Disclaimer: Repeat after me: The Power Rangers are not
mine - they belong to Saban. I do not have permission to use these characters
in my story, but I am doing so anyway. I will not get paid for this story.
Notes & Timeline: Zeo period, Jason's given up the Gold Powers, Billy's moved to Aquitar. I don't know how much time elapsed between Jason giving up the Gold Powers and the Zeo Rangers becoming the Turbo Rangers, but this story is assuming there were a few months in between those two events.
From where he sat in the astrology observatory, attached to the Aquitar University of Natural Studies, Billy Cranston could almost see his home galaxy; the bright shimmer just barely discernable amongst the multitude of stars in the inky blackness of space. But that one small splash of light contained all the things Billy had loved for the first eighteen years of his life.
He sat on the bench that ran along the perimeter of the dome, his knees drawn up to his chest, his arms circled around them. He was concentrating on breathing evenly and slowly, fighting the urge to gasp in a larger draught of air. He knew from unfortunate experience that trying to take a deep breath would only make matters worse.
Aquitar was a beautiful planet, populated by peaceful, intelligent, honorable people, and Billy loved being there. Except for the fact that he developed pneumonia type symptoms from the moisture laden air. The first time they had almost waited too long, not realizing just how much distress Billy was in, and that nothing on Aquitar could alleviate his symptoms. And his condition was getting worse. He had gone three weeks without a problem during his first visit, when he came to the planet to fight the Hydrocontaminators. In fact, he left not knowing there even could be a problem. It wasn't until he decided to stay on Aquitar permanently that they discovered the difficulty, and attempts to find a solution to the problem had thus far been unsuccessful. For whatever reason, the only thing that helped was for Billy to go back to Earth for a few days, until his lungs cleared again. There was only one thing that kept the former Blue Ranger from returning to Earth permanently.
Billy had neither lied nor exaggerated when he told his teammates that he had found his soul mate, a young woman who truly understood him. He had known from the moment he first met her that she was the one for him, but at the time he had not acted on his feelings, believing they would not be reciprocated. It wasn't until she showed up on Earth, making the long teleport to offer her assistance in his time of need, that he dared to think she might harbor similar feelings for him. When she took him to Aquitar to save his life, he knew for certain that she felt more than simple friendship for him. Once the treatments were completed, and he was restored to youth and vigor, he gathered together his courage and declared his love for her. She had professed her own love for him, her words almost overlapping his.
So, he made the only decision he could. He decided to stay on Aquitar. After making his choice known to the Power Rangers, he and Cestria had teleported that evening to his home, to speak to his father. Wallace Cranston liked the Aquitian girl at first sight, and even he could see there was something special between his son and this young alien woman. Though boggled by the things he was told that evening, including the fact that his quiet, bookish son had been a Power Ranger for the last few years, Wallace had given his blessing to his son's plan to move to Aquitar to be with his love. The elder Cranston had himself been young and in love once, and knew far too well how precious and fragile love, and life, could be. He would not deny his son his chance for true love, even though it meant he would rarely get to see his only child.
Little did the he know he would see his son again only five weeks later, when Billy made his first trip back to Earth due to respiratory distress. He was very ill by the time he got back, and it took three days of treatment at the Power Chamber before he was able to go home to recuperate for another four days. As soon as his lungs were clear, he went back to Aquitar to work with Cestro, to find a way to prevent further problems. They had not succeeded, and Billy had been forced to return home five more times, returning from the most recent trip only six days before. He and Cestria were beginning to despair of ever finding a solution to their problem.
These memories replayed through the young human's mind as he sat gazing toward his home planet, trying his best to ignore the fact that he would soon be teleporting through that intervening space, to once again go through the treatments that would clear his lungs and allow him to breathe easily. He sighed softly and leaned his forehead against his knees, giving in to his depression for a moment.
"There you are. How are you feeling?" That voice, so sweet and concerned, immediately perked up the former Blue Ranger.
"I'm okay, Cestria. But it seems I'll have to be heading home again soon. I'm sorry," he replied quietly, trying to keep the sorrow out of his tone.
"I know. It's okay; your health is the most important thing. Speaking of which, Cestro and Hydronus want to see us, they think they may have found an answer," she told him her eyes sparkling with excitement.
"Really? Well, come on then, let's go," he almost exploded out of his curled up posture, grabbing Cestria's hand and leading her quickly out of the observatory.
In a matter of minutes they were in Cestro's lab, sitting together and holding hands while Cestro and Hydronus explained about the solution they had found.
"As you know, Billy, it isn't the moisture that is doing the real damage, it's the chemical attached to the water molecules that is the culprit. In Aquitians, that chemical is as necessary as oxygen to survive. In humans, it appears to be quite damaging. We have been approaching the problem from the perspective of removing the chemical from the moisture in the air, but the only way we found to do that required equipment that would fill a small room, definitely not portable. We could possibly use the equipment to render a room, or small suite of rooms, livable for you. But it would be the equivalent of being in prison, and even then the rooms would only possibly prevent the problem. If you were overexposed to the chemical you would still become ill, and a trip to Earth would be necessary. Again, not very feasible in reality," Cestro's voice was calm, but there was a definite undercurrent of sadness. He didn't say so, but they all knew that Billy couldn't survive many more bouts of overexposure to the chemical.
"We were about to give up hope when a different approach occurred to us. What if, instead of removing the chemical from the air for you, we instead altered you so you needed the chemical as Aquitians do?" Hydronus proposed.
Billy looked at the two Aquitians in confusion.
"What are you proposing to do?"
"A simple transplant. In Aquitians, their lungs have an additional organ, the supplung, which works in conjuncture with the lungs. It's the supplung that needs the chemical our water contains. It processes the chemical, turning it into vital nutrients for our blood. Your blood can easily accommodate the additional nutrients that the supplung produces. It is simply a matter of you needing a supplung to process the chemical," Hydronus explained.
"So you would just transplant a supplung to me, and I could then breathe the air on this planet without problems? It's that easy?" Billy tried to hide his eagerness.
"Well, yes...mostly," Cestro hedged.
Billy's expression sobered. "What's the catch, Cestro?" he asked.
"Well, the supplung works by sending tendrils throughout the lungs. Once implanted, it is impossible to remove. Or, rather the tendrils cannot be removed. The actual supplung can be removed at any time once the tendrils have matured; that is how we will get one for your transplant. We will remove one from a healthy Aquitian and implant it in you. The tendrils will begin to grow immediately, and will reach maturity in a day or two at most," Cestro replied, still looking uneasy.
"So it can't be removed once put in my body. What else?" Billy prompted.
Cestro and Hydronus exchanged worried looks. "That means you would be unable to return to Earth anymore," Cestro said at last. "You know how much trouble we had when we went there. Well, for you the problem would be much, much worse. You wouldn't be able to survive more than an hour or two there, or anywhere off Aquitar."
"I see." Billy sighed deeply, his grip on Cestria unconsciously tightening. "So my choice is actually quite simple. I can live on Aquitar or I can live on Earth. I cannot live on both."
"Yes," Cestro agreed. "I'm truly sorry, Billy. I would have liked to give you better news, but this is the best we could come up with."
"Cestro, you have nothing to apologize for. I owe you both tremendous thanks for all your work on this. You honor me with your efforts to help," Billy told the two young men.
"What are you going to do?" Hydronus asked.
"I don't know."
Billy sat on the couch in his apartment with Cestria nestled in his arms. They didn't speak for a time, but simply sat there relishing this chance to be together.
Cestro and Hydronus had gone on to explain that the transplant was not particularly dangerous, there was no issue of possible rejection as there was in transplants between humans. Billy had carefully gone over all the test results and data, hoping to find something that would refute their findings. There was nothing to find. Then Cestro had noted Billy's deteriorating condition and advised the former Ranger that he would make the necessary preparations to send Billy back to Earth.
So the young couple had retired to Billy's apartment to discuss what they had been told and to enjoy a few precious minutes together before Billy had to leave.
"Billy, I'll understand, whatever you decide to do," Cestria said softly, turning to look deeply into her boyfriend's sad eyes.
The former Ranger just tightened his hold on her slight body without replying, as he didn't trust his voice to stay steady at that point. He had not really expected to find true love so soon in life, and certainly not on another planet. But he fully believed that is what he had found in this petite, pretty Aquitian teen. Billy sometimes thought that if he had taken the absolute best from each of his former female teammates, and combined them all into one person, that person would be Cestria. She had Trini's calm serenity, Aisha's fierce loyalty, Tanya's strength and independence, Katherine's gentle kindness, and Kimberly's passion and empathy. And an intellect that was a perfect match for his own. He could not imagine anyone else who would suit him so well, and he still considered it a miracle that she wanted him.
"I love you Cestria," he said at last, his voice just above a whisper. "I don't want to lose you."
"I don't want to lose you, either, Billy. But we must do what is best for you. After all, if I were to lose you I'd rather it be because you were living on Earth, not that you died here on Aquitar."
"I'm really not concerned that will happen," Billy stated softly. "But to never be able to see my dad again, or my friends, or visit Earth...well, that's painful to think about. But I love you, and if this is what it takes..."
"You need to think it through, Billy. Go talk to your dad, talk to your friends, take some time apart from all this and make your decision. I will be doing the same here. I love you, Billy, more than I had ever thought it was possible to love someone. But what they are proposing is not something to be taken lightly. We must both be very sure."
"You're right, of course," he started with a sigh. He made the mistake of taking too big a breath, and the coughing fit hit so suddenly and fiercely he almost ended up dumping Cestria on the floor due to the force of it. She reached for him anxiously, rubbing his back as he doubled over coughing and choking, his lungs going into painful spasms.
"Cestro! Cestria here. Billy is having a coughing fit, a bad one. Please, can you bring some medication for him?" she spoke softly into her communicator, a replica of the ones Billy had made for the Power Rangers on Earth so long ago.
Cestro didn't reply, but showed up within moments with a vial of the medicine that would ease Billy's symptoms for a while. He handed the precious fluid to Cestria who managed to get Billy to swallow it despite his coughing. Almost instantly the coughing stopped, but Billy remained hunched over, wheezing painfully.
"It's not working as well as it used to," the Blue Aquitian Ranger said with a worried frown.
"My body is acclimating to it," Billy gasped out. "It happens sometimes with certain medications."
"We better get you back to Earth. They know you're coming," Cestro said, helping Billy to his feet and toward the door.
Tommy arrived at the Power Chamber carrying a lunch bag and looking worried.
"How's he doing, Zordon?" he asked their mentor.
"Billy's condition has improved significantly. He can go home this evening as long as he continues to respond so well to treatment. You brought him food?"
"Yeah, I figured he wouldn't want any more of those nutrition cubes you usually feed him. It's okay for him to have real food, isn't it?" Tommy asked with a grin.
"That is permitted. Though the nutrition cubes are better for him," Zordon replied.
"So are Brussels sprouts, but you aren't likely to find him eating them either," Tommy smiled.
The Red Zeo Ranger headed toward the Med Room hoping Billy was feeling more communicative that afternoon. Yesterday he had tried to get the former Ranger to talk to him, but he only got grunts from his friend, who obviously was not in the mood for company. Tommy hadn't been too surprised, as Billy tended to be grouchy when acutely ill. And heaven knew they had had enough experience with that over the last few weeks. He was getting very worried about Billy. Yesterday the entire team had a long discussion with Zordon and Alpha concerning the increasing frequency of Billy's returns to Earth, and the conclusions Zordon had drawn had worried everyone.
"How're you feeling, Bro?" Tommy asked as he entered the open doorway of the Med Room. Billy was lying on the bed, surrounded by machines that were clearing his lungs, and staring moodily at the wall opposite.
The blond teen looked up at Tommy's question and his expression warmed considerably.
"I'm feeling better, thanks."
"Good. Here, I thought you'd enjoy something more tasty than those cubes Zordon gives you," Tommy grinned, handing over the bag.
"Oh, man, thanks," Billy said as he took out the hamburger and fries and laid them out on the bedside table. Tommy had added a cola to complete the nutritionally challenged meal.
"You're welcome," Tommy settled down on the comfortable chair they kept in there for visitors. "Has Cestro had any luck figuring out a way to prevent you from getting so sick yet?"
"Maybe. It kind of depends on whether or not I'm willing to go along with it," Billy muttered, looking at his hamburger rather than his friend.
"Do I detect a note of hesitancy here?" Tommy inquired with gently irony.
"Yes, quite a few notes as a matter of fact," Billy sighed. "Tommy, can I ask you a very personal question? You are free to refuse to answer, of course, but I really need to know."
"Billy, you can ask me anything. Always," the Ranger leader told him.
"If you had known, ahead of time, that Kimberly was going to break up with you, how far would you have gone to prevent that from happening? What would you have done? And how are you feeling about her and the breakup now?" Billy looked at Tommy with a desperate expression the longhaired teen didn't understand.
"Wow, you weren't kidding, that is personal," Tommy stalled, searching the other teen's expression to try and understand what had prompted this question.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to. It's not that important," Billy said, sensing Tommy wasn't comfortable with the question.
"It's funny, but I get the feeling it is that important. Will you tell me why you're asking this?" Tommy countered.
Billy considered Tommy's request for a moment, then hesitantly began to explain what had been happening, and what Cestro and Hydronus had proposed.
"You wouldn't be able to come back, ever?" Tommy asked.
"No. My body wouldn't be able to properly process the air here. Perhaps I could for brief visits, dragging along some sort of breathing apparatus, like a scuba diver's gear. But a real visit, or moving back to Earth? No," Billy told him.
"Ah, man, this sucks. But at least now I know where your question's coming from," Tommy shook his head then seemed to be lost in thought. Billy remained quiet, watching his friend closely.
"I would've done anything to prevent Kimberly from breaking up with me," Tommy said at last. He stood up and went over to close the Med Room door, ensuring their privacy. "I shouldn't say this, maybe, but I don't think it'll work out with Katherine. She's wonderful, don't get me wrong, but she isn't Kim. I still love Kimberly; I think I always will. When I got that letter? Man, I didn't think anything could hurt me that bad. I can still remember every word, they still hurt just as much as they did when I first heard them." Tommy stared moodily at nothing, his mind back on that ill-fated day the letter arrived, reliving the pain he had felt then.
"Tommy? Tommy, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked," Billy said anxiously, angry at himself for having stirred up unhappy memories for his friend.
"It's okay, Billy. You had every right and reason to ask. I wish I could tell you what to do in your situation, but all I can tell you is that if I had a chance to prevent Kim's and my breakup, I'd do anything I could. But that's me. And Kim. And it's from the perspective of being after the fact."
Billy looked thoughtfully at the Red Ranger, considering what his friend had said.
"Do you love Cestria?" Tommy's question startled Billy from his thoughts.
"Yes. I never thought I'd ever be fortunate enough to experience this sort of relationship, these feelings. With the exception of the fact she isn't human, she's everything I'd ever hoped for," Billy responded.
Tommy arched an eyebrow, sensing something in his quiet friend's tone. "But...?"
Billy sighed. "But...How do you know when it's meant to be forever? I can't help it, Tommy, but I always see both sides of a question. Maybe it's my science training, but even though I'm confident of my feelings toward Cestria, I can't help but think: what if? You know? What if it doesn't work out? What if she dies? What if she decides she doesn't want me after all? What do I do then? Live on Aquitar for the rest of my life? What if my dad needs me?"
"Easy, Billy. I understand your concerns, but no one can predict the future. I guess I'm saying you have to take it on faith. Listen to your heart."
"Tommy, my heart is a little confused at the moment."
"You aren't sure you love Cestria?"
"No, I'm sure of that. It's everything else I'm uncertain about."
"You have some time here, Billy. Give your heart a chance to calm down a bit, and maybe things will be clearer."
"I hope so. Thank you, Tommy, for talking to me about this. I'm sorry I hurt you with my questions."
"You didn't hurt me, Bro. And anytime I can help you, or if you just need someone to talk to, I'll be here."
"Thank you, Tommy. That helps, more than you realize."
But Billy couldn't help but speculate that if he did what Cestro proposed, Tommy, and his other friends, wouldn't...couldn't... be there for him anymore.
Wallace Cranston came home from work and couldn't suppress a smile at the slightly messy kitchen. He supposed it was sort of pathetic, but to him that mess told him his son was there, and to the lonely man that was always good news, even if it did mean the teen had been ill again. Wallace only saw Billy after his treatments in the Power Chamber so he didn't know just how serious the bouts were.
Though he had given his blessing to Billy's plan to move to Aquitar, that didn't mean he was all that fond of the plan. He loved his son, and the realization that he would only rarely see him had been painful. But he wanted Billy's happiness above all other considerations, and it certainly seemed as if his quiet offspring was happy on Aquitar with Cestria.
The slender man walked to the den, thinking he might find Billy there, watching TV. He was half right, Billy was there, but the TV was off. The former Blue Ranger was staring out the window at the deepening dusk, his expression a combination of worry and sorrow.
"Billy, are you okay, son?"
"Hey, Dad. Yeah, I'm okay. Well, pretty much okay, I guess. Um...can I talk to you about something?" he asked hesitantly.
"Of course. Just let me run upstairs and change out of this suit."
A few minutes later the elder Cranston came back into the den dressed in a pair of worn out slacks and a comfortable shirt, a glass of ice tea in his hand. He seated himself in his favorite recliner, and contemplated his son.
"What's on your mind, Billy?"
"I have to make a decision, and I don't know what to do," he started, a little hesitant to lay all this on his father. But as he continued to speak, he grew more confident, and found himself telling his dad everything he felt, all his worries, all his fears; opening up to his father in a way he hadn't in years, if ever.
Wallace listened to his son's story with the pain and sorrow only a parent whose child is hurting can feel. Sadly enough, it was a feeling Wallace was all too familiar with. Never, it seemed, had life been easy for his son. Teased and tormented by other children in his youth due to his intelligence, his small stature, his glasses, his overall nerdishness. The loss of his mother, which had cast a shadow of sorrow over most of his young life. Now this. The heartrending choice between love and the friends and family who meant so much to him.
"...and I just don't know what to do, Dad," he concluded, his tone low while he stared out the window. He'd barely looked at his father at all during his tale, fearing what he would see in the light eyes, so similar to his own.
Not receiving any response, the teen finally turned his gaze to Wallace and was surprised to see tears in the older man's eyes.
"Dad. Please, don't..." he trailed off as his father raised his hand in a gesture to stop the words.
"Billy, it's okay, son. You were right to share this with me, but you must understand something. I'm your father. I love you. When you hurt, I hurt. So many times when you were younger I wanted desperately to make things better for you, but there was never any way to do that. And you seemed so determined to handle things yourself. So I'd hide my sorrow, and try to help in whatever small way I could. You're old enough now that I no longer have to hide my feelings from you. Perhaps I was wrong to hide them for so long, sometimes I got the feeling you thought I didn't care," the elder Cranston said softly.
"I always knew you cared, Dad," Billy said quietly, touched.
Wallace sighed. "Now, you finally come to me with your problem, and it's this. They're quite certain you could never return home again if you elect to have the supplung implanted?"
"Yes. Of that there's really no doubt. I saw the test results myself, double-checked their work."
"Ah. And there's nothing else they can do to make the air so you can breathe it safely?"
"Nothing. That was their first line of research."
Wallace sighed. "What do you want to do, Billy?"
"I want to be with Cestria. and, I want to be able to have my friends and family. I want both," he muttered, well aware he sounded childish, but unable to help himself.
Wallace walked over and sat on the couch by his son, reaching across the teen's shoulders and pulling him into a warm embrace.
"That's what I want for you, too. But I guess we aren't going to get what we want. I'm so sorry," he murmured gently.
Billy allowed himself to be held, accepting gratefully the comfort that was being offered. It was rare for his father to express his love so openly, and Billy reveled in the feeling of being loved and cherished by his parent.
"Dad?" he started tentatively, part of him not wanting to stir up possibly painful memories for his father, but another part wanting desperately an answer to a question that was plaguing him.
"How did you know Mom was the one for you?" Billy asked after a bit of reflection.
Wallace thought for a few moments, understanding just how important this question was to his son, and wanting to give him the most accurate answer he could.
"Well, I knew I was in love with her almost from the second I saw her. We were in college, and I spied her in the cafeteria, eating lunch with a group of friends. She was so beautiful, so lively. She seemed to...sparkle. It was like there were suddenly only two people in that crowded room: her and me. I was hardly the bravest person you could have met when it came to girls, but I asked her out two days later. I simply couldn't bear the thought that I might let her disappear from my life without at least trying. She accepted the date, and we never looked back." Wallace smiled at the memory. "I swear to you, Billy, I have never known what you mom ever saw in me, but I will always be grateful she saw it. After that first date, I knew she was the one I wanted to spend my life with. And, if things had worked out differently, she'd be here today with me. I have absolutely no doubt of that," the older man's eyes misted up again.
Billy felt the sting of tears in his own eyes. Even after nine years, the loss of his mother still hurt.
"But," Wallace continued, his voice still strong and steady despite the tears. "She was not my first love."
"She wasn't?" Billy asked, surprised.
"No. There was a girl, Virginia, who I fell in love with my senior year of high school. She was a wonderful girl, everything I could have ever wished for. Like with Marie, I fell in love at first sight, and was sure she was the one. She loved me just as much, and we spent hours planning our futures. She wanted to go to pharmacy school, I was going into accounting, we'd marry in our junior year, and I'd support her while she got her master's. We'd start a family as soon as she got her license, and retire at age forty five," Wallace grinned a bit at that memory.
"What happened?" Billy asked, intrigued by this glimpse into his father's youth.
"We fell out of love, I guess. I don't really know, son. All I know is that we drifted apart, and eventually broke up completely. It wasn't her fault, and I don't believe it was my fault. Perhaps it was a matter of it being the wrong time and place for us. It worked out right, in the end. Marie was the one I was destined for. That is what I believe, at any rate."
"Wow," Billy sighed, trying to process what his dad had told him.
"Does that answer your question? Does it help at all?" Wallace asked.
"Well, it definitely answers my question. As for helping...I'm going to have to think about that. A lot."
"Well, thinking is what you do best, son," Wallace said with an affectionate chuckle.
They sat in silence a few minutes, Wallace still holding Billy close. Finally he released his son so he could turn and look directly into the teen's eyes.
"Billy, no matter what you choose to do, I'll support your decision. You're eighteen now, and one of the most mature, levelheaded young men I've ever met. I trust you to make the right decision for yourself. If you have any questions, I'll be here for you. The only thing I'm going to say is: I want you to be happy. Whichever way you choose, I just want you to be happy. Okay?"
Billy felt his eyes mist over yet again as he contemplated his father.
"Okay. Thanks Dad."
The next afternoon Billy went to the Juice Bar to see the rest of his friends. He still had no idea as to what he wanted to do, but he decided to take Tommy's advice and back off from it for a bit. Spending a relaxing afternoon at their favorite hangout seemed a good idea.
The other Rangers greeted Billy warmly; pleased to see he had recovered from his latest bout of what Rocky dubbed 'Aquitian flu'. They all filled him in on the latest local gossip, news from Angel Grove High, and what they had heard from other former Rangers, now scattered to the four corners of the Earth it seemed.
"Aisha writes me as often as she can. She, of course, remembers her past in Angel Grove even if her parents don't. They think she just has a pen pal here. I guess they are really getting a handle on the plague among the animals, and she's talking of coming to America to study veterinary medicine here," Tanya reported.
"That'd be great," Billy grinned.
"Zack and Trini will be back by summer. They continued their education in Switzerland, but they want to graduate with the class here," Rocky said. Billy smiled at that, skillfully hiding the hurt as he realized his two friends would get a chance he wasn't even offered. The school had simply handed him a diploma and showed him the door. All this time later, that still stung.
Wanting to change the subject, Billy asked, "Where is Jason? How is he doing?" Jason had given up the Gold Powers almost a month before, but was still having health problems the last time Billy had seen him.
"He's around. I guess he's feeling a little better, at least he says he does. He kind of keeps his distance these days," Adam told the former Blue Ranger.
"I see," Billy murmured, understanding how Jason probably felt.
"And Kim is ready for the games. They'll start in just four months, you know. According to her, Coach Schmidt thinks she has a real chance at a medal, maybe even the gold," Katherine told him, blissfully unaware of the glow in Tommy's eyes as she spoke. Billy, however, noticed it, and he felt an odd sorrow at its significance.
"So, how long are you here for?" Rocky asked with a smile.
"A few days at least, I wanted to have a good visit with everyone," Billy replied. So far only Tommy knew of the decision Billy was facing, and the former Ranger was in no hurry to inform the others.
At those words he was immediately inundated with offers to do things with them all. He smiled and accepted some of the invitations, while declining others. After a while Adam, Rocky and Tanya excused themselves to tend to other matters, leaving Billy alone with Kat and Tommy.
The three of them chatted amicably, but Billy found the strain of being around the Red and Pink Rangers to be nearly unbearable. Katherine obviously thought the relationship was working, and was almost painfully unaware of Tommy's minute signs of aloofness and withdrawal. Having spent significant time around Tommy and Kimberly when they were dating, Billy could see the difference in the two relationships. The Tommy he had known during the time he dated Kimberly was gone, replaced by a pale imitation, simply going through the motions.
Billy found that to be oddly frightening.
There was a secluded corner of Angel Grove Park where Billy tended to retreat when troubled or unhappy. A few days after arriving back on Earth, Billy found himself sitting on the small knoll he thought of as his 'thinking place', contemplating the decision still looming before him. The discussions with Tommy and his father had helped, but still, they basically gave conflicting messages. Tommy regretted not having the opportunity to save his relationship with Kimberly, and the loss of that relationship had...damaged...Tommy in some way Billy didn't quite understand. Then there was his father's busted relationship with Virginia, which had started out so strong, with them so sure it would be forever, only to have it disintegrate for no particular reason at all. Which did he have? Tommy and Kim's relationship, which should have survived? Or his father and mother's, which did survive? Or his father's and Virginia's, which didn't have staying power? He had not real idea of what category he and Cestria fell into, and he was driving himself to distraction trying to figure it out. He was so lost in his thoughts he didn't hear the quiet sound of approaching footsteps, and the voice that spoke up behind him startled him badly.
"Thought I might find you here," Jason announced.
Billy jumped to his feet surprised, but very pleased, to see his oldest friend.
"Darn, Jason. You nearly gave me a heart attack," Billy groused, unable to hide his grin.
"Nice to see your reflexes are still so good," Jason joked, sitting down beside Billy and smiling at the former Ranger.
"Un-hunh," Billy muttered. "How're you doing, Jason?"
"Okay," the former Gold Ranger said, not meeting his friend's eyes.
"Okay, try that again, but try to sound even less convincing," Billy requested, giving Jason a searching look.
Jason finally met his friend's eyes. "Okay, so I'm not doing so good yet. But I'm still better than I was the last time I saw you. It's just taking a long time. I hate feeling so weak."
"There's nothing they can do to speed your recovery up?"
"No. Time is the only medicine available for this."
"Sorry, Jase. I know that has to be hard on you," Billy said sympathetically.
"Thanks. So, how're you doing? Weren't you just here a few days ago?"
"Yeah, just over a week ago. I'm not doing so well myself these days," Billy admitted.
"You sure you want to know? It's kind of a long story," Billy said.
"If I didn't want to know, I wouldn't ask. And we have plenty of time," Jason told him.
Billy took a deep breath, and told Jason what was going on with him and Cestria, and the decision he needed to make. Jason listened without comment as Billy spoke, sympathy shining in his dark eyes.
"Man, that's terrible," he said at last when Billy had finished. "You haven't made your decision yet?"
"Not yet," Billy replied.
"Can I ask you something?" the former Gold Ranger asked.
"How did you and Cestria meet? I didn't even know you had met someone until she showed up when you started aging. The others said you had mentioned a 'Cestria' a couple of times, but there was no indication she was someone that special to you, and certainly no indication you might up and decide to move to Aquitar to be with her. You really surprised me, Bro."
"I fell in love with Cestria as soon as I met her, Jase. But I didn't think she felt the same way. That's why I didn't talk much about her. It hurt too much."
"So, how'd you meet?"
"It was my second day on Aquitar. The weapon Cestro and I had built, which worked so well here on Earth wasn't working as well on Aquitar. We'ad been running diagnostics and tests for hours with no success. I was getting frustrated beyond my endurance, which under the circumstances wasn't very high. Suddenly this beautiful girl walks calmly in and sets down a tray full of some sort of pastries and a hot beverage that tastes somewhere between tea and coffee. She very sternly told Cestro and me to stop what we were doing and to sit back and have some food. Well, I just followed Cestro's lead on this, and decided there would be no harm in having at least a taste of the food. You know how I tend to forget to eat and drink when I'm really involved in research."
Jason couldn't suppress a grin at that comment. Billy was notoriously bad about ignoring his body's most basic needs when he was deeply involved in something. Trini and Kimberly in particular used to go nuts trying to get him to slow down and take care of himself.
"Well, as soon as I took the first bite, it was like a dam burst inside me. I swear, I was just shoving the food in my mouth: I was suddenly so hungry. We finished the meal in minutes, and Cestria just walked over, grabbed my arm, and informed me I was going for a walk. She took me all over their main facility, but mostly focusing on the non-technical areas, like the experimental gardens where they test new forms of plant life. We seemed to walk for miles, when she stopped in front of a door and declared we had reached my room. She deposited me in this suite of three rooms, like a studio apartment and told me to clean up and get some rest. She would come for me in the morning. I have never met anyone who could boss me around so completely, yet I didn't realize what she was doing until after she had done it," Billy grinned at the memory.
"Anyway, that proved to be exactly what I needed. Rested and refreshed the next morning, Cestro and I made the breakthrough we needed to adapt the weapon to Aquitar. My presence was no longer really required, but I stayed anyway. Cestria was the reason, though I made up a dozen other excuses to justify my staying there."
"And you never told her how you felt." It was not a question.
"No, I didn't. She was always there, but so was Cestro, Hydronus, and other Aquitian scientists. I thought it was normal for her to always be there. It wasn't until much later that I found out she only was there because she was interested in me. So, I wasn't the only one who wasn't being totally up front."
"A match made in heaven," Jason quipped.
"Seemed like it. She's so remarkable. She's kind, and wise, and beautiful, and generous, and fiery, and strong, and determined and I'm sounding just a bit lovesick here, aren't I? But she's the most wonderful girl I've ever met, and I can't think of anything negative to say about her. Nothing at all. Except that I can't breathe on her planet," Billy's expression immediately sobered. "It's so unfair," he muttered.
"Yeah, it is Bro. She sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime find," Jason agreed. "It just seems the price you have to pay to be with her is awful high."
"She's worth it," Billy said, then paused, a surprised expression on his face. "She is worth it."
"You're going to do it, aren't you?" Jason asked quietly.
Billy nodded, his mind finally made up.
Cestro was the only one there to meet Billy when he arrived back on Aquitar.
"Where's Cestria?" Billy asked anxiously.
"She's in her apartment, awaiting your return," Cestro told him with an undecipherable expression.
"Thanks." He hurried off toward her apartment, his pace just short of a jog.
He rang the bell at her apartment, his mind and heart light, finally relieved of the worry and stress of trying to make a decision. As soon as he had decided, he had felt a sense of serenity, a feeling that he had made the right decision.
Cestria answered his ring, her expression brightening when she saw him. Without saying anything she took his hand and drew him into the comfortable room. They embraced tenderly, silently, enjoying the feeling of holding each other close.
"You reached a decision?" Cestria asked finally.
"Yes, I did."
"As did I," the young woman replied.
"I want the implant," Billy said firmly.
"I don't want you to get the implant," Cestria said simultaneously.
Billy's world suddenly stopped as her words registered.
"I don't want you to get the implant. Please, Billy, this is extremely important to me."
"I...I...I don't understand. Don't you love me?" his voice sounded plaintive, even to his own ears.
"I do love you, Billy. That's where the difficulty lies."
"I don't understand," his voice had been reduced to a whisper.
"Come, sit down, I'll try to explain. I love you, Billy Cranston, of Earth. I've loved you since I first met you, since I first saw you. You're everything I ever dreamed of finding."
"Then why..." She placed a gentle hand over his mouth, silencing him.
"I love you just the way you are, Billy. If you have this implant, you will be sacrificing your father, your friends, your past, your heritage. That is an awful lot for a person to lose. You won't be you anymore. You won't be 'Billy Cranston, of Earth'. You'll be 'Billy Cranston, of Aquitar'. And it's not that 'Billy Cranston, of Aquitar' wouldn't be a wonderful person, it's that he wouldn't be the person I fell in love with. I can't do that to you, Billy. I can't. How could I love you if I destroy you? Oh, this isn't making any sense," Cestria was in tears, her voice choked by sobs.
Billy, tears streaming down his own face took her gently in his arms. He didn't speak, but held her quietly until she had calmed.
"Do you understand?" she asked at last.
"Yes, I think so." His mind turned suddenly to the afternoon he'd spent with Tommy and Katherine. "Yes. Yes, I do understand." He would change, like Tommy had changed. And Cestria didn't deserve that.
"I am so, so sorry, Billy."
"As am I."
So, less than an hour after he bid a final farewell to his father and friends, he found himself once again in the Power Chamber. Only Zordon and Alpha were there, much to Billy's relief.
"What happened, Billy?" Zordon asked with evident concern.
"It didn't work out. Really, I don't want to talk about it, okay? Could you just teleport me home, please?"
He arrived at his empty house a few seconds later. His father was at work, the Rangers were in school, and thankfully he had some time to be alone, to prepare for the questions and well meaning sympathy he was bound to get.
He headed up the stairs to his bedroom, intending to lie down for a quick nap, when a picture caught his attention. It was a picture of his parents, taken about a year before his birth. They were standing with their arms around each other by the shore of Lake Tahoe, smiling with the carefree exuberance of young love.
Billy gently ran his fingers down the picture of his mother, tears again threatening. That is what he had wanted for him and Cestria, and pain welled up inside him as he realized that was never to be.
"I wonder if I'll ever find anyone else? Someone special, someone to love. Or did I just lose my only chance?"
He sighed and continued on to his room, flopping down on his bed and staring at the ceiling, just letting himself drift, the sorrow moving through him in steady waves. He had no idea how long he stayed that way, it could have been minutes or days for all he knew. But eventually, he began to look around him, to try to pull himself together a little. His gaze fell on a small relic from his childhood sitting on his bookshelf. He stood a bit unsteadily and retrieved the item, then settled back down on his bed, studying it intently.
It was a Spiderman action figure, one that had originally been part of a set of three. The other two had gone to Jason and Zack, way back when they were all ten years old. They'd pooled their money to buy the package of three, so each could have their own. Looking at the plastic figure he'd kept for eight years on that same bookshelf, he reflected on the friendship he'd shared with Zack and Jason. That led to thoughts of the other friendships he had developed. Kimberly, Trini, Tommy, Adam, Rocky, Aisha, Tanya, Katherine, Zordon, Alpha, even Bulk and Skull in their odd way. As he thought about those friends, he became aware of the faint stirrings of a new feeling being born in his heart.
It took a while for him to recognize it as relief.
Author's notes: This story came about as a response to a challenge Cynthia posted on her message board. So, this one's for her, may she enjoy it in good health. And thanks to Dagmar for editorial input.