Zero Witching Hour
a Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers story
Chapter 19: Rescue Rangers Away
3-22-2012
by Grey-X

Disclaimer: Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers and all related characters are the creation and property of Disney…and I guess Marvel too. Whoopee.

xxxxxx

Chip made the Ranger Angel dive toward the enormous pile of junk that was once Gadget's battle armor, barely decelerating in time to land safely. The suction cup-lined PVC pipes clung to one of the huge O2 tanks; they were barely able to anchor the Angel in place, it was still going so fast. Chip popped the canopy, looking down at the junkpile below. "Gadget, are you down there? GADGET!" he cried out, but silence answered him. Chip squinted for a better look, but the collapsing armor kicked up so much dirt and debris, it was hard to make anything out.

"She's got to be in this trash heap somewhere!" Chip told himself as he slid down the O2 tank. He jumped off of it, then slid down a jagged piece of armored covering next to it. Once he touched down, Chip started looking in every nook and cranny, calling Gadget's name. He felt hopelessly dwarfed; it was hard to believe this gigantic, unsightly pile of machinery had been worn by Gadget as battle armor scant moments ago. To the humans, she was monstrous, but to the other Rescue Rangers…all of them had a hard time curbing their anxiety while around her. They couldn't even talk to her without Isaac or Rebecca.

And then, in an instant, Gadget vanished from sight. Did that mean Gadget finally went back to normal, and was lost in this scrap heap somewhere? Or did Dorothea Oakheart somehow take Gadget down with her? Or did Isaac have to take so much life energy from Gadget, she had nothing left, and…

"NO!" Chip screamed to the heavens defiantly, refusing to abandon hope. He kept looking, pulling back exposed wires, squeezing through tubing, pushing aside whatever junk he could. Chip called her name until his throat felt hoarse. No, it can't end like this. After all she's done, after all her hard work…it can't end like this!

And then, finally, his persistence paid off. Chip was searching through what looked like a shoulder unit, judging by the control room of the crane jutting up in the distance. He almost missed it at first, but Chip saw Gadget's fingers poking through some wires. His heart thumping, Chip reached in and pulled Gadget free. She collapsed lifelessly into his arms, and the two tumbled downward. Chip fearfully checked Gadget's pulse; it was erratic and thready, but it was there. Chip also saw the faint rising and falling of Gadget's chest.

Tears of relief flowed as Chip hugged Gadget close to him. It had been maddening, the thought of losing Gadget right after the victory they worked so hard for. The fear was almost too much. He looked down to Gadget again, realizing how much harder this had been for her. Knowing that she would have been partly responsible for Dorothea's reign of terror was almost too much for Gadget, but she fought past that, past her own fear and doubts. None of this would have been possible if Gadget lacked the courage to best her inner demons and fight back. Chip sometimes let himself think he was the bravest Ranger, the obvious leader, but today, Gadget outdid him in every possible way.

Chip just held Gadget for a moment, allowing himself to savor the sense of relief. Their biggest case ever, figuratively and literally, was finally over, and Gadget was back to normal. The fact that the whole world more or less knew about the Rescue Rangers was something he could ignore for the moment…

"As horribly cliché as this is, I do confess that I enjoy a happy ending every now and again," came a familiar, silky voice from high above. Scowling, Chip saw Fat Cat standing about twenty feet above them, right next to the crane's open door. Mepps and Wart were slung over his shoulders, while Mole and Snout were tucked under his arms. "I suppose our business is concluded then, Chip. You helped me recover my mindless minions in exchange for tactical information, and we all walk away no worse for wear."

"Yeah, I guess it is," said Chip dryly. He wasn't thrilled about letting Fat Cat go, not after he helped open Pandora's Box. But since it would take the other Rangers far too long to get down here, Chip had little choice. Not that he'd let Fat Cat slip away without giving him a piece of his mind. "Of course, a lot of this misery could have been avoided if you had come to the Rescue Rangers in the beginning and told us everything."

"Aw, but if I had done that, the Nimnuls would never have reconciled, and your lovely mouse mechanic wouldn't have made a wonderful new friend," Fat Cat replied aloofly. "Besides, would you Ridiculous Rangers have believed me? If I've learned anything about the overly goody-goody type, it's that they can't be trusted to put the us-versus-them, holier-than-thou mindset aside for a while. Not until there's incentive to, anyway."

Chip wanted to fire back, but just sighed to himself. This time, Fat Cat was right. He never would've believed the phantom of Professor Nimnul's ancestor infected him, not without proof. And though he had gnawing suspicions during the case, his zeal to thwart Fat Cat again kept him from stopping to think long and hard, until it was too late. "So what now, Fat Cat? You've got your band back together, Dorothea Oakheart is gone. Where do you go from here?"

Fat Cat gazed listlessly into the dusky sky for a moment. "For now…why don't I just go back to my casino? I've lost enough cash flow being away for so long, and this little venture, needless to say, was not as profitable as I had hoped."

"Tampering with something like the Nimnul family's brand of magic usually isn't," said Chip darkly.

"Hmmm, I don't know. At times, it looked like Gadget was almost enjoying being part of the human world…and Isaac's company," said Fat Cat. His glibness oozed out like raw sewage, but Chip refused to take the bait.

"Just get moving before the Army moves in and secures this trash heap," Chip snapped. "And just know that we'll probably get back to the city shortly after you do. We'll still be keeping an eye on you."

Fat Cat smiled down at him, flashing his pointy teeth. "You know what, you ridiculous rodent? That only forces me to think harder than ever for my next devious scheme. So I'm starting to think I wouldn't have it any other way." And with that, Fat Cat jumped off the crane, disappearing from sight and taking his goons with him, leaving Chip and Gadget alone. Chip looked back down at Gadget and hugged her still form again. Fat Cat had done his best to rain on his parade, but this victory was still worth savoring.

Gadget pulled through for them, and the Rescue Rangers still stood strong.

xxxxxxxxx

A whole week had passed since Dorothea Oakheart and the Mechel-Machtap were sealed away. A week which Isaac Osceola spent, much to his dismay, in a bed at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. Most of the time, Isaac was out cold from exhausting himself. But whenever his torpor did lift and he awoke, Isaac was still too tired to get out of bed, much less move much at all.

That was vexing enough, but Isaac also caught sight of armed guards outside his room whenever a nurse or physician walked in to check on him. Aunt Becky insisted it was because there were fears someone might try to kidnap him after such a display of his gifts, but he knew it was just her being overly cautious, as usual.

"Ugh, there'd be other things I'd ride on everyone else for, if it was a nephew of mine who was bedridden for a week," Isaac muttered to himself. "Like make sure I'm turned enough times to prevent bedsores, make sure everyone's following anti-MRSA protocols, make damn sure no one pushes any potassium via IV…"

"Well, mate, ya got other folks who'll make sure no one screws up like that," came a faint voice, one that Isaac recognized instantly. He looked around for the source, then a clanking sound made him look up. An air vent panel had been popped open, and there stood the Rescue Rangers and all their friends. But the biggest shock was seeing Gadget back at her normal size.

"Gadget, you're OK! And back to normal!" Isaac found himself a bit sad about that. She was such good company at human size. Isaac had felt closer to her than any other girl he met. But the important thing was that her excess power was bled out, she was no longer a giant stomping around Philadelphia, and that she was in perfect health after everything he accidently forced on her.

One by one, they skittered or flew over to Isaac's bed. "Some conduit-channel bond we all have. Took you guys long enough to pay me a visit," Isaac said wryly.

"Took you long enough to finally snap awake whenever we could check in on you," replied Dale.

"Yeah, your aunt didn't exactly make it easy to slip in," said Tammy dryly.

"Give her a break. She knows you guys have experience moving through hospitals and military installations," said Isaac. "By the way, you didn't accidently mess with any HEPA filters trying to find mine, did you?"

Chip facepalmed. "Of COURSE not! Please, Isaac, give us SOME credit."

"Calm down, Chip. He's just concerned about everyone else, that's all. That's how he helped us take down Oakheart," said Gadget. Isaac's heart leapt from Gadget sticking up for him.

"And that's why they've decided to make it official," Sparky added.

"Make what official?" Isaac asked.

"You and Foxglove…we've all voted unanimously to make you two official Rescue Rangers! You've certainly earned it," Chip said. Isaac heart leapt with triumph. Though Aunt Becky would never admit it, she had groomed him for the Army ever since taking him in. But now, Isaac felt he earned a place in something far greater.

"So at this rate, I bet I can earn a spot on the team soon, what with dealing with Rat Capone in your absence, Chipper," said Tammy. Isaac couldn't help but notice Chip's nervous blush.

"Well, I…I don't really know what to say, everyone," said Isaac. "I mean, how would this work? It's not like I can go inside your tree for Ranger meetings. Unless, of course, you still plan on using my house as your new headquarters…"

"Which would be a problem if Gadget brings any of those explosive deathtraps she calls inventions there, considering I'm still paying the rent," came a snappy voice from the door. Isaac looked up groggily to see his aunt lumbering through the door, still in crutches. "Call me old-fashioned, but having someone land something nuclear-powered on my roof is a wee bit troublesome."

"And Little Miss Sunshine blesses us with her presence," quipped Monterey Jack. He peered out the open door before Rebecca shut it. "Any special reason Isaac's being kept under lock and key? The danger's over, or are yer superiors still afraid of somethin'?" he added, his tone full of unspoken accusations.

"Calm down, Monterey. The Army simply wants to look out for its future assets," said Rebecca. "Oh, STOP with those looks. It's not what you think," she snapped after seeing the Rangers' disgruntled looks. She turned to look at Isaac. "Isaac, you've not only impressed me and these furballs, but A LOT of important people in the Pentagon. I just got off the phone with the top brass. If you're willing to accept it, you've got admission into West Point's biology programs after you graduate, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences after that. Congratulations, Isaac. You just earned a free ride through higher education most other boys would trade their left nut for."

This was too much good news to take in all at once. "Well, you've done it, Aunt Becky. You finally found a way to get me into military service," Isaac said with a smile. But that smile faded when he took another look at the Rangers standing on his bed. "Sorry guys, guess I can't be a Rescue Ranger after all."

"Are you kiddin'? Having someone in the military could be handy someday!" cried Dale.

"Besides, we got you until you graduate high school," said Chip.

"Golly, I wonder what those jocks back home will say, once they realize they've been picking on someone who's already landed a prestigious spot in a military academy," Gadget said with a chuckle.

"Not much that'll matter. Dumb blokes who suddenly lose their alpha male status ain't got nuthin' worth sayin'," said Monterey.

"Speaking of which, I doubt Isaac's role in this whole mess can be silenced for very long, no matter how hard the military tries to suppress it," Chip said, his expression suddenly grave. "Word will get out, and the truth about the Rescue Rangers, about animalkind in general, pretty much IS out."

"Leave that to me, Chip. I'll see to it you all can return safely to your tree and keep doing what you do best," said Rebecca. "Even I'm amazed at how much influence I exerted during this whole mess. Yeah, I had to be promoted from colonel to brigadier general to take charge of Operation Zero Witching Hour, not that anyone wanted to congratulate ME. Once Isaac graduates and ships off to West Point, they'll probably send me to…"

There was some commotion right outside the door, eliciting a growl from Rebecca. She stumbled back over to the door and cracked it open. "Honestly guys, she can come in. Her old roommate, too." Rebecca stepped back, and Winifred stepped through the door, a disgruntled look on her face, with a tepid Irweena in tow.

Winifred shot an indignant look back at the guards, then turned back to Isaac. "Well, like I said, no spell-slinging nephew of mine was staying under for too long," she said with a smug air of triumph. "I daresay my little suggestion helped make sure our beloved ancestor won't be bothering us anymore."

Foxglove nervously looked down at the bed. Seeing this, Dale spoke up. "Good to see you too, Freddie. Where's Sewernose and Desiree?"

Amazingly, Winifred didn't take the bait. "Yeah, because an Army hospital'll let a crocodile with a mouse on his head slither right in," she spat sarcastically. "But we're getting together later today. As we all know, my last bunch of familiars weren't exactly the most competent, so I'm thinking it's time for some new ones." She cast a withering sideways glance at Foxglove. "The croc did want me to deliver a message to you, furball, but I confess, it was so long-winded, I forgot most of it about twenty seconds after we left for here."

"Come on, Aunt Winifred. Don't tell us you're gonna squander your pardon and go back to crime," Isaac pleaded.

Winifred laughed. "Who said anything about a life of crime, Isaac? To be honest, after all this, I'm not quite sure WHAT to do. A lot of things I thought I understood about sorcery, about our family, well… I need to hit the road, take some time to think about a few thinks. Sewernose and Desiree agreed to come along, so that'll keep 'em out of your furball friends' faces, I guess."

"Well, at least you have SOME idea of what to do after being pardoned," said Irweena timidly.

Winifred slapped Irweena on the back; she yelped and almost stumbled over Isaac's bed. "Oh please, you're the one with a PhD. You'll find another job soon enough."

"Maybe sooner than you think, sis," said Rebecca.

"What d'you mean by that?" asked Irweena.

"Well, Gadget did her best, but during the operation, some collateral damage was unavoidable. Since Iron Goose was driving through town, they decided to stay and hold an impromptu concert. All the proceeds will go to rebuilding the city," said Rebecca.

"So? What's that got to do with me?" demanded Irweena.

"I approached them and asked if they could take on a guest singer for the charity," said Rebecca. "Once I explained how you helped with the armor's construction, Iron Goose was convinced you turned over a new leaf. They'd be happy to have you at the concert."

"Geez, y'think the people of Philly've been through enough," muttered Monterey Jack. If Irweena heard Moneterey, she paid him no mind. Her expression went from hesitant to ecstatic.

"Who the hell is this, and what's she done with the real Aunt Becky?" Isaac muttered to himself, though he was happy for Irweena's good fortune.

"Actually, it wasn't her idea," Queenie whispered into Isaac's ear. "I, err, sort of convinced the general to make that overture to Iron Goose."

Isaac's eyes widened in shock. "YOU, Queenie? What made you do that? Wasn't Dr. Allen the one who brainwashed your entire hive?"

"She most certainly was. However, this whole experience taught me how dangerous it is to hold onto a grudge," explained Queenie. "Besides, for royalty to be so petty…it would be unseemly."

"So I guess this is really a happy ending after all. Everyone's learned something, and even some of our old enemies have a fresh start," said Gadget. She walked along the bed, up to Isaac. "It's nice to know so much good came out of this."

"Still, I don't really think I quite deserve admission to West Point. This all started because I was arrogant enough to tamper with something beyond my comprehension," said Isaac.

Gadget gently laid a hand on Isaac's. "No, it started because FAT CAT was arrogant enough to tamper with something beyond his comprehension. As for us, I was the one who used the power you gave me the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. And you got over what let Dorothea Oakheart feed on you well before she revived. She WOULDN'T have revived if I hadn't let myself be blinded by hate. At the end of the day, I'm the most to blame."

Isaac's head slammed back against the pillow hard. "Please, Gadget, don't sell yourself short. You and the Rescue Rangers have been doing this sort of thing for years. Your sense of justice, your generosity… And me, I was just this scared little boy, too afraid to make a stand for anything, until you came along."

"That's all changed now, hasn't it?" Gadget said brightly, unconvinced. "During all of this, we both helped each other, taught each other so much. And maybe it won't end here. I mean, aren't you still linked to all the Rangers?"

Isaac concentrated hard for a moment. "Actually, I don't sense anything from the rest of them. At all. I guess my bonding with them was too hasty and tenuous to have any staying power." He looked back down to Gadget, gently stroking her hair. "There might be something left between us, there might not be. I'm not sure right now. I'm still way too worn out to be sure of anything."

"Golly, if the bond still exists between us, I don't think I mind. With Dorothea gone, it's probably safe to use now," said Gadget.

Isaac leaned back further. "And without her, I won't have the extra power to do much with it," he pointed out.

Gadget shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, I'm just glad that…"

Shouts right outside the door cut Gadget off, and then Kirby and Muldoon burst through. "Becky, you're not gonna believe this, but…your brother flew the coop again!" exclaimed Muldoon.

The calm and sense of closure that had permeated the room fizzled in an instant. Rebecca stood there for a moment, dumbstruck. "Wh-Wh-Wh…WHAT? Oh, I knew I shoulda ordered double the security. Once a slimy, lying weasel, always a…"

The ring of Rebecca's cellphone cut her off. Hesitantly, she took it out and answered. Isaac could hear his uncle's snide voice coming through the receiver. "Hey there, little sister. I assume those donut-scarfers alerted you to yet another glorious escape by yours truly?"

"Ohhh, you've got some nerve, Norton," Rebecca spat back. Isaac wanted to hear what else Norton was saying, but Rebecca drifted away from his bed. "Wait a minute…you WHAT? No no no, you better not go anywhere this time! Oh, you better believe I'm coming ASAP!" Rebecca closed her cellphone and turned to Isaac and the Rangers. "He didn't get far. Norton's over at Tad's right now, pigging out on a Philly cheesesteak. And he says he's just…waiting for me."

Understandably, the Rangers all looked dubious. "Am, uh, I the only one who smells something fishy here?" Chip asked delicately.

"The smell of rancid tuna is permeating the whole damn city right now," said Rebecca. "But I'm going anyway." She took a step toward the door, but cast a furtive look back at the bed. "Any of you furballs wanna come along?"

The Rangers were taken aback by the invitation. Chip and Dale looked at each other, then up to Rebecca, and nodded. They climbed up her and found hiding places in the pockets of her uniform. Monterey Jack, Foxglove and Zipper followed suit, while Gadget cast a glance back at Isaac. Isaac gazed at her for a moment. Was his fascination with her genuine, or nothing but a bizarre teenage crush? Either way, they were still from different worlds, and in less than a year they would go their separate ways. Still, Isaac would always be grateful for the time they shared together, when their worlds collided. Their time together may have been fleeting, but they would cherish those memories forever.

"Go ahead and help find him, but…don't think it's a life-or-death thing anymore. I finally got the truth out of him, which is all I ever wanted. And call me naïve but, I think he's learned something out of all this, too," said Isaac.

Gadget fixed him with a dubious stare for a moment, then smiled and nodded, running to join the others. Rebecca sighed impatiently as Gadget tried to find a hiding spot, then walked out with Kirby and Muldoon. After saying their goodbyes, Sparky, Tammy and Queenie decided to leave the way they came. Isaac was left alone with Winifred and Irweena, who both seemed uneasy now. But Isaac paid them no mind. Exhaustion still plagued him, but a whole new world awaited him once his torpor lifted. A world he was no longer anxious about facing, with people he hopefully helped give a new outlook on life.

Knowing that, Isaac let himself relax in his hospital bed, patiently waiting for the Rangers to return.

xxxxxxxxx

Rebecca rode her Harley through Philadelphia's streets as dusk settled in, its tuned-up engine echoing her quiet fury. She hated to admit it, but that scatterbrained mouse made it run more smoothly than ever. Kirby and Muldoon followed close behind in their rental car, along with a Hummer full of handpicked soldiers. When they arrived at Tad's, several police cars already surrounded it, but it looked like no one had moved in.

Wondering whether she should be thankful or resentful for that, Rebecca quickly parked her bike and ran in, drawing her weapon. As she burst through the door, she only just remembered all six Rescue Rangers (unless you counted her nephew – she still scoffed at that notion) were on her person. There was no telling what sort of traps Norton might have set; she could have placed them all in danger. Luckily, nothing looked amiss in her old haunt. In fact, Tad was standing there, waiting.

"Been wonderin' when you'd get here, Becky. He's over there," said Tad, pointing to a booth in the far corner. The place had yet to be seriously packed, so Norton stood out like a sore thumb, greedily scarfing down a cheesesteak. Keeping her weapon drawn, Rebecca cautiously walked up to the booth. The cheesy aroma must've reached Monterey Jack, for she felt him squirm excitedly in her coat pocket. Rebecca quickly smacked him to snap him out of it.

"You got here quicker than I thought, sis," Norton said in between huge bites. "Guess you finally got that old bike properly fixed up."

"What are you doing here, Norton? Just how did you slip out, and why in God's name did you CALL ME and wait here as if you just need a ride home?" demanded Rebecca.

"How'd I get out? Not as if this old dog can't learn new tricks. Took some pointers from our favorite lady mouse mechanic, actually. Got hold up a paper clip, a nail I could convert into a magnet… If I list everything I found and used, I'm sure she could piece together how I slipped off the carrier," explained Norton. Rebecca sensed rather than saw Gadget emerge from her uniform pocket to stare at Norton. "At any rate, we DID have a deal, sis, so yeah, I was waiting here to be hauled in. However, being the twisted little soul I am, I couldn't resist torquing everyone off one last time. What kind of depraved genius would I be if I didn't? Besides, I wanted one last taste of home before getting thrown in the big house." Norton took a long look around Tad's place. "You and Florence…you came here a lot, right?"

Rebecca was shocked by the gentle, almost timid tone in Norton's voice. "Yes. Yes, it was."

"Then…I can go peacefully, if my last taste of freedom is at a place she was happy," said Norton. He wolfed down the last bit of his cheesesteak and stood up. At that moment, Rebecca heard Kirby and Muldoon walk up behind her. "Ah, more of my old friends. Don't you two get out of shape, now that I won't be coming back for a while."

"Actually, Norton, it's not like you'll be gone too long," said Rebecca. "In addition to getting a lighter sentence, I've assured that, depending on your conduct in prison, you might be eligible for transfer to a facility with lighter security and more priveleges in a few years. Or even parole. It all depends on you."

Norton raised an eyebrow, staring back at Rebecca quizzically. "That wasn't part of our deal. Seriously, where's the real Rebecca Nimnul? You know, the one who once came after me with a gun just like that, vowing that my ass would be hers?"

"I vowed one day, your ass would be mine. I'm simply throwing that ass to the Feds," Rebecca said with a smirk. "We've both learned the hard way how clinging to bitterness ate away at us. I've got a chance to make up for that. You deserve the same."

Norton cracked a smile, but it faded a little when he noticed Gadget staring at him. "Guess we might see each other again sooner than we thought," he told her furtively. Then he turned to Kirby and Muldoon, holding out his hands. "Will one of you boys do the honors, for old time's sake?"

Kirby and Muldoon looked at each other, shrugging their shoulders. They had no handcuffs handy, but they still held onto Norton's shoulders as they led him out to the waiting troops outside. This left Rebecca more or less alone in the corner of Tad's place, with all the Rangers stowed away in her uniform.

"Seriously, Rebecca? You made it possible for Professor Nimnul to get an even lighter sentence?" demanded Chip.

"I trusted you to deal with Fat Cat, the scumbag you knew best. Let me deal with the criminal I know best," Rebecca whispered back acidly. But Rebecca felt her irritation with Chip fade. She looked around Tad's Philly Emporium; those happy memories here with Florence in their youth came flooding back, soothing her tumultuous mind.

Norton was right. Finding out she was partly responsible for her death almost shattered her. All these years in the military, and nothing ever came as close to undoing her mentally. But as Rebecca thought back to the moment Florence died, the peaceful look of acceptance on her face, she realized something. Just as Florence didn't want she, Norton and Winifred to go on hating each other, she also would not have wanted them to be burdened with guilt. And as she stood here, where the two shared so many good times, Rebecca finally felt she could let go of it all. The hate, the guilt, everything.

"Come on, you critters," Rebecca told the Rangers. "Let's get back to Isaac before he konks out on us again."

xxxxxxxxx

Some things never change. Ever.

It had been a simple task given to his cronies, to sneak out, read the flight schedule, and find which plane would leave for home the soonest. But Fat Cat soon learned he might as well have asked Mepps, Mole, Wart and Snout to perfect cold fusion or calculate pi. In their infinite wisdom, they picked Mole to poke his head out and read the schedule. Given that at five feet, Mole couldn't tell an Egyptian sarcophagus from a riding lawnmower, the outcome was predictable.

And so, Fat Cat leaned back against the wooden interior of the semi truck the five of them stowed away on. After boarding a flight taking them into the middle of South Dakota, there was a terrorism scare shortly after they landed, shutting down the airport. Telling himself 'The hell with it,' Fat Cat had them all sneak out and find another ride back home. Now they had at least three days to look forward to together, in the dark, smelly, cramped confines of a truck.

"Gee, boss, lemme get this straight, 'cuz I still can't believe it," said Mole. "This spirit lady made me sprout wings and fly? Just like a little birdie?"

Fat Cat sighed deeply. This was the third time Mole brought that up. "Yes, Mole, you were a regular flaming angel of death."

Wart and Snout opened a box on top of a stack next to Fat Cat. The whole stack was strapped down, but they had undone the straps to check out the goodies. The truck suddenly hit a bump, and the whole stack toppled onto Fat Cat, along with opened paint cans from the open box. "And here I dared think my favorite suit would get through this sordid affair unblemished," Fat Cat grumbled, futilely trying to wipe away the pink paint.

"Sorry boss. It's too bad we couldn't keep any of that fancy power you say we had," said Mepps.

Fat Cat was about to rail about nitwits like them having command of such supernatural forces was the last thing he wanted right now, but he bit his tongue. As he told Chip, these four were blithering idiots, but they were his blithering idiots.

"Take heart, my pathetic excuse for a fellow feline," said Fat Cat. "We didn't exactly walk away from this misadventure empty-handed. When Gadget Hackwrench emerge with conduit powers of her own, it encouraged me to do a little research into her and her father. Let's just say the end result is a tad ironic. I helped them stopped a madwoman with the power to manipulate animalkind, but I may have been led to a more…manageable way of doing the same…"

xxxxxxxxx

It only took a few more days for Isaac to regain enough strength to be discharged. Given the crowds that were gathering, the Rescue Rangers couldn't safely see him off personally. Whatever else the human world knew about them, secrecy was still their greatest weapon. So instead, with the Ranger Angel on the edge of the hospital roof, the canopy open, they watched the live news broadcast on the touchscreen phone.

"I am here at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, where Isaac Osceola is about to be discharged and head toward home," said Stan Blather. "His aunt, the newly-promoted Brigadier General Rebecca Nimnul, was in command of the bizarre 'Operation Zero Witching Hour', and speculation abounds that he also had a part to play in the fight for Philadelphia."

"Think they'll ever be able to piece together everything?" Dale asked no one in particular.

"With the way the military cracked down on everything, I doubt it," said Chip. "As is, no doubt plenty in the military are steamed that their involvement was leaked."

"But the stories about you can no longer be ignored. All the humans have an inkling about the animal world, now. Things won't ever be the same," said Sparky.

"No, I guess they won't," said Gadget, her mind drifting elsewhere.

On the news broadcast, there was a sudden commotion outside the main entrance. Rebecca was bringing Isaac out in a wheelchair, with Kirby and Muldoon walking behind them. Muldoon had a particularly happy look on his face, and Gadget couldn't help but notice him staring at Rebecca. Was there something going on between them? Had their old friendship rekindled into something more?

But Gadget didn't have long to dwell on that, for reporters swarmed the four of them. Gadget couldn't make out most of their questions, although occasionally, she thought she caught bits of questions specifically asking about animals and their intelligence. It's already starting, thought Gadget. But this isn't like Dorothea Oakheart's days. Humans have progressed beyond that.

At least, that's what Gadget hoped.

It didn't take long for Rebecca to lose her cool, shoving reporters away. They wisely got the hint, keeping a respectable distance. Once everyone was confident Rebecca had simmered down, Stan Blather approached Isaac for the first time. "Mr. Osceola, is it true that you had some involvement with the giant mouse known as Gadget, and assisted both her and the military in expunging this spirit from Philadelphia?"

"Well, Stan, I've been sworn to secrecy about a number of things, and not just the military, so there's not much I can say," Isaac said quickly. Gadget admired how stoic and composed he was, despite being seen on national television in a wheelchair. "But I can understand everyone's curiosity. What can't be understood right away can be both fascinating and frightening. So I'll say this: this whole thing has been a learning experience for a lot of people. Me, my aunts and uncle, and so many others. It won't matter if I spill everything or not. Hopefully, we live in an era different than the one that spirit hailed from. Everyone who saw what Gadget decided to do in the end…they'll reach their own conclusions, and figure out what's she's all about for themselves." As he finished, Isaac turned to the camera and winked, knowing she would be watching. Gadget's felt everyone's eyes on her.

"So, you can neither confirm nor deny that Gadget is a part of this so-called animal vigilante group rumored to be operating in your city?" asked Blather.

"You got it," Isaac responded blithely. "But obviously, the idea of such a thing isn't so farfetched anymore."

"It most certainly is not," Blather said in agreement. "But is it true you have been offered admission into West Point upon graduation of high school? And do you find it daunting to try and return to any sort of a normal life after all of this?"

"'Normal' is overrated," Isaac said with a smirk. "All I want to do is find a way to use my smarts to help as many people as I can. And I have a feeling that Gadget, wherever she is, always felt the same way."

The interview was pretty much over at that point. Rebecca was getting impatient, and had Kirby and Muldoon push past the crowd to make a path for Isaac. Gadget sighed and clicked off the phone, then got out of the Ranger Angel, looking over the roof's edge.

"Gadget, what's wrong?" asked Chip, climbing out of the cockpit to follow her.

"Is Isaac being too naïve? Can we really expect things to get better and not worse?" Gadget asked gravely. "Will things be any different from Dorothea Oakheart's time? It won't be easy, doing detective work now that humans know for sure we're out there. What if Isaac and the Rangers face the same sort of fear and hate Oakheart did? What if I slip into madness like she did? More than once, that almost happened."

Chip put a hand on Gadget's shoulder. "You've already proven you're made of sterner stuff than she was. She chose to fester in hate for three-hundred years. You chose the opposite. And in the process, you even helped some of our old enemies start down a new path, and even that hothead Rebecca Nimnul has a new outlook on life. Your father would be proud of everything you've done."

Gadget smiled a little. "Yeah, I suppose he would." Gadget looked down, watching as the four humans made their way across the parking lot. "Well, soon they'll load up in their van, and…uh-oh."

"'Uh-oh' what?" asked Chip quickly.

"Speaking of Rebecca, she may be in for a nasty surprise," said Gadget. "It's a good thing I had Kirby and Muldoon mail all my inventions back home when they got her motorcycle out of it for her. I don't think Rebecca has yet to actually see her van. It was probably just towed here, and…"

A shriek that sounded like it should've shattered hospital windows rang in all their ears. Chip and Gadget's eyes slowly darted across the parking lot, to where Rebecca was standing in front of the melted, ruined remains of her precious van, fists raised in the air. "GODDAMN YOU, GADGET HACKWRENCH! You better hope Isaac can make you big again, because if I get hold of your little rodent ass before then…"

The two of them stared down at the swearing general a moment longer, then burst into giggles. "Golly, looks like I'll need more than a new fuel pump for her van this time," said Gadget wryly.

"Don't worry about her. She won't hold a grudge against you for long, once she realizes she's in the minority," said Chip. He pointed down at the rest of the crowd. Curious, Gadget looked down to see many humans were staring up at them, aiming cellphone cameras. Even though they were eight stories up, some eagle-eyed humans spotted them. Just as Gadget suspected, humans would be on the lookout for them from now on. But here, at least, they showed wonder rather than fear.

At last, all of Gadget's lingering doubts faded. She turned and headed back to the Ranger Angel with Chip, taking her place in the pilot's seat for the first time. As the canopy closed, Gadget felt like she was back where she belonged, using inventions built to help anyone in need. It was time to go home, to await the next case, the next opportunity for the Rescue Rangers to do their duty. And so, the Ranger Angel took off for home, as the crowd below furiously snapped more pictures of their, until now, unsung heroes.

THE END

Done. Finally.

If anyone was wondering why I decided to tackle a DISNEY cartoon from my youth, it was mostly a given after discovering the fan community that flourishes on the Internet. It got me thinking that there's truly something substantial about this old favorite of mine, if it's remained relevant for so many other people. And the Gadget character in particular. Why did she still fascinate so many after all these years? I wanted to explore that, while delivering a super-dark story that still gives you that feel-good Disney vibe by the time you reach the end.

Also, by story's end, I tend to list all the hidden references. But outside the brief nods to Kim Possible, there really weren't any. I also wanted to toss in references to Cinderella, Up and Rescuers, but it never happened. So instead, I'll just explain the biggest INFLUENCES AND INSPIRATIONS that helped shape Zero Witching Hour.

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY – My father took me to see this in the theatre when I was nine years old, and it's spoiled me for every other movie since. The plot, storytelling approach, character development, cinematography, and overall filmmaking genius was above and beyond anything else I had seen at that point. So little wonder it helped influence this off-color Disney story. As some may suspect, in many scenes, Gadget mirrors the Terminator, Isaac mirrors John Connor and Rebecca mirrors Sarah Connor. Also, the scene where the enlarged Desiree D'Allure emerged was inspired by the T-800's arrival in Terminator Salvation.

SONIC ADVENTURE 2 – Not only my absolute favorite Sonic game, but easily one of my favorites games, EVER. Graphics, character development, storytelling, level design, overall feeling of epicness…it fires on all cylinders. My favorite aspect was that you view the action from the vantage point of two opposing sides, which are being played against each other without realizing it, leading to one freakin' epic climax after the truth is revealed. It's a storytelling mechanic that I haven't seen done as well in any other game, and the Sonic series hasn't come close to matching this milestone since then. I tried to replicate that feeling in Zero Witching Hour, and hopefully I succeeded.

GREEN LANTERN – Parallax is definitely my favorite DC supervillain. He was so freakin' sinister, it took over a decade to explain the depths of his depravity. The embodiment of fear who's existed since almost the beginning of time, and possessed and influenced the supposedly-undominable Hal Jordan without him realizing it, slowly corrupting him from within. Obviously, Parallax was the single greatest inspiration for Dorothea Oakheart and her near-corruption of Gadget. There were even a couple nods to the franchise in the story. The way Gadget spewed blood shortly after attaining Godzilla proportions was a reference to the Red Lanterns. Also, Dorothea Oakheart saying, "But now, after giving in and tasting their true power…I'LL NEVER GO BACK!" was basically taken from Hector Hammond's line in the movie.

Odd influences for a story about an old Disney cartoon, but eh, what can you do?

So long,

Grey-X