Fairer Than Death

- 5 -

"It's not fair!"
"You say that so often... I wonder what your basis for comparison is."
—Sara & Jareth, "The Labyrinth"

Mr. Cranston came to dinner on Saturday evening a month after Billy's fall. Jason had seen Billy that afternoon; he was doing a lot better. He'd even wiggled his toes—it was amazing how good something that small could make you feel, Jason had thought at the time. But Billy's dad looked a little wearier than he had the last time Jason had seen him, and towards the end of the meal he told them his news.

"The insurance company wants me to send Bill to Los Angeles," he said.

"Los Angeles!" Jason blurted, and then apologized for interrupting.

"Don't worry about it," Mr. Cranston said. "My own reaction was pretty similar."

Jason took that as permission to pursue it. "Are you going to, sir?"

"Yes." He lifted a hand at Jason's expression. "I really don't have much choice. If I don't, the insurance won't pay for any of his rehab. And I can't afford that, and I can't look for another insurance company. No one would pick him up, Jason,—it's a pre-existing condition now."

"That sucks." He spoke without thinking.

"Jason!" his mother rebuked him.

"Well, Linda, I agree with him," Frank said. "But find a different word, son," he added. After a moment's silence, he asked, "How long is it likely to be, Edmund?"

"A couple of months, maybe," he said. "The doctors here..." he shrugged. "They don't really understand what's going on with him. They can't predict how much of a recovery he'll make. You know they didn't even expect him to live." He sighed.

Linda Scott nodded. "But he is, Edmund. And he's getting better every day. If the doctors are baffled, well, I say that's a small price to pay."

Edmund smiled at her. "You think it's a bonus, in fact."

She smiled again, mischievously. Like most nurses, she had a complicated reaction to doctors. Jason remembered her comment on seeing a book in the window of the local bookstore, something subtitled Doctors Talk About Themselves: "Do they ever!" she'd said. Now Linda took the plate from in front of Edmund, touching his shoulder lightly, and moved to get her husband's.

Edmund summarized. "I wish he could stay here, but that's not possible under the current health care situation in this country."

Jason recognized that tone from too many conversations with Billy. He also realized that he had sat there and let his mom start clearing the table and his dad hadn't said anything about it. He jumped up and finished the job, a sinking feeling inside him. After Edmund Cranston had gone home, Jason turned to his parents. "Dad—"

"No," Frank didn't even let him get the question asked. "I'm sorry, Jason, but no. L.A. is too far. You're only seventeen, you've been driving less than a year. I'm not going to let you go down there. I know you'll miss him, and he'll miss you, but that's why there are telephones. You can talk to him all you want. But I'm not letting you get on that freeway and I'm not letting you drive in L.A. We'll go when we can. That's final, Jason. Don't argue it with me."

And he knew that tone, too. But he had to try. "But, a couple of months—Dad, it's November now. He'll be there over Christmas."

"Jason, you know the Cranstons don't... Son, we'll go at Christmas. But you are not going to drive to L.A. on your own. It's not going to happen."

Billy stared at the phone for ... well, he wasn't sure exactly how long he'd been sitting there. He reached out and touched the airline ticket. Part of him—a huge part—wanted to forget this whole idea. Wanted to just catch a cab at the airport and go home by himself, let a cabbie he'd never seen before and would, hopefully, never see again wrestle his chair in and out of the car and watch him into his house—his own house— and then just stay there, alone, until he had to go out on Monday. In fact there was a rather large part of him, a part that he knew would get bigger if he opted for the cab, that didn't even want to return to Angel Grove High, just wanted to go for a GED and early graduation and ...

He sighed. Luka—he'd had to give her a name, he couldn't keep on calling her "the wolf"; even if she were nothing more than a figment of his imagination and he didn't think she was, she was far too intense, too persistent, too real for that—Luka had managed to let him know that she didn't approve of that. She thought he needed his pack around him. And he couldn't convince her that he didn't have a pack, other than his father. She knew better.

So did he.

The phone was picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"

In spite of himself Billy found himself smiling at the sound. "Hello, Mrs. Scott," he said. "This is Billy Cranston—"

"Billy! How nice to hear your voice again. It's been too long," she said. "How are you?"

"I'm doing very well, thank you," he said. "It's good to hear you again, too. I was hoping I could talk to Jason."

"He's upstairs, Billy. I'll get him."

Jason came on very soon; he must have run for the phone. "Billy—man, what's up?"

"I need a favor."

"Hey, anything, buddy. What?"

"I'm tempted to request something truly extravagant—"

"You might just get it, too. What do you need?"

"A ride home from the airport Thursday," Billy said.

"Home? They're cutting you loose?"

Jason's happiness warmed Billy. "More like, kicking me out."

"Whatever, buddy... it's about time. What airport? Santa Barbara? I'll be there—your dad out of town again?"

"Yes," Billy said. "Till Tuesday. It's okay, I don't mind... I've been kind of expensive recently, I'm afraid."

"He doesn't mind, either," Jason said. Billy hadn't needed to hear that; his conversation with his father had been entirely satisfactory, and he was rather more pleased than not to have no audience for his first few days home. But he was glad his friend hadn't misunderstood. Jason added, "When's the flight?"

"Just come when you get out of school; I'll wait there." Don't be greedy.

"Forget that, Billy. I'll cut—when?"

"Your parents might object to that."

"For this? The day I have to even ask them about something like this..." Jason snorted. "What time?"

"Two thirty-five," Billy capitulated.

"Cool. I'll be there. I can't wait to see you, you know that. I can't wait to tell the others, we'll have a party—"

"Jase—please. I'd like at least a few days to get, well, reacclimated before..." His voice trailed off as he tried to think of the right way to phrase that request in order to avoid hurting anyone's feelings.

But Jason understood what he meant. "Before you get mobbed to death?" he said, amused sympathy in his deep voice. "No problem, I should have realized. But not too long, okay, Billy? The others want to see you, too."

"Perhaps on Saturday?"

"Cool. I won't even tell them, just get them all over at the juice bar Saturday afternoon. It won't be hard. And I'll be there at two thirty to meet your flight."

Billy hung up feeling good. And Luka raised her head and smiled.

Jason came back to the arrivals lounge after checking that he was at the right gate. This time, he saw Billy, being strainedly polite to a woman who was looking at him as if he were very fragile and precious. Jason empathized with her, but he was sure Billy was a hair away from being rude. He almost wanted to see it—it would have been practically a first, his mom had once described his friend as 'so well-behaved it's frightening'—but he knew Billy would regret it later. So he yelled at him, and she had to admit he was going to be in capable hands, even though Jason let his enthusiasm carry him into an OJ over the last row of chairs.

He braked to a precipitous halt directly in front of Billy, looking down at him very seriously. "Are you going to break if I grab you?"

"I might if you don't," Billy said.

That was all Jason needed. He reached down and swooped his friend up in possibly the tightest hug he'd ever given anybody. Not that Billy seemed to feel like complaining about it; in fact, he was hanging on at least that tightly, himself. "God, it's good to see you," Jason said against the side of his neck. "Missed you, man, missed you like crazy."

"Same here," Billy said softly, holding on like he was drowning.

Jason had always, the seven years they'd known each other, been the taller, and now he was holding Billy completely off the floor. He had braced himself for the weight, but he thought, even though it had only been just over two months since he'd seen him, that Billy had lost maybe ten or fifteen pounds. He couldn't afford that, Jason thought, feeling a surge of anger that made him tighten his grip even more. They were supposed to look after him in LA.

The anger echoed in the Bear, Whose emotions always resonated with His warrior. The flame warmed Him, the touch fed Him, and once again, almost, He woke, but as always the Power storm drove Him deep inside again. But now He could almost scent the awakening.
That train of thought was derailed when Billy said, still softly but now with a trace of amusement, or at least what he hoped was amusement, "Jason, I do need to breathe."

"Sorry, man," Jason said, relaxing his grip.

Billy's feet touched the floor, but he didn't sit back down. Instead, he leaned against the taller boy, his hands fisted in the back of Jason's sweatshirt, and just stood there, his face against Jason's chest. Jason could feel him trembling slightly, and he didn't think it was from being on his feet. Not giving a damn what anybody in the Santa Barbara Airport might think, he put one of his hands in Billy's thick blond hair and held him gently, letting him rest against him as long as he wanted to. And I was supposed to let you sit here for two, two and a half hours waiting on me? he thought.

After a minute he realized why he hadn't spotted Billy right off. The sweater under his left hand was a soft moss green, and the shirt collar he was staring at was some light brown. No blue. No blue at all. He sighed to himself and laid his cheek on his friend's head. Billy had worn a lot of blue before they'd been chosen, and—like the rest of them with their own colors—practically nothing else since. In his place, would I want to put on red?

This might be harder than he'd thought, he realized.

Billy pulled away lightly, and Jason let go as he sat down in the chair, straightening his sweater and raking his hand through his hair. The sweater did a lot for his eyes, Jason realized, he'd never seen them look so green. Or so tear-bright, for that matter, not in years and years. He dropped to his heels beside the chair. Before he could say anything, Billy said, "Sorry, Jase—"

"Hey," Jason said. "It's me. You can ask for it, you know. You're allowed. And you're gonna get it whether you do or not. Billy—" he overrode whatever was coming next. "There was a hole in my life while you were gone. Damned if I'm going to let you apologize for filling it back up. Now," he said more briskly, before Billy decided he'd used up about four years' worth of emotional expression in the last ten minutes and closed down entirely. Or broke down. "You got much luggage?"

Billy blinked at him from behind the bronze-framed lenses he'd gone back to wearing, and then went along with it. "No," he said. "Two bags and that." He gestured at a small piece of dark gray carry-on.

"Good," Jason said, standing and picking that up. "By now, we should be able to grab it. I parked in the white zone; if I got a ticket, can you be pathetic?"

Billy smiled, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I expect I can evoke the desired reaction," he said. "I seem to be able to without trying." He reached for the carry-on.

Jason dropped it in his lap. "Your lady friend?"

Billy gave him a speaking look.

"That's just 'cause she doesn't know you like I do," he said, worrying slightly. "If she did, it's the last word she'd think of."

Billy settled the bag to his satisfaction and then said, with an edge of frustration in his voice, "I don't have that much time."

"You are an acquired taste," Jason admitted. "But we like you."

"Oh, thanks." But he meant it. Jason relaxed a little more. "How are the others?" Billy asked, pivoting his chair neatly and heading for the ramp to the luggage area.

"Doing pretty well," Jason said, matching his stride to Billy's speed. "They'll be glad to see you back."

"Grade point averages sliding, are they?" Billy teased.

"I guess we don't call you Brainiac for nothing," Jason agreed. "You nailed it. They're dropping like a stone. I'm down to a 3.2."

"Tsk, tsk. Can't have that." Billy braked just outside the luggage area and looked with some disfavor at the gate, which was just too narrow for his chair. "Isn't this against the law now?" he asked rhetorically.

"Yeah," Jason answered anyway. "For new buildings. I'll get your bags; which ones?"

"That duffle bag, and that dark brown overnighter."

"That's all?" he asked before he could stop himself.

Billy shrugged. "I didn't need much. There wasn't a lot to get dressed up for."

"Guess not." He grabbed the bags, slinging the duffle over his shoulder, and rejoined his friend. "Just as well, anyway," he added as they went outside into the pale winter sunlight.

"Might I inquire for what reason?" Billy raised an eyebrow.

"Well," Jason grinned at him, "Mom said, take the station wagon, but I figured the Mazda was more appropriate."

"Your dad's RX-7?" Billy sounded incredulous.

"Yeah." Jason gestured at the red convertible, mercifully free of parking tickets. "So, was I right, or should I put the top up?"

"No. I mean, yes. You were right... don't take this the wrong way, Jase, but, does he know you took it?"

"Nice," Jason said. "See if I ever get this car for you again."

"That threat has very little credibility," Billy said.

"Okay," he conceded. It was, after all, the first time his dad had let him drive it. "Yes, he knows. I probably shouldn't tell you this, it'll be bad for you, but he's not so much letting me drive it as he is letting you ride in it."

"I'll have to thank him."

"Yes, you will. Make sure he knows exactly how much you appreciated it." Jason grinned at him as he opened the trunk. "Will that fold up and go in here, or in the back, or what?"

Billy leveraged himself out of the chair and leaned against the side of the car, his face raised to the sun. "In the trunk is fine. Jason?"


"Are you expected back soon?"

He shook his head. "Mom wanted me to bring you home—I know, but she thinks you're too young to be alone anyway. I told her I'd stay over at your place unless you kicked me out, so, no. I'm not expected. Why?"

"Would you mind a detour?"

He shook his head again. "Where to?"

"Nowhere. Just, up the coast road maybe?"

He held out his hand. "Here, twist my arm," he said. "The RX-7 on the coast road? I don't mind at all."

"Maybe," Billy said, a very small smile tugging his lips, "pretty fast?"

"Tell him you loved it." Jason got the chair flat into the trunk and wedged the overnight bag and the little gray one on top of it. He decided the trunk was full and slammed it shut. Billy had tossed the duffle bag into the back and gotten himself settled in. Jason slid in behind the wheel. "Buckle up," he said, "and check in the glove box."

Billy did, smiling and shaking his head as he pulled out the sunglasses he found there. "Where did you get these?" he said, hooking his other glasses at the neck of his sweater and putting the shades on.

"From your house," Jason answered, putting his own shades on. "You gonna be getting contacts again, now that you're back?"

"I don't know. Probably." Billy shrugged. "Glasses are a lot less trouble, as long as I'm not fighting off putties or something every day."

"Yeah, I can see where that might be a problem." And then he snickered. He couldn't help it.


"Nothing, man. It's just—remember the first fight we were ever in? You actually told the putties to wait while you took your glasses off. And they did. I don't think they knew what was going on."

For just a moment, Jason was worried that he'd guessed wrong. Then Billy laughed, genuinely, and said, "It was just too bad I'd had exactly forty minutes of karate classes and consequently had absolutely no idea what I was going to do after that. Except get the crap kicked out of me, in all probability." He laughed again. "Which I was pretty good at, as I recall."

"Yeah, well, you got out of practice at that." Jason could have bitten out his tongue as soon as he heard the words.

But Billy took it as it had been meant. "Thanks to you."

"Not a problem, buddy." Jason looked in the mirror and eased the convertible out of the parking lot.

At the first red light they came to, a pair of pretty Valley Girls in a Range Rover giggled and waved at them. "Definitely tell my dad how much you appreciated this," Jason said, waving back at them. Billy smiled.

Once on the coast Jason headed north, toward Big Sur, cranked up the radio, and opened the car up to about sixty. It was faster than was legal, faster than he'd have driven on his own, a lot faster than his father would have been happy with, and maybe a little faster than was entirely safe, but safe wasn't what they were going for at the moment. He knew he was a good enough driver to handle it, and the car was certainly good enough. And maybe that was making excuses, maybe he was being reckless and irresponsible, but the look on Billy's face validated the choice.

Because right now, Billy was an eighteen-year-old looking at a long life of being safe. Of being taken care of. Of being treated like he was breakable. Broken. Sure, Billy had probably always been destined for an academic career, and he'd still be able to do that, but Jason honestly didn't know how Billy had stayed sane; his friend wasn't an athlete, in the sense that he lived for physical competition, but he was a fair gymnast, a better than fair pick-up basketball player, at least with his friends, and an enthusiastic if not very good volleyball player. It had to be damned hard not to be able to even walk down the street any more. Not to mention—well, those Valley Girls had seen two good-looking boys in an expensive red sports car. That woman in the airport had seen 'pathetic'...

And making it all worse was that Billy had to give up the Power, had to let Adam Park become the Blue Ranger. Jason literally couldn't imagine what it would be like to lose his link to the Morphin Grid. After the first time he'd reached into it, every one of his senses had been heightened. Life itself was more alive. And he remembered vividly being cut off from it... How could any spirit animal, any touch of psi, any half-measure compensate for that? To lose that, to retain only the little touch, after the real thing, that was Ninjetti and at the same time end up in a wheelchair physically, too—he'd had nightmares about it for more than a month.

He couldn't do much to fix Billy's life, couldn't fix his legs or give him back the Power. But he could damned well refuse to treat him like he was pathetic.

They cruised on up the coast, the old two-lane highway that got narrower and twistier the further north they went through the hills, the spectacular dropoffs and Pacific on their left. About a hundred and seventy miles later, he glanced at Billy, who had relaxed against the seat. "Carmel in twenty miles," he said. "You want to stop for supper?"

"I could eat," Billy said, sounding vaguely surprised.

"We're gonna need gas soon anyway. I wonder if we could get in the Hog's Breath."

"We could inquire," said Billy.

"Not," Jason realized, "that I have enough money to eat there. Does Carmel even have Mickey D's?"

"I don't know," Billy said, straightening up and laughing a little. "Probably it has something for tourists with little or no cash left. Or there's Pacific Grove. Or that place in Monterey Rocky raves about—"

"It closed," Jason said; he'd always regretted not getting up there to see it.

"Most unfortunate," Billy said. "However, if you'll let me pick up the tab as recompense for the driving, I do have a gold card with me."

"I don't mind the driving," Jason understated, "but I will let you buy me dinner. Some place classy in Carmel, to go with the car. Too bad I'm not dressed for it."

"You're merely fashionably scruffy," Billy countered, smiling.

"Who's scruffy??" Jason demanded in his best Han Solo voice. But he figured Billy was right: the combination of the car, the gold card, and Billy's preppy good looks would get him accepted even if they went someplace really classy, not just expensive.

At the gas station, they decided to try the Hog's Breath. Jason pulled into a handicapped spot in front of the famous restaurant.

"Jason, this is Carmel," Billy pointed out. "You will get a ticket. And it will be quite expensive."

"Nah," Jason waved that off. "I snagged this from your place when I got the sunglasses." He extracted a temporary permit from the back of the sunvisor and hung it on the rearview mirror. "C'mon, you earned it. Damn planet doesn't know what we do for it, but at least you can grab premium parking."

"I suppose," Billy said.

Jason decided to take that as an enthusiastic agreement. "I'll get the chair out," he said.

"This close, I don't need it," Billy objected. "I've got crutches in the duffel bag; they'll be a lot less obtrusive in a restaurant."

Jason nodded and reached over the seat back to pull the duffle bag upright. He had noticed it was a bit rigid, now he knew why. Billy unsnapped the top hook and pulled out a pair of those aluminum forearm crutches that had been stuffed down along the side.

"Anything in there you'll mind if you lose?" Jason asked. "'Cause I don't think it'll fit in the trunk."

"Nothing in there but some clothes," Billy said, leaning against the Mazda and sliding his arms into the tops of the crutches. "If somebody did steal them, I'd be grateful."

Jason had seen the blue inside the bag. He didn't say anything, just waited until Billy had gotten his balance and walked beside him to the restaurant door.

By the time they got inside Jason could see the strain on Billy's face, but he knew better than to mention it. His decision was justified as they waited; the strain eased, and by the time the hostess came up to them Billy was back to normal. As it turned out, they could be seated in about twenty minutes, if they wanted to wait... "at the bar?" she offered hesitantly after a glance at Billy.

"Thanks," said Jason. He hadn't missed the flicker in her eyes, but he figured she didn't want them trying to order drinks. He reassured her by saying to Billy, "I heard they have great iced tea here—they put orange slices in instead of lemons."

"Intriguing," Billy said.

Jason was relieved to see the Hog's Breath was anything but formal. Well, anything but formal or cheap, he amended that to. He fit right in with the casually dressed crowd. He looked around, but didn't see Clint Eastwood. Oh, well. They ordered iced tea—the orange slices gave it a very interesting taste, Jason thought he'd try it at home—and watched CNN on the TV over the bar until they were seated.

Billy was pretty good with the crutches. Well, Jason reflected, that was why he'd been in Los Angeles, after all. Plus he'd really outgrown that appalling awkwardness a year or so ago. The gymnastics had finally paid off, he'd been pretty graceful there for a while... Oh, man, don't start thinking like that, he brought himself up short. But he couldn't seem to find a topic of conversation they could stay on for more than a few sentences, and by the time their food came, he was ready to just be quiet. If Billy wanted to talk, well, he was there. If he didn't, it was sure as hell understandable. And there wasn't any strain between them; they just weren't talking. And that was okay, Jason thought, watching Billy eat as though he were really hungry, as though he hadn't really eaten in a while. It was more than okay.

Billy handed over his credit card when the waiter came by. Jason dropped some bills on the table for the tip, cleaning himself out, and said, "I'm gonna hit the john and then find a phone. If I don't call home soon, my parents are gonna be convinced we're a twisted pile of smoldering iron somewhere."

"We should have called earlier," Billy acknowledged.

"It's okay," Jason said. "It's not late enough yet for them to worry. I just better call before we get back on the road. While there's a phone around."

He waited while it rang, planning what he was going to say. "Hi, mom," he said when she answered, "just calling to let you know I picked him up and everything's okay."

"That's good to hear. Are you at his house?"

"Ummm, no. Actually, we haven't gotten back into town yet."

"Jason Lee Scott, you haven't had an accident with your father's car, have you?"

"No, mom. Not at all. Billy wanted to eat out," he said. "If we hadn't, it would have been pizza," he added, hoping her nutritional instincts would kick in.

"Oh. Well, of course," she said. "Are you still in Santa Barbara?"

"Yeah, we are." Okay, it was a lie. But it was easier than saying 'no, we're more than halfway to San Francisco and the mood Billy's in, we might end up going there before the night is over.' One unexpected side effect to being a Ranger: he could lie to his parents a lot better now. "We'll be heading back to Angel Grove soon. I'll be at Billy's later, if you need to get in touch with me."

"Okay, dear. Drive carefully, now."

"Yes, mom. I will." He hung up.

Billy was already in the car; Jason joined him. He settled his shades and said, neutrally, "North? Or south?"

Billy hesitated for a minute, and then said, "We'd better go to Angel Grove. It would be unfortunate if your father reported this car stolen."

"It would. Especially if I ever want to borrow it again. And I do."

So he pulled out heading south. They drove in silence along the old Pacific Highway for more than a half an hour. And then Billy spoke, as if picking up a conversation they'd just let drop. "You think Rocky's going to get the school record?"

Jason nodded. "Yeah, I do. I mean, he's got, what, six games left, and all he needs is ten points and three assists. He can do that in one half, not even trying."

"When's the next game?"

"Sunday. You up for it?"

"Don't want to miss Rocky's big night," Billy said. The words might have been open to interpretation but the tone wasn't. Billy meant it.

Jason wasn't really surprised. Billy might be at best mildly interested in organized athletics, even those of AGHS, but he'd always been there to cheer for his friends. "Great," Jason said. "We're all going. It'll be like old times."

"Indeed. I presume Ernie is planning a party?"

"Yep. Of course, we can't tell Rocky—"

"No," Billy agreed. "No matter how often the irrationality of the concept is explained to him, he still believes that prior discussion of success somehow prevents it."

"Doesn't he just. But we do have a party planned. Two in one weekend—making up for lost time."

"Might as well just jump in the deep end."

Okay. "We've got a lot to make up for."

"Not really."

Jason slowed down slightly as a tricky curve came up. By the time he'd negotiated the one in the highway he'd figured out Billy's. I'm a little out of practice, he realized. "Glad you think so. Adam especially is a bit nervous."

"Did you tell them I was back?"

"No, you said not to. Didn't even tell them you were coming. Rocky thinks we're meeting to work out, and the others think it's to plan Rocky's party."

"Adam doesn't have anything to be nervous about."

"Yeah. I think that's why he is." Jason slowed down even more. "Let's pull off up here," he pointed at one of the overlooks. "This road, this car, this conversation—it's one too many for comfort."

Billy nodded. "If you want. I'm done, though—I have nothing further to say on the topic."

"I do." Jason checked his mirrors and slowed the convertible down, pulling up next to the low wall.

Billy opened the door and pulled himself out of the car, using it as a support to make his way to sit on the wall, looking out over the ocean. The sun was ending its descent and was in their faces as Jason joined him, settling next to him on the rough stone and swinging his legs over to dangle above the plunge to the rocky coastline. That precipice made him a trifle nervous, remembering involuntarily the last time Billy had been near a drop-off. He tried to say something to cover it, but what he came up with still touched the subject. "Remember when we came up here in sixth grade, and Zack tried to climb down to take pictures of the sea lions? Was that here?"

"When he broke the telescopic lens on your mother's camera?"

"Off her camera, I think you mean. Yeah, that time."

"I believe that was another ten or fifteen miles further up the road," Billy said.

"And he wasn't even fazed."

"As I recall," Billy smiled, "he wanted to borrow someone else's camera and try again."

"No wonder his parents moved to Des Moines," Jason chuckled. "Flat country."

Billy nodded. After a moment, he said, "I meant it, Jason. As far as I am concerned, there's nothing anyone has to 'make up for'. I've made my peace with what happened to me, and, considering how much worse it could have been, I'm reasonably content with the status quo. I certainly don't want any of the Rangers, especially Adam, to feel any apprehension about my return."

"Good," Jason said briskly. "I'm really glad to hear it. And you're still going to hang out with us?"

"Of course. Presuming that I'm still invited to," he added.

Jason gave him a hard look. He didn't by any means want Billy thinking he was wanted only for what he could contribute to the Rangers, to be ignored if he wasn't on the team anymore. He'd sooner not ask him at all than make him think that. But the flip side was Billy thinking he didn't have a contribution, and that was as bad. After a moment, Jason decided that if Billy hadn't known before how much he was wanted for himself, well, today should have shown him. And if not, Jason could tackle it when it came up. "Don't be an idiot," he said for the moment. "Of course you are."

Billy shrugged slightly. "Jase, things have changed a bit," he pointed out, but he didn't look particularly upset, and his tone was light. "I mean, you guys do have things to do, monsters to fight, worlds to save."

"Yes, we do," Jason agreed. "But it's not like you don't know about it. In fact, that's what I wanted to talk about. Yesterday I talked with Zordon. You know you can't be a Ranger any more, but Zordon agreed with me: we need you in the Command Center. If you want it, that is."

Billy pulled off his sunglasses. Jason was close enough he didn't need to put his others on to see his face. The dark-haired boy pulled his own shades off, laying them on the wall, so that Billy could see his eyes and waited. After a long while, Billy said, "Want what, precisely?"

"Zordon called it 'coadjutor'. I call it, getting the guy who's pulled off more saves than Dennis Eckersley back where he can do us some good. If you're okay with it."

"Okay with it?"

"Yeah." Jason honestly wasn't sure if Billy would want to or not. God knew, he'd always loved messing around with the technology in the Command Center, and he also loved being needed, being useful, being wanted—well, who didn't—but would he want to deal with watching the rest of them morph? Would the chance to retain what he could balance the constant reminder of what he couldn't have? Jason had no way to judge; while his own value to the Rangers was, as was Billy's, exactly the same as what he did well, it was purely physical, and in like condition to Billy's there'd be nothing he could do and no reason to ask him. But Billy—he'd meant it when he told Zordon that they'd double their effectiveness with Billy back in the Command Center. So he was prepared to argue the point, unless it was obvious that Billy really couldn't stand the idea; like that guy had said in The Great Escape, you have to ask some strange things in this job. "Are you?"

"No," Billy said. "'Okay with it' doesn't begin to describe my feelings. Jason, are you sure Zordon said it was permissible?"

Jason felt like a huge weight had dropped off his shoulders. He laughed out loud, reaching into his pocket. "Yeah, I'm sure, buddy. 'Once a Ranger, always a Ranger', more or less. Here." He held out one of the spare communicators—Billy's invention, he'd pointed out to Zordon, one of his better arguments.

Billy took it, his eyes still on Jason's face; unbuckling his watch he slipped the communicator over his wrist. "More less than more, maybe, but—thanks, Jason."

"For nothin'," Jason said, reaching out and tousling Billy's already wind-blown hair. "I mean it: we need you."

"You have me. Anything I can do." The words negated the almost automatic knocking away of Jason's hand. "Jason?"


"I'd like to ask you something, and I want you to, to think carefully before you answer, and to tell me the truth. I don't mean, don't lie; I mean, actually answer."

Jason shifted his weight a little uneasily. Billy didn't initiate this sort of conversation often, or at least he hadn't; he liked what he called 'a decent reticence' and the Scotts called 'bottling things up'. But when he did, it could be rough; when that laser-like mind decided to target the reasons you were doing something, you could get some surprises. He took a breath and nodded.

"You seem... inordinately pleased by my decision. Even surprised."

"I'm glad," he said.

"But surprised. And when you sat down here, you seemed uneasy. Worried perhaps a better word. What were you worried about, Jase? That I might fall? Or that I might jump?" He made that little noise of his, the one that wasn't a laugh but signified that something vaguely amusing had just been said. "Throw myself off, more like."

"Neither," Jason said automatically. Then, because he had, even if not out loud, promised to be honest, he added, "Both. Either... I don't know."

"I thought so." Billy sounded more pensive than pissed off, Jason was glad to note. He looked out over the ocean, though, as he hadn't put either pair of glasses back on, he was seeing only a mass of colors. Jason thought it must be like looking at an abstract painting of the world, though with 20/10 vision he'd never been able to really figure what it was like to be as unable to see as his friend was. After a moment's silence Billy said, "I might fall; you might as well. There are certainly safer places to sit than this, though few if any more beautiful. But I am not going to jump. Jason, believe me: I am not the slightest bit suicidal."

He'd turned suddenly to look at Jason when he said that; Jason wasn't sure what expression was on his face because he hadn't realized earlier he'd even had that in his mind. He had, he knew now, because he wasn't sure himself he could have stood it. But before he could say anything, Billy sighed and put his sunglasses back on.

"Trust me on this, Jase," he said softly. "I am not suicidal. I know what suicidal feels like and this is not it. At worst this is a mild melancholy."

"Mild?" Jason blurted involuntarily.

Billy's mouth twisted in acknowledgement, but he insisted, "Yes. This could be so much worse, and I've spent nine weeks living with people who were so much worse. At least I didn't actually sever my spinal cord. I'm not paralyzed. I don't have to breathe by machine. I'm not hooked up to a catheter. I'm not strapped into my chair. I'm not in constant pain." It had the sound of a litany, Jason thought. "I don't need a nurse. I can dress myself. I can bathe myself. I can stand up, if I don't do it too fast, and I can even walk ten or twenty yards with crutches, and that should improve... and MIT doesn't care if I'm in a wheelchair, though to be honest I'm not sure about AGHS... I would, to be honest, since we are, truly prefer that it hadn't happened. But this is not despair, Jason, and you don't have to worry about that. Do you remember," he said abruptly, turning to glance briefly at him, "when we first met?"

Jason nodded. He wasn't likely to forget that day; it had been the first real fight he'd been in since he started studying martial arts. It was exactly the kind of fight you were supposed to be in, which made it good as well as oddly exciting: three sixth graders who had cornered a smaller kid in the park. When he'd jumped into the middle of it he'd noticed three things: it was a particularly vicious attack, the smaller kid wasn't fighting back, and he was vaguely familiar. By the time Jason had routed the sixth-graders, who weren't interested in acquiring pain of their own, he'd placed the other boy: they were in the same class at school. They hadn't spoken to each other in the week since school had started, but Jason had noticed the new boy sitting in the back of the class and not saying anything to anybody. It was a bit odd, that; since they didn't have assigned seating in Mrs. Hardwick's class, the kids who sat in the back were more usually the beaters than the beatees. He had asked Billy his name, helped him find his glasses, and, disturbed by his dazed condition as much as the blood and bruises, dragged him home to his mother's professional care.

She, after applying ice and brownies (externally and internally, respectively), had called Billy's dad at work to invite the boy for dinner, since she didn't think that, although he wasn't really hurt, he should be home alone until eight. Billy had ended up staying until nine, impressing the elder Scotts with his manners and matter-of-fact clearing of the table, and Jason by his ability to shred the rerun of Battlestar Galactica into tatters. That would probably have impressed his parents, too, if they'd been paying any attention to it, but they weren't. They did pay attention when Billy came over the next day, Saturday, and helped Jason with the math he'd been struggling with—not just doing it, or even showing him how to do it, but actually, effectively explaining to him what he'd been doing wrong. Impressed by Billy's quiet sense of humor and responding to his unspoken need for a friend, Jason had already decided to be one, and to introduce him to Zack on Monday, before he heard his parents talking about how Billy's dad seemed surprised though pleased that Billy had a friend.

Now Jason realized Billy was waiting for an answer. "Oh, yeah," he said. "I remember it."

"Usually, I ran," Billy said. "I wasn't big at ten, but I could run, and being small I could generally get away. That day, I wasn't trying. I thought, if I let them kick me to death, it would save everyone a lot of trouble."

"What?" Jason was sure he hadn't heard that right.

Billy shrugged slightly. "If I'd managed to get killed, it might have stopped them. And would have saved my father some grief."

"How the hell do you figure that?" Jason interrupted.

"I don't, now," Billy said. "But then, as I was planning on killing myself that weekend anyway—"

"You weren't." That was a flat denial.

"I was." That was an equally flat assertion. "Don't look like that; it was a long time ago."

"Eight years. That's not that long a time."

"Almost half my life. And I changed my mind, anyway."

Jason stared at his friend. "For God's sake, Billy. Why? Why would you—" he couldn't say it.

"I don't know if I can tell you, Jase. I was ten. I was miserable. I don't remember exactly how it felt. I remember feeling like that, I know I don't feel like that now, but... we don't perceive things the same way, you know. Memories are immediate for you, tactile. For me most memories are filtered through words—most perceptions go through words. The memories that wake me up in the middle of the night, they aren't, and they're the ones I can't effectively deal with. But anything I can make verbal I can control. So now, looking back, I can see that ten-year-old, but I can't be him."

He was quiet for a moment, thinking. Then he sighed. "I was so miserable, so desperately miserable... You weren't just the best thing that had happened to me in over a year, Jase, you were the only good thing that had happened. I'm not saying there was something horrible happening every single day, but life had become one long ache of despair punctuated only by disaster and tragedy. I was probably," he said, his tone sounding as if hearing himself say it, probably for the first time, had made him realize this, "clinically depressed. I should in all likelihood have been in therapy, on medication, like my dad was then. But he was so overextended just making it through each individual day that he didn't have the strength to chase me down and interrogate me about my emotional state. And, considering the number of times you've barked at me for doing it, it won't surprise you that I was keeping everything tucked neatly away inside where it wouldn't bother anyone."

"Why do you do that?" Jason asked involuntarily.

Billy smiled wryly. "It's the Cranston way," he said. "We're all like that... He hadn't given up on me, mind you; he'd go to parent-teacher conferences and they'd tell him how I was bright and motivated and working to the best of my abilities, all of which was untrue. Even, really, a lie, because I wasn't any of those things but I pretended I was. He probably knew at some level that it was not well with the child, but he simply did not have the strength to do anything more than he was."

"Was it because of your mom?" Jason asked. That was an awkward subject to bring up. His own mother had told him, when she finally connected Billy's father to it, about the accident, the drunk driver, how Billy, in the back seat, had been unscratched but pinned in the car, watching his mother die while the paramedics tried to get to her. Billy rarely mentioned her, and he hadn't at all for several years after they'd met. And he'd never discussed her actual death, the wreck, anything. Not once. But this conversation wasn't one to leave things out of.

Billy was looking out over the ocean at the setting sun. The light burnished his dark blond hair, turned his shades to liquid gold and flashed off the lenses of the glasses hanging from the neckline of his sweater, blinking with his breathing. "Yes," he said softly. "That was what was wrong with him. Oh, Jase." He sighed. "You have no idea what he was like when she was alive. The two of them laughed all the time. They finished each other's sentences. They loved each other so much it was a tangible presence in the house, a warmth all the time, just surrounding me, and them. It was... After she died, the house was like Hell—'a lord's great kitchen without fire in't'," he quoted something Jason didn't recognize, but the words were no bleaker than the tone. "The wreck very nearly killed him, too, not just the physical injuries he sustained, but the grievous psychic hurt he still hasn't really recovered from."

"It doesn't sound like it was easy on you, either."

"No," Billy said simply. "But there was more; that wasn't the only circumstance contributing to my emotional state, it was merely the worst, especially since not only did her death deprive me of her, of her strength and support, but of him and his as well."

"Tell me about it." Jason's invitation was just short of a command. He doubted Billy had ever said any of this aloud before, and he needed to. Not only because he'd been right about himself, words were his forte, but because—Cranston way or not—he'd been sitting on it way the hell too long and right now was not the best of times for him to be in any way troubled. Jason didn't think talking about it would make it go away, he wasn't that naïve, but he also didn't think that a trouble shared was a trouble doubled... "What else was there?"

Billy didn't look away from the sunset. For a moment, it seemed he wouldn't say anything, but then he sighed. "First we moved. I did not want to. I truly loved Cincinnati—I know," he said, reacting to Jason's reaction even though he couldn't see it. They knew each other that well. "The city had libraries, echoing caverns filled with books, and reading rooms you could curl up in an armchair and read all day in. Museums. Very much in the plural. Terrific public transport: I could get anywhere I wanted to go. The school I went to challenged me. Weather—four actual seasons, sometimes six. Not just rain and fire. Snow... I did not want to move to Angel Grove. I was eight; I wasn't consulted. My mother said I'd like it here once I got used to it, that progressing with my age peers would be sociologically more satisfying. As it was," he conceded, "once I found age peers who preferred progressing with me to assaulting me... Then school started, and it was not challenging. I think I went the entire year without learning a single new thing. Seriously. In fact, the first three weeks of school I spent nine days in detention before being made forcibly to accept the still-incredible fact that they would rather I was bored out of my mind than reading a textbook the other kids weren't reading—"

"I don't remember you in third grade," Jason said. "I know we weren't in the same class..."

Billy shook his head. "No, I wasn't in Blue Spring the first year we lived here. I was in Pine Creek. They redistricted that summer, because of the subdivisions going up on the south side? I thought about killing myself that summer, but decided to wait when I heard I'd be in a different school. I thought there might be a chance things would improve."

"You gave it a week?"

"It was enough. Fourth grade didn't challenge me, either. Nor fifth—"

"Or sixth," Jason said. "Or since. Man, you're going to walk in there Monday and not miss a beat, aren't you?"

Billy shrugged it off. "They slacked off on me," he said. "Now they don't care what I do during class as long as I'm quiet and pass the tests—" he ignored Jason's snorted 'pass'. "But even if I were still fairly bored, that's only an element. You, and the others, you gave me interests. Made me learn how to play volleyball, of all things. Plus, I never got beaten up again after I met you. Picked on, certainly, punched out once or twice, but not beaten up. But before then, I spent the whole of third grade with bruises, especially since they graded on the curve in Pine Creek, and wanting to kill oneself is not an acceptable excuse for poor grades." Even he knew how that sounded, but his half-smile didn't get into his voice. "The entire previous school year had been mind-numbing boredom punctuated by terror and my first week at Blue Spring was no different; after all, I wasn't the only child who switched schools after the redistricting, and my reputation came with me." He sighed again and was briefly silent.

When he started talking again, his voice was calm. "But the crux is, nothing else was any different, either. I hadn't been happy since before my ninth birthday, and I thought I never would be again. My mother died five weeks after school started. It was... horrific." His voice was still calm, but Jason reached out and gripped his shoulder anyway; despite his belief that Billy should talk about it, he was very cowardly glad when he provided no details. "My father was seven weeks in the hospital, and I was in care, and when he got out of the hospital and I was able to go home, he was... very sad. I knew the only reason he hadn't killed himself was because he had to take care of me. I convinced myself—it wasn't hard and I still believe it was true—that if I had died in the crash, too, he'd have followed us. Her. The difference is, now I think it's a good thing, and then I didn't."

"Come on, man," Jason protested; his grip tightened on Billy's shoulder.

The smaller boy reached up and patted his hand. "You wanted me to tell you," he pointed out. "It's how I was thinking. I wasn't a particularly religious child—on the contrary, I was particularly not."

He still wasn't, as far as Jason knew; it was another way he was odd man out. Zack, when he'd lived in Angel Grove, had gone to church twice on Sundays with his parents. Rocky even now went on Saturday, in case something happened on Sunday, and then went on Sunday because Saturday was a makeup for a missed Sunday obligation not an excuse to miss it. Adam's family attended a Buddhist temple in Stone Canyon, and Kim and Trini were Presbyterians, Tommy's adopted family Lutheran and fairly regular in attendance, while the Scotts were Episcopalians... the Cranstons weren't anything. Jason thought about that for a while, wondering if they had been before the accident, and then said, "Followed her where?"

Billy shrugged. "Anywhere. Nowhere. Just away. He'd have rather been in Hell with her than Heaven without her, not that he thinks there's even a remote possibility of either. Or that she would be in Hell if they did exist. Without her, he wanted to be dead. I was the only thing keeping him alive. It wasn't difficult for me to see suicide as a kindness to him as well as a relief to me..." he rubbed Jason's hand again, knowing how hard it was for Jason to hear what he was saying. "I, on the other hand, didn't want to be dead; I just didn't want to be alive."

"There's a difference?"

"Absolutely. Had I wanted to be dead, we'd have never met. I'd have never given Blue Spring a chance." He finally looked away from the ocean, into Jason's eyes. "You'd never have held me in life without even trying."

"I'd have tried if I'd known," Jason said. "I knew you were sad; my mom told me about your mom... I didn't know how bad it was. If I had known, I'd have ... something."

"I know. That's part of it, Jase, don't you understand? It's a overused metaphor, but it's valid: you were rain in a desert. You saved my life."

"You were worth saving, Bill," Jason said fiercely. "My God, if anyone ever was—"

"I didn't believe that at the time. I believe it now, which is why you don't have to worry about where I choose to sit. Or how depressing you think my life is."

"I don't," Jason began, and then stopped, remembering honesty.

"It is depressing," Billy admitted. "But the thing that I learned when I was ten is that you don't have to let depressing things actually depress you. Just, so to speak, put your head down and keep going and eventually something extraordinary will show up."

Jason blushed when he realized Billy meant him. He hoped the sunglasses kept Billy from noticing. "That's always been your strength, ever since I've known you," he said. "You... go on. You endure. Even then—I mean, you say you wanted to kill yourself, but you didn't do it. You play the cards you're dealt as well as you can, even though you get some bad hands. You don't fold."

"No," Billy agreed. "Not any more. Folding takes you out of the game and you never know what's the next card you will receive. And that exhausts that metaphor, I think."

"Yeah. I guess it does. But it's true. I've always admired that strength in you," Jason said, ignoring for the moment Billy's evident desire to have the subject changed. "You've had more crap thrown at you than I think I could handle, and yet you do."

"You're not a good target," Billy said, smiling. "You don't take it because you don't accept it. You fight back. In fact, you fight other people's fights for them; that's what you've always done ever since I've known you." His smile widened. "A case in point: the first time we met. Another, our first time in the Command Center. You were between Zordon and the rest of us as soon as you saw him. We were all your responsibility before you even knew what that meant."

"Somebody needed to watch you," Jason riposted, agreeing to break the tension. "You especially, touching everything, walking right up to Alpha... you were giving me a heart attack."

"It was fascinating."

"Magnificent, I think you said."

"Very likely." Billy smiled again.

"What I remember is how Zordon knew all about us. He really nailed us all. It was a little creepy, really. I remember he called you 'patient and wise'."

"I always hated that," Billy admitted.

"Really? Why?"

"Come on, Jason. You're 'bold and powerful'. I'm 'patient and wise'?"

"It's true."

"That it's true doesn't necessarily make something palatable. Besides, wise?"

"You're the smartest person I've ever met—smartest person I ever will meet."

"Maybe," Billy had no false modesty, "but even if you assume that IQ successfully measures something tangible, intelligence and wisdom are far from identical."

"So you don't object to 'patient'?"

"Oh, I object to it. I just can't argue with it."

"Anyway," Jason felt comfortable enough to half-joke about it, putting it in the place labelled 'doesn't bother me' whether it belonged there or not, "I guess I have to revise my opinion now."

"I was playing the cards I had as well as I could," Billy said. "I just didn't have much skill. Or very good cards, for that matter. Until you redealt the hand."

"You give me too much credit," Jason said, embarrassed. "And yourself not enough. Whatever I did, you were worth it. Are worth it. I've never had a better friend than you; I don't even want to think about my life without you in it."

Billy regarded him for a moment; behind the sunglasses his eyes were unreadable. Then he suddenly smiled with pure affection and said, "Ah, well, perhaps we'd better break up this mutual admiration society and head home. We've been out a little longer than we said we would be."

"That's true," Jason swung his legs over the wall and jumped up. "If my mom calls your house and doesn't get an answer, she'll call the cops and there'll be an APB out on us quicker than you can say—"

"Grand Theft Auto?" Billy maneuevered himself to where he could lean on the hood of the car and stand up.

"Well, actually I was thinking more 'Rescue 911', but, that'll work. And she thinks we're still in Santa Barbara. I hope Dad doesn't pay that much attention to the odometer."

"Blame me," Billy offered, reaching in and opening the door.

"Oh, I will," Jason promised. "Don't think I won't." He turned to get in and paused as he actually looked at the sky for the first time since they'd parked. "Man," he said. "Look at that sunset. 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight...'. That is so beautiful."

Billy leaned on the open door and looked. Then he said, in his driest voice, "The presence in the lower atmosphere of particles of pollution, primarily soot and smoke, is the direct cause of the increase in—"

"Get in the car, Cranston, before I leave you out here."


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


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