Disclaimer: They're Saban's, not mine, let's hope I don't get sued. Thanks in HUGE amounts to Jen Bigley, who helped me flesh this story out from the conceptual stage, not to mention came up with Justin's spirit animal. This fanfic is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence and adult language. This story is set after Final Farewell. You may want to read it first to understand what is going on. Notes for voice actors, if anyone cares. Lupus is Tony Jay, as Virgil from "Mighty Max." Jay is played by our own Jason Narvy, doing a Gilbert Gottfried impression.
"Nasty place for a detonator," Blue Ranger said nervously.
The five Rangers carefully made their way through the abandoned corridors
of the Angel Grove Nuclear Plant, alert for an ambush. Their Turbo Navigators
were leading them slowly towards the detonator, and they realized that
it was only a matter of time before Elgar and the Piranhatrons attacked.
As they entered the main reactor room, Blue Ranger swallowed. The detonator was affixed to the concrete wall of the reactor's containment unit, happily ticking the minutes away. "Tell me again," Pink Ranger whispered, "what will happen if that thing explodes?"
"Well, judging from the amount of explosive contained in Divatox's previous detonators, and the inordinately large size of this one, I'd say there'd be more than sufficient explosive force to breach the core and most of the building. The nuclear matter in the reactor core blows sky-high, and we've got another Chernobyl." Blue Ranger was examining the device as he spoke, and his dry, measured tones and large words put most of the Rangers in mind of Billy, their genius friend who had once been Blue Ranger and now lived on the far-off planet Aquitar.
"How bad are we talking, here?" Yellow Ranger gulped.
"Best case scenario? Prevailing winds are to the east, and most of the fallout gets dropped in the mountains. We lose all of Angel Grove, all of Stone Canyon, most of Dry Creek, and two or three little mountain communities. Loss of life will total about 800,000," Blue Ranger replied grimly. "Worst case, the winds are to the west, and it gets into the jet stream. That stuff could be around the world in a few hours. Ninety percent of the population will glow in the dark."
"Shit," Green Ranger muttered. "Whatever happens, this thing cannot go off. Understood?" The other four nodded. "Justin, can you disarm it?"
"I think so. Give me some time." Just then, Elgar and the Piranhatrons appeared.
"Time's what we don't have!" Red Ranger cried. "We'll buy you what we can!" The four older Rangers threw themselves at the intruders.
Behind him, Blue Ranger could hear the sounds of a brutal fight, but could not spare it any attention. All his mind was concentrated on the detonator. "Damn!" he hissed through his teeth. "It has a circuit loop. Any attempt to cut the wires will set it off." Stepping back, he tapped his communicator. "Alpha, I need a pinpoint teleport. Alpha? Alpha!" Only cold static answered him. "Too much background radiation. It's interfering with the communicators. Luckily, our suits protect us."
Desperate now, he reached out and pulled on the device hard. It groaned, but came loose in his hand. Turning back to the fight, however, he realized that getting it out of the building was not an option. Elgar and the Piranhatrons had the whole room sewn up tight. The detonator was counting down in his hands, and Blue Ranger was at a loss of what to do.
Blue Ranger looked down at the timer. It read 5.
Suddenly, a section from Billy's notes on the Turbo Powers came back to him. "I have upgraded the protection on the suits," the notes had said. "Whereas before, they could stop laser blasts and the impacts of all blunt and most edged weapons, now they are even more durable. I believe they could contain a bomb blast, if necessary."
He then remembered something Tommy had said to him. "We're incredibly durable when we're morphed. Not just the suit, but us too. It's almost like we're made of concrete."
Adam's words of not too long before also came into his mind. "This thing cannot go off."
Squeezing his eyes shut, Blue Ranger dashed off a quick prayer. _If this doesn't work out, guys, please forgive me. I love you all,_ he thought hazily, clutching the detonator close to him.
Blue Ranger dropped to the ground by one of the outside walls, curled over the detonator and positioned himself so that the blast would be directed out, away from the reactor. _I love you, Dad,_ he thought.
The world exploded in a flash of white heat. Blue Ranger felt a tremendous tearing pain in his abdomen, and heard the wall exploding outward. Then he fell backwards into a warm, welcoming darkness.
"JUSTIN!" Red Ranger yelled. The sound of his agonized voice cut through the sounds of battle like a buzz saw. Elgar, seeing that the detonator had failed to do its work, teleported out, the Piranhatrons following. Immediately, Red Ranger ran to the side of his fallen friend. The other Rangers were right behind him. The two girls immediately began gagging at the wounds in Blue Ranger's abdomen, and Green Ranger was only slightly less affected. Red Ranger picked the fallen Blue Ranger up in his arms. "Let's get him to the Power Chamber," he choked. "And pray to God that Alpha and Dimitria can do something for him."
* * *
"I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do," Alpha 6 informed them. For once, the little robot actually sounded sympathetic. "You're gonna have to take him to a hospital, Jase."
Jason looked at the twelve year-old form lying on the diagnostic bed. Justin had been demorphed upon arrival, while the rest of the Rangers had simply removed their helmets. "I'll do that in uniform, I think," the teen said dully. "Less questions." Gently, he picked up the unconscious boy. _He hardly weighs a thing,_ he thought randomly. "He'll be all right, I promise." In a flash of light, Jason disappeared.
* * *
The emergency room at Angel Grove Community Hospital was occupied by several dog bites, a lawnmower injury, and a man who had been attacked by a rabid belt sander. In other words, business as usual. The day became a lot less usual when the Red Ranger teleported in, cradling an unconscious boy in his arms and shouting at the top of his lungs, "I need a doctor over here!"
The attending physician ran over. He took one look at Justin's abdomen and blanched. "I need a gurney! This has priority! I have a ten-to-thirteen year old Caucasian male, severe abdominal trauma! Get him into the OR, now!" As the staff hustled Justin away, one of the nurses turned to Red Ranger.
"What happened to him?"
"There was a monster attack at the nuclear plant. We fought the monster, told him to hide. He did, but apparently not in the right place. A detonator went off right next to him. Look, I have to go." With that, he disappeared.
* * *
Justin slowly came awake, lying on something soft. Realizing that he was no longer morphed, he sat up and looked around. Suddenly, he was aware that his abdomen did not hurt at all. Pulling up his shirt, he saw no mark on his stomach whatsoever. That settled, he began to examine his surroundings in earnest.
He was in the middle of a clearing in a forest, lying on soft, lush grass. The trees were like nothing he had ever seen, and as he looked closer, he realized that the foliage was not green, but spruce-blue. "Where am I?" he asked aloud, rubbing his head.
"That is a very interesting question, and one that is quite hard to answer," a cultured, British voice replied from behind him. Justin whirled to see a wolf looking at him quizzically. Its fur was a blue-gray, and its eyes were a beautiful cerulean, the same color as the sky.
"Did you just talk?" Justin asked cautiously. He'd never met any talking wolves before, but his time as a Power Ranger had taught him to be open-minded.
"Indeed I did. My name is Lupus, and as to your question, you aren't in a real where at all. You are in the Lands Between."
"Life and Death, of course," Lupus sniffed. "Limbo, I believe it is called in the mythology of your culture."
"I'm- dead?" Justin asked, having some trouble with this concept.
"Not exactly. You are not alive, but neither are you dead. You hover between, unable to go one way or the other."
"Unless he keeps this up, in which case, you'll be bored right into Death proper," another voice broke in. This one was sarcastic and rough. Justin looked up just in time to see a blue jay spiral out of the sky and land on his shoulder. "I'm Jay. Nice to meet you, kid."
"If I'm dead, then what am I doing here? I didn't think the afterlife would be this- empty."
"You are not dead," Lupus replied with a sigh. "You are in the lands between. It is our duty to guide you to the Ferryman, who will decide your worth."
"Does this happen to everyone?"
"What he means, kid, is that there's been a screw-up, a royal one. You were supposed to get dropped at the Ferry, not out here in the middle of nowhere. So of course, we have to go out and haul your butt back," Jay groused.
"Why the two of you?"
"We are your guides, the guides of your power," Lupus informed him.
"Guides? Oh, wait a minute. I remember now. Billy had a Ninja Spirit Animal. It was the wolf. So you're here because I'm a Blue Ranger? But where's Rocky's animal? And who's the blue jay?"
"Hello, McFly, anybody home?" Jay flitted to the top of Justin's head and began beating the boy with his wings. "I'm a Blue- Jay! Whose animal do you think I am?"
"Gina calls me J sometimes. Are you my spirit animal?"
"Yeah, we have a winner! Give the kid a rubber cigar!"
"To answer your other question," Lupus continued as if he had never been interrupted. "Rocky is more identified with Red. We are guides only of Morphin Power, of which you hold a trace amount, contained in your communicator, which is a relic of the Morphin Grid. As for your color, you could have been any of the other colors, but Blue was just barely more your personality than any of the others."
"Right," Justin said. He was still slightly confused, but he didn't think he was going to get any clearer answers out of the two of them. "So where are we going?"
"To the gates of the next world," Lupus sighed, turning. He trotted off down a forest path, and Justin quickly followed.
* * *
Tommy Oliver was relaxing by the beach when his communicator toned. Sitting up immediately, he frowned at the band on his wrist. When he had left the team, the other Rangers had promised not to contact him unless it was a dire emergency. He knew Jason, and knew that the other always kept his promises.
Checking for onlookers, he tapped the wristband. "Tommy here. What's up?"
"I'm sorry to bother you, bro," Jason's voice answered, "but we need your help. Can you teleport to the Power Chamber right away?"
"Yeah, sure," Tommy responded worriedly. "Jason, what's the matter?"
"I can't talk now, Tommy. I just need you to come back as fast as possible." If Tommy didn't know better, he'd swear that Jason was on the verge of tears.
"I'll be there." Looking around once more, he tapped his communicator and teleported out.
He reappeared in the Power Chamber and instantly realized that something was wrong. Only four Rangers were waiting for him: Kat, Adam, Tanya, and Jason. Justin was conspicuously absent, and the expressions on the faces of the four were worried and almost haunted. Then something lying on a nearby table caught his eye. It was a Turbo morpher and key, glowing dimly blue.
One possible explanation suddenly surged over Tommy with all the force of a tidal wave. "No," he whispered. "Oh, please, no. Tell me he isn't-" He couldn't finish, but didn't need to. The expression on his face said it all.
Jason shook his head. "Not yet, bro, although it's still touch and go. We went after one of Divatox's detonators today, one that was placed in the nuclear plant. If it had gone off, we'd all be deep fried right now. Instead, Justin contained the explosion with his body. Even with the suit and the enhanced durability, the explosion nearly ripped him open. I got him to the hospital and he spent two hours in the OR, while I went to the shelter and told them what had happened- the edited version of course." Jason's voice cracked violently. "I have never felt so god-damned helpless in my life. Never, in all my time as a Ranger. I've been swallowed by plants, put under spells, and had my butt kicked by ninety different types of alien, but nothing came close to this. The Isle of Illusion paled in comparison. I stood there, in my red spandex suit, trying to explain to these people why a kid that I'm supposed to be protecting is in the Emergency room with his guts half ripped out."
Crossing the room, Tommy put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "It's going to be all right, Jason. He's tough. He'll make it. Power Rangers are strong, and we'll come through this together. All of us."
Jason nodded, composing himself with an effort. "That's why we need you, Tommy. Until Justin gets better, we need a Blue Ranger. You were the best choice."
"What about Rocky?" Tommy asked.
Adam spoke for the first time, shaking his head. "Rocky's still not recovered from his back injury, Tommy, no matter how much he'd like you to think he is. He's in no shape to be a Ranger again, even temporarily."
"Have you told him about this yet?"
Tanya sighed. "Jason and Adam wanted to wait for you. They thought he might take it best from the three of you."
Tommy nodded. "You might be right. All right, I'm in." He picked up the Turbo Morpher with a sigh. "This is only temporary, though. Justin will get better."
* * *
"So, what can I expect on this trip?" Justin asked, looking around him.
"We will be passing through three tests designed to test the worth of the one who passes through them," Lupus informed him. "These tests will determine your destination."
"But if I was supposed to be dropped off somewhere else, then why are the tests waiting for me?"
Lupus sighed. "Jay is sometimes not too precise with his speech. It wasn't so much a mistake, your being dropped out in the middle of the Lands Between, as it was unexpected. We had thought you would turn up at the gates, and a good deal later, too. However, you are apparently unclassified, as often happens in the case of an early departure, and must go through the tests rather than pass the gates simply on the Ferryman's reading of your soul."
Justin nodded. "Yeah, I guess I haven't been a saint, or even a real great kid. It's funny, though, but there's nothing I regret. I'm gonna miss living, and the guys, but I'm not sorry I did what I did."
"That was truly a noble and selfless act," Lupus told him quietly. "Few have done such a thing, especially so young as you."
"Really? Cool," Justin grinned. "So where'd Jay go? I haven't heard him for a while."
"I've been scouting ahead," the bird replied, zooming past them. "You two are enough to bore me right out of the trees."
"Pay no attention to him," Lupus sniffed. "He's an abrasive, obnoxious, loud-mouthed little bird, but a heart of twenty-four karat gold beats inside that feathery ribcage."
"I heard that!" Jay cried, dive-bombing the wolf. Lupus simply reached up a paw and snagged the little bird around the beak as he began to say more.
"Will you ever grow up?" the wolf asked in a long-suffering tone. He released the jay, who promptly flitted up to Justin's shoulder, out of Lupus' reach.
"Hey, give me a break! I haven't been an active guide for five hundred years! Cut a guy some slack."
"Everything here is blue, isn't it?" Justin asked suddenly, interrupting the two of them. "Why is that?"
"The Lands Between are defined by you, and what is within you. Since you are a Blue Ranger, everything around you takes on the stamp of your power."
"Like that?" Justin pointed. Before them, in the middle of the forest, rose a large building made out of some blue stone. On the high walls were carved blue jays and wolves, staring down at the travellers.
"Yes, somewhat," Lupus responded. The three carefully made their way across the drawbridge and in through the front door.
* * *
Rocky De Santos sat on the back porch, watching his younger brothers and sisters at play in the backyard. They were playing a rough-and-tumble game of flag football, even his fourteen year-old sister Lindsey, who was usually far too concerned about dirtying her clothes to play. He ardently wished he could join them, but the doctors had given him another two weeks until he was fit for that, and his mother was watching him like a hawk.
Sighing, he thought about his Ranger powers. As an unmorphed, active Ranger, he would have been completely healed by this point. Having given up his powers to Justin, he healed at about half his usual rate, which was far faster than a normal human's. Unfortunately, it had not been enough to fully heal him yet, and so the others had passed him over to take Justin's place as the new Blue Ranger while the boy recovered.
Justin. Rocky shifted as his guilt began to assail him once again. In a way, this whole accident was his fault. If he hadn't taken that fall, Justin would never have been in danger in the first place. That fall should have paralyzed him, but the powers had saved him. They had kept his spine from shattering, and the minor breaks that had come when he hit the floor had healed up almost immediately. The doctors couldn't understand it, and his mother called it a miracle. Rocky knew better.
_The Power protects us, but not enough. Never enough. Usually it's just bumps and bruises, the occasional twist or sprain. Tommy has this habit of breaking his ribs, and I hope to God nobody ever x-rays his chest. But what happens when it's bad? I'm out of the running, thanking God and Zordon that I can even walk, let alone spar. And a twelve year-old boy whom I gave my powers to, mainly because I was hopped up on painkillers at the time, becomes my replacement. A detonator takes out most of his abdomen and he's lying in the hospital, fighting for his life. Some miracle. Where was the power then? Why couldn't it protect him all the way? Why couldn't I?_
That was the heart of the matter, of course. Ever since meeting the little boy, Rocky had considered Justin almost like one of his own siblings. He had always intended to bring Justin home for dinner with the family some night, but he had never gotten around to it. Now it looked as if he never would. Justin had seemed so much like himself at that age that Rocky had instantly felt a kinship with him. Both had lost parents early in life, although Rocky had still had large amounts of family on both sides to support him. Also, both were outgoing, humorous types who could get a laugh out of any situation.
Rocky had seen himself in Justin, but he had also seen him as one of "Los Lobos," The Wolf Pack. It was how his family referred to his mother's six youngest children, and Justin seemed to fit right in. Older than Juan, who was ten, and younger that the thirteen year-old Rosa, Justin was just right to interact with the group. That, perhaps, was the biggest reason that Rocky felt guilty about what happened to Justin. He had spent all of his life as a second mother to his younger siblings while his mother was at work. Naturally, he had extended the same responsibility to Justin.
_He made a choice, though, his own choice. I can't dishonor it by second-guessing him. If you hadn't left the team, it wouldn't be you lying there, it would have been Adam. You know they would have left him to disarm the bomb. You didn't force Justin into this, and you couldn't take his place. He made his choice. Now it's up to you to respect it._ Rocky wasn't sure where the voice in the back of his mind came from. It sounded rather like his subconscious, although he wasn't used to his subconscious making so much sense. As he listened to the words and began to accept them, he thought that for just a fleeting moment, he could hear the strong tones of his father's voice.
* * *
Creeping down the corridor, Justin came to a large room. On the far wall stood three doors. They were of identical form, of some cool metal, with no visible knobs or hinges. They differed only in color. The one on the left was a deep space blue, so dark as to be almost black. In the middle stood a portal of rich, deep blue, the color of Justin's Ranger uniform. The third, rightmost door, was a pale baby blue, almost white, like shadow on an eggshell. In the center of the room stood a podium. Crossing to it, Justin read the inscription.
"'Seeker, wisely choose your path; take the road beyond the door, but beware, for two shall lead into darkness ever more. For the destination that you seek, walk along the path that's true, choose the door whose road beyond is the road that belongs to you.' Wow, what a weird riddle. What does it mean?"
"That you must learn for yourself," Lupus informed him. "I am afraid I cannot tell you."
"This must be one of those tests," Justin sighed to himself. "Okay, fine. 'Two shall lead into darkness ever more' must mean that if I make the wrong choice, its curtains for me. So, no trial and error. 'The road that belongs to you.' Hmm." Walking up to the doors, he examined them. "This whole place seems to be based around my identity as a Ranger, so I'm Blue. But they're all blue!" he cried, frustrated.
Suddenly, something that Lupus had said to him earlier recurred in his mind. "As for your color, you could have been any of the other colors, but Blue was just barely more your personality than any of the others."
"If I'm all the colors, with Blue predominating, then I can't be the middle one. It has nothing but blue in it. One's almost black, and one's almost white. In crayons, if you mix all the colors, you get black, but if you mix all the colors of light, you get white. Which is it?" Closing his eyes, Justin began to think. "The powers are always referred to as powers of Light. If the powers are symbolized by light, because of their goodness, they wouldn't make darkness when they all come together. If you pool the strengths of good beings, you don't get evil. It must be this one." Walking to the light blue door, Justin gave it a push. It swung open without effort, revealing the outside of the castle and a road leading off into the distance.
"Congratulations, Justin!" Lupus cried. "You have passed the test of wisdom, knowing both your own nature and the nature of the Morphin Grid."
"Yeah, well, don't get a swelled head about it, kid," Jay said gruffly. "You've still got two more tests to go.
"Then let's get moving!" Justin cried, buoyed up by a sudden rush of intense optimism. The three of them set out, heading down the road again.
* * *
"Ki-yah!" Another vicious punch slammed into the hanging bag, nearly knocking Tommy off his feet. Jason continued the barrage, pouring all his anger and frustration out onto the bag. His face was set, with an extremely frightening expression on his features. Tommy could see why his friend had intimidated so many opponents in the ring.
The two of them were in Jason's backyard, having agreed that they would draw the least amount of attention there if they wanted to discuss recent events. Justin had now been comatose in the hospital for two days, and tensions among the Rangers were running high. However, as yet Jason had not wanted to discuss anything, preferring to simply pound the snot out of his heavy bag. Tommy had been patient, but now he felt it was time to say something.
"Jase, the stuffing is beginning to ooze out of this bag. Come on, take a break. What's eating you? It's more than Justin being in the hospital."
Stripping off his gloves, Jason fell onto the cool grass. Tommy flopped down beside him, and the two of them stared at the sky in silence for a while. Finally, Jason spoke.
"I feel like I let him down. I should have seen what he was doing, gotten to him earlier. I shouldn't have left him to deal with the bomb. Adam could have done it, but I kept remembering how he blew up at us while you were missing, saying we treated him like a baby. I tried to treat him like an adult, and look what happened."
"Jason, you did what you had to do. Justin is smart. If it was the original team, would you have let Billy deal with the bomb?"
"Probably. He was the only one who could."
"That's not necessarily true. Trini could probably have done it, but not as well or as quickly as Billy. Billy and Justin are very alike. Both are geniuses, and both are the same mental and emotional age; at least, Justin's the same emotional age as Billy was when he joined the team. If you would have let Billy do it, why not Justin? The distance between their physical ages is only three years. If this had happened to Billy, he would have lost as much of his life as Justin may have. We made the decision when we accepted the powers. We knew, all of us, that we were reducing our chances of living to old age. Justin made that choice too, and he did understand it. There was nothing you could have done."
Jason grunted. "Yeah, I guess so, Tommy. Thanks." They lay there in silence, watching the clouds scroll by.
* * *
"Can we take a break?" Justin asked. "I feel like I've been walking for days."
"You may well have. Time works differently here," Lupus informed him. The three of them left the road and sank down under a blue spruce tree. In the distance, Justin could hear a trickling stream.
"This is nice. I wish I could stay here for a while."
"That's a very dangerous wish," Lupus told him, regarding him sternly. "Other souls have made that decision, and the results are not pretty."
"What, they turn into zombies?" Justin asked, shutting his eyes and lying back in the cool blue grass.
"Hardly. They wander the Lands Between, with no rest in sight, and prey on others who must make the same journey. You have met none of them yet, but that does not mean that you won't. I only hope that we make it to the Ferryman without further incident."
"Hmm. Who is this "Ferryman" you keep talking about?"
"He is the guardian of the gates of the afterlife. In Egyptian mythology, he was Anubis, god of mummification. However, he is most known as Charon, the Ferryman, who carried souls across the River Styx in Greek myth."
"Oh." The travelers sat in silence for a while. Finally, Justin shifted and sighed. "You know, I really miss the rest of the Rangers. I bet they're missing me, too. I wish there was some way I could let them know that I'm all right."
"I can sense waves of energy following you into this plane of existence. They must care about you very much."
Justin nodded. "Yeah. Sometimes I think they don't want me around, but then they go and do something to show me how much they care. I remember on my birthday, they threw me a surprise party, and I nearly wound up getting myself killed. Tommy nearly died himself, trying to get me off that booby-trapped bike. I love my dad and all, but I see him so rarely. The Rangers are really all the family I have." Snuggling closer to the wolf which lay beside him, he yawned. "Lupus, if I'm dead, why am I still so tired?"
"You are not dead. But to answer your question, you are still in the habits of living. Those will fade, after time." Lupus would have said more, but he realized that Justin was asleep. Jay came fluttering down from the trees above.
"He's asleep?" the bird asked quietly, a major feat for him.
Lupus nodded. "Yes, he's out like a light. It has been a long time since there was one like him in the Blue."
"What about yours? He's something special."
"Yes, but he cannot hear me. I suppose his own troubles blind him to my voice. Besides, although they are alike, this young one and my cub are not identical. This one is a bit more outgoing, although that may be due to his friends."
"Think he'll pass the tests?"
"I hope so. He's taking being between life and death very well."
"Shock," the little bird said wisely. "It hasn't really sunk in yet that his life is more or less over. I wish we could tell him the truth."
"Yes, but you know that he isn't allowed to know until he has passed the tests. He must pass them completely on his own. We can't even motivate him. Those are the rules."
"The rules are stupid," Jay grumped. "Wake me when it's my turn for watch." Flitting up into a tree, the blue jay ducked his head under his wing and went to sleep.
* * *
Yellow Ranger sat on the hard plastic hospital chair in Justin's room, shifting occasionally. It was her turn to stand watch over the unconscious boy, to guard him in case Divatox took advantage of Justin's vulnerability to strike at the Rangers through him. She sat by his bed most of the time, watching his chest rise and fall in time to the hissing of his oxygen tanks. He was breathing on his own, but the staff didn't want to take any chances with the amount of oxygen his brain was receiving. His heart monitor beeped with a steady rhythm, and his eyes occasionally twitched, as if he were dreaming. She often wondered, as she stood guard over him, what he was dreaming about.
The hospital staff were baffled by his comatose state. He had lost a great deal of blood, but his heart had never stopped pumping, and he hadn't sustained any head injuries. There were no indications of brain damage, but he just wouldn't wake up. Power Chamber scans could turn up no reason for Justin's coma, either. His body was in good working order, but his spirit just wasn't there.
A sudden chill shot up Yellow Ranger's spine. They were all worrying about whether Justin would die, but a far more frightening prospect was that he would live on like this, for a very long time. The thought of spending forever in a coma, hanging between life and death, was a far worse prospect than death itself to her. Justin had always been so upbeat and full of life; the thought of him never rising from that bed again was horrifying.
During her time in Africa, she had been almost family to most of the tribe, and when she had come to Angel Grove, she had felt the same way. The Rangers had become her new extended family, and Justin had replaced all the little brothers and sisters that she left behind in Africa. Her memories between seven and seventeen had a curious doubling, but with Zordon's help, she had been able to lock it away and treat both as if they were the truth. As far as the world knew, she had met Aisha Campbell when the other girl had moved to Africa when both were twelve, and had left to go live with Aisha's friend Katherine. Zordon had told them once that due to the changes in the time line, people remembered a version of events halfway between what happened the first time and what happened the second. Aisha had the doubling as well, and the two girls had discussed it in letters for a while.
In both sets of memories, Yellow Ranger could recall her little brothers and sisters in the tribe, and Justin had sort of become a surrogate for them. If she lost him, it would almost bring her to her knees. The Rangers were, in a sense, her only family. The parents she had lost so long before were almost strangers to her, and she to them. She still loved them, and the three were beginning to get to know each other, but for people who could understand her, she still had to go to the other Rangers.
A nurse came in, startling Yellow Ranger out of her reverie. The staff had adjusted quickly to the round-the-clock Ranger guard. Because her parents knew she was a Ranger, Yellow Ranger usually pulled the six-to-eleven PM duty, the time when her absence would be the hardest to explain. As a result, she had come to know the night staff well over the past week.
"Nurse Carter?" Yellow Ranger asked. "Has there been any luck contacting the boy's father yet?"
The nurse shook her head. "No. We called that number he left, and they said they hadn't heard from him in two weeks. We'll keep trying, of course, but it looks as if the poor little guy may have to pull through this without his father." The nurse left, and Yellow Ranger resumed her position by Justin's bed.
"I'm here for you, Justin," she whispered. "You'll make it through this. I promise."
* * *
"Where are we?" Justin asked, shivering. The scenery looked uncomfortably like something out of a classic horror movie, with mist swirling over the path and dead trees around him.
"We are on our way to the second test," Lupus informed him, pressing closer to the boy's leg. Justin could feel tremors shaking the wolf's body as well. Only Jay seemed unaffected by the gloominess of their surroundings.
"Where is it- oh," Justin answered his own question as a huge gray castle loomed up out of the mist. "Do I really have to go in there? This is the point in the horror movie where everyone is saying to the stupid characters, "Don't go in there, you nitwits! The monster that lives inside will suck your eyeballs out with a straw!" If this is another test of wisdom, I say we go around."
"I am sorry, Justin, but you must go in. The second test awaits you."
Justin sighed. "Fine, but if I get my eyeballs sucked out with a straw, I'm holding you responsible." Cautiously making his way inside, Justin found himself in a large circular room with no furniture, only a large wooden door on the other side. "This is too easy," Justin said, shaking his head. "Where's the catch?"
A large scythe whistled through the air, nearly decapitating him. Ducking, Justin turned to face his assailant and stopped. Standing in front of him was the Grim Reaper, cloak, scythe, skull, and all. "You've got to be kidding me!" Justin groaned. "Aren't I already dead?"
The Reaper answered with his scythe, trying to slice Justin's head from his shoulders. The young boy dodged again. "Apparently you don't think I'm dead enough." Backing away, he searched the room for exits or weapons, but found nothing. Suddenly, anger flashed through Justin. He stopped backing away and actually took a step towards the Reaper.
"Look, buddy, I have had a lousy day. I have had my guts blown out, I have been stranded in Limbo, I have nearly wound up in eternal darkness, and now you want to fillet me? Fine. I'm not running anymore. You want me, come get me." The Reaper advanced again, raising the scythe. As it came up, Justin dashed in and planted a strong kick directly in the gray-clad figure's midsection. The cloak folded up and suddenly there was no longer anything inside it. Now, all that was left was the cloak and scythe.
"Well done!" Lupus exclaimed. "You have passed the test of Courage, facing Death with bravery and dignity. Now, only the last test remains. Let us move on." The three of them headed out the door, leaving the cloak in a puddle on the flagstone floor.
* * *
Adam lay on the cool green grass of the park, sighing to himself. He was worried about Justin, of course. The boy had been in a coma now for almost a week and a half, and he was still showing no sign of recovery. The doctors could find nothing wrong with him, but he still had not awakened. Plus, no one could seem to contact Rick Stewart, no matter how hard they tried.
_How does the man expect to find himself when no one else can?_ Adam wondered, sighing. He still felt the total shock and nausea he had experienced, seeing Justin lying on the floor of the nuclear plant. The image kept recurring to him at odd times, making him ill and interfering with his life. Now he was taking the time off to try and get to the bottom of his reactions.
Taking a deep breath, he slowly sank into the state of mind he used to meditate. _Why do I feel so responsible for Justin's condition? I could have defused that bomb, maybe, but not in time. Justin had the skills to do it, so the job fell to him. I didn't select him for the team, and Zordon vetted him. Besides, we're none of us that old. Someone had to take Rocky's place, and sooner or later one of us was going to get hurt. It's just bad luck that it was a thirteen year-old boy.
I guess it's because he reminds me of Frank. They're almost the same age, and they do have certain things in common._ For one thing, both Adam's thirteen year-old brother and Justin were computer addicts, loving every type of computerized gadget available. Not only that, but both boys were smart, courageous, and quick to see the best in life. Franklin and Justin were very much alike, and for that reason, Justin's condition made Adam feel as if he had failed his little brother.
_You did what you could, man,_ Rocky's voice seemed to say. Adam had a habit of building little versions of his friends in his head to help him through problems, and the Rocky one was popping up now. _Pope once said, "Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,/ a hero perish or a sparrow fall." You're not God, you're mortal. You can't save each sparrow, and you shouldn't go blaming yourself for it. You didn't fail him. All you can do is just accept what has happened and go on living. Otherwise, you really will have failed._
Adam smiled to himself. He did feel a little better now, having worked things out within himself. "Thanks, Rocky," he whispered.
* * *
"So can you tell me what this test is for?" Justin asked, looking into the dark cave before him.
"I'm afraid not. I can only tell you that you must get the crystal chalice at the end of the cave. You must not waver from your quest. Any hesitation will result in the chalice being lost."
Justin nodded. "Got it. Wish me luck, guys. I have a feeling that this won't be as easy as it looks." Moving into the cave, Justin stopped to let his eyes adjust. As soon as he did so, he saw the chalice sitting at the end of the cave. "This is too easy." Slowly, testing for booby-traps, Justin made his way along the corridor. Suddenly, a voice called out from a side passage.
"Please, somebody help me! I'm trapped, I can't get out. Help me, please! Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me?"
Justin hesitated. Whoever it was sounded as if they were really in trouble, but Lupus had told him that straying from the way would lose him the chalice. He thought for a moment, then sighed. "I'm still a Power Ranger, sworn to defend and help." Raising his voice, he called back to the person down the passage, "Hold on, I'm coming!" Without so much as a side glance at the chalice, he ran down the side corridor.
Soon he came to a deep pit. He could just barely make out the person in the bottom. "Hold on," he repeated. "I'll have you out of there in a minute." Looking around, he found a rope. Quickly, he knotted it around a spire of rock, tested the strength, and lowered it to the person in the pit. He heard scrambling below as the person climbed out.
"Thank you for rescuing me, Justin. You passed your test with flying colors," said the person, whom Justin now realized was a woman. Her low contralto voice sounded familiar somehow, and Justin frowned.
"Do I know you? And what do you mean, I passed the test? I let the chalice get away."
"The test was that of purity of heart," Lupus replied, strolling into the chamber. Justin realized that the room was now getting lighter. Turning back to the woman he had rescued, his jaw dropped. His mother stood in front of him, wearing her favorite jeans and a light blue T-shirt. With a cry of delight, Justin flung himself into her arms. All of his maturity and composure fell away, and he was just a thirteen year-old boy again, reunited with the mother he had lost.
Alicia Stewart held her son tightly, rocking him gently from side to side. "You sacrificed what you believed was your own existence to help someone else. You have proven yourself worthy, pure of heart, and passed the final test. I am so proud of you, Justin."
"I missed you so much, Mom," Justin mumbled, his face still buried against his mother's shoulder.
"Justin, no matter what, I'm always with you. The people we love never leave us completely behind. As long as we love each other, we'll be together, one way or another."
Lupus walked up to the two of them, nudging Mrs. Stewart gently with his muzzle. "It is time to move on, I am afraid."
Justin looked up at his mother in alarm. She smiled down at him reassuringly. "He means all of us this time, Justin. It's time to go meet the Ferryman and leave behind this plane of existence."
The boy nodded. "Okay. Let's go." The three of them left the cave, Jay swooping down onto Justin's shoulder as he left the cavern. Together once more, the group headed off to the Gates of Eternity, their final destination.
* * *
Kat was sitting at the juice bar, sipping a pink lemonade when Tommy stormed into the room. One look at his cold, set features, and she knew something was seriously wrong. Finishing her drink, she made her way over to where he had begun beating the stuffing out of a punching bag. Idly, she wondered if he had picked the habit up from Jason. She waited until he had reached a stopping place, then gently laid a hand on his shoulder. "What's the matter, Tommy?" she asked quietly.
Whirling, he relaxed as he saw who it was. He looked around to make sure no one was listening, then motioned her closer. "They still haven't found Rick Stewart," Tommy growled. "It's been almost two weeks, and no one can get in touch with Justin's father!"
"Well, Tommy, maybe he can't help it. He could be somewhere without a phone."
"Then why didn't he tell somebody where he was going? Or take a radio? Wherever he's gone, he's totally cut himself off from his son. Justin could- could-" Tommy couldn't bring himself to say the word, "and he'd never know!"
"Tommy, I've never seen you get this riled up before. What's eating you about this?"
Tommy sighed. "I don't know, Kat. I guess I have this sore spot about parents abandoning their kids, and this has just hit it."
"Mr. Stewart hasn't abandoned his son, Tommy. We just can't find him. That's not abandonment."
"It's more than this, Kat. Do you know what Justin told me once? His father promised to call him once a week when he left. Justin says that the calls barely come once a month! And his dad doesn't even explain why! If that's not dangerously close to abandonment, I don't know what is."
"There's still something you're not telling me, isn't there?" Kat probed gently. Tommy didn't usually respond well to directed questioning, but something was eating him, and she intended to find out what it was. Just because they were no longer boyfriend and girlfriend didn't mean she didn't care about him. She had missed him since he left, although she understood that he needed his space and time to think.
Tommy nodded sheepishly. "Yeah. You know what Justin said to me once? He sees his dad so rarely, that it seems like we're the only family he has. I started thinking about it, and you know what? He's right, we are his family. And somehow, I have no idea how, I've become his surrogate father. He sees me as a father figure, and I was treating him like a son, not like a little brother. Then Divatox put me through the wringer, and I went off to "find myself," just like his father. I didn't even think, and I should have! The only difference between me and his father is that I wrote to him. I did that, at least."
Kat raised an eyebrow at her ex-boyfriend. "You wrote to him? You never wrote to me."
Tommy grinned at her. "Well, I only wrote to Justin and Jason. I figured you had David, and Adam and Tanya had each other. Justin and Jason were really the only ones I needed to keep in touch with."
Kat "hmph!"ed, but she was smiling at him. "Well, I think you've been a wonderful father figure for him. You know, sometimes I felt like a second mother to him, myself. I don't know, I guess I just wanted someone to mother, and he was a good choice."
"So was I," Tommy said quietly. "Always have been. I think that's why I haven't had much luck with women."
Smiling, Kat put her arm around his shoulder. "He'll pull through, Tommy. You have to believe that."
"I wish I could, Kat. I wish I could."
Suddenly, Lt. Stone came out of the back room. "Tommy, the Little Angel's Haven just called. They said that they'd just received a call from Rick Stewart saying he'd heard about the accident and was on his way to the hospital. They'd like you to meet him there and explain what happened."
Tommy and Kat looked at each other and suddenly bolted for the door, startling Lt. Stone, who shook his head as he watched them go.
* * *
Justin frowned. "I don't see a ferry. I don't see any gates, either. Are you sure we're in the right place?"
Lupus sighed. "The gates and the ferry are metaphorical, Justin. Most things in this world are." All further conversation was cut off as a man appeared in a flash of light. Justin frowned. He looked oddly familiar, although Justin couldn't place him. Then he realized that the man was an amalgam of all the men he looked up to in his life: Tommy, Adam, Rocky, and his father.
"Are you the Ferryman?" Justin asked hesitantly.
"I am indeed," the Ferryman nodded. "You are a wise, courageous, noble young man, Justin. You have passed all the tests set for you. Now it is time to make your decision."
"You are not alive, really, but neither are you dead. You hang between. You may choose to return to the world of the living, or pass on into the realms beyond. Beware, though. If you leave, you have no guarantees of what that life will be like, nor the condition of your soul should you pass this way again. As you stand now, you are pure of heart and spirit. If you pass the gates, you will pass on to a higher plane, not a lower one. I cannot guarantee you such if you return to the living."
Justin bit his lip. "If I stay here, I won't see the guys again for a long time, and I'll miss a lot of things. Most of all, I'll leave Dad alone. I'm not sure I can do that. But if I go back, I'll lose my mom." He thought. "No guarantees, huh?"
"I am afraid not."
Justin bowed his head in thought, and when he raised it again, his jaw was set. "I've made my choice. What do I do?"
"Place your hand upon this crystal ball," the Ferryman answered. Justin did as he was told, smiling at his mother.
"I love you, Mom. I'm glad we're together again." As the light flared up in the ball, Justin suddenly felt a feathery weight land on his shoulder. "Jay? You're coming with me?"
"Hey, I'm your animal guide, kid. You don't get rid of me that easily." Then the two were swallowed up in the light, and were gone.
* * *
Tommy strode down the corridors of Angel Grove Community Hospital, his jaw set and his eyes flashing. His friends were behind him, hanging back somewhat. Adam, who had been on guard as Green Ranger when Justin's father arrived, had immediately scurried off, demorphed, and now followed his friend as well. All of the teens had seen Tommy angry before, and had no desire to get in the way. Reaching Justin's room, Tommy strode inside.
"What the Hell was he doing in a nuclear plant anyway?" Rick Stewart asked, not bothering to look up. His eyes remained fixed on his son's pale face.
Tommy's anger flared higher, but he kept it in check as best he could. "He was doing a school project on nuclear power. The woman he was talking to went into the next room to get him a pamphlet and the Piranhatrons appeared. You know the rest."
Now Rick Stewart did look up, and his eyes were bright and angry. "I know that my son, who seems to have no friends his own age, suddenly found himself alone and got blown up by a bomb. Now, you five are supposedly keeping an eye on him, so he doesn't have to spend every waking moment at the shelter. Where were you?"
That was the last straw. Tommy's anger finally broke free. "Where were we!" he cried. "Where the hell were you? We have been looking for you for two damn weeks, wondering whether or not Justin was going to die. We dropped everything to stay by your son, visiting him in the hospital, sometimes taking a short stint on guard duty when one of the Rangers can't stand it anymore, and looking for you! We called, we wrote, we radioed, hell, we nearly called out the National Guard! We couldn't find a trace of you!"
"I was up in the mountains! I was looking into a job, one which would let me finally give Justin a home! Radio didn't reach, there were no phones, and I was stuck there for a week and a half because the road went out. I didn't tell anyone where I was going because I thought I'd be there a day, tops! Finally, the road dried out enough for me to get out. I bought a paper, and what's the first thing I see? Justin's picture plastered all over the front page, along with the headline 'Angel Grove boy near death after monster attack.' I drove all night to get here, and the last thing I need is some teenager whose idea of responsibility is feeding the cat on time telling me what to do with my son."
Tommy's eyes flashed. "I know more about responsibility than you ever will," he said quietly, scaring his friends further. If Tommy was sounding quiet and reasonable, that meant that he had been pushed about to the limit of violence. "While you are off finding a job and finding yourself, I have been the one taking care of Justin. The shelter sees to his physical needs, food, clothing, school supplies, stuff like that, but I have been the one who listens to his worries, teaches him right from wrong as best I can, bandages his scraped knees, soothes his hurt feelings, and basically takes care of him mentally and emotionally. In short, Mr. Stewart, I am more of a father to your son than you are, at the moment."
Rick Stewart's eyes flashed, and he opened his mouth to say something else, but he never got the chance. In the bed, Justin stirred, shaking his head. Slowly his eyes opened to see Tommy and his father glaring at each other as if they would rip each other's heads off. "Tommy? Dad?" he mumbled.
Instantly, the two men were on opposite sides of the bed, their quarrel forgotten. "Justin!" Rick cried. "Are you all right?"
"I- I think so," Justin said groggily, shaking his head. "Why am I wearing this mask?"
"It's for oxygen," Tommy told him. "The doctors wanted to make sure that you were getting enough to your brain."
"Can I take it off? It feels funny."
"Not just yet, Justin," his father cautioned. "We'll have to wait for the nurses."
The nurses were not long in coming. Neither were the doctors, who were frankly baffled. Few people comatose for two weeks came out of it with the minimal damage Justin seemed to have. The doctors were calling it a miracle, but the Rangers knew better.
* * *
A barrage of tests later, Justin and Tommy finally had some time alone to talk. "So you've got my powers, huh?" Justin asked. Tommy nodded.
"It's just temporary. Only until you're strong enough to take them again."
"Are you going away again after that?" Justin asked, his eyes huge. Tommy couldn't help himself; he wrapped Justin up in a great big hug.
"No way, Justin. I'm staying right here. I'm not leaving this place behind again." Justin returned the hug, then squirmed out of it. "You know," Tommy informed him, "you gave us all quite a scare."
"I didn't mean to. I just did what I thought I had to do. I couldn't see any other way out."
"I know, and I'm very proud of you. You put your own life on the line for all those people. You really deserve to be a Ranger."
Justin blushed bright red. "Thanks, Tommy. You know, I had the weirdest dream while I was in that coma. It's kind of blurry, but I know I saw my mom again. Plus, I remember there was a blue jay that said he was my animal guide. Strange, huh?"
Tommy shrugged. "No stranger than some of the other things that have happened to us, I suppose."
A knock at the door frame interrupted them. The two of them looked up to see Rick Stewart standing in the doorway with something held behind his back. "I'm not interrupting anything important, am I?" Rick asked.
Tommy smiled at the older man. The two of them had had a long talk after Justin had awakened, and most of their anger had been dissipated. Rick had admitted that he had, to some extent, forgotten his son in his grief, and Tommy had come to realize that despite his mistakes, Rick Stewart truly loved his son. "No, Mr. Stewart, I was just leaving." Tommy rose and headed for the door.
"Oh, no, I didn't mean that. You can stay. I got a present for Justin." Rick pulled a blue-wrapped package out from behind his back. "I know you're a little old for stuffed toys, but I saw this in a store and it made me think of you for some reason." Justin took the present from his father and began to unwrap it carefully. This lasted about two seconds; then he just ripped the paper off in all directions. Watching him, Tommy and Rick shared a chuckle. Justin pushed the lid off of the box and stopped dead. A smile crossed his face, and to Tommy it looked as if he was suppressing laughter. Reaching into the box, Justin drew out the toy, a ten-inch-tall, plush Blue Turbo Ranger. Tommy tried valiantly, but couldn't suppress a small snort. Quickly he excused himself before his laughter got out of hand. Rick watched him go, puzzled, then turned back to his son, only to find Justin in a similar state.
Putting his hands on his hips, Rick asked in an aggrieved tone, "And just what is so funny about the Blue Turbo Ranger."
Justin took a deep breath to calm himself. "Nothing, Dad. He's the greatest. And so are you."
* * *
Doctor Julia Vargas, making her rounds, found herself dropping in on Justin Stewart. "Ah, awake and around, I see." Justin, completely against doctor's orders, was out of bed, his shirt pulled up so that he could see his stomach, looking at the lines where the doctors sewed him back together.
"I just wanted to see what it looked like," Justin explained, totally unrepentant. "Are those going to fade?"
"In time, although it will take a while."
Justin smirked. _Less time than you think, especially once I get my powers back._ Aloud, he said, "Did they get my liver back in? It feels like part of it's missing."
Doctor Vargas chuckled. "I'm sure they did. I'll check the Lost and Found, but I'm pretty sure no stray livers have turned up. How old are you, Justin?"
"Thirteen, but I'm gonna enter ninth grade in the fall. They were going to send me higher, but they thought that might be bad for my social development."
She regarded him closely for a minute. "Justin, how high did you test?"
"Eleventh grade," he told her, grinning.
Doctor Vargas sighed. "You know, you remind me of a young man I used to treat in family practice. His name was Billy Cranston."
"Oh, yeah, I've heard of him. People say that a lot. I never met him. What was he like?"
"Oh, a lot like you, except he never got blown up. His problem was that bullies liked to beat on him, and Angel Grove's bullies took a long time to realize that Billy and Jason Scott were good friends."
Justin shuddered. "Ouch. Poor bullies."
"Yes, you're right," Doctor Vargas grinned. "Well, I'm going to go check on your liver, and tell the nurses that you're allowed out of bed, since you obviously won't stay in it. You take it easy for a while, Justin. No karate just yet."
He nodded. "Wouldn't think of it." She left, and he went over to the window. The curtains had been drawn, and he was sick of the stuffiness in the room. As he pulled the curtains open, a flash of blue caught his eye, streaking away too fast for him to catch it. On the outside of the sill lay a single blue jay feather.
Justin stared at it for a long moment, remembering bits and pieces of his dream. "No way," he said finally, shaking his head. After a second, though, he picked up the feather and brought it back in. Just in case.