"--was scheduled to touch down just minutes ago, but there is still no sign of it. We've received word that an atmospheric trail was sighted over Texas earlier this morning, and it was accompanied by what appeared to be a series of explosions."
A sinking sensation settled into the pit of his stomach. The space program had been Taylor's dream for years, until he got Jen to pull some strings on her behalf. She had seen the stars up close at Time Force's expense, not once, but several times. After that, nothing NASA could offer came close--but the dreams of a young Air Force test pilot were only set aside, not forgotten.
"The space shuttle Columbia was returning from a sixteen-day mission that had been described as 'flawless'. Now it seems as though something may have gone terribly wrong. There has been no official confirmation from NASA, but the empty runway here at the Kennedy Space Center is an ominous sign."
A lovely barred spiral blundered straight into an elliptical, their centers fighting it out while their stars tugged each other this way and that. Both shapes twisted and churned, a single collision setting off a nuclear chain reaction that brightened like a winking supernova in the midst of the madness. "Who are you?" she repeated.
This time he was the one to sigh. "I'm a kid with a dream, only I don't know exactly what it is. So I drift from one thing to another, throwing everything I have into whatever I do it until I realize it's not what I wanted either and move on."
They were starting to disentangle themselves now, shapes distorted and courses radically altered by the interaction. New stars were already forming in the gravitational ripples of their wake. "What did that teach you?"
"That... the learning was in the looking," he said slowly, reluctantly. "Not the waiting."
Zhane smirked, and the expression drew Andros closer. The Silver Ranger met him halfway, and this time the kiss lingered between them. The music had changed while Andros wasn't paying attention, and the people around them were more respectful than they had any right to be because not a single one bumped into them.
The details flitted through Andros' mind as his awareness escalated, capturing the smoothness of Zhane's shirt and the strength of the grip on his shoulders. A "star" lantern drifted by overhead, momentarily illuminating them and burning the colors into Andros' mind. The kiss was gentle and undemanding, but it still did strange things to his perception of time. Not to mention the feeling in his stomach...
The smugness was gone from Zhane's expression when he pulled away, and in its absence his smile was lazy. *DECA never liked the idea of us coming here alone.*
*She didn't understand how it could be more private than the Megaship,* Andros agreed, glancing around in an effort to collect himself. They hadn't moved or, for all anyone else knew, spoken for several minutes. Yet here despite their Ranger insignia they were just another couple, and who would intrude on that?
He couldn't really hear Zhane chuckle over the sound of the music, but he felt the motion nonetheless. *Oh yes she did,* the Silver Ranger informed him. *She knew exactly what we liked about KaliKay's.*
He glanced back at her, holding her gaze for a long moment. "I've seen more of the world in the last two years than I'd seen in my entire life," he said at last. "More of the world than I even knew existed. And it's all... different.
"Animaria is gone," he added, expression twisting with some remembered pain. "But I come back here, and it's all... she's the same. Nothing's changed, for her. I don't think she even realizes what the world is like now."
Alyssa frowned a little. Tigger, apparently bored with being ignored, was winding his way back toward her. Ness was trying to turn the remnants of her chew over in her mouth without dropping them, alternately grimacing and yawning. And then there was Merrick, welcome but aloof, a part of them but not, as he had always been.
"It takes more than the world to change a person," she said gently, studying him. "We feel... different, in different situations. But then when we come back to something that's familiar, sometimes we realize that all those changes were just... superficial."
Aura popped out of the water a short distance a way, face tilted back so that her hair slid away across her shoulders as she emerged. "Conspiracy," she declared, voice bouncing off the waves toward him. "You would never escape on your own!"
"That's why she helps me!" Carlos shouted back. "She feels sorry for me, being pitted against your superior strength and maneuverability!"
"She should feel sorry for me, having to deal with your devious and underhanded tactics!" Aura retorted. Her hands glowed as she lifted them out of the water and braced them on the surface. With practiced ease, she boosted herself up and let the glow of rehydration completely envelop her as she settled on the surface.
It wasn't part of their game to admit it, but the way she pretended he didn't *need* the advantage--that he was somehow cheating by letting Tori help him--made him feel more comfortable on Aquitar than anything else could have. He was lucky, too, not to be the first. Billy had all sorts of random but useful advice, and Aquitar's own open door policy ensured that many species before theirs had found ways to adapt to a hydrocentric biosphere.
"You're not a fan of tofu?" Sandy asked in all innocence.
"Let's just say that if you were anyone else, I'd be offended that you put me and 'tofu' in the same sentence." Karen lingered by the end of the counter, waiting for Sandy and Max to finish filling their plates before heading into the living room. Tessa was already munching absently on a piece of broccoli.
"The Border," TJ reminded them. He handed Sandy a glass of icewater before gathering up his own food and drink. "Why shouldn't we be going out there?"
"Dark Spectre is organizing new quantron armies," Sandy answered. She was serving herself rice--with chopsticks--as easily as Max had, and without any of the concern she ought to have shown for such an announcement.
"Don't you love being a Ranger?" Karen asked, apparently directing the question at Tessa. "'Hey there. The Monarch of Evil is trying to kill you. Pass the tofu.'"
"Ash--" Zhane stopped her before she could stand, then found he still didn't know what to say. "When you think about the future now, what do you wish for?"
She hesitated, letting her jacket rest in her lap. "I don't know."
"I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours," he coaxed, gratified to see her lips twitch at his childish plea.
Still, she shook her head. "I can't," she said softly. "I wish... I wish I didn't wish it."
Heart racing, he took a breath to tell her what he hadn't admitted even to himself. Getting it out in the open would either bring them closer or destroy their friendship, and he was gambling everything on the chance that she felt the same way. "I wish I hadn't died," he said bluntly. "I wish Andros had been mine since we evacuated KO-35. I wish we had never met you."
She lifted her head, and he could see the tears glistening in her eyes. He could barely hear her whisper, "I wish you'd never woken up." A single tear slid down her cheek, followed closely by a second.
Saryn leaned on the railing, watching rainbows flash and fade beneath her hands. The symbols that she left behind had little meaning to him, and they evanesced as soon as she turned her attention to something else. She went over and over the same places, new colors replacing the old and forming a fading mosaic that was as beautiful as it was transitory.
As fleeting as memory, sometimes. He knew there had been a time when he watched someone else paint, someone with the same blonde curls and pensive expression. When he watched Kerone, he could almost see that person in his mind.
Almost. He had found, though, that he could no longer conjure up Jenna's face when he closed his eyes. He could no longer recall every detail of her presence. He couldn't remember exactly what her voice had sounded like, or her laughter. If asked to describe how she had made him feel, he would not be able to be more specific than "loved".
It was a bittersweet loss, and one which he had refused to acknowledge for some time. He knew Cassie saw it in his face sometimes, when someone asked him about them--and they did... they did ask, now. He supposed that too was a change. His time of mourning was over, even by Elisian standards, and there was history of which he had been a part.
It was growing easier to admit there were things he could not recall. When someone asked him a question he couldn't answer, he no longer felt disloyal. There were things to learn from the past, certainly, things to remember... and there were things to forget. Such was the nature of time.
"How?" Andros demanded.
"I don't know." She didn't look at all happy about it, but she was peering past Ashley and rearming her blaster at the same time. "The Bridge controls were all locked down, and that's the last I knew. I think he was heading for the Engine Room."
"Kerone's gone after him," Andros told her, as Ty skidded to a halt in front of them. Ashley shoved the Black Ranger out of the way and retaliated as an ambitious quantron tried to follow in Ty's tracks. "Ty, what's wrong with the doors?"
"They've been sabotaged," the other Ranger panted. "Along with the comms, the zord network, and the Megaship's mainframe."
"That's crazy," Ashley exclaimed over her shoulder. "No one outside of the team could have done all that!"
"At least not overnight," Andros said grimly.
"Who said it was someone outside of the team?" Ty demanded. A sharp pain slammed into Andros' wrist as Ty kicked his saber loose and he felt the horrible drain of Power as the other Ranger wrenched his digimorpher away from him.
He was going down. Just as Hunter had, in flame and debris, trailing a plume of black smoke behind him as he plummeted out of the sky. And there was no one to bail him out. No one to say, that's it, come back, it's too dangerous. Let someone else try.
There was no one else, and they needed this mission to be a success too desperately to abort it now. He would have to go on, climb out of the crash site and continue on foot, no matter the personal cost or the probability of failure. He realized that he was perfectly prepared to do that, and it occurred to him with no small amount of dismay that this was just what Rangers did. They went on. Whatever the obstacle, whatever the price, they did what they had to do.
They did what he had stopped Hunter from doing that morning. They finished what they started, and they made sure the enemy knew it. The strength of a Ranger was the team... but it was also their willingness to sacrifice for the team. Their willingness to let the greater good be more important than personal safety. That was what made them stronger than the self-centered forces of evil.
Cassie smiled sadly. "What if our best isn't good enough?"
The other woman patted her hand again before letting go. "Then we try again. Don't tell me you believe in giving up, Cassie; that went out of fashion a long time ago."
"Someone should have told the government," she responded without thinking.
"The government is just people, too," Raine pointed out. "People with families, people who have been hurt--or are afraid they will be. Maybe they have newborn babies too, or children in the fighter wings. No one believes we shouldn't help other planets at all. It's just that some people believe we shouldn't help them at the expense of our own."
"Do you believe that?" Cassie found herself asking.
Raine hesitated. "Intellectually?" she asked. "No. I know we're stronger together than alone."
She looked away then, and her voice was quiet as she added, "But in my heart? I don't want my baby to grow up without her parents, Cassie."
"You think he's still out there?" Ty asked at last. His voice was no less rough, but there was a plaintive note that said he was willing to put himself on the line just for that feeble reassurance.
"Yeah," Zhane said without hesitation. "I know he is."
Ty made a noise that could have been disbelief or cynical amusement. Zhane didn't know any more than he did, and Ty was perfectly aware of that. But there was no sense believing the worst when they would probably never know. If you had to make up an ending, why make up a sad one?
"It took me a long time," Ty muttered, eyes still on the screen in front of them. "I was finally... I could wake up in the morning and not want to die. I even forgot, sometimes. After the quest--sometimes I did things and I didn't think about how much he would have loved them."
He broke off abruptly, and Zhane glanced sideways at him. He saw Ty bite his lip, hard, harder than he should have, and he wished he could tell the Black Ranger that it was all right. But he didn't, he couldn't tell him it would be okay, because then this would somehow mean less. He knew what it was to have part of you ripped away, to not know why you were still breathing when it hurt so much just to continue.
He knew too, that one day you were glad you had. One day you looked back and were grateful that something or someone had made you go on when you thought you couldn't. But you never saw that day coming until it arrived.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked, in spite of himself.
The answer surprised him, though in retrospect he supposed it shouldn't have.
"Our sensei, I mean," Hunter continued. His tone was still contemplative as he listed off his thoughts with terse words. "The bad guys. That damn ship. You."
About to join him in front of the pool, Cam stopped abruptly. "Me?"
"Everyone," Hunter corrected. "All the Rangers."
Cam dropped down beside Hunter, considering that. Nothing insightful sprang to mind, so he chose the safe route instead. "That's a lot to think about."
Hunter sounded wry. "I've been here a long time."
Ty stared at the screen, ignoring his drink once more. "You wouldn't be so philosophical," he said steadily, "if you'd lost someone because of what I did."
He would not swear. Not aloud. But damn it all to hell, didn't they have enough people taking responsibility for the actions of evil without Ty getting in on the act? Kerone felt guilty because it was her troops out there causing havoc. Andros felt guilty because he should be able to save every planet he'd ever heard of--single-handedly, if possible. And Ashley felt guilty because she wasn't doing enough to support her teammates, whom she had always put before herself.
"Ty," he said evenly. "Quantrons killed those people. Not you. You were trying to save a life, not take it. Never at any point did you open fire on KO-35, its buildings, or its inhabitants. The forces of evil did that. If you could control them, this war would have been over a long time ago.
"You were used," he continued, when Ty didn't answer. "Evil uses people; it manipulates them into doing what it wants and it doesn't feel guilty about it. Only good people feel guilty. Ask Kerone. Do you think she feels guilty about the years she spent in the service of Dark Spectre? Do you think she doesn't know what happened under her command?
"She's not a bad person. She made some mistakes. But no one can change the past, and we can't anticipate the future. All we are is what we're doing right now. Kerone is doing good. Like you. Like me. We're good people, because right now, at this moment, we're doing what we believe in, what we think is good and right. That's all anyone can ask of themselves."
Time travel gave him a headache. How was she here, now? Was she really here? He wanted Hunter to walk in, to prove to himself that he wasn't still sleeping. He wanted Hunter to know that he had been right, that hanging on to the gem fragments hadn't been just forlorn hope and loneliness.
Maybe, if he admitted it to himself... he wanted Hunter to know his mother.
Only when he reached for his necklace did he realize he wasn't wearing it. He pressed his hand to his chest, instinctively wanting to turn and look for it but afraid to take his eyes off of her. He hadn't removed it, barely took it off at all, except to study or use it--
My Cam. She was holding it, he realized suddenly. Still smiling. You bring honor to our family, Cameron.
He swallowed hard, not wanting to tell her that honor wasn't much comfort sometimes. He wouldn't mind a little more family and a little less honor. Would that disappoint her? What would she think of Hunter? What would she say if she knew there were days when being loved was more important to him than anything he could do as a Ranger?
It's you that brings us honor, she repeated. Not your actions, but you. The person that you are. The son who has always made me so proud. Never doubt that we love you, Cam.
"What about after the--after he woke up?" Ashley was staring steadily at him now, and he blinked. Her smile fading, she added, "Were you together then?"
Andros couldn't help frowning. "I was with you then. I've been with you since before he woke up."
"But you slept with Zhane," Ashley said, not as though it mattered. She was being deliberately calm about it, and it irritated him. He had already told her what was between him and Zhane: he had told her how they used to be, and she knew as much as either of them about what they were now. On top of that, he was almost certain she had asked him this before.
"When Zhane woke up, I was in a relationship with you," he repeated. "Maybe I didn't know what to call it when we were fifteen, but I know what that means now. If anything had happened between me and Zhane, I would have told you."
She closed her mouth, lowering her gaze to the table. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "You're right; you told me that. I guess... I just had to ask again."
"Nothing about Zhane changes my feelings towards you," Andros told her. "Nothing that we were before, and nothing that we are now. I still love you, Ash."
He made the mistake of catching Cam's eye, and he caved. "It's just--I've been trying to make ends meet for months now, right? Without Kelly, we wouldn't have made it. We definitely would have had to give up racing.
"Now, all of a sudden, it's like I can have anything I want." A factory ride, or his old school. A racing career, or a position as head teacher. The future he'd always wanted, or the past he was still a part of...
And then, of course, there was Cam.
Cam, who would never follow him if he ended up on the national racing circuit. Cam, who probably wouldn't even attend a race that wasn't in Blue Bay Harbor. And what about the other ninja academies? Would Cam visit them, if he had friends there? If someone invited him?
"I can't have everything," he said with a sigh. "And sometimes that's almost as frustrating as having nothing."
"What did Blake look so smug about?" Cam asked abruptly, grabbing the door to the lobby and waiting to follow Hunter through. "Did you lose a bet over the food or something?"
Hunter got the next door. "Better than that. He thinks we should date. You and me," he clarified, in case it wasn't obvious. "I think you reminded him by volunteering to come along."
"Us?" Cam didn't seem appalled by the thought, but he was a master of the deadpan expression. "One of us would be dead in a day."
"I gave us a week," Hunter said conversationally.
"Well, one of us has to be a realist."
"Save me from more students like Dustin," Cam said, a little too emphatically. "I'm not sure I could handle that. Maybe dad will let me do something other than novice training."
"You really should think about transferring," Hunter teased. "Bet there's at least one head teacher who'd be easy to negotiate with."
"Yeah, thanks," Cam said dryly. "Strings attached, I'm sure."
"I said 'negotiate,' not 'bribe.' I'm very sympathetic."
Cam snorted. "I can just imagine. Clearly this is going to be a recurring argument."
If that was a promise, then Hunter was all for it. "A year?" he suggested, holding out his hand. "To teach, not to argue," he added, catching sight of Cam's expression.
Cam clasped his hand and hooked his fingers around Hunter's before letting go. "A year," he agreed.
"Just because he's important doesn't mean I love him," Hunter argued.
Blake rolled his eyes. "No, of course not. It just means you feel more strongly about him than anyone else in the world. So I'm guessing you're either in love with him, or you really hate him."
"Some days I could go either way," Hunter grumbled.
"Bro..." Blake frowned a little, his expression becoming more thoughtful. "You and me. We're not so good with family, right? With love, and stuff like that." He didn't seem to expect an answer, and for a long moment he just stood there, arms crossed, staring at the desk beside Hunter.
"We're not close to a lot of people," Blake said at last. "It doesn't mean we can't be, we're just--not used to it." He looked up at Hunter then, giving him a self-conscious smile. "So I guess... when someone comes along who does want to be close... don't push them away just because it feels strange at first."
"They're so casual," she murmured, wondering if they had any idea how supernatural their lives looked to the rest of the world. They took it all in stride, as though they were just typical teenagers getting a bite to eat before hitting the town.
"They're so young," the woman across from her corrected. "It still throws me when I see them in person. They're children! My son is older than they are, and god forbid he do his own laundry, let alone save the world."
She smiled a little, watching as the server returned with their drinks. They drew her into their group without a second's hesitation, introducing themselves and chatting her up as though she was having dinner with them. How many people would do that? Young or old, prestigious or not--how many people went out of their way for a stranger they might never see again?
There was more to these "children" then just the Power. They were certainly smart, skilled, and charismatic, but on top of that... they meant well. They fought for a better world, not just with weapons and battleships, but with their words, their actions--their belief that the world was better, already.
With their very presence, they reminded her that life was magic. One didn't have to be part of a superpowered fighting force to make a difference. It could be done with something as simple as a smile.