in spite of himself, searching her expression. He would take any answers he could get at this point.
*Well, think about it,* she urged. *He loves Kerone, but he can't really be close to her. He can be close to you--or he could--but he can't love you. With Ty he's free to be whoever he wants, and he probably just needs to enjoy that for a while. He's still your friend before he's anything else... or he will be, if you let him.*
*Why can't he love me?* he protested sullenly. *He used to--* He suddenly realized who he was talking to, and he tried to stop that thought before it could be completed. But thoughts were harder to change than spoken words, and he knew she heard *--before he died.*
She didn't even blink. *Did he love you before that?* she repeated. Her tone was gently curious, as though she sought confirmation of something she had already known.
When he didn't answer, she gave him a knowing look. *Are you sure he's the one who stopped?*
He stared at her, the question turning itself over in his mind. She smiled a little, lifting one hand to his cheek as she leaned in to kiss him. Her mouth was whisper soft on his, and she was almost gone before he remembered to respond. She just smiled again, mouthing I love you before turning back to Kerone.
Several seconds later, he realized he was still staring at her, and his gaze shifted toward the driver's seat without conscious thought. Zhane was laughing at something Andros had missed, his expression open and easy for the first time in days, and the hover was racing the way it always did when he wasn't paying attention. He was finally starting to look his age, his body compensating for the time spent in hypersleep, and with an uncomfortable jolt Andros realized that Zhane and Tixe looked good together.
Yes, he reflected glumly, the two of them had changed. Both inside and out. He couldn't help but wonder how much. And... how come?
"They're not home," Zhane said at last, setting the chime off one more time. He could hear it sound within the house, but it had no more effect than it had the other three times he had tried it. He couldn't help feeling relieved--it would be easier if they didn't have to explain themselves to anyone just yet.
"Can you get in anyway?" Ashley wanted to know.
For answer, he pressed his palm to the decorative plate set in the house's exterior. The door slid open with barely a whisper, and he smiled to himself. His grandparents were hopelessly modern.
"Wow," Ty said, peering inside. "Nice..."
Zhane stepped through the front door, surveying the open-style construction that his mother's parents favored. He had to admit that Ty was right: it was nice. The design was simple, but no expense had been spared when it came to inhabitation and furnishing. The house's owners knew what they liked, and they didn't stint when it came to acquiring it.
Ashley seemed less awed than Ty, but she was new enough to KO-35 that she still saw the alienness first and the details second. "What are we looking for, exactly?" she asked. "Would any of us recognize it?"
"We're looking for a... key." He knew that wouldn't help anyone much, but there was no other way to describe it. "Andros will know it when he sees it, but the rest of you probably won't. It doesn't look the same to everyone."
He felt Andros' gaze on him again at that. Those hazel eyes had stared at him for almost the entire trip, and he was doing his best to ignore it. If it didn't stop soon, he was going to ask Astrea to just give Andros his damn voice back. He didn't know how much longer he could take this scrutiny without knowing what was behind it.
"Any idea where it would be?" Ty asked, taking a few hesitant steps away from the group. He reached toward a lamp hanging from the second level, and a muted glow sprang forth before he could touch it. "Nice," he repeated, a small smile on his face.
"Probably in my room." Avoiding Andros' gaze, he caught Astrea's eye and added, "It'd be worth checking the second level too, though. It could have gotten moved up there with some of my other stuff."
"Ashley and I will look on the second level," she said smoothly. Her words were the only indication that she had seen and understood his pleading look. "Andros can be our key detector. Ty, do you mind helping Zhane?"
"Not at all." Ty pointed at another lamp, and it brightened in response. His smile widened. "I probably won't be that much help, but at least I can turn the lights on."
Ashley imitated him, and her eyes widened when one of the darkened lamps lit up. "Cool!"
Zhane glanced back at Astrea in time to catch her patiently amused look. "Good luck," she told him wryly, in a tone of voice that said they'd need it.
He suppressed a smile at the dirty look Ashley sent her way. "You too," he said, turning to look for Ty. His gaze struck Andros' completely by accident, and he swallowed hard. *Stop staring at me!*
*I'm not,* came the startled reply.
That surprised Zhane at least as much as his protest seemed to have surprised Andros, but not because of the words. He had been blocking Andros for days, not that the Red Ranger had noticed. Hearing his friend's voice in his head again was at once pleasant and disturbing.
*Zhane?* Andros sounded tentative this time, and Zhane wondered if he had noticed after all. It was the voice of someone who wanted to ask why something had been given back, but didn't dare for fear that it would be taken away again.
Or maybe he was reading too much into it. He turned away, not blocking again, but not answering either. If he spoke to Andros now, everyone in the room would be able to read their conversation on his face. He wasn't sure it was worth finding out what Astrea would do if they fought again.
"Are you all right?" Ty kept his voice low as he followed Zhane across the room, but there was no mistaking the concern in it. "Did she say something to you?"
"Can you really tell every time I do that?" Zhane asked, embarrassed in spite of himself. "I wish I could be someone else for a day. Everyone else reads me better than I do."
"You don't hide things," Ty said simply. "It's nice."
"Nice for you," Zhane muttered. "There are a few things it'd be nice to keep private."
"Oh, Andros doesn't know."
Zhane froze. Ty came to a halt beside him, putting his hands in his pockets while he waited for Zhane to speak. He looked entirely too casual for someone who had just said what Zhane had heard him say. He hadn't even known Ty two days ago.
"Excuse me?" he managed at last. "What did you just say?"
"Andros doesn't know," Ty repeated calmly. He did glance over his shoulder, though, checking on the others' progress up the stairs. "I don't think he has the faintest clue how you feel about him, so if that's what you wanted to keep private, congratulations. It's working."
Zhane grabbed his arm and hauled him into the room his grandparents still kept for him after all these years. "You've got to be kidding me," he said, as the door slid shut behind them. "What doesn't Andros know? How do you think I feel about him?"
"You tell me," Ty replied. "You joined the team for him, didn't you. You didn't want to help him, you just wanted to be with him. You still do; that's why you're here when he can't even muster a half-hearted 'thank you' for the way every single one of you is putting your life on the line for him and his mission."
Zhane stared at him and Ty gazed back, waiting.
"This may surprise you," Zhane said at last. "But I've gone a year and a week without one person asking me how I feel about Andros. Now every time I turn around someone's there to tell me how transparent I am."
Ty studied him a moment longer, as though searching for a response. "What happened a year and a week ago?"
"I woke up from hypersleep," Zhane answered with a grimace. "Nightmare, actually; I don't recommend it. Although given the alternative," he added as an afterthought, "I guess it could have been worse."
"Is that where you were all those years?" Ty asked quietly. "In hypersleep? When we evacuated and neither of you came back, everyone said that you'd died and Andros had gone mad. You were heroes, both of you, but... it was a bitter thing."
"Tell me about it," Zhane muttered. "I took a saber slash meant for Andros, and I died knowing that he loved me. Two years later I woke up from hypersleep with his girlfriend standing over me and I haven't heard the 'l' word from him since."
"You were together, then," Ty said, gaze steady on Zhane's. "Everyone assumed, but you were so young... Not many people thought it would last."
Zhane couldn't contain the ironic smile that spread across his face. "See what I mean? Think how much I could learn if I was anybody else. I'd know so much about me I could write a book."
"You can still prove them wrong," Ty told him, and the urgency in his voice surprised Zhane. "What do other people know, anyway? Every relationship has its ups and downs. It's not over until you give up on it."
"It's not over until one of us gives up on it," Zhane corrected. "And I think he beat me to it."
"I think you're wrong." Ty's hands were still in his pockets, and his gaze had yet to waver from Zhane's. "I think Andros was madly in love with you then, and I think he still is now. I think he forgot how it feels, and how you feel, so much that he doesn't even recognize it anymore. And," he added with a small smile, "I think he's so jealous right now that if he ever acknowledges my existence it'll be a miracle."
Zhane frowned slightly. "You think an awful lot for someone who just met Andros today," he said at last.
"Actually," Ty answered with perfect equanimity, "I just like putting my foot in my mouth. It keeps me flexible."
Zhane blinked at him for a long moment before the words finally registered, and he started to laugh. "Honestly, Ty," he said, shaking his head as his chuckles subsided. "Why are you still talking to me?"
"Because your girlfriend thinks I'm cute," he replied promptly. "Or because I don't have anyone to read my mind if she puts her 'silent' spell on me; one or the other."
Zhane laughed again, but somehow it made him feel guilty. He didn't deserve to have Ty cheering him up, not when he had--consciously or not--chosen him as a substitute for his best friend. It hadn't seemed as shockingly thoughtless then as it did now.
"Really," he insisted, when Ty only smiled. "Why are you doing this, Ty?"
"Encouraging my lover to chase someone else?" Ty suggested with a wry look.
Zhane nodded, not sure what else to say.
"Because I'm not after your heart," Ty told him gently. "I've already lost mine, and he's not coming back. I don't want the same thing to happen to you--not when yours is still in reach."
"Thanks," Zhane said wistfully. The words only made him lonelier. "But I think it's too late."
"Why?" Ty insisted. "Why does it have to be too late when the guy you love is right upstairs? He's barely taken his eyes off of you since we left Keyota, and you think he doesn't care anymore? Why don't you just tell him and see what happens?"
"Because he's being a jerk!" Zhane burst out. "You saw how he was this morning! I can't tell him anything anymore!"
Ty was quiet for a moment. "Do you think he was like that because of me?" he asked at last. "He's not very happy that I'm here."
Zhane sighed, his irritation ebbing as quickly as it had come. "He's been like that for a while now. He says he thinks he's losing us, but whenever we try to be there for him he just pushes us farther away."
"Maybe he's afraid of depending on you," Ty offered.
"That would be just like him, too," Zhane muttered. "I don't know. Sometimes I think I don't even care."
"If you didn't, you wouldn't be here," Ty pointed out.
"But if I did, I'd want to be here," Zhane countered just as quickly. "I guess I'm somewhere in between caring and not."
"Zhane..." Ty hesitated, making it clear he was serious. "I'd hate to see you give up on him just because he doesn't know what he wants. I know you probably feel like you've given him plenty of chances, but... you're still together. That must count for something."
*Zhane?* To have Andros interrupt was unsettling, to say the least. Luckily, he didn't wait for Zhane to reply before offering an explanation for his intrusion. *I think we found it.*
No sooner were the words out than Astrea's voice echoed them. *Andros says we've found the key.*
Interesting. He must not have told Astrea that Zhane had stopped blocking him. Of course, if she'd shown any willingness to turn her magic on Zhane he'd be careful what he told her too. Luckily, and for some reason he still didn't understand, she seemed to have sided with him against Andros.
"Did they find something?" Ty asked, watching him carefully.
"Andros thinks so." He glanced around the room before adding wryly, "I hope he's right, since we certainly didn't get very far."
"Funny how many problems go away if you ignore them long enough," Ty commented. "Do you think if we just waited here they'd be back from the quest by dinner?"
Zhane chuckled. "If they weren't, you'd have fewer people to cook for."
"A win-win situation," Ty agreed with a straight face.
She heard Andros call Zhane, and raised an eyebrow when Kerone announced a moment later that she had done the same. Andros stared studiously down at the first level, not meeting either of their gazes. She narrowed her eyes at his back, wondering what was going on. Andros and Zhane obviously weren't the only ones fighting--he was angry with Kerone, too, and Ashley didn't think it wasn't just because she'd silenced him.
She wondered if she had left at the wrong time, or exactly the right one... No one was upset with her, so she supposed that was a plus, but she also had no idea what was going on. Andros was furious with his best friend and his sister for reasons she couldn't fathom, and they were both fed up enough to retaliate. At least they had all been on speaking terms a week before.
"Is it supposed to do that?" Kerone asked, breaking the silence with a curiously detached voice.
Ashley glanced over at the object Andros had identified as the key. She blinked, looking up to catch Kerone's eye before turning to Andros. The "key", which looked eerily similar to one of their old Turbo keys, had been hidden in with some old laser toys that Andros seemed to recognize. It had looked out of place, even to her, but it hadn't been glowing when they found it.
It was glowing now. It seemed to be brightening, too, but it was hard to say for sure. Andros gazed at it with an apprehensive expression, and that was enough to make her nervous. She tried to remember the story Zhane had told her, so long ago now, about his quest for the Silver Power. She didn't think he had mentioned anything about glowing keys.
"Thank you," Andros said quietly, and Ashley started.
Her gaze had slid back to the key while she was thinking, and she must have missed whatever exchange had taken place between Andros and his sister. Or maybe this time there had been no outward manifestation of Kerone's magic. Ashley still couldn't tell how much of the sparkling violet effect was actually necessary and how much was just for show.
"I'm sorry I had to do it," Kerone answered. "I know it was rude, and unfair, and I'm sorry I abused your trust like that. But I didn't know how else to keep you from saying something to Zhane that you couldn't take back."
"What I say to Zhane has nothing to do with you," Andros told her. "You don't get to choose our conversations for us."
"No," Kerone agreed. "You're right that I don't get to choose. But you're wrong when you say it has nothing to do with me. I love him, Andros, and if you paid any attention to him at all lately you'd see he's hurting."
"Man," Zhane's voice interrupted from the doorway. "You're lucky you had Andros with you. No one else would have recognized that bright glowing thing floating in the air."
Ashley glanced over at the key in surprise. He was right: it was now hovering over the box they'd rooted it out of. It was even turning slightly, idly, and it was definitely glowing brighter than it had been before. Andros looked nonplussed, though whether at the key's actions or Kerone's words it was impossible to say.
"At least we know we had the right search strategy," Ty commented, stepping into the room behind Zhane. "Stand around and do nothing, and it will come to you."
"We weren't standing around doing nothing," Andros informed him. It was the first time he had spoken to Ty directly, and the hostility in his tone was unmistakable.
"Well, it worked for us," Zhane said. The lightness of his voice sounded forced, and Ashley wondered if he had overheard their conversation as he came up the stairs. He didn't seem surprised to find Andros talking again. "Next time we'll switch off and see what happens."
"Is that--getting brighter?" Ashley nodded toward the key, knowing it wasn't the most insightful thing she could have said. It was clearly brightening, to the point where it was now casting shadows in the well-lit room. But someone had to divert their attention before things degenerated again.
"It's like a countdown," Zhane offered, following her gaze. "It'll keep getting brighter until we choose people for the quest or it chooses them for us."
"It can choose?" Ty sounded a little nervous, and Ashley didn't blame him.
"Sort of. If we don't touch it, all of us together, before it goes critical, it will snatch up everyone in range and put them all through the trials."
"What's its range?" Kerone wanted to know. "And how do we know when it's about to go critical?"
Zhane shrugged, looking remarkably unworried. "I think its range includes anyone conscious of it at the time it chooses, so right now? Basically us. Or you guys, at least, I don't know if it would take me or not. But I'm not going to find out. We have until it gets too bright to see before we have to grab it, but the sooner the better as far as I'm concerned."
"Wait." Kerone's voice stopped him when he would have reached for it, and Zhane gave her an expectant look. He was only looking at her, Ashley noticed, and she wondered what he was thinking.
"I'm not a Ranger," Kerone said evenly. "But I'd like to think I've learned something about them after watching you for so long. You've always been loyal to each other, even when it hurt you, or when it seemed like anything else--anything at all--would have been easier than standing by your teammates. You've never, ever given up on each other.
"Maybe that loyalty comes from being friends, not Rangers. But if that's true then I don't think you can be Rangers without being friends, because that loyalty is what makes you so hard to defeat. Astronema could have taken any one of you alone--except maybe Zhane," she added with a half-smile. "But together, you won. I lost. And I won't lose again.
"So whatever it takes to make the five of us into a team," she said, giving each of them a pointed glance, "that's what we're going to do. Whether we have to fight, or kiss, or beat each other senseless, we're in this together. Don't forget that."
"Will you be the one beating the rest of senseless, then?" Zhane inquired dryly.
She gave him another of those half-smiles. "If necessary. Why, do you want to help?"
Zhane smirked back at her. "Maybe."
The room's ordinary illumination was completely washed out by now, and everyone looked oddly sharp, as though the light from the key was burning away the softer edges and leaving only essential lines behind. Before she could comment, she heard Andros sigh. She crossed her fingers, hoping his pride hadn't been too offended by Kerone's speech.
"I'm sorry," he said at last, surprising her. It was very close to the last thing she had expected him to say. He was looking straight at Zhane, and she realized suddenly that he didn't care what the rest of them expected. He was speaking solely to his best friend now. "I'm sorry I upset you, Zhane."
There was a pause, and then Andros added more softly, "I didn't mean... if I hurt you, I didn't mean to."
Zhane just looked at him, an unreadable expression on his face. "I know," he said at last. It was his turn to sigh, and he made no effort to hide it. "I know you don't mean to."
A slight frown creased Andros' forehead, but before he could answer Zhane offered, "I'm sorry I called you a spoiled brat."
The corner of Andros' mouth quirked at that. "I probably deserved it," he admitted ruefully.
"Not the way I said it, you didn't." Zhane wasn't smiling. "I shouldn't--I shouldn't have said a lot of those things."
"Neither should I," Andros replied firmly, his voice gaining strength. "It was my fault, not yours." He looked over at Ty before Zhane could answer, and he continued as though he was afraid of losing his momentum. "I'm sorry I was so rude to you, Tixe. I swear I'll watch your back as carefully as anyone else's on this quest."
Ty glanced from Andros to Zhane and back again before nodding slowly. "I'll do my best to reciprocate," he answered at last.
"So will I," Kerone put in. She glanced around as she had before, making it clear she was addressing all of them. "You have my word."
"And mine," Ashley agreed quickly. "Friends stick together no matter what."
"Then let's go." Kerone reached for the key, hesitating just before her fingers would have touched it, and she looked at the rest of them expectantly.
Andros echoed her gesture, and Ashley followed suit. The three of them stood with their hands extended, encircling the key, while Zhane and Ty exchanged glances. Ashley saw Andros' eyes narrow, but before he could say anything they both stepped forward. The rest of them shifted, making room around the key, and Zhane reached out a fraction of a second before Ty.
The key expanded without warning and the world flared blinding white as five hands touched its surface simultaneously.