It felt like he should have seen it coming, somehow.
"You're ... what?"
He stared uncomprehendingly. This wasn't real. It was just some horrible nightmare.
His father sighed. "Justin ... it's not ... " He ran a hand through his hair in agitation. "This is a fantastic opportunity. It could mean a lot of great things in the future."
"I'm your son." The words were flat and emotionless. He wasn't sure where they came from; his brain had stopped functioning shortly after the conversation started.
"Of course you are," he said sharply. "And if there was anyway I could just let you stay in this house while I'm gone, I would." He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "I'm doing this for you, Justin."
"Don't lie." He found himself glaring at the man before him. "Taking off on some 'business opportunity' and dumping me is for you. Running off after Mom died to bury yourself in 'work' was for you. Letting Nate get sent to - "
There was a moment of silence as they stared at each other.
"You aren't the only one who's suffered. You definitely aren't the only one who's had to make sacrifices," Justin said quietly at last. He shook his head suddenly as a harsh, bitter laugh escaped. "You have absolutely no *idea* what I gave up for you. And now you're pulling *this*?"
His father was tense with anger now. "You're thirteen," he snapped. "You don't know anything about sacrifices."
The look he gave in return was furious. "And you don't know anything about me to make that kind of assumption. I know more about sacrifice than you *ever* will!"
There was a moment of tense silence as they just glared at one another. "My god, Justin," his dad sighed at last, running another hand through his hair. "I just ... Sometimes I feel like I don't even know you anymore."
After a moment he forced himself to breathe, never noticing the tears that gathered in his eyes. "It doesn't matter anymore whether you know me or not," he snarled bitterly. "You stopped being my father the day Mom died. I've just been trying to tell myself it wasn't true."
His father stared back, shock once again giving way to outrage. "Justin - !"
"Go to h-he ... ll." he choked out, his fury and pain fighting past the language censor of his Morpher. He shook his head, turned, and walked away.
It was all just a nightmare ...
Justin stared at the binder on the table in front of him. "Just a nightmare ... " he muttered bitterly.
The 'nightmare' had ended with Justin back at Little Angel's Haven, and barely a goodbye from his 'father'. -( Jerk. )- he thought at him furiously, wishing the Power would let him use the word he really wanted.
He closed his eyes, dropping his head in his hands. The more he'd thought about it, he realized he should have been expecting it for a while now. After the first few awkward attempts to bond with him, his dad had become distant, spending more and more time at work. He'd always passed it off as another important project that he needed to get done. He hadn't really questioned it; he was still recovering from Power Withdrawal and anxiously awaiting for a chance to get in contact with the others again.
He sighed to himself and picked up another marker, absently doodling in the margins. He glanced at what he'd drawn and winced. Streaks of red, blue, green, yellow, and pink marred the paper, a painful reminder. Next to the streaks were the project he'd actually been working on. A 'prophecy', as Alpha had labeled it.
Courage learns Cruelty, Fighter to Sorceress
Commander becomes Mercenary, Artist then Destroyer, Spirit turns Killer
Honor fades to Thievery, Healing gives Pain, Heart comes to Hate
Knowledge faces Betrayal, and Light turns to Darkness
He'd figured out long ago that the attributes were a reference to the Power Rangers, and that the prophecy was about a group of Rangers turning evil. Or at least, he thought that's what it meant. There were more listings of attributes being twisted than there were Ranger Colors. He guessed that the capitalization was important. Most likely it gave clues to the identities of the 'Dark Rangers', as he'd taken to calling them. Unfortunately he was still no closer to figuring out the entire prophecy than he had been when he first discovered it in the Power Chamber not long after he'd become a Ranger.
He flinched at the thought of the Power Chamber. It had six months since its destruction, three since he'd last seen the other Rangers. Storm Blaster had stopped by once more after taking him home from that night, but it was only to tell him he had to leave -something about finding someone. He was grateful someone had remembered to say goodbye at least, though it still hurt to think they'd all left him.
He shook his head. It was stupid, to be upset over all this. It was life, pure and simple. Life stinks and then you die, as Nate used to say.
He frowned as the Power censored his thoughts. Well - sort of. Close enough, at least.
He was isolated these days, and it disturbed him to realize that it actually bothered him now. He hadn't been able to get back in touch with Tommy, Kat, Adam, or Tanya since they'd left the team. He listened to Tanya on the radio whenever he got the chance, but he'd only gotten a 'Thanks for writing in!' auto - reply when he tried sending something to the station, and he never seemed to get through when he called in. Getting in touch with the other three was even more impossible; Tommy hadn't remembered to leave him any contact information, Kat wasn't even in the country anymore, and Adam was apparently too busy to write back more than one 'Hey! I miss you! Things are going great!' letter.
Getting a hold of the Astro Rangers was ... well, apparently that wasn't happening, either.
And of course now that he wasn't an active Ranger, he was realizing just how many friends he had outside of the team - as in none. The high school-aged kids ignored him because he was younger and smarter than them, and the kids his age were intimidated by him or something. He'd tried to hang out with Nico once or twice, but that just felt ... well, awkward. After all, Nico was still just an innocent, normal kid. He was ... not.
With a growl of frustration, he jumped to his feet and grabbed his skateboard. Skating had always helped to clear his head. As usual, he didn't bother with any gear; he'd never cared enough about getting hurt to worry about it. He just hoped the fresh air would do him some good.
He stopped at a park bench to take a break, leaning his board against it. Flopping his head back with a sigh, he ran a hand through his hair. He didn't know why he couldn't get past this. He hadn't been a Ranger for *six months*. Yeah, once or twice he'd seen the Astro Rangers on T.V., or run into some Quantrons in the park, but nothing really beyond that.
He glanced down at his wrist. He hadn't been able to bring himself to stop wearing the morpher Storm Blaster had given him since he'd gotten it. He could still sense the Power through it, and if anything, it seemed ... stronger somehow, than the one he'd used before. He wasn't an active Ranger so he didn't need it, yet he couldn't bring himself to leave it behind. Power Withdrawal was part of it sure, but it wasn't the only reason.
He leaned forward and buried his face in his hand. "Man, I'm pathetic," he muttered.
The tell-tale sound of fizzling air echoed above him, and he paused. Any Ranger - active or not - recognized the sound of teleportation when they heard it. Slowly, he looked up.
They weren't anything he recognized. Pale, blue-skinned humanoid creatures, with long triangular blades running upwards along both of their arms from the wrist. Something that looked like a fin ran down the back of their heads. And they were all around him, making bubbling noises that sounded very much like Piranhatrons.
He eyed one of the blades as the creature reached toward him. "This is gonna hurt," he grumbled to himself, tensing.
Slamming his hands down on the bench, he jerked his legs up and kicked outward. The creature fell onto its rear end with a cry. He attempted to swing his feet up and over, missed, and slid off the bench.
Ranger reflexes were the only thing that saved him from cracking his head, managing to land in a handstand instead. He heaved upward again, flipping to land on another creature. His weight dropped it to the ground, a punch to the face ensuring that it stayed there. Throwing himself to one side, he rolled to his feet as they came at him. He retaliated with several forward kicks, trying to force them back far enough to get an opening. He spun to the side with a fist, only to gasp as something stung his stomach.
He glanced down, stumbling back with wide eyes. A hand came up to touch the tear through his t-shirt that revealed a line beneath, already leaking an angry red. "Looks like these guys mean business!" he quipped, fighting back a surge of nervousness as the slice continued to bleed. "Time to even the score." He shifted his stance, twisting his wrist swiftly. "Shift into - !"
Stars exploded before his vision, and he slumped to the ground as everything slowly began to turn black.
-( Hey ... that's not fair ... they're not supposed to do that ... )-
There were mirrors everywhere.
He looked around warily as he sat up, searching for the creatures that had attacked him. Instead, all he found was what appeared to be a hall of mirrors. He paused as he finally noticed the image before him, staring in stunned disbelief.
The boy in front of him looked like he'd grown an inch or two, but he was starting to reach that stage when his body didn't seem quite proportional; all gangly limbs and short torso. His blue T-shirt was tattered, his jeans were starting to develop threadbare patches, and he seemed to be missing a sneaker for some reason. His hair was shaggy, nearly touching his chin now, and rumpled in all directions. He was startlingly pale, and another glance at the slice in his stomach showed that his ribs were just starting to show. Deep circles shadowed his eyes, and the look in them ...
"Is that *me*?" he whispered aloud, staring in horror.
He crawled closer to the mirror, reaching out slowly to trace the reflection. His fingers ran along the side of the image's face. The image moved with him, flinching away when he did.
The eyes that watched him were a flat, dull brown. They were the eyes of someone who had seen too much, been through too many hardships. The eyes of someone who had been hurt and betrayed. Eyes that had lost hope that things would ever get better.
Eyes that did not belong on the face of a thirteen-year-old.
He shuddered, looking away.
-( Now you're afraid of yourself? )- a voice whispered in his mind.
"I ... " He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering again. "I never thought ... I didn't ... "
-( Is this what being a Power Ranger does to people? )-
His head snapped up, eyes wide. "No!" he cried. "That's not why! This isn't - "
-( The fault of being given a gift that was taken away? Of being left behind, over and over again? Of being treated as less than the rest of them simply because of youth? )-
He sagged, shaking his head slowly as tears welled. "No ... " he murmured. "I don't blame ... "
-( Do you? )-
Slowly, he began to remember. Things that he had tried so hard to forget, painful memories that he had desperately pushed away. Memories that even now, made silent tears slow begin to streak down his cheeks.
-- "Guys! I'm the new Blue Ranger. Isn't that cool or what?"
"What ... ?" Kat asked slowly.
Tanya rolling her eyes at him. Adam's bewildered look. Tommy's incredulous stare.
The longer they just kept standing there, the more uncomfortable he became.
Suddenly, this didn't seem like such a good idea ... --
-- "But you have to remember that we're your family now, too." Then she smiled. "Come here."
He sighed mentally, surrendering to the hug she would never let him out of anyway. He smiled in spite of himself at the feeling of warm arms around him. It was nice; comforting. Something he hadn't felt in a long time.
He blamed it on the energy of the Morpher he couldn't seem to adjust to.
Then she pulled away and poked him in the nose, smiling brightly. "'kay. Don't stay out here too long. Even Power Rangers need their sleep."
"Okay," he agreed with a more forced smile. -( What am I, five? )- he wondered silently. --
-- He'd always thought he was brave. He'd been through enough in his life that there wasn't much that scared him anymore. But those things walking toward him were unlike *anything* he'd ever seen.
"Help," he croaked, reaching for his throat as it tightened painfully. "Guys," he tried again. "Hey, guys."
But there was no one. No one was coming, except the monsters. --
-- Confusion when they said they were leaving. They said it was time for them to move on. He'd assumed they meant from being Rangers. It wasn't until a month had passed with no word from any of them that it had finally dawned on him what they really meant. --
-- Banging against the outer doors. Blasting noises. The doors coming open, and waves upon waves of Piranhatrons going through. He tried to fight them. Felt the injuries, his ribs bruised and body aching. --
-- Standing up in the rubble, staring dismally at the remains of what had once been the closest thing to a home he'd ever had. Watching the space shuttle take off, and realizing quite suddenly that he was completely alone. Everything he'd had was gone. --
And then, the greatest betrayal of them all ...
-- Staring at the smoking rubble that had once been his apartment building. He started forward, only to freeze at the sight of a decapitated hand. A gold wedding band wrapped around one finger, its sparkle dulled with blood. Another finger held the amethyst ring they'd saved so hard to give her as a present on her last birthday. --
He shook his head, trying to muffle his cries with a fist. "I don't ... I don't blame ... " he choked.
-( Do you? )- the voice whispered again. -( They left you behind. All of them. They abandoned you when you needed them the most. They never took you seriously, and as soon as it was convenient, they were gone. And *him* ... )-
He shuddered, fighting back the surge of emotion that particular memory brought. "It's not his ... "
-( He did it. You know he did. You only convinced yourself that you forgave him because you thought it was best. But has he shown any remorse? Does he even *know* her *name*? )-
Faced with the truth, he was forced to shake his head.
-( You never forgave him. You never will. He took away your *life*. )-
He bit his lip, fists suddenly clenching. "He never ... he never even *tried* ... to say he was sorry. To say *why* ... It's just some part of his past that he wants to forget. But I can't forget! He took her away!" He shook with a sudden fury. "He destroyed her, and *everything* fell apart!"
-( He's a murderer, )- the voice agreed.
"Murd ... er," he muttered, clenching his fists so tight he could feel his fingernails digging into his palms.
-( They abandoned you. Left you behind while they 'moved on'. )-
"Left me ... behind ... "
-( Left you behind without a word, replaced you with another. )-
His eyes narrowed. "Replaced ... " he nearly growled.
-( They don't even care about you anymore. How dare they call themselves your family when they abandon you in an orphanage? )-
He was shaking now, the anger nearly overpowering. "How dare they ... abandon me ... I am *not* an orphan!" he snarled.
-( Punish them. )-
He paused, slowly looking up. "Punish?" he asked uncertainly, the anger subsiding a bit.
And then he saw himself again. Tattered, broken, and alone, with eyes that screamed of hurt and betrayal. He saw what he had become.
The uncertainty vanished. "Punish them," he said quietly, coldly. He stood, staring at the image. He reached out to touch it, then abruptly punched the mirror, shattering it into pieces. He ignored the pain in his hand, staring at where the reflection had been. "I will *never* let anyone do that to me again," he whispered furiously.
"I can help you."
He spun, automatically shifting into a fighting stance. "Who are you?" he demanded.
The creature was ugly to say the least. It was a sort of mesh between every monster he could think of. He found himself absently identifying them in the back of his mind as he watched it warily. Oh, look. There was Maligore's eyes.
"I am called Vengeance," it informed him. "I can help you with the revenge you seek. I will give you the power to change *worlds*."
"No thanks," he scoffed, his gaze falling to the morpher on his wrist. "I've had more 'Power' than I'll ever want again."
Vengeance smiled in a way that would normally have sent chills down his spine. "I do not refer to that pathetic piece of machinery you carry. I can give you true, natural, blinding power."
"And what do you want?"
The smile remained. "Make them suffer."
He stared for a long moment, studying the creature. The voice in his mind reminded him of all the things that they had done, of all the hurt and pain they had caused him. And when he continued to hesitate, it brought the image of the boy in the mirror.
He reached for Vengeance's hand without a second thought. "You have a deal."