Disclaimer: Whee! This is my first PR fic in a looong time. Things have changed, but one thing remains - these characters are not mine. Please don't sue me.
The room was dimly lit by a pale bluish light, shining off a myriad of odds and ends, space- age machines that few people would be able to identify. Little whirring machines blinked their lights on and off, adding starry points of light to the gloom. Elsewhere, an assortment of arcane- looking beakers and flasks of strange liquids simmered softly or bubbled their way through coiling tubes. It all had the look of a mad scientist's laboratory, but to Billy Cranston, it had all the comforts of home... well, almost all of them.
The Blue Ranger frowned down at the pages before him, lost in thought. He was sitting in front of his computer, the trusty old machine that had served him for several years now. It was, in its way, a very nice machine - quite possibly better than some of the more up-to-date machines his friends used for doing their schoolwork. He had made numerous improvements to it, fine-tuning it to suit his personal needs. He'd even written some of the programs on it himself. Now, though, he had to admit that his faithful old machine was starting to see the end of its usefulness. Its supplies of memory were running distressingly low, its speed was a joke, and while he could still coax the CD drive into running, he was getting tired of re-repairing it every week.
There was only one answer, and that was to get some replacement parts. To that end, a computer supplies catalogue was spread out in front of him, showing off its long lists of parts and programs for any prospective buyer. Next to that, Billy had a yellow notepad, on which he scribbled down the order numbers and prices of all the things he needed. He'd been at it for over an hour now; for someone like him, having this catalogue in front of him was like being a kid in a candy store, hardly able to choose any one thing when every page he turned showed him something else that made him think, I sure could use one of those...
Finally, he reached the last page and closed the catalogue, turning his attention back to his yellow notepad. He skimmed the list with a critical eye. He probably didn't really need half of what was on it, so he regretfully began marking items off his list until he was back down to the bare essentials. Then he began adding up the price. For a brilliant young man like him, it wasn't difficult - he could even work in the price of shipping and handling in his head. What was not easy was dealing with the price tag these repairs would come with: over three hundred dollars.
He stared very hard at the piece of paper, trying to see if there was anything else he could deduct from the cost. There wasn't, not if he wanted his computer to last him through the rest of the school year. Unfortunately, he couldn't see where he was going to get three hundred dollars from. There was no point in asking his parents; they had footed the bill for too many of his projects already. His allowance, never a great thing to begin with, had been curtailed after an annoying incident involving him borrowing some parts from the car and forgetting to tell his father about it until it was too late. He couldn't have helped that; Alpha had needed that generator fixed now, and parts had to come from somewhere. They also had to be paid for...
"I guess there's no help for it," said Billy with a sigh. "I'm going to have to get a job."
The next morning, he came down to breakfast to find his mother and father already there. He sat down at the kitchen table and made a grab for a plate of cinnamon buns.
"Morning, Mom. Morning, Dad," he said, trying to stifle a yawn. As usual, he'd been up late - in this case, giving his poor computer a thorough going-over in hopes that he could reduce the need to repair it.
"Morning, son," said his father. "You look tired. Did you spend the night doing one of your top-secret projects instead of sleeping?"
"Just doing a little repair work."
"Ah, I see. Seems like you're always fixing something... Maybe you should open up a repair shop and charge for it."
"I might have to," answered Billy glumly. He didn't mind fixing his friends' computers when they needed it, but after one had gotten used to working on transdimensional scanners and laser circuitry, the idea of spending the next few months explaining to people that they were getting non-system disk errors because they'd forgotten to take a floppy out of the A: drive or listening to people tell him their cup holder was broken was not an appealing prospect.
His mother caught the expression. "Is something wrong?"
"Oh, not really. It's just..." He explained his financial difficulties.
"Well, you do have a birthday coming up." said his father. "If this is really what you want, I suppose we could chip in a little bit. How much is it going to cost?"
"I worked it out last night. After the inclusion of the shipping costs, the total is going to be approaching three hundred fifty dollars."
His father whistled. "That's a little steep."
"I know," said Billy.
"You really need all that?" his mother asked.
He nodded. "It's either buy the replacement parts or get a whole new computer, which would cost even more."
"Hm," said his father. He began going through his wallet. "Well, I think we can manage, say... fifty dollars, as a birthday gift. The rest of it, you're going to have to save up yourself. Here." He handed his son two twenty-dollar bills and a ten.
Billy's eyes lit up; that was more than he'd been expecting. "Thanks, Dad! That means a lot to me."
"It would mean a lot to me," said his mother teasingly, "if you'd finish your breakfast so you won't be late for school."
"School?" Billy repeated, glancing at the clock. "Whoa, you're right!"
He grabbed the last of the cinnamon rolls and dashed off to his room to grab his school things. As he passed, he slipped the money his father had given him into a copy of Einstein's Philosophy of Civilization that was sitting on his desk next to the computer. Inside it were a few other assorted bills, and he took a moment to riffle through them.
"Seventy-two," he murmured. "Well, that's a start."
As he left the room, he gave his faithful old computer a pat on the side.
"Don't worry," he said as he left. "I'll get the rest of the money... somehow."
Much of Billy's gloom was alleviated by arriving at school and finding his friends already there waiting for him, clustered around their lockers and talking sociably. Even Tommy was there; he had been inclined towards solitude for the last few days, but no one really blamed him for wanting his privacy. Billy picked up his pace as he went to join them, but was intercepted as someone large and solid stepped out from behind a corner.
"Hand over your lunch money," said Bulk, in what he seemed to think was a menacing voice, "and nobody gets hurt!"
"Yeah, nobody gets hurt!" Skull chimed in.
Billy shrugged nonchalantly. "Sorry, guys. I'd love to help you, but I don't have any lunch money. I brought a bag lunch."
"Huh?" That obviously wasn't what Bulk had been expecting. "But who's going to pay for my lunch?"
"That's your problem, now, isn't it?" said Jason, coming to stand behind Billy.
Bulk hesitated, uncertain of whether he wanted to press the issue when he had those muscles to reckon with. Billy felt sorry for him.
"Here," he said, handing him half a sandwich. "I'm not going to eat it all, anyway. I don't even like bologna sandwiches."
"Oh," said Bulk, looking more confused than ever.
"There, now you have a lunch," said Zack, coming to join Jason and Bill. "Now, go catch a Power Ranger or something."
Bulk's face cleared. "You're right! I almost forgot! Come on, Skull - we're wasting time!"
He grabbed the collar of Skull's jacket and began hauling him up the hall. The other Rangers wandered over, looking vaguely puzzled.
"What was that all about?" asked Tommy. "You didn't have to give him your sandwich, Billy."
"'Be kind to your enemies,'" Kimberly quoted. "'It drives them nuts!' He's going to be trying to figure that one out for the rest of the month."
"That's not why I did it," said Billy. "I'm just starting to get a feel for not having money when you need it. Why do you think I brought a bag lunch?"
"You don't have any money?" asked Trini, concerned. "How did that happen?"
"Well, I have it. I just don't have enough," Billy explained. "I'm in need of some new computer parts, and I lack sufficient funds for the expenditure."
"Have you asked your parents?" asked Kimberly. "That's what I usually do when I can't afford something."
"I tried that already," Billy replied. "Dad gave me fifty dollars as a birthday present, but I have to save up the rest myself. With my allowance, that's going to take a long time."
"Sounds like you need a job," said Zack.
"That is the conclusion I arrived at, yes," answered Billy. "The question is, where am I going to get one of those?"
"You're bound to find one somewhere," said Trini encouragingly.
"I don't know. I'm kind of young to get a good job."
"But you're smart enough to do anything you want, when you put your mind to it," she said.
"Maybe you're right," he said. "I'll have a look around and see what I can find, anyway. If nothing else, I can always fix computers, but I hope it doesn't come to that."
The school bell rang loudly, and the Rangers quickly said goodbye as they hurried off to their homeroom classes.
Tommy was late, as usual. A few of the people in class snickered as he finally wandered into class with a sheepish look on his face.
"What's your excuse this time?" asked Ms. Appleby in a tired tone. "You can't tell me you set your clock wrong again. I saw you in the hall fifteen minutes ago."
Tommy grimaced. "I had to go to the bathroom, okay?"
A few people laughed. The teacher glared at him.
"Couldn't you have gone before the bell rang?"
"I didn't have to go then!"
Ms. Appleby sighed. "Very well. You can hand me in a paper tomorrow on why it is important to organize your priorities, and it will be more than a page long. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Ms. Appleby."
Tommy meekly took his seat. A few of the other Rangers gave him sympathetic looks. Billy getting mugged, Tommy being late for class - it was just another day in Angel Grove!
Release came in the form of a lunch break. All the students of Angel Grove High jammed themselves into the cafeteria, all seemingly bent on making as much noise as they could. It was a wonder any of them found time to eat between all the talking they were doing. The Rangers managed to locate each other and gathered around a table in the corner of the room where they would not have too much notice paid to them. Sometimes they would use the cafeteria's noisy privacy to discuss issues of world defense, but today their interests were closer to home.
"Anybody seen Tommy?" asked Billy, as the group settled into their customary chairs.
Kimberly looked downcast. "He said he wasn't in the mood for so much noise. Lately, having too many people around bothers him. This thing with losing his powers is hitting him really hard."
"Poor Tommy," Trini agreed. "So, if he isn't here, where is he now?"
"Ernie gave him permission to have his lunch in the Youth Center. It's quieter there," Kim explained.
"That's Ernie for you!" said Zack. "Always willing to lend a hand. One of these days, we're going to have to do something nice for him. Hey, I've got it - let's have the mayor proclaim an Ernie Day, and we'll have a parade and fireworks and the day off from school!"
Jason laughed. "Hey, you know, that's not such a bad idea. Ernie does a lot for the community, giving kids a safe place to hang out and coaching sports and organizing clean-ups..."
"I'll bet we could do it, too," said Kimberly. "We'll have to keep it in mind."
"Can we think about it when I'm done reading this?" asked Billy, who was shuffling through a newspaper.
"Hey, what are you doing with that?" asked Zack, leaning closer for a better look.
"Help wanted ads," Billy explained. "I'm not expecting much, but it can't hurt to look."
"Do you see anything that looks interesting yet?" Trini asked.
"Not much," he replied. "Secretary... janitor... plumber..."
"Doesn't sound like much of a selection," Jason acknowledged.
"Ooh, there's one for an exterminator," said Zack in mock-enthusiasm. "Don't you want to go out and kill roaches for a while?"
"I'd rather help people get dried bubblegum out of their CD-drives."
"Hey, that wasn't my fault," Kimberly protested. "It was an accident!"
"I wasn't talking about you," said Billy. He folded his newspaper. "It doesn't look like I'm going to find much help here. Not today, anyway."
"Well, you don't need the money right away, do you?" asked Jason. "Just be patient. Something will come up soon."
They finished their lunch and spent the rest of their time talking about more interesting subjects - like Kimberly's new flowers she'd gotten for her garden, the doings of Jason's karate students, and possible uses for Goldar's armor once its owner had been dispatched. They were just winding through a mock-serious debate as to whether his helmet would make a better flower pot or a salad bowl when the bell rang for them to head for their next classes.
"Can you guys wait for me?" asked Billy. "I need to get a book out of my locker."
The other Rangers agreeably waited, loitering in the hallway as Billy dialed in his combination. As the locker door swung open, a scrap of paper fell out, fluttering to the floor.
"What's this?" Billy murmured, bending to pick it up.
It was a card. The front of it was graced with a simple picture of a birthday cake and some presents. The writing above it read, "On your special day..." Unfolding it, he found someone had scrawled in a message in bold black ink: "Billy Cranston - meet me at the Youth Center today at four o'clock, but you'd better be ready, because I'm going to mop the floor with you!"
"Did someone send you a birthday card?" asked Kimberly, coming over to look.
"Yeah, a really nice one," Billy muttered, holding it up so she could see. "Someone apparently wants me to have a happy birthday - in the hospital."
"That's low," said Zack in disgust.
"Who would want to do something like that?" asked Trini. "Billy hasn't hurt anyone, has he?"
"Unless he really made Bulk mad with that sandwich bit," Kim said. "You never can tell what will set him off..."
"This isn't really his style, though," said Zack. "He's more the kind to come up behind you and give you a wedgie."
"And Billy's not really the sort you fight to prove how tough you are," Jason mused. "No offense, Billy, but... we know you're as good as any of us, but you're not the kind to show off."
Billy was still frowning down at the card. "You know, we are overlooking the obvious possibility."
"What's that?" asked Trini.
"Well, who do we know who would benefit most from one of us getting hurt?"
The other Rangers exchanged looks of surprise.
"You don't mean Lord Zedd, do you?" asked Zack.
Billy shrugged. "Why not? He's still very new to us. We don't know enough about him yet to predict what he'll do. We can't put anything beyond him or beneath him."
"You could have a point," Jason admitted. "So, what are you going to do about it?"
"I think there are two possibilities. Either this is to lure me into trouble - either from Zedd or someone else - or it's to scare me away for some reason. Either way, I think I had better go. I'd rather go in expecting danger than run away and fall into a trap."
"Don't worry, we'll be there to back you up," said Zack staunchly. "Right guys?"
The other Rangers nodded their agreement. The bell rang.
"Whoops, better move," said Jason. "See you later, Billy!"
"Later," Billy agreed. He hurriedly stuffed books into his backpack. As an afterthought, he stuffed the card into his pack, as well. It was a puzzle, and if there was one thing he had never been able to resist, it was the challenge of the unknown. No matter who had sent that message, he was going to find out why.
School was over. Billy and his friend sat on the steps, watching the hands of the clock creep slowly around its parameter.
"You could decide not to go, you know," said Kimberly. "None of us would think any less of you."
"I'm going," said Billy stubbornly. "I won't let people go around threatening me and get away with it."
"What if it's something dangerous?" asked Trini with worry in her eyes.
"Then we'll all be here watching his back," Tommy replied. "Billy's as strong as any of us. He'll be fine."
"I just want to get this over with," said Billy. "It's been hanging over my head all day, and it's driving me crazy. Even if I get beaten up, it will be better than sitting here wondering what's going on."
Jason glanced up at the clock. "Five minutes to four. If you're going to go, now's the time to do it."
"I guess so," Billy agreed. He got to his feet. "Let's go."
They made their way up the hall to the Youth Center. The first thing Billy noticed was that everything was deathly still. Normally the place would have been full of noise - chattering teenagers enjoying snacks, the pinging of video games, the shouts of people working out on the exercise floor... but today there was nothing. He began to feel nervous. What was going on? He rounded the corner and peered inside. Someone had pulled turned out all the lights, and it was nearly pitch black inside.
"Hello?" he called nervously. "Is anyone there? Hello?"
He took a few steps into the quiet Youth Center. The lights suddenly snapped on.
"Surprise!" shouted a chorus of voices.
Billy blinked. He rubbed his eyes and stared again. Someone had filled the Youth Center with balloons and streamers, and a cake reading "Happy Birthday Billy" was laid out proudly on a table. Billy rounded on his friends.
"I don't believe this!" he said. "Did you set me up for this?"
"I didn't do it!" said Zack, raising his hands in protest.
"Don't look at me," Kimberly replied.
"I didn't know a thing," said Trini, looking mystified.
"Neither did I," Jason added.
Tommy grinned. "My fault!"
"You?" asked Billy, staring.
"Sure. Why not?"
"Well, for one thing, my birthday isn't even until next week."
"I know," answered Tommy, laughing. "For once, you can't say I was late."
Ernie bustled over, grinning from ear to ear.
"Tommy here heard you were having some problems," he said, "so he came and talked to me this morning, asking if I could help..."
"And you know Ernie," Tommy chimed in. "He can always help."
"So that's why you were late for class," said Jason. "I knew there was something fishy about that excuse of yours!"
"Right. And why I didn't show up at lunch. I was delivering the birthday card," Tommy explained. "We couldn't have you missing your own birthday party."
"I still don't get it," said Billy. "What do you mean when you said you were going to help me with my problems? The only problem I've got right now is not having any money, and..."
"That's what I'm going to help you with," said Ernie, still grinning. "See, I could use some help around here after school. Right now it's just me, and it gets really busy around here, so if you want, I'll let you come by every day for a while and pitch in. Starting today, if you want."
Billy's eyes lit up. "You mean it? Thanks! I won't let you down, Ernie. I'll work really hard, I promise!"
Ernie laughed. "I know you will. That's why I left you that message in the card."
"You wrote that?" asked Billy. "Why? Why would you send me a threat in a birthday card?"
"It wasn't a threat," Ernie replied. "See, birthday parties make a real mess, and I thought it would be a shame to make you clean up after your own party, even if you're getting paid for it. So, just for today, I'm going to help out and mop the floor with you."
"Your going to mop the floor..." Billy repeated. "You're going to mop the floor... with me..."
"Right," said Ernie.
"Oh," said Billy. "I get it. Thanks."
"Don't worry, Billy," said Trini with a giggle. "We'll try not to make too much of a mess."
Billy managed to see the funny side of the situation and laugh with her. "I have to hand it to you, Tommy - you really did surprise me with this surprise party!"
"That's what friends are for!" he replied. "Besides, it's good for you to remember you don't know everything."
"I know that already!"
"And I'm kidding," Tommy replied. "Come on - I've been waiting all day for some of that cake."
A few of the Rangers headed in that direction, easing their way through the rest of the guests in the direction of the refreshment table, but Billy and Trini lingered behind.
"Are you angry at Tommy?" she asked. "You know, he really did do you a favor."
"I know he did," answered Billy with a slow smile, "but even so... I can't wait for his birthday to get here!"