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A Darker Shade of Green

Chapter Text

Tommy looked over at the group of five teenagers, feeling alone in this strange new town. The teens looked like they were great friends, and they were crowded around one member of the group, a muscular boy in a red tank top—Tommy’s next opponent.

“This is so exciting! You’ve gotten to the finals!” a pretty girl with brown hair squealed.

“The chances of your eventual successful accomplishment have risen exponentially over the past few rounds,” a bespectacled boy in a blue button-down shirt said.

The group looked at him blankly.

“He means you’re doing great,” a dark-haired girl said.

Okay, that was annoying. All the same, though, Tommy felt a sudden compulsion to join the group. Instead, he concentrated on breathing before the final match.

“Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to the Angel Grove Martial Arts Expo,” a loud voice announced from the judges’ panel. The gathered teens at the Youth Center quieted down. “The final match is about to begin. Introducing our competitors: First, we have Jason Lee Scott, Angel Grove’s own reigning champion from two local tournaments.”

The boy in red left his friends and walked to the middle of the fighting ring, acknowledging the cheers with a wave. Tommy considered him: two local tournaments—no national or anything out of this very small pond. He smirked. While he knew he should never underestimate his opponents, he imagined this guy to be a self-satisfied local champion, completely unaware of his own skills relative to the rest of the martial arts community. Tommy thought back to his first national tournament and how much of an eye-opener it had been. This “champion” probably thought himself at the height of fighting skills.

“His opponent: a newcomer to Angel Grove, Tommy Oliver.”

Tommy walked to the middle of the ring to face Jason. He’d not reported any of his own titles, wishing instead to have a fight without any expectations.

Following the referee in the familiar tournament match conventions, Tommy performed the bows and then sharply focused on his opponent as the match started.

The kick came flying out of nowhere, and Tommy barely had time to dodge and counter. As soon as he hit the mat and the ref announced a point to Jason, Tommy re-evaluated his opinion of the other martial artist.

Tommy still pulled his punches and kicks, as always for a tournament, but Jason moved like a whirlwind. It was all he could do to keep up with the incredible speed on the other teen. The fight quickly ended in a draw.

Tommy’s mind whirled as he got his stuff together after general congratulations. If this was the competition at Angel Grove, he was in for a very interesting stay. As he hurried, thinking about telling his dad about the really good match, he didn’t notice the five teens looking at him... and the pretty brunette lingering.


“He’s amazing,” the Empress whispered, far below her usual shrill cries that tended to fill the entire palace.

Her minions seemed to be rather bored. The lack of the usual bangs and whistles from the lab told her that Finster was more likely reading than experimenting with Putties and monsters. Goldar was sharpening his sword nearby; Rita could hear the ringing, grinding noise echo down the hall. Squatt and Baboo seemed to be playing Go Fish with very little understanding of the rules.

“I’ll see your Guppy, and raise you a Trout,” Baboo exclaimed. He placed the appropriate fish on top of a pile of cards in the middle of the table.

“Go fish,” Squatt said. They both squealed with glee, grabbed two fishing poles in the corner of the room, and teleported out. Rita knew they were probably going to a deserted lake on Earth to... she sighed... “go fish.” She didn’t mind. It kept them occupied and she’d only punish them if they stank up the place.

Rita was more interested in thinking about this “Tommy,” the boy who had tied with the Red Ranger at that ridiculous human competition. Rita, while not an expert on the actual mechanics of fighting (she had people to do that for her), could tell that the boy had been holding back. She was itching to try him in an actual life or death situation.

“He just might do,” Rita said.

“My Empress, what ‘might do,’” Goldar asked, coming up behind her. He had finished at the whetstone, and his sword was gleaming gold.

Far from being annoyed at the intrusion into her thoughts, Rita wanted Goldar’s opinion as an experienced warrior. “Goldar, wait, I’ll run it back... look in the telescope.”

She defocused the magical instrument—far more powerful on account of magic than any human telescope—and “rewound” to the beginning of the competition. She offered the instrument to Goldar, who awkwardly looked through, the telescope too low for the giant warrior’s height.

Goldar finally pulled back from the telescope. “That boy might have defeated the Red Ranger in a real fight.” Inflection was difficult to discern with Goldar, but he seemed mildly impressed.

“My thoughts exactly,” Rita said. “I was thinking of recruiting this... Tommy.”

Goldar looked affronted. “But, my Empress... he is merely a human. He’s not powerful enough to fuel a monster, and he would not have a prayer against a morphed Power Ranger.”

Rita smiled. She knew that Goldar was insecure about his position as her chief General, especially as he hadn’t exactly shone in battle of late. No one had against these accursed Rangers. Rita’s blood pounded at the thought, but she controlled her rage.

“You’re forgetting,” Rita chided, “that I have more at my disposal than mere monsters and Putties. Not every foe must come from Finster’s machine. Some weapons I have kept with me for a long time.”

Goldar stepped back a bit. “You can’t mean...”

“What better way to defeat a bunch of teenaged Rangers than with one of their own?”

The silence weighed heavy in the balcony. The tension did not break even when Squatt and Baboo returned, giggling madly, with a bucket full of assorted fish. Rita absently thought of putting them to cooking supper if they were going to continue in this pastime.

“But isn’t the green power coin linked to that ‘Morphing Grid’ of theirs?” Goldar said. While Goldar rarely planned on his own, knowing that Rita took greater pleasure in strategy than in the actual fighting, he always tried to look at every side of the plan, seeing where failures might occur right from the beginning. Rita appreciated this, even if she didn’t show it. After all, it would be pretty embarrassing if she gave Tommy the power coin and Zordon could simply turn it off through the Morphing Grid.

“The Green Ranger would have access to the Morphing Grid without being controlled by it,” Rita rattled off. “He would have access to the inherent knowledge of the Power Rangers, as well as access to the Command Center and the Zords. He wouldn’t even set off the security alarms until Zordon became aware of him.”

In truth, Rita had been on the lookout for a Green Ranger ever since those Rangers had stopped her initial conquest of the Earth. She’d already had Finster study the power coin and had discussed with him at length the dangers and advantages. She hadn’t mentioned her plans to Goldar, as he might keep bugging her to pick someone—anyone—to accept the Green Ranger powers. It was, after all, one of her most powerful weapons. That made it all the more necessary to withhold the weapon until the appropriate time.

“But wouldn’t Zordon know immediately who the Ranger is?” Goldar said after a lengthy pause.

Actually, he had something there.

“We’ll have to put Zordon out of commission,” Rita said. “Make him disappear for a while. Even if Zordon senses who the Green Ranger is, he could scramble Zordon’s signal so badly it would take years for that ridiculous robot to find that old fool’s transmission.”

“Which would, of course, demoralize the Rangers. Leave them without guidance,” Goldar supplied. He was obviously warming to the idea. “The Green Ranger could also destroy all the Command Center equipment, leaving them without communication or teleportation.”

“And then we attack,” Rita said. Her blood was pumping in her veins, more powerfully than usual when she was planning attacks. This... it was going to be complicated. A long-term plan. But her plans had been too simple before, and they never worked.

“That’s all very well and good,” Goldar said, “but how do we know this Tommy is right for the job, my Empress? We’ve only seen that one fight, and I don’t think we have even the smallest idea of his skill. He may be merely an exhibition fighter with no potential for practical application.”

“A Putty attack will do nicely,” Rita said as she began to refocus her telescope. “They can fight him, test him, and finally capture him. A life and death fight always gives a glimpse into true potential. We’ll both watch and judge. If he’s unworthy, the Putties can kill him or let him go free, and we’ll have lost nothing.”

Yes, the plan would require finesse. Goldar and any monsters would be at the forefront, directly threatening and distracting the Power Rangers. In the meantime, the real destruction would be happening from within.

Rita smiled and, effectively ending the “card” game by vanishing all the fish with a wave of her wand, began issuing orders. If all went well, she could send the Putties the very next day.


“Still thinking about him?”

“Huh?”

Kimberly gazed around, all at once realizing that she was in art class, Trini had just spoken to her, and her painting looked nothing like the model. The model was a bowl of fruit: she was painting a big green blob. She impatiently wadded up that attempt and started again.

“What did you say?” she asked Trini.

“I think you answered my question,” Trini said. “You are thinking about him.”

“Him... him who?” Kimberly evaded. “Who are you talking about?”

“That guy at the Youth Center... with the hair,” Trini said.

“Everyone has hair,” Kimberly said. “Well, except Mr. Caplan.”

Trini rolled her eyes. “Have you seen him today?”

“Yeah... he was giving out detentions to Bulk and Skull only this morning.”

Trini made an irritated noise.

Kimberly decided she’d pushed her patient friend too far. “All right, no. I haven’t seen him today. I’m not sure what his schedule is.”

“Yet,” Trini supplied.

Kimberly rolled her eyes, trying to concentrate on her painting. Trini may have been able to paint a bowl of fruit in her sleep, but she needed a lot more focus. “Look... he’s new in town, and probably doesn’t want to get seriously involved. If I happen to ask him to, say, hang out at the Youth Center after school... with friends... I’m not really asking him on a date. I’m just being friendly.”

“So how long have you been practicing asking him to... hang out at the Youth Center?”

Kimberly finally smiled. “All night and morning.”

Trini giggled.

“I’m thinking of the casual approach. Nothing too spazzy. After all, he already knows Jason.”

The teacher was passing closely, and Kimberly promptly shut up. While Ms. Jackson, the art teacher, did not particularly mind chatting while painting, as long as it didn’t get too loud, she got irritable if the talking kept them from their work. Thankfully, Kimberly had quickly gotten through the easy parts of the painting and made up for lost time, and the teacher appreciated attempts at impressionism.

Kimberly had been thinking about Tommy far more than she was prepared to admit, even to Trini. His eyes seemed to have stuck in her head. And Trini was right: he had wonderful hair. Curly and long. But those eyes, especially. Deep and soulful. She grinned to herself. First sign of major crush: fixation on eyes and clichés to go with it. The thought of asking him out later made her heart beat faster, no matter what she told Trini.

There was one thing that was worrisome: Rita had the annoying habit of staging monster attacks right when dates were scheduled. Either the date was waiting alone, or the date had to be cancelled, or, in a few isolated times, the date had ended up kidnapped or chased off by Putties. It was never predictable, never explainable, and always frustrating. It would just be her luck to ask Tommy out and then have to cancel for monster attacks.

And then there was the ever-present problem of hiding identities. Zordon had warned them—and continued to warn them occasionally—about hiding their identities from personal relations. That meant... well... lying. Kimberly had already had a few fights with her mother over being irresponsible. That was because Kimberly could only come up with lame excuses for missing homework... suppers... the beginning of her brother’s birthday party... How could she balance school, family, and a boyfriend with saving the world on a regular basis?

Kimberly suddenly realized that since they’d all become Rangers, none of them had seriously dated. Zack went on about Angela, but had he actually made any serious moves? Had Billy kept up with that girl Marge he’d invited to the dance? Did Jason go on more than one date with any of the girls he’d been with recently?

Kimberly laughed inwardly. What was she thinking about? Tommy didn’t even know she existed, and she was thinking of the ramifications of a long-term relationship with him. Chiding herself, she got to work on finishing the painting so she could go at the same time as Trini.


Tommy felt like hitting something. Anything.

He stood at the receptionist’s desk, feeling all eyes on him. The receptionist was taking an amazing amount of time on paperwork.

“Ah... Mr. Oliver,” a voice behind him said coolly.

Tommy turned to regard his new principal, Mr... Mr...

“Hello, sir,” Tommy said, giving up on remembering any names on his first day.

“Mr. Caplan,” the man said. He held out his hand to shake Tommy’s.

Tommy smiled. His last principal had wanted to put the “pal” in principal. Always wanted to hug and used the latest slang of five years ago. Tommy rather liked the inherent respect of handshakes and last names.

“Can I see you in my office before you run off to class, Mr. Oliver?” Mr. Caplan said.

Uh-oh.

Tommy shoved his hands in his pockets and followed Mr. Caplan into the small office, building up defenses for what he knew was coming.

“I’m rather surprised to see you late on the first day,” Mr. Caplan said as they sat at opposite sides of the neat desk.

“I’m very sorry, sir,” Tommy said. “I had to take care of something, and it took longer than I thought.”

It was a lie, kind of. He’d had sleep to take care of, and, since he hadn’t heard the alarm, it had taken longer than he thought.

“Well, I expect you’ll be on time from now on,” Mr. Caplan said. “Now… I’ve read your record.”

Here it goes.

“You’ve been expelled from two school districts in the past six years,” Mr. Caplan said baldly.

Tommy tried to look soulful and repentant. Biting back any sarcastic remark he had, Tommy said, “Yes, sir.”

“Low grades... incidents of fighting... more incidents of fighting...” Mr. Caplan droned.

“Sir, I...” Tommy began.

Mr. Caplan cut him off. “I understand you are a martial artist. I saw the Expo on TV yesterday in the news.”

Tommy nodded, not sure if he was allowed to talk yet.

“This school encourages athletics, even athletics generally overlooked at other schools. We also encourage sportsmanship and leaving the martial arts for the ring. You’ll have plenty of opportunities for that.”

Mr. Caplan got up and put Tommy’s file, which he had been leafing through as he talked, in the back of a drawer. “A fresh start, Mr. Oliver. I’m willing to give you one if you’re willing to cooperate. You stay out of trouble, keep your grades up, and graduate from here, and that old file goes away. It’s not like colleges look at... what do we call them... permanent records?” Mr. Caplan added with a twinkle in his eye.

Tommy nodded. “Yes, sir. I mean... I don’t intend to get into trouble here, sir,” he said. He was relieved. While it was similar to the “if you put one toe out of line” speech, at least this man seemed to believe Tommy could do better.

Mr. Caplan smiled. “I have another warning, actually.”

Tommy tensed. Had he been mistaken?

Mr. Caplan pushed a newspaper over to him. A gray picture of men in what looked like costumes was at the bottom of the front page.

“Putties,” the principal said. “No, they’re not people in costumes. They’re aliens who teleport down and randomly attack people.”

Tommy stared at the picture. They looked sort of human, but he supposed those bumpy, scarred, lifeless faces were not masks. “I’d heard on the news and heard rumors. I thought it was just a publicity stunt.”

“Far from it,” Mr. Caplan said. “And those aren’t the only things to worry about. Angel Grove averages a monster attack a week. I’m actually surprised you’re able to handle housing. Insurance rates here are crippling.”

“We’re living in my uncle’s summer house,” Tommy said. He was still looking at the Putties. “Why are you warning me, Mr. Caplan? I can take care of myself,” Tommy said without pride. He could, after all. That file in the back of the drawer said that much, at least.

“I’m saying this because you’re a martial artist. Because you can, as you say, take care of yourself.” Mr. Caplan looked in earnest now. “You may be good, and you may be able to handle a few Putties, but what about ten? Twenty? They don’t usually stop unless they have a good reason.”

“So you expect me to run away from these things?” Tommy asked, a bit sharper than he meant.

“I’m expecting the same thing I expect from all my students: common sense and caution. Walk in a group when you can. Be careful around the beach and the park: that’s where most of the attacks happen. Keep your ears open for news of a monster battle and take cover when it happens. Do what you can to keep yourself safe, but don’t take it on yourself to solve our monster problems. That’s what the Power Rangers are for.”

Tommy wasn’t sure if the man was kidding or not. The principal wished him luck and shook his hand as if he were completely serious, though, so Tommy went along as if everything were normal.

As if anything were normal in this crazy town, Tommy mused. He and his father had read up on Angel Grove before moving, and part of the brochure, right in between pictures of beaches, had been a list of rules similar to the advice Mr. Caplan had just given. The brochure hadn’t gone into detail, but how many towns had a monster alarm and warnings to stay out of the way of multi-colored superheroes?

“Hey, Tommy.”

Tommy turned to see the guy he’d fought the day before. He was still dressed as if he would be called to fight at any second. Tommy wondered what this guy’s policy was for fighting outside the ring.

“Hey... Jason? Am I right?”

Jason looked a little put out, and Tommy felt bad. They’d fought together, so that bred familiarity. But Tommy was just so bad at names.

“Yeah, it’s Jason. How’s your first day going?”

Tommy checked his schedule. “I’m due in English... Ms. Appleby.” Tommy paused. “Seriously? Ms. Appleby? That’s a real name?”

Jason laughed. “Yeah, that’s her real name. She’s not bad. I’m going there next.”

“Great. I have no idea where I am,” Tommy admitted.

Jason checked his watch. “Well, it’s lunch now, so we can go to the cafeteria and then English.”

Tommy was relieved that he wouldn’t have to wander about the hallways with a map like a big dork. He was also hoping that this was a sign that Jason wanted to be his friend. Tommy changed schools so many times that he usually didn’t bother trying to make friends, but that made his life lonely as hell.

“So how long have you been into martial arts?” Jason said as they walked outside, heading for another building on campus.

“All my life,” Tommy said. “At least, as far back as I can remember. How about you?”

“Since sixth grade,” Jason said. “I started out wrestling, but this suits me better.”

“Wrestling... that makes sense. You have the build for it.”

“Yeah, I know,” Jason grimaced. “My dad... But anyway,” he said quickly. “Where are you from?”

Tommy smiled as he evaded better than Jason could. “All around, mostly. I followed a martial arts tournament circuit around for a little while, competing and training with fighters all around the world.”

“Wait a minute,” Jason interrupted. “You’re... Thomas Oliver?”

Tommy frowned. “That’s what my mom insists on putting on all the forms.”

“But you’re a legend,” Jason exclaimed. “You won the World Mixed Martial Arts championship, under 15 division, two years in a row! I can’t believe I fought you. And tied.”

Tommy smiled, trying to look like he didn’t care about the titles he worked so hard for. He would also never in a million years admit to Jason that he’d been holding back.

For the rest of their walk to the cafeteria, Jason bombarded Tommy with questions about the famous fighters he’d met. Tommy was good-natured about it. It was sort of nice to be cool to at least one person on the first day of class.

The cafeteria was big and noisy, where lunch ladies were serving the unlikely combination of square pizza, fries, and corn. Tommy took that, being the least complicated to order, paid for his meal, and followed Jason to a table already populated by the four friends who’d rooted for Jason the day before.

“Guys, this is Tommy,” Jason said as he sat down. Tommy tried not to look awkward.

“Hey, Tommy,” a boy in a black and purple shirt greeted him. “I’m Zack.” Zack reached across the table to shake Tommy’s hand. “This is Billy,” Zack referred to the rather geeky boy beside him. Billy smiled and nodded, mumbling a few greetings. He was obviously uncomfortable meeting new people.

“Trini,” the girl with long, black hair said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Tommy’s eyes finally rested on the pretty girl from yesterday. She was wearing a light pink summer dress, and her build was unexpectedly athletic now that he had a good view.

The girl flushed prettily. “I’m Kimberly,” she said. Her smile started out kind of crooked, as if she was sharing a private joke. Tommy suddenly wanted to know that private joke.

Tommy ate and listened. There was a rhythm to their conversation that spoke of long friendships. They asked him questions, and he tried to participate, but he couldn’t help but feel like he was striking a jarring note in the group. And he had to keep from openly staring at Kimberly, who had begun talking animatedly about a gymnastics competition set for a few more months.

“…so I have to practice all the time to get this new routine down. I’m telling you, my new coach is brutal. She used to be an Olympic athlete. She keeps griping that I’m not, like, twelve. As if I could help that! As if I wanted to be in the Olympics, either. I’m fine with normal competition, not crazy competition.”

“I know what you mean,” Tommy heard himself saying. The others suddenly looked up at him. His eyes instantly shot down to his food. “I sorta got burned out on the whole tournament scene. People acting like there’s nothing more to life than winning. It’d easily drive you nuts.”

“You were in tournaments?” Zack asked.

Tommy shrugged. “A few.”

Jason’s eyes boggled. “A… a few? I wasn’t kidding when I said that you’re legendary. You beat Terry Johnson. Twice.”

The others looked between Jason and Tommy blankly.

“Oh, come on!” Jason enthused. “One of the top martial artists in the under-18 bracket.”

The blank stares continued.

Tommy finally laughed. “Okay, I see I’m not going to be signing any autographs, then. At least I won’t need security to escort me to my limo.”

The rest laughed, Jason included.

“Well, since we don’t have to worry about the paparazzi, did you want to meet us this afternoon at the juice bar?” Zack asked.

Kimberly shot a shocked, furious look at him. Trini noticed and kicked Zack under the table. “Ow… what?” he said.

Trini just rolled her eyes, and Tommy suddenly felt like he wasn’t wanted… by one of them, at least. “Um… no thanks. Maybe later. I’ve still got a ton of unpacking, and I can’t let my dad deal with all of it,” he lied.

Thankfully, the bell rang, and Tommy followed Jason closely, wishing he had another means to find his English class. He considered cutting, but Mr. Caplan’s words came back to him. Stay clean. Keep up the grades. Graduate. He owed his dad at least that much.


“We found it, your Evilness!”

“I found it first!”

“You weren’t even looking!”

“Shut up!” Goldar bellowed.

Rita waited patiently for all of them to calm down. Finster, who was also a doctor and cared for her headaches and nerves along with his other duties, had finally told her to either get rid of Squatt and Baboo or learn to deal with them. But she couldn’t rid herself of them. While they deported themselves as simple-minded children, Squatt was an expert exobiologist and Baboo knew more about mystical plants than anyone else in the known universe. Their knowledge was too valuable.

Squatt finally handed her a simple obsidian box. The power radiating from the contents… just a seemingly simple coin… took her breath away. It was like holding a sun.

“Is he properly placed?” she asked quietly.

Goldar bent double to peek out of the scope. “He’s in a small room with an older man right now. It looks like they’re in a hospital. He’s miles away from any Rangers, though, and once he leaves the building he’ll have to cross a deserted park to reach the building we’ve marked as his house.”

“Set the scope to alert us as soon as he leaves the building, and prepare some Putties,” Rita said. “Ten will do, don’t you think?”

Goldar considered this. “It will either test him or kill him.”

“That’s fine,” Rita said. “Remember, we can’t let Zordon know of our interest in him, or else the old man will recruit the boy himself.”

Rita took a sip out of a smoking goblet—a youth restorative that Finster had whipped up. The scope let out a high beeping noise.

“The boy is isolated, my queen, and the Putties are ready,” Goldar said.

“Do it,” Rita said. She tipped the glass in the Earth’s direction. “To your success, Tommy Oliver.”

Chapter Text

Tommy sat in the hospital chair next to his father’s bed. The TV was turned to soaps. Frequent hospitalization had given his father an avid addiction to Passions.

“How was your first day?” John Oliver said in the first commercial break. “Principal give you a hard time?”

Tommy shrugged. “It was okay. He sounds better than others. Better than the one that followed me around all the time.”

John laughed. “Even after you left school. Man wasn’t firing with all cylinders, if you ask me.”

Tommy smiled at the omission of his expulsion from that school. His father so wanted this to work out. They were in a good place. Angel Grove had one of the best specialists in nerve disorders in the US, the school system was good, and they had a nice set-up in the summer home. Didn’t have to pay rent or anything. It saved money, especially since his father still hard-lined against Tommy getting a job. “Education first,” he always said. “Then you’ll worry about the rat race.”

“I want you to be careful going home,” John said.

“You been watching the news?” Tommy knew this was coming. His father worried all the time.

“I just don’t want you getting into any fights, is all,” his father sighed. “What with all those attacks on the news.”

“I think I made some friends today,” Tommy said.

His father brightened a little too much for Tommy’s comfort. “That’s great! Who are they?”

“One of them’s that guy I fought in the little Expo yesterday.”

“I saw that on the news.” John got a cagey expression on his face. “You didn’t hold back… did you?”

“You know me.”

“Exactly.”

Tommy grinned. “Okay, a little. But I didn’t need to much.”

John looked at him.

“What do you expect me to do? I was taught to punch hard and end the fight quickly. I have to hold back or else I’ll hurt someone,” Tommy said.

John nodded. “Your mother was never one for doing things halfway.”

Tommy felt himself bristle at the mention of his mother and tried to hide his reaction from his dad.

“She knows where we are. I contacted her. She’ll come visit when she takes a mind,” John said with hardly-masked weariness.

“She’d have to give a shit, then,” Tommy muttered.

“She does,” John began, treading on a well-worn path. “She’s just…”

“Evil,” Tommy finished. “You can defend her all you want. She left us when you started getting sick. She didn’t want to deal with it, so she left you with a 10-year-old.”

“She didn’t take any of the money…”

“Yeah, she’s a saint,” Tommy said. His father looked at him despairingly. Tommy sighed. “All right, dad, I’ll stop. It just bugs me, you know?”

“Yes, I know.”

The visit didn’t last much longer after that. Tommy left after telling a few things to get his dad to laugh. Not too much excitement, though, the nurse reminded him as she came in to check on his father. Or else he would have fits. Tommy took that as a gentle hint to get lost. He hugged his dad goodbye, said he’d see him tomorrow, and left the sterilized air of the hospital for the bright greenness of outside.

Tommy still had stuff to unpack. He also had to go to the grocery store if he wanted anything more than Poptarts and crackers that night. And he had a list of chores to make the house ready for when his father got home.

Tommy never said “if” when he thought about his father. Always “when.”

When his father returned home, his dad could usually take care of himself, but Tommy would have to take care of the house. He didn’t mind. He’d done it for the past several years, and even a hefty amount of chores before then. His mother had seen to that.

Tommy’s fists tightened as he walked through the isolated park. Just the type of place his mother would pick out for training. His mother lived and breathed martial arts. She had first taken Tommy on the tournament circuits, and she’d kept Tommy in heavy training from the time he could walk. Earlier, if Tommy’s suspicions were correct.

His mother hadn’t been pleasant, but she’d been there. Until his father had started having seizures and mild fits. Until she realized her family had become a burden.

Tommy grabbed up a rock and threw it at a tree. It hit someone else instead.

Tommy took a split second to gape at the… men?... surrounding him. They darted around, waving their arms in large circles and emitting a high warbling sound.

Putties…

The word raced across his mind as one of them lunged for him. He dodged and ducked a return arm swipe. Another rushed at him, so he ducked out of the way and kicked that one toward the first attacker. They both fell to the ground. Tommy didn’t have much time to congratulate himself. There were more… lots more… closing in.

The words of his father and Mr. Caplan sprang to mind. Watch out. Be careful. Don’t get involved. Don’t get into fights. But what could one do when they all attacked at once?

A quick count showed eight more of the gray aliens floundering about. More could teleport in, from what he heard, at any moment. The only possible recourse, Tommy reasoned as he ducked and counterattacked the next attacker, would be to end the fight quickly and run. Maybe then the aliens wouldn’t consider him worth expending so much energy.

All this went through his mind as he methodically took down each attacker that went for him. A few weren’t put down permanently, but he had always had a sixth sense about attacks from behind. And then he realized something wonderful. He didn’t have to hold back!

The next Putty, a bit of a better fighter than his fellows, implemented a complicated series of punches and kicks that were obviously meant to wear Tommy down. The Putty probably thought he had the stamina of most humans. Tommy just grinned and punched the Putty in the face as hard as he could. The punch launched the Putty backwards several feet straight into a tree. If the fighter had been human, his neck would have probably snapped.

The Putties began to fight more cautiously after seeing him take down their best in one blow. Tommy smiled grimly and aimed hard for pressure points, hoping the fact that Putties had human shape meant they had the same pain centers.

They didn’t, but the force of the punches wore them down. Tommy alternated hard roundhouse kicks. This style of fighting would get him banned from most tournaments, he mused as he kicked a Putty hard in what should have been the solar plexus. However, tournament fighting this wasn’t. He was fighting for his life, and he was trying to remind himself of the danger even as he exulted in the sheer release of fighting for real.

And then it was over. Tommy was still in his stance, ready for anything, but the Putties littering the ground seemed hardly able to move, much less prove themselves dangerous.

Tommy exulted in the victory and stood there among his fallen foes, breathing hard. His brain was screaming at him to move, to run, that there may be more any second, but his not-so-smart pride sort of wanted someone—anyone—to see what he had done. Maybe Kimberly…

As he started to bend to retrieve his backpack, he realized he couldn’t move. A weird pressure in the air surrounded him, and Tommy found that he was now gasping for air, and not from his exertions. The air seemed to pulse… green?...

Then a sharp tingling overcame his body that quickly turned to pain. Tommy screamed once… and was gone.

In the deafening silence after the scene of furious battle, a lone Putty left its hiding place behind a nearby tree. It quickly picked up a series of small poles stuck in the ground that Tommy hadn’t noticed. Job complete, it and the other injured Putties teleported away. No one would be able to tell this was the scene of a life-or-death battle.


“That’s odd,” Alpha said to himself.

Zordon was busy reading a book, the words scrolling across his “tube” and showing backwards to anyone looking at him, so he didn’t at first register Alpha’s voice.

“What is odd, Alpha?” The deep voice’s cadence was decidedly archaic, which was the translator’s attempt at representing Zordon’s extreme age.

Alpha, frustrated, punched a few more buttons, running through the readings from the Earth surveillance system. A tornado in Alabama, an earthquake several miles away from Angel Grove, a civil uprising… But nothing under Power Ranger jurisdiction.

“I’m not sure, Zordon” Alpha finally said before Zordon had to ask him again. “There was a blip in the system, but it vanished. It registered as a disturbance in Angel Grove, but…” Alpha finally threw up his hands, which was his version of shrugging.

“Do you think Rita Repulsa may be up to something? Do you think it is serious enough to have a Ranger investigate?”

Alpha looked up at Zordon. It was a thoroughly unnecessary action, since Alpha’s sensors meant he could essentially “see” everywhere, but he tried to approximate humanoid interaction, and eye contact was important to humans, as he had learned from the Rangers.

“It could have been a car crash,” Alpha said with uncertainty. “Sometimes those are bad enough to affect the sensors, and there is a three-car pile-up on Main. It is ultimately your decision, Zordon, but I’m not even sure where to begin to investigate.”

Zordon considered this. True, their sensors had been fooled by ordinary occurrences before. But Rita might be working hard to hide something she was doing on Earth.

“Are all the Rangers accounted for?”

Alpha punched a button on the communications console that made each of the Rangers’ communicators vibrate slightly. This meant that they were to press their communicators in answer, but no vocal communication was required. This let the Rangers concentrate on what they were doing for this non-urgent “head count.”

“All Rangers reported in, Zordon,” Alpha said as the fifth light went off on the console.

“Closely monitor Earth, Alpha,” Zordon said. “We don’t want anything catching us by surprise, but we cannot become paranoid. We’ll mention it at the next meeting, as well.”

Alpha nodded and adjusted the sensors. He knew he was keyed up—they all were, a little—because it was Friday and Rita hadn’t tried an attack all week. That was unusual. Alpha perversely hoped Rita would attack soon to break the tension.

Oh, well, Alpha thought. More time to get caught up on projects. As Zordon got back to his book, Alpha grabbed his toolbox to tinker with the emergency quarantine chamber he and Billy had been building. Rita would attack, and they would deal with it like always.


Kimberly slumped in her seat, angry with herself for her lousy practice, and watched Jason and Zack teach their class. Trini had to go home early to help her mother paint the living room.

Billy sat across from her, leafing slowly through an SAT practice book. They wouldn’t take it for another few months, but Billy said he liked to be prepared. Never mind he could make a 1600 on it right now without even trying, Kimberly thought dourly.

That wasn’t fair, Kimberly caught herself. And that wasn’t what was bugging her.

Their drinks came. Ernie hadn’t brought it, for which Kimberly was glad. She didn’t really want to talk right then. Unfortunately, Billy looked up to thank the waitress and caught sight of her face.

“Kimberly, what’s wrong?” Billy asked. As smart as he was, he always sounded bewildered.

“It’s nothing,” Kimberly mumbled.

Billy kept staring at her, his eyebrows raised. “Are you concerned about what occurred at lunch?”

Not as oblivious as he seemed, Kimberly reflected. “Yeah… no… not really, I guess.”

Billy kept quiet.

“I guess I thought Tommy would want to come here. I mean, Zack asked him when I was going to, but then Tommy just blew us off.”

Billy stared at her, and then understanding dawned in his eyes. “That makes sense, then.”

Kimberly felt herself getting irritated. “If it makes sense to you, then you’re one step ahead of me, cause I don’t get it. I mean…” Kimberly lowered her voice to a whisper. “Am I hideous or something?”

“You’re not… hideous,” Billy laughed nervously.

“Then what is it?” Kimberly asked.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Billy said in the same voice he used when explaining a really hard Algebra problem to her. “Zack asked Tommy to go to the Juice Bar.”

“I know that,” Kimberly said.

“And then you looked livid, and Zack was kicked under the table and was remiss in hiding his reactions.”

“So?”

“So Tommy thought you didn’t want him to come. He thought you didn’t like him and that he wasn’t wanted.”

Kimberly stared at him as he went back to his practice book. “Wh-what?”

Billy shrugged. “Just think about it.”

She did, and it made perfect sense. “Why didn’t I realize it then?”

“You were too angry, and Tommy provided a legitimate excuse. He was lying, though, about not being able to come,” Billy said matter-of-factly.

“And how do you know that?” Kimberly asked with growing admiration.

“Simple psychology and body language,” Billy said, turning a page in the book and putting it down. “His posture was open, and he leaned forward when you were talking, as if he were trying to meet the words halfway. Then when Zack mentioned the juice bar, he brightened up.”

“But he could still have wanted to come, but wasn’t able or allowed,” Kimberly reasoned.

“He blinked too much, and then he looked away too quickly,” Billy countered. “I’m surprised you couldn’t pick up on it. He didn’t work all that hard at hiding the lie, or maybe he just didn’t have time to prepare…”

They both shifted uncomfortably. Kimberly knew Billy was having the worst time learning how to lie to cover for his unpredictable Ranger duties. He and his mother were very close. He’d had a much older father, a man in his sixties by the time he was eight, who had died of a stroke. She knew all this because their mothers were friends and she and Billy lived across the street from each other. They’d always been sort of forced to be friends, even when they had nothing in common, and they knew each other the longest out of the five friends.

And Billy was a good student and all-around good kid, two things that didn’t include lying. The worst happened when he was out after curfew (fighting monsters), got grounded, and then, a few days later, had to put a hologram of himself in his room so he could fool his mom, teleport out of there, and fight more monsters. It was killing him that he couldn’t just tell her what was going on. Kimberly put herself forth as an alibi for him whenever possible.

“You know,” Kimberly finally said, “you’re really smart, Billy.”

“So what else is new?” Zack asked, wrapping a towel around his shoulders. Jason followed: they’d dismissed their class.

Kimberly grinned at them and finished her smoothie with a loud slurp. “Zack,” she said as she was getting up, “I forgive you.”

“Huh?”

Kimberly skipped out of the room, headed for the locker room, leaving Zack and Jason both bewildered.

“What was that all about?” Zack asked Billy.

Billy shrugged. “I have no idea.”


Tommy woke up slowly, thinking only of how thirsty he was, and found he couldn’t move.

His first thoughts were of his father and could Tommy be experiencing the same disorder, which sometimes manifested in an inability to move. That never lasted long, though. The shaking would start soon.

It wasn’t that, though, as Tommy’s full awareness slowly returned. He was aware of sitting in a chair that was so high-backed his head was resting against it. Restraints that felt like some sort of leather, only not quite leather, held him at his wrists, elbows, ankles, knees, and forehead. He effectively couldn’t move an inch.

The fact that he wasn’t having an epileptic fit did nothing, of course, to dispel the blind panic with which he awoke.

“He’s awake, my Empress,” a rough voice growled over the right side of the chair, so close it made him jump.

“Good,” came an answer. Still a rough voice, but this time female and with more of a sense of authority. This would be the “empress,” then.

Whirring sounded in his ears, and Tommy found he could finally open his eyes. A white alien face was almost nose-to-nose with him. He flinched back as much as he could, gasping in enough air that his head spun. He couldn’t make a sound, though. He’d been gagged.

“He seems to be in perfect shape,” an unexpectedly kindly voice came from the white alien, who pulled away from Tommy. “He suffered nothing but a minor scrape from the Putty attack. His pulse is high, but that’s from fear, of course.”

Tommy tried to put together the alien’s words. Putty attack. He remembered that. Ten had attacked him as he left the hospital, and he’d won. At least, until that… whatever… had trapped him and made him pass out.

“Why did he lose consciousness, then?” the rough female voice asked. “Simple teleportation shouldn’t have affected someone of his strength like that.”

“I believe it was the combination of the lack of experience with teleportation and the magic that kept the attack a secret from all surveillance. I don’t believe he’ll have any more trouble with teleportation,” the polite voice answered.

He sounded like a doctor. But this was unlike any hospital Tommy had ever been in. The walls were dark. Smoke billowed across the floor. He couldn’t really make any details out in the room, other than a sense of candles and small objects on shelves.

His heart was pounding. He forced himself to breathe through his nose slowly and deliberately. If he was going to find a way out of this situation, he would have to calm down. As he forced his pulse to slow, his brain started putting things together a little better. He’d heard about an Empress… Rita or something like that… who was the nemesis of the Power Rangers. She must have engineered that attack, though why she couldn’t have merely teleported him straight there he couldn’t say. Unless the Putties were a distraction for something else… Tommy stopped himself. He didn’t have enough information on that track, so it wouldn’t help him. Didn’t matter how he got here. He was here. Now he had to get out in one piece.

At the same time, he was starting to realize he was probably not going to die. The aliens seemed worried about his health. Would they be like that for someone who was about to die?

But why did they want him alive? That worried Tommy. Experiments? Slow torture? Weird alien perversions that he didn’t even want to imagine? He was starting to sweat.

A woman in a large pink dress finally walked into his field of vision. She was talking animatedly, but he just couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying. It was as if his hearing kept fading in and out. Her age was indeterminate. At times she looked like an old hag, and at other times she looked quite youthful. Only her face and hands showed through the voluminous clothing, and he couldn’t tell what was hair and what was headdress on her head.

The woman finally turned to him. She smiled, and it felt like an ice cube dropped in the pit of his stomach.

“Ah…” the woman said in what she obviously thought was a warm, solicitous voice. “Tommy Oliver. It’s so good to finally meet you in person.” She ended with a self-satisfied smile, as if she had given Tommy a remarkable honor by addressing him.

Tommy stared at her for a minute as what she said registered in his brain. From her manner, though he was gagged and restrained, he suddenly felt he ought to bow, or curtsy, or something.

“What’s he doing?” the woman asked.

Tommy realized she was referring to him, and he realized horribly that he was laughing. Laughing hard and deep in his throat. He couldn’t help it. Call it a hysterical response to the tension and fear, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

The gag was suddenly cut away from behind. Tommy kept laughing, now giving full throat to the sound that was until that second muffled.

“Are you laughing at me?” Rita sounded harsh. Tommy wondered if anyone ever laughed around her.

Feeling as if he were pushing the envelope and hoping to come out of this alive and unscathed, Tommy mastered himself. “Forgive me, Empress Rita,” Tommy said. He felt like politeness was part of the key to survival, or at least not being killed outright. “I would never laugh at you. You’re too terrifying. I’m not sure why I’m laughing.”

“He’s brave. You’ve got to get him that,” the rough male voice said behind him. Tommy still didn’t have a face to put with that voice. “He’s definitely showing more grit than I would give credit to a human.”

The white alien chimed in. “The bravery may be useful, but it may also be a hindrance. His character may prove too strong for the process.”

Rita smirked at Tommy, who instantly felt no desire to laugh. “I think not. A strong character can still be turned, and he will see enough benefit in turning. Think about it: what would happen if one of those Rangers were in his situation?”

“They would be thrashing in their bonds and vowing revenge,” the rough male voice supplied. “‘You won’t get away with this’ would be a popular phrase.”

“Exactly,” Rita said. “Our Mr. Oliver, on the other hand, has tested his bonds for strength only once. He’s laughed. He’s addressed me with respect.”

“He’s smart.”

“Yes, that,” Rita said. “But he also knows how to compromise.”

Tommy stayed silent, his panic starting to build again as he tried to keep signs of it off his face. He was in a cold sweat and had the inconvenient urge to pee.

“Well, since he has a clean bill of health,” Rita continued, turning her back neatly on him, “I think we can proceed with the mind control process. We can begin with Finster’s machine to soften him up, and then I can focus some magic on him.”

Mind control…

Tommy nearly toppled the chair over as he threw all his weight against his bonds. It took him a minute to realize that the yelling was coming from him. Armored hands from behind held him firmly down, cutting slightly into the flesh of his shoulders as he thrashed. Another gag was pulled into place and tied tightly. Tommy was barely aware of what he was doing. He was going on pure instinct. He only knew that he had to get away… to run… to escape the threat to his very identity.

Tommy gave a strangled scream as he felt a metal cap forced down on his head. And then, suddenly, everything was quiet. He felt his breathing slow. White noise filled his ears.

Why are you struggling? No one is hurting you.

That was a good question. Already his muscles were buckling in protest to the hard, fruitless effort. Tommy relaxed, and he was suddenly overcome with euphoria. He was bound, sure, but he was still comfortable. No one had hurt him yet, either, until he had begun struggling.

You were hurting yourself, after all. They didn’t want you to injure yourself.

That made sense. They had worried about his health, after all.

But he was still thirsty. It was starting to be all he could focus on. The new voice, for he could tell there was a new voice—a warm, beautiful voice—was starting to become fainter as his thirst grew.

Then, miraculously, he felt water being tipped down his throat. He forced himself to swallow and not choke. It was the single best feeling he’d ever had in his life.

You are in no danger, Tommy. You can relax. You are safe, and you don’t have to take care of anyone.

Father…

Your father is safe. He is fine. You don’t have to take care of him right now.

He felt a surge of guilty relief flood over him. To not have the responsibility…

Tommy no longer felt the bonds. He no longer felt anything but blessed comfort with the voice that he realized sounded a lot like his mother’s, when she would read to him before bed.

Now that you are more relaxed, we will discuss Empress Rita… your empress and savior.

Chapter Text

It was Sunday morning, according to Angel Grove time, and Rita felt like death warmed over as she applied her makeup. It wasn’t as if she were trying to impress anyone in particular, but she felt it was her duty as monarch to hide the bags under her eyes.

It had been an exhausting weekend. Friday night had mostly been spent on preparing the various potions and charms, with which Squatt and especially Baboo were irreplaceable help, no matter their personal failings. Baboo had a better grasp of potions than she, though she would never admit it. Not to mention summoning enough power within herself to do a proper job while Finster kept Tommy under the “Helmet of Persuasion” or whatever the hell Finster was calling it.

Then Saturday…

Rita had never actually tried swaying someone’s mind. She’s taken control of monsters and animals before, sure, but a conscious, strong-willed being? She knew the theory, but the actual experience was nothing like what they said in the books.

Finster had laid the groundwork beautifully. Tommy was relaxed and pliable. There had been a moment after Goldar had first taken the brainwashing helmet off when Tommy looked like he was going to fight, but Goldar kept a firm hand on his arm, and the boy let himself be guided out of the workshop and into the throne room.

There was a problem, of course, with only using Finster’s machine. It was good at relaxing and laying the groundwork for suggestion, but it was not to be used by itself. Too much time under its ministrations, Finster had been careful to point out, and he would lose all capacity for independent thought and action.

Rita began the long process of wrapping her hair tightly into the cones. No, she didn’t want an imbecile for a servant. She didn’t even want someone who would only blindly follow orders. She wanted a true warrior. Someone who would make plans. Who could improvise. Who could eventually come out of the “mind control”—such an inaccurate term for what they were doing—and fully become one of her warriors.

She wanted the boy who laughed and called her by her title when she introduced herself. But completely devoted to her.

Rita wasn’t quite sure when that became so important to her. Perhaps it was yesterday, when she’d had to maintain the maximum level of eye contact with him for ten hours as she worked her spells.

It had been… intense. Not many people realized how magic was not only difficult but deeply personal. She was using her own life energy to fuel the magic. That’s why she was so crushed after every monster death, and she only used a little magic on them. Sure, she was angry about losing each time, but seeing a monster that was touched by her own magic destroyed… it was like seeing a part of herself die as well. And the headaches from the expense of power and concentration were intense.

That was nothing to what she had experienced with Tommy. She had seen his entire life—his very soul—laid bare before her. His trouble at school. His problems with rage. His brief bouts with bullying… on both sides. His mother, who had screwed him over with her hard lessons and competitiveness, and then left him with the responsibility of caring for his ailing father. His father, who could barely cope with disability. The hard relatives who had come in to lord over the two, who had disapproved of the mother and disapproved of the son who stayed in trouble just because he had no way to deal with the pressures. The love and humiliation he felt at having to take care of his father…

Rita didn’t think she could have picked a more intensely complicated individual if she had tried. So different from the other Rangers, with their loving, stable homes and charitable behavior. For those brats, the power was just another responsibility. Just another way to help people. For Tommy, it would be a release from crushing responsibility.

The spells had worked. There were a few sticky moments when she saw resistance in the boy’s hazel eyes, but she’d been able to quickly find the issue and deal with it. The father, especially, was a problem area. Even though Tommy obviously wanted to be rid of having to care for the man all the time, he felt crushing guilt and could never seem to admit it out loud.

Yet Rita had overcome those difficulties, she thought with not a little pride. The key wasn’t to make the boy hate his father outright. It was to convince him that he was a burden on his father, and his father would heal easier without such a badly behaved teen burden. It was a crack in the boy’s self-esteem, but he didn’t need too much self-esteem or else he’d be entirely impossible to control.

When Finster had insisted the process end—that they had both had enough and needed eight uninterrupted hours of sleep—Tommy had bowed graciously and allowed himself to be led to some guest quarters. He’d even smiled, though the smile had looked a little dazed to Rita’s eyes.

Rita groaned. She’d had to keep herself upright until Tommy and everyone but Finster left the room, and then she’d slumped, nearly delirious with exhaustion. She wasn’t quite sure how she’d gotten to bed… and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.

“Are you awake, my queen?” a tentative voice called from a crack in the doorway.

“Come in, Finster.” She had just completed the finishing touches to her hair. Her voice was much softer than usual.

The scientist pushed the door open and came doddering in, carrying a tray of Rita’s favorite foods after a magic hangover: black coffee, an aspirin, and three chocolate-covered donuts, complete with sprinkles.

“Tommy is already awake and ready,” Finster said as Rita heartily applied herself to her breakfast. “He is exercising right now. He’s not one to remain inactive for very long.”

“Good…” Rita said, swallowing a large mouthful of donut and washing it down with a gulp of coffee. It burned her throat pleasantly. “He needs to keep in training. I want a warrior, not a tax accountant. How are his behavior patterns?”

“Exemplary,” Finster said. “He’s right on schedule. I believe, if you agree after assessment, that we can proceed with waking him up a bit more. He should, if we’re careful, be fully aware by tonight.”

“Excellent! He can be back in school by tomorrow and no one will be the wiser,” Rita said. She congratulated herself on the foresight to have Tommy call his father both Friday and Saturday. It was essential that no one, not even the invalid father, know that something odd was going on with Tommy.

She dismissed Finster so she could finish her breakfast. Her head was feeling better already as the caffeine sped the medicine along. She’d been impatient all weekend, wanting to have a fully loyal Ranger at her service. But it just wasn’t time yet. She might be able to give him Ranger powers that night… and she might not. In fact, it would be smarter to wait… to give him some simple assignments so he could prove himself before gifting him with real power. After all, once the power was grafted onto his spirit, it was no easy task to separate the two.

Rita leaned back in her chair, holding the hot coffee between two cold hands. Things were going far better than she thought. It was all up to Tommy now… and how he would respond to service.


Billy was usually the first to teleport in to the Command Center, wanting to get a little tinkering done before the others got there and the meeting began. This Sunday, though, Jason was there first.

“She’s planning something… I just know it,” Billy heard Jason’s low voice say.

“I do not deny that the situation is worrisome, Jason. But there is little we can do right now,” Zordon’s reassuring voice answered.

“Hey,” Billy said, approaching the middle of the cramped room. “What’s going on?”

“Rita hasn’t attacked, and Jason’s jumpy,” a calm voice came from the floor. Billy hadn’t seen Trini there until she spoke.

“Yes… It is a bit unusual,” Billy said.

“Downright unheard-of, you mean,” Jason answered. “I feel like… I dunno… like she’s leading us into a false sense of security.”

“Or that she might be traveling? None of us have had a vacation in months, and even evil overlords need to get away from it all… I’m guessing,” Trini suggested.

“Or taking a sick day?” Billy said. “I mean, don’t dark empresses of evil get the flu upon occasion?”

“Rita is still in her palace… the sensors show us,” Alpha answered. “The power levels have not dropped. She may be sick, though…”

“I think this is something to discuss when the actual meeting starts,” Trini interrupted.

“Discuss what?”

Kimberly and Zack had just teleported in, both holding tall lattes from Java Time. Zack produced a tray with three more from his other hand.

Billy sighed inwardly. Tinkering was unlikely, he mused as he accepted a drink.

“What else?” Jason answered Kimberly’s question. “No monsters this week. Not a one. And I was sure on Friday, or even Saturday…”

Zack rolled his eyes. “Jason, listen to yourself. You’re complaining that we haven’t had to fight for our lives this week? I, for one, have enjoyed every minute of the peace and quiet. I thought we all had.”

“I have been able to get a lot more work done this week,” Billy chimed in.

“But she’s up to something,” Jason said furiously. “Something big, if it requires this much planning.”

“Or the flu,” Trini countered.

“I’m not buying it,” Jason said, sharper than he meant to, as Billy saw by his apologetic look. “I mean, if she wants to put us off our guard, she’s doing a great job at it. Look at us! Do you call this vigilance?”

“Jason, chill,” Zack said hesitantly.

“Zack’s right,” Kimberly said. “I mean, even if she is planning something big, how can we be ready for something we don’t know about?”

“It’s not like we have to wait for her to make the first move,” Jason said quietly.

The silence was tense. This was the beginning of an old argument.

“Jason, we cannot consider that as an option,” Zordon said, finally joining in the conversation.

Jason turned to face Zordon. “But… why not? We know the general location of Rita’s palace. We can move safely around the moon with our Ranger suits. All it would take was a little…”

“That’s great,” Zack interrupted with a laugh. “Anyone feel like volunteering for that suicide mission?”

Jason shook his head. “I’m not asking you to go. I’ll go. I can get in and out easier anyway.”

“We don’t want you volunteering for a suicide mission either, dummy,” Kimberly said.

“But…”

“Jason,” Zordon said, “it is out of the question.”

“We know nothing about the security there,” Billy added. “It could be monsters, or magic, or advanced extraterrestrial technology, or bear traps…”

“Bear traps!...” Trini giggled.

“We have no information, of course,” Zordon said. “But what is more… what is the second rule of being a Power Ranger?”

Jason looked defeated. “Never escalate a battle unless Rita forces you.”

“Which would necessarily include beginning a battle, which would happen if you trespassed in her palace and were caught,” Zordon said, a touch of finality to his voice.

Jason said nothing. An uncomfortable silence filled the room, as it always did during this argument.

“Which, of course,” Zordon continued, “does not mean that we should drop our guard at all. We must remain vigilant.”

“We should each call in to the Command Center once a day,” Jason said, obviously wishing to forget the previous argument. “We should also check the hot spots, at least for the time being. Sometimes the human eye can catch what the best of video surveillance can’t.”

“Agreed,” Zordon said.

“Sounds great,” Zack said. “I’ll take Foley Park.”

“I’ll check in on the beach,” Trini said. “I need to get away from painting the kitchen anyway.”

“I’ll take the mall,” Kimberly chimed in.

Everyone looked at her. Trini looked like she was trying not to laugh.

“What?” Kimberly said. “I mean… come on. There have been two mall attacks this month already. If that isn’t the definition of a hot spot, I don’t know what is.”

Jason laughed. “No… nothing wrong with that. I’ll take Marshall Park, then. Billy?”

Billy shrugged. “I think I can be of more help here. I can help Alpha with the sensors. There are, after all, things that surveillance can catch that the human eye will miss.”

Billy hoped that didn’t sound defensive. He’d tried not to be offended at Jason’s slight of the Command Center’s sensors. He’d worked hard on those, after all.

Jason nodded, having fully recovered after his dressing down. “Sounds like a plan. We’ll do a sweep once a day until the next attack. Hopefully…”

“Hopefully this is all useless,” Zack said. “Hopefully Rita hasn’t grown a working brain in the past week.”

“That’s not funny,” Trini protested.

“Indeed it is not,” Zordon said, focusing on Zack. “It is unwise to consider Rita anything but a dangerous foe. While you all have beaten her each time she’s attacked, it only takes one failure to lose everything. Never assume that your enemy is stupid or incompetent. Rita is as old as I am, and has seen centuries of intergalactic battle. Her fault right now is she constantly underestimates you. She will not always. So do not underestimate her.”

“All right, I’m sorry,” Zack said. “I was only kidding.” He mumbled the last words, which Zordon heard but let slide. He was scolding his Rangers far too much for his liking today.

“So,” Jason broke in. “We system check our Zords, like usual, and then break in an hour?”

The others nodded, falling into comfortable routine. Billy was disturbed, however. If it was Rita’s intent to sow discord among the group, she was doing a pretty good job.


Tommy’s awareness slowly formed around him, as if a fog were lifting. He blinked his eyes rapidly and reached up to rub them. He was momentarily surprised that he could move at all.

He checked his watch. 6:00. AM? PM? He had no idea. He didn’t even know what day it was, because he was, he reflected with some humor, on the moon and therefore time and days wouldn’t matter all that much.

“It’s Sunday night, if you’re wondering,” a rough male voice said.

“I was wondering, actually,” Tommy answered.

The rough male voice belonged to a huge armored… man? He had a simian face, so Tommy wasn’t sure if “man” could apply. The warrior was holding a large golden sword, pointing vaguely in Tommy’s direction. He considered… it couldn’t be real gold—the sword and armor. Too malleable for any use in battle.

“What’s your armor made of?” Tommy asked before he could stop himself.

“None of your business,” the warrior answered. “The Empress is waiting in her throne room. Now that you’re awake, you’re expected to attend her for testing.”

Tommy smiled brightly and hopped off the medical bed he’d been lying on. He pulled on his shirt over his tank top and combed his hands through his hair, trying to make himself look presentable.

“Don’t bother,” the warrior said. “You’re human… you’re hideous anyway.”

“But Empress Rita looks human enough,” Tommy said, giving up on some tangles. He sighed. “Apparently being brainwashed did nothing for my hair.”

The gold warrior did a double-take. “You… you know you were brainwashed.”

Tommy rolled his eyes. “Of course I was. I’m not a complete idiot.”

“And you’re… fine… with it.”

Tommy grinned. “Why wouldn’t I?”

As immobile as the warrior’s face was, Tommy could tell he was making him uncomfortable. He couldn’t figure out why, but he knew they had better get a move on if Empress Rita wanted them immediately. He indicated that he was ready to go. The gold warrior still regarded him suspiciously but led the way out of the workshop.

“By the way,” Tommy said as they were walking down a long hallway. “I never got your name.”

The warrior made an irritated sound. Tommy supposed he shouldn’t be so chatty, but this was the first time in days he’d had free range of his thoughts. He just couldn’t help saying whatever he was thinking.

“Goldar,” the warrior finally answered.

“Oh, so your armor is made of…”

“It is a coincidence!” Goldar said.

Tommy shrugged. How could anyone respond to that?

Tommy got his first full look at the throne room. The place was an amalgamation of mist, darkness, clocks, and candles, but as Tommy’s eyes adjusted from the direct lighting of Finster’s workshop, he could make out the alien opulence of the place. The focus of the room, though, was an open balcony featuring a telescope.

Open balcony… Tommy flinched away.

“The atmosphere is protected by a force field, you dummy,” Goldar said to him in a low tone.

“Oh,” Tommy said, willing his heart back to normal speed. “I knew that.”

Finally, Tommy saw Empress Rita glide in from a corner, where she had been reading a large book. She sat herself on her throne and regarded Tommy imperiously.

Tommy moved forward, trying his hardest not to look foolish, and bowed low. When he straightened, he said in words that seemed drilled into him, “Your servant, Tommy Oliver, reporting as ordered, my Empress.”

He waited on pins and needles as Empress Rita’s eyes seemed to bore into him. He gulped under the scrutiny, hoping against hope that he had performed everything correctly.

In the back of his mind, though, he slowly became aware that this was not, in fact, the first time he’d been in the throne room… and not the first time he’d shared eye contact with his Empress. The flashes of memory were… intense, and frightening in a sense. It was as if something personal had happened between them. Tommy forced himself to meet her gaze head-on. He would not appear weak in front of his Empress.

“You are my servant, then, Tommy?” Rita finally asked. “Completely loyal to me?”

“Yes, I am, Empress,” Tommy said strongly. If he was certain of anything, it was of that solitary truth.

“He knows he’s been brainwashed,” Goldar said abruptly. “He told me himself.” There seemed to be a ring of triumph in Goldar’s voice.

“Do you?” Empress Rita said sharply.

Tommy flinched at her tone. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to bear her outright displeasure if he felt so uneasy at this. “Yes, my Empress. I know I’ve been brainwashed. I know I’m under your control,” he said. He wanted to ask why this was a problem, but he didn’t want to risk disrespecting her.

“How do you feel about that?” Empress Rita asked after a long pause, during which Tommy suffered acutely.

Tommy considered, not quite sure how to put his feelings into words. “I feel… This probably sounds ridiculous, but I feel liberated.”

Empress Rita frowned in confusion, though Tommy suspected she knew more about him than he was able to explain. “Liberated… how?”

Tommy sighed. “My Empress… it’s like this. I’ve always had to take care of people, you know? I’ve always had to worry about money, or school, or getting into trouble, or getting expelled from one more school…” Tommy smiled. “Now, my life is simplified.”

“You know you’ll still have grave responsibility,” Empress Rita said.

“Yes, my Empress,” Tommy said. “However, I know what is expected of me. I… I didn’t before.”

Tommy remained silent again under Empress Rita’s scrutiny.

“And what about… your father,” Empress Rita said.

The tension in the room made Tommy feel uncomfortable. He pictured, as always when he thought about his father, the smile that his mother had sworn he and his father shared. Tommy had had little to smile about lately, though. So had his father, what with the expulsions and various other problems Tommy was constantly bringing into his father’s life.

He also again pictured the hospital bed… waiting and worrying into late hours in hospital waiting rooms… rushing to stuff medicine down his father’s throat while he was still able to swallow in one of his fits…

Tommy realized he hadn’t answered. “My father… is better off without me. My loyalty lies with you only, Empress Rita.”

Tommy saw the tension leave his Empress’s face, and he cheered in his head. He knew he was Empress Rita’s servant; he just had no idea how to go about it. This waiting without orders or purpose was maddening.

“Tommy, listen carefully to me,” Empress Rita said in a serious, earnest voice.

All thoughts of everything but fully absorbing Empress Rita’s words left Tommy immediately.

“You are my most important plan—my ultimate weapon. You will be given power. The power to crush our enemies. By your hand they will suffer, and together we all will kill them.” Empress Rita’s gaze left Tommy’s to include Goldar, Finster, and the other minions Tommy hadn’t really met yet.

Tommy felt pride swell inside of him, and a responsibility that did not crush. My ultimate weapon…

“However, Tommy, you must prove yourself before I grant you this power,” Empress Rita continued. “Therefore, I give you your first mission.”

Tommy’s attention sharpened, ready to commit to memory everything his Empress told him.

“The teenagers you had lunch with Friday… I want you to make friends with them.”

This drove Tommy into utter and complete confusion. What did that have to do with…

“Yes, my Empress,” he said quickly. It was not for him to question why right now. This was his first assignment, after all, and Empress Rita knew far more than he.

“You will return to your home tonight to sleep and go to school tomorrow. You will act like a normal teenager. At six o’clock tomorrow evening, then, you are to be in your bedroom, alone, for teleportation. Squatt, give Tommy the poles.”

A short, blue minion immediately appeared at Tommy’s side, pushing some short, ornately carves wooden sticks into his hands. “Here ya go, weird human guy.”

“Thanks,” Tommy answered wryly. You’re the new guy here, Tommy reminded himself. He would just have to deal with bullying until he proved himself.

“Those poles interfere with all surveillance, including those in the Power Rangers’ Command Center,” Empress Rita explained. “Place those around your bedroom and have three of them on you at all times. We must maintain the utmost secrecy… at least for now.”

“Yes, my Empress,” Tommy said. “I will obey you in all things.”

“I know you will,” Empress Rita answered, and they made eye contact for one last time. Tommy was pleased to see that Empress Rita had confidence in her eyes. He vowed right then and there to do his utmost to keep that confidence.

With that, Rita flicked her wand, and Tommy was gone.

“He certainly knows how to talk, my Empress,” Goldar said in the wake of Tommy’s departure.

Rita smirked. “He treats me with the utmost respect. You would do well to follow his example.”

Goldar was obviously furious but had no way to voice that fury without stepping over the line. Rita finally had mercy on him.

“Come, now, Goldar,” she said in her kindest voice. “You are not being replaced… you have no cause for jealousy.”

“I am certainly not jealous of that mere human,” Goldar said, not able to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“That’s good to know,” Rita said.

Squatt and Baboo had been speaking in loud whispers. They, over time, usually forgot to whisper, as they did now.

“I don’t think Goldar likes the weird human very much,” Squatt said.

“I don’t think I like him either,” Baboo answered. His voice was wearier than his counterpart. He’d had to prepare many of the potions used in the brainwashing process, and Rita knew those potions were difficult to make correctly. They’d been perfect, though. She considered giving him a pay raise.

“He’s too flippant about the brainwashing,” Goldar said. “That’s dangerous. He could be faking.”

“He’s not faking,” Rita said sharply. Silence rang throughout the room.

They couldn’t know. How could they? They had not been as personally involved in his transformation as she had been. They knew nothing of the internal changes she had enacted in the boy’s very psyche. But they would not question her. And certainly not about this.

But that didn’t mean she couldn’t cheer them all up a little. After all, as much as she verbally abused them all, she had carefully handpicked all of them and they were her team. They could never be replaced by some mind-controlled human.

“Goldar, what was Scorpina doing the last time you talked to her?”

Goldar looked up in surprise, obviously still fuming about the human. “The last time I heard from her was a week ago. She’s doing freelance mercenary work in the Ceti system.”

Rita was pleased to hear that Goldar and Scorpina were on good terms at the time. That would make things a lot easier. “Contact her immediately and ask her to join us here. I know she won’t want to miss out on all the fun.”


Tommy was pleased to note that, while a little woozy, he did not pass out this time when he was teleported. He opened his eyes slowly and realized he was back in his new bedroom at his uncle’s summer house.

He was disappointed a little in the normality of his surroundings, after spending the weekend in a moon palace surrounded by aliens. He was nearly convinced that it was all just a dream.

Except for the wooden sticks clutched tightly in his hands. And the undeniable fact that everything had changed.

Tommy immediately spread four of the poles around the perimeter of his bedroom. He could almost hear a slight buzzing as the spell activated in a dull green glow that surrounded the room. The glow vanished, and the buzz left in the room was nothing more than the electronic buzz of a TV left on.

He was starving.

Realizing he had not had time to shop for groceries before his appointment with destiny and that there was certainly not a scrap of food in the house, Tommy grabbed his jacket and stuffed the additional three poles in a deep pocket. He made sure his wallet was in his jeans—how embarrassing would it have been if he’d left his wallet up at the Moon Palace—and left the room for a fast food/grocery run.

He paused and looked back at his bedroom, now only remarkable in that it was invisible to the Power Rangers, and was rather let down. The sheer mundanity in the room, his errand… his first mission…

Tommy shook his head to clear it. Even the greatest warriors had to eat and sleep. As for the mission, Tommy knew with all his being that he was destined for great things. That much he was sure about—as sure as he knew Rita was his mistress. If his Empress thought that he needed to earn that glory, who was he to question her?

Tommy smirked and turned away from his bedroom. He decided to check out that juice bar. Maybe it wasn’t closed yet. 

Chapter Text

The overhead speaker played the pop tunes of five years as Tommy tried to find some bananas worth buying. On one side of the stand the bananas were neon green, which was perhaps better than the nearly black ones on the other side. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, Tommy chose two that would do and tried not to look as depressed as he felt.

The juice bar had been a bust. It was only open Monday through Saturday. He’d stopped by a taco place nearby so he wouldn’t be completely starving while shopping, and the rest of his evening looked like shopping, homework, and unpacking a few boxes so he could have clean clothes.

Bread, he recited in his head. Eggs. Milk…

“Wait up, mom. We forgot the cream cheese!” a voice came from the adjacent aisle.

Tommy stopped short and his senses sharpened. If he wasn’t completely wrong, that voice belonged to a pretty brunette who kicked people under tables.

That fact that she had in effect rejected him did not bother him as much now. He felt he had a higher purpose, and that purpose just happened to include befriending this girl and her friends. How could she affect him personally now? Yes, she was cute, but what did that matter?

He pushed his cart toward the dairy section, whistling aimlessly. The girl, now in a pink shirt and blue jeans, was mulling over different flavors of cream cheese spread. Tommy walked as if to get milk. He approached her from behind, careful to look casual and slightly preoccupied.

“Excuse me, but… oh. Hi,” he said, playing the scene awkward.

Kimberly’s head whipped around and, when she saw him, she smiled radiantly. She was a bit more than merely cute, Tommy had to admit, but he guessed that would just make his job more fun.

“Tommy…” she said. “I… how’s it going?”

“Good,” he shrugged. “Getting groceries.”

“I’m with my mom,” Kimberly pointed vaguely behind her at an empty aisle. She shifted her feet nervously, looking cuter by the second. “Listen, I’m sorry if you felt unwelcome before.”

Tommy feigned confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, just…”

Tommy laughed. “Come on, don’t worry about it. You probably had something going…”

“I wanted to ask you myself.”

Tommy hadn’t expected this, and neither apparently had Kimberly. She flushed; she’d said the sentence all in a rush, to where Tommy had to take a minute to decipher. “You… what?”

Kimberly smiled guiltily. “Okay, you caught me. I was really mad that Zack asked you before I could.”

“So… you were asking me on a date?”

Kimberly looked panicked. “Not date. Smoothies. I was going to ask you on a… smoothies. With friends. In a crowded room.”

“Nothing date-like about that.”

“Exactly.”

The two grinned at each other, only moving when an irritated woman with three young children nudged them aside to grab some margarine. They barely noticed her, or the five-year-old who was singing the Ninja Turtles song at the top of his lungs.

“So…” Tommy said. “There will be smoothies tomorrow?”

Kimberly’s eyes widened in surprise, but she grinned. “Yeah, after school. You can make it?”

“I think I can hang out a couple hours,” Tommy said, remembering that he absolutely had to be back at six. “See you in class tomorrow?”

Kimberly nodded emphatically.

“Kimberly! We have to get going!” they heard a voice coming from further up the aisle. Tommy turned to see a much older version of Kimberly pushing a cart with a twelve-year-old boy in tow.

“I’m coming, Mom!” Kimberly yelled over her shoulder. “Listen,” she said to Tommy in a softer voice, “I gotta go.”

Tommy laughed. “Yeah… I can tell.”

She walked with obvious regret back to her mother after grabbing the first container of cream cheese she could get her hands on. The mother was looking at him with interest. She must have noticed the scene she’d broken up, and the little brother would no doubt tease Kimberly to no end. Tommy smiled and turned to get his milk. He had enjoyed the conversation with Kimberly. He still felt an attraction to her, and it helped that she obviously didn’t find him undesirable. It would just make the job a whole lot simpler.

Now that he had taken the first steps in his first mission, Tommy could bear grocery shopping and even homework a lot better.


Tommy sat at the bar in the Youth Center, waiting for anyone to show up. School had just gotten out, so no one had been able to make it yet. The only people there looked like they were from the community college, come to use the exercise equipment.

Tommy liked the set-up of the Youth Center, now that he was seeing it on a normal day. There was a common area filled with equipment, mats… It wasn’t necessarily a professional gym, but it was much more comfortable.

“What can I get ya… Tommy, right?” a stout man from behind the bar asked.

Tommy nodded. “Water for right now,” he said. “You’d be Ernie?”

“That’s my name,” Ernie said as he iced a glass and pulled some water through what looked like a filtration system. “Owner, manager… whatever.”

“Nice place you got here,” Tommy said, taking a huge gulp of water.

“Thank you. Say… didn’t you show up before school ended?” Ernie asked leadingly. He obviously watched out for the kids who frequented his bar.

“Yeah, for most,” Tommy said. “Everyone’s either in Driver’s Ed or athletics for the last period. I already have a driver’s license, and I’m not doing athletics or activities yet.”

“You’re a freshman, though, aren’t you?” Ernie asked. “You’re driving already?”

Tommy shrugged. “I’m a sophomore, actually. Even then, I had a special license that you can get if you’re 15 and have… circumstances. My dad stays sick…” he trailed off, wondering why he was sharing his whole life with this guy. He imagined himself saying, I don’t worry about it much now, though, because I’m a faithful servant of the dread Empress Rita, sent to Earth to do her evil bidding by befriending random classmates. It’s the sweetest gig ever! Tommy figured that would not be a good thing to say.

“Listen, I’m sorry,” Ernie said, obviously disconcerted. He must have taken Tommy’s silence for sadness.

“Hey, it doesn’t bother me,” Tommy said. “I’m just here to meet some friends… Kimberly…”

Ernie smiled. “If I know her, she should be right in. She’s here most of the time. Look: there’s Jason. He’ll help you out.”

Tommy turned and, sure enough, the muscular martial artist in red was walking through the door, looking vaguely around. He spotted Tommy, smiled and waved, and made a beeline for him.

“I’m here as a messenger,” Jason began.

Tommy tensed, wondering if maybe Empress Rita was sending him a message. After all, she had one human servant in him. Why not two?

That didn’t make sense, though. From the way the others had been so uncomfortable around him, it seemed his conscription had been a first-time deal.

“Kimberly said she’d be late,” Jason said. “She’s got cheerleader practice she forgot about.”

Tommy nodded. “Sounds fine. I’ve got nothing better to do,” he added wryly.

“New-in-town syndrome, huh?” Jason asked.

Tommy laughed. In reality, of course, he felt a great sense of belonging. However, he had to play that close to the chest. “Familiar with it?”

“Vaguely. We moved here when I was nine. If I hadn’t made friends with Zack…”

Tommy nodded appreciatively. “I move around a lot. I’m used to it.”

“Well,” Jason began, “I was going to train some. Feel like a workout?”

“Sparring?”

Boy, were they making it easy to make friends with them.

Tommy changed in the locker room—Jason was already wearing his workout clothes—stretched, and faced off against the other teen. Again, Jason began with the fast attack, but this time Tommy was ready for him. Still pulling his punches, Tommy fought to match the other, but found himself growing wild trying to keep up with the speed. He finally found an opening in the other’s defense and pressed his advantage, grappling with Jason and flipping him over. Jason slammed into the mat but looked completely unhurt. He knew how to take a fall, and he was grinning.

Tommy helped him up, because they were all such good friends (although his mother would have berated him for opening himself up for attack), and they began again. This time Jason began completely differently, feinting left and right. Tommy was not fooled, and the one time he was fooled Jason didn’t press his advantage. Tommy finally tried the grapple again, but Jason was suddenly not there. Instead, a foot came out of nowhere, and Tommy landed on his back. He flipped up quickly before Jason could offer him a hand. They continued in this vein until he saw Jason’s endurance starting to waver. Tommy was starting to get tired himself, but he always worked hard to not let the enemy know his weakness.

Now, why did he think of Jason as an enemy? He was a sparring partner… that Rita had ordered him to befriend. That was all.

“Kimberly would like to know if you’re finished beating each other up,” an amused voice came from behind them.

Tommy turned to see the girl… Tina?... standing with her arms crossed. Further behind her, near the bar, Kimberly was sitting at a table, watching them for Tommy didn’t know how long. It was weird how he could lose himself in a fight, not even noticing when the rest of his primary objectives walked through the door.

“Sorry, Trini,” Jason said. “We just got caught up…”

“And fought so long that you both need showers,” Trini (not Tina) finished for him, holding her nose. “Tommy, didn’t anyone ever tell you that you needed to smell nice on a date?”

“N-not a date,” Tommy stammered, suddenly out of his element now there was no fighting. “Smoothies. She’s asked me on a smoothies.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. I think I will shower, after all,” Tommy said. “Good match.”

“Same to you,” Jason said, and then walked in the opposite direction where a group of eight-year-old boys and girls were congregated around the Jason’s friend—Zack, Tommy was sure of that name. With respect, Tommy realized that after that heavy workout Jason intended to teach a class. Tommy shook his head and went to shower down.

When he returned, Trini and the boy in glasses were at a table beside Kimberly, deep in conversation over a textbook. Kimberly was half paying attention to them, half staring at Jason and Zack’s class.

“How was cheerleader practice?”

She turned in surprise and smiled. “It was okay. The captain’s sort of a psycho, though. She made us go through this routine so many times I could do it in my sleep.”

Tommy laughed. “Doesn’t sound too bad, though. There’re some katas that I think I have done in my sleep.”

“So, where are you from?” Kimberly asked. “Wow…” she trailed off. “That was a little more awkward than I thought it would be.”

“No problem,” Tommy said easily. “The getting-to-know people thing is really awkward.”

“Yeah?”

Tommy nodded emphatically. “Where are you from? What was it like there? What are you interested in? Family? Friends? Imminent career plans? All these questions that you somehow have to fit in a conversation as naturally as possible without it getting too personal or sounding like a TV interview.”

“And you’re used to this,” Kimberly said.

“Yeah, I move around a lot… See? You’re a natural. Question about me in a completely casual way,” he said.

Kimberly laughed. “All right… maybe we could make this easy on ourselves and just swap life stories.”

“Who goes first?”

“You.”

“See… it’s always the new guy that goes first.”

“Flip a coin?”

“Paper rock scissors.”

The two laughed. Tommy was enjoying how easy it was to talk to her. The mission was still in the back of his mind, but the task was so pleasant that it wasn’t at all like doing homework.

“Fine,” Kimberly said. “I can go first, though it’s pretty boring.”

“It can’t be,” Tommy said, leaning forward.

“No, it is,” Kimberly said. “I mean, I’ve lived here all my life. My mom’s a realtor, my stepdad’s an insurance officer, and I have an annoying brother who’s ten. I’m really into gymnastics, with cheerleading as a fun sideline.”

“What about your friends?” Tommy asked, hoping that didn’t sound too awkward. “You all seem pretty tight. I feel like I need to take an entrance exam.”

Kimberly looked panicked. “No… I mean…”

Tommy laughed. “I’m kidding. Everyone’s been really nice to me.”

Kimberly relaxed. “Well… I always lived across the street from Billy. Trini was my best friend since Kindergarten. Zack was in the same martial arts class with Trini, but we really didn’t get along that well until 8th grade. By that time Jason had moved here and he was best friends with Zack, but we didn’t really become a group like this until high school.”

“You feel put on the spot,” Tommy said, smiling at the rush of words.

“You have no idea.”

“Of course I do,” Tommy said. “I mean, now you know the experience of being a new kid.”

“Thanks,” Kimberly replied wryly.

“No problem.”

“It’s your turn, of course,” Kimberly said. “You’re not getting out of it that easily.”

Tommy heaved a fake sigh. “Right. Fine. My life… I… I move around a lot.” He paused. He wasn’t sure if he should share, but most of it would come out anyway if he had any contact with the girl. He just didn’t like to say it all at once. This was a stupid idea. “My dad has multiple sclerosis. First onset was when I was ten. My mom… she was a dedicated martial artist who traveled a lot and couldn’t be saddled with the diseased, so she left. I’ve been taking care of dad ever since. He’s in the hospital right now. I’ve taken it pretty hard over the years… to the point that I’ve been kicked out of a few schools for… their phrase was ‘acting out.’ Angel Grove is pretty much my last chance.”

Kimberly just sat there, wide-eyed. She wasn’t saying anything.

“Wow,” Tommy laughed quietly. “Awkward silence. Just what I was aiming for.”

“No… Tommy,” Kimberly said. “I could just tell why you wanted to get this over with.”

Tommy nodded. “I wish I hadn’t told you now. Now it’s all weird.”

“It’s not,” Kimberly began. She pushed a strand of hair out of her face and behind her ear, which Tommy found adorable. “Okay, so it’s a little weird. That’s fine. It’s just… I don’t think you’re weird, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

“Oh, come on,” Tommy said. “You can’t say I’m not not weird.”

“Everyone’s weird,” Kimberly said.

“Then you won’t object to going out with me?”

Tommy knew he had surprised her. Mostly because she was choking on the dregs of her smoothie.

“I’m sorry… what?” Kimberly coughed.

“Oh, no,” Tommy said, suddenly solemn. “You’re in a relationship.” He knew she wasn’t in a relationship, but he still wanted to make sure.

“I’m not… I would love to go out with you,” Kimberly said, fully recovered.

Tommy grinned. “Wow. That was easier than I thought it would be.”

“You thought it would be difficult?”

“Oh, yeah, I had built up this whole thing where you had a boyfriend, or you weren’t in to me, or…”

“Kimberly, you didn’t tell him that you were taken?” a high-pitched voice sounded behind him.

Kimberly’s face twisted in an expression of incredulity and disgust. Billy and Trini stopped their conversation to look over toward them. Tommy twisted around in his seat to see two guys he’d seen in school wearing leather head to foot. Tommy wondered if they just got really really hot in the California sun.

“In your dreams, Skull,” Kimberly said wearily, as if this was something she had to put up with every day.

“Yo, new kid,” the larger of the two said in a lower voice. “You making time with my friend’s girl?”

Tommy glanced at Kimberly, who shook her head exaggeratedly.

“Well, I was asking her on a date,” Tommy said a bit louder than he meant to. He cleared his throat. “She said she was single, after all. She definitely didn’t mention ‘dog collar’ over here,” Tommy nodded in Skull’s direction.

“Hey, that’s a family heirloom,” Bulk said.

“Yeah, that’s a family heirloom,” Skull repeated, then got a confused look. “But Bulky, it’s not…”

Bulk got a furious look on his face. “Look, just go with it,” he said in a loud whisper. “So, anyway,” his attention back at Tommy, “I think you’re disrespecting us. And we don’t like being disrespected.”

“Yeah, we don’t like being disrespected,” Skull said, with as much enthusiasm is if he hadn’t just repeated Bulk’s words a minute before.

“Bulk, Skull, just leave us alone,” Kimberly said.

Tommy winked at her. “Kim… I got this.”

The two biker gang rejects sneered at him as he got up. Tommy didn’t worry. He knew how to take care of bullies.

“What, you wanna fight?” Bulk said, his voice raising, seeming to muster more bravado by the second. Tommy stared at him as the large guy waved his arms around and made sounds like from a bad kung fu movie.

In one perfectly controlled motion, Tommy punched at Bulk’s face and pulled back with only a millimeter of distance from Bulk’s eyes.

Bulk’s eyes crossed. He was frozen, as Tommy knew he would be. He kept his fist there and, still staring at Bulk, addressed himself to Skull. “Tell your friend not to interfere in private conversations. You might want to learn that yourself.”

Skull didn’t answer, looking terrified. He nodded his head vigorously when Tommy turned his gaze toward him.

Tommy lowered his fist and turned his back on the two deliberately. He realized the whole juice bar was staring at him, even the children in Jason’s and Zack’s class. He was vaguely aware of the two leaving the room, muttering loudly.

“Sorry about that,” Tommy said to Kimberly, motioning his head to the departing two. “I don’t like bullies.”

“Apparently not,” Kimberly said quietly. She was looking even more awkward than after he told her about his parents.

“What?” Tommy said. “You’re not going out with…”

“No. No no no no no no… no no no… no no,” Kimberly said in a rush. “It’s just… well… they talk big, but they’re mostly all talk.”

“Speak for yourself,” Billy spoke up behind them. “They’re all talk for the people who can beat them up… and girls. Tommy, you did the right thing. They just need to be intimidated.”

Trini smirked. “You just don’t like them because they decided to make you their personal target.”

“Yeah, and that’s definitely something I want everyone informed about. I was contemplating purchasing a newspaper ad.” Billy was obviously mortified, and Trini looked guilty about saying that in front of Tommy.

“Hey, don’t sweat it,” Tommy said, wanting to break the tension. He, after all, had to make friends with all of them, not just Jason and Kimberly. “I’ve experienced my fair share of bullying. Even if you don’t succeed in intimidating them at first, you can still have minor victories.”

“Besides, we’re not in junior high anymore,” Kimberly said. “And the lockers are way too teeny to be stuffed in.”

“Thanks a lot,” Billy said. Tommy wondered if he was the only one to sense the sarcasm.

Tommy was distracted, though, by the motions going between Trini and Kimberly. Kimberly was staring at Trini and jerking her head in the direction of the bathroom. Trini nodded and grabbed her purse. They were gone in seconds.

“They’re going to discuss you,” Billy said, still glum-looking.

“I figured,” Tommy said. He walked over to sit at Billy’s table. Billy looked rather surprised but took the swap in stride.

“Listen,” Tommy began, “I need a favor.”

Billy stared at him.

“I’m in dire danger of flunking if I don’t get some major help, and I figured you were the one to go to.”

Billy brightened. “I can definitely help you out. What subjects?”

“All of them.”

Billy laughed and cleared his throat. “Okay, then… I have a counter-favor.”

“What do you need?”

Billy checked around to see if no one was looking, and then lowered his voice. “Teach me what you did to Bulk and Skull.”

Tommy was confused. “But you’ve got friends already who are amazing martial artists.”

“Yes, I know,” Billy said. “That’s why I’m speaking sotto voce. Jason’s already tried to teach me… so has Zack and Trini… and I have a pretty good founding in basic self-defense right now.”

“So…”

“So, I’m at a loss as to how to intimidate people,” Billy said, lowering his voice even more. “Much less Bulk and Skull. They don’t do anything when the others are around, but I haven’t eaten lunch in weeks. I have to hide Pop-tarts in my locker just to get me through the day. If I bring money, they take it. If I pack a lunch, they take it. I have a tab at the cafeteria. It’s not like I can punch them in the school hallways, after all.”

“And you don’t want the others to know?”

Billy rolled his eyes. “They’ll make a big deal out of it and confront Bulk and Skull themselves. That’s not what I need right now. I need some minor victories already.”

Billy suddenly straightened and smiled. Tommy heard footsteps, heralding the return of the girls.

“What were you two talking about?” Kimberly said, amused. “It sounded serious.”

“Nothing,” Billy said shortly.

“Not nothing,” Tommy said reprovingly. Billy looked panicked, but Tommy tried to shoot him a reassuring look. “He’s offered to tutor me through most of my subjects.”

“That’s great, Billy,” Trini said.

“I know,” Tommy answered for him. “I’m not sure how I would have been able to survive this year without him. I really need the grades. Each school I go to seems to teach everything I already know and just be finished with what I haven’t learned yet. I have some serious gaps. Math is awful.”

“Math is my best subject,” Billy said in a relieved tone. “It’s my pleasure to help someone out.”

Tommy knew he’d made a friend right there. He definitely had some good stuff to report to…

He looked down in his watch. It was 5:45.

Holy crap…

“I… I’m sorry,” Tommy said, trying to keep his voice from shaking so much. “I’ve got to go. I’ll see you later Trini, Billy… Kimberly.” He flashed a brief smile and walked as quickly out of the room as he could, thinking that running might be too suspicious.

He was out of the building when he heard a voice yell, “Wait!” He turned to see Kimberly running after him. He stopped, balancing on the balls of his feet. He would have to run home, as he hadn’t brought his car.

“We never set the date,” Kimberly said.

Tommy tried to look like every moment spent stationary wasn’t torture. “I… I dunno. Next Saturday? We’ll decide what to do later?” He hoped she wouldn’t notice his voice was shaking. He was already picturing what Empress Rita would do if he was late.

Kimberly apparently hadn’t noticed anything strange. She grinned and bounced on her feet. “Sounds great.”

Tommy felt the sudden impulse to kiss her, but he controlled it. It was too soon, and he was going to be late if he didn’t start running now.

“See ya later. Don’t let me keep you,” Kimberly said.

“Right. See ya,” Tommy said as civilly as he could. He made sure she was walking back into the bar before he began sprinting down the sidewalk.


Kimberly fairly skipped back into the bar area of the Youth Center. Jason and Zack were just ending their class, and Kimberly had to dodge around children and the parents who were picking them up.

“What are you so cheerful about?” Zack asked.

“It’s a nice day,” Kimberly said.

Trini smirked. “Definitely a nice day to be asked out on dates.”

Before anyone could respond, Jason’s wrist communicator went off in the all-too-familiar beeps.

The five acted in unison, gathering their stuff and chatting casually. It was a well-worn ritual over these past few months. They walked together until they reached the outside, and then the five of them turned sharply into a blind corner of the building. They stopped talking, and Jason punched at his communicator.

“Rangers,” the low voice of Zordon came through the tiny speaker.

“We read you,” Jason said in a soft voice, in case anyone was around. He knew that the Command Center’s instruments would amplify even the slightest sound. “What’s up?”

“Rita has finally sent a monster to Earth. Teleport to the Command Center immediately.”

“Right, Zordon,” Jason said. The laughing, chatting teenagers were suddenly all business as they pressed their wrists and disappeared in a column of colored light.


Tommy launched himself into his room with one minute to spare. He wasn’t sure if he had remembered to lock the front door after him, but thieves stealing everything he owned would be better than Empress Rita’s ire if he was late. He grabbed a bedpost and forced himself to regulate his breathing. He glanced around to make sure the sticks were in place.

He knew he was teleporting a few seconds before it happened. The tingling was no longer unpleasant. He closed his eyes briefly as his bedroom, still filled with packing boxes, was replaced by Empress Rita’s throne room. He realized he’d half-thought it was all a dream until that very second.

His breathing was normal again, proof that he had perfect control over his body even under adverse circumstances. Empress Rita was not on her throne. She and the others were gathered around a telescope in the far corner of the room, near the balcony.

“Ah, Tommy,” Empress Rita said absently. “You were nearly late.”

“I’m sorry, my Empress,” Tommy mumbled, flustered that he had been found out.

“No matter,” Empress Rita said with a wave of her hand. “You were on time: that is all that matters. Come over here, Tommy.”

Tommy approached, trying to look like he belonged there. He noticed Goldar staring at him. No expression, but Tommy couldn’t shake the feeling that the golden warrior just didn’t like him.

“Finster, come bring my telescope attachment,” Rita barked an order.

“Right away, my queen,” Finster said. He was pulling in a large screen that looked like a mirror in a fancy house—the frame was ornate and carved in symbols Tommy didn’t recognize. Finster was struggling with the weight and nearly dropped it. Before anything could happen, Tommy grabbed the other end and steadied it. Finster looked at him and seemed to smile. Tommy was thankful that Empress Rita had her back turned on them all.

Tommy hoisted the screen in the air where Finster showed him while Finster made minor adjustments and connections to the eyepiece of the telescope. He motioned for Tommy to let go and, when he did so, the screen magically stayed floating in the air without support from anywhere. Tommy supposed that’s what “magic” meant.

“All ready, my queen,” Finster said, backing away quickly.

Empress Rita turned to the telescope and began making adjustments. “I usually don’t bother with this thing,” she explained. “It’s a pain to set up and it’s a bigger drain on magic than I can usually afford during a battle. However…” she said with a smile, looking up, “I want all of us to watch this.”

The picture starting coming in, showing a monster running through what looked like a community picnic of some sort in the park Tommy had his Putty fight in. The monster was shaped like a large pig’s face, with a sort of Roman battle helmet, and stumpy little arms and legs in relation to the rest of its body. It was currently chasing everyone away and gobbling up everything in sight.

“I think I recognize that monster from the news, Empress Rita,” Tommy said, staring at the rather ridiculous exploits of the monster.

“Yes, this is a monster I’ve used before,” Empress Rita said. “It is designed to consume the Earth’s food supply. It could plunge the North American continent into famine in a matter of weeks. The Rangers have defeated it before, of course, by exploiting a troubling weakness: it couldn’t digest spicy food. Finster fixed that weakness, haven’t you?” she directed her question to the scientist.

“Yes, my queen. Pudgy Pig has been newly engineered to consume all flavors and substances… with the only exception of toxic waste, but it is unlikely that the Rangers will discover this weakness. Their own work in environmentalism has made Angel Grove entirely devoid of toxic waste.”

Half an hour later, they watched as the Power Rangers used souped-up SuperSoakers to shoot what was unmistakably toxic waste right into the monster’s mouth. The monster vomited spectacularly and exploded.

Tommy didn’t recognize the word Finster muttered, but he was pretty sure it was a curse.

“Well…” Empress Rita said to tense, cringing silence. “That was to be expected.”

Everyone watched her as she turned from the telescope. Finster hobbled forward, staying out of her reach, to deactivate the screen. It lowered gently to the floor.

“Tommy,” Empress Rita said, “tell me some of your observations on that fight. I’m interested.”

Tommy felt the collective eyes settle on him. He gulped, unsure of what to say in the wake of this defeat. She didn’t seem particularly angry about it, though…

“My Empress, you weren’t trying to defeat them,” Tommy said in a tone of revelation.

“Of course I wasn’t,” Empress Rita said. “How did you know?”

“Well…” Tommy formulated. “Other than not being upset at the ‘defeat,’ you didn’t seem to place the monster at its best advantage. You didn’t send Putty reinforcements. You didn’t make it grow, like I’ve seen on the news before. Honestly, I was wondering if the monster could actually eat those big robots…”

“Zords,” Goldar corrected.

“Yeah, those,” Tommy said. “But it didn’t even have a chance. You were just messing around with them, Empress.”

Empress Rita smiled at him, and Tommy felt as if warmed with a ray of sunlight, even on the cold moon palace. “Any other observations?” Rita asked him.

Tommy instantly grew serious. “They’re the Power Rangers, aren’t they?”

“Oh, what a brilliant observation,” Goldar said. “How could you tell: their colored costumes or the fact they kept yelling their Ranger designations out?”

“No,” Tommy said impatiently. “My Empress… you’ve asked me to befriend the Power Rangers.”

The room grew quiet. Goldar couldn’t even come up with anything smug to say.

“And why would you think that?” Rita asked.

Tommy laughed slightly. “Their fighting styles, for one. I’ve fought Jason twice, so I can recognize that style anywhere. He’s more powerful, obviously, and all his skills are enhanced, but that’s definitely his style. I also recognized that weird dance style in the Black Ranger’s fighting, and the Pink Ranger uses a strange fighting style based in gymnastics. That takes care of Jason, Zack, and Kimberly. While I haven’t seen Billy and Trini fight, it’s not a hard jump to make. Kimberly mentioned that they weren’t really tight as a group until a few months ago, which was around the same time the Power Rangers started showing up. And… they sort of all wear their Ranger colors all the time, even when wearing street clothes. It all sort of adds up to ‘duh,’” he said. “My Empress,” he added respectfully.

Empress Rita laughed, not even minding the air of presumption he’d had during this speech. She wanted him comfortable here. She wanted him to feel more at home in her palace than he ever felt around the humans she’d ordered him to befriend. She had been watching him on and off all day, and especially during the hours at the Juice Bar. She’d been not a little disturbed with how easily he had insinuated himself into their group, and how much he seemed to enjoy his hours there. The link between them, after all, could easily turn fragile in these early stages.

“Very good,” Rita said. “Exactly right on all counts. This is the type of insight and battle smarts that will serve you well.”

“Empress Rita,” Tommy began hesitantly. “I was wondering something…”

“Oh, don’t tell me,” Goldar said snidely, as if he just couldn’t contain himself any longer. “You’re wondering why our queen asked you to befriend the Power Rangers, is that it? Will you not stop questioning orders?”

“I know perfectly well why Empress Rita ordered me to befriend the Power Rangers,” Tommy said, shooting an angry glance at Goldar. He was getting a little sick of Goldar trying to discredit him at every turn, but there wasn’t much he could do about the bullying unless Empress Rita allowed it. Even if Tommy could take Goldar in a fight, which he severely doubted, he knew his Empress would be displeased with him attacking her general.

“If I may be allowed to continue…” Tommy said in a softer voice. Empress Rita nodded at him. “I was wondering how I can be of full service if I can’t face the Power Rangers on the battlefield without getting severely maimed in the process.”

“And why do you think I want you on the battlefield?” Rita asked.

“My Empress, you recruited a fighter,” Tommy said. “You made sure of that before you brought me up here in the first place. It’s what I’m best at. You said I was a weapon… but right now I can’t even go one round with the weakest of the Rangers.”

“You’re right, of course,” Rita said, after a pause. “Tommy…” Her eyes bore into his, and Tommy felt afresh the deeply personal connection between the two of them. “Are you ready to completely devote your life to service to me?”

Tommy felt the rawness of the question and knew this was answer he had to deliver without the slightest bit of humor or bravado. He damned his pride and fell to his knees before her, nearly in tears.

“Empress Rita,” he said. “My life is yours. I will serve you until death.”

The chamber echoed in profound silence. Squatt and Baboo had stopped chattering among themselves—mostly making jokes involving eating and explosions that Tommy had worked hard to ignore—to gawk at Tommy. Goldar seemed entirely robbed of snide comments. Empress Rita stood frozen at this unexpected display of emotion.

“Very well, Tommy,” Empress Rita said. With deliberate movements, she pulled a long black box, resembling a jewelry case, out of an unseen pocket in her voluminous dress. “On your feet, then. You must meet your destiny on your feet.”

Tommy rose to his feet unsteadily, aware of the spectacle he was making of himself but not caring in the slightest. He watched in growing excitement as Empress Rita’s hands slowly opened the box to expose… a coin.

Holy shit, is that what I think it is?, he thought wildly. But, it couldn’t be. Empress Rita hadn’t given the Rangers powers, after all.

“Millennia ago,” Empress Rita said in a solemn voice, “I battled with Zordon, my greatest enemy, over control over the universe. In the end, while Zordon will claim his own victory, there was no decisive victory. We trapped each other into dimensional portals: I was cast into a clay jar, cut away and forced to wander about the galaxy. I was only recently freed. Zordon, on the other hand, is still doomed to only manifest himself in a tube-like space built into the Rangers’ Command Center. I call that a point to me,” Rita said not a little smugly. “Before the mutual casting, however, the war ended with our deciding who gets the mystical Power Coins: the chief artifacts at the center of our war. We flipped each coin. He won five. And I won… this.” She gestured to the coin.

Tommy could almost sense the power coming from that coin. He was entranced. The coin seemed to glimmer greenly in the black velvet surrounding it. It was inscribed with a triple-pointed design, and the inside top of the box was stamped with a picture of a dragon-like head.

“This is the key to the ultimate downfall of the Power Rangers,” Empress Rita continued. “This coin shares the same power source as the other coins that the current Power Rangers use. However, through contact with me and my magicks it has become different and certainly more powerful in several ways. And it is yours, Tommy… my Green Ranger.”

The blood was roaring in Tommy’s ears as he lifted the coin from the box at Empress Rita’s offering. Green sparks flew from the coin as it made contact with his skin. The world seemed engulfed in green light, and…

… he was… changed…

Tommy returned to reality, his heavy breathing loud in his own ears. While he could see quite normally, his face felt encased in something. He realized he was wearing a helmet that covered his entire head.

That was new.

He looked down. He was no longer wearing the clothes he’d worn earlier. The clothes were replaced by an unfamiliar uniform or costume. His eyes were assaulted with green and gold. Frustrated by no good vantage point, he spotted the screen they had used earlier, which had turned into a literal mirror when not used. Facing him in the mirror seemed someone entirely alien. The suit resembled the Power Rangers, with the diamond pattern and the green-on-white scheme matching the other Rangers in their respective colors. His helmet was uniquely stylized, like the other Rangers, to evoke the teeth and eyes of a dragon, Tommy supposed. However, unlike the Rangers, his chest and shoulders were covered in a gold mantle, like a shield. Tommy supposed this was one of the differences Empress Rita mentioned.

“Well, Green Ranger,” Empress Rita said smugly as she watched him admiring himself. “What do you think? Do you feel like you can be of use on the battlefield now?”

Tommy nodded slowly, forgetting for the moment to address her aloud. Instead, he walked over to Goldar and punched him as hard as he could in the face.

Goldar fell straight back, roaring and cursing. Finster, Squatt, and Baboo were backing away quickly, clearly thinking the power had turned Tommy against them. Empress Rita, however, didn’t seem worried, and forced Goldar back with a wave of her wand when the other warrior seemed keen on retribution. Tommy laughed, elated at the power coursing through his veins. It was like the ultimate battle high.

“Yes, my Empress,” Tommy finally said, bowing to her respectfully. “I feel now I can handle myself on the battlefield.”

“Good,” she said. “Oh, shut up, Goldar. It’s not like you didn’t have it coming.”

Goldar immediately stopped struggling against the spell she had put up to separate him from Tommy. Murder seemed to shine in his eyes, but Tommy no longer cared. Let Goldar try to take a poke at him. He was itching to use these new powers.

“Remember, Tommy,” Empress addressed her reproving glance to him. “The enemy is out there, not in here. Don’t pick fights with your allies. Just for that, tonight before bed, you and Goldar can duke it out. I might even let you stay morphed,” she ended with a wicked grin.

Tommy instantly regretted punching Goldar… though it felt really good at the time.

“You’ll sleep here tonight,” Empress Rita continued. “You’re too high on power right now, and my magic shield may not be enough to hide you from Zordon. The level should normalize by the morning. I’ve had Squatt and Baboo set a room up for you, which I hope you’ll utilize whenever you want.”

Goldar made a disgusted noise, which everyone ignored.

“You will not be used in battle quite yet, so be patient. You’ll report back here at 6:00 tomorrow night, and we’ll begin our plans,” Rita finished with relish. “Follow Finster to his lab—he had a few toys for you. Then meet Goldar in the training room, and I guess you can be morphed, if you like.”

Tommy heaved a real sigh of relief and bowed to Empress Rita on his way out. As he passed Goldar, though, the warrior blocked his way with an armored fist.

“Don’t think that will make a difference,” Goldar said in a low voice. “You caught me off guard. That won’t happen again.” Tommy was sure Goldar would be smirking if his face could express that emotion. “I will enjoy grinding you into the floor… Green Ranger,” Goldar said with more contempt than Tommy thought anyone could muster.

“Yeah?” Tommy said. “We’ll just see about that.” He glared at Goldar, but he realized his face in the helmet was as inscrutable as Goldar’s.

He turned from the armored warrior and followed the doddering scientist along the now-familiar pathway leading to the lab. Feeling a bit confined, he removed his helmet, fumbling over the clasps.

“How the heck do the other Rangers stand these things?” he said as he entered the lab. “It’s suffocating.”

“I’m sure you’ll get used to it,” Finster said kindly, “as they have. In the meantime, I’ve worked up a few things that, while not easing claustrophobia, will, I’m sure you’ll find, provide you with convenience.”

“Cool,” Tommy said, putting his helmet on Finster’s cluttered workspace.

Finster fussed over the space, trying to protect some of his devices and clay molds, but kept talking. “The first problem, of course, is transportation and communication. I believe with concentration Queen Rita will be able to speak to you telepathically…”

“You mean, in my head?” Tommy asked in awe.

“Precisely what ‘telepathically’ means,” Finster said, apparently flustered at interruptions. Tommy decided not to correct him: it had been an exclamation of surprise, not ignorance.

“However,” Finster continued in a business-like tone, “that form of communication is only for emergencies, as it may unduly distract you and unnecessarily overtax her. Therefore, I have this for you.” Finster handed him a small round device—black with green lines—with a speaker and three buttons.

“This is a communication device,” Finster explained at Tommy’s blank look. “The receiver is impossible to see, so you can speak anywhere around the device and it will pick up the sound and transmit it to the one of your choosing. Press the first button for Empress Rita, the second for Goldar, and the third for me.”

Tommy looked dubious. “And when would I need the second button?” he asked, still stinging from the barbed comments.

“Come now,” Finster said. “You’ll need to coordinate with him on the battlefield. You’ll be fighting alongside him a lot, so you better get used to him.”

Tommy shrugged. “And the button for you?”

“Medical emergencies… and the like,” Finster said. “Especially if you’re not able to teleport. I’m a doctor as well as a scientist.”

“Fair enough… did you say teleport?”

Finster nodded. “At the back of the device is a tiny button. Press it at the same as one of the three front buttons and you teleport directly to one of our locations. Press the button by itself for several seconds to teleport to your room here. Two short presses for your room at your Earth house.”

“That’s a lot of button pressing,” Tommy said, his mind whirling.

“It is discreet, which will come in use for you. You cannot, after all, use the wrist design without giving yourself away to the other Rangers.”

Tommy smiled, realizing he was sounding rather ungrateful. “Thanks a lot, Finster. This will make life a whole lot simpler.”

“Well, you’re welcome,” Finster said, a little taken aback. “That’s all I have for you right now. You’d better get ready for your fight. Your new room is through that side corridor, first door on the right. The training room has an entrance at the end of that corridor.”

“Thanks a lot,” Tommy said, a little glumly. “I guess I should get this over with, anyway.”

Tommy grabbed up his helmet, wondering how to put it back on for the fight.

“Tommy,” Finster called after him.

Tommy turned, suddenly realizing that Finster, right then, was the closest thing he had to a friend, and felt he had to remedy that situation. “Yes?”

“You said earlier,” Finster said hesitantly, “that you knew exactly why Empress Rita wishes you to befriend the Power Rangers. I must confess that I myself am at a loss.”

Tommy gave Finster a smile… one that did not reach his eyes. “I’m supposed to hurt them.”

“But…” Finster began.

“Not in battle,” Tommy amended. “Anyone can do that. No… I’m supposed to hurt them personally. No one can hurt you like someone you trust and love—like a friend,” Tommy finished roughly.

With that, Tommy left Finster with his fretful thoughts.

Chapter Text

“Congratulations, Rangers, on a battle well-fought,” Zordon’s voice boomed through the Command Center.

“We did sort of kick tail,” Zack said, still giving high fives. The mood in the room was one of release: the anticipated attack had happened, and only a few days past usual.

“And a special congratulations to Trini for discovering the monster’s new weakness,” Zordon said.

Trini shook her head, but she was smiling. “It was nothing. If Zack hadn’t convinced Pudgy Pig that the most abundant food source was the town dump, I never would have seen his reaction to that hidden toxic waste.”

“Great job, both of you,” Jason said.

The others looked at him. Jason was not sounding either relieved or enthusiastic. He still looked as tense as he had for the past few days.

Jason noticed the stares from all around. “What?”

“Oh, we’re just a bit overwhelmed at your joy over our victory,” Kimberly said. “I mean, I like a piñata as much as the next gal…”

“I’m happy, okay?” Jason said. “Jeez.”

“What is the matter, Jason?” Zordon asked.

“Forget it,” Jason said. “It may just be me.”

“Jason, you’re bringing down our buzz with all the suspense,” said Zack. “Just spill already.”

“Don’t you think,” Jason said, almost to himself, “that this was a little too… easy?”

The four other Rangers gaped at him.

“Will ya get a load of him,” Zack said. “First he complains when we get a week’s break, and then he wants the battles harder? If it makes you feel better, I think I pulled an arm muscle.”

“What makes you say that, Jason?” Zordon said.

Jason sighed, shaking his head and wondering if he was being an alarmist. “I mean, it was a monster we’d fought before, and it wasn’t even that much improved. No putties, no monster-growing… it was like she wasn’t even trying. It felt more like one of our early battles, when Rita wasn’t pulling out the big guns.”

“So?” Kimberly said. “Even if that’s true, what could it mean?”

“I dunno,” Jason said, becoming more frustrated with himself by the minute. “Maybe she has something else up her sleeve. Maybe she wants to lead us into a false sense of security? I can’t really tell right now.”

“Your suspicions are noted, Jason,” Zordon said. “We mustn’t rule out the idea that Rita might have a larger plan.”

“One that we can’t know about,” Zack finished. “Oh, come on. We’ve beaten Rita every time before. Even if she’s planning something big, we’ll just have to roll with the punches when they actually come.”

“We can continue our interrupted surveillance plans we discussed yesterday,” Billy said. He’d been quiet up until now, not wanting to pick sides. He himself had been astonished by Rita’s feeble attempt. It didn’t make as much strategic sense as her other attacks did.

“Great idea, Billy,” Jason said. “We couldn’t do it today, so we’ll start tomorrow. You all remember your assigned areas?”

The other Rangers replied to the affirmative, but there was a definite lackluster quality to their mood. The earlier celebratory atmosphere had leeched from the group, so that their goodbyes were perfunctory and a little grudging.

Jason was the last to leave. “Boy, do I know how to bring down a room,” he said quietly.


Tommy lay in his new bed, silently aching, surrounded by fish.

Squatt and Baboo came in every few minutes to gather more buckets of fish, still apologizing loudly and explaining that they thought humans liked fish. Tommy wasn’t sure if they were being serious or if this was a practical joke—some sort of initiation—but he also understood that the two were a little afraid of him after his fight with Goldar.

The fight had been intense. Tommy wasn’t armed, so he’d had Goldar’s sword to contend with. He was quicker than the other warrior, but not stronger. Squatt and Baboo had been there, placing bets on the victor using a currency Tommy had never heard of and was a little suspicious that it was made up entirely. Empress Rita had also watched impassively, cheering for neither. By the end, Tommy had at one point turned Goldar’s sword against him and cut the blue simian face. Goldar had wrenched Tommy’s arm nearly out of socket when he’d flung him into a wall. Tommy had sort of lost himself in the fight. It was, after all, the first time he’d been this powerful in a fight. The sheer brutality with which he’d indulged still roared in his ears.

Squatt and Baboo pulled their last bucketfuls out of the room and closed the door. Tommy made a note to get some air freshener, but then he heard the ventilation system kick in. Within minutes, the fish smell was gone.

Tommy groaned loudly. The fight had gone on so long with no clear victor that Empress Rita finally called a stop to it, calling a draw. She then forced the two to shake hands. Tommy could afterward do no more than drag himself to his new room, only demorphing before he flopped onto the bed.

A knock came at the door. “Come in,” Tommy said, putting more strength into his voice than he really felt. He forced himself into a seated position, so that he was sitting on the edge of his bed. He also forced himself not to groan when the door opened.

“Goldar,” he said wearily by way of greeting.

“Human,” Goldar greeted him back.

The warrior did not look like he was spoiling for a fight, for which Tommy was immensely relieved. Goldar, instead, was holding a tray with a bowl and spoon, a bottle, and two glasses. He set the tray on the table near the bed and sat in a large armchair opposite Tommy. “Eat up, human,” Goldar said tersely, as he began awkwardly pulling a label from around the bottle’s neck.

Tommy did not think he could put a word to the strangeness of this scene, even amid the strange scenes he’d been living for the past few days. Deciding to go with it, he picked up the bowl. It was filled with some sort of thick amalgam of unrecognizable… food? Showing more bravery than he felt, he took a bite. It bore no resemblance to anything he had ever tasted, but it wasn’t bad. A bit spicy.

“What’s in this?” he asked.

“You don’t want to know,” Goldar replied, finally working the label off the bottle and pulling the cork from it with his armored claws.

“Fair enough. Will it kill me?” Tommy said, making his voice casual.

“If it does, then it was Finster that had the grudge against you… not me,” Goldar replied. He filled up the two glasses with a light purplish liquid from the bottle.

Tommy shrugged and ate quickly, not realizing how hungry he had been until that moment. Goldar was staring at a symbol engraved on the wall… the same triple-pointed symbol on his own Power Coin. Tommy liked it—it made the room his own.

Tommy finished the stew, or whatever it was, and regarded the liquid with some apprehension. He’d drunk alcohol before; it sort of went along with the delinquent lifestyle he occasionally adopted. But that stuff looked a lot scarier than beer.

“You know, human…” Goldar began.

“I have a name, you know,” Tommy said with more strength this time. The food was helping.

Goldar finally looked at him. His face still showed the cut Tommy had given him. “Tommy, then. You kept up with me in a fight.”

“I like to think I did,” Tommy answered. He really wasn’t sure where Goldar was going with this.

“Have a drink,” Goldar said abruptly.

“I’m sixteen, you know.”

“And when the police arrest me, you’ll put in a good word? We’re not on Earth, hu—Tommy, so I don’t think you have to worry about the law.”

Tommy rolled his eyes. “What is it?”

“Illegal in five systems, unpronounceable in human speech, and you’re probably the first human to drink it,” Goldar answered.

Unvoiced was a challenge, and Tommy realized that he would have to prove himself yet again to the golden warrior. Calling himself stupid in his head, Tommy threw his head back to down half the glass. The liquid set his throat on fire, and he coughed hard, his eyes streaming.

An unfamiliar sound reached his ears over the coughing, and Tommy realized Goldar was laughing. By the time Tommy looked up, Goldar was draining his own glass. Knowing what to expect, Tommy drank the rest of his glass. The fire had turned to a pleasant burn.

Goldar poured them both another round. “You don’t complain about anything, do you, Tommy?”

Tommy shrugged. “Why should I complain?”

Goldar stared at him hard. They both started taking smaller drinks, now that they had nothing to prove. “You’re itching to fight the Rangers, aren’t you?”

Tommy swallowed hard. “Not at this particular moment,” he said wryly. Goldar guffawed. “But, yeah, I’m ready to fight.”

“Even that cute Pink Ranger? You two looked pretty cozy earlier.”

Tommy put his glass down. “Are you questioning my loyalty?”

“Should I?”

Tommy rolled his eyes, already starting to feel the effects of the drink as the room spun slowly. “I’m loyal through-and-through, Goldar. I may not have joined by choice, but given the choice now I would remain completely loyal to Empress Rita.”

Goldar regarded him before draining his second glass. “You know it is my duty to constantly test you as your superior. I don’t know anything about the technology or the magic that made you a servant of Empress Rita, so I need to know exactly what is going on in your head.”

Tommy finished his own glass. This time he grabbed the bottle and poured them a third round. “You’re still worried, of course, that I know I’m under mind control, or whatever it is.” Goldar did not answer, since this was not a question. “All right. It’s like an impulse, is the best way to describe it. It’s like I have this innate impulse to serve Empress Rita. I honestly don’t know how else to live my life, or why I would choose another way of life.”

Tommy got up and started pacing. “Do you realize that this is the first time in years I’ve felt real belonging? Real peace of mind? I don’t get along with people very well, and I never get close to anyone. Until now. And Empress Rita wanted me. I didn’t have to act like a big spaz to try to make friends.” Tommy looked around the room. “And I feel more at home here than any place I have on Earth.”

Goldar was staring at him. Tommy sat again, suddenly feeling the impulse to drink some more. He drank a huge gulp of the purplish liquid. It was going down better each time.

“You are a good fighter. I noticed it first when I was watching you at the Expo,” Goldar said tersely.

“Thanks,” Tommy said, hoping he wasn’t slurring his words too much. Goldar didn’t even look tipsy. “You’re an incredible fighter. I don’t think my arm will feel the same for a week.”

“I wish to train together,” Goldar said, softer this time. “Every night we can. I want to be ready for our first battle with the Rangers.”

“Sure thing,” Tommy said. “Just name the time.”

“By the end of the week,” Goldar said, and Tommy could almost hear a smile in his voice, “we’ll be joined by another warrior. Scorpina.”

“Safe to assume Scorpina’s a girl-type?” Tommy asked, as unsure of alien names as he was of alien food and drink.

Goldar looked at him sharply. “She’s my… ‘girl-type.’”

Tommy grinned, trying to picture a girl to match Goldar. Maybe a female golden monkey?

“She is a formidable warrior and will join us in our training and battles. I haven’t seen her in years and years,” Goldar added a little wistfully.

Tommy laughed. “So we don’t have to train right when she gets here. I’m sure you two need to do some catching up.”

“Mind your own business,” Goldar said, a little too forcefully, which made Tommy laugh harder. “That’s enough drink for you.” Goldar sounded amused.

“No, really,” Tommy said, choking back his laughter. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m really glad you’re calling a truce between the two of us. I was too worried that you were going to decapitate me with that sword of yours any moment.”

“I’m not ruling it out,” Goldar said. Tommy began laughing again, but not as hard. He was fighting the urge to pass out.

“We are comrades in war,” Goldar continued, suddenly serious. “You and I. That is a connection I do not take lightly. I do not expect you to take the connection lightly either.”

Tommy raised his glass. “To comrades, then,” he said. Goldar just stared at him. “Dude,” Tommy whispered. “We’re supposed to clink glasses. It’s a toast.”

Goldar reached for his glass, but before he could lift it he heard a crash. Tommy’s glass had shattered on the floor, and Tommy himself had slumped over sideways, unconscious.

Goldar laughed to himself. “To comrades,” he said, raising and draining his glass. The bottle was empty. With one foot, he shoved the glass shards under Tommy’s bed and gathered the other dishes. After a moment’s consideration, with one hand he picked up Tommy’s legs and shoved them onto the bed. Tommy did not wake up. Goldar threw a blanket over the boy and decided that was enough kindness for one night.

“Sleep it off, human,” he said, chuckling gutturally as he left.


Tommy sat in English class, trying gamely to give a shit about Kafka’s Metamorphosis and failing miserably.

“The interesting thing about Metamorphosis,” Mrs. Appleby said in the slightly manic obsession of all the English teachers Tommy had known, “is how off-guard the reader is put. From the first sentence, we know this is a very different story, especially for the 19th century. We are immediately taken out of the work of Realism and into a kind of literature that would become more common in the 20th century. We don’t even know what the protagonist has changed into. The most famous English translation from the German gives us the opening sentence: ‘Gregor Samsa wakes up and discovers he has been changed into a giant cockroach.’ However, the German word Ungeziefer is not specifically a cockroach or any specific animal. It is a word to describe a ‘monstrous vermin.’ From context clues we get ‘bug,’ ‘insect,’ ‘beetle’…”

Tommy zoned out. His head still ached terribly. The hangover cure Finster had been so kind to provide that morning was enough to make him mobile but not quite enough to fully cure him. If anyone had woken up changed into vermin, he felt he had.

The palace had all been asleep, but Finster had awakened him at 6:30, saying that he needed to get ready for school—that Empress Rita would not be amused that he missed a day just for a hangover. Tommy secretly believed that Finster was too excited about his own accomplishment to let Tommy sleep another minute.

“I’ve worked on it all night,” Finster had said. “I’ve studied the specifications for the past few months, and it seems to be a perfect replica.”

He’d gotten Finster to wait long enough for him to shower—he’d have to teleport to his room for new clothes—but Finster had accosted him as soon as he’d walked into the corridor.

The gift turned out to be what Finster called a “power morpher.” It was ostensibly a casing for his power coin, designed with his own color and style, but Finster swore that it would help with morphing.

“You and those Power Rangers can morph with just the coin, of course,” Finster had said, sufficiently pleased with Tommy’s reaction to the new gift. “But from what I’ve studied it takes up too much of your own physical energy—energy that is desperately needed in battle. Power coins, of course, do need some physical energy to work. The user of a power coin must be healthy or else the power will damage the user’s body in some way.”

“I’ll remember that,” Tommy had said, already preparing to teleport.

Tommy was pleased with all the new gifts—and responsibilities, of course—in the time of a few hours. The power morpher, with his coin safely enclosed, was in his back pocket, so he could morph at any point. The communicator/teleporter was in his backpack, safely hidden inside a pair of socks.

“Any thoughts? You… Tommy,” Mrs. Appleby’s voice brought Tommy back to earth.

“Yeah… What?” Tommy asked. “I mean,” he said as other students in the class giggled, “could you repeat the question, ma’am?”

Mrs. Appleby looked at him sternly, a look ill-befitting her face. “I was asking the class whether Gregor Samsa changes in other ways throughout the novella, other than his metamorphosis at the beginning.”

Tommy loved to be put on the spot when he was an expert. He wasn’t an expert at English, though. “Uh… emotionally, maybe? I mean, cuz, I’d be pretty bummed out if I was turned into a bug.”

The class laughed. Mrs. Appleby’s stern face softened a bit in amusement. “Tommy is not so far wrong. The novella is about displacement and estrangement. Through his transformation, the protagonist is estranged from other people, especially when he loses the ability for human speech and gradually loses all human preferences. In section 2, for instance, he loses his taste for milk, so his sister brings him fruit. He is so alienated he no longer knows how to be human… although, as Trini mentioned earlier, he never loses his concern for his family.”

The bell rang. Tommy eagerly gathered his books, barely registering the writing assignment for the next day.

“Tommy, could I see you a moment?” Mrs. Appleby said inevitably. “Now, no need to panic. I simply wanted to ask you to try harder not to daydream in my class. I know it’s after lunch, and everyone wants a nap, but that just means that you need to try harder to stay awake.”

“I thought I was paying attention,” Tommy said. “The German word for cockroach doesn’t mean cockroach… or something like that,” he finished weakly.

Mrs. Appleby smiled and looked down at Tommy’s still-open notebook. “Also, that notebook is for taking notes, not drawing.”

Tommy looked down at the page. He’d drawn his power coin symbol a few times, which he knew he shouldn’t. It might give a clue to the Power Rangers. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. He was going to be late for Basic Math if he didn’t move.

“I’m only saying this because I think you have great potential. You’ve just not had a stable education. I’m willing to help you with grades as long as I can tell you’re trying your hardest.”

Tommy recognized that this was rather generous, but really, who cared about some old book anyway? He just couldn’t tell Mrs. Appleby that, of course. That would lead to detention, which would take time away from his mission.

“I understand. Thank you. I’ll try to do better,” he said, smiling painfully and backing slowly out. Mrs. Appleby finally nodded, which Tommy took as his cue to go.

As soon as he was in the hallway, his smile instantly faded. If she wanted to be so darn helpful, she shouldn’t make the class so boring, anyway.

He’d lost sight of Kimberly, Jason, and the others, and he wouldn’t see them until after school. He slouched in to Basic Math while the others were taking Algebra. Billy was already in Trig, having tested out of Algebra and Geometry.

The only others in the class he recognized were Bulk and Skull, whom he pointedly ignored. The class passed even more painfully than English. While Mrs. Appleby was kind and excited, hoping that all her students would achieve greatness, Coach Warren looked put-upon to teach the “slow” ones, and he was probably saddled with this class so he could take care of discipline rather than teach.

“And you’ll have numbers 1-50 done for me by tomorrow,” Coach Warren said as the bell rang, “or you’ll be running laps for me in seventh period, I kid you not.”

The class filed out and Tommy was never happier to be out of school than he was then. His headache was gone, but he had a mountain of homework: the assignments for English and Math, plus he had to label a diagram of a frog for Science, fill in a map of the bodies of water for Geography, and read two chapters for History, answering the questions at the end of each chapter. How was he ever going to have time to do all this? Tommy didn’t mind history all that much—they were studying the Paleolithic era, and Tommy had liked archaeology ever since he’d watched Indiana Jones—but the rest? Tommy couldn’t picture a future where he’d honestly need all that stuff.

Tommy stopped at his locker to overfill his backpack with books, careful not to damage his communicator in the process. He would have to hurry if he was going to have any time for the strategy session that evening.

“Tommy?”

Tommy almost heaved a sigh of relief at the welcome voice. “Billy, aren’t you in Driver’s Ed?”

Billy shook his head. “I’m sixteen. I got my license a week ago. I’ve actually gotten permission to tutor during this time.”

Tommy smiled. “Man, you are a life-saver. I wasn’t sure when I’d ever get time.”

“No problem. We can drive over to the Youth Center,” Billy said.

It was close enough to walk, but Tommy remembered that when he first got his license, he wanted to drive everywhere. So, Tommy complied, following the other guy out into the parking lot.

He had misgivings when he saw the vehicle, though.

“A Bug?” Tommy said, wondering how his legs were even going to fit in there.

Billy frowned. “It’s my cousin’s. He’s an expert restoring old cars, and he gave it to me so that I could keep it in good shape… or a shape, at least.”

“It’s… cute.”

“And it confirms my status as resident nerd, of course,” Billy said. “But it runs, most of the time. Watch your head getting in, though.”

The ride to the Youth Center was mercifully short; Tommy felt too cramped in the tiny car. Billy had restored the interior at least, giving it a good stereo system. And the AC was working; always a plus.

The next hour all they had time to cover was math. Billy was rather shocked at the amount of problems assigned that night (“What are you, taking the LSAT?”), but he showed some handy shortcuts.

“Why didn’t he explain it like that in the first place?” Tommy said, amazed at how easy the problems were now.

Billy shrugged. “He’s not a very good teacher. That’s why he’s teaching—”

“Dummy Math,” Tommy finished for him.

Billy rolled his eyes. “You’re not a ‘dummy.’ You’ve just been moved around a lot and had really crappy teachers. It’s the system that’s broken, not you.”

“Then why are you so good at school and stuff?”

“Because teachers love me,” Billy said in exasperation. “They don’t even have to teach me. They just tell me the information and I assimilate it. I’m easy to teach. But if school was meant for people like me, why would we need teachers?”

Billy was getting angrier-sounding by the minute. “Chill, dude,” Tommy said, holding up his hands.

“No, I’m serious,” Billy said, though backing down from his previous fervor. “There are a few good teachers, and I don’t even blame the teachers, by this point. My mom is a teacher for another district, and she says the system actually inhibits good teaching. The teachers have to teach to the standardized tests, they have to censor their material to some degree, and they’re so worn down by paperwork that they can’t even really teach the students who need them. They just don’t have the time or the energy, for the most part.” Billy glared down at Tommy’s math book. “Most teachers, anyway. I’m just waiting for college, by this point.”

“College is going to be better?”

“Can’t be any worse, can it?”

Tommy laughed his assent. “Listen, I’m pretty fried right now. If you don’t mind, I was gonna work out and then I can handle the rest.”

Billy started packing up his own bag. “That sounds great. I have an errand to run, actually. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” Tommy said, packing up his own stuff. “And maybe we can go somewhere for your lessons.”

Billy laughed nervously. “Yeah, um… thanks for not mentioning this to anyone. It’s pretty embarrassing.”

“Come on, Billy,” Tommy said. “Your secret it safe with me.”


It was 4:00 when the five Power Rangers reconvened at the Command Center. Jason noticed, with relief, that they all looked more cheerful than yesterday.

Billy was there already, carefully adjusting the sensors with Alpha’s help. He was mainly focused on teleportation traces, but there were none that couldn’t be accounted for by the Power Rangers or yesterday’s monsters.

“All right,” Jason said, by way of beginning the meeting. “Anything strange?”

“I couldn’t find anything except a really pretty seashell,” Trini said, holding up the shell that she seemed to have washed in the sea. “Of course, with the tide, the beach won’t hold traces of anything for long, except what humans leave,” she grumbled. While all of them did environmental work, Trini was the most passionate about it. Jason could already see plans for some kind of “clean-up club” working in her brain.

“No go for the mall,” Kimberly piped up, “though I did find these cute shoes. And no, I didn’t just pick that place to shop,” she added defensively.

Jason smiled. “That’s okay. I couldn’t find anything either, so I got bored and did some katas. Zack, same for you?”

Zack was frowning and staring down.

“Zack?” Trini echoed.

Zack looked up, realizing that everyone was looking at him. “Oh, yeah. I found something weird.”

Reaching into his bag, Zack pulled out a wooden stick, ornately carved with decorations, and measuring about two feet. It could have been a piece of a walking stick from an arts and crafts fair booth, but something about it didn’t look right.

“Hold it up, Zack, so that I can see,” Zordon said. Zack complied, holding the stick up awkwardly.

“I don’t recognize the design,” Zordon said. “Alpha, scan the design and run it through the database.”

“Yes, Zordon,” Alpha said, carefully taking the stick from Zack’s hands.

“I mean,” Zack said, clearly unnerved by the effect his find had made, “it could just be nothing. I mean, it’s a stick. Someone might have been practicing whittling.”

“Could be,” Jason conceded, “although we need to make sure, don’t we? While we’re waiting, did you find anything, Billy?”

Billy finally lifted his eyes from the console and shook his head. “Nothing, really. There was a power surge last night at Rita’s moon palace.”

Jason tensed. The others looked nervous.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Billy protested. “I mean, sometimes that happens when Rita has a temper tantrum, and she probably did last night. It could be a lot of things, not necessarily anything harmful to us.”

“Zordon, I have completed my analysis,” Alpha interrupted any retorts Jason had to Billy. Alpha instead handed the print-out to Billy, which had grown a habit. Billy was a good fact-checker and could usually spot a mistake.

Billy read through the information quickly. “The stick itself seems to be devoid of any remarkable powers. However, the markings are definitely not from earth. They have roots in several alien languages—ancient ones, so the computer can’t translate right now.”

“Definitely not from Earth, though,” Jason said.

Billy nodded. “Its extraterrestrial origins are positive.”

“And the only alien we know around here…” Zack said.

“Is Rita,” Jason finished gravely.

They all stood silently, staring nervously at the stick, as if it were about to jump up and start hitting them all by itself.

“Rangers, you have done well,” Zordon intoned. “There is little more you can do today. It is apparent Rita is up to something, but we cannot know without further analysis. Alpha V will continue to work on the translations of those symbols.”

“And we can keep an eye out for more sticks,” Jason finished. “It’s possible that there may be more that Rita has scattered, and there may be more in the hot spots, since Zack found that one in the park near the hospital.”

They dispersed, Billy staying to help with the translation after he promised to leave in an hour. Trini headed home to add the shell to her collection, and the rest went to the Juice Bar.


The rest of the afternoon had gone predictably, Tommy reflected. He’d finished all but English and History, which he would have to do that night after the strategy session, sparred with Jason, and flirted with Kimberly. They were all a bit late to the Youth Center, at least later than they had been the day before. Kimberly had bought new shoes at the mall, apparently, which Tommy pretended to care more about than he really did. They did make her legs look better in her mini-skirt…

Tommy turned his thoughts sharply from her. Kimberly was a mission and an enemy, nothing more. He had to keep up the charade just to destroy her all the more effectively.

Tommy made double-sure he wasn’t being watched. Finster had told him that morning that the sticks he carried kept him hidden from the Command Center, but they didn’t make him invisible to random passers-by. He closed the door to the storage room at the Youth Center, rummaged through his bag and, making sure he remembered how to teleport, punched the appropriate buttons to teleport straight to Empress Rita.

It was ten minutes until six, but Empress Rita and Goldar were already in deep discussion. Tommy walked forward and cleared his throat, garnering their attention. “My Empress,” he bowed.

“Tommy,” Empress Rita said. “That’s good; you’re early.”

“Goldar, how’s it going?” Tommy said cheerfully.

“I see you’re able to walk upright, now,” Goldar said with some humor.

Tommy rolled his eyes. “Okay, I have a pretty good constitution for alcohol, but that stuff was worse than Jager shots.”

“If you’re done with your reunions,” Empress Rita interrupted, “we have some rather important plans to discuss.”

“Sorry,” Tommy and Goldar mumbled together.

“Now,” Empress Rita began the meeting, “Finster has informed me that you have a communicator, a teleporter, and a power morpher, so you are almost as equipped as the Power Rangers.”

“I lack a Zord, though, my Empress,” Tommy reminded her. He hoped he wasn’t being disrespectful, but that was one toy he definitely wanted.

“You do not, actually,” Empress Rita answered him. “It is only a matter of finding the key to it, which is housed in the Command Center, probably buried somewhere and behind so much security that it would take all of the Rangers, with their computer records, just to find it.”

Tommy tried not to look disappointed.

“However,” Empress Rita continued, “that is a situation that will be remedied. Though you work for me, Tommy, you are a Power Ranger. You have automatic access to the Command Center, to the Morphing Grid, and you draw your power from the same power source as the other Rangers.”

Tommy was flabbergasted at this revelation. “That’s really useful.”

“That’s an understatement,” Goldar said. “It’s the very key to defeating the Rangers. You can attack them when we can’t reach them.”

Tommy frowned. “I can’t just attack them upfront when they’re at the Command Center. That’s where they’re most powerful. I’d be fighting one to their five, and they would have easy access to who knows what weapons or security. It would be like them attacking us here at the moon palace.”

“Precisely,” Empress Rita said. “Goldar, you are a top-notch warrior, but you have a marked lack of subtlety.”

Goldar looked like he was going to take offense, but thought for a moment. “Fair enough.”

“So what do you propose, Green Ranger?” Empress Rita asked.

The title seemed to give Tommy more respect, so he framed the answer to deserve respect. “Well…” he said slowly, “obviously I will have to take them by surprise, when I know the Rangers won’t be there. Maybe in the dead of night, when they’re all sleeping. Who is there when the Rangers aren’t?”

“A ridiculous robot named Alpha V,” Goldar answered.

“And Zordon, of course,” Empress Rita said. “Just because he is in an interdimensional tube does not mean you can underestimate him. My magic is keeping you invisible to him, so that he is unaware that someone holds the Green Power Coin. However, when you show up he will know who you are. He has direct access to the Morphing Grid.”

“So he’ll need to be put out of commission,” Tommy said, almost to himself. “My identity needs to stay secret for as long as possible.”

“So you’re admitting that the Rangers will find you out?” Goldar said.

Tommy raised his eyebrows. “Of course. But it needs to happen when it will hurt the most. That’s why I’m to befriend the Rangers in the first place.”

Empress Rita grinned. “Of course it is.”

“My Empress,” Tommy said, “what would happen if I just smashed Zordon’s tube? Would it kill him?”

Empress Rita’s grin vanished. “It could. But it could just as easily destroy this galactic plane. It’s impossible to predict the effects.”

“So that’s out,” Tommy said. “But I could make him lose his connection with this dimension. My Empress, you said you trapped him in a dimensional portal. Couldn’t there be a way to get him so lost the Rangers will never find him again?”

“Now, that’s an idea,” Empress Rita said. “I’ll get Finster to work on that. You’ll also need a virus for the android; that old model is too sturdily designed to be destroyed outright, but it can easily be put out of commission.”

“For the rest of the Command Center,” Tommy continued, “I think general destruction after I download whatever files I can get from the computer mainframe. That will knock out communication and teleportation and, with luck, all ties the Power Rangers have to the Command Center.”

Empress Rita nodded. “That is exactly what I was thinking. The Rangers will be fighting blind.”

“And completely demoralized, my Empress,” Tommy finished.

“If they do get to the Command Center, for they’d be fools to not have an alternate system of transportation when teleportation goes out,” Goldar said, thinking that Tommy was getting a little too cocky, “what of your plans for hurting them personally? They won’t have time for dates,” Goldar sneered.

“Of course they will,” Tommy said. “They’ll have to. They’ll have to continue school, patrol around the town, especially since they won’t have conventional warnings anymore, dinner with their folks… Just as surely as I have to protect my identity by doing science homework, they have to go through the motions of being regular teenagers, even when they can’t spare the time. And their good friend Tommy will be there to lend a helping hand—to ask what’s wrong…”

“To comfort a certain Pink Ranger by making out with her…” Goldar continued.

Tommy waved a dismissive hand. “All for effect. Can you imagine how crushed she’ll be when I’m not the sensitive romantic she thought?”

“I leave all the ‘human’ plans to you, Green Ranger,” Empress Rita interrupted. “You have more understanding and will do a far better job on your own. As for the attack on the Command Center, you will put both Zordon and the android out of commission, download the computer banks, thoroughly destroy the equipment, and wipe all traces of your ever having been there. That’s all, you understand me? No going on a search for the key to your Zord. You’ll get caught, or lost, or both, and you’re far too valuable to lose on a misguided mission. There are other ways, after all.”

“Yes, my Empress,” Tommy said, realizing this was something he couldn’t argue against. She was far too adamant. “When should I stage the attack?” He was fairly itching to get started.

“Not tonight; we need to give Finster some time to prepare your equipment. I do like the idea of attacking in the dead of night, though. We’ll plan for tomorrow night, if all goes well,” Empress Rita finished.

The three continued strategizing, throwing out ideas that threw their plans further and further into the future. Goldar preferred simple plans with straight-forward results, so he mostly offered critiques and additions. They talked through supper, served in a rather formal dining room that Empress Rita was partial to. Tommy took long enough to determine that he was eating meat, although he wasn’t sure what meat, and worried about the food no more. Finster was absent, as he always ate in his lab when he was working on a lot of projects, and Squatt and Baboo entertained themselves with fanciful stories of what their food had been before it had been food—easily ignorable.

By 9:00, Tommy realized he still had to do homework. Admitting this, he excused himself and went to his new room at the moon palace without a second thought. He decided that the next day he needed to move more of his personal effects to this room. Already he considered it more “home” than his uncle’s summer home ever would be.

With a twinge, he realized he hadn’t called or seen his father for more than 48 hours.

A knock came to his door, and Goldar stuck his head in. “You’ve got out of it tonight, but tomorrow we’re training. Report to the training room 8:00 tomorrow night.”

“That sounds great,” Tommy replied. “I need a work out.”

Goldar left him, and Tommy felt much better. His father was better off without him, especially with the type of life he was beginning to lead. It was better for everyone, really.

“Well, not for the Power Rangers,” Tommy said wryly before plunging into his homework. “They won’t be fine at all.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Volkswagen Beetle bounced violently as it hit rough road. Billy slowed the car to a crawl as both he and Tommy hit their heads on the ceiling.

“Sorry,” Billy said as they reached the tiny parking lot next to the deserted beach.

“Don’t be,” Tommy said.

“I’ll need to replace the shocks,” Billy said under his breath, killing the engine. They pulled themselves out of the car and headed for the sandy area. This was the area of beach where Trini patrolled, but she had to babysit her little cousins all afternoon and had asked Billy to take her place. Billy had jumped at the chance, seeing the opportunity for privacy.

“So no one comes to this beach?” Tommy said. “Hard to believe. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s pretty deserted,” Billy answered. “Too many random monster attacks. Don’t worry though. There are usually no monster attacks in two subsequent days. We shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

Tommy smiled at the double irony of the statement, but said nothing. No, neither of them really had to worry about monster attacks.

“Listen,” Billy said, “if you need more math help, we don’t have to do this.” Billy was looking down.

“Well, we could, but my math books would get all sandy. All right, now,” Tommy said, suddenly all business. “Just like you taught me tricks to those math problems, there are tricks to fighting without actually fighting. It’s all about attitude.”

Billy put his hands in his pockets, obviously uncomfortable.

“See, that’s one of the problems. That stance practically screams fear.”

Billy took his hands out of his pockets and held them uncertainly at his sides. Tommy laughed.

“I’m sorry,” Billy said. “I’m just not good at this.”

“Okay,” Tommy sighed. “We’ll start easy. What exactly did I do to Bulk and Skull?”

“You scared the crap out of them.”

“Exactly. How?”

Billy looked down, his considerable mind obviously struggling over foreign concepts. “Well, you nearly punched Bulk.”

“I didn’t have to do that,” Tommy admitted. “I was showing off. What else did I do?”

“I guess… you looked like you were better than them?”

“Exactly,” Tommy said. “It’s all in attitude. Like that guy who challenged you today for the upcoming Science Fair. Said you weren’t even going to place.”

Billy laughed. “Oh, come on. Vince hasn’t placed since the fourth grade. He just always pretends he’s better than everyone. I saw the project he signed up for, and it’s far from groundbreaking.”

Tommy smiled. “Billy, your whole attitude has changed. You’re not trying to be the smallest guy ever, and you look more at ease. So what happened?”

Billy looked around, as if his recent confidence was running around the sand somewhere. “I… I don’t know.”

“You were confident,” Tommy said again, wondering if this was what he was like during math tutoring. “You know you’re better than the other guy, and it shows.”

Billy’s mood sunk. “So, how is this supposed to help me?”

Tommy rolled his eyes. “Look, I can tell you right now that you’re ten times better than Bulk and Skull. You’re faster, stronger, and definitely smarter. But even if you don’t believe me, and can never show it to them, there are some tricks to tide you over until you actually believe.”

“Like what?”

“Well, firstly, you just don’t respond to them when they first come up,” Tommy explained. “Completely ignore them. Don’t start hurrying to get away from them, or act differently in any way. If they ask for your money, just say you don’t have it, casual-like, and walk away.”

“So you’re saying that if I ignore them, they’ll go away? Geez, you could be an after school special,” Billy said.

“Of course they won’t go away,” Tommy said. “But that forces them to follow you. Now you have the power on your side. You’re controlling what they do. It also forces them to get physical.”

“Oh, joys.”

“Oh, come on, Billy, have you seen them fight?” Tommy laughed. “Completely ridiculous. I was in danger of falling over laughing. But anyway, they’ll probably lunge at you. That’s why you walk in the middle of the hallway in the first place, so they can’t push you against the wall. Walking in the middle of the hall also gives a confident vibe, anyway. Think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.”

Billy snorted in laughter.

Tommy smiled. “Yeah, well, hokey as it is, he’s still a good example. The opening credits are dominated by his confident walk, and he walks in the middle of the sidewalk, giving way to no one. Now, you’re not strutting or anything—don’t act too big, or you’ll be as ridiculous as Bulk—but just act like you belong there.”

“So you’ve got me disco strutting in the middle of the hallway. What then? What if they do lunge at me?” Billy said.

Without warning, Tommy lunged at Billy with his fist, intentionally pulling back on speed and strength. Billy’s eyes widened—he looked like he was going to panic—but instincts won. Billy grabbed Tommy’s wrist and twisted hard in one smooth movement. Tommy crumpled to the ground as Billy stared in amazement.

“You see?” Tommy said, massaging his wrists as he got up. “You already know how to take care of yourself. And the way you did it—with minimum force—will throw anyone off balance. And that’s something that won’t get you in trouble in the hallways. Bulk and Skull will be too embarrassed anyway to tell.”

Billy stared at his own hand in amazement. Tommy stopped massaging his wrist, though it still ached. Billy was stronger than he looked.




Tommy teleported to his room at the Moon Palace with a duffle bag, a boombox, and an armful of cassette tapes and clothes. He immediately began personalizing his room. To one wall he affixed a huge poster of Bruce Lee, sneering and holding his nunchucks. He pulled schoolbooks from his backpack and added them to an empty set of bookshelves. His clothes and karate gis went in the closet and dresser. He brought no pictures, figuring they would sentimentalize the room and provide undue distraction from his mission.

“Making yourself at home?” Goldar rumbled from the open doorway.

Tommy shrugged as he folded the last of the T-shirts. He’d spent the afternoon and evening, after spending time with Kimberly and the rest, doing his homework at his uncle’s summer home. He’d forced himself to cook something there—the groceries would go bad—and unpack a few more boxes. There were messages on the phone, but he’d chosen to ignore them.

“I figured I ought to bring some stuff here,” he responded. “I sleep here most of the time anyway.”

“And what time is it, human?”

Tommy looked at his watch, nearly in a panic, but then he looked up and scowled. “It’s not 8:00 yet, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“Ten minutes, human,” Goldar pronounced. “Don’t be late.”

Tommy grumbled but went ahead and followed Goldar back to the training room, making sure to have his power morpher with him. He had to morph quickly, though, as Goldar’s sword came swiping at his head as soon as he entered the room.

Training with Goldar was unlike any training he’d ever had. It more resembled a brawl. Goldar didn’t pull any punches, and Tommy was punished rather severely when he himself pulled punches. He could keep up with Goldar, but the sword added an element that Tommy had to scramble to keep up with. After an hour, he was sweating in his helmet, and his uniform showed black marks as the sword hit the invisible shield that protected Tommy. It dulled the impact, preventing his skin from getting cut, but it still felt like being hit by a truck.

By the time Goldar called it quits, Tommy felt like he’d been put through a meat-grinder. He pulled off his helmet and wiped away the hair plastered to his face.

“You’re remarkably stupid, Tommy,” Goldar said, and Tommy was pleased to hear that Goldar sounded about as tired as Tommy felt.

“How’s that?” Tommy asked. “I’d kick your ass if I could lift my legs.”

“This was a test, Green Ranger,” Goldar growled at him. “How exactly did you expect to best me and my sword when you weren’t even armed?”

Tommy gaped at him, still wiping sweat and trying to catch his breath.

“Humility is fine and well, but you must have the proper equipment at all times. And don’t just expect us to read your mind and provide you what you need for your plans. You need to ask,” Goldar said sternly.

Tommy laughed. “I didn’t…”

“I know you didn’t think,” Goldar said, and this time there was a modicum of kindness in his voice. “Like I said—you never complain. Well, if you’re going to be a member of this team, you’re going to have to stop acting like a guest all the damn time.”

“Point taken,” Tommy said. “So that’s why you half-killed me.”

Goldar barked a laugh. “I was going easy on you, human. Now follow me.”

Tommy knew perfectly well that Goldar had fought with nearly everything he had, but he didn’t feel like more posturing. Not when he needed to get rested up for the mission, which he hoped was still that night.

They went past his room and took a right down another corridor. Tommy was beginning to wonder just how big this darn palace was when Goldar stopped abruptly at a large door. Goldar pushed it open, and the door gave with a loud creak.

“Holy shit,” Tommy whispered.

The room was cavernous, with high windows lining the curved wall. The room was also filled with any kind of weapon and armor Tommy could imagine. In the middle of the room, remnants of various monsters lay in a messy pile. Tommy noticed Pudgy Pig’s battle helmet lying on top of the pile. One wall displayed energy guns, some small enough to fit in Tommy’s palm and some as big as Goldar. The rest of the walls held more traditional weapons: swords of all shapes and sizes, daggers, bows, something that looked like a Klingon bat’leth… The familiar mixed with the alien to completely overwhelm Tommy for a minute. He realized he was grinning. It was like he was in a candy store.

“All right, Green Ranger,” Goldar said, amusement apparent in his voice. “It’s your choice. Your powers already provide you with a blaster, but you’ll need something to match the Rangers’ weapons.”

Tommy pulled out the white blaster at his side. “I haven’t even gotten a chance to use it yet. My fights with you have been too close-range.”

“The blaster might not look like much, but it’s effective, as several monsters can attest to,” Goldar growled.

Tommy put his helmet down next to the door and went immediately to the display on traditional weapons, giving the pile of monster weapons a wide berth. Pudgy Pig’s war helm was still covered in multi-colored vomit. He let his fingers run over the hilts and the flats of the blades. He decided to narrow his search to a sword, since he’d trained with them, and he wanted a good swordfight with the Red Ranger sometime. He picked a few up, giving them a few swipes to test the weight.

One was a bit too heavy. There was a rather pretty sword with engravings, but it was badly balanced. A lot of the swords looked like they were made for guys Goldar’s size, and Tommy didn’t even pick them up. Finally, though, he found one he liked. It was curved—not like the Red Ranger’s broadsword—and it had perfect balance. He pulled a hair from his head and tested the edge. The sword was razor-sharp already, splitting the hair down the middle.

“Satisfied?” Goldar asked.

“Very much so,” Tommy answered.

“Well, take some time to rest, then. Finster wants to see you at midnight, and then you’re to report to Empress Rita.”

Tommy was left alone. Smiling, he tried a few moves with his sword, going through a basic sword training routine his mother had taught him. He didn’t usually fight with weapons, but he knew how. And swords were his favorite. He imagined fighting the Red Ranger and smirked. It would be a glorious fight.

Grabbing his helmet and closing the door, he made his way to his room. He demorphed as soon as he got to the room and instantly felt much weaker, so he made his way to the bathroom to check out the medicine cabinet Finster said he would stock.

The large cabinet over the sink held several bottles with many different colored potions, all neatly inscribed with Finster’s handwriting, giving the name and directions in miniscule letters. He finally found the potion Finster had mentioned, a minor heal-all potion. While it didn’t heal major wounds, it eased cuts and bruises while giving him more energy. It was apparently one of Baboo’s inventions, though it blew his mind that such a weird little bat-like dude could make anything that cool. Reading the directions carefully, he took a measured swig and felt instantly energized. He still felt the workout, but he didn’t feel destroyed.

Placing the bottle carefully back in its place, he decided to shower, or else he’d destroy the Command Center with his stink alone. After that, music and rest until he had to report. He was happy. Goldar’s orders meant all had gone well and the attack was set for that night.

The night went by pleasantly. Tommy set his alarm for 11:50 just in case he fell asleep, and he did end up getting a good 30-minute nap. He was up before the alarm, though, and finally left for Finster’s lab when he couldn’t wait any longer.

The white alien was working on what looked like three projects at once. A fairly terrifying raybeam-looking-thing dominated one corner of the already cramped room, though for all Tommy knew it could have been for making toast. A half-formed clay mold was lying on the table; he could have sworn it moved weakly. At the moment Finster was hovering over a machine as a rather familiar scent filled the air.

“Ah, Tommy,” Finster said, finally looking up. “Coffee?”

“Coffee?” Tommy asked, bemused.

“I heard that when one has an… ‘all-night-thing’… one must drink coffee. It is one of the human delicacies I’ve a fondness for.”

Tommy laughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s cliché enough to get all the way up here.” He accepted the steaming cup that Finster gave him and took a sip. “Not bad, actually.”

“I grow my own coffee beans in a hydroponics lab in the next room,” Finster said, visibly pleased. “Empress Rita must have coffee every morning now, and I’ve been experimenting with other human delicacies. Most mornings, though,” Finster added in a guilty whisper, “I just send a Putty disguised as a human to get a few things. I just haven’t the knack for donuts.”

Tommy steadily sipped the coffee as Finster puttered around the lab, gathering things. “So, do you drink coffee when you pull these all-nighters?”

“I don’t sleep,” Finster said absently. “At least, not as often as everyone else.”

Tommy digested this rather extraordinary statement. “What do you mean, not as often?”

“Humans, as I understand it, average six to eight hours a night. I only need a few hours every month, by your reckoning. Goldar needs more sleep—about three hours a night—and Empress Rita needs around ten hours. Longer if she uses up too much of her magic.

Tommy finished his coffee and yawned. “Well, I may need another cup. I’ll need to be alert tonight, and I suppose it’s past my bedtime.”

Finster motioned Tommy to help himself. “That’s because you let that great lummox throw you around the training room. A heal-all potion won’t restore all energy. You need to take care of yourself,” Finster said sharply. “You’re human. Nothing wrong with being human, but you’re not quite as sturdy as someone like Goldar, even when you are morphed.”

“Yes, sir,” Tommy said, his eyes twinkling.

Tommy had finished a second cup and refused a third, not wanting caffeine jitters, when Finster finally had all the elements he was looking for collected. He weeded through them with one hand, looking for qualities in the bits of metal and connectors that Tommy couldn’t even guess at. “I have here,” Finster said in a business-like voice, “the components needed for your mission. I’m not altogether familiar with the equipment, but there are back-ups just in case.”

Finster popped the components in a machine that actually looked more like a coffee-maker than his coffee-maker, pulled a lever, and they waited through a series of grinding noises. In a minute, though, a small box with a connector popped out of the machine. Finster pulled it out and handed it to Tommy.

“This device should plug into most connectors they would have in the Command Center,” Finster said. “Once it is plugged in, you will only have to wait until the light turns from red to green on the box. The first thing it will do is download the entire computer mainframe. While it is doing that, it will scramble Zordon’s signal. Not only will Zordon be sent away, but he will be unable to communicate or access the Morphing Grid. After Zordon has disappeared completely, the color should change almost immediately. Then you can unplug it and destroy the hardware as much as you can. Shots from your blaster will do the best damage. If you can set fire to some of the components, melting will do a far more thorough job than crushing. They’ll have to replace everything if you do it just right.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Tommy said. “And speaking of hardware…”

“Ah, yes. Alpha V,” Finster said. He produced a disk from a high shelf. “This is the best I can do. Alpha units, while having a few emotional glitches, are some of the sturdiest androids in the galaxy. This disc, which installs in a slot on the unit’s back, will give the unit a virus. While the unit will eventually recover once the disk is removed, it will be a long recovery, possibly days.”

“Fair enough,” Tommy said. “Anything else I need?”

Finster looked around vaguely. “No, I think that’s all. Unless you have a suggestion.”

Tommy pulled out his teleporter. “I don’t have a setting for the Command Center. I’ll need one.”

“Of course you will,” Finster said. “Hand me your power coin. I’ll need to use it to tap into the Morphing Grid for a split second. It shouldn’t alert anyone.” Tommy handed over his coin, though he didn’t like to. He already felt like he depended on it. After a few minutes of fiddling, Finster gave both items back to Tommy.

“I’ve added another button—the red one—on the back that will always take you to the Command Center. Just press it and you’ll teleport right in the middle of the main room, so you’ll have to act quickly.”

Tommy put the morpher and teleporter in his pockets. “Thanks a lot, Finster,” he said. “It looks like I’m ready then. Thanks for the coffee, too.”

“Tommy,” Finster suddenly looked worried, “good luck. Please be careful, and don’t hesitate to teleport out if you need to, even if you haven’t completed the mission.”

Tommy was a bit touched by the concern, though he felt that Finster’s confidence in his skills was a bit low. “I’ll be fine, Finster. This is what I’m here for.”

Tommy left the lab before Finster could worry over him anymore. He was anxious for the mission to begin: his first real mission for Empress Rita.

The throne room was dark, and Tommy reflected that Empress Rita would usually be long asleep if Finster was to be believed. She did look dreadfully tired, and Tommy regretted that he had suggested this timeframe.

“My Empress,” he bowed, saying the words softly and looking at her carefully.

“Oh, don’t fret over me,” Empress Rita said, in a voice rougher than usual. “I had a nap earlier, and Finster has already worried over me to distraction.”

Tommy smiled. Apparently Finster did that to everyone.

“Do you have everything you need?” Empress Rita asked.

“Yes, my Empress,” Tommy said. “Finster gave me the computer components I need to destroy the Command Center. I was also able to merge my weapon with my morphed state, so I’ll be able to call on it when necessary.”

“Very good,” Empress Rita said. “This is your first real mission for me. You are about to enter the very heart of enemy territory. Are you nervous, Tommy?”

Empress Rita had a knack for saying things that reached Tommy on very personal levels.

“Would you think any less of me if I said yes, my Empress?” Tommy asked, immensely grateful that Goldar wasn’t there right now. He was alone with Empress Rita, a rather heady experience.

Empress Rita smiled at him kindly. “Tommy, you are a good servant and an excellent warrior. I have the utmost of faith in you.”

Tommy felt his eyes burn and blinked rapidly. He wished he’d morphed already.

“Now,” Empress Rita said, “the mission shouldn’t take long. Let the equipment do its work and you should be fine. I expect you back within thirty minutes, though I don’t think it will even take that long.”

“It shouldn’t, my Empress.”

“I will also caution you about Zordon,” Empress Rita said, a bit sternly. “He will try to talk you out of what you’re doing. All he can do is talk now, the old fool,” Rita snorted in laughter. “Nonetheless, you should not listen to him. His enemies know that he has the gift of talk. What he says will sound like wisdom.”

“My Empress,” Tommy said. “Anything he says will only be desperate attempts to protect himself no matter how he phrases it.”

“Good,” Empress Rita said. “Keep that firmly in mind. He will want to turn you—to collect you for his own.”

Tommy grew deadly serious. “I am yours, my Empress. Yours alone.”

Empress Rita held his gaze for hours, it seemed. Finally…

“It’s time to go, Tommy.”




The room was quiet and dark. The robot was nowhere to be seen, and the tube was empty. Only a few lights blinked from the circle of computer terminals. A weird globe marked the other end of the circle, and Tommy wondered what they needed with a magic ball.

Suddenly, movement, like a muffled clanking. The robot…

“There, that should do it,” the robot said in a high-pitched voice. “I’ve made the adjustments to the translator, and the symbols should be deciphered by tomorrow afternoon.”

Tommy moved further back in the shadows, his sword drawn and at the ready. The robot was wearing an old-fashioned nightcap, like he was Ebenezer Scrooge.

“I guess now is a good time for some shut-down time,” the robot proclaimed. Tommy waited, hesitating. If the robot would just shut down, it would be so much easier…

“Is that you, Jason?” the robot suddenly said, its voice raising sharply. “Wait, NO! INTRUDER! AY YI—”

In a swift move that could not be matched by the robot, Tommy circled the robot and shoved the disk roughly in its back. The robot slumped, its lights flickering and then dying. Tommy took out his blaster and shot at the panel the robot had reached for first. It exploded in a burst of sparks, an unpleasant burning smell of melted electronics the only thing it was capable of producing.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tommy saw a flash of blue light in the tube. “Alpha,” a deep voice intoned with an edge of panic. “What is the matter? What—”

The being, who Tommy knew was the famous Zordon, went silent as soon as he saw Tommy. Tommy refused to look at him, preferring to look for an appropriate plug-in. He couldn’t waste any time.

“That was communications in the console I took out,” Tommy said, still poring over the other consoles. “Wasn’t it?”

“And teleportation,” Zordon confirmed, his voice unreadable.

Tommy nodded, humming to himself. He finally found what he was looking for and plugged in Finster’s device. It flashed red, beginning the download of their files. All Tommy had to do was wait it out.

“Tommy,” the deep voice said. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

So that was right. Zordon knew his name, even behind the mask. “More mine than yours, I would think,” Tommy said.

“The Rangers have mentioned you,” Zordon said. “They all had good things to say about you. Especially Billy…”

Tommy finally turned to face him. Zordon’s face was inscrutable, though not as much as it would be in a few minutes. “Empress Rita has told me a lot about you, as well,” Tommy said. “How you’d try to turn me from my duty. It’s not going to work, but I’ll let you talk, since these may be the last words you say in this dimension.”

Tommy saw Zordon’s eyes cut over to the cable snaking its way from a console.

“Oh, yeah,” Tommy said with a laugh. “After that thing gets done with the download, you’re going bye-bye. It’s programmed to scramble your signal so hard you’ll be lucky to see the Rangers’ great-great-grandchildren, if they live to have any, of course,” Tommy ended.

“You seem to have devised a flawless plan, Green Ranger. I would expect no less from someone Rita chose. When did this happen, by the way… since you’re, ah, allowing me to talk.”

Tommy shrugged. “Last Friday. I was completely her servant by Sunday, and I got the power coin Monday night after the monster attack.”

“So it’s been a busy week for you.”

“Can’t complain.”

Zordon paused. “That’s where you and I differ, Tommy. I would complain, myself, rather bitterly about being enslaved. I suppose to each his own.”

Tommy scowled. “That the best you can do? Cause you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.”

“Then you know you are under Rita’s mind control?” Zordon asked.

“You know,” Tommy said, “Goldar’s worried about that, too. I don’t know why. I’ve never been so free.”

“You are not free, Tommy,” Zordon said. “I’m sorry… I wish I could say you were, but you’re not. You’ve sold your soul for an easy solution, but you’ll never be free if you keep on with this.”

“And what do you know?” Tommy’s anger flared unexpectedly, and he brandished his sword. “You… there… in your tube! What do you know of living?”

Tommy started pacing the room, his temper mounting. In the corner of his eye, he kept watch over the box, wanting to get on with the destruction as soon as the color changed. “Have you ever had to cook dinner when you were eleven? Have you ever had to call five different phone numbers while your dad’s in the hospital just hoping that your mother will pick up the effing phone?”

Zordon simply watched as Tommy paced and shared way more than he had meant. “Tommy,” Zordon said cautiously, “how is your father?”

Tommy laughed wildly. “Now, don’t start on that tack. Dad is better off without me.”

“I imagine he is. I imagine he wouldn’t want to see you like this,” Zordon said.

The two stood quietly, Tommy fuming silently.

“Tommy,” Zordon said. “It doesn’t have to be this way. You have caused no real damage. You have obviously befriended the Rangers to hurt them, but you have not hurt them yet. I can help you become free again. You have power that Rita cannot take away. You may use it how you wish.”

Tommy gave no answer. Zordon took that as an invitation to keep talking.

“You have a good heart, Tommy. I’ve seen that in how you help Billy especially. The Rangers need your kindness and selfless generosity. That is your true nature. Rita has just perverted it for her own use. To answer your questions: no. I have never cared for an ill loved one. I have seen people killed in war, but I’ve never been a constant companion to death as you have been. That is what makes you unique. You have experienced true horror and have met it with bravery and generosity.”

Tommy realized his eyes were burning. Tears were streaming down his face, and he was grateful for the helmet, though, he realized, Zordon was probably able to tell.

“Please, Tommy… before it’s too late. Before you do something you cannot come back from.”

Zordon’s image flickered, scrambled, and died. The light on the box turned green.

Tommy stood there for a moment, breathing hard. He couldn’t even think. All he could feel was a crushing weight in the pit of his stomach, making him sick. He couldn’t control his shaking.

“What do you know?” Tommy said in a rough whisper. He willed his helmet back on and took the computer component. With a scream, he drew his blaster and began firing all around. The room exploded in a sea of sparks and flames, drowning out whatever feelings the old man had put in him. When there was nothing to fire on, he grabbed his sword and sliced through metal components as if they were butter. He slashed and hacked, letting loose everything he had in him. In a final burst of energy, he sliced right through the magic globe, the two halves falling dully to the floor.

Tommy pulled himself back in control and assessed the damage. It was enough, and this place was dangerous now. It was all ready for the Power Rangers to discover.

He looked once more at the empty tube, almost willing it to spring back to life. It remained empty. “You don’t know me at all,” he said in defiance.




He teleported back to the throne room, wishing he could go straight to his bedroom but knowing he wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Empress Rita was in her throne, just where he’d left her.

“The mission was successful, then, Green Ranger?” Rita asked cheerfully. She was drinking from a foaming goblet, obviously expecting to celebrate. Her confidence in him made him feel a little better, but…

“The mission was a complete success, my Empress,” Tommy said, trying to sound triumphant. “Zordon is gone, the robot is caput, and the Command Center is utterly destroyed. I have the files right here.” He held up the box he’d fortunately remembered to save from the Command Center.

“That’s wonderf… Tommy, what’s wrong?” Rita asked sharply.

“Nothing, my Empress,” Tommy tried to laugh.

“Tommy, unmorph. Now.”

The order was gentle but definite, and Tommy could see no way around it. He de-morphed, his uniform disappearing in a dull flash, and he tried to turn his face away. It wasn’t enough, though. His face felt hot and his eyes strained, and he knew Rita could tell he’d been crying. The room was silent and strained, and no one had joined her. They were, again, completely alone.

“What did he say to you?” Rita asked. She sounded afraid. When he didn’t answer, her voice got sharper and tighter. “Tommy, look at me and answer the question.”

Tommy finally looked her in the face and read real concern. He suddenly felt terrible for his… doubts. His eyes burned sharply again and he felt more tears slide down his cheeks. He found his voice, though. “Just… nonsense, my Empress. About you… ‘enslaving’ me. About my dad.” His voice cracked, and he couldn’t go on.

Rita closed her eyes and motioned him forward. Tommy dropped the computer box on the floor and stumbled forward.

As if in a dream, Tommy registered her movements. She was pulling him down to his knees, but not to a servant’s bow. Rather, she rested his head in her lap and stroked his hair. He realized he was sobbing.

Tommy had no idea how long they stayed there. Long after he stopped sobbing, Empress Rita kept stroking his hair and murmuring words of comfort. The terrible weight slowly left his stomach. He realized he had never felt closer to another person in his life. It was like having a mother—better than a mother, for he knew that Empress Rita would never leave him.

Toward morning, before anyone could discover them, Tommy pulled himself to his feet. He felt nearly dead, and he knew he would have school in just a couple of hours. There was still groundwork to lay. And he had to be there when the Rangers realized something was wrong.

He looked at Empress Rita, who seemed deader than he. He inwardly cursed his own selfishness, knowing that she should have been in bed hours ago.

“Tommy,” she said in a hoarse whisper, “I can’t seem to manage. Would you take me to my bedroom?”

“Of course, my Empress,” Tommy said. He helped her up and half-carried her out of the throne room. The bedroom was close, but when they were almost there her steps faltered and she almost fell. Tommy quickly picked her up, and she was too tired to protest. He laid her on her bed in the opulent bedroom.

“It’s alright, Tommy. I can manage from here,” Empress Rita said in a whisper. “You… you need to get some rest.”

Tommy smiled and assured her that he was going to do just that, not wanting to worry her with the information that he was going to shower, change, and gather his things to go straight to school, after he gave his report to Finster. He closed the door softly and was glad to meet no one on his way to his room.

Chapter Text

Tommy found trying to stay upright a challenge as he pulled his English and Math books from his locker, his eyes burning for sleep. He looked all right, or at least not as bad as he felt. He was extremely grateful that he only had a History reading for homework so far, though he was sure he was going to get English and definitely Math homework. He wondered when he could fit them between sleep and his ever-present mission. The weekend was close, though, and he could maybe catch a little more rest. He just needed to make it one more day.

"Hey, Tommy," the bright voice of a beautiful brunette called behind him.

Tommy turned with an easy smile. "Kim… hi," he said with as much energy as he could muster. "How's it going?"

"Not much," Kimberly said. "Just going to lunch."

"What a coincidence," Tommy said in mock surprise. "Well, I will then escort you, my lady."

"Thank you, kind sir," she said in equal mock civility.

Tommy watched her carefully as they walked and she talked. He wondered when it would happen—when they would discover their loss. He supposed they rarely went to the Command Center before school. Would he have to wait until the weekend? Would they fail to check in for several days if there were no monster attacks? He realized he had no idea what their practices were.

When he had handed the downloaded files to Finster, he requested all the video files of the Power Rangers available. While he was out of his element with the technology of the Zords and weapons (the specs of which were hopefully in the downloaded files), he wanted to study the Rangers themselves more closely. He was always good at figuring out enemy's weaknesses.

"You here, Tommy?" Kimberly asked, a concerned note in her voice.

Tommy snapped back into reality. "Yeah… I'm fine. I just couldn't get much sleep last night," he said.

"I'm sorry," Kimberly said. "Well… you just have a few more hours of school."

Tommy smiled. "Yeah… But if I'm nodding off in English, do me a favor and jab me awake. I need to stay on Mrs. Abbleby's good side."

Conversation halted as they went through the lunch line. Tommy felt a little "off food," but he got the least offending offerings in the line and told himself to force down at least a few bites.

They joined Jason and Zack in the corner of the cafeteria. Neither of them looked worried. They obviously had not tried to contact the Command Center yet.

"Where's Trini?" Kimberly asked. She didn't ask about Billy. Billy was usually a bit late to lunch, and only Tommy knew why.

"She ate early," Jason said after swallowing a mouthful of food. "She's working on that painting for the art exhibit."

"I thought she was nearly finished," Kimberly said. "At least, she was this morning."

Zack grimaced. "She was… until Bulk and Skull decided they would enter the exhibit."

"Oh, so that's what happened to her painting. I couldn't get an explanation out of her. Wait, let me guess," Jason said, with a mischievous glimmer in his eye. "They tried to gather art supplies, but ended up dumping paint over everyone else's art and themselves."

Zack shook his head. This seemed to be a game they played a lot.

"No, I got it," Kimberly said. "They… stumbled around until Bulk's head ended up through Trini's painting."

"Good one, but no," Zack said.

"Darn," Kimberly snapped her fingers. "Trini was painting a sunflower. I thought that it would have to go around Bulk's head. I even warned her about that."

"I think I know," Tommy said, trying to imagine the art room from when he walked by. "They did stumble around, and they ended up knocking down one easel, creating a domino effect and ruining everyone's paintings."

"Bingo," Zack laughed. He stopped. "Okay… it's not funny for Trini, but let's just call it a silver lining for now."

They all laughed and the others began to regale Tommy with tales of Bulk and Skull pratfalls and destruction.

"… right into the cake for the dance at the Youth Center," Zack said. "Ernie got so pissed off that he made them pay for it and everything."

"It's the law of cake-itivity," Billy said, walking up. "If cake exists, Bulk and Skull will end up wearing it."

They laughed. Billy was holding a lunch tray. Tommy raised his eyebrows at him. Billy gave one short nod and a smile.

"Think Trini'll make it for basketball?" Zack asked, not noticing Billy's and Tommy's exchange.

Jason shrugged. "I'll ask her. She may want to stay and paint, though."

Kimberly got a panicked look on her face and looked at Tommy. "Oh, my gosh. I was totally going to ask you to meet us for basketball at the park, Tommy."

"We can pretend you asked me and I said yes," Tommy said.

Kimberly grinned. "After school… around 3:30? It's at Foley Park. Near the big statue in the middle."

"You play, Tommy?" Zack asked.

Tommy grimaced. "To tell the truth, organized sports and me don't get along. I'll muddle through, though."

"Instincts kick in?" Jason asked.

"They tend to do that," Tommy said.

"Instincts?" Billy asked. "How would that be a problem?"

Tommy laughed softly. "Well… for instance. Seventh grade football tryouts. I thought I was a shoo-in… until someone tried to tackle me when I was running with the ball. Punched him in the stomach so hard he had to be taken home."

"Ouch," Billy said. "So I suppose you didn't make the team?"

"Or any team at that school… ever. I think that principal called it a 'life-long ban.' See… the guy I punched about three times my size and their star defense player," Tommy laughed. "I actually got hate mail from alumni."

The others laughed, although Jason laughed a little awkwardly. Tommy supposed he didn't approve of losing control like that. Tommy wondered what it would take to make Jason lose control of his anger and strength.

Lunch ended pleasantly, and Tommy was able to stay awake through English. It was the waiting. He knew the Power Rangers were nearing the end of their last few happy hours. They were smug: so assured of themselves and their safety. They had no idea their lives were about to go down the crapper.

Tommy suffered through Math, and he was genuinely grateful to see Billy as soon as he got out of class. There was a test coming up, and unless he was mistaken he wouldn't be getting Billy's help after today.

"So, what happened?" Tommy asked when they settled on a park bench at Foley. It was a short walk from the school.

Billy grinned. "It worked, Tommy. It was easy. I didn't even have to hurt them. I just told them I didn't feel like giving them my money and I walked away. They didn't even put up a fight."

"Of course they didn't," Tommy said, grinning broadly. "They know now they can't take you."

"And they didn't want to get beat up by the biggest nerd in school," Billy said.

"Billy, you're not…"

Billy waved him off. "It's fine. I know I'm a nerd. It works for me. At least I'm not a geek."

Tommy laughed, and the two of them dived again into the confusing world of numbers and symbols.

This session wasn't as successful as Tommy felt the previous one was, though. "How the heck am I going to be ready for Monday's test?" he asked in a hollow voice.

"Come on, Tommy, you were getting it at the end," Billy said. "Just a little extra work this weekend and you should be able to…"

"Just barely pass," Tommy finished for him.

Billy frowned, considering. "Well… maybe you can get an extension? It's your first week here, after all."

Tommy gave an incredulous laugh. "Coach Warren, give an extension? I'll be running laps until I'm 30 if I even ask."

"That's probably true," Billy said, looking as downcast as Tommy. "Look… we can meet this weekend sometime. How's Saturday?"

Tommy considered, and then grinned. "No can do, sorry. I've got a date with Kimberly. Say… do you think it would be a good idea to have a picnic at that beach?"

"I think Kimberly won't take too much convincing," Billy said. "Especially if you cook… Hey, when you're talking to her," Billy suddenly got a mischievous look in his eyes, "ask her about Thanksgiving last year."

"Oh, this I gotta hear," Tommy said. "Come one… go ahead and tell me."

"I'm under pinky-swear not to tell that story," Billy said.

"Come on."

The two broke off as they saw Jason running toward them. As soon as he saw Jason's face, Tommy knew it was finally happening. No matter how much Jason tried to act normal as he slowed to a walk and approached them, nothing could chase away the raw panic on his face.

"Hey, Billy… Tommy," Jason said, his voice shaking from his internal panic.

"Hey, man, what's wrong?" Tommy asked with as much concern as he could put in his voice.

"Uh… nothing," Jason said a little manically. "Well… it's just… we're going to have to cancel the game. There's something I… we…" He shot a meaningful look at Billy, who instantly looked tense, "We need to take care of."

"No problem," Tommy said. "I'm pretty beat, myself. Sure there isn't anything I can do?"

"No, that's okay," Jason said hurriedly, motioning Billy with his head. "I'll see you tomorrow… I'm real sorry about this."

As soon as the two boys turned their backs, Tommy smirked. This was going to be good. He decided to teleport to the Moon Palace when they were out of sight, just to enjoy the show from a better vantage.

 


 

"What's wrong, Jason?" Billy said tensely as they finally got out of Tommy's sight. Billy was afraid they were a little rude to him, but Jason was too scared-looking to worry about that now. "Is Rita attacking? Should we teleport to the Command Center?"

"We can't teleport," Jason said.

Billy stopped dead, and Jason was several paces ahead of him before he realized it. "What do you mean, we can't teleport?" Billy asked.

"No communication, either," Jason said. "Press your communicator."

Billy pressed the familiar face of the first invention he'd made for the team and got dead static. "The device is malfunctioning?"

"All five of them at the same time?" Jason said. "Come on… we've got to hurry. I told everyone to meet at your garage. I hope you don't mind."

"That's actually convenient," Billy said, mind whirling with options. He knew he would have to come up with solutions. This was his territory, after all. "Who knows," he said, "maybe Zordon is just waiting for us all to be together so he can teleport us to the Command Center."

"I truly hope so, Billy," Jason said.

They jogged to Billy's house, which was several blocks away. Billy hadn't taken his car that day—he'd been tweaking a few things the night before and hadn't felt right about driving it yet. Jason had a license, but he didn't have a car yet. He was saving up for a particular car, though by now he sort of wished he'd accepted his older sister's beat-up Nissan. By the time they got to Billy's house, Jason was barely winded, but Billy was holding a stitch in his side. When would he be able to keep up with the others?

Kimberly was filing her nails, not noticing she had them down to the quick. Trini was folded into a yoga position on the floor: she looked to be meditating. Zack, taking a more active but equally useless approach, repeatedly tried the communicator, his voice sounding less and less hopeful each time.

"Zack to Zordon. Zordon… Alpha… come in, Command Center."

Zack stopped when he saw Jason and Billy approach. Billy, despite his fatigue, brushed past them and began gathering components: some lifted from the Command Center mixed with human technology. He grabbed a device and began adding components.

"Any luck?" Jason asked.

Zack shook his head. "The static doesn't even change. It's like… there's nothing there to connect to."

"Don't say that!" Kimberly said, throwing her nail file in her purse. "They're there…" she said, a bit calmer. "We're just having communicator problems."

"Then why haven't they teleported us already?" Zack said. It sounded like they'd said this in Jason's absence as well.

"Maybe teleportation is down at the Command Center," Trini said. "Something could be blocking our signal, too." She came out of her yoga position and got to her feet gracefully. "Billy, what can I do to help?"

"Uh…" Billy said, trying to concentrate on too many things at once. "Grab me the modulator off the shelf."

Jason watched impatiently, as always impressed with Trini's ability to keep up with Billy. If Billy had asked him for a modulator, he would probably have reached for a screwdriver or an oven mitt.

The garage resounded with a clack as the device started glowing, and Billy grabbed his own power coin. "This should tell us something about the Command Center," Billy explained as he connected his power coin to a wire. He then connected the circuit to his communicator. "It might even get us in touch with Zordon directly, without the help of the communication network at the Command Center."

They waited for five minutes, Billy especially getting more impatient by the minute.

"This isn't good," Billy said.

"What is it?" Jason asked.

"I'm tapped directly into the Morphing Grid. I should be getting something… at least a visual of the Command Center." Billy looked up, fear plainly reading in his eyes. "I'm getting nothing. It is like there's nothing to read."

 


 

"And… there," Finster said. "It's connected, my Queen."

The mirror was once again connected to the telescope at the balcony of the Moon Palace, and everyone was gathered around for the show. Tommy, in a fit of whimsy, had quickly teleported to his uncle's summer home and was now introducing everyone to popcorn.

"Let me get this straight, Tommy," Goldar rumbled. "The humans take a raw vegetable, heat it, and eat what explodes out?"

"Exactly," Tommy said thickly around a large mouthful of popcorn.

"Yet it has no taste," Goldar said, trying to pick a kernel out of his teeth with his claw.

"You just need more salt," Tommy said, swallowing the bite and adding some butter-flavored salt to one of the large bowls he had made.

Squatt and Babboo had taken to the popcorn immediately, and they'd already discovered the trick of throwing popcorn in the air and catching it with their mouths. They had far from mastered the skill; however, they merely picked the popcorn off the floor and tried it again, squealing with laughter when they failed.

Finster, rather than staying to watch the show, took an unpopped bag of popcorn from Tommy and immediately ran to his lab, obviously more interested in replicating the novelty than in the Power Rangers' despair.

The screen flickered to life, showing the Rangers in a garage. By the car off to the side, as well as the way-too-advanced technology to be in anyone's garage, it was Billy's place.

"Now we'll see the beginning of our plans come to fruition," Empress Rita crowed. She seemed fully rested, Tommy was glad to note.

"They don't seem to be gnashing their teeth in despair yet," Goldar commented.

"Not yet, anyway," Tommy answered. "They're too confused now. Despair will come later."

 


 

As the tense silence took over the garage and Billy stopped working, forgetting to even detach his Power Coin and communicator from the humming, worthless device, Jason knew he had to take charge.

"Well, there's still a building there," Jason said, hoping what he was saying was true. "We can't communicate or teleport, so we'll have to travel there the long way."

"Great," Kimberly said. "Got six hours?"

"Hey," Jason said. "We're not giving up yet. Without the Command Center or teleportation we have no way to get to monster attacks quickly. We can spot it on the news, but even then the reports are usually too late. We've got to get in touch with Zordon, and driving over there across the desert is the only way I know how. Billy?"

Billy seemed to be shaken out of his stupor. He was pulling the device in his hand apart, putting on his communicator and stowing the Power Coin safely back into his morpher. "There may actually be a way…" Billy said slowly.

"What is it?" Trini asked.

Billy switched into high gear and began rummaging through one of his bins in the corner. "It's something I've been working on that Zordon suggested I do. It was like he knew this was going to happen. I haven't tested it yet," Billy said, finally hulking a large metal brace out of the bottom of the bin. "However, if it works it will get us to the Command Center faster than on land."

"Do it," Jason said. "We need to get there."

Billy nodded. "Zack, could you help me fit this over the top of my car?"

Zack looked bewildered but moved quickly to help him with the machine. It was not heavy, but it was unwieldy. When they got the device fitted to the top, Billy began snaking wires from the device into the driver's side window. He grabbed his small toolbox with all his delicate-work instruments and began connecting wires to various hidden connectors under the steering wheel. He forced himself to take his time: he'd only mess up if he hurried.

The others kept silent as Billy worked, Trini staying close in case Billy needed her. After a few minutes, though, Billy pulled himself out of the car. He began loading several tools into a duffel bag. "Everyone get in," he said. "Where is it… here." Billy pulled a device with a screen out from behind a computer and got in the car, hooking the new device onto the dashboard. He handed Jason the duffel bag, who set it in the floorboard of the passenger's side. Trini, Kimberly, and Zack piled in the back.

"So what's this thing going to do?" Jason finally asked.

"You'll see," Billy said with a grim smile. He was praying they would see.

Billy backed out of the garage and began driving out of the residential area into a more deserted locale. As he hoped, the nearby construction site was empty of any workers at the time. "Seatbelts, everyone," he said. "There should be enough in the back."

He waited until the jostling for hidden seatbelts in the back ended. "Hang on," he said, flooring the accelerator. The engine roared with the new speed as Billy expertly navigated the wide circle around the construction site. With a final prayer, he decided to try it.

"Jason, would you mind pressing the yellow button on the dashboard?" Billy asked.

As soon as Jason pushed it, the car lurched, keeping the same speed. Everyone was thrown forward sharply. The engine whined loudly and died.

"Well, you tried, Billy," Trini said from the middle of the backseat.

"And succeeded," Billy said, keeping his eyes in front of him. "Look out the window."

He heard a definite scream from Kimberly and yelps from the others. Billy grinned, savoring the reactions.

The car was climbing rapidly in the air as the loosened steering wheel began controlling vertical movement. Billy pulled the steering wheel toward him until he felt they had achieved a good enough altitude so they wouldn't be spotted.

"Uh… Billy?" Zack said. "This car is flying, isn't it?"

The others looked at Zack incredulously.

Zack swallowed hard. "Okay, it's been a weird day. I just wanted to be sure I wasn't hallucinating."

"We're flying, yes," Billy said. "Kimberly, there should be a small radio in the backseat. Turn the frequency to around 770 and we should be able to tap into air traffic control. I'd rather not fly into any airplanes. Jason, the device on the dash," Billy pointed to it with one hand. "It's an advanced global positioning system… something I modified from spaceship components in the Command Center. It should have the coordinates to the Command Center in there already. Just turn it on and use the select button to highlight the Command Center."

"Got it," Jason said. It was much easier to operate than he initially thought, Jason realized with relief. He set it back on the dashboard and Billy responded to the arrows on the screen by turning east. The crackle of a radio in the backseat began to feature voices giving instructions and coordinates.

Billy smiled. Everything was going smoothly so far.

"Billy, I don't mean to break your concentration," Kimberly said after a few minutes, "but how the heck is this happening? The engine isn't even running."

"Of course it isn't," Billy said. "It doesn't need an engine to fly. It doesn't even need wheels or gasoline right now. I just needed to rev the engine enough to provide the flyer on top of the car with energy. The addition to the car is doing all the work."

"Okay," Jason said. "How?"

Billy laughed. "Honestly, I'm not even sure about all the theory. It's spaceship technology that's so advanced that it could just as well be magic in comparison with any of our technology. I know a few things… enough to adapt it and repair it if it has problems. It was part of a defunct spaceship in the Command Center whose flying technology was still viable. Zordon let me strip the ship."

Zack laughed a little wildly. "So… we're in a flying car, thousands of feet above the earth, and you're not sure how everything works. Are we going to be all right getting all the way to the Command Center?"

"Gosh, I hope so," Billy said cheerily. "Jason, find us some music. It'll still be an hour trip."

The other four Rangers shared worried looks, and Jason tried to find a song that he wouldn't mind crashing to.

 


 

The screen suddenly burst into static. Empress Rita moved to adjust, but a minute's work left them still looking at nothing.

"It must be the Command Center's external security," Goldar said. "It's jamming our signal to hide the location of the building."

"I believe you're right," Empress Rita said, disconnecting the screen and letting it slowly lower to the ground. "It looks like this is the end of the show, for now."

Tommy was disappointed. "My Empress, couldn't Finster tap into the Morphing Grid with my Power Coin? Then we could…"

"No, I don't think so," Empress Rita said, cutting Tommy off. "It's too risky, once the Blue Ranger begins to repair the damage. Besides, we can't just sit around watching all day. We must all," she looked significantly at Tommy, "plan for tomorrow's attack."

"Attack?" Tommy asked with breathless excitement.

"Yes, of course we'll attack," a new voice came from behind them.

Tommy turned to see the most gorgeous woman he'd ever seen in his life. She looked Asian, and yet there were aspects of her face and voice that could never be found on Earth. She practically glided in, wearing golden armor and carrying a matching helmet. Her hair was damp, as if she'd just showered.

"Scorpina, welcome," Empress Rita said. "I regret I could not meet you when you got in this morning, but I was still resting."

"It's quite all right, Empress Rita," Scorpina said, cutting her eyes to Goldar. "I found my way around well enough. I'm just glad to get the travel gunk off me. Flying a single-man fighter is not the best way to travel for a week."

"And your arrival is much appreciated," Empress Rita said. "I believe you know Goldar… and Squatt and Babboo." She gestured to the two flunkies, who backed away, muttering something about "crazy woman." "And this is our new ally, Tommy Oliver, the Green Ranger."

Tommy stuck out a hand in greeting, but then faltered when she didn't offer hers in return. He realized that shaking hands was probably foreign to her.

"You're the human Goldar has told me about," she said in an amused voice. "You're… shorter than I expected."

Tommy smirked. "And I pictured a big blue monkey when Goldar told me about you."

Scorpina raised her eyebrows and broke into surprised laughter. "Ooo, I like him. Can I take him to play?" she asked Empress Rita.

Tommy suddenly wondered about the "crazy woman" comments.

"Go ahead, but don't kill him," Empress Rita said, equally amused.

"Hang on," Tommy said, sidling over to Goldar. "Um, Goldar?" His voice lowered to a whisper. "What does… play… mean?"

Goldar rumbled in laughter. "It means you better morph. She wants to play what you humans call 'hide and seek.'"

"That doesn't seem so bad."

"With swords."

"Ah."

"And occasionally fatal injuries."

"All right, human," Scorpina called. "You have a minute before I come looking for you. Get going."

With one last worried look to Goldar, who indicated that he better get going, Tommy broke into a run to find someplace to morph. It looked like sleep would have to wait. Tommy smirked as he ducked into an alcove near the weapons room. At least he was having a better day than the Power Rangers.

 


 

The drive to the Command Center passed uneventfully, though Billy found out he needed to prepare the car for air pockets. They'd almost bounced clear through the ceiling. When they reached desert, Billy decided they could fly closer to the ground as long as they kept a watch for people. When the Command Center loomed into view, out of sight of any roads, Billy set them down for a surprisingly smooth landing, the spaceship material on top of the car taking care of everything.

"Well, the building's still there," Jason said as they all got out of the car. Jason grabbed the duffel bag and handed it to Billy.

"Anyone remember the outside entrance?" Zack said. They usually teleported directly into the main chamber.

After a few minutes of looking, the five stood in front of a door with no handle. Billy touched a panel, and a red light immediately scanned them, making them jump in surprise.

"Power Coins and identities confirmed," a flat computerized voice welcomed them. The door slid open, grinding a bit from disuse. They entered, no one talking as they winded their way through the labyrinthal passages. Finally, they reached rooms they recognized and walked through an archway into the main chamber.

"God, what is that smell?" Kimberly said, coughing violently.

"It smells like burned…" Trini began.

"NO!" Billy yelled.

Billy pushed past Jason and ran the rest of the way into the main chamber. The others followed, ready for a fight. They were unprepared, though, for what they saw.

Zordon was gone. The chamber was only recognizable in shape, as everything was burned and melted. The viewing globe was in pieces, and Alpha was as immobile as a statue. Yet their attention remained arrested by the empty tube, looking dark and bleak.

"Where is he?" Kimberly asked in a hard sob.

"There's been an attack," Zack said in a disbelieving voice. "See… this mess was made by a person." He pointed to the places where the metal had been sliced clean through.

"That's impossible," Trini said. "Rita can't gain access to this place… can she?"

The question was obviously directed at Billy. He said nothing, still staring at the empty tube.

Jason's mind seemed stuck, but he forced himself out of it. Yes, there had been an attack, though he had no idea by whom. And they wouldn't find out unless they got Zordon back and some of the equipment up and running.

Trini had, in the meantime, gone over the Alpha. "Look, there's a disk in his back unit," she said, pulling it out.

Alpha immediately came back to life, spouting words and fragments: "Jason… that… you… INTRUDER!"

"Well, that answers that question," Trini said. "There was definitely an attack."

The Rangers gathered around Alpha… except Billy. He remained immobile, still staring at where Zordon should be.

"Billy, get over here," Jason said. "You can tell us what's wrong with Alpha."

Billy didn't seem to hear him.

Then, suddenly, Alpha stopped moving. The android slumped and, in a voice that was his, though devoid of all personality and energy, said, "Diagnostic detects computer virus. 24-hour recovery necessary." With that, the android seemed to shut down, with only a lone yellow light on his head blinking.

The Rangers stared at each other. "So, we haven't completely lost Alpha," Jason said. "But we won't find out what happened here unless we start fixing things. Now, I know that there are replacement viewing globes in the first room on the right," he pointed. "Zack, Kim, would you mind getting one?"

"No problem," Kimberly said.

"Trini, you know where the security room is," Jason said. Alpha and Zordon had briefed them all, in the past few months, on the security system in the Command Center. While the audio/visual records weren't in the room (they all looked like they'd been destroyed along with the computer mainframe), they could monitor the whole building from there. "We need to know if the attacker is still in the building."

"Right," Trini said, shooting worried glances at Billy as she left.

Billy didn't acknowledge Jason as he approached.

"Billy, you've got to snap out of this," Jason said to him quietly. "We can't do this without you, man."

"But he's gone," Billy said in a voice that Jason barely recognized. "He's just… gone."

"We're going to get Zordon back," Jason said, a little louder than he meant to. His voice rang around the empty chamber, which had never seemed so cavernous when Zordon was there. "We're going to fix everything."

Billy failed to respond.

"Billy, please don't give up." Jason realized he was close to tears and swallowed hard. He knew if he stopped to think about what had happened, he would simply stop… like Billy. He couldn't allow that. "I really need you right now."

Billy finally turned away from the tube to survey the damage. "It's too much, Jason. It's just too much. I… I don't even know where to begin."

At that moment Zack and Kimberly returned with the replacement viewing globe, setting it carefully on its pedestal.

"Start with that," Jason said. "The base doesn't look all that damaged.

Billy nodded, seeming to struggle against the despair that had taken him since they'd arrived. He pulled a toolbox from the duffel bag and went to the base of the viewing globe. He turned a few knobs and the globe came to life.

"I've linked it to external security, which hasn't been damaged," Billy said. "It's not as good as the regular sensors, but if there's a major monster attack, it should let us know immediately."

The globe showed scenes of the park, the beach, the school… everywhere in Angel Grove looked peaceful. No monster attacks.

"But why, though?" Jason asked, mostly to himself. "We're at our most vulnerable. Why is Rita holding back?"

"Maybe she's got something bigger planned," Kimberly said.

Trini came back into the room. She looked at the calm scenes in the viewing globe. "Yeah, that's what the security room told me. I also confirmed that we're the only ones in the Command Center right now, and I set warnings to flare if anyone else but us five shows up. Whoever did this is long gone, and I intend to keep it that way."

"Good work," Jason said. He forced his eyes away from the viewing globe only to look at the empty tube again. He suddenly wanted to throw up.

"We've got work to do," Jason heard himself saying. "Kimberly, keep a watch on the viewing globe for anything unusual. Zack and I have to check the Zords to see if they're damaged."

The fear turned more palpable in the room. Without their Zords…

"And Billy…" Jason continued.

"Right," he said, seemingly to be energized by getting the viewing globe up and running. "I'll start looking for Zordon. Trini, would you…"

"No," Jason said. "That will have to wait until later."

Billy turned to face Jason, seemingly amazed by what he said. "But… Zordon…"

Jason tried to look stern, even though each word was killing a piece of himself. "Our first priority is teleportation and communication. If the Zords are damaged, we'll need to work on them, too. Zordon will have to wait."

"Now, wait a minute," Billy said. "Zordon is… lost… somewhere, and we're not going to do anything about it? He would put saving us over everything."

Jason felt his temper flaring. "Zordon himself gave us the mission to protect the people of the Earth. That's our first priority. It always has been. And we can't protect the people of the Earth if we're an hour away from any attacks. We need teleportation more than anything."

"But, for all we know Zordon could die…" Billy said, sounding desperate.

"That's final."

Billy glared at Jason, and for a wild moment Jason wondered if Billy was going to attack him. Jason knew he could take Billy down in a second, but he would rather it not come to that. Then, just as quickly as the anger had flared, it fled in Billy's eyes, and all Jason could read was dull acceptance and despair. Lugging the duffel bag sullenly, Billy turned to the teleportation panel, opened the underside and, without words, started to work.

"I'll help him," Trini said, moving away from the group.

Jason caught her arm. "You'll make sure…"

"Yes," Trini said in a flare of annoyance. Jason let go of her arm, feeling more and more like the bad guy each second.

"Zack, you're with me," Jason said, glad to leave the room.

The two friends walked silently through the corridors to the familiar cavernous hangar that housed the Zords. They checked each Zord in turn, starting with Billy's Triceratops Zord. It seemed all right, but they started the diagnostic checks that they performed every Sunday.

"It wasn't anything against you," Zack said. "He… Billy's taking this pretty hard."

"Yeah, we all are," Jason grumbled. Now that he was away from the tense situation, he was a little hurt at how Billy had turned on him so quickly.

"Yeah, but…" Zack seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "I mean, you get why Billy's so fixated on finding Zordon, right?"

Jason looked at Zack, confused. "Well, I mean, we need Zordon. You get that I want to find him, too, don't you?" Jason suddenly felt the need to justify himself. "I wasn't saying that we didn't need Zordon or anything. We just need to…"

"Yeah, man, I get that," Zack said. "You had to make the hard decision, Billy didn't make it any easier, and I'm just glad that you're the leader rather than me." Zack tried to crack a smile, but failed.

"So what's his problem?" Jason said, turning his attention back to the Zord.

"Well, his dad, obviously," Zack said. "You hadn't moved to Angel Grove back then, so you don't know."

The Zord beeped that it was done, and it showed a clean bill of health. That relieved Jason more than he would admit, but they still needed to check the rest of the Zords. The two Rangers moved to Zack's Mastodon, the nearest Zord.

"I know Billy lost his dad. It was when he was eight, right?"

"Yeah," Zack said, punching in the diagnostic sequence this time. "Billy was always a weird kid. Already wearing enormous glasses when he was six. He didn't have any friends as far as I could tell. He was always playing with the latest electronics or reading comic books. I only saw him in Boy Scout meetings. His dad was the Scout leader."

Jason smiled. "I was never in Scouts, though I hear the popcorn's delicious."

This time Zack was able to crack a smile. "Not as good as cookies, but yeah. Anyway, I never really got along with Billy, but we all loved Mr. Cranston. He was kind of old… in his 60s… but looking back he had the energy of a teenager. He took us hiking, camping… He was the head of the local Boy Scout camp. Everyone loved him. I guess he seemed like a grandfather to all of us."

"And he died?" Jason asked.

Zack's face fell. "Yeah… during a camping trip. It was only five of us for that trip, including me and Billy, and there weren't any other adults. They said later… he had a stroke and died fifteen minutes later. We didn't know what to do… We were alone in the woods and had no real idea where we were. Billy had it together, though. He set me to operating the CB in the car to call for help, and then he performed CPR on his dad when he stopped breathing. I finally reached a ranger station, but the paramedics came too late. They had to pull Billy off him… Billy was still trying to revive him."

Jason stared in horror at Zack. He remembered how devastated he was when his grandfather died, but to be there when it actually happened…

"It took a while for Billy to bounce back from that, of course," Zack said. "He blamed himself… still does, I guess… I tried to be his friend after that, but he was angry all the time. Kimberly was better with him, but not by much. It wasn't until junior high that he sort of got it together and tried to be friends with people again."

"And I just opened a big, gaping sore," Jason said, suddenly feeling even more horrible. They all looked to Zordon like a father-figure, but Billy worked more in the Command Center than any of them. He also needed a father-figure more than any of them.

"He'll be okay," Zack said, leading the way to Trini's Saber Tooth Tiger Zord. "Just… tread soft around him with the whole Zordon thing." Zack's face took on a bleak expression. "You don't think… he can't be dead… can he?"

"No," Jason said. "We just… can't reach him. Don't worry… if nothing else, Alpha will be working in less than 24 hours. He'll know how to get Zordon. Maybe he's there… we just need the equipment in the Command Center to see him."

"I hope you're right. Gosh, I'd like to get my hands on the guy that did this! How could he do this without us knowing?" Zack said, temper flaring.

"I have a feeling we'll know soon enough," Jason said.

They checked the last of the Zords in silence, embroiled in their own thoughts. Jason figured one of them could do it alone, but he didn't want anyone to be alone, just in case there was trouble. And he just didn't want to be alone.

All Zords checking out fine, they were a little more cheerful as they walked back to the main control room.

"Nothing's happened yet," Kimberly said by way of greeting them. "How are the Zords?"

"They check out," Zack said with an almost smile. "Billy, how's it going?"

Jason was grateful that Zack asked. He'd rather not spur another confrontation.

Billy pulled himself out from under the console, sitting on the floor and reeking of fried electronics. "It doesn't look good," he said, pointedly not looking at Jason. "Most of the components are melted. I sent Trini to get replacement parts in the supply rooms, but I'm going to have to build it mostly from scratch."

"Can you do that?" Jason asked before he could stop himself.

Billy shot him an annoyed look and held up a sheaf of papers with incomprehensible schematics. "I have the Command Center manual right here… Thank goodness it didn't get burned up in the fire. If I work steadily and have enough parts, I should be able to get teleportation functional in a few hours, though I may have to take a shortcut and keep it at only one landing point." Billy wiped his brow, leaving a dark smudge of ash. "Anything more complicated will take longer."

"Good work, Billy," Jason said softly. "Just tell us anything you need us to do, and we'll do it."

Billy looked like he was about to get angry, but controlled himself in the end. "I just need a few hours." He looked up at Trini as she brought in a box of parts.

"There are more boxes in the storerooms," Trini said, clearly just as overwhelmed as Billy at the immense project. "They're really heavy." Even Trini, who was stronger than she looked from years of training, was massaging her arms and hands from the sheer weight.

"We'll need all of them," Billy remarked.

"Right, everyone listen up," Jason said, calling Kimberly's attention away from the viewing globe. Jason suddenly felt uncomfortable in the leader position without Zordon behind him to help and guide. "We're staying here tonight. Two of us will take Billy's car…" Jason shot a nervous glance at Billy, who simply nodded his head. "And they'll call parents and grab supplies. Our alibi is we're having an all-night study meeting at Tommy's. Our parents don't really know him, and his father isn't at home. Just in case, we'll call Tommy so he can cover for us."

Jason felt really bad for using Tommy like that, especially since he'd have to lie to Tommy too, but he vowed to make it up to him. "In the meantime," Jason continued, "everyone else helps Billy rebuild. We stay here the night and go to school in the morning… except one of us," Jason said. "I don't want to leave the Command Center alone, so one of us will have to call in sick for school tomorrow."

"I'll stay," Billy said. "I can catch some sleep in the morning and then keep working through the day."

"Are you sure?" Jason said, worried that Billy would push himself too hard.

"I'm sure," Billy said firmly, and Jason let it drop.

"Jason, you're the only one besides Billy with a driver's license," Zack said, "so you'll need to take Billy's car."

"Do you remember how to operate it?" Billy asked.

"Yeah, I remember," Jason said, reeling with the realization that he would have to operate a flying car. "Who's with me?"

"I am," Kimberly said. "I can talk to both Trini's and Billy's moms and it won't be too weird."

"Okay, then…" Jason said. "We'll be back."

Jason and Kimberly left them as Zack and Trini began gathering more boxes. Billy was already rummaging through the first box, pulling out parts seemingly at random.

They were silent as they climbed into the car. Jason searched through Billy's keychain for the ignition key and tried the first likely one. The engine turned over, and Jason started to put the car into gear, thankful that his dad had taught him to drive stick. He stopped when he heard a harsh sob beside him.

"I'm sorry," Kimberly said, wiping her eyes frantically. "I know… it's so stupid… I shouldn't…"

Her face turned red from the tears that she was trying to hold back. Jason had never seen anyone look so utterly miserable. Killing the engine, he pulled her into a hug. She began sobbing in earnest.

"Kim, it's gonna be okay." Jason felt the tears finally spilling from his own eyes, no matter how much he tried to control himself. "We're going to beat her. No matter what she throws at us, we will handle it." Jason tried to strengthen his voice, but it was still shaky and uncertain.

"But she came into our house," Kimberly sobbed. "I… What's been getting me through this whole 'super hero' thing is I knew there was always someplace safe to go to. Now… She's ruined that."

Jason wanted to tell her that it would be all right, that they would fix everything, find Zordon, and beat every monster with a triumphant swipe of the MegaZord's sword. That in a few days they'd be gathered in the gleaming Command Center, rejoicing in their victory and maybe deep in party plans. But it was like Kimberly said. This was different. This wasn't a monster fight. They'd been invaded, destroyed from within. And they wouldn't recover any time soon.

All he could do right now was hold the girl he'd come to regard as a sister… and hope he could be strong enough to keep their family together.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The good thing about the best of Billy's inventions, Jason mused, was that they were extremely user-friendly. The operation of the car was intuitive, like a video game, and Jason was able to land the car lightly at the construction site. He cranked the engine again, turning it into a normal car.

"I'll just pack a few things," Kimberly said, her voice almost normal after the long, silent drive. Jason hadn't even turned on the radio; he preferred to muse. He put Kimberly on watch for airplanes, knowing he couldn't understand the air traffic control monitor even if he turned it on.

"I know Billy's got clothes up at the Command Center," Jason said. "He stays up there all the time. I'll go by Zack's and pick up some stuff for him."

"He had his sports bag…remember?" Kimberly said. "He'll have a change of clothes in there."

"Good," Jason said. "What about Trini?"

"We always have stuff at each other's place from staying over all the time."

"Clothes are settled, then," Jason said. "I'll call Zack's parents and Tommy."

Kimberly perked up at Tommy's name. "What are you going to tell him? I've been trying to think of something, but everything I can think of would just make it rude we're not inviting him along."

Jason scowled. "I'll just have to think of something. Wait… how am I going to call him?" Jason realized. "I don't have his number, and he wouldn't be in the phone book yet."

Kimberly blushed, reached into her purse, and pulled out a slip of paper. She handed it to Jason. "Don't you dare start," she warned him when he smirked.

"There's cute little hearts drawn all over this… okay, okay, I'll stop!" Jason laughed when she began hitting him with her purse.

The laughter didn't last long. It was as if the knowledge of the Command Center kept choking them, like they were at a funeral and they had to act natural in front of an open casket. Jason turned his mind sharply from this image. "Anyway," he continued, "after we pack and make calls I'll pick you up and we'll grab some food. Sandwiches, I guess? And for breakfast Pop-tarts?"

Jason parked at Kimberly's house, and she stared at it dully. "Not exactly the breakfast of champions, but I don't feel much like a champion right now."

Kimberly started to get out, and Jason caught her arm. "Hey. Like I said. We're going to get through this."

Kimberly gave a reluctant smile and ran into the house.

Jason drove to his own house, pondering how he was going to manage this. It all sounded so easy when he announced the plan to the Rangers, but this was a pretty big lie this time. And his dad had a way of seeing through lies. If only he could just talk to his mom… but Jason remembered that this mother was working a late shift at the hospital, so she wasn't home yet. That made things more difficult. Then, of course, there was Tommy to consider. The more he thought about the alibi, the less feasible it was, but they couldn't claim to stay at each other's houses. Too many of their parents were friends.

Jason finally reached his neighborhood and parked about a block away. It would be too suspicious if he was driving Billy's car. The sun was setting too quickly in the sky, as the days were getting shorter, and he knew he had to hurry. He did not want to drive a flying car in the dark. He jogged the rest of the way to his house.

His dad was planted on the couch in front of the TV. His father had been a powerfully-built man, but years of lack of exercise and comfortable living had given him kind of a "beer gut," even though Jason knew he didn't drink beer. Football was blaring from the TV and Jason, despite his hurry, couldn't help but glimpse at the game. Neither were teams he was particularly interested in.

"Hey, dad," he said, wondering if his father had noticed him come in.

"How was school?" his father grunted.

"It was fine," Jason said, enacting the usual routine. Jason remembered when he could tell his parents everything he'd done that day. Now… he had to edit the stories so much it wasn't even worth trying. He told his parents about important school events, but usually the "fine" answer worked well enough. "Listen… dad…" he began, not quite sure how to proceed.

"Your coach called," Mr. Scott said. "You missed football practice. Again."

Jason cursed inwardly. Of course, he'd been walking to practice during 7th period when Zack and Trini had accosted him in the hallway, frantic that their communicators didn't work and that they couldn't find Billy. Any thoughts remotely associated with football practice had flown completely out of his head. He knew the coach would have a cow, though; the game against Angel Grove's biggest rivals was tomorrow, and Homecoming was the week after. "I had something I had to take care of. Listen…" he began again.

"Was it that kung fu stuff again?" his father said, his booming voice raising. "Cause if you were still wrestling…"

"Forget it," Jason mumbled under his breath and pounded up the stairs.

His dad didn't follow him, which Jason took to be a good sign. It wasn't that his dad was mean or anything. They'd always gotten along really well… until Jason quit wrestling to focus on martial arts. His dad had been a champion wrestler in high school, and some of his trophies could still be found around Angel Grove High. He knew his dad dreamed of his son bringing the same type of glory to the school; his dad had moved them back to his hometown of Angel Grove specifically so that Jason could go to his alma mater. And no amount of football, martial arts, community work… None of that seemed to matter now. His dad congratulated him and seemed to support him with all of his accomplishments, but everything always seemed to come back to wrestling. What made it worse… Jason had been good at wrestling. He'd been team captain and had won trophies. Those trophies were still displayed in the living room… right in front of his two trophies from martial arts tournaments.

Jason shoved some clothes into a bag, slamming and banging things in his frustration. He knew what was coming—what he'd have to endure just to get permission to stay out that night. The lecture on responsibility, on spending too much time with his friends, on staying out too late and flaking out on the "important" things too much. And he'd have to nod and agree and waste time when he should be out desperately clamoring to lead his team and protect the Earth. Sometimes, he just wished he could morph in front of his dad—to show him that he was not wasting his life. That there were other, more important things than football games and wrestling trophies.

He called Zack's parents, and his mother answered. Zack's mom was really good friends with his mom and had acted sort of like a second mother ever since they'd moved back to Angel Grove. Mrs. Taylor, of course, was cool with the plan. She especially supported anything that got Zack to study. She was a professor at a local college, and Jason got the impression that Zack's grades were always a little bit lower than her expectations, though she didn't give him grief over them as far as Jason knew. The easiest part of the plan done, he grabbed the paper with Tommy's number, smiled briefly at the hearts and wondered what would happen if anyone ever caught him with that slip of paper, and finally dialed the number. There was no answer.

"I guess we'll have to just drop by," Jason said under his breath. Tommy might have been asleep; he'd looked half-dead at school. Wondering if Kimberly had directions to Tommy's house, he went back downstairs. He decided, at the last minute, to do the "hit and run"… tell his dad where he was going as he was going out the door, so his dad wouldn't have time to react. Jason hated to do that, but that was the only way to avoid a lecture and get back to the Command Center before dark.

"Bye, dad! I'm going over to Tommy's to study…"

"Wait a minute!" Jason heard his dad say before he could get the door good and open. Aw, crap, Jason thought as he abandoned the door and slumped back into the living room. The TV was off, so Jason knew this would be serious.

"We gonna discuss you missing football practice?" Mr. Scott said, looking stern.

Jason looked down. "Dad, I'm sorry. It'll never happen again," he said in his most contrite voice.

"That's not the issue," his dad said. "I just want to know what could be so important that a good kid like you skips out on his responsibilities."

"I told you… something came up," Jason said, shifting uncomfortably. "I had to take care of it right then."

Jason and his dad stared at each other, Jason trying not to blink or betray himself in any way. If he just played it cool, his dad would give up and he could be out of the door in five minutes.

Mr. Scott finally looked down and shook his head. "Jason… I just don't understand you anymore," he said. "You don't tell me anything. Whenever I ask a simple question, I can't get a straight answer. 'Something' always comes up, and you never tell me what this 'something' is. I don't know if it's girls, or drinking, or drugs, or…"

Jason was starting to get horrified. He hadn't realized that his actions would put those warning flags up.

"I dunno," his father continued. "It's not to study, because your grades have been slowly dropping. And I can't punish you." A frustrated note mixed with the weariness. "You're punishing yourself enough by ducking out on responsibilities. And I can't make you take these things seriously… though God knows I wish I could. Help me out here, Jason. Throw me a bone here. Tell me something… anything."

Jason's stomach twisted into knots as his father stared steadily at him. It rankled him… this talk about responsibility. It was because of responsibility he was in this mess, and he wanted so desperately to assure his father, but at the same time he wanted his father to mind his own business.

"I dunno what to tell you," Jason said quietly. "I'm not on drugs… and I do study. I just have a lot of pressure on me right now." That, Jason reflected, was the understatement of the century.

Mr. Scott shook his head and laughed lightly. "Pressure. Oh, to be sixteen again."

Jason scowled. What did he know? It wasn't like he was trying to save the world or anything. All he had to worry about was… Jason's thoughts ended lamely in his fury.

Jason's father shook his head. "At least when you were wrestling I understood you. But now, it's like we're strangers living in the same house. I try not to say anything, but you're letting everyone down."

Letting. Everyone. Down.

"You know what?" Jason said, his temper flaring at his father more than it had in months. "I don't care! I don't care what you think. I'm not a wrestler, okay? And I was going to drop football anyway. And, yeah, it's for 'that kung fu stuff.'" Jason's voice sounded foreign in his own ears. "I'm sorry you can't live vicariously through me."

Jason got the cruel satisfaction of seeing shock on his father's face before he left the house, slamming the door. He ran down the street, breathing hard, his blood roaring in his ears. When he got to the car, he slammed the door, gripped the steering wheel tightly, and tried to control his fury. His breath came out in gasps, and he realized he was near sobbing.

"I really shouldn't have said that," Jason said finally.

With that statement came calm… and guilt. His stomach turned over as he thought of returning home. What his parents would say to him. Would he be grounded? Would it be worse than that?

Foremost in his mind was his father's face, distorted in shock at the outburst. Jason realized his father was being fair at the time. But something in his words, saying that he was letting everyone down… He hadn't been able to handle it. Not now.

Jason started up the car and drove to pick up Kimberly, who was waiting in front of her house with a duffel bag, a garment bag, and two smaller cases. She threw then in the back seat. "The parents all check out," she said. "What about yours?"

"Everything's fine," Jason lied, hoping that his grim mood would be interpreted as worry over their emergency. "Couldn't get in touch with Tommy, though. You know where he lives?"

"Actually, I do," Kimberly said. "It's that big log cabin-looking house on Ivy. You know it?"

Jason whistled. "His uncle must be loaded."

"Must be," Kimberly agreed as Jason began driving toward Ivy. As they drove, Kimberly started looking even more downcast. "I was hoping I wouldn't have to see Tommy until tomorrow."

"What's wrong, Kim?"

Kimberly rolled her eyes in frustration. "I'm going to have to break a date with him for Saturday. I was so looking forward to it, too."

"Why do you have to break a date with him?" Jason asked, paying close attention to street signs.

"Um… Hello!" Kimberly laughed harshly. "The Command Center is wrecked, Zordon's gone, and we may be attacked by Rita at any moment."

"And?"

Kimberly rolled her eyes. "Jason, I think the stress is turning you loopy or something."

"Kim, look," Jason said. "We're going to need to go through our daily lives as much as possible. There's still school, and our parents…" Jason's throat threatened to close up, but he kept going. "And I'm not going to let Rita steal that from us. She's already taken too much." He glanced over at Kimberly, who looked a little stunned. "So you're going to go on your date and have a wonderful time," Jason ended. "And we're going to make sure that's something Rita can't steal from you."

Kimberly grinned. "Jason, I… thank you."

By that time the large wooden house loomed into view, and Jason took the steep, narrow driveway. The whole area was covered in trees. It was like the house was in a forest. A large van was parked in the garage, and Jason parked the tiny Volkswagen beside it.

"That must be Tommy's van," Kimberly said. "The house looks pretty dark."

"He could be asleep," Jason said. "I hate to be doing this. We'll really have to owe it to him."

"Don't worry," Kimberly said. "I intend to set up the date, so at least it won't be too bad."

They knocked on the door and waited. There seemed to be no movement in the house.


 

"TOMMY!" Empress Rita screamed, filling the whole palace with her magically amplified voice.

A few minutes later, a morphed Tommy came running into the throne room, Scorpina right behind him, still attacking. He dodged the attack, grappled with her, and grabbed her sword away.

"Finally," Tommy breathed a sigh of relief, somewhat muffled by his helmet. There were scorch marks all over his costume. "You called, my Empress?" he bowed.

"The Red and Pink Rangers are at your house right now," Empress Rita said. "Teleport down immediately to see what they want… and unmorph, of course. No fighting yet."

Tommy unmorphed and handed the suddenly heavy sword back to Scorpina. "Yes, my Empress. Scorpina… it's been fun," he said with a wink, "but I've got a job to do." With that he teleported out.

Scorpina looked affronted at Tommy's flippant leave-taking. Goldar, though, rumbled with laughter. "He lasted much longer than your usual toys," he said.

Scorpina grunted. "He's… passable. At least he doesn't wear out easy."


 

"He may not be home," Jason said after a few minutes.

"Try again," Kimberly said. "Hey may not have heard the first time.

Jason raised his arms to knock again, but the door swung open to reveal Tommy, blurry-eyed but smiling.

"Hey, guys," Tommy said. "This is a surprise. I was about to sack out. You wanna come in?"

Kimberly made a move to go in, but Jason was nervous about the quickly setting sun. "Sorry, man, we can't stay. We came over to ask a favor," he said.

"Shoot," Tommy said.

Jason hesitated for a second, and then pressed on. "We… sort of need you to cover for us with our parents. They think we, along with Billy, Zack, and Trini, are over here to study all night long."

"And you're obviously not," Tommy said, with some confusion.

"Exactly," Jason answered. "Listen, man, we're really sorry about this. There's something we need to take care of. It's not dangerous or anything, but it's not something we really want our parents finding out about."

Tommy frowned. "O… kay. I guess. Is it something you can tell me about?"

Jason's guilt just kept mounting. "Sorry… I just really can't. I'm really sorry to be doing this. I just couldn't think of anything else."

"Yeah, I mean, it's fine," Tommy said quickly. "I guess I'm just curious." His eyes cut over to Kimberly. "Are we still on for Saturday?"

Kimberly gave him a brilliant smile, and Jason took that as his cue to leave. "I'll wait in the car, Kim. Thanks a lot, again, Tommy. I'll make it up to you, I swear."

"Don't worry about it," Tommy said.

Jason sat in the car, trying not to be anxious to leave. Even though he didn't want to invade their privacy, he watched Kimberly and Tommy. They were both smiling, absolutely lost in each other. Jason couldn't remember the last time he'd been that way with a girl. He'd been so busy with school and Power Rangers that he hadn't really been able to date, and he realized that he envied Kimberly. That was why he'd practically insisted she keep the date.

They didn't talk long until Kimberly bounced back to the car, Tommy watching her before shutting the door. "It's totally cool," Kimberly said reassuringly as she got in the car. "We're going out Saturday afternoon. Tommy's making a picnic by the lake."

"Sounds romantic," Jason said simply as he backed out of the driveway. Something was bothering him, but he just couldn't put his finger on it. It wasn't until they were at the convenience store at the edge of town (putting them near a clear area in which they could take off) that Jason figured it out.

"Tommy sure did have a lot of unpacked boxes in his house," he commented to Kimberly as they grabbed sodas in a last minute decision.

Kimberly shrugged. "I didn't notice. Maybe he's been really busy. He is alone at home, after all."


 

Tommy leaned against the closed door, eyes closed and smiling. He'd almost been too late, and it would have been suspicious if Empress Rita hadn't called him over to meet them. He'd already had to explain his delay in answering the door.

The worry and fear, even though the two had obviously been trying to hide it, had shown through clearly. They'd been at the Command Center, they obviously hadn't fixed anything, and they were all planning to stay at the Command Center over night. Tommy gave credit to that plan (probably Jason's). They at least knew someone could get into the Command Center without tripping security. They had probably fixed security to alert them if anyone other than them got in. That's what he would have done. He might be able to teleport back in, but not undetected. And if they were smart, they wouldn't leave the Command Center unguarded unless there was an emergency. Tommy wondered how much they would be able to fix by tomorrow's attack.

Then there was the date with Kimberly. He was glad that was still going to happen. Not only would it be pleasant to spend a few hours with the pretty brunette, he would be laying important groundwork for his later plans. After all, he wasn't close enough to her yet to do any real damage.

He waited to make sure that the Rangers weren't coming back and teleported back to the Moon Palace.

"Well, Tommy," Empress Rita said immediately, "what have you found out?"

Scorpina rolled her eyes. "Too busy chasing tail, from what I heard, to focus on the mission."

Tommy smirked back at Scorpina. "All part of the mission, Scorpy." He turned from her and faced Empress Rita, becoming more serious. "My Empress, the Power Rangers are demoralized, or at least Red and Pink are. They're obviously confused and desperate. They were getting me to possibly lie to their parents for them."

"Interesting," Empress Rita said. "They haven't, of course, given up hope yet. We shall press them harder. That is where the attack will help."

Tommy, Goldar, and Scorpina gathered as Empress Rita pulled out battle plans. "You will all three participate. Scorpina, you'll attack first with some Putties… in transformed form."

Scorpina scowled. "Aw, man. I hate that form. And I usually only use it when I 'grow.'"

Empress Rita turned strict. "Don't interrupt. I want you to be the… 'monster of the week.' Make them think you're one of Finster's monsters, and that this is all routine. You'll fight, you'll eventually grow, and that's when the Zords will come in."

"Don't underestimate their Zords, Scorpina," Goldar said. "When the Zords combine, they're very dangerous."

Tommy wasn't paying attention to Goldar. He'd been reading closely to the battle plans and had finally found his part in the plan in the next line. He smirked. Yes, this would be a memorable attack.


 

It was just turning dark when Jason and Kimberly touched down outside the Command Center. They gathered the food and their bags, being careful to lock the car. Jason wondered if there was a way to move the car into the Zord hangar. He didn't like it just sitting out there, when right now it was their only mode of transportation.

They approached the door and waited. It didn't respond.

"Do we need to knock?" Kimberly asked.

"I dunno. We didn't last time," Jason said.

The same computer voice cut into the lowering night. "Identities, coins, and voice patterns verified. Please enter." The door swung open.

"Must be the increased security," Jason commented as they made their way through the hallways.

The Command Center looked even worse. The floor was covered with electronics, and Billy had pulled out the guts of one of the consoles so he could work in a more comfortable position. Either Zack or Trini had obviously tried to do something about the bad smell, but the floral air freshener was just a sickly overtone to the still burned smell. Jason wondered if they'd smell like that tomorrow.

"Oh, you're here!" Trini exclaimed, running toward them.

"What's wrong?" Jason said tensely. "Is there an attack?"

"Oh… no!" Trini said, looking embarrassed. She lowered her voice. "I… I'm just glad to see you two. You were gone a while."

Kimberly smiled and hugged Trini. Jason understood. While they'd been out doing things, Trini and Zack had probably not had much to do except help Billy and wait. Zack was using the time to watch the viewing globe. He'd put a towel over a console and was using it as a chair.

"We brought sandwiches," Jason announced, and even Billy looked up from his work at that announcement. Obviously everyone was just as hungry as Jason.

They sat in a circle at the edge of the center, keeping food away from the delicate electronics, and ate sandwiches, apples, and diet soda quietly. Jason and Kimberly filled them in on their parents' permission and Tommy covering for them. Jason was about to ask for a report on the repairs, but Billy volunteered his own information.

"Unfortunately," Billy said, swallowing and pushing up his glasses, "the work is going slower than I thought. However, on the good side, I have all the parts available. I will definitely have a working teleporter to tie into our communicators by tomorrow morning. I need everyone's communicators now, though, so I can make sure each one is linked to the new teleporter."

The Rangers handed their useless communicators to Billy, who put them in a stack beside him. He was eating his apple quickly so he could get back to work.

"Tonight we can sleep," Jason said, "but I want us to take turns staying up with Billy to assist."

"I can call in sick tomorrow, too," Trini volunteered. "I don't want to leave Billy alone here in the Command Center just in case there's another attack here, especially if he's going to stay awake all night."

"Thanks, Trini," Billy said. "I hadn't really thought of that."

"So you get a full night sleep, Trini," Jason said. She was about to protest when he cut her off. "Let's just say you have last watch. You'll need to be alert tomorrow for any attacks."

Trini nodded, and Jason noticed they'd all finished supper. Billy was already edging over to his work, a half-full bottle of soda in one hand and a screwdriver in another.

"What do you want us to do, Billy?" Jason asked.

Billy shrugged, already intent on his work. "Not really much you can do. I suggest homework and sleep. You'll all need it."

Jason nodded, moved away from his to give him space, and assigned watches to himself, Zack, and Kimberly. He himself took the middle watch, knowing that it was the hardest one, as the other two at least had two sections of uninterrupted sleep. He looked over at Billy guiltily as he pulled out his history book. He sort of dreaded their watch together.


 

Tommy was more exhausted than he'd ever been in his life. He had gone since yesterday morning without sleep, and in that time he'd done his usual exercise, trained with Goldar, attacked the Command Center, gone to all his classes, kept an eye on the Rangers, and "played" with Scorpina. His eyes only half open, he numbly went through his math notes and the material Billy had given him, trying to force the numbers to make sense.

A soft sound of a throat clearing got Tommy's attention. Finster was standing in the door, holding a small box. "You know," Finster said, "you should really be sleeping right now. You'll make yourself sick."

"And if I could learn math in my sleep," Tommy said with a rough voice, "I would. But since I can't…"

"Hm… an intriguing notion," Finster said absently. "Perhaps a device over the bed that would…"

Tommy laughed. "I wasn't being serious. What ya got there?"

"Oh!" Finster said, as if noticing the box in his hand for the first time. "I have the files you requested. You can review them at your leisure."

Tommy grinned, accepting the box. It was filled with disks. "Thanks a lot. These ought to come in handy."

"I have just begun to analyze the weapons and Zords," Finster continued. "The files were encrypted, but it was obviously done by that android. There was a predictable pattern, still, that I was finally able to crack."

"Say…" Tommy interrupted him. "How do I watch these? I don't have a computer."

"Oh, yes you do," Finster said. "I made sure of that. Just because Goldar never uses his computer for anything but interstellar communication doesn't mean everyone has to be a dullard." Finster hit a previously unnoticed button on the wall, and the dragon symbol on his wall slid back to reveal a computer console with a large screen and disk drive.

"Thanks, Finster," Tommy said, pushing the first disk into the drive. After hitting a button where Finster showed him, the disk started showing the video records he'd requested like a VCR.

"Hey, maybe Goldar would want to see these," Tommy realized. "I should go get him."

Finster put out a restraining hand. "I… wouldn't, Tommy. He and Scorpina…" he trailed off, as if wishing to put it delicately.

"They're… catching up on old times?" Tommy suggested.

"Let's just say I'm grateful the palace has thick walls," Finster said primly. "In any case, it is not wise to disturb him right now. And I warn you, Tommy," Finster said, "that Goldar is very jealous in regard to Scorpina."

Tommy laughed and turned his attention back to the video files, running them back. "Gotcha. Eyes to myself."

Finster left, and Tommy, math completely forgotten, began watching the files.

The screen featured the Command Center's main chamber, looking pristine and shining. The five familiar teens walked into view, looking confused.

"This isn't exactly the mall, is it?" Kimberly said.

Billy, however, looked like he was going to jump out of his skin. "This place is magnificent!"

Jason, as ever, was more down to earth. "I don't get it. How did we end up here?"

"I just want to know where here is," Trini said, laughing nervously.

Billy was walking to a random console. "Well, maybe the answer's in these controls."

Behind them, the android appeared. "No, don't touch that! Wha!" it said, falling down.

A second later, Zordon appeared, and Tommy realized he was seeing the Power Rangers' recruitment. They'd obviously been teleported there with no explanation. Tommy marveled at them all standing there, being offered powers unthinkable… the chance of a lifetime. The chance Tommy had jumped at. Jason was transfixed, Trini confused, and Billy manic with glee.

"Excuse me, but will, like, somebody come back to Earth and pick me up, cause I am totally confused," Kimberly said quickly.

"It's quite simple, my dear," Zordon answered kindly. "This planet is under attack and I have brought you here to save it."

"Oh, yeah right," Zack said sarcastically, Kimberly laughing in response.

Apparently, not all of them were thrilled. Zack and Kimberly seemed dead set on denying what was happening right in front of their faces. Tommy wondered if they were still that slow to roll with the punches.

Zordon continued explaining, assigning the designations while describing them in turn. Jason, bold and powerful... Zachary, clever and brave… Kimberly, graceful and smart… Billy, patient and wise... Trini, fearless and agile… Tommy watched as the globe showed their Zords formed together to command unspeakable power. All handed to them on a silver platter.

"Power Morphers? MegaZords?" Zack scoffed. "I dunno. This is just too weird for me. I'll tell ya what… it's been real, but I gotta go." He bounded out of the circle of computer consoles.

Kimberly followed closely. "Yeah, see ya!"

Trini looked uncomfortable, and Billy and Jason seemed transfixed with the controls and Zordon, respectively. They were not so quick to run away from power.

"Y'all coming?" Zack called. When he got no response, he yelled, "Jason!"

"What?" Jason said, as if coming out of a trance.

"Let's go, man," Zack insisted. Billy and Trini were already reluctantly filing out of the room after their friends.

Jason stared at Zordon, wanting desperately to stay but not comfortable enough to stay by himself. "Yeah," he said, and followed his friends.

Tommy gaped at them, pausing the video. They refused. They freakin' walked out. They were willing to give up unthinkable super powers. And why? Fear. Peer pressure. Other emotions that Tommy couldn't begin to understand. He honestly couldn't imagine walking away from that type of power. You cling to power. You revel in it. You never refuse it.

Of course, he knew they would come back. They would claim their power and responsibility and become superheroes and all that crap. But their initial reaction? Let's all leave because Zack is weirded out.

Tommy puzzled over the contrast. Zordon had spoken of them in glowing terms. Bold. Clever. Smart. Wise. Fearless. Yet they had shown the exact opposite. Jason wasn't bold enough to stay even when his friends were leaving. Zack wasn't clever enough to notice an opportunity when he saw it. Kimberly wasn't smart enough to see past her sarcasm. Billy wasn't wise enough or patient enough to speak up for his own wishes. And Trini wasn't fearless enough to overcome her confusion and make up her own mind.

The ones who were most drawn to the power, of course, were Billy and Jason. Jason was a natural leader… that much was obvious. It was the opportunity he'd craved, and he'd probably been the most instrumental in getting the Rangers back into the Command Center. Billy, though, looked more like a kid on Christmas morning. He'd stared at the controls, raced to the viewing globe first when Zordon asked, and obviously wanted to take everything apart to find out how it all worked. He'd also been most excited about the power, as it was his first taste of real strength.

Tommy pulled out a notebook and began making notes on each Ranger. He turned on the video to study the next scene… until Finster came back by and told him sternly to get some sleep.


 

Jason felt like he'd only laid his head down when Kimberly shook him awake. He and Zack were sharing a small room that had four bunks near the main room of the Command Center. The girls had a smaller room further away. Jason hadn't liked them so far away, but the girls had opted for privacy.

Jason rubbed his eyes hard and pulled on a shirt and shoes. He hadn't been able to sleep very well, waking up several times when he'd heard noises. Blearily, he grabbed a thermos full of water and two cups from a cold storage unit Trini had adapted into a fridge. Jason decided that, when this was all over, they needed to make more modifications to the Command Center to make it more habitable, just in case they ever needed to hole up here again.

Billy was sitting on the floor, working steadily. He looked to be filled with manic energy that kept his eyes open, even though Jason could tell Billy needed sleep desperately. Jason poured them both glasses of water. Billy accepted the glass without comment. Jason didn't speak, not wanting to ask about the progress or how he could help. Billy would tell him anything he needed to know, and Jason didn't want to annoy him. Jason instead stared at the viewing globe, which was slowly showing nighttime scenes of Angel Grove's empty parks, beaches, and downtown area. Everything was utterly quiet.

"I'm sorry."

Jason jumped, not yet asleep but definitely lost in his own thoughts in the quiet. Billy's voice, though quiet, had seemed unnaturally loud in the stillness. Jason looked over at his friend, who had set his work down and was staring at Jason with an expression Jason couldn't quite interpret.

"I'm sorry for earlier," Billy repeated.

Jason tried to wave it away. "Don't worry about it," he said in a rough, sleep-thickened voice. "We're under a lot of pressure right now."

Billy shook his head. "No… it was uncalled for. I shouldn't have challenged your authority like that. You were making the right decision," Billy finished, seeming to struggle with the words.

Jason wanted to wave the apology away again, but Billy seemed to need forgiveness. "It's… it's all right, Billy," Jason said, walking toward him and winding his way through the strewn about electronics, though there were fewer pieces on the floor now. "You were saying what everyone else, including me, was thinking. I want Zordon back, too," Jason ended, his voice cracking again.

The two were silent, and Billy finally picked the components back up.

"I yelled at my dad," Jason broke the silence this time.

"What?" Billy said, louder than he meant to. The words echoed around them.

"And it wasn't fair to him," Jason said. "He just wanted to know what was going on in my life. I'd missed practice, I couldn't tell him why, and he wasn't even shouting at me. And I jumped down his throat," Jason confessed. "I was mean, and I don't know how to face him again."

"You could try apologizing."

"It's hard."

"Tell me about it."

Both boys chuckled.

Billy turned serious. "Whoever or whatever did this wanted to destroy us," he said. "And not just our equipment. They want to destroy us. This attack was personal… more personal than even the times when Rita has attempted to cast spells on us to change us." He smiled wryly, and Jason knew he was thinking of the recent "punk potion," when he and Kimberly had turned into self-involved bullies with a weird fashion sense. Billy had been mortified when he found out he'd walked around school all day with his pants hitched under his underwear.

"More powerful than our Zords, or machines, or weapons," Billy continued, "is our ability to work as a team. Rita… or whoever… has already taken away two members of our team." Their eyes drifted to Zordon's empty tube and Alpha slumped motionless in the corner. "They're going to attack the rest of us… I just know it."

"We'll be ready for them," Jason said with as much conviction as he could muster. "As long as we stick together and don't give up…"

Billy smiled wearily. "I know. We're an unstoppable force."


 

Jason didn't feel like an unstoppable force. It was 10:45 and he was yawning his way through biology. Zack and Kimberly didn't look much better than he felt, even though they'd had better watches.

Billy had surprised them that morning with a functional teleporter and communicators. Half-dead but still much cheered, Billy had rattled off the strokes of luck he'd had in the last hour of construction until Trini, the most awake of all of them, had quickly explained and then pushed a still-talking Billy into the boys' room for some well-earned sleep. In another surprise, Billy and Zack, after the teleporter had been fixed, had gone exploring and found a fully functional bathroom and shower, which seemed to be a recent acquisition to the Command Center and became the object of a quick struggle between the just-waking Rangers for a first turn.

Billy had chosen a deserted spot in an alley for their teleportation site. They could still teleport to the Command Center from anywhere, but the only other place they could teleport to was that alley. To compensate, Billy had chosen a central location that was relatively convenient to the school, the Youth Center, and the park nearby. They'd just have to run to any attacks.

He felt someone nudging him and looked up to see everyone leaving. "The bell rang a minute ago," Zack said. "Did you get any sleep?"

"Did you?" Jason said moodily, gathering his stuff. He was trying to avoid the biology teacher's eye, who would have definitely noticed him nodding off in her class. But she didn't keep him from leaving class, and Jason wondered if luck was finally running his way.

"Mr. Scott," the stern voice of his coach called behind him.

Damn. "I'll catch up, you guys," he said to a worried-looking Zack and Kimberly.

Coach Warren was standing outside his classroom and beckoned Jason in. He did not close the door. "You missed practice."

"I did," Jason said, not seeing a way he could deny it in the first place. And Coach Warren hated excuses.

"That's the third time this month," Warren said.

Jason couldn't think of a thing so say and just nodded.

"Tonight's a rather big game, don't you think? Were you thinking of showing up?"

Jason took a sigh and decided to take the plunge. He'd made the decision yesterday and wasn't going back on it. "No, sir, I wasn't. I want to quit football."

It looked as if Coach Warren was expecting that. His eyes narrowed. "You wanna tell me why one of my best sophomore players is deserting us the day of the biggest game of the year?"

"I have more important things to do, I guess," Jason said before he could call back the words. Again, just like with his dad, his voice sounded foreign to him.

Coach Warren's face turned purple, and Jason could tell he'd gone too far. "Detention, Mr. Scott, this afternoon… for that smartass comment. And don't bother trying out for football again. We don't need a quitter like you."

Jason never felt gladder to leave someone's classroom. The door slammed behind him.

"Ouch," a quiet voice came from behind him. Tommy was leaning against the lockers outside the classroom.

"Were you listening in?" Jason said, a little harsher than he meant.

Tommy held up his hands in a mock surrender. "I just wanted to ask Coach Warren a question about a test. I see now's not the time."

"Hey, dweeb!"

Jason clenched his fists, willing himself to remain calm. Bulk and Skull sauntered up to him, looking, as usual, like they owned the whole effing school.

"Heard Mr. Bigshot turned quitter," Bulk said, sarcasm dripping from every word. "What's wrong… scared of helmet hair?"

"Yeah, scared of helmet hair?" Skull laughed.

Jason mulled over the irony of the statements, but let it drop. "Mind you own business," he grumbled.

Bulk and Skull looked at each other and laughed. "Oh, we seem to have hit a sore spot," Bulk crowed. "Did you find out that not showing for practice doesn't make you star quarterback? Or was it that you weren't the best at football… and we couldn't have that for Mr. Champion."

In the back of his mind Jason knew Bulk had a right to be angry. He was on the football team, too, and that was the only thing in which he ever showed talent or effort. Jason was really insulting one of the few things Bulk cared about by quitting.

"At least I'm actually good at something," Jason heard himself saying. "Gee, maybe if you were good at anything, you might actually get a date."

"What'd you say to me, punk?" Bulk said quietly, turning purple. He raised a fist.

Jason put his guard up, completely forgetting they were in the middle of an emptying school hallway right outside Coach Warren's classroom. "You heard me."

"Uh, Bulky," Skull said, eyeing Jason nervously. "That may not be a good idea."

"What is going on here?"

Jason and Bulk backed down as Mr. Kaplan strode down the hallway, obviously on his way to the cafeteria himself. "Are you four fighting?"

Bulk and Jason just glared at each other.

"No, Mr. Kaplan," Tommy said soothingly. "We were just going to lunch, and they were discussing…"

"I appreciate you coming to bat for a friend, Tommy," Mr. Kaplan interrupted. "But I know what I saw. Farcas, we've been over this before. Detention this afternoon… not that it will do any good. Now, run along, you three. I need to talk to Mr. Scott here."

Bulk and Skull left, muttering angrily. Tommy followed, though Jason could see him hang back, waiting for Jason. Jason wished he wouldn't.

"I'm surprised at you, Jason," Mr. Kaplan said. "You looked like you were going to attack Farcas. You know you would just hurt him… not to mention that you've never fought in the hallways like this."

Jason's fury was starting to cool. "I'm sorry, Mr. Kaplan. It won't happen again."

"See that it doesn't," Mr. Kaplan said. "You will serve detention this afternoon."

"Uh… sir." Jason realized he could just omit that he already had detention, but he was feeling too guilty. "Coach Warren already gave me detention this afternoon."

Mr. Kaplan's eyes seemed to pop in surprise. "And why, may I ask?"

Jason wanted to sink right into the floor. "Smarting off… I guess."

Mr. Kaplan scowled. "This is starting to become a pattern. Alright, Jason. Detention on Monday as well and a 500 word essay on the virtues of keeping one's temper."

Jason's mouth fell open. 500 words. And that was more punishment than Bulk was getting. "But, Mr. Kaplan…"

"No complaints, Mr. Scott," Mr. Kaplan held up his hand. "Best to go to lunch before you dig yourself into a deeper hole."

Jason glared at the floor and stalked off, not wanting to give the principal an excuse to add on more punishment.

"Tough break, dude," Tommy said, joining him from where he'd been skulking behind some lockers.

"Had fun listening in?" Jason said.

Tommy frowned. "Not particularly. Just trying to give a little support."

What is the matter with me? Jason thought. Why can't I keep it together today?

Jason knew the reason, of course. It was their mysterious attacker. He wanted to lash out at… whoever it was. Instead, he lashed out at his father, at the coach, at Bulk… and now at Tommy. None of whom really deserved it.

"Listen, man," Jason said, "I'm sorry. I'm just not myself today."

"I completely understand," Tommy said. "Listen, I've been in trouble most of my life. There are just some days when you can't do anything right, and everyone seems to be out to get you. It happens."

"So what do you do?" Jason asked, trying to see some sort of relief in the situation.

Tommy shrugged. "Just keep everything perspective. And count to ten. And all that bullshit that, if you're actually able to do it, works… most of the time." Tommy grinned. "And never piss off a coach on game day."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Hey," Tommy said, "is Bulk's name really Farcas?"

Tommy and Jason were therefore laughing as they approached the glum cafeteria table. Zack and Kimberly sat playing with their food, deep in low discussion that cut off as soon as Tommy approached. Kimberly brightened a bit when Tommy sat beside her, and Zack attempted half-heartedly his usual cheer.

"Where's Billy? And Trini?" Tommy said.

"Both called in sick," Jason said, wishing he had more of an appetite. The smell of the food was starting to make him nauseous.

Tommy looked around in confusion at them all. "Okay, what happened? Who died?" He paused. "Oh, God, someone didn't die, did they?"

Kimberly gave a brave attempt at a smile. "No, we're okay. Just…"

"Something came up," Tommy finished, a trace of bitterness in his voice. "That's okay. It's none of my business."

Zack looked upset. "We don't mean it like that."

"Yeah, you do," Tommy said, smiling. "It's okay. I'm the new guy… and I'm being nosy. I'll quit."

Tommy began talking, cheering Zack and Kimberly up with some story about a tournament, but Jason only caught every other word. He wondered if he was ever going to stop feeling guilty. It was like his life had imploded yesterday, and he was just now recovering all the pieces.


 

It happened in English class.

Tommy had been trying to listen to Ms. Appleby's discussion of their next book, which looked long and boring, when a sharp pain streaked across his head. His head was bent down in his effort to take notes, and his hand flew to his head. At the same time, he heard a voice that seemed to echo in his brain.

"Tommy," it said. "The attack will commence at 3:00 today. Report to the Moon Palace at 2:00 for preparations."

Now that the voice had stopped, he realized it had been Empress Rita. It was the first time she'd ever spoken to him telepathically like this. For good measure, he cleared his mind and thought—in what he hoped was a loud "voice" —, "Yes, my Empress."

With that to look forward to, English and Math passed by like they were nothing. Tommy even accepted the huge amount of math homework with good humor, though lamenting that Billy wasn't there to help him through it. Though it was a sacrifice that had to be made.

If today was any indication, Tommy reflected, his plan was going perfectly. Already he had the Power Rangers lying desperately and cutting class. And, what was best, Jason was coming apart at the seams. Empress Rita had been monitoring him as he was "playing" with Scorpina, and had told him about Jason yelling at his father with no real reason. Tommy himself had witnessed Jason lose his temper repeatedly and almost punch that bully Bulk. With any luck, he would start taking his temper out on the other Rangers.

Jason, of course, had to be a major target for the personal attacks. He was the leader, even more so now that Zordon was out of the picture. He had to get Jason out of control so that he could not lead the team effectively… and so that the team might turn on him. As Goldar had said over and over, and as he could tell from what scenes he'd gotten through the night before, the Power Ranger's major asset was their teamwork. That's how they fought, that's how their weapons worked, and that's how their Zords worked. The most effective attacks Empress Rita had ever launched had been attacks against their team solidarity.

Tommy imagined the Rangers as multi-colored dominos, all stacked in a row. Just a few shoves… and the whole lot of them would fall. And he, himself, would take out the Red Ranger.

 

Chapter Text

Billy stared at Alpha, willing him to move. As he had learned about electronics, though, they never fixed themselves when you wanted them to. This thought jarred Billy: thinking of Alpha as a machine. He'd worked with Alpha… brainstormed with him for new inventions and better ways of doing things. He'd almost forgotten Alpha was a robot… almost thought of him as a man in a metal suit. But he was lifeless. He was rebooting, like any other computer. The attacker had just considered him another machine to be sabotaged.

"So, what's next?" Trini said from her position in front of the viewing globe. She'd spent most of the day staring at the viewing globe, making sure no attacks were happening.

Zordon, Billy wanted to say. We have to find Zordon. The words pounded in his skull, like a constant ache. The empty tube stared down at him, almost accusingly.

"Security and surveillance," Billy forced himself to say. "It's superfluous to keep vigil over the viewing globe when a machine can alert us. We can do a patch job and make the alert system effective enough, though not as effective as usual."

Billy and Trini got to work on the panel nearest the viewing globe, stretching cables between the two—a set-up that would usually go under the floor. They could secure it with duct tape once they were done. The security system was much easier to work with, Billy reflected. And they were able to use components from other security systems that were relatively undamaged.

What was better, Billy felt somewhat reenergized that day. He'd slept and showered and had two important systems repaired. The weight of repairs that had partially paralyzed him the day before seemed more manageable. As far as he knew, they only had security to work on, and then they could start looking for Zordon. By that time, they would have Alpha's help… hopefully.

There were a few things that troubled Billy, though. He hadn't realized it until he'd woken that afternoon, and he'd had to go check on it immediately. His suspicions were, of course, confirmed.

"Billy, what's wrong?" Trini asked as Billy paused in his steady work.

Billy shook his head roughly. "Sorry… I zoned out. I discovered something troubling earlier."

"Something else?" Trini said wearily. Trini was, of course, the most patient of all of them, but she was starting to fray around the edges like them all.

Billy continued working even as he worried. "I'm pretty sure our attacker downloaded our computer mainframe."

Trini's eyes widened and she nearly dropped the delicate components she was holding. "But that means… And it was probably Rita…"

Billy nodded. "I'm not sure what all information could be gleaned from that. There were some files so encoded that I could never get into them."

"Because Zordon didn't want you to read them."

Billy half-smiled. "Yes, that is true. There was some technology he doesn't want me experimenting with. And there are some parts of the Command Center, as we know, that are off limits even to us. When I pressed Zordon for answers, he said he wouldn't lie and that there were artifacts that we could not… or should not… use."

Trini nodded, knowing quite well the boundaries. "But the files on our Zords are fairly easy to reach, aren't they?"

"And a lot of the technology we use regularly. And all our surveillance tapes," Billy affirmed.

Trini grabbed his arm in shock. "You don't think Rita could find out where the Command Center is, do you?"

Billy looked around sadly at the broken and only slightly patched Command Center. "She doesn't have to worry about that. She knows how to get in, anyway, even if she doesn't know where geographically it is."

They were interrupted with the sound of teleportation, and Jason walked up to them. "Everything all right? Get enough sleep, Billy?"

Billy looked up in concern at Jason. "Better sleep than you, anyway. School isn't out yet, is it?" He looked down at his watch, which said 2:00. "Shouldn't you be at football practice, or something?"

Jason scowled. "Why start now? I…I quit football this morning."

Billy raised his eyebrows but said nothing.

Jason stared at the viewing globe moodily. "I have to be back at three for detention anyway, so I figured I'd give you guys a hand if you needed it." Jason seemed to sense Billy staring at him and turned around. "Okay… it's been a really long, crappy day, I haven't been myself, and I don't really want to talk about it."

Billy shrugged. "Fair enough. If you want, you can test out the communication system using our three communicators. The instructions are on page eight of the manual over there."

"I'm on it," Jason said, obviously glad to be doing something.

Billy and Trini traded looks but didn't dare say anything. It had been a hard day on them, especially Trini, who'd had to stand guard all day with little to do all alone, but Billy couldn't imagine being able to attend school that day. He didn't know how Jason, Kimberly, and Zack did it. Apparently, the way Jason had handled it had landed him in detention.

In a part of Billy's head he didn't like to acknowledge, he was glad that Jason seemed to be coming apart. He'd always been jealous of Jason. Jason had been extremely popular from the moment he moved there, thanks to his good looks and athleticism. It was the type of popularity Billy had never been able to attain. And then there was the whole rivalry between athletics and academics. While Angel Grove had a fairly prominent science club and plenty of good programs, athletes inevitably got a little more of the limelight. Some of Billy's friends in the science and computer clubs still puzzled over why Billy hung out with someone like Jason.

And then, of course, there were Jason's reactions to emergencies. He always kept it together… kept his cool. Even yesterday, he was able to make the decision to practically abandon Zordon without blinking an eye. Jason always kept it together much better than Billy, and it gave Billy some small satisfaction to see Jason losing his cool. But Billy could barely admit that to himself. After all, they needed Jason as much as Billy was aware the team needed himself.

The hour passed quietly. Trini gravitated over to Jason to help him with the testing as Billy's work became a one-man job.

"Jason," Billy said finally. "It's getting near three."

"Right," Jason said. "I'll be back at five, then. Contact Kimberly and Zack and ask them to meet us here at 5:00. We've got plenty to discuss."

Billy waved in acknowledgement as he put the finishing touches on the security and surveillance system. He'd had to disconnect the viewing globe for a few minutes, and he was in the process of reconnecting to put the whole system back online.

"Billy and I will work out a repair timetable for the meeting," Trini said. "We should…"

The alarmed screamed, making everyone jump. Billy dropped the cord he had just connected, jumping to his feet to get a clear view of the viewing globe.

"It's happening," Trini said in a much higher voice than usual. "Oh, God, it's happening."

The three were grouped around the viewing globe. The picture showed a monster attacking people at the park near the Youth Center.

"It looks like some sort of… scorpion," Billy said, as usual mildly interested in the monster's construction.

Jason was already on his communicator. "Kim… Zack. Come in."

"Kimberly here," they heard her voice come over the tiny speaker. "Zack is with me."

"Teleport to the Command Center. There's an attack," Jason said.

Within a minute the familiar black and pink columns of light produced their friends, who immediately ran to the viewing globe.

"Oh, gross," Kimberly said. "I hate it when we have to fight bug monsters."

Zack looked ready to jump out of his skin. "So she's made her move."

"And for some reason allowed us enough time to prepare," Trini said.

Jason shook his head. "We'll have to worry about that later. Right now, people are in danger. We have to save them. Just…" he took a breath, fighting away an unexpected bout of nerves before the fight. "I want everyone to keep an eye out for anything unusual."

He paused and looked over his shoulder at the empty tube looming over all of them. "And may the power protect us," he ended, in a voice like a prayer.


 

Scorpina was having the time of her life. She jumped around in her monstrous form, which she'd had to cultivate to be taken seriously as a warrior in the male-dominated field of mercenary work. She hated to use it when she wasn't "grown," but she couldn't deny its effectiveness in scaring the shit out of people.

"Yeah, run away, humans! Aaarrrgghhh!" she growled at a gaggle of children playing a game that involved kicking around some sort of ball. "Beware the sting of Scorpina! Beware my evil… uh… evilness!"

She almost laughed aloud at her own play-acting. Goldar had reminded her that Finster's monsters usually talked like a 6-year-old's rendering of a villain, with bad puns and indecipherable threats. She'd spent the last hour trying to think of good scorpion puns.

"My scorpion sting is the phallus of nightmares!" she belted.

Okay, so not all of them worked.

At that moment, though, the five Power Rangers ran to intercept her. They immediately took battle stances, looking for all the world like they wanted to pose for a magazine.

"Oh, no!" Scorpina yelled. "The Power… something-or-others! What shall I do?"

"Your rampage is over, bug-face!" the Red Ranger yelled back at her.

Scorpina laughed loud, an involuntary reaction. Apparently, Finster's monsters weren't the only ones with bad dialogue. Gasping in laughter, she waved the Putties in. The Putties swarmed, about fifteen in total. Scorpina watched as the Rangers fought the Putties, almost methodically. She didn't always like Rita Repulsa's methods, but she had to give her credit here. The multi-colored idiots seemed to be taken in by the routine.

Scorpina noticed just in time when the Red Ranger leapt through the air out of the Putty fight toward her… a move that Goldar had warned her about. She leapt aside, allowing her giant claw to graze the Red Ranger's chest. Sparks flew as he tumbled. She aimed her crescent sword at him, but he dodged under it, aiming a blow at her from his blade/gun thing. Thankfully, Tommy had shown her how it worked, and she knew it couldn't even hope to cut her exoskeleton.

"You'll have to do much better, Red Ranger," she said as she caught his magically-appearing sword in her claw. With a sudden effort, she threw him back into the Putty fight, where he had to abandon the fight with her for a few attacking Putties.

Now, however, more of the Power Rangers were breaking free of the Putty fight to attack her. She blocked a flying kick from the Pink Ranger, seeming to be propelled by the Blue and Black Rangers. The Yellow Ranger shot a series of energy blasts at her, but Scorpina was able to block them with her crescent sword easily. One by one, the Rangers came at her, fists and feet flying, but she repelled each one. At one point, the Black Ranger tried to sneak behind her, but she caught him with her sting and he yelled in pain. It would not have broken through his shield, of course, but it couldn't have felt good.

"Watch out for her sting, guys!" the Black Ranger yelled, falling back to recover.

"He must have heard it was the phallus of nightmares!" Scorpina said, laughing as she repelled attack after attack. She could have escalated the fight and really hurt them, but that wasn't part of the plan.

"What the hell is the 'phallus of nightmares'?" the Red Ranger said.

"Scorpina!" the raspy voice of Rita Repulsa yelled in her head. "You're doing too well. Back off a little bit."

Scorpina sighed, but she let them get a few hits in. When the Black Ranger came back strong, wielding a black axe, she decided to let him have a moment of revenge and allowed the axe to hit her shoulder. Her shoulder went a little numb from the force, but her exoskeleton remained unscathed. Smiling grimly—something the Rangers would be unable to see—she allowed each one to score a hit, and she began writhing in exaggerated pain.

"Your puny weapons are NOTHING compared to my awesome, amazing power!" Scorpina assured them, trying to keep the mocking out of her voice. She had to sound desperate, like they had a chance in hell of beating her.

Suddenly, she realized the tingling all over was not the result of weapons clashing against her exoskeleton. The Rangers, in fact, were getting smaller by the second and backing away quickly, weapons useless at their sides.

Oh, right, Scorpina thought. All part of the plan. She'd been super-sized. Now there would be Zords.


 

As they screamed out the names of their Zords and jumped into the cockpits, Jason analyzed the fight they'd just had. It was weird… Scorpina didn't seem like the usual fare. She was stronger, for one thing. She could throw them around with seemingly no effort, and nothing they did made a mark on her, while all of their costumes showed battle damage.

Then, for no reason—Jason thought as he activated the Megazord transformation—the monster Scorpina seemed beaten by their weapons. Billy had scored a hit with the blade end of a blade blaster, which had had no effect when Jason tried it. Was she just playing around with them? And if so… why? Jason's stomach churned, but he tried to look focused on the battle as he joined the rest of the Rangers in the Megazord cockpit. If she was just playing around, it looked like they'd have a harder time fighting than usual.

"All right, let's squash this bug," Jason said, hoping he was showing his usual enthusiasm.

The five Rangers worked at the controls in their intuitive knowledge, each taking a different system but working in perfect teamwork. Jason himself had weapons control and override, so he could take the place of any missing Ranger. From this position he could direct all the attacks while Trini took shields, Zack took stabilizers, Billy took maintenance and damage control, and Kimberly controlled the power flow. It was something Jason knew they couldn't do while unmorphed, or even describe when they weren't in the cockpit, but it was as easy and intuitive as breathing up here.

Making sure to stay in a clear area for battle, Jason directed the Megazord in a series of blocks, evasions, and hard punches, all the while trying to keep up with the weird sword, the sting, and the claw. It was dizzying work, and Scorpina's claw scored too many times for Jason's comfort. Sparks flew in the cockpit, but Billy was able to get everything under control before the next pass.

"Admit it," Scorpina taunted. "I'm just too much for you, Power Rangers."

Usually Jason, or someone else, would throw out a "That's what you think!" or something. But they were too busy just trying to keep up with the battle. Sure, Scorpina didn't have any magic or technological powers to contend with like some of the most difficult monster's they'd faced, but she didn't need them. She was just good, using her three weapons to optimum efficiency and taking advantage of any mistake Jason made.

Then the Megazord got in a few hits, sending Scorpina flying. Jason frowned. It was just like before. Was it just that Scorpina didn't have any endurance? Could she not keep fighting as well for a long time? But it didn't seem like they were wearing her down. She just stopped fighting well all of the sudden, like someone flipping off a light.

"Power levels are stabilized," Kimberly said.

"All systems functional," Billy said.

Zack, as usual, didn't report. Everyone knew when the stabilizers weren't working, since they were usually falling down at the time. Jason remembered one time when he'd jokingly reported with the others, "Megazord not falling on ass."

Trini was still punching buttons, but finally reported, "Shields at 80% and holding."

"Then I think it's time to call on the Mega Sword," Jason said, wanting to end the battle as quickly as possible.

"You could," an unfamiliar voice broke in conversationally. "But I don't think you'll get a chance."

A breathless moment of shock, and then Jason heard glass shattering and the cockpit went dark. Kimberly screamed. Jason lashed out, trying to grab who was attacking them, but he couldn't tell if he was fighting his friends or the enemy in the pitch darkness. He felt the familiar swooping sensation in his stomach that heralded the MegaZord falling. He tried to feel his way to the fight he could sense just inches away from him, but his first step was on a body, and he heard Billy cry out in pain, so he stopped and tried to help Billy up. He couldn't get far, however, as he felt himself be thrown bodily out of the cockpit.

Jason hit the ground hard, though protected by his suit from what would have meant death to regular people. The other Rangers surrounded him, obviously recovering from their own falls.

"I sent the MegaZord back," Billy gasped, clutching his arm. "Couldn't catch a glimpse of the attacker."

Jason pulled himself up quickly. "No worries. I found him."

The other Rangers, now on their feet, backed away quickly. Facing them was someone dressed in a costume remarkably similar to theirs, but with noticeable differences. He was holding a curved sword and had his arms crossed. What's more… he was laughing.

"Boy, I wish I could see the looks on your faces," the fighter crowed.

"Who are you?" Jason demanded, restraining himself from launching at the fighter.

"Gee, I wonder who he could be," a familiar gravelly voice came from behind them. The Rangers all turned and, sure enough, Goldar was slowly approaching with a small guard of Putties.

"We could make them guess," a mocking female voice replied from one side. A beautiful woman with armor similar to Goldar's sauntered up. She had the same crescent sword Scorpina had held. "Oh, that's right," she responded to the Rangers' stares. "Scorpina here, in 'pretty' form."

"You know," the voice of the mysterious fighter remarked, "I may be able to help them out. See… I'm dressed almost just like them, but I'm wearing green. Hey, Red, can you figure it out? Or maybe Blue Boy over there: you're supposed to be the big brain."

Maybe it was the mocking that was getting to him. Maybe it was the whole crappy day weighing on him. Maybe the attack in the cockpit of their own Zords had been too much. Or maybe it was that, in that moment, he realized that this "Green Ranger" had to have been the one to destroy the Command Center and send Zordon to who knows where.

Whatever the reason, Jason, as if seeing himself from a great distance, screamed a battle cry and launched himself at the Green Ranger, Power Sword drawn and aimed straight at the Green Ranger's chest. The Green Ranger sidestepped the attack, but Jason was ready for him. He slashed backhanded and caught the Green Ranger on his gold mantle. Sparks flew, but it didn't seem to do the damage it should have done. The mantle seemed to be a sort of shield. Still furious, Jason launched a barrage of wild attacks, which the calmer Green Ranger easily blocked and parried with his own sword. Jason was dimly aware that the others were fighting Goldar and that Scorpina chick, but he didn't care. He wanted nothing more than to beat this guy into a bloody pulp. Violence Jason didn't know he possessed erupted from him, and his attacks grew wilder and faster.

"Now, Red," the Green Ranger said mockingly as he evaded another barrage of attacks. "This is no fun if you're like this. Honestly, I was looking forward to a real fight."

With that, the Green Ranger kicked Jason in the chest hard, and Jason flew backwards through the air, feeling like he'd been kicked by a horse. Dazed, Jason could only watch as the Green Ranger launched at him, punching and kicking hard. No matter what Jason tried, the Green Ranger was too quick and too strong, and Jason was too worn out. His endurance, usually limitless as a Ranger, was flagging.

Jason was suddenly aware that the rest of the Rangers had joined him on the ground, soundly beaten by the seeming unstoppable team of Goldar and Scorpina, who, from the small glimpses Jason had caught, seemed to fight like one person. Jason tried to get up, but his legs didn't work right then.

"I think they've had enough," Goldar proclaimed, and Scorpina and the Green Ranger backed away. The three stood side by side in front of the fallen Rangers. Even the Green Ranger, whose face was hidden, seemed to be full of gloating mockery.

"This is just a taste, Rangers," the Green Ranger said. "This is just to show that we can beat you anytime we wish."

"Anywhere we wish," Scorpina rejoined.

"And any way we wish," Goldar finished. "The countdown to your destruction has begun."

Goldar and Scorpina teleported away, leaving the Green Ranger. "As for now… why we're not killing you here… You just haven't suffered enough. You and me, Red. Once you calm down, we'll fight for real."

Jason finally grappled a burst of energy and lunged off the ground… but he was lunging into thin air. The Green Ranger had disappeared into a burst of green smoke.

Forcing himself to move, he started helping his fellow Rangers up. "Come on, guys," he said raspily. "Let's get back to the Command Center."


 

"RANGERS!" a high-pitched voice screeched as soon as they teleported in. "You're back! You're safe! Ayeyiyiyiyi!"

"Alpha!" Billy exclaimed, removing his helmet. He grasped the robot before Alpha could react, and Alpha stood there awkwardly, always uncomfortable with displays of what he called human emotion.

"It's good to have you back!" Kimberly exclaimed. Trini and Zack also removed their helmets and ran to Alpha.

Jason, though, removed his helmet and threw it on the ground with a scream. It sparked once in a bright flash and clattered into a heap of loose electronics. The others whirled in shock at this unexpected display of temper, and Alpha, for once, was speechless.

Jason felt himself being x-rayed by all eyes (and optical components), and he suddenly felt ashamed. He turned from then and slumped onto the stairs near the viewing globe, holding his head in his hands.

"Jason?" Alpha's tentative voice came over his shoulder. Jason breathed hard, trying to control himself. Finally, he felt he could talk.

"Alpha," he said in a softer voice than usual. "I'm really glad you're back up and running. It's amazing… a miracle."

Alpha suddenly turned serious. "I'm sorry, Rangers. I watched the last ten minutes of the battle. I'm so sorry."

Jason felt the others sit around him, but he didn't acknowledge them. How could he face them? They'd been beaten, pure and simple. Usually in fights they could rally, and their enemies would explode. Or someone like Goldar would retreat. Or the Rangers would retreat and figure out a way to defeat whoever it was within an hour. Or… something. Not this. They'd been beaten, and mocked, and left. Goldar and crew hadn't retreated. They'd left them because, as the Green Ranger told him, they hadn't suffered enough.

"Rangers, you did the best you could," Alpha said, trying to field the unfamiliar terrain of human emotion… and trying to fill the gap left by Zordon. Zordon would usually be the one comforting and guiding.

"No, I didn't," Jason said. "I didn't do the best I could. I was stupid."

"You can't blame yourself," Trini said.

Jason bounded up from the step and began pacing the area past the viewing globe. The others watched him, not moving. "Can't I?" Jason said, not wanting to look at any of them. "I've been losing my temper all day, but what I did on that battlefield? That was unforgiveable. I screwed up and lost us the battle."

Kimberly looked like she was trying to hold back tears. "We all got beaten, Jason. I'm sorry, and I know you want to take full responsibility, cause you're like that, but…" She looked like she couldn't finish.

"Yours is not the only ass that got kicked," Zack finished for her.

"That's the thing," Jason said. "I instigated a fight I knew we couldn't win because…"

"The Green Ranger," Billy said in almost a whisper. "You wanted to hurt him."

The others stared at Billy, and Jason finally looked up, surprised at the raw summation. It was too close to the truth for comfort.

"It was wrong," Jason said. "We were in no condition to fight, and I should never have attacked him so stupidly."

"If you hadn't done it," Billy said in the same soft voice, "I would have. He destroyed the Command Center. He did something to Zordon. I… I wanted to…"

The unfinished thought seemed to float above them, unspoken but understood by all. Jason felt it in his gut, for Billy's sentiments coincided with his frame of mind at the time of the attack. He'd wanted to kill him. For the first time in his life, he'd looked at someone and felt the keen desire to snuff out a life. For he knew, completely, that the Green Ranger was a human underneath that costume. He wasn't a monster who would explode in fiery sparks and disappear, or a Putty who would teleport away once beaten. Jason knew that this was a human who could bleed and die; he'd known it right when he was attacking, and he had still wanted to kill him.

Now? Jason didn't know. He was too tired, too sore, and too utterly defeated to feel anything but despair.

"But how can there be a green Power Ranger and us not know about it?" Trini asked, obviously desperate to change the subject.

"I do not know, Rangers. I am sorry," Alpha said in a small voice, almost like a child. "I have not always been with Zordon, and I do not even know all the mysteries of the Power Coins. I had no idea there was another one."

"So it's safe to assume that the Green Ranger has a Power Coin like ours," Billy said, eager to latch on to the mystery.

"He'd have to," Jason commented. "That's how he got into the Command Center without being detected. He wasn't detected, was he, Alpha?"

If Alpha had been human, he would have shivered at the memory. "He came out of nowhere. I was about to shut down, when I saw him hiding in the shadows. I tried to alert you Rangers, but he was too fast for me."

"And you don't know what he did here?" Kimberly asked.

Alpha looked down. "No, Kimberly. My system was infected by a virus, and I went into emergency shutdown."

They were silent for a minute, and Jason resumed his pacing. Billy picked up a computer board and began tinkering with it.

Zack couldn't seem to stand the silence, though. "But who is this guy? Is he human? And if he's a Power Ranger, then why does he work for Rita in the first place?"

His questions were met with silence. The silence then became too much for Jason. He may have screwed up royally on the battlefield, and there was nothing anyone could do to convince him otherwise, but he was still the leader of this team… especially since Zordon was still out of the picture.

"Well… what do we know about the Green Ranger?" Jason asked. "We know he has a Power Coin, which gives him access to the Command Center and Zords."

"That won't be the case for long, Jason," Alpha said, walking decisively to the patched security terminal and getting to work. He was easily able to keep up with Billy's designs, as they'd worked together so much.

"And he's obviously a 'he,'" Trini volunteered. "The frame and voice is unmistakably male."

"He never used our names, but he's got to know our id's," Kimberly said. "Rita knows, after all."

Billy cleared his throat. "Especially since he downloaded our computer mainframe when he was here."

The others turned to him, all but Trini shocked.

Billy shifted uncomfortably. "I didn't have time before the attack to tell anyone. But they have I don't know what sort of technology and records."

"Zordon and I have guarded against such an attack," Alpha said, not even looking up from his work. "He'll have all the surface files… including, unfortunately, the schematics for the weapons and Zords… but he won't have any of our deeper secrets. We did not want to keep all our pancakes in one basket."

The others stared at him. "You mean… eggs?" Kimberly asked.

"He can still study us," Jason cut in, not wanting to get derailed. "I'm guessing from the surveillance tapes he can learn anything and everything about us, especially if I'm right in guessing that he's smart."

"Well, here's the question of the day," Zack said. "Assuming he's human… is he working for Rita voluntarily, or is he under some sort of spell? And, in either case… what do we do with him?"

"Assuming we can beat him," Kimberly said.

Jason felt the leading edge of a headache. There was too much uncertainty. This was by far the worst attack Rita had thrown at them ever. Zordon had once told him that the difference between heroes and villains was all in what they were willing to do to win. If a hero crossed a line—became as ruthless as the villain—how could anyone call that person a hero? It was all embedded in the second rule: Never escalate a battle. Jason had done just that out of temper, and he'd had his ass handed to him.

But what about defeating this Green Ranger? What could they do to fight without escalating? What does one do to a human who has turned evil and begun aiding in the fight against his own planet? Did the Green Ranger even realize what he was doing?

Would they have to kill him?

"All right," Jason said, sobered enough by his thoughts that his temper had vanished and he was thinking clearly again. "We're all tired, and we need some rest. But we also need to stay on the alert. I'll stay here tonight to guard the Command Center just in case the security measures don't work. Everyone else goes home." Billy started to protest, but Jason cut him off. "You need to put in face time with your mom. Bring something to work on if you must. I want everyone to spend time with their families tonight and tomorrow. I don't want Rita to steal that from us. She's taken too much already. Tomorrow, come in when you can to help rebuild. Billy, you can spend as much time as you want, but I don't want you wearing out."

"What are you going to do tonight?" Kimberly asked.

"Alpha," Jason said. "Do you think I can help you start searching for Zordon?"

"Certainly," Alpha said, still punching buttons in a seemingly random order on the console. "Thanks to Billy, all vital systems are up."

Jason nodded. "We'll save an official meeting until the usual time on Sunday… if all goes well."

Everyone took that as a cue to leave, Billy still grumbling that he couldn't keep working. He allowed himself to be led away by Trini, however. They each gathered dirty laundry from the makeshift bedrooms and departed. Zack was the last to leave.

"You okay, man?" he asked.

Jason was on the bed he'd slept in the night before, staring at a thermos of water without drinking it. "Yeah," he said shortly.

"No, really."

Jason looked up and smiled wearily. "Okay, I'm not at my best, but I'm okay." He forced a laugh. "I'm gonna be feeling that fight for at least a day, though."

Zack grimaced. "Tell me about it. That Scorpina chick was definitely holding back the first time we fought her. She nearly broke my arm once with that claw of hers."

"They could have killed us," Jason said before he could call the words back.

"I know," Zack said, his usually cheerful voice melancholy. "Makes you wonder what else they have planned for us.”

Jason's stomach clenched at the thought. "We can only try to be ready for… whatever it is."

Zack hesitated, and Jason knew what his friend wanted to say. He wanted to ask what they were going to do. He wanted to abuse the Green Ranger some more, or theorize over who or what this guy was. He wanted to plan, or vow vengeance, or go over the previous fight, or… In point of fact, everything that Jason himself wanted to do or say but couldn't bring himself to face.

Apparently, Zack couldn't face it either. He fell back on what they always seemed to talk about when there was something they couldn't. "You think Angel Grove will win the game tonight? You weren't starting, so their chances can't be hurting too much."

Jason laughed lightly. "God, I hope we win. I want someone to have a reason to celebrate tonight."


 

Loud laughter rang through the Moon Palace, and Tommy wouldn't have been surprised if people could hear it all the way down on Earth. They were in the fancy dining room, and the table was laden with food, including an odd assortment of human food for Tommy's benefit: pickles, pomegranates, what looked like curry, and Finster's approximation of popcorn, which was blue and floated slightly over the bowl.

Empress Rita sat at the head of the table, and Goldar, Scorpina, and Tommy were gathered around her. They were all laughing hard, not even eating or drinking in their merriment.

"Wait… wait…" Scorpina said, wiping her streaming eyes. "He actually said… 'Let's squash this bug.'"

Tommy nodded, gasping with laughter as the rest of the table erupted.

"Who are you?" Goldar said, adding a whiny tone to his version of Jason's voice. "Who could you possibly be? Why are you kicking me in the chest?"

"And… hang on, Scorpina," Tommy said, trying to make himself heard over the laughter. "My scorpion sting is the phallus of nightmares?"

The four looked at each other, and then laughed even harder. Tommy hadn't laughed this long and hard for years. His sides hurt, and it wasn't just from the one polite attempt at eating the popcorn.

"That was," Empress Rita said, nearly choking in laughter, "the funniest thing I ever saw. I didn't know winning could feel this good!"

Once the jokes were played out, they ate, Tommy finally finding some alien food that was more palatable than any of the human food provided. As for drinks, he avoided the purple stuff. He didn't want to get completely shitfaced.

Empress Rita sent around a Putty with drinks and refills for everyone. "I propose a toast," she said in a carrying voice, and the others stopped eating. "To the Green Ranger… whoever he may be," she ended in heavy irony to general laughter.

"To Scorpina," Goldar shouted. "Who looks lovely in any form!"

"To Tommy!" Scorpina said, already hanging off Goldar after the compliment. "Who's not as much of a loser as I thought he was!"

"Thank you so very much," Tommy said wryly, to more laughter. He waited for the laughter to die down. "To Empress Rita," he said in a sober voice… as sober as he could after three toasts. "Who will grind the Power Rangers under her heel."

Yells of victory and drinking commenced, and Tommy was glad he'd stuck to the stuff Scorpina had brought with her. It was a beer approximation that Scorpina had tried to pronounce for him, but it just sounded like a cat coughing up a hairball. Nevertheless, the added fruitiness of the drink was pleasant, and he was only tipsy after three glasses.

"Babboo! Squatt!" Empress Rita shrieked, her voice even louder after the third goblet. The two minions had just entered, carrying something Tommy didn't recognize. "Where have you two been? It's not like you to stay away from food."

"My queen, we just wanted to make it a real party!" Squatt said shakily, obviously having drunk a bit himself. He was pulling out something from a case that looked unmistakably like a keyboard, except it was nothing like any keyboard or piano Tommy had ever seen. It had only fifteen keys, no black keys, and buttons everywhere, seemingly at random along the instrument's surface. Babboo, in the meantime, was pulling out a guitar with fifty strings.

"Music!" Empress Rita enthused. "Good boys! We must celebrate!"

Tommy cut his eyes worriedly at Goldar, who had gotten closer and handsier with Scorpina the more he drank. "They're actually pretty good… as long as you're drunk." He pushed a small purple drink over at Tommy. "Come on… these nights have been few and far between. Live it up a little."

Tommy shrugged and took a quick shot of the drink. After all, it was now officially a party, apparently. Babboo and Squatt finally tuned up and started an upbeat song that sounded freakishly like Alabama. The table was shoved unceremoniously to the side to make room for dancing, and Goldar and Scorpina started up a fast and wild dance immediately. Tommy stared at them. Goldar was more graceful than Tommy would have guessed.

"All right, Tommy," Empress Rita shrieked. "Looks like it's you and me."

Tommy almost dropped the drink he was holding. "E-empress?"

"You heard me!" Empress Rita demanded, laughing at Tommy's shocked reaction. "I wanna dance, and I get what I want," she said with satisfied finality.

The thought of dancing with his empress filled Tommy with gut-wrenching panic, but he tried to look as natural as possible when Empress Rita pulled him in for a non-gropey version of the dance Goldar and Scorpina were doing. By the second, Tommy was no longer worrying about stepping on Empress Rita's feet. By the third song, which was an alien step dance that they had to teach Tommy, he'd taken another measured shot of the purple stuff and now no longer gave a shit about anything… except making his Empress happy, of course.

They danced hard for another hour… and then Babboo and Squatt began playing a slow song. Tommy was in the terrifying predicament of slow-dancing with his Empress. Empress Rita smiled at his terror and, rather than copying Goldar and Scorpina's dance of "let's make out to music," she led Tommy in a sort of a waltz.

"Well, I think we've lost them," Empress Rita remarked halfway through the song. Tommy looked over, and, sure enough, Goldar and Scorpina were nowhere to be seen.

"I guess we're lucky they made it to a room," Tommy remarked. They both laughed, and Tommy felt at peace with the world.

The song ended, and Empress Rita broke apart from Tommy. "That's enough celebration, I think," she called to Squatt and Babboo before they could gear up for another song. Tommy wondered how they managed playing so long. He was dead on his feet. But Squatt and Babboo merely set aside their instruments and began calling in Putties to clean the dining hall.

"You make an excellent dance partner, Tommy," Empress Rita said. She picked up her goblet and drained the rest of the smoking liquid.

"Thank you, my Empress," Tommy said, now feeling completely mellow with drink. "I'm nothing compared to you, of course."

"You flatter me," Empress Rita giggled. "My, I haven't danced like that in… I don't know how long." Her eyes drifted, and for a moment she looked unspeakably sad. Tommy felt the urge to comfort her, but he couldn't think of a thing to say.

"You've done wonders for us, Tommy," Empress Rita said, looking like she'd just come out of a dream. "I haven't seen Goldar fight like that in ages. You've done me a world of good. When we conquer Earth and move into the greater universe, you will be one of my first generals."

Tommy couldn't quite picture the future as clearly as Empress Rita obviously could. He had no conception except the here and now. He felt that his own brain was protecting him from something, but in the drink-fog he couldn't handle the puzzle. "I'm honored, my Empress," was all he could say, hoping that would be enough.

It was. Empress Rita smiled at him. "You have a big day tomorrow," she said. "Get to bed. You'll need to look well rested and not hung over for little Miss Kimberly."

Tommy smirked. "I hope I give you a good show." He knew that she would be watching him carefully for various reasons during the date.


 

Rita couldn't shake the melancholy feeling she'd had ever since the end of the party. She sat up in bed, having painstakingly taken off her makeup and pulled down her hair. She was now brushing the tangles out of her hair, watching closely for split ends. It was a nightly ritual that usually afforded her much comfort, but not this night for some reason. She just kept thinking about two nights before, when she hadn't had the energy to go through this nightly ritual.

And why.

It doesn't make sense, Rita thought angrily to herself. She should be the happiest she'd ever been. Her plans were working better than she could have ever predicted. The Power Rangers had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of her warriors. Tommy was just as brilliant as she could have hoped. Everything was going so well…

The brush hit a snarl in her hair, and Rita cursed roughly.

"Oh, my," Finster said. He had just appeared in the doorway, and he was balancing a cup of hot chocolate on a tray. "Shall I get a conditioning solution for you, my queen?"

"No, Finster," she said, putting down the brush and gratefully accepting the cup. Rita rarely had to ask Finster for anything. He just had a knack for knowing when she wanted—or needed—something. And this was definitely a hot chocolate night. "Wait… Finster," she said as he was bowing his way out. "Sit with me for a minute. I need your advice."

Finster nodded, completely unsurprised by her request. She often used him as a sounding board, knowing that he was tight-lipped, nonjudgmental, and was often able to diplomatically provide Rita with guidance without telling her what to do… something Goldar had never gotten the knack for.

"I'm worried about the other night," Rita said, perfectly aware that Finster would know what she was talking about.

She wasn't disappointed. "Ah, yes," Finster said. "I must say I worried about you, and Tommy as well. However, I decided to lean more toward discretion."

"Smart of you," Rita said.

"What concerns you, my queen?" Finster said.

Rita scowled, not even really able to put the feeling into words. "The mission was successful, of course. If the mission had not been a success, it would have been quite a different story."

Finster remained silent, patiently waiting for Rita to put her thoughts together.

"I comforted him, Finster." The concept seemed to disgust Rita, as if she'd been caught in the act of doing something highly personal. "He was upset about something Zordon said. I was afraid that the spell was failing, so I made sure to strengthen it. All I had to do was that, and it worked. But then I could tell he was still upset, and that upset me, and…" Rita broke off. "I was maternal. Have you ever known me to be maternal?"

"No, my queen," Finster replied. "You've always spoken rather vehemently against bearing children and procreation in general."

"Then what the hell?" Rita said, looking helplessly at Finster. "What's happening to me?"

Finster seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "What you did most certainly strengthened the bond between the two of you."

"That's not an answer."

Finster seemed to smile, though only Rita would ever be able to perceive the miniscule facial changes on his seemingly immobile face. "Forgive me, my Empress, but I am only guessing. You are ever more the expert at magic than I ever will be, so I must see this from a medical standpoint."

"Medical?" Rita looked worried. She tended to be a bit of a hypochondriac, so Finster usually had to tread carefully.

"I am merely referring to a psychological link, my queen. Last week, when you spent all day crafting the spell to solidify your hold over Tommy, you forged a mental link between the two of you. This type of mental link, of course, can be done without magic, but it takes years to achieve the close bond you've forced between the two of you. Tommy relies on you psychologically. He would go insane without you, and needs that he formerly met on Earth are therefore met on the Moon Palace… mainly in you. And… such relationships are to some degree always reciprocal."

"So he needs a mother, and then I become a mother without realizing it?" Rita whispered, horrified at this unforeseen circumstance.

"He won't need you like that all the time… or maybe ever again," Finster reassured. "But it is all a part of the highly personal relationship you've forged with him. And the more you interact, the more you keep your hold over him. It may, of course, change your personality in subtle ways, especially in dealings with him," Finster said clinically. "Whether to continue the connection is up to you."

Rita frowned. "Thank you, Finster. Leave me now."

Finster bowed his way out, taking from Rita the cup holding the cold dregs of the unfinished chocolate.

Psychological connection…

Rita could never have predicted what she'd done to herself in recruiting Tommy. She suspected that Finster was only telling her part of the story. What Rita imagined was even more horrifying. Of course, she'd seen Tommy take on some of her own characteristics, though she'd put that down to a sort of hero worship. It wasn't anything big. A greater liking of cruelty. A pattern of speech here and there. A way of holding his head. Now that she thought about it, she wondered if this magic psychological connection was changing them in small ways… if they were influencing each other… or infecting each other.

She hadn't known when she'd picked Tommy, but he was the most generous, giving, self-sacrificing person she'd ever met. Besides joking around with Scorpina to infuriate her, and popping Goldar in the mouth in retaliation, he was kind to everyone up here. To Finster, especially, who was treated like mud by everyone, including Rita herself. The overt deferential and polite behavior she'd put down to uneasiness in a new place and position she now realized was his true nature. Was she… was she incorporating that into her personality just as Tommy was beginning to act more like her?

Rita finally lay down in her bed and turned off the lights with a wave of her hand. Lying there, in the darkness and quiet, Rita realized she had been mellowing over the past few days, which she had, of course, attributed to successes in her plan against the Power Rangers. But was it so bad? She hadn't gotten a headache in the past few days. Things seemed to run more smoothly, and she derived a certain amount of pleasure from having Tommy around. She was glad he'd taken to spending all of his spare time at the Moon Palace, and not just so she could renew and strengthen to spell binding him.

The voice of her brother came unbidden to her mind. "Sis," he'd say. "You worry too damn much."

Rita smiled at the remembered voice, which had seemed to quiet the storm in her head as it had always done when they were children. Maybe being a little more laid back, as Rito had always been, wouldn't be so bad after all.


 

That night, Tommy tossed and turned in bed, throwing off the sheet and soaking the bed in a cold sweat. In his nightmare, for he was certainly having a nightmare, he was eight. His mother was forcing him to punch a wooden block over and over, and Tommy was crying because his knuckles were bleeding. The blood trickled into the food he was preparing for his father, for his mother was gone and he was sixteen again. The pomegranates and curry absorbed the red blood with no sign, but Tommy was petrified that his father would notice. He turned, expecting to see his father's familiar form in the wheelchair at the table, but behind him was a desert, and Jason, morphed with his helmet off, was pointing at him angrily and yelling things, but Tommy couldn't hear. The dye in the red uniform on Jason seemed to be running, and Tommy suddenly realized it was bleeding.

Tommy woke up panting. As he got up unsteadily, tripping over the sheets wrapped in a coil beside the bed, he forgot the nightmare. He took a sleeping potion from the medicine cabinet, arranged the sheets over him again, and was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

 

Chapter Text

Jason stared at the readouts, his eyes getting blurrier and blurrier by the second. He wondered how Billy could stare at computers for so long without getting headaches. Or was that why Billy needed glasses?

"This sector is clear," Jason said after triple-checking. "How many more to go?"

"Twelve million," Alpha said.

Jason sighed and rubbed his eyes. He'd caught a few hours of sleep, but those hours were restless and filled with nightmares he couldn't quite recall. He'd teleported down this morning to grab some breakfast, and then right back up.

Alpha was in the same position each time Jason looked: working tirelessly at the same console. Jason wondered what Alpha was feeling. Months ago, he would have scoffed at a machine feeling anything. But he'd gotten to know Alpha, and he knew that the little robot had to have some sort of emotion, even if it wasn't anything humans could understand.

Jason had also taken time off to train. He tried to fool himself into thinking this was just to prepare for the next fight, but he knew in his inward being that this was punishment. He trained mercilessly, pushing himself far harder than he would have usually felt comfortable, just as a way to try to release himself from the crushing guilt and responsibility.

Now, though, he practically shackled himself to the consoles, performing the search that Alpha had taught him the night before. With each sector, Jason convinced himself that it would be the next one, or the next one. If there was any time they needed Zordon, it was right now. Jason needed his guidance just as keenly as thirst. And still, the search provided no answers. No Zordon. Not even a flicker on the screen.

The crackle of teleportation sounded behind him, and Jason forced himself to keep looking at the readout.

"Billy, good!" Alpha said. "You can take over for Jason. He needs to rest."

Jason looked up furiously. "I'm fine, Alpha."

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and Billy was pulling him from the console with more strength than usual. "You're not fine, and what if we miss Zordon because you're dozing off?"

Jason wanted to argue, but the combined stares of Billy and Alpha made him accept the inevitable. "All right… so I'm a little…"

"Exhausted," Billy said. "I'm going to make sure you go home later. Right now, though, I would suggest you review the tapes of the last battle. That's where you're the genius, after all."

Jason couldn't help but admit that Billy was making a whole lot of sense. Jason liked to study their battles—to see where any weaknesses might lay. And… well… yesterday's battle needed to be reviewed, too. The mistakes they'd made… the abilities of Scorpina and that Green Ranger…

"Gee," he said under his breath as he queued up the footage on the viewing globe, "I hope Kimberly's having a better day than me."


 

The California sun shone mildly on the two as they spread out a blanket, Kimberly anchoring the blanket with large shells as Tommy unpacked the basket. The day was warm, but a cool salty breeze washed over them every few minutes. The beach was completely deserted except the two of them. Kimberly decided she couldn't have asked for a better date if she'd ordered it.

"Sandwiches…" she remarked, "potato salad… cookies… Did you make all this yourself?"

Tommy smiled. "Are you surprised?"

Kimberly shrugged. "I just didn't know you could cook. You don't look like the type of guy… whatever that means."

Tommy pulled out a thermos and some Solo cups. "Lemonade?"

"You made lemonade, too?"

"From the finest generic yellow powder money can buy," Tommy said proudly. He grinned. "Don't worry… it's still surprisingly good. I'm not quite the gourmet chef you're making me out to be."

"Please," Kimberly said through a mouthful of cookie. She hadn't been able to resist a bite before the "real food." "My mom's version of fine dining is Chinese take-out and a box of Oreos."

"Hey, don't knock Oreos," Tommy said. "They hold mysteries to cooking that we mere humans cannot comprehend. Ever try to make the white stuff in the cookies?"

"I don't think the white stuff in Oreos can be classified as a food," Kimberly said. "More like a mineral."

Kimberly felt extremely comfortable, guiltily so, with this light give-and-take and turkey sandwiches. She knew she should be up at the Command Center or something. Even if she couldn't help, she felt she should be actively worrying, as she knew the others were.

But she kept going back to Jason's words, that Rita had taken too much from them. And the day was too fine, and the date too wonderful for Rita to steal from her.

Tommy cut into her thoughts. "Speaking of cooking, Billy told me to ask you about last Thanksgiving."

Kimberly flushed. "Okay, Billy's a major dead man. Honestly, Tommy, don't listen to anything they tell you about me. They're all lying… except maybe Trini."

Tommy laughed, and Kimberly joined in. "So…" she said, "what do you think of Angel Grove so far?" She bit into the potato salad and smiled. Yep, Tommy could cook.

"Well, this beach sure is nice," Tommy said. "I definitely like California better than Seattle. Didn't think I'd ever feel properly dry again."

"Yeah, it hardly ever rains here," Kimberly said. Oh, God, we're talking about the weather.

"I like the school," Tommy said, obviously coming to the same conclusion as Kimberly. "The whole town is small. I'm honestly really lucky to be here."

"Why did you move here… not that I'm complaining," Kimberly added quickly.

Tommy considered. "Well… my dad, mostly. Angel Grove has an excellent hospital, and my uncle just happened to have a summer home here." Tommy frowned. "But I think… I really think I'm the reason we moved here."

"How so?"

"Because this school would take me," Tommy said wryly. "Not many would take a bad seed like me."

"You're not…" Kimberly started.

"Actually, I am," Tommy said. He looked frustrated with himself, as if he wanted to go on but really didn't.

"Tommy," Kimberly said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay… you can tell me."

"I just don't want to scare you away," Tommy said with a sad smile. "Honest, I'm not a good guy. I… I really don't even know why you're going out with me." A panicked look came across his face. "I mean… we are going out? Are we?"

Kimberly's heart did a skip at this. Was he asking to be her boyfriend? She realized this was a sticky moment, and that she had enormous power. He was laying himself out vulnerable.

"I want to go out with you," Kimberly said. "I don't care what you did in your past… what awful things you think makes you a bad person. I… I l-like you."

Tommy's smile was radiant. "I like you, too."

They stared at each other, grinning, food forgotten between them.

"Could we get any cornier?" Tommy whispered.

The tension was broken, and Kimberly laughed hard. "I was just thinking that… I just didn't want to say."

They ate and packed the uneaten food away, not wanting bugs or birds to make a mess. Tommy produced a Frisbee from an inside flap, and they kicked off their shoes to play at the shoreline. The cold waves contrasted deliciously with the warm sand, and Kimberly felt like she could freeze this moment: playing Frisbee with her… boyfriend?... among the waves.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Kimberly called when a badly aimed throw was caught by the wind and flew into deeper water.

"I'll get it!" Tommy yelled, and plunged into the cold, deep water, clothes and all. Kimberly laughed hard as Tommy tripped over a shell and surfaced a second later, drenched.

"Oh, you think that's funny, do you?" Tommy laughed and started for Kimberly, Frisbee forgotten. She squealed in mock-terror and tried to run, but she was laughing too hard and the waves prevented her.

Tommy caught up with her, splashing her with as much water as he could. Kimberly screamed at the cold water and splashed back. In their chase, they ended up in deeper water, and Kimberly stopped caring about the state of her clothes. Both utterly drenched, they played in the surf, splashing and racing each other, laughing every time a wave crashed over their heads.

Pretty soon, Kimberly's flesh drew up and her teeth chattered. Tommy insisted that they head for shore, and she readily complied. Kimberly was pleased to see the ever-practical Tommy had brought towels. Rather than dry off, they laid on the towels side by side, letting the warm afternoon sun dry them. Kimberly's whole body seemed covered in sand, but she didn't care. She would be properly exfoliated, anyway.

Tommy had removed his shirt and laid it aside to dry, and Kimberly couldn't help but glance surreptitiously at his well-defined chest. Kimberly, you perv, she told herself, but she kept glancing anyway, giggling inside.

"I haven't done that since I was a little kid," Kimberly sighed, utterly spent by their horseplay.

"I've never done that," Tommy said happily.

"Never done what?" Kimberly said. "Played at the beach?" To a California girl, this was an entirely foreign concept.

Tommy shrugged. "Never really lived near a proper beach. When I was really little, we went on vacations, but it usually had something to do with a tournament. The one time we went to the beach we spent an hour trying to find parking and the whole place was too crowded to play."

"Tourist trap," Kimberly remarked, and Tommy nodded.

"Besides," he said in a darker tone. "Mom wanted me training. She wasn't one to take day trips."

Kimberly's brow furrowed. "But… you were really little, you said."

Tommy didn't look at her. "I've been training for as long as I can remember. Before I was five, anyway."

Kimberly's eyes widened. "You mean… martial arts? How do you train a four-year-old in martial arts? They still have trouble walking."

"I dunno," Tommy said, his smile vanishing steadily. "I don't really remember. I've been strength training since I was six, so it wasn't anything too heavy before then."

"And I was totally making fun of those kids who start gymnastics when they were three," Kimberly said quietly. "I'm sorry. You should have shut me up."

Tommy seemed to wake out of a reverie. "It's fine. You're right… training that hard and that early can do weird things to a person. Witness my severe rebellion when I was thirteen." His smile faded slightly. "Mom had already left us, but she occasionally took me. It wasn't to visit, though. It was on the tournament circuit. Well, one night I got fed up. I ran away, hitched a ride with a couple of hippies in an RV, and made it to my dad's house in two days. He was frantic. It was the most my mom and dad talked in years."

"Your parents are divorced?" Kimberly asked.

Tommy laughed harshly. "Finally. They decided to when I pulled that. They'd just been separated before. My mom forced the courts to give my dad custody, even though I would have gone to her because of his health problems."

Kimberly snorted. "My dad never really wanted custody."

Tommy looked over at her in surprise.

Kimberly rolled her eyes. "Yeah, my parents are divorced. My mom got remarried last year, which is part of the Thanksgiving story you will never ever hear. Anyway, my real dad hasn't really been hanging out much. He moved to LA for his work, he said." Kimberly laughed. "I think it was just to get away from me."

Tommy looked at her intensely. "Kim, no one in their right mind would want to get away from you."

Kimberly felt like melting under his intense gaze. This felt so right. While she had certainly had boyfriends and various admirers before, she had never met someone who was so completely in tune with her… someone she felt so comfortable with. She realized this was corny, and unrealistic, and she had only known him for a week… but did that really matter? Wasn't true love something you knew right away?

For some reason, Kimberly thought of Zordon and felt incredibly guilty. She wondered what he would think: he was out there somewhere, lost; the Green Ranger and Scorpina had terrorized and beaten them, and at any moment Rita could rain down monsters, and she and the other Rangers might not be able to stop them; the Command Center was still in mostly shambles, and Billy was making himself sick working round the clock to fix it… And here she was, lying on the beach, thinking of love and… things that just sounded silly next to the war they had to fight. Was this the real reason none of them were in any relationships? They didn't feel they were entitled?

But what if she just needed this?

"Kim?"

"Huh?" Kimberly looked up suddenly and realized he'd been talking and she hadn't been paying attention.

"You were a million miles away," Tommy said, his face clouded with concern.

Kimberly gave her best beach-enjoying smile. "I'm totally fine. Sorry… it's just…"

"Something you really can't talk about," Tommy finished for her.

Kimberly felt horrible. While they really hadn't had an option at the time, as Jason reminded her, she felt it was a mistake to use Tommy like they did and not even give him a good enough excuse. And Kimberly got the sense that not a lot of people trusted Tommy. He'd already alluded to being kicked out of school, and occasionally running with a rough crowd. He really needed friends and they hadn't been good friends to him lately. She could tell he was trying not to be bitter about it.

And was she just as guilty for needing him like this? Was she just using him?

"I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "It's just…"

The tears that were always too close to the surface these days burned Kimberly's eyes even as she tried to hide them. She saw the look of concern sharpen on Tommy's face, and he reached out to her. She moved closer to him to lay her head on his shoulder, and a strong arm encircled her. The tears now readily flowed.

"I'm sorry…" she said. "It's a nice day, and there are waves, and…"

"It's okay," Tommy said, murmuring the words as he held her closer. "You don't have to tell me anything. I just wanna help, and if this helps…"

"It does," Kimberly whispered. She looked up at him, trying to control her damn, stupid tears. He was so close, his eyes glistening and lips parted.

Looking back, Kimberly wasn't sure who made the first move. Their lips had seemed magnetically drawn to each other, and all of her sorrows retreated… still lingering in the background, but now displaced by the feel of Tommy's lips on hers. The caress was at first tentative, and Tommy pulled back with questions in his eyes, as if to say "Is this all right?"

Kimberly couldn't answer, but kissed him all the more urgently. All the pain that clouded her head faded to a dull roar, and all she could feel—all she could know—was lips on lips, and the sand crunching beneath them as they moved closer, towels twisting under them. Tommy's strong hand held the back of her neck, angling her head to deepen the kisses, and she felt completely wonderful and safe. For a brief moment, she wasn't a Power Ranger. She was just a girl.

Kimberly moved closer to him, flush with him, her kisses becoming more desperate and urgent. She barely even knew what she was doing. The further she went, the less she hurt, the more desperate she became to hurt less.

Tommy's lips wrenched from hers and his hands pushed her gently from him. Wide eyes regarded her as she woke up from a passion that was barely hers. "Kimberly?" Tommy whispered, and Kimberly realized with a horrid shock that she had been… moving… against him, and her hands had reached for things they shouldn't have.

"I'm sorry," Kimberly said in a strangled whisper, and jumped up, practically running from the beach. The passion from a few seconds before was still rocketing through her body, but she also felt like a wave of cold water had splashed over them both. What was she doing? She felt like falling through the sand… disappearing… Anything to hide or erase the last few minutes.

"Kimberly, wait!"

Tommy was running after her. He easily caught up, surer on his feet. Kimberly let him turn her around, but she refused to meet his gaze. She had never felt so horrible in her life. What would he think of her?

"I'm sorry!" she cried in a strangled sob. "I-I don't know what came over me! It… it wasn't fair to you, and I don't know what you must think of me, and…"

"Kim, it's okay," Tommy said, pulling her into a hug.

His skin felt gritty against her. She tried to keep herself stiff, not wanting to jump him again. However, his hands were chaste, and she couldn't help but feel safe in his arms. After all, he had been the one to pull away. But still… what made her do that?

"You're hurting," Tommy murmured, apparently sensing her thoughts. "It… it's natural. You wanted comfort, and it's an easy trap to fall into… I know," he said quietly, and pulled her away to look into her eyes. "Kim… it's a trap I've fall into. I said I won't lie to you, and I won't. I just… I don't want us to do something we'll regret. I like you too much."

Kimberly stared at him, mesmerized. "So…" she had to swallow back emotion, "you still want to see me?"

Tommy's smile was radiant. "Of course I do. In fact…" his smile turned mischievous. "I'll be at the Youth Center tonight if you want to show."

Kimberly wrinkled her nose and smiled. "There's a party for the football team, I heard."

"Exactly," Tommy said easily. "Party. Punch. Dancing to loud music."

"Sounds like a lot of fun," Kimberly said. "I… I need to meet my friends, and wash up…" She looked down at her barely dry and sandy outfit.

Tommy laughed. "Ditto. About the washing up, I mean. And I really gotta study. I've got a math test Monday. But we can meet at 8:00."

Kimberly grinned. "Definitely. And… we're okay… are we?"

Tommy's face grew serious, and he pulled her in for a passionate kiss that left her breathless. "Yeah…" he said after they pulled apart, "we're okay."

They pulled from each other, and Kimberly felt like doing something silly, like giggling, or skipping up and down, or something. She settled for grinning. "See you there, then."

She walked away, intent on finding a lonely place to teleport. She had to talk to Trini right then.

"Kimberly," Tommy said, a note of urgency in his voice.

She turned and was surprised to see panic and confusion in his face. "Tommy?" she said.

"I… I…" he said, looking like he was fighting against… something… just to form words.

"What is it, Tommy?" Kimberly said. She was starting to get scared. His eyes were wide and scared and… haunted?

His whole countenance changed. He smiled reassuringly. "I'm sorry. I thought I had to do something else tonight, but I realized that was tomorrow night. Didn't mean to freak you out," he said, laughing.

Kimberly laughed too, though she wasn't completely reassured. "No problem. I'll see you tonight." She walked away, still puzzling over what that was about.

As she left, she decided he was probably still a little freaked out by what she did. Apparently not enough to never see her again, though. She could barely believe that she would find someone so good, and understanding, and restrained. It scared her to think how he could have taken advantage of her. It was he who stopped them. Kimberly wasn't sure how far they would have gone if he hadn't stopped. She'd been like a wild thing. She'd never been like that with a boy.

But it had worked out fine, she smiled. Maybe this was a sign. Maybe this was… the one.


 

As soon as Kimberly was gone, Tommy's knees gave out, and he collapsed hard on the sand. He gasped for breath and felt the urge to throw up. Sharp pains sliced through his head, yet he still stared at where Kimberly had been moments before.

It's just physical attraction, he thought. She's hot, and she was all thrusty, and it's just horny I'm feeling. That's all.

Yet why had he almost confessed to her?

He couldn't bullshit to himself for long. He'd wanted to spill everything to her: his Green Ranger powers, his plans to hurt them, his attack on the Command Center… everything. But why? Why did he have the urge, even now, to follow her where he knew she was going: to the Command Center. Just follow her and confess everything and take the consequences.

Do I… love… her? Or is it something else?

Tommy!

Pain lanced through his head even sharper, and he grasped the sides of his head, wanting to pull his hair out from the pain.

Report to my throne room immediately!

The order echoed through his skull, even as he tried to shut out the pain and sound with his hands. But they were coming from within, not without. There was nothing he could do. He reached a shaking hand to his teleporter in his back pocket and said tightly, "Yes, my Empress."

He landed hard on the floor of the Moon Palace, the teleporter not designed for a knelt position. The pain in his head intensified. It felt like his brain was on fire, and it took all he had to keep from screaming.

"Everyone, out!" he heard Empress Rita barking orders. He had to take on faith that everyone had vacated the throne room like she asked. His eyes were screwed up tight against the pain. But it wasn't only physical pain. That he could have handled. Another pain gripped his brain even tighter… a pain he couldn't begin to comprehend.

"Tommy, open your eyes," Empress Rita said urgently. "You have to open your eyes, or I won't be able to help you. Just look at me…" she was almost pleading, "and the pain will go away."

"Can't…" Tommy said in a voice that barely sounded like his own: a weak, pain-drenched voice. "Can't… hurts…"

"You can and you will," Empress Rita's voice shattered through the pain, and Tommy's eyes flew open. Tear-blinded though they were, Tommy could plainly see into his Empress Rita's eyes. As quickly as shutting off a light, he felt at peace. The pain ceased, and he couldn't even comprehend that creature who had nearly freely given himself up to the Power Rangers.

"M-my Empress," he stammered, unsteady from remembered pain and near betrayal. "I'm s-sorry." He was shivering, but no longer crying. The shock drove the tears away and left only a hollow disgust.

Empress Rita smiled kindly, still staring straight into his eyes, but Tommy could see an almost uncertainty there. "You are safe now," she said. "I must warn you, Tommy, a girl doesn't have to be a witch like me to lay a spell on a man."

Tommy pulled himself up, careful not to spread too much sand in the throne room. His mouth was dry and his head ached dully. But what hurt most was the horror of nearly being a traitor. He had no idea how much Empress Rita knew or understood about what had just happened, but he felt he had to make it up to her somehow. To purge all remembrances of those traitorous feelings from his entire being.

"Tommy," Empress Rita continued, "Green Ranger, I have implicit faith in you. I will help you where you need, and I know you will do your utmost in your service to me."

Those words of confidence afforded Tommy intense bliss, more intense than feelings caused by any of the silly gropings of Kimberly Hart. The thoughts he'd had toward the Pink Ranger were growing more ridiculous by the second. Love? How could one love the enemy like that?

"My Empress," he said, making his decisions final. "I will be busy the rest of the afternoon and evening. Do you trust me to keep you entertained?" he said with a smile. "Or should I tell you my plans now?"

Empress Rita smiled in excitement. "Entertain me, by all means."


 

Jason ended his fifteenth viewing of the battle. He sat on the stairs in disgust, glad to be unnoticed by Trini, Billy, and Alpha and glad no one else was there.

The Green Ranger had barely fought, so Jason could tell almost nothing about his fighting style. Of course, Jason hadn't given him much of a reason to fight. Every time Jason watched himself charging at the Green Ranger like a rabid bull, it made him sick. No technique, no game plan. Just blind rage and dumb luck that the Green Ranger hadn't been in the killing mood. Especially since the Green Ranger had a weird fixation on him.

Of course, Jason was used to that. Various monsters and Rita herself… not to mention Goldar… had fixations on him. He was the strongest and best fighter (he never bragged, but he knew it implicitly) and he was the leader. It was enough to make him more of a primary target than the other Rangers, though they had all served as primary targets one time or another.

He was able to study Goldar and Scorpina a little better, since they actually had to fight. Being attacked by four Power Rangers at once assured that. Scorpina may have been new, but Jason doubted she was one of the clay monsters they usually dealt with, no matter what she pretended. And she obviously had a great rapport with Goldar. Either Goldar or Scorpina alone were a force to be reckoned with. Together? They moved like one unit, using battle strategies like the Power Rangers themselves. They set each other up and never even had to talk to each other. They just knew what the other would do and used it to the Rangers' disadvantage.

Jason had to give it to Rita. Her team was good. She wasn't bullshitting with stupid monsters or spells. She was just using good fighters to the best of their abilities, and the Rangers had been trounced for it.

A crackle of energy, the familiar sound of teleportation. "Any sign?" Zack said by way of greeting to Trini, Billy, and Alpha.

"Not yet," Trini said, always the optimist. Right then she was coordinating the search between Alpha and Billy, covering the lost gaps and triple checking anomalies.

A hand clapped on Jason's shoulder, and Zack sat beside him. "You've been going over yesterday's fight," Zack said.

"How can you tell?" Jason said in a rough voice.

"You look really depressed."

Jason laughed, the bitter edge lessening somewhat. "I'm not going to get much info about the Green Ranger until I fight him for real."

Zack raised his eyebrows. "I wouldn't go asking for that fight."

"Don't worry. I won't."

Zack cleared his throat, and Jason looked up to see Zack shift uncomfortably. "Um…" he began, as if unsure whether or not to proceed, "your mom called my house. And your dad."

"Shit," Jason said under his breath. "What did they want?" he asked, though he already knew the answer.

"Listen, man," Zack said, raising him hands in mock surrender. "I don't wanna get involved in this, but honestly, they didn't sound mad. They just wanted you home, and I think you better go."

Jason stared down, dreading going home. He hadn't called them the night before to tell him he wasn't coming home. In fact, the last he'd seen of his dad he'd stormed out of the house, yelling at him.

What's wrong with me? Jason thought. Who acts like that?

"All right," Jason mumbled. "I'll go home." He hesitated. "You sure I can't pick a fight with the Green Ranger instead?"

Zack laughed loudly, prompting the attention of the others for a moment.

"Billy," Trini warned, "your scope is slipping. You're not paying attention to the coordinates."

Billy cursed indecipherably under his breath and quickly punched in a few numbers.

"All right, Billy," Zack said, sauntering up to the console. "Reality check. You're not Alpha… you can't keep going all day."

"He's right, Billy," Alpha said absently. "You're not me, because I'm me."

Trini stifled a laugh.

"Exactly," Zack said. "And if Jason can operate that search, then you can teach me how in a jiffy. So I'm relieving you."

Billy paused the search and rubbed his eyes, which seemed to want to cross. "I do need to get the Radbug home," he said.

"I'll ride with you," Jason said, wanting to put off the moment he had to face his parents.

In a few minutes, Jason had gathered all his stuff, Billy and Trini had taught Zack to operate the search, and Billy and Jason were soaring over the clouds.

"I don't feel right leaving the Command Center," Billy said tensely after half an hour of silence. "I was sure Rita would attack today."

"I still am," Jason answered. "The longer she waits the closer we get to finding Zordon. And with Zordon we have a much greater chance of winning."

"And Zordon probably knows who the Green Ranger is," Billy added. He paused. "Trini said she believed the Green Ranger might possibly be an alien, like Scorpina. They did show up at the same time. Maybe Rita procured them together."

"Do you believe that?" Jason asked.

Billy paused again, considering. Jason liked that quirk of Billy's: the hesitation to think and consider words carefully. It was comforting, and something Jason felt he should emulate more. "I don't," Billy finally said. "I know he's human… from Earth… and I have no idea why." Billy looked frustrated. "There's just no evidence."

"We may not have proof," Jason said, "but it would fit in with Rita's sense of irony. If she gets a Power Ranger, she will want that Ranger to be as similar to us as possible. That includes being human." He ended with a certainty he was finally feeling.

"Then what do we do with him?" Billy asked, sounding more and more solemn. "It's not like Zordon has a 'Power Ranger jail' or something like that."

"You and Alpha built a confinement area."

Billy waved his hand at this. "For artifacts and specimens that need to be quarantined. Not for people, and not for extended periods of time."

"But you can," Jason said. "You can confine even a Power Ranger."

Billy sighed. "Well… yes. One of us could be easily confined there. Even easier if we didn't have access to our Power Coins. But that wouldn't exactly be an indefinite solution."

Jason frowned. "Say… have you ever wondered what would happen if one of us turned bad? Like… not having a punk potion." Billy grinned. "But actually corrupt? Breaking all the rules and stuff?"

"I've actually thought about that," Billy said. "I haven't had the courage to ask Zordon, though."

"Afraid of the answer?"

"Most definitely," Billy said. "I've thought of some options. Incarceration and such. Or he could simply strip us of our powers."

"Thereby killing us," Jason said.

"If we don't choose to give them up, then… yes."

They were silent a moment.

"Boy, this is cheerful," Jason said.

Billy laughed lightly. "We're here, anyway."

They landed lightly behind the football stadium at the school, which Jason knew would be completely deserted today. Before they knew it, they were in front of Jason's house.

"Good luck," Billy said as Jason lugged his stuff out of the car.

"I'll need it," Jason said. "You gonna get rest?"

"I'm going to drop off by the computer store, and then home," Billy answered. "I want to build an auxiliary device connecting my lab and the Command Center."

Jason marveled at Billy's adopting another project, then, deciding to face the music, he trudged to the front door. Whatever he got, he reasoned, he deserved.


 

Trini was taking a break in the girl's bedroom at the Command Center when Kimberly burst in, all smiles and breathlessness.

"So I take it that it went well," Trini said, putting down her book.

Kimberly flopped down on her bed. "It was…" She paused. "I can't really describe it, actually. We had a picnic on the beach, and we played in the waves with all our clothes on."

"Did you kiss?" Trini said eagerly.

"Yes…" Kimberly's smile froze. "Actually… it's confession time," she said, her smile slipping.

Trini frowned but said nothing.

"I sort of… kissed him. A lot. Too much. And I might have almost went too far with the touching," she ended quickly in a mumble.

Trini caught it, though. "Kimberly…" she said, obviously trying to hide her shock, "I mean… I'm not exactly the biggest prude in the world, but it was the first date."

"I know!" Kimberly wailed. "It was entirely horrible, and unfair to him, and I have no idea what got into me, and I'm never going to do it again," she progressed to a pleading tone. "But… Trini. He was totally cool about it. He stopped it when everything was getting too hot and heavy, and he said everything was okay, and he's meeting me tonight at the party at the Youth Center."

Trini was still frowning. "Are you… sure, Kim?"

"Yeah! Skull called last night to invite me to the party at the Youth Center, but I of course refused, but he would never get the time of a party wrong…"

"That's not what I'm talking about," Trini cut in. "Are you sure you're the one who instigated stuff? Because, honestly, it just doesn't sound like you, Kim. And, forgive me for being crude, but he sounds a bit too 'good' for a teenage boy. I mean, I love our guys, but I'm not sure any of them, hero or not, could pull away from a girl like that."

"Oh, come on, Trini," Kimberly said with an impatient huff. "Not all guys are slaves to passion."

"Actually, statistically speaking…"

"And don't try to 'Billy' me," Kimberly interrupted her.

Trini's face softened. "Oh, Kim, I'm just worried about you. I just don't want you doing anything you'll regret."

"That's exactly what he said."

Trini smiled. "I won't say any more then. You want me to be happy for you, and I am."

Kimberly was a little taken aback, but Trini's smile was genuine, so she let it go.


 

Billy's brain was going slower than usual. That was a bad sign. Usually his brain went faster than he could keep up with, if that made any sense. He had to jot down ideas and inventions just to keep them from flying away in favor of new ideas. But now he had to concentrate on the shopping list just to get the equipment right, and that meant he couldn't concentrate on walking, which meant he was knocking into beeper displays.

"Whoa, Billy." A hand caught his shoulder and another hand caught a display of Walkmans that was toppling over. Carl, the owner of the computer store and Billy's cousin, steered Billy into the only open area: the desktop computer displays.

"Thanks," Billy said. "I'm sorry…"

Carl glanced at the list clutched in Billy's hand. "Working on a new project?"

"As usual."

Carl pulled the equipment and the list from Billy's hands and put them behind the counter. "Tell ya what. I'll open tomorrow whenever you want if you just go home now and get some sleep. By your eyes, if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were on something. Pulling too many all-nighters?"

"You could say that." Billy wanted to get angry at his cousin for kicking him out, but opening on Sunday was kind of a big deal, so he let it slide.

"You're too young to pull all-nighters," Carl said. "Need your sleep."

"I'll keep that in mind," Billy said, and left the store. He slumped down the sidewalk, wondering if Carl had a point. There was no point in starting a new project if he could barely stay upright. He was able to drive home easily. He'd always been able to stay in the zone when driving, and he'd never fallen asleep at the wheel, or even close, no matter how tired he'd been.

"Hello, mom!" Billy yelled as he entered the house, dropping his duffel bag of tools in the archway to the kitchen. He knew that drove his mother crazy, but he didn't even realize he did it until later.

The house was dark, but Billy wasn't worried. His mom liked to rest on Saturdays, and generally took afternoon naps. He crossed into the living room, wanting to watch the news a little before taking a nap himself.

"Hello, Billy," a voice sounded from the living room as he entered.

Billy's heart stopped, and his eyes finally focused to the darkened house. The curtains were all drawn tight, his mother was nowhere to be seen, and the Green Ranger was sitting casually in an armchair.

Billy's first reaction was blind panic. He stumbled back and reached, his hands shaking, for his Power Morpher. He didn't even care if his mother was near… if she would be able to hear him. It was an emergency.

But the Green Ranger was too fast for him. In the space of a blink, the Green Ranger was nose to nose with him. Billy felt his Power Morpher pulled roughly from his grasp, and in the next swift movement his communicator was torn from his wrist. All Billy could do was freeze, waiting for a blow that could end his life.

"Sit down, Billy," the voice said to him, muffled by the mask to sound almost inhuman.

Billy had never, until that moment, realized how utterly terrifying a Power Ranger really was. The helmet completely covered identity, masking eyes and face and voice perfectly. What looked natural in battle looked decidedly unnatural standing in his living room, inches from him.

"Where's my mother?" Billy asked, trying to keep his voice strong.

"She's safe." The Green Ranger cocked his head in the direction of the hallway. "I've got her tied up in the bathroom. She won't be able to hear a thing, so your precious secret identity is intact."

Billy stood there, a cold sweat breaking out all over him. Different impulses warred within him, mostly centered on the items the Green Ranger held just out of his reach.

"You're smart, remember?" the Green Ranger continued. "And as long as you continue to be smart, your mom stays safe. And being smart means not trying to be heroic." He waggled the Power Morpher, which Billy had been staring at. "So eyes off this."

Involuntarily, Billy's eyes turned sharply from the Power Morpher to look straight at the Green Ranger.

"Good," the Green Ranger said. "Now I believe I asked you to sit down."

When Billy didn't move, the Green Ranger shoved him. Billy collapsed on the couch, eyes still locked on the darkened eyeslits. They were surrounded by teeth, and Billy vaguely wondered what the Green Ranger's animal was.

"I won't let you hurt my mother," Billy heard himself saying. His voice sounded stronger than he was feeling.

The Green Ranger seemed to laugh. "That is up to you. You can't stop me from doing whatever the hell I want, but as long as you stay nice and compliant…" His voice trailed off.

Billy gulped and tried to find a semblance of normality. "What do you want?" he asked quietly.

The Green Ranger sat in the armchair next to the couch, the Power Morpher and communicator now tucked in his belt. "Now, why would I 'want' something? I just came by for a chat."

Billy raised his eyebrows.

"All right," the Green Ranger said. "You've got me. I'm here to give a message, but we can have a nice chat in the meantime. I mean, we've got time. This house is invisible to the Command Center right now, by the way. No alarms are going… no one's coming to save you. So as I said… We have time."

The tiny flame of hope that Billy had kept alive died. The others wouldn't come here by chance, after all. Zack and Trini were busy, Kimberly was probably still on her date, and Jason was either asleep or trying to keep from being grounded. Billy was alone, and he was responsible for keeping his mother and himself alive, as well as somehow getting his Power Coin back, and he was absolutely and completely helpless. While his brain before had been sluggish, it was now alternating between frozen in terror and racing for answers and alternatives and ways of escape. There were none, and the Green Ranger knew it.

"Tell me, Blue," the Green Ranger said. "How much do you want this Power Morpher?"

Billy stayed silent. He partially didn't want to give the Green Ranger a chance to mock him, but also felt too afraid to speak.

"You see?" the Green Ranger said with a laugh. "You're worthless without this! You've probably found out that I downloaded the Command Center records. I've been studying you. You're the big brain, of course, and that's all great and wonderful. But you're no fighter. Not without your morpher."

"Your point being?" Billy asked, again in a stronger voice than he expected.

"I especially appreciated one of those battles with the Putties," the Green Ranger continued, as if Billy hadn't even spoken. "You know the one… Putties attacked all five of you. You were all about to morph… and Red said something like, 'We have to learn to fight our own battles.' The others were fine, of course… but you? You were chased by two Putties up a freakin' mountain, and Trini… Trini… had to save you."

Billy felt sick. He knew the Green Ranger was trying to get inside his head, to make him do something stupid or something. But… he had to talk about that incident? That still gave him nightmares.

"Not that I'm sexist or anything," the Green Ranger continued. "I mean, I work for a very powerful woman. Between Empress Rita and Scorpina? Talk about power. But still… just between the two of us, that rescue's gotta sting."

The Green Ranger stood up and paced the room. "I can tell you're getting impatient, so I'll just go ahead and make my point. I came here… not to any of the other Rangers' houses, but to here and specifically to you… because you're a victim. You rely on this rush of power and you never ever worked for any of it. Boom… you're a superhero. You didn't earn it. It was just given to you. And you have the presumption to count yourself with the actual fighters."

"All right," Billy said, trying to keep the tumult of emotion from his face and eyes, and still wondering if there was a way for him to tackle the Green Ranger and get his morpher back. "You've made your point, and you've proven it. There's no real way I can fight you without my Power Morpher." Billy's voice grew tighter and tighter. No matter how he tried to control himself, his breaths were coming out in short, panicked gasps. "So what is the message already?"

A fist came out of nowhere and connected with Billy's jaw. Billy felt something give. The force of the blow sent him toppling over the back of the couch, and his head dashed against the floor. He saw stars.

"This is the message," the Green Ranger said, towering over Billy. "I use you as a punching bag for a while, and the other Rangers get to see your broken body. Pretty damn effective, isn't it?"

Before he could stop it, a white boot came crashing down on his chest. Billy involuntarily gave out a strangled scream.

"Hmmm, that was one of the ribs," the Green Ranger chuckled. "Do you think I broke it, or just cracked it? Either way, it's gonna hurt like hell for a while."

Billy felt himself being dragged to the archway between the living room and kitchen. A chin-up bar was suspended there, a relic of Billy's athletic father.

"That looks sturdy enough," the Green Ranger said, tugging at the bar a bit. He kicked the duffel bag out of the way, even as Billy had considered using it as a weapon. "Okay, Billy… I gonna need you to hold on to that bar. That'll keep you upright. You are a punching bag, after all. Whoever heard of a punching bag lying on the floor?"

Billy's fury connected. "Why…" he sputtered through the pain, "should I help you? You think I'm going to cooperate?"

The Green Ranger shrugged. "If you don't, your mom's going to take your place. Makes no difference to me."

The fury choked off into fear. As it was, Billy was already picturing what the bastard could have done to his mother. The thought of her taking this for him… Billy tremblingly got to his feet, his chest aching with every movement. He forced his hands over his head and grabbed the chin-up bar… and waited.

"That's better," the Green Ranger said, and lashed out before Billy could even think.

Billy lost track of time. All he knew was pain and the next blow. The blows weren't as strong as the first two, but Billy knew what the Green Ranger was doing. He was marking him up, bruising and bloodying him to make him look just as hurt as he felt. Billy could already feel his face swelling up, and he wondered absently if he even looked like himself anymore.

Only once did Billy fall, when the Green Ranger landed a kick near enough his groin to make him panic. Once Billy hit the floor, he wasn't sure if he would ever be able to get up. But the Green Ranger just calmly started walking toward the bathroom, and Billy had shouted that he was getting up… that there was no need… He'd pulled himself up, and the Green Ranger had come back, kicking him in the groin for real this time. Billy held on, gasping and sobbing in pain and perversely grateful that the Green Ranger had come back in the first place.

Billy wasn't even sure what he was saying any more, as he hung on to the chin-up bar not for life, but for something else. He prayed for unconsciousness, but the Green Ranger knew just exactly how to hit to keep him awake and in pain. Blood coursed down his face from his nose, and still he hung on limply.

"I think you've had enough," the Green Ranger finally said. "You can let go."

If Billy had had the strength, he would have held on still, just out of stubbornness. But he hurt too much, and he was sickly grateful it was finally over.

He felt something drop on his chest. His Power Morpher, slightly red from his blood, glinted in the corner of his eye. The communicator fell on the floor near his hand. Billy tried to reach for it, but a white boot came down on top of it, and Billy heard a sick electronic crunch.

"No communicator… we'll leave things up to chance a little," the Green Ranger chuckled. "And I wouldn't morph if I were you. You've got to be healthy to morph. The power would tear you apart right now."

Billy knew he was right and raged inside his head at his own helplessness. He said nothing, though. Shame quaked through him at the thought that he would give anything to keep the Green Ranger from hitting him again.

"I'm giving you back your Power Morpher because you're too weak to use it." The Green Ranger bent over close to his face, and Billy imagined a sadistic leer on an unknown face. "You always were."

The Green Ranger got up and used a dish towel to wipe his gloves clean of Billy's blood. The red stuck to the material, which seemed odd to Billy…

"Oh, yeah!" the Green Ranger laughed. "I almost forgot the funniest part. You see… you thought the only way for you to beat me was to morph. The thing is… I'm not even morphed right now. This is just a costume."

One last kick to the head, and Billy finally slipped into unconsciousness.

 

Chapter Text

The Command Center was quiet, the only noises being the low beeping of systems and the mild clacking of Zack and Alpha on the consoles. The viewing globe showed only peaceful park scenes. True to Tommy's word, no alarm had gone off.

Jason was in his room, lying on his bed and recovering from the unpleasantness of the past hour with his parents. He hadn't yelled or lost his temper, and he'd taken a full and angry lecture on responsibility, making them worry, skipping out on detentions… He knew he'd deserved every word, and he decided to stay home all day… and maybe get some sleep.

Kimberly had showered and was planning to relieve Zack for a few hours before the party. She happily threw outfit after outfit on her bed, making the especially difficult choice of what to wear. Trini was with her.

"The trouble is," Kimberly said, "that I always have to stay practical with clothes these days. I mean, I can't high kick in a straight skirt, and Putties always seem to attack when I'm all dressed up."

Trini rolled her eyes. "Kim, all of your clothes are gorgeous, even the so-called practical ones. Besides, there's going to be a lot of dancing tonight anyway, so you'll want to dress comfortable."

"I know, you're right," Kimberly said. "You going back up?"

Trini shook her head. "I have a lesson with my sensei late this afternoon. I have to make up from Thursday. He doesn't like to skip a full week of practice."

Kimberly finally decided on a sparkly blouse and skirt, both of which looked made for dancing. "I'm going to relieve Zack for a few hours. I know Billy will want to work tonight, but I think Zack needs a rest. Besides, I haven't taken a turn at the search."

Trini gathered up her purse. "Call me tonight and tell me how it went."

Kimberly looked over from putting on a necklace. "You sure you're still not mad at me?"

"I was never mad at you," Trini said. She crossed her arms. "Tommy and I might have words later, but…"

"It was totally not Tommy's fault!" Kimberly said in a panic. "And I'd get so embarrassed if you said anything."

"I was only kidding," Trini amended. "Mostly. He just seems really… violent… to me."

"He's a martial artist."

"So am I," Trini reminded, "and I still don't like how he handled Bulk and Skull that one time."

Kimberly looked upset, so Trini backed off. "Look… I'll reserve judgment on Tommy for now, okay? But if he hurts you…"

"Come with me to the dance tonight," Kimberly interrupted. "Then you can see that Tommy's totally cool and gentlemanly."

Trini smiled. "We'll see. I may need to be up in the Command Center, but I may show up for a few minutes. We need a party, anyway."

Trini left Kimberly's house, still worrying, but trying not to. There was just something about Tommy that didn't rub her the right way. She could usually sense when people were hiding something, and it always seemed like that to her when she was around him. Trini shook her head roughly. It's paranoia, she told herself. There's plenty enough to worry about.

She walked slowly, wanting a few minutes of peace and quiet to empty her mind before her lesson. Her sensei always knew when she was troubled, and she really didn't want to have to explain herself or her problems. She took deep breaths, trying to reach the calm center that she always visualized as the nougat-y center of a candy bar… a visual relic from beginning martial arts training when she was nine.

The calm didn't come as easily this time, though. There was too much to worry about. Forget Kimberly's dubious romantic plans. There was Zordon, and Billy was working too hard, and Jason was freaking out, and there was no way she was going to get her painting for the exhibit finished, and should she be worrying about that anyway, because that seemed really selfish, and…

…why were all the curtains drawn at Billy's house?

Trini frowned at the dark house, getting that weird mental itch she'd developed in the past few months whenever something was wrong. Zack called it her "spider sense." That phrase came back to her. Was she sensing danger? Or was she just paranoid?

Trini pulled a wristwatch from her pocket to check the time. She was probably going to be late for her lesson, but this was just a creep-out she couldn't shake. She'd just walk over to Billy's and pretend she was dropping off to say hey.

She knocked at the door loudly. After the second tap, the door swung open, not securely fastened in the first place. All the lights were out. Burglars, she thought… but Billy's car was there. He could take care of burglars… unless he'd teleported back to the Command Center.

Trini heard a muffled scream. She put her guard up, ready for anything, and entered the house.

She wasn't ready for everything.

"Billy!" she screamed. Billy lay on his side, absolutely still. His face was covered in bruises and cuts. She couldn't tell what all had happened, but he looked… dead…

She felt for his pulse, feeling sick as she did it, and felt the reassuring thumps of a beating heart. She sobbed with relief, realizing that she'd been expecting to find her friend dead.

There was another muffled scream from the hallway. Trini ran to it. She could see Billy's mother's head on the floor, protruding from the bathroom. Trini knelt and removed the gag.

"Trini… thank God!" Ms. Cranston exclaimed. "I can see Billy's feet. Is he…?"

"He's alive, Ms. Cranston," Trini said, and reached for the woman's other bonds. She was tied tightly to a chair, and she'd obviously fallen over in her struggles. The ropes were cutting into her wrists.

"Forget about me," Ms. Cranston said. "Call the ambulance! We can't know what that monster did to him!"

Trini immediately left her, kicking herself for the lapse in judgment. She grabbed up the cordless phone and dialed 911. She gulped, trying to keep as calm as possible.

"911, what is the emergency?" a calm voice came through the line, the greeting almost one word from repeated use.

"My friend… Billy Cranston. He's been attacked in his home," Trini said, her voice coming out much higher than usual.

The calm voice guided her, asking for information. Trini stared at Billy, willing him to be all right. He had to be.

His Power Morpher was on the floor.

In a panic, Trini stayed on the phone with the 911 operator and knelt beside Billy. She stuffed the Power Morpher in her purse for safety and noticed the remains of the communicator on the floor. Still calm on the phone, she scraped wildly at the carpet with her fingernails, trying to pull every bit of metal from the floor. Technically, she was tampering with a crime scene. But this was Power Rangers business, and that was that.

"Alright, the ambulance is very close. Do you want me to stay on the line?"

"No… they'll be here soon," Trini said. She hung up, feeling wrung out. She wanted to call the guys right away, but it would be too suspicious if they all showed up that quickly.

Billy's secret identity secure, she forced herself away from him and went back to the hallway. "The ambulance is almost here. Are you hurt, Ms. Cranston?"

Billy's mother shook her head. "I bruised my elbow when I fell, but he said he wasn't going to hurt me, and he didn't," she ended bitterly. "Help me out of here, Trini," she said. "I want to ride over with Billy."

The knots were a bit too tight, but Trini spied a pair of scissors on the washing machine. "Ms. Cranston… who is 'he?' Who attacked you?" Trini asked, knowing the answer.

"He looked just like a Power Ranger," she said tightly, impatient to get out of the bonds. "But he was green… and… he couldn't have been a Power Ranger."

"Yeah," Trini said, trying not to cut her clothes. "I've heard that there's an… evil Ranger or something." Trini proceeded cautiously, not wanting to give away too much of what she actually did know.

Ms. Cranston got to her feet and immediately launched herself to the living room. Trini trailed behind. A conflict was raging inside of her. On one hand, she knew she needed to call everyone. On the other hand, she wanted to call the Green Ranger out, to storm the Moon Palace, to take revenge.

Trini worked hard to regulate her breathing. She knew she was always the coolest in battle among all her friends. And if she was feeling like this… Good Lord, how would Jason react?

The paramedics came in, and the phone rang. Ms. Cranston was too busy answering questions to notice, so Trini picked up.

"Trini! What are you doing over there?" Kimberly shrieked. "What's happening? There's an ambulance!"

"Kim…" Trini said in a small voice. "Billy's been attacked."

The tears that had been burning in Trini's eyes finally fell.


 

Jason all but ran through the hallway, mind clouded with panic.

He finally saw Kimberly, sitting in a chair in the waiting area outside the emergency room. Her face was red, and she was holding her legs curled up to her chin. Zack walked into view, having been pacing the entire room.

"How is he?" Jason said.

Kimberly looked up. "We don't know. We know a… lung collapsed," her voice broke, "when he got here. We're waiting."

Zack didn't acknowledge them. He just kept pacing, his eyes wide.

Jason collapsed on a chair beside Kimberly. "And where's Trini?"

"Talking to the police," she said. "From what she could tell me, she found Billy on the floor in his home and Billy's mom tied up in the bathroom. Billy's mom claims it was a Power Ranger."

Zack kicked a chair. The chair shuddered violently.

"Zack, stop!" Kimberly said in a sudden temper. "They'll kick us out."

"They'll try," Zack said, but he stopped pacing and sat on the edge of a chair, staring at the door of the emergency room.

Trini walked into the room. Wordlessly and casually, she swapped purses with Kimberly, and crossed over to sit next to Zack.

"What's that about?" Jason whispered.

Trini leaned in and lowered her voice as well. "Billy's Power Morpher and the remains of his communicator are in my purse." She bit her lips. "I was nervous… I thought they might suspect me, since I was the one who found him, so I swapped purses with Kim."

"But they…" Zack started furiously.

Trini shook her head. "They fully believe Ms. Cranston, of course."

They all sat in tense silence for a full fifteen minutes, each tick of the second hand torture. Jason was still trying to process.

Kimberly's words came to him… that they no longer had a safe place after the Command Center was sabotaged. And she was right. They didn't even have their homes. No place was sacred anymore.

He remembered taking on the powers, and Zordon impressing on them the seriousness of their duty: the seriousness of the war they had to fight. It had never seemed too serious, though. Sure, there had been some rough spots. There were times when they had to retreat in a battle, and there were times when he faced a monster and saw no way of defeating it. And there were times when they'd been attacked personally… by spells, or with monsters made to specifically taunt one of them. Jason also knew that the only place they were safe from enemy surveillance was in the Command Center.

But they'd always felt safe. There were lines he knew no one would cross. And attacking them at home was one of those lines.

The difference between heroes and villains is what they're willing to do: what lines they will cross. He'd just thought there were some lines even villains wouldn't cross.

Jason clenched his fist in silent fury, still staring down, unwilling to meet the worried, tortured glances of the other Rangers. It was the Green Ranger. It always came back to the Green Ranger. Rita had never been so ruthless before. This was nowhere near her style. It wasn't just that the Green Ranger was following her orders. The Green Ranger was coming up with the plans. He attacked Billy. It was he alone.

Jason's head jerked up to see his mother trotting toward them. She'd gone to work directly after their fight at home, so she'd been here right when Billy was brought in.

"Oh, good. You're all here," she started as they all sprang up to their feet. "First off, Billy's going to be fine." She said it in a determinedly reassuring voice.

"Oh, thank God," Kimberly said. Trini had sagged to her chair, breathing easier.

"So, he's fine," Zack said quickly. "Can we go see him?" Kimberly and Trini surged forward.

Jason held his arm up, blocking them. "Now… wait. We're all relieved, but we can't all crowd in there."

His mother smiled at him approvingly. "He's going to be moved into a room very soon. You can visit him there. Right now he's asleep, recovering. He was in really bad shape. He has two fractured ribs, which made his lung collapse at one point. They fixed that, and it's going to heal nicely, so there won't be any need for surgery. But the big danger area is the concussion. Now, I repeat," she said to the renewed worried expressions, "he's going to be fine. He's young, and he's already woken up. But he'll need a long time to recover."

"How's Ms. Cranston?" Kimberly asked. "I heard she was hurt, too."

Ms. Scott smiled. "Not too badly. Scared out of her wits, and she got some pretty bad cuts from struggling against the ropes, but other than that she's fine." She frowned. "Though I think she'll be even more fine when Billy's more recovered."

Jason sat down and held his head in his hands, no longer listening. He couldn't help but imagine the scene in his head. The Green Ranger looming over Billy. Billy, for some reason, powerless to stop him. He wondered how the ribs had broken. He wondered if Billy had put up a fight. He had to have, unless the Green Ranger had threatened his mother or something.

He pictured himself running into the living room, just in time to save Billy. Those were the fantasies that made him the sickest.

A hand came across his shoulder, and Jason looked up. It was his mother, and he felt the sudden, childish urge to cling to her. He clenched his fists, restraining himself, and his mother gave him that look that said she knew exactly what was going on inside his head.

"You stay up here as long as you want," she said. "We won't get worried."

Jason stood up and hugged her, and she hugged him as tightly back. As she left, he realized she hadn't even mentioned the argument they'd had earlier. It didn't seem to matter all that much anymore.


 

Everything hurt.

Billy opened his eyes to see white walls, the depressing hospital white. Everything was blurry, but a few seconds groping produced his glasses on the table beside his bed. He was apparently sharing the room with someone, as a bed was right across from his, but his roommate was out for the time being.

A knock on the door. "Can we come in?"

Billy tried to scoot up in the bed, but he almost screamed in pain. Apparently, moving was not on the agenda. Instead, he said, "Yes, come in." His voice was rough, like someone else's voice.

Trini led the way in, holding some flowers. "Hey," she said quietly, uncertainly. Jason, Zack, and Kimberly peeked over her shoulder. They were very still, as if air currents would injure him or something.

Billy tried to smile, and he seemed to succeed because they moved easier as they walked in. Trini arranged the flowers beside his bed. "I thought these would cheer up the room."

"They do, I guess," Billy said. He had no idea what to say. For the first time in months, he wished his friends weren't there.

His discomfort was shared by all. They all fidgeted and stared… and then realized they were staring and pointedly didn't stare.

Billy laughed drily. "I… I'm fine, guys." He considered this. "Okay, I'm not fine, but I will recover."

"You almost died," Zack said. It sounded like he'd been holding that in forever.

"Zack," Trini said sharply.

Zack looked angry with himself. "Okay, I'm sorry, but it's all I've been thinking about. I… I just can't."

He sat in the chair under the TV on the wall, his face in his hands.

"I don't think he wanted to kill me," Billy said after a time. "Otherwise he would have. He had me cold. There wasn't anything I could do. He took my Power Morpher and everything…" Billy broke off. He realized he was trying to justify why he was there. Why he couldn't have protected himself, like all of them could have.

Kimberly walked over and put an arm around Zack. Her face was red and blotchy, and she looked like she couldn't even speak. Trini, though, sat on the edge of his bed. "Billy, it's not your fault. You were protecting your mother."

Billy felt a thrill of panic. "Did she overhear anything?"

"A little," Trini said. "No mention of you being a Ranger or anything. She did hear him threaten her, and then…" She broke off.

"Screams," Billy finished for her. His voice sounded dead in his own ears. The memory seemed far away, like not a part of himself.

"Billy, you did the only thing you could do," Jason broke in. His voice sounded rougher than usual. "You survived, and you protected your mom in the process. I mean… we've never faced an attack like that."

Billy tried to believe him. He imagined if the Green Ranger had gone to Jason's house. If he was in the exact same circumstance. Jason would have fought back. He would have discovered that the Green Ranger wasn't really morphed, and he would have fought, and gotten his morpher, and moved the fight outside away from his mother or father… Billy pictured the scenario very clearly in his mind. He could picture how each of them would have handled it. Kimberly would have stayed calm and maneuvered the Green Ranger to make a mistake, as he'd seen her do so many times. Trini would have attacked quicker than the Green Ranger could think, ending the fight quickly with a few well-chosen blows and evasions. Zack would have taken control of the conversation and flustered the Green Ranger until he attacked blindly, giving Zack the advantage.

Billy watched each fight in his head. Looking around, he knew the Green Ranger was right. He was the only helpless one of the group. He was the only one who needed rescue.

"If he didn't want to kill you," Jason said, and it was obvious he was forcing himself to talk, "then what was he after? I would have thought kidnapping or something would have been the better option. And why did he leave your Power Morpher?"

All eyes were on Billy. He shifted, and then regretted that instantly as his chest seized up in pain. He tried not to wince. "He… he began by saying he wanted to leave a message. Then it became clear that I was the message." He stared at the others, who were looking away. He wondered what sort of "message" they were deriving from him. He was painfully aware of his body, of his broken ribs and newly inflated lungs, of his bruises and swellings. He was aware of how he looked to them.

"All right," Trini broke in to the uncomfortable silence. "I think we need to let you rest. You need to focus your energy on recovering."

Zack got up swiftly and walked straight up to Billy. "I'm sorry I was useless here," he said, half-smiling. "I really wanted to come in and cheer you up… or something."

"With a torso full of broken ribs," Billy commented drily, "I don't think laughing is the order of the day. Besides…" He smiled for real this time. "You made me feel better anyway. You all did." He looked around at his friends, taking comfort in their nearness for the first time.

Kimberly came over to the other side of his bed. "I'm so sorry. I feel awful. I was right across the street the whole time, and I didn't even know…"

"Don't worry about it," Billy said firmly. "The Green Ranger was very careful. He made sure no one knew or could interfere."

Kimberly bent over a kissed him on the cheek. She tried to hug him, but she was afraid to, and Billy was a bit relieved when she gave up.

Trini grabbed Billy's hand. He felt metal being pushed into his palm, and he realized it was the familiar circlet of a communicator. "I stopped by your lab to get an extra," she said in a low voice. "I grabbed your morpher and what I could of your old communicator while I was calling 911. I tried to get up every bit," Trini bit her lip. "I mean, I didn't want the police thinking anything strange."

"Thank you," Billy said. He smiled. "There are bits of metal and circuits all over the carpet in the living room. They won't find anything amiss."

Trini smiled. "Just in case, I teleported up anything suspicious in the lab. I want you to promise to get in touch with us if you need us," she said. "I also have your Power Morpher with me, but I thought it might be a hassle to keep it hidden."

Billy smiled, trying to keep the bitter edge out of his voice. "It's not like I'll need it."

"I'll keep it safe for now," Trini said, though she frowned, and Billy wondered what signals she was getting from him. She always knew what he was thinking better than the others.

A sudden impulse took Billy, and he grabbed her hand as she was leaving. "I'm sorry," he said.

Trini's brow scrunched in confusion. "What for?"

Billy shook his head. "Nothing… never mind."

Trini looked like she wanted to pursue the question, but she seemed to think better of it. She followed Kimberly and Zack out, and looked pointedly at Jason.

"I'll catch up," Jason said. Trini gave him a severe look, but Jason didn't look perturbed. "I won't be long."

The three left, and Billy wished Jason was with them. He felt drained from the very act of "being fine."

"So…" Billy said slowly, trying to allay any line of questioning from Jason. "How did it go with your parents?"

"Pretty rough," Jason said, "though I think they're easing off now. Mom was there in the emergency room with you."

"Yes, I thought she was," Billy lied. He really couldn't remember the emergency room at all. It was just a blur of pain and panic.

Jason folded his arms and began pacing, obviously trying to stay in "leader" mode. Billy understood. What the Green Ranger had done to him had escalated the war. It was a move that had to be answered, and Billy understood Jason needed to force himself into cold-bloodedness. Billy shored up his emotions and prepared to answer anything Jason asked of him.

"I need to know exactly what the Green Ranger did… what he said… everything," Jason said, his face a mask.

Billy nodded once. Without looking at Jason, he told him everything he remembered. It wasn't difficult. Every word, every gesture… it was all burned into his brain. He could still hear the Green Ranger's mocking laughter as sure as if he were beside the hospital bed.

Billy occasionally glanced at Jason, who wasn't looking at him. He was expressionless, but his emotions centralized in his hands. Fists clenched and unclenched and clenched harder. He'd stopped pacing after a while. His face jumped at every insult and every blow. Billy began to feel his own anger empty into Jason, and he wasn't sure he wanted that, but he knew Jason had to hear… had to know.

"Oh, God," Jason said quietly, his voiced strained. And that expression of horror and grief was better than any wild railings Billy had feared. It summed up Billy's frame of mind.

"We're going to fight him, Billy," Jason said. "And if I haven't beaten him by the time you recover enough to fight again, I'll make sure you can pay him back, blow for blow. I know that's not what martial arts is all about. I know that goes against some sort of 'hero code' or something, but, dammit, it's right."

"Yeah," Billy said without spirit. "You'll get him back."

Jason shot a look at Billy. "Billy, what did you mean… what you said to Trini? About your Power Morpher."

Damn, Billy thought. He wouldn't just ignore that.

Billy smiled and tried to gesture around. "I am hardly in the condition to keep a Power Morpher. I'll have a hard enough time hiding the communicator."

"That's not what you meant and we both know it," Jason said. "You didn't say 'I don't need it right now.' You said 'It's not like I'll need it.' Future tense."

Billy glared at Jason. "What's your point?"

Jason raised his eyebrows, continuing to stare at Billy. "I just don't want to see you give up, that's all. The Green Ranger's not worth that. You've got to prove him wrong."

"Prove him wrong how?" Billy burst out. His chest ached more, but he didn't care. "Prove him that I'm not helpless? Prove to him that he can't attack me and put me in the hospital? Because it's a little late for that."

Jason was a little taken aback, but he stood his ground. "You need to prove to him that he can't scare you away…"

"You know what?" Billy said. "He can. Okay? I was scared, okay? I still am. You don't know." Billy's head started to pound. "He didn't attack you, or Trini, or Kimberly, or Zack. He attacked me. I'm a victim, remember?"

"You're not…"

"Save it," Billy interrupted Jason. "Save your pep talk. How exactly can I be a Power Ranger," he said the last few words in a whisper, "when I can't even protect myself? And he knew that, and that's why I was a target. So how can I bring the whole group down again by taking powers I don't even deserve? When I couldn't even use them when I needed them most?"

Jason's face clouded, and Billy could see both fury and grief warring in his eyes.

Billy sighed, exhausted after his burst of temper. "I… I'm not abandoning the group, okay? I'll still help as much as I can. Alpha still needs help with the Command Center, and once I'm recovered I can be Mr. Fix-it." He paused. "And I can fight if it's absolutely necessary. But it may be time to start looking for someone else to take my place. Someone… who can actually fight."

Billy laid his head back. It felt too heavy on his pillow, and he was a little dizzy. The dizziness passed, though, and he just felt extremely tired.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and Jason was there, his face now calm. "It was unfair of me to do that when you're so hurt," Jason said quietly. "And when I'm so angry at the Green Ranger. Get… get some rest. I'll be back tomorrow before the meeting."

Billy knew that Jason thought Billy was out of his mind with pain and painkillers. He knew that Jason wanted a little rest and recuperation to make everything better… to bring back the old Billy. And Billy let Jason believe that. He pretended to be more tired than he was, and murmured thanks, and said that he'd work to recover, that they'd keep fighting. Because it was easier like that, and it got Jason out of the room.

But Billy knew that he had changed. The Green Ranger had broken any illusions of safety he'd held, and Billy was grateful for the doctors and nurses. He slept, and woke, and was grateful for the reassuring presence of a sleeping roommate, and could sleep some more.

For he was scared. Zack was right. He had almost died. He knew enough about medicine to decode what the doctors said about him. He had escaped death, and he was scared of the Green Ranger, and what he could do to him. And he knew he would never morph again.


 

Trini walked silently beside Kimberly in the dark street. It was the center of town, and they cut across Main Street, the funky little shops all closed and dark. The only light and sound other than the street lamps was a popular family restaurant, and people were gathered outside waiting for tables. Kim and Trini winded their way through the laughing couples blocking the sidewalk.

"He's going to be all right," Trini said. "It'll take time to recover, but there could be something we could do at the Command Center. Some sort of alien medical technology we could adapt… or something."

"Yeah," Kimberly said. "I mean, Zordon would have had to have planned for this."

The silence grew thicker as they turned down a darker street. Trini suddenly wished they'd been able to teleport directly there. For the past few months she'd been able to face the lonely dark with confidence—after all, she fought space aliens on a regular basis—but now, after Billy's attack… Kimberly was hugging herself, glancing nervously into alleyways, and Trini knew she was thinking the same thing.

"I'll start working on the teleporter tonight," Trini said. "This is ridiculous not being able to teleport anywhere we want."

They came within sight of the Youth Center finally. Muffled music filled the silence of the night, and a small group of older teens were laughing and sneaking back behind the building, probably to smoke. It was all warm and familiar…

"I shouldn't be doing this," Kimberly said. "I mean…"

Trini understood. Kimberly had talked obsessively about having fun while Billy got attacked. "We need to go," Trini said. "Tommy will think you stood him up. Besides, he needs to know about Billy. Believe me, once he finds out, he's not going to want to stay, either. We'll just be in and out."

"I guess you're right," Kimberly gave a weak smile. The two of them walked to the light and sound of the party.

Kimberly stopped, though, at the bathroom, going into a panic about the state of her makeup. Trini smiled and waited outside. She was glad to see this glimpse of the old Kimberly. She'd been far too quiet and jittery.

"Psst!" she heard a voice from around the corner. "Hey… Trini!"

Trini turned, wondering who would say "psst" anyway. Skull was there, hiding in the doorway of a supply closet, and motioning her over. Trini was intrigued. It was entirely possible he wanted to hit on her, but he usually reserved that for Kimberly. She walked over, thinking Kimberly would be at least another ten minutes, from the state of her mascara.

"Trini… Kimberly's with you, right?" Skull asked, still in a whisper.

"Yes, she's in the bathroom," she said, ready to rebuff another one of his attempts to get her on his side. He'd tried a few times to enlist her help in getting Kimberly to date him. Trini was a little more polite in shutting Skull down, but she did it just as firmly as Kimberly.

Skull's eyes widened, and Trini noticed for the first time that he had a black eye. "You need to get her out of here. Don't let her go into the party," Skull said.

Trini stared at Skull, waiting for the other shoe to drop. For him to laugh, or offer to escort them both to the "submarine races"… whatever the hell those were. But his face remained sober, with a strain of frustrated anger directed at who knew what.

"What's going on, Skull?" Trini said, whispering without knowing why. "Why aren't you in there with Bulk? I heard he made the winning tackle… He's the hero of the party."

Skull grimaced. "Yeah… I was in there, and it was awesome, and you totally should have seen the game. I mean, Bulky took down the other team's star quarterback, and…"

Trini cleared her throat.

"Oh, yeah. Anyway, I was in there, but then I heard him talking." Skull looked toward the party, and his eyes grew murderous.

"By him, you mean…" Trini prompted.

"That new kid, Tommy." Skull spat the name out, like an insult. "You know, the one who's been hanging out with you guys."

Trini nodded, seeds of fear bubbling up in her. Though, she reasoned, it could have been Skull blowing things out of proportion. "What was he saying?" she asked.

Skull turned his serious eyes to her. "Trini… not anything good. Not anything I would repeat. He was calling her…" He gulped. "The word 'slut' was the nicest word, I guess."

Trini held her breath. No…

"But…" she stammered. "It couldn't have been… Are you sure, Skull?"

Skull looked at her furiously. "Why do you think I have this black eye? He hit me when I tried to defend her. Called me a geek with a crush. Well, okay, so I am… except for the geek part… but you should have heard him, Trini. He was spreading all around the party that Kimberly jumped him just this morning. Practically had sex right on top of him. That she begged him…" Skull spat out the words with as much vehemence as he had Tommy's name.

Trini gaped in horror. Skull may do a lot of stupid things, but lie about this when she could find out the truth so easily? "But…" she started again. "I mean, he invited her here tonight. He knows she's coming."

Skull's eyes widened in shock. "Um… he's here with another girl. And they're sort of all over each other."

Trini's heart pounded. Part of her wanted to run right in and confront Tommy, and part of her just wanted to get Kimberly out as quickly and quietly as possible.

Skull's expression changed to horror as he looked over Trini's shoulder. Trini turned and saw Kimberly walk right into the party. She obviously hadn't seen Trini in the shadows and thought she'd gone in.

"Go on, go on!" Skull said in a panic. "Get her out before…"

Trini didn't wait. She ran to the doorway, but a group of seniors were just leaving. She made herself as small as possible and squeezed through the crowd, apologizing as she trod on feet in her haste. But it was like walking against the ocean, and it took several minutes for Trini to spot Kimberly on the other side of the room.

The scene played out in the flashes Trini could make out as she inched forward between the mass of dancing, talking people. Kimberly had walked up to Tommy and was talking to him, and Trini could make out the word 'Billy' on her lips. Tommy looked startled and concerned, saying things that Trini couldn't make out. And then… a beautiful girl approached with drinks and pulled Tommy into a passionate kiss. Tommy answered in turn, and Kimberly could only gape in horror. "What?" Trini could hear Kimberly say distinctly.

The rest of the party was starting to stare at them, and Trini had to practically shove people aside just to get to Kimberly. She still couldn't quite hear what they were saying yet. Kimberly had pulled Tommy away from the other woman and seemed to be demanding what was going on. Tommy looked incredulous and confused.

"What did you think… we were married or something?" Tommy's voice finally reached Trini's ears.

"What… how…?" Kimberly spluttered. "What are you doing? What about this afternoon?" she practically screamed. A few people snickered, and Trini had to fight to keep moving ahead instead of finding those people and hitting them.

Tommy finally detached himself from the girl and got closer to Kimberly. He reached out to caress her hair, and she slapped his hand away, eliciting general gasps. He looked at her like she was crazy. "Come on… Kim, you're a good time, but aren't you taking this a little too seriously? After all, I'm sure with your skills you'll have no trouble hooking another guy." He leered at her, letting her know exactly what he meant. The other girl laughed mockingly and draped herself over Tommy, who smirked.

This was too much for Kimberly. She turned and stormed off. This time, only Tommy and his girl laughed. There was a feeling in the air that Tommy had gone way too far with that last one.

Trini finally broke through the crowd. Kimberly had already gone out behind the bar, and Trini was about to follow her, but she stopped in front of Tommy. He looked at her with those damned laughing eyes, and she felt like ripping them out.

"You…" she said in cold fury, in a voice that carried through the whole room. "You stay the HELL away from Kimberly. Stay away from all of us!"

Tommy held his hands up. "Look, I'm sorry it happened this way, and we're all upset about Billy. But I can't help it if Kim's a psycho or whatever…"

Trini didn't fully register what happened. The next thing she knew she'd backhanded him across the face. He glared at her. She prepared for a fight. The air was tense… but then he merely licked at the cut on his lip and laughed. "I see the geek isn't her only defender, then."

"No, they aren't," a voice came from behind Trini. Ernie was pushing people out of the way, his face red with fury. "And you and your friend have been causing enough trouble tonight, Tommy. So why don't you find your way out of here?" Ernie pointed to the door, a path cleared in the crowd as people avoided Ernie's ire.

Tommy glared defiantly at the juice bar owner, and Trini began to worry about the violence she always sensed in Tommy. But Tommy merely grinned mockingly at Ernie. "Come on, Sabrina…" Tommy said, putting an arm around the woman, who was still glaring at Trini. "This party's dead anyway."

Tommy and the girl Sabrina walked out. Trini considered rushing after them, but finding Kimberly was more important than starting a pointless fight.

"Come on, Trini… Kim's in my office," Ernie muttered to her. He turned to the crowd. "All right, show's over. And if anyone causes any more trouble, they're out of here, too."

Someone started the music back up, and everyone made a brave attempt at starting the party back up again. Ernie paid them no mind; he guided Trini past the bar into the kitchen/storage area of the juice bar. Ernie's office was tiny and filled with ledgers and cardboard boxes. Kimberly sat in a chair, slumped over on the desk.

"You girls stay here as long as you want," Ernie said. "There's a back door down that hallway that opens from the inside and automatically locks."

"Thank you, Ernie," Trini said softly.

Ernie's face turned red again. "I just got wind of what that…" he stopped, obviously wanting to say a word he couldn't say in front of kids. "What he was saying and doing. No one does that in my bar, and especially not to Kimberly."

Trini gave Ernie a quick hug before he left. She approached the office. Kimberly's body was shaking, but there was no sound.

Kimberly looked up suddenly, the newly applied mascara staining lines of black down her face. "I… guess you deserve to say 'I told you so,'" she croaked out, fresh tears spilling down her face.

Trini felt tears spill over her own eyes and pulled Kimberly into a fierce hug. Kimberly sobbed and clutched to Trini tighter.

"I… I can't be… believe," Kimberly said between sobs.

"I know," Trini said. She pulled away, dived for her purse, and grabbed out a tissue. She began dabbing at Kimberly's eyes, wiping away the mascara streaks.

They held each other for a while longer. No one came to disturb them. Neither of them talked much. There was nothing to say. Trini just held Kimberly together, waiting for the moment that the shock and embarrassment went away and the anger connected, as Trini knew it would.


 

Scorpina and Tommy teleported straight to his uncle's summer home in a burst of golden fire, gasping in laughter.

"Damn…" Scorpina said, wiping her eyes. "The look on her face… and that other girl…"

Tommy grinned. "That oughta shake them up, don't you think?"

Scorpina pulled up a chair at the kitchen table. "You know, I'm liking you more and more. I can't wait until we're on the battlefield again."

"It's high time we attacked again anyway… wait a minute," Tommy frowned. "Why didn't you teleport us to the Moon Palace?"

Scorpina bit her lip. "You need to stay away from the Moon Palace tonight. It was a great trick, and there are absolutely no feelings between us, but Goldar…"

"Ah," Tommy said. "I understand. While you're here, want something to drink?"

Scorpina leaned back in her chair. "I suppose I need to hydrate if I'm going to pacify Goldar tonight."

Tommy put some water on to boil for some hot chocolate. Scorpina had discovered chocolate cake at the party, and she had expressed interest in exploring the whole realm of chocolate. Tommy didn't blame her, and he searched for mini marshmallows.

"Ugh… I can't wait to get back in my armor," Scorpina said. "I feel naked without it."

Tommy glanced over at her. The red dress taken from a shop for that very night hugged her in all the right places, showing off soft curves usually contained behind armor. "I can see why," he said with a smirk.

Scorpina raised an eyebrow and smirked back. "Look, you're a good kisser, and I would totally go for it, but I'd rather Goldar not kill you. You're too nice a kid for that."

"Point taken," Tommy said, and he moved his attention back to the cocoa. It had been difficult enough to convince Goldar to go along with the plan, and Scorpina had put her foot down about them not being exclusive, but Tommy still expected to pay for making out with Goldar's girl.

The cocoa was served, and Scorpina drank in sensuous delight. "It's a crime," she purred, "that chocolate is confined to this very tiny planet."

"We'll have to remedy that," Tommy said in amusement.

They chatted pleasantly, mostly laughing over the details of the "attack" earlier. Scorpina was obviously enjoying this psychological warfare… she said she usually just did the physical type warfare. Tommy couldn't help but admire her. She was beautiful, funny, and had a psychotic love of violence that Tommy found appealing. But she could still laugh easily… and she was damn sexy. So different from Kimberly, and Tommy wondered briefly why he was comparing the two.

There was a knock on the door, and Tommy looked up, startled.

"Isn't it a bit late for visits?" Scorpina commented.

Tommy hushed her up and motioned her to go upstairs. She looked a little put out, but she left anyway. He quickly put away her drained cup and, wary, answered the door.

Jason was standing on his stoop, looking upset. Tommy wondered if Kimberly had already gone running to her "big brother."

"What's up?" Tommy asked with increased caution.

"I'm so sorry for coming so late… this is becoming a bad habit," Jason said, and Tommy knew this had nothing to do with Kimberly.

"Come on in," Tommy said. Jason went to the chair Scorpina had just vacated, and Tommy, his sense of irony on full, prepared a cup of cocoa for Jason.

"I just wanted to let you know…" Jason said, "that Billy was attacked today. He's in the hospital."

"Oh, God, no," Tommy said, putting the proper amount of horror into his voice. He made a show of nearly dropping the cocoa. "What… what happened?"

Jason looked down, looking utterly exhausted. "He's recovering… He has a minor concussion and three fractured ribs… that's the worst of it. It was touch and go there for a while, but he pulled through." Jason paused and looked up. "His mom said that an evil Power Ranger did it. The police are still investigating."

Tommy hid his smirk behind a look of surprise. "A… Power Ranger? But… why?"

Jason shrugged. "Random attack, I guess. It's been known to happen." Jason glossed over the question easily. "I… I know you and Billy were hanging out a lot… with tutoring and stuff, and I knew you'd want to know…"

Tommy sat down heavily, schooling his face into guilt and grief. "God… it's my fault…"

Jason looked up sharply, and Tommy dangled the clue in front of him before pulling it away. "I… I shouldn't even be telling you this. I promised Billy…"

"What is it?" Jason said. "Do you know something?"

Tommy shook his head miserably. "Nothing about the attack or anything… but if I hadn't told him that stuff…"

"What? What is it?" Jason said, panic clearly showing on his face.

Tommy sighed. "Okay… don't tell Billy I'm telling you this, because I did promise not to tell you guys, but… I was sort of giving him lessons in dealing with bullies," Tommy said in a rush.

Jason's face clouded in confusion. "Bullies? Since when does Billy have problems with bullies?"

Tommy looked as Jason, acting reluctant in this tale. "Well… Billy didn't want to say anything to you… especially you… but Bulk and Skull have been quietly extorting money from him all year."

Jason looked furious. "But… but…" he spluttered. "I mean, why didn't Billy want to tell me?"

Tommy shrugged. "He… sort of said he was tired of you guys always rescuing him. That you never let him just take care of things himself."

The sentence blindsided Jason, and he looked stunned. Tommy kept his serious face on, glorying in the opportunity Jason had presented him tonight. He'd been prepared to pack it in for the night and maybe get a little studying done. He hadn't expected to further his plan like this.

"Anyway," Tommy continued in Jason's stunned silence. "In exchange for him helping me with math, I've been giving him lessons in dealing with bullies. You know… just common sense stuff. Mostly working on his confidence." Tommy's face crumpled. "But… if he used it on someone really dangerous… I mean, if I hadn't been teaching him that stuff, he might have gotten out of it without a trip to the hospital."

"It's not your fault,' Jason said, partially recovering. "That Green Ranger was there to attack him, and the bastard was threatening his mother. There was nothing Billy could do."

Tommy put on a face of miserable relief. "You… you won't tell Billy I said this. It was just… I was really worried…"

"It's okay," Jason said, and he was obviously a bit put off by Billy, and what Tommy said Billy had said. "Listen… I gotta go. I just wanted to let you know."

Tommy got up as Jason did. "I'll go visit him in the morning. What's his number?"

"He's in room 3102," Jason said, edging out of the doorway. "I may see you there tomorrow?"

"Yeah, sure," Tommy said, though he knew he was going to visit Billy before any of them could get to him. His time on the Ranger's friendly terms was growing more and more limited.

Jason left, and Tommy trudged up to his room. He was absolutely exhausted. He was unsurprised and grateful to see that Scorpina had already teleported away. He pulled out his math book, telling himself to get some studying done. Tomorrow looked like a busy day as well, and he still had the test to deal with. That was one thing Tommy regretted, he mused. Without Billy, he'd lose the help in math.

By 2:00, he'd already put the notes away and had been lying quietly for an hour without a hint of sleep. He finally gave up and teleported to his room at the Moon Palace. He shut and locked the door, took the rest of the bottle of sleeping potion, and barely made it to the bed before passing out.

 

Chapter Text

A nurse woke Billy up in the middle of the night, wanting to check on him. Billy's mind howled in frustration. He had just gotten to sleep, it seemed. Did she have to check his blood pressure right then? Now the pain would keep him awake, he thought furiously as the nurse left.

"Yeah, they tend to do that," a voice from the other bed chuckled.

Billy grabbed his glasses from the bedside table to see a man with graying hair occupying the bed across from him.

"Why did they have to wake me up?" Billy asked in tight frustration.

"Oh, it's a part of their job description," the man said good-humoredly. "It's like waiters… they always wait until you take a huge bite of food to ask if they can get you anything." The man chuckled at his joke, and Billy couldn't help join in.

Billy closed his eyes and found it actually surprising to go to sleep again.

He slept for a few more hours, and then his headache came back and he couldn't sleep anymore. He kept his glasses off and eyes closed, not wanting to focus on anything. He wondered when he would experience a moment of not hurting.

There was a sense of someone using a telephone. "Listen…" the voice of his roommate said quietly, "I know you're probably not going to answer… I just had to try. So here's me. Trying."

The click of a receiver, and Billy stayed quiet for a few more minutes, long enough to seem asleep and not an eavesdropper.

"They're going to bring breakfast in any time now… So you'll want to stop pretending to sleep," his roommate's more cheerful voice sounded.

Chagrined, Billy pulled himself up higher in bed, finding it easier this morning. While his headache hadn't altogether gone away, the ache in his chest had eased enough to where he could move. "How could you tell?"

The other shrugged. "It's easy… breathing is less steady and deep… and there's just a sense of being awake." He grinned. "Okay, I get really bored in hospitals after a while. You learn to make your own fun."

Billy nodded, and then winced as his head gave a more decided throb.

"Don't worry," the man said pleasantly. "Pills are coming soon, too."

"Oh, goody," Billy said weakly through his increased headache.

"So… what are you in for?" the man asked. "Looks like someone used you as a punching bag."

Billy winced at the wording. "You're… actually quite accurate," he said.

"Oh, God, I'm sorry," his roommate said. "Was it a mugger?"

"An evil Power Ranger."

"That would have been my second guess," the man said in complete deadpan. "Well…" he said with a renewed smile. "Well, we'll just keep each other company for now. I'll be here for another week and a half, anyway."

"What are you in for?" Billy aped the question bravely.

"MS," the man said matter-of-factly.

"Sorry."

The man waved a hand. "Don't be. I just had a bad attack when we moved here, and I'm recovering."

That sounded familiar, but Billy couldn't figure out why.

"By the way," he said, "my name's Billy Cranston."

The other man nodded. "John Oliver, at your service… at least, what little service I can do," he ended in self-deprecating humor.

Oliver…

"You…" Billy began, "you wouldn't happen to have a son named Tommy, would you?"

John seemed to pale, all his previous humor gone. "You know Tommy?" he asked. His whole body seemed to tense, and Billy could for the first time truly see the illness behind the kind face.

Billy frowned. "Yeah… we go to school together, of course. I've actually been tutoring him in math."

Billy couldn't tell what emotions were playing across the man's face. He had no frame of reference. "So…" John said slowly, "he's going to school, then. I thought…"

A knock, and the door opened slowly. Billy smiled as Tommy walked in, looking strained and worried. "Hey, Billy, Jason told me what happened last night, so I just came by to see you." Tommy was all smiles, and didn't even seem to notice his father.

"I'm glad he told you," Billy said. "Before it got all over school, you know?"

"Tommy…" a hoarse whisper came from the corner.

Tommy froze, looking quite as pale as his father. Again, Billy was witness to an amalgam of emotions he didn't understand play across Tommy's face. Tommy's fists clenched convulsively.

"Tommy, where have you been?" John's voice was one of quiet desperation. He seemed to be straining to talk. "They changed my room, and I've been leaving you messages on that damned answering machine, and…"

"I gotta go," Tommy said in a panicked voice. He hadn't even turned around, and he was heading out the door.

"Tommy! Wait!" John Oliver shouted, and Billy had never heard a more horrible sound. It stopped Tommy dead in his tracks, and he turned around to face his father.

"Please…" John said.

Tommy stood, seemingly transfixed. His eyes were wide in panic and…something else Billy couldn't identify. Billy could only see Tommy in profile now, half his face in shadow. Tommy seemed to be warring within himself.

The panic and indefinable emotions turned to anger, and Tommy looked almost feral. "You're better off without me!"

He ran, and there was a crash outside as Tommy apparently collided with a breakfast tray. He ran from the angry voices, though, leaving Billy and his father behind.

"Mr. Oliver…" Billy began cautiously, still looking at where Tommy had just left.

A strangled sound came from the other side of the room, and to Billy's horror John was convulsing. Billy reached for the nurse call button, but John held up his hand.

"It's okay," he said breathlessly. "It was just a minor one. Nothing to worry about… it's over now."

"Are you sure?" Billy asked, hand still hovering over the call button.

John gave a pained smile. "I think… I think I'll rest now." With a quick motion Billy wasn't expecting, John closed the curtain and cut himself off from view.

All Billy could do wonder why Tommy had treated him that way. As far as Billy knew, Tommy was his father's caretaker. But he hadn't even known his father's hospital room number?


 

Tommy teleported to his room in the Moon Palace, ran to the bathroom, and threw up all of breakfast and most of the party food from the night before.

He's better off without me. He's better off without me better off without me better off without me…

The mantra screamed in his head. Once he'd emptied his stomach and was left only with dry heaving, Tommy left the bathroom and jammed a Nirvana tape in his boombox. He turned the volume all the way up.

I don't care, I don't care, I don't care,

I don't care, I don't care, care if it's old.

I don't mind, I don't mind, I don't mind,

I don't mind, mind, don't have a mind.

He threw himself on his bed, closed his eyes, and forced his mind to Empress Rita.

Get away, get away, get away

Get away, away, away from your home

I'm afraid, I'm afraid, I'm afraid,

I'm afraid, afraid, ghost!

And, eventually, he stopped hearing his father's voice… stopped seeing the layers of grief and hurt on his father's face…


 

She'd gone home that night, avoiding all contact with her parents and trying to convince Trini that she would be fine. Trini, though, insisted on coming in with her and spending most of the night. They hadn't talked much, though. There didn't seem to be much to say. Trini was gone before she woke up, leaving a note that she had gone to the Command Center to start on a few important projects.

Kimberly woke up early for a Sunday morning, before even her mother and stepfather had stirred any. She got ready quietly and helped herself to coffee and a bagel, layering on the cream cheese double and triple. She didn't usually eat anything that unhealthy in the morning, but she felt she deserved it somehow, though she didn't know why.

A knock on the kitchen door, and Kimberly was suddenly in panic mode. Early visits usually meant only one thing: emergencies. Was it Billy? Zordon? Another attack? The communicators weren't working for some reason?

"Hey, babe." Skull was at the back door, smacking gum and leaning casually against the doorframe. He was holding flowers.

Kimberly crossed her arms, frustrated that her lonely moping had been interrupted. "I told you not to come here anymore, and never to call me 'babe,' and never to bring me any more flowers."

Skull shrugged. "I musta forgot."

Kimberly's anger flared higher. "Come to pity the dumped?" she asked roughly.

"Actually, yeah," Skull said. "Only, you know, I was going to say 'sympathize' or something like that."

Kimberly sighed. "How do you take your coffee?" she asked wearily.

"Five sugars," he said absently, not realizing what she was getting at.

Kimberly crossed her arms. "You wait out here… My mom would kill me if she saw a boy in the house this early. I'll be right out."

Kimberly caught a shocked look of delight on the boy's face as she took the flowers and closed the door. She shoved the flowers in an empty vase. They were nice… daisies. They made her feel Skull's intentions weren't crassly romantic this time. She gathered her own coffee cup and grimaced as she added the sugar to another, nearly gagging at the thought of the sweet concoction. She took the coffee outside. Skull was sitting on the swing set her brother had outgrown a couple years back. Kimberly took the swing beside him and handed him the cup.

"You drink coffee?" he commented.

"Sometimes," she said.

They stayed silent for several minutes. Kimberly realized she was starting to feel a little better… certainly a little less dead than when she got up that morning. The thing was… Kimberly felt she could be miserable around Skull without apologizing. She felt too much pressure to get better around Trini… and she knew it would be the same around her other friends.

"So you saw what happened last night," Kimberly said, wanting to break the silence a bit.

"Yeah," Skull said bitterly. He was glaring at the ground. "He had no right…" He sounded like he couldn't go on.

Kimberly put her coffee cup down and started swinging lazily. "Did he meet that girl… Sabrina… there?" she asked slowly.

"No, she came with him. I thought it was weird, since he'd been hanging out with you, but…"

Kimberly launched herself out of the swing and started pacing. Skull stopped and stared at her, and she was just trying to keep the sudden rage in check. "Um…" she said in a strangled voice, wanting to change the topic. "How did you get the black eye?"

Skull looked a little afraid at the sudden questions. "Um… well… he pissed me off, so I called him on what he was saying about you, and…"

"He hit you? This is Tommy, right?" Kimberly shrieked.

"I think the term is 'decked,' but yeah," Skull said quietly. "I mean, the things he was saying…"

Kimberly sat down, feeling pale and drained. "Wh-what was he saying?"

Skull suddenly got angry. "Garbage. Nothing anyone in a million years would believe," he said hotly. He made a face, as if the mere memory of the night before made him sick. "And there he was, with skank-o-rama, and he has the nerve…"

Kimberly recalled last night, the older girl draping herself all over Tommy, his leering of her, the covert looks and sudden hushes she'd barely noticed when she had walked in the party…

"It was a set-up," she said quietly. "I… I had a date with him that night, and it was all a set-up. He'd probably been planning it since that morning, maybe all week."

She saw Skull out of the corner of her eye. He was reaching for her awkwardly, as if wanting to physically comfort her in some way. She made no moves, wondering what he would do next. He let his hand drop, though, and seemed to sink into himself.

"I treat you so horribly, Skull," she said. "I thought I was in love with Tommy, and…" Her voice broken. "I mean, I probably treat you just like Tommy treated me."

"No, you don't," Skull said firmly. He seemed to smile. "Alright, I have called you a few bad names in my head… especially after you make a date and then break it for no reason, or laugh at me with your friends, but I take it on myself. I know you're not interested in me."

"So why do you keep trying?" Kimberly asked.

"Because love equals stupid," Skull said immediately. "Always has. I love you, you know that, you've rejected me… lots and lots of times… and I still can't help but try. I'm just stupid that way."

Kimberly started laughing, a laugh that felt painful after crying so much. And it felt wonderful. Skull joined in, and Kimberly didn't even mind his high-pitched jarring laugh.

They stayed there for several more minutes, their coffee long drunk, the dregs stone cold. Kimberly knew she had to break out of this lack of inertia. She had too much to do: helping at the Command Center, visiting Billy… And she didn't want to give Skull any false hope. Already she felt guilty for using him like this

"I gotta go," she said finally. Kimberly considered. Bulk and Skull had fairly tortured Billy all their lives, so she wasn't sure how Skull would react. But it would get around school anyway, and they would find out. Everything got around school eventually, Kimberly mused bitterly. "I have to get to the hospital…"

"Yeah, I saw," Skull mumbled, clearly uncomfortable. Then he frowned. "Billy's attack was in the paper."

"What?"

"In the paper this morning… my dad was saying," Skull said, clearly trying to defer any idea that he read the paper in the mornings for some reason. "They said Billy was attacked by an evil Power Ranger or something…"

Kimberly ran to the front of the house, leaving the coffee cups and Skull behind, to get the Sunday paper. On the front was a bright, flashy picture of the MegaZord falling. It must have been a lucky shot, because she could distinctly see the pink of her own costume as she'd been thrown from the MegaZord. Zack was right beneath her… she could only see his leg on the bottom of the picture. Jason's red costume was near the top of the picture as he fell. The whole front page was captioned, "Power Rangers Defeated?"

"Yeah, okay, so I read the article," Skull's voice came from behind her. "But can ya blame me? I mean, that's some pretty scary stuff."

Kimberly called for all her strength just to keep her voice calm. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, it is." She forced her eyes from the page. "I guess I should show this to Billy if he's mentioned."

Skull nodded. "I should go anyway." He stalked off, shoving his hands in his trench coat. He stopped, though, turning back with a characteristic smile. "Just to make it clear… there's still no chance between us?" He waggled his eyebrows.

Kimberly smiled, finding comfort in the familiar. "None whatsoever."

Skull shrugged. "Had to ask." He walked away, not looking in the least downcast.

Kimberly ran to the back yard, gathered the coffee cups, and ran in the house so she could spread the newspaper on the kitchen table. Her mom and stepdad were in the kitchen.

"Was that Eugene I saw out there?" Kimberly's mother said absently. "I'm surprised you didn't chase him off."

Kimberly shrugged. "He's harmless… and he got me flowers."

"Huh…" her mother said. "I thought those would have come from Tommy."

Kimberly opened her mouth, and then closed it. She usually shared the important boy-related things with her mom, but while it had felt easy and natural to talk to Skull about it, she found she just couldn't form the words for her mother. "We're… not really that serious."

"Just tell me if that 'Skull' character harasses you," her stepdad said, ruffling her hair as he took his coffee cup to the table. "I've chased him off once, and I can do it again."

Kimberly couldn't help but smile. "I don't think it'll come to that."

"Kim, I see you've already eaten, so I won't waste my time in offering," her mom said in good humor, pulling out a carton from the fridge. "Frank, you want eggs?"

"I'd love some. Oh, good, you got the paper," her stepdad said, reaching for it.

Kimberly kept her hands on the paper, though. "Um… Frank, can I read it first? I won't be long."

Frank's eyes knitted together. "Sure, but you never read the paper."

"There's an article I'm interested in," Kimberly said truthfully.

Kimberly usually liked Sunday mornings with her mom and Frank, as they usually had the time alone since her brother wouldn't wake until noon. But today Kimberly sort of wished they would go away so she could concentrate.

The article made her sick to her stomach. Along with the lurid photo glaring at her from the front page, the article opened with a rather sketchy description of the MegaZord fight with Scorpina on Friday. Apparently there were a few witnesses hiding in the bushes near the fight with Goldar, Scorpina, and the Green Ranger, so there was a fairly accurate section on that fight. And then, mentioned in the lead and rounding out the article, Billy's attack was framed as an indication that the Power Rangers were unable or possibly even unwilling to protect Angel Grove any longer.

Kimberly thought about their other press clippings, which they all collected without really acknowledging the fact to each other. She thought of the sunny, congratulatory news stories on TV, always optimistic and grateful for the Power Rangers. And it took one loss—not even a complete loss, as they were still alive—and one attack to plummet people's confidence. She also burned with rage at the irresponsibility of the newspaper. Wouldn't people fly into a panic now?

Kimberly, in complete disgust, said a hasty goodbye to her parents and jogged down the street far enough away to teleport without being noticed.


 

Billy scowled at the newspaper his mother had tried to hide from him. Other than the fact that it was filled with complete speculation, from its headline to its last sentence, the writer had been kind enough to include more detail about him than he would have preferred. He didn't like being singled out, and already half his class had shown up for very awkward visits, even cutting into the visits from his actual friends, so they couldn't speak the least bit candidly as they could have, since Mr. Oliver was still asleep. Billy supposed he was touched in a way—people he barely knew or at some point in his life had outright hated had come to see how he was doing. Yet the very circumstance just made him want to hide from everyone. If it was a car wreck, it would be another thing. The fact he was attacked by the now infamous "evil Green Ranger" made him more of a curiosity than anything.

"You finished with that?" a weak voice came from the other side of the room.

Billy perked up. "Mr. Oliver… you're awake!"

John chuckled and waved a hand. "Sorry to do that to you. I know my fits are scary to people who aren't used to them… or even to those who are, when it comes to that."

"I was worried about you," Billy said, folding up the paper. "I'm glad you're…" He wanted to say "alright," but that didn't seem to be fitting. Instead, he lobbed the paper over to his roommate in an easy throw, hitting right at John's side.

John Oliver shook the paper open and began to read. The vitality of that morning, though, was gone. Billy was struck by the pronounced effect Tommy's "visit" had made on the man. And, again, he was puzzled. Tommy had only ever spoken in glowing terms of his dad; he seemed to save all his anger for his mother. But here he was, pointedly avoiding his father. And what had he said? He was better off without him?

"Mr. Oliver?"

"Call me John."

Billy cleared his throat. "Um… John," he said awkwardly. He wasn't used to calling adults by their first names. "What… what…"

"What was that all about?" John said, putting down the paper wearily. It looked like he could barely hold the paper up… which was probably true. He sighed. "Are you close friends with Tommy? I mean, there's been a lot of people come up…"

Billy waved his hand. "I'm not that popular… My attack was in the paper, so people…"

"Came up to gawk," John said.

Billy grinned. "I wasn't going to say that. But… yes, Tommy and I are pretty good friends. I've been helping him with his math, and he's…" Billy clammed up, remembering he didn't want to share the nature of what Tommy had been teaching him.

John turned a tortured gaze to him. "I haven't seen him for a week. Since Friday last."

Billy tried to hide the shock. He rather felt like hitting Tommy. From what Billy knew and what he had seen, Mr. Oliver was slowly dying. He couldn't believe that Tommy wasn't spending as much time as he could with him when Billy himself would give just about anything for one more day with his own father.

"Has he ever…" Billy began to ask.

"No," Mr. Oliver said emphatically. His face screwed up in frustration, paper lying across his chest, forgotten. "He's never ignored me like this. He comes to see me every day, usually. Or he calls." He began to ball up the paper in frustration. "I mean, he once ran away from his mother and hitchhiked across two states to be with me. Even when he was at his worst, he would come. He'd smell like booze and smoke, and he'd be angry most of the time, but he'd come."

John now seemed to be mostly talking to himself. "But now… I haven't seen him. I try to call him, but he never picks up. He's never at home. I keep leaving messages… and some of those messages I now wish I could erase… but he never calls back. And now the machine's full, and…"

John broke off. Billy stared at him in amazement. This was so far from the Tommy he knew…

"I don't know," John continued, even softer. "It's like he's completely changed. When I saw him this morning, it was like he was a different person."

A nurse walked in, and John seemed to force a grin on his face. "Ah," he said, "time for therapy. A few days and they'll be whisking you off, too."

The nurse helped him into his wheelchair, and they were gone.

A completely different person

Billy frowned, and pondered.


 

Jason trod up the stairs to the fourth floor, disdaining the inactivity of taking the overcrowded elevators.

He'd woken up around 4:00 in the morning and decided there was no way in hell he was getting back to sleep. He'd showered, dressed, and met his mother coming home from a night shift. She was falling asleep in her cereal, and she'd sleepily given her permission for him to go out for a run.

He'd fully intended to teleport up to the Command Center, but the idea of a run, at first simply an alibi, suddenly sounded wonderful. So he ran. And ran some more. He spent most of the morning running until he got to the hospital, where he spent an hour in the park right outside, under a tree, cooling off and thinking.

The run had benefitted him. It cleared his mind… let him think. He had something he wanted to do, something that he felt he had to do, and he knew that the other Rangers wouldn't like it. They would fiercely object, but he'd made up his mind. So he'd spent the entire morning planning and deciding exactly what he was going to tell them. And he'd decided he would try it out on Billy first.

Billy was alone, staring out the window at the very park Jason had just been in. The view did not include the tree Jason had been resting under, so Billy wouldn't think he was avoiding him or anything.

"Are you about to go to the meeting?" Billy asked quietly.

Jason shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah."

Billy sighed. "I know what you plan to do," he said. "And I am not sure it is wise."

Jason folded his arms, unconsciously putting up defenses. "And what am I planning on doing?"

Billy turned his head back to stare out the window. "You're going to do what you've mentioned in practically every other meeting… and Zordon never lets you."

The coded language reminded Jason that they could, at any time, be under Rita's surveillance. It was a constant worry, and why they usually only strategized in the Command Center. Even Billy's lab didn't have proper defenses, and they had never been able to find a feasible defense against her watching them any time she wanted.

"It's dangerous," Billy said, still looking out the window. "There's a reason Zordon never let you… but it may be the only way," he ended in a resigned tone.

"It's not an attack," Jason said.

"Just make sure you're not doing it in retribution… for me," Billy said.

Unexpectedly, Jason's temper flared up. "Well… I wouldn't want to interfere with you, now would I?" The bitterness in his voice surprised even him.

It surprised Billy too, shaking him out of his seeming complacency. "What's… that supposed to mean?"

Jason shook his head roughly, trying to shake away the thing that had been stewing in his head all right and all morning. "Nothing. Have you had many visitors?"

Billy still had a worried look. "Um… Trini, Zack, and Kimberly each took turns, and then about half the school. The newspaper article assured that, of course. You've seen the paper?"

Jason nodded once, already having vented his frustrations over the article and rather embarrassing photo by running even harder.

Billy frowned. "Um… Tommy came this morning…"

"Yeah," Jason cut him off. "I went to see him last night. Told him about what happened. I didn't want him to hear from another source."

"Another odd circumstance," Billy said, and Jason could tell he was trying to build up to something, "is that Tommy's father is my roommate."

Jason raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Convenient for Tommy, then."

"Not actually…" Billy said slowly. "Tommy has apparently been avoiding his father. For more than a week. And his father said it wasn't like him at all…"

"Well, maybe he's been too busy giving lessons," Jason said, and again the bitterness made his voice sound wrong to him.

Billy paled a bit. "Alright, Jason, I'd like to know to what you're referring."

Jason rolled his eyes. "Tommy told me all about it. The bullying… and the lessons he's been giving you… and how you didn't want to tell us."

Billy's face registered shock for a moment, and then he seemed lost in thought. "Jason… I believe I have a theory. You're not going to believe me, but please bear with me."

Jason folded his arms even tighter. He'd been getting geared up for an argument, and Billy's sudden change of subject took him off guard.

"I think…" Billy said slowly, and then laughed. "I have very little evidence, but it's the only thing that makes sense. I think… that Tommy is the Green Ranger."

Dead silence.

Jason laughed. "That's… ridiculous, Billy. There's no way…"

"Hear me out," Billy said impatiently.

Jason sat down on a chair and indicated that Billy continue.

Billy took a breath. "I have not arrived at this conclusion precipitously. I didn't even begin with the problem of the Green Ranger's identity… but on Tommy's odd behavior. Some of it is conjecture, but I have not been able to gather evidence, obviously.

"Firstly, Tommy has been perfectly friendly to us… and possibly too friendly. After all, we know he's a bit reticent about making new friends, but he went out of his way to be friends with us. At the same time, he completely ignores his father. His father swears that before now Tommy has never failed to visit or call in several years whenever he's been in the hospital.

"When Tommy came in this morning, he was ready to visit me. He didn't expect his father to be in this room, as his father has changed rooms in the past week. When he did… Tommy reacted violently and ran from the room. It was almost like he was struggling against himself. He said 'You're better off without me.' Now, that usually wouldn't mean anything other than family strife, and Tommy has always made it a point to tell us that he's sort of a delinquent, but even in his worst times his father said that Tommy never wavered in his loyalty to his father. So I believe something has happened dramatic enough to change Tommy's loyalty."

Jason made an impatient noise. "Okay… so he's having a hard time with his dad. We all do… although that is a bit extreme, I admit. But it doesn't mean evil."

Billy held up his hand. "Let me finish. I'm going to go deeper into conjecture, but I still think it's a solid theory. The park there, just outside." He pointed to the window. "That is where Zack found that ornately carved stick. When Trini was talking to me earlier, she mentioned that the stick was still there and had been partly translated, though it was damaged by the fire. From what the computer tells us, the markings are closely related to Rita's style of magic, and it has something to do with shielding. Alpha believes it could be used to block the Command Center's surveillance. It could have hidden a Putty attack, at least, and if so it was definitely what the Green Ranger used to block my house from Command Center surveillance when he attacked me. Of course, Tommy would have been visiting his father at the hospital, and that park is just secluded enough that Putties could have kidnapped him easily."

Jason rubbed his face with his hands. "Okay… assuming you're right, even though you really don't have enough evidence yet… Why would Rita pick Tommy?"

Billy laughed. "Why wouldn't she? She saw him fight you during the tournament, and she possibly knew something about his occasional delinquent lifestyle. If she had the power to give, she could have surely seen that Tommy was an ideal candidate. She just had to make sure he was on her side… She has enough potions and spells to do the trick."

The conversation was making less and less sense, and Jason had heard enough. "Billy… it's all guesswork. He doesn't want to see his dad, and Zack found a stick outside the hospital? That's just…"

"It's more," Billy said, raising his voice in frustration. "I… I've been thinking about the attack, and… I just know it's him." He was getting angrier. "His voice was muffled, but it was him. He was using the same tricks of intimidation he taught me…"

"See, that's the thing," Jason cut him off. "Okay, I know you're pissed that Tommy told me about the 'lessons,'" he said with a sneer, "but you should have seen him. Tommy was guilt-ridden. He thought that those lessons in handling bullies had put you in danger against an opponent like that. That you would have been all right if you hadn't tried to fight back…"

Jason looked at his friend, instantly sorry for what he'd said. The tortured look in Billy's eyes told him that Billy still hated that he hadn't fought back.

"Anyway, no one's that good an actor," Jason said hastily. "I mean, Tommy was really suffering. And he really didn't want to tell me, because he said he'd promised you…"

"But he told you anyway," Billy pointed out a bit abruptly.

"And I don't blame him," Jason said sharply. "I can't believe you would hide that from us. We're supposed to be a team."

"Not in everything," Billy said. "I mean, you can't fight all my battles for me."

The word 'interfere' rang in Jason's ears. "Apparently, I do."

The two stared at each other in shocked silence. Jason saw the words in front of him and wished he could scoop them back, wipe them out of existence.

"So you don't believe me about Tommy," Billy said fiercely.

Jason tried to sound apologetic, but still firm. "I think you're jumping to a conclusion because you feel powerless. It'll be better when you heal and you can join us in the fight again."

Billy turned his head to the window again. "I'd like you to leave now, Jason. You can safely teleport from here."

"But…"

"It's time for the meeting," Billy said, suppressed anger in his voice.

Jason checked the door, knowing the fight to be over. He felt slimy for saying those things to Billy, but he knew it would be even more insulting to just humor Billy. Billy was scared, half out of his mind with medication, and wanted to create problems and solutions while he was down for the count. And Jason had to deal with real problems.


 

"Kimberly, be careful," Alpha said cautiously. "You're going to break the controls… again…"

Kimberly looked up suddenly, aware the Alpha had been staring at her for the past few minutes. She knew she'd been punching the keys too hard, and an hour earlier she had caused a button to go flying. Trini had fixed it in a jiffy, giving Kimberly a worried look. Kimberly had chosen to ignore it and keep on with the search.

The problem with searching for Zordon, though it gave the feeling of getting something accomplished, was that it gave too much time to think once the search became routine. The search had to be partially manual, but it mostly meant looking at a screen and trying to find Zordon's power signature, which registered as blue on the black of the screen. Hardly like trying to find Waldo, though if Waldo was hidden in a universe with no other people…

The problem was, there was too much time to think, and thinking just made Kimberly even angrier, and then with the anger came guilt, and with the guilt came…

"Sorry, Alpha," she said. "I'll be more careful."

Zack bounded in. "All the Zords check out," he said. "I added the extra security Trini came up with. The Green Meanie can't get in to any of the Zords."

"Green Meanie?" Kimberly said.

Zack shrugged. "Work in progress. Speaking of… I can take over, Kim."

Kimberly left the controls. "Please… before I destroy the equipment, rate I'm going."

She slumped off, aware of Zack's suspicious glances in her direction, and made her way to the work station Trini had set up to the right of the viewing globe. At that moment, Trini was reading through a computer print-out and had several test tubes, multi-colored liquids, and a few odd plants scattered about.

"Watcha doing?" Kimberly asked in an attempt at levity.

Trini rubbed her eyes. "Attempting the impossible and feeling slightly out of my depth."

"You've been super-busy all day," Kimberly said. "I mean, you fixed the teleporter completely, and you came up with the extra security…"

"Those are adaptations and improvements of what was already in place," Trini said. "It was easy… I just had to apply what Billy had already done and was planning to do."

Kimberly grinned. It always amazed her how Trini didn't realize how brilliant she really was. Of course, when she had uber-genius Billy constantly there… but Trini was continually the only one who could keep up with the crazy things Billy thought up.

"But now…" Trini said in suppressed exasperation.

Kimberly picked up a red vine delicately. "What are you doing, anyway? This doesn't look like computers to me."

"It's not," Trini said. She handed the computer print-out to Kimberly, who stared at it blankly. "These papers outline theories and practices from the Command Center back-up databank… well… it's mostly alien medicine. I'm trying to speed up Billy's healing process."

Kimberly's eyes went wide. "So… that can be done?" She handed back the suddenly precious papers.

"Not on humans, yet," Trini said. "There are a few species that are close to human, but even still… And I don't have all the ingredients. And it's supposed to contain magic. It's technically a potion, actually, and I'm no witch."

Kimberly pursed her lips. "And the only witch we know would rather Billy stay out of commission."

Trini nodded. "Of course, we have the Morphing Grid, which can actually help even more, since that 'magic,' if it can be called that, is already closely tied to Billy. We'd pretty much be rejuvenating him with his Power Coin. But it's tricky, because the Power Coin uses some of the body's power itself. And I have to take all that into account with the mixture."

Kimberly let out a low whistle. "And I thought I had problems."

The statement hung awkwardly between them. They glanced over at Zack and Alpha, but neither was paying attention to them.

"Trini," Kimberly said quietly, "I want you to promise me you won't tell any of the guys what happened with Tommy."

Trini regarded her in confusion. "But… Kimberly, they're going to find out anyway. They'll want to hear this from you."

"I know that," Kimberly said. "It's just… It'll be a distraction today. We need to be fighting Rita and the Green Ranger, and when Jason and Zack find out they'll just want to fight Tommy. You know they will."

"That's an exaggeration," Trini said. "They can keep their priorities straight. But… they need to know what kind of guy Tommy is. I've already told the jerk he's not allowed to hang out with us anymore."

"You didn't…"

Trini crossed her arms. "I did. And the guys need to know."

Kimberly looked down and held her head, the headache flaring up again. "Trini… please don't say anything. I'll tell them tomorrow before school or something. I just… would rather focus on Ranger business and not have to deal with their reactions right now."

Trini frowned. "All right… but if they hear it from someone else, they can only get mad at you. And it's still not fair to them."

"I'm okay with a little unfairness now."

Kimberly heard the familiar crackle of a teleporter beam. Jason was there, and the meeting was ready to start. Kimberly looked at Trini one more time and put a finger over her mouth in a 'sh' motion. Trini rolled her eyes, but nodded her assent.

Jason paced the floor in front of the viewing globe, knowing all the other's eyes were on him. They would usually be facing the other way, towards Zordon, and Jason felt his eyes pulled upward occasionally to the depressing still-empty tube.

Trini was seated on the floor, a wad of papers in front of her, but she wasn't reading them anymore. Kimberly was perched on a useless console, cleaned but unimportant enough not to warrant repair. Zack and Alpha had temporarily suspended the Zordon search, and Zack was leaning against one of the consoles while Alpha stood with his back to the console, seemingly unsure of what to do now that he wasn't pushing buttons.

"First off," Jason said, forestalling the tense moment when he would reveal his plan, "Alpha. How's the search for Zordon?"

"I wish I could give better news, Jason," Alpha fretted. "I still haven't been able to find him, even with everyone's help. But it's like finding a haybale in a haystack."

No one corrected him.

Jason glanced over at Zack, not even sure what he'd been doing other than helping Alpha with the search.

"I've checked the Zords," Zack chimed in, "and Trini added some extra security. When the big monsters come, we'll be ready." He made a face. "I'd like a straight-out fight for a change."

There was an air of agreement in the air.

"How's Billy?" Kimberly chimed in, having nothing to report… or at least nothing she wanted to report.

Jason shrugged his shoulders. He considered telling them about Billy's suspicions, but didn't. It was all so ridiculous, and Billy would appreciate it later if he didn't share all his medication-induced ideas. "Not really any better since yesterday. He seemed more interested in Ranger business, but I still have the feeling he doesn't want to be a Ranger anymore."

The news had circulated between all of them since that night, so it didn't elicit surprise.

"We gotta cut him some slack right now," Zack said. "I mean, he's really banged up. It was an insult, going after him like that… to all of us, but mostly to him."

"We'll need to convince him soon," Trini said. "I plan to have a way to heal him figured out in the next few days… I hope." She nodded a head to her workstation beside Jason. "And don't worry… I took care of security and teleportation before I started that project. The teleporter now works at its normal power and all our houses are set to priority on the sensors, so we'll know if anything bad happens. We need to be up to full strength, and what if one of us gets injured?" She said this like she was justifying not searching for Zordon or working more directly on the Green Ranger problem.

"That's great…" Jason said. "I want your full attention on that unless an emergency comes up."

Trini smiled, a look of relief passing over her face. Jason wondered when he had become the heartless tyrant to them.

"Now…" Jason said, "I think we need to step up our strategy regarding Rita and the Green Ranger."

The others focused on him in tense silence. Jason swallowed hard, his set version of the pitch running through his brain.

"I plan to go to the Moon Palace… for recon." Jason wasn't looking at them at this point, though he heard more than one gasp. "Everything we've done so far is reactionary, and they're always one step ahead of us. We need to find out who the Green Ranger is and what Rita's plans are for us, and the only way to do that is to spy out the details."

"That's suicide…"

"Jason, have you thought…"

Zack's voice rose over the others. "Jason, I can't believe you're bringing this up right now. You can't do it. It's a bad idea," he said emphatically.

"Zordon always said that it was out of the question. You know he always threw out that idea every time you brought it up," Kimberly said.

Jason glanced up at the empty tube. He had to choose his words carefully right now, because feelings about Zordon were still tender. "Zordon does not know our situation right now. Everything's different. We wouldn't be escalating the battle. I mean, she's already trespassed here… or at least the Green Ranger has… and she's violated one of our private homes." He bit his lip at the thought and tried not to think of what might happen to his own parents without him there. "She also has our computer files, which we need to get back before she cracks too far into them."

"Jason," Trini said. "I can see the logic of that… but are you sure you're not just using Zordon's absence as an excuse to enact a plan you've wanted to enact for months?"

Jason threw her an insulted look.

"All right," Trini said in answer. "Then are you sure you're not doing this in retribution for Billy?"

"She's right," Zack said. "I mean, I want to hit back hard. I want to make sure the Green Ranger feels everything Billy went through… ten times over. But I don't think sneaking around the Moon Palace is the answer."

"I'll admit it… it's a huge risk," Jason said evenly. "But you all have to believe me when I say that I'm not on a revenge kick and I'd be pushing this just as hard to Zordon if he were here."

"The difference is," Zack said nastily, "no one's here who can overrule you like Zordon."

Jason was about to retort, but saw no point. "You're right… no one can overrule me."

Jason felt the power seem to shift imperceptibly in the room. It was this second, with Zack's affirmation, that Jason realized that he was completely the leader of the Power Rangers. There was no Zordon there to overrule him. Zordon had tapped him as leader and that meant he now had final say in all plans. It was the first time since all this happened that leadership was something different from the crushing responsibility and guilt that he couldn't do better.

"Jason," Alpha said, and Jason wondered if the robot was going to try to overrule him. After all, Alpha might have some authority in that way. "I can provide you with coordinates. We know a little about the layout and security of Rita's palace… I can just pull it from the archives." The robot turned to a patched-up console and began pulling up information.

"I'll help you," Trini said, bounding up from her seat on the floor.

Kimberly and Zack stayed where they were, still staring at him. Jason remembered that moment so many months ago, when both of them refused the power and pressured all of them to walk out of the Command Center. They'd defied Zordon openly right from the beginning. They were always the ones to challenge Jason and his plans, Zack most of all.

"So we're really doing this," Kimberly said. She toyed with a lace from her shirt. "I guess it was sort of inevitable."

"There's one thing I want to know," Zack said. "Why does it have to be you? I mean, you're the leader. If this goes down wrong… we can't lose you right now."

Jason shook his head. "I don't intend to get caught. And… it has to be me. I can't risk anyone else." He put a hand on Zack's shoulder. "But while I'm gone… and if things go wrong… you're the leader."

Zack's eyes widened in astonishment. "Me… but…"

Jason grinned. "Sorry… it's all in my power to delegate. Deal with it."

By that time Trini and Alpha were spreading a mass of print-outs on a useless console, and they all grouped around to study and plan.


 

There was a knock on the door that Tommy could barely hear over Cobain's passionate wailing.

Hey! Wait! I got a new complaint

Forever in debt to your priceless advice.

Hey! Wait! I got a new complaint

Forever in debt to your priceless advice.

Goldar threw the door open. "Time for training," he said.

Tommy was lying of the bed, much in the same position as that morning. He realized he hadn't eaten that day, but he didn't feel hungry. "Right," he said dully. He began pulling on shoes.

She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak.

I've been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks.

"What is that singer saying?" Goldar said with a little contempt.

I've been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap

I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Doesn't matter. The words don't matter."

"Whatever," Goldar said. "Put away your teen angst for now so we can get some work done."

Tommy hit the stop button on his boombox, his ears ringing in the sudden silence. He was trying to shake the lethargy that had hold of him all day, and he'd even gotten some studying done for math. But he still didn't feel right in his own skin. He wondered if training would actually help.

He smiled. It usually did.

"You won't need to morph," Goldar said abruptly in the hallway when Tommy reached for his morpher.

Tommy scowled. "What are you talking about?"

Goldar growled. "Empress Rita rather enjoyed your performance last night, and I dare say Scorpina had fun playing human dress-up, but you still need to pay. And I've decided to take it out of your hide."

For the first time that day, Tommy laughed. He knew he was in for the beating of his life, but he found the concept of Goldar jealous of him so amusing and normal that he decided to take it in good spirit.


 

"Alright," Jason said grimly. "I'm going tonight."

The others looked at him, a bit defeated. While they hadn't overtly tried to talk him out of it anymore, they'd nudged him with the difficulty of the task, with the high risk factor, with all they had to lose and what little they had to gain.

But Jason was convinced it was the only plan that made sense. And it was the one thing he was sure Rita wouldn't be expecting.

"Then let's go over the plan," Zack said resignedly.

The plan was, even after hours of going over it, still simplistic and full of risk. Jason would teleport to the moon, morphed, right outside the castle. There was a small passageway caused by what must have been a bad landing, and it had gone unnoticed for centuries. Jason would get in and immediately unmorph when he reached atmosphere so he wouldn't set off any alarms. He would wear all black and carry an extra energy blaster from the Command Center's security weapons. He also would wear a shirt of modified armor that reminded Jason of chainmail. That would protect him long enough to morph or teleport out, if it came to that… which it wouldn't, Jason thought.

"And your objectives?" Zack said calmly after they'd all gone over the basics of the plan. Jason decided he'd made a good decision making Zack his replacement.

"Get the computer files if possible," Jason ticked off on his hands, "find out the identity of the Green Ranger, and discover all the plans that I can."

"And retreat right when things get the least bit hairy," Zack said firmly. "Take no chances."

"Don't worry, I'll be a complete coward," Jason said lightly.

"You'd better," Zack said. "If you get killed up there, I'll kill you."

Jason smiled at the tough humor and excused himself to get changed. Zack was actually much more comforting to him with the rough talk of dying than any concerned looks from Trini or Kimberly. He didn't need concern, he needed courage.

For he was scared, Jason realized. Right down to his core, he was scared. Shaking hands he couldn't show the others put the black clothes and armor on him. Yet something about the clothes seemed to give him strength… as well as the familiar, comforting lump his Power Morpher made against his skin.

He checked the time. It was midnight. They'd been planning all day, only taking momentary breaks to eat and check in with their parents. Billy was covering for them all, and he'd called in a few minutes before to wish him luck.

It was time to go.

Jason stalked back into the main control room and felt like he was facing his funeral. They were all waiting for him, excitement and fear etched plainly on their faces.

"I'll be all right, guys," Jason said, wishing they'd be a little more trusting in his abilities.

Kimberly forced a smile. "I know you will." She walked forward and hugged Jason. Jason realized he couldn't even feel her tight hug through the armor.

"Good luck, Jason," Alpha said. "Aye yi yi yi yi… I'm so worried," he said in a rather sad tone. "Zordon will never forgive me if you…"

"I'm going to be all right," Jason said, still more firmly.

"Course, you are," Zack said toughly, and Jason appreciated it. Now that Jason was resolved and they'd planned the whole thing, Zack was at least acting in support of the plan.

Trini gave him her own hug. "You get in and then out, you hear me, Jason?" she said. "You're not a hero tonight; you're a spy."

Jason pulled out his Power Morpher. "I'll keep that firmly in mind."

"Hey, Jas," Zack said. He glanced over at Zordon's empty tube, and then back at Jason. "May the power protect you."

Jason grinned. "Not tonight… but thanks."

With that, he morphed to the coordinates on the moon.


 

As soon as he hit the ground, the force of the teleportation made him bound upwards. Fully prepped, Jason quickly located the side of the castle and bounded, carefully, over toward it. He leaned against the reassuring wall of the enemy structure, clambering for his equilibrium. He also struggled to keep his mind on the mission because he was on the freakin' moon! He gazed at the earth, felt the weightlessness and pure silence of the place. He was seeing what only astronauts and space aliens had seen before… what he thought he'd never see. He suddenly wished Billy was there with him… what it would have meant to him.

His moving hand found a break in the wall, and the passageway was right next to him. Carefully, he forced his way in through the tiny opening and inched forward, waiting for the readouts in his helmet to tell him the air was finally breathable. As soon as it was perfectly safe, he demorphed, stuffed his morpher in its customary place, and ventured forward, ready to melt into the shadows at any point.

The information on the layout of the castle was sketchy. From what little they knew, Rita and her minions only inhabited one floor of the massive castle meant to house many more people. The active floor would be the only place with light and heat, so Jason would know if he was straying from there. Jason slid forward, using everything he knew about stealth from his brief study of ninjitsu. When he finally got to what was obviously an active area, he delighted in the indirect, shadowy lighting, the jagged design of the place that provided countless nooks to hide in, and the gouts of mist on the floor. It was going to be easier than he thought.

Jason soundlessly made his way up one corridor, peeking in every open doorway. A sound, though, made him push into the shadows as quickly as if he were a shadow himself.

"I've never seen Goldar so mad," the short, blue alien declared to his companion.

"Well, he shouldn't have been messing with Scorpina," the darker alien Jason thought he remembered was named Babboo. "I don't know how he could kiss her, anyway."

"I don't know how either of them can. She's scary," the one name Squatt proclaimed.

Their conversation faded into nothingness as they turned a corner. Jason puzzled over what they'd said, wondering if the information was important. It definitely pointed to strife among the enemies, but what type was entirely vague.

With a sudden inspiration, Jason decided to follow the pair, realizing that they'd probably lead him to one of his objectives.

He almost walked past a large archway, and with a thrill of horror he realized he heard female voices. He dived into the fog and pushed himself as close to the wall as possible. He could hear them perfectly.

"Shouldn't you be in bed," the voice that Jason identified as Scorpina admonished. "You're going to run yourself ragged."

"I can't sleep anyway," Rita said grumpily. "Something's been… off today, and it's keeping me awake."

"I know what you mean," Scorpina said. "Maybe we should have attacked today."

"And deal with fresh righteous fury?" Rita laughed. "Let's let them cool down. They're no closer to finding Zordon or I would have felt it. And we all need our days to recharge," she said with a smile in her voice.

"I definitely needed a day off today," Scorpina said, and she sounded like she was stretching. "Goldar finally let me get some sleep. Let me tell you…"

"I'd rather not know," Rita said, and the two chuckled.

Jason frowned in surprise. Those two seemed to be on more friendly terms than he had imagined. He wondered if it had something with being the only two females in the palace.

"But we are attacking tomorrow," Scorpina said, and Jason's attention sharpened.

"Most definitely," Rita said in amusement. "I want to really test our Green Ranger. I want him to be right at the forefront… and don't worry," she laughed. "You'll still get to have fun."

"I guess it makes sense," Scorpina said in a pouty voice. "I mean, they are down one man. They'll be easier to handle."

"That's a foolish attitude to take," Rita said. "Underestimate them, and they'll make you pay… much like me."

"Right, right," Scorpina said wearily. "Never lose like a bitch." She sounded like she was getting up, and Jason hugged the wall even tighter and prepared to roll out of the way in any direction. "I think I'll get some rest, then. And don't you stay up all night."

"If you don't mind," Rita said, "go by Finster's and send him to me with a sleeping potion. I rarely use them, as they're horribly addictive, but tonight's one of those nights."

"Will do," Scorpina said as she sauntered off.

Jason was immediately in stealthy motion, following her at the safest distance he could achieve. Finster, he knew, was the scientist and monster-maker, and if the computer files were anywhere, they were at Finster's lab.

Scorpina finally entered a room that looked rather brighter than everywhere else. Jason hung to the shadows and waited for both of them to leave the lab so he could conduct a proper search.

A scream rent though the castle, seemingly ignored by everyone. The scream sent thrills of horror down Jason's spine when he realized it was made in pain and sounded very very human.

He rushed away from the lab, keeping to the shadows as much as he could. A second scream made Jason rush all the more, and he was nearly panting in panic. He finally turned a corner and faced into a huge, dark room. What he saw made his blood freeze with horror. Tommy was there, covered in blood, and Goldar seemed to be treating him like his own personal punching bag. Tommy was obviously trying to fight back, but he was nearly dead with exhaustion and pain, and Goldar was laughing horribly.

In an instant, as Goldar raised his sword to Tommy, Jason drew the blaster and, with unerring aim, fired at the sword. It shot off to the side out of Goldar's hand, who watched stupidly as it flew into the fog.

Jason ran forward and shielded Tommy, not even taking time to morph. He just knew he had to protect Tommy. "Run, Tommy!" Jason barked at him. "I'll hold him off and catch up."

The scene seemed to freeze. Goldar's head was cocked to one side in blank surprise. "Huh?" he heard Tommy say behind him.

Jason knew right then everything had just gone wrong.

Before Jason could react, he felt his arms pulled into a hold, the blaster dropping uselessly to the floor. "My hero," Tommy said with sadistic glee.

 

Chapter Text

Jason threw himself back, Tommy with him, still twisting his arms in a lock. Jason felt them hit the wall hard, and Tommy grunted in pain. His grip, however, did not slacken.

A flash of gold, and Jason doubled over, tears springing to his eyes as he gasped. His stomach felt like it had caved in, and only the armor protected him from internal damage, it seemed. Tommy was twisting his arms so hard they felt like they would break. Again, Jason saw stars as he felt his head snap to the side. Blood filled his mouth, and he realized Goldar had hit him across the face.

Jason struggled, his mind not even really registering what he was doing. He relied purely on instinct. But instinct, it seemed, wouldn't cut it. He couldn't trip Tommy, he couldn't get the momentum for a nice backwards headbutt, and he knew he couldn't avoid any blows Goldar decided to give him while Tommy was still holding him.

Another flash of gold, but the blow didn't come. Instead, something cold and sharp rested against Jason's neck. His eyes flicked down, and he saw that Goldar had recovered his sword.

"I'd hold still if I were you, Red Ranger," Goldar growled. "My sword could easily slip."

Jason froze. The grip on his arms slackened, but he didn't dare take advantage of that. Already he felt the blade cutting into his skin, a thin drop of blood rolling down his neck. He felt Tommy pull away his Power Morpher. Tommy tossed it to Goldar, who caught it and stowed it out of sight. His communicator got the same treatment.

"Well," Goldar said, "looks like we've got Empress Rita an early birthday present."

Tommy laughed along with Goldar, and Jason felt the enormity of what just happened. He was captured, powerless, at the hands of people who would most likely kill him, betrayed by one he had considered a friend and had just tried to save.

"Tommy… you… lying…" he grunted out, and stopped when the sword's pressure against his throat intensified. More blood trickled down his chest.

"Goldar, chill," Tommy said. "It's not like we want to kill him before we get to Empress Rita. She'll get cranky."

"And what is all the commotion about?"

All three looked to the side to see Scorpina framed in the large doorway. She was still in armor, but her headdress was gone and it looked like she'd been getting ready for bed. As soon as she spotted Jason, she seemed to pout.

"What's this? Did you attack without me?" she asked, her voice hurt.

"Not our fault," Tommy said. "We were just… training. Red here decided to burst out of hiding and play. He was coming to rescue me." Jason heard a smirk in the voice, and he longed to hit Tommy in the face… several times.

Scorpina gave a surprised laugh. "Well… that will make thing interesting, won't it." She pulled her sword from her side and pointed it straight at Jason. With the other hand she pulled a metal cable out of her armor. "Hey, Tommy. Put this around his wrists."

She threw the cable, and Jason saw Tommy's hand shoot out to catch it. Still, Jason couldn't find a way to escape without getting his throat cut. Goldar was watching him too closely. He felt metal coils wind over his wrists, and then he heard a click.

"What is this?" Tommy asked. "It moved on its own."

Scorpina relaxed her sword, assured that Jason didn't need the extra threat to keep him still. "I occasionally take bounty hunting jobs. That rope can only be taken off by you, now that you've put it on him." She smiled directly at Jason. "And I wouldn't struggle against it, Red Ranger. The more you struggle, the more it contracts, which I hear will eventually become a danger to circulation and limb retention."

Already the coils were growing tighter from Jason's experimental tugs. He stopped. Between the fact he no longer had any weapons or his Power Morpher, and he was surrounded by three dangerous enemies in their own territory, and the sword against his throat and the coils binding his wrists like a cobra… Jason was working hard not to panic.

"If we're going to take him to Rita," Scorpina said, "we'd better hurry. She was just going to sleep."

Jason felt Tommy's hand on his arm. His skin seemed to writhe in disgust at the touch, but he couldn't flinch away. Even when Goldar moved his sword away from his throat and simply grabbed his other arm, he knew that he was well and truly caught.

"We're going for a walk, Red Ranger," Goldar said. "If you try anything…" He let the threat hang in the air, as if he didn't need to complete it. He didn't.

As they walked, Scorpina leading the way, practically skipping in excitement, Jason railed at himself. How could he be so stupid? Hell, he hadn't even morphed when he blundered into that ill-fated rescue attempt. And what had the other Rangers all said? Don't be a hero. Don't pick a fight. Don't do exactly this.

But it had happened so quickly. It had been instinct. Tommy had looked in serious trouble, so Jason had done what he thought was best, thinking there would be time to morph once he got between Tommy and immediate danger. And there would have been, as Goldar got over the shock or stopped to find his sword. Goldar was slower, after all, and Jason would have been able to cope with any preliminary attacks unmorphed. He wasn't able, of course, to cope with attacks from both sides.

Billy's words from that afternoon echoed back to Jason, plunging him into deeper levels of rage and despair. Billy had known. He'd figured it all out. If Jason had stopped and paid attention and really thought about it…

He felt Tommy's hand leave his arm. "You guys go on ahead… I'll catch up in a minute."

"Don't be too late," Goldar barked.

"Yeah," Scorpina laughed. "You'll miss all the fun."

Goldar shoved Jason roughly forward, taking more control of him now that he didn't have a guard on the other side. Jason concentrated on staying on his feet. If he fell, he wouldn't be able to catch himself, and who knew what Goldar would do in retaliation?

Jason raged at his own helplessness. He suddenly understood how Billy felt.

A minute later, as they made their slow progress down the narrow corridor, Jason heard footfalls. Again, Tommy's hand closed on Jason's arm… only this time the hand was encased in a white glove. Out of the corner of his eye, Jason could see the white, green, and gold of the Green Ranger's costume. The helmet was held casually at one side. Jason reigned himself in closer, keeping his rage under tight control. Now that Tommy had morphed, after all, there was even less hope for escape.

The group turned at the archway Jason had been listening at just minutes before. Rita was sitting on a throne off to the side, being served a carafe by an alien Jason didn't recognize, though he had a suspicion that this was Finster.

"Present for you, my Empress," Tommy said.

Rita put down the carafe and leaned forward in her throne, as if she wasn't sure if Jason was real or not. She began to smile, but then she looked fiercely at her minions. "You haven't taken any… unauthorized expeditions… have you?"

"We caught him in the training room," Goldar said. "I suspect he was here on a spy mission. He was demorphed in order to evade our security."

"And he did, my Empress," Tommy pointed out, "until he blew it trying to rescue me from big, bad Goldar."

"So as we said," Scorpina said. "Present for you."

Rita stared at them all, as if trying to see if they were all lying—Jason included—when she fell back into her throne and laughed hard, as if Jason was the funniest joke in the universe.

"Well, then, Red Ranger," Rita said, wiping her eyes. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

Jason didn't hesitate. "You can't keep me here, Rita. The other Rangers will come for me. You're not going to get away with this."

"Wow… you were spot on," Tommy whispered to Goldar. "And I thought you were exaggerating with the whole 'you won't get away with this' line."

"I never exaggerate," Goldar said.

Scorpina cleared her throat and gave a hiccuppy laugh, which she immediately changed to a cough when Goldar looked furiously at her. "Nothing. Coughing here."

"Silence," Rita said, and the chamber was immediately dead quiet. She smiled at Jason, who at that moment felt more afraid than he had at any point in the past ten minutes. "Red Ranger… Jason… You do realize you are in violation of a treaty between me and Zordon… don't you?"

Jason had been prepared for anything but that. He knew the surprise on his face told her all he needed to know as she grinned more widely. "But…" he said, "I haven't done anything you haven't. You spy on us all the time, and you sent him," he jerked his head in Tommy's direction, "to the Command Center, the MegaZord, and Billy's house."

"None of which is in violation to the treaty I drew up with Zordon at the end of the War," Rita said. "The treaty is very specific. The Zords aren't mentioned, and the Command Center and certainly Billy's house did not exist at the time. However, my Moon Palace did exist, and part of the agreement was that Zordon and any one of his soldiers and/or warriors are not to enter the Moon Palace unless invited. In return, I could not take any of the soldiers and/or warriors prisoner in the Moon Palace." Rita paused, looking almost sympathetic. "It is a pity that Zordon never mentioned that to you."

"But…" Jason said, "but we're at war, I thought. Why would there be a treaty?"

Rita grew stern, obviously not enjoying being interviewed in this fashion. "The previous war was too destructive. Many lines were crossed… and many people died. It was decided that, in the event either of our sides fought again, we would have a document to limit the effects of war. There were many… compromises… of course, but the purpose of the treaty was to prevent the type of holocaust-like destruction from the War." Again, Rita gave the same fearful grin, one that showed all her teeth. "And you have just broken that treaty… Red Ranger. You've just escalated the war."

Jason's chest tightened as he thought of Zordon. He'd never wanted Jason to go to the Moon Palace and, while he hadn't gone into the gritty details, Zordon had never lied. Zordon was trying to protect a treaty that protected all of them.

And he'd broken the second rule… just as Zordon had warned.

Rita, however, did not seem to want to revel in Jason's shame. Instead, she turned to her minions. "Things have become much simpler, now. The attack is still on tomorrow… but we'll handle things a little differently. Tommy, I believe you'll be getting a new toy soon… and I won't say, because it will ruin the surprise," she said.

"My Empress… it wouldn't begin with a Z and end with a D… would it?" Tommy said.

Rita wagged a finger at him. "I'm not saying. Now… someone gag Jason over there, and I will make use of his communicator."

"I've got this," Scorpina said, and before Jason could react a cloth was pulled across his mouth and tied in the back. It wasn't even pulled all that tightly.

"You think you can keep me quiet with…" Jason said, and then stopped. He realized the sound wasn't reaching his ears.

"Scorpina," Tommy said, "remind me never to piss you off. You're really scary."

"That's what everyone keeps saying. It's not fair," Scorpina said.

"Enough," Rita said, already taking the communicator from Goldar. Jason had unfortunately been too preoccupied with the gag to see where Goldar was storing his communicator… and Power Morpher.

"Let's see…" Rita said. "How do you turn this on?" She pressed a button. "Hello? Power dweebs? Anyone there?" There was no answer, and Rita began hitting the sides. Finster flinched and tried to take the device from Rita.

"What have you done with Jason?" Zack's voice came from the tiny speaker. Jason felt his stomach drop even further. Zack sounded terrified, even though Jason could tell he was trying to put up a tough front.

"Ah… Black Ranger," Rita said. "How wonderful it is to hear from you."

"What. Have. You. Done. With. Jason."

Rita laughed. "Not to worry… he's unharmed. Relatively."

Jason could hear muffled conversation over the speaker. It was maddening to hear his friends and know there was small chance he would see them… perhaps ever.

Jason, don't think like that, he told himself. You'll escape.

"All right, Rita…" Zack said. "What's it gonna take to get Jason back?"

Rita laughed again. "I like you, Black Ranger. No threats… straight to business. You're smarter than your friend here."

"So let's get to business, then," Zack said.

Absently, Jason admired how Zack was handling this situation. Like Rita said… no threats or drama. Zack was approaching this in a tone that suggested they were arranging a study appointment. He was trying to undercut the power Rita had over them all at this moment.

"Right then," Rita said. "Tomorrow at 5:00 you will meet with Scorpina to discuss terms… in a public place. Say, that ridiculous juice bar you Rangers seem addicted to. She'll be in disguise as a human, but you'll be able to recognize her. And I want you to come alone, Black Ranger. Leave the others in the Command Center for this meeting. This will not be a fight… but a civilized conversation. I trust you can handle that."

A pause. "There a reason we can't take care of this now?"

Rita smirked. "Of course there is. The Red Ranger is my prisoner. He broke into the Moon Palace… and there must be payment."

"There's no deal if he's hurt," Zack said quickly.

"Of course there isn't. I would expect no less," Rita said. "I merely want you all to experience Jason's absence, and how lucky you all are that I'm generous enough to arrange a compromise. After all, you're down two fighters. Do you really think you can handle a full-scale attack right now?"

Another pause, and Jason could hear muffled conversation again. Kimberly's voice rung out a little louder, and Jason remembered that she was dating Tommy… that Jason himself had insisted they go on a date the day before. She sounded upset and angry. Jason wondered how she would react when she found out about Tommy.

"I want proof that Jason is all right," Zack said. "You understand I can't just take your word for it."

Rita put on a wounded façade. "Such a lack of trust. All right then… if you will relax your security, we can send you a visual."

"Fine," Zack said, and again there was background noise.

"Finster, make it happen," Rita said. She motioned sharply at Tommy, who put his helmet back on.

Finster opened a hidden console on the wall of the throne room and pressed a few buttons. "My Queen, I am able to send a visual now. We are also receiving."

"Do it," Rita said.

The tiny screen lit up, and Jason was happy to see that the visual they were sending was tight on Zack, Kimberly, and Trini. It gave no indication that Alpha was repaired and they could see none of the repairs and projects in the Command Center.

Jason worked on trying not to look frightened, and he was starting to be really embarrassed at his predicament. He'd been gone, what, twenty minutes? And already he was caught and used as a bargaining chip in the hands of his enemies. This was not exactly his most auspicious moment.

"Jason, are you all right?" Kimberly said.

Jason started to say something, but he remembered he was effectively gagged. He nodded, wishing he could do more. He wanted to shout about Tommy's identity, or the fact that Rita was setting them up… She'd said, after all, they were still going to attack the next day. Surely the meeting at the Youth Center was a trap. But he couldn't say anything.

"As you can see," Rita said, still through the communicator, "other than getting banged up when he foolishly challenged Goldar and the Green Ranger, he's perfectly healthy. Whether he stays so or not is up to you. Now… do we have a deal?"

Zack betrayed none of his emotions. "I'll meet tomorrow… just like you said. Jason…" Zack's face turned apologetic, "hang in there. I wish we could get you out now, but…"

"Enough of this touching reunion," Rita said. "Finster, cut the visual. Until tomorrow, Black Ranger."

Rita handed the communicator to Finster. "See if you can turn this thing off, and store it in high security. We may need it later."

"Right away, my Queen." Finster doddered off, clearly excited by the new piece of technology.

"Goldar… take Jason to Finster to get him patched up, and check him for any extra weapons. After that, put him in a cell. I suggest we all get some sleep tonight." Rita looked longingly at the sleep potion. "Tomorrow promises to be a full day."

"Good night, my Queen," Goldar said. "Come on, you," he growled, and he shoved Jason back toward the corridor.

Jason worked hard on keeping his footing as he was lead through the corridors once more. He was pleased to note that by this time he was able to predict where they were going. Finding his way around the Moon Palace would be vital in any escape attempts.

The lab was brighter and cleaner than other rooms, without the usual covering of fog on the floor. The walls were lined with clay models of monsters, some of which Jason recognized. Finster was not holding his communicator, Jason was disappointed to see. He had hoped to see where Finster would store it.

"Rita has ordered a patch-up," Goldar said, keeping a tight grip on Jason's arm.

"Put him on the table, then," Finster said impatiently.

Goldar grabbed Jason by one arm and hoisted him up to the table. Seeing as golden an opportunity as any, Jason drew his legs back and kicked out with both. He hit right where he was aiming: under Goldar's jaw, where a tiny bit of throat was exposed. Goldar fell straight back, not even making a sound. He landed, though, into a table covered with clay molds and glass bottles. The table fell with a loud crash.

Finster rushed forwards, but Jason was ready for him. Still on the table, Jason grabbed hold of Finster's neck with his feet and squeezed as hard as he could. Jason watched closely as Finster's turned from white to a light shade of blue; he didn't want to kill the alien… just make him pass out. With his air restricted and what Jason knew was crushing pressure on his throat, Finster was as silent as Jason was.

Jason could see Finster's eyes start to go out of focus. He prepared to let go…

A blow came out of nowhere, and Jason was pitched sideways on the table. Finster fell to the ground soundlessly. Jason twisted around on the table to see Tommy, no longer morphed. Without thinking, he kicked Tommy viciously in the face. Tommy went down, but as he did he grabbed Jason's ankle. Jason went as loose as he could and tried to protect his head as he fell to the floor.

There was little room to maneuver, so Jason knew he had to move fast. He flipped up on to his feet and faced where Tommy had fallen. Tommy was getting up too, looking a little dazed. He had a cut over one eye. Jason lashed out with a series of kicks, hoping that he didn't just hurt himself. The space was really too enclosed for kickboxing, but that was what he was left with. If he could put Tommy down, he could maybe snag the coil binding him on Tommy's hands.

Jason realized there were a lot of "if"s in his plan. But he had to try to escape. Even a failure would help preserve what dignity he had left.

The good thing about the enclosed space was Tommy couldn't grapple with him without getting kicked, and Jason had his back to the doorway, so Tommy couldn't move the fight to a bigger space. Jason dodged the punches as if his life depended on it… which it did.

That must have been some first kick, Jason thought. He's still dazed.

A few more dodges, and Jason landed a solid kick to Tommy's face. Tommy crumpled, fell, and closed his eyes.

Jason stared at Tommy, breathing hard, not believing his luck. He couldn't linger, though. There might still be Scorpina to contend with… and not to mention Rita. Jason crouched, preparing to try to pull his restraints off.

Jason felt a sting on his arm, and all went black.


 

Tommy woke up with a bad taste in his mouth, as if he'd been chewing on kerosene-drenched cotton. His head pounded, and the light was like knives in his eyes. He tried to lift his head.

"Take it slowly, Tommy." Finster's voice grew gradually louder.

"Wh-what time is it?" Tommy said. His voice sounded rough and disused.

Finster came into focus. He pulled a cloth from Tommy's forehead. "It is 5:00 in the morning, and I would really rather you sleep some more. Real sleep, not potion sleep. You've been abusing that potion."

Tommy waved away Finster's hand and forced himself to sit up. "I'm fine," he mumbled. "What happened?"

"No, you're not fine," Finster said. "And you're going to listen to what I say. A few hours ago you were dehydrated. You had obviously not eaten all day. And you let Goldar beat you to a bloody pulp in the training room. So you could barely put up a fight against Jason."

Tommy groaned and fell back on the table. "Jason beat me with both hands tied behind his back… didn't he?"

Finster chuckled to himself. "You might say that. Don't worry… he beat Goldar, too."

"So what happened?"

Finster began bustling around the lab, and Tommy realized he was making breakfast. "Well, while he was fighting you, he wasn't paying attention to me. I recover quickly. I waited until he was still, and I snuck up behind him and stuck him with a tranquilizer. Goldar was waking up by then, so he took Jason into custody while I attended to you." Finster set a coffee cup down and sighed. "I couldn't believe when he beat you like that. I knew something had to be wrong. What were you thinking?"

Tommy accepted the cup of coffee. "I don't know. I guess I just didn't realize…"

Finster didn't look in the mood. "You nearly killed yourself, Tommy Oliver."

Tommy looked down. "Look, I know I didn't take care of myself, and that compromised the mission, but…"

"I'm not talking about any mission," Finster said. "I'm talking about taking care of yourself. For you. For the people who care about you."

Tommy looked away. "I… guess."

Finster put a hand on Tommy's shoulder. "I know I can't keep you from staying in from school. But you are to eat all meals and go to bed at a sane time tonight. And no sleeping potions… they don't give you real sleep, and they have dire consequences with extended use."

Tommy nodded. He forced himself to eat, to promise whatever Finster wanted. He sat quietly while Finster worked until it was time to shower and go to school. Inside, though, he fumed. The night before was pure embarrassment. Yes, he knew that he'd been weak and tired when he popped in to Finster's for some help, but he figured he should have been able to handle Jason… while he was freakin' handcuffed. That thought itself was enough to convince himself to take Finster's advice.

After his shower, Tommy gathered his books and went searching for Goldar, just to see if he was all right. He knew Goldar was probably doing guard duty, and Tommy wasn't quite sure where the cell was.

Scorpina came bounding from around a corner, headed for the training room. "Hey… Tommy! Way to get beat down."

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Yeah… ha-ha. Where's Goldar?"

Scorpina pointed down a corridor, smirked, and skipped off. Tommy wondered why he had decided he liked her at all.

Goldar was sitting in a dark room, his feet propped up, looking at the height of boredom. His sword was propped near his hand, ready to be used in an instant. The room was divided by what looked like iron bars, and Jason was sitting on the floor in the cell, looking just as bored. His hands were still bound tightly behind him, though someone had removed the gag.

"Goldar… how's it going?" Tommy said.

Goldar scowled. "Don't visit Empress Rita this morning. Best wait until the afternoon."

Jason laughed unpleasantly.

"The gag can go back on," Goldar said, brandishing the sword in the cell's direction. Jason rolled his eyes and shifted, obviously trying to make himself more comfortable.

Tommy considered Jason. The last few hours, in which the first of the Power Rangers had discovered his identity, seemed to have gone by in a blur. He could feel the anger and hate practically radiate off Jason. It had not been the way Tommy had planned to reveal his identity. In fact, it looked like those plans had to be scrapped. However, the intensity of the betrayal, and the repercussions of said betrayal… that was something Tommy definitely could not have planned. He only hoped he could achieve results even close to that with the other Rangers.

So, in spite of Jason beating him only hours before, Tommy felt somewhat grateful to Jason. He had made things a whole lot easier. "Come here, Red, so I can take off the restraint."

Jason glared at Tommy, seeming to try to pour all of his contempt into one look. He was doing a pretty good job of it, too.

Tommy shrugged. "Fine… but Finster's bringing some breakfast for you, and I'm sure we'd all get a kick out of you eating without your hands."

Jason clenched his jaw, but started moving to get up. "Fine," he said, a low, sharp sound.

Tommy pulled the coil off easily, and Jason stretched his arms, wincing as they cracked loudly. He rubbed his wrists, and Tommy could see twin bruises encircling each. Even with care, Jason couldn't have been able to keep from pulling on the restraints, especially during the fight.

"Good," Jason said, with a smirk. He seemed to be regaining his poise. "Beating you both will be so much easier next time."

Goldar lunged, his sword slipping easily through the bars of the cell. Jason bounded backward out of the sword's reach. He was laughing.

Tommy crossed his arms, allowing Jason a few moments of fun. "Well, I guess I'm off to school," he said finally, putting as much significance into those words as he could.

Jason stopped laughing and glared at him. "You stay away from my friends," he said, his voice low and dangerous.

"Don't have much of a choice, seeing as how Trini already banned me from your little group," Tommy said. "In fact, I'm still wondering why you hopped to my rescue so readily after what I did to Kimberly."

Jason's eye twitched. "What are you talking about?" he asked, as if afraid of the answer.

Goldar and Tommy looked from Jason to each other and started laughing, ignoring the Red Ranger's mounting fury. "She didn't tell you?" Tommy gasped out.

"What did you do?" Jason said. "You couldn't have… not like Billy…"

"Of course not," Tommy said. "I wouldn't repeat myself. What I did to Kimberly was so much worse… or was it easier? What do you think, Goldar?"

Goldar shrugged. "Depends on who you are."

Tommy grinned. "I guess so. Anyway, I invited her to the party Saturday night, brought Scorpina in a human disguise as my date," he moved imperceptibly away from Goldar, worried about more demonstrations of jealousy. "I spread rumors about how fast Kimberly was before she got there, and when she did get there I publicly humiliated her. You'll have to ask her and Trini for a full story."

Jason looked like he'd been hit with a truck.

Tommy laughed. "Honestly, I never thought she would keep that a secret. This definitely opens up some new possibilities."

"Stay away from her," Jason said, his voice nearly recognizable under the rage.

Tommy ignored him. "Goldar… I'll see ya.."

Tommy teleported out right as Finster entered the room holding a tray. "Goldar, Queen Rita wishes to speak with you."

"I'm doing guard duty," Goldar said irritably.

Finster cleared his throat. "Queen Rita expressed to me that apparently I am the only one competent enough to guard a bound and wounded prisoner."

Goldar, for a second, looked like he was about to attack the smaller dog-like alien. However, he merely gathered his sword and walked out, muttering what Jason was sure was alien curses.

Finster set the tray down next to the cell on the floor and backed away quickly, apparently afraid that Jason would enact retribution. Jason, though, simply stared at the food. He didn't recognize it, and he wondered if it was drugged, or poisoned.

"It's perfectly safe," Finster said. "And you'll need to eat it to keep up your strength. Who knows what they have planned for you?"

Something in Finster's voice made Jason freeze a little inside. "They're… I'm never going to leave this place alive, am I?"

Finster paused as he was making his way out. "No, you're not."

Finster left, and Jason was alone.


 

Zack tried to focus on the class he usually taught with Jason as they went through their katas. It was 4:15, he was jumpy, and he knew that attitude was infecting his students.

He'd been like that all day, though: cranky and high-strung. His mom had asked him if he was sick that morning and threatened to keep him home from school. He'd tried to cheer up for her—he didn't want to be held captive in his house. Not today.

Zack frowned at the thought of being held captive, and his stomach twisted tighter into knots.

He'd gone to visit Billy that morning to explain the entire situation. There was the roommate to contend with, though, so Zack had brought everything written down so Billy could read it. He hadn't even been able to ask Billy's advice yet.

The entire situation was making him crazy, Zack mused. Zordon was still gone, and Zack was starting to lose hope that he'd ever be found. Billy was recovering, and Trini was working on a way to speed his recovery, but who knew when or if Billy would rejoin the fight. And Jason had gotten himself caught. And Zack knew he needed to rise above any recriminations, to be the leader the (now 3) Rangers needed so desperately right now, but, dammit, he'd told Jason. He'd been against the trip to the Moon Palace from the beginning. For months.

All this and still go to school? And still teach the class? He wanted literally jump for joy when he saw the first group of parents at the doorway.

"Okay, guys, that's enough for today," Zack said. "Practice those kicks for next time."

The kids left, looking a little deflated. Zack could tell it hadn't been a very good lesson, and he definitely wasn't as lively as the kids were used to seeing him.

"Wow," a voice approached him. Zack turned to see Tommy striding up. "You just tell them all their puppies died?"

Zack forced himself to laugh. "I guess without Jason here, and with Billy in the hospital… I shoulda just cancelled class."

Tommy frowned. "Yeah… where is Jason, anyway? I was hoping to get a decent spar today."

Zack set his teeth and got ready to lie again, knowing that Tommy didn't deserve the lies and evasions he'd gotten the past few days. "Jason's sick… he stayed in today."

"Something going around?" Tommy said. "Billy and Trini missed last week."

"I guess…" Zack said. "Hey, man, I'm up for a spar, anyway."

Tommy grinned. "Sure, that'd be great."

Zack felt some relief in fighting Tommy. It was a friendly spar, both obviously holding back. Tommy was fascinated in Zack's hip hop kido and got Zack to repeat some moves. And Zack felt some of the worry leave him.

That is, until he looked at his watch. It was ten til five, and his brain practically exploded in panic.

"Uh… Tommy? I'm kinda meeting somebody," Zack said. He tried to keep his voice from shaking.

Tommy grinned. "Hot date?"

Zack thought back to Scorpina and her monster form. He shuddered. "Not hardly. I need to clean up, though."

Zack took refuge in the locker room, not even speaking to Tommy. Now that it was nearly time, Zack felt paralyzed. No, that was wrong. He felt trapped. He was following Rita's instructions to the letter, which meant no back-up—the girls were at the Command Center—and unmorphed. He would have welcomed the protection of the power right about then, even if it would escalate the fight in a very public place.

Zack shook his head at the irony, remembering vividly the time Zordon offered them the powers. It occasionally haunted Zack that he had been the first one to refuse. He'd walked out and pressured everyone else to walk out. He remembered telling everyone the reason: that it was all just too weird for him. That there was no way they were putting on spandex and fighting space aliens.

He'd never told them the real reason he'd walked out, though. Truth was, he was scared of the responsibility. Even before Zordon had explained the full meaning of the war, Zack had sensed what they would be required to do… and he hadn't wanted to deal with it.

Zack loved comic books. He loved superheroes in bright costumes and overwrought dialogue. He'd inherited all his dad's old Spider-Man comic books, and that was still by far his favorite. He loved reading about Peter Parker's life… the constant conflict with real life concerns and the constant drive back to the fight, even when it meant he couldn't have a real job or a real life.

Yeah, he loved reading about it. But when faced with the prospect of living that? Peter Parker's life sucked.

The rush of power had changed it for Zack, though. That was when he realized that while Peter Parker's life sucked, being Spider-Man was awesome. While Zack couldn't crawl walls and had no spider-sense, he was super strong, super fast, and piloted huge freakin' robots that beat up on huge freakin' monsters.

It wasn't until right then, as Zack was sitting in the locker room, knowing that Scorpina was already there waiting for him, that Zack reflected that maybe the power wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Zordon, Billy, and Jason were gone, and Zack was wondering if the newspaper wasn't right… if the Power Rangers weren't already defeated.

In a sudden decision, he got up and strode out of the locker room. He would not even resemble a coward. Not when everyone was watching him.

Zack scanned the Youth Center, unsure that he would recognize Scorpina without her gold armor. He wondered what her disguise would be. Black shades and a trench coat? Should they be doing this in a parking garage, and end in a high stakes car chase? Was he watching too many spy movies?

Something caught Zack's eye, and he saw a beautiful woman in a green flannel shirt and oversized blue jeans. She was smiling and waving energetically at him. Ernie was serving her a big plate of chili cheese nachos.

"Zack, you're here!" she exclaimed, her mouth already full. "Have some nachos. I told that guy I was really hungry, and he suggested this."

"No thanks," Zack said, a bit thrown off. He hadn't quite been expecting this out of the woman who kicked their collective asses last time they fought.

"You sure?" Scorpina said. "Shame. This human food is not so bad. Fattening, though. I'll have to watch it or I'll never fit in my armor again."

Zack crossed his arms and didn't say anything.

Scorpina was busy loading as much chili and cheese as she could onto one semi-soggy nacho. "Oh, come on, Zack. You never seemed this dour before. What… is this because you're on the losing side? You know, that really poor sportsmanship. What would those cute little students of yours think?"

"Can we be serious?" Zack said. He didn't know if Scorpina was making fun of him or just crazy.

Scorpina finished chewing and washed it down with a gulp of soda. "All right," she said, her voice lowering. "I suppose you're impatient to discuss terms, then… and I guess I can understand that."

Zack lowered his own voice, hoping that everyone around them would just ignore them. "So what does Rita want in exchange for Jason? I got the feeling this was a 'ransom' type deal."

"You'd be right," Scorpina said. "So here's the deal. Jason, returned and unharmed with his Power Coin… but only in exchange for an artifact hidden in your Command Center."

Zack's brow contracted. That wasn't quite what he was expecting. "What kind of artifact is this? And why didn't she get the Green Ranger to steal it last week if she wants it so much that she'll turn Jason loose for it?"

Scorpina shrugged. "I don't really know what it is or what it does… Rita wants it to be a surprise. As for why she didn't get the Green Ranger to fetch it… It's too well hidden. He wouldn't have been able to pull it off in the time allotted for the attack. You three Rangers, on the other hand, have plenty of time and the full resources of the Command Center to find it… such as they are," Scorpina ended with a smirk.

"If you don't know what it is, how the hell are we going to find it?" Zack asked. He felt itchy all over… he hated having to cut a deal with Rita. Especially when it meant possibly giving her a weapon that would destroy them all.

Scorpina pulled a small device from her pocket and put it on the table. "We don't know what it looks like, but it gives off the same energy signature as the Green Ranger, so this sensor should be able to find it. So… do we have a deal?"

Zack stared at the device and smiled. After all, if it could sense the Green Ranger…

"Yeah, we have a deal," Zack said, sticking his hand out to shake on it. Scorpina looked dubiously at the hand, but followed along the best she could.

Zack was about to pick up the device when it started blinking green.

Tommy appeared over Scorpina's side and grabbed a nacho from the dish. "Evening, Zack… Scorpina."

Zack wasn't quite sure what happened in the next minute. The next he knew, the table was knocked over, nachos and chili covering the floor, and he had pushed Tommy up against the railing, his hand to Tommy's throat.

Tommy chuckled low in his throat. "You really want to start something in here, Black Ranger?"

"What's going on here?" Ernie's voice approached from the bar. Zack relaxed his hold and backed off, but he knew that the damage was done. And, he realized, he didn't much care.

Ernie scowled. "I should have known. There's no fighting in the bar area. You two," he pointed to Tommy and Scorpina. "Out. And if I have to kick you out one more time, you're getting a life ban. And Zack." The fury of his gaze lessened as he turned his attention to Zack. "Look, I know you're mad about what they did to Kim, but I can't have you attacking people, even if they richly deserve it. You're out, too."

Tommy smiled. "Don't worry, Ernie. We were just leaving anyway… weren't we, Zack?"

"Yeah," he said. He was trying to process what had just happened and what Ernie had just said. What had Tommy and Scorpina done to Kimberly that Ernie knew and he didn't?

Ernie stayed where he was, stern and unyielding, obviously waiting for them all to leave. Zack grabbed his bag and the device on the floor, which thankfully had escaped the nacho avalanche.

Tommy walked beside him, and Zack had to keep himself from attacking the man right then and there. "You know," Zack said under his breath to Tommy, "what's going to happen soon as we get out of the building."

Tommy grinned widely. "Nothing I can't handle. How bout you?"

As soon as they emerged, Zack had just enough time to roll out of the way. An arrow struck the wall of the Youth Center, missing Tommy by a mere inch. Another came soaring out of nowhere, but Tommy was already on the move. A minute later, Zack and Tommy were both morphed, Scorpina, still in her human disguise, had pulled her sword out of who knows where, and Zack had rejoined Kimberly and Trini.

"Hey, Kim! Trini, how's it going?" Tommy shouted. He sounded like he was having the time of his life.

"I told you to stay away from my friends," Trini said, her voice barely recognizable amid the fury.

"How could you do this, Tommy?" Zack demanded. "How could you turn on us like this?"

"Yeah, cuz we were all such good friends," Tommy said. "Haven't you figured it out? I've been serving Empress Rita since Friday after last. I became friends with you on Empress Rita's orders. Though I definitely got some perks, didn't I, Kim?"

Kimberly lunged forward with an inarticulate scream of rage. It was all Zack and Trini could do to keep her back. "Kim, no," Trini said desperately. "Not in front of the Youth Center. People might get hurt."

Scorpina grinned. "Actually… that's a great idea."

With a yell, she ran at the Rangers, sword sweeping the ground. She got to Trini first, who ducked and called her Power Daggers. In an instant, they were locked in an intense struggle.

"We gotta help her!" Zack called.

"Not so fast," Tommy said. He'd pulled his own sword, and Zack barely had enough time to block the first swipe with his Power Axe.

Kimberly hesitated, considering both fights. Trini was in perhaps more danger, as her daggers were ill-suited to fighting against the curved blade. However, she really wanted to fight the Green Ranger.

The same white noise filled her head as she stared at him. It was… Tommy. She'd loved him and he'd hurt her, and he'd hurt Billy, and now he was evil and he'd been evil when she was kissing him…

She started for the Green Ranger without even thinking.

"Aw… does the Pink Ranger not have a playmate?" a gravelly voice said behind her.

Kimberly whirled around just in time to see a gold fist hit her straight in the chest. She stumbled back, sparks flying, but she was able to recover in time to avoid Goldar's sword. She drew her blade blaster and began to fight.

Out of the corner of his eye, Zack saw a few children—students of his—start to leave the Youth Center with ice cream cones. They seemed to be frozen at the sight of the battle. "Run back inside!" he yelled, hoping that they could hear him above the noise of the six combatants. Jeremy, one of the older and more advanced students, thankfully had more sense than the others and pulled them back away from the entrance.

Suddenly, the area seemed filled with gray as what looked like twenty Putties teleported in the middle of the battle. Zack braced himself, preparing to battle multiple opponents. The Putties, however, were not there to join the fight.

"You have your orders!" Goldar shouted. "Attack inside!"

The Putties turned and filed into the Youth Center.

"No!" Trini shouted, and she tried to detach herself from Scorpina to run inside the Youth Center. Scorpina, however, blocked her way and kept her engaged in the fight, laughing as she did so.

Zack heard a scream, unmistakably that of a child, and he snapped. Screaming with rage, he cleaved the axe hard into Tommy's gut. Sparks flew, and Tommy doubled over, grunting in pain. Zack didn't stop to watch him, though. He burst past the doors of the Youth Center, hoping that Trini and Kimberly could take care of themselves… and that Tommy didn't follow. Zack cursed under his breath as he rounded the sharp turn in the corridor to the Youth Center's main room.

All was chaos. Putties were pushing people against the wall and routing the few who had taken refuge behind the bar. Putties were guarding all the exits. A few people had tried to fight back. Those were the people who were now lying on the ground, injured and moaning in pain. One was Jeremy.

"All right, Putties!" Zack screamed. "You wanna fight! You got it!"

Zack fought with a ferocity he'd never experienced before. All the usual style of his dance-like martial arts were gone, and he was just fighting to cause as much damage as he could. The Putties tried to contend with him by sheer numbers, but Zack didn't give them the chance. He maneuvered them into the right position, hit hard, left them on the ground, and moved on. He wasn't even frightened when more Putties teleported in to replace their fallen comrades.

The Putties started moving away from him, though, and Zack realized that Kimberly had joined the fray.

"They're right behind me!" Kim shouted, and Zack was horrified to realize she meant the Green Ranger, Goldar, and Scorpina. "Yellow Ranger is holding them off, but they're trying to get in!"

Zack threw himself off a Putty and hopped onto the bar. In his loudest voice, he cried, "All right, everybody! You need to evacuate! Help the people who are hurt, and follow Ernie out the back door!"

The people seemed dazed. No one was really paying attention. Finally, Ernie and a few people Zack went to school with got the message and took charge, pushing people toward the back exit as quickly as possible.


 

Bulk and Skull pushed through the crowd, running for their lives. At one point, Bulk picked up a small boy in front of him and physically carried him just to keep the line moving.

"Thanks, mister," the boy said when Bulk put him down as soon as they hit outside.

"Yeah, whatever," Bulk said. "We gotta get out of here."

Skull prepared to run after the rest of the crowd, but Bulk stopped him short. "Are you crazy? That's a park they're running toward. There'll be more aliens there, for sure."

"Oh, yeah," Skull said. Out of habit, he pulled a piece of gum out of his pocket. He'd swallowed his other piece during the evacuation. "So what do we do?"

Bulk looked around frantically, and his eyes lighted on the Youth Center's bus. A lightbulb went off in his head. "We drive."

Skull stared at the bus. "I don't know how to drive."

"I don't have my license yet," Bulk said, "but that doesn't matter. This is life or death!"

Bulk bounded into the bus and grinned at the keys in the sun visor. He rolled down the window as he cranked it up. "Hey, everybody! Get in… we got wheels! We're getting out of here!"

Skull entered the bus. Everyone else ignored Bulk.

"Ah, screw you guys, anyway," Bulk muttered under his breath and drove away.


 

The last one was gone into the kitchen to leave by the loading dock when Trini flew through the entrance and crashed into some weights equipment on the opposite end of the room. She staggered up.

"You okay, Trini?" Zack said.

"Yeah," she answered, a bit dazed. "I'm fine."

"Well, wadaya know," Goldar said lazily. "They evacuated the place."

Zack, Trini, and Kimberly edged toward each other, guarding the back exit, ready to fight to the death before letting any of them past.

"It was a cheap trick, anyway," Tommy said. "I like fighting better when your opponent can actually pay attention to the fight."

"Yeah, but it was funny," Scorpina said. She rolled her eyes when the Rangers pulled their weapons, aiming straight at her. "Well, Goldar, Green Ranger… looks like we won't get a decent fight out of them unless we change scenes."

She whipped her sword around, they all felt a pull, and the Youth Center disappeared. They were at a secluded stretch of beach… a very familiar one.

"Now," Tommy said, all humor gone from his voice. "Now we fight for real."

 

Chapter Text

"In an unprecedented move, the aliens known as Putties…" The blonde reporter paused here, as if pointing out the alien nature of the word, "…attacked the popular Ernie's Juice Bar this afternoon." The camera pulled back to show the reporter walking past toppled exercise equipment. "Before the Power Rangers could intervene, the Putties reportedly injured eight people, including one ten-year-old boy. Sources say…"

"Yeah, and they're going to start abusing the Power Rangers any second," John Oliver said.

"Sandra," a male voice broke in to the report, "can we account for how the Power Rangers could have allowed this to happen?"

"Told ya," John said. "They don't have any other information, so they're going to start jabbering on how the Power Rangers are supposed to control the world and stop all bad things happening or something."

Billy turned his gaze from the television, realizing the man was right. They had obviously evacuated the civilians and even moved the fight… to somewhere. But Billy didn't know where, and by the time the news media caught up the fight would be over.

It was, in some ways, maddening to have Mr. Oliver there. Billy fairly itched to contact Alpha to find out what was really going on. Was Jason all right? Were they still fighting? Who was winning? Had any civilians been seriously hurt?

In other ways, though, Billy was glad that Mr. Oliver was there. It helped him fight the temptation to contact Alpha when he knew he couldn't help. He would just be a nuisance… in the way. And all he wanted to do was alleviate his curiosity when he would find out everything later.

Besides, haven't you given up being a Power Ranger? Billy asked himself.

There were times when he took that resolution seriously, and times when he didn't. Right then? …He just wanted to help.

"Do you think all that stuff about the Power Rangers losing is true?" John asked.

"God, I hope not," Billy said.


 

The air was filled with shouts, blasts, and sand in the secluded beach as Zack, Kimberly, and Trini faced off against Goldar, Scorpina, and Tommy.

"Damn sand!" Scorpina shouted. "This armor is not made for the beach."

"Will you pay attention to the fight?" Goldar said. Trini and Zack were working together surprisingly well, and Goldar had to fight to keep up with them, even with Scorpina by his side. He supposed it was that righteous fury that made them so tough. He would have to speak to Tommy about the wisdom of his timing. It would be really embarrassing if they were beaten here.

Tommy and Kimberly, however, little cared about Goldar's plight, Trini's and Zack's teamwork, or the sand in Scorpina's armor. They only had eyes for each other.

"You know," Tommy said as he weaved through Kimberly's furious attacks, "we had a lot more fun last time at this beach."

Kimberly practically growled and punched at his stomach.

Tommy, however, caught her arm and swung her around, pulling her close to his chest. "On the other hand… maybe not."

Kimberly elbowed him and he slackened his grip. She pulled out a blade blaster and stabbed straight at him. He dodged each attack.

"It's funny… you're always trying to jump me here," Tommy said, a cruel smile in his voice.

Kimberly flipped over him, set her blaster, and fired at him before he had a chance to turn around. Tommy's shield sparked and he was thrown forward, slamming into the ground.

"Sorry, Tommy… I just don't think you're worth it anymore," Kimberly said, setting an arrow in her bow as he pulled himself up. Before he could get up properly, she let a few arrows fly, and two landed square in the middle of Tommy's chest. For the first time, black marks scored the gold mantle.

Kimberly didn't have much time to rejoice, though. With a yell of fury, Tommy seemed to fly toward her, his sword drawn. She set herself to block and parry, but Tommy was too fast for her. The sword sliced across her chest, and Kimberly felt as if she'd been cut. Her shielding held, though, a thin black line only marring her uniform.

"What make you think," Tommy raged, "that you can take me on? What, you and your… gymnastics?"

Kimberly flipped over him to avoid another attack, but Tommy anticipated this and sliced upwards, catching Kimberly in the shoulder. She bit back a scream as she hit the ground hard. A sword came flashing down at her, but she rolled and kicked at Tommy. Tommy, however, caught the leg and flung her bodily over his shoulder.

Kimberly landed in the waves. Even as she fought to regain her footing, Tommy attacked again, shoving her further into the water. The helmet protected her completely from the sea water, providing her with oxygen, but she couldn't see and couldn't even tell where Tommy was… and she was starting to panic.

He's better than me, she thought. I… can't beat him.

Completely helpless to prevent it, she felt herself flung onto the hard sand. Even with the protection of her helmet, she found it hard to breathe. Her vision cleared up soon enough to see Tommy pounce… and then he was gone. She heard someone screaming.

Kimberly flipped to her feet, ignoring her exhaustion, and looked around wildly for her savior. She could vaguely see Trini and Zack fighting Goldar and Scorpina in the distance. Their fight had taken them much further down the beach. No, there was no one there except her and Tommy.

Tommy was a few feet away, lying on the ground and clutching his helmet. He was screaming in agony.

"But…" Kimberly spluttered. "But I didn't do anything."

Tommy didn't answer. He just kept screaming.

Kimberly stared at him, frozen. She knew, on one level, that something was wrong inside Tommy… and she knew that she should do something to help him. But… He was evil. Would she even think of helping Goldar or Scorpina that way?

A dull flash, and Tommy de-morphed. Now Kimberly could see his face twisted in pain. He didn't even seem aware that he was no longer morphed. He didn't seem aware that Kimberly was standing over him. In jerky movements, Tommy pulled a device from his back pocket, pressed some buttons, and disappeared.

Kimberly stared at the place Tommy had disappeared. "What was that all about?" she whispered.

Sudden shouts, and Kimberly turned to see Trini and Zack running toward her. One glance up could tell why: where Goldar and Scorpina used to be was covered by a gigantic golden foot, and the two—Scorpina now in monster form—towered up above the cliffs surrounding the beach.

"Shit," Zack said. "I was really hoping we wouldn't have to do this."

"Don't worry," Trini said. "Alpha and I rigged up remote control over all the Zords, so we should be able to call Jason's and Billy's Zords to form MegaZord."

"First good news I've heard all day…" Zack mumbled, and then set himself in the pose to activate the Zords. "We need DinoZord power, now!"

The Rangers wasted no time in interlocking the Zords. Zack took the head position, letting Kimberly and Trini divide all the other positions between themselves. It felt… off, to say the least. The cockpit felt all empty and echo-y.

"We gotta strike hard," Zack said, missing Jason more and more by the minute as he felt himself imaging what Jason would do. "We can't give them any time to think."

"Got it," Trini said.

Kimberly still felt a pressure on her chest, remembering Tommy's sudden… fit, or something. But she hid the feelings easily. It was always easy to hide with a helmet on. "Gross," she said in the voice her mother called her "mallrat" voice. "Have I mentioned I hate bug monsters?"

"More than once," Trini said, a smile in her voice.

As Goldar swung at them with his sword, their attention sharpened. Zack gripped the controls unnecessarily hard. Under what could be called ideal circumstances, Zord fighting was difficult. This was, however, far from ideal circumstances. As soon as they could throw off Goldar, Scorpina lunged into the fight, her three weapons swinging wildly. They were able to block the sword and the claw, but they were all thrown against their seats when the sting connected.

"We call on the MegaSword!" Zack yelled, hoping he was getting the words right. Whether he did or not, the sword fell from the sky (Zack always wondered how it did that) and landed beside the Zord.

With the Sword, they could easily deflect most of Scorpina's attacks, and they were able to fight on equal terms with Goldar. The Sword wasn't charged up for a finishing move yet, since Zack had called it a bit too early, but Goldar was still fighting to keep up with the MegaZord with the addition of the sword.

"All right, guys," Zack said. "It's almost powered up. I say we end this fight."

"Um… Zack?" Kimberly said.

"Yeah…" Trini's voice was shaky. "We might need to stop or something."

"What?" Zack began furiously.

Kimberly pointed forward. "Look at Scorpina."

Zack froze. A bus was balanced in Scorpina's claw. She seemed to be peering into it. "Some sort of human transportation?" she said.

"Put it down!" Zack's stomach dropped. As long as Scorpina had the bus, which probably had civilians on board, they couldn't do anything. If they attacked, Scorpina would definitely drop the bus… or even fling it into the ocean.

"I think you know the people in there," Scorpina said. "But I can't remember their names… Hey, Goldar! You check it out."

Scorpina lobbed the bus in an easy swing to Goldar's outstretched hands. He caught it even as Zack, Trini, and Kimberly yelled in fear. That must have hurt whoever was in there. What if it was kids.

Goldar peered inside and laughed. "It's those fools… Bulk and Skull, as you call them. They're unharmed… for now."

"So you have a choice, Power Rangers," Scorpina said. "Ever since you started the fight... yes, you started the fight… people have been getting hurt. Do you want that to continue, or do you want to stand down?"

The sword was fully charged. Scorpina had put away her sword when examining the bus. She was right there… it would be so easy to hit her with all they had…

But what about the lives involved? What about Bulk and Skull and, good God, Jason

"Zack, we have to back down," Kimberly said. "She's right, we… I… I started the fight. I threw the first blow when I shot at T… the Green Ranger."

Zack smiled behind his mask. "Kim, you didn't throw the first blow. I did. But… you're right. We don't have a choice. All right, Goldar… we'll stand down if you put the bus down first… gently."

Goldar shrugged. "Fair enough." He put the bus back on the cliff. Within minutes, the bus was speeding away. "Now it's your move, Rangers."

Zack sighed. "I guess we power down now."

"Before they've shrunk?" Kimberly said. "I mean, they're not exactly trustworthy. What if they step on us?"

"We'll deal," Zack said. "And they did as we asked."

The three Rangers landed lightly on the beach, the Zords breaking up and speeding away to storage. By the time they looked up, Scorpina and Goldar had disappeared.

"I suppose we don't have to worry about being stepped on," Trini said.

"Come on," Zack said, pride stinging at the sudden end to the battle. "Let's get to the Command Center."


 

Rita Repulsa sat in the darkened lab, feeling slightly doped up on pain medication. Tommy was lying on the medical table, finally asleep, though his screams still rung in Rita's ears.

"What have you discovered, Finster?" she asked, her head still pounding with the effort of speaking.

Finster was waving a device over Tommy's head, deep in concentration, so it took him a full minute to finally respond. "My Queen… I must run more tests, of course, but…"

"Out with it, Finster."

"The mind control is damaging him."

Rita leaned forward and rubbed her temples, an old habit that rarely actually helped. "That's… impossible. It's going so well. I'm doing everything perfectly, and Tommy responded so well to the mind control."

"As you said right at the beginning, he knows how to compromise," Finster said. He set a scanner to monitor Tommy's condition and faced Rita. "But that does not mean he becomes a completely different person. Whenever he is faced with anything that conflicts with your orders, the struggle that is ever-present in his subconscious mind comes to a head… in very violent ways."

Rita stomach twisted into a knot as she suppressed the anger building inside her. "Struggle…? He struggles against the spell? I refuse to…"

"Forgive me, my Queen," Finster cut in. "You know this, yourself. Surely."

Of course Rita knew it. She stared down at her hands and remembered how they had danced just a few nights before. She remembered the planning sessions, the jubilation as Tommy had performed her plans admirably. She remembered him dropping to his knees before her, professing his undying loyalty with tears in his eyes.

But even so… There was the attack on the Command Center. There was the date with Kimberly, when he'd almost confessed to her. There was yesterday morning, when he'd faced his father. And now… again with Kimberly…

"He's not eating," Finster continued. "He's not sleeping except with potions. Most of the time, he's running on pure adrenaline. I'm not quite sure if he consciously or unconsciously punishing himself. I just know that if he continues like this…"

"Send for Babboo," Rita cut him off. "Tell him to prepare the potions. I will further reinforce the spell tonight."

Finster's eyes widened. "M-my queen! We're not sure how that will affect him. It could ki—"

"He's mine!" Rita said, rising to her feet. The pain sharpened, but she ignored it. "He's mine, and I'm not letting him go. Do. You. Understand. Me."

Finster looked for a moment like he was going to protest, but he simply bowed to Rita. "As you wish, my Queen."

Rita swept out of the lab. "Have Tommy awake and ready by 7:00 tonight," she called behind her.


 

"Ay yi yi, Rangers! I'm so glad you're alright!"

"Thanks, Alpha," Trini said quietly.

Neither Zack nor Kimberly responded. Kimberly slumped on the floor, her back against a console, and hugged her knees to her chest. Zack stood stock still, his arms folded, looking down.

"Did anyone suspect?" Zack said. "Did anyone have any idea?"

Trini shook her head. "That's why Jason was gagged. He must have known."

"I'm so sorry, Rangers," Alpha said. "I know he was your friend…"

Zack snorted. "He wasn't a friend. He became friends with us on Rita's orders… he said so himself."

"Zack, sh," Trini said, looking over at Kimberly.

Kimberly had pulled herself tighter into a ball. She wasn't crying, but she still looked completely miserable.

Zack tried to stay angry. "Kim, what did he do to you? What did he do that Ernie knows about and I don't?"

Kimberly looked away. Seeing Kimberly sink further into misery and Zack getting angrier, Trini told the story of the party. Zack's face darkened as the recital wore on.

"And why," he said after the story's completion, "didn't either of you tell me? Tell us? I sparred with Tommy just this afternoon! I felt guilty for lying to him!"

"It wasn't any of your business!" Kimberly flared, pulling her face from her knees. "What, I have to share everything with the group now?"

"Yeah, you should share clues to the Green Ranger's identity… I don't think I'm being unfair in asking that," Zack said. His stomach twisted. He didn't want to yell at Kimberly when she was so miserable. He just couldn't stop.

"Oh, come on." Kimberly sprang to her feet. "I couldn't have realized he was evil evil. I thought he was regular guy evil! And I didn't feel like telling you something that would get you pissed off and make you think you had to defend me."

"Sorry if I care about my friends!"

"Enough!" Trini shouted. She stepped between Kimberly and Zack, who were advancing on each other in the heat of their argument. "We shouldn't be at each other's throats," she said, a little more quietly.

They both glared at Trini. Alpha hovered in a corner, not quite sure how to react to the sudden argument.

"You're right, Trini," Zack finally said. "I'm sorry, Kim."

"Me, too," Kimberly said. "It's just…"

"Yeah…" Zack said. "This is going to crush Billy. I mean…"

Trini leaned against a console, a little drained from trying to keep the peace. "I'll go visit him tonight. Tell him everything. He's been out of the loop too much."

"How's your work on healing him?" Zack asked.

Trini smiled. "I'm actually optimistic. I'm not going to swear by it, but I might have something by tomorrow."

"Speaking of…" Kimberly said, gesturing to Zack's pocket. "What do we know about Jason's ransom?"

Zack pulled the device out of his pocket. It was completely unharmed. Trini pulled it from his grasp and examined it. "It's supposed to sense the Green Ranger's energy signature," Zack added.

"Please, may I see, Trini?" Alpha said, holding his hand out for the device. He examined it closely, and began checking something on a console.

"Can we change it or something?" Zack said. "Maybe to sense Red Ranger energy?"

"Good idea," Kimberly said. She seemed keen to keep the peace with Zack.

Alpha scrutinized a bit closer. He shook his head. "No, Zack, the controls are locked. It's rigged to self-destruct if we attempt modifications in that way."

"Worth a shot," Zack said. "So… do you have any idea what sort of 'artifact' Rita's sending us for?"

"I'm sorry, Rangers… no," Alpha said. "But I can hook this device into the security system to narrow down the location."

"Great," Zack said. "It would suck to have to search this whole place. Now… Hey." Zack's eyes widened. "I just remembered. Kim. Tommy wasn't there when we found you to call on the Zords." He grinned. "Did you kick his ass?" He was also keen to keep the peace with Kimberly.

Kimberly folded her arms and frowned at the memory. "Um… no. Actually, I need to tell you about something weird." She told them about the fight with Tommy, and his sudden, screaming fit and retreat.

"But he could have seen us coming," Zack reasoned. "Or he saw that Goldar and Scorpina had grown. Or…"

"Zack, he had me," Kimberly cut in. "He was the better fighter, and he was pretty much tossing me around like a rag doll. I was losing, utterly and completely, and before he could deliver a final blow he collapsed in pain."

"Rangers, I have the location!" Alpha called before Zack could respond.

Zack looked at Kimberly reluctantly, and then moved to Alpha. He was holding a printed-off map of the lower levels of the Command Center. Kimberly and Trini grouped in behind Zack, peering closely at the map.

"It looks like the artifact is hidden in the lowest level of the Command Center… miles underground," Trini said.

"Correct, Trini," Alpha said. "And there are no short-cuts. Security prevents us from teleporting you, so you'll have to go the long way."

"Wait a minute," Zack said. "Why can't we teleport? I mean, it's in this building…"

"Isn't that one of the places we're not supposed to go?" Kimberly chimed in.

Alpha shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, Kimberly, that is true. Zordon has stored items that none of you are ready for… and there are dangerous items down there, as well."

"Makes sense," Zack said. "Rita would want one of those dangerous items. Who knows what we'll be handing over to her?"

"Do we have a choice?" Kimberly said.

Zack smiled. "Nah, I guess we don't. Alright, let's plan this out." He moved under Zordon's tube, trying to exude the same confidence he had seen the countless times Jason had given these speeches. "Trini, you need to visit Billy, and then you need to keep working on Billy's cure. Alpha, you're still on Zordon hunt. That leaves me and Kimberly to go find this… artifact." He looked over at Kimberly. "You up to it?"

Kimberly smiled for the first time in what felt like days. "As long as we can keep from strangling each other, I'm up for anything."

Alpha pulled something out of a compartment in a console. "Here, Zack. This is a better communicator for where you're going. You can connect directly through the security system and to me at any time."

"Thanks, Alpha."

"But…" Kimberly said. "What if Rita attacks while we're down there?"

"Then she's being counterproductive," Trini said. "She wants the artifact, so she's got to give us time to get it. Remember… we started the fight this afternoon, not her."

"Even so," Zack said, "be on the alert, Trini. If there's any trouble, contact us immediately and we'll be there as soon as we can."

"Hopefully I'll have Billy by my side soon, anyway," Trini said.

"Trini…" Kimberly said, "just be careful. We're sort of dropping like flies here."

"I promise," Trini said seriously.

"Right," Zack said, calling all attention back to himself. "Look, I know that we're all tired and pissed." He smirked. "Rita has planned this out perfectly. Each time we think we're regrouping, she's thrown something else at us. Tommy's reveal this afternoon… it made us do stupid things.

"We've been letting them get to us," Zack continued. "The Command Center, the attack on Billy, Jason's capture, using Tommy against us… It's all just to make us emotional and desperate. But we're better than this. We're above all that. We're going to get Billy back, and Jason, and Zordon… We're going to do all that. But first, we've got to make sure we're thinking with our heads. No more emotional attacks. That's the only way we're going to get the upper hand."

Zack looked at Kimberly through the corner of his eye. Trini, after all, had kept it together. It had been himself and Kimberly who had gone crazy.

Kimberly gave a sharp nod. "I'm fine… or at least I'm going to get fine. I'm over him."

There was something in her voice that belied her statement, but that was only natural, Zack reflected.

"We'll need to pack some supplies," Zack said, "if the place is that far away. We can start now, make camp for a few hours, and then keep going." Zack grimaced. "I just hope Jason can keep safe until we get him out."


 

"Hey, Babboo! Knock knock."

"Who's there?" Babboo answered.

"Squatt," the blue alien answered, seeming confused.

"No, no!" Babboo said. "You've got it all wrong!" He hit Squatt on the head with each syllable. "That's not how the human said to do it!"

Squatt pushed Babboo away. "Alright! Alright! Human," he turned to the cell. "Tell it to us again."

Jason sighed. "Alright, once more. Squatt, you say 'Knock knock.' Then Babboo says 'Who's there?'"

"We got that already!" Babboo protested.

"Then this is where it gets tricky," Jason said. "Squatt… you don't answer your name. He's not really asking you who's there. See, it's all part of the joke."

Squatt stared at Jason for half a minute, then a light seemed to dawn. "Oh!" He frowned. "So what do I say then?"

Jason shrugged. "Say 'banana.'"

"Okay, here we go," Squatt said, taking a deep breath. "Knock knock," he said with deep importance.

"Who's there?" Babboo said.

Squatt gave a panicked look at Jason, who mouthed the word. "Banana," Squatt said triumphantly.

"Banana who?" Babboo answered promptly.

Squatt shot an expectant look over at Jason. "I don't know… what am I supposed to say?"

Jason grinned. "Well, here's the genius of the joke. That's when you start over with 'Knock knock.' You just repeat what you've said before."

"So what's the end of the joke?" Babboo said.

Jason looked at them both, considering whether or not to throw in the "orange" ending. He smiled. "There is no ending. You just keep repeating it. See? That's what so funny about it. The repetition."

Squatt and Babboo stared at him in wonder. "Oooohhhh," they said in unison.

"Hey!" Jason said with as much excitement as he could muster. "Why don't you go tell Rita that joke? I'm sure she'd love it!"

"Great idea!" they enthused, and started walking away, practicing the joke as they went.

"The longer you keep it up, the funnier it gets!" Jason called out behind them.

Jason slumped in a corner of the cell, glad to finally be rid of the two. They'd been pestering him for nearly an hour. He'd been left alone, though, for most of the day. Goldar had not returned for guard duty, and Jason figured he'd been forced to do that in the first place as punishment. Finster had come that afternoon with a small meal, and that had been it.

In the time alone, he'd tested every square inch of the cell, bars and walls, for weaknesses. There were none, of course, but he couldn't have lived with himself if he hadn't checked. He'd also trained a bit, just to keep centered and to keep from panicking. But even the fear had gone. Now, sitting mostly alone in a cell with nothing to do… he was achingly bored.

"Hilarious, by the way," a mocking female voice interrupted his boredom.

"What's that?" he asked.

Scorpina draped herself on the chair Goldar had occupied that morning. "Your little joke with the two fools. Unfortunately, they'll have to postpone their… performance. Rita's busy."

"You're not going to stop them?"

Scorpina shrugged. "Why should I? It's harmless. They're always annoying Rita; you just gave them more ammo." She cocked her head. "Bored in there?"

Jason finally looked at her fully. "You have no idea. Why do you think I'm talking to you?"

"I hear ya," Scorpina laughed. "Don't worry, though. You won't have to worry about boredom for long… or anything else."

Jason rolled his eyes. "You know… those threats just get less and less scary each time."

"So it's an empty threat, is it?" Scorpina said. "We'll see… Tomorrow, we'll see."

Something in her eyes made Jason's skin prickle. Suddenly, he missed the boredom of being alone.

"Hey, Tommy," Scorpina said. "What's up?"

Jason narrowed his eyes at the new arrival. Tommy, though, didn't seem to notice Jason. He didn't seem to notice anyone. He looked like someone who just wandered in.

"Tommy?" Scorpina got up and touched Tommy's arm.

He flinched away, his eyes haunted. "What? Nothing. It's nothing." His eyes twitched madly.

"Umm… okay," Scorpina said slowly. "You sure you don't need some sleep?"

"Maybe it's a guilty conscience," Jason said, a bit unkindly.

In an instant, Tommy flew at Jason with a roundhouse kick to the bars. The ring of metal echoed through the chamber, and Jason backed up against the wall, readying himself for if Tommy wanted to turn this into a real fight.

"AT LEAST I'M NOT SOME PRISONER!" Tommy practically foamed at the mouth.

"Tommy, I told you to go straight to the lab." Finster hurried in and grabbed Tommy. This time he didn't flinch. This time he… giggled.

The hairs stood up on Jason's neck. This wasn't evil Tommy. This was something… much worse.

"What's wrong with him, doc?" Scorpina said, staring in surprise at Tommy.

"Phallus of nightmares!" Tommy laughed wildly.

Finster started pulling him away, and Tommy offered little resistance. "Nothing," Finster grunted, "a few good REM cycles won't cure. His reaction to the mind control is not as smooth as last time."

Tommy pointed to his head and whispered, "She's in here."

"Here, let me help you," Scorpina said, and she helped lead Tommy away.

Jason continued to stare at where Tommy had been moments before. Mind control. That explained… quite a lot. It explained what Billy had gathered from the father, about this complete switch in personality and loyalty. It especially explained why Tommy would work for someone who was trying to destroy his planet.

But from what he had seen, Tommy wasn't completely brainwashed. He wasn't, like, a Putty or a zombie. He could pass completely as normal and fool all of them. He didn't need orders all the time. He could think on his feet. And, if Jason had figured things out correctly, Tommy planned and fought along with the rest of them, like an equal. He thought he was evil by choice.

"That is just… sick," Jason whispered.

What had he said? At least I'm not some prisoner?

"No, you're not a prisoner," Jason said. "You were never a prisoner, Tommy. You're a slave."


 

"And so that's that," Trini finished. She poured herself a glass of water from the pitcher beside Billy's bed, parched from the recital of everything that had happened that day.

Billy closed his eyes, overwhelmed by the entire story. He was sitting with the bed almost all the way up, his ribs finally allowing him that range of movement. He had known most of the biggest problems, though it hurt to hear his suspicion about Tommy confirmed. It also hurt that Jason had obviously not shared his theory with the rest of the Rangers.

"So, as we stand now," Billy said, his eyes still closed, "We know the identity of the Green Ranger, though we don't know why Tommy is doing this. Jason has been captured and is practically unreachable in the Moon Palace. Zack and Kimberly are retrieving a probably dangerous artifact for Rita to exchange for Jason, but there's no way Rita will give Jason up that easily." He sighed. "So she has us cornered."

"For right now," Trini said. "Only for right now. And why aren't you more freaked out about Tommy?"

Billy smiled. "I had sort of figured it out, but I couldn't say anything without any hard evidence," he lied. He didn't want to pile recriminations on Jason… not when they weren't sure if they'd ever see him again. "Things that his father said, and various other clues…"

"Plus he's the only new kid in school," Trini said. She sounded frustrated with herself. "And he wears green."

Billy chuckled. They sometimes joked about this unconscious leaning to wearing their Ranger colors. Billy still felt itchy that his mother hadn't brought any blue pajamas.

"Trini," he said, becoming serious. "You shouldn't be so concerned with healing me. There are more important things to focus on."

Trini gave him a sharp look. "What do you mean by that? The only thing that's just as important is finding Zordon, and Alpha is taking care of that. He can work fast enough without us."

"But…" Billy began.

Trini waved away any protests. "Look, we need everyone back: Zordon, Jason… and you. Do you realize we're down to a fighting force of three?"

"I had noticed that," Billy said. "But what good am I, anyway?"

"You're just like this because Tommy attacked you," Trini said, a little harsher than she meant.

"And so what if I am?" Billy said. "He may be evil, but he's also right. In a fight, I'm a liability."

"Since when?"

"Since always." Billy glared down at his hands. "I can't fight at all unless I'm morphed. I couldn't do anything against Tommy. I couldn't…"

"Jason is the best fighter among us," Trini said, "and he got taken prisoner! It has nothing to do with your skill… and you're getting better with each fight. Soon…"

"Soon I'll be on par with one of Jason's and Zack's youngest students. Let's face it, Trini… I shouldn't be a Power Ranger," Billy said. "You need to focus on getting Jason back… not on healing me just so I can get beaten again."

Trini opened her mouth furiously, but a worried look at the door from Billy silenced her. Mr. Oliver was wheeled into the room, his face haggard despite his smiles.

"Hello… Trini, was it?" he said. "It's later than usual visiting hours."

Trini smiled at the man. "I snuck in," she faux-whispered. She received a stern look from the nurse steering Mr. Oliver's wheelchair. "And… I'm leaving now."

"Good idea," the nurse said.

"Remember what I said," Billy called out after her.

Trini turned and gave him a look. "Billy… I'm actively forgetting it. So get used to it."


 

It was dark. The only light source was harsh, red emergency lights lining the corridors, and Kimberly's and Zack's flashlights.

"Is this even still the Command Center?" Kimberly broke the profound silence. She jumped at the sound of her own voice, and dropped down into a whisper. "It's so creepy."

"Word to that," Zack said under his breath.

They moved through the winding passage slowly. They had long passed the smooth, computer-swept corridors, and they continually had to step over debris, abandoned devices, and, in one disturbing moment, an animal skeleton.

Kimberly walked into a spider-web, screamed, and clung to Zack. "Oh… um… so I had my girly moment there," she said, pulling away from an amused Zack. "I'm done."

"Don't worry," Zack joked. "I'm here to prote… AAAUUUGGHHHH!"

"What?" Kimberly said, whipping around.

Zack stood frozen, staring at the ground lighted by his flashlight. "S-spider," he whispered.

Kimberly roller her eyes as the tiny spider skittered away. "Yeah, you're the manly man."

"What? I don't like spiders."

Kimberly wrinkled her nose. "I think that spider is the least of our problems."

Ahead of them, the red lights petered out. So did the metal lining the walls. Instead, their flashlights fell on a rough hewn cavern, a small lake in the middle and several passages leading out of it on the opposite end. The air was moist, and they tried not to think of all the critters that could be hiding in the crevices of the cavern.

"Did we take a wrong turn?" Kimberly said.

Zack turned his flashlight to the map and squinted at it. "No… we didn't. See, this cavern is on the map. This place is still counted as the Command Center."

The air smelled of mold. "Yeah," Kimberly said, "the icky part.

Zack looked from the map to the far wall and back several times. "Looks like we're taking that third passage from the right."

Kimberly steeled herself. "Alright… then let's do this."

They inched forward, watching each step. Kimberly nearly jumped out of her skin when a lizard ran across her shoe. She kicked wildly. Without a word, Zack grabbed her hand, squeezing tight.

"Some heroes we are," Kimberly mumbled. "Fight big bad monsters for the Earth's protection… terrified of a tiny lizard."

"That's cuz tiny things are scary," Zack said, trying to keep his voice light. It was too darn quiet in the cavern. "I mean, take spiders. Sure, tarantulas are freakin' terrifying. I get the willies just thinking about them. But tiny spiders? The most poisonous spiders in the world are tiny—the black widow, the brown recluse… But the worst is when I read this story about a spider laying eggs in this guy's ear, and then they all hatched at once and covered his face…"

"Zack?"

"Yeah."

"Shut up."

Zack nodded. "Truth is… I'm scared of spiders. And snakes. And pretty much any kind of creepy crawly. Do you know why? You can't fight them. They're too little. Now… give me a Putty or a monster any day, and I'll drop their ass."

Kimberly smiled at him. "It's okay, Zack. As far as I'm concerned, your manliness is still intact."

Zack laughed and squeezed her hand… and then her hand was gone.

Kimberly screamed. Her flashlight dropped and began spinning wildly as it fell down a small pit that had been covered by a mold so thick it looked like ground, but not thick enough to hold up a human.

"Kimberly!" Zack screamed into the pit.

"I… I'm all right!" Kimberly called back. "I flipped just in time. Didn't even hurt my ankle."

Zack's wild searching with the flashlight finally revealed Kimberly—disheveled and mud-spattered, but nonetheless healthy. She had picked up her own flashlight and was trying to wipe the grime off the bulb.

"Can you climb up?" Zack asked.

Kimberly searched the slimy, muddy walls of the pit. "I don't really trust it. These walls don't look all that sturdy."

Zack was already rummaging through his pack, his flashlight gripped with his teeth. Finally, his hands closed on some rope. "Kim…" he started, and then remembered to take the flashlight out of his mouth. "Kimberly! I've got some rope!"

"Hurry!" There was now a real note of fear in Kim's voice. "There's something down here with me!"

Zack unraveled the rope, tangling it twice in his haste, and threw it down. "Grab on, Kim!" He felt a tug; he grinned and began to pull. The robe wouldn't budge. "Kim, you're going to have to help me here. Climb with the rope."

"Zack, I don't have the rope!" Kimberly yelled.

Zack stared at the rope in panic. He felt the rope yank out of his hands. Then he felt… something… circle around his waist and pull him into the pit.

Zack hit the ground hard. Thankfully, it was all mud. Still gripping the flashlight, he pointed it wildly. It illuminated a mouth full of teeth just feet from him. He screamed as the tentacle pulled him inexorably toward the mouth.

"It's morphin time!"

A dazzling flash of light, and the monster screamed. The tentacle loosened as Zack was sprayed with warm goo that he was pretty sure was monster blood. Acting on instinct, he morphed as well. It was a good thing, because the monster swung a tentacle around, knocking Zack off his feet. Kimberly screamed, and the monster let out an ear-splitting shriek to match.

"Zack, it's dragging me to the lake!"

The good thing about morphing was that the helmets were equipped with night vision. Zack saw the monster, which looked like a giant octopus with a vaguely frog-shaped body at its center. Zack dared not shoot at the monster; it was swinging Kimberly wildly, too fast for Zack to track its movements. The good thing, though, was while the tentacles thrashing in the air were lightning fast, the body itself was ponderously slow.

"Hang on, Kimberly!" Zack said, pulling out his Power Axe.

"Like I have a choice!"

Zack launched himself at the monster, his Axe cutting a powerful swathe through the air. He cheered as he felt the Axe cut through the tentacle holding Kimberly. Kim was thrown away from the monster, but she flipped in the air and landed unerringly beside Zack.

"Quick, Kim! Get your bow and aim for its head!"

Kimberly pulled out her bow and launched three arrows in quick succession: one in its head, one in its eyes, and one in its mouth. It let out a noise that sounded like a combination of a cat being strangled and a moan, and it slid back into the lake.

"Fighting can't work on creepy crawlies?" Kimberly said.

"That wasn't a creepy crawly. That was the mother of all monsters," Zack said breathlessly. "Good teamwork, by the way." Kim nodded, and they bumped knuckles.

"Now let's get out of here before it miraculously recovers," Kimberly said. They launched themselves out of the gorge with ease, and they didn't de-morph until they were well into the rough-hewn corridor and out of the cavern.

"Ugh," Kimberly said. "I'm not sure a week of baths would help me."

Zack took a towel out of his pack and wiped the mud and slime off his face. "I wouldn't turn it down right now."

They walked in silence, senses attuned to the least movement or sound. The monster attack had really shaken them. While they had acknowledged that the place was creepy, it was still the Command Center, and the Command Center was always a place of safety… until a week ago, of course.

"Do you hear running water?" Zack said. "And is that light?"

Kimberly and Zack quickened their pace, still on their guard. "Oh… It looks like another cavern," Kimberly said, trying not to cling to Zack.

It was another cavern… and it was beautiful. The cavern was lit with blue light lining the walls. In the corner a waterfall connected to a stream. It didn't smell stale like the last cavern. It smelled fresh, if slightly metallic.

"I think this place is still connected to the Command Center's system. See the vents in the walls?" Zack pointed out.

Kimberly still had eyes only for the waterfall.

Zack grinned. "Um… why don't we make camp here for a few hours? We can take turns taking showers and washing out our clothes." He paused. "And you can go first."

"Thank you!" Kimberly practically ran to the waterfall.

Zack chuckled and walked to the side. There was a group of rocks jutting out that he could set up camp… and ensure Kimberly's privacy. "Keep your guard up, Kim," he called. "That monster's more attractive sister could live here."

Kimberly laughed. "What do you think that thing was, anyway? I mean, why would there be a weird tentacle monster in the Command Center?"

Zack was busy opening a granola bar. He frowned at it, wishing he had packed the food instead of Kimberly. "I dunno. Same reason there was a monster in the trash compacter on the Death Star."

"Huh?"

Zack chuckled. "Never mind. This place is ancient… That thing has probably been growing there for a long time."

Zack lay out against the rock, not wanting to mess up his sleeping bag until he'd had a chance to clean up. He checked his watch. It was midnight. He and Kim had been traveling for three hours. He closed his eyes, hoping they didn't have much further to go… and that they wouldn't run into any more monsters. He took it back. Monsters were terrifying.


 

Tommy slept… and dreamed.

Tommy walked into the Youth Center. The air was thick with party-goers, football players and cheerleaders the loudest of the revelers. As he walked through the din, the crowd parted for him. They stared and whispered, but Tommy couldn't catch what they were saying.

The crowd finally parted, and Kimberly was there, smiling and laughing at something Trini was saying. Trini turned her head slowly and looked at Tommy. She laughed, a harsh, cruel laugh, and walked away.

"Hey, Kimberly," Tommy heard himself saying. "Have you been waiting long?"

Kimberly hid a laugh behind her hand. "For you?" She sneered. "Yes, I have been waiting long, and you missed your chance. Now everybody knows."

Tommy looked around in panic. "You mean…" he whispered, "you told them about my spell."

Kimberly stared at him, and then laughed hard. "Your spell. Hey… He thinks he has a spell."

A deeper laugh came from behind them, and Tommy turned to see Jason. Jason pushed past Tommy and pulled Kimberly close to his chest. "Yeah… I heard about his spell."

"Stop saying it like that," Tommy said. His voice sounded weak, like a radio out of tune.

Jason smirked. His hands moved over Kimberly's body, and she squirmed with delight. "Hey, Kim. I think he wants to give you a spell."

Kimberly turned to Jason and ground herself against him. "Let him spell himself," she said, her voice deepening intimately. She grabbed Jason's head and kissed him, moaning obscenely. "She turned to Tommy and winked. "Like I said… You missed your chance."

In the lab, Tommy thrashed in his sleep, kept on the table by light restraints. Finster sat motionless, watching and monitoring all night.

 

Chapter Text

"Trini… Trini… You have to wake up, Trini."

Trini shifted in her sleep, trying to ward off the hand poking her in the shoulder. "In a minute, mom," she mumbled.

"Trini, I am not your mother. And you're going to experience painful spasms in your neck and shoulders when you move."

Trini lifted her head… and immediately grabbed her neck in pain. She felt her makeshift desk under her, and she realized she'd fallen asleep slumped over the desk in the Command Center. She pulled her eyes open to see Alpha V standing over her. She was never quite sure how a robot could look so fretful, but this one could.

"The human body is not designed to endure that position for long, Trini," Alpha said. He seemed to be apologizing, though for what Trini had no idea.

"It's okay," she gasped. She got up, and as soon as she could move her head she checked the test tubes full of chemicals. None had spilled; they were all safe and undamaged. She let out a breath. Her work was only halted by her unfortunate lapse in wakefulness.

"You really must get real sleep, Trini," Alpha said. "You're going to hurt yourself."

Trini checked her watch. It was 5:00 in the morning. There was no way in hell she was going to sleep… not when Kimberly and Zack could come back any minute. "I'm fine," she said. "I'm just going to shower and do some stretches." She massaged her neck. It still ached.

Within an hour, she was back at the makeshift desk, ignoring Alpha's protests and sidelong glances. She smiled as she thought of her own struggles with Billy, trying to get him to abandon his own work just to get a few hours of rest. She was now seeing the struggle from the opposite end. She just couldn't stop. Not when she was so close, when there were so many people counting on her.

She carefully unstoppered a tube of green chemical. It was theoretically viable. She just needed to test it.

She glanced over at Alpha. He had finally stopped looking over at her and was absorbed in the search for Zordon. In her experience, he devoted all of his sensory inputs to that search, so he wouldn't even notice what she was doing.

Trini pulled a sterilized knife out of its sheath and put her arm on the table. Setting her teeth against the expected pain, she sliced the knife across the underside of her arm. At first she could see no difference… only a thin white line… and then blood dribbled down and the line grew livid. Quickly she doused a cotton ball with the green liquid from the test tube and bathed the cut with it.

No difference.

Trini sterilized the cut, put a bandage over it, and began modifying the compound for the next test.


 

"It's all coming together."

Rita checked her telescope again. There were no traces of the Rangers anywhere, except the Blue Ranger, of course, still stuck in the hospital bed. None of the others could be found, which of course meant they were hard at work trying to find the artifact in the vain hope they could trade it for the Red Ranger's life.

Tommy was in school and seemed perfectly normal. She peeked at him as he sat through history class, taking notes for a study guide for an upcoming test. Certainly, he had gone a bit odd the night before. But that morning he'd smiled… he'd laughed with Goldar over something Rita hadn't heard…

Finster was being ridiculous. Tommy was in no danger. And she would make sure he didn't resist the spell any more. After all, she knew that a brain could only resist so long. Even though Tommy had a strong character, he would slowly be persuaded enough that she wouldn't even need the spell. Of course, things would be easier once Earth was destroyed and he no longer had any distractions.

Rita frowned. It had been uncomfortable, to say the least, fiddling with Tommy's memories and thought patterns like that. She'd had to force his thought patterns even more than the first time… probably the reason he'd gone funny afterward. The thing was… he'd formed these strange bonds in his mind to the Rangers. Kimberly especially, but Jason, Billy, Trini, and Zack were also issues. She supposed that had to do with the time he spent with them, pretending to be on friendly… and occasionally more than friendly… terms with them. So she'd implanted false notions about them all. Now… he would just feel hatred toward them.

It was all for the best, she told herself as she gazed down at him. After all, she couldn't use him if he cared about her enemies.

"Empress," Goldar's voice rumbled behind her. "We have heard no word from the Rangers."

"No," Rita said absently. "They would not have retrieved it yet. Not to worry… they'll get it soon. They are so resourceful, after all, when pushed," she ended with a smile.

Goldar shifted. He was swinging his sword in a wide arc over his shoulder.

"You're bored," Rita said, smiling.

Goldar noticed his sword and quickly held it still at his side. "Can you blame me?" he said sheepishly.

Rita sighed. Sometimes it was such a burden to have warriors around. They just weren't happy unless they were fighting. "All right," she said. "You can play with the Red Ranger."

Goldar took a half step back in surprise. "…Really? You mean it?" He sounded like a kid who'd just been given keys to the toy store.

"Goldar, you've served me faithfully and well," Rita said. "And your recent triumphs against the Rangers are considerable, including the capture of the Red Ranger. Besides," she smiled, "I'm sure you want to get revenge for that stunt he pulled the other day."

Squatt and Babboo passed by. "This is the song that doesn't end…" they sang. "It can go on and on, my FRIEND! Some people… started singing it not knowing what it was, and now continue singing it forever just because this is the song that doesn't end…" Their singing faded, but was sure to return once they made the next circuit. This was their third hour of singing.

"And would you please," Rita said through gritted teeth, "make him pay for that?"

Goldar practically bounded out of the room.

"You know, that's totally not fair," a pouty voice came from behind Rita. "Tommy and I have been doing just as well as Goldar. How come he gets a treat?"

Rita sighed again. Too many egos to keep up with. "I do not wish to test Tommy in that way right now, right after his spell has been reinforced. As for you…" Rita smiled. "I don't trust you, of course. Goldar will practice more restraint than you would."

Scorpina looked at her in mock hurt. "Don't trust… me? I don't practice restraint? Well, I…" Scorpina laughed. "Okay, you're totally right. But can I at least play with the other Rangers?"

"You and Tommy are going to… ah… make the exchange," Rita said, "when the Rangers contact us. Believe me, there'll be plenty of fun to be had then."

"Speaking of Tommy, how's he doing?" Scorpina said.

"He's fine… why shouldn't he be?" Rita said.

Scorpina abruptly shut her mouth, deciding not to press her luck.


 

Jason blinked hard, almost falling down. He'd just been teleported, and he was ashamed to realize that his first instinct was one of relief… for being rescued. One look at the familiar room—the one he'd originally been captured in—obliterated those momentary hopes. His skin prickled. He was alone.

A flash of golden fire that blinded Jason, and Goldar was standing before him.

"Well, Red Ranger," he growled, "it has come to this. You won't find me so easy to beat this time."

Jason tensed, pulling himself into a defensive position. "So, what's it gonna be, Goldar?" he said. He could only hope his voice wasn't showing any of his panic.

Goldar shrugged, his armor clanking in the casual move. Jason wasn't fooled, though… he knew Goldar could strike at any minute. "I was bored, so Empress Rita allowed me this reward for my faithful service. After all, the other Rangers are taking a long time retrieving your ransom…"

Jason laughed shortly, disbelievingly.

Goldar grinned. "You're smarter than I thought. Even so… I thought we'd make a game out of this."

Jason raised his eyebrows, waiting. He was starting to wonder if he should just attack first if Goldar was going to just stand around jabbering, but he knew that was just the fear talking. Smart fighters bided their time.

Jason's resolve to wait was tested when Goldar held up his Power Morpher with one hand.

"Here's your ticket out of the madhouse," Goldar said softly. "You can morph straight out of here… you wouldn't even need your communicator. That is, of course, if you can take it from me."

Jason felt his breath die in his throat. It was right there. It was so damned close. It promised power and freedom, an escape from a locked cell and death that he'd so rightfully been expecting.

But then there was Goldar, clutching it and grinning. While Jason wouldn't hesitate to attack Goldar if he was morphed, or if someone needed rescuing, Jason reminded himself… This was all different. Goldar was ready for him, goading him to go ahead and attack. This was Goldar's turf. He held all the cards and could kill Jason in an instant. The only reason Jason wasn't already dead was Goldar wanted amusement.

"What's the matter, Red Ranger?" Goldar growled, even softer this time. "Are you afraid?"

In an instant, Jason was on the move. He rolled, using the ever-present fog to conceal his movements. He lashed out with his legs… but it was like kicking a stone wall when his foot connected with Goldar's leg. Jason felt rather than saw a sword come whistling down, and he bounded to the side, raising his fists in defense… but another attack didn't come. Goldar just stood there, waiting for Jason's second attempt.

Jason, feeling foolhardy, decided on the 'so crazy it just might work' move of frontal attack. Still keeping to the side away from the sword, he lunged for the Power Morpher and came within inches before it was gone. An armored fist crashed into Jason's ribs. His black armored shirt was long gone, and he was wearing one of Tommy's shirts, which afforded no extra protection. Jason crumpled to the ground, gasping in pain.

"Surely you can do better than that," Goldar said. Jason had never heard Goldar so happy. "You know, if you were worthy, you could take the coin right out of my hands." He paused for effect. "I bet Tommy could."

Jason's fear was starting to be replaced with rage. He let loose a flying kick to the hand holding the coin. Goldar dodged, but Jason's hand was there in an instant. Unfortunately, Goldar had swapped the morpher to his other hand. Goldar grabbed Jason's fist, and Jason was driven to his knees with pain as his hand was nearly crushed. Goldar used Jason's momentary weakness to flip Jason. He landed untidily against the wall.

Jason looked up at Goldar, who was leering over him in amused triumph. All Jason could feel was rage and adrenaline pounding through him. "Don't count me out yet, Goldar!" He flipped onto his feet and landed the hardest kick he could to Goldar's chest. Goldar stumbled back, but Jason was already on him, this time focusing more on fighting Goldar than reaching the Power Morpher. Jason scored a few hits from changing tactics.

That did not last long. Goldar landed another punch to Jason's already sore ribs, and before Jason could react Goldar had lifted him bodily from the ground. Goldar pinned him to the wall by his neck, and no matter how Jason tore at the armored fingers he couldn't stop them from closing over his windpipe. Breath became shallow, and then gone.

"Understand one thing, you pathetic little human. I could finish you off any time I choose." Goldar spoke with relish, obviously enjoying Jason's desperate struggles.

Spots exploded in Jason's vision, and he felt his hands start to weaken…

And then Goldar's hand was gone from his throat. Jason's feet hit the ground, and his legs crumpled under him. His pained gasps echoed around the room as he fought to keep from passing out.

"A moment to catch your breath," Goldar said. "Like I said, I can finish you off any time I choose… and you'll stay alive as long as you keep me amused."

Jason knew he should attack, but he was perversely grateful that Goldar was giving him a minute to rest. Jason also knew the fear was plainly showing on his face this time, and that was what amused Goldar so much.

And still, the Power Morpher glinted at him from Goldar's hand, a tiny flicker of hope. He just wished he knew a way to get to it.


 

Kimberly pulled a lint brush out of her bag. After the third room full of creepy, dusty objects, her clothes looked more tan than pink. "Has Zordon never thrown anything away in his life?"

Zack was coughing in a corner, feeling like he'd inhaled several dust bunnies. "What, is he going to have an intergalactic yard sale with this stuff? Most of it's probably dangerous. I mean, what if Rita got a hold of…"

Kim laughed. "What, the potted plant of doom?"

Zack squinted at the inscription on the flower pot. "In this soil holds the essence of destruction, necessary for awakening the spider-god of the Land of Fear." He looked up. "I don't want Rita waking up no spider-gods."

Kimberly sighed and focused on the meter. "The reading just isn't spiking in this room. I guess we'll need to move to the next one."

They picked their way out of the room, careful not to touch anything after Zack had joked about the Aladdin movie. Not that they expected the Command Center would turn to lava and give them a Robin Williams genie, but anything could happen. Zordon had made this place out of bounds for a reason.

"So, Zack," Kimberly said. "When we find this thing… whatever it is… and make it all the way back…"

"Oh, damn, I meant to tell you," Zack said. "Alpha told me we only had to travel down here the long way. He's been tracking us and activating parts of the system, so we'll be able to teleport back up."

Kimberly pursed her lips. "That would have been good to know… but that means I have to ask this question, like, now. When we get the artifact, what do we do about it?"

Zack didn't answer.

"I mean," Kimberly continued, "it's not like Rita's gonna be like, 'okay, awesome, here's Jason back in one piece,' or anything like that. I mean… do you think she's actually going to give Jason back like she agreed?"

"No, I don't," Zack said quietly. "But there's no way they're getting the artifact without it."

There was a grim determination in Zack's voice that made Kimberly uncomfortable. "Um… Zack? They have all the cards stacked against us. They don't care what happens to Jason. We do. They're just going to threaten to k…"

"Jason's not gonna die." Zack's voice was tight.

Kimberly shut up, but she knew they were both thinking the same thing. They hadn't seen Jason since two days before. Their sensors weren't powerful enough to breach Moon Palace security. For all they knew, Jason was already dead. This farce of a ransom and exchange was something they had to play along with in the tiny hope that Jason was still there to be saved.

"Listen," Zack said, his voice softening. "They didn't kill Billy. They almost did, they could have, but they didn't actually mean to kill Billy. I've got to believe they'll treat Jason the same way."

Kimberly snorted. "So even if we get Jason back, he might be too injured to fight. And we'll still just be three fighters."

"Trini's gonna get the healing potion working," Zack said. "What will work for Billy will work just as well for Jason… or if any of us gets hurt."

"That's a lot of 'if's," Kimberly said grumpily.

"I'm doing the best I can," Zack said, turning to face Kimberly. "I'm sorry I'm not Jason."

Kim could see in the dim light on Zack's face how much her comments had made him suffer. "Oh, God, Zack, I totally didn't mean any of that. I'm just really worried, and I don't know what I'm saying…"

"Hey, wait a minute," Zack said, staring down at the device Kimberly held in her hand. "It's spiking."

Kimberly broke off and looked at the device. Sure enough, the readings were near the top of the meter.

"It's nearly as strong a reading as when Tommy came close to it," Zack said. Kimberly handed him the device, and he began waving it near random objects.

"Um, Zack?" Kimberly said. "I think our search is over."

Zack followed Kimberly's pointing finger to something resting on a dusty cushion under a cracked glass case. As soon as Zack pushed the device over to it, the device started beeping. It was a dagger, similar to Trini's Power Daggers, except green and far more ornate. A tri-pointed symbol was inlaid on the hilt. While the blade was sharp and obviously meant to be used as a weapon, there were also tiny holes and valves, like a musical instrument.

"I wonder what it does," Kimberly said.

Zack handed Kimberly the now-useless device and pulled the glass off the dagger carefully. He picked it up and waited.

"Zack, Kimberly, are you there?"

Zack jumped and almost dropped the dagger, and Kimberly squeaked in surprise. Breathing and trying to get his heart rate down, Zack grabbed the extra communicator out of his pocket. "Alpha, you scared us to death. What's wrong?"

"I am sorry, Zack," Alpha's voice came out of the tiny speaker. "I just wanted to inform you that I have been disabling the security system in each of the surrounding rooms, so you can pick up the artifact whenever you wish."

Zack stared at the dagger. "It's done, Alpha. We're ready to come back."

A tingling, lurching sensation, and the two were blinking in the suddenly too-bright light of the Command Center.

"Thank goodness you made it back okay, Rangers!" Alpha said.

Zack smiled at the customary greeting. "Yeah, you may wanna check those caverns down there. There's monsters and all kinds of crazy crap."

"Will do, Zack," Alpha said.

"Hey, Alpha," Kimberly said. "Do you know what that thing does?"

Alpha scrutinized the dagger in Zack's hands. "It must be the Green Ranger's weapon… similar to your Power Axe and Power Bow."

Kimberly frowned. "Yeah, I guess."

Zack set the dagger on a free part of a console. It made him itch holding it, and he wasn't sure if it was because it belonged to the Green Ranger, or if it belonged to Tommy. "Hey, Trini, how's it going?"

Trini mumbled in response. She was mixing a foul-smelling liquid over a Bunsen burner. Kimberly smiled—Trini was channeling Billy's deep-work mode. She ambled over to Trini's work space. "Trini, what have you being doing to your arms?"

"In a minute," Trini said with irritation. She was in the middle of filling a syringe with green liquid. Before either Kimberly or Zack could stop her, Trini stuck herself with the needle and injected part of the contents of the syringe.

"Trini, what the hell are you doing?" Zack exclaimed.

Trini waved off his fury and stared at her arms. She smiled. "What am I doing? I'm finding the answer." She tore the bandages off her arms. Underneath dried blood and band-aid marks was revealed soft, undamaged skin. She grinned violently at them. "It works!"

Zack and Kimberly stared at her, astonished, not knowing how to respond to her joy.

"Um… Trini?" Zack said. "Were you honestly testing that stuff on yourself?"

Trini rolled her eyes. "Guys… it works. We can cure Billy now."

They continued to stare at her.

"Look, guys," Trini said, suddenly extremely tired. "I know that wasn't completely responsible of me, but I didn't have a whole lot of options without the Command Center computers fully functional. So you'll have to wait to yell at me. Right now, I need to heal Billy and then we need to get Jason back."

Zack frowned at her, but he couldn't argue with her. They couldn't waste time. "All right, then, Trini. I'll contact Rita so I can keep her distracted."

Trini packed up a new syringe of the liquid and teleported away.

"Here goes," Zack said quietly. "Zack to Jason's communicator."

A pause, and then a high, timid voice. "Oh, my, I didn't expect this to activate. You'll want to talk to Empress Rita, correct?"

"Yeah, if it's not inconvenient," Zack said drily.

"Hold on, I can patch you through easily," the voice said. "It will only take a minute." The voice hummed as it worked, and Kimberly and Zack shared an incredulous look. "There. She should be with you in a moment."

Some tinny music came over the communicator.

"What's that?" Kimberly said.

Zack's eyes twitched. "I think they put us on hold."

The music continued for a full minute, and then ended abruptly. "Power geeks? You there?" the scratchy voice of their enemy broke through.

"Yeah, this is the Black Ranger," Zack said smoothly. "You might be interested to know that we got the artifact."

A pause. "Very interested, actually. So it works like this, Black Ranger. You and the other two will meet the Green Ranger and Scorpina at the entrance of the cave. You know the one I'm talking about. We'll make the swap there."

"Wait a minute," Zack said. "If Jason's not there, no deal."

Rita cackled. "Look, Zack. You're hardly in a position to dictate terms. If you're not there with the dagger in fifteen minutes, Jason dies. Plus, you must understand that we have to test the artifact before we can finish the swap. You might give us a fake, after all. I'm not sure if I can trust you."

"You can trust us," Zack said with some agitation, "because we're not liars. We'll make good on our word."

Again, Rita laughed. "Not liars, eh? Tell that to someone who hasn't watched you around your parents."

Zack opened his mouth furiously, but Kimberly put a warning hand on his arm. "Zack, you can't argue with her. We'll just have to do what she says."

"I knew you were smarter than you looked, Pink Ranger," Rita gloated. "Fifteen minutes, Black Ranger, at the entrance of the cave."

The communication ended, Zack still staring at the communicator. "I hope Trini is faring better than we are," he said.


 

"So that's it?" Billy whispered, staring at the syringe and rolling it over and over his fingers. "And you're sure it will work."

"Absolutely," Trini whispered back. Mr. Oliver was in the other bed. They'd pulled the curtain for some privacy and turned the television up. Mr. Oliver thought they were a couple wanting some "private" time, and they decided just to go with it, no matter the embarrassment. "I tested it on myself and everything."

Billy's eyes widened. "Does that mean what I suppose it means?"

Trini averted her eyes and nodded.

"That was really dangerous," Billy said. "After I told you not to do this, and you endangered your own life."

"It's done, get over it," Trini said in one breath. "Now are you going to take your medicine?"

Billy set his jaw. "So I can heal up and go right into being a Power Ranger again?"

"That's the plan."

Billy set the syringe carefully on the tray next to his bed. "I told you I don't want to do it anymore. And if it takes being injured…"

"I can't believe you," Trini whispered furiously. Billy was startled to see tears in her eyes. "We need you, Billy. We need you as a Power Ranger, a fighter, a scientist and inventor… We're not a team without you. And I literally bled just so you could throw it all back in my face?"

The communicator beeped. "Trini here," Trini said shortly, still whispering.

Zack apparently took the hint, because his voice was quiet. "We got five minutes before we have to make the swap. We need you back."

"On my way," Trini said, cutting the link. She glared at Billy and looked pointedly at the syringe.

Billy glared back. "Look, I'm not being a coward, and I'm not abandoning the team. I just… can't…"

Trini dropped his Power Morpher and communicator next to the syringe. Without a word, she left the room.

Billy stared at the three items. The syringe. The Power Morpher. The communicator. He imagined himself injecting himself with the liquid, healing, teleporting to the others, morphing, going to beat the bad guys…

"I'm giving you back your Power Morpher because you're too weak to use it." The Green Ranger bent over close to his face, and Billy imagined a sadistic leer on an unknown face. "You always were."

The sadistic leer was now on Tommy's face, the words in Tommy's mouth. Tommy's laughing, mocking eyes as he taught Billy how to have confidence in the face of school bullies.

"I came here… not to any of the other Rangers' houses, but to here and specifically to you… because you're a victim. You rely on this rush of power and you never ever worked for any of it. Boom… you're a superhero. You didn't earn it. It was just given to you. And you have the presumption to count yourself with the actual fighters."

And still, Billy stared at the syringe, the Power Morpher, wondering if he could ever have the courage to use them.


 

Jason clutched his chest, his entire body feeling like one big bruise. This was the third rest Goldar had allowed him. While Jason rankled at the control and patronizing, he took every second he could to recuperate.

"You know, Red Ranger, I'm disappointed," Goldar said, almost absently. He was leaning against a pillar on the wall. "I really thought you would put up a better fight than this.

Jason shot a murderous look. "Screw you, Goldar." His voice was still rough from almost being strangled.

Goldar chuckled to himself. "And all you had to do was get this Power Morpher from me…"

"What's your point?"

Goldar held the morpher off to his side… and dropped it. It fell with a resounding ring as metal hit against stone. Jason froze, staring at it hungrily.

"Come and get it… if you're brave enough," Goldar said, a smirk in his voice.

Jason knew it was stupid to let himself be goaded like that. But, dammit, he had to try. Jason ran at Goldar, kicking and trying to crowd him away from the morpher so Jason would have enough time to pick it up without being clobbered. Goldar dodged the kick and aimed some punches at Jason, but Jason was ready. He dove to the ground, spreading as much fog as he could to obscure his movements. He reached out desperately for the morpher…

A sword swung downward in front of the morpher, nearly severing Jason's fingers. He pulled his hand back and looked up just in time to receive a kick to the face. He felt his nose break as the force of the kick upended him on his back. Suddenly, the sword was inches from his face. Jason followed the tip with his eyes as Goldar waved the sword back and forth.

"I think it's time to end this little game," Goldar said, contempt in his voice.


 

"So where's Billy?" Zack demanded as soon as Trini teleported up. "Did the cure not work?"

Trini huffed angrily. "He wouldn't take it. We're on our own."

Zack, Trini, and Kimberly stared at each other, feeling the palpable despair of the moment. No Zordon. No Jason. No Billy. Possibly ever again. They were alone.

"We've got one minute," Zack said. "Let's get down there."

He grabbed the dagger, and they morphed. It probably wasn't altogether necessary, but they needed the comfort of the extra power. It turned out to be a fortuitous move. As soon as they arrived at the cave, they saw a horde of Putties, with the Green Ranger, morphed, and Scorpina, her sword at the ready.

"You've got the goods?" Tommy asked, without pleasantries.

Zack gripped the dagger out of reach. "I need to know if Jason's all right."

Scorpina grinned sadistically. "Nah ah, Black Ranger. Rita told me that wasn't part of the bargain. Hand the dagger over, and Jason gets to live. Don't…" She let the threat linger unsaid.

Tommy laughed. "Doesn't seem like you have much of a choice."

Zack cursed under his breath, knowing that they were speaking the truth. There was just no way he could ensure Jason's safe return without giving them the dagger. Seething, he walked over to Tommy and handed him the dagger. Tommy took it, joy in his movements. "I… I know this…" Tommy murmured.

"Yeah, that's great," Zack said. "Now give us back Jason."

"Hold it, tough guy," Scorpina said. "We need to test it first… make absolute sure it's the genuine article."

Zack put his guard up, expecting Tommy to attack him with the dagger. Instead… Tommy put the dagger up to the lips of his helmet. There was a piercing sound of a trumpet, and the ground rumbled, seemingly in response. Then silence.

Zack looked around, now surrounded by Trini and Kimberly. The dagger didn't seem to have done anything to them either. "What the hell kind of attack was that?"

"Ranger, I'd get to my Zords if I were you," Scorpina said.

Zack rolled his eyes, though he knew no one was able to see it. "Haven't we done this before, Scorpina? We're getting kinda tired of your monster form."

"Better do as she says," Tommy said, his voice laughing. "My DragonZord is attacking the city."


 

Somewhere deep under the Angel Grove docks, an ancient power awakened. To the dock workers, though, it was a regular Tuesday. Some had gone for lunch, but most were still loading boxes.

Suddenly, it was no longer a normal Tuesday. Green lights flashed wildly, and the sea seemed to boil. A giant of black, green, and gold rose slowly to pointing, panicked fingers. It pulled itself to dry ground, crushing boxes and forklifts, but the dock workers were already running, their Angel Grove reflexes catching up with them.

The giant let out a piercing scream, waiting for orders. Even from miles away, the trumpeting of the dragon dagger lit up its eyes, giving it purpose. Destruction, the thoughts of its new master said. Destroy everything.


 

"Sorry, Red Ranger," Goldar said. "It really has been fun, but it's time it all ended." Goldar raised the sword over his shoulder, ready to strike.

Jason stayed frozen until he saw the tip start to swing down. Then he rolled out of the way… and kept rolling. The sword clanged against the stone; the ringing echo and Goldar's frustrated roar hid Jason's movements. When Goldar finally turned to track Jason, he was well and truly hidden beneath the fog.

Jason stayed flat, keeping his breath as quiet as possible. He wished this was a part of some elaborate escape plan, but it wasn't. Jason no longer had any idea where his Power Morpher was. If he moved, he would disturb the fog and lead Goldar right to him, so he couldn't search the floor. No… hiding in the fog was the act of a desperate man, and he knew it.

"So, you've decided to make the game a little more interesting," Goldar said. "That's fine… but I have my own rules." Another clanging echo filled the room, and Jason realized, with horror, that Goldar was stabbing the fog at random as his method to find Jason's hiding place.

Jason held his breath and thought desperately. Everything that came to his brain was a one-way ticket to getting skewered on Goldar's sword. He turned his head and saw something that almost made him shout.

The blaster—the one he'd brought with him to the spy mission. It was still on the floor, just out of reach.

With miniscule movements, concentrating on not disturbing the fog, Jason reached out his arm to the blaster. With the other eye, he also concentrated on Goldar's progress around the room.

In an erratic movement that made Jason freeze, Goldar began walking toward him, stabbing the ground as he went. Finally, he stared directly down at Jason, raising his sword. Jason broke out into a cold sweat but forced himself to remain perfectly still.

The sword came down, nearly slicing open the left side of Jason's face. Jason, however, tilted his head out of the way, and the disturbance of the sword masked any disturbance Jason had caused in the fog by that move. Goldar stared down… and then moved away, miraculously not stepping on any part of Jason's body.

Jason held his breath even as the fact that he was still alive again registered in his brain. He leaned his head back against the floor and closed his eyes. He wasn't sure he could take another close call like that.


 

The three Rangers stood in the cockpit of the MegaZord, facing one of their own in combat.

The DragonZord was working its way slowly from the outskirts of town. It had already destroyed two buildings. One was condemned and the other was under construction. Apparently the DragonZord couldn't pick its targets very well.

"All right, guys, remember," Trini said. "We're pushing this Zord to the cave… away from the city. If we can keep pushing it west, we might be able to keep anyone from getting hurt."

"I'm just glad the city finally came up with a good evacuation system," Zack commented. "Wait… are those freakin' finger missiles?"

The DragonZord pointed its hand and shot the missiles at the MegaZord. Zack made sure they took the shots. It was better them than the surrounding buildings.

Zack pulled the MegaZord in close, lessening the effectiveness of the missiles and the tail. The DragonZord's arms weren't quite as powerful as the MegaZord, so a few minutes of hand-to-hand had the DragonZord rolling, thankfully in the correct direction.

"We've got him!" Kimberly whooped and spun in her chair.

Zack was about to join in the celebration, but he stopped. The DragonZord had come smoothly out of the roll and onto its feet with the use of its tail.

"Get back in close!" Kim said. "We can't lose any more ground."

"I'm on it!" Zack said.

"Shields are down to 80 percent," Trini said calmly. "We can't take any more missile attacks."

Zack ground his teeth. When exactly had it escalated into this?


 

Alpha V stared at the viewing globe. Despair, that was what he was feeling. The Rangers were losing little by little, even if they didn't know it yet. The MegaZord couldn't operate to its fullest without all five Rangers there; it was severely crippled with only three. There looked like no hope of getting Jason back, and Billy was ignoring all attempts at communication from Alpha.

"There's no hope," he said. His voice wasn't panicky… it was almost acceptance. "We're losing, and there's no hope."

"There is."

Alpha whirled around, promptly falling against a console. He stared up…

"Zordon," he said. The tears Alpha couldn't express physically were all in his voice. "Zordon, you're back."

"Yes, Alpha," Zordon boomed. His face was serious. "You found me, and not a moment too soon. I've accessed the logs you've been keeping. Patch me into communications—I need to speak to Billy. Then retrieve the item I've stored under Plan Z Emergency."

Alpha was already keying in the proper commands. "Zordon, I'm so glad you're back."

"So am I, Alpha." Zordon stared at the losing battle on the viewing globe. "So am I."


 

The communicator rang for what seemed like the fiftieth time, and Billy didn't even try to muffle it. Mr. Oliver was gone for physical therapy.

They needed his help. Billy could tell that from the news coverage of the Zord fight blaring on the television above him. The Rangers were faring well against the new Zord, but they still needed his help.

But it was help he just couldn't provide. Tommy had proven that.

"Billy, answer your communicator."

Billy stared at his communicator, his heart racing at the unexpected voice. His hands trembled as he picked up the device. "Zordon… Is that you? Alpha found you?" His voice was tight with raw emotion.

"Yes, Billy," the undeniable voice of Zordon intoned. "The Rangers need you. Inject yourself with Trini's cure and report to the Command Center."

Billy's heart thudded, this time for other reasons. "Zordon, I can't. I'm not a Ranger anymore. I…"

"That," Zordon said, "is an order. Report here immediately, Blue Ranger."

Billy's breath caught in his throat. He'd never heard Zordon talk like that… to anyone. He looked around at the hospital room… that he'd been hiding in. Billy suddenly felt a deeper shame than anything Tommy had ever made him feel.

"I'll be right there," Billy heard himself saying. He grabbed the syringe and jammed it into his arm. He released precisely the amount Trini had recommended. With a gasp of almost-pain, Billy actually felt his ribs mending, the cuts and bruises disappearing. He bounded out of bed… and realized he didn't have any clothes other than his pajamas. Billy dashed off a note for his mother, grabbed the Power Morpher, and morphed to the Command Center.

As soon as he appeared in the Command Center, he pulled off his helmet. "Zordon!" he exclaimed, relief and joy flooding him. "I'm so glad you're back." Billy's voice choked, but he didn't care.

"I'm glad to have you back, too," Zordon said, his voice losing the sternness from before. "The Power Rangers cannot win without you. Billy, I chose you to be a Power Ranger for a reason…"

"It's only through all of us that we can achieve victory… working together," Billy said. "I… I understand that, now." It was words that Zordon had said time and time before, words that Billy had almost forgotten.

"Not only that," Zordon said, smiling at Billy's recitation. "I chose you, personally. Because of your abilities, yes, but also your potential."

Billy felt something at his elbow, and he looked over. Alpha was pushing what looked like a blaster into his hand.

"It's not always the strongest," Zordon said, "who wins the war."


 

"He's just too strong!" Kimberly yelled. "Our power reserves are failing!"

"Shields down to 20 percent," Trini said, panic seeping into her voice.

"Dammit, this thing has got to have a weakness," Zack said through gritted teeth.

What they had succeeded in was guiding the DragonZord away from the city. They were now battling near the cave. They'd already spotted the Green Ranger still standing near the cave, apparently operating the Zord remotely via the Dragon Dagger.

"He's charging the finger missiles!"

Down on the ground, Tommy was having the time of his life. He'd allowed the Zord to come to him, and he was marveling at its beauty. It was his Zord… his… The worries and nightmares and other cares fled his mind. He was one with the Zord. He felt as if it were him up there battling the MegaZord… and winning.

"We've got company!" Scorpina yelled, dodging some blasts that came out of nowhere.

Tommy took his eyes off the fight to see the Blue Ranger, now with his hands full in a Putty battle. Tommy laughed. "Let the Putties take care of him if he doesn't want to play with the Zords. The battle's almost over, anyway."

A stray shot hit Tommy. He felt a slight tingling, and the dagger disappeared. He looked down at his hands. Instead of the white gloves, he saw naked hands… and they were beginning to shake.

Tommy grabbed his Power Morpher, edging away from the fight. He tried to morph… but nothing happened. He shook the morpher and tried again.

"TOMMY!"

Tommy's head jerked up. Billy had broken from the fight and was barreling toward him. Tommy tried to grab his teleporter, but his hands were shaking too much.

In an instant, Billy was there. Tommy saw him pull back his fist, and Tommy closed his eyes, his mind screaming in panic.

Nothing came. Tommy opened his eyes. All he could see was Billy's white glove, stopped a mere centimeter from his eyes. Tommy fell back, landing hard on the ground. He stared up at Billy, knowing he didn't have a prayer of escaping now.

"I'm leaving you your Power Morpher," Billy said, voice muffled by the helmet. "You're too weak to use it." Billy pointedly turned his back on Tommy and walked away.

Tommy felt another tingling, the unmistakable feel of a teleportation beam, and shamefully rejoiced as the beam took him away from the battlefield.


 

Jason's fingers closed over the blaster. From his hiding place under the fog, he waited until Goldar turned toward him and fired. The first blast caught Goldar's shoulder, and part of his armor flew off. Goldar howled in pain but was able to block the next two blasts with his sword.

Three blasts and the blaster was completely dry of energy. Jason bounded out of his hiding place and attacked. Goldar was just slowed down enough that Jason could dodge his heavier blows. Jason aimed a kick right where the blaster had scored him on the shoulder, and Goldar howled in pain. Unfortunately, though, Goldar was not in enough pain not to take advantage of Jason's momentary vulnerable position. He threw Jason bodily across the room.

Jason's head hit the wall hard. He felt a swoop of nausea and realized he could do nothing to prevent Goldar from killing him now. Even as his hand miraculously closed over his Power Morpher, he knew it was too late. He was too injured to morph without the power tearing him apart. Goldar towered over him, and Jason closed his eyes, accepting the inevitable.

"GOLDAR!" Rita's voice echoed throughout the room. "Report to the battlefield! Immediately! They need your help."

Jason opened his eyes. Goldar stared down at Jason, obviously torn between pleasure and duty. Duty won out, and Goldar backed away from Jason. "You've gotten your reprieve, human," Goldar rumbled. "But don't worry. I'll be back to finish the job soon."

The decision was made in less than a second. Goldar was about to teleport to the battlefield, where the other Rangers were. Jason had teleported people before by holding on to them. It could work.

Jason bounded from the ground, ignoring the nausea and pain. He had just a few seconds. Time seemed to slow down. Golden fire was already starting to engulf Goldar's body. Goldar turned in surprise, his sword pointed loosely in front of him…

The air changed. Instead of the recycled smell of the Moon Palace, the air smelled of dirt, with a faint burned smell of battle. Jason could hear shouts, but they seemed very far away. Goldar was looking at him, curiously, as if wondering what would happen. Jason opened his mouth to taunt him—he'd outsmarted him, he'd escaped—but no sound would come. Instead, Jason felt a gout of blood pour from his mouth. Confused, he looked down. Goldar's sword was embedded in his gut.

Huh. That was unexpected.

Then the pain hit him. Goldar pulled his sword out, and Jason slumped to the ground


 

Billy wasn't quite sure who had stopped fighting first. He'd been locked in combat with Scorpina. All the Zords had disappeared, the DragonZord first, and Tommy had teleported away. There'd been a quick, joyous reunion between Rangers, which had been cut short when it seemed like all the Putties in the world attacked at once. The tables, however, had definitely turned in favor of the Rangers. Scorpina seemed too pissed to fight smart like she usually did, so Billy was actually able to keep up with her fairly easily.

"JASON! NO!"

Kimberly's anguished cry cut through the battle, and they all looked at the new arrivals at the scene. Billy's blood froze in his veins as he saw Goldar shake Jason off his sword. Blood was everywhere.

Billy pushed past Scorpina as if she were an annoyance. Drawing his blade blaster, he fired furiously at Goldar until the alien retreated from Jason's body. Billy heard the other Rangers hot on his heels.

"We're out of here!" Zack yelled, and Billy couldn't agree more. If there was any time when a continued fight accomplished nothing, it was now. Billy grabbed hold of Jason and teleported him out of there.

In an instant, they were at the Command Center. Trini ran to the side, they heard a crash, and she pulled her worktable to the center of the room. Billy and Zack carefully lifted Jason to the table's surface, and Alpha pushed a large utility towel under Jason's head as a pillow. Billy tore Jason's ripped shirt open to reveal the messy sword wound.

"Alpha," Zordon boomed, "retrieve Trini's compound."

In concert, the heads of all the Rangers but Billy jerked upward. "ZORDON!" they all yelled, and it would have been funny if not for the circumstances, Billy reflected.

"Trini, you need to inject Jason with a larger dose," Zordon said, his voice tinged in worry. "He's near death."

Trini's trembling hands steadied as Alpha handed her the container full of the cure. She grabbed a syringe and a clean needle, readied it, and shot Jason up with the full dose.

Jason gasped, his body almost lifting completely off the table. Billy, Zack, and Kimberly grabbed him to keep him from falling off. Before their eyes, like magic, the skin knitted together and closed. Jason's nose, which had been misshapen and puffy, rearranged to normal. Bruises faded from his neck. They grinned as slowly Jason's eyes fluttered open.

Jason took in all their faces, and then saw Zordon, reassuringly there again in his tube. "I'm… still alive… aren't I?" he said shakily.

"Yes, Jason," Zordon said, joy in his voice. "You are still in the land of the living. We all are."

Jason pulled himself to a sitting position shakily.

"Jason, slowly," Trini said. "You've still lost a lot of blood. My antidote can't heal that."

Alpha passed a scanner over him. "The blood loss isn't serious, Jason. You won't need a transfusion. Just some rest."

"We don't have time to rest," Jason said, trying to push himself off the table. Zack's hands kept him in place, and Jason felt too weak to resist. "We've got too much to do…"

"Actually," Zordon said, "you do have time to rest. And you'll need it if we are to defeat Rita this time."

They all stared up at Zordon. The joy at seeing him finally there was too much to voice, almost too much to actually experience. It was as if they had all been in the dark, and someone had suddenly flipped on a light.

"I'm so sorry, Rangers," Zordon said. "I'm so sorry for all you've had to go through."

"We're just glad you're back," Jason said, in a broken voice.

It was always hard to tell if Zordon was smiling, but this time they were all sure he was. "For now, I want you all to rest. You've earned time with your families… You've earned normality. We will meet tomorrow at 3:30 to discuss our plans. Don't worry… Rita will not attack before then," Zordon said in answer to Jason's objections. "Before you all leave to rest, I have some things to tell you all.

"You've all made me proud. This has been the most devastating attack Rita has ever devised, and you all dealt with it with courage, intelligence, and strength.

"Zack, you took command of the Power Rangers when the other side was at its strongest. You practiced restraint, knowing when to retreat and when to fight. You not only kept everyone alive, but you kept the DragonZord from devastating the city, saving countless people.

"Trini, you did what I had supposed impossible—taking advanced alien medicine and adapting it for humans. You saved not only Billy, but you pulled Jason from death's door, and you did it with a clear and disciplined mind in the face of despair.

"Kimberly, you suffered the personal attacks of the Green Ranger with incredible strength of character. Rita meant to destroy you, to weaken you. You proved her wrong by fighting just as fiercely and well. You could have easily endangered everyone with personal vengeance, but you stayed true to the team.

"Billy, you may not think you've been worthy of your Power Coin, but I must contradict you. The Green Ranger meant to hurt you so badly you would never be a threat again. But you coped with the attack admirably and honorably. You rightly guessed the Green Ranger's identity before anyone, and you arrived to win the battle just in the nick of time. You were not consumed by personal vengeance either, but used only the force required to subdue the Green Ranger."

Jason held his breath. He'd broken the treaty, gotten captured, defied Zordon's orders, and had nearly gotten killed only to be rescued by the others. What good had he done?

"Jason," Zordon continued, "I know you are riddled with doubts. But you did exactly as you should have, exactly as I would expect someone I'd appointed leader of the Rangers. You organized and supported everyone when I was discovered gone and the Command Center in shambles. Your mission to the Moon Palace was necessary, and the only thing that one like Rita would call a mistake is actually your strength: you sacrificed yourself for one whom you called friend. And you stayed alive and escaped, even when impossible odds were stacked against you."

Zordon turned his attention to all of them. "Rangers, I will not deny that these have been the darkest days you've ever faced. You've been injured, captured, and beaten, but none of you have given up. And I must remind you: you're all here. You're all well and healthy and have not lost anything. Rita's side, on the other hand, has failed. They were not able to destroy you… any of you. In the meantime, they have lost all their secrets… their advantage over us." Zordon paused. "I am sure I am not wrong that Rita is very displeased with her followers right now."


 

Tommy decided this was what hell felt like.

He stood with Goldar and Scorpina. He held his breath and, in a revelation, realized Goldar was trembling. Empress Rita paced before them, barely looking at them. She looked like she wasn't even able to.

"I cannot… believe." Empress Rita's voice was a hoarse whisper, but it rang loud in the throne room. "You've all failed me. I had the Rangers practically gift-wrapped for you all, and you somehow managed to SCREW IT ALL TO HELL!"

Tommy winced and felt Goldar do the same. He couldn't see how Scorpina was reacting. All Tommy could do was stare forward, his heart pounding with fear and shame.

"Scorpina." Empress Rita's voice was soft, but the fury still mounted behind it. "I realize you're doing this as a favor, and you're not really one of my followers. But you weren't even able to handle one Ranger? Believe me, I'll be reporting this to your guild."

Scorpina made a sound, and then apparently thought better of it. "If you feel you must, Empress," Scorpina said in a barely controlled voice.

Empress Rita turned her attention down the line. "Goldar… What exactly can I say that you don't already know? Surely you realize that they'll just heal Jason. You couldn't even make a clean job of killing him. He was unmorphed, trapped, and… He was an unmorphed, pathetic human! A worm. And you let him get away."

Tommy, again, winced at every word. Unmorphed, pathetic human.

"While Scorpina doesn't work for me, you do," Rita said sharply. "And you're going to clean the weapons room… ALL OF IT." Goldar opened his mouth in protest, but Empress Rita raised her staff threateningly. "I don't care if you think that's beneath a fine warrior such as yourself. You're apparently not as fine a warrior as you think you are if you can let a human best you, so cleaning shouldn't be a problem. And I don't want to see your face until I call you… got it?"

A tense moment where Goldar looked like he was going to defend himself passed. Instead, Goldar nodded. "Yes, Empress Rita," he said, his voice weary and defeated.

"And Tommy," Empress Rita moved to face Tommy. As usual, it was impossible for Tommy to avert his eyes from those of his Empress. Rather than receiving comfort and acceptance from those eyes, all he felt was shame. "Finster told me of the nature of the energy beam… that you won't be able to morph for another 24 hours from being hit."

Tommy nodded, still rankled at the unexpected nature of the attack.

Empress Rita smirked. "Zordon must have kept that around… probably not for you. Probably if one of his own Rangers got out of control. It's good to know he's not entirely a fool." Empress Rita's smirk slid off her face. "You'll be interested to know Zordon is back. Sent me a snotty little message himself just a few minutes ago."

Tommy's eyes widened in alarm. The air tensed as everyone reacted to this unwelcome news.

"Zordon is back, the Blue Ranger is healed," Empress Rita ticked each item on her fingers, "and Kimberly does not seem all that crushed. Your plans have come to nothing, Tommy, and now you can't even pretend to be their friend. I think that spells out utter disaster, don't you?"

Tommy tried to speak, but couldn't. His throat was closed up.

Empress Rita stared at him contemptuously. "Give me your Power Coin… you'll get it back when I decide. You can't use it now, anyway. You're confined to your quarters until further notice. You can go to school, but I don't want to see you out of your room otherwise."

"Y-yes, my Empress," Tommy stammered. With a shaking hand, he handed over his Power Coin. He felt like he was handing over his entire arm.

Empress Rita stowed the Power Coin in a pocket of her dress. "You're all dismissed," she said, and turned her back on the three.

Scorpina stormed out of the room, obviously raging at being dressed down like that. Goldar and Tommy walked more slowly, shaken by what Empress Rita had said to them.

"Cheer up," Goldar mumbled to Tommy as they got far enough down the corridor. "This happens. It'll blow over when she comes up with the next plan."

Tommy didn't answer. Without a word, he walked into his room and shut the door. It was only then that the shame overcame him and he allowed himself tears.


 

The morning was crisp and beautiful in front of Angel Grove High School. A few teens straggled in as the clock neared 8:00, and a few were holding lively conversations about the recent battles and attacks. The big news, Billy's dramatic recovery, had just rocketed through the school. Word was, a Power Ranger had healed him, since Billy had been attacked by an enemy of the Power Rangers. The rumor, of course, was spread by Billy himself, but no one knew that.

The five teens in question—Jason, Trini, Zack, Billy, and Kimberly—lounged at the front steps of the high school. Anyone would have guessed that they were just hanging out, cutting it rather close for getting to class. And they acted like they were hanging out. Zack was bouncing a basketball against the wall of the school. Billy was reading. Under the surface, though, the teens were tensed for action, for what they knew they had to do.

Suddenly, a figure appeared from around the corner: Tommy Oliver, trudging and carrying a bookbag. The five teens stood up, blocking access to the door. Tommy stopped dead.

Tommy shifted his eyes among them and tried for his customary smile. "What? You really wanna start something, right in front of the school?"

Jason remained unmoved. "You're not coming in the school. You're not welcome here."

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Come on, Red. You really can't keep me from going to school. I'm a student here, remember?"

"You're not," Jason said. "Not while you're working for the enemy. You're not allowed in this school, the Youth Center, your uncle's summer house, the hospital, the park… You're not allowed on Earth, and if any of us catch you down here we'll hurt you. You stay up on the moon unless you want a fight."

Tommy tried to laugh off the threat, but the laugh died in his throat. The five of them, there together, simmered with power, and Tommy remembered that they all had Power Coins. He didn't.

Tommy's face twisted into an ugly sneer. "You're going to regret this. Now that I don't have any distractions, I can devote myself to destroying all of you. You'll all be sorry you did this."

The five stood there, unmoved, unintimidated. Their eyes almost reflected with pity.

Tommy turned from them. In a rage, he pulled a sheet of paper from his back pocket, balled it up, and threw it on the ground. A few more steps, and he teleported away.

The bell had yet to ring. Billy walked forward slowly and picked up the paper ball. He uncrumpled it carefully.

"What is it?" Kimberly said.

Billy looked up at them. "It's… Tommy's math test. He got a B."

 

Chapter Text

Tommy ignored the knock on the door he barely heard over the blaring music. He had strung up a punching bag on the corner of his room and was busy beating the living shit out of it. The punching bag was red, which Tommy found particularly fitting.

The door opened, and Goldar was framed in the doorway. "Turn off that damned racket!"

Tommy grabbed the boombox and threw it on the ground. It exploded on the ground in a sea of plastic and sparks. The music stopped abruptly, leaving a deafening silence.

Goldar stared at the destroyed boombox. "Didn't it have an 'off' button?"

Tommy glared at Goldar. "Well?"

"Why aren't you in school?"

Tommy laughed. "What are you, my mom?"

In a blink, Tommy was on the floor. Goldar had backhanded him before he could even realize what was happening. Tommy bounded to his feet, putting up his guard… And then he realized what he was doing. Did he really want to pick a fight with Goldar? Especially without his Power Coin?

"Sorry, man," Tommy said. "I deserved that."

Goldar looked at Tommy through narrowed eyes. "What's wrong with you today? It can't just be last night."

The memory of that morning still made Tommy want to hit someone, so he pushed it from his mind. "It's nothing. Just one of those days… you know?"

Goldar grunted. "You'll be interested to know that Rita's requesting our presence."

Tommy raised his eyebrows. "So soon? I thought I'd be stuck in here for at least another day."

Goldar smirked. "Like I said, when Rita comes up with a plan, she forgets everything else. Convenient."

Tommy heaved a breath. "Well, let's see what she has in mind."

The throne room was practically buzzing with activity. Squatt and Babboo were helping Finster set up a large platform that took up most of the room. Scorpina was leaning to one side, watching the proceedings curiously.

"What do you think she's planning?" Scorpina greeted them quietly.

Tommy shrugged. "Guess we're about to find out."

Finster pressed a button on the platform, and it lit up. Goldar, Scorpina, and Tommy crowded around it. The platform displayed a perfectly detailed map of Angle Grove.

"I've called you all here…"

Tommy jumped. He hadn't seen Empress Rita.

"…to plan our final attack," Rita continued. Her voice practically trembled with suppressed excitement. "Finster! Call out the monsters."

"Monsters? Plural?" Goldar said.

Finster was waving his arms excitedly. "Come out, all of you!"

The throne room was suddenly crowded to capacity. Three large monsters lumbered in single file, trying not to bump into each other. They all stayed to the shadows, so no one could tell what they looked like.

Finster seemed, for once, right in his element. "May I introduce you to my newest creations? The first is called Pop Star! I got the inspiration from your popcorn, Tommy."

The first monster stepped forward and bowed showily. It looked nothing like popcorn. It was blue and floated a few inches above the ground. It looked like an oddly erotic smurf, with strategically-placed armor barely concealing both feminine and masculine… traits.

"I don't remember popcorn being blue…" Goldar whispered.

Finster cleared his throat after receiving Tommy's uncertain smile of approval. "Pop Star can exhibit great bursts of speed and can deafen enemies with sharp bursts of sound, much like popcorn is made."

"I'm not sure he's making popcorn correctly," Tommy whispered to Goldar. A glare from Rita silenced him.

"Anyway," Finster said, clearly pleased, "my second monster is Clown Man, designed specifically to prey on the odd human fear of clowns."

Clown Man stepped forward, and Tommy immediately backed away as far as he could. The monster was seven feet tall and had disproportionately large head, hands, and feet. It giggled. "I want to make balloon animals… out of your intestines," the monster ended under its breath, so no one could hear but Tommy. The monster looked at him, nodding its head slowly.

Everyone else was looking too closely at Tommy to catch what the monster had said. "Is that true?" Scorpina said, trying not to laugh. "Are you really scared of clowns?"

"What's so scary about face paint and balloon animals?" Goldar laughed outright.

Tommy kept his eyes on the monster. "Just keep that thing away from me. They're scary… all right? Their weird frozen smiles and… how can, like, twenty of them fit in a tiny car? Haven't you ever heard of John Wayne Gacy?"

They looked back at the monster, who was spraying Pop Star with a seltzer bottle and laughing. Squatt and Babboo jumped up and down in glee. They all looked back at Tommy, nonplussed.

"I love children and teenagers," Clown Man enthused. "With a creamy butter sauce," he added again under his breath, and again only Tommy could hear it.

"Didn't you hear that?" Tommy said

The rest looked at the clown, who was busy making balloon animals. As soon as they looked away, Clown Man reformed a giraffe into a human hanging from a noose.

Scorpina shook her head. "I just don't get it."

Clown Man pointed at the balloon hanging man, then at Tommy, and then back again. It grinned widely, and then reformed the balloon into a wiener dog before anyone could see.

"Now then," Finster said, raising his voice to get their attention, "for my greatest creation of all. This is the one that I think will completely destroy the Power Rangers. My most effective monster to date… The Grizzlinator!"

A bear stepped forward out of the shadows.

They all stared at it. "It's a bear," Goldar said.

Finster clapped his hands. "It's not a bear… it's a monster inspired by the Earth Grizzly bear. See… it has a helmet."

Perched atop the bear's head was a pith helmet.

"What powers does it have?" Scorpina asked.

"It has incredible strength and speed, and it has ferocious teeth and claws," Finster crowed.

Tommy squinted at it, trying to ignore Clown Man. "So it's a bear."

"It's the Grizzlinator," Finster insisted.

The Grizzlinator roared and fell to all fours. It began sniffing around.

Clown Man appeared interested in the Grizzlinator. "I bet I could make it dance with a tutu and umbrella," it said. "And it could kill Tommy," it muttered, but the Grizzlinator roared at that point, drowning it out.

Pop Star floated, unconcerned.

"Empress Rita," Goldar began as Finster ushered out the monsters out, "what sort of plan would require three monsters as different as them?"

Empress Rita approached the map, facing her warriors and grinning. "I'm glad you asked, Goldar. We have suffered a few… setbacks… in our plans, so most of those plans had to be scrapped."

The three shifted uncomfortably, hoping this wasn't a segue into more yelling.

"However," Rita said, "sometimes we need these little disasters to simplify our plans. Everything was too complicated… too reliant on chance. I think now," she paused for effect, "we just need a good old-fashioned brawl. What I'm talking about is a massive attack. The three of you… and the three monsters."

There was a pause, and they could hear the roars of the Grizzlinator in the background. Finster entered the room quietly.

"We'd practically overpower the Rangers by numbers alone," Tommy said.

"Is this wise, Empress Rita?" Goldar said cautiously. "Wouldn't three monsters represent a significant drain on your magical powers?"

"Do you doubt my abilities, Goldar?" Rita said.

Goldar backed down quickly. "No, my Empress."

Scorpina rolled her eyes. "Well, I am, if you don't mind. The reason you never send out more than one monster is that it weakens you, Rita, and you know that. Especially if you were to make them all grow…"

"Now that would be ridiculous," Rita said. "I said nothing as foolish as making all three of them grow at once. Tommy, you have your Zord, and Scorpina, you have the ability to grow on your own… with a drain on your own resources, but you won't be alone up there. Therefore, I would only have to make either Goldar or one of the monsters grow… if it comes to that." Rita smiled. "I would rather they all be defeated before we have to consider making anything grow. Now, for a regular fight, Finster has assured me that three monsters are well within my abilities… and you know how fretful he is about my health."

"It should be perfectly safe, my Queen," Finster said.

"Now," Empress Rita said, "down to business. We must actually plan the attack. That is why I have called you all here. This must be done carefully, and it would be best to keep the Rangers as off-balance as possible. Where do you think we should attack?" Rita looked from one to the other, expectantly.

Goldar scrutinized the map. "There are no ridiculous events the Rangers participate in… Those are usually good settings for attack. Not even a charity relay bowling race or whatever the hell they do…"

"But it would be better to attack them unannounced," Scorpina said. "Not just randomly so Zordon can alert them and tell them how to beat the monster… or monsters."

Rita frowned. "I'm hearing a lot of stuff I already know. I need ideas, people."

"The school," Tommy said quietly.

They all looked at him as he stared at the map.

"What was that, Tommy?" Empress Rita demanded.

"My Empress… we attack them at the high school, during school hours," Tommy said. "It's never been done before, so they're fairly surprised. They should all be there… they can't skip any more school. They've already missed too many days. They'll have trouble teleporting out and morphing because we're going to make sure no one evacuates, so they'll be surrounded by students and teachers. Then they'll have to worry about protecting too many people."

"Sounds like a good plan to me," Scorpina said.

"Yes, it does…" Rita said slowly. "Tommy, this wouldn't have anything to do with what happened this morning, would it?"

Scorpina and Goldar looked back and forth between Rita and Tommy, completely confused.

Tommy smiled. "It has everything to do with this morning, my Empress."

Empress Rita chuckled. "Good. Just checking. Right then… now that we have the setting, we'll need to carefully plan everything else…"

A large sheet of paper was conjured for the map table, and the four started to plan.


 

It was an hour and a half until the meeting at the Command Center, and Billy was exulting in his new freedom of movement. He hadn't even bothered taking his car to school, preferring to walk.

The day itself was beautiful, one of those first real days of fall, so the walk through the park was invigoratingly pleasant. Billy took many walks, usually to clear his head when thinking of an invention or to take a break from schoolwork. Sometimes his lab or wherever he was studying got too claustrophobic for the thoughts in his head, and he needed fresh air. Right now, though, he had an actual destination.

The hospital loomed in front of him… the place in which he'd almost willingly imprisoned himself. Billy still couldn't believe what he'd done. He had abandoned his friends, all because he had believed what Tommy said about him. Sure, he had rejoined the battle and won… Scratch that. Zordon had won the battle. No matter what Zordon had said, Billy still felt awful for his willful inaction and… cowardice.

Yet, even through the guilt, Billy still meanly rejoiced at the little revenge he had gotten on Tommy.

Funny… Zordon had barely mentioned Tommy the day before. Billy had replayed Zordon's words in his head… several times… and Billy came to the same conclusions. Zordon had lain most, if not all, of the blame on Rita. Did that mean that Billy was right? That Rita was controlling Tommy in some way?

That was what Billy had to find out. That was why he was going back to the hospital.

Billy looked around suddenly, startled that his feet had carried him all the way to the hospital room he'd shared with Tommy's father. Sucking in a breath, Billy knocked lightly on the door and entered.

The room was just as he'd left it. No stranger had yet moved in to the abandoned bed, for which Billy was grateful. It made this difficult task a little easier. Somehow he had to interrogate Mr. Oliver without tipping him off to anything suspicious.

"Hey, Billy!" Mr. Oliver greeted him with a wave and a grin. "I see you're up and moving around. Was that rumor really true, then? That you were healed by a Power Ranger?"

Billy smiled, glad that the rumor he'd thought up had caught on so popularly. He knew his mother was telling anyone who would listen. "Yes, it was rather odd. The Power Ranger said that since one of their enemies had targeted me, they were taking responsibility for repairing the damage."

John Oliver nodded. "Sounds right nice of them. Which one was it?"

"The Yellow Ranger," Billy said, truthfully this time.

"I'm glad Trini came through, then."

Billy felt his legs give, and he sat down hard at a visitor's chair. He realized his mouth was hanging open. "Um… I'm not sure what you…" he stammered.

"Oh, come off it." John waved him off impatiently. "I heard you and Jason talking… and you and Trini. I'm not above listening at doors. So, which color are you… red or blue?"

"Blue," Billy mumbled. His mind seemed to be frozen in panic. Never had anyone found out their secret. The situation was downright embarrassing. "Mr. Oliver, I…" he began, not quite sure what to say to the man.

"Billy, you don't have to worry," John said seriously. "It's not like I'm going to tell anyone. I'm not, honestly. I…" His voice broke. "I'm relieved, actually. Now I know what's happening to my son."

Billy stared at the older man, still unsure of what to say, but now for different reasons. On the one side, Billy couldn't help but feel anger toward Tommy. It bubbled up in Billy unexpectedly, and scenes of that morning, when Tommy had shown his true face, played in his mind. But… here was a grieving father. What the hell was Billy going to say to him? "We…" he began cautiously, "we don't know exactly what's happened to him. Rita—our enemy—has often put spells on us to change our personalities… but this seems different. More sophisticated. Tommy still has his personality, I think. And even most of his mind. What my theory is," Billy pushed his glasses up on his nose, gathering his thoughts, "is that Rita has changed Tommy's loyalties. Forced him to be completely loyal to her."

John grew progressively paler as Billy kept speaking. Billy was starting to worry that he was triggering another episode.

"I know Tommy hurt you," John said in a steady voice. "But I need to know everything Tommy has done. Please."

So, not really wishing to, Billy told John the entire story—everything that he knew from piecing things together. He knew there were still pieces missing, and some of it was still purely theoretical, and he told John as much. But he still told him of the attack on the Command Center, his own attack, a bit of what Tommy had done to Kimberly, and Jason's capture.

John sat quietly miserable through the entire recital, but wouldn't allow Billy to stop until he ended with the confrontation from that morning.

"He got a B? Really?" The corners of John's eyes crinkled.

Billy nodded, exhausted from speaking.

"So…" John said slowly. "What are you going to do about him? To him? What's going to happen to him?" The misery crept back into John's voice. His eyes looked dead.

Billy's stomach twisted into a knot. He couldn't imagine what Mr. Oliver was going through. Billy wondered if it would have been better if he hadn't found out at all. "I… I don't know. We're meeting at 3:30 to discuss."

"And you came to see me… why?" John said.

Billy closed his eyes. "I needed more information… about Tommy. I needed to know…"

"If he was worth saving," John finished bitterly.

Billy stared at John in surprise. Billy realized he would have died before he would admit it… but John was right. That was exactly why he had come.

"I realize I have no right to ask this of you," John said haltingly. "I know that, after what Tommy did to you. But… I'm asking you to save my son. Whatever's been done to him…" John turned his face away, and Billy realized the man was crying. "I want my son back. I want him safe. I wish I could do it myself, but I've tried. I've filled up an entire tape of answering machine messages. So I have to ask you to do it."

Billy stared at the man, and right then Billy forgot about his own personal injuries and what he and the other Rangers had suffered. That was nothing to what John was suffering… and what Tommy was suffering.

"I promise," Billy said, getting up.

John turned startled eyes to him.

"I promise I will save Tommy."


 

It was a few minutes before 2:00, and Jason was waiting outside Mr. Kaplan's office. The principal was in conference with a parent… thankfully not his own, Jason smiled. Though he would not have blamed them.

"Hey, Jas," a whisper came from the door to the outer office, and Zack was waving him over.

Jason left the outer office, ignoring the perpetually annoyed look on the secretary's face. "What's going on? Trouble?"

Zack shook his head. "I just wanted to know if you were in trouble."

"Not if I play my cards right," Jason said. "Hey… thank for covering for me."

"You asked me to be the leader…"

"With my parents, I mean."

Zack grinned. "No problem. You'd do the same for me. You didn't have any trouble, did you?"

Jason laughed. "After your cover story? Besides… I think the whole Billy situation overshadowed everything, anyway."

Zack raised his eyebrows, sensing the vagueness in Jason words.

Jason shrugged. "Parents are unpredictable, okay? I didn't have any trouble."

And he hadn't, Jason reflected as Zack ran to class. His parents hadn't said a word about his recent absences. Not that they knew anything about the absences from school…

A very irate couple pushed past Jason. He heaved a sigh. He would have rather seen Mr. Kaplan in a better mood. Jason knocked on the open door to get Mr. Kaplan's attention. The principal was looking out the large window behind his desk.

"Ah, Mr. Scott," the principal said wearily. "Come in."

Jason edged in and pulled a folder out of his backpack. "Sir… I just came to give you this."

Mr. Kaplan raised his eyebrows. "Two days late, after two missed detentions," he commented as he flipped through the contents of the folder, and then stared at Jason. "Five pages? I only asked for 500 words."

Jason took a breath. "Yes, sir."

Jason fidgeted as Mr. Kaplan's eyes flew over the typed pages. Jason had spent all that night writing the paper, and he knew it wouldn't win any awards, but he'd poured his soul into it. He wasn't able to go into specifics, of course, but he'd used the essay as an opportunity to get out all the shame and guilt for his recent actions as a Power Ranger. He'd been somewhat comforted by Zordon's words… but there were still things he needed to confront in himself. His stubbornness. His not listening to anyone else. His rash actions and quick anger.

He honestly didn't care, by this time, what Mr. Kaplan thought of the essay. It had been something he needed to do, and he felt better for it.

Mr. Kaplan reached the last page and sighed, scratching his head. Jason had to stifle a laugh when he saw the obvious wig move back and forth on the man's scalp.

"You missed both detentions," Kaplan said. "You missed two days of class without excuses… and then you give me this." Mr. Kaplan shook his head. "I'm just not sure how to react, Mr. Scott."

Jason knew he had absolutely no time to devote to detentions, and his skipping those detentions had been absolutely necessary. But still he said, "I'm ready to do whatever it takes."

Mr. Kaplan stared at Jason, then at the paper, then back at Jason, and again sighed. He got up and looked out the window for a full minute before speaking.

"The elementary school is hosting a Game Day the Saturday after next," Mr. Kaplan said. "I've gotten word that they're severely short on volunteers."

Jason looked at Mr. Kaplan expectantly, hardly believing his ears.

Mr. Kaplan continued. "You will serve your detention this Saturday and the next by volunteering for the work day and the actual Game Day. I've heard you're good with children…"

"Thank you, Mr. Kaplan."

Mr. Kapland looked at him, his face still stern. "Ms. Applebee will be helping coordinate the volunteers. If I get word from her that you're skipping or slacking off, you'll be faced with suspension, good student or no."

Jason left the office, hardly believing his luck. There were some days that everything went wrong. And there were other days, of course, when everything seemed to go right. Jason figured it was about time luck went swinging his way.

Jason was just trying to decide how to kill time until the meeting at 3:30 when he felt a strong hand grab him by the arm and pull him roughly into an empty classroom.

The door slammed. Jason whirled around, already having nightmare images of fighting with Goldar again. He'd had nightmares all the night before, filled with fog and that mocking laugh. Instead, a beautiful blonde girl in sunglasses faced him. She was blocking the door.

Jason stared at the girl. He didn't recognize her, and he wondered how he could have missed out on such a gorgeous girl. "Um… do we know each other?"

The girl was staring at her watch and counting seconds half-aloud. She then looked up, apparently satisfied. "Jason… Red Ranger… I have a message for you from Finster."

Jason froze. He didn't recognize the girl from the Moon Palace. With a jolt, he realized that this was another of Rita's human slaves. Just how many had she done this to?

The girl seemed to sense Jason's thoughts and smiled. "Don't worry… it's nothing like that. You see, I'm a Putty."

"That…" Jason said, trying to assimilate each new extraordinary statement from the girl, "doesn't really make me worry less. And you don't even look like a Putty."

"I'm in disguise as a human, of course… Something Finster came up with," the girl said. "He hasn't perfected it, though." She pulled the sunglasses off, and red, soulless eyes adorned the girl's face.

Her voice was low and matter-of-fact, though with a wry sense of humor. Jason couldn't help but admire Finster's skill. As long as she kept the sunglasses on—and she, or it, was replacing them now—the Putty could pass for a regular human.

"I often run minor errands for Finster on Earth," the Putty said. "But we don't have a lot of time, and I have a lot to communicate to you."

Jason crossed his arms. "And what does Rita have to say to me? I escaped, fair and square… and almost at the cost of my life. And I can tell her what to do with her treaty…"

What Jason had in mind about the treaty was waved away impatiently by the Putty. "No, Red Ranger, you misunderstand me. Empress Rita did not send me. Finster sent me… without Rita's knowledge or consent. That's why we have little time. I've set this room to be completely masked from Rita's surveillance, but the effect will only last for the next ten minutes."

Jason uncrossed his arms in surprise. "Well, you've definitely got my attention," he said quietly.

The Putty nodded once, a quick mechanical move that gave away her less than human identity. "Finster wishes to congratulate you on your escape and recovery. He also wishes a favor from you."

Jason repressed a disbelieving laugh. "Go on."

"Finster wishes your assistance in saving the Green Ranger, Tommy Oliver."

If there was anything Jason had been expecting, it wasn't that. He stared at the Putty, unable to respond.

"As Finster is sure you know," the Putty went on, "Tommy is under a very powerful mind control spell. He is aware of it, but his mind is so turned that he clings to the spell desperately. Even though he knows that he's under a spell, he can't understand that he's being controlled. He thinks of himself as fully, voluntarily loyal to Empress Rita… which is what Rita intended, of course.

"The problem is… the spell is killing him. The link between the two—Tommy and Empress Rita—is a poisonous connection. It's destroying both of them, but Empress Rita will be able to save herself. Tommy won't."

Jason sat in the chair behind the teacher's desk, frowning. "I don't get it… What exactly is wrong with Tommy? And how does Finster expect me to break the spell if he can't. I mean, he knows more about it than I do."

The Putty smiled enigmatically. "Finster, of course, cannot move against Empress Rita openly, even if he does have her best interests in mind. Empress Rita is convinced that the spell is doing Tommy no harm. As for what's exactly wrong with him… Finster has a theory, nothing more. Finster says Tommy's subconscious and strong character is fighting the spell. He knows what he does for Empress Rita goes against everything he believes in… so he punishes himself. He doesn't eat or sleep unless forced, he pushes himself too hard during training… Most days he's running on pure adrenaline. At that rate, he will kill himself or get himself killed during a fight. That is why he lost to you so easily during your escape attempt."

Jason stared down, mulling over what the Putty was saying. It fit with all the pieces, with what he had seen at the Moon Palace.

"So why is Finster doing this," Jason said, "if it's so dangerous? I mean, Finster's the enemy. He works for Rita."

The Putty shrugged. "Tommy has always been kind to Finster. If the spell weren't hurting Tommy, and if it weren't hurting Empress Rita, it might be different. But it's not."

The Putty checked its watch, and Jason was aware of the quickly-passing minutes. Their window was closing fast. "All right… I believe you," Jason said slowly, "crazy as that sounds. So what do we do?"

The Putty began speaking quickly. "There's going to be an attack here tomorrow, sometime during the school day. The attack will consist of Goldar, Scorpina, Tommy, and three monsters… along with the usual guard of Putties…" the Putty smiled. "I might even see you there. Anyway, the plan is to flush you all out, possibly even force you to morph in public, and generally endanger civilian lives in the panic that will ensue. All the exits will be blocked… by what means Finster is not sure at this point. This will be the perfect opportunity to capture Tommy."

Jason's mind was still reeling from the news. An attack at the school? The logistics of it were quickly giving him a headache. "Excuse me… but how would a crapload of monsters and civilians trapped in one building make it easier to get Tommy?"

"Please do not interrupt me again, for we have little time," the Putty said. "One thing you must know is that monsters exhaust Rita's magical powers. That's why she only ever sends one. Finster has assured her that three will not hurt her… and it won't. It will just weaken the attention she can put on the connection between herself and Tommy. So Tommy will be vulnerable. Now, it is vitally important that you capture and closely imprison Tommy. The spell is maintained through eye contact with Empress Rita. She makes sure to share eye contact with Tommy at least five minutes in a day."

"So, if we can even physically separate them for long enough…" Jason said slowly.

"Exactly," the Putty said. "But it won't be enough. There needs to be something else to push Tommy out of the spell. The spell makes him cling to it, remember? Just as he is struggling against the spell, he will struggle all the more violently to keep it." The Putty frowned. "Unfortunately, Finster is at a loss as to how to do that. For that, you're on your own.

"Finster realizes you may not wish to save Tommy. But you really are his only hope. Finster can do nothing without incurring Empress Rita's wrath." The Putty checked her watch one last time. "I only have a few more seconds. Finster will not be able to plan this so perfectly again. Tommy's fate is now in your hands."

The Putty vanished, and Jason was left alone.


 

Jason was the last to arrive at the meeting. He looked around the Command Center… and it looked almost normal. Billy was tapping furiously at a console, obviously really into some nonessential repair work. The others were lounging about, Kimberly working on her makeup. And Zordon… finally… was floating reassuringly in the tube that dominated the room.

"Where's Alpha?" Jason said, frowning at the gaping hole in the picture of normality.

"He has to work on some power generators," Trini said. "They were overtaxed when he activated some of the lower levels yesterday."

"Well, guys," Jason began casually, "you won't believe the visit I just had."

Jason launched into the explanation and spoke, without interruption, but nearly fifteen minutes. Occasionally someone looked like they wanted to speak, but Jason held them off with a silent hand and continued. He wanted to get every detail right. He told them about the Putty, the plan to attack the school, the spell, and all of Finster's request.

The reactions were varied.

"They can disguise a Putty as human?" Zack said. "I dunno about you, but I'm checking eyes from now on."

"And they're actually going to attack the school?" Trini said. "I mean, what do we do? Do we try to evacuate the school before it happens?"

"If we evacuate the school," Billy said, "they will simply cancel the attack and we will no longer have forewarning. No matter his motive, Finster has given us that much."

"But what about Tommy?" Kimberly cut in desperately.

"Don't you think the attack on the school is more important?" Zack said.

"Rangers," Zordon said, gaining their attention and silence effortlessly. Zordon seemed to take a breath before speaking. "What you have told us, Jason, is invaluable information in more than one way."

"But Zordon," Kimberly said, "how can we trust this information? I mean, a disguised Putty was sent by Finster? What if it was a trap?"

"That's not entirely improbable," Billy chimed in. "The Putty seemed to give a lot of information with very little assurance as to trustworthiness. Even if this Finster did send the Putty, how can we know that he really has Tommy's best interests at heart?"

"Because I've seen him around Tommy," Jason said quietly. Attention turned sharply to him. "Up at the Moon Palace," Jason continued, "when I was a prisoner. I saw…" Jason frowned at the memory. "I saw Tommy almost insane, and Finster said that Rita's spell had not gone as well as before. It seemed like Rita was reinforcing the spell, and it… sort of drove Tommy crazy. But then Finster was there, taking care of him. Somehow, I don't think Finster would joke around about that."

"Was that Monday night?" Kimberly said. "Two nights ago?"

Jason paused for a minute. His imprisonment had given him a strange time gap that he was just getting over. "I'm almost positive. It was the night of the full day of my imprisonment."

"It's just that…" Kimberly said, pausing as she thought things through. "That would explain his freakout when he was fighting me."

"Huh?" Jason said. He hadn't been quite filled in on everything that had happened while he was gone.

"We fought on Monday," Kimberly said, "right after he revealed his identity. The others were fighting Goldar and Scorpina, and I was fighting him. He was… well… He was winning. Like, a lot. But before he could really hurt me, he fell down screaming on the ground. For no reason whatsoever…" Kimberly grew quiet, light dawning in her eyes. "And at the beach."

The others stared at her. "Yeah, Kim, it was at the beach," Zack said, bewildered.

Kimberly waved him off impatiently. "No… I know that. When we were at the beach on Saturday on our date. It was like he wanted to tell me something. He got all weird and scared-looking."

"Those are signs that he is trying to fight the spell," Zordon said. "I had a similar experience when he was attacking the Command Center. I was trying to talk to him and reach him, and he became emotional."

"So, then, what do we do?" Trini asked.

Zordon grew even graver. "That is exactly why I called this meeting. We can discuss plans for tomorrow's attack, but we first need to discuss what to do about Tommy."

"What's there to discuss?" Jason said.

"Yeah," Zack said. "It's obvious what we have to do."

"Is it?" Zordon said. "Tommy is unlike any enemy we have faced before. He is himself a victim of Rita's evil spell. However, he is no mindless zombie. Much of the plans lately have been of his own devising. After what happened this morning, I would not doubt if Tommy was the one to suggest the school as the place of attack. Any plans to save Tommy from the spell would be dangerous, both to you Rangers and to the surrounding civilians… and to Tommy himself. The spell may prevent him from ever turning away from Rita. And part of his salvation must necessarily come from himself. He has to want to be saved enough to be saved."

"It's still obvious what we have to do," Zack said. "It's too dangerous. We gotta cut him loose."

Jason nodded. "That's right, we have to save him… what did you say?" His voice was tense and bewildered as he looked at Zack, who was looking at him with equal bewilderment.

"As you can see," Zordon said, "the decision is not as obvious as any of you think."

"Now, wait a minute," Jason said, still staring at Zack. "What do you mean, 'we gotta cut him loose?' This from the same guy who risked everything to save me?"

"Yeah, well, he's not you," Zack said. "You're my best friend. You're one of us. Tommy is…"

"Well, technically, he's a Power Ranger," Billy said. He seemed to be unable to contain himself any longer. "He's more like us than like any of Rita's minions."

"Except he is Rita's minion," Zack said. "He clings to it, like Finster said. Maybe he volunteered in the first place, and Rita just put a spell on him to insure his loyalty."

"That doesn't fit with Finster's story," Billy said.

"But he did say that Tommy clings to the spell… and he'll fight to keep it," Zack said. His voice was starting to get angrier. The others had sort of removed themselves from him, so he was standing alone. "Do we really want to save someone like that? I mean, if civilian lives weren't at risk, that would be a different story. But this half-baked plan Finster cooked up is high-risk and probably won't work in the first place."

"This is ridiculous," Jason said. He couldn't believe he had to defend Tommy after all they knew already. "Tommy is fighting against the spell. Rita has to keep renewing the spell, and it's killing him. You heard Kimberly… Tommy wanted to confess to her."

Zack crossed his arms. "Yeah, but I seem to be the only one who remembers the rest of that day. Saturday, was it?"

Billy shifted uncomfortably. "Zack, I don't think…"

"HE ALMOST KILLED YOU!" Zack startled everyone—a pronouncement that seemed to come from somewhere deep that he had been hiding. "Billy, you almost died because of him. Yeah, so he wanted to confess to Kimberly. I guess he got that out of his system. Not to mention what he did to Kimberly that night."

Everyone glanced at Kimberly, who had been staring at the floor throughout the entire argument. She ignored everyone.

"Look," Trini said, "I'm not the biggest fan of Tommy right now. He messed with my friends. He's really hurt all of us. But… he's being forced to. If it weren't for the spell, he wouldn't be like this."

"Can we really know that?" Zack said. "We didn't see him all that much before he was put under that 'spell.' Sure, he may not usually go to people's houses and beat them half to death. But you heard him talk about himself… kicked out of school, severely injuring people while playing football, running away from home… He's not a good guy. Like I said, I think it's more likely that he volunteered to take the spell."

"But how can we assume that?" Billy said.

"Why are you defending him?" Zack said furiously. "After what he did to you?"

Billy looked away. "I made a promise," he said quietly. "I promised his father I would help him in any way I could."

For Billy, it was a sticky situation. He wasn't sure if he should reveal that Mr. Oliver knew they were Power Rangers… and exactly what happened to Tommy. He knew there were ways to wipe people's memories just in case their identities were accidentally revealed to just a few people. But he didn't even want to consider using that on Mr. Oliver, not with his health problems. And there was enough drama right now already. Billy glanced at Zordon, who gave him an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Of course Zordon knew… and apparently wanted Billy to keep quiet about it.

Zack looked a little disturbed. He had obviously forgotten that Tommy had a loving, worried, and sick father who would be destroyed if Tommy never came back.

"Kimberly, you haven't said anything," Jason said. "What should we do?"

Kimberly stared miserably away. "I… I feel like he's been asking for my help all this time. But…" She bit her lip. "This morning, I couldn't see anything in his eyes but hatred. What if he's already too far gone?"

They grew quiet at her words.

"If we don't save him," Jason said, "what do you propose we do, Zack? Kill him?"

Zack glared at him. "No… of course not. We just need to take away his Power Coin."

"Which is the same as killing him," Jason growled. "I was able to survive for a couple of days when my Power Coin was forcibly taken away from me, because it was always close by. But any longer… We all know the only safe way to relinquish our powers is to give them up voluntarily, and even then it's a tricky business."

"But we don't know it will happen that way with a Power Coin Rita gave," Zack said.

"That shouldn't make a difference," Zordon said. "He will still die if the Power Coin is forcibly taken from him, slowly but surely. He could give it away voluntarily…"

"But why would he do that if he's evil?" Trini said. "That still necessitates us saving him."

"And what?" Zack said. "Ask him to join the team? Fight alongside the guy who almost killed Billy? Who attacked Angel Grove just yesterday and destroyed two buildings? I heard two dock workers got hurt, and one is in Intensive Care. Yeah, that's a guy I'd like on my side."

Jason furrowed his brow. He hadn't even thought of after saving him, especially if Tommy were to keep his powers. "He may want to atone for what he's done…"

"For what he's done," Zack said. "You said it there yourself. Not Rita… Tommy."

"Rangers," Zordon interrupted them when Jason looked like he was gearing up for another argument. "I knew this decision would not be a light one. Therefore, I wish to break for an hour for you all to come to your own decisions."

The dismissal was a bit abrupt, startling the Rangers. One by one, they began to teleport out until only Jason and Zack remained.

"I'm… gonna go to the Youth Center," Jason said uncomfortably. He didn't like to be at odds with Zack, but that seemed to happen so often recently. "I haven't been able to work out all that much lately."

"See ya," Zack said, and watched as Jason teleported away. He had no real place to go, himself, so he figured he would go to the park or something.

Zordon, however, had other plans. "Zack, please stay for a few minutes."

Zack set himself, knowing this was the entire reason Zordon had asked them to break for an hour. "What's up, Zordon?" he tried to say as casually as possible.

"I wish to know what is troubling you," Zordon said. "I am aware that you like to oppose Jason whenever possible… to act as a devil's advocate. Yet you seem intensely passionate on this subject."

Zack turned his face stubbornly away. "I…" He laughed and looked back at Zordon. "Will you think I'm petty if I say I don't want to forgive him?"

"No, Zack," Zordon said quietly. "I won't think so at all."

Zack leaned against a console, trying to put words to his feelings. Zordon had an annoying way of making him be all introspective, when that wasn't Zack's style at all. "When I first found out Tommy was the Green Ranger," Zack said, "I was so angry. I attacked him, right there in the Juice Bar. If Ernie hadn't stopped me, I don't know what would have happened. I started the fight… I instigated a fight, breaking the second rule to all hell." Zack heaved a sigh. "But all I could see was Tommy, without any masks or costumes or powers, attacking Billy. He wasn't even using any powers, I heard, when he did that."

"He may not have had powers," Zordon said, "but he was still under the spell. The spell came before the powers, and it would last if the powers were gone. Tommy had no say in the spell. He didn't volunteer. He wasn't even offered the position, as you all were, though he no doubt delights in the power."

"Yeah," Zack said bitterly. "I definitely got that vibe from him."

"And that is the problem," Zordon said. "He delights in the power, and he clings to the spell. That is completely the opposite of your own attitude to being a Power Ranger."

Zack winced. Again, Zordon was annoyingly perceptive. "Zordon… it's not that I don't want to be a Power Ranger. You know that, right?"

"Of course," Zordon said. "Too much love for power is dangerous. That, I think, is why Tommy clings so tightly to the spell. He is allowed power and freedom… but at a great price. He is a slave with no responsibility for his actions, and somewhere inside him he knows that is wrong."

"And how do you know he's like that at all?" Zack said. "We don't know anything about him except 'evil Tommy.'"

"I know him because I have watched him," Zordon said, "just as I have watched all of you. I always watch for candidates to become Power Rangers. I started watching you and your friends years ago. I've watched Tommy for the past few months. There are others, of course."

Zack stared at Zordon, wide-eyed.

"Zack, did you think your appointments were random?" Zordon said, amusement trickling into his voice. "There are several potentials, most of whom won't be used. But I always have people in mind to take over when any of you leave for other things. After all, you won't be a Power Ranger forever."

Zack digested this bit of information. "So… what was Tommy like… before the spell?"

"Tommy was troubled, as he has related to you," Zordon said. "He has had to shoulder adult responsibilities for many years now, when his mother left him with his ailing father. Periods of rebellion were unhealthy ways of coping with his life… much like the spell is an unhealthy way of escaping. However, Tommy at his best is generous and fiercely loyal. I believe Rita has to maintain the spell so closely because of his loyalty to his father, and she is determined to separate Tommy from his father. She has turned that generosity and loyalty to her own purposes, just as she has turned his strength, skill, and cunning."

Zack licked his lips. "So… this is 'slave' in the literal sense."

"I believe so," Zordon said.

Zack furrowed his brow. "I have some thinking to do." He teleported before Zordon could say anything, and he landed right outside the large house, right where Jason said it was.

Zack saw someone moving around in the house, and a flash of blue passed the window. Zack looked around warily, hoping no one would see him in what was technically breaking and entering, and walked into the house.

A punch went flying, but Zack caught it just in time and deflected it. "What the hell, Billy?"

Billy looked relieved. "Sorry, Zack. I assumed you were Tommy."

Zack frowned. "He's not allowed here, remember? Nowhere on Earth."

"Which is why I did not hesitate to attack," Billy said, already continuing his interrupted search. "Why are you here, by the way?"

Zack shifted uncomfortably. "Sorry it got so heated up there. I just…"

"I know." Billy seemed to sag. "Believe me, I know."

"Yeah, well… I guess I'm here for the same reason you are," Zack said.

They stared around the house. An unpleasant smell was coming from the kitchen, and the rest of the house was lined with boxes. There was a feeling of general neglect.

"He never even got to unpack," Zack said.

Billy gazed around and sighed. "Yeah… I found these in his bedroom." He waved the ornately-carved sticks that had been the first clue to the mystery. "He obviously used that as a teleportation site before he destroyed the Command Center. Now… I think he doesn't even live here."

Zack moved to the kitchen to investigate the smell. He took one look in the fridge and practically ran back to the living room. "Don't… look in the fridge. I think some of that stuff is alive."

Billy laughed once, but the whole place seemed to choke out laughing. "You know… his father is coming home early next week. He's going to come home to… this."

Zack couldn't think of a thing to say. Again, the image of Tommy's father haunted him. For something to do, he absently pulled open a box. It was full of comic books.

"No, he's not," Zack heard himself saying.

Billy looked up at him, startled.

"We're going to save Tommy," Zack said, his voice gaining strength and resolution. "Of course we are. Mr. Oliver is going to come home to a clean, unpacked house and to his son. All we have to do is figure out how."

Billy still looked startled, but the excitement of planning was starting to spark in his eyes. "Well, we'll obviously have to capture him, and we can't use that 'de-morphing' gun Zordon gave me. It needs to charge for several more days."

"How bout we beat the ever-livin' snot out of him?" Zack said. "Then we can just teleport him out of there."

This time Billy laughed for real. "Simple and direct… if it works. But then how do we get him to turn? We'll need to appeal to his better side… but we've tried that. Zordon tried that. And if Zordon couldn't do it…"

Zack shrugged. "There anything here we can use? Maybe remind him of what he's lost?"

Billy shook his head. "I don't know. You know, his father said if there was anything he could do to get Tommy to see reason…"

Billy trailed off. His eyes grew glazed, like he'd just been hit over the head.

"Billy, what's up?" Zack said.

Billy grinned. "I've got an idea."


 

The air was tense as the Rangers gathered in the Command Center. No one spoke as they waited for everyone to get there.

"All right," Jason said when Billy and Zack teleported up. They looked excited… but Jason would have to find out later. "We've all had time to think, and we've all heard the arguments. We know no matter what we do, Tommy will be in danger. We'll all be in danger. So it's decision time." He took a deep breath, but he found he was more comfortable with everyone staring at him… and it had nothing to do with Zordon's presence. "So… I want those who wish to save Tommy to raise their hands."

He put his hand up, not worrying about swaying anyone. They all knew his opinion anyway. Billy was next, but they were all startled to see Zack put his hand up at the same time as Billy. Finally, Trini and Kimberly slowly raised their hands. Kimberly looked like she'd been crying, but her face was set and determined now.

"Rangers, I am proud of you," Zordon said. "Tommy's salvation will be difficult, and he has given you no cause to help him. I think when Rita ordered him to befriend all of you, he hardly expected that he would be making real friends."

And there it was. Tommy was their friend. The thing they'd been struggling against was there in the open… and it was surprisingly easy to accept. They'd grown past vengeance or recriminations. Now, they were there to help a friend.

Jason smiled for the first time in what felt like months. "Now it's time to plan. The attack is tomorrow, and we have to be ready. We'll have to deal with Tommy, Goldar, Scorpina, three monsters, lots of Putties, in a school building filled to the brim with students. We'll have to protect everyone, defeat the monsters, capture Tommy, and all the while keep our identities a secret."

"And I heard they were serving Salisbury steak at the cafeteria tomorrow," Trini added, her voice dead serious.

They all stared at each other… and laughed. It seemed they couldn't stop laughing.

"Hey…" Jason said between gasps of laughter. "Maybe they'll attack before history. I heard there's a pop quiz."

"As long as it's before English," Kimberly said, tears of laughter streaming down her face. "We're reading A Sale of Two Tit… I mean… A Tale of Two…"

But that set them off again, laughing even harder. Even Zordon could be heard rumbling with laughter.

Jason glanced around at his fellow Rangers… his best friends. If there was anyone he knew who could achieve the impossible, it was all of them… together.

 

Chapter Text

"So… this guy… he was totally wasted," Scorpina said, passing the bottle around once more. "And he's ranting and raving about how he's the greatest warrior in the universe, and how he's going to get the bounty on the Zarian case first." Scorpina, mid-story, threw her hand of cards on the table. Tommy and Goldar groaned.

"How come she keeps on winning?" Tommy whispered.

"It's because she's cheating," Goldar said. "I don't know how, but she is."

The three were in Goldar's bedroom—significantly bigger than Tommy's, but that was to be expected. Goldar had set up a card table and had quickly taught Tommy the rules for a game whose title Tommy could never hope to pronounce. And Scorpina had spent the past two hours beating both Tommy and Goldar soundly.

Scorpina started dealing the cards again. "So I'm sitting there, all quiet like, with Zarian gagged and cuffed right beside me. I'm tellin' ya, even he's laughing at this chump, and he was probably going to die. And Mr. Greatest Warrior is still going on about how he could find anybody... and I just got up, and he saw me, and…" Scorpina took a huge swig out of her glass.

"So what did he do?" Tommy said, trying not to frown at his awful hand this time.

"Yeah, Goldar, what did you do?" Scorpina said in her sweetest voice.

Goldar growled and Tommy nearly fell off his chair laughing. "That's supposed to be private."

"Oh, come on!" Tommy said. "How can you keep something like that secret? So… was that when you two first met?"

Scorpina grinned. "First of many. We fought until we both ended up turning in Zarian at the same time, practically tearing the guy in half, and our client made us split the bounty. And then we… got to know each other."

Goldar tried to look angry, but he wasn't really fooling anyone. "That was a long time ago."

Scorpina laid down a few cards. "I actually got him the job with my old pal Rita. Good thing, too… he was a terrible bounty hunter. Too much of a blunt instrument."

"And you're too much of a bitch."

Tommy laughed along with them, feeling very drunk and at peace with everything. They'd worked hard all day, planning, going through scenario after scenario meticulously. Empress Rita was asleep, but they were all too wired to sleep, so… cards and drinking, mostly.

Scorpina threw her cards down. "I have to pee again."

"Again?" Tommy and Goldar said at the same time.

As she left, Scorpina shot them a hand gesture that Tommy figured was really dirty.

"Same to you!" Goldar said, laughing deep in his throat.

"Hey," Tommy whispered as soon as she left. "Take a look at her cards."

Goldar flipped them over. "Shit… I know she's cheating." In disgust, he shoved all the cards to the middle of the table. "Game's getting boring, anyway."

Tommy leaned back and stretched. "Hey, Goldar," he said.

Goldar grunted in reply.

"You nervous for tomorrow?"

Goldar shrugged. "Not nervous. Just… want to get this started."

Tommy finished off his glass, stared at it in confusion, and plonked it down on the table. "I know what you mean. I'm totally not nervous. Never. That's the complete opposite from what I'm feeling…"

Goldar was laughing.

"Shut up," Tommy said.

Goldar rolled his eyes, and he nearly lost his balance. "So, you're nervous, is that it? Don't worry… we've got too many fail-safes for anything to go wrong this time. And if it does, we'll just come up with something else. We always do."

Tommy scraped his hair out of his face. "Guess you're right. And I'm not nervous."

Only snores answered him. Goldar had slumped over the table, asleep.

Tommy laughed softly. "Wish I could get that kinda rest," he said to himself.

He leaned back and stretched, figuring that it may be time to actually go and get some sleep himself. Tomorrow was a big day, and he didn't want to have to deal with Finster's scolding… not to mention being drowsy during the attack.

As Tommy stumbled into the hallway, he ran into Scorpina, who then ran into a wall, giggling. They laughed and tried to hold each other upright.

Scorpina peeked into Goldar's room. The snores reverberated through the hallway. "Oh, damn," she said, almost boredly. "He's already asleep, and I'm as horny as hell."

Tommy suddenly felt way too damn close to Scorpina. "Uh… sorry. I'm pretty beat myself…"

Scorpina was on him in a second. Her smell filled Tommy's nostrils, and between the drink and her demanding kisses, he felt himself give in, caring less and less that a very jealous boyfriend lay snoring mere feet from where they were.

Scorpina pulled back, smirking at Tommy's dazed expression. "Come on… we'll find someplace more comfortable."

Tommy felt himself dragged to his own bedroom. A fleeting picture of Kimberly entered his mind—Kimberly pressed against him at the beach, moaning into his mouth—but he shoved the image away.


 

"Kim? You okay?"

Kimberly was sitting on her bed. She'd been staring into space for what she thought was a few minutes, but Trini was already out of the shower and shoving clothes off Kimberly's day bed.

"Sorry," Kimberly said. "I'm totally fine… really."

Trini pulled herself into a yoga position on the bed. She eyed Kimberly suspiciously.

Kimberly sighed. "I really wish I felt better about tomorrow." She pulled her knees up to her chin and hugged her legs, partially hiding her face. Her mind whirled with the plans they had made all evening, the strategies she could now recite in her sleep… if she felt she could ever get to sleep.

Trini smiled. "We're going to be fine. We've never been this prepared for a… test."

The two knew they couldn't be more specific than that. Much as it creeped Kimberly out, Rita had the ability to spy on them even at night in their rooms… though Billy, intrigued by Finster's ability to mask surroundings from surveillance, was determined to study on how to protect at least their houses from surveillance.

Trini lowered her voice to a whisper. "Is this about Tommy?"

"Of course it is," Kimberly said, her voice low. "I mean… what if he doesn't want to be saved? What if we can't? What do we do then?"

"Or what if we do save him?" Trini said. "I can't help but think you're more worried about that."

Kimberly flopped down onto her bed and grabbed a pillow, hugging it. "It's not that I don't want to save him. He's in danger. It's horrible what they're doing to him. But… What about after? How is he going to be?" Kimberly looked miserably at Trini. "What if he doesn't like me? What if… he does?"

Trini stared back at her, not sure of what to say. "Would that… would that be so bad?"

"I dunno," Kimberly said, looking away. "I… I'm not going to lie to you. I said that I was over him, but…"

"It's okay. I knew you weren't."

Kimberly hugged her pillow tighter. "That's just it. How can I trust him… ever? I mean, after what he did at the party? And him and that Scorpina chick all over each other. You realize she was wearing his clothes at the Youth Center when she met Zack, don't you?"

"From what Jason said, Scorpina is more into Goldar than Tommy," Trini replied. "So I don't think that's anything you have to worry about."

"Scorpina and… Goldar?" Kimberly said.

Kimberly and Trini stared at each other. "Ewwww." They laughed, the tension broken a bit.

"Kim, I don't know what's going to happen," Trini said, pulling herself under the covers. "When we save him—and, yes, I say 'when'—we'll figure everything out. A lot will depend on Tommy… what he wants to do. You realize that he may be wracked with guilt to the point of being suicidal. I mean, really. If you knew you'd done all the things that he's done… how would you react?"

Kimberly lay down, pulling the covers to her chin. "I guess it just depends on the person."


 

The day was beautiful as the five teens straggled into the school, holding bookbags that were rather bulkier than usual. They were tense and only distractedly acknowledged any friendly greetings.

"All right," Jason mumbled to the others. "We all stay on the alert. Once everything goes down, we'll get into position."

"Yeah, okay," Zack said irritably. "We all know the play. We also need to stop acting like we expect an attack, don't you think?"

Without a word, the Rangers dispersed to their lockers and classrooms. They nervously pulled at the collars and sleeves, hoping nothing would show under their clothes. It was a shame the day was so beautiful and warm, for they'd had to wear long sleeves and higher collars… to hide the fact that they were morphed. Their pants' legs drug the ground, hiding their white boots, and their helmets and gloves were stuffed into their bookbags. Otherwise, they looked completely normal and grew to look even more normal as they got used to the odd feeling of being morphed with clothes over their costumes.

Rita was planning on ambushing them… taking them unawares. They had their own ambush set up.


 

Tommy tried not to fidget as he sat on the table in Finster's lab. It was an hour until the attack, and Finster insisted on checking his health before he set foot on the battlefield. It felt completely unnecessary, though, and Tommy knocked his feet against the legs of the table in impatience.

Finster clucked his tongue. "Now, Tommy. They're not going off to war without you."

Tommy stilled his feet. "I honestly wouldn't blame them if they did."

It was still difficult to tell Finster's facial expressions, but Tommy was pretty sure Finster was smiling. "Now, there's no need for that. You've been doing an exemplary job on the battlefield. It wasn't your fault they had a de-morphing gun."

"I got hit," Tommy said. "So, yeah, it was my fault… but thanks anyway."

Finster didn't respond. He hummed to himself aimlessly as he worked.

Tommy brushed his hair out of his face, still trying to sort out completely what had happened the night before. Drinking… lots of drinking. What he was left with was disjointed yet vivid images of Scorpina. She'd been gone when he woke up, and that was definitely for the best. Still… he didn't know what to think about it. Were they just never going to mention it again? It hadn't been his first time, of course, but this time was different. It wasn't rebellion, or adolescent experimentation like before. It was…

Suddenly, Finster set everything down with a sigh. "All right, Tommy, you check out fine. You may go."

"Thanks a lot, Finster!" Tommy hopped off the table, eager to stop thinking about Scorpina and get to the throne room. Empress Rita wanted one last rundown of the attack before they teleported down. "See ya later!" he said with a wave.

Finster watched him go. "I hope not, Tommy," he whispered.

Tommy bounded into the throne room, the first to arrive. Only Empress Rita was there, staring avidly into her telescope.

"Ah, Tommy… good," she said, not looking up. "The Rangers are in optimal position. I've just called everyone… they should be here in a minute. We've moved up the attack."

"Oh… okay, Empress," Tommy said, trying not to sound nervous.

Empress Rita looked up at the sound of his voice and looked straight into his eyes. Again, that inexplicable connection made its presence known, and Tommy got the feeling Empress Rita could read his mind. She could, he knew. He had no secrets from her… and his doubts were just as clear to her as his loyalty was. But all the doubts were about himself… not her. Never her.

Empress Rita smiled. "Tommy… I know this has been a difficult few days. And I know you've been doing the best you can. Perhaps I was a bit hard on you. I was angry, and I tend to overreact when I'm angry. I was disappointed… in the attack. Not in you."

Tommy shifted. "Empress, I didn't think you overreacted. You were right. My plans failed." Tommy suddenly wished he could look away from her eyes so as to hide his shame. "The Rangers are… more resilient than I thought."

Empress Rita surprised Tommy by laughing. "My dear Tommy, they always are. That's why we're hitting them so hard this time." Her eyes seemed to burn with determination. "And we will defeat them this time. We have the element of surprise on our side again, but this time we won't allow them time to recover. And, of course, we also have the Dragonzord. You were winning, Tommy, and you will win again."

Rita pulled something out of her dress pocket and held it out. "As promised, your Power Coin."

Tommy took the coin from Empress Rita's hand, and with it her trust. "I will not fail you again, Empress," Tommy said.

Empress Rita's smile softened. "Tommy… my Green Ranger… you never failed me."

A sudden tromping of many feet, and Tommy moved away from her. He didn't want to share this with anyone. The room filled, Goldar and Scorpina greeting him excitedly. He suddenly didn't know where to stand. Far away from the monsters as possible, of course, but then he felt itchy around both Goldar and Scorpina… for obvious reasons. He was now sure Scorpina wouldn't mention the night before ever again. And he wasn't sure how he felt about that, either.

"Is it true?" Scorpina said. "Did she move up the attack?"

Tommy smiled casually. "She may have…"

Empress Rita walked to the center of the room, commanding immediate attention and silence. "It's time," she said. She was grinning so hard it looked like her face would break. "Goldar's leading the attack this time, though I expect both Scorpina and Tommy to lead in their sectors of the school." She paced the room, looking at them all in turn and ending with Goldar. "All right, Goldar, the team is yours."

Goldar moved forward, pulling all attention toward him. "All right, everyone. Remember: monsters guard the entrance. Pick off the Rangers one at a time, and keep them around people. Keep them from morphing." Goldar raised his sword. "To victory!"

Tommy yelled along with the others and prepared to morph. No matter his doubts, no matter the mixed feelings, no matter what would happen that day, Tommy felt completely at peace.


 

Jason tapped his pencil against his desk, ignoring the annoyed looks. It was only second period, but he felt like he'd been in school for hours. He'd heard nothing any of the teachers had said, and he kept his head down so no one would call on him. He just couldn't stand the suspense. God, what if they waited until after lunch? Or last period? Would it have killed Finster to give them a more accurate timeframe?

A yell in the hallway, and Jason broke his pencil. He smiled grimly. It was happening, finally. Confirming his suspicion, he communicator buzzed lightly: the signal.

Ignoring the yells from the history teacher, the class surged up as one to see what was happening in the hallway—the rubbernecking tendency they'd realized would be the most dangerous factor. Jason pushed his way to the front and ducked out. "I'm gonna see what's going on!" he yelled. As planned, a force field slammed down behind him, blocking the door and barring the students into the classroom. If any baddies infiltrated the room, or any of the classrooms, Alpha was ready to teleport all the civilians to a safe location.

Jason slowly made his way along the edge of the main hallway, primed for anything. There'd been the yell, but everything was quiet now. Only indignant protests from the trapped students in the classrooms.

Something gray flashed in the corner of Jason's eye, and he lashed out, landing a solid hit on a Putty. He briefly wondered if this was the Putty he'd talked to the day before. If it was, there was no personality or recognition, so Jason shoved the thought to the back of his mind and concentrated on fighting. It was odd, having morphed strength but fighting without his helmet. It took only a few blows and the Putty was down.

But there were more to come. Jason fought discreetly, senses primed for the main monster in this section. A gravelly laugh boomed through the corridor, seemingly ripped straight from Jason's nightmares. He bit back a curse. It just had to be Goldar, didn't it?

Jason ducked into an empty, dark classroom. Putties followed him, and Jason realized that their plan to be morphed in disguise probably saved his life. There were more Putties than he had ever faced, and if he hadn't been morphed they could have overpowered him. As it was, he could fight them off easily. Once he was clear of the last, he yelled, "Back to action!" He smiled as his clothes dissolved and his helmet and gloves formed magically around him. He'd already been in action. That was the surprise.

"What the hell is going on?" Jason heard Goldar yell.

Jason kicked a Putty hard, and it flew out of the classroom and landed hard on a section of lockers, leaving a sizeable dent. Jason followed the Putty out, casually dusting off his hands. "Morning, Goldar. You wantin' to transfer here, cuz I don't think this school takes giant space alien monkeys."

Goldar grinned. "Red Ranger… nice to see you in the land of the living. Run into any swords lately?"

Jason's eye twitched, but the helmet hid that from Goldar. "You know, I usually don't fall in with the whole 'revenge' thing, but I've just been dying to take you on again… in an even match." He kept his voice light, and he played the dialogue they'd discussed. One of their prime rules was to misdirect as much as possible. Keep Rita or anyone else from thinking that they main goal was to capture Tommy.

"You're 'dying to,' huh?" Goldar said with heavy irony. "I'll see that you get your wish."

Jason let himself get into the rhythm of the fight as soon as Goldar attacked. He wasn't fighting to win. All he had to do was herd Goldar in the right direction.


 

Billy had been in an emergency Science Club meeting—some problems with plans for the upcoming Science Fair—when the alarm buzzed on his communicator. The problem was, they were meeting in an open-air student lounge. No force fields could protect his friends. And Billy could already hear crashes in the distance.

"So if we can't use the Youth Center like we'd planned," Mary Katherine, the president of the Science Club, droned, "we can always work it out with Mr. Kaplan that we use some of the more spacious classrooms, or even the main hallway. It's not ideal, but we won't have to move the gym equipment and we'll have a better chance of getting parents to come."

"I don't know… I think casual observers would be more likely to come to the Youth Center. What do you think, Billy?" said Stan, pushing up his glasses.

Billy knew he couldn't move them until there was a reason, but he couldn't excuse himself and leave them without ensuring their safety.

"If you're bored, Billy," Vince sneered, "you could go hang out with your jock friends."

A group of Putties, surrounding a blue figure, turned the corner, and Billy was never more grateful to see them. "Uh, guys? We may need to cut the meeting short."

"And why would that be?" Vince asked, seeming to prime for another argument.

"Because a monster is headed right for us," Billy said, almost smiling at the shocked looks on their faces as their eyes followed Billy's.

"Fascinating," Mary Katherine said, sounding a bit dazed. "Is that creature floating?"

"Attack them," the monster said as it floated calmly. The voice was like a carrying whisper, which seemed more terrifying than the usual yells and growls from monsters.

Billy got up, but the others didn't. They seemed frozen. That wasn't good. "Guys, run! Come on! Now!"

The usually quick set were slow to comprehend Billy's words. They finally got up and stumbled out of the lounge in their haste, Billy taking up the rear and pushing some of them down the hall. They turned a corner and ran into an empty classroom, and Billy pulled back quickly. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the forcefield activate. They were all safe. Now he just needed to keep the battle away from them.

Billy turned the corner and ran straight into the weird blue monster. He… she… it grabbed his collar and threw him over its shoulder. Billy crashed back into the lounge area. He rolled with the fall and was on his feet in seconds. He took a quick glance around, saw that there were no civilian in sight, and morphed the rest of the way.

"Interesting," the blue monster said. "You were not incapacitated as expected. Yet that is no matter. I will still destroy you, Blue Ranger."

Billy put up his guard, wary of this unfamiliar monster. "And who are you supposed to be?"

The monster smiled enigmatically. "I am Pop Star, a monster inspired by your Earth popcorn."

Billy stared at the monster.

Pop Star stared back.

"Ooo… kay," Billy finally said. "I'll take your word for it."

The next second he was on the ground. He had the sense of great speed and crashing down a set of wide stairs. He hadn't seen the monster coming, but it was towering over him now.

"So you're a speedster," Billy said. "I can deal with that."

He grabbed the monster's arm, wanting the fight to stay in close. The monster was definitely fast, but not very strong. As long as Billy could stay grappling, pitting his superior strength against the monster, he could control the fight. He got in several good hits, and the monster seemed to be increasingly dazed. As long as it didn't reveal any more powers…

A loud CRACK filled the air, and Billy's ears rung with pain. He let go of the monster and stumbled. The monster used the opportunity to slam Billy across the room again with its incredible speed.

In a hidden recess, Tommy watched the fight. He was still pondering the first bit of the fight, when Billy was thrown across the room before he morphed. Even Tommy would have had problems getting up from that, and he was a martial artist. Billy, who most definitely wasn't a martial artist, simply rolled and bounded up. I was almost as if he were already morphed…

Tommy smirked and faded back into the shadows, a plan already brewing in his mind.


 

Trini and Kimberly dashed out of art class as soon as their communicators buzzed. They didn't even need that as a warning. The art room had several large windows to the hallway, giving them an excellent view of the herd of Putties roaming the hallway.

"Split?" Trini muttered as the Putties surrounded them in the hallway.

Kimberly nodded. "Remember, in front of civilians we're panicky girly-girls."

They launched themselves in opposite directions. Trini ducked under grabbing arms, giving only surreptitious shoves. She heard Kimberly giving her best "dumb blonde in a horror movie" scream, really hamming it up. Trini merely ran to her position, her eyes open for the monster. The most important thing right now was to lead the fight away from the art class. They had a force field over the door, but they didn't have enough energy to field in the large windows.

Trini only saw just in time a sword flying right at her head. Using the increased speed and reflexes her morphed state afforded her, she ducked and rolled under the sword. It embedded in a row of lockers. Scorpina was there in an instant, attacking Trini with deadly force. Trini let herself be hit, and the force of the blow knocked her into a broom closet. She smiled at Scorpina's shock when she emerged from the closet fully morphed.

"You Rangers are full of surprises," Scorpina said, sounding a bit off-balance.

"Thankfully," Trini said, "you villains are rather predictable." She drew her Power Daggers and ran at Scorpina, who ducked quickly behind some Putties. But Trini knocked the Putties down in short order and again attacked Scorpina. This time, Scorpina seemed ready for her.

Trini remembered their first fight and how Scorpina had seemed unstoppable. She was still strong and fast, stronger especially than Trini or any of the other Rangers. But Trini fought smart, making moves that didn't make any sense in battle… if winning was the objective. And of course winning wasn't the objective now. They just had to get them all in one place.

Trini hoped the others were holding up. She hated being separated like this.

Scorpina recovered her sword and flourished it. "You know, I make fun of the boys with their weapons fetish, but just between us girls, there's just something about a sword. Makes you feel all powerful." She smirked at Trini's daggers. "I guess you'll just have to take my word for it."

Trini rolled her eyes. "You know, you're just really messed up. Why is everything a sex thing to you?"

Scorpina lunged as she said this, and Trini rolled and kicked. "Everything's not a sex thing to me," Scorpina complained. She punched Trini hard in the stomach. "Sometimes it's about violence."

"No, really," Trini gasped. The force of the blow wasn't too bad, but stomach blows were dangerous in and of themselves. "You're all over Tommy all the time, but Jason said you were going out with Goldar. And Tommy's fifteen and you're, what… old as hell?"

Trini wanted, of course, to piss Scorpina off and make her easy to manage. She was disappointed, though, as Scorpina smirked harder. "A little experience never hurt anyone. Tommy wasn't hurt last night… I don't think, anyway."

Trini felt her stomach drop to her knees. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Scorpina shrugged. "Figure it out for yourself." And with that she attacked in earnest, and Trini could spare no more thoughts or words for her suspicions.


 

"Oh, God, what are we gonna do?" a high-pitched voice whimpered.

Zack ground his teeth in frustration. "You could shut up, for one," he whispered.

"We're gonna die, we're gonna die, we're gonna die…"

"Shut up!"

Zack peeked around the corner at the group of Putties. They were searching around, trying to find people and get into the secure classrooms. There was still no sign of any monsters.

Behind him, Bulk and Skull cowered, clinging to each other. They had been the first out of the classroom, beating even Zack. Zack had tried to get them to an isolated space, but they clung to him close, and Zack couldn't act until he got rid of them.

"Listen, guys," Zack said. "I'm gonna lead those things away from the classroom."

"How the hell are you going to do that?" Bulk said.

"I'll run like hell. Anyway, you guys find a way out of the school. Take anyone you find in the hallways with you." Zack tensed himself, ready to take a sprint at the group of Putties and hoping he wasn't sending Bulk and Skull to their dooms.

"No way, man," Skull said.

Bulk nodded. "That's a surefire way to get attacked by aliens. We need to stick together. We're going with you."

He had to hand it to them, Zack thought. That really was a good strategy… if Zack wasn't a Power Ranger and had to get away from them to get in costume. "Okay," Zack muttered. "Just stay close behind me. We're gonna run through those Putties and get them to chase us." He hoped this stupid plan—stupid for civilians, at least—would scare Bulk and Skull away.

They did look completely terrified, but Bulk nodded grimly. Damn, Zack thought. Why did they have to choose right now to be all heroic?

Zack launched himself from their hiding place, Bulk and Skull close behind. The Putties looked over at them in surprise, and Zack just kept barreling through. He aimed for the least dense gathering of Putties, preparing to shove as many of them away to protect his annoying sidekicks. Yet they were less helpless than he thought. Bulk yelled and knocked through them all, his football skills serving him well. Skull darted through the miniscule gaps in the crowd of Putties.

Zack was about to congratulate them as they broke free of the Putties when he saw something that made him freeze. Bulk and Skull knocked into him, and would have knocked him to the ground if he hadn't been morphed.

"Wh-wh-wh-what…" Skull whispered, "is that?"

One look and Zack knew it was the monster. It was staring at them, dressed in bright colors and bells. It's face was white with a horrific red smile painted on it. It was making balloon animals, with the attendant horrible squelchy rubbery sound, and it was chuckling madly.

"I think," Zack said, "it's an eight-foot-tall, clown monster. Or it could just be a normal clown."

"Either way, I'm getting the hell out of here," Bulk said, his voice hollow in terror.

The clown monster looked up at the sound. "Everything floats," it said.

Bulk and Skull screamed and ran back down the hallway, knocking down Putties in their haste and utter terror. And Zack wished he could join them, for once.

He stared at the clown monster. It stared back. Zack realized he had no time to fool around with trying to find a hiding place or anything like that. He checked quickly to see if he was well and truly away from prying eyes and yelled, "Back to action!"

"Awww…" the clown monster said. "You're not colorful at all! I'll have to add some beautiful red to your costume."

"And how do you propose to do that?" Zack asked tightly.

The clown's grin grew wider, seeming to split his face. "I'll cut your limbs off and use them as paintbrushes."

Zack stared at the monster, trying to process what he'd just heard. "Okay, that's not cool! This time you've gone too far, Rita. I mean… that is just sick!"

As Zack expected, Rita did not respond. Instead, the monster danced toward him, his oversized feet mysteriously balancing on the small staircase. Zack steeled himself to fight, wishing he could fight any monster but this one.

"It's a bear! It's a bear!"

He heard Bulk and Skull's screams come back through the hallway. They were running from a bear in a pith helmet. Zack and the clown monster watched them pass.

"Was that a freakin' bear?" Zack said.

The clown monster sounded almost bored. "It's the Grizzlinator."

"Riiigggghhhht," Zack said. "Look, let's just fight already."

The clown monster was only too happy to oblige.


 

The intercom crackled to life. "Students, faculty, and staff. This is Mr. Kaplan. For those who don't know, the school is under attack. I urge you all not to panic."

Except for the battling Power Rangers, everyone in the school became quiet.

"Easy for him to say," muttered Bulk, hiding from the Grizzlinator.

"Yeah, easy for him to say," Skull said fearfully.

"The barriers on the classroom doors are protecting you from the monsters," Mr. Kaplan continued, "so I urge you not to tamper with them. If there are any students in the hallways, please stay out of the open, and yell as loud as you can if you are attacked. Don't try to run for exits, as they are blocked by Putties. The Power Rangers are here, and they are fighting the monsters."

Cheers rang through the classrooms. Bulk and Skull, not wanting to give their position away, raised their fists in voiceless cheers. The Power Rangers smiled under their helmets even as they battled, taking heart from the signs of support.

"Stay out of the way of the fighting, and do whatever the Power Rangers tell you to… unless that Ranger happens to be green, of course. We must rely on them. I will inform you when it is safe to leave the classrooms." He paused and cleared his throat. "Also, there seems to be a bear wandering the hallways. Proceed… with caution."

Mr. Kaplan ended the transmission and checked, again, the device in his filing cabinet. It was still safe and working. He reflected on the past few hours in wonder. Late the night before, the Red and Blue Rangers had visited him and told him of the attack on the school. They'd told him some of their measures to protect students and faculty, and Mr. Kaplan had only been too happy to help them in any way possible. He'd insisted on hiding the generator of the force fields in his own office. He was responsible for the safety of the school even more than the Power Rangers were.

He heard a knock at the window behind him and nearly fell out of his chair. He grabbed the baseball bat he'd kept as a weapon and waved it at the window… and then relaxed. It was the new kid, Tommy Oliver, knocking frantically at the window. Quickly, Mr. Kaplan opened the window and pulled the boy in. He slammed the window shut, locked it, and closed the blinds.

"I… I got to school late," Tommy stammered. "And there were those things you were telling me about. I don't know how I got away from them…"

"It's okay, Tommy. You're safe now. There's a force field blocking the door." Mr. Kaplan sat down. He was trying to keep the fear at bay, but it was starting to get to him. He just hoped the Rangers would be able end the attack soon.

"Force field?" Tommy said. He approached the door and lightly touched it. Dull sparks flew, but it couldn't hurt anyone. He looked around and smiled, and Mr. Kaplan was relieved to see he was calming down. "I gotta tell ya, Mr. Kaplan, I'm impressed. I've been to a lot of schools, but none with their own space-age security system."

Mr. Kaplan laughed lightly. He was sort of glad Tommy was around. This was a kid who could take care of himself. "No schools have a system like this, that I'm aware of. The Power Rangers set this up. This generator," he patted the open file drawer, "is what they gave me to keep the whole thing running."

Tommy crossed over behind the desk to look at the small device. "Wow… this thing is from the Power Rangers? When did they give it to you?"

"Gave me the shock of my life," Mr. Kaplan said. "They came to my house about midnight… two of them. We set this whole place up late last night. It was the most exciting time of my life, working with the Power Rangers."

"I imagine so," Tommy said softly.

The window crashed in, and Mr. Kaplan barely had time to react. He slammed the file drawer closed and grabbed his bat. "Get out of here, Tommy! Take care of yourself!"

"No way!" Tommy said. "I'm sticking with you!"

Mr. Kaplan smiled grimly as the first of the Putties climbed in. "Then protect it," he said, not sure if the aliens could understand anything more specific, "no matter what."

A few minutes later, Mr. Kaplan lay unconscious on the floor. Tommy pulled the generator out of the file cabinet and pocketed it. He grabbed the baseball bat from Mr. Kaplan's hands.

"So… the Power Rangers knew we were coming," Tommy said softly. "We have a leak, or they have a way to spy on us."

The Putties stared at him, unsure of what to do.

Tommy quickly morphed and motioned to the Putties. "Come on… follow me. I've got a plan."


 

"Okay… good bear. Nice bear," Kimberly said.

She backed away, shielding a group of seventh-grade girls behind her. They were apparently here for a cheerleading practice with the high school team, and Kimberly had completely forgotten. She hadn't even had the chance to morph. She'd been with them ever since leaving art class. She'd had to change from "dumb blonde in a horror movie" to protector, without even a costume change.

And now they were cornered by a bear in a pith helmet.

"Aren't we supposed to drop and play dead or something?" a girl behind her whimpered.

"I think it's a bit late for that," Kimberly said.

Finally, Kimberly couldn't take it any longer. She would just have to reveal her strength, damn the consequences. There were lives at stake, after all.

"Hey! HEY! Bear!" a voice from down the hallway yelled.

"Yeah… HEY, BEAR!" another voice echoed.

Kimberly glanced behind the bear to see Bulk and Skull, waving frantically at the bear.

"We have pic-a-nic baskets!" Bulk yelled.

"And honey pots!" Skull added.

The bear miraculously turned and ambled toward them. They began to run. "Get them out of here, Kim!" Skull said over his shoulder.

Kimberly ground her teeth. "I don't believe it. Saved by Bulk and Skull," she muttered. She grabbed two girls by the arms. "Come on, let's get out of here."

She ran with the girls and finally… finally… found an empty classroom. She herded them inside. As soon as the last of them got in, the force field activated.

"Kimberly!" one of the girls… Kim couldn't remember her name… said. "You can't get in!"

"It's okay," Kimberly said, smiling at them. "I'm going to go help our two… heroes. Just stay in here, and stay quiet. I'll be back to check on you when I can. Listen for announcements from the principal."

She barely had time to turn around when Bulk and Skull came running, the bear hot on their heels. "Run!" they screamed.

Kimberly hugged the wall to let them pass. She pulled back one fist and broke the glass to a fire extinguisher, and in one smooth movement she pulled it out and sprayed it directly in the bear's face. The pith helmet flew off. It faltered, roaring and rubbing its face against the ground. As hard as she could, she brought the fire extinguisher down on top of the bear's head. It slumped and actually began snoring.

"Whoa, Kimberly," Skull said, ambling back with Bulk at his heels. "That was badass."

Kimberly smiled at them. "We all have our moments. Now let's get out of here."

She led them away from where she knew there were battles going on. They edged forward, extra cautious of Putties or any other monsters.

"Look! An unguarded exit!" Bulk crowed, and ran for it. Skull followed, and Kimberly fell back. She could exit the building, lose her sidekicks, finally morph all the way, and get back in to the rendezvous point.

They'd almost crossed the threshold when Putties were everywhere, blocking the exit and the hallway behind them. Bulk and Skull looked frozen in terror. Kimberly put her guard up, again deciding that protecting all of them was more important than keeping her identity.

Skull screamed and pointed behind her, but Kimberly didn't have time to turn around. She felt a blinding pain, and all went dark.

The Green Ranger caught her with one arm. He held a baseball bat in the other. A lump was forming on Kimberly's head and she hung in the Green Ranger's arms.

"You've killed her!" Skull screamed. Bulk looked furious, but he held Skull back. He was ready to attack the Green Ranger.

The Green Ranger laughed. "Calm down… she's still breathing. Now… stay out of our way, if you know what's good for cheerleader here."

The Green Ranger picked Kimberly up and jerked his head toward the Putties. "Come on, I think I know where everyone's going."

Bulk and Skull hung back, frozen.

"What is he going to do with Kimberly?" Bulk whispered.

Skull slumped against a locker. "After what he did to Billy?" he said in a broken voice.

Bulk gritted his teeth. "The Power Rangers will save her. They have to."

 

Chapter Text

Rita smiled over her glass of wine and set it aside. She pressed her eye to the telescope, watching the scene play out. Already, she could see that the Rangers had some prior knowledge of the attack, but her warriors were coping with the additional obstacles. Especially Tommy; Goldar had wisely ordered him to put off morphing and do some recon. And Tommy was handling the situation spectacularly. He now had the Pink Ranger incapacitated, as well as the power source for the force fields the Rangers were relying so heavily upon.

She could finally see how her warriors could achieve victory. They had become the perfect team over the past few battles. They had formed a sort of camaraderie so important in these fights. Goldar acted as a blunt instrument, fighting the best of the Rangers, Jason, and keeping him from coordinating the battle, whereas Goldar could coordinate with ease. Scorpina provided the ferocity and crazy, ripping through her opponents with wild joy. Already she was wearing the Yellow Ranger down, slowly but surely. The monsters provided mayhem. And Tommy…

Tommy was the trickiest and most dangerous of them all. He was smart… smarter than any of them. He was a born strategist and leader, and he could work in a group. He was a better actor than Rita could have hoped for, turning on a dime whenever he needed to fool someone with his handsome face and innocent eyes. No wonder the Rangers had been so completely taken in… until Tommy had purposefully revealed his identity. Tommy was clever and manipulative, but he didn't look it. He looked like one of the good guys, and that would serve him well.

The Earth's destruction was finally right in her fingertips, and she knew right then she wanted to keep her team together. She would keep Scorpina on retainer as long as Scorpina was willing. Perhaps she and Goldar would arrange a more permanent relationship; that would make things simpler.

As for Tommy… he would lose everything, of course. She had to plan to protect his mind against the loss of his planet and, more importantly, his father. It would take time for him to recover, of course, but she was prepared to take responsibility for him.

Rita smiled at the odd train of thought. It was as if… Tommy was her son. She couldn't help but think of him like that. He deeply cared for her in a way that surpassed a mere mind control spell. He was fierce, courageous, smart, and deeply loyal. And he had so much potential for greatness. He was everything she could want in a son.

He would be her son, she decided. She had already practically adopted him, and he would be orphaned once the Earth was destroyed. He would become her son and heir, and she would raise him to become the brilliant warrior she knew he was destined to be. She knew of some good schools he could attend…

And soon, he wouldn't even need the spell to keep him loyal to her. Once the Earth was gone, once those ridiculous Rangers and his infirm father could no longer remind him what it was to be human, he would gradually form a completely voluntary attachment to her. After all, he was always loyal to family.

Rita shook her head violently and took a gulp of wine. She was thinking ahead too much, when the battle was barely even begun. There was still work to do. Any future plans for Tommy could wait.

"Finster, would you mind stepping into the throne room for a minute?" Rita said, and took a more conservative sip of wine.

Finster hurried into the throne room, looking harassed. "Empress, it seems the Grizzlinator is incapacitated at present. Don't worry; he will revive soon."

"That doesn't worry me, Finster," Rita said, still staring into the telescope. "What worries me is that the Rangers appear to have had prior knowledge of the attack. Now, how do you think they achieved that feat?"

Finster looked startled. "I… do not know, my Queen."

Rita pulled her eyes away from the telescope. "Come, Finster, isn't it obvious?"

Finster stared at Rita, looking cautious and a bit scared. "I… I have been overwrought with the monsters, my Queen. Forgive me if I am a bit slow at this time."

Rita rolled her eyes. "Finster, I wish you to do a scan of the castle, especially centering around the throne room. Obviously, before he was captured, the Red Ranger planted a surveillance device that did not trip our security. I want that device found and destroyed. God, for a genius, you can be so slow sometimes."

Finster bowed. "Of course, my Queen. I will begin the scan immediately. So sorry for my slowness."

Rita was already ignoring him. She turned her attention back to the battle, determined to enjoy every minute of it now that worry was over.

As Finster left, she grabbed the side of her balcony. A wave of nausea hit her. She pulled her attention closer to the battle, focusing her slowly-draining energy. Finster had said she would be able to handle the three monsters. And she'd be damned if she proved weaker than Finster's estimation.

In the meantime, Finster hurried through his lab, cobbling together a machine to look like it was planted by the Red Ranger. He only hoped the Rangers went along with Rita's story if it came to that. His life depended on it. While he was certainly close to Empress Rita—he had served her faithfully for centuries—she was also emotionally unbalanced by the spell. Anyone coming between her and Tommy would be in considerable danger, no matter what their prior relationship to her.

Finster felt a pang of guilt for dumping the problem on the Power Rangers. But they were in danger all the time, he reflected, and if they died it would be no great loss. It would, in fact, be a victory.


 

The gym: far away from most of the classrooms, and there were no P.E. classes, team meetings, or any functions whatsoever. Mr. Kaplan himself had cancelled all those and had discreetly locked the gym doors. Of course, one strategic dodge of Goldar's sword thrust burst the doors open, and the battle between Jason and Goldar clattered naturally into the echoing gym. Just as Jason had planned.

Goldar looked wildly around. "What is this place?"

"Basketball court," Jason remarked casually. He smirked when he saw that it was a bit harder for Goldar to keep his footing on the slick floor. Jason shot a leg out and tripped the huge warrior, who couldn't catch his fall. He landed with a thud. Jason leaned over him, preparing to try to punch his lights out, when beams erupted from Goldar's eyes, throwing Jason back. Goldar flipped back onto his feet and seemed to become acclimated to the new surface.

Goldar and Jason were the first there, but they weren’t alone for long. Through the door on the far wall, Trini ran in, Scorpina hard on her heels. They fought for a while, on separate ends of the gym, before Goldar and Scorpina fully realized they were in the same room. As they made this realization, a deafening CRACK shattered the air, and Billy was thrown into the room. The assembled combatants pulled themselves off the ground, recovering from the audio attack, as a blue monster floated into the room.

The two fighting sides quickly joined each other. Jason, Billy, and Trini all had a few scorch marks on their costumes, but nothing serious. Scorpina had a cut lip, and Goldar was breathing hard from trying to keep up with Jason.

"Well," Scorpina said, wiping the blood from her lip, "this is all oddly convenient."

"Funny how things work out," Trini said lightly.

A third set of doors flew open, and Zack bounded in, a multi-colored… something… flung over his shoulder. "Aw, man, has the party already started without me?"

"Just in time," Jason greeted him jovially. "We were about to take apart these guys, but it looks like you're ahead of us."

Zack shrugged the body off his shoulder. "This guy? He's creepy, but he couldn't keep up."

"Zack," Billy said, "is that a giant clown monster?" Zack nodded. "I take it back," Billy said. "You got the worst monster."

"Nah, man, you should have seen the Grizzlinator."

"One down," Scorpina whispered wryly.

"We still match them in number," Goldar said. "They don't have a prayer."

Jason overheard and laughed. "Goldar… man… have you been paying attention? You've been at our mercy since the beginning of the attack. We've been controlling this entire battle. You're here because we planned it. The civilians are all protected from you, and you can't do a thing about it."

Goldar growled, and Jason exulted a bit in his frustration.

"This may be an indication that any further attempts at hostilities will be futile and potentially detrimental on your part," Billy said.

Trini smirked behind her helmet. "He means… get the heck out of here if you know what's good for you."

Scorpina tossed her head. "I wouldn't be so cocky. You haven't won yet, Rangers."

Zack threw the clown monster at their feet. "You're down a monster… and you seem to be down a certain Green Ranger. What, did he get scared?"

"I'm right here," a quiet voice came from the entrance Trini and Scorpina had used.

Jason looked over at Tommy… and then froze. He felt the other Rangers around him stiffen. Trini whispered, "No," only audible to Jason, who was right beside her.

Goldar looked ten times more cheerful. "Green Ranger, good of you to join the party."

"And I brought party favors for everyone," Tommy said. He adjusted the unconscious Kimberly in his arms. "This, Rangers, is why we wear helmets. Head injuries can be brutal."

Zack started forward, but Jason held him back with one arm. "If she's hurt…" Jason said in a strangled voice.

Tommy continued his cheerful tone, ignoring the waves of anger from the Rangers. "She's not hurt… I don't think. She's alive, anyway, and she's in for a hell of a headache. And she's no longer morphed, if you're interested. You realize, guys," he turned his attention to his comrades, "that they were morphed under their clothes before the attack even happened?"

Silence fell.

"They knew we were coming," Goldar said thoughtfully.

Tommy nodded. "They knew we were coming," he said emphatically.

Scorpina frowned. "Well, that presents a whole new range of problems. I thought you people had good security," she stared accusingly at Goldar.

Goldar ignored her, however. He seemed to be concentrating on something, and then his eyes lit up. "Of course… clever, Red Ranger. The device you planted in the throne room has been found, by the way. And destroyed."

Jason blinked, and was suddenly glad his face was covered by a mask. This was either a lie concocted by Finster, or… Well, of course it was a lie concocted by Finster. He was more in danger than they for "betraying" his mistress. Jason shrugged. "So you destroyed it. It stayed hidden long enough and we got what we wanted from it, anyway. And Tommy…" Jason turned a glare toward the Green Ranger, "you're going to hand Kimberly back. Right now."

Tommy laughed. "It's good that you're optimistic. It's so easy to get bitter when you're losing."

"You can't do anything to harm her," Billy said. "If I remember correctly, you screamed your head off the last time you tried?"

Tommy didn't seem to react. "That was then. I thought this time I'd play with her for a while. Think she'd last as long as you did, Blue?"

Scorpina cleared her throat. "Much as I love all this male posturing and all," she said boredly, "I can't help but feel that we're spending a whole bunch of time standing around and talking. Can we do something already?"

"I don't think the Rangers will want to oblige you, Scorpina," Goldar said, "as long as their princess is in danger."

Tommy laughed again. "Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. I've got the perfect thing to liven things up." He held up the generator, and the Rangers started involuntarily forward. But while Tommy had Kimberly in his arms, they could do nothing. She was too vulnerable.

Scorpina raised her eyebrows. "Yeah… that's wonderful. Weee, I'm having so much fun, I want to die," she said in a dull voice.

"If you'll let me finish," Tommy said testily, "I could tell you that this handy little device is exactly what's keeping the force fields going on the classrooms."

"Suddenly interested," Scorpina said.

Jason sighed. "Okay, Tommy, what's it going to take to get both Kimberly and the generator back?"

Goldar grinned. The odds in their favor were just getting better and better. "Red Ranger, you seem to be under the impression that we actually want anything. We don't. We just want mayhem. But we can give you a choice… You can either have back your precious Kimberly, or the generator. It's up to you."

By now Goldar, Scorpina, and Pop Star had moved over to join Tommy, giving him and his hostages added protection. Jason stared at them, trying to figure out a way to rescue Kimberly and keep the civilians safe. But there was no way. The tides had shifted so quickly that Jason was having trouble keeping up.

Jason took a breath, feeling as if something slimy had crawled inside him even as he said it. "Give us back the generator."

The Rangers did not react outwardly, but the statement was treated to peals of wild laughter from the villains.

"Listen to Red, there," Tommy laughed. "And after all the effort they put into saving him."

Goldar chortled. "Throw him the generator, Tommy, if it means that much to him."

Tommy lobbed the generator into the air. Jason reached out to catch it…

A curved sword flashed through the air, shattering the generator in midair. The sword arced back, and Scorpina caught it. "I decided that was boring. Mayhem is much more fun."

"A woman after my own heart," Goldar crowed. "Let's go chase us some teenagers!"

The four villains ran out of the gym. Screams announced the end of the force fields, as Putties stormed the classrooms.

Billy was the first to react. He tapped his communicator frantically. "Alpha, we need emergency teleportation of all civilians."

Alpha's voice from the tiny speaker sounded frantic. "I worked as fast as I could, Billy! I was able to get three-quarters of the school out, but now our teleportation signal is being blocked. I can't even teleport Kimberly out."

"Dammit!" Zack screamed.

Jason was still seething from the recent mockery. "All right, gang. Until Kimberly and the civilians are safe, the plan is off. We can't afford to worry over Tommy right now. We split, cover our sections, and get the civilians out of the building."

If anyone had any objections, no one voiced them.


 

In the first few minutes of this second wave of battle, the students and faculty outnumbered the Putties, who stumbled back as a crowd of about a hundred ran for the doors. The Putties recovered, though, and the forty remaining students were no match for the stronger Putties. They ran from exit to exit in small groups, chased and terrorized at every step.

Pop Star, warned off from using the sonic attack by Goldar, zipped around the hallways in bursts of speed, playing a game of cat and mouse with a group of senior football players.

Goldar and Scorpina refrained from attacking but instead herded the students away from the exits toward the center of the school. Goldar knew the Rangers would become too angry to handle if they actually hurt any of the students at this point, but he knew his appearance and sword was enough to scare the humans out of their wits.

The most fearful sight, though, was the Green Ranger. He'd slung Kimberly over one shoulder and had his blade blaster in the other hand. He made sure not to aim at anyone, but he blasted the shit out of the lockers and classrooms, rooting out any students who had decided to hide. Smoke and debris filled the school as it become more and more like an actual battlefield.

Unnoticed by anyone, the Grizzlinator finally woke up and began to wander about groggily. He seemed entirely uninterested in battle, though; he chose to lie down again right in front of an exit, effectively guarding it and allowing the Putties to join in the battle. The Grizzlinator licked his paws.

Goldar and Tommy met in the middle of the main hallway, each chasing in a group of students. As per their original plan, the Putties surrounded the trapped students, threatening them into scared silence.

"Soon as we get everyone assembled," Goldar said quietly, "you take them up to the roof. Leave the Rangers to me and Scorpina."

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I remember the plan."

Goldar ignored the teenager's tone. "Good job, by the way."

They were interrupted by Scorpina and Pop Star, herding in more students. "This is the last of them," Scorpina said hastily, "and the Rangers are on their way. We need to move!"

"All right, everyone!" Tommy bellowed, pointing his blaster threateningly. "Everyone up those stairs nice and peacable, or Ms. Cheerleader here gets it!" He cocked his head. "And she'll just be the first."

Skull pushed himself to the front of the crowd. He had the same wild fury in his eyes that he'd had at the dance. "Don't you dare hurt her, you bastard!"

Tommy sighed. "So be it." He fired, hitting Skull in the arm.

Skull screamed and clutched at his arm. His black leather coat grew shiny from the blood, and the wound smoked slightly. He fell to his knees hard. To his credit, though, Skull was still staring murderously at Tommy.

"How dare you…!" Bulk pushed his way to the front and actually started to charge at Tommy. He really looked like he was going to attack. Tommy laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation, even as part of him admired the other teen for his foolhardy courage.

As soon as Bulk got within arm reach, Tommy raised his blade blaster and rested the tip deliberately on the bridge of Bulk's nose. Bulk's eyes crossed, and Tommy enjoyed the moment of déjà vu.

"This put a hole in your friend's arm," Tommy said in a low, menacing voice. "What do you think it will do to your head?"

Bulk gulped and backed away to join his bleeding friend. Terror was plainly written on his face, but there was still rage. Tommy decided he needed to keep an eye on Bulk. That combination of fear and anger could turn dangerous.

"Anyone else wanna try being a hero?" Tommy said casually. "If not, I think I told all of you to get up the stairs to the roof. If I have to ask again…"

There was a mad rush to the tiny staircase that led to the roof. Bulk half-carried Skull up the stairs; Skull had stopped screaming and was starting to black out.

Tommy followed them. Before he ascended the stairs, he pulled out a potion bottle and poured it over the entrance. In a few seconds, the entrance to the staircase was filled with a noxious green gas. Tommy ran up the stairs, knowing even his Ranger helmet could not protect him from the poison.


 

By the time the Rangers got there, the students were completely gone. Goldar and Scorpina waited for them, smirking.

"They went up there!" Trini yelled, and began running for the staircase.

Billy grabbed her arm. "Don't go up there… I don't like the look of that gas."

"That's because you're smart," Scorpina said. "It's quite poisonous."

Jason turned to the pair of warriors. "What have you done with them? What's your plan?"

Goldar laughed. "You know, Tommy is smarter than you. He didn't need any help to figure out your plans."

Jason gritted his teeth but said nothing, refusing to rise to the bait.

"Should we tell them?" Scorpina said, practically bouncing in excitement.

Goldar seemed to consider. "Oh, I suppose."

Scorpina grinned widely. "We're going to turn them all into monsters. All the students, I mean. It was going to be, like, hundreds of monsters, but I think forty is enough… don't you think?"

So horrified was he that Jason couldn't think of a way to respond.

Zack could. "That's just sick, even for Rita!"

"Sick but effective," Goldar said. "The transformation will be complete in fifteen minutes, so you have that much time to defeat us and get the students off the room." Goldar smirked. "Think you can make it?"

As one, the Rangers attacked; Goldar and Scorpina laughed wildly as they met the attacks with equal ferocity.


 

"All right, Putties," Tommy said, "get this set up. We don't have all day."

Tommy marveled as the Putties, programmed for the job by Finster, expertly set up the device. Once activated, it would transform every unmorphed human on the roof into a monster. "And that includes you, Kimmy," he whispered.

He put Kimberly down—finally—and rubbed his shoulder. While she wasn't heavy at all, especially when he was morphed, he'd been holding her for a long time while carrying on with the battle. He brushed her hair out of her face. She showed no signs of waking up. It was a shame, really, that she would become a monster. She really was beautiful.

"Hey, jerkwad!" Bulk's voice was a mixture of hostility and worry. "We need to get them to a hospital."

Tommy turned to face Bulk, who was kneeling beside a prone Skull and covered in his friend's blood. He'd taken off his bandana and had bound up Skull's arm the best he could. A football player had taken off his letter jacket and thrown it over Skull, and a girl was using her purse to cushion Skull's head.

It was interesting, the way everyone was treating Skull. Even though he was a bully, along with Bulk, he was far from popular, and from what Tommy had gathered from his couple of weeks in school, Skull was considered a bit of a joke, at best. Now everyone was crowding around him as much as they were starting to crowd around Kimberly.

"Let me tell you something about hospitals," Tommy heard himself saying. "They lie. That's what they do. They say that people will get better in hospitals, but that's never what happens. They only get worse, and worse, and doctors can't do anything about it. But they keep pretending they can."

What the hell am I talking about? Tommy thought.

"What the hell are you talking about?" a student Tommy didn't recognize said.

Tommy shook his head roughly. "Anyway, none of you have to worry about anything for long. So just sit tight. And if anyone tries to be a hero, what I did to geek-boy will look like a freakin' picnic."

They quieted down, and Bulk turned his attention back to Skull. Tommy edged over to the roof and peeked over the raised ledge. He propped a foot on the ledge to get a better look. The others would want to vacate the building soon; as the roof, along with the rest of the building, would be destroyed in the collective transformations. He himself would want to get the hell out of the way so as not to get crushed. For the moment, though, he followed orders and stood guard.

He clenched a fist. It wasn't fair, though. He was just itching for a fight. He had yet to have a real fight with the Red Ranger, and it looked like Goldar would hog the fight all to himself.


 

Goldar and Scorpina allowed themselves to be pushed back by the ferocity of the Rangers' attacks, knowing they would have to leave the building soon. None of the Rangers even commented on the absence of Pop Star. They were too intent on beating Goldar and Scorpina into a bloody pulp.

Trini and Billy paired off against Scorpina. Scorpina had to strain to keep up with them, as she had already fought for practically an hour against Trini. Her fighting wasn't as tight as usual, and the two Rangers seemed to sense it and pressed their advantage as hard as they could.

Scorpina thrust her sword at Trini, who dodged. Before Scorpina could recover, Billy stepped on her sword, pinning it to the ground, and kicked her in the face. Scorpina fell over backwards and had to roll quickly to avoid a well-aimed dagger thrust from Trini.

"All right, that's it," Scorpina growled. In a flash of light, she transformed. The sudden burst of power was just what she needed, and the two Rangers looked like they were moving in slow motion. She lashed out with her stinger as the Blue and Yellow Rangers lunged for her. The stinger connected, and Billy and Trini shot through the air, past the Grizzlinator, and landed outside near the faculty parking lot. Scorpina grinned, an unrecognizable expression now she was in her bug form, and ran after them.

In the meantime, Jason and Zack were utterly absorbed in a fight with Goldar, who was showing a bit more endurance than his paramour. Goldar knocked aside more of their attacks, but he was no longer taunting them. He was dead serious this time.

"How long has it been?" Zack said through gritted teeth as he tried to deflect Goldar's sword with his Axe. The Axe did not give way, but Zack's arms were starting to.

Jason aimed a sword thrust at Goldar's face, forcing him to parry and giving Zack a break. "Couldn't be more than five minutes," Jason panted. "We gotta hurry."

A flash of light caught the attention of the three combatants, and they looked up in time to see Billy and Trini sailing through the air. Goldar took advantage of the momentary distraction to slice viciously at Zack's chest. He stumbled back, sparks flying, and Jason ran after him.

"You alright?" Jason said.

Zack staggered upward. "We can't leave Trini and Billy outside."

Goldar laughed. "By all means, let's continue this outside. This place is coming down once all your classmates are monsters, anyway." With that, Goldar ran for the exit, brushing past the sleeping Grizzlinator.

"Not if we can help it," Jason growled, and he and Zack gave chase.

Outside, Billy and Trini had recovered and were continuing the fight, taking advantage of the open space. Scorpina, however, was still too much for them, and now Goldar was joining the fight. Goldar kicked Billy hard, slamming him to the ground several feet away. Trini, Jason, and Zack ran to him, but he was already getting up, if a bit unsteadily.

"Rangers," Zordon's voice sounded urgently over their communicators.

"We're here, Zordon," Jason said, hoping their mentor would have good news.

Such was not the case. "Rita has unleashed the third monster, Pop Star, on downtown Angel Grove. It is at the rock quarry now, making its way to the city. It must be stopped immediately."

"So that's where that thing got off to," Trini said.

"Be warned, Rangers," said Zordon. "She is trying to divide your forces and attention, just as we know her forces are divided."

"Great! A big old monster on top of everything else. I think we need a new strategy," Zack said.

"Agreed," Billy said, breathing hard.

Goldar and Scorpina seemed to be running out of patience. "Coffee breaks running a little long," Scorpina shouted at them.

Jason assessed the situation. They were all wearing down quickly, whereas Goldar and Scorpina seemed to have inexhaustible fonts of energy. In the meantime, a fairly deadly monster was rampaging toward the town, endangering much more than the forty students on the roof. On the other hand, if they didn't save the people on the roof, they'd have forty monsters on their hands.

He glanced up at the school's roof. Putties surrounded a device, and there was an impression of a group of people on top of the building. Near the device, the Green Ranger was at the edge of the building, leaning forward slightly to better watch the battle.

Jason grinned. He knew exactly what to do.

"Billy," he said quietly, "you need to find a way onto the roof. I can cover you. Trini, Zack, you get downtown and fight the monster."

"So what are you going to do?" Trini said.

Jason glanced over at the waiting villains. "Like I said, I'll cover Billy. I can fight Goldar and Scorpina."

"By yourself?" said Billy.

"That's a lousy idea…" Zack started.

Jason held up a hand to silence them. "I know it's a lousy idea. It's also the only idea. Billy, do you have some of Trini's compound? We'll need Kimberly back in the fight as soon as possible."

Jason knew no one liked the idea, but they all nodded. Zack and Trini hit their communicators and vanished.


 

Zack and Trini called for their Zords as soon as they hit the outskirts of the Angel Grove city proper. Pop Star was walking slowly toward the city, obviously wanting to bait the Rangers more than it wanted to destroy the city. Sirens went off and a massive pilgrimage formed away from the city. Zack made sure to note the direction of the evacuation, as it was their job to lead the fight away from civilians.

"Don't call the MegaZord yet," Zack said. "Let's try and take that thing down with just our Zords."

"I'm with you." Trini sounded relieved. It had been difficult controlling the MegaZord with three people last time. It would be nearly impossible with just two people to fight effectively.

Zack boarded his Mastodon Zord, reflecting that he rarely ever had time to pilot the machine. He usually boarded and went straight into initiating the MegaZord sequence.

The monster looked calmly at the approaching Zords. Then it vanished.

"Where did it go?" Zack said.

"Behind you!"

Trini's warning came too late. The monster had grabbed the tail of Zack's Zord and pulled back with amazing speed. The Mastodon Zord slammed into a rock wall, and debris covered his Zord. Pop Star, however, was already on the move, this time smashing the Sabre-Tooth Tiger Zord viciously.

"Okay…" Zack said slowly. "Teamwork. Trini, I'll blast it with cold and you attack it with your laser-things."

Trini's voice was tight. "Do it quick. It hit one of my power centers. I need time to redirect the power flow."

Zack waited until Pop Star ran toward him, now not using its burst of speed… it possibly thought the Mastodon Zord was incapacitated. Zack waited until the monster was right in front of him, and then gave it a face-full of ice. The already-blue monster turned icy blue and stopped moving.

"Take that, you screwed-up Smurf," Zack crowed. "Now, Trini!"

Zack moved his Zord out of the way as Trini hit the monster with everything she had. The ice broke, and Pop Star fell in a shower of sparks. Its blue body was now marred with black scorch marks.

Instead of lying there, though, the monster jumped up with amazing elasticity. It didn't even look dazed.

"I think we're gonna need a bigger boat," Zack said quietly.

"Does that mean MegaZord?" said Trini, strain in her voice.

"Yeah." Zack started the sequence to call the other Zords. "Stay on your toes, Trini. I don't know when or if we're gonna get backup."


 

"Hey, they can't just leave," Scorpina whined as the two Rangers vanished.

Jason laughed, putting as much bravado as he could into his voice. "We're more than enough to take down you chumps."

Scorpina rolled her eyes. "Honestly, do you good guys never give up? I could actually be doing something interesting, like filing my nails."

She was still in monster form. "You have nails…?" Billy said.

"Of course," Jason cut him off, "you guys don't have to fight. I'm sure there's someone just dying to join the battle. Right, Green Ranger?"

Attention turned to the roof, where Tommy was calmly watching the fight-turned-standoff. "Leave me out of this. I'm just here to guard."

"And aren't you guys planning this to be the final battle, the final defeat of the Power Rangers?" Jason continued loudly. "Is this really how you want to contribute to the battle, Green? As a guard for some civilians? And I thought I could get a good fight out of you."

Even from where he was standing, Jason could tell he was striking a nerve. He knew Tommy enough to know that the evil Ranger was raging at his own inactivity. In fact, from what he could understand, Tommy had not participated in a single fight yet.

"I guess you're afraid I'd just kick your ass like last time," Jason said, hoping Tommy would come flying down at any moment. "It just must get to you, knowing that I beat you," Jason smirked, "with both arms tied behind my back."

Unfortunately, Tommy's loyalty to Rita seemed to be winning over his urge to fight. "Believe what you want, Red," said Tommy. "You're going to die soon anyway."

Jason cursed, trying to think of another plan… and then Tommy fell.

For a wild second, Jason thought he had changed his mind and was launching himself into battle. But a second look showed that Tommy had no control over his fall. His arms flailed as he tumbled off the building, already precarious from leaning over the side too far, one foot propped on the ledge around the building and his arm resting on his knee. The school building was five stories high, and while not life-threateningly tall, it wasn't a fall to be scoffed at. Tommy fell hard on his side, and a crack filled the air that sounded suspiciously like human bone.

Everyone looked up sharply at the roof after Tommy landed. Bulk was standing where Tommy had stood moments before, breathing hard. Putties surrounded him but didn't seem to know what to do with him.

Tommy pulled his blade blaster and aimed at Bulk. "I'll kill you!" he screamed in a voice broken by pain and fury.

Jason was there in a second. He grabbed Tommy hand and wrenched the blaster out of it. "You won't," he said, and kicked Tommy hard on his injured arm. Tommy screamed and rolled out of the way. He jumped to his feet and held his arm close to him. Jason realized with amazement that Tommy was preparing to fight him.

"It's your funeral," said Jason, and he launched himself at Tommy.


 

While the Red and Green Rangers were thus occupied, Billy, Scorpina, and Goldar looked at each other for an instant, finding it hard to assimilate what all had just happened. Billy came to his senses first and launched himself into the air, heading for the roof.

"Come on," Goldar growled at Scorpina. "We have to protect the device."

The two scaled the school building easily to find Billy up to his neck in fighting Putties. The students had backed as far away from the fight as they could; they moved the two injured teenagers as carefully as possible.

Inspired by Bulk, Billy took to throwing Putties off the side of the building rather than trying to incapacitate them. Sometimes a ring out was more effective than a KO. Soon enough, Billy had run through all the Putties and was now facing Goldar and bug-form Scorpina.

Billy hesitated. Putties were one thing, but Rita's two best warriors were quite another. And with Zack and Trini Zord-fighting in town, and Jason locked in combat with Tommy, and Kimberly lying there on the ground unconscious…

The sight of Kimberly, lifeless for all Billy knew, was enough. Billy screamed inarticulately and attacked with a ferocity he didn't know he possessed. He concentrated on speed; Goldar had never been fast and Scorpina had slowed herself down with the transformation. They attacked with all their skill, but they couldn't seem to touch Billy.

Finally, Goldar threw Billy to the ground. Billy lay there, panting and holding his chest. "You're never going to win," he said weakly, as if the attacks had drained all his energy.

Goldar laughed at the Blue Ranger's predicament. "It's been fun, Power Ranger, but you should have known you couldn't take us on by yourself."

"I guess you're right," Billy said, and he could hear gasps from watching students.

Goldar raised his sword high above his head, ready for the killing blow. "Say goodbye, Blue Ranger."

Billy waited until the tip of the sword was almost at his throat. He rolled out of the way and was bathed in a sea of sparks.

"NO!" Goldar screamed.

"What the hell did you do?" Scorpina shrieked.

Billy laughed at the two warriors, who gaped at the ruined device. Goldar's sword had sliced through its power supply and caused it to combust, ruining any chance of quick repair. "Something tells me that Rita's going to be pissed."

Goldar looked like he was about to attack Billy, but he stopped, looking in that way that Billy associated with changes in their orders. Apparently, Rita was communicating with him, and from Goldar's expression the communication wasn't good. "Revel in your minor victory now, Blue Ranger. You Rangers are far from safe." With that, Goldar and Scorpina disappeared in a flash of gold fire.

"Sour grapes," Billy muttered under his breath. As soon as the threat was gone, Billy rushed to Kimberly's side. She was still breathing. He pulled out a syringe and dosed her with their rapidly dwindling compound. Immediately, her eyes flew open.

"Is she alright?" said a football player that Billy didn't know.

In an instant, Kimberly understood she was still undercover. "Yeah… I'm alright now. Thanks, Blue Ranger."

"Don't mention it," Billy said. He turned his attention to the others. "Don't leave by the stairs… it's poisoned. We'll be able to teleport you all to a safe place."

"Hey! You have some more of that stuff?" a frantic voice broke in. "I think he's dying."

The crowd parted to let Billy through, and Kimberly followed. A group, including Bulk, surrounded Skull, whose gasps of pain were getting fainter and fainter.

"Skull!" Kimberly cried out, and rushed to him. She stared up at Billy, her eyes wide and fearful, mirroring the masked expression on Billy's face. They both knew that their compound would not work on Skull. It only worked by reacting with the energy of the Power Coin.

But did the person have to own a Power Coin?

Billy knelt down beside Skull. "Give me some room," he barked, and most of the other students backed away. Unobtrusively, he pulled out his Power Coin and concentrated. A blue haze started to surround Skull.

"He didn't have to do that with Kimberly," someone remarked.

Billy couldn't concentrate enough to answer the valid remark. Fortunately, Kimberly was quick on her toes. "I don't think I was as injured as Skull is. He's lost a lot of blood."

In the meantime, Billy's vision was starting to blur, as if he'd lost his glasses. Blood was rushing in his ears. He knew this was extremely dangerous, but he couldn't think of anything else. Skull's lips were turning blue, and that wasn't from Billy's minor power transfer. Skull was losing a lot of blood. If they tried to get him to a hospital now, Billy wasn't sure if Skull would survive.

Finally, Billy figured it was now or never. He readied another syringe and injected Skull. He waited, holding his breath.

"It's working!" Kimberly squealed.

Like magic, like the miraculous recovery of Jason, the wound stopped bleeding and knitted itself. Color rushed to Skull's face, which had turned the same gray as his shirt. The blue haze that had surrounded him had dissipated. His eyes slowly opened.

"Skull… Skull, buddy. Are you okay?" Bulk said, sounding a little hysterical.

"Yeah…" Skull croaked. His movements were feeble, and he still sounded far too weak to do anything.

"Don't move," Billy said. "I'm going to teleport you two to the hospital. He's still lost a lot of blood."

"Right," Bulk said. "Don't worry, Skull… you're gonna be fine now."

"Get ready to teleport… it's going to feel strange," said Billy. "And… thanks for the help back there." He clapped Bulk on the shoulder. Before Bulk could respond, he and Skull disappeared.

"Right," Billy said, getting up. But the ground tilted under him, and he fell sideways, just able to catch himself with his arm.

"Are you okay?" the same football player said.

"I think he's fine, Derek," Kimberly said. "He just needs to teleport out or something."

Billy nodded at the vague hint. He was in another type of danger here. He'd drained his powers significantly, and he might just unmorph in front of everyone. "You're all going to be teleported away in groups," Billy said. "Once you're out, just follow evacuation procedures."

Before he could say anything else, before he could even do anything, Billy felt the familiar tingle of the teleportation beam, and the rooftop dissolved to form into the Command Center.

"Aye-yi-yi-yi-yi, Billy! That was close!"

Billy looked down. He was unmorphed. "I had to do it… and it worked," he said, his speech slurred.

"You did well," Zordon intoned. "Skull is at this time getting proper care at the hospital. Kimberly has teleported away under cover of a group of students and is now joining the fight with Trini and Zack."

Billy pushed himself up from the leaning position against a console. "I have to help them," he mumbled.

"No, Billy!" said Alpha. "You're far too weak right now! You'll just endanger yourself."

"Alpha is correct. Billy, you have fought hard and saved Kimberly and your classmates from a horrible fate. You have done your part in the battle." Zordon said this with finality, the type of tone he used when he didn't want to be contradicted.

Billy glanced over at the battling MegaZord, manned by his three fellow Power Rangers. "I can't just clock out, Zordon. I have to help them."

"Billy, please," Alpha cajoled. "Stay here… you'll just put yourself in danger."

Zordon looked Billy over. "You know the risks, of course. You could hurt yourself significantly, in a way Trini's serum could not cure you."

Billy nodded firmly. The room spun a bit, and Billy was glad he'd kept a hand on the console to steady himself. "I'm morphing out of here. Alpha, could you teleport me so I can conserve energy?"

Alpha looked hesitant, but he knew there was nothing he could do to convince Billy. "Teleporting now," Alpha said.

Billy arrived at the quarry, far enough away from the fight so he wouldn't get stepped on right off the bat. He jumped and entered the cockpit of the MegaZord, his Zord already having been called remotely.

"Hey! Billy! Bout time, man!" Zack said from Jason's usual spot at the front.

Kimberly, however, seemed perturbed. "What are you doing here, Billy? You were practically passing out a few minutes ago."

"I'm here, okay?" Billy said testily, not wanting to incur more well-meaning fretting over his health. "How is the battle progressing?"

Suddenly, the air around Pop Star, who'd been pulling itself up from a fall, burst into golden fire. Giant-sized Goldar and Scorpina emerged from the dust and smoke.

Zack cursed.

"Badly, it would seem," Trini said. "At least, now it is."

"Rangers!" Goldar bellowed. "Here is where you will suffer your doom!"

"And you suck, too!" Scorpina added.

Billy took a deep breath and applied himself to shield repairs.

"Let's get to work," Zack said.


 

Jason and Tommy circled each other warily. Tommy still has his left arm pulled tight to his side, but now Jason was limping fairly heavily.

"You know," Tommy said casually. "Your friends are fighting with their Zords against Goldar, Scorpina, and that weird blue monster. You're probably needed, and I'm in no condition to hurt anyone." His mocking tone made these words into a taunt rather than an offer.

"And Rita probably wants you to heal up and call your DragonZord," Jason added.

Tommy laughed harshly. "She's told me about three times."

"So why aren't you going?" Jason said.

"Why aren't you?"

The two teens stared at each other, still circling. It was like an understanding crossed between them. It wasn't about saving or destroying the world right now. It wasn't even about obeying orders, and they knew they would ignore any orders that would prevent this. It was all about the fight right then.

Tommy drew his sword. Jason drew his.

"Let's do this," Jason said, and he charged into the fight.

 

Chapter Text

"Jason, do you read?" Trini yelled into her communicator. She grabbed onto her console as the cockpit of the MegaZord shook violently. "He's still not answering."

"Leave him," said Zack. He had just made the MegaZord throw Goldar hard onto the ground, and he was relishing the minor victory. "I think I know what he's doing."

He felt the Rangers staring at him. Finally, Kimberly got it. "He's taking on Tommy."

"I was led to believe the plan was postponed," Billy commented.

"Until we got Kimberly back and safe," Zack said. "Don't worry, guys. Jas knows what he's doing, and we can handle this."

The MegaZord shuddered roughly, shoving the teens out of their seats. They scrambled back up and prepared for the next attack.

"Like I said," Zack said in a cheery voice. "We can handle this."


 

Finster recoiled as soon as he got to the throne room. He heard a steady stream of low curses, increasing in intensity and nastiness. Finster steeled himself and walked deliberately into the throne room.

"My Queen," he said, noting that a vein on her temple looked close to bursting. "My Queen, you must calm down. Your blood pressure… your migraines…"

"How… the… hell… am I supposed to calm down?" Rita said through gritted teeth. "Your monster-making device is ruined, if you want to know. We have the Blue Ranger… and Goldar's stupidity… to thank for that."

"Well," Finster said, taken aback. "That is disappointing, but there are still fail-safes…"

"On top of that," Rita continued, as if Finster hadn't said a word, "Tommy is completely ignoring me."

The air was tense with Rita's fury. "M-my Queen… has he turned from y-you?" Finster stammered, half hopeful and half afraid of showing that hope.

"No…" Rita said. "No, he's still here… in my head. The connection is still there, although I would like some eye contact time with him later." Her voice was finally calming, becoming thoughtful. "He's fighting the Red Ranger. And he's fighting every impulse to obey me in order to continue that fight."

Finster peeked into the telescope while she was pondering. "My Queen, please consider this. Yes, Tommy has not joined the fight with Goldar, Scorpina, and Pop Star. However, he has also kept the Red Ranger from joining with the MegaZord. That puts the Rangers at more of a disadvantage, since they rely on teamwork so much more."

Rita looked up from her ponderings. "I've realized that, thank you, and that's why I haven't teleported Tommy back up here right away. Finster, please leave the strategy for the people who are actually good at it."

Finster relaxed a bit. Rita seemed happier and much less prone to hitting things. "I have the status report on the monsters, my Queen."

"Go ahead." Rita put her eye back to the telescope.

"Pop Star is performing admirably, though the sonic weapon is a liability when we have our own warriors to think about." Finster frowned, his brain already turning to possible improvements. "Clown Man is successfully incapacitated, though I have already begun improvements on his design. He should be ready in a day if needed. As for the Grizzlinator…" Finster cleared his throat. "He sort of wandered off into a nearby wooded area and seems to be digging for roots and… berries…"

"He's a bear, isn't he?"

"Yes, my Queen. He's just a bear."

Rita laughed. "No matter. The 'Grizzlinator' provided just the right amount of mayhem at the right time. We can let the humans worry over him. Now, we have more important things to worry about."

Rita grew quiet, her eyes glued to the telescope. Finster wondered which battle she was watching. He'd been watching both battles on the screens in his lab. Tommy had been injured, and the fact he wasn't getting treated and staying morphed… and fighting an extremely intense fight… it was all so dangerous. He was endangering his life.

But if the Red Ranger could beat him, could subdue him safely…

Finster hated that he could only trust an enemy like the Red Ranger… someone who had every cause to hate everyone at the Moon Palace, including Tommy. He hated betraying Rita like this.

But it was the only thing he could think of. Rita was hurting herself with this connection. She was killing Tommy. But the nature of the connection meant that neither of them would listen to reason. They would destroy each other eventually. Finster had to protect Rita. It was his job to protect Rita, even without her knowledge or consent. He was her doctor, after all.

As for Tommy… Finster felt a rush of affection for the human teen. He was a truly good person. He was kind, and decent, and one couldn't help but grow to like him. If he were capable of serving Rita voluntarily, that was one thing… if it weren't his planet in danger, for instance. But he wasn't, and, painful as it was, Finster had to do everything in his power to turn Tommy against them… against Rita.

It would be painful, Finster knew. Tommy had not lived among them for very long, but he had come to be a part of their little group. Everyone had partially forgotten that Tommy was under a spell. Goldar especially had become friends with Tommy, and he never made friends with anyone.

Finster quietly made his way back to his lab, leaving Rita engrossed in the battles. He worked absently on the clown monster, all the while watching the fight between Tommy and the Red Ranger… and hoping that Tommy would survive this.


 

Jason groaned and pulled himself out of the wreckage of what looked like some teacher's Chevy. The glass and metal rolled off him—he was protected by the shields in his costume that much—but he felt like one big bruise after the impact. "Okay, first…" he muttered, "Tommy can throw pretty good one-handed."

He gasped as a flash of green came toward him. He rolled off the car onto his feet as Tommy sliced the wreckage of the car in two with his sword. The car was definitely totaled now.

"Second," Jason said, "get this fight away from the parking lot." He dodged a kick and aimed a few hard punches at Tommy as he was still off balance.

"Talking to yourself, Red?" said Tommy. "Isn't that a sign of insanity?"

Jason forced a laugh as he tried to think of a way to move the fight. "Guess you'd know a lot about insanity lately. Only a maniac would work for a bitch like Rita."

On the whole, Jason thought as he felt himself thrown to the ground, that was probably not the best strategy. Tommy was obviously clinging ever more fiercely to his connection with Rita. On the other hand, the rage made Tommy's fighting sloppy. Jason easily dodged a flurry of attacks and buried his knee in Tommy's gut. Tommy sank to the ground, gasping. Jason backed off, folding his arms and waiting for Tommy to recover.

Tommy pulled himself shakily to his feet. He was laughing weakly. "You think you're winning, don't you?"

Jason shrugged. "Yeah, you've gotten in a few good hits, and I think I'll be feeling this fight for a week, but you're hurt. You got injured, and your endurance is fading fast, whereas I've barely broken a sweat. You don't really have any powers I can't deal with… so, yeah. Things are looking pretty grim for you."

Tommy shook his head, still laughing. He seemed to be stalling for time to catch his breath, and Jason decided to allow it. "You know," Tommy said, "I think I had you pegged just right when we first met… at the Expo. Local champion, swelled head, with no idea of your own relative strength. Sure, I rethought that when I found out you were the big bad Red Ranger, but now I think I was right the first time."

Jason's eye twitched. "And what do you think you were right about?"

Tommy pulled out his Dragon Dagger. "That you're too stupid and too self-assured to be a serious fighter."

"The match was a tie back then," Jason said.

Tommy's laughter grew wilder. "News flash, Red. I held back. I didn't want to seriously hurt you. Sorry to break it to you, Red, but you're not even in my league. And I'm about to prove it to you."

Jason back off a step. "Dude, are you gonna call your Zord on me? Not cool!"

It was the unspoken rule… that Rita never followed, of course. Tommy wasn't a true Power Ranger… he could escalate a fight if he wanted to. That included his Zord… and right now Jason's own Zord was being controlled by the others as a part of the MegaZord. Essentially, Jason would have no choice but to run away from the fight and join the others… or end up as a greasy spot on the bottom of the DragonZord's foot.

Tommy raised the Dragon Dagger and put it to his lips… but the Zord did not come. Instead, the ground between Jason and Tommy exploded. Jason felt himself being thrown back by what seemed like physical waves of sound. A deafening CRASH resounded from behind Tommy as the faculty parking lot exploded in glass—all the windshields and windows had shattered. Car alarms blew from at least five cars.

And still, Tommy played. As the victorious-sounding song went on, explosions bombarded Jason wherever he went. The ground itself seemed to be on fire. Jason tried to move in closer to Tommy, to knock the musical weapon away from him, but each wave of sound pushed him further back. Finally, one last blast blew him backwards through the glass doors of the school. He flew through the hallway. Fighting to keep conscious, Jason snagged a doorframe of a classroom, threw himself in, and was finally out of the path of Tommy's attack.

Jason sagged against the blackboard, gasping to catch his breath. Zordon had warned them the day before that the Green Power Coin and attendant weapons might have powers different from their own, just by the separation and different power influences the coin had come under, but this was insane.

"Oh, Red!" Tommy's voice called from the hallway. "You don't want to play anymore?"

As quietly as he could, Jason pushed himself against the wall, keeping out of sight of the doorway. The school… the classroom… was too confined a space to have a fight, especially when Tommy had the big Dragon Dagger attack. He didn't want to think about the damage Tommy could wreak on the school. From the burned smell in the air, the school had already suffered enough damage.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are!" Tommy yelled in a sing-song voice.

He was getting closer to the classroom. Jason slowed his breathing down, hoping Tommy wouldn't hear his breath echoing in his helmet. He thought desperately of a way to get Tommy out of the school building, to find a nice, deserted place to continue their fight.

The footfalls faded, and Jason hazarded a peek out of the classroom door. Tommy was walking down a corridor toward the science labs. Quickly and quietly, Jason left the classroom and went up a wide staircase out of Tommy's view. He could easily cross the building and possibly lay an ambush for Tommy, but he had to be far enough away from him to communicate with Zordon safely. He hoped communications were working again.

The school was completely empty. Signs of battles and general chaos were everywhere. Garbage cans were overturned. A few lockers hung open, and a few backpacks littered the hallway. It wasn't as bad as downstairs, for in this wing there were fewer classrooms. The whole place had a creepy vibe, like walking through a deserted building at midnight. Compound that with the fact that any moment Tommy could jump out at him to renew the fight…

Jason ducked into the guidance counselor's office and shut the door behind him. He leaned against a file cabinet and slid down to the floor. He brought his wrist to his lips. "Zordon, do you read me?" he said quietly.

"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi!" The sound erupted from his communicator. "Jason, are you okay?"

Jason, in a panic, cupped his hand over his wrist. "Shh… yes. I'm fine. Alpha, I need your help in a plan…"

"Jason," Zordon's voice cut in, "are you sure you wish to continue in this plan? While civilians are no longer in danger, you are putting yourself and Tommy in danger with this one-on-one fight. The plan never was for you to handle him alone."

Jason sighed. He didn't have time to justify his actions, but he owed it to Zordon to make the time. "Even if it wasn't the plan, we're stuck like this. Unless the Rangers can end the fight with the monsters quickly, which, I mean, they're against three…" Jason let the statement hang in the air, completely aware that by all rights he should abandon his fight with Tommy to join the others in the MegaZord. "I can't just abandon Tommy, no matter what he throws at me."

"Then what do you need?" said Zordon.

Jason smiled, glad that Zordon wasn't pushing the issue. "I need to get this fight away from the school. I can engage him in close battle, but I'm not sure if I can teleport both him and me away, and I don't trust myself to not, say, accidentally teleport us to the middle of the mall or something. I need Alpha to teleport us to some deserted place as soon as I can get in close enough."

"Will do, Jason," Alpha said. "But, ay-yi-yi, be careful."

"You know me," Jason said, and shut off communication.

His senses at their peak, Jason crept out of the office and crossed down the corridor. He guessed that Tommy would continue past the science labs toward the gym—the gym, of course, being the best secondary location for their fight. He could easily cut through the computer lab, make his way around the cafeteria, and if all went well he could take Tommy by surprise and keep him from launching any more devastating attacks.

Of course, he thought as he walked past the computer labs, it seemed weird that Tommy had never used that particular attack before, even when threatened rather severely. It seemed the ideal attack against multiple opponents. Goldar and Scorpina's safety could have been an issue against using the attack, but Tommy could have still used it before. So why hadn't he? Was it possible that the attack was a drain on his own power, significant enough to make the attack a desperate move?

It was a possibility… a hopeful one. But not a possibility that Jason could outright rely upon. He wasn't going to underestimate Tommy again. Not if he wanted to save Tommy's life and preserve his own while doing it. Tommy had so far been their worst enemy that day. He most likely engineered the attack of the school. He had stolen the generator and incapacitated Kimberly. It was all the more reason to save him—just to deprive Rita of such a valuable resource—but it also reminded everyone that Tommy was dangerous. Even Jason was rethinking his plans to offer Tommy a place on their team. Could he really work with someone who had done the things Tommy had done, even if he was under evil influence?

"You will leave this school! Immediately!"

Jason had circled around the cafeteria and was in the corridor leading to the gym. At the end of the corridor, he could see the Green Ranger, his blade blaster raised. Across from him, his back toward Jason, Mr. Kaplan faced the evil Ranger, a baseball bat in his hands. The blade blaster was pointed directly at his chest, but Kaplan stayed where he was, radiating fury without a hint of fear. Jason's respect for his principal tripled right then. He swore to himself he'd never laugh about the man's toupee again.

"Out of the way, old man!" Tommy shouted, his voice muffled to be unrecognizable by the helmet.

"You will leave!" Mr. Kaplan said firmly, as if breaking up a minor scuffle in the hallway between classes. "You have terrorized my school and my students enough today. You have no place here!"

"I'm giving you a chance!" Upon closer inspection, Jason was shocked to see the hand holding the blade blaster was shaking, not enough to spoil the aim, but enough to show Tommy's first sign of humanity that day. Possibly he was just as affected as Jason by this sign of bravery. Possibly, the idea of killing another human being was too much for Tommy, spell or no. Either way, the situation was still too dangerous for Mr. Kaplan. Jason had to get him out of there.

Jason ducked into a classroom and pulled his own blade blaster. Locking it into blaster mode, he took careful aim at Tommy's hand and squeezed the trigger.

The blade blaster flew out of Tommy's hand. Jason realized Tommy had been holding his blaster with the injured arm; Tommy fell to his knees and screamed in the pain as the impact made his arm fly back at the shoulder. Mr. Kaplan whirled around to see who had fired the shot. Running toward the pair, Jason amused himself with the idea of Mr. Kaplan trying to give him a detention for fighting in the hallway.

"Red Ranger…" Mr. Kaplan gasped. "My students… are they…?"

"They're all fine," Jason said. "The school is deserted."

Tommy had stopped screaming, but he didn't seem able to get up yet. He was laughing through his gasps of pain. "You think they're all fine, don't you? You both think you're the big heroes who save all the helpless students. Tell that to the student I shot."

"What?" Jason wheeled around, leveling his blaster at Tommy. "You… shot…" Jason knew it wasn't one of his Rangers, he knew that. But that meant it was a civilian…

"Who did you shoot?" Mr. Kaplan asked calmly. Again, he sounded absurdly like he was questioning a student about a minor bit of mischief.

Tommy was regaining his footing, moving slowly as he still had a blaster pointed at him. "That kid with the leather fetish. Hangs out with the fat guy."

Jason let out a breath. "No wonder Bulk pushed you off the roof."

Mr. Kaplan's eyes had grown wide. "But… where is he? Is he okay? Is he…"

Jason was taken aback. Whereas a minute before Mr. Kaplan stood larger than life, ready to take on all of Rita's forces by himself, now he looked lost in panic. And Jason had always gotten the impression that he sort of hated Bulk and Skull.

"Red Ranger, come in," Zordon's voice broke the momentary silence.

Jason lifted his wrist slightly to his mouth, still carefully covering Tommy with his blaster. "Yes, I read you."

"The injured student, Eugene Skullovich, was healed by the Blue Ranger and teleported to the hospital for blood loss. If Mr. Kaplan wishes, we can teleport him straight to the hospital."

And use the distraction to teleport me and Tommy to another location, Jason thought.

"Yes, certainly, tell the man yes," Mr. Kaplan said, his entire frame pouring relief.

Tommy laughed derisively. "Do what you want. Empress Rita will triumph, so none of this will make any difference."

No sooner were the words out of his mouth, Jason felt the familiar, welcome tingle of the teleporter beam. He blinked, and the vision of the school was replaced by the rock quarry. In the distance, he saw the MegaZord fighting against three monsters. He laughed slightly to himself—yes, Zordon had done what he asked, but he'd done so backhandedly. Obviously he wanted to consolidate the two fights.

Tommy, on the other hand, had stopped laughing. "That was a dirty trick."

Jason shrugged. "No dirtier than any of yours. Besides, it was so confining at the school."

Tommy tried to shrug, but his whole body seemed to wince as he tried to move his injured arm. "If this means I get a decent fight out of you, I'm fine with it." He looked over toward the battle in the distance and whistled. "Doesn't look good for the intrepid MegaZord."

At that moment, there was a brilliant flash of light as the sun glinted against the MegaSword, seemingly called from the sky by the MegaZord (in reality, called into existence using the same technique the Rangers called their own weapons into existence). The MegaZord lifted it, charged at Pop Star, and sliced the monster through the middle. Pop Star exploded in a fountain of fire and sparks. The percussive explosion blew Goldar and Scorpina back about a mile, both of them roaring in rage.

"I dunno," Jason said casually. "Looks to me like they're doing a pretty good job."

Jason barely had time to fend off Tommy's attack.


 

The cockpit of the MegaZord resounded in cheers. They'd been fighting for half an hour, keeping everything at a draw. Without Jason's added power there, they'd had to wait longer for the MegaSword to charge. But when it had, they'd worn down Pop Star enough to take the monster out with one slice.

"Don't relax yet," Zack broke through the cheering. "We still have the monkey and the bug to beat down."

"Zack," Kimberly said through a fit of giggles, "I will pay you five dollars to call them 'the monkey and the bug' to their faces."

"You're on…" Zack said quietly. "Hey! Monkey! Bug!"

Goldar had recovered his feet and was lumbering back to the MegaZord. "Are you talking to me, Black Ranger?" he roared.

"Yeah, I'm talking to you!" Zack made the MegaZord lift the sword level to Goldar. "For the record, I hereby, face to face, call you a monkey. And your girlfriend over there a bug. Hear that, Scorpina?"

Scorpina had just arrived. "What was that?"

"I called your boyfriend a monkey, and I, face-to-face, though I don't really know where your face is, call you a bug. What do you think about that?"

Kimberly was holding her console as her body shook with laughter. Billy and Trini tried not to laugh, but one look at each other broke down their resolve, and they laughed as hard as Kimberly. Goldar and Scorpina, in the meantime, stared at the MegaZord as if Zack had lost his mind.

"Honestly," Scorpina said, "I don't know what to think. Do you think the fight has unhinged them, love?" she addressed to Goldar.

"It's possible," said Goldar, bewilderment still evident in his voice. "Should we put them out of their misery?"

Zack steeled himself for another attack. "Okay, guys, fun's over. Kim, you owe me five bucks. Now, let's take them down."


 

Mr. Kaplan landed in the deserted park in front of the hospital. He stood there a moment, trying to shake off the unfamiliar effects of teleportation. Not to mention the fact that he had almost died twice that day. As soon as he regained he composure, he ran into the hospital as fast as he could. He reached the nurse's station and braced himself against the desk.

"I'm Bob Kaplan," he gasped out in answer to the nurse's questioning look. "Principal at Angel Grove High. One of my students, Eugene Skullovitch, was admitted here earlier."

The nurse grinned. "Hi, Mr. Kaplan! I'm Jenny… I was at school a few years ago."

Now that he was seeing straight, Mr. Kaplan recognized her. "Hello, Jenny, of course I remember you." He didn't want to be rude, but…

But Jenny was already tapping away at her computer. "Sorry, I should have been looking this up. Eugene… Oh, good, I only had to spell part of the name…" she mumbled to herself as Mr. Kaplan tried to stay calm-looking. "He's in room 3105. We usually don't just let people visit when it's not visiting hours, but since it's you…" She trailed off with a smile.

"Thank you," Mr. Kaplan said, planning to make up for his abruptness later. He walked swiftly to the elevators, still too winded to trust himself on the stairs. Eugene was in a room… It didn't sound all that serious, then. That Power Ranger must have done as good a job at healing Eugene as the Rangers had done healing Billy Cranston.

Mr. Kaplan tried not to reflect too much on how many injuries and how much chaos had gone down the past week. Billy nearly maimed, dock workers injured, the monster attack rate going up three times its usual count, and now an attack on the school. Eugene had been injured, and who knew if he was the only one. Tommy Oliver, for instance, had obviously been defeated in his office since the generator was gone, but Mr. Kaplan had no idea where he was. And all the while the real Power Rangers seemed to be scrambling to keep everything from falling to pieces. If they all survived, Mr. Kaplan reflected, he'd have to at least call an assembly, and maybe arrange for special counseling.

Mr. Kaplan knocked lightly on the door and pushed it open. "Eugene?" he said softly.

"Mr. Kaplan… come in," a quiet voice answered him. Farcas Bulkmeier was sitting next to Skull's bed, stuffed awkwardly in a tiny armed chair. "These things were made for stick figures," Bulk grumbled as he struggled out of the chair. He offered it to Mr. Kaplan, who sank gratefully into it.

Bulk leaned against a wall; his eyes kept nervously flicking over to the prone figure on the bed. "He's asleep right now. He didn't lose enough blood to need a transfusion or whatever, but they're keeping him for… observation, they said."

Mr. Kaplan looked at Skull's pale figure. All he could think of was how many times he had lost patience with Bulk and Skull. What if the Power Rangers hadn't been there? What if…?

"I called his parents," Bulk said, more for something to say than anything else. "They're worried… but they can't get here yet. The whole town's on curfew until the monster attack ends."

Mr. Kaplan shook his head, his mind whirling. "Farcas, I need to know what happened. I was knocked out for most of it."

Bulk told him what he could: the attack on the school, Kimberly knocked out, the force fields disappearing, Skull being shot for trying to save Kimberly, the device on the roof, pushing the Green Ranger and almost getting shot himself, and the Blue Ranger destroying the device and saving Kimberly and Skull.

"Is Kimberly here?" Mr. Kaplan said quickly.

Bulk crossed his arms. "Nah. I don't think she was as hurt as Skull was. She's probably wherever everyone else got teleported."

"And no one else you know got hurt?"

Bulk shook his head slowly.

Mr. Kaplan let out a slow breath. "That was extremely brave and extremely dangerous, what you did. You could have been killed, Farcas."

Bulk's face set in the "I-do-what-I-want-and-I-don't-care-what-you-think" expression Mr. Kaplan had gotten to know over the years.

"Of course," Mr. Kaplan laughed, "I threatened the Green Ranger with a baseball bat, so I'm not much better."

The two laughed, Mr. Kaplan enjoying the moment of non-drama with one of his most troublesome students.

After a moment's awkward silence, Bulk grabbed the remote and flicked on the news. Vague shots of monsters and Zords, now so familiar to Angel Grove citizens, played while the newscaster tried to guess what was going on. They replayed footage of an explosion, the newscaster pointing out that one of the monster had disappeared, and the explosion was most likely its destruction.

"In other words," Bulk said, "they don't know squat and if we're all alive by tomorrow, the Power Rangers won."

Mr. Kaplan chuckled and tried to discern the blurry fighting objects on the tiny screen.

"Mr. Kaplan," Bulk began, "you ever wonder who the Power Rangers really are?"

Mr. Kaplan shrugged. "Of course I wonder. Everyone wonders. I just don't know if I'd ever want to find out."

"Why not?"

"Well…" Mr. Kaplan pondered. "I think I'd feel too sorry for them. I mean, they're all that stands between us and alien invasion. Can you imagine that kind of pressure? And I assume they have some kind of normal life. Honestly, I'd rather think of them as costumed heroes and nothing more. I'd feel too bad to know exactly who the people are who are fighting a fight that by all rights we should all be fighting."

"Well, I'd give anything to know who they are," Bulk broke in.

"And why is that?"

Bulk stared at his friend on the bed. "It's hard being grateful to a guy with no face, is all."

A gentle knock came on the door. Mr. Kaplan had left the door partially open, and a tall man—obviously a patient by his clothes—towered in the doorway.

"I'm sorry to intrude, but I recognized you from the school brochure," the man said. "Mr. Kaplan, right?"

Mr. Kaplan got up, frowning slightly. "Yes… I am."

The man smiled and extended his hand. "John Oliver, sir. You know my son, Tommy."

Mr. Kaplan smiled and shook the man's hand. "Yes. I'm glad to meet you. I was planning to meet with you once you were discharged from the hospital…"

"Next week, early, if all goes well," John supplied. He turned to Bulk. "Are you one of Tommy's classmates."

"Yeah," Bulk said, awkwardly returning a hand shake. "Name's Bulk. That's my friend Skull over in the bed. You're really Tommy's dad?"

"For nearly sixteen years now," John joked lightly.

Bulk made what sounded like a noise of disgust, and John shifted uncomfortably. Mr. Kaplan frowned. Clearly there was more going on there than he could tell.

"Well, it's nice to meet both of you," John said abruptly. "I'd best get back to my room."

"I'll walk with you, Mr. Oliver," Mr. Kaplan said. "Farcas, would you tell me if Eugene wakes up?"

"Sure thing, Mr. Kaplan," Bulk said, turning his attention back to the television.

John Oliver seemed to walk slowly and deliberately, as if afraid of tripping over tiles. His room, however, was only two down. He was in the room by himself, the other bed unoccupied.

"I'm glad you came over, Mr. Kaplan…"

"Oh, please…" Mr. Kaplan said with a grin. "Call me Bob."

John eased himself on the edge of his bed. "Bob, then. I've just been wanting to talk to you about Tommy."

Mr. Kaplan frowned and sank into a chair.

"I just wanted to know…" John began hesitantly, "if he's been getting into trouble. Acting oddly or anything like that."

Mr. Kaplan shook his head slowly. "No… I mean, he missed yesterday and was late today, though it would have been better if he had missed today and missed the attack on the school. But when he showed up he actually impressed me with his bravery. Fought beside me until I got my fool self knocked out."

John licked his lips and nodded. The news of the attack on the school was already on television, so that wouldn't be a surprise. But there was something else behind the man's eyes, as if he knew something Mr. Kaplan didn't and was interpreting events differently.

"This just in," the newscaster from the television broke into the silence. "Apart from the fight between Zord and monster, two Power Rangers are fighting near the other battle. Last report has the Red Ranger fighting the Green Ranger. The Green Ranger, if our viewers will remember, has been reported to be allied with the invading forces of Rita Repulsa. Along with his battles against the Power Rangers, the Green Ranger last week attacked high school sophomore Billy Cranston. He is also responsible for the severe injuries of Chen Kenichi, Masaharu Morimoto, and Hiroyuki Sakai, dock workers present for the attack of the Green Ranger's 'Zord.' We also now have reports that during the attack at Angel Grove High School, he attacked and wounded students Kimberly Hart and Eugene Skullovitch, both of whom have been healed by the Power Rangers."

The volume went down sporadically, and Mr. Kaplan noticed the hand holding the remote was shaking. John's face had blanched white as he stared at the blurry images of red and green on the monitor, the camera crew too far away to catch any detail.

"I'm sorry, John," Mr. Kaplan said softly. "I didn't even think when I said your son fought beside me. I'm sure he got out okay with the other students. At least, he wasn't in my office when I woke up, so I'm sure he was able to take care of himself. He's fine."

John stayed staring at the television screen. "I hope so…"


 

Jason crossed swords with Tommy, the impact of metal on metal nearly forcing both of them back. They were fighting at the top of their strength, holding nothing back. At least, Jason prayed that Tommy wasn't holding anything back. He didn't think he could take any more.

Tommy unexpectedly angled his sword and sliced across Jason's bicep. A line of fire seemed to race across Jason's arm, but he had enough presence of mind to counter with a fierce jab to Tommy's chest. The shield repelled the tip of the sword from cutting through, but the harsh impact made Tommy back off.

The problem was, Jason reflected as they went in for another exchange, Tommy's sword was better for infighting. It was slender and slightly curved, single-bladed and lightweight. It was ideal for one-on-one combat, especially when the wielder wasn't a big ox like Goldar. Jason's sword, on the other hand, was a weighty broadsword with very little sophistication. It was ideal for the usual monsters he had to fight—when the call of the day was just slice and dice—but on a complicated one-on-one fight the sword was too long, too heavy, and too unwieldy.

"You're slowing down," Tommy said, a bit breathlessly.

Jason ducked under a sword swipe. "And you're getting tired," he countered.

The battle had gone on too long, by all rights. Jason had no idea what time it was, but by the sun it was past noon. The battle at the high school had started at mid-morning, so they'd been in constant battle for several hours. Jason knew—they both knew, as experienced fighters—that the next few minutes would decide everything.

Jason landed a solid kick to Tommy's chest, and Tommy fell back several feet. Feeling like it was kind of a cheap move, Jason drew his blade blaster, locked it, and fired.

In an instant, Tommy had drawn his dragon dagger and was playing again. Jason braced for the impact. Instead of the explosions, however, the music turned Tommy's shield as bright as a mirror. The shots bounced off his chest and hit Jason before he could even think to avoid them. He fell back and crouched. The shots hurt, but it was nothing like the wind attack from before. Tommy's power was ebbing fast, especially as he used those fancy attacks.

"That the best you can do?" Jason said. "Geez, Tommy, you are running out of ideas."

"I thought it was pretty effective."

On the last syllable, Jason fired again. Tommy had no time to set the shield back up, and the blast erupted across his chest, his golden shield marred by a black mark. To top it off, he landed awkwardly on his hurt arm. Jason could tell he was trying not to show pain.

"Oh, you're going to pay for that," Tommy growled.

Jason barely had time to prepare. Tommy had launched himself at Jason with a flurry of punches and kicks, only using the sword as a blunt instrument. Jason kept up with the attacks, but it had to be admitted that he was slowing down himself. He was knocked down to the ground, a bit dazed. Through the fog before his eyes, he saw a flashing sword being driven straight down. Instantly he flashed back to the fight with Goldar, and the panic gave him speed. He rolled out of the way. Tommy, however, was prepared for that; he kicked Jason, sending him flying across the battlefield.

Tommy crossed his dagger and sword. Lightning flew from the point of intersection straight at Jason. He didn't know what else to do. He ran, dodging lightning bolt after lightning bolt. His left leg had been hurt earlier in the fight, and now the effort of running over the rocks made it feel as if daggers were shooting through his ankle. He could feel the heat of the lightning's near misses. But it was still okay. As long as he could maneuver in close to Tommy…

Jason's ankle exploded in shattering pain. He tripped, flipped through the air, and landed square on his back. Pulling himself up slowly, he saw the boot around his ankle had turned black. The lightning had cut completely through all his defenses, and blood was seeping from the wound.

He looked up at Tommy, who was regarding him in triumph. Jason knew it was over. There was no way to even get up, much less dodge with any speed. Tommy had him cold. He would not survive this next lightning blast.

"This is it, Red," Tommy said softly. "It's been a hoot and a half, but we both knew it would end this way. And don't bet on cheating death this time."

Jason felt his sword by his side, and he felt a glimmer of hope. It was his only chance…

Thankfully, Tommy did not see the hope spring to Jason's eyes. "Don't worry, Red. It will be quick, and you won't even have to watch your friends die." He took a breath, savoring his victory and Jason's helpless silence. "All right… Jason. Prepare yourself."

The two weapons came together, and the lightning sprang forth with incredible slowness and clarity. Jason brought up his sword, which flashed in the sunlight, and pointed the flat of the blade to intersect the lightning perfectly. He felt the heat sear his hands, burning his gloves black.

As soon as the lightning hit the sword, it ricocheted back, hitting Tommy square in the chest before he could move an inch. He fell backward instantly, de-morphing and hitting the ground hard, apparently lifeless.


 

Rita screamed and fell to her knees. Pain lanced through her chest and head, and her arm involuntarily reached out toward Earth, as if she could scoop Tommy from the surface and bring him back safely. But there was something blocking her power to teleport, and her magic had been drained too much. She couldn't reach him in any way.

Amid her mad grief, a spark of sanity flashed. She could still feel the connection. He wasn't dead. He was still breathing, his shield protecting him better than the other Rangers. But now his shield was gone… he wasn't morphed… and that damn Red Ranger was limping toward her SON!


 

"Goldar! Scorpina! Tommy's hurt… Save him!"

Goldar and Scorpina looked at each other in shock. The command had screamed through their heads as if Rita were physically next to them. They didn't even note the charging MegaZord, sword pointed right at them.

"He's down there!" Goldar said, noticing for the first time the two tiny figures at the edge of the quarry.

In an instant, Goldar and Scorpina disappeared in a burst of golden fire. The MegaZord stumbled as it attacked vacant air.

"Where did they go?" Trini yelled, looking wildly around.

Kimberly was the first to see. "Down there, guys! It's Jason!"


 

Jason dragged himself slowly to the unconscious Tommy, unbearable pain shooting up his leg with every step. Don't be dead… Please don't be dead… His breath came in ragged sobs, and the distance to Tommy seemed to grow bigger with every step.

Finally, he collapsed next to Tommy and felt for a pulse. It was there, slow but reassuring. Jason sobbed his relief, fought back a wave of nausea at the idea that he could have very well been dead, and nearly passed out himself. Spots swam in Jason's vision, and looking back he saw a trail of blood—his own blood.

"That's far enough," the rage-filled voice of Goldar broke the silence.

Jason felt a sword tip at the back of his neck, and he froze. Breath came fast and panicky. He knew he was too weak to fight Goldar. He may have escaped death by Tommy's hands, but Goldar was about to finish him off anyway. It was fitting, in a way, but Jason could not come to terms with it. He merely shook as the fear choked him.

"Is he alive, human?" Scorpina's hard voice came from beside Goldar. From the sound of her voice, she had changed into her humanoid form.

Jason somehow found his voice as the sword blade increased in pressure. "Y-yes."

"That's lucky for you." Goldar's voice was low and dangerous, the voice straight from Jason's nightmares. "That means you get to die quick."

Jason closed his eyes, too weak and hurt and afraid to protect himself.

"Jason! Duck!"

Jason pitched himself forward away from sword. Something whizzed by above him—an arrow?—and Goldar and Scorpina roared in pain.

"Power Axe!"

"Power Bow!"

Jason lifted his head as the familiar process played out before him. They needed him. He couldn't just give up.

In a burst of energy he didn't know he still had, Jason pushed himself from the ground. The Rangers were near him, standing between him and the two warriors.

"Power Daggers!"

"Power Lance!"

In an effort that made his ankle burst in fresh pain, Jason bounded up to the assembled weapon in the air. "Power Sword!" He brought the weapon back down and tried to stay upright after the impact with the ground. The Rangers crowded around him and the weapon, helping to hold him up.

"FIRE!"

Beams shot from all points of the weapon and hit Goldar and Scorpina dead on. The area around them exploded in fire and sparks, and they were thrown back nearly half a mile.

"Let's get out of here!" Zack yelled, grabbing Jason as the Red Ranger's legs gave out under him. "Someone grab Tommy!"

Billy crouched and put a hand on Tommy's shoulder. And even as they teleported away, they saw Goldar and Scorpina running toward them, screaming for them to stop.

Jason collapsed against a console as soon as they landed in the Command Center. He absently noted he was no longer morphed, though the others were. "Get Tommy to the quarantine chamber. Keep weapons on him until you get him behind the forcefield," he gasped.

Billy and Zack lifted Tommy by the arms and legs, and Trini and Kimberly followed them, blade blasters trained on Tommy. They had set up the quarantine chamber in the room Jason, Billy, and Zack had used as sleeping quarters.

"Where's Alpha?" he asked, barely lifting his head.

"Alpha V is preparing the quarantine chamber for our guest," Zordon said, his voice laced with worry. "Jason, you need to lie down."

Jason slumped to the floor, the world dissolving into a sort of blurry darkness. He could no longer hear properly, it seemed. He stayed there in a stupor for he had no idea how long.

Distantly, he felt a warm hand on his shoulder and the sharp stab of a needle. The world came rushing back to him, sound and color and light. The pain was gone, and he could stand, though he was still shaky. Trini helped steady him.

He laughed weakly. "That's the second time you've saved my life, Trini."

Trini hit him on the shoulder none too lightly. Her eyes were shiny with tears. "Then stop getting almost killed."

"It is getting to be a bad habit of yours," Billy said.

"And that goes for you, too," Trini said furiously, actually shaking a finger at Billy. "Rushing into battle after you drained your power so much while healing Skull."

"Never mind that now," Jason said. He felt himself gaining strength with each minute, though even the serum couldn't cure his exhaustion. He felt like he could stay in bed for a week. "Everyone's safe and alive."

"Which is a freakin' miracle," Zack said under his breath.

Jason chose not to respond. "What about Tommy? What's his status?"

"He's safely within the containment field," said Billy. "We've placed his Power Coin and teleporter in a hiding place in the room, so he won't feel any adverse effects from separation from his Power Coin, but he also won't be able to morph or teleport. We have cameras monitoring him, and we'll hear an alert as soon as he wakes up."

Trini looked a little perturbed that her lecture had been dismissed so quickly. "I only gave him a half-dose of the serum. He'll hurt like hell, but his life is in no danger. I'm afraid to get him too healthy… afraid that he was going to wake up too soon."

They didn't say it, but Jason was sure the others thought along his lines: they didn't want Tommy too healthy. They wanted him hurt and vulnerable. That would make it easier to break the spell.

And, Jason thought with not a little guilt, he didn't want all the pain from their recent fight gone yet. Tommy had almost killed him, after all.

Alpha, in the meantime, was busy at one of the consoles. "Rangers, Goldar and Scorpina have now left Earth. There seems to be no injuries, and your classmate Skull is recovering in the hospital."

"There is nothing more you can do now, Rangers," Zordon said. "I congratulate you all on successful battle. You've all performed admirably under conditions far worse than any could have anticipated."

"So what about Tommy?" said Kimberly, glancing nervously at the closed door across the room.

Zordon seemed to sigh. "We must wait until he awakens. Simply separating him from Rita is already half the work. Now, we face the most difficult part of our plan. It is time for you all to rest, Rangers. I project that it will be a difficult few days."

"And that'll be different how?" Zack said.

"Zordon's right," said Jason. "After emergency curfew ends, we need to put in face time with our parents…"

"Oh, God, my mom's going to be frantic," Kimberly said. "I mean, I bet the attack on the school was all over the news."

"I don't like leaving Tommy up here along with Zordon and Alpha." Zack was also staring nervously at the closed door. "I say we take it in shifts to stay up here. We don't know what Tommy's capable of. I mean, what if Rita gave him weird-ass special powers along with that spell or whatever."

"It's possible, but not likely," Billy said.

"Yeah," said Trini. "Why would she give him a Power Coin if she could give him other powers?"

"Zack's right," Jason said, and he smiled at the look of surprise on Zack's face. He's obviously been expecting for Jason to disagree. "Tommy's dangerous, and we don't know what he's capable of, with or without any extra powers. I think we'll have more problems with his intelligence now, along with his devotion to Rita. Zordon, could you alert us when Tommy wakes up? I think we're safe as long as he's asleep."

"Sleep," Kimberly groaned. "That sounds good about now."

"No kidding," said Zack. "I couldn't sleep for nothing last night."

"Zordon! Rangers!" Alpha's hand was quivering over the console. "Rita is attempting to communicate with us."

"That's not unexpected," Zordon said. He glanced at Jason. "How would you have us respond, Jason, as her greatest grievance is against you?"

Jason smirked. "Ignore her, Alpha."

"But, Jason…"

"We know what she wants. We know what threats she'll make. I'm just not interested. If she attacks, we'll fight. As for Tommy, she can't have him back, no matter what. She'll just have to get used to it."


 

"They're not responding, my Queen," Finster said quietly.

Rita sat on her bed in her darkened bedroom. She shielded her eyes from the sharp pain of the light coming from the crack in the door. "So it's as I expected," she said. "They have no plans to give him back."

Finster quietly closed the door, holding a tray of various medicines. He began preparing the usual remedies. When she wasn't looking, he put something a bit stronger in the usual mixture.

"Then we'll take him back," Rita growled through the pain. "We'll just take him back."

"Yes, my Queen," Finster said. He gave her the mixture.

Rita drank it down in one. "Finster…" she said, her speech slurring as the medicine took instant effect. "Tell Goldar to start an attack. Get the monsters. I want monsters and Putties and… Get them down to Earth. Keep attacking… keep attacking… until they give him back. Do you hear me, Finster? Get him back for me…"

She slumped over on the bed, and Finster quickly got her out of her dress and into bed. She was not resting peacefully, though. Her brow kept contracting, and she mumbled slightly in her sleep.

As Finster left the room, taking the tray with him, Goldar ambushed him outside of the door. "How is the Empress? Does she have any orders for us?"

"No," Finster said, not even blinking at the lie. "She's sick and needs her rest now."

Goldar didn't question him, much to Finster's relief. "None of us are fit to lead an attack right now." His mouth pulled back in a grimace. "But I swear I will make those Rangers pay."

He stormed off, leaving Finster to dread the consequences of his actions.

 

Chapter Text

Tommy sat in a locked room. The policeman had called it a waiting room, but Tommy wasn't fooled. The door was locked; it was a cell.

There was a camera in the corner, and he smiled and waved at it… just to let the people watching him know that he knew about them. He knew he was being watched. He was always being watched: at school, on the street, in stores… There just seemed something about him that adults didn't trust.

Of course, they weren't wrong all the time.

The door clicked loudly and opened. Tommy's father walked in. Tommy rose half out of his chair, but John motioned him down.

"Can you give us a minute, officer?" John asked the policeman who had ushered him in.

The officer nodded. "I'll be just outside. Just knock when you're ready. We can discharge him then."

Tommy brightened. He wasn't going to be held. One look at his father, though, and his face fell. Oh yeah. He was still in trouble.

"Can't we have the talk at home or something?" Tommy asked quietly. He'd seen enough of the police station for the past hour. Brooke and Terrence had already been picked up by their parents, but he'd had a wait a little longer for his dad to get off work. His dad missed too much work for hospital visits to take off early for his wayward son.

"No…" said John, sitting down. "I think we can talk just fine right here."

It was the calm voice that made Tommy even more nervous. His father wasn't shouting like he'd taken to lately. He just sounded very tired.

"Look, Dad," Tommy started.

John held his hand up. It was trembling slightly. "No, Tommy, I think it's your turn to listen. Please, just listen for now."

Tommy slouched in his chair. It wasn't fair… he wasn't even allowed to defend himself.

John ran a hand through his hair. Tommy could tell he had a headache. "The police already told me everything that happened, Tommy. You were with your friends, an old boyfriend started harassing Brooke, and you got violent. And they got violent. Pretty soon you were practically in the middle of the The West Side Story."

"The West Side what?"

John almost smiled. "Never mind. But that is your side of the story, isn't it?"

"That's what happened," Tommy said. "Look, those guys were out looking for trouble…"

"And you gave it to them."

"No one seriously got hurt."

"This time."

Tommy folded his arms and looked away.

John sighed again. "Thank God you didn't have any dope on you."

Tommy looked up sharply. "Hey, I didn't know Stephen was carrying that. None of us did. I never touch the stuff."

John laughed sharply. "Sure, you don't. At least, not yet today. But that stash certainly wasn't figuring into your friends' party plans tonight."

Tommy stared straight at his father, his eyes betraying nothing.

The lights in the "waiting room" were harsh and bright. As John ran his hands through his hair again, closing his eyes in fatigue and frustration, Tommy noticed for the first time how old his father looked. The overhead lights left deep shadows in the lines on his face. But he'd looked so young just five years before. Tommy still had pictures of them all together, including his mother. He'd never looked this old back then.

"Okay, Tommy, here's the deal," John said finally. "You're a good kid. I know you're a good kid. But I shouldn't be picking you up from the police station when you're just thirteen years old."

"It wasn't…"

"I know it wasn't your fault," John said. "At least in the sense that you didn't throw the first punch. But it never is your fault, Tommy. Yet it keeps happening to you. So why do you let it?"

"I don't…"

John held up his hand for silence. "But you do. I'm sorry, but it's the company you keep. You didn't start running around like this until you started dating Brooke and hanging out with her friends. The girl's bad for you. And, yes, I know we've had this conversation before."

Tommy scowled. "It's not Brooke's fault, all right? I like her. She's not like all those fake-o girls in pink. And you said I could date whoever I wanted. So Brooke it a little different. That's good, isn't it? I mean, it's like that 'road less travelled' stuff you talk about."

John laughed disbelievingly, making Tommy's fury mount. "I can't believe you're trying to make your relationship with Brooke into something inspirational. I mean, all you do is make out and drink. I guess we can add smoking pot to the list." John sighed. "Look, I know this doesn't sound inspirational, but it's the company you keep that makes you who you are. You get in with a good crowd, and there's less of a chance that I have to pick you up at the police station. You stay with the wrong crowd… and who knows what might happen? You're better than Brooke, or Terrence, and you're tons better than Stephen. You're above all this. But they drag you down. They make all this look attractive, and it's not. You're just going to end up destroying yourself before you can break out of their spell."

Tommy looked away. "Is this all? Can we go home?"

John stared at Tommy, hoping to see a small sign that something had sunk in. He was greeted with a wall. "Sure," he said, "we can go home. You're grounded for two weeks, and no complaints… you can see Brooke plenty at school."

He knocked on the door, and Tommy got up.

"I hope," John said before the door swung open, "that someday I can get through to you."


 

Tommy forced his eyes open, his head full of nightmarish visions of the past. His father's face was more vivid in his mind and in his dreams than ever. He had to wake up… had to escape…

A blank white ceiling greeted his eyes. He blinked in the harsh brightness, suddenly realizing he had no idea where he was or how long he'd been sleeping. Empress Rita would be pissed, no doubt. He obviously hadn't reported back in after the big battle. And from the feel of things, Finster would definitely want to see him…

The battle. Everything had gone wrong, that was for sure. The monster machine was busted, Clown Man failed (Tommy inwardly shuddered), the Grizzlinator proved ineffective, Pop Star dead, and the whole fight with the Red Ranger... What happened again?

Tommy sat bolt upright in the bed. He felt a violent spasm of pain in his head and slumped back down, groaning. On his side, he could look around at the spare, bright room. There were three beds, including the one Tommy lay on, but two were shoved to the side. There was a door directly opposite the bed, but it seemed somewhat obscured by… something. Tommy first thought that his eyes were clouded, but everything looked normal when he focused on things that were closer.

Panic shot through Tommy, and he forced himself up off the bed. The pounding in his head increased, and every muscle in his body seemed to scream in protest, but he was used to pain and it didn't sharpen enough to incapacitate him. Slowly he made his way to the… barrier? It shimmered in the light and seemed to make faint rainbows across its surface. He couldn't see it looking head-on, but if he looked slightly sideways at it he could tell it was there. He reached out his hand, his fingertips barely touching the barrier. It hummed louder the closer he got to it, and then it began to spark violently. A spark connected with his hand, burning him. He drew back.

Tommy figured he knew what it was. It was some sort of forcefield, like on Star Trek or something. He wondered what would happen if he tried to force his body through it. He'd seen someone caught on an electric fence before; he imagined it was something like that.

He forced himself to show only calm, to keep his face as blank as possible. He wondered how he was succeeding: there was no mirror in this cell.

A cell. He was trapped in a cell.

So he'd lost the fight. He wondered how he had. He remembered aiming a fatal blow at the Red Ranger, but everything was blank after that. The battle could still be going on, and Tommy wouldn't know. But, then again, maybe this place was Empress Rita's, and she was putting him in here for his own safety. Tommy grabbed his head, his skull feeling like it was splitting down the middle.

He could feel the connection still. Empress Rita was still in his head, but she seemed far away, like she was when she was asleep. He groped for his presence, wondering how he knew how to do that. Empress Rita certainly hadn't taught him anything about… telepathy, or whatever it was that they shared. But he found himself doing it, just to get at her comforting presence. He needed it right then.

No, this cell wasn't some safe place of Empress Rita's. Finster would have talked to him by now. He was a prisoner; he'd lost the fight with the Red Ranger and he was a prisoner. And he'd known it from the moment he opened his eyes.

Ignoring the pain in his head and bracing himself for more pain, he drew back a fist to the barrier.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

A door opened, admitting Billy into the room. Billy had some sort of technological device in his hand, but he stopped poking at it to give Tommy the warning.

Tommy adopted his most dangerous voice. "Why not? Afraid I might hurt your precious forcefield or whatever it is?"

Billy laughed slightly, obviously unimpressed by Tommy's attempts to intimidate. "No, of course not. And if you knew the power I put into that barrier, you'd keep clear of it. Just touching it will burn your skin. Try to touch it with force, such as punching it, you're looking at the possibility of nerve damage." Billy shook his head, still smiling. "You martial artists sure like to punch things."

Tommy narrowed his eyes. "As you should remember, in particular."

A shadow passed over Billy's face (the thing Tommy was aiming for), but Billy maintained his disinterested attitude admirably. "And all that power and strength with which you find joy in inflicting pain… all that can easily be taken away. As you should remember."

Tommy merely glowered. Already he was trying to work through any escape attempt that could present itself. The Blue Ranger could easily prove a weak link once again.

Billy, in the meantime, had turned his attention back to the strange little device. It looked like it was scanning the barrier or something. Or perhaps scanning Tommy himself. Tommy crossed his arms. There were a million things he needed to know, but he was in a difficult position to find them out. He couldn't appear weak, for one thing, even though he felt like at any point he could keel over from the pain. He wondered what sort of blow could have made him feel this weak and injured. He wondered exactly how he had lost the battle with the Red Ranger and had gotten captured. He wondered why the Rangers were holding him prisoner in this way. Were they getting revenge for the Red Ranger's captivity, or holding him for ransom, or were planning to kill him? But wouldn't they have killed him already? He wondered what his father was doing right then…

No. Don't think about Dad. He's better off without you. Think about escape.

Billy exhaled a big breath, as if he were working down a checklist and had a lot of things left to do. "Okay, looks like the barrier is holding up admirably. As you probably know, you don't have your Power Coin or teleporter—wonderful device, by the way, but my watch design is still… Anyway, the left wall there has a panel that opens into a toilet. Don't think about using that to escape, since you'd just get stuck there with whatever you'd flushed down. Sorry we couldn't get you a shower, but the sink will suffice for washing up for now. The refrigerator is stocked with enough food and drink to get you by for the next couple days, too." Billy surveyed the cell with satisfaction, as if he had conferred Tommy a big treat. "So I guess that's it. Remember… be careful about the barrier." He turned to leave.

Tommy's lip curled. "Now, wait just a damn minute!"

Billy turned back, regarding Tommy with surprise. "Can I help you with anything else?" he asked politely.

Tommy almost laughed. He felt like he was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. "Yeah, you can 'help' me," Tommy spat out sarcastically. "You can get me the hell out of here."

Billy raised his eyebrows. "Sorry, Tommy. Can't do that. Anything else?"

Tommy took a breath, trying to rein in his fury. "Alright, if you want to play it that way… At least tell me when I'm getting out of here. What are the mighty and righteous Power Rangers going to do to me?" Tommy was disconcerted to notice that behind the sarcastic exterior he put up there was an actual plea in those words. He glared and could only hope Billy didn't notice it.

Billy shrugged, seemingly unaffected by anything Tommy said. "You'll have to take that up with Jason. He'll be in here later."

"At least give me a Tylenol," Tommy said in exasperation. "I feel like I've been run over by a truck." It was the pain that made him say it. Tommy knew the moment he'd said it that he should have acted healthier than he really was.

Billy laughed slightly. "Well, it's your own fault, technically." He turned serious, and Tommy was shocked to see something cold and immovable behind Billy's eyes. "We gave you enough serum to keep you alive. You would have died otherwise. That should be enough for you."

With that, Billy left the room, and Tommy was starting to revise his ideas of Billy being weak in any way.


 

Billy walked into the main control area of the Command Center. They'd placed a partition in front of the door to the quarantine chamber so that Tommy wouldn't be able to see where he was. There were security sensors all around it that would only allow the five Rangers and Alpha through. In other words, they knew what they were keeping in a cell. They were not underestimating him.

"How's our guest?" Zack emphasized the word that Zordon had been using. They all knew it was just a nice word for prisoner.

Billy attached his scanner to a console and turned to face the others. Trini wasn't back from her parents yet. "As expected," he said in answer to Zack's question.

Zack smirked. "Pissed off?"

"And hurt," Billy said. "And frightened. He thought he was hiding it, but he was obviously scared out of his mind."

"If he's scared," Kimberly supplied, "he can't think." She paused. "But I still don't like it. How we're treating him… I feel like one of the bad guys."

Zack snorted. "It's not like we have a choice."

"Zachary is correct," Zordon intoned, gathering the attention of the Rangers. "As distasteful as it is to keep a being injured and afraid, we must use every advantage against Tommy. As long as he is under Rita's spell, he is dangerous… to himself, to us, and to everyone. If we show him mercy, he will use it against us."

"Ay-yi-yi," Alpha cried out despondently. "I hope we can break the spell soon. Just knowing he's in that room nearly overloads my circuits."

Kimberly patted Alpha's shoulder. "Don't worry, Alpha. We won't let him hurt you or Zordon." But she shot the room a worried glance, showing that her feelings were not so different from Alpha's.

"You're being strangely quiet, Jason," Zordon said. "What troubles you?"

Jason had been staring steadily at the security screen they'd set up to show everything happening in the quarantine room. Tommy was poking around in the fridge, setting out stuff to make sandwiches. He looked completely unconcerned with his situation. Then again, Tommy would want to eat and drink to build up his strength for any escape attempts.

"Jason?" Zach said in a worried tone.

Jason broke out of his reverie. "Yeah… sorry. I heard you. I'm fine, Zordon. Just preparing what I'm going to say to him."

Zack whistled. "I don't envy you that."

Jason smiled in answer and turned to Billy. "Just wanted to say, good job in there. You struck exactly the right chord. We need him to think that he can't affect us in any way."

Billy looked down. "Glad you think I was satisfactory. I was shaking the whole time. I don't think I've ever been so nervous."

"You were?" Kimberly said in a high voice. "I had no idea. And Tommy couldn't have known, either."

Jason scowled. "Still, best not assume anything about him. We already know he's a really good actor. We had no idea he was the Green Ranger until he let us know. He's going to try every trick in the book to get out, and we've made sure the only things he can use to accomplish that are us. So remember: only Billy and I are allowed in there. Everyone clear on that?"

Kimberly stared hard at the security screen. "I have absolutely no desire to go in there. I don't want to talk to Tommy until he's spell-free."

"Ditto here," Zack said. "Except count that for me even after he's spell-free." The others stared at him, and Zack shrugged. "I just don't like the guy, okay?"

"Limiting access to you," said Zordon, "is a wise decision. Not only does that give him fewer opportunities to use any of you as means of escape, but you're only allowing him to see people who have hardened themselves against him: the people he has tormented the most. Except, of course, Kimberly," Zordon added quickly, afraid to offend Kimberly.

Kimberly smiled wryly. "It's okay, really. He can't affect me at all. I know you all think I'm in love with him or something…" The words came out harsh, and Kimberly felt the others look away from her. "But, really, he can't use me in that way. I don't love him, and I never will." She worked to keep her voice light, thankful that Trini wasn't there. "I just don't want to hear him make dirty jokes or go all Hannibal Lector on me."

"I know you're watching me."

It was as if he had heard Kimberly, even though they knew that was impossible. Kimberly jumped at the sound, and at Tommy slowly looking up and smiling at the camera.

"That's impossible," Billy whispered, as if to keep Tommy from hearing him. "How could he know where the camera is to look at it? It does not even resemble a camera."

"Sh," said Jason, watching Tommy and holding his breath.

Tommy, in the meantime, was smiling brightly for the camera. "Kimberly, this must be an extra special treat for you. Sort of a voyeuristic dream come true. At least there's a barrier between us, cuz…" He whistled. "I'm tellin' ya, guys, little Miss Kimmy here is handsy. I mean, I've gone with some fast-moving girls in my time, but nothing compared to…"

The sound cut. "Conceited, isn't he?"

Trini was standing by the security console, smirking at the now silent, ineffectual image.

"I thought your parents were going to keep you til tomorrow," Zack commented.

She rolled her eyes. "They tried. I used you as an excuse, Billy. They're still spooked over what happened to you. Sorry."

Billy shrugged. "It's alright. We serve as each other's excuses all the time anyway."

Trini looked back at the figure. "How long has he been awake?"

"Not long," Jason supplied. "About a half hour. Kim, you alright?"

Kimberly turned a bright face to Jason… too bright. Forcefully bright. "Yeah," she said in a high voice. "Fine! I just realize I haven't freshened up in, like, forever. I'm gonna…" Her voice stopped, and she practically ran from the room.

The others made moves to follow her, but Trini held up her hands. "Trust me, I'm on it. Billy, page me if you need anything." With that, she ran after Kimberly toward the room the two of them had shared.

"Bastard," Zack growled. "And what was he trying to do with that?"

Jason's mouth quirked. "Partially… what just happened. He also doesn't want to be an easy prisoner. He wants to hurry things along."

"Rangers, you must be careful around him," said Zordon. "As he has just shown, he can still affect you even from the confines of the quarantine chamber. He will try to provoke all of you into doing something that will give him opportunity. Jason and Billy, you must especially be careful. You will both have direct contact with him."

"Speaking of," Zack said. "When are you going to talk to him?"

Jason glanced from Zordon back to the figure on the security screen. His mouth was still moving. "Let's give it about half an hour after he stops talking. I don't want him to think that he's making me go in there any sooner."

Trini walked in at that moment. "I sent Kim back home. She's fine," she said quickly at the worried glances. "She just doesn't need to be around here right now."

"But does she need to be alone right now?" Billy said. "I mean, we have the sound turned off. There's nothing Tommy can do to her…"

He trailed off. Trini was smiling grimly. "No, you guys don't get it," she said. "I'm doing this for Tommy's safety, not Kimberly's. Kim… was getting a little more violent than usual…"


 

"Fast, am I?" Kimberly muttered. "I'll show you fast."

She landed a punch that sent the other figure to the mat. "Come on," she snarled. "Get back up, I dare you!" After five seconds, the man got off the mat. "Oh, you're going to wish you stayed down," she said with a vicious grin.

"Mom!" her brother Kevin called out. "Kim won't get off my Nintendo! And she's playin' Punch-Out and getting all weird about it! And she's beating my score!"

"Okay, Mike Tyson!" Kimberly crowed. "You've met your match today!"


 

"Really," Trini continued. "You don't want her up here."

The other three smiled. Even though they agreed it was dangerous to have Kimberly up there right then, they were all glad she was having this reaction.

"So how much longer to we have to keep him like this, Zordon?" Jason asked. "I'd like to get started on his… therapy… as soon as possible."

Zordon shook his head. "He's still too charged with the spell. He's seen Rita today. He won't start suffering the effects of withdrawal until at least tomorrow. He must be mentally vulnerable before we can take any action."

"Zordon! Rangers! Tommy has stopped talking," Alpha reported.

They all looked at the screen. Indeed, he had grown silent. He was lying in bed, holding his head as if it were about to come off. He was obviously in some pain.

Jason checked his watch, appearing much less concerned about Tommy's condition. "Alright, it's late. I've already arranged to stay here tonight, and…"

"I'll be on guard, too," Trini volunteered. Billy started to protest, but Trini waved him off with one hand. "Look, you're still really wiped from what you did for Skull. You need actual sleep for once; we don't want you getting sick. I'll call you if there are any emergencies."

Billy smiled weakly. "Well, if you put it that way…"

"We're all on call," Zack said. "If you even think you need us, give us a call. I'd rather there be a false alarm than…"

Jason laughed. "You don't have to tell me twice. Go home, get some rest."

As soon as Billy and Zack teleported out, Trini sighed and walked directly to her makeshift workstation. "I'm going to make more serum. We're running low, and there's no telling what Rita will do now that we've taken Tommy away from her."


 

Rita lay in her bed, moaning and clutching her head. She was asleep, but it was not a restful sleep.

Scorpina sat on the bed next to her, bathing Rita's forehead with a cold washcloth. She glanced up at Finster, who was making up some sort of medicine. "Come on, you've got to do something for her. Look at her… she's in pain."

Finster turned with the medicine. He looked haggard. He had hardly left Rita's side all day since the battle, and now it was well into the evening. If there was such a thing as day and night on a moon, Scorpina mused. The castle seemed to follow the day patterns of the part of Earth which the Power Rangers inhabited, regardless of the rotation of the moon in relation to the local sun.

"I'm giving Queen Rita something for the pain, but that's all I can do right now," he said in a hoarse voice. "And that's just treating symptoms. I can't truly help her unless I get to the root of the problem."

"And what is the root of the problem?" Scorpina said testily. "You're the doctor; you're supposed to know these things."

Finster stared at Scorpina, as if trying to decide whether to say what was really on his mind. "I… do not profess to have an expertise…"

"Spit it out."

"I believe…" Finster continued, "that the connection with Tommy may be at fault. As I was saying, I do not profess to have an expertise in magic or telepathic connections, but these latest series of symptoms follows a pattern… a pattern you yourself has commented upon."

Scorpina folded her arms. "So that's it? Tommy is driving Rita crazy?"

Finster smiled thinly. "And vice versa, I believe, though without seeing Tommy I cannot be sure."

Scorpina rolled her eyes. "And there's another problem. When I get my hands on those Rangers…"

She let her voice fall away. They both knew Goldar's orders. There would be no moves of retaliation… at least not that day. Scorpina rankled at the order, even when she knew it was for the best. Tommy was gone, suffering who knew what from Zordon and his Rangers, and Rita was out of her mind. She wanted to hit something, hard. Preferably certain Earth teenagers.

Gradually, Rita's moans lessened. She grew quiet.

"She's gone into a deeper sleep," Finster commented. "It should last the night, but I'll sit up with her all the same. I advise rest for you, Scorpina. It's been quite a long day."

Scorpina reluctantly got up, recognizing the dismissal for what it was. "Alert us if there is any change, for better or…" She couldn't go on.

Finster nodded.

Scorpina left the room, closing the door quietly. The palace was dark and subdued, echoing the general mood. She spotted Babboo and Squatt in a corner of the throne room. They looked to have been crying. As Scorpina approached on her way to the general living quarters, they looked up expectantly.

"No change," she said. They looked back down, and Scorpina walked away from them. She knew them to be annoying fools, but they were also endlessly devoted to Rita. They would stay there all night.

She stopped in the corridor, listening intently. A series of thumps from the training room at the end of the corridor told her where Goldar was.

As soon as Scorpina opened the door, five rather harassed-looking Putties pushed past her. They seemed to be the survivors, for the floor was littered with unconscious or twitching Putties. Goldar was standing at the center of them, shaking his head at the retreating Putties.

"I should talk to Finster," he growled. "This batch is full of wimps and cowards. Barely gave me a decent fight. They'd be nothing against those damn Rangers."

One Putty was reaching its hand out to her, and she kicked it in the head. It stopped moving. "Finster is busy right now. Besides, you should be resting. Isn't that one of your orders?"

"Like I need rest…" he muttered. As he said it, though, he swayed on the spot. Scorpina hurried forward and steadied him on her arm.

"Come on, you big lug," she said in long-suffering amusement. "You fought harder than most today. You're going to kill yourself going like this."

She pulled him down the hallway to his room. Setting him on his bed, she pulled down a bottle and two glasses from his cabinet. "Just a little pick-me-up," she said brightly. "Then I want you to sleep yourself out."

"How's Empress Rita?" he said.

Her bright façade faltered. She didn't want to give him depressing news when he was dead on his feet, but he hated to be protected in any way. "She's… worse. Finster has her in a deep sleep right now. But… she's still in pain."

She poured some whisky. The cards from the night before were still spread out on the table. Scorpina was careful not to look at them.

Goldar took a gulp of the drink, wincing at the burn. Scorpina had picked some of the strong stuff to get him to sleep more quickly. "This is driving me crazy," he said, even more hoarsely than usual. "We should be laying siege on that Command Center, or laying waste to Angel Grove. Not…"

"You made the right decision," said Scorpina. "And you know me. I'm just as action-crazy as you. But we're in no shape. And… as much as it pains me to admit it… Tommy is safe right now. Those heroic little do-gooders, whatever they're doing to Tommy—we both know they wouldn't hurt him. They wouldn't have the balls to do it."

Goldar laughed drily. "Well, of course they wouldn't do anything they thought was harmful. They'd do something worse, all in the name of justice and good morals or whatever." He finished off his drink in one last gulp. "They're planning to… rehabilitate him."

"Come again?"Scorpina said, though she thought she knew what Goldar was talking about.

"The spell," he said darkly. "They're trying to break the spell. They want to sever the connection between Tommy and Empress Rita and make Tommy all righteous and heroic like them."

Scorpina's eyes widened. "But… they don't know what the hell they're doing!"

"Zordon does."

Scorpina felt her fury mount. She grabbed a glass and threw it against the wall. It did nothing to appease her anger. She wondered where those Putties had gotten to… "But… that's dangerous. They're messing with magicks even Zordon has only a slender grasp on. Tommy could either die in the process, or if he survives the process he might just kill himself. He'll have full knowledge of what he's done. There's just no going back from a spell like this."

"They're aiming to try," Goldar said. He was looking down at the card table, where only 24 hours before the three of them had been laughing and drinking together. Scorpina flushed at the memory of what happened immediately after, and she covered up her reaction with a drink.

"Right now they hold all the cards," Goldar continued. "And they know it. With Empress Rita incapacitated, we have little enough magic to mount a decent attack. Our powers together just aren't enough, and there's no way we can have a monster or even a decent guard of Putties. And as long as they've got Tommy locked in the Command Center…"

"He could escape," Scorpina said.

"That's a possibility," said Goldar. "I see a few possibilities as we stand right now. Tommy could escape, and if he does we will help him all we can… at least to get him back up to the Moon Palace. The second possibility is that they could successfully break the spell… No matter how slim the possibility, it still is a possibility. If so… well… they'll have to let him out of that Command Center sometime, and we can recapture him then. The third possibility…" He paused, seeming unable to go on.

"Death," Scorpina finished for him. "Either of Tommy or… Let's face it, Rita's in danger as well. I'm fairly sure Rita can save herself, but she's weak already."

"And if either of them die…" Goldar's eyes glinted madly… dangerously. Scorpina felt a little afraid looking in those eyes. "We will call down the furies of hell upon the Earth. We both have connections, and plenty of dangerous people just itching to tear a planet apart."

The fervor in his voice was intoxicating, and Scorpina threw herself at him. It was a rough, hurried affair, as if they were taking their pain and frustrations out on each other. As they lay gasping, Scorpina realized she felt no less worried.

"I should have killed the Red Ranger when I had the opportunity," Goldar said quietly.

Scorpina pushed herself against him, her heart breaking at the sadness and self-loathing in his voice. "Goldar, you can't blame yourself…"

"I had two opportunities," Goldar continued, as if she hadn't said anything. "Two. And he kept slipping between my fingers. He should be dead right now, and instead I allowed him to live and steal Tommy away from us."

Scorpina couldn't think of a thing to say. She just held Goldar, hoping it was enough. She knew that Goldar was just grasping for someone to blame, even if it was himself. Privately, she was not a fan of death. That's why she was a bounty hunter instead of an assassin. Death, on either side, only made things worse.


 

Tommy had no idea what time it was, though he guessed it was at night. The lights had dimmed not long before.

The pain in his head had decreased and nearly gone out entirely not long before as well. That worried Tommy rather than comforted him, for some reason. He still felt like he'd been hit by a truck, though. He needed rest, but he didn't want to sleep. What if an opportunity for escape presented itself while he was asleep? But still, he needed strength for escape, and a few sandwiches and some juice was just not going to do it.

The door opened. Tommy stayed on the bed, his hand still on his head. He wanted to appear weaker than he really was. But his curiosity got the better of him, and he rose slowly to regard Jason.

"Feeling better?" Jason asked abruptly.

Tommy snorted in weak laughter. "Like you give a shit."

Jason smiled in answer. That cold smile wasn't like Jason at all. It made Tommy nervous. "Funny, but I do. Give a shit, I mean. In fact, your welfare is really what this is all about."

Tommy narrowed his eyes. "So… am I about to be visited by three ghosts? Show me the error of my ways?"

"That's the thing," Jason answered serenely. "It's not your ways. Not really. You're being controlled, and you don't even fully know it. It may be Tommy's intellect, fighting prowess, personality… All that has been dangerous to us, but you're not in control of any of it. It's all the spell."

"Give the man a cigar," Tommy sneered. "So you believe you've got me figured out, then. Well, then why didn't you just let me die? Blue boy said I was near death anyway after the fight. Said it was my own fault, too. I believe him: he sucks at lying. So that would have given you an easy out."

"I agree," Jason said. "It would be easy to give up on you. Much easier than what we've been doing. It would be really easy to just treat you as an enemy, like Goldar or any of the monsters. But that's not what we're going to do."

Tommy froze, ice forming in his stomach at the words. "So… Red… what are you planning to do with me?"

Jason smiled, again that smile that chilled Tommy to the bone. "Glad you asked. We—me and the other Rangers, I mean—debated on whether to tell you or not, but Zordon said keeping secrets from you at this stage is not the wisest decision. So, I'm going to be completely upfront with you. We're breaking the spell. It's going to be tough, probably toughest on you, but you're not leaving this cell until the connection between you and Rita is completely severed." Jason shrugged. "That's pretty much the plan in a nutshell."

Tommy felt his throat closing up in panic. "And… if I don't want the spell broken?"

"You don't have a choice," Jason said matter-of-factly. "Actually, you haven't had a choice in anything for a few weeks now. That's what we're aiming the fix."

Tommy knew that an outburst right now would be stupid. It would show his growing strength and health, and it would make him look foolish… Generally, it would accomplish nothing. But it physically hurt Tommy to swallow the bitter words and keep him from throwing himself at the barrier. "Alright," he said. "You've got me. But I want to talk to Empress Rita. Let her know I'm all right."

"No."

Tommy scowled. "Empress Rita let the Rangers see you."

"That was decent of her," Jason commented. "Though, if I'm remembering correctly she was arranging for ransom at the time. We're not holding you for ransom. There is nothing of Rita's that we want. In fact, this whole setup is to keep you from seeing Rita, so…" Jason spread his hands, as if to say there was nothing he could do.

In an instant, the anger and panic erupted. Tommy drew back his fist and slammed it into the barrier as hard as he could, which was actually saying something. The impact created ripples of color all along the barrier, and sparks flew from it, making Jason calmly step back to avoid the worst of them. But the barrier held, and Tommy was already on the floor, cradling his right arm and howling in pain. Involuntary tears streaked down his face.

"Tommy, don't do that again," Jason said in a long-suffering voice. "Great martial artist like you, it'd be a shame to damage that arm."

All Jason got for that was a barrage of screamed expletives. He nodded to Tommy politely and left the room.


 

"I just checked the news," Trini announced brightly. It was 6:00 in the morning, and she and Jason were sharing breakfast at Trini's cleaned-off worktable. They'd taken turns sleeping the night before, and Billy, Zack, and Kimberly were coming soon to relieve them for a bit.

"Anything on the news about the attacks?" Jason asked, giving Trini some orange juice and breakfast sandwiches.

"Oh, yeah, they're all over the news," Trini said around a swig of orange juice. "And no one's wondering anymore if the Rangers have been defeated."

Jason grinned. "Nothing like a good monster explosion. Makes us 'heroes' again."

Trini laughed appreciatively. "Anyway, that's not the best news by a long shot. School's cancelled today."

"Thank God," Jason breathed.

"Of course, I don't know how they expected to hold class in…"

"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi! Rangers, come quick!"

Dropping their food in an instant, hands on their Power Morphers, Jason and Trini sprinted to the center of the room. Alpha was staring at the security screen that monitored the quarantine chamber. It took a moment to find Tommy, but they finally saw him on the floor. He was writhing in agony, seemingly senseless to everything around him. Trini turned the sound on, and Tommy's voice boomed from the speaker. He was screaming inarticulately.

"He's been getting worse all night," said Trini.

Jason stared at the screen tensely. "He's… either faking it, or this is part of the process of breaking the spell."

"I don't like it," Zordon said. "He shouldn't be experiencing that much pain at this stage. Perhaps… Rita may be causing this. She's not letting go of the connection."

"Jason, it could be killing him!" Trini said. "We brought him up here to save him, not to kill him!"

"Alright!" Jason said. "I hear you. But there's not much we can do about it."

"Bull," Trini muttered, and she sprinted into the room.

"Trini, wait!" Jason called and went after her, but Trini was faster than he. She was through the door and past the barrier, carefully putting the barrier up after her, before Jason could catch up with her.

Jason admitted, it was an ugly scene. The air smelled sharply of vomit, though Jason couldn't see any on the floor. The bedclothes were all on the floor. Both the bed and table had been welded to the floor, but all the paper plates and cups on the table were scattered everywhere. Tommy himself was foaming at the mouth, twitching and wide-eyed, obviously senseless in pain.

Trini leaned over him and started to unpack her medical kit… and in an instant Tommy had her by the throat. He righted them both, holding Trini in front of him as a shield. He also held something shiny and sharp to her throat, and already a few drops of blood oozed from a cut on her neck.

Tommy turned his face and spat out what appeared to be soap. "Alright, here's how it's going to go," he said hoarsely. Trini struggled violently against his grip, but that just made a deeper cut in her neck. She froze as she felt the warm blood and pain.

"Take it easy, Tommy," Jason said tensely. "You don't want to do this."

Tommy twisted Trini's arm, making her give an involuntary cry. "You don't give me much of a choice. I want this barrier down, and I want my Power Coin and teleporter. It's the only way you're gonna get your precious Yellow Ranger back alive, so chop chop."

Jason checked his watch. It was just about time, if the tests proved right. "Okay, Trini, remember to fall backwards," he said.

"Wha-?" Tommy began, but that was all he could get out before the weapon dropped from his hand and he and Trini crumpled into a heap.

Jason pressed his communicator. "All right, Alpha. Teleport Trini out and start ventilating the quarantine chamber."

"Will do, Jason," Alpha answered.

Trini disappeared in a shimmer, and Jason waited for the green light to indicate if it was safe to go in there. He heard the loud sound of running feet, and Zack, Billy, and Kimberly burst into the room.

"What happened?" Kimberly said breathlessly. "I just got here to see Alpha patching up Trini."

"What we expected," Jason said dully.

Zack laughed. "He actually did the fake sick routine. Man's been watching too many movies."

"From what I saw," Billy responded, "it would have worked if Alpha hadn't pumped in knock-out gas once he knew Trini was in trouble."

"Fast-acting, too," Jason said. "Barely had to wait any time."

The green light came on, and Billy let down the barrier long enough for Jason and Zack to enter the quarantine chamber. They lifted Tommy onto the bed, not bothering to right the sheets.

Zack picked up the shiny weapon on the ground. "I don't believe it. A shank made out of aluminum cans. How'd he do this without tipping you guys off?"

"Extra sneakiness, I guess. No more soda for Tommy, then," Jason said, and he pulled the second six-pack of Dr. Pepper out of the fridge. Jason and Zack backed out of the quarantine chamber with the makeshift weapons, never taking their eyes off Tommy as Billy allowed them past the barrier.

"Can't say we weren't expecting this," Zack said. "But I still can't wait for this to all be over."

They left the room, leaving Tommy to sleep it off.


 

The day passed uneasily. The Rangers came and went throughout the day, making sure at least two Rangers were there at all times. Kimberly went to visit Skull and thank him for his heroics, all the while cautioning him that the visit meant nothing romantic. Ms. Appleby informed Jason that the Elementary School Game Day had been postponed until the next Saturday. Jason was glad; he was sure he'd still be neck-deep in Ranger stuff the next day. And they all popped in throughout the day to help the volunteer crews clean up the school. Jason, Trini, and Zack were there when Mr. Kaplan, delighted, announced that they had all worked so hard and well that they could open the school back up by Monday. The news was received with mixed reactions.

As for Tommy, he finally wakened, but he seemed too weak to leave the bed. He did not grow as violently ill as his playacting had exhibited, but instead appeared in too much pain to move.

"It's real this time," Trini informed them, holding a printed-out sheet. "I've just run a diagnostic on him… and I should have done that this morning," she added sheepishly. "Anyway, it seems like he's showing classic signs of violent withdrawal. It's like Rita is a drug, and we're keeping him from his fix for too long."

"Except, of course," Billy supplied, "this process is greatly accelerated in Tommy's case. It's as if he were experiencing months of rehabilitation in the space of a few hours."

"This is more in keeping with the expected symptoms," said Zordon. "It is my theory that Rita is going through an experience much like Tommy's."

"So why doesn't she break the connection?" Kimberly said. "I mean, she controls it in the first place. If she's going through so much pain, why doesn't she just make it stop?"

"She could," Zordon answered. "She does not wish to. She is holding on to the connection just as fiercely as Tommy is right now. The connection has changed her in ways she did not expect and probably does not realize. She depends on Tommy just as much as he depends on her."

Zack threw up his hands. "This is crazy! We're trying to force apart two people who don't want to be forced apart. I mean, if Rita doesn't let go, and doesn't want to let go…"

"Tommy will have to," Billy finished the sentence. "Remember the plan? We're going to have to make him want to."

It was the end of the day, and Tommy seemed to be growing weaker and weaker by the minute. The Rangers looked at each other, knowing that everything rode on what they were about to do.

"I believe it is time, Rangers," Zordon said, breaking the tense silence. "Tommy must start breaking the connection soon, or else he will be in true danger."

Jason looked at Billy. "You sure you want to do it?"

Billy nodded, aware that all eyes were on him. "I made a promise to his dad that I would do everything I could to help Tommy. I feel I have to do this."

The Rangers parted to let Billy through to the room holding the quarantine chamber. They turned their attention to the screen.

Tommy, despite his obvious pain, raised his head at Billy's arrival into the room. He pulled himself into a sitting position, even though it seemed to cost him a great deal to do so. "Come to gloat, blue boy?" he said in a voice barely over a whisper.

"Of course not," Billy said quietly. "I'm just here to start your second stage of therapy."

Tommy laughed at the word. "Therapy. It's been doing wonders. Look at how healthy I am."

Tommy's eyes were deeply shadowed and red, and his hands shook. He barely had the strength to keep himself upright. Indeed, the irony of the statement cut at Billy.

"I wish there were an easier way to do this, Tommy. I truly do," he said. "You've been a good friend to me, even when you were under the spell… And, yes, I know how strange it is to say that, considering our history. But I know something of your history, Tommy. That's how I know how to break the spell. See, I made a promise to help you… and I'm going to keep that promise whether you like it or not."

"You wanna help me?" Tommy demanded. "Then just put me on the line with Empress Rita. Let me see her… just once… please." The last word was barely a whisper, but Tommy was too far gone to feel shame. Only one thing beat in his brain… and he felt her presence slipping away.

"I'm going to give you something better," Billy said. He held up a cassette tape.

Tommy tried to focus on the object. "You think music's gonna help me?" The sarcastic note could still be heard in Tommy's weak voice.

"Of course you don't recognize it," said Billy. "I had to edit the original tape I got from your answering machine. There were a few messages from us, and your uncle obviously really doesn't like you, so I didn't think that would help, but…"

Tommy's face turned livid with fear. "You mean… that's the tape from the answering machine at my house?"

Billy nodded, and he moved to put the tape into a cassette player he'd brought in just for the occasion.

"No…" Tommy was nearly hyperventilating. "Don't press play. Please… I… I don't want to hear it. You… you don't know what you're doing." His panic was giving him a brief reserve of strength.

Billy turned sad eyes to Tommy. "Actually, I know exactly what I'm doing." He pressed play.

A brief crackling of static, and the voice of John Oliver filled the room. "Hey, son, thought you were going to be in. Listen, if all goes well I'm going to be out in a couple of weeks. I know you're busy, so I'll talk to you when you come in tomorrow…"

Billy stopped the tape. Tommy had his hands pressed to his ears in a childish attempt to shut out the noise. "No sense in doing that," Billy commented. "I've got this on repeat, and I'm going to turn the volume up. It doesn't stop playing until I decide. And I've got backups just in case the tape messes up."

Tommy glared at him, keeping his hands firmly on his ears.

Billy pressed play again and turned the volume louder. "Have a good night, then."

He left the room, and Tommy was left with the voice of his father.

 

Chapter Text

"Tommy, I stopped counting how many times I've called."

The eighth time, Dad, Tommy thought. This is the eighth call.

"I don't know why I keep calling." The voice held a bitter laugh that never quite made it. Tommy kept waiting for him to laugh, but he never did. "I know by now what you're doing. I never wanted to believe it of you, though. I should call the police, but that would mean it was true."

Tommy gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. He had given up trying to block out the sound. He could hear it even when he could block it all out. But he knew it was coming… the worst part.

"I know I'm a burden on you," the voice went on. "I know that I ask a lot of you. You don't have as much as other teenagers. We've just never been able to afford it. We've had to move around too much, and that's not fair to you. I… I know that taking care of me… is unfair… when it's supposed to be me taking care of you."

Tommy buried his head under his pillow. Here it was.

"So don't think I don't understand why you left me. I always understood why your mother left me, after all…"


 

"Oh, don't give me that look," his mother said harshly. "I came here to visit my son, and that's what I'm doing."

"It's just that I'm surprised you're here, Pen," John said quietly. Her name was Penelope, but she hated the rather feminine name. "After all, it's been six months and only a couple of phone calls so I wouldn't file a missing person's report."

"Six months?" Pen looked surprised. "Wow. Then Tommy must be…"

"Eleven now, yes," John answered. "And you don't know how heartbroken he was when you didn't even call."

Pen snorted in disbelief. "Oh, come on, John. The boy's got to grow up sometime. Somehow I can't picture him lying in his room crying for his mommy."

The voices raised, still clearer past the thin wall against which Tommy was leaning. He'd snuck in the back when he'd seen his mom's car, so no one knew he was there. He'd fully intended just to grab his martial arts gear and leave, but something in their voices made him stay to listen.

"And you know I didn't sign on for this!"

"Sickness and health, Pen!" John sounded more upset than he had in months.

"Well, I shouldn't have to end my career for…"

"I tried, Pen. I really tried. I just can't travel like that anymore. And we were settling down…"

"You were settling down," Pen corrected. "But I don't settle. And you should know that Tommy doesn't either. He despises it here, and you're holding him back. He could be really great if you would just let him go!"

"He chose to stay here!"

"And who convinced him, again?"

"No one did, unless it was you driving him away!"

The next day, Pen drove up well after school hours. Tommy greeted her politely, and John and Pen looked at each other through forced smiles. Both his parents insisted on him joining her for the tournament circuit for a few months. Tommy agreed to keep his mother from harassing his father.


 

"I'm calling again. Stupid, I know. I just want this to be some kind of nightmare, or that you'll just happen to be there."

"I saw you today, actually. I don't think you knew I was going to be there. Remember when I said I changed rooms? Well… guess not. You haven't been checking the messages. But at least you're still in town. I just had a notion that you might have tried to find your mom. That would have been alright, because I would have known what you were doing. But now… What did you say to me today? 'You're better off without me?'"

"I hate to disagree with you, Tommy, but I don't think I am. Certainly you're better off without me, but I've never made any bones about how much I need you. I know it's selfish. Your mother always said that I didn't know how to let go. I delayed the divorce with her. And… Please, Tommy. Come back to me…"

BEEP

"Sorry about the message before, Tommy. I know I'm being selfish… I know it. Listen, if you want to go back to your mother… if you can find her… I want you to go."


 

Tommy climbed cat-like down the brickwork and balconies of the hotel. It was two in the morning. If he started right then and got lucky hitchhiking, he could be with his dad within twenty-four hours.

He ran around the corner to the pool, sat on a deck chair, and began pulling on his shoes. He could hear a rowdy group of teenagers across the pool area around the soda machine. They wouldn't give him any trouble, and if they did they would find more than they could handle.

A hand clapped over his shoulder. He grabbed the hand and shoved his body forward, flipping his assailant over his shoulder. He leapt forward to take care of the attacker… when he heard laughing. His mother…

"Goodness, Tommy," Pen laughed. "I know things have been tense lately, I had no idea…"

"Sorry, Mom," Tommy mumbled, offering a hand to help her up.

Pen knocked the hand away and flipped up with ease. "Nice move. Though, to be fair, since you knew it was a bigger opponent, in a life-threatening situation you should have hit me harder. Always go for the clean knock-out. How many times have I told you that?"

Tommy gritted his teeth. "Yeah, shoulda done that. I'd be clear to the highway by now if I had."

"Oh, so that's why you snuck out," Pen said. "I honestly thought for a second it was for a swim."

"Yeah, mom." Tommy rolled his eyes. "I really took my backpack out, fully dressed, at two in the morning, for a swim. That makes a lot of sense."

"Hey." Pen lifted one finger. "I gave you that sarcasm, and I can take it away, too." She smiled at her nonsensical statement, knowing that it would just rankle Tommy further. "Come on, sit down, son."

Tommy sat on a deck chair next to his mother. He made a point to keep as much space between them as possible. If Pen noticed, she didn't say anything.

"So," she said briskly, "what are your travel plans? Hitchhike to… where?"

"Dad's," Tommy said miserably.

"And you had to resort to sneaking out just to see your father?" Pen said. "Tommy, you know I'll take you home whenever you want. You just have to say the word."

Tommy turned one disbelieving glance at Pen. "I've been saying the word. I keep asking, but you just keep taking me to 'one more tournament.' There's been five 'one more tournaments.' When are you going to take me home already?"

"After tomorrow's tournament."

Tommy laughed. "I don't believe this."

There was silence. Tommy took a sidelong look at his mother. She looked like she always did. Young. Carefree. Eyes always blazing for a fight. It was the look his father had always said he'd fallen in love with, the same look he said Tommy had. Perhaps he had.

But he wasn't like his mother. And he was tired of pretending.

"Look, Mom, I…"

"You're right, Tommy," Pen interrupted, her voice light but guarded. "I am keeping you intentionally. But… there's a good reason for it."

Pen paused, and Tommy felt himself holding his breath. His mother wasn't much for emotional outbursts, or expressions of affection of any kind. However, she was still his mother. A mother. Maybe all this time she was just lonely and wanted him around…

"I don't want you to waste your life and your talent," Pen said matter-of-factly. "Your father can hire people to take care of him, and you can see him plenty. But if you stayed there, your talent would waste away from a lack of experience and inadequate training. I just can't let that happen."

Pen smiled at Tommy. Tommy felt himself freeze inside.

"You're right, mom," he said. "I guess I just miss Dad."

Pen smiled still more broadly. "We'll go see him after this tournament. Come on, Tommy. Let's get back to the room."

Tommy followed her. After listening to her snore for an hour, Tommy crept out of the window again, made it to the highway, and began hitchhiking.


 

Tommy mouthed the words to the messages. One by one, over and over, the words of his father beat into his brain. Even when he slipped into a troubled sleep he heard them.

Brooke draped herself over Tommy's shoulders. "Watcha thinkin' about?" she asked in a cutesy voice.

They were lying in a bed in her parents' basement. Her parents were on vacation in Bali. Tommy's father didn't know that.

"Do I have to be thinking about something?" The words came out harsher than Tommy meant.

Brooke didn't seem to mind. "Come on, I just rocked your world. The big consummation of our relationship. And you're really not thinking about anything?"

Tommy shrugged.

A second later he hit the floor hard. Brooke had pushed him out of the bed.

"What was that for?" he demanded angrily.

"Do I have to have a reason?" Brooke remarked.

She was pulling on her tank top, and Tommy didn't know when she'd looked more beautiful. Tommy grabbed her and pulled her to him. She kissed him, moaning into his mouth. They were there for a few seconds, and then she shoved him away from her.

"No, you always do that," Brooke spat at him. "You never want to talk about anything. It's all just making out to you. God, I'm just a pair of tits and a mouth to you!"

"That's not all you are."

Brooke stared puzzled at him, and then she caught where he was looking. She screamed in fury and grabbed a wooden bedknob from the bed. She raised it to throw at him.

Tommy held out his hands. "Okay, Brooke. Put it down, before you do something you regret."

She chucked it at him with all her might, and he dodged. It missed him by inches.

"You know what?" she screamed. "I don't regret a thing except having sex with you! Or meeting you at all! You just use me to get back at your mom or your dad or whoever…"

Tommy opened his mouth to retort, and then closed it. She was echoing words he'd heard from his father time and time again.

The next day at school, they nodded to each other in the hallway. A week later he and his father moved to Angel Grove. Tommy sent Brooke a letter of apology; it was returned unopened.


 

Tommy sat up in bed, shivering. He was cold, and sweat covered his body. He wasn't sure what was real and what wasn't anymore. He kept falling asleep and dreaming about the past, but he knew none of those dreams were true. It was like he was pulling bits of memory and mashing them all together. He and Brooke never had that fight. His mother never caught him by the pool. Wait… she had, but it hadn't been that night…

The words kept going from the cassette player, but Tommy didn't have to listen to them anymore. He knew them by heart. Every now and then a particular phrase would pierce the air, making Tommy stop.

He pulled himself up. His foot was asleep, and he lurched sideways. The barrier sparked, but it didn't hurt. Tommy felt like his whole body was numb.

He stumbled toward the sink. The water was cold, and he splashed it against his face. The water seemed to awaken his skin, clearing away the cobwebs. He wiped his face with a towel and looked up, into the mirror.

The room behind him was dark. His pale face looked like it was floating in an abyss. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his face was deadly white. It hardly looked real.

Slowly, his features changed. They darkened, grew smaller. The face in the mirror was like him, but not him. It was like a part of himself.

"My son," the face said. "Come home to me."

A hand reached out of the mirror and pulled him inside.


 

The day was all green and blue and yellow; it was warm and bright. Tommy laid his head back and felt the sun's heat on his face. He could hear people in the distance. They were laughing, enjoying themselves. Tommy had no desire to join them. He was content right there.

"Where are we?" he asked his silent companion.

A dry chuckle. Empress Rita was sitting next to him on the park bench. They faced a sparkling lake, the sun glinting off the water.

"I wouldn't know," Rita said comfortably. "I have only been to Angel Grove on Earth, and only a few times. This resembles the park I usually attack, but it's not."

"No…" Tommy frowned. "This place is important, but I don't remember why."

Rita remained silent. Tommy decided not to worry about it. It was a pleasant day, and he had the sense he had little time left. He didn't want to ruin it.

"They're trying to separate us," Tommy said abruptly, not sure if he meant to say it at all. "That's why I'm being held prisoner. They want to break the spell."

"And what do you want?"

The people in the background grew louder, closer. Tommy felt a yearning toward them.

Tommy smiled at Rita. "You're asking me?"

Rita didn't look at Tommy. She looked content to stare into the lake, a faraway look on her face. Tommy noticed for the first time that her hair was dark brown rather than gray. Instead of her usual voluminous dress, she wore a flowing white robe. And she was smiling, not as usual, but in simple satisfaction. Her brow was unlined, as if she'd never had a headache in her life.

"I know it's suspicious," she answered, "considering what I've put you through, but I really want to know what you want. It… has become important to me."

"You look different," he commented, not ready to answer her question.

She smiled, finally looking at him. "Do I?"

Suddenly, Tommy remembered the place. It was a park. Before the separation, Tommy and his parents had picnicked there every Saturday. He knew if he looked behind him he would see the three of them on the grass. He kept his eyes forward, not ready to see that.

"So…," he began slowly, "is any of this real? Am I just dreaming?" He looked at Rita. "Are you real?"

Rita was shaking with silent laughter. "You humans… always so literal. Can't you just accept that this is happening on some level… a level that is real to you, even if it isn't real to anyone else?"

"But what about in reality?" Tommy said. "What about you? If I… leave…" The words seemed to stick in his throat, but he kept on. "If I leave you, would the 'real' you keep after me? Or would the real you be like… you?" His head spun, but Rita seemed to understand.

"Tommy, you've got to understand something," she said. "I want to keep you, no matter what version of me you're dealing with. We are bonded by a strong spell that has changed me as much as it has changed you. You must have noticed how I've changed over the past few days. So… I'm not going to let you go. If you want to escape me, you're going to have to do it yourself."

Tommy gripped the seat of the park bench. He wanted now more than ever to look behind him.

He felt a presence on his other side. He didn't have to look to know it was his father. Not the father sunk into a hospital bed, growing frailer and frailer by the month, but a father like when Tommy was young: healthy and strong.

"Good of you to join us," Rita said in greeting. "I was wondering if you'd ever show up."

John shrugged. "It was all up to Tommy here, as you know. He's reaching a crisis now."

The memory slammed into him: a conversation at the park, his parents arguing over his future. His mother on his left, his father on his right. It was the same scene.

Rita chuckled to herself. "That's the problem with mental magic. The associations are out of control. How was I supposed to know Tommy would associate me with his mother? The association was so strong, he made me into what he thought a mother should be."

The laughter died. "But…" she continued, her voice broken, "he doesn't belong with me. I always knew that. He couldn't know it, but I knew it for him."

Rita sounded like she was talking to herself, her voice getting fainter by the minute. John, on the other hand, addressed Tommy directly. "Son, I never meant for you to have to choose between parents. I know this is what's making this choice so difficult. But… choosing between us does not mean you have to be alone."

A sharp pain seemed to be piercing through Tommy's chest. "But, Dad. If I leave Rita, who'd want me? After what I've done…" The pain grew sharper.

"Hold on for just a minute longer, Tommy." John's voice sounded urgent. "You've made the decision, I know it. It's going to hurt, and all this is going to go away."

Tommy stared away from his father, at Rita. She seemed like a chalk drawing in the rain, blurring and washing into nothing.

"But before you have to face all that," John said, "I want you to look behind you."

Tommy turned to look at the happy people he'd heard ever since he came to the park, now closer than ever. It wasn't the picnic of years ago, with the family before it had been broken. It was his… friends? Jason, Billy, Zack, Trini… Kimberly. They were laughing and talking, looking exactly as they had the first day Tommy had seen them. Periodically, they looked over at him and motioned him over, calling out to him.

"You've got to trust them," said John. "By now, they can help you more than I can. It's a hard path before you now, I'm not going to lie to you."

Tommy closed his eyes and smiled. "Since when have I had an easy life?"

He stood up and turned around.


 

"NNOOOO!" The scream ripped through the Moon Palace. Rita thrashed wildly on her bed, nearly falling off in her violent struggles.

"Hold her down!" Finster commanded, panic making him more forceful than he ever was.

Goldar and Scorpina obeyed him without question, Goldar grabbing her arms and Scorpina her feet. All eyes were wide with terror as Rita screamed in her sleep.

"DON'T LEAVE ME! COME BACK! I DIDN'T MEAN IT!"

Rita gave a violent shudder and then collapsed into stillness and silence.

Rather than look relieved at the seeming peace, Finster looked beside himself with fear. "I don't have the equipment here. I need to take her to my lab."

"I'm on it," Goldar said grimly, scooping her up and carrying her as carefully as he could. Finster followed as quickly as he could, setting Scorpina to gathering all the medicines he'd left in the bedroom.

"Set her on the table… good," Finster said as soon as he arrived in the lab. He pulled down diagnostic equipment. "Goldar, please attach those restraints to Queen Rita."

Goldar looked up sharply. "Are you telling me to imprison Empress Rita?"

"For her own safety," Finster said impatiently. "Just in case she starts convulsing again."

"Oh," Goldar said, and followed the order.

When that was done, Goldar left the room, knowing he was in the way in that crowded lab. He hovered outside the door, only letting Scorpina in. She joined him, and they stayed that way for half an hour.

Finally, Finster left the room, his expression unreadable, even to the people used to him. He seemed to be trying to figure out how to say something.

"Spit it out," Goldar growled, covering his fear with anger. "Is she…"

"She's alive," Finster announced, glad to have a way to begin. "She's in a deep recovery sleep, though. I'm not sure when she'll wake up."

"Have a guess?" Scorpina said.

Finster looked over at her rather crossly. "She'll wake up when she's recovered. That's for her body to decide, not me. She'll probably sleep all day at least. She's been through a lot in the past day. And now that it's happened…" He paused, but plowed on. "You should probably know that the spell's broken. Tommy is no longer under her control. The link has been severed completely."

"How do you know?" Goldar asked sharply.

Finster sighed. He always hated having to explain his processes. "Ever since the spell began, I've been monitoring both Queen Rita and Tommy quite closely. The spell, though magical, was easily detectable by a simple brain scan. It's not there anymore. So I would assume it's not there in Tommy's brain, either. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must get back to my patient. I'd like to run some more tests."

Goldar uttered a curse and stomped down the hallway into the throne room, Scorpina following him closely.

"It's those Power Rangers," Goldar growled. "They must have figured out a way to break the spell."

"But usually," Scorpina said reasonably, "it's one of the affected people…"

"We know it wasn't Empress Rita!" Goldar paced the room, his rage flaring. "And you can't tell me it was Tommy. He was too far gone into the spell to do anything like this. No, it was those Rangers and them keeping the two of them apart. So it's just a matter of recovering Tommy."

Scorpina closed her mouth. When Goldar was like this, he was impossible to argue with. "So what do you propose we do?"

Goldar was already at the telescope, twisting knobs that Scorpina could never hope to figure out. "I'm setting this thing to alert us the first minute Tommy's on Earth. They can't keep him locked up in the Command Center forever. And as soon as they let him go, we'll have him." Goldar grinned at the idea of wreaking revenge on the Power Rangers. "Those stupid teens will never know what hit them."


 

Tommy woke up. His throat was dry, but he couldn't move his arm to reach for a water glass.

"He's waking up," a voice called near his ear. A swish of silky hair brushed over his face. He tried to open his eyes, but they didn't seem to want to open.

"Finally," another voice said, more distant. "It's been half an hour."

"Water…" he croaked after several tries. A minute later, a gentle hand was holding his head up, and he felt blessedly cold water tipped down his throat.

His eyes opened, and Trini's features filled his vision.

His body froze against her touch. A voice seemed to scream in his head as he looked at the white lines against her throat, remnants of the cuts he himself had made.

She seemed to see the look in his eyes and let him go, backing away slowly. There were others in the room, other Rangers. All of them.

Before his eyes, flashes of memory played as clearly as his father's voice. Zack, as Tommy greeted him and Scorpina at the Youth Center. Trini glaring up at him, backhanding him across the face in fierce protection of a friend. Jason's eyes as he was betrayed trying to protect Tommy. Kimberly, tears standing in her eyes as she was publicly humiliated. And Billy… hanging from a chin-up bar…

The scream threatened to erupt from Tommy's own throat. He closed his eyes, grinding his hands into them, but the images wouldn't go away. They were burned into his mind, a mind that was thinking clearly for the first time in weeks.

He expected harsh words. He welcomed them. He wanted them to hurt him as much as he had hurt them. And he knew it wouldn't be enough.

After what he had done, how could he say he was sorry? What exactly would atone?

But he didn't get harsh words. The barrier was down, and he realized none of the Rangers were armed or morphed.

Jason's low voice broke the silence. "Is the spell broken, Tommy?"

Tommy swallowed hard. He felt like he would never be able to talk again, but he knew he had to. "Yes," he choked out, his voice faint and exhausted. "It's broken." He forced himself to look at the Rangers, knowing he would see the same things again and knowing he had to. "W… wha… what are you going to do to me?"


 

Jason didn't know when he'd seen anything so horrible as when he looked in Tommy's eyes. The pain… the palpable guilt in those eyes convinced him the spell was gone far more than any words from Tommy.

He looked around at the other Rangers. Their looks mirrored how he felt: pity and horror. He'd considered how Tommy would feel once the spell was broken, but the reality was far worse. He'd expected something dramatic… weeping or raving or self-mutilation. He'd expected to prevent suicide attempts.

But it was nothing like that. Nothing dramatic. No big displays. It was like Tommy was frozen in his own guilt and grief. It was silent pain and palpable fear. And that was worse than what Jason had imagined. And those words… 'what are you going to do to me?' haunted Jason. They had come out as a fearful whimper. Jason realized that breaking the spell was the easy part… for all of them.

Everyone seemed to be waiting on Jason to answer the question. He cleared his throat. "If you're ready, Tommy, Zordon wants to see you."

Tommy slowly pushed himself off the bed, and Jason had to force himself to keep from backing up. He wondered if he would ever forget how dangerous Tommy was to them. But he knew he had to show Tommy faith. It was the one thing Zordon had emphasized. If Tommy sensed they were afraid of him or thought he was still evil, Tommy were be apt to go back to his old ways. They just couldn't risk that.

Now that he was on his feet, however unsteadily, Tommy looked like he'd spent the night in a gutter. His hair stuck out wildly in all directions, matted into a tangled mass. He hadn't bathed in almost forty-eight hours, and he smelled it. He was still pale, and even though he'd been unconscious for half the night he looked like he hadn't slept in days. But that didn't seem to matter to Tommy. He nodded. "I'm ready."

Jason winced. It sounded like an announcement for readiness for the firing squad.

Tommy walked hesitantly out of the room. The partition was down, and he could see Zordon floating at the center of the room. Jason and Zack walked on either side of him. Jason didn't want to seem like they were guarding him, but he knew no one was fooled, Tommy included. There was showing faith, and then there was being stupid.

"Tommy!" Zordon called as they approached. "I'm glad to see you on your feet at last."

Tommy didn't say anything. He stood in the center of the room, surrounded by the Rangers. Again, the look of pain shot over Tommy's whole countenance. Jason wondered what he was seeing, what he was thinking about. How he remembered what he had done.

Finally, when the silence became unbearable, Tommy spoke up. "I… I remember what I did. Everything."

The electric statement charged the air, and all eyes were glued to him. He looked like he was fortifying himself for something, and Jason tensed, ready to react if needed. He'd be damned if he did all that work to save Tommy just to have him kill himself.

"I can't describe it," Tommy continued, half to Zordon and the others and half to himself. "It was like I was another person, but it was me the whole time. It's not like a dream. It's vivid. I did those things."

"That was how Rita engineered the spell," said Zordon. "She didn't want some puppet. She wanted you. Unfortunately, that means you have full knowledge of the events that took place."

Tommy nodded, as if that was what he expected to hear. "I know I have no right to ask anything of you. Not after what I did to all of you, and after what you did for me. But…" his voice choked, and his strength seemed to ebb. "I don't know what to do now."

Zordon always had an infuriating way of seeming to know everything you will say before you say it. This time was no different. "What you do now, Tommy, largely depends on yourself. You're no longer a slave to the spell. Your path is difficult from now on, as are all paths where one has to bear the consequences of things not of one's choice. But at least this path is your own, and no one else's. No one can choose your path for you anymore. So… what do you want to do?"

Tommy looked up sharply, surprised at something. "I… I want to make up for what I did. I know I can't. I know that. I've done too… But I want to try. I just don't know how."

Zordon smiled. "Let's look at more immediate goals. What do you want to do first?"

The words were out of Tommy's mouth immediately. "I need to see my father. I… I know it's dangerous right now for me to go to Earth. I know Rita's probably hunting for me. But I need to see my father." His mouth quirked up, almost in spite of himself. "And maybe not look and smell like a crazy hobo first."

There was silence, and then a laugh. It was Zack, and he looked like he was trying to control himself.

Jason smiled. The others started laughing at Zack failing to quit laughing. Tommy almost looked like he was about to join in… but a shadow passed over his face. He froze, lost in whatever memories had taken him now.

"Come on," Jason said, clapping Tommy on the shoulder. "I'll show you where you can clean up. Then we can plan from there."

Tommy almost flinched away from the touch, his eyes widened with surprise. Still, he followed Jason readily enough.

Jason showed him the shower room and waited, trying to convince himself he wasn't guarding the entrance. The shower was short, and Tommy walked out looking as if he were going through the motions mechanically. Perhaps it was more comfortable right then to shut down his brain.

However, in the middle of pulling on his shoes, Tommy stopped, frozen again, a million miles away.

"I gotta tell ya," Jason commented. "I really thought you were going to…" He stopped, the comment sounding worse than when he'd said it in his head.

"Kill myself?" Tommy supplied. He put his shoe on all the way and sat on the bench. It still seemed every word brought more pain, as if he didn't deserve to talk to Jason. "It crossed my mind, I won't lie to you, but not seriously."

Jason stared at him, not sure of what to say.

"Death seems an easy way out," Tommy continued. "It's probably not, but it seems that way. I… don't deserve an easy way out." He looked up at Jason. "I owe too many people too much. What right have I to escape?"

Jason held his gaze until it became too painful. He forced a smile. "Okay, let's get you over to your father's."

Tommy got up and started to leave the room. He stopped when Jason grabbed his shoulder.

"Tommy… I know this is going to be hard. But I'm going to help you through it: me and the others. You're not going to be alone."

A tear spilled down Tommy's face. He didn't say anything. Jason understood.

 

Chapter Text

"So…" Kimberly muttered to Zack. "What do you think?"

Zack didn't have to ask what she was talking about. Jason had just led Tommy out of the room, and the laughter had died awkwardly. Billy and Trini were, as usual, busy with some sort of technical whatever. Kimberly envied them. They could bury themselves in work. All she could do was sit and think.

"I dunno," Zack answered. "Seems like he's telling the truth. But that could be because we want him to be telling the truth."

"Zordon trusts him, though," Kimberly pointed out. "I think Zordon would be able to tell in a minute if he was lying."

Zack flashed her a smile. "Then we gotta trust Zordon."

Kimberly looked down and crossed her arms, lost in thoughts that weren't entirely about what they were supposed to be thinking: how to get Tommy down to Earth and back safely. She tried to center her brain on that, but the fact that Tommy had just been standing there… just minutes before… blocked out all those thoughts from her mind.

If she truly admitted the truth to herself, she had been dreading the moment when the spell was broken. She smiled grimly at turn of phrase. "Breaking the spell." It sounded so much like some fairy tale, like Beauty and the Beast, or the Frog Prince, or Grumble the Magic Elf. She'd always loved those stories when she was a child. She'd always thought they were so romantic. A handsome man falls under a witch's spell, and only the love of a beautiful princess could break the spell, and they would live happily ever after.

But it wasn't like that. Not in real life. There may be all the elements: handsome man, evil witch, spell… But it wasn't romantic. It wasn't a children's story. And from the look in Tommy's eyes, Kimberly doubted there would be a happily ever after. Not after everything he had done while under the spell.

And there was another thing… Kimberly hardly considered herself a beautiful princess—it had been years since she'd done so—but, still. Where did she fit in to all of this?

Nowhere, she told herself. She hadn't been but a minor part in Tommy's rehabilitation. It was hardly the love of a beautiful princess that had broken the spell, like it always was in the fairy tales. No "true love's kiss" or anything like that. And he wasn't even able to look at her, now. He wasn't able to look at anyone, really.

And her own feelings about Tommy?...

She supposed she hadn't suffered the most from Tommy's attacks. That dubious honor was reserved for Billy. But she still couldn't forget how he had made them all suffer. The days of worrying over Zordon. Waiting in the hospital for news of Billy. And all that time she'd been worrying about having a relationship with Tommy, wondering if she was just using him, and never expecting that it was the other way around.

Had she ever really met Tommy? She wasn't completely clear on when he'd been put under the spell. Had he only ever acted interested in her under Rita's orders, or for some sick game?

And would she truly ever be able to forgive him? Yes, she knew that he had been under an evil spell and not entirely in control of his own actions. But… He'd had his own mind. That meant that everything he'd done he was mentally capable of doing. How much was he himself when he was under Rita's thumb?

Trini had warned Kimberly early on. He's violent. He's untrustworthy. How much of that was the spell and how much of it was him?

But this scared her the most… what if he liked her still? What if he asked her out? What would she say?

Kimberly looked up, startled, as Jason and Tommy walked back in the room. "All right, guys," Jason said. "Planning time."

Kimberly set her face and shelved her concerns. There would be plenty of time to mull over her feelings later.


 

A crackle of energy, and six figures materialized in a secluded part of the park across from the hospital. They looked around quickly and found the place deserted. In such dangerous times, it seemed most people were staying out of the parks. Those were always the first to get attacked. It was a risk teleporting into this park, of course, but it offered the closest secluded place around.

"All right, guys," Jason said quickly. "Me and Zack are with Tommy. Remember, spread those gadgets quickly."

Billy handed Zack two of the "gadgets." "Put these dampeners on the wall of the hospital. Right now we're protected from teleportation and surveillance, but that will widen the area."

"Amazing…" Tommy commented.

Billy smiled. "Just an idea I adapted from those sticks of Rita's, only technical instead of magical. But remember: it inhibits our teleportation and communication as well as theirs."

"So don't take any risks," Jason said. "Okay, let's do it."

Jason, Zack, and Tommy walked to the hospital, fighting the urge to run. They'd come up with the best plan they could, but they all knew that Rita was watching carefully for any chance to capture Tommy back. But there was no helping it. After all, Tommy couldn't stay in the Command Center forever. Sooner or later they would have to address this problem, and Jason hoped that this excursion would help them solve the problem.

Tommy was especially nervous, Jason noted. And Jason knew why, in part. Before they'd gone back to the others, Tommy had formally and voluntarily surrendered his Power Coin to Jason. Tommy had insisted on it, saying that just in case he was recaptured then at least the green Power Coin would be in safe hands. That was, of course, the practical reason. The other reason was obvious. Tommy didn't feel he deserved the Power Coin.

Jason had told the others what they'd done, and thankfully no one made a big deal of it. Jason knew that it had been hard for Tommy to take that step, especially since it was completely up to Jason whether or not Tommy ever got to the Power Coin back, so he didn't want the others to make Tommy feel even worse about it.

Jason glanced at Tommy's haunted features. Was it even possible for Tommy to feel worse? If it was, it was a scary thought.

They passed through the front doors unharrassed, Zack slipping the dampeners on the wall behind some bushes. As they walked the corridors as quickly as they could, Jason noticed that Tommy was shaking slightly.

And still, there was a part of Jason that had to be cautious, that had to remember how dangerous Tommy was as a foe. This was the same part that had made sure that the two strongest fighters—Zack and himself—were there to guard Tommy. After all, if Tommy had somehow managed to trick everyone and was still under the spell, this would be a perfect opportunity to break free.

But still, Jason reminded himself. He'd surrendered his Power Coin. That couldn't have been part of an act.

"Mom!" an annoyed voice came around the corner. "I'm fine… I don't have to ride…"

"They said it's hospital policy, Genie," a woman's voice answered. "So sit down and quit putting up a fuss."

Tommy uttered a curse under his breath and ducked into a room before the arguing pair rounded the corner. Jason and Zack followed him, ready to restrain him if this was his plan… but Tommy simply flattened himself against the wall, hiding. Jason and Zack ducked out of sight to avoid answering questions, because they recognized one of the voices. It was Skull.

The three caught a glimpse of Skull as the pair went by. Other than looking paler than normal, which was saying a lot, he looked fine. The same could not be said for Tommy, though.

"Dude," Zack muttered as they disappeared down the corridor. "Don't do that again. You scared me to death."

"S-s-sorry," Tommy said. "I…" But he couldn't finish. He was still looking down the hallway where Skull and his mother had disappeared.

"You're gonna have to face all that sooner or later," Jason said. "And what's important is there's no lasting damage. You saw him… he's fine."

"I know," Tommy said. "I… I know I'm going to face everything. But… one at a time? I… can't…"

He looked like he was going to break down, but he visibly mastered himself and nodded shortly, signaling that he was ready to move on.

The remaining walk was uneventful. Jason had his senses primed for any sign that something was wrong, but everything was peaceful. Nurses and patients passed them, and there were several people visiting since it was a Saturday, but there was nothing that indicated they were being watched or followed.

Jason knew there was really no way Rita could know where they were. But after the past few weeks, he'd decided never to underestimate her.

They arrived at the door. Tommy hesitated, his eyes wide with emotion, and then entered the room as if he was diving into it. Jason held Zack back. Despite any doubts he had, Jason knew this was a time when Tommy deserved his privacy.


 

The dampeners were spread to Billy's satisfaction. Now with nothing to do but wait and watch, Billy had pulled out a travel chessboard from his bag, and he and Trini were now deep in a game.

"I don't see how you guys can concentrate on that," Kimberly commented. She had a magazine on her lap, but she had barely glanced at it. She kept looking around nervously instead.

Trini moved a pawn. "Concentrating on something else keeps you from worrying." She glanced up as Billy was studying the board. "If you want, we can teach you how to play. That'll give you something else to think about."

Kimberly waved her hands. "Oh, no. I never play any games with Billy. He beats me at Monopoly every single time. I don't know how he does it, but I'm not playing him at anything that he already knows more about already."

"He cheats," Trini commented.

"Huh?"

"At Monopoly. I've seen him do it."

Billy looked up. "What? I wasn't listening."

Trini smiled. "Nothing, Billy. Now make your move already."

Billy looked back at the board and made a move that probably wasn't the best. Truth was, he absolutely couldn't concentrate. He'd just brought out the game to distract himself, but it wasn't working. He just couldn't keep his brain from thinking and worrying.

The entire plan was riding on him, he knew. The dampeners had been something he'd come up with while they were breaking the spell on Tommy. They weren't perfect, though. While they did inhibit Rita from teleporting anyone in or out, they also prevented the Rangers from doing the same. They'd either have to deactivate the dampeners—now difficult since they were so widely spread—or leave the dampening field. Billy had calculated the edge of the field to be the far side of the park. The plan was that once Jason and Zack brought Tommy back down, they'd go with him to edge and quickly teleport him out, hopefully before Rita noticed anything… or at least before she could do anything about it. Then Billy, Trini, and Kimberly would collect the dampeners and teleport back up.

The problem, too, was that the dampeners prevented communication. They had no real way to know if the three in the hospital were in trouble. They'd just have to trust that everything was going to plan.

Billy was also distracted with the idea that Tommy was up there with his father. Billy had kept his promise, and he wondered how their reunion was going. He had really wanted to escort Tommy to the hospital himself, but he knew he could help Tommy better by protecting him with the dampeners.

The spell was broken. It was almost unreal. They had actually done it. Though, Billy knew it was Tommy who had done most of the work. He was the one who had broken the spell. Billy had just… reminded him of why he needed to break the spell. Gave him a push in the right direction.

That still made him slightly sick to his stomach, though. While he and Zack had thought the answering machine tape was a brilliant idea—indeed, it was the only idea—Billy still couldn't imagine what kind of night Tommy had gone through. Billy had listened to the tape. He'd had to, since he had to prepare it. The things said on there… it was almost like a voice from the grave. He imagined it was like seeing old photographs of his own father… sweet and painful at the same time. Then add on the oppressive guilt? It was a wonder Tommy kept it together like he did.

Though Billy wondered what would happen when there were no more plans or immediate danger. When Tommy was alone with himself finally. That… would not be pleasant, Billy imagined.

"Um… Billy?"

Billy glanced up. "I'll make my move in a minute, Trini," he said testily.

"It's… not that," Trini said quietly.

Billy followed Trini's and Kimberly's gazes. The figures were across the road, barely visible, but there was no mistaking that distinctive way of moving. Putties. And lots of them.

"I suggest we postpone the game for another time," Billy said, getting up.

"I couldn't concentrate on the game, anyway," Trini admitted with a smile.

Kimberly was checking her pocket to make sure her Power Morpher was there, a reflex they'd all become conditioned to. "How do you think Rita figured out we were here?"

"She must have been watching for any signs we were hiding something from her," Billy said. "Or she couldn't have been watching the hospital, as that was the most logical place… the place Tommy would want to go to the most."

"Well, whatever it was," Trini said, "we can't let them get past us to search for Tommy. We can hold them off until the others join us."

"Sounds like a plan," Kimberly said.

In a moment, the Putties were on them, and the three Rangers launched themselves into battle.


 

Tommy pulled himself off his father's chest, his face streaked and a small headache growing. He'd barely even spoken to his father. His father had been sitting in a chair next to his bed, reading a novel and entirely unaware someone had entered the room. As soon as Tommy stood in front of his father, John had thrown the novel down and pulled Tommy down into a fierce hug. Neither spoke or noticed the passage of time, but just held each other.

Tommy now sat on the side of the bed, knowing his father couldn't stand for long but not feeling right for standing up. "I… I'm not sure if I can explain…" he said haltingly. Ever since he knew he was going to see his father, he'd been rehearsing what he'd say. He didn't want to lie, but he couldn't tell the truth. It involved the secrets of too many others. And now the half-truth stories just sounded lame.

"I knew Billy could do it," John exulted. "When I saw you on the news, I worried, but I shouldn't have."

Tommy's breath seemed to freeze in his chest. "Dad… wha…?"

"The spell's broken, right?" John asked eagerly. "You're free now?"

Tommy worked his mouth, but nothing came out.

John laughed at his son's expression. "I didn't realize Billy wouldn't tell you how much I knew, or I would have handled that a little better. I shouldn't have surprised you like that."

"But… Dad…" Tommy said slowly, "Billy told you I was…?"

John waved his hands. "No, of course not. But you're dad's no dope. It was easy enough to piece together."

Tommy felt his face break into a smile. It felt unnatural. "You've been listening at doors again, Dad."

"It's a bad habit, I know," John said happily. Then he sobered quickly. "Tommy… I'm sorry. I'm just so happy to have my son back that I can't help but feel happy." He paused. "Tommy… how are you doing?"

Tommy looked away quickly, knowing his emotions were plainly displayed on his face. "I… I…" He buried his face in his hands. "Dad… it's like I can't function anymore. I've done such… horrible…" Again, the scenes played in front of his eyes, interspersed with the voice of his father from the tape. The father who thought he'd been abandoned, who hadn't yet known what his son was doing. "I don't know what to do," he said in a small voice.

John grabbed Tommy's hand a held it tight. It was as if physical contact could somehow give strength, and Tommy was again ashamed. John had so little strength to spare already.

"Tommy," John said, "it's not going to be easy. I would take this burden from you in a heartbeat, but I can't. But I have faith in you. I always have. I have faith that you will choose what is best… for you and for others."

Tommy realized tears were running down his face again, and he wiped them away impatiently.

John smiled. "Son, you've been given a great opportunity to do good."

"Yeah?" Tommy said. "What's that?"

John crinkled his brow. "Tommy, you do understand I know that you're the Green Ranger," he said in a low voice, just in case anyone could overhear.

"Not anymore," Tommy said dully. "I gave the power up. I've… done too much bad with it."

John squeezed Tommy's hand tighter. "And you're just going to leave it at that?"

"What else can I do?"

John didn't say anything, but his gaze burned into Tommy until Tommy understood exactly what his father was thinking.

"Dad, that's ridiculous," Tommy said. "Those powers are evil. And… how exactly could I be a Power Ranger… after what I've done to them."

"Again," John said, "I'm not saying it will be easy. I'm saying it's an opportunity that shouldn't be dropped lightly."

Tommy sighed, knowing that his father would never understand what it would mean to take up those powers again. "I'll… think about it." He smiled, again feeling the expression unnatural. "I gotta say, it's a relief that you know. I honestly didn't know what I was going to say to you."

They talked more, Tommy barely noting what they said. He was still exulting in being in his father's presence and feeling guilty for feeling so happy. As John grew paler, Tommy helped him into bed, drawing comfort from the familiar routine.

"I know you have to go soon," John said. "I know you're probably still in danger."

"You're not wrong," Tommy said. "When did the doctor say you could leave?"

"Wednesday… if all goes well." John smiled. "And I think all is going to go well now."

The door opened, and a nurse pulled in a cart for John's lunch. John looked up in confusion. "Isn't Becky supposed to be on duty?" he asked the nurse.

Tommy looked up at the nurse—a tall, beautiful woman whose scrubs barely hid her warrior's physique usually encased in armor. Tommy backed away, his mind going into panic.

The woman smirked and held out her hand. "Come on, Tommy. It's time to go."

John instantly understood what was going on. "You STAY away from my son!"

Scorpina did not take her eyes away from Tommy, but she addressed John. "Stay out of this, old man. This doesn't concern you."

"Like hell it doesn't," John growled.

The door burst open, and Jason and Zack rushed into the room. "Back off!" Jason shouted.

Scorpina rolled her eyes. "Tommy, you're making this difficult. Now, I don't know what the Rangers did to break that spell, but we've let you have your visit with your father. Now that that's out of your system, it's time to go home."

Tommy's eyes widened, and he laughed for the first time in days. "Home? What, are you kidding me? You do realize I was under an evil spell, don't you, Scorpina?"

This time Scorpina looked shocked. "Tommy… think about what you're doing. Do you really want to fight me?"

Tommy cocked his head. "Now, there's a thought." On the last word, he attacked.

"No!" Zack shouted, starting forward.

Scorpina, smirking easily all the while, dodged Tommy fastest punch and grabbed him by the neck. She lifted him off the ground. He clawed at her fingers, but he couldn't move them. In the meantime, his face began to turn blue.

"Try it, Rangers," Scorpina laughed. "Just try to attack me now, and Tommy dies right here."

Jason and Zack froze. They weren't sure if she would follow through on her threat, but the look of fear on Tommy's father's face was enough to hold them back.

"Now, Tommy," Scorpina said in a semblance of calm. "Let's get one thing perfectly clear. You're no match for me. You've never been a match for me. So if you want to keep that pretty neck of yours intact, you'll do as I say."

Tommy wanted to say plenty to that, but the crushing pressure on his throat stopped all retorts.

Scorpina looked over her shoulder at the two fuming Rangers and gave them a teasing wave. "Bye, now."

Before anyone could react, Scorpina threw both herself and Tommy through the window.


 

Jason and Zack rushed forward to look past the broken glass. Scorpina was on the ground, dragging Tommy by the throat to the park. Past them, a battle raged between the other Rangers and Goldar, Clown Man, a rejuvenated Pop Star, and more Putties than they had ever seen.

Jason berated himself at being caught off guard like this. He hadn't recognized Scorpina in the scrubs, and hadn't thought Rita would be that subtle. If Tommy was recaptured now, it was his fault.

"Well?" Tommy's father yelled from his bed. "What are you waiting for? Go after them!"

Jason knew in an instant that the drop from the window was unsafe for a human… but John now knew they were Power Rangers anyway. "It's morphin time!" he cried, and they morphed and began the pursuit.

By the time they'd gotten to the ground, Tommy had thrown himself sideways, disengaging Scorpina's hold on him. He ran, Scorpina pursued, and Jason and Zack had enough time to get between them.

"You want him, Scorpina?" Jason said. "Try and go through us first."

Scorpina smirked. "Not a problem."

As she charged, Jason met the attack while Zack did as planned: he backed off, grabbed Tommy's arm, and started running for the road, where he could teleport Tommy to safety. Scorpina screamed at the trick, but Jason was keeping her too busy to do anything about it.

"You okay?" Zack shouted as they ran.

Tommy was gasping for breath but was somehow keeping up. "Yeah… fine. She did… just like… I thought… she would," he gasped.

Zack laughed. "You mean you meant for her to throttle you?"

"Got her away from my dad, didn't it?"

Zack laughed again, but was cut short when something knocked against him, throwing him to the ground before he could react and bringing Tommy down with him. The blue monster Pop Star towered over the two. It slowly reached for Tommy.

With a growl, Zack drew his Power Axe and swung, landing a perfect blow right across the monster's face. Sparks flew, and the monster grasped its face in pain. Through the fingers they could see an ugly slash marring the perfect blue skin.

"Come on!" Zack yelled. He ached to stay and fight, but he knew his job was to get Tommy out of danger first.

Tommy was already on the move, and Zack kept pace with him. Unfortunately, their path had been diverted to the center of the battle.

"Going somewhere, Black Ranger?" the mocking voice of Goldar called to him.

Zack felt the ground beneath him explode. He and Tommy flew through the air and landed hard on the ground amid a mass of Putties.

They struggled to their feet and fought with everything they had in them, all the time keeping an eye out for a chance to get to the boundary of the dampening field. All they saw was gray. Zack could, of course, fight Putties all day as long as he was morphed, but Tommy was starting to falter. Apparently the fall from the window had taken more out of him than he let on.

Amid the gray, there were flashes of color, and Putties flew off them. Tommy and Zack suddenly found themselves surrounded by the other Rangers. They all formed a barrier between Tommy and the villains, and the park had become more of a divided battlefield.

Unfortunately, the way past the dampening field was blocked by said villains.

"Scorpina tells me you've turned traitor, Tommy," Goldar called in an unreadable voice. "Is that true?"

There was silence. Each side seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move.

"You should know the spell's broken," Tommy answered after a pause. His voice was hoarse from the throttling Scorpina had given him. "Or, at least Emp… At least Rita should know."

Scorpina had been mocking. Goldar wasn't. He was dead serious. "We are not following Empress Rita's orders at present. She's been unconscious ever since early this morning. We're… not sure when she's going to wake up."

The others felt Tommy tense, but he didn't answer.

"Power Rangers," Goldar turned his attention to the group surrounding Tommy. "You are outnumbered and severely handicapped by having to protect that traitor. Give him to us, and we'll leave peaceably. Don't… and we'll start attacking buildings. And looks like the most convenient one is that hospital over there."

"They wouldn't," Billy said.

"They would," Tommy answered grimly.

"I give you three minutes to decide," said Goldar. "And after we have Tommy back, we'll arrange for the green Power Coin as well."

The Rangers as one moved back, still on their guard against the Goldar and the others.

"Okay, guys," Jason said. "Goldar, Scorpina, two improved monsters, and more Putties than I can count. Doesn't look good."

"And all of them between us and the boundary," Trini said. "Billy, what are the chances of bringing down the dampening field?"

"Not good either," answered Billy. "And I can't tell you where the other boundary is… the one past the hospital."

Kimberly shook her head. "No good running into the hospital either. They'll just chase after us and start attacking patients."

"Wait…" Zack said. "If Rita's unconscious, who's powering all the monsters and the Putties? Doesn't that come out of her power?"

"They must be using emergency power," Tommy said, his voice calmer than it had been all day now that there was a fight. "It won't last forever, though. They've got to be seriously taxing it to power that many."

"We could outlast them," Kimberly volunteered. "Keep them fighting until their power runs out."

Jason nodded his head. "Good plan… but still risky with Tommy around here. We can protect the hospital, but not while we're still protecting you."

Tommy was staring off in the distance, almost like he was mapping the land. "You don't have to. Just keep the big monsters away from me for a few minutes, and I can make it to the boundary."

"What?" They couldn't see Zack's expression past the mask, but they could easily imagine that he was looking at Tommy like he was crazy. "We tried that, and it was impossible. Even if we keep Goldar, Scorpina, and those crazy monsters away from you, you still have to deal with a crapload of Putties."

"Putties I can handle," Tommy said grimly. "Look, Goldar isn't giving us much of a choice. If I can get to the Command Center, maybe he'll retreat to save power. In any case, I'm endangering everyone just by being here. You guys can't fight while you're trying to protect me."

"Times up, Rangers!" Goldar called. "What's it going to be?"

Tommy looked at Jason, wishing he could see the Ranger's expression.

"We're waiting!" Scorpina yelled. "Make a decision, already!"

Jason gave Tommy a short nod. "We'll cover you. Run fast, and don't get too involved with fighting. They all want you, after all."

Billy stuffed something into Tommy's hand. "Use this when you got to the other side."

Tommy looked down. It was a wrist communicator. He clapped it onto his wrist with shaking fingers.

They all turned as one. "We've decided," Jason said, "that without Tommy you guys all suck, and we can take you all down easy."

"What?" Goldar growled.

"That hurt your feelings?" Zack taunted. "Wanna do something about it, Goldenrod?"

Jason ran to meet Goldar's attack, their swords clanging as they crashed into each other. In a flash the battle was on.

Kimberly met with Scorpina's attacks, matching blow for blow. She grinned. If she was honest with herself, she'd wanted to fight Scorpina ever since she found out she was the one making out with Tommy at the party.

That left Billy, Zack, and Trini to face the two monsters.

"I've already fought the clown monster," Zack complained. "One of you guys take him."

Billy looked nervously at the monster, who'd been reciting dirty limericks all through the battle. "I'd rather stick with the blue monster. I've fought it before…"

"Oh, for Pete's sake!" Trini yelled in exasperation. "I'll take the clown, and you guys take the Smurf, if you're going to be difficult about it."

"Thanks, Trini!" they called in unison, running at Pop Star.

Trini shook her head wearily and faced the clown monster. "Honestly, they're being ridiculous. You're not so bad."

The clown was balancing on a rubber ball that had a hazardous chemical sign on the side. "There once was a man from Nantucket…"

"Oh, shut up!" Trini drew her Power Daggers and started the fight.

In the meantime, Tommy paused long enough for all attention to be pulled away from him. He wrapped his hand around the communicator, feeling the comforting weight of it on his wrist. The band was green. Tommy decided not to worry about what that meant yet.

He broke into a run, barreling past the Putties. They seemed confused, and Tommy wondered if they realized he was the enemy now. They were used to following his orders. "Back off!" he yelled at some of them, and they moved back to let him through. He grinned and kept running. Leave it to Goldar to miss a detail like that.

"Damn it!" Tommy heard Scorpina yell. "He's getting away!"

Goldar looked away from his battle with the Red Ranger long enough to see Tommy's bid for escape and the Putties' reactions. Goldar was promptly knocked down by the Red Ranger, but he was far more concerned with fulfilling their mission. "Putties! Capture Tommy!"

Tommy cursed under his breath, knowing that Goldar's orders had always trumped his own. He had covered a little more than half of the distance to the boundary, though. As long as he didn't get sidetracked, and as long as the Rangers kept the big players busy, he had a shot.

The noise of the other battle grew more distant, but Tommy didn't turn around to look, even though any second he expected Goldar's sword to go swooping in front of him. For once, he wasn't thinking of all the wrong he'd done as the Green Ranger. He was only thinking of the goal, and the surrounding Putties were mere annoyances. His mind was perfectly clear and calm, a frame of mind that made opponents almost move in slow motion. The pain around his neck where Scorpina had choked him, and the pain in his arm where Zack had almost wrenched it out of socket in the explosion… all that pain faded into nothing.

Fifty more feet. He flipped himself over a group of five Putties, leaving them looking around wildly for him. Forty more feet. He landed a roundhouse kick on a Puttie's head so hard that the head twisted around completely. Thirty more feet. He was starting to feel the blows, but he didn't slacken his pace. He kept moving, throwing off the Putties' attempts to restrain him. Twenty more feet. Ten. Five…

As soon as he neared the road, he starting punching the communicator desperately, wanting to teleport to the Command Center before Finster had a chance to teleport him to the Moon Palace. He ducked and rolled under the outstretched arms of one last group of Putties, punched his communicator, and finally felt the blessed tingle of teleportation. He held his breath… and landed in the Command Center.


 

Finster breathed a sigh of relief. Tommy was out of it.

He turned sharply to Rita, still lying on the table in the center of his lab. It would be unfortunate if she found out… but she was still completely asleep. Still healing.

"Honestly, it was unfair of Goldar to imply that she wouldn't wake up to Tommy," Finster said to himself. "I wonder, though, if Tommy even cares now."

Absently, Finster pressed a button, bringing Billy's dampening field down easily. It was admirable technology, but Billy was still only a teenager, and it showed, Finster mused. Still, it was convenient to let on to Goldar that the technology was better than it really was.

Finster glanced again at Rita. Goldar didn't seem to be ready to let Tommy go. He wondered if Rita would be, once she woke up.

 

Chapter Text

Billy's wrist beeped as he and Zack tried to match speeds with Pop Star. He stared at the device in shock. "I… read you?"

"Billy!" Alpha's squeaky voice came over the speaker. "We have Tommy safe and sound here, but the dampeners mysteriously went down."

Billy put in a burst of speed and caught Pop Star with a Power Lance. "We'll figure it out later! They did what they meant to, anyway."

Across the battlefield, Goldar and Scorpina seemed to have just noticed the absence of their prime objective.

"Don't bother checking at the Moon Palace," Jason taunted. "He's at the Command Center, and that's where he's gonna stay until you get it through your thick skull that he doesn't want to be your slave anymore."

Goldar was fuming. "So you've got him nice and locked up. Seems to be he doesn't have a choice in the matter."

They had stopped fighting, and gradually all the other combatants caught on. They watched Jason and Goldar, weapons forgotten at their sides.

"You're not giving him a choice!" Jason shouted. "You're not even following Rita's orders, and she's the one who actually put him under the spell in the first place. Seems like you're pissed that he's abandoned you, and you're trying to get your pal back. And it seems like you don't understand that Tommy was a slave. Any ties he had to you were broken with the spell, and you just need to get used to that. Tommy is good now; get over it."

Goldar rumbled in laughter, a sound that put everyone on edge. "Red Ranger… you think you know so much about life, about other people. How old are you… 15? 16? I have lived for millennia. You consider yourself a leader, but you're a leader of a group of teenagers on a tiny, pre-space travel world in the ass-end of the galaxy. You're a pawn in a larger game, a game Zordon knows only too well but will never reveal to you. Have you even considered how many times you've almost died in the past few days for a cause that you don't even understand?" He laughed bitterly. "I have seen horrors that would keep you from sleeping ever again. I have seen the way of the galaxy, and I've seen the good and noble cut down like grass. Empress Rita gave Tommy an avenue to power, a way to achieve his full potential. And you've stolen that from him."

The battlefield was dead silent. Even the Putties had stopped their gibbering to see the silent battle between Goldar and Jason.

"I know one thing," Jason said quietly, yet it echoed throughout the battlefield. "I know it's wrong to force someone to fight a battle they did not choose."

"And Zordon gave you a choice before binding that Power Coin to you, did he?"

Jason ignored the remark. "I also know it's wrong to hurt people. That's what we do: we protect the people of Earth."

Goldar nodded mockingly. "Yes… yes… I see your point. Speaking of, I believe there's a promise I have to keep." He looked over his shoulder. "Scorpina, would you do the honors?"

Scorpina gave an exaggerated sigh. "I thought you'd never stop yammering."

Jason was suddenly in a panic. "Guys! Get between them and the hospital!"

The Rangers broke from their positions and ran to form a barrier.

Scorpina tossed her hair in excited anticipation. She drew two small grenade-shaped devices out of her armor, pulled out the tabs, and threw them at the feet of Clown Man and Pop Star. Steam gushed from grenades and encased the monsters… and the smoky area was getting bigger.

"Uh, guys?" Kimberly said. "Looks like they can grow without Rita's help."

Scorpina surveyed her work admiringly. Then she gave a twist and grew herself, her body morphing to the hideous scorpion monster. "All right, boys!" she screamed in glee. "Let's get to work!"

The Rangers had already begun calling their Zords, the machines showing up in lightning speed. It was possibly the fastest they'd ever combined their Zords. Soon, the MegaZord faced against Scorpina, Clown Man, and Pop Star.

"Oh, no! Look!" Trini screamed as they prepared their first attack. She was pointing to the ground.

They all looked at the ground at once. Goldar was moving slowly yet steadily toward the hospital, completely ignoring the Zord and monsters towering over him.

"Should we…" Zack said hesitantly, "I dunno… squash him?"

Billy shook his head. "Wouldn't he just teleport before the foot descended? He might teleport directly into the hospital."

"He might even be going for Tommy's dad," Kimberly said. "I mean, he might be out for revenge or something. Didn't he call Tommy a traitor?"

"Or just to lure Tommy back down by threatening his dad," said Jason. "Zack, you'll have to take the controls again. I'll go down and keep Goldar busy while you take care of these creeps."

Before anyone could respond, Jason threw himself out of the cockpit and landed on the ground, right in front of Goldar.

"I was hoping you'd be back," Goldar said.

Jason dropped down into a stance. "You know I don't like to disappoint." He barely had time to counter as Goldar sliced the air with his sword.

The clangs of swords could barely be heard over the raging giant battle overhead. The town sirens blared, the loudspeakers urging emergency evacuation. Yet Jason knew the hospital could do no evacuations. While some patients were healthy enough to move, there were so many who weren't, and the hospital staff had to stay with them. Jason knew he had to keep Goldar away from the building, and the other Rangers aboard the MegaZord had the added challenge of keeping three monsters away. And from what he could see of the battle overhead, the MegaZord was doing the best it could just to keep up with the monsters.

"You know," Jason commented, "Tommy told us that you guys are probably on emergency power. Don't you think this attack is wasteful?"

"We have…" Goldar grunted as Jason found a weak spot in his armor with his foot, "more than enough power to finish you pathetic Power Rangers."

Jason laughed a false laugh. "And you accuse us of using the same lines over and over again. You're just being so classic villain today, Goldar. You've monologued, you've said 'pathetic'… What's next, 'accursed?'"

Out of nowhere, Goldar's sword thrust forward with what seemed like all the strength Goldar possessed. It caught Jason square in the middle, where he'd left himself unprotected. Jason felt the shielding around him weaken at the blow as it knocked the wind out of him. He felt like his stomach had caved in to meet his back, and the entire area was black where the meeting of sword and shield had created sparks. Jason was sure the skin underneath was black and blue as well.

"You might want to pay attention to the fight, Red Ranger," Goldar said in a deadly voice. "You remember what happened last time when I gave you a blow like that. And a few more like that, and your precious powers won't keep you from dying the horrible death you should have suffered last time."

Jason gasped violently, clutching his middle and trying to struggle to his feet. He didn't need Goldar to remind him of that fight. He remembered. It was enough to keep him up at night, enough to make him jump at the mere mention of Goldar's name. Before, he had been so concerned with protecting Tommy that he hadn't thought about that fight. Now… the old fear came creeping back into his veins.

"I think," Jason said, pulling himself upright, "that you're crazy if you think you can beat me. You've already had to send your Putties back to save power. Soon it'll be the monsters, and you and Scorpina will have to turn tail and run… like always. If there's anything you know how to do, it's to retreat." Jason raised his sword, trying to keep it from shaking. "I may not know much about the galaxy, oh wise man, but I can't imagine there'd be a bigger coward anywhere else in the universe."

Goldar shook his head in amusement. "You certainly have a death wish, Red Ranger." He raised his sword and attacked again… and Jason fought to keep up with the fight.


 

Above, the MegaZord wasn't faring much better. The Rangers were keeping up with the monsters, but just barely. As soon as they countered one attack, two more would be on their way. They seemed to be little more than a physical barrier between the monsters and the hospital. Their one accomplishment was moving the battle to the far end of the park.

"Shields at 40%!" Trini said.

"Billy!" Zack moved the right arm to counter two blows at once. "What can you do about those shields?! Without 'em, we're history!"

Billy was holding onto his panel, trying to do delicate operations as the cockpit shook violently. "Not much! Much of this circuitry is fried! We haven't fully recovered from the last fight, after all!"

"I'm boosting the power to the shields!" Kimberly said. "But we're going to lose servo control a little, so keep us on or feet, Zack!"

The entire MegaZord rocked, weaving drunkenly at the sudden change in power. "Maybe you'd like to drive, Kim?" Zack shouted as he tried to compensate. Before, Zack had always wanted to pilot the MegaZord. Now… he sort of wished Jason was back in the front seat and all he had to worry about was equilibrium.

Scorpina, in the meantime, danced around the flailing MegaZord as they struggled to keep upright. "You'll need to watch yourself, Rangers!" she shouted in glee. "It'd be a shame to fall on the very building you're trying to protect."

Zack growled and finally got them upright, engaging Scorpina in close combat. "How's the Mega Sword charging, Kim? We could sure use that right about now."

Kimberly was holding on to her console just to keep upright as the cockpit shook. "Not good. We're having to pour all our energy just to fend those three off. The MegaZord is just not enough to take on those three."

Zack really didn't want to admit it, but she was right. Even if they had Jason's more experienced hand at the wheel, the only chance they really had was to outlast their opponent in power… and that didn't seem likely.


 

Tommy paced the Command Center's main control area. The battles were playing out right before his eyes, and from the looks of it the Rangers were losing, slowly but surely. It made him sick that this would be a sight that, just yesterday, would have made him rejoice. He remembered the party Rita had thrown at the Rangers' first decisive loss.

Even the pleasant memories from his time under the spell were… tainted.

The rest of the Command Center was still. Alpha was at a console, nervously monitoring the MegaZord's status. Zordon, as usual, floated serenely above, only an expression of concern marring the effect.

"How can you stand this?" Tommy demanded. "How can you stand just watching the battle… and not being able to do anything about it?"

Zordon's face betrayed a bitter smile. "I have grown used to inaction, to allowing others to do the fighting. Yet… it gets no easier."

Tommy glanced up at Zordon, realizing he'd said something extremely insensitive. It sort of reminded him of his father… once active and strong, and now almost held prisoner in a body that constantly betrayed him and held him back. "Sorry…" he whispered. He wondered how many times he'd have to say that word. Not enough times, he realized.

"Ay-yi-yi, Zordon! At this rate, the MegaZord can't last much longer!"

"Alpha, transfer some reserve power to the MegaZord from the Morphing Grid," Zordon answered. "Be cautious, though. We do not want to overload the MegaZord's engines."

The effect was instantaneous. On the Viewing Globe, the MegaZord knocked aside monsters with renewed fury. Yet Tommy knew it couldn't be enough. It wasn't a matter of power, but of logistics. The MegaZord just couldn't handle three high-powered opponents at once.

The Viewing Globe flashed to Jason's fight. Jason was obviously at a disadvantage. Tommy could tell he was overly cautious in his fighting, whereas Goldar seemed to be in some sort of berserker rage.

They're going to lose. The words hammered in Tommy's brain. They're going to lose… because of me.

He knew Goldar. Goldar was not going to give up easily. Yes, he had retreated in the past, but usually only at Rita's orders. And those were for impersonal battles.

"We are comrades in war. That is a connection I do not take lightly."

Goldar did not think in terms of spells or anything magical like that. He sucked at magic, anyway. He had accepted Tommy, and Tommy had turned from him. While Tommy knew there was no other way, that he had to break ties with Goldar… he also understood Goldar. Goldar considered himself betrayed, or he thought the Rangers had stolen him away.

He had to make sure Goldar knew that he couldn't get him back. Not ever.

"I have to help them," he heard himself saying. "I… I can't just sit by and watch them fight… and possibly die… for me. Not when I can help. Not when I can maybe stop everything."

"Tommy," the voice of Zordon broke into Tommy's reverie, startling him. "Are you in earnest? Do you wish to help the Rangers? Do you… wish to fight against Rita and her minions?"

Tommy closed his eyes, knowing what he was committing to. Knowing what he would have to sacrifice. "Yes."

There was a flash of what felt like static in his hand, and he felt something cold and hard settle into his palm. He looked down. His Power Morpher.

"Jason gave this to me for safekeeping," Zordon said. "It was wise of you to give it up, but now you are showing greater wisdom.”

Tommy's hand clenched around the Power Coin, a thrill of excitement and fear going through his body. It was his now, for better or worse.


 

Jason felt himself wearing down with each blow. He tried to keep up, but Goldar was a whirlwind of rage and strength. A particularly strong blow, and Jason's sword went flying. Goldar's sword came swiping down, cruel and inevitable. Jason raised his arms in a last ditch effort of defense…

A clang rent the air, and Goldar's sword was stopped by another. Jason was, for the first time, glad to see the Green Ranger standing above him.

"Jason," Tommy said calmly, "you can join the MegaZord if you wish. I'll take care of Goldar."

Jason looked from Tommy to Goldar, noting the increased fury seething off the golden warrior. "You sure you don't need any help?"

"Not entirely," Tommy admitted, "but the other Rangers need you more, I think."

Jason knew that Tommy was right, that the MegaZord was only truly effective with five pilots. He ran toward the MegaZord and jumped into the slipstream, taking him straight to the cockpit.

"Jason!" the other four shouted, looking up from their frantic tasks.

"Man, am I glad to see you!" Zack said, relinquishing the front seat. "How bad did you beat Goldar? I couldn't even watch!"

"Not at all," Jason admitted. "Tommy's fighting him now."

"Tommy?"

"As the Green Ranger?"

Jason waved away the general exclamations. "The only way Tommy could have gotten his Power Coin back was if Zordon gave it to him. He's here to help…" Jason surveyed the three monsters facing him. "And we need all the help we can get."


 

On the ground below, Tommy and Goldar faced off, weapons at the ready and bodies tensed for the beginning of the fight.

"You've got your powers back," Goldar commented. "Now that you've achieved that, do you think you're finally ready to come back?"

"No," said Tommy. "Not ever, Goldar. I'm sorry, but it's impossible. I can't serve Rita anymore."

"So you're going to become a Power Ranger?" Goldar said mockingly. "Going to join the team and play puppet to that fool Zordon?" Goldar's voiced tensed. "You going to fight against us?"

"Still planning on conquering Earth?" Tommy said. "Goldar, that was something I never really understood… something that Rita kept me from understanding. We're talking about my homeworld. What would you do?"

"My homeworld has been destroyed so long ago it's barely a memory," Goldar answered. "And don't give me that altruistic crap. Why are you really doing this? Why are you betraying us?"

"I can't believe you're talking about betrayal…"

"We were comrades…"

"YOU BETRAYED ME!" The accusation seemed to be wrenched from Tommy's very soul, in a place he'd kept hidden not just since that morning, but it seemed for weeks. "Yes, we were comrades. Goldar, you're the closest friend I've ever had. And you knew I was under a spell. You knew what it was doing to me! You knew it was killing me! And you… did… nothing." He laughed bitterly. "And you want me to go back to being a slave. What is it, for your convenience?"

Goldar's sword was trembling, but his voice remained steady. "I think… you have a warped way of seeing things, Tommy. But hear me now: if you fight me, there is no going back."

Tommy smiled tightly. "Glad to hear you say that. But there's just one thing I have to do before I do fight you." From seemingly thin air, where all the Rangers hid their weapons, Tommy drew the Dragon Dagger. Placing it to his mouthpiece, he blew the triumphant trumpeting song. To his ears, it had never sounded more triumphant.

Goldar cocked his head. "Well? What was that about?"

Tommy leveled both sword and dagger at Goldar. "It's called multitasking. Now we can fight."


 

The two had fought for perhaps minutes when a monstrous shriek rent the air. The DragonZord had joined the fight.

"That's the DragonZord!" Zack yelled the obvious aboard the fighting MegaZord. "But I thought Tommy was fighting Goldar!"

"I think he's doing both," Jason said, not chancing a glance down at the ground to the two he knew were fighting at that very moment. He wondered at himself for his complete trust in Tommy. This actually would have been a good plan: get his Power Coin back, rejoin Goldar, and call the DragonZord to team up with the other monsters against the MegaZord. But he knew that was impossible, for some reason. Tommy was now officially on their side and, if Jason had anything to say about it, part of their team.

The DragonZord launched itself at Scorpina, leaving the other two monsters to the MegaZord. Scorpina screamed at being attacked by a former ally. She lashed out with her stinger, only to be met with the DragonZord's tail. As she grappled with the new combatant, the DragonZord unleashed its finger-missiles, and she recoiled in fury.

Soon, the Ranger pilots of the MegaZord found themselves right next to the DragonZord. "All right," Jason muttered, "let's see if Tommy can keep up with some teamwork."

Jason launched the MegaZord into an attack, and the DragonZord almost magically followed the flow of herd and attack. While Scorpina and the monsters tried to keep up and gain the upper hand, the two powerful Zords set each other up for attack after attack. The DragonZord took most of the high-powered attacks, being fresher and allowing the MegaZord to regain some of its power.

"If it keeps going like this," Kimberly said happily, "we'll have the Mega Sword in five minutes. We just have to hold on until…"

Her voice died off. Seconds before the MegaZord had thrown Clown Man over to the DragonZord. In turn, the DragonZord had activated its drill-tail and simply pointed it in the Clown Man's direction. The clown monster went straight through. When the DragonZord pulled its tail back, there was a hole where the clown monster's torso used to be. The furiously battling giants took in the sight as the DragonZord shrieked in bloodthirsty triumph.

Clown Man looked down, rather bemused, at its torso. "I'm holy now," it said, and exploded into pieces.

"Holy crap…" Zack said softly. "What the hell was that all about?"

Billy did not seem quite as affected as the others, though perhaps that was because he was still working furiously to catch up on repairs. "I believe Tommy controls the DragonZord in part with his mind; therefore, it may react to his emotional state."

Getting over the sudden demise of one of the monsters, Jason braced for attack mode. "Then I wouldn't want to be Goldar right now."


 

On the ground, the battle raged more furiously than ever. Tommy's uniform was covered in black marks, and his golden shield had lost some of its shine, but he didn't seem to feel any blow. Goldar, likewise, was covered in bruises and cuts where the armor didn't cover. Yet he raged on, unfeeling and uncaring.

Above, Pop Star and Scorpina were now struggling harder than ever against the united efforts of the two Zords. All thoughts of the hospital were forgotten. Scorpina seemed to focus her attentions on the DragonZord the most, as if attacking the Zord was the same as attacking the man.

"Mega Sword power to full!" Kimberly announced.

"Best news I've heard all day," Jason said. "Then… I call on the Mega Sword!"

The Sword sliced through the clouds, and the MegaZord caught it deftly. Without hesitation, as Pop Star charged at them, the MegaZord sliced the monster clear through. Just as it happened two days before, the monster exploded in sparks and fire.

Scorpina suddenly realized she was alone, faced with two Zords.

"If you think," she growled, "that I'm afraid of…"

She stopped, completely frozen and silent. She emitted a shocked cry and, with a twist, disappeared.

"Umm…" Kimberly said. "Was it something we did?"

"That's worrisome," said Trini. "I think we need to check up on Tommy."

As one, they jumped from the MegaZord. The DragonZord was already departing as the giant threat was over.

They landed to see Tommy and Goldar seemingly at a stalemate. Lightning arced in the air from their weapons as Tommy blocked Goldar's sword with his own sword and dagger. It seemed purely a struggle of strength and wills now.

Neither noticed that Empress Rita was standing feet from them, wand raised in the air and radiating power. Scorpina stood near her, as if to protect her. Rita seemed like she needed no protection.

"Enough!" The word rent the air, and the fighting figures were blasted apart by an invisible force. As Tommy landed, the Rangers surrounded him, ready to protect him from anything Rita had in mind for him.

"Empress Rita!" Goldar gasped out. "You…"

"Seem very healthy," Tommy finished angrily. "And here you had me thinking she was at death's door."

"As if you care…" Goldar began furiously.

Rita raised her wand calmly, and Goldar's protest died in his throat. "I said that was enough," she said quietly.

Jason stepped in front of Tommy, blocking any access to him. "If you think you're going to get him back, you're…"

Rita laughed. "Spare me your heroic speeches, Red Ranger. All of you, in fact. It is the Green Ranger I wish to speak to, and no other."

Tommy put his hand on Jason's shoulder, moving him gently aside. "It's… okay. I think," he added in an undertone.

"Green Ranger," Rita said formally. "You have left my service."

"You know that yourself," Tommy answered.

Rita's mouth quirked up. "That is your right, of course. I wished to eventually cultivate you that you would serve me without the need of any spell. I see now that that is impossible. I do, however, demand that you return what is mine. I refer, of course, to the Green Power Coin. It is mine, to give to whom I choose. If you do this, Tommy, I will leave you alone completely. If not…"

Tommy drew himself up. "It may be stealing, and it may be selfish, but I can't do that, Rita. I can't allow you to enslave someone else like you did me. I can't let you use this power against Earth." A grim smile entered his voice. "And I don't believe that you're not going to want retribution against me."

Rita shook slightly with silent laughter. "You know me only too well. Very well then. You are my enemy." She scowled. "Know this, Green Ranger. I will do everything in my power to destroy you and those powers you've taken on yourself. You will live to curse this day." She sighed and surveyed the war-torn park. "I'm tired. This battle is over. Enjoy your rest, Rangers. Life is going to be difficult for you… I'll make sure of that."

She motioned to Scorpina and Goldar, then vanished.

Scorpina gave Tommy a look of disdain. "Hope you're happy now," she said before teleporting.

Goldar looked like he was struggling within himself; he stared at Tommy with a look of hatred and pain.

Tommy stepped forward, raised his sword… and then tossed it at Goldar's feet. Goldar's eyes widened in shock. He nodded once, and he disappeared in flame, carrying the sword with him.


 

Tommy stood before Zordon, the other Rangers gathered around him. He felt distinctly uncomfortable. He wondered if he was ever not going to be forced into the center of attention. He looked over at Jason, who gave him an encouraging smile.

"Tommy Oliver," Zordon began, arresting everyone's attention. "I realize you do not feel you belong here. Your alliance has been until recently forced to our enemies. And you originally received your Ranger appointment not from me, but from Empress Rita."

Tommy held his breath, unsure of where this was all going.

"However," Zordon continued in a lighter tone, "I have found it to be one of the great truths of the universe that it matters not where you receive power, but how you use it. You have been denied choice in the use of your powers. When you finally had a choice in the use of your powers, you chose to use them to defend the Earth and help the other Rangers. I cannot emphasize enough that that choice is infinitely more important than the origin of your powers. It is the choice of a true Power Ranger.

"You have claimed your powers. In doing so, you have claimed a place among the Power Rangers. Now there is only one thing do to. You must pledge to follow certain rules. The first of these is to never use your powers for personal gain; only as a protector of Earth. The second is to never escalate a fight more than necessary. That, I'm afraid, includes fights for personal grudges."

More than one Ranger shifted uncomfortably at this statement.

"Finally," Zordon continued, "you must keep your identity a secret from everyone. I realize that your father already knows. That knowledge is necessary for your unique circumstances, though you will need to urge discretion to your father. Tommy, do you agree to these rules?"

"Yes," Tommy said in a strong voice. "I agree to all. I… still don't think I deserve to be here. But… I want to help, to try to make up for what I've done. "

He suddenly felt hands on his shoulders, and he realized the other Rangers had gathered around him. It felt nice. Scary as hell, but nice.

Jason walked around to face Tommy and stuck out his hand to shake. "Welcome to the team, Tommy."

 

 

Chapter Text

"You didn't have to walk me home," Tommy said, trudging up the dark driveway for the first time in days.

"I know," said Jason. "I mean, I figured you could find your way and everything, but I also thought you might want some company."

"I appreciate it."

The front porch was dark, but a nearby streetlamp lit the way. The two picked their way through the driveway to the front door. The door was locked. Tommy felt his pockets for a key, but he knew it wasn't there.

"It's bolted," Tommy remarked, "or I'd break in. Guess I'll have to call a locksmith to get in."

Jason rolled his eyes. "Or you could, you know, teleport."

"Wouldn't that count as using powers for our own benefit or something like that?"

"I doubt that'll be an issue just this once. We don't really use teleportation that much for just getting around, but that's not really a hard and fast rule… especially since we're using devices Billy invented… not our Power Coins. So we've all… bent that rule a little."

Tommy shrugged. "Sure beats breaking down the door."

Tommy teleported just inside and unlocked the door, letting Jason in. He turned on the lights. The house seemed to echo with the absence of humans. Boxes were stacked everywhere. Tommy palpably felt that weeks of his life had been stolen from him.

Jason was wary, his eyes darting into every dark corner.

"You're worried she might attack me tonight," Tommy surmised, realizing this was the reason Jason had come home with him.

Jason smiled when he realized he'd be caught. "Just a precaution. She said she wasn't going to attack for a while, but I wouldn't put a mislead past her." He visibly relaxed. "There's no one here… at least on the ground floor. Wanna check upstairs?"

Tommy laughed. "Check to see if there's monsters in my closet?"

Jason seemed to catch the hard bitterness in that statement. "Look, I've been on edge for a long time. I can't relax yet. I just want to make sure everything's fine here… just so I can sleep tonight."

The constant weight in Tommy's stomach grew a little. His brain couldn't help but return every time to how he was at fault… how he had tormented the Rangers, purposefully keeping them on edge and off balance.

There was a good thing about Jason's company, Tommy reflected as they climbed the stairs. Jason didn't question his silences. Didn't ask if he was "all right." Tommy knew he wouldn't be all right. Not for a while.

There was a burnt smell, and Tommy rushed to his room. He was about to throw open the door when Jason caught his arm.

"Dude," Jason said tightly, "if your room's on fire, that'll just make the flames spread. Open the door slowly."

"Yeah," Tommy said, feeling very dumb. "I knew that."

He opened the door more carefully. There was a good amount of smoke in the air, but it seemed confined to a small pile in the middle of the floor. Tommy grabbed a blanket from his bed and smothered the fire. What was left in the smoldering pile Tommy recognized as some of his clothes. There was an acrid smell of burning plastic… his tapes and the remnants of his smashed boombox.

"My stuff from the Moon Palace," Tommy said wearily as he picked through the mess.

Jason had entered the room, scowling at the stench. "That seems a little childish."

Tommy smiled grimly. "Scorpina. Seems like her, anyway. She would have considered it funny."

"Need help cleaning that up?" Jason said. He smothered an ill-timed yawn.

Tommy got up from the floor, shaking the ashy blanket out. "Nah, I got this. You're tired; you need to go home. Get some sleep for once."

"I think I'll do that," Jason said. "You do the same. I'm planning on going to the Youth Center tomorrow around two. See you there?"

Tommy looked around his room gloomily. "I'd like to, but I've got a lot to get done. My dad comes home Wednesday, and I've still got a ton of stuff to do."

"You need…?"

"No," Tommy said, a little more sharply than he meant to. "I mean…" he backtracked, "this is really a one-person job. I'll be fine."

Jason merely nodded, again seeming to understand Tommy more than he was letting on. "Then, I guess I'll see you in school Monday. You know how to reach me."

Tommy couldn't think of a thing to say as Jason left. He heard the door slam, echoing through the house. Tommy sat on his bed. He was alone.

This was the part he'd been dreading.

Of course, it was bad, being with the Rangers. His brain seemed to quiet for some reason when he was with Jason, but the others? He could barely look at them without seeing what he'd done to them, over and over again.

And when he did look at them, there was still something in their faces… a mixture of fear and mistrust. It was as if he were a crazy person, and they were just waiting for him to have another fit. But it was worse than that. It was…

Tommy buried his face in his hands. Yes, he had joined the team, so to speak. But he wasn't really part of the team. Not yet. Maybe not ever. There was no getting around the fact that they had seen the worst of him… and he'd practically shoved it in their faces. He couldn't hide behind the convenient excuse… I was just following orders. Had Rita ordered him to torture Billy… and all the rest? Those had been his ideas. Yes, he'd been under the spell, but he had followed his own plans. Rita had merely sat back and watched.

And he didn't want them to forgive him. He realized he would be angry with them if they just accepted him. That wasn't right. After all he'd done, he had to suffer. But, then, wasn't that selfishness in itself?

And there was a tiny part of him, the part that made him sickest of all, that almost wanted to go back to Rita. She would make the pain end. He could go into the peaceful contentment of serving another, of not having to make decisions if he didn't want, of shedding the horrors and guilt that he was only starting to realize.

And even as he thought of it, he knew he couldn't do it. The thought of enslaving himself… It was just as unbearable as the guilt-haunted life he now looked forward to… and perhaps more so.

No, he had to make amends. He knew he could never take back what he did, or make up for it, but he had to do some small part.

And something else held him back from Rita. Fear. Seeing her in the park earlier that day—the look in her eyes—would perhaps haunt him just as much as his memories would. She was not the fading image of his dream. She was real, and she was power. And he believed every word when she said she would make him pay, make him suffer. He had felt the anger rolling from her brain to his. It was almost like a vestige of the connection they'd shared… or perhaps just that he knew her extremely well.

Tommy came back to himself and nearly gagged. The stench from the smothered fire had filled the room. He opened a window, waving the worst of the smoke out so it wouldn't activate the smoke alarm. It took him thirty minutes to thoroughly clean the area, and there was still a dark spot in the carpet. Yet another remembrance…

He knew Scorpina had done it. It just didn't fit anyone else's style. It was strange… He regretted the night before the attack, most certainly… but it didn't fill him with the horror of everything else. It seemed the least tainted memory… but no. What he had done to Goldar in that and every other action…

"Okay, Tommy," he broke the complete silence of the empty house. "You're going to stop thinking tonight. You're going to go to sleep, and you're going to clean up the house tomorrow, and you're going to visit Dad bright and early tomorrow, too. Wallowing in guilt does nothing for nobody."

He stripped and threw himself on the bed. He set an early alarm for the next day and tried to concentrate on his father's joyful face… on his father's happiness when he'd called that evening. He'd been moved to a new room. What was it… somewhere else on the third floor?

Tommy finally drifted to sleep. The exhaustion of days… weeks… finally caught up to him, granting him one of the few dreamless, restful sleeps he was to have for a long time.


 

"So, how was your first day back?" John asked as he shuffled through his cards.

Tommy lifted his eyes from his cards. They were playing two-handed Spades, with a "cat" pile off to the side. He was pretty sure his father had the king of diamonds… but he wasn't completely sure. And he needed the queen to make his bid. "It's weird, ya know? I was only absent one day, really. I had a better attendance record while evil than I ever did." He put an eight of diamonds down, trying to lead his father out.

John placed the king of diamonds on top. "Well, don't make that an excuse for cutting again," he laughed.

The cat played out of suit, so John grabbed the pile and played down a random club.

"But to answer your question…" Tommy said, shuffling through his clubs, "I dunno. They cleaned up the school pretty good, but I could still see some pretty bad damage. I… went pretty berserk during the attack." The cards in front of him went out of focus.

He jumped when John touched him on the shoulder. "Hey, kid. Come back to Earth."

Tommy blinked. He done it again, just like he'd been doing all day. Phasing out. He wondered how long he'd been out this time.

John sighed. "I'm not going to ask if you're okay. You never do that to me… unless it's pretty darn important. And I'm not going to do it to you. But I just want you to talk to me."

Tommy smiled at his dad. "I know. And I will. I just sort of want to pretend everything's okay right now. I haven't seen you in so long… I don't want to ruin our visits with my problems."

"What do you think I'm here for, son?"

Tommy smiled again and put his cards down. He'd pretty much lost the hand. "To keep me sane. Keep me grounded. That's what you've always done."

Tommy left an hour later, his father practically pushing him out of the room. Homework. Hanging out with friends. Those were the things teens were suppose