Fairer Than Death

- 6 -

Well, who says life is fair? Where is that written? Life isn't always fair.
—Grandfather, "The Princess Bride" (movie)

"I think it's a bad idea." Trini fisted both hands on her hips and glared at Jason. "How can you even think of such a thing?"

He blinked at her, surprised. "What do you mean? How is it bad to ask Billy to work in the Command Center?"

Rocky added, "Yeah. I think it's great, myself. I mean, no offense Adam—"

"None taken," Adam said. "I can't follow half of what he did."

"That's more than the rest of us can, man," Tommy said. "And with him in the Command Center and six Rangers still in the field, instead of five 'cause he's working on something, we'll be unstoppable."

"Try thinking about Billy for a minute, instead of yourselves," Trini snapped.

"What do you mean, Trini?" Jason asked. "I think Billy will want to—"

"Of course he will, especially if you ask him. But it's a bad idea, Jason. Face it, he's crippled."

There was a moment's rather stunned silence, and then Kim asked, rather coldly, "What does that have to with anything? His mind still works. His heart and his, his soul are the same. He'll want to help and if we can't put in a few ramps—"

"That's not the point," said Trini. "Doesn't anybody see what I mean?"

"Why don't you explain it to us?" invited Tommy, putting a hand on Kim's arm, calming her down. "We're not all-knowing, we don't claim we can't miss something."

Trini sighed. "Guys," she said, sounding sad enough that Jason couldn't maintain his anger, "they target us when we're not morphed. Billy had trouble defending himself before; he'll never be able to do it now. And what if they grab him to use against us?"

"It'll never happen," said Rocky. "They won't know..."

"Right," said Adam. "He doesn't have a Coin, they can't find him..."

"And even if it does, Billy's not as helpless as you think."

"He never was," Tommy said, before anybody could question Jason's certainty—even himself. "And he's smart enough to think of this himself. It's gotta be his call, Trini. We can't treat him like a cripple. That would kill him."

This time the silence was meditative. Jason wasn't sure what the others were thinking. Himself, it was about equal parts why didn't that occur to me? and he did think of it, that's what that stare was for. He wasn't at all sure how he felt about that, but he knew Tommy was fundamentally right.

"Even if something happens," Adam said, his voice betraying a combination of nervousness and hope, "if he's got a communicator Zordon can track him, and he can call if he needs help."

"He could," said Trini.

"Come on, Trini," said Rocky. "Billy never liked calling for help, but he has way too much sense not to. You know that."

"So I'm outvoted?"

"Trini," Jason said, and then stopped, uncertain what to say next. He hadn't believed any of the Rangers would disagree with the idea, which was why he hadn't brought it up before this. And if he had thought one would, it wouldn't have been Trini. It had been Billy he'd worried about, not wanting him to have to defend his refusal, if he so decided. Having seen Billy's reaction, he couldn't take it away—especially if he thought Jason had decided he was capable of taking care of himself—so he'd override Trini if he had to; at least the rest of the team agreed with him, and Zordon.

"If you mean it," Kim jumped in, "of course you are. Jason," she turned towards him. "Tommy's right, and so's Adam. It's a wonderful idea. Billy's part of the team, he should be with us."

"I don't mean he shouldn't," protested Trini. "But... oh, he might not even want to. Did you think of that?"

"I thought of it," said Jason. "It might be hard for him. He might think we only wanted him around for what he can do for us. But I think he'll be happier doing something than not. I think he'd rather not be shut out. Like Tommy said, it's his call. I think he'll say yes."

"Me, too," said Kim. "And so do you, Trini, or you wouldn't have said anything."

Trini sighed. "You're right. He will. He'll want to. I'm just still not sure we should let him. But I guess you're right about that, too. Okay. It'll be good to see him again. When's he coming back, Jason?"

Relieved at her capitulation, he almost responded with the truth. "Pretty soon," he said. "This month, probably."

"That's just great," said Kim.

"Yeah," said Rocky. "Man, I can't wait to see him again. But listen, anything else, Jason? Coach'll kill me if I'm late again."

"Yeah, right," said Tommy.

"No. Take off, Rocky, can't have you dying before we take on Stone Canyon."

Adam left with Rocky. Kim and Trini left together, too, Kim telling Tommy not to forget they were going to a movie after supper—"we've got to make the 8 o'clock show."

"Tommy, hang on a minute," Jason put his hand on Tommy's arm to stop him following the others out.

"Sure, Jase, what is it? I meant it, I think it's a good idea if Billy'll go for it."

"It's not that. I mean, I know you do." Jason stared at his gym bag for a minute trying to find the right words so that he didn't hurt Tommy, who was a lot more sensitive than many people gave him credit for. Tommy was his—why did I almost think best friend?, he wondered—Tommy was his second, his second-in-command, his next best friend. He decided he'd just have to tell him part of the truth. "Look, Billy's coming home this weekend."

"That's great! How's he doing? When did you find out? How come you didn't tell the others?"

"It's gonna be a surprise," Jason said; he could tell he was grinning like an idiot. "Tomorrow, it's gonna be a welcome home party."

"That's gonna be great, just great. Can't wait to see him. You talk to him?"

"Yeah, he's doing okay. He can't wait to see you guys, either."

"So, you picking him up? His dad's gone again, right?"

"Yes, to both. Look, Tommy... I was thinking..."

"Don't strain yourself, buddy. Billy'll be home tomorrow."

Jason had to laugh. "Yeah. He will. And that's going to change things. For us. I mean, you and me us, not me and Billy." He stopped, tried again. "What I mean is, you need to get another sparring partner. I don't mean I'm not going to ever work out with you again," he added quickly as his friend's chocolate eyes reflected a sudden confusion. "I just mean, a second one. Somebody else. For when I can't. Because I'm not—"

"Jason," Tommy said seriously. "I know what you're trying to say, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Really?" Jason said, relieved.

"Absolutely. Look, I know you and I are good friends, okay? But I also know you and Billy have been friends half your life. And one of your good qualities is loyalty. Besides, I like him, too, you know. I wouldn't want to take anything away from him, even if I could."

Jason raised his eyebrows.

Tommy laughed and shook his head. "Look, I'm not kidding myself, Jase. Sure, loyalty is one of your good points; it's one of the reasons I'm really glad I'm your friend. But I know what you and Billy have goes way deeper than just how long it's been. You guys are really tight. A blind man could see that."

"Yeah. But you know you and I—"

Tommy held up his hand. "Hey, man, before you say anything else, I want to say this is getting dangerously close to a chick moment here."

Jason laughed. He liked this guy. "Yeah, it is. Let's go work out."

Tommy grinned back. "Okay. Nothing like a little controlled violence to get things back to normal."

We can always hope, Jason thought, grabbing his gym bag and following Tommy.

"Dad, I'm going to go get Billy."

"Wait a minute, Jason." Frank Scott walked into the kitchen, where Jason was standing, holding the keys to the little Subaru station wagon. He didn't look particularly guilty, in fact he looked more like his old self than he had since October. Nonetheless, Frank had to ask. "Jason, where did you go yesterday?"


The ready answer disarmed him. "Why?"

"Billy wanted to go for a drive," Jason said. "We went up One and lost track of the time. Guess you noticed, huh?"

"You put three hundred miles on my car, son; did you really think I wouldn't?"

Jason shook his head. "No. I knew you would. But, Dad, at least I put gas in it."

"Yes, you did... But—"

"I know. It's farther than you want me to drive. I'm sorry."

Frank regarded his son. It was farther than he wanted him to drive, but he had a feeling that something important had happened yesterday. He doubted they'd been joy-riding. "What did you go to Carmel for?"

"We didn't mean to," Jason said. "I know how that sounds, but... we just drove and then there we were. We ate dinner up there and came back."

He wasn't getting the whole story; cop's and father's instincts were both telling him that. But he listened to the father and said only, "So, you had a good time?"

"Billy likes your car..." Jason stopped, and then said, "We talked."

"Oh? Three hundred miles worth?" Looking at their phone bills for the past three months he wouldn't have thought the boys could have had anything left to say. He had a sudden image of them just sitting with an open phone line while PacBell ran up charges on dead air... He shook it off and asked, "Reconnecting?"

"Not exactly. He talked about his mom."

"Really?" Frank couldn't remember the boy ever mentioning his mother, even in passing. Edmund Cranston did, on rare occasions, with a sadness that showed even several years of therapy hadn't helped him to 'get over' her. Once he had thanked Linda for being there for his son—Linda had told Frank she hadn't known what to say to him, especially as Billy was the most disturbingly self-sufficient little boy she'd ever met.

Jason looked out the kitchen window. "Yeah. He told me how he felt when she died."

And that was odder still. Frank knew he'd never heard him talk about how he felt about things, not important things. On the other hand, Jason did talk, so it didn't matter that Frank wasn't sure what to say now. He could just wait, receptive, and his son would eventually tell him what was on his mind.

"He wanted me to be... he didn't want me to worry about him. He wanted me to know he's all right."

"Is he?"

"He's," Jason blew out a gusty breath. "He's okay. Really. Doing better than I would. He's just tired of it, being treated different."

"We'll bear that in mind tonight," Frank promised.

"I wish you would. I mean, he wants to see you guys, but he just wants things to be as normal as they can be."

"I understand. We'll give it our best shot." Frank smiled a little ruefully. "We're too fond of him not to care, but I understand that he doesn't want to be babied... One thing, son: you stayed there last night. Is he going to be all right until Edmund gets back?"

"Yeah," Jason sounded sure of that, anyway. "Mr. Cranston fixed the house up real good, and Billy's always been okay by himself. I think he kind of wants to be alone for a few days, anyway. You know, until he gets used to things."

"Okay. You'd better go get him."

Jason grinned and left.

Frank watched him trot out to the station wagon and drive away. Carmel, he thought, then went looking for his wife. He found her folding laundry. He picked up a towel and quartered it, and then said, "Did I ever tell you my theory about Jason and Billy?"

Linda looked up at him, her blue eyes amused. "What theory would that be?"

"That Jason's in love with him?"


"Do you mean, am I serious? Or—"

"Oh, of course you're serious," she said, dropping the sheet she was holding. "That's not your idea of a joke. In fact, you'd belt anyone who made a joke like that. So, you're serious. Do you think Jason is?"

"What do you think?" he answered. "You saw how he was the day of the accident. That whole week. And he wasn't much better until they put Billy where he could get in to see him. And I know for a fact he cut class at least a couple of times to do just that. And how many teenaged boys talk for eight hundred dollars' worth of time over a couple of months?"

"You have some good points," she said. "But—"

"He went to Carmel yesterday."

"Carmel?" she repeated. "He told me they stayed in Santa Barbara."

"He told me Carmel, just now. Said Billy wanted to go for a drive. Said they lost track of time. Sounded like he was telling the truth, too..." He sighed heavily. "Said they talked. About their feelings."

"Kiss of death," she said.


"Sorry," she shrugged. "It's just... it took me years to get you to talk. He actually said that to you?"

"It is the kiss of death," he said heavily.

"Oh, Frank. Would it be such a disaster?" Wisely, she didn't wait for him to answer that, continuing, "Do you think they've... ever... you know, dated?"

"They do a lot of stuff together," he said, "but no, I don't. He was dating Anna Myers back when Billy had the accident. He wouldn't date a girl ... well, he wouldn't date two people at once, he's not the sneaky kind. Thank God."

"So, is Billy not—" she broke off. "No. I think he is. He doesn't date at all, does he?"

"I don't know," he said. "I don't think so. I mean, I don't remember Jason ever coupling his name with any girl's more than once. But, I mean, have you ever seen him make anything even vaguely resembling a pass at Jason?"

"No," she said firmly. "But he wouldn't, not if he thought Jason wouldn't welcome it." She absently picked up the sheet again, but didn't start folding it. "You think he would welcome it?"

"I don't know. He might... I'm not bringing it up with him. He likes girls. Maybe he's, what do they call it, bi? But girls is normal, girls is where he'll have the best shot at being happy and accepted. I'm not pushing him at a boy, even one I like as much as Billy."

"He's still coming over tonight?"

"Of course he is," Frank said. "I just said I like him... hell, Linda. I love the boy. You know that. He's not putting the moves on Jason. Jason's just... whatever. But even if I didn't like him, the stupidest thing in the world would be trying to keep the two of them apart. Even if Jason isn't in love with him, there's no doubt he loves him. Like a brother I'd have said, but. Oh, God," he said and reached out to take the end of the sheet from her. "I don't know. I guess I should just keep my mouth shut. If Jason ever says anything, I ..." he blew out a big sigh.

"If Jason ever says anything," Linda said, "we say, 'We're so happy for you, son.' We do love Billy, and if they do fall in love, well, then I guess we ..."

"Won't get drafted to keep the grandchildren over the summer?"

"Something like that." She shook the sheet out. "Besides, Billy's going to be famous some day. We'll be able to brag about our Nobel laureate son-in-law."

"That's something, I suppose."

"Frank," she said, holding the sheet between the two of them. "I mean it. If Jason ever comes to us and says he's in love with Billy and they want to live together, we are going to say, 'Bless you my children. We're so happy.' Jason's our son, and we're not going to fight with him over something he can't change any more than he can stop having black eyes or lose five inches in height."

She didn't actually add, am I making myself clear, mister?, but she didn't have to. And as Frank nodded and said, "Well, of course," he felt relieved to have the decision taken out of his hands.

"Hey, bro. For a guy at his best friend's homecoming party, you look depressed." Tommy pushed himself onto the counter next to Jason.

"Not really, I hope," Jason didn't want to be spreading gloom.

"Well, kinda sorta," Tommy said. "Thoughtful, more... but depressed is right, isn't it?"

Jason shrugged. He wasn't really depressed, just thinking. He couldn't be depressed, not with Billy home, doing pretty well, and back on the team. But something wasn't exactly right. He looked across Ernie's. There was Kim, sitting next to Billy and talking a mile a minute, her beautiful, expressive face lit with happiness. And there was Trini, on the other side of the room, talking to two girls Jason thought were called Ellen and Tanya. And there was Rocky, with some basketball players, and Adam next to him, kidding around...

When they'd gotten there, they'd all been blown away to see Billy, and they'd all been happy. Kim had squealed with joy and flung herself into his lap. Tommy had lit up, dropping to his heels beside the wheelchair to slap him on the shoulder and accept a hug. Rocky had messed up his hair and hugged him and chattered in the Spanglish that only extremes of emotion brought out. Trini had kissed his cheek and sat with him for a while, and Adam had joined Rocky in conversation. But while the Rangers had come and gone, allowing others of Billy's friends to have time talking with him, there hadn't been a single moment Jason could recall where all seven of them had been together. He couldn't even remember six, or five...

"See," said Tommy, "I know what you're thinking. You're remembering what Zordon said: how we were this incredible team, like nothing he'd ever seen before. And now we aren't that."

Jason hadn't put it into words before this, but he knew Tommy was right. Totally right. There was no getting away from it. They'd once been a team of six people, now they were a team of a set of three, a set of two, and one single who hung out with the two... They still functioned, and functioned well as far as that went, but the interconnectedness, the it-doesn't-matter-who's-with-who, was gone.

"The thing is," said Tommy, "we aren't that team anymore. We haven't been that team since October. And you can kill yourself trying to put us back together, but, not only would that take away a real important piece, but it's only on TV that you can make something that broke 'better than it was'."

"Maybe you're right," Jason acknowledged.

"Yeah. Maybe I am." Tommy smiled at him. "Look, Adam is a great guy, I'm not saying any different, but the what-do-you-call-it, dynamics, are different now. We're still a good team, but we aren't that team. And we can't be. Don't go trying to make us into that any more."

Jason blew out a long breath, looking out across Ernie's. "You're right. About everything. We are still a good team. I just miss it."

"Sure. How couldn't you? I miss it myself. It was good. But you know, it wasn't going to last forever anyway, bro."

"How so?"

Tommy shrugged. "Remember when we talked with Zordon and Alpha back in November? Well, something Alpha said kind of nagged at me, so I asked him. Zordon was always going to be putting together a new team when we graduated."

Jason was oddly unsurprised to hear that, as if he'd always had it figured out somehow. But still, "Why?"

"'Cause adults make bad Rangers, from what I could figure out. It's not just that kids think they're immortal, they don't have a lot of things on their minds. Adults do. I mean, we're all starting to pay attention to other stuff, to the point it's interfering with being a Ranger." His chocolate gaze was on Kim.

"I haven't noticed it interfering," Jason said.

"It is. I worry about her. Too much, you know what I mean?"

Jason nodded a little reluctantly, though he couldn't pin down the source of that. Maybe he just didn't want to think of Kim ... except he'd accepted that months ago. And he'd never known her happier.

"You know, we're thinking about getting married."

"You guys are thinking about getting married?" That startled him.

"Someday," Tommy nodded. "Someday soon, I hope. I want kids. But we gotta have them before she goes to med school. You know? Otherwise, we have to wait, like ten, twelve years."

Jason grabbed that topic. "Med school?"

"Yeah, she wants to be a doctor." Tommy shrugged. "See, that's another thing. College. High school is nothing compared to college. And, well, AGU's not a good pre-med school. Trini, she's already applied to Berkeley. Billy was never staying here. Hell, you've gotta be thinking about it."

Jason shrugged. "AGU's good enough for me. If I go. I want to be a cop, you know that, and I don't need a degree. You make rank faster that way, but it's four years in college, so is it really faster?"

"Your parents want you to go to college, don't they? And it's a good investment in the future, isn't it?" Tommy said seriously. "I mean, you want to be a detective, right? AGU's good enough for that, but if nobody else stays? Rocky's starting to pay serious attention to his grades; he wants a Division I school and a real degree, he's not thinking NBA. Adam's been worrying over which college for a while, I bet, just like Trini. Everybody is. Except Billy and me, I guess."

"Well, Billy, yeah," Jason said. "He's sorting through the letters begging him to come. Especially since he's already graduated... but what do you mean, you? You got your school picked out already?"

"Depends on where Kim ends up. That's the great thing about Lincoln Tech—they're nationwide. I don't need a college degree for what I want to do."

"What do your parents think about that?"

Tommy smiled. "We talked about it. They're cool with it. They want me to be happy—" Jason could the unspoken 'really' that went with that; Tommy still couldn't quite believe it sometimes. "—and college isn't really, you know, me. I mean, what am I gonna do? I know cars and karate." There wasn't any self-denigration in that, not any more. Tommy was comfortable with himself.

Jason nodded. "So, those graduation bells are breaking up that old gang of mine? Is that it?"

"Weddings, too," Tommy said. "Just not quite as fast... but you sure can't be a good Ranger if your wife doesn't know, or your kid's teething."

Jason snickered, but the topic was still vaguely annoying.

Fortunately, Tommy had more to say, and it was plenty diverting. "Besides, not that I've said this to anyone but Kim, but I'm, I don't know, a little distracted by this whole spirit animal thing. I'm wanting to talk to Billy about it. I mean, I can't exactly say, hey, Zordon, I wanna quit being a Ranger 'cause my animal might go away, but... you know what I mean?"

Jason did, a little. He still wasn't entirely sure he believed it, and that was probably because, like Zordon (he suspected), he didn't see how Rangers could afford to think about it. But, if Billy's wolf had in fact saved his life, and he thought that very likely, then he was ... grateful, and happy, and sort of wondering if his bear (if Billy had guessed right) could do the same for him.

"Anyway, I know we're Morphin Rangers, not Ninjetti adepts, but ... it appeals to me, you know, Jason? And sometimes I think I sense my falcon... It helps, but it also puts me off my game a little."

"What about Kim?"

"Oh, she's totally convinced. She thinks the spirit animals are what led to Rangers in the first place. You know, spirit guides take people to the Power and then somebody says, the Power—we ought to be able to get at that if it's out there, and then, uh, bam. The Grid gets built and the animals fade into myth. She doesn't think all Rangers actually have animals, and she thinks most of them fade away... you know," he turned to Jason, "and I think she's right about this, remember when Billy was in the hospital? We like, could hardly keep our hands off of him?"

Jason remembered.

"She thinks we were helping him. And she thinks his wolf may have strengthened ours, so they're hanging on. One thing, when she started reading up on cranes, that's when she settled in her mind to be a doctor."

"So, it's the home stretch for us, huh?" Jason was a little surprised at how that made him feel. For almost four years now, being a Ranger had been the central thing in his life. It had overshadowed everything else: football, martial arts, family, friends, school... the future, even. He hadn't gone a single day without knowing the world hung on how well he could do what had to be done. He'd spent his youth holding a team together, saving the world, missing dates and parties, lying to his parents, getting hurt, watching others get hurt, playing superhero long after it stopped being any fun... He was going to miss it, he realized, but it was time to let it go. Time to let somebody else, somebody younger and enthusiastic take it on. Rocky and Adam and four fifteen-year-olds...

It made him feel a little old.

It made him realize he was probably going to get to be old.

He grinned at Tommy. "Okay. You, me, Kim, Billy—pizza and videos tonight. And talk. You on?"

Tommy grinned back. "We're in."

Jason knocked on the door and came in without waiting to be asked. He pushed up to sit on the workbench. Billy was working on something; Jason didn't know what but it didn't matter. He'd always liked watching his friend work in his lab. It was pretty amazing, how the awkwardness would vanish; Billy working was actually graceful, like Tommy or Trini working through a familiar kata, or Kim on the balance beam, or Rocky on the basketball court, driving the lane. It was a pretty thing to watch, not that Jason had ever said so. But it was.

Billy glanced at his friend, silently asking if Jason wanted to know what he was doing. He'd have told him if he did, even if it took a couple of tries to get it to his level; he never gave up acting as if he thought Jason would understand it the first time. Despite what other people might think about that, he knew that Jason actually liked it. It was one of Jason's secrets, like liking to watch Billy work, but this one Billy had guessed: Jason actually enjoyed listening to Billy talk about things even when he didn't understand a word of it. He always had; it was why he went to Science Fairs. Billy had once, when they were younger, suggested that for Jason, it was akin to the way he himself felt—happy and maybe even proud—watching Jason compete in a tournament. Or the way the two of them had such a good time watching Rocky or Kim or Trini doing what they were good at. Jason had agreed with that; it was as good an explanation as any he could come up with. He liked seeing his friend do something well.

However, today he couldn't really indulge himself. He needed to get his team straightened out, even if he couldn't quite figure out how to start talking about it. So he didn't say anything, and Billy didn't either, just kept on piecing wires together on whatever it was and waited for the Ranger leader to get around to it.

"Have you talked with Trini since you've been back?"

That hadn't been what Billy was expecting to hear, that was clear. Jason put that aside to deal with later.

"Define 'talked with'," Billy said after a moment, which was answer enough.

"Have you tried?" He kept that non-judgmental.

Billy's hands went still anyway. He looked at Jason and was apparently reassured by what he saw, because he shrugged slightly and said, "Trini doesn't give the impression that she would welcome a conversation with me. She seems..." he looked for the word, which wasn't like him, and Jason's conviction that the two of them were due a long drive up the coast strengthened. "Uncomfortable," Billy settled on, "in my presence."

"She says it's her fault," Jason said bluntly. Billy's eyes widened in startlement. "She's not dealing with it well. Well, none of us are, really, but she's blaming herself and I can't convince her otherwise."

"I'm certain you've done your best," his best friend said mildly. "Trini can be very stubborn."

"Tell something I don't already know," Jason said exasperatedly. Billy's eyes sparkled with wicked amusement and he opened his mouth. Jason said, hurriedly, "Don't get smart with me, now."

"Too late," the blond said softly, smiling at the way his dark haired friend had laid himself open for that.

"Very funny, okay; I admit it. But what am I supposed to do about this?"

"I don't know," Billy admitted. "I assume you've told her that nothing she did contributed to the situation and that nothing she could have done but omitted to would have substantially altered the actual outcome?"

"Something like that."

"Then there's really little I can think of that could be added."

"Maybe she needs to hear it from you?"

"I'm willing," he said. "But she avoids me assiduously."

Jason smiled almost in spite of himself. "Assiduously," he repeated. "Nice word, Bill. Don't think I've ever actually heard anyone say it before."

Billy merely hunched a shoulder at him, as if refusing to take the blame for Jason's poor choice of company.

That was okay; Jason knew what he was avoiding. His friend had always had a, well, thing for Trini. Sometimes she seemed to return his affection, but Jason would never forget the weekend back in junior high they'd been out camping, the four of them—a couple of years before Tommy moved to Angel Grove, and Rocky's parents not wanting him out overnight—and gotten to talking about their parents and family expectations, and Trini had said, looking anywhere and everywhere but at Billy, that her father expected her to marry a nice Chinese man, preferably a doctor... Billy had borne up well, but Jason figured it had to have hurt. And it wasn't like he really dated even now—even before. To break the silence Jason said, "She's avoiding me, too. Not as assiduously, perhaps, but then I'm her boss."

"Does she know you say that?"

"I hope not. But you know what I mean. She's avoiding all of us unless Zordon calls."

"That's not a good sign."

"Not a good sign," Jason repeated. "Why is it that whenever you get all single-syllable and Anglo-Saxon on me I never want to hear what you're saying?"

"That wasn't really very Anglo-Saxon," Billy objected. "I didn't say, that bodes ill."

"Bodes ill? Bodes ill?" Jason laughed. He couldn't help it.

"But to answer your question," Billy added when he could make himself heard, "if I were to be polysyllabic and Latinate, you could pretend you didn't understand what I was saying."

After a moment of silence Jason said, "You're good for me. You know that, right?"

Billy smiled, his eyes warming. "Back at you."

"Okay, I stand corrected." He sighed, and then ran one hand through his hair and said, quoting himself, "It's not your fault." Billy just glanced up, not speaking, and he finished, "How many times can you actually say that before what you want to say is, Okay, it is your fault, all of it; why don't you go jump off a building yourself and see if that makes it better?"

"One less time than you have said it?" Billy guessed.

He sighed. "Just about." Jason shook his head. "I thought she was all right. I had other things to worry about—"

Billy put down what he was working on and pushed lightly on the edge of the workbench, easily maneuvering his chair around to face Jason. He touched him lightly on the knee in reassurance. "I'm certain you noticed all that was evident," he said, "and did all that was within your not inconsiderable abilities. You had a lot on your mind."

"Yeah. You; Tommy feeling guilty as hell, and getting in trouble for lying to his parents; and Rocky of course; and Adam..." his voice trailed off; it sounded like excuses to him. "But I really thought she was okay. I think she was, until you came back."

Billy leaned back in his chair. "You think what, that she was in denial about the severity of the accident?"

"Not in denial, exactly. More like, not accepting... okay, denial." That was the word. Jason made his voice as earnest as he could. "But I wish you'd talk to her, Bill."

Billy shook his head, not in refusal but in resignation. "It's very difficult to talk to someone who won't stay in the same room as you."

"And that's not good for the team," Jason pointed out, frustrated. "Let alone what it's got to be doing to her." He scrubbed his hands through his hair, clenched them at the back of his neck, and then let himself just lose it for a minute. "Damn!" He slammed his fists down on the table beside his legs, very hard. Equipment and tools skittered across the table top. Billy reached out quickly in time to catch something delicate-looking that went over the edge. He didn't say anything as he replaced it, just held Jason's face with his warm green gaze and waited.

"Sorry," Jason said after a minute. "It just gets to me, you know?"

"I do," Billy nodded. "You may not do guilt as well as Tommy—"

"Who does?" He'd managed to make Jason laugh.

"—but," Billy continued, "you do permit your perceived failings to prey on your mind."

"Perceived?" Jason felt his eyebrows going up.

"You're not a trained psychologist," he pointed out. "You're a high school senior—"

"With delusions of grandeur?"

"They're not delusions," Billy said quietly. "You're the Red Ranger, you're the leader, and you're responsible. Not, perhaps, as responsible as you think, but enough so. And generally you don't miss things. But what was that list you recited earlier? You had your hands full. And Trini's, pardon the expression, inscrutable."

"Ow," Jason winced. He knew he'd never have dared say that. After a minute he returned to the puzzle, worrying at it. "You know what I don't get? Why does she feel like this in the first place? Rocky I could understand, but he seems okay with it."

"I had this conversation with him already," Billy said, glancing away for a minute."He did feel somewhat guilty; after all, it was the nefarious Black Ranger Revenger was after, not the innocent and completely lovable Blue—" he broke off, ducking Jason's mock punch and grinning. Jason grinned back at him; it felt good, taking a swing at him, knowing he didn't mean to connect but knowing he was okay to be swung at, there to be swung at. And he could tell it made Billy feel good, too, him acknowledging that the smaller boy wasn't really all that breakable. Thank God, Jason found himself thinking. Whatever else, we're still here.

Billy continued, "But Rocky's simple. You know what I mean, linear. Clear. His perceptions are unclouded by doubts. All he needed to know was that I don't blame him. He never really blamed himself; he never truly saw how he could have acted differently. His trip to San Francisco was simply unfortunate."

"Yeah," Jason nodded. "I sometimes envy him that clarity. And Tommy's just, well, Tommy. You know him: Guilt 'R' Us. Remember when we coded the colors?" He grinned suddenly.

Billy nodded, fighting his own grin as he remembered. They had done that late one night when Billy's dad was out of town and the two were coming down off the adrenaline of a particularly nasty fight. Blue had been Brilliance—that's what had gotten them started, Jason saying 'Blue must be for Brilliant'—and Red, Billy'd countered, was Royalty, and Jason had thrown a pillow at him and then accepted the tag, graciously. And then they'd done the others, laughing so much Jason's mom had threatened to put Billy in the spare room if they didn't shut up and go to sleep 'and I mean now, young men'... Green had been Guilt, it had been the second easiest color to do. Poise and Bravery had come pretty easily (they'd hesitated but shied away from Passion; well, Billy'd just turned fifteen and Jason was still a month short of it.) Yellow was the hardest; they had finally settled for Yoga but had never really been happy with it.

After minute Billy said, "Yes. Generic Guilt is our specialty... if it happens, he can make it into his fault. So, in a sense, this is no different than any other experience for him. But Trini..." He glanced away again. It was Jason's turn to wait for him to get his thoughts together. After a minute, Billy looked back at him and said, "Trini was wearing my shirt, remember?"

Jason stared at him, blankly. Then, "Oh."

"Yes," Billy nodded. "Revenger wanted the Black Ranger. He had us, out of uniform, you in—" he spread his hands, indicating Jason's red sleeveless shirt. "Tommy was wearing something green and Kim, if memory serves, and it usually does, was wearing everything pink. But I gave Trini my shirt just before he showed up, so she was wearing a blue, well, dress on her. And I was left with—"

"That old black teeshirt," he said softly. "God, Billy, I'd forgotten all about that. Why he thought you..." It was obvious, and he couldn't believe he'd forgotten that detail.

Billy shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Neither of us knew what was going on. I can't even claim I did it on purpose, well, except to keep her from freezing to death."

That was true enough; Trini had come from swimming and the early October day had been way too chilly for her tank suit. Not that that meant anything, and both of them knew it; Billy would have still given her his shirt even knowing what would happen. If Jason or Tommy hadn't beaten him to it, that is.

"So, will you talk to her?" Jason asked. "Tell her that?"

"Of course I will," Billy said. "Assuming you can keep her in the room."

"Oh, I'll keep her in the room," Jason promised.

Billy smiled at the tone, wryly. "Where is she?"

"At her house. You want a ride?"

"Eight blocks? I don't think so... unless you've got your dad's car?"

Jason grinned like an idiot at that. Billy laughed back. The taller boy reached over and cut off the workbench light and Billy pushed away from it, spinning the chair around neatly in the confined space. He snagged his jacket off the wall hook and they went outside.

"What are you going to tell her?" Billy asked after a block.

"Do you want to know? Or would you like to be an innocent victim, too?"

"That sounds a bit acid."

"Sorry. It's not fair to Trini, really," Jason admitted. "I ought to be able to talk to her. I've known her for years, I'm—"

"Yes, yes," Billy interrupted. "But Trini is the Cat Who Walks by Herself, Jason, she always has been. Even back in sixth grade."

"True," Jason admitted. "But you'd think after all this time, she'd talk to me... oh, well. I guess I'm learning my limitations this winter."

"Don't you always say a man has to know his?"

"Got to know," Jason corrected. "If you're gonna quote Dirty Harry—and the mind boggles at the concept—you should get him right." He shook his head and looked down at Billy. "I don't know... I know Zordon's gonna replace the bulk of the team in a couple of months anyway, but..."

"But," Billy said, "you want it to happen on schedule. You want it not to be because you failed. Even if Fate's weightcloth was breaking your heart."

Now that was the kind of thing Billy usually quoted; Jason had no idea what it was from, but it sounded exculpatory, in a good way. And he was right on the money. "Not too vain, am I?" he asked.

"No, not at all. Why shouldn't you want to keep your record clean? You may not be able to, but there's no reason you shouldn't want it. I'll do what I can. Trini's not unreasonable, even if she's emotionally..." he hesitated, looking for the right word.

"Pissed off at me?" Jason offered.


They had reached the Kwans' house by then. Billy grabbed the railing and stood up. Jason hoisted the chair up to the porch and came back to give Billy his arm up the three steps. Once the blond was settled back in his chair, Jason said, "So, what's your spidersense say? She home?"

Billy raised an eyebrow but answered, "Yes. At least, either she or Rocky. I can't tell them apart."

"Well, I doubt it's Rocky," said Jason and opened the front door without ringing the bell.

Fortunately, the Kwans had a single-storey house, unlike the Scotts or the Olivers or the Harts. They went down the hallway to Trini's room, where they could hear a stereo playing NSynch, which cinched it that it wasn't Rocky. "Wait here," Jason said, and rapped on the door.

"Mom? Are you home already?" Trini answered. "Come on in."

Jason did. Trini was sitting at a desk, a math book open beside her. She stared at him in shock. "What are you doing here?" Then she jumped up. "I didn't think the music was that loud, did I miss a call?"

"No," he said. "Trini, I brought Billy over. You have to talk to him."

"Jason," she fixed him with the look he'd come to recognize, the one that said 'you're being bossy'. "I don't have to do anything just because you say. You may be the leader of the team, but you're not—"

"Trini," he interrupted. "You have to talk to him. It's not good for the team, what's been going on. The past two weeks, you haven't addressed two words to him unless he's spoken to you first, and then only as Yellow Ranger. I'm not saying you have to agree with everything I do, but you can't fight me all the time, either. We have to be able to work together, all of us. Any of us. All the time, any time. Whoever's there."

"I work with you."

"And that's all you do. The team doesn't function because we get together when there's an attack. It functions because we spend time together the rest of the time. We know each other. We trust each other."

"This has nothing to do with trusting Billy," she said. "Or not trusting him."

"Good. Then you won't mind talking with him."


Jason reached out and snagged her communicator from the desk top before she could. "You have to talk to him, Trini," he said seriously. "You can't keep dodging him, and everybody else. I wouldn't want to, but if I have to I'll tell Zordon to look for another replacement."

"You wouldn't."

"I would." He locked eyes with her. He did not want to, probably wouldn't, but he wanted her to understand how serious he was. "Trini, I don't know what's at the bottom of this, and I don't need to know. But I need—we need—for you two to patch up whatever the problem is. Before it gets worse."

"There's nothing to patch," she said. He waited. "Oh, all right. You are bossy, you know that. Send him in."

Jason shut the door behind him and left them alone. Billy looked at Trini. She looked back at him. The silence between them was almost tangible, especially when the cd ended. He waited; that had always been best with Trini.

Finally she said, softly, "You know I trust you, don't you?"

"Of course I do," he said. "That's not the issue here, is it?"

"No," she agreed. "It never has been."

"No. And you know I don't blame you. Or do you?"

"It was my fault," she said.

"It was not. If I had put on a white teeshirt that morning, and still been the slowest one, would it still be your fault?"

"He went after you because you were wearing black," she said.

"And if I had not been, or if you hadn't been swimming so I kept my shirt and he'd known you for Yellow and me for Blue, he'd have still gone after somebody first. It's not as though your swimming suit had been black, after all," he pointed out. "You weren't hiding behind my color, you were just cold. We weren't morphed; he would most likely have attacked me no matter what color I was wearing, given no one else there was in black."


"It's a virtual certainty, Trini. Do you wish it had been you? I don't." And that was true. Would have been true even if there had been some tiny trace of spirit animal within her. As there wasn't, he was convinced she'd have died. Maybe any of them but him would have, because the other three animals he—or rather, Luka—could sense at the time had been nearly dormant. Still were, in fact, especially Jason's sleeping bear. But Trini—he was certain she'd have died. He couldn't explain that to her, but apparently she heard the verity of his sentiments.

"Billy—" Suddenly she knelt beside him, putting one small hand on his arm. "I can't bear seeing you hurt."

"Trini," he covered her hand with his. "I'm doing well, really, especially now that I'm back home. It doesn't hurt... all right," he capitulated to her raised eyebrow. "Not very much and not all the time, and it's getting better. I'm getting better. Being a Ranger has some side benefits."

"Oh, sure," she said, her voice trembling a little, "people may throw you off rooftops, but it probably won't kill you..."

"Yes, something like that."

"I just... I just feel so guilty." She looked at him with sad dark eyes.

"You needn't. And you shouldn't. It was no more to do with you than with Rocky."

She settled into a lotus position beside him, resting her cheek on his arm for a brief moment, and then straightening. "But it's different. You know it is."

At last. Here it was: what he couldn't explain to Jason, ever; what he couldn't bring up himself... "Trini, that was a very long time ago. It doesn't matter between us. It never has. I understand."

"Do you? I'm not so sure I do."

He'd wondered if he should tell her the truth, but looking at her he realized that it didn't even matter. What he felt now, who he felt it for, was irrelevant. That he wasn't pining for her, yes; that he was pining for Jason, not at all. What mattered now, really, was how Trini viewed what she'd done all those years ago.

"Trini," he said carefully, "you know that John Donne poem, no man is an island, entire to itself—"

"Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," she capped the quote. "And?"

"Continents are made up of parts," he said. "Clods that make up the manors and the manors making up the counties, and the counties countries... What I mean is, your family is the first thing you belong to, before the group or the town or the state—"

"I let my parents' expectations define my future."

"You were fourteen. Whose expectations should have done it? Your family is important to you. It's not like—" Oh, please, don't let me be wrong about this "—you gave up anything you truly, deeply wanted."

"I didn't know if I did," she said. "I never let myself find out."

"And there's nothing wrong in that," he said. "Nothing. I've never blamed you for it. You were honest. You have always been as honest as the day."

"You don't mind?"

"I did, a little, then," he admitted. She'd been almost a last hope, and he'd been fond of her just as he was now of Kim, in a passionless but strong way. "But I always understood your family was important."

"Perhaps too important," she said, but he was relieved to see there was nothing but mild regret in her.

"I wouldn't say that," he said. "Families are more than just people you share a house with, after all—ask Tommy. Families are the people you draw life from. They're in everything you do, from school to, to Christmas." He pulled that from remembering the elaborate Christmas parties Trini's family gave, with their daughters performing and Mrs. Kwan spending weeks decorating and cooking...

"Christmas," she said meditatively. "Yes. That's very much a family thing... You don't really celebrate Christmas, do you?" she said curiously. "I mean, you've gone caroling with us, and you go to parties and give presents, but..."

He cocked his head and looked at her, and then shrugged. It was a neutral enough topic, which was a good thing, and yet it had emotional content, which was a better. And he knew that in her oblique way Trini was really asking him about his family, something none of the others had ever understood. It might help her if she knew he had his own traditions, however odd to her culture. He shied, violently, from expressing his feelings out loud, and he could never have told her a quarter what he'd told Jason that day overlooking the Pacific, but this... he could tell her about Christmas. "No. Not if you mean Christmas as a religious holiday, as Christ's birth. We don't. But we do have our traditions. We get a little tree and put ornaments on it." They were his mother's ornaments, and every year his father and he bought another one; they would spend the whole first Saturday in December shopping for something to sum up the past year. The resulting tree was generally rather spartan compared to his friends' but he liked it. "And we put up some lights outside, so the neighbors won't complain—" she snickered and he grinned at her. "And we send cards. And Christmas Eve we drive around and look at lights, and then we come home, have cocoa and discuss where we're going to send our charity money in the upcoming year; Doctors Without Borders always gets half of it, but we have to decide about the other half, and then we open presents at midnight and go to bed."

"At midnight? You always did at midnight?"

"Yes," he said, puzzled at her surprise.

"Before Santa comes?"

"Trini," he said gently but with a wicked glint in his eye, "I hate to break it to you, but—"

"Did you ever believe in Santa Claus?" she interpolated.

"I don't think so," he said. "My parents probably tried, but it's a rather improbable story. The physics of it, alone..." He paused, and then shrugged. "We always opened presents at midnight on Christmas Eve. Then, in the morning, we get up early, my father scrambles eggs and I make hot chocolate, and we spend the day on the couch watching movies together."

"The same movies?" she asked, smiling.

"Of course," he said. "That's what makes it a tradition. We watch Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol—"

"Really?" she smiled.

"Really. We know the movie by heart, and we sing... so nobody else can ever watch it with us." He almost told her how his mother had taught him the words to the songs when he was four, but didn't. "And then we watch White Christmas—" and the song that really meant 'Christmas' to him had always been 'We'll Follow the Old Man' from that movie, though that wasn't the sort of thing he ever intended to tell anyone, except maybe after years of marriage, not that that was likely to happen. "And Miracle on 34th Street—the real one—"

She nodded. "The classics. Well, some of them. Do you watch The Grinch?"

"Of course," he said. "And Christmas in Connecticut. Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan," he added to her blank look. "And then Yojimbo."

"Yojimbo?" she demanded. "Yojimbo?"

"It's a very good movie."

"Nobody's saying it's not," she said. "But it's not exactly a Christmas movie."

"It is at our house," he said. He could remember telling his father, I don't want to watch another Christmas movie, Dad. Can we watch something else? and his father saying, we can watch whatever you want, son... "And Fantastic Planet, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and—"

"It must be midnight by then."

"No," he said. "Only about nine. So then we go out to dinner, and come home and finish up with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians."

"That is so weird."

"It's a Cranston Christmas. I like it." In fact, he looked forward to it for most of November and all of December. The movie marathon had started when he was nine; Thanksgiving that year had been disastrous, and his father had rather desperately looked for something to do with his son on Christmas. The movies had been the answer. That first year neither one of them had really been interested in what they were watching, but it had been an excuse for Billy to cuddle on the couch with his father and pretend it was the movies making him cry... The next year they'd done it again, and that time they'd spent most of the time talking, ostensibly about the movies but actually reestablishing a connection. Reserved at the best of times, and repressed even without tragedy, they had both found the Christmas marathon a joy. Some years, a movie played through and both of them were surprised when it ended, they'd been paying so little attention to the screen.

Even though seeing Jason, seeing all the Scotts, in L.A. had been great, he'd missed the movies. Missed the day. He didn't know if they'd ever do it again. He resolved on the spot: he'd come home for Christmas, wherever he was, and at least spend the day with his father. For as long as he could...

Jason rapped on the door and opened it. "Trini, your dad's pulling in," he said. "You two okay?"

"We're okay, Jason," she said. "We all are, I think." She rose to her feet and hugged him. It might have the first time since the day Billy had been hurt, from the look on Jason's face. "Sorry about everything," she said into his shoulder.

"It's all right, Trini," he said. "It's been a hard winter on everyone. But we've needed you. We still do."

"I'm back," she said. "I promise."


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


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