Z climbed into her daddy's lap and curled up against his chest with pleading eyes. "What did you get me, Papa? Mama says you have a present for me."
"Your mama talks too much, Z," he said, flashing a teasing smile at his wife.
He fished around under a pillow and produced a small box wrapped in gold paper. "Here you are. A present for my favorite girl."
Ripping off the paper, Z squealed and kissed him with delight. "It's my name!" She struggled to put it around her neck before he took the delicate chain and helped her with the clasp.
"Elizabeth Delgado, please report to the principal's office," a disembodied voice crackled over the loudspeaker.
"Oooh," most of the class said in unison.
Z rolled her eyes and threw her pencil at her table of sniggering friends. "Shut up, dorkwads."
"What'd you do wrong, Z?"
As she collected her backpack and school supplies, she thought briefly about the last week, but she couldn't come up with anything out of the ordinary that anyone could nail her for. "I have no idea, Reggie," she said with a shrug. "See you guys later."
A few minutes later, Mr. Pritchett made her sit down in the chair across from his desk and shuffled papers nervously. "Miss Delgado, Elizabeth, I have some terrible news for you. Your parents were in a car accident this morning."
"Are they at the hospital?" Z asked, jumping to her feet. "I need to see them right away."
"I'm afraid you can't see them. They passed away before the ambulances reached the hospital. I'm so sorry for your loss."
She sank back into the chair, silent and pale. The sound of his voice faded into the distance, ignoring officious words like "Child Protective Services" and "ward of the state" in favor of trying to suppress the tears that clogged the back of her throat. Her mother and father were dead. Dead.
Z sat alone at the blue lunch table, staring at the mashed potatoes on her plate. It was easier this way, easier to ignore the taunts and the laughter. And she trusted none of their fake friendships and smiles; they all just wanted to make her clone herself like she was their trained monkey or something.
"Potatoes out of a box? You'd think with a school like this, they could afford real potatoes. It ain't the Great Potato Famine," said a boy who was roughly her age as he slid into the seat across from her. He directed the last sentence to the head lunch lady nearby, ignoring the scathing look she gave him in return.
"Can I help you with something?" Z said tartly, suppressing the laughter that bubbled up. She always kept her wall high when it came to the students at her school, new addition to the Home or not.
"Name's Jack Landors – your name's Z, right?"
Straightening her spine, Z glared at the interloper. "Only to my friends," she muttered, her eyes flashing. "And you're not my friend," said the clone from next to Jack.
"Nice trick!" Suitably impressed, he concentrated his attention on his hand and passed it through the table like a ghost traveling through a wall.
His trick was no less cool than hers, and Z was interested in spite of herself. "How'd you do that?" both Zs asked.
He shrugged, making his dreadlocks dance with the motion. "I've always been able to do it. How about you?"
"Pretty much the same," Z said, remembering the look on her mother's face the day she came in to tuck her into bed and finding two Zs playing tag.
"Are you going to eat those?" Changing the subject, he pointed at her untouched potatoes.
"I wasn't planning on it," she answered, pushing the tray in his direction. "After all, they come out of a box." Surprised, she watched as he surreptitiously pulled out a plastic jar and started spooning them into the container. "Saving it for later?"
"What? No, there's this little kid at the Home who eats nothing except potatoes. He's pretty skinny." Z connected the unspoken dots and briefly wondered why Jack wanted to help kids who couldn't take care of themselves. It was way better to take care of yourself and let the strong rise above the weak.
"Jack, can't we do something else tonight?"
His expression was a mixture of disbelief and concern. "Are you kidding? Avery says Consolidated, Inc. is going to move a couple of trucks tonight. Those trucks will give us enough food and clothes to help the neighborhood for a whole winter. It's too good a chance to pass up."
"Do you really think that Robin Hood never took a night off?" But she left the rhetorical question hanging in favor of a compromise. "Tell you what, Jack, I'll do something else tonight and you can save the world, one ugly parka at a time."
Before Jack could find a way to guilt her into staying, Z left a clone in her place. Pausing to watch Jack from around the corner for only a moment, she ran off eagerly, ready to be anywhere but the same dilapidated storage room that was their home. There were any number of places for a teen girl to fade into the background, but Z's favorite escape was slipping into a darkened movie theater to catch the latest blockbuster. For two hours, she was able to abandon the reality that she knew and expected in favor of the momentary thrill.
"Do you mind if I sit next to you?" asked a girl barely older than Z, sliding into the seat without waiting for an answer. "I've been trying to convince this loser that I'm not interested in him."
"So what do I have to do with it?" Bemused, Z glanced at a guy who seemed to be hissing a name as he peered down the dark rows.
"I know we don't know each other at all, but I was hoping you would help me."
It was a familiar refrain, one that Z heard several times a day, but it was rarely from someone her own age. "It depends on what you need from me. After all, I left my cape at home."
"Not all heroes have capes," the girl said, leaning her head closer and lightly touching Z's hand.
She gave the loser a baleful look and put her arm across Z's shoulder in a cozily intimate embrace. "Go away, Trey. I already told you no." After he skulked away, she waited a few minutes and withdrew her arm. "Thanks, you're a lifesaver . . .?"
"Liz," Z said, automatically lying.
"Well, maybe I'll see you around, Liz." She sauntered off, looking for something or someone else. It left Z disappointed, but the disappointment didn't outlast the odd tingling sensation of skin on skin or the smell of perfume that lingered.
"There you go."
The elderly woman snatched the bag of cookies from Z's hand. "Thanks, dearie." She didn't give Z or Jack a second glance as she hobbled off down the alley.
Z rolled her eyes in her partner's general direction, but he was too busy helping a young pregnant woman, flirting in his usual outrageous manner. She tried to interact with the next person, a small boy, but he ignored her efforts, running back to his family without a civil word to Z. Sighing, she wished that she felt the same rush of adrenaline that Jack got from pretending he was Robin Hood. Small joys were all well and good, but Z wondered again if this was the way she'd spend the rest of her life, helping people on an individual basis and following Jack's lead.
A siren broke Z's reverie, and she immediately looked to Jack who was already directing the people into an empty building. "Go toward the basement, but don't run!"
Knowing that he had the situation handled, she turned to stare at the giant alien stomping around the west quadrant. Z glimpsed the SPD MegaZord briefly before she felt Jack tug on her arm. "Come on, Z! The last thing we want is SPD breathing down our necks."
For a split second, Z wanted exactly that, the chance at excitement and the fun of the chase (because she and Jack would always be smarter than a couple of stupid cops). Instead, she ducked down slightly and sidled over to the door that he held open. When he slammed the door behind her with a heavy thud, she winced. "Christ, Jack, you'll bring SPD down on our heads with that kind of noise."
"Why would you stand out there in the open while they were fighting? Did you want to get crushed?"
"What does it matter if I did? You'd still be able to hand out food and clothing to the wretched poor although it would probably be harder without my clones to help you steal," she retorted.
Jack glared at her with his self-righteous expression, the one she hated more than anything else. "What's the matter with you, Z? You're acting like you have a better place to be."
"Maybe I do." Her anger deflated almost immediately when he looked both petulant and sad. It wasn't Jack's fault that she was unhappy with her life, that it seemed so petty and silly compared to what the rest of the world was doing. They were enjoying the fruits of their hard work, falling in love, laughing, and even saving lives. It was living on a grand scale, and Z hadn't felt life since her parents died. "Look, I'm sorry, Jack."
He bounced back with his usual good cheer as soon as she apologized. "No problem, Z. It's just that time of the month, right?"
It was too soon after her outburst to dignify that particular excuse with a response so she settled for turning to a nearby family. "Do you want some more bread, sweetheart?" she asked the youngest child, a little girl with blonde curls and a shy smile. The girl climbed into her lap and ate the bread quickly. Z gently stroked her hair, grateful for the chance to give a little happiness but wondering when she would be given the same chance.
The moment Cruger had given them a choice between jail and being part of something bigger, Z had known that it was no real choice at all. It wasn't that she wanted to spend the next few years in jail; it was the frisson of excitement that traveled up her spine at Cruger's offer, the same feeling that she felt when they had run into SPD last year. Still, she asked for a moment for Jack's sake. One way or another, she was going to take the deal – it was exactly the sort of thing that she wanted from her life. In fact, it lined up perfectly with her ultimatum, but she still hoped that he would do it with her.
The excitement of joining SPD didn't fade when she first met her arresting officers as teammates either. Sky's taunting about bringing in thieves amused her to no end – it was a challenge to prove that she was as good as they were, a challenge to prove that she wasn't a criminal at heart. Even Jack's reluctance to see joining SPD as a good thing didn't make her think twice. And while she felt sorry that he might spend some time in jail, she wouldn't sacrifice herself for Jack's stubbornness in this moment. It wasn't like he had to go to jail, something the big dog made perfectly clear when he made the offer.
Still, the most surprising thing about the day was the way she felt when they arrived to clean up the mess from the A-squad. When she expressed her disappointment, Sky had lectured her about responsibility, Syd had tried to comfort her by making fun of Sky, and Bridge had ignored them all in favor of trying to figure out whatever Bridge figured out. Maybe Sky hadn't welcomed her with open arms, but the other two cadets seemed to accept her. Overwhelmingly, she was left with the sense that she belonged with this group of people, but a small part of her wondered if Jack would fit as well.
At first, Z hated her spoiled princess of a roommate. She was selfish and self-involved, "self" being the most important word – nothing was more important than her happiness and comfort. Sydney Drew had everything going for her, wealthy parents, a wardrobe that most would kill for, magazine covers, a top ten single (or five), and she accepted that it was her due. Z, who had never felt entitled to anything, despised the privilege that ruled Syd's life. Even the momentary thawing in their early relationship faded just as soon as Z realized that Syd had insulted Jack – so what if she had felt the same way even for a moment? Jack was her best friend, jerk or not. Syd's demands and expectations were unreasonable especially since it wasn't Z's choice to room with the bubblegum pop queen. And had she known that she would have to share a bathroom with someone who took three hours to get ready every morning, Z would have protested just as loudly.
However, it didn't take long for Z to understand why everyone let Syd get away with murder. Perky, ditzy, and a little self-absorbed, Syd was surprisingly sweet and generous to the people who knew her best. All Z had to do was say some piece of Syd's clothing was cute and the girl immediately thrust it into her arms without a second thought. For all her prissiness, Syd was the first to jump into a fight, happy to dirty her perfect fingernails if it meant protecting her teammates. She was uncomplicated in a lot of ways, rarely keeping secrets and wearing every emotion on her face whether it was horror or sadness or joy. Even more surprising, she was an avid listener and a great person to go to for advice in spite of her self-centered chatter. Syd might have looked fragile but there was steel in her backbone; Z couldn't help but admire anyone who had the sort of strength that she consistently displayed. In the end, it was hard to hate someone who was such a bundle of contradictions.
For the people who didn't know Syd, her beauty and charm were the first qualities to catch their attention. Z knew that Jack had fallen under Syd's spell the moment that she offered to share her birthday with him, but in the end, the spell became something else entirely, a bond that was friendship and camaraderie more than lust or something deeper. It was the same sort of relationship that Syd had with Sky and Bridge, which comforted Z since her own attraction had inspired a sort of guilt. Not that anyone knew that she felt that way about Syd - Z was very good at hiding her true emotions, a quality she had perfected when her parents died. The most startling thing about her feelings was the sharp sense of relief she felt at Jack's interest turning elsewhere as if there was ever going to be a possibility that Syd would ever care for Z.
Christmas was relaxing and peaceful for the B-Squad cadets. The people and aliens in the city behaved themselves admirably for the holiday, making the cadets feel almost useless although they did enjoy the free time. Jack's idea of fun was to tromp into the soup kitchens and serve everyone food as SPD (there was also an unfortunate incident with a Santa suit that he refused to mention). On the other hand, Sky used the time to catch up on his reading and pretended to be annoyed whenever they wanted to play lightball. In general, the B-squad enjoyed the chance to be children again. A lot of lower cadets were released from their duties to go home so the Academy was mostly quiet except for the sound of laughter that occasionally rang through the hallways.
When Bridge strolled into the rec room on Christmas Eve, holding the hand of the boyfriend that he had been keeping to himself for the last few months, the room quieted almost immediately. Everyone recognized him because of the tabloids, but none of Bridge's friends would say anything out of love for Bridge. Instead, they welcomed him into their group, asking for details about where they met and whether Bridge had made his world-famous cinnamon-maple toast yet. A hopeless romantic, Syd was the most persistent much to her girlfriend's amusement. Z, on the other hand, just listened and watched the people she loved best of all.
Up until this year, Z had hated the Christmas holidays because they reminded her too much of her parents, but there was something about ducking under doorways the mistletoe with Syd that brightened her mood considerably. More than that, it was the first time in years that she felt as though she was part of a family again. It was a feeling that she used to have occasionally with Jack because he had been the closest thing to a brother that she had ever known. Somehow when she agreed to be part of SPD, she had never dreamed that she would find so many friends that she could rely on and care for.
Z hadn't realized how easy it would be for Jack to walk away from SPD and his friends after they defeated Gruumm. He handed over his morpher cheerfully and didn't do much more than tell Sky to take care of "his" team. The goodbyes were over in a minute as he hugged Syd and whispered something that made her giggle, clapped Bridge on the shoulder, and shook Sky's hand before he saluted Doggie. "Walk me out, Z?" he asked, winking at the others. "I'm pretty sure it's against the rules to have a civilian wandering around SPD without an escort."
"Nice to know those SPD rules and regs actually stuck." Sky shot him a sly look.
Jack looked torn between making a rude gesture and laughing so he meandered into the hallway without waiting to see if Z would join him. She knew it was a foregone conclusion even before he walked through the door. When she joined him, he glanced at her. "You sure you wanna stick with Sky?"
"Not exactly, but I'm sure I want to stay with SPD. As much as you're my bro, Jack, this is where I'm needed."
Jack's expression was unreadable to Z, but his words were simple and truthful. "I know that, Z. When I met you, you kept everything to yourself. Now you're happier than I've ever seen you. I wouldn't ask you to leave."
Grinning, Z punched him in the arm. "You just did, idiot. Asking me if I wanted to stay with Sky was totally a lame attempt to get me to go with you."
"Well, I'm gonna miss you, Z. You always made the whole thing more fun."
"Hey, I hate to be Bridge, but you have Ally now. And she's a lot more into you than I ever was." Z stopped grinning at his serious expression. "Bro, I understand why you got to do the Robin Hood thing and why you want to leave SPD, but I don't think I'll ever understand how it's so easy to walk away from us."
"I'm not leaving you or the others, Z. I'm leaving the Academy – it's totally different. And hey, you know where I'll be – you'll just to come and visit a lot."
"Commander Cruger, I'm turning in my morpher," Z announced one spring day. Kat was the only one in the office to look mildly surprised.
Cruger's furry paw was slow in reaching for the morpher that she dangled in front of him. "Delgado, are you certain this is a decision of your own making?"
Glancing at Sky, Z smirked knowingly. She knew it was the same conversation that Cruger had had with Bridge and Syd when they decided to leave SPD, and it was the same sort of conversation that she had had with Sky earlier that day. Sky was the only real regret that she had about her resignation, but she knew now that she wasn't a SPD lifer the way Sky was. After Jack's departure, Bridge left within a couple of years, looking forward to the chance to heal his beloved and to raise the baby that came with him. Syd had lasted only slightly longer, deciding that she wanted to go to college and study business so she could take over her father's company one day. "Sir, I promise you that it was a decision made on my own terms and for my own reasons. I wanted to stay until there was a suitable replacement to take over my position."
"Do you have someone in mind?" Sky asked smoothly, giving her the opening she had wanted.
She flashed him a grateful smile and looked at their commander. "I think that you should offer my position to Boom, sir. He's trained as hard as any of the B-squad and he deserves his chance to be a Ranger. Now that Sam and Jessica have become Omega and Nova, the B-squad can afford to have two new Rangers."
"I think that's a very good idea as does Dr. Manx, I'm sure." The doctor nodded with a pleased smile – her fondness for Boom outweighed any hesitation she might have had about Z's departure. Cruger turned the morpher over in his paw and looked up at Z. "It sounds as though you've considered your options carefully. May I inquire as to your goals beyond this point?"
"It's my turn for college, sir." Her statement wasn't entirely accurate, but she didn't want to discuss the strange yearning that she had to live happily ever after. Of all the things that had happened in her life, she found it most unsettling that she could give up SPD and her chance to make a difference in favor of having a normal life.
"Captain Tate, what do you have to say?"
Sky stepped forward, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "Commander, I think Z has finally repaid her debt to society. She'll be missed, but Boom is capable of taking on Ranger duties."
After handing Kat the morpher, Cruger rose to his feet with a grace that still surprised Z and held out his paw. "You've served this city well, Delgado. Your parents would be proud of you."
Z swallowed hard at the comment and ignored the moisture in her eyes as she shook his paw. "Thank you, sir. I appreciated the opportunity to do something important like SPD. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
"And Z, it was a pleasure to watch you grow up into the fine young woman you are," he added. "Have a good life." Kat echoed his goodbye.
Walking out in the hallway was a surreal experience. She didn't have training or dinner or teaching. She was free to do whatever she wanted, but she caught Sky's look of confused amusement as she looked around. "It's weird to not have to run to the cafeteria for the last ten minutes of dinner or get ready to do the mud course," she explained.
"Are you sure you don't want to do the mud course one last time?"
"Very sure." Instead, she picked up her duffel bag and turned toward the elevator as Sky fell into step beside her.
He said conversationally, "Kat wasn't very surprised that you decided to leave."
"I think she's been waiting for me to make the announcement. She's probably surprised that it took this long more than anything else." Z stopped and poked Sky hard in the shoulder. "By the way, telling Cruger that I had finally worked off my debt was terrible."
"But it's true."
"Finally? I put in eight years, Sky. Jack put in ten months."
"Well, he was the Red Ranger," he retorted, but he wore a smile to temper the comment.
She hit him on the arm playfully. "Brat."
The familiar banter was easy, but the weight of the knowledge that this would be the last time Z and Sky walked the halls was far more difficult. For seven years, they had fought side-by-side (and against each other occasionally), but it seemed to have passed too quickly for Z to wrap her mind around. They were the last two Rangers of the original group called to take over for the missing A-squad. And somehow the fact that Sky was the thing she would miss most about SPD struck her as bizarre particularly since she recalled their introductions. As a cadet, she never would have thought it would come down to Sky being the one to escort her out of the building, even after she had performed similar escorts for Jack, Bridge, and Syd. "You know, Sky, you're gonna have to keep the others in line now that I'm not going to be here. Don't let Jess boss you around too much and don't let Darryl have any kind of access to the Zords."
Sky grinned. "I think I can handle my team, Delgado. I've been the Red Ranger a lot longer than you've been my second-in-command."
"Do I have to remind you of the mess Sam made when you let him . . ."
"That was years ago," he answered dismissively as the front doors of the Academy opened and they stepped through. She took one last look at the building, remembering the first time but not the last time Cruger had assigned her to wash all the windows with Jack. It had been a memorable first day on the job. The wave of nostalgia would have almost been too much to handle, but Sky poked her in the arm and nodded toward a pink car idling at the curb. "I think your ride is here."
The car stopped and Syd emerged with a joyful smile. "Sky," she squealed and jogged toward them unsteadily.
" Sydney," he said but hugged her back carefully when she threw her arms around him. "How are you doing?"
Her blue eyes glowed with excitement. "I'm wonderful. How are you, Sky?"
"I've had better days," he replied, nudging Z pointedly. "I don't suppose I could talk you into coming back to the squad."
"Sorry, Sky." Z noted wryly that Syd didn't sound very sorry at all. "But if you ever change your mind about sticking with SPD, I think we could find a place for you at Drew Enterprises."
"Syd, I've got responsibilities here, you know, people to protect and worlds to save. I'm not likely to change my mind any time soon."
Z glanced at Syd, her mouth curving into a smile. "Sky's too much of an adrenaline junkie to give up the rush."
A siren inside the Academy blared in conjunction with Sky's morpher emitting a beep. "Speaking of rushes, I've got to go."
"Tell Boom I said good luck," Z called as he hurried away. He waved in response and a knot formed in Z's stomach. Suddenly, all she wanted to do was to run after him, jump into her Zord, and go destroy whatever threatened the city. The empty place on her wrist felt lighter than air, and she remembered that her morpher had always been close at hand.
She took a single step forward, but a small hand slipped into hers and squeezed tightly. "Z, are you ready to go home?"
Home – it had a different meaning now. It had always been places in the past; there had been four homes in Z's lifetime, her parents' home, the orphanage, the streets, and then the Academy. Now it was a person - Syd had taken her home with her when she left the Academy and when Z finally understood that her home should be with a spoiled blonde whose heart overflowed with love, Z knew she had to give up SPD. She wanted normal and family and love more than she had ever wanted to make a difference.
Z stopped moving and looked at Syd again. There was nothing but understanding and patience in Syd's expression. "We can stay if you want," Syd said. Her stomach gurgled quietly and Syd laid her hand on it with a smile of embarrassment. "As long as you want."
"Princess . . ." Z's mouth twisted fondly into the look that she always reserved for Syd. "Let's go home." She turned her back on the Academy and moved toward the car, hand-in-hand with Syd. There would be other things to fill the emptiness of her days and soon enough her days would be fuller than she could handle.