"We've got a problem."
T.J. looked up from the Power Rangers Turbo trading card he was autographing. A harried woman in a purple STAFF T-shirt was standing behind him; a few feet behind her the mayor was wringing his hands.
T.J. handed the autograph back to the teenage boy who owned it. "I'm sorry," T.J. said with a smile, "but duty calls."
The boy nodded, looking thrilled that duty had called in the middle of his autograph. T.J. clapped him on the shoulder and followed the staff member over to the mayor. The three of them stepped inside the tree line, out of earshot of the table. "What's up?" T.J. asked.
"It's the Time Force Rangers," the mayor whispered. "They're gone."
T.J.'s eyebrows rose. "What do you mean, gone?" He turned and looked at the table; Wes and Eric were supposed to be seated at the other end of it, but their chairs were empty.
"Eric Myers said he needed a drink of water but we'd already brought him a bottle and then he went into the forest, which doesn't have water anyway," the staff member explained. "Wesley Collins looked a little panicked and chased after him. Nobody's seen them since."
"I had my assistant try both their cells," the mayor said. "Neither one answered."
T.J. bit his lip, thinking it over. "Okay. Cut the autograph line. Tell the fans we'll be back later. Gather Lightspeed and my team; we'll split up and look for Wes and Eric. I'll call the Silver Guardians. Try to look calm; word gets out that two of the Rangers have gone missing and we'll have thousands of panicked people on our hands."
The staff member and the mayor hurried back onto the field, while T.J. called up the Silver Guardian's main switchboard. He only had to say his name to the operator to be transferred to whoever was in charge.
"Sergeant Ogle," answered one of the Silver Guardians' higher ups a moment later.
"Hey, Carl, it's T.J. I was just wondering if there were any major problems. You know, anything you might need Wes and Eric for?"
"Negative, Mr. Johnson. The—"
"Call me T.J., Carl. Please."
"Yes, sir." T.J. rolled his eyes, but hadn't expected anything less. Carl continued. "The city's locked down tight. Nothing serious to report. I trust all is well at Power Rangers Day?"
T.J. winced. "So far. Well, I just had a minute, thought I'd call. See you at the Independence Day barbecue."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Johnson."
T.J. shook his head and hung up. Lightspeed Rescue and the Space Rangers, along with Karone, were now standing up from the table and heading his way. Only Cassie, Carlos and Ashley, having plenty of experience with discretion from the days before they'd been unmasked, managed to pull off an air of nonchalance.
"What's the situation?" Carter asked in concern.
"Wes and Eric are missing. Not kidnapped-by-an-evil-villain missing, just missing. Mayor tried their cells and I just got off the phone with the Silver Guardians."
The mayor bounded up, leaving his staff to console the disappointed fans in the autograph line. "What are we going to do?" he all but wailed.
"You are going to calm down," T.J. told him firmly. "Since Wes and Eric left the table and headed this way into the trees, my team is going to go this way and look for them. Lightspeed is going to circle around the meadow."
Carter nodded. "Dana, Chad and I will go east. Ryan, Kelsey and Joel will go west. We'll meet at the parking lot and take a look around."
"Good idea," T.J. agreed. He nodded to the mayor. "Meanwhile, take a few members of your staff and send them through the crowd. Tell them to find the Silver Guardians Wes and Eric brought with them and ask if they've had any contact with Wes and Eric. As soon as anyone knows anything, have them call me. We'll call you if we find Wes and Eric. Let's go."
T.J. plunged into the trees with Andros, Zhane, Karone, Carlos, Cassie and Ashley, while Lightspeed split up and the mayor darted off. "I hope they're okay," Cassie said worriedly.
"I'm sure they're fine," T.J. replied. "They both left voluntarily. If there were some big bad evildoer around, they'd have called us first thing."
"Unless ran into trouble after leaving and now they're hurt," Carlos pointed out.
"Or kidnapped," Ashley agreed. "Or worse."
The group lapsed into uneasy silence. Thankfully, they hadn't gone far through the woods when they spotted Wes and Eric, arguing heatedly.
"Guys!" T.J. called. "Where you been? The mayor sent out a search party."
"Eric won't come back to the field," Wes complained.
"This whole hero worship thing is degrading," Eric growled.
"How is being worshipped degrading?" Andros asked.
"Eric, come on," Wes insisted. "You're being stupid."
"Power Rangers Day is stupid."
T.J. stepped in, struck by sudden inspiration. "Come on, Eric, think about it. If Jason and Tommy can sit through a few hours onstage, surely we can take one for the team and sign a few autographs."
Eric looked mutinous, but after a moment he reluctantly nodded. "You're right. If Jason can…"
"That's the spirit!" T.J. clapped him on the back and pulled out his cell, dialing the mayor. "Hey, it's me. We found Wes and Eric, and we're on our way back now."
"New problem," the mayor replied grimly. "Somehow it got out that Wes and Eric were missing, and some of the attendees are convinced that they were kidnapped by an evil alien monster."
"They'll calm down when we bring Wes and Eric back," T.J. assured him.
"They might," the mayor said, "but what if they don't? What if I wind up in charge of twenty thousand people who are convinced there's a monster loose in the woods? Half these people aren't from Angel Grove. They don't understand that overlords send monster, Power Rangers kill monster, rinse and repeat until Power Rangers kill overlords."
"I don't think—" T.J. began, but the mayor spoke over him.
"We're talking mass hysteria, T.J. Even if you bring the missing Rangers back to the field, people are already worried that there's something dangerous out there. We're estimating that over three hundred people have already left."
"It's late afternoon. A lot of little kids are probably just getting tired and their families are taking them home. I'm sure it's nothing to do with the supposed monster."
"That's a nice thought, but you didn't see nine college kids running flat-out for the parking lot."
T.J. sighed. "Look. If they see all the Power Rangers calm, collected and in one place—"
"They won't know what happened with the monster. If it's still loose, if it's safe to be in the park. Between suspicious townspeople and tourists who've been hoping Rita Repulsa will show up, everyone's already half-expecting a monster attack. This is after my office spent an entire week telling the media that we sincerely doubted even the least intelligent villains on the planet wouldn't risk attacking more Power Rangers than they could count. If we don't prove that the park is safe, things could escalate. Dangerously. You of all people know how bad it could get—you're the one who counseled me on what to expect from the townspeople if the city ever came under attack again!"
"What are you suggesting? That we create a fake monster and destroy it in front of thousands of fans?"
"That's a brilliant idea!"
"Think about it. If the Power Rangers confront a monster in front of all these people, they'll see that you and the other Rangers have the city under control. You know how badly the population dropped after Astronema! People assumed that without Power Rangers the city wasn't safe! We need to assuage their fears. We need to ease their minds! We need to show that no matter what, no matter where, no matter when, the Power Rangers of Earth will always rally to defend the city of Angel Grove!"
T.J. was starting to develop a sneaking suspicion that the mayor had planned this all along. "Look, remember when you first took office, and I told you all those things about Power Rangers? Stampedes were one of those things under the townspeople reaction section. Along with chaos, vandalism, looting—and where are we going to get a monster, huh? I don't know about you, but I don't keep any on retainer."
"I'll have some volunteers buy a few monsters' costumes from a vendor. Why don't you see if you can find a secret-identity ex-Ranger to wear it? That way, the monster will seem to have superpowers."
"I'd better get on this and make sure the media's in place. Good luck!"
He hung up, leaving T.J. to lamely repeat the mayor's phone call to Andros, Zhane, Karone, Carlos, Cassie, Ashley, Wes and Eric. Mostly they looked shocked, but Zhane snickered and Eric looked smug. "This is what comes of overexposure," he said.
"The mayor really wants us to fake a monster attack?" Ashley demanded.
"I say we refuse to do it," Carlos added. "That's just wrong."
"Is it?" T.J. asked. "I mean, think about it. People were worried when Wes and Eric took off. They come back, and how are we supposed to soothe people's minds? By telling them Eric thinks Power Rangers Day is beneath him? Guys, the mayor may be going about this all wrong, but we really do have a crowd of roughly twenty thousand people out there that thinks a monster already ate two of its superheroes. We show said monster, we defeat it, and we're all still alive. Then everyone sees that Power Rangers won't let anything happen to the townspeople."
"You just want to be the big hero," Cassie accused, but she smiled. "Come to think of it, I want to be the big hero, too."
Carlos nodded thoughtfully, then grinned. "We can't let those guys onstage have all the fun."
"Wait, wait, wait," Ashley said. "Who are we going to get to be the monster?"
"I'll do it," Karone offered. "It has a certain… ironic appeal for me."
"We should all be seen fighting it," Cassie said, "or else the townspeople might think one of us was killed."
"Well, it'll have to be someone we trust," Ashley said. "If something goes wrong and everyone finds out it was staged, it'll be a huge blow to our reputation."
"You're right," T.J. agreed. "We need someone responsible. Someone dependable. And I think I have just the guy."
"So, let me get this straight. The girl called Vi bumps into you, you follow her around, ask her for her number, ask her out to lunch, and she turns you down flat."
"Uh-huh," Hunter confirmed as he marched determinedly through the crowd, eyes peeled for Vi.
"So she wants nothing to do with you," Blake continued, jogging alongside Hunter.
"So why are we looking for her?"
"I'm in love with her," Hunter reminded Blake.
"Hunter…" Blake sighed. "Hunter, love at first sight is a myth. I know because my smart, grounded, sensible, there-are-no-monsters-in-your-closet-and-if-I'm-wrong-I'll-beat-them-up-anyway-so-quit-whining-and-go-to-sleep-we've-got-training-at-dawn big brother told me so."
"I was wrong."
"Hunter, stalking a girl is no way to get her to like you."
Hunter smiled, a distant look in his eye. "That's what Vi said."
"Yeah, and Vi was right!" Blake exclaimed, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "If she wanted to have anything to do with you, she would have asked for your number or given you her number or her name or something. You gotta let it go."
"Can't. I'm in love."
"You're not in love!" Blake shouted. "Quit saying that! You're not in love, you're insane!"
"Blake." Hunter finally stopped stalking through the crowd and turned to face him. "How did you know Tori was The One?"
Blake blinked. "I don't know Tori is The One."
Hunter swelled with indignation. "How can you not know Tori is The One?"
"Gee, I don't know. Maybe because we're both way too young to be thinking about being together the rest of our lives, or we haven't been together that long, or she's my first real girlfriend ever, or I have no idea if we can survive having a long-distance relationship, or we both agreed to—"
"Tori is your One," Hunter interrupted flatly, and turned to stomp off into the crowd again.
"Well, that settles that," Blake muttered, rolling his eyes as he started off after Hunter. "Do you want to let Tori know, or should I? Because I'm not looking forward to informing her that she's my soul mate because you said so. I definitely think you should do it."
"I'll tell her the next time I see her," Hunter said with a shrug.
Blake panicked. "Don't you dare!"
"Would you quit whining and help me out here? I've got to find her."
Blake glared at him. "Okay. Fine. Let's say Tori's my One and this Vi girl you've invented during a head injury is your One. How do you know? How can you be absolutely sure—?"
"You just know," Hunter interrupted, frustrated. "It's not something that you reason out. Love is blind and illogical and unpredictable, but when you see her, when you look into her eyes and your entire soul reacts to her presence, you know. You know that she's The One and you have to do everything in your power to be with her because if you don't, if you let that opportunity pass you by, you'll never know happiness again."
"…Uh-huh. And when did you figure this out, exactly?"
"The moment I saw Vi."
"Oh, okay. So it has tradition behind it."
"You'll understand once you get to know her."
"You don't even know her!" Blake wailed. "Would you listen to yourself? Hunter, what if you spend all this time tracking her down and it turns out she's a serial killer? Huh? What then? What if she's mean or evil or cheats on her taxes or wears smelly perfume or doesn't like crimson or—?"
"She's perfect," Hunter interrupted, glaring at him.
"Sure. Most mirages are." He took a deep breath and drew himself up to his full unimpressive height, planting his feet and glowering up at Hunter. "That's it. We're through. You're going to stop this. I am not going to spend the entirety of Power Rangers Day stalking some girl who doesn't even exist just because you think you're in love with her, understand?"
Hunter smirked at him. "Suit yourself. I'll catch up with you later."
"Hey guys!" Dustin called, bouncing over to them. "What are we up to?"
Blake sighed, defeated. "We're looking for Hunter's girlfriend."
Dustin gave Hunter a startled look. "I didn't know you had a girlfriend."
"I don't. Dustin… do you believe in love at first sight?"
Dustin mulled it over for a second. "I never really thought about it, but my sister says she falls in love at first sight every weekend, does that help?" Hunter and Blake stared at him. "I guess not. So… Hunter's in love?"
"Yes," Hunter said.
"Unfortunately," Blake said sourly.
Dustin shrugged. "Okay. This place is full of cool people, isn't it? I just met this guy with an awesome cape."
Hunter froze. "Cape?"
"Yeah, it was yellow with—"
Hunter suddenly seized two fistfuls of Dustin's shirt and hauled him to within an inch of Hunter's nose. "What did he look like?" Hunter demanded.
Dustin stared at him, too confused to be alarmed. "Uh… red hair. Thin. Not that tall."
"Was his name Chip?"
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
Hunter lifted Dustin up by the front of the shirt so that Dustin was dangling half a foot off the ground. "Was he with anyone?"
"Uh, yeah. Some girl."
"What was her name?"
"I don't know, she didn't say. She just rolled her eyes while Chip and I talked comic books."
Blake gaped at Dustin in disbelief. "You mean she actually exists?"
"Which way did they go?"
Dustin pointed. "Um, that way I thi—whoa!"
Hunter dropped Dustin, who only just managed to keep his footing, and charged off in the direction Dustin had pointed. Blake hurried after Hunter, grabbing Dustin by the arm and pulling Dustin along. "Dustin," Blake breathed, "I think you found the girl Hunter thinks he's in love with."
"I did?" Dustin blinked at him in surprise, then grinned. "Cool!"
They charged through the crowd for a while, Hunter barreling people out of his path, Blake and Dustin keeping close behind him. After ten minutes or so, Hunter snarled and rounded on Dustin. "Where'd you see them last?"
"Over there, by the guy selling elephant ears. I—"
Hunter ignored him and marched over to the vendor, pulling out his wallet. "I will give you fifty bucks for any information related to a girl with red streaks in her hair."
The vendor stared at him. "Kid, I don't know if you've noticed, but just about everyone has red streaks in their hair. Or blue. Or black or pink or white or yellow or green. This is Power Rangers Day. I'd be a fool to even try keeping track of the colors."
Hunter snarled again and the guy recoiled. Blake put a restraining hand on Hunter's shoulder. "Come on, Hunter, they couldn't have gotten far. And they are here somewhere. We'll find her in no time."
Hunter shrugged off Blake's hand but stopped snarling in rage. "Fine. We should split up. We need to cover more ground."
"But they're not holding still; it's not gonna matter how much ground we cover if they're on the move. And anyway, what would Dustin or I do if we found her?"
"Call me and hold her until I get there."
"Oh, that'll go over well. 'Hi, excuse me, could you please stand still until my psychotic older brother gets here? He thinks he's in love with you.'"
"Hey!" called Tori, coming over with an unfamiliar girl in tow.
"Hey, Tori!" Dustin said cheerfully. "Hey, we're looking for some girl whose friend has great taste in comic books." He held up a hand to indicate Chip's height. "He's about this tall, red hair, wearing a yellow cape; his name's Chip. The girl has anger issues and red streaks in her hair."
"What?" Tori asked with a laugh.
"Why are you looking for Chip and Vida?" the unfamiliar girl asked.
Hunter stiffened and fixed his full attention on her so intensely that she leaned away on instinct. "Vida?" he demanded. "As in Vi?"
"That's her nickname, yeah," the girl said. "Why—?"
"Have you seen them?" Hunter demanded.
"We just ran into them a few minutes ago," Tori said. "They're going to meet up at the information booth in an hour. Why—?"
Hunter vanished in a streak of crimson. The girl looked around wildly, but no trace of Hunter remained. "What on Earth…? Why's he looking for Vida?"
"You know her?" Blake asked.
"She's my sister. Chip's my friend."
"Oh!" Dustin grinned at her and extended his hand. "I'm Dustin, Hunter's friend."
"I'm Madison," she replied, shaking his hand. "Who's Hunter? Was he the one who just left?"
"He's your future brother-in-law," Blake said wryly.
"My brother is in love with your sister."
Tori fixed Blake and Dustin with a stern gaze. "What did you two do to Hunter?"
"We didn't do it!" Blake exclaimed.
"Dude, I just got here!" Dustin insisted.
Tori didn't look convinced, but before she could argue, someone shouted "Madison!" and Tori cringed as a tall brunette boy came over.
"There you are!" The guy hurried up to Madison, then caught sight of Tori. "Oh. Hello again."
"Hi," Dustin said cheerfully. "Are you related to Vida too?"
The newcomer gave him a politely confused frown. "No. I'm her friend, Xander. I didn't know you knew Madison and Vida, Tori. It's like we're old friends."
"You know Tori?" Blake asked.
Tori started to reply, but Xander once again cut her off. "I just met her today. Helped her find her boyfriend Blake."
Blake stared at him. "I'm her boyfriend Blake."
Tori put her hand over her eyes, as though hoping by blocking her view she could make it all go away.
"No you're not," Xander said. "Her boyfriend Blake is taller and older and—"
"And me," Blake insisted.
"No, he was—"
"I think I of all people would know if I was her boyfriend Blake! Tori, tell him I'm your boyfriend Blake!"
Half-hidden beneath her hand, Tori's face twitched for a moment through a variety of expressions before settling back on the stern look she'd given Blake and Dustin a moment ago. "Not until you tell me what you did to Hunter."
"Don't change the subject!" Blake retorted.
"Who's Hunter?" Xander asked.
"Some guy who's in love with Vida," Madison explained helpfully.
"Who in their right minds would fall in love with Vida?" Xander wondered aloud.
Dustin jerked his thumb at Blake. "His brother, Hunter."
"That explains it," Xander said wisely, nodding at Blake, who glared at him.
"Look," Blake fumed, "I'm already having a weird day. I still haven't figured out how my brother fell in love with her sister—" he pointed accusingly at Madison, as though the whole thing was Madison's fault— "but I do know how I fell in love with Tori and I do know that my name is now and has always been Blake. Well, except for maybe it wasn't before I was adopted, but that isn't the point!"
He turned to Tori, who smiled at him. "Oh, Blake. That's so sweet."
Xander looked at Dustin. "Do you know what's going on?"
"Actually, I've been lost for a while now," Dustin confessed.
"Don't try to make this a Kodak moment!" Blake shouted at Tori. "Who is this guy and why does he think you have another boyfriend named Blake?"
"Yeah, Tori," Xander said with an infuriating grin. "Who am I and why do I think you have another boyfriend named Blake?"
For the third time, Tori started to speak only to be interrupted by Xander. "In fact," Xander continued, "isn't that him now? Coming out of the trees towards us?"
Mortification flashed on Tori's face as she spotted a disheveled Adam emerging from the tree line and making his way across the field. "Um…" she began, but once more Xander spoke over her.
"Let's go say hello, shall we?" he said, and without waiting for a response, he bounded over to Adam, the others close behind.
Adam saw them coming and stopped, waiting for them to approach. His eyes darted from the beaming Xander to the horrified Tori to the frustrated Blake. Then he seemed to sag in resignation.
"Hello, Blake," Xander called brightly as they came within hailing distance. "Good to see you again. You remember me, Xander. Funny story—this is Tori's other boyfriend Blake." He gestured at Blake as if he was showing off a game show prize.
"What's going on?" Madison asked.
"Yeah," Blake said, coming to stand in front of Adam and glowering up at him, "what's going on?"
Adam looked Blake square in the eye and announced, "I was just attacked by an army of circus folk."
Blake continued glaring for a moment, then sighed. "I know exactly how you feel."
"Xander!" came a girl's voice. "Where have you been?"
Everyone turned to see a girl with red-streaked hair stomping towards them, a cape-sporting boy in tow. "Hey, Dustin!" the boy called.
"Chip!" Dustin exclaimed. "Look, Blake, it's your future sister-in-law."
"What?" asked Tori, Madison, Adam, Blake and Xander.
"Don't you ever disappear on us again!" Vida growled up at Xander, glaring furiously at him. "I thought we'd never find you in this crowd!"
"Sorry, Vi," Xander said. "I got a little distracted by this girl who has two boyfriends named Blake."
"You're Hunter's Vi?" Blake asked her.
"Hunter?" Vida snorted. "Not him again."
"You guys know Hunter?" Chip asked.
"Who's Hunter?" Xander asked.
"Vida's new boyfriend," Chip explained. Vida elbowed him, hard.
"Vida's got a boyfriend?" Xander repeated in surprise.
"No," Vida snarled.
"This is the girl Hunter's in love with?" Tori asked.
"Well, Hunter's stalking her," Blake confirmed.
"Why is Hunter stalking her?" Tori demanded.
Blake jerked his thumb at Adam. "Can we get back to why Xander thinks he's your boyfriend?"
"Wait, I thought you were dating Tanya Sloan," Dustin said to Adam.
Madison's face lit up. "You're dating Tanya Sloan?"
"I think he's dating Tori, Vida, and some guy named Hunter," Xander said.
"No, Blake's dating Tori and Hunter's stalking Vida," Madison said.
Adam's cell phone rang and he clawed at his pocket to pull it out. "Hello? T.J.? Oh, thank god. Tell me you've got some big important emergency and you need me to come help right away. …Wow, really? Okay, be right there." Adam hung up. "This was fun and all, but I've got to go. Oh, and if anyone here runs into a girl named Sabrina, you've never heard of Adam Park."
Adam rushed off. The others stared at each other for a moment.
"So," Chip said, "who exactly is Adam Park?"
"Okay, future reference?" Adam said wretchedly. "The desperate need to dress me up as a Tenga and sic me on the townspeople so that you can publicly defeat me does not qualify as 'some big important emergency.'"
Cassie giggled. "We'll make a note of that."
Adam sighed. He was morphed and surrounded by the Space Rangers, Karone, Wes and Eric, and wearing pieces of three different monster costumes on top of his morphing suit—the body of a Tenga costume with the head of Goldar and the clawed feet of a monster Adam wasn't familiar with; the tag on the costume had read "Termitetron."
"How did I let you people talk me into this?" Adam demanded.
"I'm not sure," Carlos replied apologetically. "Something about being mistaken for someone else's boyfriend and Scorpina asking you out and life being a violent circus. We couldn't really follow what you were saying. You were kind of ranting."
Adam sighed. "Whatever. Fine. Sure. Let's get this over with. How do you want this to work?"
T.J. recited the plan. "Lightspeed Rescue is waiting just inside the tree line on either side of the entrance. You head west until you run into Kelsey, who will help you climb a tree and jump from there onto the roof of the public restrooms. She'll signal us, and we'll morph, while Wes, Eric and Karone run out of the trees and do some secretive conversation with the mayor thing, just to make it all look good. Once you're on top of the restrooms, yell and howl. Be monstrous. Lightspeed will surround the restrooms and keep everybody back. We'll swoop in on the Galaxy Gliders, give everyone a show. Then Carlos is going to put your dead body on his Galaxy Glider and fly you out of the park. You guys go grab a bite to eat, hang out for a bit—"
"That's why I agreed to this!" Adam recalled. "A free ticket out of the park!"
"Once you guys are out of here, it's back to Power Rangers Day for us, and Carlos will catch up with us later. You can come back by if you want—"
"No, thanks," Adam said flatly. "I think I'll go wait at the Youth Center until it's time for the beach party. I like that idea the best."
"Just be careful," Ashley warned. "There are a million ways this could go wrong. I think we've thought of all of them, but still."
Adam shrugged as best the Tenga suit would allow. He didn't really understand the logic behind this, and he certainly hadn't been thrilled at the prospect of more weirdness, but at least this weirdness had politely asked him to help, as opposed to dropping an army of clowns or a lovesick former villain on his head. Besides, once it was over and Carlos flew him out, he could get in his car, go relax somewhere and wait for the beach party without being blindsided by random freak accidents every twenty minutes. By then someone would have explained that Australian guy to Blake and someone would have broken the your-protégé-was-making-out-with-your-ex-girlfriend news to Tommy and Adam's blood pressure would be back within a healthy range.
"Let's do it," Adam said wearily. "I can't wait for this day to be over."