Fairer Than Death

- 4 -

"That's not fair."
"No, it's not, but that's what we're stuck with."
—Lyta Alexander & Dr. Kyle, "Babylon 5: The Gathering"

Both his father and Dr. Roth were pleased when he woke up the next morning remembering very nearly everything that had happened the previous Saturday. Missing the few actual moments of the accident was completely normal, the neurologist explained to him (as he had already explained to Edmund Cranston), and was due to the physical injuries the brain had sustained. His father intensely disliked the way the neurosurgeon said things like "the brain", but Billy found that he preferred the distance. "Damage to your brain" was something he never wanted to hear, just as "my brain damage" was something he truly never wanted to say.

Although there was still much about Billy's recovery that was puzzling—such as why he could feel his legs but not move them, not to mention (though some of them did, and where he could hear them) why he was recovering at all—he was moved out of the SICU into a semi-private room Tuesday. That meant Jason didn't have to sneak in, and made it simple for the entire team to come by and visit him, though the hospital frowned on groups of more than three.

Wednesday, Tommy and Kim cut last period (Kim's was a study hall, which was easier than Jason and Tommy's Western Civ, but they did it anyway) and joined Jason in a visit. When they got to the room, three junior high kids were on their way out; one of them—whom they recognized as the Stony Creek JHS quarterback—was agonizingly impressed by Jason, but too embarrassed to actually do more than stammer something unintelligible and run.

"Did you intimidate Jordan?" Billy asked as they came into the room, currently occupied only by him.

"I think so," Tommy grinned. "They let you have that in here?" He gestured at the pile of books on the bedside table. "Aren't you supposed to be resting?"

"Physics is restful," Billy insisted.

"I didn't mean to intimidate him," Jason ignored that byplay. "What was he doing here?"

"They're my math students," Billy said. "And the junior highs are out early on Wednesday, so at least they're not cutting class."

"Nag," said Jason amiably as he dropped into the bedside chair.

"They came for tutoring?" asked Tommy.

Kim shook her head at him. "They didn't have any books with them. They just came to see you, didn't they?" An aroma caught her attention and she sniffed. "And bring brownies? Can you eat brownies?"

"No." Billy shook his head. "I can't. You guys take them with you so I don't lose my self-control."

"You should save them for Rocky," Kim said.

"Home-made pecan brownies?" Tommy looked up from investigating the plastic container. "Rocky will eat anything; these should go to a discriminating palate."

"I don't care who eats them," Billy said. "I only want them out of here before the aroma drives me mad."

"We'll take 'em," volunteered Tommy. "You know," he cleared the books onto the floor and perched himself on the bedside table, since Jason had the only chair; Kim had settled on the edge of the bed near Billy's knee, "you're looking pretty good for a guy who fell off a building."

"I don't have much basis for comparison," Billy answered, "but I feel pretty good."

"For a guy who fell off a building," Tommy clarified.

"That's understood."

"Actually," Kim said, "you do look good. I mean, the bruises are gone and I don't think you're going to have any scars, at least not where we can see them—at least not if you weren't wearing that hospital gown—"

"That's enough, beautiful," said Tommy, trying not to snicker at Billy's blushes.

"You know what I mean, don't you, Billy?" She was glad Tommy had stopped her, though.

"I do, Kim," he agreed. "And, in fact, it's something I wanted to mention to you when you were here before, Jason."

"Mention away, buddy," Jason said, leaning back in the chair and putting one of his cross-trainers on the bed, nudging Billy's knee.

Kim wasn't sure why, but every time she'd seen Billy since he'd been hurt, she'd wanted to touch him; in fact, her hand was on his knee at the moment. Maybe just to reassure herself he was still there? Whatever, it seemed clear that she wasn't the only one who felt like that. Not only was Jason maintaining contact, but Tommy kept reaching out and touching Billy's shoulder. He didn't seem to mind, though normally he wasn't much for touching, being touched. Nearly dying may change your perspectives, Kim realized. It sure changed ours... She realized that Billy hadn't started talking yet. "Did you want us to leave?" she asked.

"No," he responded quickly. "I'm just not sure how to start this... it's very vague, very unscientific, very—"

"Intuitive?" Kim asked. "That's what Adam was complaining about, when Jason was explaining how things worked."

Billy cocked his head at Jason, his green eyes sparkling. "Jason was explaining how things worked?" he said. "I'm very sorry I missed that."

"Give me a break," Jason said. "He can make it all work, can't he?"

"When you teleport, you just know where you want to go," Tommy told Billy.

Who raised a dark blond eyebrow and said, "Actually, that's quite a good explanation for instructing a novice in how to use the teleporter."

"See," said Jason, looking absurdly pleased, and added, "If it's unscientific, you've got the right people here."

"Truer words were never spoken," Tommy agreed. "What's on your mind?"

"Just say it," Kim said. "We won't laugh."

"I know when you're coming down the hall," Billy said.

That was not at all what Kim had been expecting him to say, which had been, vaguely, something about his injuries or the team. Apparently it wasn't what Jason or Tommy had been expecting, either, though true to her word, nobody laughed. Nobody said or did anything at all.

"I know my father's come into the room when I'm asleep," he went on. "I recognize him, somehow. I knew Ratkowsky wasn't a hospital employee before I saw him. And you guys—as I said, I can feel you coming from down the hall."

"What do you mean, 'feel'?" Kim asked. It wasn't a very common word in Billy-speak.

"I don't know." He sounded frustrated. "I can't explain it. It's like... a new sense. I think it's connected to the Morphin Power, somehow, which makes no sense to me because I'm not any longer. Connected, I mean."

"Huh." Tommy looked puzzled. "None of us can do anything like that."

"And you didn't use to be able to, did you?" Kim asked.

"No," Billy answered her. "It just ... feels similar." It was obvious how much he hated being so imprecise.

Jason blinked as if he'd just thought of something. "Billy, you've had blood transfusions before, right?"

"Yes," he nodded. "Several times... Why?"

"Did your dad tell you they had trouble this time around?"

"He did. He said they wanted to run tests on him, something about exotic blood proteins. He pointed out I'd been transfused before, and he said they were puzzled. But he didn't go into any details with me. Why?"

"Mom said they had to autotransfuse you."

"Now that could be from the Morphin Power," said Kim; as the team's usual medic-standby she'd done some reading about medicine, even though there wasn't much around to help her with the table. "I mean, who knows what morphing does to us? We should probably check, 'cause it could be a problem if it's true. But it won't be the same thing as this, Jason. I mean," she pointed out, "he was still connected that day; we didn't give the Blue Coin to Adam until Monday."

"You shouldn't have waited that long," Billy said. "What if Zedd had attacked?"

"Zordon had Adam picked out. We'd have rushed it if we'd had to," Jason said.

"It wasn't exactly something we were thinking about, bro," Tommy said with another shoulder touch. "But back to this other thing: is it like, psychic? Or what?"

"What, I hope," said Billy.

Jason grinned, barely not laughing out loud.

Kim thought it was kind of funny, too. One thing Billy absolutely hated was psychics in any shape or form. He loved reading James Randi's debunking books, and he didn't even like seeing those commercials on television for the Psychic Hotline or anything like it. And although they'd watch The X Files together (David Duchovny was so cute), Billy was definitely a Scully... It would just kill him to have to face being psychic himself, though at least he wasn't seeing the future or talking with the dead. And of course, he was genuine... hey, he could collect Randi's million dollars if he could really do something flashily psychic. Except if it was Morphin, that would definitely be personal gain. She had an idea. "Is it just being sensitive to us? Because that could be like leftover."

"Except we don't have it, Kim," pointed out Tommy, "so how could it be?"

"It could be residual," Billy said; clearly he'd been thinking about it—big surprise. "It could be that the Power's presence within oneself blinds one to its presence in others. You know what it feels like to have the Power."

Oh, yes. Kim didn't drink, or do drugs, or even drink much coffee. But the Power was better than anything she'd ever felt, and when they'd been cut off by Revenger, it had been ... actually... "You know," she said, realizing it for the first time, "in that fight, with Revenger, I knew where most of the team was all the time. Sort of, anyway."

"Hey," Tommy realized, "me too."

Jason, who'd been all quiet the way he got when he was worrying about someone, the way he did, nodded. "I think maybe I did, too. You two, anyhow."

Kim nodded. "So that's probably what that is, Billy." She tried out the new word. "A residual?" She'd thought that was what actors got from reruns.

"Except," he said, "how is it I can sense people who've never had the Power?"

"I don't know," Jason said. "Maybe we all could. Not that I want to experiment, mind you."

Nor, Kim knew, did he want Billy to dwell on the loss... especially since he wasn't fully recovered physically yet. Jason wanted to keep things light, at least for now. He'd said so on the way over. But, while they were all worried about Billy's recovery—whether he'd walk again, or, or, or anything—Kim knew Billy better than to think he wouldn't worry things over in his own mind if nobody talked to him about them. Jason did, too, really. So, "Zordon probably knows," said Kim. "I mean, if they're used to replacing Rangers."

"We can ask him," Jason nodded. "Anything else? Premonitions? Clairvoyance? Dead people hanging around with odd messages?"

"Tommy, will you do me a favor?"

"Sure, Bill; what?"

"Beat Jason up."

Jason nudged Billy's knee with his foot, smiling, while Tommy promised to work it in.

"Seriously, anything else?" Kim asked, ignoring the byplay, which she'd have characterized as "macho idiocy" if she'd deigned to notice it.

Billy looked relieved that he was being taken seriously and, simultaneously, as if what he was going to say next might change their minds. "Well, yes. I've been having strange dreams."

"Do we want to go there?" Tommy kidded him gently.

Billy blushed.

"Tommy," Kim reproved and squeezed Billy's knee supportively. "Just ignore them. What kind of dreams, Billy?"

"A wolf," he said.

Kim glared at the other two boys, hoping her eyes were threatening instant death for so much as a snicker. Apparently the message got through: neither one made a sound.

"A regular timber wolf? Or what?" she asked.

"A blue wolf," he said. "A big blue wolf. It—she. She doesn't do anything except be there. Inside my mind, I mean..." He sighed and shook his head. "I'm not explaining this well."

"Sure you are," said Kim. "I mean, it's not math. It's—"

"Inherently imprecise," Jason quoted the phrase from other discussions.

"Precisely," Kim said, grinning. "I get the picture, I think. We'll see if Zordon and Alpha know anything."

"Thanks, Kim," Billy said. "I'd really appreciate it."

"Hey, even if you're losing your mind, we'll still love you," Tommy said.

"That's so reassuring," Billy responded, but even though his tone was dry, Kim could tell by his eyes that he was as serious as Tommy, equally surface-light, had been.

Jason pulled his foot off the bed and sat up. "Well, I hate to run, but Coach told me if I want to play Friday I'd better make at least one practice this week." Which was true; he'd missed all of them the week before, plus the game itself (which had been out of town). And his parents were both back on days this week and cracking down on how much time he was spending out of the house—hence cutting Western Civ, where he could catch up in a hurry. "I leave you in good hands."

"That's the problem with team sports," groused Tommy. "All those little Napoleons running the teams." Everyone in the room knew he meant Kim's gymnastics coach.

"Rocky doesn't complain," Billy observed.

"Well, he's going to put himself through college playing basketball," Kim pointed out. "Of course he's not going to complain about it."

"Rocky's coach spoils him," said Jason.

"Like yours doesn't?" asked Tommy.

"Easy for you to say," said Jason.

Tommy just snickered; he could have played football if he had wanted to. But he'd never been much for team sports, or so he always said, everybody depending on him to do what he was supposed to. Kim didn't understand that; he was one of the most dependable people she'd ever known, but then again, she hadn't known him long. Maybe he'd changed. Maybe being a Ranger had changed him... why should he be the only one who hasn't?

"You had better leave if you're in jeopardy of missing the game," Billy said.

"Yeah," Jason said, leaning over to punch him, very lightly. Why boys always hit each other was something Kim would never get. At least Jason picked one of the few places it looked like it wouldn't hurt. "See you later."

Kim and Tommy stayed a while longer. Billy had taken advantage of Jason's absence to cross-examine them on whether or not he was sleeping, eating, and studying enough; beating himself up too much; and taking care of himself at all. They should move in with each other, Kim thought, snickering to herself.

But Billy started drifting off in mid-sentence, and Tommy pushed himself off the table and said, "I think we'd better get out and let you rest." He picked the books up off the floor and, shaking his head over them, stacked them neatly on the table.

Kim slid off the bed and bent over to kiss Billy's cheek. "We'll see you later," she said softly, resting her hand for a moment on his.

And the Crane bowed Her head against the storm and planted Her feet more firmly in the raging waters and listened to the promise on the wind.
Kim blinked, uncertain what had just happened. But the sensation, the almost image, passed so quickly she wasn't sure that anything actually had happened, and she dismissed it. She was tired, that was all. She squeezed Billy's hand. "Get some sleep, and don't worry about us. We're fine, all of us, and we're taking care of each other." That was contradictory, but she didn't care. He knew what she meant.

His green eyes were warm as he smiled sleepily at her. "Thank you, Kim," he said as softly back.

Tommy put his arm over Kim's shoulders as they walked out of the hospital. "He looks a lot better than Jason was saying, don't you think?" he asked.

"I don't know," she said. "But you were right: for someone who fell off a building he looks pretty good." She put her arm around his waist and leaned into the solid warmth of him. Thoughts she'd been suppressing ever since Tommy had teased Billy about his dreams resurfaced. "When do you have to be home?" she asked once they were in his old car, knowing the Olivers had partially grounded him after he'd "lied" to them about where he was going last Saturday.

He looked at her. "Supper. Why? Someplace you need to go? I'll take you."

"I was wondering if you'd like to come home with me for a while," she said. "Kevin's got soccer till 8 and Mom's not coming home till she picks him up."

His warm smile appeared. "I'd like to," he said. "Unless you want to talk to Zordon?"

She looked at him, trying to see if he didn't want to... No. He did. But he didn't want to presume. She leaned against the seatback with a happy little sigh. "No," she said. "We can do that later. In fact, I might go up there this evening. Right now, I just want to go home."

"By your command," he said.

She loved him so much. It had been ten days, and not by so much as a glance had he shown that he thought he had any right to expect anything. Ten days since one thing had led to another...

"Where's your mom, Kim?" Tommy asked, looking at the dark house as he parked the car.

"She's got an open house," Kim said. "I guess she couldn't get Ricki to take it for her..." She hugged herself, wishing she had her sweater still. It wasn't a cold night out, but she felt cold. She felt like Jason had looked when they left him at the hospital.

"Kim? Are you going to be all right?"

She looked at Tommy, into his dark eyes, and suddenly she didn't want him to go off and leave her alone in the house, without even Kevin's mindless idiocy to distract her. "Can you come in for a little while? Please?"

"Sure, beautiful," he said easily. "Of course."

He took her keys and unlocked the front door for her. She never minded when he did things like that—'of course you can do it yourself,' he'd say, 'but that's why I'm here, so you don't have to'— and she certainly didn't today. He cut on the light by the door and looked at her. "Are you all right?"

"I'm scared." That had come without warning.

He opened his arms; she went into them without hesitation. "Of course you are," he said into her hair, leaning down to rest his face on the top of her head. "I know how much Billy means to you."

Now he wasn't saying anything about how strong Billy was, how much of a fighter he was. She wasn't either. Jason's grief-stricken presence had made them try their best to comfort him, but now, alone with each other, those words weren't coming. "He's your friend, too," she said.

His arms tightened around her.

"How long can you stay?" she asked, mindful of how annoyed Mrs. Oliver had sounded on the phone.

"As long as you need me to," he answered. "Don't worry about it."

"Come into the living room," she said, pulling away and taking his hand.

They sat on the couch and Kim at once curled up in his lap, his arms holding her close to him, wrapping her in warmth and protection. After a moment she raised her face and kissed him. He responded fervently, his tongue probing her mouth as his hands stroked her back. She pressed closer to him, one hand in his hair and the other digging into his shoulder. She wasn't sure how long they stayed like that, mouths and hands seeking to meld them into a single being, but after a while it wasn't enough. She pulled a little away from him, shifting to straddle his legs. She felt his hands running down her back and across her hips, drawing her against him. She yielded to them, gripping his hips with her knees and pulling his teeshirt out of his waistband. He shivered as she ran her fingers up along his ribs, and when she gently pinched his nipples he moaned against her throat, his hands convulsing on her buttocks.

She leaned back into his grip, arching her back and offering herself to his mouth. He kissed her throat, licking and nibbling gently. His teeth grazed her shoulder and she closed her eyes and gave herself over to the feelings.

He slid a hand under her blouse, covering her back with warmth. God, his hands are big... He fumbled for a minute with the hooks, and then her bra strap was undone and his hand moved around to cup her breast. She shivered at the touch, and then he was pulling blouse and bra together over her head, not bothering with buttons. She took her hands off of him so he could, and opened her eyes to see him looking at her for the first time.

His expression was everything she'd ever hoped she see someday. "Kimberly," he said softly, "you're so beautiful..." But she didn't want to hear him, she wanted to feel him, lose herself in him, become part of him. She pulled his head to her breast and he kissed one of them, and then the other.

And then, somehow, she was lying on her back on the couch and he was over her, his weight on one forearm as he suckled on her breast, his hand on the other one, rolling her nipple between his fingers, squeezing and pinching just hard enough to make her whimper with delight and need. She spread her legs, pulling him closer to her, digging her fingers into his buttocks.

He groaned, thrusting against her. Then he kissed her, deep and hard while his hand slid under her skirt. She raised her hips to make it easier for him to pull her panties out of the way, and moaned into his mouth as his fingers caressed and entered her. It wasn't enough; she wanted—she needed—more. She pulled impatiently at the waistband of his sweatpants, yanking them out of the way.

He suddenly shook himself all over and pushed away from her, ignoring her hand on his arm trying to pull him back. He sat back on his heels and looked down at her with dark eyes glazed with desire. "Kim," he said hoarsely, "Kim. Enough..."

"No," she tugged him back. "No. Don't go."

"Kim, I won't be able to stop if we go on any longer."

"I don't want you to stop," she said, and pulled his unresisting hand to her breast. "Unless you—?"

He shook his head. His thumb was caressing her nipple even as he said, "No. God, no. Are you sure, Kim?"

"I'm sure." She drew his head down and kissed him, wrapping her legs around him and pulling him into her, filling herself with him. Her need was so strong she didn't even notice if it hurt. All she knew was that for a time there was nothing in the world but Tommy and life.

Tommy shut the door behind them and put her keys down on the table. Then he held up the plastic box. "Want to get some milk and try out these brownies," he said, "make sure those kids are treating Billy right? I think the Wheel's on."

She took the brownies from him and put them down next to the keys. "No," she said. "Not just now. Come on." She took his hand and led him up the stairs to her room. Once inside she put her arms around him. "I don't want to watch TV," she said.

He looked down at her, his brown eyes kindling. "Kim?"

"Make love with me," she said, reaching to pull his face down for a kiss. "Please."

He kissed her eagerly, picking her up and holding her tightly as she gripped his waist with her knees. He turned and sat on her bed, still kissing her. After a moment, he said, softly, "We can't, Kim. It's not safe. I don't have any condoms... you could get pregnant."

God, she loved him. He didn't expect anything from her... he didn't even plan on trying to talk her into anything. She smiled at him, hoping he knew exactly how she felt because she didn't think she could ever find the words to tell him. "I got some," she said. "At the clinic." She reached for him and he came to her. "I want everything to be perfect this time," she whispered. "I love you."

"I love you, Kimberly," he answered her. "And where you are, everything is perfect."

Tommy pulled away from Kim's house, thankful to be missing Mrs. Hart, and headed for the Olivers'. He was going to be a few minutes late, but he wouldn't have missed the last two hours with Kim for anything. Someplace years ago he'd read a sentence that hadn't made any sense to him at all: God draws straight with crooked lines. Now he thought he could understand that. Billy nearly died, and Kim needed him. He smiled to himself. He could sure as hell have done without Billy getting hurt, but there wasn't much else he'd have traded for the aftermath. Even thinking it was a one-time thing, spitting in the face of Death.

Knowing it hadn't been, he felt... man, he needed to work on his vocabulary. He didn't have the words for how he felt. Great. Delighted. Blissed out... This time had been so much better, taking it slow, trying to get it as right as he could. Kim had been satisfied with his attempts, he could tell that. If she'd let him, though, he was going to learn to make it perfect. Like she was.

Like she so obviously thought he was...

He parked in the street outside the house and went in. Predictably, Marian Oliver greeted him with, "You're late."

"I'm sorry," he said, meaning it, really, and then lied. "I was at the hospital."

Her blue eyes softened at once. "How is he?"

"He's a lot better," Tommy said. "He's out of intensive care. We had a good conversation."

"That's wonderful." She smiled delightedly. "I'm so glad." She touched his arm, a fleeting gesture. "We've been waiting dinner."

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I'll go get washed up."

"Fine. I'll start serving."

He climbed the stairs, thinking about what she'd said. It was true, he knew; they liked Billy. He was somehow a symbol that they'd been right to come to Angel Grove. Tommy could remember the first time Billy had come over, to help him prep for a math test. He'd stayed for dinner, and Tommy had pushed the conversation toward the ever-faltering Mir space station, a passion of Jack Oliver's. Billy hadn't let him down; he'd impressed the hell out of them both. Jason was a jock—a good kid who got good grades and never got into any trouble, sure, but a jock—and they weren't surprised he gotten a girlfriend—and Kim, he knew, could come off as flighty and air-headed—but Billy was different. Billy was a geek. Billy was the kind of kid he'd pushed around in Stone Canyon. Or the first couple of months here in Angel Grove. And Billy liked him; it was obvious his affection was real. Billy was proof the Olivers maybe hadn't made such a bad decision after all.

He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. He didn't see how the Olivers could think they hadn't. He'd been no prize when they'd first gotten him as a foster, three years ago. Why they'd wanted him around he'd never understood. And he hadn't made a lot of effort to deserve it. In fact, he'd pretty much tried to make them give up on him... but they hadn't. In fact, they'd moved to Angel Grove on his account, trying to get him away from bad company and worse memories. An extra hour each way on his commute hadn't seemed to matter to ... Dad. Tommy tasted the word, wondering why it had always been so hard to say.

The Olivers had adopted him, stunning everyone in the Department of Family Services. People didn't adopt fifteen-year-olds. Especially not sullen fifteen-year-olds with a track record of trouble. But they had. They were his legal parents now, had been for more than a year. And yet, he'd never called them that.

He knew they walked a fine line with him, trying to give him both discipline and love. And he... well, he accepted the former but fought off yielding to the latter as though it would kill him. In some ways, that made things a lot easier on him. For him...

Like lying to them. Which he did all the time. He'd started because he was just a liar. It was part of who he was, who he'd become. A liar, a fighter, a bully, a trouble-maker. Getting into trouble before trouble came looking for him, choosing what kind of trouble it would be. Dishing it out before anybody could offer it to him... Then he'd lied because they scared him. Now he lied because he was a Ranger, and being so good at it meant he could do it without effort. Unlike his friends.

They all had to lie, too, but they were lying to families. Oh, all their families were different, as different as they were. Trini's parents held both their daughters to strict standards and had high expectations for them, but they loved them. Kim's mother loved her, too, and so did her dad; the acrimonious divorce had been hard on Kim but her parents had tried to spare her even though they hadn't really succeeded. Rocky's family was incomprehensible, a sprawling multi-generational, multi-nuclear sea of people who surrounded each and every one of the individuals in it with a love entangled with responsibilities and privileges cutting in so many directions it made Tommy dizzy to watch Rocky navigate serenely through it, never doubting his place, never shirking a duty or denying a need and never believing that anyone else would, either. Jason's parents flat adored their only child, though they worked not to spoil him. And Billy's father... well, maybe the Cranstons were distant or repressed, but Billy loved his father and his father was certainly there when needed.

They all had families. Real families, like he hadn't believe existed. Like he'd refused to believe he could have—refused because he was tired of the hurt that came from trying. Ten foster homes and counting before the Olivers put an end to it.

And for what? For him? It didn't make any sense, any more than his having, suddenly, friends made any sense. Especially these friends. Most especially after what he'd done to them.

Tried to kill them, for God's sake. Tried to lay the whole world open to Rita. Hell, he'd done that, but they were strong enough, good enough, to beat him.

To save him.

He'd never get used to that. Never. Never understand why Jason had held out his hand and said, "Tommy, we need you. It's where you belong."

Never in a million years of trying understand why Billy had seconded that, put his hand on Tommy's shoulder, begged him with his eyes to join them, opened his heart to take Tommy inside.

Why suddenly people thought he was worth something, no matter what he did to prove he wasn't.

And now he didn't know how to stop. Because it still scared him, this whole family thing. A long time ago, so long ago he couldn't remember anything but a vague feeling of being wanted and protected, he might have had a family. But since then, everyone—everyone—who'd claimed to care for him had either hurt him or left him, usually both. He'd stopped expecting anything else by the time he was eight, and he could see now that he hadn't believed it when it had turned out to be true.

Maybe, he thought, staring into his own dark eyes, maybe all he had to do was accept it. He'd taken Jason's hand when it was offered. He'd let himself trust Billy. He'd opened his soul to Kim just because she wanted him to. Maybe this really wasn't any harder. Maybe all he had to do was stop resisting. Maybe he only had to let them in.

He dried his hands and went down the stairs two at a time. The Olivers—his parents, he corrected himself—were already seated at the dining room table. He pulled out his chair, next to his father at the end, across from his mother—his mother, oh, God, his mother... He swallowed hard and closed his eyes for grace, praying with every piece of him for the first time. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

"Tommy?" Jack asked when he'd finished grace. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, sir," he said. "I'm fine. Really, Dad, I'm great." The word came out without his meaning it to.

Jack's cerulean blue eyes flickered in surprise and then warmed. "Good news at the hospital, then?" he asked, passing the dish of mashed potatoes.

"Yes," Tommy said. "He's doing really a lot better."

"That's great." Jack looked for something to say and fell back on the old standard. "How was school?"

Today, Tommy answered with more than just 'fine, sir.' He told them about his Lit class project, and Marian and Jack made suggestions, and for the first time probably ever Tommy felt like he was at home.

Friday after school Tommy, Kim, and Jason went to the hospital again. Kim had gone to see Zordon, and the three of them had kicked around what he and Alpha—mostly Alpha—had said. The consensus was, Billy wasn't going to like it any more than Zordon had.

"I think it's so cool," said Kim.

"Maybe," Tommy said doubtfully. "I don't think it means much, though. Even if it's true."

"If?" she answered. "You heard what he said. A wolf! And it's the only thing that really explains what's going on with him right now. Medically, I mean. Tommy, nerve tissue doesn't grow back. It doesn't."

"But it is," said Jason.

That sounded so much like a question that Kim obviously had to answer. "Yes, Jason. It is. He's getting better."

"But Zordon called it nonsense."

"Well, Jason," she said, "maybe Zordon's wrong."

"I guess he can be," Jason answered thoughtfully, and was quiet the rest of the way to the hospital.

Of course, he'd been quiet and thoughtful most of the day, Tommy reflected as he parked. Starting with gym, where he'd cornered Tommy in the locker room and said, in low sharp voice, "Did Kim do that?"

"Do what?"

"That," Jason had jabbed two fingers into Tommy's shoulder, next to a bruise which Tommy suddenly realized did, in fact, look like finger marks. "Did Kim do that?"

He'd had no idea what answer the black-haired boy Kim cheerfully called the older brother she didn't have wanted to hear. But he was well and truly through with lying to people he cared about if he didn't have to. "Yes," he'd said.

It had been the right answer. Jason had relaxed a little bit, his black eyes boring into Tommy's as if he were staring right into Tommy's soul. At least there wasn't anything there he hadn't already seen. Then he'd said, seriously but without anger, "If you ever hurt her I'll kill you."

"If I ever do, I'll want you to," Tommy had said, just as seriously.

Jason had nodded at him—a promise made—and let him go to finish dressing.

But there was more on his mind than Kim. They kidded Billy about thinking too much, Tommy reflected, but Jason thought as much. Just very differently, and about very different things. Jason not only took his responsibilities seriously, he actually went looking for them. It made him a great friend, but Tommy wouldn't have been him for all the tea in China.

When they got to Billy's room, his father was there. "I'm sorry, sir, we can come back," Jason began, but Mr. Cranston stood up.

"No, no, Jason," he said, smiling at them. Even when he smiled, Tommy thought, Mr. Cranston looked sad, somehow. "I'm sure Bill would rather talk to you three than me. I'll be back later, son," he added, sparing Billy the necessity of responding to that. "How are you, Kimberly? Tommy?"

"Fine, Mr. Cranston," Kim said and impulsively hugged him.

He smiled at her when she let go. "Thank you," he said softly. "Don't let him get too tired, Jason," he added and left.

"You shouldn't do that to him, Kim," Jason said as he sat down. "You know it embarrasses him. It's not the Cranston way."

Billy rolled his eyes at Jason. Kim shrugged as she sat down on the bed. "Oh, pooh. He needed it," she said. "How are you doing today? You look a little better."

"About the same," he said, "though it doesn't hurt quite so much to move my arms as it did."

"That's great," she enthused.

"It's progress, at any rate," he said more temperately.

Sure, Tommy figured. You fall off a building, you expect it to hurt. But his legs weren't working at all, pain or no, and that had to be depressing. Even though he could obviously feel it when Kim patted him on the thigh.

Which she did before saying, "Anyway, I talked to Zordon. But before I tell you what he said, I want to ask you something."

He looked at her expectantly.

"Okay. You say you have a wolf—"

"I don't know that 'have' is the right word," he objected.

"Billy," she said. "Don't try to get too precise."

"I can't help it," he answered, smiling ruefully. "Yes. It's a wolf."

"Do you..." she hesitated a moment, and then, in a rush, "do you feel any animals in us? You said you could feel us, are there animals? In us or the others?"

He cocked his head and regarded her for a long moment, and then his eyes drifted to Jason and on around to Tommy. He looked back at her before answering. "Actually, I've only seen Adam once, and he's so ... new. In every way. To me, to the Power... I can't sort him out yet. I don't feel anything in Rocky or Trini, just the Power. But you three." He paused again. Tommy thought he looked a little embarrassed. "Yes. There's something there."

"What is it?" she asked. He hesitated, and she said, chastisingly, "Billy. Come on, you knew this was gonna be mystical when you brought it up the other day."

"I was hoping I was wrong," he said.

Jason snorted. "As if. So, what are they?"

"I don't know... okay. Kim," he looked at her then closed his eyes. "It's... it's a bird. Something graceful and dancing... powerful. A crane, maybe." Without opening his eyes he turned his face towards Tommy. "You... a bird, too, but a raptor. A falcon, I think. And Jase..." His voice softened. "Fierce and unstoppable protector." Jason was blushing, Tommy noticed. "I think... I think it's a bear." He turned back to Kim and opened his eyes. "Well?"

"Omigosh," she said.

"I was rather hoping for a more cogent response than that," he said dryly.

She giggled. "Sorry. It's just... how many animals are there in the world?"

"Individuals or species? Either way, a whole lot. Why?"

"'Cause there are six, that's what the Ninjetti say, six, and you got them."

Tommy realized suddenly what she meant. "My God," he said. "It must be true."

"What must be true and who are the Ninjetti?" Billy asked. "Please, Kimberly?" He made puppy eyes at her.

She giggled at him. Tommy found it incredible to remember he'd once punched Billy out because he was jealous... he dismissed that memory. It had nothing to do with reality. And Kim was talking. "—Alpha, mainly, because Zordon didn't want to talk about it. He kept coming and going and making snide comments about mystics and foolishness. But Alpha was quite helpful. He doesn't believe it, either, but he didn't mind talking about it."

"'It' being?" Billy prompted.

"Something called Ninjetti Spirit Animals," Kim said. "Apparently there are these other kinds of Rangers, not just Morphin Rangers? And one kind is called Ninjetti. Zordon said the Ninjetti Rangers are just like Morphin Rangers, except they don't use... wait a minute, I took notes afterwards." She dug into her backpack. "Here. Morphin Rangers use the Morphin Grid, you know about that. Ninjetti Rangers use something called The Great Power (I think even the 'The' is capitalized). They have Zords, like us, and the whole nine yards." She flipped a page in the notebook. "Okay, the thing is, there are these like mystical offshoots of the Ninjetti called the Ninjetti Adept Masters, and they teach that all Rangers are really Ninjetti at heart. Wait, I skipped something. Okay, the Ninjetti Rangers, they come in six colors, too, except they don't have Green, they have White. And their Zords are like these animals, like ours? Except they're different animals. There's a Wolf—" she looked up at Billy, "—and a Crane and a Falcon and a Bear. And also an Ape and a Frog."

"A frog?" Billy said involuntarily.

"That's what Alpha said. Something about cleverness and adaptability and luck... Anyway. What these Ninjetti Adept Masters say is that all Rangers are capable of being Ninjetti. And that in all Ninjetti is a spirit animal. And that Ninjetti Adepts undertake some sort of spirit quest which gets them in touch with their spirit animal, and then they have a spirit guide. Tommy said it sounded like—well, you tell him, Tommy."

Tommy shrugged. "For a while I was kind of interested in Plains Indian culture," he said. He didn't remember exactly why he'd stopped looking into it, now. "A lot of their cultures had a thing where young warriors went on a spirit quest, looking for their life guide. It was often an animal. Sounds similar, that's all."

"So why does Zordon say it's mystical nonsense?"

Tommy thought Billy sounded like a man desperately waiting for someone to stabilize his world. Well, 'desperately' was probably too strong, Tommy backpedalled. But he was obviously hoping for some rationality to enter the discussion. Well, he was gonna get some but it probably wasn't gonna help. Tommy grinned to himself; he'd realized he believed it when he'd been relieved not to hear the word 'frog'. Or 'monkey'. 'Falcon' was cool.

"Because no Rangers ever go through spirit quests. Even Ninjetti Rangers. They just do what we did. And no Rangers ever notice any spirit animals, either."

"No Rangers ever mention them, at any rate," said Jason. "But most Rangers don't just quit." He stopped abruptly.

"Right," Kim said, covering the silence and not going into what did happen to make most Rangers give up the Power. "See, according to this one record Alpha found, Ninjetti Adept Masters don't approve of Rangers. They say using the Grid or the Great Power or any other tool is, well, cheating. It's too easy. You don't have to study or go on quests or anything else. And they also say that there's somehow too much power that way. It kills the spirit animals. Or drives them away, maybe. Whatever. Being a Ranger, even a Ninjetti Ranger, is being a tool-user. And being an adept is being a mystic."

"So, as I understand it," Billy asked carefully, "in order to be qualified to be a Ranger, you have to be capable of undergoing an adept's spirit quest? But you don't actually do it. So when you access the Power, you somehow acquire a spirit animal, but you don't know you have, and the Power, so to speak, burns the animal out anyway."

"That sounds about right," said Jason.

"Except mine is still here."

"Yours is tough," Tommy said. It was obvious to him. "Like you."

Billy actually blushed. Tommy kept forgetting, because he'd never really seen any reason for it, only heard what the others said, that Billy's self-esteem was new.

"Absolutely," Jason was agreeing, nudging Billy's leg with his foot. "If anybody's spirit animal is gonna be a survivor, it's gonna be yours."

Kim had stuck the notebook back into her backpack. Now she said, "The way Alpha said the Ninjetti Adept Masters talk, you can learn to access the Power after your spirit journey. But the Rangers don't do that."

"Right," Tommy added. "For one thing, it takes a long time, and for another, even Master Adept Masters are no match for a brand new Ranger. Their powers are much weaker."

"They would be, if they're accessing the Power on their own," Billy said, as if that were obvious.

"Hey, bro," Tommy prodded his shoulder. "What do you mean? You understand this?"

"I think I understand it," Billy said thoughtfully. "Zordon is a scientist, not a mystic."

"I'm not sure I get it," Kim returned.

"Well," Billy said, "Clarke's Law notwithstanding—"

"Whoa. Clarke's Law?" Tommy asked.

Billy smiled. "Arthur C. Clarke said 'Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.'"

"Okay. That's why the natives always think the English guys are gods in the movies," Tommy understood the concept.

"Right. Or why in that Showtime series the Goa'uld can make technically advanced people think they're gods."

"Or why 'Beam me up, Scotty' is the same as 'Abracdabra'?" Kim offered.

"Precisely. And it offends Zordon."

"Sorry," Jason said. "You've lost me. What offends him?"

"That the Morphin Power is something beyond his comprehension."

Jason and the others were quiet for a couple of minutes. Finally, glancing at the others, Tommy ventured, "So, what is the Morphin Power?"

Billy shrugged. "It's magic." He grinned at them. "Seriously, guys, I don't understand it, either. The Grid you can understand—"

"You can understand," put in Kim.

"—it just taps the Power," Billy continued obliviously. "It's a bit odd, because it seems to tap and amplify, rather than merely draw, but... okay," he paused. "Think of it like this: the Morphin Power is a river, or the sun, maybe? It's the actual, natural thing out there generating the power. The Morphin Grid, on the other hand, is a device which the Zordonians—or possibly some other civilization precursing the Zordonians—"

"Hey, time," Tommy T'd his hands. "I've always kind of wondered: Zordon the Zordonian? What kind of a name is that?"

Billy wasn't put off his stride; he was going to be a great teacher, Tommy thought. He shrugged and said, "I don't think it is his name. I think it's like that movie we watched once, Kim, remember? The Hasty Heart?"

"Oh, right," she said. "Digger and Yank and Kiwi... nicknames from where they were from."

"Correct. But, at any rate, whoever built the Morphin Grid, it's not the same thing as the Power. It's a device, like a hydroelectric dam or a solar collection and generation station. It converts the Power into a usable form, and amplifies it into a useful form. The Coins connect the Ranger to the Grid and deliver the amplified Power. The morphers, like the communicators, connect to the Grid as well, performing specific functions. Those functions—morphing, controlling the Zords, teleportation—they seem like magic, but they're all technological in origin."

"Well, sure," said Jason. "I mean, you built the communicators."

"Right. At the time I wasn't familiar enough with the technology to realize the communications subset of the Grid ties into the teleportation subset, but now I do, and I've refined the communicators quite substantially." He bit his lower lip. "But I still don't understand the actual Grid/Power interface very well."

"I don't even understand that sentence," Tommy muttered to Jason.

Jason snickered. Tommy doubted he understood any better, even after five years longer of knowing Billy. Oh, the words he probably did, and the grammar, but then Tommy followed that much, too; it was the idea behind the sentence they were having trouble with."So, what bugs Zordon is that he doesn't understand what the Power is?" Jason asked.

"I imagine so. It bugs me, not understanding something I work with."

Kim laughed. "Takes all kinds," she said. "I'm happy enough starting my car or turning on the TV; I don't need to understand the internal combustion engine or television ray things."

"Same here," said Tommy. "I like working on cars, but I don't have to understand how you can put a lot of information into a radio wave and have it come out pictures and sounds at the other end to watch TV."

"But we know somebody does," said Jason. "I mean, push a button, get a picture, but I know somebody invented television. I know a lot of people understand it. It's not magic."

"Precisely," Billy said. "I mean, I could explain to Aristarchus that his estimates for the size of the moon and the sun and their distances from earth were wrong because his instruments were bad, but could I explain that the entire Library of Alexandria could fit on a compact disc? Could I even explain what a compact disc was?"

"Probably," Kim said supportively.

"Well, thank you, Kim. Perhaps I could. I could certainly explain to him that it was a device and that if he had the physics he could understand it, even if I couldn't quite get him there. But if he had found a compact disc lying on the street in Alexandria, it would never have even occurred to him that it might be an information storage device."

"So," Jason said tentatively, "we're like some ancient Greek guy? We're looking at the Power and saying "magic" because it's technology we don't understand?"

"Actually," Billy said—Jason hated it when he said that, "no. I think that's what Zordon wants to think. It's what makes him comfortable. It's what makes me comfortable: thinking that somewhere there is, or was, someone who built the Power and could explain it to me if he and I tried hard enough."

"Yeah, but nobody built the sun," said Kim. "It just is."

"Precisely. And what makes me uncomfortable is that perhaps the Power is like the sun, rather than like a laptop with a CD-ROM drive. But what makes me really uncomfortable is the idea that it's not even that—I mean, I understand the sun: it's a hydrogen fusion plant with a powerful magnetic field generator thrown in. I don't fully understand the processes that created stars—the First Cause, if you will—but I understand stars. It's like understanding the brain and having no clue—"

"About the mind," said Kim. "Or the soul."

"Yes. It makes me very uncomfortable, and I'm sure it makes Zordon very uncomfortable too. Because these Ninjetti Adept Masters, they don't say, 'this is technology advanced beyond your comprehension', they say 'this is magic'. Right?"

"Yep," said Kim, "that's exactly what they say, according to Alpha. Spirit animals and mystic prayer ceremonies... that's not quite 'push a button, get a Zord'."

"So, you're saying it's like the Force?" asked Tommy, looking for a metaphor he could deal with. Or was it a simile? Whatever...

"I'm saying I'm afraid it's like the Force... even down to the 'hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.'"

"Because," discovered Jason, "whoever built the Grid built it to make the Power useable."

"Right. By itself, the Power is no match for people like Rita or Zedd."

"And if the Grid destroys the spirit animals, or chases them away or whatever, then the fact that Rangers have to be capable of becoming Ninjetti adepts is... oh, what is that saying? Interesting but not relevant?"

"Not entirely relevant," Billy nodded.

"Relevant enough," said Jason as the most important piece of this whole puzzle presented itself before him. Before them all. "Relevant enough to keep you alive after a four-storey fall. Relevant enough that your spirit animal, or whatever, pieced your nervous system back into fairly working order. I mean, that's the bottom line, isn't it?"

"It sure is." Kim leaned forward and hugged Billy almost fiercely.

Jason came out of the chair and put his arms around them both, and Tommy presumed upon his earlier insight and slid off what was fast becoming his regular perch on the table to settle on the bed behind them and wrap his arms tightly around Billy. He felt the shorter boy flinch but didn't even have time to think about letting go before the blond grabbed his arm and held on as tightly as he was being held. Tommy rested his head on Billy's and just supported him, giving his strength without thought or reservation.

Deep inside, the Falcon opened His eyes and cocked His head as, from far away and faint above the roaring Power, He heard the voice of the Wolf. For the first time in years, He shivered His wings and opened them to the gale-winds of the Power storm. It snatched Him and He rose with it, balancing on the winds, and He screamed in triumph and joy.


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Epilog


Original Fantasy:
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