Author's Notes: Wow, this happened quickly. Don't get used to it. I just caught the fanfiction but and ignored important work to get this out.

Thanks to all my reviewers: Seren Maris, exwindz, Ariadne (Yeah, I made a mistake. Changed it as soon as you pointed it out, though. I was remembering back to an earlier version of Billy's mother.), Ghostwriter, cloud9123, CalcBoy91, curly, Linariel, Gaia'schild, alias093001, PinkRangerV, brankel1, and Willowxxx.

Darker Shades

Book 3: Something Old, Something Green

Chapter 10: Crying Wolf

Tommy sat in the Juice Bar, staring idly at the television, which was broadcasting live footage of the MegaZord fighting a gigantic fish monster. He sighed. At least he knew why Kimberly was late.

The other teens hanging out in the Juice Bar barely paid attention to the fight. They were all under monster curfew, so they weren't allowed to leave, but they also didn't seem all that interested in the fight. They talked, worked out, studied, and laughed like it was just a normal afternoon.

The truth was, these fights were becoming a near daily occurrence. And there were only so many times people could get worked up over them. Tommy was surprised it was even getting air time on the news.

Lightning hit the MegaZord and formed itself into a giant sword. Tommy tried to imagine the last desperate fish-based pun the monster got out before it was predictably carved into filets.

That was pretty good. Tommy smiled at his own pun.

A reporter gave a wrap-up as the Zords disappeared, and the channel flicked back to afternoon cartoons. Tommy stopped paying attention.

He was almost okay with sitting on the sidelines while he watched his friends fight.

What he'd been expecting hadn't happened: he'd been expecting Rita to attack him mercilessly. He and Billy had upped the security on his house. Billy had given him back his communicator, and now Tommy kept it on at all times, only taking it off to shower. It didn't make him feel entirely safe, but it did remind him that he was still a part of something… if not an active part.

He ordered a strawberry smoothie and a juice for himself and waited.

Kimberly ran in, breathing heavily. She had obviously come straight off the battlefield and ran from the nearest teleport point. "Sorry I'm late," she breathed. Ernie set the smoothie next to her, and she immediately took a huge drink.

She grinned and kissed him. "Best boyfriend ever," she said. The kiss tasted like strawberries.

"I do my best," Tommy said. "Rough day?" he said, this time sotto voce.

Kimberly scraped the hair out of her face. She looked worn, though still beautiful. "Same as every day… unfortunately. This whole daily attack thing is getting kind of old. Jason's super worried, too."

They moved to a far table so they could talk with no one listening in.

"I can imagine," Tommy said. "Rita's crying wolf."


"Crying wolf. Like in the story."

Kimberly took a long draw of her smoothie. "But she's not bluffing. She's actually attacking us… if you'd call that fish monster an attack."

"Exactly," Tommy explained. "She follows up kidnapping half the town with a bunch of little, routine attacks. The monsters barely have any special powers. You keep expecting her to pull out the big guns, but she doesn't."

Kimberly's face was grim. "She's planning something big. And she's trying to throw us off our game… wear down our endurance." She rubbed her temples. "She's doing a pretty good job of it."

Tommy smiled. He really wanted to keep theorizing about what Rita was up to, but he could tell Kimberly needed a break. So he said the one thing that would drive fights with evil aliens completely out of her head. "So, you almost done with the wedding decorations?"

Kimberly looked at him like he'd just been speaking Portuguese. "You're kidding, right? The wedding's this weekend, and I still don't have all the table settings done. And my calligraphy pen broke… do you have one I can borrow?"

Tommy just looked at her.

"Right," she said sheepishly. "And I wanted to have everything done by now, but…"

"Dad knows you've been busy," Tommy said. "And Sylvia…"

"Is so laidback and pragmatic that I could show up with Land Before Time themed paper hats and kazoos, and she'd be thrilled," Kimberly said.

"I wouldn't." Billy approached, looking far more tired than Kimberly, with a pile of books in his arms. "She might think the theme was a comment on her age."

Tommy glanced over Billy's shoulder. None of the other Rangers had come in with him.

"The others are still up there," Billy answered Tommy's unasked question, using the euphemism they used for the Command Center. "I'm just here to work on a project, as I will be prevented from doing any work this weekend."

"I swear, if Rita attacks this weekend, I will go completely insane," Kimberly said.

"Nothing bad's going to happen this weekend," Billy said reassuringly.

He started to back up at the awful looks Tommy and Kimberly gave him. "What?" he said.

"You realize you're jinxing the hell out of this weekend, don't you?" Tommy said.

"Why would you even say that?" said Kimberly.

Billy's eyes were wide and panicked. "I didn't think… But… I'm… just going to go work over there," he finished.

Tommy and Kimberly watched him as he slumped off.

"Too hard on him?" Tommy said quietly.

"Probably," Kimberly answered. "This weekend was jinxed long before he said anything."

Tommy nodded, going over in his head for the millionth time the security measures they'd set up. The wedding was going to be Saturday afternoon in the garden outside the summer home. Camouflaged among the plants were teleportation inhibitors, guided surveillance shields (so that the Command Center could monitor but Rita couldn't), and sensors that would only allow humans to enter without setting everything off. Billy and Tommy had spent most of a Saturday fixing everything up while their parents were out. And still, Tommy worried. Rita would still find some way to mess everything up.

"Hey…" Kimberly said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I'm not going to say everything will be perfect, but we've prepared the best we can. If anything bad happens, we'll deal."

Tommy gave a thin smile. "The thing is… I want this weekend to be over with already. And I shouldn't feel like that. I sorta feel like in some way she's already won."

Kimberly's eyes were sympathetic. For a moment Tommy felt like pushing her away, acting like old Tommy. The feeling passed. He was getting better at not being a jerk, he mused.

"Hey… you wanna get out of here?" Kimberly whispered, her eyebrows raised significantly.

Tommy grinned. "Hell, yeah." A good makeout session did wonders for too many worries.

Jason finished one battle record and began another. His eyes followed the movements mechanically. He practically had this battle with the teapot monster memorized, but what if he had missed something?

"Jason, it is late," he heard Zordon say behind him. "Perhaps you should go home and rest."

Jason rubbed his face, forcing himself to not look as tired as he felt. "Just a little more time," he said, thinking he sounded absurdly like he had when he was a child asking for a few more minutes of TV before bedtime. "I know I've watched these tapes a hundred times, but I can't just give up."

Zordon looked steadily at him, considering. "All right. But you must leave soon. Your powers can only help you so much when your body and brain are exhausted."

"Thanks," Jason said, turning back to the globe.

Ostensibly, he knew what Rita was doing. She was wearing them down with minor attacks, not only breaking down their resistance but also stealing any semblance of a normal life from them. Jason reflected that he really needed to be doing homework, but he knew he wouldn't be able to concentrate. Chemistry and English would just have to wait.

He also didn't want to admit to himself that he was learning nothing from these fights. They were repetitive, unpredictable… the monsters unremarkable. It was like Finster had cleaned out the attic and, instead of having a garage sale like a normal person, decided to make all the junk into monsters. A teapot, for Pete's sake.

What tortured him was that there might be something… some clue… hidden in the fights. Something that would lead to Rita's big plan. After all, hadn't the Candle Monster dropped clues left and right that a candle was sapping Tommy's powers? What if there was something like that and Jason was too thick to see it?

Trini and Zack were long gone. Trini had stopped long enough to refresh their supply of serum. They'd been having more injuries lately, just from exhaustion and carelessness. Zack had stayed with him to help study the tapes, but he'd given up finding anything on there.

What Jason really wished was to get Tommy up there to help him. He knew that Tommy was brilliant when it came to battle strategy. Probably better than he was, though Jason would never admit it, he thought with a wry smile. But… no. Zack was right: it would be cruel to ask Tommy to watch the fights more than he had to. Tommy was already dealing with not being able to fight alongside them. Why shove it in his face? Plus, right now he was dealing with all his family stuff. Jason just couldn't ask him for help.

"I'm done," Jason said wearily, shutting the replay mode of the Viewing Globe off. The globe immediately switched to night scenes of Angel Grove. He ambled over to Alpha, not eager to go home and have his homework stare accusingly at him. "What are you working on?" he asked.

Alpha jumped and covered the controls with his hands. "Working on? Uh…" The robot looked up at Zordon.

Jason was a bit startled to see Alpha so flustered.

Zordon saved Alpha from having to explain. "Alpha and I are merely running an experiment. We do not wish to reveal the details until everything is finished. Now, I would insist that you go home and get some rest."

"Yeah, sure, Zordon," Jason said, bewildered at being thrown out of the Command Center for no apparent reason.

"Well?" Rita hovered over Finster at his work station. "Can you do it?"

Finster would have been annoyed at this intrusion had he not been absorbed in his work. He brushed past Rita to tap at his computer before answering. "Most probably," he said. "The Blue Ranger is a singular talent, and he has the resources of Zordon behind him, but he is still very young, and his implementation lacks sophistication."

"So you can have their security measures down."

"In a twinkling," said Finster. "Just give the signal."

Rita smiled to herself. They would feel safe. Safe and happy. And she would rip that all away from them.

It was the evening before the wedding. Tommy had spent the day suspended from trees, hanging twinkle lights. He wondered where Kimberly had dug them all up, and he shuddered to think about having to take them down in a few days.

Tommy sat in the garden in the gathering dark, barely able to move. Billy emerged from one of the dark recesses near the woods and sat next to Tommy, shutting off one of his numerous mechanical blinking boxes.

"Last check-up of security," Billy explained. "Everything's working correctly. There should be no surprises… and I'm jinxing things again, aren't I?"

Tommy laughed wearily. "Sorry about earlier, man. We were just messing with you."

Billy nodded, but his brain seemed far away from jokes. "And you've got the alibis just in case any of us have to leave…"

"Billy, don't worry," Tommy said. He felt peaceful for the moment. "We've been over the contingency plans a thousand times. There's nothing more we can do tonight." He sighed. "I just wish this felt more like a wedding and less like a war."

"We will survive the wedding," Billy said. "Then we will only have to worry about moving."

"Hey, that's something I'm practically an expert at," said Tommy. "We already have half our stuff at your house anyway."

In truth, Tommy was also feeling nervous about him and his father moving in with Sylvia and Billy. It made the most sense. They didn't even own the house they were staying in: that was his uncle's summer house. Yet Tommy still couldn't set foot in the house without remembering what he'd done to both Billy and Sylvia in his worst act as the evil Green Ranger. He imagined that living there would possibly make things easier, but would he ever be able to call it home?

John wheeled over to Tommy and Billy. "Everything okay?"

Tommy and Billy shot each other a look. They'd reluctantly let John in on their precautions… not to make him nervous, but to put him on his guard.

"The security precautions have been completely implemented… John," said Billy. "I'm going to run one last security check from the Command Center in the morning." He smiled. "Zordon said he appreciated the invitation, though his condition and various other… circumstances… prevented him from attending."

Tommy grinned, remembering the look on Zordon's face when Tommy and Billy had delivered the invitation for both him and Alpha. It had been strange to give a wedding invitation to the giant floating head of an intergalactic being.

"I knew he wouldn't be able to come," John said easily. "I just didn't want to ignore him because of a medical condition. Besides, he's such a big part of your lives. Felt strange not to acknowledge that."

Tommy wondered if he could ask Zordon for permission for his dad to see the Command Center. After all his father had done for them, it was the least he could do.

"Supper's ready, by the way" John said. He jerked his head toward the dining room, where Tommy could see the outline of Sylvia through the curtains.

"Great, I'm starving," Tommy said, willing himself to get out of the chair.

John cleared his throat. "Steve's here."

Tommy looked at the window again. Sure enough, there was a second outline, shaking hands with Sylvia. Tommy groaned. "I thought Uncle Steve wasn't getting here until tomorrow."

"Be nice," John warned. "He's my brother, and he wanted to be here first thing in the morning to help me out."

"I'll be nice if he will," Tommy said grumpily.

"Tommy," John said, a hard edge coming into his voice.

"Yes, Dad."

John rolled to the back door. Billy got up to follow, but Tommy stayed where he was, suddenly losing the will to ever move again.

"I take it you're not exactly pleased to see family?" Billy said.

Tommy sighed. "Uncle Steve… well… we just don't get along. Just… if I get too pissed, can you make a reason for both of us to leave?"

"Of course," Billy said. "But…"

Tommy hauled himself up to his feet. "You'll see."

They walked inside, grabbing glasses and napkins to set on the table as they went. Tommy steeled himself. "Uncle Steve, good to see you."

Steve stood up from the table. He looked a lot like John… slightly older, and more imposing. At first it seemed like Steve was what John would be like if he had his full health, but there was also a hardness about him that was obvious even when he smiled.

"Tommy," Steve said shortly, barely giving him a glance. "And you must be Billy," he said more warmly. He held out his hand. "I've heard so much about you from John. Top of your class, and won several science awards, am I right?"

"Yes, sir," Billy said, a little uncomfortable at the man's attention.

They sat down to the meal. Tommy decided to stare mostly down at his plate and let the others talk. It was better not to engage. And supper went on companionably enough. John, Sylvia, and Steve talked over plans for the next day. Sylvia and Steve seemed to get along well. Billy answered when he was spoken to and kept shooting worried glances at Tommy.

"Surprised to see you here, Tommy," Steve said abruptly. "Weren't you off with your… mother?"

John spoke up before Tommy had a chance. "I told you he came back a little before Christmas."

Steve was still staring at Tommy. "I can't wait to see how long you stay around this time."

Tommy looked up sharply, but Steve had already moved his attention to Sylvia. "I'm impressed with what you've done with the garden, Sylvia."

There was a bit of reserve lurking behind Sylvia's smile, though she was obviously making an effort for John. "It was a friend of Billy's and Tommy's that did most of the work." Her smile broadened. "And Tommy nearly killed himself putting up those lights. Scared me to death."

"Get used to that," Steve said under his breath.

"Hey, Tommy," Billy said suddenly. "Don't we need to get take some of your stuff to the house? You can even stay over if you want." He sent a questioning glance to John.

"Just be back bright and early in the morning," John said.

Tommy felt himself being led upstairs to his room by Billy. Billy grabbed a couple of boxes without looking at them while Tommy threw together a quick overnight bag. As they stomped back down the stairs, they said goodbye to their parents and loaded up in Tommy's van.

When they got on the road, Billy finally spoke. "Okay, what was wrong with your uncle? I mean… that was uncalled for."

Tommy's pulse was finally slowing, and he forced himself to calm down even more for driving. "Sorry about that."

"You didn't do anything," Billy said, seeming to catch Tommy's siphoned off anger. "He's the one who should apologize."

Tommy shook his head. "It's been like that for a long time. Dad and I have gotten used to it… for the most part. At least, we know there's nothing we can do about it without cutting ties with Uncle Steve altogether, and Dad really doesn't want to do that. Not with all his uncertain health stuff."

"But what is… it… that you can't do anything about?"

"Uncle Steve thinks I'm too much like my mother," Tommy said in a monotone. "It's really her he's angry about. He blames her for abandoning Dad when he needed her the most. Since she's not around, then…"

Billy shook his head in confusion. "But… you have been there. Your mom abandoned both of you. At least, that's what you've always said."

"And if any of this made sense, Uncle Steve would have gotten over the whole thing years ago, like Dad did," said Tommy. "And Uncle Steve knows about all the times I've cut out on Dad. He knows about my run-ins with the police, all the schools I've gotten kicked out of… and he knows about the time I 'disappeared' when I was under the spell. So in his book, I'm not always there. And when I am there, I'm just a burden on Dad rather than a help." Tommy realized he was driving too fast. He slowed down. The last thing he needed was Uncle Steve to hear he'd gotten a ticket.

"I knew he was rude to you on… the answering machine. But I just thought he was irritated that you wouldn't answer your calls." Billy looked nervous that he had brought up the answering machine tape that had helped break the spell. It was something they generally didn't talk about.

Tommy shrugged. "Listen, it's no big deal. Just something else to deal with tomorrow. Uncle Steve and his family barely spend time with us. Uncle Steve's loaded, if you haven't been able to tell, and his wife sort of comes from a rich family, so she doesn't like spending time with the poor side of the family. And I think my cousins are a little afraid of me. The occasional family thing is all we'll have to deal with." They were getting closer to Billy's house, so Tommy decided to lighten the mood. "You don't have any crazy relatives, do you?"

"You'll see what there is of them tomorrow," Billy said. "I don't really have much family on my dad's side, but my mom had three sisters who decided fecundity was a virtue."

"Say what?"

"Tons of cousins."


"Not all of them will be there tomorrow, anyway. Mom just invited the ones living in town." He sighed. "If this is what a small, stress-free wedding is like, I'd hate to see a big one."

"We just have to get through tomorrow," Tommy said as he pulled into the driveway. "As long as we can keep Rita from crashing the party and me from attacking my uncle, I call the day a win."

They grabbed the boxes and toted them through the house to Tommy's new bedroom. It used to be a guest room, and there was still a feeling of falseness about the place. It was too clean, though Tommy supposed he'd take care of that within a week of daily living. He'd never been exactly tidy or organized. The boxes went in a corner. It hadn't been essential to bring them: just an excuse to get out of there.

"I'm too wired to get to sleep," Billy said. "Do you want to work on the car?"

Tommy realized he was completely tense. There was no way he'd be able to sleep in this house. At least, not that night anyway. "Billy… I'm sorry. I think I'm going to drive back. I… I want to just make sure I've got everything all packed."

The lie sounded lame even to his own ears, and Tommy knew it didn't fool Billy one bit. "Sure…" Billy said in a small voice. "I guess I'll see you in the morning."

Tommy left, feeling pretty bad for blowing Billy off that way. But he just couldn't spend the night in that house until he could feel like he could call it his house. And that wasn't happening until after the wedding.

And he had plans with his dad that Uncle Steve was not going to ruin.

When Tommy pulled up, the porchlight was on. Tommy grinned and stopped before he'd pulled all the way up the driveway.

John was sitting outside in his wheelchair, holding a basketball. "Knew you'd be back."

"As promised," Tommy said. "One more game as a single man. How'd you get rid of Uncle Steve? And where's Sylvia?"

"Told Steve to go to his hotel already. And Sylvia's asleep in one of the guest rooms." He started bouncing the ball. "She wants to refrain from any activity until after the wedding."

"I so don't need to hear that." Tommy circled around and made for the ball, but John was too quick for him. He swapped sides with the ball and wheeled himself around toward the goal.

Basketball was a ritual they kept to themselves. It had started out as physical therapy for John. Now they played for fun, at least once a week. It was the one thing they did that made Tommy feel like his father was whole and healthy, like he was when he was a kid. Tommy barely noticed the wheelchair, as John was so good without it.

They played. They didn't keep score. They taunted each other and laughed. When they stopped, they were gasping for breath. Tommy sat on the pavement beside his father, who was rubbing his hands from the friction from the wheels.

"You ready for tomorrow?" Tommy said between breaths.

"Nothing's going to change, Tommy."

Tommy looked up, glaring at his father. "No fair reading my mind like that."

John chuckled. "Can't help it. But I mean what I say. We're going to be moving, and we're making our family bigger, but nothing's going to change between the two of us."

"I'm supposed to be supporting you," said Tommy. "You're the one who's getting married."

"We support each other, like always," John answered. "I… know it's been really difficult ever since you lost your powers. I know it's been hell for you sitting on the sidelines while your friends fight."

Tommy swallowed and nodded. Leave it to his father, even through the flurry of the wedding, to see past his brave front. In truth, he would give just about anything to morph just once more.

"I just wanted to say how proud I am of you," John continued. "No matter what Steve says, and no matter what you think of yourself, and no matter if you have superpowers or not… you're a hero."

There were times in his life when Tommy would have pulled away. But this was one of those moments when he knew it was time to open up and leave all that cynical bullshit behind. "Not as much a hero as you, Dad. Never will be."

Billy watched Tommy drive off, feeling disappointed. He'd sort of wanted to use this time to get used to Tommy being around. And he knew his mom was staying over at the summer house, so he'd be alone.

He briefly considered teleporting up to the Command Center, but he knew Zordon would just tell him to go home and go to sleep.

Instead, he made his way to his lab. Maybe he could get an hour's work in on a little project he had going.

He flicked the light on in the lab. It didn't come on. He instantly reached for his morpher. Before he could reach it, he felt rope coil around him. The rope seemed like a living entity. It bound him tightly, keeping his arms and wrists covered so he couldn't reach his morpher or communicator.

He felt a presence in front of him, holding the other end of the rope. Instinctively, he threw a lightning-fast kick. His foot struck solidly and he heard whoever it was land untidily on one of his tables.

Rather than wait for the attacker to get up, Billy went straight for his emergency beacon that would send a distress signal straight to Zordon. Unfortunately, he hadn't counted on there being more than one attacker. A leg swept his feet from under him and he landed on his back on the concrete floor. He hit his head against the concrete and lay there, partially stunned.

A female voice cursed in an unfamiliar language. "Damn kid is getting too good for his own safety."

Billy felt a tug at the rope, and in no time he was on his feet. It was like the rope was somehow connected to his nervous system. It made him stand up and stay still even when every thought and impulse in Billy was screaming to keep fighting.

This isn't happening… Not again… Not again…

A light came on. Scorpina was standing in front of him, holding an end of the rope and nursing a cut on her lip. She was also surrounded by Putties, making it quite a feat for Billy to have gotten as far to the emergency beacon as he had.

"All clear," Scorpina said aloud to no one in particular.

Billy decided he didn't want to appear as frightened as he felt. "What's the matter, Scorpina? Too scared to face me on your own? Felt you needed all these Putties to keep you safe?"

Scorpina sneered at him. "I'd watch your mouth, if I were you. Just because Rita hasn't ordered a kill…"

Adrenaline pumped through Billy. It almost felt like he could override the ropes if he got himself worked up enough. Faintly, he realized he was actively channeling Tommy. "You know, that threat gets less and less scary every time. Goldar tries to kill Jason; he fails. You tried to kill Tommy while he didn't even have powers… and you failed. I don't think you're even trying anymore."

Scorpina raised her fist, and Billy concentrated on steeling himself and not wincing.

"That's enough!"

The side door to the garage lab had flown open. Scorpina backed off immediately. Billy's stomach dropped to his shoes as his fear reached all new levels.

Rita Repulsa. Empress of Evil. In his lab.

Rita brushed her dress and haughtily surveyed her surroundings. "Ugh… I'll have to bathe for a month after this."

She looked straight at Billy, who was getting less and less concerned about showing fear. He was too terrified. "Oh, don't worry so much, Blue Ranger," Rita said with disdain. "I do not have the love of physical violence that Scorpina here does… nor my former Green Ranger, for that matter. And I don't want him injured," she said, turning her attention to Scorpina. "He must be able to blend in."

Billy swallowed back his fear. "Whatever you want from me, you won't get it. I've already pushed a beacon to contact Zordon, and he…"

"Please dispense with the tiresome lies," Rita said. "We have little time. Finster was able to easily break down the security over your lab, but the wedding site is a far different story. So we need a little help in that department."

Billy felt the ropes loosen slightly. He was right. His fear and anger were driving his adrenaline up, which was overriding the control the ropes had over him. He also suspected that Scorpina's anger was rising, making her lose control of the ropes. Now if only…

"If you think I'm going to help you, you're even crazier than you look," Billy said, practically spitting the words out. Just a little more… "Can't you get it through your head that you can't rule the world by sending us minor inconveniences? We've won every time so far. What makes you think this time will be any different?"

Scorpina raised her fist to Billy with a shout, but Billy wasn't there. The ropes had slipped off his frame, and he ducked and rolled under a table. He grabbed his morpher.

Purple lightning arced across the lab, shattering several beakers and hitting Billy square in the chest. His morpher fell to the ground. He realized he couldn't move at all.

"Billy," Rita said in a warm voice, "stop being ridiculous and look in my eyes. Just look in my eyes and follow my voice. I won't hurt you, Billy. I just want a simple favor, and then I will leave you alone. Just follow my voice, and everything will be okay."

Billy felt a warm rush through his body. His heart slowed. He could breathe easier. He was no longer afraid.

"Will you do me one favor, Billy? After that I will leave you and your friends alone."

That sounded completely reasonable, Billy decided. "What can I do?" Billy said. As he said the words, he felt himself relax even more. He hadn't realized how tense he was.

"I need the security codes to disable the security at the wedding site. I want the security down tomorrow."

Billy frowned, confused.

"What is wrong?"

"There are no security codes," he said, glad that he had the chance to explain. "The security measures can only be disabled by a key, and I'm the only one who can disable them."

"Where is this key?"

"It's in the Command Center," Billy said immediately. He hoped he was doing what Rita wanted. For some reason—Billy had given up trying to question anything—he didn't want to disappoint her.

"Hmm…" said Rita. "This needs thinking."

"How are you doing that?" Scorpina said. She was coiling up the rope and staring at Billy, though Billy didn't ever notice her while Rita was there.

Rita waved her hand dismissively. "Simple magic-fueled hypnosis. It won't last forever, and it's certainly not as sophisticated as the spell I put on Tommy. I'm just gauging how far I can push it. Ordinarily, you can't hypnotize people into doing anything they wouldn't do in the first place. For instance, you can't hypnotize anyone to kill themselves. However, there's magic to get around that."

"But you're wondering how far it would take before the Blue Ranger's natural instincts kicked in," said Scorpina.

"Precisely." Rita scrutinized Billy, who simply stared back at Rita, waiting to be addressed. He didn't understand anything Rita or Scorpina were saying at the moment. "It would have been simpler to get him to recite security codes. But a trip to the Command Center, and then to the wedding site, all without alerting anyone…" She smiled. "I've got it."

Rita muttered a few words, and a thin stream of red light arced from her wand to Billy's head. He gasped once and fell down.

"What did you do to him?" Scorpina asked in alarm. "I thought you didn't want him unconscious."

Rita chuckled. "I chanced a little stronger magic so I could work a tiny spell around him. Let's just say that it's sort of like Tommy's spell, except with a time limit. He'll act normally and have full use of his abilities and intelligence, but only for our purposes. That is, until noon tomorrow."

Billy was already getting up. "That was certainly a rush, Empress Rita. Are you sure this is only temporary? It's a shame," Billy said good-naturedly. "I haven't felt this good in months."

"And how do you feel?" Rita said, smiling.

"Completely and utterly loyal to you, my Empress," Billy responded immediately. "Also a little dizzy."

"That will pass," Rita said. "You know what to do?"

"Let's see… Go to the Command Center, quietly disable Zordon and Alpha without alerting anyone else…" He was ticking his fingers off as he listed what he would do. "Grab the key, and at your order tomorrow disable security at the wedding." He looked up. "Is there anything else I can get while I'm there?"

Rita considered. "Has Zordon found the Sword of Power yet?"

"No, Empress," Billy said, looking disappointed. "I've helped him look, and right now we're at a dead end."

"No matter," Rita said soothingly. "Can you manage the Dragon Coin and Dagger then?"

Billy's face fell more. "Not the coin, as that's linked to Jason's vital energy at present." he brightened. "But I can manage the Dagger easily. I can just tap into the Morphin Grid, and Jason won't know because he's not as attuned to the Green Powers."

"Well, I think that's a fine night's work," Rita said with satisfaction. "I leave it in your hands, then. When you attain the Dragon Dagger, leave it on a table in your lab, and I will send Scorpina to retrieve it. At some point tomorrow, I will send Putties to the very edges of the protected area around the wedding site. As soon as this happens and the other Rangers are involved in fighting, I want you to quietly disable security. The Putties will lead the Rangers away from the wedding. I want you to join the Rangers then in fighting and act with them until the spell wears off. Can you manage it?"

"Just leave it to me, Empress" Billy said confidently.

Rita, Scorpina, and the Putties left. Billy felt more wide awake than ever. He looked at his watch. Just an hour before Zordon and Alpha usually shut down for the night. He'd wait until then. All it would take was a temporary disruption of Zordon's link with their dimension. He could then replace Zordon with a projection that could interact with anyone for routine interactions. And Alpha he could just put in a diagnostic feedback loop and claim the robot shut down after getting a virus.

He pulled over a computer and began working on the Zordon program. For a second, he felt an itch in the back of his mind, as if he realized this was somehow wrong. But as he started working on the program, he got so involved that he almost lost track of the time. When he looked up, two and a half hours had passed.

"They'll be sure to be asleep now," Billy said to himself. He copied his program to a disk and teleported up.

Sure enough, the Command Center was dark. Alpha was off to the side, standing in stasis. Swiftly and deftly, Billy pushed a few buttons on his chestplate, effectively sending him into a coma of internal diagnostics. He wouldn't get out of that until Billy did it himself.

As soon as Billy pressed a few buttons on the communication console to disable Zordon's link to the Command Center systems, Zordon blinked into view in the tube. He looked startled. "Billy, what are you doing?"

"Quiet, please," Billy said. "I'm working here." He started uploading the program. At the same time, he pressed a few buttons on another console, tapping into the Morphin Grid. The Dragon Dagger materialized at the very top of the computers.

"Billy, you are obviously under a spell," said Zordon. "I know the spell is powerful, but you do have the ability to fight it. Think about what you're doing."

"I know exactly what I'm doing," Billy said. "And the spell is only temporary, so it's not really expedient to fight it. By noon tomorrow, everything will be over."

Zordon's alarm was mounting. "Billy, you don't want to ruin your mother's wedding, as I'm sure is the object. Think about how much this will hurt her."

"No one is going to get hurt," Billy said reassuringly. "I'll take you out of this as soon as I shake this spell." He smiled. "See you tomorrow."

Before Zordon could say another word, he winked out of existence. A few seconds later, an exact replica of Zordon took his place.

"Billy," the replica said, "it's far too late to be working. I was about to shut down myself. Go home and get some rest."

"Yes, Zordon," Billy said smilingly. Casually, knowing this replica would not point anything out, he took the Dragon Dagger and teleported out.