Disclaimer: Saban, not me, yawn, etc. This fanfic is rated PG-13 for mature themes, cursing, and some violence. This story is not in a series with any of my others, and is set sometime after "Clash of the Megazords." Thanks to Jen Bigley for the use of her characters Lisa, Gina, and Tim.
Justin Stewart just sat on one of the hard chairs, staring into space.
He didn't even pull at the blue tie that Gina had fastened around his neck.
All around him, people milled around, talking to each other, but he couldn't
concentrate on anything they said. Only one thought kept running through
his mind. _My father is dead._
Rick Stewart had been killed a few days ago in a car accident. The road had been slick, and he'd just lost control. Justin couldn't help but notice the irony of the situation, even through his pain. Justin was a Turbo Ranger, continually driving at reckless, unsafe speeds in far more hazardous conditions than Rick Stewart had ever imagined. Despite that, Rick was the one lying in the coffin, while Justin was still alive.
Another of his father's old friends came by, offering sympathy and a kind word. Justin had no idea what he said to the man, but it seemed to satisfy him, and he went off to talk to someone else. Vaguely, he could hear his name being mentioned, and he could see some of the women regarding him worriedly. The other night, he had heard Gina and Tim talking about him. Gina had been expressing worry over the fact that in the three days since Rick Stewart's death, Justin had not cried. Not one tear.
Justin was aware that crying was a natural part of grieving, but he just couldn't cry. Not yet. It wasn't real to him yet, and he wanted to bask in the complete numbness a while longer. Just until the whole thing was over and he had some time.
As he stared at nothing, his mind wandered back to the day when the insanity had started.
* * *
"Man, Carlos, that was awesome!" Justin grinned, bouncing around.
Carlos and TJ shot each other amused grins. "Well, you're definitely a talented soccer player," Carlos replied in his lightly accented voice.
"Yeah, you just blew by that guy," TJ chuckled. "Teach him to call you a nerd ever again."
Justin nodded. "Well, it would be nice if I could do that to everybody, but I guess that wouldn't really work that well." He stopped as they approached the door to the shelter. Gina was waiting for him, a look of concern on her pleasant face.
"Justin, please come in. I have something I need to talk to you about," she sighed.
Justin looked at TJ and Carlos and shrugged. "I guess I'll see you guys later," he told them. Justin followed Gina into the office, and TJ and Carlos left.
"What's wrong, Gina?" Justin asked hesitantly. She never looked this worried.
"Justin, I think you'd better sit down," she sighed. He did so, never taking his eyes from her face. "Justin, we've received some bad news. Apparently, there was a major car accident in the mountains northeast of the city. Your father was involved."
"What?" Justin cried, leaping to his feet. "Is he all right? Where is he?"
"Justin, I- I'm afraid he didn't make it. He was pronounced dead at the scene when the ambulance arrived."
"No," Justin replied, shaking his hand. "No, it's not true!"
Gina closed her eyes. "Honey, I wish it wasn't. I'm so sorry."
"NO!" Justin screamed, running out of the room. He blew past Tim and up the stairs to his room, slamming the door behind him. A picture on his night stand caught his eye, and he crossed the room to pick it up. In the picture, he was standing with his mother and father, just after the first tournament he had won. His father was beaming with pride, and his mother was ruffling his hair. He had always kept the picture in hopes that he might have a life like that again someday.
Turning, he threw the picture into his trash can with all his strength. "Nothing's ever going to be the same," he told the world at large in a cold, flat voice, throwing himself down on his bed. "Nothing."
* * *
"Hey," a soft voice said, bringing Justin out of his thoughts. He turned to see Kat Hilliard sitting beside him, smiling slightly. "How're you doing?"
"Okay, I guess," he sighed. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in London?"
"I got a few days off. Justin, we're your friends. You thought we wouldn't be here for you when you needed us?"
"We?" Justin looked up to see Tommy, Tanya, and Adam standing by the door. As his gaze caught theirs, Tommy waved. Justin chuckled slightly.
"Yes, we. We're all here for you, Justin, I want you to remember that."
"I will, Kat," he told her, but there seemed to be no comprehension in his words. "I will."
* * *
"How's he doing?" Adam asked quietly, as Kat rejoined the group. She cast a glance over at Justin, who was once again talking to a friend of his father's.
"About as well as can be expected," she sighed. "Poor little guy. He's a real orphan now."
"What's going to happen to him?" Tanya inquired, concerned.
Adam shrugged. "He'll continue living at the shelter, at least until somebody adopts him. He'll be staying in Angel Grove for a while, thank goodness."
"Yeah, at a time like this, he needs his best friends around him," Kat agreed.
"I know I would have gone insane without the Rangers to back me up," Tommy mused, his eyes far away. "Sometimes, I don't think he and I are that different."
"Well, we'll all be in town for a while," Adam told them. "Hopefully, we can be there for Justin when he needs us."
* * *
Back in his room at home, Tommy lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Of all the Rangers, he had always felt the closest to Justin. Sometimes, it had seemed as if the boy was his own son. As the leader of the Rangers, it had fallen to Tommy to teach Justin about being a Ranger, how to get around the problems that monster attacks caused and how to deal with the inevitable pain and suffering that the life brought. When Justin had problems, he had always come to Tommy, and Tommy often found himself giving advice. He had always felt responsible for the rest of the team, but this stretched beyond that, into the realm of the personal.
Turning on his side, Tommy looked at the pictures that rested on his bedside table. One was of the Turbo Ranger team from before he left, one was of Kimberly, and the third was a group photo of himself with his family. He sighed. He had always know that he was adopted, but it had never mattered all that much to him. Blood wasn't what made a family, really. It was bonds between its members. In that, he'd been very lucky. His family wasn't just his mother, father, sister, and brother, but all of the Rangers, past and present. He didn't know the current Turbo Rangers all that well, but he already felt a bond with them, knowing that they would die to protect all the things and people that he loved.
With a small smile, he got up and headed downstairs. This was a time for family, after all.
* * *
Kat looked at the blue water and sighed. She loved sitting up on top of Angel's Bluff, watching the ocean crash below. It always brought her comfort. As they had been doing a great deal recently, her thoughts drifted back to Justin. She had brought him up here for a picnic once, just the two of them. He had always seemed so young and vulnerable that she had been drawn to protect him and nurture him. In a way, it was some of the same feeling that she had felt for all of the children she baby-sat for. A maternal instinct, although she had never really seen herself as Justin's mother.
Justin had always been a source of strength to her, when things had gone poorly, and she wished she could be there for him now. She didn't know what she could say to him, however. She had never lost a parent, or even a close relative. The only experience she had with hard times had been right after Rita's spell.
Kat shivered. The memories of that were still fresh, even though it had been a long time. There were days back then that she had believed she would go insane with the guilt and fear she had felt. Guilt over what she had done and tried to do to Kimberly, and fear that somehow it would find her again. Tommy had been the greatest help, but all the Rangers had tried to help her. If she hadn't had them around, she might indeed have lost her mind.
Rising, Kat dusted herself off. She'd spent enough time out here thinking. She needed to go find Justin. Maybe she didn't know what to say to him, but she knew that just being there would help, even if he didn't realize it yet. People, especially Rangers, drew strength from the ones that they loved. It was what made them so fragile, yet so strong.
* * *
Finishing his kata, Adam bowed to his non-existent opponent and headed for the showers. All day, he'd been unable to stop thinking about Justin. The younger boy's pain, so obvious on his face, hurt Adam as well. Justin was the same age as his younger brother, Franklin, and Adam supposed that he subconsciously identified the two. Seeing Justin's eyes filled with tears brought images to mind of Franklin in the same state, and that was almost more than Adam could bear.
Adam sighed, stepping under the warm water of the shower. He'd always treated Justin as an extra little brother, and he had some fun memories of the time they had spent together. It made his heart ache not to be able to help Justin now, but he just didn't know what to say or do.
As he washed his hair, Adam's thoughts drifted to his relationship with his own father, which was not as perfect as he would have liked it to be. Detective Trevor Park was rarely home, and when he was, he and Adam often argued. Both being fairly quiet men, they never reached the screaming stage, but the tension was often worse. Sometimes, Adam reflected, it might almost be easier if they did yell. At least that would clear the air. Instead, they just left each other fuming.
They fought about a lot of things, Trevor's constant absences, the sudden downturn Adam's grades had taken after he had been made a Ranger, the time he spent with his friends instead of around the house, and the Power Rangers. Always the Power Rangers. His father thought the Power Rangers were a menace, and while Adam was able to let comments about the Black Ranger and then the Green Ranger pass without comment, he was unable to keep silent when his father attacked his friends. As a result, their discussions usually ended with Adam storming up to his room or out to the youth center to take his frustrations out on a punching bag.
_The Rangers were really the only people I could go to when that happened,_ he thought sadly. He had other friends, but they never would have understood, even if he hadn't mentioned the Power Rangers. Only the team had ever been close enough to him to understand.
Despite their differences, Adam knew that he loved his father and that his father loved him back. It was just so hard to show it sometimes, especially when almost anything seemed to set off a fight. After Rick Stewart's accident, though, Adam had realized just how uncertain life could be, especially when your father was a Homicide detective, or you lived in a town like Angel Grove. _I need to talk to him,_ he thought, as he put on the last of his clothes. _I'll go home and do that now._
* * *
Justin looked down from the top of Angel's Bluff at the pounding surf below. Ever since Kat had taken him up there for a picnic, he had gone to this place when he needed to think about something. Today, he was here to escape, even if only for a little while, from all the sympathetic people. He knew they were only trying to help, but at the moment, all he wanted was to be alone with his thoughts.
Standing well back from the edge of the cliff, Justin closed his eyes. In his mind, he could see his father's martial arts studio, where the two of them had spent long hours practicing, training, or just talking. Almost of their own accord, Justin's arms and legs began to flow in the movements of one of the earliest meditation katas that his father had taught him. As he performed the graceful, dance-like movements, his father's words rang once again in his head.
Everything has a rhythm, Justin, a cycle all its own. And every cycle has its high and low points. Life is like that. Sometimes it seems as if nothing can go wrong, and sometimes it's as if nothing will ever go right again. Always remember, though, that things are never constant. Everything changes.
"Everything?" Justin whispered, echoing the question he had asked his father all those years ago.
Everything except how much your mother and I love you. I know you're still young, Justin, and there are things you don't understand. But I want you to always remember that your mother and I love you very much, and always will.
Justin reached the end of the kata and immediately flowed into another one. This one was far more complex, and as he worked through it, the scene in his head changed. This time, the two of them were once again in the dojo, but Justin was much older than six, as he'd been in the first memory. Now he was ten, and it was a few days after his mother's funeral.
There's a time for everything in this world, Justin, even if we don't understand it. Sometimes, it's just time for a person to move on, and there's just nothing you can do about it. What you always have to remember is that when someone dies, it doesn't mean that they're lost to you. They will always be with you, as long as you love and remember them.
"But it hurts so much," Justin whimpered, both in reality and in his memory.
I know, Justin. It hurts me, too. Memories, though, are the way we keep our loved ones alive in our hearts. To live well and love them is the best monument we can ever give.
Justin finished his kata and bowed to the wind. "I miss you so much, Dad," he whispered. "But I haven't forgotten what you've taught me, and I never will. I love you."
* * *
Sighing, Tanya looked at the picture beside her bed. It had been taken just after the tournament to save the shelter, not long after the Rangers' conversion to Turbo. In the photo, she stood with one arm around Adam, Justin on the other side of her between her and Katherine. Tommy stood on Kat's other side, and Jason, Kimberly, and Rocky stood in front of them and a little off to the sides. It was her favorite picture, because it showed all of the Rangers she knew and was friends with. In a way, these people were the only family she had.
Tanya grimaced. She loved her parents very much, but it was so hard for her to adjust to the fact that they were alive, not lost somewhere in the ocean. The three of them had been getting to know each other ever since they were reunited, but in many ways, they were still strangers. When things were hardest for her, Tanya had not been able to talk to them. Instead, she had often found herself talking to Tommy, Rocky, or even Zordon. The Rangers were more her family than her real parents, and that made her just a little bit sad.
Justin was a part of her family as well, but sometimes she wasn't exactly sure what part. She knew that Kat saw him as a lost child to mother, and Tommy felt like a surrogate father to the boy. Adam had told her once that he saw Justin as a younger brother, much like his own. She wasn't sure that any of those classifications fit her. She had never really thought of Justin as a child. Oh, she'd been a little upset when Rocky sent Justin in his place, and it had been due to his age. But as the trip went on, she began to see that Justin wasn't really all that young. He had a bit more enthusiasm for the work than the rest of them, but that only made her think of Rocky, who had more than a touch of the eternal child himself. Over their time as Rangers, Tanya had realized that Justin's youth was not a problem. Instead, his problem was a lack of experience, which she herself had dealt with on her arrival. Sometimes Tanya could see herself in Justin, and sometimes she saw hints of Billy. Not just in the boy's phenomenal intelligence, but also in the core of sadness he possessed, and how he always seemed to be a little older than he was.
Thinking of Billy made Tanya sigh. She understood why Rangers were turned loose at this point in their lives, because being an adult and dealing with the needs of the Power would be even more chaotic than their lives as teenagers. Even so, she was sad to see it pass. Over her admittedly short time as a Ranger, she had made some wonderful friends, and she had seen them all leave her life, one by one. Even Adam. The two of them barely wrote anymore.
_Were we only friends because of the Power?_ she thought to herself. _Does it make us fall apart when we don't have it any more?_ Tanya had always believed that she was in love with Adam, and deep down, she knew she still was. But she had her record career, and he was pursuing college and a career as a stuntman. What future could there be for them?
Suddenly, she thought of the visitation for Justin's father. _What if it were Adam who was gone? Could you live with all the things that have remained unsaid?_ Standing up, she hurried downstairs, threw on a coat and walked out the door, heading for the Park house. Some things just can't- or shouldn't- wait.
* * *
"Ki-yah!" A vicious crescent kick slammed into the hanging bag in TJ's basement. Ever since his becoming a Power Ranger, TJ had practiced his martial arts almost nonstop. Before, it had just been a good way to keep in shape and keep a handle on his often fiery temper. Now it was a way- the only way- to stay alive. TJ chuckled. Justin often gave him pointers, and while TJ found it amusing to learn from a boy two years younger than he, he certainly wasn't too proud to listen. Justin had earned his black belt, and TJ was just glad to have someone to teach him.
TJ sighed. He wished that he could do something, reach out to Justin in some way. He knew the boy was hurting from the loss of his father, but TJ didn't know what else he could do except be there. He didn't really understand Justin's situation, since both of his parents were still alive, but he certainly understood what it was like to be on his own.
As usual, thoughts of Justin brought thoughts of his brothers and sisters back home. TJ's family had never had much money, and so when his father had seen an opportunity for one of the children to get a break, he had jumped at it. For his part, TJ had his own reasons for leaving. His parents would never admit it, but he could tell that the money was getting tight. Feeding and clothing five children on a construction worker and a secretary's salaries was not easy. TJ had seen the chance to take a load off of his parents' backs, and hadn't thought twice. He missed them a great deal, but he liked living with his uncle. Uncle Roy was a nice man, and a lot of fun to be around. In addition, he let TJ basically do his own thing, while making sure that the boy understood that he was always there if necessary.
TJ grimaced, sending a side kick into the bag. Uncle Roy was nice, but he wasn't TJ's father, and Angel Grove wasn't Portland, Oregon. TJ missed his home, his friends, heck, he even missed the pine trees! But most of all, he missed his family, especially his four younger siblings. The youngest was nine and the oldest was fourteen, making them not too far from Justin's age. They were constantly bothering him, ruining his day, and making his life miserable. He loved them to distraction.
Putting his family and his homesickness out of his mind for the time being, TJ returned to his practice.
* * *
"Cassie! Can you keep it down up there!" Cassie sighed, turning down her stereo as her mother had asked. Whenever she was worried or upset, she liked to crank the music up and sing her heart out. It almost always made her feel better, but not today. Her mind kept going back to the visitation, and the awful, empty look in Justin's eyes as he sat on the couch and numbly accepted the condolences that everyone offered him. It had hurt her so much to see the usually vibrant boy so subdued.
Justin had always been a friend to her, welcoming her to the team with open arms. At first, it had frightened Cassie that the only Ranger with any experience had been a thirteen year-old boy, but soon she had come to realize that Justin was far wiser than his years would suggest. The other Rangers usually saw Justin as a little brother, someone to be protected and watched over. She knew that was how TJ saw him. It was evident in his stance, in his manner. TJ was always subtle about it, but in a fight, he always managed to place himself between Justin and the monster. Cassie, however, barely even noticed Justin's youth. He was a freshman, just like the rest of them, and had far more experience fighting monsters than any of them. The only time his age hit her was when she realized how small he was, and today, at the visitation. He had looked so young and vulnerable, and for the first time in almost a month, Cassie had remembered that he was only thirteen.
From the visitation, Cassie's thoughts jumped to her relationship with her own parents. They loved her, of course, and she loved them. It was just- Cassie looked around her room. Her parents worked hard, and the family had everything they needed. Cassie knew that by most standards, her family would be considered rich. They didn't live in a mansion, but their two-story house had far more rooms than absolutely necessary for a family of three. Cassie herself had never lacked for anything in her life. Her parents had managed to teach her the value of a dollar, but she had never had to worry about anything.
It was a direct contrast to TJ, who had grown up watching out for every dime, scraping by on just enough to keep the family above the poverty line. She had everything he hadn't, but sometimes Cassie found herself envying her friend. When he talked about his parents and the rest of his family, she could hear the warmth and the love in his voice, and knew that he could count on his parents to always be there for him. She, on the other hand, well, she loved her parents, and knew they loved her, but there was always some strange distance between them, that she never seemed to be able to cross. They spent all their time at home together, but separate, meeting only for dinner at the kitchen table every night, where they discussed shallow, meaningless topics and the events of the day. Until she had met the Rangers, she hadn't really understood what family meant. Now, though, she had it, and she wasn't letting it get away.
Rising, she headed downstairs, where her father was reading the paper and her mother was doing a jigsaw puzzle. Impulsively, she threw her arms first around her mother, then her startled father.
"What was that for, Cassie?" her father asked, straightening his glasses.
"Just to say I love you, and that I'm glad you guys are my parents," she replied, smiling.
"We love you too, Cassie," her mother told her, with none of the absentness that usually colored that reply. "We love you, too."
* * *
Justin stared out the window of Tommy's four-by-four, drinking in the scenery that was passing them. He'd slept most of the way up from Foggy Creek when he and his father had come to Angel Grove the first time, and he hadn't been much out of the city since. Now he and Tommy were heading up into the mountains, because Tommy said that he had "something to show" Justin.
"Tommy, where are we going?" Justin asked again.
Chuckling, Tommy shook his head. "Justin, that's the fifth time you've asked me that. I'm not going to tell you until we get there. It's sort of a surprise."
"Hey, it's better than constantly asking 'Are we there yet?'" the boy pointed out, a small smile on his face.
"That's true," Tommy agreed. Taking the next turn, he soon pulled into the driveway of a medium-sized cabin that backed onto a mountain lake. "We're here."
"Great!" Justin bounced out of the car, stretching muscles that had been cramped by the two-and-a-half-hour ride. "Where is here?"
"It's my uncle's lake cabin," Tommy replied, hauling his duffel bag out of the back. "I thought we could use some time away, just to cool down."
"What about the Rangers?" Justin asked, retrieving his backpack.
Tommy led him to the cabin, getting his keys out as he did so. "Aw, it's cool. I talked to Dimitria about it, and she says she'll call you if they need you. Remember, you can teleport almost anywhere in a few seconds."
"That's true." The two boys stowed their gear in the cabin's bedrooms. After unpacking, Justin came out onto the cabin's back deck to find Tommy looking out at the grassy hillside which lead down to the lake.
"I love this place," Tommy said, almost to himself. "This is where I came after I lost the Green Ranger powers for the final time. I thought I was through as a Ranger, and I needed to sort some things out. I cut myself off from my friends- I didn't want to bother any of them." He laughed. "Turns out that was the worst thing I could have done."
"Why?" Justin asked, fascinated. Tommy was usually warm and open, but he closed up the minute anyone got near his days as the Green Ranger. This was the first time Justin had ever heard him talk about it.
"Well, number one, I was lonely. I couldn't think about anything but how much I missed my friends and my powers. I didn't have anybody to talk to, to bounce my thoughts off of. As a result, I don't think I actually got anything resolved before I was called back to the team. The other reason was that they came after me, and Zedd nearly stole their powers too, the same way I lost mine. He'd found candles for everyone but Jason, kidnapped them, and was draining their powers. Jason managed to save them, though. If I hadn't cut myself off from everybody, I might have been able to do something about it, and I wouldn't have worried them all sick about me." Tommy turned to Justin.
"It's good to talk about these things, Justin. Memories keep our loved ones and our past alive, but the only way to keep a memory alive is to share it. And sharing pain makes it easier to bear. Trust me, I know."
Justin looked at Tommy for a long moment, and then began to talk. He talked about his father, from the first memories he had to the last time they had seen each other, on Justin's ill-fated birthday. He talked until the sun went down and the two of them headed back in the house and he kept talking until his voice went hoarse. Turning to the clock, he realized that it was midnight. The two boys bid each other good-night, and for the first time since learning of his father's death, Justin's sleep was peaceful, with no nightmares to trouble him.
* * *
"Carlos, get this soccer ball off the floor this instant!"
Carlos winced. "Si, mama," he sighed, scooping up the offending object and carrying it up to his room. Dropping it in a corner, he flopped down on his bed. After a few seconds, there was a knock at his door and his sister Julia peeked in.
"What's the matter, hermanito?" she asked.
He frowned at her. "Nothing, and don't call me 'little brother.' I'm not little anymore."
She chuckled. "Oh, that's right, you're fifteen years old. Come on, Carlos, what's the matter? Is it about Justin? I heard about his dad."
"That's right, all the shelter kids come to you for check-ups, don't they?" he inquired.
"Yeah, the hospital clinic gives the shelter a discount, so I usually wind up with the kids. Now spill it. What's the matter?"
Carlos sighed. "It's just- he's like my little brother, and it hurts to see him hurting. All my life, I've been the baby of the family, and now I finally have a sort of little brother, the way you guys always did. I can't do anything for him. That kind of hurts, you know?"
"I know, Carlos," she sighed. "It's not as if I'm a stranger to the 'Heal the world' urge, you know. Just- be there for him. That's all you can do." She rose and left him to think.
Carlos' mind headed back to his older brother Javier, who was currently at college. Javier was the middle child of the family, right in between Julia and Carlos. It was Javier who had first taught Carlos to play soccer, and Carlos had never forgotten the days he had spent on the field with his brother. In a way, that was what he had been trying to give Justin when he had suggested that the two of them play soccer. In teaching Justin, he felt as if he was continuing something special, something important.
Soccer had always been the most important thing in Carlos' life, up until Adam had selected him to be the Green Ranger. Soccer was the answer to everything that bothered him, and he had immersed himself in it, until no one realized that there was anything more to him than the hotshot Angel Grove forward, the Scoring Machine. Up until that game where he had met Ashley, he hadn't realized it himself.
Then he had become a Power Ranger, and started to discover a whole new side to himself. He discovered that he was more of a hero than he had ever thought, and that he could have friends who accepted him for who he was, not just what he could do for the team. For the first time in a long time, soccer was no longer Carlos' obsession. That was what the Rangers had done for him, just by being there when he needed them. Hopefully, they could do the same for Justin.
* * *
"Kick it, shoot it, dribble, score! Angel Grove comes back for more!" Ashley shook her head. "Who writes these cheers?" she asked the air. With a sigh of disgust, she dropped her pom-poms and sat down on the grass. She had come out to the park to practice her cheers as she always did when she was worried or upset. Running through the movements and practicing to be consistently upbeat often helped drag her out of a foul mood.
It wasn't working today, however. Whether it was due to the inanity of the cheers or simply the situation, Ashley couldn't stop thinking about Justin. She had always seen him as one of the children that she took care of during her volunteer hours at the youth center. He always seemed so young and vulnerable, even when he was kicking monster butt. She wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the high voice coming out of what appeared to be a fully-grown adult, or maybe it was just Justin's boundless enthusiasm for all aspects of the work they did. It was so hard for her to see him so down. His normal energy was almost gone, and when they had fought Divatox's latest monster the other day, Justin had not made a single one of the wisecracks he usually threw at the enemy. She was worried about him, and she knew the others were, too. Carlos had told her the other day after school that all they could do was be there and offer a sympathetic ear if he ever needed to talk.
With that, her thoughts drifted from Justin to Carlos. She had liked him from the moment she had met him, even though he had seemed to her a little arrogant. Still, he had offered to walk her home, and had been shy enough to need an excuse. After that, they had developed a fast friendship that had only been strengthened by their time together as Rangers. She couldn't help but wonder, though, if he felt something more for her, the way she felt for him. Probably not; he could have any girl in the school he wanted, and even though she was a cheerleader, she wasn't all that popular. Sometimes, though, she ached inside, knowing that none of those girls would ever see the side of him that she had, the fiercely protective, heroic side that only seemed to emerge when they were on Ranger business. He could be so tough when they were up against one of Divatox's creeps, and then she'd watch him helping the people who were caught up in the attack, and she'd see how sweet and tender he could be.
Just a few days ago, Divatox's latest goon had attacked an apartment building. During the Zord fight, Carlos' scanners had detected life still in the building. He had immediately gone in, disregarding his own safety, not to mention TJ's strident calls for him to come back. Ashley could only imagine the frantic search through the building that had taken place. The Turbo Megazord had been unable to keep the monster away from the building forever, and the Rangers had watched in horror as the whole structure had collapsed to the ground. Then Justin had spotted Carlos on the ground, safely away from the collapsed building, with a six year-old girl in his arms. The Rangers had quickly finished off the monster, and joined Carlos on the ground. When Ashley had heard him reassuring the girl and her parents that everything would be all right, her heart had almost melted right then and there.
The next day, a picture of the Green Turbo Ranger hurtling out the front door of the building seconds ahead of a wave of dirt and debris was plastered on the front of the Angel Grove Gazette, which reached houses all over town. Carlos was rather embarrassed about the whole thing, but Ashley had saved the picture. Thinking of it, she sighed, getting to her feet. She felt a little better now, and it was time to get back to her practice. Picking up her pom-poms, she took a deep breath and began.
* * *
Justin walked into the Turbo Zord holding bay, generally known as "the garage," dressed in a pair of blue coveralls that he used to wear while helping Tommy with his race car. In one hand, he carried a box full of tools. Some of them would have been familiar to anyone who had ever so much as looked at a hardware store, while some of them might have puzzled Billy himself. Justin had decided to blow off a little steam and forget about his problems for a while by working on the Turbo Zords by hand. They were still a little beaten up after their last fight with Divatox, but nothing that he would have needed the waldos to handle. Pounding on metal always made him feel better, and he was hoping that it would do the trick this time.
"Red Lighting, bay one. Open bay, raise platform," he ordered. The computer did as he commanded, and he picked up his tools and went to work.
A good deal later, Justin finished with Dune Star, shaking his head over the damage. Red Lighting had had the least by far, as most monsters never thought to aim for the Megazord's head. The main problem was the workout the suspension had received when TJ had gotten into an honest-to-goodness car chase with Divatox's Flame Rider. The thing had been a fast, good driver, but nothing compared to TJ, who had hounded it until it had nowhere left to go.
Wind Chaser had been generally unharmed too. Justin had only needed to pound out a few of the dents that had been left when the Rangers had blocked a few of Flame Rider's punches. That hadn't taken long at all, and Justin mused about how the girls were generally more careful with their Zords than the boys.
Dune Star and Desert Thunder had only one real problem. Not many monsters thought to attack the feet of the Megazord, so they had escaped the worst of the pounding. However, the fast stop maneuver used to stand the Zord up was constantly burning out the brakes, and Justin always had to replace them.
The other four Zords done with, Justin turned to the bay holding Mountain Blaster, his Zord. Divatox's goon had been targeting him during the fight, especially during the Megazord battle, and the 4x4 had sustained immense damage. "Mountain Blaster, open bay. Transfer Zord into large work area." The Zord rolled out of its holding bay, and Justin gasped. He had known the extent of the damage intellectually, but seeing it now was a completely different sensation. Suddenly, Justin was presented with a series of images. He saw his father's new blue 4x4, that he had bought not long before Justin's mother had died. He remembered his amusement the first time he had seen Mountain Blaster, which had looked exactly like his father's truck. Last, he saw his father's truck wrapped around a mountain pine, glass and twisted metal everywhere as the ambulance carted his father's body away. Justin hadn't been there, and hadn't been told what it looked like, but his intelligence and vivid imagination were more than enough to recreate the images of a car striking a tree at 35 miles per hour.
"NOO!" he cried, sinking to his knees. Finally, after all the time he had spent pushing it away, the realization struck him like a physical blow. His father was dead. He wasn't coming back, ever. As that knowledge settled into him, Justin finally began to cry. The tears flowed out of him in rivers as he sank to the ground and began to sob.
An unknown amount of time later, he felt something nudge at his back. He looked up, expecting to find a sympathetic Turbo Ranger- and found himself staring into a pair of headlights that somehow managed to look concerned. Storm Blaster had somehow been attracted by Justin's crying, and was now hovering, looking for all the world like a worried relative.
"I'm okay," Justin said awkwardly, rising to his feet. How in the world did you reassure a car? Storm Blaster's headlights flashed once.
"No, I really am," Justin continued. "Crying is good for humans, when we feel sad. It helps us let go of our emotions. If we keep them bottled up inside, they make us sick."
The car seemed to think about that, then nudged him once and opened its door. Justin took the hint, climbing inside. "You know," he said slowly, "there's so much we don't understand about you guys yet. We know you're sentient, like us, but that's about it. You can think, and you seem to be self aware. You knew I was hurting. Did you hear me crying, and wonder what the noise was? Or are we linked somehow? You seem to be tied into the Ranger Powers, but how? Are we linked through the powers or-" Justin broke off as a thought occurred to him. "Did you know I was hurting because- you're my friend. Do you feel friendship? Do you understand love?" The car just kept on rumbling beneath him. Justin yawned. A good cry always made him tired, and the noise of Storm Blaster's engine was soothing.
"You know, I'm kind of glad this all happened," he said sleepily, lying down on Storm Blaster's front seat. "It's a good thing, to cry. It shows I'm not- denying it- anymore." With that, he dropped off to sleep. Slowly the sound of Storm Blaster's engine decreased, until all was silent in the Zord bay once more.
* * *
"Poor little Blue Ranger," Divatox mused. If any of her henchmen had been around, they would have been astounded at the sympathy in her voice. However, she was alone in the cockpit of her sub. "All alone, no family to go to." A smile crossed her face. "Let's just see if we can change that. Porto!" she bellowed. The pudgy scientist creature popped up beside her.
"Yes, my Queen?" he burbled.
"Ready the brainwashing chamber! We're going to be having a very special guest- the Blue Ranger! But I want him unharmed, do you understand me? He is to be completely intact. If you so much as harm a hair on his head, I'll turn you into an air mattress so fast, your head'll spin!"
Porto gulped. "Right away, your Evilness." He disappeared. Divatox snapped her fingers and called up a school of Piranhatrons.
"Go and bring me the Blue Ranger," she told them. "There are almost thirty of you, so if you rush him, you should be able to overpower him. Do not hurt him, though, or you're all Piranha soup!"
The fish trembled, saluted, and teleported out.
* * *
In the park, Justin and Nico were playing soccer when the Piranhatrons appeared. "Justin, it's those fish-aliens again!" Nico cried, dropping his soccer ball.
"Yeah, no kidding! Get out of here! Get to the youth center!" Justin ordered, seeing that the fish were concentrating on him. Nico turned to run, but two fish grabbed him and hauled him back. They seemed interested only in keeping him there, and a chill ran down Justin's spine as he realized why. With Nico around, he couldn't morph or call for back-up. Settling into a fighting stance, Justin waited despairingly as the fish rushed him.
* * *
"Ah, Justin, welcome to my humble abode," Divatox chuckled as the Piranhatrons literally dragged Justin into the main room. The boy was dragging his feet, doing everything in his power to make himself difficult to transport, and it was taking six Piranhatrons to move him.
"What do you want, Divatox?" Justin asked, disgusted with himself for being captured. Admittedly, he had taken out almost twelve of the fish alone, and it had taken another ten literally piling on top of him to take him down, but he still felt that he should have been able to escape.
"A family, of course. Now, since my wedding fell through, and I really haven't found anyone suitable for a mate, I've decided to adopt. You can be part of my family. Won't that be nice?"
Justin looked around the room, his gaze taking in Elgar, who was attempting to read a comic book while holding it upside down, Porto, who was muttering to himself about something, and Rygog, who was just standing there glaring at Elgar. "Frankly, I'd rather be part of the Addams Family," he shot back.
"Oh, I think we can change your mind," she laughed, taking his chin in one hand. Justin carefully gauged the distance between them, then spat in her face. Divatox stood, wiping his spit off her cheek. "Take him to Porto's lab," she ordered. The Piranhatrons dragged Justin away, hopping occasionally as the boy stepped on their toes or kicked them in the shins.
"Just wait, Rangers. Soon, I'll have your little Blue Ranger as my son, and you won't have a prayer."
* * *
Tommy and the Rangers were sitting in the youth center when Nico ran in, completely out of breath. "TJ, Carlos," he puffed, running up to the table. "Justin and I were playing soccer in the park when these fish-aliens appeared, and they kidnapped Justin! He took out twelve of them by himself, but some more piled onto him, and they disappeared!"
The five teens regarded each other worriedly. "We'll find him, Nico," TJ told the worried boy. "You stay here and wait until we come back."
"What are you going to do?" Nico asked as the teens rose.
"We're going to see if we can contact the Power Rangers," Tommy replied. "You stay here, okay?"
Nico nodded. "Okay." He watched as they left, and then headed over to the juice bar.
* * *
"Anything yet, Alpha?" TJ asked.
"Yo, TJ, when I find something, I'll let ya know. Chill out, will ya?"
"I don't get it, Dimitria," Ashley asked. "What would Divatox want with Justin?"
Dimitria looked down at the Rangers. Even though they could not see her face, they could tell that she was worried. "Rangers, Justin has been under a great deal of stress recently. It is my hypothesis that Divatox will try to use that to turn him to her service."
The sound of a fist striking a metal console caused them all to turn suddenly. Tommy's face was stern and cold as he massaged his hand. "That will not happen to Justin," he said quietly. "I swore that I would never let it happen to anyone again." The Rangers simply looked at him, unsure of what to say, then turned back to the scan again.
* * *
Divatox looked up as Justin re-entered the main room of the sub, this time unencumbered by Piranhatrons. She examined him carefully, noticing that his eyes had a curious flatness to them that signified Porto's brainwashing. "Justin, dear, how are you feeling?" she asked, smiling almost nicely.
"I'm fine, Mother," he replied, smiling back. She held out her arms, and he came forward and hugged her. She hugged back, clutching him almost as tightly. Finally, she released him, putting her hands on his shoulders.
"Now Justin," she said, looking him in the eyes, "the Power Rangers are probably looking for you to take you back to the shelter."
Justin frowned, but like the smile before it, it did not reach his eyes. "I don't want to go back there," he told her. "I want to stay with you."
She smiled. "Well then, you're just going to have to tell them that. Elgar, Rygog!" The two mutants appeared. "Take Justin here back to the surface, to the park to wait for the Power Rangers. I don't want you to fight them unless they try to take Justin back with them by force. Just make sure they get the idea that Justin is staying with me."
Elgar and Rygog looked at each other in confusion, then shrugged. "We got it, Aunti Di!" Elgar cried, and the three of them disappeared. Divatox sighed, moving to her periscope to watch the action.
* * *
"Yo, I've got a lock on Justin!" Alpha cried suddenly, startling all of them. "He's at the lake with- Elgar and Rygog?" Alpha's voice showed his confusion. "He's morphed, but none of them are fighting!"
"What?" TJ asked. "What are they doing?"
"Justin seems to be calling for ya." The sound on the viewing globe cut in, then, allowing the five teens to hear what was going on in the park.
"Power Rangers! Come on out! We just want to talk!" Blue Ranger was saying.
Cassie made a face. "We? He's putting himself with those goons?"
"Looks like Divatox managed to brainwash him after all," Tommy said coldly.
"We have to go out there and get him!" Ashley cried.
Carlos nodded. "Yeah, but we'd better morph first. No telling what kind of trap Divatox has up her sleeve."
"I'm going too," Tommy broke in. As the Rangers started to protest, he raised his hand. "I'm the only one who's ever been through this before. I may be the only one who can talk Justin down. You are not leaving me behind, and that's final." He and TJ locked eyes for a long moment, then the younger boy looked away.
"All right, fine. But remember, you don't have powers anymore! If it comes to a fight, get back to the Power Chamber, understand?"
Tommy grinned. "Yes, Jason." He ducked as TJ pretended to swat him. "Let's go." They disappeared in five streams of sparks.
* * *
"We're here, Justin," Red Ranger said as the five appeared in the park. "What do you want to talk about?"
"I know you're all worried about me, but you don't have to be," Blue Ranger said, sounding extremely normal. "I'm staying with Divatox. She's my mother now. I have a family again."
"Family!" Pink Ranger cried. "These goons run out on each other at every available opportunity! All they know how to do is fight and snipe at each other! That's not a family!"
"Justin, please, we're worried about you," begged Yellow Ranger.
Green Ranger nodded. "Yeah. Come back to us, Justin."
"No." Blue Ranger shook his head. "I'm staying with my mother. She loves me. If you guys are really my friends, you'll understand."
"No, Justin," Tommy replied, pushing his way to the front. "She doesn't love you. Divatox loves one thing in this world, and that's power. She and her flunkies don't even know what the word means. Justin, I know you're hurting after losing your dad, and you want to find another family to fill the ache. But don't you see? You've already got a family, a family that really loves you. The Rangers love you, Justin. All of us, me, Kat, Tanya, Adam, TJ, Carlos, Ashley, Cassie, heck, even Dimitria, Zordon, and the two Alphas love you! We're your family, Justin, and we're here for you, forever, no matter what. Don't cut yourself off from us, please. We love you."
"I-" Blue Ranger shook his head violently. "No! No, you're lying!"
"Justin, remember the voyage to Muranthias? All that time we spent on that ship together? Or all that time we spent in my garage? How about when Adam took you to the beach to do your project, or the time Kat spent helping you with your schoolwork? What about Carlos teaching you to play soccer, or TJ pushing you out of the way when it looked like those cars were going to run you guys over? Remember when Divatox had you and Storm Blaster captured, and the guys risked everything to get you out?" Tommy knew he was scraping the bottom of what he knew of the current team's adventures. "Would we have done any of that if we didn't love you? Justin, you're our friend, but you're so much more than that. You're family. Come back, Justin. I love you."
Blue Ranger flickered and demorphed, returning to his normal form. Justin stared at Tommy with wide, liquid eyes. "I- I don't know-"
Suddenly, in a flash of light and smoke, Divatox appeared on the grass by the lake. "Justin, please, come back with me. I'm your mother now, remember? I love you. I can give you anything you need."
Justin looked back at her, and then shook his head as the last of Porto's brainwashing dissolved. "No," he told her quietly. "You don't, and you can't. I don't think you really understand the emotion at all. I'm sorry, Divatox, but I'm staying with my friends, my real family."
She stared at him for a long moment, as the Rangers subtly moved into defensive stances, then nodded. "I understand. Rygog! Elgar! Come on, we're going back to the sub."
"What?" Elgar cried. "We're not going to fight them?"
Divatox threw him a glare. "You heard me, buffle-brain! Let's go!" Elgar and Rygog shrugged, and the three of them disappeared. As if their departure was a signal, Justin threw himself into Tommy's embrace, wrapping his arms around the other's neck and holding on with all his strength.
"I'm sorry, Tommy," Justin whispered into his friend's neck. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Tommy whispered back, holding Justin just as tightly. "We will always be here for you."
As the group teleported back to the Power Chamber, Pink Ranger remained silent, absorbed in thought. When Divatox had left, Pink Ranger could have sworn that she saw tears in the space pirate's eyes. But that was impossible- wasn't it?
* * *
"How are you doing?" Tommy asked as Justin pulled uncomfortably at the neck of his shirt.
"Well, I hate this stupid tie, but other than that, I'm doing okay," Justin sighed. "It's been long enough since Dad died that it doesn't hurt so much now." Rick Stewart had been cremated not long after his death, but there had been enough complications that the interment of the ashes had been postponed for a few weeks. Now it was finally time for the ceremony down in Foggy Creek. Today, Rick Stewart's ashes would be laid in his plot alongside those of his wife, Melissa. All of the Rangers still in the area were with Justin today to lend support.
"Um, guys?" Cassie said, coming up to the group. In the crook of her arm was a bouquet of flowers, beautiful, exotic orange and black-striped blooms that resembled tiger lilies only slightly. "I didn't see this bouquet at the funeral home, and I know no one sent flowers directly to the graveyard. I had Alpha scan it, and he says that it's clean, but the flowers are alien in origin, found all over the galaxy."
"Did you read the card?" TJ asked. Cassie shook her head.
"No, I thought that was Justin's prerogative," she replied, handing the boy the card. Justin tore open the envelope and his jaw dropped as he read the message.
"'Deepest sympathies in your time of loss,'" he read slowly. "'Keep your chin up, kid. I've been there too. No tricks this time. Signed,'" he looked up at them with an incredulous expression on his face, "'Divatox.'"
The Rangers looked at each other, then shrugged.
* * *
Justin sighed. The graveside service was finally over, and his father's ashes had been laid to rest in the ground. He supposed that his father, at least, had finally found peace. Rick Stewart had never been happy, separated from his wife. "I love you both," he whispered to the headstones before him, turning to go.
"Justin, there you are," a woman's voice said as he headed back to where Tommy's car was parked. He looked up to see Tommy's parents smiling at him.
"Oh, hi, Mr. Oliver, Mrs. Oliver," he greeted them. "It was nice of you to come today."
"Well, Tommy asked us to, and besides, there was something we wanted to talk to you about. Now that your father is gone, the shelter is putting you up for adoption, correct?"
Justin nodded. "Yes, that's right. Why?"
Mr. Oliver smiled. "Well, as you probably know, we adopted Tommy a long time ago. He and Chelsea are both moving out of the house, and it's going to seem very empty now. You and Tommy have always been close, and you're about the same age as our youngest, Teddy. We were wondering if perhaps you'd like to come and live with us? There'll be plenty of room, and Tommy will be home a fair amount between races."
Justin stared at the two of them in shock. "You really mean it?" he asked, unable to believe his ears.
"Justin, we wouldn't ask you if we didn't," Mrs. Oliver replied with a chuckle. "What do you say?"
"YES!" Justin cried at the top of his lungs. He had always liked Tommy's parents, and the idea of getting to live with them was just what he had been hoping for. Laughing, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver led Justin back to their car.
* * *
Later that evening, after Justin had been returned to the shelter until the necessary paperwork could be done, Tommy and his father sat in their living room, talking. "Dad, I really want to thank you for adopting Justin," Tommy said. "He needs a home, and it means a lot to me to have him living here."
Daniel Oliver chuckled. "Tommy, I could see that from the first day you brought him over. The way you talked to him, it was almost as if the boy was your own son."
Tommy shrugged. "In a way, I guess he was. I'll be home most of the time, and I want to be there for him, to be here while he's growing up. I guess I want to do the things that his father couldn't do for him."
"Well, I think you'll make an excellent father. If you'd been a few years older, I would have suggested you adopt him yourself, but I'm fairly sure the social workers wouldn't go for a nineteen year-old adopting a child."
"No," Tommy agreed, "I doubt they would have. But I plan to be the best father to Justin I can, age or not."
"And you'll do it, too, I have no doubt. I'm very proud of you, Tommy. You've really grown up."
* * *
A few weeks later, Justin had settled in to spend his first night at the Oliver house. It would take a little longer until the adoption was final, but the shelter workers saw no obvious barriers to the adoption, and so Justin was allowed to move in a little early. As he brushed his teeth, he heard a banging on the door. "You decent?" a voice asked, sounding like Tommy's, but much younger.
Justin spit out his current mouthful of toothpaste. "Yeah, come on in," he replied. The door swung open, and Teddy Oliver bounced in. Teddy was only a year younger than Justin, but people were always astounded at how much Teddy and Tommy resembled each other. They were not blood relatives, but to look at them, they could have been.
"Are you really gonna be living with us from now on?" Teddy asked, pulling a brush out of one of the drawers and running it through his long, dark hair.
"So they tell me," Justin nodded, "unless someone at Social Services decides to be stupid, like they do occasionally."
"Cool." Teddy finished brushing his hair and pulled it back into a tight ponytail, much the way Tommy usually did. "It'll be nice having another kid around the house," Teddy said absently. "We can split the chores, and get done a lot quicker. Tommy says you're really smart, and you're in high school."
Justin looked at the other boy warily. This was usually the part where he got called a nerd. "Yeah, I am," he replied carefully.
"Can you help me with my math homework? It's my worst subject. Tommy usually does it, but since he's going to be home less, I'm gonna need someone else."
"Doesn't your dad help?"
Teddy snorted. "There's a reason my dad is an English teacher, you know. I wouldn't let him near my math homework unless my life depended on it."
Justin chuckled. "Sure, I'll help you."
"Great!" Teddy grinned. Finishing his preparations for bed, Justin headed back to his new room and climbed into bed.
He was almost asleep when Sarah Oliver came to tell him to turn out his light. "Good night, Justin," she said quietly.
"Good night, Mrs. Oliver," he mumbled.
She shook her head. "Justin, we're family now, remember? I don't expect you to call me 'Mom,' but 'Sarah' will do fine."
"Okay. Good night, Sarah," he replied. She turned out the light and left. In the darkness, Justin just had time for one more thought before sleep claimed him. "Good night, Mom, Dad. I love you." Then he was fast asleep.