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fic: Project Nexus (Chapter 5, Part 4)
zeshaika
Title: Project Nexus
Chapter: Chapter 5: Shadow of a Doubt
Rating: PG-13 / T
Characters: Critic, Chick, Linkara, Spoony, MarzGurl, Doctor Insano, Doctor Tease, Professor Celluloid, Nurse, SOI, Burton, Nimue, OCs. (Brief appearance of The Other Guy, Miles, and Chester A. Bum, and Lester B. Bum)
Pairings: None (At the moment)
Warnings: AU-ish, Violence, Mild Language a few OC villians. ((This chapter: Character Death (As part of an illusion), scary imagery.))

Disclaimer: All characters/borrowed concepts are property of their respective owners. Therefore I do not claim to own them, nor do I mean any disrespect toward either characters and concepts, or their owners.

Author's Note; Big thanks to EsaEnai of Fanfiction.net for helping co-write a few scenes in this chapter!

Meanwhile, back with the others, Critic could almost feel a new wave of panic rising within him.  Like boiling water in a pan, the uncomfortable waves of panic rose within him, boiling and growing hotter until he was afraid that it would bubble forth and spill everywhere as he let out another horrifying shriek.

He wanted to start running, but his feet felt numb, as if encased in three feet of solid concrete.  But, even if he could run, it wasn’t like he knew where he was going. While the imagined caves that he had perceived around him had vanished, he was left in nothing more than total darkness.

What was he fighting for? He wondered. Sure, part of it had been pure revenge for Ma-Ti’s death. But, there was this small part of him that also decided to become a Ranger so that he could have a chance of saving his brother from having the same possible fate from befalling him as well.

But, he’d failed at that, if Rob’s rapidly rotting corpse was anything to go by.

What good was revenge, anyways? The bitter voice within him asked. Sure, he could beat Malachite into a bloody pulp, but that wouldn’t solve anything.  Just like ranting and raging at bad films, nothing would change.  Killing Malachite wouldn’t bring anyone back.

In fact, the voice added, it would probably just make things worse. The others still weren’t free. And, given that he would have just killed their leader, he’d be willing to bet that his remaining forces would be furious. What was to stop them from just outright killing the others that they still hadn’t found, regardless of whether they were showing signs of awareness or not. After all, unlike the Rangers, Malachite’s allies already knew where the other reviewers were being held.

Cold sweat trickled down his forehead as he the distant sounds as silence pressed against his ears. Even his heart felt as if it had stopped beating as a painful tightness seized his chest. It felt as if all the air had been sucked out of his lungs as now the rhythmic pounding of footsteps now filled the air. A hollow clicking, tapping in time to the booted steps drew closer only served to strengthen the fear that gripped Critic’s body.

Somewhere in the depths of his fear-riddled brain, he couldn’t help but vaguely remember something from a biology class he’d taken in high school. The teacher had once offhandedly mentioned something about how the sounds of certain types of beetles usually warned of death. Of course, the teacher had said, this was just superstition and had clearly been proven false over the years.

Now, the Red Ranger couldn’t help but imagine that soft tapping must have been almost identical sound. However, where the beetle’s hollow clicks were only speculated to herald death, this sound was a known harbinger of someone who may have well been the Grim Reaper himself.

It was almost as if the shadows had shifted, forming the hatted figure of Malachite himself. For a brief moment, Critic wondered if perhaps this was yet another illusion designed to undermine the reviewer’s confidence. However, there was something about the menacing aura that emanated from his presence told the Red Ranger that this was no illusion.

“Hello again,” Malachite’s voice rasped, “Nostalgia Critic.”

“Hello again to you too,” Critic spat, “You shit-eating son of a bitch.”

The next thing Critic knew, he was on his back as a blue fireball from Malachite’s staff collided into his gut with the force of a speeding bus.

“That’s not a very nice way to greet me,” Malachite replied in an eerily quiet voice, as he slowly drew closer.

“Well,” Critic managed to smirk as he shakily clambered to his feet, ignoring the screaming protests of his bruised muscles, “Calling you a second rate Merlin would have been too much of a damn compliment.”

Immediately, Critic regretted opening his mouth as he was once again thrown onto his back. Through his star-clouded vision, he saw Malachite now stood over him, one foot planted firmly on top of the reviewer’s chest, while his staff hovered less than an inch above Critic’s throat. The reviewer tried swearing to himself, but found his mouth unable to form the words. In fact, most of his body seemed paralyzed, he noticed as panic began to bubble within him.

With a jolt, MarzGurl and Chick snapped out of their frozen trances and helped the Red Ranger to his feet.  As if on instinct the three raised their fists into fighting positions..

“I see,” Malachite sneered, “that I shouldn’t have been concerned about you or your friends. Devafen, Tegon, Retsukagi—you handle the girls. I’ll deal with Critic.”

With a quick shimmer, Malachite’s minions appeared. At that moment, the Pink and Blue Rangers seemed to forget their fear as they quickly nodded at one another before charging at the trio.  Although they knew that it wasn’t a good idea to take on three of Malachite’s toughest allies by themselves, they didn’t really have a choice.

Linkara was nowhere to be found, and Critic had already been singled out for attack by Malachite. Yet, at the same time, a deadly fire burned in the two women’s veins, replacing their fear with a fury far deadlier and more dangerous than anything they had previously felt in any of their missions.

Critic could only make a low, growl as he bared his teeth like a wild dog in response. A faint trace of a smirk passed across the sorcerer’s lips as he looked at the reviewer with the same disdain that one has before crushing a bug underneath their feet.

“Critic,” Malachite asked, “What do you think of the twenty-first century?”

It was now that Critic could feel himself able to talk again.

“The hell kind of question is that?!”

“Did you think,” Malachite continued, ignoring the critic, “that your scientist’s technological gadgetry would actually protect you? That it would actually allow you to stop the inevitable? Your team is in shambles, Critic—two of your own have abandoned you, and at least two more will most likely die on this battlefield. You see—your technology and science are worthless. In the end, you are still nothing more than a sniveling, pathetic shell of a man filled with useless impotent rage.”

Critic wanted to open his mouth to protest, but once more he found himself unable to. However, this was no spell-bound paralysis, but rather one born of an overwhelming feeling of fear. Of all the possible ways to die, for some reason, he’d never imagined having his windpipe crushed by a bo-staff, while a guy crushed his ribcage with his foot would be the way that he would go.

Involuntarily, he closed his eyes, blocking out the sight of Malachite raising his staff, as he braced himself for the inevitable agony of his throat being crushed like a soda can. Damn it, he didn’t want it to end this way, he thought as hot, bitter tears began to pool in the corner of his eyes.

He couldn’t accept that he’d failed. He wished that he could have been the fearless, wise leader that the others could genuinely look up to and trust, rather than a deluded fool that they only tolerated out of some sort of fear or obligation.  In the span of one day, what had he done? Allowed Paw to get taken to god knew where, said and done things that probably contributed to Spoony deserting the team, and the others into certain doom.

 Some leader he turned out to be, he thought. What kind of leader—no, what kind of decent person in general—kept letting people close to him get hurt or killed because of his desires and goals? Ma-Ti, The Other Guy, his friends—it wasn’t like he’d meant for any of them to ever get hurt.

Maybe, he thought, if reincarnation was a thing, he’d come back in his next life as someone who knew better than to get his friends and family involved in his insane schemes and adventures.

Suddenly, a loud twinkling crash followed by a loud shrieking wail, like fireworks being shot through a window, filled Critic’s ears. The reviewer coughed and opened his eyes as he felt the pressure on his chest slacken as Malachite looked up towards the sky.

Several small pinpoints of greenish-light glimmered over-head, streaking through the darkness above them as they barreled toward the ground, sending shards of glass raining down on the field like glimmering snowflakes.

For a brief moment, through his peripheral vision, it seemed as if the darkness slowly began to break, like a dissipating fog, as patches of dim sunlight began to filter in from above. His ears strained as they picked up the faint sounds of movement, possibly coming from the platform behind him.  However, he had no time to wonder what it could be as a blinding radiance filled the abandoned warehouse, showering the area in a mix of golden and greenish light. Faster than Critic could blink he felt something rush by his body, slamming into Malachite with enough force to throw him off of Critic’s body.

The Red Ranger blinked as the light faded and the rest of the world came back into focus. The heavy shadows that had shrouded the empty room were gone, revealing only the rusted and dilapidated walls of an abandoned warehouse.  Nearby, He could see MarzGurl and Chick, both considerably roughed up but still standing, looking confused as their three opponents had suddenly stopped fighting.

Across the room, at least a good four feet away from Critic, Malachite staggered to his feet and adjusted his sunglasses. Shakily, Critic climbed to his feet as his eyes too, fell upon where everyone was staring.

Spoony and Linkara, both of them morphed into their Ranger outfits, stood, their weapons drawn and ready to fight. Or rather, the Green Ranger’s weapons were drawn, as that the large, staff-like battle hammer that the Yellow Ranger typically wielded was currently laying across the room, having been clearly been thrown at Malachite.

Without a word, Critic and the girls regrouped, morphing as they joined the Yellow and Green Rangers, while Malachite’s minions surrounded their leader.

Once again the fight continued around them, filling the air with the clanging cries of metal on metal filled the wide space of the warehouse.

For every slash and hit that Malachite and his allies gave, there was at least one Ranger there to receive and return an attack. And, while the battle might not have been much more even in terms of strength and skill, the reviewers were at least glad of the absence of both Synthspectors or any transformed versions of their colleagues.

 Without even a word, Spoony rushed at Retsukagi, skillfully dodging a flurry of attacks as he picked up his weapon, countering just as the bird-girl bore down upon him with a fierce kick.

“So,” she frowned, “You’re still around? Wow, you must be an idiot! You really would have been better off just kept cowering in whatever dirt-hole you’d crawled into.”

“You really might want to try a new tactic” Spoony said between blows, “’Cause this mind-game shit is really starting to bore me. Okay, kid?”

Retsukagi’s face flushed red as a she leapt into the air. A pair of large, bird-like wings sprouted from her back, allowing her to hover a few feet above the gamer.

“OH,” the bird-girl shrieked, “HOW’S THIS, THEN?!”

Her face became even more bird-like and twisted as she let out a high-pitched screech that could have shattered glass. The Yellow Ranger groaned, doubling over in pain as he clasped his hands around his ears. Even with the protection of his helmet, her scream was deafening. He shivered as he involuntarily imagined that, had it been just a little louder, her scream could have probably literally caused someone’s head to explode like a popped zit.

Quickly, however, the bird-girl’s piercing scream was cut short as a green blast of energy darted through the air, clipping through one of her wings, causing her to tumble to the ground.  Spoony looked up to see Linkara, currently dueling with Devafen, give him a brief nod and a thumbs up over his shoulder before returning to his fight.

Taking advantage of the distraction, Spoony decided to help, carefully stepping in between the Green Ranger and the cat-lady and deflecting an attack that would have surely hit his friend, had he not stepped in.

However, the two were unable to catch even a moment’s breath as Retsukagi had recovered, also managing to intercept an attack as she joined her feline-esque comrade.

“Retsukagi,” Devafen warned, “We may be fighting against the same opponents, but don’t get in my way,”

“Sheesh,” Retsukagi replied, grinning “Alright. Just leave the cute Yellow Ranger for me. I’ve got plans for him.”

“Why does the way she says that,” Spoony commented as he dodged and countered a few more attacks, “sound really creepy?”

“I dunno,” Linkara replied sarcastically, alternating between shooting and hand-to-hand combat “Maybe because it is really creepy?”

Meanwhile, Chick and MarzGurl were across the room, dueling with Tegon. Naturally, the lizardlike man was mostly ignoring the Blue Ranger in favor of his usual opponent. Thankfully for MarzGurl, this gave her the advantage of being able to deliver more serious attacks to him than he was to either of them.

That wasn’t to say, however, that he was making it easier for either one of them.  Occasionally, there would be a momentary lull in the girls’ defenses, allowing him to counter with another swift strike.

“Do you mind,” Tegon shouted, pushing the Blue Ranger aside as he deflected another of her attacks, “I’m trying to settle a score with your pink friend, here.”

“What score?” Chick asked, “If you’re meaning that running count of the number of times I’ve kicked your ass? There’s really no need to be keeping count; you’re going to have to start calculating that in scientific notation, if this keeps up. What’s your deal, anyways?”

The lizard man only responded with another lunging attack, which was promptly side-stepped and countered by a strong kick in the gut by Chick.

However, Tegon was quick to recover, as he maneuvered snake-like around the Pink Ranger, grabbing her arm. The Blue Ranger was about to intercept, but she found herself being blocked as a figure clad in onyx armor materialized before her.

Without even breaking stride, the cartoon reviewer dived at the General, knocking him off his feet as she slammed into him.  Quickly, the two got back to their feet; Vanmir summoning his spear as MarzGurl twirled her axes in a threatening display that told her opponent that she was not going to hold back.

“I just realized,” the General said, as their weapons clashed with one another, “That I never introduced myself last time. The name’s General Vanmir. Vanmir the Deathbane. I’ve got other names, but I can’t tell you any of ‘em, yet.”

“It doesn’t matter if you called yourself ‘Princess Rainbow Fluffypants the Third,’” MarzGurl snarked between strikes, “After you kidnapped Sage, as far as I’m concerned you’re just another of Malachite’s monsters to me.”

Although his pace did not slow, nor did he relent in his attacks, MarzGurl almost sensed a subtle change within the helmeted villain. A sudden, restrained rigidness in his posture and movements suggested that perhaps her words had hit him far harder than she realized. And yet, his calm, measured breaths told her that he may have been trying to convince himself not to let it bother him.

“Don’t assume,” General Vanmir replied, as he hit her with a sweeping kick, “That you’ve even got me figured out for a second. I’m much more deceptive than you think.”

Before she could hit the ground, the Blue Ranger threw herself into a roll, just narrowly avoiding another attack as she countered him, knocking him to his knees

“Likewise, pal,” she said as she stood up again, “Don’t assume for a second that me, or any of the others, as stupid as you seem to think we are.”

Meanwhile, Critic barely seemed aware of anyone existing around him, besides Malachite. Like two vicious lions fighting over prey, The Red Ranger and Malachite charged at each other, their weapons clashing loudest amongst the other fights currently breaking out around them.

Critic’s vision tunneled, tinged with a hazy red as he brought down his sword upon the leather coat wearing sorcerer. With only a casual swipe of his staff, Malachite casually deflected the blow, knocking Critic across the room.

“Haven’t you figured it out yet,” Malachite asked, “That no matter what you do, it’s useless to fight? I can defeat you with my eyes closed.”

“With those shades,” Critic shot back as he lunged at the sorcerer again, “You’d kind of have to.”

“You dare to keep mocking me?!” Malachite hissed as he sidestepped past the Red Ranger’s blade.

“Why should I ‘dare’?,” Critic replied, ducking out of the way of a swipe from Malachite’s staff, “You’re already mocking yourself pretty well without my help.”

Without a word, the sorcerer stretched his hand out, flinging another blue fireball in Critic’s direction.  Thinking quickly, the reviewer planted his feet into the ground, holding his sword like a baseball bat as he hit the oncoming orb of magical flame. The smell of heat on metal filtered through his helmet, filling his nostrils with a sickening scent that made his eyes water. A searing heat, like that of a furnace, pounded against his body, accompanied by a force that threatened to rip his limbs from their sockets.

With a fierce grunt, Critic pushed forward, nearly dropping his sword as he batted the fireball back toward its caster. A shrieking hiss, like a screaming firework or a missile, filled his ears as the ball zoomed across the space before colliding with the sorcerer, sending him crashing on his back.

Blinking, Critic looked between his sword and the fallen wizard. Thankfully, he noted with a sigh of relief, while trails of smoke drifted lazily from the blade, the weapon itself was still mostly in tact, and relatively undamaged.

A frown overcame is face as he pressed the side of his helmet. Lines of red light shot from the spot, crawling across his helmet before fading, revealing Critic’s bearded and bespectacled face. His blue eyes sparked with a deadly lightning, and his brow furrowed as he approached his fallen enemy.

He wanted him to see his face before he destroyed him. He wanted him to see the rage and pain in his eyes. He wanted him to look at him and see the faces of those he had hurt and killed. More than that, he wanted him to look at him and see the face of those who were left alive to deal with the pain of these deaths—all of them angry and bitter and wishing revenge.

Most of all, The Red Ranger wanted Malachite to see his face.

The face of his enemy.

Yet, something stayed Critic’s hand, holding the sword just inches from the sorcerer’s form. As if under the thrall of some powerful spell, the reviewer’s body remained frozen, his fingertips trembling just slightly as they held tightly to his weapon.

For a moment, the Red Ranger was almost sure that the man he was looking at wasn’t the same sorcerer that he had fought against only moments ago. The sorcerer’s sunglasses had fallen off of his face, and now two flickering voids, like miniature black holes, stared at the Red Ranger.  And yet, that was not the soulless voids that caught his attention.

It was in the few moments in which the unholy void faded, revealing a pair of brown eyes staring back at him with a pleading, haunted expression. These were not the eyes of a centuries old sorcerer who had killed millions in the name of eradicating technology and conquering the world. These were not the eyes of the being that had kidnapped Critic’s friends, and killed his closest friend, and possibly destroyed his brother.

 These were the eyes of a man capable of feeling emotions other than seething anger and a vengeance colder than a winter’s rain.

Time seemed to slow to a halt as the two stared at each other. For a brief instant, a vision flashed through the reviewer’s mind, taking him back to the grey, shadowy forest from his nightmares. Standing before the edge of the forest was Malachite. Much like the before, this version of Malachite seemed more human, at least in appearance.

Again, the swirling shapeless beast that was the swirling vortex of darkness hovered before them, its tentacles whipping wildly, like blades of grass caught in the winds of an oncoming tornado.  The sorcerer seemed oblivious to it as he continued stared silently at Critic, slowly extending his hand toward the reviewer, as if beckoning him to take his hand.

Again, Critic wanted to speak, but found the words trapped within his mind.

What are you doing?! He wanted to ask, Why are we here? Where is here?

Roaring white noise filled Critic’s ears as the shifting vortex moved faster and more violently. Rapidly, the dancing tendrils stretched and twisted, slowly attempting to wrap around Malachite’s body.

Once more, pure panic shot through Critic’s veins, as he tried to move his feet, only to find that his movements were slow, as if his body were wading in quicksand while weighted down by concrete blocks.

Why aren’t you running? A small part of Critic wanted to ask Malachite, Are you blind or something? There’s a freaking huge-ass black blob hovering behind you, possibly trying to strangle you!

A calming but brilliant, blue-green aura began to glow around Malachite as the creature’s tendrils circled around him, growing brighter and stronger with each passing second.  Instinctively, Critic tried to shut his eyes against the blinding light; he found that confusion and terror had rendered his eyes just as paralyzed as his legs.

Before he realized it, the light struck him in the eyes, blinding him. Once the light faded, Critic found himself once more back in the abandoned warehouse with the others. It felt as if nothing had happened, as he suddenly awoke from this dream.  The sorcerer’s eyes no longer glimmered with the faint spark of humanity, but rather had become the two pupil-less inhuman voids of shadows

A displeased scowl returned to Malachite’s countenance as he hastily put his sunglasses back on, and stood up.  Around them, the sounds of battle began to die down as the Rangers and Malachite’s henchmen had regrouped, now lining up on either side of their respective leaders.

“M’Lord,” Tegon asked, “Are you alright?”

“I’m feeling a little drained,” Malachite replied, “But otherwise I’m fine. Perhaps it would be wise to retreat for now.”

The sorcerer’s minions, although skeptical, nodded in agreement.  Silently, a glowing aura surrounded Devafen’s claws as she tore open a portal in the thin air.

“You’re lucky that I let you live this time,” Malachite said over his shoulder as he turned toward the glowing portal, “Don’t expect to be quite as fortunate the next time that we meet.”

The Rangers did not move as the sorcerer and his minions crossed through portal, which immediately vanished in a dazzle of white-blue light, leaving the group alone in the darkened abandoned warehouse.

With a sigh of relief, the other four rangers dismissed their helmets and weapons. Although they felt safe enough to be unarmed and unmasked, the tension that hung in the air like an unpleasant scent, made them unable to lower their guard completely.

“So,” Chick said after a long silence, “Is anyone going to talk about how Critic almost had Malachite there for a second? Seriously, what stopped you?”

Critic sighed as he shook his head. What had stopped him, he wondered? Had that dream been yet another illusion that Malachite had created to distract him? Or was there something more to this that he couldn’t figure out?

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied, “Malachite’s right; we were lucky. However, he got lucky too. Next time I’m not going to let him walk away so easily.”
---------------------

Back at the base, hours had passed and nightfall had once more settled over the dimension. However, unlike the last time that the group had all gathered together, no heated tensions danced in the air like smoke from a fire.

As Critic walked down the busy streets of the holo-city an uneasy feeling swirled in the pit of his stomach.  But, for once, this feeling had little to do with Malachite, or the fate of the universe. No, for once this was a task that much more mundane, but all the more unpleasant for the reviewer. It was something that he hated doing, even if it was something he absolutely had to do.

He had to apologize.

Of course, apologies weren’t the main reason that he was walking along this street. Professor Celluloid had sent out a message gathering everyone together for some reason. But, he figured that since he and Spoony were inevitably going to be in the same place, one of them might as well bring up the elephant in the room.

That was to say that the gamer would be willing to talk to him after spending the last few hours waiting for Insano to stop scolding him about accidentally almost putting his son in danger.  Critic could almost still hear the echoes of the mad scientist’s shrieking rants echoing throughout the dimension.

Soon, he had found himself standing outside a small, octagonal building. The building kind of reminded him of a space-ship or futuristic building from one of those late-eighties children’s cartoons. He was almost sure that if he stepped inside, the entire building was going to fly off and whisk him away on adventure about learning shapes and the names of planets.

Alas, he sighed, as he stepped in, no such event happened. However, the scent of pizza hit his nostrils, making him forget all about his silly notion, as well as whatever worries had plagued his mind.

The first thing he noticed was that the inside of this building, while not only reflecting the vaguely ‘1990s perception of the future’ cheesiness with the neon-lights and back-lighting on the ceilings and walls, but also sort of vaguely resembled a clubhouse and an arcade.

The others were already there and scattered around the room. Doctor Tease’s voice carried throughout the room, laughing as she and Linkara were engaged in a discussion over science in comic books.  At another table, Celluloid was talking with Insano over pizza, the latter of the two occasionally shooting a dirty glance toward Spoony, who was currently across the room, engaged in a Dance Dance Revolution match against MarzGurl.

Even Nurse and the bots, who were currently listening to Chick talk about film editing techniques, had decided to take a break from their usual tasks.

Celluloid excused himself from Insano as he saw Critic enter, bounding over toward Critic like an excited puppy.

“Hey, Critic,” he said, grabbing Critic by the arm and leading him inside, “I was kind of worried you weren’t going to show up. Anyways, do you like the place? Doctor Tease, the bots and I have been constructing it for a little while now. We’d figure that, with all the stress that we’re always under, everyone could use a place to unwind.”

He waved toward a few of the doors, hidden away in the corners of the room.

“Of course,” the professor explained, “We connected it to the training rooms, as well as one of the extra holodecks that Burton and Pollo helped retool for recreational use.”

“Well, the place looks great,” Critic replied, biting back the urge to add ‘if Star Trek and Miami Vice were thrown in a blender’.

Actually, he had to admit that the place didn’t actually look too bad. They had put a lot of work into the place during such a relatively short amount of time that he couldn’t help but be slightly impressed. Besides, he thought to himself as Celluloid wandered back toward Insano to continue their conversation, after everything that had happened between their last few missions, they needed a place like this.

The last notes of the song had ended, as Critic reached them. The Blue Ranger grinned as the screen read out their scores, determining that she was the winner of that match.

“Oh c’mon,” Spoony whined, “I was just getting warmed up there. Next round I’d totally have beat you!”

“Yeah, yeah,” the purple-haired woman replied, “That’s what you said three rounds ago.”

“Hey, Marz,” Critic asked, tapping her on her shoulder, “You mind if I take the next round? I kind of need to talk to Spoony.”

MarzGurl nodded, giving an understanding look toward both her male colleagues. Both of them seemed as if they wanted to flee and hide in opposite corners of the room, but were only managing to keep themselves from doing so by sheer force of will.

“Sure,” she replied, stepping off the platform, “Besides, I figure that I better retire while I’m still undefeated. I think I’m gonna go get a drink or something. If you guys need me for anything, just ask.”

Once she had walked away, the two were left in awkward silence. With only a shrug, the two started the next round.  For a few seconds, they followed the arrows that flashed on the screen in silence, avoiding eye contact with one another.  Soon, however, the silence could not be maintained any longer, and Critic was the first to break it.

“So,” Critic said, his eyes still focused on the screen, “How’re you doing? I guess Insano’s punishment hasn’t caused you to grow a third eye and gills, yet.”

“I think he was getting some sick enjoyment out of using me as a guinea pig for his experiments,” Spoony replied, also still focused on the game, “Nurse is still pretty ticked at me as well, even though she denies it. And, I’m pretty sure Burton’s a bit miffed too, but more ‘cause I forgot to take him with me than anything else.”

Critic chuckled to himself as he once more went silent. Unlike the last time, this awkward silence didn’t last very long before the Red Ranger spoke again.  This time, his voice was quieter, with no hint of malice or sarcasm that typically gave tone to his voice.

“Listen,” He said, “I’m sorry that I kind of went nuclear on you—I was just stressed, you know? About this whole Malachite business and Rob and well, everything.”

The Yellow Ranger was quiet as he continued focus on following the steps on the screen. However, his steps had slowed, and his gaze lowered just slightly, as his mind recalled things that he’d wanted to forget.

“Dude,” he replied after a while, “You don’t have to apologize. I’m not exactly proud of myself, either. I really should have talked with you guys before just deciding to just abandon you like that.”

“You realize that that kind of freaked us out, right?” Critic said.

“I know,” Spoony said quietly.

“So,” Critic asked, “Now that things are kind of back to normal, are you planning on leaving again? I mean, don’t feel like you’re obligated to stick around ‘cause of us, y’know.”

Once more, the gamer said nothing as the two finished the last steps of the song. Now that the two were no longer distracted, they were able to meet each other’s eyes. This time, neither angry glares nor downcast reluctance existed in their expressions.


“Look,” Spoony said, his tone calmed and measured, “There’s still a lot about this whole mess and how I fit in this team that I don’t get—that’s probably not ever going to change, no matter where I go. But, you guys are my friends. Hell, you’re probably a bit more like family, sometimes. And I can’t just sit around and let you guys get hurt. So, I think I’m going to stick around for a while, and try to figure this stuff out I go along.”

“Well,” Critic said, playfully punching the gamer on the arm “I’m glad you’re staying. But, you’re still an idiot.”

“And you’re still a raging jackass,” Spoony winked, returning the punch with one of his own.

The two reviewers stared at each other for a moment, as if they were about to attack each other once more, before they started laughing. Nearby, MarzGurl had retuned. Her brow furrowed at the sight of the two men play-fighting with one another, exchanging witty insults with one another. However, her expression softened into a smile as she heard the warmth of laughter in their voices.

“Oh you two,” she sighed, grinning as she caught the both of them in a hug that seemed more like a playful headlock, “What are we going to do with you?  C’mon, you two—let’s go get some pizza.”

Laughing, she dragged them away to join the others.  For once, she couldn’t help but feel like this was more like the old times that they all had missed so much. Sure, there were still the threats of Malachite and his forces, and several of their co-workers were still missing, but right now none of it mattered.

Right now, all that mattered to them was that, for a moment, they were having fun just relaxing and talking. They knew that things would never be like they were before, and that this was the closest thing to their normal lives that they’d be able to know until this was over with.

That’s why, she thought to herself, she wanted to enjoy this moment as much as she possibly could.

Who knew when they’d be able to have a moment like this again?
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