Pairings/: Alex/Jen, Lucas/Trip, Katie/OC, Wes/Eric
Rating/: T
Disclaimer/: Saban/Disney/Whoever sure didn't write *this* into the series. The plot comes purely from my own warped little mind, and the characters are merely borrowed from them for my own amusement. Lucky you.
Warnings/: A mentally handicapped person living in a medical facility, angst, male and female slash, non-cemented couples (In otherwords, pairings that will be separated), children created by scientific means, character death
Author's Notes/: I decided to finally get started on my rewrite of A Darker Shade of Red, since it isn't that long yet, and it ties into the end of Bright Skies. Some of this will be familiar, some of it won't. Mostly I'm posting it because I keep getting stuck, and I need help. -Sheepish grin- Also, I took down the original version of this story in accordance with the rules of this site. For anyone who misses it, I will (eventually) be putting the original unfinished version up on my website.

This all started out with an odd thought about where Alex could have gotten his dark hair from (Which is entirely cmar's fault - thanks cmar! -Grins-), and somehow I decided to run with a plot about just where that hair came from. Then one of my favorite characters wormed his little way in, creating one of my weirder Ranger friendships. And yet I find it works here. -Shrugs- I don't ask. This story is about why Alex is ... well, Alex, the people who try to keep him sane along the way, and the complications that arise in between.

At least, that's the way it started. Then I saw S.P.D., and everything went to hell. -Snickers- As a warning, this now this takes place in the Bright Skies universe, and will eventually have a crossover with S.P.D.

Love to phantom_blue for beta.

Chapter 1: Mistakes

He waited impatiently, standing stiffly with his hands crossed behind his back as he waited for the four Time Force Rangers to emerge from Quarantine. He'd left his sunglasses in his office, a decision that he'd been torn over, and knew he'd ultimately regret. But he owed this to them - to him most of all. If he was truly going to make up for what he'd done, he needed to let him know he was sincere.

He tried not to fidget when he finally saw them heading in his direction. He swallowed down his nerves, taking a deep breath. He couldn't begin his apology if he was too scared to speak.

They were different, he noted, taking in their weary movements and solemn expressions. He couldn't have expected them to be the same, of course. They had learned so much, as a team, as Power Rangers, as people. And now they'd been forced to leave behind their teammates and the place they had come to consider home. He knew that loss would ache for awhile.

He tried not to be jealous. It wasn't their fault that - well, that things had happened the way they had. It was the way it had to be. It was what he had to do. All he could do now was hope that -

Jen, Lucas, and Katie slowed to a stop in front of him, looking suspicious and tired. No one had told them what was going to happen to them yet; they probably thought they were still fired or something equally ridiculous. Logan had wanted to brief them personally, and Alex was appointed their escort.

But the only thing that mattered to Alex at that moment was that Trip wasn't stopping with the others. He walked past him as though he wasn't even there.

He tried not to wince. "Trip. Wait."

Trip turned, tears shining in his eyes. "Why should I?" he demanded bitterly. "It's not like we're friends or anything."

Alex flinched as though he'd be physically struck. "T - that's not true," he protested.

"No, we're not. You made that perfectly clear, Sir." He turned and nearly bolted from the room.

"Trip, wait!" Alex called, starting after him.

He was stopped by Katie's hand roughly grabbing his arm, and held in another wince. "What did you do to him?" she demanded angrily. "I've never seen him like that!"

"Let go, Lieutenant," he growled, unconsciously slipping into his 'leader' voice.

"No," she returned, glaring coldly.

He fought to reign in his temper and failed. "I said let me go, damn it!" he shouted, trying to twist his way free.

"Alex, what's going on?" he heard Jen ask.

"What's going on is your lieutenant won't let go of me!" he snarled. "For god's sake Katie, let go!"

"Why should I?" she shot back.

"So I can find Trip and apologize!"

There was a moment of silence as he struggled.

"Apologize for what?" Lucas wanted to know, sounding suspicious.

"That's none of your business. It's between Trip and me. All you need to know is that I can't fix it with you keeping me here!"

Jen was studying him in a strangely intent way that she never had before. For a moment, he wondered if she could see right through him the way Trip always did. It was unnerving to say the least, and he was a little afraid of what she'd find there. He wasn't expecting for her to sigh, her expression almost seeming to soften. "Let him go, Katie," she commanded.

"What?! But Jen - "

"Let him go."

Katie made a frustrated growl, but her grip dropped from his arm. He didn't waste time on explanations or dignified exits; this was too important. He ran at a dead sprint, through hallways and elevators, ducking past co-workers and ignoring anyone who called out to him. He left the building, heading to Housing 3, fourth floor, room 27. There on the floor, curled up hugging his knees, was Trip.

Alex crouched beside him, touching his shoulder cautiously. "Trip?"

"I can't get in. My codes don't work," came the quiet reply. "I forgot I was fired."

"You're not anymore. Your rooms have changed because you've all been promoted. You're in the Housing 2 now, second floor, room 4," he told him, doing his best to sound soothing.

Trip glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "Why did you follow me? And why didn't you tell us that before?"

He tried to smile. "Some things were more important."

Trip didn't return it. "So I'm important to you now?"

He winced and bowed his head, ashamed. "There's no excuse for how I treated you before Trip, and I know that," he said softly. "All I can do is say I'm sorry."

"Why did you?"

He let out a soft sigh, sliding to sit beside the other man. He shrugged a little. "A lot of reasons. I thought I'd be able to handle things better than that. But there was Jen, Doomtron, and ... " Him, he finished silently. Them. "I didn't think I'd have to deal with it all at once."

"And you shut down."

He nodded. "Yeah."

There was a sudden hard punch to his shoulder. He yelped slightly, not expecting it, and rubbed the injured arm as he looked up. Trip was frowning at him. "That's for ignoring me," he was informed. Trip paused, then punched him again, adding "And that's for pretending to be dead."

"You mean you couldn't ... tell?" he wondered, still rubbing his shoulder. Trip had never been strong, but being a Ranger had given him the same enhanced strength all Rangers enjoyed. His punches actually hurt now.

Trip shook his head. "I think the time difference affected my link to you. I couldn't sense if you were alive or dead. It was like you were just ... never there." He hesitated, then quietly admitted "It was lonely."

"I was lonely, too," Alex said softly, daring another glance at him. "I woke up in a lab," he tried not to shiver and failed, "And you weren't there this time. I wasn't ... used to being alone in my head anymore. And then Captain Logan told me all of you had gone to 2001 to retrieve Ransik ... I wanted to strangle myself for telling Jen to go after him. I don't know what I was thinking ... "

"You weren't," Trip said bluntly. "You never do when you're injured or upset. It's a proven fact."

He smiled a little. "And you're never afraid to tell me."

There was a moment of silence. "I was then," Trip said at last, tracing a finger along the pattern of the floor. "You weren't ... you. The real you. You were the other you, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't reach you. And my mind was so fuzzy from having you suddenly there that it hurt to try for too long. The other you scares me," he finished softly.

Alex winced again. "I'm sorry. I don't know how many times I can say it, but I am. I just ... I don't know!" He pinched his nose with his left hand in frustration, and glanced up as Trip giggled softly. "What?"

"You remind me of Eric when you do that," Trip informed him. "I kept wanting to call him Alex."

He hesitated for a moment. As much as he didn't like the idea, part of him still wanted to know. "What were they like?" he asked finally.

He saw Trip's gentle smile out of the corner of his eye. "More like you than you'll ever want to know," he answered simply.

"Tell me?"

Trip considered for a minute. "Wes has your sense of humor - when you show it, and I think he has foresight like you. Eric's a tough guy with a soft spot who was really lonely and wouldn't admit it. He reminded me of when I met you, and Wes is more like the real you. You're still different from them, though. Neither of them are shy, and I never saw them act as bad as you do when you're upset. That's just you," he teased.

Alex made a face, but he was grateful to see him smile again. "I am not shy!"

"Oh no?" Trip retorted playfully. "How long did it take you to get up the nerve to talk to Jen?"

He winced. "Not as long as it could have."

Trip's reply was cut off by the sound of Alex's communicator going off.

Alex closed his eyes, wishing he could just make Time Force go away. This was his first time alone with Trip in months! Couldn't they leave him alone for just a little while? For once?

A hand squeezed his wrist gently. "You'd better answer," Trip said softly.

"I don't want to," he muttered rebelliously.

Trip chuckled as the communicator went off again, leaning his head against Alex's shoulder. "If you don't, I will. One of us has to have a sense of duty."

"Why does it have to be me?" he grumbled as he reopened his eyes, pulling the still beeping unit from his belt.

"Because that makes you more believable when we get into trouble?"

Alex rolled his eyes, giving him a dirty look as he answered. "Collins here."

An image of Captain Logan sprang up. "Captain Collins, please report to my office to show the Rangers to their new quarters."

"Yes, Sir."

There was a pause. "Squad Leader Regis is with you." It wasn't quite a question.

"Yes, Sir."

There was a barely audible "Wonderful," followed by "Logan out."

"Collins out," he returned. Trip burst into giggles the moment he turned it off. "What?" he demanded.

"'Wonderful,'" he mimicked. "We haven't even been together for more than half an hour and we've already got everyone worried about what trouble we'll get into."

Alex smiled a little in spite of himself. "What can I say? They know you're a bad influence," he teased.

"Me?" Trip sputtered. He shoved Alex in the shoulder. "Look who's talking!"

"Captain Alexander Collins, a bad influence?" He feigned shock.

Trip laughed at him. "Try Alex Collins!"

His smile widened as he rolled to his feet and offered Trip a hand up. "It's good to have you back, Trip," he said quietly.

Trip looked at him for a moment, then abruptly seized him in a tight hug. "I missed you, Lias aeo na'say'ah pu," he murmured back.

Alex swallowed. 'Brother of My Heart'. Trip hadn't called him that since they'd first been freed. He squeezed back carefully, trying not to cling to the younger man.

He wasn't stupid enough to think he was completely forgiven, but it was a start.

He walked stiffly, arms crossed behind his back as he entered Logan's office, ignoring Trip's mental nudge at the abrupt personality shift. "Sir."

Logan glanced up, eyeing the two of them. "Is anything missing, broken, or replaced?"

The three Rangers standing in front of Logan looked startled, but Alex wasn't phased. "No, sir."

He humphed, muttering "Yet," under his breath.

Trip giggled quietly, and was discreetly elbowed.

"I'll escort you to your new quarters, Rangers," Alex said smoothly, covering Trip's muffled grunt. "Follow me." He turned and left without bothering to wait for them.

"Alex, wait!" Jen called, sounding frustrated.

He slowed his pace slightly, allowing them to catch up. "All of your belongings have been moved to your new quarters," he said as they were boarded the elevator. "You've all been moved to Housing 2, second floor, rooms 1-4."

He could feel Lucas looking at him oddly. "They kept us together?"

"Actually, I insisted," he admitted.

A hand squeezed his shoulder as the elevator chimed. "Thanks, Alex," Trip said quietly.

He shrugged, keeping his eyes set firmly straight ahead as he led them across the yard and into Housing 2. "It was nothing," he muttered, feeling a little uncomfortable. He owed them this and so much more.

"Arguing with the Admiral was *nothing*?" Jen said incredulously.

"Captain Scotts and Lieutenant Walker are in rooms 1 and 3, Lieutenant Kendall in room 2, and Squad Leader Regis in room 4," he informed them, ignoring her question as they entered the next elevator and headed up to the second floor. He was trying to work things out with Trip; that didn't mean he was ready to deal with Jen. "These are your new passcodes and ID cards."

"Thank you," Jen said stiffly as they accepted them. Her entire posture and expression told him she'd decided if he could be uptight and stuffy, so could she.

The elevator stopped on their floor, leaving him to watch silently as the four headed to their rooms. Anxiety surged, and he found himself taking a deep breath. "Hastilanu?" he called. He knew it was a mangled, poor attempt, but he had to try.

Trip laughed outright, glancing back at him with a bright grin. "Not even close."

"One day," he threatened, mock-scowling at him. The tight feeling in his chest loosened a little at the sight of Trip's smile.

Trip just grinned. "Maybe when your vocal cords get to the right range, and you can remember all the syllables."

As he turned and reached for the down button he could hear the Katie ask what that had been about.

"Alex has been trying to pronounce my birth name since we met," Trip told them. "I keep telling him that human vocal cords can't produce the right frequency, but he never believes me."

"Your birth name?" Lucas sounded surprised.

Trip's laughter echoed as the doors were closing. "You didn't think Trip is really my name, did you?"

Relaxing in his office only a few hours later as he read through the reports Quarantine had sent on the Rangers, he reflected on the irony that he seemed to be getting set up as their supervisor. They'd just love that, he was sure. But ... if the Rangers reported to him, maybe that would give him a better chance of protecting them.

He didn't glance up at the knock on his door. "Enter."

The door slid open, and Jen hesitated. "May I come in?"

"I said you could, didn't I?" He kept his eyes on the paper he was holding. Why was she here? He wasn't ready for this. He was still hurting over her rejection, over the knowledge that she'd chosen him.

But then, when did the world ever wait for things to be convenient for him?

"You didn't know it was me at the time," she pointed out.

"I'm not taking it back, if that's what you're asking."

She made a frustrated noise, stepping inside at last. "We need to talk. Will you at least look at me?"

He lowered the paper slowly, peering up at her through his sunglasses. "So talk."

She glared and marched over, snatching the glasses from him. "I want to talk to your face Alex, not your mask."

He stared back at her, trying not to swallow hard as nervousness surged. His sunglasses were his shield from the world: he could keep his expression blank, but people could always see through him when they looked into his eyes. The glasses hid them from view, consequently hiding him. Without them, she would be able to see straight through any lie he told her.

He steeled himself internally, schooling his features. "What did you want to say?"

She started to pace. "I wanted to talk to you about the ring. You deserve to know the reasons why I gave it back."

"Wes and Wes?" he muttered under his breath bitterly.

So much for sounding mature.

"That's not why!"

He looked up, startled. He hadn't realized she'd heard him. He forced himself calm again. "What other reason is there?" he asked practically. Collins was kind, funny, smart, adventurous, generous ... He went down the mental list of gushing attributes he'd read in their reports of Collins and their eventual capture of Ransik. How am I supposed to compare to that?

She was kneeling in front of him, staring intently into his eyes again. He kept still, refusing to give her whatever it was she was looking for. She sighed. "Two things," she said quietly. "First of all, if I was even looking at Wes to begin with, it wasn't fair to you. I can't accept your ring if I can't be content with you as the only man in my life. Second, when you came back to 2001, and then when Wes sent us here, I started to realize just how little I really know about you. I know the parts you want me to see, but not the real you. I can't marry a fake person, Alex."

"I see." His tone was cool and detached.

She reached up to touch his cheek, and he could feel his mask threatening to crumble. "You're a terrible liar," she told him softly. "Without your glasses, your eyes give you completely away."

He didn't answer. If his dignity had been lost, he wasn't going to make things worse by opening his mouth.

"I'm not saying I love Wes more than you, and don't you dare compare yourself to him."

A little late for that, he thought darkly. People have been comparing us since before I was born.

"I still love you, Alex. But I've been falling in love with a person I barely know; someone I can only see when your defenses slip. We can't have a relationship if you're not willing to be honest with me." She took one of his hands in hers, giving it a gentle squeeze. "I'm not saying never. I'm saying I want to know the parts of you you've been hiding. Once we know more about each other ... well, we'll see what happens."

"What could you possibly want to know?" It slipped out before he thought about it.

She frowned slightly. "For one thing, I never knew you and Trip were so close," she told him pointedly.

"We've known each other - for a long time." He barely caught himself from saying just how long they'd been friends.

Her expression darkened. "That's exactly what I'm talking about! You won't trust me with your secrets! Marriage can't be based on lies, Alex!"

His face turned to stone. If she wanted him to be completely honest with her, she was in for a long wait. "Then maybe there can't be marriage at all."

She stared at him. "You can't mean that."

He just looked at her.

Tears shimmered in her eyes, and she dropped his hands, bolting for the door. It slid closed with barely a whisper, but the intended slam echoed in his mind.

"Computer, activate privacy lock."

There was a soft chime, and he closed his eyes at last. "I can't tell you and have you never look at me the same way again," he whispered to the air. "I can't trust anyone to know. Not even you." His voice cracked on the last word, and only sheer force of will kept him from breaking down right then. A single tear still managed to escape, and he wiped at it hurriedly before slipping his sunglasses back on out of habit.

He didn't have time for this. He had paperwork to go over.