AN: This takes place shortly after 'Red Ranger Unplugged'
With a contented smile marked with a touch of sadness, Mack closed his book on the last page of The Baron's Demise and let out a sigh. Placing the book down on the coffee table, he eyed the tray of Spencer Special cupcakes sitting next to it. His mouth began to water as a sudden waft of chocolate managed to enter his nose the second they caught his eye. Reaching out, his hand hesitated two inches from the frosted top of the closest one as his mind debated whether adding it to the three he'd already eaten was such a good idea.
Then he remembered and the smile disappeared.
Picking up the cupcake, he examined it as if he'd never seen one before. Then with a shrug, he bit in. After all, it wasn't like androids could get fat. But as the familiar sweet taste hit him, it seemed somehow empty and he put the half eaten Spencer Special back on the tray unable to recall why he'd wanted it in the first place. The tray was still quite full, Spencer having shooed the other rangers away from it early on. The butler had recently been trying to surreptitiously cook all of Mack's favourite foods, a sure sign he was feeling either guilty or worried about him. Probably both.
Mack slumped down into the couch wondering what to do with the rest of his free time though he knew he really didn't want to do anything. Glancing around the room for a hint, he spotted something that left an unsettled feeling in whatever mechanical device served as his stomach. Somehow during the drama of the past couple of days, no one had put away the photo album he'd been showing Dax. He crossed the room and picked it up from where it had been abandoned.
It automatically fell open to the picture of the fishing trip. He could still remember the strength of the fish as it almost pulled him in, his father's arms preventing his watery pitfall. He could remember the strange smooth feel of the fish's scales, the imploring look in its eyes that made him insist they throw it back. Then there was the flash of his dad's proud smile, the smell of Spencer's fried chicken, the tutting of the butler at their insistence of eating in the dirtiness of the outdoors.
All so vivid.
All so fake.
It wasn't real.
He examined the photo noting what Dax had seen at first glance. The figures didn't belong in it. The lack of shadows. The odd lighting. Why hadn't he seen it before? But who looked at their old family photos and expected them to be photoshopped, badly photoshopped at that. He flipped through the other photos and the more he saw, the more he came to the see the figures as the mere cardboard cut-outs they really were.
Slamming the album shut, he stood there a moment gripping it tightly his super strength causing his fingertips to almost pierce through the cover. Finally, an idea flashed through his electronic brain. He dashed over to the fireplace where he grabbed a box of matches from the mantelpiece. Striking one, he held it to the photo album a moment before he changed his mind and blew it out. Instead, he yanked open the fireplace doors and began setting up kindly. He smiled bitterly as he recalled this was another thing that had been programmed into him instead of lovingly taught as he'd previously believed.
Once a good blaze was going, he began taking the photos out starting from the back of the book. He carefully tore each one in four before throwing them into the fire and watching them crinkle and blacken in the flames. He watched them all disappear: places he'd love that he couldn't even be sure existed, friends he wished he'd see again that weren't even real, memories of events he'd been fond of, events he'd been proud of. They were all fake.
"Fake," Mack announced out loud as he threw more pieces in the fire. "Fake," he repeated as he pulled another photo out of the album. It became his litany as he passed judgement on every picture before sentencing it to a fiery death.
He'd almost made it through the entire album before Will and Ronny found him.
"What are you doing?" demanded Will.
The yellow and black rangers rushed forward each grabbing an arm preventing Mack from tearing up another photo.
"Mack, stop it," said Ronny as he began to pull out of their grip.
"You don't understand," Mack insisted. "They're not real. None of it is real."
Gazing into his eyes, Ronny managed to be both pleading and concerned. "I know. But I also know how important these were to you. You can't just throw them away."
"Important?" Mack laughed bitterly. "They're just part of a stupid little make believe world just like my books, except worse because I actually believed…" He shook his head and used his super strength to easily shrug out of his friend's hands. "Fake." He began his litany again as he tore up the photo and tossed it into the flames.
"Look," said Will. "Maybe you should just take a moment to think about this. You're angry now, but tomorrow you might regret it."
But there was no stopping Mack. The pair sat back and watched in resignation. Soon, he reached the end, but as the red ranger pulled out the last photo, he paused, his eyes struck by the contents of the picture that had held the special place at the beginning of the album. His jaw clenched, the reflection of the fire's flames blazing in his eyes.
He didn't hear Will and Ronny call out to him as he dashed out of the room.
After a short search, he found his father unsurprisingly down in the command room. He stomped over and slammed the photo down on the table in front of him.
"Who is she?"
Andrew looked down at the picture which showed a sweet faced young woman with long curly brown hair and glasses. She was rolling her eyes at the photo taker as she grinned. All the colour left his features. "She… ah… she…"
"What? Did you just pull her picture out of a magazine and decide she'd make a nice fake mother for your fake son? Or better yet, maybe you put the parts of several photos together and made yourself the perfect woman just like you made..."
"She was an old friend," said Andrew interrupting his son's tirade. "We met in college." He sighed. "She was also the love of my life. But we were just too busy with our own goals, so we went our separate ways."
"You mean she's alive?" Mack eyes were wide. "You told me my mother died when I was two. You told me you sprinkled her ashes at the bottom of the garden. I used to go down there and…"
"I wanted you have everything a normal child has. I couldn't provide you with a real mother, but I had to at least…"
"So you just had to invent another pack of lies."
"Most of the stories I told you about her were true."
"Except she's not my mother. I don't have a mother. Just like I don't have a father."
The devastation in Mr. Hartford's eyes failed to penetrate the cold mask that had once more slipped over Mack's face. The red ranger snatched the photo back and trudged out of the room with deliberate steps. His path led him back up to the mansion where the smoky smell of the charred photos still lingered. Ignoring inquiries from the other rangers who were gathered in the wreck room, Mack grabbed the matches once more and headed out.
The grounds of the Hartford mansion were large, so large that it took Mack 15 minutes to reach his destination. At the ends of the gardens just before the land changed into wild fields, there was a willow tree and beneath it a circular plot that in the springtime was filled with daffodils and bluebells, but now lay bare. This was where Mr. Hartford had told Mack he'd spread his mother's ashes. This was the place Mack had liked to call Mom's garden if only to himself. The one time he'd used it infront of Mr. Hartford, Andrew had gotten an odd look on his face. Mack had thought at the time that he'd brought up sad memories. Now, he knew the truth.
Mack slumped down under the branches of the willow tree and leaned against the trunk. This place, with his back to the mansion and the view of his mother's garden and the land beyond in front of him, had been his spot. This is where he came when he wanted time alone. This is where he came when he wanted to think, when he had disagreements with his father and Spencer refused to back him up. Now it was just another thing that had been taken away from him.
He'd never really missed having a mother. You couldn't miss what you never had. But sometimes he'd wistfully wondered what it would have been like if she'd been alive, whether his father might have stayed at home more instead of spending so much time away searching for hidden treasures.
It was all just another part of his father's imagination except she was real and very much alive which just made things worse. If he wanted, he could track her down, go and meet her. He could just imagine himself knocking on her door and greeting her with a 'Hi, Mom. I'm the child you never had'.
He looked down at the now slightly crumpled photo in his hand. The women in the picture still smiled as she always had but she wasn't smiling at him anymore. Striking a match, he set the flame to one of the corners and watched it eat away at the photo, the smoke and ash blowing away in the wind.