December 2, 1999:
And another one bites the dust! *cheers* I bet you guys thought I'd given up on the Power Rangers, didn't you? *eg* Not on the likely! *insane giggles* And I have even more planned! Isn't that just wonderful? ^_^ I thought so, too... ^_^

Disclaimer: These characters do not belong to me. They belong to Saban. I'm just borrowing them to play with them for a bit. I promise I'll put them back when I'm done. *grins* Aerin sorta kinda belongs to me, though - please don't use her or any other original characters without my permission.

Warning: *blinks* *sweatdrops* Oops... *sheepish grin* No warnings on this, I guess... *chuckles* No slash... *Renee-chan waits patiently for everyone to pick themselves up from the floor from where they've fallen in a dead faint. She promptly blows raspberries at all of them.* As I was saying, there's no slash in this fic, but there really should be a warning. This fic is very, severely AU - just like FMN was and just like ARBAON will be. *blinks* Which fic is that? Oh right... ^_^ ARBAON: A Rose By Any Other Name - sequel to Forget Me Not. ^_^ (Taking Root is the prequel to Forget Me Not.)

Hmm... What's left? Oh yes... My favorite part. ^_^ The plea for feedback. ^_^ As with all fic writers, I need encouragement. The only way I get paid is in C&C (Comments and Criticisms). I like C&C - as long as it isn't flames. I don't tolerate flames of any sort, so please don't send them. With the stress I've been under recently, I'm likely to turn around and send them right back. ^_^ Anyway, if you want to e-mail me and missed the 20 million other e-mail links I've got up in various and sundry places, here's another one: .

Thanks again!

July 7, 2009:

And we've come full circle, yet again. ^_^ As I posted Forget Me Not over here, I thought I should post it's "prequel", too. Truthfully, the two stories are not really connected -- you can read each without having read the other. Both stories, however, are set in the same universe with the same rules. This story is set in Zeo era MMPR, around when Jason comes back to get the Gold Ranger powers. Also, I'm now almost 38,000 words into the sequel where both stories come together. ^_^ Renee-chan has fun with her PR chibis, yes she does. ^_^

Taking Root

A cool breeze blew in through the window, ruffling the white lace curtains. Aerin Scott turned her face into the breeze, a contented smile on her face as she paused in her work. Such a beautiful spring day... Even in Angel Grove such perfection was rare. She closed her eyes, sighing in pleasure - far too often such pleasant moments were broken by some unknown force or another. It made her remember... a thing she wanted most not to do. She wanted to forget. Gods, but she wanted to forget...

Happy spell broken, Aerin turned back to the eggs she was mixing. Neither her son or her husband were awake yet, but she'd needed something to do. She'd awoken early that morning with an awful feeling of foreboding, and she'd been unable to fall back asleep. Having nothing better to do with her nervous energy, she'd gotten up to cook breakfast for the two bottomless pits that called themselves her husband and son.

She poured the eggs into the pancake batter with a light-hearted smile. Doubtless they both would have excuses for their overwhelming appetites, and she knew that they burned off all the calories they ingested, but it was still awfully funny to watch them splutter when she teased.

She finished stirring the batter and covered it, putting it gently in the refrigerator - no use in cooking the pancakes now when her family might not be up for several hours... Wiping her hands on a towel, Aerin walked down the hall to her son's room. He'd been gone for several months to a peace conference in Europe and she and Everett had missed him terribly. She quietly opened the door to check on him. Another small smile crossed her face as she saw him pull the covers a little tighter around his body, snuggling deep into them like a child.

She sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked an errant lock of hair back from his forehead. He murmured something in his sleep and turned into the touch, a look of contentment on his face. Aerin felt her breath catch in her throat - she wanted nothing more than to protect this precious being that she had given life to. But that wasn't always possible, and well she knew it. She let her gaze wander the room, slowly taking in the knickknacks and belongings gathered during a teenager's short life.

Her gaze fell on a small photograph resting alone on the nightable and she reached out a hand to pick it up. She knew every one of those faces... Billy - Jason's best friend since they'd moved to Angel Grove from England. The two had been misfits together all throughout elementary school - until Jason's accent faded into a general rough American slant. But even when he'd become accepted and popular, Jason hadn't forgotten his friendship with Billy. It made her proud - so proud. The next face... Zack. Another dear friend of her son's - only this one he hadn't met until junior high. Jason, Billy, and Zack - they'd been so close, always ready to support each other in each and every endeavor. People could search for years for one friend like that - and they had each been fortunate enough to have two. Zack had drawn Jason out of his quiet shell and showed him the fun that could be had if he gave it half a shot.

Her eyes moved to the two girls in the picture: Kimberly and Trini. Her smile widened, if ever polar opposites existed, Kim and Trini were them - and yet they'd fit into Jason's little circle of friends as if they'd been made to be there. The two girls, best friends as Jason, Billy, and Zack were, had completed the group. There was almost never a moment since they met that the five weren't together. Just like... No. She cut the thoughts off - she'd come in here to forget that, hadn't she? Best to forget Roland, Randi, and Decka - wasn't it?

She put the picture back down on the nightstand and stood, careful to close the door slowly so as not to disturb her son. It was a life she'd never have wished on anyone - especially not Jason or his friends. But Fate was hardly ever that kind. She'd known, of course - how could she not have known? And every day he left had been a day she'd sat, quietly praying to the gods for his safe return. She'd never been more grateful than on the day that Fate had taken him from Angel Grove to attend a peace conference. So, though she would miss him terribly, she'd encouraged him to leave.

She sat down in her armchair in the living room, resting her head in one hand. It had been only a temporary measure, and she'd known it. And now he was back - back in Angel Grove, and back within his reach. Her lips pulled back in an angry snarl. He had been the cause of almost all of her troubles in the past forty years and she hated him for it. And now, he'd had the gall to pull her son into the same trap. She stood, pacing the confines of the small living room - there was no way that she could keep him away, she'd just have to hope that with his former tenure done, he would have no further need of Jason.

A knock on the door nearly startled her out of all proportion to reality. She forced her heart rate to slow back down and glanced down at her watch - 9 AM. Whoever it was, she couldn't really yell at him for coming to call so early... She brushed off her jeans and pulled down the sleeves of her green shirt, then got up to answer the door. It was Tommy. She nodded politely at him, then pushed past him out onto the porch, her heart in her throat. Tommy always made her nervous. His arrival almost always preceded a disaster of some sort - at least for her. Tommy had become as close to Jason as Billy and Zack had ever been, but in a different way. Their friendship had sprung from him and was thus tainted in her eyes. She forced herself to calm down and give Tommy a polite nod. She spoke, her voice as low and melodious as it ever was, "Tommy...?"

Tommy flashed her a wide grin, "Mrs. Scott. Is Jason at home?"

Aerin fought the urge to yell, No, and slam the door in his face - it would do no one any good. She looked him over, slowly, so she wouldn't put him on his guard. He wore red now - a bad sign. She saw all the signs in Tommy that she'd seen in him, he would not make a good Leader and she was afraid of where that could lead them. She sighed, now was not the time to interfere - it never was. She nodded once, "He's asleep, Tommy. His plane came in late last night and he's still recovering from the jet lag. Is it important?"

Tommy jigged nervously from one foot to the other, wringing his hands nervously, "It really is, Mrs. Scott. I can't explain, but I really do need to talk to him."

Aerin knew when she was beaten and took a moment to curse Fate. Sometimes life just wasn't fair... She inclined her head and asked Tommy to wait outside, which he did. The second time Aerin entered Jason's room for the morning, she made no attempt to be quiet. Jason groaned and pulled his covers over his eyes, leaving his feet exposed at the bottom. She reached out... and dropped her hands. No, she wouldn't wake him up like that - he'd done nothing to deserve it.

She dropped herself to sit lightly down on the edge of Jason's bed, "Jason...? Honey, wake up. Tommy's outside and he says it's urgent."

The speed with which Jason shook off sleep astounded her. He was instantly alert, eyes searching the room as if expecting to find a Cog hidden somewhere. A bitter smile found it's way to her face, "Why don't you get dressed, hmm?" She leaned over and pressed a kiss to his forehead, then got up and left the room, a lump forming in her throat. That feeling this morning... now at least she knew what it was. She watched as Jason flew out of his room, clad in white, this time. She had to laugh at the irony. She watched as he and Tommy nodded to each other, sizing each other up like two opposing Alpha males - which she supposed they were. She watched as they smiled, liking the changes they saw in each other. She watched as they ran down the block - getting out of her range of sight, doubtless so she wouldn't see them teleport.

She walked around to the backyard and settled down on Jason's old swing, feeling numb and far older than she should. She should have expected this, should have accepted it by now. But it was no use - really. She lifted her hands to her head, gently massaging her temples and waiting. It seemed as if she was always waiting these days. But no matter. It wasn't important.

The sun had crept up into the late afternoon sky by the time Jason came home. He was grinning ear to ear and happier than she'd seen him since he'd left for the peace conference. And she knew why. And knowing that, she couldn't forbid him to do what he so loved - she hadn't the right.

A flash of gold shone out of the corner of her eye and she turned. She nodded solemnly - she'd expected as much. Given the circumstances, she would have been offended if he hadn't come to visit - or rather, if they hadn't come to visit. A smile crept on to her face in spite of the melancholy of the moment. She bowed deeply before speaking, "Trey of Triforia. You honor me with your presence as always."

The one in the center, Wisdom, bowed just as deeply to her, "Aerin of Altiyar, Guardian of the Green, the honor is mine."

She nodded, the lump reforming in her throat as her calm finally broke. The worried voice of a mother burst from her chest, "Why Jason?? Why did it have to be Jason??"

Heart stepped forward, taking her in his arms and holding her close, "I had no choice, Aerin, you know that. If I'd had a choice, I'd have given them to you..."

Aerin shook her head and pulled away, "Not possible, you know that. I'm too closely bonded to my own Power to Carry yours." She wiped away the few tears that had escaped her eyes, "I know he's well suited to the job - I just... I hate to sit and watch him fight when there's nothing I can do to help..." Her voice trailed off and she stared down at her wrist.

Courage nodded slowly as he followed her gaze, "The choice is forever and always yours, Aerin of the Green Power. Ever and always."

Aerin lifted her gaze, the first true smile of the day breaking out across her face. She nodded once, "I will watch over him, and I thank you." She bowed once more. Trey departed.

Mere moments later, she saw Jason run out of the house, and glance anxiously about before tapping his communicator and teleporting in a flash of golden light. Luck, Jason... I'll be here if you need me.

Tommy flicked his gaze around the battlefield, easily picking out his comrades in the midst of the fight - things weren't going well. Jason was holding his own - as usual - but the rest of his team was having difficulty fighting off the masses of Cogs, just by virtue of numbers. This was a tactic that Rita and Zedd had generally avoided, it being too costly in raw materials, but King Mondo didn't seem to have any compunctions about it. He threw greater and greater numbers of Cogs at them until they were overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers.

Tommy cursed quietly - under such circumstances, they'd be beaten in a matter of minutes. The girls were already tiring, their fighting becoming increasingly more choppy and erratic. Adam and Rocky weren't faring all that well, either. He maneuvered himself to a position closer to the Gold Ranger - maybe Jason had an idea... "Jase!"

The Gold Ranger nodded his head to acknowledge that he'd heard, but saved his breath for the fighting. Tommy felt an irrational surge of jealousy. He knew why he'd waited so long to ask Jason to be the new Gold Ranger - that awful jealousy. He didn't like feeling it, especially not about such a close friend as Jason was. But he couldn't help the feeling - Jason was a natural-born Leader, as if he'd been born and bred to the position. And Tommy couldn't help feeling like he was just a place holder on the team as Red Ranger. Even now, the others were starting to respond to Jason's unconscious aura of command - they looked to him before following Tommy's orders. It hurt.

Tommy growled, this was no time to be thinking these kinds of thoughts. He fought through the last line of Cogs until he stood back to back with the Gold Ranger, "Jase, this isn't working - we're going to run out of steam soon, and when that happens, we're history." He paused to fling another Cog away from him, "Any bright ideas? 'Cuz we could sure use one..."

He could almost hear the gears in Jason's head turning and forced himself to keep quiet as the Gold Ranger thought. Jason had pulled his tail out of the fire more times than he could count - if he could pull them out of this one, then Tommy would be eternally grateful. He waited with bated breath for Jason's response. For the first time in his memory, he was disappointed.

Jason threw one last Cog off of him and turned to face him, "I wish I could think of something... I'm still not used to the Gold Ranger Powers, Tommy - and I don't know the full extent of the Zeo Rangers' capabilities. I'd need time to come up with a decent plan - and it's time we don't have. We have to break up the fight long enough to teleport back to the Power Chamber - maybe... maybe then I can think of something, OK?"

Tommy nodded, uncomfortable about leaving the Cogs wandering free in Angel Grove, but unable to do anything about it. He turned so he was once again back-to-back with Jason, "We have to get the others together long enough to teleport."

Jason nodded, already moving towards Adam and Tanya. Tommy took that as his signal and moved towards Rocky and Kat. He noted with concern that Kat was already down, and Rocky was desperately trying to keep her protected from the surrounding Cogs. He reached them and quickly outlined the situation. Rocky didn't much like the idea of running, but he agreed they didn't have much of a choice.

A sudden cry drew their attention back to other half of the fight. Most of the Cogs had gathered together and cut Jason off from everyone else. Tommy cursed under his breath - Jason was a formidable fighter, but with him so new to the Gold Powers he didn't stand much of a chance against odds like that...

Jason cursed as he felt his arms grabbed from either side, "Damn it! Get the hell off of me!" He rolled his shoulders in one fluid motion, tossing the two Cogs off of his arms - but leaving the way free for three others to get in shots. His knees almost buckled, but he fought to stay on his feet. In a fight like this, he had to stay standing - it wasn't an option. The minute he fell, he was dead. He could see more and more of the Cogs leaving the others to come swarm around him - apparently Mondo thought he was much more of a threat than the Zeo Rangers had ever been... In a sick sort of way, it was flattering. This was the most concentrated effort that Mondo had ever made to rid himself of any of the Rangers - an amazing coincidence that he waited until Jason was back on the team to get vindictive... wasn't it?

Jason smiled a grim smile - it seemed there was something about him in particular that made Mondo nervous. And he'd give his Power Staff to know what it was... Especially if it was something he could use. The remaining Cogs had left their guard positions to join in trying to subdue him, leaving the other Rangers free to get to safety. He watched in annoyance as not a single one of them took the opportunity.

Rocky hung back to keep an eye on Kat, who was still looking dazed, but Tanya, Adam, and Tommy began to attack the fringes of the Cog mob - but they weren't even taking the edge off the fighting for him. They needed to be in here - where they could help him watch his back. As if the thought had been an omen, he felt a Cog kick him hard in the kidneys, and this time his knees did buckle. He went down, the Power Staff flying from his grasp, the breath knocked out of him. Oh God... help me...

The Cogs began to pile on top of him, trying to beat him senseless as they did so. He tried desperately to get up and pull in a breath - it was no use. He could hear Tommy yelling his name in fear, but didn't have the air to respond. He began to black out... And then he saw it. A flash of green in the middle of the group of Cogs and just to the right of the pile that he was under. Adam...? he thought in confusion.

The green figure was a flurry of graceful, fluid motion. Not once did it slow in its dance of death with the Cogs, not once did it falter. For one confused moment, Jason was sure it was Tommy - the surety with which it moved, the grace of hidden strength - like a Dragon. He idly wondered why it wasn't using the Dragon Dagger. Mere moments after the figure had appeared, there was a cleared circle around him. The figure held its hand out to help him up. He took it, forced to rely, more than he would have liked, on the other's strength to help him stand. His body ached fiercely and he winced.

The green figure... Jason took a closer look. It - no, she - was a Ranger, of a sort that Jason had never seen. Her uniform was green, a deep shimmering green that reminded Jason of emeralds. Her boots and gloves, and two rings at her shoulders were a dark silver color. A smaller triangular piece surrounded her neck in a blazing white, and around her chest was a band of the same dark silver as her gloves and boots. At the center of the band were five small rectangles of color, the center-most was Red, the two surrounding it were Purple and Green. The one next to the Purple was White, and the one next to the Green was a deep Magenta, too dark to really be called Pink. At her hip she wore a blaster similar to those worn by the other Rangers.

Jason took all of this in at a glance as he pulled himself into a fighting stance, "Thank you - whoever you are..."

The new Green Ranger nodded, then tapped his shoulder and motioned with her hand that they should face back-to-back. He smiled and complied, eager to get some of his own back from Mondo's infernal Cogs. His Power Staff was lying just a few feet away and he maneuvered the fight so that he was close enough to grab it. In spite of the deep ache in each of his muscles, Jason forced himself to keep fighting. There was something strange about the Green Ranger - something familiar. Jason couldn't quite pin a finger on it, but he was sure he'd fought with the other Ranger sometime before.

As he was busy pondering all this out, the fight ended - there was suddenly nothing under his staff, no Cogs meeting his fists. Apparently, Mondo had decided to cut his losses. He turned to thank the Green Ranger-- and met empty air. Tommy, Adam, and Tanya rushed over. Tommy grabbed his shoulder, "You all right, man?"

Jason nodded, breathlessly, "Yeah... Just very bruised and very confused... Who the hell was that Ranger?"

Adam shook his head, "We don't know, Jason - we've never seen anyone like her."

Rocky piped up, from where he was standing by Kat, who was just now getting to her feet. Jason could almost see his broad smile under the helmet as he spoke, "But did you see her? She was just awesome! Those moves... That body..."

Tommy playfully smacked him across the back of the helmet, "Cool it, Rocky." He turned back to Jason, "If you're OK, we should head back to the Power Chamber and regroup."

Jason nodded, "I'll be along in a minute." He watched as the other five departed, then turned to face the spot where he'd last seen the new Green Ranger. He smiled, "Thank you, friend - whoever you are." Tapping his communicator lightly, Jason teleported back to the Power Chamber - time for some hefty planning.

High up in a nearby tree, a green-clad figure shifted. She reached up to undo the clasps on her helmet, pulling it off in one fluid motion. Her gloriously long black hair came tumbling down from its pile atop her head and she combed her fingers through it in grim satisfaction. She watched as Jason's friends ran over to check on him, watched as they departed. Then, silent as a whisper on a breeze, she murmured, "You're welcome, Jason - the honor was mine." Then with one last look about the area, Aerin Scott teleported home.

Jason removed his helmet and ran one glove-clad hand through his black locks, "Man, Zordon - that was one tough fight. I've never had to take on so many adversaries at once. We can't go into a fight like this one again - we're too easily overpowered when they've got the numbers on their side like that."

Zordon nodded his great head, I could see that much, Jason. However, once you were cut off from the rest of the group, the viewing globe ceased to give an image. What happened after that?

Rocky piped up, "Man, it was awesome! This way cool Green Ranger showed up - she was seriously awesome. She teleported right into the center of the Cogs and beat them off Jason! It was so neat..."

Tommy nodded, "She was one of the best fighters I've ever seen, Zordon - and I've seen a few. And Mondo pulled the Cogs away shortly after she showed up. It was really something."

Billy looked up from one of the computer readouts, "Zordon, could this new Ranger have interfered with the viewing globe's transmissions?"

Zordon paused before giving a reply, It is unlikely, but a possibility. Rangers, can you give me a description of her uniform? That may give us some clue as to her identity.

Jason, having been closest to the Green Ranger, took up the tale, explaining the new Ranger's uniform in detail. He concluded with, "And it was the strangest thing, Zordon - but I got the feeling that she knew me. Because she didn't show up until I was in personal danger - and she left as soon as she saw that I was safe." He paused, "But I can tell you one thing, Zordon - I'm sure glad that she's on our side, whoever she is. I wouldn't want to tangle with her in a one-on-one."

Zordon was silent. Jason, confused, turned to Billy with an eyebrow raised. Billy returned his expression with a shrug before walking up to stand with the Gold Ranger. He turned towards Zordon, "Zordon - I've never heard of a Ranger with that kind of uniform before. Do you know who she could be?"

Zordon remained silent. Billy and Jason shared another look - Zordon looked almost... well, worried. A moment later, Zordon's ageless face disappeared from the plasma tube. The Rangers' eyes went wide in shock then as on, they all turned to Alpha for an explanation. Alpha gulped, then turned to busy himself with a control panel. Tanya walked over and placed a gentle hand on Alpha's shoulder, "Alpha - do you know what's going on?"

Alpha hung his head slightly, and breathed out a quiet "Ai yi yi...", but his heart just didn't seem like it was in it. He raised his head to meet Tanya's gentle eyes, "Well, I don't know for certain - but the uniform you described matches the description of the uniform of a Darkstar Ranger - the Rangers who worked in Space before the current team." Punching in a sequence of buttons, Alpha brought up the picture of 5 Rangers on the viewing globe - Red, Purple, Green, Magenta, and White.

He let the Rangers examine the uniforms for a while, waiting for a reaction. Tommy spoke up, "Alpha - do you have a video of the Green Ranger in action? Maybe that could give us some idea if it's the same person or not..."

Alpha nodded and brought up an old video, nearly 150 years old by now, of the Green and Gold Rangers fighting together against an enemy. Jason started at the scene playing out on the viewing globe and took a quick glance down at his uniform. Apparently Billy was thinking the same thing... "Isn't it odd that someone who worked with the Gold Ranger before suddenly shows up now that Jason has the Gold Ranger Powers?"

Jason nodded, "It makes sense in a way, though - I mean, maybe she thinks I'm Trey."

Alpha turned off the viewing globe, "It is possible, Rangers. There is not much information on the Darkstar Rangers in the computer banks. And much of the information about the Green Ranger was suppressed by the Green Ranger, herself. The only real way to find out more about her and her team would be to ask her."

Tommy shook his head, "I don't think it'll work, Alpha - I mean, she took off right after the fight. What makes you think that she'll stick around long enough next time for us to ask questions?"

Kat's quiet voice was the one who answered. She stood up gingerly from where she'd been resting against a console and smiled at everyone, "I suggest we all go home and sleep on it. It's getting kind of late, and I think we'll all think better once we've had some rest." With a smile for Jason, she added, "It's been a pretty busy day."

The other Rangers were quick to agree and with a few final hugs for Jason, they all vacated the Power Chamber - with the exceptions of Billy and Jason. Jason demorphed and walked over to where the former Blue Ranger stood, messing around with some console or another. He clapped a hand lightly onto Billy's shoulder, "Hey man - didn't get much of a chance to talk to you earlier... How've you been, bro?"

Billy looked up at him and blinked a few times, as if startled by the question, "Excuse me?"

Jason's smile drooped a little, then widened, "Well - I just got home from the Peace Conference last night, then this morning the whole Gold Ranger thing happened in a blur, then this thing with the Green Ranger... It occurred to me that I never even said hello - and in my eyes, that's unforgivably rude. Especially for my first and closest real friend..."

Billy mouth stretched into a small smile, as if he'd fallen out of the habit, "You're right - it is rude. But I forgive you."

Jason's smile finally widened back to its normal proportions, "All right! Say - you feel like coming over for dinner, tonight? My mom mentioned something about trying out one of those old recipes of hers... We can catch up on old times and stuff. Whaddya say?"

A reluctant frown crossed Billy's face, "I really can't, Jason." He waved his hands around the Power Chamber, "Most of the zords took some serious damage in that last fight and someone has to repair them. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only 'someone' available at the moment."

The ex-Red Ranger frowned, "And how did you get this onerous task, anyway? Don't any of the Rangers know how to repair their own zords? I mean, we may not have ever been able to do the major repair work, but the Rangers on our team at least knew how to do basic repairs on their own zords..."

An edge of bitterness crept into Billy's voice, "Well, as you may have observed, these Rangers are quite a bit different from our original team."

Jason's instincts kicked on in full gear and he wrapped an arm around Billy's shoulders, "Come on, man - one home-cooked meal and a relaxing evening, coming right up. And don't you dare argue, 'cuz that's an order, Mr. William Cranston."

Billy gave him a weary smile, but didn't protest, his eyes looking grateful in spite of his earlier words, "Then I suppose I have no alternative."

Jason laughed, "Damn straight!" Turning to the little robot, Jason waved, "See you later, Alpha!", and teleported the two of them home.

Aerin hurriedly rinsed off the vegetables that she would need, cursing quietly to herself for having forgotten about dinner. She'd been planning an old favorite of her mother's - an Altiyaran vegetable grill, good for the body and one of the best-tasting things she'd ever laid taste buds on. Of course, you couldn't quite get all the necessary spices, but she'd brought some with her and the others could be approximated with Earth seasonings.

As she began to chop the vegetables up into their appropriate sizes she let her mind wander over the events of the day. It had been quite a shock to realize how quickly she slipped back into her old role - and how natural it had felt. She hadn't been an active Ranger in 18 years, and yet it had felt as if she'd never left. She'd never fought the Machine Empire personally, but Trey had run into them a time or two and had let a few useful tidbits drop - things like weaknesses in the cogs.

Leaving the vegetables on the counter, Aerin began to prepare the marinade, slowly adding together the spices and tasting as she went until she had the right mix. It was a good thing she'd picked something easy to prepare for the night... She poured the marinade into her large wok and slid the vegetables in along with it, mind still wandering. Her most pressing concern was how to keep helping the Rangers without Jason or Tommy figuring out who she was. She'd been almost grateful that she hadn't seen Billy during the fight - the Blue Ranger would have figured out who she was fairly quickly, of that she was certain.

As if the thought had brought them, the front door banged open. Jason yelled from the hallway, "Mom! I brought Billy home for dinner - is there room for one more at the table?"

Aerin laughed quietly to herself, "You weren't raised in a barn, Jason! If you have something to ask, you can darned well come in here and ask it! Billy - come set a good example for my other son and set the table, would you?"

A moment later, Jason and Billy popped into the kitchen, sheepish smiles on their faces. Jason immediately swooped down on her with a bear hug and a kiss for each cheek. When he set her down, Billy was already reaching for the silverware drawer. Aerin put her hands on her hips, wooden spoon held casually in one hand. Jason gulped.

Clearing her throat, Aerin began to tap her foot lightly until she had Billy's attention, "And aren't you forgetting something?"

With a cute little blush, Billy bent over to give her a small hug. She kissed him lightly on the temple, holding him just a little longer than was normal - something told her he needed it. In fact, there were a lot of small changes in Billy that she didn't much like. Not the contacts, or the added muscle, nor the usual burning intelligence and curiosity in his eyes - they were all good things. What she didn't like was the slouch to his shoulders - the way he almost seemed to hunch in on himself at times, or the way his eyes seemed shadowed by loneliness. These changes frightened her. She raised her eyes to meet Jason's and he nodded once - good, he had noticed. She released Billy and gave him a broad grin, "Much better. Now you can go set the table."

Billy gave her a big grin and left to do just that. Jason turned back to her and raised an eyebrow. She shrugged, "He's unhappy. I don't know what else I can tell you, and I suspect you already knew that. My suggestion would be to keep him company - I suspect that what he needs most now, is a friend. True friends have probably been a rare commodity in his life these days - what with you, Trini, Zack, and Kimberly gone." She sighed, "It's a shame that you five ended up separated - you were a wonderful team."

She watched in confusion as her son's expression clouded over, "You're right mom... We were." He picked up the napkins and dishes and walked into the dining room without another word.

She finished marinating the vegetables and slid them onto the grill - what had she said that had darkened Jason's mood so much? Ah... that was it. He and his friends had made a wonderful team. She froze for a moment, then hung her head, suddenly feeling like she should whack herself with the wooden spoon. Of course... How could she have missed it? Jason, Zack, Trini, Kimberly, and Billy - Red, Black, Yellow, Pink, and... she hesitated. Why did it feel wrong to label Billy as Blue? Ah well - it answered her question, though - Jason's former Ranger team and his four best friends had been one and the same. No doubt he was feeling the same way Billy felt - he was just hiding it better.

With one more frown, she decided. It was just going to be up to her to cheer everyone up. She nodded at the vegetables and started formulating her plan.

Billy watched Jason put the plates down with a melancholy smile on his face. It felt good to have his friend back home - he'd missed Jason, and more than he'd realized. Jason had been his first real friend, a fact for which he'd be forever grateful. But a fact that he'd been even more grateful for was the additional friends that Jason had dragged into his life after the fact. Instead of dropping Billy as soon as he found new friends, Jason had stuck by him and pulled him along on his adventures.

Jason caught him watching from across the table and lifted an eyebrow. Billy's smile widened and he shrugged. The smile widened even further as Jason turned back to folding napkins, their unspoken communication reassurance enough. It felt wonderful. The past year had been extremely stressful - especially after the others came back from their Zeo Quests and he'd lost the Power. He could have used someone to talk to, or just be with; someone who understood without needing explanations. Jason had always been that someone - the person he could count on to come track him down and sit with him until he was out of whatever funk he'd fallen into.

He took the liberty of leaning against the wall while he waited for Jason to finish with the table. He hadn't wanted to admit it to anyone, but losing the Power had hurt him. And as much as he hated to admit it, seeing Rocky wearing his color had hurt him even more. But what had hurt most of all were the other Rangers' reactions to the whole situation. They had pulled away from him - each and every one of them. He usually managed to suppress his hurt feelings when the others were around, but Jason's reappearance and their conversation that afternoon had cut deeply into that spiritual wound...

~And how did you get this onerous task, anyway? Don't any of the Rangers know how to repair their own zords?......Well, as you may have observed, these Rangers are quite a bit different from our original team.~

He hadn't wanted to admit to himself just how desperately that he'd wanted to be the Gold Ranger - even if it was only temporary. He had believed, at the end of the Zeo Quests, that it was just and fitting for Tanya to become a Ranger in his stead - and he still believed that she was an excellent addition to the team - but with each passing day, he regretted his decision more and more. Often when the other Rangers went off to fight, he would find himself wandering through the museum - and he always ended up in the same spot. Standing near his original blue uniform and staring forlornly up at the Power Lance, a tight ache in his chest that no amount of zord-repairing would make go away.

He swallowed hard, folding his hands over his stomach. He sometimes wondered if Zordon knew how much it hurt him to have the old uniforms on display like they were. Bad enough that he had to live with his decision to step down from the team - but to have the fact rubbed into his nose every time he was in the Power Chamber was more than he could take at times. Alpha knew - of that he was almost certain. Whenever he wandered over to his old uniform, the little robot would come find him with some problem or another to distract him from his depression. He had hesitated to label it as such at first, but the deeper he fell into it, the more he was sure that his problem was exactly that - depression.

He'd figured out that he needed to talk to someone, but every time he started to bring it up, something would come up, or he would chicken out. Especially because the only people he could really talk to about it were the current Rangers - and they were the last people that Billy wanted to talk to about something like this. They'd listen, and they'd be sympathetic, but they could never really understand - they were too caught up in the immortal feeling of being Zeo Rangers. He had thought that maybe Tommy might understand, but had changed his mind quickly. For one thing, Tommy had never lost his powers by his own choice - and he was still a Ranger. For another thing, Tommy had changed - and not all the changes were for the better as far as Billy was concerned. Being unequivocal Leader of the team had made Tommy more self-assured - but it had also made him arrogant, and far more... territorial, almost. As if he were jealous of the power he had over the other Rangers. And at the current time, Billy was the only real threat to that power - the only one with even more experience than the old Green Ranger.

He suspected that that was why Tommy had waited so long to call in Jason once he'd failed to absorb the Gold Power. Unlike Billy, who would have been content to stay in the background, Jason practically had the word "Leader" stamped on his forehead. He had an unconscious aura of command about him that one couldn't help but want to follow. It was an aura that Tommy didn't have. And now that he had command of the team, Tommy had no desire to give it up - even temporarily. Jason had sensed the possible conflict on the horizon and wisely backed down from it before it could occur. But, unfortunately for Jason, he couldn't prevent people from wanting to follow him. And Tommy had definitely noticed.

Billy sighed softly. No, talking to Tommy, however much experience the other Ranger might have with this sort of depression, had never really been an option. Billy had no desire to play power games of alpha male/beta male, and had quickly discarded the idea of talking to Tommy. He'd considered calling Trini, or one of the other old Rangers, but hadn't quite felt comfortable with the idea. Besides - talking about something like this over the phone would have been beyond awkward. And so he'd suffered in silence, dying inside, little by little.

Then Trey had come and offered him a chance to be a Ranger again - was it a surprise to anyone that he had jumped at the chance? Maybe - he'd fooled them all into thinking that he was happy being their mechanic and pocket-genius. They probably all thought he was perfectly content to be sitting on the sidelines, heart in his throat, as they did all the fighting. He couldn't even stand to watch the fights on the viewing globe anymore. Just knowing that your friends were out there risking their lives and there was nothing you could do to help... and at the same time, feeling this irrational jealousy that they had that option and he did not... it would tear anyone up. No - it hadn't been a surprise to him that he'd jumped at the chance to be a Ranger again. He'd taken up the Power Staff, his heart shining with hope... and had been crushed.

He shifted against the wall, bringing one hand up to rub at his face. When Zordon had informed him that the Powers had failed to transfer, Billy had been ready to cry. He'd felt the sob of anguish bursting to get out of his chest, but he'd held it in. To this day, he still didn't know how he'd avoided breaking down right then and there.

He leaned his head back against the wall, the familiar ache starting to radiate through his chest as he brought up more and more memories. It had nearly killed him when he saw Jason stroll into the Power Chamber all smiles and puppy-dog eagerness - and he'd hoped, just for one moment, that Jason would fail as well. Then maybe, just maybe, he could convince himself that the problem lay with the Alien Power - not with him, and consequently, he might have another shot at being a Ranger someday. But Jason had taken up the Gold Powers without a hitch - and then proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could use them. And Billy had been left standing in the Power Chamber, staring at his old uniform again.

He'd immured himself in the zord bays for the rest of the day, wanting desperately to avoid the new Gold Ranger. Part of him had told him to go talk to Jason, but he'd ignored it, suffering in silence as always. He'd thrown himself into repairing the zords as if his life depended on it - but the ache hadn't gone away, it had just gotten worse. So much worse... He'd finally stumbled into the Ninjazord bay and collapsed against the Wolfzord, crying like a lost child and desperately wishing for this whole thing to just be a nightmare - that he'd wake up to Zordon's voice on the communicator saying that he was needed at the Command Center to fight Rita Repulsa and her Putty Patrol. But it wasn't a nightmare - not in that sense, anyway.

He'd finally calmed down about an hour later. He'd stayed with the Wolfzord for a while, needing to feel the joyous howling of his spirit guide rise up in his soul, even though he knew that the Wolf had been forever silenced. As usual, he'd been disappointed. He'd finally gone back to the ZeoZord bays to finish up his repairs - never mind that the Rangers just trashed them again when he was finished... Every tool he lifted after that seemed to weigh a ton, and he'd finally given up and left the zord bay. When he'd returned to the main Power Chamber, Alpha was trying (and failing) to bring a fight back up onto the viewing globe. He'd only half listened to the problem, not particularly caring if he missed seeing one more fight.

The Rangers had teleported back to the Power Chamber and removed their helmets, each and every one of them looking much the worse for wear. He'd forced himself to listen to their tale of the fight and made himself give the same old suggestions and helpful comments, but his heart had been even less in it than usual. Not even the prospect of meeting a new Ranger had brought him out of his funk. And so, it had come as quite a shock when (after he thought everyone had left) Jason had walked over and asked how he was. He'd hedged, trying to get out of spending too much time with his old friend - for the first time, he felt ashamed of what a horrible mess his life was turning out to be, and he didn't want Jason to know.

A rueful smile crossed his face - a lot of good that had done. Jason never did know how to take "No" for an answer... And maybe that was a good thing. Because, for the first time since he'd given up the Power, Billy didn't feel so completely depressed. Just being with Jason was helping. The smile widened, his earlier thoughts were more accurate than he'd really thought at the time. Jason really was like a puppy dog in some respects - all boundless energy and playful eagerness - and at the same time, fiercely loyal to his friends. Even being in Jason's house was putting him more at ease - Jason's mother just had a way about her...

Billy suddenly became aware of the fact that the former Red Ranger had been staring at him for quite some time. His cheeks did a slow burn as he considered what emotions may have been playing across his features while he thought - Lord-only-knew what Jason had managed to pick up. He started to stammer out some kind of apology - the sort of thing he hadn't done since before he became a Ranger - but Jason shook his head. Jason just put a hand on each of his shoulders and gave them a light squeeze - enough to reassure, but not enough to push. Billy gave him a grateful smile - he just wasn't quite ready to talk about it yet. For now he just wanted to forget this whole mess and focus on those wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen. Eating at Aerin Scott's home was always an experience. Jason's mother had a knack for pulling together the most unusual recipes - things that no one had ever heard of. But one constant existed in all of her dishes - every single one of them was delicious. Apparently Jason was having the same ideas, for his stomach chose that moment to growl. The tense moment was lost in a bout of friendly laughter and teasing. There would be time enough to focus on serious things - for now, he'd just worry about having fun with his best friend.

Jason helped his mom carry the serving dishes into the dining room, trying to ignore the thousand and one worries beleaguering his mind. Ever since he'd left Angel Grove, he'd worried about Billy. Oh - he'd worried about all of his original teammates, but he'd worried about the Blue Ranger most of all. He, Zack, and Trini still had each other, and Kim had Tommy. Billy had no one.

He finished setting the plates on the table and sat down next to Billy. It was pretty clear that Billy hadn't been holding up too well. The strain was even starting to show in his eyes. A quick glance at his oldest friend showed that the ex-Blue Ranger was still tense. Jason cursed quietly to himself. This would never do... He had to break the tension somehow... His eyes fell on his father, a mischievous glint lighting up the gentle brown orbs, "Dad! Can you pass the rice over?"

Everett Scott looked over at his son with a small frown, "We have a guest, Jason."

Billy caught Jason's eye, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips in spite of his somber mood. Everett's British sensibilities and the boys' American attitudes had clashed more than once over how formally Billy was to be treated in the Scott home. Jason grinned as Billy rose to the challenge, "Mr. Scott, it's quite all right. Jason can have the rice. I was going to start with the scrumptious looking vegetables right here." He picked up the platter on his right.

Aerin had to cover her mouth to hold in the laugh. Everett looked at his wife, looked at the grinning boys, and gave up. He handed over the rice without further comment. Jason snickered quietly to himself and scooped a generous portion of rice onto his and Billy's plates. Billy made a sour face at the amount of food now piled onto his plate and Jason shook the serving utensil at his friend and, in a fair imitation of his mother's light tones, said, "You don't eat enough! You're too thin! How are you ever going to get a girlfriend if you're so thin?"

Everyone at the table broke up into laughter, and the rest of the meal passed quite pleasantly, indeed.

Aerin smiled softly as she watched Jason and Billy head out to the backyard. Whatever was on Billy's mind, Jason would get it out of him soon enough. She picked up the remainder of the dishes and dumped them into the suds-filled sink, not quite ready to deal with them yet. She leaned her hands on the counter to get a better look at what was going on outside. Billy and Jason had walked off towards the woods behind the house. She turned away from the sill and called to her husband. When Everett peeked in the doorway, she smiled. Such a dear man her husband was. She crossed the floor and wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her head on his chest. She felt his arms go around her and smiled, safe in the circle of his embrace.

Several minutes ticked by before he spoke, "Love? Did you want something?"

Aerin nodded and leaned back to look up at him, "Jason and Billy went for a walk towards the forest. Just wanted you to know, just in case."

Everett smiled as he kissed her forehead, prompting quietly, "And...?"

Aerin grinned, "And I'm going for a walk, too. I shouldn't be gone more than an hour or two."

Everett sighed and tightened his arms around her, "Be careful, Aerin. You never know what sort of monster might be prowling Angel Grove at night."

Aerin gave her husband one last peck on the cheek and left. She had an important date to keep...

A semi-amused tenor voice rang out across the Park, "You're late."

A growl was the response, "Dinner took longer than I expected. Live with it."

The first voice laughed, "I am here at your request, Lady."

A raven-haired figure finally emerged from the bushes, pulling a hair tie around her long thick locks, "Oh, stow the Lady-crap, Prince."

Trey of Courage smiled and bowed, "As you wish, Aerin. Now, enough with the pleasantries. What did you wish to see me about? I assumed it was semi-urgent..."

Aerin sighed heavily, "Well, I discovered something today." Trey raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to continue. She grimaced, "I am woefully out of shape and dreadfully out of practice..."

Trey chuckled and dropped into a "ready" stance, "Finally - a chance to pummel you honestly."

Aerin threw a punch which he just barely avoided, "Shut up and fight, Courage."

Trey bowed, still laughing, "My pleasure, Lady... Ever and always, my pleasure."

Billy settled back onto the star-watching rock, slowly letting his head dip backwards to rest on the flat expanse of solid strength. His eyes roamed the heavens, his brain automatically locating and cataloguing familiar clusters of stars. His lips stretched into a slow smile when his eyes landed upon Pegasus. Kin to the mythical Unicorn. An old friend. He closed his eyes, visions of the old Thunderzords playing across his inner eyelids.

The soft rustling of cloth to his right informed him that Jason had finished running through his kata and settled down next to him. He waited, giving Jason the option to start the conversation that seemed inevitable between them. The other Ranger took the opportunity.

His gentle baritone voice was even calmer than usual, the tone akin to one that would be used on a frightened, injured bird. But the words spoken by that voice were as blunt and straightforward as ever, "You're unhappy." The voice paused, then continued, "You miss being a Ranger."

Though Jason spoke his thoughts as statements of fact, the ex-Blue Ranger felt the need to answer him. His light tenor voice sounded so uncertain compared to Jason's strong, even tones. Billy was suddenly starkly aware of the difference, "Of course, I'm unhappy. I... Being a Ranger was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I gave it up. Willingly."

Billy opened his eyes and sat up, drawing his legs underneath him. He rubbed tiredly at his eyes - they felt gritty from his contacts. He felt rather than saw Jason sit up next to him. The other boy made as if to speak, but Billy shook his head, not quite finished. "I didn't realize what I was giving up. And by the time I figured it out, it was too late. And the others... They no longer treat me as an equal - I'm not part of their team and I don't think I ever will be. When Trey offered me the Gold Power..." His voice choked off harshly.

Jason wrapped an arm around Billy's shoulders in a silent expression of sympathy, "And then I came along and took it. Man, Billy - I'm sorry..."

Billy shook his head, "It... It isn't your fault Jason. Though part of me almost wishes it was. But the truth is, there must be something wrong with me. Why else could you hold the Power that I couldn't? Maybe it has something to do with what happened while the others were on their Zeo Quests... I don't know. Maybe I never will. But it's pretty clear that being a Ranger is no longer an option for me. And I... I hate it, Jason." He clenched his fists in his lap, eyes squeezing shut, "I hate feeling so... helpless. So powerless."

Jason's arm tightened once before releasing him, "Billy, you aren't helpless. And you aren't powerless. And there is certainly nothing wrong with you." His voice dropped into a quiet murmur, "And don't let Tommy get to you, Billy."

Billy's head jerked up, startled sky blue eyes met knowing brown ones, "What?"

Jason nodded, "Don't think I don't know how Tommy treats you. I can see it. I can feel it." He shuddered a little, "He's changed Billy. He was never this bad before. And I don't know why he's so different either - but I do know this. You shouldn't let his insecurities make you unhappy, Billy. It isn't worth it." Jason stood up, quietly gazing down at his long-time friend, "And you aren't powerless. You still have your mind. You still have your inner strength. You haven't forgotten all that Tommy and I taught you about the martial arts, right? That gives you strength. Strength that nothing can take away." He held out a hand to the stunned ex-Ranger with a light smile on his face, "Right?"

Billy stared at the proffered hand in silence, thoughts churning in several different directions at once. A broad grin began to stretch across his face and he gripped Jason's hand, tightly, "You're right. I don't know how I overlooked that. But you are, indeed, very right, my friend."

Jason pulled the smaller man close to him in a back-thumping hug, "Darned straight, I'm right." He released Billy and gave his nose a light tweak, which the ex-Blue Ranger protested loudly, "I had a long time to think about this. Even if we don't wield the Power... Even if we don't physically fight Earth's enemies... We will always be the Power Rangers. We will always fight for what's right - in our own ways. And no one can make us feel inferior for that but ourselves. So, if we don't let it happen - then we're OK." He smiled.

Billy's grin widened even further, "And who knows - maybe there's nothing wrong with me, either. Maybe I just wasn't compatible with the Gold Power. There could be other Power out there, too, right?"

Jason laughed and punched him lightly in the arm, "There you go! Think positive, Billy. You've got air in your lungs, and friends all around you - and the world is a wide and wondrous place just full of marvelous adventures. Things could be so much worse!"

Billy paused, then began to laugh, "Though I agree with the sentiment, I never figured you for the poetic type, Jason..."

Jason laughed sheepishly, rubbing his hand along the back of his neck, "Actually, I'm not. I was quoting a very wise sensei I once had. Actually, I think you knew her..." Billy raised an eyebrow, just managing to get his mirth under control as Jason finished, "...Trini Kwan."

Billy's laugh turned into a cough as his cheeks took on an interesting shade of pink, "Trini?"

Jason laughed, eyes twinkling, "Yeah - maybe you've heard of her. I hear she was the Yellow Ranger, once... A real smart girl. Liked to hang around with those genius-types." He elbowed Billy lightly in the ribs.

"Jason!" Billy's cheeks turned a darker shade of red as Jason continued to laugh, "We were just friends!" He swung a mock punch towards Jason's head, which Jason intercepted easily.

"O-ho! But I'll bet you wish that weren't the case..." Billy glared at his best friend, face still flaming, and Jason took pity on him, "OK, Billy - take it easy." He cocked his head lightly to the side, "For what it's worth, I think she likes you..." At Billy's incredulous look, he continued, "No, I'm serious. She was happy to be with me and Zack in Switzerland - but she missed you terribly. She talked about you constantly..." Jason rolled his eyes, a teasing glint shining from the gentle brown orbs, "She told me things even I hadn't known about you, Billy."

Billy's blush deepened, then faded, "I... I wouldn't even know where to begin, Jase..." He fluttered his hands helplessly.

Jason smiled, clapping one hand on his friend's shoulder, "One step at a time, Billy. One step at a time. As they told us at the peace conference - you start with "Hello." You'd be surprised what that will accomplish."

The two fell into a comfortable silence as they began to walk back towards the house, each lost in his own thoughts. As they walked into the backyard and up towards the porch, Billy put a hand on Jason's shoulder, preventing him from walking inside. Jason turned, one eyebrow raised. Billy spoke quietly, "What you said... What Trini said - Jason, when did she say that?"

Jason smiled, an understanding look in his eyes as he squeezed Billy's shoulder once again, "On the plane to Switzerland, right after we gave up the Power. She's a wise woman, our Trini. Even Zack said so." With those last words, Jason turned and went inside, trusting Billy to follow.

After another quick look at Pegasus, and a prayer of thanks for friends like Jason and Trini, Billy followed him in.

Jason strolled happily into the Power Chamber, tossing Billy a bright smile as he entered, "Hey guys - what's going down?"

Tommy frowned at this display of frivolity, but answered the question readily enough, "King Mondo. He sent a monster through downtown Angel Grove. We have to go stop it."

Jason almost laughed with excitement, rubbing his hands together happily, "Well, let's get started then, hmm?"

The rest of the Rangers lined up behind him, though Tommy remained apart, frowning slightly. He stepped up next to Jason, one pace in front of him and yelled, "It's Morphin' Time!"

Billy watched as the colors of the Zeo Crystals flashed about the Chamber, enveloping each of his friends with their magic touch. Jason held the Power Staff aloft, winked, and morphed, the gold of his transformation surpassing all of the others. Billy felt a brief surge of jealousy, but squashed it. Now was not the time for such things. As the others teleported out, he walked over to the viewing globe and began entering data into the computer, muttering to himself, "We have to find some kind of weakness..."

Alpha walked up next to him, nearly stuttering in his excitement, "Billy?"

Billy smiled and patted the robot on the back, "Once a Ranger, always a Ranger, right? I should do what I can to help them from here..."

Alpha bounced once, letting out a happy, "Ai yi yi yi yi!" and headed back to his own area of the Power Chamber. He let out a startled squeak, "Zordon! Billy! The Green Ranger is back!"

Billy looked quickly up at the viewing globe - just as it went on the fritz again, "Damn it!"

Billy? Zordon looked worried. What is the matter with the viewing globe?

Billy growled as he began tinkering with the transmission, "She's interrupting the signal again. Wherever she is, I can't get a good enough lock to bring up an image... Damn."

Zordon nodded quietly, Just do your best, Billy. Perhaps she has reason to not wish to be seen...

Billy muttered quietly to himself as he finally managed to get a good picture back onto the globe, "I just wish I knew what it was..."

Aerin cursed quietly, dropping the laundry basket as her astromorpher beeped. She covered it quickly, unsure of where everyone else was in the house. Moments later, she heard Jason yell, "Going out, Mom!" and the front door slammed. She waited a few more minutes, then depressed a button on her astromorpher. Tommy's slightly irritated voice filled the basement, ~...sent a monster through downtown Angel Grove. We have to go stop it.~

She sighed - back to action... She threw her hand out, "Let's Rocket!" - then pressed the buttons on her astromorpher in her morphing sequence. The Green rushed up through her soul, an otter chittering happily through the silence of her mind. With a fierce grin, she teleported to the battle site, eager to show off her newly re-honed skills.

She arrived on the scene to find each of the Zeo Rangers engaged with a few Cogs each and Jason engaged with the monster-of-the-day. She flickered her eyes back and forth, for once, torn as to who she should help. The Blue Ranger's sudden, pained cry made the decision for her. One of the Cogs had tripped him up and he'd gone sprawling, clutching at his ankle as he fell.

With one mighty leap, Aerin was on the Cog. Poor thing never stood a chance. She extended a hand to Rocky, tilting her head to silently ask after his health. He nodded slowly and let her help him to his feet, "Thanks, ma'am. I do appreciate it." He rested his weight gingerly on his left foot, body relaxing when it took the weight with no problem. He gave her a thumbs up then threw himself back into the fight.

She laughed to herself, shaking her head slowly, Kids... Oi. She sighed, then took stock of the battle once again. Jason was still fighting the monster. She ran over in his direction. He seemed surprised to see her again - he actually turned to stare at her. She lightly whapped his head through the helmet and pointed at the monster. She could almost see his sheepish grin as he returned his attention to the fight.

Billy's voice suddenly rang out from Jason's communicator, "Jason - I can't see your situation, something's interfering with the viewing globe transmission. And since I can't see the monster, either, I'll assume that it and the Green Ranger are nearby you. Can you confirm?"

Jason's strong voice was tired as he answered, "That's a roger, Billy. You have something for me?"

"Affirmative. It has a weak spot at the juncture of its tail and back. If you can hit that spot with a tremendous enough force, you may weaken it enough to destroy it." Billy's voice was quiet, but proud. Aerin smiled - apparently his and Jason's talk two nights ago had been some help...

Jason nodded, "I read you. Thanks, man - I owe ya." He cut the transmission, then turned uncertainly to her, "I don't know if you understand me, lady..." Aerin cut him off with a nod of her head and he nodded in response, "You keep him busy from this end and I'll creep around back and hit him with the Power Staff?"

Aerin tossed her son a thumbs up, then dropped into a battle ready stance, focused on keeping the monster's eyes on her and away from Jason. It worked - too well. Mondo must have set the thing to look for me... Damn it, I should have guessed. In spite of her nightly workout sessions, the Green Ranger was finding herself hard pressed to keep up the fight alone. And just when she thought she couldn't hold the thing off another moment - a flash of red jumped into the battle. Tommy nodded at her, "Looked like you could use a hand..."

She nodded, dropping back to catch her breath. Just then, a blast of Gold Power from the Power Staff tore its way through the monster's hide. The thing squealed, a high-pitched, horrible sound. Apparently, the Zeo helmets weren't as well insulated as hers and Jason's... Tommy dropped to his knees, clutching at his head in pain. The monster raised one sharp claw up over the prone Red Ranger, now squealing in triumph. Aerin jumped in, dagger in hand. She drove it up through the monster's jaw, but not before the claw fell, burying deep into her left thigh.

A wave of black agony swept through her, though she kept her hold on consciousness. Jason sent another pulse of Power through the monster, finally destroying the thing -- until Mondo grew it to 20 times the size it had been... The Zeo Rangers were suddenly all together, calling the ZeoZords as Jason stood apart and called on Pyramidas. Aerin clutched at her leg, willing the Power within her to stop the flow of blood. Weakened as she was, she was only partly successful. She felt her control over Zordon's viewing globe weaken further and hastily teleported away, collapsing bonelessly when she arrived at her destination.

Three identical, startled voices let out a yell, "Aerin!" and she was caught up in a pair of strong arms and laid quietly down on a bed. She knew no more.

Jason pulled his helmet off, glancing anxiously at Billy, "She's not here."

Billy raised an eyebrow confused, "Who is she? And why would she be here?"

Adam answered as he pulled off his own helmet, "The Green Darkstar Ranger. She was injured during the fight. That monster clawed up her leg pretty good."

Zordon broke into the conversation, his voice subdued, I assure you, Rangers, that the Green Ranger is capable of caring for herself. And if she is not, then Prince Trey most assuredly is.

Rocky looked confused as he took a step closer to Zordon's tube, "What makes you think Trey is still here?"

Zordon looked uncomfortable, I knew the both of them once. If the Green Ranger is here and in need of help, Prince Trey will be nearby. That I can assure you.

Jason put his helmet down on one of the consoles, eyes thoughtful, "What do you know about the Green Ranger, Zordon? I get the feeling you know more than you're telling..."

Zordon sighed, I do indeed... Observe the viewing globe, Rangers. I will tell you what I know.

An image appeared on the viewing globe and Tanya gasped - it was a familiar image. The same one that Alpha had found the other day. Zordon's voice spoke quietly as they watched the Green and Gold Rangers fight, The image you see was recorded over 100 years ago. The Gold Ranger of Triforia and the Green Space Ranger had just begun fighting as a team. They defeated many enemies together and brought peace to their part of the galaxy. The Gold Ranger is Trey of Triforia. As with many others that live in that sector, Triforians are a very long-lived people. Like the people of Eltar and Altiyar. The Green Ranger was, and is still, I presume, Lady Aerin of Altiyar, youngest daughter of the Prime Minister. She was 313 years old at the time of this fight.

Billy met Jason's startled eyes. The ex-Red Ranger mouthed, "Aerin?" And Billy shook his head. It was too much of a coincidence - but if Jason's mother were a Ranger, would she not have told them? Why keep it from them? He turned his attention back to the viewing globe. The view had shifted.

Five Rangers stood in fighting poses against a starry backdrop. It looked like a publicity photo. They recognized it, again, as an image they had seen before. Zordon continued his narrative, These are the Darkstar Rangers - minus one. They never found their sixth ranger, their metallic colored ranger. The Red Ranger was Roland, their Leader; the Purple Ranger, Decka his wife; the Pink Ranger, Randi, Aerin's close friend; and the White Ranger... Zordon's voice trailed off.

The Rangers all turned to look at him as the image on the viewing globe faded. He swallowed, The White Ranger was an Eltarian named Darin. Picked as Leader of the Rangers by the Council on Eltar, he was certain that he could do the job better than Roland had. He was wrong. And everyone knew it but he. Aerin... she made no bones about the fact that she detested Darin with a passion that was unmatched. She eventually resigned from the Rangers when the Council on Eltar refused to revoke their decision. No one has heard from her until now. Four years later, Roland and Decka died. Darin... he was devastated.

In his grief over his bad leadership, he put away his astromorpher and retired to Eltar, where he eventually found the solution to his problem. He paused, old eyes falling on each of the Rangers in turn, You all know that "Zordon" has existed for nearly 100,000 years, correct?

Kat's eyes narrowed, "But... Zordon, of course we know that. But why speak of yourself in the third person?"

Zordon shook his head sadly, Because Zordon is not my name. Zordon is a title. A title given to the being sent to guide a newly formed Ranger Team through its initial bumps and scrapes with the enemy. The post has existed for 100,000 years - and Alpha 5 has served the holder of that title for nearly as long. I myself have only held the title for the past ten or so years. I once had another name.

Billy took in a deep breath as his eyes lit with understanding, "You were Darin - the White Darkstar Ranger. Am I right?"

Zordon nodded quietly, That is correct, Billy. Doubtless, Aerin wants little - if not nothing - to do with me. I am, after all, the reason she left the Rangers in the first place. She is likely deliberately blurring the images on the viewing globe to keep me from seeing that she is here. A confrontation between us at this point would likely be very ugly. The trainer and mentor to the Earth Rangers finally fell silent, story spent.

Jason was the one who broke the silence, "Don't worry, Zordon - we'll vouch for you. Tell her you've been doing a good job. Right, guys?"

Everyone else nodded and Tommy stepped forwards, "Jase, can I talk to you for a moment, please? Alone?"

Feeling the tension in the air and seeing the determined set of Tommy's body, everyone else fell back, quietly demorphing and teleporting back to what they'd been doing before the fight. Billy caught Jason's eye as the Gold Ranger demorphed and indicated with a jerk of his head that he'd be in the ZeoZord bays if he was needed. Even Zordon and Alpha retreated from the Chamber. Tommy remained morphed, though he finally pulled off his helmet. He frowned at Jason.

Jason sighed heavily, not in the mood to play games, "What is it Tommy?"

Tommy frowned, eyes drifting over Jason's tense muscles, "I don't know if you ever noticed it, Jason, but... you fight like the Green Ranger."

Jason's lips pulled downward, eyes taking on a warning glare, "You have a point?"

Tommy nodded, "Your mother's name is Aerin, Jason."

Jason rubbed his hands over his eyes, his normally energetic voice weary when he answered, "You think the fact had escaped me, Tommy? What am I supposed to think? This is my mother we're talking about. A happy English housewife. How am I supposed to believe that she is the Green Ranger?"

Tommy shrugged, finally demorphing, "I don't know, my friend. But there are too many similarities to overlook them as coincidence. We should at least ask her."

"And what if she isn't? Then we will have revealed our identities to a civilian!" His eyes hardened, "I won't have my mother placed in danger, Tommy."

The ex-White Ranger placed his hand quietly on Jason's shoulder, "I know, man, I know. But what choice do we have? We need to know - and it all fits. Why she showed up the minute you became a Ranger again. Why she won't talk during a fight. Why she always helps you first and the rest of us later. Why she won't let Zordon see her in the viewing globe. It all falls into place, man."

Jason hung his head, shoulders drooping, "Innocent until proven guilty, Tommy. I won't believe it until I have her word on the matter. All right?"

Tommy clapped his hand once on Jason's shoulders, "Fair deal, man. Fair deal. And don't worry - we'll keep her safe. Somehow..."

Aerin's eyelids fluttered open and she almost panicked when she didn't feel the weight of her helmet upon her head. A cool, reassuring hand stroked over her fever-bright cheeks, "Easy, my friend. You took a bad injury - you've been out cold for nearly ten hours..."

Aerin sat bolt upright in the bed, staring around the cheap motel room, eyes picking out the three tense forms in the darkness. She turned back to Trey of Heart, "Ten hours?? By the gods, Trey - my family's probably worried sick! Jason probably came home to an empty house hours ago and Everett was probably there not long after! Damn it!"

One thumbnail found its way to her mouth, and she began to nervously chew on it - a habit she'd thought long since dropped. She stared at her thumb a moment, then dropped back onto the bed with a moan, "How am I going to explain this? Blessed gods... how do I explain a full day absence when I wasn't planning on leaving the house?"

Trey of Wisdom settled down on her other side, gripping her hand lightly in his, "I am sure we will think of something, Aerin. In the meantime, why don't you sit up and try to eat something? We ordered you some food..."

Aerin nodded, subdued, "Food would be good... Especially something with iron..."

Courage settled the food tray on her lap as she sat up. He pulled the cover off the tray with a grand flourish, "Liver and orange juice, my lady. The best we could come up with on such short notice."

Aerin nearly gagged. On Altiyar, the food was so different... Never would she be served liver to build up her iron count after losing so much blood. She grimaced, but buckled down and ate what they gave her. After all, she needed the iron and she knew it.

As she slowly finished up her meal, Heart began to speak, "Perhaps if you told them you'd been kidnapped..."

She took a swallow of orange juice before answering, "The idea has merit, but... who kidnapped me? And why?"

Courage spoke up, "Mondo? Because he knows Jason's a Ranger?"

She snorted, "A good idea, but how do we get Mondo to cooperate?"

He frowned, "A point."

Wisdom finally cleared his throat, "I hesitate to suggest it - but rig a car accident."

"What?" she nearly choked on the last of her juice.

He nodded, "Go out, pretend to get hit by a car. With your power, you can keep anyone from being seriously injured and yet your current injury will make it appear as if you had been. The doctors will not know the difference and it would explain your absence."

She nodded slowly, working out details in her mind, "Why was I out on the road?"

Wisdom shrugged, "Getting groceries for dinner?"

She made a face, "Then I'd need to go out and buy some..."

Heart held out a hand to help her up, "I will assist you, then."

She dropped her head, "Oh gods... Help."

"Aerin, what is this?"

Aerin just about died of embarrassment when she saw what Trey had picked up, "It's a box of tampons, Trey... Just put it down."

Trey continued to examine the box, "What in all the worlds are they for?"

She grabbed the box and threw it into her shopping cart, face red, "Feminine problems. Drop the subject, Trey." She leaned hard on the shopping cart, face draining quickly of color as she took another step. "Ow..."

Trey trailed along behind her, then suddenly froze, "Aerin... We have a problem."

Aerin looked up and froze right along with him. Staring across the frozen food isle... "Tommy..." She went a shade paler.

Tommy's eyes flickered from Trey to Aerin and back, then fell quickly to Aerin's leg. His grip on his basket tightened and his mouth dropped open. To his credit, he recovered quickly, moving to their side of the isle and staring at them both. He swallowed before speaking, "Mrs. Scott... Prince Trey... This is... beyond surprising..." He took a deep breath, "Jason and your husband were worried sick when they came home and found you missing. Neither of them wanted to leave, though, in case you called or came back. I volunteered to come pick up groceries... Billy's out looking for you."

Aerin flinched at the accusation in his words and turned another shade paler, "Tommy... I don't suppose you could forget you saw me?"

The Red Ranger shook his head, "No - I don't think I could." His face took on a confused look, "I don't suppose you would tell me what you're doing in the supermarket? With..." He jerked his head towards Trey, "...him?"

Aerin sighed heavily, "It's a long story, Tommy..." She looked up at Trey of Heart, "Why don't you go gather up the rest of you and meet me back at my house? I believe that we all have some explaining to do..." With that, she released the basket and gestured at Tommy to help her walk out to the car, "I sure hope you can drive, kid..."

Tommy flushed slightly, but made no further comment. Aerin shook her head, ruefully, "This is gonna be a long night..."

Jason watched silently as his father made another trip past the couch. Everett had been pacing for the past hour or so and it was starting to drive him a little crazy. There'd been no word from his mother, no word from Billy, no word from Tommy, no word from anyone! His mother was missing - possibly even kidnapped by the Machine Empire as a hostage - and there was nothing he could do about it. Sometimes being a Ranger wasn't all it was cracked up to be... He rested his head in his hands.

Everett paused in his pacing to rest a hand on Jason's shoulder, "I'm sure she's all right, son. I know you didn't know your mother when she was younger, but believe me when I tell you - she always manages to land on her feet. No matter how bad things may seem."

Jason nodded, "I know, Dad... I know..." How to express to your father that it wasn't basic vigilantes that you were worried about? Jason had no doubts about his mother's ability to handle any mortal threat in Angel Grove - she'd given him his first instruction in the martial arts, after all. It was the non-mortal threats that he worried about. How would his mother fare if faced with King Mondo? He shivered to think about it. Please be safe, Mom... You have to be all right...

Each lost in their own thoughts, both father and son jumped about ten feet when the door opened. They rushed towards the front hallway, nearly running over the person who stood there in their haste to see if it was Aerin. Billy gave them each a confused, apologetic smile, "I didn't find her..."

Jason slammed his fist into a wall, and Everett returned to his pacing. Billy reached out a hand and patted Jason's bow-string taught shoulder, "I'm sorry, Jase... I really looked..."

Jason closed his eyelids over too-weary eyes. He tapped his communicator, lightly, "Even...?"

Billy nodded, "Even that. Alpha's continuing the search, but we weren't having any luck. No sign of her. I... I think we'll just have to hope she's OK and able to make her own way back."

Jason rubbed a hand over his tired eyes as he made his way back to the couch, settling in with Billy next to him. He said nothing. There was nothing else to say. Either his mother would come home all right, or she wouldn't - and nothing the Rangers did would affect the outcome. In a word, they were helpless. And it sucked. What good was being a Ranger if you couldn't protect your own family? As if sensing his mood, Billy leaned slightly into him - and surprisingly, he felt better. He let his head fall onto the back of the couch while he racked his brain for any option that they hadn't explored - he must have missed something... If only he knew what...

When another hour had passed by with nothing more exciting happening than more of Everett's pacing, the doorbell rang. The three exchanged glances with each other, then stood together to face the door. By unspoken agreement, Jason was voted frontman. He stalked slowly over to the door and opened it, his eyes going wide with shock as he saw who stood on the other side.

Everett slammed past him, grabbing his wife up into his arms and planting kisses all over her face, "Aerin! Don't you ever scare me like that again! What happened? Are you all right?"

Aerin put a hand up, stalling his rush of words. Her voice was tinged with strain when she spoke, "I'm fine, Everett... I left here of my own volition - I just wasn't able to return as quickly as I intended." She lifted her hands to lightly stroke his cheeks, her mahogany brown eyes deeply remorseful, "I'm so sorry for making you worry..." She extended a hand to stroke Jason's cheek and Billy's in turn, "So sorry..."

Tommy walked in behind Aerin and caught Jason's eye. He flicked his gaze towards Aerin's legs until he was sure Jason had caught the look. Jason and Billy both turned to look - and their eyes widened in shock. Tommy nodded once, his face clearly saying the "I told you so" that he refused to let his lips utter.

Aerin intercepted every one of the looks between the three boys and rubbed one hand on her temple. "OK, OK... this isn't a spy novel - you don't need to sneak." Billy and Jason had the decency to flush at that remark, though Tommy remained impassive. Aerin continued, "Jason - why don't you go call the rest of your friends and have them come over."

Jason blinked, confused, as Aerin slowly made her way over to the couch to prop her leg up, "My friends?"

Aerin laughed quietly, then spoke slowly, "Rocky, Adam, Tanya, and Kat. Your friends. Correct?"

Jason nodded, a little shocked - his mother had never met any of the rest of the current Rangers... He picked up the phone to call Adam and nearly dropped it when his mother laughed again, "Jason, sweetie, use your communicator. It'll be faster."

He dropped the phone, whirling to face his mother, "What???"

She shifted on the couch, trying to settle her leg more comfortably, "You heard me, love. And you know damned well what I meant, so don't play stupid."

Seeing Jason too stunned to respond, Billy activated his communicator. The other four Rangers responded quickly, concern in their voices. His answer was short and to the point, "We found Jason's mom. Can you all teleport over here?"

Rocky was the first to protest, "Teleport? Are you sure that's a good idea, Billy?"

He nodded, not realizing for once, that they couldn't see, "She knows, guys. I don't know how, but she knows. About us. Just get here." He turned off his communicator, then helped Jason back to a chair. Moments later, blue, green, pink, and yellow beams of light bathed the room. The other four Rangers stepped forwards.

Everett raised his hand to get everyone's attention, "I seem to be the only one here with no idea as to what's going on..." Though his voice was calm, his eyes were pleading and closer to panic than Jason had ever seen them.

Surprisingly, it was Kat who stepped in. She walked over to Everett's chair and rubbed his back quietly, "It's all right, Mr. Scott. Really it is." She made a broad gesture around the room, "We're the Power Rangers."

Aerin corrected her, "No - you're not." Once she had everyone's attention, she continued, "You're the Zeo Rangers. Not the Power Rangers. There is a vast difference between the two."

Seeing Everett's confused look that signaled he was about to interrupt again Aerin sighed and turned to face her husband, "Everett, honey - can I ask you to go upstairs for now? I swear I'll explain all of this to you later, but right now it will take too long if I have to tell you everything that they already know."

Everett stiffened in his chair, then drooped, "I see your point... I trust that you will explain, though?"

Aerin nodded, a sad smile covering her features, "Of course, love... of course." Everett left, and Aerin turned back to face the others.

Before she could say another word, a golden flash lit up the room. Trey stepped out of it. Aerin blinked up at him, confused for a moment, before her face lit up. She jumped up from the couch, throwing her arms around his neck, "You're together again! Trey!"

Trey wrapped his arms around the smaller woman and rested his head against her shoulder, "Didn't think you'd be so happy to see me..." He kissed her cheek, then released her, guiding her back to the couch. "But, I did not mean to interrupt... Please, continue..."

She shook her head, eyes wide, "I didn't know you were feeling well enough to... Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean - are you really all right enough to rejoin?"

Trey frowned slightly, then shrugged, "I am as all right as I am going to get without my powers to heal me the rest of the way - and for the interim, Jason still has need of them. I will be all right, Aerin. Please - don't let me interrupt..."

Before Aerin could start to speak, Tommy cleared his throat, his face clearly showing the confusion he was feeling, "What do you mean that we are Zeo Rangers and not Power Rangers? I don't understand..."

Aerin raised both hands to rub at her temples, "Nor did I expect you to, Tommy... The difference is simple - there can be only five Power Rangers on any given planet at any given time. They can fully bond to the Power and can not be replaced. Carriers can wield the Power - as Jason did for Trey - but they can not ever replace those for whom the Power was intended. The Great Power, the Zeo Power - and many other forms of Power were created to establish greater fighting forces when necessary. Each of these sets can be used by Carriers - it isn't necessary to be a fully-bonded Ranger to use them. Currently, none of the Power Rangers are bonded to their Power properly."

Billy interrupted, "Who were the five supposed to be?"

Aerin could see the rising hope in his eyes and her heart spasmed as she knew she was about to crush it. Her eyes filled with sympathy and Billy recoiled before she even got the words out, "Jason, Zack, Kimberly, Trini-- "

Billy finished bitterly, "And Tommy, right?" He turned his head away, "I was right... there is something wrong with me..."

Aerin reached out and squeezed Billy's hand, "No, Billy. Tommy was not meant to be the Blue Ranger. And there is nothing wrong with you - which I will explain if you give me a chance to get to it."

Jason spoke up, "So, who was meant to be the Blue Ranger?"

She leaned back, a twinkle in her eyes, "You're the Red Ranger, Jason - it's your team. Why don't you tell me?"

Jason's eyes widened, then his gaze turned inward, listening for the Power that he knew was there. He frowned a moment, then raised his head to meet a pair of startled eyes across the room. Aerin nodded, "So, so, and exactly so, Jason."

Adam nearly squeaked with shock, "Me??"

Aerin nodded, "You. Adam Park. Blue Ranger."

Adam blinked rapidly a few times before gathering his voice enough to answer, "Oh..."

Rocky chuckled lightly as he punched his friend in the arm, "Way to go, Adam! Always knew you had it in you..."

Adam grinned at his friend, then turned back to Jason's mother, "With all due respect, ma'am... How do you know all this?"

Aerin chuckled, then stood up, "You want to know how I know?" At the collection of nods she received, Aerin smirked. She flicked her right wrist out to the side, revealing her astro morpher. She gave them all one wicked grin and yelled, "Let's Rocket!" as she let her arms flow through the matching pattern before punching in her morphing sequence. The Green rushed up through her, and she winced as she ended up putting weight on her bad leg.

When the transformation was complete, she stood, letting them each get a good look at her uniform. She watched as the pieces slowly fell into place in each of their minds. Of everyone, Jason, Billy, and Tommy looked the least surprised. Though since seeing her leg wound, they'd pretty much figured it out already... She undid the clasps of her helmet and let her raven-dark hair tumble down around her shoulders. She rested the helmet on the couch and sat down next to it, "This is how I know."

It was Tanya that said it. "You're the Green Ranger??"

She chuckled softly, "The Green Darkstar Ranger, yes. There is more than one Green Ranger floating about at the moment..."

Tommy had finally had enough, "But the Green Ranger we saw on the viewing globe is over 500 years old!"

Aerin smirked again, "513 to be exact... I've been in semi-retirement for the past 20 years. I wouldn't have resumed active duty if... Well." Her tone grew more serious as she turned to Jason, "This isn't a destiny I would wish on anyone, Jason. And I most certainly wouldn't wish it on you - though I knew that you'd jump at the chance to save the world if you could." She sighed, "I didn't trust Darin to train you properly - and I was right not to. The mistake was in not being involved from the get-go. And I apologize."

Tommy interrupted, fixated on something she'd said, "There is more than one Green Ranger?"

Aerin turned back to face the Rangers' current leader, "There are many. More than you could count, Tommy." She took a deep breath, "I'm not going about this in the most organized fashion... Let me back up a bit."

She settled back onto the couch, crossing one leg over the other, "There are two kinds of Ranger teams. Those who fight on planets and those who fight in Space. Though there is a team for every planet with life on it, there is only one Space team at any given time. Currently, they are the Lightstar Rangers - the successors to the Darkstar Rangers. Space teams have six Rangers - five normal colors and one metallic color. The colors rotate throughout the generations. The planet teams have five Rangers - of any color, metallic or otherwise."

"The Darkstar Rangers, as you heard, never found our metallic Ranger. The Lightstar Rangers consist of a Red Ranger and a Silver Ranger at the moment. It all depends. While the people who could full-bond to the other colors are always born on their planets, no way was ever found to Call more than the intended five at one time." She turned to look at Tommy, trapping his gaze with her own, "Many centuries ago, the Green Earth Power was held by a Carrier - thus enabling Rita to steal it. Because it became so tainted by her evil, it was taken out of the Calling loop, though its potential wielders were still being born."

"When Rita decided to make her Green Ranger, she sought for a Carrier - one who could wield it without bonding to it." She paused, giving Tommy a significant look, "She screwed up." Tommy frowned, but said nothing. Aerin continued, "She went looking for a Carrier - what she found was the person who would have bonded to the Green Power if it were part of the current cycle. You, Tommy."

Tommy swallowed hard, his eyes haunted, "So, I lost my Power before I ever had a shot at it..."

She smiled, "No. No fully-bonded Ranger can have their Power stolen. They can have their energy stolen. They can have their morphers stolen. But it's not the same thing. In order to use the Power, you did partially bond with it, and it's still with you. You just need a jump-start."

As Tommy absorbed that, Aerin turned back to Jason, "Anyway - what I would suggest is that you rematch everyone with their Power, then fill in the missing ranks in the Zeos. I'll take all the Power Rangers and teach them how to fully-bond with their Power, then bring them back."

Jason shook his head, still feeling confused, "How does one bond with the Power?"

Aerin tapped one finger lightly against her chin, then turned to lift an eyebrow at Trey. He shrugged, "There are several ways - most of which involve extreme discipline and training from birth to perform successfully." He made a face and Aerin laughed as he continued sourly, "I would not recommend any of those methods, and I speak from experience." He paused, then shrugged again, "Over the millennia, it was determined that the easiest way to bond to the Power is through your spirit animal - in other words, to become Ninjetti."

Aerin spoke up again, "Now, bear in mind - one can be Ninjetti without being a fully-bonded Ranger, and one can be a Ranger without being Ninjetti - and being a Ninja Ranger through the Great Power has nothing to do with either one. Bonding with one's spirit animal is simply the easiest way to find your bond to the Power."

Adam smiled, "So, I'm a Frog again, huh?"

Aerin laughed, "Yes, Adam - still a Frog. And Tommy, still a Falcon - and Kimberly is still a Crane. Jason, Trini, and Zack will have to find their own spirit animals as well - though you three will accompany them."

Billy's breath caught off to the side, and Aerin heard it. She turned towards him, taking his hands back into her own, "Thought I forgot about you, Billy? I haven't. There's one other thing I should mention first, though... Any fully-bonded Ranger can Carry power for any other - with one exception. No metallic Ranger can Carry another metallic Power."

Billy's face was ashen, and he just barely managed to raise his eyes to meet hers. They were already laden with defeat, his voice heavy with a depression he had only recently shed, "So?"

She smacked him lightly in the head, "So... Remember what I said about the Darkstar Rangers? How we never found our sixth Ranger?"

She almost cheered when she saw the light of hope finally rekindle in Billy's eyes. She freed up one hand to flick out to the side, Calling a small object into her hand and holding it out to Billy, "There was no way that you could have Carried Trey's power, Billy. If Darin were half the Ranger he thinks he is, he wouldn't have even let you try." She kissed him lightly on the forehead as she pressed the Platinum Astro Morpher into his hands, "And I apologize for not figuring this out sooner - I really should have. It's not like me to be so dense..."

Startled into laughter, Billy let out a teary chuckle, "It's OK... I forgive you." She watched in satisfaction as Billy strapped the astromorpher onto his wrist. She clapped her hands together, "Great! All right - you all look a little dazed, so I'll recap for you, quickly."

Tommy held up a hand, eyes showing his uncertainty, "Wait a minute. I... Forgive me for being so skeptical, Mrs. Scott, but I'm finding this a little hard to swallow. You're essentially telling us that Zordon isn't fit to lead the Rangers and everything he taught us over the years is completely wrong. That just doesn't jive with me. And Billy being the Platinum Ranger? Not that I'm not happy for him - but isn't that just a little too pat? A little too convenient?"

Jason frowned at him, "Man, Tommy - what more proof do you need? Zordon all but admitted before that the Green Ranger knew more about Rangering than he ever could. And why can't you just be happy for Billy? Why question everything good that happens to him? You'd almost think that you wanted him to stay stuck in the Power Chamber for the rest of his life..."

Tommy rose to his feet, hands clenched into fists, voice cold and angry, "What exactly are you implying, Jason?"

Jason rose to his own feet, bringing his own fists up, "I don't know, bro. Can't you figure it out?" When Tommy didn't say anything, Jason continued, "You used him - all of you. Tommy, you were on our original team - whenever one of our zords got wrecked, we all fixed our own! We didn't make Billy do it for us - we only asked his help if we were in way over our heads! Couldn't even one of you see how miserable he was? You shut him out of your lives completely, forcing him to hang on the fringes of your group. That's downright wrong, Tommy. That's no way to treat a member of your team!"

Billy jumped up and stood between the two snarling Red Rangers, his face flaming, "Guys! Jason - you know Tommy didn't mean it. Tommy - you know Jason isn't accusing you of being a bad leader, he's just concerned about me..."

Tommy settled back on one leg, crossing his arms over his chest, "Isn't he?"

Billy frowned, "Isn't he what?"

Tommy laughed bitterly, "Isn't he accusing me of being a bad Leader? He all but said I don't know how to run my team. And since he came back, he's been taking over - slowly but surely. I think this is the happiest day of his life - learning that he was supposed to be Red Ranger all along with me as an accidental tag on to the group."

Jason gaped at him, "What?? Jeez, bro! You really don't get it, do you? I've been doing nothing but trying to support your leadership since I got back! It isn't my fault if people want to follow me anyway. As for the rest... You're just wrong, Tommy. This isn't the happiest day of my life. I don't think that there is any one day that I could pick out that is - but I could list a few: the day I moved to Angel Grove and met Billy; the first time I hung out with Zack; the day the three of us discovered the girls; the day Kim's float got picked to be in the parade; the day Zack won the dance contest after that attack by Rita; the first day Trini, Zack and I arrived at the peace conference." He took a deep breath, before finishing, "The day you came back to the Rangers after losing your power... and the day you were chosen as the White Ranger. Tommy those were the happiest days of my life. Do you get it? I never wanted to steal your thunder, bro. I'd never do that to you." He spread his hands out to the side in a gesture of peace-making, "I don't know any other way to put it... Except that I'm sorry if I hurt you." He held out his hand, mahogany brown eyes wide and pleading, "Peace, bro?"

Tommy stared at his outstretched hand, expression wavering. He swallowed hard, looked up into Jason and Billy's anxious faces and shook his head, "I don't know, Jase - I just don't know. I want to have peace between us, but I just... I just can't. Something in me won't let me." He hung his head, his voice so soft that they had to strain to hear it, "I... I don't know what's gotten into me, lately... I just haven't been myself... Ever since-- "

Aerin finally decided to add in her two sense, "Ever since you became the White Ranger?"

Tommy's eyes widened, then narrowed, "Yes... Since then. What happened to me?" He sank back down onto the couch, eyes confused, "I never fly off the handle like that... And I've never felt so jealous of anyone before..."

Aerin shrugged lightly, "Darin screwed up again. There was never meant to be a White Ranger in this generation. And the addition of the White Ranger to the team only reinforced the balance problem created by having a Green Ranger. There are only supposed to be five planet Rangers at a time..." She rubbed her temples lightly before looking back up at Tommy, "And forcing you to take on that unnecessary Power when you'd already partially bonded to your own... That was lunacy. It was bound to throw your whole system out of whack - it unbalanced you terribly. And being the martial artist that you are, anything that throws you out of balance with yourself is going to cause some very literal insecurities because you can feel how out of balance you are. Instead of forcing the White Ranger powers on you, Darin should have found a way to bring another Green Ranger here to jump-start your own Power. It's easy enough to do and would have put a lot less strain on himself and on you. And if you were a fully bonded Ranger, then having a sixth Ranger where there wasn't supposed to be one wouldn't have affected the team quite as badly." She sighed, "But as I've said - Darin is not the most intelligent of people, sometimes - no matter how hard he tries..."

Jason and Billy settle back down into their seats, though Billy looked as if he's been run through a wringer. He rested his head in his hands, "So - you were about to try to sum all this up for us?"

She laughed and smiled, then took a deep breath, "OK, first: Jason, you need to give Trey back his Power. Once that's done, we need to take all the actual Rangers to Phaedos; that would be Billy, Jason, Tommy, Zack, Trini, Kim, and Adam. And that leaves us with two holes in the Zeo team that we need to fill. Everyone still with me?" When everyone nodded, she grinned, "Good. OK - here's where I step out of it. The Zeo Team is your team - you figure out who can replace Tommy and Adam."

Kat made a little noise, "Shouldn't that be Zordon's decision?"

Tommy sighed, "Something tells me that Zordon isn't going to have much of a say in the way the Rangers are run from here on in, Kat. If we can't think of someone to replace us, then we'll ask him - but if I recall, his only actual qualification for his Ranger team was, 'A team of teenagers with attitudes'." He paused as Aerin burst out laughing, "We'll just be being a little more selective." He turned to the rest of the group, readily taking charge, "Well - you all heard the lady - any ideas?"

Rocky raised his hand, "Well... I have one, actually. I know it's not normal for a kid to be a Ranger, but..." He paused until he had everyone's attention, then pushed on, "I volunteer at the recreation center, teaching after school programs for younger kids. I've been keeping an eye on one kid in particular - his name's Justin. He lives at the orphanage, and he's a right regular Billy in miniature." After a chorus of good-natured laughs all around, Rocky finished, "If no one objects to having a twelve-year-old on the team - I think he'd make a good addition." Seeing no immediate objections, Rocky smiled, "Kickin'..."

Kat laughed and ruffled his hair, then sobered, "But we'll still need a Red Zeo Ranger... I don't know anyone else that I'd trust with the leadership of our team but Tommy, Billy, or Jason..."

The room fell silent, each person lost in their own thoughts. After a few tense moments, the silence was broken by the sound of a hand hitting flesh. All the Rangers jerked their heads up, startled, to find Billy smacking his forehead a second time, "We're all idiots. There is someone who could take over as Red Ranger! Someone with plenty of good leadership qualities and experience!"

Aerin nodded approvingly at Billy, almost certain she knew what he'd come up with, "Go ahead, Billy."

He smiled, almost bouncing on the couch in his excitement, "Over the years we've gotten so stuck in patterns... Pink and Yellow are female colors; Red, Blue, Black, Green, and White are male colors. But we know that doesn't have to be the case! Aerin is a Green Ranger - and she's female. And the Pink Darkstar Ranger was male - so who says that the Red Zeo Ranger can't be female?"

Tanya's eyes lit up as she caught on to what Billy was saying, "Aisha!" She blushed lightly when everyone turned to stare at her, "Right, Billy? I... I only knew her briefly, but - I just know she'd be a good leader - if what I saw of her in Africa is a good sign of who she is. Strong, decisive, optimistic, cunning and fierce as the Bear spirit that drives her, and good at encouraging others and drawing out their best... In short: A Leader."

Billy smiled at her, body finally relaxing, "I take it you approve of the suggestion, then..."

The other Rangers thought about it, Billy's grin slowly passing from one to the other until the whole room was smiling. Rocky was the first to speak up, "Yeah! Stone Canyon's Ninja are reunited!" He and Adam shared an exuberant high-five.

Adam smiled, "It's been too long, man... Way too long..."

So busy were they in their celebrating that neither one noticed Tanya edging away from the crowd. Fortunately for Tanya, however, someone else did. Kat laid a quiet hand on Tanya's shoulder, "Are you all right with this, Tanya?"

Tanya sighed heavily, her eyes following Adam's every move, "Kat... I don't know what to think about this. I mean - I really do think Aisha would make a good leader, so as a Ranger I approve of her coming back. However..."

Kat smiled, "However, as a young girl in love - you desperately wish she wouldn't."

Tanya blushed hotly, "Am I that transparent?"

Kat wrapped one arm around her shoulders and squeezed, "Not really, Tanya - not really. It's just that I'm fairly familiar with the condition, myself..."

Tanya patted Kat's hand as she followed the Pink Ranger's gaze to their Leader who was deep in conversation with Mrs. Scott and Trey. The two girls met each other's eyes and sighed in unison, then giggled at the melodrama they were enacting. Kat shook her head, "Things are never going to be the same around here, are they?"

Tanya shook her head, "No - I don't think they can be. From what I understood, Adam, Aisha, and Rocky were a pretty tight little trio before Aisha left for Africa. And with Zack, Trini, and Kimberly coming back as well..." She paused at Kat's indrawn breath, then hastened to reassure the other girl, "I'm sure Tommy wouldn't... I mean - he loves you!"

Kat's eyes were sad as they watched the Red Ranger in animated discussion, "No, Tanya... I don't think he ever did. I think... I think he would have liked to. I think he tried. But... I don't think he ever really loved me. He loved who he wanted me to be."

Tanya nodded slowly, "Kimberly."

Kat settled back down into her chair and wrapped her arms around herself, "Yes. I was similar enough to her to fill the void she left - but that isn't healthy. Tommy's been trying to replace her with me in every aspect of his life. That's not really good for either of us. So, in a way - it'll be good that Kim is coming back. They can finally talk it out. And maybe..." She trailed off.

Tanya rubbed her back soothingly, "Man, do we have it bad... Jealousy Central, right here!" Kat laughed but didn't say anything in response. Tanya clapped a hand onto Kat's shoulder, "All right, girl - that's enough moping. No one'll notice if we slip away, right?"

Kat smiled and shook her head, "Probably not..."

Tanya's grin broadened, "All right, then - triple hot fudge sundaes - on me. Whaddya say?"

Kat laughed as she stood up and hugged the other girl, "I say, you're on!"

The two girls caught Billy's attention and made motions towards the door. Billy nodded, eyes still lit with happiness at the evening's revelations. Seeing that he understood, the Yellow and Pink Zeo Rangers headed off in search of chocolate.

Tommy sat back in his chair, a frown on his face, "I still don't really buy into all this. I'm trying - truly... but I just can't accept it."

Aerin flopped back onto the couch crossing her arms across her chest, "I don't know what to tell you, Tommy. I really don't." She raked her hand through her hair, pulling it away from her face, "Why don't you go talk to Darin? See what he thinks of all of this - I have a feeling you won't believe it until you here it from his lips."

Tommy glanced over at Jason and Billy, then nodded once, slowly, "All right. I'll go talk to Zordon. I'll let you all know what I find out when I come back." With that last comment, he stood, tapped his communicator and teleported away in a flash of red light.

Jason shook his head, "Not that I agree with him, but I can seriously see where he's coming from... This is so much to take in all at once. You just stepped in and turned our whole world upside down..."

Aerin glanced around the room, her eyes falling on the still-celebrating Ninja, "Not everyone seems to share your doubts..."

Billy smiled, "Well - they're just happy to have Aisha coming home. The three of them were very close, if you recall." He dropped his voice, "Rocky actually cried the night that Tanya came back with Aisha's subcrystal."

Jason whistled quietly, "Then I couldn't be happier for them. I know what it's like to lose a best friend..." He squeezed Billy's shoulder and the young man gave him a brilliant smile in return. It was the most free and easy expression he'd seen Billy wear since he'd come home from Switzerland. His eyes took on a teasing glint, "And don't tell me that you aren't just as happy about Trini coming home..."

Billy blushed and he shoved at Jason's shoulder, "Jason! Will you please stop it with that, already? Trini is a good friend, nothing more."

Jason laughed at his friend's discomfort, slipping Aerin and Trey a broad wink, "Suuuure, she is, Billy. Sure she is. Just a friend. And that's how you want to keep it, I'm certain."

Billy buried his burning face in his hands and Aerin lightly patted his back. Though her voice was chastising, the light smirk hovering at the corners of her lips destroyed the image, "Enough, Jason. Leave poor Billy alone."

Jason laughed, "OK, mom. Whatever you say..."

Trey put a hand on Aerin's shoulder and leaned over to whisper in her ear, "Perhaps you should demorph, now..."

Aerin blinked, startled, then looked down at herself. She let out a light whuff of breath, "Huh. Oops." Tossing Trey a sheepish grin, she demorphed, grimacing at the blood liberally smearing her jeans, "Ick... I'd better go change." Her face fell slightly as she stood, "And go deal with Everett..."

Jason looked up, his eyes worried at her words, "What do you mean deal with him? I thought you said you were going to explain everything to him?"

Aerin knelt by Jason and took his hand into her own, "Jason - there is a good reason why Earth Rangers are not allowed to tell their people who they are. The people of Earth are simply not equipped to deal with people like King Mondo. So every bit of information that they gain about us and our fight is one more thing that makes them vulnerable. And by attacking Everett for knowledge, Mondo would not only hurt me - he would hurt you as well. We can't afford to let him have that advantage."

Jason shook his head, not wanting to hear his mother's words, "So what are you going to do to him?"

Aerin sighed, looking up at Trey for strength. He had none to offer. She turned back to Jason, her own eyes sad, "I'm going to erase today's events from his memory. As long as you don't mention this to him, he shouldn't remember." She patted Jason's hand one more time, then stood, "Trust me, love - it's better this way." With one last kiss for Trey, Aerin headed upstairs.

Jason stared down at his hands, still disbelieving - and doubting. Could his mother have done to him what she was going to do to his father? Altered his memory somehow? How would he ever know? And would he want to...? This was all happening too fast... He needed time to think... He nearly jumped out of his skin when Trey's hand descended to his shoulder to squeeze lightly.

The Prince of Triforia frowned, as if searching for words, "I... I can sense the turmoil in you, though I can only guess at its cause. Aerin... She would not use this power of hers unless it were necessary. And I know for a fact that she has never used it on you - on anyone of this planet actually. In fact, to my knowledge, this is the first time she has used it in nearly 50 years..."

Jason let out a breath, "I know she wouldn't knowingly hurt someone, but... it's all just too much. I can't take it all in. I think... I..."

Billy smiled sympathetically, "Need some air?"

The older boy nodded, eyes still troubled, "Yeah. I need some space to think... If you two will excuse me..." He wasted no more time in getting up and leaving the house, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his blue jeans.

Billy laughed quietly, "Well - that's five down... how many more to go?"

Trey frowned, confused, "Excuse me?"

Billy shrugged, "Well, if we're trying to clear out the house..." He paused, then motioned Rocky and Adam over.

The two boys, finally calmed down, ambled over, huge grins covering their faces. Rocky spoke, "What's up, Billy?"

Billy smiled, "How would you two like to go fetch Aisha? It'll take far too long if we try to do this through phones and airplanes..."

Rocky shared another high five with Adam, happily speaking for both of them, "Would we ever!" He paused, "You sure Zordon won't mind us using the teleportation system for personal reasons?"

Billy shrugged, "It's not a personal reason - we're fetching a new Red Zeo Ranger. No harm done, right?"

Adam laughed, "That's a good way to think of it, Billy..." He stood up, eyes shining with anticipation, "So, what do we do?"

The ex-Blue Ranger smiled, "Same thing that you do whenever you teleport. Activate your communicator, then envision where you'd like to go."

Adam frowned, "Uh... Only one problem, Billy. Neither of us has ever been to Africa, before..."

Before Billy could answer, Trey smiled, "At ease - I will teleport you both there. It will be easiest for all concerned."

Rocky grinned, "OK - I'm feeling like a broken record... So, what do we do?"

Trey held out his hands to the two boys, "Just hold onto me - I will perform all other necessary actions." Once Rocky and Adam's hands were held securely in his, Trey tossed Billy one last smile and teleported.

Billy stared at the empty space that the three had just vacated and sighed. Talk about a whirlwind of activity... The events of the evening had rushed by so fast that the ex-Blue Ranger's head was spinning. He looked down at his watch, only mildly surprised to note that it was almost midnight. He buried both of his hands into his hair, rubbing lightly at his temples. I have a headache of morphinominal proportions... A light step on the stairway made him turn his head to look, his hands dropping back down to his sides as he did so.

Aerin, dressed now in a simple gi - black on the bottom and a light minty green on top, walked over to the couch and stopped in front of him. Billy noted that her feet were bare and her hair was twisted into a braid that wound into a crown about her head. She looked far different from the gentle woman that he'd known as a second mother for most of his life. She dropped a hand down to ruffle his hair lightly, then smiled at the grimace which crossed his face. She dropped down to sit on the floor in front of him, crossing her legs lotus-style as she did so. She tilted her head up at him, inviting him to speak first if he so desired.

Tucking his own legs up under him, Billy held the Platinum morpher out in front of him. He looked down at it with a curious look, but said nothing, yet. Wordlessly, Aerin held up her own morpher for comparison. They were very similar... no. They were identical, actually. Billy fingered it lightly, feeling his dazed state of earlier return to claim him with a rush. He lifted his free hand to rub at his forehead. This was too much like a dream... Any minute now, he was going to wake up and find out that he'd fallen asleep while repairing one of the ZeoZords...

Aerin smiled sympathetically, "We threw this on you rather suddenly, didn't we?" She sighed, leaning back against one of the armchairs, "I'll be the first to admit that this whole situation could have been handled far better than it was. As it is, I managed to throw your whole team out of kilter - and Tommy's going to hold grudges against everyone for weeks..."

Billy smiled, "I think you underestimate him..." At Aerin's inquiring look, Billy laughed - the action was beginning to feel more and more natural with each passing day. He spread his arms wide with a flourish, "Oh, you do underestimate him - Tommy's going to be holding grudges against us all for the next year..." At Aerin's startled look, Billy broke up into laughter again. A silent, observant part of him noted that his bouts of laughter were more likely responses to stress than amusement - for the situation was not truly that funny.

Aerin seemed to realize this for she laid one hand upon Billy's knee and patted it lightly, "Easy there, Billy - easy. We'll deal with that crisis when it crops up. In the meantime, would you like to try out your new Power? We need to properly Bond you to it..."

Billy sobered up and stood, shaking the kinks out of his limbs, "We should probably do this outside..."

Aerin smiled as she took his hand, "I know just the place..." Without further preamble, she teleported with Billy in tow.

Adam looked around, startled at the luscious green colors which dominated the landscape all around them. Somehow... he'd expected Africa to be more yellow. He shook off the inane thought as Trey released his hand and spoke, "Your friend is in the village beyond that brush perimeter." He indicated the direction with a lift of his head, "To return home, all you need do is envision your destination and teleport. The return trip should be far easier for you as you know where you are going." He bowed lightly to the two of them, "Luck, Rangers - I will return to my ship repairs and leave you to your mission." He tapped his communicator and disappeared one bright flash later.

Rocky shook his head, "Man... I still can't get over all this. It happened so fast. Not that I'm not grateful or anything, but still..."

Adam nodded as they began to walk, "It feels like something out of a dream... Like it's not real. I don't really know what to think about all of it. But I know one thing - I'll be glad to have Aisha back." A bright, boyish grin sprang up onto his face which Rocky answered with a smile of his own.

The Blue Zeo Ranger laughed happily, "Man... This is great, Adam. I never thought the Stone Canyon Ninjas would ever be split up, you know? I guess I figured that you and Aisha felt the same way. And when she didn't come back from her Zeo Quest..." His voice trailed off, his happy expression dropping like a load of bricks.

Adam quietly finished off his sentence, "You felt betrayed. And angry. And confused. Your whole world had turned upside down and you had to smile and get on with your life because you had no other choice - but inside... inside you were dying."

Rocky laughed mirthlessly, "You, too, huh?"

Adam nodded, "I was lucky, though... At least... at least I have Tanya, right? As much as I miss Aisha, I wouldn't give Tanya up for the world."

Rocky smiled, a shadow of his former good mood reappearing on his face, "I didn't know you two were so solid... I mean, I knew you were dating, but..."

Adam blushed slightly, but an impish grin covered his face, "Neither of us wanted to shove it in anyone's face... Tommy had just broken up with Kimberly, Kat was all broken up because Tommy didn't want her, and Billy always seemed so down about losing the Power... It seemed like no one really wanted to be happy. So we figured that keeping quiet about it was the best idea - at least until things calmed down a little."

Rocky laughed, good mood fully restored. He wrapped an arm around Adam's shoulders and squeezed, "Good for you, Adam! I'm so happy for you both. You deserve something like this." A mischievous grin crossed his face, "Did I not tell you that something would come along if you waited? A great guy like you couldn't go undiscovered forever, right?"

Adam's blushed deepened and he swatted at Rocky, "Enough, man! Don't make such a big deal out of it..."

Rocky continued grinning, but he backed off. Two seconds later, he almost ran full tilt into a large, frowning man of clearly African origins. He looked up and gulped. The man said something which neither of the two boys understood. Rocky, praying that the man understood some English, tried to explain their presence, "We're friends of Aisha - is she here?"

The man frowned deeper, but repeated, "Aisha...?" then said something else in that fluid language that neither understood. At their befuddled looks, the man shook his head, then made a beckoning motion with his hand. Rocky and Adam took that as a sign that he wanted them to follow him.

The man led them through the village, past rows and rows of tents and gawking onlookers. They paused outside one of the center tents and the man poked his head inside and spoke a few words to the occupant. A regal looking older woman exited the tent to look them over. A small smile appeared on her face, and her musically accented voice was gentle, "You are friends of Aisha, my grandson tells me."

Though she said nothing further, they interpreted that as a question. Rocky nodded quickly, "I'm Rocky, and this is Adam. Is Aisha home? We really need to talk to her..."

The older woman nodded, "She is out in the fields with the animals. She is expected back in another hour." She paused, as if considering her words, "My name is Aschala - I am kin of your friend, Aisha. Will you sit and talk with me of your urgent errand?"

Not seeing any way to really get out of it, Rocky and Adam agreed and followed the woman into the tent. It was surprisingly cool inside - and pleasantly cozy. Aschala, whose name they had recognized from Aisha's letters and Tanya's stories, settled down on the ground and indicated that Rocky and Adam should do the same. She turned towards them and smiled gently, "Do not be afraid of me. I mean neither of you ill will." She turned her head to regard Adam and the young man got the feeling that she could see right through him to his very soul. Her smile widened, "Could it be that you who were friends of Aisha are now friends of Tanya as well?"

Adam's blush returned with a vengeance as Rocky snickered. He elbowed the other boy lightly in the ribs before answering, "We are... She is my girlfriend."

If it were possible, Adam would have sworn that Aschala's smile widened even further and she bowed her head, "Then I am grateful to you for befriending her, and I am glad that you and she have found happiness in each other. I can trust that you will continue to watch over her?"

Adam bowed his own head in return, answering the question in the same serious tone it had been asked, "As she continues to watch over me, ma'am. It would be an honor."

As if pleased with his answer, Aschala nodded, "It is good, then. You are an honorable young man, Adam. You and she are both deserving of each other."

Rocky couldn't repress his own grin as Aschala so nearly mirrored his own words, "It's exactly what I've been telling him - he just doesn't want to listen when it comes from me!"

Aschala laughed, a gentle, rolling sound that soothed what remained of the boys' nerves, "Then you are wise beyond your years, Rocky. And you clearly care very much for you friend - that is to be commended." As Rocky beamed at Adam, Aschala continued, "But I have questions - if you will permit." She paused, considering her words again, "This Evil that Tanya left here to help you fight - it is still present, is it not?"

Adam nodded, face grim, though he took Aschala's knowledge of Ranger events in stride, "It is. That's why we need to talk to Aisha. She's needed to help us fight again - if she's still willing."

Before the elder could answer, a cheerful, and very welcome, voice interrupted from the entrance to the tent, "Who's willing to what?"

Adam and Rocky both jumped to their feet and grabbed Aisha into a bear hug between them. Aisha squeaked mildly in protest as she hugged them both in return, a beaming smile splitting her features, "Man, is it good to see you guys! I've missed you so much!" She pulled back away to look at them both, then pulled them both back into a hug, "This is great! But what are you guys doing here?" She released them both and raised an eyebrow, "Does this have something to do with what 'she' will be willing to do?"

Rocky nodded, his smile fading slightly, "Aisha..." He spared a glance at Aschala, who nodded understanding. She waved them all outside to finish their discussion. Aisha pulled them over to a secluded spot of the village near one of the larger shade trees. She settled down and faced them, indicating that Rocky should continue. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, "It's a long story, actually... Too much to tell. What it boils down to is... Aisha, how would you feel about being a Ranger again?"

To say that Aisha was floored would be putting it mildly. Her mouth dropped open for a moment before she shut it with an audible click, "But... I thought Tanya-- "

Adam grabbed one of her hands in his own, "Tanya's fine, Aisha. She's still going to be the Yellow Zeo Ranger."

She frowned, "Then what do you need me for...?"

Adam let his other hand grab hers so he was holding both of her hands, her full attention fixed on him, "There have been a lot of changes in the Ranger team since you left, Aisha. I'm gonna go through this kinda quickly just to sum it up for you. Any other details about how it happened can wait until later, OK?" At Aisha's nod, Adam continued, "There are now Rangers from four different teams here. Prince Trey is from Triforia, he's the Gold Triforian Ranger. Aerin is from Altiyar, she's the Green Darkstar Ranger - a space ranger. Billy is now the Platinum Darkstar Ranger. The Earth Rangers - who we used to know as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers - are Jason as Red, Trini as Yellow, Kim as Pink, Zack as Black, Tommy as Green, and... me as Blue."

Aisha's eyebrow climbed up into her hairline at that statement but Adam shushed her before she could interrupt, "Let me finish, Aisha... please." She nodded and remained quiet, "The last team are the Zeo Rangers - powered not by the Great Power, but by the Zeo Crystal. Rocky is Blue, Tanya is Yellow, Kat is Pink, and Justin will be Green."

Aisha frowned, "Justin?"

Rocky explained, "He's a kid that I've worked with at the Youth Center - kind of a miniature version of Billy. He's only 12, but I think he'll make a great addition to the team - he's mature beyond his years."

Adam laughed teasingly, "By which Rocky means that he wants someone on the Zeo team closer to his own maturity level."

Rocky mimed a punch at his friend which Adam hastily moved to block. Before they could degenerate into a mock fight, Aisha cleared her throat, "Boys... If we could hold off the fighting a minute... Who's the Red Zeo Ranger?" When both boys fell silent, Aisha's eyes narrowed. They watched as she slowly worked out the puzzle. When the last piece clicked into place, her eyes flared wide and she almost jumped to her feet. She squeaked out, "Me???? But... I don't know the first thing about leading a Ranger team! Jason, Tommy - they're leaders, not me!"

Adam caught her hands again, noting that while her features were filled with disbelief, they were not panicky in the slightest. He felt a surge of pride for her, "No, Aisha - you're wrong. You are a Leader. Even Tanya - who only knew you for a few days - could see it. You are strong and clever and always willing to support a friend. You may not give orders to get people to follow you, but you do lead. You lead by example and you lead by guidance. You're exactly the kind of person who could lead a Ranger team - if you put your mind to it."

Aisha stared back and forth between the two of them, slowly getting herself back under control as she absorbed the shock. After a few tense minutes, a sunny smile broke out across her face. She laughed a bit, "OK. You've convinced me. Now how do we tell my parents that I'm moving back to Angel Grove?"

Amazingly, it was Rocky, calm for once, who provided the answer, "We don't." When they both turned to stare at him, he shrugged self-consciously, "We don't. Tell Aschala that we're taking you back with us and let her explain it."

Adam and Aisha stared at each other for a moment, then began to laugh. Aisha slowly wiped tears from her eyes, "Oh... Oh, Rocky..." She started to giggle again, then suppressed it, "That's so... that might actually work." She slowly got herself back under control as she stood up, "I'll go tell Aunt Aschala and pack up my things. I'll meet you back here in a little bit." With a final kiss for each of her partners, she scuttled off to do just that.

Billy peered around him in sheer wonder. This glade... it was in the middle of a forest and almost a perfect circle. Something about it spoke to the very heart of his soul. He felt so at home here... He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. Everything here felt so alive - so free. He wanted to laugh with sheer delight. He turned to Aerin, an unspoken question in his eyes.

Aerin smiled at him, "We're in England. I came often to this forest when I first arrived here - it was always so peaceful, so lovely. It reminds me of home... if only just a little. It's a good place for meditation."

Billy nodded, "You said we needed to bond me to my power properly? How do I--?" Before he even finished his thought, he gasped, staring in wide-eyed amazement. "What...?"

Aerin smiled as she settled down next to the creature that had caught Billy's attention. The little fellow chittered irritably at both of them, twitching his whiskers this way and that. He gazed about the forest with a look of disdain, as if to ask, Where is the ocean? I don't see an ocean... What are we doing here? Why can't we ever go anywhere where there's an ocean?

With another startled gasp, Billy realized that the sea otter actually was saying that. He blinked at the little creature, then blurted, "You can talk?" before he even thought about it. Upon sober reflection he realized that the little sea otter must be Aerin's spirit animal - and would naturally have greater powers than a normal sea otter. But the Wolf had never spoken to him... The anguished thought caught at his throat.

With amazing grace for one not built for land travel, the otter trundled over to where Billy stood. He raised himself up on his hind legs and patted Billy's hip. Billy knelt in front of him. The otter patted Billy's face soothingly, a mothering expression on his furry countenance, I sense much pain in you, little one... Poor cub. You should not suffer so. The Wolf never left you, she was never silenced. You were merely deafened to her call.

Billy felt a tear gather in the corner of his eye, trying to break free. It was all too much... Losing the Power, having his hopes brought up just to be crushed all over again, regaining his best friend - and having to deal with the jealousy that brought, regaining the Power, finding out that he would never meet most of his team because they were already dead... and now finding out that he could not hear his spirit guide - not because she had been silenced, but because he had been too deaf to hear her. It was too much. The tear shook loose and was quickly joined by a second. He tried to hold in the rest, but the otter's understanding look broke him down. He started to sob.

As he was crying, he felt those little hands patting him reassuringly - his shoulders, his face, his head, his arms - and finally engulfing him in their warm, salty strength. When the bout eased some, he looked up into the otter's bright blue eyes and saw compassion - not sympathy, or pity, but compassion. The little fellow twitched his whiskers and nodded, Hard, it is, to live without a bond-mate, cub. He glanced over his shoulder at where Aerin was sitting, curled against a tree, Thought I lost this one many a time. I have been lucky... Many of my kind fear bonding to humans - you live such a scant few years before you are taken from us...

Billy nodded silently - he understood. They weren't the only ones who felt the pain of loss. Their spirit animals felt it just as keenly as they did - perhaps even more so. He petted the little otter's head, hoping that he wouldn't take offense. The otter gave him a fishy smile and butted his hand lightly before backing away and curling up near Aerin, who cuddled him close, But enough time has been wasted, schmoozing with me. Your own spirit guide awaits you - and she can offer you far more comfort than I. He pointed a paw off into the forest, Happy hunting, little cub!

Needing no more urging, Billy was up and sprinting, soon losing himself in the depths of the surrounding forest. A deep growl filled the air around him, resonating down to the very core of his soul. He felt his teeth baring in an almost feral grin. The growl transmuted into a heartfelt howling and Billy's eyes filled again with tears. He raised his head to the sky, closing his eyes to better take in the sounds. The howl started up again as Billy tentatively chose a direction to run. He opened his eyes and took off again.

After ten more minutes of running, Billy was starting to feel thoroughly lost. Only the thought that Aerin would be able to find him gave him the strength to keep up his search. Just as he was about to give up... She appeared. One moment, the space in front of him was empty, the next it was full of Her. She was perfect... just as he remembered her to be. Her sloping ears bent forward to take in his panting breaths, her nose lifted to scent the emotions on the wind around him. Her tongue lolled out in a canine grin as her tail lifted and wagged once.

Billy stood, utterly transfixed by the sight of Her beauty. He desperately wished to close the distance between them and bury his face in her furry nape... but fear held him frozen. Fear that She would reject him - fear that She was no longer his spirit guide... Fear. She took another light sniff - and if he didn't know better, he would describe the next look she gave him as 'disgusted'. She snorted and half-rose from her seated position to paw the ground in front of her before sitting back down again.

Billy swallowed hard and managed to make his limbs work. His first steps were halting, still partially paralyzed by fear, but as he got closer and she continued to sit perfectly still, he quickened his pace, finally ending in a rush that brought him right to the ground in front of her. He raised his arms slowly to wrap around her and she snorted again, finally closing the rest of the distance by hooking her head over his shoulder. He buried his face in her neck as he clutched her to him, sobbing with relief.

She merely sat, letting him cry himself out on her shoulder - as if she understood. Finally... proof. Proof that this wasn't a dream and it wasn't going to disappear. Reassurance that She hadn't left him - had never tried to. He clutched her tighter.

And yet... she still had not spoken. That one doubt remained in his mind. His heart began to pound harder as he thought more and more on it. Why wouldn't she speak? Had he done something wrong? He slowly released her and stared into her bright, startlingly intelligent blue eyes. She leaned back as she matched his stare, tilting her head curiously. He swallowed, deciding that he was going to have to make the first move, "I... I've missed you. A lot... But I guess you knew that." He ducked his head, suddenly feeling like a little child, "I guess... you must be disappointed in me. I've made a pretty big mess of things - letting the guys walk all over me the way I did. That's probably why you won't talk to me..."

The wolf's next move nearly knocked him over in startlement. She had raised a paw to cover his mouth. He blinked at her, shocked into speechlessness by her action. When his eyes finally met hers he found them filled with amusement. She dropped her paw and licked him once on the cheek. Are you quite finished, Cub?

Billy's jaw dropped open. He really hadn't been expecting her to speak. A wide smile slowly broke out across his face as his heart resumed beating normally. He considered the voice - somehow, he'd been expecting a young, serene, gentle voice... something like Aerin's. But that wasn't what the wolf sounded like, at all. Her voice was deep, gravely - more like a grandmother's. His grin broadened - he liked it. It was soothing... non-threatening. Like the rest of her, it was perfect.

She nodded, her tongue once again lolling out into a grin, Please, Cub, for my sake - do not ever do that again. You don't need self-pity any more than you need to do the others' work for them. And it is a mood you fall into all too often.

Billy nodded, still somewhat stunned that his spirit guide was speaking to him. He almost missed her next statement, Are you ready, Cub?

"Hmm? What? Ready for what?" was his not-so-intelligent reply. He cursed quietly as he made himself look a fool for the third time that day.

A light, gravely chuckle filled his mind, Your Power, Cub - are you ready to find it? He swallowed hard, then nodded once again, not trusting his voice. She stood up and walked a circle around him snapping lightly at his back as she went by it, By the Power, Cub - didn't your mother teach you manners? Sit up straight!

He stared at her for a long moment, then broke up into laughter. She sighed heavily and resumed her seat, lying down and plunking her head down on her paws to wait. When he had finally calmed down and rearranged himself into a better posture, she sat back up, Good. Better. Now close your eyes. He did so, listening to the steady sound of her breathing to relax him. His breath rate and heart rate began to slow as she slowed her own, each staying perfectly apace of the other. That's right, Cub. Relax... Let me lead you down.

Even as she spoke the words, Billy could feel a tunnel opening up somewhere in his mind. He allowed her to lead him through it, feeling his consciousness dropping further and further with each heartbeat. And yet... her gentle gray strength kept him safe and protected. As it should be, Cub... as it should be. I am always your anchor - your shelter. I am here for you whenever you need me - even when you don't think you do. Now, Look.

Somehow, Billy knew she didn't mean for him to open his physical eyes. By following her guidance, he opened another pair of eyes - and almost fell out of his trance as a light so bright he almost couldn't bear it filled his mind. ::What...? What is that? I...::

It almost felt as if the Wolf was nuzzling his ear as her voice spoke reassuringly to him, It is the core of your soul. The white light at the center is your life-force. That is power that you must never tap - not even if the situation is desperate.

He interrupted, filled with understanding, ::Because if I deplete it too far, I'll kill myself, right?::

A gravely chuckle, So, so, and exactly so, Cub. You learn fast. Now - Look to the area surrounding your life force. He did, seeing a bright glow that almost eclipsed the first - but this was not white. It was a cross somewhere between gold and silver and bronze. It was all of these... and none. He didn't know what name to give that particular color... Her voice spoke again, Platinum, Cub. Platinum.

The very word seemed to rush through his being, filling him with a Power that he couldn't name. In a way that the Blue never had... this felt right. Down to his very soul, it felt right. As it should be, Cub. Now - I'm going to ask you to do something for me. She paused, I want you to walk through it. Walk through the Platinum and stand in the center of your life-force. Look out. Tell me what you see.

Billy hesitated only a moment before doing as she asked. He wasn't quite sure how he would accomplish it, yet before he'd begun to ponder even half the possibilities... it was finished. He stood within the white-hot light of his life-force and looked out... and was amazed at what he saw. Ropes of platinum-white twined Power reached out from him in several directions. He wondered if he could follow each to its source... Another laugh, You are standing in one of the sources, Cub. Those ropes are the bonds that tie you to your closest friends. They represent your strongest relationships - and you can follow them. Try it.

Billy chose one rope of twined Power and touched it. Immediately, he felt himself rushing along it to its destination. As he moved further along the rope a third color appeared among the white and platinum - Red. Somehow... he knew this was the bond he shared with Jason. He followed further along it - the tri-colored part of the rope seemed to stretch on for quite some time. Rather abruptly, the Platinum color disappeared from the weave. At approximately the same time, Billy found himself blocked - he couldn't follow the rope any further. He pushed lightly at the space in front of him - it felt like a wall of some kind. He leaned back and contemplated what this meant - if his guess was right, Jason was behind that wall. But why couldn't he get any further?

He tapped a finger against his chin as he contemplated the block in front of him. Maybe.... maybe the simplest answer was the best. He raised a fist to the wall and knocked lightly, at the same time, calling Jason's name as loud as he could. A muted voice sounded, as if from a distance. It was Jason's voice - and it was shocked. Billy grinned, he couldn't blame him... He forced himself to listen to the words, ::Billy??? What the...? Hang on a sec...:: Rather suddenly, the wall disappeared and Billy could continue.

He hesitated at the edge, not willing to invade Jason's privacy without due cause - and truthfully, he was frightened of what would happen if he stepped off the part of the rope where the Platinum strand was woven in. After waiting a little while, another person appeared on the rope, moving from Jason's end. A broad smile broke out on his face when he recognized the figure as Jason, ::Jason!::

Jason's face lit up in a grin as he pulled his friend into a hug, ::Hey, bro! Never expected I'd find you in here...:: Jason laughed, joy suffusing his features as he pounded Billy 's back happily.

Billy hugged his friend close, then stepped back, ::I have to admit to some confusion, myself... I really don't know what I'm doing...::

Jason's eyes filled with amusement, ::That's because you aren't psychic. If you were, you wouldn't have had to go through all that nonsense simply to get in touch with me...:: At Billy's confused look, Jason explained, ::We're in a joint trance. It's one way to get in contact with any person with whom you share a bond. If the two people are psychic, there are easier ways - but you aren't, so I won't bore you with the details.::

Billy nodded, ::That makes some sense... But... what was that wall I ran into? And what happened to it?::

::Ah. My mental shields. I don't know if I've ever said it to you in so many words, but I am empathic. Got it from my mother - she's fully telepathic. Anyway, shields can be made permeable to certain people at certain times, but if I didn't have them up, I'd be picking up stray emotions from everyone within a ten mile radius... sometimes plus some.:: He shivered, a haunted look entering his eyes, ::It isn't pleasant. But know this - you can always reach me this way. No matter where you are, or what state of consciousness you're in.:: He smiled, ::I'll always let you in, Billy - don't forget that, OK, bro?:: He gripped Billy's shoulder.

Billy smiled, his spirit lightening further at Jason's words, ::I won't, Jase. Thank you.::

Jason gave his shoulder one last squeeze, then released him, ::But I think you'd better head back. First of all, you don't want to overdo it the first time you try this - it'll give you a monster headache, otherwise. Secondly - I'm sitting in the middle of the park with no one to protect me. I shouldn't be away from my body too long...:: As Billy nodded and stepped back, Jason offered him a jaunty wave, ::Great to see you, bro! Stop by again, sometime!:: With that, he turned and trotted back down the rope. Seconds later, Billy felt the wall go back up between them.

As he walked back, noting the distance before the red strand disappeared for future reference, Billy thought about what had happened. This Power... it was incredible. And it made him feel stronger, somehow more secure, to have solid proof that the bond he'd always felt with Jason was real - and he could touch it... well, sort of, anyway.

Moments later, he found himself standing back inside the white column of his life-force. Have a nice journey, Cub?

Billy smiled, ::Yes, a very nice journey. It was... incredible.::

The Wolf laughed, And how is the young Hawk this eve?

::What?:: Billy blinked. Did she mean Jason?

Ah... my apologies, Cub. I had forgotten that your friend has not yet met his spirit animal...

Billy leaned back and regarded the "Jason" rope, which now held a faintly red hue at the base. A Hawk... A Red-tailed Hawk. Yes - that was Jason, to a tee. He smiled, happy for his friend. A sudden thought popped into his head, ::I have a question... I noticed that a good part of the rope between Jason and myself was interwoven between his color and mine. I was wondering, is there any significance to how long the combined part of the rope is?::

The Wolf sat down and curled her tail around her paws, There is. The bonds you share with your friends are all the same length, but the twined part will stretch closer to the core of you soul if the bond is stronger. In other words, the longer the twined part, the tighter the bond. If the twined part is short, then the bond is not as strong. Do you understand?

::I see...:: Billy thought for a moment, then spoke again, ::I have two more questions, then. One, can a bond get stronger? And two, out of curiosity, can there be a bond where it is entirely made up of a combined part?::

The Wolf licked lightly at her nose before answering, In answer to your first question - yes. A bond can be made stronger if both people wish it. The "rope" you see in your mind is merely a representation of the actual bond that exists. As the bond changes, so will the "rope". As to your second question... for all practical purposes the answer is no. If a bond were that tight, then each person's life would be almost wholly dependent upon the other. If one bondmate died, then at best, the second would be mentally crippled - at worst, they would be dead as well.

Billy listened to her words, and thought. Finally, he said quietly, ::You said 'For all practical purposes'. Does that mean it happens sometimes?::

The Wolf laid down and rested her head on her paws, her eyes forlorn, It is very rare. But yes - occasionally... it does happen. If it does, it will happen between two born to the Power, born to be Ninjetti. There is... no. There was one such pair in your time. The Fox and the Raven. She fell silent, eyes filled with grief.

Billy reached along the rope that bound him to the Wolf and buried his hands in her fur, seeking to comfort, ::They are dead?::

She moaned quietly, Would that it were so... The Fox... he was very nearly gone. He was placed into a cold-tube... what are your words? Cryogenic sleep? Yes, that is it. He was placed into a cryogenic healing sleep after nearly being killed several months ago. The Raven... very nearly followed him anyway. He does not know that the Fox still lives. As a kindness to him, his spirit guide buried the memory that the Fox ever existed to him. We can only hope... and pray... that the Fox will recover soon. Otherwise, both will be lost. She fell silent again, unwilling to say more.

::I... I didn't realize. That must be awful...:: he stammered.

The Wolf rose to a sitting position, It is. But... that is not your concern at the moment. We should finish this. She cleared her throat and shook herself before continuing, Over the next several days, you should follow each of these "ropes" and find where they land. You will not be able to speak to all of those on the end of each rope - only the ones who are psychic will know how to converse with you. So, if you are not sure, do not initiate contact - at least not until you have a good grasp of how to do so. A good general rule: if you do not encounter a mental shield, do not try to speak to the person.

Billy nodded to show he understood. Good. Now - you may not have noticed, but you are now bound to your Power. The time you spent inside the core of your life-force pulled the Platinum Power into it. Now, rather than following the round-about way out, as I must, all you need do to exit your trance is go straight up. If you ever need to reach your Power - to speak to a bondmate, to morph, what-have-you - all you need do is follow the path back down. Understand, Cub?

He nodded, then pushed himself up through his life-force-- and abruptly found himself sitting on the cold, hard ground of the forest, staring at the slowly rousing body of his spirit animal. Aerin and the Otter stood a few feet away.

"How long did that take?" he asked. Speaking with his physical voice felt extremely odd after all that time using only his spirit-voice.

Aerin smiled, "Not as long as you would think. Only twenty minutes, all told."

She had had the oddest look on her face as she regarded him, so he glanced down at himself - and jumped to his feet in startlement. He was morphed! He stared at the Wolf, "How...?"

The Wolf let her tongue loll out in a grin, Did I not tell you that when you come straight up out of your mind as you did that you could morph that way? It takes longer, and is far more difficult than using a morpher, but it can be done. You have to watch your thoughts very carefully as you ascend from your core, or you will end up morphed every time. Silly Cub.

Billy laughed, then turned to examine his uniform. It was almost identical to Aerin's in style except that the five squares across his chest were silver, not the different colors of their team, and the base color was Platinum, not Green. He spent another few minutes examining his uniform and trying a few practice moves before demorphing. A wide grin crossed his face - he felt like dancing.

The Wolf and Otter nodded to each other and the Otter turned to them, We will take our leave now. You both know how to call on us if the need arises. Then, with a flash of golden light, the two were gone.

Aerin dropped a hand to Billy's shoulder as his grin split wide in a jaw cracking yawn, "C'mon, Billy. Back to my house - time for us both to go to sleep. It's been a long day." Suddenly to tired to argue, Billy mirrored her action as she tapped her morpher, both of them teleporting home.

Late that night, long after Jason had come in from his walk, and long after Aerin and Billy had come home from England, the house was quiet. Jason's gentle breathing was a calming presence, letting Billy know that everything was well. And yet... he couldn't sleep. Grumbling to himself, Billy turned over again, finally sitting up on the fold-out couch that was rapidly becoming more familiar than his own bed. He curled his legs up under him and rested his elbows on his knees, head in his hands. The world looked so different late at night like this...

The practical side of his mind snorted at him, informing him that the world looked different because he couldn't see didly-squat without his contacts in. Sighing heavily, he reached for his old glasses, reluctantly putting them on. There... that was better. The world was at least in focus, now.

He turned to regard his sleeping friend. Jason was curled up on his side, one hand tucked under his pillow, the other resting by his chin. He looked so peaceful... so innocent. Jason shifted in his sleep, his face pulling up into a scowl - as if he sensed his friend's disturbed slumber. Then Billy remembered - Jason had said he was empathic. It might very well be that he was sensing Billy's roiled emotions. Deciding that it wasn't worth disturbing Jason's sleep, as well, Billy grabbed his morpher and his sneakers and quietly left the room, pausing in the hallway to put both on.

Once he had reached the living room, Billy paused. So much had happened in that room, tonight... He'd had his world torn apart and put back together several times in the space of a heartbeat. Part of him was vaguely surprised that he was still in such good mental shape...

Giving the living room one last glance, Billy grabbed Jason's keys and headed outside. He needed time to think - something that he was going to have precious little of with Mondo up to his usual tricks. He walked quietly out of the house, tucking his hands in his pockets as he went. The nights were getting chilly...

Continuing his brisk walk, Billy went through the backyard and out to the forest, slowly calming as he went. The forest always did put him more at ease, and nothing spelled "home" to him more than his and Jason's old star-watching rock. The familiar clearing made him smile as he settled himself down on the rock and turned his head up to the stars. He really ought to think out what had happened that day - and explore these new abilities of his for with them came great responsibilities. Heck, he probably ought to put in an appearance at the Command Center and talk to Zor-- no, Darin, as well.

Even as he thought all of this out, Billy's face pulled into a scowl. He was sick and tired of doing what he "ought" to do, what he "should" do. He wanted to do what he wanted to do. A hard, gravely voice soon filled his mind as a light began to coalesce next to him on the rock, So, so, and exactly so, pup. Tonight is your night. Take advantage of it, for Heaven's sake!

Moments later he found himself staring up into a grin full of teeth. The Wolf was sitting beside him on the rock, staring at him in delight. He laughed, "You know what? You're right!" He reached up to her and the Wolf lay down next to him, pressing her great warmth into him. He curled over like some large, ungainly puppy and rested his head lightly on her side. She nuzzled him lightly, then licked his ear. He smiled, "You know what I'd like to do?" She tilted her head quizzically at him, "I'd like to follow down those other ropes and see where they lead."

The Wolf nodded her head once, Go, then, Pup. I will watch over you.

With one last pat for his Guardian, Billy settled himself into a trance. He descended slowly into that shining column that the Wolf had called his Life force. He noted the grey Rope that bound him to the Wolf, and the red Rope that bound him to Jason, but there were many other ropes besides. At random, he selected a rope and sent his consciousness along it. Before long, a third color joined the original two: pink. But not any pink, this was a hot, nearly fluorescent version of the color. Momentarily, Billy was confused. Was this Kimberly or Kat? He followed the joined rope, again noting how long it took before the platinum dropped away. This bond was not as long as his bond to Jason, but it wasn't exactly short, either. That led him to believe that this was probably Kimberly, as he hadn't known Kat for very long in comparison.

He peered around the rope, trying to feel a wall in place. There was none. He settled back, regarding the stretch of pink and white rope in front of him. The Wolf had told him not to try to contact anyone who didn't have a wall because they wouldn't know how to respond. But then how was he to know who this was? There was no certainty as there had been with Jason. He guessed that this was Kimberly, but he didn't know for sure. He tapped his chin thoughtfully, then smiled as he came up with an idea.

Lightly, Billy reached a hand down to the rope underneath him and touched the pink strand. A shock ran up his arm that reverberated through his mind and body before fading. Blinking, Billy laughed - now he knew how a church bell felt... But now, there was no doubt. This was Kimberly. Now that he knew what to look for, he felt the Crane watching him from a distance, curious as to what the Wolf Pup was up to. With a reverent nod for his friend's Guardian, Billy withdrew back to his own mind.

Well, that makes two... He turned slowly, regarding the varied mental bonds arrayed around him, I wonder if I could pick out Trini's bond in the midst of all of this... He let his hands stretch out, lightly touching each bond as he turned, thinking of Trini each time. As he made a nearly complete circuit back to Kimberly's glowing Pink bond, he found it. Or rather... he thought he had. He could hear a gentle rumbling off in the distance - a sound that was halfway between a growl and a purr: like the sound a great cat might make when content.

Feeling gently along the bond, Billy eased himself down it. Sure enough, after the normal distance, a Yellow as bright and hot as Kim's Pink had been joined with the white and platinum. He marked off the distance, smiling when he noted that this was the second longest bond he had - not that he'd measured many so far...

He stopped at the spot where his color disappeared from the rope and reached out, hoping that he would encounter a wall. His hand met... something. It wasn't the strong solid wall that Jason's mind had boasted, nor was it the complete absence of a barrier that Kimberly's mind had held. He paced the end of the rope, unsure of exactly what to do. He hadn't thought that Trini was psychic... but extreme gifts in the martial arts just might afford the same mental discipline that a well-trained psychic gift could. Did he dare take the chance...?

Another grumbling purr sounded from all around him. He turned back to face Trini's end of the rope and nearly fell over in shock. A rather large Cheetah was standing in front of him, tail lashing gently back and forth as his tongue lolled out in a grin. And standing beside him...

Somehow he wasn't surprised that Trini was already bound to her Guardian - it made sense. She had such a serenity... they must have found each other without Dulcea's help. And... Trini was gorgeous. Even more beautiful than he remembered her being. Her glossy, midnight black hair was unbound and moved in a gentle breeze that only she could feel. Her body was clad in a black workout gi with a pale yellow leotard showing underneath. Her left hand rested lightly upon the back of her Guardian. Her gentle lips stretched up into a smile that easily lit her black almond eyes, crinkling them lightly at the edges. She raised her right hand in a wave of greeting, ::You were taking so long about knocking that I figured it might be faster to come out and meet you.::

Billy's own mouth stretched into a slightly foolish grin and he moved to give her a hug, aborting the movement almost as quickly as he started it, still too shy to complete the move successfully. He clasped his hands lightly behind his back and smiled again, ::The Wolf... she told me not to try to talk to anyone who doesn't have mental shields...::

The Asian girl nodded understanding, ::As they would have no idea how to respond to your overtures.:: At Billy's slightly confused look, another sunny smile broke out on her face, ::Jason warned me that you were beginning to experiment with joint trances. I've been waiting for you to get around to finding me. Looks like I didn't have to wait all too long, hmm?:: She stepped forward from her Guardian's protection and enfolded Billy in a strong but gentle embrace. He hesitantly brought his own arms up around her, holding her slim body as close to him as he dared. She answered by holding him tighter and whispering gently into his ear, ::I've missed you, Billy... It's so good to see you.::

When they stepped back away from each other, Billy was surprised to note that Trini's eyes were tear-bright, though she wasn't crying. She laughed lightly at his dumbfounded look and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Her voice was full of humor, but the amusement held a bitter edge, ::I really have missed you, Billy. More than you know... Aren't I allowed to have a weak moment now and again?::

Nodding vehemently, Billy again folded her into an embrace, though this time more sure of himself. He lightly rubbed her back as her arms wound around his waist, ::I've missed you, too... as much as I missed Jason, and in some ways even more so.:: As he pulled away again, he looked down into her gleaming eyes, ::Aerin said... oh. I suppose you don't know her, do you? And it's a long story...:: At Trini's amused look, he swallowed and began again, ::Well, anyway, she said that with all that's been going on, the real Rangers would be drawn back to Angel Grove - to the rest of the team. Are... are you coming home?:: He held his breath, almost not daring to hope for a positive answer.

That brilliant smile lit her eyes again as she chuckled lightly, ::I'm on the plane home as we speak... Somehow - Zack and I felt what was happening, whatever that was, and just knew that we had to come home.:: She wrinkled her nose in amusement, ::He insisted on having the window seat, then fell asleep before he could enjoy the view...:: The two friends began laughing, sharing in the joy of being together.

As Billy claimed one last hug, he shook his head ruefully, ::I wish I'd known how to do this sooner... it might have saved me some unnecessary grief...::

Trini nodded knowingly, her eyes sad, ::I could feel your distress. But... there were so many things going on - I never had time to pick up the phone, and I felt dreadful about it. Jason - it was even worse for him. You... I suppose you know by now of his gift?:: At Billy's nod, she continued, ::He could feel how upset you were. How unbalanced. It was eating him up inside that he couldn't help you.:: She took his hand gently in both of hers, ::No matter what happened, Billy - no matter what he tells you... he came home because of you. Not because Tommy needed a Gold Ranger - he didn't even find that out until afterwards. He returned because you were hurting, and he couldn't stand to see you unhappy. Never forget that Billy... You are loved. More than you realize.::

Having nothing to say to that stunning revelation, Billy fell silent. The awkward pause continued for quite some time before it was broken. The Cheetah padded up next to Trini and butted her side. She smiled somewhat sadly as she patted his great head, ::My Spirit Animal has suggested that it's time we got you back to your own mind. If you overdo this...::

::I know, I know... I'll get a headache.:: Billy made a face.

Trini laughed as she lightly ruffled his sandy blonde hair, ::That's no joke, Billy. I overdid it in the beginning, so I speak from experience. Reaction headaches are nothing to joke about. It's like running 20 miles when you've only trained to run one. My first one - and last one, I might add - laid me up in bed for a week.::

Billy winced, ::Ouch. OK, I get the point...:: He paused, then took a deep breath, ::Would... would you walk back with me? I... It's been so long since I've seen you...:: He looked up, hope in his eyes.

Trini smiled and wrapped her arm around his, ::It would be an honor.::

They took the walk back slowly, neither really willing to part company with the other. Trini's gentle, supple strength was something that Billy had sorely missed, and her reassuring touch on his arm brought him peace as nothing had in a long time. All too soon, it ended. Billy noted the sudden absence of a Yellow strand in the rope and paused, heart sinking, ::Well... I guess this is my stop.::

Trini shook her head and clucked lightly at him, ::Zack and I will be home by tomorrow morning, Billy. You'll see me soon enough.:: She wrapped one hand lightly around his neck and leaned up to press a light, chaste kiss to his lips. Then with a giggle and slight bounce that were worthy of Kimberly, Trini and the Cheetah fled back to her end of the bond.

Billy was unaware of how long he stood there, one hand pressed lightly to his lips and a sheepish, happy grin plastered onto his face - but it was long enough, for the Wolf came looking for him. She stared up at him, then snorted lightly, The Kitten left, little Pup. You can stop staring.

Startled out of his reverie, Billy dropped down to one knee to press his face into the Wolf's fur, breathing deeply of her woods-scented coat. She licked his ear, There now, little one. You'll see her soon enough. Now, enough for tonight - you have to get back to bed.

Not bothering to argue, Billy followed her back up out of his mind, opening his physical eyes for the first time that hour. He immediately closed them again - imagine the starlight being too bright... He chuckled wearily, following it up with a rather large yawn. The Wolf nudged his shoulder, gently propping him into a sitting position. When he refused to move further, she snapped lightly at his leg, Up with you, Pup! Or must I lift you in my mouth and drag you back to bed by your nape?

Guessing correctly that the threat was not an idle one, Billy managed to heave himself to his feet and mumble a good night to his Guardian. He shuffled back to the house, crept in the front door and back to Jason's room. Everyone was still asleep. He kicked off his shoes, dropped his glasses onto the nightable and dropped into bed. In seconds, he was fast asleep.

Jason waited until he felt Billy's mind settle and his breathing even out before he sat up. Billy's troubled thoughts had kept him up most of the night and he'd debated getting up and waking the other boy to talk. Now, he was glad that he hadn't. For though he was flattered that the other Ranger was willing to turn to him for help, it wasn't good for Billy to become too dependent. So, as much as it had hurt him to keep silent, it had been for the best. And Billy had gotten the reassurance he needed - from his own abilities and from an old friend. Jason allowed himself a silent chuckle, mindful of waking Billy. Yes... Trini always did have a calming effect - even on the most resistant minds.

He swung himself out of bed and pulled on a pair of black sweats and an old red tee-shirt, pausing at the door to look back at Billy. A smile pulled at his lips as he moved back to stand near his sleeping friend. You're going to get cold if you keep kicking the covers off like that, my friend... He lifted Billy's blankets and settled them more securely about him. Billy didn't even stir.

Jason's smile widened as he nodded in satisfaction, Maybe he'll finally get some sleep, this time... He continued his interrupted trip outside to the front lawn. He could feel a sleepy tendril of thought brush against him from upstairs. He sent back a wave of reassurance and a mental kiss for his mother. He had some business of his own to attend to. Checking around quickly, more out of habit than need, Jason tapped his communicator and teleported to the Power Chamber.

No matter how many times he saw it, the sight of the place always managed to give him the willies. To see their old costumes on display like that... he shuddered. It never failed to make him uneasy. He shook himself lightly and squared his shoulders. He had business to take care of. While Billy and his mother had been visiting England, Jason had taken the chance to visit Trey. The Gold Ranger was at a point in his healing that he needed his powers back, and though it hurt to lose the Powers a second time, Jason was almost happy to be rid of these - the Gold Powers were beginning to make him feel... unsettled. As if they weren't really compatible with him, physically. It was an uneasy thought.

But that was over, now. He'd given the Gold Triforian Powers back to their rightful owner and that was where they'd stay from now on. And now... he sighed. Now it's time to try to set Tommy to rights... if I can. The first step was to separate the Red Earth Power from the Zeo Subcrystal. Once that was accomplished, the Red Power should revert back to him without prompting. The final step (since his mother had recharged the Green Earth Power while waiting for Billy) was to separate Tommy from the Zeo Subcrystal. Once that was done, the Green Earth Power would re-orient on Tommy much as the Red would to Jason. He muttered quietly to himself, "And let's pray that this actually works the way that it's supposed to..." He shook his head at his own thoughts, then began searching for Tommy. There was no room for doubts - this just had to work. There was no other option.

Tommy wasn't in Zordon's main chamber and Jason hadn't wanted to wake Alpha just to ask. He stared around the complex and sighed. He hated to drop his shields these days... but any minds within his unaided reach would be Zordon's, Alpha's, or Tommy's. So... He slowly lowered his shields - and immediately clutched at his head and slammed them back up. He lowered himself to the ground, holding his now aching head in his hands and whimpering slightly. Ye God, was Tommy a mess!

After communing with the cold floor for a few minutes, Jason finally convinced his head to allow his body to get back up. On the up side... he now knew where Tommy was. He followed the line of pain that had seared him just before to the old Zord bays. Sure enough, Tommy was sitting lotus-style in front of the Tigerzord, clenching a silent Saba in both hands.

Jason winced slightly at the raw pain on his friend's face. Lately, he'd been so immersed in Billy's problems that he'd forgotten how this was surely making Tommy feel. That night had been a forcible reminder. Silently, Jason berated himself, I'm an Empath! I should have known better... should have seen this! He took another step forward, bare feet silent on the cold floor. Not that it mattered. Tommy didn't see or hear him; he didn't even move.

Jason dropped into a similar position slightly to Tommy's left and behind him, waiting for the other boy to notice his presence. For the longest time, neither said a word. And Jason was too frightened of Tommy's mental state to drop his shields again. So he sat and he waited. Finally, he was rewarded by movement. Tommy laid Saba down across the floor in front of him and inclined his head back towards Jason, "Haven't you had enough fun for one night?" His voice was quiet, flat, emotionless.

It made Jason's heart ache. He moved so that he sat facing Tommy across his old sword as a lump formed in his throat. His voice was rough and husky when he finally forced it out, "Do you think I enjoyed what happened tonight?"

Tommy snorted and folded his arms across his chest, "Billy got what he wanted. I figured that would make you happy. Doesn't it?"

Jason shook his head mutely before speaking, "Not entirely. Yes, I'm happy for him, but..." He hung his head, his voice dropping to a whisper, "I am also deeply ashamed and deeply sorry."

The ex-White Ranger laughed bitterly at him, "Man, Jase! Whatever for?"

Jason reached out one hand and clasped Tommy's shoulder, "I am ashamed. I was so caught up in trying to Heal Billy's pain that I failed to see yours. You, who were like a brother to me - just as Billy always was. I saw the change in you and I failed to look hard enough for its source. As a result, you continued to suffer - you still do. In my eyes, there is no excuse for that. Tommy... I let you down. I brushed aside your hurt, your anguish, because I felt that I was too busy to deal with it. And because..." his voice trailed off.

Almost completely engrossed in what the Red Ranger was saying, Tommy was startled when he fell silent. He stretched out a hand and gripped Jason's shoulder in turn, "What is it, Jason?"

Jason dropped his hand into his lap, "I was angry. All I could see - all I wanted to see - was that by your actions you'd hurt Billy. I refused to see past that." He bowed his head deeply in Tommy's direction, "I am deeply sorry."

Tommy stared at him for a moment before standing up to pace the length of the Tigerzord. Jason stayed where he was, unwilling to follow. He hadn't planned on really broaching this subject... but his instincts never led him wrong. Maybe... maybe Tommy was ready to talk about it. And that would be good for both of them - for all of them, really.

Tommy finally stopped his pacing and dropped back down in front of Jason, not bothering with a lotus position this time. Jason kept his, hoping it might afford him the calm he would need to handle this situation. He waited for Tommy to speak. The ex-White Ranger took his time about it. "You... You sound as if you feel personally responsible. Why?"

Jason sighed and rubbed his temples, "I'm empathic, Tommy." Before Tommy could make any response, he plowed on, "You can't possibly understand what that means... what kind of pressure it puts on me. When I was younger, and my Gift first started to manifest... I thought I was going crazy. Which is quite a thought for a nine year old to have, let me tell you. Anyway - I would start... I don't know... sensing things from people around me. At first, it was just by touch. It was stronger with people I knew, but I could pick things up from almost anyone."

Seeing that Tommy wasn't going to say anything, Jason continued with a wry smile, Well, this certainly isn't what I planned to talk about... "As time went by, it got stronger. I started feeling things from people even without touching them - but touch made the contact that much stronger. If I wasn't careful, I found myself lost in the other person's feelings - like being caught in a whirlpool I couldn't escape. And the stronger it got, the worse my life became. By the time I was ten, I couldn't stand to be within 10 feet of another living creature or I would get pulled in by its emotions."

Encouraged by Tommy's open expression, Jason warmed up to his subject. He realized that in all the years since it had happened... he'd never really talked about it. It hurt to talk about it - but it was a good hurt, if that made any sense. "Within the next year, I couldn't do anything without picking up stray feelings. I used to get physically ill from all those minds pressing in on me. I don't even know how often I missed school. People... they started to talk about me." He laughed bitterly, "I was the village oddity. The little boy who knew things no one should know. The witch. I think my mom guessed what was going on. She tried to shield me from the rumors - she even pulled me out of school and started tutoring me at home. But it didn't help. Even miles away from the town, I could still feel everyone's emotions. And excluding those - there were still the beasts of the forest."

He took a shuddering breath, vaguely surprised to note that there were tears running down his cheeks and that Tommy had moved next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. He laughed bitterly, "And to make things worse, it kept me up at night. The few times I actually managed to fall asleep, I would have terrible nightmares. I would wake up screaming and terrified and unable to shake it, because once I was awake, outside emotions would press in on me again and that just made it worse."

He scrubbed the back of his hand against his cheeks and took a deep breath, "I was eleven by then. My father was convinced that I was insane and it nearly tore the family apart. He got a job offer here, in California. He told my mother that he would be gone for a month or so to check out the surrounding towns and find a house and then he would send for us. The home we lived in belonged to our family, so we kept it, but my father thought it best to have a change of scenery. I think... part of him considered never sending for us. But it didn't turn out that way."

"Once my father left, it gave my mother free rein to figure out what was wrong with me. I don't remember much about that month - just bits and pieces. Most of it felt like fever dreams. Visions of otters and hawks - that talked, no less. A proud warrior-woman in green, a team of six that fought evil no matter where it hid." He straightened slightly and Tommy removed his arm, "When the month was over, the nightmares were gone. The press of feelings was gone. I was alone in my head - and it was a glorious feeling. I was so relieved to be normal again that I never questioned it. Later on, my mother taught me how to shield on my own and how to use my Gift. But even now... sometimes I have trouble. Whenever I'm too tired to hold my shields up, or someone around me is hurting so badly that they pull my shields down..." He shuddered.

Tommy nodded quietly, "So whenever one of the people you care about is in pain, you feel it as deeply as they do."

"Yes. Exactly." He finally unfolded his legs from their position, "And that I overlooked how you were feeling because I was so wrapped up in Billy's problems... to me, that's inexcusable."

The ex-White Ranger frowned, "Well... I can certainly see where you're coming from. It was pretty unfair of you to ignore the rest of your friends in favor of one." Jason felt his shoulders sag as he nodded. It was true. It wasn't anything he hadn't thought of himself long before this. Maybe asking forgiveness was out of the question... A small voice spoke up from deep inside his mind, demanding to know why he even needed to ask forgiveness. Just because he had this gift didn't mean he had to solve everyone's problems for them. As usual, the argument didn't hold much water. He might not be responsible for it, but that didn't stop him from feeling like he was...

Tommy continued, "Part of me... Part of me wants to tell you that you're right - it's inexcusable and I don't ever want to speak to you again." Jason actually flinched with those words, even though he'd been expecting them. His throat started to close up and he closed his eyes tightly, not really wanting to hear the rest of what Tommy had to say.

He was therefore shocked out of his mind when Tommy draped an arm around his shoulders and squeezed, "But on the other hand - you've been a great friend Jason. Through all the hard times, and all the good times. You're like the brother I never had, even though you certainly wouldn't be able to tell from how I've been treating you recently."

Jason nodded slightly as the plug of tears in his throat start to dissolve a bit. Feeling as if he'd have hysterics if he so much as opened his mouth, Jason kept quiet. Tommy squeezed his shoulders once more, "Despite how I've been acting lately, I'm not stupid. I don't want to lose our friendship over this, bro..." The use of the old nickname buoyed Jason's spirits as he listened, not daring to say a word. Tommy then slapped his back lightly and smiled, "Well, then it's settled. You're forgiven."

Jason swallowed back the remainder of the tears that had been threatening and quietly murmured, "Thank you... That means a lot. More than you can know." He raised a hand to squeeze Tommy's shoulder in a gesture of peace, finally regaining control of his voice. He smiled slightly when he realized how much time he'd taken up pouring out his own problems to his friend, "But enough about me, bro - I did come here to talk about you, you know."

"I'd never have guessed..." the other boy said dryly. As Jason shook a finger at him, Tommy shrugged, "There isn't much to tell. I talked to Zordon - who confirmed everything your mother said, by the way - and then wandered around thinking. The more I thought, the more confused I got. So, I finally came down here to try to meditate... it didn't work too well. I just managed to run myself in a few more circles. But, you know what it boils down to, Jase?" When Jason shrugged, he continued, "Your mom was right again. I can't settle any of this in my head until I have my balance back. And I won't have it back until I have the right Power back in my body and mind. Once I have that, and have some time to really think - then I'll talk to you. All right, bro?" He held out his hand in a classic gesture of peace.

Jason took it firmly, clasping it with both of his own hands, "Agreed, bro. Agreed." A sly smile slowly spread across his mouth as he and Tommy got up and began to walk back to the main chamber, "You know... I actually may be able to help you there. I gave the Gold Power back to Trey already, and he explained how to switch the others around. We could try it with yours and mine...?"

Tommy didn't waste a minute to jump at the chance, "Yes! I think that's a great idea, Jase. What do we do?" Startled at Tommy's quick aquisence in spite of his earlier words, Jason nearly jumped. Seeing his friend's confused expression, Tommy frowned, "How dense do you think I am, bro? This is the right thing to do. I can feel it. Why are you so surprised that I'd jump at the chance to set us to rights?"

Jason clapped a hand on Tommy's shoulder, "You're right, Tommy. I'm sorry. I really shouldn't have been surprised." He took a deep breath, "OK. The first thing we need to do is untangle the Red Power from the Zeo crystal."

Tommy nodded and flashed his hands out to his sides, summoning the zeonizers to his wrists. He brought them together and focused his mind on them. They joined together in a bright flash of red light. When it faded, Tommy held the fifth zeo subcrystal in his hands. Jason smiled, "Good." He held out his hands and took the crystal, listening for its distinctive hum. After a few moments, he nodded, "OK... I think I can feel where the seam is between the two powers..."

Without further preamble, Jason lowered himself into the core of his mind and reached for the Red Power that should have surrounded it. The source was still there but the bulk of the Power was... ah! He reached for the shroud of Power that surrounded the Zeo subcrystal and yanked. The Power put up a token resistance to his pull, forcing him to increase the strength he was using to draw it to him. With a final searing snap of power, the Red Power released the subcrystal and backlashed towards him. He held up his mental hands to shield himself and knew... just knew that it wouldn't be enough. He scrunched his eyes shut and braced for a blow...

...that never came. He lowered his hands, slowly, and stared in shock. For there, in front of him and surrounding him, were the largest pair of wings he'd ever seen. He turned within the circle of those great wings and turned his head up to catch the proud profile of a Hawk. A red-tailed hawk, he noted with a slightly awed smile. The Hawk tilted his head to peer down at him and let out a questioning squawk. Taking that as a question, Jason nodded, ::I'm fine... Thanks.::

The Hawk nodded and pulled its wings back, shrinking in size as he did so. With one final flip of his feathers, the Hawk settled down on an invisible perch just outside the column of Jason's life force. Remembering his mother's words about the reason they needed to go to Phaedos, Jason stared up at the Hawk in wonder, ::Are... are you my Spirit Animal?::

The Hawk lightly preened the feathers of one wing before looking back up. He seemed to hesitate a moment before speaking. His voice was deep and resonant, I am. I... was not supposed to join with you here and now. But you called me - I could not fail to answer that desperate a summons. The Hawk ruffled his feathers up and smoothed them before continuing, I was never one to break rules like this before, but... Ah well. I suppose we'll just have to show them that Cheetah isn't the only one who can bend a Rule when necessary, hmm?

Deciding that he liked the mischievous gleam in his Guardian's eyes, Jason nodded, ::Damn straight.:: Before the Hawk could decide to fly off, Jason held up a hand, ::Since you're here... and since we've apparently joined already...:: He paused, feeling unusually flustered, ::My mother said that our Spirit Animals could help bond us to our Powers...::

The Hawk regarded him for a moment, flipping his wings one more time for good measure. His beak gaped open in what Jason interpreted as a grin, In for a penny... Sure, why not? With those words, the immensity of the Red Power which the Hawk had held at bay surged around him. Understanding, without words, what he needed to do, Jason reached out and pulled the Red Power into his life force, bonding it to him. A rush of strength flooded his senses, filling him to the brim with a boundless energy. The Hawk let out an amused squawk as he watched Jason begin to bounce with the sheer joy of his own strength and Power, Maybe I should have let the Retriever have you...

Caught flat-footed by his Guardian's words, Jason let out a startled squeak, ::What??::

The Hawk's beak gaped in another grin, It isn't common knowledge, but their are some domesticated animals among the Guardians. From the first time I felt you draw breath, I knew you were for me. Free as any bird, and fierce as any predator when it came to protecting your family. The Eagle wanted you, too, you know. He flipped his wings again in a gesture of pride, We decided to leave it up to you. See which of us your spirit called to in need.

Jason laughed at the smug look that he could clearly read in his Guardian's eyes, ::And I called you. But... I didn't even know I was calling you!::

I know. The mind is not always aware of the actions of the Spirit. Your Spirit called to me, and the Eagle ceded the victory as mine. The Hawk bent forward and preened Jason's hair in an affectionate gesture before leaning back to finish his tale, But about the Retriever... As we all watched you grow, we saw that you were like your mother, yet not like. The side most visible to all was your boundless energy and your fierce loyalty to your friends, not to mention the caring sensitivity you bestow upon any creature you see. It isn't common for a domesticate to bond with a Ranger, but it does happen on occasion. Everyone else was all for giving you to the Golden Retriever.

Jason's mouth dropped open as he considered the notion. He could see where the Hawk was coming from, but still... A golden retriever? He shook his head, ::Then I am decidedly grateful that you stepped in.::

The Hawk bobbed his head in agreement, But don't underestimate the power of the Domesticates. The Bull is one of the stronger Guardians - and the Retriever, young as he may be, is no slouch either. But none of this is getting us anywhere. You need to return to the world above, little Hawk. The young Falcon grows worried...

Jason gave his Guardian one last smile and surged up out of his mind. He was only mildly surprised to find Tommy hovering anxiously over him as he was cradled to his friend's chest. He was surprised to be immediately dropped as Tommy jumped to his feet and backed away. Looking about for the source of his friend's shock, he immediately noted his own state of dress. Or rather... well. He stood up and slowly examined himself. He was clad in his old Red Ranger uniform. He removed the helmet and examined it. It resembled Kim's old pterodactyl helmet more than his Tyrannosaurus. With a rueful shake of his head, he demorphed.

Giving Tommy a sheepish grin, he spread his arms wide and shrugged, "The Power kind of backlashed at me when I pulled it. My Spirit Animal decided to show up and protect me. And while he was here..." He shrugged again, "Kill two birds with one stone, I guess. He bound me to my Power." He laughed a little nervously.

Tommy joined him in a laugh that was just this side of hysterics, "You gave me quite a scare, bro. I didn't know what the heck happened to you..."

When they finally calmed down and resumed their spots on the floor Jason gripped Tommy's arm in apology, "Sorry, Tommy. I'll try not to let it happen again..."

Tommy smiled and nodded, "So, how did you end up finding your Spirit Animal without Dulcea's help? And while we're on the subject, what is it?"

"Apparently, the Eagle and the Hawk were at a stalemate trying to figure out who would get me. They decided to wait and see which my Spirit called to more strongly." The Red Ranger shrugged, "When the Power nearly smashed me, my Spirit yelled for help - and called to the Hawk." At Tommy's appreciative nod, Jason continued with a laugh, "But it seems that if I hadn't called to one of them, I'd've ended up with the Golden Retriever..."

Tommy smirked, "Well, it would've been different..."

Jason made a face, deciding not to dignify that with a remark. He turned his head towards Zordon's tube, "I think it would be best to involve him in the next step. He knows more about the Zeo crystal than either of us do."

Almost as if he sensed their need, Zordon chose that moment to wake up, or appear, or whatever it was he did. As usual, he took the opportunity to get in the first words, Jason, I am glad to see you. We have much to discuss.

Jason nodded, a sad smile on his face as he regarded his mentor. Nothing would ever be the same between them, and Jason knew it - and he suspected Zordon knew it, too. A good part of their relationship over the years had been built on Jason's awe of his mentor, and a child-like trust that Zordon always knew what was going on because not much could occur that the interdimensional being hadn't seen in his 100,000 years.

Now, he knew differently. Zordon hadn't been what he was for very long, at all - nor had he been alive for millennia beyond count. He was a man. A man just like any other - and fallible. While he hoped that this wouldn't destroy their relationship, he greatly feared that it might. After all, how could he stay friends with a man that his own mother despised with such vigor?

Clearing his throat, Jason returned his attention to the conversation, "Zordon... what we have to discuss will have to wait. Though I agree that we have to talk. My first priority, right now, is setting Tommy to rights. And to do that, we need to separate him from the Zeo Crystal. We thought that might be easier with you involved, being as you know so much about the Crystal and we know hardly anything." He met his mentor's sad eyes and forced the last question past a sudden surge of guilt, "Will you help us?"

Zordon nodded his great head, I will. It is no less than you deserve. Tommy, if you will step forwards - I will remove the bond you hold with the Zeo Crystal.

Tommy heard the words in a bit of a daze. More so than ever before, this night seemed unreal. When he'd found Trey and Jason's mother in the supermarket, he'd been convinced that he'd blundered into the Twilight Zone. As the evening progressed, he'd been even more certain that that must have been what had happened. Shock upon shock upon shock. He'd snapped at the last, unwilling to accept what Aerin had said must be true. For more than any of the other Rangers, Tommy had depended upon Zordon's strength and guidance.

Ever since he'd been subverted by Rita to be her Ranger, he'd doubted his own judgment. Anything he did or said, he examined in detail. Any action he took was questioned to ensure that he knew why he was doing it. Towards the end, he'd begun to second-guess everything - he'd been a nervous wreck.

The loss of his powers, agonizing though it might have been, had almost been a relief. There was no more fear that Rita might be controlling him through them, no more fear that her evil overshadowed anything he might accomplish. Once he'd gotten over the shock, he'd never felt more free.

And then they'd called him back. The Power Coins had been stolen and they needed his help to retrieve them. Needed him to become the Green Ranger again. Hoping that the energy Zordon infused him with would force out any remaining taint to his powers, Tommy had agreed. How could he not? Once a Ranger, always a Ranger... right?

And it had been wonderful - to once again call upon the Dragonzord, to fight with his friends, to be able to do something when Rita threatened his world. And yet... the fear had returned. He'd even begun to fear his relationship with Kimberly. He loved her... almost more than he could bear. And because he loved her, he was deathly afraid for her - afraid of what could happen if Rita managed to use him again; through his powers - through the Green powers.

Again, the loss of his powers had come as a mixed blessing. Losing the opportunity to help his friends for a second time had killed something inside him. And yet... he'd been freed, once again, from the taint - that smudge of evil that he always felt when he took up the Dragon Flute. That bit of fear...

He'd thought he'd done with the Rangers for good that time. Never again would he let Zordon convince him to join up and fight. He'd fight in other ways - smaller ways. Ways that didn't threaten to take control of his mind and body if he relaxed his vigilance.

But he'd been wrong again. Zordon had called upon him once more, to ask him to take up the power. Only this power would be a new power - one that Zordon would create from the goodness of his essence - purely for Tommy to wield. He'd agreed in a split second - if it had even taken that long. He'd been so relieved... nothing of his new Power would be tainted by Rita's evil. He could fight purely for the side of Good - with no fear that he would lose himself to the Power.

The first time he had morphed as the White Ranger... he'd again had those mixed feelings. He'd looked down at his uniform, and even as he reveled in the absence of Rita's taint, he'd shuddered. Looking down at the glowing white radiance covering his body, it had felt... wrong. So very wrong. And he'd been unable to tell why. Every time he morphed after that, he'd expected to look down and see Green - and was disappointed when he didn't.

Becoming Leader had been another mixed blessing. Kimberly had been all for it - and surprisingly, so had Jason. But the others... they never quite got used to having him in charge. And to his own annoyance, even he continued looking to Jason to help him make decisions. He'd thought, at first, that it was a leftover from his days of doubting everything that he did and said. He'd pushed aside his feelings, glad that despite his own doubts, he still had his best friend's support.

But the team had never really recovered. Billy never said anything - but he never did. Only occasionally would he contradict something Tommy had said - and as it usually had to do with Billy's technical know-how and Tommy's lack thereof, Tommy had said nothing. Besides, he knew Billy would never challenge him if it came right down to that.

Trini and Zack, on the other hand... they'd been supportive enough when he turned from Evil to join them. They'd been crucial in helping him adjust to the team. But when he took Jason's position as Leader, he could feel their unhappiness with the decision. Not that either one would ever say anything. Neither would threaten the team's equilibrium, or his own fragile self-image - but he could feel their disapproval just the same. Subconsciously, he'd reacted, pulling Kim and Billy closer to him and holding the others further at bay.

To his own shame, it had come as a great relief when Trini and Zack agreed to go to the Peace Conference so quickly. It meant new Rangers who would never know a Leader other than he. But it also meant losing Jason. Even now, he could hardly admit to himself how badly that had made him feel. And he hadn't had the heart to convince Jason not to leave. The bottom line was that he hadn't wanted to try. He'd been too afraid of the conflict that might arise if his friend stayed. Too afraid of losing his tenuous position as leader. And Jason... clever Jason... seemed to recognize that. And so they'd left.

The remaining time had passed as a bit of a blur. Rocky, Adam, and Aisha were totally taken in by his apparent strength and readily followed his instructions. Kimberly, he held onto even tighter as the one person he knew he could count on to support his every move. But Billy... For some reason, the shy genius had begun to terribly unnerve him. Especially once they'd gotten their Ninjetti powers.

With the strength of the Wolf behind him, Billy had begun to blossom into someone that Tommy and Kim hardly recognized. He spoke up more, toning down his techno-babble into something that anyone could understand. He stopped hiding behind the other Rangers - he jumped to the fight that much quicker. And as inane a thing as it sounded... he'd gotten contact lenses. That one decision seemed to sum up his whole change in attitude. He was no longer willing to hide behind his often misunderstood intelligence. He was ready to stand up and fight - ready to lead if need be.

Tommy had seen it. And he'd been scared to death of it. He'd pulled the others even closer to him, encouraging their dependence on him for guidance even though he knew it was the wrong thing to do. And Kimberly... as much as she loved him, she'd begun to fight against the deathgrip he was holding on their relationship. He could see now, how badly he'd been suffocating her. He was only glad that he hadn't clipped her wings in the process.

He'd only realized how much she meant to him when he'd nearly lost her. Ironically, that had only made him tighten his grip further. So when she lost her power for good, was it any surprise that she opted to leave? It shouldn't have been. It really shouldn't have been. But her letter... that had been the killing blow to his rapidly failing sense of compassion. To this day, he didn't understand why she'd written it. The thought that he would be seeing her again... within the week, most likely... was something he still wasn't ready to deal with.

But that hadn't been the biggest shock. As time passed again and the team had gone in search of the Zeo Crystal, Billy had dumped the biggest surprise of all into his lap. Almost overnight, the Blue Ranger had turned into a Leader. Maybe not as naturally as Jason, or as strongly as Tommy, himself, but a Leader, nonetheless. He'd gotten them through that crisis with flying colors - and then some. Tommy had been beside himself, unsure how to react to this change in the quiet mouse of the group. Part of him had reveled in the fact that Billy had finally come into his own and could be his equal - a shoulder to lend support. The rest of him, however - the unbalanced part - insisted that this change was a bad thing, that Billy would try to steal his team from him. He'd hated the thought, but had succumbed to it even so.

And so it had been with great relief that he faced Billy's retirement from the active team. He'd been ashamed of his reaction, but had forestalled any guilt by offering Billy honorary membership to the Rangers. It wasn't until later that he'd realized what he'd really done to his friend. He hadn't needed Jason to point it out to him - he'd already known. However, it was one thing to acknowledge that the problem existed. It was quite another to do something about it.

When Trey had offered Billy the Gold Power, Tommy had been convinced that this was his chance to do right by Billy. His last chance to make up for all the rotten things he had done. He'd thought that he would have to push and cajole the ex-Blue Ranger into accepting the Power - but Billy had surprised all of them. He'd jumped at the opportunity like a drowning man to a life preserver. And when his body failed to accept the transfer... Tommy had seen the look on his face. And nothing could convince him that Billy had been anything less than heartbroken.

And so, in spite of his doubts, and in spite of his fears, he'd done the only thing he could think of that could help the scarred wolf - he'd called Switzerland intending to ask Jason to come home. To say that he was shocked when he found out that Jason had already come home was a massive understatement. At the time, he couldn't even begin to guess at the reason. Now, he knew. Jason had felt Billy's anguish and had come to help - without Tommy needing to ask.

But the problem of the Gold Power had been a real one. Trey needed to transfer the power, and the Zeo Rangers needed an ally. The opportunity was just too perfect to pass up - in spite of his misgivings. Jason had taken to the new Powers almost as easily as if they were his own. Tommy had to admit... he was jealous. As always. He was jealous of Jason's natural leadership capabilities. He was jealous of the easy way that Jason fit in with the new Rangers - none of whom even knew him well. He was even jealous of how quickly he'd pulled Billy out of his depression. And what made the whole thing worse was that Jason hadn't done this to him on purpose. It was awful. He hated feeling that way, but nothing he did could snap him out of his funk.

Perhaps, what he was jealous of most of all was not how easily Jason had helped Billy - where he could not. No. What he was most jealous of - now that he was thinking clearly - was Billy's hold on the man he considered his best friend. Jason had come home - to help Billy. Jason had taken the Power - to help Billy. All the things he had done since coming home were to help Billy. And Tommy had been left in the dust, as if he'd never counted for anything in the Red Ranger's eyes. Maybe that was why he'd been so quick to shoot down anything Aerin said... Deep down inside, he wanted his own friendship with Jason to mirror Billy's - needed the closeness that the Platinum Ranger could claim without asking.

Yet, he knew that if he even hinted his desire to Jason... he'd have it fulfilled. And that made it all the more bitter - because he knew he'd never get up the courage to ask. But maybe... just maybe... he wouldn't have to.

He looked up at Zordon and nodded, "I'm ready, Zordon."

Jason clapped a hand onto his shoulder and gave it one final squeeze, "It'll be all right, bro. You'll see." Tommy looked over into those deep, mahogany brown eyes... and smiled. A genuine smile. For in those eyes was a promise. A promise of friendship; brotherhood. And in that instant, Tommy knew that Jason understood. Before he could say anything, the Red Ranger gave him a quirky grin and backed up, "See ya on the flip side, bro!"

Jason watched as Tommy's eyes slowly went unfocused and his body folded down into a lotus position in front of Zordon's tube. Zordon, himself, slowly faded from the tube until he was virtually invisible. With a deep sigh, the Red Ranger turned his own thoughts inward. It had been a horribly busy day, a horribly busy week all together. Between Billy and Tommy, alone, he felt like he'd been put through the wringer - and that wasn't even counting all of the changes the Rangers as a group were going through. He thought he'd come to terms with his mother's revelations, but he wasn't quite certain. There was so much to take in...

Rubbing his head tiredly, Jason folded into his own lotus position next to his friend. He rested his arms on his knees and evened out his breathing, slipping easily into a meditation that had become second nature long ago. He needed time to think, to understand all that was happening around him. It bothered him not to have a complete grasp of his surroundings, made him feel unbalanced.

Inwardly he smiled - perhaps it was time to pay a little mental visit to check on all his friends... He sank deeper into his meditation, sinking into the Core of his Power that once again glowed Red. The thought filled him with a comforting warmth that had been too long absent. He sent out a gentle call, feeling his Guardian respond instantly, turning his attention towards him with a tilt of the head, Yes, fledgling?

Jason bowed in the Hawk's direction, ::Just checking in on friends - nothing important. I just figured that I should say "Hello" while I was in here.::

The Hawk bowed his head, The greeting is acknowledged and appreciated, fledgling. Wind to thy wings, my Chosen...

With the Hawk's presence gone from his mind, Jason turned his attention to the bonds he held with his friends. He lightly touched the bonds that led to Billy and his mother and smiled to find them both still asleep. Billy's mind was deep in a slumber uninterrupted by dreams, and his mother's mind was in a similarly deep slumber. He could sense a dream writhing just beneath her inner shields, but decided against disturbing her. If the dream was all that important, no doubt she would tell him the old-fashioned way, with words.

He backed away from those bonds and contemplated the array of glowing "ropes" that stretched out in his mind. The five bonds that connected him to his teammates glowed with a reassuringly steady radiance. His bonds to Kimberly and Trini were bright, and nearly fluorescent. He debated bothering Trini and eventually decided against it. She'd been bothered enough that night and he could speak with her tomorrow, anyway. He let his attention shift to two bonds that presented the opposite image to the searing, flame-colored ones that represented the girls. These two were dark as midnight, though only one was a true black. He reached out and touched it, smiling as he caught echoes of Zack's happy dreams even from this far away.

The second bond could have been mistaken for black at a quick glance, but closer inspection revealed it to be a deep, deep blue - a far darker color than Billy's royal blue had ever been. Jason settled back in his mind as he watched the Red fire of his Power flicker along the edges of this bond. It was fragile, still, not quite fully formed. Then, he hadn't known this shy, unassuming member of his team for all that long. Adam was still greatly an enigma to him. I suppose that's just one of many situations I overlooked since coming back... I knew this was all going to catch up to me eventually.

He let out a deep sigh and rubbed his eyes a little tiredly before turning to the last team-bond in his mind. It had been sickeningly colorless for quite some time before he returned home - just about now it was starting to turn a pale mint green. Jason grinned as he could feel the color deepening even as he watched. Hopefully tonight would go a good deal of the way towards Healing the hurts in Tommy's mind. And maybe... just maybe... his mother's healing touch on the Green Power would finally allow Tommy some piece of mind in his own soul. He sincerely hoped so, anyway.

Thoughts of Tommy soon brought him back around to thoughts of the Pink Ranger. Of all of his former teammates, Kimberly was the only one he hadn't heard from sometime in the past few days. It made him slightly uneasy to think that she might not make it home... He shook the thought from his mind - Kim would make it. She wouldn't want to miss the chance to reclaim her Power - even if it meant facing Tommy again. Truthfully, Jason didn't know what had happened between her and the White Ranger. Everything that he had heard had been handed down to him second-hand through the other Rangers - mostly through Trini. And Trini's opinions, though she always tried to be fair and equanimical, fell heavily on her best friend's side.

Jason worried about his two friends. He suspected that Kim and Tommy shared a soul-bond, but without really seeing them together again, he couldn't tell. Yet, how could such a bond persist when both bondmates had hurt the other so terribly? He honestly didn't know. Hopefully their love will be strong enough to get them through this... I can't even imagine our team without them together, anymore.

A sudden flash of light from the external world snapped Jason's attention out of his slightly morbid thoughts. He ascended back up from the depths of his mind and opened his eyes, smiling broadly at what he saw. The Green Ranger stood in front of him, though his uniform was slightly changed. Like Jason's helmet, Tommy's now reflected his avian Guardian, the Falcon. But, perhaps the most startling change of all was the absence of the Dragon Shield. Jason could count on one hand the number of times he had seen the Green Ranger without it and it was a shock, like always, to see it now. In fact, Tommy's uniform now looked nearly identical to all the other Ranger uniforms - even the gold trim on his gloves and boots was gone.

He stood up, slowly, looking for any other nuances that would reveal a change in his friend. The Dragon Dagger sat proudly in a sheath at Tommy's waist - similar to the way he used to carry Saba as the White Ranger. But, above and beyond any physical change in his uniform, was the change in how the Green Ranger carried himself. He looked confident, poised... comfortable. Jason nodded in satisfaction at what he saw and gave Tommy a thumbs up, "You look great, bro - how's it feel?"

From the wave of warmth he felt from his friend's mind, Jason assumed that he'd smiled, "It feels great, bro - better than I thought it would. For the first time in years I can look down to check the color of my uniform and not be disappointed in what I see. And..." He paused, but eventually pressed on, his voice subdued and tinged with wonder, "...I don't feel tainted anymore. It's as if all of that... it's just gone. Like it never was." Now he demorphed and gave Jason full view of the awe scrawling across his face, "Your mom... she was right. About all of it. Man, do I feel stupid..." He grimaced and hung his head.

Jason couldn't help but laugh at the chagrined look on Tommy's face, "Don't worry about it, bro - I'm sure she'll forgive you your disbelief." Almost subconsciously, they both flicked a glance up at Zordon's tube. Jason felt like he was checking to see if the teacher had caught them passing notes and frowned at the comparison. He needn't have worried - Zordon was nowhere to be seen. He couldn't help the unbidden thought that popped into his mind - that that was as it should be. The two were silent for a while, both needing a little more time to think the whole situation through before leaving, but Tommy soon broke the quiet with a mighty yawn.

After a quick glance at his watch, Jason pronounced it "late enough for breakfast" and dragged Tommy home with him. He wasn't all that surprised to find his mother up and cooking pancakes - she always was an early riser. He leaned over to give her a peck on the cheek, which she accepted gracefully. After turning an experienced eye her son, she nodded in satisfaction, "I approve. You look much better than you did yesterday. There's no question." She turned towards Tommy and raised an eyebrow in inquiry, "And you, young Falcon? How do you feel on this lovely morning?"

Tommy gave her a sheepish smile, "Quite a bit better, ma'am. I hate to admit it, but..." he took a deep breath, "You were right." He met her eyes dead on, his own serious, "Can you forgive me?"

Aerin laughed and pulled Tommy into a hug, patting his back lightly, "Of course - it's not your fault, much as you'd like to believe it is." She released him, ruffled his hair, and stepped back to include both young men in her regard, "So, who's up for pancakes?"

Jason raised an eyebrow, "Should I go wake up Billy, first?"

Aerin shook her head as she started peeling pancakes off the grill, "Nope. He's already up. I let him borrow your car to go pick up Trini and Zack at the airport." She looked up at the clock, "He should be back in about an hour." She looked back down at Jason and Tommy and pushed them towards the table, "Sit down, eat. He'll be fine." Laughing, the two complied.

Billy stood by the baggage claim, anxiously shifting from one foot to the other. There was no reason why he should feel nervous - he just did. He'd never really hung out with Trini and Zack on his own. Trini, yes - but mostly for the sake of work or science or Ranger business. But, at least he knew how to act around her when they were alone.

Zack, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter. Not that the Black Ranger would ever hurt him - on purpose, or otherwise - it was just... Zack seemed to attract friends so easily. He always knew how to act around people and he never seemed uncomfortable, no matter what the situation. Not like Billy, at all. He sighed heavily, No, not like me at all. I'm never comfortable, no matter what the situation. Well, except maybe with Jason. But he's practically my brother, so he doesn't count.

Billy leaned against the rail and crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly uncertain of his decision to come alone. He was tired, he was unsettled, and he was starting to feel depressed again. Clinically, his mind noted that it would probably be a long time before he could shake off the last vestiges of his... depression. He shuddered, still hating to use that word in conjunction with himself. It felt terribly like self-absorption, like he was putting his own needs above everyone else's. He didn't like that feeling...

"Flight 127 now arriving at Gate 30."

Billy jerked his head up at the announcement. That was Trini and Zack's flight... He straightened himself up, adjusting his clothing so he looked presentable. The black jeans and deep gray shirt made him look like he was in mourning, but it felt appropriate - moreso than the blue had ever felt, though he hadn't thought that would be possible. He self-consciously smoothed down the soft fabric of his shirt, wondering what their reaction to his change of wardrobe would be.

While he was busy fussing over his clothing - an entirely un-Billy-like action that he was forced to attribute to stress - Trini and Zack walked up behind him. Zack gave Trini a little smirk and made tiptoeing motions up to the ex-Blue Ranger. He reached out his hands and pounced mercilessly upon his hapless victim, "What's happenin', little bro?"

Billy jumped, letting out a little scream as he did so. He whirled around, his hands clutching at his chest as he panted for air, "Zack! Don't scare me like that!!" His eyes were wild and panicky, but as they landed on the Black Ranger they became accusing. Zack was doubled over and clutching his sides, he was laughing so hard. Billy forced down a pout, "Very funny, Zack. Ha-ha. You got me."

Trini gave him one of her famous serene smiles and patted his arm. She leaned up and gave him a quiet peck on the cheek, "He's harmless, Billy - just a little stir-crazy from being locked up on that plane for so long."

Billy smoothed down his shirt, wondering this time if the action would come to replace his old habit of pushing up his glasses, "OK - I forgive you, Zack. Just don't do it again..."

Zack straightened up and held up his left hand, his right crossed over his heart, "You got it, bro. It was just too good an opportunity..." Zack's eyes slid to the left and he smiled, "And here comes our baggage, not a moment too soon." His eyes sparkling, the Black Ranger did an impromptu dance step that brought him close enough to grab one of his bags.

Billy and Trini had to laugh at his antics. Trini shook her head in mock exasperation, "Oh, Zack - what are we going to do with you?"

Zack leaned in close and whispered, "Fit me with a morpher and point me in Mondo's direction. The Zack-man is back and ready for action!" He laughed and punched Billy lightly in the arm.

Billy finally gave up on his dark mood as he helped his two friends gather up the rest of their bags and drag them to the car. When they got there, Zack raised an eyebrow, "Hey, man - isn't this Jason's car?"

Billy nodded, "It is. His mother let me borrow it..."

Zack heaved one of the bags into the trunk, "No kidding? Generous mother he's got... Then again, she always was, wasn't she?"

Trini nodded, her eyes even more serious than usual, "I think that there is a lot about Aerin Scott that none of us know. There always seemed to be more to her than she revealed..."

Billy let out a sarcastic chuckle, "You don't know the half of it. Guys..." They leaned in close as Billy dropped his voice down to a whisper, "She's a Ranger, guys. A Green Ranger, and she's been one for over 200 years." When the other's shocked eyes met his, he nodded, "She's a Space Ranger - her team was the Darkstar Rangers. Look... it's a really long story. I'll explain it on the way back to Jason's." With that, the three finished loading up the car and started on the drive home.

Tommy paced Jason's room like a caged beast, his thoughts awhirl. Zack and Trini were coming home - likely he'd see them in less than a half hour. He didn't know what to think or how to react, especially considering the less than amicable relationship he'd had with the other Rangers when they'd left. He ran his hands through his hair for the fourth time as he turned and paced the other way. Man... I gotta calm down...

Jason unknowingly echoed his thoughts from the couch, "Jeez, bro... you gotta calm down - you're driving me nuts!"

Tommy forced himself to sit down on Jason's bed, "I'm sorry, man... I just... I'm so nervous."

Jason frowned, "Why? Zack and Trini are your friends - so's Billy, and so am I. You have nothing to worry about, OK? None of us will hurt you, and none of us will blame you. We know you too well to do that. So just chill, bro. Take a few deep breaths, all right?"

Tommy tried to take his advice, finally managing to calm himself down somewhat. He pulled his legs up into a lotus position and ran through a few basic meditation exercises - breathing patterns to calm the body and the mind. Just as he managed to get himself under control, he felt Jason staring at him. He didn't open his eyes as he asked, "What?"

His friend shrugged, "I can't help but get the feeling that this isn't what's bothering you... But I can't figure out what else it could be."

With one final deep breath, Tommy let his posture loosen, folding his legs into a more comfortable Indian-style position, "I didn't really think about it... but you may be right, bro. I know Zack and Trini will forgive me. I think I know that Billy will, too..." He trailed off.

Jason finished the sentence for him, "But you're not so certain that Kimberly will."

He raised a hand to rub at his temples as he nodded, "Yeah... I don't know what I'll say to her, Jason. I mean, I was awful to her, even before she lost her power. I practically smothered her. So, I wasn't really surprised when she left. I think I knew that, in a way, that's what was best for her. But that letter... Man. I've never felt so rotten in all my life, bro... I didn't know what to do! Part of me believes that I deserved it, and part of me's grateful that she found someone else, but the rest of me..." He swallowed hard, "...the rest of me misses her with all my heart, Jase... What'll I do if she won't forgive me?"

Jason rose and gripped Tommy's shoulder hard with his hand, "We'll figure something out, that's what. It'll work out, bro - just trust in your love. Trust that it's strong enough to hold you together, and don't try to smother her again. Remember that old proverb? 'If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it's yours...'" he trailed off, not wanting to complete the sentence.

Tommy shuddered as he did it for him, "'...if not, it was never meant to be.'" He bent his head and squeezed his eyes shut, "Please don't let that be the case..."

It sounded so much like a prayer that Jason tacked on, "Amen... Amen..."

They spent the rest of the wait in utter silence.

The sun rode high over Angel Grove when the young woman walked into town, carrying nothing but her guitar and one lone backpack. She took a deep breath of fresh air, grateful beyond belief to be back on her home turf. Even the tumbleweeds looked more welcoming on this end of the continent. She couldn't help but laugh at that thought - a thought which rapidly led to another. For this far away from the city center, Angel Grove looked very much like her younger self - a city untouched by technology, untouched by nearly everything. It was a city where, for but a day, a young heroine named 'Calamity Kim' had reigned supreme in the public eye - a city protected by the White Stranger.

Kimberly Hart raised her eyes to the sky, not bothering to shade them from the sun. The sky was the same clear blue that she remembered, the clouds were the same cotton-fluff white. She lowered her eyes back to the road - she had a long way to go, yet, to get into town. With a sigh, she started walking.

After a disappointing fifth place finish at the Pan Globals, Kimberly had left Florida, thoroughly disenchanted with the sport of gymnastics. Her coach had begged her to stay, but what had she to stay for? Most of her friends were either returning home or moving on to train for the Olympics. She would only be in their way... a fifth wheel. So she had left, uncertain as to what she would do or where she would go, only knowing that she had to leave.

A week later had seen her in New York without a penny to her name. The money had long since run out and she was too proud to try to call her parents for more. Doubtless they thought she was still in Florida. Still yearning after her childhood dream. Yeah right. Well, having no one to turn to hadn't stopped her for long. She'd sold most of her remaining gymnastics equipment and a good part of her clothing at pawn shops and used equipment stores - she hadn't even known such things existed. It had given her enough money to keep food in her stomach and put a roof over her head at night. But she'd been reluctant to sell her guitar. Something... something had held her back.

She was right. Keeping her guitar had been the smartest thing she'd done, for when she'd finished sulking about her position, she knew what she could do. Penn Station had never seemed like a friendlier place. She had set herself up by one of the main entrances and made music. Singing, playing, both... anything to attract the attention of the passers-by. She'd even given an impromptu gymnastics show around the time of the World Championships. The money she made kept her going, kept her alive - and eventually earned her enough to get out of New York.

She'd taken a train to Washington D.C. and set up her routine in much the same way. But the capital was kinder to buskers than the Big Apple was - she'd been able to afford a real hotel room for one or two nights. It was then that she'd started to feel the pull. Something... something was prompting her to go home, to Angel Grove. It was a pull she felt deep in her soul, a feeling that brought the peace and beauty of the Crane to her mind for the first time in a year. She started to move.

By bus, by train, and finally by foot - anything that would get her closer to Angel Grove. She stayed only long enough to make enough money for the next ticket. It was a slow journey and a hard one, but she was triumphant. Every step closer to home was a victory, every night that she could put a real roof over her head was a reason to celebrate.

Then... last night, she'd had a dream. She'd dreamt of Billy. The Blue Ranger had been standing on the other side of a deep chasm, hand outstretched towards her, but she'd been too frightened to take his hand and cross. The only thing that provided conveyance over the chasm was a flimsy-looking pink and platinum rope bridge - and she didn't trust her balance enough to try to cross it. She'd woken in a cold sweat, her heart racing, and one thought repeating over and over in her mind. She had to get home because it was Time. It was Time. But time for what, she had no idea.

She hadn't had the money for a cab or a bus and the town she was in wasn't more than 5 miles from Angel Grove. So she'd walked. Even as the sun grew bright overhead, she'd walked. And as she walked, she finally had time to think. Her thoughts, unsurprisingly, went to Tommy. Thomas Oliver. Her first, her beloved. The man she had cherished above all others. The man she had dumped, harshly, with one letter.

Granted, the letter had been false. There had been no other man. She'd written it just before leaving Florida, not wanting to have to explain her sudden disappearance. She had thought that once they were no longer dating that he would forget about her and never wonder why she no longer called or wrote. It had worked - it had worked too well. He hadn't even tried to contact her. Not once. To keep up appearances, she had called Trini once a month to catch up - so her best friend wouldn't suspect anything. She never knew whether or not she'd managed to fool the Asian ex-Ranger. Somehow, she suspected not.

So, it was with a heavy heart that she learned of Tommy's involvement with Katherine, the new Pink Zeo Ranger. She hadn't thought she'd had any tears left before that night... But it was no matter. If Tommy was happy with Kat, then she'd see that they stayed that way. She didn't know why she felt this pull to come home, but whatever the reason, she could always leave again.

As she reached the edge of town, Kimberly brought her roaming thoughts to a halt. However happy she was to be home, she had to think practically. She knew she didn't have the money to afford a motel room, and neither of her parents still lived in Angel Grove. So... if she wanted to have a place to crash while she was here, she'd have to figure out which of her friends was still around that she could mooch off of. She shuddered at the thought - it made her sound like some kind of ungrateful leech...

She took a quick look around her and made a face. Wouldn't you just know it... Her first time back in Angel Grove in a year and the person whose house she was closest to was Tommy's. Well, that would never do. She closed her eyes and thought for a moment, trying to remember who else she knew that lived close by. After a moment of thinking, her eyes snapped open. It wasn't the closest house - not by far - but somehow she knew she had to go to Jason's. The voice that had pulled her this far was prompting her to go to him. Everything would be all right if she went to Jason's. So, screwing up her courage, Kimberly went to Jason's.

Zack slapped Jason on the back for the third time that morning, "Man, it is great to be back! I don't even care why anymore, it just is!"

Jason groaned, "Go easy on me, bro - I'm gonna have bruises!"

Zack laughed and punched his friend's arm instead, "What's the matter, man - getting soft?"

Jason made a face and pounced on the Black Ranger, a move that soon degenerated into a wrestling match which Jason was bound to eventually win. Tommy looked on wistfully as if wishing he could join in. He turned his head to take in the rest of the room. Aerin was talking with Trey in the kitchen, Jason and Zack were play-fighting on the floor - he raised an eyebrow as Zack let loose with a particularly inventive string of curses when Jason laughingly pinned him - and Trini and Billy were sitting on the couch going over the details of the information Aerin had just re-explained. And he was sitting alone as usual. He rested his chin on his fist and sighed - in a sick sort of way, this seemed right.

He sat watching the others for a little while longer, finally settling back in the armchair and trying to meditate. He failed miserably. So maybe that was why he was the first one out of his chair when the doorbell rang, or maybe it was some inner prompting that knew no exhaustion, or maybe it was neither of these... Whatever the reason, Tommy was the first one to the front door. He opened it, his heart suddenly beating in the vicinity of his throat. And what the open door revealed...

Tommy could feel the tears gathering in his eyes when he beheld the vision of beauty before him. He didn't see the dirt, the grime, the bedraggled state of her clothing. He didn't see the bags under her eyes, the frown lines etched into her brow, or the used and abused expression set deep into those one-time innocent brown orbs. All he saw was her beauty, a beauty made all the more radiant because of its lack of assistance and the long period of time since he'd seen it last. All he saw was her sudden smile at his appearance, a smile that told him all that he needed to know. All he saw was her strength and grace, her caring heart, and the forgiveness in her eyes. All he saw was her love.

And as easily as that - everything was all right. He felt whole again for the first time since all of these problems had started. It felt like a piece of his soul that he'd been long missing had finally been returned to him. He didn't even know when he'd taken Kim into his arms, all he knew was that she was there - warm and alive and holding him just as tightly as he was holding her. All he knew was the sweetness of her lips as they met his. He was only dimly aware of the backpack that he was squashing with his embrace or the guitar case that was digging into his back. It didn't matter. All that mattered was his love in his arms. Gratefully he let go of time.

Kimberly came back to herself only slowly. She hadn't known how she and Tommy would react to being with each other again. She'd been so afraid that he loved Katherine... but the way he'd looked into her eyes and the way he'd held her in his arms left no room for doubt. He was hers, wholly and completely - just as she was his. She released him so that only his hand was held in hers.

It was as if a floodgate had broken open. It seemed that that was the signal for all of the other Rangers to deluge her with their hugs, kisses, and reunionary speeches. She barely heard a word of it, just taking in the feelings like a plant takes in sunlight. It felt wonderful... so wonderful. She was home.

They dragged her into the kitchen and put a heaping plate of pancakes in front of her, urging her to eat. Trini complained that Kim was too thin and was making her look fat. It was such an un-Trini-like comment that everyone broke into laughter.

When she'd eaten and everyone had sobered up, that was when they dropped the bombshell on her. Aerin told her story for the second time that morning and the more she spoke, the more Kim's jaw dropped. And yet... even this felt right. Strange, but right. She saw the others meet her eyes around the table and nod.

Jason wordlessly held out his hand. It was quickly covered by Billy's, then Tommy's and Zack's, then Trini's, and finally Kim's. He smiled at them all, as he met each of their eyes in turn. Kim smiled, waiting.

Jason looked at each of his friends, measuring up what he saw in their eyes. Billy's were tired, but happier than they'd been in weeks. Tommy's were determined, and filled with a love for Kim that he'd only recently rediscovered, Zack's were brimming with excitement and good feelings, Trini's were serene and confident with just a shimmer of tears breaking through her control, and Kim's were shining - shining with love for Tommy and everyone there. She'd been through an ordeal - though what sort, Jason couldn't tell. He flicked his eyes up once to look at his mother, who smiled approval. With one regal incline of her head, she took Trey's hand and left the room.

All that were left were the Rangers - the original Earth Rangers. And that was as it should be. They were here for each other like they'd always been. They still had an awfully long way to go - reshuffling their powers, going to Phaedos, training the new Zeos - but they would do it together. And they would triumph. He could feel it.

He gave Billy a wicked smirk which passed its way around the table like wildfire. He stood slowly, leaving his hand low over the table. When everyone had joined him, he nodded and threw his hand into the air. The feral roar that resounded from each of their throats could have shaken the very heavens, "GO RANGERS!!!"

Questions, comments, papayas?

Jason: Oh for goodness' sake, enough with the fruit!
Renee-chan: *eg*