March 10, 1999
Whew!  This monster is finally finished...  ^_^  It's about damned time, ne?  ^_^  Bet you all think I'm gonna end my trip into PR-land, now, don't you?  *evil snicker*  Not quite, minna-san!  I've got background fics/follow-up fics/etc. planned up the wazoo!  *insane giggles*  Of everything I've been trying to write lately, this has been, by far, the easiest and the most fun.  I think that's telling me something...  *shrugs*  Ah well, a problem for another day.  ^_^

Disclaimer: Very few of the characters in this fic are mine.  Zhane's father and the people of Altiyar - and that's about it.  Everyone else belongs to Saban.

Warning: This fic contains m/m situations.  The Japanese fanfic term for it would be 'shounen ai', but I can't find an equivalent term in the English language.  ^_^  It's not really slash, because the two characters I put together never do anything more than some passionate kissing and a lot of snuggling (on screen that is...  H_H *giggles*).  For those of you who did not get the message...  This fanfic contains two young men in a caring, loving relationship.  If that bothers you, please go somewhere else now - I don't tolerate flames about this.  *grins*  I think that about covers everything...

Final Notes:
Pleasepleaseplease don't forget to write me and tell me what you thought.  This is my very first attempt at a Power Rangers fanfic, and I'd like to know if it's worth the effort to find an archive to post it in.  I need encouragement if you'd like to see more!  ^_^

OK, that's really everything, this time.  ^_^  Ja ne, minna-san!

Forget Me Not
by Renee-chan

The battle was a living thing around him.  Metal droids abounded, keeping the two Rangers away from their true quarry - a monster, sent by Dark Spectre to destroy the populace of their peace-loving home world.  It was something that no Power Ranger could stand for, and these two were no exception.  Andros felt another droid go down under the Spiral Sabre and looked up to find his partner.  Zhane had broken through the droid line moments before and engaged the monster in a furious fight.  Andros' eyes narrowed as a sudden surge of fear swam up from his gut to overwhelm him.

He wasn't clairvoyant - not in a classical sense - but he'd always been able to tell when something awful was about to happen to someone he loved.  He'd known, that fateful day when he was three, that something dreadful was going to happen to his twin sister, Karone.  But he'd been only a child and his strange gift hadn't warned him in time... it never did.  She'd disappeared that day, never to be seen or heard from again.  The remainder of his family had been devastated.  But not for long...  Again, his gift hadn't warned him soon enough.  His parents' lives had ended in a brief but bloody fight with Ecliptor - one of Dark Spectre's puppets.  And Andros had been left an orphan...

Angrily, the Red Ranger turned his attention back to the fight.  He didn't want to think about what had come after that fateful night - his life as an orphan hadn't been pleasant.  Besides, there was still a battle to win.  He turned to watch the Silver Ranger - as always Zhane in battle was something to see.  So, Andros squashed down the fear and began exterminating the droids, keeping them away from his partner.

A sudden, choked yell snapped Andros' head up.  No...  He'd heard that voice speak in many different ways: murmuring soft words of comfort, purring seductively with words of love, or growling incoherently in a surge of rage, but never had he heard it shouting in feared desperation.  Across the battlefield, the Red Ranger's eyes sought out his partner's.  Zhane's eyes met his, and in them was a sorrowful knowledge.  Mere seconds later a horrible explosion rocked the field.  When the lingering light from the blast cleared, the monster and the droids were gone.  But so was Zhane.

Andros stared at his partner's still and lifeless body for several minutes before the reality of the situation sank into his battle-fogged brain.  All of sudden, the Red Ranger found he couldn't breathe.  He tore off his helmet and threw it to the ground as he took in tortured gasps of air, wild eyes riveted to the sight of Zhane's body as it demorphed.  He stumbled to Zhane's side, pulling his limp body into his lap and cradling him tenderly, somehow convinced that he might wake up.  Zhane...  No...  Nonononono...  You can't leave me, you can't!  You swore you wouldn't...  Zhane - don't do this!  You swore you'd never leave me alone!  Please don't leave me...

How long he sat there cradling Zhane's body and mentally babbling, Andros didn't know.  All he knew was that the one person who still meant anything to him had been suddenly ripped from his life, leaving a gaping hole in his heart where love should have been.  He continued to rock until his communicator beeped quietly at him.  He regained enough presence of mind to activate it, though his voice was choked with the tears he couldn't shed when he finally managed to answer the hail, "Yes, DECA?"

The computer's gentle alto voice almost sounded worried as it spoke, "Andros - my sensors show that the enemy has been defeated, but I can not detect the Silver Ranger's energy.  What has happened?"

He's dead, you dim-witted bucket of bolts!!!  He bit back the harsh comment before it could escape his lips.  DECA wasn't there - she couldn't know what had happened.  So, though he wanted to rail wildly at the machine for daring to intrude on his grieving, Andros forced himself to be civil, unemotional, "The mission was successful, DECA - but..."  Despite his desperate trying, his voice almost broke and he was forced to pause before he could continue.  He could hear the tears in his voice and it disgusted him.  He spoke as quickly as he could, "The blast that destroyed Dark Spectre's monster k-k-k..."  His voice stumbled over the word before he got it out, "It killed Zhane..."  This time his voice really did break, and with a choked sob, he stopped talking, turning back to rocking Zhane's cooling body in his lap.

His communicator was silent for 5 long minutes before DECA thought of something suitable to say, "I am deeply sorry, Andros..."

Andros demorphed, then gently gathered Zhane up into his arms. OK, Zhane...  Let's go home.  He teleported back up to the ship, trying to lock down his feelings - from here on in they could only hurt him - a fact with which he was well acquainted.  DECA kept trying to talk to him - to get him to open up.  He resisted each and every effort she made.  It would do him no good to talk.

She kept up with it while Andros carefully put Zhane's body into one of the ship's many suspended animation tubes.  At least he could keep his partner's body well preserved until he could take the time out to plan a decent funeral...  And DECA kept trying to get him to talk even as he plotted a course out of KO-35's orbit into the recesses of deep space.  He didn't want to be anywhere near home at this point in time.

She kept up the prattle as he stripped and showered, trying to wash the dirty feeling of living off of him.  He lived.  May all the gods of light and darkness be damned, he lived.  And Zhane did not.  And there was absolutely nothing he could do about it - because with Zhane gone, he was the only person left in the Universe who could fight Dark Spectre.  He toweled off, pulling on a pair of Zhane's sweatpants and one of his sweatshirts.  His scent still clung to them.  He'd been wearing them just that morning...

Andros muffled a sob in his shirt sleeve, praying that DECA wouldn't hear.  She did.  She took that as further incentive to get him to talk, telling him he'd feel better if he got it off his chest.  He angrily stormed out of Zhane's room and back to his own.  It had the eerie feeling of not having been lived in - as if it's owner were dead and gone.  He muttered quietly to himself as he cleaned up, "And I suppose that's just and fitting, isn't it...  For I may as well be dead..."

Sleep was long in coming that night, and when it finally did, it was full of haunting nightmares.

DECA watched quietly over Andros for some time that night.  He tossed and turned on his bunk as he silently sobbed in his sleep.  Not for the first time since becoming acquainted with the Red Ranger, DECA wished for human arms to comfort him with.  It was a strange thing - this sentience.  DECA knew that she was not human, was not anything close to human - was not even really a "she".  She was a spaceship - the Astro Megaship to be precise.  The Lightstar Rangers' mobile base of operations.  And yet...  At times like these, DECA had to wonder.  At times when the emotions got so strong that she couldn't hold them in...  DECA had to wonder if perhaps once... she had been something more.

She turned her attention away from Andros once he had settled into a quieter pattern of sleep and let her consciousness wander towards the sad form ensconced in one of her medical storage bays.  Zhane's body was so badly torn up as to be almost unrecognizable.  The mere brutality and savagery of the Silver Ranger's death made the whole thing seem so unreal.  The two boys had so recently found some measure of happiness with each other: Zhane needing so desperately to love someone, and Andros needing so desperately to be loved.  Andros had resisted at first, unused to someone wanting him and scared to death of getting too close.  But Zhane was a stubborn one and had persisted until he'd won back from the depths of the darkness what he called "the greatest prize a person could win" - Andros' soul.

And Andros had discovered - to his shock - that he wanted Zhane to have it.  It had been a wonderful thing to watch.  Not that DECA was a voyeur!  Oh no...  She laughed to herself.  She had peeked once - and gotten such an angry glare from Andros that she quickly decided that it wasn't worth having her every circuit rewired until she was only fit to be a toaster.  Zhane had assured her later that Andros hadn't meant it - but DECA had privately not been so sure...  But watching them at other times gave DECA such a feeling of happiness and hope that it wasn't to be believed.

And now this.  It was too horribly unfair.  Andros was already starting to withdraw back behind his impenetrable stone walls.  Cutting himself off from everything - including DECA herself.  She looked back at Zhane's "coffin" with a speculative glint in her electronic red eye.  Perhaps...  Just perhaps...  She let her sensors run over the body held in suspended animation just under her.  What the--?!  If she were human, she would have been screaming curses at herself when she completed her scan.  She was such a complete ninny!!  Stupid machine, not even bothering to check to see if the human's really dead before mourning him!  And stupid Andros for not thinking of it!

She pulled most of her attention and resources into the little medlab, leaving only the barest minimum necessary to run the ship.  At least Andros would be happy for the peace and quiet...  And while it might help him to talk about it, it would help him even more if she could save Zhane.  She set about her work with a light heart - she had no doubts that she could save Zhane's body.  And with him in suspended animation, it made the task even easier.  That meant the healing could go slowly - slowly enough to completely heal him.  It might take years... but Zhane would survive.

Over the next several days, she transformed the little medlab into a healing chamber that would make even the most brilliant of doctors envious.  Hey - she didn't have all that medical knowledge in her memory banks for nothing, did she?  She watched in happy satisfaction as the Silver Ranger's body slowly began to heal.  It was good.  Once she had his body repaired, he would wake up from his cryogenic sleep.  She set the sensors around his sleep tube to alert her to any major change in his biorhythms.  With that last task completed, DECA finally turned her complete attention back to her other charge - and to her despair, found that she was too late.  She might have saved his reason for living, but until he could see that with his own eyes, he wouldn't believe her.  If she were human, she'd have hit herself - how could she cheer Andros up when he didn't even know his partner was still alive?  And knowing the Red Ranger as she did, he'd probably block his emotions off to the point where he might just block out the memory that Zhane had ever existed.  Damn...

Andros looked up at the viewscreen and the troubling information it presented.  Ecliptor and his new "princess", Astronema, had attacked one of the fringe colonies of the Kerovan system - KO-97.  They didn't have much opposition there.  Andros calmly checked the reserves of power in his astro morpher and decided that he had regained enough to make a good fight of it.  Of course, he'd somehow have to compensate for Zhane's absence, but he was confident that he could do it.  He had managed to push the grief back down to bearable levels, and DECA had been blessedly quiet while he healed.  The grief resurfaced occasionally, but he always managed to beat it back.

The thought occurred to him that he was doing Zhane's memory a disservice - but he couldn't think of any other way to deal with the problem.  The overwhelming grief he had felt that week had prevented him from getting anything valuable done, had prevented him from protecting anyone from Dark Spectre's increasingly bold servants.  They had begun to spread out across the galaxy, slowly but surely bringing more colonies and planets under Dark Spectre's evil thumb.  And those people didn't have the time to wait for him to finish grieving.  So, this was the only choice he had.  He was a Power Ranger and he had a mission.  There was no alternative.

"DECA - set a course for KO-97, maximum possible speed."

"Course laid in, Andros."

Andros looked up irritably at one of DECA's red eyes.  For the past six days, she had been quiet and reserved.  As a proper computer should be.  She had never addressed him unless spoken to, and not once had she called him by name.  His eyes narrowed as he pushed the light speed toggles forward, feeling the ship's engines surge beneath him.  It just wasn't worth worrying about - not now, anyway.  He had a fight to think about.

Andros woke slowly from the depths of sleep with the odd feeling that something was missing.  Same mattress, same bed, same sheets and pillows, same blanket...  Everything was there.  The feeling made no sense...  After lying in his bed for a few minutes, he finally concluded that he had no idea what it was that was missing.  He got up, showered and dressed, then headed for the bridge, grabbing a cup of tea on the way.  He'd never been much of a breakfast person, so he couldn't imagine why DECA even had a breakfast selection on her menu...  He shrugged.  Perhaps a prior Ranger had been fond of having a meal so early in the day.

Reaching the bridge, he gave DECA a cheerful good morning and sat down in the bridge's center seat, calling up the reports from that night.  He frowned - Earth had been seeing a lot of Dark Spectre's attacks since he'd left KO-35, it seemed.  First Rita, then Zed - then Rita and Zed.  He shook his head, ruefully.  He would have been more concerned, but a short visit to Earth a few years ago had found Zordon coordinating the fighting efforts.  He had recruited a set of Planet Rangers - and though the people behind the morphing coins seemed to change with each passing of the seasons, they were holding off Dark Spectre's minions with surprising resilience.  So, he'd backed off from Earth leaving the fight in their capable hands.  Besides, Ecliptor and his princess were still out there - not to mention Darconda and scores of others.

No...  none of that really concerned him.  But recently, he'd picked up a signal from deeper out in space than he'd ever gone before.  It had taken him and DECA many days to break the code, but it had been well worth it.  It seemed as if Dark Spectre had called together all of his minions - from every corner of the known Universe and beyond.  And the plan was to destroy Zordon and take over the Universe.  Bold plans - and nothing that Andros hadn't heard before, but this time had him worried.  For never before had Dark Spectre planned to involve all his underlings in the plan.  The sheer numbers that they would have left Andros feeling queasy.  Even with help from all the Planetary Rangers out there, there was no way they'd be able to fight off all of Dark Spectre's minions at once.

So, Andros had come up with a daring plan.  He had to sneak into Dark Spectre's planned meeting and find out exactly what his plans were.  There was a good chance he might get killed in the attempt - but he had to know what he was up against, and this was truly the only way to find out.  They'd approached slowly and quietly so as not to arouse Dark Spectre's droids.  The voyage had taken longer than it might have, otherwise, but it had been well worth it.  They were less than a day away, and had thus far been undetected.  That very night was the time of the meeting - and Andros had to be in place by then.

"We are approaching the Dark Planet, Andros," came DECA's serene alto voice.

He nodded and finished off his tea, putting the reports back down, "All right, DECA.  Keep us hidden behind one of the moons.  That should be close enough for a teleportation and should keep us undetected.  I'm going to go get into my disguise.  Wish me luck."

"Luck, Andros..."

He smiled at her strange turn of phrase, saluted, and left the bridge.  He got his disguise together and wandered down to the lower levels of the ship.  He hadn't been down there in a while - for some reason, being around the medlabs made him very uneasy.  Ever since leaving KO-35...  He shivered, having the odd feeling that there was a memory he was missing, but not sure what it might be.  He resisted the urge to peek into the medlab - he didn't have time for this.  He had a spying mission to attend to.

Once Andros had left, DECA set part of her brain to watching for a distress call - or any call - from him and turned her attention to the other mission that took up her time.  Zhane's body and astro morphing grids were almost completely healed from that disaster of two years ago.  She had found, to her annoyance, that she'd been right.  Andros had locked his emotions so far away from himself that he didn't even _remember_ Zhane.  Well, she'd show him.  If she could have smiled, she would have.  She could just picture the look on Andros' face when he walked into the medlab and found Zhane awake and waiting for him...  But it would still take another couple of months for Zhane to be completely healed.  But, she was a machine - she could wait.

She pushed the troubling thoughts aside and turned her attention back to Zhane... only to have it turned away yet again.  There were intruders here!  How was that possible??  She turned most of her sensors inward, sealing off the medlab as she did so.  They were humans and a robot: two males and two females, accompanied by an Alpha 6 unit.  How had they gotten here?  And what were they doing here?  Andros wouldn't like this...

She watched as they explored the ship, picking over everything - including Andros' empty tea mug.  Who the heck are these people? she growled to herself.  Trust this to happen now, in the middle of a mission when Andros is away.  And me with no way to warn him without giving him away to Dark Spectre!

She slowly locked down all the command functions and settled down to wait, hoping Andros would have answers when he returned...

Andros watched the image of Dark Spectre along with all of his minions, growing more alarmed with each passing moment.  This plan of theirs might actually work!  As far as they said, Zordon was captured and most of the Planetary Rangers had been disposed of.  That left Andros as the only real force to fight all of these people plus their minions!  He almost shivered, but prevented it at the last minute.  Damn it all...  And then it happened.  The event he'd been dreading all evening.  One of the people around him questioned who he was.  A fight broke out with him at the center and he cursed quietly to himself.

I don't have a prayer of fighting off all these people by myself...  I've got to get out of here.  He jumped onto a table, trying to keep everyone at bay and failing miserably.  One of the many people around him grabbed the bottom of his cloak and yanked it off, leaving his Red Ranger suit open to plain sight.  A collective gasp sounded around him and he cursed.  He had to get out of here...  Everyone around him threw themselves into the fight and he desperately called his Galaxy Glider.  He pushed it until it couldn't go any faster, trying to keep the fighter ships off his tail as he went.  He just barely got back to the Astro Megaship alive.

Andros raced up to the bridge, blood rushing in his ears as he ran.  And when he reached the bridge...  He stared in shock, frozen.  There were three intruders on the bridge!  Two young humans, male and female, and an Alpha 6 unit.  The young man started talking to him and he gaped, unused to being crowded in like that.  A sound off to his left made him jerk his head sideways.  By all the gods!  There are more of them??  Another male and another female were walking up the corridor as if they owned it.  He stared for a moment longer before gathering his widely scattered wits and beating a hasty retreat.  He had to get away from them...  But I need to get to the bridge if I'm going to fight off Astronema.

Damndamndamn!  I don't have time for this!  He ran down towards the engine room, hoping to lure them away from the bridge.  It worked - only too well.  Every single one of them, including the Alpha 6 unit, followed him.  They surrounded him in one of the alcoves near the main engine room.  Cornered, and feeling very much like a trapped animal, Andros fought.  But they didn't react the way most of Dark Spectre's minions would react when attacked.  They were talking to him...  Finally, what they were saying penetrated his battle-fatigued brain.  They kept repeating, over and over - "We're friends.  We're Power Rangers!  From Earth..."

He paused in his attacks.  Earth.  Then these were Zordon's latest Rangers - if what they said was true.  They didn't match the most recent holos he had of Earth's Rangers, but that didn't surprise him much.  Earth changed Rangers more often than Dark Spectre changed chief subordinates...  But hadn't Divatox been busy bragging about how she'd killed them all...?  He took a closer look at the five stowaways.  Their clothing was torn, their hair disheveled, their bodies filthy.  As if they'd been in an explosion of some sort.  And their Alpha unit was looking much the worse for wear as well.  It made sense - it made too much sense.  And he didn't have time to deal with it.  Not now.

The ship lurched and the stowaways fell against the corridor wall.  He took the opportunity to slip out the main engineering door and lock it behind him.  "DECA!  Keep them down here during the battle.  I don't want them getting underfoot - ex-Rangers or not."  He ran back up to the bridge, feeling even more tired than he had when he'd gotten back to the ship.  And his stomach was lurching with a sick premonition - damn his clairvoyance, anyway...

He grabbed onto the control console, watching in horrified fascination as Astronema's ship materialized out of nowhere, "DECA, we've got company!  Evasive maneuvers!  We've got to get out of here..."

She complied with none of her usual chatter.  It was too important for her to be wasting time and she knew it.  Dark Spectre's minions surrounded him, firing continuously on the Astro Megaship.  Andros felt the power go dead.  "The engines...  DECA, can you fix it?"

His heart pounded as he waited for her answer.  Finally, her voice worried, she answered, "No.  One of the power cables has become disconnected.  I do not have the hands necessary to repair it."

"Damn it!"  I seem to be swearing a lot more, lately...  He banged his head down on the control panel, urging his tired brain to think of a solution.  It provided none.  He couldn't be on the bridge and down in the engine room at the same time.  Then, just as suddenly as they'd lost power, Andros felt the decks shudder and begin to hum under his feet.

DECA's exultant voice rang out across the bridge, "Power is back online!"

Andros didn't even pause to question it, "Then get us the hell out of here!!"  DECA tried valiantly to pull up out of the planet's gravity but failed.  Got to keep her nose up...  He felt the deckplates shudder beneath him and tried one last time to pull out of the dive.  It didn't work.  They hit the ground hard and fast and Andros went flying over the control consoles, landing hard on his back, the wind knocked out of him.  The lights went dead, and took Andros' consciousness with them.

The Red Ranger woke slowly and painfully, every muscle in his body crying out in protest.  He leaned up on his elbows and shook his head to clear it, "DECA?  What's our status?"  What the hell happened?

"The ship is functioning on auxiliary power.  We must begin repairs before Astronema finds us," was her oh-so-helpful reply.

He groaned as he levered himself up off the deck, "Thanks, DECA.  You're a big help."  He rubbed his back with a wince as he straightened, "I'm going to go find the intruders and see if they're OK.  I assume we have them to thank for that amazing save..."  With one last rub for his bruised and aching back, Andros headed off the bridge and down to the engine room, mind stewing with questions.

Upon reaching the engine room, he found the stowaways getting painfully to their feet.  He searched his mind for some kind of pleasantry, but could think of none.  He'd been alone so long...  The best he could come up with was, "Who are you?"  He winced at the harsh tone of his voice - that had sounded rude, even to him...

The dark-skinned boy spoke up, "We're Power Rangers, from Earth.  Mind if we ask what's going on?"

Before Andros could respond, DECA interrupted, "Andros!  Astronema's ship is entering orbit!"

He cursed and turned away, intruders forgotten.  The engines were back online - maybe they could take off...  He reached the bridge and activated the viewscreen, "DECA!  Do we have enough power in the engines to take off from here?"  He barely noticed as the five stowaways walked up behind him.

"No, we do not have enough power to break free of the planet's gravit- Oh dear."

I definitely feel like banging my head into the wall...  "Oh dear, what, DECA?"  A quick glance at the viewscreen gave him the answer even as DECA responded.  "Quantrons...  Damn!"  He turned to leave the bridge and nearly ran into the other four humans on the bridge.  He suppressed the urge to hit them all and a sudden surge of claustrophobia along with it.  There's too many damned people on my bridge.  He pushed his way past them and into the lift, "DECA - open the outside doors."  The lift doors began to close - then a pair of dark brown hands pushed them back open.

The dark-skinned male, who Andros had tentatively labeled the leader of the stowaways, gave him a hard, determined look and said quietly, "We're coming with you."  Seeing no way to disagree, Andros allowed it.  But it felt wrong...  So wrong...

Once they got outside, the Quantrons attacked.  Andros was holding his own, as usual, but the Earthers weren't being so lucky.  They were getting beaten, and beaten badly.  But they were tenacious fighters and they weren't giving up.  It took two of them to take on one Quantron, but they weren't quitting.  Such teamwork...  He felt another pang and shoved it angrily aside.  I work alone.  I've always worked alone.

He fought off another group of Quantrons, only then noticing that their numbers were thinning.  Astronema was calling them back to her ship.  But why?  There was no time to think about it.  He disposed of the remaining few Quantrons, then watched in satisfaction as they all disappeared.  What a day this had been...  He turned to watch the other humans and took a deep breath, And it's not over yet...

The Earthers gathered around him, curious expressions on their faces.  It occurred to the Red Ranger that is was terribly rude to stay morphed now that the fighting was over.  With a small, self-conscious blush he demorphed - and watched as every single pair of eyes in front of him widened to their fullest extent.  The female brunette collected herself first.  She stepped forwards, a speculative gleam in her eyes.  He couldn't help it, he shivered.  Some of the harder street bums had watched him that way when he'd been younger...  She walked a complete circuit around him and he fought to keep from further showing his unease.  Finally she stopped in the vicinity of his left arm and poked his shoulder.  He flinched away from the touch, his whole left side reverberating from it.  She opened her mouth and Andros prepared himself for some kind of condemning remark - he was disappointed.  "You're human!"

He snorted in disgust - what complete innocents!  "What did you expect?"

She shrugged and walked back around to face him, leaving his back open.  He felt more comfortable not having her behind him - he still didn't know these people, didn't know what they might do...  She narrowed her eyes and shrugged again, "I don't know.  I mean...  You're not from Earth, are you?"

He couldn't help the condescending tone that crept into his voice - these people really knew nothing about how the universe worked!  "Earth isn't the only place humans live, you know.  I'm from a space colony.  KO-35."

The leader stepped forward, a confused look on his face, "From outer space?"  Andros didn't even dignify that with a response.  What am I getting in to?

The other girl stepped forward, a bright smile on her face, "Well, I'm Cassie.  It's nice to meet you!"

The brunette fluttered her eyelashes at him, trying to look coy, he supposed, "I'm Ashley!"  Inwardly he shuddered - he recognized her type.  Nanya had some nieces just like her.  Not that he didn't like girls - he did.  But when they started throwing themselves at him...  And even when he found one he got along with - the guilt would start.  That damning guilt that he couldn't find a reason for no matter how he ransacked his brain for an answer.  It was far simpler to stay single - and he preferred solitude, anyway.

The boy in green introduced himself as Carlos, and finally the leader stepped forward with a smile, "And I'm T.J."  T.J. held out his hand for a handshake, stepping unintentionally into Andros' personal space.  He couldn't fight the long-instilled reaction this time - he flinched away, and violently so.  Just the idea of letting a complete stranger be familiar enough with him to touch him...  He shuddered convulsively, pulling his hands tightly behind his back.  T.J. looked offended and tried pushing his hand closer.  Andros took another step back, feeling his face pale slightly and cursing his inability to control his emotions.  T.J. shared a glance with his teammates and they all pulled in closer, eyeing him suspiciously.

Andros shivered slightly, suddenly realizing that they weren't going to let him get away without some form of tactile contact.  He unclasped his hands from behind his back, and skin crawling, extended his hand to T.J.  He was completely unprepared for his reaction when his hand met the younger boy's.  The shock of the contact ran all the way up his arm and down his back as an almost physical pain.  He pulled his hand back as quickly as he could, feeling like he'd been burned.  But the others looked more at ease.  He shivered again, feeling almost sick to his stomach.  This would never do...  He swallowed hard, forcing his voice into some semblance of steadiness, "I am called Andros."

He was saved from having to consort with them further by DECA's voice from his communicator.  For once he felt a true sense of gratitude for the serene alto voice of the ship's computer, "Andros, I am nearly finished assessing the damage to the Astro Megaship."

The rush of relief he felt was unexpected and completely uncalled for, so he pushed it aside, "I'm on my way."  Without even one more glance at the other humans, he beat a hasty retreat back to the Megaship.

Damn but these Earthers are stubborn...  Andros listened in on their conversation with a surge of irritation.  If they keep searching for Zordon as they plan, they'll only get in my way.  I've got to try to discourage them...

The one called T.J. was talking, "...and if they've already left Eltar, we'll head on to Sumeria."

Andros' quiet voice interrupted their planning, "They've already left Sumeria."

T.J. stepped forward, the two females close in around him.  Andros fought the urge to fidget and kept working on repairing the Astro Megaship.  T.J. frowned, then asked, "How do you know?"

Andros closed up the hatch he'd been working under and put away his tools, "Because I was just there.  Dark Spectre has Zordon and he's draining all his powers."  It didn't even occur to him to try to soften the blow, so the Ranger's cries of dismay came as a bit of a shock to him.  Belatedly, he realized he should have put that a little more gently.  He turned back to face the others, "Zordon's strong.  It'll take some time before Dark Spectre can drain all his powers.  And that will give me some time..."

The cries of protest were even louder this time and Andros wondered idly what he'd said.  The one named Cassie stepped up close to him, "You?  But, we're in this together!"

Andros stared at the girl for a moment, not quite believing what he'd heard.  Perhaps these four had been Earth Rangers once, but that didn't mean they were fit to take on Astronema and Dark Spectre - in fact, it almost ensured that they weren't fit.  Planetary Rangers were almost always far too coddled to make it in space.  And these Rangers weren't even Rangers anymore!  How exactly did they think that made them equal members of his team?  He who had no team.  After one last disbelieving stare in their direction, Andros headed back inside - time to see if his repair job was worth its salt.

Not too surprisingly, the other three followed him in.  He could feel the skin on his back just crawling...  He hated having people behind him.  It made him more edgy than anyone should be on their own ship.  He fought the urge to yell at them, realizing that that would surely escalate the situation.  He walked into the engine room, scanner held up in his hand.  A cursory glance around the room revealed the fourth Earther trying to fix the problem with their Alpha 6 unit.  He shook his head slightly, poor boy had no clue what he was doing...

The others came up quickly behind him, and T.J. spoke again, "But we all have the same goal!  To protect Zordon."

Andros paused with his hand on the ladder - could these people know so little about how space worked?  The Lightstar Rangers' purpose was never to "protect Zordon" as they put it.  They were there for the good of the people, for their protection - not for some noble leader.  And the enemies out here were far more dangerous than any of those who had yet reached Earth.  And how could he sum all of that up?  He half-turned towards T.J., "You're Planetary Rangers - what do you know about Space?"

He watched them pause and consider his words.  T.J. reluctantly spoke up, "Well... nothing."

When it looked as if he might say more, Andros cut him off with a jerk of his hand, "Exactly."  He climbed up the ladder, already prepping the scanner to test the engines.  Something told him that it wasn't going to be that easy to convince them...

After a quick test for the engines to assure all was in order, Andros took another look down at the five stowaways.  Carlos still hadn't managed to fix their Alpha 6 unit.  Feeling a sudden surge of empathy for the little robot, Andros climbed back down the ladder - it was hard not being able to communicate your point to those who needed to hear it - a situation that Andros was becoming all too familiar with.  He walked over to the group and stood on its outskirts, "Why don't you let me see..."

The group parted just enough to let him fit through.  He took a brief glance at the unit's circuit board - it was one he was familiar with.  DECA had some similar systems.  He pulled the Alpha 6 unit over to the side and began readjusting its voice controls.  As he unscrambled the poor thing's circuits he asked in a low voice, "What is your mission?"  And the robot told him, in fairly flowery words, what he wanted to know.  These four were who they claimed to be.  He finished up and let the Alpha unit wander back over to his charges, almost sparking with excitement at being able to speak.  He smiled wistfully at them, unsure why he almost felt envious of the little robot.

An older and far more cynical part of his mind pointed out that this was exactly why Andros needed to get rid of these other Rangers.  ~Don't get too close.  Don't let yourself feel, don't let yourself care.  Down that path lies pain.~  He straightened his shoulders - now was no time to get all mushy.  He turned to leave, but was stopped by Cassie's quiet voice, "Andros - where are you going?"

He turned back, "To make sure your shuttle can make the trip back to Earth."  He couldn't help the tone of sympathy that crept into his voice, and he almost felt bad for the others when he saw the hurt looks on their faces... but there was no other way, and they were fools to think that there might be.

An hour later found him on his back under a control console.  They really managed to wreck their shuttle pretty badly...  I hate to admit it, but it's a good thing DECA brought them on board when she did.  A sudden whooshing noise alerted him to another's presence on the bridge.  He turned his head to look - it was one of the girls.  He nodded quietly, "Your shuttle's just about ready to take you back to Earth."

She walked over to the console and peered down at him, curiosity scrawled all over her face, "Andros... Do you ever go home?"

Andros swallowed hard.  KO-35 had been evacuated a few years ago after constant battles with Dark Spectre had left it defenseless.  Not even the Rangers had been able to protect it.  He paused, Rangers?  Where did that come from?  A sick feeling surged up inside him, setting his heart pounding.  Not for the first time, he felt he was on the verge of remembering something very important... but it slipped away from him.  The sick feeling receded, leaving him feeling cold and very, very alone.  He turned back to his task and answered the girl with a frigid tone, "To KO-35?  No."

For some reason, his answer seemed to distress her.  He shoved the thought aside and firmly told himself that he didn't care.  It was none of her business, anyway.  He finished his repairs and moved to pull himself up from the floor.  He paused when he saw her hand outstretched to him.  He stared at it for a moment - what was it with these people and touching?  They couldn't seem to get enough of it.  He gave her hand a look of disdain and helped himself up.  She gave him a wry smile, "Don't like to accept help, much, do you?"

He watched her for a moment, seeing compassion in her eyes.  He didn't much like it.  The arrival of the other Rangers saved him from having to answer her in any way.  After a few quick good-byes and another "handshake" with T.J., he finally got them off the Megaship.  He took off, already feeling like he was in a better mood.  The Megaship was his again - no strangers with their unfamiliar voices and incessant questions.  Just he and DECA.  The way he liked it.  So why did he feel so alone?

As he stood at the navigation console, he slowly became aware of how eerily quiet the bridge was.  After having the stowaways on board for less than 24 hours, he'd already become accustomed to the constant noise they made.  The silence started to press in on him, and for the first time in many years, it frightened him.  He almost wished DECA would try to talk to him - just to alleviate the oppressive silence.  But he couldn't bring himself to ask her to talk - that would be admitting a weakness.  No, he'd rather endure the silence.

Minutes later, it became a moot point.  An odd shuffling sound approached from behind him and he whirled to face it.  When he saw what it was, his jaw nearly fell open in disbelief.  It took him two tries before he could make the words emerge, "Alpha??  What are you doing here?"  The momentary flash of anger he felt was swiftly quashed by an insane feeling of gratitude for having someone to talk to.

The little robot spoke up, worry threading through its tone, "Andros - you're making a big mistake.  The other Rangers have the same goals as you do - you could benefit from each other's help."

DECA chose that moment to speak up, "Alpha is right, Andros.  Having four more Rangers would be extremely helpful right about now - what with Astronema gaining so much power."

Andros could have cursed the computer.  Of all the times to bring up the other four Astro Morphers - she just had to go and do it when one of the stowaways was present.  Finding bearers for the other four Astro Morphers had been the main part of his mission until the most recent threats by Dark Spectre.  He just didn't have time to go searching while the fighting was this thick...  And DECA damned well knew it.  He glared balefully at one of her visible eyes, growling under his breath.  Alpha thoughtfully left him alone to think it out.

He didn't want to think it out.  He didn't want another team.  Another?  Damn it - I've never even had one!  He pushed the thoughts aside, turning to logic and rational thinking as the only way to solve his current crisis.  He bowed his head as he carefully laid out the pros and cons to himself.  He didn't like what he came up with.  For while it might personally annoy him to have them around, he had to admit that the four ex-Rangers were the most likely candidates he'd seen for the other Astro Morphers since he'd started looking 9 years ago.  They were trained - even if inadequately so, they wanted to help, they were used to fighting as a team, and they were nearby.

With one sharply muttered oath, he turned the ship around.  He pointedly ignored Alpha's quiet cheering in the corner.  Time to go pick up the rest of his team...

Three months later, he was still wondering exactly what he'd gotten himself into.  The other Rangers were so different from what he was used to - and he could barely bring himself to admit that he enjoyed their company.  But unlike her partner, DECA clearly enjoyed having the others around - especially Alpha.  Andros had joked with her, more than once, that she had a crush on the little robot.  She fervently denied his every accusation.  Just now, the two metallic entities were thoroughly focused on a game of 3-D chess.

Andros turned his attention away from the game and onto the other four members of his team.  A shudder went through him - why did it still feel like such a betrayal to think of them that way?  He turned his gaze to each of them in turn: T.J., the Blue Ranger, was playing tennis with Carlos, the Black Ranger.  Cassie and Ashley, the Pink and Yellow Rangers, were playfully sparring with each other.  And Andros sat quietly by himself, going over reports and mission details.  Forever an outsider.  The argument that he liked it that way was growing thinner and thinner as the weeks wore on.

Ashley seemed to notice the predicament he was in - she seemed to pick up on his moods a lot faster than any of the others.  She smiled at him and waved at him to come over.  Part of him wanted to go...  But the more practical part of his mind made him shake his head, gather up his papers and wander up to the bridge.  He cursed quietly at himself, wondering what it was that made him hold himself so aloof from them.  A very old, very cynical part of his mind provided the quick, easy answer: Getting close to people means letting them in, and letting people in means getting hurt.  Always.

The bridge door slid open and he turned, an angry scowl on his face.  He didn't want to be interrupted - didn't want company...  When Ashley's smiling face met his eyes, he felt himself waver.  She had come seeking him out because she wanted to be friends - it was too hard to accept.  He turned away from her, hoping she'd go away and leave him his walls and solitude.  She didn't.

Ashley moved to sit next to him, still in her workout clothes, "Hey Andros.  It's been 3 months, already - and you still don't want to hang with us.  How come?  It's not like we have the cooties or anything."  She gave him a broad smile and laid a companionable hand on his shoulder.

He couldn't help it - he flinched.  There was only one person who he'd ever let touch him that casually and that had been...  His mind flailed - he couldn't remember!  For the first time, that alarmed him.  Ashley had seen him flinch away and had removed her hand immediately, realizing her error, "I'm sorry...  I didn't mean to startle you."

He nodded, still shaking slightly, "I know."  He fell silent.  Why couldn't he talk to these people?  He could talk to DECA and Alpha... but when it came to communicating with the other Rangers, his attempts always fell short.  He looked down, unwilling to meet Ashley's eyes.

Ashley leaned forward in her chair, "We want to be your friends, Andros - if you'll let us.  But we can't do all the reaching here.  One of these days, you're going to have to try to meet us halfway - if you really want friends."

Suddenly angry, Andros stood up from his chair and glared down at her, "I never asked you to come waltzing into my life!  Any of you!  I was doing just fine before you all came..."

Ashley, for once, refused to be baited.  She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest, "And I suppose you could have fought Ecliptor, Darconda, and Astronema - all by yourself.  Hmm?"  She raised an eyebrow at him.

Feeling his fists clench at his sides, Andros forced himself to relax - Ashley wasn't the enemy, "It isn't that...  Not - I mean - it's just..."  He turned away from the her so he wouldn't have to look her in the eyes as he spoke - and so quietly that she almost didn't catch it, "I've been alone so long...  I don't know how to be friends with other people anymore."  And for the first time in a long time - that truly seemed like a bad thing.

Ashley stood and approached him, "I'm willing to help you try, Andros...  If you'll let me."

Andros turned his head to look at her - her earnest eyes and beautiful features... and couldn't find it within himself to refuse her.  He gave her a flicker of a smile, and nodded.  She smiled at him, "OK.  Why don't you start by coming back down to the rec lounge and joining us all for a movie?"

He took one look around the bridge, and his mind made one last attempt to stay this action, ~Your duty!!  You should be planning your next move against Dark Spectre!~  He told it firmly to shut up as he held out his hand to Ashley, "I'd like that very much."

With a smile more brilliant than a thousand suns, Ashley took Andros' hand in hers and led him back down to where her friends - their friends - waited.

Cassie couldn't help it, nor could she hold it in any longer.  She burst out laughing.  It had been six months since they'd joined up with Andros and this was his first trip down to Earth.  They'd dragged him all around Angel Grove, eagerly showing him all there was to see in their hometown.  They had ended up at the Juice Bar near their old high school - and tried to introduce Andros to ice cream.  When he'd received the single-scoop vanilla cone, he'd stared at it as if he hadn't a clue as to how to go about eating it.

Carlos had been the one to realize that he probably didn't.  So, by virtue of example, he'd tried to teach Andros how to eat an ice cream cone.  He hadn't been very successful.  Andros had more of the ice cream on his hands and face than had ended up in his mouth and he was staring at the remainder with a very cross look.  Ashley had been the first one of them to crack up, nearly dropping her own ice cream in the process.  T.J. and Carlos had held out a little longer, and Cassie had been the last one to go.

Andros was now staring at all of them with a vaguely hurt look on his face.  Ashley, seeing the look, called the matron over and asked for a bunch of napkins, some water, and a dish.  She took the cone away from Andros and put it in the dish, then proceeded to help him clean up.  By then, the other three had calmed down.  He folded his arms over his chest, leaned back in his chair, and gave them all an angry, "Hmph."  Ashley offered him a spoon to finish his ice cream with and he just glared at her.  She grinned impishly at him and offered to feed him.

It was Cassie's private opinion that they made an adorable couple.  Andros had been so aloof from them for so long...  It was Ashley's careful coaxing that had finally pulled down his walls.  And he seemed to like her quite a bit - though he was taking his sweet time about admitting it.  Though it was no secret to any of the former Turbo Rangers that Ashley herself was head over heels for the Red Ranger.  And Cassie just thought it was all too cute.  But she'd always been a bit of a romantic.

Now that everyone else had finished their ice cream, it was decided that they should head to the beach for the rest of the afternoon.  No one had bathing suits with them, but they could still enjoy the fresh ocean air.  Cassie watched with a secretive smile as Ashley's hand automatically sought out Andros' when they stood.  She nodded happily - they definitely made a great couple.

Andros' thoughts were troubled as he walked down the California shore with Ashley's hand tucked securely into his.  He felt oddly like he was betraying someone by doing this - but as always, his mind refused to tell him who it thought he was betraying.  A tug on his hand brought him back to the present.  Ashley gave him a big smile and tugged him towards the ocean again - apparently everyone wanted to go wading.  He gave her a reassuring smile and allowed himself to be tugged - but he balked at taking off his shoes and socks and wading in.  Finally she gave up, pulled off her own footgear and splashed on in.

Andros settled down on a nearby rock to watch her and the others play.  He was glad that he'd allowed her to pull him into their close-knit friendship.  He couldn't recall ever being part of such a group.  It felt... wonderful.  But there was that damning feeling of guilt.  He let his head fall into his hands.

There was no doubt in his mind that he like Ashley - liked her a lot.  She was warm and fun, loving and considerate, but at the same time, fiery and protective.  She was everything he could possibly want in a woman - and he knew she felt the same about him.  But something held him back...  This misplaced feeling of guilt.  And he didn't know what to do about it.

A sudden frightened shriek split the air around him.  His head snapped up to identify the source.  A young woman in her twenties being attacked by...  Quantrons.  Damn.  The other Rangers saw it too and came scrambling out of the water.  Their eyes met and they fell into position behind Andros.  He pulled his arm into position, spoke the words to initiate the morph, punched in the sequence...  The power of the transformation washed through him leaving him clothed in his Ranger uniform, his helmet a reassuring weight on his head.  The five Rangers waded into the melee tossing Quantrons left and right.  Carlos led the remaining humans off the beach towards safer ground before returning to the fighting.

Somewhere in the middle of the fight, Andros became aware of another presence and turned to see... Darconda.  He growled and changed his trajectory to bring him into contact with the reptilian darklord.  They fought a fierce battle, but in the end there was no winner.  Darconda left the field, taking his servants with him.  The other Rangers stared about in confusion before pulling in closer to Andros and teleporting back to the ship.

The five Rangers gathered quietly together in the rec lounge.  Andros had fallen into one of his customary frustrated silences.  A condition that they were all too familiar with.  Though he had accepted being part of the group, Andros was still very much a loner.  His soul was sometimes so far away that they all had to wonder if anyone had ever managed to touch it.  Once they reached the rec lounge, they had all sat down around the table to ponder the sudden disturbing appearance of Darconda and Astronema's henchmen.  Carlos was the first one to speak.

"Why did they attack?  There was no monster, nothing there that they took, and they didn't manage to hurt any of us.  So what in the world was the purpose of that whole thing?"  He settled back with a confused look on his face.

T.J. nodded quietly, "And aside from that attack, we haven't seen much of Astronema in a while.  It could be that she's preparing for a major attack."

"Maybe Darconda just got frustrated with the waiting?" Cassie joked.  "I mean, we all know he's not the most patient of people."

Andros, who had been silent through all of this, suddenly stood up and walked over to the practice mats.  He stood still for a moment, as if he wasn't sure why he had gone over there, then began to run through a slow, relaxing kata - or the Kerovan's version of one, anyway.

The other Rangers exchanged anxious glances.  Andros had been in this funk since they'd left the Juice Bar and none of them knew what to do about it.  Ashley stood up and walked over to him, "Do you want to talk about it?"

Andros spared her a brief glance before returning to his exercise, "About what?"

She gave him a tolerant smile, "Whatever it is that's bothering you.  You've been moody since we left the Juice Bar."  She cocked her head at him, "Not still upset about the ice cream, are you?"

The abruptness with which Andros stopped his kata and the dark scowl he gave her once he did nearly caused Ashley to back up a pace, "No.  Look - I just want to be left alone for a while, OK?"  He turned away from her, "Like that's so much to ask for..."  It hadn't always been like this - of that he was certain.  Once upon a time, he'd had teammates -  a teammate? - who had known when he needed space.  Had known without asking.  He took another step away.  He didn't know when he'd become so convinced of the fact that he hadn't always been alone, but there it was.

The hurt look on Ashley's face just made him angrier, "OK, Andros...  If that's what you want.  We'll leave."  She spun on her heel and marched back to the other Rangers who had stood to meet her.  They had all heard the conversation and understood, though they threw him looks that were just as hurt and confused as Ashley's had been.  He slammed his fist into the wall.  Did none of them ever need time alone??  Granted he seemed to need private time a lot more than anyone else he'd known, but still...  Growling quietly to himself, he settled back into his kata, trying to calm his raging thoughts and roiling emotions, and praying all the while that this time he'd be successful.

Cassie and T.J. strolled quietly through the corridors of the Astro Megaship, each intent upon their own thoughts.  The tension between the four ex-Turbo Rangers and the Red Ranger had peaked unexpectedly and Andros had almost completely withdrawn back into himself.  Not a one of them knew what to do about it.  It was almost as bad as when they'd first gotten there.

When he thought about it, T.J. could almost feel guilty.  As he'd reminded them countless times in those first few months, Andros hadn't asked for their help.  Hadn't wanted it or needed it.  What he needed (or so he claimed) was his solitude.  And the four of them had come barging in on him, forcing him to tear down every mental wall he'd ever built against the outside universe, without even questioning why he'd built those walls in the first place.  They just weren't used to having a team member that wasn't completely part of the team.  They hadn't been happy about it and they'd pushed and pulled until Andros had opened up to conform to their standards.

For the first time, T.J. had to wonder if maybe that had been a bad decision.  Maybe Andros was right when he said he needed solitude above anything else.  Certainly his display this afternoon had proved his point.  But no human being should go through his life without friends and companionship - no matter what evil secrets lay in his past.  And he and Ashley had seemed to be on the verge of reaching a mutual understanding, too.

Ashley had left the rec lounge with the suspicious gleam of unshed tears in her eyes.  She had headed straight down the halls and immured herself in her quarters.  Carlos had silently volunteered to go talk to her.  After waiting outside her door for a few minutes, she'd let him in and neither one had been seen since.  That had left Cassie and T.J. to themselves, and having nothing better to do, they'd taken the opportunity to wander the ship and explore the corridors that they hadn't been to.  Thus far, they'd found nothing of real interest.

Cassie suddenly broke the silence, "This really stinks."

T.J. raised an eyebrow at her and smiled, "Care to elaborate on that?"

She blew out a breath, causing a few wisps of hair to float on the created breeze, "A lot of things stink around here, but right now - what really stinks - is Andros.  I mean, I can understand the guy needing some quiet time, but does he have to be so rude about it?  He really hurt Ashley's feelings."

T.J. nodded, "You'll get no arguments out of me about that, Cassie.  But there's really nothing we can do about it.  Andros is Andros - and he isn't likely to change."

Cassie frowned, but kept her peace.  It just wasn't worth getting into an argument about.  She stretched her hands over her head and cracked her back.  Even she was feeling the tension in the group these days.  Before she'd been drawn into the perils of Space, she'd had a way to relieve the tension.  Whenever it got too bad, she'd wander into one of her favorite karaoke clubs and sing her heart out until the tension ebbed.  She snorted quietly.  No karaoke clubs on the Astro Megaship...

As they passed down the darkened corridor, Cassie suddenly noticed something different.  She turned to T.J. to ask if he'd felt it - the gentle hum of the ship's engines felt different in this corridor, somehow.  She looked at the labels on the doors - the medlabs.  Fortunately, none of them had needed to use these facilities since they began their stay.  The sudden image of T.J. or Ashley - or any of the team - coming back from a fight so badly injured that they needed a hospital made her shudder.

T.J. was already walking through one of the doors, curious as to what an "alien" hospital would look like.  In the past, he'd had aspirations of becoming a doctor.  Now, with Dark Spectre to fight, his dream seemed to be a long way off, and he wondered if he'd ever reach it.  He noticed Cassie seemed a bit reluctant to follow him inside and wondered what was on her mind.  She gave him a reassuring smile and waved at him to continue.

He smiled and began searching through the medlab - it was amazing.  There were healing tools in that room that he could not even begin to identify.  "DECA - was there ever a doctor on the crew?  Or do the Rangers do that themselves, as well?"

DECA's reply sounded odd, even to him, "In the past, my skills have been adequate to see to the Rangers' needs."

Her voice, normally a calm, serene alto, was unusually flat.  As if he weren't talking to DECA, but a plain old computer.  Almost as if... her attention was elsewhere?  Suddenly, the door to the medlab slid shut, trapping he and Cassie inside.  They exchanged worried looks.  Cassie spoke up, "DECA?  DECA?"  There was no response.

DECA had had her attention focused in the medlabs all morning, her circuits nearly frying themselves with excitement.  She had pulled her full awareness into the small healing chamber, leaving the computer to handle the Rangers' needs on its own.  The alarms she'd set two years ago had finally gone off this morning.  She hadn't thought it would take so long, but better late than never, right?  After two years healing in a cryogenic sleep, the Silver Ranger would return.  And Andros...  He'd been struggling so hard these past years.  Having the new Rangers around had been good for him - but it wasn't enough.  Zhane still held Andros' soul in his keeping.

A sudden movement in the cryogenic chamber forced DECA to focus her thoughts.  She slowly unlocked the tube and opened the top, peering down at the sole occupant.  Zhane's eyes blinked open and she bit back a cheer.  He needed to fully wake up in his own time - and when he needed her, she'd be there.

She withdrew slightly, to give him some measure of privacy, only then noticing the Blue and Pink Rangers standing about in the outer medlab.  Oh dear...  They had been locked inside when Zhane had woken up - she'd locked the door to keep Zhane from leaving before she deemed him fit to be up and about.  Doubtless, they'd have questions.  She heaved a small sigh - or the closest approximation she had to one.  They could wait.  Zhane was her top priority at the moment - everything else could wait.

He blinked bleary eyes up at the overhead lights.  The last thing he remembered was the fight on KO-35...  He and Andros had been fighting, there'd been an explosion...  He closed his eyes again, shuddering.  That was a memory he had no wish to explore in any detail.  His body had been so racked with pain that it had sent him spiraling down into the depths of unconsciousness - and even there he couldn't escape the agony of his tortured body.  An indeterminate amount of time later he'd felt a coldness seep into his body.  It pushed back the pain, but brought such a terrible numbness that he'd panicked.  He couldn't move, he couldn't breathe - he couldn't get out!  And his desperate mental pleas to Andros had fallen on deaf ears.  Andros couldn't hear him.  Fortunately for him, his body had shut down into some sort of coma, leaving his mind drifting easily in its hammock - unable to do anything, even care, as his body healed.

He slowly pushed himself up into a sitting position, swinging his legs over the side of the tube and resting his feet on the floor.  Despite his coma-like state there was one thing of which he had been aware... Andros hadn't been there.  And he'd never felt so alone in all his life.  A lump formed in his throat and he pushed it back down - now was not the time for tears.  If he missed Andros, then the easiest way to remedy the situation was to find Andros as quickly as possible.  A quick look around showed that he was in one of the smaller medlabs - and it had been greatly transformed.  A wry smile formed on his lips, Always knew the old girl was hiding some pretty great things.  I'll have to thank her for saving my life.

Another sweep of the room revealed one of his black and silver flight suits laid out on a table in the corner.  A brief glance down showed him to be covered in the cryogenic sheet - and not much else.  Despite the fact that he was alone in the room, he blushed.  DECA had promised not to spy on him when he and Andros were together, but she'd never said anything about not spying on them when they were alone...  He gathered the sheet around his hips and pushed himself slowly off the table, almost toppling over when he finally stood up.  Damn...  How long have I been out?  Weeks?  Maybe months...

He shuddered slightly before trying to regain his balance.  His mind was a total blank - he didn't know how long he'd been in here, or where Andros was.  He was mildly amused to note that he was far more concerned about the latter than the former.  Shaking his head at his own anxiety, Zhane slowly made his way over to the other side of the room and pulled on his clothing.

It wasn't until he was fully clothed and lacing up his boots that DECA made her presence felt.  A single red eye poked itself out of the wall and regarded him.  He gave her a beaming smile and opened his mouth to speak.  Only a dry cough came out.  At his alarmed look, DECA quickly provided a cup of tea, her serene alto a soothing counterpoint to the calming influence of the drink, "You have not used your body in some time, Zhane.  You are bound to have some difficulties."  She paused, then spoke again, "It is truly wonderful to see you awake."

Unlike his broody partner, Zhane had always found DECA's mothering attitude to be comforting, warm.  It was nice to know that the ship you lived in looked to you as the "children" it could never have.  He could rely on DECA - as he did on Andros - to keep him safe.  And he... well, he loved her for it.  Once he'd finished the tea, he felt ready to have another go at talking.  His voice was quiet and husky, but usable, "DECA...  If I could, I think I'd hug you.  Thank you."  He gave her a genuine smile before a look of concern crossed his face, "I do have a question, though..."  He swallowed hard, "DECA - I was in a cryogenic sleep...  How long was I under for?"  He dreaded the answer, half-expecting her to tell him he'd slept one hundred years.

Her answer was nowhere near as drastic, but it still rocked him to the core, "Two years...?  I was out for..."  If he hadn't already been sitting down, his knees would have buckled.  He almost didn't dare hope for a favorable answer to his next question and cursed his wavering voice, "Andros...?"

Was it his imagination, or did DECA sound smug?  "Is alive and well and on the bridge."

He let out his breath, only then realizing that he'd been holding it, "How...  How has he been holding up?"

The computer hesitated, "He...  Zhane...  Oh dear.  Please, don't take this the wrong way."  It sounded almost like a prayer, "He - I think he's forgotten you, Zhane..."  Zhane felt his face drain of all color and couldn't work up the courage to say anything.  Such a possibility had never entered his thoughts.  Andros - forgot me?  He felt a knot form in his throat and angrily pushed back the tears - there must be a reason...  But even as he thought it, he knew what had happened.  This time the tears escaped and leaked down his cheeks.  But they weren't for him...  No, never for him.  Oh Andros...

He could almost see it happening - Andros, thoroughly grief-stricken by what he thought was his partner's death, walling off his emotions again.  And walling them off to the point where he blocked the memory from his own self.  Well damned if I'll let him get away with that!  He stood up, a determined look on his face.  Time to pay a visit to the bridge, I think...  He pushed open the doors, unheeding of DECA's sudden plea for him to wait - and stopped short, staring in confusion.  Sitting with their backs resting against the medlab door were two humans.  A girl and a boy wearing flight suits identical to Andros', but with pink and blue shirts respectively.  His mind reeled and he fell back against the wall.  New Rangers...  Andros found people for the other Astro Morphers...  He took in deep breaths of air, trying to calm his whirling thoughts - and failing miserably.  He just stared at the new blue and pink Rangers, only dimly feeling his body slide to the floor - it was too much.

Cassie gasped and T.J.'s head jerked up to follow her line of sight.  There, standing in another doorway - was a complete and total stranger.  He wore a flight suit that was identical in style to theirs, but his shirt was silver and the rest of the suit was jet black instead of the usual gray.  They watched as he stared at them, falling back against the wall behind him.  Their gazes locked for a few moments, then he slowly slid down the wall to land with his knees to his chest, his arms locked around them, and his head buried between his knees.

Cassie rushed over to him, but before she reached him, one of DECA's eyes slid out to regard them both before turning to the newcomer, "Zhane?  Are you all right?  Oh dear...  I tried to warn you, you know.  This is T.J., the Blue Ranger, and Cassie, the Pink Ranger.  Carlos and Ashley, the new Black and Yellow Rangers are elsewhere at this time.  You have nothing to fear from them.  They are from Earth."

The newcomer - Zhane - raised his eyes to meet their concerned ones and slowly let out the breath he'd been holding.  His voice, still husky and quiet, was shaking as he spoke, "Guess I missed out on a lot more than I thought I did in the last two years..."  He gave them a shaky smile and held out a hand to T.J., "My name is Zhane.  I'm the Silver Ranger."

T.J. smiled and shook his hand warmly - so unlike Andros, this one was!  "It's a pleasure to meet you, Zhane.  We didn't mean to give you such a fright."

Cassie held out her hand and Zhane raised it to his lips to give it a light kiss.  A broad smile broke out on her face, "Though I'll admit, you gave us almost as bad a fright as we gave you!  We didn't know anyone other than ourselves and Andros lived on the Astro Megaship.  He never mentioned you."

Zhane's face went a little paler and his voice was even more quiet when he next spoke, "Andros...  To say that he has mental problems is such an understatement it isn't worth making.  He...  Well, he thought that I had died - he didn't know DECA managed to save me while I was in the cryogenic sleep tube.  And he was so badly hurt - you must know how he walls off his emotions...  Well, he likely suppressed his grief until the memory of me was buried with it."

T.J.'s eyes were sympathetic, "You were close?"

Zhane just nodded, unwilling to discuss his relationship with Andros with these new Rangers - who for all intents and purposes were strangers to him.  After all, while most of the people of the Kerovan system were fairly open minded where matters of sexuality were concerned, he didn't know how the people of Earth felt about it.  And he didn't want to cause problems if it wasn't necessary.  "DECA said that he's on the bridge...  I should go see him, talk to him.  This is going to come as something of a shock..."

DECA's warm chuckling filled the room, as she mimicked his still husky tones, "That is such an understatement it's not worth making...  I've been waiting for this for two years..."

Muttering darkly about DECA being an irrepressible matchmaker, Zhane pushed himself up off the wall and straightened his clothing.  Time to go find Andros...

Andros looked up irritably as the bridge doors slid open, reminded of an earlier time.  Sure enough, Ashley walked through the doors to sit down next to him.  In answer to her unspoken question, Andros said, "No, I still don't want to talk.  I just want some time alone.  It's nothing against you, or any of the others.  I just need some quiet time to myself."  His voice was almost pleading as he turned to face her, "Is that so hard to understand?"

To his relief, she shook her head "no".  She sighed, "No, Andros, it isn't.  It's just that none of us are used to a Ranger who doesn't want to be completely part of the team.  We're not used to one of our own keeping secrets from us."

He nodded, "Fine.  But I've been fighting alone since I became a Ranger..." Part of his mind balked at that thought - the part that always tried to remind him that he hadn't always been alone - then refused to allow him further information.  "That's over 9 years, Ashley.  Suddenly having four of you underfoot and in my business is extremely hard to get used to."  His voice dropped to a whisper, "I never meant to hurt you, Ashley - I like you.  All of you."

Before she could answer, the bridge doors slid open with a gentle hiss.  Andros could almost feel DECA staring at him and he turned slowly to see who had walked in on them.  His jaw fell open and he lurched out of his seat, suddenly placing the quiet voice in his head that always insisted on telling him he hadn't always been alone.  It was as if a wall came crashing down inside his mind and a flood of memories poured out...

...Their first meeting on KO-35 - he'd been an orphan and the Pink Ranger had taken an interest in him - but Andros had been more interested in the son - who already carried the aura of a Silver Ranger at only 5......Years of separation ending when the two Rangers kept their promise to come back for him only 7 years later......Receiving their Astro Morphers from the dying Pink Ranger......Taking up residence on the Astro Megaship......awakening that night to feel that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong......sending out a questing thought and following it to find his new partner weeping over the loss of his father....awkwardly trying to comfort him, holding him until he stopped crying and fell asleep......slowly opening up and letting the Silver Ranger in, ~feeling~ for the first time in years......happiness.....then later - shock, utter shock - he loves me???  How can he???......fear, pulling away - seeing the hurt on the other's face......slowly breaking down over the course of the next few months......such happiness as he'd never known could exist......being safe and warm, tucked firmly into the comforting circle of his partner's arms, knowing he'd never be alone again......then a horror worse than he'd ever known......dead...dead...dead...

The thought kept repeating itself over and over in his mind, Deaddeaddeaddeaddead ...NO!!  His hands rose up to clutch his head as his mouth opened in a silent cry.  He was dimly aware of Ashley anxiously clutching his arm and asking if he was all right - and then...  He was there, in front of him, understanding in his eyes.  An understanding he'd never seen anywhere else but in those gentle brown orbs.  His hands slowly dropped from his head onto the other's shoulders, his own gaze locking with those gentle chocolate brown eyes.  He could barely make his voice work and the word came out as a choked whisper, "Zhane...?"

That was all the encouragement the Silver Ranger needed.  He'd never been able to resist - not where Andros was concerned, and especially not when that sweet voice rang with pain.  He enfolded Andros into his arms and held him tight.  Gods, but I've missed this...  He could feel Andros shuddering in his embrace, little gasping breaths choking his voice.  He just held the other Ranger, slowly stroking his back and hair until the shuddering eased some.  He barely noticed as DECA asked the others to please leave the bridge, but he was grateful for her intervention.  The bridge doors swished open, then closed - they were alone.  Even DECA withdrew her "eyes" from the bridge.

Zhane turned his attention back to his partner.  It was a hazard of being Andros' friend - when the boy fell, he fell hard.  He was so used to shutting away everything he felt, that when he was finally able to let it go, he broke down with a vengeance.  And Zhane hadn't been here to make him let go in over two years...  He pulled Andros tighter against him, making soothing sounds as he rubbed his partner's back.  This was gonna be a tough one...  "Andros...  It's OK, I'm here - I'm not dead, I never was.  DECA healed me...  I told you I'd never leave you.  Why don't you listen?"  He laughed a little bit, "You always were stubborn."  He felt Andros nod his head slightly on his shoulder and tucked him more securely into his arms, "It's all right, you know.  This is me...  Let it go, Andros."

Andros shook his head, mutely, and tried to pull away.  Zhane let him, but only to a point.  He kept his hands on his partner's shoulders as Andros angrily wiped his eyes on his sleeve.  Zhane "tsk"ed at him, "You never learn, do you?  Bottling these things up doesn't help - you should know that by now."

But Andros had been fighting for calm and had finally gotten a tenuous grasp on it.  He looked up at Zhane, the wonder not completely shuttered as he lifted a hand to run his fingers over Zhane's face, "How?  How did you survive?"

Zhane laughed, "Not only are you stubborn, you're a rotten listener."  His grin widened at Andros' angry scowl, "DECA fixed me up - I told you.  Took her damned sweet time about it, but got the job done just the same."  He thumped one hand against his chest, "See?  Good as new!"

Seeing Zhane's exuberance, Andros couldn't quite prevent the smile that fought to lift the corners of his mouth.  Zhane pointed a finger at him, a knowing smirk on his face, "The world must be coming to an end!  I see a smile!"  He laughed as Andros batted his hand away, then sobered slightly, "Do you want to talk about it?"  Those quietly spoken words were always dangerous ones around Andros.  Andros never wanted to "talk about it" - that was pretty much a given.  But it never hurt to ask.  It would save him the trouble of having to forcefully yank it out of his friend later...

Andros frowned and shook his head, "No, I don't want to talk about it.  Why do you always ask?"  The sudden thought that Zhane hadn't been able to ask in two years came unbidden to his mind and his breath caught at the pain induced by that simple statement.  Zhane caught it and shook his head sadly, smoothing Andros' hair back from his face, saying with a look that he understood and wouldn't push - at least not now.  Andros allowed himself to be tucked back into Zhane's arms and buried his face into the crook of Zhane's neck, breathing in his smell as deeply as he could.  He missed this...  the feeling of being protected, of being understood without needing to explain.  Zhane knew exactly how far he could push, exactly what to say when he did, and when it was time to back off and leave him alone to think.  He let his mind drift as Zhane's hands continued to make comforting circles on his back, slowly soothing him into a deep slumber - which it didn't occur to him to fight until it was too late.

When Andros fell asleep, Zhane lowered him slowly back into the center seat of the bridge, then turned to one of DECA's eyes, his own mournful, "DECA...  He's a damned mess!  Why does he do this to himself?  Man...  If it wouldn't make matters worse, I think I'd smack him."  He turned back and quietly regarded his sleeping friend, "I didn't plan this very well, did I?  Now I've got to carry him back to our room..."

DECA refrained from pointing out that Andros had been sleeping in his old room since Zhane had been injured.  It wouldn't do any good to point out such trivial details - and Andros needed the sleep, no matter where he got it.  "Should I ask one of the other Rangers to assist you?"

Zhane bristled slightly, then laughed at his own reaction.  It was stupid to get jealous - wasn't it?  Especially of a young girl with brown hair and laughing eyes - and a yellow Astro Morpher.  He lifted Andros into his arms, not surprised to find that he was lighter than he had been two years ago.  He moved slowly, so as not to wake him and headed down to his quarters.  They were just as he'd left them - rumpled sheets included.  He laughed slightly at that reminder.

He laid Andros down on the bed and undressed him swiftly, in spite of all the years of lost practice.  He grabbed an old set of his own sweats and pulled them onto Andros - nights here could get chilly and Andros always seemed to be cold.  He tucked the blankets up around Andros' shoulders, then watched with a smile as his partner shifted until he was comfortable.  He grabbed another set of sweats and headed to the bathroom - he had an appointment with that shower that was long overdue...

He stood under the pounding hot water for far longer than was necessary.  Intellectually, he knew that the cryogenic field would have kept him perfectly clean and sterile, but it was hard to think that you were clean after not having showered for... two years.  He shivered slightly in spite of the heat of the water.  Just the thought that he had missed two years of his life...  He almost laughed - when he had met Andros, the other boy had been two years younger than he.  He had been a mature five compared to Andros who had been only three.  And now...  Now, they were the same age.  Both nineteen.  He shook his head.  What a strange thought...

He turned off the water and toweled off vigorously before dressing in his old sweats and heading back out into his room - their room.  Now that was another problem...  He sat down in his armchair and pulled on a pair of warm socks before tucking his legs up into the chair.  Since Andros had repressed the memory of his existence, it was pretty obvious that he hadn't told the others what the nature of their relationship was.  And it was clear to Zhane, at least, that not all systems were as open-minded as the Kerovans were when it came to matters of sexuality.  This was bound to be uncomfortable, at best.  He sighed.

If he were honest, he'd admit that he didn't care one iota what the Earthers thought of them - except that beyond all expectations, they had crept into Andros' closely guarded heart.  Certainly he was jealous - after having Andros to himself for 7 years, he was allowed to be jealous...  But causing a rift between Andros and his new friends was not only unfair, it was downright wrong.  He hadn't spent 7 years trying to heal his friend's battered psyche just to go and screw with it himself...  So, he'd just have to make friends with these new teammates - and he wasn't so blind that he didn't see what an advantage having 4 more Rangers would be.  Well then.  That's simple enough.  But if they really have managed to creep into Andros' heart, then it would kill him for them to reject him.  So, I have to feel out this situation carefully before I decide what I can safely tell them.

His mind finally feeling at ease, Zhane turned to watch Andros sleep.  A small, possessive smile crept across his lips - Andros was just so adorable when he slept...  He leaned over to watch his partner, the soft, quiet breathing, the calm, happy  innocent-seeming face - for once, untroubled by nightmares, and that exotic looking hair of his...  The smile deepened - no doubt in his mind, Andros was absolutely gorgeous.  And he had an inner beauty that far exceeded his outer beauty.

He reached a hand forward to push an errant lock of hair out of Andros' face, and his heart nearly burst when Andros turned and leaned into the touch, murmuring his name into the silence of their quarters.  He couldn't help it, he leaned over his sleeping partner and pressed a light kiss to his forehead.  He stood, still smiling, and looked at the chronometer - it was still fairly early, the others might still be up.  May as well go make the proper introductions...  With one last tender kiss for Andros, Zhane walked out of his quarters.  Once outside, he called quietly to DECA, "DECA...  If he looks like he's waking up, let me know.  I want to be here when he does."

DECA's voice was tender as she responded, "Of course, Zhane.  The other Rangers are in the rec lounge."

With a small laugh for DECA's foresight, Zhane moved off down the corridors, feeling as if he hadn't even been gone a week - much less the two years he had been gone.  Well - I still have a lot of catch-up work to do...  And I'll start with the new Rangers.

The door to the rec lounge swished open and its four occupants jerked their heads up to see who it was.  Old habits insisted it had to be Andros... but it wasn't.  Ashley stood up and walked over to the newcomer, eyes lit with curiosity.  He was blond, and dressed in an old grey sweatsuit.  And he was rather handsome, as well...  Were there no shortage of handsome men in space?  She laughed to herself - she had her sights set on Andros, and there they'd stay.  It occurred to her that she didn't know the stranger's name.

Seeing her dilemma, Zhane gave her a wry smile and lifted her hand to his lips for a gentle kiss, "My name is Zhane, lovely lady.  I am the Silver Ranger and Andros' long-time friend."  He let go of her hand to smile at Cassie and T.J., "The Pink and Blue Rangers, I have met - but I haven't met the rest of you..."

Carlos stood and walked over to Ashley, who introduced them, "My name is Ashley - the Yellow Ranger.  This is Carlos, the Black Ranger."

Zhane nodded again to Ashley then shook Carlos' hand, "A pleasure to meet you both.  I'm sorry I couldn't join you when all of this started..."

Ashley, her curiosity getting the better of her, interrupted him, "Yes - where were you?  Andros never once mentioned you, and then - on the bridge earlier..."

Zhane heaved a great sigh, "Yes, I do recall.  I will explain what I can, but my memory is still somewhat patchy..."

Cassie frowned at the three, "Zhane, why don't you come sit down - you must have had a pretty exhausting day."

A laugh was her answer as Zhane took the proffered chair, "That I have...  Where do I start?"  He steepled his hands together and took a deep breath, "It all started 16 years ago.  I was five years old, the son of the Pink Ranger.  My father wasn't a Lightstar Ranger - but that's a whole other story.  Anyway, he was given the task of finding the people to whom the Astro Morphers would be given.  The Silver Astromorpher, " he held up his arm to show the morpher strapped to his wrist, "Identified with me almost immediately.  Naturally, he couldn't give it to me, yet - I was only five - but he set that one aside for the day I would be ready to wear it.  Andros was the only other Ranger we found.  He was three years old, and recently orphaned.  His twin sister had been kidnapped and his parents killed within 2 weeks of each other."

He paused to think about how much to tell them - there were things in Andros' past that no one had the right to reveal but Andros...  "He was in an orphanage and the Red Astro Morpher identified him as we were walking by outside.  We had no means to take him from that place - they already had an adoption lined up for him - so we were forced to leave him with only the promise that when it was time, he would be Called."  He stared down at his hands for a while, "I... I didn't see him again for seven years.  He had been such a bright and cheerful child...  I almost didn't recognize him when we met again.  He was only ten years old - but there was such age, such sadness in his eyes...  And he was so closed off from everyone.  My own father was on his deathbed, and it was Andros I wanted to cry for..."

He laughed dryly, "Kind of pathetic, isn't it?  And he gave me such a look of scorn - like I should be stronger than that because I was 12 years old - a full two years his senior...  That only made me want to cry for him all the more - because I knew he wouldn't."  He paused before continuing, "My father died that night.  He entrusted us not only with our morphers, but the rest of his mission.  DECA took us in, trained us, took care of us.  She was, in a way, trying to make up for the fact that between the two of us, we were missing four parents...  I loved her for it, but her mothering attitude used to drive Andros to distraction - still does from what I can see."  He grinned.

"Anyway...  We fought together ever since.  We couldn't find anyone to match up with the other four morphers, so we fought alone.  Just the two of us.  For seven years.  Then..."  His voice choked off unexpectedly.  He blushed a little as he fought for control, "Sorry...  I just..."  He took a deep breath and spoke quickly, not relishing the thought of dragging this out for much longer, "There was a fight, I got blasted by an explosion.  Andros thought I died - he was... he was devastated.  I remember sensing that much.  We always had a mental link between us - we could talk mind-to-mind when we needed to, as well.  And I had just enough energy left to sense what he was thinking...  It was like being sucked into a whirlpool of despair.  It was terrible.  I'd never felt such depth of emotion - or pain.  Even my own physical pain paled in comparison."

Though he had gone slightly pale, Zhane pushed on, "He put me in a cryogenic sleep tube - and DECA later figured out that I wasn't dead and she could heal me.  But Andros...  All the work I'd done to pull his walls down, those seven long years of pushing him to express his emotions rather than lock them all up inside...  It all went down the drain.  The walls went back up stronger than before and he pushed his grief down so hard that he buried the very memory of my existence with it."  He stopped, letting them absorb all of that.

It was Cassie who was the first to speak, "My god...  That's awful...  So - when he saw you on the bridge?"

He nodded, "Every memory he ever had that connected to me in any way came slamming down on him.  Sort of like being crushed by a 200 foot tsunami.  Needless to say, he was somewhat distraught afterwards."  He smiled slightly, "He's sleeping now - and I'd hazard a guess that he'll be OK.  He has been through worse, after all."

T.J. nodded slowly, "Why come to tell us all this?"

Zhane let out a nervous laugh, "I believe in being honest, so I'll tell you the truth.  Andros is rather fond of all of you - he let you in and that's saying quite a lot.  If you rejected him, or you and I didn't get along... to say that that would mess him up, well...  It's such an understatement that-- "

DECA finished the last part for him, "'s not even worth making."

Zhane scowled at the computer's red eye, "You're hysterical, DECA."  He turned back to the other Rangers who were slowly nodding, "So, as much as I may be a bit jealous of your presence..."  They all looked insulted at that.  "...which I think I have a right to be, by the way - I had Andros all to myself for seven years, after all..."  He gave them all a mischievous grin to take the sting out of his words, "I truly don't wish to have any quarrels with you.  You all seem like nice people, and any friend of Andros' is a friend of mine - especially if they're fellow Rangers who will help us fight Dark Spectre.  So, that's about everything."

Before they could ask anymore questions, DECA interrupted, "Zhane - you asked me to tell you if Andros appeared to be waking up..."

Zhane turned to regard her, "Yes...  I did."

The smirk in her voice was almost audible, "Well, he is."

Zhane mock-growled at her and laughed, "Got it."  He stood up and bowed to the other Rangers, "I'm going to make sure that he's all right after that scene earlier.  I would suggest that you all relax some and then head off to bed.  It's been an extremely long day for everyone, I think..."  With that, he got up and left, leaving the Rangers with quite a lot on their minds to think about.

Andros slowly opened his eyes, blinking blearily in the dim light of the room.  He felt a cool hand softly stroking his hair and turned to regard its owner, a bright smile lighting his features when he saw Zhane.  "Zhane...  I thought... I thought it might have been a dream..."

Zhane leaned forward and pressed a gentle, chaste kiss to Andros' lips, "Feel like a dream?"

Andros sat up in a rush, grabbing Zhane's face in his hands and kissing him with a passionate urgency that startled them both.  When they broke for air, Zhane was sure his mouth must be swollen from the force of that kiss.  He laughed throatily, "Guess not..."

Andros' cheeks turned a delicate shade of pink as he watched Zhane wrap his arms around him.  That wonderful, protected feeling again...  He murmured sleepily, "I could get used to this..."

Zhane laughed again, truly amused, "If I recall - you once were..."  His voice trailed off, and it was quiet when it emerged again, "I missed you, Andros.  Even though I wasn't fully aware of anything... I knew you weren't there.  I'd never felt so alone in all my life.  I don't ever want to feel that way again..."  It was only then that he realized how much he truly had missed his partner - the light prick of tears made itself felt just behind his closed eyelids.

Andros leaned up to wipe them away, "Don't talk about it...  Don't even think about it, Zhane.  Not now...  Please...  I just - I want to be happy..."

His voice was so small, his plea so heart-breaking that Zhane couldn't help but obey it.  Such a simple request...  I want to be happy.  And it broke Zhane's heart to think of how unhappy Andros must have been to actually voice that request out loud.  He nodded as he slipped into bed next to his partner - dare he still call him lover? - "OK...  You got it."  Andros' sudden chuckle caught him off guard, "What is it?  What'd I say?"

Andros shook his head as he tucked himself into Zhane's arms, head resting on Zhane's chest, "I only just realized that we're back in your room...  It's been a while since I've been in here...  And it hasn't changed one little bit..."

Still not quite understanding what Andros was getting at, Zhane raised an eyebrow, "Oh?  I was supposed to redecorate from the cryogenic sleep tube, perhaps?"

Andros just grinned and gave him a playful slap on the shoulder, "Nooo.  It's just nice, that's all.  Like old times...  Like nothing's changed.  It's nice, safe.  I like it."

Zhane hugged Andros closer to him and kissed the top of his head, "And they call me a sentimental idiot..."  They lay in silence a few minutes longer, each with their own thoughts swirling around inside their heads.  Zhane's kept banging up against one in particular.  Finally, screwing up his courage he said, "Andros?"

His lover's bleary-eyed gaze confirmed that he'd been all but asleep when Zhane had spoken, "Hmm?  Whazzup?"

Zhane took a moment to laugh at the oddity of slang coming from Andros, but sobered up quickly, "Ashley..."  It would've been impossible to ignore the sudden tensing of Andros' muscles under his hands, nor the immediate reaction of Andros trying to pull away from him.  Zhane would have none of it, he held Andros against him until he stopped trying to pull away and just collapsed back against his chest, "Andros - I know there's something going on between you.  I'm not angry - how could I be?  If I had really d-died..."  He swallowed hard, "I would've wanted you to find someone else.  Do you understand me?"

Andros nodded slightly against his chest, "I do.  But...  You're not dead."  Zhane nodded, but made no other response, waiting for Andros to continue, not even admitting to himself how afraid he was of the answer.  "We...  I think, if you hadn't woken up when you did - maybe we would have ended up dating.  I like her.  A lot."

Despite his brave words, Zhane felt his heart clench up when he heard that.  Ashley and Andros...  He had to admit they'd make a nice-looking couple...  He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat.  Oh God...

Andros felt Zhane's muscles tense up beneath his hands as he uttered those words and he cursed himself.  A surge of fear swept through his limbs and he froze for a moment.  A slight shift underneath him alerted him, Nonono!  Don't get up...  "Don't leave me..."  He didn't realize that he'd spoken aloud until Zhane turned fearful eyes in his direction.  "Zhane...  Please...  I-I do like Ashley - I owe it to you to be honest.  But whatever I feel for her..."  He swallowed - Zhane made this look so damned easy!  Just open your mouth and blurt out whatever you're feeling - how could this be so simple for Zhane and so damned hard for him??  His mouth worked, but he couldn't produce any sound, no matter how hard he tried.  They'd been lovers for two years and he'd never managed to say the words.  He'd always contented himself with the idea that Zhane said it enough for both of them - but now...  Their relationship was teetering on the brink of a major chasm and he knew he had to say it - now, or never at all.  I can't do this...

Zhane moved to get up again, and Andros desperately gathered up his courage and moved.  He landed straddled over Zhane's hips, pinning his shoulders to the bed with his hands.  He took a deep breath and slowly and deliberately said what he needed to say, "Whatever I feel for her...  is nothing compared to what I feel for you.  Maybe given half a chance it could be - but I don't intend to give it that chance.  I already have what I want."  He leaned down until his eyes were mere inches away from Zhane's brown ones.  Then, with his heart trapped somewhere in the vicinity of his throat, he whispered, "I love you."

His heart was rabbitting in his chest and he could barely breathe.  Why was that so damned hard to say...?  He looked down into Zhane's eyes - and found himself unable to catch his breath.  Zhane's eyes were shining - more brightly than Ashley's ever had - or maybe that was just his subjective judgment...  He loosened his hold on Zhane's shoulders and let his upper body fall to lay against his lover's.  Zhane's arms wrapped around his waist, tucking him securely against him.  Andros moved as if to lay back down next to him, but Zhane had other ideas...

Flipping them both so their positions were reversed, Zhane smiled down into his face, giving him a look of pure ardor.  He leaned down for a slow, passionate kiss that left them both a little breathless.  His voice was husky when he spoke again, "Do you have any idea how long I've been waiting to hear you say that?"

He gasped as Zhane slid his hands under his sweatshirt and then an answering smile lit up Andros' face, "I'm sure you're going to tell me..."

Zhane answered him the only way a wise man could.

The next morning, Andros walked up onto the ship's bridge with a lightness to his step that hadn't been there in two years.  He was whistling an upbeat folk tune that had been popular when he was a child.  For the first time in two years, he hadn't awoken to the feeling that something was missing.  He was tangled up in sheets and two pairs of arms and legs with Zhane's comforting warmth pressed against his back.  He'd never felt safer or happier in all his life.  It had taken them quite some time to wake up, shower and get dressed...  Once upon a time, he'd thought that sharing the shower would take less time than showering one by one...  A slight flush crept up Andros' cheeks - even though he'd been more than willing to play along.  He grinned - he'd forgotten how much fun waking up with Zhane could be...

He settled down into the center seat on the bridge, cup of tea cradled in his hands as always.  Nothing could bring him down from his high this morning - nothing.  Not even if...  He searched his mind for something suitably depressing and snapped his fingers as he found it.  Not even Astronema showing up on my bridge with an army of Quantrons and announcing that she was my long-lost twin and was going to kill me for the greater glory of Dark Spectre, could bring me down!  He paused in his thinking for a moment...  Could it even be possible?  That was the one place in the universe he hadn't bothered to look for Karone...  He shook the thought from his mind - it was too far-fetched.  No way was that possible.

He laughed a little, Gods...  But I could imagine the look on Zhane's face as I introduced them.  'Zhane, this is my long-lost sister, Astronema.  Astronema, this is my boyfriend, Zhane...'  He shook his head as he gathered up the reports for the day and began to read them, That would just be too funny...

A voice broke through his musings, "Care to share the joke?"

Andros nearly spilled his tea on himself as his heart leapt in his chest and began to pound unforgivingly - Ashley.  She walked up to him and took the mug away, placing it in its holder next to his chair, "You OK, Andros?  I didn't mean to startle you...  You just looked so happy, I wanted to know if you cared to spread the wealth..."  She gave him a sunny smile.

Andros suddenly felt slightly queasy.  Eh-heh...  Maybe I was wrong...  He managed to get his smile back and nodded to her, "I'm just really happy to have Zhane back, that's all...  I haven't felt this good in... well, in two years!"  His voice dropped down a bit, "I missed him so much, Ashley...  Even though I didn't consciously realize it..."

Ashley laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled when he didn't flinch or even tense at the touch, "I can tell.  You're a whole lot more relaxed with him around.  A lot less tense..."

A sinister little thought thread wove it's way through his mind, "*Getting laid ~is~ an excellent way to relieve stress...*"

When he recognized the mental voice as Zhane's, he turned beet red and mentally growled back at him, "*Zhane!  You...  you...  Lech!*"

An image of Zhane bowing happily presented itself to his mind.  With a sudden evil chuckle, Andros stretched out his rusty - but still strong - telekinetic powers.  Zhane had been working on his equipment earlier that morning - everything he owned was long overdo for refits...  But now - Andros concentrated and a slow grin spread across his face.  Zhane was running through a kata in the rec lounge - and the pool was just 10 short feet away...  He "lifted" Zhane and pushed him across the floor, happily dumping him into the pool.  Zhane's startled mental yelp was all the gratification he needed, but he couldn't resist a light-hearted mental raspberry.  Oh, it was indeed good to have Zhane back...

He turned back to Ashley and cleared his throat, "Sorry about that..."

She turned a quizzical look on him, "What were you doing?  You seemed to... I don't know - go away for a minute there..."

He smiled at her and nodded, "In a way, I sort of did...  Zhane and I have this mental link - we've always been able to communicate telepathically.  And well..."  He coughed lightly, "He was making some rather lewd jokes at my expense..."

Ashley grinned, "He seems like a very nice person - but you and he are almost total polar opposites..."

"That we are, Ashley, that we are..." he laughed.

Just as he was about to say something else, the bridge doors swished open.  Andros stood up to see who was at the door and barely managed to choke down a laugh.  Zhane looked like a drowned rat...  Zhane began advancing on him with a predatory look on his face.  Andros hastily began to back up, hands held out in front of him for protection, "Zhane...  Come on - it was a joke!  Can't you take a joke?"  Ashley looked more and more confused with each passing moment.

Andros kept backing up - right into the front console.  He skirted around it, losing precious inches to the still advancing Silver Ranger.  He began to sweat lightly - Zhane had that look on his face...  Seconds later, he was tumbling head over heels to the floor of the bridge.  He landed hard on his back with Zhane straddling his hips.  Zhane's arms were crossed over his chest and a smug smile was threatening to lift the corners of his lips upwards.  He spoke quietly, eyes glinting dangerously, "That was not very nice, Andros.  You owe me for that one...  big time."

Andros looked anxiously over in Ashley's direction before turning his eyes back to Zhane.  Zhane's mental voice broadcast itself into Andros' thoughts, "*I'm well aware of the fact that the Yellow Ranger is in the room, lover...  But you do owe me...  And I fully intend to collect...*"

Andros laughed nervously and nodded, "OK - you win...  I owe you."  Mentally he added, "*Why so vehement?  Disappointed you didn't get to be on top last time?*"  He watched with a gratified smile as the blush covered Zhane's face and swept up to his ears.

Zhane climbed off him and helped him to his feet, holding his hand just a little longer than necessary, "*I wouldn't be so cocky if I were you...  We'll see who has the last laugh, here.*"

Andros draped a companionable arm around Zhane's wet shoulders, "If I were you, I'd go shower and change before I catch a cold..."

Zhane blew a raspberry at him and headed back to his room mentally muttering at him as he left, "*Disappointed 'cuz I didn't get to be on top...  Hmph.*"  Andros just chuckled - this was going to be interesting...

Once Zhane had left, Andros turned back to Ashley who was quietly laughing in the corner - along with the other three Rangers.  He blushed, "I can explain..."

Carlos laughed, "I'm not sure I want to hear this..."

Cassie playfully slapped his arm, "Well I do!  I'm walking down to the rec lounge and all of a sudden Zhane goes storming by - soaking wet, mind you - and growling about getting Andros back for "this".  What did you do, Andros?"

Andros was beginning to think his cheeks would never cool down to their normal color, "Well...  Zhane and I are telepathic - at least with each other, and I've got the gift of telekinesis, even though I don't use it much.  While I was talking to Ashley, Zhane contacted me telepathically and made a few really lewd jokes at my expense.  So...  I "lifted" him and threw him into the pool..."

Cassie and Ashley burst out laughing again, and T.J. and Carlos exchanged a look.  T.J. raised an eyebrow, "Is that so?"

Andros nodded, then said hastily, "You know...  I probably ought to go make sure he's OK.  I-I'll be right back..."  With that last thought, he fled the bridge and made a beeline for Zhane's quarters.

Zhane stood under the stream of water and rinsed the shampoo out of his hair, feeling a little amused - what irony.  He'd been disgusted because he hadn't technically taken a shower in 2 years, and here he'd now had 4 of them in the last 12 hours.  Talk about making up for lost time...  He grinned as he heard the door swish open - Andros.  He deliberately took his sweet time finishing up the rest of his shower and toweling off.  He wrapped the towel around his waist and walked back into the main room, one hand holding onto the towel to make sure it didn't slip.  He was rewarded by Andros' appreciative look - it was somewhat gratifying to know that Andros liked to look at him as much as Zhane liked to look at Andros...

Andros watched as Zhane stepped out of the bathroom clad in nothing but a towel.  The extended time he'd spent in cryogenic sleep had frozen his body at nineteen years old - strange to think they were now the same age - and any excess fat had been burned away.  Not that Zhane hadn't always kept his body in good shape, but now...  He could have been a sculpture, he was so perfect.  And his hair was the same wheat blond it had always been - almost white - and still cropped short.  Funny how Zhane loved to see him with long hair but never wanted to be bothered with maintaining such a style for himself...  He let his eyes track to Zhane's face and was immediately caught by the warm brown eyes.  He sighed happily, knowing full well that he could stare into Zhane's eyes all day and not get bored.  It had been said that the eyes were windows to the soul.  Where Andros' were almost always shuttered and locked, Zhane's were thrown wide open to let the sun in - or perhaps let the sun out was a better description...

After taking another minute to admire his lover's body, Andros forced his mind back to the reason he'd come down here in the first place.  And that was...?  Oh boy.  It occurred to him that he might have come down here knowing that he'd find Zhane undressed from his shower, but quickly pushed the thought away, a light blush staining his cheeks.  He'd never realized that he had such a raging libido until he met Zhane.  Though he was sure that most of that was Zhane's fault.

Zhane raised an eyebrow at the blush and shifted his weight to rest on his left leg.  Wonder how he's going to explain this one...  Does he think he needs to apologize?  He allowed himself a mental chuckle before speaking, "Was there something you wanted...?"  He shifted his weight again, deliberately letting the towel slip a little lower on his waist.

Andros swallowed hard before answering, "I...  I wanted to apologize?"

Zhane smirked, "You did, did you?  Why?  I'll be the first to admit that I deserved it...  Though cold showers are generally easier to come by than cold baths..."

Andros' blush deepened, "Well - OK, you did deserve it.  I just... wanted to see if you were OK?"  He looked hopefully up at his partner.

Zhane laughed, "Andros - a cold dunking isn't going to kill me.  And the pool water isn't even that cold - DECA keeps it at 80 degrees."  The smirk replaced itself on his face, "Admit it - you just wanted an excuse to come stare at my half-naked body."  He waggled his eyebrows at Andros, who hid his head between his knees.  Zhane strolled over to the couch and sprawled next to him, a teasing lilt in his voice when he spoke, "It's perfectly healthy, you know.  You're young, I'm gorgeous - it's perfectly natural."

Andros raised his head long enough to "lift" a pillow and smack Zhane in the face with it.  Zhane caught the pillow and grinned, "Why are you so embarrassed?  I'm perfectly willing to admit that I grab every chance I can to ogle you..."

Andros stared at him in disbelief, "But...  It's not the same thing!"

Zhane draped an arm around Andros' shoulders, pulled him in, and lightly kissed his forehead before standing to go rummage in his closet for a clean flight suit.  He continued speaking as he flipped through his different outfits, "You know, Andros - I meant what I said.  It is perfectly healthy - and at the risk of sounding unromantic... it's also an excellent stress reliever.  Think about it - you spend most of your life running about the universe playing target for Dark Spectre's goons.  Giving in to your sex drives is a great way to remind yourself that you're alive."  He pulled a flight suit out of his closet and began getting dressed, staying inside the walk in closet to spare Andros any more embarrassment - it was cute, but he didn't want to take it too far.  Once he was fully clothed he walked back over to the couch and sat down again, a contemplative look on his face.  Hmm...  I think I may know why he came down here, even if he doesn't...  He spoke softly, not wanting to spook Andros any more than necessary, "Besides - I went 'missing' on you for two years - you're allowed to not want to let me out of your sight."

Andros head jerked up and his eyes widened.  That last statement...  it had such a ring of truth to it.  Sure, catching Zhane fresh from the shower had been a nice side benefit to rushing down here... but the truth of the matter was that he just didn't want Zhane to be anywhere where he couldn't readily see and touch him.  And the strain of having to hide that relationship from the others...

Zhane nodded once, "That's the problem, isn't it?"  He pulled Andros back into his arms and rubbed soothing circles around his back, "I'm not going to leave you, you know.  You're stuck with me, love.  Nothing's going to change that.  But if it makes you feel better, I'll try to stick closer to you, OK?"

Andros nodded once, then just rested against Zhane's shoulder.  It took a supreme effort of will not to point out that Zhane hadn't chosen to leave him the last time.  He lay there for who knew how long, just basking in Zhane's presence.  Sheesh...  How pathetic.  I feel like some attention-deprived puppy dog...  At least I'm sure _acting_ like one...  And yet, he felt absolutely no desire to move from his position.

Zhane held his lover close, starting to wonder exactly how long Andros planned to sprawl all over him.  DECA saved him the trouble of having to ask.  Her gentle voice held an air of urgency that Zhane hadn't heard in two years, "Andros, Zhane - Astronema has sent a squadron of Quantrons down to Earth.  Shall I alert the other Rangers?"

Zhane watched in bemusement as Andros snapped to alertness, surging off the couch and straightening his clothing as he pulled his hair back into a functional ponytail at the nape of his neck.  His voice was calm, unemotional, and commanding when he spoke, "No, DECA.  Don't bother them for now.  Zhane and I will go down and check out the situation.  We'll inform you if we need help."  He tossed Zhane a confident smile, "Think you're up to handling a few Quantrons?"

Zhane stood up and gave him a thumbs up, "You got it.  The Jump Tubes still active?"  At Andros' nod, Zhane smiled, "Well let's do it, then!"

Andros watched Zhane fighting off several of the Quantrons and forced himself to calm down.  Zhane is perfectly capable of handling himself in a fight, and he'd kill me if I tried to molly-coddle him.  Damn, Andros - calm down!  He pulled out the Spiral Sabre to block an attack by the Quantron nearest him.  They were tough - but Quantrons were never impossible to beat.  He and Zhane had fought - gods, it must be thousands of them, by now.  And Zhane had often outdone him in those fights - so there was no reason to be nervous, right?  He growled softly to himself, Now why can't I convince myself of that?

He fought down a surge of fear that rose up to freeze his muscles.  Oh no - not again...  Not again...  It was exactly as it had been two years ago - that surge of fear that turned out to be a dreadful premonition.  His eyes snapped up to locate Zhane on the battlefield.  I'll be damned before I let that happen again...  Finding his Silver-clad partner was easy.  A flash of the silver sabre took down another Quantron - but Andros wasn't convinced.  He fought his way to his partner's side, "Zhane!"

Zhane turned to face him momentarily before turning his attention back to the fight, "What?"

"I've got a really bad feeling...  Like that last time we fought - something bad is going to happen.  I want you to go back to the Astro Megaship - send the other Rangers down in your place."  It was the hardest thing he'd ever had to say - but it was for Zhane's own good.  Who knew what being in suspended animation for two years had done to him and his powers?  Besides, as the unspoken leader of the Lightstar Rangers, Andros had had to get used to making the tough decisions - and his gut instinct was telling him that something was dreadfully wrong with the Silver Ranger.

Zhane rounded angrily on him, looking like he was ready to explode.  Andros cursed the fact that their helmets were as dark as they were from the outside - he couldn't see Zhane's face.  Zhane stared at him for a few minutes, then spoke, his voice roiling with anger, "What right do you have to order me around like that?"  He practically spat the words out, as if they tasted bad.

Andros turned to fire his astro blaster at a Quantron intent on taking the Silver Ranger down from behind.  His voice hardened, "Zhane.  Don't be stubborn.  You know I wouldn't do this if I didn't have a good--"

Zhane's sudden cry cut him off.  The Silver Ranger wrapped his arms around his stomach, his knees buckling.  Cursing Andros dropped down next to him, he flipped up the Astromorpher and called the other Rangers, "Rangers!  We need some help down here!"  Seconds later, the other four Rangers had shown up and Andros was protecting Zhane - who had demorphed.  He fought on, but without his powers, he was no match for the rest of the Quantrons.

Once the Quantrons were defeated, Andros pulled off his helmet and threw it to the ground as he whirled to face Zhane, "What the hell were you thinking??  When I told you to go back to the ship, you damn well should've done it!!"

Zhane's eyes went wide - this was a side to his friend that he had seldom ever seen, and never had he seen it directed at him.  Andros was furious at him.  He backed up a pace, hurt shining from his eyes, "Andros..."

Andros grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him hard, "Don't you ever disobey orders like that again, do you hear me?  Ever!!  I am the Leader of this team whether you like it or not, Zhane - and I won't have you pulling stunts like this!  Got it??"

Ashley raised a hand to Andros' shoulder, trying to calm him down, "Andros!  Take it easy - it's not that big a deal...  Heck, we disobey you all the time!"  She tried to make light of the problem, but Andros would have none of it.  He shook off her hand, angrily.

Zhane frowned, then took a closer look at his friend - and understood.  Andros was angry.  Andros was furious.  Andros was one hell of a good liar.  All that anger was covering an avalanche of fear.  Fear of losing him again.  The thought made him smile, At least I know he really cares...

Andros growled at him, giving him another good shake, "You find this funny, Zhane??"

Zhane gave him another cheeky grin and tilted his head to the side, examining his friend's face, "You know, Andros...  You're cute when you're angry!"

Andros dropped him like a hot coal, his hands falling to his sides as his face flushed - half in anger, half in embarrassment.  His hands clenched into fists, "You...  Damn it, Zhane!  Can't you be serious for once??  You could have gotten killed!!"

Zhane lifted a finger to tap against his chin, and slowly nodded, "A distinct possibility, I'm sure.  However, I do not back out of fights - and you, Andros..."  He poked the Red Ranger in the chest, "...have never commanded me.  And I don't intend to let you start, now.  Am I clear?"  Andros growled unhappily, but nodded.  Zhane continued, "Good.  When we get back to the ship, I will have DECA and Alpha check me out and see what we can figure out, all right?  In the meantime... since we're here...  Why don't you guys take this opportunity to show me around your planet?"  He spread his arms wide and gave the 5 Rangers a broad grin.

Andros' anger visibly deflated, and he hung his head as he demorphed, "I give up."

Zhane laughed and draped an arm around his partner's shoulders, then scowled when he felt Andros' muscles tense up.  He punched his friend in the arm, earning him another sour look, "You know - you keep that up and your face might get stuck that way..."  He scampered out of harms way as Andros threw a punch at him, then walked over to slouch by Ashley, "Grouchy, isn't he?  Don't know what you see in him..."  He had a moment's gratification as both Andros and Ashley blushed.  He sent a thought in Andros' direction, "*Something wrong, lover?*" then grinned as Andros scowled again.  He turned back to Ashley, "So, my lady, what exactly is it you do for fun around here?"

Ashley looked him up and down for a moment, then her eyes lit up, "Wellll...  If you really want to blend in while you're here, we'll have to get you some new clothes."  Her eyes met Cassie's and she smiled, "Mall time!"

Zhane looked confused and Andros looked panicked.  He hid behind T.J., a pained look on his face, "Do we have to?"

Ashley laughed at his reluctance, "No...  You boys can go back to the ship - Cassie and I will take Zhane shopping.  Won't we Cassie?"  Not waiting for another response, she and Cassie each took one of Zhane's arms and led him off.

Andros straightened up from where he was "hiding" and scowled again for good measure.  Zhane and Cassie and Ashley...  Why did seeing the two of them hanging off the Silver Ranger leave him with such a bad taste in his mouth?  Am I... jealous?  Good gods... I am!  He frowned, I don't like this, at all.  And I don't like him walking around without his powers like that...  Damn.  "Ashley, Cassie, Zhane!  Wait up!"  He took off after them, trying to ignore Zhane's triumphant smile.  He draped an arm across Zhane's shoulders, "*Well, you're right - I don't want to let you out of my sight.*"  Zhane's brilliant smile was all the answer he needed.

Ashley nervously ran her hands through her hair.  Today was the day.  She was going to ask Andros out on a date.  She'd known him for months - and she definitely liked him.  Lately, though...  She shook her head.  The past couple of weeks - ever since Zhane had joined them, she'd seen less and less of Andros.  And his absence made her unhappy.  She wanted him to be her boyfriend - wanted to know that she could count on him to be there.  She smiled - before Zhane had come, she'd been positive he felt the same about her.  Now, though...  Having his old friend and partner back was taking up a good deal more of his time than she'd thought possible.  So, she'd just have to take the initiative.

Which is why I'm standing outside his door, thinking, instead of going in and asking him.  She frowned at herself, then took a deep breath and knocked.  No one answered.  She laughed, "Oh great - I'm standing out here, getting all nervous and he isn't even home!  Huh.  DECA - where's Andros?"

DECA hesitated before answering - she wasn't sure if he and Zhane had remembered to lock the door this time...  Oh dear.  She hedged, "Andros is not in his room."

Ashley blinked - this was certainly a first, "I know that DECA.  But where is he?"

DECA hedged again, If I were human, I'd surely be sweating by now.  "Andros is not on the bridge."

Ashley put her hands on her hips, "DECA!  Would you stop telling me where he's not and just tell me where he is?"

DECA answered helplessly, "Andros is not in the rec lounge..."

Ashley threw her hands up in despair, "Forget it!  I'll go find him myself."  Suddenly, she snapped her fingers, "Zhane'll know where he is!  I'll go ask him!"

DECA cursed to herself - that was not what she'd had in mind...

Ashley knocked on Zhane's door, "Zhane, are you in there?"

Zhane's muffled voice took a few minutes before answering her, "I'm sleeping, Ashley.  Go 'way..."

Ashley crossed her arms over her chest, "Zhane - come on.  I just have a quick question!  And it's only 8 PM...  Why are you asleep, already?  Are you feeling all right?  I thought DECA and Alpha fixed the problem with your powers..."

Zhane's voice sounded a little less muffled when he spoke next, "Ashley, I'm fine - just tired.  Ask your question, then go away!"

Ashley wasn't convinced.  Zhane's voice sounded extremely odd to her - he might be sick and just unwilling to discuss it.  She warred with herself for a moment - she could either take him at his word and leave, or she could override the lock on his door and go in to find out what was wrong.  She paced back and forth outside his door for a moment before speaking up again, "Zhane, are you sure you're OK?  You don't sound too good..."  Maybe he'd invite her in and spare her the decision.

Zhane's voice was still muffled when he spoke again and she heard a light bang from his room - as if he'd hit his head on the wall or something.  "Damn it!  Ashley, I'm fine - really.  There's nothing wrong - you're just being paranoid.  Why don't you just ask me your question, then go away and let me sleep?"

She still wasn't convinced - and she'd nearly forgotten her reason for stopping by in the first place.  Why had she?  Oh - right, to ask Zhane if he knew where Andros was.  But that didn't really seem so important right now.  If Zhane was really sick and wasn't telling anyone, it could affect the whole team - not to mention that Andros would never forgive her if something was wrong with Zhane and she didn't try to help.  Those two were so close...  Whenever she ever found the two alone and tried to join in on whatever they were up to, she always felt like she was intruding - there was almost no room for anyone else in a friendship that close.  It made her wonder if either would ever fall in love - she didn't know if they had enough room in their hearts for anyone else but each other, though for her own sake, she desperately hoped that Andros did.

She paced for another minute, still warring with her conscience about invading Zhane's privacy to see if he was OK.  A quiet groan from his room decided her - something was wrong in there and she was damn well gonna find out what.  She'd fight it out with her conscience later.  She punched her override code into Zhane's lock mechanism and walked into his dimly lit room, "Zhane, I don't believe you - why don't you tell... me...  Oh my God..."  Her voice trailed off and she stared, shell-shocked.  The object of her earlier search was laying on Zhane's bed, with Zhane pinned underneath him.  His jacket lay on the floor next to the bed along with Zhane's boots and jacket.  His shirt was untucked from his pants and his hair was mussed.  He spun his head around to face her, his hair fanning out behind him, shock in his eyes.  She barely managed to make her voice work, "Andros?"

He hastily got off the bed, a hand held out to her, "Ashley... I..."  Zhane sat up behind him, a sympathetic look on his face.  It was too much.  She clapped a hand to her mouth to muffle her sobs, spun on her heel and raced out of the room, not knowing where she ran, and not caring.  She ended up near her room.  She bolted inside and locked the door before throwing herself on her bed to cry her eyes out.

Andros stared at Ashley as she ran out the door.  He stood there for a few moments more before cursing loudly, tucking in his shirt, grabbing his jacket and running after her.  Zhane wisely decided to stay put.  This was their argument - if he tried to get involved, he'd likely just make things worse.  For now, he'd just concentrate on making himself look presentable...

Andros pounded down the corridor, jacket clutched in his hands and mind whirling, "DECA!  Where did she go?"

"I'm so sorry, Andros...  I tried to keep her away...  She's in her room, and she's very upset..."  The computer's voice sounded truly chagrined.

"Well, can you blame her??  Damn it..."  He changed direction and sprinted towards the Yellow Ranger's room, "Sorry, DECA...  I know it's not your fault."

When he reached Ashley's door, he knocked softly, "Ashley?"

Her voice was muffled, as though she were burying it in a pillow, "Go away!!  I don't want to talk to you!"

His breath caught in his throat and his heart started to race, "Ashley..."  He cursed the pain that he could clearly hear in his own voice, but nothing he did managed to suppress it, "Ashley, please!  Let me explain...  Please..."

He could hear her getting up and stomping towards the door.  He half expected her to throw something against it.  "There's nothing to explain!  If you'd rather b-be with him than m-me...  Then there's nothing I can do to stop you!  So just go AWAY!!"  She stomped away from the door and threw herself back down on the bed.

Andros dropped his head to rest on the door, feeling the life seep out of him with each breath he took.  He pounded half-heartedly on the door, whispering plaintively, "Ashley, please...  I can explain... Please give me a chance...  Please!"  No response.  He slid down the doorframe, clutching his jacket against his chest, "Please..."  Still no response.  A lead weight settled down somewhere in the vicinity of his chest, making breathing even more difficult.  He huddled against the door, feeling lower than a Putty.  This isn't fair...  I didn't mean to hurt her...

A pair of booted feet suddenly appeared in his line of vision.  He looked up, puffy eyes giving away his state of emotion as clearly as a road sign would have.  "T.J.?"

The Blue Ranger knelt down next to him, "What's going on, Andros?  Are you OK?"

He shook his head, not trusting his voice quite yet.  T.J. pulled the jacket out of his white-knuckled hands and draped it over his shoulders, rubbing his arms vigorously to try to  reassure him enough to allow him to talk.  He'd never seen Andros this distraught before - he had the sinking suspicion that the world was about to come to an end, or something.  Surprisingly enough, his ministrations worked.  Andros jerked his head in the direction of Ashley's door and spoke, his voice husky with repressed tears, "I need to talk to her."

T.J. frowned, wondering why Andros didn't just knock.  There must be more going on here than it looked.  Obviously, something terrible must have happened to affect Andros this badly.  His old leader instincts kicked in - his team was in trouble, and it was up to him to try to fix it.  He stood up and walked over to the door, knocking lightly, "Ashley?  Can I come in?"  When there was no answer, he punched in his override code to open the door.  He almost missed Andros mumbling something about, "I should have those damned override codes deactivated..."  He filed that away for future reference - maybe it had something to do with the current problem.  The door slid open and he stepped inside.  Ashley was sprawled on her bed, sobbing into her pillow.  He rushed over to her and laid a hand on her back, "Ashley?  Are you all right?  What happened?"

She sat up and whirled on him angrily, unconsciously echoing Andros' words and attitude of several weeks ago, "I don't want to talk about it!  God!  Why can't you understand that??"

T.J. was about to say something when Andros' quiet voice stopped him short, "T.J.  She has every right to be upset.  And - I have some explaining to do."  He took a step closer to Ashley, "If you'll let me?"

Finally calm, Ashley nodded, "You're right.  I should at least let you explain.  As a fellow Ranger, I owe you that much."

Andros jerked back as if she'd slapped him, but said nothing about it, "Actually, I think everyone should hear this...  If you could have all the Rangers meet in the rec lounge in 20 minutes, T.J., I would appreciate it."  He bowed slightly and left.

Carlos sat quietly in his chair, watching the other Rangers.  T.J. was sitting by Ashley, slowly rubbing her back and talking to her.  Cassie was standing anxiously by the Synthetron, playing with a glass of iced tea.  She'd ceased drinking it five minutes ago.  Carlos was just sitting quietly in his chair and waiting.  Considering the state Ashley was in at the moment, it didn't take much to figure out what was going on.  Maybe he was just more perceptive than the others, but it seemed intrinsically obvious to him that Andros and Zhane's relationship wasn't exactly what it had appeared to be.  He'd kept his opinions to himself, not wanting to cause trouble and not wanting to be in the middle of it if it erupted - and now he wondered if that had been such a good idea.  He could have saved Ashley a lot of pain and grief if he'd spoken up sooner.

Letting his head fall to rest on his right fist, Carlos tried to sum up the actual problem.  Ashley had seen something (involving Andros at the very least - and most likely Zhane as well) that had made her hysterical.  She was calmer now, but obviously still very upset.  She had fallen for Andros, and fallen hard.  And when Andros expressed a similar interest, the whole team had tried to push them together - and it had appeared to be working, too.  Until Zhane had awakened.  Then, all of a sudden, Andros' attention towards Ashley had retreated back to the same levels of feeling he showed all of them.  And no one had noticed it but Carlos - or so it seemed to Carlos.

He sighed, shifting to sit back in his seat.  To his mind, the timing of Andros' reaction had been too much to be mere coincidence.  Something about Zhane's appearance had caused Andros to cool down his attentions towards Ashley.  The question had been what was it about Zhane that caused Andros' sudden change of heart.  And Carlos had put two and two together and gotten five.  But still, even now, he kept quiet.  No use spreading rumors that might or might not be true...

Despite the preoccupation of everyone in the room with other tasks, they all heard the door swish open to reveal Andros and Zhane.  They looked at the four ex-Turbo Rangers, then shared a glance with each other.  And with that glance, Carlos was certain his suspicions had been correct.  Zhane walked over to one of the empty chairs and sat down, leaving Andros the sole holder of everyone's attention.  He spoke.

"I suppose you're all wondering why I asked you to gather here."  He took a deep breath and turned to Ashley, his eyes calm, "This is something I should have done several weeks ago - and I'm sorry that it had to go this far.  I - I never meant to hurt you, Ashley.  I liked you - I still do.  And maybe... maybe if I didn't already have someone, I would have asked you out."

T.J. butted into the conversation, "What do you mean, Andros?  I mean - there's a limited number of girls that you know and Cassie's still single.  You..."  His voice trailed off, then raised in shock, "You're not talking about Astronema, are you??"

Andros stared at T.J. for a moment, then burst into laughter.  It was as much hysterics as Ashley's earlier crying fit had been.  As he gasped for air, he managed to get out, "Astron-- you thought...  Oh gods!"  It took him a few minutes to get himself back under control, and once he did, he shook his head, "No, T.J.  Astronema and I are not lovers."

Cassie was the next one to speak up, "Well, then who is it?  Do we know her?"

Carlos had had enough.  This was ridiculous.  He stood up, immediately riveting everyone's attention upon him, "Sometimes I wonder if you people must be blind."

Cassie raised an eyebrow at him, "And I suppose you know who it is?"

Carlos nodded, surprising everyone, "I watch, Cassie.  It's pretty obvious once you know what to look for."  He turned from Andros to face Zhane, "Isn't it?"

Zhane, still looking surprised, nodded, "It is.  If you know what to look for."  He motioned for Carlos to sit down, then stood up and made his way to Andros' side to give his hand a reassuring squeeze.  He turned to face Ashley, "This wasn't the way that I'd have chosen for you to find out about this if I'd had a choice.  DECA put locks on the Astro Megaship doors for a reason, you know."  His eyes narrowed, "Maybe next time you'll listen when someone tells you to go away."

Andros put a restraining hand on Zhane's arm, "Zhane, stop.  She's been hurt enough as it is.  And she only overrode the door locks to make sure you were OK.  Her intentions were honorable.  So, lay off."

T.J. was still staring at them, "Wait a sec - let me get this straight.  Andros is with Zhane?  But...  Zhane's a guy!"

Zhane passed a mischievous smirk his way, "Last time I checked."

Andros swatted him on the head, then turned back to the shell-shocked group, "The people of the Kerovan system have always had a very relaxed opinion towards sexual preferences.  A great many of us are bisexual - though most would never admit it.  Maybe it's genetic or something...  I don't know.  But I do know that Earth's attitude towards such things is nowhere near as relaxed - and I had no way to predict how'd you'd react.  I decided that it was better to keep this secret until we had a better idea - it could be that I was gravely in error.  T.J. - you're always telling me that I need to trust my team more.  Well, maybe you were right.  I just hope you can find a way to forgive me for hurting you.  I never meant to."  With that, he fell silent.

Zhane picked up the slack, "If this really bothers any of you, I really don't know what we can do about it.  Andros and I were lovers for two years and best friends for five before that.  It's generally accepted around the galaxy that we come as a set - unless one of us happens to be dead at the time."  He flashed everyone a bright smile, "I don't know what we can do for you if you really can't accept this - so I suggest that you think long and hard before you make any damning kinds of decisions."  He pulled at Andros' arm, steering him out the door to forestall any further questions.  When Andros protested, Zhane touched his mind, "*They need to work this out amongst themselves.  We said what we needed to say, now it's up to them.*"

The four Rangers watched as Andros and Zhane left the rec lounge.  T.J. was the first to speak up, "Well - that was about as far from what I was expecting as anything.  Ashley - how did you find out?"

Ashley blushed, "I...  I kind of - walked in on them...  Sort of.  I mean, they were still dressed and everything, but..."  Her voice trailed off.

Cassie winced in sympathy, "And I thought he really liked you, too."

Carlos let his hands drop into his lap, "You still don't get it, do you?  Andros did really like you, Ashley - he said it himself.  But you can't hope to compete with a two year relationship based on more than 5 years of friendship!  Of course he was going to choose Zhane over you!"

Ashley stared at him in disbelief, "How can you be so calm about this?  Doesn't it bother you that they..."  She waved her hands in front of face, unable to finish the sentence.

Carlos shrugged, "Why should it?  They're both Rangers - they wouldn't have been picked to be Rangers if they weren't good people at heart.  As far as I'm concerned, that's the important thing - and that's all that really matters.  In fact, I might almost think you owe them a small apology, too.  I mean - walking in on people when they're... It's not exactly very polite."

Ashley surged out of her chair, hands balled into fists, "I don't have to sit and listen to this!"  She then proceeded to storm out of the room.  More than anything, her pride was smarting - and her heart was doing no small amount of aching of it's own.  If she liked Andros and he liked her, then why couldn't he give up Zhane for her?  It was far more natural for him to be with a woman - wasn't it?

Without much thought, she wound her way up to the bridge - if nothing else, the view was better up there, and she didn't want to go back to her quarters just yet.  She waited as the bridge doors swished open before she walked in.  She walked up to the front of the bridge and settled into her chair, staring out at the stars.  I suppose I should be happy for them...  But... It just hurts too much.  She raised her hands to rub at her temples, What should I do?

The bridge doors swished open, but she didn't notice the newcomer until he was almost upon her.  His soft voice wound it's way into her hearing, "Is this a private brooding session or can anyone join?"

She spun the chair to face him, angry that of all people this one had been the one to barge in on her.  She couldn't quite keep the anger out of her voice, "Zhane..."

He settled himself into the chair next to her and leaned forwards, his glib manner gone for once, "The others can kid themselves into thinking whatever they like - but I think you and I both know the truth.  The only problem on this ship starts and ends right here - with you and me.  And we're the only ones who can resolve that problem.  And for the sake of Andros' sanity - I sincerely hope we can."

Ashley regarded him from under heavy lashes, her voice filled with tears that she wouldn't shed, "How am I supposed to react?  The man I love is in love with another man!"

Zhane nodded, a surprising amount of sympathy in his eyes, "Is that what's really bothering you, Ashley?  You're not prejudiced - the Yellow Astro Morpher never would have picked you if you were.  I don't think you have any problems with the fact that I'm of the male sex - I think your problem is that I exist at all.  And I can't really blame you - the gods know if I were in your shoes I'd probably be attempting to beat my ass right about now.  I admire your restraint."

And his voice really did sound admiring - no hint of mockery in the tone at all.  Ashley took a deep breath, "I - I love him, Zhane."

Zhane sighed heavily, "Believe me - if I understand nothing else in this Universe, I can understand that, Ashley.  He's easy to love - once you get past the fact that he's a damned stubborn and prickly little bastard."  His warm smile made the words into a joke and Ashley almost laughed, but caught herself just in time.  Zhane just smiled knowingly, "I know you love him, Ashley - and I don't mean to belittle that love... but you'll get over it.  You're a strong woman and you've known him for less than a year."  He dropped his gaze to focus on his tightly clasped hands, "I'm not that strong, Ashley.  Maybe... maybe once I knew how to live without him.  But I've forgotten how.  If I lost him...  I don't think I'd live much beyond that day."

The pain in his voice made Ashley's heart ache in sympathy, and for the first time since this whole thing started, she began to really understand what was going on from his point of view.  He'd gone to sleep one night and woken up to find his lover of two years courting someone else.  Fortunately for him, Andros hadn't hesitated a moment to drop his new interest and go back to him - she ignored, for the moment, that she was the new interest.  It had to have hurt him to watch as she kept trying to get Andros to go out with her - and he hadn't said a word.  He'd left Andros and Ashley to work it out amongst themselves, trusting in his love to keep Andros by his side.  That had to have taken a lot of faith, and a lot of courage.  This whole situation had to have hurt him a hell of a lot more than he'd let on - especially if what he'd just said was true...

She looked down at his white-knuckled hands, feeling a surge of sympathy when she saw how they were shaking.  Despite his brave front, he was scared - of losing Andros certainly - but he was also scared of losing the rest of them.  Unlike Andros, Zhane needed people - a fact that he'd surely hidden from Andros since they'd started working together.  But the fact remained, Zhane was the kind of person who was happier with crowds of friends around him constantly - she couldn't recall him ever needing "a moment alone" since she'd met him.  He wanted the four of them to stay - and he wanted them to stay as friends.  And he was nearly as scared of losing them as he was of losing Andros.  Well - maybe not quite that scared, but the feeling was there all the same.  Somehow, that fact softened her as none other had yet.

Ashley reached out and took one of his shaking hands into her own.  He looked up, startled - and suddenly seeming very vulnerable.  She had the sudden strange thought that his overwhelmingly cheerful personality was kept up solely to balance Andros' dark moods, but she shook it off.  "I think I can understand what you're saying.  It's still going to take me a while to really accept it - but I think I can.  I just need time."

Zhane raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, "That's something that I can, indeed, understand.  And I think I can understand why Andros likes you so much."  He stood, his omnipresent cheeky grin firmly back in place, "But just because Andros is already taken, don't give up on love just yet, OK?  I happen to know at least one person..."  He waggled his eyebrows at her.

She blushed, "What do you mean?"

Zhane chuckled mysteriously and began to leave the bridge.  Just before the bridge doors closed behind him, he turned to her and asked, with a raised eyebrow, "What do you think of the color blue?"  Then with a cheerful laugh, he was off down the corridor.

Ashley stared after him - the color blue?  She blinked.  *He couldn't have meant T.J.!  Could he?*  She pondered the thought for a while longer, then shook her head, laughing at herself - it was a problem that could damn well wait for the next day.  If T.J. was interested - well, he'd let her know when both he and she were good and ready to deal with it.  And so it was with a much lighter heart that Ashley went to bed that night, safe in the knowledge that while she might not have won, neither had she really lost.

Andros paced nervously back and forth the length of Zhane's quarters: eight steps, stop, turn, eight steps, stop, turn...  On and on.  He just couldn't keep still.  The day had started out so well and had turned into... this.  It was just so damned unfair...  He ran his hands through his hair, lightly tugging at the two-toned strands. That morning he and Zhane had slept in, not doing anything - just snuggling and enjoying each other's company.  Something they'd had far too little time to do lately.  They'd gotten up late enough that even Andros had been hungry for breakfast.  Zhane had run down to the Synthetron and brought him breakfast in bed...  He stopped pacing a moment, urging his heart to stop its incessant racing.  It only seemed to make it worse.  He cursed quietly, then resumed his pacing.

Once they'd gotten dressed in some of their old clothing from KO-35 (thankfully not their flight suits for once...) they'd gone down to Altiyar - the planet they were currently orbiting.  They had heard rumors of Astronema sneaking around nearby and had headed over as a precaution.  The Altiyaran leaders had all been thrilled to see them - their Prime Minister had been a good friend of Zhane's father and he and Zhane had been to visit this planet many times in his youth.  It was like coming home...  Being on Earth had been nice, but being in the part of the galaxy that he had grown up in was another matter entirely.

Zhane had been tense since that first fiasco with his powers and their "field trip" had helped quite a bit.  He'd been thrilled that he was able to help his lover relax - Zhane wasn't supposed to be unhappy.  He laughed, mirthlessly, no - being unhappy was his department.  They'd spent time with the Prime Minister's family early in the afternoon, then at his wife's urging, they'd gone out into the city.  It was just as Andros remembered it from their first visit together - nearly 8 years ago now.  The Altiyarans were a very long-lived people and their planet changed slowly if at all.  They'd done some shopping, then spent the rest of the afternoon lazing around one of Altiyar's famous cloud parks.  It had been so long since they'd done something like that...

The Prime Minister had insisted that they return for dinner and his wife had hastily agreed, commenting that they were both too thin.  They'd laughed, for Nanya was by no means a small woman, herself, and she enjoyed nothing better than seeing that her "children" (even those she hadn't birthed) ate well.  And Nanya was nothing, if not a terrific chef.  Dinner had been wonderful - a delicate mix of Altiyaran and Kerovan dishes.  She'd insisted on sending them home with all the leftovers too...  He smiled, Nanya was such a sweetheart.  He often imagined - in the privacy of his own mind where DECA would never overhear - that if the computer had been human, she'd have been very much like Nanya.

They'd both been tired when they finally got back to the ship and Zhane's shoulders were aching from having carried their shopping bags around all day.  Andros had tried to take them from him, but Zhane had insisted on pampering him for once.  In far too happy a mood, himself, Andros had offered him a backrub when they got home.  Zhane had laughed, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes...  A backrub - uh-huh.  Suuuure...  Zhane had playfully reminded him to remember to lock the door before he started.  Andros had growled and pounced on him, retaining enough presence of mind to telekinetically lock the door before getting too involved in the "backrub".

Several minutes later was when their wonderful day had fallen to pieces.  Ashley had knocked on the door, insisting that she had a question.  Andros had pulled away from Zhane enough for him to tell her to go away, but Ashley had insisted.  Andros had been too frozen with fear of being found out to realize that Ashley (like all the other Rangers) had override codes for the door locks - it was a precaution they'd taken in case anyone hostile ever took over the Astro Megaship.  Besides, he'd never imagined that she might use it for something like that!  It was only upon later reflection that he figured out she'd only come in because she'd been worried about Zhane's health.  The thought had warmed him, but hadn't done much to allay his fears.  And at the time, he'd been too frozen to think that it would be a good idea to come up with some kind of story - and even better yet, to get off the bed...  But by the time his iced brain had presented him with that conclusion, Ashley was in the room and it was too late.

Jolted into action, he'd gotten off the bed and made as if to hold her there, asking her to let him explain.  I never wanted to hurt her!  He stopped pacing, letting himself sink to the floor in one corner, knees clasped to his chest, body still rocking from the rhythm of his pacing.  The rest of the evening had degenerated into a horrible nightmare.  He'd never been so scared in his life - except when Zhane had...  No.  Better not to think about that.  And even after he'd told everyone... they hadn't seemed all that happy.  Except for Carlos.

Now that had surprised him.  Not only had Carlos been supportive, but he'd figured it out before anyone had ever told him.  And he must have known for quite some time now, for he'd appeared to have completely accepted it.  What a strange thing that had been...  But Andros had been grateful.  One wouldn't think that Carlos, of all people, would have put something like that together.  He was so quiet, so often by himself, so self-effacing, so quick to underestimate himself - it was hard to picture that such a person could not only figure out his and Zhane's relationship, but come to grips with it in such a favorable light.

Once Zhane had pulled him out of the room and back to their quarters, Andros had peeked in on the other Rangers - he'd become close enough to all of them to be able to sense their thoughts if they were thinking hard enough.  Carlos had been arguing quite effectively for their side - and Andros had never been prouder of the humble Black Ranger.  Ashley hadn't been so thrilled though.  She'd stormed off, heading for the bridge.  He'd told Zhane what had happened, then decided to go talk to her.  To his surprise, Zhane stopped him.  Then came the biggest shock of all - Zhane wanted to go talk to Ashley.  Andros had been too shocked to stop him.  When he'd finally calmed down again, he'd "peeked" on them, too - only to find that Zhane had shielded the area.  That's when he'd started pacing.  And that had been nearly 20 minutes ago...

He needed to know what was going on up there, needed to know that Ashley would forgive him, needed to know that T.J. and Cassie could accept him...  He needed a lot of things.  It had been so much simpler when it had just been him and Zhane and DECA.  So much easier... and it didn't hurt so much.  He pressed his face into his knees, idly wondering when he'd turned into such a crybaby...

The door swished open, then shut again, and Andros jerked his head up to try to catch Zhane's eyes - no matter how Zhane might try to hide the truth from him, his eyes always gave him away.  What he saw made his breath catch.  Zhane's eyes were alight with happiness - for him.  His lover knelt down next to him and pulled his unresisting body into his arms.  Andros uncurled with a sigh and tucked his head under Zhane's chin, resting his ear against his chest, listening to the reassuringly steady beat of Zhane's heart.  "*I take it it went well?*"

Zhane chuckled lightly and kissed the top of his head, "*Yes it did.  She's not completely happy about the situation, but at least she's on the road to recovery.*"  He paused before continuing, "*You're a hard one to get over, Andros.  You were right - I can't blame her - especially not for loving you.  You're an easy person to love...*"

Andros leaned back to look into Zhane's eyes - they were troubled.  He frowned, "*You're upset...  What else happened?*"

Zhane sighed, turning to lean against the wall, shoulder touching one of his, "*I... It's stupid, really.  I probably shouldn't even say anything...*"  He took a deep breath, and Andros could tell he wasn't finished, so he kept his thoughts to himself.  "*When I was talking to Ashley - I wasn't really sure what I was going to say ahead of time, and I said some things that I wasn't really expecting to say.  But the more I thought about them, the truer they sounded.*"  He turned to face Andros, his soul shining from his eyes, "*I told her that she was strong - and she'd known you for so little time... she doesn't know it yet, but she's strong enough to get over you.  And...  I told her...  I don't think I am.*"

Andros just stared at him, unsure of what he was trying to say, He's not strong enough to get over me?  Does that mean what I think it means?  He can't want...  His heart started to pound in fear again as Zhane continued, "*I've loved you so long...  I don't think I remember how to live without you anymore - I don't think I could do it, Andros.  I told her...  If you died, or if I lost you... I didn't think I'd survive that day.  We... you and I - we never talked about that...  I don't know how permanent you want this relationship to be...*"

Andros could almost feel it as every muscle in his body relaxed at once.  Zhane was worried about that?  He gently took Zhane's face into his hands, his own eyes, for once, matching Zhane's for openness, and now shining with happiness.  His lips stretched up into a broad grin as he gently pressed them to Zhane's.  He leaned back, feeling very amused by the utterly confused look on his lover's face.  He laughed quietly, speaking aloud for the first time since Zhane had walked into the room, "Zhane - you are an idiot."  Zhane got an affronted look on his face, but Andros shook his head before Zhane could interrupt, "You really are, you know.  What do you think I'm going to do?  Leave you?  I should think that especially after that fiasco tonight, that it would be abundantly clear that I have no intentions of doing anything of the sort.  I certainly had ample opportunity - I mean, if anyone would have been able to tempt me away from you, Ashley would've been it, Zhane.  And I'm still here - and I don't regret it at all."  This was safe ground - clear and logical argument - it was the next part that was going to get tricky...

"I - I've..."  He stopped, cleared his throat - this would never do.  He had to get it out, and he had to do it without a stumble.  He raised his gaze to meet Zhane's eyes - and the love shining clearly from them - and suddenly it was easy.  He smiled, "I love you, Zhane.  Silver Ranger.  I think I always have, and I know I always will.  The gods know I'm not that easy to live with.  I really don't know how you've put up with me as long as you have..."  He smiled ruefully before continuing - now the most important part, "I want to be with you forever, Zhane - if you'll have me for that long."  He tilted his head sideways slightly and turned Zhane's own patented cheeky grin on him, "Is that permanent enough for you, lover?"

Zhane sat and just gaped at him for a while, then he snapped his jaw shut with an audible click.  He swallowed hard - his eyes were overly bright, and Andros idly wondered what he'd said that would make Zhane cry.  He started to worry.  Zhane drew in a shaky breath, one tear breaking free and leaking down his cheek before he could wipe it away.  It took him another minute before he could find his voice, "Andros...  Yeah.  It is."  He closed his mouth again, both eyes now leaking tears.  Andros hmphed quietly, pulling a tissue out of the nearby box and gently wiping Zhane's eyes with it.  Zhane laughed, then leaned forward, a gleam in his eyes.  Andros had barely enough time to register what was happening before he was pounced upon.

Zhane smiled down at him, good mood completely restored as he gazed down at his lover's trusting eyes.  He laughed a little, then leaning close to Andros' face he whispered, "I love you, too, Andros - always and forever.  And I won't ever leave you again, either."  No more words were needed that night, for they'd finally said all that needed to be said.

DECA watched the two quietly, feeling a more intense surge of emotion than she'd ever felt before.  She watched as they sat, finally expressing in words that which they'd kept bottled away for so long.  She watched as they tenderly embraced, just holding each other and sharing the warmth of their love.  She watched as she had for all those years - watching them grow up with all the bumps and scrapes along the way.   She watched as Andros slowly stood and led Zhane back to bed, such a look of love shining in his face that it was almost painful to watch.  And DECA was happy.  More happy than any computer had a right to feel.  And it was good.  She watched as they curled up together, slowly beginning an exploration of their love that had nothing to do with words - and DECA thoughtfully turned off her viewer in their quarters, withdrawing back to the bridge.  They were grown up now, and they no longer needed her to watch their every move - and to her surprise, DECA found that that too was good.  And she was happy.  And it was enough.

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