Notes and Timeline: An alternate ending to "Blue Ranger Gone Bad".
"A mirror, right?" He knew immediately he'd made a mistake, but it was too late to change that. The aftereffects of the Fog of Morpheus were still clouding his mind, and he felt sluggish and slow. What was Kim doing with his hologram anyway? He'd just used it in his escape from the lunar palace.
"That's the fake," Kim said triumphantly.
"It's Morphin' Time!"
"Your masquerade is over," the clone said coldly, raising his blaster.
"You wouldn't dare...!" They wouldn't...they couldn't...do this!
"You picked the wrong Ranger to replicate!" The first shot so shocked Billy, he couldn't even respond. His suit, weakened because he wasn't holding his real morpher, couldn't withstand such an onslaught.
"They're going to kill me," he thought despairingly. As a particularly painful blast hit his shoulder, he felt the sensation of teleportation. "Thank God," he sighed wearily. Zordon must have scanned him and discovered the problem.
He forced himself to remain alert, so he could assist Zordon and Alpha in containing the clone. As the unusually rough teleportation ended, dumping him in a heap on a hard floor, he found himself surrounded, not by the bright cleanliness of the Command Center, but by the brooding darkness of the lunar palace. Zedd and Goldar loomed over the fallen Ranger, then the evil Lord grabbed the dazed teen by the shirt, yanking him roughly to his feet.
"You failed me! Do you know the penalty for failure? The plan was so simple, how could you have failed so miserably, you worthless lump of clay!" As he berated the Blue Ranger, he shook him violently, then literally threw him against the wall, following it up with a brutal blow from his staff.
Billy slumped over in agony, aware only that his life was about to end here in this bleak place. He knew he should try to fight back, try to escape, but his body refused to obey his commands. Lord Zedd raised his staff to deliver a final blast of energy and destroy this defective 'monster', when a thought crossed his mind that caused him to lower his staff and reconsider the situation.
"Your failure was of such magnitude, you don't deserve a quick death. I have a better idea. Our lovely palace is getting a bit dingy, and Siever is in need of an assistant. You shall earn your existence by cleaning our palace and assisting our cook in the kitchen. In return, I won't kill you. Even though you are nothing more than a powerless clone, it will be...amusing...to have you at our beck and call. Goldar, take this worthless piece of clay to the kitchens and introduce him to Siever." Zedd's laughter did nothing to reassure Billy.
**They think I'm the clone,** Billy thought with a sense of disbelief. **All I have to do is survive for a little while, until the other Rangers discover the problem. They'll come for me soon, all I have to do is survive. How hard can that be?**
"You idiot! You worthless idiot! That was supposed to be Rita's dinner! You useless fool, why was I saddled with you?" Siever was a humanoid with a faintly feline cast to his features, who stood nearly a foot taller than the Blue Ranger, and weighed easily three times as much.
Billy tried to elude the massive cook's grasp, but this time he wasn't quick enough. One huge hand closed around his upper arm while the other sought out something to hit him with. Grasping a large metal spoon, the enraged Siever threw the teen face down over the cutting table in the middle of the vast kitchen and began to beat him mercilessly. Billy tried not to cry out, but it was a hopeless battle. The spoon struck him with tremendous force on his back and buttocks, leaving deep bruises on top of older bruises and welts, causing an agony that could not be borne silently. His cries of pain filled the kitchen, almost drowning out Siever's litany of abuse.
Finally satisfied he'd punished Billy enough, the cook grasped the teen by the back of the neck and threw him toward the food he'd spilled on the floor.
"Clean that mess up quickly unless you want another dose," he growled, brandishing the spoon menacingly.
Sobbing and shaking, Billy fought to do as ordered, but was hampered by his body's lack of responsiveness. What should have been a simple task was turned into a Herculean effort by the beating and the teenager's general poor physical condition.
He calculated he'd been in Zedd and Rita's possession for just shy of two months. During that time Siever, Goldar, and Scorpina had beaten him repeatedly, and even Squatt and Baboo were not above giving the smaller human a quick blow in passing. The worst beatings tended to be after the Power Rangers handed them a particularly sound defeat. The first time, Billy had been working in the kitchen when Goldar stormed in. The huge winged warrior went directly to the startled teenager and started hitting him, adding vicious kicks to the beating when Billy collapsed. By the time Goldar was done, the dazed teen was huddled in a corner of the kitchen, unable to move. That was the first time he was injured badly enough to require treatment.
When his condition got too poor, or after a particularly bad beating, he'd be sent to Finster for 'repairs'. There a different kind of torture awaited him. The master inventor was delighted to have a chance to study a human up close, and took every opportunity to experiment on the young man; taking samples, probing, examining. He was studying all the data he could on humans, and was proud of his treatments, which would bring the teenager back to the point where at least he could walk unassisted and return to his 'duties'. Of all those in the castle, there were times Billy hated Finster most of all. At least the others didn't prattle on about how what they were doing was for 'his own good'.
He was rarely allowed anything to eat, and his clothes, tattered and bloodstained, hung on him like rags. He was utterly filthy, and could not remember what it was like to be warm. Thirst was almost as bad; water was a fairly precious commodity on the moon, and was rationed accordingly. He'd risked, and received, more than one beating for sneaking drinks of water. The concept of being without pain was rapidly becoming foreign to him.
The teleportation room was kept locked and guarded; only Zedd, Rita, and Goldar had keys. The only other forms of teleportation device were the staffs Rita and Zedd carried, and those were never left just lying around. In the beginning, Billy had snuck around the palace, trying to discover a way home, but after being caught and punished severely, he'd quit that practice. It was too much risk for too little result. Still, he passed the little quiet time he had in thinking up possible escape scenarios, and whenever he was sent on errands he kept an eye out for potential weaknesses in security.
Only one thing kept the battered teen from giving up: his faith that his friends would come and rescue him. He clung to that forlorn hope like a child clings to a treasured teddy bear, refusing to give it up even in the face of relentless reality. There had to be a reason they hadn't come yet, some catastrophic situation that prevented them from launching a rescue. Though he knew, from Goldar and Scorpina's rants, that the clone was acting as the Blue Ranger, Billy could not believe it was fooling his teammates. That simply could not be. They were going along with the deception, biding their time until they could take it into custody and bring Billy home. That was the only thing that made any sense.
He just wished they'd hurry up.
"Zeddy, my research finally turned up some positive results! I have the perfect spell to create my own evil Ranger. I'm going to cast it on a human girl, who will befriend the Rangers and gain their trust. Then she will take a Ranger's powers for her own, and we'll have our own Evil Ranger! I'm thinking the Pink Powers would be perfect. And if something were to happen to his precious Kimberly, Tommy will fall apart, and the Rangers will be that much weaker. This plan is foolproof! And I've even found the perfect subject. A new girl in town, the same age as those Power Punks, she'll be the perfect weapon!" Rita's voice, even when she was happy, was unpleasant.
If his eyes could be seen, it is certain Zedd was rolling them in exasperation. "Rita, my putrid bride, how many times do you have to fail before you learn that attempts to create an evil Ranger never succeed? There is too much damnable goodness in these humans."
"Oh, you're just jealous because your last 'evil Ranger' ended up being a better scullery maid. Not that he's very good at that either! Ha-ha! Watch and learn, Zeddy." With that she used the power of her staff to teleport the object of their discussion to the lunar palace.
Katherine Hillard looked at Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd in terror.
"Take her to Finster, he has the potion she needs to make the spell even stronger. I'll be along in a few minutes to cast it, and soon those Power Twerps will be destroyed -- not by a beast, but by beauty," her grating, cackling laugh filled the throne room.
"We shall see," Zedd muttered darkly. "I'll believe it when it happens."
The corridors in the lunar palace were narrow, dark, and cold, a veritable maze of featureless passages. Billy had now been a servant in the palace for almost four months and still occasionally got lost trying to find certain rooms. He had been sent to retrieve some spices that Siever kept stored near Finster's laboratory, and after five wrong turns and backtracks had finally located the storage room. The return trip was going a bit faster, Billy being anxious to get back quickly, knowing full well if he took too long Siever would take it out on his hide.
Rushing blindly around a corner, he almost collided with someone leaving Finster's lab. He stopped just short of collision, and stared wide-eyed at what he suspected was an angel: a tall, graceful, blonde-haired girl, more beautiful than he could fathom. After so much time surrounded by ugliness and brutality, Katherine was a shock to Billy's senses, and he was incapable of making a sound. His eyes locked with hers for a brief instant, then Finster appeared and saw the ragged teen.
"Get out of here, go on! You shouldn't be here. Shoo! Shoo! Oh dear, you must forget you saw him," Finster said to the empty-eyed girl standing there, vacuously watching Billy scuttle away. "You didn't see him, he doesn't exist."
"He doesn't exist," the softly-accented voice agreed tonelessly.
Billy hurried as quickly as he could back to the kitchen, the spice container gripped tightly in his trembling hands. He'd learned over his time in the palace that if he could elude Siever's grasp, he could avoid some beatings. The cook was cruel and vicious, but essentially stupid and forgetful. He'd forget he intended to beat the human teenager if Billy could keep out of his sight for an hour or so. Still, it was easier if he could avoid giving Siever any reason to get angry at all.
Four months of deprivation had left Billy a physical and emotional wreck. He limped thanks to the damage one of Goldar's beatings had done to his right knee, his contacts had been destroyed long ago, leaving him barely able to see. His hair was falling out due to malnutrition, his lungs were congested thanks to the dank atmosphere, and he trembled constantly. He suspected he would have long since died if not for the remnants of the Power still in his body, which seemed to facilitate his healing, at least to a degree. Because of other factors of his existence there, he never really recovered completely from any of his injuries, but he'd recover to the point he could work again. It was a cruel irony that he could almost appreciate.
Three weeks before, Scorpina had nearly killed him. She carried a short energy whip, which she delighted in using on him. It was agonizing, and left hideous thick welts, which often split open repeatedly. That bleak day, she had battled the Rangers, and they had not only defeated, but humiliated her. She saw the teenager who bore the face of one of her tormentors, and she'd gone over the edge, beating him until he'd been little more than a bleeding lump of flesh. Finster hadn't even tried to do any experimenting; it had taken all his efforts to keep the teen from dying. Though Rita and Zedd barely even remembered that Billy was there, the other denizens of the lunar palace enjoyed tormenting him too much to want him dead.
So he survived. Day-by-day, hour-by-hour, no longer plotting any escape attempt, no longer surreptitiously looking for a way out. Simply surviving. It took all his energy to do that much.
He still clung desperately to the hope that his friends would rescue him. That one day he'd look up, and there would be Tommy, standing tall, brandishing Saba, driving back Goldar and Scorpina, reaching out to grab his arm and teleport him back to a world of light and warmth. The fantasy was growing threadbare from overuse, and every day that it didn't come true his faith grew a little weaker, but still it survived.
Just as Billy did.
Katherine Hillard sat up in her bed with a gasp, pulling the covers up over her chest in a protective gesture. She'd dreamt of the lunar palace, and Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd again. She was still struggling with the vast changes that had occurred in her life over the last couple of weeks. The move to Angel Grove from Australia, starting classes in an American high school, being captured by Rita and Zedd and put under an evil spell. Meeting Tommy and Kim and the others, and Kim's frightening accident. And her own role in it. Then the forgiveness of the others, along with being entrusted with the Pink Powers. It was almost too much to assimilate, too much change to cope with.
Now the dreams, disturbing her sleep on a nightly basis. Tommy had warned her it might happen, that her mind would start dredging up the memories of being in the lunar palace. He still occasionally had dreams from his time as the evil Green Ranger. But it wasn't Rita or Zedd, or even Finster, that she saw in her dreams. It was a human face, thin, pale, and bruised. Blue eyes that were far more shadowed than any eyes should ever be. The fear that was painfully evident when Finster appeared, and the limping, scuttling retreat when the rat-like scientist spoke sharply to him.
And tonight, for the first time, Kat realized who that ghostlike figure in the corridor looked like.
Kat stared into her darkened room and considered her dream carefully. Based on her discussions with Zordon and Tommy, the dreams were likely memories resurfacing from her subconscious. That made sense to Kat, as she could not easily recall much of the time she was under Rita's spell. What little she could recall had a surrealistic quality to it, a muted feel like a remembered dream rather than experience.
She also considered another fact. She didn't much like Billy. She didn't dislike him, exactly, she just didn't like him. He struck her as a bit cold, distant, and aloof. Not at all like the others on the team, with whom she'd forged almost instant friendships.
She discovered there was nothing like the deepest ditch of night for opening her mind to odd possibilities. So now she contemplated what if. What if the person in her dream really existed? What if he was somehow related to Billy, though the similarities were such that, if she factored out the obvious physical difficulties the one in her dreams was having, they would be almost identical. Nearly perfect carbon copies. Clones, even.
Her heart contracted almost painfully. Clones. Oh, dear God. She remembered Kimberly telling her how they'd fought a clone of Billy a few months before Kat moved to Angel Grove. She didn't recall any particular details of Kim's story, just that they'd defeated the clone and gotten Billy back. Was what she saw in the lunar palace the clone?
Or, God forbid, was it Billy?
She stared into the night, considering this possibility, all thoughts of sleep forgotten.
"I'm telling you, Trini, they've stocked up on every darn thing I've ever claimed to like to eat in my life. Pop Tarts! I haven't eaten Pop Tarts since I was a kid. What can I get you?" Jason asked his companion, searching the shelves of his mother's very well-stocked pantry.
"Actually, a Pop Tart doesn't sound all that bad. It's been years. Remember how we'd go through whole packages of them while watching movies when we were kids?" Trini asked with a smile.
"Oh, yeah. Zack would take several different flavors and make a 'Pop Tart Sandwich', and he and Billy'd have contests to make the most disgusting combination," Jason chuckled in remembrance as he put a couple of the indestructible pastries in the toaster. "Do you want milk or soda with your pastry, ma'am?" he asked, affecting a terrible French accent.
"That's horrible Jason. And milk, please," Trini giggled.
"One glass of milk coming up," he said grandly as he poured her milk and grabbed a soda for himself. He was about to say something else when the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it, you finish your 'cooking'," Trini smiled as she headed for the Scotts' front door.
She halfway expected to see Billy or Tommy with an invitation to join the gang in some activity or another. Since she, Jason, and Zack had come back from Switzerland they'd been inundated with invitations. So Trini was surprised to open the door and find Kat standing restlessly on the front porch.
"Trini. I wasn't expecting to see you," the blonde blurted out.
Trini smiled at the newest Ranger. "I can leave if necessary," she offered quietly, sensing the other girl was troubled. Though why she'd seek out Jason, whom she barely knew, Trini couldn't guess.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way. Is ... is anyone else here?"
"Jason is. My guess would be that is who you were expecting? Come on in," the Asian girl stepped aside to let Kat in.
"Hey Trini, who was at the door? Oh, hi Kat," Jason said as he turned and spotted the Australian.
Katherine smiled her greeting and stood uncomfortably in the doorway to the kitchen, watching the two older teens.
"Can I offer you a Pop Tart?" Jason asked with a disarming grin.
Kat couldn't help but respond with a smile of her own. "Pop Tarts? No thank you," she murmured.
"What brings you to my doorstep, Kat?" Jason asked, deciding the direct approach would be best. He sensed Kat was nervous, and got the impression she'd respond better to a blunt prompting to talk.
"I need to talk to you. Both of you, actually. Can we sit down somewhere private?"
"My folks are gone for the day. Let's go to the den, it's the most comfortable room in the house."
Settled down on the comfortable old furniture in the spacious den, Kat looked down at her hands for a few moments, gathering her thoughts. Finally she looked up at the two original Rangers with a solemn expression.
"Did Tommy or Kim tell you how I came to be a Power Ranger?" she asked.
"We know Rita put you under a spell, yes. That you turned into a cat at times. And that you went after Kimberly pretty hard," Jason replied steadily.
"Yes. The spell she used ... it was strong. Almost too strong. I couldn't remember anything that had happened in the lunar palace after I was free of the spell. Couldn't remember what they did to me, what they said to me, nothing. But now, I'm starting to dream of being there. And according to Tommy and Zordon, they think it may be memories coming back. Does this make any sense to you?" the blonde asked, looking anxiously at the other two.
"Yeah, it does, Kat. Tommy went through something very similar. He'd have these horrible dreams, where Rita put him under the spell time and time again. I remember one time he was staying over here, and he had one of those dreams. I woke up to find him tossing and turning on the other bed. When I touched his shoulder to wake him up, he screamed." Jason's expression was one of pained memory. "The look on his face, in his eyes ... well, it was bad. I'm sorry you're having to go through this, Kat."
The Pink Ranger sighed deeply. "Before I say anything more, I need to ask you a question. I promise, there's an explanation. Does Billy seem okay to you?" She looked at the two of them with a frankly curious expression.
Jason considered the question seriously. "He seems, I don't know, older somehow. Quieter. More serious than I remember him being. Not as open. I just figured it was because we'd been gone so long, and so much has happened. Being a Power Ranger can do that to you. Kimberly seemed to have changed, too, when we stopped over in Florida. But, maybe not as much as Billy. What do you think, Trini?"
"Kim seems more mature. Billy seems ... colder. Like he's learned some bad things, and accepted them. Internalized them, even. But, like Jason, I just figured it was because of being gone, and that maybe he resented that everyone had left. He's the last of our first team, you know," Trini said with a pensive look.
"I thought of that. You see, the problem is, I don't like him much. I'm sorry, I know he's your friend, but I just can't seem to warm to him. I thought maybe he was still mad about what happened with Kim, but it's been long enough now; I honestly don't think that's it. Then the dreams started." Kat's voice trailed off and she looked toward the window with a distant expression.
"What is it about the dreams, Kat?" Jason prompted her gently.
She continued to look absently out the window as she spoke. "I'm coming out of Finster's lab. That's the rat-like guy who builds her monsters. He's not mean, exactly, but he's not real nice, either. Anyway, I'm leaving his lab, he's going to take me to the throne room, when I hear this sound behind me. I turn around and there's a guy standing there. He's about the same height I am, brown hair that's pretty shaggy looking, and light eyes. He's filthy, he smells awful, but despite the dirt I can see he's got a lot of bruises, and he limps pretty badly, too. Really, he's a wreck. Finster comes out and shoos him away like a stray dog. The poor guy just sort of ... lurches ... away, half running. And Finster tells me he doesn't exist. But, see, the thing is, if you take away the dirt, and the long hair, and the bruises, and maybe feed him some, this guy, he looks like Billy. A lot like Billy." The words were tumbling out faster now, as if she was afraid the other two would cut her off before she could finish. "What's really got me worried is, last night I remembered Kimberly telling me that Billy had been cloned, months ago. And I started to wonder if this guy I saw was the clone." She didn't dare mention the other idea, not without knowing what they thought so far.
Jason easily followed her line of reasoning to the other obvious conclusion. "Or he's really Billy, and the clone is acting as the Blue Ranger. But he would have been found out by now, Kat. Kim told us about the clone. He was pretty obvious from what she said. No way could he fool everyone on the team, to say nothing of Billy's dad, for months. Just no way." His voice sounded sure enough, but there was doubt in the depths of his dark eyes.
"Maybe he learned. Learned how to fit in better. Not to get caught. I don't know. But this dream, it's awful. If that guy is really up there, he's hurting really bad. Or at least he was two weeks or so ago."
Trini finally spoke up. "Even if he's the clone, he doesn't deserve to be tortured. Kim told me she felt pretty bad after the whole thing was over. They'd shot him, and even though they knew it wasn't Billy, it looked like Billy. And she said he cried out in pain before he disappeared. That bothered her a lot." Trini looked intently at Jason. "We need to find out for sure, Jason. From what Kimberly told us, the clone didn't really harm anyone, he didn't have a chance. But if he's up there, the others are probably taking out their frustrations about the Rangers on him. And that's not fair."
"So, do we call the team in and launch a rescue? Zordon can probably..." Kat's voice trailed off as Jason raised his hand.
"No, we can't tell anyone else yet." The burly teen stood up, pacing quickly, thinking. "We can teleport in. I still have my communicator, and you have yours, right? Kat and I teleport in to that location Billy found long ago, the one that isn't shielded. And we do a quick search. Do you think you can remember the layout of the palace?"
Kat shook her head in dismay. "I really didn't go anywhere except the lab and the throne room. And the place looked huge."
"We can't spend a lot of time searching. Damn. And I don't want to get Zordon in on this quite yet."
"Why?" Katherine asked.
"I know I argued that if the clone was the one on the team they would've figured it out. But just in case, I don't want to involve Billy. And seeing as how Billy is almost always in the Command Center, it's best to avoid using Zordon's help until we know for sure."
Trini spoke up suddenly. "I may have something that will work. Billy once lent me a thermal sensor, one he'd made in the Command Center. It can be used through walls, and over a large area. I still have it in my room at home, I noticed it when I was unpacking. I used it to find my cousin's lost cat right before we left, and I didn't get around to giving it back. We could use it to pinpoint a human up in the palace."
"We'll need your communicator, too. I'm going to go with the idea we are bringing someone back. Where do we take him? My parents will be home later, and they know Billy very well. This wouldn't be a good place to bring him, unfortunately. How about your place, Kat?"
"My bedroom is like a small apartment in the basement. It would work perfectly. We can bring him there. When are we going to do this?" Her expression was both eager and anxious.
"The sooner the better. Rita and Zedd just attacked yesterday, so the odds favor no attack today. We should leave from Kat's room, that'll make it easier to get back. Let's go by Trini's, get the sensor and extra communicator, then to Kat's," Jason fell back into the role of leader with natural ease.
The two girls traded looks of mingled worry and amusement, then hurried out with Jason to get ready to launch a rescue.
"Okay Trini, if we aren't back in two hours, you have to let Tommy know what's going on. Try to convince him to keep Billy out of it, if you can."
"Will do, Jason. I've set the sensor for a 96 to 103 degree range, that way if he's a bit chilled, or running a fever, he will show up as within the optimum range. That range will display as green, but remember Rita and Scorpina may very well also fall within that range. As for the others, there's no way to tell for sure, so be very careful. Those with temperatures below will show up as blue, above will show as red, the darker those colors are, the further away from the target temperature they are." Trini fiddled nervously with the device.
Jason gently removed it from her grasp and looked at his pink-clad companion. "You ready, Kat?"
"Yes," she replied in a soft tone that nonetheless revealed her nervousness.
Jason took a deep breath. "Let's do it."
Without any more discussion they teleported out in streaks of pink and pure white.
Katherine shuddered involuntarily as she found herself in the place of her recent nightmares, unconsciously moving closer to the comforting bulk of her companion.
"I'm picking up faint readings this way. You ready to mark our path?" Jason asked, nodding in approval when Kat held up a piece of chalk. Marking their return route seemed a sensible idea.
Moving with all possible stealth, not speaking, they worked their way deeper into the palace. They had located Finster, who showed up as red, and Squatt and Baboo, blue and green respectively. They had heard Rita's distinctive screech in the distance, and holding up the device in that direction had resulted in a pale red indicator. Jason touched Kat's arm to get her attention, then indicated a direction that showed a faint green presence.
They were getting close when they heard Goldar's angry growling, his bad-tempered outburst loud in the quiet corridors.
"Why are we keeping you here, you useless clump of mud! What were you doing here? You know you're not allowed. Guess you need another lesson." There was the faint sound of blows landing, and the hoarse sound of someone crying out in pain.
The two teens crept closer until they could see Goldar swinging a rope or strap of some sort at something in an offshoot corridor. They stayed hidden around the corner until Goldar stopped his beating and stalked off, grumbling threats all the way.
Checking to be sure no one else was around, they hurried to where Goldar had been and stared in dismay at what they found.
Huddled against the base of the wall was a small figure, trembling and weeping softly. There were traces of blood visible through the ragged rips in the filthy shirt covering the upper body.
Jason knelt down and reached out a gentle hand. "It's okay, he's gone now. Let me help you," he said in a soothing voice.
The hunched figure stilled, then uncurled enough for the person to look up at Jason. Tear-filled blue eyes sought out the former Ranger's face, and a wildly trembling hand reached up to him.
"J...Jason? Is...is that you?" the damaged voice was hard to hear. "Are you...are you real?"
"Billy? It's okay, bro, we're here," he caught the questing hand in his warm grasp, trying to quiet his friend's distress.
"You're really here. But...but where's Tommy? Did the clone do something to him? Why are you here? Did he destroy the whole team? Is that why they never came?" Billy was getting more upset.
"They're okay, Billy. They're fine. Everything's going to be fine, bro. But we've got to get you out of here. Can you walk?" By force of will Jason kept his voice calm and soothing. He didn't want to do anything that would upset Billy.
"Yes," the tone was steadier than his stance, but the battered teen got to his feet and looked more closely at Jason.
"You're really real? Not a dream? I've dreamed this so often..." the soft voice was losing hope.
The former Red Ranger tightened his grip on his frail friend. "Don't I feel real?" he asked, forcing a jovial tone.
Billy nodded solemnly, then looked around, spying Katherine. "The angel? Why is she here, Jason? Finster and Rita did something to her...she isn't safe." Billy rapidly grew agitated, struggling against Jason's hold. "If you're with her, then that means they got you too..." he cried out, trying to break Jason's grip.
"Billy! Billy, it's okay. Settle down...easy, it's okay. She's not evil anymore; they helped her, like we helped Tommy. Remember? Rita's evil Rangers never last, you know that. She's here to help us, you've got to believe that. Come on, bro. We have to get out of here before someone comes looking for you." By a combination of cajoling and brute force, Jason got Billy to his feet and moving.
Reassured by Jason's words and tone, and quite frankly too weak to maintain his struggle, Billy stopped fighting and allowed the two to lead him through the corridors, until they reached the unshielded corner of the palace. Jason slipped a communicator on Billy's wrist and the three teleported away, materializing in the middle of Kat's bedroom, startling Trini who sat reading in a corner.
She stood up and hurried toward the returning teens, her gaze focused on the small, ragged figure Jason was supporting.
"Billy?" she asked disbelievingly.
"Trini? You're here too? Are we in Switzerland?"
"No, but at least you'll be safe here," Trini replied reassuringly as her gaze sought out Jason's. She saw the pain and anger in the other teen's eyes, and knew it mirrored her own feelings. She walked up calmly and ignoring the Blue Ranger's filthy state hugged him warmly. "Let's get you comfortable, okay?"
Billy had lowered his gaze, and Jason noticed he'd closed his eyes. "Your eyes bothering you? I guess they would after being in the palace for so long. Kat, can you adjust the lighting in here?"
Katherine, who'd been watching the others quietly, nodded and turned the lights to a lower setting. Billy's relief was obvious.
"Thank you," he croaked out.
"Come on, why don't you lie down for a while?" Trini said, attempting to lead him toward the pink-covered bed in the corner. She found she was meeting with some resistance, however.
"Please. Can I take a shower? Please? I feel so filthy, I've been dreaming of taking a shower for so long. Please?" His expression was pleading, and the other teens had to admit, at least to themselves, that Billy reeked. A shower was definitely a good idea.
"Bro, I understand, but...well...you aren't really very steady on your feet. A shower could be dangerous unless...unless someone helps you," Jason, himself quite unselfconscious about his body, knew Billy was normally extremely shy. But it was obviously hard for Billy to just stand as he was now, without factoring in water and slippery surfaces. There was no way he could take a shower alone.
"Would you be willing to help me?"
"Of course. Of course I would," Jason replied uncertainly. "I wasn't sure if you..."
"Jason, I wouldn't object to Kimberly helping me if it got me in the shower."
Despite the circumstances, Trini and Jason both had to laugh at that. They knew very well that, despite his best efforts to hide it, Billy had nursed an incredible crush on the first Pink Ranger. And had almost since he'd known her.
"Well, if you feel that strongly about it, come on, then. Kat, could we borrow some clothes, perhaps from your dad?" The rags Billy was still wearing were suitable for nothing more than the incinerator.
"Of course; I'll be right back."
By the time Kat returned with the clothing, Billy and Jason were in the bathroom with the shower warming up. Jason was laying out all the first aid supplies he could find while Billy sat on the closed lid of the toilet. A thin towel had been draped over the light fixtures above the mirror to dim the lighting in deference to Billy's sensitive eyes.
"Thanks, Kat. Could you and Trini make some soup or broth or something like that? Something easy for him to swallow?" Jason requested, suspecting it had been a long while since Billy had eaten anything.
After Kat left, Jason quickly stripped, then helped Billy shed the remnants of his clothing. His grip on his emotions almost deserted him as he got his first look at the damage that had been done to his childhood friend. Forcing a calm, neutral tone, he urged Billy into the shower, stepping in behind him. The Hillards' shower was fortunately quite large, giving Jason at least a bit of room to work with. As soon as the warm water hit him, Billy's eyes closed and an oddly euphoric expression drifted across his gaunt features.
"You really have been looking forward to this, haven't you?" Jason asked, letting a touch of fond humor color his voice.
"You have no idea. I feel like I could stay in here forever."
"Wait till the water turns cold, you'll change your mind fast enough," the burly teen chuckled, reaching for the soap.
Billy started out trying to clean himself, but his weakness, combined with the relaxing warmth of the shower, soon rendered him unable to continue. Without comment Jason took up the task, working around fresh wounds as carefully as possible. Despite his care, several reopened and began to bleed sluggishly.
"I think we better stop, Billy. This has to be hurting you pretty badly," Jason said worriedly as yet another wound opened.
"No, please. Not yet. I'm not really clean yet. Yeah, it hurts, but...it's a good hurt, you know? A hurt that helps. Please, I want to be clean." There was such a pleading note in his friend's voice that Jason couldn't refuse.
"Okay, bro. We'll get you clean. Guess I can't blame you for wanting that."
They did actually start running out of hot water by the time Billy was well and truly clean. Jason quickly dried them both off, then sitting Billy back down slathered antibiotic ointment on the open wounds. By the time he'd bandaged them, gotten Billy into the sweatpants and flannel shirt, and redressed himself, Billy was practically nodding off. Jason helped him back to Kat's room and sat him down on her overstuffed sofa. Trini handed him a mug of soup before he could fall asleep completely.
"Thanks, Trini. Oh, wow..." he sniffed at the soup like it was the finest thing he'd ever smelled, a look of delight crossing his face. "It smells wonderful." He began to sip it slowly, savoring the flavor and heat. He didn't see the looks of pity the other three exchanged.
Billy finished the soup, and without thinking simply stretched out on the couch, wallowing in the incredible luxury of being clean, warm, fed, and safe. He was asleep before his head hit the armrest.
Working together, Jason and Trini gently shifted him to a more comfortable position, with a pillow and blanket. Billy mumbled and stirred, but didn't awaken. The former Yellow Ranger laid a cool hand on his forehead, a fiercely protective look coming into her eyes.
"Excuse me, please," Jason muttered, walking toward the bedroom door without waiting to see if he had a response. The two girls exchanged a worried look.
"I'll go see what's up. Keep an eye on Billy?" Trini requested.
"Of course," Kat replied as Trini strode out after Jason.
She didn't have to go far to find him. He was standing in the kitchen with his back to the door, gripping the counter with a white-knuckled strength while he sucked in deep breaths of air. His broad shoulders shook.
"Jason? Jason, talk to me. Please," Trini requested. She couldn't tell if he was crying or still struggling to control himself, but she knew if he felt half as horrified as she did, he was hurting. "We need to decide what to do next."
"If I had my choice, next I'd beat some sense into Tommy Oliver! Dammit! How could a member of his team be replaced for four months and he not notice it? How could this have happened? My God, Trini, Billy's not the walking wounded, he's a walking wound. I can't even begin to imagine how he survived. You could count his ribs from across the room, provided the bruises, welts, and scars didn't camouflage them." Jason had released the counter and began to pace like a caged animal; enraged and dangerous. "Four months! You know one of the first things he said to me? He asked if Tommy and the others were okay. He was convinced that they hadn't come to rescue him because the clone had prevented them from doing so. How's it going to affect him when he finds out they just didn't notice?"
"Jason, please, you need to calm down. This isn't going to help right now. We need to figure out what to do to contain the clone. Billy has to get to the Command Center as soon as possible. He needs more than a shower, soup, and sleep. Who knows how much damage was done, but Zordon has the equipment to help him heal far more quickly. And, you need to consider this: Tommy is not the only one who didn't notice. We didn't say anything when we got back here. Kim didn't notice a difference, and she's known Billy far longer than Tommy has. The others didn't notice. Jason, apparently even Billy's dad didn't notice. You can't lay all the blame on Tommy."
"Yes, I can. He's the leader, it was his responsibility. Mr. Cranston wouldn't think anything of Billy's changes, he'd just think Billy was going through a 'phase'. Tommy should have had Zordon and Alpha extensively test Billy to be sure they had the right one back."
"Easy to realize after the fact, Jase. We don't really know what went down that day. Maybe we should get one of the others here. Someone who was there the day this happened. Let's start looking for answers before we start assigning blame. Okay?"
It was several long moments before Jason responded with a deep sigh. "You're right, of course. Let's see if Kat knows where the others are, and maybe we can get the whole story."
Katherine did know what the other Rangers were doing that day, and after a short discussion they decided Adam would be the best one to have come over. Aisha was in Stone Canyon with her parents, Rocky and Tommy were teaching a karate seminar, and the clone was .... somewhere.
They were in the kitchen talking quietly when the Black Ranger arrived. He looked around at their grim expressions and felt faint flutters of worry in his stomach. He didn't know the former Rangers very well, nor Katherine for that matter, so he was intensely curious as to what they might want with him.
"You asked me to come over, Kat?" he asked calmly.
"We all did," Jason corrected firmly, his expression tight. Even though Adam didn't know Jason well, he could tell the former Ranger was holding some emotion tightly in control.
"What can I do for you?"
"You can tell us a story. Tell us about when Billy was cloned. When exactly did that happen? And how did you figure out who the clone was? Everything," Trini requested.
Giving the other three a questioning look, he nonetheless did as requested, starting with the art class and ending in Angel Grove Park. Adam told the story dispassionately enough, but his feelings were in turmoil. Of his various adventures as a Power Ranger, dealing with Billy's clone had been one of the worst, as far as Adam was concerned. When they stood there blasting away at the bogus Blue Ranger, Adam's hands shook so badly he could barely aim his weapon. Then he'd dreamed of the incident for weeks afterward. In his dreams the Blue Ranger they blasted would collapse and demorph, then 'Billy' would start to laugh and tell them they'd killed the wrong one before teleporting back to Zedd and Rita. He'd be in a state of anxiety for hours, until he saw Billy again, reassuring him that the whole incident had turned out okay. Until the next dream.
"After we blasted him, he disappeared, like Goldar often does. We never saw him again, though sometimes I wonder what happened to him. I do remember we didn't destroy him completely."
"No, you sure didn't. Thank God. Come with us, Adam," Jason requested firmly. It didn't help his anger any, realizing what had happened that day, how badly things had gone wrong.
Curious, Adam followed the other three down to Kat's bedroom. Jason stood aside and indicated a figure sleeping on the couch. Creeping closer, Adam felt the blood drain from his face as his heart clenched painfully. He turned a stricken expression to his teammate and the two former Rangers.
"Where did you find him?"
"Where do you think we found him?"
Adam flinched, but didn't back down from the barely suppressed fury in the former Ranger's voice.
"This is the real Billy?" he asked numbly.
"We think so. From what he's said, it would seem likely. Which means the clone is still running around wielding the Blue Powers," Trini commented.
"But, he's been helping us against Rita and Zedd. Just like always. No way has he been working for them, just no way. I don't understand," Adam couldn't seem to drag his gaze away from the pale face on the pillow.
"I'm not sure we do, either. But we will get to the bottom of this. No one does this to Billy and gets away with it!" Jason declared angrily.
"Oh, excellent! You do do the wronged friend so well. Considering you didn't figure out I wasn't the 'real Billy' either. Step away, folks, over to the corner, now!" The clone stood at the door, weapon in hand.
Jason and Trini both moved as if to place themselves between the clone and the couch, but the clone coldly thrust the blaster forward, making an obvious threat to shoot them if they didn't do as he requested. Reluctantly they complied.
The clone stepped forward, keeping a close eye on the four teens in the corner, until he was standing directly beside the couch. Without looking he reached down and pulled the blanket back, exposing Billy's head and upper body. The injured teen didn't stir at the voices or the action.
"I don't suggest any of you move, unless you want Billy here dead," the quiet voice said menacingly. He pointed the weapon at the sleeping Ranger as he looked closely at the teenager whose visage he wore.
"Geez, they really did a number on him, didn't they? Damn, I thought he was dead," the clone muttered. He looked up at the other four teens. "I thought we killed him. I took his place, figuring it would be better than letting the team think they'd inadvertently killed their friend. Or telling his father that his son was dead. I had nowhere to go, and no desire for Zedd to find out I was still alive. It was the logical thing to do."
"No, the logical thing would have been to go to Zordon and tell him the truth, and let us look for Billy. Leaving him in hell for four months was not the right decision," Jason snarled angrily.
"I told you, I thought he was dead!"
"But you didn't make sure he was, did you? Sorry, guy, that just doesn't cut it. You weren't about to jeopardize your own existence by having Zordon scan for a human in the palace," Jason's voice was icily furious.
"I didn't see you jumping in with questions when you found your 'old friend' so changed, either. You were willing to accept those changes at face value, even though you knew about the cloning incident. Hell, 'buddy', we talked about it on the phone, remember?"
Jason's face flushed with anger and embarrassment, and he found himself incapable of answering.
"I'm going to offer you a deal. I'll give you back the Blue Powers, and in exchange I walk away, no questions asked. You deal with his injuries, come up with some way to explain his condition, and I'm out of the picture. All I ask is my freedom. That you never come looking for me. Sound fair enough?"
"No way in hell am I agreeing to letting an evil clone with genius level intelligence run around free. No way at all." Jason glowered at the clone, as if daring him to argue.
"You aren't leaving me a choice, Jason. How about you, Trini? Want to deal? Kat? Adam? Oh, come on, we've been friends for the last four months, now suddenly I'm evil? I did everything I was supposed to for the 'team'. The goddamned team! And this is the thanks I get? The loyalty? Guess I shouldn't be surprised." The clone reached into a pocket, removing a small device. "Fortunately, I'm smart enough to plan for emergencies. You still don't want to deal? Fine, deal with this." He touched a button on the device. "Aisha's parents' car now is ... how shall I say? ... brakeless. They're probably on their way back from Stone Canyon. Too bad, really, since I bet Aisha would have accepted the deal."
"You're sick, and you want us to turn you loose on the world? I don't think so. You won't get away with this. We'll catch you eventually," Jason told him.
"So you might. But in the meantime I can do a lot of damage." The clone was still pointing his blade blaster at the teens. "Think I'll start now." He pulled the trigger, hitting each of the teens with a heavy stun blast. They collapsed in a graceless heap in the corner of the room.
"Ooowwww," Jason groaned as he regained consciousness. His head felt like someone had been using it for batting practice. He could barely move, which worried him for a moment, until he realized the reason was because Adam was sprawled across him, pinning him to the carpeted floor. He shifted Adam carefully off of him and sat up.
Looking around, the memories came back in a rush. Kat's story, rescuing Billy, Adam's recount of the clone incident, the clone's arrival. He quickly checked his three companions; all were alive, breathing and pulse fairly normal feeling, and Adam was already showing signs of coming around. He glanced over at the couch and felt his heart drop. The couch was empty, the blanket lying twisted on the floor.
"Come on, Adam, wake up. Trini? Kat? Come on, girls. Damn it all." He struggled to his feet, heading toward the bathroom. He ran some cold water, splashing it on his face in an attempt to clear his head. He grabbed a couple of small towels and soaked them, heading back to Kat's room. They didn't have any time to spare.
Ten minutes later all four teens were awake, alert, and aware of what had happened, if somewhat shocked by the turn of events.
"We need to let Tommy know what's going on. And Rocky and Aisha, too. Before the clone makes any more attempts," Jason purposely didn't mention the possibility that it might be too late to warn Aisha.
"I can call the Youth Center and see if Rocky and Tommy are still there ..." Kat's voice trailed off worriedly.
"What's wrong, Kat?" Trini asked, not liking the expression on the pretty blonde's face.
"I have a phone message," she muttered, pointing to the machine on the bedside table. Moving like a girl in a dream, she walked across the room and hit the button to replay the messages.
After a few seconds of the soft whirring sound of a rewinding tape, Rocky's voice, full of barely restrained hysteria, filled the room.
"Kat? Kat, are you there? Dang. Look, I hate having to do this this way, but I don't have a choice. Aisha's been in an accident. Please come to Angel Grove Memorial as soon as you can. Oh, and if you see Billy or Adam, tell them too, please. I left messages, but I don't know if they'll get them anytime soon. Just ... just come as soon as you can, okay? Okay." Rocky's voice faded out as the four teens exchanged worried looks.
"Oh my God, he really did it," Adam muttered, looking shocked.
"Yeah. And he's got our Billy with him, wherever he went. Come on, guys, we still need to let Tommy and Rocky know what's going on," Jason said as he released a deep sigh.
This was going from bad to worse in a hurry.
Tommy paced the hospital corridor restlessly, moving with a quick, sharp precision that made one elderly man who was watching remember his days in the military. Rocky watched him listlessly, consumed by his own worry, holding the hand of Mrs. Campbell who was sitting beside him with a lost expression. The rest of the Campbell family, Aisha, her father and brother, were being treated inside the ER. The clone was nowhere to be seen.
Jason, Kat, Trini, and Adam hurried in, at the same time as Mrs. Campbell's best friend, Candace Davidson, arrived to provide support for her friend. Turning the distraught woman over to the capable care of her friend and neighbor, Rocky hurried over to the other teens.
"Thank God you guys got the message," the Red Ranger said with obvious relief.
"How bad is it?" Adam asked, his pale face pinched with worry.
"We don't know. It looks like they lost their brakes, according to the police. No other cars were involved, thank goodness, but they went off the road, rolling a couple of times. Fluke accident, I guess," Rocky told them as Tommy joined the group.
"It wasn't any 'fluke accident', Rocky. It was deliberate," Jason growled, still furious.
"What do you mean? Deliberate? What are you talking about?" Tommy demanded, shocked at Jason's attitude. He'd never seen the former Ranger display such anger outside of a battle.
"I'm talking about if you'd done a better job at leading the team you might have noticed you had the wrong Blue Ranger!" he hissed angrily, careful not to attract unwanted attention.
"What? Wrong Blue Ranger? Jason, you aren't making any sense, man." Tommy looked at the others in supplication, surprised at the anger he saw in Adam's expression. The two girls looked more worried than angry, but weren't offering any support either.
"Jason, this isn't the place for this. Let's find out how Aisha's doing, then we can deal with the rest," Trini said as she saw the doctor emerge and go up to Mrs. Campbell. "Adam, why don't you and Rocky go find out how she is? We'll wait here."
A few minutes later the Black and Red Rangers rejoined their friends, who'd been waiting quietly by the front doors.
"Aisha's going to be okay. They all will be. She's got a broken leg, some cuts and a lot of bruises, but she'll be fine. So will her dad and Johnny. They're releasing Johnny tonight, and keeping Aisha and her dad for observation. As long as there's no problem, they should both be released tomorrow. We can come back by later to see her, but right now we have something we need to deal with," Adam reported, sensing the tension in the group. "Perhaps we should take this to the Command Center?"
Nodding agreement, the small group headed toward a secluded corner and teleported. Adam had a flash as the teleportation effect began that they might be teleporting into a trap, but the idea had barely formed and they were there.
"Rangers! What brings you here on such a lovely day?" Alpha asked as he bustled up in his inanely cheerful way.
"I don't really know. However, we do need to tell you Aisha's had an accident. It may be a while before she can fight. Can you get her morpher and communicator back from here so we can find a temporary Yellow Ranger?" Tommy asked, deciding to take care of that essential problem first.
"Alpha, lock on to the Aisha's morpher and communicator, scan for nearby life forms, and if it's clear, teleport them both here. I'm sorry to hear of her accident, Rangers. What happened?" the ancient mentor asked, looking down with concern at his charges.
"Her family had a car accident coming home from Stone Canyon. But it seems some of us don't think it was a accident?" Rocky asked, turning to his best friend.
"It wasn't, Rocky. It was deliberate." Adam replied solemnly.
"Who would want to hurt Aisha?" Tommy asked in exasperation. "Is this the work of Rita?"
"It's the work of Billy's clone," Jason ground out. "The clone who's been on the team for the last four months while the real Billy went through hell in the lunar palace."
Tommy's expression was one of startled disbelief. "Jase, we destroyed the clone. No way was that not the real Billy. Just no way..." The tall teen's voice trailed off as he considered the possibilities. "We shot him, he disappeared. Afterwards Billy seemed perfectly normal, not ... not different, like the clone had been. Are you sure? How can you be sure?"
Jason, with assists from the other three teens, told the story of Kat's dreams and the rescue they'd launched earlier that day. They told the other two Rangers, Zordon, and Alpha of how Billy's clone had shown up and made his offer, their refusal, and what the clone had done in retaliation.
"He took Billy, we need to find him. He's not well. Certainly not well enough to stand up to any sort of mistreatment by the clone. And we need to contain the clone. Any luck scanning for him?" Jason asked Alpha, who'd begun his scans while Jason told his story.
"Ay-yi-yi, nothing yet, Jason. But we have no idea where he may have gone."
"And, being Billy, can probably hide," Jason sighed. He looked over at Tommy worriedly. During his recitation of what had happened that day, Jason's anger had finally cooled. He knew it wasn't gone completely, but he'd watched the look of horrified belief spread on Tommy's face, and he found he couldn't maintain the burning anger he'd felt since he'd found Billy in the lunar palace. Not when he saw the escalating guilt and remorse the White Ranger was experiencing.
"The ... the clone, he still has his morpher, right? And you can't scan for that?" Tommy asked in a slightly dazed tone.
"We are scanning for the morpher, but it's not showing," Alpha reported.
"Did you search the lunar palace?" Rocky asked worriedly. Rocky was stunned by what the others had told them. The thought that they'd had the clone on the team all this time shocked him, and the realization that they had in essence abandoned their friend sickened him.
"Yes, Rocky. He isn't there, either. Or at least the morpher isn't."
"Didn't Billy ... the clone ... whoever, work on a device to block the power signature from the morphers? Is that what you're scanning for?"
"That's correct, Adam," Zordon replied.
"So, if he's using a blocker, then you won't be able to find the power signature. What can you scan for? Something that won't be hidden by the device? The device's signature itself?" Adam postulated.
"Ay-yi-yi! Of course! I'll scan for the device he created. Why didn't I think of that?" Alpha fussed as he set up for a new scan.
"It worked, Rangers! I found them!"
Billy sat on an old mattress in the corner of the deserted cabin deep in Angel Grove Forest. He had his knees drawn up to his chest and held by his arms in a desperate attempt to conserve body heat and hide his trembling from the clone.
He'd been sleeping peacefully on Kat's couch when the clone grabbed him roughly and pulled him to his feet. Billy had been completely disoriented and had struck out, thinking he was back on the moon and due for punishment for sleeping. His shock at looking up into his own face as it had been before was considerable, and he'd not raised any protest when the clone teleported them out. They'd landed in this small cabin, and the clone had helped Billy over to the mattress with gentleness, if not kindness. Since then the clone had paced anxiously the width of the cabin, often muttering to himself.
Billy glanced up as the clone stopped directly in front of him.
"Are you okay?" the duplicate asked gruffly, looking down on the huddled figure. Billy found himself answering honestly.
"You're cold." It wasn't a question, but an observation. "I should have brought your blanket at least. It's just, I was so mad at them. Some friends they turned out to be. I thought it seemed reasonable, but no, it wasn't good enough for Jason Scott!"
"What are you talking about?" Billy asked, forcing himself to pay attention.
"I didn't know you survived, that's the thing. What would have happened to the team if they found out they'd killed you? Huh? It would have destroyed them. So I became you. I fit in; I did all the things you did. I fought Zedd and Rita, and did everything I could to assist the team. I created devices to defeat monsters, I became a Ninjetti, Wolf spirit no less, fought side-by-side with Adam, with them all, and they turned against me. Suddenly I'm 'evil' because I'm a clone. I'm not evil, I didn't hurt anyone. Well, not until today. God, I hope they're okay. I shouldn't have done that, but I was so ... angry! It's not fair, it's not my fault I'm the clone." The agitated clone had resumed his restless pacing, then suddenly stopped in front of Billy.
"You believe me, don't you? That I'm not evil? Or do you want to send me back too?" he demanded angrily.
"I wouldn't send you back there," Billy said softly, but determinedly. "I wouldn't send anyone there."
"I believe you wouldn't. But that's what your 'friends' want to do. Send me off; after all, I'm just a clone."
"You said you hadn't hurt anyone until today. What did you do?"
"I took out the brakes in Aisha's family car. They were coming back from Stone Canyon, I think. Maybe nothing happened."
Billy laid his head down on his knees with a groan of despair. "You purposely damaged the brakes in their car? Not a smart thing to do if you want to convince them you mean no harm."
"I was upset! Jason wouldn't take the deal. They wouldn't believe I wasn't evil, none of them, so I decided since they thought I was evil, I'd be evil. But I didn't like it. You know, when Rita and Zedd first made me, I liked doing evil, now I don't. I wonder what happened?"
Billy considered the question for a moment while the clone resumed his pacing.
"I think it happened when we morphed," he said at last.
"What? What happened?"
"You changed. It's the only thing that makes sense. It would explain how you were able to replace me without anyone getting suspicious. Why you no longer wanted to do evil. Why you've been able to hold the powers."
The clone stopped, curious despite himself.
"Remember in the park, just before the shooting started? I tried to morph, and you jumped on me. And somehow we both morphed. The morphin' power was never meant to be used that way. If I'm right, it surged through me, and then into you, meaning I was the dominant personality. It 'injected' you with my personality, for lack of a better term. My essential ... not-evilness. That's why you were better able to fit in, and were less detectable than before. Why you feel bad about Aisha."
The clone resumed his pacing, faster than before, obviously following Billy's train of thought a bit further.
"And we both had half the power. When they shot you, the powers weakened somehow, transferring back to me ... I ended up with the full Blue Ranger Powers, and you none. It makes sense, it really does. You should do some follow-up research on this; if the Ninjetti powers work the same, and they should, the basis of their power is so similar, it could be used to good advantage someday." The clone again stopped and contemplated his companion. "You really went through hell, didn't you?"
"Yeah, that's one way to describe it. After we morphed, you led team in shooting me. Did that bother you?" Billy's voice didn't sound accusing, but frankly curious.
"Not at that moment. I was too terrified to be bothered. I was sure they would figure out my real identity and send me back to Rita and Zedd. I didn't want that to happen. They would have killed me. But after it was done, I felt horrible. But I kept telling myself that by taking your place I was saving the team."
"And you'd set up the device on the brakes on Aisha's car. Where else are hidden booby traps? Why'd you do that?"
"I'd get to feeling like they were all against me, that they'd figure out I wasn't really you. When I felt that way, I'd set up another booby trap, as it were, to make me feel like I had more control. I never thought I'd use them."
"Hmm. And the deal you offered Jason and the others was your freedom for the Blue Powers?"
"That's it. I just don't want to be sent to Rita and Zedd, or shipped off to some backwater penal planet where I'd be physically and mentally destroyed."
"I can see why you'd want to avoid that. If you haven't killed Aisha, then I will accept the deal. I'll help get you out of here and far away to start a new life, and you give up the Blue Powers."
"Deal. But how do you plan to get the others to go along with it?"
Before Billy could respond, the door banged open and Tommy quickly grabbed the clone, putting him in restraints. Adam and Kat hurried to Billy's side, checking the teen over for fresh hurts.
"I'm not hurt," Billy murmured. "It isn't necessary to tie him up, he won't hurt anyone."
"Like he didn't hurt Aisha?" Rocky growled.
"What happened to Aisha?" Billy asked, one eye on the clone.
"They had a car accident. Looks like they maybe lost their brakes. Gee, wonder how that could have happened?" Rocky said with a venomous look at the clone.
"Is she okay?" Billy asked apprehensively.
Rocky's expression softened a little. "She's going to be fine. They all are."
"Come on, let's get back to the Command Center," Tommy declared, not wanting to look too closely at Billy. He'd seen, when Adam and Kat helped him up, that Billy was quite underweight, and the bruises on his gaunt face stood out in stark relief, seeming to accuse him.
Quick as thought, they were back in the Command Center, where Jason and Trini had been waiting anxiously. At their arrival the two former Rangers stepped forward to check on their friend's condition.
"You okay, bro?" Jason asked, looking for signs of additional injuries.
"Not really, Jason. But I'm no worse than I was before," Billy sighed, wishing everyone would settle down for a while and let him speak.
"I've got the Blue morpher and communicator, so at least we have the Power available if needed," Tommy said, setting the mentioned items down on a counter next to the yellow ones.
"We need to decide what to do with that," Jason said, indicating the clone, who had been placed in a cage-type enclosure like Zordon had used on Kim and Billy when they'd been turned into punks.
"I say we give him back to Rita and Zedd. See how he likes the living conditions up there," Rocky suggested with a hard glint in his eyes.
"We could turn him over to the police, let them deal with him," Adam countered.
"Guys, if I could..."
"Aren't there, like, prison planets somewhere where he'd be locked up so he can't harm anyone else?" Tommy asked.
"There are several such places; I can contact my sources and see which one would best suit his situation," Zordon replied.
"Though the sending him back to Rita and Zedd idea has merits," Jason continued.
"Perhaps Regilias Seven?" Alpha supplied.
Just then the blaring screech of the alarm system cut short the debate. Billy darn near leaped out of his shoes and clapped his hands over his ears in pain.
"Oh, man! We do not need this now! What've they sent down this time?" Tommy asked with an exasperated look.
"Rangers, observe the viewing globe. Rita and Zedd have sent down the ferocious Rampaging Roach, which can shoot paralyzing missiles, and incendiary beams from its eyes. It is more dangerous than it would normally be since the team is short two members. I feel a full team will be needed to be successful against the Rampaging Roach."
"And we have one teammate in the hospital, and another who should be in the hospital," Tommy said distractedly. "Hey, can Jason and Trini take the powers until Aisha and Billy are better? Would you guys be willing to do that?"
Jason and Trini exchanged solemn looks. It hadn't been easy, going through Power withdrawal, but they also realized the team was in dire straits. They desperately needed two healthy Rangers. Jason read Trini's expression, then nodded.
"We'll do it."
"Jason, Trini, step forward. Alpha, the morphers, please," Zordon intoned. As soon as the two teens had the morphers in hand, Zordon activated the power transfer. Within moments the new Blue and Yellow Rangers were fully powered and ready for action.
"Come on guys, it's morphin' time," Tommy called out as each of the teens morphed. Within moments they teleported out in streams of vivid color.
Billy had watched silently from the side, not even bothering to try to talk to any of them, while the clone watched from his transparent prison. Billy glanced over at his double and caught an expression of calm sympathy.
"Nice of them to ask, huh?" the clone commented caustically.
Billy sighed. "They've been through a lot so far today. I think this whole situation has taken them by surprise."
"Oh, come on, Billy. You're the original invisible boy. Unless they need you, they don't seem to see you." He looked like he wanted to say more, perhaps how the team hadn't noticed he was gone, but refrained from saying it out loud.
Billy turned from the clone to the Ranger mentor, who was closely monitoring the battle.
"How are they doing?"
"They are doing fine, Billy," Zordon turned his attention to the former, and hopefully future, Blue Ranger. "Alpha, take Billy to the Med Room and begin treatment of his injuries," he requested, seeing how the teenager was barely able to stay on his feet.
"Wait! Zordon, if the others get back here, I won't have the chance to say anything. They're all too wrapped up in their guilt and worry. Look, this is going to sound strange, but I need something from you. I gave my word that I would accept his offer, and I intend to stand by that. He offered back the Blue Powers in exchange for his freedom. Zordon, he isn't evil. I'm asking that you let him go, that we send him away from Angel Grove and the team, and let him live out his life," Billy looked up at the ancient being with a pleading expression.
"Billy, the clone damaged the braking system on Aisha's car. He helped in the attack that nearly killed you," Zordon reminded him.
"In both cases he was reacting to a threat to his very life. He panicked and overreacted. Those were the acts of an inexperienced youth, not an evil being. He's not me, exactly, but he does have my sense of right and wrong. When we morphed together, remember? I think he was infused with my personality and morality. Zordon, I honestly feel he offers no threat to mankind. Plus, I'm not suggesting we not keep an eye on him, just in case," Billy added with a significant look at the clone.
"Where did you want to send him?"
Billy relaxed just a bit, sensing Zordon would agree with his plan.
"I think perhaps a small city in Northern California, or perhaps Nevada or Oregon? With work and education opportunities."
"Reno, Nevada perhaps?" Zordon suggested after a moment's consideration.
Billy looked a question over to the clone.
"Reno would be fine," the clone replied quietly, impressed and pleased with Billy's intervention on his behalf.
"You'll need money to get started," Billy commented.
"Not a problem, exactly. The sensors here alerted me when Jason and Katherine teleported to the moon. I had the strangest sense I wasn't going to like what they were doing, so I went into flight mode. I cleaned out your savings account. If you let me use this money, I'll refund you, with interest, as soon as possible," the clone looked beseechingly at Billy.
"Fair enough. I'm asking you not use my name, and try to avoid high profile activities, please. We'll be monitoring you carefully, and if we see signs that you are doing anything evil, we will act to stop you." The threat in Billy's voice was not a joke.
"All I ask is that you don't send Rita, Zedd, or any of your pissed-off teammates after me," the clone countered.
Billy had to chuckle at that. "Okay, then. Zordon, have you found a place to set him down?"
"Yes, a parking facility. The top floor is not in use at present. Have you decided on a name?" he asked the clone.
"Well, William Robinson, you are being given this chance because of Billy's intervention on your behalf. If you prove unworthy of his trust, I will bring you back here and you will be transported to a penal planet. Understood?" Zordon queried sternly.
"Understood." The clone met Zordon's gaze frankly, then shifted his gaze to the Blue Ranger. "You can still choose to come with me."
"Thanks, but my place is here. This is where I want to be for the time being."
"If you change your mind, or need help, I'll be there for you. Thank you for my freedom, and I hope you recover quickly. I truly never intended for you to be so hurt."
"I understand. Zordon, are you ready to teleport?"
Moments later there was a flash of pure white as the clone disappeared to face an uncertain future in Reno.
Billy almost regretted not joining him.
"Man, these Ninjetti Powers are different than the Morphin' ones," Jason commented, unable to suppress his enthusiasm. Though he was anything but pleased at the manner in which he'd come to hold the Blue Powers, he was still almost intoxicated by the feeling of the Power coursing through his veins. He truly hadn't realized how much he'd missed it until he had it back.
"They take some getting used to, but are more powerful than the Morphin' Powers were," Tommy agreed.
They'd arrived back in the Command Center en masse, chattering a bit, pleased the two newest members had fit right back in with the team. So involved were they in their discussion, it took a moment to realize the clone was gone.
"Hey! Where'd he go?" Rocky demanded, turning to Zordon.
"I sent him away," Billy's quiet voice answered from the side where he stood unnoticed until now.
"What? Why? Where'd you send him?" Tommy asked with an incredulous look at his teammate.
"I sent him a distance from here, it's none of your concern where he may be. It was my choice, I accepted the deal you guys wouldn't," Billy stated firmly. He was feeling decidedly horrible, but he was determined to see this out with his friends before he'd allow Alpha to treat his injuries. He felt he owed that courtesy at least to his teammates. And he absolutely did not want them looking for the clone.
"Billy, man, you can't do that! That ... thing ... he hurt Aisha! Deliberately," Tommy was completely surprised by Billy's attitude and actions.
"He did so believing he was about to be turned back over to Rita and Zedd, a fate he wished to avoid at all costs. I can't blame him for that one. They aren't exactly kind to their prisoners. If he hadn't felt threatened, he wouldn't have lashed out."
"Are you forgetting he also left you to die at the lunar palace?" Adam asked with uncharacteristic heat.
"Are you forgetting that, in essence, everyone else did too?" Billy's softly spoken comment nevertheless silenced the entire team. There really was nothing they could say to that.
Billy watched the shock and guilt color the faces in front of him. Part of him almost rejoiced at their guilt, while the greater part simply wanted to forgive and forget. With emphasis on the forgetting part.
"I'm sorry if I sound harsh, but I'm not up to a lengthy debate. I accepted the deal he offered earlier. And that's that. When Aisha, and I, are well enough, I will explain to her what I did and why. In the meantime, I stand by my decision. The clone goes free, and we don't try to recapture him. I'm asking you all, as my friends and as my teammates, to accept my decision on this."
There was silence from the assembled teens. Billy sighed and turned to Alpha.
"I'm ready to start treatments now."
"Come on, Billy. This will take some time," Alpha said, waddling toward the doorway.
"Wait. It's getting late; is my dad expecting me home tonight?" he asked the other Rangers.
"Oh, man, your dad. He's going to notice your condition right away. Everyone will, it's pretty obvious," Tommy commented, not wishing to offend Billy but needing to speak truthfully.
"Then we need to decide on a story. The truth could work," Billy said, his tone and expression making it obvious that he was at the end of his strength.
"Would that be acceptable, Zordon?" Tommy asked, looking at their mentor.
"No mention can be made of any of you being Power Rangers, of course, but if you simply tell Billy's father that his son was kidnapped for his intelligence, or to use as a spy, then it will be acceptable. It is at least a partial truth."
"Come on, then, let them take care of telling your father. I want to get you on the Table," Kat said, referring to the treatment device they used for most of their injuries. It worked in tandem with the Rangers' accelerated healing powers, enabling them to heal from injuries in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks, and also prevented most scarring.
Billy offered no resistance as the tall Australian led him toward the Med Room.
"Billy, I'll be back around six tonight," Wallace Cranston told his son as he headed toward the door to leave for work. The elder Cranston was still reeling from what the Power Rangers had told him, and the appearance of his son.
The Red and Blue Rangers had come to him that night, almost a week before, and had told him the most incredible story of how his son had been kidnapped by the evil beings launching all the attacks against Angel Grove. How those beings had replaced his son with a clone whose duty it was to spy on the people of Angel Grove and report back to them. They told the worried parent that his son had been badly treated during his four months in captivity, but that they could cure his physical injuries more efficiently than the local medical facilities could.
The next day they had shown up again with Billy. But this was a Billy Wallace didn't immediately recognize as his son. Thin and pale, with a haunted expression in his eyes Wallace found painful to look at. The Rangers apologized profusely for not having realized the switch had occurred long before, then left Wallace with his traumatized offspring. The treatments on the Table had repaired the cuts and bruises, though faint scars still showed from the older injuries. The leg injury, specifically to his knee, would take a couple of weeks at least to finish healing. They'd left on a bandage, which was in fact a device to help regenerate the ligaments and tendons Goldar had damaged. The congestion in his lungs had been successfully cleared as well. The only thing they could not offer any counteraction for was the starvation. He'd been fortunate that Finster had provided him with a vitamin supplement, which had prevented scurvy, but not the hair loss.
If the Rangers felt badly about not having realized a clone had been released in Angel Grove, Wallace felt a hundred times worse. He'd not noticed any significant difference in his son's behavior or attitude over the recent months at all. But they had assured him that this was indeed his real son, and that the other was in fact a clone. Billy had accepted his father's stumbling apologies willingly enough, assuring his parent that he understood how he wouldn't have noticed a difference, how the clone was an especially clever duplicate.
Since then Wallace had tried to compensate for his oversight by smothering Billy with as much fatherly concern and care as he could convince the teen to accept. But Billy seemed to be holding himself tightly in control, and when Wallace gently questioned him on what had happened in the lunar palace Billy had refused to elaborate, saying only he hadn't been fed very well.
But Wallace was well aware that starvation was not the only difficulty Billy had faced during his imprisonment. Every single night since Billy's return the older man had heard his son cry out in the throes of bad dreams, usually awakening suddenly with a hoarse cry of "No! No more!" The sound of his son's cries affected Wallace far more than the sight of his obvious weight loss. When he heard Billy dreaming he'd go in to check on him, but usually the teen gently rebuffed his attempts at comfort, curling instead in on himself and ignoring his father's presence. Wallace had finally suggested that perhaps it would be a good idea for Billy to see someone professionally, but that idea had been rejected as well.
"Do you want me to pick up anything special for dinner?" he asked the silent figure seated at the kitchen table.
"No thanks. Whatever you want, Dad," was the disinterested response.
After his father left, Billy spent the day in his lab, as he'd done most every day since his return. Zordon had banned him from the Command Center for the time being, feeling he needed to be around other people and not working. At least two or three of his friends came by every day to spend time with him. Jason, Trini and Katherine were the most frequent visitors, while Tommy had only dropped in once.
He knew they felt guilty about what had happened, and he understood that they all needed to talk about it eventually. But at present he was too tired, too overwhelmed by the memories, and frankly too angry and disappointed to attempt to soothe his teammates. It was all he could do to get through each day himself.
That evening he and his father were surprised by a knock on the door and opened it to find the Red and White Rangers standing on their front porch.
"What's wrong?" Wallace asked, remembering all too clearly the last time he'd found Power Rangers on his doorstep.
"Nothing's wrong, sir," the White Ranger replied soothingly. "How're you doing, Billy?"
"I'm okay," Billy replied, wondering why they were there.
"Well, it occurred to us that if you were having trouble dealing with what happened to you on the moon, that we know of a place you can go where they specialize in these sorts of situations. Rita and Zedd have done damage throughout the galaxy, and this place has learned ways to help their victims recover."
Wallace had perked up at the prospect of a place that could really help Billy. His son's most effective argument against counseling was that no therapist on Earth was really qualified to deal with alien abduction/torture victims. This effectively squashed that objection.
"Where is this place? How long will he have to go there? Will he still be at home during treatment?"
Billy looked at his father with some surprise. He hadn't realized just how worried he was by Billy's condition.
"The place we are suggesting is another planet, Phaedos. The length of his stay depends on how well he responds to treatment. I'm leaving you this device with which to summon us. If you decide to take this offer, let us know and we will arrange it. Again, we all offer our sincerest apologies for what happened."
With that the two Rangers disappeared in streaks of white and red, leaving Billy and his father standing there.
"Another planet, huh?" Wallace murmured, looking at the device in his hand. "Couldn't be something easier, I guess." His voice was soft and sorrowful.
"No, I guess not," Billy agreed quietly as they reentered the house.
Tommy sat at a corner table at the Juice Bar, staring moodily into his smoothie. Earlier he and Rocky had visited the Cranston house to offer the services of Dulcea to help Billy deal with the lingering effects of his imprisonment. He rolled the cool glass between his hands and contemplated the meeting in the Command Center that had led to their visit ...
"There must be some way, some place, where he can get some help," Rocky insisted.
"Where? If he goes to a local therapist and starts talking about how he was kidnapped and cloned and held prisoner on the moon? Yeah, that's something the local shrinks are really going to be able to deal with. They'd lock him in a institution and throw away the key," Zack commented. "There aren't any physical signs of abuse anymore. He'd have too hard a time convincing anyone it really happened."
"He isn't even trying," Tommy complained.
Jason, who'd been keeping his own temper in check for far too long, finally snapped.
"Not trying? How dare you pass judgment, when it's mostly your fault that he's in the condition he's in! You should have scanned him immediately after that fight, but you were so sure you couldn't have made a mistake, weren't you?" Jason's dark eyes flashed in anger as he got right in Tommy's face.
"I didn't see you demanding to know what was wrong with your 'old friend' when you got here! Kim didn't notice any difference, no one did! You can't lay the blame for this on me, Jason." The White Ranger's anger was palpable, though there was an undercurrent the others couldn't quite define.
"As leader you take the responsibility! It's part of the job, Tommy. And you make sure everyone is really okay after each fight! If you'd done your job right, Billy wouldn't be in the mess he's in!" Jason's pain at his friend's condition was being channeled into his anger.
Something in Tommy snapped and he sucker-punched the former Ranger. Before any of the others could react, there was a full-scale fight going on. Jason's return blow had knocked Tommy up against the console behind him, and the White Ranger's kick sent Jason sprawling. Too angry for finesse, it was more street fighting rather than martial arts. Zack, Adam and Rocky desperately sought to separate the two powerful Rangers.
"Dammit, stop this, Jason! It's not helping," Zack ground out, finally grabbing his friend in a bear hug and hanging on with a strength born of desperation. Tommy stepped forward as if to strike Jason again, but was restrained by Rocky and Adam.
"No way, Tommy. Settle down," Rocky said firmly.
"Rangers! Stop this at once!" Zordon's voice boomed out with uncharacteristic anger.
Jason shrugged out of Zack's grip and stalked off toward the wall, obviously still furious and trying to wrestle it back down. Tommy was doing the same in the other direction. The rest of the Rangers present stood close together by the consoles, watching the other two worriedly.
"Rangers, there is a possible solution we can offer Billy," Zordon said at last when Tommy and Jason seemed calmer.
"What solution is that, Zordon?" Kat asked.
"I have spoken to Dulcea on Phaedos, and she has experience helping Ninjetti recover from these sorts of experiences. She is aware of what has transpired and has offered her services."
"Do you think this is a good solution?" Trini asked.
"Dulcea's success is well known. It won't be easy for Billy, or ultimately for any of you, but it may be your only chance. Two of you should go to Billy and his father and offer them the chance. Billy has to choose this willingly, that is her only stipulation. Offer it, but don't try to force them to accept in any way. When he is ready, I trust the Blue Ranger will choose the right course."
"And if he doesn't?" Jason asked.
"Then he will be always as he is now ..."
Tommy stood and left the Juice Bar, his untouched smoothie still sitting on the table.
"No! Stop!" Billy's voice was rough-sounding as he thrashed on his bed, caught in the throes of yet another nightmare. Wallace walked up to the bed and caught one shoulder, shaking it gently.
"Billy! Wake up, it's another nightmare," he said firmly. This marked the twelfth straight night the elder Cranston had had to rouse his son from a bad dream or had heard the boy awaken himself from one. He was finding his temper growing short due to lack of sleep and the stress of watching his only child struggle with horrendous memories.
Billy jerked away from his father's touch, then twisted over, swinging wildly. His blow connected with his father's face, sending him stumbling into the desk behind him, noisily upsetting books and other paraphernalia.
"Huh? Dad?" Billy asked blearily, straining to see in the diffuse light from the hallway. "Dad! Are you okay?" Billy stumbled to where his father was struggling to get back up.
"Geez, Billy, you pack one heck of a punch," he muttered, rubbing the reddening mark on his cheek.
"Dad, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hit you. The dreams ... they're so real. Every night, I'm there again, and I can't get away. No matter what, I keep going back. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hit you," the teen's voice cracked as he knelt beside his father.
"Shhh ... It's okay, it'll be okay," Wallace crooned, taking his son in his arms.
"No, it's not. It won't be. I can't keep going this way, I can't. I'm afraid of everything again," he sobbed brokenly. It was the first time he'd allowed his father to really comfort him, and as a result he finally let his feelings loose.
Wallace crouched on the floor of the bedroom, holding on to Billy with almost desperate strength, waiting for this storm to pass. Time ceased to have any meaning as he offered what comfort he could to his son. Eventually Billy quieted.
"Come on, Son, time to go back to bed." Gently urging Billy to stand, Wallace helped him back to the bed and settled him in.
"I'm sorry, Dad, for being such a bother," he murmured absently, more asleep than awake.
"You're not a bother," Wallace soothed him before walking out and heading toward the bathroom to tend his minor injuries.
Billy awakened the next morning feeling logy and more worn out than he'd been when he lay down. He considered the strange and disturbing dreams he'd had the night before, dreams of more than just his experiences in the lunar palace. He was still trying to understand them all when his gaze fell on the mess by his desk; books and stuff lying on the floor, the chair tipped over, and the computer keyboard hanging by its cord.
It wasn't all a dream, he realized with a sinking heart. He'd really broken down last night in his father's arms. After punching him in the face. Billy groaned in dismay, then dragged himself out of bed. Better to face the music as quickly as possible.
"Billy, want some juice?" Wallace asked as his son came into the kitchen.
"Yes, please," he replied, watching his dad closely.
"Here you go. How're you feeling this morning?"
"I'm fine. Are you okay, Dad?" he asked, eyeing the bruise on his father's right cheek.
"I'll live. You look like you could use some more sleep, though," Wallace observed as he served their breakfasts. One battle he'd not had with Billy was getting the teen to eat.
Billy just made a noncommittal sound as his gaze kept returning to that damning bruise. He realized things could not continue as they had been going. That realization brought a sudden decision.
"Dad? I want to take the Rangers up on their offer."
Wallace's expression showed that he'd halfway expected this.
"Are you sure, Son? Do you trust them that much? After all, they are partially responsible for all this."
"I'm sure. Look, Dad, no therapist here could possibly understand. Not really. Maybe this person on Phaedos can. It's worth a try."
Wallace sighed deeply. "Okay. Let's call them, then. I'm willing to go along with just about anything if it'll help you."
Billy's eyes misted as he looked gratefully at his dad.
Billy's first sight of Phaedos was the same one his teammates had gotten months before. A rocky shore littered with the bones of some sort of gigantic beasts, with waves crashing onto boulders and sending a fine spray into the air. Billy hoisted his duffel bag and set out in the direction he'd been told to go to seek Dulcea. His determination, born of the fear he'd never get better, almost wavered as he realized he was probably the only human on the entire planet. Never before had he felt quite so alone.
But he wasn't alone. Far above, hidden from his view, a regal figure watched his progress with some interest.
Dulcea had been oddly pleased by Zordon's call, saying the young wolf Ninjetti was indeed coming to Phaedos to recover from the experiences he'd had at the hands of Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd. Even the thought of their names brought a curl to her lips and anger to her spirit. For far more years than she cared to remember, she'd dealt with survivors of those two evil ones, as well as others. Her inborn empathic powers, in conjuncture with her Ninjetti warrior training, had enabled her to develop a program which rehabilitated most of the victims that were sent to her for help. Over the centuries, only one in fifteen or so failed to recover completely, and of those 'failures' almost three quarters recovered at least enough to live useful, if not particularly happy, lives. The remainder were failures, and each one was a tear in her heart forever. She vowed that the young man she saw making his way with such determination would not join the rank of failures. Or even partial recoveries. She wanted nothing less than a full recovery, for the biting sting of her own failure accompanied this one. She too felt she should have recognized the first Blue Ranger from Earth was a fake.
It was the equivalent of early evening by the time Billy reached the sacred ruins. He tossed his bag to the side and looked around curiously, taking in the apparent age of the place, as well as the commanding view.
"Welcome, William of Earth," Dulcea spoke from behind him.
Billy whirled around, badly startled. "Uh, hello," he stammered.
"I didn't mean to startle you; it has been a while since I have had company. I tend to forget my manners," she said calmly. Actually, her startling Billy had been quite intentional. She'd wanted to see just how bad his nerves were.
"It's okay," Billy replied quietly. He looked around again. "Uh, where do I stay? Here?"
Dulcea chuckled gently. "No. Come with me and I will show you where you are to stay during your time here."
She led the way to a small building cleverly built into the side of the bluff. Only one room, there was a bed against the wall, a couple of crude chairs and a table, shelves, and a curtained-off alcove which hid the bathroom facilities. Despite the rustic furnishings, the small dwelling was warm and comfortable-feeling, with furs and colorful blankets draped about.
"I'll give you some time to settle in, then meet me back at the temple. We have much to discuss," Dulcea told him, taking her leave.
Billy pulled out the clothing he'd packed and carefully put it away on the shelves, then headed back the way they'd come.
He was anxious to get started.
Dulcea watched the young wolf Ninjetti sprint up the stairs of the temple with a satisfied smile. He was stronger now than ever before. He wore only a pair of shorts, and his leanly muscled torso shone with a generous coating of perspiration. The day was coming on hot.
It had been nearly two weeks since Billy's arrival on Phaedos. During that time he'd been put through a training regime that would do a marine drill sergeant proud. Every day, twice a day, he had to run through special exercises to improve his overall stamina and strength, in addition to twice-daily sparring matches with Dulcea, who routinely wiped the forest floor with him. She provided all his meals, which she insisted he eat, no matter how tired he might be.
In the beginning he'd thought he'd never survive her 'help'. The first night he literally fell asleep at the dinner table, his face resting on a generous baked roll. Dulcea had gently awakened him and bullied him into finishing his meal. For days he awoke in agony from strained muscles, his first few steps of the day stiff and painful. Then gradually the pain faded, and the welcome sensation of good health replaced it. His weight increased, his ribs were gradually fading from view. He moved with assurance, if not grace. His reaction to sudden danger was to fall into a defensive posture, ready to attack. He'd not dreamt of the lunar palace at all.
She never asked him directly what had happened to him at Rita and Zedd's hands, but instead, over meals and during quiet times between training sessions, they talked. Their conversations covered a wide range of topics, including his experiences on the moon. Gradually, without his being aware of it, he'd told her the entire story, everything that had gone on up there during the four months, plus his feelings of hurt, betrayal, and anger that his friends and father had not noticed the difference.
"You're getting faster at those stairs, William," she said as he approached at a walk, his breathing already slowing toward normal.
"There don't seem to be as many as there were last week," he grinned.
"Perhaps it's because you were taking them two at a time?" she suggested with a smile of her own.
"Perhaps," he chuckled. He looked out beyond her to the forest, and the temple therein.
"That's where they quested before, right?" he asked. It was the first time he'd mentioned the quest for the Great Power to her.
"Yes. It is also where you will take your quest," she replied.
"Me? I have to go on a quest?"
"Of course. All who hold the Great Power must prove their worthiness."
"Oh." He looked at the distance, deep in thought. "When?"
"Soon. Very soon. It will be one of the last steps in your healing."
"I'm close to being finished? To being well?" He looked frankly amazed at the idea.
Dulcea laughed fondly at the question. "Of course! Do you not feel better? Are your nights not more restful?"
"Well, yeah, of course. I guess ... I guess I was expecting something else. This seems so ... non-invasive?"
"Ah, William, you were expecting the Human way? You are Ninjetti, our ways are different."
"I see that. So even when I go home, the dreams will remain gone?"
"They may come back occasionally, but not nightly as they did before. But don't relax yet, young wolf, there is still much to do."
"What else is required, Dulcea? Besides the quest?"
"You must make peace with the other Ninjetti."
Billy opened his mouth to protest that he wasn't angry, but Dulcea held up a silencing hand.
"Think, William. Are you truly not angry? Look deep inside yourself, before you answer that."
Billy closed his mouth and looked down, deep in thought. Without realizing it, he was getting better at accurately judging and identifying his feelings. When he looked up again, his eyes were bright with unshed tears.
"You're right. I'm angry. And hurt. They should have noticed ... something! Some difference. The clone wasn't me, he wasn't. There were differences, at least the other Rangers should have noticed that."
"Yes, they should have. But perhaps they were not totally at fault? Have you ever made yourself easy to know? Do you let them inside your true self? You would do well to meditate on that, William. Now, grab your staff, it is time for us to spar."
On the northern end of the temple ruins was a small alcove that looked out over an expanse of lush forest. Billy had chosen this place as his meditation spot, and he made use of it at least twice a day. One of the first things Dulcea had taught him was how to properly meditate, and since then he'd become hooked on the feeling meditating left him with.
The Master Warrior of Phaedos watched her newest student disappear to his meditation then turned and strode toward her own small home. She knew that at last it was time to contact Zordon and set in motion the last steps needed to complete the healing of the Wolf Ninjetti.
The tall woman couldn't resist a smile of satisfaction and pleasure at the apparent success of her plan. She was looking forward to making this particular call. When Zordon had first contacted her regarding the discovery of a clone on his Ninjetti team, Dulcea had been surprised to hear the ancient mentor admit that the Ranger involved was special to him. In the centuries of training and mentoring Ranger teams, they had all learned not to single out any Rangers for special treatment or consideration. But when she met Billy, and got to know the young man better, she understood Zordon's position. He was an unusual Ranger, possessed of an intelligence and curiosity far above the norm, and a rare courage that allowed him to face danger willingly even when he knew he was badly overmatched. That same courage had brought him to Phaedos to face his personal demons with a steadfast determination that she couldn't help but admire. For since arriving here and committing himself to her regime, he'd not complained or backed off once, but had dug in and worked with all his might toward his recovery. She'd found herself growing fond of the young man as well.
She stood in front of her Viewing Globe and placed her call to Zordon.
"Dulcea. I trust you have good news?" Zordon asked.
"I do. Your Ranger is recovering quickly. Soon it will be time for him to quest. You will make the necessary arrangements?"
"Yes. Is tomorrow convenient?"
"It will do."
"Thank you, Dulcea, for what you are doing for my Rangers."
"You are welcome, Zordon. We are all united in the fight against evil, I could do no less."
They were sparring again. Or rather, Dulcea called it sparring, Billy jokingly referred to it as being used for batting practice. This time he managed to remain on his feet a record-breaking 45 seconds before the Master Warrior swept his feet out from under him.
"You know, it would cut down on my bruises if I simply started in this position," he grumbled good-naturedly.
"You did much better this time," Dulcea commented, letting a touch of warmth steal into her voice.
"Yes, he landed very gracefully, too."
Dulcea looked up with no surprise at the source of the voice, as Kat Hillard entered the arena.
"You are the new Pink Ranger?" Dulcea asked out of ritual. There was no one else she could be.
"I am. Hello, Billy," she smiled at the Blue Ranger as he leapt agilely to his feet.
Billy looked at the new arrival with some trepidation. The first thought as he looked at the pretty teen was that she'd seen him half naked, filthy and sobbing in the lunar palace. He hazarded a look into her eyes and saw, not pity or disgust, but warmth, friendliness and genuine regard.
"You look great," she smiled as she approached him.
"Thanks. You, too," he replied as she hugged him warmly. He returned the embrace gladly, inordinately pleased that she seemed so happy to see him.
"It's great to see you, but why are you here?" he asked as he released her.
"I'm supposed to quest for the Great Power," she explained.
Billy turned to Dulcea with a curious expression.
Dulcea smiled at the two teenagers. "You are both selected to be permanent holders of the Great Power. In order to obtain that honor, you must first prove yourselves worthy. To do that, you must undertake the quest for the Great Power. Come with me, and we shall first discover your animal spirits."
They followed the Master Warrior of Phaedos to the main area of the temple, where she performed the ritual that called forth the two Rangers' animal spirits. This was purely to satisfy custom, as both knew what their animal spirits would be. A short time later, wearing the Blue and Pink Ninjetti uniforms, their respective chest shields sporting images of the wolf and crane, Billy and Katherine started down the steps and away from the temple.
"Did the others tell you what happened on their quest?" Billy asked his companion some time later. They'd walked in companionable silence for a long time, but the stillness was starting to creep into the uncomfortable zone.
"Not in any real detail. We are to be careful when amongst the dinosaur bones," Kat replied, looking around curiously. "They fought stone creatures at the monolith entrance. That's all I know of it," she admitted.
"Bones and stones, huh? Sounds like fun," Billy quipped.
Katherine looked at her companion, frankly surprised. She hadn't known Billy possessed a sense of humor at all. She began to suspect this adventure would lead to all sorts of unusual revelations.
"Did they mention chasms?" Billy asked suddenly.
"No, what do you mean? Oh ..." she replied, coming to stand beside him. There was a huge crack in the ground; perhaps 40 feet across and so deep the bottom could not be seen.
"Wonder what happened. Dulcea said nothing about seismic activity on this planet."
"Well, obviously they have it. Any ideas?" Kat asked.
"We could try to walk around, but that could take days. Or we can try to find a way across. The second option seems the most logical."
"Yeah," Katherine agreed, scanning the edge of the ravine for anything that could be moved to act as a bridge. "Funny, I don't remember them mentioning this."
"Perhaps the conditions change for each quest," Billy suggested distractedly.
"Maybe," the Pink Ranger murmured, looking up at the tall trees, hoping to see a vine or something they could use to swing across. She didn't' see any vines, but something about the trees caught her attention, though it took a minute for just what it was to register with her.
"Billy, the trees! That's how we can get across!" she said with considerable excitement.
Billy gave her a puzzled look, then shifted his gaze to follow hers. He caught her idea immediately.
"Talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees! You're right, Kat. It should work."
The trees in this section of the forest where extremely tall, very wide, and some grew quite near the edges of the ravine. There were places where the limbs from a tree on one side of the ravine intertwined with branches from a tree on the other side.
"We need to find one with very sturdy branches, then we can probably make it," Kat exclaimed, hurrying forward while scanning the trees eagerly. "Look! That should work just perfectly."
The tree on their side appeared older than most, and was actually tilting out over the chasm a bit. Its branches, some as big around as Katherine's waist, were tangled with the branches of the tree across the ravine, itself also quite sturdy.
Kat reached the base of the tree and began to climb quickly, working her way upward with a determination Billy couldn't help but admire. She reached the branch she felt was the best choice, and then waited patiently for her companion to catch up. Billy wasn't nearly the tree climber she was.
"I'll go first. It looks like we can just walk across, if we're careful. The other branches will give us something to hold on to, to give us a bit of balance," she said, carefully plotting her way across.
"Okay by me," Billy said, taking a position where he could watch her closely.
Kat started out slowly, choosing her way with extreme caution. She was about at the halfway point when she stepped on a small offshoot branch, which sprang up when she lifted her foot. In doing so, it somehow snagged her shoelace, entangling it and stopping her rather effectively.
"Darn it all!" she muttered, trying to pull her foot free. The shoelace had managed to get wrapped around the small branch several times and was completely stuck. She tried to yank free and nearly lost her balance.
"Kat!" Billy cried out in alarm as the tall blonde waved her arms about wildly, trying to regain her balance. He didn't dare breathe until she'd steadied herself.
"Kat, don't move, okay? I can see your problem, and I'm going to need to help you. How's the branch feeling for sturdiness?" he asked.
"It feels real strong, no give yet," she said softly, still panting heavily in the aftermath of her fright.
"Okay then, I'm coming on out. Just stay very still, okay? I'm starting out now." He kept up a running commentary until he reached her position just over halfway across.
"I'm right behind you now," he said at last. "I'm kneeling down, you'll feel a very slight tug on your shoe, perhaps, though I'll try not to. Do not move your foot until I say to, okay?" Billy lowered himself very carefully and with deft fingers untangled the shoelace.
"You're free now, go ahead and take a step," he advised her. She turned her head to thank him and promptly lost her balance, falling backwards onto him and knocking them both off the branch. In desperation she grabbed him around the waist, as he managed to grab the branch with desperate strength. Their fall stopped abruptly, leaving them swinging over a decidedly fatal drop.
Billy could feel Kat's panicky hold on his waist, her hands gripping the waistband of his pants.
"Kat? Kat, talk to me. Come on, Kat, it's okay," he spoke reassuringly.
"It's not okay," she gasped out, her breathing ragged with fear. "How can you say it's okay?"
"Kat, we can get out of this, if we keep calm. You have to calm down. I want you to take some steadying breaths, okay? Remember how you told me your diving instructor taught you to use breathing exercises to concentrate? I need you to do that now, all right? Come on, Kat, you can do this." His calm tone got through the Australian's panic, and he heard her take the first of several deep breaths. He waited until she seemed steadier.
"Kat, you're going to have to climb back up to the branch first. You'll be using me as a ladder, okay? Nice and slow and steady, that's the plan. I'm bending my leg back to give you some leverage. Can you feel that? Use that as a step, and reach up to my shoulder, okay? You can do this, Kat. You have to, I can't hold on all day. That's a girl, perfect. Now I'm bringing my other leg forward, you can brace your next step there and reach the branch. Perfect! Can you move yourself a bit to the side? Good. Now, again, here's my leg for a step, try to lever yourself back on top of the limb. Excellent!" Katherine had managed to pull herself up to the branch and straddled it awkwardly.
Relieved of Kat's additional weight, Billy jackknifed his body and managed a 'backward roll', swinging a leg over and coming to sit behind Katherine.
"Maybe we should just scoot across, huh? Not as dignified, perhaps, but a bit safer," Billy suggested at last.
Kat's answering snicker sounded a bit congested, as if she were crying. Billy made no comment, but gently urged her ahead.
Kat was leading the way toward the monolith when she stopped abruptly, leaning against a tree. "Time for a break," she muttered.
Billy found a nearby rock to sit on, and, not wishing to embarrass Katherine, stared at his feet with sudden interest. The silence, comfortable before the events at the ravine, was getting on both teens' nerves.
"I'm sorry," Kat said softly. "I ... I nearly killed you. I nearly killed us both." Her sapphire eyes were slightly red from her tears.
"It was an accident, Kat, that's all. And you recovered very quickly, and got yourself back up again. That's what really matters. It takes a lot of courage to do that," he smiled reassuringly. Giving in to an impulse, he stood and went to her, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder. "And you're forgetting the most important thing of all -- we're both okay."
Kat couldn't help but smile at that. "Yes, that's true," she agreed softly. "Thanks, Billy. For saving me earlier, and for your understanding."
Billy blushed slightly, looking down in sudden embarrassment. Kat was struck again by the difference between the teen she was with now and the one she'd met when she first joined the team. How could those who'd known him ever have accepted the clone as the real Billy? To her they seemed incredibly different.
"You're welcome," he mumbled. They stayed silent for a few moments, then Billy looked up with another faint smile. "I think we're close. I'll be glad to get this done with."
"What if we fail?" Kat asked with a slightly teasing smile.
"If we fail I'm going to be very ticked off," he grinned back. "And then Jason and Trini will have to quest so they can keep the powers. Which wouldn't be a good idea since I don't think blue or pink would be good colors for them."
"Oh, I dunno," Kat giggled. "Jason could probably pull of wearing pink very well."
Billy gave her an incredulous look then burst into laughter. "Oh, man. I have this mental flash of him wearing the Pink uniform; that little skirt would look so...so..." he couldn't continue as his laughter increased.
Kat's mind drew her an accurate picture of Jason Scott's muscular physique encased in the very feminine Pink armor, and she found she couldn't hold back her laughter any longer. Soon the Neola Jungle rang with the combined laughter of the two Human teenagers.
"Kim, she told me what Dulcea said about the Crane. I can just hear her telling him: 'Agile Jason, light as a feather'," Kat snickered, leaning against the tree for support as she continued to giggle.
"Oh, yeah, that's Jason all right," Billy snorted. He gradually got a grip again and was relieved to see Kat looked much better. "And on that note, we should probably get going," he suggested.
They hadn't realized they were close to the monolith until they suddenly came upon it, standing in the small clearing directly in front of its impressive stone bulk. The recesses where the stone guardians had stood before were now empty.
"So now what do we do?" Billy asked.
"Well, I guess Tommy approached the monolith, and the stone guardians attacked them. The guardians are gone, so I don't know what may happen now," Kat told him.
"I guess we should try approaching it? See what happens?" Billy suggested.
At Kat's nod they walked up to the base of the monolith and tentatively reached out and touched some of the engravings.
Billy stepped back and considered the engravings curiously. "There's something here we just aren't getting, Kat. We just have to figure out what that might be." He stepped back further, considering the stone surface. "Kat, does this look right to you? Complete?" he asked at last.
Katherine stepped back even further, taking in the entire surface. "You're right, something seems to be missing. Well, besides the guardians. That section, over there, I think something should be there. But what?"
Billy looked at each section individually, comparing them to each other. "I could be wrong, I'm not really a linguist, but I think it's like a story, but missing a chapter. The one that would be in that empty section. But how do we complete the story?" he mused out loud.
"The stone is missing!" Kat declared at last, her expression excited.
"Yes. See how there is a stone in the upper left corner of each segment? The one for that section is missing. That has to be it!"
Billy smiled at her excitement. "I can't believe I missed that! You're right. Now all we have to do is find the missing stone. Perhaps there is a clue on one of the other surfaces."
They walked around the monolith, and on the back they found hieroglyphs such as the ancient Egyptians used.
"We may be in luck, they seem fairly straightforward," Billy muttered, studying them intently. "Here's the monolith. And here are representations of the various animals that can house the Powers, I think. Ah, the stones, there. I think ... I think the stones are similar to our traditional birthstones on Earth. If that is close, then we are missing September, the sapphire." He gave a soft snort of laughter tinged with irony. "The blue stone. Figures."
"Look! Here. If that symbol is the missing stone, then here it is again. Maybe this is the story of where it was taken," Kat exclaimed, hunkering down to study the series of symbols more closely.
"I think you're right. And if I am getting the gist of what all this stands for, the stone was hidden in an old well, or mine. Look. Here. This symbol. It shows the sun to the east of the monolith, so I guess we go east, and search for this big hole," Billy said.
Kat nodded in agreement, and the two set off in an easterly direction, moving cautiously and thoroughly investigating the area.
"Whoa! I found it," Billy called over to Kat.
"Oh, my gosh. Billy, that looks like it's bottomless!"
Billy shrugged. "Let's see." He picked up a fist-sized rock and lobbed it into the hole. It was several seconds before they heard the faint sound of it hitting something.
"Very deep. I sure hope it isn't at the bottom of this thing; we may never find it." He looked around, considering their options. "How about I use some of these vines and make a rope? I'll rappel down the side and look for the stone. You'll stay up here and handle the rope."
"Wouldn't it be more logical for you to be on the top, and I go down? You being the stronger one, and me the lighter one?" Kat asked, looking a bit faint at the idea. She wasn't afraid of heights, or the dark, but the creepy crawlies that probably lived in the pit worried her a lot.
"We'll run the rope through a pulley like arrangement, allowing you to easily pull my weight up if needed. We can do this, Kat."
Working together, they gathered the vines they'd need to lower Billy into the deep pit, and he made a makeshift harness for himself, then weaving the rope cleverly through some low branches of a nearby tree, he arranged it so Kat could easily haul him up if needed.
"Good luck," Kat said softly as Billy stood at the edge, looking down with more unease than he wanted to admit to.
"Thanks," he smiled, and then started climbing downward with Kat playing out the vine.
He kept moving steadily down, calling out to Kat occasionally, looking carefully and probing into shadowy areas. Between the constant expectation that his hand would be bitten or cut by some hidden creature, and the irrational fear that Kat would abandon him to his fate in this dark place, he was close to panicking. He was about a hundred feet down when suddenly a flurry erupted from just below him, and a multitude of small bat-like creatures flew past him toward the surface. He gave a harsh cry of surprised fear.
"Kat, watch out! There are a bunch of bats coming your way," Billy called up to her, as he dropped to the area where the bats had originated. Seeming to glow with its own light, the missing stone sat in a small recessed niche. Billy grabbed it gratefully and tucked it into his shirt just as he heard Katherine scream.
"Kat! What's wrong?" he called as he heard her scream yet again. "Kat, pull me up!" There was no response from above, no pull on the vine holding him suspended above what was probably a fatal drop. "Kat!"
Up on the planet's surface, Katherine Hillard was fighting against panic, her own doubts, and about two dozen small winged creatures. She kept a grip on the vine, though, determined not to let Billy down. She was a sensitive young woman; she understood how hard it had to have been for Billy to place his safety in her hands, given his recent experiences. She had felt her first impressions of Billy - first as a rather cool, standoffish sort, then as a weak, beaten victim - be replaced by a powerful respect and admiration for how he had fought back against the effects of the last few months. She knew without a doubt that this Billy was someone she wanted to have as a friend over the long term. And nothing short of her own destruction would make her let go of the vine that was all that stood between Billy and possible death.
But, her determination did not mean she wasn't terrified. She hated things fluttering around her head, messing in her hair. She wrapped the vine around her back and held it with one hand while trying desperately to beat off the bats with a branch she found near her feet.
Billy's voice wafted up to her, and despite her own distraction she heard the fear in it. She started backing away, pulling her companion upward, while still enabling her to try to fight off the attack from the small, vicious bats.
The creatures finally broke off their attack, and Katherine started pulling Billy up faster.
"Kat, are you okay?" His voice was a lot closer, and sounded very worried.
"I'm fine, Billy. Are you okay?" she called out to him.
"Fine. Almost there ... good, I'm at the top," he gasped out, snatching an exposed root and using it to help haul himself up.
Kat saw him emerge and hurried forward, grabbing him and dragging him away from the edge. The bats disappeared back down the hole with an unearthly, thin screeching cry.
Billy could feel Kat's trembling. "Are you okay?" he asked again, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder in a one-armed hug.
"Y...yes. It's just ... they kept getting in my hair, and swooping down on me ... and they were everywhere ... I was afraid I'd drop the rope, I couldn't run away, get away from them," she stammered.
Billy tightened his grip. "Thank you. Thank you for not letting go, for hanging in there. You don't know how much your courage meant to me."
"My courage? Billy, I was scared to death! I'm still shaking, for heaven's sake. I'm not courageous!"
Billy looked taken aback at the self-loathing in her voice.
"Kat, staying there, holding on to that vine, that's the most courageous thing you could have done. It may sound trite, but real courage is doing what is right and required even if you're scared to death," Billy managed to look at her while saying that, though he knew he was blushing.
Kat felt tears sting her eyes at his sincerity. "Thank you," she murmured. "Did you get the stone?" she asked suddenly.
"Right here," he smiled, pulling it out and holding it up for her to admire.
"It's so beautiful," she breathed.
"Absolutely," he agreed, not looking at the stone.
"We should take it back, I guess," she said at last. They climbed to their feet and began to backtrack to the monolith, not talking, each lost in their thoughts.
Once at the monolith, Billy lost no time in placing the stone in its proper niche. As soon as it was in place, all twelve stones began to glow, and the monolith front opened. A ghostly crane and wolf flew out, circling the two teens before merging into the breastplates of their ninjetti uniforms. The monolith closed and the gems lost their bright glow, while Billy and Katherine stood still in surprise at the sensation of having been touched by the Great Power.
"Guess we head on back, now," Billy said at last, looking at Kat with a bright smile. It had felt so good to have had that fleeting contact with the Power.
Dulcea watched the Pink and Blue Rangers approach the temple, smiling warmly. They had succeeded, much as she had figured they would. But, more than that, she sensed that each of them had defeated some perceived weakness inside themselves, leaving them stronger than before.
"I see you were successful. Tell me, what did you learn on your quest?"
"I learned that I can be brave if I need to be," Kat replied quietly. "I wasn't sure I was brave enough to be a Ranger."
Dulcea glanced proudly at the blonde teen.
"I learned I can trust, that I can put my life in someone else's hands and they will honor that trust. I didn't know if I could take that risk again," Billy said.
"That is excellent, William. You both did well. You now possess the Great Power, use it wisely," she intoned as the two weary teens sat down on stone blocks.
"Thank you, Dulcea. Does this mean our time here has come to an end?" Billy asked quietly.
"Almost, William. Katherine can go home now, but you have one more hurdle to overcome; then you will be ready to resume your duties as the Blue Ranger."
"What might that be?"
"You must see if you can forgive, truly forgive, your friends for their part in what happened to you."
Jason followed after Tommy, his gaze darting around the rough stone ruins they were now entering. Once all of them were gathered in what appeared to be the main area of the temple, Tommy called out quietly.
"We're here, Dulcea."
"Greetings, Thomas. Rangers past, and present. For those who don't know me, I'm Dulcea, Master Warrior of Phaedos. You all know why you are here, correct?" she asked with a stern look at the assembled teens.
"We're here for Billy," Tommy said softly.
"Good, as long as you have that straight in your minds, this should go well. You need to let him say what he needs to say, accept his feelings, and let him know what yours are. He has recovered remarkably well physically, and as I'm sure Katherine told you, their quest was successful." The Master Warrior smiled warmly at the Pink Ranger.
"She did tell us. And she said Billy seemed very well. Thank you for that," Jason said seriously.
"I did nothing but provide the forum for his healing. He did the work himself. Now you must all work together to finish what he has started so well. This event has affected you all, and so it is that you all must heal. Go on to the main area of the temple; Billy will join you shortly." She turned and strode off in her abrupt way.
The group made their way to the main temple grounds, helping Aisha maneuver the stairs with her broken leg. Zordon had briefed them on what to expect from this encounter after an intense conversation with Dulcea concerning what needed to be resolved, and why. They all understood how much was at stake for both Billy and the entire team.
They stood around restively, some looking out over the jungle toward the monolith, remembering their first visit there and the quest for the Great Power, others gazed around curious as to what the temple had been like in its glory. They were all a bit startled by the arrival of a trim, blue-clad figure that appeared from deeper within the ruins.
"Billy!" Kimberly, who'd taken the time off from training, launched herself at her friend, unable to contain her joy at seeing him well after hearing about how horribly injured he'd been.
"Kim, it's good to see you! I didn't think you'd be able to make it," Billy smiled at his petite former teammate.
Kimberly's doe eyes saddened. "There is no way I could not come, Billy. I feel horrible about what happened."
"We all do," Tommy added from behind his girlfriend.
Billy looked at Tommy seriously, and then shifted his gaze to take in the others. "I guess that's why we're all here. Guess we should sit down and talk about it."
The teens all chose spots to sit, leaving them in a roughly circular formation. Once settled in, an uneasy silence fell over the group, and they found themselves looking from one to the other in some confusion.
"I suppose at some point someone is going to have to say something," Billy sighed. He felt the others' eyes upon him and fought his natural inclination to be silent and sink into the background. He sighed deeply.
"I want, more than anything, to say I have no problems with what happened over the last few months. But I can't honestly say that. Not yet, anyway. I ... I was so sure you guys would show up to rescue me. I feel kind of stupid now, but I really expected that to happen. Every time I was beaten, every time Finster 'took a sample' from me, every time I heard Goldar or Scorpina shouting for me, I told myself I could take it because soon my friends would rescue me. And every time it didn't happen, another small part of me seemed to die. But I'd make excuses; I'd figure the clone was causing so much trouble that you didn't have enough time for a rescue mission. Or some other, unknown disaster had occurred, preventing a rescue. As time went on, the scenarios became more and more elaborate and unlikely, but that hope was all I had left to me. When I looked up that day after Goldar's beating and saw Jason there ... I wasn't even sure he was real. You see, I'd finally given up. I'd finally accepted that the clone had successfully replaced me." The soft voice, thick with sorrow, paused.
"And that hurt. More than you can realize, that hurt. I could understand my dad not noticing something was wrong. He didn't have any reason to know ... to even suspect that I could be replaced by a clone. But you all knew." Anger was beginning to creep into the tone, growing as he spoke. "You knew it had happened. And yet still, you didn't wonder or test or question anything he did. Nor did you wonder what happened to the 'clone'. It had to be pretty obvious he wasn't killed. If Kat hadn't sought out the answers to her dreams with Jason and Trini, I very well could ... no, probably would ... be dead by now."
He stopped, realizing that several of his friends were in tears. He fought down the urge to apologize for what he'd said, understanding he had to speak out if he was ever to heal. His friends' pain also needed to be expressed; and to be expressed, it had to be felt. Or so Dulcea had explained it to him. But he was finding it was very painful to do.
"I'm not telling you this to hurt you, to punish you. I'm telling you this because I need to. I need for you to understand what I felt, what I'm feeling. And I need to know what you're feeling."
"I feel horrible," Kimberly spoke first, breaking the uncomfortable silence. Having been through therapy when her parents divorced, she knew what Billy was doing, she understood the process better than the others did. Plus, she'd not been there when Billy had been found, and during the two weeks before he'd come to Phaedos she'd barely had time to talk to him on the phone. She realized later that she could have found a way and the time to come to him.
"Not only for not realizing we had been deceived, and my part in that deception," she said quietly but firmly. "But for being afraid to face you after the fact. Afraid to come home while you were in Angel Grove, afraid to even call you. You're one of my oldest, dearest friends, and I was afraid to face you. I'm sorry," she concluded, tears streaming down her face.
Billy lost his own tenuous hold on his emotions as Kim approached him, offering her small hand to him. He used it to gently pull her into a tight embrace, surprised by the sudden sense of peace he felt. The icy pain in his heart began to thaw just a bit.
Jason came next, with an apprehensive expression foreign to those strong features. "Billy, I should have realized what had happened. I should have heard something in our conversations that tipped me off. I should have contacted Tommy to be sure you'd been tested properly after your return. But I didn't, and it hurts to know I failed you when you needed me the most." Billy was shocked to hear the deep voice break.
Dulcea had told him it would be hard, hearing his friends apologize, hearing their guilt. She hadn't exaggerated. He opened his mouth to reply but Zack interrupted him.
"That goes for me, too. I've known you too long to have been so completely fooled by the clone. I'm sorry, man."
Billy looked at the two teens who'd been his closest friends for nearly half his life. "It's okay, I understand how it happened," he began, but he got no further as he found himself in a three-way embrace. Words were unnecessary and a moment later they separated, each wiping surreptitiously at watering eyes.
Trini came next, saying simply, "I'm sorry." Her luminous dark eyes met Billy's light ones in wordless communication. Their embrace was perhaps a bit longer than the others.
Rocky's expression was so atypically serious Billy was almost worried. The Red Ranger strode up to stand directly in front of him and stared intently into Billy's face. Billy was about to ask of Rocky was okay when the other teen finally spoke.
"Are you absolutely sure you aren't the clone?" he demanded.
Billy started to speak, then caught the glint deep in the dark eyes glaring into his. He couldn't help it; he burst into laughter.
"Yeah, I'm sure, Rocky," he gasped out finally. The comment wasn't all that funny, but it had been so unexpected, so typically Rocky.
"Good," the dark-haired teen pulled Billy into a warm embrace, murmuring, "I'm sorry I didn't recognize the clone for what it was."
"It's okay, Rocky," Billy assured him, a smile still hovering around his lips.
After Rocky's retreat Adam was the next to step up. Billy recognized they were falling into a ritual-like rhythm, which he found to be oddly comforting. It also helped to realize that they were almost through, though the two he figured would be the toughest were still to come. Pushing those thoughts aside, he turned his attention to the Asian youth in front of him.
Adam's mouth moved, but no words had issued forth. The dark eyes were glistening with unshed tears; his misery was painfully obvious. Billy's first impulse was to step forward and offer his forgiveness before the other teen could say anything. Much as Jason had always exhibited a tendency to protect Billy, Billy had had the same inclination toward the soft-spoken Black Ranger. He knew Adam felt terrible; he didn't need him to say it out loud. But a sudden insight made the older teen resist that urge. He may not need to hear it, but some instinct told him that Adam needed to say it.
"I'm sorry," Adam managed at last. He looked at Billy with a sudden determination, as if steeling himself for a physical blow.
"I know you are. Apology accepted," he said softly, smiling a little to try to encourage the other teen.
Adam's return smile was a bit wobbly, but it heartened Billy a lot as they hugged. He whispered gently, "It's okay, Adam."
The Black Ranger's smile had solidified by the time he stepped away and Aisha hobbled forward.
"I'm sorry Billy, for what happened to you, for not realizing what had occurred," she began, but beneath her sadness was another emotion stirring which Billy had fully expected. "But ..." her voice trailed off.
"But I hurt you by letting the clone go after what he did," Billy concluded for her gently. "Is that it?"
"Yes," Aisha murmured, looking at her teammate with suddenly fiery eyes. "You let him go after he tried to kill me and all my family."
Billy flinched a little in the face of her anger, but didn't back down. "I'm sorry, Aisha. You have every right to be angry, and what I did was not fair to you or your family. But I did do it, and I'm not going to change it. I'm asking you to accept it if you can't understand it. Can you do that?"
The normally vivacious teenager looked at her teammate and friend with a pained expression. "You're asking a lot of me. I need some time to think this through."
"I understand that. Take all the time you need," he replied, his expression sorrowful. It seemed he'd lost a friend after all.
That left Tommy, who'd watched from his position farthest away from Billy. Slowly, realizing he was the only one left, he approached his teammate as if walking to his own execution.
The tall teenager found he had to summon all his courage to simply raise his gaze to meet that of his teammate. He'd seen the others apologize and be forgiven, but the others were not the leader. He'd failed not only as a friend and teammate, but as the leader of the Power Rangers. It was his job, his duty, to protect all the Rangers. A duty he failed miserably in this case. He dreaded seeing the anger and accusation he was sure he would find in the blue eyes.
Tommy screwed up his courage and sought out his friend's eyes. What he saw there encouraged him.
"I ... I'm sorry, really sorry, for not doing anything. Jason was right, you know. I should have insisted on an exam after the fight with the clone, even though he seemed so normal. If I had, you might have been freed long ago," he said miserably.
So that was the problem. "You couldn't have known, Tommy. From what I understand, his behavior was completely consistent with mine. If we all had to undergo complete exams after each fight we'd never get out of the Command Center," he tried to soothe his friend.
"But this time it could have made a difference," Tommy insisted.
"Maybe, maybe not. But I do know I can't live the rest of my life worried about 'what could have been'. It's over now, and I want to move forward unhindered by residual anger or bitterness from this time. That's why we're doing this, so we can move on. You have to let go of your guilt."
"I don't know how to do that."
"I'm not positive, but I think a good beginning would be for you to allow me to accept your apology and offer my forgiveness. Which I do quite willingly. Whatever could have been ... should have been ... would have been ... doesn't matter. It happened, and I for one want it behind me."
Tommy dropped his gaze, then looked back up directly into his teammate's eyes. "I'm sorry," he said simply.
"I accept your apology," Billy replied unhesitatingly.
Tommy pulled the smaller teen into a fierce embrace, surprised by how much better he felt by the simple act of saying and hearing those words.
Jason approached the two of them diffidently, waiting until they were finished before getting Tommy's attention.
"I owe you an apology, as well. I tried to lay all the guilt on you, and that wasn't fair, nor was it my place to be accusing you of anything. I was way out of line," the former Ranger said unflinchingly, offering his hand to the Ranger leader.
Tommy's smile was mildly ironic as he clasped the proffered hand, pulling his friend into a hug. "Accepted. I'm sorry too, for that fight in the Command Center."
"Geez, you pack one hell of a punch," Jason grinned, stepping back and contemplating his friend. "But also accepted," he said quietly. "We were both out of line, I guess."
"Gee, you think?" Rocky cracked, unable to resist an attempt to lighten the mood. "I thought Zordon was going to take you both out to the woodshed."
"Might have actually done some good," Zack chimed in, smiling.
The round of chuckles that greeted their bantering was somewhat subdued, but still encouraging. All the teens were feeling the effects of the emotional release.
Aisha had again worked her way closer to Billy, and he looked at her with a questioning expression.
"I still don't like what you did," she admitted. "But I can understand your reasons. And I value your friendship too much to lose it over that clone. If you can forgive me my part in stranding you on the moon, I can forgive you releasing the clone."
Billy smiled as he enveloped her in a bear hug. "I can accept that. Thank you, Aisha."
"Hey, Kat didn't get a hug," Rocky pointed out as the Yellow Ranger made her way back to the stone block she'd been using as a chair.
Katherine had sat quiet and unnoticed, watching the proceedings with an increased sense of pride and wonder at her new friends. Rocky's announcement startled her from her thoughts.
"Oh, I didn't do anything to merit a hug," she stammered, blushing.
"Well, you still should get one. Come on, give Billy a hug," Zack encouraged her, grinning widely.
Kat suspected the former Black Ranger and current Red Ranger were willing to be quite obnoxious in their desire to get her involved in the bonding. She decided to give in gracefully and walked over to Billy with a smile.
"I don't think they are going to give us a choice in this," she chuckled before stepping closer and holding out her arms.
Billy met her halfway and they found themselves wrapped in a warm embrace, both laughing softly.
"Okay, everyone happy now? Can we go home?" Kat asked at last.
"Yeah, can we go home? All of us?" Tommy asked seriously.
"Indeed, you have done yourselves, and Zordon, proud," Dulcea's voice spoke from the edge of the temple.
"So we're all free to go? Even Billy?" Jason asked.
"Yes, even Billy," she smiled, looking proudly at the young man.
"So what are we waiting for? Grab your stuff and let's go," Kim declared.
Moments later a rainbow of brightly colored streams left Phaedos and flowed unerringly toward Earth.
Billy found he was nervous as he waited for Tommy and Rocky to escort him back to his home. He'd missed his father terribly, but now that he was finally feeling normal again, he was anxious about his dad's reaction. After all, the last time Billy had seen him was after he'd punched the older man in the face in the grip of a bad dream.
To distract himself, he thought back to his leavetaking of Dulcea. The Master Warrior had insisted on escorting Billy alone to the cabin he'd used during his stay. After watching the young Human pack his belongings and shoulder the duffel bag, the Ninjetti guardian spoke.
"You have traveled a hard road, young wolf. You have proven yourself more than worthy to hold the Great Power. Should you ever find yourself in need again, you need only come to Phaedos and help will be available for you," she told him solemnly.
"Thank you, Dulcea. For all you have done for me. It is a debt I can never repay," he replied.
"You can repay me by continuing the battle on the side of the Light. By living a happy, successful life. By letting joy and wonder fill your heart, at least occasionally. It's been a pleasure having you here, William." She reached out a strong hand, running it down one cheek in a gentle caress. "Go now, your friends await."
He had turned and left abruptly, stopping at the doorway for a second, looking back to once more whisper "thank you," before hurrying back to the temple.
"You ready, Bro?" Tommy asked, startling Billy from his thoughts.
"Good. Your dad is home. He's not expecting you though, so he may be pretty surprised. Let's go."
Within seconds they were standing on the Cranston front porch. Rocky pushed the doorbell, then stepped back by Tommy, leaving Billy standing in front of them.
The door opened and Wallace Cranston almost chocked in his surprise at seeing his son standing there.
"Billy!" he cried out joyfully, embracing his son with a fierceness unexpected from someone so mild-looking.
"Dad," the teen murmured, returning the embrace with equal enthusiasm. The two Rangers exchanged quick looks, then teleported away without a word. Neither Cranston noticed their departure. A random thought crossed Billy's mind that he'd been hugged more that day than he'd been in the previous 16 years.
Wallace backed away a step, then reached out to take his son's face in his hands, looking directly into the light eyes.
"Are you okay? Are you really okay? Did it work?" he asked anxiously.
"I'm fine, Dad. I think it did work. Are you okay?"
"Now that you're home, I'm fine. I've been so worried; you have no idea. I contacted the Rangers a few times, but all they could ever tell me was that you were safe. That wasn't what I needed to hear."
"I don't think they knew how I was doing," Billy told him. "I don't' think Dulcea gave them progress reports."
"She was the one who helped me. She's a Master Warrior on the planet Phaedos. She also pretty well beat me up regularly. But she made sure I ate, made me work out, meditate, and talk. I didn't even realize how much it was helping until we were done."
"You do look at peace. Oh, Billy, I'm so sorry this happened to you. I kept thinking I should have realized something was wrong. It's just so easy to blame things on 'he's just a teenager', you know?"
"Dad, if I learned nothing else on Phaedos, it's that I have to let go of the past. It's over. You had no reason to even suspect you were living with a clone; no way to know anything had been done to me. You aren't to blame, Zedd and Rita are. And the Power Rangers will eventually take care of them. Come on, and I'll tell you about Phaedos," Billy invited, indicating the open front door.
Father and son entered their home, talking quietly, as evening began to fall in the town of Angel Grove.