Like Herding Cats
“Incoming call to all rangers,” a voice Leo placed as Angela’s rang through his helmet, causing him to indulge in a moment’s hesitation as he discerned the exact tone she was using, something that combined anxiety with authority. Definitely not a good combo, that there.
Based on similar pauses from his temporary teammates, helmets tilting to the side as though to confirm their ears had not deceived them, he could guess that they had heard the message too (which yes, he understood was evident from the “all rangers” business, but it never hurt to be aware). The exception to this was the blue guy – one of the ninjas, based on the few blurs Leo had managed to catch of him – who continued his assault with a smooth and calculated ferocity that would be frightening to a lesser man, but Leo himself found it pretty nifty. He should try to schedule some training sessions with these new guys when this was all over; get a breath of fresh air, if you will, in the sparring partner territory.
Had there been time for proper introductions Leo was sure Eric would still be grumbling at the navy ranger’s quiet entrance into their battle. Leo could honestly admit he was a little ashamed of the fact he hadn’t noticed an extra body fighting alongside them, that it wasn’t until the blue guy decided to stop playing with the henchmen and actually get hands on with the other rangers, pushing, pulling, and yanking them out of harms way if ever the monster go too close to them, that he realized the newbie was there.
Hell, there was a good chance Eric actually was spitting out a fiery storm of bitter resentments, but if he was, he was keeping them to himself, much to the rest of their relief.
There hadn’t been time for questioning, hadn’t been much time for explanations, except that the new guy didn’t seem too keen on them using any energy attacks against the monster. Which was fine, a bit of a challenge, but if there was ever a crowd that was fond of challenges it was these five, an effect of their profession.
The lack of communication wasn’t surprising though. For the navy guy. They had already figured out that with his blocker activated his helmet would only pick up things from his external sensors, as opposed to a private, internal radio signal, like whatever Angela had been using. It was passable, at least at close distances, but anyone could see it definitely wreaked hell on their overall communication. The fact that the few people who actually had a good idea of what the hell was going on were for the most part out of touch made the situation just that much more frustrating.
And also, Kai was having epic space battles while Leo was stuck earth-side, fighting a dude whose ‘maniacal laughter’ button had no off switch. Seriously, it was getting grating. Half of Leo’s new-found battle ferocity came from the need to shut it up.
Despite Leo’s mental dalliance, Angela had continued her report, delivering information in an efficient staccato. “A few minutes ago I discovered that Andros and his team’s signatures have vanished from the morpher net. All attempts to make contact with the Space team have been unsuccessful-”
“What do you mean vanished?” And there was Zhane, his usual confident tone held constant through sheer force of will, with definite worry edging into his voice at his missing teammates, his family. “Like they’ve been teleported?”
Angela’s reply was strained. She sounded confident that she knew – or at least had a good feel for – what had happened, but was having difficulties finding a way to explain it.
Must be bad news.
“Then what is it then?” Zhane snapped, distracted and angry and hot; too pumped up from battle to keep the conversation level.
A good thing then, that Kai was up there too. It would help bring the Silver Ranger home in one piece.
“More like they’ve vanished from this dimensional plane,” a new voice, one Leo was unfamiliar with and therefore, by process of elimination, one of the ninja team, answered. The ranger was young but certain, seasoned beyond his years, and delivered information with deft efficiency.
Before the remaining Space Ranger could interrupt, the new guy continued, voice steady despite space battle in which he was currently engaged. “The monsters you’re fighting are copies of a monster we have previously encountered-”
“The Doompot guy; right, we got it, your crimson guy told us.” Oh, and there was Justin, cutting in with what had become his usual edge of annoyed impatience.
“Well, he didn’t share with the rest of the class,” a new voice broke in and…oh, well, it was Lucas, not even five feet from Leo. “So why don’t we let him finish sharing?”
“I’ll go ahead and give you the short version,” Justin countered, helpful instead of agitated. “The monsters absorb our energy, use it to lock onto us and then absorb us into that fancy pot they wear to finish the job.”
“Essentially,” the new guy said, unaffected by the interruptions. “The Space team has most likely been captured.”
“So how do we get them un-captured?” Zhane asked, the usually cheerful and laid-back ranger holding onto his patience by a thread.
Poor guy was probably stretched to his limits at the thought of his team being trapped away somewhere while he was off in space. His duty was just as important as theirs had been, but Leo doubted that would bring any consolation to his guilt.
A common ranger problem, among many.
It was Justin who answered his question instead of the other guy, who still had no name. “We have to break the pots. They used the Quantum Defender to do that before-”
“As the original monster was not prepared to handle that specific type of energy-” the new voice easily continued, picking up Justin’s line of speech seamlessly, as though they had planned it out together.
Justin cut back in. “-but as you can see with these new guys-”
“That’s not really the case.”
The voice came from beside Leo, a slight echo from the radio and his external sensors picking up Adam’s words, tired and worried, but still somehow reserved. Just that one sentence screaming his composure.
“You would know better than I,” the new guy, sounding just as tired, responded. “But we will not rest until we think of something.”
Leo assumed his ‘we’ referred to him and the rest of his team, whatever resources they had access to.
“We’ll all think of something.” Wes’ determination could be noted from anywhere, blatant and resolute despite the worst of circumstances. “I’ve got Trip and Justin back at Bio Labs. We’ll work something out, together, but until then avoid using any energy attacks near these things. Stick to a purely physical offense, or keep their attention and run them around the city, whatever works. Just don’t get caught up in their pots. That’s an order.”
“Sir, yes sir,” Rocky answered back cheerfully, somewhere off fighting his own battle, and the relief was visible in Adam’s shoulders, even mid-fight, at hearing the red ranger’s voice.
Which reminded Leo that he hadn’t heard from a certain, important person of his in a while too.
This fact provided its own brilliant stroke of inspiration. “You’re really cute when you get all authoritative Wes,”Leo added, loving the way Eric’s helmet jerked in his direction, such obvious displeasure, and imagining the cringe that probably graced Wes’ features at this exact moment, but ultimately pushing both away.
It wasn’t them he was interested in.
A few seconds later, he was given his prize.
“Keep focused Leo,” Kai murmured over the Lost Galaxy team’s private link, after the group connection had signed off. “And watch what you say. I would like for you to return home without Eric trying to maim you.”
“But that takes all the fun out of it,” Leo faked his whine, playing it up in a way he knew Kai would find amusing.
The smirk was dominant in Kai’s tone when he replied, allowing Leo this small reprieve inside this bigger battle threatening to break them. “There is better fun to be had later.”
Like the tease he was, stupidly attractive with his commanding battle voice, Kai ended the call. It was a promise, Leo knew, something to keep him going, a nice light at the end of the tunnel if everything managed to turn out okay.
It was also stupidly cruel and arousing, which in the end, made it perfectly Kai.
“Options people,” Wes began, running a hand through the sweaty, jumbled mess his hair had become; the helmet tucked beneath his arm a solid comfort. “Any ideas you have, lay them on the table.”
Despite only holding four people, the temporary command center that had taken over the conference room held a flurry of chaos; Trip, Justin, and Angela in constant movement as they shifted between the multiple computer setups. They were running calculations, checking on the morpher net, and uploading the data the two rangers had somehow collected from their own helmets, both of which were resting innocently side-by-side, out of reach of the mayhem lurking just inches away.
Wes had never intended for a prolonged stay. In fact he had tried leaving earlier, once he was sure Justin and Trip were settled in okay (still in their suits, just like Wes) but found that he was unable to. As it turned out, when a collection of people of horrifically high intelligence were gathered together under high stakes circumstances, they required someone to moderate between their collective lack of social skills. To keep feathers from ruffling, if you will. They were all on edge, all pressed and worried with a fair amount of guilt doled among the ranks for all of them to share, so if Wes wanted things to go smoothly, someone had to step in and play peacekeeper. To this point, that someone had been Zhane, but with the loss of his team at the forefront of his mind whatever remained of his focus was reserved for piloting the Mega Winger.
He didn’t like it, but Wes understood and, begrudgingly, stayed behind, taking up a position by the window to occasionally peak through the now-closed blinds, watching the swarm of Guardians dutifully making their way out to the streets, towards the invasion threatening to doom them all. Whatever assurances he gained weree overwhelmed by a feeling of taunting, that he was trapped in here while Eric was out there, but Wes looked anyway. He wanted to know what he was fighting for, to visually see it.
That way he was much less likely to strangle any of the people behind him because holy hell, they were not good at communicating.
Though the worst offenders were unfortunately way out of the blond’s reach. Except for Justin.
Fortunately for the Turbo Ranger, Trip knew Wes well enough to recognize when his annoyed face changed into his I-must-punch face and the green ranger put on his most pitiful puppy eyes when appropriate, keeping Wes in check when his patience started running low.
Wes appreciated his teammate’s efforts, he always did, but it didn’t make the situation any less frustrating. The stuff he was handling, these people, they were angry, but they weren’t…overtly angry, and definitely not at each other. Aside from some mild barbs, the majority of Wes’ new job came from keeping the group on task without any of them turning on each other.
It was more difficult than it should have been.
The only thing he knew for certain was that if he had known Eric losing his gun was going to lead to this big a headache, he would have taken a vacation and never looked back.
If the guilt didn’t catch up to him.
“There has to be a weakness,” the Samurai Ranger - that’s what Kai and Zhane had called him - began, taking up Wes’ challenge. “Lothor must have recovered the original Doompot after we had destroyed him-”
“Which sort of indicates that he wasn’t, you know, destroyed,” Justin murmured, earpiece firmly in place even as he whipped around to examine another computer, eyes scanning the data streaming by and jaw set in firm displeasure.
Wes used a warning glare to let the blue ranger know to cut that business out, going so far as to crumple up one of the many abandoned papers in the overflowing trashcan and chuck it at the teen’s head when he tried to ignore the blond. They stared at each other, Justin unappreciative, Wes annoyed and tired, and then life continued, Justin getting back to work, leaving Wes alone with a weary sigh.
He didn’t get paid enough for this.
“Regardless,” the Samurai Ranger continued; that one word alone indicating he heard, acknowledged, and didn’t care about Justin’s comment. “Doompot would have been remarkably damaged. The mere act of restoring the monster back to full health would have required a fair amount of resources, let alone multiplying and improving him. There has to be a cost.”
“Something they lost in order to gain the new benefits,” Kai summarized, voice as cool and steady as it had always been.
“Exactly,” Samurai replied.
“Why don’t we review the new list of benefits?” Wes suggested, fingers drumming restlessly against his biceps, arms clenched across his chest in some physical way to contain himself, to keep from lashing out at the people behind him with each Silver Guardian that passed through his view. “Maybe then we can brainstorm logical weaknesses.”
They didn’t confirm the idea, didn’t press either way for its favor or problems, merely leapt right into it, cutting out whatever time would have been wasted by keeping on track.
“They’re faster,” Justin began, shoulder pressing companionably against Trip’s as they huddled over their keyboards, eyes focused on the monitors in front of them. “Stronger too, according to your crimson guy.”
“They can absorb energy from any team,” Trip continued, focus so intense he didn’t even notice Justin’s proximity. “And there are multiple copies of him.”
“Six in counting,” Angela continued, eyebrows furrowed as she listened to incoming Guardian calls with half an ear. “But we’re pretty confident about that number.”
“So what do you lose to regenerate a monster, upgrade it, and create duplicate copies?” Wes asked, question more for prompting than in wait of a definite answer.
The Samurai Ranger was the one who answered first. “Stability,” he said, satisfied and definite. “There’s no way Lothor would be able to create so many copies without compromising the quality of every monster. Not fully.”
“The original one, perhaps,” Kai added thoughtfully. “But with every successive monster-”
“The more unbalanced they become,” Justin finished. For the first time a smile, rugged and fierce, graced his features. “The easier they are to break.”
“And how do we do that?” Wes asked. “How are we supposed to beat them without powered attacks when they’re faster and stronger and have more endurance?”
“We give them what they want.”
For once since the overwhelming barrage of movement had started between the three of them, everything seemed to still; Wes, Angela, and Justin staring at Trip with expressions that varied from wide-eyed, considerate, and proud, taking in what the Xybrian had said. Even the rangers over the comm., - so very far away, seemed to give pause to his statement, giving his solution the proper consideration it deserved.
Trip continued; smile bright as his enthusiasm began to take over, speeding the delivery of his words. “Don’t you see? The new monsters must have been designed to accept more than one type of energy.”
Yes, yes they were. In fact, Wes was aware of this because they had just covered that fact. The blond would be annoyed, but he knew that Trip was just getting started, that this was the prelude to his actual explanation.
Or, as it turned out, Justin’s explanation.
“But if they’re unbalanced,” the Turbo Ranger cut in, eyes wide as realization dawned on him, and his smile turned on Trip, who basked under it happily. “Then they probably wouldn’t be able to handle having multiple energy sources attacking them at once.”
“We overpower them,” Kai said, whatever satisfaction he might be feeling disguised in his level, concise delivery. “We feed them more energy than they can stand from as many different sources as we can manage.”
“And then when they get big-” Angela was smiling triumphantly now that there was a light in the distance, something she could hold onto.
“We smash them to the ground,” Wes summarized. “I’ll inform the others.”
“And I’ll send word to my people,” the Samurai Ranger added, tone unreadable but if Wes had to guess at it, there was a hint of relief. “At least, the ones I can.”
“We’ll take care of the others,” Wes promised, remembering the three rangers the Samurai had mentioned earlier; navy, crimson, and yellow. “If they’ve found a fight near one of our teams, we can update them.”
The kid was professional, Wes would give him that, probably had to be, considering the enemy he was fighting and the team he had to support. He was young but capable, with a sharp mind and immense focus.
But that didn’t mean he was without feeling; so it wasn’t all that surprising to hear the quiet thanks in his tone, reassured that his teammates would be taken care of.
“No problem,” Wes replied, doing his best to convey both confidence and kindness, offering what comfort he could without being overt about it.
With that, the red ranger reached up and removed his own earpiece, chucking it onto one of the less cluttered tables before turning to his helmet. It was smudged yeah, but hardly close to breaking and, like him, ready for a fight. Figuratively speaking, of course.
One borrowed motorcycle from the motor pool later, Wes was back in business, beginning his new broadcast to inform the teams.
They were going to beat these guys. No question about it.
“So, quick question,” Hunter huffed, ignoring the irritated way Dustin’s helmet swiveled towards him, clearly displeased he was not taking it easy. “What do we…do next?”
“I-” Dustin began, chest puffed out like he was going to do his very own leader-spiel, probably intending to explain that he was going to bench Hunter while he carried out the dirty business with a very persuasive and thoughtful argument.
Which was why Hunter interrupted him.
Thoughtful arguments were always less effective if you didn’t give them a chance to be heard.
“No,” Hunter said, minimizing the shakiness of his words with a tone that was firm and resolute. “No more splitting up.”
“Hunter,” the earth ninja countered; part pleading, part come-to-your-senses-because-you’re-making-me-worried.
No. Guilt would not work here.
“No,” the crimson ranger repeated. “We can’t contact each other…like this. It’s not…safe.”
“You mean you’re worried,” Dustin replied, the understanding tone somewhat negated by the fact it was an argument, like Hunter’s feelings on the matter shouldn’t affect what his body needed or something. Or maybe Dustin was trying to prove he was compromised or something or hey, maybe Dustin was just stating a fact. People did that sometimes.
“That too,” Hunter allowed finally, deciding that Dustin wasn’t as manipulative or roundabout as that. The brunette would use a more direct tactic if he really wanted Hunter out of the way.
Unless Dustin knew better Hunter would assume that, in which case now would be a perfect time to exercise his skills in misdirection.
And Hunter had to face it; Dustin could be pretty damn crafty when he wanted to be.
…holy hell, was he really-? Yes, just a mere sentence, a four word response was sending Hunter’s mind in wayward spirals, definitely not good, he was getting paranoid, or desperate, or both. He tended to get like that when injured, or maybe not, it hadn’t happened in a while, but then again, Blake did say-
“Hunter.” A hand- Dustin’s, because he was the only one there – gripped Hunter’s shoulder, jolting him from his aimless train of thought.
The yellow ranger was clearly concerned, even Hunter could tell that through the dull fog of pain that rested over his body. When Hunter turned to look at him Dustin had readjusted, moved so that he was crouched beside Hunter, Quantum Defender slack against his side in his free hand.
“Hunter,” the earth ninja repeated, now that he had the blond’s (mostly) full attention. “I’m worried about you.”
Ah damn; it was the direct approach then.
Dustin continued, stubborn and refusing to wait for the older Bradley to offer any arguments. “No Hunter, I’m not going to listen to you try to deny you’re really hurt. I know it sucks that you can’t help right now, but seriously, you can’t. I hate to be the one to have to break that to you, but you can barely talk, let alone run. If I hadn’t found you…”
He trailed off into an uncomfortable silence; Hunter’s gasps heavy in his ears as they both mentally reviewed the sad truth of it, that without interference, Hunter would have been a goner.
An unpleasant thought, but the truth.
“But I did,” Dustin started back up with a swallow, latching himself onto certainty as he shook off the sad thoughts behind them. “And now we’re here and they’re there-”
“And I won’t…be any help in a fight,” Hunter summarized. Were he not already in so much pain, it would have physically wounded him to admit this. Hell, it probably did, he just couldn’t notice it on top of everything else. “Let alone...get to a fight.”
“I’m sorry Hunter,” Dustin said, voice quiet but with the utmost sincerity. “But you have to rest. If you want a chance to get back out there, you have to stay here and recover. And like, if you don’t move I’ll be able to find you again, okay?”
He sounded so brightly earnest as he said it, picking up speed on his own idea, his own argument.
Hunter couldn’t fault him for it, couldn’t really find it in himself to rain on Dustin’s parade. Seeing as things were hard enough as they were, he agreed with a slow and shaky nod, trying to give Dustin what little encouragement he could offer.
It wasn’t a lot.
But for Dustin, it might as well have been the moon.
“Great,” the yellow ranger said, sounding not-entirely like he supported the statement that everything was indeed, great. “Now just…promise me you’ll stay here. Please Hunter?”
Dustin hadn’t even waited for Hunter’s stubborn silence; merely jumped onto the quiet, guilt-inspiring plea that he knew would cripple Hunter every time. Because Dustin was not a person who asked for much, so when he actually did he made sure it counted.
Usually, such as it was now, it was not for his own benefit. He was a giver like that.
“…okay Dustin,” Hunter allowed.
He would regret it, much like he regretted everything else about this damn day but…
It was for Dustin.
And, consequently, for his own sake, so Hunter didn’t really have any choice in the matter.
Besides, the faster he regrouped, the more time he spent resting, the better his chances were at being able to come back when the big final showdown was taking place and dole out the finishing blow, because he was special like that, and in a delusional enough state of mind to actually believe that was an option.
It was. It so totally was.
“Thank you Hunter,” Dustin chirped, relieved. He finished with the world’s most careful hug, taking care not to shift Hunter in any way, and then he was off again with one final nod, the Quantum Defender held awkwardly before him as he made his way off into the world.
Which left Hunter with the unpleasant task of waiting and hoping; hoping that this whole thing would come to an end soon with as little extra damage as there could be, that Blake and Dustin and the others would be safe out there, that they couldn’t possibly destroy the city more, and that his ribs would take this as a gentle peace offering and agree to cooperate with the Morphing energy that should be healing them.
It wasn’t so bad, once the blond managed to detach himself from the resounding feelings of guilt and uselessness. He hadn’t really had a break since…this morning- wow, they hadn’t even eaten lunch and it was getting close to early evening, or late evening? Hunter couldn’t tell; he hadn’t really bothered looking at where the sun was because, well, he was busy and then there were other things to focus on besides his stomach to judge how many hours had passed by…
But it really was nice to rest some. Dustin had picked out a nice, cozy hidey-hole that completely sheltered Hunter from the outside world, and the billboard wasn’t that uncomfortable against his back, and the brick wall was nice in a way that other-things-being-red always tended to be, which seemed more like a thing that Dustin appreciated but whatever, Hunter could branch out if he wanted to, he was capable of those skills-
“Oh, well, well, well.”
Please no, Hunter thought, scrunching his eyes closed as he hoped his mind was doing that thing where it liked to play cruel tricks on him, just to keep him from getting too contented with life’s generosities, so he could stay aware of how easily the world could go to shit. He recognized it wasn’t a healthy thing to do, but it kept him prepared and helped him keep from breaking, which was important, not like this, not like-
“Look what we have here,” the voice continued, too obnoxious and cheerful even for Hunter’s twisted tendencies, too…just, too much for him to be able to imagine it, he couldn’t be that mean to himself, he couldn’t, he had limits-
“Looks like we’ve got a wounded puppy Kapri!” tae second voice chirped, one Hunter refused to open his eyes to see its owner crouching right beside him, with that stupid, dimwitted grin on her face; he couldn’t, the pain was making him crazy, it had to be-
“It certainly does,” the first voice agreed, sounding thoughtful, speculative, and even above the din of the oversized air conditioning units Hunter could hear the familiar clacking of heels against the rooftop, slowly making their way to his other side. “Do you remember what Uncle said about wounded puppies Marah?”
“That they’re the most fun to play with?” the voice to his immediate right responded, still too close, too loud, and Kapri- the other voice, still standing- laughed.
“Yep,” Kapri chirped, continuing what was probably her most ‘menacing’ walk towards Hunter. He could hear her sword scrape against the ground as she moved into a crouched position beside him, most likely staring into the other side of his helmet, taunting. “And do you remember why they’re the most fun to play with?”
“Oh, oh!” Marah sounded like an enthusiastic student raising their hand, and Hunter could almost feel the way she lurched against him, sticking her hand into the air. “It’s because you have to get creative!”
“That’s right.” Hunter could hear the sinister grin in Kapri’s
voice leveled towards him, her attention no longer on her sister. “Because if you keep attacking a wounded
puppy the way you normally would, well, then you’d just kill it.”
“Which isn’t so bad,” Marah chirped, too maniacal for that sweet voice, too blithe. “It’s actually kind of fun.”
“True,” Kapri allowed. “But it’s even more fun to drag it out, to think of new ways to attack the puppy until it breaks itself. What do you think Marah?”
“I think that sounds like fun!” Marah – but not; please let it not really be her – continued, and then there was cheering and laughing and maybe a high five, Hunter wouldn’t know; he hadn’t opened his eyes, he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t because then maybe they’d be there and that was too mean, it would be too mean-
His helmet jerked to his left, someone- someone had grabbed it, and his eyes shot open involuntarily, squinting against the brightness of day before they readjusted, unprepared to behold Kapri’s devilish smirk, staring down at him like a cat that had finally won its prize.
“And then I suppose we could show the wounded puppy its friends,” Kapri continued, tracing a hand down the side of his helmet, almost like she was petting it. “And it can watch as they become wounded too.” She flicked her gaze over Hunter’s shoulder, towards Marah. “Doesn’t that sound like a blast Marah?”
“Practically the best day ever.”
“I hate you,” Hunter mumbled, achieving total efficiency by aiming it at both himself and them, meaning it with every fiber of his being. He couldn’t help flinching as they sweetly laughed at him, couldn’t even fight it when they yanked him to his feet and started dragging him away, off towards the building’s roof-access door.
“Sounds like this puppy needs to go to obedience school, Kapri!” Marah joked from behind him, sing-songing because she knew he’d hate it, just like the way he hated Kapri’s stupidly proud smile as she glanced back at him, eager anticipation dancing in her eyes.
“I’m sure we’ll think of a proper punishment for him Marah,” she murmured, ushering them through the door, down onto the stairs. “I’m sure it’ll be delightful.”
Hunter was pretty sure they had different definitions of the word ‘delightful’, but figured that she probably wouldn’t be receptive to any corrections on her current outlook on it. Instead he saved his breath and focused on putting one foot in front of the other, biding his time until he recollected his energy and he could make his move to escape. Preferably before the two dimnuts decided to feed him to a Doompot monster.
He doubted they would be bright enough to figure that one out, but it never hurt to be paranoid.