T + 38:58
"That will be the Aquitians' responsibility," someone said firmly. "In all practical ways, Earth is affiliated with Aquitar for the foreseeable future."
"The people of Earth can't expect Aquitar to be responsible for their security," TJ interjected. "That's our job, not the Aquitians'."
"Their physical defense is your responsibility," Jenkarta agreed. "Not their economic or political welfare. The Rangers are warriors, not administrators. Allow Aquitar to screen your world's contact with the rest of the universe until agencies on your planet are capable of handling such matters."
"It is no reflection on you," the unidentified person agreed. "The Astro Rangers are an unorthodox but well-respected team throughout the local galaxies. It is only Earth's ability to follow where you lead that leaves something to be desired."
"There are people on Earth who aren't convinced that other planets exist yet, let alone other people," TJ answered. "They've adapted before; they'll do it again. All I'm saying is that it isn't fair to make the Aquitians pick up the slack in the meantime."
"That is the duty of a sponsor," Jenkarta said simply.
The conversation continued, but Cassie wasn't paying that much attention. The Eltaran Rangers and government delegates had met after the induction ceremony to give them what Kayatachi called "a proper reception", but the person she most wanted to talk to had already disappeared. She couldn't help wondering if he was avoiding something... or someone.
"You look overwhelmed," someone said, and she turned to see Sayzie offering her a drink and a smile. "We probably should have found another reason to throw a party, but you were the best excuse we could come up with on such short notice."
Cassie smiled back as she accepted the tiny glass. "So Eltar's freedom doesn't count?"
Sayzie laughed. "It's too big," she explained. "It's like having evil just disappear. No one can quite get their mind around it, so we celebrate the little things instead.
"Plus," the Blue Eltaran Ranger added, pausing to down her drink. "Imagine the guest list. Eltar's not in any shape for a party as big as that yet."
Cassie followed her example, more in an effort to be polite than anything else. The Eltarans treated the liquid concoctions like hors d'oeuvres, but Cassie hadn't found one she liked yet. This one was no exception, and she just kept herself from wincing at the taste.
"You don't like it," Sayzie remarked, not sounding affronted in the slightest. "You should have told me; I'd have gotten you something else."
"No, it's not that," Cassie assured her. She smiled sheepishly at Sayzie's knowing look. "Well, no, I don't like them. I guess I'm just having a little trouble keeping up with all of this. You were right; it's a lot to take in."
"There's an observation deck upstairs," the other Ranger suggested. "A real one that's open to the sky, not just windows underneath the launch pad. If it would help to have some time to yourself..."
She let the sentence trail off, but Cassie couldn't help being grateful for the offer. "That sounds good," she said sincerely. "I think I'll take you up on that."
Sayzie indicated the nearest door. "There's a set of stairs at the end of the hallway to your right. If you follow them all the way to the top, the observation deck is just through the doors."
Cassie nodded in thanks, then glanced around to see if she could get TJ's attention. He was engaged in some kind of debate with one of the other Rangers, though, and she decided he wouldn't miss her. With another smile for Sayzie, she wandered over to the door and slipped into the hallway.
The stairs weren't closed off from the rest of the building, and the view from the height she was starting at was dramatic. As she wound her way up the stairs she couldn't help looking over the railing, searching for the bottom of the stairwell. It was lost in the distance, and she wondered suddenly if people ever fell. Just looking down was enough to make her dizzy.
There were doors at the top, as Sayzie had promised, but when she pushed against them they didn't budge. She took a step back, puzzled, and then caught sight of the handle off to the left. She didn't recognize the language underneath, but the handle only seemed to move one way. When she pushed it up something inside the doors clicked and they swung open at her touch.
The air was cool and fast, sweeping across her skin and stealing her breath as she stepped out onto the observation deck. She heard the doors click again as they closed behind her, but the rest of her attention was captured by the amazing vista spread out as far as she could see. The capitol building in which the induction ceremony had been held stood higher than most of its company, and the skyline wasn't anything to scoff at.
Does it count as urban sprawl if you go up instead of out? Cassie wondered. It was like some futuristic version of Los Angeles.
The railing at the edge of the deck made her nervous, but she found herself drawn to it nonetheless. It seemed an inadequate barrier, given the incredible height involved, but at the same time there was something boring about keeping a safe distance between her and that seemingly endless drop. She crossed over to it carefully, putting her hands on the railing and giving it a gentle but experimental push before leaning forward to look down.
What she saw made her laugh. She should have known it couldn't be as dangerous as all that. The observation deck was only one small level of a multi-layered building that grew outward as it reached toward the ground, ensuring that no one who made it over the railing on the observation deck would get more than a few meters before encountering a much more solid obstacle.
There was a shadow of movement out of the corner of her eye, but she barely had time to register it before a quiet voice inquired, "Do you find the view amusing?"
If the voice had been any closer she would have jumped, but as it was the wind muffled the sound and the words seemed to come from some distance away. She turned her head to find the black-clad pilot from Eltar leaning on the railing exactly as she did, too far away to touch but certainly close enough that she should have noticed him when she came out. She must have been too distracted by the building's "edge".
After a moment of trying to figure out how to explain her laughter, she decided to treat the question as rhetorical. "I didn't see you leave," she said instead. "I wondered if you were bored."
"I'm empathic," he corrected softly, as though it was nothing special. He still didn't look at her, and she wondered that they could even hear each other over the hum of the wind and the city noise. "I find it difficult to tolerate crowds."
Cassie pushed away from the railing and took a step back. "If you'd rather be alone--"
"No," he interrupted, looking her way at last. He smiled suddenly, his blue eyes intent as they caught hers. "I enjoy your company very much."
She smiled back. Wandering over to brace her arms on the railing beside him, where she could enjoy the view and not have to strain to hear, she remarked, "I got your message on Hercuron."
He gazed out at the skyscrapers and the darting air traffic, silent as though trying to remember what message she meant. Even to her it seemed a long time ago now, but someone had to bring it up. Saryn the pilot was as intriguing as the Phantom Ranger had been mysterious, and she wasn't going to let this opportunity slip away because she was too scared to act on it.
"The sentiment was unsolicited," he said at last, his eyes dropping to regard his hands. "And the promise I made proved impossible to keep."
"I thought it was sweet," she countered, watching him weave his fingers together. The bandage on his wrist was a little worse for wear after the struggle with Psycho Pink. "I worried about you, though. What happened after we left? Andros said he lost contact with you, but when we came looking you were gone."
For a moment he didn't answer. He tugged at the bandage idly, then lifted his gaze to the city again. "I lost consciousness," he admitted, apparently addressing the skyline. "I dreamed about you." This was delivered in a neutral tone, as though it was no more or less significant than the sentence before it.
"When I woke," he continued with a sigh, "Zordon was still gone, and I had to go after him." He glanced at her again, but his attention slipped away as quickly as it had the first time. "No matter how much I may have wished otherwise."
She didn't know how much to read into that, and she found herself studying the buildings before her without really seeing them. "I worried about you," she repeated softly.
"And I about you," he answered, shifting his weight from one side to the other. "Imagine my dismay when I didn't learn until after your escape that Astronema had captured you and delivered you to Dark Specter. I suffered no less anxiety for being able to keep track of you."
For a moment, Cassie drew a blank. She tried to suppress a smile when she realized he was talking about Yotoba. "It was a trick," she murmured. "Astronema was only pretending that we were her prisoners to help us get to Zordon."
He didn't move, but she could see him frowning out of the corner of her eye. "I confess I cannot comprehend her motivation."
"Andros." This time she did smile, remembering the Red Ranger's determination. "He convinced her to switch sides. Until Dark Specter put implants in her head, anyway. Andros and Zhane tried to get her back after that, but it was like she didn't even recognize them."
"You are saying she was good before Zordon's wave."
He seemed to be struggling with the idea, and she glanced sideways at him. "She's a good person. I just talked to Carlos, you know... he says she's agreed to leave the Dark Fortress in orbit around Earth until we can get League satellites in place. Maybe longer."
He shrugged, a strangely human gesture in the midst of this alien city. "It is not so self-sacrificing as it seems. Without an AI, the Dark Fortress cannot fly without a full crew complement anyway."
"It's still her home," Cassie argued, annoyed that he would dismiss Karone's gesture of peace as an act of necessity.
She could hear the amusement in his voice when he said, "It is precisely the fact that the Dark Fortress is her home that makes it difficult for me to trust her."
"It wasn't easy for us, either," she told him, torn between indignation on Karone's behalf and the effort to persuade him to see what they saw. "But she's proven herself since then."
He caught her eye, holding her gaze for the first time. "If you say it, then I believe it to be true," he said simply. All the humor was gone from his voice.
She stared at him, a gust of wind whipping her hair away from her face as she lost herself in his intent expression. "Intent" was the only way to describe it; he studied her so closely that she could almost see herself in his eyes. It was as though he echoed somehow, and she wondered suddenly if he felt that from her too. Could he feel the same thing that had brought her up short every time she'd encountered the Phantom Ranger?
"Why didn't you ever tell us who you were?" she asked abruptly. "All those times--"
"I didn't have to," he interrupted, almost speaking over her. Amusement touched his tone again, though he didn't look away. "As I recall, you knew me before I could introduce myself. 'The Phantom Ranger,' you said... barring the unlikely event that you had somehow guessed, I assumed that Dimitria had told you."
"That's not what I meant." She frowned. He knew what she was talking about... but was he being evasive or just teasing? She couldn't tell. "You never demorphed. You never even told us your name."
He was still watching her, and she was starting to find his unwavering gaze disconcerting. "I couldn't," he said at last. "The Phantom Ranger doesn't have a name."
"But you do," she insisted. "Saryn does, and we never knew it. Why didn't you tell us?"
"Why didn't I tell the Astro Rangers?" he repeated, an odd look on his face. "Or why didn't I tell you?"
She swallowed and found she couldn't answer.
"I didn't tell your teammates," he said quietly, "because the Phantom Ranger is not a person. The Phantom Ranger is a legend, without name or homeworld or history. The Ranger is the armor, nothing more.
"I didn't tell you," he added, "because you made it more. In you, suddenly the Phantom Ranger had a weakness. It went against all the codes I'd sworn to uphold, and I couldn't compromise everyone who'd given a legend life just because I fell in love with you."
"No," she said, managing to keep her voice steady. The whole situation seemed so surreal all of a sudden that she had to struggle not to laugh. "I guess you couldn't."
"I wanted to," he muttered, apparently not noticing her reaction. He looked distinctly unhappy. "I planned to give up the Phantom Ranger powers as soon as Zordon was free. At least as Saryn I could have had a conversation with you that wasn't constantly interrupted by Divatox, or Havoc, or some combination of their minions."
He sounded surprisingly bitter, and she reached out to offer comfort instinctively. "Hey," she murmured, touching his arm. "It might not be exactly the way you planned, but I'd say it's close enough." She smiled a little, the urge to laugh replaced by the desire to soothe. "I'd consider this a pretty good conversation."
His gaze wavered, glancing down at her hand and then back to her face. He didn't say anything, but the look on his face made her take a step closer. He touched her cheek gently, his eyes following the movement as his fingers slid through her hair. She smiled involuntarily, embarrassed by the attention.
His hand under her chin made her look up again, and before she knew it his lips were on hers and his kiss was the softest thing she'd ever felt. She held her breath, not daring to move or even think as the chill air of the observation deck swirled around them. His hand cupped her face, and when he pulled away she could still feel his warmth on her skin.
She lifted her eyes to his, smiling at the scrutiny he was subjecting her too. "Don't look so surprised," she murmured, reaching up to touch his face. "Havoc captured me the same way he got you, you know."
He froze, searching her expression. "He used my form."
She nodded wordlessly, and he sighed. His breath teased her cheek as he buried his fingers in her hair, brushing it away from her face as though he needed some excuse for the contact. "Villains all over the galaxies may have been reformed, but there are some things I will have difficulty forgiving them for regardless."
It seemed so long ago now that she had to smile at his anger. "We're here now," she pointed out, trailing the backs of her fingers across his skin. "What else matters?"
This time when he covered her mouth with his she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him closer. He had one hand on the back of her head, and she felt the other snake around her waist as she closed her eyes. His embrace warmed her all the way through. She smiled into their kiss but didn't let go, delighting in a moment she had dreamed about for so long.
"Cassie," he whispered, and her eyes fluttered open. His hand slid down to her neck, and he was regarding her as seriously as ever. "I meant to ask you about Zhane."
It was such a non sequitur that she could only stare at him, wondering what could possibly have prompted that remark. When he didn't continue, clearly expecting her to understand, she gave him a bewildered look. "What are you talking about?"
He hesitated. "You were... very friendly, on KO-35," he said, not taking his eyes off of her. With his arms around her and a leap she was having trouble making in her own mind, she barely made sense of what he was saying. "I have no wish to come between you if--"
She couldn't help giggling. She was still leaning against him, and when he didn't let her go she just laid her head on his shoulder and laughed. "Don't be silly," she managed at last, lifting her gaze to his and finding a confused and slightly hurt expression on his face. "Zhane's dating Astronema."
A look of consternation swept the hurt off of his face, and she drew his head toward hers without another thought. He didn't hesitate to return her kiss, as gentle as before but thoroughly enough that his relief was unmistakable. She was so lost in the sensation that the sound of a click from behind them didn't register until she heard someone clear their throat.
She drew back reluctantly, and he smiled at her before they turned to see TJ leaning back against the doors he'd just come through. "Don't let me interrupt," he drawled, a smirk on his face.
"Teej," she said, by way of greeting. Saryn had kept one arm around her and she leaned against his shoulder companionably, transferring her smile from one to the other. "Saryn is--"
"The Phantom Ranger," TJ finished, not looking particularly surprised. "Yeah, he told me. I'm glad you guys found each other."
"He guessed," Saryn corrected, when she gave him a questioning look. "Just before we left Earth."
"I just thought I'd let you know the reception's winding down," TJ added. "Since Carlos isn't going to pick us up till later, Jenkarta suggested we get something to eat."
Cassie made a face. She'd just as soon stay here until it was too dark to see, but she couldn't deny that the thought of food was appealing. "Something other than those little juice things?" she suggested hopefully.
TJ grinned, and she saw him glance at Saryn before answering. "Yeah. Jenkarta promised us real food this time."
She looked up at Saryn too, and found him watching her with a slight smile on his face. "I would be delighted to accompany you," he said, answering the question she hadn't asked. "I will not pretend that I am hungry, but if you consent to go then I wish to join you."
TJ raised an amused eyebrow at her, and she could feel herself blushing. "I'm in," she told TJ, trying to ignore his knowing look. "Let's find some food!"
Saryn didn't let go of her as they made their way back downstairs. TJ bounded ahead of them, taking the stairs two at a time until he was completely out of earshot. She didn't doubt that he had done it on purpose, and as she lifted her hand to her shoulder and twined her fingers through Saryn's she made a mental note to thank him later.
"What are we going to do now?" she mused aloud, concentrating on keeping her steps slow and even. It wasn't easy to walk down stairs with someone's arm over her shoulders, but she wasn't about to complain.
"Unless I am gravely mistaken, we are going to eat," Saryn answered. "That is, after all, what we've just agreed to. Did you have other ideas?"
His perfectly polite tone was too innocent to be anything but an effort to tease her, and she squeezed his fingers in acknowledgement. "That's not what I meant," she remarked mildly, a contented smile on her face. "And you know it."
"Ah, you mean after that." He took a moment to consider, as though he really hadn't thought about it until now. "Is it too much to hope that you will kiss me again?"
She laughed, giving him a gentle shove with her shoulder. "Only if you answer the question!"
She felt him shrug again, but there was a smile in his voice when he replied, "You tell me. I volunteered for duty on KO-35 solely because you were there. Then I was called to Earth, and somehow you ended up there too. Now here we are on Eltar... and I confess I can no more predict what you will do next than I could on KO-35."
"Are you trying?" Cassie asked, glancing at him curiously.
"To predict what you are going to do?" He returned her look a measured gaze of his own. "I'm trying very hard."
Her toe caught on the edge of the stairs, and Saryn steadied her as she tensed. Looking up at him again, she said impulsively, "Come to Earth. I don't know what's going to happen, with us or with anything at home, but... I'd like it if you could come to Earth."
Saryn smiled. "I will come to Earth," he agreed.
T + 201:06
4:51 AM KT
He couldn't go to Earth. Staring up at the ceiling, Andros wondered how many of the others already knew. It hadn't been clear to him until this morning, but now that the choice was only hours away it became glaringly obvious. He was probably the only one who hadn't known what he would decide.
The days they'd spent on KO-35 had blurred into a pleasant tangle of work and play: moving the colonists and introducing them to Ashley, letting Karone put her sorcery to use in the reconstruction effort, and watching Zhane charm his way out of whatever he didn't feel like doing. Having all four of them together eased the pressure, and the long days were made easier by Zhane's antics and Ashley's laughter. Even Karone was learning how to smile and talk with people other than her friends.
It was strange to be back in Keyota after so long, especially since their old hometown had been one of the first to be evacuated in the wake of Dark Specter's attacks. It was stranger still to be there with his sister, now grown up and more assertive than ever, and his girlfriend, who had never seen KO-35 without the shadow of abandonment hanging over it. Zhane too was an anomaly, though to a both greater and lesser extent than either of them: this had been his home up until the day it was destroyed, but he hadn't left it alive.
Despite the circumstances, though, from the post-war trauma to the disconnected state of their lives, it was still home. It was all Andros had wished for since he lost it years ago, and now not only the place but the people had been restored to him. There were moments when it felt so natural that he could forget it had ever been any other way.
Until the Megaship came back, bringing a reminder of other loyalties and duties he had yet to fulfill. The other Astro Rangers came with it, brimming with enthusiasm for Earth's new status in the League and full of stories that proved life hadn't stopped while they were on KO-35. No matter how easy it was to ignore the passage of time in Keyota, it clearly continued elsewhere.
Carlos now sported two communicators, his silver Astromorpher on his left wrist and a gold wristband presented to him by the Aquitian Rangers on his right. Apparently they had named him the Aquitian liaison for Earth, just as Cassie was considering the position of ambassador to Eltar. She seemed to have become involved with an Eltaran pilot, though Andros was a little unclear on how that had happened. TJ had taken over the leadership void left by the Red Ranger's absence, complaining repeatedly but good-naturedly about the sudden demand for public relations work in Angel Grove.
According to TJ, they had come as soon as their planet could be left on its own for more than a few hours at a time. Cassie rolled her eyes at TJ's attitude, but Andros noticed that she didn't contradict him. Carlos' opinion on the subject seemed, inexplicably, to hinge on Earth's ability to produce a decent cheeseburger. He insisted that if Aquitar, subsisting on a diet of what he termed "salty goo", could take care of itself, then Earth with its fast food establishments had nothing to worry about.
TJ had forbidden Carlos to oversee the repair work on the Megaship until he'd gotten some sleep.
Their arrival caused a new stir in a still unsettled community, but the other Rangers were eager to help out while the Megaship was grounded. TJ jokingly apologized for bringing the battleship back in such bad condition, and Taikwa pretended dismay while Kinwon chided him for apologizing at all, even in fun. The internal repairs were completed in days, and the Rangers traded work for work as they helped out all over Keyota.
Andros pushed the blankets away and rolled out of bed. He was careful not to wake the others as he dressed, and he winced when the great windows on the east side of the room squeaked when he pushed them open. He climbed out onto the roof anyway, grateful for the warmth of his flight jacket in the early Keyota spring, and settled just out of sight from those inside.
The Megaship was parked out by the edge of town, its bulk silhouetted against the glowing horizon. The sun wouldn't rise for some time yet, but the light was enough to cast shadows across the pitted battle armor. It would eventually have to be replaced, but TJ claimed they couldn't afford to be away from Earth that long right now. The Megaship was heading home today, and it was taking its crew with it.
How much of its crew would go, though... that was what no one had been able to say for sure.
"Brr," Zhane's voice complained, accompanied by a creak and the sound of uncertain footsteps on the slanted roof. "Couldn't you pick more hospitable places to brood? Like the warm and cozy living room downstairs? I think there's even a fire going down there."
"Other people like hospitable places," Andros answered absently. "It's hard to be alone there."
As usual, Zhane ignored the hint and sat down beside him. "Nice view," he remarked, following Andros' gaze. "Since when do you wake up before sunrise?"
"Look who's talking," Andros retorted.
Zhane shrugged. "I heard you get up," he said simply.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the horizon brighten incrementally. Andros didn't say anything when Zhane shivered, but he felt a pang of sympathy when the other drew his sweatshirt closer around his shoulders. Zhane was still wearing his pajamas, but he made no further complaints about the cold.
"What is home?" Andros asked abruptly, still staring at the Megaship.
Zhane didn't even hesitate. "Home is the people you love."
Andros frowned, his gaze wandering over the rough outlines of the battleship. He had wanted KO-35 back for a long time, but it had been Zhane's return that eased the sharp ache in his heart. And now, with Karone alive and his people free, he wondered how he could still ask for more.
"What if the people you love go in different directions?" he asked quietly, remembering Ashley's tears the night he left the Rangers to find Astronema.
Zhane didn't answer right away. Hugging his arms across his chest, he tucked his fingers underneath to keep them warm. "Then I guess you choose," he said at last.
Andros glanced over at his best friend, feeling inexplicably responsible for the unhappy expression on Zhane's face. "I'm going to get some breakfast," he said, finally taking pity on his friend. "Want to come inside?"
Zhane sprang to his feet, holding out his hand expectantly. "You have to ask?"
Andros smiled to himself as he let Zhane haul him to his feet. They crept back inside with more stealth than was strictly necessary, given that neither Ashley nor Karone was likely to stop them if they woke, and made their way down to the common area. Andros smiled again when he saw the fire, wondering how Zhane had known.
"This is much better," Zhane remarked, sounding satisfied. "Do you want your leftovers warm or cold?"
"Cold." Andros wandered over to the sink, trying to remember whose idea it had been not to wash the dishes last night. It wasn't a mistake he was going to rectify now, in any case.
While Zhane divided up the remains of last night's dinner, Andros poured drinks and set them on the floor near the fire. He didn't bother telling Zhane to leave some for the girls. He'd learned the hard way that Ashley wouldn't eat anything that had been left out overnight.
Zhane sat down next to him, passing him a plate and clean fork. The crackle and pop of the fire was the only noise as they dug in, cleaning up the leftovers in less time than it would have taken to walk them out to the compost. Still, it didn't escape Andros that they were erasing the last traces of last night's events, a gathering that had essentially been a farewell party--to KO-35 or to each other, no one was entirely sure.
"Zhane..." They had promised not to pressure each other, and everyone had taken that to mean there was no asking allowed. The choice to stay on KO-35 or go with the Astro Rangers was up to each of them alone. So why did he feel like his choice hinged on what everyone else decided?
"Zhane," he tried again. "What do you want to do with your life?"
To his surprise, Zhane laughed. "Well, I'm not planning to die until I'm a hundred and ten," he teased, "so I've thought about the next ninety years very carefully.
"First," he said, scraping his plate clean and setting it aside, "I'm going to get your sister to go out with me. And I'm going to make sure she isn't armed first." He ducked as Andros swung at him half-heartedly, grinning without apology.
"Then," he continued, "I'm going to watch you and Ashley get married. I figure it'll be a while, considering how long it took you to start dating. But that's all right, because that will give me time to figure out how you're going to elope so I can foil your plans.
"Also, in case you're interested," Zhane added as an aside, "I'm going to make sure that neither of our children ever listen to us. I think they'd better ignore any advice we--especially you--give them, so there's no chance they'll turn out like us."
"What's wrong with my advice?" Andros interrupted indignantly. Principle demanded that he protest, but he was more amused than offended. Zhane's picture of the future was so outrageous that he couldn't help but smile.
"I have three words for you," Zhane informed him. "'Bring it on.' You expect your kid to take you seriously when you tell monsters to attack you?"
"You expect to have kids with someone who shot you on your first date?" Andros countered.
Zhane took Andros' empty plate and stacked it on top of his own. "At least I didn't wait five months to ask her out!"
"She asked you out," Andros reminded him. "And then you stood her up."
"That wasn't my fault!" Zhane exclaimed. "If she hadn't sent that stupid monster--"
"I told you, I didn't send it," a new voice interrupted. "Ecliptor did."
They both turned, startled, but Zhane recovered faster. "Sure he did," he drawled. "You knew exactly where I was. You wouldn't have waited around if you'd really thought I stood you up."
Karone was standing at the bottom of the stairs, wearing an aloof expression that was somewhat spoiled by Ashley's entrance. The other girl was dressed but yawning as she wandered downstairs, the necklace Andros had given her glittering against her yellow shirt. She'd found time to pull her hair back, but her feet were still bare and it made her look charmingly innocent even in her silver-grey flight suit.
"Also not convincing," Zhane opined, proving that not everyone was as distracted by Ashley's appearance as Andros was. "You wouldn't have had any reason to think I'd show, so you'd have sent a monster to get revenge instead of trying to do it yourself. Unless you knew you'd already sent one."
Andros blinked, realizing he'd completely missed Karone's reply. This time she just narrowed her eyes at his best friend and remarked, "Maybe I had more faith in you than you knew."
Zhane stared at her for a moment, taken aback. But then he shook his head, grinning at her as though she'd said something particularly funny. "Nice try. If that was true, you would have believed me when I told you what happened."
She folded her arms. "Maybe I would have believed any excuse except the one you gave, because I knew it wasn't true."
"It was true!" Zhane exclaimed indignantly.
Karone stamped her foot. "It wasn't! I didn't send that monster!"
Andros caught Ashley's eye, and she nodded toward the door. He smiled, casually picking up their dishes from the floor before heading toward the sink. Ashley met him halfway, and as he set the plates in the sink she retrieved her boots from their place by the fire. He held the door for her, and she padded out onto the steps in her bare feet.
Behind them, Zhane had demanded to know what the difference was. Karone replied icily, "The difference is that, in your scenario, I lied and manipulated you. In the real version of events, I did neither."
He closed the door as quietly as he could, wondering whether they would be speaking to each other by the time the Megaship left. They hadn't stopped arguing with each other for more than a few hours at a time since they'd arrived on KO-35, when Zhane had taken it upon himself to critique Karone's choice of punishments for Psycho Yellow. Their successive disagreements had covered issues ranging from the responsibility of Rangers for war crimes to the best color for her hair.
"They can't have a conversation without fighting," Ashley remarked, echoing his own thoughts. She was perched on the top step, pulling on the same brightly colored socks she had worn the day before. "Do you suppose they enjoy it?"
"They must," Andros said with a sigh. "They argue about the most ridiculous things. You missed the time she accused him of cheating at war."
Ashley gave him a wide-eyed look, obviously torn between laughter and shock. "What? What did she say?"
"She said that if we'd played by the rules, she would have won." Andros sat down beside her, passing her one of the boots he'd moved in order to have more room. She smiled in thanks, and he added, "She had more soldiers, so she felt that entitled her to victory."
Laughter won. Ashley just shook her head, giggling as she reached for her other boot. "Someone should explain to her about quality versus quantity."
Andros made a sound of agreement, but his attention was diverted by her necklace. It swung freely as she leaned forward, and the day he'd given it to her came back to him with surprising clarity. He'd come so close to asking her out on her birthday... but he hadn't been able to do it, for fear of upsetting her on a day she considered so special.
Now he knew it had been fear for himself that had made him stay silent, fear that his long dormant heart wouldn't be able to take her rejection, rather than a real wish for her happiness. They both would have been better off if he'd told her how he felt then, instead of waiting until jealousy of his best friend started to affect his judgement and he led the team into a trap. As she had done, unwittingly, on her birthday...
He chuckled suddenly, and Ashley gave him a curious look. "I love you," he said before he could think about it. "Did you know that?"
She stilled, gazing at him in wonder. "Yeah," she said at last, a smile creeping onto her face. "Yeah, I did. You know what else I know?"
He couldn't suppress a grin. "You're going to tell me anyway, aren't you?"
She giggled, her eyes sparkling in the early morning sunlight. "I love you more," she whispered, putting her arm around him and laying her free hand against his cheek. "Ever since the beginning."
"Have not," he answered automatically, still grinning. "I asked you out first."
Her eyes widened. "Only because you interrupted me to do it! You were horrible to me for months!"
"I was nicer to you than anyone else," he protested. "And you thought I was a lizard! Don't expect me to believe this 'ever since the beginning' stuff, because--"
She silenced him with a kiss. He let her draw him into an embrace as natural as breathing and he returned her kiss without a thought for their prior argument. There was something about being in Ashley's arms that made the rest of the world fade away, as though the most important and meaningful thing that he would ever do was to hold her.
When she pulled away, it took him a moment to comprehend the sadness in her eyes. "You're not coming back to Earth with us, are you." She said it as though it was a given, as much as her decision not to stay, and he supposed maybe it had been.
He swallowed, wanting to look away but unable to force himself to do it. "Not this time," he said softly. He couldn't, not when they still needed him. Not when his future was here. "I'm sorry."
"This time?" she repeated, searching his gaze. "What do you mean, 'this time'?"
A crash from inside prompted him to stand, and he tried to smile as he held out his hand to her. "Will you walk with me?"
She reflected the same half-hearted smile back at him, putting her hand in his and not letting go as they wandered out across the commons. Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, and Andros watched people all around them drift eastward. Whether they were hurrying or wandering or standing still and waiting, they all glanced toward the edge of town as their eyes were drawn inevitably to the battleship that cast deep shadows among the nearby buildings.
It was early yet in Keyota, but the sun would set on California in only a few hours. TJ and the others were probably done loading by now, and they would be getting ready to say their goodbyes. Taikwa would probably try to convince them to stay longer, and they would no doubt thank her politely but decline. They all had their own reasons to be home right now.
"I never thought I'd have to say goodbye," Ashley murmured, breaking into his musing. She halted as they emerged from underneath a portico, the sunlight glinting off of her hair and as she turned to look at him. She stared at him as though about to say something else, then thought the better of it.
He wanted to explain, to tell her what Zhane had said... sometimes you have to choose. But he couldn't, not when she was looking at him like that. "I know," he agreed helplessly. All those times he'd thought he would be the one leaving her and her friends, not the other way around.
"Are you sure you won't come with us?" she asked at last, not taking her eyes off of him.
He looked down, trying to find something to say that would make sense. He took her hands, rubbing her fingers as he caught her eye once more. "KO-35 is my home," he reminded her quietly.
A look of indefinable sadness crossed her face, and he couldn't stand it anymore. Pulling her closer, he wrapped his arms around her and whispered in her ear, "Just this one time, Ash. They need me right now. But next time... when you come back, I'll go wherever you want."
She hugged him back, restoring his sense of belonging with that simple gesture. They stood that way for a long time, paying no attention to the people around them. He held her, and she held him, and for an undefined amount of time they just existed. For just a moment, he caught a glimpse of Zhane's "future" and felt the tiniest echo of his friend's certainty. Maybe some things were meant to be.
Then Ashley let him go, and the feeling was gone. Neither of them spoke, but they turned as one toward the edge of town and headed reluctantly for the ship that would take her away. She didn't let go of his hand until they reached the crowd gathered around the Megaship's space hatch, and even then she let him draw her forward to stand with the Rangers before she stepped away.
Zhane and Karone were already there, and he could feel everyone's eyes on him as he slowly shook his head. I'm not going. He saw his best friend and his sister exchange glances out of the corner of her eye, and TJ put a hand on Ashley's shoulder. She didn't look at him but she did take a step back, toward the Megaship, and that was all the answer he needed. They were really splitting up.
Then Carlos was hugging him, and telling him to take care, and he saw Cassie embracing Kinwon and Taikwa at the same time. TJ told him, oddly, to write, and the Blue Ranger laughed as though it was some private joke. It was Ashley that he couldn't take his eyes off of, though, and as the others turned away one by one she was the last to lower her gaze. She didn't wave as she followed her friends onto the Megaship, hesitating only a moment before she reached out to close the hatch behind them.
Andros watched her until the hatch obscured his view and someone stirred at his side. Only when he felt Karone's hand on his shoulder did he realize who it was, and he heard her murmur, "I feel like I've done this before. Only then I was good-turned-evil, and now it's the other way around. I wonder what that means for next time."
She didn't seem to be talking to him, but a moment later he heard Zhane answer, "There is no next time. Nothing ever happens exactly the same way twice."
There is no next time. Andros' eyes widened, and he shook his head in denial. You're not coming back to Earth with us, are you.
"I can't," he said abruptly.
He felt Zhane's gaze on him, and he turned to face the Silver Ranger squarely. "You knew, didn't you. All this time, you've known and you never said." He felt like laughing, but he managed to stifle the urge. "I have to go, Zhane."
There was an odd look on Zhane's face, but he just smiled at Andros' determination. "You won't go alone."
The words were cryptic, but Andros didn't have time to ponder them. He reached for his morpher, teleporting without another word of farewell, and the familiar halls of the Megaship wavered into being around him. He heard muted voices from the Bridge, but no one so much as looked up when he followed them to their source. Studying his teammates from behind, Andros couldn't help smiling.
Into the sudden silence, he announced, "DECA, set a course for Earth."
He saw Ashley stiffen, and Cassie turned away from comforting her friend with a startled look on her face. He was too busy waiting to catch Ashley's eye to see Carlos and TJ's reaction, but later he would wonder if TJ didn't look quite as surprised as he ought. Then the Yellow Ranger leapt out of her chair and launched herself at him, her shout twining with his laugh as she threw her arms around his neck.
Hugging her close, Andros whispered, "My home is with you." She squeezed him tighter and he buried his face in her hair, hoping he would never have to let go. Right now, it didn't matter who needed him--he needed Ashley, and she made any place home. Sometimes you had to choose.
T + 205:31
10:16 PM PST
It was good to be home, Ashley thought, surveying the park through the twilight shadows of a late summer evening. The warm breeze carried the sounds of chatter and laughter, the smell of barbecues and hibachis, and an intangible sense of recovery despite recent loss. It was nice to see the city turn out to celebrate for a change, and if Angel Grove had to use the Power Rangers as an excuse for its party then she wasn't going to complain.
"What's your name?" Andros was asking, kneeling next to a little boy who couldn't have been more than five or six. She smiled as he took the boy's marker, waiting patiently for the answer.
The boy squirmed a little. "Marcus," he mumbled at last, glancing up at Andros with adoring eyes.
"Well, Marcus," Andros said, scrawling his name across the toy morpher the boy had given him, "It's nice to meet you. Maybe I'll see you in space someday," he added, handing the toy and the marker back.
The boy's face lit up, and he barely remembered to say "Thanks!" before darting away.
Ashley watched him go, trying not to giggle. Andros told every kid who asked for his autograph that he'd see them in space, and so far it had made every one of them glow. "Did you tell him that was a digimorpher he gave you?" she asked, when the boy was out of earshot.
Andros shrugged as he rose. "It'll make Zhane happy to know his morpher is as popular as all of ours put together," he said with a grin. "The kids don't care who signs what."
Linking her arm through his, Ashley smiled contentedly. Yes, it was good to be back on Earth... but it was better to be here with Andros. She'd thought back to the moment of departure from KO-35 many times since, and she had to wonder what would have happened if Andros hadn't changed his mind at the last minute. Would she really have left? Would she have been able to watch his planet recede into the distance with nothing but the promise of "next time" to comfort her?
"What are you thinking about?" Andros asked quietly, sensing her distraction.
She glanced over at him, her smile renewed. "I'm just so glad you're here," she admitted, searching his expression. "I'm not sure I would have been able to leave if you hadn't changed your mind."
He chuckled. "Now you tell me," he teased. At her sober look, he squeezed her arm gently. "Just kidding," he added. "I'm glad we came. I wouldn't have wanted to miss this."
"Yeah," she agreed wryly, still looking for reassurance. "Huge crowds of people are really your thing."
"You're my thing," Andros said simply. "I'd rather be with you than anywhere else. Including KO-35. Although--" He looked torn between annoyance and amusement. "It definitely would have been nice to know Zhane and Karone felt the same way."
She couldn't help giggling. Zhane and Karone had appeared on the Megaship moments after Andros, with an offhanded remark about needing a ride to retrieve the Mega Winger and wearing innocent expressions that fooled no one. They finally confessed to having agreed between the two of them, days before, to follow Andros no matter what he decided. Andros had just rolled his eyes, but he didn't bother to hide his happiness.
"Next time," Ashley suggested with a smile, "let's not ban the 'talking to each other' part. It doesn't seem to work very well."
"There is no next time." Andros returned her smile absently, then explained, "That's what made me change my mind. You can't plan the future. And Zhane knew it."
She gave him an odd look, and he cleared his throat uncomfortably. "He told me my home was with the people I loved," he offered. "He knew I couldn't choose, so he made it so I wouldn't have to. And then he didn't tell me."
"What else are best friends good for, other than confusing us?" Ashley asked rhetorically. As far as she was concerned, he'd changed his mind for the same reason she would have if he hadn't beaten her to it: what they felt for each other was more important than what anyone else expected of them. Sometimes you had to choose for your own sake instead of someone else's.
He gave her a sheepish grin. "That was a pretty bad explanation, huh?"
She rested her head on his shoulder briefly before smiling up at him. "Do I look like I need an explanation?"
For answer, he lifted his free hand and put it over hers. Before he could say anything, though, someone called her name, and they traded amused looks. "We're never going to actually get to the ice cream truck, you know," he whispered in her ear.
She pulled a few dollars out of her pocket and passed it to him, standing on her tiptoes to give him a quick kiss. "Get me a candy apple?" she murmured.
She saw him struggling not to smile at her request. "Only because you asked so nicely," he teased, giving her a wink that was more reminiscent of his sister than of the solemn Red Astro Ranger. "I'll be right back."
Ashley grinned and waved after him, surprised he'd caught her implication but not about to complain. She turned when she heard her name called again, and a girl who didn't look much younger than she was ducked her head and waved tentatively. "Hi," she called shyly, hurrying over. "Ashley Hammond?"
"That's me," Ashley answered cheerfully, then almost laughed when she realized what she'd said. That was Andros' traditional response whenever he couldn't think why someone would be asking. "Hi," she added, smiling in welcome.
"Hi," the girl repeated, blushing. "I'm Nature. I used to be in your homeroom class, remember? Back in September... I sat behind you for a few weeks."
The memory clicked, and Ashley's eyes widened. "I do remember! You left right after school started, though, and no one knew where you'd gone." Nature wasn't younger than she was after all; she had been a year ahead of Ashley in school.
Nature shrugged self-consciously. "I dropped out," she admitted. "I got mixed up with some bad people, but I'm going back this year. I'll graduate a year late, but it's better than not at all."
"Congratulations," Ashley said sincerely, keeping her tone warm. She'd probably had all the questions a thousand times before, so Ashley didn't ask. "That's really great, Nature. Hey, maybe we'll be in the same homeroom again!"
Nature smiled, a real unabashed smile this time. "I'd like that," she agreed. "I just wanted to tell you... It always mattered to me that you smiled when you saw me. Whenever I came into homeroom late, which was pretty much always, or when we saw each other in the hallway--you smiled, and that meant a lot to me."
Ashley gazed at her, dismayed that such a little thing had been important to the other girl. "I don't know what to say," she confessed, trying not to swallow. "That's just--"
"I know," Nature interrupted. "You smiled at everyone; it's just what you do. But it made me feel like I was worth something, you know? And I was wondering," she continued hurriedly, as though she didn't want Ashley to contradict her. "Now that you're famous and all, I was wondering if you'd sign my shirt."
Ashley laughed delightedly. "Of course I will! And Nature," she added, staring the other girl in the eye. "You are worth something. You're worth a lot. I'm so proud of you for going back to school."
Nature blushed again, and Ashley grinned, motioning for her to turn around. "Can I draw something, too?" she asked, and Nature nodded without a word.
Ashley caught sight of Andros standing over near the basketball court as she uncapped her Sharpie. He glanced in her direction at the same moment, and she shook her head slightly. He nodded, understanding, and said something to Carlos. The Black Ranger gestured, apparently trying to get Andros to go one-on-one with him, and Ashley smiled to herself as she turned back to Nature's t-shirt.
"There's one thing you have to promise me," she said idly, as she brushed Nature's long hair forward. Tracing the other girl's name carefully, she continued, "If I sign your shirt, you have to sign mine."
She heard Nature's startled laugh. "If you want me to," the other girl agreed, sounding both amused and surprised.
"I do." Ashley drew the Astro Rangers' logo underneath Nature's name, but instead of filling in the blocks with colors she wrote Reach for the stars in the first four, and then drew a little picture of the space shuttle in the last one. "Anyone who can take control of their life the way you have is as much a hero as any of us."
She signed her name and added With love, above it, then filled in the words Yellow Astro Ranger underneath. "There," she said, satisfied. It wasn't easy to write on cloth, especially when someone was wearing it. "Now you do mine."
"What did you write?" Nature asked curiously, taking the marker from her as she turned around.
Ashley grinned. "Your destiny," she said, gathering her own hair up and out of Nature's way. She tried not to squirm at the feel of a marker on her shoulder blades, and she smiled at the painstaking care Nature took in spelling out her message.
"What did you write?" she asked, when Nature finished.
"Your identity," Nature said with a smile, handing her marker back. "See you in school, Ashley."
"See you," Ashley answered automatically, waiting until the other girl turned away to head over to the basketball court. "Thanks for smiling..." How did you answer someone who thanked you for being who you were?
"Hey," Andros greeted her, straightening up as he wandered over to meet her. Holding out a candy apple on a stick, he added, "I got you a present."
She laughed, but when she reached for it he pulled it back. "Pay up," he demanded, and she blinked at him in surprise. No one had let them pay for anything all evening.
Then she saw the look in his eyes, and comprehension dawned. She sidled closer, trying not to giggle as she slid one hand around behind his neck and pulled his head toward hers. As they shared a single tender kiss, she suddenly knew the answer to her own question. There was only one way to thank someone for who they were, and that was by showing them, as best you could.
"Andros," she murmured as they separated. She lifted her gaze to catch his and smiled. "Thanks for loving me."
He smiled back. "How could I not?" He kissed her again before he handed over her candy apple, and he added softly, "Thanks, yourself."
"Hey, guys," Carlos interrupted, his words punctuated by the bounce of a basketball on the pavement. He wasn't looking at them; TJ had joined him a few minutes ago and the two of them were struggling for the one-on-one champion title. "Anytime you want to make this a real game, TJ could use some help."
"Yeah, cause I'm only up by five," TJ drawled. "No question, I'm the one that needs help."
"Hello," Ashley reminded them. "Eating!" She bit into her apple to illustrate the point.
"Andros and I could take you both," Zhane's voice broke in, and Carlos laughed. The distraction was enough for TJ to steal the ball and dribble it out to the half-court line, but Carlos waved a time-out before the Blue Ranger could come back.
Carlos was giving Zhane a classic "yeah, right" smirk, and TJ caught his intent without the two of them having to exchange words. "We'll be happy to prove you wrong," TJ offered with a grin, tossing the basketball up and spinning it on his index finger. "First person to fifteen wins?"
"We'll beat you in ten," Andros countered, getting into the spirit of things.
Zhane ambled over to his best friend and whispered loudly, "Hey, how do you play this game again?" TJ and Carlos exchanged glances, and Andros just rolled his eyes.
Ashley raised her hand. "Um, guys?"
"Boo," she heard Cassie whisper behind her, and she clapped her hand over her mouth. She heard her friend laugh quietly, but the guys paid no attention to them as they took sides on the court.
"Do they know you taught Zhane to play basketball in exchange for helping you with telekinesis?" Cassie murmured, as they turned away from the cracked pavement and moved off to a safer vantage point. "Because he's almost as good as TJ."
"Nope." Ashley took another bite out of her apple before offering it to Cassie. "Andros isn't as bad as he used to be, either. They might be in for a surprise."
Cassie accepted the treat on a stick as they sat down underneath one of the park's giant live oak trees. "This is good," she said a moment later. "Did you get this from the ice cream truck?"
Ashley nodded. "Tastes like one of Skull's, doesn't it?"
Cassie paused and gave the candy apple a second look. "Now that you mention it... I thought it tasted a little different. Are he and Bulk revolutionizing the ice cream truck market now?"
"I don't know," Ashey admitted. "Andros got it for me, and I haven't seen either of them since the Vanishing Villain Act two days ago."
Cassie grinned, taking another bite before passing the apple back to Ashley. "Andros is going to have to patent that phrase."
"It has a nice ring to it," Ashley agreed, smiling. "Who knows; maybe they'll get together with David and Suzy from Adelle's and reopen the Beach Club. The idea's been floating around long enough."
"They need something to do," Cassie commented. "Did TJ tell you that NASADA wants to hire Professor Phenomenus as a consultant?"
Ashley turned wide eyes on her best friend. "You're kidding!"
Cassie shook her head. "He seems crazy, but apparently he's brilliant. Astronema stole a couple of his ideas, and I guess that's enough to convince NASADA that he could at least use supervision."
Ashley crunched through another layer of candy, considering that. She didn't know that much about the professor, but he seemed nice enough. He was always friendly to everyone, and Bulk and Skull certainly seemed to like him. The duo had helped the Rangers an awful lot lately, whether they had meant to or not, and anyone they liked was someone Ashley was willing to take seriously.
"So life goes on," she murmured thoughtfully. "I guess I didn't expect things to stay the same forever. Still..." She trailed off, and Cassie gave her a knowing look.
"Still," the Pink Ranger agreed. "I had just gotten used to the way things were. Now it's all changing again."
"Foul!" TJ yelled. "No telekinesis on the basketball court!"
"Hey!" Zhane sounded indignant. "Are you saying you don't think I'm that good?"
"No one's that good!" Carlos shot back. "That was an impossible rebound, and you know it! Andros, your teammate cheats."
"On KO-35, a person uses all his skills to play a game," Andros answered calmly. "But if you can't keep up with us unless we have a handicap, I'm sure we could try to play at your level."
Ashley giggled at TJ's outraged retort, while Carlos began to explain the rules of basketball for the third time. "Maybe not all of it," she said, sharing a smile with Cassie.
Between them, they finished the candy apple in contented silence. They watched the basketball game continue--without telekinesis--until a familiar bark made Cassie glance away from the court. "Sounds like Jetson got tired of playing with Saryn," she said, picking up the apple stick as she climbed to her feet. "I'll throw this away. See you after the fireworks?"
Ashley nodded, glancing up at the sky in a futile effort to estimate when the light show would start. "See you then," she agreed, catching her friend's eye again. "Say 'hi' to Jetson for me."
"Sure. I'll tell Saryn you like my dog better than him," Cassie replied with a straight face.
Ashley laughed at that, but in all honesty it hadn't occurred to her to consider Saryn one of the group. No matter how long he had fought with them, they had never known who he was. Still, it was obviously important to Cassie, so she added, "Him too. Tell him thanks for letting me borrow you this evening, since I know I wouldn't have seen you otherwise."
Cassie made a face at her, but she waved cheerfully as she turned away. The Pink Ranger didn't take anything personally lately. She was high on cloud nine, and if she stayed there much longer she was going to have to get a permanent forwarding address. Nothing seemed to touch her since she'd come back from Eltar with the Phantom Ranger on her arm.
"Is this a private staring contest, or do you need an opponent?" Andros wanted to know, dropping to the ground beside her. "I'm pretty good, but I'll let you win if you want."
He startled a laugh out of her, and she reached out to take his hand. "I concede," she countered. "I'm not going up against the famous Andros stare."
He was ready with an answer, but it wasn't the one she expected. "In that case, how about finding a better place to watch the fireworks?"
She glanced over at the basketball court, where Karone had magically appeared while she was distracted. Andros' sister was already arguing with Zhane, while Carlos and TJ gathered up their sweatshirts. "Who won?" she asked, letting Andros pull her to her feet.
He shrugged. "Depends who you ask," he told her, keeping her hand in his as they wandered away. "Zhane thinks he's never lost a game in his life. But if you don't count telekinesis assists, TJ and Carlos broke the nine-point tie first."
Ashley was impressed in spite of herself. "Not bad for a couple of aliens," she murmured, squeezing his hand.
"Hey," he said, nudging her shoulder. "KO-35 isn't the only place aliens live."
She giggled, leaning against him as they approached the fringes of the blanket and lawn chair crowd. As they found a place for themselves in the grass, Andros asked suddenly, "Who wrote on your shirt?"
She'd forgotten about Nature's message. "Someone from school," she said, craning her neck as though she could read the words over her shoulder. "What does it say?"
"'Smiles change lives,'" Andros answered. He sounded puzzled. "Does that mean something?"
Ashley smiled to herself. "I guess it does to people who need them."
"Lie down," Andros murmured, putting his arm around her when she leaned against his shoulder again. She stretched out obediently, resting her head in his lap, and he reached down to stroke her hair. "Your smile changed my life, you know."
Her smile widened, and she sighed happily. Lifting her hand to twine her fingers through his, she told him, "I'd say, 'yours too,' but you didn't smile much at first."
A whistling sound was the only warning she had before the sky above them burst into light, showering color and sound across the darkening sky. A second bloomed before the first had faded, but Andros didn't look up. "You know something else?" he asked, just loud enough to be heard between the pops and booms of the fireworks.
She squeezed his fingers, and he reached out to straighten the necklace lying against her shirt. Smiling up at him, she countered, "You're going to tell me whether I do or not, right?"
All around them, glowing bracelets and sparklers were flashing as people shifted or chased after wandering children. The fireworks lit up faces like colored strobe daylight or a multicolored lightning storm, and noises were buried each time a new round of thunder rolled through the park. In between, there were "ooh"s and "ahh"s and Andros' smile, undimmed by the coruscating show above.
"I love you," he said simply. The words reached her ears with perfect clarity despite the rumbling from above and the rustle of movement that surrounded them.
She brought their joined hands to her mouth and kissed his fingers. "I love you more," she answered, gazing up at him. He was silhouetted as a wave of gold illuminated the sky above him, and she caught her breath when the light began to fade. The expression on his face was one of unadulterated adoration.
The effervescent rain burned trails toward the horizon, making his eyes sparkle with the echoes of faroff fireworks, and for one timeless moment they were all that existed in the world. They were together, they were in love, and that was all that mattered. He lowered his head to hers slowly, their lips meeting in a kiss as the heavens exploded above them.
T ~ countdown aborted.
August 21, 1998