Disclaimer- The Troopers belong to Saban, not me. Remember, folks, disclaimers keep the demon lawyers at bay! This is the eighth in the "Aftermath" series of vignettes, in the PC series after "Though the Heavens Fall." Thanks to Hellfire for suggesting this whole thing. This vignette is rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Aftermath: Virtual Dawning
by: Ellen Brand

Sunrise in Cross World City found Ryan Steele, as it always did, up at the temple on the shoreward side of town. Running through his katas in the growing morning light always helped him make sense of his thoughts. This morning more than any before, he had a lot to think about.

His father was home, and this time to stay. The Rangers had been kind enough, before he left Angel Grove, to use their teleportation system to move all of Tyler's stuff from the lab in Norway to the house in Cross World, and father and son had been unpacking late into last night. When they had finished, it had seemed to Ryan that they had finally pushed back the ten years of emptiness the house had endured between Tyler's disappearance and Ryan's coming of age. For the first time in a long time, it really felt like home.

Ryan smiled wistfully as the sun began peeking over the horizon. Part of the reason he had never given up hope during those ten years had been that house. When everyone around him had been saying that Tyler was dead, and that he'd never becoming back, Ryan's grandfather had refused to sell the house. Jonathan Steele had claimed it was so Ryan could have a place to live after high school, but Ryan had always thought that the older man simply did not want to admit that his son was never coming home.

And now Tyler was home, for good. Neither Ryan nor his father was optimistic enough to believe that they'd heard the last of Grimlord, of course. The virtual warlord had bounced back from such setbacks before, and Ryan had no doubts he could do it again. But with the prism that contained all Tyler's knowledge destroyed, Ziktor would have to find a new method to access virtual reality, and all of the data that Tyler and Dr. Jacobsen had compiled was now useless. And after the close call during the battles with Shadowborg, Tyler wasn't about to lose any more time with his son. Ten years was more than enough.

From thoughts of Shadowborg, Ryan's mind slipped effortlessly into thoughts of Katie. His eyes unfocused as he stared at the horizon, seeing her in his memories. Her absence still hurt- and he knew on some level it always would, just as he knew his father still mourned the loss of his wife, twenty years gone. But a series of long talks with Lita and Peter had helped Ryan work through the guilt he felt, and he knew there would come a time when the warmth and joy of his memories would be stronger than the pain they caused.

With a sigh, Ryan finished his last kata and bowed to the sunrise. Heading for his motorcycle, he grinned to himself. For the first time in a long time, he was excited about heading home. After all, he finally had something to go home for.

* * *

"Morning, Woody," Kaitlin Starr grinned, easily making her way through the crowds of people filling the offices of the _Underground Voice Daily._ She was conscious of the curious looks being directed her way by some of the fellow staffers, but ignored them. Her departure almost directly after the appearance Green Turbo Ranger and the Titanium Silver Beetleborg had surely raised a few questions, but she doubted anyone really suspected anything.

At her greeting, the paper's editor leaped to his feet, eyes wide. "Kaitlin!" the bearded man greeted her enthusiastically. "Are you okay? Where have you been? We were all worried SICK!"

"Woody, I requested a leave of absence to chase down a story, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember. I also remember that you've never taken more than two days off at a time. You were gone TWO WEEKS!"

Kaitlin smiled to herself. The bearded, eccentric editor of the paper was more than an employer to all of them- he was a friend, and for many of the reporters, he was almost a surrogate father. Even Percy, the mayor's annoying nephew, had once confided in Kaitlin that Woody was more of a father to him than his own ever was. "It's sweet of you to worry about me, Woody, but I'm fine, really. And I've got you the story of the century." Reaching into her back, she pulled out a sheaf of papers, which she set on Woody's desk. "A blow-by-blow account of the Shadowborg battles, straight from the mouths of the defense force."

Woody's jaw dropped, and he quickly scanned the papers before him. "Kaitlin, this is incredible." He looked up. "This is where you were?"

"Far out of the line of fire," she assured him, crossing her fingers mentally. "I got most of this second-hand."

Shaking his head, Woody slid the papers to one side of his desk for future reference. "Well, you've definitely earned your salary for this month."

Kaitlin held up a hand. "That's not all," she grinned. "You know who Parker O'Neil is?"

"Ace reporter for the _Angel Grove Gazette?_ The guy who got the first interview with the Power Rangers? The photographer? That Parker O'Neil?"

"That's the one. We traded stories. He went into space with the rest of the Ranger teams. We agreed that we'd wait a day, then run each other's stories, if you're interested."

Woody grinned. "What an ideeeeea! Kaitlin, you never cease to amaze me."

"Thanks, Woody. If you don't mind, I'm gonna go reacquaint myself with my office."

"Hmm?" the editor replied, already half into Parker's story. "Oh, yeah, sure. Se you later, Kaitlin."

Chuckling to herself, Kaitlin made her way back to her office in the back corner of the newsroom. Sinking gratefully into her chair, she relaxed. She had to admit, the piece she'd just finished could well have been the greatest story of her career. She'd been careful not to hint about anyone's identities, of course, but she'd made sure that Katie's sacrifice got the attention it deserved. It was the only memorial her double could ever truly have.

Kaitlin sighed. Poor Ryan. It was almost as if Fate didn't want him to be happy. If Grimlord wasn't playing games with his emotions, something else was. It was one of the reasons she hesitated to get close to him, even though she loved him with all her heart.

_Remember, if you ever want to talk, I'm here._

_I know. And you always have been._

No matter how she tried to get her mind off of it, that exchange in Angel Grove Park still haunted her. What did he mean by that? Simply that he knew she'd always been there for him to talk to? Or had be been implying something more? Did he- could he realize that she loved him as much as Katie had? Or was she just reading into it because of her feelings for him?

With a frustrated sigh, she dropped her head into her hands. If she didn't stop thinking about this soon, she was going to go crazy. Which, she thought wryly, was just what she got for falling in love with someone like Ryan Steele.

* * *

JB Reese sighed once as he loaded the newest sample into the analyzer. >From the monitor on the wall, Professor Hart watched him intently. "Is something troubling you, JB? You seem distracted."

The young man startled, looking up. "What makes you say that, Professor?"

"You loaded the sample backwards," the virtual scientist replied dryly. "If you'd like to talk about something, I'm willing to listen."

JB let out another deep breath. Loading the sample the correct way, he sank down in only chair in the pristine white VR lab. "There's really nothing bothering me that isn't bothering all of us, I guess. It's just- despite everything, I never really thought one of us would ever really get killed. I knew that was a risk- heck, I still have nightmares about the time Grimlord's dungeon blew up with Ryan inside it! But- he made it out of there, and I guess I figured we'd always be that lucky. And then- Katie."

The Professor nodded. "It was a shock for all of us. The three of you have become very important to me, and this was really the first time it occurred to me that I might lose one of you."

"It's scary," JB agreed. "But we've all been talking to Dr. Kino, and she's promised that we can drop in on her any time, the same arrangement she has with the Rangers. It's gonna take time, but- I think we can get through this."

"But something else bothers you, doesn't it?" Professor Hart continued. "I've known you for two years, JB. I've learned to read your body language very well."

Smiling slightly, JB shook his head. "You don't miss a thing, Professor. The other thing- it's Ryan. On some level, I've always know he hates Grimlord, but I never realized just how bad it was. He was really going to pull that trigger. Sure, most of that was Shadowborg's manipulation, but not all of it. I've just never been scared of my best friend before, but I sure was that day."

The virtual scientist nodded thoughtfully, but there was really nothing else he could say.

* * *

Having the VR Troopers discover his secret identity had been bad, Karl Ziktor reflected sourly, sitting in his office. Having them steal the Prism of Empowerment, the tool he used to transform into Grimlord, that had been worse. But the crowning insult had to be the fact that the Shadowborg, destroyed right in the middle of his office, had done some impromptu renovations, putting in a rather large skylight. Having a tarpaulin keeping the rain out of his inner sanctum didn't do much for a man's image as a threatening entrepreneur.

"The search continues, Mr. Ziktor," one of his skug secretaries announced. "We will soon find another source of power to allow you to transform into Grimlord once again."

Ziktor nodded, waving her away. "Leave me." Then, recalling his rather precarious hold on his power, he added, "Thank you."

She nodded and walked out, eyes wide with surprise. THAT wasn't a phrase she had ever heard from him before, and she never expected to hear it again.

Dropping his head into his hands, Ziktor sighed. Currently, he was keeping control of the Virtual Army by keeping the lines of communication open, and promising dire punishments for anybody who got cute during his absence. That could only go so long, however, before the members of the army got to fighting among themselves for control. If that happened, the Troopers would likely find themselves out of a job very quickly.

Thinking of the Troopers, the evil businessman barely fought back a shudder. Was it really only two days ago that Ryan Steele had stood in this office pointing a gun at his head? Ziktor didn't often think about his own mortality- indeed, with the powers of Grimlord, he could conceivably live forever. Ever since that day, though, Ziktor had been unable to shake the image of two ice blue eyes, boring into his behind the barrel of a gun.

Shaking off the memory, Ziktor returned to his work. He would rebuild his powers and take control of Virtual Reality again; it was that simple. And no one, not even the VR Troopers, would get in his way.

* * *

"Excellent workout," Tao Chong declared, bowing to his three best students. "Thanks, Tao," Ryan replied, returning his sensei's bow. "Listen, JB and I just wanted to apologize for leaving you high and dry for the last two weeks. We had some- really important business to deal with."

Tao smiled, shaking his head. "I understand, Ryan. There is no need to apologize. You would not do such things unless it were necessary. Now, if the three of you would clean up the dojo before you leave, I would be most grateful."

"You got it, Tao," Kaitlin replied. "And thanks."

The four exchanged bows again, and Tao left the three teens alone in the practice room. JB watched the karate instructor go with a thoughtful expression.

"You know, he never asks questions anymore. We can literally run out of here in the middle of a class, and all he says when we get back is "I trust you." You think he knows?"

Ryan shrugged. "Does it matter?" he asked practically.

"I guess not," JB replied. "So- how're you doing?"

"I'm okay," the blond boy smiled wryly. "One day at a time. I just want you guys to know- you really mean a lot to me, and I'm thankful that you've stood beside me for so long."

Kaitlin clapped him on the shoulder. "That's what friends are for, Ryan."

JB nodded. "Yeah. You know we'll always be there for you."

"I know," Ryan agreed. "I know."

The End... for now