Disclaimer: 'Power Rangers' is property of BVE or someone along those lines. No infringement is intended.
Author's Note: Hey everybody! I'm back and I've temporarily joined the dark side... in other words, this story is slash. If you don't know what that is or the idea is unappealing to you, please go no further. You have been thusly warned. (This is also part of the reason this story is rated R.) This also happens in the 'Roaring On the Wind' world. You don't have to have read RotW, just know that it is an AU version of the end of Dino Thunder. Special thanks for Jepoliant and Kaidence Ledger for beta reading this for me! With that, on with the show!
Also-- this story was written with heavy influences from cmar's excellent fic, 'Red Fire'. Most of the plot structure and some of the plot devices have been borrowed from her. Thanks to cmar-- for allowing me to use these things! I highly recommend her work! --EK
By Etcetera Kit
Chapter One: the Force of Ages
The air was cool and crisp outside, typical California weather for the Christmas season. Chances of snow were slim to none, so he wasn't holding his breath. While outside was pleasant mingled with snatches of Christmas carols and bells, the inside of the mall was crowded and stuffy, people packed in like sardines, trying to finish their last minute shopping. He didn't know why he had ended up here. There was really no reason for him to be here—he had finished all his Christmas shopping. He supposed that he just didn't want to sit in his rather lonely apartment. His job didn't start until the spring semester, so he was aimless right now, but he was home.
Conner McKnight was home.
It had been five years since he had been a Power Ranger, since they defeated Mesogog. Four of those years had been spent at UCLA, where he had a soccer scholarship. After graduating, he hadn't been sure what he wanted to do. He could always play soccer and had actually had several offers, but hadn't done that. So he had gone back to UCLA and enrolled in their teacher's certification program for people who already had a bachelor's degree. He had spent the summer and fall as a substitute teacher in Angel Grove. Then he came home, after being offered a job to teach at a private boys' prep school in Reefside and be the soccer coach. It hadn't been his original dream, but it worked.
He still felt kind of aimless though. He had realized many things about himself when he was at college and away from the others. In high school, he had always acted like the dumb jock who was girl-crazy and a chick-magnet, which he was to a certain extent. As the years marched on in their terrible dance, he found himself acting out that role because he felt it was expected of him. Once he got to college, he stopped playing out that role and tried to do what came more naturally to him.
The only problem was that he had had to figure out what was more natural to him than girls and sports. He had a friend who dragged him along to writer's forum that the 'sit at Starbucks and write poetry' types on campus formed. She had encouraged him to actually write something. When he had, he was surprised to find that the words and stories flowed naturally from him. Still in his first semester, he changed his major to English and spent hours in the library researching FBI techniques to make his stories more believable. He still loved soccer, but he had tapped into a talent he never knew he had. Not that he talked about his writing to anyone back home, not even his family. He was still afraid of ridicule.
He stirred the straw in his soda as he sat at a secluded table in the food court, watching the busy people come and go. His parents had asked him if needed money in the few weeks he'd be in Reefside before he started his job. No had been his answer. Almost no one in his family knew about the mystery series he had written that had been published, with the final books on the press. It was under a pen name, but it gave him more than enough money to survive in Reefside before he started teaching English at the prep school.
A couple with a small baby crossed the food court smiling. He tapped his pen against the table and started scribbling on a small notepad. Warner Books had given him an advance to write another mystery series and he was working on shaping it.
He looked up from the notepad to see Hayley and Doctor O standing across the food court from him. He blinked. The last people he expected to see at the mall so close to Christmas was Tommy and Hayley. He waved, shoving the pen and notepad back in his jacket pocket. The duo wove in and out of tables, before coming over to the small table he had holed himself away at. Hayley grinned at him.
"I didn't know you where back in Reefside," she said.
"Weren't you in Angel Grove?" Tommy asked.
He nodded. "I was, but I was offered a job here."
"That's awesome!" Hayley replied with a grin. "Mind if we join you for a few minutes? This place is wild."
They both pulled up chairs. Conner had always known that Hayley and Tommy were friends, but it made him wonder if they had grown any closer in his absence from Reefside. It was certainly odd for them to be at the mall together and for Hayley to be at the mall at all. She had done all her shopping when they were active rangers on-line, seeing no need to wait in lines when she could do it quickly and efficiently.
"So how are you guys doing?" he asked.
"Same old, same old," Tommy replied with a grin. Conner wondered briefly why he was referring to Doctor O as Tommy now. Maybe it was because their relationship was more like friends and no longer teacher-student.
"Where're you working?" Hayley asked.
"St. John's," he replied knowing that both of them knew what the prep school was. "Teaching English and coaching soccer."
"English?" Tommy sounded skeptical.
"Yeah," he said uncomfortably, running a hand through his hair. "It's kind of a long story…" he trailed off. There was no one who would understand about his change of major and his love for writing. Well, if he coupled the writing with the fact that he was a best-selling author, then people might not be as critical. Then again, the books were under a pen name and who back here was going to believe him? No one. "So what are the others doing?" he asked, referring to Kira, Ethan and Trent and wanting to get the focus off the fact that he was teaching English.
"Kira's up in New York working on a demo," Hayley replied. "Ethan works for Microsoft, program designer. Trent still works for me, but we're co-managers now."
"Cool," Conner replied. "Ethan sent me a video game he designed a while back." He shrugged. "Only problem was I didn't have the right system."
"He sent all of us a copy of that game," Tommy snorted. "I think he's the only one with that particular system."
"That's Ethan for you," Hayley said.
Conner shook his head, smiling. He had missed the original bunch when he had been in LA and Angel Grove. There were things about him that they wouldn't understand now, but it was still the good old bunch and they had shared some good times. He briefly recalled a phone conversation he with Kira close to the start of his freshman year of college.
"Conner," she had said in a practiced patient tone. "You have to be true to yourself. Others might think that you're being weird at first, but then they'll respect you. Have you ever really wanted to have a new girlfriend every other week?"
He had to admit that the answer to that was no. For a long time, he had lived under the image that he wanted spontaneity and that he was restless. Then he realized, he had really wanted stability, a routine to count on. That was part of the reason he had accepted the job at St. John's. It would provide some of the stability he was looking for.
He had the same girlfriend for most of college. The beginning of their senior year, she had looked at him when they were on a date and said, "Oh my God! You're bi." At the time, he had been shocked beyond belief. But once he thought about it and he and his girlfriend talked about it, he realized that she might be on to something. He definitely liked girls. But… what if he liked guys too? He wasn't entirely sure on that—hadn't been brave enough to be with a guy yet. However, it was yet another thing most of his family and friends in Reefside wouldn't understand. Was he just going to tell Hayley and Tommy what he supposed? That would be laughable. "Oh and by the way, I think I'm bisexual." Great conversation topic. No… it was just better that he keep his writing and sexual orientation under wraps. He was already getting enough flak because he was teaching English.
"Conner?" He snapped to attention at Hayley's voice. She looked concerned. "Are you all right? You kind of spaced out."
"Yeah," he replied, shaking his head. "I'm fine."
"Something on your mind?" Tommy asked.
'There's a lot of things on my mind,' Conner replied inwardly. "Nothing you guys want to hear about," he replied aloud.
"Conner," Tommy said. "We were on the same team. Whatever it is, you can talk about it. I'm not going to look down on you."
Conner met his gaze, looking into those dark brown eyes framed by thick lashes. Oh no, he was not developing feelings for Doctor O? The man had been his high school science teacher! There was something seriously wrong about that. There was something behind those dark eyes, something that had always been there, but he had never been able to identify it. Now, all these years later, it looked like… lust. Was Doctor O gay and had been hiding it expertly for years?
Hayley interrupted his thoughts with a laugh. "You guys seriously need to get some rest or something," she replied. "It almost looked like the two of you should have been exchanging protestations of love with that intense gaze."
He had almost forgotten that Hayley could read people in the dark. Tommy averted his gaze and gave Hayley had sidelong glance.
"Right," he said to her with a smile, drawing out the word.
Conner just shook his head, still puzzled about what that look meant. Maybe it was the way that Tommy always looked and he had just been too unobservant in high school to pick up on it. He liked to think that he had gained perception, especially since he was a best-selling author, but sometimes it felt like the simplest things eluded him.
He caught the look Hayley gave Tommy. She definitely knew something about Tommy that Conner didn't.
And still, as he thought about Doctor O's reaction to Hayley's statement, he couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. If he wanted to be with a guy, then he couldn't think of a better choice than Doctor O, despite the age difference. But nothing would come of it. He wasn't even sure about himself.
One of the last people Tommy Oliver had expected to see at the mall had been Conner McKnight. Hayley had asked him to come with her to brave the mall, so she could finish some last minute shopping she had not been able to do on-line. He had agreed, mostly because it was Christmas vacation and he had nothing to do until the new semester started. So he came along to the wild and crazy mall, where they ran into Conner in the food court.
In the five years since they had been rangers, Tommy's life had not changed much at all. He still worked at Reefside High School, teaching science. He still loved archaeology and took his classes on digs occasionally. But things had gone back to the boring realm of academia that they had been in before he found the gems. He graded papers, talked to Hayley… life was pretty stagnant. He hadn't kept in touch with his family since they found out about… well… that wasn't important. He just didn't keep in touch with them. Even some of his friends from the previous teams he had been on grew distant. There was always the red ranger bunch, but none of them knew his secrets. They didn't need to know.
But Conner appeared to have changed between his graduation from high school and his time at college. He seemed to have matured, developed a quiet meditative nature that most people only dream of having. He looked the same. Tommy remembered seeing him for the first time during that fateful detention and his first thought had been that Conner was going to break hearts. At that time in his own life, he had still been trying to figure out what he felt, who he really was. He had an image that he had accepted without question since high school and it took him until graduate school to realize some things. Even then, he couldn't accept all of them. He recalled a conversation he had with Hayley when he was moving into his house in Reefside.
"Tommy," she had said in an exasperated tone of voice. "No man who is completely straight can decorate a house this well."
"Hayley, I am not gay! I've never liked guys."
"You probably have, you just haven't known it for what it is."
"Give me an example."
"How long into college did you continue to tell me that you and Kat were just 'spending some time apart' to work out your problems?"
"A long time?" he had suggested.
"Try over a year, Tommy! Stop clinging to your past girlfriends and pointing to them to prove you don't like guys!"
Once he told her that three of the Dino-Gems had bonded with three teenagers, that put that conversation to rest. He didn't know how any of the kids felt about that subject, although he was pretty sure that Ethan and Conner didn't want it brought up. Hayley had enough discrimination to not start that argument in front of them. He wanted to know what had her so convinced he was gay. She claimed it was because he had never had another girlfriend after Kat. He didn't see that as a reason. He just hadn't found anyone else after her.
Then again, once they stopped being active rangers, he had started to think about what she said again. It didn't seem possible. Hadn't there been the very time that year when he had been attracted to Principal Randall? Then it struck him. Hayley had never once told him that he didn't like girls. Maybe the correct term was bisexual.
At any rate, he hadn't found any way to cement that accusation, so it remained floating up in the air. His only mistake had been telling his mother four Christmases ago that he thought he might be bisexual. That brought on the rant about her 'never getting grandchildren.' He was over thirty for crying out loud! What made her think he was going to settle down anytime soon and have children? In fact, the idea of having children was not the most appealing to him. He could handle children once they hit about age eight. That was part of the reason he used to teach karate lessons.
But he didn't talk about that anymore. It had caused him more problems that it had good. Hayley told him he shouldn't hide things about himself from the people closest to him. This time he had the legitimate example of his mother.
And now, sitting in the mall with Hayley and Conner, all those things came tumbling back to him in their vivid colors. He didn't know what it was. Could Conner somehow be the catalyst in all of this? Good Lord, he couldn't be attracted to Conner, could he? Conner had to be at least ten years younger than him if not more. This was ridiculous. And what had Hayley been getting at with that comment? She was not going to try to hook them up. If there was one thing Tommy had learned about Hayley that almost no one else knew, it was that she fancied herself a matchmaker. It worked sometimes.
"So are things still the same at Reefside?" Conner asked to cover up the awkward silence that they had fallen into.
He nodded. "We got a new principal. The soccer team won state."
Conner smiled. "Anything would have been an improvement over Randall."
"She did turn good again," Hayley added.
"Didn't last as the principal," Tommy muttered. He gave Conner a sidelong glance. "So what are you doing at the mall?"
The former Red Ranger shrugged. "I needed something to do. It's been a little boring sitting around my apartment since I don't start work until the spring semester."
Tommy frowned. "How are you affording that?"
Conner shifted in his seat uncomfortably. "I have ways," he replied evasively. "Saved up a lot when I was subbing up in Angel Grove."
That sounded like a lie and Tommy knew it. What did Conner do to make money that was so bad he felt he needed to cover it up? Knowing Conner, it was probably working nights as a chef or something that he might consider 'feminine'. If word got back to the others about something like that, then Tommy knew that he would be mortified. He decided not to pursue the subject. Conner looked uncomfortable enough.
"Kira e-mailed me to say she'd be home for Christmas," Hayley said, effectively changing the subject. Tommy sent her a silent 'thank you'.
"That's cool," Conner responded to Hayley.
"I'm also still having the annual Christmas party at the café," she added. "And you're invited, Conner."
He grinned. "I wouldn't miss it for the world." He paused. "Still having the New Year's party too?"
"Of course," Hayley said, her tone clearly indicating that he was crazy to have thought anything to the contrary.
Tommy smiled. Hayley's holiday parties were always fun. It was mostly kids there, but he and Hayley managed to find people to talk to and relate to. And there was always plenty of food and drinks. If nothing else, the free food was incentive enough to come. There had only been two of those parties when all the Dino Thunder Rangers had been present. Of course, one of those parties was spent listening to Cassidy talk for hours on end about how she had to find out who the Power Rangers were or she might get fired. Tommy had never understood why the news station hired her in the first place.
"FREEZE! Everybody down!"
His first instinct at the loud voice was to look up and see where it came from, but the next noise caused him to grab Hayley's arm and pull her down under the table—gunshots. Conner ducked under the table with them.
"What the hell?" Conner breathed.
"Who is that?" Hayley asked.
Tommy pushed himself up, so that he had a view over the table. Men in ski masks holding various types of guns were standing at every entrance to the food court. He felt his heart begin to beat an irregular rhythm as cold sweat poured down his back. They were in the middle of a mall that was the target of a terrorist attack. He was surprised he even came up with the words to describe what was going on.
"Don't move," he breathed to them.
Hayley looked frightened. Conner looked bewildered, like he wasn't entirely sure what was going on. He heard crashing noises coming from somewhere to his right, knowing that these men were going through tables, looking for hostages.
"Do what we say and you might live," one of the men called.
The crashing continued. Tommy closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath. He'd need to concentrate and not allow himself to panic if he was going to come out of this alive. He opened his eyes and looked directly into Conner's light brown eyes. They were alight with fear.
One of the men kicked aside the chair that Tommy had capsized when shoving himself and Hayley under the table. Hayley clutched his arm, her nails digging into his skin through his jacket and shirt. "Well, well, well," the man mused. Tommy noted that he talked with an American accent. He wasn't the fabled foreign terrorists. "What have we here?" He pointed the barrel of a machine gun at them. "Up," he commanded.
Tommy slowly rose to his feet, bringing Hayley with him, her still clutching his arm for dear life. Conner stood up after them.
"Hands up!" Another man came forward. He was shorter than the one that had initially accosted them. He also spoke with a pronounced New York accent.
"Should have run like the others," the first man said, shaking his head and cracking his chewing gum.
"We've got enough though," New York said. "They'll have to listen to us now."
"No doubt, no doubt," the man replied, pressing the barrel of his gun into Tommy's shoulder. "Get along now," he said, pushing him in the direction of a small group of stragglers, people who had ducked, rather than run out of the food court at the first gun shots.
Tommy led the way to the small group, keeping his eyes forward. In his peripheral vision, he could see the bodies of those who had been hit by the bullets. Bile rose in his throat but he forced it down. Of all the insane things to happen, this had to be it. His stomach had constricted into a tight knot of anxiety.
The group was ragged and looked scared beyond belief. He noticed a little girl clinging to her mother's arm. He was reminded of the children of the other red rangers that he had met. He couldn't imagine any of them in this situation. The girl's mother looked half-hysterical. Hayley still clutching his arm, he stood with the others, not saying anything. The men in ski masks were talking, but their voices were a dull roar in his ears. For the first time in over five years, he felt fear. His only thought was to remain alive.
His eyes met Conner's.If only… if only…
To Be Continued...