DISCLAIMER: Nothing new here. The Power Rangers belong to Saban, the details of this story to me. I won't make any money doing this.
COMMENTS: My name appears above this story at Mele's insistence, under loud protests from me. All I did was make a few remarks, supply one or the other line of dialogue ... and I honestly don't feel that I contributed all that much. The idea, story and execution are all Mele's; I got to beta-read, comment and add a bit here and there. I'm honored that my dear friend felt strongly enough to put my name up there alongside hers. Thank you, Li'l Lady! *grin*
COMMENTS II: It was a lot more than a line or two of dialogue. Dagmar took the skeletal beginnings of a story and fleshed them out, making it far better than it otherwise had any hope of being. Her name belongs where it is. Thank YOU, Little Missy! **smile**
NOTES & TIMELINE: Early Morphin' era, Tommy is still the Green Ranger, pre-Green Candle.
What Price Duty?
With Dagmar Buse
Jason fought to hold on; his opponent was wiry, and much stronger than he expected. His grip almost slipped, but the Red Ranger was able to compensate and keep the upper hand in this struggle. It wouldn't be much longer, he realized with a resigned sigh. Just a few more minutes at most. Already the other's efforts to free himself had weakened, so much so they seemed barely more than muscle spasms.
The water reached almost to Jason's chest, and was brutally cold, but Jason's trembling was not entirely from the temperature. If there had been any other way, any other option, he would have taken it gladly. Killing was not something he had ever wanted to do, but the situation demanded it. He glanced over to the deck of the pool and focused his gaze for a moment on Tommy. The Green Ranger looked nearly as sick as Jason felt.
The earlier fracas had resulted in Jason being dunked several times, so a casual observer might not have been able to tell the moisture on his face was more from tears than from the water he was still standing in. He felt the muscles in the body he held relax completely, and knew the other was dead, but he had to be careful, so very careful. He continued to hold the still figure under the water.
Morbid curiosity finally moved him to look down, and his heart broke at the sight of the lifeless blue eyes staring up at him from below the water's quieting surface. Eyes that seemed to peer at him with a painful mixture of betrayed trust and confusion. The dark-haired teenager closed his own eyes and tilted his head back with an expression of pain and grief, a low moan of despair issuing forth. But despite his feelings, he continued to do what he knew he had to.
And as he held the motionless body of Billy Cranston under the water, he thought back to the circumstances that brought them there, and wondered if he'd just made a terrible mistake...
...The Youth Center was crowded that afternoon, at least partly due to a karate exhibit being put on by the Stone Canyon Gym. After the exhibit, some free training sessions were offered, and Jason, Tommy, Trini, and Zack were all looking forward to learning some new moves. So their disappointment was severe when the chiming of their communicators summoned them to the Command Center.
"What's happening, Zordon?" Jason asked, biting down his impatience. If they could dispatch the monster easily, perhaps they could still get back in time for the lessons.
"Rangers, observe the viewing globe. Rita has sent down the Putrid Piper, who can paralyze his victims by playing certain tones on his flute. Extreme caution should be used in dealing with this monster. Alpha is already programming a soundproof shield to protect you from the Piper, but it will be ineffective at a range of less than twenty feet."
"Man, that is one ugly-sounding monster. How are we supposed to defeat it if we can't get within twenty feet of it?" Zack asked as the other Rangers looked distastefully at the cavorting monster.
"You are only at risk if he is playing the flute. He must pause for breath periodically, and you can time your attacks for those intervals. You should try to focus your efforts on destroying the flute. Be careful, Rangers, and may the power protect you."
"Come on guys, it's morphin' time!" At Jason's prompt, the six teenagers called upon the ancient powers and morphed into their protective suits. Moments later they arrived near the Putrid Piper in a multicolored flash.
"Oh, look, some Power Rangers wish to attend my concert. Care to hear a lullaby?" The Piper began to play, but the shield Alpha had prepared worked perfectly, protecting them from the dangerous sound.
Angered, the Piper played harder, trying to break through the shielding, until finally he lowered his instrument, breathing heavily. Immediately Jason ordered an attack, which drove the Piper backwards a little, but didn't cause any damage. Their attempts to destroy the flute or get it away from the Piper were likewise unsuccessful.
"Watch it, guys, he's raising it again -- back off!" Jason called out, backpedaling rapidly. The rest of the team followed, reaching a safe distance just in time.
"Man, he's tough. The flute appears to be shielded; how are we going to get it away from him?" Tommy asked, frustration evident in his voice. The Green Ranger took all of Rita's attacks personally, more so than his teammates, because of what the evil witch had made him do while he was under her spell. This mockery of the method he used to call on his Zord angered him at a very deep, almost visceral level.
"Maybe if some of us distract him, while the others concentrate on the flute," Trini suggested.
"Good idea, Trini. You and Billy go after the flute, while the rest of us work on keeping his attention away from you. Looks like he should be ready for a breather, so get ready, guys."
As soon as the Piper began to lower the flute, they attacked. Jason, Kimberly, Zack and Tommy went after the Piper in a series of rapid attacks, sending the monster staggering. Billy and Trini approached from behind, unnoticed until they were very close. Trini was able to grab the flute, but the Piper whirled, throwing the Yellow Ranger into her companions who had retreated a little to regroup. She landed in a crumpled heap on the ground, momentarily stunned. Nevertheless, Billy tried to attack while the Piper was still off balance, but the monster was too fast, spinning away from the Blue Ranger and raising the flute to his face. Billy was the only Ranger close to the Piper, and as the first notes sounded he collapsed silently to the ground, demorphing.
"Oh, no! Billy! Jason, we have to do something," Kimberly cried, turning to their leader. Seeing that Trini was already getting back up, Jason made a snap decision.
"Come on, guys, we have to lure him away from Billy, but be careful! It won't help if any of the rest of us are hurt."
Taunting the monster, the Rangers were able to entice him away from their fallen teammate. However, they were still unable to find a way to damage or disable the Piper. They were growing desperate when Zordon's voice came over their communicators.
"Rangers! I believe we have found a solution. I am sending down the Harmonic Reverser, which will cause the damaging sound waves from the Piper to be bounced back at him. That should effectively destroy him. Stand by to receive the device."
Moments later they activated the device, and the Putrid Piper exploded in a surprisingly mild blast. Before they even reached his side, Billy was reviving.
"Whoa, easy there, Bro. You took a pretty good hit. Let's get you back to the Command Center and check you out," Jason said quietly, putting a mildly restraining hand on his friend's shoulder.
"What happened?" Billy asked groggily.
"You got a bit too close at the wrong time, man. Luckily it seems the effects are temporary," Zack explained, lending Jason a hand in helping the Blue Ranger to his feet when they saw their friend was determined to rise.
"However, we are going to give you a thorough exam as soon as we get you back to the Command Center," Kim told him sternly. "We have to be sure it didn't hurt you." Knowing how stubborn all of her male companions were about this, the petite girl braced herself to argue the necessity, but for once got a surprise.
"Okay," Billy shrugged, obviously still a bit addled.
Not about to look a gift Zord in the mouth, the Pink Ranger just shot her friend a slightly incredulous look and initiated the teleportation sequence. Once at the Command Center, Kimberly got Billy on the diagnostic table and began her scans. The other Rangers stood around restlessly until Kim turned to them in irritation.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, go back to the Youth Center, already. We will be along as soon as I'm finished here. If there's a problem I'll call. Okay?"
"Are you sure Kim? Do you mind, Billy?" Jason asked, feeling that as leader he should be there until it was determined if Billy was totally okay, but he had really been looking forward to the karate classes.
"We'll be fine, right Billy?" Kim said decisively, daring him to contradict.
"Sure," Billy mumbled, not seeming to care. He lay back and closed his eyes, letting the scans run.
"You'll let us know how he is the minute you find out, right?" Trini asked worriedly.
"Absolutely. Now go, you're in our way."
Somewhat reluctantly the four Rangers teleported out, leaving the Pink Ranger to do her work. Kimberly had always been interested in first aid, and when they became Rangers she had fallen naturally into the role of 'nurse'. She had spent hours training with Alpha, often along with Billy, who was more interested in how the various machines worked than in the actual medical aspects of the training.
When the triple beep indicated the completion of the various scans, Kimberly and Alpha fed the results to Zordon, then went over the data themselves.
"Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Kimberly asked their ancient mentor.
"If what you are seeing is nothing, then, yes, I concur."
"That's it. No sign of injury, no sign of any sort of spell, poison, or anything else. Looks like you got off very lucky, Billy," Kimberly said with a smile.
"So it would seem."
"Do you feel okay?" she asked.
"Sure. Except for a minor headache, I feel fine. Well, and I'm a little sleepy. But that would make sense, right?"
"Yes, Billy. The aftereffects of the Putrid Piper's attack would naturally include a degree of fatigue. It would be advisable for you to sleep for a couple of hours to counter the effect. If you wish, you can sleep here," Zordon offered.
"Thanks, but I think I'd be more comfortable at home. You'll tell the others I'm okay?" he asked Kimberly.
"Sure. You sure you're feeling alright, Billy?" Kim asked with a sharp look at her friend. That had been almost too easy.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Don't worry so much. A nap and I'll be good as new. And, really, I'm not that upset about missing the karate classes. Knowing how our four teammates are, we'd end up being there all day."
Kimberly couldn't resist a chuckle at that. "Good point. Okay, I'll tell them you're fine, and that you'll join us later for a smoothie?" she turned the last part into a question.
"Affirmative," the Blue Ranger yawned. He touched his communicator and teleported out in a beam of bright blue.
Kimberly looked over the printouts again to reassure herself that nothing had been overlooked, then teleported to the Youth Center to rejoin the other Rangers.
"You're sure he's okay, right?" Jason asked again, swirling his straw around in his smoothie in a nervous gesture.
"He's fine, Jason. All the scans were negative. He was a little tired, that's all. What would you expect? He was hit by a paralyzing beam, knocked senseless for a time by its effect. He should be fine with a little rest," Kim reiterated. She'd already explained Billy's condition twice before.
"You know, I do believe you're right about that," Zack said suddenly, looking at Kim with a smile.
"Thank you, Zack. It's nice to know someone has faith in my abilities."
"I do, Kim. Plus, I just happened to glance over there," he tilted his head, using his chin to point at the entrance to the Youth Center. Billy was walking toward the table, looking healthy and perfectly normal.
"Hey, Billy. Good to see you're okay," Zack grinned as the Blue Ranger pulled up a chair and sat down. The others seconded the sentiment with nods and soft murmurs of agreement.
"Thanks. It seems all I needed was a bit of sleep and I feel perfectly fine. How was the karate seminar?"
"Awesome, man. The guy has traveled throughout Asia, learning different disciplines, and he's combined them in ways I've never seen before," Tommy enthused, demonstrating the hand gestures energetically.
"He has found ways to combine the mental disciplines as well," Trini contributed, knowing that would interest Billy more than the physical aspects.
"What disciplines has he combined?" Billy asked, effectively launching a torrent of explanations from his teammates.
As the discussion grew ever more animated, Jason sat back a bit, studying Billy. Something was bothering him, but he couldn't figure out what. Billy seemed perfectly fine, nothing was the slightest bit abnormal in his behavior. The others all seemed not to notice anything amiss. But Jason couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong with his childhood friend, something so subtle that it defied analysis. As he watched his friends laugh and joke, he felt the fleeting, icy touch of terror in his heart, and wondered what could be causing it.
Jason awoke with a start, the dream clinging to his mind with the tenacity of a terrier. He sat up and turned on his bedside light, his breathing still a little ragged in the aftermath of his fear. In his dream, he and the other Rangers were once again fighting Putrid Piper, and again he saw Billy collapse from the Piper's sound. Only this time he saw something else, something none of the other Rangers seemed to notice. While they continued their fight against the Piper, a strange, faint gray mist seemed to settle over the fallen Blue Ranger. It hovered for only an instant, then simply melted into the prone form.
Jason was not particularly superstitious. He didn't believe in clairvoyance, ESP, or psychics. He had not actually believed in monsters until becoming a Power Ranger. Since that time he had encountered enough strange things to open his mind to more extraordinary options, but still there existed in the Red Ranger a core of pure, hardheaded realism. But despite that, he knew this dream was not an ordinary nightmare. There was too much detail, too much texture, to be simply a dream.
He sat on his bed undecided for a time, unsure as to what he could do to alleviate this sudden worry. Sighing, he finally rose, pulled on his clothes, and teleported to the Command Center.
"Jason! What are you doing here so late at night?" Alpha asked as he waddled up to the Rangers' leader.
"I don't really know, but I feel like I had to come here," Jason said uncertainly, looking up at Zordon.
"Why is that, Jason?" Zordon inquired.
"I had a dream. About the fight today. But in my dream, after Billy collapsed, a weird mist sort of thing kind of settled over him, and he seemed to absorb it. Weird dream, but when I saw that mist, I knew it was something bad. Is it possible that something like this really happened?" Jason could have kicked himself for not being able to express himself more clearly, but this was the best he could do. After all, it was more vague impressions than anything concrete he thought he'd seen.
"The sensors did not detect any other entities besides the Putrid Piper," Zordon pointed out.
"I know. But this dream ... it seemed so real. Can you scan Billy? See if something is there?"
Zordon considered Jason's request. He did not like scanning the Rangers unnecessarily, and Billy had been thoroughly scanned after the attack, but even after so short a time working with Jason, Zordon trusted the teen's intuition. He knew the Red Ranger would not ask unless he felt it was absolutely necessary.
"I can. Alpha, initiate a scan on the Blue Ranger. Make it a level five." A level five scan was the most comprehensive examination they could run.
"Right away, Zordon. Scanning now." Various multicolored lights blinked on the console in front of Alpha. A few minutes passed silently until Alpha spoke up again. "Scan complete. I'm feeding you the results now."
"Well?" Jason asked impatiently when Zordon was silent.
"There is nothing there, Jason. If indeed something entered the Blue Ranger, it is impervious to our scans. And that is highly unlikely."
"So, I guess it was just a bad dream, after all. Sorry to bother you with it," Jason said.
"You were right to come to us. If you have this dream again, or if you observe any sort of behavior change in Billy, please let us know at once."
"Will do, Zordon. I guess I better get back home, before my parents discover I'm not there. Good night." He teleported out in a scarlet flash.
Back in his bedroom, Jason realized that despite Zordon's reassurances, he was still uneasy. The feeling that something was wrong, that something more than they realized had happened that afternoon continued to plague him. It was a long time until he could fall asleep again.
"Zordon I'm going to go run a few diagnostics on the Zords, just to be sure all the systems are fully operational. If you need me, I'll be in the holding bay," Billy told his mentor the day after Putrid Piper's attack.
"How are you feeling today, Billy? Have you experienced any ill effects from yesterday's attack?" the ancient being asked, Jason's nocturnal visit still on his mind.
"Negative. I feel fine," the Blue Ranger insisted.
"Very well. Please feed your diagnostics results into the main computer so I can review the status of the Zords."
"Will do," Billy agreed, heading toward the doorway that would lead to the underground tunnel that connected the Zord holding bay to the Command Center.
Billy was perfectly content to spend considerable time among the giant machines, running diagnostics, checking connections, experimenting with possible modifications that would give them an edge in a fight. Since becoming a Power Ranger it was not unusual for the quiet teen to pass at least a couple of hours each day either working with Alpha and Zordon in the Command Center or alone in the Zord holding bay. He still enjoyed time with his friends, but time that before he would have whiled away in his garage lab he now spent at the Command Center.
Three hours later the Blue Ranger returned to the Command Center to discuss the results of the diagnostics with Zordon. All the Zords were functioning perfectly, but Billy had an idea to possibly increase the MegaZord's effectiveness. Each individual Zord possessed some special weaponry, which was not available while in Megazord form. He was considering some modifications that would make at least a few of those features available to the MegaZord.
"Your ideas merit additional investigation," Zordon said at last. "But for now I think it's time for you to spend some time with your friends. The modifications can wait." The voice was gentle, but still brooked no quarrel.
Billy sighed. He knew Zordon was right, he always felt better after spending time with his friends. He just hated not being able to follow up on his ideas immediately.
"Well, I guess I can start drafting some plans tomorrow," Billy conceded finally, preparing to teleport. He knew that if Zordon used that particular tone of voice, arguing would only be a waste of breath.
When the blue light had faded Zordon turned to his trusty 'droid. "Alpha, go to the Zord holding bay and plug into the onboard computer for each Zord. Check for any modifications that were made today. Feed the results to me as soon as you are finished.
"Right away, Zordon." The little robot hustled off, muttering to himself in a distracted way.
"Ay-yi-yi, I just hope Billy hasn't done something to damage them."
"Come on, you guys, we're going to be late!" Kimberly called out impatiently to her friends as she hurried up to the Angel Grove Twin Theater. The movie that was playing on Side B was setting attendance records all over the country, and Kimberly was anxious to see it. Her teammates followed her at a slightly more leisurely pace.
"Kim, they aren't going to start letting anyone in before 6:45 anyway, so why hurry?" Zack teased her.
"I know. But I want to get in first so we can get the best seats," the bubbly Pink Ranger explained.
The others all smiled, quite accustomed to Kimberly's energetic ways. The film was something they all wanted to see, so they didn't mind her overeagerness.
Jason laughed along with the others, but kept a close eye on Billy, as he had all day. The Blue Ranger's behavior was absolutely...normal. There was not a hint of unusual attitude, no glowing red eyes, no sudden mood swings. He hadn't even so much as sneezed.
And yet Jason was still convinced something was wrong.
Five hours later he was again at the Command Center. The dream had returned, with the same intensity as the night before. In addition, he'd felt a sense of dread, of some unnamed menace connected with his nightmare that left him cold and shaking. He paced between the consoles, frustrated and nearly convinced he'd lost his mind.
"Are you sure there's nothing?" he asked again.
"Jason, I even had Alpha go check over the Zords after Billy left earlier. There was no damage done, no sabotage. He's not evil."
"Maybe turning Billy evil isn't the purpose of this thing." He paused, deep in thought. No spells, no visible injuries, nothing. But there had to be ... something! Only they hadn't seen it, because they'd been busy fighting. Now if someone had only watched the fight ... his eyes fell on their mentor's plasma tube. Bingo! "Do you record our battles?"
"Yes. Alpha, bring up the recording of the battle against Putrid Piper and relay it to the viewing globe," Zordon requested, guessing Jason's intent.
Within minutes they were watching the fight, all of them concentrating on the Blue Ranger's actions. Jason couldn't help but wince as he watched his friend collapse from the Piper's attack, but he continued to watch Billy, ignoring the other action.
"Stop! There! Can you replay that bit?" he asked urgently. He was almost certain he'd seen ... what?
"Certainly. Just a minute, Jason. There," Alpha replied, backing up the tape.
"Stop it right there! Can you zoom in any? Just on Billy?"
"I'll try. He's not in the center of the picture, so I don't know how close I can get."
It took Alpha almost fifteen minutes, but he was eventually successful in getting a closer shot of Billy, who was lying motionless behind the Piper. The picture was grainy and not very clear, but that had been unavoidable.
"Can you guys see that?" Jason asked anxiously, indicating a barely discernable smudge of gray above the fallen Ranger.
"Jason, it could just be an optical illusion. Zooming in so close may have caused a distortion," Zordon cautioned.
"Or not. Zordon, let's just for a minute forget the fact that you haven't found any evidence. Is there something, anything, you know of that would fit the description we have so far?" The Red Ranger could barely suppress his excitement. He was certain they were on the verge of discovering the reason for his uneasiness.
"A gray mist, no change in the victim... I will have to check my sources, Jason. This could take a while."
"I need to know, Zordon. I won't be able to rest until I'm sure."
"I understand. I will see what I can find."
The plasma tube became opaque as Zordon went wherever it was that he checked his unknown sources, and Jason was left only with Alpha, restraining himself with a mighty effort from wearing a hole into the Command Center's flooring with his impatient pacing.
It took much less time than Zordon had expected. He reappeared in his tube, his visage grim.
"You found something?" Jason asked, torn between hope and fear when he saw his mentor's expression.
"Possibly. What we have observed could be caused by an amoebrasite. They are a form of sentient parasite, of unknown origin. It is illegal in all known galaxies to transport or possess one."
"Why? What is it?"
"An amoebrasite is absorbed into a host body, where it grows and begins to replicate itself, like an amoeba undergoing mitosis. The new amoebrasite is then expelled and will find a host body of its own. Both will then repeat the process, and this keeps continuing, infecting host bodies at an exponential rate. Since they are undetectable, they can infect a planet's entire population. Once that has happened, the amoebrasites form a group consciousness, which was programmed into the first one before it entered the host body. If Rita possessed one, it is possible she programmed it to destroy all humans. But, Jason, this is a long shot. There is still no concrete proof."
"I know, Zordon. Can they be scanned for?" It wasn't what the teen had wanted to hear, but at least now he had an enemy he could fight, not just unsubstantiated fears.
"No. We do not know of a scan that would detect one."
"Well, another mystery possibly solved. How can they be removed from the host body? And how long before it is ready to release its offspring? And you said it's sentient. So we can't let Billy know what's going on, right?"
"That is correct. If we attempt to inform Billy of the circumstances, the self-preservation programming of the amoebrasite would engage, possibly causing problems we are not ready or able to deal with. The period between splits is approximately two and a half Earth days," Zordon said slowly. Inwardly, he wondered about his team's leader. Jason was primarily a man of action, a fighter with excellent inborn instincts for tactics and strategy, but this crisis showed that he was also capable of following his intuition and reasoning his way through a problem. The ancient sage knew he had indeed chosen well when he selected Earth's first team.
"And to remove it from the host?" Jason prompted.
"The only way to get one to leave a host is for the host body to die."
Jason didn't look surprised at that announcement. Unhappy, but not surprised.
"I was afraid of that."
Marjorie Scott set the plate of bacon and eggs in front of her son, a little worried at his quiet, almost brooding mood.
"Jason, are you feeling okay?" she asked, laying a motherly hand over his cool brow.
"Sure, Mom. Just didn't sleep real well for some reason. Can I ask you something?" Jason tried hard to sound casual, not as sick at heart as he truly was over the thing he was afraid he'd have to do.
"Of course," she said, taking a seat across the table from Jason.
"I'm working on a report for school. And I was wondering...um...is there a way someone could be killed where they could be resuscitated and not have brain damage or other problems?" He needed that information if the plan that was beginning to form in his mind should have any chance to succeed at all, but the Rangers' prime researcher was out of the picture, so asking his mother who, as a trained nurse was likely to know about these things, seemed the next best choice without involving any of the others.
Marjorie raised her eyebrows in surprise. "That's some subject for a report. What class is this for?"
"Health. I just thought I'd try for an unusual subject. So, is there? So I know where to start my research, you know.." It had sounded so natural when he'd rehearsed his little spiel; now Jason feared his intentions were written in inch-high flaring letters on his forehead, there for all to see.
"Not really, Jason. There is no guarantee about the aftereffects when one is brought back from death. For every time it works perfectly, there are other times when a living corpse is all that is retrieved."
"I see." Jason sighed deeply. This was what he'd been afraid to hear.
"However, if you are determined to do the report on that subject, you should research drowning. There have been cases where a drowning victim has been successfully resuscitated after quite a long period of time with no permanent ill effects. Especially if the water was really cold," she told him. "The chill slows the body's processes, preventing or lessening the damage."
"Thanks, Mom," the teen said with a slight smile. He started eating his breakfast, his mind whirling with what he might have to do.
"But, really, Jason, you might consider a less morbid subject."
"Hey, Tommy. Where are the others?" Jason asked, entering the Youth Center and sitting down at the table where the Green Ranger was doing his math homework.
"Zack, Billy, and Trini are at the library doing research for their History Day projects. Kimberly is off with the Angelettes troupe she leads. Anything up, Bro?"
Jason sighed deeply. "Actually, yeah, there is. But we can't talk here. Let's go take a walk and I'll fill you in."
"Don't you want the rest of the team?" Tommy asked curiously.
"No. Just you for the time being. I don't think you're going to like what I tell you, either. But I need help, and you're elected. Come on," Jason rose and indicated the entrance. Tommy took in his friend's tense expression and wordlessly tucked his book and notes into his backpack.
The two of them had circled the park twice by the time Jason had told Tommy everything that he suspected, Zordon's information, and the options available to correct the problem.
"How about drugs to simulate death? Would those work?" Tommy inquired, trying hard to be as dispassionate about this as possible.
"Not good enough. The amoebrasite would be able to tell the host isn't really dead. It has to be real, Tommy. God help us, he really has to die." Jason's voice broke over the last statement. He swallowed hard to bring it back under control.
"Jason, can you do this? Are you sure you can do this? Absolutely sure it's even necessary?" The Green Ranger had paled at the thought of actually killing someone. Someone they knew, at that. Sure, they'd destroyed their share of monsters, had done it well and efficiently, but somehow this was ... different.
"Tommy, do you honestly think I'd even be considering it unless I was positive? I know the actual evidence is shaky at best, but dammit, I know that's what's wrong. And Zordon himself said there was not other recourse available if an amoebrasite is involved." Anguish made Jason's voice seem even deeper.
"And Billy can't be told?" Tommy was grasping at straws, and knew it.
"No. If the amoebrasite realizes we are aware of it, it could change hosts, or use its current host to remove the threat. Apparently it has a real powerful self-preservation program. That's also why I don't want the other Rangers to know. If it goes bad, the fewer involved the better. I wouldn't have involved you if I didn't need your help so badly." The dark eyes pleaded for understanding, and ... absolution? There was only one possible answer.
Tommy rested a comforting hand on the Red Ranger's shoulder. "I'd be mad if you didn't tell me, Jase. Is Zordon getting things ready?"
"Yeah. He'll call us to the Command Center when everything's done. He'll use the word 'imperative' in the message to alert us that it's not a usual attack situation. Then we'll put the plan into action. The others will be able to see what happens, but not interfere. Frankly, we're going to need them to resuscitate Billy after we're finished. I doubt I'll be much use." Jason's expression was a combination of determination and stark fear.
"It's going to be okay, Jason. It has to be," Tommy soothed. Privately, the tall boy had his doubts, but this was neither the place nor the time to voice them.
"And you know the risk? You accept what may happen if we fail?" Jason asked, fixing Tommy with an intent stare. While he was ready to commit himself, knowing what he was about to do, he couldn't - wouldn't - drag anyone else into this who wasn't aware of all possible repercussions.
"Yeah. I'm willing to take that risk, Jason. To save Billy, and to save the planet. Both are important enough to risk a lot for."
"You're risking your life, Tommy." He needed to make sure Tommy understood exactly what he was letting himself in for. The Green Ranger did not disappoint him, however.
"He'd do the same for me, wouldn't he?"
"Yeah, he would." Before Jason could say more, his communicator chimed.
"Rangers, please report to the Command Center. While there is no attack presently, it is imperative that you get here as quickly as possible."
Jason's midnight dark eyes met Tommy's lighter ones grimly.
"Rangers, I have discerned increased activity around the Lunar Palace. If we can predict Rita's next move, we can counter it more successfully. I have set up some additional tracking apparatus in Lab 8 and would appreciate it if you'd go take a look at Alpha's work, Billy. Jason, you and Tommy should also know how to work this equipment, so you will go with the Blue Ranger. The rest of you will be working here in the main chamber."
The teens didn't question their mentor, but went about their assigned tasks quietly. Billy, more familiar with the layout of the Command Center complex than any of the other Rangers, led the way to Lab 8.
"I wonder why he would set it up in this lab? It's about the most isolated one we have," Billy muttered quietly as they approached the door. He didn't see Jason and Tommy exchange grim expressions.
"What the heck did Alpha think he was doing?" Billy gasped, stepping back from almost falling into the pool that dominated the room. "Zordon must have sent us to the wrong room."
"We're here, Zordon. Initiate," Jason said softly into his communicator. Billy turned to him with an openly puzzled expression that turned to outright shock when his friend grabbed him and jumped with him into the frigid pool. His struggle against the Red Ranger's far superior strength was fierce, but ultimately unsuccessful...
"How long has it been?" Jason asked tersely. He'd wrenched his attention away from this childhood friend's eyes by sheer force of will. He could not waver now. This was too important, for all of them.
"About ten minutes, Jase. Did Zordon have any idea how long it could take?"
"He wasn't sure. It could be ten or fifteen minutes, or an hour. It's all speculation. The only ones who have witnessed the amoebrasite leaving have been hosts, and of course, they were dead at the time. If it goes too long it's a moot point, anyway." Jason was trying hard to maintain his almost clinical detachment. It was the only way his mind could cope with the enormity of what he was doing.
"That suit doing its job?"
"Yeah. I'm okay," he said dismissively. Underneath Jason's clothing he was wearing a thermal waterproof suit Zordon had provided to protect him from the cold water.
"Hang in there, Jason. It'll be okay." Tommy realized the words sounded trite and feeble, but he couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Just be ready. We will only have one chance at this."
The two fell silent, both lost in their own thoughts as the precious moments ticked by. Throughout it all, Jason's steely hold on Billy never once wavered.
"Zordon! You have to stop this!" Kimberly cried out angrily. "What the hell is Jason doing?" She and Trini and Zack were watching Jason struggle with Billy in the icy water as Tommy looked on from the edge. Surprise and shock had very quickly given way to anger and outrage, and the three remaining Rangers were hard put not to run after their friends, to try and stop what was happening before their very eyes.
"Rangers, compose yourselves and I will explain."
"Explain what? Why Jason is committing murder and you are just letting it happen?" Kimberly's voice was strident with her pain and fury.
"No!" Trini's soft gasp brought Kimberly's attention back to the Viewing Globe.
They could see that Billy had finally ceased to struggle, but despite that, Jason still held the other teen below the water's surface while Tommy continued to watch with seeming impassivity.
Tears shimmered in Kimberly's large eyes as she turned again to their mentor.
"You can explain this?" she asked with a sob. "What's wrong with Jason and Tommy? Why are they doing this to Billy? What has he done that they are killing him?" Another thought wouldn't stay silent. "They're going to hate themselves for doing this."
"There is nothing wrong with the Red or Green Rangers. Please, I must insist you compose yourselves and I will explain what has transpired," Zordon patiently repeated. It wasn't easy for the ancient sage to watch his charges, either, although he knew better than all of them why it was necessary to be this ruthless. Silently, his estimation of Jason and Tommy rose another notch. Both were excellent leaders, capable of doing what needed to be done without flinching. No matter the cost to themselves, they could and would put the Greater Good over personal considerations. While they were doing their duty to the Earth, however, their comrades in arms needed his immediate attention.
The teens managed to calm themselves, though none of them could take their eyes off the scene in the Viewing Globe where Jason continued to hold Billy's body under water while Tommy watched. It held an almost morbid fascination for them, as if they were watching TV. And yet they knew it was all horribly real.
In a tone of voice intended to soothe, Zordon explained about Jason's dreams, the possible interpretation of them, the potential danger to Earth, and the only recourse they had found.
"What if he's wrong, Zordon? What then? How will we know if it was really there and simply waited out Billy's death, or if it was never there at all?" Trini wanted to know. She'd always felt nearly as protective of Billy as Jason did, ever since the slight boy had helped her cross Harper's Gorge all those years ago, talking her across the chasm. It was because of that memory, mostly, that she'd been able to conquer her fear of heights soon after they'd become Rangers.
"Lab 8 is currently sealed, using a method that has been proven capable of containing an amoebrasite. If it has not left Billy's body after 35 minutes, Jason and Tommy will attempt resuscitation, but none of them will be allowed to leave the room. They will be constantly monitored for at least a week. At the end of that time, if no sign of an amoebrasite is seen, they will be released. Remember, Rangers, it reproduces every two to three days. If after seven days we have not seen a new amoebrasite seek out either Jason or Tommy, I believe it is safe to assume there never was one."
"They'll attempt resuscitation? After thirty-five minutes? Zordon, even if they revive him, he'll be a vegetable," Zack pointed out. The girls flinched at the Black Ranger's blunt but accurate assessment.
"The water is very cold, just above freezing. It should prevent serious brain damage for a considerable period of time. It is possible that they could go longer, but the chance of permanent damage is much higher."
Kimberly scoffed. "Like it isn't high now? This is crazy. You don't even know if the darn thing is in him. And what if it is? What if it doesn't leave Billy, and they revive him, then the darn baby thingie emerges to infect Tommy or Jason? What's the grand plan then?" Her voice rose with every question, until the petite girl was close to screaming hysterically.
"If that happens we will flood the lab with poison gas." Zordon's voice was starkly matter of fact and quelled all other protest the three bystanders could have made.
"Under no circumstances will we allow the amoebrasite to escape."
"How long now?" Jason gritted out, fighting to get the words past his chattering teeth. He was cold from the inside out, not only from the water's biting temperature.
"Twenty eight minutes." Tommy's voice was soft, but the despair was still evident.
Jason's gaze settled on the equipment sitting in the corner of the room. He knew how to use it, what needed to be done to bring Billy back, if indeed it could be done. They had all trained on that apparatus intensely after becoming Rangers. Though Kimberly was the most trained in the medical aspect of their Rangerhood, all had been trained on some things. That equipment was one of them. And they were going to need it right away if his desperate plan should have any chance at all at succeeding. If Billy was to make it, they'd need to get him on life support, clearing his lungs, warm him up gradually ... oxygen ... massages to get his circulation going again ...
Lost in his thoughts, he almost didn't notice the sudden movement under his hands.
"Tommy!" he hissed. "Something's happening. Get ready!"
The Green Ranger raised his weapon to a ready position. The gun-like device would shoot an energy beam that Alpha had programmed into it. According to Zordon's information it was the only thing that could destroy an amoebrasite. Even though his heart was beating a mile a minute, Tommy's hands were steady.
It happened very quickly. The water around Jason suddenly churned and bubbled, then a diaphanous gray mist floated quickly toward the ceiling, looking for an escape. Tommy aimed and fired, the beam hitting it nearly dead center. It writhed wildly for a moment, then seemed to dissipate, losing all cohesion.
The two teens shared a brief glance of pure amazement, then Jason grabbed Billy's unresponsive body, and heaved him out of the frigid pool with almost superhuman strength.
"Get started, Tommy! Zordon! We need help here!" he shouted as he hoisted himself out of the water. Red and Green Rangers strapped their friend to the med couch, placing electrodes to vital points, wheeling, dragging and pushing equipment into place.
Moments later the other Rangers burst in the room, brushing past Jason and taking over for Tommy, who went to Jason's side and draped a blanket over the broad shoulders. Both teens stepped out of the way of the rest of the team, neither of whom spared them a single glance. The boys shared an anguished look, but kept silent. Kimberly took on the attitude of the world's smallest general, snapping directions to Trini and Zack. Billy was lying motionless on the heating blanket, his light eyes open and sightless, his skin a pallid, faintly bluish color, his lips and fingers almost purple.
With a steely determination her 'civilian' friends would not have suspected she possessed, Kimberly inserted needles in Billy's right arm and left thigh, turning on the machine behind her to start warming his blood. The heart monitor showed a motionless, flat line, and the temperature gauge was outrageously low. Kimberly set up an IV drip, efficiently injecting adrenalin, as well as vitamins C and E, into it in preparation for Billy's resuscitation. Then she sat back to watch her patient.
"Come on, Billy, fight back. Come on," Kimberly called urgently, her warm hands briefly cradling his icy face around the oxygen mask. "We need you, Billy. Fight this, come back to those who love you." Her voice nearly choked with tears, but she determinedly fought them back. This was not the time to lose control, not while Billy still needed her.
"Nothing's happening, Kimberly," Zack pointed out anxiously after a few minutes.
"It takes time, Zack. We can't rush this. Once his body temperature rises enough the adrenalin should kick in, and hopefully stimulate his heart. But if we try to rush things it will be a disaster." The Pink Ranger tried to inject more confidence than she felt into her words.
"Look. Something's happening," Trini said a few minutes later with quiet urgency. The temperature gauge was at eighty-one degrees when a first sign of motion showed on the heart monitor.
Across the room Jason sat with Tommy crouched at his side. The Ranger leader was intently focused on his motionless friend, shutting out all else, even the supporting hand on his arm.
"Please, oh please, come back. Come back," he kept whispering like a mantra.
"Come on Billy, that's it! Come on," Kimberly repeated more urgently. The line flattened again, then more spikes appeared, higher than before.
Suddenly Billy's chest heaved convulsively, a groaning intake of air that was expelled in an explosive coughing fit. Kimberly quickly removed the mask and, with Trini's help, rolled the Blue Ranger on his side so he wouldn't choke. After a brief struggle he took a second heaving breath and coughed out more water with a painful, choking sound. But within a couple of minutes he quit coughing and his breathing settled down into a rough rhythm. It was unconsciously echoed by Jason, who felt a tiny fraction of his anxiety lift. At least he hadn't killed his friend!
"It's working, Kim," Zack said with suppressed excitement. "You did it!"
"We aren't home free yet, Zack. We need to keep warming his blood, but we should get him to the Med Room. Let's get him on the gurney; you guys can wheel the equipment out. It's just not warm enough in here for my peace of mind." Her words were cautious, but the teens could all hear the hope trying to get through.
Working under Kimberly's supervision they efficiently wheeled Billy and the machinery to the Med Room, where Kim continued the treatment with Alpha's capable help.
Before they were ushered out of the Med Room Jason stepped closer, looking intently at Billy. The Blue Ranger's eyes were glazed, and the pupils were still dilated.
"Is he going to be okay?" Jason asked anxiously, his gaze never leaving his friend. He was feeling curiously detached, as if he were standing beside himself. He knew his reaction would come soon, and be a strong one, but all that mattered right now was Billy.
Likewise, Kimberly remained focused on the task at hand, speaking curtly. "It will be a while before we know for sure."
Jason flinched a bit at her tone, his heart sinking. Having realized what he had to do, he'd gone through with his duty for the benefit of Humanity, nothing more or less. He fully expected he was going to have problems with Billy, but he had hoped his other teammates would understand.
It was beginning to look like he was wrong.
Kimberly re-entered the main chamber from the Med Room with a grim look. Jason, freshly showered, wearing sweats and wrapped in a blanket, looked at her hopefully. Getting warm again had helped him to regain at least a little perspective, but that didn't mean he was taking any of this lightly. Time to face the music.
"How is he?" he asked as calmly as he could, meeting Kimberly's angry gaze directly. He knew they'd have to work this problem with his friends out as soon as possible.
"Not good. Jason, how could you? And you didn't even tell us," she said angrily, not bothering to hide her fury and resentment.
"I had to, Kim. Guys, there was really no choice. Didn't Zordon tell you?" Jason unsuccessfully tried to hide the quiet despair and self-disgust in his voice.
"Yeah, he did," Zack agreed, looking more uncomfortable than angry.
"This thing, it would have known if we hadn't been so secretive. And there really wasn't time for everyone to know ahead of time. I'm sorry. Believe me, if there'd been any other way I would have taken it," Jason told them miserably.
Kimberly looked at the Red Ranger's woebegone expression and relented. "Jason, I know. We know you did what you had to. I was just worried. Am worried," she amended.
"It's that bad?" Jason's eyes were suspiciously moist.
"The scans don't show any brain damage, but he's still pretty out of it. I'll feel better when he's fully conscious and alert and I can ask him some questions." She held up a hand, forestalling Jason's question. "That should be in an hour or two, I hope."
"Kim, Zack, Trini, I'm sorry this played out the way it did. I wish we could have found another way to handle it, but there wasn't time," Jason started, sighing. He looked, and felt, perfectly awful. Between the emotional and physical aspects of the day's events, and two nights of interrupted sleep, he was as wiped out as he could ever remember being. He slumped suddenly against the console behind him.
"Come on, Jason, I think you need some rest," Kimberly said gently, urging him to stand up straight. "There's an extra bed in the Med Room with your name on it." She was still not fully over her anger at him, Tommy, Zordon, everything really, but it was clear that Jason was in no condition to defend himself verbally or emotionally. It would take a person with less compassion than her to berate him right now for what he'd done. The time for rebukes and detailed explanations would come later. Much later.
Jason stood up and Kim took the chance to hug him warmly. "I'm sorry, Jason, I know this has been hard for you," she murmured against his broad chest. Suddenly the other four Rangers had added themselves to the embrace, letting their leader know they understood and supported him. While the burly boy accepted the hugs and soft words, they didn't really console him. They were all well aware that there was one member of the team who would probably not forgive him quite so readily.
If he ever forgave him at all.
Zack couldn't sit still, pacing from one end of the Med Room to the other restlessly. Jason slept the sleep of the utterly exhausted on the small cot by the wall, while Billy was still unconscious on the diagnostic bed. He glanced at the monitors again, sure this time there'd be something different, but there was no change. Billy had come back part way, but was still hovering at the edge between life and death. Kimberly and Zordon both insisted he would be fine, but Zack was not that easily deceived. His eyes told him all he needed to know, that the Blue Ranger was stuck in a sort of limbo, not dead, but not quite alive, either.
He paused by the bed and gently reached out to stroke his friend's head. Kim had said they needed to keep reminding Billy that they were there, and to urge him to fight back. Zack didn't speak much, but he touched Billy frequently. As he continued to smooth down Billy's hair, Zack's gaze wandered to the cot and took in Jason's sleeping profile. These two had been Zack's closest friends for years, they'd spent countless hours together. Even as they had left childhood behind, and begun to cultivate different interests, the core of their friendship remained strong as ever.
Zack might have lacked Billy's book intelligence, but he understood people better than most of his friends suspected. While he comprehended intellectually why Jason had done what he did, and that what he'd done was one of the bravest acts Zack could imagine, he still found it hard to accept that the friend he'd known for so long could kill someone. Kill consciously, deliberately and efficiently. He wondered if he could have done so, if he could have taken a friend who trusted him and ended that friend's life, even knowing it was possible that they could be brought back again. That took a sort of strength Zack wasn't sure he possessed. Or even wanted to possess.
He also understood that Billy was going to be upset. Very, very upset. He knew it took a lot to really get their quiet friend to express his emotions, but he suspected killing him would do the trick. He wished he could think of a way to diffuse the situation, even halfway hoping Billy would suffer some mild brain damage that would at least erase the memory of what Jason had done...
The Black Ranger shook his head sharply. "No way do I want that, Billy. You gotta come back whole and well, and we'll find a way for you guys to deal with the memories," he murmured gently. He turned at a sound behind him and found Jason standing there quietly.
"Didn't mean to wake you," Zack said easily, his hand still resting on Billy's head.
"I can't sleep. Is he any better?"
"Not yet. But Kimberly's hopeful. Come on, Jase, even if you can't sleep you should be lying down. You're looking a 'mite peaked' as they used to say on all the westerns," he joked as he eased Jason back toward his cot.
"He's gotta get better, Zack. If he dies.." The despair in the low voice and shadowed dark eyes told the Black Ranger clearly that if Billy died or didn't fully recover, the team would not lose one Ranger, but two. They couldn't allow that to happen.
Zack held up his hand with a sharp gesture.
"He isn't going to die. Now stop talking nonsense and lie back down before I call Kimberly in here to make you," he threatened, not entirely joking.
Jason relented, however reluctantly and lay back down on the cot. Zack went over and hunkered down so he was more eye-to-eye with his friend. He just had to make his old friend see ...
"Jason. You did what you had to do. You saved the planet from being infested with the amoebrasites, which would have destroyed it. You even managed to keep Billy alive, or make it so he could be brought back to life. You did everything right. Billy will understand that. Maybe not right away, you know how thick he can be at times, but he'll understand that. But he's been through a lot too, and you can't just rush up to him as soon as he regains consciousness and start talking about what happened. Okay?" Zack spoke as one who had been close friends with both boys involved for years, drawing on his intimate knowledge of their respective characters.
"He's going to hate me, Zack."
"Well, maybe for a little while he will. But I've never known Billy to really hold a grudge. He'll get over it. Now rest, or you'll be facing the wrath of the Pink Ranger." He let his natural optimism color his voice, trying to cheer his old friend up.
Jason chuckled quietly and closed his eyes obediently. He appreciated Zack's attempt at reassuring him, but he didn't believe for a moment that Billy would be able to forgive him. He resolutely told himself that if the cost was Billy's friendship, then he could bear that, as long as the planet, and Billy, were safe. Nothing else really mattered; or so he kept telling himself.
If only he believed it.
"Who's the principal of Angel Grove High School?" Kimberly asked in an offhand way as she bustled about the diagnostic bed Billy was still lying on.
"And the mayor of Angel Grove?"
"Okay, so you could pass a current events quiz. How're you feeling?"
"Okay, I guess. Tired." The blue eyes looking up at her were filled with a pain that wasn't physical in nature.
"I bet you are. You can rest in a while, if you want, but I want to finish running these tests first," Kimberly replied maneuvering another piece of equipment over to the bed.
Billy sighed and closed his eyes again, trying to ignore the equipment, his teammate, the entire situation. But as soon as his eyes closed, the memories came back with a vengeance. Unbidden, his mind brought back the memory of Jason's implacable expression as seen through the distortion of the water, the feel of the steely grip on his shoulders holding him down. Billy shuddered involuntarily, drawing Kim's attention.
"What's wrong, Billy?" she asked gently. The young girl had a good idea of what was going through her friend's mind; having undergone therapy herself in the wake of her parents' divorce, she'd gotten a pretty intense grounding in the workings of the Human mind. If only it was enough to help both boys!
"Why? Why did Jason do that? Why?" Billy's voice was a hoarse whisper as his tear-filled eyes met her concerned ones.
Forgotten was the test she was planning to run. The need in her friend's expression was more important than any medical procedure, and she stepped to his side without hesitation, sitting down on the edge of the bed and taking one cold hand in both her warm ones.
"Jason did what he did to save you. To save the world, even. Do you feel strong enough to go to the main chamber? Zordon can explain everything better than I can." At Billy's hesitant nod she helped him from the bed and provided support as they went to the main chamber, where Zack and Trini were working on a console without much enthusiasm. Jason had left some time ago, with Tommy.
"Hey, look who's walkin'," Zack grinned at his teammate.
Trini ignored Zack's comment and hurried forward to give Billy a hug. It was as much for her benefit as for the Blue Ranger's. She noticed his troubled expression and looked questioningly at Kimberly.
"He's doing fine, physically," Kim said in answer to the unspoken question. "But I think Zordon is the best choice to explain what happened."
Zordon looked down at his young charges solemnly, far more worried than he wanted them to know. He hadn't liked what he saw in the Red Ranger's expression and behavior earlier, nor did the Blue Ranger's attitude encourage him. Throughout time he had always chosen young men and women to be his Rangers. Individuals on the cusp of adulthood, but still having the delightful exuberance and sheer lack of regard for their mortality that only children possessed.
This was not the first time he had had a team face the death of a teammate, though this situation was horribly unique. Never before had one of his Rangers been forced to kill another Ranger in a deliberate, planned fashion as Jason had, and he was uncertain if they could recover enough to still serve as Power Rangers.
Slowly, and watching Billy's reactions carefully, Zordon explained the circumstances that had led to the events that had transpired in Lab 8, occasionally showing them scenes in the viewing globe to substantiate his narrative. When it got to the point of Jason drowning Billy he skipped over the actual drowning, showing only the emergence of the amoebrasite and Tommy's destruction of it.
Billy listened and watched quietly, his expression closed and still.
"Do you have any questions?" Zordon asked at last. Billy's naturally inquisitive mind would surely be able to follow Jason's reasoning, wouldn't it? Or want to know more about the evil entity that had possessed him? Billy indeed had a question; however, it was not what Zordon expected.
"May I go home now?" was the quiet request.
"It would not be advisable for you to be alone at this time, Billy," Zordon replied.
"I want to go home," Billy's tone was still soft, but there was a note of desperation underlying it.
Hearing this, Trini turned to Zordon anxiously. "There's really no reason he has to stay here, is there? I could go with him," she volunteered.
"No, I don't want company, Trini. Thank you anyway, but I just want to sleep in my own bed for a while. Please, I'm not going to do something stupid, I just don't want to stay here."
Zordon realized he could force Billy to remain there, but he instinctively knew that would do far more harm than good.
"You may go home, Billy, as long as you promise to come back here if you experience any physical difficulties from this."
"I promise. And I promise to call you guys if I need to talk, okay?" he asked his teammates. He needed to get out of here, away from everybody, NOW!
"We'll hold you to that," Kim said, relenting. They all knew, from long experience, that Billy could not be forced into talking about his feelings. He was by far the most difficult among them in that regard. In his own quiet way, the teen genius could be as stubborn and relentless as Jason. But this was hardly the time to remind Billy of that.
"Fair enough. I'll see you later." In a streak of royal blue Billy left the Command Center.
"Why do I get the feeling the worst is yet to come?" Zack asked rhetorically.
Jason ducked Tommy's kick, whirling to sweep the Green Ranger's feet out from under him. Tommy managed to roll and come up in a ready stance, much to Jason's approval.
"Not bad, Tommy. Good move." Though the words were sincere enough, Tommy could sense Jason's heart really wasn't in it.
"Let's take a break, Jase," the taller teen said, indicating the old couch in Jason's den. Tommy had suggested they spar to give Jason something to do to take his mind off Billy. They'd received the call from Kim a while ago saying Billy was conscious and there was no sign of brain damage, at which news Jason visibly relaxed. But the sparring wasn't doing the job, and Tommy decided a direct approach would be best.
"Talk to me, Bro." When nothing was forthcoming, the Green Ranger got directly to the point. "Sounds like Billy's going to be okay. You were right all along; he was infected. You saved him, you saved everyone."
"And at what cost? I killed him, Tommy. I cold-bloodedly killed him. I planned it, and I prepared for it, and I did it, all very deliberately. You know, it's one thing to think, or even know you can kill in the heat of battle, but it's something else again to realize you can do it in such a cold, calculated way. That's something I'd really rather have not known about myself." He turned his tormented gaze to his friend.
Tommy almost flinched at the pain he saw in Jason's eyes. "Jase, you did what you had to do. It took incredible courage and character to do what you did." There was no reaction. Tommy cast about in his mind for something, anything to say that would ease his friend's troubled consciousness, but nothing presented itself. At last, he decided to offer his own distress. "I know this is going to sound weird, but I'm kinda glad you asked me and not Zack to be there with you. I just wish I could have done more to help you," he said the last almost inaudibly.
"No, Tommy. The one thing I can take some comfort in is that no one else is having to go through this. As it is, I regret getting you as involved as I did. I wouldn't have done that if I hadn't been so desperate. I don't want anybody else to have to experience this."
"I already did, once. After you released me from Rita's spell, and I remembered all the things I'd done. It's not exactly the same thing, but I do understand what you're feeling, Jason. And I know what you mean. It's a horrible way to feel." Tommy's voice was pensive; his thoughts wandering back to how he'd felt once the veil of Rita's evil spell had been lifted. And to what had helped him through that painful time.
"Just know this, Jason. You're not alone. I'll be here for you; the others will be here for you. You don't have to face this by yourself."
At that, Jason looked up at his friend with small, grateful smile. "Thanks, Tommy. That helps, more than you realize."
Tommy laid a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder and offered up a silent prayer to whatever deities watched over teenage warriors, asking for the strength and knowledge to comfort his friends in their time of need.
As they had been able to comfort him.
*Jason killed me.*
The thought kept winding its way through Billy's exhausted mind. Jason had actually killed him. It wasn't a mistake, wasn't a bad dream, wasn't an evil plot of Rita's. Jason had carefully planned his death, and had carried it out with a single-minded determination. He understood that Jason had a good reason for doing it. An excellent reason. But the fact remained.
Jason had killed him.
In his short sixteen years of life, Billy had been hurt, betrayed, and abandoned by numerous people. He had little reason to trust anyone, and far too many reasons to be suspicious. So the people he gave his trust to had to be extraordinary indeed. As Jason had always been. Now Jason had betrayed him in a manner he found to be nearly impossible to believe. He'd killed him.
Jason had actually killed him.
If Billy had been of a more self-analytical mindset, he would have realized the feelings he had were familiar to him. He'd felt the same way eight years before when his mother had died in a car accident. As if the entire fabric of his universe had been rent, leaving his emotions in tatters. One of the things he'd come to depend on had been taken from him, and a painful void was all that was left. The little boy he'd been cried out in remembered pain at this betrayal from a friend he'd believed would never hurt him.
Who instead, from the day they'd first met, had done his utmost to protect him from getting hurt - stepping between him and bullies at school, teaching him about self-defense, bolstering his self-confidence until he'd learned to stand up for himself, lent a hand, an ear or a shoulder whenever he needed either or all ....this 'friend' had, in one calculated action, destroyed a trust he'd thought unshakeable. The Jason he'd thought he'd known for half his life would never have done such a thing.
Let alone kill him.
Trapped in these painful thoughts, Billy almost didn't hear the knock on the front door. Sighing, he rose unsteadily from his bed and made his slow way downstairs.
"Zack, I'm not in the mood for company," he explained wearily as he opened the door to his friend.
"And I don't think you should be alone right now," Zack said simply as he pushed past Billy and into the quiet house.
Billy sighed again and closed the door. "What do you want, Zack? I really do need to sleep some."
"I want you to talk to Jason, man. Make peace with him. You saw what went down, you know he had to do that. You two, you've been friends forever, it seems like. We've been friends forever. Remember all the things we did together? All the years we've been friends? The fort we built in Jason's den? The rockets? The time we darn near blew up your garage? Come on, man, don't let Rita win. Don't let your friendship with Jason be the victim of her stupid plan. Come on with me, and let's find Jason and work this out. Whaddya say?" Zack fixed Billy with his most persuasive expression.
"Zack..." Billy started with obvious reluctance.
"Come on, man. Just hear him out."
Billy had the distinct impression that Zack could, and possibly would, keep this up all day unless he gave in to the Black Ranger's suggestion. Simply too tired to fight, Billy nodded his acquiescence and followed Zack out the front door.
Jason and Tommy had retired to a quiet corner of Angel Grove Park to work on a couple of katas, hoping the meditative aspects of the exercise would help Jason calm his mind. Trini and Kimberly had wandered over shortly after they began and took a seat under nearby tree to watch.
"I still prefer the more energetic katas," Tommy commented when he and Jason had finished.
"These slow ones are okay, but..."
"But the faster ones give you more of a chance to show off," Jason concluded with a smirk that was less forced than he'd believed possible; working out with Tommy had taken his mind off recent events for at least a little while, as they strolled over to join their female teammates.
Tommy had the grace to look a bit shamefaced at that comment.
"Hi girls," Jason ignored Tommy as he greeted Kim and Trini. He hated admitting it even to himself, but seeing the Pink and Yellow Rangers brought back all of his misery with a vengeance. His momentary cheerfulness melted away like ice in the sun.
Both girls noticed that Jason didn't look much better than he had earlier, but that he was trying very hard to hide it.
"Hey, Jase. Is that a new kata?" Kimberly asked curiously. She thought that behaving as normal as possible would be the best course of action.
"Yeah. I learned it a couple of weeks ago. I figured it would be a good one to teach Billy..." his voice trailed off, his expression darkening. That wasn't going to happen now, was it?
"It looks like it is combining moves from every different level from beginning to intermediate," Trini noted, stepping smoothly into the uncomfortable moment. Kim was right; accusations would help no one now, least of all Billy and Jason.It was over, done with; now they needed to pick up the pieces and go on from here.
The burly teen started to reply when his expression froze and his eyes widened slightly. Following his gaze, they saw Zack and Billy approaching. They all stood up as the two teens walked up.
Jason watched Billy closely, trying to determine his friend's mood and feelings. He knew what he thought he should do and say, but the knot of seemingly conflicting emotions blocked his voice, leaving him unable to utter a word. If he'd known how his silence and closed-off expression were appearing to the Team genius, he'd have done his level best to force himself to open up or at least to speak first, but while Jason was many things, a telepath he was not.
Billy had refused to think about seeing Jason as he and Zack had walked over from his house. He had agreed to this only to appease Zack, to get the determined Black Ranger off his case. Now that he was face to face with the friend he'd trusted above all the others, his jumbled feelings suddenly coalesced into one predominant one. He took one look at Jason's apparently unemotional face, and something within him snapped.
"How could you do that to me?" The raw fury in Billy's soft voice shocked his teammates more than a shout would have. Jason flinched visibly.
"I trusted you. I thought you were my friend, guess I was wrong on that count. Do you know what it's like to drown? Do you? It's horrible, beyond horrible. Being desperate for air, and when you finally give in and try to inhale, all you get is water, burning a path to where water isn't supposed to go. The incredible agony as your lungs spasm their desire for air that isn't available. It's slow, too damn slow. And you did that to me. You bastard!"
It was the curse at the end that broke through Jason's paralysis. Desperate to make Billy see, to understand, he blurted out his reasons, and why it had to have been him and not someone else to do the deed.
"I did what I had to do. You had been infected with that damn thing, and someone had to be strong enough to do what had to be done. I didn't want to do it, but I had to. Lives were at stake; the whole planet was at stake. And it boiled down to a situation where only brawn could help, not brains." It was the wrong -- no, the worst -- thing to say to Billy.
Billy stepped back at that comment as if physically hit. All his fears that he wasn't strong enough to be a Ranger surfaced again. If Jason had simply wanted to hurt his friend's feelings, that was the comment to make. The hurt added fuel to his anger. Like a wounded animal backed into a corner, he lashed out in return.
"Now I'm not strong enough to cut it? Well, Jason, if you'd used your brains a bit more, you might have been able to come up with a solution that didn't include slowly drowning me. You must have laughed, how easy it was to trick me into going into the lab with you. 'Trusting Billy', how easy it was to fool him, how easy it was to kill him. And to think I thought you were the best leader we could have," the anger was slowly reverting to hurt. Afraid to say more, to give away his feelings and have them trampled into dust, too, Billy snapped his mouth shut and stared accusingly at his friend, hiding his fear behind a mask of fury.
Wounded to the quick by Billy's assumption that he might have deliberately set out to harm his 'little bro', Jason hit back, unthinkingly pouring fuel onto the fire.
"I did the best I could and if that wasn't good enough for you, too bad. I'm not a hero, not a role model. For God's sake, grow up Billy!"
Their voices had risen steadily, until Jason's last comment was literally shouted. Billy stood still for a moment, his expression one of shock and humiliation, then he turned abruptly and stalked angrily away. Zack tried to follow him, feeling horribly guilty for bringing Billy here and setting the stage for this argument.
"Leave me the hell alone!" Billy snapped at him, his eyes furious. Zack stopped and watched his friend walk back toward his home. He turned to find Jason had left as well, his broad shouldered figure moving quickly away toward his neighborhood.
Kimberly and Trini stood side-by-side, silent and wide eyed. Tears stood in Kimberly's eyes, and her right hand was cupped over her mouth. Tommy sighed deeply as Zack rejoined them.
"Well, that didn't go well," the Black Ranger commented unhappily. "I should go make sure Billy's okay, at least."
"Wait a minute, okay? Guys, I think we all need to talk," Tommy said with quiet firmness. "I know I'm the new guy on the team, that you were all together long before I showed up, and I hope you don't think I'm out of line here, but it seems that if we're going to be able to help Jason and Billy, first we need to be sure how we're feeling. This isn't just between them, you know. It's between all of us. I mean, man, when Jason told me what we needed to do, I was just floored by the idea. Then, when Jase explained, I could see how much it was costing him. He ..." Tommy shook his head. Things were still too fresh, too raw in his mind for him to be able to find words to express what exactly he'd witnessed in Lab 8. He settled for something he could explain. "Right now, I hurt for them. Both of them. And I want to do anything I can to help them. How about you guys?"
"I was so mad at Jason at first. I can't imagine how he could do that, you know? I mean, Billy's been his friend forever, and to just kill him like that. It's like seeing a Jason I hadn't known existed," Kim said softly after a moment's consideration, trying to put her vague feelings into words.
"Yeah, we've always been so careful not to hurt Billy, 'cause he's always been smaller and weaker than we were. Had to be hard for Jason to get past that and do what he had to do. And I gotta tell you, I didn't know you could get Billy quite that riled up. I've never seen them argue at all, or at least not like that. Just silly things they would disagree on," Zack added. He felt as if he should be able to do something -- anything -- after all, he'd known Billy almost exactly as long as Jason had, but their relationship had never been as close. He was floundering badly, and knew it. It didn't help his own feelings of inadequacy, of having let both his friends down. He shrugged expressively, letting the rest of his friends see that he had no answers.
"Trini, how are you feeling about this?" Tommy prompted when the Asian girl remained quiet.
"I understand Jason's reasons. I do. I know it hurt him to do what he did. But..." she trailed off unhappily.
"But...nevertheless, you're upset with him," Tommy suggested gently. He hadn't missed how close Trini and Billy were, how she quietly stood up for him against those who might want to tease or hurt the shy teen, watching over him so imperceptibly the Blue Ranger never even noticed it.
"Yes," Trini agreed.
"That's okay, I understand how you feel, Trini. But this is why we need to sit and work this out between us before we try to include Jason or Billy. They need us united, completely. You guys agree?" While the Green Ranger hadn't been with the Team all that long, he just knew he had to do his best to keep it together. What he'd said to Jason earlier was true; he had been glad, honored even, to have been asked to stand guard. It had been horrible, yes, but by asking him, Tommy, Jason had demonstrated a rare trust in him, and the Rangers' former enemy was determined to be worthy of that trust. If that took baring their feelings to each other, so be it.
There were three soft affirmative responses to his question. The four of them sat back down under in the welcoming shade of the old tree and started to talk. Time passed unnoticed as they helped each other understand what had happened that day, and why.
Until at last they felt they could present a united front to the two who needed them the most.
"Can we wait just a minute," Kimberly asked plaintively, stopping on the sidewalk just down the street from the Cranstons' two-story house.
"You okay, Kimberly?" Tommy asked with a concerned look.
"Yeah. Just nervous, you know?"
"Yeah, I know." Tommy looked with some trepidation at the house they were heading toward. They had decided that all four of them would be too overwhelming for either Jason or Billy at this time. Since Tommy had been the only other one inside the lab, he was the most logical choice to try to help the other two teens. Kimberly had volunteered first to go with him.
"Guess staring at the house isn't going to make this any easier," the petite girl in pink said at length. "He'll most likely be in his lab. That's where he goes when he's upset. Thank goodness it looks like his dad isn't home, that should make it easier."
"Could you imagine if his dad overheard this conversation?"
Tommy's comment brought a ghost of a smile to Kimberly's face as they approached the door to the garage and Billy's lab. As Kim had expected, the light-haired teen was indeed in his lab, working on a strange looking device set up on a card table.
"Hey Billy," the tall boy said quietly, getting the other teen's attention.
"Guys, I'm really not in the mood for company," Billy said shortly, refusing to turn around
"Well, I'm afraid that isn't an option, Billy. We need to talk to you. We can't let this rift in the team continue. What happened today was as hard on Jason as it was on you, as it was on all of us," Tommy pointed out firmly.
"Doesn't seem like Jason had any problem with it," Billy spat out.
"You didn't see Jase's eyes when he was holding you under the water; your body might have been dying, but his soul was dying right along with it!"
That seemed to get Billy's attention as his hands stopped their restless work on the machine, though he still did not turn around. Tommy decided to press his advantage. Stepping closer to the blue-clad teen, he lowered his voice, making it more insistent.
"Billy, Jason did what he had to, and thanks to his efforts beforehand you came through with flying colors. Weird as it sounds, Jason's the one who needs our help the most right now. Yeah, he killed you, but he did everything in his power to be sure we could bring you back. You're going to have to live with that. And Jason is going to have to live with having killed you, of all people, in cold blood. No matter what else may happen in our lives, Jason will never be able to forget that."
"You think I will?" Billy fought against the impression Tommy's words were making on him. He held on to his anger with all his might, but he was already weakening.
"No, I don't." The Green Ranger sensed that, at the very least, Billy was starting to think again instead of just feel. "But I think to be able to live with the memory, you will have to forgive Jason."
"I don't know if I can." There was much less anger in the soft voice now, but a world more hurt as he finally turned around. The blue eyes were bloodshot and looked at Kim and Tommy with an expression that was heart-rending. Kim swallowed her tears, reminding herself that these things needed to be said, now that they had Billy's attention at last.
Tommy steeled himself against the pity he felt for his teammate.
"Then consider this: it's one thing to know you can kill in anger, or while under a spell; it's quite another to realize one can kill deliberately. I came close -- too close -- a couple of times while Rita had me; you, and Jason, saved me from that. Now he needs us, all of us, to show him we don't hate him for having the courage and sheer balls to do what he had to in order to save the world. It wasn't Jason who held Billy under water; it was the Red Ranger who got rid of an evil that would've destroyed everything and everyone if he hadn't acted. Think of that, Blue Ranger, next time you feel the urge to throw his actions in his face." Tommy forced himself to maintain his stern tone of voice as he watched the expressions fleeting over his teammate's face. Then a stoic mask seemed to settle over the thin features.
"You've made your point. Now would you be kind enough to leave me in peace?" he asked expressionlessly.
Kimberly and Tommy exchanged unhappy looks. It seemed Billy was not going to listen to them, after all.
"Okay, I guess that might be best. But if you need us, just call. We'll be there, all of us, no matter when. Okay?"
"Fine. Now just go, alright?"
The Pink and Green Rangers walked out toward the street, feeling the leaden weight of despair in their hearts.
Despite their efforts, Billy seemed determined to cling to his anger.
The walk to Jason's house seemed longer than normal to Tommy and Kimberly after their failure with Billy.
"I really thought we could bring him around," Tommy muttered, his eyes fixed on the sidewalk in front of him.
Given time to consider the encounter, Kimberly was a bit more optimistic. "We may have. Don't give up hope, Tommy. You don't know Billy like I do; he never takes the easy way. At least not with things like feelings. He may be a genius in math and science as stuff like that, but emotional stuff? Forget it. Remedial all the way," Kimberly said dismissively. "Give him some time, let him work it through, and he may get it. Think of the same approach you would use teaching Skull something like algebra." She smiled at her tall teammate, hoping desperately to cheer him up.
He appreciated her efforts and rewarded her with a smile. "Think Billy'd appreciate that little comparison?"
She snickered unrepentantly. "Probably not, but I'm not planning to tell him."
The small joke lightened their mood considerably, and gave them fresh courage for the next part of their mission -- trying to outstubborn their leader and get him to listen to something beside his overworked guilt muscle.
They walked past the Scotts' house toward the back yard, knowing almost instinctively where they would find Jason. If Billy tended to retire to his lab in times of trouble, Jason had the same tendency to go behind the garage and work on his car.
Sure enough they found the burly leader of the Power Rangers bent over the engine compartment of a pale yellow Metropolitan Nash. Jason had bought the car the previous summer, and he was in the process of lovingly restoring it to mint condition.
"Hey, Jase, what's today's project?" Tommy asked, having hung around a few times while Jason worked on the car.
"New battery cables. The old ones are toast." While Jason's tone of voice didn't exactly make them feel welcome, it was a bit warmer than Billy's had been. Still, he didn't turn around to face his friends. While he replied to their questions readily enough, he refused to meet anyone's eyes.
"Jason, I think you know we aren't here to discuss battery cables," Kim pointed out gently, when she got bored with the two boys' technical discussion. That was not the purpose of their visit, after all.
"Battery cables happen to be something I'm willing to talk about, one of the few things I'm willing to talk about at this moment." The sudden chill in the low voice could have frozen Angel Grove Lake.
"Sorry, Bro, but you don't have an option here. We all need to try to get past what happened today, you can't hide from it forever," Tommy noted.
"I can try, can't I?" the Red Ranger asked facetiously, hoping to distract them.
"Sorry, no. Nice try though," Kim replied.
"Jase, what you did today was incredibly hard for you, I know. But it was necessary, and despite what you might feel, you were in the right. Remember, you were a soldier in a fight, doing your duty regardless of the personal cost. And I know that cost was high. But, Bro, what you said to Billy, that was pretty harsh. Whether you like it or not, it seems Billy looked up to you as his hero, and that's making it very hard for him to accept what you did." It struck Tommy as ironic that what Jason had done was probably the most heroic thing any of them would ever see, and Billy was the one person who wasn't in a position to appreciate it.
"I'm no hero; no more than any of you!" Jason protested.
"Yes, but if you want to or not, you were the one who showed Billy that there was life and joy even though he'd lost his mom. If it hadn't been for you, he'd probably be buried in a lab somewhere, with no friends and no life. Can you blame him for idolizing you?" Kimberly's eyes shimmered with unshed tears as she reminded Jason of what his friendship had done for a shy, lonely little boy half a lifetime ago.
"I don't want to be idolized; I just want him back! He's the little brother I never had, and I had to hurt him ... after I'd promised myself I'd never let anyone else hurt him, I had to be the one ..." Tears choked his voice as he turned away from his friends, not wanting them to see him cry.
Kimberly laid a comforting hand on Jason's strong shoulder. "Maybe you can get him back. You need to go talk to him, but not like it was in the park. Jason, you closed down. I know you didn't mean to, but I'm guessing Billy misread your expression and reacted to it. He's not very good at judging people's moods."
Jason chuckled faintly at that comment. He surreptitiously wiped his eyes. "No, not exactly his strong point." He turned back to face his friends. "Thanks for...well, for coming by, and for understanding. I'll...I'll try to stop by and see Billy later. If you don't mind, though, I'd like to go in and lie down for a while. It's been a rather busy day, all told." His ironic smile was clearly tired.
"Go rest, then. When you need us, we'll be there."
Billy tossed down his wrench angrily. He knew better than to work on a sensitive device such as this one when his mind was completely distracted, but he couldn't just sit still. He had to keep working, or else the thoughts would start to creep in, and he didn't want that to happen. Then an old trick from his childhood occurred to him. Whenever things had happened he didn't want to think about, he'd pick up a book and lose himself in some make-believe world that was safe from whatever was tormenting him in the real world.
He looked on the shelf behind his computer and saw the perfect distraction. "Stranger in a Strange Land" was one of his all-time favorites, and he reached for the book eagerly. He'd lent it to Trini months before, and when she'd returned it he'd just tossed it back up on the shelf. He opened it randomly and was startled when a small slip of paper fell out of the book to the floor. He retrieved it and carefully unfolded it, intrigued when he recognized Trini's neat handwriting.
"The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder."
He stared at the phrase in shock, all the thoughts and feelings he'd been trying so hard to avoid suddenly at the forefront of his mind. The phrase seemed to accuse him, the words burning into his conscience.
"The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder."
For some reason that phrase seemed to clarify what Tommy and Kimberly, and Zack, and even Jason had been trying to say. He found himself at last seeing the events from Jason's side of the story, understanding how when faced with a potentially cataclysmic situation Jason could find the strength and courage to do what he had to do. It was that which had always made Jason the unofficial leader of their little group. Possibly it was that very quality Zordon had recognized that fateful day, placing a responsibility on the broad shoulders that would have crushed a lesser character. After all, they were hardly out of childhood; only a few short months ago, all their concerns had been about grades, and if they would have a date for the next school function. In their 'real' lives, they weren't even allowed to vote or make decisions for themselves, and yet they were defending the whole planet on an almost daily basis. Billy was having trouble enough inventing devices, repairing their Zords, mastering all ramifications of being a Power Ranger. While Jason was not involved in the technical aspects, he was the one who led them into battle, decided what to do and when, which risks were acceptable to take and which course of action would bring maximum effect while causing the least damage to everyone else. The teen was honest enough to himself to admit he could never have made all these decisions. Maybe later, when he was a little older, a bit more experienced, but certainly not now. Not like Jason did.
Billy shuddered slightly as he became aware of the enormity of Jason's position. He'd never asked for it, never wanted to take the spotlight like that, but accepted it as something he had to do. Just as he had to do what was necessary to save the world from the amoebrasite. Even killing a friend.
He began to realize he'd always taken Jason's strength and leadership for granted. He'd grown used to knowing Jason was there for him; as a leader, as a surrogate big brother, and most importantly as a friend. And as much as he depended on Jason, the entire team did as well. He cringed at the thought that the whole team could lose faith in Jason as their leader due to what had happened.
With this understanding came the collapse of the emotional barriers he'd so carefully erected. Fear, hurt, anger, and humiliation jumbled together as he slowly sank down on the old couch and finally released the tears he'd held in check for so long.
Jason stared at the computer screen, not even seeing the words that were displayed. After Kimberly and Tommy left he'd drifted into the house, deserted still since both his parents were working late shifts. He'd tried to rest, but his thoughts kept him awake; now he was trying to research a homework problem with no success. Sighing, he realized what he needed to do.
He was almost to the front door when someone knocked. He opened the heavy wooden door and found Billy standing nervously on the front porch.
"Um...hi, Jason, I was wondering if I could talk to you for a minute?" he said hesitantly.
"Sure. I was just getting ready to go over to your place," Jason admitted, ushering his friend inside. Hope reared its head cautiously, but he didn't want to be overly optimistic. Better to hear Billy out first.
"Oh. Well, I guess I saved you the trip," Billy replied, hating the awkwardness between them. This just wasn't right! "Why did you want to see me?"
Jason stared at him with a tormented expression. How could Billy not know? The thought hurt, adding to his pain. "I wanted to say...I mean...I'm...I'm sorry," he stammered out, looking at Billy with a haunted expression. "What I said to you, man, I had no right, what I did to you...I understand if you can't forgive me, but I'm sorry for what I did, I should have found another way, you're right." The Red Ranger knew he was close to babbling, but didn't care The only thing that mattered was if Billy could eventually forget. He dared not hope for forgiveness.
In a way, it almost hurt Billy more to see Jason so tormented, so uncertain. It didn't sit well on his normally self-assured friend. He'd thought he'd cried himself out, but tears stung his eyes again and he reached out to reassure his friend that he understood. That simple gesture made words unnecessary right this minute. Neither boy thought about how embarrassed they would usually feel at this display of affection; they didn't care, because this was RIGHT!
Somehow they ended up in a fierce embrace, Jason's strong arms wrapped around Billy's shoulders, Billy's arms circling Jason's chest. Jason was repeating softly through his tears, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
It was a couple of minutes before he realized Billy was saying the same thing.
Even though the Youth Center was nearly deserted as closing time approached, Ernie was keeping a weather eye on one table in particular. The usually lively and energetic group of teens at the table was uncharacteristically quiet. And instead of the usual six, there were only four this evening. The portly proprietor wondered if something had happened, if the two missing boys were sick or something.
He glanced up at the front door and got his answer. Jason and Billy walked in slowly, looking very much the worse for wear. He went ahead and fixed their favorite smoothies without waiting to take their orders. The way those two looked, they needed them.
The four teens at the table watched their friends approach with mixed feelings. Though it appeared they'd managed to make peace with each other, they also looked completely wiped out. The two teens took their places without a comment, sitting down side by side.
"How are you two?" Tommy asked with a meaningful look after Ernie delivered the two smoothies.
"Better," Jason said.
"Fine," was Billy's comment.
Neither sounded very convincing, but their friends could see they meant it. They breathed silent sighs of relief.
"It's been a hell of a day," Jason added, leaning back in his chair.
"Yeah, it has been. Hope we don't have too many like this," Tommy agreed.
"Guys, thanks for being there for us today, for...well...for everything," Jason said with a glance at Billy. The team could see that, while the Red and Blue Rangers were no longer at odds, the easy camaraderie between them was gone, replaced by an awkwardness they were unfamiliar with. It would take a little time, a little more healing, before that awkwardness would fade away, leaving a slightly altered friendship between the two. It didn't have to be necessarily better, or worse, just ... different.
Zack sensed this, and hating discomfort of any sort, decided to try to ease the atmosphere. Glancing around to be sure no one could overhear him, he looked at Billy with a glint in his eyes. He knew he was going to get it for this, but he didn't care; it would be worth it to bring back life into the dark brown and light blue eyes, which were dull with exhaustion. "Earlier, when we were reviving you, you know, the whole time I was tempted to say 'now he's really the Blue Ranger'." A moment of stunned silence settled around the table, then Zack caught Tommy's incredulous look, winked, and both boys began to snicker.
"I'd have killed you for sure, Zack" Kim replied, outraged. "How could you even think such a thing?" She looked around at the others for support and was shocked to see they were all obviously fighting laughter, even Billy.
At that she couldn't help but give in to the chuckle that bubbled up, and that set off all the others. Within seconds they were all but screaming with laughter, the outburst of hilarity the perfect coda to a memorable day. If there was a slightly hysterical edge to their laughter, who cared? They'd beaten the odds once more.
For though some things had changed forever, others remained the same. And friends, and laughter, and smoothies, were still a great way to end a day.
AUTHOR'S NOTES:The quote Billy found in his book was provided by Peregrine, who seems to be an endless source of really cool quotes. Thank you, ma'am!