“Cassie. I wasn’t expecting you.”
Cassie jumped, heart racing, nearly falling over the Galaxy Glider that she hadn’t properly stowed yet, to face the one who’d spoken. Black leather had replaced the jumpsuit that a younger and more innocent Cassie had once given her, and Karone seemed more at home in it than she ever had in clothes from Earth or KO-35. The unrelieved darkness of it, the hard edge that it gave her, suited her far better than jumpsuits and dresses ever had. Swallowing hard and firmly telling her heart to get back out of her throat, Cassie managed to answer. “Karone. I wasn’t expecting you, either.”
Karone’s lips twitched, a cat-that-got-the-canary grin lifting one corner upwards as she perched on the edge of a nearby workbench. “That much is obvious.”
“No, I— I thought you were— Weren’t you supposed to be at the mall with Ashley?“ Cassie took at deep breath, urging her racing heart back under control, an with it her runaway words.
Karone’s noise wrinkled and she shook her head. “I can never stand that place for long. Too many people in too enclosed a space. I got back hours ago.”
Slumping back against her Galaxy Glider, Cassie grumbled, “You made a better choice than I did. I went down to the outdoor market, stayed a little too long, and ended up getting mobbed.” Karone made a small noise that Cassie took as encouragement. She threw her hands up in disgust. “It’s getting to the point where I can’t go anywhere without a crowd of reporters or well-meaning fans underfoot. It’s a good thing we’re not on active duty right now or there’d be a lot of people constantly in harm’s way!”
Karone sighed and reached out a hand that Cassie gratefully took, the solid grip grounding in its familiarity. Cassie allowed Karone to pull her into the circle of her arms. She felt safe here. Protected. Karone had once been the biggest, baddest evil that the Rangers had ever faced… and there was a decent-sized part of Karone that had not yet forgotten it. This was the part of her that Cassie knew with absolute certainty would shred and bury anyone who ever dared put her life at true risk. This was the part of her which was so at home in that leather. This was the part of her that still thought of herself as Astronema.
Cassie tucked herself into the curve of Karone’s body, sighing softly as Karone’s hands began to travel in gentle patterns up and down her back. Most days, Karone did her best to fit in. Most days, she put on a mask of almost childlike innocence, allowing Andros and the other Rangers to drag her here and there and introduce her to all the things there were to see and do on Earth. And most days, she passed well enough. But on some days… on some days, it was all too clear that the name she’d prefer to answer to was not Karone. On some days, it was all too clear that Astronema had cared for exactly three people in this whole galaxy—one of whom was dead. On those days, Astronema either hid herself away on the AstroMegaship, or she stuck to the other two people like glue. And with Andros away on KO-35… that left Cassie.
How she’d come to mean so much to the former Princess of Evil, Cassie still wasn’t sure. It had started simply—an understanding nod; a comradely pat on the shoulder; a friend to drink with. She’d taken part in Ashley’s familiarization routines, too, at first, but the strain she’d seen in Karone’s eyes as she forced herself into that childlike mask had quickly convinced Cassie that another well-meaning human behavior tutor was not what Karone really needed. Karone needed a friend around whom she could be herself—no matter which kind of day it was.
Once Karone had realized what Cassie was offering, their relationship had slowly changed. The side of Karone who had been Astronema always had a predatory lilt to her smile, a reminder that no one and nothing was safe if she determined that they shouldn’t be. That side of Karone liked playing games—games in which other people often ended up the game pieces—even with her friends. She still liked playing games, still had a talent for manipulating others into doing what she wanted them to do; the difference now was intent. Even now, she was doing it, Cassie thought. Those gentle caresses were slowing, pressing more deeply into her back, kneading muscles which had become far too tight. Much more of that and Cassie was going to melt into a puddle of Ranger goo right here in the Glider Bay. Prying open eyes that she’d been unaware of closing, Cassie mumbled into the skin of Karone’s neck, “What’re you doing?”
Karone laughed. Cassie loved Karone’s laugh. Not the one she put on as part of her impression of childlike glee but her real laugh; Astronema’s laugh. If that laugh were chocolate, it would be dark chocolate fudge, dripping with caramel and raspberry. If that laugh were cloth, it would be richest velvet lined by the softest satin. That laugh reached right into her core and stroked. That laugh was a hedonistic pleasure even more intense than the massage Karone was currently engaged in, and Cassie couldn’t help but shudder, leaning in to capture the tail end of it with her lips.
Trapped between their mouths, that laugh became a moan. Karone’s arms tightened around Cassie, one hand falling from her back to her hip, gripping almost hard enough to leave bruises. This… this was what Cassie lived for. The way that, even on Astronema days, she alone could cause Karone to lose control. Karone surged against her, control not only lost, but a long forgotten thing of the past. And the speed with which she’d shed it told Cassie more than words ever could have that she’d been riding closer to the edge that day than usual. She’d needed to let go.
Eventually Karone eased back, loosening her grip enough to let Cassie take a step back. Once they both had their breathing back under control, Cassie reached up a hand to press against Karone’s cheek. Voice a husky whisper, she said, “So… I know why I needed that. Why did you?”
Karone sighed deeply, turning her gaze briefly away before looking back. She shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Cassie lifted her hand, tucked a falling strand of Karone’s hair back behind her ear. It was deep purple today, a sure sign that Karone was feeling alienated, but Cassie wasn’t the one who needed to understand that. “I think you do.”
Another sigh. This time, when Karone met Cassie’s gaze, there was just a hint of a challenge. “Maybe I’d rather not talk about it.”
Cassie nodded. “And that’s your right. But I think you were here waiting for me because you did want to talk about it… right up until I went and distracted you by acting like a mouse to your cat.” At Karone’s snort, Cassie smiled. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
Karone frowned. “You’re not.”
Cassie waited, willing, as always, to let Karone come to her. She wasn’t disappointed.
“We received a distress call from Alpha 6 on Terra Venture.”
That was not what Cassie had been expecting. Not by a long shot. “A distress signal? Did he say what was wrong?”
Karone slid from the workbench and started pacing the Glider Bay, that mild frown turning into a fiercer and fiercer scowl with every step she took. Finally she said, “The Psycho Rangers,” spitting out the words as though they were something foul.
Heart now racing for an entirely different reason, Cassie said, “But they have their own Rangers. I’d think they’d stand a better chance against the Psychos than we would—entirely different tactics and all. Why do they need us?”
As Karone continued pacing, her hair shifted, straightening from the deep indigo curls she’d been sporting to a dark, blood red plait. “Why do they need us? They don’t. They need you. They need you because I did my job far too well. I created the Psycho Rangers from all of you, warping your best qualities to match my worst.” She laughed, and this time that laugh did nothing at all pleasant to Cassie’s insides. “One of so many things that I expect will come back to haunt me before my life is done.” She stopped pacing, eyes wide and breathing hard. “Your Ranger team is the only one to defeat the Psycho Rangers in combat since their creation. No doubt the Rangers of Terra Venture are counting on you being able to pull that off a second time.”
Ignoring the wild look in Karone’s eyes, ignoring also the vague sparks even now starting to dance around her clenched fist, Cassie stepped in close, claiming Karone’s other hand in hers. “And we will. Together. You’re not alone anymore, Karone, and neither are we. Don’t forget that.”
Karone finally looked up, met Cassie’s gaze again. That wild look faded just a bit, and a small smile touched her lips. “Together. Yes. I like that.” Posture softening further, Karone leaned in to touch her forehead to Cassie’s. “And I won’t forget, Cassie. Not so long as you’re here to remind me.”
Cassie smiled, leaned in further still to press a chaste kiss to Karone’s lips. “Good. Because I intend to be around to remind you for a damned long time to come.” And the shining joy in Karone’s eyes as Cassie made that pronouncement was all the reward she could ever have wanted. Let the Psycho Rangers come. They didn’t stand a chance.