They had been heroes once. They had been young, brave, willingly laying their lives down on line for the good of mankind nearly every day.
The good of mankind. What a joke.
What had mankind ever done for them, except turn on them when they were at their lowest?
They'd saved the world from not one, not two, not three, but four different factions vying for power. They'd protected museums and archaeologists alike, and been lauded for their efforts. And then, a museum decided that since it couldn't sue the aliens for damages, it would sue them instead.
Them. The Power Rangers Operation Overdrive. Defenders of the Earth.
The ensuing controversy had been horrible. All the other Rangers of Earth had risen up in defense of the Overdrive Rangers. And the American public, sheep that they were, had risen up against them in equal ferocity.
They could have handled the slander. They could have paid the fines. They could have dealt with the spite and the glares and hostility.
They couldn't handle the loss of one of their own.
It was all over the news – Dax Lo, Operation Overdrive Blue Ranger, twenty-one-year-old stunt actor, son of Cambodian refugees, killed when a riot against the Power Rangers turned violent.
There was a moment, a day, a month, a year, a second, when the world stood still and the weight of such a heinous act pressed down on every soul. A Power Ranger, a warrior for the forces of good, an innocent, trusting, young man, slain by senseless violence.
That instant marked the end of the era of the Power Rangers.
The Mystic Force Rangers sealed themselves back away in their magical dimension. Animaria, once base for the Wild Force Rangers, shrouded itself within the clouds, never to be seen by man again. Operation Lightspeed, the only government-sanctioned Ranger organization, spent its last days erasing any presence of the Power Rangers. Any evidence of any Rangers' civilian identities was erased, with those who were too well known given new identities and relocated. Evidence of the aliens the Rangers fought was destroyed and aliens who remained on Earth forced to leave before it closed itself off from the rest of the Universe for good. Any aliens that remained quickly assimilated to Earth life, lest they be hunted by the governments they had once sought to make peace with.
The Rangers scattered, few remaining in the cities they had once defended. Some were still heroes, firefighters, doctors, teachers, simply because they didn't know how not to be. Others turned away from the values they'd once fought for completely, lying, stealing, killing to make a living. They never met up with each other, never sought each other out to reminisce, never breathed a word of the legacy they'd been a part of, not even in jest.
Within fifteen years, Rangers, Zords, magic, aliens, and the like were nothing more than tabloid fodder.
He knows who they are, who they really are, the moment their paths cross. Whether it's Prague, Belgrade, Dublin, or Santa Monica, he knows. He can feel that painfully familiar hum of energy, reminding him of everything that he'd lost. A young man's voice whispers insidiously in his mind, "Overdrive, Accelerate!"
It hurts, the first time he pulls a gun on one of them, the first time they glare at him hatefully for foiling their plans, but they are no longer teammates, no longer family. They are criminals, and it's his job to stop them.
The Yellow Ranger of his team is a thief now, not a racecar driver, but she's still as wild and adrenaline-driven as she was they'd fought together. She's lost her heart, though, the fun, nurturing spirit that soothed the team down after a stressful day and kept them sane. The woman he chases now, insane and so very broken inside is no longer the woman he once called sister.
She's Parker now, not Ronnie Robinson.
The Black Ranger of his team is a hacker now, and that's something he actually did see coming. The man was always good with computers, and he's only gotten better. He works alone now, just like he used to claim when he first joined the team. But the man he used to know was also a brilliant fighter, always pushing the team forward, instead of the man who plays God from behind a computer.
He's Alec Hardison now, not Will Aston.
The Mercury Ranger of his team, the one who had once fought against them and then became their greatest asset, is a hitter now, more specifically, a retrieval specialist. Some people can never escape who they are. He used to be a fighter, and he's still perfectly lethal. He used to search for and rescue creatures all across the galaxy, and now he focuses that intensity on whatever he's paid for. He used be a champion for justice, but now he's just a hired gun.
He's Eliot Spencer now, not Tyzonn.
The Pink Ranger of his team is a grifter now, and he is so blindsided by it that he lets her get away the first time he sees her, in Prague. How does the child genius he knew-fought beside-grew beside-loved become the consummate liar, thieving for money? She used to build complex robots and teach others about sustainable energy and urban living. Now, she steals paintings, artifacts, all for the money. But even if she's the complete opposite of who she used to be, even if she's forsaken every value she once fought for, he's hard pressed not to fall in love with her all over again.
But she's Sophie Devereaux now, not Rose Ortiz.
And him? He joined seminary school, tried to find answers, tried to find the solace in religion so many others around him did. But he couldn't share with others about a God he barely believed in, because what God would allow his team to shatter, allow so many Rangers and Ranger affiliates to fall, leaving the rest to completely uproot their lives and disappear forever? Then he became an insurance investigator, searching for priceless artifacts like he used to, constantly skirting the line between who he was and who he has to be now.
Well, he's a Red Ranger. It's pretty much par for the course.
His name is Nate Ford now, but he used to be Mack Hartford.
Nate's first reaction to Victor Dubenich is that he's a shifty little rat who's just begging to be punched in the throat. And, okay, that's probably the alcohol talking.
After he hears Dubenich's story, he thinks the man is a little bit insane and a lot desperate. Putting Parker, Alec Hardison, and Eliot Spencer on the same team? One of them's insane and none of them work well with others.
But he goes with the plan anyway, watching the three thieves from the building opposite their target, directing the others are they move in. Parker ignores him and launches off the building on her own time, but he expected that, and tunes out Eliot and Hardison's complaining, reminding Parker to be careful.
He knows his team. Fifteen years and new identities isn't going to change that.
Parker hasn't worked on a team since Ronnie was an Overdrive Power Ranger.
Except, she's not allowed to say that, because no one can talk about the Power Rangers anymore. No one's been allowed to talk about the Power Rangers since Ronnie became Parker who used to be Ronnie, but Parker can't be Ronnie anymore, so Ronnie's not Parker.
And then the adrenaline from jumping off a tall building wipes every thought from her mind.
Just like speeding across the racetrack in Milan-
Hush, Ronnie. You're not real.
Cutting through the glass and somersaulting her way into the room is easy; she could do it in her sleep. Maybe she'll try that one day. There's a Van Gogh hanging on the wall of an office on the twelfth floor of a twenty story building, some fertilizer company's corporate headquarters. Yeah, that sounds like a good plan for the weekend.
Nate's pretty cool. Kinda scary sometimes, but being chased by him gave her some of the biggest thrills of her life. And Nate's a good guy, in that silly saves-kitten-from-trees kind of way and he keeps his promises, like when he promised to let her go safely if she helped him get enough dirt to imprison his client, who was really kind of a scumbag.
So when Victor Dubenich tracked her down and tried to get her to work on a team, her first thought was to steal his wallet and walk away. She doesn't work on teams.
Because teams are easy to destroy and leave your heart bleeding, when you need them the most, when you need your brothers and sister to hold your hand and have your back, when you need your boyfriend to kiss the hurt away –
Hush, Ronnie, you're not real anymore.
But then Dubenich told her that Nate would be there, coordinating the heist, and he was offering her an awful lot of money, so she figures, why not. She may not trust Eliot Spencer and Alec Hardison, but Nate's a good man and she can trust Nate not to screw her over.
She trusted Mack, too, poor sweet Mack who was always trustworthy, always a good man, always –
She's doing this for the money, that's all.
They do the job. The four of them work together smoothly, and part ways when its all over, waiting for their money to come through.
And then Victor Dubenich double-crosses them and tries to blow them up to tie up all loose ends.
Alec should have known that Dubenich was screwing them over, really. That man was shifty from the start. After all, he hired Parker, who's insane, and Mr. That's-What-I-Do Eliot Spencer. And don't even get him started on Nate.
… Okay, never mind, Nate's alright. Kind of old-fashioned, and totally needs to get a life, but the guy's squeaky clean. Like, a freaking paragon-of-virtue clean. And smart, Nate's crazy smart, because he's always one or two or ten steps ahead of everyone else, and Alec's been chased by him enough to be suitably in awe of that.
Or, he could just be crazy. It's hard to tell with him, sometimes.
Alec looks around at the people in the room as they try to figure out their next move after nearly getting blown up. Man, he never thought he'd experience that again. It's been, what, sixteen, seventeen years since he last got blown up? It was in the final battle against Moltor and Flurious, with Mack, Dax, Tyzonn, Rose, and Ronnie –
He should probably stop that train of thought before it gets him in trouble. Lightspeed pretty much drilled it into his head that he should completely forget about ever being a Ranger, for everyone's safety. But it's hard. He's not like Parker; he can't just forget the people he worked with.
He can't just forget the android-turned-human he called leader and brother, the genius he called sister, the stunt actor he called brother, the alien he taught to live like a human… He can't just forget the woman he fell in love with.
He could find them, if he tried hard enough. Lightspeed was good at hiding the former Rangers, but he was sneaking into locked buildings, stealing classified information, hacking government databases, and so long before he became a Ranger. Also, Lightspeed didn't count on technology booming quite as exponentially as it has, so he could probably crack their secrets wide open, given time. Heck, he cracked the Pentagon once.
Fine, fine, he only made it past the first firewall, and then spent the next month terrified and laying low, covering his tracks so he wouldn't be found, but the point is, he can hack Lightspeed.
If he wants to. But, he won't, because after everything they've been through, the Rangers deserve their anonymity.
Sophie has come a long way from the quiet rebel who took the professors of the University of London to school. Where she once built robots, she now builds lives and lies, spinning stories to meet her ends.
Why did a child genius turn into a con artist? For safety. She understood better than anyone that the Rangers could never go back to the people they were, especially the Rangers who'd made their identities public. She had to become someone diametrically opposed to Rose Ortiz, Operation Overdrive Pink Ranger.
How did she become a grifter? Oh, that was easy. People were just puzzles. Incredibly complex, frustrating, unpredictable puzzles, but puzzles nonetheless. And she is good at puzzles. Study a little psychology, a little acting, live on the streets a little, and she was set. Will had actually taught her a little when they were teammates, since he actually used to be hired for similar work before he became a Ranger.
She shrugged off the person Rose Ortiz was like an old coat, and started putting on new aliases of women all across the world, whoever her mark needed her to be.
She does some stage acting, too, of course, in between jobs, when money runs low before she can sell her latest score, or contact a fence to do it. As a rule, she steals older pieces, antiques with history and mythology surrounding them. Sometimes the stories are true, sometimes they're not, but the pieces always fetch a good price. It's the closest she can get to the artifacts she used to protect, and it's probably a stupid thing to do, but she can't help but feel that if she doesn't make some kind of homage to the person she was, she's giving up.
And if there's one thing she learned from being a Ranger, it's to never bow down to adversity.
One of the best things about being a grifter is the people she meets. From nobility to paupers, she's seen them all and been them all. But one face she'll always remember, one face that will always hold a special meaning for her has a strong jaw line, curly hair, a little stubble now and then, and intelligent dark brown eyes.
No, not Mack, she doesn't think about Mack anymore. Lightspeed's probably relocated him somewhere in China to keep him safe. Mack in China, what a thought. He'd probably find trouble there, anyway, by digging up some ancient relic that should probably have been left well enough alone in search of adventure. It's what he does best.
Nate Ford. That's who it is. She met him Prague, ten years ago. She ran, he chased. Two years later, they met up in Damascus, and she introduced herself. He was newly engaged, then, giving him that extra boost of energy to catch up to her.
Nate Ford was something else. Always so passionate, so clever. Always so honorable. She would try to seduce him, of course, that was the easiest way to corrupt any insurance investigator chasing after her, but he would never fall for her tricks. He was always so steadfastly loyal to his wife, and when he did flirt with her, it was only steal whatever artifact was in question right out from under her.
But, then again, that's what made their game of cat and mouse so much fun.
Two years ago, Nate Ford disappeared. At first, she thought he'd been promoted, but it wasn't like him to take a desk job. No, he lived for the thrill of the job. She did a little digging, asked around here and there, and found out that those absolute pigs at IYS wouldn't pay for Sam's treatment.
The game lost a little of its allure, then – but only a little. She stills takes on jobs, when the price is right. She's laying low for a few weeks after her latest heist, taking a small acting job, when who should appear in her audience, but Nathan Ford himself?
No one comes to this theater for her unless offering her a job. Only people on her side of the law even know where she works. Everyone else thinks she's in Oklahoma right now. So finding out Nate Ford is playing the Black King instead of the White Knight?
Now that's something she does not want to miss.
Working with these four people again is Heaven and Hell wrapped together in one addictive package.
Heaven – his team, his family, is back together and he can work with them again. He can look them in the eye and know that they are committed to the same goal, just like they used to be. He can pretend for a moment that the past fifteen years never happened.
Hell – his team, his family, is back together and he can't acknowledge it. He can't turn to one side and joke with Ronnie about whatever stunt Dax's just pulled while watching Will subtly encourage him and Tyzonn laughing at all of them, while Rose rolls her eyes and threatens to call Spencer or his father. He can't acknowledge that they all stood side-by-side on one of the most insane, perilous, fulfilling journeys known to the Universe, because as far as any of them are concerned, they're thieves, and he's just a man who's chased them over the years.
He's not even sure if any of them besides Sophie even like him, but that's not something he lets bother him anymore. As a Red Ranger, his highest priority is his team's safety. As long as they're safe and alive, they can think he's the devil incarnate for all he cares.
Except that he does care, very much, hence the 'Hell' part. He should really stop psychoanalyzing himself, it never leads anywhere good.
Of course, his brain is dead set on psychoanalyzing something, so he looks to his teammates.
Sophie Devereaux. He probably shouldn't have called her. In fact, the list of reasons he should have called any grifter besides her is so long and so varied, he could probably make an encyclopedia out of it.
The first, and most important, reason is love. He loved Rose Ortiz fiercely and passionately and it killed a part of him to leave her when his team split up. When he mat Maggie, she was like a breath of fresh air, so different and so similar to the woman he'd loved, it was easy to fall in love with her, too. Maggie had the same passion for art that Rose had for science, and would pull obscure facts about anything and everything from out of nowhere just like Rose. But Maggie was also so different from Rose, sophisticated, elegant, and coy where Rose was shy, sweet, and studious.
And then Rose came back into his life as Sophie Devereaux, and both his heart and the Power within him demanded to take her back into his arms right then and there.
Fortunately, years of not being a Ranger have allowed his mind to gain enough strength to overrule his heart, and they settle into their roles as thief and insurance investigator.
Yeah, he really needs to stop thinking now. Because if he keeps going down this road, he's just going to think about Maggie some more and his failed marriage and his dead son and how much more he should be dead than Sam, and that ever-present urge to punch the nearest object until his knuckles bleed is going to spike, and he probably will hurt himself. Which would be counterproductive to finishing the job.
Curse the Power for burning alcohol out of his system before he can get adequately drunk.
Eliot thinks about the past a lot, probably more than is safe. He thinks about the galaxy he left behind, the woman he loved and lost and found and lost again, and the humans who'd once been his family.
He remembers Mack, sweet, bright-eyed, loyal, trustworthy, honorable, Mack, the man-child who'd saved his life and healed his soul.
Nate Ford reminds him of Mack when they first meet, with the curly hair and the lengths he goes to get the job done. But Nate has none of Mack's cheer and joy of life, and is far more calculating and shrewd. Eliot finds comfort in that, because remembering Mack, remembering Operation Overdrive, will only lead to trouble.
Nate is honorable, though, and honest. Eliot remembers the man saving him from a mob deal gone wrong, saying no one deserved to die at their hands, not for protecting a young man down on his luck.
They meet up several times after that. Sometimes he wins, sometimes Nate wins, but the thrill of the chase keeps him sharp and he can honestly say that if he had to come up against any IYS investigator, he'd rather it be Nate Ford.
And then, Nate Ford drops out of the game. It's like the day Dax died. There is a moment of stillness, then life seems to hit fast-forward. Many rejoice that the insurance investigator was no longer a threat. But then someone leaks out that Nate's boss had refused to cover his son's cancer treatment, and the rejoicing dies down, because no one deserves something like that. In the privacy of their own minds and souls, they take a moment to bow their heads in respect for their fallen adversary, before moving on with their next job.
Eliot meets up with Nate two years later, and he no longer sees Mack, because Mack never had eyes so dark with secrets and pain and self-loathing. It's the kind of self-loathing that stems from profound loss and personal failure, and Eliot knows all too well how self-destructive it is. The man Eliot now sees in Nate's eyes is himself, Tyzonn the Mercurian, who served evil after making a living out of helping people.
But someone reached out and saved him from that dark road, someone who called him 'friend' and pushed him to be his best despite adversity. So in honor of Mack, of everything he was and would never get the chance to be, he'll try and reach out to Nate.
The five of them work together almost as well as they used to. They don't fit together quite as well as they used to, too many jagged edges that don't quite match up and a hole where their sixth member should have been. But they had started out as a team of five, even Tyzonn, halfway across the galaxy, and they'll be fine as five again.
Nate can't help but feel thrilled, even if what they're doing is not quite legal, because it feels a bit like coming home.
And then he remembers that he cannot, absolutely cannot, let them stay together, because there are so many ways they – he – could slip up, or make enemies that are smart enough to piece together their history, and that would either end with their pictures splashed all over the news, or them being quietly silenced in the dead of night before they could cause any more trouble.
They have to split up after this job is done, and they need to get this job done quickly. And Nate's not about to let himself get close to them again, not when they'll just have to leave again.
So Eliot talking to him, trying to connect with him? Really isn't helping.
Nate wants to scream when the hitter mentions his son, because Eliot doesn't get to talk about Sam, not when he should have been Sam's godfather by rights, if the world wasn't so twisted, if their team hadn't been splintered and shattered beyond all recognition.
"Eliot, you and I are not friends," Nate says, biting back the hurt and anger, because they are not friends, not family, not anymore, not since the other man walked away without looking back fifteen years ago.
But Tyzonn – Eliot – doesn't even recognize him anymore, and he's just a lying honest man among thieves.
He could really kill for a bottle of Karthakian Fire Ale right now. According to Tyzonn, it was the only known alcohol in the Universe that could completely override the Power and get the drinker completely inebriated within twenty minutes.
However, his unwilling sobriety is better for them in the end, and allows the team to pull off their con flawlessly. Playing dead? Tricking Nigerians? Tricking Victor Dubenich? Completely decimating the stock value of a major aeronautics company?
Very lucrative child's play. As Hardison puts it, it's not just retirement money, it's buy-an-island-and-retire money. The number honestly doesn't faze him much, since, at one point, his own father was rich enough to spent the net worth of New Mexico on finding an obscure magical artifact and build a Command Center, several hi-tech Zords and Ranger morphers, fund worldwide excursions for the Rangers, and still maintain a sprawling country mansion in San Angeles, the city widely reported to have the highest cost of living in the state of California.
It's enough money to keep his team safe and secure for the rest of their natural lives, Eliot included. Seeing the surprise and relief on their faces when they see the money they're receiving fills Nate with the closest he's felt to peace in the past fifteen years.
His team will be safe. He hasn't failed them.
Except that they suddenly seem determined to stick together.
"Walk away," he tells them, because there's a whole slew of reasons they shouldn't be together ever again, not the least of which being that the Power Rangers are outlawed, and whatever they may be now, they will always be Power Rangers.
Once a Ranger, always a Ranger.
And it's for that very reason that he gives in, allowing them back into his life.
Because they're more than a team. They're a family.