Of Love and Bunnies

Disclaimer: We don’t own what we don’t own, including but not limited to Power Rangers.

Author’s Notes: “Of Love and Bunnies” is co-written by Freyja SilverWillow (Freyja) and CrazyGirl47 (Rain), with the exception of some of the first few chapters (Freyja left the project for a while, but she came back eventually). Around chapter 49 we corrupted Brynhild GoUrL (Bryn) into loving PR, and she started contributing ideas to the fic and became our third co-author. This will be a Tommy/Kimberly fic, but throughout the story, we plan to explain how Jason and Trini got together told through flashbacks and similar methods. Trent and Kira are also a couple in this story, though we’re not focusing on building their relationship; the show did that well enough.

And… if you enjoy angst-ridden, drama-filled, blood-dripping etc. Power Rangers stories, now would be an excellent time to hit the button with the arrow and the word “Back” on it. This fic isn’t going to be filled with battles and monsters; it’s about the Ranger’s actual lives. It’s about relationships—both romantic and platonic—plot, and humor, not fight scenes. There might be a few battles and whatnot, but this fic isn’t really about that. We’re more concerned with making people laugh, having a blast, and putting the characters in wonderfully psychotic situations. Reviews are greatly appreciated, but if you flame us, we’re probably just going to roll our eyes.

Additional Warnings: After a few years of writing this story, we figured it was time to amend the beginning author’s notes with a couple of warnings. OLaB, we’ve been told, is funny. In the hopes of ensuring the health, safety and clean computer screens of our readers, we’d like to ask that you do not eat, drink or operate heavy machinery while reading OLaB. We are not responsible for any injuries, damages or mental health diagnoses caused by this fanfic. That said, enjoy.

Last updated: 3/6/10

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[Chapter 1. It Came From Angel Grove | Chapter 2. A Small Problem | Chapter 3. Leader of the Whack | Chapter 4. Found and Lost | Chapter 5. Bulk Fiction | Chapter 6. A Golden Homecoming | Chapter 7. Return of an Old Friend | Chapter 8. Power Ranger Punks | Chapter 9. Something Fishy | Chapter 10. Mr Billy's Wild Ride | Chapter 11. A Ranger Catastrophe | Chapter 12. Bloom of Doom | Chapter 13. Thunder Struck | Chapter 14. The Mutiny | Chapter 15. Two for One | Chapter 16. When is a Ranger Not a Ranger? | Chapter 17. Birds of a Feather | Chapter 18. Food Fight | Chapter 19. Missing Green | Chapter 20. Out of Control | Chapter 21. Jason's Battle | Chapter 22. Fourth Down and Long | Chapter 23. Rangers in the Outfield | Chapter 24. Another Song and Dance | Chapter 25. Strange Relations | Chapter 26. History | Chapter 27. Rangers Back In Time | Chapter 28. Trust in Me | Chapter 29. Golden Boy | Chapter 30. Bicycle Built for the Blues | Chapter 31. No Clowning Around | Chapter 32. Two Heads Are Better Than One | Chapter 33. The Green Candle | Chapter 34. Where There's Smoke, There's Fire | Chapter 35. Green No More | Chapter 36. Alarmed and Dangerous | Chapter 37. Invasion of the Ranger Snatchers | Chapter 38. Rangers In Reverse | Chapter 39. Forever Red | Chapter 40. White Light | Chapter 41. In Your Dreams | Chapter 42. Water You Thinking? | Chapter 43. A Ranger Exclusive | Chapter 44. Clean Up Club | Chapter 45. Challenges | Chapter 46. Cars Attacks | Chapter 47. Beauty and the Beast | Chapter 48. Scent of a Weasel | Chapter 49. For Whom the Bell Trolls | Chapter 50. Foul Play in the Sky | Chapter 51. Wheel of Misfortune | Chapter 52. Different Drum | Chapter 53. Crystal of Nightmares | Chapter 54. A Drive to Win | Chapter 55. Back in Black | Chapter 56. The Rescue | Chapter 57. Rocky Just Wants to Have Fun | Chapter 58. Shift Into Turbo | Chapter 59. Lights, Camera, Action | Chapter 60. Life's a Masquerade | Chapter 61. Target Rangers | Chapter 62. For Cryin' Out Loud | Chapter 63. Opposites Attract | Chapter 64. Game On | Chapter 65. Game of Honor | Chapter 66. The Green Dream | Chapter 67. Ninja Quest | Chapter 68. RockaBye Power Rangers | Chapter 69. A Friend in Need | Chapter 70. Scavenger Hunt | Chapter 71. Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise | Chapter 72. Best Man for the Job | Chapter 73. Climb Every Fountain | Chapter 74. Do I Know You? | Chapter 75. A Brush with Destiny | Chapter 76. High Five | Chapter 77. Another Brick in the Wall | Chapter 78. Transmission Impossible | Chapter 79. Dark Warrior | Chapter 80. Rally Ranger | Chapter 81. A Chimp in Charge | Chapter 82. Disappearing Act | Chapter 83. Teamwork | Chapter 84. Burning at Both Ends | 85. Sowing the Seas of Evil | 86. Bomber in the Summer | 87. Beneath the Surface | 88. Mirror of Regret | 89. A Test of Trust | 90. Song Sung Yellow | 91. Trick or Treat | 92. Every Dog Has Its Day | 93. The Sound of Dischordia | 94. House of Cards | 95. The Whole Lie | 96. Built for Speed | 97. Wild West Rangers | 98. A Few Bad Seeds | 99. Follow That Cab! | 100. Legacy of Power | 101. Calamity Kimberly | 102. Forever Friends | 103. Lost & Found in Translation | 104. Truth and Consequences | 105. A Pressing Engagement | 106. Peace, Love and Woe | 107. Enter the Lizzinator | 108. The Alien Trap | 109. The Potion Notion | 110. Doomsday | 111. Orchestral Maneuvers in the Park]

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Chapter 1: It Came From Angel Grove

On the first Saturday of summer vacation, Tommy sat in Hayley's Cyberspace with Conner, Kira, and Ethan, listening as they discussed their plans for the upcoming months before moving on to college and whatnot in the fall. Tommy couldn't help but feel a twinge of nostalgia, a wistful longing for the old days back at Angel Grove Youth Center with Jason, Trini, Billy, Kimberly and Zack, chatting away over smoothies or while working out, talking about what to do with their free time. It had been over a decade since he'd done anything in one big group with his first real friends, but it seemed like only a week ago.

Tommy was so lost in thought that he nearly jumped out of his skin when a newspaper hit the table in front of him; he whipped around to see Hayley grinning down at him.

"I think you'll find page two rather interesting," she told him, nodding at the paper before heading off to the sweep the floor behind counter.

Curious, Tommy looked down at the paper, wondering what could possibly interest him. He never read the paper anymore, not now that it was no longer filled with stories about the Power Rangers. Once Mesogog had been defeated, the paper had become quite boring to him; he only read the sports page and the comics now. He had entertained himself with the major stories for a few days after the last battle, reading the coverage of Mesogog's downfall and then the speculation on what had happened to the Rangers (most of the town was wondering if they'd ever be seen in Reefside again). Now, however, it was mostly politics and such.

Tommy flipped to page two, his mouth dropping open at the photographs. One, which was relatively small and done in black-and-white, he recognized immediately as Angel Grove Park. To the right of the photo was a rare photograph of his old Power Rangers team, of the White, Black, Pink, Blue, Yellow and Red Rangers, and above both pictures was the headline, "Angel Grove to celebrate Power Rangers Day."

Tommy stared at the headline, wondering if he was having some freakish sort of flashback. A Power Rangers Day? Again? ...When there was no Power Rangers team?

He skimmed over the article, which was relatively long and talked about the original Power Rangers Day more than a decade ago, when Rita Repulsa had kidnapped the citizens of Angel Grove. There was also a good deal of speculation about whether the old Rangers would actually show up. The story continued to another page, and Tommy flipped to it, intrigued as he read through quotes from Angel Grove residents talking about how hopeful they were to see the old Rangers. He smiled when he saw a quote from someone in Reefside, who hoped feverishly that the Dino Rangers would put in an appearance as well. That explained why something like this was in the Reefside paper—the town was missing its heroes.

"'...Angel Grove's mayor has announced that, to celebrate the anniversary of the original Power Rangers Day, another ceremony will be held in Angel Grove Park, to once again thank the original Power Rangers team for protecting the city and for all their good deeds.'"

Tommy jumped and looked around; Conner, Ethan and Kira were now standing behind him, reading over his shoulder. He closed the newspaper. "Didn't anyone ever tell you that it's rude to read over people's shoulders?"

"We tried reading it from where we were sitting, but that was kind of hard," Ethan said cheerfully.

"'The mayor is confident that the Power Rangers will put in an appearance; after all, they have never let Angel Grove down in any way,'" Conner continued, then looked up at Tommy expectantly. "Are you going?"

Tommy sighed; he was sure he had never been so annoying at seventeen. He turned back to the paper, staring down at it. Did they have to put it like that? As if it was their sacred duty to show up for Power Rangers Day?

"I don't know," he said absently, considering it. On the one hand, he wasn't sure if he was invited or not. He knew the others would want him there... but he would feel quite stupid if the town meant the five original Rangers, and not him. Still, he might as well head for Angel Grove, see if they had a poster of the White Ranger up there with the other posters... and it'd be cool to see the gang again, regardless of whether or not the town planned on honoring him. He could spend some time with the old gang, provided they came... Jason and Trini, Billy, Zack... and Kimberly...

"Can we come?" Kira asked eagerly.

"What?" Tommy looked up again, startled.

"Come on! We want to meet them!" Ethan exclaimed. "The original Rangers... they're legends!"

Tommy suddenly found himself surrounded by young hopeful faces with puppy-dog eyes. Realizing he was now in dangerous territory, he schooled his features into his best Teacher Look. "I don't think so, guys," Tommy said firmly.

"Why not?" Conner whined, nearly pouting.

Think, Tommy, think... "Because... it's too dangerous." Oh, THAT was smart. The first thing that pops into your head is danger and you spit it right out. Smooth move. Surely they'll buy THAT— "honoring the original Rangers with a simple ceremony is too dangerous for superheroes that fought evil on an almost-daily basis." Riiiiight.

"But we thrive on danger!" Ethan exclaimed.

"If there's danger, you're gonna need us," Conner added.

"Yeah, fighting evil is our job," Kira joined in. "At least, it was..."

"The original Rangers will be there," Tommy reminded them.

"And they might need help," Conner said, nodding emphatically.

"You can't morph anymore, remember?" Tommy pointed out. He decided to omit the fact that only three of the original Rangers still had Power Coins; he couldn't morph himself, except as Zeo Ranger Five.

"But we can still fight," Conner insisted stubbornly.

Tommy sighed and decided to switch tactics. "Trust me, guys, you don't want to go. All that traveling just for some dull ceremony—you'll be beyond bored."

"And you won't be?" Kira asked.

"Um... of course I will be, but—"

"That's why you should take us with you!" Conner interrupted. "We'll liven up the place! You'll have us to keep you company and hang out with you—"

"Conner, you're not helping," Ethan cut in quickly.

Before Conner could reply, Trent came over and sat down, shortly followed by Hayley. "This place is dead today," Trent said, looking around at the café, which was empty, save for the five ex-Rangers and Hayley. Shrugging, he looked around at his friends and former teacher. "So what's going on, guys?"

"Dr. O's going back to visit Angel Grove because they're honoring the original Power Rangers including him and he's gonna take us with him," Conner replied promptly.

"That's a great idea, Tommy," Hayley told him before Tommy could deny Conner's statement. "I bet Jason and Billy and everyone would like to meet them, and I'm sure they'd all love to see Angel Grove—"

"Yeah, that sounds awesome," Trent jumped in eagerly. "When do we leave?"

" We don't," Tommy said flatly. "I'm going alone. IF I go."

"But Dr. Oooooooo..." all four teenagers whined.

"Why?" Hayley asked.

"Because the last thing I need is these kids asking Jason and the gang what I was like in high school," Tommy muttered, low enough that only she could hear.

Hayley fought to suppress a laugh. "Oh. I see."

"Hayley," Kira said pleadingly, "if anyone can convince Dr. O to let us come—"

"Oh, look, there's an invisible customer over there. I better go help him," Hayley said quickly, retreating.

Tommy stared after her indignantly. She was supposed to back me up, not run for it, he thought irritably.

"Come on, Dr. O," Trent said. "It'd be so cool to see Angel Grove. You could show us the sights."

Ethan nodded. "Yeah! 'That's where I fought a monster, and that's where I fought a monster, and look over there! That's where I fought a monster!'"

"Ethan, you're not helping," Kira said.

"Guys, I can't afford to take all four of you all the way to Angel Grove," Tommy replied, struck by sudden inspiration. "I mean, the drive all the way there, the drive all the way back... and I might actually stay a few days, if my friends come—"

"We'll hitchhike and sleep in a tent!" Conner exclaimed, as though this was the most logical solution in the world. Everyone turned to stare at him. "What?"

"Or we'll pay our own way," Kira said, shaking her head at Conner.

"Yeah, what she said."

"Actually, my dad told me that he said he'd pay for me to go on a vacation if I wanted," Trent spoke up. "He said I could bring some friends, too. You know, it's a reward thing."

"For saving the world?" Ethan asked.

"For getting good grades."

"Oh."

"I couldn't ask him to do that," Tommy said quickly, racking his brains for a way out of this.

"He offered, Dr. O. And I know he'll be cool with me going to Angel Grove, especially if you're going—"

Tommy shook his head. The last Power Rangers Day hadn't exactly gone smoothly, and he didn't really like the idea of taking the former Dino Thunder Rangers back to Angel Grove. It wasn't really about the teasing both groups of former Rangers would inflict upon him like he'd told Hayley; he was worried that something might happen... and if truth be told, he wasn't too sure he wanted anyone else along on a trip to go see the old gang. Now that the opportunity had presented itself, he was suddenly aching to spend some time alone with his first and best friends. He hadn't actually spent time with all five of together at once since Trini, Zack and Jason had left for the Peace Conference, he'd only gotten to see Billy twice since Billy had left for Aquitar... and he hadn't spent time with Kimberly at all since The Letter. He didn't know if she'd come or not, but he knew that if she did, he'd be a basket case the whole time, though he was looking forward to seeing her. One thing he regretted about Kimberly was that he'd never patched things up, never contacted her and tried to at least stay friends. Still, whether Kimberly came or not, he had a strong desire to fly solo, if he even did fly at all. "Trent," he said after a long pause, "go somewhere fun, okay? This is going to be a complete drag, and I don't even know if the original Rangers will make it. I mean, Billy's on a completely different planet, for crying out loud. This will be a lot more work than fun. I wouldn't even go if I didn't have to."

"Why do you have to?" Conner asked.

"...Because the last time Angel Grove had a Power Rangers Day, the entire town got kidnapped," he admitted reluctantly.

"Really?" Kira said, looking alarmed.

"We should definitely go, then," Ethan added. "I mean, what if it happens again? What if the original Rangers aren't enough?"

Tommy squirmed a little in his chair. That WAS a fair point... but Rita was destroyed, and so were all other evil entities with grudges against the original team. Surely nothing bad would go wrong? That's what they always say right before a big evil comes along, he reminded himself.

"Guys, you can't morph, and you know it."

"But sometimes powers recharge, just like you said some of the Red Rangers' did when you had that mission on the moon," Kira reminded him.

"That doesn't mean yours will. Besides, there's not going to be any big evil battle," Tommy said firmly, trying to convince himself as much as the Dino Rangers. "Everything's going to be fine."

"What happened to 'it's too dangerous'?" Ethan demanded.

"Dr. O, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Conner whined. "I've always wanted to meet the first Rangers." He put on his best pleading look, and Tommy sighed, his resolve weakening... and then returning full-force when Conner added, "I hear the Pink Ranger is especially hot." Kira glared at Conner and smacked him upside the head, hard. "OW!"

Tommy stood up quickly, filled with a sudden intense annoyance he couldn't control. It took all of his willpower not to bite Conner's head off. Instead, he snapped, "Conner, you are NOT going."

Conner stared up at Tommy's glaring face in surprise. "Um... please?" he asked nervously.

Tommy stood up and began to walk over to Hayley. "I said NO, guys. That's final."

"Come on, Dr. O!" Kira exclaimed, standing up. She and the three guys followed him across the café and he stopped, knowing they would follow him all over town if he tried to escape. "We may not be Rangers, but we still have skills. If something did happen and we stayed here, it would take us ages to get to Angel Grove to help, if we even heard about it at all."

"Kira, you're not helping," Trent warned, realizing the flip side of her argument.

"And if you come, you'll be leaving Reefside open and vulnerable, with no one here to contact you." Ha! Take that! Score one for Dr. Oliver! Tommy gloated mentally.

"Except Hayley," Ethan pointed out. "And Dr. Mercer."

Curses, Tommy thought, resisting the urge to strangle Ethan. Thinking fast, he shrugged the comment off. "And if all of us were in one place, and there was an attack, then there wouldn't be any backup—"

"I thought you said there wasn't going to be an attack," Conner said, looking confused.

"That's not the point," Tommy whined. That was the problem with teenagers—and Rangers, really. They never gave up.

"Come on, Dr. O," Trent cajoled. "Nothing's going to happen. My dad's no longer evil, and unless something freaky happens to turn him into a killing machine again—"

"Trent, you're not helping," Conner interrupted with a smirk.

"Guys, I said no. You cannot come. Get it through your thick skulls, okay?"

"Never! Nothing gets in our thick skulls!" Conner declared, striking a tough-guy sort of pose.

"Conner, you're not helping," Ethan said dryly. He looked at Conner, Kira and Trent in turn, and then all four of them turned to look at Tommy. Something about the gleam in Ethan, Conner and Kira's eyes made Tommy take a nervous step backward. "Guys—" Ethan grinned in an almost maniacal way— "I think it's time we tried a little something called teamwork."

Tommy's eyes darted to the door, not knowing what they were planning but knowing he didn't want to be around for it. Just as he decided he could make it to the door if he dodged between Kira and Trent, Conner shouted, "Everyone grab a limb!" and Conner, Kira and Ethan leaped at him.

"What the—ARGH!"

Ethan seized Tommy's right arm, hugging it to him tightly, while Conner and Kira each grabbed a leg and held on like two year olds trying to prevent Daddy going to work and leaving them at day care.

"You're not leaving without us!" Conner yelled, wrapping his arms and legs around Tommy's right leg and sitting on his foot.

"Let go!" Tommy commanded indignantly. "You're crushing my foot, Conner!"

"And I'm gonna keep crushing it until you agree to take us with you!"

"And I'm going to keep crushing your other foot!" Kira added.

Tommy looked down at the slender girl, who weighed next to nothing compared to Conner, and sighed. "Guys, I'm warning you—"

"Give it up, Dr. O. You're beat," Ethan told him smugly.

"And we're out of school so you can't give us detention and extra homework!" Conner exclaimed.

"One day, Conner, remind me to explain the meaning of the word 'priorities.'" Kira snorted, rolling her eyes.

"Let GOOOO!" Tommy fairly screamed, shaking the leg Kira was holding so hard that she went slightly cross-eyed.

"What is going ON over here?"

"Hayley!" Tommy cried in relief as she hurried over. "Hayley, help!"

"What are you doing?" Hayley demanded, staring at the three teenagers glomped to Tommy, who had begun attempting to dislodge Ethan with his remaining free arm.

"We're persuading Dr. Oliver here to take us to Angel Grove," Conner said cheerfully.

Hayley stared at him, then glanced at Trent, who was standing nearby and watching in amusement. "Hey, don't look at me," he said defensively. "I'm still sane."

"Hayley! A little help, please?" Tommy begged.

The corners of Hayley's mouth twitched in amusement. Behind them, two local teens entered the café and approached the counter. "Sorry, Tommy," she apologized unconvincingly. "Even if I had the strength to pull the three of them off of you, I've got customers to serve."

"Hayley!" Tommy yelled. He turned to Trent as Hayley hurried away. "Trent, come on, help me get—"

"No!" Kira yelped at Trent.

"Don't be swayed by the dark side, man!" Conner insisted. He paused. "Well, again!"

"Yeah," Ethan added, trying to dodge Tommy's left arm. "Give us a hand! You want to go to Angel Grove, don't you?"

"Um... I think Hayley needs me," Trent muttered, giving them all a weird look and edging back towards the counter.

"Trent! Come on, buddy, we need you!" Ethan yelled. Tommy had now grabbed Ethan's forehead and was trying to push him back.

"If you're not with us, you're against us!" Conner proclaimed, glaring at him.

"What he said!" Kira agreed, narrowing her eyes.

"...You realize you're all acting psychotic, right?" They all nodded, save Ethan, who gave a thumbs-up as best he could while clutching Tommy's arm with his head forced back at an uncomfortable angle. Trent shook his head. "I'll be over there. Trying to explain to the customers why you guys have attacked Dr. O like toddlers."

"You do that, traitor!" Conner yelled after him.

Tommy growled and let go of Ethan's head. "You know what? I'm an adult. I have a longer attention span than you three. And I'm NOT changing my mind. AT ALL. So go ahead, sit on my feet and pin my arm! I am not taking you with me!"

~*~

About an hour later, Hayley's Cyberspace was far busier, filled with teenagers playing on the computers, talking over drinks... or simply staring, pointing and laughing at Tommy, who was still standing in the middle of the café with Conner on one foot, Kira on the other, and Ethan on his arm. The café's patrons were becoming quite used to the sight; several people had come over talk to Kira, Ethan or Conner for the moment, and some had even said a few words to Tommy. Whatever Trent had said about the situation, it must have sounded good; everyone seemed to think that there was a perfectly logical reason for the strange sight, and no one really questioned it, though they did think it was amusing.

Tommy was about to lose his mind. He had never been much for holding still, and the three teenagers weren't helping. Ethan was now holding his right arm and the end of his left sleeve, preventing him from using either arm (not surprising, considering how often Tommy had spontaneously started hitting him). Kira had scooted around so that she was sitting behind his foot with her arms and legs wrapped around the front of his leg and her head resting just behind his knee. Conner occasionally poked him in the leg for the fun of it, which wouldn't be so bad if he didn't keep poking the same spot often enough that Tommy was wondering about bruising... and there were also several other annoyances.

"Are you gonna take us now?" Ethan whined. He'd been asking the same question every two minutes for the last hour.

"No."

"Are you gonna take us now?" So had Conner.

"No."

"Are you gonna take us now?" And Kira.

"The next person who asks me that is going to accidentally fall off a cliff onto extremely sharp rocks and their mutilated corpse will be washed away into the ocean and never seen again."

Silence.

Just as Tommy was starting to think that they'd let it go, Ethan cleared his throat.

"Can we come with you now?"

A scream was threatening to burst forth, building inside his throat and attempting to fight its way out. Just before he let out his frustration, however, a familiar buzzing started in his back pocket.

"ARGH!" Kira shrieked, pulling back from his leg as far as she could without letting go.

"What was that?" Ethan asked, alarmed.

"What was what?" Conner said, unconcerned. "Kira just randomly screamed—"

"Something just started vibrating," Ethan interrupted, noticing it too.

"On Dr. O?" Conner asked, wrinkling his nose in disgust and looking rather horrified at the implications.

"I think it was something in his pocket," Kira said, breathing heavily from the start she'd been given.

Tommy glowered at Conner, the only one in his direct line of sight. "It was just my cell ph—HEY! GET YOUR HAND OUT OF THERE!"

The entire café turned to stare, but Tommy was too freaked out to care. Someone had just put their hand in his back pocket, and that was not exactly something he had expected to happen (much like the rest of the day).

Kira removed her hand, her fingers clenched around the cell phone. "Trini, eh? Who's that, Dr. O?"

"Dr. O's got a GIRLFRIEND!" Conner declared gleefully.

"Give me the phone, Kira," Tommy said in his best no-nonsense voice.

Ethan grinned. "Dr. O seems a little busy to me. What do you think, guys?"

Tommy heard the sound of Kira flipping his phone open. Panicking, Tommy jerked his arm up out of his sleeve and down and out of his shirt, freeing it and making a wild grab for the phone. Kira yelped, ducked, and tossed the phone to Ethan, who released Tommy, snatched the phone, hit the send button and ran for it.

"Run, Ethan!" Conner yelled.

"We've got him—ARGH!"

Now that his arms were free, Tommy was able to grab Kira and pry her loose, freeing his left leg easily. He reached for Conner, but Conner, in a rare moment of intelligence, figured it was time to run also, and took off.

"Dr. Oliver's cell phone," Ethan said pleasantly into the microphone as Tommy chased him around the tables, his shirt riding up as he stretched out his arms to try to grab Ethan, one arm and half of his chest uncovered.

"...Who is this?" asked a deep, masculine voice, which wasn't at all what Ethan was expecting. He had, after all, thought he was about to talk to Tommy's "girlfriend."

"You're a GUY?" Ethan said, so startled that he stopped—giving Tommy the chance to catch him. "AUGH! CONNER! Go long!"

The cell phone flew across the café. Tommy let go of Ethan and spun around just in time to see Conner leap forward and catch it. Various customers clapped and cheered at the move.

"CONNER!" Tommy bellowed.

"Hello?" Conner said.

"Hello?" said the voice at the other end.

"Trini is a guy's name?" Conner said in surprise.

"That's my wife's name—who is this?"

"I'm one of Dr. O's students. Who's this?"

"GIVE. ME. THE. PHONE!" Tommy roared, running full-speed at Conner.

Conner leaped away and ran for it. "Ethan!" he yelled as Tommy chased him back to the other side of the café.

Ethan caught the phone and took off once again. "Was that Tommy I heard in the background?" the caller asked.

"Yeah, he's here," Ethan said, jumping over someone who had crouched down to tie their shoe (and scaring the person half to death). "He's just a little busy at the moment."

"When I'm through with you three you'll only WISH I'd still be able to give detentions!" Tommy shouted, leaping over the shoe-tying person as well. Conner's sudden burst of laughter didn't improve Tommy's mood.

"Busy doing what?" the caller asked.

"Um... exchanging words with a few unruly former students, is all."

"ETHAN!"

"Hold please," Ethan said pleasantly, and faked a pass to Kira; as soon as Tommy ran at her, Ethan threw the phone back to Conner.

"So, who is this?" Conner asked, crouching down behind a table in the corner as Kira distracted Tommy.

"Tommy's friend, Jason Scott," came the amused-sounding reply. "How did you get Tommy's cell ph—?"

"Jason Scott? THE Jason Scott?" Conner hissed, glancing around to make sure no one was in earshot. "The original Red Ranger?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Jason said, a little too quickly.

"Dude, it's cool. This is Conner McKnight, the Red Dino Ranger!"

"Oh," Jason said. "I've heard about you from Tommy."

"Same here! Dude, you're a legend! THE Red Ranger. The first Red Ranger, the original leader of the Power Rangers—"

"Um, you're not in public, are you?" Jason asked worriedly.

"I'm whispering," Conner replied. "And no one's really paying attention to me."

"Um... right. Is Tommy—"

"I can't believe this!" Conner shouted ecstatically, standing up and knocking the table over in the process. "THE Jason Scott! THE FIRST RED! Ethan! Kira! GUESS WHO THIS IS!"

"It wouldn't be Jason Scott, the first Red, would it?" Kira said dryly. Glancing around casually, she searched the customers' faces for signs of realization, but no one appeared to have connected "the first Red" with the Power Rangers.

"How'd you guess?" Conner said, disappointed.

"RAWG!" Tommy growled, diving at Conner from the side. Conner looked over in surprise, having forgotten their game of Keep Away From Angry (Former) Teacher, and threw the phone just before Tommy crashed into him, sending them tumbling into the overturned table in a painful heap.

Kira caught the phone, stunned and suddenly terrified. Jason Scott, the original Red Ranger, the first person to ever lead the Rangers, was on the phone. What was she going to SAY?

"Hello? HELLO?" came Jason's voice.

Shakily, she put the receiver to her ear. "H-hello?"

"...Hi. Who's this?"

"Th-this is Kira," she said, backing away from the crowd, attempting to get over her nerves at talking to a legend like Jason while getting out of the onlookers' listening range and Tommy's direct line of sight. "Kira Ford. I'm, uh, I mean, I was Yellow. I mean, you know, THE Yellow, not yellow as in chicken. I mean, as in cowardly, not as in actual chicken... is this really Jason Scott?"

Jason chuckled. "Yeah, that's me. Listen... what's going on over there? I keep hearing Tommy shouting—"

"Oh, uh..." Kira wrinkled her brow, thinking fast. "He's excited. We just heard about the celebration, and he's going to take us to Angel Grove to meet you guys!"

"Oh, really?" Jason said, surprised. "That sounds great. We were all so surprised to hear that he had created a new Ranger team. I look forward to meeting you."

"Are you all going to be there?" Kira squeaked.

"All of the old team? I hope so. I've talked to—"

"KIRA! Look out!"

Kira, so star struck by the thought of actually meeting Jason, had forgotten about Tommy much like Conner had; he came barreling from out of nowhere and snatched the phone, his loose sleeve whacking her in the head as he turned away from her. "Jason?" he gasped, out of breath from anger and exertion.

"Hey, Tommy! How's it going? Kira was just telling me that you're bringing the new crew down for Power Rangers Day."

Tommy sighed long-sufferingly and looked around him. At least four tables and six chairs were knocked over. Several overturned drinks were being mopped up by Trent. The customers, who'd been cheering throughout the game of phone tag, were lining the walls in an attempt to avoid getting hurt. Hayley was staring at him with murder in her eyes. And only half of his chest was still covered by his shirt. Shrugging his shirt back on, he could have sworn he heard a few sighs... and one female whisper of "No, you shouldn't think about teachers like that... ohhh nooo..."

"Yeah," Tommy told Jason sadly. "You'll finally get to meet the four wonderful kids who made up the team." Before they die slow painful deaths, he added silently. "Hang on a second; let me go somewhere... that's not here..."

He turned around to find Hayley glaring up at him. "You go anywhere NEAR that door before this place is clean, and I'll make you wish Mesogog was back."

Tommy stared down at her blankly and slowly blinked. "On second thought, Jason, let me call you back."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 2: A Small Problem

Jason grinned broadly as he set down the phone; from the sounds of things, Tommy had never achieved that dream of settling down and living the quiet life. Tommy's life was never very calm, orderly or normal. Jason hadn't really been very surprised to hear that Tommy had formed a new Ranger team and gotten back into uniform; in fact, Jason had just shaken his head and remarked that Tommy would probably end up as a sixty-year-old slightly arthritic Orange Ranger at this rate.

Jason sat back on his couch, glancing absently around the living room. After college, almost three years after he'd broken up with Emily, he'd returned to Angel Grove to open his own dojo, which had been very successful; there were a lot of martial arts fans in the original home of the Power Rangers. His life since the Ranger days hadn't been anywhere near as exciting as Tommy's, but it had been comfortable, and happy—even more so when Trini had come back into it.

He'd gotten together with Trini back in high school, shortly before leaving the Rangers, and he'd stayed with her during the Peace Conference. They'd decided to cool it after the conference and just stay friends; Trini had been bound for MIT, and Jason had wanted to go back to California. They'd kept in touch and remained close while Jason worked on a business degree (he'd wanted to have a fallback, another job opportunity in case his plan of running a dojo had failed, and he'd figured business management would help his school more successful and give him other options if it didn't work out), and Trini studied to be a software designer. She'd gotten a job with a computer company in Louisiana, but she'd missed Angel Grove, and was able to transfer to Angel Grove within a year. She and Jason became inseparable again, spending every spare moment together, and before long, they were a couple again. They'd been married for a little over two years now, and they were thoroughly happy.

Jason had kept in touch with all of his old friends, especially Tommy, Zack, Billy, and Kimberly—which wasn't surprising, given that, with the exception of Tommy, they'd all known each other for most of their lives. At the moment, Billy was the only one who wasn't in California; he was still on Aquitar with Cestria. It was rather silly to ask Billy to come home from a completely different planet just for a short ceremony, but Trini had decided she'd let him know about it; Billy had been thinking about returning to visit anyway. They had all missed Billy, though it helped that he'd sent communication devices to keep in touch with all of his friends (which came with long instructions that no one but Trini could interpret; she'd spent a good long while calling everyone who'd gotten one and helping them figure it out). Trini was especially excited at the thought that Billy might actually come to visit; the two of them had always been very close. Billy had only been back to Earth twice since leaving, and both times had only been for a few hours—once to collect his belongings (only the Zeo Rangers had gotten to see him that time) and once to attend Jason and Trini's wedding.

Trini and Jason had already called Zack, who was working as a fight choreographer in Hollywood. Zack had always made it a point to take some time off each year and visit his friends and family, and he'd immediately warmed to the idea of getting the old crew together for a few days. He was already making plans to spend about a week in Angel Grove, regardless of whether Tommy, Billy and Kimberly came for Power Rangers Day; even if it was only Trini, Jason and Zack who made it, they were all looking forward to it. Zack had booked a local hotel room for the week before Power Rangers Day; they'd offered to let him stay at the house, but he'd pointed out that four extra people might be a little cramped in Trini and Jason's home, and at least Billy was going to have to stay with them, since Billy no longer had American money, or any other form of currency used on Earth.

Now that Tommy and Zack had decided to come, and Trini was talking to Billy, the only person who didn't know about Power Rangers Day was Kimberly. Kimberly, who'd had a long career as a gymnast and even won two Olympic medals, now lived in Los Angeles and ran a gymnastics center. Jason was sure she'd love to come... but she would probably be quite awkward around Tommy. They'd only seen each other once since Kimberly had left for the Pan Global games, and that had been when she and Jason got kidnapped by Divatox, roughly seven years ago. Kimberly and Tommy had barely spoken then, and they'd both seemed very strained. Ever since Jason had heard about the letter Kimberly had sent Tommy, he had avoided asking her about Tommy at all, and she hadn't offered any information. Jason didn't want to take sides, to sacrifice one friend for the other, so he'd just kept his mouth shut about it. Kimberly and Tommy hadn't been hateful or angry with each other when they'd met up during the kidnapping thing, but they hadn't exactly chatted away. Jason couldn't recall them saying a word that wasn't tense small talk or something to do with Divatox. Kimberly would definitely want to get together with Trini, Zack, Jason and Billy, but Jason wasn't sure what her reaction to Tommy would be. He knew Tommy regretted not staying friends with her, or fighting to get her back, but Jason had no clue what Kimberly's thoughts were. Perhaps Trini would know, though; she was just as close to Kimberly as Jason was, if not more so.

Jason was startled from his thoughts by Trini, who emerged from the basement with a huge smile on her face. "Billy's going to come!" she exclaimed, nearly shaking with excitement. "He said it won't be a problem, the Aquitians can teleport him straight here—he said he'd stay as long as Zack planned to, maybe longer, but he didn't want to impose too long. I told him that was silly, of course, because he could never impose on us even if he tried, but I think he feels bad about not having any money, at least not money usable on this planet, and that he can't stay in a hotel or buy his own food—"

"Whoa, slow down," Jason interrupted, grinning.

"Sorry," she said, sitting down on the couch beside him, "I'm just so happy he's coming back. I miss him like crazy. I bet he's learned loads about the computer systems used on Aquitar—"

Jason chuckled. "Yes, you two discuss alien computers; I'll try and figure out just how to use my e-mail and program the microwave clock. Sounds like fun."

Trini laughed. "Don't worry, Jase. Even while Billy's here, I'll help you use your e-mail, and no amount of time with Billy is enough to make me let you go near the microwave clock." Jason gave her a mock-glare. "What did Tommy say?"

"He's going to call me back," he replied. "He was... in the middle of something, but he's going to be here. And he says he's bringing the new Ranger team."

"Really? How interesting," Trini said, raising her eyebrows. She giggled. "I really can't picture Tommy as a teacher. He's so... well..."

"Disorganized?"

"Well, yes, but that's not why. I just can't see him placing himself in a role like that, teacher to student. He's a leader, but he's usually on even ground with those he's leading, one way or another. I can't see him controlling a bunch of teenagers and not acting like a teenager himself. He's more King Arthur than Julius Caesar."

"Tommy's been shocking us to death for years," Jason pointed out. "Who knew he'd end up with a PhD in paleontology, of all the things?"

She giggled again. "That's another thing I can't see—Tommy sitting still long enough to study something that deep."

"The race car thing, I could see that," Jason agreed. "Examining fossils? That was a shock."

Trini nodded, then gave him a thoughtful look. "Think Kimberly heard about Power Rangers Day?"

Jason shook his head. "I doubt it. She's not much for reading the paper or watching the news, and I'm not sure an Angel Grove ceremony is interesting enough to make L.A.'s news anyway."

"Think she'll come?" Trini asked.

"I don't know. I think I'll drive out there and talk to her about it, actually. She'll probably come. It's not like she and Tommy can't be civil; Tommy's not even mad anymore, really."

"He's the one who ended it," Trini said. "But I don't think Kim is m—"

"What do you mean, 'he's the one who ended it?'" Jason interrupted. He and Trini had never spoken much about Tommy and Kimberly's relationship, both feeling that it wasn't for them to judge, but he was rather shocked that she thought it was somehow Tommy's fault when Kimberly was the one who'd dumped Tommy in a letter.

"Just what I said," Trini replied, giving him an odd look. "Tommy's the one who ended it."

"No, he isn't," Jason argued, confused and not a little defensive. "It was Kim."

Trini's expression darkened, but her tone was still diplomatic. "Just because she went to Florida doesn't—"

The phone rang, and Trini stopped. "That's probably Tommy," she said.

"Yeah." Jason glanced at the caller ID; sure enough, it was Tommy's cell. "Look, let's not take sides, okay? They're both our friends, and what happened isn't our business." It was the same thing they had said eight years ago, back when the breakup had first happened.

"True," Trini agreed. She nodded at the phone. "Put it on speaker, okay?"

Jason hit the button. "Hello?"

"Hey, Jase."

"Hey."

"Hi, Tommy!"

"Hey, Trini. How's it going, guys?"

"Good," Jason said. "What was going on earlier? Why'd you let Conner and Ethan and Kira have your phone?"

"'Let' is a strong word," Tommy replied, sounding a tad irritated. "It's a long story."

"Jason said you're bringing the Dino Rangers?" Trini said eagerly.

"...Yeah," Tommy said, the annoyance in his voice increasing slightly. "Is that all right with you guys? Because if you'd rather I didn't, I totally understand—"

"Nonsense. It will be great to meet them," Trini said pleasantly. "I'd love to see them."

"Yeah, any protégé of yours has got to be interesting," Jason said, trying to stifle a laugh.

"Oh, ha, ha," Tommy said, sighing. "Are Billy and Zack coming?"

"Yep. Zack's got the time—"

"And even Billy said he could make it home," Trini said, smiling happily.

"Awesome!" He paused; when he spoke again, his tone was carefully casual. "What about Kimberly?"

"We haven't talked to her yet," Jason said, exchanging a glance with Trini. They hadn't often heard him mention Kimberly; the moments when Kimberly came up in conversation with Tommy were few and far between.

"Oh. Well, let me know when you do. This Power Rangers Day... it's in two weeks, right?"

"Two weeks from today, that's right. Zack's coming into town next Saturday, and so is Billy."

"I'll try and come down Saturday, too," Tommy said. "We're all on summer vacation, and I haven't really made too many plans yet. It's the best part of being a teacher—you get your summers off, but you still get paid."

"Lucky you," Jason said. "So... will you all be staying here?"

"Trust me, the last thing you want is four teenagers running amuck in your house," Tommy said dryly. "I'll get a hotel."

"Zack's going to stay at Angel Grove Inn," Trini said. "Billy's staying here, though."

"I'll probably stay at the Inn then, too," Tommy said. "I'll have to make some calls, think a few things over... it's been a while since I had an actual vacation. It'd be nice to hang out around Angel Grove and all. Go to the beach and the park and stuff... but I guess you two will have to work, won't you?"

"We're both going to try to take off as much time as we can," Trini said. "I have some vacation time, and Jason's going to talk to his students, so we should be able to get time off."

"That's great. I think I'd better go and call up Conner, Ethan, Kira and Trent's parents... they might not be allowed to come..." He sounded distinctly hopeful.

"I'm sure they will," Trini said, missing Tommy's tone.

"Well, give us a call when you know more," Jason said. "Can't wait to see you, Tommy."

"Same here, guys. Bye."

Trini and Jason said their good-byes and hung up. Jason set the phone down. "I think I'll just go surprise Kim," he said, knowing that Kimberly was far more easily persuaded in person, as she was often hooked by pleading looks and smiles and had a tendency to make up an excuse to get off the phone when she was being asked to do something she didn't want to do.

"I'm sure she'll come," Trini said. "She wouldn't miss a chance to hang out together; we haven't done that since high school."

"Yeah," Jason agreed, hoping Trini was right.

~*~

Kimberly slid into the driver's seat of her car, stretching her head from side to side. She'd been teaching all day—Saturdays were always her busiest—but, while her body was tired, she also felt... ready. She felt as though she could kick some serious butt. Part of her still expected to hear the beeping of her communicator and go rushing off to battle; after all this time, she still felt the urge to fight.

Her life was going quite well. Her studio had grown at an exponential rate; everyone wanted to train with an Olympic medalist, especially one who was also the girl next door and a native Californian. Kimberly now had three other instructors working for her and dozens of students; it was a wonder she remembered their names. She had a nice house, a nice car, and—naturally—a wardrobe and shoe collection to rival most actresses. Still, something felt off. She was no longer competing, and it had been the only thing that had taken the edge off of her love of being a Ranger. She didn't like the danger, but protecting others and fighting for a good cause had always been something she'd enjoyed. Now, she felt like there was nothing spectacular left. There were no high beams above cheering crowds, there were no monsters to fight. She had money, and a job she enjoyed, but she had nothing to excite her anymore.

Except the ringing of her cell phone, which made her jump so badly her head hit the windshield.

"OW!" she yelped, rubbing her head as she picked the phone up. "Hello?" she grumbled sourly into the phone.

"Was that a greeting or a death threat?" came Jason's voice.

"Jason! Hi!" Kimberly exclaimed. "Sorry, had a minor injury."

"You okay?" Jason demanded worriedly.

"Yes, Dad," Kimberly teased. "What's up?"

"I'm driving. I'm about an hour from L.A."

"Why?" Kimberly asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I thought we could hang."

"Any particular reason for this visit?" Kimberly asked suspiciously. Jason rarely surprised her when he came to visit. When he did surprise her, he never called halfway there, enjoying the look on her face when she saw him on her doorstep. If he was already on his way, he probably wanted something, had something serious to discuss, or had news that she didn't want to hear; those where the only times when he started driving before giving her a heads up. His leaving first meant he wanted to be too far away from his home for her to feel right about telling him to turn around.

"Do I need a reason to visit one of my best friends?" Jason replied. "I miss you, is all."

Kimberly smirked. Jason was a horrible liar, especially when it came to his friends. "Do I need a reason" and "I miss you, is all" meant "You're not going to like it." If his motives had been innocent, he would have simply said no, and rambled off something he wanted to do with Kimberly while visiting her.

"Isn't that sweet," Kimberly said dryly, starting her car and putting it in reverse. "An hour, eh? Want me to order pizza?"

"Yeah. Sounds good."

"Right. See you soon."

Kimberly pondered over what Jason could possibly have to say as she drove home, showered, dressed and called the local Pizza Hut. The last time he had done something like this had been when he'd come to convince her that the guy she was seeing was bad news, and the time before that, he'd wanted to propose to Trini and ask for Kimberly's advice. For some reason, she felt particularly nervous about this visit; the word "divorce" was flashing through her mind, as were things like "monsters," "death," and "broken bones."

She was just handing the pizza delivery boy his money when she heard a car door slam; she practically knocked the pizza guy off the porch as she rushed forward. "Jason!" she exclaimed, flinging herself at her friend as he climbed out of his pickup truck.

"Hey, Kim!" Jason said, picking her up and swinging her around. "How've you been?"

"Same old, same old," Kimberly said cheerfully as the pizza boy stalked passed, giving her a disgruntled look as he returned to his beat-up car. "You?"

"Great!" Jason replied enthusiastically. "In fact, I've got some good news."

"What is it?" Kimberly asked, wondering if she'd been wrong about Jason's motives for coming.

"...Let's get inside," Jason said, glancing around casually. Kimberly arched an eyebrow but didn't say anything.

Kimberly led the way up the walk and to the porch; Jason grabbed the abandoned pizza from the railing before following her inside. A few moments later, they were sitting down on Kimberly's couch with their food. Jason picked up his slice but didn't bite into it. "So..." Kimberly began, "what's the news?"

Jason smiled, but something about him seemed nervous. "They're holding another Power Rangers day. One to honor the original team."

"You're kidding!" Kimberly exclaimed. "After what happened last time?"

"You save people a few times and they no longer fear mass kidnapping," Jason joked.

Kimberly giggled. "So... are you thinking of going?"

"Yes, of course," Jason replied. "Trini and I are gonna go, and Zack's getting time off from work. Even Billy said he could make it."

"That's awesome!" Kimberly gushed. "He hasn't been back to Earth in years!"

"Not since he left," Jason said, nodding. "So... we were hoping you'd come down to Angel Grove too. Billy and Zack are arriving next Saturday; they're going to stay the whole week, maybe longer."

"I suppose I could make it," Kimberly said thoughtfully, trying to figure out how to work it. Her classes wouldn't be hard to cover for a week; the people she worked with were always looking for more hours. She could afford it, and a vacation would be nice—especially a vacation with her four closest childhood friends. She'd known Trini, Zack, Jason and Billy for most of her life, and it still felt strange to her that they hadn't all gotten together in roughly more than a decade. While she got to see Trini and Jason fairly often, Zack was usually busy with his job, and Kimberly hadn't seen Billy since she'd left Angel Grove to train with Coach Schmidt. She was suddenly desperate to see them all again.

"That's awesome," Jason said casually. He hesitated, and Kimberly rolled her eyes, exasperated.

"You know, Jase, the Mystery Man thing doesn't work so well if you can't lie to save your life. Why don't you tell me the reason you felt you couldn't tell me this over the phone?"

Jason opened his mouth with an expression on his face that said he was clearly planning to deny that he had bad news, but a no-nonsense look from Kimberly made him decide to come clean. He sighed and put down his pizza.

"All right," he said. "Look, when I said 'original team,' I didn't exactly mean you, me, Billy, Zack and Trini..." He frowned, struggling to find the right words. Without warning, he suddenly blurted out, "Tommy's coming."

Kimberly blinked, staring at him. "Oh."

Jason seemed to be in suspended animation, waiting for some sort of explosion. When none came, he forced out, "Are... are you still going to come?"

Kimberly looked even more startled by this question. "Of course I'm still going to come," she said, "you know—" She broke off. She had been about to say "You know that," but she didn't really think Jason did know that. They had never talked about Tommy, not once. This was the first times she'd ever heard Jason—or any of her friends—mention Tommy's name since they'd broken up. "You know I would never miss the chance to hang out with the gang," she amended after a long pause.

"Being around Tommy won't upset you?" Jason asked anxiously.

Kimberly sighed. It would upset her. Tommy wasn't just some jaded ex-boyfriend; he was her first love, and you never forgot your first love, as the saying goes. She still thought about him, often. She still wished that it hadn't ended, that she'd done something to repair their relationship, or at least to remain friends. When she'd been released from Divatox's spell, she'd been horrified at the memory of what she had done to Tommy while evil. She had always imagined a thousand things she would say and do if she ever saw him again... but she had never imagined she would get her first shot to reconcile right after being under an evil spell, during which she'd ignored his attempts to get through to her by removing his helmet, then urged Jason to throw Tommy into a lava pit. For a moment when they'd been talking aboard the Megazord, she had looked at him, and they'd just stared at each other for what seemed like ages. She'd tried to tell him everything with that look, and for a moment she'd thought he'd understood... and then Tommy had turned back to Jason and said something about the Liarians.

"Kinda," Kimberly said noncommittally, with a half shrug. "But I'm not, like, going to spit fire if I see him. He might, though—have you talked to him?"

Jason nodded. "He asked if you were coming. He didn't sound upset or anything."

Kimberly nodded. "Look, what happened with Tommy is in the past. If he's willing to be friends, I most certainly am, too."

Jason smiled, looking as relieved as a person who'd just been told their puppy wasn't going to die after all. "That's great, Kim. I can't say for sure, but I think he feels the same way." He looked like he wanted to say more, but thought better of it. After a long pause, during which Kimberly's mind swirled with thoughts about Tommy and the past, he said, "Oh, he's bringing his Ranger team, too."

"Tommy has a Ranger team?" Kimberly repeated, looking astonished.

"Oh, yeah, the Dino Rangers," Jason said, surprised. "Haven't you heard of them?"

"Yes, but I didn't know Tommy was one of them!" Kimberly said, rather exasperated with her friends. It appeared that their reluctance to mention Tommy around her ran deeper than she'd thought. "Which one was he?"

"Black."

"Really? Is his life's aspiration to fight in every color known to man before he dies?"

Jason laughed long and hard, suddenly seeming far more at ease. "I think so. Of course, to do that, he'd have to be Pink, too."

Kimberly snorted. "Wouldn't surprise me, at this rate. Wow. He's back in uniform?"

"Not anymore, no. Their powers were drained in their last battle."

"Happens a lot, doesn't it?" Kimberly mused thoughtfully. "Odd."

The two friends were soon engaged in a light-hearted discussion of Rangers, past and present, and their conversation and laughter drove all thoughts of awkward reunions with her ex from Kimberly's mind.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 3: Leader of the Whack

Over the next week, Tommy prayed for some sort of resistance to the teens' evil intentions to butt in on his vacation. Once or twice he even found himself plotting a fake monster attack just to have an excuse. Unfortunately, no resistance came.

Conner, Kira, and Ethan's parents all granted them leave to take a graduation trip, especially when they found out that it would be financed by Anton Mercer and supervised by Tommy; they seemed to think it was some sort of post-graduation field trip. (When he talked to Kira's mother—the last parent Tommy called—Tommy had been so desperate that he'd nearly screamed that he was a pedophile and that no responsible mother would allow their daughter to go traipsing off to another city with him. His reluctance to get arrested and lose his job was the only thing that held him back.) Before Tommy had gotten a chance to call Trent's father, Anton Mercer had showed up on his doorstep with his checkbook in hand, rambling about numbers and how good it was of Tommy to take Trent and the others and how much it would mean to them to have one last adventure with their mentor.

Tommy seriously considered setting fire to the Angel Grove Inn.

He wasn't sure what was making him hate the idea so fiercely, but he suspected that part of it was that Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent left him trapped between two worlds—adulthood and theirs. Now, he was going back to relive his childhood, and while he greatly anticipated the chance, he thought he was going to have enough problems going back without bringing the four biggest reminders of his new life into his old life. Angel Grove and the gang were a sacred part of his life, a private part, and he didn't really want to remember how much things had changed, which he would be forced to do if he brought along the kids.

Then, too, there was Kimberly, and all the questions the four recent Rangers were going to ask—Conner in particular was not known for his tact—and then there was the teasing. Jason still wouldn't let Tommy live down the fact that he'd once sported a mullet, for crying out loud. None of his ex-students were ever going to listen to him again once they knew that his chronic lateness and absent-minded-professor habits were not "products of old age."

Still, as he listened to Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent ramble on about how cool the trip was going to be, a small mutinous part of him agreed with them. That part of him couldn't wait to impress them all with stories about his early Ranger days, make them laugh and stare at him with wide-eyed respect.

Tommy longed to beat that part of him with a sledgehammer.

But, as he couldn't figure out where on his person that part was hiding, and he couldn't find a way to keep the teenagers from coming along without crushing their spirits, he forced a smile to his face as they all assembled at his house early on Friday, all looking like six-year-old kids on Christmas morning. (Tommy had decided to leave the day before, in the hopes of actually making it on time.) All of them were traveling rather light, which Tommy was glad for, as he very well couldn't. In the back of his Jeep rested a long black wooden box, almost as long as he was. Inside were all his clothes and toiletries and so on, but, more importantly—

"GUYS! LOOK! IT'S HIS WHITE RAN—mmph!"

Tommy surged forward and clamped his hand over Conner's mouth. While Tommy had been talking about their route with Ethan and Trent, Conner had snuck over to the Jeep and peered inside the box to investigate. Inside, under the clothes, cushioned carefully by his belongings, was the White Ranger suit—helmet, boots, shield and all. It was the same one that had once stood on display in the back of the Power Chamber; as his Power Coin was destroyed, this suit was the only way he was going to be attending Power Rangers Day as his former self. "Quiet," Tommy hissed, glancing about uneasily, though he didn't see anyone but them in the general vicinity.

"Sorry, Dr. O," Conner said in a muffled voice from behind Tommy's hand.

"Wow," Kira said in awe, gazing in at the helmet until Tommy closed the case's lid. "How come you have the suit lying around?"

"We kept them as souvenirs," Tommy explained. "Well, Jason kept the Blue one for Billy, and Kimberly kept the Pink, but the Red, Yellow and Black went to Rocky, Aisha and Adam, since they can't morph into the original suits anymore and Jason, Trini and Zack can."

"They can? Then why don't they?" Ethan asked, startled.

"Well, for one thing, there's not much need," Tommy said. "For another, we agreed, a long time back, that we shouldn't let anyone know that three of the originals still had Power Coins. That way, if any current Ranger team was defeated, there would be others who could finish their work. Few of the Rangers have their powers still, but those that do don't go around parading it. Like the Zeo Rangers—Tanya, Kat, Adam, Rocky and I still have our powers, but we haven't used them since we became Turbo Rangers."

"How come they still have Power Coins?" Kira asked. "Didn't you say your Coins were destroyed?"

"They were. But it was Rocky, Adam and Aisha who lost their Coins, not Jason, Zack and Trini; they were already long gone by then. The Sword of Light gave Rocky, Adam and Aisha their powers, and it didn't completely drain Jason, Trini and Zack's powers. You're all familiar with the theory that energy can't be created or destroyed? Energy can only be converted into matter, and matter into energy?" They all nodded. "Well, the Power Coins were simply a channel for the energy. Like a remote for a television. The Sword of Light siphoned most of the power out of the three original Power Coins, and transferred them into duplicates the Sword created. Jason, Trini and Zack kept their basically powerless coins; they could still transform into the suit and summon their weapons, but most of the power was gone. Apparently our powers weren't destroyed, simply scattered without a way to harness them. But Rocky, Adam and Aisha's powers had a container to go to—Jason, Zack and Trini's old Coins. So they're now at nearly full power again. They even still have their Blade Blasters," Tommy added with a touch of envy in his voice.

"Cool!" Conner exclaimed, looking as though he was itching to reopen the box, pull out the helmet and jam it on his head.

Tommy forced down an exasperated sigh and asked, "Are we ready to go, guys?"

"Shotgun!" the four of them yelled simultaneously, followed immediately by shouts of, "I called it first!"

Tommy groaned as a heated fight broke out; he gazed at his backseat, wondering if he could fit all four of them in the back. Maybe if Kira sat on someone's lap...

Just as he was about to suggest this idea, Ethan turned the tide of the argument, though not in his own favor.

"We're gonna be stuck in that car for hours," Ethan said heatedly. "There's no way I'm spending that long sitting next to Conner!"

This seemed to hit home with Kira and Trent; they realized that even if one of them claimed the front seat, they'd be condemning the other to hours of being trapped in close quarters with Conner. Looking horrified, they both turned to Conner.

"You can have the front seat, man."

"Yeah, you... uh... deserve it."

"Whoo!" Conner pumped his fist in the air, apparently not the least bit perturbed by their lack of enthusiasm to sit next to him.

Tommy stared at Kira, Trent and Ethan with a look of absolute horror. He would rather have sat next to Lord Zedd than Conner.

"Sorry," Kira said weakly. Trent and Ethan gave him apologetic looks of deep sympathy as Conner rushed to the Jeep and climbed in, settling his bags around his feet.

With another groan, Tommy followed them to the Jeep.

The journey was not an easy one. It was cramped in the Jeep, what with five people and their duffel bags and knapsacks and Kira's guitar case. Conner kept bugging the crap out of Tommy, keeping up a steady stream of chatter. Worse, none of the four younger Rangers did a very good job of navigating, which was proving to be quite a problem. Tommy had made the trip to Angel Grove quite a few times since Jason and Trini had taken up residence there, but that didn't make it easy. Tommy had an uncanny knack for getting lost; it was part of the reason why he was frequently late. Near-constant highway construction didn't help matters, nor did the dozens of exits and interchanges and the need for many extra rest stops that Tommy wasn't accustomed to—to use the bathroom, to buy snacks, and fill up on gas lost on "side trips." Tommy had expected this, but not to the extreme that he was forced to endure. It seemed that every five minutes a different occupant of the car would snatch the map from one of the others, study it for a moment, proclaim, "I know where we are now!" and proceed to get them even more lost.

Tommy eventually did what any good-natured, mild-mannered man would do—he avoided bursting into tears by jerking the car onto an offramp so suddenly that everyone screamed and slammed painfully into something as he sped into a nearby drive-thru. When asked for his order, he promptly spilled the last week and a half of his life story to the poor McDonald's cashier and begged for directions to Interstate Five before ordering, in a rather pathetic tone of voice, one girl's and three boys' Happy Meals and the largest chocolate shake they could possibly sell him.

Ten minutes later, they were finally on the right track and everyone was silently munching on French fries, occasionally shooting meek, nervous glances at Tommy. Things were much better after that; while Tommy had a splitting headache, everyone was blessedly quiet and he was nursing a milkshake that appeared to have been put in a small bucket emblazoned with the McDonald's logo.

This didn't last long, however. It started with Conner (naturally), who decided to play with the toy at the bottom of his Happy Meal. The next thing Tommy knew, Ethan, Trent and Conner were holding some sort of car chase with little Hotwheels toys on the back of Conner's headrest, complete with loud, annoying sound effects that he supposed represented revving engines and squealing brakes. Kira snapped before Tommy, however; as the three cars crashed together, she suddenly brought the bottom of her tiny Barbie figurine down repeatedly on the tiny cars' hoods, punctuating each collision of badly-painted plastic and cheap metal with some sort of furious Amazon yell. The boys quickly yanked their cars away and stowed them safely in their pockets. Kira waved the Barbie figurine at them threateningly one last time before dropping it in her lap and folding her arms huffily over her chest.

When Tommy finally found the right road and turned on it, he was cheered so greatly that he let out a whoop of triumph. Right around then, the bucket of chocolate ice cream caught up with him... and hyperactivity set in.

Now, it was Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent's turn to be driven up the wall. Tommy suddenly wanted to play I Spy, the Alphabet Game and Spot the Out-of-State License Plates, at which he was very good, mostly because his mind was moving at double speed thanks to the sugar rush. So the four teenagers were not only forced to play boring games, but they always seemed to lose spectacularly. When the fun wore off for Tommy, he began to sing what he called "travel songs."

Tommy was not a good singer.

"Come on, guys!" Tommy exclaimed, greatly pleased at their pitiful expressions. "Sing with me now! Conner, Conner bo Bonner, banana fana fo Fonner, mi my mo Monner, Con-ner! Okay, let's do... Kira! Kira, Kira, bo Bira—"

"ANGEL GROVE NEXT RIGHT!" Conner shouted, the way one would shout their thanks when they were rescued right before the swing of the executioner's axe.

"YAY!" everyone else yelled.

Though they'd left before noon, night had already fallen on Angel Grove, but Tommy had no problem finding the Angel Grove Inn. While the road there was a tad confusing, he still knew most of the town like the back of his hand.

"Everybody out," Tommy said cheerfully. This was completely unnecessary; Conner had jumped over his door to land on cramped legs before Tommy could put the Jeep in park, and the others were close behind.

"So when do we get to meet the Ran—your friends?" Trent asked, glancing around casually to see if anyone else in the parking lot was listening.

"Tomorrow afternoon," Tommy replied, carefully lifting his box from the backseat. "Let's go check in, eh?"

They all grabbed their stuff and followed Tommy, yawning widely, their legs stiff. They approached a weary-looking woman sitting behind the front desk, who looked up at them blandly. "Can I help you?"

"We'd like three rooms, please," Tommy said, setting his long case down carefully.

"Do you have reservations?" the woman asked.

"No," Tommy replied. He hadn't bothered; Angel Grove enjoyed brisk tourism because of the Power Rangers and the beaches, but Tommy couldn't recall the hotels ever being full.

The woman frowned and typed something in on a nearby computer. "We only have one available."

"What?" Tommy spluttered.

"It's the first weekend after graduation here," the woman said, somewhat apologetically. "Party after party. Plus they're having an event to celebrate the first Power Rangers next weekend, so a lot of people have come in from all over the place—"

"There's no way we could get two?" Tommy whined. He had planned to put the guys together, get Kira her own room, and have one to himself. He didn't mind making Kira stay in the boys' room too much, but any last traces of sugar highs were rapidly disappearing at the thought of staying in the same room as Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent. A hotel room, after all, wasn't much bigger than a Jeep, and there was no chance of popping the door open and shoving Conner out if need be. "Do the windows open?" he added as an afterthought.

The woman shook her head. "No, they don't. I'm really sorry. However, if two people cancel reservations, I can get you two rooms by Sunday, when the graduation parties clear out, but that's not definite."

"What about another hotel?" Kira asked, thinking along the same lines as Tommy.

"Most of them are already booked," the woman said. "It's been over a decade since anyone has seen the original Power Rangers, and add that on top of graduation, summer vacationers pouring in, college students coming back to visit and the usual travelers..."

"We'll take it," Tommy said glumly, not wanting to lose the last available room in town while calling other hotels just to end up sleeping on Jason's living room floor with four rowdy teenagers.

Tommy paid for the room, accepted his keys, and headed up to room 603, his former students in tow. The room was very nice, equipped with the standard hotel furniture—a chest of drawers, on which sat a TV; a table and four chairs; and a nightstand between two double beds. A microwave sat on top of a mini-fridge in one corner, near the small closet and the door leading to the bathroom. Moments after they arrived, someone came by with a spare rollaway cot; this prompted an argument over the beds, and, as there wasn't room for more than one cot, Tommy was quick to give the cot to Kira, claim one bed for himself, and give the other to Conner. Ethan and Trent immediately began to argue over who would have to share with Conner, who told them helpfully that he liked to toss and turn and had a habit of snoring. After a long debate, it was decided the three boys would rotate nights on the free bed, the other two taking the floor. Tommy, feeling another headache coming on, seized the ice bucket and left to find the vending machines (not that they had anything they needed to put on ice, but Tommy found this a better excuse than "I'm going to strangle you all if I don't get out of here"). He handed Trent some money to order pizza and gratefully shut the door behind him as the others argued over pizza toppings.

Tommy filled the bucket with ice just down the hall, thinking absently that he could at least chuck the cubes at his former students if nothing else, and turned to head slowly back to the room, having no where else to go. When he reached the room, however, he heard a dull thud, a muffled shout, and a burst of maniacal laughter... so he continued on until he hit the far wall. Then, wondering how long he could continue aimlessly walking around, he reluctantly turned around and promptly crashed into someone.

"ARGH!" the person shrieked, in a familiar female voice. Ice flew everywhere.

"I'm sorry, I—"

Tommy stopped dead. Before him stood a short but lithe woman in a pink tank top, her brown hair pulled back in a casual ponytail. Startled brown eyes stared up at him, no doubt just as shocked to see him as he was to see her.

"—didn't see you," Tommy finished softly, staring down at Kimberly Hart.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 4: Found and Lost

Kimberly had finally finished unpacking her numerous clothes, hanging them carefully in the hotel's small closet or folding them neatly in the drawers of the hotel dresser in an attempt to keep them from getting too wrinkled and smelling like her suitcase. She'd decided to come into town on Friday rather than Saturday like she'd originally told Jason, so that she could be rested from her trip when she met up with the gang tomorrow morning at Angel Grove Park, and have some time to herself to think and enjoy being back in Angel Grove on her own.

Stretching, Kimberly picked up her purse and headed for the door, intent on getting some dinner. She heard someone walk past and looked around curiously when she stepped out the door, wondering if Zack had come early also, but it was a stranger, a tall man with short, dark spiky hair clutching a full ice bucket. She assumed he'd just gone to stare out of the window a few feet away—her room was at the end of the hall—and therefore was unprepared when he turned around and ran right into her. She yelped, ice pelting her upper body and face and sliding down her shirt or bouncing off.

"I'm sorry, I—"

Kimberly looked up sharply, recognizing the voice immediately. It was Tommy; though he looked a few years older and his hair was short, there was no mistaking him.

"—didn't see you." Tommy stared at her with recognition, shock and what could have been fear; she was sure her expression was similar. Kimberly was at a loss for words, unable to stop staring at him. It had been ages, years—how many? Five? Six? Eight?—since she'd seen him last. Her eyes kept darting to his hair, amazed that he would cut it; he'd always loved his long hair. So had she, come to think of it.

"Tommy," she breathed, and her voice sounded strange to her own ears, unsteady and high and nervous.

"Hi," Tommy said with obvious difficulty, his voice slightly high-pitched as well.

"Hi," she said shakily, feeling rather stupid. She suddenly became aware of the fact that she was now covered in streaks of cold water and there were chips of ice inside her tank top; wincing, she picked up her shirt and shook it. Several cubes fell to the floor, but a few had settled most uncomfortably inside her bra, and she wasn't about to go digging them out while standing in front of her ex-boyfriend.

"I'm really sorry about that," Tommy said, cringing. "I didn't... you came out of nowhere."

"Not your fault," she said, forcing herself to smile, then hurriedly stopping, knowing the unnaturalness of the expression would look odd. Her eyes kept flicking almost involuntarily up to his hair. "So..."

"So," Tommy agreed uncertainly.

Kimberly struggled to come up with something to say, but she was still quite shocked and the ice in her bra was distracting. "You cut your hair," she blurted out.

Tommy reached up to run his hand through it self-consciously. "Yeah."

"It looks good," she said truthfully. "Surprising, but good."

"Thanks," he replied, smiling slightly.

They lapsed into silence, which became more and more uncomfortable as the minutes stretched. Kimberly didn't know what to say, couldn't even begin to think of something. She hadn't expected to see him here, now, alone. She had expected to see him while surrounded by her old friends when she wouldn't have to worry about speaking directly to him. When she'd seen him after he rescued her from Divatox, she'd been able to hide her awkwardness under the cover of the battle; Kimberly suddenly found herself praying for some disaster she could use to distract herself from the situation.

"So," he said at last, startling her with the sudden sound even though his tone was soft, "how've you been?"

"Great," she told him. "I, uh, I've got my own gymnastics studio in L.A."

"That's awesome."

"Yeah. I love it." She cleared her throat. "What have you been up to?"

"Teaching science."

Kimberly looked surprised. Tommy had taught a few martial arts lessons as a teenager, but the science part seemed to come out of nowhere. "Science?"

"I went back to college, got a PhD. I'm a paleontologist," he explained. Seeing her raised eyebrows, he chuckled. "Yeah, I know; the others were all shocked, too. But I really like it. I spent a while working in the labs and on digs and stuff, but there was an accident at a lab and everything pretty much went up. So I decided to try teaching for a while. I really like it, though. It's a lot of fun."

"Yeah," she agreed. "I love teaching gymnastics. The kids are great."

Tommy nodded, though he glanced down the hall with a look on his face that suggested he wanted to add, "Not all the time." He didn't, though. Kimberly felt like even more of an idiot. Here she was, face-to-face with her ex after ages of never seeing him, despite their mutual friends and their common hometown, and they were telling each other what they did for a living like strangers meeting in a bar. They might as well be discussing the weather.

A few more minutes of silence ensued. Kimberly wasn't sure what to do. Part of her wanted to run, and part of her wanted to keep talking. She was confused, and shocked, and it wasn't exactly easy to concentrate with a bunch of ice slowly melting against her chest. It suddenly occurred to her how unprepared she really was for this. She had missed him, to be sure, but over the years she'd forced it to the back of her mind and told herself that she was pretty much over it. Then, the moment she saw him—older and wiser and somehow hotter—she felt like bursting into tears. It suddenly occurred to her that the only way she'd gotten through her last meetings with Tommy was to hide behind the battle, focus on Jason in the tournament, and avoid eye contact at all costs.

"I... I miss you," she said suddenly, jerking her head down to stare at the carpet, not wanting to see his reaction.

Tommy stared at her. Unbeknownst to her, he couldn't help but remember the first time he'd heard her say that—right after he'd lost his Green Ranger powers. Right before their first kiss. She'd said it occasionally in her letters and phone calls after leaving for Florida, but she'd tried to avoid it, always wanting to ignore the fact that they were so far away from each other. She hadn't said it in person since that first time. It hurt like hell to hear her say it that way, all tentative and sorrowful, just like that day by the pond.

"I miss you too," he said with a sigh, throwing his back against the wall and shaking his head. "We should have stayed in touch."

"Yeah, we should have," Kimberly said shyly, biting her lip and staring at Tommy's shoes as he leaned on the wall. A sudden recklessness came over her, bringing courage with it. She jerked her head up to look him square in the eye; Tommy looked back at her uncertainly, startled but eager, nervous but hopeful. "Listen, I'm gonna go grab a bite to eat. Do you want to come? We... we could catch up."

Tommy started to nod and opened his mouth, then stopped. "Actually," he replied reluctantly, "the gang's ordering pizza and... well, I'm kind of not too sure it's a good idea to leave them alone in a hotel room in a strange city. They've got a lot of pent up energy after the nine-hour car ride, you know, and I'm responsible for them..."

"Nine hours?" Kimberly repeated. "I thought you lived in Reefside."

"I still get lost a lot," he said sheepishly, with a boyish smile that reminded her forcefully of the Tommy she'd once been so close to. She felt a pang in her chest and searched for something else to say.

"Gang?" Kimberly inquired, confused. "Oh!" She glanced around to make sure no one else was nearby. "The Dino Rangers?" Tommy nodded. "I heard you were bringing them."

"Do you want to come meet them?" Tommy asked, sounding half-eager and half-uncertain. "Hang out, eat some pizza?"

Kimberly thought about it, but she was suddenly reluctant to meet Tommy's team. They'd probably ask who she was and a lot of other questions, and Kimberly wasn't sure what he'd told them. For all she knew, they thought she was "the bitchy ex" or something. "Um..." She swallowed, suddenly scared and horrified at the thought of spending more time with Tommy. Did he really want her to come? Was he just being polite? Was she mistaken when she thought she'd heard eagerness in his voice? Did he really hate her?

"It's all right if you'd rather not," Tommy said, watching her closely.

Kimberly's heart constricted. So he didn't really want her to come. At least, probably not. She sighed inwardly. "Actually," Kimberly said slowly, "I'm kind of craving a Greek salad from Diana's Diner. No one makes them like she does. But... but I'll see you tomorrow, right?" she added, unable to keep the hopefulness out of her voice.

"Yeah," he said, smiling at her widely. "Of course you will. I'm looking forward to it."

Kimberly nodded, no longer sure if he was disappointed or relieved. He seemed sincere—but then, she hadn't spoken to him in years. Maybe she wasn't the best judge of his emotions anymore. "I... it was great seeing you, Tommy."

"You, too," he said emphatically, and Kimberly's spirits lifted. For a moment, she considered asking if she could come after all, but she needed more time to think, to recover from the shock of seeing Tommy—and to get the freezing cold ice out of her shirt.

"Well, until tomorrow, then," she said.

Tommy nodded. "Bye, Kim," he replied.

Kimberly entered the stairwell as calmly as she could, her mind and heart racing.

~*~

Tommy watched Kimberly go, his head still reeling from their meeting. He'd just seen Kimberly. It seemed so surreal, to bump into her in a hotel corridor and to act so outwardly calm, as if she was anyone else from high school, someone he hadn't known all that well and was just trying to be polite to. But he'd seen her, and he thought it had gone okay. He'd seen her, had a conversation, and dumped a bucket of ice down her shirt.

He smacked his forehead. Of all the things he'd planned to do when he saw Kimberly again, throwing ice at her was not on the list.

He headed back for his room automatically, in a sort of daze as he thought hard. She hadn't seemed cold-hearted towards him or anything. She'd seemed genuinely glad to see him.

There wasn't a ring on her finger, either, a small voice inside his head said hopefully. Looks like things didn't work out with Mr. Wonderful Florida Boy.

Tommy told the voice to shove it. He wasn't looking to get back with Kimberly. She'd moved on, and so had he, and there was no way he was going to hope, as he had done many times in the past, that she was going to up and say that she never should have dumped him and beg him to come back to her. She had a new life now, and he did too. But they could be friends, and that would be enough for Tommy.

Oh, stop being such an idiot, the same small voice said scornfully. You want her back and you know it.

Oh, shut up, he thought irritably, knowing it was true but refusing to admit it, not even to himself.

Still, he couldn't help but think about it. Memories of the fantasies he'd had for years after Kimberly broke up with him flooded his head. Getting back together with her. Marrying her. Having kids and having sex and just hanging out together, just being with each other. He'd tried to stop thinking about her, but it had never really happened. Every so often something would make him think of her, or she'd just pop into his head for no other reason than to startle him and make him all nostalgic. Once, he'd confided in Hayley about it, fully expecting her to call him a sentimental idiot, but Hayley had just shrugged and said that was natural, that she still thought a lot about her first love, too. Knowing that it was normal had made him feel like less of a moron and made him realize that dreaming about her didn't mean he was still pining away for her. He had never stopped thinking about her every so often.

For a while, after he'd started seeing Kat, he'd thought he was over Kimberly. He'd let Kat take Kimberly's place the same way she'd taken Kimberly's spot as a Ranger. It was after the Divatox thing that he'd realized he was fooling himself into thinking he was fine. After the kidnapping and the rescue, he'd ended up having endless nightmares about it, nightmares where Kimberly and Jason tried to kill him, where Kimberly said all sorts of hateful things while Jason laughed. He'd always wake up with a sick feeling in his stomach, seeing the cold look in Kimberly's eyes when he'd taken off his helmet to try to reach her and sometimes remembering how Kimberly and Jason had hugged in the cockpit of the Megazord and how she'd held his hands and grinned at the following tournament. It had taken him a while, but he'd figured out eventually that the dreams just meant he still cared about her, that it still hurt that she'd left him. Much as it hurt, he'd stopped lying to himself.

Lost in thought, he walked back into the hotel room, setting down the mostly empty ice bucket. He barely noticed that Ethan, Trent and Conner were involved in a huge wrestling match in the middle of the room and Kira was sitting on the edge of Conner's bed singing, "I got the trapped-in-a-hotel-room-with-a-bunch-of-psychos blues" and strumming her guitar.

Unable to get to his own bed because of the wrestling guys, Tommy flopped back on Conner's bed and lay there next to Kira, staring at the ceiling. He was completely oblivious to everyone around him as he thought of Kimberly, what they might have had if she'd never gone to the Pan Global Games, if she'd never met that guy in Florida, if he'd just gotten in his car and driven off to Florida and drowned that guy in the Gulf of Mexico like he should have.

"Hey! Dr. O! Ya dead?" Kira's guitar whacked him on the leg, and Tommy, startled back into reality, looked up and saw Conner standing over him, Kira behind Conner, looking furious as she snatched back her guitar.

Tommy smiled. He might not have Kimberly, but what he did have wasn't all that bad.

~*~

Kimberly called Jason and Trini on her cell phone to let them know that she was already in Angel Grove, declining their offers to meet up before the morning. She didn't mention Tommy; she wasn't ready to talk about it.

Leaving her car in the lot, Kimberly wandered the streets, allowing herself to concentrate on her nostalgia rather than on Tommy. Occasionally she ran into someone she knew or someone who'd seen her in the Olympics or other gymnastics competitions. By the time she reached Diana's Diner, she couldn't help but wonder what had happened to all her former classmates and neighbors. A grin spread over her face as she thought of Bulk and Skull, the two bumbling idiots who'd tried and failed to bully their way through life. She still wondered what had happened to them; Jason had introduced her to the Space Rangers, so she'd gotten to hear about them sticking up for the Rangers and helping battle evil, but she just couldn't picture it, no matter how hard she tried.

Diana hailed Kimberly jovially; Kimberly had frequented the diner from an early age and thought of Diana as a surrogate aunt. As Kimberly dug into her food, her mind wandered back to Tommy.

"A PhD in paleontology," she muttered. "Who knew?"

Kimberly suddenly felt like crying again. All the things she'd missed in his life, all the things they hadn't share together... why hadn't they at least tried to remain friends? Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack had probably known all about Tommy's life, what he'd been doing—the girls he dated, the careers he pursued... she hadn't even known he was the most recent Black Ranger, for crying out loud! Why hadn't she tried to patch things up, even platonically, after the letter?

Sighing, Kimberly forced herself to get control. She knew why. She had tried to write him and call him after that stupid letter, but she hadn't been able to bring herself to do it. Then the thing with Divatox had come along, and Kimberly had been horrified at her actions while evil, too ashamed to even talk to him. Days had turned into weeks, and she still hadn't gotten in touch. Suddenly it was too late; what was she going to do, call him after years of no contact and say she wanted to be friends? She'd half-convinced herself that he didn't even remember her name.

She turned her thoughts to their conversation in the hotel hallway, trying to picture his reactions to her words and think them over. He'd seemed like he'd wanted to put the past behind them. Did he? Or was it just wishful thinking?

Kimberly stabbed viciously at her salad. "Gotta stop torturing myself," she said firmly, resolved to put it out of her mind until the morning. She'd see him again in the afternoon, and then she'd just have to take it from there.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 5: Bulk Fiction

Saturday morning dawned clear and bright, and Trini awoke to find Jason smiling down at her fondly. She grinned back and gave him a quick kiss. "Hey," she said.

"G'morning," he replied sleepily, and started to say something else, but Trini cut him off with a shriek as she remembered what day it was.

"Billy's coming!" she exclaimed, and promptly started to leap out of bed. Jason pulled her back to him, pretending to look put out.

"You're not going to leave me for him or anything, are you?" he asked mock-seriously. "I've been getting really worried. He's all you've talked about for the last week."

Trini laughed. "Of course not, Jase. You're much better looking."

Jason gave a fake pout. "Is that the only reason you want me?"

"Yep," she replied with another grin. "Why else would I put up with you?" She squirmed from his arms and scrambled from the bed. "Come on! Up! Oh, the house is a wreck—did you ever get around to cleaning the roof gutters last weekend?"

"Trini, Billy is not going to look in the roof gutters. I guarantee it."

"Jason! You told me you'd clean the roof gutters!"

"I did!" he lied hurriedly. He figured Trini wasn't going to look in the roof gutters either, anyway. Trini glared at him suspiciously, but she flounced off into the bathroom without further questioning.

After quick showers and a quicker breakfast, Trini insisted they straighten up, though Jason couldn't see anything left to straighten. Trini had wanted the place to look perfect for Billy's arrival and the rest of the gang's visit (though Jason knew none of their old friends would care even if the house was covered in fertilizer) and she'd spent the past few days attacking the house with a vengeance and a bottle of multi-purpose cleaner and forcing Jason to clean out the garage and move the furniture and so on. When she'd run out of things to clean and reorganize, she'd started inventing projects that Jason had never heard of before and was sure were unnecessary.

Jason and Trini's house was rather large, though it was only one story, but for some reason there never seemed to be enough room for everything. There were three bedrooms—a master bedroom with an attached bath, a guest room, and Trini's study, where they kept their computer and numerous books. The family room was home to Trini's extensive doll collection, a cozy sitting area, and their enormous black Labrador/Rottweiler mix, whom they'd jokingly named "Tommy." The basement held their personal gym, which consisted of various weights, exercise machines, mats, punching bags and so on, and in the back was a small room they called the Secret Chamber.

The Secret Chamber wasn't exactly very hidden; it was in plain sight for anyone who happened down into the basement. However, its door was always kept locked; Trini had even added a deadbolt not long after they'd moved in. Inside that room was enough evidence concerning Jason and Trini's past to make them the two most famous people on the planet if anyone ever found out what was in there—everything they had left from their Power Ranger days.

In one corner stood the Blue Ranger suit, taken from the back of the Power Chamber when the Zeo suits had been put on display instead. Jason and Trini's old communicators were mounted on the wall, hanging from hooks. A long table ran the length of the far wall; at one end sat the Aquitian communication device, which looked a lot like a triangular, deep-blue television; they called it the Aqua-phone for short. At the other end of the table was another computer, this one a tad more powerful than the one upstairs. Between the communicator and the computer were various odds and ends that Jason couldn't begin to identify; Trini had explained that they were experiments that she worked on with Billy over the Aqua-phone, which were mostly related to the Power Rangers or else computers.

In the interest of avoiding another few hours of cleaning invisible dirt, Jason suggested they go try to contact Billy and make sure everything was in order for his arrival. Trini hadn't been able to talk to Billy since he'd agreed to come; he was a very important person on Aquitar now, and he had very little spare time.

They were halfway across the workout mats in the basement gym when Billy appeared out of thin air in a short flash of blue-white light; Trini walked right into him and bounced off before she could stop, and Jason caught her before she fell.

"Billy!" Trini shrieked, throwing her arms around him. He returned her hug and then clasped Jason's arm, smiling at them both.

Billy looked rather different from the shy techno-geek they had known. He seemed to have acquired a few more muscles and his hair was longer, almost to his shoulders. He was clothed in blue leggings and a black Aquitian tunic, and his head was adorned with some odd sort of elaborate golden hat or headdress.

Billy removed his headgear and glanced around, noticing a clock on the wall. "I knew the timing was wrong," he remarked. "The rotations of Aquitar and Earth are completely different and a deputy from the transportation department was in charge of calculating the precise planetary movements and activating the teleportation device at the corresponding time on Aquitar to send me here. I requested to help but they thought it was too trivial for me."

"Aquitar has a different time," Trini explained to Jason, who looked sort of blank, his eyes glazing over at the long words more out of habit than out of an inability to understand Billy. "It doesn't move as fast as Earth, and it's in a completely different part of the universe, so figuring out a week with twenty-four hour days is sort of difficult, since their seconds and minutes and so on are different."

"We don't have weeks," Billy said, nodding. "We have thirteen-day long time periods instead, and the days are all broken up into something equivalent to roughly thirty-nine hours here. It's really quite fascinating to see all the discrepancies between Aquitar and Earth."

"Like the outfits?" Jason said, nodding at Billy's clothes. "Probably shouldn't go wandering around in alien clothing, man. Might be a tad suspicious."

"The clothes I wore out there only lasted so long before they got too decrepit to wear," Billy explained somewhat sheepishly. "I've been dressing like them for a few years now. It's actually surprisingly comfortable."

"I'm sure we can find you something to wear while you're here," Trini told him. "So, was the trip okay? I remember you telling me that traveling between here and there was dangerous."

"It was dangerous," Billy said, following Trini as she led him back upstairs, "but we've worked out a lot of the problems with it. Working with alien technology is so incredible. You would love Aquitar, Trini."

"Don't give her any ideas about moving," Jason pleaded. "She might just up and do it."

"You know, this is a really nice place, guys," Billy said, looking all around him with interest. He seemed to be walking a bit unsteadily, as though he couldn't quite remember how to tread on solid ground.

"Thanks," Trini said warmly. "We're so glad you're back, Billy. Zack and Kim and Tommy are, too—have you talked to them?"

"No," Billy said, raising an eyebrow. "Kim and Tommy are coming? Interesting."

Trini nodded and shrugged. "I'll tell you all about it after we find you something to wear. Then we'll head to the park... Zack, Kim and Tommy are going to meet us there. Oh, and the Dino Rangers. Tommy's new team, remember?"

Billy grinned. "Tommy just can't stay out of uniform, can he? I look forward to meeting this team. I wonder just what their relationship with Tommy is like—it can't be easy, being on a superhero team with your science teacher."

"You know Tommy," Jason said, shrugging. "I'm sure he's getting along with them just fine."

~*~

Tommy awoke early on Saturday feeling much better about the whole Kimberly thing. While he was still confused and nervous about seeing her again, he couldn't wait to see the guys. He never passed up an excuse to visit Jason and Trini, but he rarely got to see Zack and he hadn't seen Billy on anything but a monitor since the day he'd left with Cestria.

The others were still asleep, and Tommy decided not to wake them until he'd had a shower. He stepped over Ethan and Trent, sidled past Kira's cot, grabbed his things and headed for the bathroom.

Unfortunately, his morning didn't go very well after the others woke up. Ethan got into an argument with Conner, whose snoring had kept anyone (that is, Ethan) who was unlucky enough to fall asleep after Conner awake half the night, and Kira nearly knocked Tommy over when she rushed into the bathroom as he emerged from it. Tommy had assumed that Kira would only be in there for a few moments, but she proceeded to take a shower and fix her hair and it all took a very long time (even though, as girls go, Kira was quite low-maintenance). By the time she came out, the three boys—their bladders threatening dire consequences—had a fight over who got the bathroom first until finally Trent just flung himself inside while Conner and Ethan got in each other's faces.

By the time the morning's hygiene rituals and bickering were over, Tommy felt another headache coming on, and suggested they all go out to breakfast. They piled back in the Jeep, which was only slightly less roomy without all their belongings in it, and headed out to a restaurant with outdoor seating.

When they were all given drinks and awaiting food, Trent brought up the subject of "Dr. O's old friends" and asked if Tommy had any stories to tell them.

Tommy stared into space, suddenly far away, back with his friends in their Ranger days. He had just opened his mouth to tell Conner, Kira, Trent and Ethan all about a few of his memories when a heavyset man bumped into the corner of their table in passing, knocking over Trent's water glass.

"Hey, watch where you're going!" the man said, as though the stationary table had been the one to cause the collision. He glared down at them all, and then caught sight of Tommy, who was busy mopping up the water. "Tommy?" he gasped.

Tommy looked up and found himself staring at none other than Farcus Bulkmeier. Beside him was Eugene Skullovitch.

"Bulk!" Tommy exclaimed, surprised. "Skull!"

Bulk had gotten a bit bulkier, but otherwise he looked much the same as he had in high school. Skull, too, remained more or less unchanged; they were both instantly recognizable. Gone, however, were their punk clothes, which were replaced with uniforms of khaki pants and white polo shirts with blue logos on the breast pockets saying "Club Bulkmeier."

"Bulk and Skull?" Kira repeated, frowning thoughtfully. She looked dubiously up at the two of them. "Which, uh, which ones were they?"

"They weren't," Tommy said. "We all went to high school together."

"So what are you doing back in town?" Skull asked Tommy, pulling up a chair. Bulk copied him. Tommy watched them uneasily—saying hello to Bulk and Skull was one thing, hanging out was another—but Tommy wasn't sure what to say.

"Oh, uh, we came to see Power Rangers Day," Tommy explained uncertainly, suddenly realizing that it was going to sound rather odd to people that he'd decided to make a trip home and bring along four teenagers that, to an outsider, he had no connection to other than the fact that he was their ex-science teacher. "These are my, uh, former students—Kira, Conner, Ethan and Trent."

Bulk and Skull, however, didn't seem to think anything of it. "Power Rangers Day!" Bulk said, puffing out his chest. "Did you know the Power Rangers were our close personal friends?"

Tommy fought to keep from smiling. Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent exchanged amused glances; while they hadn't known what to make of Bulk and Skull at first, they were quickly figuring it out.

"Oh, yeah," Skull said, nodding emphatically. "We used to help them out back when we were detectives. You wouldn't believe how many times we had to save their lives."

Tommy went into a fit of coughing that didn't quite disguise his laughter, but Bulk and Skull remained oblivious. He couldn't help it; the two looked so serious that if the four teens hadn't known the truth about Tommy being a Ranger, they might have actually believed it. Bulk and Skull spoke without even a hint that they were lying; Tommy wondered if they believed it themselves. He stared at the two former bullies hopelessly, trying to figure out a way to put an end to the conversation without being impolite. Failing to come up with anything, he decided it couldn't hurt to spend a little time with them.

"Met Rita Repulsa and everything," Skull continued importantly. "That's why we're giving tours."

"Tours?" Conner repeated, looking interested.

"Yeah, tours," Bulk said. "Club Bulkmeier is now running tours pointing out places of historical significance and interest to visitors to our fine city."

"You're quoting a brochure, aren't you?" Tommy said dryly.

"Yep," Bulk replied, producing one from his back pocket and handing it to Tommy. It was covered with rare pictures of the first Power Rangers and points of interest in Angel Grove. "You want to take a tour? Show your friends all of Angel Grove?"

"Can we?" Conner asked immediately, giving Tommy a hopeful look. Kira, Ethan and Trent copied him.

"I don't think that's such a good idea," Tommy replied quickly, envisioning a tour bus driven by Bulk flying off a cliff and bursting into flames while they all screamed helplessly.

"Pleeeeease?" the four kids whined in long, drawn-out voices, giving him the same puppy-dog eyes they'd given him right before attacking him in Hayley's café. Visions of the incident, and the subsequent car ride and all their antics in the hotel so far, swam through Tommy's mind.

"Fine," he said sadly, heaving a huge sigh.

"All right! To the van!" Bulk commanded imperiously, rising and pointing at a large shuttle-style bus with the Club Bulkmeier logo emblazoned on the side, parked (badly) at the curb not far away. Skull got up and followed Bulk, the teenagers trailing them. Feeling rather like he should have shot himself the moment he heard about Power Rangers Day, Tommy put some cash on the table to cover the bill and went after them.

"So who are these people, really?" Kira asked quietly as Tommy sat down behind her. "Were they really close to you guys?"

"No," Tommy said, trying to come up with a responsible, adult, teacher-like way of explaining that Bulk and Skull were two bumbling bullies from high school. "They're, uh... you know... They were our Cassidy and Devin."

"Oh," Kira said, nodding wisely. "That explains everything."

The bus lurched into motion and Bulk and Skull began naming various buildings and areas, pointing them out and attaching some monster attack or another to them. Tommy was pretty sure they were making at least half of them up. The ride wasn't very smooth; Skull kept running up on curbs or taking turns too quickly and stopping too suddenly. Tommy, becoming tenser by the moment, watched as the Angel Grove fire department, police station, and city council building went by, staring idly out the window without much interest, sliding back into his memories until Bulk called out, "The Angel Grove Youth Center."

Tommy looked up in surprise, grinning. There was the Youth Center, which Ernie had run for so many years. He was surprised to see the old "Gym and Juice Bar" sign still out front; Ernie had sold it long ago.

"Hey, Bulk," he called, "who owns the Youth Center now?"

"Ernie," Bulk replied. "He came back, didn't you hear?"

"What? No," Tommy said, surprised. Ernie had left not long after Tommy had become the Red Turbo Ranger; Lieutenant Stone had said something about a Foreign Service Unit and the Amazon.

"Oh, yeah. Long time ago. Lieutenant Stone sold it back to him and everything; the Lieutenant wanted to go back to police work full-time, anyway. Ernie's been back for a few years, running the place just like he used to."

"Awesome," Tommy said, making a mental note to tell Jason and go back to see him.

"Anyway," Bulk continued, "rumor has it that the Power Rangers would often frequent the Angel Grove Youth Center when out of uniform to train for—"

A loud thud cut Bulk off. "Dr. O! Are you okay?" Trent asked worriedly. The others all twisted in their seats to look at him.

Tommy had fallen right out of his seat to land painfully on the shuttle van's dirty floor. "I'm fine," he choked out, feeling somewhat shaky. That rumor was a bit too close for comfort.

"Go easier on the turns, you numskull!" Bulk chided Skull, who nodded and gripped the wheel a little tighter. Tommy was glad when the Youth Center was out of sight.

The next place to interest Tommy was Angel Grove Park, which Bulk and Skull had so much Power-Ranger-related material on that they parked the van and rambled on. Tommy stared around, picking out places where he'd spent time alone or with his friends or battling monsters.

"You can still see the scorch marks over there from that one monster, what was his name..."

"Spit Flower," Tommy supplied absently.

"How'd you know that?" Skull asked curiously.

"Uh..."

"Hey, what's over there?" Ethan asked hurriedly, pointing down the road. Bulk and Skull diverted their attention and Tommy sent Ethan a grateful look.

They passed Billy's old house; Tommy cast a fond look at the garage, remembering all the times he'd hung out in there. On and on the tour went; Tommy was sure they'd been down every street in Angel Grove by the time they returned to their starting point, and run over dozens of curbs. Wondering if the van would ever be able to drive in a straight line again, Tommy disembarked gratefully the moment Skull came to a stop near the café.

"Thanks for the tour, guys," Tommy said, rubbing his shoulder from when he'd been slammed against the window by Skull's erratic driving. "I'll see you around."

"Anytime, anytime... oh! That'll be twenty-five bucks." Bulk held up a calculator.

"What?"

"Five dollars a tour per person," Skull explained.

Gritting his teeth but prepared to do whatever it took to get Bulk and Skull's van to go far far away, Tommy handed over the money. "See you," he repeated, forcing a smile.

"See you at Power Rangers Day!" Bulk called, and off they drove, speeding around the corner, tires squealing and horns blowing from other drivers' vehicles.

"Well that was fun," Conner said brightly. "Those guys were interesting."

"'Interesting' isn't the word," Tommy muttered. The others smiled.

"So what now, Dr. O?" Ethan asked. "Is there an arcade in this town, by any chance?"

"The Youth Center should have video games," Tommy said, leading the way to his Jeep. "It used to, anyway. I haven't been there in ages; I had no idea that Ernie had come back. It never seemed the same without Ernie."

"So you and your friends used to go there a lot?" Trent asked.

"Yeah, just about every day. It was our home away from home," Tommy replied. He looked at his watch. "Hey... we should probably be heading to the park. We're supposed to meet the gang in twenty minutes."

"How's my hair?" Kira asked Trent nervously. Everyone turned to look at her. "What? I can't have a girly moment?"

"Who are you and what did you do with Kira?" Conner asked promptly.

"Ha, ha," Kira grumbled.

"It looks fine," Trent assured her awkwardly as they piled back into the Jeep.

"Thanks," she said. Tommy saw her sneak a glance at it in the rearview mirror as she hopped into the backseat anyway.

As Tommy pulled away from the curb, Conner bounced in his seat enthusiastically. "This is it," he said gleefully. "We're finally going to get to meet the original Power Rangers!"

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 6: A Golden Homecoming

"So the Power Rangers hung out here a lot?" Ethan asked as they got out of the Jeep at Angel Grove Park.

"Yeah. Had a lot of fights here, too."

"Why?" Trent asked.

Tommy shrugged. "We went where the monsters were. We fought all over, really, but I remember dozens of fights in the park."

As they wandered through the park, they passed the large area set aside for the upcoming Power Rangers Day. Tommy smiled sadly, remembering how bad he'd felt during the first one, which was after his Green Ranger powers had been taken away. He pointed out various battle sites, realizing that Ethan hadn't been too far off back in Hayley's Cyberspace when he'd mimicked Tommy saying, "That's where I fought a monster, and that's where I fought a monster, and look over there! That's where I fought a monster!" After a while, the sights lost their appeal; Tommy saw them all start to get that glazed look in their eye like they often had in class.

"Why'd the Rang—er, your friends... want to meet here?" Conner asked, looking around the park without interest. "Don't two of your friends still live in Angel Grove?"

"Yeah, why not meet at their place?" Kira asked.

"I don't know, it just seemed like a good idea," Tommy said with a shrug, glancing around for Jason and the others, memories flooding him at the sight of every tree and leaf. "The park. Wow... If I had a dollar for every time I had to fight evil here, I wouldn't have to teach psychotic teenagers."

"Where's the fun in that?" Ethan joked.

"Come on, Dr. O, don't get all mopey," Conner said, mistaking Tommy's nostalgia for sadness. "Three cheers for Dr. O, guys!" He thrust his fist in the air; when no one said anything, he glared at them all expectantly. "Come on, guys, let's cheer him up! Who shows the Rangers where to go?" Conner chanted, doing a bad impression of street rapping. Then he yelled, "Dr. O! Dr. O!"

"Who's the dude who's got the know?" Ethan chimed in.

"Dr. O! Dr. O!" they all chorused. Tommy rubbed a hand over his face wearily, and, seeing his embarrassment, they gleefully continued.

"Who had a mullet that he dared to show?" Kira added with a giggle. Tommy glowered at her.

"Dr. O! Dr. O!"

"Who's always late and forgets everything?" a new voice cut in.

Tommy looked at Trent, who had started to speak but closed his mouth, looking around for the speaker, confused. Conner, Kira, and Ethan did the same, and then a new group of voices sang, "Dr. O! Dr. O!"

Tommy turned bright red as Jason came into view down the path, followed by Trini and Billy. The original speaker was revealed to be Zack.

"Who'd I cover for when he and Kim were kissing?" Jason added with a smirk. Tommy glared at him fiercely.

"Dr. O! Dr. O!" Trini, Billy, Jason and Zack chanted again.

"Who's the big tough guy they're following?" Zack said in a fake macho voice.

"Dr. O! Dr. O!"

"Who shocked us all with a PhD?" Jason continued; the others struggled not to laugh so that they could keep up with the chant.

"Dr. O! Dr. O!" they gasped out.

"All right, all right, ha, ha," Tommy interrupted as Zack prepared to sing something else. Jason, Billy, Trini and Zack all burst out laughing hysterically. In the interest of staving off further insults, he turned to the four teenagers. "Guys, this is... are you okay?"

Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent stood motionless, staring at Tommy's friends, completely awestruck. Tommy waved his hand in front of Trent's face, but Trent didn't seem to see him. "What's wrong with you g—"

"IT'S THEM!" Conner screamed so suddenly that Tommy and Jason both dropped automatically into defensive stances. "It's the original—"

"SHH!" Tommy, Trini, Jason, Billy and Zack hissed, glancing around in alarm.

"Sorry," Conner choked out. "It's just... you're... you're them."

"Wow," Ethan said softly.

Jason smiled and stepped forward, offering his hand to the former Dino Rangers. "I'm Jason Scott," he said, pulling the shoulder of his red T-shirt away from his body to acknowledge his former Ranger color.

None of the four teens stepped forward to shake his hand; they all suddenly looked terrified, as though Jason were some monstrous creature setting a trap for them. Kira stepped a little behind Trent and nudged him towards Jason with her shoulder.

Trent stumbled a little but caught himself, then wiped his hand on his pants and extended it to Jason. "I'm... uh... I'm Trent," he stammered, his voice rather high-pitched. He indicated his own white polo shirt.

Jason nodded, grinned and started to turn to Ethan, but Conner lunged out of nowhere and seized his hand, shaking it so vigorously that Jason almost fell over. "I'm Conner. Conner McKnight. Most recent leader and, you know, Red. Wow. It's an honor. A huge honor."

"Thanks," Jason said, looking rather surprised at Conner's enthusiasm, but somewhat pleased and flattered as well.

Introductions were made all around; the Dino Rangers continued to look starry-eyed, and the others were unsure how to handle the hero worship. Part of having a secret identity was that they didn't exactly get fussed over a lot. They'd met a few people while in uniform who'd asked for autographs or whatever, but that was rare, as they'd never hung around after battle, and it had been years since they'd had any interaction with people who knew who they were and weren't old friends. By the time they were all acquainted, Kira, Ethan and Trent were huddled together as though trying to appear small, and Conner was still gazing at Jason with pure excitement. "This is so cool," Conner kept repeating.

"It's really great to meet you all," Trini said. "We've heard so much about you from Tommy."

"Is it true Dr. O really had a mullet?" Ethan blurted out unexpectedly.

"It was the style back then!" Tommy half-yelled in exasperation.

"Yet you were the only person who had one," Jason deadpanned. "You were a real trendsetter, Tommy."

"Oh, shut up," he growled, but he was grinning. Seeing the gang was worth a thousand insults.

"Hey," Kira spoke up, her voice still a little shaky, "wasn't there supposed to be a Pink, too?"

"Kimberly, yeah," Billy said. All of his friends shot sidelong glances at Tommy, no doubt trying to gauge his reaction, but he pretended he didn't notice.

"Where is Kimberly, anyway?" Tommy asked, careful to keep his voice nonchalant. He felt a stab of fear. Had something happened? Or had she just decided she'd rather be anywhere that wasn't near Tommy?

"I called her this morning; she said she was going to stop and pick up some pizza," Trini explained. She gestured at a basket Zack was holding. "I thought we could hang out here, like we used to—you know, have a picnic lunch. I had a whole bunch of food prepared and everything, but someone—" she glanced at Jason, who promptly schooled his features into an apologetic expression— "thinks anything in the fridge is fair game."

"Well, usually it is," Jason protested. "You label everything that isn't."

"I can't label everything," Trini said. "Especially since Tommy sat on my labeling machine."

"What?" Billy said, confused.

"Our dog, Tommy," Trini clarified. "Jason thought naming him after Tommy would be, uh—"

"A hysterical and yet accurate representation," Jason supplied helpfully.

"Have you tried repairing it?" Billy asked, looking interested as always when confronted with the prospect of tinkering with something.

"Hasn't worked so far. You can take a look at it, if you want," Trini replied. "I'll probably just have to get a new one, though. Anyway, let's go find somewhere to eat."

They left the clearing and started up the path to a secluded spot near a stream that they'd once come to quite often, to train and hang out and so on. Trini spread out blankets on the grass and she and Zack started sorting out the plastic utensils and bags of chips and so on. Conner became absorbed in a conversation with Jason, asking him all sorts of questions about being the first Red Ranger, while Ethan attached himself to Billy, discussing electronics and how difficult it was to be technology savvy in a world where few people could tell you what a USB port was. Tommy went to help Trini and Zack, who were talking to Kira and Trent.

"I'm an orphan," Trent explained, "and my foster father turned out to be Mesogog, the main bad guy. Anyway, he made me into an evil Ranger and I did the bad guy thing for a while myself. Then the evil in my Dino Gem was destroyed, and I joined Dr. O and the others."

Zack stared at him. "Is that your story, or Tommy's?"

"They're eerily similar," Trini said, raising her eyebrows. "Except for that bit about the foster father. Weird, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Tommy said with a shrug. He had often thought about the parallels between himself and Trent. "Especially since his father was my colleague right up until our lab went boom."

"I hate it when that happens," Billy said, overhearing them.

"Hey, check her out," Conner said suddenly. He had finally been torn from Jason by the only thing that he found more interesting than meeting the planet's first superheroes—girls. "She's hot."

Tommy glanced over and rolled his eyes when he spotted the woman coming up the path, who looked to be in at least her mid-twenties. "She's too old for you, Conner."

The words had barely left his mouth when he realized who it was; he did a double take, startled. Kimberly was walking towards them, wearing a pink sundress and holding a large stack of pizza boxes. She looked incredible, and something about the dress she was wearing took him back, back to the days when he and Kimberly had been inseparable.

"Dr. O?" Conner prompted, confused by Tommy's blatant staring and trying to grasp what was up with his former teacher. Arriving at the most logical (for Conner) conclusion, he asked, "What? Do you think she's hot, too?"

Head snapping around, Tommy fixed Conner with a truly frightening, furious glare. Conner wasn't sure, but he could have sworn he'd seen Tommy's eyes glow green for a moment. Swallowing hard, Conner smiled apologetically, muttered "You can have her," and edged away from his mentor, bumping into Kira.

"Hey!" Kira shoved Conner away from her. "You have space; don't use mine!"

"Sorry," Conner repeated distractedly, and proceeded to put as much space between himself and Tommy as possible.

"Hi, guys!" Kimberly called as she approached.

"KIM!" Billy, Zack and Trini yelled, and they rushed over to her with Jason. Jason took the pizza boxes from her and set them on the blanket, then stood in line for his hug. Tommy hung back, fairly certain that he wasn't really on hugging terms. Kira, Ethan and Trent took note of it, shot him questioning glances (Conner was too busy trying to stay away from Tommy) but Tommy didn't acknowledge them; in fact, he barely noticed, feeling jealous and not a little awkward and upset.

When at last Zack released her, Kimberly turned to Tommy and the others. Kimberly gave Tommy a little wave. "Hey, Tommy."

Acutely aware that everyone was watching them, Tommy smiled casually. "Hey."

Kimberly glanced around to make sure the group of Rangers was alone before looking at Kira, Ethan, Trent and Conner. "You guys are the Dino Rangers, right? I've heard a lot about you."

The handshaking went a little bit easier with Kimberly than it had with the others; the awe was wearing off with every second the teens spent around their predecessors, though they were all still deeply impressed. Conner was the only odd moment; he was taking care to stay far from Kimberly, still nervous about Tommy's reaction to Conner's comments about her. When she turned to him expecting an introduction, Conner darted forward, shook her hand as briefly as possible, said his name, and then hastily retreated with a worried glance at Tommy. Kimberly gave Tommy a confused, questioning look.

"Er..." Tommy said, racking his brains.

"Don't mind him," Kira said, shaking her head in exasperation.

"He's a soccer player," Ethan added. "Sometimes he hits the ball too hard with his head."

"I heard that!" Conner called from his place ten feet away.

Kimberly giggled. "I see. So how do you like Angel Grove so far?"

"It's a cool place," Trent said promptly. "We went on a tour this morning."

"Oh, yeah!" Tommy said, having forgotten all about it the moment his friends were around them. "We ran into Bulk and Skull this morning."

"Bulk and Skull?" Jason repeated, grinning.

"They gave you a tour?" Zack said, looking shocked to see Tommy and the others were still alive. "Like, on a tour bus? You got in a moving vehicle with Bulk and Skull?"

"Are you insane?" Trini asked, laughing. "Weren't you afraid they'd drive you off a cliff?"

"Of course I was," Tommy said. "Skull's definitely not the best driver in the world."

"It was okay," Kira spoke up. "Dr. O fell out of his seat, though."

"Dr. O?" Kimberly inquired. Kira pointed at Tommy. "Oh! Right. PhD. Got it."

"How did you fall out of your seat, anyway?" Ethan asked. "We weren't going very fast or anything. We were outside that Youth Center place."

"Ah, the Youth Center," Zack said, a distant look in his eyes.

"I fell over in shock, actually. According to Bulk, the Rangers were rumored to have hung out there when they weren't saving the world."

"Wow. That's a little too close to home," Billy said, looking concerned.

"Oh, there's always some rumor like that," Trini told them, waving her hand dismissively. "The Angel Grove historian has all these theories about us, and the town comes up with all these wild stories. Every so often I hear someone I've never met telling me all about how they knew us personally."

"I don't know, though," Jason said. "With as often as we were in there and then had to spontaneously run off... right before a monster attack... hmm. I wonder if Ernie ever thought about that."

"Probably. We were some of his favorite customers," Zack said with a shrug. "But Ernie was cool. He wouldn't tell anyone. Besides, he's in the Amazon or something, remember?"

"Oh! Ernie's back, too. Bulk told me he's been back for a while."

"You're kidding!" Trini exclaimed.

"We've got to go and see him," Billy said automatically.

"I wish I'd known! I would have been over there all the time," Jason added.

They sat down to eat, chatting away about old times, catching up on each other's lives, old and new Rangers getting acquainted. Kira stayed close to Trini and Kimberly, telling them how much she'd have liked to have another girl on the team and asking if they'd been very comfortable with spending so much time with a bunch of guys. Soon they were swapping horror stories about the annoyance of being surrounded by boys. Conner latched back onto Jason, who dealt well with the constant chatter, enjoying the hero worship. Ethan began explaining the finer points of some new computer system to Billy, leaving Trent to hang with Zack and Tommy, the three of them talking about everything and nothing. At last, everyone had eaten their fill and the talk began to wane. Finally someone asked what they were going to do next.

"Jason and I had an idea," Trini began hesitantly. "We saw in the paper that city council is thinking of canceling Power Rangers Day—"

"What! But... I came all the way... they can't..." Tommy spluttered.

"City council is claiming it's all a re-election stunt of the mayor's," Jason explained. "It's an election year. City council thinks he's just trying to use the Power Rangers Day to try and win popularity. If we show up, he'll be virtually endorsed by the Power Rangers and get a few more votes, and if we don't, he can say he still brought in a good deal of extra tourism, which was good for the city, blah, blah, blah."

"It's a smart move by a smart guy," Trini said with a shrug. "He's a good mayor. The point is, though, that city council has been threatening to cancel if they don't get confirmation from the Power Rangers that the Rangers are actually going to show up." A mischievous twinkle entered her eye. "We thought it'd be fun to... well... confirm."

"How?" Zack asked, leaning forward eagerly.

"We go to the mayor's office," Jason explained.

"But it's Saturday," Tommy said.

"He'll be there. They're trying to make this Power Rangers Day into a huge event. Some people have even been talking about fireworks and all these newspaper reporters are going to be there," Trini replied. "So we show up in uniform, tell him we'll be there, and then leave. Simple as that."

"You're forgetting one thing," Billy said, frowning thoughtfully. "How are we going to get there and back? If we go wandering around, we'll probably be followed by someone—I imagine any sighting of us is going to produce a crowd. Since Tommy, Kimberly and I can't morph, it would probably have to be just Jason, Trini and Zack, so they could power down as soon as they were out of sight and then blend in with the crowd. The problem, however, would be slipping away. Not even Jason, Trini and Zack can teleport anymore—we did that using the Command Center's power. Without it, we're all grounded. You'd have to walk there, and someone might see you transforming if you do it downtown. And like I said, it'd be difficult to get away once you were spotted."

"I hadn't thought of that," Jason said, grimacing. "I forgot we couldn't teleport."

"We'd need a vehicle," Zack said.

"Yeah. If we drove away from the more populated areas, we'd have no problem sneaking off and demorphing," Trini mused. "We can still jump higher and run faster than the average citizen."

"We can't use any of our cars, though," Kimberly pointed out. "If anyone traced the car back to one of us, we'd be putting our secret identities at risk."

"There's gotta be some way," Tommy said.

They all sat around for a while, thinking hard. Then, to everyone's surprise, Conner grinned and cleared his throat.

"I have an idea."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 7: Return of an Old Friend

"I wonder why this tour thing's going so slow. You'd think plenty of people would want to take a tour of Angel Grove," Skull mused as he screeched to a halt in front of Club Bulkmeier.

"It's early yet. We probably won't get any customers for a while," Bulk said.

"But it's two in the afternoon, and we haven't had a tour since Tommy," Skull pointed out.

"Two is way too early. I mean, if you weren't a tour guide, would you even be awake?"

"Good point," Skull said, nodding wisely.

Just as they were climbing out of the tour bus, intent on getting something to eat at the club, someone tapped Bulk on the shoulder and said "Excuse me." Bulk and Skull turned and found themselves face-to-face with the first Yellow Ranger.

The two gaped at her, utterly dumbfounded. They were so shocked that it took them a moment to realize that the Red and Black Rangers were standing behind her.

"Hi," the Yellow Ranger said cheerfully, in a vaguely familiar voice. "We were hoping you could help us with something."

"Help...?" Suddenly Bulk was jolted back into action. He seemed to swell with importance, puffing out his chest and gut as he drew himself up proudly. "What can we do, ma'am?"

"We need to get to the mayor's office downtown," the Red Ranger replied. "Could you take us?"

"Sure!" Bulk said immediately. "Follow us! To the tour bus, Skull!"

The three Rangers looked at each other, then hurriedly followed Bulk and Skull to the van. With a lurch, it set off down the road, Bulk and Skull chattering excitedly.

Only the three Rangers noticed Kimberly's Mustang and Tommy's Jeep following them.

~*~

Jason, Trini and Zack had never been so grateful to get out of a moving vehicle as they were when they stepped out on the sidewalk in front of the mayor's office. "Thank you for your assistance," Jason said formally, still somewhat dizzy and shaken from Skull's erratic driving but trying to appear calm.

"Will you need a ride back?" Skull asked eagerly, leaning over Bulk to talk out the window.

"If at all possible, we'd appreciate that," Jason replied reluctantly. "We won't be long."

"No problem," Bulk said quickly. "We'll wait."

"Oh, joy," Zack muttered to the others as they headed for the building. "Tommy really downplayed how badly Skull drives."

"Tommy was a racecar driver," Trini pointed out.

"And if Skull was a racecar driver, he'd die in the most spectacular crash in NASCAR history," Zack replied.

"We should have listened to Kira and Ethan when they told us not to use Conner's idea," Jason said ruefully.

"That's putting it mildly," Trini said dryly.

"Putting it more accurately would be 'I'm gonna knock that kid's teeth out for suggesting this,'" Zack added.

"What were we thinking?" Jason agreed.

The three Rangers kept glancing around cautiously for gawkers as they dashed into the office building. Two security guards gaped at them as they passed, but no one stopped them or took much notice otherwise until they reached a receptionist's desk.

"Excuse me," Jason said. The woman looked up and froze. Jason took advantage of her silence to speak quickly, trying to act as though three Power Rangers who hadn't been seen in years walking into the mayor's office was nothing out of the ordinary. "We'd like to see the mayor, ma'am."

"D... do... do you have an appointment?" she choked out.

The three Rangers looked at each other. "Uh... no," Jason said, rolling his eyes behind his helmet. "But it'll just take a second. Could you tell him the Power Rangers are here?"

"S-sure. Uh, have a seat." The secretary gestured vaguely at a row of chairs and rushed off. Jason looked at the others and shrugged. They went to sit down.

"So," Zack said with a smirk, taking note of all the people wandering past who'd stopped to stare, "read any good books lately?"

"Nope," Jason replied, grinning.

"Hey, this looks good," Trini said, picking up an old issue of Time from a nearby table. Crossing her legs, she propped it on her knees and began to flip through it as businessmen, lobbyists and politicians wandered past, gazing at them in shock, disbelief and excitement as they sat calmly in the waiting area, as if they came to the mayor's office every day.

"There's the mayor," Zack said in a low voice, pointing discreetly. They hurriedly stood up, Trini replacing the magazine. The mayor was power-walking towards them, his secretary practically jogging behind him.

"The Power Rangers! It's an honor!" the mayor called far too loudly (undoubtedly trying to make sure everyone heard him) as he shook their hands. "I'm Jacob Anderson. I always wanted to meet you. Here to discuss Power Rangers Day?"

"We heard city council wanted us to RSVP," Zack explained wryly.

"Of course, of course—why don't we talk in my office? It's just down here..."

The mayor led them up the stairs, down the hall and into a well-decorated, roomy office, chattering all the way. "So good of you to come... I was a tad worried you wouldn't be able to make it to Power Rangers Day, you must be awfully busy... will it be just the three of you coming?"

"Oh, no," Jason said. "All six of us will be there."

"Really? Splendid! Have a seat, have a seat..." He gestured at the chairs in front of his desk, sitting down behind his own. "I was thinking of having a bit of a question-and-answer session at Power Rangers Day. You know, a few reporters asking a few questions... nothing fancy. The citizens of Angel Grove simply want to thank you, meet you... you're such a mystery, you know, and after all you've done for the city we'd all like to thank you on a bit more personal level..."

Trini and Zack looked at Jason, who cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Uh... well, I suppose there's no harm in that," he said hesitantly. "There are a few rumors we'd like to quell."

"Of course," Mayor Anderson said, beaming. "I must admit, this is doing wonders for local business. All the tourism... and we've you to thank. You've done so much more than protect this city."

"Our pleasure," Jason replied.

"Would it be possible for you to talk with the press now?" the mayor asked eagerly. "There's a reporter from the New York Times in town, I'm sure he'd love to get a bit of an exclusive—"

"Er... we've really got to be going," Jason said quickly.

"Right, right, places to go, lives to save," Mayor Anderson said, still grinning. "I'll be sure to let city council know that you will be coming. Would you mind giving speeches, by the way?"

"Um... speeches?"

"Yes, you know, just a few words..." He looked at each of them in turn hopefully. "I'm sure the children would just adore that. Oh, and if you could sign a few autographs..."

Trini and Zack looked at Jason again, who was starting to feel a bit alarmed at being put on the spot. "Uh... we'll see what we can do," Jason said awkwardly.

Trini happened to glance out the window and spotted a news van pulling up to the curb across the street. She stood up, a note of worry in her voice. "We really must go now," she told the mayor, leaning over to shake his hand again before heading for the door. As she passed the startled Jason and Zack, she whispered "Crowd coming."

Jason and Zack were on their feet in an instant, catching the mayor by surprise. "Thank you the great honor," Jason said hastily, rushing after Trini.

"'Preciate it," Zack added, waving over his shoulder and chasing after his friends, leaving the befuddled mayor to stare after them.

The moment they stepped into the lobby, a large group of people turned to look at them. They were startled to see several reporters amongst them, some with notepads and some holding microphones and accompanied by cameramen.

"Press must have started watching the office, waiting for us to show from the moment they put that article in the paper," Jason muttered. "We should have thought of that."

"I really wish we could teleport," Zack said wistfully.

"Charge them," Trini suggested with a slight smile. "They might break and run."

The crowd was already rushing at them... but everyone stopped as the Red, Yellow and Black Rangers suddenly ran straight at the group, as if running into battle. With startled yelps, the crowd parted, no doubt thinking wildly that the Power Rangers were attacking.

"Sorry... urgent battle, can't stay!" Jason yelled as he dodged through the mass of people.

"See you at Power Rangers Day!" Zack called.

The three of them dashed out into the street and dove into the shuttle bus, scaring the crap out of Bulk and Skull, who were talking excitedly about their new status as Ranger chauffeurs and hadn't seen the Rangers approaching.

"Step on it, Skull!" Jason shouted, though he instantly regretted it.

Skull, panicking, threw his foot onto the gas. The tour bus shot away from the curb just as the crowd poured out onto the office's steps.

"Where to?" Bulk asked as they sped off.

"Angel Grove Park," Trini replied, glancing behind her. Behind them were Trent, Kira, Conner, Ethan and Tommy in his Jeep, followed by Billy and Kimberly in her blue Mustang. If anyone, be it fan or journalist, tried to follow them, the plan was for Billy and Kimberly to slow down and drive like elderly people, giving Skull the opportunity to get far enough ahead to lose them.

"We really appreciate this," Jason told Skull as he whipped around a corner and nearly hit a tree.

"Don't mention it! Anything we can do for our old friends the Power Rangers," Bulk said cheerfully. "So why'd you need to see the mayor?"

Jason, Trini and Zack explained carefully and held a polite conversation with Bulk and Skull until they came to a stop in the parking lot near Zack's SUV and Jason's pickup truck. Tommy and Kimberly parked their cars a short distance away as inconspicuously as possible.

"We have to go," Trini said as she, Zack and Jason climbed out. "Thanks again for your help."

"Anytime!" Bulk called as the three of them ran off.

"Where are you going? Is there a monster attack?" Skull shouted after them.

None of them stopped to reply. They dove into the woods, circled to the left, ducked low and dove into the parked cars next to Jason's truck. Checking carefully for onlookers, they demorphed next to Jason's truck, using it as cover. They waited for Bulk and Skull to pull away, then casually strolled over to Tommy, Kimberly, Billy, Kira, Ethan, Conner and Trent.

"How'd it go?" Kimberly asked eagerly.

"It was a blast," Zack proclaimed, grinning from ear to ear.

"It was kind of like the Rangers Parade," Jason said, not quite sharing Zack's sentiment.

"That bad?" Tommy said, grimacing.

"Ouch." Kimberly winced.

"Don't remind me," Billy moaned, looking pained.

"What Rangers Parade?" Ethan asked.

"You guys were in a parade?" Conner added.

The six older Rangers looked at each other. "It's... a long story," Jason said slowly. Tommy shuddered and nodded. "Suffice it to say, it wasn't one of our better days."

"This wasn't as bad," Zack insisted. Everyone looked at him dubiously. "We didn't even talk to a reporter. And there was no Goldar. And no Kinko's. And no looking for a mechanic. And Tommy didn't have to—"

"I thought we agreed that we weren't going to ever mention that again!" Tommy interrupted shrilly. His friends stifled laughs while his former students gave him curious looks. He stubbornly avoided their gaze.

"Well, maybe it wasn't as bad as the parade, but I'm betting it'll be on the news within the hour," Trini said with a sigh.

"We should go watch it," Tommy said. He smiled. "You think Ernie still has televisions in the Juice Bar?"

"That's a great idea!" Trini gushed. "Let's go see him!"

Twenty minutes later, the ten of them entered the Angel Grove Youth Center. Ernie was behind the counter, looking much like they remembered, though he was a little thinner with a few more gray hairs. He was wiping the countertop with a rag and staring fixedly up at the TV. Tommy, Zack, Kimberly, Billy, Trini and Jason came up to the counter, the teenagers behind them, looking around curiously. Then all attention was focused on the television set as a reporter's voice reached them; they distinctly heard her asking "Mr. Bulkmeier" a question.

"Even the Power Rangers themselves are taking our tours," said the voice of none other than Bulk, as the network showed footage of the uniformed Jason, Trini and Zack jumping into the shuttle bus. A large caption along the bottom of the screen said, "Rangers Return!" in huge bold letters.

"They're our old friends," Skull added importantly as the picture changed to a reporter standing with the grinning Bulk and Skull. "We helped them a lot, back when we were detectives."

"That's right," Bulk said, nodding emphatically.

Ernie shook his head, his back still to his former customers. "Yeah, right," he muttered, smiling.

Now the mayor came on the screen, surrounded by a mob of reporters. "The Power Rangers have agreed to sign autographs and give speeches, as well as answer a few questions from those in attendance," he said proudly.

The picture switched back to Bulk, Skull and the reporter. She stepped forward, smiling into the camera. "You heard it here first. The Power Rangers have confirmed that they will be attending Power Rangers Day. We'll have more at six. And now, back to your regularly scheduled program."

The network's logo flashed on. "This has been a special report by—"

"Wait—speeches?" Billy repeated, looking alarmed.

"Autographs?" Tommy demanded.

"Answer questions!" Kimberly added.

Jason rubbed the back of his neck nervously. "Well..."

Jason was saved the trouble of explaining himself. At the sound of their voices, Ernie turned around to find himself face-to-face with six teens who'd come to the Youth Center more than the rest of the population of Angel Grove combined.

"Guys!" Ernie exclaimed, pleasantly surprised. "What are you doing here?"

"We just heard you were back," Jason said, clasping Ernie's hand. "We didn't know, or we would have been by already."

"It never seemed the same without you," Tommy added.

Ernie shook all their hands and then paused before asking, "You guys in town for Power Rangers Day?" in a carefully nonchalant voice.

The six of them looked at each other, then nodded hesitantly. Ernie grinned. "Wow, look at you guys! All grown up. I still remember you as sixteen-year-olds, and now look at you... and who's this?" he asked, nodding at the four teenagers, hanging back behind Tommy.

Tommy introduced them all. "They were my, uh, students," Tommy explained uncertainly, knowing that Ernie was a lot smarter than Bulk and Skull and would realize something was off. "I'm a science teacher now."

Ernie gave the teens a shrewd look. "You wouldn't happen to be from Reefside, would you?" he asked casually.

"How'd you guess?" Conner asked, surprised. Kira, Ethan and Trent also looked confused.

"Oh, someone mentioned that's where Tommy was living now," Ernie said, still in the same nonchalant tone. The four teens shrugged, accepting the excuse. Noticing the exchange of glances between Jason, Trini, Billy, Kimberly, Zack and Tommy, Ernie grinned and put down his bar rag. "Teaching science, eh, Tommy? A lot's changed. Care to fill me in over some smoothies? On me."

The elder Rangers were just as eager for smoothies as they were for a subject change, knowing that Ernie had probably put two and two together and figured that the six kids who'd always disappeared during monster attacks and had now returned for Power Rangers Day were the original team, and that the four teens from Reefside were probably the Dino Rangers. He didn't mention it, however, didn't even look at them accusingly, simply handed them drinks as they sat down at the counter, and they all chatted away as other customers came and went.

"So what are you doing now, Billy?" Ernie asked, after hearing the other's stories. "I seem to remember Adam saying something about you moving, but no one ever elaborated, and then I had to go to the Amazon..."

"Oh... uh... I was offered a job. Working with... the, um, government." That, at least, wasn't a total lie—he was working for the government of Aquitar.

"Doing what?"

"I... well..."

"He's not allowed to give out a lot of information," Jason cut in quickly.

"Yeah, you know the government," Kimberly added.

Ernie gave Billy a piercing look; Billy avoided his gaze. "I see," Ernie said. "Do you enjoy the work?"

"Immensely," Billy said, nodding vigorously.

"Got you a wife yet?"

"Er... well, no," Billy said sheepishly. "But I'm involved with someone."

"Good for you," Ernie exclaimed, clapping him on the arm and grinning. He turned to Tommy, who swallowed, fearing that Ernie might ask him about his love life as well... and that would definitely be awkward in front of Kimberly and the teenagers. However, Ernie seemed to understand. "And you're a paleontologist, eh? How'd you get interested in that?"

Tommy shrugged. "My brother, David, talked a lot about ancient Native American sites in the area. Took me to some of them. That got me interested in archaeology, and from there it wasn't long before I turned to dinosaurs."

"He's unnaturally fascinated by them," Ethan muttered.

"Yeah. All the stories about fossils he told us," Conner added. "Talk about boring. I m-mean..." he stammered at Tommy's glare, not quite over Tommy's reaction about Kimberly at the picnic, "uh... flooring. Yeah. We were totally floored at how interesting it was."

"So how'd you end up teaching?" Ernie asked, smiling slightly at Conner as the others stifled laughs.

"Well, a lot of paleontologists end up teaching, so I went ahead and got my teaching license while I was at school, just in case I couldn't find work in the field. Then I started working on an island with Trent's father on a huge breakthrough on dinosaurs... but there was an accident at the lab, and the whole island ended up destroyed. So I was kind of ready for a break from actual researching, and I started looking for teaching positions. Finally found one in Reefside."

"Reefside," Ernie repeated, still with a half-smile. "Home of the Dino Rangers."

"They're gone now, though," Kira said, starting to realize how much Ernie was putting together. "No one has seen them for a while, not since they took down Mesogog."

"He was the Dino Ranger's Rita Repulsa," Tommy added.

"Yeah, I heard," Ernie said. He looked right at Tommy. "Funny, isn't it? You've lived in two cities with Power Rangers."

"Yeah, weird," Tommy said, smiling back at Ernie. "It's a small world."

"Really small," Ernie agreed.

"Come on out and say it, Ernie," Jason cut in, giving Ernie a penetrating look. "You know, don't you?"

"Know what?" Ernie replied calmly.

"You're not going to tell anyone, are you?" Trent asked desperately, far more worried than the older Rangers, who knew Ernie far better.

Ernie grinned at him, weakening when he saw the teens' nervousness. "I've known for over a decade. If I was going to tell anyone, I would have done it back in the 90's."

Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent all breathed a sigh of relief. Trini glanced around the Juice Bar to make sure they were alone. Satisfied, she asked, "How'd you figure it out?"

"Come on," Ernie said, shaking his head. "Six kids who knew how to fight, always disappearing during monster attacks and wearing red, yellow, black, pink, blue and white on a daily basis?" He looked at them each in turn as he said their colors. "Doesn't take a genius."

"We weren't that indiscreet," Kimberly insisted, then paused. "Were we?"

"We were teenagers," Zack said with a shrug. "Except for Billy, we weren't the wisest of people. Everyone's a complete idiot at seventeen."

"Hey!" Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent exclaimed indignantly.

"I wonder if anyone else figured it out," Jason muttered worriedly.

"I wouldn't worry too much about your identities," Ernie said kindly. "If anyone had figured it out, they would have said something by now if they'd planned to expose you. And who would believe them, anyway?"

"Could you imagine what people would say if Bulk and Skull claimed they knew who the Power Rangers were?" Kimberly said with a giggle.

"Given the fact that Trini, Zack and I just took a 'Club Bulkmeier Tour of Angel Grove,' I'm not sure," Jason said dryly.

"What was that all about, anyway?" Ernie asked curiously.

"Yeah, Jason," Tommy said, glaring at him. "What's all that about? Speeches? Autographs?"

Jason cringed. "Well..."

Trini, Zack and Jason launched into the story. While Kira, Trent, Conner, Ethan and Ernie seemed amused, Billy, Kimberly and Tommy's expressions ranged from disbelief to uncertainty to horror.

"We don't have a lot of luck with meet-and-greet sessions," Tommy pointed out.

"Like that Rangers Parade you guys put on," Ernie said. "That was really funny."

"That was not a parade!" Trini insisted. "We were towing our zords. They were damaged. I don't know why no one figured that out."

"I think they did, but the town wanted the publicity," Jason said. "God, that was irritating."

"You think it was irritating? You weren't the one thrown to the wolves!" Tommy retorted.

"Yeah," Zack said. "That must have been awful."

Kimberly, Jason, Trini, Zack and Billy attempted to look solemn and apologetic—and then burst out laughing three seconds later. Tommy glared at them all while the rest looked on in confusion.

"What are you guys talking about?" Conner asked eagerly.

"Nothing," Tommy said firmly.

"Yeah," Kimberly piped up. "It was just this little thing where Billy was hallucinating, Trini was trying to kill Zack, Jason became the unofficial spokesman for Kinko's, and Tommy was mobbed by a bunch of fans."

There was a slight pause as everyone reflected on this.

"So... not our finest hour," Zack said.

"I was not hallucinating," Billy insisted.

"Right. Sure, Billy," Tommy said with a sarcastic smile.

"Looking back, it was hysterical, though," Zack continued.

"Spokesman for Kinko's?" Ethan repeated.

"Hallucinating?" Trent asked.

"Mobbed?" Conner pointed at Tommy and laughed.

"It's a story for another time," Tommy said firmly, glowering harder than ever. "A time far, far in the future."

Ernie chuckled. "Well, I suppose it'll have to be. I close soon and I haven't wiped a single table down since you got here—I really need to get to work."

The Rangers looked up, surprised, to see that the sun had already set and the sky was dark enough to see several stars. They'd completely lost track of time during their talk with Ernie.

"Aw, darn," Kimberly muttered. "Well, do you need any help or anything?" she asked Ernie.

"I'll be fine," he said cheerfully, glancing around. The place did seem to be showing signs of neglect—many tables had dirty dishes, used napkins, crumbs and spilled liquids and so on, and the floor needed a good sweeping. Seeing their dubious looks, he added, "No, really, I can handle this. Do it every day. You kids are on vacation—you go have fun, all right? Come back and see me soon, though, okay?"

"We will, Ernie," Jason promised.

After a long good-bye, the ten ex-Rangers left the Youth Center, only to mill about in the parking lot.

"So what are we doing now?" Jason asked.

"I'm up for suggestions," Zack said with a shrug.

"I'm... uh... actually thinking of turning in," Billy said apologetically. "While returning to my previous sleep schedule isn't going to be too difficult, the discrepancies between the gravitational pulls of Earth and Aquitar are quite taxing. I'm rather fatigued. The heaviness takes some getting used to."

"He talks like a cross between Ethan and Hayley," Conner said with a frown.

"All he said was that he's tired because gravity's stronger here," Ethan said, rolling his eyes at Conner. The six older Rangers looked at Ethan in surprise. "What?"

"A new Billy translator!" Zack exclaimed, clapping his hand on Ethan's shoulder. "Thank god."

"It got so confusing when Trini wasn't around," Tommy added, nodding.

"Yeah," Kimberly jumped in. "Once Trini, Zack and Jason left, we all had to actually study to understand him. There was talk of reading the dictionary."

"Rocky actually did that, didn't he?" Billy asked.

"He got through the first half," Tommy replied.

Billy chuckled. "Anyway, I'm sorry. If you guys want to go do something, that's fine—"

"Actually, Conner's snoring kept me up all night," Ethan said sourly. "I'm tired too."

"Ah, come on, the night is young," Conner said cheerfully.

"Easy for you to say! You sleep through anything!" Ethan retorted.

"Yeah. Ethan threw all sorts of stuff at your head in your sleep," Trent said with a laugh.

Tommy pinched the bridge of his nose. "Maybe we should all head back and get some rest," he said. "All the free smoothies have me a bit hyped up, but sleep makes these four relatively quiet, so the sooner they go to bed, the better."

"Fine by me," Jason said. Everyone else muttered their agreement, save a sullen-looking Conner. "Billy, you riding with me?"

Billy nodded and headed for Jason's truck. "It's going to be a tight fit with Trini," Jason said, hitting the remote to unlock the doors. "But I think we'll manage."

"Oh... I'm sleeping over at Kimberly's," Trini said. "Remember?"

Jason stared at her. "Honey, you're married and pushing thirty. You don't have sleepovers."

"That was before her best friend rolled into town," Kimberly said, sticking out her tongue playfully.

"I told you about this, didn't I?" Trini said, frowning. "I already put my overnight bag in her car at the park. Billy, you remember, don't you?"

"You told Billy, and not me?" Jason said, looking like he was a step away from pouting.

"I told her I didn't mind," Billy spoke up. "Because I knew I was going to be exhausted upon returning to Earth."

"So you're just going to abandon your husband—" Jason began.

"Jason!" Trini interrupted, exasperated. "I'm staying the night with Kim, not moving to Africa!"

As they continued to have an entertaining, not-too-serious fight, Kimberly turned to Tommy. He swallowed, wondering what she was going to say; they hadn't actually spoken directly since the initial "hey." It wasn't that they were avoiding each other; they just hadn't been thrown into a conversation together. Tommy wasn't sure how he felt about that, and he was even less sure if Kimberly was glad or unhappy about it.

"Um... listen," Kimberly said uncertainly, "while we were at the picnic, Trini and I were talking to Kira, and Kira mentioned that you guys were all stuck in one room because of the lack of available rooms. I told her I'd ask if you'd let her share my hotel room so she's not cooped up with a bunch of guys."

"You don't have to do that," Tommy said, trying not to sound automatic. In truth, he wasn't sure if he liked that or not. It would be nice to have one less person in the room, and he knew it was probably driving Kira crazy to be around the four of them; while the guys were her friends, they were still guys, and Tommy knew it wasn't easy to hang around friends who were all of the opposite sex, let alone be stuck staying with them for two weeks. However, he was leery of letting Kira stay with Kimberly. While he knew Kimberly was responsible—at least, she had been in the old days—he was a touch worried about something going wrong and having to explain to Kira's mother that he'd let Kira stay with some strange woman. He was even more worried about just what Kimberly, Trini, and Kira would talk about behind closed doors; there were some things he simply didn't want his former students knowing, and a lot of it was stuff he especially didn't want them learning through Kimberly.

"I want to," she said. "She'll be fine. I assume your room's near mine, isn't it?" He nodded. "Then I'll run screaming down the hall if something bad happens, kay? We'll be fine. It's not good for a girl to spend so much time around too much testosterone."

"Please, Dr. O?" Kira begged, looking utterly pitiful. Just behind her, Ethan and Conner started yelling.

"I can't help it if geeks need their beauty sleep!"

"You can help having a rhinoceros stuck up your nose, can't you? Surely there's an operation to fix that. When you first started snoring, I thought you were dying!"

Trent winced and slung his arm around Kira's shoulders. "Much as I envy her opportunity, Dr. O, I gotta back her up."

"Why can't I?" Kira added. "It's no big deal. It's an old friend of yours, not some random bag lady off the street!"

Tommy held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, spare me the long persuasive argument. You can go. But be careful, okay? Don't break anything. Don't get lost. And DON'T leave the hotel without me knowing. And—"

"She'll be fine, Mr. Responsible," Kimberly cut in. "She's not a toddler. She's almost a legal adult."

"But Trini!" Jason wailed, now fully pouting.

"Unlike some people," Kimberly added wryly. Tommy laughed.

"Tommy!" Zack called. "Kimberly! We're tied two to two—who do you think is right here, Trini or Jason?"

"Trini is an independent entity," Billy pointed out.

"Trini's my wife," Jason whined. "We haven't spent a night apart since we moved in together."

"God," Kimberly teased. "That must drive you insane, Trini."

"Jason does have a point," Zack said. "What do you think, Kim?"

"Girls gotta stick together," Kimberly replied. "Sorry, Jase."

Jason glared at her and turned to Tommy. "Tommy, what—"

Tommy held up his hands again. "Whoa! Wrong guy, Jason."

"But you're my best friend," Jason insisted.

"And I'm not married and therefore can't make an informed opinion. So sorry, I'm staying out of it."

"You been hanging around Billy?" Zack asked. "That was a bit wordy for you."

"Ha! I win!" Trini gloated before Tommy could reply. "Three-two!"

"Hey, no fair! You can't add in your best friend to the vote if I can't!"

"Yes I can! I can't help it if your best friend is chicken!"

"Hey!" Tommy exclaimed indignantly. "I am not!"

"Are too," Jason said.

"I am n—"

"THAT'S IT!"

Tommy turned just in time to see Conner and Ethan, who were continuing their own fight, lunge at each other. Before long, Conner had Ethan in a headlock and was yelping repeatedly as Ethan stomped on his foot.

"HEY! Break it up!" Tommy yelled, seizing Conner by the back of his shirt and yanking him away from Ethan, hard enough that Conner's feet left the ground momentarily.

Kira leaped between Ethan and Conner as Ethan started after Conner. "Come on, guys! Cut the drama! Didn't we have enough of that yesterday?"

"He started it!" both boys yelled simultaneously.

"Yes, we're all three years old today," Tommy said, rolling his eyes and looking pointedly at Jason.

"She started it," Jason said with a wry grin, pointing at Trini.

"Jason, it's late," Kimberly said, shaking her head. "Trini's sleeping over. Get over it. She'll come back tomorrow."

"Supposedly," Trini muttered, but she smiled.

"All right," Jason said reluctantly. "Let's head out, eh, Billy?"

The two of them said their goodbyes and left. Zack turned to Tommy.

"You know, I couldn't help overhearing... if you need more room, you're welcome to stay with me. I've got plenty of space in my room, and we're in the same hotel."

"Okay," Tommy said instantly. "I mean... well, I should probably stay and chaperone..."

"Come on, Dr. O!" Conner said, seeing opportunity and jumping in. "You were going to get your own room, remember? How is this any different?"

"Yeah, and we'll be fine," Ethan said quickly.

"I'll keep the two of them from killing each other," Trent chimed in.

Tommy snorted. "Good luck with that," he said, but he sighed and added, "All right. But don't—"

"Break anything," the four teenagers interrupted simultaneously.

"Yes, and—"

"Stay out of trouble," they cut in again.

"We know the speech, Dr. O," Trent said. "We'll be fine."

Tommy raised his eyebrows but shrugged. "All right, fine."

Conner, Ethan and Trent raised their fists in celebration. "YES!" Conner shouted. "No more Dr. O!"

"Thanks," Tommy laughed.

"Freedom from adult supervision! We can do anything we want!"

"Conner," Ethan said as Tommy's face darkened, "you're not helping."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 8: Power Ranger Punks

"Now remember, I'm just down the hall," Tommy said for the fourteenth time as he and Kira stood in the hallway. Trent, Conner and Ethan had been continuously nodding for the past five minutes, smiles pasted on their faces. "Kira's in room 640 and I'm in room 618. Everybody got that?" They continued to nod and smile. "I mean it. Behave." Nod and smile. "If for some reason you forget our room numbers, I'm with Zack Taylor and Kira's with Kimberly Hart." Nod and smile.

Tommy sighed, hoisting his box more securely into his arms and turning to Kimberly, Kira, Trini and Zack, all of whom were standing behind him and nodding and smiling as vacantly as Trent, Conner and Ethan were. "Oh, shut up," he muttered, fighting a grin.

"We never should have sent that Beldorf guy back," Conner whispered to Trent and Ethan, thinking longingly of the video game wizard who'd once removed Tommy's mouth.

"Can we go now, Mr. Overprotective?" Zack teased.

"Shut up," Tommy repeated, smiling. "Goodnight, guys," he said to Conner, Ethan and Trent. "I'll come get you in the morning."

Tommy shut the door to his former room and Trini, Kimberly, Zack, Kira and Tommy could clearly hear a roaring cheer go up from Conner, Ethan and Trent. Tommy closed his eyes briefly, suddenly feeling like banging his head against something.

He heard Trini and Kimberly giggling, and looked over at them. "What?"

"Nothing," Kimberly said, struggling to keep a straight face.

"I'm sorry," Trini told him. "It's just... it's so funny to see you being all... responsible."

"Wasn't he always?" Kira asked as Tommy rolled his eyes.

"Oh, no. Always late and forgetful. There was this one time when he—"

"Trini, try not to shatter her illusions, please?" Tommy pleaded.

"No promises," Trini said with a downright evil grin, which was mirrored by Kimberly.

"Come on, Kira," Kimberly said, taking her by the arm and steering her down the hall. "It's now officially girl time. Let's get some pizza, find some chocolate, watch some sappy movies and bitch about men."

"Sounds like fun," Kira said cheerfully.

Zack shook his head. "I always wondered what girls did when we weren't around."

Tommy rolled his eyes again, and the two of them headed for Zack's room.

~*~

Meanwhile, in Room 603...

"Uh, yes," Conner was saying into the telephone receiver, deepening his voice in the hopes of sounding more like Tommy. "This is Dr. Thomas Oliver in room 603. We... er, I mean, I want to get this Pay-Per-View movie. Channel 94. Bikini Babes Gone Wild 3? Yes, just charge it to the room. Yes, of course I'm of legal age. ...What year was I born? Uh..." Conner looked at Ethan in a panic.

"1976," Ethan whispered.

"1966."

"1976! 76!"

"I mean 1976. Yes, ma'am. Of course I'm Dr. Oliver! What kind of question is that?"

"I told you I should have called," Trent said, shaking his head.

"Shh!" Ethan hissed.

"Look, lady, I teach high school science. I'm a boring old dinosaur fanatic and I had a mullet when I was a teenager. Please unlock the stupid movie!"

Ethan smacked his forehead. "I should have known better than to trust Conner with this."

Conner covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "Would you be quiet?"

Ethan rolled his eyes. "Look, tell her you're traveling with your younger cousins and they're out right now and you want to watch the movie before they get back. Maybe she'll buy it."

Conner repeated this and then smiled in relief. "Thank you very much, ma'am. ...Anything else I want? Um... I'm kind of hungry. And thankfully I can afford to pay the tab on room service because I'm an old guy who has a steady job. Uh... how about three cheeseburgers with fries? Yes, three. I'm a big guy. I eat a lot. Probably going to have a beer belly one day. Plus, you know, this way I won't have to call again later. Food for the whole night. So, three cheeseburgers with everything."

"No onions on mine!" Ethan hissed.

"And get some hot fudge sundaes!" Trent added.

~*~

Zack's room was predictably quite a mess. Zack's suitcase sat open on one of the beds, which was still made but covered in clothes and Zack's CD collection. Zack cleared his junk off of the spare bed and gestured to Tommy to take it.

Setting his box down, Tommy looked around curiously. It looked pretty much the same as the other room, only slightly bigger with a balcony door over by the windows.

"You get a balcony?" Tommy asked. Remembering his thwarted hopes of throwing Conner to his death if need be, he added, "My windows didn't even open."

"I had to pay extra," Zack said. "Kim and I discussed what type of room we should get. I always liked these, cuz you could people watch and throw water balloons and stuff. All the even-numbered rooms in this hotel have balconies."

"You stay here a lot?" Tommy asked.

"Sometimes, when I'm visiting Jason in the summer. It's nice to use the hotel's pool." Zack scooped up a few things and headed for the bathroom.

When they were both ready for bed, Zack sat down and gave Tommy an expectant look. "So..." he said slowly.

"So," Tommy said uncertainly, not liking the new tone in Zack's voice.

"Sure is nice to have the gang all together again," Zack said lightly.

Tommy groaned inwardly, knowing perfectly well where this was going. He pulled his clothes out of his box and headed for the dresser, knowing Zack would have left his clothes in his suitcase or on the floor. "Yeah, it's great. Mind if I use a few drawers?"

"Take 'em. I never bother using 'em. So—"

"Could we leave the door open a little? In case Conner, Ethan and Trent get into trouble?" Tommy interrupted, trying to find things to distract Zack from the coming conversation.

"Sure," Zack said impatiently. "So... what was it like to see Kimberly again?"

"Like... seeing Kimberly again." Tommy crossed to the door, opened it, and turned the stopper to prop it open.

"Uh-huh. I see."

"What did you expect me to say? That it was like something out of a cheesy romance novel or something? That it was gut-wrenching? That all my past feelings came rushing back, blah, blah, blah?"

"Yeah, that'd be nice."

"Oh, come on, man. It's not a big thing." He started shoving his clothes haphazardly into the dresser, giving himself an excuse not to meet Zack's gaze.

"Is too."

"Is not!"

"Is t... okay. Remember Angela?"

"Yeah. That was the girl you were obsessed with, the one you gave those earrings to and started the Oysterizer mess. I never got that cake stains out of my pants from that double date at that French restaurant, you know."

"Hey, that was Skull's fault, not mine! Anyway, we broke up eventually, not long before I left Angel Grove for the conference. Like a week later, I saw her in the produce section of the grocery store and the next thing I know she's chucking fruit and vegetables at me and screaming. My point is—breakups are never easy."

Tommy laughed. "Well, I don't know what you were expecting from me and Kim, but it's been ten years, not a week. And there were no fruit or vegetables around. ...There was ice, though."

"Ice?"

Tommy winced. "I saw her yesterday. Bumped into her while carrying an ice bucket. Not my finest hour."

"Dude, you saw her before today? Alone?" Zack leaned forward, looking excited.

"Yeah. I was trying to get away from Conner and Ethan and Kira and Trent, and the next thing I know I'm dumping ice all over Kimberly." Tommy sighed and straightened up, his stuff now unpacked.

"You threw ice at Kimberly!" Zack yelled, looking quite outraged on her behalf.

"No! Well, yeah... but it was an accident."

"Oh." Zack's anger faded. "So... what happened? What did you say?"

"Come on, Zack..."

"Tell me!"

"Nothing, really. We stared at each other, she commented on my hair—"

"She always liked your hair. Thought it made you look all manly." Zack said the last word in a very goofy macho voice.

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Funny. You and Jason can't stop joking about how it made me look all girly."

"Well, it did."

"Ha, ha," Tommy said, going over to his box and locking it, which would ensure that no one found the White Ranger suit inside it.

"So what happened next?"

"I asked how she was, she said fine, she'd been teaching. I told her I was teaching."

"And then?" Zack prompted.

"She said she missed me."

"HA! Score!"

"What d'you—"

"She said she missed you! That's a big thing."

"No, it isn't."

"Yes, it is! She misses you. You miss her. Next thing you know, you're back together!"

Tommy gave him an exasperated look. "I doubt it."

"Why? You do want her back, don't you?"

Tommy paused. "I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know? Tommy, we've been tip-toeing around you and Kimberly for years. You two were so in love. It was disgusting."

"Hey!"

"What? It was. Like watching a chick movie."

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Well, I don't really see us getting back together. It's been years, you know? We haven't talked since Divatox... we really didn't even talk then. Said hi. That was it. Small talk."

"Which seems to imply that you still want each other."

"Your logic is off."

"Not according to Trini!" Zack stood up and stared earnestly at Tommy. "Trini seems to think that since you guys couldn't bring yourselves to talk to each other since freaking high school, you guys must still care about each other and you can't manage to deal with seeing each other now that it's over."

"You mean to tell me... of course. This is some bizarre psychological bull bred from conversations you and Trini and Jason have been having."

"No, it isn't! ...It's mostly just me and Trini."

"Just you and Trini?"

"She's not sure how to broach the subject with Jason," Zack said somewhat apologetically. "Kim's like a little sister to him, and you're his best bud. And Kim's her best friend."

"So... what?" Tommy said, slightly pissed off that Zack and Trini had been discussing his love life for all these years, trying to make sense of the mess that was Tommy and Kimberly. "You rationalize it? Talk about how I should—"

"Hey, cool it, man," Zack interrupted, holding up his hands in a classic peace-making pose. "Whatever's with you and Kimberly isn't our business. We don't talk about who should do what. We just sort of... wonder what went wrong."

"We broke up and I moved on, that's what went wrong," Tommy snapped.

Zack started to say something, then closed his mouth and tried again. "We all decided that we weren't going to take sides. That it wasn't for us to judge who should do what. We never really talk about the breakup, about why it happened or whose fault it was... but we still wish you were together. You were good for each other. Yes, Trini and I still talk about you two getting back together sometimes, same as we talk about finding a way to get Billy to stay on Earth. So we could have the gang back together. You know?" He smiled thinly. "We want things to be like they were... I mean, Trini was in a panic about having you both at her wedding, for crying out loud."

"But we weren't both at her wedding. Kimberly was in France visiting her mom and there was a problem with her passport and she couldn't get out of the country."

Zack gave him an odd look. "Yeah, I know. But Trini was worried about it, up until she became devastated that Kim wasn't coming. Jeez, do you listen to yourself?"

"What?"

"You talk like you miss her. Like you still love her. You can rattle off exactly what happened when you ran into her yesterday and every other Kimberly encounter in the past. You really sound like you aren't over it."

Tommy sighed. "Sometimes I'm not, I admit it. I do still miss her. I do still love her. You don't just stop loving people. But it's over, Zack. She ended it. And we went our separate ways. I'm not holding on to some delusion that one day we'll be married and living in a house with a white picket fence and three-point-two kids and a dog."

"Dude, you're full of it."

"I am not—"

"Oh, come on! If Kimberly wanted to get back together, what would you say?"

Tommy stopped. He had thought a lot about that over the years. He'd imagined seeing her again so many times... sometimes welcoming her back with open arms, and sometimes spitefully telling her to get the hell away from him. He missed her. He did love her, but he wasn't lovesick. He did want her back, sometimes. And sometimes he was okay with it. Sometimes he realized that even the things that were bad in his life had to happen. After all, if Kimberly hadn't left him, he probably would have never gone to college, met Hayley and Anton Mercer, become a paleontologist and a science teacher and started the Dino Ranger team.

"I don't know, Zack," Tommy said wearily. "Sometimes, I would say yes. Sometimes I want to get back together too. And sometimes I wish I never met her. And sometimes I just want to be friends. And sometimes I want to find whoever she met in Florida and beat him to death or run over him in a zord." Zack laughed and Tommy smiled. "But it's over. Can't fix the past. And I'm okay with that. I'm sure she is too, anyway. I seriously doubt she's spent the past few years pining for me."

A mischievous glint appeared in Zack's eye. "Want to go find out?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, there's only one way to find out what Kimberly's thinking."

"And what's that?" Tommy asked cautiously, knowing all too well that Zack's current mood could be dangerous.

"Spy on her!"

"Zack..."

"Come on! She'll never know."

"That's ridiculous. Besides, she's in a locked hotel room with Trini and Kira. They're probably asleep by now, and I don't think we're going to be able to sneak in and eavesdrop."

"Oh, yeah?"

~*~

"Okay, that movie was so not worth the money," Trent said. "It wasn't even that long."

"Good thing we didn't pay for it," Conner said, toying with the remainder of his room service meal.

"I can find a lot better stuff for free on the Internet," Ethan said, flipping through the TV channels irritably.

"Do you have your laptop?" Conner asked eagerly.

"Yeah," Ethan replied, "but my Internet blew up three days ago and I didn't have time to get it fixed before the trip."

"Well, what do you wanna do now?" Trent asked.

"There's nothing good on," Ethan said with a sigh, throwing the remote on the bed.

"I'm bored," Conner whined. Then he brightened. "Who's up for sneaking out and prowling the town?"

"Yeah!" Ethan and Trent shouted, jumping up.

~*~

"Zack, this is insane."

"Come on, Tommy! You want to know what Kimberly's thinking, don't you?"

"I swear, if I fall to my death, I'm coming back to haunt you."

"It's only six floors. You'll live. Now be quiet, or we'll get caught."

Tommy sighed heavily. Somehow, Zack had convinced them that they did indeed have a foolproof way to spy on Kimberly—her balcony was only eleven over from theirs. So now they were hopping from balcony to balcony like master cat burglars, praying that they didn't fall off or get caught.

"This is total lunacy, you realize that, right?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."

Tommy sighed heavily and looked down at himself. He was barefoot and in his boxers, and quite paranoid that one of the residents of the rooms whose balconies they were climbing on was going to call the cops on them. "I should have gotten dressed," he grumbled. "I always hoped that if I ever fell to my death, I'd at least be clothed."

"Can't have everything you want," Zack said cheerfully.

"Just keep smiling, buddy. When we get arrested and thrown in jail with nothing separating us from a bunch of bikers but our underwear, don't say I didn't warn you."

"Oh, right, because we have absolutely no idea how to fight or anything. Now come on!" He continued to the next balcony, and Tommy sighed and followed.

"Been a while since I've had to do something like this," Tommy muttered as he carefully leaped onto balcony number nine.

"Spy on an ex-girlfriend?"

"Endanger my life," Tommy clarified dryly, glancing at the ground sixty or so feet below them.

"Shh!" Zack hissed. "I think she's left her door open."

"Great. Then she'll definitely catch us. Guess we can't count on her for bail money."

"SHH!"

Zack checked that the last room between them and Kimberly had their curtains shut so that they wouldn't be seen and then climbed up on the ledge. Then he easily leapt the four-foot gap, coming down gently on the balcony next to Kimberly's. He crept to the other side as Tommy jumped over as well.

They leaned over the last balcony's railing and peered in through Kimberly's window. They could see the three girls lounging on the bed closest to the window, all of them in various pajamas. Various pizza boxes, pop cans and candy wrappers were strewn about, much like any guy's room. Kira was sitting in between the two older girls, Kimberly painting her toenails. Trini was lying on her stomach behind Kira and across the pillows, a magazine open in front of her and a pen poised above a notebook. The balcony door was half-open and now that Tommy was listening for it, he could just barely hear them talking.

"Question nine," Trini was saying, apparently reading from the magazine. "'Your ideal boyfriend is a) the captain of the football team, b) a really smart, sweet guy, c) a class clown, d) a rebel, or e) rich and powerful.'"

Kimberly laughed. "These questions are so silly."

"Come on, Kim. We're almost through," Trini said, but she was laughing too. She made a mock-serious face. "Don't you want to know what your ideal dream guy is?"

"I can't believe you kept our old magazine quiz answers," Kimberly said.

"Yeah, I couldn't either. I was so surprised when I found them in the attic; they're so corny! I wonder if we'll get the same answers. Anyway... Kira, what do you say?"

She grinned. "That this is ridiculous."

"It's all in good fun," Trini insisted. "Now, if I could just figure out which one applies to Jason most..."

"He's the smart, sweet guy, isn't he?" Kimberly said.

"Well, by my standards, sure. But I'm guessing that the magazine thinks of him more as a 'captain of the football team' sort of guy."

"Well, I'm going with B," Kimberly said decisively.

"Me, too," Kira said.

"Yeah, might as well," Trini said cheerfully, scribbling in her notebook. "Question ten. 'Is the first thing that attracts you to a guy a) his smile, b) his hair, c) his butt, d) his eyes or e) his clothes?'"

"B," said Kimberly.

"A," said Kira.

"Hmm... C."

"Trini!"

"What? Jason has a very nice butt."

"Oh, ew," Kimberly said, wrinkling her nose. Kira giggled.

Tommy turned to glare at Zack. "Yeah, Zack. This was a great plan. We came all the way over here for this?"

"Well, it is pretty funny," Zack said defensively, smiling.

"I cannot believe I let you talk me into climbing over here and probably committing a few crimes just so we could listen to a discussion about Jason's butt!"

"Did you hear something?" Trini asked as Zack held his finger to his lips in alarm.

"No," Kimberly and Kira replied.

Trini got up and came over to the window. In a panic, Tommy and Zack flattened themselves on the balcony next to Kimberly's room as Trini came outside.

"Huh," she said after a few moments of looking around. "Must have imagined it."

"We're on the sixth floor, Trini—I doubt anyone's out there," Kimberly said. "It's probably just the TV next door or something.

"Yeah," Trini said uncertainly. She went back inside, leaving the door open but shutting the curtain across the window.

They could no longer make out the girls' voices; apparently they were trying to keep it down, perhaps wondering who could overhear them in the neighboring room. "Well, now what?" Zack asked.

"Now we go back," Tommy whispered firmly. "I'm not standing out on a balcony in my boxers all night listening to three girls fill out a quiz from a teen magazine!"

"They can't do that all night," Zack insisted. "Besides, we'll at least get to tease Jason about their opinion of his butt. Now, look—her curtain's closed. If we're quiet..."

"Zack, no."

"Come on, man!" Zack gave him an exasperated glare. "I did not come all this way for nothing. Where's your sense of adventure?"

With that, Zack jumped onto Kimberly's balcony as quietly as possible, then looked around and beckoned to Tommy. Cursing under his breath, Tommy followed.

~*~

"We are so lost."

"We're not lost, geek boy! We're just... confused."

"I gotta go with Ethan on this one, Conner. I can't even see the hotel anymore."

Conner sighed and glanced around, looking for a something he recognized, but he saw nothing but an elderly woman slowly walking down the sidewalk, leaning on a walking stick.

"Look," Ethan said, pointing at the woman. "Let's ask for directions." He nudged Conner towards her.

With a sigh, Conner approached the old lady. "Excuse me, ma'am, but my friends and I—"

WHAP!

Without warning, the woman had swung up her walking stick and smacked it against him. "ARGH! Are you crazy, lady?" Conner held up his arms, trying to fend off the woman's cane as she whacked it against him a few more times.

"Hooligan! Get back! Get back! Lousy hooligans trying to accost an old woman—"

"Hey, you're the accosting one! OW! STOP!"

"Steal my purse, will you!"

"No, I—"

Trent surged forward and grabbed the cane as it sought to bruise Conner for a twelfth time. "Run!" he yelled, giving Conner a four-second head start before dashing off after him, Ethan at their heels.

~*~

"...What do you mean, my ideal man is a bad boy?" Kimberly demanded, staring at Trini in disbelief. "How did that happen?"

"Well... you did say you liked long hair," Trini said somewhat apologetically.

"So? Plenty of guys who aren't bad boys have long hair," Kimberly said with a sniff.

I can only think of one, Trini thought with a smile, then frowned and glanced at the window; she could have sworn she heard a snort of laughter, but the sound wasn't repeated. I'm losing it, she told herself, trying to shrug it off. "You also said you like a guy who doesn't run from a fight, and a guy who—"

"Well, who wants a wimpy guy?" Kimberly interrupted. "Come on. We all put the same thing on that one."

"Well... maybe it was that macho thing you put," Trini suggested, rifling through the pages to find Kimberly's previous answers.

"Don't worry, Kimberly," Kira said. "It did, after all, say my dream guy was a jock." She shuddered.

"Not a fan of them, eh?" Kimberly asked.

"Nope. Most of them at our school were complete jerks, too. Any attraction I felt towards jocks was pretty much killed when I became friends with Conner, anyway." Again, Trini thought she heard a stifled laugh, but she tried to ignore it; there was no way someone could have gotten on their balcony, and who would want to?

"What's yours, Trini?"

"Um... nerd. Wait, what? NERD!"

Kimberly let out a scream of laughter. "Oh, god, wait until I tell Jason!"

"Don't you dare tell Jason! He's freaking out enough about Billy. As if I would actually run off with Billy or something."

"Jason was always a bit jealous about how close you are with Billy. Guys are like that." She leaned back from Kira's toenails. "There! What do you think?"

"Awesome," Kira said, looking impressed. "You were right about the glitter."

Trini flipped to a new quiz and asked absently, "Did Tommy ever freak out about your friendship with Jason?"

"Not that I recall, actually. But—"

"You went out with Dr. O?" Kira interrupted, sounding shocked and somewhat mortified.

"Yeah," Kimberly said sheepishly. "Way back in high school."

"You, er... probably shouldn't tell him that you know," Trini said reluctantly. "If he didn't tell you, he probably didn't want you four to know."

"Wonder why," Kimberly said dryly.

"I'm sorry, Kim," Trini said quickly, an apologetic look on her face. "I didn't mean to bring it up. It just slipped."

"It's okay," Kimberly replied with a weak smile. "It doesn't bother me."

"So you don't mind talking about it?" Trini asked tentatively.

"No, I don't. Honestly, you guys should stop dancing around it; you could be on Broadway by now. I'm fine."

"So... I'm guessing it ended badly?" Kira asked curiously.

"Very," Kimberly replied dryly. "We... haven't really talked much since. But he seems like he wants to put it behind us, and I do too. So hopefully we will. It'd be nice to at least be friends again."

"Did you guys talk much today?" Trini asked, frowning. She hadn't seen them together at all.

"No. But last night he said he wished we'd stayed in touch. So, hopefully it's a step in the right direction."

"Last night?"

"We ran into each other."

"Oh, god! What happened?"

"Well, he accidentally slammed into me as I was leaving a room and dumped a whole bunch of ice down my shirt. Took me forever to get that stuff out of my bra; I was freezing."

"You know what I meant! What did he say?"

"Not much. It really wasn't a big deal, Trini. Between the ice, the fact that he chopped off his hair, and the general shock, I wasn't too articulate. We said we were both teaching, I said I missed him, he said we should've stayed in touch. I asked him to come get dinner with me, but he claims he didn't want to leave his students. Given the way he's been around them today, I'm starting to think it wasn't an excuse."

"I doubt it was," Trini assured her, but Kimberly still looked skeptical and shrugged.

"I don't know. It doesn't really matter if it was; I can't really fault him for not wanting to go. Anyway, he invited me to come back to the room with Kira and Conner and everyone and get pizza, but I declined."

"What? Why?" Trini demanded.

"Because I still had a bunch of ice in my bra! Besides," she added quietly, "I felt a little weird. I had a sudden vision of a bunch of teenagers calling me 'Tommy's bitchy ex' or something."

"We would never do that!" Kira said. "And we didn't really know that much about you. I saw this video journal about Dr. O being a Power Ranger, and I remember thinking that maybe there was something up with you, but it didn't seem like my place to pry. It kind of slipped my mind after a while. But we never would have been mean to you."

"I know that now," Kimberly told her. "I just didn't know that then. Anyway, that was pretty much it. Not a big deal." She paused. "God, he really looks different with short hair."

Trini snorted. "You should have been there when he first cut it and showed us. Me, Jason and Zack... we all just stared at him. And it was a while after he cut it, so he'd kind of gotten over it and couldn't figure out why we were just all blank and stuff. A few months later he told us that Rocky, Adam, and Tanya had done the same thing." She gave Kimberly a devilish grin. "So... moment of truth, Kim. Is he still hot without the hair?"

"Oh, shut up," Kimberly said, glowering at her playfully.

"Come on, Kim! Hot or not?"

"Of course he's still hot, but—"

"Ha!"

"What ha? There's no ha. No ha at all."

"There is so a ha!" Trini rolled onto her back and posed as if swooning, the back of one hand over her chest and the other on her forehead. "Tommy's soooo hot," she drawled in a cheesy, breathy voice. "Even without his hair that was always longer than mine... just because I can't run my fingers through it doesn't mean I—"

"Oh, shut up!" Kimberly laughed. She seized Trini's magazine and reached around Kira to whack Trini with it a few times before Trini dissolved into giggles. "You know perfectly well he's hot. I know I caught you checking him out a few times in high school."

"I did not!"

"Oh, you so did," Kimberly said smugly.

"Oh, my god, this is so weird," Kira moaned, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes.

"Weird? Why?" Kimberly asked, trying not to feel put out by that.

"Oh, I didn't mean it like that," Kira assured her. "It's just... he's my science teacher. And my mentor. It's strange to think of him having a social life. I tend to think of him as... well... old."

"He's not old," Kimberly said with a laugh. Then a nervous look came over her. "Trini, are we old?"

"No, Kim. We're still young and in our twenties," Trini said in amusement.

"But we remember the time before cell phones," Kimberly said, still looking worried.

"So do I," Kira said. "It wasn't that long ago."

Kimberly chuckled. "Thanks. Hey, can I try something with your hair?"

Kira shrugged and turned around to let Kimberly play with her hair. She wasn't usually much for messing around with makeup and stuff, but Kimberly and Trini were pretty cool, and sometimes it was fun to act girly. "He doesn't have a girlfriend, by the way," Kira said as Kimberly picked up a brush. "At least, according to public opinion and my few female friends. Most of the girls at school obsess about it. They all think he's hot."

Trini and Kimberly burst out laughing. Hysterically. Kira watched them, more amused at the depths of their laughter than at Tommy's young fans. "Oh, my god," Kimberly moaned, clutching her side.

"Can't you just see him wandering around obliviously with all these teenage girls following him all lovesick?" Trini gasped out with difficulty.

"I know!" Kimberly shrieked.

Kimberly and Trini spent a good fifteen minutes cackling over the idea of Tommy's students thinking he was hot, occasionally saying something to each other that Kira couldn't make out through their laugher. Finally, they were able to calm down, both of them red in the face with slightly watery eyes. "So were you part of the Dr. O Fan Club?" Kimberly asked Kira as she resumed fixing Kira's hair.

"EW!"

"I'll take that as a no."

"Like I said, he's a teacher. He's all right for an old guy, but not exactly my idea of boyfriend material."

"So why didn't all your friends just ask you about his single status?" Trini asked. "Shouldn't you know best, as you're Rangers together? People must have noticed you spending a lot of time with him."

"Um... I kind of tried to play that down. Not exactly a common thing, hanging out with your teacher all the time."

"Yeah, that must've been weird," Kimberly said. "I can't exactly imagine battling evil with Miss Appleby." She and Trini giggled.

"Come to think of it, though, we spent a lot of time in his house and in the lair and stuff, and we never met anyone but Hayley."

"Hayley?" Kimberly inquired, trying and failing to sound nonchalant.

"His friend. Well, we think they're just friends," Kira said. "Conner likes to joke that they're getting it on in the secret lair when we're not around..."

Trini sat up, staring suspiciously at the window. She was almost certain that she had heard someone on the balcony mutter "I'm going to kill him."

"...but the rest of us think that's just Conner being Conner. We've never seen them even hold hands."

"Tommy said they went out for a while in college," Trini explained, her eyes still trained on the curtains over the window and open balcony door. "They were never serious. Then they decided they were better off friends, and they stayed that way. She helped get him the job in Reefside. I think she's just sort of his Billy."

"She's really big on computers, if that's what you mean," Kira said. "She runs the cyber café we all hang out in and she helped us a lot with Ranger stuff."

"I see," Kimberly said. She felt a bit better upon hearing that... but she wasn't quite sure what to think of Tommy's love life at all. It was weird, after all this time, to wonder out loud if Tommy was dating someone. Mostly, she just thought about it, about whether or not he and Kat had six children or something, but she'd always tried to leave the subject alone. She'd never once talked about Tommy with anyone who'd met him, not since the sob-fest with Trini right after they'd broken up.

"I've never really even seen any pictures of any one girl in his house," Kira continued thoughtfully, frowning. "There's a bunch of pictures of different people, though. He said they're all mostly either Rangers or college friends or family. Oh! And I remember once, I was helping him sort through files and papers and stuff and there was a box marked 'Kim.'"

"He has a Kim box?" Kimberly asked, so startled that she nearly scalped Kira.

"OW!"

"Sorry!" Kimberly released her hair and then picked it up again gently. "You're almost done. This is gonna look so cute."

"Then it'll be the first time I've ever looked cute," Kira said wryly.

"A Kim box," Trini mused aloud, momentarily distracted from the balcony phenomenon. "That's interesting."

"Trini," Kimberly said warningly. "I know that look on your face. You used to get it when we were planning ways to get you together with Jason back in high school."

"Hey, that turned out well, didn't it?" Trini said innocently.

"Come on, Trini. Whatever you're planning to do to Tommy, stop it right now."

Trini smiled and held up her hands in surrender, but she had no intention of dropping it. She was determined to use Power Rangers Day as an opportunity to get the two of them to be friends, hopefully more. She knew they both still loved each other, but neither of them would get the guts to pick up the phone and bridge the gap.

"What?" Kira asked. "You want to set her up with Dr. O?"

"Yes, that's exactly what she wants," Kimberly said before Trini could reply, leaning back to examine her work with Kira's hair, which was now up in two loose buns with stray hairs sticking out stylishly.

"And you don't want her to?" Kira pressed.

"Yes, she does," Trini teased.

"No I don't!" Kimberly said defensively. Trini arched an eyebrow at her. "I mean, okay, yeah, I still care about him, but it was like ten years ago. I highly doubt there's going to be a reunion. It's of the past."

"I told you so," someone said quietly on the balcony.

Trini stood up. There was someone out there, and she had a good idea of who.

"Something wrong, Trini?" Kimberly asked.

Trini shook her head frantically and mouthed, "Keep talking."

"So... what about you, Kira?" Kimberly said, slowly getting up and preparing herself to fight if need be. "Are you dating someone?"

"Yeah," Kira said, doing the same as Kimberly and watching Trini warily as Trini snuck towards the window. "Trent. He's a really great boyfriend."

Trini made it to the window and gave them both significant looks. They nodded at her, and she yanked back the curtains.

There, standing on the balcony, were Tommy and Zack, both wearing black boxer shorts and expressions of pure terror.

~*~

"I'm not asking anyone for directions ever again!"

"Come on, Conner. You're not even bleeding."

"No! Let's just call Dr. O. How mad can he possibly get?"

"I don't want to find out," Ethan replied. "He might drag us all back to Reefside. Then our parents would kill us. And Kira would kill us. And—"

"Well, then you better think of something, smart guy, cuz I'm not getting my butt kicked by any more little old ladies."

Ethan and Trent looked at each other, sighed, and then glanced around, trying to find someone else to ask, but the streets were pretty empty.

"What about that guy over there?" Trent suggested, pointing at a skanky-looking middle-aged man in a tattered coat. "He doesn't have a cane."

"Is that a wino?" Ethan asked, wrinkling his nose and promptly changing his mind about asking for directions himself. He shoved Conner forward. "Go on, Conner. You're our fearless leader, remember? I'm just the nerd. You'll have to do it. You're the best."

The flattery, combined with an eagerness to get back to the hotel, worked just enough to get Conner into gear. Conner sighed and glanced around nervously for any sign of mean old ladies, before taking a deep breath and approaching the possible wino.

"Sir?" Conner asked tentatively.

The man turned and peered up at Conner with bleary eyes. "Carol Anne? Is that you?"

"Carol... what?"

"Carol Anne! That IS you! Come here, darlin'!"

The man flung out his arms and lurched drunkenly towards Conner, who backpedaled and turned tail, sprinting away like the gifted soccer player he was. Once more, Ethan and Trent raced after him as the wino stumbled towards them.

"Where ya goin', Carol Anne? Come back, baby! Gimme some sugar!"

~*~

Trini, Kira and Kimberly stared at Tommy and Zack, quite as mortified as the two guilty-looking guys. There was a long pause, during which no one moved; they all simply gazed at each other in disbelief. It was Kira who recovered first.

She'd already been having a very odd day, but somehow, the increasing weirdness took her by surprise. In later years, she would look back on the moment and realize that a sleepover of sorts with the first ever Yellow and Pink Power Rangers would be the perfect time for something this bizarre to happen. But no one ever really expects to be wearing their nightshirt and having their hair fixed by a friend late on a weekend night and then suddenly discover their science teacher on the balcony in his underwear.

Kira let out a little shriek and dove for her jeans, pulling them on under her nightshirt. The movement jolted everyone else back to life, and they all started yelling at once.

"Oh, my god, are you twelve?" Trini demanded.

"What the hell are you doing?" Kimberly shouted, torn between outrage and amusement.

"It was all Zack's idea!" Tommy insisted.

"So this is what girls do when we aren't around," Zack attempted to joke.

"You two are so dead!" Kimberly yelled, and she and Trini advanced on the balcony.

"It's not what you think!" Tommy said desperately.

"Yeah, right," Trini said, rolling her eyes.

"At least come up with something original," Kimberly added furiously.

"No, really! We locked ourselves out of our room," Zack said hastily, backing as far away from the girls as he could without falling off the balcony. "We were out on the balcony and the door ended up locking behind us and so I suggested we climb over here and get you guys to help us!"

Trini snorted. "Likely story."

"It's true!" Tommy said, attempting to pull his face into a sincere expression. "Look, we left the door open a crack so I could listen for any loud noises, like Conner and Ethan and Trent having a party or getting thrown out by hotel security, so we figured that we could just cut through your room and we wouldn't have to be stranded on the balcony all night."

Kimberly and Trini exchanged knowing looks, the sort of looks two gang members exchange before best deciding how to mug a helpless victim, but they finally shrugged and stepped aside. Tommy and Zack sheepishly stepped in the room, being careful to keep a watchful eye on their two friends. The girls' mouths twitched, the funniness quickly overcoming the indignation of the situation.

"Better watch that door lock from now on," Kimberly said, trying to sound as intimidating as she could while wanting desperately to laugh. The two guys looked so... adorable, standing there all scared like little boys who'd gotten caught breaking a mean neighbor's window during a game of baseball.

"Out," Trini ordered, pointing at the door. Zack and Tommy obediently headed for it.

Tommy gave Kira a last embarrassed, apologetic glance on his way out and cast about for something to say to explain himself. "Uh... that's a nice hairstyle," he said lamely.

"Goodnight, Dr. O," Kira said weakly.

Trini glared at him and marched Zack and Tommy from the room, leaving Kimberly and Kira to stare after them.

"Well," Kimberly said, shaking her head and finally bursting into giggles. "Boys will be boys."

"This has got to be the weirdest day I've ever had," Kira moaned.

The phone rang just then, and Kimberly smiled at her sympathetically before going to answer it. "Hello?"

After listening for a second, she turned to Kira. "Um... I think it's about to get weirder," she said apologetically. "It's for you. It's Trent, and he sounds kind of... scared."

~*~

"I cannot believe you two little punks were spying on us!" Trini raged as she walked them down the hall.

"We weren't! We'd only been there for likea second when you pulled back the curtain!" Zack repeated.

"Uh-huh. Right. Just admit it! How long were you really out there? I know you were there before we started talking about you, I heard you, and I kept hearing things during our whole conversation! You're lucky I'm not going to tell Kim how much you heard! I can't believe it took me that long to figure it out!"

They reached Tommy and Zack's room and paused outside it. Tommy turned to Trini and decided to try one last time to get her to believe them.

"Trini, I swear, we weren't spying on you. I would never do that."

Trini's face softened and she gave him a small smile, leaning against the doorjamb. Tommy smiled back in relief, pleased that it had worked.

Then Trini shoved the door open and glanced inside the room before turning back to Tommy with her arms folded over her chest. Suddenly her smile turned into a patronizing smirk. "Your balcony door is wide open, genius."

Tommy smacked his forehead and glared at Zack. "How could you leave the door open? Way to cover. 'We got locked out,' right. You idiot!"

"Oops," Zack said in a small voice. He edged through the door and reached for the knob, as though preparing to slam it should Trini (or Tommy, for that matter) become violent.

Trini jabbed her finger into Tommy's chest hard enough to hurt. "Tomorrow," she growled in her best no-nonsense voice, "you and me are going to have a talk. You get me, Oliver?"

"It was Zack's idea," Tommy whined, then gulped at the look on Trini's face. "Okay, okay! We'll talk."

"And stay off our balcony," Trini added threateningly, then spun around, her long dark hair whipping over Tommy's face and torso as she flounced back to her room.

If her back hadn't been to him, he would have been able to see the wide grin on her face.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 9: Something Fishy

Conner, Ethan and Trent nearly collapsed in relief when they saw Kimberly's blue Mustang pulling up to the curb on the corner of Elm and Sixth. Trini got out and held the seat forward so Kira could climb out.

"What happened?" Kira demanded. "Why aren't you guys in the hotel? Are you insane? Wait until Dr. O finds out! ...Did someone beat up Conner?"

"It was horrible!" Conner yelled, launching himself at Kira and throwing his arms around her. "I was attacked by this crazy old lady who thought I was a mugger and then this homeless guy started chasing us and yelling about giving him sugar!"

Kira glared over his shoulder at the other two guys, the look on her face obviously saying "Get him off me before something bad happens to him."

"It's okay, Conner," Ethan said in a sarcastically sympathetic voice. "The crazy people are gone. You're the only one around us now."

Conner straightened up quickly as though only just realizing he was hugging Kira. "Sorry," he said, then squinted at her. "Hey, what's with the girly look?"

"What's wrong with it?" Kira demanded. "I can be feminine if I want to!" She reached up to touch her hair self-consciously, her toes curling reflexively to try and hide the nail polish under her sandal straps.

"I think it looks pretty," Trent said sincerely, whacking Conner upside the head.

"Very," Ethan added, nodding vigorously.

Kira sighed. "I've had a really rough night, guys. Just... just get in the car."

"Um..." Kimberly said tentatively, "I think there might be a problem with that."

~*~

"Tommy! Calm down!" Zack yelped as he cowered before the menacing form of Tommy, who looked like a tiger moving in for the kill.

"Calm down? CALM DOWN? I have to have a conversation with TRINI now!"

"Trini's a perfectly nice person to talk to!"

"She can drag anything out of anyone! Always the person you go to when you need someone to listen! Always the person who knows what to say! Always the person who could get a murder confession out of an innocent nun!"

"Come on, Tommy! At least we're still alive!"

"In a second, you won't be!" The tiger sprung on its prey.

"AHHH! TOMMY! I'M SORRY!"

~*~

"Stop it Conner."

"I'm not doing anything."

"Touch me one more time and Trent will kill you!" As if to confirm this, Trent flashed Conner an intimidating smile.

"I have to touch you. You're sitting on me."

"You know what I mean! Stop poking me!"

"I'm not poking you!"

"Yes you are!"

"No, I'm not!"

"Yes you are!" Kira grabbed his finger and bent it back. At the same time, Trent reached over and yanked Conner's hair, hard.

"No, I—ow! OW! Okay! Okay! I'll stop!"

"Wow, you never struck me as the hair-pulling type, Trent," Ethan remarked.

"I couldn't kick him, so..." His grin widened. "A Ranger should always have a fall back plan." There was the sound of muffled laughter in the front seat.

While rushing off to rescue the three guys, Trini, Kimberly and Kira had overlooked one very important fact—Kimberly's car was on the small side.

"See, this is exactly what I mean," Kira said as she shifted slightly, trying to get comfortable. She was lying across the three guys in the backseat, her head in Trent's lap and her feet in Ethan's. The guys themselves were squashed together with their heads bent beneath the convertible top, so that they were practically folded over Kira. "If the rest of the vacation is this weird, I'm packing up and going home!"

"I'm sorry, Kira," Kimberly said. "I knew I should have gotten a bigger car... but I saw the pink upholstery on this baby and I couldn't resist. It's so hard to find a car with any pink in it."

Kira sighed. "Not a problem, Kim. I'm going to get some great song material out of this."

"I don't know what you're complaining about, Kira," Conner told her sourly, rubbing his finger. "We had a much worse night than you did."

"Yeah! Conner got us all lost!" Ethan complained.

"I did not—"

"And I had to rescue Conner from that old lady," Trent added.

"I didn't ask you to—"

"And we both had to run all over town because Conner bears a remarkable resemblance to some chick named Carol Anne!" Ethan ranted.

"The guy was a drunk!"

"...I saw Dr. O in his underwear."

There was a long pause as everyone thought this over, making various grimaces of disgust (save in Trent's case; he looked rather enraged).

"Okay, Kira," Conner conceded. "You win."

~*~

Kira immediately went to sleep upon returning to the hotel, muttering that she planned on being unconscious when the next weird moment rolled around. Everyone else followed suit gladly.

Come morning, Kimberly talked Kira into dolling her up again while Trini withdrew into her own little world, carefully planning her upcoming conversation with Tommy. She knew this was an important part of reuniting two of her best friends, and she didn't want to screw it up. She kept only a vague part of her brain tuned into Kimberly and Kira's chatter, not wanting them to suspect anything. She smiled slightly at the sight of Kimberly; Kimberly looked perfect, hair and makeup and all, and Trini couldn't help but hope that the extra effort was for Tommy.

"So what are we doing today?" Kira asked as Kimberly braided her hair.

"The beach," Kimberly said cheerfully.

"Um... so this makeup crap's pretty pointless."

"Nonsense! Makeup is never pointless. Not until you're eligible for senior citizen's discounts."

"Okay, but this is the last time."

"Sorry," Kimberly said sheepishly. "It's just so fun to have someone to make over."

Kira giggled, suddenly remembering that old picture of Dr. O from his high school days. "Did Dr. O ever let you do anything with that weird hair he used to have?"

Kimberly paused. "Once or twice," she admitted, sounding rather guilty. Without warning, Trini began laughing hysterically. Kira shot her a look, but no one explained. "Now, he won't let anyone but a 'trained professional,' as he puts it, touch his head."

"Why?" Kira asked curiously.

"...It's a long story," Kimberly said, looking twice as guilty.

Trini continued to laugh. "Oh, god, I remember that," she gasped. Kira thought she heard Trini say something about little pink bows, but Trini was laughing too hard to be intelligible.

Kimberly finished Kira's hair and narrowed her eyes at the hysterical Trini. "Hey, Trini, can I do you next?" Trini could no longer even attempt to speak. Kimberly grinned mischievously and forced her into a chair.

At quarter to eleven, Zack knocked on their door, offering them a sheepish smile. "Hi," he said, a little timidly.

Trini arched an eyebrow at him. "Tommy made you come alone, didn't he."

"Yeah, well... for some reason, he blames the whole... thing... last night on me."

"Wonder why," Kimberly said dryly, picking up her beach bag. "Are we ready?"

They met up in the lobby, the guys piling into Zack's SUV and the girls into Kimberly's car. Ten minutes later, they were arriving at Jason and Trini's house.

"This is a nice place," Kira said as Trini let them in.

"Thank y—"

"My wife!" Jason yelled, hurtling out of nowhere and flinging his arms around Trini. "Oh, thank god. I tried to use the oven last night to—"

"You did what?"

"Not to worry, Trini," Billy said, grinning at her. "I found the fire extinguisher in time."

"WHAT?"

"I'm joking," Billy explained. "No fire. Just an extraordinarily large amount of smoke. Your dog was quite distressed."

"Oh, poor Tommy," Trini cooed, seizing her dog's collar as the enormous black beast sought to charge her friends. "Down, boy!"

"You're coming back tonight, right?" Jason said worriedly.

"Honey..." Trini began with a sigh.

"Jason, if she comes back tonight, who will protect me from the balcony boogeyman?" Kimberly asked innocently.

"That's right," Trini said mock-seriously. "Hmm... I suppose we could ask Tommy to do it, though, right?"

Tommy closed his eyes and hung his head pitifully... then jerked his head up to glare at Zack, who edged away nervously, rubbing at a recently acquired bruise on his arm.

"Balcony boogeyman?" Billy inquired curiously.

"Long story," Zack said quickly.

"Not that long," Trini teased with just a hint of threat.

"You're so dead," Tommy muttered at Zack.

"Please come back?" Jason whined pathetically.

"We'll see," Trini laughed. "Did you pack up everything for the beach?"

"Yup. Got everything."

"So you got the towels?"

"...Um, be right back."

After spending some time going over Trini's mental beach checklist, the group decided to grab fast food on their way ("Anything but McDonald's," Tommy begged, fairly certain he would never be able to equate that restaurant with anything but his traumatic road trip again) and they set out for their favorite beach. They'd discovered the almost-always-deserted beach many years back, and had frequented it ever since, whether to battle evil or hang out. Before long, they were setting up their gear out on the sand.

"Water," Billy said dreamily, looking downright homesick as he gazed out over the waves.

"Head on out, man, if you want," Zack told him as he busily set up his boom box, popping in some "old-school" hip hop music.

"Yeah," Billy said, "I will. Anyone want to come with me?"

"Me," Ethan said quickly. "I want to hear more about the planet you've been living on. Is it all water?"

The two of them headed into the waves, and Kira and Trent wandered off hand-in-hand for a walk.

"Who's for Frisbee?" Jason asked, pulling one out of his bag.

"Me!" said Kimberly, Zack, Conner and Tommy, the last of whom found Trini blocking his way, a stern look on her face. "Um... maybe later," Tommy amended lamely.

The Frisbee group moved off down the beach, leaving Tommy and Trini alone with the gang's stuff. They sat down on a blanket together in silence, watching the Frisbee players.

Tommy turned to look at Trini, who had a distant look in her eye as she watched her husband. He felt a small twinge of sadness, and his gaze turned to Kimberly, who looked amazing in her pink bikini, as usual. He watched her smile and laugh as she ran around with the others, suddenly jealous of what Jason had with Trini.

"You know," Trini said at length, still watching Jason, "I had a crush on Jason since the third grade. My very first crush."

"And you married him," Tommy remarked. "How... frighteningly monogamous of you."

Trini giggled. "It took me until high school to finally get up the nerve to say anything, and even then I barely managed it before the Peace Conference. You know what finally gave me the guts?"

"What?"

"You," she said simply. "I wanted me a Tommy."

Tommy stared at her profile, trying to make sense of this odd statement and finally deciding to laugh it off. "Well," he said, waggling his eyebrows in a highly exaggerated and suggestive manner, "if you still want one..."

Trini socked him on the arm, laughing. "You goon! What I meant was... I saw you and Kimberly, all lovey-dovey, and I wanted that. I wanted that happy little grin that Kim always had whenever she was around you."

"And here I thought you were just going to yell at me for sneaking onto your balcony last night," Tommy said, trying not to sound annoyed.

Trini gave him a look and he sighed, looking away from her and from Kimberly. She waited patiently for him to open up, but he wasn't ready to, not just yet. Unfortunately, he knew that Trini was going to wait until he was.

Trini had always been the problem-solver when it came to emotional things. Everybody went to her when they were upset, because she always knew just what to say and she always knew when you had something you needed to talk about. Tommy wasn't at all sure why, but something about Trini made you want to pour your heart out to her... but he had spent too long trying not to pour out this particular part of him. So he struggled for something to use to distract Trini from him, his mind wandering back to Angel Grove all those years ago...

~*~

Flashback

The doorbell rang, and Tommy sighed as he headed over to open it. Billy was still trying to pull him out of his horrible depression... which meant that Billy knew that Tommy was still horribly depressed. The others were starting to believe that Tommy was fine, though they gave him funny looks and whatnot when they thought he wasn't looking. Jason and Zack had rolled into town like any two good friends would, and they'd helped him feel a whole lot better... but now that they were leaving soon, Tommy realized that he'd feel worse when they did. Nothing had been resolved, nothing had been fixed, and oh, yeah—now he was reminded of the fact that all of his first real friends, save Billy, had run off into the sunset just like Kimberly, and look how that had turned out. So Tommy had been trying to struggle on while suddenly feeling very old and tired, as though his entire world was changing around him. Jason and Trini and Zack and Kimberly had all started themselves down the post-high-school path and even Billy had graduated, and Tommy would have to move on soon. He was now wondering if he was going to end up moving away from Angel Grove and forgetting everyone, if his calls and letters and e-mails would be as infrequent as everyone else's, if he'd just forget the world that he'd been living in for the past two years and how happy he'd been since the moment Jason asked him to join the Rangers.

Tommy didn't bother to check to see who was on the other side of the door, assuming it was Zack, Jason, Billy or one of the Rangers... so he received the shock of his life when he opened the door and saw Trini standing there on the doorstep.

"Trini?" Tommy said blankly, unable to fathom this bizarre turn of events. Trini hadn't contacted him lately; for all he knew, she had no idea that Kim had dumped him. Now that he thought about it, he realized that Trini had been last on the list of people he expected to see, way down below the Ghost of Christmas Past. After all, no matter what Trini's ties to Tommy were, she was Kimberly's best friend.

Trini gave him a tired smile. She looked exhausted, like she hadn't slept in a really long time; her hair was messy and her clothes were rumpled. An unfamiliar car was parked in Tommy's driveway.

"Hey," she said softly. "I thought maybe you could use a hug."

Tommy stared at her, still trying to come to grips with the fact that she'd somehow gotten from Massachusetts to Angel Grove... and then suddenly he was hugging her, collapsing against her, and she was holding him up, her arms around him tightly.

This was exactly what he needed... and it was one of the few things that no one else on the team could give him. Kat had tried, but she was just a reminder of how he'd never have Kimberly at his side again. Tanya had stuck to mostly awkward pats on the arm. And the guys... well, guys weren't known for their hugging skills. The others weren't exactly homophobic or anything—they hugged and whatnot on occasion—but not spontaneously like this. It had never really occurred to them to give Tommy a nice big hug (and if it had occurred to one of them, no one had figured out how to do it without it being creepy).

"I was really happy," he said dully, a large lump in his throat.

"I know."

And that was it. No promises that it would be okay, no pep talks or distractions or what have you. She just hugged him until he stopped needing her.

Tommy wasn't sure how long he stood there on the porch, holding poor fatigued Trini like a drowning man clinging to a life preserver; he was only vaguely aware of insignificant things like weird looks from the neighbors and the sun setting and so on.

He had no idea what made him pull back; it was simply time to do so. He pushed her away gently and dropped his arms. She gave him that same, patient, Trini-the-psychologist smile.

"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.

"No," he said.

"When you do..." Her offer was obvious.

"I will."

Then Trini shook her head and yawned. Just like that, whatever spell that had come over them was broken, and suddenly he found the entire event completely freakish.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded, ushering her inside. "You look beat."

"I drove here. Heard about you... figured I'd come do that thing I'm good at. What was it called?"

"Comforting your friends?"

"Yeah, that." Trini stumbled as Tommy led her over to the couch. "It's amazing how fast you can get here if you ignore those little signs with the numbers on them."

"...Speed limit signs?"

"Yeah! Those."

"Trini... did you drive all the way here from Massachusetts?"

"Well, I made a quick stop first off in that state that kind of looks like a butterfly net, but yeah, that's pretty much what I did."

"Butterfly net?" Tommy frowned, unable to think of which state that might be. "Um... maybe you should lie down."

Trini nodded and then simply passed out on the couch like a drunk at her favorite bar. Tommy chuckled, staring down at her in amazement. Here he was, moaning how horrible life was, when he had friends like Jason, Trini, Zack, Billy, Kat, Tanya, Adam, and Rocky. Friends who would do anything they could to make him happy, even if it meant springing for a weekend at a mountain lodge, renting out the Youth Center so he could have dinner with a famous snowboarder, rushing over from various other towns in California within three seconds of getting the news or even driving a couple thousand miles just to give him a hug. What on earth was the matter with him?

Tommy went to get Trini a blanket, picking up the phone to call Zack, Jason and Billy and tell them of the latest addition to the already large pile of crazy attempts to make Tommy feel better.

End Flashback

~*~

Tommy grinned at the memory. That had been the moment when he'd snapped out of his post-Kimberly funk and started healing—when his friends had finally made him realize that he had a lot of blessings left to count. His smile faded as he looked over at Trini now.

She had truly meant what she'd said when she'd offered to be there if he ever wanted to talk about it... but he never had. Now, she was sick of waiting for him to decide he was ready... and he still wasn't ready, even though he knew he should have taken her up on that offer years ago. He returned his full concentration to the search for a distraction.

His eyes landed on Kira and Trent. Trent was listening closely to whatever Kira was telling him; she was talking animatedly about something that looked pretty deep while Trent nodded and glared over at Tommy. "Wonder what they're talking about," he commented, knowing it wouldn't divert Trini's attention for long but figuring he might as well try.

"I don't know. Probably if you're really getting it on with Hayley in the secret lair."

Tommy made a face that quickly turned into a glare at Conner. "I'm so going to kill him."

"Yeah, yeah. Come clean, Tommy. Why else would you have a secret lair?"

He laughed, enjoying her attempt to lighten the mood. "It's my own version of the Command Center."

"Uh-huh, sure. You're just trying to be Zordon, are you? No wonder Kira thinks it's so bizarre that you might have a social life. You're her giant talking head in a tube."

"Ha, ha."

"Actually, they're probably talking about last night. The guys were arguing over who'd had a worse night and she told them she'd seen you in your cute little boxers."

"That explains the funny looks Trent has been giving me all morning," Tommy said dryly.

"I think they call those visual death threats," Trini laughed.

"What did the guys say?" Tommy asked, rolling his eyes.

"They agreed that that had to have been horrible beyond belief."

"Right. Give it up, Trini. Like you said, even you want a Tommy."

"Dream on, 'old man.'"

Tommy laughed and gave her a playful glare before returning her teasing insult. "You can't fool me, Trini. I heard you saying I was hot."

"You mean when you were spying on us?" Trini growled.

"I prefer the term 'unapproved surveillance,' thank you. But don't try to change the subject. Been checking me out since high school, eh?"

"Oh, you wish," she said with a snort, laughing. "The hair was totally unappealing."

"Uh-huh, sure. I heard you swooning last night."

"Not on your life. Besides, no matter how hot Kim thinks you are, you're not nearly hot enough for me."

"That's right, I forgot. You prefer nerds, according to—what was it? Seventeen? YM? So tell me, when are you going to elope with Billy?"

She snorted. "Yeah, right."

"It's okay, Trini, you can tell me. That magazine quiz said it all. Jason's butt just isn't enough, is it?" Tommy deadpanned.

"No, it isn't, but thankfully he's got... other... attributes."

"Too much information," Tommy said, thoroughly disgusted.

"Well, that's what you get. No one makes fun of my man's butt." Trini folded her arms over her chest and gave him a smug smile.

Tommy grinned, his spirits lifted; he hadn't gotten the opportunity to have a good banter session in a while, as his Dino Ranger duties had cut into his visiting time with his friends. "You're a great friend, Trini, you know that?"

"And you're a great big idiot."

"It's not my fault that you have delusions about Jason's butt."

"...I meant about Kimberly."

Tommy sighed, his good mood evaporating. "I know."

"Tommy... what happened?"

"Florida happened," Tommy said with a sigh. Seeing her opening her mouth, he added, "And yeah, I really wish it hadn't, okay?"

"Why can't you tell her that?"

"She's moved on."

"She's 'moved on' about as much as you have. Probably less."

"You don't know that."

"I am Trini. I know everything."

A vision of Hayley snapped into Tommy's mind and he fought to focus on the conversation. "Trini—"

"Look," Trini interrupted. "I'm not telling you to go march over there and ask her to marry you. I'm asking you to try to patch things up. I'm asking you to try to fix whatever was broken. Just try. At the very least, maybe we'll be able to invite you two over to visit at the same time without wondering if something horrible is going to happen between you. It's been years since we've all been together."

Tommy looked at Kimberly, watched her joking with Zack as she tossed the Frisbee to Conner. Watched the girl who should have been his Trini, the way Jason had become Trini's Tommy.

"I'll try," he said quietly. "I'll try."

~*~

"All undersea, eh?" Ethan said. "That must be really cool."

"It's all right," Billy said, floating easily on his back in the water with his ankles crossed and his fingers laced behind his head. "I miss certain things about Earth, though. The food. The clothes. My tools. My garage. The RADBUG. My inventions. My friends. All of that. But still, it's a great experience. I'm working with all sorts of alien races, not just the people on Aquitar. And the technology is amazing."

"They're probably a lot more advanced than Earth, right?" Ethan asked eagerly.

Billy stood up. "You wouldn't believe it. The Internet is a joke compared to the things they have. They rarely crash, too; the problems are almost nonexistent. And the daily lifestyles are a lot easier. They don't even have a single manual door left in the entire world; they're all automatic. Everyone can use a computer, and computer experts are the ones who are the most valued members of society. It's just... incredible, seeing the comparisons and contrasts."

"And you're seeing an alien woman?"

"Yes. Cestria. It's not as weird as it sounds," Billy added at Ethan's slightly disgusted look. "Her physiology is very similar to that of a human. It's no different than dating a human girl of a different race for me."

"So... if you've been with her all these years, why haven't you married her?" Ethan asked, remembering what Billy had told Ernie.

"They don't have marriage there, the way we know it. I explained the concept to Cestria once and she said it seemed kind of silly. The Aquitians simply acknowledge their love for each other; they don't feel that a ceremony is necessary to make love official."

"Weird."

Billy nodded. "Yeah, sometimes their culture is odd. But it's also really fascinating. Everyone on Earth has a lot of the same basic beliefs with a few simple variances. Life after death, religion, marriage, right and wrong. It's so fascinating to see a culture completely removed from all of that."

"I'll bet. It must be really cool."

"Yeah. Still... it's so completely strange, especially when I come back here. I can't stop looking back on my life, remembering what I thought would happen to me after high school."

"What did you think?"

"Lots of stuff. I mean, alien planet aside, I never thought I'd be respected by an entire world and have my own—for all intents and purposes—wife, who's pretty much a highly important government official. I certainly never saw myself as a Power Ranger before it happened. And I kind of thought that... well, by this point in my life, I figured that I'd be a leading scientist or computer engineer. I used to think we'd all end up doing what we were good at back then. Trini was headed for something like I was—computers and science. Or I thought perhaps Trini would be a diplomat; she was always very good at the Peace Conference thing, according to Jason and Zack. It took me a while before I ever saw her relationship with Jason coming. Zack... he's not really deviated from my old views of him. Kim's a gymnast, of course, and Jason's running a dojo. But Tommy... none of us ever saw the paleontologist thing. And we certainly never would have guessed that he and Kim would split up."

"Dr. O used to go with Kimberly?" Ethan asked, nearly falling over in surprise.

"Oh, yeah. She was all head over heels the moment she saw him. And of course she went straight for him—that was Kimberly for you. The next thing we knew, he was a Power Ranger and they were inseparable."

"Wow... that's so... bizarre. I never really thought about him having a girlfriend. It was just too creepy."

Billy smiled. "I can see how you would feel that way." His expression became distant, his eyes clouding as he sank back into his past. "Jason used to complain about it like nothing else. Tommy was often late to things, and on occasion he was late because he was with Kimberly. We caught them being late together quite a few times, and Jason always looked suspicious whenever we were hanging out and Tommy showed up late with Kim. After Tommy was made leader, it drove Jason even crazier; he missed being leader, but he didn't begrudge Tommy the title—they were best friends. I think he was quite pleased to be rid of the pressure, only to find himself having to deal with it anyway until Tommy actually made it to the field."

Ethan nodded. "Yeah. But... what happened? If they were so in love, why did they break up?" He was suddenly thinking of Kira and Trent, and how happy they were together.

Billy told him the abbreviated story of Coach Schmidt and the letter. "Man, that's cold," Ethan said with a low whistle.

"Yes... and it wasn't at all like Kimberly. She was usually very honest and forthcoming, especially when she knew someone could get badly hurt. None of us had heard a thing about the guy she mentioned... and that wasn't like Kimberly, either. She told us all about the people she was meeting, from the coaches to the teammates to the waiters at her favorite restaurants and checkout girls at the places she shopped—there were a lot of those—people she liked and people she didn't. She sent letter upon letter, especially to me and Aisha and Tommy, Jason, Trini and Zack, and she called regularly. Always raving about the people she knew, always asking about Angel Grove, always telling us how much she wished she could be with us. She got really bummed sometimes, especially when it came to Tommy. She wouldn't say 'goodbye,' only some variant of it whenever she had to hang up the phone. She usually signed her letters with 'see you soon' and so on, as if she was only on a weekend trip. I still can't figure out why she wouldn't have told us anything about a new guy she liked. She would have at least told Trini or Aisha; they were her best friends."

"Didn't she say anything to anyone?"

"No, not even the people she usually confided in. We weren't talking as much as we had been, though. By then, Trini, Jason and Zack had finished high school over in Europe. Jason and Zack were back in California—Zack had gone to L.A., and Jason was visiting relatives before choosing a college. Trini was off at MIT. But we were all still in touch, chatting whenever we could afford the phone calls and writing whenever we had the stamps, e-mailing and instant messaging whenever we got online. I just... what shocked me most was that Trini told me later that Kimberly had never mentioned anything about breaking up with Tommy until the moment it happened. She said that it came as a complete surprise, both from Tommy's end and Kim's. And Trini was always... well, she was the first person to call when you had a crisis, always there with a shoulder to lean on or cry on. Trini would have let Kim pour her heart out and she wouldn't have told Tommy that Kimberly was thinking of breaking up if Kimberly asked her not to. For Trini to have heard nothing was unthinkable.

"Aisha was off in Africa at the time, but still able to stay in touch with Kim and us all. She and Kim were really close, too—Kimberly even lived with her for a few months. So if Kim's confidante hadn't been Trini, it would have been Aisha... but Aisha was just as startled as the rest of us. I don't see why Kim never confided in anyone. Really, any of us would have given her advice. But she should have at least told Trini."

"Are you sure she didn't, and Trini just wouldn't tell you?"

"I'm positive. Trini wouldn't have said anything directly, but once it had happened she would have at least said something to the effect of it being Kimberly's business. She wouldn't have said she'd known nothing. And... there was something else odd."

"What?"

"When Tommy first got the letter, I took him skiing to get his mind off it... and when we got back, I returned home to a bunch of frantic messages from Trini. Before I could return them, Trini called me again and begged me to find a way to teleport her to Florida. I asked why, and she said that she'd been on the phone with Kimberly for hours and Kimberly wouldn't stop sobbing."

"If she dumped him, why was she crying?"

"That's what I wanted to know."

"What did Trini say?"

"Well, at the time, I was kind of bitter on Tommy's behalf. I asked her how Kimberly was doing with her new boyfriend... and Trini snapped that Kimberly had just lost Tommy and wasn't exactly out shopping for replacements yet. That startled me, and I apologized; Trini said it was okay, that I didn't know. That was when she asked me if there was a way I could get her to Florida. I wanted to ask more questions, but Trini was panicking and desperate to get to Kim. I told her that the Power Chamber didn't have a lot of the same stuff as the Command Center and teleporting from beyond a certain range around the Chamber was impossible. She told me she'd find a way down to Miami and give me a call in a few days. I found out later that she rented a car and drove down all the way from Massachusetts to Florida, so Kimberly must have been a total wreck."

"So... wait. There was no other guy?" Ethan asked with a frown.

"I don't know. I only know that Trini said Kimberly had lost Tommy and wasn't seeing anyone. For a long time, I assumed Trini just didn't know the full story when she talked to me, or else that Kimberly had just fallen for some other guy and broken up with Tommy before dating the new guy, which is still perfectly plausible, but now... I'm not so sure."

Billy sighed, leaning back into the waves and letting them wash over him. "I could have been wrong. I'm a computer guy, not a relationship guy. But... I don't know. Trini and Zack still talk a lot about it. Trini and Jason... well, it's too much of a mess for them to talk about, I assume; it's too close to each of them. Trini and I don't really speak about it very much anymore... but I know that Trini still prays for a reunion. I just hope that this ends up being her chance to get them together, rather than a disaster." Billy nodded at the shore, where Trini was sitting alone with Tommy. "It looks like she's already set things in motion."

"So... you never asked Trini any more about Kimberly?" Ethan prompted.

"No. You see... when Tommy first got the letter, all of his friends tried comforting Tommy as best we knew how. Zack and Jason drove in to visit, and the four of us had a sort of guys' day. Then we all got together—Kat, Tanya, Rocky, Adam, Zack, Jason, Tommy and I, and we tried to cheer Tommy up. Tommy eventually started to do this thing where he pretended he was okay when anyone who knew him remotely well could tell that he was completely depressed. And then, about a week or so after it happened, just before Zack and Jason were about to leave town, Trini magically appeared on Tommy's doorstep, snapped him right out of his trance—none of us have ever been able to figure out how—and then Trini, Zack, Jason and I got together to talk about it. We were all still shocked and confused and I asked Trini what Kimberly had said... and she told me that she didn't want to talk about it. She said that it wasn't her place to talk about it, and it wasn't our place to talk about Tommy. She said we should all leave it alone. We decided that from then on, no matter what happened, we would never judge either of them, never take sides. Trini was very adamant about that, especially. At the time, I thought it was because she didn't want to betray Kimberly when Jason, Zack and I were sitting by Tommy's side. Now... over the years I've started to wonder if it was because she felt that Kimberly had been slighted, and Trini didn't want us to feel like Trini was angry with Tommy."

"Was she?" Ethan inquired. "Did Trini ever act pissed off at Dr. O?"

"Trini isn't like that," Billy said. "She never mentioned it to him, either, unless of course it was when she first popped up in Angel Grove to talk to him about it, but none of us know what she and Tommy did that day. The closest they ever got to saying anything that I know of was at her wedding rehearsal dinner, and Trini had told Jason, while he was standing next to Tommy, that Kimberly wasn't going to be able to get out of France for the wedding. Jason told me about it. Tommy turned to her and asked 'how's...?' without ever completing the sentence. She'd just said 'fine.'"

"What did Dr. O say?"

"Just 'good.'"

"So... he probably hadn't heard her name at all before Power Rangers Day?"

"Oh, he'd heard it. Once in a while a few of us would be reminiscing about the old days and mention Kim, and then we'd all realize what we'd said and change the subject. Or someone would get a postcard from her and mention it when he was over on accident. Trini and Jason were the only two who could avoid it with perfection. Besides, Kimberly had a good run as a gymnast; Tommy heard about her on TV and in the paper, too."

"And you never asked Trini about why Kimberly was so upset that Kimberly had left Dr. O?"

Billy shook his head. "After that day Trini, Zack, Jason and I never spoke about how they broke up. We talked about how it was sad they'd broken up, and how we wished they hadn't broken up, and how we wished they'd get back together or start being friends again, but never how or why it happened. That was the first time—and last time—that our little group had ever been shaken up like that. I mean, sure, we left Angel Grove and lost our Ranger powers and so on, but we were always friends. None of us knew how to handle it."

"Why didn't Dr. O ever call her? Didn't he ever want an explanation?"

"I would imagine so, but he never called up and got one. We just tried to take his mind off of it and help him move on. We were all so hopeful they'd work things out when that kidnapping thing rolled around, but nothing spectacular came of it."

"Kidnapping thing?"

"Jason and Kimberly were captured and turned evil. Adam contacted me to tell me about it... and it was really a mess. Jason told me later that Kim had been so anxious to leave Angel Grove afterward that she would have ran barefoot over broken glass to get out. Apparently Tommy tried to reach out to her while she was under the spell by getting her to remember him, and she... well... continued to try and kill him. The first chance they had to patch things up just gave them both nightmares." Billy sighed heavily. "By then, I think it was too late. To see each other like that... it must have been a horrible blow. And Tommy was dating Kat, Kimberly was on her way to being an acclaimed gymnast, and they had both spent months without speaking to each other."

"Kat?"

"The second Pink Ranger. They got together not long before Jason lost his Gold Ranger Powers and ended up kidnapped. She adored Tommy from minute one."

"What happened to her?"

"She moved to London to become a ballet dancer. Tommy wasn't too keen on long distance relationships."

"I'll bet. So... do you think Dr. O and Kimberly have a shot anymore?"

"I don't know. It would be nice. It's hard to tiptoe around the fact that they aren't together, and tiptoeing around it is an even bigger reminder that the gang's not going to be the same again. It's really up to them, though."

Ethan smiled, turning to look at all the ex-Rangers on the beach. His gaze went from Tommy to Kimberly... to Conner, Trent, and Kira.

"Yeah," he said slowly, a smile fit for any evil genius like Ethan forming on his face. "It's all up to them."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 10: Mr Billy's Wild Ride

"What's with all the chatter?" Zack demanded, dropping down onto the blanket next to Trini. Jason, Kimberly and Conner followed him. "You two plotting my demise?" Zack added, sounding a bit more serious than he'd intended.

"No more than usual," Trini said casually, grinning teasingly at him.

"Trini," Kimberly said sharply, giving her a penetrating look.

Trini looked up at her, and Kimberly's eyes flicked almost imperceptibly towards Tommy before returning to Trini's, her question obvious. Trini shook her head slightly. "I didn't do it," she said in a joking tone, making it sound like they were simply sharing some unknown inside joke.

"Okay, then," Kimberly said, looking relieved.

"What?" Jason asked suspiciously, looking from Kimberly to Tommy to Trini in askance, having spotted Kimberly's glance at Tommy.

"Guys!" Billy called, coming out of the water with Ethan. "Are you coming in?"

"Soon," Jason said absently, staring suspiciously at his wife.

"I'll wait," Billy said, sitting down beside Tommy but looking out covetously at the water.

Kira and Trent wandered over just then and plopped down with the others. "Hey, can I ask you guys something?" Trent asked.

"What?" several people replied.

"What's this Ranger's Parade we keep hearing about?"

"Yeah," Conner added. "Was it a part of Power Rangers Day?"

"No," Kimberly said, smiling slightly. "It was... well, it was a really strange day gone bad."

"Like last night?" Kira asked.

"Er... no," Tommy said, sighing heavily. "It was a whole lot worse."

"What was so bad about last night?" Billy inquired, but Jason, who had started laughing at Tommy's comment, didn't hear him and interrupted before anyone could give an excuse not to explain.

"One little mob just spoiled your day, didn't it?" Jason teased Tommy.

"Shut up," Tommy retorted.

"So what happened?" Trent pressed.

"Well," Jason said slowly, "it all started with Billy."

"It all started with Goldar," Billy argued, obviously picking up a previous fight. The others ignored him.

"That's right," Zack said. "It never would have happened if Billy hadn't gotten that job at Kinko's."

~*~

Flashback

Billy smiled wearily at the elderly woman who'd been holding up the line for the last fifteen minutes with stories of her grandchildren while businessmen and women huffed impatiently behind her. "Have a nice day, ma'am," he said, relieved when she hobbled out the door, leaving him to deal with a long line of angry people whose reports were going to be late.

The door bells chimed, and Billy turned as was mandatory, planning to greet the new customer before returning to the line. However, all thoughts of the line disappeared at the sight of the newest "customer."

Goldar stood in the doorway, looking freakish and frightening with his dark blue skin and gold armor. Everyone gasped, staring in shock, waiting for the monster to make the first move.

Goldar looked around uncertainly and held up a small, flat silver disk. "I need to use the copy machine."

Well, there was only one thing anyone could say to that.

"AHHHHHHH! RUN!"

There was a stampede for the other door, the one Goldar wasn't standing in front of. Billy dropped to his knees, praying Goldar hadn't seen him, as Billy's manager hit the deck as well and all of the customers ran faster than Road Runner. Billy crawled around the corner behind the L-shaped counter, desperate to contact the rest of the gang without compromising his secret identity. Goldar was pretty tough, tough enough to have nearly killed Jason when fighting one-on-one; Billy would fight if he had to, but he doubted he could take on Goldar alone. The moment he was out of sight of his cowering manager, he hit the send button on his communicator.

Back at the Youth Center, Zack was regaling Angela with a very funny story (she was, of course, feigning boredom, which was something she often did with his most interesting stories) when he heard his communicator chime.

"Your watch is beeping," Angela said, pretending to look relieved. She had taken to looking relieved every time it went off, which was a tactic she'd adopted shortly after they'd gotten into a fight about how he had to run off every time it beeped (which was freakishly often).

"Oh, yeah... I have... a gynecologist appointment," Zack lied, rushing from the room. The moment he was out of sight, he lifted his communicator to his mouth. "Zordon?"

"Billy, actually."

"Billy?"

"Yes. Tommy? Kim? Jason? Trini? You there?"

Over in Angel Grove Park, Tommy and Kimberly halted their make-out session on a pink-and-white-checkered picnic blanket and stared at their communicators in dismay. "Remind me why we brought these again?" Kimberly asked grumpily as Tommy activated his.

"Tommy here."

"And Kimberly."

"What is it, Zordon?" Jason's voice asked through the communicator. He sounded very winded and tired, perhaps annoyed.

"Billy's the one who called us, actually," Zack said.

"Billy?" Kimberly repeated in confusion. "What's wrong?"

"Goldar just showed up."

"What? Where?" Tommy demanded, standing up. Kimberly sighed and got to her feet as well. Goldar usually showed up after or with a group of Putties, and his arrival always seemed to herald some major catastrophe.

"At the Kinko's I'm working at."

"Why's he there?" Zack asked.

Good question, Billy thought, and carefully peered over the countertop. He expected to see Goldar tearing the place apart... but Goldar was simply standing by the copy machine, staring at it as if trying to figure out how it worked.

"He... uh... appears to be attempting to utilize the copier."

"Um... he what?" Zack said blankly.

"He's trying to use the copier," Billy repeated.

"That makes no sense," Jason said.

"Why would he do that?" Trini asked at the same time.

The others paused. Both Jason and Trini sounded short of breath, and they hadn't heard Trini come online, which meant she was using someone else's communicator. They were designed so that only one person could talk into them at any time, like walkie-talkies, so they had to be sharing a communicator.

"Jason? Trini? Are you guys at the same place?" Tommy asked suspiciously.

"Uh... yeah," Jason said a little guiltily.

"Did you guys just work out or something? You sound beat," Zack said.

"Yes! Yes... we uh... we were working out. Yep," Trini said.

"Can we get back to more important matters?" Jason demanded quickly, sounding downright panicky.

"He's still trying to use the copier," Billy reported, still spying over the counter. Goldar had discovered Billy's manager's hiding spot and was now forcing the manager to make the copy. "Paul is copying something for him."

"Copying what?" Kimberly wondered, frowning. It seemed rather insignificant to her.

Billy started to say something, but just then Goldar started shouting, drowning Billy out. "I thought this was a copy machine! All it's doing is drawing the medallion on paper! What good is that?"

"Please don't hurt me!" the manager whimpered.

"I'll try and stall him," Billy hissed into his communicator. "Hurry, guys."

Billy turned off his communicator and grabbed his morpher. "It's morphin' time," he whispered. "Triceratops!"

A moment later, Billy leaped out from behind the counter. "All right, Goldar!" he yelled, striking a tough-guy pose.

"Ack!" his manager shrieked. Startled, Paul whirled around, nearly wetting himself from shock. His eyes fell on Billy. "The Blue Ranger!" he breathed, relieved.

"I'm gonna take you down, you—where'd he go?" Billy demanded, disappointed.

"That way!" the manager said quickly, pointing at the door.

"Thanks, Paul," Billy said absently, rushing off.

"He knows my name!" the manager whispered in awe, staring after him.

The door flew open and suddenly Goldar rushed back in. "Almost forgot," he growled as the manager screamed in terror. Goldar ignored him, marching over to the copy machine and lifting the lid to retrieve his medallion before leaving again.

Billy rushed outside. The street was in total chaos; everyone was running and screaming. He scanned the crowd for Goldar but saw nothing.

"Where'd he go?" Billy wondered just as something slammed into him from behind. He stumbled and turned; Goldar had somehow gotten behind him and in between him and the door to Kinko's.

"You!" Goldar snarled.

"Prepare to be... beat up!" Billy exclaimed, unused to throwing out insults; most of the time the others yelled that sort of stuff, and most of the time the others were beside him.

"I don't have time for this right now," Goldar replied, and, to Billy's complete surprise, he turned and ran.

"Come back here!" Billy shouted, giving chase.

Goldar saw him following and darted down the driveway between Kinko's and the Burger King next door. Billy followed, ordering him to stop, pumping his arms for speed. Goldar turned the corner, trying to ditch Billy, ran along the parking lot, turned up the driveway in between Kinko's and Blockbuster and then pelted along the sidewalk in front of the store. There he paused, waiting to see if Billy was still behind him; Billy skidded around the corner a moment later.

"Grr, that's it!" Goldar shouted, realizing he'd have to fight. He charged at Billy.

"AHH!" Billy yelped, racing back around the building a few times before remembering quite suddenly that he was the good guy, and as such he was supposed to do the pursuing, not the running.

"Stand and fight!" Billy yelled, running back at Goldar.

Goldar took off, once again trying to escape.

Meanwhile, Zack was running up the street, dodging panicky pedestrians as he ran towards Kinko's, already morphed. Two buildings from Kinko's, he found a crowd of people who were blocking the sidewalk and half the street, watching the most recent Ranger event. Giving a frustrated growl, he leaped up onto the roof of a nearby Blockbuster and hopped onto the Kinko's roof, scanning the ground for Billy.

It took him a moment to figure out that Billy was chasing Goldar valiantly around and around Kinko's. Just as he prepared to jump down to help, Goldar changed direction, waving his arms over his head and screaming as he hurtled at Billy, who spun and ran off, only to let out a battle cry and turn the tables on Goldar a few seconds later. This continued for quite a while.

Zack couldn't help it; he burst out laughing. First Billy would chase Goldar and yell like a Roman gladiator, then he'd start yelling in fright as Goldar came after him with a boogeyman sort of shriek. Zack roared with laughter and the crowd below watched with interest.

Goldar finally realized during one of the moments that Billy was chasing him that Goldar had a mission and therefore better things to do than endlessly circle a Kinko's. When he reached the sidewalk again, he turned right instead of left and ran off past the Burger King. He glanced over his shoulder; Billy came around the corner and kept circling the building, apparently thinking Goldar was just really far ahead.

"Ha!" Goldar yelled triumphantly, only to give a cry of pain a few seconds later as he bounced off something large that was talking about Whoppers and fries.

"Skull! It's one of Rita Repulsa's minions!"

"Let's get him!"

Goldar looked up just in time to see Bulk and Skull lunging at him as he lay sprawled on the sidewalk. Startled, Goldar teleported away.

Billy, meanwhile, had realized he'd lost Goldar. The monster was just too fast, and the gang was still nowhere in sight. Billy stopped, thinking hard. He couldn't let Goldar get away; who knew what Goldar might do and who he might hurt? There was only one way he was ever going to catch Goldar.

"Triceratops Unicorn Thunderzord Power!"

A few moments later, his zord had arrived. Billy leaped in his cockpit and took off.

Unfortunately, he was completely unused to piloting his zord in a tight circle around a building. On the first turn, he knocked a huge crack in the Blockbuster wall with the back of the zord; on the second, he nearly hit a Burger King drive-thru customer.

Jason and Trini, also morphed, arrived just then, hopping onto the Kinko's roof, having been forced to take to the roofs after the crowd got too thick. They found Zack laughing hysterically; he was flat on the roof, clutching his stomach.

"Zack... what...?"

"Jason, look!" Trini pointed at the Unicorn Thunderzord below.

"He's called his zord; we better get ours."

"Um... yeah. But... where's Goldar?"

Jason frowned, searching the area but seeing absolutely no sign of Goldar and his armor. "Uh, good question. Zack, stop laughing! Zack!"

"I don't like this," Trini muttered. "Where's Kim? And Tommy?"

Jason hit his communicator's button. "Tommy? Kimberly?"

"We're on our way, Jase!" Tommy replied.

"Yeah. We got... uh... held up."

"In other words, they were making out," Jason said in disgust.

Trini gave him as pointed a look as she could with her helmet on. "Um... for which we should probably forgive them, all things considered. Now let's get in there and help Billy. Tyrannosaurus Red Dragon Thunderzord Power!"

"Saber-toothed Tiger Griffin Thunderzord Power!"

"Zack, get up! Billy needs us!"

"Mastodon... haha... Lion... hahahahaha!... Thunder—ha!—zord... haha... P-power! Mwahahaha!"

The three of them mounted their zords, Jason converting his to battle mode, as he wouldn't be able to fit between the buildings while flying without risking a crash and he had no desire to take out a Burger King.

"Zack! Why aren't you moving?"

"S-sorry," Zack choked out, still laughing hard. Trini tried to slip past him, but she had to go slow to avoid him and scraped along the side of him.

"Look out!" Jason called down, jumping over them as gently as he could and continuing after Billy.

"Good to see you, guys!" Billy called, then screeched to a halt as Goldar appeared in front of him. "Ha! I've got—argh!"

Goldar ran right at him. Billy, fearing Goldar would leap into the cockpit where there would be no room for a fight, threw the zord into reverse and nearly crashed into Jason.

"Are you crazy?" Jason demanded, jumping forward over Billy and landing in the street, just barely able to keep his footing. By the time he turned around, Billy had swung the zord about until it was facing the right way and gone all the way behind Kinko's and towards the parking lot.

"He's back here! Help!" Billy shouted.

"Where?" Jason asked, having missed seeing Goldar in his haste to avoid being tripped by the Unicorn.

"Here! Trini, Zack, get out of the way!"

"Zack! Quit it!"

Zack was attempting to drive, but he was laughing so hard that he kept jerking about erratically and crashing into Trini's zord, who was trying and failing to get around him. At last, they'd made it to the parking lot in the back, where they had room to maneuver, and Billy zipped past them.

Trini whipped her head around to look. "Billy, where—"

"He's after me!"

Trini frowned. That made no sense; Goldar was no match for a zord.

Suddenly the Red Dragon Thunderzord stomped into the parking lot and turned to go up the other driveway after Billy. "Jason, why are you chasing Billy?" Trini demanded as Zack smashed into her again.

"I'm not! I'm trying to help him!"

"ZACK!" Trini roared as he hit her again. In a rage she spun her zord at him and charged.

"AHH!" Zack screamed, then promptly went back to laughing. Still furious, Trini slammed into him again.

"Okay... what the hell are you guys doing?" came Kimberly's voice. They all glanced up to find her on the Kinko's roof with Tommy.

"Billy claims Goldar's after him," Jason said shortly, beginning to doubt Goldar's presence as he tried to carefully follow Billy. Unbeknownst to him, Goldar had retreated once more, and was now watching safely from the moon.

Kimberly and Tommy looked at each other and shrugged. "Pterodactyl Firebird Thunderzord Power!"

"White Tiger Thunderzord Power, now!"

"We're right behind you!" Kimberly yelled.

"Where is Goldar, anyway?" Tommy asked after converting to Warrior Mode.

"In Billy's head," Jason muttered darkly.

"What?"

"Should we go Megazord?" Kimberly asked.

"DIE, ZACK!"

"Trini! Stop!"

"Uh... maybe later," Tommy said, frowning at the sight of Trini and Zack's vicious bumper-car-like fight.

Kimberly swooped around Jason, attempting to spot Goldar. "I don't see Goldar, Billy," she said.

"He's right behind me!" Billy turned his head to look, only to find that Goldar had teleported away again.

"I don't see him," Kimberly repeated.

"I'll scope out the back," Tommy said, pausing in the parking lot, figuring that if the lot of them were going to keep circling, Goldar would eventually run right into him.

"Billy, I swear, if this is just a... a hallucination..." Jason let the threat hang.

"It is not! He must have gotten ahead of me." Billy increased his speed to an almost dangerous level, given the tight turns he kept having to make.

"Trini! I'm sorry!"

"I'll teach you, you idiot!"

"ARGH!"

"LOOK OUT!" Tommy shouted.

Zack, in an attempt to get away from Trini, had driven into the area between Burger King and Kinko's, Trini ramming him all the while. Neither of them noticed that Billy and the other zords were headed right for them.

"Zack, watch out!" Billy yelled, throwing his zord into reverse again.

Big mistake.

The Unicorn smashed into the foot of the Red Dragon, tripping it. Kimberly banked a hard left, trying to get out from under the Red Dragon as it fell forward, but was too low and was forced to turn back to the right or risk leveling Burger King. Jason and Kimberly screamed as the Firebird collided with the Red Dragon and they fell down toward the Unicorn, Lion, and Griffin.

"ABANDON SHIP!" someone shouted.

Trini, Zack and Jason leaped out of their zords, but Kimberly was smashed under the Red Dragon's chest and Billy's cockpit was nearly crushed under its leg.

The noise was deafening. The ground seemed to shake as the Red Dragon fell, and then there was complete and utter silence. Not one of the onlookers moved.

"Zordon's gonna be maaaaad," Zack whispered after a long pause.

"This is all your fault!" Trini yelled at him, picking herself up off the Burger King roof where she and Zack had landed and rounding on him.

"KIM!" Tommy roared suddenly, making them all jump. He leaped out of his zord and practically flew towards the wreck, scrambling onto Billy's zord (startling poor Billy, who was relatively unharmed within the cockpit, half to death) and heading for the Firebird.

"I'm okay!" Kimberly called. "I'm stuck, but I'm okay!"

"Calm down, Romeo," Zack said, shaking his head.

"How, exactly, are we going to fix this?" Trini moaned, preparing to jump down and help, but a little boy's voice—the only person other than the Rangers who had spoken yet—interrupted by shouting, "Look, Mommy! The Red Ranger's okay!"

Several onlookers gasped. Trini, Zack, and Tommy looked around and spotted Jason, standing on top of the K in the Kinko's sign, his hands on his hips in a very classic superhero pose, his face turned in their direction. Even with his helmet on, there was no questioning the fact that he had a murderous look on his face.

"Uh... Jason," Trini said sweetly, "now is the time to fix this and get out of here. There's gotta be a hundred people watching us."

"Fix this? Fix this! How are we going to fix this?" Jason shouted.

"Um..."

"I'm open for suggestions," Zack said with a shrug.

"Perhaps the White Tigerzord could be strong enough to remove the Red Dragon," Billy suggested.

"Hey! I actually understood that," Zack said in surprise.

Tommy rushed off; he was close to having a fit about his trapped girlfriend. A few minutes later, Tommy's zord was lifting Jason's (though not without a good deal of effort. "Are you all right, Beautiful?" Tommy asked anxiously.

"I'm fine, Tommy," Kimberly repeated in exasperation, sliding out of her badly dented zord.

"Jason, get back in," Tommy said, carefully setting the zord on its feet and holding it steady, just in case. He was itching to go to Kimberly. "It seems like it can stand up just fine."

"Can someone come pry my door open?" Billy asked with a sigh.

"I'm on it," Trini said, hopping down from the roof and pulling out one of her Power Daggers, which she used like a crowbar to jimmy Billy's door open.

"Thanks," Billy said, climbing outside gratefully.

"This place looks wrecked," Jason groaned from inside his cockpit. "Everything's fried."

"Can you walk?" Tommy asked.

Jason lifted up a foot and the zord promptly toppled over. The Red Dragon Thunderzord landed with its butt in a dumpster, much like a nerd shoved into a trashcan by bullies; everyone winced at the scream of metal bending before the zord settled and the dumpster held with the zord's legs and torso stuck straight up into the air. It was folded almost in half, but it still reached higher than the Kinko's roof.

"On second thought, maybe you shouldn't try moving," Tommy suggested, cringing.

Jason's zord's head turned to look at the White Tigerzord with what was unmistakably a glare.

Zack snorted, obviously finding it funny. "If you laugh one more time, I'm going to throw my Power Daggers at you!" Trini shouted at him. Zack promptly shut up.

"Hey, I've got an idea!" Tommy exclaimed. "Megatigerzord transformation, now!"

Rather than combining as usual, none of the zords moved save Billy's, which gave a feeble lurch before sitting still.

"Okay, never mind," Tommy said with a sigh.

"Um... Initiate Thunder Megazord sequence now?" Jason asked hopefully. Again, the Unicorn twitched, but that was about it.

"Now what?" Trini asked wearily.

"We can't just stay here," Kimberly said worriedly, looking at the crowd. "But we can't just leave our zords, either."

"I kind of want to," Zack said. "I'm not looking forward to facing Zordon."

"Especially since this was your fault," Trini said dryly. "But I don't want to make him mad, either."

"What do you suggest? We have them towed to a mechanic?" Kimberly asked. "We try and fix them up ourselves in Billy's garage?"

"Calm down, guys. We don't even know if we can move them. Everybody hop in and see if anything works," Tommy said.

Kimberly, Trini and Billy got back in with difficulty. The Unicorn and Griffin would drive, but that was it. The Lion had been under the Firebird, and between its weight and the Red Dragon's, the cockpit too smashed to enter. Nothing at all responded on the Firebird; Kimberly could barely get back inside, and the control panel was almost totally crushed.

"We're so screwed," Kimberly moaned as she crawled back out again, watching the onlookers warily. No one had gotten up the guts to approach them, but people were crowding all around at a respectful distance, chattering loudly now.

"Any ideas?" Jason asked, still inside his zord.

"I've got a really crazy one," Billy said quietly.

"Does it involve hallucinating another of Rita's monsters?" Jason said sulkily.

"I wasn't hallucinating! And no, it doesn't. It just might work... but no one's going to like it."

End Flashback

~*~

"And that's how it started," Zack finished with relish. He was the only one of the six Rangers who'd been there who enjoyed telling the story. Sure, Trini had nearly killed him several times that day, but the others had fared far worse.

"Wow," Trent gasped through his laughter.

"I'll never forget that day," Kimberly muttered.

"Me either," Jason, Tommy, Billy, and Trini echoed.

"Yeah," Zack said. "It was the first time I suspected Jason and Trini were together."

"Ha, ha," Jason said, chucking the Frisbee at him.

"You guys kept it a secret?" Kira asked Trini.

"For a while. At first, we just couldn't find the time to tell them," Trini replied. "Between monster attacks and school and all the martial arts classes and so on, it was difficult to get the gang all together. By the time we finally did, we were having fun with the secret. All six of us were so close that it was kind of cool to have something that was just ours, you know?"

"And then it became, 'oh, god, the guys are going to kill us when they find out we've been keeping it from them,'" Jason finished.

"But the 'parade...' that was the day that kind of solidified the suspicions for me," Tommy said.

"Yeah, right," Jason said derisively. "You were completely oblivious until the day I got married."

"Hey, I was not," Tommy protested.

"Yeah—he was only oblivious until you asked him to be the best man, remember?" Zack reminded Jason. "He was all excited about getting to plan the bachelor party."

"Shut up," Tommy growled.

"Yeah," Jason teased. "Not in front of the children, Zack."

"I would ask," Trini muttered, "but I think that's best left alone."

"Especially given what happened at the bachelorette party," Kimberly said reminiscently, smiling. Jason and Trini had both had their parties about a week before the wedding. Kimberly had been able to attend Trini's, before heading of to France for what she'd hoped would be a few days (that of course became a very long time; the passport thing had been really difficult to sort out) to visit family; her stepfather had fallen ill. Kimberly had insisted that Trini not reschedule the wedding to wait for Kimberly, mostly because a lot of the already-paid-for things were non-refundable, like the honeymoon plane tickets and the reception hall.

Kimberly allowed herself to get lost in the memories for the moment until realizing that Jason was staring at her. "What bachelorette party?" he demanded.

"Honey, she's confused," Trini said a little too quickly. "I didn't have one, remember?"

"Oh, that must have been someone else I'm thinking of," Kimberly said, wide-eyed. "That's right. You and I just looked over the wedding floral arrangements... or the China pattern... or some other such thing. Um, right?" She looked at Trini for help, no longer able to remember the excuse they'd given Jason.

"That's what she said you two were doing during my party," Jason said suspiciously. "Trini said she was just going to be hanging around the house."

"And that's what we were doing," Trini said defensively.

Wildly, Kimberly tried to change the subject. Zack looked entertained by it. Billy had that look on his face that meant he was filing away information for later. Trini was glaring at her. Panicking slightly, Kimberly turned to Tommy. "I kept insisting Jason and Trini were together back then, remember?" Kimberly asked him. "You wouldn't believe me at first."

Tommy nodded. "I thought you were imagining it," he said hurriedly, trying to stave off a Jason/Trini argument. He'd always been suspicious of what Trini was really doing during Jason's bachelor party, but due to the knowledge that Kimberly would be with Trini he hadn't asked too many questions; he had also been a lot more concerned with Jason's party, since he was actually going to be attending it.

"So... you two used to go out?" Trent inquired of Tommy and Kimberly, looking rather queasy at the thought of Dr. O having a social life, as did Conner, Ethan, and especially Kira. Conner, Ethan and Trent had been very wide-eyed since the moment one of the older ex-Rangers had mentioned that Tommy and Kimberly had been together when Billy had alerted them to Goldar's presence. However, realization suddenly seemed to dawn on Conner.

"So that's why you glared at me yesterday when I—"

Tommy looked straight at him with a frightening glare so reminiscent of the one from the picnic that Conner instantly changed direction.

"—when I promised that I wouldn't ever mention what you glared at me for," he finished lamely.

"What's with the sudden Terminator look, Dr. O?" Ethan asked curiously.

"Nothing," he replied calmly, the spookiness evaporating into a cheerful smile.

"Nothing at all," Conner added, nodding vigorously.

Trent shook his head, deciding to move on, as everyone was now exchanging funny looks or else staring at Tommy in confusion, save Jason, who was still looking at Trini through narrowed eyes. "So... you two were a couple?" Trent asked.

"For a few years, yeah," Kimberly said lightly.

"Yep," Tommy said. Both of them looked away, and an awkward pause ensued.

Kira cleared her throat; knowing that their relationship wasn't a good topic, she decided to change the subject. "What happened to your zords?" Kira asked quickly.

"Well, they had to be fixed," Tommy said, seizing hold of the new conversation quickly. "And Billy had figured out how to get them to the Command Center."

"Problem was, no one was too anxious to go to the Command Center," Billy said.

"Yeah. Zordon hadn't communicated all through the... um... event, so we figured there was a good chance he didn't know," Jason added, finally turning away from Trini.

"And we wanted to keep it that way," Kimberly said with a smile.

"Why?" Ethan asked. "Wasn't Zordon like a father to you guys?"

"Think about it," Trini said. "If you'd just crashed five of your father's very expensive cars—never mind the fact that these were zords that were very important in defending the entire city—would you want to face him?"

~*~

Flashback

"This has got to be the most unbelievable thing we've ever done."

"Chill, man, this is hysterical. Think of all those bystanders on the street, staring up at us and wondering just what the hell is going on.

"Zack, one more word out of you, and they're going to be wondering why the hell Yellow Ranger is trying to kill Black Ranger."

"...Sorry."

"I can't believe we're doing this."

"I know! And it's never going to work."

"Hey, the guy at the hardware store gave us all those chains and pulleys and things for free. Maybe the mechanic will be that nice. And if he isn't, we'll... just have to work something out."

"Guys, I orchestrated this event in order to return us safely to Zordon. Altering the parameters could produce inauspicious results."

"Uh..."

"He doesn't think this will work as well if that we're not going back to the Command Center."

"Oh!"

"Come on, Billy. It's worth a shot."

"Well, if the desired objective is not achieved, we'll have to revert to the original procedure."

"Trini?"

"If it doesn't work, we do it Billy's way."

"Ah."

"Dude, you guys are like Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio."

"I do not believe that Trini and I are comparable to—"

"Billy, I'm tired."

"Sorry. Never mind."

"Hey, it looks like they're clearing the streets now."

"Yes, Jason, they are. Unfortunately, they're lining the sidewalks instead."

"...At least we can move a bit more freely.

"Yeah, that idiot going fifteen miles an hour finally turned."

People were, indeed, gathering on the sidewalks and pointing and whispering and laughing at them. But then, who could blame them. They made a very odd procession.

The White Tigerzord, converted back to the Tiger Mode, was stomping slowly down the streets. Chains connected it to a large blue Dumpster, in which the Red Dragon Thunderzord was sitting with the Firebird Thunderzord in its lap. The Red Dragon's legs were bent over the lip of the dumpster—and had been ever since they'd almost taken out a power cable—and Jason had done his best to get the zord to lie so that the torso and head were sticking straight back; he now took up only a little more space than a semi-truck. Behind the dumpster, side by side, were the Griffin and Unicorn Thunderzords, with the Black Ranger sitting astride the latter; they were towing the very battered Lion with chains of their own. Another chain connected the Griffin and Unicorn; something was wrong with the Unicorn's navigation system, and every so often it would try to wander off and crash into something.

"This is like a parade," Zack said cheerfully, grinning as they paused at a traffic light. He raised his arm to wave at the crowd as if he were on a float instead of Billy's zord.

"Yes, exactly like a parade," Jason said irritably, toying with the controls of his zord in a vain attempt to figure out what was wrong. "Zack? Be quiet. Before I get Trini to tear you apart."

"My poor zord," Kimberly moaned, which she had been doing periodically for quite some time now. Tommy gave her a one-armed hug; he had brought her into the Tigerzord's cockpit with him.

"Don't worry, Kim," he said. "We're going to fix this. I promise."

~*~

It was a slow day at Mike's Auto Repair, and most of the mechanics were lounging in the office, watching a football game. All of them groaned when the phone rang, annoyed at the interruption of their peaceful day. The mechanic nearest the phone reached over and answered it. "Mike's Auto."

A young man's voice filtered through the phone over a bad connection, possibly caused by a pay phone. "Hi, um... this is a... well, okay, I happen to be the leader of the Power Rangers, and there was an incident this morning in the pursuit of a monster... could I get an estimate on five Thunderzords?"

The mechanic started laughing. The Power Rangers. Yeah, right.

"Try Hillcrest," he said with a derisive snort, and hung up.

~*~

Meanwhile, at Hillcrest Collision Shop, the line was rather long. The clerk behind the counter smiled tiredly at the elderly man who'd caused a three-car pileup because of his need for new glasses and asked him to wait in the lounge. The clerk looked up at his next customer... and his jaw promptly dropped. Standing in front of him was none other than the Pink Power Ranger.

"Hi," she said in a very feminine voice, which was somewhat muffled by her helmet. "Mike's Auto said you might be able to help me—at least, we think that's what they said; they were laughing scornfully at the time..."

Before the young woman could explain any further, however, the White Ranger appeared at her side. "Um... K—I mean, Pink Ranger? The garage here wouldn't be able to fit even the smallest zord. Bi—er, Blue Ranger just got done... saying a bunch of stuff that only Yellow understood, and she translated that there's no way this place will fit our zords. We better try somewhere else."

The Pink Ranger sighed. "This is the fourth shop, T—White Ranger!" She turned back to the clerk. "Excuse me, but do you know of anyone in town with a garage big enough to hold a Red Dragon Thunderzord?"

The clerk continued to stare in shock, as did most of the customers. The door clanged open and the rest of the Power Rangers piled in. "I'm telling you, the statistical probability of finding an auto body repair shop that will not only hold but possess the capability to service our Thunderzords is phenomenally unfavorable," the Blue Ranger said, sounding rather exasperated.

The other Power Rangers turned immediately to the Yellow. "He doesn't think there's a place that can do the job," she explained, sighing.

"Hey, do you want to explain this to Zordon?" the Black Ranger said. "He may not have arms, but I still don't want to see him mad."

"Guys, there are only so many collision shops left in the phone book," said the Red Ranger, reaching into a Kinko's bag and pulling out a few sheets of yellow paper, which appeared to be photocopies of mechanic ads from the Yellow Pages. "And we've already gone to the biggest ones."

"And the crowd following us is getting dangerously large," White Ranger added. "We should probably head back."

The Pink Ranger sighed again and turned to the clerk. "Well, never mind," she said politely. "Sorry to have bothered you."

End Flashback

~*~

"You guys seriously went to mechanics trying to get your zords fixed?" Ethan asked incredulously.

"I told them it was fruitless," Billy said. "But no one would listen to me."

"Come on, Billy," Jason said. "You'd just dragged us all to Kinko's because you thought you saw Goldar."

"I told you, I wasn't hallucinating," Billy insisted.

"Right."

"Jason, give it up, man," Zack said. "The psychotic breakdown joke is old. We all saw Goldar too."

"None of us saw Goldar," Tommy argued. He, too, had been of the opinion that Billy was just overworked and had gone a little crazy.

"I assure you, he was present," Billy said stubbornly.

"Yeah, I saw him too."

Trini, Billy, Jason, Tommy and Kimberly turned to stare at Zack in disbelief. "You knew Goldar was really there and you never said anything?" Trini exclaimed.

"I thought you guys saw him too," Zack said, surprised. "You really didn't see him?"

"Of course not! I really thought Billy had lost it!" Jason said.

"We all did," Kimberly added. "None of us ever thought he was actually there."

"You mean to tell me that for the past decade, you all thought I was crazy?" Billy demanded.

"Not... crazy," Trini told him, smiling apologetically. "Just... um... mistaken."

"Why didn't you say anything?" Kimberly demanded of Zack.

"I thought it was a running joke!" Zack exclaimed. "You know, because he got away, we decided to turn it into something funny...?"

"You laughed enough that day," Trini muttered darkly.

"Yeah," Jason said with an evil grin. "Let's get back to the story, shall we? We didn't even get to the part where Trini tries to strangle Zack."

"Or the part where you and Trini traded T-shirts!" Zack shot back.

"That was hysterical!" Tommy burst out laughing.

"Not half as hysterical as when we threw you to the fans!" Trini retorted.

Jason was quick to jump in. "Remember how, when we finally rescued him, he was covered in lipstick kisses?"

Jason, Trini, Billy, Kimberly and Zack dissolved into downright hysterical laughter while Tommy glared balefully around at them all and his students waited eagerly for the story to resume. Then Tommy smiled smugly at Jason and cleared his throat.

"All right, guys," Tommy said slyly, "let me tell you a little story about Jason, his imaginary friends, and his gig as the Kinko's spokesperson."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 11: A Ranger Catastrophe

Summer, 1994

"What's taking T—White Ranger so long?" Kimberly wondered with a sigh.

"I don't know," Jason said. "Someone should go check."

"I'm not going in there," Kimberly said emphatically. "I can't take one more leering mechanic calling me 'sweet thang' or 'darling.' It's nauseating. They can't even see past the spandex!" She paused and sighed. "I hate men."

"Hey," Jason said indignantly.

"Hey!" Tommy's voice filtered through the helmets' intercom. Tommy usually refrained from answering them while inside an auto shop; if he didn't, he looked like he was talking to himself (and as everyone who was in the shop with him was now looking at him funny, he knew it had been a good idea). It was also more difficult to hear Tommy when he was speaking in a normal tone; the intercoms usually only picked up louder calls.

"I shouldn't have said that," Kimberly said, though her tone suggested she still meant it.

"Hey, at least they're not completely shallow," Zack pointed out cheerfully. "It's not like they have any clue what you really look like."

"Well, we're busy, Kim," Trini said apologetically. She was helping Billy adjust the controls in the Unicorn's cockpit. "We just might be getting somewhere. ...Or we're about to put a crater in the street to rival the Grand Canyon. Um... you guys might want to stand back."

"I'll go see what's keeping T—White," Zack said quickly, scrambling as far away from the Unicorn as he could.

Just then, Tommy stumbled out of the door to their most recent stop on the list of Angel Grove auto body shops. "My god! There was a troop of Boy Scouts in there. All those autographs gave me writer's cramp."

This was becoming more and more of a problem. People had been following them around shamelessly for quite some time, and they were becoming very paranoid. They only managed to keep the crowds back because Kimberly and Zack had taken it upon themselves to stand on top of the zords and wave (with one hand on their Blade Blasters), so that everyone had to stand back to see, while Jason kept an eye out for problems, Billy and Trini tried to repair some of the damage, and Tommy ran into the shop to ask for an estimate.

"Any luck?" Kimberly asked Tommy hopefully.

"No. He suggested we try an airplane mechanic," Tommy said with a frustrated sigh.

"Now there's an idea," Zack said thoughtfully. "You know... how come the zords never get this beat up during an actual fight?"

"They're meant to beat up monsters, not each other," Jason pointed out.

"Besides," Trini said, "the monsters have never fallen on us. They've just punched and whatnot."

"What about when Tommy was evil and he fought us?" Zack asked curiously. "That was zord against zord."

"He still didn't tackle us."

"That big Godzilla thing was a piece of junk," Tommy said, rather uncomfortable at the mention of him trying to kick their butts. He also was a little resentful towards anything associated with his Green Ranger powers, as they obviously hadn't lasted long. "It probably would have done more damage to itself if it had tackled you."

"I wish we could test that theory," Billy said wistfully.

"...Why?" Zack demanded.

"Well, it would be interesting," Billy said defensively. "Think of the strategic battle tactics we could develop with data that comprehensive."

"Trini?" Kimberly asked.

"Billy, shut up," Trini said with a sigh, not bothering to translate.

"Guys... this is pointless. Billy was right," Jason said tiredly. "We should just head back to the Command Center."

No one argued, though all of them were scared to death of pissing off Zordon. However, they now had a larger problem.

"Um... how are we supposed to do that?" Kimberly asked.

They were surrounded by people. People lined the sidewalk ahead of them, and behind them, and all across the street. Traffic creeped by as drivers and passengers alike gawked up at the damaged zords. Only respect kept them from getting mobbed.

"I told you so," Billy said wearily.

"What's the problem?" Zack asked, not seeing what their issue was.

"Uh... Zack? How are we supposed to get to our secret hideout with all these people watching our every move?" Trini pointed out.

"...Oh."

"Look," Kimberly said, jerking her head at a white van inching nearer. They could clearly see the Channel 4 News logo on the door.

"Everybody, get in," Tommy said quickly. "We'll figure it out along the way."

Tommy and Kimberly leaped up into the White Tigerzord's cockpit and Jason to the Red Dragon's to gasps and applause from the crowd. Zack hopped down from the dumpster. "Hang on a second," Trini called from the Unicorn... and then suddenly there was a loud BOOM and Trini and Billy screamed, practically flying from the cockpit.

"Are you all right?" Jason demanded.

"Affirmative," Billy said shakily.

"Fine," Trini said, rolling to her feet. "Thank god for these power suits."

"What just happened?" Tommy asked.

"Well, given the large amount of smoke, I'd guess nothing good," Zack quipped.

Trini shot a glare at him as she clambered back aboard. "I think we just fried whatever was left of the navigation system."

"What does that mean?" Tommy asked.

"That the Unicorn isn't going anywhere. We'll have to tow it, too."

"Maybe if we reconfigure the guidance matrix we can reestablish optimal navigational capabilities."

"Trini?" Tommy inquired urgently. The news van was getting ever closer, crawling along in the traffic jam.

"We don't have time to reconfigure the guidance matrix," Trini told Billy, ignoring Tommy. "That's a half hour job, minimum. And I can't see a thing through all this smoke... I wish our faceplates weren't tinted. It really makes this difficult."

"We're not sitting here for another half hour!" Tommy exclaimed. "Just tie it to the back of the dumpster."

"The length will make it impossible to turn," Trini said tersely.

"Jason! Zack! Come give me a hand," Billy called. "We'll chain it to the back of the Griffin with the Lion."

Jason, Zack, Billy and Trini unchained the Unicorn and pushed it like some broken down Pinto until it was in place behind the Griffin, where they tied it securely and chained the Lion to what they presumed was its bumper. Breathing heavily from the exertion, Zack hopped onto the Lion, as the Unicorn was still smoking profusely. While the Lion was far more uncomfortable to sit on, as it looked like a breadstick that someone had jabbed repeatedly with their finger, it was far more comfortable than dying of smoke inhalation. Billy climbed on top of the Griffin and Trini got back in to her cockpit. "Take it away, Tommy," she called.

"Thank God," Tommy muttered, and the White Tiger lurched to life, stomping back into traffic and cutting off a station wagon. The wagon hastily braked to let him back onto the road, and Trini was quick to follow. Billy gave the wagon an apologetic wave.

They stomped/rolled through traffic, the dumpster now making noises of protest under the Red Dragon's weight. Zack kept randomly going into chuckling fits, and Trini kept threatening him each time he did... so they almost missed the first notes of the brass band.

"What's that noise?" Billy asked.

"Um... it sounds a lot like a parade," Zack said, looking around.

"Great. More traffic," Tommy grumbled. He was used to speeding along, weaving in and out of traffic; he hated nothing more than getting stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle and he hadn't been able to go faster than your average jogger since Kinko's. It was even worse to be in a powerful, supremely fast zord and forced to go slow than it was to be stuck in his actual car.

"Patience is a virtue," said Saba, his talking saber, from its place in the cockpit.

"Shut up, Saba," Tommy said wearily. "And I mean that in the nicest way possible."

Kimberly edged away from the sword. "No offense—to either of you—but the talking weapon thing is kind of creepy."

"I beg your pardon?" Saba said in a clearly offended tone.

Kimberly shifted about nervously, recalling every display of Saba's power she'd ever seen. "You know... I think I'm going to go check on my zord," she said hastily, rushing out of the cockpit.

"Now look. You scared off Kimberly," Tommy accused Saba.

"I did nothing of the sort!" Saba exclaimed indignantly.

"Tommy! Watch the road!" Kimberly called, mostly because she found the fact that Tommy was arguing with Saba a little unnerving. She clambered onto the head of the Tigerzord, carefully planting her feet like the gymnast she was... and then she nearly fell off when she noticed something out of the corner of her eye.

"Tommy! Go faster!" Kimberly shrieked, making them all wince at the loudness of her voice over the helmets' intercom.

"I can't; the light just turned red!" The Tigerzord screeched to a halt; Kimberly just barely managed to keep her footing.

"What is it? What's happening?" Jason yelled.

"There's a marching band coming!"

"A... what?"

"A marching band!"

There was a long pause. "Um... I think we can take a bunch of band geeks," Zack joked finally.

"They've got a giant banner that says 'Power Rangers' something-or-other on it!" Kimberly shouted. "And they've got majorettes and a color guard and what on earth are they doing? They're coming this way!"

"It can't be anything to do with us," Tommy assured her.

"They wouldn't have any reason to come near us," Jason agreed. "Why would a marching band be coming for us?"

Kimberly twisted around, trying to find some sort of clue about what was going on. "I don't know! But... hey, is that the governor over there? Talking to all those people with the cameras?"

"Oh, god, he was in town today!" Trini exclaimed. "And Angel Grove Community College's marching band was supposed to play at his fund raiser! He's trying to use us for publicity!"

"How?" Tommy wondered.

"With a friggin marching band, that's how!" Kimberly yelled. Zack burst out laughing.

"The light's green! Saba, go!" Tommy exclaimed, and the Tigerzord stomped off at a reasonably faster pace. To everyone's amazement, the wagon behind them hung back—which may have had something to do with the uniformed police officer now talking to the driver—and a traffic cop that Kimberly had failed to notice came out into the intersection behind them and beckoned to the marching band. The next thing they knew, a large, flashy band was cheerfully walking behind them, waving hastily-painted banners and marching cheerfully down the street. Kimberly spotted the governor climbing into a fancy black sedan which began to follow the band, escorted by a pair of cop cars. Apparently the governor had decided that his time in Angel Grove was better spent associating himself with the Power Rangers than with the voters. Behind the mayor, Kimberly could just make out a group of news vans.

"I told you we should have gone back earlier," Billy said with a heavy sigh.

"Think Zordon will notice if we bring a marching band up to the Command Center?" Zack asked through his laughter.

"Shut up, Zack!" Trini snapped, her anger with him flaring. "You're the one who got us into this mess!"

"Billy's the one who got us into this mess," Jason reminded her.

"Goldar's the one who got us into this mess!" Billy insisted.

"Well, as long as I didn't get us into this mess..." Kimberly mumbled.

"Don't worry, guys; they'll leave us alone eventually. You'd have to be a total idiot to fall for this gimmick. I mean, come on. We look nothing like a parade," Tommy pointed out.

"Hasn't stopped people from treating us like one ever since we left Kinko's," Jason replied.

"I say we go with it," Zack said cheerfully. "Give the people what they want."

"That might not be such a bad idea," Tommy admitted grudgingly. "Maybe people will hang back, just like they did when we were waving at the auto body shops. So that they can see us." The sidewalks weren't roped off, and people kept going into the street, getting dangerously close to the zords; once or twice, Tommy almost stepped on someone, and Trini had been forced to swerve to avoid someone several times since leaving Kinko's.

"It won't be enough for us to get away," Trini said through gritted teeth. Her patience was wearing incredibly thin for once. Zack had dinged up her zord, she'd been totally irresponsible in that whole chasing-invisible-Goldar thing, Zordon was going to be unhappy, she and Billy were the only ones who might know how to fix the zords (so she could look forward to hours of extra work), and to top it all off Billy's hallucination had interrupted a very fun moment she'd been having with Jason.

"I know it won't be enough, but if we can just get people back a little, we can floor it once we're out of the city and lose everyone," Tommy argued. "Jason, Billy, Zack, Kim—start waving and smiling."

"Last I checked, helmets didn't smile, genius," Jason said dryly. He was just as annoyed with the world as Trini. At least she gets to stay in her cockpit, he thought irritably as he climbed on top of the zord and began waving like any good float-decorating person.

"This is ridiculous," Kimberly muttered.

Suddenly a cop car came out of nowhere, rushing out in front of the Tigerzord. "What the hell!" Tommy huffed, punching randomly at a spot next to Saba as though trying to honk the Tigerzord's nonexistent horn.

"What's up?"

"There's a police cruiser in front of me! It's going like two miles an hour!" Tommy peered down at them, glaring furiously from behind his helmet. The line of traffic in front of the cop car was beginning to thin; either the police were trying to get people off the roads, or people were getting themselves off in an effort to watch without having to bother with driving.

Suddenly an officer leaned out of the cruiser's window with a bullhorn in his hand. "Attention Power Rangers! We are your police escort for the duration of the parade."

"He's kidding, right? Tell me he's kidding," Jason groaned.

"When you wish to turn, just give us a hand signal!" the cop finished. Tommy, unable to believe that this was anything more than a bad dream, pointed left. The cop car obediently turned at the nearest available road. Tommy let out a frustrated wail and followed.

"Thank god no one knows who we are," Kimberly moaned. "This is embarrassing enough."

Down below, a little boy had run up alongside the Griffin; the Rangers had been forced to move at a crawl thanks to their escort. "Blue Ranger! Blue Ranger!" the little kid yelled.

Billy looked down at him. "Uh... yes?" he said uncertainly.

"Can I have your autograph? You're my favorite!"

"I am?" Billy said, shocked but pleased. "Sure! What's your name?"

"Joey!" The kid held up a toy Blue Ranger and a pen.

"All right." He took the little kid's action figure and signed, "To Joey, from the Blue Ranger, " across its chest. Then he turned it over and added "Never give up!" figuring that he might as well give the kid some sort of morality message, given the Power Rangers' image.

"Can I take a picture?" the kid said, panting slightly as he ran to keep up.

"Of course!" Billy said, striking a pose that he hoped was cool enough.

Jason happened to glance down at Billy, only to see him flexing his muscles and trying to look cool and tough (which, for Billy, was rather difficult; if anyone had no idea how to act like a badass, it was Billy). "What the heck is Billy doing?" he wondered aloud.

"Um... posing," Kimberly said in confusion. Like Jason, she had missed seeing the little kid; they just saw Billy making various superhero stances.

"He really has lost it," Jason said, half-awed, half-exasperated.

The little kid fell back; Billy gave him a final wave and sat a little taller on the Griffin's back. Suddenly a crowd of people (mostly reporters), emboldened by Joey's success in having a conversation with a Ranger, rushed into the streets, pressing up against the zords. "Red Ranger!" one of them called to Jason. "Is it true you're becoming the official spokesman for Kinko's?"

"What? NO!" Jason stared at them indignantly.

"Then why were you posing for photographs on their sign?"

"Oh, god..." Jason rolled his eyes behind his helmet. "Tommy! Drive faster!"

"Tommy? Who's Tommy?"

"Is he one of the Rangers?"

"Which one?"

"Does he have a last name?"

"Is that a code name of some sort?"

The reporters moved in closer, slowly being joined by numerous fans and people dense enough to believe it was an actual parade. Panicking, Jason simply attempted to hide from the reporters, which wasn't easy to do, considering where he was. Tommy's voice crackled through, annoyed. "Nice going, Red. Maybe you wanna say my name a little louder? I don't think they heard you in Reefside."

"Just drive."

Zack decided to "help" the situation. "Tommy is Red Ranger's imaginary friend," Zack deadpanned. "Red took quite a blow to the head a few years back, and—"

"ZACK!"

"See? He has a thousand imaginary friends."

Jason simply growled as Kimberly shook her head at him. "Did someone forget the most important rule of being a Power Ranger? Tsk, tsk, Red. For shame." She struggled to hold in her giggles and failed miserably.

Sighing, Jason wondered how long it would take him to beat himself unconscious if he banged his head on a zord. Unfortunately, he couldn't take off his helmet to do it, or he'd be in even worse shape.

"You see, the Tigerzord—that's what we call the big white one in the front there," Zack explained to the crowd, "it isn't driven by a human. It's piloted via a big talking sword named Saba, who takes suggestions and directions from the White Ranger, but Red has some strange notion in his head that each of the zords has its own human name. He talks to the zords all the time, even when we're not fighting in them." Most of that was, of course, bull, but it sounded good enough to keep people from realizing how full of it Zack was. Besides, few people expected to be lied to by someone as "noble" as a Power Ranger. "Red's just kinda caught between real and... not-so-real."

"Don't tell them that!" Billy yelled, struck by sudden inspiration. "They could find out Red's real identity if they found the medical records!" As no such medical records existed, Billy hoped this would throw people off track.

Everyone scrambled to make frantic notes on their notepads or tape recorders. "Great," Jason muttered. "I'm the delusional Ranger." The others, who could hear him through their helmets, giggled.

"Don't worry about it, Jason," soothed Trini, the only one who hadn't laughed.

"Yeah," Zack said quietly, so as to avoid being overheard by the crowd around him. "It was for the good of the team."

"Anything for the good of the team," Tommy said. Jason fumed; he could practically hear Tommy smirking.

"What exactly happened to cause the damage to your—what was the word? Zords?" another reporter asked Zack frantically. Zack tried to tell him but started laughing again.

"Zack, if you don't stop laughing, your head is going to mirror my dented zord!" Trini yelled angrily, not bothering to use his color name as she was safely inside her cockpit. The fact that Zack had insinuated Jason was insane had renewed her anger with Zack.

Needless to say, her threat didn't work; in fact, Zack was only laughing harder. Madder than ever, Trini threw her peaceful nature out the window and leapt out of her cockpit. Numerous witnesses got the rare treat of seeing the Yellow Ranger climb on top of her Griffin and leap right over the Blue Ranger's head. Billy, panicking, rushed to get inside the cockpit and control her zord.

"ARGH!" Zack shrieked as Trini came flying impressively through the smoke still issuing from the Unicorn to land in front of him and draw back her fist.

None of the other Rangers could see exactly what was happening. Tommy was inside his zord and Billy was inside Trini's, both of them facing the wrong direction, and Jason and Kimberly couldn't see past the Griffin because of the large column of smoke. However, thanks to the speakers in their helmets, they all got to hear every word.

"Ow! Hey! HELP!" Zack's voice came through loud and clear.

"Just try to laugh now!" Along with Trini's.

"What the..." Jason shook his head. The world had gone mad around him.

"Should we be worried?" Kimberly asked.

"Unless one of the zords takes a detour into a building, I doubt it," Tommy replied coolly. Billy was eerily silent.

"I agree with Tommy," Jason muttered. "Zack's a big boy; he can take care of himself."

"HELP! GUYS! HEEEEEELLLLLLLLPPPPPPPP! She's gonna kill me!"

Each non-involved Ranger cringed at the earsplitting volume of the screams of terror and pain. "While it is gratuitous that our zords have very similar configurations, the Griffin is subtly different from the Unicorn and I fear that I am in a precarious situation, especially given the distraction of Zack's cries. Should Trini's lapse in stability cause yet another collision, an exponentially greater mishap would result. In retrospect I suppose that I should have halted Trini's departure."

Jason sighed at Billy's words and realized that now he was going to have to interrupt Zack's much-deserved punishment. "Tri—Yellow!" he called. "We need you to translate!"

An exasperated half sigh, half scream could be heard. "He said it would be bad if one of the zords crashed into something again and that I shouldn't have left my zord to beat up Z—Black!"

"Oh," said three voices in unison. Zack gave a relieved sigh.

"Yes! Listen to Bill-IEEEEE!" A petrified scream ended Zack's sentence.

"You know, I'm half wondering what she's doing to him," Kimberly mused. None of them had ever seen Trini really cut into anyone on a massive scale, other than a monster, but all of them knew that Trini could be quite vicious when pushed.

Jason's eyes widened behind his helmet. "T—Yellow! Get back in your zord, NOW!"

"I don't think that's what she meant, Jase," Tommy said in obvious amusement.

Catching on, Kimberly giggled. "Yeah, those screams don't sound like they could come from something pleasurable—"

"Shut up SHUT UP!"

"I knew it," Kimberly muttered triumphantly, having long suspected that there was more than met the eye between Jason and Trini.

"You were right," Tommy admitted. Kimberly had long been pointing out the suspiciously relationship-like behavior of Jason and Trini, but Tommy hadn't believed her. He'd kept insisting that Jason and Trini were just friends, figuring that Kimberly was just being a typical stars-in-my-eyes-everyone-should-have-a-wonderful-boyfriend-like-I-do-romance-is-always-in-the-air girl.

"I seriously do not believe that I am qualified to pilot this zord," Billy said desperately.

"Trini!" Tommy called, not bothering to keep his voice down as he was alone in his zord. "Come on, leave Zack alone."

"Fine!" Trini growled, throwing up her hands and stomping off across the Lion, then leaping back to the Griffin. Zack nearly fell off his zord from relief.

"Yellow is attending anger management classes," Zack told the reporters weakly.

"Give me a reason to come back there again, buddy! Just give me a reason!"

"I'm kidding! I'm kidding!" Zack exclaimed hastily.

"And you'd better stop kidding, now!" Trini shouted.

Jason sighed admiringly, then quickly stopped when he heard Kimberly's chuckle and looked around. Just about everybody in the state of California was clustered around the zords. "White, stop for a second, will you? We need to have a... meeting."

"What's up?" Tommy asked, halting the Tigerzord as per Jason's request and climbing back to join Kimberly and Jason on the Red Dragon. Billy, Zack and Trini hopped over as well, Zack taking care to stay far away from Trini.

"This isn't working," Jason said in a low voice. "There's too many people here to get away unnoticed."

Tommy nodded and sighed. "Any suggestions?"

"If we signal the cop car in front of you to turn, we could wait until they turn and then floor it, straight ahead," Kimberly suggested.

"Won't work. There are people walking in front of me," Tommy replied.

"Are they trying to ask you dumb questions through the cockpit?" Jason asked incredulously.

Tommy shook his head, his tone amused. "No. Just sort of looking at me like I'm the coolest thing ever."

Jason rolled his eyes. "Well, we need to get them to move somehow."

"I vote we throw Zack to the wolves!" Trini started for Zack, who yelped and hid behind Billy.

Kimberly pulled Trini back. "Down girl!"

"That's not such a bad idea, though," Tommy said thoughtfully. "If one of us goes down there to them, there'd be a mad rush to follow whoever went."

"Yeah," Jason said. "But we can't use Z—Black; we'd need someone who has real pull with the fans."

"Hey! And I don't?" Zack was indignant.

"But who?" Billy's question was simple, and the six Rangers scanned the crowd for paraphernalia. After about a minute, all heads but Kimberly's turned towards the White Ranger. Tommy looked back, not quite registering anything yet.

"What? Why are you...? ...Oh no. No, no, no. Are you kidding? I'm not going out there! I'll be ripped to shreds! Literally!"

"You're the most popular," Trini pointed out.

"And Saba can drive the Tigerzord alone," Billy said.

"Come on, fearless leader," Jason chided, drawing closer to the nervous Tommy. Thankfully, Jason's helmet hid the malicious gleam in his eye. Behind Tommy's back, he motioned to Trini, who nodded and edged back towards the Griffin. "It's for the good of the team."

"For the good of the team," Trini agreed.

"For the good of the team," Billy added.

"For the good of the team," Zack laughed.

"For the good of the team, for the good of the team, for the good of the team..."

Tommy was backing up now, away from the chanting Rangers. This was getting a little spooky. "Kim?"

Silence stood as the other Rangers stopped their mantra to look back at Kimberly. Taking a deep breath, she looked at Tommy. "For the good of the team."

"Kim?" Tommy squeaked. "Please be joking..."

He let out a terrified yell as Billy, Zack and Jason grabbed him, hoisted him into the air, and marched to the edge of the zord, Tommy struggling the whole way. Trini ran and leaped back into her zord, startling onlookers. She nudged the Griffin forward until its nose was pressed against the dumpster to prevent herself from getting cut off from it.

"For the good of the team!" With that, Tommy was tossed into the teeth of the crowd.

"Just stall 'em! When we're far enough away, we'll send word and you can teleport out, k?" Jason called as he rushed into the Tigerzord cockpit to tell Saba to run for it. Only Tommy's terrified screams answered him.

~*~

"And that's where Dr. O got covered in lipstick kisses?" Conner asked eagerly.

"Well, we didn't discover that for a while," Jason said. "See, after that, the crowd ran off after Tommy—"

"I still have nightmares," Tommy mumbled.

"—and we were able to get the cop car out of our way and we hightailed it up into the mountains."

"It took us a long time to find the Command Center," Zack said. "We'd never driven to it; we'd always either flown or teleported."

"By the time we got there, Zordon had apparently seen the whole thing on the viewing globe," Trini said. "So we didn't have to explain. And he was pretty understanding. And... possibly a little amused."

"But we all felt so horrible about it that we immediately offered to help fix the zords," Kimberly continued. "Of course, only Billy and Trini knew the first thing about the zords..."

"So mostly we just got really dirty and made no progress. Oh, and that was when we found our first piece of evidence that Trini and Jason were together!" Zack added gleefully.

"I can't believe you guys forgot to notify me that it was safe to come back," Tommy whined.

"Well... at least you didn't have to face Zordon," Trini said, patting his arm consolingly.

"I would have rather faced an army of Zordons than those people," Tommy said with a violent shudder.

"Anyway," Jason said, grinning, "back to the story..."

~*~

The Rangers were all working out in the bright sunlight, attempting to hammer out dents, as that seemed like the obvious place to start, while Billy and Alpha were trying to get the Unicorn to stop smoking profusely. However, even the hammering thing wasn't going too well. Kimberly's hits were tentative, as she wasn't the most skilled hammer user ever and was afraid of hurting herself, so it took her a long time to hammer out even the smallest of dents. Trini's anger had returned as she thought the day over, so she was making just as many dents as she hammered out. Zack kept randomly laughing (increasing Trini's bad mood) and during these fits he was forced to stop using his hammer until he got control. Only Jason was making any real headway; he wasn't exactly Mr. Fix-it, but it doesn't take much know-how to hit something really hard and with good aim—in fact, that was Jason's main area of expertise.

"Ow! Ow!" Trini moaned as she distractedly hit her thumb with her hammer. She glared down at the dent she'd been working on. "Damn... spot!"

Something from English class regarding the play Macbeth clicked in Zack's head, and he hurriedly went to work on the part of his zord farthest from her.

Billy came over to them, wiping oil from his hands with a dirty rag. "Alpha and I have finally fixed most of the computer systems in the Unicorn," he said. "It's mostly just structural damage at the moment." He paused. "I have the most peculiar inclination that we were supposed to perform some vital feat..."

Trini gasped. "Oh my god! We forgot Tommy!"

Panicked, Kimberly turned on her communicator. "Tommy? Tommy are you there? Oh, Tommy I'm so sorry, are you okay?"

A crackled, "AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH! LET GO!" could be heard through the communicator. Someone could be heard uttering "Oops..." as everyone glanced at one another.

"So..." Jason began. "Should someone go and deliver him from this evil?"

Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack all looked at each other; wherever Tommy was, it sounded like a bad place to be. "Er..." Jason said reluctantly, realizing that, as Tommy's best friend, he was obligated to do it.

"Pterodactyl!" Kimberly shouted without bothering to yell "It's morphin' time!" as was customary. A split-second later, the Pink Ranger teleported away. Jason sighed in relief.

Zack frowned. "Um... guys? What say we all go... lie low for a while... before they get back?" The others all exchanged glances, then hurriedly agreed.

Before anyone had taken two steps, however, Kimberly reappeared with Tommy... only the White Ranger had never looked so bad. He was leaning on Kimberly, there were holes and scratches in his suit... and he was covered almost head to foot in lipstick kisses in every color in the rainbow and a few that weren't. Kimberly helped him sit down, leaning him against the wall of the Command Center and helping him take off his helmet, staring in amazement at all the shades of red, pink, purple, orange, black, green, silver and blue lipstick all over it in various kiss shapes.

"Whoa," Zack said as he rushed forward with Jason, Trini, and Billy to crowd around Tommy. "I thought our suits were stronger than that." He stared at a particularly large rip in the material on Tommy's bicep; more lipstick kisses could be seen on the skin, along with what looked suspiciously like fingernail scratches, some of which were bleeding.

"I teleported all over town trying to escape, just far enough to be safe but close enough to keep their interest," Tommy moaned in a shocked, traumatized sort of whimper. "But they kept catching me. That old lady... the girls who sit behind me in physics class... my doctor... my veterinarian... the check-out girl... they were everywhere... I led them through the mall, through the Juice Bar, through downtown, through uptown, through the car wash, through the police station..."

Alpha Five hurried over. "Ai yi-yi-yi-yi-yi! What happened?"

"Fans," Kimberly said dryly, setting Tommy's helmet down gently and brushing back his long hair. "It's okay, Tommy. They're all gone now. It's over."

"Through the supermarket, through the quarry, through the park..."

"Is he going to be okay?" Jason asked worriedly, now (mostly) regretting his decision to throw Tommy "to the wolves."

"All those girls... Sarah... Madam Swampy... Hallie... Marge... Angela... Ms. Appleby..."

"Note to self," Zack muttered, "never wish I was Tommy." Then he looked up sharply. "Wait. Angela!"

"I can't believe she kissed me there..."

Kimberly waved her hand in front of Tommy's face. "Tommy! Are you in there?"

"Through the city council building, through the movie theatre..."

It took about an hour to get Tommy to return to normal, and even then it was a very tentative thing. He kept shivering at random intervals and seemed especially jumpy, but he helped Zack work on the Lion, as it was one of the most damaged.

Then, however, something odd caught his eye—Jason was not wearing red. He was wearing jeans and a snugly fitting yellow T-shirt... but Tommy could have sworn that earlier in the day, Jason had been wearing a snugly fitting red T-shirt. And none of them had ever really gone for long without wearing their Ranger color.

Something clicked in Tommy's head and he looked over at Trini. When Tommy had seen her earlier, she'd been wearing an oversized yellow T-shirt. Now she was wearing an oversized red T-shirt.

Tommy burst out laughing. As this was the first time he'd laughed since their whole little zord fiasco, everyone stared at him, bewildered. "What?" Trini demanded, as she'd noticed him looking in her direction shortly before he'd started laughing.

Tommy was laughing too hard to speak. He lifted his hand and pointed at her, then at Jason, before doubling over and clutching the Lion's side for support. Kimberly looked from Trini to Jason before it dawned on her; she gave Trini a wicked grin.

"Have a change in color wardrobe?" Kimberly asked in a far-too-innocent tone.

Trini, confused, looked down... and her eyes promptly widened in horror. "Um... yes?" she said in a small voice.

Zack, naturally, started laughing. Billy stared at Trini in disbelief. Tommy straightened up as best he could, smirking at Jason. "So... I guess Trini's the new Red Ranger, then?" he gasped out.

Jason glowered at him. "You know, it's good that you stick with white, Tommy. All those shades of lipstick did nothing for you."

Tommy's mirth disappeared completely and the two of them got into a huge glaring contest. Trini, meanwhile, attempted to melt into the sand; Kimberly struggled to keep a straight face; Zack began to laugh so hard that no sound came out; and Billy just sort of gaped numbly at Trini as silence settled over them.

Alpha Five was the first to speak. "I don't understand. Why is Trini the new Red Ranger?"

A long pause ensued... and then suddenly everyone was laughing hysterically, all tension gone. Alpha stood there, completely confused, as everyone laughed themselves sick.

"Oh," Tommy gasped, "we're never going to mention this day ever, ever again."

"No," Jason said, "we're really, really not."

"Don't worry, Alpha," Zack said, clapping the robot on the shoulder. "You'll understand when you're older."

"I'm quitting Kinko's," Billy choked out. "I'm never setting foot in that place again."

"Good," Kimberly told him, "because I don't think I could forgive you a second time."

Trini looked around at all the busted zords. "Look at this mess," she gasped, tossing her hammer carelessly over her shoulder. "We're so screwed."

"Some of us more than others," Zack joked slyly.

Trini retrieved her hammer and ran at him; Zack shimmied up the side of his zord with a girly scream and everyone else laughed harder.

~*~

"I told you we didn't have enough technical knowledge to repair the... um... cars, but would you listen to me? No, of course not."

"We did listen to you."

"Yeah, we just felt a bit too bad about it to not help."

Billy sighed heavily and pulled open the door to the Youth Center. It was several hours later. The Rangers were in much worse spirits but feeling far more companionable towards each other than they had been during the whole catastrophe. They had spent a very long time working on their zords, and were all dirty, scratched, sore, and covered in various oils and fluids. As they walked into the Youth Center, Trini gave Billy a concerned glance. "Are you okay? Even given... all things considered... you seem really down." Billy had been quite a bit more snappish than he usually was, even when faced with a crisis.

Billy shrugged half-heartedly, looking rather disappointed. "It's just... Goldar. He got away."

The others exchanged glances. "Look at the bright side, Billy," Trini said comfortingly. "You... ...um... you... you have your health!"

"Not mentally," Zack said quietly in a sing-song voice.

"And..." Jason said, glaring over Billy's shoulder at Zack, "there... um, there weren't too many witnesses..."

"Hey, guys!" Ernie called from behind the counter, waving at them. "Did you see that report on the Power Rangers running their zords in circles around Kinko's and then holding a parade? They're showing it again, come look!"

The others simultaneously let out annoyed sighs before wandering over to watch Ernie's TV. A reporter was standing in front of the Burger King... and she was standing next to the two least likely people to have anything to do with an important Ranger moment.

"Yes, we stopped the big blue-and-gold monster... thing... that the Power Rangers couldn't!" Bulk was saying proudly. "That's us, Bulk and Skull!"

"You mean Skull and Bulk," Skull corrected him.

"No, it's Bulk and Skull."

"Why does your name get to be first?"

"One of them has to be, and I'm smarter then you."

"Oh... no you're not!"

"You heard it here first," said the reporter over Bulk and Skull's bickering. The picture changed to a bad home video clip of Bulk and Skull outside Burger King, the picture wobbling from a shaking hand and interspersed with bits of static. Bulk and Skull were leaping at Goldar, who was lying on the ground; he teleported away in a blur and Bulk and Skull landed painfully on the sidewalk in a heap.

None of the Rangers saw this particular part, however; they were too busy giving each other disbelieving, mortified looks. Bulk and Skull had stopped a monster? ...And people actually thought it was credible enough to cover on the news?

Ernie turned around to face them as he switched off the TV. "Man, I wish I'd seen that," he said wistfully. Then he noticed the fact that they were covered in grease and black streaks of oil. "What happened to you guys?" he asked in concern.

"Uh... we struck oil," Jason lied.

"Lots of it," Kimberly added dryly.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 12: Bloom of Doom

"And that was pretty much the end of it," Tommy concluded. His students were struggling to hear him over the sounds of their own laughter. "Except, of course, for the fact that we spent the next two weeks trying to fix the zords, but that part was pretty uneventful." Thanks to their severe laughter, none of the teens noticed that he didn't appear very truthful.

"Except for that one time Zedd sent a monster down," Jason said. "Remember that?"

"Oh, yeah!" Zack exclaimed. "Remember, we wanted to kill it before it could grow, because we didn't want the bad guys to know that our zords were broken?"

"Wouldn't they have already known?" Trent asked. "Considering that Goldar was there?"

Billy shrugged. "I assumed that they knew about the wreck, but not about the fact that it took us a very long time to fix them... or else none of Goldar's allies believed him. Given the fact that my friends thought I had somehow become crazed, that's highly probable."

"Regardless, a monster showed up and, of course, we panicked, thinking it might grow when we didn't have our zords to fight it," Trini said. "We've never beaten a monster so thoroughly since."

"It was one of the most unorthodox fights I've ever had," Tommy added. "We all just sort of tackled it and beat it to death."

"I can still see Kimberly beating that thing with her Power Bow," Jason said with a laugh. He held up his hands and mimed stabbing a stick into something.

"I can't," Billy said sourly. "You all tackled it after it had tackled me. I was underneath it the whole time, screaming."

"Well, yeah, but that was a lucky thing in the end, remember?" Tommy pointed out.

"Yeah," Trini said. "After all, you defeated it."

~*~

Flashback

"Another day, another Putty fight," Zack said cheerfully as he punched the Z on a Putty's chest.

The air was filled with the sounds of grunts and battle cries and the Putties' mindless "whoo-oo-oo" noises as the six of them fought, still unmorphed. Then, a sound they had dreaded for the last week and a half washed over them—a cheesy, inhuman evil laugh.

"Rangers! Behold your destruction!"

They all spun around, ignoring the various Putties. There stood a giant pig, walking on its hind legs, dressed like a Viking-wannabe, horned helmet, round shield, big sword and all. It certainly stank badly enough to be both a pig and a Viking.

This was the moment they'd been dreading—when a monster showed up and they would be unable to protect the city once it grew, thanks to their battered zords.

Fortunately, they had a plan.

"GET IT!" Tommy bellowed.

...Well, something like a plan, anyway.

They flung themselves at it, dodging the swinging sword and bashing shield and goring horns but not without close calls. Every so often, one of them would back off to morph, or else to take care of an insignificant Putty who didn't seem to realize that the Rangers could care less if the Putties ran off and terrorized the elderly, kidnapped the citizens of Angel Grove, or opened a lemonade stand. The six of them had soon found time to morph, in between punching, kicking, occasionally scratching and once even biting (although given the three-minute pause Zack had to take to puke, they gave up on that idea really fast). Billy and Zack got behind it, the others in front, all of them beating it more like thugs attacking a rival gang than honorable Rangers battling evil.

At last, it managed to bring its sword up and swing at Tommy, Kimberly and Jason while holding Trini back with its shield; the three of them were forced back. The monster attempted to stab Trini in the side, but before it could get anywhere the Red, White and Pink Rangers dove on it like football players who'd made it to their first Super Bowl intent on taking down a quarterback when there were five people open in the end zone. The monster toppled over beneath them; Billy yelped as he was pinned by its considerable bulk, Zack barely managing to stay out of its way by dancing to the side at the last moment.

"RAWG!" the monster screamed, waving its sword wildly.

"RAWG YOURSELF!" Kimberly roared back, grabbing the sword hilt and yanking; surprised, the monster lost its grip. Unfortunately the sword was longer than she was and twice as heavy; she struggled to turn it around for a moment before dropping it, slicing off the monster's leg from the knee down purely on accident. It howled in pain.

Seeing this, Tommy pulled Saba from his belt. "Sorry, buddy," he said, stabbing a disgruntled Saba into the foul-smelling pig's flesh between the joints in the armor.

Zack, meanwhile, had rejoined the fray after his narrow escape and another run-in with a couple of the Putties; they'd left a good deal of the lackeys standing, and the Putties seemed a bit nonplussed that no one was giving them any attention. Zack dove for the pig's helmet and pulled it off, hoping to use it to stab the monster; unfortunately, this, too, was extremely heavy, and Zack was unprepared for just how heavy it was. Lack of leverage and readiness caused it to slip from his hands and land on his foot. "OW!" he screamed, ripping his bruised foot from beneath it and hobbling about on one leg, holding his ankle in one hand.

Even without his sword, the pig could still punch and slam them with its shield; it managed to bash Trini in the chest and she flew back with a yelp. "TRINI!" Jason yelled.

"I'm okay!" she called back, rolling to her feet only to find herself surrounded by annoyed, neglected Putties. Sighing, she fought them with a vengeance, desperate to get back to the monster. "Power Daggers!" she called, whipping them out.

"Help!" came Billy's muffled voice from beneath the monster's girth. He was finding it difficult to breathe; after a long struggle he managed to get his hand on his Blade Blaster, but was unable to pull it out.

Jason and Kimberly had both pulled out their weapons also. Jason spent most of his time fending off the monster's punches and shield with his Power Sword, but Kimberly was finding it too difficult to even nock an arrow, what with the pig lurching about beneath them as it struggled and tried to throw them off of it. Frustrated, she knelt on the creature's breastplate behind where Jason was holding off its arms, then held the bow like a baseball bat and began jabbing the end into his chest just above its armor. It squealed and howled as the three of them fought with all their might.

Trini, meanwhile, was fighting a losing battle. The six or so Putties had turned into about twelve, as every last one of them had now ganged up on her. "I'm coming, Trini!" Zack yelled, hopping over, still on one foot, and jabbing a Putty in the Z on its chest.

"About time!"

"You're welcome!"

"HELP!" Billy shouted, his voice muffled. He was still working on freeing his Blade Blaster, breathing (which was not only difficult but unpleasant, given the smell) and getting his fellow Rangers to hear him.

"ARGH!" Jason yelled as the pig threw him off.

"Die—hey!" Kimberly shrieked as the pig knocked her off as well.

"Uh-oh," Tommy said, jumping down before he could get hit.

"Oh, thank heavens," Saba muttered irritably.

"Assemble Power Blaster!" Jason shouted as the pig attempted to push itself up.

"Power Axe!" Zack called, tossing it into the air to begin the transformation as he kicked another Putty with his bad foot.

"Power Bow!" Kimberly threw her weapon to connect with the Power Axe.

"Power Daggers!" Trini shouted, hurtling them towards the connected Power Axe and Power Bow just as a Putty's kick sent her reeling back.

Jason stood by the assembled weapons, anxious to get it together and blast the thing to kingdom come. They just needed the Power Lance now. So they waited. ...And waited. And waited some more.

"Where's Billy?" Jason demanded.

The monster sat up, looking much the worse for wear; Saba's blade had inflicted multiple wounds on its remaining one-and-a-half legs and its sides, the Power Sword had left numerous cuts on its arms and fingers (and even cut off one or two phalanges) and Kimberly had left bruises all over its chest. Roaring furiously, and looking a bit dizzy, it reached for its fallen sword.

Billy, still pinned from the knees down, gulped air into his burning lungs, whipped out his blaster, and took aim just below the creature's back armor. The weakened, possibly dying monster exploded.

"Oh, there's Billy," Kimberly said when the dust cleared, removing her bow from the formation that never was and tossing Zack's axe back to him. Billy lowered his Blade Blaster and flopped back on the grass, still gasping for breath.

"Good move, Billy," Jason called.

"Thank god that's over," Kimberly said.

"That was a close one," Tommy agreed.

"HEY!" Trini called, surrounded by roughly five Putties as two more circled the one-footed Zack. "A little help, please!"

End Flashback

~*~

"And that was that," Jason finished. "From Kinko's to one of the few monsters we ever defeated without calling on our zords." Once again, the extreme laughter of Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent kept them from noticing that there was quite possibly more to the tale.

"But didn't they make it grow after that?" Conner asked. "That's what the bad guys always, ALWAYS did to us."

"Well, usually there has to be something left," Tommy explained.

"Like ashes," Zack added. "After we took of the Putties, we pulled out our Blade Blasters and pretty much blew that entire part of the park back to the Stone Age."

"You can still see the scorch marks," Jason said.

There was a momentary pause. "...Really?" Conner asked eagerly.

"Oh, yeah."

"But... after we beat a monster," Trent said, "no matter how badly we killed, it just came back thirty feet high."

"Yes, but this one was not going anywhere," Kimberly said. "Besides, even if he had brought it back, it would only have one and a half legs, thanks to me. That's not something you want walking around plus-sized."

The story had taken quite some time to tell, especially with all the laughter and miniature fights that had broken out along the way, slowing the process—not to mention the moments when one of them would beg the others not to tell this part or that part and have to be presented with a convincing argument by the other five.

"Wow," Conner said. "There was actually a time in Dr. O's life when he wasn't boring."

"That's it," Tommy deadpanned as his friends burst into giggles. "I'm drowning him."

Conner yelped and dove behind Ethan, then thought better of it and dove behind Trent instead. Tommy, rather than attacking, simply laughed, although Conner remained behind Trent, just in case.

Trent shrugged. "Just remember, Dr. O," Trent said, "if you do decide to kill him, I never did anything (major) to incur your wrath." Conner glared at the back of Trent's head.

"Tell us something else," Kira said eagerly. "Are there any more funny stories about your Ranger days?"

"There's a thousand," Jason said. "But I kind of want to go swim. We've been here for forever and we haven't even gone out—Billy and Ethan are completely dry."

"Yes, let's," Billy said pleadingly, his eyes on the water.

"Hard to believe you once had a fear of fish," Kimberly teased.

"A fear of fish? How can you be afraid of fish?" Conner asked curiously. "I could see sharks, but fish?"

"It's another story," Billy said, standing up. "Maybe after we swim."

The others all got up to follow him, but Kira stayed on the blanket for a moment, biting her lip in indecision. She was fairly certain she could beg another story out of Kimberly or Trini... it was so interesting to hear about Dr. O as some imperfect, common teenager with a mullet and a young Ranger rather than the legend he was or the teacher he'd become.

"Aren't you coming?" Trent asked. For some reason, the story about Tommy on the balcony, even with its funny context, had given him a desire to stay as close to Kira as possible, even more so than usual.

"Bet I can dunk Conner more than you can," Ethan challenged Kira before she could reply.

Kira leaped up. "You're on!"

Conner glared at them. "I think I'll stay here, then."

The others shrugged and ran off into the waves. Conner stared after them, already feeling the beginnings of boredom, suddenly longing to be in the water. He couldn't swim, but there was still plenty of fun to be had splashing about in the waves... as opposed to sitting alone in the sand.

"Hey, wait up!" he yelled, and chased after them.

~*~

They spent most of the day in the water. Kira, Ethan, Tommy and even Trent had a go at dunking Conner, who retaliated but always seemed to find himself ganged up on before he could get off any spectacular moves. They swam, they raced each other, they chatted, they played with the beach ball and Frisbee until Ethan nearly got dragged out to sea by the current while trying to retrieve the ball, and so on with all the energy of ten very athletic people all secretly trying to outdo each other. It was only when they realized they were extremely hungry that they pulled themselves out of the waves on shaky legs that had (particularly in Billy's case) forgotten how to walk on land, even the not-so-solid variety provided by the sandy shore.

They still had no real desire to leave the beach, so they sent Jason and Zack for pizza and continued to enjoy the remainder of the long summer day. Once Jason and Zack returned, Kira and Zack got into a chat about music, discussing the fine points of everything from trance to rap to pop, while Trent sat with them and occasionally offered up his own points of view. Billy, Ethan and Trini had a lengthy discussion about computers that eventually made everyone else edge away nervously. Conner followed Jason around and asked him all sorts of questions, while Jason's responses alternated between flattered and exasperated. And suddenly Tommy and Kimberly realized that everyone else was occupied and they'd been left alone on a blanket by the cooler.

"So," Kimberly said.

"So," Tommy agreed, feeling rather stupid. This was a little too familiar. He opened the cooler to give himself something to do.

Kimberly, also realizing that they'd gone back to awkward mode, put out a hand to stop him. "Let me. You plus ice equals nervous Kimberly."

Tommy laughed at the second reminder of their meeting in the hotel hallway. "That's understandable. I'm really sorry about that, by the way." She waved her hand dismissively. "Could you hand me a Coke, please?"

She did so and got out a diet drink for herself, then plopped down on the cooler lid as if trying to make sure the ice remained inside. "You know, the Dino Rangers seem pretty cool," she said for the sake of conversation.

"They're all right. In small doses."

She frowned. "Although... is it just me, or is Conner kind of... I don't know, scared of me?"

Tommy was torn between chuckling and blushing and settled for rubbing the back of his neck, which hid the grimace of "oops" on his face. He hadn't meant to get so annoyed when Conner had mentioned that Kimberly was hot; it had been rather... instinctive. "Conner's just odd like that," he said with a shrug.

"He is a bit odd. Like a strange mixture of Zack's goofiness and Jason's athleticism."

"That's him to a T. Only more irritating and talkative."

"You don't like him, eh?"

"...I like him, I guess. He's an all right kid. He's just... usually the first one to get on my nerves. Then Ethan, then Kira, and then Trent. Unless, of course, one of them is annoying me by fighting with Conner. ...Which, come to think of it, is exactly why Ethan's always been second."

"I see. Well, Kira seems really great. We had a lot of fun last night... but then, you knew that." She gave him a playful glare.

"I didn't, actually. I told you, I was only on the balcony for three seconds before Trini threw back the curtain like Velma yanking the mask off a wannabe ghost."

"Uh-huh. Sure."

"I was!"

"Admit it, Tommy."

"Admit what?"

Kimberly stood up and took a sip of her pop before answering. "You were just trying to see me naked."

Tommy stared at her, so startled that it didn't even occur to him to deny it. He had yet to realize she was joking when she laughed, enjoying the shocked look on his face.

"Don't worry," she said with a wink, "I'm not mad. Seeing you in your boxers was worth it."

Tommy tried to get his mouth to speak but his brain had forgotten how the process worked. Before he could gather his wits, Kimberly had sauntered casually over to Trini.

~*~

"Oh, HTML code is idiotic," Trini said. "I mean, yeah, I know it forwards and backwards, but it's so annoying to have to type in all this extra stuff in order to get anything to show the way you want it to. I don't see why a shorter, less intricate code hasn't been standardized across the—"

"Trini," Kimberly hissed, appearing at her elbow with a look of panic on her face. "Trini, I need you!"

Giving Billy and Ethan no explanation whatsoever, Kimberly yanked her friend away and halfway down the beach. "Kim! What's wrong?" Trini demanded. Kimberly's whole body was tensed and she was holding a diet pop can so severely that sticky brown liquid had coated her hand.

"I did a horrible thing!" Kimberly wailed as quietly as she could.

"What? Lose your deposit on the pop can?"

"No. Well, yeah, but... but... I... I think I just hit on Tommy."

"You... what?"

"I just hit on Tommy! I hit on him!"

"...You mean you hit him? As in you punched him?"

"No, I hit on him! I implied that he looked good naked! How could I do that! Oh, god... that was the stupidest thing I ever—"

"YES!" Trini shouted, pumping her fist in the air and then dancing around wildly like a lottery winner.

"Trini!" Kimberly whined, grabbing Trini's arm to halt her in mid-dance move. "Stop with the Zack impression! I just hit on my ex!"

Trini froze, realizing that this wasn't quite the situation she'd hoped for. "Kim... how is that a bad thing?"

"HE'S MY EX!" Kimberly exclaimed, exasperated. "What's he going to think after the comment I just made, huh? What's he going to think I want or I mean or I do or I... okay, I'm freaking out too badly to realize what I'm talking about but Tri-ni!" Kimberly shook the mutilated pop can at her. "I didn't mean to say it. I didn't mean it the way I said it!"

"So why did you say it?" Trini asked reasonably.

"I don't know!" Kimberly howled.

"Kim, listen to me. Tommy does look good naked—"

"What? You've seen—"

"No, I haven't; stop with the Jason impression. I'm trying to do that hypothetical reasoning thing! Now, listen." A mischievous gleam appeared in Trini's eye, which would have warned Kimberly that Trini had shifted into Evil Mastermind Mode if Kimberly hadn't been too busy panicking to notice. "See, Tommy does look good naked, right? So we can assume that this is just a face-value thing. If you were just making an off-handed comment, that was all it was. However, if it was more than that, then we'll have to dissect everything you said and did and see if we can't get inside Tommy's head, okay? Now, I need to know everything. What, exactly, did you say?"

Kimberly repeated the moment with impeccable detail and waited for Trini's wisdom.

All she got was another whoop and some more dancing.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 13: Thunder Struck

"Wow," Jason muttered as he wandered over to the still-stationary Tommy. "That kid sure seems to take the hero-worship thing to an unhealthy level. Finally managed to distract him, though. I said something about sandcastles and the next thing I knew he was roping Kira and Trent into helping him build 'the mother of all fortresses.' What are you up to?"

Tommy didn't speak, still gaping numbly into the distance. Jason followed his gaze and saw only his wife dancing around Kimberly like a very hot pygmy in a yellow bikini.

"See, this is the meaning of life," Jason said happily, watching with undiluted interest. All too soon, however, Kimberly put a stop to it. Disappointed, he turned back to Tommy. "What's up? You look like you just got gut-kicked."

Tommy finally realized that Jason was speaking and tried to grasp hold of reality. "She... she just... I can't believe she said that!"

"Who said what?" Zack asked, sidling up to them with a drink in his hand. Kira had been stolen from him by Conner and he had no one to debate mid-nineties hip-hop with, so he'd decided to come see what Jason and Tommy were doing, as Billy and Ethan were discussing something to do with a secret code that made odd things happen on the Internet and throwing out abbreviations like confetti thrown during the crowning of Miss America. Zack glanced around the beach, taking stock of what everyone else was doing.

"Tommy? You okay?" Jason asked, concerned.

"Hey, check out Trini!" Zack breathed. Trini had started dancing again. All three of them watched this for a good long while, even Tommy, who had become a bit more coherent and, being a guy with a pulse, found the sight of Trini dancing around in a swimsuit far more important than something Kimberly had just said a minute ago.

The dance was once again ended by Kimberly. Zack continued to watch, hopeful for a repeat performance, while Jason looked at his wife with a distant smile and Tommy took advantage of the borrowed time to gather his wits.

What, exactly, had Kimberly meant by that? She had made a definitely suggestive comment. That was fine by Tommy, except he didn't know if she'd meant it as anything more than a joke and he wasn't sure how to find out without leading to embarrassment, awkwardness or confusion. He guessed that searching for an answer would mean talking to Trini, but he wasn't really looking forward to that, as her tendency to cause soul-searching in others was a bit too deep for him at the moment.

He and Kimberly had yet to define any sort of... parameters so far. He'd overheard her saying that she still cared about him, and that had startled and pleased him, but he hadn't let himself dwell on it yet. (There hadn't really been time, what with trying to kill Zack and sleeping last night and heading straight for the beach this morning.) As far as he could tell, they'd entered into some sort of polite understanding where they were pretending they were simply casual acquaintances. He hadn't expected her to go flirting with him two days after seeing her for the first time in years. It didn't make sense, and it confused him, and he had no idea what she wanted or he wanted... was it any wonder that he felt like he'd been hit by a brick?

Tommy sighed inwardly and forced the thoughts from his mind. He'd been having a wonderful time on the beach, and he wasn't about to ruin his day by dissecting the mess with Kimberly; that would come later, if ever.

"God, that woman is beautiful," Jason said, staring at Trini fondly. "Isn't she the most perfect woman alive?" He looked at Tommy expectantly.

Tommy shrugged. "She is very beautiful," he agreed. "As perfect as they come."

Jason seemed satisfied with this for a moment before frowning and turning to give Tommy a look that Tommy knew would soon blossom into a glare if he didn't play his cards right.

"Of course, I've always thought Kim was hotter."

Tommy cringed inwardly. While he truly felt that Kimberly was more beautiful, he didn't want to admit that he was still attracted to Kimberly (although he was certain that all of his friends knew it anyway; he'd have to be blind not to be attracted to Kimberly), especially not after this new curveball she'd just thrown at him, but he had larger problems at the moment. Literally, even.

Jason almost got over the lapse in Tommy's judgment about saying that Jason's wife was wonderful, but then he realized that Tommy had just insinuated that Jason's wife wasn't as hot as Kimberly, and that of course was cause for a full-fledged glare.

Tommy struggled to think of what to do and prayed that Trini would start dancing again, but by now she and Kimberly were chatting and wandering over to the beach blanket. Jason wasn't exactly jealous, but he was very overprotective and it didn't take a lot to get him thinking that someone had intentions on his wife. Tommy realized that the only way to correct his statement about Kim was to insist that Trini was also very hot, but that would put him back to where he'd been after the first comment, and Tommy knew he could only go in so many circles with Jason before getting knocked right out of the ring.

"I don't know," Zack said thoughtfully, oblivious to Tommy's plight. "Kim's totally gorgeous, but Trini has this whole mysterious thing going on. Still, I'd have to lean more towards Kim. Hey, Billy!"

Billy came wandering over, leaving Ethan to go make wisecracks at Conner. "What?"

"Who do you think is hotter, Kimberly or Trini?"

Billy shrugged. "Trini," he said without hesitation. He had always thought so; he was partial to the exotic look, which of course had led him into a long-lasting and happy relationship with an alien. Billy didn't see a problem with admitting his personal taste, especially not when it was a question about two of his friends that he'd never consider dating (or, in Trini's case, stealing from another friend who could easily kick Billy's ass). Therefore it took him a moment to notice that Jason was giving him a look similar to the expression Tommy had described Jason wearing when Jason had been kidnapped by Rita and forced to fight to the death with Goldar and the Green Ranger.

"Of course, it's really more of a tossup," Billy said quickly. "Kimberly is also very gorgeous. Perhaps more so than Trini."

Jason considered this while Tommy turned a glare on him automatically out of sheer habit. Realizing that he was on very dangerous ground, Billy resorted to the method he'd always used when one of his friends was about to get mad at him—confusion.

"Perhaps my decision was tempered by the fact that neither girl is an appropriate selection for one of my disposition. Having known both of them for two and a half decades, I would not give either one more than a passing thought. Kimberly and I, however, are completely incompatible while Trini and I are far too compatible, leading to the conclusion that were I forced to choose between them I would choose Trini, as she is the only one of you that can understand me one hundred percent of the time, but as it stands neither Trini nor Kimberly would ever be able to maintain an enduring relationship with my person."

Billy watched them carefully for signs that it had worked, and found them soon enough. Tommy and Jason frowned, their eyes glazed over; Zack had stopped listening a good while ago and was now examining a seashell. Billy had realized a good long time ago that his friends were usually able to understand a lot more than they tried to, but his friends had gotten into the bad habit of relying on Trini and their minds just shut off the moment they heard a big word coming out of his mouth. Therefore, Billy was free to escape, knowing that his friends would puzzle over it for a moment and then agree to change the subject.

"Hey, Ethan!" he called, deciding to stay away from the girls for a while, just in case, and headed off to go start up a talk about video games, which was a much safer topic than the hot factor of wives and ex-girlfriends.

"What the hell was he talking about?" Jason wondered, wrinkling his nose. He sighed. "I'd ask Trini, but if he was actually talking about her we might get in deep trouble, so..."

"Don't worry about it," Tommy said without thinking. "He was wrong, anyway."

"He was not! Trini is way more beautiful than Kimberly."

Tommy could have smacked himself. Here he was again, trapped on the merry-go-round of Jason's suspicion. He debated what to say, knowing that Jason would refuse to let him stay quiet, and finally decided that it was probably less of a crime to say that Trini wasn't the hottest girl on Earth than to imply that Tommy was attracted to her. Besides, Jason was wrong anyway. Kimberly was the hottest girl on Earth.

"I've got to disagree," Tommy said apologetically.

"I'm still not sure," Zack said, standing up with the seashell in one hand. He held up his hands as if balancing a scale. "Kim, Trini, Kim, Trini... I don't know. They're both pretty hot."

Tommy and Jason turned to give him murderous looks, at which point Zack finally realized that there was a subtext of say-my-girl-is-gorgeous-again-and-die. "But they're not my type!" he added wildly. "Not my type at all!"

~*~

Kimberly finally managed to get Trini to stop dancing by pointing out that Tommy, Jason and Zack were watching her like buyers at an auction. Embarrassed, Trini halted and then realized she was neglecting the Sacred Duties of the Best Friend.

"Kim," she said, leading Kimberly back over to their scattered belongings, "there's no need to be upset about this whole 'Tommy, you're hot' moment. None whatsoever. Tommy isn't the sort of guy to take it in a way you don't want him to take it. Besides, look on the bright side—you probably just took about twelve years off his life from shock."

Kimberly giggled in spite of herself. "He did look like I'd just whacked him with my Power Bow." Her smile faded quickly. "But... what if he asks what I meant? What if he tells me that I disgusted him? What if he flirts back?"

"Kim, honey, so what if he does flirt back?"

"Well..."

"Exactly. Just go with the flow, all right? Now, I can't even begin to think that Tommy would tell you that you disgust him. And if he asks what you meant, well... I doubt he will. And Tommy, bless him, has got such an ego problem that he's probably just strutting around thinking he's oh-so-cool right now. Anyway, you've always got the three most important options in bad situations on your side."

"What three options?"

"Changing the subject, running away, and saying, 'What do you think I meant?'" Trini replied, waggling her eyebrows suggestively. "They also work in combinations."

Kimberly laughed and shook her head. "God, I miss you, girl. We've got to get together more often."

"Yeah, we do," Trini said. "Although after this week I don't think Jason will let me out of the house for a couple of months."

"Oh, come on. What happened to Independent Trini?"

"I didn't mean that in a verbal, 'I forbid you to leave' sense. I mean that as in he might nail the bedroom door shut and then realize his mistake a few weeks later."

Kimberly cackled madly. "Ah, Trini... happily married at last, eh?"

Trini grinned, but she felt a small twinge of sadness for her single friend. "When are you finally going to get serious, anyway?"

"Me? Ha. I'm having fun with the single thing," Kimberly said. "Working my way through the male buffet line of L.A. Much better than marriage."

"I beg to differ. Unlike you, I have a round-the-clock housekeeper, heavy lifter, and guard dog."

"True. Why'd you even get an actual dog, anyway?"

Trini shrugged. "American dream, right? Husband, kids, house, picket fence, dog. We decided we'd start small."

"That dog is enormous."

"Yeah, well, Chihuahuas are so annoying."

Kimberly giggled and flopped down on the blanket they'd spread out early in the day, where Trini had had her talk with Tommy. Remembering that conversation, she gave Trini a serious look. "What were you and Tommy talking about earlier today?"

Trini shrugged again, reaching into the cooler casually and pulling out a pop. "Just threatening him some more."

"Really?"

"Yes, really. What, did you expect me to say that I was trying to get him to profess his love for you?"

"Something like that, yes."

"Ha! Like I'd admit it even if I was."

"I'm not looking to hook back up with Tommy," Kimberly said severely. "Let it go, okay?"

"I'm trying, Kim. But don't tell me that you don't want to hook back up with him." Seeing Kimberly's angry expression, Trini smiled and added, "Admit it. He looks too good naked to let go, right?"

Kimberly burst out laughing again. Trust Trini to make her feel better about an excruciatingly large mess. "I don't know. The haircut totally killed that whole Greek god imagery he had going on."

Trini grimaced. "Well, that's not a thought I want in my head. Can we talk about the weather now?"

Kimberly chuckled and they lapsed back into silence, watching their friends and the teens running around the beach and chattering away. "They're staring at us again," Kimberly commented, jerking her head at Jason, Zack and Tommy.

"Just like old times," Trini murmured. "Us on the beach... Tommy gazing at you while Zack and Jason try to distract him back to the realm of Guy Stuff..."

"Ha! You know Jason was probably just as love struck all those years."

"Was not. Well, according to him, he was, but he wouldn't admit it to the guys and therefore he wasn't usually blatant like Tommy."

"You know, if Zack and Jason were trying to distract Tommy, what was Billy doing?"

"Probably thinking deep thoughts that none of us could understand."

"Except you."

"Hey, not even I understand the boy all the time! He's a genius. I'm just a smart chick."

"Uh-huh."

"No, seriously. On occasion even I just pretend to know what he's talking about."

"He probably wasn't thinking deep thoughts anyway. He was probably checking you out, too."

"Oh, please. You're just saying that to induce my I-have-a-dangerous-husband paranoia."

"It's working, isn't it?"

"...Okay, new subject." Trini turned her head slightly, just enough to get a better view of the guys without being obvious. "Now I remember what was so fun about going to the beach."

"Four hot guys in swimming trunks, eh?"

Trini nodded and sighed. "Jason always was way hotter than the others, though. Mm."

"Oh, please. You always used to agree with me that Tommy was the hottest."

Trini was careful to hide her smile behind her pop can. Kimberly had taken the bait. "Yeah, but only because I didn't want you to find out that I had a crush on Jason."

"Whatever! You agreed with me that he was hot, the first time I saw him!"

"Yes, in that 'he'd be good for you' sort of way! And I never said he was hotter than Jason."

"Uh-huh, sure."

"Jason is way hotter than Tommy!" Trini insisted, just barely remembering to keep her voice down in time.

"He is not! Tommy's way better-looking. I mean, look at those abs."

"He's standing next to my husband. I don't think that's wise."

"You're just not looking because you don't want to admit I'm right!"

"I don't have to look to know I'm right!"

The two girls gazed at each other defiantly before sighing in unison. "Second opinion?" Kimberly asked. "Well, third?"

Trini nodded and they looked around before their eyes landed on Kira.

~*~

"Dude, this is so lame," Conner was saying as he, Trent and Kira sat on the sand, building a sandcastle. "I mean, this is way childish," Conner added as he carefully molded the sand on one of the towers.

"Secure enough in your maturity yet to stop pretending you think what we're doing is dumb?" Trent asked mildly, sculpting one of the battlements with an artist's eye.

"Who's pretending?" Conner demanded. Trent ignored him, wisely deciding not to point out that it had been Conner's idea to build one in the first place. Glaring at him, Conner turned back to the castle. "Kira, be careful! You almost wrecked the drawbridge."

Kira and Trent smiled at each other. They were comfortable with how mature they were, and therefore didn't feel the need to abstain from children's activities to prove themselves; Conner, however, was a bit more concerned with image.

Trent leaned in to whisper something at Conner's expense into Kira's ear, but suddenly Kira's ear vanished. Startled, he looked up to find Kimberly and Trini literally dragging his girlfriend away. "We'll be back in a second!" Kimberly called over her shoulder.

"Hey, guys," Kira said uncertainly when they finally halted and released her. "What's up?"

"Who do you think is the hottest guy?" Kimberly demanded without preamble or explanation.

"Well... I'd have to go with Trent," Kira said, confused.

"No, no, no," Trini said impatiently. "He doesn't count."

"Why not?"

"Because we're talking about from our perspective and Trent and Conner and Ethan are too young to register on our radar without it being icky," Trini explained.

"We're talking about the others," Kimberly added.

"Yes, who do you think is hottest, Kira?"

Kira frowned and looked at the four males of proper age. She had a distinct feeling that there was only one right answer to this question, but she wasn't sure what it was. It couldn't be Tommy, because after all they knew Kira was creeped out by the thought of "Dr. O" as a datable human being, and it probably wouldn't be Jason, because he was Trini's man, so of course that left Zack and Billy... and if Jason was ruled out because he was involved, then so was Billy because of Cestria...

"...Zack?" Kira asked hopefully.

Kimberly smacked her forehead. "No! We mean, is Jason or Tommy cuter?"

"Jason," Kira replied without hesitation.

"HA!" Trini roared.

"Kira! Are you blind? Tommy is way hotter than Jason! Look at those abs, will you?" Kimberly attempted to turn Kira in the right direction, but Kira squinted her eyes shut and shuddered.

"EW! Kim, he's my science teacher, remember? That's just gross. I don't ask you to check out your mentor, do I?"

Kimberly stomped her foot. "No fair! We need an impartial witness."

"I can't help it if she's not impartial!" Trini retorted. "She said Jason was hotter than Tommy. Deal with it."

"She said Zack was hotter than Jason! So there!"

"Zack is in no way hotter than Tommy, let alone Jason."

"Tommy is hotter than Jason and so is Zack!"

"No way!"

"Come on, Trini. We both know that if Kira could check out Tommy without wigging, she would totally think he was way hotter than Jason. It's just fact."

"Hey!" Zack called as he approached with Tommy and Jason. "What are you guys talking about?"

Trini, Kimberly and Kira jumped quite guiltily as the three main topics of their conversation looked at them expectantly. They looked at each other, communicating with their eyes the way only close females can.

"Trent," Kira said in response to Zack's question.

"Computers," Trini said at the same time.

"Shopping," Kimberly replied simultaneously.

It might be a good idea to note that eye communication isn't foolproof.

Three pairs of eyebrows lifted in unison. "Want to try that again?" Jason asked in amusement.

"Computers," said Kira.

"Shopping," said Trini.

"Trent," said Kimberly.

They looked at each other again.

"Shopping for computers with Trent?" Kira suggested.

"Yeah!" Kimberly and Trini chorused, impressed with her logic.

The guys crossed their arms over their chests and gave them stern looks. "Not even we're that dense," Zack said.

The girls shared another look.

This sucks, Kira said using secret eye-communicating code.

What now? Kimberly asked silently.

What else? Run away, Trini replied.

"Trent!" Kira called loudly, racing off.

"Billy!" Trini yelled, rushing over to the two blue-clad computer geeks.

"Um..." Kimberly bit her lip, realizing that she was out of available guys; if she went after Ethan, she'd be in the same place as Trini, and Jason, Tommy and Zack would follow the two of them and try to get them to talk. She was probably better off heading over towards the teens, as Tommy wouldn't want to interrogate her in front of them, but Trent was talking to Kira, so that just left...

"Conner!" Kimberly called resignedly, and darted away.

Tommy, Jason and Zack looked at each other, confused and suspicious. "What do you think that was all about?" Tommy wondered.

"Maybe they were arguing over which of us was better-looking like we were doing about them," Zack joked.

"Yeah, right," Jason laughed. "And they went to go get Kira for a second opinion."

"I doubt it," Tommy said. "I don't think Kira would really pass judgment on how good-looking her teacher and his friends were."

"...Hey, there's an idea!" Jason said thoughtfully. "She'll know which of the girls is prettiest!"

"Wouldn't one of the guys be a better judge?" Zack asked.

"Yeah, like I want one of them looking at my wife that way. Come on!"

~*~

"Trent," Kira said as she flopped down next to the sandcastle, "I have to tell you something or I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight."

Trent knocked a tower right off the castle, which thankfully Conner didn't notice, as Conner was now in an uncomfortable conversation with Kimberly (whose very presence still scared the crap out of him, as it brought to mind authority figures with glowing green eyes and twenty-plus years of martial arts experience). Trent turned to look at Kira slowly. A statement like that was never a good thing when it came from your girlfriend's mouth.

"Yes?" he said cautiously, steeling himself for the worst.

"You have wonderful abs. Better than any guy on the planet. Of any age."

Trent looked down at his stomach, slightly puzzled at this comment but flattered just the same. "Um... okay. Thanks."

"I mean it. Your abs are the only abs that are ever on my mind. They're perfect. I will never look at another guys' abs."

Trent frowned, struggling to figure out exactly what had led him into this rather odd conversation. Before he could get his mind halfway around it, Kira was yanked away once again, this time by Jason and Zack.

"I didn't do it!" Kira insisted wildly as they hauled her across the beach to a halt in front of Tommy.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Jason said, waving his hand dismissively. "We just needed your help with something."

It was on the tip of Kira's tongue to tell them that if they wanted to know whether Jason, Tommy or Zack was hottest, they could forget it, but as that would have given her and Trini and Kimberly away, she bit back the comment and gave Jason an expectant look.

"Hold up!" Tommy said, thrusting his hand up like a traffic cop. "They wanted to know. I have no part of this. Just so we're clear on that."

"Whatever," Jason said impatiently. "Listen, Kira, we know this is a little, um, unusual, but we got into an argument and we were hoping you could tell us—who's prettier, Trini or Kim?"

Kira gaped at them, fully prepared to throw up her hands and storm off. It wasn't weird enough that she was kidnapped by Trini and Kimberly to get girl-to-girl opinions on guys? Now she had to have a bunch of guys ask her for an opinion about her own gender?

"Zack," Kira replied darkly, and pushed past them to rejoin Trent.

Jason, Zack, and Tommy stared after her as she sat down and firmly linked arms with Trent to anchor herself. None of the three guys were able to fathom how exactly it was that Zack was prettier than Trini and Kimberly.

"...I did say Trini or Kim, right?" Jason asked.

"She had a rough night last night," Tommy said with a shrug.

"Oh, yeah," Zack said, snorting a laugh.

"Yeah, there's no way you're prettier than my wife," Jason said, still oblivious to the events at the hotel the previous evening.

"Hey," Zack said indignantly.

"And he's definitely not prettier than Kimberly," Tommy added.

"Hey!"

"Well, I think that was sort of implied, seeing as how Trini's hotter than Kim."

"She is not!"

"She is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

Leaving them to their fight, Zack shrugged and wandered off to join the sandcastle group (as Trini, Billy and Ethan were discussing technology, and the only things Zack knew about technology were things involving the operation of televisions, cars and CD players, and that was pretty iffy itself). With a slight grin, he turned to Kimberly and said, "Hey, Kim, do you think I'm prettier than you?"

She snorted. "Of course not."

"I am too!"

"You so are not!"

Zack looked over at Kira, whom he figured would be on his side, but the moment Kira spotted him glancing at her she clamped her hands firmly over her ears while still keeping her elbow linked around Trent's. Shrugging, he turned to Conner. "Do you think Kim is prettier than me?"

Conner stared at him in horror. He couldn't say that Zack was prettier, because Conner did have a reputation to maintain. He also couldn't say that Kimberly was prettier, because then it might get back to Tommy.

"Wrong guy!" he said emphatically, waving his hands as if to ward Zack off.

Trent chuckled, looking from defiant Kira to scared Conner to nervous-embarrassed-and-yet-curious Kimberly. "Thank god I'm escaping most of the weirdness," he said cheerfully, and went to fix the demolished tower with his free arm.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 14: The Mutiny

Tommy and Jason finally agreed to disagree about whether Trini or Kimberly was hotter—or, rather, Tommy managed to distract Jason by challenging him to a race down the beach and four half-mile sprints later, he'd forgotten all about it. They'd all returned to chatting, playing sports, swimming and assisting Conner in the construction of his sand fortress, which they jokingly called Ranger Central and abandoned once it became bigger than Ethan.

When the sun began to sink behind the waves, they all finally decided it was time to leave and went through the customary processes of packing up their things, drying off, and shaking the sand out of their belongings and off their persons. At last, they headed back towards their cars.

"So what's on the agenda for tomorrow?" Ethan asked as they packed up the vehicles.

"Are we coming back here?" Conner asked hopefully, casting a wistful glance back at Ranger Central.

"I had something planned," Trini said casually. "It's a surprise, though. But there won't be much point if it rains, and I think the weather report for tomorrow was pretty iffy."

"Why don't we just meet up at the hotel tomorrow?" Jason suggested. "Around eleven?"

There was a general murmur of assent and then the chorus of goodbyes began.

"All right," Trini said, heading for Kimberly's car as the group broke up. "Later, guys!"

"Um... Trini? Aren't you forgetting something?" Jason asked expectantly.

"Sorry, honey," Trini said, smacking her forehead, giving him a quick kiss and then heading back towards Kimberly's car. "See you in the morning!"

Jason leaped in front of her; Trini quickly stopped before she could smack right into him. "Hey! Where do you think you're going?" he asked indignantly.

"Yay," Zack said, having been hoping for another entertaining married-life fight. He turned to look, as did the remaining guys, mostly because both Zack and Jason had yet to unlock their respective vehicles. Kira and Kimberly started giggling in advance.

"I'm going to spend the night with Kim," Trini said calmly. "We talked about this."

"We did not! You said you'd come back!"

"I did not! Jason, I was only gone one night!"

"It was too long! The dog keeps giving me these suspicious looks like I've murdered you or something and there's this big Trini-shaped hole in the bed and the house is all empty!"

"Billy is there, you know."

"It's not the same! In ways I don't want to think about!" Billy grimaced in disgust, as did several of the others.

"I'll come back tomorrow." Her lips quirked in a small smile. "I have to protect Kimberly from the balcony boogeyman, remember?"

"...What the hell are you talking about?"

"It's a long story. A funny one. Which I will tell you about one day. But today, I am sleeping at Kimberly's."

"Let Tommy protect her! Or Zack!"

"Come on. I can't entrust something this important to Zack. Would you?"

"Yes!"

"Jason." She gave him a stern look.

"Well... if I knew what a balcony boogeyman was, I might—oh, for crying out loud, stop trying to derail me! You just want to spend the night at Kim's. You're making that boogeyman thing up."

"She really isn't," Kira spoke up with a violent shudder. "It was the weirdest night of my life."

Tommy coughed and looked away, praying no one could see how red his face was. Zack started laughing and Billy looked from them to Trini with avid curiosity.

"Oh, does the boogeyman have something to do with you seeing Dr. O in his underwear?" Conner asked, catching the actions of Kira, Tommy, Zack and Billy but unable to understand them. Trini closed her eyes to gather her strength, realizing that this argument was going to be much harder to win now.

"How did you wind up seeing Dr. O in his underwear?" Ethan asked before Trini, Kira or Jason could come up with a good response to Conner. "Or do I not want to know?"

"You don't want to know," Kimberly piped up. "Trust me."

"You saw it too?" Conner asked, looking sympathetic.

"We all did. Zack was in his underwear too," Kimberly said with a shrug. She'd spent most of her life hanging around Zack and roughly three years hanging around Tommy; she'd seen Zack in everything from formalwear to footy pajamas and Tommy in more and less, so she didn't find the sight the least bit perturbing—in fact, she'd found it quite enjoyable, though she would never ever say it aloud... again.

"What?" Jason demanded, looking at Tommy with several murderous intentions quite clear on his face.

"There was nothing wrong at all going on there!" Tommy insisted hurriedly, stepping back another ten feet away from Jason and Trini as Zack collapsed on the sand from his laughter.

"Come on, Jason! It was nothing new. I've seen Tommy in his underwear dozens of times," Trini said soothingly, attempting to calm her nearly-enraged husband.

"WHAT?" Jason roared.

"Oh, stop it, Jason," Kimberly cut in, coming over to him and giving him her best glower. "You were there. We always crashed each others' sleepovers and sometimes when we had to rush off to battle we didn't have time to select a decent outfit and so on."

"All I meant was that Tommy doesn't exactly wear a tuxedo for sleepwear when we visit each other," Trini added. "Now stop freaking out, will you?"

"NO! No, I will not! You leave me for one night and you're hanging out with Tommy in your underwear?"

"His underwear! Not mine! And I didn't leave you, I—"

"You were wearing his underwear?"

"NO! I was wearing mine! I mean, my nightgown!"

"It's not revealing at all," Conner said, interrupting Jason in an attempt to help the situation. "It's a little low-cut, but it's not too se—"

Trent clamped his hand over Conner's mouth, but it was too late.

"CONNER SAW YOU IN YOUR NIGHTGOWN?"

"No! Well... yeah... but... Jason, there's a whole big story here and you haven't heard even half of it..."

"Aha! So he did. And let me guess, Blue and White Junior did too, eh?"

"Um..."

"Humph! Which nightgown was it? Huh? The cute little red one you got yourself for my birthday?"

"Jason!" Trini yelled, mortified. Everyone now looked torn between laughing and gagging at the implications.

"Well, was it?"

"No! Why would I take that one to stay the night at Kim's?"

"I don't know, maybe so you could look good for Professor Underwear and Hyena Boy!"

"You guys just had to come along on my vacation, didn't you?" Tommy growled at an apologetic-looking Conner, Ethan and Trent over Zack's still-laughing form. (They weren't sure what they were being sorry for, but their survival instincts had long ago informed them that it was a very good idea to act sorry whenever Tommy was upset and looking in their direction.)

Kimberly grabbed hold of Jason firmly and spun him around by the shoulders, forcing him to meet her eye. "Jason, listen to me. There's a big picture here, and it's a really funny one. And I know most of the details, so I'll explain, okay? Then you'll feel really silly that you're making a big fuss, and you'll realize that neither Tommy nor Zack, nor Billy nor Conner nor Trent nor Ethan nor Kira nor I nor whoever else you want to accuse, has any designs on your wife. And it'll give you something to rag on Tommy and Zack about by the time I'm done, okay?"

Jason swelled indignantly but managed to let out a "Fine."

Kimberly handed Trini her keys. "I'll meet you back at the hotel. Take Kira. Er... and you might want to drop Billy back at your place."

"Thanks," Trini said, putting all the emphasis into that word that a woman might give her organ donor. She ran to the Mustang.

Sensing that what could be his only shot for escape had arrived, Tommy reached into the laughing Zack's pocket, grabbed Zack's keys, and fumbled with the remote to unlock the doors. "Get in," he snarled at Trent, Conner, Zack and Ethan before diving into the driver's seat. "Bye, Jason!"

They all scrambled into the Escalade, Tommy throwing it into reverse and spitting sand like a tornado with anger management issues.

"What's the rush?" Conner asked, leaning forward into the front seat. "It was just getting interesting back there. I wanted to hear Kimberly's story."

"Conner, sit back, shut up, and live," Tommy threatened.

Ethan put a hand on Conner's shoulder and yanked him back against the seat. "I've got a better story for you," Ethan muttered to Conner and Trent. "As soon as we get back."

"What's up?" Trent whispered as Tommy put as much distance as possible between him and Jason while Zack wheezed in the front seat, struggling to stop laughing.

Ethan smiled slyly. "Not here. But I will say this—it looks like we three Rangers have one last mission."

Conner and Trent paused. "Ethan?" Conner said.

"Yeah?"

"That was really cheesy, dude."

"Yeah, even for you. And that's saying something," Trent added.

"Hey!" Ethan exclaimed indignantly.

~*~

"I hate you."

"What did I do?"

"You know perfectly well what you did."

"Hey, that fight was all on Trini, Jason and Conner. I didn't say a word."

"You were the one who convinced me to go on that balcony, you idiot!"

"Hey, I didn't put a gun to your head."

"One of these days, Zack, I swear I'm going to put a gun to yours."

Zack snorted a laugh and went to go brush his teeth. They had arrived back at the hotel, sent Ethan, Conner and Trent back to their room with a glare from Tommy and a cheerful wave from Zack, and gone about getting the remaining sand off themselves and getting ready for bed. Neither was reluctant for the end of the day.

"Stupid vacation," Tommy muttered, hanging his swimming trunks over the back of a chair. "I knew I should have stayed home. I don't have to be here. I wasn't an original, anyway."

A rhythmic tapping sounded on the door and Tommy stomped over to it with a groan. "What?" he demanded, pulling open the door to see a sheepish Kimberly standing in the hallway. "Oh... hi," he said lamely.

She was blushing at the sight of him once more in his boxers after the comment on the beach... at least, he thought she was; it was hard to tell in the dim light of the hallway. "Hey," she said.

"What's up?" he asked uncomfortably.

"I straightened out the mess with Jason." She smiled. "By the way, don't you own pajamas?"

"For the winter, yeah," Tommy replied, somewhat defensively.

"Anyway," she said hastily, seeing him about to continue, "Jason told me to give you a message."

"What's that?"

"This." She pointed at him and let out a mocking cackle of laughter.

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Good old Jason."

Kimberly grinned. "Don't worry. I downplayed how terrified you looked when we caught you."

"Gee, thanks," Tommy said dryly, but he smiled. Then a serious look came over his face. "Kim?"

"Y-yeah?" she said nervously.

"What was that about, back there on the beach?" he asked. "I mean... you know... what did that mean?"

Kimberly suddenly became very still. "Um... how 'bout them Broncos?"

"...What?"

"Damn you, Trini," she murmured. Then she drew herself up to her full height. "Well, Tommy," she said, her voice dropping an octave and her eyes boring into his, "what do you think it meant?"

With that, she practically ran down the hallway, leaving Tommy to stare after her. Shaking his head, he shrugged and decided that he no longer cared why she'd said it. All that mattered was that she had said it.

"Dude," Zack said suspiciously as he exited the bathroom, "why are you strutting around like you're oh-so-cool?"

"Because I am," Tommy replied loftily. Zack stared at him. Attempting to muster some of his previous bite, Tommy added half-heartedly, "Shut up, Zack."

~*~

"So..." Conner said, "let me get this straight... Dr. O and Kimberly had this hot and heavy relationship and then Kimberly dumped him and they never spoke again?"

Ethan nodded. "Billy told me all about it when we went swimming. Says that he, Jason, Trini and Zack are all pretty sure that Dr. O's still in love with Kimberly, and he thinks Kimberly still wants Dr. O."

"So why aren't they together?" Trent, the only guy who had a current girlfriend, found this conversation a touch disturbing, especially after all the comparisons that had been made between him and Tommy.

"Billy said Kim dumped Dr. O in a letter after she went to Florida to be some sort of professional gymnast," Ethan said. "She apparently met someone else—"

"And she just dropped Dr. O?" Conner asked, looking angry on his teacher's behalf.

"Well, funny thing is—Billy talked to Trini a while after it happened, and a few things don't match up. He was kind of vague about it, but he thinks that there might have been something else going on."

"Like what?" Trent asked.

"I don't know. Billy said it wasn't like Kimberly to lie, but it also wasn't like her to dump Dr. O in a letter. But in any case... well, she's single now," Ethan said lightly, unable to conceal the mischievous look on his face.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Conner said, looking at Ethan in surprise.

"Yeah, are you thinking what Conner's thinking?" Trent repeated, looking at Ethan in horror.

"For once," Ethan admitted. "But don't get used to it. Now, are we going to do this or not?"

"I'm in," Conner said with a shrug.

"Why not?" Trent said. "So... what do we do first?"

Silence.

"Um... well, there has to be something we can do," Ethan said, frowning thoughtfully.

Conner began to pace. Trent started to doodle on his sketchpad idly. Ethan sat on the edge of the bed, thinking hard.

"You know, this is supposed to be your area," Conner said suddenly, rounding on Trent.

"How do you figure?" Trent asked, confused.

"You're the one with a girlfriend," Conner pointed out.

"Yeah," Ethan agreed.

"Well, just because I'm with Kira—"

"Of course!" Ethan shouted. "How could we have been so stupid? We've been going about this all wrong!"

"...We haven't even started going about it," Conner reminded him.

"Exactly. We've been trying to go about it alone," Ethan said. "What we really need right now is the ultimate weapon when it comes to hooking up a couple of lovebirds."

"What's that?" Trent and Conner asked.

"A girl."

~*~

"Who is it?" Kimberly called cautiously as frantic knocking sounded at the door. Please don't be Tommy, please don't be Tommy, she chanted silently, edging closer to Trini just in case.

"Conner."

"And Ethan."

"And Trent."

Kira opened the door. "Guys, what—ack!"

Conner had seized her arm and dragged her into the hallway. "Let go!" she shouted, moving to hit him. Ethan grabbed her other arm.

"We need to talk," Conner said cheerfully. "Don't worry; it'll only take a second."

"We'll be right back," Trent added, yanking the door shut in Kimberly's face.

"Um... oh-kay," Kimberly said, shrugging. She wanted to talk to Trini alone about the use of the "options," anyway.

"Guys, let me go!" Kira shouted as they pulled her down the hall. She was getting quite sick of being hauled around like a rag doll.

"No can do, Kira. It's secret mission time!" Conner told her firmly.

The three boys literally dragged Kira back to their room and shut the door. "What is going on?" Kira demanded in exasperation, flopping down on Conner's bed.

"It's like this," Ethan began. "Dr. O is still in love with Kimberly."

"See, we figure we should try and hook the two of them back up. Especially since they obviously still have the hots for each other," Conner said.

"How do you figure?" Kira asked, frowning.

"I said Kim was hot at the picnic and he glared at me. I swear his eyes did that thing Hayley told us about where they glow green when he's really pissed off. Like 'in five seconds you're going to be a pile of ashes' pissed off." Conner shuddered violently.

"They do seem a bit too awkward around each other to be... you know... comfortable as friends," Trent added.

Kira stared at him incredulously. "You're in this too? You traitor."

Trent shrugged guiltily. "Well... I owe Dr. O a lot."

Kira sighed and started to refute Trent's claim about Tommy and Kimberly, then thought back to her inability to speak the first time Trent had approached her, right before Ethan had mocked her "Isn't he just wow?" comment and gotten socked in the arm. Now that she thought about it, that was a fair point. They weren't comfortable with each other. She'd chocked it up to bad blood, but they didn't seem angry, just... uncertain.

"And since the guy's way too old to be dating, we figure he has no idea how to get a girl. Cuz if he did, he'd have one already," Conner continued.

"So we're going to try and hook him back up with Kimberly, but... uh... our plans kind of need a feminine touch," Ethan admitted sheepishly.

"And since you're the closest thing we have to an actual girl, we thought we'd ask you," Conner finished cheerfully.

"He didn't mean that!" Trent said quickly as Kira glared at Conner.

"Of course not. You're totally girly," Ethan added. Kira turned her glare on him. "Well, not totally. But..."

"But obviously, none of you have any idea about romance," Kira said dryly.

"Hey!"

"Except you," she said with a nod of acknowledgement at Trent. "Guys... look. Leave it alone."

"What? Why?" Conner demanded.

"Because it's not nice to mess with people. If they want to get back together, they'll get back together. If they aren't meant to be, then that's that." Well, that wasn't exactly Kira's philosophy... but she doubted that getting the guys involved was going to be a smart move. In fact, it would probably be a move that lead to a series of explosions.

"Yeah? Billy said Trini and Zack have been plotting to get them back together for ages," Ethan retorted. "They're his best friends. It seems to me that they would know if this was a bad idea or not. And why would Billy even tell me if he thought it was a bad idea?"

"I don't know! Maybe he just... felt like talking." Kira stood up. "Guys, it's a nice thought. But leave it to Trini, Zack, Jason and Billy, okay? This isn't a game."

"Come on, Kira! You're staying in Kimberly's room. You'd be the perfect person to convince her to ask Dr. O out," Trent pleaded.

Kira threw up her hands. "It's not that simple! This isn't easily fixed. There are a lot of problems between them, and it'll take time to fix them all. Begging Kim to ask Dr. O out isn't going to cut it. I admit, I want them together too—Kim is really cool, and it seems like they care about each other. Right now, we're still trying to convince them to spend a few minutes alone, for crying out loud! Their first date is probably going to be when someone loses it and locks them in a closet together. Get it? Time is what we need, not goofy pranks." With that Kira stormed from the room.

"Great plan, Ethan," Conner said sourly.

"Well, that was a bust," Trent said with a sigh.

Ethan grinned. "Well... maybe not completely..."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 15: Two for One

As Trini had predicted, Monday morning was dark and overcast, and it started to rain just as Jason and Billy arrived in the lobby. Tommy, Zack, Trini, Kimberly and Kira met them near the receptionist's desk.

"Looks like we need a backup plan," Trini said, glancing through the windows as the rain steadily increased. "An indoor one."

"Where are the guys?" Jason asked.

"I just woke them up a little while ago," Tommy explained. "They should be down any—"

"Dr. O! I think Ethan's going to kill him this time!" Trent burst out of the elevator doors.

"I hate kids," Tommy muttered, stalking towards the elevator.

"Hey!" Kira said indignantly.

"Maybe we should go help," Billy said worriedly.

"Eh, don't bother," Trent said with a shrug. "They're just arguing. I got tired of dealing with it. Dr. O has more experience with that, you know."

"Nice move," Kira said approvingly, lacing her fingers with his.

"Thanks."

Talk turned to plans for the day until Tommy returned with the two boys, both sporting a few new bruises (apparently things had escalated when Trent had left) and looking sour. Ethan immediately went to stand by Billy and Conner by Jason, avoiding looking at each other.

"Anyway," Trini said, as always trying to relieve tension, "we were talking about what we should do today."

All animosity was forgotten as Ethan, Conner and Trent looked at each other. "You ask them!" Ethan hissed at Trent.

"No, you!" Trent told Conner.

"No, you!" Conner said to Ethan.

Ethan sighed as the older Rangers and Kira looked at him expectantly. "Could we... you know..." he began, looking rather nervous.

"Spar?" Trent asked hopefully. "We'd really like to, well..."

"See what we've got?" Zack asked. "That sounds like fun to me."

"Now that does sound like fun," Billy said. "I'd love to see what Tommy's taught you guys."

"Probably how to yell 'wah' a lot," Jason said with a smirk.

"Hey! You do that too!" Tommy insisted.

"But you do it a lot," Conner pointed out.

"I do not!" Tommy half-shouted.

"You do too!" everyone else replied.

"Guys?" Kira said, noticing that quite a few people were looking at them curiously. "We should probably take this elsewhere."

"Yeah," said Zack. The receptionist had tried flirting with him when he'd showed up the day before yesterday, and he was no longer a fan of the lobby.

"Should we head back to the Youth Center?" Kimberly asked eagerly.

"No... it's a little too public," Jason said.

"Especially since the only ones in our group who are still youths are the four people who've never been here before," Trini added. "It might look a little odd if we all show up there to spar right before Power Rangers Day when we haven't been there in ages and we're accompanied by five people who are living in the home of the most recent Power Rangers team."

"What about your basement?" Billy asked Jason. "There would be adequate space."

"That'd work," Jason agreed.

They headed back to Jason and Trini's. As they crowded onto the porch, Jason gave Trini a somewhat put-out look as she fumbled with her keys. "Forgotten how the door works after all that time away?"

Trini laughed. "Jason, it's been two days," she said, giving him a grin. "Most normal people wouldn't even miss me yet—oof!"

As she pushed open the door, Tommy the dog came flying through it to put his paws on her shoulders and lick her face; Billy had to grab her to keep her from falling over as she was set upon by a hundred and twenty pounds of overenthusiastic canine.

"Aw, there's my wittle baby puppy," Trini cooed, scratching Tommy's ears.

"Little?" Conner repeated incredulously.

"Did ya miss me, Tommy? Yes, you missed me, didn't you? I missed you too! I missed you so much I couldn't stand it," Trini continued in baby-talk.

"You missed the dog and not me?" Jason demanded, looking utterly offended and pathetic.

"Aw, look at your jealous daddy," Trini said to the dog with a smile. Tommy barked at him in an almost mocking way.

"Well, the dog is better-looking," Tommy the human told Jason, smirking. Jason elbowed him in the stomach. "Ow!"

"Yeah," Kimberly said, giving Trini a significant, teasing look. "Tommy's way better-looking." She patted the dog's head.

"Are you okay, Kira?" Trent asked in concern. Kira had started gagging.

"Fine," she said, with a look on her face like she'd been forced to eat rotten lemons.

"He is not," Trini told Kimberly firmly.

The dog, who'd been panting happily in her face, closed his mouth and looked as offended as Jason.

"Is too," Kimberly said, then blushed when she noticed Tommy the human giving her and Trini a thoughtful look.

"Is not!" Trini insisted, and the dog dropped back onto all fours and slunk away. "Oh! Tommy, I didn't mean it. You're just as cute as Jason, yes you are." She bent down and gave the dog a quick hug. He cheered up considerably.

Trini took the dog out to the fenced-in backyard (it was a chain-link; they were still debating the whole picket-fence thing) while Jason gave the others a quick tour of the house. "This is the family room—mostly it's just been taken over by the dog and Trini's dolls, but it's a nice place to sit and hang out, you know—and this is the living room—"

"Ooh, nice electronics," Ethan said, heading for the entertainment center.

"I've already started familiarizing myself with the video games," Billy said. "Trini and I used to have video game wars before I left, but obviously she doesn't have anything that I'm familiar with."

"And interrupting the Blue guys before they can ramble on for an hour about electronics because that's all they've done for the past two days," Jason teased, "this is the kitchen. Anyone want anything?"

Conner pulled open a cabinet. "Whoa. Freakishly organized."

"That's Trini's fault," Jason said.

"Dr. O could learn some serious habits off of Trini," Trent said.

"What's wrong with my organization skills?" Tommy demanded.

"Other than the fact that you don't have any?" Ethan replied.

"You mean, other than the fact that you claim you're the only one who knows the system and then you keep forgetting what the system is?" Kira asked Tommy.

"You know," Trini said, coming into the kitchen and washing the dog fur from her hands, "when Tommy first got that house in Reefside a couple years ago, Jason and I helped him move in. I helped him unpack and I spent an entire weekend organizing everything. Color-coded his clothes, even—which is pretty difficult with Tommy. I came by for a visit a few months later and the place looked like a tornado had hit it."

"That reminds me," Tommy said, giving her his most charming smile, "my lab got destroyed not long before I lost my powers. I could use some help with the rebuild..."

Trini sighed heavily, knowing she'd eventually give in but not looking forward to it. She liked organizing—it made her feel like she was battling chaos. But Tommy had far too much chaos even without monsters running around destroying his things. "What about Hayley? Why can't she help you?"

"It's summer. There's a bunch of idiotic teenagers crowding her business right now."

"HEY!" Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent exclaimed.

"Sorry."

"We'll see," Trini said with a sigh. "It could take days, though, knowing you."

"Oh, I get it," Jason said in a tone somewhere between irked and furious. "This is about me, right? First Kim, now Tommy. Running off all the time. Talking about Billy nonstop for a week." He looked at Zack. "Come on, out with it, buddy. How are you going to steal my wife, huh?"

"I didn't do anything!" Zack complained.

"Jason, you're being ridiculous," Trini chided.

"I want my wife back! Is that so wrong?" He glared at Tommy. "Get your own woman!" He rounded on Kimberly. "And I want her back! Tonight!"

"You think that's what Kira and Trent will be like one day?" Conner asked Ethan curiously.

"Oh, totally."

Kira smacked Conner upside the head and Trent elbowed Ethan in the gut.

"OW!" Ethan gasped. "See, Conner? That's what Jason did to Dr. O on the porch. They're on their way."

"You do realize that if they're me and Kira, then you're on your way to marrying an alien chick, right?" Trent told Ethan.

"...I've come to terms with that possibility," Ethan said with his head held high, though he looked a little worried.

Trini giggled and flicked the water from her hands at Jason. "Come on, gang. Let's go spar before we kill each other."

They trooped down to the basement. "Nice weights," Conner said, looking at their exercise machines. He reached over to pick up a barbell, realized he couldn't lift it, and ran his hand along it instead, as if simply admiring the workmanship.

"What's that room over there?" Ethan asked, noticing the deadbolt on the door of the Secret Chamber.

"That's where we keep our Power Ranger stuff," Trini explained. "There isn't much left, of course, but what we do have is kept in there and locked up tight."

"You really should use an electronic lock," Billy said, shooting the room a nervous glance.

"Are you crazy? Those things cost a fortune. Besides, if the power went out, I'd be screwed, and electronic locks can be hacked or overridden, and anyone who does a bit of research can guess the password."

"I forget that things on Earth aren't as foolproof," Billy said apologetically. "But, really, all anyone has to do is break down the door, right? Or pick the lock."

"Trini had the lock built specially," Jason said. "It's all customized. Looks like a deadbolt but there's a lot of reinforcement in there. Anyone who throws their shoulder at it will end up with a broken arm."

"Really?" Ethan said, an odd tone in his voice.

"You should always kick doors anyway," Trent said. "Less chance for injury and a higher chance you'll actually break it, because you're applying the right force in the right place. You kick right at the lock, see, and—"

"Dude, what were you doing when you were evil?" Conner interrupted.

"...I got it from a book," Trent said uncomfortably.

"We can poke around in there later, if you want," Trini offered. "For now, though... who's up?"

Kimberly became incredibly excited. "Ooh, me first! I haven't gotten to spar with anyone in ages." She looked expectantly at Kira, but before she could ask Kira to join her, Tommy spoke up.

"You should fight Conner." Tommy struggled to keep the sly smile and mischievous look off of his face. This would be the perfect opportunity to get back at Conner for the whole Hayley-in-the-secret-lair thing. Tommy had learned about a half hour into the Dino Rangers' first training session that pairing up Conner and Kira was a royally bad idea. Conner's tendency towards chauvinism always led to him getting his butt kicked (which he later played off as "I let you win!"). Conner held back, patronizing her, while Kira let loose, because he was patronizing her. Tommy had been quick to pair up with one of them and make Ethan pair with the other; usually, Tommy had gotten stuck with Conner, as Ethan and Conner tended to beat each other up a little too badly, though Tommy tried to pair them up anyway, as it was far easier to deal with Kira than Conner. He had been utterly relieved when Trent had brought the teens up to an even four and become Conner's regular sparring partner. (Trent had a tendency to hold back against Kira also, only in his case it was out of an unwillingness to hurt her.)

Kimberly shrugged and took off her shoes, setting them carefully aside while Conner stared at her in horror. He had yet to get over the whole green-eyed glare back at the picnic, and the revelation about Tommy's history with Kimberly hadn't done a thing to calm Conner's nerves around her. Gulping, he kicked off his sandals and stepped forward timidly. Tommy was so intent on waiting for the first blow that he didn't even notice Trini nudging Billy and Zack and smiling over in his direction; he was only vaguely aware of Trini whispering something to them.

"Go easy on me, all right?" Kimberly asked innocently. "I'm rusty." Conner nodded.

Tommy's grin broadened, recognizing that line as the oldest trick in Kimberly's book. She had often played up the damsel-in-distress act, appealing to Tommy's sense of chivalry. Tommy had been shocked as hell during their first sparring match when he'd been knocked on his butt three seconds after Kimberly had told him not to be too hard on her. She had pulled this sort of thing often on the guys, especially on Tommy and Jason. Back then, the Rangers had liked to keep score of how many times they knocked the others to the mat, with the exception of Billy, who was only in it to improve his Ranger skills and keep the bullies away (so he said, anyway). Kimberly's girly-girl trick hadn't worked half as well on Zack, who wasn't as protective as Jason and Tommy, and it naturally hadn't fazed Trini in the slightest; she'd even used it herself a few times, though never with the frequency and relish that Kimberly had. "Go easy on me" was Kimberly's way of saying "You're going down, sucker."

Conner began with a very weak punch at Kimberly's stomach and the next thing he knew he was staring up at the ceiling and wondering how he'd gotten on his back.

Everyone roared with laughter, save Kimberly, who grinned in an innocent, "I'm-just-a-ditsy-and-harmless-little-girl" way and said "Yay!" happily.

Conner rolled to his feet and stared at her incredulously as Kimberly bounced on the balls of her feet. A moment later, he was diving backward to avoid her incredibly fast kick; this succeeded, but suddenly he was flat on his face on the mat anyway, having only a vague idea of where he'd actually been hit.

"That's two!" Kimberly cheered.

Conner leaped up, angry and confused. He lashed out with a punch that might have actually done some damage if Kimberly hadn't seen it coming a mile away. She grabbed his outstretched arm and flung him over her shoulder.

"Three!"

Revenge is sweet, Tommy thought evilly as Kimberly continued to humiliate Conner something awful. Eventually, somewhere around the fifteenth time he'd gone down by Kimberly's cheerful count, Conner began to fully apply himself, finally realizing that Kimberly wasn't a weakling but a skilled martial artist and gymnast. Around twenty-seven, he began to fight with a passion that he usually reserved for Ethan, monsters and Tyrannodrones, but by then he was so irked that he wasn't at his best; all it meant was Kimberly needed a little longer to knock him down.

"This is embarrassing," Trent muttered, though he looked thoroughly entertained. Something about this was so much more enjoyable than watching Kira beat on Conner.

"I know," Ethan said. "We should have bought popcorn."

Finally, Conner managed to even the score—at least, in his opinion.

"HA! I got you! I win!"

"Yeah," Kimberly said, giving him an odd look as she pushed herself up easily. "Forty-two to one."

"Who's the man?" Conner demanded of Ethan and Trent as he strutted off the mats.

"You the man," Ethan said sarcastically, patting Conner on the shoulder as Trent stifled a laugh. Conner completely missed Ethan's tone.

"All right!" Zack said, taking Kim's place in the center of the basement. "Who's next?"

Zack looked expectantly at the four teens. For all of his bravado, Conner looked very reluctant. Ethan was hoping to go up against Billy, Blue Ranger to Blue Ranger, and Kira was hoping for the same with Trini, so Trent stepped forward.

"Okay," Zack said. "I warn you, man, I'm pretty dangerous. You're about to get your butt kicked."

Trent smiled. "We'll see. I'm formerly evil. I didn't just get Dr. O's Two-Week Guide to Not Getting Killed as a Power Ranger. I trained with monsters, Triptoids, Tyrannodrones, Elsa, Zeltrax and occasionally even Mesogog."

"None of them have anything on me," Zack boasted. "Besides, I've still got my Power Coin."

Trent's eyes widened. "Isn't that kind of... you know... cheating?" he asked worriedly.

"Not in my book," Zack said, eyes glinting mischievously.

"You can take him, Trent!" Kira cheered.

"Kick his butt!" Conner added desperately, not wanting his friends to fare as badly as he had... and thus look like idiots in front of Tommy and his friends.

"Will do," Trent said, swallowing hard.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 16: When is a Ranger Not a Ranger?

Trent and Zack's fight was very entertaining. Their styles were completely different and both were fighting their hardest. While Trent had honed his skills against his father's monsters for hours each day, Zeltrax, Elsa, Mesogog, monsters, Triptoids and Tyrannodrones didn't use moves likely to be found in the latest hip-hop video, and Zack was still in possession of actual Power Ranger gifts, even though they were slightly weakened by the loss of the Command Center.

They finally decided to call it quits when Zack was up about three points, and a sweaty Trent returned to the sidelines to praise from his girlfriend and a grudging "Nice one" from a battered Conner. Ethan, however, ignored Trent entirely and ran out onto the mat.

"Come on, Billy!" he said. He and Billy had been chatting quite a bit over the past two days, and Ethan was slowly starting to idolize the older Blue Ranger. He desperately wanted to prove himself... and to wipe the smug smirk off Conner's face every time he teased Ethan about Conner being stronger.

"All right," Billy said nervously. "I haven't been a Ranger in a really long time, though—so I'm probably off-form—"

"Hey, I only spent a year as a Ranger and I've never done any other fighting," Ethan said with a shrug.

Billy smiled. "All right then. I have been training with the Aquitian Rangers..."

No one had been expecting much of this particular fight. Neither Blue Ranger had been very intense when it came to developing their skills... but apparently, they'd been practicing. Tommy, Jason, Trini, Kimberly, Zack, Conner, Kira and Trent watched, open-mouthed, as one of the most furious sparring matches ever seen blew every Blue stereotype out of the water.

"Where on Earth did Billy learn that?" Kimberly breathed admiringly as he flung Ethan to the mat.

"Not on Earth—on Aquitar. They don't exactly have karate," Trini said with a wry smile.

"What the hell do they have?" Jason asked, gaping at his shy, quiet friend as he fought like an angry Bruce Lee backed into a corner.

"Ethan's holding up well," Trent remarked. Somewhere along the way, the old and young had separated, so that Kira, Conner and Trent were standing several feet away from Jason, Trini, Kimberly, Zack and Tommy.

"He's not doing that good," Conner said defensively as Ethan kicked Billy halfway across the basement.

"Don't worry, Conner," Kira said, patting Conner on the shoulder. "Just because Kimberly totally humiliated you doesn't mean we're going to tease you about it. Much." Conner glared at her.

The fight seemed to go on forever. Blurs of blue and miscellaneous yells punctuated the air as punches and kicks flew. While Ethan had very little background in martial arts compared to Billy, Billy was used to sparring on a planet with a different gravity—never mind the fact that he spent most of his time below water. Neither of them managed to gain the upper hand, and they finally called it a tie before returning to the sidelines a good long while later, on the verge of collapsing from the exertion. Their respective friends congratulated them whole-heartedly.

"Trini?" Kira asked hopefully.

"Of course," Trini said with a smile, taking off her shoes and joining Kira on the mat.

Like Conner, Ethan and Trent, Kira's martial arts experience paled in comparison to her older counterpart. However, Trini was kind enough to make allowances for this, and went rather easy on her. Kira was still a strong opponent... or at least, strong enough not to get slaughtered.

Conner was watching happily, his interest piqued by two pretty girls duking it out. "Dude, all that's missing is a mud-wrestling pit." Trent glared at him and smacked him upside the head. "Ow!"

Tommy immediately turned to Jason, preparing to hold him back if need be, but Jason had sensed that there was no need. The two yellow-clad women turned to glare at Conner so furiously that he instantly began to panic. He pressed himself against the wall and edged towards the stairs to the first floor.

"I didn't mean it! I really really didn't!" Conner wailed, waving his hands as if to ward them off.

Trini gave him a threatening smile. "You know, I think we've been sparring long enough, don't you, Kira?" She turned to Kira, who nodded uncertainly; Kira would have liked to keep going, but she was rather winded and it was obvious that Trini had a plan of some sort. "Why don't you and Jason go next, Conner?" Trini continued.

"Oh, yes," Kira said with a grin, rushing off the mat. Jason grinned evilly. He had never been one to hold back in a fight, save when Kimberly played up the poor little girl act. And Conner had just made a very rude comment about Jason's wife.

"Come on, rookie," he said to Conner as Trini rejoined her friends.

"That was evil," Zack muttered to Trini, smiling.

"You know, I am responsible if anything happens to him," Tommy told her, torn between wanting Conner to get his butt kicked again and trying to be a responsible adult.

"He'll be fine," Trini said confidently. "Just a little... bruised."

Conner gulped as he stepped onto the mat. He knew he was in for it. Jason was the first Red Ranger, the first leader, and he hadn't lost a step if Tommy's tales of the Red Rangers' mission to the moon were anything to go by. Conner really wished he wasn't such a fan of saying whatever popped into his head.

Conner spent most of the fight on the defensive, blocking whenever Jason got close and then rushing back at the first opportunity. Jason was fast, Jason was strong, and Jason was Conner's idol. Therefore Jason was scary as hell. Conner was flung to the mat several times, and only managed to send Jason to the mat once, by sheer luck. Still, he fought as hard as he could, and the fight wasn't nearly as humiliating as the one against Kimberly.

"Ow," Conner moaned as he returned to the sidelines. He'd gotten off a few good hits, but the fact still remained that Conner had received a crash-course in martial arts from Tommy and a few nifty moves from his Ranger powers, while Jason had taken roughly a dozen forms of martial arts since before Conner was born and he'd spent twice as long in uniform as Conner had. "How exactly did the geek end up doing the best?"

"I've been training since we defeated Mesogog," Ethan said. "Whereas you went back to vegging all day."

"Me? Vegging? This from the king of the video games!"

"Keep talking, Mr. Got-My-Butt-Kicked-by-a- Pink-Ranger," Ethan shot back.

Conner glared at him. In the interest of staving off another argument, Trent turned to the older Rangers. "Why don't you guys show us how it's done?" he asked. When he'd been discussing the sparring idea with Conner and Ethan, they'd mentioned how cool it would be to see the older Rangers go at it.

They all looked at each other. "Let's go," Kimberly said to Trini. She was itching to get back on the floor... and Trini, unlike Conner, might actually be a challenge.

Trini cracked her knuckles. "All right, then. But I'm going to kick your butt, Kim. I always do."

"You used to," Kimberly retorted. "I've been practicing."

"Oh, please, like it'll help."

"And to think, Trini's the nice one," Zack joked.

"We'll see about that," Kimberly said cheerfully, and launched herself at Trini. Trini was definitely more skilled in martial arts, though she wasn't as nimble as Kimberly and didn't use flips and somersaults as much. She was, however, more apt to punch and use her hands; Kimberly relied almost entirely upon her powerful legs.

After about three minutes, Trini managed to pin Kimberly, holding her down with a knee in her back. "Give up?"

"Never!"

Suddenly, Trent smacked Conner upside the head again, while Kira simultaneously pinched his arm. "OW! What? I didn't say anything!"

"You were thinking it," Kira growled.

Kimberly flung her leg up to kick Trini in the back, and Trini rolled off before facing her friend. The two went all out, flinging each other around like rag dolls and putting on one hell of a show. "I wish I had a video camera," Zack said wistfully. "They'd make a great fight scene in the film I'm starting soon."

"What's it called?" Conner asked, obviously thinking that he could stand to watch similar fights, for which he received another pinch and a head smack. "OW! Jesus, guys, I'm bruised enough!"

Trini claimed victory for the sparring match, though it was a close thing; she was tired from her recent fight with Kira and Kimberly wasn't exactly a bad fighter. "You two going next?" Trini asked Jason and Tommy.

Tommy hesitated. He hadn't gotten a chance to spar with Jason in years, what with his job, and being a Dino Ranger, and college and working with Mercer and so on. He'd missed it greatly... but he wasn't exactly in the mood to be taken down in front of his students, and he and Jason had always been pretty evenly matched.

"Come on, Professor Underwear," Jason ribbed, heading out into the center of the basement.

Well, there was no backing down after a comment like that. "I can't help it if your wife likes my boxer shorts," Tommy told Jason loftily, ignoring Kira's gagging in the background. Kimberly giggled, Zack laughed, and Trini winced.

"Don't flatter yourself," Jason growled, kicking Tommy in the stomach before Tommy realized he'd moved. "At least I have a woman."

"Yeah, and you're whipped," Tommy retorted, forcing Jason back with a roundhouse and waiting for Jason to charge at him before nailing him with an uppercut.

"You want to talk whipped?" Jason demanded as he swept Tommy's feet out from under him. "When was the last time you were able to function without Hayley around, eh? The girl organizes your sock drawer!"

"She hasn't done that in years!" Tommy insisted. He and Jason continued to fight, barely noticing what they were doing as they cut each other down, just like old times.

"Right. The last time I came to see you, she was still leaving you little notes so you'd remember to pay your bills on time."

"Excuse me for being forgetful! And Trini does just as much for you. You can barely feed yourself when she isn't around."

"Oh, please! You rely on Hayley way more. Less than two days away from her and you're already getting your butt kicked by Trini and Kim for sneaking onto their balcony with Zack."

"That was Zack's fault!"

"Uh-huh. Sure."

"Hey, at least I'm not whining about it. 'Oh, Trini, when are you coming back, I can't live without you, I'm so whipped it's not funny'—"

"I am not whining!"

"You're totally whining! I've barely mentioned not having Hayley and you're all 'Boohoo, my wife wants to spent ten hours in someone else's house!'"

"Hey, that has nothing to do with how dependant I am on Trini! Just because you're not getting any from Hayley—"

"Do NOT go there!"

"Ha! Struck a nerve, did I?"

"No! But you just made my students want to hurl."

"Yeah, could you pick a new subject to make fun of him about?" Ethan called from the sidelines.

"Please?" Kira, Trent and Conner added.

"Tell me, what really happened when they were using your phone? Did they join forces and kick your butt?" Jason teased Tommy, figuring he might as well humor the students.

"Hey, just because you've never beaten Trini at arm-wrestling doesn't mean you have to take it out on me!"

"I was letting her win!"

"Oh, please. You sound like Conner."

"Hey!" Conner said indignantly.

"Well, Kim's gotten a bit tougher over the years."

"Somehow, I don't think Kimberly's toughness is a factor."

"Maybe she should kick your butt next, then. She used to do it all the time, as I recall."

"Not as often as Trini kicked yours!"

"Name one time Trini kicked my butt!"

"I seem to recall sitting calmly by the lake, enjoying the peace and quiet, when you ran by screaming your head off with Trini chasing you down—"

"I was chasing Richie! That so doesn't count!"

"Yeah? From what I remember, Richie ended up in the hospital and Trini beat the crap out of you for it."

"...I have come to accept that as the price of being too overprotective."

"You mean you actually know you're too overprotective? You had to spend two hundred hours in community service for the Richie thing! How many times a day does Trini have to beat you up for the overprotective thing, by the way?"

"Trini has never once kicked my ass!"

"Oh, whatever," Trini muttered, but quietly; she was a fan of sparing people's feelings.

"Yeah, right! She kicked your ass right after that mission to the moon!"

"She kicked yours, too!"

"She did not! I escaped!"

"Because she was gonna kick your ass!"

"No, no, no. Because I didn't want to have to fight her."

"Tommy, when she first pulled up, you came running back to the rest of us, told me 'She knows,' and dove behind T.J.'s car like a sissy girl."

"Well, I could see her glaring through the windshield when she pulled up! I can't believe you were so whipped that you didn't tell her where you were going."

"I didn't want her to worry!"

"So you told her you were going fishing with me instead of telling her you were going to the moon to fight the last of the Machine Empire?"

"Hey, you were the idiot who wanted only Red Rangers. How was I supposed to keep her from coming once she found out?"

"Gee, I don't know—tell her no?"

"Wait," Zack said slowly, turning to Trini. "Jason didn't tell you he was going to the moon?"

"No, he didn't. And he wondered why I wanted to beat the crap out of him and Tommy for it," Trini said mildly, watching the fight with amusement. "I love how this entire fight's about me."

On and on the two went, arguing playfully as they fought each other, both refusing to give up. They kept it up for over an hour, cracking on each other the whole time. Trini went to get the spectators drinks and snacks, and their attention spans began to wane. At last, when the others had all decided to sit down and were chatting amongst themselves, Jason and Tommy decided to call it quits.

"Whew, that was fun," Jason said, grabbing a towel off the rack they kept in the basement and tossing one to Tommy.

"Good match," Tommy said, getting himself a can of soda and settling down next to Billy.

"Good long match," Conner complained.

"By the way," Trini said, and pinched her husband on the arm.

"OW! What was that for?"

"For reminding me that you were an idiot about that mission to the moon," Trini replied calmly, pinching Tommy as well.

"OW!"

"Must be a Red and Yellow thing," Trent said, watching with amusement.

"It is," Jason said sulkily.

"Just like Kira and Conner," Ethan said with a grin.

"Of course, Kira and Conner have never done any of the other Red and Yellow norms," Tommy said. The tone in his voice was a clear warning that he was taking another stab at Conner.

"Like what?" Kira asked.

"Like getting married," Tommy said, struggling to keep a straight face.

"Just because Jason and Trini—"

"And Andros and Ashley," Tommy interrupted.

"...Well..."

"And wasn't there a little something between Eric and Taylor?"

"Yep."

"Why would anyone marry a Red Ranger?" Kira grumbled sourly.

"Hey!" Tommy, Jason, Trini and Conner exclaimed.

"What? You're all whack jobs," Kira said stubbornly, linking arms with Trent.

"I'd be careful if I were you," Kimberly said lightly. "Trent could be on his way to becoming Red one day."

"Never!" Trent said emphatically, looking horrified.

"I don't know—you're halfway there," Jason said thoughtfully. "That's the exact same route Tommy went. Evil Ranger, White Ranger, Red Ranger. ...You color thief," he added with a glare at Tommy.

"Hey, I didn't choose the color," Tommy insisted defensively. "They told me to go on the quest and I went."

"Sure, Tommy. Suuuuuuuure."

"Hey, I didn't want to be Red! They made me! There was no White Subcrystal, and for some reason they gave Adam the Green and Rocky the Blue, and they gave me Red."

"It's cuz you're a show-off like all the other Red Rangers," Kimberly teased.

"Hey!" Tommy, Jason and Conner yelled again.

"We're all show-offs," Billy said fairly.

"Speak for yourself," Jason, Zack and Tommy said, then paused as they thought over the unlikelihood of Billy, of all people, being the only show-off in the group.

"Don't worry, Kira," Kimberly said, taking advantage of the silence to console the younger girl, who was now squeezing Trent's arm so hard his fingers were going numb while she glared at Conner. "Your team has already deviated from tradition quite a bit. You didn't even have a Pink Ranger."

"Neither did the Ninja Rangers," Kira said worriedly.

"Ha! The Ninja Rangers," Tommy growled. "They had a Yellow guy and a Blue Girl!"

"What!" Trini and Billy demanded, looking offended.

Tommy nodded. "I know! That's what I said. Well, that's what I thought, anyway. And they had Crimson and Navy Rangers! What is that? And Cole's team was weird too. They had a girl as a White Ranger!" He snorted, then realized he was being a bit too defensive of the color scheme and cleared his throat. "Well, are we done down here? Maybe we could head back upstairs?"

"I want to go again!" Kimberly exclaimed, hopping back out onto the mat. She scanned the crowd for a likely sparring partner. "Jason?"

"I don't think so, Kim. I'm wiped," Jason said apologetically.

"Oh, come on! The day is young! I wanna kick someone's butt! Again!"

"How much caffeine have you had today?" Zack asked Kimberly incredulously, looking at her empty drink can suspiciously.

Trini saw her chance and took it. She stepped on Zack's toes as inconspicuously as possible while poking Billy in the side. "I am too," Trini said innocently.

"Zack?"

"I'm tired, too," Zack said, trying to look more exhausted than he was.

"Why don't you go, Tommy?" Billy suggested casually.

Tommy hesitated. He didn't really want to face Kimberly... on the other hand, he did want to face someone. He'd forgotten how much fun it was to train with his friends; it was absolutely exhilarating. Still...

Tommy had a sudden vision of accidentally unleashing his repressed anger with Kimberly all at once and beating her to death. Shaking his head, he said, "I don't think so."

"Oh, come on, ya old fogey," Kimberly teased, her tone holding a slight note of challenge that she knew he'd pick up on. "Going soft in your old age, are you?"

"Oooh!" Zack crowed. Jason smirked. Great. That meant they'd tease him forever if he backed out. The Dino Rangers would too, probably; seeing Dr. O backing down from a challenge would probably make their day, particularly Conner's.

A moment of careful consideration later, Tommy stepped forward, handing his drink to Jason. "Keep talking," he said with a grin, "while you're still conscious."

Kimberly laughed and moved into position, giving him a slightly nervous smile. "Don't go too hard on me, okay? I'm kinda tired."

"It's not going to work on me, Kim," Tommy said, trying to sound more certain than he felt. "I know that trick."

"It's not a trick," she insisted. "Ready?"

He nodded and she launched a feeble punch at his face. Tommy blocked easily and she spun around, fast as lightning, to elbow him hard in the gut.

"OOF!" he yelped, doubling over. Cackling evilly, Kimberly danced behind him and kicked him playfully in the butt; he went sprawling on the mat.

"GO KIM!" the four teens cheered from the wall. Tommy rolled over, not bothering to glare at them.

"One," Kimberly said simply, giving him a smug smile.

"Oh, that's it," Tommy growled good-naturedly, springing up. "You're going down, little girl."

"Bring it," Kimberly retorted, sticking out her tongue.

Suddenly, just as it had with Jason, the world fell away. He was seventeen again, hanging out with his friends in the Juice Bar, feeling the rush of adrenaline and the spark of pure energy that came from a good fight, combined with the contentment of having his friends around him. He forgot about his relationship with Kimberly, he forgot about its ending; he forgot about everything except the fight.

Kimberly seemed to be feeling it also; she slipped easily into the banter they'd often indulged in back in Ernie's exercise area. "Come and get me, Tommy," she teased as they circled each other. "What's the matter? Too chicken to—"

Kimberly broke off as Tommy rushed her, faking a kick at her head only to knock her legs out from under her a split-second later. Kimberly hit the floor with a startled yelp.

"You were saying?" Tommy said coolly.

Kimberly's foot lashed out, striking him a few inches below the collarbone and knocking him back as well. She rolled to her feet. "Sloppy, sloppy," she chided, backing away as he flipped up.

"Right back at you."

"You're losing again, little boy. Where's your brain today, Tommy? Forget it at home?"

"No, did you spend yours on new shoes?"

"OOOOOH!" the gang chorused. "That was cold!" Zack howled as they all dissolved into laughter again.

Kimberly glowered at him. "Mock not the shoes!" she shouted and then they were flying at each other, fists and feet striking out and never connecting as they fought with a ferocity that was too fast to follow. Just when Tommy was about to throw her down, she vaulted over his head with a very impressive flip that had won her many points with gymnastics judges.

"No fair," he joked as he turned to face her.

"You know what they say," Kimberly replied, "'White Rangers can't jump.'"

"Hey!" Trent said indignantly.

Kimberly and Tommy ignored him. "Let's prove them wrong," Tommy said, leaping into the air. Kimberly ducked but had to drop to the floor to avoid him; Tommy landed and pinned her before she could move. "That's tied again, Pinky."

She lurched upwards and he rolled off. "Oh, that so doesn't count!" she said, rolling her eyes.

"Yeah? How 'bout this?" Tommy asked, getting behind her and pinning her arms to her sides, then throwing her down. She hit lightly but returned to her feet quickly; still, it was enough to count, according to the rules they'd set down as teenagers.

"Oh, the absent-minded professor actually has a few moves left in him," she mocked.

"Like I haven't heard that one before," Tommy retorted. "You should work on your material, Kim. You really are getting rusty."

"Please. You haven't had a good comeback since the early Green days, buddy." Once again, they met in a whirlwind of kicks and punches before Kimberly got behind him and kicked him, making him stumble. "By the way, whatever happened to that evil laugh of yours?"

Tommy twisted around and managed to knock her down with a kick to the side. Then he cut loose with a purely wicked "Mwahahahaha!" He smirked at her as they began to circle again. "That the one?"

"There's the wannabe badass I remember," she said with a mock-serious nod.

"Dr. O... laughing maniacally," Kira remarked, staring at him in shock.

"I never thought I'd say it," Ethan said, "but Dr. O has a killer evil laugh." Kira, Trent and Conner stared at him. "What? He does."

"Then why not form a fan club for it?" Conner said mockingly. "I can see it now—'Young Lads and Ladies Who Gather for the Wondrous Noise That Is—'"

"All right, you made your point. If anyone needs to work on their material, it's you," Ethan interrupted.

"It is an awesome laugh, though," Kira said fairly. "Kind of like Trent's evil glare."

"Why do people keep comparing me to Dr. O!" Trent demanded. He was becoming quite exasperated with it all; he'd heard a lot of it before, but hearing it so often over the past few days had begun to seriously creep him out.

Back on the mats, Tommy and Kimberly were getting more and more animated. The light banter was flying back and forth as often as the punches; it was amazing to watch the pure chemistry of it all. It was a good long while before either of them got close to bringing the other down; after what seemed like ages, Tommy finally managed to grab her from behind again, but Kimberly swung her head about as fast as she could and her ponytail whipped over his face. His eyes stung.

"Ouch!" he yelped, leaping back. "Hey, no weapons!"

"What's the matter? Mad that you can't retaliate? Shouldn't have cut your hair, Tommy."

"Oh, here we go." Tommy dropped his stance and held his hands up, folding them a few times in the classic "bring it on" gesture. "Come on, Kim. Throw out a crack on my hair I haven't heard before. I dare you. Go ahead and try. It can't be done."

"Gee, let me think," she said, dropping her stance also and putting a finger on her chin. "I seem to remember a little something about pink bows and these cute little braids..."

Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack died laughing while Kira, Trent, Conner and Ethan looked at them wide-eyed, wondering exactly what the story behind that one was. Tommy gaped at Kimberly in disbelief, unable to fathom that she had just delivered the ultimate burn.

"No you did not just go there!" he roared.

"Oh, I so went there, Cinnamon Buns."

There it was, the one thing that could have made Kimberly's previous comment any worse. Jason fell over from laughing so hard. Billy clutched at Trini for support. Zack bent double and slapped his knee, pointing at Tommy, whose face was now the color of Jason's shirt. Kira took one look at the collapsing older Rangers and pulled a small pad of paper and a pen from her back pocket.

"Kira, this is no time to write a song," Conner told her. "It's just getting good!"

"I'm not writing a song," she replied. "I'm making a list."

"Of what?" Ethan asked.

"All the things I'm going to get Kimberly and Trini to tell me about later."

"You'll fill us in, right?" Trent asked eagerly.

"Of course I will."

"Hey," Ethan said, "put down all that stuff Jason and Dr. O were talking about, too!" Kira nodded and made a few more notes.

Back on the mat, Tommy was still staring at Kimberly. "No you didn't."

"I did," she said calmly.

"You wouldn't. You didn't!"

"I would and I did! Deal with it, Tommy—I win."

"Like hell you win! You want to talk hair? What about you, with the three-foot-tall bangs?"

"Not even close to on par with the mullet, never mind the bows. You've lost, Tommy. Sorry for you."

"The bows were your fault! I did not lose!"

"I won. I won, you lost, witness me victory dancing."

With a roar of frustration laced with amused mortification, Tommy threw himself at her. She was ready for him; the next thing anyone knew they closely resembled a ball of cartoon dust such as those seen on Looney Tunes, only with blurs of black and pink thrown in.

Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack laughed themselves sick for the next fifteen minutes; they were soon piled together on the floor as Kimberly and Tommy continued to go at it, Kira occasionally making more notes. It was the sort of fight where no one could pick out all the moves, even if they taped it and played it in slow motion and paused every other frame. Soon the two of them were breathing too heavily to tease each other much; the spectator Rangers only caught the occasional word like "morph," "hair," "Bulk," "white" and "shirtless," none of which made much sense but seemed to egg Tommy and Kimberly on even more.

At last, Tommy flung Kimberly to the mat and pinned her. After a brief struggle, she reluctantly lay still... and just like that they were back to being an ex-boyfriend and an ex-girlfriend from a messy breakup who were trying to repair the damage, instantly losing the magic that had reverted them back to their happier, younger selves. They stared at each other, neither knowing what to say, both waiting for the other to make the first move. Tommy was only vaguely aware of the fact that his friends had stopped laughing, and some small part of him kept suggesting that he should get off of her, but his body didn't seem to agree. So he lay there on top of her, catching his breath, which was proving more and more impossible as time wore on. His eyes left hers for a moment, flicking down to her mouth for a fraction of a second, but Kimberly caught the movement all the same.

"Good match," Tommy said awkwardly.

Kimberly smiled at him brightly and without warning he was flung up and over to land bodily on the mat, Kimberly straddling his chest before the shock of the movement could register. Her smile turned into a smirk.

"You, too," she said smugly. "But I still win."

"Oh, yeah?" Tommy challenged.

Thus began one of the most unusual sparring moments in Ranger history—Tommy and Kimberly locked in some sort of vicious rolling fight, where all they did was flip each other around and make the occasional comment. Conner, Ethan and Trent watched avidly, while Kira, Trini, Jason, Zack and Billy looked on without seeing the moves... only the sparks.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Zack said to Billy and Trini.

"Dude," Jason said, overhearing him, "everyone's thinking what you're thinking."

Trini, Billy and Zack looked at him sharply; Kira, Trent, Conner and Ethan looked from Jason to the others curiously. Before anyone could make another comment, however, Tommy and Kimberly returned to their banter and everyone instantly began paying attention to them again. At present, they had each other by the shoulders and were rolling from one end of the basement towards the other.

Kimberly broke Tommy's grip on her shoulders and flung him to the mat, holding him down. "I bet those spikes you got going on could still hold a few bows," Kimberly said with a tone that meant it was unmistakably a threat.

Using his legs and sheer body weight, Tommy reversed their positions. "I'd like to see you try, Ms. Bunny Pajamas!"

"Those pajamas were cute!" Kimberly insisted, tossing Tommy into the door of the Secret Chamber and then, realizing she was free, getting up to run. Tommy, however, dove on her before she could get far. She ended-up face-down with Tommy on her back.

"I know the Goat Man really liked them."

Kimberly drove both of her elbows into his chest and flipped them both over; now they were facing each other again. She jabbed her finger into his chest, hard. "The Goat Man is off-limits! We made that rule ages ago!"

"Yeah? The bows were off-limits too!" Tommy kicked her over his head and flipped back on top of her.

"You shouldn't have brought up the shoe thing!" Kimberly retorted. She attempted to throw him off, but Tommy dug in and was able to stop her.

"HA!" Tommy roared. "I think I feel another evil laugh coming on. Looks like I win."

"Do not!" Kimberly snapped.

"You're pinned. You can't move! I win! Mwahahahaha!"

"That's really starting to get creepy," Conner muttered.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 17: Birds of a Feather

Jason grinned as Tommy and Kimberly's fight continued. He wasn't sure how much time had passed since the fight began, but he did know that the others had all lost interest. Trini, Billy and Ethan had said something about video games and disappeared. Trent had fallen asleep sitting up. (Trent hadn't slept well in the past few months, especially given the trouble with his father and the fact that, after leaving Mesogog's team, he'd started sleeping in Hayley's Cyberspace for protection. So he had recently taken to falling asleep whenever the opportunity presented itself.) Shortly after Trent had nodded off, Kira had suggested that she and Zack go check out Jason and Trini's music collection, and Conner had fallen asleep shortly thereafter, leaving only Jason both in the basement and conscious.

Jason was smiling from ear to ear. Although he'd never talked to anyone about the Tommy/Kimberly breakup, it had deeply affected him, perhaps more so than any of the others. Kimberly had been one of his closest friends—in fact, she'd been the second friend he'd ever made. There were times when he forgot that she wasn't his little sister. And Tommy had quickly become his best friend, back in the early days of being Power Rangers. Tommy and Kim had seemed so perfect together that Jason had always figured they were the thing to aspire to. The beginnings of his relationship with Trini had, in fact, found him comparing himself and Trini to Tommy and Kimberly (with only slight color differences), and it had freaked him out beyond belief when it had ended, so suddenly and without warning and out of the freaking blue. What was a guy to do when the standard for relationships just disappeared? It didn't help that he and Trini had decided to cool it at the time. Jason had suddenly found himself thinking that if there was no hope for Tommy and Kimberly, there was certainly no hope for Jason and Trini... ever. He still couldn't believe that he was now married to Trini when Tommy and Kimberly were still single and hadn't spoken in years, and Jason still had a nagging suspicion in the back of his head that no relationship, no matter how perfect it seemed, was forever.

It bugged him, to say the least, especially since it had seemed so... anti-climatic. Kimberly sent the letter, they all tried to cheer up Tommy, and no one ever mentioned it again. Whatever guy Kimberly had dumped Tommy for had been gone a few months later; she'd been single when she came to visit right after Jason had lost the Gold Ranger powers... and Tommy had started dating Kat.

Jason had liked Kat, he really had; he counted her as a friend before long, though she wasn't quite as dear to him as Tommy, Billy, Zack, Kimberly and Trini. Yet something about her and Tommy had always seemed... off to him. She just seemed like... Kimberly's replacement, in more ways than one. Jason could have sworn he even caught Tommy stumbling over her name once or twice. Jason couldn't help but think that if it wasn't for her, Tommy would have gone after Kimberly. He wouldn't have just accepted it and not at least called or written for an explanation. Jason knew that Tommy had been rather shaken by Kimberly's leaving, and it seemed to Jason that Tommy had been trying to avoid thinking about it. He'd let Kat be the new Pink Ranger, Kat be his new friend... and somehow she'd become Tommy's new Kimberly.

Now, however, to see Tommy and Kimberly together again... it was really uplifting. They had fallen right back into the teasing, and the sparring match seemed so much like something they would have done as teenagers. Jason couldn't count how many times he, or one of the others, had been forced to break up similar matches before they went a little too far.

"I've got you! I've got you!" Tommy shouted, completely flattening Kimberly against the floor.

"No you haven't!" Kimberly shrieked, struggling for all she was worth.

"You're pinned! PINNED PINNED PINNED!"

"You suck!"

"What's going on?" A sleepy Conner, awakened by the sudden yelling, sat up and looked around wildly. Trent, who had slumped against him, slid down to the floor and woke with a yelp as he hit the ground painfully.

"Nothing," Jason told them. "Tommy and Kim were just spending a couple of hours rolling around on the floor."

Tommy looked up, startled. "Where is everyone?"

"Trini's having a video game war with the Blues and Kira and Zack are pawing through my CD collection," Jason explained. He smirked at Tommy, who was still lying on Kimberly. "Having fun?" Tommy's eyes widened in horror and he scrambled off of Kimberly as though only just realizing what he was doing.

"I would be if I were him," Conner muttered, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

"Shut up, Conner!" Tommy barked.

"What? I meant because you actually won!"

"Good match," Kimberly called over her shoulder, practically running up the stairs before anyone could blink.

"That is one perky person," Trent said, amazed that she still had energy to move. He and Conner tiredly followed her, Tommy glaring at them the whole way. Soon, Tommy and Jason were alone in the basement.

"Don't say it," Tommy said warningly.

"What? I'm not saying a word."

"You're thinking it."

"Well, I'm sorry, but I can't help but think it."

"Stop it!"

"Okay, I stopped."

"...You did not."

"I did too!" Jason gave Tommy his most innocent expression. Tommy responded with a glare and stomped up the stairs.

The first floor of the house was full of noise. Kira and Zack had turned the family room into their own private nightclub; Kira was dancing on one couch and Zack on the other, both of them singing along to an old CD of Jason's. In the living room, miscellaneous monkey noises were issuing from the TV; Trini, Ethan and Billy were taking turns beating levels on Donkey Kong Country. Billy was far more comfortable with old-school Nintendo, Super NES and Sega games, and Trini and Ethan were more than happy to level the playing field. Kimberly sat huddled on the loveseat next to Trini, the two of them talking in low voices, the dog's head in Trini's lap and one paw up on Kimberly's leg as though trying to console her. Billy and Ethan were on the couch, complaining about Snow Barrel Blast and Oil Drum Alley, whatever that meant. Conner had stumbled off to the bathroom and a groggy Trent was sitting on an armchair, watching his girlfriend dance.

"Hey, Jason, Tommy!" Zack called, waving and hopping down. He shut off the CD player. "It's about frickin time, man! We got bored!"

"Thanks," Tommy said dryly. Tommy stood in the dining room, looking expectantly from one group to the other. "What are we up to, guys?"

"I don't know," Trini said, patting Kimberly on the knee and standing up, to the disappointment of the dog. "We should probably get some dinner or something."

"I'm starving!" Conner complained, coming out of the bathroom.

"You just had a whole bag of chips," Ethan pointed out.

"So?" Conner said blankly.

"Red thing," Kimberly muttered to Kira, who giggled.

"Pizza again?" Jason asked, glaring at Kimberly.

"That's pretty much all we've eaten for the past two days," Kira complained. "I'm going to be fat by the time this vacation is over."

"You could never be fat," Trent assured her. She grinned at him.

"Wow, he learned the basics young," Jason muttered to Tommy.

"Well... why don't we go to a nice sit-down restaurant?" Trini asked. "Then we can get whatever we want."

"I look like hell, Trini!" Kimberly complained. "I'd have to go back to the hotel and take a shower. Come to think of it, yeah, can we do that? I feel grimy."

"Any objections?" Jason asked the group at large. A few people shrugged. "All right."

"I'll come back with you," Trini said to Kimberly.

"No!" Jason half-shouted. "No more going back to the hotel! Ever! You won't come back! I know you!" As if to support his claim, the dog sat down on Trini's foot.

"Whipped," Tommy muttered with a grin. Zack suppressed a laugh.

Trini gave Kimberly a mischievous smile. "Okay, I'll stay here."

"Aw, come on," Kimberly whined. "I never get to see you." Trini gave her a significant look and mouthed "I'll see you tonight." Kimberly frowned for a moment, puzzling over what this meant, then wrinkled her nose and let out a small "Ew!"

Catching on, Tommy turned to Billy. "Why don't you come back with me and Zack?"

"Yeah, you should really stop wearing Jason's clothes," Zack added, though he'd yet to catch on to what Kimberly, Tommy and Billy had. "You look like Santa after the Atkins Diet on a casual Friday."

Billy looked down at his outfit—jeans and an old red T-shirt of Jason's, both of which were rather baggy on him and made him look incredibly skinny. The sleeves of the shirt were almost hanging at his wrists. "Smaller clothes would be preferable," Billy admitted. "Do you have anything blue?"

"Tommy should," Zack said cheerfully. "He has every other color known to man."

"Ha, ha," Tommy said, rolling his eyes.

"Actually, Blue's the one color he hasn't been, right?" Billy said, looking a little nervous.

"And I'm never gonna be Blue!" Tommy insisted. "I'm through. I'm done. Four was enough."

"First ever Orange," Jason said in a stage-whisper.

"I've got clothes you can borrow," Ethan offered Billy. "I have plenty of blue."

"So Jason and I will come meet you in an hour or two?" Trini suggested. The others nodded.

"That was an awesome match against Dr. O," Kira said as she and Trent climbed into Kimberly's car; the others were riding with Zack.

"Thanks," Kimberly said. "I kind of lost count of who pinned who more, though." She sighed and stretched her neck from side to side. "He's a heavy guy, you know."

"I'd imagine so," Trent said. "Anyway, thanks for humiliating Conner for us."

Kimberly laughed. "My pleasure. He seemed like he was holding back, though, at least at the beginning. Did you notice?"

"That's Conner for you," Kira grumbled. "He's kind of... chauvinistic."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. It took me a while to get him to stop calling me 'babe,' in fact." Kira rolled her eyes. "But you totally kicked Dr. O's butt, too—it was so cool!"

She smiled. "I don't know about that. He's really the strongest fighter in our group, except for maybe Jason. Trini and Zack are both pretty strong, too. Billy and I were always sort of the weaklings."

"Billy? He looked pretty tough to me," Trent said, surprised.

"Yeah, well—he's been working on it over the years. I think it really bummed him out when he lost his powers and the others got new ones; I know he was working a lot harder during that year, according to Jason. I guess he never fell out of the habit. Me, well... Tommy was probably holding back, too." She giggled. "I used to pull that girly trick on him all the time. He'd fall for it every single time we fought. Trini always said I should stop using it so often, because I was losing the element of surprise, but he fell for it anyway. Jason did too, almost as regularly. The big softies."

"Dr. O, a softie?" Trent said incredulously.

"He may not act like it," Kimberly said with a smile, "but he's just a big sweetheart deep down."

"Yeah?" Kira said casually, itching to pull out her notepad.

"Yeah." Kimberly shrugged, feeling rather nostalgic. She slipped back into her memories as she drove them back to the hotel, letting the good times of the past override her bad blood with Tommy, at least for the moment.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 18: Food Fight

Jason and Trini didn't show up for almost three hours; they came up to the sixth floor and found Tommy and Zack arguing over Tommy's wardrobe, their hotel door wide open. Zack was wearing a pair of jeans and Tommy only khakis while they both shook black shirts at each other like matadors waving flags at a bull.

"Get your own color!" Zack half-shouted.

"You don't have a patent on the color black!" Tommy retorted.

"You've got three other colors to choose from! Wear green or something! None of us were ever Green!"

"Knock, knock," Trini called through the open door.

"Trini, tell Tommy he can't wear that shirt!" Zack said.

"It looks nothing like Zack's shirt!" Tommy said. He and Zack held up a pair of almost identical black polo shirts; the only difference was that one had a chest pocket.

"It's the exact same shirt I'm wearing!" Zack insisted.

"Where is Billy?" Trini asked, ignoring their squabble entirely.

"He went to go borrow clothes from Ethan," Tommy said. "Look at these shirts. They don't look alike, do they?"

"Zack's right, man," Jason said. "Wear a different color."

"Maybe I'll wear red," Tommy said, narrowing his eyes.

"Whatever," Jason said, plopping down on Zack's bed. "Ready to go?"

"Are you okay?" Tommy asked. Jason had always "enjoyed" arguing colors with Tommy as much as Zack now was.

"I'm going to go check on Billy," Trini said, walking out quickly.

"Kay," Jason said serenely.

Tommy looked from the calm, peaceful, cheerful Jason to the space where Trini had been moments ago and made a disgusted face. That explained it.

"Oh, gross," Zack groaned. "I get it now."

"Get what?" Jason asked.

"Nothing," Zack said sourly. He turned to Tommy. "Come on, man. Wear something else, please?"

Tommy sighed and looked at the open dresser drawer full of his clothes. His nostalgic mindset when packing had led him to a lot of green, white and red choices; he supposed he could relent on the black polo. His shoes were black, anyway. "All right, fine," Tommy said with a sigh, fishing through his clothing for something suitable. Zack grinned and pulled his shirt on.

Before he could decide between a white button-down and a green T-shirt, Billy practically danced into the room, looking ecstatic. "Ethan had overalls!" he exclaimed by way of greeting. Billy no longer looked like Santa Claus minus a few pounds, but the expression on his face was worthy of a little kid who'd been Santa's favorite. Ethan had given him a pair of dark blue denim overalls and a light blue T-shirt.

"I thought you got over overalls," Jason said. "You never wore them by the time I came back to be the Gold Ranger. And you rarely wore them by the time I left for the conference..."

"That was because they went so out of style that I couldn't find them anymore!" Billy explained. "Oh, god, I missed these. I haven't worn a pair in ages! They're so perfect. They fit! They're functional, too. They don't slip, so I don't need to wear a belt or worry if my underwear is showing, or if a bully's going to pull my pants down—well, okay, no one really does that anymore, but it's the thought that counts—and they have plenty of pockets, and—"

"Billy, man, you can keep them," Ethan said, coming into the room, sounding both amused and slightly creeped out. "I only brought them because my mom helped me pack."

"Your mom helps you pack?" Conner said incredulously, entering behind Ethan.

"What, like yours doesn't?" Ethan retorted.

"No, she doesn't."

"Yeah, right," Trent said, coming in with Trini.

"She doesn't! Well, maybe just a little. Sometimes my brother, Eric, he likes to slip weird stuff in my suitcase. Some of it even smells." He turned to Jason. "Where have you been? I've eaten all of my reserve snack food. I was about to order room service."

"I'll go get Kim and Kira," Trini said, once more disappearing as fast as possible.

Kim, Tommy thought grimly, turning back to his dresser and digging faster.

"Can I really keep them?" Billy asked eagerly before Jason could reply to Conner.

"Sure. I never wear them," Ethan said with a shrug.

"Ah, overalls," Billy said happily, fiddling with the straps. "I wonder if I could get someone on Aquitar to make them."

"Why don't you just buy a few pairs while you're here?" Trent suggested. "I'm pretty sure we could find some at the mall."

"Do you think so? Oh, wait... I don't have any money," Billy said. "Hey! You know, I need to go see my dad while I'm here... I haven't seen him in a really long time."

"Why don't you call him, once we get the whole gang together?" Zack suggested. "I miss crazy old Mr. Cranston. Haven't talked to him since before you left for Aquitar."

"How exactly does that work, seeing your dad when you don't live on the planet?" Conner asked curiously.

"Well, I came back for my stuff not long after I left, as soon as I was back to being a teenager and teleporting was possible; the circuits were fried right after I got there. Anyway, I explained that I'd gotten a job working with the government, and all that. Then Trini and I worked out a way to hook up the Aquitian communication module to a telephone and actually call him. So I've been using Trini as a relay to my father for years. I don't get to talk to him as much as I like, but I do get to talk to him often enough. He just, um, thinks I'm working for the military and can't talk about my job. Which, technically, is almost kind of sort of true."

"Guys!" Tommy said, trying to keep the note of panic out of his voice. He still hadn't decided on what to wear; he waved four shirts at Jason, Zack, Billy, Conner, Ethan and Trent. "Which shirt should I wear?" He had gone past the green shirt and the white, adding a red polo and a black sleeveless T-shirt.

"I like the white," Trent said.

"Me, too," Zack said hurriedly.

"Nah, go with the red," Conner said.

"No, the green," Ethan said. They paused and looked at him. "What? Someone had to argue for the green."

"In that case, I suggest the black one," Jason said with a smile.

"Guys!" Tommy whined. "You're not helping!"

"What's going on?" Kira asked, walking in with Kimberly and Trini. Then she noticed Tommy wasn't wearing a shirt and walked right back out of the room, shuddering.

"What's up with Kira?" Kimberly asked.

"No idea," Tommy said firmly, looking speculatively at his shirts.

"Are we ready to go?" Trini asked.

"Tommy's having an identity crisis," Jason explained serenely, gesturing at Tommy.

Trini snorted, trying to hold in her laughter at the look on Tommy's face. "Tommy, it really doesn't matter, does it?"

Tommy huffed irritably. "Well..."

"You must have a heck of a time getting dressed every morning," Conner said thoughtfully.

"Remember when he first became the Black Ranger?" Ethan said. "Said he had to go shopping because there was a shortage of black in his closet?"

Jason laughed. "Did you really?"

"Shut up, Jason," Tommy said wearily.

"Tommy, let me teach you what I do to choose an outfit when I'm in a hurry," Kimberly said, stepping forward.

"Oh, this outta be good," Zack joked.

"It's a highly sophisticated, foolproof method," she said seriously. She held up her index finger and began pointing at each shirt in turn. "Eeney, meeney, miney, moe," she intoned.

Tommy laughed and pulled one of the shirts over his head at random. "Thanks, Kim. I'll remember that."

She nodded and grinned, then turned back to the others. "So where are we going?"

"Somewhere good," Conner insisted.

"Seafood?" Billy suggested hopefully.

"No," Tommy said emphatically. They turned to look at him. "Sorry. Recent falling out with calamari."

"Why don't we go somewhere with more variety?" Trini said. "I'm sure we'll all want something different."

Trini was right; they spent a good long while discussing where they should go and twenty minutes later had tentatively agreed on a place and were heading out the door.

Once they were led to their table in the restaurant—well, three tables pushed together in the middle of the non-smoking section—Billy brought up his father again. Trini, who had considered Mr. Cranston as good as an uncle to her ever since she and Billy were first placed in advanced classes together in elementary school, immediately offered up her cell phone, but Billy decided to use Tommy's instead, as Reefside's area code was less recognizable.

Billy swallowed nervously. His father was very smart, and it would take some fast talking to cover his new occupation and residence; he'd had some near misses over the phone. He felt bad that he never got to see his father, but between the hours he worked, the difficulty of scheduling a properly-timed phone call to another planet, and the fact that it was hard to hide his life on Aquitar, it couldn't be helped.

"Maybe I should surprise him?" Billy asked.

"He might not be home," Trini said. "He could be out of town, for all you know. You should tell him you wanted to surprise him but you'll be by in the morning. Say I'm picking you up at the airport."

Billy nodded and dialed the number. His father answered on the third ring.

"Hello?"

"Dad?"

"Billy! Oh, it's so good to hear from you! Any particular reason you're calling?"

"Well... I was hoping that in the morning you could say 'it's so good to see you.'"

"You're in town!"

"I'm going to be," Billy lied. He hadn't been able to tell his father he was coming into town; there had been a major computer malfunction right after he'd set up the trip and he'd barely had time to sleep, let alone plan, while dealing with it; his only chance to contact Earth had been a few hurried conversations with Trini. He didn't want to hurt his father's feelings by saying that he'd been in town for a few days, but in all honesty he'd been so excited to see the gang and come back to Earth in general that he'd kept forgetting to mention his father once he'd arrived. The gang had a tendency to make him forget everything, even his inventions, and the last few days had been rather hectic, even though it was definitely the good sort of hectic. "Trini's picking me up at the airport tomorrow. I was going to surprise you, but then I thought you might not be home, so..."

"I'll be here! It'll be so great to see you, son. Where are you staying?"

"Well... Trini and Jason have a guest room, so I thought I'd stay with them. Wouldn't want to impose on you. Plus, you know, I'm guessing my old room's still roped off."

"Yes. I kept putting off fixing up that whole in the wall; it's still just boarded over. The scorch marks remind me so much of you! Unfortunately, though, I'm going out of town tomorrow; my plane leans at four. I'm giving a couple of lectures at John Hopkins, but I'll only be gone until Friday. How long are you staying?"

"Until Sunday, at least," Billy said. "So, can I come by in the morning?"

"Of course, of course! Around ten?"

"That should be fine."

"Say, why don't you bring Trini with you?"

"Sure, Dad. She said she missed seeing you. And Jason and Zack—"

"Zack? I thought he was in Los Angeles."

"He's coming back into town for the week. So are Kimberly and Tommy. Er, and some of Tommy's... um... friends," Billy said. There really was no tactful way to describe Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent.

"Bring them all, bring them all! I miss them, too. You kids, wandering around in the garage for hours on end, occasionally blowing things up... good times."

"I didn't blow things up that often," Billy insisted, but without any real conviction.

"Sure you didn't, son. Well, I can hear a lot of background noise—are you busy?"

"Oh, I'm out eating dinner," Billy said guiltily.

"Well, I'll let you go, then. I'll see you at ten, okay?"

"All right." Billy and his father said their goodbyes and hung up. Billy handed the phone back to Tommy.

"What's wrong?" Ethan asked. "You look kind of worried."

"More like terrified," Billy said dryly. "It's really difficult to keep a secret identity from a genius father. I only managed it as a kid because he's so absent-minded."

"Why not just tell him?" Trent suggested.

"Because the more people who know about our identities, the less likely it is that they'll stay a secret," Tommy said severely. Of all of them, Trent understood this the least; his father had known, of course, and now his dad's girlfriend—that is, Principal Randall—knew as well. Trent had no other family, so he was unaccustomed to hiding the information like the others were.

"Then how come you told Hayley?" Conner asked curiously.

"I didn't tell Hayley," Tommy said grimly. "Do you really think I could keep that from her for long? She found out a few months after we moved in together."

Ethan choked on his water. "You and Hayley used to live together?"

"For a couple years, yeah. Our college didn't allow coed roommates, so we rented a house together off-campus. I was sick of getting stuck in the dorm elevators, especially since she wouldn't come up to my room and help me with my homework when the elevator was broken, and she needed someone to go in with on the rent. Hence, roomies."

"Oh, so you didn't live together as in live together," Conner said, nodding wisely. "I gotcha."

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Of course we didn't. Anyway, we all said way back when that we wouldn't tell anyone. It was tough, but it was necessary. I mean, my parents would have flipped if they knew I was fighting Rita and Zedd."

"Join the club," Zack muttered.

"Hey, it was straight from Zordon that we never tell anyone," Jason pointed out. "Besides, it's not like we want a whole lot of people to know."

Zack thought of the female population of Los Angeles. "Speak for yourself."

"We'd be treated like celebrities," Trini said in disgust.

"Why is that bad?" Conner asked, looking thoughtful.

"Read a tabloid sometime," Tommy said darkly.

"Besides, it wouldn't be fair if I got to tell my father and no one else did," Billy said.

"Yeah, Trent," Conner said loudly. "It wouldn't be fair, Mr. Never-had-to-explain-why-I'm-sneaking-in-at-two-in-the-morning-to-angry-parents-who-were-really-worried-when-they-discovered-I-was-gone-because-there-was-a-monster-attack. Do you have any idea how many times I had to give my brother hush money?"

"Well, excuse me for having a temporarily evil dad," Trent said mildly. With a slight edge to his voice, he added, "Mr. Never-had-to-live-in-a-cyber-café-because-I-was-afraid-of-getting-killed-in-my-sleep." Conner considered this, and gave Trent an apologetic look. A tad annoyed, Trent added, "Do you have any idea how many times I had to jump out of Kira's bathroom window in a towel?"

Far from strengthening his case, this made everyone give him shocked looks. Conner was too busy gaping at him to try and puzzle out any other meanings this statement might have.

Trent and Kira's faces both burned brightly as they realized what everyone was thinking. "Because she used to let me borrow her bathroom," Trent clarified in a pathetic sort of tone, "back when Dad was evil and I wasn't."

"Oh," everyone said awkwardly.

"Hang on," Conner said suspiciously. "We didn't know Mesogog was Mercer for a long time. Kira wouldn't have known you couldn't go home."

"I told her Dad and I had a disagreement about my drawing and he kicked me out of the house," Trent replied defensively. "I didn't go to her place often, anyway. Tried to make due with public restrooms, the truck stop shower by the highway, and the locker rooms at school. Especially after the first time her parents almost caught me."

"How long were you not going home?" Tommy demanded. "You should have told me."

Trent shrugged. "It wasn't a big deal. I managed."

Ethan slapped his forehead. "Oh, so that's why you were taking home economics—so you could use the washer and dryer and eat the food."

Trent shuddered. "Don't remind me of that class. There's nothing more frightening than cooking with Conner."

"You took home ec?" Jason asked Conner incredulously.

"I did, too. Great way to meet women," Zack said before Conner could open his mouth.

"Exactly!" Conner said.

Trent snorted. "Just about every girl in that class hated him by the end of the first month."

"Did not," Conner said woundedly.

"Surprised it took them a month," Kira teased.

"Hey!"

"Anyway," Trent said loudly, determined to get off the subject of his son-of-Mesogog days, "what's good here?"

"Oh, yeah, we might wanna look at the menus," Tommy muttered; none of them had bothered yet.

"Um... I like the steak here," Zack told Trent.

"The fish is good, too," Trini said.

"Where's our waitress, anyway?" Conner asked, looking around hopefully. Their orders hadn't even been taken yet.

Two waitresses, meanwhile, were standing at the hostess station, arguing over who would be the one to wait on the ten athletic people who looked like they'd be loud, messy and extremely needy. It didn't help that not one of said people was over thirty, and younger people tended to tip less.

"You do it! It's your section!"

"Hey, I covered two different tables in your section today! And I haven't had my break yet!"

"I'm not doing it. Will you look at them? They'll probably eat half the kitchen and ask for seven refills each."

"Well, I'm not doing it, either."

"I'll do it!" said a third waitress eagerly, and the two looked at her oddly. "What? The guys over there are all really hot. And in case you haven't noticed, there are seven guys and only three girls. Some of them have to be single."

"That's okay, Ann, I'll do it."

"No, I'll do it!"

"No, me!"

"Come on, guys! There's seven of them. Plenty to go around."

"Fine. Me first."

"No, me first! It's my section!"

"You covered two different tables in my section today! And you haven't had your break yet!"

"They're usually kind of slow here," Jason was saying absently back at the table. "Worth it, though. And the waitresses are nice."

"That's cuz you're hot," Trini muttered darkly. Kimberly giggled.

"So their fish is good, Trini?" Billy asked.

"Very. And their calamari—"

"Wouldn't do it, if I were you," Tommy interrupted with a small shudder.

"What is it with you and calamari?" Zack asked.

"Doesn't agree with me," Tommy said firmly.

"I can see three waitresses arguing over there," Ethan said, squinting over at the hostess station. "Oh, wait, one of them's coming this way."

The winner of the waitress war took their orders, which took a considerably long time, and promised to return with their drinks and a bread basket. "Hey, she was kind of cute," Conner said once she was out of earshot.

"Eh, I like blonds," Ethan said.

"Good, then I'll take her," Conner replied cheerfully.

"Wonder whatever happened to Tori," Ethan said thoughtfully.

"Last I heard, she was very happy with Blake," Tommy said with a sarcastic smile.

"Aw, man," Conner and Ethan complained.

"Guess you'll have to give up that dream of finding someone with the same color scheme, Ethan," Trent joked, clapping him on the shoulder.

"Yeah," Ethan said with a sigh.

"How come there aren't any female Red Rangers, Dr. O?" Conner asked.

"I don't know," Tommy said with a shrug. "They're always Yellow and Pink, except for Alyssa and Tori."

"That's so sexist," Kira said with a sniff. "And how come we didn't get a Pink?"

"I never found a Pink Gem," Tommy said, shrugging.

"Couldn't you have looked harder?" Kira whined. "Much as I love these three idiots, I could have used another girl."

"Hey!" Trent, Conner and Ethan complained.

"Two idiots," Kira amended with a teasing grin at the guys.

"To be honest, Kira, I was planning on having two girls," Tommy said. "You stole Trini's Gem. And Ethan stole Hayley's."

"What?" Ethan demanded. "Trini and Hayley were going to use the Gems?"

"No one was planning to use the Gems. At all. Ever. But once I found them, I couldn't just leave them for someone like oh, say, Mesogog to find. So I figured if I needed them, I'd call out the old gang. White for me, Black for Zack, Red for Jason, Yellow for Trini, and Blue for Hayley, since Billy wasn't on Earth. That's why I was so prepared."

"He found them right around the same time he got that job with Mercer," Jason said. "He called us up, and we all started talking about it. We weren't going to go back to active duty, but we'd be able to fight if we needed to. We all still have morphing abilities, 'cept Kim and Billy, but we don't have zords or bikes or anything. So he and Hayley worked it all out, with Trini helping and Billy occasionally giving advice over the Aqua-phone."

"Anton funded the whole thing. He walked in on a choice conversation, and offered to fund all sorts of things; we were looking for a new project, after scrapping the Fossilador. He contributed some brilliant work, too. But I was never going to use the Gems," Tommy repeated sourly. "I was going to store them. Preferably at Jason's. Once I had all the kinks worked out, I was going to ship them off to someone else's house and I was going to... the World Series."

"What?" Ethan asked.

"The World Series. You know, baseball. Gotta love baseball. Not as good as football, but still a nice, normal sport. Yep."

"Huh?" Conner stared at him, confused. "What's up with the abrupt subject change, Dr.—" A glass of Coke landed in front of him and he jumped, realizing a waitress was standing behind him. "Oh." He smiled brightly at the waitress as she dished out their drinks and set them up with bread plates. "Yeah, we're talking about football."

"I used to play football. Back in high school," Tommy said desperately, nodding.

"Did you?" the waitress asked with a broad smile, looking him up and down.

"Yep," Tommy said, returning her grin. She turned her smile up a notch before leaving.

"It's about time," Zack muttered, tearing into the bread.

"That was a different waitress," Conner said, watching her walk away. "Not as hot."

"Is too," Ethan said. "I like her better."

"No way. She has glasses."

"I like women with glasses."

"...Why?" Conner wrinkled his nose.

"Doesn't matter," Trent said in the hopes of getting them to shut up, mostly because he knew Kira was annoyed by it. "She was flirting with Dr. O, anyway."

"Ew," Conner and Ethan groaned.

"She was not!" Tommy insisted, his face burning as Jason, Trini, Zack, Kimberly and Billy laughed.

"What are we doing for the rest of the day?" Kira practically yelled, trying to change the subject. "And tomorrow?"

"Well... the day's mostly over," Trini said. "We were in the basement for a really long time."

"Yeah, and you and Jason were somewhere else for a really long time," Zack mumbled. He received a sharp kick in the shins. "OW!"

"OW!" yelled Trent, who was sitting next to him.

"Sorry!" Trini exclaimed. "I was aiming for Zack."

"Don't worry, I got him," Jason told her. Zack muttered something about "uncalled for attacks."

"Anyway," Trini said, "there won't be much left to do tonight by the time we leave here; there's no point in paying for any sort of attraction for just a few hours, I don't see the ten of us agreeing on a single movie, and the mall closes at nine and will be packed. Maybe we could go back to Ernie's, though."

"Yeah!" Kimberly said. "I want to go see him again."

"The guy does make a killer smoothie," Conner said.

"Yeah, I miss him," Jason said. "I started going to that Juice Bar as soon as I was old enough climb up on the stools. Took my first karate lesson there, too. Ernie was like a father to us when we were growing up."

"Speaking of fathers," Ethan said thoughtfully, "aren't the rest of you going to go see your parents while you're here?"

"Jason and I see our parents all the time, since we live here," Trini said.

"My folks don't live here anymore," Zack said. "Moved out to San Diego."

"My mom lives in France," Kimberly added. "And I just saw my dad a couple weeks ago."

"Mine are on their second honeymoon," Tommy said. "My dad just got early retirement, and my mom's a school teacher, so they'll be gone for most of the summer."

"So it'll probably be just Mr. Cranston," Trini finished. "Pity he's going out of town. Maybe you can stay longer, Billy, spend some more time with him."

"I hope so," Billy said, looking around the crowded restaurant wistfully. "I really do miss this place. Earth, I mean. Not to mention all of you. And you know, while I'm here, I'd kind of like to see the others. Rocky, Adam, Aisha, Tanya, Kat..."

"Tanya and Adam should be in L.A., and Rocky's still living in Stone Canyon," Tommy said. "But Aisha's in Africa, so that might get difficult."

"And Kat's back in Australia," Jason said without thinking.

Tommy paused and tried to look nonchalant, noticing Trini giving him a look out of the corner of her eye. Kimberly looked down at her silverware awkwardly.

"Well, I can at least see Rocky, Adam and Tanya, if not the others," Billy said hastily. Jason looked apologetic; Trini pinched him in the arm while glaring at Billy for bringing Kat up in the first place.

Tommy fought back a sigh. Mentioning Kat around him wasn't exactly forbidden or anything. They hadn't ended on bad terms, really; she'd gone to London, he'd said he didn't want to do the long-distance relationship thing. She had screamed and ranted and stormed off, to be sure, but she'd come back and apologized and asked him to reconsider. He'd said no, though he'd truly been sorry about it, but he could tell she'd taken it hard. They'd promised to stay friends, but that hadn't worked too well, either. They simply hadn't had much to say, though they tried to chat on occasion and he'd seen her a few times since. When it came down to it, he wished her the best, and he was pretty sure she returned the sentiment. So it wasn't that Kat was a taboo topic around him—but he knew fully well that the others were freaking out about the fact that she'd been mentioned around both Kimberly and Tommy. That wasn't just awkward, it was annoying; he didn't want the others thinking that he was trying to do anything other than repair his friendship with Kimberly. It also sparked a bit of that buried anger within him—after all, she had left him. Why shouldn't he have dated other girls?

Conner, Trent and Kira exchanged confused looks as the others lapsed into silence; Ethan, however, had the same slightly-panicked expression that Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack did. Tommy looked at him thoughtfully, even though he knew that there was no logical explanation for Ethan finding out about Kat. But then again, logic didn't seem to like Tommy very much. In fact, logic seemed to have chewed him up and spit him out. Violently. Leaving him a gooey mess on the floor for chaos to step on repeatedly. With spiked heels.

"Do you guys need anything?" asked yet another waitress, appearing out of nowhere behind Billy.

"Refill," Tommy said quickly, even though he'd only had a sip of his drink. "And, uh... an appetizer! Yeah. Do you have any... um... potato skins?"

"Sure," she said, looking at him oddly for a moment before letting it go. "Anyone else?"

They gave her a few random orders and she left. "Now that's a good waitress," Tommy said gratefully.

Conner stared at him. "She was ugly."

"Yes, Conner, because ugly people can't be good at waiting tables," Kira growled, rolling her eyes.

"Anyway," Tommy said loudly in the hopes of getting everyone's attention off the fact that he'd been ready to hug the waitress for interrupting at the right moment, "what were doing tomorrow, again?"

"Well," Trini said hurriedly, "like I said, I had something planned, but it was really more of an outdoor thing and I think it's possibly going to rain until tomorrow afternoon; it's been raining off and on all day today and a storm's supposed to hit tonight. We should probably push it back to Wednesday."

"What is it?" Kira asked.

"It's a surprise," Trini said, smiling. "But regardless, Wednesday's supposed to be a really nice day, so I think we should just wait until then. Besides, we can go see Billy's dad tomorrow, and stay there a few hours. You guys will like him."

"We won't be imposing, will we?" Ethan asked.

Billy shook his head. "My dad was always welcoming random teenagers to my house before I moved to Aquitar. He couldn't step into the garage without finding a friend of mine. He used to say that my friends were over so often that it was like having a lot of talkative houseplants."

"Oh, so that's why he talked to your plants occasionally," Zack said, smacking his forehead. "I thought he was crazy."

"Just absent-minded," Billy said defensively.

"Like Dr. O," Ethan said, nodding.

"I am not absent-minded," Tommy said firmly.

Everyone stared at him for a moment.

"Not that much, anyway," Tommy said, sighing heavily. Then he clammed up, knowing that it would go worse the longer he tried to defend himself.

"If you say so," Jason said, obviously struggling not to laugh. Then his expression turned thoughtful. "You know... after we go see Billy's dad, there's something I kind of wanted to do."

"What?" Kimberly asked.

Jason glanced around the table for eavesdroppers and then motioned to everyone to lean in. This would ordinarily have alleviated suspicion, but ten people gathered around three tables in the middle of a busy restaurant all suddenly leaning in as close as they could to each other is bound to look strange.

"I sort of want to go see the ruins of the Power Chamber," Jason said quietly. "See if it's still there and all."

"I went back, just before grad school," Tommy whispered. "Wanted to see what worked. Took Hayley with me; she'd already found out by then. It looked... well, you know how the Power Chamber was rebuilt from the ruins of the Command Center? The building's gone, and there are huge chunks of stone all over it, and sand. I broke in through the entrance to the basement chamber where they made me the White Ranger. Some of the equipment is still there. Hayley was able to extract a lot of files from the computers. It's damaged, but it's there."

"I never did get to see the Power Chamber," Trini said, her fingers twitching as if longing to type on some unknown keyboard for a powerful computer. "Neither did Zack or Kim."

"Wasn't as cool as the Command Center, anyway," Tommy said.

"Question," Conner said. "What are you talking about?"

"Our old base," Kimberly explained.

"The Command Center was around until the days we—well, I, and later Jason—became Zeo Rangers," Tommy explained. "Then it got blown up. The Power Chamber was the next level, built in the same place. A few months after I passed on my powers to T.J., the Power Chamber got blown up, too."

"And now our headquarters has been trashed by Zeltrax," Kira said. "You'd think secret hideouts would last longer."

"Um," said a new voice, and they all jerked back in their seats, "am I interrupting something?"

Tommy cursed himself for ordering potato skins as the first waitress held them out uncertainly.

"Of course not," Conner said cheerfully, smiling brightly at her. "We were just admiring that flower thingy in the center of the table. It's very beautiful. And, um, healthy."

"It's fake," the waitress replied, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh. Still, it's very, um, nice-looking."

"Fake and nice-looking. Like you, Conner," Ethan cracked.

The waitress grinned and left. Conner elbowed Ethan sharply while the others laughed.

"Back to the Power Chamber," Jason said quietly, deciding against leaning in, "do you guys want to go?"

"Yeah," Zack said. "I want to see this place."

"I want to see it, too," Kimberly said. "Especially if there's old stuff out there regarding poor Zordon and Alpha. But... how are we going to get out there?"

"Yeah, where's the sinkhole we have to fall into?" Conner asked.

"Sinkhole?" Billy asked.

"That's how they broke in to my basement lab and ended up with the Dino Gems," Tommy explained. "They found my escape tunnel."

"The Command Center and Power Chamber were out in the mountains," Jason said. "Above ground."

"It was this huge building," Zack added. "We had to teleport out there, or else take the RADBUG."

"So how are we going to get there?" Kimberly repeated. "It's a bit far, from what I remember."

"The RADBUG should still be in my garage," Billy said thoughtfully. "It might take a little work to make it fully operational once again—I would assume it has deteriorated in my absence. Still, with Trini, Jason and Tommy around, we should be able to get it off the ground again."

"What's a RADBUG?" Trent asked.

"Flying car," Zack explained cheerfully.

"Awesome!" Conner breathed. "How come we never got a flying car?"

"Hey, I gave you enough toys," Tommy said indignantly.

"Well, even if we don't have the RADBUG, we could probably find it by driving," Trini said. "Tommy, you drove out there, didn't you?"

"Yeah. Took me forever to find it, though."

"Well, if you remember where it is—"

"That's a pretty big if," Jason couldn't resist saying with a smirk.

"If we can't get the RADBUG going, we could always take our cars. Probably Zack's, Tommy's, and Jason's; they would go off-road better then the Mustang or my Nissan."

"The Power Chamber," Tommy mused, feeling a pang of longing for the old days. "We should definitely go."

"I want to see it," Kira said. "It's probably a lot cooler than Dr. O's basement."

"Hey!" Tommy said indignantly. "Didn't stop you guys from coming over all the time!"

"Well, we kind of had to," Ethan pointed out.

"You definitely needed more snacks around your house, though," Conner said wistfully. "Speaking of which, where's our food?"

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 19: Missing Green

Tommy's phone started ringing; he jumped at the sudden buzzing and beeping. "Must be Billy's father, calling back," Tommy said. Knowing that Mr. Cranston had an excellent long-term memory (just a poor short-term one, like Tommy), he deepened his voice in the hopes that Mr. Cranston wouldn't recognize him.

"Hello?"

"...Tommy?"

"Oh, hey, Hayley."

"Hi, Hayley!" the four teens called cheerfully. Conner even waved. A passing customer who couldn't see Tommy's cell phone from her angle looked at them oddly, wondering why they were calling a man "Hayley" and waving when he was sitting two feet away.

"Ooh, I want to talk to Hayley!" Trini exclaimed. "Let me talk!"

"The gang says hi," Tommy said, fending off Trini's groping fingers. He was getting overly protective of his cell phone.

"Tell them I say hi back."

"Hayley says hi, guys. Jesus, back off! Jason, could you restrain your wife?"

"Gladly." Jason pulled her to him. Tommy made a disgusted face.

"By the way, why were you trying to disguise your voice? Doing something illegal at the moment?" Hayley asked.

"When have you ever known me to do something illegal?" Tommy demanded with a snort of laughter. He was far from a law-breaker. Well, except for the occasional traffic violation. And it probably wasn't exactly legal to fight crime without some sort of license, like the sort bounty hunters and private detectives had to get, but it wasn't like anyone complained about the Power Rangers when aliens attacked. Even though they'd—somewhat illegally but still accidentally—destroyed a lot of property in the line of duty. And, okay, some of those experiments he'd done with Mercer were probably pushing the envelope. Just a small envelope, though. But that's why they'd had that remote island lab. And Mercer had plenty of connections to keep them out of trouble. Of course, using those kinds of connections was probably illegal, come to think of it. And it probably wasn't too legal to go—

"Tommy, I went to college with you."

"Oh." Tommy grimaced. "All right, point taken." The teens, wondering exactly what was going on, gave him funny looks. Tommy gave them a stern Teacher Look and they backed down.

"Well, I was just wondering if you were okay. You said you'd call and tell me you made it okay, and I figured it slipped your mind, but here it is two days later and I thought I'd make sure you weren't dead or wandering around Seattle and wondering why you can't find the Angel Grove Inn."

"Ha, ha," Tommy said. He cleared his throat. "Actually, we did get pretty lost. We got here around eight or nine."

"Wow. How did you manage that?"

"Five people in a Jeep and not one of us could properly read a road map."

"Ah. Guessing you have a lot of new bizarre fears? Like how you won't use umbrellas after that trip we took to the Grand Canyon?"

"No! Well, McDonald's. But that's it."

"Oh, well, plenty of people fear McDonald's."

"...What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing, nothing. McDonald's is a scary place. It's the clowns. Clowns are terrifying. Not to mention those other costume characters. The big purple guy always freaked me out."

Tommy decided to let it go, though he could practically hear her smirking sarcastically through the phone. "How's Reefside without us?"

"Blissfully quiet. I could use Trent's help, but on the other hand I don't have to keep sneaking off to help you save the world, so it's evening out."

"Gee, thanks."

"Welcome. Having fun on your big vacation?"

"Pretty much. Well, there is—"

"Do you guys have to do that at the table?" Zack demanded of Jason and Trini, drowning Tommy out. Knowing your friends are married and watching them make out are two different things.

"Yes," Jason said. Trini pushed him away, looking embarrassed.

"Anyway," Tommy said, "as I was saying—"

"Hey, here comes our waitress!" Ethan said.

"It's about time," Conner muttered sourly

"Hang on a second, Hayley," Tommy said, setting the phone down until the waitress had taken his order. "Okay, I'm back. Now, where was—"

"Hey, Dr. O, will you get me a margarita?" Conner asked suddenly.

"I'm on the phone, Conner," Tommy said. "And no."

"Tommy! Let me talk!"

"I'm talking, Trini, do you mind?"

"Hey, could you ask her if I could have Monday off, too?" Trent asked.

"It's awfully loud in here," Zack commented. "Oh, look, guys—desert menu!"

"I'm on the phone!" Tommy repeated irritably.

"Is this a bad time?" Hayley asked in amusement.

"No, it's okay, I'm—hang on, they're doing that thing where they sing for people's birthdays." A group of singing and clapping waiters and waitresses went by with a birthday cake. "Sorry about that. Okay, I—"

"They have balloons!" Conner yelled as a group of little kids walked by with them.

"Would everyone just SHUT UP!" Tommy roared.

This would have ordinarily worked. However, it worked a little too well, and the entire restaurant turned to stare at him, dead silence prevailing.

"Oops," Tommy said, chagrined, and the noisy chattered filled the room again.

"Sounds like everything's going well," Hayley teased. "Hey, is that Trini I hear in the background?"

"The one yelling 'I wanna talk to Hayley' the loudest? Yeah, that's her."

"Put her on."

Tommy sighed and handed Trini the phone reluctantly. "Hey, girl!" Trini said cheerfully.

"Hey, how's it going?"

"Great. It's so great to have the gang back together again. You should come down for the big day on Saturday, you know."

"Thanks, but I've lost enough business from hanging out with the Power Rangers, unfortunately," Hayley replied, almost apologetically. "Maybe next time. So Billy's back?" Hayley had chatted to Billy over Tommy's Aqua-phone so often that Billy had eventually sent her one of her own. The idea of another friend that they could talk to about Power Rangers business appealed to just about everyone, because it was very difficult to constantly be careful of what they said. However, none of them had ever told anyone anything; Hayley was the first to uncover the original team's secret since they'd left Angel Grove. Thus Hayley had met and befriended nearly all of Tommy's friends.

"Yep, everyone's here. Billy, Jason, Tommy, Zack, me and Kim."

Hayley nearly dropped her phone. "Kim? THE Kim?"

"Yeah," Trini said slowly, holding very still. There was a lot to be learned from Hayley's reaction and Trini knew it.

"He failed to mention that," Hayley said dryly. "Wow. Has he had a panic attack yet?"

Trini laughed. "No, not that I know of. Well, maybe a small one. But that was my fault."

"How's he holding up?" Hayley asked anxiously.

"Fine," Trini said. "I've got plenty of good stories to tell you about when I get a chance."

Oh, no, Tommy thought, realization dawning as he stared at Trini. He knew that look and that tone. They were the warning signs of a Yellow Conspiracy. Whenever Trini was up to something, that look appeared on her face and that tone entered her voice. Both Aisha and Tanya had had their own versions of this, and he had come to dread its arrival with a passion. I'm imagining it, he told himself desperately. Please let me be imagining it.

"Hey," Conner said suddenly. "She's doing that thing Kira does right before she sneak attacks me."

"Oh, yeah," Ethan said, nodding.

"I'm doomed," Tommy muttered.

"What thing?" Kira demanded.

"That little overly nice tone in your voice and that evil gleam in your eyes," Trent said. Kira glared at him. "I love it when you do that," he added hastily.

"Wow, he's really well-trained," Jason said.

"Scary, isn't it?" Zack remarked.

"I do not use an overly nice tone right before I sneak attack Conner. Nor do my eyes gleam," Kira said with a sniff.

"Not all the time, no," Conner conceded. "Only the times when I see it coming right before it's too late."

"Someone needs to fix that guy, though," Jason said to Zack in a stage whisper. "Before he gets himself killed."

"Be my guest," Tommy said with a grin. "I tried, I failed."

"I'll train him," Kimberly said, trying to get back into the conversation without being awkward about the fact that she'd been sitting out since Hayley called. "Conner?"

The moment she leaned across the tables to the easy-going, currently cheerful Conner, he leaned back hurriedly with a glance at Tommy, a noise that sounded suspiciously like an "eep" issuing from the back of his throat.

"Conner, Kira's about to smack you," Kimberly said in an exaggerated kindergarten-teacher voice.

"Oh, she does that all the time." Kira pinched him. "OW! That too."

"He's hopeless," Kimberly said, leaning back.

"I've been saying that for years," Ethan agreed.

"Hey!"

"There's gotta be a self-help book for it or something," Jason said. "Trini bought me some but I never got around to reading them."

"Funny, I've never seen them around your house," Zack said. He frowned. "Heeyyy, is that where you've been getting all my Christmas gifts?"

"Of course not," Jason said with a very straight face.

"Tommy!" Trini called. "Hayley wants to talk to you again!"

Tommy held out his hand for the phone, but Trini proceeded to say a three-minute goodbye before finally surrendering it. He finally grabbed it and pressed it to his ear. "Hello?"

"What the hell? Why didn't you tell me that Kim was going to be in Angel Grove?" Hayley hissed.

"It slipped my mind," Tommy lied.

"It did not! Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"Don't strangle her."

"I won't! I'm getting along with... um, with Conner... just fine."

"Conner?"

"I'm at a restaurant, you know..."

"Oh! Okay. I gotcha. You're in public. With her. You're sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"And everything's going okay?"

"Will you stop worrying about me?" Tommy demanded, exasperated. He and Hayley were very close, but occasionally she had an overprotective-older-sister aura about her. Of course, he had an overprotective-older-brother aura about him every so often, so he couldn't complain too much, but still. "I'm fine. The trip has been great, except for the drive in and Trini catching me on the balcony in my underwear and Jason and Zack overhearing this goofy cheer and for some reason I let the gang talk me into getting on a tour bus driven by Skull and then they told that horrible story about the zord wreck and my temporary paranoia about crowds, but other than that, I'm doing just fine."

"..."

Sensing her disbelief, he hastily added, "I mean, I got to see Ernie. And the gang and I are having fun. We sparred today. That was... mostly cool. Er, and we went to the beach yesterday. That was... um, okay, you know what? I should probably get off here... our food should be out soon."

"I want to talk to Hayley!" said Billy, Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent.

Tommy sighed and handed the phone to Billy, who was sitting on his left.

"Hey, Hayley. I'm good. It's great being back on Earth. Bit tiring, though—Earth's gravitational pull is much stronger than the conditions on Aquitar. I'm going to see my dad tomorrow, though; here's hoping I can explain everything away. Ooh, and Ethan had overalls! Yeah, I don't have any Earth clothing anymore... I love overalls, I'd forgotten how incredible they are..."

When Billy seemed about finished, Tommy held out his hand, but Billy passed the phone to Ethan without noticing Tommy. Tommy watched, squirming, as the phone traveled down the line, unable to help his flashbacks of the last time the four teens had "borrowed" his cell.

"Yeah," Ethan said, "it's really cool! Billy's awesome. The guy's told me all about alien technology. And he kicks butt at video games; Trini has this awesome collection—"

"Hayley!" Conner whispered. "Remember that time you told us a few funny stories about Dr. O? I swear he did that green-eyed thing on Saturday! All I said was—"

"CONNER!"

"Gotta go!"

"Hi, Hayley, how are you?" Kira said cheerfully. "It's great. Zack has killer taste in music, you know. I've been staying with Kim and Trini. They're both so cool! Kim showed me this new makeup technique—wow, did I just say that?"

"Um, Hayley?" Trent asked. "Could I have Monday off? I was thinking, I'm probably going to be exhausted when we get back... I fell asleep today in Jason's basement... yeah, long story..."

Tommy expected this to be the end of it, but Zack was sitting next to Trent and took the offered phone. "Hi, Hayley! The Dino Rangers are cool. Yeah, we're all bugging the crap out of Tommy. It's been a lot of fun."

To Tommy's horror, Zack finished his part of the call and passed it to Kimberly without thinking. Kimberly, who'd been trying to ignore the whole other-woman-calling-Tommy-while-his-ex-is-sitting-a-few-feet-away thing, was absorbed in a conversation with Jason, and as such she took the phone without thinking and said, "Hello?"

"Hi."

"Oh, um... sorry. Zack just passed me the phone and I didn't realize..." Kimberly grimaced, not knowing what to say.

Before Kimberly could hand the phone to Jason, Hayley asked, "Trini? Is that you?"

"No, um, uh... this is Kim. The, uh... I'm... former Pink." The table fell silent and Kimberly struggled to not look panicked.

"Oh. I'm Hayley. Tommy's... friend... from college. We're really close."

"Yeah, um, Trini mentioned that. Kira said you helped the team a lot, too."

"Yes, I did." Hayley swallowed, trying not to sound as cold as she felt. She knew all about Tommy's past with Kimberly, and she didn't like it much.

"Well... ah... nice talking to you," Kimberly said and thrust the phone at Jason. Zack let out a pained shout a split-second later.

"What's up, Hayley?" Jason said, a bit too loudly and exuberantly.

"So that was Kim, eh?"

"Yeah." He paused, hoping no one would figure out what he was talking about, and added, "Zack's an idiot."

"Well. She doesn't sound like a total bitch."

"Hayley..."

"I'm sorry. That was out of line. I just... I feel bad for him."

"Yeah, I know. We all do," Jason admitted. Unlike the rest of them, Hayley didn't know Kimberly, wasn't friends with her, and therefore she had no cause to be forgiving about Kimberly's past, no opinion of her other than "girl who dumped my close friend." Jason hadn't talked with her much about Kimberly, but he did know that Hayley had spent a good deal of time talking about it with Tommy. She'd met Tommy not long after he'd broken up with Kat, and therefore he'd been rather sulky on the subject of ex-girlfriends during the formative stages of his friendship with Hayley.

Hayley, for her part, felt rather flustered and upset. Her friend was dealing with something hard, and she wasn't there to help him; worse, he hadn't even told her about it, and she could only guess as to why. Tommy had become far more introverted and sarcastic than he was in his youth. Not only were Tommy's actions a bit troubling, but she now felt embarrassed about her comment to Jason. She didn't know Kimberly's reasons, or anything about her character besides the fact that Tommy adored her and she'd dumped him, and sad as it was that happened all the time for a number of reasons. She also felt a bit bad about her standoffish tone and downright ashamed of the way she'd said she was his "friend" from college; she'd sounded like a possessive girlfriend warning another woman off of her turf. Hayley had no romantic feelings for Tommy whatsoever, but it was an old defense mechanism from college, used often when one of them attracted the wrong sort of people. Just the sight of the tall, muscular Tommy had been able to scare off many an unwanted person, and Hayley's patented glare and sharp wit had done the same. Hayley had unwittingly tried to chase Kimberly off, without any knowledge of Kimberly's intentions—or Tommy's, for that matter—and Tommy wasn't necessarily Hayley's to protect in anything more than a platonic manner. It had been instinctive, and part of her stubbornly insisted that it was the action of a best friend—but the majority of her felt like an idiot, and it wasn't often that Hayley felt like an idiot.

She needed to know more about Kimberly. She needed to know if she was playing the wrong game when all the players were watching TV instead. She needed to do a little recon.

"You know what, Jason?" Hayley said slowly. "Maybe I'll come up on Saturday after all."

"That'd be great," Jason said sincerely, though he privately couldn't help but wonder what that would mean for Kimberly. Hayley could be intimidating, and she felt she needed to be intimidating towards Kimberly, while—unbeknownst to Hayley—it wasn't necessary.

"Could I have my phone back, please?" Tommy said desperately. He now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he should never have bought a cell phone, let alone let others borrow it.

"Listen, Tommy's whining. Talk to you later?"

"I want to talk!" Trini insisted, being last down the line.

Tommy reached out and snatched the phone without giving Jason a chance to pass it to her. "You guys are killing my battery!" he said, glaring at Trini before she could say anything. "You can all call Hayley on your own phones later!"

Hayley chuckled as he pressed his phone to his ear at last. "All right, you. Call me in a few days, let me know you're still alive?"

"Sure thing. Sorry about not calling sooner."

"Not a problem. Love ya."

Tommy hesitated; he and Hayley had a tendency to say that before hanging up the phone, the way a brother and sister would, and he knew Hayley had said it without thinking. It wasn't just Kimberly's presence that made him not want to respond in kind—he didn't know what the teenagers would think.

"You, too," he said casually, and hit the end button with a strong sense of relief.

There was a momentary lull in the conversation. Everyone seemed to be darting furtive glances at one another.

"Well," Tommy said with an exasperated sigh, "how 'bout them Broncos?"

Kimberly suddenly burst out laughing; she was the only one to get the joke. Tommy couldn't help but smile, feeling a bit of the tension ease.

Everyone relaxed a bit, feeling a bit foolish. They had enough drama in their lives without imagining any more between Hayley, Tommy and Kimberly; until it went any further, they were willing to drop it.

"Dude," Zack said, leaning back in his chair, "where the hell is our food?"

"Anyone see one of the waitresses?" Jason asked.

"Don't call them over," Tommy said warningly. "They're kind of freaky. I swear they're staring at us from around the corner over there."

"Eh, you're just being paranoid," Jason said with a sniff.

"Well, maybe we can go find one or something, so they don't have to come to us," Zack suggested.

"I'll do it!" Conner said cheerfully.

"No!" Tommy, Kira, Ethan, and Trent yelled.

"I'll do it," Trini said quickly, standing up.

"Hurry back," Jason said with a smile. "I'm starved."

~*~

Dinner took a long time to complete, especially since Trini didn't come back very quickly and after a while they'd started to worry, which turned into panic before long. Jason got antsy, and then Zack had gone into a rant about how the waitresses might have kidnapped her and chopped her into tiny cubes and were now adding her to the beef stew and they'd never see her again and never find her body and then Tommy had kicked Zack in the shin hard enough to almost knock his chair over. That ordinarily would have helped, but by that point even Billy looked nervous and Kimberly wanted to go after her; it wasn't like Trini to wander off. Then Jason had stood up and it all would have gone very bad for the waiters and waitresses if Trini hadn't returned just in time with their numerous plates of food and the manager, who was apparently an old friend from the broomball team back in high school and she'd stopped to chat with him on her mission to find their meal. Unfortunately, they showed upright asTommy was coaching Jason in a calming chant ("I will not hurt waitresses for chopping my wife into little pieces without proof, I will not hurt waitresses for chopping my wife into little pieces without proof") and the waitresses pretty much scattered once their food was on the table; no one was able to get any more refills, extra sauces and so on for the rest of the evening, and Trini had to chase down the manager, who was a tad nervous himself, to get their bill. Jason insisted upon going with her but Tommy forced him to stay seated, knowing that by this point Jason could prowl for hours without ever seeing a single waitress. Tommy went with her instead, as much to escape Conner's complaints about missing out on getting the hot waitresses' phone numbers as to hurry along the process of leaving the restaurant.

After dinner, they all decided to head back to the Youth Center, the Dino Rangers in one car and Jason, Trini, Billy, Kimberly and Zack in his SUV. Kimberly was relieved when they all started chatting, leaving her free to sit back and have a good long think.

The Hayley woman had been nagging at the back of her mind for a while now. Kimberly didn't know where she stood with Tommy, but she didn't know where Hayley stood with Tommy, either. But it wasn't the relationship factor that was bothering her. She wasn't really expecting to regain what she once had with Tommy, even though part of her hoped for it. However, it bugged her to truly see how clean the break between her and Tommy was.

She hadn't known he was the Black Ranger. She had only found out about the Red Ranger thing because of that little incident where she'd gone evil, come to think of it. It was upsetting, to know that he had been risking his life for over a year with a whole other team and no one had been comfortable enough to tell her; she wondered if they would have even called her to help if Tommy had needed it. She hadn't heard anything about Tommy in years. Every chance she might have had to see him had exploded—Jason and Trini's wedding, for example. At the time, she'd been sorry to miss it, but grateful she wouldn't have to see him. Yet now she felt horrible. The Tommy she'd known had been replaced by someone with a PhD in paleontology, a life as a teacher, and a fondness for red and black in addition to green and white. All the things he'd gone through, done, accomplished... she should have been there. She should have seen him graduate from college, should have had a beer with him when he'd become a Ranger again, should have let him know that he just had to pick up the phone if he needed a former Ranger and she'd be there. Losing a boyfriend shouldn't have made her lose Tommy so completely.

And Hayley... it had really bugged her, to see the way everyone was chatting with Hayley. From Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent to Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack. They knew her. They were a part of Tommy's life, still shared the same friends. Hell, Billy didn't even live on the planet and he'd talked to Hayley like she was an old friend he saw every weekend. She should be doing the same. She should be in Tommy's life. She should be his friend.

What hurt the most, however, was that he'd planned to give the Dino Gems to Jason, Trini, Zack and Hayley if they ever needed them. Not Kimberly. It wasn't that Kimberly was angry about Hayley's friendship with him and the others—it was that she wanted the same thing. She wanted to be the one the gang called when they needed a Ranger. (Even if she would have to be Blue.) It suddenly seemed horrifying to her that things were so over with her and Tommy that he hadn't even considered giving her a new Ranger power when he found one. She knew, of course, that Tommy was within his rights to give the Gem to a friend, but she wanted that friend to be her. It was totally understandable, maybe, but still devastating. It was like the more she had cut out Tommy, the more she had cut out the group. They were a team, despite the end of their powers, and while she still had a team with Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack, only with Tommy were they complete. Kimberly now felt a strong twinge of guilt towards Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack; they'd been forced to not only juggle their work, their families, their non-Ranger friends, and each other, but also find time to divide their time spent with fellow Rangers between Tommy and Kimberly.

She needed to talk to him. She needed to stop dancing around it and just ask if they could forget the last ten years and start over. She didn't want to go home at the end of the week and never see him again. She wanted to call him every other Saturday like she did with Jason and Zack, tell him funny stories from the gymnastics center and hear tales of his students at Reefside High. She wanted to hang out with him every so often, have fun with him. For the first time, any pang caused by a thought of Tommy wasn't about how much she missed their relationship—it was about how much she missed their friendship.

After we go see Ernie, she promised herself, me and that boy are gonna have a talk.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 20: Out of Control

It was only a couple hours before closing time at the Youth Center, and the place was empty, save for Ernie, who was clearing off the last dirty table. "Hey, guys!" he called cheerfully. "Guess what I found yesterday!"

"Winning lotto ticket?" Zack asked.

"Even better." Ernie set down his tray and bustled over behind the counter, the ten ex-Rangers clustering around the counter. He lifted a large cardboard box onto the countertop and reached inside, producing an old newspaper with the front-page headline "Who is the Red Ranger?" above the sub-head "The Sentinel Hunts for Red's Secret Identity." A picture of the Red Ranger dominated the front page, surrounded by several smaller shots of various men... one of whom looked a whole lot like Billy. "It's all my old Power Rangers news clippings!"

"Oh, no," Jason whispered, staring at the picture while Tommy, Kimberly, Zack and Trini laughed and Billy groaned in a long-suffering sort of way.

"Ouch," Kira said, staring at the article. "The newspaper went on a hunt for Jason's identity?"

"For weeks," Jason moaned. "Everyone went on a hunt for my identity. That was right after the zord wreck."

"Wow." Ethan whistled as Ernie pulled out more papers. "You guys really downplayed how much damage was done."

"Dude, isn't that you?" Conner asked Billy, pointing to one of the pictures on the first paper.

"It was horrible," Billy said with a shudder. "People following me around for weeks, asking me to sign autographs in red ink. Wouldn't leave me alone. Tommy and I didn't speak for weeks."

"Why not?" Trent asked.

"It was right after the Ranger Parade. He had that fear of crowds for a good long while," Zack explained. He sighed wistfully. "Ah, memories..." Jason glowered at him.

"What exactly was going on there?" Ernie asked curiously. "I remember you guys coming in here covered in oil a lot after that... always with some silly excuse about broken cars and striking oil..."

"Well," Trini said slowly, "Goldar came into the Kinko's where Billy worked and tried to copy something. Billy went after him. By the time we got there, he'd been chasing Goldar in circles around the building for so long that he didn't realize Goldar was gone."

"So we thought he was overworked, maybe having a bit of a breakdown," Tommy said. "They say geniuses are prone to mental illness, you know."

"Really?" Ethan said, looking worried.

"Come on, Ethan," Conner teased. "You have nothing to worry about."

"Hey!" Ethan said indignantly. "You should talk!"

"Anyway, we got our zords and tried to chase him down and ended up crashing. Then we had to tow our zords back to our hidden base in the mountains," Kimberly continued. "Well, actually, we tried to tow them to a mechanic first, but no one could help us, and somewhere along the way the governor got us a marching band and a police escort."

"So they threw me to the fan girls in the crowd so they could slip away unnoticed," Tommy growled.

"Hey," Zack said, "it was for the—"

"If you say 'good of the team,' I'm going to kill you with Ernie's blender."

"Listen to him, Zack," Ernie said nervously. "I love that blender."

"I can't believe you told those reporters I was delusional," Jason said to Zack, glaring down at the papers.

"Hey, you were the one who let Tommy's name slip! What was I supposed to do, give them Tommy's full name and address?"

"How about, keep your mouth shut?" Jason said dryly.

"I hate to admit it, but Zack's right," Billy said fairly. "If he hadn't said that, someone might have stumbled upon Tommy's identity."

"This from the guy who begged me to morph at school to get rid of his fan club!" Jason retorted.

"Guys?" Conner said, smoothly interrupting before Billy could reply. "You've got to tell us this story."

"Yes, please do," Ernie said eagerly.

Jason merely groaned while his friends looked at each other, trying to decide where to start.

"Well," Tommy said slowly, "after Jason said my real name in front of those reporters following us, Zack said that Jason had had a head injury and heard voices. Billy made a comment about people being able to guess who Jason was by looking through medical records, and of course, everyone took his advice."

"Isn't that, like, illegal?" Kira asked. "Aren't those private?"

"Well, they're supposed to be," Kimberly said. "But people don't always follow the rules. And computer hackers are hard to trace."

"Trini and I caught a few of them, but we'd broken so many laws intercepting people that there was no point in going to the police with the information," Billy said with a sigh.

Tommy frowned, not liking the fact that Billy was letting slip that he'd committed a felony for the sake of Power Rangers work (who knew what Conner would do if he thought Ranger work was a good excuse for committing crimes) and Tommy hastily continued. "And reporters don't have to reveal their sources."

"They go to jail when they don't, though, don't they?" Conner asked.

"If the judge is dead set on getting their source, yeah," Trini said. "The judge just charges them with contempt of court and holds them until either the judge or the reporter cracks. But the reporters who go to jail rather than talk are considered heroes by everyone else in their profession and every civil rights activist. Besides, no one in Angel Grove was very concerned with that sort of breach. Every able-bodied psych patient was a possible Red Ranger."

"The town went nuts," Jason grumbled. "Just like they did every other time they got some sort of clue about who one of us was."

Conner, who was now digging through the box of papers, clippings and magazines, yanked out another copy of the Sentinel, dated a week after the first Ernie had shown them. "Hey, which of you guys is this?" he asked, pointing at the picture.

Tommy stared at it in horror. It was a black-and-white photograph, a fifth-page article, but no less cringe-worthy than a front-page exclusive. There were Tommy and Kimberly, morphed and hugging tightly, a fiery explosion in the distance behind them.

Zack burst out laughing. Billy looked down at his feet. Trini seemed to be trying not to grin. Jason bit his lip, trying to decide whether to laugh or say something to distract Conner.

"That's me and Tommy," Kimberly said in a determinedly calm tone, taking the paper from Conner, who didn't put up a fight, but only because it was Kimberly and she was scary enough to Conner even before she'd wiped the floor with him in Jason's basement. "There was a lot of speculation about the Pink and White Rangers, too."

"Yeah," Tommy said, shifting uncomfortably.

"Jason was so happy when they started that," Zack said through his laughter. "He was glad to have the focus off of him."

"Ow! Ethan, that was my foot," Conner complained, looking at Ethan. Ethan, who'd made the attack deliberately in the hopes of making Conner realize his mistake, just rolled his eyes and fished a magazine out of the box.

"'Who is Billy Cranston?'" he read, turning to look questioning at Billy. A younger, cringing Billy, surrounded by various people, covered the front page of the magazine. "What's this all about?"

"Well," Billy said with a sigh, "the trouble with all those reporters going through medical records didn't end with Jason. My friends were worried about my mental health after my 'hallucination' of Goldar, so they convinced me to see a therapist. I figured it couldn't hurt, get some of the stress off my chest..."

"And, of course, Billy had been taking martial arts classes from Jason and training hard," Kimberly said. "It didn't help that he was—and still is—a genius."

"Exactly the sort of kid you'd expect to be leading the Power Rangers," Ernie said, nodding. "I remember people saying that the Rangers' voices sounded like teenagers, and that's why they were leaning more towards you all being younger than a lot of the candidates."

"So... everyone assumed Billy was the Red Ranger?" Kira said. They all nodded. "How'd you prove them wrong?"

"Well," Tommy said, "we all seemed to be snapping, one right after the other. Zack had his laughing fits—"

"Tommy had his fear of crowds," Trini interrupted with a smile.

"And Trini had a violent streak," Tommy retorted.

"So it was no surprise that Jason was about to crack," Zack continued. "Soon Billy lost it completely, and he took Jason down with him."

~*~

1994

"Isn't there anything good on?" Kimberly complained as Zack flipped through the channels.

"Cartoons, soap operas, picture of us... wait." Zack flipped back to the news, staring at a picture of the Power Rangers on the screen with a voice over of a Channel Six reporter. The words "The Hunt for the Real Red Ranger" were at the bottom of the screen in big bold letters.

"Due to a slip of information from the Blue Ranger we have managed to compile a database of possible Red Rangers, though only one can be our crime-fighting Kinko's spokesman." The screen changed to show profiles of various people, the reporter explaining each for the sake of the blind. "Dustin Andrews, age 31. Incarcerated for burglary and grand theft auto. He was released a year and a half ago on parole and is attending group therapy, where he is struggling to make up for his sordid past." Dustin was blond and toothless and had an intense gaze that could make children hide under their beds on general principles. Kimberly shuddered.

"Right, like HE could be the Red Ranger!" Jason spat loudly. "He's a thief! A dishonest person with no control over impulses! Are these people insane!"

"Aw..." Zack cooed, reaching to pat Jason's head. "Is someone jealous?"

"Zack, any part of you that touches me, you're not getting back."

"Alfonso Manquitar, age 59. Well-known in the fields of martial arts, kickboxing and electronics. Currently, he resides in Angel Grove Asylum." The picture was of an old man, with a full beard, hair coming out of his ears, and a bald head covered with liver spots. The lazy eye didn't help, either.

Jason groaned in despair and laid his head down on the table. Trini patted his back soothingly and muttered something comforting in his ear.

"How would he get out of the asylum to fight?" Kimberly asked thoughtfully.

"Well, you know, Power Rangers can do anything," Zack said cheerfully. Jason growled and tossed a piece of wax fruit from the table's centerpiece at him.

"Apparently they can't duck too well," Tommy joked as Zack rubbed the side of his head.

"Rafael Sanchez, age 23. Released from Angel Grove Asylum three years prior and is now taking a boxing class." Rafael looked like a stereotypical gangster, with a do-rag on his head and tattoos covering his neck. Though they lived relatively sheltered suburban lives, the teens could pick out one or two gang symbols in the mess of tattoos surrounding a large, ornately detailed pot leaf. The only really out-of-place thing about his clichéd appearance was a neatly-trimmed mustache that curled at the ends. Jason took one look at the screen and Trini attempted to cushion his forehead as he tried to slam it repeatedly against the table. The remaining wax fruits rattled in their glass bowl.

"And finally, William Cranston—"

Jason's head shot up and everyone stared at the TV.

"—gymnast and martial artist who recently decided to undergo therapy for unknown reasons. These are only a few clues to the identity of the Red Ranger; Channel Six will continue the search tonight at eleven..."

Slowly, everyone turned to look at Billy. He looked back at them, equally surprised. Silence settled over them for a long while. Of course, Zack was the first to finally break it.

"...Billy... you're the... and you never told us?"

~*~

The next few days alternated between hell and darker hell for Billy. There were the random people coming up to him for autographs (as the wrong-colored Ranger), the death glares Jason threw at him all the time, the groupies crowding him between every class, and the countless other things he didn't want to think about. Bulk and Skull, as always, managed to make everything worse, but then again, that was what they excelled at. Bulk and Skull alternated between trying to convince everyone that Skull was the real Red Ranger (Bulk was just smart enough to realize no one would believe he was the Red Ranger), and trying to get Billy to divulge even a tiny clue about the identity of the other Rangers. Billy was so annoyed by this point that he almost told them that he had never actually met them, they just fought crime and had communal sex together, but he was too afraid it would end up on the news (like everything else he'd said lately), so he simply glowered at Bulk and Skull each time they approached him and spent the rest of his time trying to give his crowd of fans the slip. Finally, Billy couldn't take it anymore. Billy decided it had to end. Now.

And Jason was the only person who could help him end it.

~*~

Jason wandered down the hallway, fingering the hall pass he'd stuffed in his pocket. He was being sent to the office for some random reason with about ten other people and that guy who always got called to the office no matter what had happened. It was probably some P.R. thing (public relations or Power Rangers, it didn't really matter), like "Being the Friend of the Red Ranger." Again. One of those things where he got to sit down and talk about how great it was to be best buds with a Ranger, especially the Red one. And oh, he'd never have guessed. I mean, Billy? Leader of the Power Rangers? He doesn't seem like the type at all. Not at ALL. AT ALL!

Jason grimaced at the rather bitter irony. That stupid P.R. thing would have been aired, too, if Zedd hadn't sent one of his monsters and the Red Ranger had gotten the idea to lure it over to the area near the news building—because of course the street was really wide there honest, much better battleground than the park, cuz you know the park has all those people milling about in that wide open space—and the ensuing battle had destroyed half the news building "before" they could stop it. If only the Red Dragonzord hadn't head-butted the monster when he was standing right in front of the building... then it wouldn't have collapsed like that and burst into flames... it was an accident, really... and downtown Angel Grove was very good at evacuating so it's not like anyone died... and it's not like he'd meant to kick a corner of the building across the street when he'd converted the Dragonzord to Warrior Mode and tackled the monster...

"PSST! Jason! C'mere!"

Stopping, Jason turned towards the sound and saw a hand beckoning to him from the janitor's closet. Coming as close as he dared, Jason peered into the dark. "...Billy?" He crept closer. "What are you— hey!" Billy's hand shot out and grabbed the front of Jason's shirt and hauled him in, shutting the door. Alone in the dark with Billy, the closet seemed quite ominous.

"...Billy. I'm going to ask you this very caref—"

"Jason, Jason, JASON! You HAVE to help me! I can't take this anymore!"

"Calm down, Billy. First off, I don't know if I care. Second, I have to get to the office—"

"No, no you don't. I called you out by calling the office from the payphone outside the office—you know, the only one that's not out of order?—and I nearly went into severe and sudden cardiac arrest every time a faculty or administration member walked by the window!"

"...Okay, now I'm confused—"

"I'm not speaking techno or riddles!"

"No, I mean, what's so important that you nearly got caught doing something... bad... by people who'd probably give you their first born?"

"It has to STOP!"

"What has to stop?"

"The fans, the crowds, the signing autographs that are the wrong color, the stares—"

"The Red Ranger thing? ...Wait. Just how, exactly, do you want me to help?"

"Morph!"

"...Morph?"

"Yes! Morph! And wander around the halls! So people can see you and see me so this grievous oversight can come to an end!" Billy's tone was frantic and desperately, and though he wasn't laughing Jason was reminded strongly of a maniacal cackle.

"But this whole thing is your fault!"

"I do admit that my overzealous commenting to throw the demonic Paparazzi-like individuals off the scent is a primary cause of this unsavory turn of events but I am requesting that you help me in this endeavor so life may return to its prior norm."

Jason stared at Billy in the blackened shadows of the janitor's closet. "...Oh for the... whatever! Fine!"

"I knew you would see the positive ramifications of this undertaking!" Billy stumbled out of the closet, startling a random student. He looked oddly at Jason and Billy before running off when Jason glared at him. "Give me a few minutes to get back to class to reinforce the fact that I am not your secret—"

"You could just beep me."

"...Huh?"

It occurred to Jason suddenly that Billy wasn't quite in top form today. Raising his arm, Jason tapped his communicator. Billy nodded and scurried off and Jason closed himself back into the welcome darkness of the janitor's closet.

Sighing, he beat his head against the wall and accidentally whacked himself with a mop. "I knew there was a good reason I applied to go to that Peace Conference..."

~*~

Veronica strolled through the hall, feeling quite pleased with herself. She'd managed to miss a good twenty minutes of her utterly boring class by telling her male teacher she was having "woman troubles," and she'd spent the majority of that time chatting with her boyfriend in New York (once that nerd Cranston had gotten off the pay phone; she couldn't believe people actually thought that loser was the Red Ranger) and practicing a nice apologetic expression for when she returned to class.

As she passed the janitor's closet, she paused, listening hard. She could hear movement in the closet, accompanied by an odd beeping in the form of a slightly catchy tune. Someone was in there... and that meant she might be able to score a juicy piece of gossip. After a moment she heard a deep, vaguely familiar male voice muttering "Tyrannosaurus," and suddenly a flash of red light shone brightly through the cracks around the closet door. Startled, she waited, staring at the door expectantly.

There are plenty of odd candidates for sneaking around in a high school closet. Teachers, for one. Or two students who by all rights should dislike each other, such as a jock and a punk, or a geek and a cheerleader. Veronica, however, felt she was very prepared for any sort of shock, no matter who it was. Personally, she was hoping for nerds; the little do-gooders doing something wrong was definitely a story worth retelling over and over to a crowd of admiring friends and classmates. She didn't know what the red light was all about, or why someone would say "Tyrannosaurus" while hiding in a closet, but she was waiting eagerly with a malicious gleam in her eye, utterly ready for anything.

Except a superhero.

Veronica stared at the Red Ranger, her jaw hanging open nearly to the point of falling off. The Red Ranger looked around cautiously for a moment before spotting her. "Oh," he said uncertainly. "Hi."

"You... you... you're..."

"I'm the Red Ranger?" he said. "Yeah. I am."

Veronica turned and calmly ran like hell. When confronted with a Red Ranger coming out of a closet, there was only one thing to do—tell everyone you ever met.

~*~

Minutes ticked by slowly in Miss Appleby's class. It was sixth period, and students were bent over their class work. Well, some of them were... most were either talking quietly, staring off into space, writing notes/stories/poems, or other things not allowed during class time. Bulk and Skull were sitting near the back, conspiring about something undoubtedly Power-Ranger related. Kimberly was writing a response on a note to Tommy, her ink choice a bright pink that threatened to burn your retinas if you looked at it too long. Tommy sat a seat away on her right, doodling aimlessly all over his homework while waiting for Kimberly to finish. The poor soul sitting between the lovebirds was timing herself to see how much work she could get done before she got tricked into passing the note. Miss Appleby was at the chalkboard, writing something for her next class.

Suddenly, the door flew open, startling everyone. Standing within the frame was Veronica, who by all rights should be in an entirely different classroom. Before Miss Appleby could demand what she was doing, Veronica boomed out her earth-shattering news. "THE RED RANGER'S HERE!"

"Actually, I think he's in Mr. Dorsey's trig class right now," said a random girl in the back, pulling out a red notebook covered in pink hearts and leafing through it. Tommy and Kimberly looked at her in horror as her friends crowded closer to her desk.

Veronica shook her head violently. "No, he's here! Walking around the halls! With the SUIT!"

Tommy and Kimberly glanced at each other sharply. "Monster attack?" Kimberly mouthed, horrified.

Tommy tapped his communicator and shrugged, as if to say "I haven't heard anything." He looked down at his wrist suspiciously, held the communicator up to his ear and shook it violently. Kimberly did the same. When this yielded no results, they looked back at each other and shrugged again.

Miss Appleby frowned and set her chalk down with a snap. "Is this another one of your clever excuses to get out of class and disrupt mine?"

"No, it isn't, I swear! I heard someone whisper 'Tyrannosaurus' on my way back from the bathroom and I stopped to see who was in there and the Red Ranger came wearing the suit!"

"It's Billy Fergston!" someone shouted.

"Craigstein!" someone else corrected.

"CRANSTON!" Tommy and Kimberly yelled angrily.

"He's proving he's really the Red Ranger!" another student exclaimed.

"Why would he have to prove it?" someone else asked. "We all know it's true." Kimberly rolled her eyes and struggled to keep her mouth shut. Tommy suppressed a laugh.

"Settle down!" Miss Appleby shouted, and everyone instantly quieted. "I'm going to the office to see about this. Everyone, stay where you are." Miss Appleby marched out the door, dragging Veronica off by the arm.

"D'you think he's really in the hall?" someone wondered dreamily.

"Of course not!" Bulk roared, standing. Skull followed suit. "Do not be fooled by an imitator with a cheap costume! This—" Bulk wrapped an arm around Skull's neck and pulled him to him, despite the fact there was a desk between them— "is the real deal! He's seen it all! Show them, Skully!"

The now-free Skull ran down the aisle and took a flying leap onto Miss Appleby's desk. He teetered a moment, nearly falling off, then turned around, striking a heroic pose. Someone in the back clapped faintly for three whole seconds.

"Yes! This man has seen action!"

"I've seen ack-she-on!" Skull repeated proudly.

Bulk began stalking around the classroom, occasionally leaning over a startled and disgusted classmate, staring at them all with wide, dramatic eyes. "He's seen his life dangle before his eyes as he thought his doom was nigh!"

"But I kept on truckin'!" Skull snapped his fingers and bobbed his head like a redneck with delusions of country music stardom.

Bulk leaned his considerable girth over Kimberly, gazing down at her in a boogeyman sort of way, waggling his fingers. She scrunched up her nose and scrunched down in her seat, cringing and wondering why the desk had to have that stupid bar blocking her in. "He's seen the bowels of hell, so dark and disgusting! Mere humans would run screaming away!"

Skull smiled brilliantly and jerked his thumb upwards towards himself. "Not me, muchachos!"

"Yes this—this is a man who's looked fear in the face, laughed and said—"

"Do I know you?"

"Yes, ladies and germs, Eugene Skullovitch is the real deal!"

With a final pose, Skull called out, "Red Ranger, ACTIVATE!"

Kimberly and Tommy, unable to take it any longer, burst into loud, hysterical laughter. "Oh," Kimberly gasped, "you can't pay for entertainment like this!"

Without warning, the (real) Red Ranger stepped into the room, gave a half-hearted wave, then stepped out again as though it were the most common thing in the world to be a superhero randomly popping into a classroom and waving. Everyone stared blankly at the spot where he'd been, and then Bulk and Skull bolted after him, screaming, "IMPOSTER! Stand and fight! IMPOSTER!" while echoing each other perfectly.

Tommy and Kimberly looked at each other, wide-eyed, before sweeping everything off their desks and cramming it into their book bags. Racing for the door, they collided with about seven other students who had either done the same thing a second earlier or had just left everything behind. A few well-placed elbows and knees got Kimberly and Tommy through first, and they dashed down the hallway after Jason.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 21: Jason's Battle

1994

As Jason wove his way through the halls, followed by the growing mob of students, teachers, and various other school personnel sundry, he began to find he did, indeed, have a temper. A rather dangerous one, too. Full of anger, annoyance, no self-control, and an actual imaginary friend named Sven he'd thought up when he was seven.

This is stupid. Why am I doing this? To gain my dignity back? Jason snarled audibly as he passed a group of people, which happened to include Trini. Confusion registered on her face as the whole group simply joined the throng that was closing in on the Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. Tommy and Kimberly were trying to fight their way through the crowd, Tommy grimacing at the presence of so many Ranger-adoring girls in a single group, reminding himself over and over that as long as he didn't morph no one would jump him.

"Red Ranger! RED RANGER! Will you sign this for me?"

"Red! Red! RED!"

"Take your helmet off!"

"Yeah, take it off! What do you look like?"

"Take it ALL off!"

"Kiss me!"

"No, kiss ME!"

"What's the name of the White Ranger?"

"IMPOSTER!"

"I LOVE YOU!"

As random girls (some Jason recognized, some he didn't) began crowding him and pawing at him, he was feeling decidedly claustrophobic. He pressed on, hoping to step into a few more classrooms before they trampled him, but they kept getting closer, reaching out over and over again; no matter how many times he smacked a hand away, another took its place. It wasn't until he felt fingernails biting through his power suit that he quite suddenly panicked and ran. The chatter of his tagalongs rose to a dull roar, the noise pounding through his head.

Pausing a moment at the first commons he encountered, Jason leapt onto a table, if for no other reason than to gain a better vantage point of the mob and escape a few of the more uncomfortably-placed groping fingers; the table was surrounded in seconds. He took a moment to scan the crowd for Billy.

Trini was at the back of the crowd with Tommy and Kimberly, attempting to fight their way through, but not even well-placed knees and elbows will deter frenzied fans once they've become a mob, especially mobs the teenage girl variety. Tommy wasn't trying very hard, anyway; after a moment he yelped and backed away, slouching in the corner with a glazed look in his eye. Kimberly bit her lip, looking from him to Jason, torn about who to go after; after a long moment she sighed.

"TOMMY!" she called, heading over to him.

"Through the park... through the mall... through downtown..."

"Tommy!" she snapped in exasperation, trying to smack at his cheeks as he rocked back and forth and moaned. "Get over it, will you?"

Billy, meanwhile, was in the back of the crowd with Zack, was telling anyone who would listen, "See? It's not me! I'm here and he's up there so I can't be the Red Ranger, see? I'm not a Power Ranger! Especially not the Red one!" while Zack nodded next to him and tried not to laugh.

Jason's gaze locked on Billy and Zack. Zack and Billy. Billy the hallucinating catalyst, Zack the big mouth, the two responsible for the last two weeks of horrid annoyances for everyone. The delusional Red Ranger. All the work hammering out dents in the zords. The truth about Jason and Trini's relationship. Zack wouldn't stop laughing. Zack was always laughing. Zack thought it was funny. Zack thought it was smart to tell reporters Jason was delusional. Zack and Billy. Billy and Zack. Billy had been walking around for two weeks signing autographs in red ink and talking to fans, Jason's fans, answering questions about how he knew the other Rangers and was he really crazy and what was it like to lead the team. Billy and Zack. Zack and Billy. Meanwhile, Zack had been laughing, making dumb jokes, trying to tell Jason to just go with the flow and be thankful that no one suspected that Jason was the actual Red Ranger.

Jason stared at them, his vision starting to blur with fury. And then, at the worst possible second, Zack started laughing.

Tolerance completely snapped, Jason drew his Blade Blaster, pointed it at the ceiling, and fired.

That got everyone's attention; a few even ducked and screamed. Jason swept his gaze over all of his friends. Kimberly cringed, looking nervous, while Tommy stared unseeingly into nothingness, adding a pang of guilt onto Jason's anger. Trini's eyes widened and she suddenly ran off; this caused Kimberly to panic, and she seized Tommy by the arm and attempted to drag him out of the room, figuring that if Trini was making a break for it now was the time to leave. Billy and Zack simply stared blankly forward, covered in dust and bits of ceiling tile—Jason had "accidentally" blasted a hole right over their heads—but thankfully, Zack was no longer laughing.

Holding his Blade Blaster in both hands now, Jason addressed the crowd calmly. "Everyone see this deadly-weapon-shaped thing I have? It's called a Blade Blaster. Watch what it does to that trash can!" Aiming, he fired at the innocent trash can (which suddenly had a very large people-free space around it). It blew backwards, a good third of the side fired-on completely gone, the rest badly charred. Trash rained down like soot. Everyone gaped in disbelief as the remnants of the trash can and its contents appeared to be slowly melting and fusing together.

"See, this little baby has helped me and my fellow Rangers down a monster or two. It's powerful. Really powerful. Power Ranger powerful." Shakily, he pointed randomly into the crowd, watching as most ducked in terror, while others simply stared in awe. "Now," Jason's voice became tight and somewhat frantic, "I would appreciate it if you just left me alone."

Everyone appeared to think about this for a second. They looked from him, to the mutilated trash can, and back.

"Are you single?"

"If you're not Billy Craigstein, who are you?"

"Are you really crazy?"

"Are the other Rangers single?"

"Can I have the White Ranger's phone number?"

Jason stared at the last person to speak, amazed that they could still badger him after such an obvious display of power... but before he could puzzle it out, whatever part of him, if any, that hadn't snapped already totally shattered.

She wanted the White Ranger's number. The White Ranger. Jason was the Red Ranger. Jason had led the team up until a couple months ago. Jason looked just as good in a suit as the White Ranger. Jason fought just as well. Better, even. He just didn't have a nifty talking sword with lots of cool powers. He was still way cooler than the White Ranger. He was always picking up the slack when Tommy was late or forgot to do something, which was often. Jason was the coolest. What did she want with the White Ranger's number?

"Leave the White Ranger alone!" Jason snarled. "He's perfectly happy with the Pink Ranger! They've been together for, um, a good while now and they're happy and they're not breaking up so get over the delusion that you'll one day marry a Power Ranger! He's with the Pink Ranger! And I'm not jealous, because after all I have Yellow! So we're not single! None of us! Except for Blue and Black, but you wouldn't want to date either one of them, because after all the Black Ranger is a player and no one can understand a word Blue says and anyway I'm better-looking than both of them! Combined! Now are you gonna leave me alone? Huh? Or would anyone like to see another demonstration? How many of you do you think I can take? I can jump higher, run faster and kick harder than any of you! HOW MANY DO YOU THINK I CAN TAKE? ALL OF YOU! ALL OF YOU STUPID MORTALS!"

Through the haze of red ironically clouding his vision, a blur of yellow seeped in. His eyes cleared just enough to focus on Trini, who was politely pushing her way through the crowd to get to him, muttering "Excuse me," as people gaped at her in awe. She had morphed also, and those she touched to push aside, especially the guys, clutched at the spot on their bodies where her hand touched, awed. Reaching the front of the line, she hopped up on the table and gave him the best glare she could while wearing a helmet.

For a moment, they both attempted to stare each other down. Jason was so happy to be getting his frustrations out that he didn't want to let go of the rage, but Trini had always had a calming influence on him. Trini reached up and gently touched Jason's helmet, fingertips grazing the tinted visor. People began whispering to each other when the Red Ranger seemed to deflate and returned the gesture with his free hand.

"Put the blaster away," Trini said in a soothing, talking-to-lunatics voice. "We help and serve these people, remember? We don't shoot them. We help them. No shooting. Or kicking. Or punching. Come on, put it down..."

Jason jerked back, appearing to shiver for a moment, then waved his blaster threateningly at everyone one last time, jammed it back into his holster, hopped off the table and wandered away.

Turning to the crowd, Trini cleared her throat. "He's really sorry. Red's a real great guy... just... um..." Letting out a gusty sigh, Trini went ahead and said the only thing she could think of. "He's just... he's not well."

With that, Trini whirled around and chased after the angry, weapon-toting Red Ranger.

~*~

Present day

More laughter filled the Youth Center than oxygen; the younger Rangers and Ernie were practically in fits and even Jason and Billy had to smile. This was very common with most of the not-so-nifty Ranger moments; the ones who hadn't enjoyed it shuddered a bit when it was first brought up, only to look back on it and laugh once the rest of the gang started the almost-always humorous retelling. Hayley had been a wonderful audience for getting over their past annoyances over the years, as had members of other Ranger teams who sought them out (they laughed the hardest, because, of course, they could relate).

"Oh, that was great," Kira gasped.

"Definitely," Conner agreed. "Did they stop bothering you and Billy after that, Jason?"

"No," Jason said with a heavy sigh. "After that, things got worse."

"And this is how," Kimberly said, grinning and holding up one of Ernie's papers. "The next day, the Angel Grove Sentinel printed an anonymous letter to the editor. Remember this, guys?"

"Oh, yeah!" Zack exclaimed, snatching it from her and beginning to read it aloud. "'While I am forced to admit that Billy Cranston as a logical candidate for a Power Ranger is now questionable, I am shocked to see that the Sentinel hasn't done a better job of connecting the dots between Cranston and Red. You see, I was in the crowd the day of the Power Ranger parade. I heard the Rangers speaking. None of them sounded a day over eighteen. Judging by their voices alone, I'd put them mid-twenties at the latest. However, after the appearance of the Red Ranger at Angel Grove High, I am convinced that he is a high school student. It was obvious that he was there to prove he was not, in fact, Billy Cranston... but why prove that? Why hasn't he tried to disprove all the other candidates for Red Ranger named by Angel Grove's various media sources? Why did he start with Cranston, and why hasn't he been seen since? My only guess is that Cranston asked him to do it, which means that Cranston either knows the Rangers, is one of the other colors, or is actually the Red Ranger himself and asked one of the other Rangers to fill in as the Red Ranger to protect his identity.'"

"See, this is what happens when you get involved with the media," Tommy said to the four laughing teens.

"It doesn't sound that bad," Conner said.

"It gets worse," Billy said dryly.

"Trust me, guys," Tommy said, "learn from others' mistakes, so you don't have to make them yourself."

"Anyway," Zack said, and continued. "'Cranston is hailed as the smartest student to ever hit Angel Grove High, which would add to the conclusion that he planned Red Ranger's visit. Besides, whoever was in that suit, they have to be a student or faculty member at Angel Grove High, as that young lady who spotted him first says he emerged from the janitor's closet and the high school's security reports no visitors to the school that afternoon.'"

"Ouch," Ethan said sympathetically.

"I had to go visit every other person they suggested of being a candidate for Red Ranger," Jason moaned. "All twenty-nine of them. They just kept adding to the list. It wouldn't end! I mean, I single-handedly took out the Channel Six News building. I thought that would be the end of it. But no. The Sentinel, Channel Two, Channel Eight, the high school paper..."

"You took out a news building?" Trent asked incredulously.

"Did I say that? I meant I accidentally knocked a monster into it with my Dragonzord. I didn't mean to—"

"Uh-huh," Tommy said dryly. "You're lucky no one got hurt."

"Everyone got really good at evacuating long before then," Zack said fairly.

"So... how did you get it to stop?" Conner asked. "Did you get it to stop?"

"Eventually. About a month and a half after the zord wreck," Jason said.

"How?" Kira asked eagerly.

Jason hesitated. "Well... the Sentinel was the most persistent, you see..."

"Interviewed every friend Billy had," Kimberly grumbled. "I was so terrified. I mean, me and Trini were pretty much his only close female friends at the time, and me always wearing pink... they interviewed us before Jason blasted that hole in the cafeteria roof, and that was nerve-wracking but fine... but afterwards..."

"It was all about 'are you a Ranger' using sneaky reporter tricks," Trini said. "I told them I dabbled in martial arts and the next thing I know it's three hours later and I'm still talking to the guy."

"There were a lot more reporters around our battlefields, too," Tommy said, jerking his head at the picture of him and Kimberly hugging in morph.

"Until Jason 'accidentally' almost stepped on a news crew from Channel Four with his zord," Zack said with a laugh.

"I was never so happy to be in that zord as when we fixed it and I could scare a couple reporters," Jason said with relish.

"But how did you get them all to back off?" Ethan pressed.

"Well," Tommy said slowly, "Jason's breakdown wasn't quite over yet..."

~*~

1994

"Hey," Jason called, hurrying over to Trini during the break before last period. "Where were you all day?"

Trini sighed. "Another reporter."

"Again?" Jason made a face. "Aren't we old news by now?"

"Apparently not. I think the school is milking it for the publicity."

Jason slid his arm around her shoulders and pecked her cheek. "What did you tell them?"

"Nothing. They latched onto the fact that I take martial arts, but I handled it well. I think." Trini sighed and gently pushed him away. "I've got to get to class. I was so busy re-checking the zords' computer systems last night with Billy that I didn't get to finish my homework. Between that and the interviews, I'm way behind."

Jason watched Trini walk away, anger burning within him. They were all very tired. Their schoolwork, family obligations, martial arts classes, extracurricular activities, and so on were enough on their own, and Zedd had been sending down a lot more monsters, apparently pissed off about their blatant disregard for tradition in that battle with the foul-smelling Viking pig. Jason and Trini's relationship was definitely suffering from the lack of time; not only did they have their respective duties, but Trini was still working out a few kinks in the now-repaired zords with Billy while Jason was taking time to visit every last possible Red Ranger named by the news. (There were far too many crazy people who knew how to fight in Angel Grove.) Not only that, but it seemed like every time they got together, someone interrupted them; the others had taken a special interest in "spying on the lovebirds," especially since Jason and Trini hadn't quite been able to finally admit that they were together, though the others now had very little doubt.

"Hey, Jase!" called Zack, walking up to him with Kimberly and Tommy. "What's going on?"

Jason's eyes narrowed as he took in Tommy and Kimberly's joined hands. They weren't having issues. They didn't have to fix computers or visit insane martial artists. They were having a grand old time making out like they were during the last battle when Jason had to cover for Tommy yet again and Trini, Zack and Billy had been forced to pilot the Assault Team without Kimberly. Yes, Tommy and Kimberly were happy, and Zack was probably laughing on the inside, and meanwhile Jason's girlfriend wasn't in the only three classes she had with him because she was off insisting that he wasn't a Power Ranger to some evil reporter.

"It has to end," Jason growled at them all, and stalked off.

Tommy, Kimberly and Zack looked at each other. "Um... that can't be good," Zack quipped.

"I'll see if I can catch him," Tommy said.

"I'll try and steal his morpher like last time," Zack added.

"I'll go get Trini," Kimberly said quickly. They had become far too used to these sorts of moments with Jason in the past few weeks.

"Ah, life as a Ranger," Zack joked, and they split up and ran off.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 22: Fourth Down and Long

1994

The Angel Grove Sentinel sports department was not the most enjoyable place to work. Carrie had spent three years working as a stringer, writing high school sports. Now she was so good at her job that she had to edit the work of the other stringers, which was often terrible, in addition to dealing with idiot coaches who couldn't even remember what league their school was in and answering calls from whack jobs with random sports trivia. It was also really grating on her that just about every guy who called into the department referred to her as "sweetheart" or "darling" and found some way to patronize her for the crime of being a girl. Despite the deeply engrained rivalry between the sports and features departments, Carrie longed to leave the world of sports behind and become a features reporter; many Sentinel employees claimed they'd gotten their starts in reporting as stringers, which was why she'd taken the job in the first place. However, it didn't look like her chance to move on was coming anytime soon. Everyone in Angel Grove news jobs clung to their employment—covering the world's first superheroes was bound to look good on a résumé, so Carrie was stuck where she was.

Today, things were particularly bad, even without the annoyance at work. Her car had started making that funny noise again, she'd torn her favorite jeans, the cat had ruined another set of curtains, and she'd gotten a call from her mother demanding that they have lunch sometime soon. Not only that, but Jenny, Carrie's best friend and fellow stringer, had called in sick, and the only other stringers in the office were two of Jenny's ex-boyfriends. Ex No. 1 kept trying to ask Carrie for advice about getting Jenny back, while Ex No. 2 kept trying to hit on Carrie; unfortunately, the Girl Code dictated that she couldn't date the ex of a friend, and she couldn't give the other ex advice without permission from Jenny.

Then one of the copyeditors had reminded Carrie that they needed toner for the printer, which was another of Carrie's unofficial duties—stealing toner from the features department. (Sports had a very low budget, so toner theft was Carrie's way of ensuring that she didn't get laid off; being underpaid and hating your job were not good reasons to let employment slip through your fingers.) Unfortunately, she'd been forced to use Ex No. 2 as a lookout since Jenny wasn't at work, and he'd made some comment about photocopying her butt and now she was going to have to avoid the copy machine for the next few days, just in case.

"What's wrong?" Ex No. 2 asked, giving her a flirtatious grin. "You look like you're having a bad day."

Carrie forced a polite smile. "I don't know if anyone's having as bad a day as I am."

"What's wrong?" Ex. No. 2 asked, but before she could answer, an angry roar sounded from somewhere near her left and she spun her chair around, fearing the wrath of the sports editor. She nearly fell right out of the desk chair at the sight of the Red Ranger, fully suited with his Blade Blaster in one hand, standing not five feet away and radiating anger like a dragon woken up to find a bunch of idiot adventurers trying to make off with its treasure hoard.

"LISTEN UP!" the Red Ranger shouted, waving the blaster at the six copyeditors, three designers, two editors, three stringers and an agate clerk. "I am sick and tired of proving that every person you've suspected of being the Red Ranger is not me! I have spent weeks dealing with all sorts of problems that you people have caused with your stupid articles and I'm here to tell you that no monster attack is half as scary as I am! IF YOU DO NOT STOP NAMING CANDIDATES FOR MY SECRET IDENTITY, I WILL DESTROY YOU ALL, UNDERSTAND?"

The Sentinel sports staff stared at him.

"Do you have any idea what it's like, trying to have a normal life while fighting monsters and dealing with all sorts of issues and I just want to spend a few hours alone with Yellow without the others trying to spy or without us having to fight something and you know, it's really rude of you to put me through all this when you'd all be dead if it wasn't for me! And I am not crazy! At least I wasn't until now! I'm perfectly sane, you hear? Now stop writing those horrible articles or I'll kill you all, get me?"

The staff continued to stare, none of them doubting that the Red Ranger was in fact very much insane.

"Um," Carrie said slowly, swallowing heavily and raising her hand as though in class. "Mr., um, Red Ranger..."

"Yes? What is it, evil reporter?"

"I'm... I'm not a reporter. I'm a stringer. With all due respect, sir, this is the sports department. The features department is over there." She pointed around the corner, where a group of angry reporters was clustered around a printer some thirty feet away, wondering where their toner had gone this time.

The Red Ranger sighed heavily. "Can't you just, you know, pass along the message or something, please? You guys have memos and stuff, right?"

Carrie gave him a shaky, apologetic smile. "They don't really like us that much."

The Red Ranger stared at her for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed in a rather creepy way. "Of course not. Of course not. I'm giving intimidating speeches to the sports department. By the way, the Angel Grove Warriors need better receivers, not a new quarterback. Anyone could see that."

He took a step towards Carrie, frowning at the bowl on the edge of her desk, which was full of ice and cheap cans of pop (staff members occasionally brought in food or drink for everyone, but actually making punch was too involved for those who were suited to work in sports; cookies and such were likewise store-bought). "You guys have Red Pop."

"Yep. Gotta love Faygo," Carrie said nervously, fully aware that a psychotic superhero was approaching her desk.

"Can I have some?" the Red Ranger asked hopefully. "I've been doing a lot of shouting lately. Rather thirsty."

"Well, um, y-you'd have to take off your helmet," she replied.

"Oh, you'd love that, wouldn't you, evil reporter!" he snarled.

"No! And I'm not a reporter, I'm a stringer. Actually, I... hey, how about a straw? That could fit under your helmet. I'm sure we have a straw around here somewhere. Why don't you just, um, calm down and watch the game?" She gestured at a row of televisions set high up in the wall, playing various sports events.

"Thanks, evil reporter," he replied solemnly. He sat down on the edge of her desk and plucked a can of Red Pop from the bowl, trying valiantly to open it with his gloves on. Seeing that he was concentrating hard, she turned to Jenny's two exes.

"You," she hissed at Ex No. 1, "go dig through the packet drawers and see if you can find a straw. And you," she added to Ex No. 2, "go convince someone from features to come over here."

As they scurried off, Carrie caught her editor's eye; he nodded slightly, then looked at the Red Ranger, indicating (she assumed) that she was doing something correctly before he picked up his phone and began to whisper into it. She turned back to the Red Ranger with a large smile and offered to open his drink for him. Despite his insanity and threatening nature, she was quickly developing a liking for him. Here was a man who knew what it was like to have a bad day... and here was a man who could be her ticket out of the sports department and into features. There had been many rumors of the paper putting out a reward to anyone who could give reliable information on the Power Rangers... and here was her chance to give just that.

~*~

"Anything?" Tommy asked as they met up in the park.

"Nothing. There hasn't been any sort of panic at any of the TV stations," Trini replied in frustration.

"I checked the newspaper offices. No one running or screaming there," Kimberly said.

"I've been by his house, the Youth Center, everywhere," Zack added.

"Negative at the Command Center, and I couldn't get near the Viewing Globe without Alpha overhearing," Billy said with a sigh.

Tommy sighed. While he was slowly becoming a good leader, he found himself wondering what to do far too often. He wasn't above asking Jason for advice, either, and that was what he would have done right now if Jason hadn't gone completely mental. "Okay. I guess it's time to call him on the communicators."

"Don't use his name," Billy warned. "We don't know if his location is public."

Tommy nodded and started to lift his wrist to his mouth, then stopped. "Um, Trini," he said slowly, knowing she could tame a rhinoceros in ten words or less, "maybe you'd better do it."

~*~

Jason hummed to himself as he sat cross-legged on the girl's desk. She had explained to him that she was no evil reporter, but rather a "stringer," which meant she just wrote tiny blurbs about high school sports. He liked that; the only reason he got the paper was for the comics and the sports page (and, lately, he hadn't been able to enjoy the paper at all), and he had to admit it was nice to see his name in the paper and grin about the fact that the whole town knew how many yards he'd rushed in the big game (not that he could tell her that, as it would give away too much of his identity). Apparently there weren't any reporters at all in the sports department, especially this time of day; sports reporters rarely came into the office at all, spending most of their time out covering games. So he was free to sit around and chat with Carrie and somehow he felt very, very relaxed. Sports often made him feel much better about things.

She told him a lot about the way the department worked, explaining that copyeditors were the ones who made reporters' stories fit neatly on the page and edited the reporters' terrible grammar and spelling, and tried to tell him what all the odd terms floating around were. The sports staff was trying hard to ignore Jason entirely, and so they continued their work, calling out all sorts of confusing jargon to each other. Jason didn't understand much of it, but there was something comforting in knowing that not everyone who worked for the media was Satanic and out to get him (and even more comforting to know that the people who weren't Satanic covered football). Oddly enough, being in the news building was the calmest he'd felt in days.

Jason sipped his can of Red Pop through the Burger King straw that one of the other stringers had produced. "So," he said to Carrie, "I think I understand what a subhead is, and I'm pretty sure I get why you all keep talking about inches and factboxes and 'the wire,' but what's a packet drawer?"

"The sports gang is well-known at every take-out, fast food, and pizza restaurant within five miles of the building," Carrie explained. "We always save a lot of ketchup packets, salad dressing, napkins, plastic forks, you name it. And when no one could see the desk tops, we designated a couple packet drawers. I wouldn't actually use anything edible from them—most of it is pretty old—but the straws and utensils and stuff are good."

"I see." Jason looked at his straw contemplatively for a moment before nodding at the game. "You rooting for Chicago or—ack!" The sound of his communicator nearly startled him right off the edge of the desk.

"What was that?" Carrie demanded, looking around for the source of the odd beeping noise.

"Nothing to worry about," Jason said, determinedly holding on to his peaceful moment. He was not going to leave. He was going to sit here until someone made him leave. Or until they ran out of Red Pop. Clearing his throat, he lifted his wrist to his mouth. "Red here."

"Red? Where are you?" Trini's voice came through, sounding concerned.

"Oh, I'm watching the game."

"Watching the game? What? But... but you weren't home..."

"Nope, I'm not home."

"And you're not at the Y... the hangout?"

"Nope. I'm in the sports department."

"...What? What sports department?"

"The one at the Sentinel. Me and Carrie here are watching the Chicago game."

There was a pause. Jason waited, wondering what was going on. He could hear hesitation in her voice, thought he heard the others muttering in the background. He waited for her to order him to leave the building, to stop being an idiot, to—

"Who's Carrie?"

Oops.

"Random 'stringer,' whatever that means. She insists she's not an evil reporter, though."

There was the sound of a scuffle, then Trini yelping. "OW! Jesus, use your own!"

"Red! Are you going to get out of there on your own, or do I have to come get you?"

"White! Let go of my arm!" Trini yelled. Tommy was obviously using her communicator.

Jason narrowed his eyes behind his helmet, a bit incensed at the thought that Tommy was annoying Trini, but he let it go, still trying to stay calm. "Is the city being attacked?" Jason asked.

"What? No," Tommy replied.

"Then I see no reason to leave. I've got Red Pop, I've got the Chicago game, I've got a nice comfy desk to sit on. I'm not leaving."

"Red, don't make me come after you," Tommy threatened.

"I'm not going to make you. You do what you want. And I'll do what I want."

"Red, leave the Sentinel. That's an order."

The haze that had been clouding his vision so often lately came back. "Excuse me?"

"I said—"

"You listen to me, White!" Jason snarled. "I led your sorry butt for a year and I've covered you on numerous occasions. While you were slacking off, I was leading. And I'm fine that you're the leader and I'll take your orders in combat but I'm not leaving this building and you and your stupid talking sword aren't gonna make me! RED OUT!"

Jason flung his wrist back on his lap, ignoring the subsequent beeps of his communicator. He was not going to put up with crap from Tommy. He needed some time off, and if his only solace was thirty feet away from the people who wrote evil stories about him, then he was just going to have to take what he could get.

~*~

"RED! COME IN! Jason, do you hear me? I'm gonna beat you like Rita never did if you don't answer me now!"

"Tommy, LET GO!" Trini roared, kicking him in the shin. He had her arm in a death grip and was shouting at it, shaking her wrist as if he was trying to talk some sense into her communicator instead of Jason.

Tommy let her go, suddenly quite enraged. He understood that Jason had been put through hell these past few weeks. But it had been Jason who let Tommy's name slip and forced Billy and Zack to cover it up, and anyway it had been Jason's idea to throw Tommy to the fans, and Tommy thought it was rather big of him to forgive something like that so Jason had no right getting pissed at him. And Jason was the one causing his own stress about Jason and Trini; sure, Tommy was trying to bring it to the surface because it was interesting as hell, but Jason was the one keeping secrets when none of them ever had before. At least, not anything major.

Tommy hadn't asked to be leader. He wasn't even sure why he'd been made leader, though he suspected it has something to do with the powers of the White Ranger and Saba. He couldn't help it if he was late and forgetful; he tried not to be. And it wasn't his fault that sometimes he got so involved in certain things that he didn't hear his communicator! And he wasn't always kissing Kimberly in the Juice Bar! ...Sometimes they were at the park. Or by the lake. Or... well, that wasn't the point!

"That wasn't an unreasonable order, was it?" he demanded of his friends. They all took a nervous step backwards, save Trini, who glared at him and rubbed her wrist.

"Well... no," Kimberly said. "I don't think so."

"He shouldn't be in a news building, especially in morph," Billy admitted.

"I'm going after him," Tommy growled, reaching for his morpher.

"Tommy," Trini said slowly, "Jason's got a lot of problems right now—"

"We've all got problems," Tommy snapped. "Jason's sitting in a newsroom right now, possibly compromising his— our—identity because he's having a bad day. I'm putting a stop to it. Tigerzord!"

Before anyone could say another word, Tommy teleported away. Trini winced. "Damn," she muttered.

"Jason will be fine," Kimberly told her. "Tommy won't—"

"I'm not worried about Jason," Trini interrupted. "I'm worried about Tommy. Now's not the best time to storm off and get in Jason's face. The boy's out of his mind."

Trini shrugged, turned, and wandered away, looking down at her arm and muttering about ice. Kimberly, Billy and Zack glanced at each other, now decidedly more nervous.

~*~

"I'm serious," Ex No. 2 insisted for the thirty-eighth time. "He's here! He just wandered in and started yelling at us and Carrie sent me to go get someone from the features department!"

The five reporters and three copyeditors from features glared down at him. "Yeah, right," said a skinny man with a ponytail, snorting derisively.

"You want to tell us what happened to our toner?" asked a short woman with a square jaw.

"I saw you hiding around the corner, trying to look nonchalant, right before the toner disappeared," the ponytail guy said accusingly.

"This is just some sort of distraction to steal more of our office supplies, isn't it?" said Square Jaw.

"No! Honest! I don't know what happened to your toner! I'm just a lowly stringer! A freelancer! I don't even get benefits! I don't even get free parking!"

"Yeah? Do the printers in the sports department have toner, kid?" growled Ponytail.

"I didn't take your toner! We have plenty of toner! Guys, please, the Red Ranger is sitting over in sports department and there's no one there to right a story about it! Come on!"

"Whatever," Ponytail said contemptuously. "As if Power Rangers would actually come here."

~*~

Tommy teleported to the top of the building across the street from the Sentinel and immediately started scanning the rooms through the windows. "This doesn't look like a battle site," Saba commented, sounding a little confused.

"It's not," Tommy said distractedly. "I'm looking for Jason. He's in the building somewhere, possibly in morph."

"Is that him over there? On the fourth floor?"

Tommy swung his head around. "Where?"

"There."

"Where?"

"I am a saber, you know. I don't exactly have fingers to point with."

Tommy sighed, then smacked the forehead area of his helmet and pulled Saba from his belt, aiming the point of the sword at the building. "Okay, tell me hot or cold, then."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Say left or right!"

"Oh. Left. I said left. Still left. No, no, my left, not your left."

"You don't have a left!"

"Go right, then, for crying out loud! Wait, back back back! You know, if you let me go, I can float around and—"

Tommy let go. With a short scream, Saba plummeted a good ten feet before catching himself and raising back up and aiming straight at Jason. Tommy squinted at the building, finally spotting a large red figure sitting cross-legged on a desk, next to a smiling girl in a desk chair, who was nodding at him as though engrossed in whatever he was saying. Tommy prayed no one saw the White Ranger aiming his sword at the building and panicked, but no one seemed to be looking his way.

"What the hell is he doing?" Tommy growled, stuffing Saba unceremoniously back in his rightful place. Saba let out a yelp of protest. "Singing Kum Ba Yah?"

"Lovely tune, that," Saba said. He began to hum a few bars.

"Saba, now is not the time," Tommy said sternly. His sword was more of a weirdo than Tommy cared to admit; never mind that its speech and numerous abilities made it weird in the first place.

"Right, sorry."

Tommy looked at the line of windows near Jason, finally spotting an open one nearby. The sports department was in the back corner of the building, and a window at the very corner was wide open. Landing on the ledge beneath the windows would normally be unbelievably tricky—well, okay, impossible—but of course it was nothing to a Ranger.

Tommy smacked against the side of the building a few seconds later, grabbing the sill to keep himself from falling backwards. Holding tight to the window, he leaped up and slid through feet-first.

A yelp alerted him to the fact that others had noticed his arrival. He was now standing right behind a row of low-walled cubicles. The nearest cubicle held a bald man with glasses, who was staring at him in horror. Everyone in the area was turned in his direction, but Tommy ignored them for the moment, familiarizing himself with the layout of the building first. The sports section extended for ten or fifteen yards, ending in room with vending machines and microwaves, flanked by bathrooms. A hallway led to the left, with a sign hanging above and pointing the way to several other departments.

Just out of sight of anyone down the hall, Jason sat Indian-style on a girl's desk, sipping Red Pop through a straw wedged carefully under his helmet, taking no notice of Tommy. While everyone in the vicinity was now trying to appear busy, Tommy noticed that they kept sneaking glances at both him and Jason, their heads cocked towards one of the two. Great. So everyone had been hanging on Jason's every word and he'd probably never noticed. The only person who didn't appear to be listening to Jason and the girl was a man in the corner, speaking in low voices on the phone. Tommy distinctly heard the name "Perkins" and realized with no small amount of horror that Perkins was the most well-known sports columnist the Sentinel had; apparently the man on the phone was trying to get the reporters back into the office. Tommy hoped he was failing miserably. (He was.)

"So do you have a job?" the girl asked Jason casually. Tommy had heard somewhere that it was a reporter's job to put the people they interviewed at ease, giving them not only the chance to talk but the desire to do so. Tommy hoped he wasn't too late.

"Well, saving the world's kind of my job," Jason said carefully. "Other than that, I can't tell you."

"Of course not. I was just going to say, it must be awful trying to hold down a job when you have to leave all the time to fight monsters. Sounds really difficult."

Jason took a sip of his drink, stalling for time. If he said yes or no, she'd think he had a job. If he said anything else, she'd assume he didn't. But if she suspected he was a student, and from what he gathered she was pretty bright, then he needed to be quiet.

"Totally sucks," he replied finally. Better to mislead her than to let her get close.

"I can't even get time off when I've got a fever," she said, letting a note of admiration creep into her voice. "So... tell me. Is it difficult to be... you know... hallucinating?"

Jason went rigid. Tommy halted his approach, wanting to hear the answer to this. Jason swallowed and tried to think of a good crazy person answer. "Just because no one else can see my invisible friends, doesn't make them hallucinations," he said, figuring that anyone who was crazy wouldn't think their delusions were false. "And by the way, they'll never find me in the medical records. Ever."

"You don't see a doctor for your condition?" she asked, startled. She knew, from eavesdropping on the investigative reporters, that everyone they were looking at could fight, had suffered a head injury in the past, and was undergoing psychiatric treatment.

"Even if I was seeing a doctor," Jason said in exasperation, "do you really think I wouldn't have a fallback plan to cover myself? The Power Rangers have the technology to create giant fighting robots. Don't you think we can destroy a few medical records? Why would I even bother going to a doctor in Angel Grove, anyway? If they even guessed I was a Ranger, I'd be screwed."

She raised her eyebrows for a moment before remembering herself. "You're very smart."

"Yes, I am. Some of the others are even smarter. Can I have another can of Red Pop?"

Tommy decided now was as good a moment as any to take action, mostly because the dozen or so people in the room were making him feel claustrophobic again. "Red!" Tommy yelled, stomping over to him. "Come on, let's go."

"Hi, White," Jason replied calmly. "Carrie, this is the White Ranger. Obviously. White, this is Carrie, um... I didn't catch her last name—"

"I don't care what her last name is! You're jeopardizing your—OUR—identity by even talking to her! Now come on, let's get out of here, before Zordon finds out."

"Is Zordon an ally of Rita's?" Carrie asked eagerly.

"I'm jeopardizing our identities?" Jason said mildly, giving Tommy a pointed look. "Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black. Or, um, Red. Or—"

"Red, come on!" Tommy said, throwing up his hands.

"White, I don't see what your problem is, but—"

"You don't see what my problem is?" Tommy interrupted incredulously. "You don't see what my problem is? You've sent all of Angel Grove on a manhunt for the most sacred possession we have—our identities. You're keeping secrets from the rest of the gang. You're snapping at everyone. You're doing crazy things with B—Blue, for crying out loud! BLUE! The sanest one of us all and you're convincing him to—"

"Hey, he was the one who wanted to do it!" Jason snapped. "He was the lunatic who caused the whole mess! I made a mistake, yeah, but I'll remind you that you've made plenty!"

"I didn't ask to be leader, you know!"

"That's not what this is about!"

"Yeah? Then what is it about, huh? Yellow? Pink? Are you really just a psycho? What?"

"White," Jason said, climbing off the desk, "you're like a brother to me. But I'm warning you— get out of my face."

"Or what? Huh?"

Jason wasn't sure why he was so angry. He wasn't sure why Tommy was so angry. He wasn't even really all that sure what they were arguing about. But Jason was tired of dealing with Ranger life. This was the first peaceful moment he'd had in a long time... and he wasn't letting Tommy drag him out of here without a fight.

Jason drew back his fist.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 23: Rangers in the Outfield

1994

"They've been gone a really long time," Kimberly said worriedly.

"Yeah... maybe we should, you know..." Zack began.

"Yes?" Billy prompted.

"Go home and wait for them to call?" Zack finished.

Kimberly rolled her eyes. "How brave of you, Zack. I'm going after them. Coming, Billy?"

"I would rather eviscerate myself than accompany you on an excursion to—"

"Billy, Trini's gone now."

"Sorry. ...I... would rather rip my own guts out than... set foot?... in the Sentinel."

"Oh-kay... Zack?"

"Er... well..."

Kimberly sighed. "I'm sure nothing's going on. They're probably fine."

"Oh, good. Then you won't need us. You can go alone."

She rolled her eyes and pulled out her morpher.

~*~

Carrie stared in shock at the two brawling Rangers. It had happened so fast. One minute she was getting the Red one to open up like a can of dog food, and the next he had White Ranger in a headlock while White let out strangled gasps and drove his elbow into Red's stomach repeatedly and Red kept stomping on White's foot. The entire staff had given up all pretenses of ignoring the Rangers and was watching openmouthed.

"What the hell?" said a new voice, and everyone turned to see the Pink Ranger staring at them in confusion.

"Your fault somehow," Red was snarling. "Not sure how but yours!"

"You're just jealous!" White choked out.

"Guys!" Pink yelled, grabbing Red and hauling him off of White. Apparently she expected this to end it, because she was totally unprepared when White dove at Red. She squirmed between them at the last second and tried to force them apart, but her smaller size was no match for the two most powerful Rangers, especially given their acute rage. "Guys! Stop it! What are you doing? Now is not the time! YELLOW! BLUE! BLACK! HELP!"

Carrie half-rose from her chair, feeling helpless. She wanted to assist the Pink Ranger in breaking it up... but after all, if another Ranger couldn't do it, then Carrie would probably die trying. She sighed and simply watched, taking mental notes as best she could.

At that moment, Ex No. 2 came skidding around the corner. "Carrie! The features writers wouldn't believe me! And they want their toner back!"

Carrie smacked her forehead. "You didn't cave, did you? They always accuse us of taking their toner! We always deny it!"

"How was I supposed to know that?" Ex No. 2 demanded, wringing his hands. "Who's gonna write the story on them?" he asked, nodding at the rumbling Rangers.

Carrie's mouth set in a grim line. "Me."

"You?"

"Sit down and shut up," Carrie snapped, watching the Rangers carefully.

"Guys!" Pink wailed, getting crushed between the two men as they throttled each other. "I know life hasn't been very easy right now but come on! You're best friends!"

"You threw me to the wolves!" White choked out.

"You sent me out of my zord to wave!" Red retorted. "Never would have happened if you hadn't!"

Pink finally stopped pushing on their chests and jabbed at her left wrist with her right hand. "Blue! Black! Yellow! A LITTLE HELP, PLEASE!"

Two flashes of light appeared, and when it faded the Blue and Black Rangers stood next to their three teammates. Pink was now smushed in between White and Red, slowly suffocating.

"What the—?" the Black Ranger yelled, leaping at White. Blue grabbed Red and heaved, throwing him bodily towards the restrooms.

"About frickin' time!" Pink exploded. "Where have you been?"

"What are you talking about?" Blue asked. "You just now beeped us!"

"I was yelling for you for ages!"

"You know that the helmets' speakers only work when we're in morph," Blue told her.

Pink paused. "Oh."

"Guys," said Black, struggling to restrain White, "can we get out of here?"

With that, the five Power Rangers teleported away.

~*~

Present day

"Ah, the good old days," Zack said cheerfully as the team concluded the tale.

"You actually got into a fight with another Ranger in the middle of a newsroom?" Ethan asked Tommy incredulously.

"And they about crushed me in the process," Kimberly said with a playful glare at Jason and Tommy.

Tommy shrugged, embarrassed. "Yeah, well... it was kind of a spontaneous thing. I wasn't always Mr. Responsible."

"You're still not Mr. Responsible," Jason joked, pawing through the box of news clippings.

"Wait," Trent said slowly. "How, exactly, did that end things?"

"Dear old Carrie," Jason said. "Wrote a very moving article about the stress the public and the media were placing upon us. I'm pretty sure that it was her who persuaded those college kids to protest the constant news coverage, because she was the one who wrote the articles on that, too. She made the whole city realize how crazy they were driving us, and the apology was practically a boycott of all Power Rangers-related stories. Sales and ratings plummeted for anyone who covered us extensively. I couldn't stop grinning every time I walked past a newsstand and saw a whole bunch of articles that weren't about us."

"I caught Jason trying to write a letter to Carrie, thanking her," Trini said. "Made him stop. Figured it would just escalate things in a bad way."

"So, there's only one thing left you haven't told us, right?" Conner asked.

"No, I think that's everything," Kimberly said, frowning as she tried to recall.

"But... come on. Who won the fight?" Conner prodded eagerly.

Tommy and Jason looked at each other. Neither of them spoke, but they were both reminded of the end of that fight.

~*~

1994

"I give up," Zack said after the fourteenth time his attempt to pull the two apart had gotten him thrown halfway across the clearing. He limped over to the boulder Kimberly and Billy were sharing and plopped down in front of them.

They'd taken Tommy and Jason to the same secluded place in the park where they'd met up to go find Jason. They were all still in morph, because Tommy and Jason hadn't powered down and they were afraid of someone finding them all near the two battling Rangers; besides, they'd needed the power boost of morphing to try to stop them all.

"Trini's still not answering her communicator," Kimberly said worriedly. She'd been trying for half an hour now.

"Tommy hurt her arm, remember?" Billy said. "She would have taken it off to ice up her wrist. Melting ice could have damaged the wiring of the communicator, perhaps beyond repair."

Kimberly swore, then narrowed her eyes and stood up. She pulled out her Power Bow and took careful aim at Jason. They'd been trying to avoid hurting either boy while trying to break them up, but desperate times called for serious ass-kicking.

Kimberly's arrow knocked Jason away from Tommy and into a tree. Before he could get back up, Kimberly grabbed Tommy by the arm and shook him.

"You are both acting like three-year-olds!" she shouted. "I don't know what your malfunction is, but stop it! Now!"

With that, Kimberly marched off through the woods, demorphing as she went. Billy and Zack hurried after her. Tommy sighed. Great. Now he'd upset Kimberly.

Tommy turned to look at Jason and warily powered down. Jason stood up and did the same. They stared each other down for a long moment and then they burst out laughing.

"Red Pop?" Tommy asked Jason incredulously through his laughter.

"It's good stuff," Jason said defensively.

"Whatever, man," Tommy said, shrugging. "I prefer Rock and Rye, myself." They laughed themselves out for a while longer, walking over to the boulder and plopping down on it.

"You should have seen the look on Trini's face when I grabbed her arm," Tommy said.

"You should have seen the look on those people's faces when I started screaming at them," Jason said. "Here I am, ranting about how horrible the reporters of Angel Grove are, only to realize I'm talking to the sports department. The copyeditors of the sports department."

"Here I was gonna ask if you got to meet one of the sports reporters," Tommy joked.

"No such luck. Although I did make a new friend." Jason shook his head ruefully and laughed again. "Oh, life is so crazy. It's days like these I feel like pitching my morpher off a cliff."

Tommy frowned, suddenly troubled. "Did I ever tell you what Zordon said when I asked him why he decided to make me leader?"

Jason stared at him. "You asked him why he did it?"

Tommy nodded. "Before you guys even found out about the White Ranger. Zordon told me I was going to be leader and I panicked, thinking you would hate me. Things between me and you guys were kind of rocky as it was, what with me losing my powers and everything. I didn't want to upset anyone. So I asked. And Zordon told me that he did it because he sensed you were going to leave."

"Me? Leave? Are you insane?" Jason jumped up. "I would never leave the team!"

Tommy sighed. "Zordon says we all will eventually. He said he chose you as leader solely on intuition and mystic divination, or something like that. It was really confusing. Anyway, he said that he sensed it was almost time for you to move on, so he needed to ensure that there would be a leader once you were gone. And he chose me."

Jason stared at him. That made sense. After himself, without Tommy in the equation, Jason would have chosen Trini to be leader... but Tommy had shown amazing character during his time as the Green Ranger and his power loss. Tommy had proven himself. So Jason had forced down any doubts and upset when Zordon had referred to the White Ranger as the new leader. It had thrown him, and for a while he had wondered if he had done something wrong, but he knew that it wasn't very likely for Zordon to punish Jason for anything, and Jason couldn't recall a single instance of wrongdoing... well, wrongdoing major enough to take away his leadership, anyway. Jason had brooded a lot about the loss... though he hadn't ever begrudged Tommy the new role. He had simply wondered why. Now he knew.

Trini was the only other person on the team that Jason felt could possibly be a great leader... Trini understood people, and was honorable, but even so Jason wasn't so sure she could pull it off. Zack was a good guy, but often rash. Billy was very smart, but tended to absorb himself in his work, and his dedication was to inventing, not to fighting. Neither was Kimberly's; she was fun-loving and spirited—the word "wishy-washy" just seemed to describe her perfectly—and Jason certainly couldn't see her calmly making life-and-death decisions. Kimberly let her emotions rule her actions, and the decisions Jason had been forced to make would have destroyed Kimberly. He knew that they would do the same for the cheerful Zack, the shy Billy and probably the (usually) peaceful Trini. Tommy, though...

"You are the best choice," Jason conceded. "You're the strongest. You're the bravest. You're probably the best person for the job, if I was going to leave. But I'm not going to leave the team. I would never leave."

"Jason," Tommy said in exasperation, "think about it. I know I have. Ten years from now, do you really want to be running around in spandex fighting evil in your spare time? Risking losing your job because you had to skip work to fight evil or because you got, I don't know,trapped in rockor turned evil or whatever? I don't know about you, but I'm not prepared to do this forever. I want to go to college, and I want to have a nice job, and I want a family one day. I want a life where my friends and family aren't jeopardized because they've got ties to a Power Ranger. I want to travel and eventually I want to be able to live without the knowledge that I may have to run off and fight at a moment's notice. You want that too, Jason, we all do. These past few weeks aside, we love being Rangers... but we're all gonna leave the team eventually. Besides, what exactly are we going to do with ourselves once Rita and Zedd are finally obliterated?"

Jason shifted uncomfortably, and Tommy plowed on. "As weird as it is to say, we're all kick-ass people, Jason," Tommy said. "Billy was probably accepted to Harvard by the age of two. Trini's almost as smart as him. Kimberly will probably be a great gymnast one day, traveling the world to compete."

"Or she'll become the Infamous Saks Fifth Avenue Bandit," Jason deadpanned.

Tommy paused. "Is it bad that I can actually see that happening?" He had a sudden vision of Kimberly, her Pink Ranger suit dyed black, kicking butt on high class department store security guards and running off with numerous shopping bags full of shiny things. He shook his head vigorously. "Anyway. Zack will probably run off soon enough, dancing through the world and making people laugh. And you are an incredible fighter, and a good guy besides; who knows where you'll end up? Me, though, I want to settle down one day. Live the quiet life. I'm not sure what I'll be doing when I do, but that's what I want. None of us will stay here in Angel Grove forever, going to Angel Grove Community College and forsaking all the opportunities we could have as civilians. Even if we wanted to, Zordon wouldn't allow it."

Tommy stood up and regarded him sadly. "Zordon's right, Jason. You're not destined to spend the rest of your life as a Power Ranger. Neither am I. These past few weeks have just emphasized how stressful the Ranger gig can be. We'll have to move on eventually. And I'm only leader right now because Zordon thinks you're going to move on first."

Jason bit his lip, suddenly thinking of the Peace Conference application he'd sent in. He had planned to turn it down if he got in, he'd just wanted to see if he'd be able to get past the selection process. Hundreds of thousands of people had applied. But in the back of his mind, it had sounded like a beautiful dream. Traveling the world, helping people, getting a top-notch education and having incredible experiences...

"Maybe," Jason said. "But I sure as hell hope not." He sighed and looked Tommy straight in the eye. "I'm not jealous, Tommy. I'm really not. I'm happy for you. In some ways... it's a relief, not to be leader. I'm so glad to be rid of the leadership that I feel guilty about it. Besides, the team's in good hands."

"I hope I do as well as you did," Tommy said quietly. "I know I haven't always been a model leader. But I'm working on it. I'm trying harder. And I'm going to keep trying harder, Jase."

Jason smiled. "Good. Cuz according to Zordon, I'm not always going to be around to cover your butt when you're making out with Kim."

"Hey," Tommy complained. "You're no saint yourself, buddy! I know there's something going on between you and Trini. And if you don't come clean, I'll just have to prove it."

Jason shrugged. "I've been dating Trini for months."

Tommy nearly fell over. "What?"

"I am dating Trini. I adore her. I've been madly in love with the girl for years." Jason gave him a playful glare. "So you can stop hiding in the bushes outside my house whenever she's over, okay?"

Tommy smiled, shaking his head. So that was it, then. The air was finally clear between them. For the first time since their friendship began, Tommy felt, deep in his gut, an overwhelming certainty that no matter what, he and Jason would always be best friends.

~*~

Present day

"Earth to Dr. O?" Kira said tentatively as he and Jason stared at each other.

Tommy shook his head as if to clear it. "Hmm? Oh. The fight." He told them an abbreviated version of the laughing fit they'd had, but he failed to mention the conversation about leaving the team. How odd it seemed now... Tommy insisting that they'd have to move on one day?

"Then I told him that Zordon had only made me the leader of the team because he felt Jason was about to leave. That was less than a month before the Peace Conference, by the way," Tommy said.

"How did he know?" Ethan asked.

"Remember how I told you that the power chooses you?" Tommy asked. The four teens nodded. "Well, Zordon was the power."

"When he first brought us to the Command Center, he talked like he knew us," Billy said. "He was highly intuitive."

"And he knew Jason was getting ready to move on," Tommy said. "That's what I told Jason after our spat."

Jason laughed. "You also said that, ten years from then, you didn't want to still be a Power Ranger." He shook his head and laughed harder.

Tommy also laughed at the irony. "Well, I learned my lesson. No more verbalized hopes for the future. Ever." They both cracked up, and the others smiled.

"Didn't you just tell me at prom that you wanted to continue teaching and live the quiet life?" Trent said suddenly, looking uneasy.

The others burst into giggles as Tommy stared at him. Trent shifted uncomfortably.

"Trent?" Tommy said slowly.

"Yeah?"

"Never mention that again."

"But—"

"No. If I don't admit it, it didn't happen."

"Anyway," Jason said as his laugher quieted, "that was the day I told him the truth about me and Trini, too. That was the last time Tommy and I ever had a serious fight."

Tommy nodded. That was why Jason had felt it was necessary to tell Tommy that he wasn't trying to take back the leadership when Jason had returned as the Gold Ranger—Zordon had done it because Jason was leaving, so what was Tommy supposed to think when Jason came back? Though he hated to admit it, that statement from Jason had filled Tommy with deep relief.

Jason unearthed three papers from the bottom of the box, two of the Sentinel and one of the Angel Grove Clarion. "Ah-ha! Here they are. The Carrie stuff."

"Oh, yeah," Trini said, snatching the Clarion article. "I was so offended by this!" She turned the paper around to show to everyone. Its headline read, "Who Is Carrie Jeffries?" and the subheading said, "Why Was Red So Friendly?" "Apparently the Clarion thought Jason's hanging out with this Carrie girl, combined with her yellow shirt, might mean she was the Yellow Ranger, because Yellow and Red were rumored to be dating. I pitched a fit. Didn't speak to Jason for two days after I saw it. First and last time I was ever insanely jealous."

"And this was Carrie's response," Jason said, holding up one of the other articles. "The second story she ever wrote—replying to the Clarion. She really ripped them a new one, wording it so subtly that it took you a minute to understand every line was an attack on the other paper. But this..." He set down Carrie's rebuttal and held up the other Sentinel article, with the title, "The Stress We Place on Our Heroes." "This was what she wrote about me. Stopped the crazed identity-seeking in its tracks. All about how much pressure we were under and how ungrateful the city was being to add other stress." He set it down reverently. "I have it framed at home." A wistful look crossed his features. "I wish I could've thanked her. I still read every article she writes."

"It was really nice of her," Trini conceded, though she looked at the picture of Carrie on the Clarion article with a distinctly unpleasant expression.

Ernie chuckled. "You know, back then, I always felt so privileged to know that I was probably one of the only people to ever figure out who you guys were. Now I realize I wasn't half as in the know as I thought. You were some amazing kids." He nodded at Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent. "And I bet you four followed nicely in their footsteps." The four teens beamed at him.

Kimberly raised an eyebrow at him. "Ernie, we just told you about how Jason went crazy, got locked in a death match with Tommy, and then I had to shoot him with my Power Bow."

"That really did hurt," Jason said mildly.

Ernie shrugged. "Still, you guys amaze me."

"Thanks," she said, blushing. The others all nodded.

Ernie started to say something else, then caught sight of the clock on the wall and smacked his forehead. "Oh, man, I was supposed to close twenty minutes ago."

"We really should get going, anyway," Billy said with a sigh. "I promised my father I'd come by early in the morning, and I still have no idea what I'm going to say. Plus I'm kind of tired."

"Jetlag from an alien planet must totally suck," Conner said.

"It does. But... my primary concern is what I'm going to say."

Ernie gave him a sympathetic smile. "Say hi to him for me. Good man, Mr. Cranston. I'm kind of beat myself, anyway—but you guys will come back again, right?"

"Ernie, have you ever known us to stay away for long?" Jason asked with a wry smile. "If I'd known you were back, I'd have pitched a tent in the parking lot."

"Same here," Zack said. "We'll be back soon. Coming to Power Rangers Day?"

"Wouldn't miss it," Ernie said promptly. "Though I hope I don't get kidnapped again. That wasn't the best day ever. Oh, and by the way, thanks for the rescuing-the-entire-town thing."

"No big," Kimberly said with a shrug.

Ernie looked at her funny for moment, as though slightly offended by that, but then he just smiled and showed them out, and they headed for their cars. "Where to now?" Tommy asked.

"I was thinking me and Billy could stay at the hotel tonight," Jason said. "Party hard. Plus Trini's just down the hall." He smiled wickedly at her; she blushed. Zack, Tommy and Kimberly rolled their eyes, though Billy fought off a grin.

"Sounds good to me," Tommy said.

"You can regale us with all the fascinating stories of Reefside," Zack said eagerly. Tommy had yet to get a chance to tell the guys all the tales of his new Ranger days.

"The fossil stories?" Conner said. "Better than sleeping pills."

"Don't start, Conner," Tommy said good-naturedly.

They split up, heading for their two vehicles. As Kimberly climbed into Zack's SUV, she couldn't help feeling a twinge of panic. Did she really want to go through with her plans to talk to Tommy?

Don't you dare chicken out, she told herself firmly. I'm not letting him out of my life again without a fight. And I'm a damned good fighter.

Kimberly buckled up and leaned back in the seat, plotting her next move carefully.

~*~

"So are you guys showering tonight, or in the morning?" Kira asked as she, Trini and Kimberly entered their room.

"We just showered a few hours ago," Kimberly said with a shrug. "I can wait."

"I—er—kind of want to shower now," Trini said sheepishly. "I didn't get a chance to earlier."

Kimberly wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Too much information, Trini. Way too much."

Kira wasn't sure whether to grimace or laugh; she settled for ignoring the comment and shrugging. "I think I might go see what the guys are up to, if you guys don't care. Make sure they don't sneak out again and force me to rescue them in my pajamas."

"Good plan," Kimberly said casually. "I'm gonna go... take a walk."

Trini arched an eyebrow. "A walk?"

Kimberly nodded, praying that she could manage to fool Trini. "Yep. A walk."

"Okay," Trini said with a sly smile. Kimberly edged to the door, Trini watching her the whole time. Before Kira could follow her out into the hall, Trini grabbed her arm.

"What?" Kira asked, confused.

"Kim's up to something," Trini whispered. "And I'm going to find out what. Are you in?"

Kira grinned. "Of course." She paused. "Weren't you going to take a shower, though?"

Trini waved her hand dismissively. "Ah, details, details. Trust me, this is going to be much more important than cleanliness."

Kira paused, frowning slightly. "More important... than showering?"

Trini sighed. "I feel gross enough as it is. Can we not dwell, here?" Trini crossed to the door and propped it open with the door stop. She and Kira leaned as close to it as they could.

~*~

"So then I go, 'Can't help you there. I'm just a high school science teacher,'" Tommy told Jason, Billy and Zack with a grin. They laughed uproariously.

"Oh, that's great," Zack gasped. "I wish I could've seen the look on his face."

Tommy waved his hand. "He didn't really have a very expressive face. It was the snout. And the beady eyes. And he always had this weird spitting tongue thing when he... anyway, he was so pissed," Tommy recalled with relish. He started to continue, but a knock sounded on the door, and he got up to answer it. "Aww, man. I hadn't even got to the part where I said, 'Why can't you just want to take over the Earth like all the other sickos?'"

Tommy pulled open the door, still facing the guys, who were laughing hysterically at Tommy's last comment. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to say that to Ze—" Jason's words halted abruptly, and his eyes widened at the sight of who was in the doorway. Tommy turned slowly, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Hi." Kimberly gave him a small smile.

"Hey, Kim!" Zack and Jason chorused, far too brightly. Billy waved emphatically

"What's up?" Tommy asked her, shifting nervously. An instinctual sense of foreboding suddenly stole over him.

"I wanted to talk to you," Kimberly told him, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Tommy blinked, acutely aware of the fact that Zack, Jason and Billy were dead silent behind him; he didn't need to look at them to know they were all sitting frozen and holding their breath. "What about?" he asked, resisting the urge to take a step back. She wasn't being intimidating, but he suddenly felt like it was time to be afraid. Kimberly wasn't an "I want to talk to you" person. She was a person who said what she wanted to talk to you about with very little reservations or preamble. She tended to bring the word "ambush" to mind. Of course, that was the old Kim; who knew if she was still the same? Besides, it wasn't like their situation was perfectly natural.

Kimberly looked over Tommy's shoulder at the three staring guys, who promptly turned to each other and tried to look busy, talking to one another loudly but not loud enough to drown out anything juicy that Kimberly might say. "Let's take a walk," Kimberly said, grabbing Tommy's arm. Before he could react, she hauled him out into the hallway and pulled the door shut. They could clearly hear loud whispering from inside the room and the sounds of Jason, Zack and Billy piling up to listen at the door.

"Come on," Kimberly said, and yanked on his arm, dragging him down the hallway.

"Kim, what—"

"In a minute! Let's get out of the hall."

"Uh... Kim?"

She ignored him. A moment later, she pushed on the half-open door to room 603 and looked around at Conner, Ethan and Trent, who were having some sort of contest to see who could jump the highest on Conner's bed.

"Hey!" Kimberly called loudly, nearly killing them all; badly startled, it was all they could do not to fall off the bed as they crashed into each other.

"Jesus!" Ethan complained as Trent and Conner tried to disentangle themselves from him. "You scared us to death."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Kimberly said impatiently. "Everybody, out!"

"What?" Trent said blankly.

"Out!" she barked, and Tommy didn't need to see her face to know she was doing her patented Pink Ranger Glower. "Go do something. Go... go down to the pool. Go on!"

Trent and Ethan scurried away, eyes wide, but Conner remained behind, frowning. Kimberly put her hands on her hips, and his resolve began to quickly weaken, but most of his fear regarding Kimberly was all for Tommy, not for Kimberly herself. So he kept it together just long enough to give Kimberly and Tommy a suspicious look and ask, "Are you guys gonna make out?"

Tommy, who for the most part had been trying to catch up with Kimberly's odd behavior, abruptly returned to action. He lunged forward, seized Conner by the shirt front, and flung him bodily out into the hallway. Conner barely managed to stay upright, his arms wind-milling like mad as he collided with the far wall. Tommy pulled the door shut firmly, but not before Conner shouted, "Just try and use Trent's bed!"

Tommy closed his eyes, praying for the strength to fight off this new twist in the path of weirdness that was his life, which was hard to do when half of his mind was growling "Die Conner die" over and over and the other half was shouting "You idiot! You just locked yourself in with Kimberly! Are you insane?" After a long moment involving lots of failed attempts at deep breaths, Kimberly pulled him over to one of the beds (Conner's, but Tommy doubted they were going to "make out" and anyway it would serve Conner right if they did something much worse on Conner's bed) and sat him down.

Tommy waited for her to speak, wondering how on earth they were going to explain this impromptu meeting to their friends.

~*~

Trini gaped at the door behind which Kimberly had disappeared. Trini's vantage point was terrible for espionage of the romantic variety, but she'd been unable to risk moving any closer. The involvement of Tommy in whatever Kimberly was planning hadn't been a total shock, but it had been enough to risk peering out into the corridor with Kira. She couldn't believe it; Kimberly had just barricaded herself in a bedroom with Tommy! Yes!

"Did you see that?" Trini breathed.

"What was that about him using Trent's bed?" Kira asked, her face screwed up like someone who was trying to make the most disgusting mental image ever disappear. As far as Kira was concerned, Dr. O "using" Trent's bed was the ultimate horror.

"Come on!" Trini hissed. "We've got to hear this!"

Kira groaned. "If it's all the same to you, I think I'll cover my ears," she muttered, but she followed Trini anyway.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 24: Another Song and Dance

"I can't hear anything!" Zack complained.

"Shut up and you might!" Jason snapped. Just then, however, someone knocked on the door, seriously upsetting Jason, Billy and Zack's eardrums.

Disentangling himself from the other two, Billy pulled the door open to reveal Ethan and Trent. "What's up, guys?" Billy asked, casually sticking his head out into the hallway and turning it this way and that to look for Tommy and Kimberly.

"Um... Dr. O and Kim just locked themselves in our room," Ethan said. "We were hoping you could do something about it."

"Conner said something about them using my bed," Trent added desperately.

Billy, Jason and Zack looked at each other, then as one unit they burst out of the room and ran down the hall to Conner, Trent and Ethan's room; three muted thunks sounded as they pressed their ears against the door.

"They're totally making out," Conner said with a smirk. "Why else would they kick us out?"

"Will you stop saying that?" Trent fairly wailed. "It's sick!"

"What? They're not your parents," Conner said.

"Close enough," Trent groaned, wrinkling his nose.

"What? Dr. O could use a good—"

"SHH!" Jason hissed. "We're trying to eavesdrop here!"

Conner clammed up, mostly because he was still striving to impress Jason. They all leaned a bit closer to the door, but all they heard was someone behind them ask, "What are you doing?"

There was a loud chorus of "OW!" as the six guys bumped heads while trying to lean away from the door, followed by an even louder chorus of "SHH!" "Shut up!" and "Be quiet!"

"Honey! Kira!" Jason nervously greeted the two yellow-clad girls, who were staring at them in confusion. "You know, this might look kinda odd, but I can explain—"

"Dr. O threw us out of our room so he can make out with Kimberly on Trent's bed," Conner interrupted.

Jason sighed. "Dude—training. Get some."

"What?" Trini demanded, pushing Jason and Zack aside and shoving her head against the door as well.

"Are you serious?" Kira demanded.

"Kimberly came in and told us to go to the pool," Trent told her. "Dr. O was with her. That's ALL we know," he added defiantly to Conner.

"Uh-huh. Sure," Conner replied, smirking as hard as ever.

~*~

Kimberly sighed as she heard the commotion in the hallway. "Maybe the balcony would be best," she said thoughtfully.

"There isn't one in this room," Tommy said.

She sighed again. "Great."

"What did you want to talk about?" Tommy asked carefully, figuring he might as well get it over with.

Kimberly looked down at her feet, almost wishing for another distraction (almost, mind you). Now that the moment was here, her courage was rapidly leaking out of her expensive sandals. "I... I realized something today."

"That Vanilla Ice had some sort of mind-altering capability to make us think he was cool?"

Kimberly blinked, then grinned, but the moment was short-lived. That was just the sort of sarcastic comment that she wouldn't have expected from the old Tommy, but the new Tommy seemed to make them all the time. Where had his cynical side come from? Had it always been lying dormant only to be pulled out by one too many Power Ranger colors?

"No—I already knew that," she replied. "I meant... I realized something... about you."

Whoa, Tommy thought wildly. SO not ready for this conversation.

Before Tommy could choke out a response, she continued. "Today... when Hayley called..."

"She's not my girlfriend," Tommy blurted out, to his complete and utter horror. Where had THAT come from?

"I know. Trini said... it's not important. It's not about that. It's... things never should have been this way. Even if we..." She exhaled sharply and started over. "I want to be friends, Tommy. I'll understand if you don't want that, if you laugh in my face and storm off and knock over all of our friends on your way out the door. I'd kind of expect that, really. But Tommy... things never should have been this way!" She twisted her hands together, regarding him pleadingly. "I miss you. Not you the boyfriend—just you. I miss having you around. I want you in my life. I want to bury the past and be what we should have become when we broke up—friends."

Tommy stared at her, fully aware that every second he stayed silent was making it all the worse for Kimberly but unable to come up with anything halfway intelligent to say. Out of nowhere, out of nowhere, out of nowhere with this! What am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to DO? Damn it, if only Jason, Zack and Billy weren't blocking the door right now!

Think, Tommy. Tell her what you want. What do I want? Come to think of it, now I kind of want to make out with her on Conner's bed, just to—no, no, no, FOCUS. What do I want? What the hell, friends? NOW she wants to be friends? She couldn't have said that in the stupid letter? No mention of friends in the letter. Just I will always care about you sorry for ripping your heart out you'd love my new boyfriend if you didn't want to kill him slowly and now friends?

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her to go to hell... but he held back. He knew that if he shot her down now, he'd never see her again... and that was far too sobering a thought. He'd lived over ten years without Kimberly, and that was far too many. He wanted her back in his life. He wanted her to be there, like Hayley, like Trini, like all his other friends. He missed her. He missed her laugh, her shopping obsession, her wicked grin whenever she conned him into something by playing the Damsel Card. He missed her cheerfulness and her glib puns and her caring nature. He did want her in his life... and yet "friends" wasn't nearly the word he wanted to use to describe her relationship with him.

He had a sudden urge to grab her, to shake her, to kiss her, to hit her. He loved her. He was furious with her. He hated her. He wanted her. Every emotion he'd ever felt for Kimberly was unresolved and still there, threatening to burst out at the mere thought of what she was asking. He wondered what she'd do if he did try to make out with her, if he did break down and start screaming. Would she let him kiss her? Would she scream back? Would she—?

"Tommy I'm having a panic attack here, say something."

Tommy jolted back to reality with a start. Kimberly, who'd been watching the emotions flicker in his eyes like the TV stations when someone accidentally sits on the remote control, was staring at him desperately. It occurred to him suddenly that she was sorry. She was sorry for every bit of pain she'd ever caused him. Despite how much she'd apologized in the letter he'd never thought she might actually have regrets.

"Okay."

"Okay... what?" Kimberly asked carefully.

Tommy tried to respond, made a noise that sounded sort of like "Kuth-put-thh," and tried again. "I want you in my life, Kim. I want your friendship. I want to start over. I want you around again. I've always wanted you around again," he said in a rush, as though his thoughts would extinguish if he didn't get it all out in one breath.

The next thing he knew, Kimberly had thrown her arms around his neck; startled, he hugged her back, and abruptly realized how good it felt to do so. They'd found closure, at least a little. For the first time, something about the mess with Kimberly was really and truly over.

He pulled back, frowning thoughtfully. "Kim—I want to move on, I really do. But I don't know if it's possible."

"What's the harm in trying?" she asked desperately. "I mean, hey, we can't hurt each other any worse, right?"

Tommy nodded, grimacing slightly. "I suppose that's true."

She smiled wanly at him. "Look, let's just try. Let's just ignore the past and get on with life. Catch up. Pretend I've been living on an alien planet for the past decade, okay?"

"Shouldn't be that hard. I've already studied the role of friend-to-resident-of-other-planet."

She grinned and stood up. "So... I'll see you in the morning?"

He nodded. "Absolutely. We should talk more, soon as we get the chance."

"You can tell me what happened to your hair," she said, giggling.

He was torn between smiling and wincing. "Don't like to talk about it. There was fire involved. And tomato sauce."

She laughed. "Sounds like you."

"Yeah," he said long-sufferingly. "Yeah, it really does."

Kimberly headed for the door; they heard a scuffle from the hallway, as though their friends were scurrying to find hiding places. She shook her head and reached for the handle.

"Wait," Tommy called. Kimberly paused, looking at him questioningly, but he turned away and looked down at Conner's bed, which was littered with random objects (which Ethan had thrown at his head all night in the hopes of getting the snoring to stop even for a moment), while the blankets were in a pile at the end of the bed. Tommy reached over and swept the objects from the bed, threw one of the pillows across the room, and then grabbed the blankets, shook them out and put them back on the bed in a more haphazard line.

Kimberly, realizing what he was doing, arched an eyebrow at him. "Protecting your manly reputation?"

"Nah," Tommy said with an apologetic shrug. "Just messing with Conner."

She laughed, and Tommy felt his spirits lift. She had shared in the joke—she hadn't admonished him for it or acted embarrassed. Maybe there was hope, after all.

It appeared that their pause had made their friends think that they weren't going to come out of the room after all; they were in the process of creeping slowly back to their posts at the door. Kimberly didn't make it two feet before she found herself surrounded by the other Rangers, and she didn't have time to warn Tommy before he stepped out into their midst. They all gave him casual smiles, their eagerness to hear the dirt barely contained.

"So," Jason said.

"So," Tommy replied coolly.

"What's going on?" Trini asked Kimberly off-handedly.

"Nothing, you?" Kimberly returned challengingly.

"Were you two really making out?" Zack blurted out, utterly destroying the finesse of the verbal sparring match.

Tommy grinned. "Of course we were," he replied. Trent's eyes widened in horror and he dove into the bedroom to see if Tommy had indeed been using Trent's bed, thus creating a gap in the air-tight enclosure of ex-Rangers around Tommy and Kimberly, which Tommy stepped through and casually sauntered away. Tommy's mood improved even more when he heard Kimberly laugh and fall into step behind him, passing him on the way to her own room as he stopped at Zack's. He turned to look after her for a moment, and suddenly his good mood shattered. For some reason, he couldn't shake the feeling that this hopeful new friendship was just that—hopeful. Hope, it seemed, had never been a wise thing to have in matters regarding Kimberly.

"I miss you. Not you the boyfriend—just you." Tommy frowned. Had she really meant it that way? Did she really feel absolutely no connection to him romantically?

No. Tommy had heard her say she still cared about him when he'd snuck onto her balcony. And that she still thinks I'm hot. Tommy put a hand to his hair contemplatively.

Tommy wasn't surprised to hear his friends break out into shocked whispers behind him; that meant he had less than two minutes to barricade himself in the bathroom with enough provisions for a few hours of hiding out from inquiring minds. Now was not the time for reflection; he'd have plenty of opportunity for that while hiding. He was now kicking himself for having his moment of fun; they were sure to blow his joke out of proportion and annoy the crap out of him and put him back in the awkward stage with Kimberly. His mood worsened—but it lightened considerably when, a few minutes later, he heard Conner's disgusted shout of "Oh, sick! I told him to use Trent's bed!" soon followed by Kira, Trent and Ethan's rancorous laughter.

~*~

Billy's eyes snapped open at approximately five a.m. the next day and suddenly he found himself full of trepidation. Today would be the first time he'd get to see his father since coming back to Earth to pick up his things... and he still hadn't come up with a strategy.

Billy winced as he climbed out of the bed. He and Jason had thoroughly enjoyed staying over with Tommy and Zack; while they couldn't get Tommy to talk about the Kimberly thing after Tommy emerged from the bathroom, they'd had a blast asking Tommy about being the Black Ranger and reliving the old days, swapping stories about after Jason and Zack had left with tales of the Peace Conference until roughly three hours ago when they'd started passing out one by one. It had filled Billy with a great longing for the past, as much as he had enjoyed it.

Billy had assumed, upon leaving Aquitar, that being on Earth would just remind him of all the things he loved about Aquitar. But it didn't. All it reminded him of was how much he missed Earth.

Billy looked down at himself ruefully as he headed for the bathroom. His old clothes had lasted a very long time, but he'd left seven years ago and few outfits lasted that long. He'd come to enjoy wearing Aquitian clothing, but he had never fully gotten used to the fact that Aquitians didn't wear underwear or pajamas. He'd brought a few pairs of very old, ill-fitting underwear to wear under his friends' borrowed clothes... and while he'd become accustomed to the alien attire he couldn't help but feel like singing at the feel of cotton. It frightened him to realize how badly he missed boxers and jeans.

And the food... now he knew how Rocky must have felt all the time. He was having trouble not making himself sick. Pizza, hamburgers, fries... what he wouldn't give for a good guacamole cheeseburger. Oh, and chili. And chocolate, chocolate was sinfully wonderful...

He couldn't help but be overwhelmed by all the things Aquitians didn't have. The smell of fresh-cut grass. Smoothies. Video games. Cheese. Denim. Contact lenses. Dogs. Coca-Cola. Showerheads. Toothpaste. Cartoons. Forests.

Trini, Jason, Tommy, Kimberly, Zack. Kat, Aisha, Rocky, Adam, Tanya. Alpha and Zordon and Ernie.

His father.

How had Billy allowed Aquitar to make up for it? Sure, he had many Aquitian friends. Sure, he had Cestria. Yet his contact with Earth was weakening. His work was demanding, and his friends on Earth were busy people.

"Face it," he mumbled to the bathroom mirror. "You were depressed when you left. That's why you stayed."

That was true. His powers were gone, and the realization that he couldn't become the Gold Ranger had made him think he would probably never have the power again. True, he had let go of the power. He had given it to Tanya and stepped aside, realizing that the fight against the Machine Empire would probably be better handled by the others, whereas he could be of real use to them in the Power Chamber. And it had been his senior year—the year he really needed to concentrate on his academics. Or at least, he would have, if he hadn't been practically kicked out of the school. He missed being on the team, and every moment when the others hung out without him was like a knife in the chest, a horrifying thought that "Billy isn't one of us anymore." Only Jason's return had kept him sane... but Billy had been so unhappy. No school to take his mind off things, no Ranger abilities, no Trini, no Kimberly, no Zack.

The sad thing was, one of the few things he'd looked forward to upon leaving the team was the end of lying to his father. That hadn't lasted either—he'd had to run off and help so often that he might as well have been a Ranger. He was terrible at lying, and it had bothered him immensely, especially because he and his father had gotten incredibly close ever since his mother had died. It tore him up every time he had to do it, which was one of the reasons that he'd often let Trini or the others make excuses for him when he had to.

Trini... her move had bothered him a lot. She was the only one who could understand him, not just what he said. She had a good grasp of a lot of the things Billy did—computers, science, math—and yet she also knew the rest of the world, helping him understand the outside world, encouraging him to develop other interests. Billy had also been forced to rework his entire speech patterns, which was distracting and difficult.

It also hadn't helped that his love life was nonexistent. Trini with Jason, Tommy with Kimberly, Adam with Tanya, Zack and Rocky cheerfully playing the field. Billy hadn't been able to keep a girl around long enough to become a girlfriend; most of the girls who liked him were just as smart as he was and had no other interests like his friends did, and somehow conversations with other "geeks" never seemed to last. There were only so many times you could discuss quantum physics before the subject got boring. All of his childhood friends had left Angel Grove. Then Kat had confided in him that she liked Tommy—and Billy had been crushed to hear it, having long-since harbored feelings for her.

Then he'd found himself back on Aquitar with Cestria. Cestria had been the first person other than Trini that he'd really related to—a genius, to be sure, but the culture barrier had ensured they'd have a lot to learn from each other, and she was also very active, very interested in his tales about sports he'd played with his friends and so on. Like Trini, Cestria had more to her than her intelligence. His recovery time had been the first really good time he'd had in a long time—and when it had come time to come home, he had been filled with dread.

So he'd stayed on Aquitar, returning for his things when he could, explaining to his father that he'd been given the chance to work for the government. He'd used Aquitar to forget how unhappy he'd become on Earth... and now he realized that he should have been using Earth to forget how unhappy he'd become.

"You don't appreciate what you've got until it's gone," he whispered. He looked around the bathroom sadly. Toilet, sink, towels, bathtub and shower. So different from the Aquitar system. So much better. Even the simple things like this.

Billy didn't want to leave Cestria. He loved her. He loved the Alien Rangers and his other friends. He had tried hard to bring them simple Earth things like basketball and video games, some of which had gone over better than others. They had been very interested in the concept of ice cream, for example, but without cows, goats or any other sort of mammals, Billy had been unable to find a way to get milk for the process. Popsicles were working out better, but they were still a prototype.

Billy hopped in the shower, wondering what he was going to say to his father today, what he could tell him that wouldn't be total lies and fabrications. He was going to have to be careful about his friends and the teens; he had absolutely no idea if his father would buy the cover story he'd thought up for Dino Rangers, and he couldn't very well explain the truth. How he wished he could tell his father everything in his new life...

How he wished he had his old life back.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 25: Strange Relations

There was a mad scramble to get ready in the morning. Billy awoke the guys a little before eight, and Jason woke the girls while Tommy roused Conner, Ethan and Trent. Despite the fact that they had three bathrooms and three bedrooms between them, it was difficult to get everyone out of the door in time; they barely had time to snag donuts from the continental breakfast downstairs before rushing to Zack and Tommy's cars.

They made it to Billy's old house by five minutes to ten, but only because Zack was following Tommy and Tommy was using his skills as a former race car driver to make it there in time. The ten ex-Rangers stumbled shakily from the two cars and they all followed a nervous Billy up onto the porch (well, as many of them would fit on the porch).

Mr. Cranston flung open the door the moment Billy pushed the doorbell. "Billy! Oh, it's so good to see you, son!" he exclaimed, giving Billy a warm hug before turning to Trini. "And little Trini, look at you, all grown up... and Jason, married, so I hear... good grief, Tommy, you look so different without all that hair! Zack, good to see you again... and little Kimberly, still as well-dressed as ever... and Rocky..." Conner, who as a tall brunette in a red T-shirt was presumed to be Rocky, hugged Mr. Cranston back without bothering to correct him, and Mr. Cranston turned to Trent with open arms. "And ..." He paused, slightly confused. "Wait a second," he said, squinting at Trent. "You're not Adam."

"They're the friends of Tommy's I told you about, Dad," Billy said, shooting Trent and Conner an apologetic look. "That's Trent, and that's Kira. Ethan's the one in blue, and the one in red is Conner. Not Rocky."

"Oh! Terribly sorry."

Conner shrugged. "No prob."

"Come on in," Mr. Cranston said, gesturing towards the front door; by now he'd moved off onto the lawn. "I've made lemonade. Wouldn't drink it, if I was you—anyone want a soda or coffee?"

Thankfully, Billy's father had two L-shaped couches, so they were all able to sit down, though it was a close thing and they were pretty squished. Billy's father sat across from Billy, next to Trini, after retrieving their drinks. "So what brings you back into town, son?" he asked.

"Oh, no real reason in particular," Billy said uncomfortably. "I was just way past due for a visit."

"And you all came back into town at the same time?" Mr. Cranston asked, nodding at Tommy, Kimberly and Zack.

"Well... once we heard Billy was coming..." Kimberly said, tucking her hair behind her ear to give herself an excuse to look down, away from Mr. Cranston's shrewd gaze.

"You see," Trini spoke up quickly, "I told Tommy about Power Rangers Day this Saturday, and he has summer vacation, and I told Billy that Tommy was coming into town, and Zack had some time off too..."

"I see. And how do you four know Tommy?" Mr. Cranston asked the teenagers.

In the hotel the night before, Trini had brought up the subject of explaining the Dino Rangers' relationship to Tommy, and the group had worked out an feasible cover story—Tommy was friends with Trent's father, and the plan was for both Tommy and Anton to come, along with Trent's girlfriend and two of their friends... but Anton had been forced to cancel at the last minute. It was very plausible, much more so than saying they were Tommy's science students and had somehow become close enough to him to hang out regularly. Unfortunately, they'd forgotten to tell the Dino Rangers the plan.

"He's our science teacher," Conner said promptly.

"Your... science teacher."

"Yep. Well, ex-science teacher, really; we just graduated. Anyway, we really wanted to go to Power Rangers Day and he finally agreed to take us. It's gonna be so awesome to see the original Rangers!" Conner said, for all the world as though he hadn't spent the past several days hanging out with the original Rangers.

"Pinch him for me," Kira hissed at Ethan. She couldn't reach him without it being conspicuous.

"What?" Ethan whispered back, having missed what she'd said. She sighed and rolled her eyes.

"They're my best students," Tommy said, shifting uncomfortably. "And I've been teaching them martial arts, too."

"I see," Mr. Cranston said, though he still looked very suspicious. "And you're living in Reefside, I hear?" Billy had been keeping his father up to date on his friends' lives, not only because Mr. Cranston had known them well but because it filled the gaps in the conversation when Billy couldn't talk about his job, where he lived, or his alien girlfriend. Unfortunately, it looked rather bad that Tommy, who'd moved to Angel Grove right when the Green Ranger showed up and stayed until right before the Rangers disappeared, now lived in another Power Ranger city.

"Um, yeah. Just started teaching last September. My friend runs a café there, and she knew the superintendent and was able to get me a job interview."

"That's great. I hear Reefside's got Power Rangers, too?"

"Um, yeah. Five of them. From what I understand, they beat the evil villain, though. No one's seen them in weeks."

"Hmm. Were they as incredible as Angel Grove's Power Rangers?"

Tommy couldn't resist. "Nope. Not even half as cool." He grinned at the wounded looks on Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent's faces as they fought with themselves not to respond.

"So you came back for Power Rangers Day, specifically?" Mr. Cranston asked.

"No, no, that's just why the gang tagged along," Tommy said hastily, gesturing vaguely at Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent in a somewhat threatening manner. "I told them about it and they wouldn't leave me alone."

"I see. Five Power Rangers in Reefside, did you say?"

Tommy struggled not to make a frightened noise in his throat. It was much easier to come up with Ranger-business-related excuses when he knew that he was about to run off into the sunset and fight something, thus ending the conversation as quickly as possible. Mr. Cranston's plane wasn't leaving for a good long while.

"Yeah, there were five," Trini said casually. "Tommy told us a bit about them, but they were only there for a year, not—what was it here? Five?"

"Something like that," Jason said uncomfortably.

There was a long pause, and then finally Mr. Cranston sighed and looked Billy straight in the eye. "You want to tell me what's really going on, son?"

"What?" Billy asked, feeling the beginnings of panic fill him. "What do you mean?"

"You know, I've been a college professor for a very long time now. But before that, as I'm sure you remember, I taught high school. And I always said you got much better interaction between students and teachers in college. I've had coffee with my students and discussions with my students and every time I do I've thought to myself, 'You just can't do this with high school kids.' Not only do teens put less effort into their academics in high school, but the line between student and instructor is far more defined. Even though I've met with students after class, I've never had one in my home, much less traveled with four of them."

"Oh, Mr. Cranston, that's not nearly as weird as you're thinking," Zack said quickly.

"Yeah, um, Tommy's friends with Trent's father, Anton Mercer," Trini added, "and Mercer was going to come and bring along the kids but then he had to cancel and Tommy figured that—"

"Trini, please," Mr. Cranston interrupted sternly, though his expression was gentle. "I'd rather hear it from my son. He, unlike you, is a terrible liar."

"Excuse me?" Trini spluttered, horrified to hear Mr. Cranston, whom she'd always adored, refer to her as a liar.

"Do you honestly think it didn't escape my attention that it was always you who explained everything away?" Mr. Cranston asked with a knowing smile. "When Billy started coming home bruised, bloody on occasion, often late? You always made some excuse for him, because on the rare occasions that he dropped by alone, I could tell he was lying about where he'd been. You were the one who explained why he kept running off at odd moments, why he was suddenly becoming so athletic, why he would sometimes vanish for hours, even days, without so much as leaving a note."

"I wasn't making—"

"Oh, yes, you were. I'm not sure if that hogwash worked on your parents, but it didn't work on me. Now Billy can't say a thing about his job, or where he lives, or just about anything to do with his life, and government employee or not, he should be able to. Just about every government worker could at least talk about their neighbors and their coworkers, and if he were that top secret, he should at least have a few false things to tell me. Now all I get is 'Washington's fine, Dad, but I can't talk about it.'" Mr. Cranston looked at Billy sadly. "You honestly didn't expect me to take your coming back as a coincidence, did you, son?"

Billy sighed. "I was hoping you would."

"For crying out loud, Billy, you can tell me anything, you know that. So tell me."

"It's not just about me, Dad. It's... it's complicated. It's..."

"It's you're back in town for Power Rangers Day and Tommy lives in Reefside."

There was a sudden, oppressive silence. Trini looked ready to cry. Billy felt terrible. It wasn't just his secret to tell; it was the team's secret.

"Keep your identity secret. No one must know you are a Power Ranger."

Zordon's words. Three rules. Obey them, or risk losing the protection of the power.

"You already know, don't you," Jason said to Mr. Cranston quietly. "You've known all along."

Mr. Cranston smiled. "You tell me."

Billy swallowed. "I don't work for the government. At least, not the United States government."

Mr. Cranston's eyebrows shot up, apparently not expecting this. "What?"

"Dude, you're a Russian spy?" Conner asked Billy incredulously.

Billy ignored him. "I live on an alien planet called 'Aquitar.' I have become a renowned scientist and diplomat, handling numerous problems with the planets' technology and acting as a delegate to other planets, primarily the ones who threaten war."

"What?" Mr. Cranston repeated.

"That time, right after I graduated, when I asked if I could go on vacation for a few days?"

"Yes, but what does that have to do with any—"

"I was recruited by Cestro, the Blue Aquitian Power Ranger, to help build a device to fight off a warring race. I've been living there all this time, and it's difficult to travel between planets. That's why I haven't told you anything."

Mr. Cranston stared at him, stunned. "Are you... are you serious?"

Billy nodded. "I've made a life for myself there. I'm respected, well-known, famous even. I'm also involved with a very wonderful Aquitian woman named Cestria."

"You're dating an alien?" his father repeated loudly.

"Came as a bit of a shock to me, too," Trini said, patting Mr. Cranston on the shoulder.

"But... but... why are you back now?" Mr. Cranston asked.

Billy sighed. "It was just a good time to come back. I had a bit of free time. Needed a vacation. And the teleportation system is much safer than it used to be. It used to be pretty dangerous, which was the main reason I didn't come back. That, and I don't have any money or clothing common to Earth. I've been staying with Jason and Trini. My friends have been lending me their clothes and paying for my meals."

Billy stopped, waiting for it to all take effect. Mr. Cranston could see that Billy was serious, but it isn't easy to accept that your son is living on another planet.

"Wait, hang on. You've been calling me, you couldn't have done that if you weren't on Earth..."

"There's a communication device in our basement that Trini connected to some sort of ghost cell phone," Jason added. "She's been fielding your calls for the past—what is it now? Seven, eight years?"

Mr. Cranston looked at him sharply. Billy realized with a sinking feeling that while he'd almost convinced his father that Aquitar, not Power Rangers, was behind his odd behavior, any points he might have scored with his father were about to be taken away. "He told you?" Mr. Cranston demanded. "Why tell you, if it's supposed to be some sort of big secret?"

"I was there when Billy left," Jason said. "Me and Tommy were. Right before he officially moved out, Tommy and I told you we were taking Billy hiking in the mountains because he'd seemed a little down lately. In all actuality, he'd gotten sick and the Aquitians had taken him to their planet to help him. While he was being treated, he decided to stay."

Mr. Cranston stared at Jason for a moment, then at Tommy, then Trini, before finally turning to stare at Billy. Billy prayed that his father would accept this explanation, this half-truth, without delving further. His father had always believed in aliens; with any luck, Mr. Cranston would simply demand that Billy tell him all about Aquitar and leave it at that.

"Do you remember," he asked Billy slowly, "back before your mother died, when she used to run the observatory?"

"Yeah, of course," Billy replied cautiously, not sure where his father was going with this.

"We used to talk about aliens all the time. You always said you hoped you got to meet one some day, and I agreed." Mr. Cranston shook his head. "Do you really expect me to believe that you wouldn't tell me when you did?"

"I'm telling the truth, Dad."

"Oh, I know you are. I don't doubt for a second that in a world with Power Rangers and monsters and villains like Rita Repulsa, there are aliens. I also don't doubt that you've met them. But you've yet to explain why. You've yet to explain why you didn't tell me. You've yet to explain to me why Tommy's traveling with his students from Reefside. You've yet to explain what you're doing here now."

Billy opened his mouth to tell him that Tommy was friends with Trent's father, that he'd just heard Tommy was coming into town and decided to come back as well, that he was just intrigued by the thought of an alien civilization. But there was only one reason why he wouldn't tell his father where he was going—because his involvement with Aquitar was directly linked to his involvement with the Power Rangers.

Suddenly, Billy just couldn't do it. He had lied to his father enough, lost too much time with his father. His father was getting old, missing Billy terribly, and he already knew. Billy couldn't lie to him again. And suddenly, Billy knew Zordon would understand.

"It's simple, really," Billy said. "I'm a Power Ranger."

The silence that filled the room seemed to echo, his final words etching horror and panic on his friends' faces as his father simply stared at him. Then—

"Ha, ha, ha!" Kimberly fairly screamed. "That's a good one, Billy."

"He's just kidding," Zack added. "Billy's not a Power Ranger. He would have told us."

"Give it up, guys," Trini muttered, looking a tad miserable. "He knows. He always knew." She laughed hollowly. "He always did look at me funny when I came up with an excuse for Billy."

Mr. Cranston smiled. "It really was quite a tip-off when Billy magically became athletic. He could barely walk in a straight line before the Power Rangers showed up. Afterwards, he was suddenly on the football team."

"I'm sorry, Dad," Billy said. "We agreed not to tell anyone, and moving to an alien planet was part of being a Ranger, so I had to keep that quiet, too, and—"

"You're not going to tell anyone, are you?" Kira interrupted worriedly.

Mr. Cranston looked incredibly startled. "Tell anyone? Me? Good heavens, no! You have no idea how serious this town takes its Power Rangers. The reporters of Angel Grove would be begging Billy for interviews as soon as they figured out how to make phone calls to this—what did you call it? Aquitar?" He leaned towards the Dino Rangers conspiratorially. "You know, when Billy was a teenager, people somehow got it into their heads that he was the Red Ranger. Wouldn't leave him alone for weeks. He about had a nervous breakdown."

The ten Rangers shot each other looks of suppressed mirth.

"Anyway," Mr. Cranston said, turning back to Billy, an eager expression on his face, "which one were you, son? Blue?"

"Yes," Billy said. He looked down at his clothes. "I guess it's a tad obvious."

"Well, not really, no. I began to notice that you all never went very long without wearing certain colors, but the trouble was plenty of people wear one of those six colors, and you all wore a lot of other colors. Particularly Tommy."

"Uh," Tommy said, shifting uncomfortably.

Jason laughed. "Yeah, Tommy was definitely the best at that."

"But when you all left town—Rocky, Adam, Aisha..."

"Yeah, they took over. And Kat took over for Kim," Billy said. "And Tanya for Aisha."

"And Justin for Rocky, and T.J. for me, and Ashley for Tanya, and Cassie for Kat, and Carlos for Adam," Tommy finished.

"I was so confused when those four were revealed to be the Rangers," Mr. Cranston said, shaking his head. Ever since their return to Earth, and the world-famous battle involving the citizens of Angel Grove against Divatox's army, T.J., Cassie, Carlos, Ashley, Zhane and Andros had been something of celebrities. T.J. had particularly relished the fame; he'd given dozens of interviews and even written a book about his battles as a Ranger (of course, the other Rangers claimed the book was embellished). They had, of course, never released the names of Tommy, Rocky, Adam, Kat, Tanya and Justin, though they admitted that they weren't the original Rangers.

"Do you think our parents figured it out, too?" Zack wondered aloud. "If Billy's dad..."

"I don't think so," Mr. Cranston said. "Personally, I think Billy was probably the most obvious. His sudden athleticism, determinedly enrolling in Jason's fighting classes when he'd never shown much interest, the increase of explosions in the garage..."

"And Billy was absent more than the rest of us," Trini added. "He was in the Command Center helping out more."

"If my parents noticed anything odd, they probably just chalked it up to the divorce," Kimberly said thoughtfully.

"We were busy even without Ranger duties, more than Billy," Jason agreed. "Classes and school sports and clubs..."

"All I had was a few science clubs," Billy said. "You guys were always off playing basketball and volleyball and practicing martial arts or gymnastics or dance or what have you. I was just the newly athletic geek." He smiled self-deprecatingly.

"You know," Trini said, "maybe we should give Billy and his dad some time alone. They've got a lot of catching up to do."

Mr. Cranston blinked. "But... but I want to hear everything! Every battle, every alien, every experience! How do you teleport, exactly? Oh, the physics must be advanced beyond belief! And tell me, would it be possible for me to get a hold of the plans for one of those giant robots? It could advance Earth's technology by decades! Centuries, even!"

Trini looked askance at Billy. He nodded slightly. She stood up, pulling Jason with her. "Billy's the one to tell you that, not us," she said quietly. "But we'll catch up. We'll come by and see you after you get back in town." She handed Billy her cell phone. "Call Jason when you want us to come get you, okay?" She shook Mr. Cranston's hand. "I'll be back by, Mr. Cranston. I want to catch up, as well. But for now—well, I think you two should have some time to yourselves."

Mr. Cranston bit his lip. "I feel sort of silly, inviting you over only to have you leave within a half hour."

Trini smiled. "Don't worry. We need to go outside, have a few panic attacks, and then think up subtle ways to ask our own parents if they know. Besides, we'll be back. I promise."

"Good," he said. "Don't be a stranger, Trini." He squinted at her. "You were Yellow, right?"

She nodded. "I was. Jason was Red, and later Gold. Kim was Pink, Zack was Black, and Tommy was Green, then White, and then he became Red shortly before Billy graduated."

He smiled and looked over at the teens, pointing at Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent in turn. "Black, Yellow, White, Blue?" he asked hopefully.

Conner looked down at his black shorts.

Ethan looked down at his white T-shirt.

Trent looked down at his blue jeans.

"Well, you got me right," said Kira.

"I was Black," Tommy said. "Conner was Red, Trent was White, and Ethan was Blue."

"Ah," Mr. Cranston said, scrutinizing Tommy's multicolored outfit.

With a chorus of goodbyes, they all filed out, leaving Billy alone with his father. Billy stared numbly into the blank space Trini had vacated. He was alone with his father. And he had absolutely no game plan.

"OH MY GOD HE KNOWS!"

Billy jumped. Ah, yes. The first of the panic attacks. Trini was frighteningly accurate about certain things.

"Do you think they all know? They can't all know!"

"My mom can't know!"

"Guys, don't freak! I mean, none of us are even you-know-what anymore—"

"Easy for you to say, Mr. Able to Be Honest with Dad Cuz He Used to Try to Kill Us!"

"THEY KNOW!"

"They can't! They don't!"

"I'm really glad I didn't beat up Derrick now. Or join the football team."

"My dad's gonna freak!"

"He doesn't know! They don't know! They can't know!"

"SHH! Guys, the neighbors!"

"Who cares about the neighbors? EVERYONE KNOWS!"

"I take it telling the parents is a fairly uncommon concept amongst Power Rangers?" Mr. Cranston asked wryly.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 26: History

James stretched his head from side to side as he pulled open the front door, intent on getting the paper. He was getting older, and he was starting to regret never caring about how healthy he'd be once he hit middle-age. Thank god he had Tuesdays off work; he'd actually gotten to sleep in until ten today.

He stopped as he reached the sidewalk, staring at the neighbor's front lawn. Mr. Cranston next door was ordinarily a quiet sort, never having loud guests, although when his son Billy had still been at home there'd been all sorts of noise and explosions and once James could have sworn he'd seen a flying VW Beetle taking off from in front of the house. People had always been coming and going, too, which was odd because the Billy kid seemed a tad too nerdy to have as many friends as he did, or to sneak into the house at three a.m. as he'd often done. But after Billy had left—James had assumed he'd gone off to college—things at the house next door had quieted down and there were never any more flashing lights coming from the garage. Now, however, there were three girls and six guys on the lawn, babbling incoherently in a panic.

James tried to listen in, but all of them were talking quickly and at the same time, so all he got was that someone had found out some sort of secret. Suddenly a tall kid in red pointed straight at him.

"You know, too, don't you?" the kid screamed "Everyone knows! But I can deny it to my dying day! This is just a witch hunt, that's all, and I'm not going to let you make me tell you the truth by using tricky mind games to make me panic because my mom's gonna kill me when she finds out and Eric will never—"

A kid in blue clapped his hand over the shouting kid's mouth while a blond girl in yellow smacked his arm. All nine of them smiled nervously at James in a distinctly creepy manner.

Worse than when that Billy kid was always blowing stuff up in the garage, James thought in annoyance. He muttered something about calling the police, hoping that would scare the kids away; sure enough, as he turned to go into his house, he heard the sound of car doors slamming, quickly followed by squealing tires.

~*~

Tommy drove to Jason's house at a speed Skull could only dream of, arriving a good five minutes before Zack. Once they were all together again they dove into the privacy of the house and continued freaking out, ranting and raving and trying to come up with plans that somehow always ended in ranting and raving. Only Trent wasn't panicking—but then, Trent wasn't faced with the idea of coming clean about his superhero identity to his parents. Trini was fairly calm herself—but she seemed pretty down and withdrawn, as though depressed about what Mr. Cranston thought of her. Mr. Cranston hadn't been angry, of course, but Trini seemed distressed that he'd known she was lying all along.

"Guys, seriously," Trent said in exasperation. "Don't you think they would have said something if they knew?"

"Billy's dad didn't!" Kimberly fairly yelped.

"Only because he was cool about it."

"And Ernie didn't!" Zack pointed out.

"He was cool about it, too. Besides, neither of them ever told anyone, and they both promised they wouldn't. After all, they've been keeping it a secret for what, ten, eleven years now?"

They all thought about that for a second.

"God, you're wonderful." Kira breathed a sigh of relief and flung her arms around his neck.

"Yeah, you are," said Conner, and tightly hugged both of them. Trent fought off an irritated sigh. It was started to annoy him that he hadn't gotten much alone time with Kira lately.

"Suddenly feeling kind of silly," Zack said. "Scared as hell, but silly."

"Why don't we just all... calm down and talk about something else?" Trent suggested hopefully.

"Like what?" Jason asked.

"Like... oh, tell us something about the Ranger days," Trent said. "Surely you guys have more stories for us."

"Yeah!" Kira and Ethan chorused. Of all of the teens, they were the most interested in Ranger history. Conner was mostly interested in Jason's past, while Trent found the whole subject risky, because it sometimes ended up being a tad disturbing, as it often seemed to lead to him being compared to Tommy.

"Yeah, cuz that's always fun," Tommy muttered darkly, thinking of the zord wreck with a shudder.

"What do you want to know?" Trini asked quickly, figuring any distraction was better than angry parents—after all, parents weren't known for keeping their children's secrets. It was why they always told their children's friends embarrassing stories involving diapers or some other such taboo thing.

Trent frowned, thinking; he pushed Conner away from him and Kira, mostly because it needed to be done but also because it was rather distracting. "Well... um... how did you all meet?" Trent asked. "Was it when you became Power Rangers?" Trent had befriended Conner, Kira and Ethan long before finding his Dino Gem, but he knew Conner, Kira and Ethan hadn't really given each other a second thought before stumbling into Tommy's basement lab.

Tommy shook his head. "The others were already friends when I moved to Angel Grove. I met Jason during a karate tournament, and Kimberly in the hall the next day. Scared the crap out of Bulk and Skull; they were hassling her."

"And you said you'd meet me in the Youth Center after school and decided to get yourself turned into the evil Green Ranger and try to kill us instead," Kimberly teased.

"Yeah, well, plans change," Tommy said, giving her a sheepish smile.

Glad that his idea appeared to be working, Trent pulled Kira over to an armchair and sat down, taking her with him. "But... what about the rest of you?"

Kimberly and Trini looked at each other.

~*~

Flashback

Five-year-old Kimberly stationed herself by the kitchen stove play set and looked around for another kindergartner to spend playtime with. Her eyes landed on a pretty Asian girl a few feet away. "Want to play house?" Kimberly called, holding up a plastic teapot.

The girl shrugged. "Okay."

~*~

Present Day

"We were best friends after that," Trini said. "Within a month, you couldn't pry us apart."

"Just like that, eh?" Ethan asked.

"Yup."

"Ah, the simple days," Kimberly said wistfully.

"Tell me about it," said Zack. "That's the same way I met Jason."

~*~

Flashback

"Hi."

Zack looked up at the speaker. An extremely short boy with brown hair was staring at him, confused and possibly a little upset.

"Hi," Zack said. "I'm Zack."

"I'm Jason. What are you doing?"

"Eatin' Play-Doh."

"Why?"

Zack thought about it for a second. "I don't know. I wanted to see what it tasted like."

"What does it taste like?"

"Here, try some!" Zack offered.

"I don't think you're supposed to eat it," said Jason, looking down at the red Play-Doh in Zack's hands with a slightly offended expression.

"Sure you are. What else can you do with it?"

"You make things." He took the Play-Doh from Zack, sculpted it with his hands for a minute, and then proudly presented his work to Zack. "See? A sword."

"Whoa!" Zack said, deeply impressed. He grabbed another hunk of Play-Doh and molded it into a cross-shaped lump. "You're right! It's a sword!"

"Wanna sword fight?" Jason asked.

"Yeah! Hi-YA!"

~*~

Present Day

"Dude!" Conner said, looking in Jason at surprise. "You were short?"

"Horribly short," Jason said with a sigh. "Right up until about eighth grade. Believe it or not, Kim actually used to tease me about being shorter than she was."

"Whoda thunk?" Conner said, shaking his head.

"Anyway, that's how I met Jason," Zack said.

"I'd almost forgotten about that," Jason said, shaking his head.

Zack nodded. "Good thing we met, eh? Otherwise there'd be a lot less Play-Doh in the world."

"Only you, Zack."

"You were just mad it was red Play-Doh."

"I don't even remember what color it was," Jason lied. "I wasn't even obsessed with red back then."

"Yeah, but—"

"What about Billy?" Trent interrupted, glad that everyone was finally starting to calm down and anxious to keep anyone from getting riled up again. "How'd you meet him?"

"Well," Trini said with a faint smile, "I met him first..."

~*~

Flashback

Trini looked around the room where her principal had told her she would be taking gifted classes this year. There were only four other kids in it at the moment, none of them from Trini's kindergarten class. Three of them were chatting while the fourth, a blond boy with glasses, sat alone, looking dejected. Trini hefted her advanced reading textbook under her arm and marched over to him.

"Hi," she said. "I'm Trini."

"That's a pretty name," he said, looking startled by her very existence.

"Thanks! What's your name?"

"B-Billy," he stammered.

"That's a pretty name, too."

"It is?"

"Yep. Will you be my friend?"

"I don't have any friends," Billy said apologetically.

"Why not?" Trini asked curiously. She had never met anyone who didn't.

"Everyone says I'm weird because I have an extensive vocabulary." Billy paused. "'Extensive' means 'big,' 'large' or 'long,' and 'vocabulary' means—"

"I know what it means," Trini said importantly. "It means the words you use."

"That's a simple way to put it," Billy said, staring at her in shock. Very few kids his age had ever been able to understand him; at best, they might catch every fifth word. Even teachers occasionally had trouble with his vocabulary.

"Well, I don't think you're weird," Trini said. "I think you're cool. I like your glasses."

"Most people say glasses are dorky."

"Well, most people aren't all that nice," Trini said firmly. "My mom says they have no respect for their peers."

"That's what my mom says, too," Billy said. "I didn't think she was right, though."

"Of course she is. If most people aren't being nice to you, and those same people aren't respecting you, and they're your peers, then most people who aren't nice have no respect for their peers, right?"

"Well... maybe. You're nice to me," Billy said, slightly accusingly.

"Well, I'm not most people, I'm me," Trini pointed. "And you're you."

Billy thought about this for a second. "Okay." He paused. "Does your daddy read the dictionary with you, too?"

Trini blinked. "No. Only when I hear a new word I want to look up."

"Then how come you also have an extensive vocabulary?"

"Well, because my mommy says that if I get really smart and study really hard, I'll get a really good job and take over the world and never be second-best to a man."

"Why do you want to take over the world?" Billy asked, wide-eyed.

"Well, because then I could make sure they play nothing but Scooby Doo on TV."

"Scooby Doo?"

"Yes."

"What's that?"

Trini gaped at him. "You know words like 'extensive' and you don't even know who Scooby Doo is?"

"I don't watch a lot of TV," Billy said apologetically. "My mom says it isn't very educational."

"Oh. Well, it's my favorite show. Kimberly's, too."

"Kimberly?"

"She's my other friend. You should play with us sometime. She's really nice. And she has lots of cool toys and dress-up clothes and she can fold herself in half."

"She can—what?"

"Fold herself in half. Kimberly takes gymnastics."

"Oh. Do you?"

"No, no. Daddy says martial arts is much more useful. Teaches discipline and honor."

"Martial arts? You mean, you hit people?" Billy looked appalled.

"Well, sometimes. But not very hard," she lied hastily at the look of terror on Billy's face. "And only when they deserve it," she added. At least that was true. Well, mostly... sometimes it was part of the class to train with other kids... and that bully Farcus back in kindergarten had usually deserved it.

"Are you going to hit me?" Billy asked resignedly.

Trini stared at him, startled. "Of course not. You're my friend now."

"I am?" Billy said, quite sure he hadn't yet agreed to that.

"Yep. You're going to sit with me and Kimberly at lunch and play with us at recess. And maybe sometime you can come over to my house and watch Scooby Doo."

"Um..." Billy said. He wasn't too certain how friendship worked; it had never happened to him before. So he didn't know if this was a good idea or not. But Trini seemed nice, and she was pretty and smart, so she would probably make a good friend. Besides, if she knew martial arts, she might could beat him up.

"Okay."

~*~

Present Day

They all cracked up. Picturing Billy cowering next to Trini was an oddly fitting image. "So you basically threatened him to be your friend?" Kira asked.

"Well, no, I wouldn't say threatened—but that's how he took it," Trini said. "It was pretty funny, looking back."

"So what was it like when you met him, Kim?" Kira asked eagerly.

Kimberly shook her head. "Oh, man... what a disaster that was... it was later that same day..."

~*~

Flashback

"Hi, Kimmy!" Trini called cheerfully as she plopped her lunch tray down across from Kimberly. The first-grade students had an assigned section of the cafeteria, but no actual assigned seats, so even though Trini was in a different class this year she could still eat with Kimberly.

"Hi, Tri!" Kimberly replied, waving enthusiastically despite the fact that Trini was less than three feet away.

"This is Billy," Trini said.

"Who's Billy?"

"This," Trini said, gesturing to the seat next to her as she dug into her food.

Kimberly frowned. "Oh, is Billy your invisible friend?"

"What? No, he's right—" Trini looked over at the seat next to her and blinked. Billy wasn't in it. "Where'd he go? He was right behind me!"

Trini stood up and looked around. Billy was nowhere to be seen. Trini narrowed her eyes. "I'll be right back," she said in a determined sort of way, and stalked off.

Kimberly shrugged and fought to open her chocolate milk. A moment later, Trini returned with a hand firmly clamped around the forearm of a blond kid with glasses. "This," Trini announced, "is Billy. I'm his very first friend. You get to be his second friend, Kimmy."

"Cool," Kimberly gushed as he was forced into the seat next to Trini. "I like your glasses."

"But... but people are supposed to think glasses are dorky," Billy said desperately. Spending an entire three hours in class with Trini had rather shaken his outlook on life.

"Glasses aren't dorky! I have some too, see?" Kimberly pulled her prize possession from the empty seat next to her—a big pink suede purse with a beaded strap. She flourished it at Billy to show it off before fishing inside it for a moment and pulling out her glasses. Then she jammed them on her face. "See?" she repeated proudly.

Billy stared. Kimberly's glasses were nothing like his. The frames were pink plastic and star-shaped, with dark lenses. He wasn't too much of an expert on cool, but they didn't look dorky to him at all. "Those are sunglasses, you know," he pointed out uncertainly. He wasn't sure if sunglasses were supposed to be dorky like regular glasses or not.

"They're still glasses," Kimberly insisted. "My mom says they make me look like a movie star. And Dad says they make me look like a prima donna."

"But 'prima donna' has negative associations."

Kimberly stared at him. Billy's eyes widened in horror—the first big word usage was always the moment right before someone called him weird and either made him go away or walked off themselves. Or worse.

"Billy has an extensive vocabulary," Trini explained.

"Oh, that thing you have sometimes?"

"Yeah, that." To Billy, Trini said, "Kimberly's not really a prima donna. She just dresses like one."

"Oh." Billy blushed and pushed his glasses a little higher up his nose. He got the distinct feeling that Trini didn't feel the need to explain every word to Kimberly.

"Billy's going to be our friend from now on," Trini continued. "We're going to be just like the Three Musketeers."

Billy looked rather nervous at that, but Kimberly just shrugged, smiled and said, "Okay. Can you open my milk, Trini? It's stuck again."

Trini took the carton and tried her best, but failed. "Billy?" she asked. "Want to try?"

Billy took the carton worriedly, wondering if this was some sort of test, or perhaps some trick to make him embarrass himself. Considering how emphatic Trini seemed to be about being his friend now, he was pretty sure it was the first one, though. He looked at the carton for a second—the flaps had been peeled back, but they wouldn't push outward; they were stuck together. So Billy stuck his fingernail in the gap in the middle and yanked as hard as he could.

And found himself covered in chocolate milk.

Billy stared blankly ahead, unable to fathom this new twist in life. He wasn't sure what was going on with the girls, because the milk had doused his glasses, too, but he could hear them both shrieking. Well, there went his new friendship.

The next thing he knew, paper napkins were being pressed firmly all over his head. He wondered if this was some sort of attack, if they were angry, if he'd gotten milk on them too. So it came as a complete surprise when a half-drenched Trini yanked off his glasses, her face really close to his to make sure he could see her. "Billy! Are you all right?" she asked, as though he'd just fallen off a building and broken a leg.

Billy blinked. He was still a bit too shocked to speak.

"I'm sorry! I never should have asked you guys to open my milk!" Kimberly wailed. "Please don't hate me! Oh, Trini, your dress is ruined! And Billy's hair is turning brown! Argh, napkins, we're out of napkins!" There was a sound of a scuffle at the table behind them, and then Billy felt Kimberly whacking him in the chest with her new supply of napkins.

"I'll clean off your glasses," Trini said, still looking worried.

"It just exploded," Billy said in awe, looking down at the dripping remains of the carton in his hands through blurry eyes.

"Well, the next time we experiment with new ways to open Kim's milk, we're not doing it that way," Trini said firmly, wiping down his glasses and then wringing out the side of her dress into the pile of soggy napkins on the table.

"My milk never opens right," Kimberly complained, nearly pushing him right off the back of the bench with a nice firm whack to one of the brown stains on his shirt.

"Mine's always half-frozen," Trini said.

Billy looked down at his milk-covered person, then at his arm, which Kimberly had jerked away from his body to clean off. He resolved to always drink the white milk from now on.

"We'd better go to the office," Kimberly whimpered, trying to haul Billy to his feet.

"Why?" Billy said distractedly, his brain slowly shutting down, as if it could no longer handle his utterly strange day.

"That's what I always do when there's a problem," Kimberly said, pushing him towards the door. Trini took his hand and began to pull, leaving Kimberly free to race on ahead.

~*~

"Mrs. O'Connell!" shrieked Kimberly, bursting into the main office in a panic. "Mrs. O'Connell, it's terrible!"

The secretary sighed. Kimberly was well-known in the office as the school's resident drama queen, and she'd only been in the school for a year so far; usually, Mrs. O'Connell let the other secretary deal with Kimberly, but old Mrs. Waverly had retired and they hadn't found a replacement yet. "What is it, Kimberly?"

"My new friend Billy tried to open my milk for me and it went bad!"

Mrs. O'Connell stared at her. This had to be the lamest, weirdest thing Kimberly had come to the office for yet.

"Well, Kimberly, there isn't much I can do about—oh dear." Mrs. O'Connell stared in shock at the sight of the two kids coming into the office behind Kimberly, the girl steering the boy gently by the arm, holding a pair of sticky glasses in her other hand. The little boy had a thoroughly stunned expression. He was soaked from head to toe in chocolate milk, still dripping in some places. The girl leading him was drenched almost exclusively down her left side. Mrs. O'Connell fervently hoped there hadn't been anyone else sitting near little Billy when he'd tried to open Kimberly's milk.

"Please fix them!" Kimberly wailed. "I don't want to lose my friends!"

"We're not going to stop being your friends," said the milk girl patiently, with the air of one who has said the same thing over and over again to no effect.

"You might! What if you do, Trini, what if you do!"

"I'm covered in chocolate milk," Billy said in a dazed sort of way, as though it hadn't yet sunk completely in.

Mrs. O'Connell struggled to come up with something reassuring to say as she reached for the radio to call the janitor; no doubt the cafeteria had a good deal of chocolate milk all over it right now. Before she could pick it up, it beeped and the lunch monitor's voice crackled through.

"Red alert, repeat, red alert! Three first graders missing. Abandoned their lunches. Appear to have left cafeteria. One apparently stole napkins from six people at neighboring table before making a break for it. Red alert, three missing first graders, calling all hands on deck, over!"

"Shut up, Hal, they're in the office," Mrs. O'Connell said tiredly into the radio. Hal was a little excitable. She had no idea why they'd put someone like him in a cafeteria full of elementary school kids, especially given his Hitler-like tendencies.

"Send them back to the lunch room immediately! They didn't ask my permission to leave! Over!"

"Two of them are soaked and the other one's in tears. I'll deal with them, thanks. Out." Rolling her eyes, she turned to the one exasperated and two distraught first graders. "Now, what are your parents' phone numbers?"

"My friends are never gonna speak to me again!" Kimberly sobbed.

"I'm covered in chocolate milk," Billy whispered, staring blankly at the wall.

"Five-five-five-oh-six-one-oh," Trini said calmly.

"And you, son?" Mrs. O'Connell asked Billy sweetly.

"I'm covered in chocolate milk."

"He's a little traumatized," Trini whispered to Mrs. O'Connell in an apologetic sort of way. Mrs. O'Connell blinked, startled at her choice of words. "But his last name is Cranston, if that helps."

"Thank you," she said.

"You're not going home, are you, Trini?" Kimberly demanded, grabbing Trini's hand and staring at her in horror. "Who will I play with at recess?"

Trini sighed, looking as though going home greatly appealed to her at this point. "Mrs. O'Connell, aren't there any clothes in the lost and found bin we could wear? Mrs. Smith found me a new shirt that one time when Farcus spilled finger paint all over me last year."

Mrs. O'Connell stared at her for a moment before pulling the bin out from under the counter. "I'll look, sweetie, but that one—" she pointed at Billy— "probably needs a bath. And maybe therapy," she added worriedly.

"I'm covered in chocolate milk," Billy whispered again.

"No luck," Mrs. O'Connell told Trini a moment later. They cleaned out the bin over the summer, and the school year had only just started yesterday, so there wasn't much in the bin—just an old belt, a pair of earmuffs and one tennis shoe.

"You can't leave, Trini!" Kimberly wailed. "You have to play with me at recess! You always play with me at recess! You were supposed to come over after school, too! You hate me, don't you?"

Trini gently took Kimberly by the shoulders, and then shook her until her sunglasses fell off. "Kim, get a grip! If I have to go home, I have to go home. But I probably won't. If they don't find me some new clothes to wear, my mom might bring some. I don't want to go home. I'll try not to. Calm down."

We need more kids like that, Mrs. O'Connell thought, picking up the phone. "Kim, dear, why don't you go back to class?" Kimberly let out a whimper that became a low whine and, sensing where it was going, Mrs. O'Connell hastily added, "Or you could just sit quietly over there until after I call Trini's parents and find out if she's going home, how's that?"

"Okay," Kimberly sniffled, sitting down in the small plastic waiting chairs.

Trini gently guided Billy over to a chair next to Kimberly, then sighed when he didn't take the hint to sit down and shoved him into it. She slid his milk-streaked, sticky glasses back on his head—after all, napkins only did so much against milk on glass—and then returned to the counter. "Sorry about that," she said quietly, looking slightly embarrassed. "Kimmy's a little high-strung."

"You're a very unique girl," Mrs. O'Connell said. "Five-five-five-oh-six-one-oh, you said?"

She nodded. "Yep. Trini Kwan. Please explain that I'd like to stay at school, and would really appreciate it if she'd just bring me clothes."

Mrs. O'Connell nodded, and Trini remained patiently at the counter, as if reluctant to join Trauma Boy and Sobbing Girl. Figuring she might as well go for the easier call first, she dialed the Kwan residence and started flipping through the emergency cards, looking for Billy Cranston.

"Hello?"

"Mrs. Kwan?"

"Yes?"

"This is Mrs. O'Connell, over at Angel Grove Elementary, and—"

"I honestly don't understand why you people keep insisting that Trini isn't allowed to defend herself when that goon Farcus attacks her."

"Oh, um, actually... Oh, I remember her now! She never talked much when they brought her in before for fighting; I didn't realize it was the same... I mean, um, there's been a bit of an incident in the cafeteria with a couple friends of hers and some chocolate milk, and she needs a spare change of clothes, probably a bath."

"Oh. Well, is it all right if I just come pick her up? It's already almost noon. School will be out in two hours. There's no point in my coming out there twice. And she has karate today, so if she needs a bath, I need to get her one soon..."

"Well, she was hoping she could stay for recess, but it's your decision."

"All right, then. Tell her I'll pick her up. Oh, did this involve Kimberly?"

"Well, yes, Kimberly and another boy."

"Ah. Just so you know, if Kimberly starts sobbing, Trini is probably the only thing that can make her stop," Mrs. Kwan said, and hung up.

Mrs. O'Connell sighed and dialed the Cranston residence. A man answered on the second ring.

"Mr. Cranston?"

"Yes?"

"This is Mrs. O'Connell, from Angel Grove Elementary School. Your son had a bit of an accident in the cafeteria and—"

"I'll be right there!" Mr. Cranston interrupted worriedly. "Make sure you find out who did it this time!"

The line went dead. Mrs. O'Connell sighed, knowing Kimberly wasn't going to like this and praying someone else got to deal with her.

"Can I stay?" Trini asked.

"I'm afraid she wants to take you home," Mrs. O'Connell replied.

Trini nodded sadly. "I thought she would. Well, I'd better start cheering up Kim in advance."

And Trini did just that, although by the ninth time the girls sang the Sesame Street theme song Mrs. O'Connell was starting to feel faint stirrings of a violent streak. Thankfully, Mrs. Kwan arrived in the middle of the opening lines of the eleventh rendition.

"Good heavens, Trini, look at you," she said. "What on earth happened?"

"Kim's milk wouldn't open and Billy tried really really hard to—"

"Where is he?" demanded a breathless Mr. Cranston, bursting into the office, his penny loafers skidding on the tiles. "Is he okay? Did you get the bully's name?"

"He's, um, he's fine, Mr. Cranston, he just—"

Mr. Cranston wasn't listening; he'd spotted Billy sitting rigid in the chair, staring straight ahead through his milky glasses. "Billy! Son, what is that all over you? Did someone pour milk on you this time? Rude little devils! I swear!"

"Excuse me, Mr. Billy's dad," Trini said, stepping up. "No one poured milk on him. It was an accident."

"Who are you?" Mr. Cranston demanded, eyeing the milk stains on her dress suspiciously.

"I'm Trini Kwan, sir," Trini said, extending her hand. "I'm Billy's very first friend. Kim here is his second friend."

Mr. Cranston shook her hand absently, staring at her. "Is that right?"

"Yep. Billy was trying to open Kimberly's milk for her and it just exploded. We tried to wipe him up, but I don't think we got it all."

"That's my girl," Mrs. Kwan said in affectionate exasperation. "Drying other people off while her new dress drips all over her shoes. You're a little too sweet sometimes, honey."

Trini proudly threw out her chest. "Billy's my friend, Mom. I had to help him."

Mr. Cranston shook his head and turned back to Billy. "Are you okay, son?"

"I'm covered in chocolate milk," Billy said blankly.

"He's a little traumatized, sir," Trini said. "But I think he'll be okay."

"I'm really sorry," Kimberly said, her lip quivering dangerously; Trini looked at her worriedly. "I wouldn't have asked him to help with my milk if I'd known it could do that."

Mr. Cranston nodded kindly at her and shook Billy slightly. "Son? Speak to me, Billy."

Billy blinked, only to find himself unable to see. He pulled off his glasses, which didn't do much for his vision except remove the brown streaks. "Hi, Dad," Billy said, still rather dazed.

"You okay?"

"I made a new friend, Dad."

"And an enemy out of the chocolate milk, I'd wager."

"What?"

"Nothing. That's very good, son."

"Two friends, right Billy?" Kimberly asked desperately.

"Oh. Yes. Right. Two friends."

"Come on," Mr. Cranston said worriedly. "Let's get you home."

Mr. Cranston had to pull Billy up to his feet by the hand; Billy swayed unsteadily for a moment. Just as Mr. Cranston tried to nudge him around towards the doorway, Kimberly shrieked "WAIT!" so loud that everyone jumped.

Kimberly got up and flung her arms around Billy's neck. Billy assumed this was hug. He wasn't sure, because only his parents had ever hugged him, and they were a lot taller and therefore it didn't work quite the same. So he just copied Kimberly's example until she let go and turned to hug Trini, her pink dress now dotted with the occasional brown stain. "Are you still coming over today, Trini?"

Trini looked at her mother. "We'll see," Mrs. Kwan said.

Trini sighed. "Have fun at recess, okay?"

"I'll try," Kimberly said tearfully.

Trini patted her on the shoulder and then smiled at Billy. "Have a good day, Billy."

"I'll do that," Billy said blankly.

Mr. Cranston shook his head worriedly. "He usually bounces back much more rapidly from a bully attack."

"Well, it's one thing to face down a bully," Trini said wisely, gesturing to her ruined dress, "and it's a whole other story to face down chocolate milk."

~*~

Present Day

"Billy told us it took hours to recover from the shock," Kimberly said with a sigh. "I felt so horrible. But he dutifully sat with me and Trini again at lunch, when he finally came back to school."

"That school had the most annoying milk cartons ever," Zack complained.

"That was the same day I met you, wasn't it, Kim?" Jason asked.

"Yup. That was the first time I didn't have anyone to play with at recess," Kimberly said.

"What, he saw you sitting alone and decided to ask you to play with him?" Ethan asked. People were always doing that—well, the teenaged version of that—to him, which he actually found kind of annoying. No one seemed to understand that when he was sitting alone, it was because he wanted to sit alone, to play his Game Boy or read a good sci-fi book or whatever. People never seemed to understand why he didn't constantly crave social interaction.

"Nope," Jason said, shaking his head. "I was alone that day at recess, too. Zack had gotten punished for eating Play-Doh. Again."

"It was good!" Zack insisted. "The red stuff tasted the best, but the blue was all right, too."

"Do you still eat it or something?" Kimberly asked. Zack ignored her.

"Zack, Play-Doh doesn't have individual flavors," Jason said, rolling his eyes.

"How would you know? You never ate it." He looked around at the rest of the group. "Come on, guys, back me up here. We've all eaten Play-Doh at some point, right?"

Everyone stared at him blankly for a second.

"Of course," Conner said. "But I thought the yellow tasted best. Ooh, and the white."

"Nah, man, white was nasty!"

"Dude, remember the green?" Both Conner and Zack shuddered and made disgusted noises, then cracked up.

"Getting back on subject," Jason said loudly, "I ran into Kim on the playground."

"Actually," Kimberly said, jokingly pulling her face into a wide-eyed expression of awe and hero-worship, "you saved my life."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 27: Rangers Back In Time

Flashback

Kimberly sat dejectedly on the swing, not even bothering to swing properly. No Trini, and Mrs. O'Connell had said Billy might need therapy. Kimberly wasn't sure what that was, but it would probably take a very long time. Maybe even days.

First grade wasn't going so well. Of course, it was only the second day of first grade, but still. In kindergarten, there had been a lot less work and a lot more playtime, and even naps (most of her classmates didn't enjoy those, but Kimberly had always spent that time dreaming about meeting Prince Charming and having him carry her off on his pretty white horse, maybe even unicorn). And now she and Trini weren't going to be in the same class. At least neither of them would have to be in the same class with Farcus this year, though. (Trini's mother had made sure of that. On numerous occasions, Farcus would annoy Trini for reasons unknown. He was especially fond of pinching and hair-pulling. And Trini was fond of kicking him in the shin, and punching if it came to that. Trini's mother had always gotten Trini out of trouble by saying that Trini's teachers were forcing Trini to handle his harassment herself—which was true. But it didn't console Farcus's parents to know he'd spent half of kindergarten hopping around on one foot. So Farcus was hopefully never going to be in the same room with Trini and Kimberly again.)

Kimberly was so lost in her own depressed thoughts that she didn't even notice the group of fourth-grade boys approaching her swing until they had her surrounded. One of them, a beefy kid with a rattail, got right up in her face, jolting Kimberly back to reality.

"Hey, kindergarten baby," he sneered. "You're on my swing."

"It's not your swing," Kimberly said irritably. "And I'm not in kindergarten."

"You still look like a kindergarten baby to me," he retorted.

"That's because you're stupid," Kimberly replied. She would have stuck out her tongue, but he was so close she might accidentally lick him.

"If you've got something to say, say it to my face," he growled as his buddies snickered.

"I just did say it to your face," Kimberly said in confusion.

He thought about this for a second, then shook his head as if trying to shake off water and glared at her. "I think you need to be taught a lesson."

"I think you're too stupid to actually teach me anything," Kimberly said, now slightly nervous. He was an awfully big fourth grader.

"HEY!" someone shouted. "You leave her alone!"

Kimberly pushed the big kid away, hopped off the swing and turned to look for her rescuer. But there was no rescuer. Just a short, skinny boy who couldn't be any older than she was, and was actually an inch or two shorter.

"Uh-oh," Kimberly muttered with a sigh. Unless this kid was a superhero in disguise, they were both in big trouble now.

"Who's gonna make me?" the kid demanded.

"Me," the boy said, marching forward. Two boys parted ranks to let him through, as if not quite certain how to handle a majorly squishable first grader with an attitude.

"You and what army?" the kid snorted.

"Me and the one-man army of Jason Lee Scott!" he said proudly, coming to stand with his fists up in between Kimberly and the big kid, his eyes flashing death at the kid two feet taller than him.

The kid snorted again. "Out of my way, twerp."

"I'm not going to let you pick on her! Only weak, stupid, mean people pick on girls!" Jason said defiantly.

"Look," Kimberly said desperately, "I'm off the swing. You can have it. I'll just go swing on another one."

"You better leave her alone, or else!"

"Or else what?"

"Nice shiny swing!" Kimberly yelled, grabbing the chain and shaking it at the big kid.

"Or else I'll have to teach you a lesson!"

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah!"

"Shiny, empty swing!"

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah!"

"I don't even like swings!"

"Oh, yeah?"

"YEAH!"

"Okay, if Trini was here, what would she do?"

"Oh, yeah?"

"YEAH!"

"Oh—OW!"

Kimberly had kicked him in the shin with her brand-new pointy-toed cowgirl boots as hard as she could, just like Trini had often done to Farcus. The bully was responding the exact same way Farcus did—by grabbing his leg and teetering dangerously and screaming. Jason looked at her in awe, startled at her intrusion into the time-honored tradition of hero and villain exchanging angry words. Kimberly grabbed his hand and prepared to run—to drag him off if necessary—when the fourth grader made a wild swing. Jason pushed her down and out of the way, dropping to his knees and slamming his fist into the kid's gut. The kid went down, howling, possibly crying.

Jason grinned proudly, but before he could gloat another fourth grader dove at them. Jason let out a karate yell and punched him right in the groin. The kid screamed and dropped beside his fallen leader. Jason turned to Kimberly, only to see her whacking another member of the gang of fourth graders upside the head with a large pink purse. Jason looked at her in respect for a moment before facing the remaining fourth graders, dropping into the stance Sensei Mike had taught him and letting out another "Hi-ya!"

Two of the fourth graders bolted. The third looked at the two kids writhing in pain, then at the one Kimberly was still beating, then at short, crazy Jason, and decided retreating was the best idea.

"And don't come back!" Jason shouted after them, pumping his fist in the air, only to feel a hand close tightly around it. He looked up in horror to find the principal glaring down at him, holding Kimberly back with his other hand while she continued to wave her purse threateningly at the sobbing kid on the ground.

~*~

Mrs. O'Connell fought off a groan as the principal dragged the two first graders into the office. She knew little Jason fairly well; while Mrs. Waverly had always dealt with Kimberly and the Trini/Farcus war, she'd left Jason—who'd gotten into several fights last year—to Mrs. O'Connell. Jason's parents had a tendency to lecture him before leaving, and that was going to be even more annoying with Kimberly added in.

"These two," the principal growled, "fought three fourth graders."

"These two?" Mrs. O'Connell repeated incredulously.

"Yes, these two. The nurse is tending to the fourth graders."

Kimberly's awfully good at falling in with the weird sort. At least she isn't sobbing yet, Mrs. O'Connell thought grimly, a full two-point-four seconds before Kimberly burst into tears.

"It's not our fault!" Kimberly wailed. "These big mean kids tried to make me get off the swing and Jason rescued me and that one kid tried to steal my purse while Jason's back was turned and they were mean and scary and I didn't know what to do!" she finished in a shriek. "I didn't want to fight them! I didn't mean to hurt him! He was trying to steal my purse!"

The principal's face softened. He looked at Mrs. O'Connell. "Has she ever been in a fight before?"

"No, not that I know of. Well, other than when she gets caught in Trini Kwan's crossfire."

He paled. "Trini Kwan... as in Truc Kwan, the parent most likely to call the school board?"

"Yes, that's her. Little Trini is Kimberly's best friend."

"Oh, dear," the principal muttered. He nodded at Jason and Kimberly, releasing them. "You two, go back to class, and stay out of trouble."

Jason stared at him. "But... aren't you going to call my dad?"

The principal arched an eyebrow. "Do you want me to call your dad?"

Jason shook his head violently. "No, sir."

"Good. Then go to class."

Jason walked out behind Kimberly, rather dazed. As soon as they got out into the hallway and the office door closed behind them, Kimberly stopped crying and smiled. "Works every time," she said in a self-satisfied sort of way.

"You planned that?" Jason said, shocked.

"Well, yeah," Kimberly said sheepishly. "But I only do it when it's not my fault."

"That was awesome," Jason told her, utterly impressed and relieved. His father was never very happy when Jason got sent home from school, and his mother's disapproving frown was worse. "Where'd you learn to do that?"

Kimberly beamed. "My mom," she said proudly.

"Do you think you could teach me how to do that?"

"Well, actually, my mom says it's kind of a girl thing," Kimberly explained apologetically.

"Oh. Darn. Well, thanks for getting me off the hook."

"You're welcome. Thanks for saving my life."

Jason shrugged modestly. "It was nothing. You were pretty good with your purse, too."

"Aw, thanks!"

Jason held out his hand. "I'm Jason."

Kimberly shook it. "I'm Kimberly. Who's your teacher?"

"Mrs. Dowagiac."

"Bless you."

"I didn't sneeze, silly, that's her name. She spent a whole hour teaching us to pronounce it yesterday."

"That's the funniest name I've ever heard!" Remembering Billy's speech patterns, she asked, "Does she teach the gifted class?"

"Gifted? No. We haven't gotten any gifts."

"Ah. Well, my friend Trini's in the gifted class... and so's my friend Billy." Kimberly looked down at her feet, a little saddened by the thought of poor, brave Billy. "You'd like them. They're both really brave. And Trini's the only other person I know who can fight like you do. She takes karate."

"Really? I never met a girl who took karate." Jason looked rather interested by this.

"She's supposed to come over and play with me today. Would you like to come, too? I'm pretty sure Trini won't mind."

"I'm supposed to play with Zack today. He's my best bud. But maybe I can ask if we can come over to your house instead. Can I bring him?"

"Sure!" Kimberly fished in her giant purse and pulled out a fuzzy pink pen and a pad of Sleeping Beauty stationary and scribbled something on the pad. "Here. Call me at three o'clock, okay?"

"I will. Nice meeting you," Jason said, stuffing the number in his pocket. He paused, a sudden thought occurring to him. "If me and Zack can come over... don't let him use your Play-Doh, okay?"

~*~

Present Day

"Hey!" Zack exclaimed. "Is that why Kimberly always pretended she didn't have Play-Doh when I saw a big case of it under her bed?"

"Told you he saw through that," Trini said. "After all, you had every other toy on the planet."

"Well, Jason was really adamant about the Play-Doh thing."

"He ate ALL my red Play-Doh!" Jason complained. "Like it was candy or something!"

"I said I was sorry! Your mom said it was snack time!"

"You guys were weird kids," Ethan said.

"Oh, like you never ate Play-Doh," Conner said.

"No, I ate cookies like a normal kid," Ethan retorted.

"Yes, Ethan, because you're oh-so-normal." Conner paused. "Eric used to eat dog treats. But I liked Play-Doh. It wasn't as crunchy. And it was saltier and—"

"So... let me get this straight, Kim," Kira interrupted. "You beat up a fourth grader... with your purse?"

"Well, he was really big, and it wasn't like I was a third-degree black belt at the time," Kimberly said sheepishly. "I was six years old. Give me a break."

"Besides, she keeps a lot of crap in her purse," Tommy said without thinking. "She dropped one of them on my foot once and I thought my toes were broken."

"Oh, yeah, when we went out for our first anniversary," Kimberly said. "You asked me to put the purse back in the car and I kept running back out to get things from it."

"And then you wouldn't put the purse down when we were m—" Tommy stopped, horrified, suddenly realizing what they were talking about. "Um, when we were... back in the car."

"Oh, yeah," Kimberly said, eyes widening and face reddening. She wanted to kick herself. She should've just defended her purse's contents, not brought up the fact that she'd dropped it on him while on a date, let alone on their anniversary. They'd just crossed one of the most important invisible lines. Pretending to start over didn't really work if one brought up the parts of the past that defined the past as there.

There was a long, ugly silence. No one knew what to say. Tommy and Kimberly stared firmly at opposite walls.

"Anyway, that's how Zack and I fell in with Trini," Jason said desperately. "Through Kim."

"It was love at first sight for those two," Zack said. Realizing that the awkward Tommy and Kimberly moment wasn't quite over, he added, "For Trini and Jason, I mean," which of course just made matters worse.

Trini smiled brightly, hopping in with fervor; saving the day with well-placed words was what Trini did best. "Jason did seem really taken with me, looking back."

"Hey, you thought I was cool, too," Jason said, looking a tad put out at that comment.

"Yeah, I did. But you were all amazed with me."

"You were amazed with me, too," Jason insisted.

"All right, fine, I was," Trini said, though it was uncertain if she meant it or if she was placating him.

"That's right, you were," Jason said firmly, sliding his arm around her shoulders. He grinned. "My dad was so nervous about the fact that I wanted to go play with girls. Didn't want me to pick up bad habits, like playing with dolls or something."

Trini grinned. "Good old Mr. Scott. Not exactly a chauvinist, but he certainly has a well-defined sense of 'guy things' and 'girl things.' My mother loves beating him at arm-wrestling. So does Dad, really."

Jason shook his head. "I remember I told him that you took karate so you probably weren't a real girl. He got a bit calmer after that, but he was still kinda freaking out."

"Is that why your dad asked if I really wanted to go play with girls?" Zack asked.

"Yeah. To which you replied, I believe, 'Depends. Does she have Play-Doh?'"

~*~

Flashback

Jason waved enthusiastically to Kimberly through the window of his father's truck as he as Mr. Scott pulled into the driveway. "That her?" Zack asked, struggling to see out the window over Jason.

"Yep. She's really cool."

"Remember what I told you," Mr. Scott said worriedly.

"No dolls, no dress-up, no makeup, no kissing," Jason recited dutifully.

"Yeah, no dolls, no dressing, no making, no kiss-up," Zack repeated absently.

Jason and Zack unbuckled themselves and hopped out of the truck, Mr. Scott close behind. Kimberly was standing on the front lawn, straining against her mother's hand, which was firmly clamped to hers.

"Hi Jason!" Kimberly shouted, waving so hard she nearly whacked her father, who was standing on her other side. "Welcome to my home," she added in a more lady-like, rather rehearsed tone before switching back to perky mode. "This is my mom. And my dad. Trini isn't here yet. She has karate today, so she won't be here until four-thirty. Want to play Candy Land? Or Clue? I like Clue. Or we could watch TV. Or we could play on my swing set. Or we could play house. Do boys play house? Mom says boys don't play house. And Dad says boys don't play house until they're married and thirty. Hi you must be Zack!"

Kimberly extended her left hand for him to shake, as her mother was still holding the right. Zack tried to figure out how to shake her hand, but he wasn't too good at distinguishing his right from his left yet and couldn't figure out why his right hand couldn't clasp hers properly, so Kimberly's mother finally let her go, shaking hands with Mr. Scott instead and introducing herself and Mr. Hart over the kids' heads. Kimberly shook Zack's hand enthusiastically and then hugged Jason. Startled, he hugged her back.

"Do you have cooties?" Zack asked Kimberly as she pulled away from Jason.

"What? No. I don't think so."

"My cousin Lamar says girls have cooties."

"Well, I don't have cooties. I could get some, though. Mommy, I want cooties!"

"We'll see," Mrs. Hart said noncommittally, shrugging. Mr. Hart grinned, putting his fist against his mouth to hide it.

"I like your hair," Kimberly told Zack. "How do you get it so poofy like that?"

Zack patted his hair, which extended about four inches from his head. "It just sort of does it."

"It's very cool hair. Trini has cool hair, too. Your hair's cool, too," she added as an afterthought to Jason. "Mommy, can you make my hair look like Zack's?"

"Eh, maybe tomorrow," Mrs. Hart said, fighting off a smile.

"Do you have Play-Doh?" Zack asked.

"Oh, ye—"

Jason shook his head frantically.

"No. No I don't."

"Oh." Zack's face fell, but he quickly brightened. "Can you dance?"

"Of course I can dance," Kimberly said importantly. She put her arms over her head, ballerina-style, got up on her tiptoes, and turned a circle. "See?"

"That's not dancing," Zack said, confused. "This is dancing." Zack bopped his head and moved his legs and swung his arms around.

Kimberly stared at him. "That's not dancing. Here, try this!" Kimberly stood on one foot, stuck her leg straight out back, put her arms back over her head as gracefully as she could and went up on her tiptoes again.

Jason and Zack shrugged and tried it.

"AHH!" Zack yelped as he fell into Jason.

"OW!" Jason complained as the two sprawled on the front lawn.

"Oh! I'm sorry! Maybe we'd better try it your way," Kimberly said, helping them up. "My way's too dangerous. That's really advance ballet, you know. I saw it on TV."

Mr. Hart snorted into his hand, struggling not to laugh.

"I think I've had enough dancing for one day," Jason said sourly, rubbing his shoulder.

"Well, we could play on the tramp'line. Do you like tramp'lines?"

"We don't have a tramp'line," Jason said.

"What's a tramp'line?" Zack asked.

"Ooh, come on, I'll show you!" Kimberly grabbed their hands and pulled them towards the backyard.

"Told you she'd be fine," Mr. Hart told Kimberly's mother.

Mrs. Hart pursed her lips. "I'll go keep an eye on them."

Mr. Scott and Mr. Hart looked at each other. "Nice truck," Mr. Hart commented.

"Thanks. Nice, ah, station wagon. 82, is it?"

"That's the wife's," Mr. Hart said hastily. "I drive a Chevelle."

"Really?" Mr. Scott perked up.

"Bought it the day I turned sixteen; it's still in perfect condition. Come on, I'll show you; it's in the garage."

Mr. Scott looked nervously in the direction the girl had dragged his son, then shrugged. She didn't seem so bad, for a girl.

~*~

Trini skipped into the backyard, her dad now arm-wrestling Mr. Hart and Mr. Scott in the garage. She was curious to meet Jason; he sounded pretty cool, from what Kimberly had told her over the phone before Trini had gone to karate.

"Hi, Trini," said Mrs. Hart absently, avidly watching the three bouncing kids on the trampoline.

"Hello, Mrs. Hart," Trini said.

"TRINI!" Kimberly yelled, leaping off the trampoline. Zack and Jason scrambled down after her, both looking winded; neither boy had wanted to jump down before she did, but they'd been on that thing for over forty-five minutes.

"Hi, Kimmy!" Trini called.

"Trini! You're okay!"

"It was just a little milk," Trini said as Kimberly flung her arms around her.

"Is your dress okay?"

"Mom's still soaking it in the washing machine."

"This is Zack and Jason!"

"Hi." Trini waved.

"Funny, you look like a girl," Jason said, frowning.

"I am a girl, silly," Trini said.

"But you take karate," Jason pointed out. Kimberly had told them Trini's life story already, in addition to what she knew of Billy's.

"Girls can do anything boys can do," Trini said fiercely.

Jason was about to reply when Zack fell right over. They all clustered around him, concerned.

"Zack! Buddy! Speak to me, man!"

"Oh, no! I've killed another new friend! That's the third one I've hurt today!"

"Zack, how many fingers am I holding up?"

"No more trampoline," Zack groaned.

Trini helped him sit up. "You okay?"

"Could use some Kool-Aid," Zack said faintly.

"Kim, go ask your mom," Trini said. Kimberly ran off. "Ew, you're all sweaty." She took the edge of her T-shirt and wiped his forehead.

"Good thinking," Jason said solemnly. "I don't think he's cut out for trampling."

"Not everyone is," Trini admitted. "I'm really good at it, though," she couldn't resist adding.

"How good are you at karate?" Jason asked.

"Pretty good. I'm a yellow belt."

"Me, too. ...Who's the coolest Ninja Turtle?"

"Well, Donatello is the smartest, and he's funny, too. But the team is nothing without Leo."

"Leo's my favorite, too." Jason paused. "Who's the coolest character on Scooby Doo?"

"Velma."

"I like Freddy best."

"Well, Freddy's real important, but Velma's the one who solves all the mysteries in the end. But Freddy's good at planning and saying 'Let's split up, gang.'"

"Yeah, I guess they're both pretty important."

"Of course." She tilted her head to the side. "Do you like Scooby or Shaggy best?"

"Shaggy's funnier. And I can understand what he says."

"I can understand Scooby really well, but I like Shaggy better, too."

"What's the best food in the world?" Jason asked, a note of challenge in his voice now.

"Ice cream, of course."

"Do you play video games?"

"I'm the best!"

"Can you roller skate?"

"Sure. I can even do tricks."

"Bicycle?"

"Oh, yeah. No training wheels for me!"

Jason nodded. Now for the final test. "Favorite Kool-Aid flavor?"

Trini thought about it. She liked lemonade best, but lemonade was lemonade, not Kool-Aid. "Red," she said finally.

Jason stared at her, awed. "Kim was right. You really are cool."

"Thanks! You're cool, too."

"And you're pretty."

"Thanks. You're pretty, too."

Jason frowned. "I am?"

"Sure you are."

"Um, thanks. Kim was right about your hair. It's very cool."

Trini tossed her head proudly. "Thanks. I—"

"KOOL-AID!" Kimberly fairly screamed, thrusting a giant pink cup in Zack's face.

~*~

Present Day

"You forget just how things worked when you were a kid," Trini said. "How easy it was to make friends, what was truly important—"

"Freddy was way more awesome than Velma," Conner said.

"No way, dude. Velma was the best," Ethan said. "Plus she had that cool catchphrase. 'Jinkies!'"

"I forgot all about that 'fro Zack used to have," Kimberly said with a grin.

"What is it with you and hair?" Zack demanded, touching his braids gingerly. Trini nudged him, giving him a warning look. Tommy cleared his throat.

"My mom teased my hair way out for Halloween that year, remember?" Kimberly asked, ignoring Zack.

"Of course I do. You were the only fairy princess with bride-of-Frankenstein hair," Trini replied, laughing.

"So... when did you guys meet Billy?" Trent asked Jason and Zack.

"A few days later, at recess. Billy didn't come back to school for a couple days, and Zack and I had both gotten blamed for Zack's Play-Doh fetish, so we had to eat lunch in the classroom—something about not getting the privilege of eating with friends until we could learn how to eat actual food," Jason said. "I want to say it was that Friday."

"It was. I remember because it was my last karate day before I moved past yellow belt," Trini said. "And we all had a sleepover that weekend."

"Oh, yeah, in Trini's living room," Kimberly said. "With Mr. Cranston on the couch."

"He was a little leery of new people, considering how often Billy got beat up," Zack said.

"Although after he started hanging out with me and Kim regularly, no one really messed with him until middle school," Jason said. "Everyone knew us as the Psycho First Graders after that day on the playground, but once middle school came around only half the elementary school was still around to remember it. We had to stake out a whole new rep."

"Anyway," Trini said, "Billy told me he was scared as hell about the whole thing. Kim and I'd already been hanging out with Jason and Zack all week after school and at recess and during lunch, but he didn't meet them until that day on the playground..."

~*~

Flashback

Billy trudged behind Trini as she marched across the playground, Billy's wrist clamped firmly in her hand. He didn't see why he had to meet her new friends. After all, she'd only been friends with Jason and Zack for a few days. Kimberly was one thing—she was nice to anyone that wasn't mean to her first. But boys were a whole other story. Boys always tried to hit Billy, or at least say something rude. There was no kindness for an extremely smart boy who talked funny and dressed funny and now hung out with two girls all the time. And from what Billy understood, Trini had met Jason because he had been trying to fight off a bunch of big kids, so Jason must be pretty strong.

"Hi, guys!" Trini yelled all too soon, making Billy jump. He swallowed as Trini stopped beneath the monkey bars, where Kimberly was hanging by her knees. A strong boy with brown was swinging from bar to bar, heading towards the end away from Kimberly.

"Hi, Trini!" the boy called enthusiastically, releasing the bars and landing in a cloud of dust, still upright; he easily popped back up to his feet. Billy jumped, startled. Billy would never have the nerve to do something like that!

"Hi, Trini!" Kimberly said, waving at her cheerfully, her long brown hair now dangling just about the boy's head. She pulled herself up, grabbing hold of the bars and letting go with her knees, then dropping all the way to the ground as well. Billy stared at her in amazement. He had no idea Kimberly could do things like that! What would she think of Billy when she found out he'd never been anywhere near the monkey bars before? He couldn't even do hopscotch very well!

"GERONIMO!" screamed a voice close by, and Billy nearly yelped at the sudden noise. He looked around to see a boy come running down the nearby slide, as easily as if it was flat ground—a whole lot easier than Billy could run on flat ground, too—and, as the slide ended, he just kept going. He hit the ground running and jogged over to them, breathless as he skidded over to Trini, hopping from foot to foot as though he wasn't quite sure how to stop moving. Billy gaped at him. These rambunctious, tough, monkey-like boys were Trini's friends? They were going to hate Billy! He couldn't even slide down a banister properly!

"Who's your friend?" the boy from the slide asked Trini curiously. He poked Billy experimentally in the chest a few times, as though trying to see what Billy was really made of. Satisfied, and a little apologetic after Billy's odd (well, terrified) stare, he pulled back.

"This is Billy," Trini said. "Can he play with us, too?"

"Sure," said the monkey bar boy, without even bothering to ask the others, though neither Kimberly nor Zack seemed like they wanted to challenge the decision. "I'm Jason," he added. "That's Zack, and this is Kim."

"I've met Kim before," Billy said, struggling to remember what Trini had told him about using small words.

"We were gonna play Scooby Doo," Jason continued. "I get to be Freddy. Who do you want to be?"

"I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with that particular form of entertainment."

Jason stared at him. Zack stared at him. Kimberly scratched her head and looked expectantly at Trini.

Billy could have slapped himself. There went his shot at surviving this forced attempt to make new friends. Billy braced himself for their rude comments, praying that Trini wouldn't agree with Jason and Zack's coming assessment that Billy was a dork, that she wouldn't laugh at him and tell him she never wanted to play with him again and—

"Billy doesn't know how to play Scooby Doo," Trini explained.

"Oh!" Jason said. "Why didn't you just say so, Billy?"

"That is what he said," Trini said apologetically. "Billy has an extensive vocabulary, is all."

"Hey, I know that word!" Zack said. "'Extensive' is what my cousin Alisa gets done to her hair!"

"That's extensions," Trini corrected gently. "'Extensive' means 'big.' Billy uses big words."

"I apologize," Billy said sadly, sure he was about to be shunned and still waiting for the moment when they told him to go away. "I become agitated in social situations."

"What?" Zack demanded, frowning.

"Billy says he's sorry, and that he gets a little scared when he meets new friends," Trini clarified.

"Oh!" Jason, Zack and Kimberly chorused.

"Dude," Jason said, flinging a surprisingly heavy arm around Billy's shoulders, "you don't have to be scared. We'll teach you how to play Scooby Doo, won't we, guys?"

"Of course we will," Kimberly said, smiling sweetly at Billy. Billy could have fainted from relief.

"Tell you what," Jason said, "you can play Scooby. I'm always Freddy, and Kimberly's a good Daphne, and Trini's the bestest Velma ever, and Zack's just like Shaggy, but we still need a good Scooby."

"Scooby's the dog, right?" Billy asked hopefully. Trini had tried to explain the show to him, but it sounded so ludicrous that Billy hadn't quite grasped the entire concept.

"Yep. He's really cool, and he's really important, and he talks funny like you do," Jason said. "So you'll be a great Scooby."

Billy stared at them, wide-eyed. They thought the fact that he talked funny was cool? Wow, Billy thought, Trini was right!

"See," Jason continued, "the Scooby Doo Detective Agency wanders around solving scary mysteries involving ghosts and witches and monsters and zombies and stuff. And Freddy's the leader, Velma's the smart one, Shaggy's the funny one, Scooby's the... well, the dog... and Daphne... er, she's just sort of there. But she's pretty and she wears pink and she gets into trouble a lot and has to be rescued, so she's a lot like Kim. Anyway, all you have to do is follow Shaggy around, talk real weird, and run like crazy if you get scared, okay?"

"Those duties sound simple enough," Billy said, nodding.

Jason frowned slightly and looked at Trini. "Um... that did mean yes, right?"

She nodded. "Yup."

"Good," Jason said, relieved. "Okay, what should be our mystery?"

"Ooh, can I be kidnapped again?" Kimberly said eagerly. "That was so cool when you guys saved me from the top of the jungle gym!"

"Sure thing, Kim. Okay, gang, Kimberly has just been kidnapped by the Mean Ghost Vampire, and it's up to us to save her! Ki—I mean, Daphne, go lie down on the monkey bars and act like you've been tied to them, okay?"

"Why?" Kimberly asked.

"Cuz they look like train tracks, and villains always tie girls to train tracks," Jason explained solemnly. Kimberly grinned and skipped off to climb back onto the bars.

"Come on, Billy," Zack said, putting his arm over Billy's shoulders like Jason had done. "I'll teach you how to say, 'Scooby Dooby Doo!' the right way."

~*~

Present Day

"He can still say it," Trini said, shaking her head. "He does it over the Aqua-phone sometimes. It's a remarkably good imitation of Scooby." Trini smiled reminiscently. "I forgot how quickly I fell into the habit of translating him."

"Back then, Billy wasn't so out of control," Kimberly said. "We'd all almost catch up in the summer, only to lose him again when school started."

"There were whole days in high school when I didn't say a word to Billy," Zack said. "The days when Trini wasn't around. When you went on that one vacation I actually tried to keep up with a pocket dictionary. Didn't work too well. I couldn't spell half the words he said, so I couldn't find them in the stupid book."

"He's not that hard to figure out," Ethan said.

"Now he isn't. Back when I first met him, I don't think even Zordon got him all the time," Tommy said. "He toned it way down after Trini went to the conference, but if you caught him when he was really into something you just sort of stared and waited for him to remember you weren't that smart. He had to really cut back on the techno-speak once his translator was gone. Plus he can't go too far off the deep end on Aquitar; not everyone there speaks his language."

"Besides, Ethan, you're a Blue geek like him," Conner added. Ethan rolled his eyes.

Jason sighed. "You guys think he's okay? Talking to his dad, I mean?"

Trini nodded. "I'm sure he is. He just needs to sort it all out."

"Wonder what Zordon would say about it," Zack said.

"Ah, yes, the three rules speech," Tommy said quietly.

"Not the same thing. Mr. Cranston found out. Billy didn't have to tell him. He already knew," Trini pointed out. "I think it'll be really good for Billy, in the end. It really tears him up that he can't talk to his dad anymore like he used to. Now he can."

~*~

Billy had never felt so truly relieved in all his life. For the first time, he was able to talk about everything, not just the bits and pieces that he felt comfortable telling this friend or that friend. Every moment as a Ranger, every problem, every secret thought he'd never told his friends, every bit of depression he'd felt after giving up the power... he'd never realized just how much he needed to get it all off his chest, and while he'd told Trini the most, there were some things he just couldn't bring himself to tell her.

Then, too, there was Aquitar. Much as he loved his friends, he couldn't help but hold back when talking to them about his new home. They were upset about him leaving, he knew, but they were trying to be happy for him; he couldn't bear to tell them about the problems he had with Aquitar. He didn't want them to think that he'd left them for something less than perfect, nor did he want them to feel bad for him. Still, he'd had so much bottled up inside that he hadn't even noticed it until he'd popped the cork. Nor had he felt comfortable telling his Aquitian friends about what was bothering him; they'd tried so hard to accommodate his needs, and Billy was anything but ungrateful for that.

His father listened avidly, rarely asking questions, wanting to hear every minute detail. Billy told him everything. He just kept talking, hour after hour, getting it all out. He felt closer to his father than he had felt in years, and suddenly he realized that he was being an idiot. He needed to make more of an effort to come back to visit, money or not. He needed to find a way. Earth was his world, not Aquitar, and he needed to stop hiding on it. He needed to stop working so much, needed to find a way to get money to stay on Earth, needed to make some serious improvements to the Aquitian teleportation device. Once this vacation was over, it was time to work on repairing his relationship with his father, and with his friends. He'd lost too much time already, and he wasn't losing any more.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 28: Trust in Me

Their discussion of Billy had led them into a slightly depressing place, and they were quick to pull themselves out of it. None of them wanted to think about having to lie to their parents, and none of the older Rangers wanted to think about the problems Billy must be having as resident of another planet, especially when there wasn't much they could do. So they stopped talking and started chatting.

Kira, Zack, Kimberly and Jason got into a discussion on music, congregating around Jason's large stereo in the living room, Kira and Kimberly discussing the guitar (which Kimberly also played, just not with the fervor that Kira did) and Zack and Jason arguing over who was the coolest rap artist of all time. Meanwhile, Trini and Trent got into a discussion on art; Trini liked to paint a bit, and they started debating the finer points of certain art supplies, when Trini wasn't shouting out some battle cry or other at Ethan, whom she was currently challenging to one of the many games in the Mortal Kombat series, while Conner watched, checking out the cool fight moves and the female characters' skimpy outfits.

Tommy knew he should join into one of the two groups, but he wasn't in the mood to get slaughtered by Trini or Ethan at video games, he wasn't a very good artist and while he loved singing and music, he wasn't nearly as into rap and hip-hop as Jason and Zack and he knew nothing about musical notes and chords and so on like Kira and Kimberly. So he sat back on the couch and allowed himself to get lost in his thoughts.

He and Kimberly were doing fairly well. Today, for the first time, he'd been truly comfortable around her, or at least the closest he'd been to it all week. It was... a relief. Ever since that last time he'd seen her, just after she and Jason had been kidnapped, he'd tried so hard to avoid her, to avoid any thought of her. When Jason had asked him to be best man at the wedding, for example—the first time the two of them had to both be somewhere that they couldn't justify getting out of—Tommy had been terrified of running into her, and utterly relieved when she'd been trapped in France. All the measures they'd taken to skirt around it—Tommy staying in a hotel because he knew Kimberly would be dropping by to help Trini with wedding plans, Jason always meeting him somewhere other than Jason's house... and Tommy still wondered if Jason had been giving out dire warnings about mentioning Kimberly when Tommy had seen him whispering to Rocky, Adam and Zack just before the bachelor party. The worse part was he knew he shouldn't have been relieved when Kimberly wasn't there; he should have been as disappointed as everyone else. No one had even felt comfortable complaining about it in front of him, which led to Tommy walking up to chatting groups all during the reception only to have them stop talking the moment they saw him approaching.

The trouble was, he was oddly calm most of the time. He'd thought he'd have been panicky, or a lot more nervous. Or angry, demanding answers and screaming at her. But all they were doing was acting like they used to. They were all doing that. It was so easy, to just pretend it never happened, that Kimberly was just another friend, another Trini or Jason. He supposed that was all he'd ever been doing, really—pretending that Kimberly had never happened.

It hadn't always worked. He'd gotten better at it, but part of the reason his memory was so poor was that his mind kept thinking about a billion things at once. With all the work he'd been doing with Anton Mercer and Hayley, he'd spent the past several years thinking about his Ranger days more than he knew was healthy for him, and Kimberly was a large part of that.

Tommy had never mentioned much about Kimberly to his friends; he couldn't recall ever talking about it with anyone, not even Jason. After Kimberly had left Angel Grove, everyone had kept trying to come up with something to say, and that had made him clam up and get really good at changing the subject. The only person he'd confided in about it was Hayley, because she was safe; she didn't know Kimberly, didn't have any connection to her. Even then, he tried to limit his conversations about it; most of his thoughts on her had stayed in the deepest corner of his mind. The only time he'd really spent a good long time thinking about it was when he'd watched her gymnastics competitions on TV, always in private, usually glaring at any guys sitting relatively close to her.

They hadn't had much of a chance to really talk today, but they'd joked in the car, and he hadn't avoided looking at her at Billy's house, which he'd been in the habit of doing lately. He hadn't even really been embarrassed when Trent had asked how they'd all met, inadvertently bringing up a lot of memories of Tommy's relationship with Kimberly, and her teasing him about becoming the Green Ranger had actually made him smile, inducing a lot of fond memories of the team joking with each other. That bit about her purse, though... that was a step in the wrong direction. Although come to think of it, he was getting less and less sure of what the right direction actually was.

He wondered if the gang had somehow planned that. It seemed like something they would do. He was fairly certain they'd set him up to spar with Kimberly yesterday, and some of Jason's comments during their match had been suspicious. There were so many little moments that kept happening, making him pause and wonder, but they weren't big enough for him to actually accuse anyone of anything. Zack passing Kimberly Tommy's phone at the restaurant, Trini's chat with Hayley, Zack bringing up Kimberly their first night in the hotel, Kimberly going straight to Trini after that comment she'd made on the beach... they'd been talking about something right after that, Kimberly and Trini were arguing, and they wouldn't tell Tommy and Jason and Zack what they were...

Oh, god, Tommy realized with a thrill of horror. Kira had been in on that conversation. They'd all three been in on... whatever they'd been doing. Trini was bad enough, but he hated to think of her recruiting another Yellow. Yellows were the tricky ones. Pinks were the... well, the datable ones. The girly ones. Yellows were the scary, compassionate, sneaky ones. He'd known all along that if Trini was planning something, she'd have Billy and Zack and maybe Jason on her side; they were far too good at teamwork.

Tommy knew there was nothing he could do to keep his friends out of his hair. But he drew the line at letting Trini recruit the Dino Rangers. The look on Ethan's face when Billy had mentioned Kat... Kira staying with Kimberly and Trini... Ethan buddying up to Billy, Conner following Jason around... oh, god, was he insane? How had let this happen?

Tommy sighed. Much as he didn't want to get into any deep conversations with Trini, he had to tell her to back off. He couldn't have her working her magic—dark, evil magic—on him and Kimberly; it was too much of a risk that something would mess up. Tommy just wanted to enjoy this week, and then once he went back to Reefside and she went back to L.A. he'd take it from there. After last night's little moment of weirdness—which he was sure Trini was dying to dissect—he had to stop Trini in her tracks before she ran over his head.

"Hey, Jason? Mind if I raid your fridge?" Tommy asked, praying Jason wouldn't come with him.

"Sure. Just don't eat anything marked 'Not for Jason,'" Jason replied, scanning his lengthy CD collection.

Tommy got up and went into the kitchen. After giving himself a few moments to collect his thoughts and to alleviate suspicion, he took a deep breath and called, "Trini, can you help me find something?"

"I'm in the middle of the game!" Trini shouted back, intent on whipping Ethan's butt, which wasn't half as easy as she'd originally thought it would be. Trini was fanatical about her video games, however, mostly because it was a primarily "male" hobby and she loved destroying sexist notions in cocky guys at the arcade. Ethan, however, loved destroying everyone at the arcade and was proving to be quite the challenge. "Everything's labeled!"

"That doesn't help if I don't know where the thing with the label I want is," Tommy replied, watching her carefully from the kitchen doorway.

Trini sighed even as her character sent Ethan's crashing through the ceiling with an uppercut. "Jason, could you—?"

"He wants you," Jason responded, not looking up from the CDs.

Trini hit the pause button, frowning. Something about Jason's response told her this was more than an inability to find the potato chips. She absently passed the controller to Trent, who wasn't a huge video game lover but took it anyway; between having a rich father and working in a cyber café, he'd picked up a few tricks. Trini stalked into the kitchen without another word.

"What's up?" she asked, regarding Tommy with caution.

He leaned casually against the counter. "I can't find the—"

"Cut the crap," she interrupted bluntly.

"Good. I suck at subtleties." Tommy exhaled and ran his hand over his spiky hair. "I need you to stop, Trini."

"Stop what?"

"What happened to cutting the crap?"

"I'm not seeing any crap, Tommy. Stop what?"

"Stop trying to play matchmaker with me and Kim."

"I'm not."

"Yes, you are. I know you, Trini. You know how people tick. It's what you do. You've got a plan, and if you don't you'll make one up as you go along. You and Billy and Zack, and maybe Jason. And who knows what you're doing to my Dino Rangers. I'm not stupid, Trini. And I want you to cut it out. I'm not looking to get back with Kim, and you know it. We grew up. We got over each other."

"Oh, really? Then why do you have a giant box labeled 'Kim' in your basement and no giant box labeled 'Kat'?"

"That's not the issue," Tommy said sharply, frowning.

"Then what is?" Trini tilted her head to the side, looking up at him through narrowed eyes. She hadn't known he didn't have a Kat box, but she was glad to hear he didn't. "So, what? After this vacation, you're just not going to see her until the next Power Rangers Day?"

"I don't know, Trini. I haven't figured that out yet. We said we'd be friends, and we're trying, and right now that's enough."

"And six months from now?"

"Six months from now, I'll be pretending I'm a blissfully normal science teacher with my reading glasses and my lab coat and my house in the middle of nowhere. Might not even fix the lab, might just seal it off," Tommy snapped, fighting to keep his voice low and under control as the irritation bubbled up from deep inside him. "To be honest, I don't care what happens with Kim six months from now. I really don't want to think about it. I've been doing just fine without her and yeah, I miss her, but I don't need her, and I need you to understand that."

Trini shrugged. "No."

He stared at her. "No? No what?"

"No, I'm not going to understand that. I'm not going to accept that. I'm not going to leave you to your own devices, Tommy, because every time I do, something explodes. Often literally."

"Excuse me?" Tommy hissed, now bordering on enraged.

"This isn't about you, Tommy. I know you don't get that, but it's not just about you."

"Kim doesn't want to get back together with me. She wants to be friends."

"It's not just about her, either."

"Yeah? Then who's it about? Because the last time I checked, when Kim and I were dating it was just the two of us involved."

Trini snorted. "It's about us, nimrod."

"What?"

"Us!" Trini waved her hand vaguely at the rest of the house. "Me and Jason and Billy and Zack. And Rocky, and Adam, and Aisha, and Tanya, and Kat. Everyone who's been affected by your stupidity. Everyone who's still being affected."

Trini got right up in his face, which was currently a relatively dangerous move. "You know what? I'm through leaving things up to you two. I should have done this a long time ago, Tommy. I should have fixed this mess the moment it happened. But I didn't. So I'm gonna do it now. And I'm gonna succeed."

"Yeah, you and Billy and Zack are really going to force me to do something I don't want to do," Tommy snapped sarcastically, glaring not just daggers but rather large samurai swords at her.

"But you do want it, Tommy, and we all know it. I'm tired of playing games, Tommy boy, so this is gonna be my last when it comes to you. You're going down, not because you want to, not because she wants to, but because I want what's best for you."

"You don't get to choose what's best for me!"

"I do when you can't figure it out for yourself," Trini retorted. "You're my friend, whether you like it or not, and so help me I'm going to throw everything I've got at you until I've fixed your dumb ass. I love you too much to let you keep being a retard about Kim, and I love her too much to let her wander on through life without you. I'm not going to sit back and give you what you want, Tommy—I'm going to step up and give you what you deserve. What you both deserve. What we deserve."

"Don't mess with me, Trini," Tommy growled. "I'm not one of your little dolls you can toy with. Neither is Kim. What happens is up to me."

Trini smiled darkly at him, lifting both hands and patting his chest mock-consolingly. "That's right, Tommy. Keep telling yourself that."

Trini stepped away from him, pulling a Coke from the fridge. Tommy grabbed her arm tightly, angrily—an action reminding Trini strongly of Jason whenever Bulk had been bothering her. He glowered fiercely at her.

"Don't think you can play with me, Trini. I'll knock you right out if I have to."

Trini knew the phrase was metaphorical, but she felt the need for a show of strength. He was challenging her, and she wasn't backing down—or perhaps that was reversed. He was asking her not to make him step up.

Trini yanked her arm free in one good twist and faced him coldly. "You screwed up, Tommy. I'm not leaving your fate, and Kimberly's, in your hands again."

Tommy moved away from the counter, getting in her face this time, barely a millimeter separating them as they glared fiercely at each other. Trini was playing God with him, and they both knew it. And she wasn't going to stop unless someone made her.

"Ahem."

Neither Tommy nor Trini needed to look to know that Jason was in the doorway, or that he was alone. Only Jason would have announced himself as such—and only Jason would be standing there quietly. They both instinctively knew he had been watching a long time, but he hadn't commented on a thing, not on how close they were standing, how furious they both seemed, or what they were talking about. They also knew he wasn't going to.

Trini tossed him the Coke with a flick of her wrist; Tommy caught it without looking, seemingly unperturbed by the speed and abruptness with which she threw it. The two old friends continued to stare each other down blackly.

"May the best Ranger win," Tommy said slowly after a long, ugly silence. The air around them was practically crackling from the tension of challenge.

"I will," Trini said simply.

"Right. Billy and Zack are going to be a great help, I'm sure."

She smiled. "They're a hell of a lot more than you've got, Tommy. All you've got is you. And I've got weapons you can't even imagine."

With that, she turned and sauntered out of the room, not even sparing her husband a glance. Jason continued to lean against the doorway for a moment, his fist against his mouth and a serious, thoughtful expression on his face.

Neither spoke for a good long while.

At last, Jason took his hand down and looked solemnly at Tommy. "You know she's going to kick your ass, right?"

Tommy wasn't sure what to say to that, so he just leaned against the counter once more and said what he actually felt.

"One can hope, Jase. One can hope."

~*~

Trini frowned darkly as she flung herself into a chair, stealing the controller back from Trent without warning and proceeding to come back from almost zero health to wipe the floor with Ethan. He didn't get it. She knew Tommy wasn't exactly very bright, at least in matters of the heart, but she didn't think he could actually be stupid enough to never notice what he'd inadvertently done to the rest of them.

God, it had shaken them. The world's most permanent couple suddenly dust in the proverbial wind. Tommy and Kimberly, so nauseatingly in love. She had been so startled, hadn't even believed it when Kimberly had called to tell her. She'd had to drive for days to try to console both Tommy and Kimberly before it had really sunk in... and when it had, she'd immediately started planning.

Why she hadn't tried to patch things up between them now seemed beyond her. At the time, she'd wanted to give them space, figuring they'd work it out on their own, but they'd just continued to ignore their former relationship. Finally, at Trini's urging, Kimberly had planned to talk to Tommy upon returning to Angel Grove after the Pan Global Games. Get everything out in the open and just talk it through and work it out. Jason, Tommy and Billy had all failed to tell Trini that Tommy was with Kat by that point, probably because of Trini's continuing close ties with Kimberly—and it didn't help that Billy had been in the middle of his own mess, Jason was too close to both Tommy and Kimberly, and Tommy was awkward around her, not wanting to send her into her thought-provoking mode (he was trying to simply put his hands over his ears and yell "La, la, la!" about the whole thing). Plus Trini was busy at MIT. So Kimberly had wandered back to Angel Grove on vacation, fully intending to work things out... only to try to kill him thanks to Divatox's evil spell and then discover he was dating Kat.

Kimberly clammed up the moment she was rescued. Finding out about Kat had been bad enough. Kimberly had confided on many occasions that she was self-conscious about Kat—Kat was gorgeous, after all, and obviously liked Tommy. The separation from not only Tommy but her friends had got Kimberly thinking all sorts of crazy things, like that Tommy had told her to follow her dream because he didn't want Kimberly around any more. Trini had reassured her over and over—Tommy would never cheat on you, Kat doesn't seem the sort either, Tommy was just being supportive when he said you should move to Florida—but she wasn't too certain it was working. Then the letter...

She'd meant what she'd said about Tommy. This wasn't all about him, or Kimberly. It was about them all. The breakup had touched them all.

At times, Trini had blamed herself, despite the fact that she knew, logically, that she shouldn't. It wasn't easy to convince herself, however. After all, the group consisted of Jason, Trini, Billy, Kimberly, Zack and Tommy... and when Jason, Trini and Zack had left, the other three had fallen apart. Billy had gotten depressed and left the planet. Kimberly and Tommy didn't speak, didn't even talk about each other. Without the leader, the therapist and the joker, they were just the brains, the chick and the new guy. Trini had often wondered if she was at least partially at fault, if Kimberly and Tommy would still be together and if Billy would still be inventing in his garage if Trini hadn't left when she did, if they'd still be happy if she hadn't wandered off to Switzerland, depriving them of a friendly ear, a shoulder to cry on, a moral compass and someone to influence them when they got off track. She had never voiced these insecurities, however—mostly because she knew Jason, and maybe Zack as well, were feeling them too, and probably more so.

Over time, she'd noticed that the guys' outlook on certain things had been altered by Tommy and Kimberly, and not for the better. Jason had become horribly worried about his own chances in relationships, particularly since he and Trini were separated at the time (which had been Trini's idea, not his). Zack had become less obsessed with dating, and more determined to stay single. And Billy... well... When it came to girls, Jason was a bit dim, Zack was very dim, and Tommy was an idiot, but Billy was worst of all. Trini had never known what to do with him. Billy didn't think people would accept him in general, and despite the fact that several girls admitted crushing on him he never believed it. He just kept telling himself that no one would ever really like him, no matter what people said, often without even realizing he was doing it. Trini had tried, time and again—as had Kimberly—to get Billy to realize just how attractive he was and how desirable girls found his personality, but they'd repeatedly failed.

From what she'd understood, Billy had had feelings for Kat, and she'd ended up with Tommy, thoroughly upsetting him. It didn't help that he regretted his decision to give up his powers, and that he was devastated by the fact that he couldn't become the Gold Ranger. He'd graduated early, without warning, so he hadn't been prepared for college and hadn't wanted to leave the Rangers completely behind either. Then there was the fact that he was left with only Tommy in Angel Grove. Trini, Zack and Kimberly—his first real friends—were gone, and Jason was back only on a temporary basis. Kat had been a blow. But what had really shaken Billy was Kimberly's breakup with Tommy—if a guy like Tommy couldn't keep a good catch like Kimberly, what hope was there for the geek? Was it any surprise that he'd thrown everything in Angel Grove—indeed, on Earth—right out the window and started fresh on a whole new planet? Trini also had a horrible feeling that, while he did love Cestria, he was with her because he was comfortable with her, unwilling to leave the security she'd given him behind.

Zack, she had also worried about. Zack had taken it to heart as well, but he hadn't let it show, ignoring it as best he could and therefore driving the fears and uncertainties it caused deep down, where they became subconscious issues rather than faceable problems. Zack had started to shy away from serious dating at every turn. Before the breakup, Zack had been obsessed with finding a girl. After, Zack had simply wanted to keep his life as casual as possible. For a while, Trini had assumed it was just because Zack was getting old enough to realize that "dating" and "sex" weren't synonymous and was therefore going after the better of the more enjoyable of the two, but eventually she'd realized that his problems with Angela, his difficulty finding a girl at the Peace Conference (a place full of foreigners who came and went, wandering back to their hometowns thousands of miles away, making any sort of relationship difficult) while Jason and Trini were happy together, and his horror that Mr. and Mrs. Perfect had become exes had combined to make him fear getting hurt badly enough that he didn't want a relationship at all. He was still a bachelor, and probably would be for quite some time at this rate. Yet despite his constant field-playing, he wasn't meant for it. Zack was the sort of person who bonded with people for life, particularly in his friendships. He was never much for fair-weather friends, and Trini was quite certain that he wasn't too happy with dating around. It showed on his face every time he talked about failing to pick up a girl, or failing to keep one around. The fact that Zack was a player wouldn't have bothered Trini at all, if it weren't for the fact that she didn't think he wanted to be.

Then there was Jason. Tommy's best friend. Kimberly's big brother. Happy for them both. They'd both been doing so well—they were in love, Kimberly was following her dream, and Tommy was holding down the fort as leader of the Power Rangers. When Trini had suggested breaking up after the Peace Conference, Jason had been downright appalled at the thought. It had been Trini who'd insisted upon it, while Jason kept saying, "If Tommy and Kim can do it, we can do it, too." Trini had just smiled sadly, her conversations with Kimberly telling her how rocky the two were becoming, and replied that they weren't Tommy and Kimberly. Trini and Jason separating had made sense at the time—after all, she was planning to spend a good long time in Massachusetts, and Jason just wanted to get back to California and open a dojo. Jason had reluctantly agreed with her, only to become utterly terrified when Tommy and Kimberly had simply ended.

Trini let her fingers and eyes take over the video game, her mind slipping back to the day she'd come back to comfort Tommy...

~*~

Flashback

Trini was vaguely aware of voices, but she couldn't be bothered waking up fully to see what they meant.

"Isn't that... Trini?" said a woman who sounded suspiciously like Tommy's mother.

"Yep," said Tommy.

"Isn't she supposed to be in Massachusetts?"

"Yep."

"How'd she get here?" asked Tommy's father.

"Drove."

"From Massachusetts?"

"Yup. People do it all the time. Honest."

"...Is she going to be waking up any time soon? We might want to actually use the couch eventually..."

"I don't think she is, no. I get the feeling she hasn't slept in a few days."

"Well, maybe you should move her somewhere more comfortable, then."

"Where should I put her? My room?"

"No!"

"Then I guess she's staying here. Sorry about the couch."

"That's... all right... well, make sure she eats something when she wakes up."

"Will do, Mom."

Trini sank fully back into unconsciousness. When she woke up again, she was feeling much more rested—and staring up at Jason.

This was a sight she'd seen often; Jason and occasionally Zack had often crashed in her room at the conference, to the point that Trini had never kept a roommate longer than three months and twelve days, and Jason and Zack had always delighted in waking her up in the morning, usually in odd or loud ways. So she was used to seeing Jason above her first thing in the morning—so used to it that she completely forgot it was now several months after the conference.

"Hey," she said, leaning up to give him a quick kiss. She snuggled back deeper into the cushions... and then suddenly realized she now slept on the top bunk of a dorm bed in Massachusetts and Jason did not.

She sat up, gazing around with bleary eyes. "Where the hell am I?"

"Tommy's house," Jason said, throwing his arms around her. "God, I missed you."

"Same here." She sighed. "How'd I get to Tommy's house?" Trini asked, hugging him back warmly.

"We're not sure. Tommy just said you came out of nowhere. He seems awfully cheerful about it," Jason added, a tad suspiciously.

Trini shrugged. "Tommy needed a hug."

"A hug, eh?"

"Yes. I figured he'd be upset."

Jason pulled back, just enough to look her in the eye, not wanting to let go. Much as he hated to admit it, Trini had been one of the first things to pop into his head the moment Billy had called to tell him the news about Tommy and Kimberly. Not that Trini was ever far from his thoughts; their separation was bugging the crap out of him, and the last bit of hope he had for reconciliation was currently being crushed beneath the internal screaming voice that kept chanting "Oh my god they broke up I'm doomed." It was unbelievably good to hold her again.

"So you drove all the way here just to hug him? I'm jealous."

"Well, don't be. I think I took a nap somewhere during the hug, anyway," she joked. She tossed her head, her arms still around Jason's neck. "I probably look like hell."

"You never do."

"You're too kind."

"I mean it."

"Jason, I just drove over four thousand miles in less than a week. Closer to five thousand, considering I got lost a couple times. There's no way I don't look like hell."

"Sorry, but I'm sticking to my previous statement," Jason replied with a smile.

"You're so sweet." Trini sighed again and motioned for him to sit next to her. He put his arm around her and she leaned against him. "Where are the guys?"

"Tommy, Zack and Billy are out back. Told them I'd go get them when you woke up."

"Then why don't you?"

"Eh. It can wait."

"Mm." They lapsed into comfortable silence.

"Who told you?" Jason asked finally.

Trini didn't bother to ask what he meant. "Kim."

"Oh, yeah?" Jason said, his expression darkening.

"She called me a few days ago, sobbing hysterically."

Jason turned to look at her, shocked. "She was crying?"

"Profusely. I got her calmed down, though. I think she'll be okay."

Jason stared at her for a moment. "What all did she say?"

Trini shook her head. "Let's not talk about it. It's not our place."

Jason looked at her sharply. "You saw this coming, didn't you. You knew it was going to happen. That's why you wanted to break up with me."

"No, it isn't." Trini stared at him, as if completely unable to believe that he'd think that. "I wanted to break up because it was best for us. I'll be spending years in Massachusetts, and I can't afford to come back every spring break and Christmas and summer. That rental car is going to set me back enough as it is. California is way too far away, Jase—trust me, I just drove here and I want to pull a Thelma and Louise just thinking about the ride back. We just need a break. For crying out loud, Jason, we've both never actually dated anyone else. We've been practically living together for the past two years. We needed space, needed to branch out and see what life was like without each other. That's the only way we'll ever know if we really want our lives to be with each other. We're eighteen, Jason; we're too young to fall into a rut or settle down. When I'm out of school, and you've got your dojo on its feet, and we're both within driving distance, then things'll be different. Meanwhile, things need to be given a chance to change."

"I don't want them to change."

"Have you even been listening to me?" Trini demanded. Jason shrugged, sulking. "You don't know that until you've given things a chance to be different," Trini told him, a tad more gently. "I broke up with you because we needed to take a few steps back and see what the rest of the world has to offer us. We're not Tommy and Kim, Jase, and we never will be."

"So... what? Four years from now we'll just run back into each other's arms?" Jason demanded, almost angrily.

"I don't know, Jason. That's sort of the point." She bit her lip and looked away. "But I hope so."

Jason felt a strong sense of relief, to hear her say that. He smiled slightly and leaned his head back against the wall. She hadn't said that before, just "We'll see" and "I don't know" and "There's no point in guessing where we'll be in five years." However, the uplifting moment didn't last.

"But you did see this coming, didn't you."

"Well... not exactly, no. I saw that they were having problems. Weren't talking as much. Kimberly mentioned Kat quite a bit. Tommy kept trying to feel me out about the guys Kimberly talked about, as if trying to see if there was anything more to them than she'd said. They weren't staying in touch as much, Tommy was always fighting and Kimberly was always training... but the sad thing was, there wasn't an end in sight. Kimberly was going off to be a gymnast, and Tommy... well, he's going to stay a Ranger to the bitter end. What were they going to do? Kimberly traveling the world and training in Miami... did Tommy plan to follow her and just teleport back when something went wrong? Did Kimberly plan to marry him and pop back to California for three minutes at a time to see him? It didn't look good, I'll admit it. But they were doing surprisingly well, considering. I thought they had a good chance." She nestled a little closer to him. "Us... we were different. I knew I'd be back in California as quick as I could, and we kept in touch without trying to stay tied down to each other. I didn't want us to crack from the distance, Jason."

"Just because they did doesn't mean we would've."

"Jason... when people crack, it's much harder to glue them back together. It's better that things are taken apart intentionally—because it implies they can be restored, made whole again. Something that's been shattered and then glued back together is never the same as it was before it broke."

Jason thought about this for a moment. "Are you saying there's no hope for them?" he asked quietly.

"Of course there's hope. There's always hope. Hope doesn't go away until you give up on hope. And we don't give up around here, Jason. It's just not what we do."

"Got a plan yet?"

"Not yet. But I'm working on it."

Jason started to say something else, but just then two yells of "Trini!" sounded and the couch let out an ominous noise as Billy and Zack flung themselves at her.

~*~

Present Day

She was still working on it. She didn't have all the kinks worked out, she had to admit. But this Power Rangers Day thing had been a blessing, and the Dino Rangers' presence was an unbelievable bonus. She only hoped things went according to plan.

She only hoped Tommy realized that this was all in his best interests. She knew he was pissed. Tommy was a leader, and while he didn't mind stepping down to let someone else take over once in a while, he didn't like being usurped. This had been hard on them all, however, and now that she finally had the gang back together, Billy and Kimberly and Tommy all in the same place and talking and hanging out, she had to make her move. They were a team, and they'd lost a good chunk of that when Tommy and Kimberly had broken up. She didn't ever want to worry about the two of them coming over at the same time again. She didn't want to watch what she said around them.

Besides, it wasn't like they wouldn't make a good couple.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 29: Golden Boy

Tommy stared down at the Coke in his hand. That was Trini—a plan for everything. She didn't trust Tommy to actually leave the kitchen with something edible, and if he didn't, the others might figure out he hadn't really needed her help to find something and they'd wonder what had actually gone on. However, throwing the Coke at him had probably ruined it, as now it was going to be shaken all to hell. Tommy tapped his finger against the opening, knocking the fizz back down to the bottom of the can. Ironic, really. She'd had a little moment of foresight to give him something from the fridge, and yet if he hadn't been paying attention, it would have literally blown up in his face. Gee. What a comforting thought.

Tommy frowned, staring idly at the kitchen wall. Jason had left the room; he could vaguely hear Jason and Zack arguing about Eazy-E in the living room. He could also hear Ethan's protests and shouts of "Ha! I got you!" (Trini was now faring much worse at Mortal Kombat) and Kira and Kimberly's chatter about music that was beginning to sound as much like a foreign language as Billy's techno-speak. Tommy wasn't really paying attention to it, though; he was too lost in thought. Things were finally starting to make sense.

She was plotting against him, he knew. However, he didn't think she had all the details yet. (If she had, he'd probably already be married.) Kimberly was probably still mostly oblivious... and the Dino Rangers were probably being moved about like pawns on a chessboard without even knowing they were a part of the game. He wasn't really surprised. It was what Trini did. Like the time when he and Jason had been trying to get along for the upcoming Team Ninja Finals, and Zack had been spouting off about teamwork like nothing else, while Trini kept going on and on about "gung ho." Tommy and Jason had finally gotten Zack to admit that Zack and Billy had only offered to manage Tommy and Jason because Trini had told them to do it, had basically ordered them to do it. When Tommy had mentioned this revelation to Kimberly, she'd just said, "Oh, yeah, I thought that might be why Zack was suddenly acting all, like, drill sergeant about the teamwork thing. Trini mentioned that Zack was going to work with you guys all day the next day, right before that big fight with the Super Putties on the playground." When Trini was looking to accomplish a goal and sensed no one would listen to a direct approach, she went covert.

Something was off, though. He couldn't think of what, but somewhere during their spat Trini had set off the warning bells in his head.

She snapped at me.

Tommy stood up straight without realizing he was moving, eyes wide in horror. That was it. Trini didn't snap. Not unless people deserved it. She'd been too... too rude. She was often fiery, to be sure, and definitely a person you wanted on your side because it was a hell of a lot better than the alternative, but there had been something different in her when she'd been arguing with him.

"She knows something," he hissed, crushing the half-empty Coke can in his hand without noticing he was doing it. She knew something important, something major, something he'd missed.

Tommy tossed the can into the sink, marched into the family room, grabbed Trini by the arm with his free hand, and hauled her right up off the couch and out through the back door before anyone could react.

"Hey!" Ethan yelled. "I was finally about to win!"

"Dude, who cares? Come on, it's eavesdrop time!" Conner exclaimed, jumping up.

"No one go near that door," Jason commanded loudly.

"What? Why?" Kimberly asked suspiciously.

"Because it's their business, not ours," Jason said firmly. "Let them talk it out."

~*~

"Do the words 'Can I see you in the backyard, Trini, please?' mean anything to you?" Trini demanded as she jerked free of Tommy's grip.

"You said if I ever wanted to talk, you'd listen," Tommy retorted. "I want to talk. Now."

"So talk," Trini said, rubbing her wrist irritably.

"What do you know?"

"Lots of things, Tommy. For example, the quadratic formula is x equals negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4 ac all over 2 a."

"Ha, ha. What do you know about Kimberly that I don't?"

"Well, she had a traumatic experience with Southern Comfort two years ago and now can't even be in the same room with it without gagging."

"Stop it, Trini! I'm serious. What do you know?"

"I don't know what you mean, Tommy."

"I don't, either, okay? What's your problem, Trini? Why are you so angry at me? Is it because I didn't go after her? Is that it? Or is it just a girl thing?"

"A girl thing? Excuse me? What are you rambling about?"

Tommy felt like pulling his hair out in frustration, but the trouble was he could no longer get a good grip. "The breakup. There's something you're not telling me."

Trini frowned. "I think you know all the same things I do."

"I..." Tommy stopped. Where was it? Where was the glitch in the program? It had something to do with Trini and Kimberly, he knew that, but...

"Who told you?" he asked suddenly.

"What? Who told me what?"

"Who told you I broke up with Kimberly?"

"...Kim did. I should think that would be obvious."

Tommy shook his head. When she'd showed up on his doorstep, he'd been too startled to think about it, especially since her odd little hug had managed to knock some sense into him. Rocky, Adam, Tanya, Billy and Kat had already known about the breakup, and Billy had called Jason and Zack... but the guys hadn't mentioned Trini. Trini was synonymous with Kimberly. Until she'd arrived, Tommy wasn't even sure he could still count on Trini's friendship—he knew that it had been an irrational fear, given his history with Trini, but back then he'd wondered if being Kimberly's best friend meant she would no longer be Tommy's. He had been too stunned and too busy figuring his life out to think about the fact that no one had mentioned contacting Trini. She'd just appeared.

"What did she say?" Tommy asked slowly. Had she blamed Tommy somehow? Had she told Trini why she'd done it? Had she told Trini all about the new guy in Florida? What? If only he'd realized it sooner... Trini knew what Kimberly had been thinking back then. With that sort of information, he could have changed a lot. If he had known how good his chances were of making her take him back, he might have tried to reconcile before things went past the point of no return.

"I'm not too sure. It was hard to make anything out through the sobbing."

"The... what?"

"She was crying her heart out, Tommy," Trini said softly. "I figured you would have guessed. What else would she be doing just then, huh? She was hysterical. She cried, then she slept, then she cried some more."

Tommy stared at her, completely shocked by this revelation. He'd never thought Kimberly would have cried about it. He'd just figured she'd gotten bored with the long-distance thing and stopped caring and written her letter and gone off into the sunset with her new beau. That was why he currently had a hard time believing she still cared. It was downright cruel of her to do that, so completely wrong of her that he hadn't imagined her being sorry, being upset, caring at all about how much it had hurt him. She'd never tried to contact him after that, and it had just confirmed all of his suspicions about her.

"She was upset?" he asked carefully.

"No, Tommy, upset it what you are when they discontinue your favorite ice cream. Kimberly was devastated." Trini fixed him with a steely gaze. "I figured if she was that hurt, you'd probably be needing me, too. That's why I came out here. It tore you both up, Tommy, and don't pretend it didn't."

Trini lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. "I guess it doesn't matter now, Tommy. After all, you're still going down. I'm gonna fix you two if it's the last thing I do."

Tommy didn't reply, lost in thought as she calmly went back into the house. Kimberly did still care. He hadn't actually believed it, despite what he'd heard on the balcony, despite what anyone had said or done. She really was sorry. She had been all along.

"Of course she was," Tommy muttered to himself, shaking his head. How could he have doubted that about her? She wasn't like that. Last night, he'd figured she'd just picked up the regret somewhere in the past few years, or else it had hit her when she'd seen him again after all this time... but she'd regretted it from minute one.

He wasn't sure how, but it made a difference, a huge one. She cared. He wasn't sure if she wanted him back—hell, he wasn't sure if he wanted that, either. But she cared, and right now, that was enough.

~*~

Billy's story wasn't over by one o'clock, but for some reason he was glad it wasn't. He supposed it was because leaving the tale unfinished meant he could have more of these talks with his father. It was starting to sink in that he hadn't had a real conversation with his father since the mid-nineties, and now he finally could.

The telephone was what ground the talk to a halt; the cab company was calling to confirm his one-thirty pick up.

"I've got to get to the airport," Mr. Cranston said heavily as he hung up the phone. "Security has been terrible ever since 9/11—it's even worse here than a lot of other cities, what with aliens and monsters on top of terrorism concerns and everything else. I've only got carryon luggage, so I'm hoping I don't get held up too badly, but still."

Billy dug Trini's cell phone out of the pocket of the jeans he'd borrowed from Tommy that morning. "You'll be back on Friday, right?"

"Friday evening, around nine. To be honest, I'll probably be exhausted—I still can't seem to get a good rest on a flight. And I assume you'll be spending most of Saturday at Power Rangers Day?"

"That is the plan, but I don't have to go."

"No—I want to come see the show. I imagine it will be something. You lost your powers, though, didn't you? How are you planning to, you know..."

"We have copies of the suits. Zordon and Alpha created them and put them on display in the Command Center after we all lost our powers and everything," Billy explained. "Jason kept mine for me. So technically I'll simply be in costume, rather than in morph."

"I see. Well, I wouldn't miss it. Besides, you should spend time with your friends, as well."

"I can do that while you're at John Hopkins."

Mr. Cranston smiled. "Well, I suppose you can. When are you leaving?"

Billy paused. He'd planned to leave on Sunday morning. But he didn't have to. The teleportation device could stand some extra time to recharge after a jolt like the one he'd given it to send him to Earth. There was an Aqua-phone in Trini's basement; he could use that to let Cestria know. He did need more time. The Aquitians would survive without him for two weeks as easily as they had for one. After all, they'd dealt fairly easily with that Gruumm character, who was actually stupid enough to believe that he could break through Aquitar's defenses, and they'd settled that dispute between Xybria and Inquiris; Billy had been one of the people to sign the treaty as a witness. Things were running smoothly for Aquitar right now—at least, as smoothly as they were going to get for a while, considering it, too, was a planet with Power Rangers.

"A week from Friday," he said. "Maybe longer."

"But I thought you said something about—"

"Doesn't matter. It's not like they'll terminate my employment or anything." Billy smiled wryly. "I've been mediating and inventing and strategizing and fixing and so on for so long... I'm beyond indispensable, Dad. I'm a liaison to other planets, I'm their chief engineer... they'll understand that I need time off. I'll just extend my stay; it would probably be very beneficial for the teleportation device, anyway."

"Well, why don't you come by some more after Power Rangers Day," Mr. Cranston said. "Sunday morning, perhaps? And I'd like to talk more with Trini and the others, too. You kids... sometimes I still can't believe you're not running around the backyard pretending to be the Scooby Doo Detective Agency."

Billy laughed. "Funny thing is, Dad—once we got our powers, that's all we ever did. We were just playing Scooby and Ninja Turtles—with some really cool toys as props. And we didn't have to take turns being the villain." He paused. "We did that on occasion, though. Most of us have been evil at some point."

Mr. Cranston clapped him on the shoulder. "Spend some time with them, too, Billy. We'll have next week, and when you go back to Aquitar you can give me one of those alien phones that your friends have. Kimberly, Tommy and Zack aren't going to be in town for as long as I am, now, are they?"

"No." Billy shook his head. "You're right. But I've gotten to talk to them more. They knew, all of them..."

"Well, I know now. That's the important thing." He smiled. "So don't forego seeing your friends just for me. You're important to them, as well." Mr. Cranston smiled. "You know, if you want, the garage is still in pretty much the same shape as it was when you left. You should show your friends around. Make an invention or something. I still keep a key inside the old wind chime."

Billy looked up. "Is the RADBUG still around?"

"Of course. It's parked in the backyard. I haven't used it in a few years, though, not since 2000. It still had gas back then, if I remember correctly, but I daresay it's probably going to need some work before you can get it up and running. I gave up on the upkeep; it just didn't seem feasible."

"Mind if I take it out?"

"Of course not. It's your car, after all."

Billy grinned. His crazy great-aunt Betsy had given it to him when he was twelve, in order to help with his paper route. As Billy was neither old enough to drive nor employed by a newspaper, he'd taken to tinkering with it instead; it had been one of his favorite things to modify. After all, cars had plenty of moving parts and all sorts of interesting components. He was sure he could get it working again, as long as most of the more expensive parts were still in good shape. And if they weren't, he probably had some spares in the garage.

"Feel free to spend as much time in there as you want while I'm gone," Mr. Cranston continued. "Just try not to blow anything up. Again."

Billy nodded. "I'll try. I haven't seen real fire since 1997, however, so no promises."

His father laughed. "Well, have at it. Your old belongings are in your room, too, but I'd imagine they're all musty and dusty by now. I do try to clean, but I never seem to get very far. Oh, and before I forget..." Mr. Cranston reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope, handing it to Billy. "I figure it's about time I gave this to you."

Billy opened it, and was startled to realize that he barely recognized the object inside as a credit card. He'd forgotten so much about Earth. "What's this?"

"Your ATM card."

"My... what?"

"I went to the bank this morning and had your college fund transferred to a regular checking account. It's a joint account; both of our names will be on it, so I'll still have access—"

"My college fund?" He knew his parents had one for him, but he hadn't really thought much about it once he got to high school. His guidance counselor had informed him that he could probably get scholarships to just about anywhere, and he was more concerned with the Rangers back then.

"Your mother started saving for it the day she found out she was pregnant with you. She was so confident you'd end up at Harvard; she wanted to plan ahead." He gave a slight shrug. "I doubt that it's enough for Harvard tuition and room and board nowadays, but... ah, well. I should have known you were too smart for college."

Billy stared down at the card. Money. He could actually pay for his own meals, give Jason and Trini a little something for putting him up all week, stock up on overalls and toothpaste and maybe he'd even get a new video game system, he was sure he could find some way to convert Aquitian energy to get power for it... the challenge would be immense, but doable, definitely...

"Thank you," he breathed.

"It's no problem," Mr. Cranston said. "It's your money, anyway, and I'm not doing anything with it. I asked for a printout of the interest the account has accumulated, the balance, everything like that; it should all be in the envelope."

Billy pulled out a sheaf of papers, his jaw dropping when he saw the balance. It wasn't exactly enough for a mansion in Beverly Hills, but he had no bills to pay, no obligations or debts to any company on Earth, and it was a good deal of money. Visiting would be so much easier now, in the future. He didn't have to worry anymore about using his friends' pockets; it was one of the main reasons he hadn't come back. And he could buy plenty of things to amuse himself on Aquitar, all the things he missed and tried not to think about anymore...

They heard a car approach, followed by the honking of a horn. "That'll be the cab," Mr. Cranston said, nodding at his luggage, already stacked by the door. "I have to go."

"I'll see you on Saturday," Billy said. "I'll be the one in the Blue Power Ranger suit."

"It's good to hear you say that, son," Mr. Cranston said, picking up his briefcase. Billy hurried forward to help with the suitcase. "There was a time when I thought I was crazy to even think that you were a Power Ranger. It's good to know I'm not delusional."

Billy laughed, thinking of all the people who'd ever accused him of being the delusional Red Ranger when his own father had a sneaking suspicion that he might be the Blue. Then he sobered, realizing he'd been so caught up in telling his story that he hadn't actually realized what this discovery meant.

"Dad... I don't think I have to ask you this, but..."

"I won't tell anyone, son, I promise."

"Thanks." Billy gave him a hug and showed him to the cab. It felt so odd, seeing his father off on a business trip—something he'd done over and over during his childhood—when he hadn't seen his father in years.

Billy watched the cab disappear, waving and smiling. Then he looked down at his new ATM card. Grinning like mad, he ran back into the house.

~*~

"His dad's already gone, right?" Conner asked for the fifth time.

"Yes, Conner. His dad is already at the airport."

"I liked his dad," Kira said.

"Yeah, well, he got your color straight," Conner pointed out. "Me, Black. Ha!"

"I'll say," Tommy muttered.

"But I'm not asking because I don't like him. I'm asking because I don't think I could handle thinking about parents anymore today," Conner said.

"Speaking of, I should really call mine," Ethan said.

"Oh, god, you haven't called your parents yet?" Tommy demanded. "We've been gone for four days!"

"We all called home to let them know we were okay when we first got here," Trent said. "When you went out to get ice."

"Oh." Tommy breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't need angry parents wondering where their kids were. He still couldn't believe they'd let Conner, Kira and Ethan come along... but then, he'd made it sound good, he supposed—mostly because he didn't want people to start thinking he was creepy, rather than because he wanted them to come—and they did all seem to think it was some sort of supervised graduation trip. Besides, the three had probably gotten pretty good at manipulating their parents by the age of seven, let alone seventeen. And a free graduation trip with an adult around to keep them in line... well, plenty of parents would jump at the chance.

Currently, they were all driving to Billy's house; Billy had called at four o'clock to let them know he was ready to leave. Tommy was, once again, driving the Dino Rangers, which was starting to annoy him a bit; after his little spat with Trini, he was no longer comfortable with the fact that Kimberly was in the same car with Trini and the others while he was off with the teens. And Conner was always in the front seat. Never in the back. ALWAYS in the front.

They parked on the street in front of Billy's house; the garage door was wide open. The moment the last car door slammed, Billy practically bounced out of the garage.

Tommy stared at him. He was wearing a pair of crusty old work boots and worn, faded coveralls that might have once been baggy, but were now a good deal tighter and a bit too short, over a too-small yellow polo shirt. He was also currently covered in oil stains, from hair to toes and even glasses.

"I've almost done it, guys!" Billy yelled excitedly, speaking fast, almost wildly. "I'll need a battery, possibly an alternator and a few other things, but I'm close, guys, and I found all sorts of things in the garage while looking for replacements! I'm even thinking about giving it a new coat of paint. I found the old mechanism I used to whitewash my grandfather's fence, and I'm guessing I can pour a little blue paint in there and make a few modifications and voila! The things I'd forgotten... my tracking devices, my puzzle games, my experiments with brain wave alterations... oh, and the first communicator I ever made. The prototype, you know. I even found my old coveralls! My inventions and my father and you guys and look, look, I'm dirty!" He threw out his arms to show them his oil-streaked skin.

"Eh... huh," Jason said intelligently. The others just sort of stared.

Billy gave them a sheepish smile, appearing to come down a bit from whatever high he was on. "You'd be excited about dirt, too, if you lived underwater. Besides, they never let me do too much of the actual work on Aquitar anymore. They're always going on about the efficiency of micromanaging."

Trini smiled and stepped forward. "You look good in oil, Billy. You look... like you."

"Do I?" He looked down at himself, startled. Come to think of it, he'd probably looked like a completely different person lately, with the longer hair and the baggy clothes that weren't really the right colors.

"I didn't understand a word he just said and he looks the same as he did back in high school," Kimberly said. "Wow. Billy's back."

Billy grinned madly and motioned towards the garage. "Come on, guys! Trini, remember that enhanced vacuum I invented?"

Trini rushed over behind him to look at the old invention. "Oh, god, how could I forget? We spent two hours trying to get Zack's arm out of it."

"And I never wore any of my favorite shirts to Billy's house ever again," Zack added sulkily, staying well back from the gigantic mess of tubes hooked to the canister.

"Wow," Ethan said, staring around in awe at the miscellaneous objects littering the garage. "This is awesome."

"You really should have marketed a lot of this stuff," Trini said wistfully. "Think of all the good it could do people if you perfected some of these things and marketed them."

"The CIA must be watching you like a hawk," Conner said, edging nervously away from a device marked "signal scrambler," only to bump into something labeled "for emergency surveillance."

"Wait until you see the RADBUG," Billy said. "Come on!" Billy eagerly led them through the garage and into the backyard, where he flung out his arms and yelled, "Ta-DA!"

They stared blankly at the battered Volkswagen Beetle. The hood was open, as was the passenger-side door; the other door lay in the grass, its inner panel removed. The overly conspicuous attachment that allowed for flight was still in place, random cloths and rags dangling from the top of it. An assortment of junk—most of it martial arts equipment, unknown mechanical devices and thick books—lay scattered in the grass, as though it had been yanked out of the trunk and dropped for lack of a better idea. Several vital components were sitting in front of the car, while the entire backseat was propped up against the side of the garage, sporting a handful of duct-tape patches. The twin horns had been polished to a nearly painful gleam. An extremely dirty car cover was piled nearby, streaked with years worth of leaves, dirt, dust, sand and just about anything else Mother Nature had tossed at the car since Billy's move to Aquitar.

"Isn't it great?" Billy gushed. "I'm almost done. The gasoline expired, which is to be expected, but of course I'm having fun cleaning everything and we can just fuel it back up. I've already changed the oil, but the carburetor's practically ruined, so I decided there was no point in cleaning it. I'm keeping a list of what all I still need, though. But once I get it all together, it shouldn't take long for us to get on the road. Or on the sky, so to speak. Hey, let me know if you guys find the wiper relay, will you? I can't figure out what I did with it for the life of me."

"Don't move," Tommy hissed at the Dino Rangers, glaring at Conner in particular. "Who knows what you might step on?"

"What all do you still need to get it going?" Jason asked Billy.

Billy pulled the list out of his pocket and handed it over. Jason's eyes widened. Turn signal bulbs, he could handle. A battery, he could spring for that. But an alternator was going a bit far, and a carburetor was just plain out of the question. Jason was financially stable, but by no means well-off enough to completely refurbish an old car owned by a guy who didn't even live on the planet and wouldn't be using it for who knew how long. As it was, even though he hadn't really done anything extravagant for this vacation, it was still costing him a decent chunk of money; he wasn't getting paid, as he wasn't teaching his classes, and he was eating out and driving a lot, in addition to paying for Billy, which was not only about food and admission to any attractions they might go to, but was sure to cause a spike in the next energy bill (Billy took longer showers than any guy he knew). He didn't mind all that, but no matter how much he might want to, he wasn't able to drop a few hundred bucks for one drive in the old RADBUG.

"Um, Billy, man," Jason began apologetically, "I'm not too sure I can pay for all this. I mean, one or two things, sure, but even though Trini's vacation is paid, mine isn't, and—"

"You don't have to pay for anything," Billy interrupted. He pulled his ATM card out of his pocket and flourished it at them. "I've got a bank account."

"Does it have money in it?" Jason asked, confused.

"My college fund," Billy said proudly. "I'm set. I'll be paying you back for all the meals, by the way. Oh, and I'll give you something extra for—"

"Oh, no you won't," Trini cut in sharply. "Getting to see you is enough payment for that."

"But I have money, Trini," Billy protested. "I can finally—"

"Get yourself some new glasses," Trini interrupted loudly. "You can finally get yourself some new glasses, and some new clothes, and some new shoes, and pig out on guacamole cheeseburgers, and fix the RADBUG. That's what you can do."

"I'll help you pick out the new glasses," Kimberly said quickly. "We can go to the mall later. Ooh, and you'll need a brand new wardrobe. Not living on Earth is no excuse for not keeping up with the trends. And you could use a haircut. A complete makeover. Maybe even a facial."

"But—"

"No, no, I'll take care of it. I'll probably need some time to get you in at the salon, and of course you'll need an eye exam, that'll have to be scheduled, but you'd look so cute in modern fashions that weren't around eight years ago. I don't think they even had some of my favorite designers back in the nineties. How much was your college fund, anyway?"

"Lie, Billy," Zack said in a stage whisper. "You've done put your foot in it now. Tell her you gambled it all away at the racetrack or you're doomed."

"Oh, he's doomed anyway," Tommy said. "She's already got that gleam in her eye."

"Don't know what you're smirking about," Kimberly told him in a tone that was both teasing and scolding. "You're carrying the bags."

"Who said I was going with you?" he demanded with an attempt at defiance, though it came out rather resigned. There was no stopping Kimberly from dragging someone to the mall. "I could just... not go."

"Oh, you're going, Mister," Kimberly said lightly. "I haven't taken any of you on a shopping trip in ages. It'll be fun."

"That's Doctor, thank you. And I've been on enough of your shopping trips from hell, haven't I?"

"You can never go on enough shopping trips. Besides, you're good at carrying the bags."

"Aw, man," Tommy whined.

"Ha, ha," Zack teased.

"There'll be too many for one person, you know," Tommy joked threateningly.

"I've already got my excuse prepared," Zack retorted.

"Me too," Jason said. "I keep a list now. Good thing you brought friends, Tommy."

"Good point," Tommy said thoughtfully. He turned to look at the teens speculatively. "They could carry a good fifteen bags or so." Conner, Ethan and Trent looked uneasy, but Kira shrugged, used to carrying her own bags at the mall whenever she had to pick up a new outfit. She liked to think of herself as an independent woman, above such girly things as making men carry her belongings. But she didn't realize what Kimberly was like in a mall... she just didn't know... Besides, Kimberly never just shopped for one person. She shopped for herself at the same time, and for her friends, and she usually saw something cute that a relative would just love, and the elderly neighbor down the street could always use new slippers, and the crossing guard down by the elementary school might like a new whistle, and that checkout girl at Kroger's needed a better shade of lipstick...

"I'm thinking maybe even twenty-four," Kimberly said.

"I don't need fifteen shopping bags worth of clothing," Billy said, wide-eyed. "Let alone twenty-four."

"Sure you do," Kimberly said. "I'll make the calls right after we get back from the Command Center. How do you feel about pedicures?"

Billy looked down at his feet, then back up at Kimberly in horror. "Um... tell you what. If someone wants to go pick up the parts with me, we can get going. It'll probably be harder to find in the dark."

"It's, like, four-thirty in the afternoon," Kimberly pointed out. "You know, we should probably get you some contacts, as well as glasses..."

"I'll start calling auto parts stores, to compare prices and see who has the parts in stock," Trini said, taking pity on Billy and grabbing the list from Jason. "It might be hard to find some of this stuff. Does your dad have a phone book, Billy?"

"Used to keep one on top of the microwave," Billy said gratefully.

"You guys go with Trini," Tommy told the Dino Rangers. "Go watch TV or something."

"Why?" Conner asked.

"Because the last thing I need is for you to step on Billy's wiper relay."

"Hey, I happen to know a bit about cars, you know," Conner said indignantly. "Haven't you seen my car? It's a classic." He paused. "What's a wiper relay?"

Tommy rolled his eyes and pointed to the house. "Go."

"I'll come too," Zack said.

"Take Kim," Jason muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

"Come on, Kim," Zack called obediently. "Let's... uh... you can call the salon for Billy."

"Whole point was to get her off Billy's back," Jason hissed.

"Uh... after Trini's done. Hey, I... think... we should... I bet there's something good on TV?" Zack said hopefully.

Kimberly, knowing fully well what they were doing, rolled her eyes but followed Zack to the house, leaving Tommy and Jason out back with Billy.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 30: Bicycle Built for the Blues

Trini and Billy were elected to go pick up the car parts—Billy because he was buying, and Trini because she and Jason had rarely been able to work on cars together. Both knew a good deal about cars (though Tommy was arguably a better mechanic and entirely more fanatical about vehicle maintenance), but Jason considered cars and their upkeep practically an art form, whereas Trini considered it something one did when the car went boom. Jason's near-reverence for automotive repairs clashed with Trini's methodical indifference constantly, leading to quite a few arguments and, more recently, a firm pact to always fix their own cars without each other's help. It didn't help that Tommy agreed with Jason about the subject, or that Billy, far from settling arguments, insisted that the fun part about playing mechanic was the technical aspect; he enjoyed the learning process, the improvement process, and the process wherein he got to see what happened if he did something that wasn't in the owner's manual. Sometimes, he got a flying car, and sometimes he got scorch marks, but he had fun along the way, and both Trini and Hayley shared this view, to a certain extent; they had had dozens of conversations about the fun of experimenting with automobiles, during which Jason and Tommy usually muttered defensive threats about what would happen if either girl ever did that to their vehicles.

Once Trini and Billy returned, however, they completely took over, to Tommy and Jason's disappointment. Billy started chattering about the modifications he'd made in the past and Trini struggled to remember what she could of them, while Tommy and Jason were elected to find the wiper relay and then make room in the garage to put all the stuff from the trunk, which led to a loud crashing sound and a three-minute panic, during which Zack and Kimberly rounded up Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent and evacuated. They were two blocks down the street by the time Jason had the wherewithal to yell, "I'm okay!"

At last, however, the car was finished, all its part back in order, two gallons of gas—brought back from the gas station in a gas can—in the tank, and the flight modification system double and triple and quadruple checked (and then checked a few more times by Trini, who was mostly over her fear of heights but still not very in love with them). Try as they might, however, they couldn't persuade Billy to wash off the oil streaks on his skin; he said he missed seeing them too much to get rid of them just yet. He did, however, change back into the jeans Jason had lent him, though the shirt was much more of a battle. The old yellow polo was a favorite of his, and despite the fact that it showed a good three inches of his stomach Billy didn't want to take it off; he said he could just pull up his pants more, but Kimberly wouldn't relent, claiming the Urkel look had never been in style. Unfortunately, while waving Jason's shirt at him Kimberly accidentally dropped it in the sink where Tommy was washing the oil from his hands, which made Billy grin for about two seconds until she ran out to Zack's SUV and rummaged around in the back for a while before coming back with a black novelty T-shirt of Zack's. Billy finally conceded to put it on over his polo. As it smelled it a little odd, even Kimberly put up with that. Still, despite all their efforts, Billy looked like one hell of a fashion disaster.

"Well, it still could use a good scrub and a coat of paint," Billy said wistfully. It was now a good three hours later and they were all standing in the backyard, looking at the RADBUG proudly.

"Maybe we could get some paint tomorrow," Jason suggested.

"Yeah. We'd have to wash it with the hose, though; it can't go through conventional carwashes," Billy said. "At least, it couldn't in 1997. Are carwashes more technologically advanced now?"

"Not so much," Kimberly said apologetically. "I think."

"Awesome," Ethan breathed, staring at the RADBUG with a smile on his face that Conner referred to as Ethan's "Geek Grin." While he didn't share Trini and Billy's inventor's enthusiasm for cars, a flying car was ice cream to a science fiction fan. "That is so sweet!"

"Yeah," Kira said uncertainly. "But, um, question. Do you only have the one car?"

"Yeah, why?" Billy asked. "Isn't one enough?"

"One flying Bug is enough for me, but not for ten people to go to the same place in one trip," Kira replied. "Or is there some plan I wasn't in on?"

The older Rangers looked at each other.

"Oh," Billy said sheepishly.

"Well... the trunk's cleared out," Jason said, only half jokingly.

"I could probably fit in there," Conner said speculatively. "Kira could, at least."

"I am not riding in the trunk," Kira said firmly.

"I will," Ethan said quickly. Kira looked at him incredulously. "What?" Ethan demanded. "As long as I'm flying, I don't care if I ride on the roof!"

"Considering this thing can go over three thousand miles per hour, you might care if you tried it," Trini said wryly. "But, um... maybe we could take two trips or something?"

"We'd have to make three trips. One person has to drive, so they can only take four people at a time. Even if I dropped four of you off at the mountain, I'd have to come back for another four, and then the last person," Billy pointed out.

"And the more trips we make, the bigger chance there is we'll get caught," Tommy said. "As it is, we'll have to avoid the airport."

"They're probably keeping a tighter watch on the skies and everything since September 11th," Jason added. He nudged Tommy. "Remember back in 2002? When we first met Carter?"

"How could I forget?" Tommy said ruefully. The teens looked at him curiously. "Carter's the Lightspeed Rescue Red Ranger," he explained. "Lightspeed Rangers are government-funded, so we thought they might be able to help us when a bunch of Navy creeps stumbled across the dormant Dragonzord—my zord back when I was the Green Ranger. They wanted to crack it open, study the technology, dissect it—" Tommy realized he was getting a little overly angry at the thought of just what the Navy had been planning to do to his zord and cleared his throat. "Anyway, Jason and I managed to contact the Lightspeed crew with a little help from Andros, and they stepped in and put a stop to the excavation." He paused. "Stupid Navy," he couldn't resist adding.

"Back on subject," Trini said, suppressing a giggle at his territoriality, "it's not like there's a lot of cloaking devices on here. If I remember correctly, getting it to fly was hard enough."

"True. I'm fairly certain it could outrun any aircraft, however," Billy said. "Unless Earth's technology has drastically improved."

"Not that much," Trini replied, "but the car is about four decades years old, isn't it? And I know we've inspected everything, but it hasn't been used in, what, seven, eight years? We shouldn't try to outrun anyone if we can help it. Let's try and at least get it down to two trips."

"Kim could sit on someone's lap," Zack said. "She used to sit on Tommy's when we had to go somewhere after Tommy joined up, remember?" Tommy glared at him, then schooled his features into a neutral expression before anyone else could see. Zack shrugged at him, either not knowing why Tommy was annoyed or not caring.

"Trini could sit on my lap," Jason said.

"Kira could sit on—" Conner began.

"Don't even think about it."

"What? I was gonna say Trent's."

"Sure you were, Conner," Kira said dryly.

"I was!"

"You so were not," Ethan scoffed.

"I was too."

"Uh-huh, sure."

"Right, Conner. Right."

"Kira can sit on my lap, if she wants," Trent said loudly, cutting off the budding argument between the other three teens.

"That gets us up to eight, provided that actually works," Billy said.

"Ethan can sit on Conner's, maybe?" Zack said hopefully.

"Uh, no! He's way too heavy," Conner protested.

"Besides, that's still only nine, and I don't think it's a good idea to drive while sitting on someone's lap," Billy pointed out.

"I can totally fit in the trunk," Ethan said eagerly. "Seriously. Come on. Please?"

"Are you sure you want to try?" Billy asked.

"Better than sitting on Conner's lap. Besides, I'd be able to say I rode in the trunk of a flying car. How many people can say that?"

They all stared at him for a second.

"Dude, I'm riding with Ethan!" Conner said gleefully.

The trunk of the RADBUG wasn't exactly large, and it wasn't exactly designed for two large guys to be riding in it. It took quite a while to fold Conner and Ethan in without knocking either boy unconscious, and then they had to make sure all of their limbs were free of the edges of the hood. By the time they managed it, Ethan and Conner were both slightly bruised and completely furious with each other and half the people who'd been helping them get in.

"Shotgun," Jason called the moment Billy had fastened a bungee cord over the hood (just in case).

"Oh, thank god," Trini sighed in relief.

"Oh, man," Tommy, Zack, Trent, Kira, and Kimberly complained.

"Hurry up out there!" Ethan shouted from the trunk.

And I thought having Conner ride in my front seat was bad, Tommy thought with a shudder.

"You'd better get in first, Trent," Billy said. Trent nodded and climbed in, Billy holding the front seat forward for him, then for Kira. Zack hopped in from the other side, scooting into the middle after Trent and Kira got settled. Tommy followed Zack... then realized with a sinking feeling that he'd forgotten all about Kimberly.

His eyes widened in horror; she'd have to climb over him now if she wanted to sit on Zack's lap, but she might have already assumed that she was supposed to sit on Tommy's after that comment Zack had made... and if he got out so that she could sit on Zack, it'd be so obvious, so awkward... war with Trini aside, he was getting used to the calm settling over him and Kimberly...

He looked around wildly for a way out, and his gaze landed on Trini. Slowly, her face split into a triumphant smirk.

"Evil, evil woman," Tommy muttered to himself.

"What was that?" Zack asked.

"Nothing," Tommy practically snarled. So she'd planned this. Somehow. Well, it couldn't have been that hard for her. Even if they'd only made two trips to the ruins, someone would have to be on a lap at some point, unless they'd made three trips. She'd somehow managed to ensure Kimberly would be sitting on him, or squeezing into the space closest to him at the very least; even if she did sit on Zack, she'd have to be extremely close to Tommy. It also didn't escape Tommy's attention that Zack had made the suggestion that Kimberly ride on Tommy's lap; while it had seemed like a slip of the tongue, Zack was one of Trini's little weapons, and Tommy wasn't about to forget that now. Even if Trini hadn't planned it all, she wasn't about to help him plan his way out of it.

This is nothing, he told himself firmly. What did he care if he had to let her sit on his lap for a while? The drive wouldn't be long in a car as fast as the RADBUG. It was more of a makeshift zord than a car. Besides, he could handle it. He was an adult. So she would be sitting on his lap. Big deal. No problem.

He looked expectantly at Kimberly, forcing his expression to remain calm and collected. She seemed to be doing the same; other than a slight blush to her cheeks—and it was hard to tell if that was manufactured by makeup or not—she appeared completely at ease.

Kimberly turned around and backed into the car, which wasn't easy as she couldn't aim where her butt was going and the car was now rocking from Ethan and Conner having a hissy fit of some sort in the trunk. She ended up partially on Zack and partially on Tommy, her legs thrown on the other side of Tommy's legs. Unfortunately, her bulky purse was practically crushing his foot, and the curve of the ceiling meant she had to bend her body over, unless she wanted to mold herself up against Tommy the way Kira and Trent were doing (happily, Tommy noted grudgingly). All in all, it wasn't very comfortable, but it wasn't very snuggly, either. Take THAT, Trini, Tommy thought smugly. He was fine. He wasn't too comfy, but he was fine. This was fine. Fine.

Jason moved the seat back, practically crushing Tommy's legs and forcing Kimberly to lean back towards Tommy more. She shifted a bit, trying to resettle herself. Tommy sighed heavily, knowing this was only the beginning of a hellish experience; this thought was further compounded by Trini grinning at him over Jason's shoulder as she slid in.

"Next time you modify a car, Billy," Trent joked, "you might want to get a station wagon or a minivan or something."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Billy smiled and pulled the car around the side of the house, out of the yard and onto the street, then headed around the curve and down the road. "Why aren't we flying yet?" Tommy called. Kimberly winced; her right ear was an inch or two in front of his mouth.

"Need to get gas," Billy replied. "We've only got a couple gallons; Zack's gas can wasn't very big."

"Go to the closest place," Tommy said. He wanted to make this go as fast as possible.

"I will. I don't want to get pulled over. Especially considering the fact that the plates are expired and I don't have a driver's license anymore anyway."

"Oh, great," Tommy said with a sigh, blowing Kimberly's hair onto the other side of her neck.

"Riding like this isn't legal, anyway," Trini said. "You'll get pulled over the moment a cop sees us."

"Oh," Billy said, clearing his throat uncomfortably.

Some sort of fight had apparently started in the trunk; they could hear yelps the occasional clang. Tommy prayed Conner and Ethan were both still alive. He also prayed Kimberly stopped shifting about. It was very disconcerting.

"Dude, move your leg over," Zack complained.

"I can't move my leg over without breaking one of Kimberly's bones," Tommy replied sulkily.

"Sorry, Zack," she said, shifting again. Damn Trini, Tommy thought mutinously.

"Why are we going so slow?" Zack demanded.

"I apologize, but the speed limit is only twenty-five miles per hour, I can't see out the back or the passenger window, and the car's frighteningly overloaded," Billy responded. "It's not made to carry as much weight as we're putting into it. Each of us weighs over a hundred pounds, so there's over a thousand pounds in the vehicle at present. If my calculations are correct, closer to sixteen or seventeen hundred. Despite my modifications, the car is old, and the flight system isn't very light, either."

"Better fly slow and low," Trini advised.

I hate you, Tommy thought, resisting the urge to growl.

"Goody," said Kimberly. "God, does one of you have a sword in your pants?"

There was a moment of extremely loud silence, during which everyone held very still. Tommy was praying there was some sort of innocent meaning in there somewhere.

"What kind of question is that?" Zack asked incredulously. "Someone's got her mind in the gutter." Zack nudged Tommy with his elbow and mouthed "She wants you, man" behind Kimberly's back. Tommy rolled his eyes.

"I meant, something's jabbing me in the leg," Kimberly clarified. Well, that explained her shifting about. Tommy wasn't sure, but she sounded a tad embarrassed now.

"Might be my ink pen," Tommy said.

"That's a new word for it," Zack quipped.

"Shut up, Zack," Tommy growled darkly.

"Why do you have an ink pen in your pocket?" Kimberly demanded, stressing the last word for Zack's sake.

"It's a teacher thing," Tommy said sheepishly. Well, actually, it was more of a memory thing. He'd gotten into the habit of stuffing things in his cargo pockets because he tended to forget to put everything in his briefcase or back pack before leaving the house, so any other random objects he came back for were put into his pockets to save the hassle of dealing with opening his bag.

"Can you move it?"

Tommy paused. "Eh, you're kind of in the way." In other words, he couldn't get to his pocket without a lot of awkwardness.

"Would it help if I moved?"

"...I don't think so." Please stop moving, Tommy thought desperately. There was just a sort of imagery in his head now regarding Kimberly wiggling on his lap. Which Trini had probably put there with some sort of evil brainwashing technique, he was sure. Though Kimberly and Zack had both made it a lot worse.

"We're almost there, Kim," Billy said reassuringly. "Maybe he can take it out at the gas station."

"Good," Kimberly said with a sigh, shifting again.

Someone's SO getting strangled when I get out of here, Tommy vowed.

"AHHH!" someone—possibly Ethan—yelled from the trunk.

"Think they'll kill each other this time?" Kira asked Trent.

Trent shrugged noncommittally, looking quite happy for the moment. "Dunno. But it'd be nice to have the room to myself." Kira grinned at him, in a way that looked sort of suggestive. Tommy grimaced, trying to ignore thoughts of hotel rooms, as well as thoughts of who the parents would blame if Kira and Trent did something stupid while in Tommy's care.

Ethan and Conner became louder and louder, and Kimberly began shifting more and more, trying to avoid the ink pen. Meanwhile, Trini and Jason began murmuring to each other in a distinctly icky fashion, and Tommy busied himself with trying to figure out a way to kick their seat without spraining an ankle or knocking Kimberly unconscious against the RADBUG's ceiling, but between Kimberly, the seat, and the purse weighing down his foot, it was looking like an impossible task. Zack was cheerfully trying to glance around the car, but there wasn't much of interest that he could glance at; Trent and Kira were smiling at each other happily and Trini and Jason were a step away from making out and Tommy glared at him every time Zack looked his way.

"DIE!" came a muffled roar from the trunk.

"RAWG!"

"SHUT UP IN THERE BEFORE YOU GET MURDERED BY YOUR SCIENCE TEACHER!" Tommy bellowed.

"OW! Tommy, warning!" Kimberly complained.

"For real, bro," Zack added, causing about three different painful moments just by lifting his hand up to his ear to wiggle a finger in it experimentally.

"Now I know how you guys used to feel about my Ptera-Scream," Kira moaned.

"Tommy, I nearly committed vehicular manslaughter!" Billy admonished.

"Well, at least they're quiet, now," Trent said feebly.

"They probably just wet their pants," Trini said dryly.

"They're cleaning the trunk if they did," Billy said worriedly.

"Sorry," Tommy lied. "I'll give them a talking-to at the gas station."

"Come on, Dr. O, they're trapped in a trunk with each other. Adding a lecture's just kinda cruel," Trent joked. Tommy tried to glare at him, but Zack was in the way, so he settled for glaring even harder at Zack.

"Might want to wait until we get to the Command Center, actually," Jason said. "It won't be long, and they're quiet for the moment... and it'll look really strange if you get out and start yelling at the two guys in the trunk."

I'm never going on vacation again, Tommy promised himself firmly.

"There's the gas station," Billy said, coming to a halt at a red light. "Dead ahead."

"GEEK!"

"LOSER!"

"I count thirty-three seconds of silence," Kira said.

"Thirty-one," Trent said, holding up his watch.

"I want out of here," Tommy whined. Kimberly suppressed a giggle.

"Sure you do," Zack teased.

"Shut up, Zack," Kimberly said playfully.

"Yeah, shut up, Zack," Tommy said, not so playfully. He wondered how much it would hurt if he stabbed Zack with his ink pen.

At last, the RADBUG putted into the gas station. "Let me out," Tommy said quickly as they came to a stop at the pump.

"I'm working on it, jeez," Jason muttered, popping open the handle. Trini had to grab hold of the roof and pull her legs out, Jason steadying her unnecessarily. "Anyone want anything to drink or anything?" Jason asked, turning around in his seat.

"See if they have apple juice," Kira said.

"I'm fine," Trent said.

"I'll look for myself," Tommy said. When you finally let me out, he added silently. He wondered if Jason was prolonging this on purpose.

"I'll come with," Zack said.

"I will too," Kimberly said. "This is the sharpest ink pen I've ever sat on."

"Oh, shoot!" Billy exclaimed. "I haven't got any cash! We'll have to go to the bank first."

"You've got your ATM card, right?" Jason asked, still not moving from the seat.

"Yeah."

"You can pay at the pump, then."

"It's an ATM card. Not a credit card. And don't I have to pay the clerk, not the actual pump?"

"Debit cards can be used just about anywhere now," Jason said. "You and Trini need to talk about technology advances and banking."

"And you need to get out of the freaking car!" Tommy fairly exploded.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah." Jason hopped out and slid the seat forward.

Unfortunately, climbing out was not an easy task; being folded in half with her legs rather crushed beside Tommy's hadn't been an easy position for Kimberly to get into, and getting out of it proved worse. Jason practically had to lift her out. Tommy leaped out as soon as she was clear, intent upon putting some distance in between himself and Kimberly; Zack followed more calmly, handing Kimberly the extremely heavy purse.

"Look, Mommy! A clown car!"

Tommy looked over at the next pump, where a mother was balancing her young son on the front bumper and staring at them curiously while trying to wipe chocolate stains off the kid's mouth. Tommy looked at the RADBUG, with its odd attachments, realizing that it probably wasn't every day one saw a funky little five-seater Bug emit six people with two left inside. Shaking his head, he smiled a little and headed for the store, simply for the sake of getting away from the insanity for a while, but Kimberly blocked his path.

"Empty out your pockets," Kimberly commanded.

Tommy reached into his cargo pocket and pulled out the first thing his hand closed on—a pair of safety scissors.

"You keep scissors in your pocket?" Zack said incredulously, coming over to them.

"Must have thrown them in there at some point," Tommy said with a shrug. He didn't want to admit it in present company, but he'd worn the pants for about six hours last week and hadn't washed them since; according to the bylaws of bachelordom, this was perfectly acceptable, but he didn't need any laundry jokes or memory cracks right now. He set the scissors down on the hood and pulled out an ink pen. And a very melted candy bar. And his address book. And a red yo-yo he'd taken away from Conner after Conner had tried to do tricks with it in the lab a little too close to the electronics.

"Oh-kay," Kimberly said, shaking her head. "Wanna do the other pocket? Just to be safe?"

The pile on the hood gained a bag of Skittles, his reading glasses, a note that said "Remember to feed dog" (despite the fact he didn't actually have a dog), a guitar pick that probably belonged to Kira, a comb, his old white communicator, and a lint-covered gumball. By this point, Jason, Zack and Kimberly were staring at him incredulously.

"You actually have crap in the other five pockets, don't you," Kimberly said with a grin.

"You're not going to be sitting on them," Tommy pointed out. Kimberly just raised an eyebrow at him. Sighing, he reached into his hip pockets.

"Elizabeth Randall—hey, Tommy, is this chick hot?" Zack asked.

Tommy looked over at him with a rather horrified expression to see Zack flipping through his address book. "Give me that!" he snapped.

"What? Got your eye on her?"

You tactless little... Tommy thought in annoyance, snatching the book away. He was fairly certain that if there was a demon on one of his shoulders and an angel on the other, the angel would be glowering and the demon would be waving his pitchfork at Zack threateningly. "She's the principal at Reefside High. You know, Elsa, ex-evil minion?"

"Ooh, the dominatrix type," Zack said with a fairly interested expression. Tommy whacked Zack's shoulder with the book. That was an image Tommy never wanted in his head again.

"Come on, let's go get some provisions," Jason said, smirking at Tommy.

"Wait—where am I gonna put all this stuff?" Tommy demanded.

Kimberly scooped up as much of it as she could. "We'll ask for a bag inside. Come on."

Tommy hurriedly grabbed the rest, mentally grumbling about how his pockets didn't seem that deep, and followed her inside. Jason and Zack split off from them, heading for the snack aisles, while Tommy and Kimberly approached the counter. The clerk looked at the stuff in their arms oddly before handing over a plastic bag, into which they dumped everything from Tommy's pockets; now all he had left was his wallet and his phone (he refused to let the phone out of his sight, ever again).

Just as he was preparing to make an excuse to ditch Kimberly to avoid any one-on-one time, Kimberly looked at him with a nervous expression. "Tommy?"

"Huh?"

"Look, I'm uncomfortable as hell in there," Kimberly blurted out. "If we're not going to be flying fast, and the mountains look different, and so on, it could be a really long trip. I don't want to bug you, but... but... can't I just sit on you like I used to? It was so much more... comfortable."

She looked like she wanted to melt into the floor. However, far from feeling worse, Tommy felt a whole lot better. She really wanted things to be okay between them, and she was being honest with him. After his fight with Trini, he was relieved to see something about Kimberly get simple, even if it was something as strange as her sitting on his lap for a long flying car ride.

"I'll understand if you say no," Kimberly said quickly. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable. I just don't want to be folded into a pretzel for the next six hours or whatever. But it's okay. It's totally okay. I can manage."

"No, no, it's fine," Tommy replied. "Sit however you want. We're cool."

Kimberly exhaled gratefully. "Yes. Good. Thank you."

A thought struck him and he held out his hand. "Can I see your cell phone for a second?"

Kimberly pulled it out of her purse. "Why?"

"No reason," Tommy said, snatching it and flipping it open. After playing with it for a moment, he managed to find her phone book. Praying he wasn't going to regret this, he started pushing buttons.

"As long as you're not calling China or anything," Kimberly joked, leaning against the counter but still watching him curiously. "My bill's high enough as it is. I gotta stop going over my minutes."

A few seconds later, Tommy turned the phone around so she could see that he'd added a new entry—him. "There's my cell and house numbers. If we're going to be friends, you're going to need them."

Kimberly gave him a look that could only be described as the facial expression equivalent of "Awww, how sweet!" She took the phone and held out her hand. "Here, let me give you mine."

Tommy's recent protectiveness of his phone warred momentarily with the rest of him and won. "Has it changed in the past two years?"

"No."

"Then I already have it. Stole it from Jason's phone ages ago," Tommy said sheepishly. Much as he hadn't wanted to admit it, he didn't want to lie to her right now, and anyway she would have seen the entry when she'd tried to add it.

Kimberly looked surprised but pleased. "Oh. Okay, then." She smiled and swallowed. "Well, I'm going to go... see if I can find a diet root beer."

Tommy watched her walk away. Screw Trini. He could be friends with Kimberly. If he wanted to be more one day, that was up to him. What could Trini do? Lock them inside a Las Vegas wedding chapel? He didn't want to play mind games. He was sick of trying to sort things out; it was all he'd done after Kimberly had left. He really did want a clean start, and Trini could just get the hell out of his way. He knew she just wanted to help him, but he wasn't an idiot. He could fend for himself.

"Tommy!" Zack called. "Can you go grab a bag of Doritos? This was all we could carry."

Tommy was startled out of his reverie by the return of Jason and Zack, arms loaded with chips, cookies, candy and enough drinks to service the Sahara. "Where the hell are we going to put all that?" he asked as they dropped it on the counter.

"My lap," Zack said promptly. "You get Kim, Jase gets Trini, Trent gets Kira, I get food."

Tommy shook his head, but he smiled. Doritos sounded pretty good right about now.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 31: No Clowning Around

Billy stared at the gas nozzle, amazed. Trini had had to show him how to swipe his card in the reader, and he'd been utterly awed at the automatic setting on the nozzle. Here he was, years ahead of Earth's technology, and yet unable to work a gas pump without help. Now that he thought about it, there must be dozens of things he hadn't heard about. The cell phone craze had come, of course, after he'd left; pagers had been all the rage back when he was in high school. He'd heard about cell phones, and the Internet had gotten exponentially better, but the credit card craze had taken him by surprise, and Trini was now cheerfully telling him about MP3 players while she rechecked the flight system. It suddenly occurred to him that one of the main things he'd enjoyed about Aquitar was the new, challenging technology, the opportunities for an inventor like him... and yet now that he'd been away from Earth so long, he'd have all the same things here.

"Excuse me."

Billy turned to see the harassed-looking mother from the next pump standing sheepishly behind him, holding onto her son with one hand and a piece of paper and pen with the other. Trini curiously came over to stand on Billy's other side. "Listen, I know this is kind of strange," she said nervously, "but... could I have your autograph?"

Billy stared at her. He'd spent a good deal of time lately talking about being a Ranger, especially today. He'd also never been asked for his autograph while out of uniform by anyone for more than one reason. These two things combined to make him say, before he could stop himself, "I'm not the Red Ranger."

Trini whacked his arm even as he winced and mentally kicked himself. The woman stared at him.

"No, no," she said in confusion, "I—"

"You're a Power Ranger?" the kid asked eagerly.

"No," Billy said firmly. "I just... someone asked me that earlier... Power Ranger craze, you know... anyway, why do you want my autograph?" he asked desperately.

The woman leaned a little closer. "Well, he's just learning about the concept of people on TV shows not being real people, and I explained about actors and fans and autographs, and now he wants yours because... well... he thinks you're a clown." She gave him a helpless look.

Billy blinked. "Uh... why?"

"Welllllllll... your car is a bit odd," she replied apologetically. "And, um, you're dressed a little... funny."

Billy looked down at himself through a curtain of messy hair. The oil streaks still dotted his skin like badly-applied war paint. His baggy jeans were, according to Jason, technically in style, but not when the cuffs were rolled up and they were belted about three inches above the waist. Zack's T-shirt (which said "Remember my name—you'll be screaming it later") and the ratty polo beneath it weren't helping any. He supposed he was probably dressed exactly like a man who'd been living on an alien planet would dress upon returning—or, at least, he was dressed exactly like a nerd with delusions of skater punk.

"Please," she said out of the corner of her mouth, "just give him an autograph, or he'll scream all the way home."

Billy started to say something, but just then the car rocked violently and screams of rage and possibly pain sounded from the trunk. As the woman looked at the trunk in horror, Tommy appeared and flung open the hood, revealing Conner and Ethan, who were having a fistfight as best they could in such tight quarters.

"Will you two shut up in there? You're about to get to see something only twelve people have ever seen. You're in the coolest car ever made. And it really hurts to fall out of a trunk at a thousand feet up, get me? Be quiet, behave, and be nice, or I'll make sure you don't see anything more interesting than a cactus on this trip. Or a poisonous snake. I can hear you guys all the way in the back seat."

"Sorry, Dr. O," Conner and Ethan chorused meekly.

Billy looked warily at the kid's mother, who stared at Tommy for a minute before shaking her head, as if forcefully throwing out all disturbed thoughts. All she wanted was a clown's autograph, and she didn't care too much about the fact that the pseudo-clowns were storing two guys in a cramped trunk.

"Wow," said the little kid as Tommy calmly slammed the hood back down. "So that's how they gets all the clowns in the car!"

"One autograph, coming right up," Billy said hastily, taking the pen and paper from her and hoping her son wasn't old enough to be able to read his shirt. He braced the paper against the back windshield and wrote, "Billy Cranston, Clown Extraordinaire" on it.

"I'm Davy. What's your name?" the little boy asked him.

"Billy."

"No, silly, what's your clown name?" he asked, obviously assuming Billy wasn't very bright.

"Uh... Bobo?" Billy added "Also known as Bobo" to the paper.

"Nice to meet you, Bobo. Can you do balloon animals?"

"Um... heh." Billy looked desperately at the mother for help.

"Billy, man, you ready?" Zack asked, coming over with a multitude of plastic bags full of snacks.

"What's your clown name?" Davy asked Zack.

"Tinkle," Zack replied promptly.

"Can you do balloon animals?"

"No," Zack said apologetically. "But, hey, check this out." With that, Zack launched into a five -minute dance routine, complete with flips and spinning on his head. Before long, a small crowd had gathered to watch, and Zack's friends were staring.

"What are you guys doing out there?" Ethan yelled from the trunk, effectively ending Zack's dance. Several people applauded, none so loudly as the little boy.

Kimberly, who'd been trying to stuff Tommy's formerly pocketed belongings into her purse, came over to them. "Are we ready?"

"Sorry, little man, we gotta go," Zack told the beaming, awed little boy. "Mr. Blue the Grumpy Juggler needs a nap, and Pink Ptera the Amazing Acrobat still has to pick up her costume from the drycleaners."

"Only you, Zack," said Tommy, who'd been watching Zack's display with exasperated amusement.

"What's your clown name?" the boy asked Tommy.

"That's Butch, the Multicolored Strong Man," Zack explained. "And this here is Madam Kwan, the Lion Tamer. Bobo here... well, he just gets hit with the pies. And the guy over there in the red shirt pretending not to know me is Jane the Bearded Lady."

"She doesn't have a beard," Davy said suspiciously.

"She shaved it for today. That way it grows back faster and doesn't get as much food stuck in it."

"I want to be the fire-eater!" Conner shouted from the trunk.

"Okay!" Zack called back.

"Thank you," gasped out the mother, who by now was trying to control a fit of laughter and failing miserably. The gaggle of people who'd been watching them went back to their gas pumps, also laughing. She and her son bid them goodbye after getting autographs for "Tinkle," "Butch," "Pink Terra" (Kimberly changed the spelling to sound less conspicuous) and "Madam Kwan."

"What was that all about?" Jason asked as the others came back to the car.

"Just doing our part to inspire the youth of America," Zack said cheerfully, popping open the passenger door. He paused. "Aw, look, they're making out. How cute." Tommy glanced through the window just in time to see Kira and Trent jerk guiltily apart.

Once Zack got settled and got all the shopping bags settled on his lap, Tommy hopped in. It occurred to him the moment he sat down that now Kimberly couldn't sit on Zack's lap if she wanted to—which could have been accidental on Jason and Zack's part, but he doubted it. Probably just another conspiracy brought to you by the Annoying Friends of Dr. Tommy Oliver Foundation. However, he determinedly ignored this insight and looked expectantly at Kimberly. She sat back easily, sitting on his right hip with her legs stretched out towards the middle of the car. He put his arm around her waist, almost automatically, and she leaned back comfortably.

Once again, as Trini started to sit down, she gave him a smug sort of look, but he simply smiled back, not caring. She raised an eyebrow, slightly confused, and his grin deepened. She could play games all she wanted; he was perfectly capable of straightening things out with Kimberly. There was nothing Trini could force him to do. Moreover, most of what she'd said hadn't been lost on him. He did need to fix things with Kimberly. He did need to repair the team, so that they were six again, not two groups of five. He just wasn't going to do it Trini's way; he wasn't sure Trini's goals were his anymore.

"Hey, Kira," Tommy called calmly, extending an arm over Zack's head. "Is this yours?"

"My favorite guitar pick! Where'd you find it?"

"No idea. You must have left it in the lab or something," Tommy replied as Kira slipped it into her pocket.

"You still have to sing me some of those songs you wrote," Kimberly said.

"Yeah! And I want to hear yours. Did you find apple juice, Zack?"

"Uh... it's in here somewhere."

Billy drove back towards his house, where the traffic was very thin and there was less chance of getting spotted, before going airborne. While Conner and Ethan had started up again, they dissolved into fits of "WHEE!" once they realized they were flying. Trent and Kira both stared out the window in amazement, while the others looked down with nostalgia (save Trini, who stuck mostly to giving Billy directions around the new airport and out into the mountains as best she could without looking at the ground).

"I believe this is the correct route," Billy said at length. "Everyone keep a look out."

It was difficult to find the right mountain, especially from the air, as it looked a lot different than it once had, without the Command Center on top. But they'd gone to the Command Center many times in the RADBUG, and the double peak of the mountain stood out a bit. Only Tommy had been back since its destruction, but he'd been on the ground and utterly lost at the time, so he wasn't much help. Still, they managed to find it, after a mere half hour of searching the surrounding trees.

"Whew," Trini said as the car set down on a reasonably flat cliff. "About time." She struggled to find the door handle and hopped out. "Be careful climbing out, guys; you'll go rolling to your deaths if you trip and fall."

"Are we there yet?" Conner yelled from the trunk.

"I'll go let them out," Trini offered.

"Aw, I was getting so used to them in the trunk," Kira said, only half joking.

They climbed out of the car, and then Billy and Trini took a moment to double-check the trunk latch and make sure that the flight systems and so on were still operational. "This is it," Jason announced, spreading his arms out to encompass the wilderness. "The secret hiding place of the base of the first Power Rangers."

"I used to love hanging out around here," Trini said with a grin. "It was so... peaceful. So removed from the rest of the world."

"It was a bitch to hike around here, though," Kimberly joked. "Oh, look, guys! Down there. That's where we first got attacked by Putties. Right after we walked out on Zordon. I remember that rock formation."

Zack laughed. "The first time we were in the Command Center, we were all, 'Okay, yeah, superheroes, whatever. Later on.' Except for Jason; I practically had to drag him out. Anyway, the second time, right after our first zord fight, we were all, 'Whoo! That was awesome!'"

"Hey, Trini," Jason called. "Isn't right over there that spot where we—"

Trini clamped a hand over his mouth. "Reminisce about that later, honey." Jason cleared his throat and nodded. Kimberly giggled; Tommy avoided her gaze. He and Kimberly had also spent a lot of time alone out in the mountains. It was much more private out here than at the park.

They climbed to the summit, shortly above where they'd parked the car, pointing out certain spots to the Dino Rangers, such as "There's where we fixed the zords after the zord wreck," and "Over there, we were taking a walk and somehow Zack accidentally antagonized some vultures and we panicked. Ended up morphing and jumping right off the mountain." However, when they reached the spot where the Command Center had once stood, everyone fell silent, simply staring at the empty terrain.

"And that's where the Command Center used to be," Billy said quietly.

They stood there, all of them now choked up. "It's just... gone," Kimberly said. "I thought... I thought there'd be some sort of sign that it used to be there. Crumbled stone or something."

"I'm not sure what happened to it all," Tommy said. "I think... I think the building resettled or something, like it did after the Command Center blew up, when it became the Power Chamber. I think it just... reformed, into something hidden, more secretive, more... dormant, because there's still a good deal of stuff left, it's just all below the surface now, as if the Chamber sunk down a level and sealed itself off. I couldn't find an entrance from up here. Then I remembered the tunnels and caves."

Silence prevailed once again. They had mourned Zordon and Alpha, hung on to hope that they were still alive... but it hadn't hit home that Zordon was gone until they saw the blank spot on the mountain.

Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent hovered uncertainly at the edge of the group. While they'd been really excited about the idea of seeing the former lab, they now felt that they were intruding upon some private moment, meant only for the eyes of Tommy, Jason, Trini, Billy, Kimberly and Zack.

"Kira," Tommy said slowly, not looking at her, a hitch in his voice that even Conner caught. He pointed back down the mountain a ways, where two trees stood oddly close together in front of an outcropping of rock. "There's an entrance right down there; slip past those two trees and you'll be in the cave. Follow the tunnel and then head up the stairs. Why don't you take the guys and go on ahead?"

"Sure." Kira nodded at Ethan, took Trent's hand and Conner's arm, and headed over to the entrance in question, immediately realizing that Tommy had singled her out because she would be the first one to notice his distress; he knew she would usher the guys off quickly and quietly and keep them from asking awkward questions or upsetting Tommy and his friends further. But if Tommy had looked at the Dino Thunder teens, he would have known they already knew what was going on. Regardless, Kira motioned for the guys to slip through the passage. Though she knew the guys understood why Dr. O was sending them ahead, she dutifully made them go first, following them after shooting Tommy a sympathetic look. She had a sudden vision of Hayley's Cyberspace reduced to rubble, with Tommy and Hayley's lifeless bodies lying next to where the café should be. The thought made her stomach twist violently, tears pricking her eyes, and she gently pushed on Ethan's back, urging him to speed up their departure to give the older Rangers their privacy.

Tommy, Jason, Trini, Billy, Kimberly and Zack stared at the place where the Command Center should be. The mountain, to an outsider, looked like any of the other mountains surrounding it; one couldn't technically call it "the ruins," as few signs of the great building remained. Now, anyone who stumbled upon it would have to look hard to tell that there had ever been anything there, and they would mostly likely assume that it was a torn-down ranger station (ironically enough). There was no telling, from the outside, what it had once been... yet to the six former Power Rangers the bare stretch of stone and dirt seemed to have a gaping hole in it, a glaringly obvious scar. None of them had ever found out if Zordon was still alive, and none of them had seen Alpha in years. A transmission from another world and a robot... both had seemed so human; both had been dear friends that they'd probably never see again. And the Command Center, their second home, the only place where they could truly and always be Rangers and teenagers at the same time, the only place they truly belonged, was no more.

Jason reached out for Trini, drawing her against his side. She slid her arm around his waist, Zack coming over to put his arm around her shoulders. Tommy stood alone between Kimberly and Billy, wondering why he had ever left the team, if there was anything he could have done to stop the Command Center's destruction, and he knew the others were also thinking it. They all wished they'd never left, even though they knew it had been the time to move on, even though Zordon had given them his blessing as they passed on their powers, even though those that had stayed on the team had never begrudged them the other chances life had brought their way.

Kimberly started to cry. She didn't sob, wasn't even obvious about it; she took one shuddering breath and the tears started to fall. She stood there, her arms wrapped around herself, staring numbly at the bare mountaintop. Kimberly held her grief back as much as she could, knowing that the team needed their privacy right now; she didn't want to cause a scene. They needed to grieve themselves, not comfort her. Only one of the others even realized she was crying.

Wordlessly, without thinking about it, Tommy stepped closer to her and put his arm around her back. Just like that, the last of Kimberly's composure snapped. She crumpled against his chest, and he held her tightly, letting her sob against his shirt. Unlike just about every other moment Tommy had spent with Kimberly in the past four days, he didn't think twice about it, didn't second guess his actions or hers. He didn't care about his past with her; their former relationship didn't enter his head at all. For that moment, he was just someone who understood, someone she could lean on, and all Tommy wanted was to give her that.

Billy put his hand on Tommy's shoulder, as if affirming that he, too, was strongly affected, and that he would be there if Tommy needed him. Tommy gave him a nod, though the action was unnecessary; they all knew each other's feelings. He didn't have to look to know that Jason had his own hand on Billy's shoulder, that they were united physically as well as in spirit while their minds remained in solitude. They were together, in the way they were always meant to be—as a team, as Zordon's team.

Together they stared down at the memory of their home, vivid recollections of every moment they had spent in that building flooding back and bringing sorrow, but also hope. They stood on the mountain, all sense of time gone, a team for the first time in over nine years.

~*~

Well, Ethan thought as they moved past the empty basement room and up into the Power Chamber, THAT was the most depressing moment of my—whoa.

Ethan stared in shock at the crumbling remains of the Chamber. The doors, obviously automatic but no longer functioning, were stuck half-open, and Ethan wandered into the main room in a daze, sidestepping Conner and Trent on autopilot. The room was lit with a faint, ethereal glow, emanating from two pillars encircled with rings of light every foot or so. The majority of the control panels were still intact, though scorch marks still lingered and a bit of broken glass lay scattered on the floor, primarily in front of the back wall. The extensive dust and signs of decay seemed almost a mockery of the greatness that had once occurred in the room.

"Ethan," Kira whispered. "Can you... can you figure out any of this stuff?"

Ethan approached the controls hesitantly, feeling as though he was disturbing some sacred artifact, and of course that never ends well. The switches meant very little to him; he couldn't tell much about them whatsoever, especially with the extremely dim light. He picked one out at random—a large, round red button—and smacked it.

A dull throbbing noise started, growing ominously; Ethan cursed himself for doing something as dangerous as pressing a Big Red Button because of course that never went well in the movies... and then, so suddenly they all yelped, the entire room lit up as bright as day, an electronic humming noise now faintly audible. Some of the buttons and switches and so on also lit up.

"F-found the light switch," Ethan said shakily, jerking his head around to check for poison gas, flying arrows and other such booby traps.

"Dude, I almost wet myself!" Conner hissed.

"Don't do that!" Kira added, clutching her heart.

"Sorry," Ethan said sheepishly. He looked around at the console in front of him, and something Tommy had once mentioned caught his eye—"Viewing Screen." Taking a deep breath, he muttered "Here goes nothing" and flipped the switch.

A circular screen on the east wall lit up, and the four teens' jaws dropped. Staring down at them from the wall was Dr. Tommy Oliver—minus a few years. His hair was almost as long as Kira's, hanging straight down his shoulders, and he was gazing solemnly out into the room. Cautiously, as though afraid this vision of Dr. O might jump out of the screen and smack them, or at least scold them profusely, Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent crept closer.

"Hello," Tommy said grimly. "If you're viewing this message, then obviously you've either stumbled into some place you shouldn't be—or you're a Power Ranger."

"Oh, good, we're the second one," Conner said. Kira shushed him.

"As you might've guessed, you are standing in the base of the original Power Rangers, who protected Angel Grove for years from numerous enemies. I oughtta know," Tommy added with a smile. "I was the sixth Power Ranger, the Green Ranger, and later the White, as well as the Red Zeo Ranger and the first Red Turbo Ranger."

"Okay, that's probably not something you want to say on a recording," Ethan said, frowning.

"Shut up!" Kira hissed. "I want to hear this!"

"This base has been blown up twice by evil forces in recent years. The first time, it reconstructed itself into a new base. The second... well, I can only assume it tried to do the same, but so much of its power is diminished now. By all rights this place shouldn't work nearly as well as it does, but that's beside the point. If anything, it is a monument to the fact that Power Rangers never give up.

"If you are one of us, a Ranger, I hope you'll find what you need here. Be warned, the security levels in place are maddeningly difficult to crack. If you are not one of us, I ask that you keep this secret as we have kept it. We have saved lives; we have done the world a lot of favors. If that means anything to you, you'll turn around and walk out the door and take the memory of this place to your grave. I can only beg you not to disclose whatever evidence you might find of the truth of the Power Rangers... Well, that, and I can warn you that if this Chamber senses that you don't belong here, it may activate its numerous defenses. It's a pretty scary building when it comes down to it. The Power protects us... not trespassers. If you try to abuse the gifts granted to us, you're going to get a rude awakening."

"Is he insane?" Trent wondered aloud as Tommy's image disappeared. "If someone finds this—"

Trent didn't get to finish, as a robot with a head shaped like a flying saucer filled the Viewing Screen. A squeaky, computerized voice filled the room.

"Security system armed. You have ten seconds to deactivate primary countermeasures. Please enter one of the passwords now. Ten..."

"WHAT?" Trent roared.

"Nine..."

"Oh god!" Kira yelped.

"Eight..."

"Ethan! You're gonna get us killed!"

"Seven..."

"It wasn't me!"

"Six..."

"Was too!"

"Five..."

"SHUT IT OFF!"

"HOW?"

"Four..."

"RUN!"

"Three..."

"What I wouldn't give to be able to yell 'Dino Thunder Power Up' right about now!" Ethan wailed as they dashed for the exit.

"That is correct," said the squeaky-voiced robot.

"Huh?" They all halted, nearly colliding with each other as they turned back to the screen.

"Primary countermeasures deactivated. Welcome to the Power Chamber."

Never had the four teens breathed such strong sighs of relief. "Oh, thank god," Kira moaned. "I don't like this place anymore."

"Yeah," Conner said. "Dr. O would've killed us if we blew the place up again."

"If we weren't dead first," Kira said dryly. "Besides, I don't think it would have blown itself up. Again. That's a bit too overdramatic. Probably just would have killed us with poison gas or flying arrows or something."

"What was it that turned it off?" Trent said loudly, trying to take their minds off of the fact they were all scared to death now.

Ethan frowned thoughtfully. "Hang on... 'Dino Thunder, Power Up.' Dr. O said the first team had three dinosaur zords—the pterodactyl, the tyrannosaurus rex and the triceratops. He told me... he was the one who came up with the morphing call. He was the one who set the morphers to activate to 'Dino Thunder Power Up.' So... he might have gotten some of the plans for the zords and bikes and everything from here. From files kept by Zordon. So..."

"So our morphing call is one of the old passwords to this place?" Kira asked.

Ethan shrugged and nodded. "That, or there's some sort of information on the Dino Rangers in here, and Zordon or whoever set the passwords to Ranger morphing calls."

"Huh," Kira said. "And here I thought it was just some corny thing he pulled out of a hat."

"My dad did say they got a lot of ideas from stuff left over from Dr. O's Ranger days," Trent mused.

"Wow. Thank god he didn't choose 'cheese soup' for the morphing call," Conner said. He looked speculatively at the control panels. "I want to press something!"

"NO!" Kira, Ethan and Trent shouted.

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 32: Two Heads Are Better Than One

Kimberly was the first to pull back, gently, without shame. Tommy didn't bother to blush as he let her go; he had done what Zordon would have wanted him to do—help another. And in an odd way, she had helped Tommy as well.

Billy's hand left Tommy's shoulder at almost the same instant. The moment was simply over, its end unannounced but somehow apparent. Jason stepped away from Trini and Billy, and Zack released Trini as well. They looked one more time at the blank stretch of dirt and rock, then turned away.

Billy broke the silence first. "Trini?"

"Yes?"

"I'd like to bend your ear about a few theories I have for improving the Aquitian teleportation system. It's good, but it's not nearly as good as it's going to need to be. I want to come back more. I have to come back more."

"Yeah," Trini replied. "Yeah, you do. I think I could help."

Tommy smiled, noticing it as a nod to the moment they'd just shared. They had been apart too long, and it was time to remedy that. Together, they walked back towards the car, chattering away.

"I need a better map of Southern California," Tommy said. "Or maybe I should get OnStar."

"I could help you pick out a good GPS," Trini offered. "We'll fix your perpetually lost problem in no time."

"I could probably build you a good GPS, actually," Billy said.

"Awesome."

"I'm going to teach fewer classes at the gym," Kimberly said. "Give more to my employees. They're always begging for hours."

"Me, too," Jason said.

"I should try television," Zack said. "Hours would be more regular."

"I could probably do a lot more work at home, on my own time," Trini said thoughtfully.

"We should get together for Independence Day," Jason suggested.

"Yeah! Angel Grove has way better fireworks than Reefside," Tommy agreed.

"You know, we never did take that big road trip we said we'd all take one day," Kimberly pointed out. "All the way across the country, to New England."

"We definitely have the money for it now," Zack said. "Next summer would work. Or maybe this one."

"I haven't figured out all of the summer schedule of classes yet," Jason said. "I could free up time in late July."

"I probably could too," Kimberly said.

"I'm off," Tommy said with a shrug.

"My boss needs me too much to not give me the vacation time," Trini said. "Especially since I have a lot of days rolled over from the last few years."

"I could probably keep my schedule open," Zack said.

"We could totally party out there," Kimberly said. "And think of the shopping in New York!"

"I'd rather not," Jason teased.

"You'll think of it enough for all of us," Zack added.

Laughing, joking and planning their future, the Rangers sat down in the sand, the RADBUG in between them and the ruins, under some unspoken agreement to wait until the teens came out on their own. They wouldn't be going inside the remnants of the Power Chamber. They didn't need to.

~*~

"This is creepy as hell."

Ethan had started playing with the controls, his confidence growing with every passing second that he wasn't fried to death with some secret death ray booby trap. He'd stumbled across something labeled "The Archives," which was divided into several different sections—one for each group of Power Rangers. To their utter shock, this contained not only "Mighty Morphin," "Alien," "Ninja," "Zeo," and "Turbo," but also "Space," "Lost Galaxy," "Lightspeed Rescue," "Time Force," "Wild Force," "Ninja Storm," and "Dino Thunder."

The information, as it turned out, was not in files or documents, but in video clips played on the Viewing Screen—and "Dino Thunder" contained thousands of images of the four teens and Tommy and Hayley, doing things ranging from fighting to hanging out at the café. Shocked, and not a little nervous, they'd watched scenes of Trent trying to find ways to keep safe when he knew that at any moment his father could morph into Mesogog, thus making the house unsafe; scenes of Tommy training them; scenes of Hayley, experimenting and building; scenes of everything. At the end of the montage of images were pictures of them all, along with text listing things like their names, current ages, residences, and their "status," which said "Inactive" for all of them, save Tommy, which said "Temporarily Retired/On Call."

"Where do you think this all comes from?" Trent asked. "I mean, is Dr. O doing the recording?"

"I don't think so," Ethan said. "According to that file I found earlier, these things are all being transmitted. So... someone's receiving this information."

"Probably Dr. O, if he's the only one who's been here," Kira said. "He claimed he was, and I don't see much evidence to the contrary. This place looks like no one's seen it in ages."

"I'm guessing he set it up to have all the information sent to him," Ethan agreed. "He said he hasn't been here in a few years, but the Ninja Storm Rangers were in the video journal, remember? So he must be linked up to this place. It's probably some sort of... morphing grid thing. I mean, the power of this place is amazing. The fact that it can rebuild itself? Twice? Is it any wonder—albeit a creepy wonder—that it can detect Rangers and videotape them?"

"Dr. O did say Power Rangers are one parts science and two parts magic," Kira said with a shrug. "Still... it's royally creepy."

"I'll say," Conner said fervently. "I wonder if any of the other Rangers know about this."

"It's possible. Dr. O has met a lot of them, remember?" Ethan said.

"Speaking of Dr. O... where the hell is he?" Kira asked.

Trent checked his watch. "I don't know. We've been down here for over an hour."

"Here's hoping he didn't stumble across any 'primary security measures,'" Ethan said, now looking worried.

"Here's hoping he did," Kira grumbled. "I can't believe he sent us down here without a password! We could have been killed!"

Ethan hit the Big Red Button again, and the place immediately powered down, the Viewing Screen shutting off and the lights dimming once more. He sighed. "I could spend years in this place."

"Well, you know, if that stuff is transmitting to Dr. O, all the same information should be in the lab," Trent pointed out as they headed for the exit. "So once he gets it up and running again, we'll be able to go through it from his basement."

"And if it's not him, he'll want to come back here to figure out who it is," Kira added.

"Good point," Ethan said, his face lighting up. Then he frowned. "Great. I guess that means we have to help him clean the lab."

"I wouldn't go that far," Conner joked.

"Stupid Zeltrax," Trent said idly. "Even when I was evil, I couldn't stand him."

They trooped down the stairs, back down the tunnel and out into the sunshine, which was starting to wane; it was now almost eight o'clock. It took them a while to think to check back at the car for Tommy and the others (they nearly panicked when they came out of the cave entrance and didn't immediately see anyone); confused, they clustered in front of the chatting, laughing group, who were sitting with their backs against the car, shoulder-to-shoulder.

"What're you guys doing?" Ethan asked.

"Hanging out," Tommy said with a shrug, grinning slightly.

"Aren't you a little old to hang out?" Conner asked.

"I'm twenty-five, Conner," Tommy said, rolling his eyes. "Not fifty. Okay?"

Conner shrugged. "Just out of curiosity, why do all of our profile thingies say 'Inactive' and yours says 'Temporarily Retired/On Call?'"

Tommy frowned. "What?"

"Our profiles. You know, the things that say what we're doing now. Ours all say 'Inactive,' but yours—"

"What the hell does 'Temporarily' mean?" Tommy shouted, his voice echoing around the mountains.

"Shh! Tommy, don't worry," Jason said quickly, clasping his shoulder, as much to keep him from jumping up and stomping off to go scream incoherently at a computer monitor as to comfort him. "I mean, you still have your Zeo powers, whereas they have no powers, right? So it stands to reason that yours would say something different."

"But... but... on call?" Tommy whined.

"I'm sure that's just some sort of monument to the fact that sometimes you have to help out other Ranger teams, like you did with Andros," Jason said. "All of ours probably say the same thing, as Billy and Kimberly can still summon some of the old Ninja power and Trini, Zack and I have Coins. It's probably perfectly innocent."

"It had better be," Tommy muttered. "Did you guys have fun in there?" he asked the teens, trying to stay happy by changing the subject.

"It was wicked cool," Ethan said with a big grin, which slowly faded. "But..."

"Did you forget something, Dr. O?" Kira asked meaningfully.

"Um..." Tommy knew he had to tread carefully when someone asked him this sort of question. Often, the answer was "Yes," but the trouble was wh... uh-oh.

"The security system!" Tommy yelped, leaping to his feet so fast he practically broke Jason's fingers. "Are you okay? I'm so sorry, I—OOF!"

Kira had punched him in the gut. Hard. Not with malice, but with a certain air of justified vengeance. Tommy coughed, clutching his side for a moment. Conner and Ethan cheered, and Trent put his fist against his mouth, not quite covering his smile, but trying.

"Okay, I might have deserved that," Tommy admitted, wincing slightly.

"You could have killed us! We could have been... been... I don't know what we could've been, because you didn't tell us what we could have been, but you're lucky we weren't whatever we could have been! The whole time we were down there we were spooked like nothing else, and then when we realize you hadn't come to check on us we get all worried that you're dead—well, I get all worried that you're dead, because of course I'm the first one to worry when it comes to you being dead—and we have to come check on you. Newsflash— you're the one who does that, not us! You are responsible for us, and yet you send us to our death without even a heads-up! Did you do it on purpose? Huh? Just like when we first got our powers and you were all 'I'll tell you tomorrow, go home and get some sleep' which by the way did not work, we went home and called each other and freaked out all night, and you, you, if you withhold information one more time—"

"I'm really sorry," Tommy interrupted sincerely. "I just... it's been years since I've been here. I'd forgotten all about it. I set it up. You wouldn't have been hurt. Just... sealed inside while alarms, via communicator, alerted every ex-Ranger to ever set foot in that building."

"So we would have been locked in an underground room while screaming our heads off because we can't get out and some robotic voice is screaming 'Intruder' and we're waiting for some sort of monster or security guard or something to come and kill us because we don't know what's going on?" Trent asked mildly.

"Uh... yeah."

Trent nodded and looked at Kira. "Can I hit him next?"

"No, no, that was for all of us," Kira said apologetically.

"AW, MAN!" Conner and Ethan complained.

"No fair!" Conner whined. "I wanted to hit him."

"Me too," Trent said with a sigh.

"Me too," Ethan said sourly. "You have all the fun."

Tommy tried not to smile. "I'm sorry, guys. I'll make it up to you. Uh... somehow."

"How? Gonna buy us something on my dad's line of credit?" Trent asked sarcastically.

"No," Tommy said, although that had in fact been his first idea. "I'll... um... hmm."

"You'll ride in the trunk?" Conner suggested.

"Yeah, I'll... wait, what?"

"You'll ride in the trunk," Conner repeated. "It's way too cramped in there."

"Yeah, it was only fun for the first few minutes," Ethan added. He paused. "No, wait, not even then."

"You guys are both smaller than I am," Tommy said. "No way will I fit with someone else."

"We could throw someone small in there with you," Ethan said. "Kira will fi—"

"No way!" Kira exclaimed.

"Um... well, someone would ride with you," Ethan said.

"Not me," Trini said quickly.

"I have to drive," Billy said.

"Trini's not sitting on anyone but me," Jason added.

"I'm not going in the trunk," Trent said firmly.

"I—" Zack began.

"I'll do it."

Tommy froze, grateful that his back was still to Kimberly so she couldn't see the look of horror on his face. What the hell was she thinking? "I still think I won't fit," he said, praying that someone agreed with him and knowing no one would.

"There's no way you and Kimberly are bigger than me and Conner," Ethan said. "There's just no way. Besides, you said you wanted to make it up to us."

Tommy grimaced. If it weren't for the fact that this was Ethan—whom Tommy was pretty sure Trini wouldn't bother to recruit, as Ethan knew less about relationships than just about anyone—and for the fact that Kimberly was the one offering to do it, he might have started screaming accusations right then and there.

What could he do now? Pitch a hissy fit and refuse to get in the trunk with her? Lowering Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent's opinion of him and possibly hurting Kimberly's feelings in the process, while coming off as a whiny jackass? But he had to do something. No one was going to stop this nonsense for him. Why the hell had she offered to do it? Nothing was going to keep him from getting in that trunk with her. Not unless he could get Kimberly to take back her statement...

"Well, that's settled, then," Trini said lightly. "Let's get going. I don't know about you guys, but I'm starved."

As the others got up and brushed themselves off, Tommy grabbed Kimberly's arm and drew her aside. "Listen, Kim," he began, trying to choose his wording carefully without upsetting her, though he had absolutely no game plan.

"Tommy," Kimberly interrupted, "give it up. They're going to get us in that trunk somehow, and you know it."

Tommy blinked. So she did know her friends were conspiring against them. Why didn't she seem very concerned? Was she conspiring against him, too? Or just comfortable in her ability to win? ...Or did she want to lose?

"Didn't you notice that I was the only one left? All that was left was Zack's excuse and your attempt to worm your way out of it. If we go into that trunk calmly," Kimberly continued, "they'll think their pitiful attempts to get us in bed together by the end of the week are paying off, and they'll back down, at least a little. Don't fight them, Tommy. We've got a week, and then we can do whatever the hell we want without Trini and the others breathing down our necks. All we have to do is pretend they're on the right track for a while. Trust me. I've already got Trini thinking she's got me backed into a corner."

Tommy stared at her, shocked. Of course. She had already figured out Trini's plan, and a way to beat her. Trini was better with psychology, but Kimberly was the master when it came to romance.

"Are you with me?" Kimberly whispered. A few of the others were trying to inconspicuously drift into hearing range.

Tommy thought about it. Whatever Kimberly had in mind, he was pretty sure it was closer to the pace and method he wanted; after all, she was in the same boat that he was.

"Sure," he said finally, grinning. "Let's kick their ass."

Kimberly threw back her head and laughed. "Atta boy, Tommy."

They walked over to the car together, both of them smiling. Billy was holding the trunk open for them. Feeling refreshingly cheerful, Tommy turned calmly to Kimberly. "Top or bottom?" he asked playfully.

Billy nearly dropped the hood on their heads. Kimberly giggled. "Top."

"All right," Tommy replied, winking at her as he lay down on his back, pulling his legs up, "but just this once."

Kimberly sat down and lay back beside him, bending her knees to take advantage of the curve in the hood. "That's what you think," she replied, just as Billy slammed the lid down.

They laughed hysterically once they were alone, picturing the looks on their friends' faces. It felt so nice, hanging with his friends, hanging with Kimberly, joking and cracking on one another. He felt much more peaceful, and a sense of closure about Zordon. Zordon was their mentor, their creator in a way, and he would always be with them.

For now, though, he had his team, old and new, and he and Kimberly were absolutely fine. They were teasing each other, almost flirting, and he was simply amazed at the irony. If anyone had told him two weeks ago that he'd be calmly accepting a long ride locked in the trunk of the RADBUG with Kimberly, he'd have laughed himself sick. But here he was, and everything was fine.

Then it hit him.

Fine?

Everything was not FINE!

He was locked in the trunk of a car.

With Kimberly.

By people who would probably prolong the ordeal for as long as they could.

He was trapped with his ex-girlfriend in a small, cramped area and would be flying hundreds of feet above the surface of the Earth.

So there was no escape.

Was he insane?

~*~

"Did you guys see that?" Zack hissed, leaning into the front seat the moment they were safely airborne. As space was already tight up front, Jason, Trini, Billy and Zack practically had their heads attached at the temple now. Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent, entranced with the view, barely noticed.

"It was kind of hard to miss," Billy said dryly. He'd nearly died when Tommy had made that "top or bottom" comment.

"It's great, isn't it?" Jason said calmly, quite content to be holding Trini and flying in the RADBUG while surrounded by his friends; he simply couldn't be bothered with the Tommy and Kimberly mess right now.

"Is that all you can say?" Zack demanded. "They're flirting! And currently locked in the trunk together!"

"And probably sitting there in complete silence, awkward, upset, and praying for the moment we set down," Jason replied, rolling his eyes. "If anything, this little excursion will make things between them worse."

"Depends on what they talk about, really," Trini said conversationally. "On the one hand, it's possible that only one of them survives. On the other, they could really work a few things out."

"Kim offered to get in the trunk," Zack pointed out.

"Because you were the last person left, and you were going to try to get out of it," Trini said. "That's why she did it."

Zack looked utterly disappointed. "But... doesn't that bother you?"

"Not in the slightest, Zack," Trini said calmly. "Not in the slightest." She grinned. "Trust me, why don't you?"

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 33: The Green Candle

The silence was oppressive. Tommy kept trying to think of things to say, because it seemed like the longer they stayed quiet, the less chance there was of starting a conversation. And he didn't want to be sitting in here, alone, in the dark, with Kimberly, for the next six hours, or however long it would take the RADBUG to run out of gas. Especially not since every time Billy went for more or less altitude, the two of them ended up crushed together to a somewhat painful point.

He knew he could ask her anything right now. They were alone, and once they got out of this trunk, his chance for a real talk was probably gone. He could ask her why. He could ask her any of the questions he'd wanted to ask her since winter of 1996.

But no way in hell was he that brave.

Give him a shark monster any day.

Besides, now was not the time to get into a fight, and he was about eighty-five percent certain that they'd have one when and if they did talk about it. Things were going reasonably well, and somehow, out on that mountain... it had been a profound experience. He'd felt like they were all six together for the first time since the day Jason, Trini and Zack had left. Not just when they'd been staring at the blank terrain that was their childhood, when he'd held Kimberly while she cried, but when they'd been chatting while sitting against the RADBUG, eating all those snacks Zack and Jason had bought, talking about everything and nothing. They had just picked up where they'd left off back in 1994. It was probably the best day he'd had in years. He wasn't going to ruin it now.

"So... read any good books lately?" Kimberly joked. He nearly jumped; the sound seemed so... sudden. Well, at least that saved him the trouble of coming up with an ice breaker.

"Not unless you count a manual on how to repair computer terminals," Tommy said.

"Why would you read something like that?" Kimberly asked, frowning.

"Well, my lab got totaled by an evil minion a few weeks back, remember? Zeltrax. Hayley—she's my... um, sort of like an Alpha/Billy/Trini—she's handling most of the computer repair, saving all the data we can, but she's had to work a lot lately—she owns the local teen hangout, and it's summer and everything—so I've been trying to get some of it done. It's a lot of work, though. But I've got most of the rubble cleaned out."

"Where exactly is this lab?" Kimberly asked.

"Beneath my house. It belonged to Anton Mercer, the guy who gave me a job during college and helped me search for the Dino Gems. But when he disappeared, his lawyers told me that the house went to me if anything happened to him, and Anton said there was no point in taking it back when he came back to Reefside."

"He gave you a whole house?"

"Well, he's incredibly rich," Tommy said. "He's Trent's father, think I mentioned that, but other than Trent he has no family, so he only has Trent to spend it on, and from what I understand Trent grew up so poor that he doesn't feel comfortable with overindulgence. Besides, when Anton came back, he was Mesogog—the head villain. So he wouldn't talk to me much, avoiding me when he could. I tried really hard to get a foot in his door, but he was having none of it. I asked things like 'What happened to you' and 'What are all our experiments doing trashing Reefside' and he kept skirting around them, so I asked if he wanted his house back, and he said there was no point in taking it back. I guess he knew I needed it."

"Don't teachers make fairly good money?"

"Well, it's not bad, especially considering that they have to pay me more because I have more than just a bachelor's degree, but I didn't get a job teaching until this year. Besides, I spend all the money I'm saving on rent for the taxes and the experiments, the ones that I did on my own, without Anton's funding. But that's not what I meant. See, he was the one who had the lab built, and after he found out about my past as a Ranger, he modified the underground lab with a lot of extra security and the escape tunnel and so on. That's how Zeltrax knew about it—Mesogog knew about everything Mercer did. But all that security, and a few modifications from Hayley, kept them out of there up until Zeltrax found the way in on his own."

"Ah."

And the silence returned. Damn.

"So... how does it feel to be a successful gymnast?" Tommy grimaced. That question was easily led back to things like "Since you ran off to be one and dumped me a few months later, I'd kind of like to know," but he had to pray that it didn't.

"Honestly? Not as good as I thought."

"But... you've won so many competitions and..."

"Yeah, I know. It's just... well. It's my dream. I've accomplished it. Now what?" She sighed. "Besides which, somewhere along the way I realized that what I really loved was being a Ranger, and helping people. And I'm never going to get to do that again."

Tommy chuckled. "Yeah, people never wind up becoming a Ranger again after they've given up the power. Ever."

Kimberly laughed. "Okay, maybe you're the wrong person to talk to about that."

"You think? Besides, Kim, it's not like being a Ranger is the only way to help people."

"Yeah. Maybe I just loved the automatic outfit thing too much. If only all my clothes would magically appear like the suit does."

Tommy cracked up. "Well, I don't know. Seems like they're getting more and more ceremonial. More arm waving, longer transformation calls. You should have seen Conner, Kira and Ethan morphing. Seemed like it took twenty minutes. Whereas Trent just pushed a button and said four words, they practically had a dance routine."

"I used to feel kind of silly during the morphing bit," Kimberly admitted. "Standing there, shouting 'Pterodactyl...' and don't even get me started on the Ninja Ranger morph. Now that was an involved morph."

Tommy nodded. "Yeah. And that suit... never liked it as much. Felt like I was wearing some sort of bed sheet. Not that the spandex stuff was utterly comfortable, but at least it wasn't billowing everywhere."

"No helmet to absorb the blows when you knocked your head, either," Kimberly said. "Mind you, I don't know why I'm complaining. It's the only power I have left, even if it's kind of weak."

"When was the last time you tried to use it?" Tommy asked.

"Right before I came here. Sometimes I can't help it. When I first left Angel Grove way back when, I used to morph into it every day, as if trying to assure myself it was still there. Now, not so much, but I do it a lot, probably more than I should."

"The Ninja abilities are based on our spirit animals, not our powers. You should have them forever."

"I suppose so. Do you ever try to use them?"

"I did, before I got my Dino Gem. Used to do it on occasion. There's something kind of sad about using the Ninja Powers, though... the fact that we don't have our coins anymore..." Kimberly nodded, and Tommy cleared his throat and continued. "I don't morph very often. Although ex-Rangers and Hayley tell me that a couple of times I've gotten smashed and gone running around the house in my Zeo suit, but personally I think they were lying. I usually only morph when I'm alone."

"Me too." She sighed. "What was it like, being a Ranger again?"

"I don't know. Sometimes it was great. And sometimes it was hell."

"Just like back in the day, huh?"

"Only worse. Because I'd thought I was through. I thought my time was over, and I'd moved on, and accepted it, and I'd really begun to believe it. You know, when I lost my Green Ranger powers the first time, I'd felt the same way. The power was gone. And it was devastating. Then I got them back, only I had to sit around waiting for it to end. And when it did, again with the devastating. But then I accepted it, and I moved on, and I was okay, and the next thing I know Zordon's asking me to be the White Ranger. I was elated, but I was disappointed too, because I felt I was just back on the merry-go-round."

"I never thought of it that way," Kimberly said quietly.

Tommy shrugged as best he could while lying in a cramped trunk, not that Kimberly could actually see him in the dark. "It wasn't so bad, really. It's just... as the White Ranger, it took me a while to get really secure. I knew my powers weren't temporary, but that's what I'd thought about the Green. By the time I felt secure, I lost them and went on to be a Zeo Ranger. Had to struggle with them for a while before I felt confident. I never lost them, and I gave up the Turbo powers... but when I did, I thought to myself, 'That's it, no more Ranger. Ever.' And I was oddly okay with it. I felt like I was finished." He laughed shortly. "I wasn't, of course. I went out on three separate missions with my Zeo powers. I had several freak accidents where I had to fight, like on the island right before it blew up. But each time I just went home afterwards, and knew that I still wasn't a Ranger. That I was still done. Yeah, I'd have to get back in the costume every so often, but it was like... like I was a character on a TV show, and my character got written off, but I still came back for the occasional guest appearance. Never for a full season. Until the Black Dino Gem. Then I was confused, and worried, and... I don't know. I'm exasperated, is what I am. I want the power to make up its mind about me. I don't want to keep swinging back and forth. It's like every time I get settled in my life, get okay with not being a Ranger, I end up morphing and running off into battle. And this time... this time it wasn't my friends, you know? It was my students. And I was the Zordon. It was weird, and at the same time it was great. ...But mostly, it was weird."

"Must've been hard," Kimberly said softly.

Tommy shrugged again. "I don't know. I shouldn't be complaining. It's a gift."

"I think you have a right to complain. Just because it's a blessing doesn't mean it doesn't have a downside. Even though it gives you things, it's still taking other things away, and you have every right to miss those things."

"Yeah." Tommy fought off a sigh. They were getting too close to the subject of them, and he didn't like it, didn't want it, not now, maybe not ever. "So you run a school in L.A.?"

"Yeah. It's doing really well. I need to stop trying to do so much on my own, though. I'm working myself to death. I've hired other instructors, but I'm still doing too much. I guess... you know, ever since I gave up my coin, I've been trying to stay as busy as possible."

"Me too. We all do, really. Every time I go visit Trini and Jason, I see her organize something during every lull in the conversation."

"Yeah. And Jason immediately goes for Mr. Introverted mode. I hate when he does that. He's far too internal when he doesn't have something to fight."

"Definitely. And Billy works himself to death. Zack can't seem to hold still, either."

"He never could. As a kid, he was so determined to keep playing. I remember being eight years old and thinking that Zack had some sort of health problem because by the time he'd finally take a break to go to the bathroom he was about to burst. He just couldn't be bothered to put life on pause, even when it was as simple as going to the bathroom." She paused thoughtfully. "You know, after all these years, I think Zack's probably the one who's changed the least."

"Yeah."

The silence returned, somehow heavier than it had been before.

"You know, I'm dying to hit the gym. I haven't worked out once since I got here. It's driving me crazy."

"Me too! What I wouldn't give for a balance beam and a treadmill."

"We should hit Ernie's again."

"Mm-hmm."

Damn. The lulls just kept coming.

"Uh... we should go on a snack run tonight. I brought some junk food, but Zack and Jason and Billy and I ate it all."

"Yeah, we should maybe hit a Wal-Mart or something. I forgot a few things, and I don't think I'll be able to get any of you to the mall until Thursday; it was the soonest I could get Billy in for his eye exam."

"Yeah, Wal-Mart would work. Billy will need some jeans and stuff until we get to the mall, too."

"He can't wear Wal-Mart jeans!"

"Kim, he's dressed like something out of a bad teen movie. A bad 90s teen movie."

"Well, yeah, but..."

"You can put a limit on him. Only enough Wal-Mart clothes to get through until the mall. Then he has to wear good clothes."

"...You wear Wal-Mart clothes, don't you."

"So does everyone who isn't you. Besides, I have four different color obsessions now. If I shopped exclusively at the mall, I'd be broke, and besides, I'm a teacher, so I'm broke enough as it is. But don't worry. I shop other places, too."

"Sure you do."

"I do!"

"Uh-huh. I believe you. Oh, speaking of you and fashion, do you have a hairdryer I can borrow? Trini packed really light, figuring I'd have mine, and Kira didn't bring one, either."

"I don't, actually. Mine disappeared during the move to Reefside, and... well... my hair was short by then, so..."

"What did happen to your hair?"

"Eh... it's not a very good story. More of a... more of a trauma than a story."

"So tell me."

"Well..."

"Come on. You can tell me. Besides, if you don't, I'll get the story out of Trini anyway."

"Eh..."

"Where Kira can overhear. Maybe Conner and Ethan and Trent, too."

"All right, fine, you win." He sighed. "Well... you see... it was back in college. I was working at this family-owned Italian restaurant—you know, pizza, pasta, that sort of thing. And they had gas stoves. So I was trying to light this stove, right, and—"

"Wait. You can cook now?"

"No. Which is part of why I lost my hair."

~*~

Flashback

"Damn it!" Loretta fairly screamed, thrown another burnt match down on the counter next to the gas stove.

"Shh! You know how Mr. Ditrapani feels about swearing around the customers," Tommy admonished as he walked into the kitchen. "I can hear you from the dining area."

"He's my dad. Doubt I'm getting fired," Loretta snapped.

"What's the problem?" Tommy asked, attempting to be diplomatic.

"My problem is Mario's off today and I'm trying to cook and I'm failing!"

"I thought you said you were a great cook."

"I am. On an electric stove. You know, the thing that normal people use? I can't get this stupid thing to light!"

Tommy looked at the knobs thoughtfully. "Don't you just turn it to 'lite?' That's what Hayley does."

"'That's what Hayley does,'" Loretta mimicked in a childish, whiny voice. "What does Tommy do? Let me guess—get a job at a pizza place so he doesn't starve to death?"

"I'm just trying to h—" Tommy began hotly.

"Don't listen to her," interrupted Anthony, Mr. Ditrapani's eldest son, who was currently washing dishes. He had a knack for pinning down every single personality trait in anyone who came into contact with him. "She always gets rude when she's upset. You can tell when she's about to cry, because she tries to slug you."

"I'm gonna slug you in a minute," Loretta growled, her lip quivering.

"Give me the matches," Tommy said more patiently, used to both the temperamental Loretta and the philosophical Anthony by now. "Let me see if I can do it."

Leaning close to the stove like he'd seen Hayley do, he made sure the gas was on, then struck a match and held it close to the burner. Blue flamed whooshed to life.

Orange flame whooshed to Tommy's ponytail.

"ACK!"

Tommy whipped his head back on pure instinct, grabbing at his head. A still-wet spot of alcohol from when he'd spilled a customer's drink on his shirt came into contact with the dwindling ponytail as the stench of burning hair filled the room; the next thing he knew, his entire arm was on fire.

Screaming incoherently, Tommy leaped away from the stove, just in time to miss the dishpan of water Anthony lobbed his way; most of it splashed harmlessly against Tommy's leg, which had yet to catch fire (thankfully, now it wouldn't). Loretta dove backwards out of Tommy's way as his hair was burned away, right up to the hair tie that held his previously-long hair at the back of his neck. The tie dropped off, landed on the fiery shoulder, and was set ablaze before falling down towards his dry pants leg.

In about three seconds, Tommy was going to be on fire from head to foot.

Thankfully, his fellow pizzeria employees were out to save his life.

Loretta, now backed into a corner, grabbed the closest liquid-like item she could find—cold tomato sauce that she'd been planning to prepare once she got the stove lit. She seized the whole pot of it and heaved.

Anthony, not backed into a corner, was now out of dishwater, but he didn't think he'd have time to fill a bucket. So, with a battle cry worthy of any do-gooder, he grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall and cut loose.

The tomato sauce hit Tommy just a moment before the freezing cold chemical, thick red gunk splattering all over his back and down half of his flaming arm. No one got a chance to see if it did the trick, because Anthony began dousing Tommy in icy carbon dioxide.

Anthony ran the extinguisher until it was emptied; extinguishers, contrary to popular belief, only work once, and once they stop they're useless. So Anthony would later blame this action on extensive knowledge of how extinguishers work, while in reality he was just so shocked and terrified that he didn't have the wherewithal to stop. He continued to spray, while Tommy's scream became a high-pitched screech of shock as the cold blasted away the fire and seeped through his uniform, chilling him to the bone.

Finally, the extinguisher ran empty.

Tommy was no longer on fire.

He was, however, covered in red gunk, white gunk, and freezing his ass off.

There was utter silence in the kitchen. All three of them struggled to wrap their heads around this phenomenon and failed miserably.

At last, Tommy spoke.

"Am I bald?" he whimpered.

"N-no," Loretta stammered, dropping the saucepan with a clatter.

"I caught fire," Tommy said blankly.

"We fixed it," Anthony offered, wide-eyed and shaking.

The kitchen doors swung open, admitting a furious Mr. Ditrapani. "What the devil are you people doing? I can hear screaming all the way in the..." Mr. Ditrapani got a good look at the kitchen—the white spray clinging to everything, the sauce splattered everywhere, the dirty water all over the floor, and the three traumatized employees. "Good heavens..."

Loretta looked at him.

Anthony looked at him.

"Hi," Tommy said through now-chattering teeth.

"Tommy caught fire," Loretta explained.

"We put him out," Anthony added.

Tommy bent down and picked up his hair tie, which was damp with tomato sauce and dishwater; it had landed in the puddle Anthony created with his first attempt to extinguish Tommy.

"I have to go," Tommy said dazedly. Dripping with cold, congealing liquid, Tommy staggered out of the restaurant.

End Flashback

~*~

"You can stop laughing now."

"Hahahahaha..."

"Really, you can."

"HA!"

"It's not that funny."

"HAHAHA!"

"...It gets worse."

Kimberly struggled to control herself. "It... ha! It does? HAHA!"

"I didn't know what to do," Tommy said with a sigh. "I was in shock. So I did what I always did in a crisis back then—I went to see Hayley."

"Oh, g—hahaha!—god, what did—ha!—she s-s-say hahaha?"

"Well, the trouble with going to Hayley for advice just then... was that she happened to be in class."

~*~

Flashback

"So Beowulf defeated Grendel alone, using no weapons, as weapons were useless against the monster. What is the symbolism in the ineffectiveness of weapons?"

Hayley sighed as none of her classmates raised their hands. She'd been so busy taking all the math and science classes she could that she'd forgotten English, and so now she was stuck spending her time reading stories she'd memorized by the age of eight. Trouble was, no one else seemed to have a grasp of metaphors in literature, and the professor refused to move on to the next subject until someone took a stab at the current one. So Hayley had to come off like the geeky overachiever just to keep from sobbing with boredom. She stuck her hand up.

"Hayley?" the professor said, disappointed but unsurprised that she was the only one to respond.

"It symbolizes that you can't fight evil with evil. Only when you rely on yourself and your inner strength, and not outside influences, can you overcome all odds and—"

The classroom door opened.

Hayley broke off in horror.

Tommy came in, his shoes squelching as if full of liquid—which they very well might have been, as the rest of him was covered in globs of something red and smelly. He wore a thoroughly traumatized expression and was clutching something in one hand. He paused just inside the doorway, and haunted eyes scanned the room before resting on Hayley in the back.

The class stared at the first interesting thing ever to enter their English class, mouths agape at the poor, stunned, singed mess that was Tommy. Several people nudged their sleeping neighbors urgently.

Tommy held up the item in his hand—the hair tie—between two fingers. More sauce dripped from it onto the floor as he looked straight at her.

"Hayley," he said in a dazed, pathetic voice, "I had a problem."

"Tommy?" Hayley said faintly.

"My hair," Tommy whimpered. For a moment, Hayley feared he would burst into tears.

"Is this your, um..." The professor floundered for a label to describe Tommy that wasn't "Bad Horror Movie Monster." "Um... your... do you know him, Hayley?"

"He's my, uh, my roommate," Hayley said absently.

Tommy suddenly sank to his knees in between two desks (the students sitting in them scooted as far from him as they could get, their desks slamming against those in the next aisle). "My hair's gone!" he wailed.

Hayley began to gather up her belongings as quickly as possible. Tommy had had several freak accidents in her presence before. However, she'd never once seen him look so pitiful.

"My HAIR!" Tommy howled, holding the ruined hair tie up to the sky like some male romantic lead whose girl has just died and now finds it necessary to shout at the gods and the sky and look all sad and pained. Then he fell forward with a wet plopping sound, flat onto his face along the aisle.

"Professor, I think I have to go," Hayley said calmly, shaking her head as she stood up and slid her arms into her book bag straps. "I'll come by during office hours for the homework."

"No, no, you just... take all the time you need," he said, edging towards the side of the class away from Tommy. "I'll... give you an extension. Yeah."

"Thank you." Hayley walked over to the area near Tommy's head, crouched down and began rolling up her sleeves. "Come on, Tommy. I need you to pull it together. I can't fix this from the classroom floor."

"Hair," Tommy croaked. "Fire. Job. Tomato. Water. Anthony. Bwoosh. Hair."

Sighing, Hayley simply went to his feet, pushed up a pants leg, and grabbed hold of his relatively clean ankle. "Come on, tough guy," she said, and dragged him out of the room.

End Flashback

~*~

"Okay, now you can stop laughing. Really. Come on. Come on! Stop the laughing, Kim. It's really not that funny!"

"I can just see this little trail of tomato sauce!" Kimberly choked out.

"So could half the college. There was actually a bit of panic about it. People thought it was blood at first. It even made the local paper."

Kimberly dissolved into giggles. Between her shaking against his side and the rocking of the car, Tommy was starting to feel kind of queasy.

"So is that it, then?" Kimberly asked a good ten minutes later, after the silent phase of laughter, and the crying phase of laughter, and just about every other phase of laughter had finally run itself out.

"Mostly."

"Define 'mostly.'"

"Well, Hayley dragged me into the elevator, took me to the ground floor, rolled me into the grass outside, and went to one of the dorms where our friend Smitty was working the front desk. He let her borrow one of those carts people use to move their luggage in and out—you know, flat piece of wood on wheels with a big handle. Hayley got me onto it, wheeled me down the street for about two miles to our house, dumped me in the front yard and hosed me off. By then, I was a bit more coherent."

"Oh, my god..." Kimberly moaned, chuckling a few times; her system couldn't take much more laughing.

"Then I had to take off my ruined work uniform, towel off, and go take a hot shower before I got hypothermia. After that, Hayley trimmed what was left of my hair." Tommy smiled slightly, thinking of that first terrifying glimpse in the mirror. It hadn't looked bad, but he was utterly mortified just the same. He'd called work right then and there, with Hayley standing behind him holding the scissors and wearing a sympathetic (and rather amused, but still, she was trying) smile. He could still remember the conversation with his boss.

"It's me, Tommy."

"Tommy! You all right?"

"I'm fine."

"Good to hear it. You gave us a scare, walking off like that."

"I'm fine." He paused. "I'm never ever coming back."

"Yeah, we figured as much."

"I've kept my hair short ever since," Tommy said. "I liked it, once I got used to it. Besides, I don't think I could take another incident like that again."

"That was the best story ever," Kimberly said, clutching her side. "Oh, god... I needed that."

"Glad I could amuse you," Tommy said dryly.

"I'm sorry. It's just... come on. Even you have to admit it was funny."

"No, I don't have to admit it." He sighed. "But it was."

Kimberly giggled. "Oh, man, I haven't laughed that hard in years." She poked him in the side. "You should grow it back out though. I liked it long."

"I'm kind of a science teacher now," Tommy said, glad she couldn't see the embarrassment on his face. "Long hair is a bit... unprofessional."

"What, and spiky hair isn't?"

"Well... still."

"Got any more stories like that?"

"No. I haven't set myself on fire since then."

"Ah." Sensing another silence coming on, Kimberly quickly added, "So... um... tell me more about this Hayley girl. She's the only friend of yours I've heard about so far."

Tommy blinked, wondering if this was some sort of attempt to see if there really was anything romantic going on between him and Hayley. "Well... I've been working so hard these past few years, I didn't have time to make any more. I met her my first day of college. She just sort of... adopted me. She was only a sophomore, but she somehow managed to know everything about the college process already. She's like that. Anyway, we became really close friends. My only other good friend in college was Smitty, and... well... that didn't go so well."

"He became an evil guy, right?"

"Yeah. He stopped talking to me in 2001, after I beat him out for the job at Mercer Industries. After the island Mercer and I were working on blew up—"

"Wait. How did that happen?"

"Oh, we were working on all these paleontology experiments, and Anton Mercer experimented on himself, and ended up becoming a split-personality evil guy, Mesogog. So he used all the experiments to try to kill me and I escaped just in time to see the island explode. Anyway, a few months after that, Smitty was injured, only to be turned into an evil cyborg by Mesogog."

"And, what, you only made two friends in all these years?"

"Well, I lost touch with most of my dorm buddies when I moved off-campus, and I lost touch with just about everyone else when I transferred to Reefside, so I could work on my doctorate and work with Anton at the same time, and I was too busy to mingle while doing all that. I just got the degree last spring. It's mostly been just me and Hayley and the Ranger crew for the past year, though now I'm spending a bit more time with Anton and Randall."

"Randall?"

"Oh, she was Mesogog's other evil minion. Elsa. She's also the principal at my school. Unfortunately."

"You don't like her?"

"Oh, it's not that, it's just... well, she's really strict, and things are kind of weird between us. She knows I'm a Ranger and I've saved her life and... it's just really odd. Doesn't help that we got into a huge fight on the school lawn the day her secret identity was revealed, and I was the one who had to explain to the school board that she was possessed by an evil villain." He paused. "Now that was a weird day."

"You sound like you've been having a really strange life, Tommy."

"I have. Even before I became the Black Ranger. It's just... one thing after the other." Tommy shrugged. "How about you? The weirdness haunting you much?"

"Not really, no. Things have been pretty quiet." She sighed. "A little too quiet. What I wouldn't give for some nice, exciting weirdness."

Tommy smiled vaguely. "Be careful what you wish for."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 34: Where There's Smoke, There's Fire

The silence was oppressive. Tommy kept trying to think of things to say, because it seemed like the longer they stayed quiet, the less chance there was of starting a conversation. And he didn't want to be sitting in here, alone, in the dark, with Kimberly, for the next six hours, or however long it would take the RADBUG to run out of gas. Especially not since every time Billy went for more or less altitude, the two of them ended up crushed together to a somewhat painful point.

He knew he could ask her anything right now. They were alone, and once they got out of this trunk, his chance for a real talk was probably gone. He could ask her why. He could ask her any of the questions he'd wanted to ask her since winter of 1996.

But no way in hell was he that brave.

Give him a shark monster any day.

Besides, now was not the time to get into a fight, and he was about eighty-five percent certain that they'd have one when and if they did talk about it. Things were going reasonably well, and somehow, out on that mountain... it had been a profound experience. He'd felt like they were all six together for the first time since the day Jason, Trini and Zack had left. Not just when they'd been staring at the blank terrain that was their childhood, when he'd held Kimberly while she cried, but when they'd been chatting while sitting against the RADBUG, eating all those snacks Zack and Jason had bought, talking about everything and nothing. They had just picked up where they'd left off back in 1994. It was probably the best day he'd had in years. He wasn't going to ruin it now.

"So... read any good books lately?" Kimberly joked. He nearly jumped; the sound seemed so... sudden. Well, at least that saved him the trouble of coming up with an ice breaker.

"Not unless you count a manual on how to repair computer terminals," Tommy said.

"Why would you read something like that?" Kimberly asked, frowning.

"Well, my lab got totaled by an evil minion a few weeks back, remember? Zeltrax. Hayley—she's my... um, sort of like an Alpha/Billy/Trini—she's handling most of the computer repair, saving all the data we can, but she's had to work a lot lately—she owns the local teen hangout, and it's summer and everything—so I've been trying to get some of it done. It's a lot of work, though. But I've got most of the rubble cleaned out."

"Where exactly is this lab?" Kimberly asked.

"Beneath my house. It belonged to Anton Mercer, the guy who gave me a job during college and helped me search for the Dino Gems. But when he disappeared, his lawyers told me that the house went to me if anything happened to him, and Anton said there was no point in taking it back when he came back to Reefside."

"He gave you a whole house?"

"Well, he's incredibly rich," Tommy said. "He's Trent's father, think I mentioned that, but other than Trent he has no family, so he only has Trent to spend it on, and from what I understand Trent grew up so poor that he doesn't feel comfortable with overindulgence. Besides, when Anton came back, he was Mesogog—the head villain. So he wouldn't talk to me much, avoiding me when he could. I tried really hard to get a foot in his door, but he was having none of it. I asked things like 'What happened to you' and 'What are all our experiments doing trashing Reefside' and he kept skirting around them, so I asked if he wanted his house back, and he said there was no point in taking it back. I guess he knew I needed it."

"Don't teachers make fairly good money?"

"Well, it's not bad, especially considering that they have to pay me more because I have more than just a bachelor's degree, but I didn't get a job teaching until this year. Besides, I spend all the money I'm saving on rent for the taxes and the experiments, the ones that I did on my own, without Anton's funding. But that's not what I meant. See, he was the one who had the lab built, and after he found out about my past as a Ranger, he modified the underground lab with a lot of extra security and the escape tunnel and so on. That's how Zeltrax knew about it—Mesogog knew about everything Mercer did. But all that security, and a few modifications from Hayley, kept them out of there up until Zeltrax found the way in on his own."

"Ah."

And the silence returned. Damn.

"So... how does it feel to be a successful gymnast?" Tommy grimaced. That question was easily led back to things like "Since you ran off to be one and dumped me a few months later, I'd kind of like to know," but he had to pray that it didn't.

"Honestly? Not as good as I thought."

"But... you've won so many competitions and..."

"Yeah, I know. It's just... well. It's my dream. I've accomplished it. Now what?" She sighed. "Besides which, somewhere along the way I realized that what I really loved was being a Ranger, and helping people. And I'm never going to get to do that again."

Tommy chuckled. "Yeah, people never wind up becoming a Ranger again after they've given up the power. Ever."

Kimberly laughed. "Okay, maybe you're the wrong person to talk to about that."

"You think? Besides, Kim, it's not like being a Ranger is the only way to help people."

"Yeah. Maybe I just loved the automatic outfit thing too much. If only all my clothes would magically appear like the suit does."

Tommy cracked up. "Well, I don't know. Seems like they're getting more and more ceremonial. More arm waving, longer transformation calls. You should have seen Conner, Kira and Ethan morphing. Seemed like it took twenty minutes. Whereas Trent just pushed a button and said four words, they practically had a dance routine."

"I used to feel kind of silly during the morphing bit," Kimberly admitted. "Standing there, shouting 'Pterodactyl...' and don't even get me started on the Ninja Ranger morph. Now that was an involved morph."

Tommy nodded. "Yeah. And that suit... never liked it as much. Felt like I was wearing some sort of bed sheet. Not that the spandex stuff was utterly comfortable, but at least it wasn't billowing everywhere."

"No helmet to absorb the blows when you knocked your head, either," Kimberly said. "Mind you, I don't know why I'm complaining. It's the only power I have left, even if it's kind of weak."

"When was the last time you tried to use it?" Tommy asked.

"Right before I came here. Sometimes I can't help it. When I first left Angel Grove way back when, I used to morph into it every day, as if trying to assure myself it was still there. Now, not so much, but I do it a lot, probably more than I should."

"The Ninja abilities are based on our spirit animals, not our powers. You should have them forever."

"I suppose so. Do you ever try to use them?"

"I did, before I got my Dino Gem. Used to do it on occasion. There's something kind of sad about using the Ninja Powers, though... the fact that we don't have our coins anymore..." Kimberly nodded, and Tommy cleared his throat and continued. "I don't morph very often. Although ex-Rangers and Hayley tell me that a couple of times I've gotten smashed and gone running around the house in my Zeo suit, but personally I think they were lying. I usually only morph when I'm alone."

"Me too." She sighed. "What was it like, being a Ranger again?"

"I don't know. Sometimes it was great. And sometimes it was hell."

"Just like back in the day, huh?"

"Only worse. Because I'd thought I was through. I thought my time was over, and I'd moved on, and accepted it, and I'd really begun to believe it. You know, when I lost my Green Ranger powers the first time, I'd felt the same way. The power was gone. And it was devastating. Then I got them back, only I had to sit around waiting for it to end. And when it did, again with the devastating. But then I accepted it, and I moved on, and I was okay, and the next thing I know Zordon's asking me to be the White Ranger. I was elated, but I was disappointed too, because I felt I was just back on the merry-go-round."

"I never thought of it that way," Kimberly said quietly.

Tommy shrugged as best he could while lying in a cramped trunk, not that Kimberly could actually see him in the dark. "It wasn't so bad, really. It's just... as the White Ranger, it took me a while to get really secure. I knew my powers weren't temporary, but that's what I'd thought about the Green. By the time I felt secure, I lost them and went on to be a Zeo Ranger. Had to struggle with them for a while before I felt confident. I never lost them, and I gave up the Turbo powers... but when I did, I thought to myself, 'That's it, no more Ranger. Ever.' And I was oddly okay with it. I felt like I was finished." He laughed shortly. "I wasn't, of course. I went out on three separate missions with my Zeo powers. I had several freak accidents where I had to fight, like on the island right before it blew up. But each time I just went home afterwards, and knew that I still wasn't a Ranger. That I was still done. Yeah, I'd have to get back in the costume every so often, but it was like... like I was a character on a TV show, and my character got written off, but I still came back for the occasional guest appearance. Never for a full season. Until the Black Dino Gem. Then I was confused, and worried, and... I don't know. I'm exasperated, is what I am. I want the power to make up its mind about me. I don't want to keep swinging back and forth. It's like every time I get settled in my life, get okay with not being a Ranger, I end up morphing and running off into battle. And this time... this time it wasn't my friends, you know? It was my students. And I was the Zordon. It was weird, and at the same time it was great. ...But mostly, it was weird."

"Must've been hard," Kimberly said softly.

Tommy shrugged again. "I don't know. I shouldn't be complaining. It's a gift."

"I think you have a right to complain. Just because it's a blessing doesn't mean it doesn't have a downside. Even though it gives you things, it's still taking other things away, and you have every right to miss those things."

"Yeah." Tommy fought off a sigh. They were getting too close to the subject of them, and he didn't like it, didn't want it, not now, maybe not ever. "So you run a school in L.A.?"

"Yeah. It's doing really well. I need to stop trying to do so much on my own, though. I'm working myself to death. I've hired other instructors, but I'm still doing too much. I guess... you know, ever since I gave up my coin, I've been trying to stay as busy as possible."

"Me too. We all do, really. Every time I go visit Trini and Jason, I see her organize something during every lull in the conversation."

"Yeah. And Jason immediately goes for Mr. Introverted mode. I hate when he does that. He's far too internal when he doesn't have something to fight."

"Definitely. And Billy works himself to death. Zack can't seem to hold still, either."

"He never could. As a kid, he was so determined to keep playing. I remember being eight years old and thinking that Zack had some sort of health problem because by the time he'd finally take a break to go to the bathroom he was about to burst. He just couldn't be bothered to put life on pause, even when it was as simple as going to the bathroom." She paused thoughtfully. "You know, after all these years, I think Zack's probably the one who's changed the least."

"Yeah."

The silence returned, somehow heavier than it had been before.

"You know, I'm dying to hit the gym. I haven't worked out once since I got here. It's driving me crazy."

"Me too! What I wouldn't give for a balance beam and a treadmill."

"We should hit Ernie's again."

"Mm-hmm."

Damn. The lulls just kept coming.

"Uh... we should go on a snack run tonight. I brought some junk food, but Zack and Jason and Billy and I ate it all."

"Yeah, we should maybe hit a Wal-Mart or something. I forgot a few things, and I don't think I'll be able to get any of you to the mall until Thursday; it was the soonest I could get Billy in for his eye exam."

"Yeah, Wal-Mart would work. Billy will need some jeans and stuff until we get to the mall, too."

"He can't wear Wal-Mart jeans!"

"Kim, he's dressed like something out of a bad teen movie. A bad 90s teen movie."

"Well, yeah, but..."

"You can put a limit on him. Only enough Wal-Mart clothes to get through until the mall. Then he has to wear good clothes."

"...You wear Wal-Mart clothes, don't you."

"So does everyone who isn't you. Besides, I have four different color obsessions now. If I shopped exclusively at the mall, I'd be broke, and besides, I'm a teacher, so I'm broke enough as it is. But don't worry. I shop other places, too."

"Sure you do."

"I do!"

"Uh-huh. I believe you. Oh, speaking of you and fashion, do you have a hairdryer I can borrow? Trini packed really light, figuring I'd have mine, and Kira didn't bring one, either."

"I don't, actually. Mine disappeared during the move to Reefside, and... well... my hair was short by then, so..."

"What did happen to your hair?"

"Eh... it's not a very good story. More of a... more of a trauma than a story."

"So tell me."

"Well..."

"Come on. You can tell me. Besides, if you don't, I'll get the story out of Trini anyway."

"Eh..."

"Where Kira can overhear. Maybe Conner and Ethan and Trent, too."

"All right, fine, you win." He sighed. "Well... you see... it was back in college. I was working at this family-owned Italian restaurant—you know, pizza, pasta, that sort of thing. And they had gas stoves. So I was trying to light this stove, right, and—"

"Wait. You can cook now?"

"No. Which is part of why I lost my hair."

~*~

Flashback

"Damn it!" Loretta fairly screamed, thrown another burnt match down on the counter next to the gas stove.

"Shh! You know how Mr. Ditrapani feels about swearing around the customers," Tommy admonished as he walked into the kitchen. "I can hear you from the dining area."

"He's my dad. Doubt I'm getting fired," Loretta snapped.

"What's the problem?" Tommy asked, attempting to be diplomatic.

"My problem is Mario's off today and I'm trying to cook and I'm failing!"

"I thought you said you were a great cook."

"I am. On an electric stove. You know, the thing that normal people use? I can't get this stupid thing to light!"

Tommy looked at the knobs thoughtfully. "Don't you just turn it to 'lite?' That's what Hayley does."

"'That's what Hayley does,'" Loretta mimicked in a childish, whiny voice. "What does Tommy do? Let me guess—get a job at a pizza place so he doesn't starve to death?"

"I'm just trying to h—" Tommy began hotly.

"Don't listen to her," interrupted Anthony, Mr. Ditrapani's eldest son, who was currently washing dishes. He had a knack for pinning down every single personality trait in anyone who came into contact with him. "She always gets rude when she's upset. You can tell when she's about to cry, because she tries to slug you."

"I'm gonna slug you in a minute," Loretta growled, her lip quivering.

"Give me the matches," Tommy said more patiently, used to both the temperamental Loretta and the philosophical Anthony by now. "Let me see if I can do it."

Leaning close to the stove like he'd seen Hayley do, he made sure the gas was on, then struck a match and held it close to the burner. Blue flamed whooshed to life.

Orange flame whooshed to Tommy's ponytail.

"ACK!"

Tommy whipped his head back on pure instinct, grabbing at his head. A still-wet spot of alcohol from when he'd spilled a customer's drink on his shirt came into contact with the dwindling ponytail as the stench of burning hair filled the room; the next thing he knew, his entire arm was on fire.

Screaming incoherently, Tommy leaped away from the stove, just in time to miss the dishpan of water Anthony lobbed his way; most of it splashed harmlessly against Tommy's leg, which had yet to catch fire (thankfully, now it wouldn't). Loretta dove backwards out of Tommy's way as his hair was burned away, right up to the hair tie that held his previously-long hair at the back of his neck. The tie dropped off, landed on the fiery shoulder, and was set ablaze before falling down towards his dry pants leg.

In about three seconds, Tommy was going to be on fire from head to foot.

Thankfully, his fellow pizzeria employees were out to save his life.

Loretta, now backed into a corner, grabbed the closest liquid-like item she could find—cold tomato sauce that she'd been planning to prepare once she got the stove lit. She seized the whole pot of it and heaved.

Anthony, not backed into a corner, was now out of dishwater, but he didn't think he'd have time to fill a bucket. So, with a battle cry worthy of any do-gooder, he grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall and cut loose.

The tomato sauce hit Tommy just a moment before the freezing cold chemical, thick red gunk splattering all over his back and down half of his flaming arm. No one got a chance to see if it did the trick, because Anthony began dousing Tommy in icy carbon dioxide.

Anthony ran the extinguisher until it was emptied; extinguishers, contrary to popular belief, only work once, and once they stop they're useless. So Anthony would later blame this action on extensive knowledge of how extinguishers work, while in reality he was just so shocked and terrified that he didn't have the wherewithal to stop. He continued to spray, while Tommy's scream became a high-pitched screech of shock as the cold blasted away the fire and seeped through his uniform, chilling him to the bone.

Finally, the extinguisher ran empty.

Tommy was no longer on fire.

He was, however, covered in red gunk, white gunk, and freezing his ass off.

There was utter silence in the kitchen. All three of them struggled to wrap their heads around this phenomenon and failed miserably.

At last, Tommy spoke.

"Am I bald?" he whimpered.

"N-no," Loretta stammered, dropping the saucepan with a clatter.

"I caught fire," Tommy said blankly.

"We fixed it," Anthony offered, wide-eyed and shaking.

The kitchen doors swung open, admitting a furious Mr. Ditrapani. "What the devil are you people doing? I can hear screaming all the way in the..." Mr. Ditrapani got a good look at the kitchen—the white spray clinging to everything, the sauce splattered everywhere, the dirty water all over the floor, and the three traumatized employees. "Good heavens..."

Loretta looked at him.

Anthony looked at him.

"Hi," Tommy said through now-chattering teeth.

"Tommy caught fire," Loretta explained.

"We put him out," Anthony added.

Tommy bent down and picked up his hair tie, which was damp with tomato sauce and dishwater; it had landed in the puddle Anthony created with his first attempt to extinguish Tommy.

"I have to go," Tommy said dazedly. Dripping with cold, congealing liquid, Tommy staggered out of the restaurant.

End Flashback

~*~

"You can stop laughing now."

"Hahahahaha..."

"Really, you can."

"HA!"

"It's not that funny."

"HAHAHA!"

"...It gets worse."

Kimberly struggled to control herself. "It... ha! It does? HAHA!"

"I didn't know what to do," Tommy said with a sigh. "I was in shock. So I did what I always did in a crisis back then—I went to see Hayley."

"Oh, g—hahaha!—god, what did—ha!—she s-s-say hahaha?"

"Well, the trouble with going to Hayley for advice just then... was that she happened to be in class."

~*~

Flashback

"So Beowulf defeated Grendel alone, using no weapons, as weapons were useless against the monster. What is the symbolism in the ineffectiveness of weapons?"

Hayley sighed as none of her classmates raised their hands. She'd been so busy taking all the math and science classes she could that she'd forgotten English, and so now she was stuck spending her time reading stories she'd memorized by the age of eight. Trouble was, no one else seemed to have a grasp of metaphors in literature, and the professor refused to move on to the next subject until someone took a stab at the current one. So Hayley had to come off like the geeky overachiever just to keep from sobbing with boredom. She stuck her hand up.

"Hayley?" the professor said, disappointed but unsurprised that she was the only one to respond.

"It symbolizes that you can't fight evil with evil. Only when you rely on yourself and your inner strength, and not outside influences, can you overcome all odds and—"

The classroom door opened.

Hayley broke off in horror.

Tommy came in, his shoes squelching as if full of liquid—which they very well might have been, as the rest of him was covered in globs of something red and smelly. He wore a thoroughly traumatized expression and was clutching something in one hand. He paused just inside the doorway, and haunted eyes scanned the room before resting on Hayley in the back.

The class stared at the first interesting thing ever to enter their English class, mouths agape at the poor, stunned, singed mess that was Tommy. Several people nudged their sleeping neighbors urgently.

Tommy held up the item in his hand—the hair tie—between two fingers. More sauce dripped from it onto the floor as he looked straight at her.

"Hayley," he said in a dazed, pathetic voice, "I had a problem."

"Tommy?" Hayley said faintly.

"My hair," Tommy whimpered. For a moment, Hayley feared he would burst into tears.

"Is this your, um..." The professor floundered for a label to describe Tommy that wasn't "Bad Horror Movie Monster." "Um... your... do you know him, Hayley?"

"He's my, uh, my roommate," Hayley said absently.

Tommy suddenly sank to his knees in between two desks (the students sitting in them scooted as far from him as they could get, their desks slamming against those in the next aisle). "My hair's gone!" he wailed.

Hayley began to gather up her belongings as quickly as possible. Tommy had had several freak accidents in her presence before. However, she'd never once seen him look so pitiful.

"My HAIR!" Tommy howled, holding the ruined hair tie up to the sky like some male romantic lead whose girl has just died and now finds it necessary to shout at the gods and the sky and look all sad and pained. Then he fell forward with a wet plopping sound, flat onto his face along the aisle.

"Professor, I think I have to go," Hayley said calmly, shaking her head as she stood up and slid her arms into her book bag straps. "I'll come by during office hours for the homework."

"No, no, you just... take all the time you need," he said, edging towards the side of the class away from Tommy. "I'll... give you an extension. Yeah."

"Thank you." Hayley walked over to the area near Tommy's head, crouched down and began rolling up her sleeves. "Come on, Tommy. I need you to pull it together. I can't fix this from the classroom floor."

"Hair," Tommy croaked. "Fire. Job. Tomato. Water. Anthony. Bwoosh. Hair."

Sighing, Hayley simply went to his feet, pushed up a pants leg, and grabbed hold of his relatively clean ankle. "Come on, tough guy," she said, and dragged him out of the room.

End Flashback

~*~

"Okay, now you can stop laughing. Really. Come on. Come on! Stop the laughing, Kim. It's really not that funny!"

"I can just see this little trail of tomato sauce!" Kimberly choked out.

"So could half the college. There was actually a bit of panic about it. People thought it was blood at first. It even made the local paper."

Kimberly dissolved into giggles. Between her shaking against his side and the rocking of the car, Tommy was starting to feel kind of queasy.

"So is that it, then?" Kimberly asked a good ten minutes later, after the silent phase of laughter, and the crying phase of laughter, and just about every other phase of lau No one had expected Tommy and Kimberly to get locked in the trunk together; they all saw it as a stroke of good luck. They were all thinking of ways to prolong it, and dying of curiosity (especially after Kimberly's hysterical laughter reached their ears), but unfortunately they couldn't keep flying much longer. There was a much bigger chance that they'd get lost or caught if they kept flying around in circles, and, as Jason pointed out, both would royally suck. Most of the guys were also craving food that didn't come in a plastic wrapper, and everyone was dying to drag the story of what was happening in the trunk out of Tommy and/or Kimberly, and Trini liked flying less and less the longer they were in the air.

They were back at Billy's house by nine o'clock, though they stood in the backyard for quite some time, the older Rangers now looking at the RADBUG, house and garage with nostalgia, reluctant to leave.

"Dude, what were you two talking about in the trunk?" Conner asked Tommy. "We could hear you laughing the whole way back."

Kimberly burst into giggles again. Tommy smiled tiredly. "Oh, you know," he said, "same old, same old. The insanity that is life."

Kimberly leaned against the car until she got control of herself, clutching her side. "Oh, man... it's a wonder I didn't suffocate," she wheezed.

Tommy sighed, though he still looked a tad amused. "Anyway... we were thinking maybe we could go to the store? Kim said Billy's eye exam is on Thursday, so we could pick up some cheap clothes until then..."

"There's a Wal-Mart not far from the hotel," Jason said. "Halfway between the Inn and my house. We could swing by there."

"I could really use some snack food," Conner said. Ethan and Kira rolled their eyes.

"I need a hair dryer," Kimberly said. "I'm going insane without mine."

"I'll just grab mine from the house on the way back, don't worry," Trini said.

"I forgot my razor, though," Zack said. "And my toothpaste. I've been stealing Tommy's. And my shaving cream. And my—"

"So we need to buy a whole bathroom for Zack," Tommy interrupted dryly. "I wondered why I couldn't find my toothpaste this morning." Tommy rolled his eyes, putting his foot up on the bumper of the RADBUG and stretching out his leg to relieve his cramped muscles.

"As long as Kim promises not to go overboard," Jason said. "Otherwise, we're leaving her here."

"Hey! I don't go overboard!"

Jason, Trini, Zack, Billy and Tommy stared at her for a moment.

"Well... I'm not that bad, I mean, I... okay, fine. Tell you what. It's a nice night. Why don't we drop the cars back at the hotel and walk?"

"Why?" Conner asked. "What does walking have to do with anything?"

"Then she can't buy more than I can carry," Tommy explained with a wry grin, stretching out the other leg.

"Exactly," Kimberly said, as though it should be obvious. "Once he figured that out he wanted to walk everywhere. He used to try to convince me to walk to the mall. The mall! As if that was ever going to happen."

"Is it really far away or something?" Ethan asked.

"No." Kimberly gave him a slightly confused look.

"Kimberly kept the mall in business back in high school," Tommy explained. "I'm surprised it's still around. No way was she going to the mall with just me to carry her stuff home."

"Couple of stores went under back in 1996," Jason said casually.

"That was so not because of me. Besides, Aisha was a great replacement in that department."

"Aisha left, like, two months after you did, didn't she?" Zack said.

Kimberly rolled her eyes. "Anyway, can we get going?"

"Can I go to the bathroom first?" Conner asked. "We've been gone a really long time."

"Me, too," Zack and Ethan chorused at the same instant.

"Come on, I'll show you where the bathrooms are," Billy said.

Everyone headed into the house, save Tommy, who lingered on the back porch. "Coming, man?" Jason called.

"Nah, I wanna make a call," Tommy replied. Jason nodded and shut the door behind them. The moment Tommy was alone, he pulled out his cell phone. Telling Kimberly the hair story and the whole conversation in the trunk had given him an overwhelmingly strong desire to talk to Hayley.

"Hello?"

"Hey."

"Oh, it's you."

"Gee, I miss you, too."

"That came out wrong. I was just wondering who would be calling the café after closing hours."

"I figured you'd still be locking up." He paused. "Remember that thing with the tomato sauce?"

"Tommy, I'll never forget that. Alzheimer's couldn't erase that from my memory. Why do you ask? I thought it was in the 'never to be mentioned again' column?"

"Just... got to thinking about it today."

"Jason finally tell the story to Conner and the gang?"

"No, no, thank god."

"Then... what made you think of it?"

"Oh... you know... the old gang, cracking on my hair like usual."

"The 'old gang' already knows that story."

"Yeah. I was just thinking about it, myself, is all."

"...Did you tell Kim?"

"What makes you say that?"

"You did, didn't you."

"Yeah. She asked."

"And you just told her the utterly embarrassing, humiliating, horrible story?"

"...Is there a point here?"

"You're not doing anything stupid, are you?" Hayley demanded sharply.

Tommy leaned against the RADBUG, frowning. "What do you mean?"

"You and Kim."

"We're just friends."

"Oh, so you're friends now, are you?"

"Yeah, so?" he said defensively.

"You can't be friends with your ex, Tommy."

"Me and you are exes."

"Only technically. We went out because you were so screwed up in the head because of Kim. You were all worried you couldn't get a girl so you had to torture me—"

"Hey!"

"—torture me with dating you because you wanted to prove you could make a relationship work."

"Guess I failed."

"Oh, shut up. You know we're different. We were never cut out to be anything other than friends. You know I'm not like Kim. And I'm telling you, don't do anything stupid."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning don't go all nostalgic boy and try to sweep her off her feet. I know you, Tommy. I was the one who helped you get over your relationship phobias. I was the one who listened to your drunken rants about how much you missed her every time you had more than a few beers. I was the one who helped you padlock the Kim Box, for crying out loud. I know you, Tommy, and you do stupid things when it comes to girls."

"Thanks a lot, Hayley," Tommy said dryly.

"I'm serious. Look, I'm glad you're back with the gang again, but I'm worried. This trip isn't healthy. You've spent the last six years being Stuck-in-the-Past Boy. All those experiments, being a Ranger again... you miss the old days, and I don't want you to confuse the good times in the past with Kimberly now. Let her go, before you get burned again."

Tommy rolled his eyes. "I'm not an idiot, Hayley. I'm not going all teen angst drama here. I've got my head in the game. I'm not about to get down on bended knee and beg her to take me back. She left me. I'm done."

"I'm glad. Because I'd be willing to bet anything that Kim is the reason you're calling me right now."

"No, she isn't. I just wanted to talk to you."

"You wanted to talk to me because you were having so much fun reliving the old days that you wanted to remind yourself of the new days, and you couldn't do that with Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent, especially not when they're staring all starry-eyed at the legends that are your friends." She paused. "Am I right?"

Tommy sighed heavily. "Yeah. I just... I miss them. We were never the same after Jason, Trini and Zack left. By the time they all came back to America, Billy and Kim were gone." He ran a hand over his hair absently. "It's so nice, being here. Every minute, every embarrassing story and exasperating moment and awkward phrase, it's all great, because it's them. It's us."

"I know. That's why I'm so worried about you right now. I don't want you to think you can traipse off into the sunset with Kimberly. After Power Rangers Day, Billy has to go back to Aquitar, Kim and Zack have to go back to L.A., and you have to come back here."

"I don't want to traipse off—"

"Oh, for crying out loud, shut up, Tommy. This is me, damn it. We both know you do. You always have. But you have to think with your head here, the one above your shoulders—"

"HEY!"

"—because going near Kim again can only screw you over. Stop telling her funny anecdotes. Stop trying to buddy up. Because things have changed, and your old feelings are going to confuse you, take you somewhere you don't need to be. Take you to a delusion that'll shatter eventually."

Tommy sighed again. "I know what I'm doing, Hayley. I'm not going to tell you that I'm never going to speak to her again come Sunday. I miss her, and I want her back in my life. But I'll be damned if I let her hurt me again."

"Good." He heard a creak and a sigh and figured she'd sat down on a barstool. "Look, I was thinking... I'd kind of like to see everybody. And who knows when I'll get to meet Billy if I don't do it now. So... I was thinking... maybe I could come up for Power Rangers Day."

Tommy wasn't fooled... but then, he wasn't sure Hayley was trying to fool him. He knew she wanted to keep an eye on him; after all the money she'd lost running off to help the Rangers over the past year, she wouldn't shut down the café unless she felt he needed her.

"That's a good point," he said. "It'd be nice to have you here."

"...Is Rocky going to be there, by any chance?" Hayley asked hesitantly.

Tommy frowned. Rocky had a tendency to flirt with Hayley, which Tommy wasn't too keen on. "I don't know. I haven't talked to him."

"What about Adam and Tanya?"

"Them, either. I know Tanya went to Africa to see Aisha and the tribe a couple weeks back, but I can't remember if Adam went with her or not."

"Well, it'd be worth it to see Billy and Trini and everyone, whether or not I get to see Tanya, Rocky, Adam and Aisha."

"All the hotel rooms are probably booked, so you'd have to bunk with me and Zack or else stay with Jason and Trini. I'll ask them when I get a chance. Why don't you come down on Thursday night? I'm guessing we'll all be really busy come Saturday." Then you can take Conner and Ethan back to Reefside in YOUR car, he added silently, not wanting to scare her off.

"All right. Call me back once you've asked them. And ask them about Rocky and the others too."

"I will. I'll talk to you later, Hayley."

"Don't do anything stupid."

"I won't!"

"All right, then. Be careful."

"I will. Love you, bye."

"You, too. Bye."

Tommy hung up the phone and continued to lean against the RADBUG, lost in thought. It'd be nice to have Hayley around. Not only would she distract Trini, but he had to admit that he'd feel a lot more comfortable if she was there to ground him. He'd spent most of his non-Ranger days with Hayley at his side and even though they'd managed to become less dependent on each other than they'd been back in college, it was a tad harder to function without her beside him. The more he thought about it, the better he felt. She might be a little upset about Kimberly, but Tommy could handle that. Besides, if Kimberly was going to stay friends with him, she'd have to meet Hayley eventually. After all, all of his other friends adored Hayley.

Once he and Hayley had started renting a house back in college, his friends finally had the chance to visit him (only so many people could sleep on a dorm room floor) and they'd all taken well to Hayley, even more so when she'd stumbled across Tommy's past as a Ranger. The Rangers were all nervous about it at first, but once they were convinced she wasn't going to blab they were merely relieved that they wouldn't have to watch what they said around her. Even Kat, who'd met Hayley at Tommy's graduation and Jason's wedding, thought she was lovely, though Tommy had caught her sending a few suspicious glances her way.

It had been Trini who'd introduced Billy to Hayley over the Aqua-phone, and after that it was all he could do to keep Hayley from borrowing his Aqua-phone to have three-way chats with Trini and Billy that involved a lot of jargon only the three geniuses knew and a lot of rather evil laughter. Zack liked her as well, though he'd backed up with flirting with her when Tommy had made it clear that Hayley was like a sister to him (Rocky wasn't taking the hint so well), and Jason's philosophy was that anyone who "could put up with Tommy, fix a motorcycle and drink with the pros" was cool with him.

Hayley didn't know Aisha or Kat very well; Aisha rarely got to leave Africa, and Kat tended to only return for big events, given her past with Tommy and the fact that she'd recently moved to Australia after several years of life in Europe. They'd both been at Jason and Trini's wedding, and at Tommy's graduation, but other than that, their exposure to Hayley was limited. Rocky, Adam and Tanya, however, were another story.

Hayley wasn't as close to the three of them as she was to Trini, who—despite the distance between Reefside and Angel Grove—was Hayley's closest female friend, and Jason, Zack and Billy were also closer to her, but Hayley knew Rocky, Adam and Aisha well and enjoyed their company nonetheless. Tommy got the distinct impression that she found it funny when Tommy gave Rocky an older-brother glare for trying to hit on her.

Rocky was currently living in Stone Canyon, where he owned his own flourishing karate school. T.J., who—along with the other Space Rangers—was quite famous thanks to his publicized identity, had met Rocky through Tommy and Adam and had endorsed both Rocky's school and Jason's, which had accounted for a lot of their customers. They'd played it off as an old friend doing his buddies a favor, but plenty of people wanted to train with a Power Ranger's friend. Rocky and Jason had a good laugh every time someone asked them what it was like to be friends with a Power Ranger.

Adam was now a successful stunt man, and had worked on a lot of films with Zack. Adam was still involved with Tanya, who was now a very famous singer. (Tommy hadn't mentioned that fact to Kira, mostly because it had been a very weird moment for him when he'd seen her listening to some of Tanya's albums.) The two of them lived together in Los Angeles, where they hung out with Zack and Kimberly a lot. Adam was always getting in friendly academic debates with Hayley, and Tanya just seemed to recognize that even though Hayley had never been a Ranger, Hayley was definitely a fellow Yellow.

Rocky, Adam and Tanya still hung out with Tommy, Jason, Trini, and Zack whenever they could; they all knew Jason and Tommy from the Zeo team, but Zack and Trini had only met Tanya upon returning to America and they'd all become very close since, as if they were part of the same team, rather than two separate groups. While they'd all formed deep bonds with their corresponding colors, Zack and Rocky were more or less the best of friends, and Adam and Jason got along famously. The three of them also chatted to Billy a lot. Now that he thought about it, Tommy was rather surprised no one had mention calling up Rocky, Adam and Tanya. Billy had said something at the restaurant, but the Kat name-dropping had forced them to put it out of their heads as fast as possible.

Tommy grinned suddenly, thinking of what Rocky, Adam and Tanya would say when they heard he and Kimberly were hanging out together. He was pretty certain they were all on very good terms with Kimberly. From what he understood, Tanya had taken well to Kimberly; Kimberly had even sung on a couple of Tanya's albums, although Tommy hadn't gotten the full story before Tanya had realized she was mentioning Kimberly in front of him and changed the subject (hence he'd received the shock of his life when he'd turned on MTV to see one of Tanya's videos and seen Kimberly dancing around; she'd appeared in two of Tanya's other videos since, and he had all three of them on tape). Adam and Rocky had been on the team with Kimberly for almost two years, as well, so he didn't doubt that they were still hanging with her.

"Dr. O! Kira's got him in a headlock!" Trent shouted out the window.

Tommy sighed, making a mental note to talk to Jason and the others about Hayley (preferably when Kimberly wasn't around) as he headed inside to break it up.ghter had finally run itself out.

"Mostly."

"Define 'mostly.'"

"Well, Hayley dragged me into the elevator, took me to the ground floor, rolled me into the grass outside, and went to one of the dorms where our friend Smitty was working the front desk. He let her borrow one of those carts people use to move their luggage in and out—you know, flat piece of wood on wheels with a big handle. Hayley got me onto it, wheeled me down the street for about two miles to our house, dumped me in the front yard and hosed me off. By then, I was a bit more coherent."

"Oh, my god..." Kimberly moaned, chuckling a few times; her system couldn't take much more laughing.

"Then I had to take off my ruined work uniform, towel off, and go take a hot shower before I got hypothermia. After that, Hayley trimmed what was left of my hair." Tommy smiled slightly, thinking of that first terrifying glimpse in the mirror. It hadn't looked bad, but he was utterly mortified just the same. He'd called work right then and there, with Hayley standing behind him holding the scissors and wearing a sympathetic (and rather amused, but still, she was trying) smile. He could still remember the conversation with his boss.

"It's me, Tommy."

"Tommy! You all right?"

"I'm fine."

"Good to hear it. You gave us a scare, walking off like that."

"I'm fine." He paused. "I'm never ever coming back."

"Yeah, we figured as much."

"I've kept my hair short ever since," Tommy said. "I liked it, once I got used to it. Besides, I don't think I could take another incident like that again."

"That was the best story ever," Kimberly said, clutching her side. "Oh, god... I needed that."

"Glad I could amuse you," Tommy said dryly.

"I'm sorry. It's just... come on. Even you have to admit it was funny."

"No, I don't have to admit it." He sighed. "But it was."

Kimberly giggled. "Oh, man, I haven't laughed that hard in years." She poked him in the side. "You should grow it back out though. I liked it long."

"I'm kind of a science teacher now," Tommy said, glad she couldn't see the embarrassment on his face. "Long hair is a bit... unprofessional."

"What, and spiky hair isn't?"

"Well... still."

"Got any more stories like that?"

"No. I haven't set myself on fire since then."

"Ah." Sensing another silence coming on, Kimberly quickly added, "So... um... tell me more about this Hayley girl. She's the only friend of yours I've heard about so far."

Tommy blinked, wondering if this was some sort of attempt to see if there really was anything romantic going on between him and Hayley. "Well... I've been working so hard these past few years, I didn't have time to make any more. I met her my first day of college. She just sort of... adopted me. She was only a sophomore, but she somehow managed to know everything about the college process already. She's like that. Anyway, we became really close friends. My only other good friend in college was Smitty, and... well... that didn't go so well."

"He became an evil guy, right?"

"Yeah. He stopped talking to me in 2001, after I beat him out for the job at Mercer Industries. After the island Mercer and I were working on blew up—"

"Wait. How did that happen?"

"Oh, we were working on all these paleontology experiments, and Anton Mercer experimented on himself, and ended up becoming a split-personality evil guy, Mesogog. So he used all the experiments to try to kill me and I escaped just in time to see the island explode. Anyway, a few months after that, Smitty was injured, only to be turned into an evil cyborg by Mesogog."

"And, what, you only made two friends in all these years?"

"Well, I lost touch with most of my dorm buddies when I moved off-campus, and I lost touch with just about everyone else when I transferred to Reefside, so I could work on my doctorate and work with Anton at the same time, and I was too busy to mingle while doing all that. I just got the degree last spring. It's mostly been just me and Hayley and the Ranger crew for the past year, though now I'm spending a bit more time with Anton and Randall."

"Randall?"

"Oh, she was Mesogog's other evil minion. Elsa. She's also the principal at my school. Unfortunately."

"You don't like her?"

"Oh, it's not that, it's just... well, she's really strict, and things are kind of weird between us. She knows I'm a Ranger and I've saved her life and... it's just really odd. Doesn't help that we got into a huge fight on the school lawn the day her secret identity was revealed, and I was the one who had to explain to the school board that she was possessed by an evil villain." He paused. "Now that was a weird day."

"You sound like you've been having a really strange life, Tommy."

"I have. Even before I became the Black Ranger. It's just... one thing after the other." Tommy shrugged. "How about you? The weirdness haunting you much?"

"Not really, no. Things have been pretty quiet." She sighed. "A little too quiet. What I wouldn't give for some nice, exciting weirdness."

Tommy smiled vaguely. "Be careful what you wish for."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 35: Green No More

After stopping to pick up Trini's hairdryer, and enduring a long argument about whether or not Trini would be spending the night with Jason or Kimberly (Kimberly won; Trini made a few choice comments about what would not happen if Jason kept whining about her coming home, and suddenly the fight was over) they dropped the cars off at the hotel and began the trek to Wal-Mart. They'd barely gone three feet when Conner (who was taking care to walk on the other side of the group from Kira, and Trent just in case), asked why they never came into the ruins.

"Long story," Tommy said uncomfortably.

"You're not doing that 'I don't want to tell you anything' thing again, are you?" Kira demanded through narrowed eyes.

Jason laughed. Tommy cleared his throat. "No, I just..."

"Once we got there, we just sort of... didn't need to. Not today, anyway." Trini smiled and nudged Billy. "Remember all the time we spent there? Looking through the files and reworking the programs and creating new software?"

"Every minute," Billy replied with a broad smile.

"Hey, speaking of the programs in the Command Center, how is it recording all that stuff?" Ethan asked. "The stuff about all of us?"

"Oh, Billy set that up years ago," Tommy explained. "After Jason, Trini and Zack were replaced by Rocky, Adam and Aisha, he figured that we might all leave the team one day and created a program to monitor for upcoming Rangers and record their histories. When I went there with Hayley, she set it up to transmit everything to my lab, so I could keep it up to date. There are only three records of that information; Andros got in touch with Billy and got the specifics, so he has a similar program."

"Mine still works?" Billy demanded. "I thought it perished along with the Power Chamber!"

"No, it still works. I told you that." Tommy paused. "Surely I told you that."

"The absentminded professor strikes again," Jason muttered.

"I had no idea it was still fully functional! I had Alpha send me a file dump before he left the planet, but my information only details the events leading up to a few weeks before Zordon left for Eltar!" Billy stared at Tommy in amazement. "You still have all those files?"

"Sure. They were transmitted to my lab. Hayley has them protected like nothing else, though. Sometimes even I can't get into them."

"I got in pretty easy," Ethan pointed out.

"You got into the summary pretty easy. Besides, you're Blue. And I made that video log so that, if anything happened, someone would know the basics of what was going on. Besides, I had to remove a lot of the security programs to update the information about you three." Tommy smiled. "You never would have gotten near it otherwise." He paused. "At least, I'm pretty sure..."

"Tommy, that's an experimental program with nearly unlimited potential! The schematics I gave Andros are nowhere near as good as the original work! Alpha even improved it using the same technology tied directly to Zordon's intuition and the morphing grid itself. Do you have any idea what I could do if I had the original program to work with?" Billy's excitement suddenly halted and turned to panic. "Oh, GOD! Those files are being transmitted? Do you have any idea what will happen if the transmission is intercepted? How could you send that stuff over the airwaves! We have to go back!"

Billy spun and started to race back to the hotel. Trini caught him by the arm, nearly swinging him around in a circle from the momentum. "Billy, it's okay! Don't worry. I thought you knew all about it. Hayley and I have been helping Tommy with it. I made certain things were going off without a hitch. There are more backups on that program than there are guards at Fort Knox. I even tried to hack into Tommy's system myself to see if I could get through, from my house, from work, and from Tommy's lab; thirty-two hours later, I was still stumped. I asked Justin—you know, the Blue Turbo, the kid Rocky passed his powers on to—to try the same and he called me a week later, practically in tears and surrounded by his frustrated MIT roommates. Trust me; it's secure. You can try to hack into it yourself if you want, but I'm telling you, it's safe."

Billy breathed out a shaky sigh of relief. "Thank god." It wasn't that he didn't trust Hayley and Tommy—it was just that Tommy's computer knowledge was iffy and, having never met Hayley in person, he couldn't be a hundred percent certain of her skills.

"You don't honestly think I wouldn't say anything when Tommy told me he was transmitting it, did you?" Trini continued. "I thought about having him send them to me, also, but he has a lot better equipment, given the funding Anton Mercer set him up with, so he had better resources to ensure its safety. I figured that it was better it stay in as few places as possible. And it's the only transmission leaving the Power Chamber; Andros's program is powered with his own technology, not ours. Don't worry," she added. "It's safe and secure and as soon as Tommy gets his lab up and running again, I'll swing by and help Hayley transfer it to Aquitar. I thought Tommy would have told you. I'm sorry."

"No problem," Billy said weakly. "I just... you know, none of you have ever been suspected of being a Ranger by an entire city. It's not fun. All the information in those files... every Ranger on the planet would be at risk. Every Ranger on every planet."

"Don't worry," Trini repeated. "I've set it up to look like an elaborate hoax, should anything actually be intercepted. And if anything were to go wrong, you don't live on the planet, and I'd imagine dialing up Aquitar for a phone interview would cost more than your average Beverly Hills mansion. So only the rest of us would be screwed." She looked pointedly at Tommy.

"It's as secure as superhumanly possible," Tommy assured him.

"Can we have a look at some of it when we're done?" Ethan asked eagerly.

"I suppose so," Tommy said reluctantly. He frowned. "And don't you dare go trying to hack in, Ethan. Hayley will strangle you with an Ethernet cable and I'll help, get me? I don't want any tampering. Especially not while I'm reconstructing."

"Sure thing," Ethan said, a little too quickly. His eyes were fairly gleaming. "As long as I get to see the information, I'm good."

"I can't believe it's all still working," Billy said, continuing back down the sidewalk with the others. "It's amazing."

"Remember how we rewrote that one program to double as a stereo so we wouldn't go completely crazy when we were working on something important?" Trini asked him, grinning.

"Of course. You tried to teach me the Tootsee Roll when we were upgrading the alarm system." Billy shook his head ruefully.

"You tried to teach Billy the Tootsee Roll?" Zack demanded incredulously.

"Hey, he wasn't half bad. He claimed he hated the song but I heard him humming it when we were replacing the circuitry."

"That's because you got it stuck in my head making me dance to it," Billy insisted, blushing.

"The Tootsee Roll?" Trent repeated. "Isn't that that really old, crappy song about—?"

"Hey, hey, hey!" Zack interrupted loudly. "That's our heritage you're bashing!"

"Yeah!" Kimberly said, punching Trent playfully in the arm. "I can still remember the dance... 'to the left...'"

She began the opening moves. Without even thinking about it, Tommy joined her, with Zack a split-second behind.

And, to the complete and utter horror of Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent, the six wise, mature, battle-hardened legendary superheroes began singing and dancing the Tootsee Roll in the middle of the sidewalk.

Cars slowed down to stare. The few pedestrians wandering by stopped several feet away to gape. If anyone who saw them was startled or amused to see six people in their mid-twenties dancing around and belting out the lyrics to "Tootsee Roll," it was nothing to the view from the Dino Rangers, who watched as if a cruel torturer had taped their eyelids open.

Jason, first leader of the world's first team of superheroes.

Trini, strong, capable, and smart; the glue that held the team together.

Billy, the most intelligent person on two planets.

Kimberly, the girl whose every mannerism screamed "cool and trendy."

Zack, the... never mind.

And Tommy.

Their science teacher.

Tommy had once pointed out to Hayley that his students rarely referred to him as a teacher; it was almost always "science teacher." Hayley laughed and told him that this was because science teachers were in a league all their own. They were almost always old, pudgy, balding or at least gray-haired, absentminded, very boring and slightly creepy. Math, English, foreign language, social studies, art—the teachers all varied. But not science. There were a lot of negative connotations associated with the title of "science teacher." It was a mark of the bond created on Power Ranger teams that Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent had grown close to him, overlooked it, and counted him a friend. Tommy might be young and good-looking with dark spiky hair, but he also had a memory like a guy who'd been smoking marijuana since the sixties, wore ties and lab coats, and occasionally sported reading glasses. He was still a science teacher.

And science teachers were not allowed to relive their childhood in front of their students, at least not by doing the Tootsee Roll on a street corner. It was practically a sign of the apocalypse.

When the dance finally ended, the six of them broke into giggles, nudging and joking with each other. One by one, however, they noticed the looks on their successors' faces. The two groups stared at each other, the original Rangers confused, the Dino Rangers mortified.

"What?" Tommy finally asked.

All four of them jumped as if waking up to the sound of a gong and promptly squeezed their eyes shut.

"The images!" Trent wailed, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes.

"It didn't happen. Dr. O didn't just do that," Ethan whimpered.

"Never mentioning this again. It didn't exist," Kira added, breathing as if trying to enter a meditative state.

"Dr. O can dance," Conner said, sounding more dazed than pained, though the pain was still there. "At least, he could in the nineties. How creepy."

"Ha, ha," Tommy said, rolling his eyes as his friends laughed. "Come on. Let's get to Wal-Mart so I can throw you guys back in your hotel rooms for the night."

"And then go dance the Macarena with Zack and Kim," Kira muttered to the guys. They laughed, the horror of the moment broken. Mostly.

They split up once they hit Wal-Mart; Kira mumbled something about hygiene and Kimberly and Trini dragged her off. The guys headed in another direction entirely; Jason and Tommy were all the way to the grocery aisle before Tommy realized they were alone.

"Huh," Tommy said uneasily. "Where do you think they went?"

"We lost Trent near the school supplies; I remember him saying something to do with Conner, a toilet and a new sketchpad. I know we walked by the electronics and the toy section, so that would explain Billy, Ethan, Conner and Zack. Don't worry, man. We've got their cell phone numbers, right?"

"Yeah. And I think they're all wearing their communicators still," Tommy said, relaxing.

"Ah. Haven't gotten past that point, have they?" Jason said with a knowing smile.

"Nope. How long did it take you to stop wearing your communicator and morpher?"

"Day you idiots lost your powers and ours morphers went haywire. Me and Trini and Zack were in the middle of a party in Singapore. Mixing with the teens there, trying to spread our message without coming off like a bunch of geeks that did nothing but talk about the global economy and world peace. We were able to blame the lights coming from us on the disco ball and the yelling, disorientation, and sudden need to go back to our rooms on food poisoning. After that, we still wore the communicators, but we only wore the morphers when we weren't in public. You really scared the crap out of us with that, you know."

"It's not my fault," Tommy said, trying to sound lighthearted. He knew Jason was his best friend and didn't really blame him for the problems the Rangers had had... but sometimes he couldn't help but wonder if things would have been different if Jason hadn't left. Maybe Billy wouldn't have left, maybe Kimberly wouldn't have left, maybe Zordon and Alpha would still be all right... and maybe their former base wouldn't be a dusty forgotten room hidden beneath a mountain.

"Yeah, well," Jason said, his tone joking, "you could have called us at some point. We were freaking out. We'd all tried morphing at the Peace Conference on rare occasions, but we hadn't felt the same amount of the power. Scared us beyond belief when we got back to our rooms and morphed, realized it was back. We thought you guys were dead. By the time we finally got in touch with you guys you were Ninjas or some such nonsense."

"I love the way you make it sound like we were just clowns wandering around in a stupor."

"Hey, you heard the kid at the gas station."

Tommy laughed. "Jane, the Bearded Lady. At least Zack got one of us right," he cracked.

"Yeah. It was you. Butch, the Multicolored Strong Man."

"Whatever. At least I'm not a bearded lady."

"No, you're a sappy guy."

"Hey!"

"Come on, Tommy. We both know you've got a creepy feminine side buried in you."

"I do not! Besides, you're the one who can't live without Trini."

Jason sighed, a distant look on his face. "Everyone should have a Trini." He frowned. "Well, no, only I should have a Trini."

Tommy shook his head. "Well, if you ever clone her, let me know." Jason gave him a suspicious look. "What? It was a joke."

"It better have b—RED POP!" Jason shouted, so loudly Tommy jumped. "Hell yeah! Bring the cart over here!"

"You're too much."

"It's not the color. It's not even that red," Jason said defensively as he began loading six-packs into the cart Tommy was pushing. "It just tastes really good."

"Uh-huh. Sure."

"Oh, just because you can't settle down when it comes to colors—"

"Hey, you have three yourself."

"No, I have two."

"No you don't. You like red and you're still wearing a lot of black from the Gold days. And ever since you got with Trini you've gotten more into actual gold."

"She's a Yellow, man. It's her fault." Jason grinned. "Oh, look, it's the drink of Tommy's future." He held up a twelve-pack of orange soda.

"Put that down," Tommy mock-growled.

"Come on. This is me here. You can say it. The Orange is already starting to seep into your life, isn't it?"

"The only orange in my life is those shirts you insist on buying me for Christmas. Love the way you decided Volunteers shirts didn't count as an Orange joke."

"Hey, you like the Vols."

"That's no excuse for you to buy me the shirts. You only do it because they're orange."

"And because I know you'll end up wearing them on laundry day when you can't find anything white to wear." The Tennessee Vols were one of Tommy's favorite college football teams... but unfortunately, they wore orange-and-white uniforms.

Tommy grimaced. "You got that from Hayley, didn't you."

Jason laughed. "No. It was just speculation. Thanks for the confirmation."

"Would you stop with the Orange jokes? I'm never going back, I tell you. NEVER."

"Ah, come on. You can't tell me you didn't love being back," Jason said as they headed down the aisle, stopping every so often to throw something edible into the cart. Almost unconsciously, they began to check for eavesdroppers, lowering their voices slightly as they turned to talk of the Rangers, automatically taking care to avoid using the word "Ranger" when possible.

Tommy sighed. "It wasn't all that bad."

Jason turned to look at him, surprised. "Funny. You practically did a happy dance when you got the Green back. And the White. Now it's just 'not all that bad.'"

Tommy snorted. "Jason, you know how I told you I detected the Black energy and then had Hayley make up a bracelet, just in case?"

"Yeah?"

"I left out the part where I was never planning to put the bracelet on. When I grabbed the Dino Gem, I intended to take it out of the fortress, get it back to my lab, break it open, find someone to give it to and then go take a nap. Take a freaking nap, I tell you! The stupid thing was calling me the whole time I was strapped to that stupid life-force extractor. The whole time, I was sitting there, thinking, 'No, no, no, I'm not going back, I'm not putting on the bracelet, the world'll be just fine without me,' and it still won't stop... stop trying to get me to pick it up. Hard to explain how they do that, really. So anyway, finally I'm like, 'Okay, I'll take it back to the lab and choose someone else. Not like I can let Mesogog use it.' Then I get out of the fortress, have to use the rock holding the Gem like a shield, and the next thing I know I'm invisible." He paused. "I was pissed."

Jason laughed long and hard. "Pissed, huh?"

"Yeah. I mean, I was joking and laughing and everything—cuz, you know, that's what we do—but I was annoyed, man. Annoyed as hell. Had to keep positive for the kids' sakes, and to annoy Zeltrax and Elsa and Mesogog, but I was ticked." He shook his head. "It was one thing to help Conner, Kira and Ethan out with the occasional pack of Tyrannodrones. It was quite another to find myself looking out at the world from inside a helmet. Again. But there was nothing else I could do, once the Gem was exposed and bonded with me. It wouldn't work with anyone else after that. I was stuck with it." Tommy laughed, slightly bitterly. "That was what took me so long to reappear. Kira and Conner and Ethan were freaking out, thought I was dead. I heard Kira scream 'No, he can't be gone' and that's when I sucked it up and put on the bracelet. It's ironic, but if it hadn't been for Zeltrax, I never would have become the Black Ranger." His gaze turned distant. "Hayley and I got so trashed after I got back from clothes shopping. I hadn't drunk that much since the day I turned twenty-one."

Jason laughed, but Tommy didn't join in, wandering aimlessly forward, lost in his thoughts. Jason rolled his eyes slightly. Jason knew Tommy liked to be alone and brood when something was bothering him... but he also knew it wasn't healthy. (He knew it wasn't healthy because Jason did it too, and Trini had spent years convincing him it wasn't healthy.) Jason frowned thoughtfully, trying to get Tommy talking, trying to make him remember the good times.

"Must suck," Jason said suddenly.

"What's that?" Tommy asked absently.

"Being a Ranger like you were with them. As a mentor, not... not one of the guys. Must bug you, that they're the ones staring rather than doing the Tootsee Roll with us."

Tommy let out a snort of laughter. "It does. But..." He sighed. "We're not that far apart. I care about them in a different way than you guys, yeah, but we're still a family, just like every other team I've been on." He smiled. "Took me a while to realize it, but they feel the same way."

"Yeah?" Jason said.

Tommy nodded. "Of course, they were always coming over. And it was weird for me, because they weren't just coming over to learn, or to train, or whatever. Kira spent a lot of time jamming on her guitar in my basement, and Ethan used my computers all the time, and even Conner—the outdoorsy type like nothing else—would stop in for hours at a time just to hang. Once I almost accidentally beat the crap out of Trent because I found him drawing in the lab at four in the morning and thought he was an intruder. They would ask me to come to certain events a lot, too. Kira's gigs at Hayley's. Trent had some of his drawings displayed during the school's art fair not long after the prom, asked me to come see his work. Ethan made me promise to show up for his gaming tournaments. And Conner was quick to imply that he wouldn't mind if I'd come to his games. It was weird, but sometimes I really did stop being their mentor. I was just one of the gang sometimes." His smile broadened. "And when I wasn't, I was often the older brother. I remember going to a DDR tournament of Ethan's at the mall, and Kira came over to me and begged me to scare off some punk who kept hitting on her. It was something you would have done for Kim, you know?"

Jason grinned. Tommy was looking cheered up already. "Was he scared?"

"Oh, yeah. The works. Babbling, whining. Might have even shed a few tears."

"Good work," Jason said, nodding and smiling with relish, thinking of all the many times he'd gotten to do the same thing. There was something gratifying about scaring a guy away from a girl. Something primal and territorial and, well, manly.

Tommy cleared his throat, obviously thinking the same things. "Anyway, I never thought much of things like that, until right after Hayley cured my little fossilization problem."

"What changed then?" Jason asked curiously.

Tommy laughed. "Nothing changed, exactly. It was just... realization dawning."

~*~

Flashback

"I said, 'power down,'" Tommy told the suit firmly. It didn't budge. He looked up at Hayley, Conner, Kira and Ethan resignedly from behind the helmet. They were staring at him in shock.

"I think we might have a problem," he said grimly.

He waited. This was the moment when the teens asked what they could do, and Hayley started theorizing about how to fix it and dragged Ethan back to the computer while Conner and Kira did their best to help. ...Yep. Any minute now.

Then—

"You're alive!" Kira wailed in a strangled voice, and she flung herself at him. The next thing he knew, Kira was wrapped around him like an angry squid, arms and legs thrown about him. Tommy staggered, unprepared for the attack/hug, but she was so light that he didn't have much of a problem regaining his balance.

"Yeah, I'm fine, but—"

"I was so scared!" Kira practically sobbed. She whacked the back of his helmet, hard enough that his eyes slid out of focus momentarily. "Don't you ever do that to me again!"

"Kira, it's okay," Tommy told her, bewildered. He took her by the waist and tried to gently pull her off and set her down, but before he could a red blur dove at him.

"Oh, thank god!" Conner cheered. "You're alive! You're not going to spend the rest of all eternity as a big yellow-orange rock! You're back!"

"I missed you!" Ethan added, and now Tommy found himself in a group hug with all three teens, that even while morphed he found uncomfortably tight. The three were clinging to him for dear life.

"Promise us you'll never die on us," Kira told him, or rather the space behind him; Conner had pushed her so tightly against Tommy that she couldn't pull back enough to look at him.

"I promise. Now, let's all just calm down," Tommy said in exasperation. "I'm back. I'm not going anywhere. Trust me. People have been trying to kill me for ages, and none of them have succeeded yet. I'll be just fine. ...Okay, I'm having trouble breathing..."

Suddenly Conner seemed to realize just what he was doing, and he dove backwards, knocking Ethan away from Tommy as well in his haste to regain his cool factor. Conner cleared his throat. "Right, sorry."

"Heh," Kira muttered, looking over her shoulder at Conner, Ethan and Hayley. "This is... kind of awkward." She climbed down and hastily stepped back into the line, her face bright red. Ethan whistled innocently for a moment before stopping himself.

Tommy sighed inwardly and looked at Hayley, glad they could finally get down to business. Thankfully, Hayley was rarely emotional. She wasn't going to go all mushy on him and—

"Tommy you freaking idiot!" Hayley roared, throwing herself at him. Tommy caught her reflexively and fought the urge to groan. Of course. See, this was the difference between his old team and his new team. In the old days, people just asked if he was okay. Maybe the occasional hug, but mostly high fives and pats on the back, a little clasping of the shoulder and a few choruses of "Knew you'd make it, man!" Now, everyone was freaking out just because he'd spent a few days as a fossil. It wasn't even anything major.

He hugged Hayley for a good long while, waiting as patiently as he could for her to pull back. When she finally did, she naturally began hitting him—hard.

"How dare you get yourself turned to stone! Leave me to watch out for the Rangers! I've been sick to death with worry, working day and night to bust you out when I wasn't playing Behind-the-Scenes Girl! 'Oh, don't worry, Hayley, I'll be fine,' HA! You liar! Don't you ever get yourself fossilized again! Do you have any idea how scared I was? You jerk! Never again, do you hear me, never again! Trent's gone evil and Conner became a geek and Kira became a priss and Ethan became a jock and I finally got them fixed with this meteor fragment thingy and then I used it to bust you out and it fried the rock so we're going to have to find some other way to fix Trent because he's still evil and would it have killed you to talk a little faster when you tried to tell me who the White Ranger was I can't believe you almost got killed again! Running off and blowing up the moon, and then blowing up the island, and then getting kidnapped, and then the Black Ranger thing and will you stop it already you suck! NEVER AGAIN, TOMMY!"

"I'm sorry!" Tommy bellowed, effectively cutting her off, but just barely. She glared at him for a moment longer, and just when he thought it was safe to mention his inability to power down she threw herself back into his arms and clutched him tightly.

"Idiot," she said sulkily, and he exhaled slowly and hugged her back resignedly.

Then three cries of "Dr. O!" nearly made him go deaf and once again he found himself getting squished to death, only this time Hayley was closest, pinned to Tommy instead of Kira. At last, they all drew back and tried to look nonchalant.

"Okay," Tommy said warily, considering bolting out of the room if they tried it again. "Are we all done?" They nodded. "Great. Thanks for your concern. I really appreciate it, and I'm sorry I scared you. Now, back to the problem." He gestured at the suit and then stood there expectantly, waiting for everyone to return to normal and hop to.

"Um, Dr. O?" Kira said, frowning. "Okay, I know the suit looks good and all..."

End Flashback

~*~

Jason was clutching the cart for support as he tried to reign in his laughter. Tommy himself was chuckling; it was one of his favorite memories as a Dino Ranger, even though it marked the start of a long period of sitting around in his suit, rarely taking his helmet off for fear of losing it, rarely able to sleep from the power boost and dying for a hot shower.

"Oh, man," Jason wheezed. "That was great."

"Glad you liked it," Tommy said dryly. "Anyway, that was when I first realized there was more to us than four kids fighting evil and hanging out with their science teacher." His face clouded over with regret again. "I'm sorry, Jason."

"What about?" Jason asked, still trying to get control of himself. He finally straightened up, rubbing the stitch in his side.

"About losing the Dino Gems. It could have been us who—"

"Oh, shut up, Tommy. It wasn't your fault. It was destiny."

"You believe in destiny?" Tommy asked, almost conversationally.

"Of course I do. Things work themselves out, Tommy. I've really learned that time and again since Zordon first teleported us out to the Command Center. If I hadn't gone to the Peace Conference, for example, you wouldn't have had anyone to dial up as the Gold Ranger, and what would you have done if I'd stayed the Red Ranger? Called in Adam and Aisha without calling in Rocky? Those three were a team; they came in as three and they're still a triangle. Me and Trini probably wouldn't have been the same, either, with her traveling the world and me in Angel Grove."

"You mean, maybe she'd have dumped you in a letter," Tommy said bitterly.

Jason raised his eyebrows, startled. He decided not to address that. "We did work out though. And the choices we made were a part of it. You, Tommy—if you hadn't joined up with Mercer, he may or may not have ended up as Mesogog. But if he had, there wouldn't have been anyone to reclaim the Dino Gems and fight him if you hadn't chosen that path."

"You think it was fate?"

"You can't do something that isn't fate, Tommy. That's the definition of fate—what's meant to be."

"How do you know anything that happened was fate, and not a series of freak accidents and a lack of anti-psychotic medication?"

Jason grinned. "Faith. There's a reason 'faith' and 'fate' sound so similar, bro."

"When did you get so philosophical?"

"Marrying Trini will do that to you." Jason shrugged.

"I wouldn't know," Tommy said dryly. Tommy thought about it for a moment. "I guess you're right. Come to think of it, it's probably a good thing neither of us took the Red Gem. We wouldn't have been able to retrieve the Shield of Triumph, and we'd have been really screwed without the Triassic Ranger."

"Why couldn't one of us have done it?"

"You had to be completely in tune with the Dino Gem energy, and I'm fairly certain you also had to be a Red; I don't know, that part's murky. But neither of us would have been in tune with the Red energy."

"Why not?" Jason asked.

"Because of our other powers. You had a better shot than me, but we're both still linked to our old powers, and we would have been even if we didn't still have them at our disposal. You can't be in tune with one power when you're using others."

"Ah. So... you gave them to... Conner?" Jason's questioning tone made his real meaning obvious.

"I told you, the Gem chooses, not the Ranger. Besides, Conner's actually done fairly well. Yeah, he's a kid, and a goof, but so were we."

"So were you. Not me. You."

"Fine, so was I. For all his idiotic tendencies, he's actually fairly open-minded and in touch with his thoughts and emotions. He's willing to listen. And he'll try anything once. Not only did he attain the level needed to become the Triassic Ranger, but he tapped into Super Dino Mode before any of the rest of us." Tommy smiled. "Took me quite a while. Getting in tune with my powers when I was irritated about having them wasn't easy, not to mention the White Ninja and Red Zeo energy was still floating around and getting me confused." Jason chuckled. "And Conner wasn't a bad leader," Tommy continued. "Took a lot of the pressure off me. I got to sit in the lab more."

Jason stopped suddenly, frowning. Tommy turned to him expectantly. Jason looked up at him sharply. "That's why you offered to be Blue," Jason said accusingly.

"What?"

"The Dino Gems. Back when you had all five, I was going to be Red, you would be White, Zack would be Black, Trini would be Yellow and Hayley would take Blue. Then you lost the Black and White in the explosion and we had to decide what to do."

Tommy nodded, wondering what the point here was. They had all sat down after the explosion, all five of them, to try to decide who would use the remaining three. Hayley had immediately made it clear that she wanted three of the others take them; she insisted that she'd gotten along just fine without ever being a Ranger and would be fine if she never became one. Then Zack had said he'd decline also; he flew all over the world with his job, worked unpredictable hours, and, despite his line of work, was never as strong as Jason and Tommy when it came to fighting, and Trini was possibly slightly better than him (it had cost Zack a lot to admit that). Then it had come down to whether Jason or Tommy would be the Red, and Tommy had offered to be Blue.

"I thought you meant it when you said you wouldn't mind switching colors again," Jason said, staring at Tommy in shock. "You just didn't want to be the leader."

Tommy snorted. "Of course I didn't, Jason. I was through. I'd lead the team for far too long and I wasn't planning on ever being a Ranger again. I didn't want more power and leadership and responsibility; as it was I was spending all my free time researching the morphing grid and building zords with Anton and so on. I wanted to be a paleontologist, for crying out loud. I wanted to settle down. I didn't want to be the one who had to lead you and Trini into battle. Much as I loved being the leader, it wasn't easy, and I was more than ready to be the follower if I had to put on the suit again. It was difficult enough working with Andros and fighting various battles around the universe." He smiled self-deprecatingly. "Besides, Blue's an easy color. Jeans go with everything."

Jason laughed, but he gave Tommy a sympathetic look. It suddenly occurred to him that even without the fact that Tommy had fought longer than any of them in uniform, he'd also spent the most time working on Ranger projects. No wonder he was ready to retire.

Jason was about to open his mouth, intent on consoling Tommy, when Zack and Conner came out of nowhere and began dropping large yellow cases into the cart. Jason looked down to see what they'd bought.

"Oh, no!" he groaned, lifting the cases out and shoving them at Zack and Conner. "We're not getting Play-Doh!"

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 36: Alarmed and Dangerous

Going to Wal-Mart theoretically should have been easy. It should not have involved a thirty-minute fight about the merits and downsides of purchasing Play-Doh. It should not have involved a panic attack about where Trent had gone only to find him sitting up front downing an Icee from the concession stand, his new sketchpad already paid for, enjoying some peace and quiet and apologizing for his cell phone somehow getting turned off. It should not have involved a twenty-minute search of the cosmetics and hygiene aisles only to find the girls (particularly Kimberly) cooing over small fluffy creatures in the pet aisle. It should not have involved forty-five minutes of cajoling and pleading with Billy to wait until they got to the mall to buy more video games than ten ex-superheroes could feasibly carry. It should not have involved a long argument about PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube between Trini and Ethan that nearly came to blows. It should not have involved Billy doing a happy dance when he actually found a pair of overalls in his size. It should not have involved Zack and Conner getting shouted at by a manager for racing remote-control cars all over the store.

But it did.

At last, they were finally finished purchasing their belongings, which had taken an extremely long time, given the fact that they all went through separately and Trini and Ethan spent a good long while explaining the process of paying with a debit card to Billy, to the amusement and exasperation of the cashier.

"Am I glad that's over," Tommy muttered, but he felt considerably cheered up. Between his talk with Jason and the antics required to get everyone to function, Tommy was back in his element. He'd even managed to convince Jason to put down the orange soda without much of a fuss.

"Hey, you!" Kimberly called playfully, nudging him. He looked down at her. Kimberly simply held up her hefty shopping bags. Shifting his own purchases to one hand, he took her stuff without comment, grinning. Strange as it was, it felt nice to be Kimberly's pack mule again. Just like old times. He was oddly flattered that she felt his status as improvisational shopping cart was still implied.

"Trini?" Jason asked, holding out his arm. She handed her stuff over. Jason moved off to the front of the group, chatting with Billy about all the other nifty things one could do with a debit card. Tommy and Zack followed, discussing the cool factor of the remote-control cars Jason hadn't let Zack buy, while Ethan tried to explain his video game argument to a confused and slightly bored Conner and an apathetic, Icee-slurping Trent. The girls brought up the rear.

Kira, clutching a couple lightweight plastic bags, shot Trini a sidelong look. "I've gotta say, I'm kind of surprised at you."

"Kira, I'm telling you, Ethan's just plain wrong about the GameCube. The only reason—"

"No, no," Kira interrupted hastily, not wanting Trini to go back into Yellowish-Blue mode. "I meant getting Jason to carry your stuff."

Trini snorted. "I only do it to make him feel more like a man. Guys like Jason need someone to depend on them a little. It's a compromise. He puts up with my independence, I let him move the furniture and carry the heavy objects. Keeps his ego intact."

"Not that he needs it," Kimberly joked.

Trini smiled. "The thing about guys, Kira—most guys, anyway—is that they feel useless if they don't have a purpose. I'm extremely physically fit, financially stable, emotionally strong and—as immodest as it sounds to say it—smarter than him. Makes him wonder what I need him for. I try not to let him wonder too much; he's way too good at bottling things up inside, and you leave a thought in Jason's head too long and before you know it..." She let the sentence hang. Kimberly nodded in agreement, well-acquainted with Jason's tendencies towards brooding, doubting and blaming himself.

Kira frowned slightly, thinking this over. She supposed it made sense.

Kira caught up to Conner, Ethan and Trent as the group headed out of the parking lot and down the sidewalk. "Hey," she said, smiling brightly at Trent.

"Hey," he said, holding the Icee out to her.

She smiled and took a sip, then held out her bags. "Carry my stuff?"

"Sure," Trent said, taking it from her calmly. Kira watched him for a minute, nodded to herself, and indicated with a jerk of her head that she'd like another sip of the Icee. Trent obliged.

Kimberly and Trini, watching this exchange with the sort of smiles only girls could wear, looked at each other and chuckled. Then Kimberly frowned. "Heeyyyyyy... she wasn't surprised that I wanted Tommy to carry my stuff! What...?"

"Oh, Kim, please," Trini chided teasingly. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out Tommy's not happy unless he's helping people. Give the girl some credit; she has been fighting with him for months."

Kimberly's expression remained suspicious. "Yeah, but still. She expected it from me."

Trini smiled at her. "Kim, I gotta admit, I used to think it was cheesy, the way you and Tommy used to act. Him always anxious to carry your books, you always carrying spares of the things he forgot the most. He feels useful around you. You both took care of each other. That's not a bad thing."

Kimberly pouted. "Admit it. You think I like being a helpless girly girl."

"Well, you are Pink," Trini joked. Kimberly shot her a glare and Trini sighed. "You're not helpless, Kim. I know that better than just about anyone. You like people doting on you, is all, but you like doting on others, too, and you're good at it. And I have to admit, the symbiotic thing fun. I didn't realize how fun until I got used to letting people dote on me."

"Letting Jason dote on you, you mean," Kimberly ribbed. "When's the romance going to die down in your marriage, anyway? The whole 'my man's perfect' thing is getting kinda old."

"My man is perfect," Trini said loftily. Kimberly rolled her eyes and Trini chuckled. Trini decided that it was time to change the subject before talk of interactions with significant others led to Kimberly trying to reiterate that she didn't want Tommy back, especially since Tommy was less than ten feet away. Trini nodded at Kira. "It's cool, isn't it? She's a great example of Ranger psychology."

"Huh?" Kimberly asked blankly.

"Well, you know—she connects to both of us, did you notice that?" Kimberly nodded. "But when we met the Space Rangers, I chatted almost exclusively to Ashley and you couldn't be torn from Cassie the whole night. The connections behind the way we bond with our own colors... it's fascinating. It's especially fascinating with people like Adam, Rocky, T.J., Carlos and Tommy... the ones who've swapped colors. But anyway, Kira's not as exclusive in making friends with other Rangers. I'm not talking about how she chats to Zack and everything; we all blend with the others pretty well. But when it comes to the deeper interactions, the bonding, Kira's interesting. She's bonded with you quite a bit."

"Well, Kira's the only girl on her team. She doesn't have her own Pink to bond with, so she likes us both."

"I wonder... hmm."

"Hmm what?"

"Well... her zord was a pterodactyl."

"It was?" Kimberly hadn't kept up with the Dino Thunder team as much, tired of keeping track of all the different teams popping up all over the universe. Trini, however, had been planning to use the Yellow Gem herself, including the Pterodactyl powers; she was very familiar with the energy that had fueled Kira.

"Yeah. I wonder if that has anything to do with it. Two Yellows, two Pterodactyls."

Kimberly mulled it over, then frowned again. "You're just trying to distract me from that whole thing about me being too girly. And hey! Tommy and I weren't cheesy!" Kimberly winced. That had come out a little too loud, and now a lull in the chatter swept over the guys walking up ahead; she thought she saw several of the guys' steps falter for a second. Damn.

"I'm not just trying to distract you," Trini said calmly, ignoring the guys' reactions. She grinned. "Besides, it's working, isn't it?"

Kimberly had to admit she was curious now... and besides, she no longer wanted to continue the Tommy-Kim-cheesy conversation here. "It is interesting." She paused. "Is there anything you don't think about, Trini?" She sounded slightly exasperated.

"Nah."

At the front of the group, Tommy, Jason, Zack and Billy were now having an enlightening, thought-provoking discussion.

"Don't laugh," Tommy muttered threateningly as he struggled to ignore what he'd overheard from Kimberly. "I'm warning you, if you laugh, I'll beat you with whatever Kim's got in these damned bags, and they're heavy as hell."

"Sure thing, Cinnamon B—OW!" Zack complained.

"Kira," Conner whispered, having overheard this exchange, "did you ever find out about why they call him that?"

Kira shook her head. Last night's conversation had been monopolized by Trini trying to get Kimberly to tell her what Kimberly and Tommy had been talking about, and getting Kimberly to open up about how she'd felt during the sparring match. By the time Trini had finally gone to take a shower, the day had taken its toll on Kira and she'd passed out without asking Kimberly and Trini a thing about the funny stuff brought up back in the basement. Kira had a feeling that the same thing would probably happen again tonight, what with the visit to the ruins and Kimberly and Tommy being locked in the trunk together and so on.

Kira tossed her head determinedly. Well, there was no time like the present. If it didn't work, there was still probably a lot to be learned from Tommy's reaction.

"Hey, Dr. O?" Kira called loudly. "Can I ask you something?"

"What?" Tommy asked cautiously.

"What's with the 'Cinnamon Buns' thing?"

"On second thought, no. You can't ask me something."

"But—"

"No."

"Fine then." Kira narrowed her eyes. "Hey, Kim!"

Kimberly hadn't been paying attention to the conversation between the others, too intent on discussing the odd bonds between Ranger teams with Trini. "What's up?" she asked.

Kira glared triumphantly at Tommy and cleared her throat. "Can I ask you something?"

"That's cheating!" Tommy growled.

"Sure," Kimberly replied, giving Kira her full attention.

"Could you tell us that story about Dr. O being called Cinnamon Buns?"

"NO," Tommy said loudly, shooting Kimberly a warning glance. There was a chorus of not-quite-suppressed laughter from the older Rangers.

"Oh, come on, it wasn't that bad," Billy said.

"Easy for you to say. You didn't have to spend two weeks being called Cinnamon Buns. In public." Tommy gave Kimberly a distinctly wounded look. She grinned.

"Sorry, Kira," Kimberly said apologetically, mouthing "Later" when Tommy's back was turned.

"How about that thing about the pink bows? Does it have anything to do with you saying he only lets trained professionals touch his head?" Kira asked hopefully.

"You're not hearing about that, either!" Tommy said firmly.

"Why not?" Conner asked, pouting a little.

"Because," Tommy ground out.

"Because it's not as good as the Cinnamon Buns thing," Kimberly said, sticking her tongue out at Tommy.

"That was not funny!" Tommy insisted loudly. They had now stopped on the sidewalk, the Dino Rangers unconsciously moving to the sidelines so that the older Rangers were facing each other in a loose circle, with the teens filling in the gaps.

"Come on, Tommy," Kimberly said, smiling as cutely as possible. "Someone's going to tell them eventually."

"And it's not going to be any of us," Tommy growled threateningly.

"Come on, Dr. O," Conner whined. "Please?"

"No."

"Ple—"

"No! Not 'no' as in I'll tell you if you ask me enough, not 'no' as in I don't mind if you beg my friends to tell you, not 'no' as in I'll take you to Angel Grove if you sit on my feet like toddlers for an hour and a half, NO. Not gonna happen."

There was a moment of silence. At last, Trent cleared his throat. "So—"

"I said NO!"

"I wasn't going to ask that!" Trent insisted hastily. "I was going to ask what we're doing tomorrow."

"...Oh," Tommy said, slightly sheepishly. They continued down the sidewalk.

"Should be a nice day," Trini said. "I'd like to go do that thing I was telling you guys about."

"What thing?" asked Conner.

"The surprise thing. It should be lots of fun."

Kimberly stopped and stared at her for a moment. "I don't like the way you said that."

"It was too nonchalant," Tommy agreed quickly.

"Is evil a'brewin'?" Zack asked eagerly.

"Guys, it's a surprise. Not a booby trap!" Trini said in exasperation.

Tommy was about to counter this, but a cell phone went off and all of them, save Billy, automatically reached for their phones. "It's me," Conner said. His eyes widened in panic. "It's my mom!"

"Everybody be silent," Tommy ordered automatically. When non-Rangers called during a get-together of Rangers, it was habit that the others all go quiet until the call was over, just in case. None of them argued, though Tommy immediately felt like a bit of an idiot about it; it was just Conner's mother, but considering the fact that it was now after midnight it was probably a good idea to avoid sounding as if Conner was calling from a party.

"Hello, Mom?" Conner paused, and then his face lit up. "Eric! Hey, man! What's going on? You are? Dude, why didn't you tell me? Dude, I wouldn't have gone if I'd known you were coming back! Dude, no I wouldn't've! Did you get kicked out again? Dude! Is Tally there? Awesome. Tell her I said 'Helllllooo,' kay? Thanks, dude. Mom tell you where I am? Yep, Power Rangers Day. Of course I'm not an original Ranger, you idiot, we were like six years old when they were around! Oh, dude, but guess what! Know how I told you that Dr. Oliver—"

"Conner!" Tommy snapped, looking around for eavesdroppers in a panic.

"Sorry! Dude, I'll have to tell you later. Yeah, dude, I'll definitely see you there. I've got some people I want you to meet. Dude, you are gonna freak when I tell you—"

"If he says 'dude' one more time, I might have to hit him," Kira muttered. Trent stifled a laugh.

"Yeah, I can't talk about it now though. But I'll see you on Saturday, right, dude? OW! Kira, what was that for? Jeez. Women, man, they're so violent. OW! See? Dude—OW!—I better get off here. I'm standing in the middle of a sidewalk and for some reason Kira keeps hitting me so I might need to find a place to hide soon. Dude—OW! Kira, quit it!—are Shane and Dustin and the others coming with you? You don't? Well, try to find out. I'll talk to you later, dude—OW! Bye!"

Conner hung up the phone and thrust his fist in the air. "ERIC'S COMING TO POWER RANGERS DAY!" he yelled.

"SHH!" Tommy hissed, checking the street frantically for onlookers.

"Eric who?" Trent asked blankly.

"Eric my brother," Conner said happily.

"Oh, yeah," Trent said. He, unlike Kira and Ethan, hadn't grown up going to school in Reefside and therefore had never met Eric; Eric hadn't been to visit Reefside since the days when Trent was evil, and therefore wasn't hanging out with the others.

"I haven't gotten to see him in a few months," Conner continued excitedly. "Now that he's back living in Blue Bay Harbor."

"You have a brother?" Billy asked. Conner had only mentioned Eric around Billy twice, once when Billy was distracted by Ethan's gift of overalls and again at the restaurant, when Conner and Trent were talking about the fact that Trent's dad knew he was a Ranger, so the fact that Conner had a brother hadn't really stuck in Billy's memory.

"Yep. He's my twin, actually."

There was a horrified pause from the older Rangers. "There's... two of you?" Jason said faintly.

"Yup. We're identical, completely identical, but Mom made us wear our hair different after that thing with Millie Jenson."

"The hot blond girl, freshman class president?" Ethan asked.

"Yeah. Sophomore year, Mom caught me making out with her, and Millie ran out of the house and I ran downstairs to try to stop her, and Eric was in the living room, and we managed to confuse Mom. She couldn't tell us apart, so she couldn't punish me, but she made us get haircuts and start dressing differently." Conner sighed. "Wonder whatever happened to Millie."

"She got pregnant junior year," Kira said. "Cassidy told me; she was Millie's Lamaze coach."

"Wasn't Conner's baby, was it?" Trent asked with a slightly panicky tone.

"Not that I know of."

"I'd hate to see him reproduce," Ethan said with a shudder. Kira and Trent nodded fervently and Conner rolled his eyes.

"Anyway, my brother's going to this secret ninja school," Conner said. "It's run by the former Ninja Storm Rangers; I think Dr. O knows all about it, he had a lot of info on the Ninja Storm Rangers. Eric said he's not sure if they're coming; the school's on break right now, but they only get three weeks for summer break, something about summer being a good time to bond with their elements. He didn't get a chance to talk to Dustin and Shane and the others before leaving—something about a robotic hologram, a fruitcake and a wallaby—but his friends Tally—she's really hot—and Kyle are coming." Conner paused for a moment, grinning reminiscently. "He used to brag to me that he might get picked to be a Power Ranger one day; it was pretty funny. Right up until I told him I was a Rang—"

"WHAT?" Tommy roared.

"Oops." Conner cringed. "Dr. O... I... well..."

"You have ten seconds to explain before something bad happens to you!"

"Well... remember when Shane, Dustin, Tori, Hunter, Cam and Blake came to Reefside? Of course you do. Well, since Eric had gotten kicked out of the Academy, and I figured the Ninja gang kinda owed us one, I asked them to let my brother back in and they said okay. But then they told Eric that he was on probation and they were only letting him back in because I asked them to and Eric—well, actually, Eric's bud Kyle who's really smart—he asked them why me asking them to do it should affect anything and Dustin said 'Well, it was kind of a Ranger-to-Ranger favor, especially since we tried to kill him, or rather Shane tried to kill him' and Eric said 'What? Dude, Shane tried to kill my brother?' and they said, 'Yeah, you know, didn't you hear? Lothor turned us evil and he teamed up with Mesogog back in Reefside to kill the Dino Thunder Rangers' and Eric said 'That's nice, so why'd Shane try to kill my brother?' cuz Eric's not all that bright and then Kyle said 'Wait, his brother's a Power Ranger?' and Eric said 'Of course not' and Dustin said 'Yeah he is, we got to see him morph, he's the leader too' and Eric said 'What? No way! Dude, I gotta call him' and he did and of course by that point I couldn't really lie my way out of it so technically I didn't tell him, Dustin told him, and Kyle explained it to him, so it's not my fault at all!"

"Why didn't you tell me?" Tommy demanded.

"...Slipped my mind?" Conner lied hopefully.

"Conner, if word gets out about us because your brother—"

"He won't talk, Dr. O. He's really great at keeping secrets," Conner said quickly. "And the boy can lie. I mean, he's not as smart as me, but he's a way better liar. He goes to a secret ninja school, for crying out loud. He hasn't talked. He won't talk. He's covered for me more times than I can count. And the Wind Ninja Academy really preaches the secrecy thing. You get automatically dismissed if you tell anyone about it, and Eric's never even come close to breaking that rule. The only reason I know is because Sensei Kanoi came to my house to talk to my parents because Eric was still sixteen and had to have his parents' permission to join the school. Boy, that was a weird day, we totally—um, never mind, point is, otherwise Eric wouldn't have even told us. And I'm only telling you because you're Rangers and have probably heard of it. But anyway, it's been months since he found out. If he was going to do it, he'd have done it by now."

"Gee, that's a huge comfort, Conner. A really big—"

"There's nothing you can do, Tommy," Jason said, cutting Tommy off. "If the kid squeals, the kid squeals. But Conner's got a point. If he hasn't yet, he probably won't."

"The initial contact is the one you have to worry about," Trini agreed. "When they're all hyper that they know a Ranger."

"We've slipped up before," Kimberly added; they were all instinctively in Tommy-calming mode. "Ernie, for example. And during time-traveling, that worked out okay..."

"My dad," Billy added.

"Carson Brady," Trent added. "I mean, yeah, Elsa's fault, but he might not have made the connection if it wasn't for me..."

"And Hayley," Zack pointed out. "Not to mention Curtis."

"You're right," Tommy said, exhaling slowly. "We've all messed up. Hayley's a perfect example of—wait. Curtis?"

Zack laughed nervously. "Oops?"

"You told Curtis?" Jason demanded. "Curtis is a whack job!"

"He is not!" Zack said indignantly. "That's my favorite cousin you're knocking!"

"Case in point!" Jason was good friends with Curtis, but it had never crossed Jason's mind to share their secret with him. "He'd have to be a whack job to earn the mantel of favorite cousin; your whole family's weird!"

"Hey! And anyway it was Adam's fault Curtis found out, not mine. It's not easy to explain why your butt's on fire, especially when you're too busy calling all your friends to try and figure out what's going on to bother with coming up with an excuse for spontaneous butt combustion!"

"Some guy named Adam set your butt on fire?" Conner asked curiously.

"Yeah, pretty much."

"Adam, as in, the guy who became the Black Ranger when you left?" Ethan prodded.

"Yeah, him. See, he still had his morpher, only it was really damaged so all the power was in my Coin. But I was on this double date with Curtis and these two totally hot girls at this French restaurant—never ends well when I double-date at a French restaurant, just ask Tommy and Kim—and Adam tried to morph into the Black Ranger, despite the fact that he had a perfectly good Zeonizer that could turn him into Zeo Ranger Three. So anyway the power tried to transfer back to him and the next thing I know the morpher in my back pocket went all light show on me. Black and orange light and I'm screaming and it HURT and everyone thinks my ass is on fire. Had to drive home with my butt soaking wet from the waiter trying to put me out while Curtis laughed his ass off." Zack grimaced. "I need to kick Adam's ass for that. I really do."

"So you told him you were a Ranger?" Tommy demanded.

"What was I supposed to say? The magic artifact in my back pocket malfunctioned, man, there are only so many ways to explain that! You want to yell at someone, yell at Adam for experimenting with a broken morpher in the middle of my date!"

"I think you've both suffered enough for that," Kimberly deadpanned, struggling not to giggle.

Tommy shook his head. "Anyone else tell anyone? Huh? Ethan, did you tell your computer buddies? How about Derrick or Angela? Kira, you telling everyone you meet? Huh? How about your biker pals, Jase?"

"Calm down, Tommy," Trini said reasonably. "We've made it this far. And we've got friends in high places."

"We do?" Zack asked.

"Yes. T.J. and the other Space Rangers, they can discount any rumors about us. The Lightspeed guys, they're on our side. Look what they did for the Dragonzord."

"And Carrie Jeffries would probably help us out if I asked her to," Jason added thoughtfully.

Trini's face clouded momentarily. "Well, I don't know how much good one reporter would do, but that's an option. So there's no point in worrying. What's going to happen is going to happen, guys; when something goes wrong, all we can do is fix it, and that's something we're good at."

"Come on," Kimberly said. "Let's get back to the hotel. I could use a shower and a nap."

"Should have a big day tomorrow." Trini grinned, looking straight at Tommy with a decidedly mischievous gleam in her eye. Tommy blanched, now horrified. Trini wandered past him with Kimberly, the Dino Rangers behind them as they once more continued towards the hotel, and he couldn't help but wonder if Trini had freaked him out to distract him from the secret identity thing, or if she was really planning some big, evil, probably embarrassing trap tomorrow. Tommy followed, watching them mistrustfully and trying to reassure himself that Kimberly was on his side... though come to think of it, he wasn't sure what that side was.

"You staying with us, or going back to your place tonight?" Zack asked Billy and Jason as they followed Tommy.

"Billy was saying we shouldn't party tonight," Jason said reluctantly. "Said we should get to work on those speeches for Power Rangers Day."

"We could work on those together," Zack pointed out.

"Zack, I told myself that I'd think of what to say to my father while hanging out with you guys last night, and come morning I still had no idea of what I was going to say," Billy replied dryly.

Tommy tuned out of their conversation, trying to catch snippets of Trini and Kimberly's conversation and picking up the Dino Rangers instead.

"Did you ever meet Eric?" Ethan was asking Kira.

"Think I had a class or two with him back in junior year, but I didn't know him or Conner very well and I tended to get them confused. Did you know him?"

"Yeah. Tutored him in math all through sophomore year." Ethan paused. "Conner's definitely the smarter twin."

"Hard to believe," Kira joked.

"Conner's smarter than you give him credit for, Kira," Tommy said absently, still straining his ears to eavesdrop on Trini and Kimberly as discreetly as he could. "I graded his work, after all. If he put more effort into school, he could have been an A student, easy."

"You think?" Conner said, looking startled.

"We've always known Conner wasn't a complete idiot," Ethan said with a shrug.

"Thanks," Conner said, pleased. "Wait. ...I think."

"Compliments definitely aren't our strong suit," Kira commented.

"Just because Conner doesn't study much doesn't make him dumb," Tommy added. As an easily distracted person, he knew there was a fine line between "dumb" and "not doing the work." "After all, he made a good leader."

"True," Ethan said, shrugging again. Kira and Trent nodded, while Conner looked amazed.

"Zack was the same way," Tommy added. "He came off as goofy and shallow, but he did a lot of deep thinking. He came up with a lot of strategy during our days as Rangers, especially during the times when the rest of us were snapping, letting anger or fear or panic cloud our judgment. Like this one time, I was walking Kimberly home and this monster called the Samurai Fan Man attacked us, trapping Kimberly in a jar and knocking me out. Jason, Trini, Zack and Billy went after him, and Trini was all gung ho about just smashing the jar, but Zack was the one that pointed out Kim could be hurt if she did. Zack might be a lunatic, but he's not stupid. You give Zack a goal, and he'll accomplish it, just like Conner."

The four teens lapsed into silence, reflecting on this, and Tommy eagerly quickened his steps, still trying to hear the girls... but now all he was getting was Billy, Zack and Jason.

"So Dad said he'd come to Power Rangers Day," Billy was saying.

"Awesome! I think my parents might go, but I'm not sure," Jason said.

"Curtis said he couldn't make it," Zack said with a sigh. "I haven't talked to most of my other family members about it yet, need to make some calls..."

"Oh!" Tommy said, smacking his forehead. He'd forgotten about Hayley already. "Hayley was thinking of coming. She'd need a place to stay, though, and I doubt the hotels are open..."

"She can take the couch," Jason offered immediately.

"Or room with us," Zack said eagerly. Tommy shot him an older-brother glare over his shoulder before returning to watching Trini and Kimberly. "Or maybe she could stay with the girls," Zack amended hastily.

"Hayley's never met Kim. Might get weird," Jason pointed out. "She can stay at our place. Might be a good way to get Trini to come home..."

"Oh, by the way," Tommy said, struggling to bring everything up before it slipped his mind again. "Hayley wanted to know if Rocky, Adam and Tanya were coming."

"Are they?" Billy asked Jason eagerly.

"No idea," Jason said, checking his watch. "We'd better wait until tomorrow to call them though. It's coming up on one a.m."

"Remind me to call Hayley tomorrow," Tommy said faintly, still trying to hear without much success. Conner was now telling the others exactly what had happened involving Cyber Cam, a fruitcake and a wallaby to get Eric kicked out of the Wind Ninja Academy, and the laughter was making Tommy's mission even harder. If they didn't quiet down soon, he'd just have to jog past them and hope the girls didn't notice.

Kimberly and Trini were now rather far ahead, joking about the debacle that was Ashley's first wedding—at least, the wedding she'd tried to have, where she'd been engaged to some guy and Andros, who'd been off on mission after mission over the years with Zhane and hadn't been able to keep in touch with Ashley, crashed the wedding and ran off with Ashley. Trini was explaining that Tommy had been there as well, and Kimberly must not have seen him in all the blaster smoke and general chaos. They were so intent on their discussion that they didn't notice the guy creeping up on them until Kimberly felt a sharp yank on her big pink handbag.

Kimberly seized the strap instinctively, letting out an indignant, surprised shout as the kid tried to make off with her purse. Kimberly's eyes narrowed and she prepared to make sure that he not only didn't get the purse but wouldn't be able to reproduce, but Tommy got there first—or, more accurately, Tommy's fist did.

Kimberly watched in amazement as Tommy's knuckles flew out of nowhere and collided with the thief's temple, her ears barely registering the sound of Tommy's ragged, growling battle cry. The would-be purse snatcher collapsed like a broken folding chair, unconscious before he hit the sidewalk.

Tommy turned to look at Kimberly, and she caught a glimpse of the look on his face, fury and protectiveness and determination—the glare of a fighter. She hadn't known she'd been holding her breath until she noticed that it was harder to inhale now.

The look faded quickly, replaced by a sheepish, somewhat embarrassed half-smile, like a little kid who'd been trying to help but had made quite a large mess in the process and wasn't sure if the good would outweigh the bad. Kimberly felt decidedly self-conscious, abruptly aware of the others watching them. She hoisted the rescued purse a little higher on her shoulder and tentatively returned his smile. "Thanks," she said quietly.

The grin on Tommy's face slowly expanded. She realized, from the hunching of his shoulders and the slight blush on his cheeks, that he was fighting the urge to straighten up and throw out his chest and strut, maybe even swagger. Kimberly knew he had to feel very Tarzan-y right now; he had saved the damsel in distress, and to Tommy there wasn't very much that brought bigger glory.

"Welcome," he muttered in a helpless sort of way, feeling rather like a dork who'd just been complimented by the most popular girl in school.

Kimberly stared at him, a rush of delight filling every bone in her body. She suddenly knew without question that Tommy, her Tommy, was still there, hiding somewhere inside this rather sarcastic, short-haired twenty-five-year-old man, fighting to get back out. That cheesy smile was suddenly the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

"TOMMY!" Jason yelled, breaking the mood as abruptly and completely as a crazy uncle puking in the middle of a wedding. On the cake. "You IDIOT!"

Tommy turned to look at him, startled and puzzled. "What?"

"Did it not occur to you that now is not the time to beat up a mugger?" Jason demanded angrily.

Tommy blinked. "What do you mean? I couldn't just let him run off with Kim's purse!"

"Tommy, you're in town for Power Rangers Day!" Jason hissed.

"So?" Tommy said blankly.

"Tommy," said Trini, stepping forward, wearing her patented "Time to Explain Things to My Dear, Sweet, Not-So-Smart Friends" expression, "it might look a little odd to the cops, and the reporters, and everyone in general, that you lived in Angel Grove during the days of the original Power Rangers and you now live in Reefside, where the most recent team was, and you've come back for Power Rangers Day, and you just beat up a criminal."

Tommy's eyes widened and he looked down at the mugger worriedly. Kimberly winced, the sweet moment shattered and replaced by a fear she knew all-to-well—the fear of compromising her identity, much stronger now than it had been when discussing Eric and their other confidants. This was not the same as telling a few trustworthy souls; this was an accident that could lead to the world finding out.

"We could just leave him," Ethan suggested, though without any real enthusiasm.

"We can't just leave him!" Kimberly exclaimed. "He could hurt someone!"

"Well, we can't exactly call the cops and explain that we're not former Power Rangers, just ten people who know martial arts honest, when six of us are from Angel Grove and five of us live in Reefside," Jason pointed out, though he didn't look very pleased with the idea of leaving the mugger either. None of them did; it seemed counterproductive to devote a good chunk of their lives to fighting evil only to set criminals free. He looked down at his red shirt. "We really should stop color-coordinating our wardrobes so much."

"Well, what do you suggest?" Tommy asked. "That we tie him to a phone pole and write 'mugger' on his forehead?"

"Great idea, Dr. O!" Conner said. Everyone turned to look at him. "Oh. Sarcasm. Right. I gotcha."

"Conner's the smart one?" Trent asked Kira and Ethan incredulously. They sighed in unison.

"We're gonna have to leave him," Jason said heavily, his regret obvious.

"Wait," Zack said suddenly. Everyone turned to look at him. "The mugger didn't see Tommy, did he?"

"I don't think there was time," Kimberly said. "Tommy came out of nowhere. He just saw me. And maybe Tommy's fist."

"Then... then I'm having a plan," Zack said, biting his lip and looking slightly surprised at himself. Then he grinned. "Go me!"

"Are you going to tell us or not?" Jason asked. "He's not gonna stay unconscious forever."

Zack grinned and reached for his back pocket. "Don't worry, Jase. It's brilliant."

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 37: Invasion of the Ranger Snatchers

Officer Don Brewster was hunched over the steering wheel of the cop car, his eyes peeled for any sign of them. Corner of Main and Fifth. The original Black Power Ranger had come out of retirement to stop a mugging.

Don had only been twelve when the original Rangers were around, and as a child of comic book collecting and pretending to be the Super Friends with his buddies every weekend, Don had thought the Power Rangers were the coolest thing on Earth. He'd gotten to see them at Power Rangers Day, and during the Ranger Parade, and though he would never admit it, he would give his first born to see a Power Ranger again, to get an autograph, maybe have them sign his old action figure set...

And here was his chance.

Well, not for the autograph... although he might be able to get the Black Ranger to sign something, if this wasn't a hoax. And he didn't exactly keep an action figure in his gun holster (though he kept his lucky fully-poseable Red Ranger with karate chop action in his locker at work). Still, becoming a cop was suddenly much more worth it than he could have dreamed. He was about to see the Black Ranger!

"Probably a hoax, you know," his partner Abe said idly. Like Don, Abe was starting to feel the effects of all the double-shifts they'd been pulling this week, thanks to all the tourists pouring into the city, but unlike Don, Abe was now completely over the Power Rangers and the insanity Power Rangers Day was causing; he would be glad when things finally calmed down again. Abe, who was pushing fifty and more concerned about getting arthritis than meeting superheroes, treated Don's barely-masked enthusiasm like an exasperated father would treat a son who just won't stop begging to go on the roller coaster.

"Could be," Don said noncommittally. "Coming up on Main and Fifth... there!"

~*~

Jason shoved Ernie's barbell upwards with a vengeance, knowing he should be pacing himself but not caring. They hadn't had much time for exercise this week, yesterday not withstanding, and as a guy who spent hours a day practicing or teaching martial arts and working out in other ways—not to mention a guy who was currently trying not to panic about whether the plan would go okay—he had a desperate need to let off some steam. (It also didn't help that Tommy was on the rowing machine next to him, and working out with Tommy always seemed to lead to a one-upmanship sort of battle. Not that either of them would admit it.) Jason was nervous... screw nervous, his life was resting in the hands of Zack.

It wasn't that he didn't trust Zack. Zack had saved his life before. Zack had come through on many occasions. Yet Zack was a natural-born schemer, and natural-born schemers had terrible success rates when it came to girls and cops.

Still, Jason hadn't been able to come up with a better plan than Zack's, and all he could do was hope that they'd fledged the plan out enough that Zack's sporadic luck would hold. Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent had been rushed back to the hotel, where they couldn't cause any trouble or raise any creepy suspicions about why they were traveling with their science teacher to Angel Grove from Reefside, home of the Dino Rangers. Then he and Tommy had rushed to the Youth Center; Billy had had the idea to see if Ernie could provide an alibi for some of them, and he'd agreed.

Meanwhile, Zack, Kimberly, Trini and the original Black Ranger were standing on the street corner.

Billy was selected to wear the Black Ranger suit. As Zack was the actual Black Ranger, they'd all felt it was important that he be shown standing next to the Black Ranger. Besides which, no one expected Billy to be in Angel Grove; he'd only been seen so far by a few random store and restaurant employees, the people at the gas station and Ernie and his father, so they were banking on no one recognizing him other than Ernie and Mr. Cranston. With Billy in the suit, they could establish that Zack was not a Ranger, and that Tommy and Jason had been elsewhere.

Jason grimaced. As Tommy had been the one to knock the guy out, Trini had insisted he not be around when they called the cops, and she'd also forced Jason to leave as well. Tommy and Jason were both obviously supremely athletic; she didn't want the cops wondering why a mugger had decided to target them when the two of them were probably enough to scare criminals away. The others had agreed, and also pointed out that the cops shouldn't see two huge guys—one in red and black, one in green, white and black—flanking a Power Ranger; Zack was very muscular as well, but not nearly as obviously as Jason and Tommy. Forcing the two of them to go had also assured no one would notice that they were in a group of six, and keeping the "victims" down to Trini, Kimberly and Zack ensured that they wouldn't have to rely on their truthful defense of "the mugger was just retarded," so the cops wouldn't wonder at the probability of a mugger targeting such a large group.

Jason growled to himself, feeling a rush of fury with the idiot who'd tried to steal Kimberly's purse. True, the girls had been walking far enough ahead that they probably hadn't seemed like part of the group at all, but you'd have to be a total moron to attack two women who were being followed—distance or not—by a pack of seven guys. Maybe the kid had just assumed he could run fast enough to get away or something. Humph. He was lucky Tommy had knocked him out in one hit; the rest of them didn't have a chance to get angry before he was unconscious.

Tommy got there fir-irst, a singsong voice whispered inside his head.

I am not jealous, Jason told himself, glancing at the settings on Tommy's rowing machine.

Everything will be fine, he thought, slamming the barbell up violently. They'd thought of everything. They'd even made sure that Trini, Zack and Kimberly weren't wearing their signature colors (the safety scissors Tommy had been keeping in his pocket had come in handy for hastily cutting the tags off of the Wal-Mart clothes; Trini and Kimberly were now wearing oversized blue T-shirts over their own clothing and Zack was in an orange shirt that Jason had not-so-apologetically admitted purchasing to annoy Tommy with). The three of them were also the best liars in the group; Zack acted dopey enough that people didn't often think he could come up with a plan; Trini's psychology skills gave her an overwhelming understanding of when people were lying, which she turned to her advantage when necessary; and Kimberly... well... Kimberly was a good actress. Jason had no doubt that the cops were going to find a sobbing, distraught mess wringing her hands and clutching her purse while her two friends tried to comfort her and the Black Ranger assured her that she'd be fine. Billy would run off at the earliest possible opportunity; Jason had given him his house key, and Billy was supposed to wait at the house until Jason got back.

It should work. Yes. It should.

"Thanks again for helping us out, Ernie," Jason called. Ernie was behind the counter, doing inventory.

"It's no problem," Ernie said for the twelfth time. He'd been staying late to catch up on a few things, anyway—which was actually kind of the Rangers' fault, as their visiting had put him a tad behind this week; closing late twice in three days had meant some of the work had backed up, but he wouldn't ever tell them that, and it wasn't like he cared; besides, he opened later on weekdays, so he could sleep in tomorrow. He was a little tired, but he had to admit he was excited as hell. Now that he had finally admitted knowing who the teens were, he wanted to share that part of them as much as possible. He never realized how weird their lives were. "Just, um, make sure you set those weights back to something the average teenager could lift when you're done, okay? I don't want anyone getting hurt."

"Okay," Jason said, then nearly dropped the barbell on his chest as his ringing cell phone startled him; Tommy dove off the rowing machine to help him. Setting it carefully back in place, Jason sat up and opened his phone. "Trini?"

"Went off without a hitch. Witness reports, Billy made a dramatic exit, we're pretty sure they didn't suspect anything. En route to the Youth Center. Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent back at the hotel?"

"Yeah. We saw them to the door."

"Good. Tell Ernie we said thank you."

"I did."

"Tell him again."

"Okay. Love you."

"Love you too. Bye."

Jason hung up. "Thanks for helping us, Ernie; we really appreciate it."

"No problem," Ernie repeated patiently, amused. That was why they'd been his favorite customers—they were the sweetest kids he'd ever met, and he was glad they hadn't lost that over the years.

"Trini, Zack and Kim are on their way," Jason reported to Tommy. "They think it went fine."

"Whew." Tommy sank down onto a chair, glad this hadn't exploded in their faces. He hadn't been able to help it; he'd just reacted. It was instinct. Hell, he'd first met Kimberly while being protective of her; was it any wonder that he'd attacked a wannabe purse snatcher without thinking?

"All we have to do is wait," Jason said, reaching for the barbell with much more cheerfulness. "Everything is fine."

~*~

"Adam! Adam, man, wake up!"

Adam opened one bleary eye to stare up at his best bud in annoyance. "What? I just got to sleep like twenty minutes ago. It better not be something stupid. Again." Adam was used to sleeping in strange places; he traveled almost constantly. However, Rocky's couch was one of the lumpiest on the planet, and Adam was not a morning person. It didn't help that every time he stayed over at Rocky's house he had a couch-related near-death experience. He still wasn't certain how those ceiling tiles had managed to fall down on him...

Adam had been staying at Rocky's house for the past few days, as Adam was between films and Rocky had given his karate students their customary summer break, which was always the first few weeks after school let out. With Tanya off in Africa, Adam had been partying hard with his childhood pal, and he wasn't about to thank Rocky for waking up from a much-needed rest.

"It's your morpher, man," Rocky replied worriedly.

Adam jerked upright, suddenly wide-awake. "What? What's wrong with it? What is it this time?"

Rocky shook his head and nodded towards the coffee table. Adam, like all of the originals, kept his damaged morpher in his pocket almost constantly, but he'd taken everything out of his pockets in order to get more comfortable on the couch, including his wallet, phone, and Zeonizer. The charred morpher was now glowing with sparks of black, orange and blue energy, and though it didn't emit any sound it gave off the impression that it was humming. Angrily.

"What the hell?" Adam breathed, reaching out his hand. He stopped just outside of the miniature light show, not wanting to get hurt.

"I noticed it on my way to the bathroom," Rocky said. "It's been doing that for a while. Do you think something happened to Zack?"

Adam shook his head firmly. "No. It's got to be the morpher itself." Ever since their powers had been transferred back to Jason, Trini and Zack, the morphers in Rocky, Adam and Aisha's possession grew warm whenever one of their predecessors morphed. The morphers were all connected, and, just like Zack had felt it when Adam had morphed, Adam felt it when Zack morphed—though it wasn't anything painful like it had been when Adam had been helping Carlos. However, the morpher had never... sparked like this, never done something this strange, especially not for something as simple as Zack going nostalgic and trying on his old suit.

"Is yours...?" Adam began.

Rocky held up his own damaged morpher. "Mine's fine," he said shakily. "No pyrotechnics."

"All right. So it's just Zack, whatever 'it' is." Adam sighed and reached for his cell phone. "Here's hoping he's alive."

Unfortunately, it rang straight to voice mail. Sighing, Adam began his message. "Zack, man, it's Adam. Give me a call as soon as you get this, day or night. Something weird's going on, something colorful. Wanted to make sure you're okay."

Adam hung up, exchanging grim looks with Rocky, who was toying absently with his own morpher. "There's no point in both of us staying up all night waiting for him to call," Adam said. "He's terrible about checking his messages. Go back to sleep; I'll try to stay up, but if I nod off the phone usually wakes me up."

"And if it doesn't?" Rocky asked.

"He can tell me he's okay on the message," Adam replied. "I'm sure he's fine." Adam leaned away from the morpher... and suddenly the lights died off.

"Whoa," Rocky muttered. "Think it's over?"

"Must be," Adam said. He tentatively reached out and poked at remnants of the Power Coin. "It's warm—hot, even. But it's cooling off."

Rocky exhaled slowly. "You know... you remember when the Command Center got destroyed? Kimberly called, said she had this weird sense of foreboding, like something awful had happened, and then suddenly she felt okay? And Jason, Trini, Aisha and Zack said the same thing?"

Adam nodded. "They were able to sense the Command Center collapsing. Then they sensed it reforming. Zordon said major things like that, permanent things, they'd seep through for us. The power connected us." He smiled. "So Zack's not dead, he's just doing something freaky with his morpher. Good to know." Adam tossed his morpher into the air and caught it, holding it tightly. "The little booger's alive and well and probably completely oblivious to the fact that he just scared the crap out of us."

Rocky grinned. "Sounds like Zack." He yawned. "Well, wake me up if he calls, okay? It's going to take us a while to find the place tomorrow, and we're gonna need some sleep."

Adam nodded, glad Rocky was cheered, but suddenly unable to shake the feeling that something odd was up with Zack. It abruptly struck him as strange that there'd been blue light mixed in with the black and orange, which had flared the last time he'd tried to morph. Blue. Why Blue? Billy was the only Blue Ranger to use a Power Coin, and Billy was on Aquitar... and Rocky certainly hadn't done anything. Justin and the other Blue Rangers wouldn't have gotten a hold of Zack's morpher...

Adam sighed. Deep in his gut, he felt that things were okay. He always trusted his instincts, his intuition, and right now all they said was "Weird, but not dangerous." So Zack was most likely safe.

But he was totally going to give Zack hell about this come morning.

~*~

Officer Don Brewster stared absently in the direction the three almost-victims had headed in, his instincts screaming that something was off. Their story had seemed plausible enough—especially that badly shaken girl who wouldn't stop clutching her purse—though it had its odd moments. For one, they were going to the Youth Center, which closed about three hours ago... but they'd said the owner was an old friend and wanted them to drop by. Don, like most people who'd grown up in Angel Grove during the 1990s, remembered Ernie... and Ernie didn't strike him as the type to have people dropping by at one in the morning. He also wondered a bit about the fact that the other two members of their group had gone to drop off some of their sleepy younger traveling companions just before the botched purse snatching... Don couldn't recall one instance as a teenager when he hadn't stayed up past one a.m. during the summer. But something else was nagging at him, dancing at the edge of his consciousness... What was it? What was wrong?

"We'd better get to the hospital before he wakes up," Abe said. "Although I'd imagined getting hit by a Power Ranger will take a while to recover from."

"His voice," Don said suddenly.

"What's that?" Abe asked absently, lost in his own thoughts, also thinking that something wasn't right.

"The Black Ranger's voice. It's different. The Black Ranger didn't talk like that; I heard him several times when I was a kid. He used more slang, and the voice itself was wrong."

Abe looked at him sharply. "So that wasn't a Power Ranger?"

"Oh, that was a Power Ranger. I remember every detail. The uniform, the Blade Blaster, the helmet—you couldn't make a costume like that if you tried. And no zippers. Can't see the zippers. That was definitely a Ranger. I'm just not sure it was the Black one." Don frowned, struggling to remember the two best days of his life—the first Power Rangers Day and the day of the Ranger Parade. "His voice was familiar, though. Maybe it was one of the other Rangers, pretending to be Black."

"Why?" Abe demanded.

"I don't know," Don said. He bit his lip. "But I think we should check out these people at the Youth Center."

~*~

Jason shut the door of the Youth Center behind the two cops, breathing a sigh of relief and shooting Tommy a worried look. The cops hadn't seemed overly accusing... but the fact that they'd come to talk to him and Tommy at all, even just to inform them that their friends were unharmed... it was unsettling.

"I don't get it," Ernie said, scratching his head. Though he'd been polite as could be to the two officers, he couldn't figure out why they were bothering to touch base. "If Tommy knocked that mugger out, he must be headed to the hospital. So why aren't the cops going there? Shouldn't they, I don't know, follow up or whatever with the mugger? Take him to jail and everything?"

"Yes," Jason muttered. "I don't like it."

"Checking to make sure we were really here," Tommy agreed. "As if they didn't believe us."

"Asking questions like that... they were prodding. Trying to figure something out. Which makes no sense whatsoever. A Power Ranger told them that he'd seen a purse snatching and intervened; what cop wouldn't believe that?"

"They suspect us. They have to. They know something's up."

"They can't prove anything," Jason pointed out. "We've been here with Ernie, and we made sure the receptionist saw us drop off the Dino Rangers at the hotel."

"Guys," Ernie said gently, "don't you think you're blowing this a little out of proportion? Plenty of people interfere in muggings. In fact, I did it myself back in college once. I'm sure it'll all work out."

Jason shook his head. "You don't understand, Ernie. We've left too many tracks. Tommy, for one."

"I had a hell of a time keeping the suspicion off as the Black Ranger," Tommy added. "Like this one time I went with Ethan and Trent to see my friend Ellie Sanchez to see if she could help us keep Hayley's Cyberspace from closing, and a monster showed up... so I had Trent take her to safety. I stayed behind, ended up morphing and fighting the monster... and the fact that Ethan and I didn't run to safety with them was too suspicious. Unavoidable, but still fishy. And the time the school principal revealed she was an evil minion, and we went all-out-war on the school lawn... people wondered why. Especially the school board when I had to explain things to them."

"So the last thing we need is an Angel Grove cop talking to a few choice people in Reefside," Jason said. "Not to mention that despite the fact that he's a friend of Trent's dad, it's just creepy under normal circumstances to travel with your science teacher."

"Don't need anyone asking questions about that, either," Tommy said. "They were always coming over, I was always seen publicly supporting them... it could get ugly."

"Then there's Billy," Jason continued. "He dropped off the map back in the 90s. He comes back, people are gonna be confused. It took his father all of three seconds to get suspicious. Plus there's the Space and Lightspeed Rangers; we're all friends with both of them. T.J.'s endorsed my dojo, for crying out loud! Anyone ever pauses to think about that, there will be trouble. People will wonder how I buddied up to not one but two Ranger teams. By itself, none of it is majorly damaging, but put it all together in the hands of a relatively smart person..."

"And this town always goes a little nuts about possible Power Rangers," Tommy added with a smirk at Jason. "Combine every other oops moment with us stopping a purse snatching, and it just doesn't look good."

"It'll work out," Ernie assured them. "I thought for sure they had you with the Billy thing way back when, and look what happened."

Jason winced. "Oh, god. Please let this work out."

~*~

"Did you see those two guys?" Don hissed as he and Abe walked into the emergency room. "If they're not Power Rangers, I'm the Green Goblin!"

"I don't know, kid," Abe said. "Yeah, it's odd, but you gotta admit, there are plenty of people with muscles like that." He looked pointedly at Don, who spent a lot of time in the precinct's gym.

"Yeah, but still! Look, add it up—Black Ranger. Two guys in the Youth Center. One more guy, and the two women. That's six... four guys, two girls."

Abe blinked, then shook his head. "Yes, but that's hardly proof. You're overanalyzing this, Don."

"Let me ask you something else," Don continued insistently. "The Black Ranger... just dropped this guy."

"Yeah, so? He's a Ranger. I'd imagine he could 'drop' the entire city."

"Does that sound like a Ranger move to you? Ever watch a monster attack on the news back in the day? They did a lot of posing, posturing, threatening—they announced themselves first. They didn't often just start shooting or kicking. So... you're a Power Ranger. You see a crime. And you just knock the guy unconscious? Any criminal in Angel Grove who found themselves face-to-face with a Ranger would immediately surrender. Any human on the planet would have to be a total retard to try to take one on. And the Rangers know that. I guarantee you that a Ranger interfering with a crime would probably just have to yell 'Stop,' and the guy would stop. So why didn't he try that?"

Abe stopped in his tracks, staring at Don in surprise. "That's a damned good point. You might make detective one day, after all."

Don beamed at the praise but continued to press his point before he lost Abe to doubt again. "And this name—Kimberly Hart. You ever heard of her?"

"Should I?"

"She's a pro gymnast. I was a freshman when she was a junior, and there was a lot of talk around school about her getting discovered by some big-shot gymnastics coach. Never actually spoke to her back in school, but my friends pointed her out one day at the Youth Center while she was sparring with Billy Cranston. And winning."

"Billy Cranston... I know that name from somewhere..."

"One of the most prominent candidates for being the Red Ranger. Article after article about him just after the Ranger Parade. Martial artist, gymnast, smarter than half the planet and undergoing therapy."

"Whatever happened to him?"

"No idea. Heard he graduated early and went to work for the government. I say we look him up as soon as we're done talking to this purse snatcher."

Abe nodded slowly. "Yeah." He frowned, then sighed. "This case is going to be hell, you realize that, right? The mayor's gone nuts about this Power Rangers Day thing. Trying to keep every last minor crime silent... and then here comes a Power Ranger. We're going to be going through some serious crap while he figures out if he wants to play it as 'Rangers still protecting the city' or 'Angel Grove crime-free, that didn't happen, honest.' This could get ugly."

Don shrugged. "Who cares? We have a shot at figuring out, once and for all, who the original Power Rangers were. That's worth some extra paperwork for me."

Abe didn't look so sure, but Don could tell the idea was starting to appeal to him. Abe was about to reply when a male medical assistant approached.

"You guys here about the purse snatcher?" They nodded. "He's awake. They sent me to come get you. Room 141."

Abe and Don hurried off. After shooing away the hospital staff milling about the room, they turned to regard the kid on the cot, trying to intimidate him as much as possible.

The guy was scrawny, maybe twenty-four or so, scraggly hair and Coke-bottle glasses and a huge bruise on the side of his head. His eyes were wide in fear.

"Am I going to jail?" he asked.

"That's up to the judge," Don replied.

He sighed. "Have you contacted my parole officer yet? Cuz I don't—"

"What's your name, son?" Abe interrupted.

"Walter. Walter Johnson." He swallowed, biting his lip. "Is he here?"

"Who?" Abe asked.

"Him. Tommy. The guy who knocked me out!" Walter shuddered. "You guys won't let him hit me again, right? Right? I mean, yeah, I stole her purse. Tried to, anyway. But that doesn't mean I deserve to get murdered by that maniac!"

Don and Abe looked at each other sharply. "As far as we're aware, he's not here," Abe said carefully.

"But he could get here," Don said, struck by sudden inspiration. "He could get here very quickly. Just as we've both stepped out for coffee."

"What?" Walter whimpered. "No! Don't let him kill me!"

"Why don't you tell us what happened tonight?" Don continued. "Then we'll see what we can do."

Walter swallowed, the threat finally sinking in. He nodded. "I was walking home. Passed this big group of guys. I wasn't really paying attention to them. I guess Tommy was one of them... that would make sense... should have figured... I passed them, and I saw these two girls, and I realized one of them was Kim Hart. Had a huge purse. We went to school together, same grade, so I knew who she was, knew she probably had cash. Her family always had the best of everything. I never liked her." Walter made a face. "So I grabbed her purse and tried to run." He sighed. "Should have known better."

"Yeah, purse snatching isn't the smartest career move in the world," Don muttered.

Walter shrugged. He'd stolen a lot of things with a good success rate; it was only when he'd decided to move up to armed robbery, knocking over a jewelry store with his buddy Chris, that he'd gotten thrown in jail, but he'd been paroled soon enough, no big. He wasn't going back to scores like that, was going to stick to small-time things, work alone... the pay was less, but he wouldn't have to split it and he wouldn't have to worry about colleagues making stupid moves. "I meant I shouldn't have gone near Kim. Everyone knew that anyone who messed with her messed with her friends. Bulk and Skull were always getting smacked down for bothering her. Biggest bullies in the school, and they were terrified of her friends. And her stupid boyfriend Tommy was even worse."

"This Tommy guy got a last name?" Abe asked as nonchalantly as he could.

"Oliver. Tommy Oliver. Moved here during freshman year. At first, we were buds. Me, him, Chris, Matt, Claire. He sat down at our table in the lunch room before we got there, and when we showed up we took pity on the new kid and decided to let him stay. Big mistake." His face clouded with anger. "He was pretty cool at first, you know? Then about a week after he moved here, he went psycho. Big time. He was supposed to hang out with us after school one day and he never showed and when we asked him about it he went crazy and beat the crap out of Chris. I tried to stop him and I went down too, and Matt's all cowering behind Claire, and she's crying... and she kicks him in the shin, and he swung at her, and she ducked, and he glared... it was awful. Finally he left, didn't talk to him again. Ever. Except for when he tried to apologize and we told him to stuff it."

"Any reason for this sudden change in attitude?" Abe asked.

"We figured it was Kim. Chris had just made some slightly rude comment about her when Tommy kicked his ass. See, he got this huge crush on her, asked us to help him get with her, and we tried, and then he fell in with her friend, Jason Scott, and the next thing we know he's Mr. Lunatic. Doesn't want anything to do with us lowly freaks." Walter scowled. "Anyway, point is, he's always been Kim's shadow, taking over for Jason as the Guy Who'll Kick Your Ass if You Mess with Kim. I thought she and Tommy broke up somewhere along the line, but I guess I was wrong."

"And Tommy Oliver... knocked you out tonight."

Walter nodded. "I didn't see him for very long, but I know it was him. I saw him. He looked the same way he did the first time he punched me in the face, back in high school. All rage and deadly fighter guy." Walter laughed bitterly. "And of course, he's going to get to take a free swing, isn't he? Got away with it back in high school, too. Beating up a thief to stop him from stealing your girlfriend's purse isn't a crime, is it." He shuddered. "He's going to get me for this. I probably got off easy. He's going to kick my ass. You have any idea how good that guy is at martial arts? He's scary."

Don raised his eyebrows at this information and looked down at him thoughtfully. "When did Tommy Oliver move to Angel Grove?"

"Um... first semester of freshman year... so... fall of 93."

"I see." Don jerked his head at Abe. "Can I see you in hall for a moment?"

"We'll be back," Abe said sternly.

"Don't let him get me!" Walter pleaded as they left. "Guard the door! And the window! And the ceiling! He'll get into the walls, I just know it!"

"What a fruitcake," Don muttered as he shut the door. "Guess the Black Ranger hit him really hard."

Abe rolled his eyes and looked expectantly at Don. "What is it?"

"Fall of 1993... don't you get it?"

"...No..."

"That's when the Green Ranger showed up! Don't you see? This Tommy Oliver guy moved to town, was turned into the evil Green Ranger, reformed somehow, and became the good Green Ranger. Kim Hart must be one of them, too. And the Jason guy, and the two witnesses, Trini Scott and Zack Taylor. And! Kimberly was friends with Billy Cranston!"

"So... you think this guy, Oliver, moved to Angel Grove, dumped his friend Walter once he became an evil Ranger, then joined the regular team? You think Oliver was the one in the Black Ranger suit?"

"Yes! Think about it. I told you, it didn't sound like the real Black Ranger. But it could have been the Green Ranger masquerading as the Black Ranger!"

Abe stared at him and shook his head. "Son, go home, get some sleep, and stop thinking about this so much. And you wonder why the guys make fun of that action figure in your locker."

"No, seriously! Hear me out! He probably figured Walter didn't get a good look at him and didn't want us to show up, see that muscle-bound guy, and get suspicious. So he borrowed his buddy's powers and decided to play it off as a Ranger knocked him out, not Tommy! If he never hung out with that Walter kid after kicking his ass, he probably didn't remember him at all. He must have gone straight to the Youth Center after he left the scene; he's a Ranger, so he could totally beat us there. Then his buddy Jason claims he was dropping people off at the hotel, and his buddy Ernie claims he went straight from the hotel to get a smoothie, and in actuality he's saving his girlfriend from a mugger."

"It gets better," said a voice behind them.

Both of them jumped and turned. A woman stood behind them, short, glasses, somewhat pretty, early thirties. Don glared at her. "Can I help you, miss?"

"Couldn't help overhearing," she said with a shrug.

"Anyone ever tell you it's a bad idea to eavesdrop on police officers?" Don growled. Abe put his hand on Don's shoulder warningly, trying to calm him.

"My apologies," she said, completely unworried. "But as I was saying, it gets even better. Dr. Tommy Oliver lives in Reefside now."

Don stared at her. "You know Tommy Oliver?"

She shook her head. "Not personally, no. But I've done some... research... on him."

"All of it legal?" Don asked threateningly.

"Of course it is," she said with a sniff. "Or I wouldn't be telling you about it, now, would I?"

"What's your name, miss?" Abe asked her, eyes narrowed.

"Carrie Jeffries. I'm a reporter with—"

"With the Sentinel," Don finished, looking at her in a new light. "You were once suspected of being the Yellow Ranger after the Red Ranger gave you a private interview, despite the fact that you worked for the sports department at the time."

Carrie nodded. "Apparently the Clarion figured that since all of the other Rangers showed up in the sports department save Yellow, and Red was dating Yellow and acting friendly towards me, I might be the Yellow." She chuckled. "No such luck. You sure are up on your Ranger history, Officer..." She glanced at his uniform for his name. "...Brewster. Big fan?"

Don frowned. "Ma'am..."

"I am too. And I can tell you that I've done extensive research on the subject."

"What do you want?" Don demanded.

"I want you to let me talk to Walter."

"You know about Walter, do you?"

"Of course."

"How?"

"Reporters always have their sources," Carrie replied loftily, deciding not to mention the fact that Ex No. 2 had gone on to become a medical assistant after the paper had fired him for stealing toner from the features department.

"Well, I'm sorry, but you're not going to—"

"You want proof as to whether or not Tommy Oliver is a Power Ranger?"

Don stopped. "You have proof?"

"I can lead you to it, yes."

"How so?"

"Ever hear of the Dino Rangers?"

"Yeah, of course, they were based out of Reef... Reefside..." Don's eyes widened. "You say Tommy Oliver lives in Reefside?"

"Yes. He has a PhD in paleontology from U.C. Reefside. Teaches science there. And I can tell you who to talk to give you proof."

Abe and Don looked at each other. Abe nodded.

"Fine," Don said. "You give us a name, and you can talk to Walter all you'd like."

"Thank you," Carrie said. She pulled a notebook out of her jacket pocket and flipped through the pages. "Would you like phone numbers as well?"

~~~~~***~~~~~

Chapter 38: Rangers In Reverse

"Kira, stop pacing. They'll be fine," Trent said soothingly.

"Trent, you don't get it. If they figure out that Dr. O is the White Ranger, they'll figure out who we are, too. It doesn't take a genius. I can't believe they made us stay here!"

"I can believe they made Conner stay here," Ethan cracked.

"Why don't I order room service?" Conner suggested, ignoring Ethan. "They might still be open. Always makes me feel better."

"I don't want room service," Kira growled. "I also don't want chips, or cookies, or snack cakes, or pop, or candy, or Play-Doh, or pretzels, or pork rinds, or beef jerky, or juice boxes, or anything else you bought at Wal-Mart. I want—"

Whatever Kira wanted was drowned out by a knocking on the door. She raced to open it, relieved to see Tommy, Jason, Zack, Trini and Kimberly in the corridor.

"Oh, thank god," Kira moaned. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah. They didn't suspect anything. Billy makes a freakishly convincing Black," Zack said, his hand in his now-empty back pocket. He wouldn't be getting the morpher back until the morning, and being without it was driving him crazy.

"What a night," Kimberly said. "You know what sounds good right about now?" she added suddenly. "A beer."

"I'm with Kim," Conner said quickly.

"Nice try, Conner," Tommy said, rolling his eyes.

"Seriously. I want a beer. A large one," Kimberly said, a look on her face as if struck by an epiphany and trying to work out the finer details. "Who's up for getting drunk?"

Conner, Ethan, and even Kira and Trent raised their hands.

"None of you are drinking. Ever," Tommy said firmly. The four gave a collective sigh.

"I don't get drunk with the guys anymore," Trini said. "Not since that little fiasco back in 2001."

"Fiasco?" Kimberly prompted.

"It was terrible. Zack, Jason, T