Looking at the giant house dripping in white lights, Z knew that the trip was a mistake. The dread in her stomach intensified as Syd grabbed her hand and dragged her into the mansion. "Merry Christmas, Daddy!" she cried, dropping Z's hand to fly into his arms. He was handsome and dignified, but he grinned at his beloved daughter with none of the stuffiness Z expected. After a long moment, Syd disentangled herself from his arms and turned to greet the regal woman at his side. "Hello, Mother." Her voice was emotionless, sounding exactly the way she did when she spoke of her mother to Z.
"Sydney," she answered, allowing Syd to kiss her cheek gingerly. "I don't remember your RSVP including a guest."
Before Z could speak, Syd interrupted, "Daddy, you didn't tell Mother that I was bringing Z home for Christmas?"
"Of course I did, honey."
Madison looked at Z, appraising her threadbare wardrobe and the stubborn tilt of her chin. "Oh yes, I remember. I hoped that it would be Sky."
Frustrated with her mother, Syd overlooked the jibe. "Z, these are my parents, Frank and Madison Drew. Daddy, Mother, this is Elizabeth Delgado, the Yellow SPD Ranger."
"Please call me Z," she said, responding to Frank's friendliness.
Madison sounded poisonously pleasant. "I didn't know they selected just anyone to be a Ranger. In our day, a cadet had to be qualified."
"Things have changed since your day, Mother. Besides, Z is second generation SPD just like Sky . . . and me."
"Your parents work for SPD?" Frank asked.
"They worked for SPD," Z corrected gently.
"Esperanza Ramos and Alejandro Delgado."
Surprisingly, Madison's attitude melted with Z's words. "I was sorry to hear about your parents, Elizabeth. They were good people."
Z nodded with a startled look. "I didn't really know my parents, but thank you."
"Alex was a dear friend of mine," she continued. "Frank, do you remember the time that he tricked Bronson into asking Doggie about his relationship with Dr. Manx?"
"It's a good thing Bronson had a sense of humor – washing all those windows couldn't have been fun."
Relieved, Syd slipped her hand into Z's and smiled at her parents. "Z had the exact same punishment when she first joined. I guess that means Cruger hasn't changed much since you worked at SPD."
"About that . . ." Frank said.
"No, it doesn't matter. I know you were both working on a secret project for SPD," Syd answered impatiently.
Madison stared at Syd and Z's entwined hands. "It looks like that's not the only secret that's been kept quiet." Z almost shivered from the ice in her voice but kept a tight grip on Syd's hand, squeezing it once for support.
"No," she said. "Let Sydney speak for herself."
Syd looked troubled, but she had promised Z that she wouldn't run from their relationship. "Yes, Z and I are dating. It wasn't like we set out to fall in love – we hated each other at first. But it happened, and it would be silly for me to hide it from you. I brought Z home so that you would have the chance to meet each other."
"What does it mean, Sydney? Are you a lesbian now? Will you be able to handle the press when the news comes out? How will your old teammates react? How about SPD?" Madison said, the flurry of harsh questions spilling from her lips.
Taken aback, Syd straightened and gave her mother a direct look. "I don't know anything. I think you have to be attracted to more than one girl before you become a lesbian. What I do know is that I love Z. And for now, I'm not living my life in the spotlight so the press won't find out; even if they do, it doesn't matter because it's my life. The people who care about me won't think anything of my current relationship because they're my friends."
"And SPD? I know there are rules in the handbook regarding . . ."
"Cohabitation? Cohabitation does not mean we can't have a meaningful relationship with our roommates – it only means that we can't sleep in the same bed." Syd saw her mother blanch at the remark and continued without faltering. "Look, we're A-Squad Rangers. We're role models for the cadets – we would never abuse the trust that Commander Cruger and SPD has placed in us."
"Does SPD know about this?"
"Cruger and the rest of A-Squad know – anyone else who knows is only aware of it because we don't hide our relationship when we're off the clock," Z said. "We do everything by the books; Sky wouldn't let us do it any other way, not that we would want to."
"I had such high hopes for you and Sky, Sydney. Why would you ruin all your opportunities for happiness?"
"Those were always your hopes and dreams, Mother, never mine." Madison turned on her heel and strode from the room without another word. Swallowing, Syd glanced at her father with an uncertain, nervous expression. "Daddy?"
"She'll understand eventually. You just have to give her time, sweetheart." He paused before he asked one question. "Are you happy?"
"Happier than the day I won my gold medal."
Frank smiled at his little girl, aware of how much she had grown up at SPD. "That's pretty darn happy. Z, I look forward to getting to know you better during your visit." He looked at the doorway that Madison had disappeared through. "I should check on your mother."
Z felt Syd relax at her side and squeezed her hand again. "That was fun."
"I can't believe I did it."
"I can't believe your parents didn't throw me out for corrupting their little girl."
Syd considered the consequences. "It wouldn't have mattered because I would have gone with you anyway. It's you and me now."
"That makes me feel a lot better." Z kissed Syd. "You did good today, Princess."