Power Ranger Mania The Fanfic Shoppe The Yost  

 

Disclaimer: Saban owns the Rangers and all the characters mentioned in the show; he does not, however, own Mariah. She is my creation. I am not getting anything from this but the enjoyment of creating a new story.
Notes: Takes place after Jason loses the Gold Powers. Billy is back from Aquitar. This story follows "Heart's Desires", and if you haven't read that, you may be slightly lost. Enjoy!

Of Dances and New Beginnings
by Evenstar

Kat Hillard groaned as she put her feet on the floor to get out of bed for school. "Owwww." Her sore muscles protested loudly as did her tired and slightly achy head. The rangers had been called from their warm, comfortable beds at around midnight for a rare night-fight with Mondo. It had only been a contingent of cogs, with no monster, but it had taken some work to get rid of the cogs, and then involved some extra time in the Power Chamber to attempt to figure out why Mondo had sent the cogs alone and at such an odd hour. Despite their best efforts, no one could understand exactly what purpose Mondo had had in mind, and by the time they'd all gotten home, it was two o'clock in the morning. She glanced ruefully at her clock: seven. School started at eight, but on five hours of sleep, thought Kat, I'm going to fall asleep in class and Mrs. Appleby will kill me. Oh well, she thought. At least I'll get to see Jason.

~*~

"Emilia Sofia DeSantos! Sit still!" In his house, Rocky was wrestling with his eight-year old sister, attempting to put her hair in braids. His mother had been called to work early that morning, leaving her eldest son to take care of making sure the other children got to school or day care/preschool. Rocky, despite his normally cheerful nature, was feeling the beginnings of a headache and a bad mood coming on. He'd gotten barely four hours of sleep after the fight, and he was exhausted trying to cope with Emilia, who had tried to do her own hair that morning before Rocky caught her and it was tangled horribly. "Diego do you have your lunch packed?" Rocky called to his ten-year old brother as Diego ran across the living room.

"Si, Rocky."

"Has Ignacio finished getting breakfast and dressed?"

Diego nodded and headed for the kitchen table to eat his own breakfast.

Rocky sighed and turned back to Emilia. He tried to brush as gently as possible, but Emilia wasn't sitting still, and every time he pulled at a tangle, she cried out. Rocky looked at the line of tiny females needing braids put in. Esperanza at thirteen could handle her own, but Rosa and Theresa needed help as well. He finally gave up trying to be patient and pulled through a tangle. Emilia protested, but within a few minutes her hair was done. Four-year old Rosa was next. She didn't go to school, but had to be dropped off at preschool. Today, apparently, was "special" according to Rosa, necessitating a French braid with ribbon on either side of her head. Rocky gritted his teeth. "Rosa, can we put your hair in just one braid this time? I promise, we'll do the 'pretty braids' some other day. Please?" Rosa howled. "Rosa×" Rocky used his sternest voice, warning Rosa that if she threw a temper tantrum, she was going to be in deep trouble. Rosa quieted to whimpering pitifully and let Rocky braid her hair.

Once he had finished with Theresa's braid, Rocky headed for the kitchen. He was starving as usual, and began rummaging through the cabinet for some cereal until he noted the time on the kitchen clock. Grabbing an apple, two bananas, four cereal bars and three power bars, Rocky threw the food into his bag, and yelled for everyone to head for the car. He was going to have to eat either on the way to school or in first period.

~*~

Billy yawned and stretched, turning over to look at his alarm clock. Only eight o'clock, he thought to himself. I don't have to get up quite yet. It felt somewhat strange to wake up in his bed at home after practically living at the Power Chamber and then on Aquitar. Currently though, the living quarters at the Power Chamber were being occupied by Mariah Rose until her "expected" arrival in Angel Grove. Which is today, Billy reminded himself. At last, I can properly take her on a real date. Billy had been surprised at how well he and Mariah had gotten along. He'd known that it had seemed in the strange dimension Mondo had trapped them in that they'd make a good couple, but he had then wondered if she'd still be interested once she wasn't trapped with him and after she got a look at the other handsome guys on the team. He was glad that his fears hadn't been borne out.

Billy decided to get up after all and go to the Power Chamber. The cog attack last night had bothered him deeply, even more when he couldn't pinpoint any reason for it. Of course, he thought, sometimes those goons do just attack with no rhyme or reason, but that's unlikely given the circumstances. Mondo could just be trying to wear out the rangers by making them fight at all hours of the day and night, but that hadn't been the feeling he'd gotten watching the cogs before the arrival of the rangers on the viewing globe. They'd almost seemed like they were trying to be×stealthy. While Billy was not one to go irrationally with his gut feeling, he suspected that his instincts were right on this time. He showered, dressed, and teleported.

~*~

Tanya was standing by Adam's locker waiting for him to arrive. I wonder if he overslept, she mused. He was running a little late. Of course, she didn't blame him. She didn't feel well rested herself. "Hey, Kat!" she called, seeing a familiar pink and blonde figure walking in her general direction.

Kat smiled and waved slightly. "Good morning, Tanya. How are you?"

"Oh, fine, just a little sleepy."

"Me too," concurred Kat. "I wonder if all the others got up on time. They're cutting it awfully close."

Just then, Kat and Tanya saw Tommy, Jason, and Kim striding toward them. "I'm really glad you called me," Tommy was finishing.

"Huh?" inquired Tanya.

"Oh, Kim knowing that I forget everything figured I had forgotten to set my alarm clock last night when I got home. So she called me when she got up herself. That's the only reason I'm not at home sleeping happily through first hour. Oh man, Appleby would have my head if I'd done that. Oh, and incidentally, Mariah arrives officially today. My parents are going nuts they're so excited. You should hear my mother going on! I can't wait to show her the room we fixed for her. It's so awesome to have my real, flesh and blood twin sister coming to live with us!"

Jason was not listening. He was staring with a gentle smile at the beautiful blonde. He could not completely believe that Kat was his girlfriend now, and he marveled silently at this development. Tanya noticed the look on Jason's face. I knew it! She thought. He is going to love Kat like she deserves to be loved.

Jason crossed to Kat, lightly encircling her waist with his arm. She looked into his face, pretty blue eyes sparkling. "Good morning" she greeted him.

"Good morning to you too. Ready for that French test in Madame Bordeaux's class?"

"Not really," confessed Kat. "I studied, but I just don't feel like I understand some of those irregular verbs. I think I'll do all right if I just stay calm and look over them at lunch again."

Just then, Rocky came flying in looking harassed. "I am going to run away." He announced to the slightly startled gathering.

Tanya chuckled. "Why, if I may ask?"

"Mama had to go to work early this morning, sticking me with getting the masses ready for school. Emilia tangled her hair into a complete rat's nest, Rosa wanted 'pretty braids', and Ignacio managed to forget his lunch at home and discovered this about half way to school. Esperanza and Theresa got into an argument about whether or not Esperanza actually has a boyfriend, which she claims she does, and Esperanza smacked Theresa who yelled back and proceeded to knock Diego's lunch onto the floor of the car. Ignacio accidentally stepped on Diego's sandwich, and then there was a fight over that. By the time I finished doling out extra lunch money to the boys, telling Esperanza and Theresa not to argue, and dropped Rosa off at preschool, I was ready to pull my hair out. I still haven't had my breakfast. Dios mio, it's good thing that Mrs. Appleby understands about my family and lets me get away with snacking discreetly in class once in awhile!"

The others laughed. They all knew that Rocky loved his large family deeply and wouldn't have traded it for the world, but he had had some hellish moments with siblings. A minute later, Rocky joined in the laughter. "Ai, you should have seen Esperanza's face when Theresa called her bluff and Esperanza had to make up a name and description for her 'boyfriend'!"

As the chuckles died away, Rocky paused. "Where's Adam?"

"I'm not sure," admitted Tanya. "I hope he's all right. He's usually right on time."

The instant Tanya's words had died away, a sleepy Adam Park meandered into view. "Morning," he mumbled to the group, putting an affectionate arm around Tanya's shoulder as he did so.

"Hi, cutie" said Tanya sweetly.

Rocky was set to make a smart remark about how school was not the proper place for this sort of thing when he was abruptly cut off by the bell. The rangers scattered towards their various classrooms. "Hey Kat," he inquired, "are you picking up Mariah at the 'airport' after school today?"

"Yes." Replied Kat. They'd convinced the Olivers that Katherine and Tommy should pick her up at the 'airport' to keep suspicions from being aroused. Yes, technically Mariah could have been teleported back to New York and taken her scheduled flight, but Zordon wanted to finish some important tests on her and on her powers, putting that option out of the question. Thus, the Olivers could not just pick her up at the airport, and none of the rangers wanted to go through the hassle of trying to watch flight schedules and teleporting her into a busy airport at the right moment without being noticed. "I'm looking forward to having her here in Angel Grove."

"I look forward to getting to know her better," replied Rocky. The two split off as the final warning bell rang into their assigned classrooms.

~*~

Billy walked through the corridors of the Power Chamber towards the living quarters. He wondered if Mariah had gotten up yet, but when he knocked softly there was no answer. Continuing down into the lower levels of the Power Chamber, he silently walked into the enormous library of archives that resided there for their information on enemies past and present, various enemy spells and their antidotes, as well as documentation of ranger teams, battles, and interplanetary guides. Billy picked up a small translating device to scan the records, some of which were in languages and writing systems that had been lost long ago, were in languages never seen on earth, or both. Carefully pushing through the shelves of ancient books and scrolls, Billy located the book he was looking for. It was a comprehensive guide to the known weapons and powers of the guardians, so he set it down on the table and began reading. A sneeze from behind him caused him to turn abruptly to face a slightly dusty Mariah. "Oh, hello. I thought you were sleeping still. How are you?"

Mariah smiled. "Okay. I wanted to find out more about the histories of this entire struggle, so I've been down here any time you, Zordon, and Alpha don't require my presence. There's some amazing stuff. Did you know that you have an original copy of Plato's 'Republic'? And I think, though I'm not one hundred percent positive, that you have some previously undiscovered works by authors like Euripides and very possibly Chuang Tzu?"

"Zordon says some of the previous teams left stuff down here, or they're works he found interesting for some reason or another. How do you know that the works are probably undiscovered?" It had not occurred to Billy that Mariah would have been interested in philosophy, since her entire life appeared to have been wrapped up in dance from an early age.

"I read in any spare time I have. I carry books with me to classes, on the train, in the car, anywhere I might have time. I've read some Western philosophy, and I really like Plato, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas More. I've been working on the Eastern nowadays. I just finished Hsun Tzu. But my real passion outside of dance is literature. My favorite authors are Tolkien, Dostoyevsky, and Flannery O'Connor."

Billy stared. "When×you just sound so busy×"

"Oh, my mom taught me to read to occupy myself, and I'm a pretty fast reader plus I'd rather read than socialize. So, I may be good at that stuff, but I'm terrible with people, and if you try to teach me left-brained stuff like math, I'm deficient. I find it somewhat fascinating, but I don't really understand it."

Billy smiled. "Then we're opposites in that area. I've always been quick at math and science with quantum physics being my specialty. It's not that I don't like philosophy or literature, but there's always some new experiment I want to complete instead. But," he groaned, "as far as people difficulties, I hear you. I was such a complete geek for years, and really, I still am. However, a change in wardrobe and learning to use everyday vocabulary instead of 'technobabble' as the others term it helped immensely."

Mariah nodded. "Add to my mildly anti-social behavior the fact that I was one of the best dancers in my class, there was a lot of nastiness over that. I eventually formed a core group of friends, but for years, the other students really hated me."

Billy sighed. "Jason and I became friends when he stopped the school bullies from beating me up one day. He introduced me to Kim, who you've met, and Zack and Trini, who are in Switzerland currently. Until then, though, I got beat up nearly every day. I mean I was the school nerd. But enough on that, it's ancient history. What have you found out in your reading?"

"Oh, lots of things. I've gotten to read up on some of the beginnings of the war between good and evil, and I think I understand some of the history of the current team that you told me about the other day better."

Billy smiled. "Well, I hate to drag you away, but your presence will be required in the upper Chamber for some more questioning and testing. By the way, when this is over and you're established in Angel Grove, I'm looking forward to showing you around a little. Do you like Italian?"

"Very much."

"Well, Marco's has some of the best Italian ever. Maybe some evening?" "Love to! I hope that my boxes have arrived though, or I won't have anything to wear to either that dance tomorrow evening, not to mention dinner. What kind of dance is it? Formal? Semi-formal? Casual? Costume?"

"Well, this one, I just found out, is costume. I'm sorry for not telling you earlier, but I didn't have any idea when I asked you. Are you going to be all right with that? You could wear one of your dance outfits, or borrow something - I know that any of the girls would be happy to lend you one. And again, I'm sorry."

"I love costume parties! I've got plenty of costumes what with all my dance ones, plus a few I've made on my own."

"Good." Billy relaxed. "What are you going to wear?"

"You'll just have to be surprised."

Billy grinned. "C'mon. Let's head back upstairs." He took her hand in his, and they walked up the stairs. Despite the pleasant interlude, Billy could still not shake the feeling that there was some detail he was overlooking in the whole cog incident. He also could not shake the deep sense of unease he felt.

~*~

At lunch, the topic of conversation had turned from the mysterious cog attack to more conventional matters. "So," Tanya inquired of Kat once Jason was embroiled in a conversation on martial arts with Adam, "What are you wearing to the dance tomorrow?"

Kat giggled. "I think I'm going to go as an old-fashioned movie star. You know, with the deep red lipstick, the curled hair, the diamonds. I have a perfect forties style dress, and I'll wear that. Jason'll like it, I think. What are you wearing?"

"Are you kidding? Jason'll like anything you wear! As for my costume, I'm really going undercover this time. I found the most gorgeous Egyptian ensemble the other day, so in a departure from normalcy, I'm going to be Cleopatra for an evening. I don't know how much I like it, but at least it'll be different. Kim!" The girls waved Kim over to the table as she walked into the cafeteria. "We're discussing costumes for tomorrow night," explained Tanya.

"Oh, cool! What are you guys going as?"

"Tanya's going to be - get this - Cleopatra, and I'm going as an old fashioned movie star. What are you planning on wearing?" Kat asked politely.

"I'm not sure," admitted Kimberly. "I have some costumes I'll look through at home, but I've worn all of them. I hadn't planned on going, of course×"

The silence as she trailed off was palpable. Tanya held her breath slightly. She certainly didn't expect Kat to go off on Kim or say anything nasty especially since Kat seemed so happy with Jason, but Tanya knew there was still a little bit of ache left. Kim and Tommy had gotten back together, almost as if the interlude with Kat had never happened. Tanya watched Kat's face closely. She saw several emotions flit across it, from hurt to upset to×peace. "Well, I know I'm quite a bit taller, but maybe one of us could loan you something." Kat offered. Tanya relaxed.

"Yes, if we have anything you can use, let us know."

"Thanks girls. It's a bit of a subject change, but have you noticed Billy lately?"

Kat grinned. "Or more accurately, Billy and Mariel?"

Kim giggled slightly. "You think those two will be a big-time couple?"

"Definitely," stated Tanya.

Just then, Tommy looked over at the girls. "Gossiping again? Anything interesting?"

"Costumes for tomorrow," Kim smiled at her boyfriend, laughing then at his slightly bored expression.

"Not really my field of expertise, Beautiful. I'm sure you - and Kat and Tanya - will look lovely."

"And Mariah," added Kim. "She's going too."

"Oh, really? With who? It's got to be either Rocky or Billy, since all of the other guys she's met so far are taken or related to her."

"Billy," answered Kat.

Kim stared at her boyfriend. "Didn't you hear him ask her when they got back from that×other place?"

Tommy sighed good-naturedly. "I had forgotten. You're right. It's going to be a little strange having my sister dating one of my good friends, but Billy's a great guy, and I trust him to take good care of her."

Jason smiled. "I'm glad to see that he's found someone. It'll be good for him. Kat, when do you want me to pick you up tomorrow?"

"Around seven would be good, if that works for you?"

Jason reached out, took her hand lightly and kissed it. "Certainly. I'll see you after class."

~*~

"Awww," said Tanya once they had left the cafeteria and were out of earshot. "I've never seen him act that way. What a complete gentleman!"

Kat flushed with pleasure. Tanya continued, "Is Rocky taking anyone?"

"I think so," said Kat slowly. "Last I knew he was taking Jaimi Calin."

"The red-head? Who does gymnastics?"

"Sounds right," said Kim. "I never pictured him and Jaimi together, that's for sure! She is a live-wire!"

"Rocky is too, though" said Tanya with a smile. Rocky was one of the nicest guys she'd ever met, but he could be a handful at times. Jaimi would be a good date for him; she was nearly as vivacious and outgoing as he was. Hopefully, thought Tanya, she's as kind and good-hearted as Rocky.

"So you and Adam are together now?" Kim asked Tanya during the lull.

Tanya smiled. "Yes, he asked me out a few months ago, and we really hit it off, much to the disappointment of the Adam Park Fan Club."

All the girls laughed. Adam had always been the heartthrob of the girls at Angel Grove High, but had never noticed the small parade of girls that trailed him all day. "Remember how Lisa Miller hated you for weeks after Adam asked you out? She was so convinced that he would ask HER to the fall dance!" Kat laughed. Lisa Miller was a snobby member of the school's most elite group. She was pretty, but not much else, and normally got whatever guy she wanted at that moment.

"Hated me? I still get icy looks from her and her bunch."

"Lisa's good at holding a grudge," added Kim. "She can be nasty at times."

The other two looked at Kim. "I hung out with Lisa and Evelyn Robinson for years. They were on the cheerleading squad with me. But they hated my other friends, especially Billy whom they teased mercilessly, and eventually when×certain other responsibilities×became more important, I quit cheerleading and Lisa and Evelyn never spoke to me again."

"I'm×sorry." Kat offered. She wasn't sure quite what to say, but she could tell Kim had been hurt. Kat hesitated, unable for a moment to decide what to do, but her instinct to comfort someone was stronger than the mild ache that was swiftly dissipating over Tommy. She reached over and put her arm around the small girl and squeezed gently.

"Thanks, Kat. Don't be too sorry, I'm much happier with my current friends who don't constantly put people down."

Tanya sighed. "That's the truth. See you two later." She walked into her classroom, leaving Kim and Kat by themselves.

Kim looked down. This was a moment she'd been dreading. "Speaking of friendships×Kat, I'd really like to be a friend of yours. I don't know how you feel about me right now, but I know your break up with Tommy wasn't pleasant×" It was unusual for Kim to be at a loss for words, but right then, she was. She'd finally asked Tommy when they were alone what exactly had happened with Kat, since she'd gotten the distinct feeling that the break-up had been a difficult one for Kat for some reason. Tommy is so transparent sometimes, thought Kim. It was written all over his face when I mentioned Kat that something bad had happened. Tommy had confessed the whole thing: his inattentions to Kat, his pretending that Kat was her, up to the last kiss where he had called Kat 'Kim'. Kim had wanted to be furious with him, but Tommy was so obviously remorseful - his guilt written on his face - that she hadn't had the strength or will to antagonize him further. It had been hard enough to watch her strong boyfriend confess so brokenly about what he'd done. Kim knew Kat had forgiven Tommy, but she wouldn't have blamed Kat if Kat had been distinctly chilly to her. It wasn't her fault, per se, but it was directly connected to her, and Kim knew she herself had been unreasonable like that before. Kim wanted to clear the air with Kat, and maybe begin mending their fledgling friendship. She remembered that before Kat and Tommy had broken up, Kat had emailed on occasion, but then she'd stopped one day. Kim, stressed about the Pan Globals and Tommy, hadn't worried about it, but she wondered now if the whole break up had had something to do with it. So far, Kat had been sweet and polite, and Kat WAS, Kim reflected, dating Jason now.

Kat stopped dead. She thought about that statement. It had been hard at some level seeing Kim for the first time. But she didn't blame Kim for the break up itself, and that helped. She decided to be as honest as possible. "At first, I did sort of feel like you were a part of it, and I was a little resentful. But I realize now that there are other people out there besides Tommy that are actually better for me than he was. Such as Jason." A slight blush came into Kat's cheeks, and a slight smile crossed her lips. "It was a difficult time. But I'm moving on, and I'd like to be friends with you as well. Actually, I wasn't sure how you were going to react to me, either. I mean, I dated the guy you were×are×in love with."

Kim sighed. "That was my fault. I can't say that I always felt that way, I was so mad at you in some ways when I heard you and Tommy were dating. But then I realized that I had broken up with HIM and I had no right to act that way."

Kat looked at Kim. "Friends?"

"Always."

After a brief hug, the two peeled off into their separate classrooms. Kat sighed. It was time, after over a month, to have that conversation with Tommy to begin the deeper mending of their friendship. When they'd broken up, they'd talked and vowed to remain friends. Kat had forgiven him that evening, but after that, they had never discussed what had happened between them again. As a result, there were some slightly sore spots that had gotten ignored as Kat and Tommy had gone back to every day bantering and never been forced to examine those spots. Kat didn't relish the thought, but to do right by Jason, she knew she had to be completely and totally over the hurt sometime in the near future. She'd be seeing Tommy outside the rangers a lot since he was one of Jason's 'bros' and they'd probably wind up double dating at times. If the relationship between them without being morphed (which necessitated genuine teamwork, but did not have the awkward down time of every day interactions) were slightly strained, both Kim and Jason would pick up on it quickly, and it would make for difficulties. She resolved to catch Tommy alone at some point in the next few days to speak with him.

~*~

Billy was standing at a console, fervently trying to resist swearing out loud. There were no abnormalities, no disturbances noted, nothing! But, he thought, there had to be a purpose to this. Mondo didn't usually just waste good cogs for the heck of it. The floating scrap heap might be annoying, thought Billy, but unlike Zedd or Rita, he's not stupid. And even those two had usually had some sort of plan when they attacked. Maybe, wondered Billy, this is the point. To make us look for something that's not there and while we're distracted, strike. He decided to go, as a last resort, make a second careful scan of the site. He looked around. Maybe Mariah would want to go with him. She hadn't been out of the Power Chamber in three days, and since school wasn't out, no one of consequence would probably see them. He could always hide her if they saw anyone that might question. "Zordon?" he asked. "I'm going out to check that site from the battle again. Mind if I take Mariah with me?"

"I see no harm in doing so," responded Zordon. "I am a bit baffled by this myself. And Mariel can use a break, I am sure."

Billy descended a level to the small fitness room and gym there for the ranger's use. As he walked in, Mariah was fencing with a virtual opponent Alpha had devised to test her skills with the sword. She finished victoriously, and walked over to get a towel to mop the sweat off her forehead. "Very good." Said Alpha to the girl. "I had not realized you could fence."

"I started when I was about ten. It tied into martial arts and choreographing fights for productions. I enjoyed it, so I stuck with it."

Billy coughed softly to alert them to his presence. "Oh, hello Billy," said Alpha.

"Hey, Alpha. Can I borrow Mariah for a little bit?"

Alpha nodded and shuffled back toward the main chamber. "I thought you might want to get out of here for a little while. I'm going to go scan the site of the cog fight again, and since everyone's at school or work, I asked Zordon if it would be all right if you came with me."

Mariah groaned. "Thank you. You have no idea how much I want to get some fresh air and sunlight."

Billy smiled and they teleported out.

Once they arrived in the park, Billy handed Mariah a small scanning device. They combed the area carefully, checking everything over and over. After about an hour, they were ready to give up. They switched off their scanners and prepared to teleport back. All of a sudden, Mariah bent over. "What's this?"

Billy stared at what Mariah was pointing to. It was a tiny metallic object about the size of a dime. Billy was about to dismiss it, but suddenly bent down to take a closer look. Something wasn't right about this. It had appeared to be a coin on first glance, but as Billy got closer, he knew that this was no coin. How, he wondered, had something prevented it from being picked up if it was actually from the Machine Empire? He carefully reached down and picked it up. It did not rest in his hand, but hovered just above it, suspended by what he now recognized as the hallmark of an invisible force field that would prevent detection. "Come on. We need to hurry. I don't know what this is, but I don't like it."

~*~

In his palace, Mondo was in a frightfully good mood. It was hard for him to smile, he'd been scowling for so long that his jaw had rusted into place, but today he had an expression that, if translated to a human, would have been an ear-to-ear grin. On Mondo, it took on a very sinister cast. "What are you smiling about so?" Machina asked her husband, slightly grouchy from a bad reaction to a new oil concoction she'd tried.

"Oh, I got the chips onto those pesky rangers in that cog attack last night, and it is apparent from their lack of response that they haven't figured it out yet."

"Figured what out, Daddy?" chimed in Sprocket. "Is it evil? Is it very evil?"

Mondo chuckled. His son pleased him greatly. "One of the best, most evil plots I've ever come up with. I put special chips on the cogs that attacked last night that adhered, unseen, to the ranger's suits. When they went back to the Power Chamber, the chips immediately began deactivating the codes that bind the Zeo crystals to the Power Chamber computers that channel the power to allow teleporting, recuperating, and morphing. First, the armor the chips were attached to was deprogrammed, and through destroying that system, it was like a domino effect. Soon, the rangers will lose power entirely, but the Power Chamber computers will never know. I put the whole thing under a cloaking code. I'm certain that awful genius friend of theirs is going crazy trying to figure out why I attacked last night, but he'll never get it. The only way he could even discover the deactivation is if the rangers attempt to morph, or if he found a chip, which is impossible since they're invisible unless broken. Ah, Ha-ha-ha! Then I'll go down and destroy them myself. They won't be able to do anything!" Mondo continued laughing horribly.

~*~

At school, Adam stared at the enormous set of bruises that started on his forearm and continued up his arm and onto his chest and back. He had gotten them in the battle the previous night, and while he was used to having bruises, usually the recuperative abilities of the powers healed superficial wounds like these fairly quickly. By now, he thought, they ought to be turning yellow and then by this evening, they'd be gone. He checked the ones that were visible despite his shirt covering the bulk of the damage on his forearm. They were a deep purple-black color, almost fresh still. It bothered him, and he resolved to head for the Power Chamber once the bell rang. At last, the class ended, and Adam slipped out to a quiet, deserted courtyard. He pressed the button to teleport on his communicator. Nothing happened. He pressed it again. "Oh, no×" he murmured. "I've got to find the others, and fast."

Tanya was pulling books out of her locker as Adam approached her. "Tanya. Let me see your×watch."

"Oh, hi sweetie," replied Tanya, not having looked up to notice the panicked expression on Adam's face. "What's wrong?" she inquired as the tone of Adam's question struck her.

"I can't×" Adam looked around, and then whispered: "teleport."

Tanya stared. This was indeed serious. "Let's find Kat, Tommy, and Rocky. And Jason and Kim, they may be affected as well." They headed in the direction of Tommy and Jason's lockers, which were side by side. The others were congregated there, and as they saw Adam and Tanya come toward them, they knew something was wrong.

"We need to see you×alone." Said Adam. "Something's not working with my communicator, and I don't know if it extends to the rest of you."

They all headed for a quiet area where they wouldn't be spotted. As each ranger tried his or her communicator, it refused to connect to the Power Chamber or teleport. Jason and Kim's allowed them to teleport, however. The others exchanged looks. This was not normal at all. And why could Jason and Kim do things while none of the rest of them could? Tommy, seeing his team's confusion, slipped into leader mode. "We're just going to have to reach the Power Chamber manually. We can take my jeep, it can handle the off-road terrain." Everyone else agreed swiftly, and soon, the rangers pulled out of the parking lot to attempt the trip to the Power Chamber.

~*~

Billy was swiftly analyzing the object. "It's a chip!" he gasped. "With invisibility features as well as the force field that prevents detection. This one's just crushed enough to make it visible." He ran to the console and pressed in a systems analysis for what seemed like the millionth time that day. This time, when the systems checked out normally, he overrode the computers and hacked into the coding systems. As he stared at the endless codes, he felt himself going weak with horror. Mondo was effectively preventing all use of basic systems for the rangers having hacked in through the armor codes, disconnecting the power source from the channeling system. He immediately ran to another console and attempted to contact the team. The signal refused to go through. "Oh, crap!" muttered Billy in epic frustration and not a little fear. Just at that moment, Kim and Jason landed in the center of the Chamber.

"Billy, what's going on?" asked Kim, her voice quavering slightly. "None of the others can teleport."

"Mondo hacked in. He's destroyed the connection between the ranger's crystal shards and the computers that channel the power to allow things like morphing and teleporting, and even regenerative abilities. The crystals are effectively useless at the moment."

"How come we can teleport?"

"It's only a matter of time before that shuts down. Mondo's devilishly efficient programming began by disabling the rangers first on the outside chance that we caught on and managed to stop the full-scale mess. But eventually, the 'virus' he's made will destroy all of our connections to power sources, even here in the main chamber where we operate off another part of the crystal on a separate set of channeling codes. It's absolutely simple and completely destructive. I can prevent the entire system from going out, but it will take some time to restore the channels to power all the rangers. Each one has to be done individually, and Mondo's destroyed enormous amounts of the programming. Do you know what the others are doing?"

Jason had remained silent throughout Billy's explanation. "So you mean, we're essentially defenseless?"

"Affirmative."

"The others were leaving in Tommy's jeep to try to get here the old-fashioned way," Kim spoke up.

"I hope they can make it here. If they can, we can keep them safe if we can keep the defense shields around the Power Chamber up. If Mondo attacks them now, they're on their own until Alpha and I can get the coding restored."

Kim's chin trembled. "I will not cry," she told herself softly. She was terrified. She had been regaled over the past few days with stories about the Machine Empire, and from what she had heard, they were infinitely worse in some ways than even Rita and Zedd - who hadn't been any easy adversaries themselves. What if Tommy gets hurt or killed, wondered Kim.

Jason was also concerned. There was very good chances that even though Mondo would probably not be able to completely destroy the city, in the hour or two it could take to restore the powers, a lot of damage would be done, and a lot of people would likely die. Billy and Alpha were frantically working as fast as they could, but Jason knew the intricacy of the programming did not make for swift restoration of that much damage. He saw Mariah walk into the Chamber, her face grave. "The zord systems are all a mess too" she reported.

"Can we help?" asked Kim.

Billy looked up. "If you can just go down to the zord holding bay and punch in these numbers and a few simple codes into each individual zord, they should begin to go back online, and then I can access the systems from up here. They don't seem to have been hit quite as badly as some of the other channels." He handed Kim a printout with the instructions.

Mariah sighed. This was worse than most of the accounts she'd read about the Machine Empire. So simple, she thought. Mondo's idea was genius. Her thought was broken when Billy looked at her. "How much do you know about computers?" he inquired. "You were able to check the zord systems."

"Not much," admitted Mariah. "But I can follow instructions well and catch onto patterns."

"Then can you and Jason collaborate on restoring the transmolecular shifting abilities?" Billy caught himself slipping into 'technobabble' in his nervousness. Slow down, he reminded himself. There's not time to translate right now. Use plain English. He continued: "There's a book of programming for emergencies down in the archives. It'll at least allow the ranger to morph and have the protection of their armor, even if their weapons aren't operational. Anything we can do at this point is better than nothing. One of you read the instructions to the other who will input the commands."

Mariah and Jason ran for the archives to retrieve the book. Billy glared at the computers. Just then, he nearly sunk to his knees as a familiar clamor reached his ears. The warning siren alerting them to Mondo's presence was going off.

~*~

Tommy was driving like he was in a stock car race, pushing the jeep to the limits. He knew it was only a matter of time before Mondo sent a monster or cogs, and if he did, they were in deep trouble. Flying through the desert, they saw the familiar visage of the Power Chamber dead ahead. All of a sudden, in a flash of light, Tommy saw another familiar sight. Mondo himself was standing in front of the entrance with a large brigade of cogs beeping around him. "All right," muttered Tommy. "Here goes nothing." He pressed the accelerator to the ground as hard as he could and continued straight at Mondo and the cogs. The sickening crunch of metal sounded as Tommy ran over a couple of cogs. Jumping out of the jeep as the engine failed, the rangers ran the twenty feet left for dear life toward the entrance. Bolts of energy jarred the ground as cogs and Mondo hurled them at the hapless teenagers. Reaching the entrance, the team attempted to enter. The door refused them entry. Suddenly, Adam remembered something Billy had taught him a long time ago about the codes that locked the various doors. He began punching numbers at random into the keypad, and then pulled a small pin out of his watch and inserted it into the side of the keypad. As he did so, a blast of energy exploded, missing them by a hairsbreadth. Adam pulled the pin back out. The door creaked open, and the rangers flew inside, all of them pressing on the door once they were inside to force it to lock again. "We've got to get up to the main chamber," yelled Tommy once the door was secured. They ran up the stairs into the room.

Billy was hunched over one console, Alpha over another, and Mariah and Jason over a third. Kim was nowhere in sight. "What's going on?" panted Rocky.

"Can someone else explain?" asked Billy, not looking up from his console. "Sorry, but it would take too long, and I've got to finish this."

Jason turned away long enough to briefly explain the situation. "So there was a purpose to that cog battle last night, huh?" sighed Rocky. "I had wondered about that."

"Can we help?" inquired Katherine.

"Negative. I'll tell you what to do as I get systems partially online, to a point where you can help complete them. This is not a fortuitous situation as you can observe."

Tommy noted that Billy was using 'technobabble', barely managing to keep it out of his speech. This is bad if Billy's that worried, thought Tommy. He sat down to wait.

Zordon appeared abruptly in his tube. The rangers, so preoccupied with the situation at hand had failed to notice his absence. "Rangers," he spoke gravely, "I have been attempting to find a temporary alternate power source but have been unable to do so. Until Billy and Alpha can restore the systems, we are forced to wait."

Just then, Mariel twitched strangely. Everyone turned to look at her. Suddenly, they realized that she was not wearing normal clothing. Rather, she was dressed in a strange, old-fashioned deep green cloak with silver designs at the edges, boots, and an odd, almost medieval costume that allowed ease of movement for the wearer. She stared down at herself. "Zordon×what's going on?"

Zordon himself was staring, almost dumbfounded. "It is true then. You are a full guardian. Guardians," he began to explain, "as you were told in brief the other day, are special beings that guard one powerful hand-to-hand type weapon. They are only used as last resorts, to fight the sources of evil themselves once the ranger team is disabled. The power calls you, Mariel. You must fight Mondo in the absence of the rangers."

An audible gasp went through those assembled. "She has to fight Mondo?" murmured Tommy. "How?"

"By going outside and pulling out my weapon and fighting," said Mariah, becoming slightly sarcastic to disguise her fear. "Which, incidentally, I had better go do." The slender girl walked out of the Power Chamber leaving the others to gape.

~*~

Outside, Mariah squinted slightly in the bright light. She saw a group of the silvery robots that had kidnapped her and Billy in New York, and in the center, a tall, portly robot waving some sort of staff. "So you have come to challenge me, eh?" The robot taunted her.

Mariah gulped, trying not to show her fear. "I'm assuming you're Mondo."

"King of the Machine Empire, himself." Mondo smiled nastily. He couldn't get a good look at what he assumed by build and stature to be a girl, and not a terribly large one at that. He raised his scepter and flung a bolt at her. With a flash, the girl warded it off, countering it with a sword. Mondo stepped closer, curious at this unexpected turn. Who was she? As he looked at her, he recognized the girl he'd kidnapped along with the genius the other day. He hadn't been very concerned about her, he'd been more interested in Billy, but she'd been there and obviously, Billy had had some business with her. Before he'd had the time to imprison Billy in his fortress or figure out the mysterious girl, they'd escaped along with Kim and Tommy. The escape of Tommy and Billy had concerned him much more deeply, and while he'd been planning on investigating who exactly the girl was, he hadn't had time in all his evil plotting for this attack. Mondo looked more carefully. The attire reminded him of something he'd seen before in an ancient memory. He fired again. Again, the sword flashed and the energy bolt deflected - this time back at him. Mondo stared. Nothing×except for one×no×it was impossible! He continued forward inexorably, firing on the girl. She moved quickly, deflecting deftly. Once he came within striking distance, he raised his scepter. It struck her sword and the two began to fight. The only sounds were the beeping of the cogs, a few "en guarde!'s" and the ring of metal striking metal. Now Mondo was almost convinced, but he still could barely believe his circuits. Such a power hadn't been seen in over a thousand years. She couldn't be×but she was×a guardian. The fight continued.

Mariah was hard-pressed to defend herself against Mondo. Certainly, it looked easy enough, but he was programmed to fight, and while her sword could deflect his most powerful weapons, she had to be able to move quickly enough to block them. As a stray spark hit her, burning badly, she knew she was almost completely unprotected. The only thing that stood between her and this monstrous×thing×was the sword. Just as she began to think that she'd fall and succumb to the Machine King, a familiar yell of "Ay-yah!" reached her ears. Bless you, Billy and Alpha, she thought. The still strange sensation of teleportation enveloped her, and she fell onto the floor of the Power Chamber.

"Ohhh," she groaned, trying to sit up. The burns from various half deflected bolts were painful all over her body.

"Don't move," sounded a familiar voice. Mariah tried to think through which girl it could possibly be. It wasn't Kat, so it had to be×Kim or Tanya. She took a guess. "Kim?"

"I have to scan you for injuries, and then we'll put you on the table to heal soft-tissue injuries if you've got any." Mariah became vaguely aware that she was back in her normal clothing, and she could see Kim waving some blinking device over her. "Burns and some lacerations," reported Kim. Mariah felt herself placed on a hard surface. A light, pleasant heat coursed through her. "What's this?"

"It's a very advanced medical technology," explained Billy. "The device will regenerate×um, help heal anything that isn't bony tissue."

"It's kind of nice," murmured Mariah. "Sort of warm, and I'm starting to feel better."

Billy left the console he'd been finishing on and strode over to where Mariah lay. "Good." He said, leaned down, and kissed her cheek. "You did very well against Mondo."

"Yeah, but I couldn't have finished him," sighed Mariah. "It was impossible. He was so strong."

"Yes," said Zordon, breaking in, "but you fulfilled the purpose of a guardian - to protect as the last resort. You won't be fighting on any kind of a regular basis, your powers afford little protection other than the capacity of the sword. However, when you're needed, you'll be called. And any time the rangers fight, I want you here in the Power Chamber for your own protection. I want to continue researching the powers of the guardian, for I am convinced that you did not use all of them, but for now, you may choose to help the rangers by working here during battles if you wish. We would be glad for the aid."

Mariah looked over. "I would be honored."

~*~

As the battle finished, the rangers teleported back to the Power Chamber. "Is she all right?" asked Tommy. He was concerned about his sister, having to face Mondo like that was a tall order.

Mariah sat up, and hopped down from the table. "Good as new!"

"Will you fight with us much?" asked Rocky.

"Heavens, no!" responded Mariah. "The only power I have is that of the sword. Wielding it and defending myself is totally up to me. My reflexes aren't much enhanced when I fight, though a little bit, and while Zordon thinks there are other facets to the power, we haven't discovered them yet. I couldn't defend myself against multiple targets easily, and I don't have much armor. No, I'll be helping out here, normally."

Jason came in, looking fatigued. "I think that's the last of the zord systems that just went online." He had been forced to climb into every cockpit to run the test system and report to Billy if the zord checked out as operational.

"And×" said Billy, pausing. "There goes the last self-repair system starting up. In about two hours, everything should be back to full power."

Kat suddenly gasped. "Mar! You're supposed to be getting home right now! We've got to hurry!"

~*~

Kat, Tommy and Mariah landed just outside the Oliver residence in a small grove. Tommy was smiling. "Mom and Dad did some of your unpacking, they were so excited. They put away all your clothes and books and put sheets on your bed, stuff like that. I hope you don't mind."

Mariah felt tears welling in her eyes at such kindness. She smiled. "I don't mind at all."

"Well, shall we go in?" Tommy walked over and opened the door. "Mom! We're home!"

Anna Oliver came flying down the stairs. "Mariel?" Mariah nodded. Anna grabbed her and pulled her close in a big hug. "So glad to meet you finally! Let's go up to your room, and you can finish unpacking. Then sometime, Tommy, you'll have to take her to go meet your friends. Thank you for picking her up, Katherine." Anna ushered Mariah up the steps and into the room that she had so lovingly prepared.

Kat and Tommy stood, listening for a moment. Then Tommy turned to Kat. "Kat? Do you mind if we talked for a minute?" He led her into the living room, and they sat down on the couch.

"Tommy, I wanted to talk to you too. I-"

Tommy cut her off for a moment. "Kat, I am so sorry. I know that I violated your trust as completely as anyone could have."

Kat sighed. "I had mostly forgiven you, and I thought I had entirely. But then when Kim came home, it just opened up all over again. Tommy, I don't say this to make you feel guilty, because I know how sorry you are, but it hurt more than almost anything. However, I'm at peace now. Jason is a wonderful guy, and much better suited to my personality. Tommy, even if you hadn't been so completely in love with Kim, it's hard to say whether we would have worked out even then. You need someone as fiery and passionate as Kim, and I'm just not that way. Not that I'm not passionate, but not in the same way Kim is. No matter what though, you and I do share something very special. It's a deep friendship, and I miss it."

Tommy swallowed hard. "Kat, I never meant to do this to you. Do you mean it about wanting to be more than just teammates and acquaintances? This last month has been harder than I ever dreamed - because of that awkwardness between us. I would like to be your real friend again if you can forgive me."

"I do forgive you. I'm ready to go on with my life, and Thomas Oliver, you are someone well-worth being friends with." She reached out and hugged him. Their lips met in a chaste peck, neither of them wanting more than that. Tommy walked Kat to the door.

"See you later."

~*~

The next day was a hubbub of activity. It was the night of the dance, and the Oliver household was in chaos. Richard Oliver had been wrangling with the insurance company over the costs of the damages done to Tommy's jeep, which had been discovered badly banged up in the middle of the desert. Anna was busy fussing over Mariah. Tommy was trying to find the last pieces of his vampire costume. It was not one of the traditional, cheesy ones. It was a beautifully crafted ensemble with real-looking fangs that fit comfortably, a white collared shirt with a cravat, an embroidered velvet cloak and black pants. He hoped that Kim would like it. While he normally would have picked her up, she was next-door at Kat's finishing her own costume, and he knew she'd be over in a moment. The doorbell rang. Tommy ran to it, yanking it open and sticking in his fangs, which he'd just located as he did so. Kim was wearing a beautiful, strappy black velvet gown and a black velvet cape with maroon designs embroidered on it. Vampire fangs graced her smile. "How in the×" Tommy asked.

Kim giggled at the confused look on her boyfriend's face. "I asked Jason what you were wearing so that I could coordinate properly."

"Not fair. I will have to talk with Jason about not telling secrets."

"Oh, I had to call in a few favors, and he wouldn't tell me what your costume looked like, just that you were going to be a vampire. You look frighteningly good, by the way."

"As do you, Beautiful."

Just then, the doorbell rang again. Tommy pulled it open. Billy stood on the front steps, attired in fitted black pants, a medieval black nobleman's jacket that hung open just enough to expose a loose, white shirt. A sword hung at his side. "Is Mariel ready?" he asked. "By the way, you and Kim look wonderful."

Before Tommy could answer, Billy suddenly looked up the staircase. Mariah's dress had been copied out of the movie "The Princess Bride". It was a light sky blue medieval dress with silver trimmings. Her black hair hung in her natural curls down her back and a silver circlet made of flower shapes rested in her hair. She looked wonderful. She descended the steps slowly, and when she reached the bottom, Billy produced a lovely white rose with a hint of light pink around the edges that matched her outfit nicely. "My lady" he said, bowing slightly to present her with it.

"Thank you," said Mariah smiling radiantly. "You look so handsome."

"And you look ravishing."

"Are we ready?" inquired Tommy.

The teens left the house and piled into cars to head for the Youth Center.

~*~

Jason rang the doorbell nervously as he fidgeted on Kat's doorstep. He'd chosen an old-fashioned black suit with a vest, pocket-watch, and top hat as his costume, and he hoped Kat would like it. Kat answered the door. She had on a white, forties-glamour style suit, gloves, diamond earrings and necklace. Her lips were colored with a dark red lipstick, and her hair was curled and pinned to flatter a white matching hat. Her stockings had seams running down the back and she wore high heels. "Wow" was all he could get out. Kat looked lovelier than he'd ever seen her. The demure suit flattered her immensely. Jason pulled out a red rose, cut to pin onto her lapel. "May I?" he asked.

Kat let him pin the rose on her, and then pulled him into her arms. "Thank you" she cooed. She brought her lips up to his and they met in a pure, passionate kiss. As the kiss broke, Kat beamed. It was, without a doubt, one of the nicest kisses she'd ever received. She reached up and kissed him again, losing herself in his strong arms, pressed against his broad chest. They stood there long after they had planned on leaving.

~*~

Adam walked up the steps to the Sloane residence. He had chosen a traditional Korean costume for the evening. He rang the bell. Tanya answered, and Adam's jaw dropped. Tanya was dressed in an Egyptian skirt, bejeweled belt and top, as well as a heavy circlet with cobras leaping out over her straightened hair. She had gold wrist plates, and long, dangling earrings hanging down. It was, Adam thought, one of the most interesting costumes he'd ever seen his girlfriend in. The thing was, she looked marvelous in it. He smiled shyly. "You look very nice, Tanya. I like the costume."

"Thanks, I like yours too. Is that traditional?"

Adam nodded. The box he held in his hand didn't contain flowers, but rather a necklace he'd wanted to give Tanya for some time. The necklace was gold, and had an oriental pendant on it. He handed it wordlessly to Tanya, who opened it and gasped.

"Adam, this is beautiful!" She promptly fastened it around her neck.

"But×it's not Egyptian," protested Adam, pleased nonetheless at the success of his gift.

"I don't care. You gave it to me, it's beautiful, and I want to wear it. Thank you so much, Sweetie."

~*~

The Youth Center was decorated with crepe paper garlands and fresh flowers grown by the Angel Grove High School Gardening and Agriculture Club. Glass bowls filled with water and candles floating in them sat on the tables. As Mariah, Billy, Tommy, and Kim entered, Mariah gasped. "This is beautiful, guys. So this is the Youth Center?"

Tommy laughed. "It doesn't always look like this. But yes, it is the Youth Center. Hey, Billy, do you mind if I borrow your date for a moment? I want to introduce her to Ernie."

As the twins walked away, Kim looked over at Billy. "You really like her, huh?"

Billy looked at her. "Yes. What gave it away?"

"Well×" said Kim. "The look on your face for one. And you were so sweet to her when you came to pick her up."

Billy blushed slightly. "She's pretty amazing. But I'll tell you one thing, in my wildest dreams, I never expected to be dating Tommy's sister! Especially his twin!"

Kim laughed. "I never expected Tommy to have a sister. Or an older brother, for that matter." She spotted Tanya and Adam entering. "Hey! Oooh, Tanya, you look wonderful! And Adam, you look great too!"

The group chattered for the next few minutes. Rocky arrived dressed as a pirate, with his date Jaimi who wore a red colonial-era ball gown. Tommy and Mariah came back to rejoin them, and suddenly Kim hissed. "Shhh×Look over there."

Everyone turned to look at the entrance. Jason had Kat on his arm and was escorting her into the dance. They were looking at each other silently, a light glow seeming to envelop them.

"When did they start going out?" whispered Rocky.

"Not quite a week ago," Tanya whispered back, smiling.

"Well," said Kim softly, "It looks like they've become a real couple. I hope they do well together."

Everyone else nodded. "Care to dance, Kim?" Tommy asked.

"Let's go."

As they walked to the dance floor and Tommy took Kim in his arms, Kim noticed him looking toward Jason and Kat for a moment. "Tommy? Is everything×okay× between Kat and you?"

Tommy smiled. "She and I had a chance to really talk today for the first time since we broke up. I mean, we'd been friends after the break up, and Kat had forgiven me as much as she was able for the sake of the team and because she really is a very decent person, but there were definitely some deeper feelings that were still hurting. I think she really, truly forgave me in every sense today, not just because she knew it was the right thing to do or wanted me to feel better, but because she honestly was ready to. It was a closure I needed, and she needed before we could truly devote ourselves to you and Jason with no regrets or strings attached. Because, Kim, I want to be a worthy boyfriend for you. And I couldn't have done that if even a small part of my heart was still worrying and upset about what I'd done to Katherine. I'm not proud of what I did, but now I can really enjoy being with you without having that guilt in the back of my mind."

On another part of the dance floor, Kat and Jason swayed back and forth to the music. "I got to talk with Tommy today," Kat said.

Jason stiffened visibly. For an instant, he felt unnerved by what Kat might say next. His fears were put to rest when she said: "And we're ready to be real friends again."

"I thought you two were real friends even after you broke up."

"Sort of. We could get along, but even though I'd forgiven him for the most part, I was still hurting a little, and we hadn't renewed that deep friendship we'd had before we began dating. But I finally realized in the last couple of days that I was ready to be friends again. It's not that I wasn't over him, I was, I just hadn't completely realized how much pain I still had held on to. You know," she remarked reflectively, "I'm glad to be friends with him again. Tommy's a great friend, even if we don't work romantically. Besides, it turned out for the best: now I've found someone that is not only a great friend, but also a very nice boyfriend." Kat looked up at him archly.

Jason breathed out the breath he'd been unaware that he was holding and pulled her closer. He was glad that he didn't have to feel slightly like he might have to worry about Tommy reclaiming her affections again. He surveyed the room. Adam and Tanya were sitting and talking, Rocky and Jaimi were goofing around, pretending to do elaborate dance moves, Kim and Tommy were dancing with her head snuggled lightly into his shoulder. Jason looked around for Billy. He eventually spotted Billy dancing with Mariah. They were gazing into each other's eyes as they danced, and as a small strand of hair came loose from Mariah's style, Billy reached forward to gently push it back. It was a surprisingly intimate gesture for Billy, thought Jason. Maybe he'll get over Cestria and her pregnancy now. He certainly hoped so. Billy was someone who deserved happiness, as, he smiled, his thoughts drifting back to the girl in his arms, did Katherine.

End