"Trent? Yeah, he's right here." Conner put his phone down to yell across the lair. "Trent! Hayley wants to talk to you!"
"Can it wait?" Trent was busy searching. Couch pillows were tossed over his shoulder as he checked down the back of the sofa.
"Sorry, Hayley. He's a little busy right now. Want me to give him a message?" A brief pause. "Okay. See you then."
Conner flipped his mobile closed and tucked it in his pocket.
"Hayley says you'd better not be trying to avoid her."
"Why would I do that?" Even if Trent hadn't been poking around underneath the sofa, it would have been hard to tell he was lying. Lying was something he'd perfected while serving Mesagog.
Ethan watched him, a bemused expression on his face.
"What are you looking for anyway?"
"My portfolio," Trent said, peering underneath the couch. "I was sure I left it here."
"It's over on the bookcase. Dr O put it there when he was cleaning up."
Trent walked over to the bookcase. He quickly spotted the slim booklet.
Satisfied the drama was over, the other rangers went back to their various activities. They didn't look up as Trent sat down at the table and started flicking through his portfolio. They did look up, however, at the ripping sound as Trent tore a page out.
"What are you doing?" Kira asked.
Trent didn't look up as he flicked through the portfolio.
"Finding all the pictures I've drawn of the white ranger."
"What are you going to do with them?"
"Rip them up. Burn them. Chuck them in the river. Whatever way seems most appealing at the time."
She looked shocked. To her, destroying his art must seem about level with burning her song notes.
"Why are you going to do that?" She asked.
Trent tore out another page. Ethan looked upset.
"I don't think you should do that. You're going to regret it when you want to look back. Like when I forget to save Super Dark Ninjas when I've just finished a level…"
Trent didn't seem to be listening to either of them. Conner took a more direct approach.
"Okay. That's it."
He stood and took the portfolio away from Trent. The white ranger straightened, eyes glinting dangerously, fists clenched at his sides.
"Give it back, Connor."
"Not until you promise to stop ripping out stuff."
"Dammit!" Conner looked annoyed. "You didn't mean that!"
"No, I didn't." Trent saw no point in denying the obvious. "Now give me that portfolio."
He lunged at the red ranger. Conner, unfortunately, had the advantage of both height and super-speed. The portfolio was held safely out of reach.
Kira and Ethan watched the scuffle. Then Kira spoke in an entirely new tone of voice;
"Is this about that girl in Cyberspace today?"
Conner slowed down to look at her, enough to let Trent almost get hold of the portfolio. He recovered in time to snatch it out of the white ranger's reach.
"Girl?" Trent managed to sound convincing confused.
"The one who was talking to you and Hayley. She seemed upset."
Kira was watching his reaction with sharp eyes.
"It has nothing to do with her," Trent said. "Why I'm destroying my pictures – " he made another futile grab at the portfolio. " – is my business."
"Oh no." Conner said firmly, and Trent barely restrained a groan. There it was – the 'leader' voice. Ever since Dr O got imprisoned in amber, the red ranger had had to step up to the plate. Even when the black ranger got back, Conner had retained that aura of confidence. It was irritating enough to make Trent regret that particular decision – you know, more, because encasing your science teacher in amber was wrong in any case.
Right now, Conner was folding his arms with an implacable expression on his face.
"Something's obviously bothering you, and that affects us as a team. We should talk about it."
Trent glared at the red ranger, wishing that he'd thought to wait until he was alone before ripping up the damn notebook.
"I don't need this crap."
He turned towards the door. He could always come back and get the notebook later, using his camouflage.
Ethan quickly moved in front of him, blocking his way. He might not have Conner's height, but blue scales were spreading across his skin as he activated his power. Trent paused, and when he spoke there was a warning in his voice that hadn't been in his voice since he'd last tried to kill them.
"Let me past, Ethan."
The blue ranger folded his arms.
"Nuh-ah. Not until we talk about this."
"Right, the geek wants to talk rather than stare at a computer screen." The scornful words rolled easily off Trent's tongue.
Ethan looked hurt. Then angry.
"You're going to feel bad for that later, so I'll let it slide. But insulting me won't make this problem of yours go away."
Anger and guilt tasted bitter at the back of Trent's throat.
"It's not your problem. It's mine. So back off."
He wondered if they'd be as damn persistent if they ever caught a whiff of the secret surrounding his dad, and sincerely hoped not.
"Your problems are our problems," Kira said firmly. She blinked, eyes widening. "And wow, when did we turn into parents?"
Trent shrugged, glad that someone else saw the irony of this situation.
"About the same time I turned into a vicious killer."
"Hah!" Conner pointed a finger, all attempts at maturity abandoned. "I knew it! It is a ranger thing!"
Trent sighed, sick of this.
"If I tell you, will you give me my portfolio and let me leave?"
Conner shrugged. He put the portfolio on the table as a show of good faith, but Trent knew the red ranger could grab it before he could even twitch his fingers.
Kira and Ethan nodded, indicating their acceptance. Now all Trent had to do was tell the truth. He sighed, running his finger through his hair.
"The girl in Cyberspace…she, uh…" How could insults come so easily, but the truth be so hard to spit out? "Her sister died in an attack."
Kira gazed at him with compassion in her eyes.
"People die in attacks, Trent. We can't stop it. We can only defend the city as best we can, and hope that there's no one in the way…"
"You don't understand." The words were sharper than he intended, the broken edges riding dangerously close to the surface. Press a little deeper, and they'd split him open. "I wasn't the one defending."
The other rangers stilled.
"You weren't in control," Ethan said finally, carefully.
"Her name was Samantha," he said, and it was important he got this out. "I don't even remember which battle it was – there were so many, you know? And I killed dozens of people before – "
"By accident," Kira said firmly. "Even when you were evil, you didn't set out intending to hurt them."
"But I knew it could happen. I knew, and I didn't care."
Conner was shaking his head.
"Dude, I know you feel bad, and we all should – people died. But it doesn't change the fact you had no control over what you were doing."
"Maybe," Trent agreed half-heartedly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Conner said sharply.
"It's just…" Trent finally found the courage to voice his worst fear. "The gem wouldn't bond with Mesagog, or Zeltrax, or Elsa. And they were about as evil as you can get. But I stumble into the lair and it practically jumps on me."
He couldn't look at his friends' faces.
"Maybe there's something inside me…some trait that even they were lacking…that made me compatible with evil."
Silence. He wondered what they'd do now, now that they understood the truth about him. About what he was.
Then Conner said, with his characteristic bluntness:
"It's the truth."
"It's bullshit." Conner insisted. "You know what I think? I think that gem saw something you – something good. It was trying to save itself by attaching itself to you. So you can forget this crap about being evil before I kick your butt."
Trent was taken aback. Buried beneath the threat of bodily harm was an actual compliment from the red ranger. Who would have guessed?
"But you don't know," he insisted. "You don't know what it was like…"
He cursed his big mouth, and turned to face Kira. She didn't look angry, though. There was compassion in her eyes.
"Dr O. talked to me afterwards – after the whole hypnosis thing. He compared being mind-controlled to being raped."
Inside Trent's chest, something simultaneously froze up and cracked open. He couldn't move. If he moved, he'd fall apart, the pieces scattered across the floor. He couldn't even speak. He stood there, mouth opening and shutting uselessly.
Kira stepped forward.
"It wasn't something we did, Trent," she said. Conviction rang in her voice. "It was something done to us. To you."
He backed up. The idea was too big to comprehend. Too big to encompass properly. He had to get away, find his own space, think it over. If he could just find that stillness inside, then he could understand it properly.
"I…I have to go…"
He went to grab his portfolio. His fingers slipped and it fell off the table. He knelt to pick it up, only Conner got there first. Fucking super speed.
The red ranger held the book out. Trent hesitated, searching Conner's eyes for mockery or pity. If he'd seen either expression, he would have been out of the Lair like a shot. But Conner's expression remained bland, and his hand remained there, hovering steadily in mid-air, offering the portofolio.
Finally Trent reached out and took hold of the book. As he started to draw it out of Conner's grasp, the red ranger's other hand closed about his wrist, trapping him.
"It wasn't your fault, you know," he said, a quiet intensity in his voice that Trent had never heard before. Trent tried to pull away, but Conner's fingers tightened, anchoring him in place. He wasn't really stuck, he knew. He could free himself with a quick twist, or just tell the other ranger to back off, or…
The first sob surprised him. He gulped, trying to calm down, but a second and a third sob were close behind the first.
He heard Conner swear softly under his breath, and he tried to apologise.
"Sorry," he croaked. Another sob shuddered his body. "I'm sorry. I just –"
The portfolio was plucked out of his grasp and chucked aside. Before he could say anything – a protest or otherwise – he was dragged forward into a rough embrace, his face pressed into a soccor jersey that smelt of sweat and too much male deoderant.
"Shut up," Conner muttered into his hair. "For once in your life, shut up."
Trent tried to push Connor away. But somehow, his fingers curled around the red material of the jersey, hooking into the cloth. And then he was clinging to the other ranger, crying in a way he hadn't allowed himself to do since he was a very small child.
It was possibly the most humilating moment of his life, and he waited for the other rangers to say something sarcastic or joking. It didn't come, though. They crowded closer, and he felt Kira's hand in the middle of his back. Her gentle touch was somehow more devastating than Conner's rough approach.
"It's okay…" She whispered. "It's okay…"
"I tried," Trent sobbed, because it was important they know this. "I tried to fight it. I really did."
Ethan's hand squeezed his shoulder in a grip that nearly hurt.
"We know, man."
He tried to push them away several times more, efforts that were futile because he didn't really want to push them away, anymore than he wanted to be pushed away by them. Conner, however, was about as subtle as an avalanche, and about as easy to evade. He just wrapped his arms about Trent and threatened to sit on him if he kept bitching. Finally Trent just gave in and cried his guilt and anguish out on the red ranger's jersey. It would be Conner's fault if he got snot on it.
Eventually there were no more tears left. He'd reached that empty, numb stage where things don't seem quite that bad and that rebuilding the rubble of your life not quite so hopeless. His cheek was resting on Kira's knee, and someone was stroking his hair. He hoped it was Kira, because being wrestled into submission by a red ranger was one thing, but having your hair stroked by him was bordering on creepy.
The bang of a door interrupted the quiet, and there was the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
"Trent!" Hayley's voice yelled. "Trent, are you down here?"
Trent scrambled to his feet, as did the other rangers. He looked about for an escape route, as he'd had his share of painful confessions today, and wasn't up for another one just yet. He was still trying to choose between the cave system and going invisible when he noticed the rangers had gathered in front of him. He'd never realized just how comforting it was to have that impenetrable barrier of solidarity between you and the object of fear.
"Trent, there you are." Hayley clumped down the stairs. She sounded exasperated and concerned in equal amounts, and he instantly felt bad for worrying her. "Don't think you can escape talking about this…"
"He's already talked about it." This was from Kira.
Hayley seemed to stop and re-consider, assessing the tight protective huddle. Trent wondered if the rangers had even realized they were doing it, or it was so automatic as to be unconscious.
"We're taking care of it," Conner said, and there was that same note of authority that had once irked Trent. It still kind of irked him, but he could see the advantage in it now. "It's okay, Hayley."
Hayley nodded thoughtfully.
"Alright then," she said slowly. "I'll leave you to it."
She walked back upstairs and there was the sound of the door closing. Trent breathed a sigh of relief.
Conner gave him a narrow look, and Trent braced himself for something – either an ass-kicking or another 'heart-to-heart', he couldn't tell and dreaded either possibility. Instead the red ranger said:
"You know, that's not going to work on Dr O. The whole 'rangers take care of their own' card might work on Hayley, but Dr O's a ranger, so it's not going to work on him."
"Crap." Trent rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I don't suppose I could claim asylum in Switzerland or something?"
It was rhetorical, but Ethan spoke up.
"You can stay over my place for tonight at least. Pizza, movies, and video games." He looked quite pleased at the prospect.
"I'll bring the chips," Conner said.
"And I'll get the softdrink," Kira said.
"Cool, so it's settled then," said Ethan.
It had happened so fast, Trent was taken a little off-guard. The casual camaraderie of the rangers frightened him, because it would be so easy to slip into it, to just accept it. Hayley was right. The one thing he feared – the one thing he couldn't afford – was emotional intimacy. He had to remain vigilant. If he let himself get comfortable and open around the other rangers, it would be all too easy to let his secret slip.
Conner punched his shoulder.
"Want a lift back, or are you going to risk it with Ethan's teleporter?"
Then again, one little sleepover couldn't hurt, could it?
"I'll take the lift," he said. "Sorry Ethan."
They trooped up the stairs, Ethan trailing behind.
"I'm telling you, guys. Once I've worked out the kinks in the teleporter, it's going to revolutionize how we fight battles. Seriously…"
Kira caught Trent's eye and winked. Walking up the stairs, he knew that he might not be ready for the level of connection they wanted from him, but they were willing to wait.