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Bystander Effect

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It wasn't as if Kat had been naïve enough to think that there wouldn't be repercussions. She'd known there would be: time-turning of more than a week was the kind of thing that left edges ragged rather than smooth. Kat had been a Ranger long enough to know that she and the others would be picking up the pieces for a while.

She just hadn't expected this.

"Yes," she told Tanya. It took effort to keep her hands flat, ladylike, across her knee.

In the beanbag across from her, Tanya shifted uncomfortably. "It's just, I mean…" She squirmed for a moment and then, in a sudden movement, straightened her back and leaned forward, feet flat on the floor and her elbows resting on her knees. "Look," she said, "I've got clear enough memories of what my life would have been like - has been like, in this timeline – that I'm not going to hide under the bed because of this. But three days ago I was twelve years old and I knew I was going to marry a man, and now I'm seventeen and there's her, and not totally freaking out is as good as it gets."

"I can't imagine any of this is not terribly hard on you," Kat said. "I think you're being very brave about all of this."

"Now you're just trying to make me feel better."

"It's the truth," Kat said, and it was.

"Look, Kat – " Tanya rubbed her hand across her eyes. "I appreciate the effort, but I really am doing better with the head-on approach. So, what do I do?"

Kat flexed her fingers. "I don't know," she said.

"Yeah, well." Tanya slumped back in the beanbag and lifted her arms in despair. "That makes two of us." Then she made a face, and corrected: "Actually, that makes three."

 


 

Aisha had cared about Shawna a great deal. She'd never used the word love where Kat could hear, and so Kat wouldn't employ the word by herself with Aisha gone. No word but love sufficed for the way Shawna had treated Aisha, though. Like all Rangers, the former Yellow made a terrible date: Kate knew for a fact that Rita and Zedd used to plan their attacks to maximize the damage to the Rangers' social lives.

Shawna knew that Aisha had been lying, knew that Aisha had been keeping secrets, but she had trust enough and devotion enough to never throw it in Aisha's face, never question her in any way, never doubt. No word but love was enough to describe that.

Aisha had cared a great deal about Shawna. Shawna still loved Aisha to pieces. Shawna stared at Tanya wide-eyed every day at recess, the question What did I do wrong? written all over her face and her body, and somewhere in the savannas of Africa Aisha was happily conducting veterinary research.

More accurately, Kat hoped that Aisha was happy. Most of the time, that is, or at least some of it, Kat hoped that Aisha was happy with her new life, that it was worth it for her; the rest of the time –

They were just moments, was what Kat told herself outside of the 'rest of the time': moments that always passed and would, eventually, stop coming. In the meantime, though, these moments kept hitting Kat like sucker punches: herself putting down the phone's receiver because she'd dialed the wrong number, Adam and Rocky exchanging a look and then looking for another – and now Shawna, standing by her locker with a sad, helpless, large-eyed look that did not belong on her face.

The temporal balance was preserved, Billy had said: a girl went and a girl came, and when time was reset so was the identity of the girl, and all was well.

She didn't tell Billy No, it really isn't, because Billy knew that, too. When Billy had said that it was well, he meant causality: he meant that the integrity of the timestream was preserved and that the fabric of reality did not take any substantial damage.

The preservation of causality exerted by the Zeo Crystal transported Aisha's parents to Africa and moved Tanya's to America, where they had never died young from disease and a poor diet and where they and their daughter slid into the lives that the Sloans had led. Tanya had, supposedly, been born in LA and raised in Stone Canyon; she had, supposedly, been Adam's and Rocky's friend since grade school; she was, supposedly, the girl that Shawn had followed to Angel Grove.

Tanya wasn't Aisha, though, and as much as – most of the time – Kat was fervently grateful that most people were oblivious to the switch, sometimes she felt almost like she could scream at the sky, if there was anything there but distant stars and the Machine Empire watching from the moon.

 


 

She dreamed a lot. It came with the territory: your mind had more to deal with and too large a proportion of that was secrets, and so you dreamed – vividly, at length and often. Kat was used to dreaming, then, and practiced in working through it, clearing her head and falling back asleep, but practice only covered what one has prepared for.

Rangers saw violence, and so Kat knew to expect the dreams of violence. These came far less often than she would have thought, before. Rangers dealt with fear, and Kat had her rituals for recovering from the dreams of chase and injury.

This time she dreamed of nothing but her own birthday party and still she woke up with the emptiness of space in her chest and her blood, freezing cold in the mild weather and her head pounding with a migraine.

She got up, went to the bathroom, swallowed two Tylenols each with a glass of water, went back to her room, dug through for a sweatshirt and a pair of thick socks, and – because maybe she could fall asleep but she had no will to try – teleported to the Power Chamber.

Zordon was always awake.

"Rough night, Katherine?" he asked. Not quite human, not quite booming: Zordon's was a good voice.

"Sort of," she said, passing her hand along the edge of one of the consoles. Who knew where Alpha was. "It was just a silly dream," she added after a moment.

"Why would you call it 'silly'?"

"Because it was," she said, coming round and beginning her second round of the command platform. "It was just – ordinary."

"Is daily life 'silly'?"

Now she felt embarrassed, her cheeks burning against the permanent chill of the Power Chamber. "Well, no, of course not," she said. "It's just…" She turned to Zordon's tube and spread her arms. "It was just my birthday party," she said. "I don't know why…"

"It was just a party," she repeated after a moment, quieter and more exasperated. "It doesn't make sense."

"One must be free and safe, to be able to party," said Zordon. "A party is a symbol of everything you, as a Ranger, are sworn to protect."

Kat stared at the tube while she worked that out. It was 2 a.m., and her head still hurt, but she thought Zordon had just said: To 'just party' stands for the reason we fight.

"Okay," she said, finally. "So it wasn't silly. But why…" she struggled with the words, trying to find one that could describe the way she felt. "I woke up so sad, and Zordon, I don't understand why."

Zordon's image bobbed without rippling, which Kat always took to indicate a sigh. "There are things to fear besides fear itself, Katherine," he said. "Sorrow it one of those things."

Sorrow. It seemed to Kat that the word echoed like a chamber. Sorrow was what came after coming to terms with having clawed one's way out of the fog of a spell; sorrow was a planet trodden and used by a tyranny for three generations; sorrow was children starving and women raped in burnt-down villages; sorrow was not a word Kat would have thought to apply to her own life as it applied to them. Yet sadness was narrow and shallow, and did not have much in common with the numbed hollow at the center of Kat's chest.

"I'll remember that," she said, because she was not sure what to say, and: "Thanks. I think I'll go home and try to catch some sleep, now."

"Take care, Katherine."

"I will," she said, and repeated, for the care that removed a little of the strain behind her eyes: "Thanks."

 


 

The next morning, Shawna ambushed her between English and History.

Kat looked up from her books and applied a smile. "Shawna, hi," she said. "How are you doing?"

Shawna shrugged, as if against an invisible load. "So-so," she said. She pulled a chair and sat down. "Listen," she continued, "I need to ask you something."

Kat's stomach dropped. Oh, no, she thought. All she said, though, was: "Sure, I guess."

"I was thinking," Shawna said, fingers twitching, "Do you remember if Tanya and I talked during the past week?"

Kat blinked while her mind raced, trying to remember what Billy had said about the way things would seem to everyone but the Rangers. "I," she started, and then again, "that is…" She smiled – it felt more like a grimace – and hoped Shawna would attribute her discomfort to another reason. "Isn't that funny? I can't remember."

It was a good enough lie, apparently, because Shawna's shoulders relaxed a teensy bit as she said: "Huh."

"Sorry," Kat offered with a tiny, apologetic smile.

"That's okay," said Shawna. Except apparently it wasn't, because she launched straight into: "Look, do you remember anything that happened this last week? Like, what did we do Monday during lunch break? And did we ever do that still life that Mrs Appleby was planning? And what about –"

And the hollowness that Kat had managed to pack into a compact ball burst out with monster claws and it was all Kat could do to apologize as she grabbed her books and fled the room.

She was angry, she thought, as she washed her face in the bathroom, trying to wash Shawna's expression from her eyelids, but it felt little like any kind of anger she was familiar with; she was afraid, but this was not a brand of fear she knew; and at the heart of it was that thing that Zordon had called sorrow, the night before, and Kat was still groping for a name that would sum it all.

 


 

Tommy was usually an oaf about those things, and so Kat didn't register that he'd maneuvered the two of them into a removed, quiet table at the edge of the cafeteria until he leaned back in his chair, arms loosely to his sides, and remarked: "It's okay to be angry, you know."

"What?" she said, too quickly, a little scared.

Tommy didn't seem perturbed in any way; 'compassionate' would have been a better word to describe his eyes as he repeated, "I said, it's okay to be angry." He leaned forward again, elbows on the table as he gesticulated. "I figured you must be. I mean – this isn't new, you know. It's all right."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she said. It sounded weak.

Tommy began to seem uncomfortable, a little. "She left, Kat," he said. "Aisha stayed there and never came home to us. Are you seriously telling me that you are 100% all right with that?"

"She was a child," Kat protested. "Things seem different. You know that; it hadn't been so long for any of us so as to forget."

Tommy stared at her for a long moment. Then, abruptly, he said: "That's your first."

"I'm sorry?"

"This is your first time. I'm sorry, I forgot…" He shook his head. "When Jason, Trini and Zack left," he said, in a low voice, "I was mad. Not that I wasn't happy for them, and not that I didn't know they needed it, and not that I didn't like Adam, Rocky and Aisha a whole lot, but… but I was still so angry, and I didn't understand why." He looked up from the table, meeting her eyes. "Sounds familiar, Kat?"

Her throat was too tight to say anything. She couldn't even nod.

Tommy might have understood, because he continued. "It was even harder on Billy, and on Kim. Those five literally couldn't remember when they hadn't been together, you know. And then when Kim…" he looked away. "We both have to understand," he said, anguish creeping into his voice. "I, just how badly she wants this; and she, that it can't be – that I can't help the anger. It's like that, Kat." He looked up at her again. "It's all right to be mad," he repeated. "It's all right to be angry. It doesn't mean you don't understand and it doesn't make you less good of a person. It's just the way things are."

The rock in her throat finally budged a little. "Oh, Tommy," she said. She leaned forward a little and so did he, holding her hands in his. "I miss her so much and I think if she was here right now, I'd yell at her and I wouldn't stop."

"I know," he said, sounding like there was a rock in his throat, too. "God, I know. It's all right to miss her, Kat. It's all right."

"No," she whispered, because she could say it to Tommy, and he would understand. "It isn't all right at all."

 


 

When she woke up again that night from the dream of the empty chair at her birthday party, screams frozen around her heart and tears dammed behind her eyes, Kat had a name for that emotion that was neither sorrow nor fear nor anger and yet all of them bundled up.

Grief, that was the word she'd been looking for.

 


 

She didn't fall back asleep. She'd be fine, for the one day. By the time Kat boarded the school bus, she had almost wrangled her wayward heart back into compliance. It was all right to grieve, Tommy and Zordon had both said: it was all right to be angry. She could understand why Aisha did what she had and wish her well and still feel left behind and abandoned and it did not make her a bad person but merely human, merely young. What mattered was what she did about her emotions, which she nurtured and which she carefully tried to unravel.

The fragile mental peace held right up until she saw Shawna follow Tanya with her eyes across the hall, and then the frozen vacuum in her chest opened up and Kat had to flee to the bathroom because the dam behind her eyes had broken, and all the tears she wouldn't cry for herself came for Shawna, and they came like a flood.

 


 

Within twenty-four hours, Shawna had confronted Tanya; had been exposed to part of the secret; had been – predictably under the circumstances – the subject of a monster attack, during which she had figured out everything she hadn't been told; and then made up with Tanya, as much as was possible.

At some point during those twenty-four hours, Kat had stopped trying to make sense of her emotions. It would take at some point, she supposed: after she had been through it a few more times, maybe, or when she could stand having a conversation on the matter. Until then, the best Kat could do was make the best choice possible at any given moment, and not think about anything else.

It took her another day to scrounge up the courage to catch up with Shawna at the youth center. Kat knew when Shawna's practice ended because Shawna and Aisha used to meet for a smoothie after, and it was the kind of thing Kat needed to know about her teammate and best friend's – former teammate and best friend's – schedule.

So Kat sat at a table to the side of the room with a kiwi smoothie and her own strawberry smoothie and a book and pretending to not notice the fury that crossed Shawna's features for a split second before she dabbed her face and shoulder with her towel again and then walked over and sat down, legs hugging the chair.

"You too, huh?" was what Shawna said as she reached for her smoothie, and Kat was grateful for the vagueness.

"Yes," she said, and "I'm so sorry, Shawna."

Shawna's expression closed off, but her voice did not change as she asked: "What for?"

"Lying to you all this time," Kat said, which was true, "and… recent events," which also was.

"Fuck you," said Shawna after a moment. Her voice was matter-of-fact. "I know why you do what you do but seriously, fuck you all. Can't you be a little less annoying about it?"

Kat inhaled deeply, exhaled shakily, and said: "Tell me how?"

"Not acting like freakin' saints might help."

Kat laughed; she couldn't help it.

"Glad to be amusing," snarled Shawna.

"No, it's that –" Kat shook her head. "'Acting' is all it is, Shawna," she said. "I don’t think I could feel less like a saint. I'm just trying to – to hold on until it's not as hard, you know what I mean?"

Shawn gave her an odd look. "Yes," she said after a moment. "Shit. I'm sorry. You are – were – hell – her best friend, and I…" Her smile was crooked. "Thanks for…" she gestured at their smoothies.

For being here today, Kat supposed she meant. You're welcome seemed like a terribly cheap thing to say and It's nothing was even worse, so Kat only nodded. She wasn't entirely sure she could speak anyway.

"Shawna, I –" she said after a moment. She looked away. "You didn't sign up for this, and I'm ever so sorry –"

Shawna snorted and cut her off. "Bitch, please," she said. "I knew she was keeping her secrets. I knew that and I decided to put up with that. So if you're going to spew any 'innocent bystander' crap at me, please don't."

Kat looked down and tried – through the heaviness inside her head – to find words that would express what she wanted to say without hurting Shawna further. "It's our job to protect," was what she finally said. "I feel like we failed."

Shawna made an odd, choked sound that might have been laughter. "Girl, even I know what a load of crap that is and, believe me, I wish there was anyone I could blame for any of this. But you did your job, and maybe your job is saving the world, but you can't rescue all the kittens from all the trees." Her eyes narrowed. "And if you're feeling sorry for me because you're too tough to feel sorry for yourself, then I might have to punch you. And let me tell you, I don't like punching people at… Shit, Kat. Here, have a napkin. I don't have any tissues."

Kat was bent over, shoulders hunched, fighting to breathe at all – in great, big gulps – between the sobs that hit her like being thrown head first into a cement wall.

"I just," she said, as Shawna pushed her chair closer and patted Kat's back awkwardly, clearly embarrassed and out of her element. "I kind of wish that – " she managed to take one whole breath "that –" that it was anybody's fault, she wanted to say, but she couldn't even bring herself to say it.

Perhaps she didn't need to, because Shawna grabbed herself a napkin too, and said, "Yeah, girl. I know."