Power Ranger Mania The Fanfic Shoppe The Yost  

 

Disclaimer: Power Rangers belong to Saban and whoever else, not to me. Sigh. Still, that doesn't keep me from having fun with the characters — in a totally non-profit way, of course. :) That said, I should probably admit that the original concept for this story also isn't mine, but filched from a twenty-year-old Star Trek fanfic, featuring Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. (Yes, I'm old enough to remember that far back!) Unfortunately, I have forgotten the author's name, or I'd credit her here. However, the idea was so intriguing to me that I couldn't help trying to adapt it to another pair of heroes ...because I'd always wondered just how Jason and Tommy became such close friends almost instantly. Oh, and the dialogue in the opening is directly quoted from the appropriate scene in "Green With Evil V". What is mine are the emotions and thoughts I assigned to the characters. Thanks to Hellfire for the idea to write the epilogue.
Rating: PG-13, to be on the safe side. Comments, as always, will be eagerly waited for.:) May/June 1999, DB.

In The Blink of an Eye
by Dagmar Buse

Jason was panting hard with exertion. The fight against the Green Ranger had taken a lot out of him, but he could and would end it — right here, right now. He drew his Blade Blaster and took careful aim. Tommy was already recovering, lifting himself up from the sand and reaching for the Sword of Darkness. Before he could touch it, however, the beam from the Red Ranger's energy weapon bathed the curved blade in a flash of red light, and it dissolved. Green mist seemed to rise from the tall figure as he was force-demorphed, and the spell that had held Tommy in its grasp dispersed in the slight breeze wafting over the beach.

Tommy shook his head to clear it. For the first time in days, his thoughts were no longer overshadowed by green flames. He felt it all the way down to his innards — his mind was finally his own again. With that, realization set in. He'd been captured by Rita Repulsa on his way home from school; it had been his fighting abilities that had drawn her attention, and she'd made him into a Power Ranger — only to fight for the side of Evil. Tommy shuddered as he remembered all too vividly what he had done under the sorceress's command.

As he collected himself, he heard a gruff command to demorph. Jason; he'd recognize that deep voice anywhere. Then, he felt the Red Ranger crouch next to him and a warm hand on his back, helping him up.

"You okay, Tommy?"

He sneaked a glance to his right and caught a flash of red clothing.

"What's happening to me?" Tommy asked dazedly, still light-headed from his forced demorph and inwardly shrinking back from the helping hands. He heard Jason speak, and knew he answered after a fashion, but nothing really registered.

"What have I done?!"

"What you did, you did under Rita's influence." There was a slight pause before Jason continued. "You own the Power now. Fight by our side, and we can defeat Rita."

Could it really be that easy? The long-haired boy didn't dare believe.

"After everything that happened?"

"Tommy, we need you." The Red Ranger was quietly insistent.

The others rushed up to stand at either side of Jason and Tommy as the two looked at each other appraisingly. Tommy saw Kimberly smile at him, and the Blue Ranger — Billy?— nod shyly. It gave him back some much-needed confidence. But Jason drew his attention once more with his next words.

"It's where you belong."

The calm, low voice was compelling, as was the look from the dark eyes. He held out his hand to the most dangerous adversary the Rangers had known so far, barring Rita Repulsa herself.

"Will you join us, Tommy?"

The Green Ranger looked at the strong hand, then into serious dark eyes that glowed with a strange, burning intensity. Drawn into that glow almost against his will, Tommy reached out with his own hand and grasped the calloused fingers. They closed around his own, spreading warmth and acceptance into every corner of his being. Almost instinctively, he smiled, and Jason's face lit up as well as they both shook, sealing themselves to each other. Tommy barely felt Kimberly touch his back and only vaguely registered the expressions of joy and relief his new teammates were giving. His eyes were drawn once more to Jason's midnight pools, and as they gazed at each other, hands still joined, something unexpected and quite extraordinary happened.

At the Command Center, Alpha and Zordon watched the scene in awe. While the little android saw only that the Rangers had gained their greatest victory so far, the ancient Morphin' Master sensed something more. A ripple in the space/time continuum ... the gates between past and present opening for just an instant ... deeply-buried memories surging forward and retreating again almost immediately as the leader of Zordon's Chosen connected with the one being that had been — was — would be forever the other half of his soul. Through the viewing Globe, the Eltarean detected a slight stiffening in both Jason and Tommy, and in that instant knew that both young men remembered as the Karmic Veil lifted for just a heartbeat....

~*~

Their names were Iason and Timon; they were soldiers in Alexander's army. Even now, people began to talk of him as being 'the Great'. They followed the Macedonian King across the known world, conquering, fighting, sharing ...

They tried to follow their commander in everything — his indomitable spirit, his courage, his neverending quest for new experiences ... they even followed him into love. For as truly as Alexander loved Hephaistion, his brother-in-arms and closest friend, so did they love each other, sharing everything: horses, weapons, shelter, food, women — even each other's bodies. Iason had befriended Timon from the day he joined the Macedonian army, a new recruit from one of the conquered city states in Greece.

Quickly, the two young warriors had found themselves to be equals, fierce fighters and tender lovers, the best of friends. The rest of the army marvelled at their teamwork; everyone knew or quickly learned that for all their friendly rivalry on and off the battlefield, the two were friends and almost unbeatable together. Nothing and no-one could stand against them, and they rose within the ranks together at an uncanny speed. Their superior officers acknowledged the close bond they shared, and they were always paired up for every venture that demanded intelligence, speed, strength and cunning. They always were victorious.

Not always. For one day, deep in a lush jungle far from home, an arrow from a hidden enemy struck Iason in the back while they were on patrol. Timon caught his fallen friend and cradled him in his arms. Wiping the sweat off Iason's brow, he felt the icy hand of fear clutch at his heart. He did not want to believe, but the dark eyes of his friend looked into his, and he knew. The arrow had been poisoned, and Iason was dying. Pain contorted the handsome face, and strong muscles spasmed in agony as Timon held his friend and lover, oblivious to the shadowy figures creeping up on them and their men.

"Don't leave me, Iason," he pleaded, his voice breaking. "I need you too much!"

"I have no choice, Timon," Iason answered as new waves of agony wracked his powerful frame. "I do not want to leave you, but I must."

"What will I do without you?" the young man asked raggedly as tears began to fill his brown eyes.

"Fight on until this enemy too is vanquished, and serve Alexander as before, to the end," Iason answered as he felt a cold numbness seep into his limbs from his wound, paralyzing him. He knew his life force was ebbing away with every fresh spurt of blood, with every beat of his heart. "But I promise you one thing: Wherever you are, I will be with you. Whatever you do, I will be at your side. And if the Gods grant me one wish, we will meet again — on the Elysian Fields or in Tartarus, or if they are especially gracious, even in life. We are one, you and I, for all eternity."

"Yes." Timon sobbed once, uncaring of others' eyes.

"And I promise you the same; should we ever meet again — I will always love you, always be your friend."

"I know," the dying warrior said, his once-strong hand clasping his friend's. "We are one, in life and in death."

Dark eyes held lighter ones as Iason became too weak to speak. Oblivious to the others of their company fighting around them, avenging their fallen comrade, the two men — not quite as young anymore, but still in their manly prime — were absorbed in each other, until a last shudder shook Iason's body. The light in those dark eyes dimmed, but the firm lips moved once more. Timon bent down to hear his friend's dying words.

"Remember me ... and we will meet again someday."

"I will," Timon promised brokenly, cradling the dark head against his chest. He felt the soft breath against his skin for another moment, then the strong body arched up one last time and collapsed. Iason was gone.

~*~

Iain faced the conquerors across the fire. The Roman Emperor's soldiers had swept over Britain like a tidal wave, strong and unstoppable. Only their Pictish cousins to the North had put up enough of a fight to stall them, aided by inclement weather, their greater knowledge of the land and their fierce independence. The young chieftain by now refused to believe that the Ancient Ones were helping the Britons any longer. The Romans, with their military might, endless supply of soldiers and weapons, and their strict discipline, had won.

However, Iain was determined that his small clan would not perish, like so many others. They might have to adapt to the Pax Romana, but that didn't mean they had to lose all of their heritage. It all depended on how reasonable the legion commander turned out to be.

Hoofbeats clattered through the darkness, and the flickering lights from torches and braziers gleamed on breastplates and helmets. A centurion barked orders, and the foreign soldiers snapped to attention. Iain straightened slowly. He was quaking inside, but didn't let it show. His dark eyes were unreadable as he idly fingered the chieftain's torc around his neck, standing casually but alert as he waited for his adversary. The soldiers' ranks parted. A tall, lean, muscular figure strode towards the fire, his red cloak snapping in the night breeze. The commander stopped just within the circle of firelight, and looked straight at Iain.

Dark eyes met brown ones as the two men looked at each other measuringly. They were close in age and height, with the Roman maybe a bit taller. They had fought each other earlier, on the battlefield, their swords clashing until they were swept apart again, and already knew the other to be equally skilled in a fight. Now it remained to be seen if they could coexist in the newest Roman province without tearing each other and their peoples apart. Iain cautiously drew a deep breath. His wounds ached, but he refused to let himself be tended until he had learned about his tribe's fate.This was it — the moment of truth. Warriors on both sides stood warily; if their leaders could not find common ground and an honorable truce for the Britons, there would be death for many of them in the morning. The very air crackled with tension. Then, the Roman extended his right arm, the polished arm guard catching the light.

"My name is Titus Olivius."

"Iain Mac Lescot", came the deep-voiced answer. Hesitantly, the clan chief copied the Roman's gesture, and the two clasped wrists and elbows, aligning their forearms. A small spark, almost of recognition, passed between the two men, and unconsciously, they relaxed. Wine and bread were brought, and the two commanders began to negotiate, helped by skilled translators, since neither knew more than a few phrases of the other's language. Soon, the atmosphere around the campfires began to ease, reflecting the growing understanding that sprang up between conqueror and vanquished.

~*~

Iain stood, supported by his youngest grandson, watching the Romans break camp. It had been over thirty years ago that Titus had come here, establishing an outpost halfway to the Pictish border, and now the new Emperor called his troops home, to Rome. He was sorry to see his friend go, but Titus' loyalty to Rome was too deep; much as he would have liked to stay, duty compelled him to return.

They were both old men now; their relationship had not been without its up and downs, but the connection both had felt on their first meeting so long ago had persevered. Together, they had created an enclave where Britons and Romans coexisted peacefully and in prosperity, setting an example that others throughout the land had tried vainly to emulate.

Iain watched as Titus fastened his shield to his saddle, then turned and strode towards him. The two friends looked at each other dry-eyed; there was no more time for tears. Those had been shed the night before, at their private farewell. Besides, they were linked by ties of blood. Titus had married Iain's younger sister, and his son would stay with his adopted people, carrying on the legacy of his father and uncle. The prefect's niece was betrothed to one of Iain's sons; she would journey north across the Alps to join her promised husband the following spring. However, the two seasoned soldiers knew that for them this was the final goodbye.

"I will miss you, my friend," said Titus, his voice hoarse with more than having issued innumerable orders over the last few, hectic days.

"So will I," Iain replied. He had learned Latin quickly, out of necessity and of inclination; he did not want to use the services of a translator when conversing with the man who had grown to become his closest friend. Titus had tried to return the favour, but had no talent for languages; the harsh Celtic tongue had proved nearly impossible for him to master apart from a few necessary phrases to deal with the locals.

The prefect looked at his former enemy with barely-concealed emotion. Only his stern discipline stopped him from hugging his friend in full view of both their troops. Instead, he reached for the eagle-shaped fibula holding his cloak together.

"Take this to remember me by," he requested, pressing the gilded ornament into Iain's hand.

"I don't need a memento," was his answer. "But ... just in case ..." he grinned, for a moment looking like the young man he had been so long ago. "You might need this to remember me." The prefect's leaky memory had been the cause for many a friendly jibe among both Romans and Britons. Iain also reached for his left shoulder. A brooch engraved with a dragon's head gleamed in the sun. He pinned it to the red soldier's cloak himself, then fastened the eagle pin to his saffron-coloured plaid, outward sign of his leadership.

"I don't think I can ever forget you," Titus Olivius murmured, but made no protest. "I wish things could be different, but ..."

"I understand." Their eyes met once more. A look of perfect communication passed between them as they clasped forearms one last time. They knew they would never see each other again. For an instant, time seemed to stand still, then both stepped back.

"Safe journey, Titus Olivius. And may the Gods watch over you."

"And over you, Iain Mac Lescot, and yours," the Roman agreed. Before he could lose his composure, the soldier turned and mounted his white stallion. Saluting his friend one last time, he gave the command and in orderly lines, the Roman legions marched off, leaving only memories behind.

~*~

Thomas d' Olivare, youngest son of the Sherrif of York, rode wearily into the little hamlet of Annweiler, at the foot of the Trifels — the strong castle/fortress where Duke Leopold V of Austria kept his King prisoner. He had heard the news at his father's table many months ago, that Richard Coeur de Lion had been taken captive on his return from the Holy Land, where he and all Knights of Christendom had valiantly fought Sultan Saladin and his Saracens for possession of the City of Jerusalem, sacred to both their faiths.

The young man had been enraged; how could the Duke ask ransom for a sovereign King of another nation? But he was made even more furious by the older generation's inactivity; too, Prince John, the King's brother, was loathe to give up the throne and power which Richard had left in trust to him. Although the Prince's position was deteriorating — his constant demands for more, new and higher taxes angered the Barons, the Church and the peasantry alike — he still was too strong to be easily overthrown, and to Thomas' mind, his father and his friends were clinging too much to their fleshpots of position and privilege to take action. He himself had not even been knighted yet, although he had little doubt that he would be — if and when he succeeded in his self-imposed mission: to free his beloved King and Sovereign.

To that end, Thomas had saddled his charger, taken his armour with its dragon device, summoned his squire and crept out of his father's keep in the middle of the night, to make his way down south to the coast, where he took ship at Rye and sailed across the Dover Straits to the continent. It had taken him weeks to reach the area of Germany which would later be called the Palatinate; it was actually a quite lovely place, with gently rolling hills covered in wheatfields and vineyards. Thomas had not tasted the fine wines grown here very often — the Sherrif of York wasn't rich, despite his position, and more often than not the drink of choice at his table was English ale rather than German or even French wine. He didn't mind; like his other friends, Thomas was more concerned about honing his battle skills and excelling at knightly virtues than food or drink. As long as it was filling, tasty and plentiful, he was fine.

He settled at the shabby inn, the only one available, and rested for a day, trying to formulate a plan. The castle lay high atop the rocky hill with its three peaks that gave it the name of Trifels — meaning literally "three rocks" — with only one road leading up to its gates. His best bet would be a stealthy approach, so he took off on the next night, without his armour and squire. Riding up the path as far as he dared, and leaving his horse behind, he crept through the underbrush until he reached the castle wall. Thomas listened intently into the darkness, his heart beating in his throat. He made his way around the perimeter, trying to discern where Richard would be held and simultaneously watching his steps — the waning moon cast only a very dim light through the trees — when suddenly a noise behind him made him whirl around. Before he could do more than reach for his sword, something dark was thrown over his head, a spear shaft came down on his forehead with a sickening thud, and he knew no more.

The dungeon door clanged open, and Joffrey Le Scot lifted his head wearily. Through sleep-fogged eyes, he saw a body thrown into his cell; the guards laughed raucously, and the iron-banded door slammed shut again. Still sore from the latest beating administered by the guards, the yound Saxon lifted himself painfully to his feet and turned the new arrival over. In the dim light, he could make out longish dark hair, tanned skin...and while he checked the young man for injuries, he noted the hardened muscles of a trained fighter. That and his clothes, which were of a familiar cut and style, showed Joffrey that his new companion was of the nobility. Snorting in contempt, he settled next to the other, having found no worse injuries than a few bruises and a nasty bump on the forehead, which would probably hurt like hell once the newcomer awoke.

Joffrey's wait was over when the patch of sky visible through the tiny barred window high up on the wall lightened and the first birds started singing outside. The unconscious young man stirred and a pained moan escaped him as his head began to throb violently.

"Oh... my head!" A deep groan followed as he tried to sit up. Joffrey helped him lean against the damp wall. "Where ... what happened?"

"I imagine you were caught by the Duke's castle guards, as was I," Joffrey said drily as he sat back.

Thomas opened bleary eyes. Once he could focus, he saw a young man his own age, with dark short hair, broad shoulders and dark eyes that sparkled with humour despite their unfortunate circumstances. His clothing was dirty and coarse, but of a sturdy cut; he'd seen tunics like that every day of his life, back home in the north of England. Thomas shook his head in an attempt to clear it and winced; not one of his brighter ideas.

"I wouldn't," his cellmate advised him with a slight smirk.

"Believe me, I won't," he mumbled, trying to orient himself. He obviously had been captured and been thrown into the Castle's dungeon; so much for his grandiose plans to rescue his King. "What are you doing here?"

"I'd think the same as you, Norman," Joffrey grinned. "Trying to free Richard." He shifted on the none-too- clean straw, easing his muscular legs into a more comfortable position.

"But ... but you're Saxon!" It had taken Thomas this long to realize that they were conversing in the same language — Norman French — but that his companion's speech was overlaid by an accent that the servants in his father's hall displayed as well.

"So? Do you think me — us — incapable of the same loyalty towards our rightful King that you claim to have?"

"I ... I never thought about it," the young noble admitted, after a moment's thought. His head was clearing slowly, and he looked at Joffrey curiously.

"Richard is our King, for better or worse, and I do not like to see John usurp his throne," the young Saxon added seriously, with more than a hint of challenge in his deep voice.

"My father gave his oath of fealty to Richard at York when he was appointed Master Mason of the Craftsmen's Guild, and as his son and heir, I am just as bound by it. And since none of the great nobles of the land seem to be willing or able to do what was right, I came myself to see if I might not succeed." Here, Joffrey paused, eyeing his companion speculatively. Liking what he read in the nut-brown eyes, but without being able to tell why that was so, he confessed what still brought a flush of anger and shame to his cheeks.

"Only, I got careless; while I was scouting around the castle walls, looking for signs of His Majesty, the guards came upon me from behind, and captured me."

"That's what happened to me, too," Thomas admitted, at once unwilling and relieved to do so. He, too, felt an unexpected ease with the young man next to him. Both fell silent, thinking about their predicament. After a while, though, Thomas turned once more to his fellow prisoner.

"Where are you from?"

The curiosity in the Norman's question drew a sharp look from Joffrey, but he relented when he saw only a genuine desire to know in the lean face.

"Ripon, originally, but we moved to York when my father got involved in the building of the Great Church everybody says will one day stand there. You?"

"York. My father is Sherrif there." Thomas felt a pleasant surprise at learning that his fellow prisoner was another Yorkshireman.

"You're the Sherrif's son? What, in all the Saints' names, has brought you here on your own? That is, I assume that you're alone?" The hint of incredulous laughter in Joffrey's voice brought an embarrassed flush to Thomas' cheeks.

"Alone save for my squire; I left him at the inn down in the village." He spoke almost defiantly. "And as you surmised, I came here to free Richard, if I could. For I feel as you do." Thomas inhaled deeply. Then, he burst forth.

"I don't understand my father and his friends! They should be doing everything in their might to pry the King away from Duke Leopold's clutches, and instead, all they do is sit, drink and talk. Grand words are bandied about, of how they will seek revenge on the Austrian, but they never do anything!"

"So you went off by yourself, huh? Hail, fellow fool — well met!"

Thomas was all set to protest this appellation, when the import of what Joffrey had said so sarcastically registered. A rueful grin began to play about his mouth.

"You, too?"

Joffrey met his amused gaze a bit defiantly, but nodded. The two regarded each other warily, until first one, then the other could no longer control his twitching lips. Grins turned to chortles, then into guffaws until both young men dissolved into helpless laughter that brought them relief from anger and secret fears. When they had to hold their aching sides (and the guards had yelled at them to control their unholy mirth or face the consequences), they reluctantly subsided and settled back against the thick stone wall of their prison. Joffrey was the first to regain his composure.

"I am Joffrey Le Scot." He held out a grubby hand. Thomas took it without hesitation and closed his fingers around the other's in a firm grip. Though his friends would have scoffed at the notion, the young Norman sensed something inherently right about this moment — almost as if it was meant to be.

"Thomas d'Olivare."

"Be welcome here, Thomas," the young Saxon grinned facetiously, gesturing grandiosely around the narrow cell. "Since I dwell here longer than you, let me be your host since Duke Leopold will not do the honours."

Thomas grinned back. Despite the ... unfortunate ... circumstances of their meeting, he could not help but like this young man. He somehow felt closer to this Saxon than to most of his other, more nobly born friends. He leaned back negligently and affected a courtly drawl.

"I would have thought that, as my host, you would provide me with drink and sustenance, my dear Joffrey." He chuckled at the snort of laughter his jest provoked.

"I would already have done so, but the servants in this keep are ill-trained, and not at all suited to wait upon two heroes such as us," Joffrey replied, with the same languorous air. "Instead, they are wont to make us wait for such simple fare as lumpy oatmeal, stale bread and tepid water, served ungraciously and often with a side dish of kicks and blows, if we should happen to displease them somehow. Which, I might add, our simple presence seems sufficient to do."

The two laughed, continuing the game, but Thomas could not fail to understand the warning Joffrey gave him while he proceeded to play the gracious host. Resignedly, he signalled his comprehension and was rewarded by a wolfish grin. Their charade, which at first had drawn suspicious looks from the guards outside, soon turned into an easy exchange of information about each other, their goals and ambitions, and both young men, much to their surprise, found a kindred spirit in the other. Together, they quickly united against the rarely mild and oftentimes harsh torments their jailers devised for them, supporting each other through beatings and deprivations as days turned into weeks.

~*~

One day, the two young men having become fast friends through shared misery and common interests, were unceremoiniously yanked out of a heavy sleep and forcefully marched through dark corridors and up twisted stairwells. In their dungeon, they had known only darkness and some kind of dim half-light, and they had to shield their eyes against a bright afternoon sun as the guards thrust them into a well-lit hall, where the Castle's Guardian, a minor German noble with a sadistic streak, was talking to an older, richly-dressed man who was very familiar to Thomas.

"Father!"

He earned a spear-butt in his back at his exclamation, and Joffrey quickly supported his friend, shaking his head in mute warning. Thomas swallowed a wince of pain and straightened. His father spared him only a single look, then continued to converse quietly with the boys' jailer. Thomas and Joffrey waited; they had no idea what was in store for them, or even what the presence of the Sherrif of York meant. It became all too clear, though, when at last William d'Olivare signalled one of his retainers and the liveried man presented an open chest to the German baron. The glint of coins and jewellery could only mean one thing — Thomas was being ransomed.

Joffrey swallowed, and felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach. In the course of their imprisonment, he and Thomas had been forced to divulge their names and origins, the reason for which was now made clear. He knew all too well that there would be no ransom paid for him; his father was a respected member of the Guilds, a leader of the citizenry of York even, and they lacked for nothing in their lives, but they simply had no means to accumulate wealth save what their hands' labour could bring them. He stood as straight as possible as the Sherrif turned and summoned his son to his side with a single glance Thomas dared not disobey. Left alone in front of the guards, Joffrey met his captor's eyes unflinchingly. He would not show his fear to this man.

"Well, young Le Scot," the Baron said unctuously. "I wrote to your father at the same time I sent my message to Sir William here. It seems as if you are not worth as much to him as your friend is to his father."

"If you asked for a ransom for me, Sir Baron, you will needs be disappointed," Joffrey said calmly. He was not ashamed to own his humble origins. "My father is not a rich man. He loves me dearly, I know, but I also know that he simply cannot buy my freedom from you."

"But surely your family will help out?" The greedy light in the man's eyes had not yet faded. "After all, you bear a proud and noble name."

"That may be, Sir Baron, but the Le Scot family does not claim us. We owe the name to a Knight in the Conqueror's army who fell in love with a Saxon maid and stayed behind, but his kin disowned him for that. My father is Master Mason of York's Guild — not a noble. I will have to pay the price of my behaviour myself."

"Ah."

The single syllable conveyed contempt and disappointment; now that it was obvious that no prize would be forthcoming for this prisoner, the German lost interest. Joffrey flushed angrily at the veiled insult, but held his tongue. There was nothing to be gained by losing his temper.

"Well, in that case, I think King Philippe of France will be thankful to gain a new crewmember for one of his galleys. The price you'll bring will most adequately cover the cost of feeding and housing you all these weeks. Unless —" here, the man stepped closer and put a clammy hand on the broad shoulder and leaned closer, leering suggestively into a face that was handsome and strong under the accumulated grime, " — unless you should choose to serve me for a while and ... earn ... your freedom?"

His meaning was obvious, and with an expression of disgust, Joffrey stepped back from the lecher as far as the guards at his back would allow. Pale with anger and contempt, he could only utter one word, but it was more than enough.

"Never!"

The baron flushed at the disdain he heard in the low voice. He did not like to reveal his vices and be refused, and vowed privately to make the young man pay for denying him.

"As you wish," was all he said out loud, however. "Then it'll be the galleys for you, after all. Take him away!"

Joffrey was roughly manhandled out of the room, and only the iron grip his father had on his wrist stayed Thomas from crying out his fury or following his friend back to the dungeon. He turned despairing eyes on his father, but the older man would not meet his eyes. Instead, he coldly took his leave of the baron and shepherded his son and retainers out of the castle. Once they were on the winding path down the Trifels, Thomas pleaded with his sire to help his friend.

"Father, Joffrey saved me more than once! Without him, I would surely have perished in there! I can't just leave him — he's my friend!"

"I would like to help you, but Michael Le Scot came to me with that toad's letter; the ransom asked for Joffrey is as high as yours, and I do not have any more to give. This was hard enough for me to scrape together as it was, and even so I had to borrow part of it."

Thomas was close to tears. This couldn't be happening!

"Father, please! Joffrey is the truest friend I could ever wish for — this isn't right! Without him, I would have suffered far worse than hunger and beatings!"

The older D'Olivare looked compassionately at his son. He had made inquiries, and had liked what he'd been told of young Joffrey. He also heartily approved of Thomas finding friends among the Saxons; he meant his family to stay in England, and knew it was essential to let go of old resentments between conquerors and conquered.

"Thomas, it is of no use. I applaud the sentiment which brought the two of you here, and that made you friends, but it was ill-conceived from the start. I am afraid your friend will have to pay the price for his folly. All we can do is pray for him, and God willing, Joffrey Le Scot will survive the galleys and return home one day." The Sherrif's tone made it very clear that for him, the matter was closed.

Unhappily, Thomas subsided, his heart heavy with grief as he often turned in the saddle to look back at the castle where his friend awaited a horrible fate. Following his father's retinue downhill, he desperately sought for a way how he might help Joffrey after all.

~*~

„Joffrey lay back against the dirty straw of his cell, alone with his thoughts and aching in every bone. Now that they knew there would be no ransom, the guards had taken turns at beating him until he almost lost consciousness, not once, but several times each day since Thomas had been bought free. It had been almost a week, and Joffrey was genuinely glad for his newfound friend; his only regret was that he hadn't been able to say goodbye. For he was fairly sure that they would never meet again; his fate on the galleys, which his guards had gleefully informed him of only this morning, was sealed, and it might as well have been a death sentence. Only very few survived the rigours of that, and as for getting free ... Joffrey sighed.

He settled himself more comfortably in his recently acquired bonds, for once reasonably sure that he would not have to serve as sport for the guards, since it was the last evening before Lent began, and they had talked about the feast they had planned in the Guard Captain's quarters. Tomorrow would be another story; they would most likely take out the agony of their hangovers on his back and limbs.

The young man was well on his way to dozing off, when the muted clang of bolts being carefully thrown back roused him. Resignedly, he sat up to await his nocturnal torturer with as much dignity as he could muster. However, the slender figure slipping into his cell did not belong to any of the burly guards. Joffrey was about to address the stranger, when a warm hand clamped over his mouth and a very familiar voice whispered into his ear.

"Shhh! Come with me!"

"I can't," he whispered back, his heart leaping joyfully as he recognized Thomas. "They've chained me."

Thomas — for it was him — cursed under his breath.

"Where are the keys?" He looked at the heavy chains circling Joffrey's ankle disgustedly. Much to his surprise, his friend grinned at him.

"Over by the door, on a peg in the upper left-hand corner. Just out of my reach, of course."

"Trying to be clever, were they?" The two young men shared wolfish grins as Thomas speedily retrieved the key and freed his friend.

Disregarding his bruised ribs, Joffrey followed Thomas into the dank corridor and both crept as silently as possible towards the small gate where Thomas had entered. There was a tense moment just before they reached the wall, because a couple of guards chose to step outside to relieve themselves just as they were about to open the stout oak door, but they remained undetected and fled into the forest just outside the castle wall. Stealthily, they made haste to where Thomas had hobbled his horse. Both mounted the charger, and rode away into the darkness.

They rested in a small clump of trees once daylight was about to break. Only now they spoke again. The first words uttered between them were Joffrey's.

"Thank you." The deep voice was quiet, and he would not say more, but the grip of his hand and the look in the dark eyes was everything Thomas needed. He returned the look just as frankly and with as much affection.

"I could not leave you there. Not to that fate."

"Neither could I have."

"I know."

The short exchange expressed more than either cared to admit out loud, but their eyes spoke eloquently. Joffrey stiffly made his way over to the small brook they had found and began to wash away the dungeon's dirt. He didn't care that the priest back home thought washing oneself a dubious, if not dangerous pursuit; he just knew that he needed to get rid of the filth he had acquired while being held prisoner. Besides, he'd noticed that Thomas, too, had cleansed himself and was wearing fresh clothes. Gratefully accepting the simple but clean tunic his friend handed him, he almost casually asked a question that he sensed the answer for.

"How did you get in? And ... does your father know?"

Thomas answered as he'd expected.

"I bribed one of the scullery boys. And no, my father does not know I came back for you. I stole away in the night once more, sold my sword for a tidy sum and came to get you."

"Sold your sword! But — but you told me it was a family heirloom! How could you ..."

"When all is said and done, it's only a piece of cold steel. I'd much rather have warm friendship." The young Norman looked steadily into the Saxon's dark eyes. "My father will probably flay me alive once he learns of this, but I don't care. You are my friend as much as I am yours, and that is worth more than anything to me."

This time, it was Thomas who held out his hand to Joffrey. There was no hesitation in the warm grip as their hands joined again, to seal their friendship in freedom as it had begun long weeks ago in captivity. Both knew it would last a lifetime. Wordlessly, they let go of each other and curled up together under a blanket, heedless of the brightening sky as they slept long into the new day.

~*~

Mhari Scott sat on a bench in front of her house, watching indulgently as her two-year-old son Jonathan piled wooden blocks into high structures, only to laugh with childish glee when they collapsed and he got to do them all over again. She had brought the brightly-painted shapes with her from Scotland five years ago, when Robert Scott had married her and taken her across the Ocean to this wild and wonderful land that was America. The building blocks had been carved, whittled and painted by her sickly younger brother, and they were little Jonathan's most prized possession. Not a single one of his circle of tiny friends was allowed to touch them, or he would throw a fit of temper that was astonishing to witness in a child this young.

The young matron lifted her eyes from her needlework as she became aware of a commotion at the Fort's gate. Her heart began to beat faster, and automatically her hands smoothed over apron and bonnet, for that could only mean that her Robert and the other men had returned from an exploratory mission into the mountains. They had spotted smoke above the trees two days ago, and had gone to investigate. For the only thing that spoiled the majesty of the land were the unrelenting hostilities between the French and the Iroquois on one side, and the English and their allies, the Mohicans, on the other. Mhari prayed that everyone would be allright.

Her heart gave a tiny lurch of happiness and relief as the broad-shouldered form of her husband separated from the cluster of men and strode towards her, a cloth-wrapped bundle held awkwardly in his arms.

"Robert!" She offered him a warm smile and her smooth cheek for a chaste kiss, all the outward affection they permitted themselves outside the walls of their home.

The stocky man greeted his pretty wife as heartily as he dared under the curious eyes of their neighbours, then settled on the bench as well and scooped his small son up, ruffling his dark hair as the equally dark eyes shone with joy that "Da" was back home again.

"Look, my little man — Papa has brought you a present!" Robert sat his son between himself and Mhari and once more took up the bundle he had laid carefully on the seat beside him. He drew a corner of the concealing cloth aside, and Mhari gasped in shock and compassion — for draped in the faded scrap of flannel lay a child about the same age as Jonathan. It was a scrawny little thing, nothing like her sturdy little boy, and one thin cheek was marred by a wicked, only half-healed cut, as if made by a knife — or a saber's thrust. The young woman lifted questioning eyes to her husband.

"This is the son of one of the French traders over at the river bend — his, and an Indian maiden's. Their hut was attacked by I don't know who; that was the smoke we saw. The parents are both dead, and the old man who sheltered him until we came won't live through the week; he told us what little he knew about this poor child. His name is Thierry Olivier, and according to the old man, his parents were married right and proper by one of those itinerant priests."

Jonathan looked at the sleeping little boy with great interest, noticing but not understanding the slight convulsions the tot couldn't suppress even in sleep. He could not care less about what his parents were saying. Curious, he reached out a none-too-clean small paw to the nasty cut. His touch on the raw flesh snapped the child's eyes open, and little Thierry began to whimper with pain and fright. Jonathan looked for a moment as if he might want to start crying himself, but then he seemed to reconsider. Before either of the adults could react, he bent and picked up a bright cube, the sides of which were painted in red, green and white, and held it out to the scared orphan. A moment's hesitation, then a tentative smile lifted the corners of the small mouth, the nut-brown eyes warmed, and a small, feeble hand reached for the toy.

Mhari and Robert exchanged a glance, and she shook her head in fond exasperation. She knew her husband; he had the kindest, biggest heart in the New World, and she knew very well what he hoped for. Well, it was all one with her; Jonathan's little face beamed like a ray of sunlight as he babbled at his newfound friend, and to her amazement, he tugged at the flannel until Robert carefully sat the injured child on the grassy carpet. Soon, the two little boys were happily building enormous towers with the prized toys Jonathan had never shared before, and pain was forgotten as they communicated quite well in a mixture of French, English and an unknown Indian tongue. Thus simply, Thierry Olivier found a new home and a brother.

~*~

Terry Olivier looked at the happily dancing couples. His lean face still bore the marks of the wound he had received as a baby, but the scar made him appear only more dashing. At least that was the opinion of quite a number of young damsels at the Fort. He was lean where Jonathan was burly, moody where he was cheerful, silent when the other sang, but nonetheless they were the best of friends. They had shared everything as they grew up, scrapes and praise, success and failure, and they were both accomplished woodsmen, fully capable of earning their way as scouts and guides to the British Army which was slowly but surely beating the French back into Canada.

Today, Jonathan was getting married. Terry — his name had been Anglicized first by his foster brother, then by everybody else — heartily approved of the match; the lovely blonde Elizabeth was the ideal wife for his friend and brother. Only because he wanted to see them wed had Terry curbed his unrest and desire to leave. He had already spoken to his foster parents, and both Mhari and Robert understood why he had to leave, even though they regretted deeply to see him go.

The young man, all of twenty years, did not want to desert the only home he'd ever known, but a year or so ago he'd gotten word that people of his Mother's tribe had been seen further south and to the east; apparently she had not been Iroquois, but of a different tribe altogether. Some very few mementoes of his parents had survived the looting and killing, and they had given him his first clues to what he needed to do. His affairs were in order; he had discharged himself of all duties and obligations; now all that was left for Terry was one last task.

Saying goodbye to Jonathan.

Terry dreaded the moment which he knew had to come soon now, but there was that within him that needed to find his roots; for all the love the Scotts had given him, he'd always known he didn't truly belong. He sighed wearily. Carefully wending his way through the revellers, he went outside to look at the stars. The glittering points of light in the sky usually brought him comfort, but not tonight. Not when he knew that he would hurt Jon — his friend, his brother — deeply. The lean young man was lost in his thoughts, trying to find the words he had to say to Jonathan, so he almost didn't hear soft footsteps approaching. His trapper's instinct, however, warned him just in time to recognize the gentle swish of skirts, and thus he refrained from drawing his knife that never left his side. Turning slowly instead of whirling around, he came face to face with the petite form of Margaret Sanders, the Sergeant's daughter and Elizabeth's closest friend.

"You should have brought a wrap," he spoke gently into the darkness. Margaret, while by no means meek, was such a gentle person that nobody ever spoke harshly to her. She was the one folks called when they needed nursing, the one children turned to when they scraped themselves up or had gotten into a fix, and everybody confided his or her worries and secrets to her, certain to find if not help, then at least a sympathetic ear.

Margaret looked up into the handsome scarred face; Thierry — she was the only one who ever called him by his true name — always was so considerate of her that she was not in the least astounded that these should be the first words he said to her. Neither was she surprised that he'd heard her approach; both Jonathan and Thierry were famous for their instincts which made them so good at their jobs.

"I am not cold. — Have you told him yet?" she asked. Although only a year younger than him, she knew what he was about to do, having come upon him accidentally two weeks ago as he was dealing with his affairs.

"No."

"You will hurt Jonathan; he loves you so." Margaret did not show that her heart was breaking as well; she had given hers to Terry the day he'd saved her from a badly leaking boat that was threatening to sink right under her while crossing the river. Only Elizabeth knew that she loved her husband's friend, and she was sworn to secrecy.

"It cannot be helped; it's not easy for me, either, but something I feel I have to do." Terry spoke slowly, as was his habit. For some strange reason, the clear grey eyes of Miss Margaret seemed mysterious like the small pond he had once found in a clearing deep in the forest — silvery and bottomless pools a man would drown in if he weren't careful.

"Oh Thierry, I know that — but surely you know that we will all miss you dreadfully!" The earnest little face was lifted up towards him, and it was as if Terry saw it — and the girl whom it belonged to — for the first time. Margaret wasn't really pretty, but sweet; her gentle nature was apparent in every expression and gesture, and as always it softened Terry's disposition. Something, he knew not what, made him tease her a little bit.

"All of you? Surely not everybody!"

"Oh yes, yes! How can you ask?" Margaret looked at him artlessly.

"Even you, Miss Maggie?" he joked, using her childhood name as he stepped closer. To his surprise, she flushed deeply. Her eyes never wavered from his, though, as the combination of starlight, soft strains of music from the party, and his impending departure on the morrow made her confess her secret.

"Especially me."

Terry now stood very near to her. He looked deeply into the honest eyes, and something he hadn't known he possessed slowly worked itself loose in his heart. Slowly, carefully, he reached out with both arms and drew her against his chest.

"What would you be willing to do then, to make me stay?" came his husky question, almost against his will. Her answer bound him to the Fort as nothing else could have done. Bold as never before or after in her life, Margaret touched trembling fingers to his scar, cupping the lean cheek in her soft palm.

"This," she whispered, just before she touched her lips to his mouth in the gentlest caress.

~*~

They were married within the month, and Jonathan and Elizabeth were ecstatic. Mhari and Robert welcomed the news that their beloved foster son would stay after all with heartfelt joy, and for a few happy years, all went well. Then, disaster struck. A trader brought typhoid fever to the remote Fort, and after four weeks, when the disease had run its course, less than half of its occupants had survived. Both Mhari and Robert were now gone, as was Jonathan's small daughter. Elizabeth, still weak from her own fight against the raging fever, clung desperately to four-year-old Timothy, submerging her grief in caring for the newly motherless little boy.

Thierry — Margaret's habit of using his true name had gradually changed the others' mode of addressing her husband back to its original form — stood at Jonathan's door, all ready to leave. His brown eyes were hard and dry, but they softened as he looked at his friends and his son one last time.

"It's time."

"How can you go?" Jonathan asked his best friend. The low voice was hoarse with barely-suppressed emotion.

"I have to," was his answer. "If it hadn't been for Margaret, I would have left the day after your wedding." Thierry recalled that night with a rush of pain so intense, he had to close his eyes.

"Jon ... brother, I don't want to leave. Not you, and not Timothy. But the road I'll need to travel is a long and hard one, full of danger. I don't know what I will find, or if I'll find what I'm searching for. It's no place for a child. Besides, having him to care for will help Elizabeth to get over the loss of little Susannah."

Jonathan Scott looked over his shoulder where his wife and godson clung to each other. Then, he turned back to his best friend of so many years.

"Does finding your mother's people mean more to you than we?" he couldn't help asking. He saw the brief flash of hurt in Thierry's eyes and was ashamed. "I'm sorry, I ..."

"Don't be. The answer is yes, and no. No, because I love all of you ... as much as I ever loved Margaret. You know that, don't you?" Thierry didn't need the confirming nod. "If I hadn't lost her ... but she's gone." Thierry swallowed hard. "And yes, because although you and yours have shown me nothing but kindness and love, I need to find out who I am, what and where my roots are. I need to, Jon — or I'll never find any peace. Margaret could give me that peace, but ..."

Jonathan nodded resignedly. They'd been over this so often, ever since Thierry had announced his intention of going away, and he knew that in this he couldn't change his mind.

"We'll take good care of Timothy for you," he promised.

"I know you will. And God willing, you'll have a son of your own one day — when it doesn't hurt as much any more."

Thierry turned towards Elizabeth with a few swift strides. He embraced her and kissed her pale cheeks, over which silent tears began to flow. Then, he bent towards his son. Tilting the small face up to his own, he brushed a stubborn lock of brown hair out of the child's eyes.

"Be good for Auntie Eliza and Uncle Jon, Timothy."

"I promise, Papa," the boy said solemnly.

"Very well. And remember, son — Papa loves you, no matter what. Even though I won't be here, you will always be my brave boy. Don't let anyone tell you differently." He hugged the child carefully, then got up. His eyes locked with Jonathan's, and both men had a hard time holding back their tears.

"Will you come back?"

"If I can."

Both men knew it was highly unlikely. Their paths would go in different directions from now. Mutely, they embraced, saying goodbye through looks and desperate grips. At last, Thierry Olivier tore himself away from his best friend and mounted his horse, to begin the long journey towards his mother's people. He rode out of the gate without looking back while Jonathan stood with little Timothy's hand clasped in his own, looking after his friend until the forest hid him from view.

~*~

"The baby's coming."

Running Doe's voice was so soft, White Falcon almost didn't hear her. He stopped and turned towards his woman.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

She didn't need to say more. He put an arm around his small mate and supported her while he adapted his long strides to her shorter legs. He didn't like this; the two of them had fled from the large contingent of Cherokee and their uniformed guards under cover of night only four days ago, taking advantage of a disturbance among the soldiers' horses. They'd rested by day and walked at night ever since then, but Running Doe's swollen belly made fast progress almost impossible. They had been lucky so far to find water; armed only with his hunting knife, White Falcon hadn't been able to snare so much as a single prairie turkey or hare, and hunger was gradually weakening them. Not that they'd had that much food on their long trek, anyway.

The Chief Soldier, an older man who had told them that he was only following his orders, was a hard and unforgiving man, driving the Cherokee from their mountain home for many months. They had been separated into two groups at random, and White Falcon had seen his family herded onto large river boats like so much cattle. He knew not of their fate; he was just glad that Running Doe was still at his side. Many of those riding in and walking behind the hundreds of wagons had already died, from exhaustion, little food and diseases they were too weak to fight off. Not that this man Scott would have granted permission to tend for them anyway, the young Cherokee thought bitterly. He cast about him for a place where Running Doe could give birth undisturbed.

"Uhhhh!"

The soft exclamation of pain did not go unheard; time was running out on them. Whte Falcon sighed and guided his woman into a thicket of bushes that afforded them at least some protection. As he eased her to the ground and helped her shed her leggings, she looked up at her tall mate with frightened but trusting eyes.

"Isn't this too close to that?" Her head inclined towards the small log cabin just visible against the night sky. It was dark, but both could recognize the signs that people lived there.

"We can only hope," he answered with a reassuring smile. "It is the middle of the night, and white men usually sleep deeply. If you can keep quiet, they won't even know we've been here."

He had done everything he could for his woman, and rose from his crouch.

"Will you be allright?" It was their custom to leave matters of birth to their women.

"I think so," Running Doe panted around another contraction. "What will you do?"

"Try and see if there's any food to be found." He touched her cheek gently one last time. He'd counted himself the luckiest man in their valley when Running Doe and her father agreed to his courtship, and ever since he had found nothing in their union to change his opinion. White Falcon moved carefully out of the concealing bushes and crept towards the silent farmhouse. At the back, he saw a well-tended garden with vegetables and late-summer fruit, and filled a pouch at his belt with a variety of things. He didn't recognize all of them, but he knew that they could eat them; besides, his innards were churning so much with hunger, that he didn't care anymore whether something tasted good or not. He looked around once more. There was a small structure at the far end of the well-kept yard; he recognized the smell, and his mouth watered. Some kind of bird was being kept there.

White Falcon hesitated only briefly. The white people would not miss one or two birds so much, and Running Doe would be in need of the energy fresh meat could give her. Stealthily, he moved towards the hut.

~*~

Jared Scott folded the letter his mother had sent in the spring. It was late summer now, but they lived too far off the regular post routes to get mail very often. Only a supply run to Fayetteville had given him the opportunity to get news about his and Rachel's families whom they had left behind in Boston. They liked living in this small corner of Arkansas; the White River bordering their farm carried enough water most of the year, and their homestead was prospering. Of course, things were a bit strained right now; the birth of their baby daughter at the beginning of summer had taken more out of Rachel than either of the boys had done, and consequently their larder was not as well-stocked as usual, but a bit of frugal living should see them through this winter, as well.

"Anything important?" Rachel asked as she bathed the baby. She believed a great deal in cleanliness, and although the boys protested loudly, she insisted on washing them each night and full body baths at least once a month. Jared didn't mind indulging her peculiar whim; it didn't harm them, and he rather liked the fact that their home never took on the stifling odour so many of their neighbours lived with. Not that they had any close neighbours; the Cranston farm was ten or so miles away, on the other side of the river to boot, and they only got together at harvest time when the men helped each other out with their crops. Then, the Hoags came as well, although they were more concerned with getting more people into this small cornerr of Arkansas, now that it was a State. Jared smiled as he heard little Bethany squeal with joy, and some mighty loud splashing by one so tiny.

"Nothing, really. Just the usual gossip of friends, neighbours, the city ... Mother doesn't understand that I'm just not interested in that. Oh, Uncle Winfield has been given another command." He grimaced with distaste. His father's cousin was not Jared's favourite person in the world.

"Oh?" Rachel looked at Jared as she diapered and dressed Bethany in her nightgown. As soon as the baby was happily drowsing in her crib, she snagged four-year-old Ethan and pulled his shirt over his head. "Hold still, Ethan!" She reached for soap and washcloth.

"Yes; he is in charge of removing the entire Cherokee Tribe from their home in the Smoky Mountains."

"The whole tribe? But that must be thousands of people!"

"I know. For some reason, people want their land, and the Government is deporting them to the new Territories west of here — Oklahoma or Kansas, I think."

"Oh my." Rachel's soft heart went out to those unfortunates. "It was bad enough for us to move west, and we did it at our own pace and because we wanted to. To be forced to leave their place ..."

Jared nodded.

"Add to that transplanting Mountain-bred Indians to the Plains ... not counting the fact that these are the hunting grounds of other tribes; a few farmers like us here and there don't make that much of a difference. But to bring literally thousands of people here all at once ... And knowing my dear Uncle, he will not give them any leeway for getting weak, or sick, or exhausted. The only thing he'll care about is getting the job done 'efficiently'."

The young farmer pulled a face. General Winfield Scott had pressured his nephew hard to join the Army a few years ago, but Jared had had no mind for it. He'd been a clerk in a bank before he'd decided to take Rachel, their oldest son Jeffrey and baby Ethan and move west. They had found a home here on the prairie; while it was not an easy life, they were content on their little farm.

The boys were ready for bed now, and soon after, Jared and Rachel settled in their comfortable alcove and fell asleep as well.

~*~

It must have been past midnight as Jared woke with a start. Inside the cosy log cabin, only the even breaths of the three children could be heard, and Rachel was stirring sleepily next to him. He strained his ears. Something ... no, someone was outside. Slipping out from under the covers, Jared wormed into his pants and boots. As he reached for his gun, Rachel Scott turned frightened eyes on him, still half-asleep.

"Jared?" She knew better than to speak any louder than in a whisper.

"Someone's outside — at the chicken coop, I think," he breathed back. Sure enough, the faint creak of the door could be heard. "I'm going to take a look."

"Be careful," she implored. "Your life is worth more than a few chickens." "I know," he grinned fleetingly. "I love you, too!" Kissing her quickly, he eased out of the door and turned towards the far corner of the yard. Making his way carefully over, he checked the coop, but everything seemed okay; what was it he had heard, then? Jared looked around. There — a few feet away, a single feather gleamed whitely on the ground. Another one lay a bit further. Following the barely visible trail, Jared walked away from the cabin, towards a thicket of bushes a few hundred yards from the house where his sons liked to play hide-and-seek. There was a small hollow right beneath one of the gorse bushes that would make a perfect hiding place for bigger people than two small boys. Just as the young man reached the edge of the thicket, he heard a barely-suppressed moan, as if someone was in a great deal of pain. Another voice seemed to caution whoever was hurt in there, but in a language he didn't understand. Jared cocked his gun. The small click shattered the nighttime silence like a gunshot, and a kind of hold-your-breath stillness seemed to descend. Casting further caution to the wind, he hefted his gun higher and called out.

"Who's there?"

He didn't get an answer, but then, he hadn't really expected one. Moving closer, he parted the thorny branches with one arm until he could look into the hollow. There, right in front of him, were two people, one lying on the ground, the other a long-haired man who was crouching low, but ready to pounce at a moment's notice, a wicked-looking knife grasped firmly in one hand. Jared froze. Neither seemed to know what do do, then Jared's dark eyes fastened on the prone figure. To his amazement, he saw a very pregnant young woman lying at his feet, her distended belly rippling with yet another contraction. She bit into her already bloody lip to suppress her screams. The young farmer didn't think, he just reacted. Clicking on the safety, he dropped his gun and knelt down next to the young woman. Up close, he could make out even in the dim light that his nighttime visitors were Indians. It didn't matter, as did the two chicken carcasses and the filled pouch he could see at the brave's feet. He reached out a gentle hand to the sweat-streaked face of the birthing woman.

"How long has she been in labour?" Belatedly, he realized that the man might not understand him and lifted questioning eyes towards the lean face.

White Falcon was poised to strike with his knife as the broad-shouldered man found them, but gradually relaxed as the gun was dropped. For a brief moment, he entertained the notion of making a grab for the weapon, but the white man's next action stopped him. For he reached out towards Running Doe before White Falcon could interfere, but it was not with intent to hurt. The large hand was gentle as he wiped the sweat off her brow and turned his eyes towards him.

Something passed between the two men as their eyes met. Both released breaths they hadn't been aware of holding, and coiled muscles relaxed. White Falcon did not understand what the white man had asked, but could guess at his meaning. Searching for words in the strange tongue he had begun to learn on the trail, he answered as best he could.

"This ... sundown. Bad ... when moon come."

She went into labour at dusk and it got worse during the night, Jared translated for himself. Another look at the pain-filled face and the helpless expression in the man's eyes decided him. They were out of their depths here, but Rachel would know what to do. Trusting the feeling of rightness he had, Jared slipped an arm under the trembling shoulders, lifting the girl up.

"Come on. Let's get her to the house." A jerk of his head towards the cabin conveyed his meaning. White Falcon hesitated for a few heartbeats, but a pleading look from Running Doe and another stifled moan clinched the matter. He assisted her up. Jared slung his gun over his shoulder, and together the two men half- carried Running Doe towards the house.

~*~

Rachel Scott had waited with bated breath for Jared's return. Her eyes widened as she saw him come back with two strangers, but she soon understood what he was doing as she took in the large belly of the person the two men were carrying. Hurriedly, she lit a few lamps and set water to boil on the stove. She opened the door without question and just directed the men towards the large table she had covered with a clean sheet. Throwing on a dress over her nightgown, she then shooed both men out again, with directions to Jared to feed the father-to-be. Rather bemusedly, he obeyed, sharing a rueful grin with the other man who seemed to understand his feelings right now perfectly — two strong, powerful males against one small, gentle woman bent on helping a sister in pain. They never stood a chance.

A bit dazed at the speed with which Rachel had taken charge, but trusting his wife's skill and healing talent, Jared led White Falcon to the porch step, got some bread and cheese from the pantry and set it before the man.

"Go ahead, eat," he told his unexpected guest. After a moment's hesitation, White Falcon did just that. While he stilled his hunger, Jared asked questions and he answered; it wasn't always easy, but somehow the two made themselves understood. It often took hands, feet and any other body part they could think of, but Jared pieced together a pretty grim picture of what the young couple had been through before they ended up on his farm this early autumn night. White Falcon lifted the pitcher with cool, clear water to his lips a second time when he suddenly stopped all motion. His companion looked at him curiously.

"What is it?" A thin, wailing sound came from within the cabin, and answered his question. A broad grin spread over Jared's face.

"You're a father! Congratulations!"

White Falcon looked at the white man with amazement. He had expected to be run off and hunted, should he be caught; instead, here he was, eating the white man's food, drinking his water, while the white woman was helping Running Doe giving birth to his first child. He didn't understand this, but ... he was deeply grateful. Tentatively, he smiled back in a rare gesture.

Just then, Rachel opened the door and came out, elated but clearly exhausted. Snuggling into Jared's arm, she smiled tiredly at the tall stranger.

"You have a son. Both he and your wife are fine." She noted the anxious looks the Indian was casting towards the cabin. "Go ahead and look for yourself; just don't wake anyone."

Somehow, her meaning was all too clear, although he didn't understand most of the woman's words. Hastily, White Falcon made his way inside.

Rachel looked sleepily into Jared's eyes.

"Have you been able to get anything out of him?"

"Oh yes; it gave him quite a start when I told him my name, though. Remember what I told you about Uncle Winfield earlier? They met him; and it was not a happy experience. Anyway, looks like White Falcon and Running Doe ..."

"Are those their names? How fitting! She really has doe eyes, and he does seem a bit hawk-like, doesn't he? With his lean build, and everything?"

"If you say so. Anyway, they're both Cherokee from the Carolinas; he doesn't speak English too well, but from what I've gathered, they were part of a group that was transported overland from the Smoky Mountains to here. The trek must have been pure, unmitigated hell. Small wonder, actually, with my uncle in charge ... can you imagine that they've been on the march for over four months? I don't blame him for escaping the trail and taking his chances. And with a pregnant wife to boot ..." Jared needn't go on. Rachel had been pregnant three times, and it had been hard enough leading an ordinary, everyday life, both in the city and on the farm. She shuddered to think what Running Doe must have gone through.

"Dear Uncle Win didn't make it any easier with his insistence on strict discipline from everybody; not only his soldiers, but also the women, children and elderly. There wasn't a single day that somebody didn't die."

"The poor things! Jared ... Running Doe has lost a lot of blood, and she's totally exhausted; do you think we can trust them enough not to harm us if we let them stay here until they can move on?"

Jared thought long and hard about that question; his instincts told him yes, but he couldn't risk the lives of his loved ones on a ... a hunch. Still, there had been that moment in the bushes, when he had first looked into White Falcon's brown eyes ...

"I ... yes. Yes, I think so. But we needn't make a decision right now; it's late, and the sun will be up again in only a few hours. I believe we're safe for tonight, anyway, if she's as weak as you think. I'll talk to him tomorrow."

~*~

Jared awoke the next morning later than usual, to find his wife and children still asleep and Running Doe contentedly nursing her baby. She smiled hesitantly as he went past her, and he nodded a greeting. Before he opened the door, his hand automatically went to the gun rack next to the doorway ... and came up empty. Jared stared, then yanked open the door. No trace of White Falcon, and his best plough horse was gone, too. Jared's shoulders slumped with a disappointment that was almost crushing him. He'd thought that he could trust his feelings about the Indian; to have him turn out to be nothing more than a common thief, who had left his wife and newborn with perfect strangers into the bargain, was nothing short of devastating.

The young man went to work with a heavy heart. Inside the cabin, he heard Rachel and the kids stir, and she introduced them to Running Doe while he fed the chickens, their two hogs and the single cow. Just as he prepared to take the other horse to his fields, he became aware of the steady clip-clop of hooves. Jared whirled into that direction, suddenly knowing exactly what he would see. He grinned in genuine pleasure as White Falcon rode closer, dragging a bison calf behind the borrowed horse. Dismounting, he held out the gun to Jared.

"This ... yours. I take to ... shoot buffalo. For you."

The words were spoken with great dignity, and the look accompanying them was full of gratitude. Jared had never dealt much with Indians before, but some things transcended culture and race. Taking his gun back with a small, formal bow, he accepted the almost priceless gift in the spirit in which it was given.

"Thank you."

~*~

White Falcon and Running Doe ended up staying with the Scotts through the fall and winter; Running Doe suffered an infection, and it took all of Rachel's nursing skills to pull her through. When she finally recovered, frost had already settled in, and it was an easy decision on all parts for the young family to stay. They all learned from each other; during that winter, Jared and Rachel taught them English until both White Falcon and Running Doe could make themselves understood quite well. Rachel learned the Cherokee way of weaving beautiful baskets while White Falcon endeavoured to make a better hunter out of Jared and to find food even when the weather was not favourable. When spring came at last, the Scotts were sorry to see their newfound friends go, although it had been a cramped time spent in the small log cabin. Despite their best efforts feeding four adults and four children adequately had become a problem lately.

"Have a safe journey, my friend," Jared told White Falcon as he shouldered the large pack of provisions and useful things he had either made or been given. He would not take the horse Jared offered him, though; he had seen how much the animals were needed on the farm. He helped Running Doe shoulder her own pack and adjust the colourful shawl she used to carry their son in — as yet unnamed, as was their custom. Neither one commented on the disapproving stares they received from Roland Hoag, the Scotts' neighbours inland, away from the river. He'd burst right into their farewells, and didn't hesitate to make his disdain for the Cherokee family known, until Jared threatened to throw him off his land. Now he just sat on the far fence, watching.

"Thank you. For everything."

The two men exchanged handshakes while Rachel tearfully embraced Running Doe. She had enjoyed having another woman's company. All walked to the gate, and Rachel touched the dark shock of hair of the baby boy she had helped bring into the world one last time.

"I will miss you," she said softly, meaning all three.

"We all will." Never had Jared's deep voice sounded more sincere. White Falcon exchanged a look with his woman. She nodded encouragingly, and he turned towards this unexpectedly found friend.

"We must go; must find our families. But ... maybe ... we come back? Not soon, but ..."

"You would?!?" The dark eyes lit up with pleasure. It was enough for White Falcon, who gave his friend one of his rare smiles.

"We come back. One day; I promise."

It took three years, but White Falcon did come back. He and Jared picked up their friendship as if it had been three weeks since they'd seen each other last, and it stayed that way through infrequent visits until they'd seen their children grow up and more and more settlers came out west after the War. It became increasingly uncomfortable for the Scotts, who had to live daily with their far less tolerant and accepting neighbours. Not that either Jared or Rachel cared; they continued their visits back and forth until one day, as White Falcon and Running Doe, who had come with her husband this time, were packing up their things, the Indian spoke very calmly to his friends.

"We will not come again."

"White Falcon ..." Jared looked at his friend with stricken eyes. He knew where that decision had come from.

"It is not good, but better. For you."

"I don't give a damn about the Hoags and their ilk — those bigoted idiots! If they can't see decency in a person through their own prejudices, it's their loss — I won't have it be mine!" Jared raged, but felt in his heart that it was futile. White Falcon's next words confirmed it.

"I do not understand your words. You and Rachel ... you are True People. Good people. But you live with not-good people. We cannot come again." It was final, and all knew it.

Rachel looked from her husband's grief-stricken face to the solemn expression in White Falcon's eyes, then turned towards Running Doe. Unmindful of her own tears overflowing, she embraced her friend. Inwardly, she was as angry as Jared, but she knew better than him about the taunts her children and grandchildren had endured from others at the school they'd finally had built. Not even in the privacy of her own mind would she repeat those vile epithets, of which "Injun-lover" was only the mildest.

"Goodbye, my friend," she sobbed, unable to hold back her tears any longer.

Jared closed his eyes for a long moment, choking back his own grief. When he opened them again, he saw that, although outwardly unperturbed, his friend was just as unhappy as himself about the necessity of this decision. And to tell the brutal truth, they were all getting too old to be journeying back and forth for days to visit each other, no matter how pleasant those visits might be. He started to reach for White Falcon's hand to shake goodbye, when his friend surprised him one last time. A rare twinkle of mischief in his still-keen eyes, White Falcon drew him into a brief hug. After only an instant's surprise, Jared hugged back. Releasing each other, both stepped back, solemn once more.

"Goodbye Rachel, Woman-Who-Heals." Rachel nodded her acceptance of the name the transplanted Cherokee had given her years ago. She had taught Running Doe and her two daughters how to treat quite a few illnesses and injuries they had been unfamiliar with, plus basic hygiene, which took care of a lot of ailments in itself.

"Goodbye Jared — He-Who-Teaches." Even more than his wife, Jared had taught his friend and his family about farming, but more importantly about tolerance and acceptance by living what he preached. Truth be told, however, they had all learned together and from each other — united in spirit, although separate by circumstance of birth.

"Goodbye, friend."

Nothing more needed to be said. As Jared held Rachel close to his side and watched White Falcon and Running Doe walk away from their farm and out of their lives, he had the same feeling as in the night they had first met — almost as if he'd experienced this before.

~*~

„Memories. Images of other times, other places. They surged and tumbled over each other, leaving behind a kaleidoscopic jumble of images too scattered to comprehend. The two young minds into which these images poured were too inexperienced to understand what had just happened, had had too little training in the matter of Spirit and Consciousness to grasp the significance of the Event that had allowed the Veil of Life and Time to be lifted for just a heartbeat.

Jason and Tommy shared a delighted smile as they shook hands on the beach, the momentary clouding of their vision already forgotten. Their ancient Mentor felt a surge of sadness that they would not, could not know the full extent of what they had shared with each other so often in the past. Zordon sighed inaudibly as he felt the space/time continuum settle down again through the Morphin' Grid. Maybe it was for the best. After all, in the long centuries he had spent in his timewarp on Earth, he'd been an impartial witness to a lot of things that the Red and Green Rangers had lived through in their various incarnations. What astounded the Eltarean was the fact that practically from the dawn of time — the Wheel had begun to spin much sooner than Ancient Greece — both boys' spirits had invariably been able to find each other. And always, always had they been friends, brothers or more.

Zordon smiled. If the pattern held true, now that both Jason and Tommy were Rangers on the side of Good, there would be no need to fear for his team of Rangers, young and largely still inexperienced though they might be. He watched as the other Rangers welcomed Tommy with smiles, touches and kind words. Alpha chose this moment to comment on what they were seeing.

"Oooh! Look, Zordon! ooch..."

"We are watching History in the making, Alpha," Zordon replied, still distracted by what he was seeing. "Finally the Prophecy has been fulfilled; the Green Ranger is now one of us."

The ancient sage suppressed a smile at Alpha's exuberant "Hooray!" On the beach, Jason briefly touched Tommy's back, then stepped forward while reaching for his Morpher.

"All right then — it's Morphin' Time!"

For the first time, Tommy called Dragonzord to the side of Good. The others followed suit until they were all morphed. Instinctively, Zordon's Rangers stanced and issued the ages-old challenge from Ranger Team to Monarch of Evil, falling into the ancient patterns with ease and their own inimitable style. Zordon noted approvingly that both Tommy and Jason executed the almost balletic movements with speed and grace — and in perfect synchronisation. He couldn't help himself; instead of letting the team find out on their own, for once the Eltarean showed them the newest addition to their arsenal. Dragonzord in Fighting Mode brought awed exclamations from the six teens, and his voice rang with pride as Zordon addressed his warriors.

"The safety of the Universe is once again in your hands, Power Rangers!"

~*~

When the Rangers assembled again at the Command Center, Zordon swore Tommy in on the Ranger Code; as he had known he would, Tommy responded with conviction:

"Count on me, Zordon — one hundred percent!"

As Billy handed the newest Ranger his communicator, Jason stepped forward once more. Offering his hand to his erstwhile enemy a second time, the Red Ranger gazed deeply into the brown eyes.

"You're one of us now. Welcome aboard."

Tommy grasped the strong warm hand, and again something indefinable passed between the two boys. Zordon sensed it as well, and opened his senses to the ripple that passed through the Morphin' Grid. As the now complete team piled their hands on each other in a symbolic group gesture, the Morphin' Master sent them off with a last admonition.

"A new chapter has begun, Rangers. Let the Power protect you!"

~*~

The six teleported out to the Youth Center and Jason hung back slightly, wanting to have a few words with Tommy. As the slightly taller boy fell into step beside him, he once more put his hand on the muscular shoulder. Jason frowned; he wasn't the huggy-feely type, but for some reason, the gesture felt completely natural. He left his hand where it was; the smile on Timon's —Tommy's! Where the heck did that come from? face seemed to welcome his touch, as a matter of fact.

"Are you okay with this, bro?"

"Yeah; I don't know why, but this" — Tommy's gesture encompassed the whole group, but somehow singled out Jason — "feels absolutely right."

"Yeah."

Both teens fell silent, but it wasn't uncomfortable; rather, it was the silence shared between really close friends. Neither questioned it as they shared yet another look. Just before they entered their favourite hangout, Jason terminated the physical contact between him and Tommy. Ignoring the sudden feeling of emptiness, he grinned devilishly at his new friend.

"If you promise not to zap me into any more creepy places, how 'bout that workout we wanted to have?"

Tommy was taken aback by the gentle teasing, but recovered fast enough. Matching Jason's grin with one of his own, he opened the door and stepped into the cool hallway.

"If you think you're still up to it — you're on!"

~*~

Zordon watched his charges relax from their latest ordeal and smiled serenely to himself; those two would have some adjustments to make until they could get past their underlying rivalry, but he had every confidence they would succeed — eventually. Their past ties were too strong to permit anything else, but in the meantime, watching the bonding process would most certainly be ... interesting.

The ancient sage once more turned his attention inward. That ripple he had felt in the Morphin' Grid ... it had been unlike the brief flashbacks he had experienced with and through the Red and Green Rangers. It was not a reflection of the past and earlier incarnations of Jason and Tommy; no, this had been more in the character of ... a vision? Zordon opened his senses to the metaphysical plane again, and immersed himself once more in the flow of Time and Destiny...

~*~

Trey of Triforia was an old man; even though his lifespan was many times that of a Human, it was not indefinite. He had long ago handed his duties over to his son and grandson; one was Lord of Triforia, while the other had recently taken on the responsibilities of a Gold Ranger.

Even though The Sacrifice had rid the Universe of all Evil for a while, the Forces of Darkness had not been completely defeated; nor would they ever be. Indeed, they were a necessary counterweight so that Good could triumph. The Rangers were still very much needed in the Universe, and to that effect, the Morphin' Masters had chosen to alter their approach. Instead of selecting the Ranger Teams on each planet under attack at random, it had become common practice to train and school Power Rangers at the Collegium on Eltare, in honour of Zordon who had given his life for all of them. The need for secrecy had been abolished; as a result, the Collegium could screen the populace of the Council Worlds for likely candidates. It was considered the highest honour for a young man or woman to be selected thusly.

Trey had been instrumental in bringing about these changes, and even though he was long retired, he still had a word of advice for everyone, should it be needed or desired. Right now Treon, his grandson and currently Gold Ranger, had come to him for help.

"Grandfather, I don't know what to do!" The young man stormed into the sunny study where Trey was reading. He looked up from his valued book of Phaedosian poetry and laid it aside. Grinning a bit sardonically (and appearing suddenly very young, despite his silvery hair), he tried to calm Treon down.

"What's the matter, boy?" Trey asked gruffly, knowing full well that Treon hated being called that. The young Gold Ranger scowled momentarily, but was too distracted by his problem to pay it much mind.

"It's the Guardian Teams. I have a Blue, Pink, Yellow, Green and Red Ranger for each, but I simply can't find two Black Rangers."

Now that was serious. The Guardian Teams were the ...lite among the Rangers, working directly with the half-dozen Gold Rangers in existence, and Black was the most prestigious colour. The Black Rangers were a Gold Ranger's Second-in-Command,„ as such they were hand-picked and had to have not only amazing fighting skills, but also exceptional leadership qualities. Trey sat down at his desk, momentarily at a loss. Finally, he asked a few questions of Treon, only to learn that of those Ranger Trainees he liked, two were incapable of working together, one was in the first stages of pregnancy, another had been severely injured, and a couple were great leaders, but of no use in the field; their abilities were„ better employed behind the scenes. The other likely candidates had already been chosen by the others.

"Is there no one else?"

"Well, theoretically I could wait for the new batch of recruits to be processed; it's true that we're doing things differently now here at the Collegium, but in a pinch they could learn on the job and train simultaneously, like they used to do it in the old times. It'll be hard on them, but ..."

"If they have what it takes to be Black Guardians, they will be able to make it."

"I guess you're right, Grandfather," sighed Treon. "But that still doesn't help me right now."

"So impatient!" Trey chided Treon gently. "Settle down, drink a mug of tera and let me have a look at those lists of recruits."

With a sheepish smile, the Gold Ranger obeyed. He ordered a whole pitcher of tera, though; knowing his grandfather, he deposited a mug of the slightly bitter stimulant next to his elbow and grinned to himself as the gnarled but still strong hand absently reached for the beverage. Trey sipped at his hot drink while he scrolled through the long lists of names. Suddenly, he stopped. Backspacing, he stared at the ident highlighted on the monitor.

Can it really be? One of them? Hmmm.... Following a hunch, Trey of Triforia marked the name he'd found for future reference and read on. Only a few lines down, he found himself staring at a second ident that sent his heartbeat soaring.

"I think I've found your Black Guardians," he announced to his grandson, who sat up from his comfortable sprawl to look at his grandfather with astonishment.

"You have? Who? Where?"

"Among the first-year students; you'll get them already better qualified and trained than you'd thought."

Treon looked at the screen, then at Trey. Shaking his head incredulously, he asked for confirmation.

"An Earth Human and a New Kerovan? Are you serious?"

"I'm perfectly serious," Trey said. "Just look at their lineage."

Treon took a closer look, then whistled through his teeth. Glancing up again, he grinned at his Grandfather.

"You're a genius! Now, if only the Trainee Master will confirm their suitability ..."

"I have no doubt that she will," Trey said calmly, but inwardly as elated as Treon. It had taken over four centuries, but here finally was his chance to return the favour he had received on Earth so long ago from two courageous, noble young men. "After all, it's in their blood, isn't it?"

"I hope so, Grandfather; because if you're right, I'll have the best team there ever was!" Whistling again, Treon took off to present his selections for Black Guardians to the Collegium's Ruling Board.

~*~

Jayce Scott poked his head through the partially-open door of Apartment 6C.

"Hello?" There was no answer, so he stepped inside.

Nobody was in the main living space, but he could hear faint rumblings from one of the two bedrooms. Apparently, his new roommate was already unpacking. He picked up his luggage and hauled it to the second room; it fell to him by default since he was a bit late, but he didn't mind. The view towards the capital was just as breathtaking as the one over the Lythand Sea, and if he was not mistaken, he wouldn't get any morning sun in here, either.

That's fine by me, anyway; that way, I can sleep longer! he thought gleefully to himself. But first things first! Opening a small pouch tucked into his larger bag, he took out a memory cube and inserted it into the "play" slot of the music center in the living room. As the first strains of a centuries-old song began to fill the silence, he cheerfully started to make himself at home.

Tomar didn't notice the music at first; it was as familiar as breathing to him after all, but gradually he became aware of what he was listening to. Curiously, he left his unpacking and went into the living room of the small apartment. True enough, the second room was now in the process of being buried under heaps of clothes, books and other personal items. The only things stowed away properly were the two black-and-silver Ranger uniforms, the chest shields gleaming brightly in the afternoon sun. Tomar understood that far too well; it was exactly the same way he had handled his own unpacking. While he was still busily looking around, he suddenly felt a tap on his shoulder. Whirling towards the door, Tomar found himself face to face with a dark-haired young man with broad shoulders, tanned skin, sparkling almost-black eyes and a friendly grin. A cold soda was being offered to him, and instinctively he took it.

"Hi. I guess you're my new roommate, right? Sorry about the mess. I'm Jayce Scott."

He held out a large warm hand. Tomar put his own into it.

"Tomar. It's okay; my room looked almost exactly like this earlier."

Their fingers closed around each other, and as they shook hands, something seemed to pass between them. Tomar frowned.

"Have we met before?"

Jayce shrugged, but didn't release the other's hand. He scrutinized the longish brown locks, hawk-like features and medium-brown eyes intently; he'd had that same feeling of recognition, but was pretty sure he'd never seen the other young man before in his life.

"I don't think so; maybe we've seen each other across campus, or something. I'm from Earth; you?"

"Yeah, maybe." Tomar was not convinced, but let it slide for now. "I was born on Earth, but raised on New Kerova."

"Cool!"

Tomar grinned back at the delighted tone; his re-formed home planet still was something of an exotic novelty to a lot of people. Then, he remembered what had brought him out of his room.

"The music ... is it yours?"

"Yeah; an old family tradition. No one in my family goes anywhere without at least one of these recordings. The singers are ..."

"...Sloane and Taylor, I know. Actually, I have quite a collection of their songs with me as well. I practically grew up on their music."

"Me, too." Jayce grinned once more. "Say, you wouldn't by any chance be interested in Martial Arts? Beyond what we need as Rangers, I mean." His voice was cautiously hopeful.

Tomar's heart began to beat faster. Could it be that his new colleague and roommate shared his own favourite pastime?

"As a matter of fact, I am. I have a third degree sash in Aquitian rrelo'ak, plus the usual stuff."

"Aquitian? Great! You can teach me, and I'll teach you Edenite staff fighting!"

The two young men looked at each other with delighted eyes. They had been honoured at being chosen for the Guardian Teams; they had good people skills, or they would not be destined to become Black Guardians. But both had hardly dared hope to find anything more than professional companionship. The possibility that it might be different was an added bonus that was as welcome as it was unexpected. Jayce was the first to find his voice. Smiling from ear to ear, he looked deeply into the strangely familiar brown eyes, and declared emphatically, "I don't care!"

"Huh? Don't care about what?"

"That it's old, trite and incredibly clichéd. I just have to say it this once, okay?"

Tomar felt his own smile almost split his face. Without having to ask, he knew what Jayce was going to say, and opened his mouth just in time to speak in perfect unison with the other.

"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!"

End