DISCLAIMER: Yep, they still belong to Saban, not to me. Saban has not given me permission to write these stories, and I sure as heck don't get paid for them.

TIME FRAME AND NOTES: Zeo period-after my story "48 Days" and all the ones preceding it, references are made to events in those stories. Some knowledge of those events is useful, but not absolutely necessary.

Male Bonding
By Mele

"Zordon, are you saying that Mondo, his family, and their flunkies, as well as Rita and Zedd and all their flunkies, are all at some intergalactic seminar on evil?" Rocky asked, disbelief evident in his voice.

"Essentially, yes," Zordon replied.

"So, we get some time off?" Tanya questioned, looking hopeful.

"I would not expect to see any of them back for at least five days, so, yes, you have some time off," Zordon agreed.

"Oh, wow, great! My parents were talking about going to New York this week, my father has some work to do there. This is perfect!" Katherine exclaimed excitedly. She turned to Tanya. "They said I could bring a friend along. Want to come?"

"Yes! Oh, wow, this is great," Tanya enthused, turning her radiant smile toward her friend.

"Maybe I can go see my uncle who lives on the coast, soak up some sun, check out the girls," Rocky added with a comical leer. He looked over at Adam. "Care to join me?" he invited. Adam's smile was all the answer Rocky needed. He turned to the other three young men. "How about you guys?"

Jason and Tommy glanced at each other, both reaching the same decision. "We'll pass, Rocko. We've been waiting for an opportunity to do some backpacking in the mountains. Now's our chance, but thanks," Tommy replied as Jason nodded his agreement. They turned their attention to Billy, who had been standing quietly to the side.

"Care to join us, Bro?" Jason offered.

"Or want to come along with us?" Rocky countered.

"Um, I was thinking it might be best if I did some catch-up work here in the Power Chamber," Billy stated.

"Billy, you will not spend this time off here in the Power Chamber," Zordon decreed. "I can't tell you what to do outside of here, but I can tell you that the Power Chamber is off limits to you for the next five days."

"Cool! So come along with us," Tommy declared. "It will be great. We can do some of that.....what do they call it?....male bonding." He made the comment with an exaggerated tone and expression that caused a general round of laughter.

"Or you can 'male bond' with Adam and me," Rocky offered.

"Perhaps I'll just stay home and relax," Billy countered.

"No way, man. It's the beach or the mountains. Zordon may not feel he can boss you around, but we outnumber you. So make your choice," Jason said.

Billy looked from one to the other, more than a little surprised. He could tell from the determined expressions on the Zeo Rangers' faces that they would not let him off the hook this time. He decided the only thing to do was give in gracefully.

"The mountains, then. But thanks, Rocky," he decided.

"Great! Let's go to the Juice Bar and make our plans," Jason said with a big smile.

The other four Rangers were secretly glad to see Tommy, Jason, and Billy spend some quiet time together. In recent months the three of them had been through some particularly difficult times, including Tommy and Billy being kidnapped and tortured by Mondo, then Jason and Billy being kidnapped by Briardians and spending well over a month trying to find a way back home. Toss in the fact that both Jason and Tommy were natural team leaders with different styles and a propensity to try to protect Billy, and it made for occasionally strained relations between the three elder Rangers. Maybe spending some time away from their Ranger duties would allow the three of them to realign their friendship. It was worth a try at any rate.

The seven young people teleported out to a concealed location, then hurried to the Juice Bar, laughing and chattering as they went.

It was going to be so great to have time off!

* * *

The next day found Tommy, Jason, and Billy loaded in Tommy's small vehicle and headed toward the mountains. They had each packed a backpack with all the essentials they would need for the next three or four days. Everything except a communicator. They had agreed to leave anything to do with their Ranger duties behind, this was to be pure relaxation. The trail they chose had several offshoots, many leading to other trailheads, so they would likely see other people while hiking.

Tommy parked and placed his wilderness permit inside the windshield. "Okay, let's 'saddle up' as they say in the westerns," he grinned.

His companions groaned at the pun as they pulled their packs out and shrugged into them. They stood together for a moment, looking around, soaking in the beauty, cleanliness and peace of their surroundings, before heading on up the trail.

For the first couple of hours, none of them spoke at all, each lost in his own thoughts, gradually letting the stress and worries associated with being Power Rangers (or a Power Ranger coadjutor) fade away into the vast open spaces surrounding them. Then gradually they began to talk occasionally, mostly general comments about the scenery or trail conditions. At noon they found a shady spot off the trail where they could sit down and eat lunch.

"This was the best idea ever. I already feel more relaxed than I have in months," Tommy declared, leaning back against a rock and looking out at the panoramic view they had from this vantage point.

"Indeed. Between the peace and quiet, the physical activity, and the knowledge that our communicators will not go off anytime soon, we should all experience a marked decrease in our stress levels," Billy observed.

"And we will feel better, too," Jason grinned from his position reclining in the shade using his pack as a pillow.

"I believe that is what he just said," Tommy replied, tossing a pinecone at their prone companion.

"Whatever," Jason mumbled in response, refusing to rise to the bait.

They all chuckled and settled back for a needed rest. This was such a unique experience for them, not having anywhere they needed to be or anything they needed to do. Tommy smiled to himself when he realized there was absolutely no reason they couldn't set up camp right here if they so decided. That freedom was almost intoxicating.

However, they decided to move onward after a while, wanting to be closer to a lake when they made camp. Walking along single file, moving steadily higher and deeper into the mountains, they continued on until they found the perfect campsite near a pristine lake.

The site had a campfire pit already set up, so all they had to do was gather some wood so they could cook their evening meal. Working together without even consciously thinking about it, they gathered the needed fuel and water, and quickly set up a tidy campsite.

Tommy watched as Billy lit the fire using a silver lighter. "Where did you get that?" he asked curiously.

"My dad used to smoke, before he married my mom. She didn't approve of his smoking, so he quit when they got together. But he kept this lighter. I guess it had belonged to his father years ago. It's a lot heavier than the ones they make these days. Or so I've heard," Billy explained, handing it over to Tommy.

"It is pretty solid at that," Tommy agreed, returning it.

After a nourishing meal of beef stroganoff and green beans (courtesy of prepackaged freeze-dried packets) they settled around the campfire talking quietly. When Billy pulled out a bag of marshmallows and produced a few sticks to roast them on, they decided the day had been absolutely perfect.

"Billy, I should have known I could count on you to remember the marshmallows," Jason chuckled, reaching out to accept his stick and a couple of the white puffs.

"I do believe there is a written rule somewhere that states that roasting marshmallows at the end of a perfect day of hiking is an absolute requirement," Billy grinned, spearing a couple for himself and extending his stick toward the fire.

"Well, we all know the importance of following rules," Tommy agreed, adding his stick to the other two. Soon they were engrossed in a contest to see who could roast the 'perfect' marshmallow. After numerous disasters and near disasters, Tommy was declared the winner when he produced a uniformly golden exterior with a completely melted interior.

"Wait until tomorrow night!" Jason mock growled at their self-satisfied friend. Ignoring his companions' laughter he settled down on his back, staring up at the stars.

They all fell quiet, lost in their own thoughts. Tommy finally turned to Jason to ask him a question, but was stopped by the expression he saw on the burly teen's face.

"Jase, is something wrong?" he asked.

"No, I'm fine," Jason replied softly. Billy had also turned his attention to Jason, though he didn't say anything.

"Okay. But you had a...um...pretty serious look on your face there," Tommy said.

Jason sighed wearily. "I was just thinking about the last time I stood outside and studied the stars. They didn't look the same."

"Why is that?"

"I was on Primeria."

Billy's expression showed his concern. "You still having dreams about that place?" he asked gently.

"Yeah, sometimes. I was just remembering one night when I was looking at the stars and Napie asked me about it. I told her about how my dad had taught me to look at the stars so he would seem closer to me when he was out of town. But, there on Primeria, the stars were all wrong. And all it did was make it seem like he was even further away," Jason's voice was so soft it was hard to hear him.

"There is something so....I don't know....all encompassing about the stars, isn't there? While you guys were gone, I used to look at the stars, and think about you. We thought you were dead, that we would never see you again. I'd look out at the universe and berate myself for not being there for you. And I'd wonder about how you'd died, where you had been, and I'd miss you," Tommy reported quietly. It was the first time he had spoken to them of his feelings during the time they had been gone.

"Tommy, I'm sorry you had to go through that," Billy started. Tommy cut him off.

"You did what you had to. Your deception saved your lives, and I'm grateful for that. Never regret your actions. Not in this case. You did what you had to do in order to survive. And I'm damn glad you did so," Tommy's tone was quietly emphatic.

"Yeah, maybe so, but we put you, our families, and the rest of the Rangers through some pretty rough times," Billy countered.

"It was worth it since we got you both back in the end. But, yes, it was rough. I know Adam and Katherine in particular seemed to have a lot of trouble accepting what had happened. And I'm sure you heard from your folks how they felt."

Billy and Jason exchanged looks. "Oh, yeah. We heard about it. My mom kept coming in and looking at me when I was sleeping, for days afterward. Heck, I think she still does that from time to time. They get a lot more stressed if I'm late coming home from somewhere. Honest to God, I'm surprised she wasn't upset that I wanted to take this trip. It's the first time I've gone anywhere overnight since we got back," Jason reported.

Billy nodded. "My father is also a bit more 'clingy' than he used to be. Calls me daily when he's out of town, gets upset when I forget to tell him I'm going to be late, that sort of thing."

"Well, guys, what do you expect? They love you, and we all came way too close to losing you. Can I ask how close we really came?"

"In Jason's case, quite close," Billy finally answered after a considering look at his oldest friend. "The kid who owned him looked pretty determined to kill him. At least that was my take on the situation. Do you agree, Jase?"

"Oh, yeah, he was a psychopath. He would have had no qualms about killing me."

"As it was the little monster took out some of Jason's ribs, damaged his kidney, bruised his internal organs and broke his arm. All in all a pretty nasty beating. And it was ended prematurely."

Tommy looked a bit sick at the idea. "This was done by a kid?"

"A six foot one inch twelve year old. Primarians, especially the males, tended to be extremely large. Seven feet tall was not considered exceptional," Jason told him.

"Wow. How long did it take you to recover?"

"Three days. Modil had some great equipment, and Billy is a pretty fair doctor. And let's not forget that he ended up with pneumonia. He was not nearly as lucky as he would have us believe," Jason countered.

"I don't recall you mentioning that," Tommy said with a slightly accusing look at the former Blue Ranger.

"Like Jason mentioned those injuries?"

"Touch. Anything else I should know about?" Since he had them talking, Tommy decided to go for broke. Until now none of them had experienced any luck in getting the Jason or Billy to talk about their experiences, outside of the first night after they were returned, when they had given an obviously edited version of what had happened to them.

"Well, there was that torture thing," Jason said.

"How about the broken ribs and damaged knee you got when we arrived at the prison?" Billy shot back.

"Whoa, guys, slow down. Broken ribs? You got your ribs broken twice?"

"Yeah, one of the guards at the prison we were taken to broke a couple of them, along with messing up my knee. The doctor healed them just before we were taken to be sold," Jason explained.

"Ah, man, that's terrible. I broke one rib a few years ago and I still remember how much it hurt. And what was that about a 'torture thing'?" he asked looking more closely at his two fellow campers.

"Billy got in a fight and the punishment was torture. They chained him to the table and put this device against him. He screamed for five minutes. Geez, he was hurting so badly when he was brought back to me," Jason shuddered at the memory.

"But I was fine in a day or so. It just looked really bad," Billy said soothingly.

"It just hurt really bad. You can't deny that, Billy. God, it's awful to hear a friend scream in pain," Jason replied.

"Tell me about it. I can still hear it, the sound of Mondo beating him. The screams. The taunts. The sudden silence that was more frightening than the screams," Tommy's voice drifted off, his expression distant and haunted.

Billy looked from one to the other with an expression that was hard to decipher. "Can we please change the subject? I really do not enjoy remembering either occasion. I'm sorry I was so vocal, but if memory serves, I really couldn't help it."

"Hey, I know, Bro. But, I can't help that I feel like I should be able to protect my friends," Jason said.

Billy groaned. "You and Tommy. Two of a kind. Look, you can't protect us, can't protect ME, all the time. No one can. And I can take care of myself. Remember, I was winning that fight in prison before the guards arrived. And I am an competent intergalactic traveler with experience living in diverse cultures," he said loftily with a grin, hoping to lighten the mood some.

Tommy had to smile. "Man, he sure has gotten cocky, hasn't he?" he commented to Jason.

"Yeah, he has. I think you are a bad influence on him," he shot back.

"I'm a bad influence? How is this my fault?"

"He never behaved like this before he met you," Jason countered with an ever-widening grin. Billy was looking more and more disgruntled.

"What is it with you two? I'm simply pointing out that I can take care of myself. I don't need protection any more. Okay?" Billy found it hard to believe he was actually saying that out loud to his two friends. He had wanted to for a long time, but had held off for fear of offending them.

Tommy and Jason both gave him a considering look, sensing his seriousness.

"Okay, Bro. We let you stand on your own. Unless it's against cogs, or Mondo," Jason acquiesced as Tommy murmured his agreement.

"Fair enough. Thanks."

"Sure thing," Tommy said quietly. They settled back into their sleeping bags, keeping silent for a while, listening to the night sounds of the forest. The night was so fair, and the woods so beautiful, they all opted to forgo using their tents, and instead elected to sleep out under the stars.

"I saw this movie one night, on cable, called 'Deliverance'. These four friends were canoeing through the woods and they had a run-in with some mountain men. Weirdly scary movie, I actually found it scarier than most so-called horror movies. For some reason I keep thinking about that movie," Jason finally said.

"Isn't that the one with the scene of a savant who could play the banjo so well? 'Dueling Banjos' I believe the tune was called?" Tommy asked.

"That's the one. That scene spooked me too."

"Dudu-du-du-du-du-du-du-duuuu" Billy vocalized the tune from the movie.

"Dudu-du-du-du-du-du-du-duuuuu" Tommy countered, a wide grin on his face.

"Knock it off!" Jason shouted at his two companions. They cheerfully ignored him, launching into the tune with enthusiasm. Jason groped about until he found the long stick they had used to stir the fire. He reached over and walloped Billy inside his sleeping bag, and repeated it with Tommy. The blows were not intended to hurt. Yet.

His actions did not deter his friends, who simply attempted to wiggle out of his reach while continuing their concert. Jason responded by following them and whacking them both with his stick. After a few moments the two 'musicians' laughingly called for a truce.

"Okay! I surrender! Stop!" Tommy was now laughing so hard he could barely get the words out.

"Ow! Okay, I quit!" Billy added, gasping for breath.

"That's better. Not nice you guys," Jason growled.

"But it sure was funny," Tommy couldn't resist teasing him.

"That's what you think."

"We'll be good now," Billy promised, shifting his sleeping bag back to its original position.

"That'll be the day," Jason grumbled, trying with little success to hide his own grin. Soon the three of them were back around the fire, settling down to sleep.

Within ten minutes the first soft snores could be heard.

* * *

Morning found the three teens doing a kata together in the clearing near their camp. Despite their different body builds, they moved in perfect unison, never missing a beat. Once the kata was finished, Jason and Tommy decided to do some sparring while Billy saw to their breakfast. Soon the smell of hotcakes wafting across the clearing broke up the impromptu match and brought the erstwhile combatants back to the camp.

"That smells awesome! Thanks, man," Tommy said as Billy handed him a plate.

"Yeah, thanks," Jason added, accepting his own plate. "One thing I gotta say about having you along, we will not suffer from a sugar shortage."

Billy grinned at his friends. "It's supposed to be good energy, and I suspect we will need it today."

"Right. And the fact that you just like sweet stuff has nothing to do with it, right?" Jason teased.

"Of course not."

Twin snorts of disbelief greeted that comment. However, that did not prevent the teens from eating a prodigious quantity of food. Working together they cleaned up after their meal, repacked their backpacks, tidied the campsite and carefully killed the campfire. Once they felt sure they were leaving the campsite in the same condition they had found it in they set off along the trail.

The trail they were on had the advantage of being a large loop. This way they could avoid doubling back over previously explored territory. The first 'half' was mostly uphill, then downhill as they neared the starting point. They knew the hike out would be much quicker, so they were not concerned with making good time, but instead stopped and explored whenever the mood hit them.

By midday they had not really traveled very far, but they were ready for a meal and rest. They decided to set a goal of spending the night by a lake a short distance from the 'point' of the loop. They estimated that it would put them in position to enable them to finish the hike within their four-day limit. Satisfied they had a workable plan, they settled back to enjoy their break. They had picked a spot on the shore of a tiny lake, fed by swift running streams, running unusually deep and fast with the spring melt-off from the higher peaks.

Their picnic site was near the mouth of one of those streams. Jason noticed that some thoughtless prior camper had left cans and other debris on the other side.

"We should go over there and clean that up. I just can't believe people would walk all this way to enjoy the natural beauty and leave a mess like that behind," he declared.

The other two voiced their agreement, and Billy located a plastic bag he had put in his pack for just such a purpose. They approached the stream and checked for a way across. There were stones they might possibly use, but they were wide spaced and appeared a bit unstable.

"Why don't you go first, Billy. Show us the way across," Tommy suggested with a less than innocent gleam in his dark eyes.

Billy, engrossed in the problem of figuring the safest route, didn't notice Tommy's attitude and without a question started across. Despite the fact a couple of the rocks moved and shifted under his weight, he made it to the other side with minimal trouble. He looked across at his friends to see if they were following. They stood on the bank grinning at him.

"Since you are already there, we'll just wait for you here," Jason called to him with a smile.

Shaking his head and grumbling a bit, mostly at himself for falling for that, he quickly picked up the trash and tied the bag shut. He threw it over to Jason and Tommy, then started back himself. He was concentrating on his footing, so consequently he was badly startled by a loud splash near him. He looked to the side in confusion, then at the far bank. His bewilderment was quickly cleared up when he saw his two teammates with rocks in their hands.

"Guys, this is not that easy. I don't need any distractions."

"You wanted us to not help you so much," Jason pointed out reasonably.

"That did not mean I wanted you to hinder me," Billy countered, flinching from another splash close by. "And I really do not want an impromptu dunking."

His friends could not resist one last throw, which they did simultaneously. Billy, not expecting two missiles was startled and lost his balance. He landed in the icy water gracelessly, cursing loudly.

Both Jason and Tommy cringed, knowing Billy was not going to be a bit happy when he reached shore. They had the grace to look ashamed of themselves when the dripping former Ranger reached the bank again.

"Sorry, Bro, that was a pretty dirty trick to play," Jason said. Billy ignored him and walked over to grab his pack and head toward a nearby stand of trees. They watched him go in silence.

"Um, should we just let him walk off?" Tommy asked quietly.

"I think he is just going to change his clothes. Give him a few minutes and he'll cool down. He rarely gets really angry, but when he does it is usually over pretty quickly. I hope."

They settled down to wait, hoping Jason was correct. When Billy didn't return in ten minutes the two decided to go seek out their friend. Moving into the stand of trees they walked along quietly, feeling somewhat spooked, though neither one could say why. They didn't call out to Billy, or even speak to each other, and they moved as soundlessly as possible, trying to look in all directions at once.

Jason was about to break the stillness with a call to Billy when he spotted the light haired teen standing near a tree, facing away from them. Slapping Tommy's arm to get his attention, Jason headed toward Billy, who seemed to sense their presence and turned to them with a finger held to his lips in the age old gesture of silence.

As Tommy and Jason came up beside Billy they noticed he was still wearing his sodden clothing, and his backpack was nowhere to be seen. Then they saw the men in the clearing beyond. One was quite tall, probably in his thirties, and looked profoundly uncomfortable in outdoor gear. The second man was stocky, bearded, and looked like a lumberjack, obviously at home in the wilderness. The third man, who seemed to be at odds with the other two, was dressed in a suit. Their disagreement escalated until their angry shouts could be heard across the open space, though the words were indiscernible. Suddenly the one in a suit turned and began to run, prompting the tall man to reach into an inside pocket of his vest. Much to the boys' horror he pulled out a gun and fired at the fleeing man. The man fell forward heavily, lying still in the fragrant grass. When the shooter turned to his companion he spied the three witnesses standing in the trees. He shouted and pointed toward the three teens, alerting his companion to their presence.

Without a word the three teenagers turned and fled back through the trees, toward the trail they had been following earlier. They ran abreast of each other, ducking around trees, not looking back. The sound of a shot ringing out caused them all to instinctively duck.

"Guys, head toward the trail, but remember we are going to need some sort of obstacle between ourselves and our pursuers. We may have to parallel the trail," Tommy told them as they raced along.

Jason and Billy didn't waste time answering, they simply kept moving. They got to the area where they had had their picnic, and Jason and Tommy grabbed their backpacks on the fly, shrugging into the harnesses without breaking stride. Despite the extra weight they knew they would need the supplies in them.

Dashing across the small clearing, they went past the trail and plunged into the trees again. Moving in what they hoped was a parallel path to the trail, they dodged among the trees, careful to keep each other in sight. They knew the two men from the clearing were still on their trail, but they hoped their youth and speed would convince their pursuers to give up.

It didn't seem to be happening, though.

* * *

The shooter was Dirk Peters and his companion was Boscoe Maxwell, both were professional hit men. They were being paid $200,000 for this job, and payment was dependent on there being no complications.

Three teenagers seeing the shooting could be considered a complication.

With that kind of payday riding on the outcome, to say nothing of their freedom, they knew they could not allow the three witnesses to survive. They set out in pursuit of the teens, determined not to quit until three more bodies were left stiffening under the wide, blue California sky.

* * *

Tommy, Jason and Billy stopped to catch their breath, and to check if they were still being chased. They distinctly heard the sound of running footsteps, and too close for comfort at that. Taking off again they continued on, desperately seeking anything that would give them an advantage.

They were suddenly presented with an unexpected obstacle. A wide, rushing river cut across their path, blocking their way. They knew there was very likely a bridge at the trail, but it would be far too dangerous for them to use it. It would be the first thing their pursuers would expect them to do. So, they made the only logical choice, they moved downstream, away from the trail, keeping in the trees and shrubbery, looking desperately for a way across.

They finally spotted an old, abandoned bridge, rotted with age and disuse. It was a suspension bridge, reminding the boys of ones they had seen in old jungle movies. The runoff-swollen river almost brushed against the bridge's underside.

"This is our best bet, guys. Let's do it," Tommy decided. "We have to go across one at a time, though. I don't think it can take us all."

"Yeah. So, who's first?" Jason asked.

"I'll go. I'm lighter than either of you, and I don't have a pack," Billy volunteered, already heading toward the bridge. He started across carefully, testing each step cautiously. Twice rotted planks broke under his feet, causing a momentary panic before he could find firmer footing. At last he reached the far side and signaled his for friends to cross.

"I'll go next," Tommy decided. "You weigh a ton and will likely break it," he couldn't resist teasing Jason.

"Thanks a heap. We'll just see who breaks the thing!" Jason retorted.

Tommy used the same care Billy had, avoiding the places he had encountered trouble with. He was just over halfway across when disaster struck. His foot broke through a plank, throwing him off balance badly. His leg became entangled in the base rope as he pitched over the side. In effect he was tied to the bridge by his boot, his body entirely submerged in the raging river. Billy hastened back toward the trapped teen, as Jason started across as well. The bridge sagged under their combined weight and ominous snapping sounds could be heard.

"We have to get his foot free, see if you can reach his hand to help keep his head above water," Billy advised, reaching for his knife to cut the ropes holding Tommy. He looked over at Jason, who managed to somehow pull Tommy in closer to the bridge, where he was able to raise Tommy's upper body a bit to keep his head out of the river. It was taking every iota of Jason's considerable strength to do so.

"Tommy, you are going to have to lose the pack. Sorry, Bro, but it's too heavy. Here, let me help you get it off," Jason worked on releasing Tommy from the heavy backpack, breathing a sigh of relief once it was gone. It was much easier to support Tommy's body without the added weight.

"Guys, when I cut through this, the bridge may very well collapse. If it does so, Jason, your pack needs to be off, too," he nodded approval as Jason removed his backpack and set it beside him. They all looked with trepidation at the river. It was very deep, very fast, and full of boulders.

"Grab onto the handrail part, I'm going to cut this now." When Billy's knife severed the rope imprisoning Tommy's leg the entire down-river side of the bridge disintegrated, plunging the three young men into the raging rapids.

* * *

Dirk Peters turned to Boscoe Maxwell with a terse question. "Which way?". They were standing on the bank of the river.

"They went downstream. I suggest we head upstream, cross at the trail, then downstream on the other side. We may be able to cut them off. My theory is they will head back and try to reach the trail again."

"I guess that sounds reasonable, let's go."

* * *

Jason moaned as he pulled himself out of the water. Fighting against the current, struggling to reach shore, being slammed into boulders and pulled under water every few moments had exhausted him. He had no idea how far the river had carried him, but he knew it was a considerable distance. He also knew that when he reached shore Tommy and Billy were still being carried down-river. Despite the fact all he wanted to do was lie down and sleep for a few hours, he jumped to his feet and began running along the bank. He was becoming frantic when he finally spotted his companions. Billy was nearer the shore than Tommy, but not by much. Jason began to shout at them, sensing they were rapidly tiring.

"Billy! Tommy! Over here! Come on, guys, you can do it! Keep working at it, try to work with the river," he kept shouting anything that came to mind, just wanting them to know he was there, ready to help them. He cringed as Billy was flung into a boulder, then he realized it was Billy's chance to reach shore. Billy seemed to pause for a moment, then launched himself away from the boulder, toward the shore. Jason waded into the water and reached for his friend. He was able to grab the smaller teen's outstretched hand and pull him toward land.

"Thanks, Jase," Billy wheezed, breathing hard.

"Come on, we have to help Tommy!" Jason said as he began running downstream again. Billy followed him as quickly as possible, fear lending additional speed to their pace.

Tommy had heard Jason's shouts and the sound of his friend had spurred him to additional efforts to get out of the river. He had actually found a method that worked, albeit in a limited manner. As Billy had done, he was using the boulders as launching points to try to get himself closer to shore. He figured one or two more and he would be close enough to reach bottom and wade out. But the boulders were getting smaller while the other rocks seemed to be getting bigger. The result was that he was being pummeled pretty badly without being able to get any closer to shore. The constant pounding and the bitter cold of the water were weakening him steadily.

He heard Jason still shouting to him, yelling how something was coming up he needed to see. He looked down-river and felt hope blossom in him. There was a large log up ahead, partially submerged, reaching well into the river. With the last of his fading strength he reached out and grabbed it, wrapping his hands around the stump of an old branch, and holding on with all his might. Jason and Billy carefully made their way along the log, where they were able to get a grip on Tommy and haul him out of the water. They basically crawled along the log until they were in the shallows at the edge of the river, where they staggered to their feet and onto dry land. They collapsed in a clump, at the end of their endurance.

They stayed where they had fallen for an unknown amount of time, all of them too worn out to move. Gradually they realized they needed to get going, no matter how tired they were. Jason was the first to climb to his feet and begin to work the kinks out.

"Come on, guys. I don't think they have stopped chasing us yet. We need to keep moving, if we can," he leaned down and gave Billy a hand up. Together they hoisted Tommy to his feet and steadied him until he regained his equilibrium. Though none of them were too steady on their feet yet, they started out away from the river.

"If we set out moving away from the river at a slight angle, but at the same time moving back toward the trail we were on, logically we should intercept the trail and be able to make our way out of here," Billy noted, remembering the map he had been carrying before it was destroyed in their river adventure.

"Sounds like a plan to me. Lead on, Oh Mighty Trailblazer," Jason replied, indicating Billy should take the lead. They trusted Billy's memory and sense of direction.

As their lassitude wore off they began to notice the various bumps and bruises they had amassed in their tumble down the river. Tommy in particular had a nasty looking bruise on his forehead, and the entire upper portion of his left arm was discolored, as well as smaller bruises too numerous to count. Jason and Billy had also received a multitude of bruises, especially on their shoulders and hips. They all agreed it was almost miraculous that none of them had suffered any broken bones.

They slogged on, not speaking, following Billy's lead, until they reached a plateau giving them a panoramic view of the area. They stood near the edge, looking out over the territory they were going to have to cover. Billy took a few minutes to point out some of the landmarks they would need to know, such as the two peaks between which the trail they needed went. Before they started down the steep slope toward the trail, Billy excused himself to answer a call of nature. Tommy and Jason stood looking out over the forest below them, thankful that for a time at least they would be traveling downhill. The day was rapidly waning, and afternoon clouds, so common for the area, were gathering.

Billy emerged from a behind a couple of trees, and started along the edge of the plateau toward his friends. He hadn't gone very far when he heard a sound behind him and turned to find the two men from the field entering the clearing and drawing their guns. Jason and Tommy heard his surprised gasp and turned as Dirk fired at Billy, hitting him in the chest and sending him tumbling down the steep slope. Boscoe fired at the other two teens, but wasn't the marksman his partner was. He missed, but just barely. Tommy felt the tug as the bullet grazed the sleeve of his flannel shirt. He shoved the shocked Jason hard and both of them plunged down the slope, moving in huge, oddly graceful leaps. By the time Dirk and Boscoe had reached the edge, the two teens had disappeared into the trees below.

They walked to the other edge and looked down toward where Billy had landed. The light-haired teen was lying face down, unmoving.

"Should we go down and make sure he's really dead?" Boscoe asked. Due to the angle of the plateau it would end up taking them quite a distance out of their way.

"If he isn't dead now, he will be soon. I plugged him in the chest. What's he going to do? Walk out of here and get medical help? He'll bleed to death, or die of shock in a short time, if he isn't already dead. Forget him, we have two live ones to finish. Let's get moving," Dirk decided.

They headed toward the spot Jason and Tommy had started their descent and began down to continue the hunt.

"One down and two to go," Dirk muttered darkly.

* * *

Tommy and Jason ran through the trees in an almost blind panic. The events of the day came crashing in on them, culminating with the sight of their friend's body pitching over the side of the plateau. Now those two men, who had already killed twice that day, were chasing them with the intention of doubling the body count. So the two teens ran on, ignoring their bodies' demands for rest, for water, for nourishment, until those demands became overwhelming.

They literally collapsed, breathing in ragged gasps, their throats and lungs on fire, lying next to each other. They stayed that way until their breathing eased somewhat, and they felt strong enough to make it to their feet again. They continued on, walking, checking their position against the mountain peaks Billy had pointed out earlier. It was now late evening, almost dark. With the cloud cover there would be no moon or stars to light their way. They found a stream and quenched their thirst, then looked for some place to settle down for the night. They knew they couldn't risk traveling in the dark forest.

They found a hollow at the base of a fallen tree. It wasn't perfect, but it would do. They huddled there together, trying to relax, knowing they would need all the energy they could muster for the following day.

As their bodies finally relaxed, their minds began to go over the events of the day, replaying them with horrifying clarity.

"I can't believe this, Tommy," Jason said softly. Well aware of their pursuers, they knew they would have to keep as quiet as possible, though they hoped the killers were also stopped by the all-encompassing darkness.

"I know, Bro. This seems like some sort of bad dream. We are supposed to be having fun, relaxing," Tommy's voice faltered a bit.

"Not getting shot in cold blood," Jason's voice broke completely, a sob wrenched from him at the memory of his friend's murder.

Tommy put his arm around Jason, who returned the gesture. There in the dark and cold, the two friends offered each other what comfort they could, as the first wave of their grief washed over them both, leaving them trying to cope with what had happened and what might happen the next day. They knew they were far from safe, and the murderers had already demonstrated that they would not give up easily.

Despite the anguish in their hearts and minds, the needs of their bodies eventually asserted themselves, and they finally fell asleep, still holding each other for comfort.

* * *

The next morning Tommy awoke to a world of misery. As soon as he tried to shift his position, pain shot through him. His arm ached with the sharpness of a toothache, he had a headache that rivaled any he had ever experienced, and his whole body felt as if someone had taken a baseball bat and pounded him with it. He groaned and muttered as he disentangled himself from Jason.

"Better wake up, Bro. We need to get moving," he shook Jason gently as he tried to wake him.

Jason gave his own groan of protest at the prospect of waking up. "Is this really necessary?" he asked groggily.

"Afraid so. Man, I hurt in places I didn't even know I had."

"Tell me about it. Guess yesterday really happened, didn't it?" Jason's eyes filled with pain as the memories returned.

Tommy's expression mirrored Jason's. "Yeah, it did. We have to get moving, Jase. Those guys are still out there, looking for us."

Jason did his best to squelch his emotions, setting his sorrow for Billy aside for the time being. First order of business was survival. There would be time to mourn later, he told himself grimly.

Tommy was fighting his own battle with his feelings. He kept repeating to himself that he had to keep it together, had to keep fighting to survive. The opportunity to exact revenge would come in time. That thought helped him more than anything else did-that someday those two would pay for what they had done.

In the thin light of early dawn the two teens slowly made their way to their feet. Grimacing, they stretched, loosening stiff muscles and slowly restoring circulation to their extremities. Then, checking their landmarks as well as they could, they set out in the direction they believed would bring them back to the trail and, hopefully, home.

* * *

Dirk and Boscoe had also been stopped by the darkness. Up with the first faint light, they waited until they could see a little more clearly. They had been following the tracks left by the two teenagers, and as soon as they had enough light to see them, the two killers started quickly on their way.

* * *

Tommy and Jason were moving at a brisk walk, stopping occasionally to check their location. Though they had been walking a long time, those mountains never seemed to get any closer.

"It must be an optical illusion. Or those mountains are moving away from us," Jason grumbled.

"No kidding. At this rate we won't get there until next week. How far did that river take us, anyway?"

Soon they had found themselves on another downhill stretch, which allowed them to move a little more quickly, but also required more caution. The slope was interrupted periodically with areas of almost level ground, usually a couple hundred feet wide. Thick stands of trees were found all over the slopes and the level areas, providing the teens with protection from their pursuers. They had not seen a sign of them so far that day, but their instincts told them that they were still being hunted.

Pausing near the edge of one of the level areas, in a small clearing that allowed for an unobstructed view of the area below, they felt the first touch of optimism. They could see the trail below them. It was still a pretty long hike down, but there it was. They had decided that once they found the trail they would jog all the way out. It seemed to be their best bet.

They exchanged satisfied grins, and prepared to start down when a slight sound behind them caught their attention. They whirled around to find Dirk and Boscoe standing at the far edge of the clearing, taking aim with their guns.

"End of the line, boys," Dirk stated, leveling his gun at Jason. As he was pulling the trigger a rock hit him from behind and to the left of him. His aim was thrown off, the bullet grazing Jason's arm and causing him to tumble down the slope behind him.

Startled by what happened to Dirk, Boscoe's shot went high and wide, missing Tommy entirely. A split second later Boscoe was hit with a full body tackle from behind as Billy took him down hard.

Almost shocked to immobility, Tommy came close to not reacting in time. He snapped out of it as he saw Dirk rise to his knees and aim his gun at the former Blue Ranger, who was grappling with the bearded killer. Tommy dashed forward, kicking the gun out of Dirk's hand and sending it flying. He followed up with a kick to the man's head that laid him out unconscious, just as Billy managed to knock out Boscoe.

Tommy turned to his friend with a shell-shocked expression.

"You are supposed to be dead!" Tommy declared.

"I guess I had different plans," Billy commented wryly.

Before he could say anything else Jason's voice drifted up to them. "Tommy? Tommy, are you okay?"

Billy looked over at the taller teen. "Why don't you go see to Jason, and I'll see what I can do about restraining our 'friends' here."

Tommy went after Jason without a word, still feeling a sense of shock at the turn of events. He saw the Gold Ranger gamely trying to get back up the slope, despite the fact he apparently could not stand.

"Tommy! You're okay! What happened?"

"We got some unexpected help. Here, let me give you a hand," Tommy replied, coming to Jason's side and helping him to his feet. Jason gasped in pain, keeping his right leg curled up, trying not to put any weight on it.

"I did something to my knee when I fell. I felt something 'pop' in it. Man, it hurts like a sonofagun," Jason informed him.

"No problem, Bro. Put your arm over my shoulder and I'll help you back up there. Nice and easy now," Tommy encouraged him. He felt a perverse desire to surprise Jason with who was up in the clearing, so he kept quiet, concentrating on helping Jason up the incline.

Once they reached the top Tommy assisted Jason over to a nearby boulder, where the injured teen could rest. He glanced over to see what Billy was doing and heard Jason's gasp of shock when he recognized the 'help'.

"Billy! Is that really you?" Jason's expression was one of shocked, disbelieving joy.

"Yeah, Jase. It's me. Sorry it took me so long to catch back up."

"Billy, we saw you get shot in the chest. How....how..how did you not die from that?" Jason was at a loss for words.

"Had a little help, I guess you'd say." He reached into the front pocket of his blue jeans and removed something silver, which he tossed to his friends. Tommy caught it, and he and Jason stared in shock at what had wrought this miracle.

Nestled in his hand was Wallace's cigarette lighter, with a bullet now imbedded in it.

"I had that in my shirt pocket yesterday. I have no idea why I didn't lose it in the river. Darn lucky for me I didn't." Billy explained quietly.

"Darn lucky, indeed," Jason agreed, tears in his eyes. "Dammit, Billy, I thought we'd lost you!"

"I'm sorry, Jason, Tommy. Believe me, upsetting you guys was not my intention at all," Billy said, walking over to join his two friends.

Jason stood up and reached out to the smaller teen he had always thought of as a brother. Billy willingly embraced his friend, with Tommy joining in. All three held each other for a few moments, grateful to be together again. Then they backed away a bit, all of them wiping at moist eyes.

"Don't ever scare us like that again," Jason said huskily.

"Believe me, I'll try not to. I didn't exactly enjoy the experience," Billy agreed. He didn't tell them that he had spent a good portion of the previous night having the shakes and jitters, as the reality of just how close he had come to dying hit him.

"How are those two?" Tommy asked to change the subject.

"Both out cold for now. I was removing their shirts. I thought we could cut the shirts into strips and use them to bind our prisoners. Looks like we could also use a bandage for your arm there, Jason," he concluded, seeing the blood seeping through Jason's sleeve.

"Yeah, might be a good idea," Jason agreed. As Tommy indicated Jason should remove his shirt so he could tend to his injury, Billy went across and finished removing their captive's shirts, then pulled out his knife and began to cut thick strips out of the heavy material. He handed some to Tommy for bandages, and used the rest to bind the two killers' hands and feet. He then rejoined Tommy and Jason to discuss what they should do next.

"Let's look at the facts here: we have two prisoners we have to keep restrained at all times, we have one person who cannot walk unassisted, we have no food, water, or other supplies except a couple of knives, we are at least a day's hike away from civilization. Does that cover everything?" Tommy asked.

"At least all the important things. What do you suggest?" Billy replied.

"Well, as I see it we have two choices. One: we all hike out together. You and I take turns helping Jason and shepherding our prisoners. Or, two: one of us hikes out and the other stays here with Jason and those two."

"Option number two does have certain merits, but my instinct says we all stay together. That is assuming our guests are able to walk on their own once they come to. Speaking of which, I do believe the one who fancies himself to be 'Grizzly Adams' is awake as we speak," Billy replied.

"I think so, too. Well, so much the better. If we are going to hike out of here all together it would be a good idea to start as soon as possible," Tommy noted.

"Agreed. Okay with you Jason?" Billy asked their friend, who had not spoken as yet.

"Okay. I just hate being a liability," Jason replied, looking anything but happy with the situation.

"Hey, Bro, that is why you have friends and teammates. To help you when it is needed. We have all had our turns at being a liability to the team. It is just part of life," Tommy said soothingly, remembering all too many times when it seemed he did more harm than good for his friends.

"Heck, Jason, I was pretty much a liability the whole first year we were a team," Billy noted. That generated a slight smile from their former leader.

"Yeah, but look at you now. An accomplished fighter and....how did you phrase that?... 'a competent intergalactic traveler with experience living in diverse cultures'," Jason said with a haughty tone in his voice and a wide grin on his face. That comment cracked them all up, and despite the fact they were still in a serious situation, with a long, uncertain hike ahead of them, they laughed almost hysterically.

"Fine, fine," Billy gasped at last. "Go ahead and make fun. See if I care."

"Come on, let's check these two out. We need to gather together all their weapons. I was thinking we should just hide them here. I'm not comfortable carrying a gun, and I don't want them available for these two, anyway," Tommy said, heading over to the two bound, and now conscious, prisoners.

They quickly located the gun Tommy had kicked out of Dirk's hand, and the one Boscoe had dropped. They frisked the two men and found another small gun and two knives. Tommy tucked them all at the base of the boulder and covered them with smaller rocks. The odds of anyone finding them were infinitesimal. Billy removed the prisoners' wallets and took out their ID's.

"Dirk Peters and Boscoe Maxwell. Both of Los Angeles. I'd say it was nice to meet you guys, but, frankly, it wasn't."

Billy and Tommy rebound the prisoners' feet, leaving about 18 inches of slack between, enough for them to walk, not enough to allow them to run easily. Their hands were bound tightly behind their backs, and Billy used another length of their makeshift rope to tie the two of them together by their belts, with a couple of feet between. Satisfied they had done the best they could to ensure their captives could not escape, they decided to start out. Tommy assisted Jason to his feet, and with Jason's arm over his shoulder and his arm around Jason's waist they set out. Billy herded Dirk and Boscoe ahead of him.

The trip down the remainder of the incline was difficult. The prisoners had not gotten accustomed to their limited stride, and Tommy was having difficulty keeping his balance on the steep slope while holding on to Jason. With much effort, numerous tumbles, and some very creative language, mostly from the killers, they finally reached level ground again.

Angling toward where they had seen the trail, they moved more quickly, anxious to get to the trail with its relatively smooth surface. It was already early afternoon and the day turned out to be quite warm. When they came across a small stream, they stopped gratefully for a much needed drink and rest. Unwilling to untie their captives, Billy took a piece of leftover material and soaked it in the stream, then allowed the prisoners to suck the water out.

Taking off their shirts, all three boys also took the opportunity to splash the agreeably cold water on their faces and upper bodies, cooling and refreshing them.

"Jesus, Billy!" Jason exclaimed, getting a look at their friend's chest. He had a monstrous bruise covering the entire left pectoral area.

Billy looked down at himself and gave a rueful smile. "Pretty impressive, huh?"

"Damn, that looks like it hurts," Tommy added.

"Like the ones you have don't?" Billy countered, indicating the collection of bruises and abrasions Tommy had collected in the river the previous day.

"Ah, poor widdle boys faw down and hurt themselves?" Dirk taunted them. He and Boscoe had remained silent so far, a situation their captors would prefer to continue.

The three teens just ignored him, which enraged the man. He began to rain verbal abuse down on the three, accusing them of cowardice, cruelty, and casting aspersions regarding their parentage. After one particularly vile comment, Billy stood up and without a word gagged him.

He continued to curse, but the comments were unintelligible. When they were ready to continue their hike Billy approached Dirk. "Are you going to keep quiet now, or should I leave the gag where it is?" he asked in a reasonable tone.

The muffled reply sounded like the bound man was agreeing with him, so Billy removed the gag. Dirk made no further comment.

With Billy now assisting Jason, and Tommy taking care of their prisoners, they set out once again. It was early evening when they finally reached the trail. They continued until they found another stream and again stopped to rest.

"What do you think, Tommy. Stop for the night or continue on? It looks like the night will be clear, and it is supposed to be a full moon, which would provide adequate light for the trail," Billy asked as Jason leaned back to relax.

"I don't know. I don't really like the idea of either of us trying to sleep with those two around. But I don't know if Jason can take that long a hike without rest," Tommy replied quietly.

"Don't worry about me," Jason said without opening his eyes. "I can go as long as we need to. And I agree with Tommy. Those two are too darn dangerous to relax our guard around."

"As it turns out, I am in complete agreement with you. So we plan on an all night hike," Billy said.

"I think that's the best plan. Plus, I am really afraid if I allow myself to fall asleep at all, I won't wake up for much of anything," Tommy admitted with a worried look.

"I know the feeling," Billy replied.

"Guess we should get going, then. Ready Jase?" Tommy asked.

"As I'll ever be."

* * *

It was a very long night. Though the full moon provided some light, it was still hazardous. They all stumbled often, and their pace slowed significantly. Still, they plodded on, stopping every hour or two for a rest, drinking whenever they crossed a stream. At every rest stop Billy and Tommy traded places. Jason was beginning to worry them a bit. Though he didn't complain, he was obviously tired and in considerable pain. He had lost a bit of blood with the arm wound, which was quite deep, and the constant movement kept his leg hurting unremittingly.

As for Tommy and Billy, both were exhausted. The hours between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. were the worst, as their bodies seemed to hit rock bottom. Whereas the prisoners stumbled due to their feet being bound, Tommy and Billy stumbled due to their utter weariness.

Unfortunately, their prisoners were in the best condition among them. Realizing that Tommy and Billy were not as alert as they had been, Dirk and Boscoe worked harder at loosening their hands from their bonds. Both were having some success when Tommy called for another break. During the time they were resting the two men managed to a quick whispered conference before Tommy told them to shut up. After the rest stop, Billy was the one watching the two killers.

Boscoe noticed that Dirk had his hands free, his were almost there. As soon as he felt his hands slip free he cleared his throat, his signal to Dirk that he was ready. Between the near darkness and the fact Billy was not paying enough attention, the time was perfect. Both men released their hands and Dirk turned to attack Billy while Boscoe frantically untied the rope binding the two of them together.

Under Dirk's attack, Billy, caught off-guard, took a vicious blow to the face that knocked him off his feet and stunned him. As Dirk prepared to follow this up with a kick in the side Tommy attacked him, knocking Dirk into Boscoe, who had not gotten the knot completely untied yet. The three of them went down in a heap as Billy stumbled to his feet to help Tommy. Dirk and Boscoe ended up getting another surprise: they had not had any idea that the teens were into martial arts. They had assumed the boys would be easy targets. They were very wrong. Tommy and Billy quickly regained the upper hand and subdued the two prisoners, who soon found themselves bound again, more tightly than ever.

"Damn, Tommy, I'm sorry. I really wasn't paying enough attention," Billy apologized as the two of them rested beside Jason after securing Dirk and Boscoe.

"Hey, man, they must have been working at those bindings for a long time, and I didn't notice either. We have both been a little negligent, I guess," he replied ruefully. He took a closer look at his teammate in the faint light. "You are going to have one hell of a black eye," he noted.

"Well, on the plus side, I'm really awake now," Billy quipped.

"You and me both, Bro. I guess we should take advantage of it and get moving again. But I have to tell you, I'm seriously worried about how we are going to make it if we are this tired already," Tommy added, speaking very softly so their prisoners would not overhear.

"I think we will be okay once the sun comes up. I read an article about how our bodies 'internal clocks' work, and it stated that during the earliest hours of the morning, one to five a.m., your body believes it is supposed to be asleep, so it will try to shut down. They did an experiment with people who they had sleep a full eight hours, ending at midnight. Those people still had difficulties staying awake between those hours of one and five. But once they got past that 'dead time', they would be fine. So, I think we will perk up once our bodies understand they are supposed to be awake. I think," Billy yawned.

Tommy looked askance at Billy. "Was that supposed to make any sense?" he asked.


"Huh. Let's get going," he replied, turning to Jason who had listened to the conversation silently.

Billy prodded the other two men to their feet and the group started out again, Dirk and Boscoe subdued after their failed escape attempt.

* * *

By midmorning they were back on an uphill part of the trail. According to what Billy could remember of the map, this was the last uphill stretch, once they crested this area they would be going downhill, or on flat terrain, for the rest of the hike. Daybreak had indeed helped energize them, at least a little. But they were moving quite slowly up the steep trail, needing to rest frequently. Adding to their problem was the fact they had not seen a stream since daybreak, and already the temperature was climbing.

They were resting in a shady patch when Jason spoke up. "Guys, you should leave me here. I'll be okay. But it is too much for you two to keep having to half carry me along. Get these two to the police and send help for me. It makes more sense than killing yourselves this way."

Tommy glared at his friend. "We are not leaving you. In case you have forgotten, this is a wilderness area. There are wild animals around. If one attacked, you would be completely defenseless. No way is that going to happen while we are able to bring you with us. We are all getting out of here together," Tommy declared.

Jason looked over at Billy in supplication, but found no help there. "Sorry, Jase, but I'm with Tommy on this one. We stick together."

Jason sighed, but didn't pursue it. He couldn't help but feel they were right. Leaving someone behind would be a bad idea.

It was nearly noon before they reached the crest of the incline they had been climbing. Facing a smooth, downhill stretch they picked up the pace, moving as quickly as they could, wanting nothing so much as to find a stream and rest for a bit. After a seeming eternity, they finally found a tiny creek, not even a foot across. But the water was clean and cold, and none of them had ever tasted anything so good. They took another break there, then after checking the condition of the material holding Dirk and Boscoe's hands, they set off again, keeping the pace as fast as possible. They knew they were nearing the trailhead, and they were all anxious for this to be over. Even the two captives, who were now too exhausted to care about being turned over to the police. They just wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, where they could get something to eat, and sleep for a day or two.

Every time they went around a curve in the trail, or crested a hill, they expected to see the trailhead. Though they knew it was illogical to feel this way, it was almost as if the trail was teasing them. Raising their hopes, then dashing them again, until finally they quit hoping. They had all but decided there was no end to this trail at all, when they suddenly emerged into the parking area where they had started a seeming eternity before.

Billy gratefully helped Jason over to their vehicle, leaning him against the hood, while Tommy forced their two prisoners to sit down in front of him. The two ambulatory teens approached the car thankfully. As Tommy reached into his pants pocket a look of dismay crossed his face.

"What's wrong?" Billy asked, seeing the look on the other teen's face.

"My keys are gone. They were probably in my backpack," he replied.

"Any spares?"

"At home."

"Which window do you prefer we break?"

"Excuse me?" Tommy looked at the team genius with some confusion.

"Which window should we break? You get us into the car, and I can get it started," Billy replied with a determined look. He lowered his voice so only Tommy could hear. "If I can hot-wire a spaceship, your car should be easy."

Tommy had to chuckle at that. "I suppose so."

He found a rock the right size for him to use to break out a small vent window. That enabled him to reach in and release the lock. Within minutes of him opening the door, Billy had the engine running.

"Let's go home."

They loaded the two killers in the back seat, Dirk halfway sitting on Boscoe's lap, with Billy sitting beside them. Tommy and Billy had adjusted the two men's bonds so they could not attempt any sort of attack during the drive. Jason rode shotgun while Tommy drove. It was cramped, hot, and frankly fragrant in the small vehicle, but no one was complaining. At least they were not walking anymore.

It was late afternoon when Tommy pulled up in front of the Angel Grove Police Station. He climbed out and hailed a couple of officers who were just heading up the steps to the entrance.

At Tommy's shout they approached the car and looked inside.

"Hi, Jason," one of them said cheerfully, seeing the lieutenant's son in the front seat.

"Hey, Doug," Jason responded, twisting around in his seat to prepare to get out. Tommy had gone to the passenger side to help him.

"What's the story here?" the second officer asked, noticing that two of the backseat passengers appeared to be tied up.

"It's kind of a long story, but the bottom line is that we saw those two men kill another man up in Angel Grove Forest a couple of days ago. They tried to kill us as well. Came way too close for comfort."

The two officers took in the battered appearance of the three teens: Jason's blood stained shirt and inability to walk, Tommy's bruised forehead, Billy's black eye, all three's obvious exhaustion.

The two officers exchanged a look. "Let's get all of you inside and sort this all out. Well, except for you Jason. I think it might be best if you took a trip by your mom's work. Why don't I run you over to Angel Grove Memorial as soon as we get these guys inside?"

As they spoke they helped extract the two bound prisoners from the backseat. Tommy, Billy, and the other two men were all led into the station, while Jason was taken to the hospital to have his injuries treated.

* * *

Jason sat on the edge of the examination table a bit nervously. He had heard his mother paged a couple of minutes ago and anticipated her arrival any second. When she poked her head around the curtain and saw her son's battered appearance she gave a gasp and hurried forward to examine him more closely.

"What happened?" she demanded, looking at the nasty gash the bullet had left on his arm.

"Uh, I was kind of shot," he said hesitantly.

"Shot? By whom? Where? Where are the other boys?"

"By a couple of guys we saw kill someone in the forest. Billy and Tommy are at the police station," he replied.

"You saw a murder?" Marjorie Scott was getting more upset with each answer.

"Yeah. Mom, I'm okay, really. We all are. So, don't get upset, please," for a moment he sounded much younger than his eighteen years.

Marjorie took a closer look at her son's face, noting the bruised appearance of his eyes, which indicated how little sleep he had had recently, the paleness, the pinched, pained expression. She quickly switched into 'professional mode', as she thought of it. This was her son, but he was also a patient.

The doctor came in with a wheelchair. "Let's send you over to x-ray for that knee," he said cheerfully.

At his mother's questioning look Jason said, "I took a tumble down a hill, messed up my knee somehow."

Marjorie sighed and helped him into the wheelchair. "Once you are out of x-ray and your father gets here I expect to hear the whole story."

"Yes ma'am."

* * *

At the police station, after Tommy and Billy's ID's had been checked and verified, they were led to a windowless room they recognized from TV shows as an interrogation room. Two officers questioned the teens, taking notes as to the details of what they had seen and done. One of the officers was an avid outdoorsman who had hiked in that area extensively. With his help they were able to pinpoint where the body and weapons should be. They were just starting to take the teenagers' chronological statement when another officer came in and demanded the two officers join him outside. Seemed that a routine check of the two captives' ID's had turned up some very exciting results.

Soon the entire station was abuzz with the news that they had in their custody two VERY wanted men. Frantic phone calls to other police stations started a chain of events that would eventually link Dirk Peters and Boscoe Maxwell to nearly twenty unsolved murders. And would implicate the man who had hired them for the current hit.

A helicopter was called in to fly immediately to the location where the victim was shot, and to their surprise they actually found the body still in the same location, though somewhat damaged by wildlife. The guns were also found where Billy and Tommy had said they would be.

As the facts and evidence came pouring in, everyone took care that everything was processed meticulously. They did not want to run the risk of having the case ruined by slipshod police work.

* * *

When Jack Scott arrived at the hospital he had already spent a great deal of time on the phone with the police station, keeping abreast of developments there. That his son and his friends had been involved in anything that these two men had done sent a chill down his spine. He hurried toward the emergency room, anxious to assure himself that his son was okay.

He found Jason and Marjorie sitting in an examination room of the ER, a younger officer was just starting to take Jason's statement. Jack noted his son's freshly bandaged arm, his leg encased in a bulky brace, his evident physical exhaustion. He went to his son and hugged him fiercely.

"Are you okay?" he asked, looking directly into Jason's dark eyes.

"I'm okay, really. Or I will be with some sleep and food. And the damage to my knee was a strain, not a tear. So I will be as good as new in a couple of weeks. I guess those guys were really bad news, huh?"

"Oh, yeah, major bad news. Go ahead and give your statement, Son. I'll just listen in."

So Jason told the entire story, from when he and Tommy set out to find Billy, to their arrival at the police station. He left nothing out, knowing this was an official report. By the time he had finished both his parents looked slightly ill, realizing how close they had come to losing their only child. The officer asked some more questions to clarify a few points, then asked Jack if he could think of anything they had missed.

"No, I think it sounded quite complete. Thanks, Bob. Is he free to go now?"

"Sure. It's not like we won't know where to find him," Bob grinned. "Take care, Jason. You and your friends did good."

"Thanks," Jason replied wanly. He was more than ready to go home.

"I'm off duty now, so let me grab my purse and we can go," Marjorie said, seeing how Jason was looking. "Coming straight home, Jack?"

"I've got to go by the station for a while. Make sure Billy and Tommy got home okay, that every base was covered. I'll be home shortly."

"Dad, Billy and Tommy's families aren't at home. Tommy's folks are in St. Louis until Sunday, and Wallace is out of town with work until Tuesday, I think," Jason told him.

"Then maybe I'll collect a couple of wayward teenagers and bring them home with me instead," Jack said with a smile. He and Marjorie didn't need to even discuss this. They both knew it would not be a good idea to send either of the other boys home to be alone after such an ordeal.

* * *

Jack walked into the police station to find controlled chaos. Reporters filled the visitors' area, phones were ringing off the hook, the fax machine was printing out reports the length of Stephen King novels. Jack sought out the officer in charge.

"Hey, Phillip, how's it all coming together?" he asked.

"Great Jack. The evidence is rolling in. We have them in the holding cells, extra guards. Everything is being cataloged and tagged and placed in the evidence room by Jimbo, and you know what a stickler he is for detail."

"Have you sent the other two boys home yet?"

Phillip's expression went blank. "What other two boys?"

"The witnesses. William Cranston and Thomas Oliver. The ones who brought Peters and Maxwell in." Jacks voice betrayed his impatience.

"Damned if I know where they went. Let's see, I think Oscar was one of the officers doing the statements. Hey, Oscar, did those two kids go home?" he called over to a youthful looking officer seated at a nearby desk.

"What two kids?"

Jack was getting more than impatient. He raised his voice angrily, getting everyone's attention. "Where are the two teenagers who brought in the suspects? Are they still here somewhere or were they sent home?"

Suddenly a stricken expression appeared on Oscar's face. "Oh, shit, I think they are still in the interrogation room!" He hurried off to check, with Jack on his heels.

The room was soundproof, the door locked automatically making it impossible to open from the inside without a key. Oscar pulled the door open and there were Tommy and Billy, both sound asleep.

"Ah, hell, Jack, I'm sorry. Things got so crazy we just forgot about them.." Jack waved off the officer's apology angrily.

He stepped up to the table and gently shook Billy's shoulder. "Billy, come on Son, wake up. Time to go home." When Billy showed signs of coming around he repeated the procedure on Tommy. As the two boys began to become more aware of their surroundings Jack took a better look at them, feeling his anger rise further. Not only had the boys been left there without food or drink, they both probably should have been sent for medical attention the same as Jason had. He didn't like the look of the bruise on Tommy's forehead, and Billy's eye was swollen completely shut. Having heard Jason's recitation of the events of the last few days he was well aware they might have injuries that were not readily visible.

"Dammit, how could you guys just forget them like this. They are injured, for heaven's sake," he hissed at the discomfited officer.

"Are you ready to take our statements now?" The slurring quality of Billy's voice betrayed his half-awake state.

"Not now, Son. I don't think either of you could give a coherent statement. I'm going to take you home, let you have a chance to rest and recuperate. Then we will take statements," he said quietly. He turned to the other officer, handing him his car keys. "Bring my car around the back, quietly. I don't want these two to have to walk through that circus out there."

A few minutes later Oscar returned to help Jack get the two still half asleep teens to the car. Jack pulled out onto the street, grateful they had avoided the reporters.

"Come on you two, stay awake! I can't carry either one of you," he said loudly, rolling down the car windows so the cool evening air could revive them. By the time they reached the Scott house both were considerably more alert.

"I should probably just go home," Tommy started to say.

Jack cut him off. "I know your parents are not at home, Tommy. I am not sending you home alone. Not today. You neither, Billy, so don't even say it. You are both staying here tonight. So get on in the house and let Marjorie fuss over you for a while." He herded the two young men up the walk toward the house.

Marjorie was as appalled as her husband about what had occurred at the police station. She insisted on examining both of them, and was relieved to find their injuries were for the most part superficial. Their biggest problems were exhaustion and hunger. Knowing the press had already jumped on this story, and that the boys' parents had known where they were going to be in the forest, Marjorie insisted they both call their parents. Tommy spoke directly to his father, but Billy could only leave a message, as his dad was not in. She then sent them both off to take showers while she started dinner. Jason, who had already had a chance to clean up, was sitting at the kitchen counter eating an apple.

Marjorie had heard both showers shut off, but the neither Tommy nor Billy came into the kitchen. When she was ready to serve dinner she sent Jason after the other two. When he didn't come back, she and Jack went in search of them and found all three in Jason's bedroom.

Marjorie had already set up the rollaway they used for Billy when he stayed over, and that was where Tommy was sprawled. Billy was curled up on the far side of Jason's full size bed, while Jason was stretched out on the near side. All three were deeply asleep.

Jack and Marjorie looked at each other, shaking their heads with amusement. "I guess they needed sleep more than food," Jack said quietly.

"Looks like it. I can guarantee they will wake up very hungry, though," she smiled.

"Oh, no doubt," her husband grinned back.

It was an hour or so later that the phone rang. Marjorie answered it to hear a very worried Wallace Cranston ask to speak to Billy. He had seen the reports on TV, and had received Billy's message. He asked if they would awaken his son, the reports had upset him enough that he felt a deep need to assure himself his son was okay.

Marjorie went in and shook Billy awake. "Billy, your dad is on the phone. Come on, you need to speak to him. It will only take a minute....come on." Billy had made it to his feet, but was anything but steady. She gently led him to the den where the phone was.

He plopped down on the couch and muttered "Hello" into the receiver.

He listened to his dad for a moment then replied, "Really, I'm okay. Don't worry, Dad." He yawned hugely. His hold on the phone loosened a bit and he muttered, "Don't worry, Zordon, Alpha and I can handle it."

Jack, hearing this, stepped over and removed the phone from Billy's hand to hear Wallace asking what in the world was he talking about.

"Wallace, he's asleep again. I'm sorry, but he is simply exhausted. How about I have him call as soon as he is up in the morning? What number can we reach you at?" He jotted down the number and reassured Wallace again that Billy was really okay. After he hung up, he tried again to rouse the young man.

"Come on, Billy, wake up. You need to go back to bed," Jack had to grin at that incongruous statement. He helped the teen to his feet, then led him back to the bedroom. Billy curled back up on the bed as if he had never left. Jack had the feeling that, mentally, he never had left.

* * *

The next morning Marjorie waited until she heard the boys stirring around to begin making breakfast. The smell of bacon brought the three teens swarming into the kitchen.

"Good morning! How is everyone?" Marjorie asked as she gave each one a quick look over.

"Fine, Mom. A little stiff, but otherwise pretty good," Jason reported.

"Great. But very hungry. This sure smells good, Mrs. Scott," Tommy replied.

"Also fine," Billy chimed in last.

Marjorie set out large glasses of juice for each of them. "Breakfast is in about ten minutes. Could you please set the table? Oh, Billy, you need to call you dad right away. You scared him pretty good last night." She handed Billy the slip of paper with the phone number on it.

"I scared him? How? I just left him a message telling him I was okay," Billy said, looking confused.

"I mean when you spoke to him later. When he called back," Marjorie explained.

"I don't remember talking to him at all. When was that?"

"I told you he was asleep," Jack's voice came from the doorway where he stood watching the activity in the kitchen.

"So it would seem," his wife agreed.

"What did I say to worry him?" Billy asked.

"You told him you were okay, then you called him, um, 'Zordon', I think it was, and said you and 'Alpha' could handle it," Jack told him.

Jason choked on his juice, while Tommy was overcome with a sudden coughing fit. Billy very carefully did not look at his two friends.

"That's strange. I read a book a couple of months ago with characters with those names. It must have stuck in my mind for some reason. I'll go call him." Billy headed toward the den.

"Jason, are you okay?" Marjorie asked as her son caught his breath after choking.

"Fine, Mom. Just swallowed the wrong way."

* * *

Breakfast was a cheerful affair. The three boys ate enough to feed a small army, and the conversation was kept to light subjects. About the time Marjorie began to fear she would run out of food, they finally decided they were full.

As the three teens helped clear the table and load the dishwasher Jack announced regretfully, "Sorry, boys, but I do need to take Tommy and Billy back to the station to give their statements. By the way Billy, do you still have your dad's lighter and the shirt you were wearing? They will be needed for evidence, unless they took them last night."

"I still have them," Billy responded, and went to retrieve the requested items. When he handed Jack the lighter with the bullet still imbedded in it, Jack's swarthy complexion paled a bit.

"Damn," he whispered. He looked at the right front pocket of the shirt and found the small hole where the bullet had passed through. "We almost lost you, didn't we?"

"Yeah. It was too close for comfort," Billy replied. Jack could see the fear in the teen's eyes. Billy had no illusions regarding just how close he came, and how lucky he was. "I'm really not looking forward to explaining this one to my dad. He's going to freak."

"I think it will help that you will be here to do the explaining," Jack said comfortingly. Before he could say anything else the doorbell interrupted him. He put the shirt and lighter on the counter went to answer it.

The excited chatter of voices made it clear who was at the door a few moments before Rocky burst in, followed by Adam, Tanya, and Kat.

"Yep, I win Kat. It was them. Who else could go out to spend a relaxing few days in the woods and end up capturing professional hit-men?"

"Are you all okay?" Katherine asked, ignoring Rocky's comments.

Soon the kitchen was filled with the expressive voices of seven teenagers. Jack let them visit for a while before breaking in.

"Sorry kids, but I need to take Tommy and Billy with me. We'll be back as soon as possible. Jason, I want you to stay around here today, please." Jack grabbed the evidence he had placed on the counter and left with his two charges.

* * *

Once at the station, Jack became very business-like, turning both teens over the other officers to give their statements. They were taken to separate locations and had to tell their stories in as much detail as possible. Then a photographer was called in to take pictures the injuries Billy had that were attributable to the suspects. It was well over two hours later before they were told they could go. They checked with Jack, then headed toward Tommy's car, which was still parked out in front.

Tommy opened the door, then looked at Billy questioningly. "Now what are we supposed to do? Hot-wire this again here in front of the Angel Grove Police Station? That would be subtle."

"The keys are at your house, right? Do you feel like walking all that ways? Besides, even when you find your keys, I'll still have to fix the wiring before you can start it. So, it makes more sense to do it this way." Billy leaned in the car and quickly found the wires he had used before. He twisted them together, hearing the motor turn over, then straightened to find Tommy standing there with an officer neither young man recognized.

"Care to explain to me why your are hot wiring a car?" the officer asked, his tone frosty.

"He forgot his keys. It's his car," Billy explained, unable to help the blush that came over his face at getting caught.

"Can you prove that?" he asked, turning to Tommy.

Tommy reached for his wallet, then flushed. He didn't have it with him. Billy had retrieved the car's registration, but without Tommy's ID that didn't help much.

The two teens looked at each other, their embarrassment mounting, when they heard Jack's voice.

"Is there a problem here?"

"I caught this fellow hot wiring this car, which he claims belongs to his friend here, who doesn't have any ID on him," the officer reported. Tommy and Billy were carefully studying their feet during this recitation.

Jack cleared his throat, getting the boys' attention. "I don't believe you two. Billy, you know how I feel about you hot wiring cars. Tommy, where is your ID? Were you going to drive?" He sighed in exasperation. "This car does belong to Tommy here, and I will vouch for his identity." The other officer smiled at the two teens, then went on into the station. Jack turned to glare at his son's friends again. "Billy, you drive Tommy to his house to get his keys, then back to my house. I'd like for you both to stay with us until your folks get home. Try to see if you can do that without getting in trouble."

"Okay. Um, thanks," Billy replied, still blushing.

Jack couldn't hold back his laughter any longer. "You two are something else. For God's sake boys, don't ever turn to a life of crime. You just don't have any talent for it. Now get on out of here!"

Still chuckling a bit, he went back into the station as Tommy and Billy climbed in the car and headed toward the Olivers' house.

* * *

Five days later life was pretty much back to normal for the Zeo Rangers. Mondo and company had returned, though for all appearances they had not learned anything new. They hit Angel Grove with monster attacks daily, but nothing that truly taxed the Rangers' abilities. Which was fortunate as the Gold Ranger was still out of commission, at least until Jason's leg healed completely.

It was late in the afternoon, and the day's attack had ended a couple of hours ago. Rocky and Adam were at the Youth Center coaching Tanya, who was planning to compete in her first tournament in a couple of weeks, and Katherine was at home.

Tommy, Jason and Billy were sitting together at the base of a large tree in Angel Grove Park. Tommy's folks had arrived at the Scott's to collect their son only a few hours after Tommy and Billy had given their statements. Wallace arrived to pick up Billy the next morning. This was the first time the three of them had been alone together since the end of their fateful hike.

"So, Billy, how did your dad take the news about all that happened?" Jason asked.

Billy gave a groan. "Not good, he was pretty freaked out. I thought he would have a heart attack when he saw the bruise on my chest. He's been even worse about wanting to know where I am, who I'm with, all that. I guess I can't blame him all things considered, but still it's hard to have him hovering over me. How are your folks, Tommy?"

"They're cool. I wasn't really hurt very much. AND, my parents aren't still trying to recover from having their son kidnapped by aliens, like your folks are," Tommy pointed out.

"Wonder how they'd feel if they knew about that little 'incident' with Mondo?" Jason asked archly.

"Wonder how Billy's dad would feel?" Tommy shot back.

"Oh, God, don't even think it! If he knew about that I'd never be allowed to leave the house."

Tommy and Jason had to chuckle at that. "Ever wonder how they'd react if they knew what we are, what we do?" Jason asked.

"Yeah, sometimes. There are times I wish I could tell them. I don't like deceiving them the way I have to," Tommy replied.

"Yeah. And all the excuses for bruises, sprains, and the like. That is one thing I don't miss about having the powers. The lame excuses for all the injuries. I was probably luckier than the rest of you, at least I had a history of clumsiness," Billy said.

"No kidding. The day after I finished first in a karate tournament, doing these incredibly complex, graceful routines flawlessly, I walked into the house with a black eye. When my mom asked me what happened, all I could say was I walked into an open door. Talk about feeling stupid!" Jason commented, with a rueful little smile.

"She believed you?" Tommy asked.

"Yeah. After all, why would I lie?"

His friends chuckled at that then they sat in silence for a few minutes. Tommy finally broke it. "Katherine asked me today if we did any 'male bonding' while we were in the forest. You know, I really don't know what she meant by 'male bonding'. Do you guys?"

Jason and Billy exchanged puzzled looks. "Darned if I know. Billy?"

"That is out of my realm of expertise. By definition I believe she means did we develop a close, nurturing, tie or link to each other. I had always thought we had close ties before, so I am uncertain what she would be referring to."

"Well, I guess I feel a little closer to you both. I mean we faced life and death together. But we have done that several times before. Man, why do women have to make things so much more complicated than they need to be?" Tommy lamented.

"Tell you what, Tommy. When she asks if we did any 'male bonding' just say 'yes' and smile. That'll confuse her," Jason suggested with a grin.

The three of them burst into laughter, as the shadows grew longer in the peaceful park. An old man, slowly walking along the nearby path, heard that lively sound and smiled to himself.

"Oh, to be that young and carefree again!"

* * *

EPILOG: A few months later Dirk Peters and Boscoe Maxwell stood trial for the murder of Steven Fraiser, the attempted murders of Jason Scott, Thomas Oliver, and William Cranston, plus assorted other charges associated with their capture and subsequent events in Angel Grove Forest. In addition they were still under investigation for the murders of seventeen other people over the last twelve years. During the lengthy trial the jury heard the sworn testimony of the three witnesses, most of which was also reported each evening in the local papers. The case had basically boiled down to the teenagers' word against the suspects' word.

After a deliberation that lasted only two hours, the jury reached a decision. Dirk Peters and Boscoe Maxwell were found guilty of one count of premeditated murder in the first degree, two counts of attempted murder (they were not found guilty in the case of Thomas Oliver, due to insufficient evidence), plus other lesser charges. They were both sentenced to life imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

Nine months after they were convicted, Boscoe Maxwell was found dead in his cell, an apparent suicide. Dirk Peters would eventually stand trial for nine other counts of murder, and would be found guilty of six.

He would never see the light of day outside the prison walls again.

The End

Author's Notes: Somewhere I read another story that mentioned Jason having seen the movie "Deliverance". I do not recall the story, or author, so I cannot properly credit them for that idea.