Disclaimer: Well, this one has been a long time coming and probably wouldn't be here at all if a few people hadn't threatened me with chainsaws to finish it. It's an angst-ridden fic, and I make no apologies for that. Set in Zeo, the timeline will become obvious as you read and I hope that you enjoy. This was inspired by an email sent to me containing the basic story that Sam Trueheart recounts in this fic. Thanks to the anonymous author of that story! Enjoy!
The trip to the reservation had been Tommy's idea. Another desperate attempt to pry Billy loose from the Power Chamber and for some of the Rangers a welcome break from the constant battles. They had been pushed hard recently, even with the help of the Gold Powers they were all starting to show the wear and tear of battle strain. The drive out here, on the edges of the desert, was calming and invigorating for most.
Tommy stole another worried look across at the very quiet ex-Ranger who was accompanying them. Billy would smile a little, but only when anyone was saying anything directed at him. Seen unawares, his face was tired and drawn somehow and he rarely seemed to make the effort to join in a conversation. The Red Zeo Ranger suddenly realised that even when it had become apparent that Billy had not been the Gold Ranger as Rocky had suspected, they never HAD got to the bottom of why Billy disappeared and seemed so tired. Mind you... there was the time he spent working on the Zords and the Power Chamber... and the responsibility of it all. He had managed to do an awful lot when you really thought about it, so maybe it was not unusual to see him this tired and worn. Even so, he needed a break and maybe a bit of fresh air, away from manuals and Zords and flashing lights and strange consoles, would revitalise him. That was all he needed, surely. Then Billy would be back to his old self again. If he could remember what that old self was actually like.
"Namaste, Tommy," Sam Trueheart greeted him, as he realised he had been standing just looking into space. "Your thoughts seemed to have taken a long ride on the wind. I was beginning to wonder if they were coming back!"
"I am sorry." Tommy felt embarrassed for ignoring the Elder. "Namaste, Sam.... I was worrying about ... someone, that is all."
"It is not a minor thing to worry about someone," Sam said as David approached, grinning.
"Tommy! 'bout time you made it up here... oo, sorry, father." Tommy's brother was a little repentant at barging in. "It's about time you brought the others up here ... I'm always coming down to visit you!"
"You keep telling me it's Ernie's smoothies," Tommy smiled, distracted from his concerns. He wanted to be distracted. It was easier to believe that there was nothing wrong than have to deal with yet another worry in his life.
"I really want you to see the course we've set up," David said, sounding very enthusiastic. "We have new track bikes!"
"The one you've been telling me about? Man, I'd love to try them... but I don't know about the others." Tommy looked around anxiously.
"They can always come back to the village," Sam offered with tolerant amusement of the two boys' enthusiasm. "I will make sure they are not left a-wandering."
"Great... let's see if they will go for it," Tommy replied, turning towards the others.
"Is not a problem, young falcon," Sam answered and chuckled as the pair was already out of earshot.
Jason glanced around from the discussions going on about the admittedly impressive track and looked at Billy who was remaining very quiet and had sat himself down on one of the nearby rocks.
"Hey bro, you okay?" he asked, leaving them all to discuss how high the bikes could jump.
"Fine." Billy responded, a little surprised and defensive.
"You don't look like you're having fun." Jason sat down next to him, trying to fend off that ever-present twinge of guilt that was back now he looked at him.
"Oh ... I am..." The words were a little unconvincing, to say the least. "I'm ... I'm a bit headachy and tired," Billy admitted at last, carefully not making eye contact.
"It's being cooped up all day, bro... I thought fresh air might do you good." Jason sounded contrite.
"Yeah... yeah... you are probably right," Billy agreed a little too easily. "Not your fault. I can't get away sometimes." I have so little time left to do everything!
"Well, if you are feeling a bit rough, then you can always go back to Sam's. That might be a good idea," Jason suggested. If he hadn't turned at a particularly loud rev of an engine, he may have seen a despairing hurt in Billy's green eyes at the suggestion of being sent away from them.
"Maybe later," was all he said, though, trying to feel included in the fun and activity. Noone seemed to notice that he was sitting because he had found it difficult to walk that last bit. They assumed it was because he didn't WANT to be involved. But if he was closer... then they would know... then they would realise something was wrong and he just couldn't have that... pity...
Let them think he was being aloof and didn't want to join in! Easier for everyone that way. But despite himself, the embers of a slow anger stirred to life that no-one else seemed to even care if he joined in or not. Billy knew it was hypocritical, but he couldn't help it. Was it really so hard to see?
That simmering anger continued through the long afternoon as he watched the others get more and more involved and distant from him in their active project with the track and trying out the bikes. Eventually Billy couldn't stand it anymore and got up.
"Jase..." he said softly as evening shadows crept longer by the moment. "I'm going back, okay? To the village."
"What? Oh, sure, Billy," Jason answered, a little distracted. "We'll meet you by the car, okay?"
"When?" Billy wanted to know, having totally given up hope that someone might ask him why he was going back or even inquire in general what was going on. Not strictly fair though, is it? They ask in a general way... but when you say 'How's it going' or 'everything okay' you don't expect the person to say "No". So I never do ... I'm fine... I'm fine... maybe if I say it long enough it might actually be true, he thought to himself, not really taking in Jason's worried expression.
"We won't be long, I promise," Jason said, looking out towards the track. "Tommy and David should finish up soon... we won't be more than...half an hour behind you."
"That's okay," Billy agreed pleasantly enough. "I'll enjoy the walk back." He gave a tired smile. "See you later."
And with that he turned and began walking slowly along the trail back towards the reservation.
Jason frowned and nearly went after him ... very nearly. But then Kat called him back to look at what they were doing and the moment of instinct telling something was wrong was crushed before it had time to truly establish itself. After that... it was too late.
It was a coldly angry ex-Ranger who made it back to the reservation village and headed towards the car. He felt terrible, he felt exhausted and all sense of perspective vanished in the advent of his suffering. At this point, he was definitely targeting his friends inside the arena of his mind as instigators of his condition. To anyone with a glimmer of empathy he would have appeared to be an angry young man, who may well have just had a row with his friends. The fact that he gave a half-hearted kick to the tire encouraged this perception
Sam Trueheart, having become aware of his approach in the dimming light from where he was sitting with a small cooking fire not far from parked car, looked at him speculatively. "Is everything alright, William?" he spoke up, studying the young man carefully.
There was a pause and then a quiet, controlled response as if someone had taken a few deep breaths before speaking. "Fine. I'm fine." But the voice was brittle and taut and Billy did not turn to look at the shaman.
Sam stirred the fire a little more, 'listening' with all his senses to the person in front of him. What could he pick up? That he was angry... that he was angry at his friends, but that... they didn't know? One of them would have followed if they had known, that much was for sure.
Listen to his breathing... ragged as if holding in the pain of a terrible hurt... but not showing it.
Listen to his movements ... careful and restrained...
Listen to the expression of his body... defensive, keeping everyone away ... like a wolf lying in a trap, snarling at anyone who came near for fear that they would hurt him more.
Sam's wise eyes glimmered as a certain tale of lore leapt to his conscious mind with that association. When thoughts connected that way... you did not remain silent
"Come here, William," Sam Trueheart said, beckoning Billy over "I want to tell you something that happened to me when I was young, something I have never forgotten"
Billy looked at him, a little surprised at not being totally ignored. He hesitated.
"Please? It would mean much to me to be able to pass on this wisdom to another." The shaman coaxed, astutely making it seem like a favour Billy would be doing for him.
"Alright..." the answer was a little reluctant and he moved slowly over to join Sam by the fire.
The Elder smiled and nodded his thanks. "There was a day in my youth ... many, many years ago," he gave a faint smile,"when I came back one day angry at one I called a friend for an injustice he had done to me. I entered my home full of aggression and my grandfather called me over after watching me kick the doorframe for a bit and sat me down and said in quiet voice, 'Let me tell you a story'.
"I was not in the mood for stories, but one did not go against the wishes of your elders, so with ill grace I sat down and thought I would pretend to listen to his words. But Grandfather could spin a story like a spider spins his web... I am not as talented, but I will tell you what he told me ... that which I have never forgotten." The shaman cleared his throat and closed his eyes a little as if summoning the essence of the man who had told him this story and continued in a powerfully compelling tone.
"'At times, I, too have felt a great hate for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do', my Grandfather went on. 'But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times. '
"I was about to argue and say that it wasn't fair, but he continued. 'It is as if there are two wolves inside me; one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offence when no offence was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing. Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.'
"I looked at my Grandfather, captured by the image of two wolves fighting and asked intently, 'Which one wins, Grandfather?' He simply smiled and said, 'The one I feed'."
Sam Trueheart stopped and looked at Billy, unprepared for how shaken the young man appeared by that simple tale. He seemed totally shocked as if in some way he had inadvertently stripped away his most hidden self with the casual words.
"You understand what I mean, don't you?" Sam asked quietly and the sandy-haired genius nodded mutely, not offering any further response.
"It is hard not to feed the Other Wolf sometimes," Sam admitted with a sigh. "That one tends to be the most demanding. You are angry with them, aren't you?" He slipped that into the conversation.
"Yes, I..." Billy bit his lip. "No... everything is fine," he insisted woodenly.
"William, it is not wise to burden your spirit with such emotions," Sam admonished understandingly, but with a subtle hint of encouragement in his voice.
"Well, I don't care!" Billy snapped back. He got up suddenly and blindly looked for somewhere to escape, but the Elder touched his shoulder.
"Tell me of your anger?" Sam asked sympathetically.
Billy turned, his expression terrible. "It... it just seems that no-one cares for me, no-one really loves me the way I love them." He cried out, angry at the world, at everyone. "I've had enough of giving my heart and soul and nobody giving a shit... enough of dealing with their problems, fixing their lives and nobody giving a crap what is happening to me...." His voice cracked.
Sam looked deep into the young man's eyes. "And why now... what is it?"
Billy tried to pull away, but the gentle hand had turned into an iron grip.
The ex-Ranger struggled as if trying to escape the knowledge inside of him as much as from the man holding him.
"They are your friends..." Sam reminded him gently.
"Such GOOD friends who don't even notice that I'm dying?!" Billy shouted and then stopped, as frozen as the other man at that inadvertent revelation. His green eyes became haunted and trapped as his hands shook.
"Truly?" Sam said, soft as the questioning twilight breeze.
And Billy nodded, swallowing.
The Elder stepped forward and gently embraced the strangely fragile-looking figure in front of him, and if that contact from a stranger had been all the times he wished it from his friends, Billy broke and sobbed for the unfairness and the anger and pain and loneliness he felt.
"And you held it all alone," Sam murmured, holding him, comforting and close to his body, totally unselfconscious and natural.
Eventually they sat, more because Billy's legs gave out than anything else and Sam delicately began to talk about it.
"William... why are you angry at your friends?" he asked again as they sat side by side, looking into the fire.
"I... hoped they cared about me." Billy admitted with an aching pain. "I guess I was wrong... or maybe they do, just not as much as I do about them." He looked down at the dry dust beneath his feet, stirring it gently with his toe. Lifeless. How apt.
"But they do not know about this... does anyone?" Sam asked.
Billy shook his head. Dammit, not even Zordon had noticed.
"So you have stood with the knowledge of your passing alone and have concealed it from them?" Sam Trueheart asked once more.
Billy hesitated. "Well ... yes."
And there was the question. Why couldn't he admit this? Because he couldn't ask for help? Because he was protecting them? Because he was scared that saying the words would make it real, because of the pity in their eyes?
All of it?
"I... don't know..." he finally admitted. "But they didn't notice... I notice their moods; I tend to their hurts and problems, help them and yet ... I'm dying from the inside and ... no one notices ... not even my oldest friends. I thought they knew me. I thought there was something there, that they might notice. And I'm trying SO hard to make sure they are not hurt after ... I'm gone..."
Tears came unbidden to his eyes and he stopped, and stared into the fire.
"I am not here to tell you what you should do or say," Sam said into the choked silence. "But your anger is without foundation. It is born of the Other Wolf... It begins and ends in you. It is the feeding of yourself, for they know not."
"I don't CARE if they don't know," Billy practically growled. "They SHOULD! They should know... but nobody cares enough to even bother to find out. They probably won't even be too bothered when I die!"
And the quietness in his voice was more telling than any histrionic declaration. This was not just self-pity. This was a firm and concrete belief that no-one would care that his life was fading; this was a hurt inside deeper than physical pain.
"William, you underestimate your spirit's touch," Sam Trueheart commented. "If you looked with true eyes, you would see your mark on them all. Their eyes may be veiled by their unwillingness to see the truth. A truth that hurts is often too bright to look at directly. Do you understand?"
"No-one wants to thinks bad things can happen to good people," Billy said slowly. "But they do ..." He thought to his own past and his own rude awakening to this fact...his initial conclusion as a young child that as bad things only happened to the bad people, the bullying, the death of his mother were punishments for him being bad ... and even now, he called a question to the distant darkness.
And the answers that returned were half-shaped reasons baked of illusion and pain.
He buried his head in his hands.
"Is there a cure?" Sam asked suddenly, prompted by a twinge of instinct.
"... no ..." Billy mumbled after a significant pause.
"And who are you lying to there?" the Elder challenged. "Your voice says one thing, your body says another."
"There is no ... viable cure," Billy said defensively.
"There is no cure that does not fill you with fear," Sam Trueheart corrected. "This is a different matter."
Billy linked his hands behind his neck for a moment, wanting so much to get angry again but suddenly finding himself totally drained of energy and everything except an aching sadness and helplessness.
"There is a faint possibility," he admitted. "But...I can't."
Billy wiped his eyes a moment. "The possible procedure would be most unpleasant ..."
Sam raised an eyebrow at that understatement and Billy sighed.
"A lengthy torture... with no guarantee of life... just a guarantee of pain." Billy said starkly. "Why should I give up a relatively swift, clean death for that?"
"Are you giving up death... or life, William?" Sam asked, his eyes shining with the light of the fire.
"Does it matter?" Billy replied wearily. "We all die sometime ... what is there to fight for? I've fought long enough... I'm tired, so tired ..." and his head hung as if exhausted.
Sam Trueheart looked at that figure and saw in him the reflection of a weary warrior, heartsick through conflict and no longer knowing or feeling why he should even try fighting anymore. How has this happened to him? How did one so young bear that burden of the soul? How could he think of healing his body when his spirit was wounded and sick? Their lore taught that a strong enough spirit could overcome all trials of the physical even beyond the limitations of the flesh... and that a wounded spirit could shrink and waste the flesh faster than any disease. And all the cleverness of man could not devise a medicine for a broken heart.
Billy felt the creeping pain again and sat up, staring straight ahead, through the fire. It crawled around his body, looking for a place to strike. He had a couple of minutes before it struck ... it had happened even before battles and he'd had to leave before he was torn apart. He staggered to his feet.
"I have to go..." he said, trying to maintain a level, even voice. "I'm late. Don't say anything? Please? I'll just go back and find them now..."
Sam inclined his head. "As you wish."
He hoped that Billy would find the strength to tell his friends now. He would need them with him if he were to survive this or pass in peace. With sorrow in his lined features he watched the young man head back up the trail alone.
Partway into the trail Billy's worst fears were realised. The pains were unbearable this time and there was a sickening lurch and sensation of bone shifting deep inside that crippled him with abrupt agony. He staggered, raging at his body's betrayal. In some ways that was the most shameful thing, the way his body just... gave up on him, turned on him. This was much worse than before, and it wasn't fading. He bent double over the rough ground, trying to balance himself against a rock. His hand was shaking so violently now that he could not believe it belonged to him. He slipped and fell and curled, trying to control the cramps, the pain and the strange, almost hallucinatory detachment that came across him as he opened his eyes to the night sky above him.
He couldn't move, save for shudders as if a wild animal was tearing at him from the inside. The imagery from Sam Trueheart's tale leapt with preternatural vividness to his mind... a shadow wolf consuming him piece by piece.
"The Other Wolf is strong... I have fed it too long..." he murmured deliriously. A savage howl seemed mixed in his cry of pain to the cold night. Dark jaw... bright flash of teeth in the streaking stars ... pressure ... pressure on his chest pinning him down, the tearing pains... all over and no strength to fight it. The gnawing pains of bones shifting, his cells shifting...
This could be it... I could stay here... I could die. It wouldn't take long... lie and look at the stars as darkness falls
There are so many things I meant to say... I never said them, did I? So many words that I thought... didn't say and the moment was lost and I always thought I would have another chance... I want another chance!
A built-in fail-safe on the communicator he still wore registered his rapidly dropping vital signs and pulsed an alert to the Power Chamber as he lay there wondering what he would do or say if he had the chance.
The familiar rush of teleportation filled him with relief and disappointment as the stars vanished and the Power Chamber appeared. Dimly the frantic voices of Zordon and Alpha echoed in his ears though he could not comprehend what they were saying. Words from a distant, dreamlike reality.
"You have him stabilised, Alpha?" Zordon's voice sounded anxious even through his rapidly returning consciousness.
"Not completely, Zordon." Alpha's mechanical voice conveyed his distress.
"I do not understand how this could have happened. How did I not know?" the Eltarian said and with that Billy mustered his strength and sat up dizzily, looking at his hands and seeing the signs of age that had settled over them. Skin worn away to paper thinness, stretched across brittle bones.
"Because..." and his voice sounded different even to himself, "because you were... busy." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his statement. It was a fact, a fact he was stating, not an accusation.
"Then you know what this is?" Zordon sounded surprised.
"Give me some credit, Zordon." Billy replied, watching his own hand shake slightly. How many times had he rehearsed this scene in his head? Too many for it to be easy. Suddenly he was just too tired for the shouting and recriminations that had plagued his own scenarios. "During the Zeo Quests ... when I accelerated my time frame... turns out the process has never completely ceased as it set up a feedback loop, utilising the negative protons as a power source to accelerate the denaturing collapse of the organic system on the cellular level." Word for word what the printout had said. Cool and clinical.
And Zordon fell silent, experienced enough to know what it meant but not prepared enough to have soothing words to right the situation.
"Billy, I am truly sorry..." he began in his booming voice.
"For what, Zordon? For devoting your attention to the active Rangers?" Billy said without even thinking. "For not noticing? That's all right. There are a lot more important things going on in the Viewing Globe than in here." And he tapped his chest slightly.
And the most tragic thing is... that he means that , Zordon thought to himself, trying to find words to express what he was feeling. Never had he more keenly felt the desire to have a body than now... just so he could comfort this brave young one who he had started to think of as a son. Just to put arms around him and hold him close, but he was denied even that and therefore so was Billy. Now the ex-Ranger's snappishness over the past few weeks became symptoms of a larger problem. Why he had driven himself so far so quickly. As was often the case, in hindsight it seemed blatantly obvious.
"Billy ... it's not that it was more important..." Zordon began, feeling his heart break.
"Yes ... yes, it is. You know it, I know it." Billy watched his skin shrivel before his eyes with a fascinated horror. "Why do you think I worked on the Turbo project so hard? I won't be here, Zordon, but I couldn't leave them unprotected."
"Billy... we have yet to explore different cures..." Zordon said, hoping his voice was more confident than it soundedto his own ears.
"Zordon, you may not have had time to look at cures, but I have. And frankly ... I think I'd rather die." Billy replied, reaching for the console, doing some rapid input as best as his fingers would allow. "Here is the Master command sequence for the Turbo powers. They will transmute the Power energies before the Zeo Shards become unstable. If you find the Zeo King-Crystal, of course this will all become irrelevant." He gave a thin smile. "Kinda like me, really."
Zordon was shocked. "Billy, you can't... say that about yourself!"
"Oh, can't I? Why the hell not, Zordon? I bloody well look older than you now... Come on, you really think someone so vital to the team as you imply would be dying and everyone not know about it?" Billy sat down, tired now. Tired in his heart, sick in his soul and weary beyond measure. "Face it... you need what I can DO, not who I am... the job, not the person... and job openings get filled, don't they?" He shrugged. "Been nice working for you, Zordon," he said simply. "Frankly... I think I'm too tired to work any more." He looked at himself and gave a short laugh. "I'm WAY past retirement age."
Zordon paused, thinking desperately during this cynical, weary speech. Billy was ready to die ... and unless he had a will to live he didn't stand a chance. And the only will he could give him was cruel and heartless and would probably mean he'd be sacrificing the affection, the regard and forgiveness that this young warrior showed so effortlessly towards him. How many people were willing to give up the respect of another for the other's sake?
We are defined in the thoughts of others... the Eltarian sage thought despondently, but sometimes our friends are enemies and our enemies, friends. If I treat him with sympathy and love, then he will die. If I treat him with cruelty and callousness, he may live to spite me. Is how I want him to think of me so important that I would sacrifice his life? No... so...
"There is no retiring for a Power Ranger, Billy," he said sternly. "You would abandon your teammates? You would leave them vulnerable because you do not have the courage to face a little discomfort?" The tone was scathing and Billy's head lifted, stung by the words.
"Alittle discomfort?" he echoed incredulously, not really believing what he was hearing.
"Pain is nothing compared to Duty... or don't you care enough to try?" Zordon remonstrated in a disappointed tone. "I see now that I overestimated you, Billy. "
The pain in Billy's eyes then was worse than any physical reaction. A reality he had relied on where Zordon cared for him shattered and fell around him, with a gasp marking the soft sound of its passing.
"You... think I don't CARE?" Billy managed to gasp out, trembling with shock.
"I would believe that to be evident," Zordon said, implacable in his emotional manipulation. "You have an option not to die, and yet you do not appear to have it in you to do this. " He sighed. "I would not have believed you so selfish, William."
Billy paled abruptly and stepped back from those words, shaking more with shock than the advance of his condition. Another time... less clouded by pain, he may have seen through Zordon's ruse. But another time his mind would not have already been more than halfway to believing this was true.
"How... how could you SAY that?!?" he whispered back. "To me... how could you?"
Oh Billy, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry... it's not true, I know it isn't... you care more than anyone I've ever known and yes, we've let you down... we betrayed you... I betrayed you and now I'm driving you away... The words the Eltarian wanted to say were repressed and he spoke, hoping lies would do what sympathy could not.
"Because the facts speak for themselves," was the clinical tone overlaying Zordon's thoughts. "William, I assumed that as you remained a Power Ranger in name, you did so in spirit. You die, and you betray the team... you die and you ABANDON the Rangers, YOU are responsible for making them vulnerable to attack, and Angel Grove and the Earth beside. There is no escaping that fact."
Billy looked around as if wanting to leave, to hide to try and think this through. His pitiful accusations to Zordon seemed nothing compared to this . What was the fact that they hadn't noticed him hurting compared to him damaging ALL of them? That would endanger them, endanger everything and everywhere he loved.
"Dammit..." He gulped back a sob. "That's... that's not fair, Zordon... you can't make me... responsible..."
"And why not?" Zordon asked implacably, twisting and playing on what he knew were Billy's strengths and weaknesses. "If not you, then who should I look to? You think this would be any different than... ending your own life suddenly? Hmmm? What do you think that would do to them all? Tear the team apart. Leave your friends without support... they would ask 'Why?' And I would have no answer!"
Billy shook his head, trying to stop the tears bitter and ripe with betrayal from running down his now wrinkled face. "Stop it! I... I can't!" he cried, looking up at the ancient sage, sounding heartbroken. "I ... can't ..."
"Then you never were a true Power Ranger."
The words were out and said before Zordon could reconsider and they hung, devastating, in the air between them.
He had pushed Billy to the edge, knowing how much the other treasured, valued and drew upon being a Power Ranger to define what was worthwhile within him. He had neatly manoeuvred Billy into a position where, if he were to try not to live, he would be denying all that he valued about himself. If the young man wanted to retain what he maintained as the core of himself he would HAVE to live. As long as he thought he could retain that intact, he could die ... and now someone whose opinion he valued had challenged that. Zordon sighed inwardly. You didn't live for millennia without learning a few things, even if it was exploitation and manipulation of the mind. Live or Die, Billy... Live or die, my young one...
Billy looked at him, pain transmuted by an alchemy of the spirit to a cold, unforgiving anger. "I will always be a Power Ranger."
Ah... Live... thank the Powers, he will at least fight for existence...
"Then prove it," Zordon challenged, injecting a note of disbelief into his booming voice.
Billy steadied himself. For his friends, then. He would not give them the pain HE had experienced. He would not betray them as he had been betrayed, he would not give any of them cause to doubt what they had meant to him, or that he was not loyal to them and the team ... whatever was said against him.
"Very well..." and he limped over to a console. "Power Chamber Earth to Aquitar. Delphine? Cestro, do you read...?" he called defiantly.
"We acknowledge your signal, William of Earth." The voice rang out from the speakers.
"It looks like... I may be needing your assistance after all," Billy said softly.
And one part of Zordon exulted for the chance of life Billy had allowed himself to take... and another more personal part wept for the unforgivable hurt he had caused in order to make this happen.
He said his goodbyes as if it was obvious he would return, as if the elaborate charade that they had concocted was real. It had its real moments, but all the way through Billy purposefully adopted a cheerful demeanour, in defiance of Zordon. The temporary treatments were real enough, but the possibility that he would be "cured" just like that... pure fiction, and they all knew it....all save the other Power Rangers of Earth. Cestria had been there, she had come to him when before she had said she never wanted to leave Aquitar and that in itself gave him a flicker of hope. Someone who cared enough to face a long-time fear and travel to another world for him? It was a stark contrast indeed to the seeming ignorance and complacent attitude that his so-called friends were demonstrating. It had to be said; there was a fleeting satisfaction at seeing the dismay in their faces and that dark part of him... the Other Wolf, as Sam Trueheart would have said, wanted to gloat, wanted to twist the guilt-edged knife and confront them with the bitter truth of this turn of events. Billy sighed. He couldn't do that. Not now, after what Zordon had said. How could he cause that pain to them? It would destroy the team and it would be his fault. He was dispensable, he was merely useful, he had served the team and was expected to continue to serve the team through his silence.
Final goodbyes. Only two of them knew how final this parting could be and he saved that ending until the very last, trying to sort through his churning emotions, his anger to find a way to leave this place in which he had invested so much of his life. He looked around the Chamber one last time, every console a friend, an ally to him. A sad comment in itself, really. When it came down to it, machinery would not miss him, and neither it seemed would someone he had dared to open himself up to, to trust in. His father would know the truth soon enough, or a version of it. A sad truth, though... the betrayal he felt most keenly was not that of his father, but of his mentor.
Billy looked up at Zordon and his tired eyes were cold and implacable "I will never forget what you said, Zordon." He managed a calm voice, though he trembled inside and out with anger.
"I do not expect you to," Zordon replied, trying to keep the emotion from his voice and express only a clinical, faint disapproval.
"I want you to know... I once respected you, Zordon," Billy admitted in a voice on the verge of cracking. "That once I cared enough to risk my life for you. I put my trust in you." He paused. "Thank you for the greatest lesson of what is left of my life," he said bitterly. "There's none as stupid as those who care for others. You were a GOOD teacher, Zordon." He turned to move slowly to the clear area to teleport.
The Eltarian desperately wanted to call him back, to tell him it was a ploy, that he did care, that he didn't mean it, but sympathy would have destroyed his prot g , his own first Chosen whereas cold indifference would maybe stir him to life.
"The Duty is paramount," he said, trying to remain calm. "There are things more important than an individual." And in his heart he was referring to his own need to be regarded with affection and respect by this one...
Oh Billy, parents need attention as much as a child does... and you may not be a son in the flesh, but I dared think of you as kin to my spirit... a relationship I have destroyed with harsh words. You hate me now. I will meet my destiny knowing there are some acts for which I cannot be forgiven, and of them all, this will be the one I regret the most.
Zordon hid that inner sigh. "Travel well... and may the Power protect you."
Billy just looked at him. "Yeah... right," he said in a disgusted tone, having to be supported by Cestria as he prepared to leave. His farewell to Jason was a swift and bright tissue of lies about how he would be fine ... of course he would, definitely, only a matter of time as he felt the deadly pains within him swell and grow as the final teleport came to remove him from all he used to love.
It was a phenomenal use of energy to transport them all to Aquitar, but he was nearly on the edge of complete organic cascade... and whether he was aware of it or not, the Aquitians valued him enough to invest that in him. At the time, however, Billy was aware of little aside from his body's traitorous weakness and the ever-growing pain. His last remaining strength, drawn from the anger at Zordon, that had maintained the fiction whilst he was on Earth faded from him; the moment ground was once more beneath his feet, his legs buckled and he collapsed to the floor, barely conscious and struggling to breathe.
"You have him?" a distant voice asked. Ha ... seemed like these half-heard conversations were becoming a common phenomenon. If only the words would string together and make sense ...
"I have ... but he appears to have collapsed. I do not understand this necessity for concealing the severity of his condition."
"It matters not. He must be immersed completely in the waters immediately!"
Billy felt himself lifted and carried, then his clothes were removed. Somewhere a part of his mind that was not totally exhausted protested at the indignity of this action, but there was nothing he could do than lie there. He was placed on a cold, smooth floor in a brightly-lit room. A sealed room. The door echoed as it was slammed shut in a muffled, distorted fashion.
Then the water. As he lay there, wetness stole under his skin, tingling slightly as it touched his flesh. He tried to stir, regretting his decision profoundly as he remembered the completeness of the Eternal Falls immersion.
"... no..." he croaked in terror, with wizened flesh refusing to move any further than a matter of inches as the water lapped around him. He tried to push away from that liquid surface, but the water swirled thickly around him. Panic, primal and instinctive, flowed through him and he strove for strength as the water climbed rapidly, flailing in terror of drowning, the harsh rasps of his breathing and inadvertent cries sounding like a child shrieking in a swimming pool... strange reverberating echoes clamouring in his ears as he splashed frantically.
"I cannot bear to watch this." Delphine turned away, her expression one of empathetic pain.
"I do not understand." Corcus shook his head in confusion. "This reaction is... extreme."
"Corcus, Humans are an air-breathing race. This is like... being slowly exposed to space for him." Cestro tried to explain, trying to find an equivalent for the aquatic race that lived and breathed successfully in both water and air.
The Aquitian Ranger looked horrified, his hands arranging themselves unconsciously in the hand sign of 'dawning horror'. "But he... consented to this treatment?"
"It was his design," Delphine confirmed. "But the best intentions and knowledge cannot purge millions of years of evolutionary instinct."
Billy's terror-fuelled strength waned. He felt beaten, defeated, but he just did not have the strength to win this battle. Story of his life. The water was a foe that he could not outsmart, and he was too weak to survive. He sank into the filled chamber, the last rainbows of bubbles bleeding from his mouth and nose. His chest burned with the need to inhale, growing and growing despite the urgent instructions of his mind not to inhale that death ... growing until it was the only thought in his head and try as he might he could not suppress the spasmodic breath he craved.
Viscous water poured down his throat like molten rock, making him try and scream spasmodically as his primal mind registered Death! last breath ... death ... He floated in the water in a twitching certainty of the dregs of his mortality and then...
He didn't die.
He wasn't breathing, but he wasn't dead. He floated in the blood-warm water, suspended like a specimen in a jar, too emotionally shocked to move.
I am alive. God, that was bad. He tried to think of something that was worse and... failed. So much for facing death with dignity. Whimpering like a little kid. Jason wouldn't do that ... or Tommy ... would they?
What did it matter? It was too much to bear and none of them were around, were they? Why had they DONE this to him... why had the Aquitians and his friends just not let him die in peace? Some perverse satisfaction of seeing how far they could push him before he snapped?
"How long is the treatment?" Cestro looked at the floating form that had twitched a little as the blond hair floated like an aura of gold around the Human's head.
"To begin with, thirty Aquitian hours. Then a break of five hours, and then again." Delphine replied quietly, trying not to meet the eyes of any of the others. "Then we will begin the addition of the Blue Power to try and purge him of anti-protons."
Cestro looked distraught. "But ... someone without the Power being jolted by the energy will be harmed ... possibly killed," he protested.
"Yes." Delphine answered, looking at her teammate steadily, knowing that the gentle Blue Ranger was going to wrestle with this choice in the silence of his own meditations. "He knows. It is based on Earth methods that take a deliberate chance that the treatment kills the problem before they kill the patient. There is a chance he might make it."
"A strong chance?" Aurico asked, watching the floating human with wide eyes.
Delphine hesitated and then said softly, without looking at any of them.
There was no answer save silence to that.
He fought them, of course, as he grew stronger. The days and nights had ceased to exist, having been replaced with stronger and more immediate cycles of pain and terror. The treatments were stabilising his condition little by little, at least externally. Billy appeared to be his original age on the surface, but inside, the cells still fluxed sporadically, causing strange symptoms, from mild pains to agonising collapse without warning. There were also horrible spontaneous relapses where his body turned on him and tied him up in knots, with such force that bones cracked under the pressure.
Billy's existence was one of initially being locked in a room, and curling up in a foetal position, hiding as far from THEM as possible, or the brief sharp fangs of terror as the Aquitian's took him anyway and made him submit to the treatment despite his pleas for mercy. From his perspective, he was a prisoner, helpless against jailers who tortured him continuously. All the sandy haired ex-ranger could think of was escape, though it was with a crushing certainty that he realised he had nowhere to escape to anymore. His "captors" removed anything he could hurt himself with, just in case. Billy tried to make them STOP the treatments over and over, but they wouldn't, no matter what he said or did. Somewhere along the line he had apparently told them to ignore his protestations, and he cursed his own foresight and cleverness.
He said terrible things... things he didn't want to remember he was even capable of snarling at them, becoming somehow less than Human in his suffering. That Other Wolf within him fed on his distress and grew strong in his heart as he blamed the Aquitians, as he blamed his friends. Billy blamed them for everything he suffered, that he could not escape, for everything he had to endure. Blamed them for knowing him, blamed them for making him a Ranger. Blamed them for making him an ex-Ranger. Cursed them in his soul for being the reason he had decided to try and live that and to prove Zordon's words wrong.
Time and time again, when Billy lay there, heaving up the water in his lungs to take that incomparable breath of life into his system once more, the cool hand that steadied him was Cestria's. That touch, how he needed that contact... sometimes it was the only thing that stopped him from going completely insane. The quiet voice and a kind touch, and he was gentled from a wild beast to an exhausted, hurting Human...
Aquitians didn't touch as a part of their society. He was not immune to its impact in a world where an individual's space was sacrosanct and even his natural reticence to contact was, by comparison, an unacceptable level of intimacy. Yet Cestria touched him. She made contact and tried to understand. She even held him on those occasions when he completely lost it, driving the Aquitian Rangers away with vitriolic hatred flashing in his green eyes. It seemed that there was nothing he could say or do that would drive her from him, and a tiny spark inside flickered eagerly into a flame. These were the things he craved, like air to survive, and seemed lacking here in this prison of a water world. Come to think of it, lacking on Earth and in his life in general. Billy longed to see her, rescuer to his role as victim the both of them against all his persecutors, and it was that desperate hope that drew him back from an abyss of insanity to a more stable lucidity.
When his thoughts cleared a little those angry wounded feelings remained, his Wolf Within gnawing on the bones of long dead resentments. The fact was, they did not seem to CARE what had happened to him. That was who everyone else had become to Billy; "they", "them", "other". Him on one side, the vastness of a cold unfeeling cruel universe on the other, that was how it felt despite all of his rationalisation and logic.
The call, when it came, filled Billy with curious fear and dread. It had had been left too long and as such contained the anxiety of explaining yourself at the very least. The well-rehearsed excuses that marshalled in his mind from the sublime to the ridiculous, boiled in a seething mass of anxiety as he heard those familiar voices ask after him. The ex-Ranger dared not show himself as he really was. He looked ... he looked like someone who had been tortured continuously. From Billy's perspective this was not far from the truth. It crossed his mind sometimes that if Rita, Zedd or any of the villains had captured him instead at least he wouldn't be expected to be GRATEFUL for what they were doing to him. Drawn and haggard, lines of pain etched into his expression ... if they saw that, they would come immediately and they would see what? A wreck of who he used to be.
Isn't that what you want? Don't tell me that you wouldn't like to see them stricken with remorse, horrified by what had happened? a dark thought rose from the depths of his mind.
Yes! No... no ... they mustn't pity me. I can't bear any more pity. They don't care enough to come for me, anyway, it is best I am alone... I will hurt them if they come for me...
But he thought back to all the lonely nights where the water he had been immersed in had been his own silent tears, wrapped in his own pain and Billy could not deny that there was a part of him that hungered to let them know the truth, to hurt or to heal his chaotic feelings could not fathom.
The Other Wolf called from that centre of bitterness within him, to shout in anger at what his friends had let happen, at their neglect, their insensitivity, to rend what was left of the fragile bond between them all into shreds. A mad wild instinct to just destroy and give in to the destructive impulse. So what if it destroyed them? SO WHAT?!
It was that ... the threat to that last hope of their friendship that swayed him from a vindictive torrent of remonstration. How bright his cobweb bond to them was ... even if it was crafted only of dreams and strung with wishes and shining deluded memories. Even so it was still a thing of wonder and beauty in the darkness he was trapped in.
And so... when Billy opened his mouth to speak, he spun them a dream of their own. An answer of lies that they would want to hear, and a wannabe truth of his own when he said he wanted to stay with Cestria. He did.
"I've found someone I can truly relate to" was not a lie when he said it, though the Billy they saw was a holographic shell, a fabricated husk of falsehood designed to encapsulate the bitter seed of truth at its heart.
So why did it hurt so much? Why was he disappointed when they accepted the happy lie? Why of all times, after everything he had been through, after the times he cursed Zordon and all his manipulations, recognising them for what they were, could he not break FREE of that and just TELL them?. But the nagging feeling that Zordon was right and he would destroy them with his own weakness was enough to hold his tongue.
The conflict caused Billy to double over in a seizure that robbed him of voice and breath as Cestria hurriedly covered for him with a spontaneous line of her own. "He's so happy, he's speechless."
For crying out loud, surely they would get suspicious? A secret hope flared which flickered and died as their cheerful voices bid him farewell as he was out of sight, doubled over, unable to speak even as he reached out, entreating another chance.
He hated them. Billy hated their fishy faces and clammy touch when they could bring themselves to touch him at all... he hated that they forced him to live, that they tortured him daily, incessantly, with their 'cure'! Only Cestria out of all of them was any good. Cestria who talked to him, listened to him and empathised with his pain with genuine emotion and none of these ritualised hand motions that made a mockery out of feelings and pain. She was different, she was special ... she was special to him at least. A solitary, sympathetic person in the universe, who saw his plight and felt with him.
He dared to hope that she actually cared for him in some small way. That had to be the case, didn't it? She came to him when he hurt the most and soothed him. She listened to his resentment and his anger about the others, about how he was taken for granted, and he felt like he was actually heard. He did everything she asked of him... even going on with the hated sessions, being drowned in the Eternal Falls water, of being tortured by the blasting of Blue Energy when his muscles convulsed so much he had broken bones in the past. He did all that for her. She was his focus. Where the others had drawn away from his instinctive lashing out, she had drawn closer and stilled his anger with her compassion.
Billy sat in his room and looked at the picture of her he had, standing in front of his picture of his friends from Earth. The irony. Was she protecting him from them... or them from him? The imagery flew through his head. Maybe ... maybe she would become the one? That wouldn't be strange, would it? Not for him. No-one on Earth, not even his closest friends, had understood him; that much was obvious. She had come the closest out of everyone, and that was irony for you. The ex-ranger said that forcefully to himself. He replayed their meeting that day over and over for signs of affection and more, trying to twist every nuance to his wishful needs to feed that hunger for affection inside...
"How are you feeling today, Billy?" she had said as she met him in his room after another painful session.
"Fine," he replied automatically and then caught that familiar tilt of her head and flush to her head ridges he had learnt to interpret as a mild reproof. "Okay, okay... truthfully? Lousy," he admitted with a faint smile. Strange how the muscles required for a smile seemed to be straining as if it was an unfamiliar action.
"That's better." Cestria smiled in response. "What is troubling you?" and she leant forward, tilting her head to listen.
"It's nothing you haven't heard before," Billy replied wryly, sitting carefully across from her.
"If it still troubles you, then it bears being heard again." The Aquitian looked him in the eye. "I am here for you, Billy."
She is here for me ... for ever? Or just now? Or as a friend or more? His mind whirled.
"I know... believe me, I don't think you know how much that means to me." Billy sighed. "Sometimes I wonder if it is just you that keeps me going. Not like I get any help from anyone else," he finished a little bitterly.
"Why do you say that?" Cestria frowned. "Is there someone upsetting you? Or something?"
"Just the usual torture," Billy tried to say flippantly. "Just the usual worthless attempts to cure the incurable."
It hurt him in a way that she did not argue with that, but instead asked with infinite patience, "Is this about your friends from Earth once again?"
"I don't see the point if there is nothing for me to live for!" Billy responded, evading her question but throwing out a hook of his own.
Yes, Cestria ... tell me there is? I might be able to fight this if I have a reason to live ... you! It is hard now to remember why I agreed to this. It is hard to remember that there was something strong enough in me, a pride, an anger, a love maybe that could force me to face all of this. He looked into her eyes, begging her to read that into his words and answer with what he wanted to hear. But this time was no different to any other time.
"That reason exists in yourself, Billy, not in others," Cestria answered patiently.
"No, you are wrong!" Like a tidal wave the familiar surge of anger came out, unstoppable. "I lived for them. They were my life. Everything I did, I did for them. Everything I gave up, I did for them. They were ALL I HAD!" Billy's voice shook and the pain began in his stomach again. "But I obviously mean nothing to them. Maybe I never did. Or to anyone else." He looked at his hands intently.
"It may be prudent to point out that they do not know of your state of health," Cestria said placatingly. "Can you judge them against something of which they are ignorant?"
Billy immediately felt the rebuke and reacted defensively. "It has been a YEAR... a year, Cestria! They haven't even called to say hello since that one time. And Zordon... Well, Zordon has his Duty after all, which is much more important than the well-being of an ex-Ranger who he doubts should ever have held the Power in the first place." Billy had gone past the stage of making excuses for them all. There had been a time when he imagined that they had this crisis to deal with, and that crisis and when they were settled they would call and maybe then... but a year was a long time to let any type of relationship drift.
Cestria looked down, unable to answer those facts. "The Rangers of Aquitar are tending to your needs."
"Hmm, yes, with nice scientific precision," Billy said, sharper than he intended and saw her flinch back.
"I am sorry... not you, Cestria!" he soothed hurriedly. "You understand me, you are not ... cold and unfeeling like them."
If Billy had been looking at her face in that moment, he would have seen hurt in her eyes at that statement. He was talking about her friends, her family and criticising and demeaning their efforts for him, but she struggled to find her point of equilibrium.
"I... am glad you feel that way about me," Cestria said, evading the other comments. "It is important that you know you have support." The Aquitian looked uncomfortable. "Perhaps if you wish to elicit more support from the others, you might consider being... less hostile."
Billy paused, not totally oblivious to what he was saying, but thinking he had a valid point and reason to be angry. "Forgive me, Cestria, but it's hard to regard people giving you excruciating pain and fear on a daily basis without some hostility." His voice dripped sarcasm.
"I am sorry you feel that way." Cestria replied quietly.
"Haven't really got a reason to feel any other way." Billy sighed, feeling melancholy and alone and without a glimmer of true understanding. Cestria was trying to understand but she couldn't comprehend the depths of fear that he experienced... but she was at least trying to do so. He sighed once more. "But if it makes you feel better, I will try and be more polite."
"Any efforts are appreciated, William." Cestria said calmly. "I must go now, I am expected on the Power Island. You rest well ..." and she got up and smiled at him.
"I will, Cestria, for you." And he gave another pale, fragile smile as she turned and left him.
Billy was overcome with a need to see her again. It was inexplicable, but a panic seized him of being alone, as it often did in his solitude and this time he felt he had grown close enough that there was SOMEONE to go to in his need. Even though he wasn't meant to leave his room, the invalid made his unsteady way to Cestria's quarters. He must have his days and nights mixed up again. Long-time suspension in the Goldfish Bowl, as he had taken to calling it, screwed up his time sense. The door appeared open and he needed to sit down. He'd been an idiot to think he could go this far and not be affected by the exertion. Cramps and sweats. Well, that was nice.
"Cestria? Please? I need to... I need to sit down? Can I come in?" Billy shuddered at a wave of cramps, not really having a choice well, aside from collapsing in the corridor. All things considered, it would be better in her place where she could help him. "I'm coming in..." he entered and headed for somewhere to sit and get his breath back.
Well, it was obvious she wasn't home. Looks like she left in a hurry... maybe she'll be back, he thought hopefully. Not like he could actually GO anywhere until the seizure passed, so here he would stay until he could straighten up. He glanced around at the work up on the screen and caught sight of his name in among the Aquitian language.
Drawn like a moth to a flame, he turned to read more, picking over his translation of Aquitian, going absolutely still as his eyes ran over the report. After a long time he scrolled back, and back ... over a long, long case history. The writing was like a horrific accident - he didn't want to see, he didn't want to know, but he couldn't look away, either.
"Displacement anger directed towards people assisting him probably due to a fear that the process will fail. I remain as the focus of his positive emotions, as the perceived abandonment by his friends intensifies. A suggestion comes to mind that he sees this as the ultimate failure of himself that he cannot repair himself where he was used to 'fixing' everything. This lack of control has affected his judgement and displaced his fear and anger at people he perceives might be disappointed in him," he muttered aloud.
There - his pain all wrapped up neatly in little words, made small by their encapsulation. Sickened, he read on.
"I grow more concerned about his dependency upon me. I feel concern and care for his well-being, but I suspect that he feels more. On a personal note, I find it hard to hear him talk of those I love and Shoal with as hostile, cruel creatures. Especially when I have seen the suffering that my ... favoured one? Beloved? ... Cestro endures as a result of his participation. I have gently tried to encourage him to consider that his condition affects more than himself." Billy paused, the knife twisting in him having nothing to do with his physical condition.
"Selfish ... that's basically it, isn't it, Cestria? That's what you are trying to say ..." He took in a shuddering breath as he continued to read.
"However, in his situation it is unrealistic to expect him to put aside his own anguish and fear to consider effects. The position becomes more detrimental as the forces laying siege to Aquitar are growing and the strain on the Ranger team has become great, both physically and emotionally..." Billy paused, blinking in confusion. "What forces?"
He read on, skimming bits and looking through, chilled and shocked and not really taking in what he was reading. Had he really been that self-absorbed? So wrapped up in his own pity cycle that he had not KNOWN of a planetary war?
He had seen enough... his world... no, their world was crashing down around his ears. He got up ... and left. Fleeing from those truths as he recognised them for what they were.
The trip back to his quarters seemed an impossible distance as his mind tossed and turned over what he had read.
The facts were there. She didn't love him. A foolish infatuation. A reaching out for some love and mistaking a little warmth for the sun. Stupidity. Why would she want him, anyway? Someone who was likely to die, who was inherently so self-absorbed and selfish that he could not see how others around him were hurting? Not only that, someone so blinded by his own self-interest that he had not known of a planetary war?
"Zordon was right... I'm destroying the Power Rangers more effectively than any villain. Except it's not the Power Rangers of Earth that I am destroying. Oh God." Billy felt like his world was spinning. Protect one ... hurt another. What had he DONE?! A whole world in peril because of his childish, immature attention-seeking! As Zordon had predicted ...
He collapsed on his bed, distraught and his chest heaving. Fragile hopes had melted away. The strength he had drawn from dreams was pulled from him, leaving him empty again. He had prided himself on not hurting anyone, and yet he was doing it every day ... he had to stop that. Anger boiled up, mixed in with the self- recrimination So he could not be blamed for his inability? He could damn well blame himself ... and change it.
Round and around these thoughts went, taking all his strength in their internal cycle of self- blame. The time came for his next treatment and when they came for him, he was lying unmoving on his bed, his eyes open, but glassy and opaque like the water of the ocean before a storm. He did not struggle, he did not hurl abuse or barbed comments, he did not even speak. The ex-Ranger had to be half-carried, silent and passive as if unaware of their presence to his appointed session and Delphine and Cestro exchanged very worried looked. They were even more worried when they filled the Goldfish Bowl that for the first time in a year he just lay there as if too weak or hurt to move as the water enveloped him; there was no frantic struggle, just a few convulsive movements. There were no resentful looks, no cutting remarks, no hostility. He just lay in the water and took the shocks of the Blue Power in a reflexive spasm and then... nothing. It would almost have been a relief to the Aquitians; apart from the fact that it was a welcome change there was something about the Human's stillness that was ultimately very disturbing. It did not seem normal and Cestria was very concerned that he appeared to have had a complete emotional collapse, yet she did not know what might have caused it.
Three days it lasted. Three days of silence and passivity, of the dead look in his eyes, eyes that had once been filled with quickness and life and a burning intelligence.
They put him back in his quarters still semi-catatonic, so it was with great surprise that they actually had a call from Billy the following day to meet him in the Chamber. Last they had seen the ex-Ranger, he had been lying in a heap, not speaking or even acknowledging anyone's existence.
Confused, they made their way there, to find him working at a console. He'd made an effort to dress properly, to comb back his hair in short, to try and appear as normal as possible though the clothes hung off his painfully thin frame.
"Hi." He gave them a smile which it hurt him to see how shocked they were by that. Was he that bad? "I, er... I made some schematics to help the, er..treatment process. I hope you don't mind." He called up a three-dimensional diagram of an X-frame that rotated on a computer model.
Delphine frowned. "I do not see the purpose of such a device?" she asked, looking at the others to see if they were aware of something that she might be missing.
"It is a ... restraining system. Once inside, I can be locked down and will not be able to fight the Eternal Falls treatment." Billy looked around at them all, his green eyes clear of anger and resentment now.
The Aquitians gave a simultaneous blink that Billy found for some reason hilarious and tried desperately to surpress the bubbling emotion of hysterical laughter.
"You are proposing that we restrain you? Tie you down?" Corcus asked, again blinking rapidly with amazement.
"Essentially, yes. " Billy paused, taking a deep breath. Apologies were hard and ones that needed to go this deep made words seem inadequate. "I am sorry it has taken me this long to realise that I am distressing you as much as it distresses me by fighting my drowning instinct. This should solve that issue. Instinct or not, I cannot struggle. The immersion will take place more rapidly and the reflex conquered that much sooner."
The Aquitians looked at each other, a little taken back by this. Imprison a free sentient creature? That was abhorrent, but this was with his consent and he seemed lucid and rational. More lucid and rational than he had been for a long time, truth be told.
Aurico nodded. "It is logical. It was our thought, though, that Humans do not respond well to being restrained or incarcerated?"
"Well..." No we don't ... I'm going to hate it almost more, the water rising and not being able to move or flee... "Not so bad if for a good cause." He gave them a half-truth.
Billy looked at Cestro. "And I think you are overdue an apology for my behaviour," he said quietly. "I am sorry, Cestro... I lashed out. I know you don't mean to hurt me, whatever I might have said. I hope you can forgive me, because there are no excuses for behaving the way I have done to everyone."
Cestro's face seemed suddenly lifted of a great strain. "I am glad to hear this. You truly do not feel negatively towards me?" he sought reassurance again.
Billy made an Aquitian emotion sign with his hand and meant it. A simple movement known as Truth of the Heart that signified a deep truth and rarely used beyond the immediate Shoal of Aquitian family members. The very use of the sign demonstrated great love and affection and Cestro was visibly stunned before bowing in acknowledgement. "Thank you, Billy."
The ill ex-Ranger bowed in return and smiled, finding the customary role of concealing his pain and distress slipping over onto him like a comfortable old set of clothing, well worn and familiar.
"Now... whilst I've been wrapped up in my own little hel... world, I understand there have been things going on that I have been ignorant of. I would like to help you defend Aquitar. It is ... my home now, too." Billy said. For the rest of my life, one way or another, he added in his thoughts.
The Aquitians responded with a degree of excitement unusual for them. Having Billy on their side, it would help them. The ex-blue Ranger of Earth? Lending them his knowledge? They had not felt they could ask before, not with him the way he was and trying to push himself at a distance from them all, but they could use any help they could get.
"Any assistance you could give us would be most welcome," Cestro said with enthusiasm in his voice. The others offered their agreement, more positive about their patient than they had been for a long time.
The eager reaction actually seemed to help. Feeling needed again was a payment of sorts, giving him a purpose as well as expiation of his debts to them all. They would suffer no more guilt over him when all they were trying to do was help. In fact, if he could avoid it they would not be regarding him as a patient at all, but as a team mate. He needed that contact, that feeling of being worth SOMETHING.
The first use of the frame had taken all his courage to face. To strip virtually naked and step into the metal's grip voluntarily ... Hearing and feeling the snick of the clamps as they snaked around him, trapping him inside an unbreakable grip, Then the tingling viscous water, flooding in, creeping up his shivering body, up his chest, crawling up his exposed throat and eventually his mouth... and nose...
Holding his breath... longer than he would have believed, panic making him thrash in the restraints, the final despairing underwater scream allowing the burning liquid into his lungs as his body heaved, trying to expel the liquid but unable to do so. Then the strange, tired lethargy that seemed to settle onto him after the emotional exhaustion of such fear, as his body did not die... but faded into acceptance of this violation of his lungs and very self. It was familiar now, this ordeal and horror repeated over and over could be blunted in its traumatic effects. This time, instead of dwelling on the pains and changes, he began thinking through some of the problems the Aquitians had given him. It shocked him how slow his thoughts seemed to be, as if they were out of practice, but he had no other distractions save the paralysing bolt of the Blue Power that coursed through him from Cestro; by the time it was all over he managed to come up with some minor solutions. As the Water of the Eternal Falls drained away, he went through the now familiar painful vomiting of the fluid filling his lungs and fell out of the frame to the smooth floor below.
Delphine and Cestro hurried in, looking anxious, so he forced a smile and then turned. "Thanks ... could you give me a hand? I had a few ideas for you... and I don't want to lose them."
"Of course, Billy. How was the experience?" The White Alien Ranger asked concernedly.
He paused before saying "Much more satisfactory" in a neutral tone. "Now about this matter/energy flow problem in the Zords ... I think you are only reaching seventy per cent capacity because you have a leakage problem. You have to tweak the Grid energies ... happened to us on a regular basis after bad battles. Let's not even go into what Dragonzord was like ..." Billy successfully distracted them.
Cestro frowned a little, but he did not want to lose track of this information. "You think that will improve our Power output?"
"Definitely. Up to around 95% if we are careful." Billy replied, the use of "we" tasting and feeling unfamiliar on his tongue, but like the taste of chocolate after a long period of abstinence. He ignored the protests of that Other Wolf inside, cursing him for a fool for making himself so vulnerable again and then fell to feeding on the lies he intended to use as he had on Earth. He was fine, there was nothing wrong, he was needed... at least to repair the damage he had done. He had to hang on long enough to achieve that at least. As he spouted technical information as if nothing was wrong he made that private vow. Stay long enough to pay off his debt of harm... and then finally let go.
The ex-Blue Earth Power Ranger sat outside, looking across the alien ocean, cherishing the touch of the fresh breeze on his face. It was rare that he was allowed to venture into the open, and even rarer that it was unescorted. But he had promised faithfully that he wasn't going to exert himself, not that he could have even attempted to do so. Sometimes his sense of inner isolation demanded he surround himself with a protective cloak of distance, and there was a limit how far he could go in the Power Island's dome to escape. He masked how hard it was now since his loss of hope; it was strange, but it was easier to try and hide than it was to be angry now. He even was too tired to hate them anymore. His outward appearance had shifted close enough to normal to make him look young and vulnerable, but his internal structure was still in flux; and his eyes... his eyes, when he looked in the mirror, he didn't recognise anymore.
Billy shook his head, savouring the alien sunlight on his face... pale and drawn and upturned to the unfamiliar sky. The simplest effort exhausted him, but he had made it here, to sit on the craggy rocks overlooking that endless ocean. The setting sun dipped downwards, flinging stars across the wave tops, letting them rest there, gathering strength before they had to ascend to adorn the night sky. It was sights like this he had failed to value in the past, as he should have done. It was the wonder of simple experiences, of the feeling of sitting with his friends enveloped by that intangible, unquantifiable sensation he had prized above his own safety. The sensation that sprang not from near-death battles and mayhem, but from life ... playing water balloons on a summer day in the park. The simple triumphs of them congratulating each other in normal achievements. A good mark on a test, a mastered kata, baking a successful cake, a cool move on blades in the park .The smell of Rocky's mother's home-cooked chili when they went round to dinner. Knowing they were there, always there.
Until you pushed them away from your life.
A single and profound regret. Billy's head bowed in acknowledgement of his failure. When he made a mistake it was a big one, an unforgivable one. And now he was too tired to run or hide from the words in his own mind.
This is why you are alone.
You forbade them entry to your pain and locked them out of your life. Small wonder then they could not rescue you from yourself. Accept that responsibility. Your hurt is self-inflicted.
A white wolf seemed to be dancing in the shining waves..
Accept you still love them even though you are alone.
The wolf-shape was closer, bounding towards him in the crest of waves and shimmer of sea stars.The ocean was a mass of midnight blue and dazzling light.
Did you love only so they would love in return?
The dazzle blurred in moisture-filled eyes.
Selfish. Wolf eyes stared at him from Within.
You cannot buy love, not even with love. You cannot MAKE them love you, they would do that anyway. Resenting them for not living up to a bargain, a payment of love... is unfair. Is a tragedy of expectation. Can you say I give you this much love and I expect this much in return? Is it a thing to be bartered?
It is the feeling inside ... it is what loving another does to you that is the genuine miracle and glory ... it is what it makes of you. As resentment and hatred of others twist you into ugliness and bitter cold emptiness. It is not the good in them that you should believe in, it is the good in yourself.
Forgive them the wrongs you have given to them without their knowledge and brighten yourself by loving them again...
But will they forgive me?
Not something you can answer, Wolf Inside, is it? Though OtherWolf says Never Forgive .
And if you can't forgive yourself, then you have no right to even dream they will forgive you... time to let go. Let go of them all.
"Goodbye... Goodbye, all of you... I will always love you ..." he said aloud as darkness fell, knowing that they were gone now and he had accepted he would be alone from now on. And both wolves vanished from his mind's sight.
Their gruelling schedule of development made only one concession to events outside the here and now of trying to save Aquitar from the increasing attack. A birthday celebration for Billy. A rather unexpected birthday, if Billy would admit that to himself. His last birthday had passed unnoticed in a morass of depression and treatment, and he certainly had not expected to see another. It could be seen as a triumph of sorts that he had made it this far. Billy had had to smile wryly at the Aquitians' efforts to be... jolly. He appreciated it, but they did 'dignified' so much better. Still, the cake they manufactured was a convincing replica of a real chocolate cream cake as long as he ignored the fact he knew it had been synthesised from seaweed and bioform algae. It tasted fine, even if his system could only tolerate a minute amount compared to his old appetite. It was enough to taste and appreciate their effort.
And of course he had understood when the alarms went off and they had had to rush out to defend Aquitar. How many times had that happened at home? No... no not home ... on Earth. The former Ranger grimaced to himself. Despite him not holding onto his anger at the unfairness of it all, he still missed them. Tied not even by hate, but just by a wishful memory of what might have been as he celebrated his unexpected birthday alone and in solitude. He wished he could give himself the gift of forgetting all of it so he could have peace, but they were too much a part of him. Every now and then he wondered if they thought of him at all, if he ever figured in their thoughts. Maybe not. Probably best if they had forgotten him anyway.
He looked up and was surprised to see Cestro. "Hi..." he said, not expecting the return of the Aquitian Rangers here.
"You have not retired?" Cestro asked, concerned. "It was a long battle. We thought you would be resting by now."
Billy shrugged slightly, turning over the holographic cube they had given him as a present. A compilation of Earth news and programs. "No..." he replied awkwardly. "No ... I wasn't ready and I wanted to make sure you were all safe." His voice was quiet.
Cestro looked worried. "Is everything alright, Billy?" he asked, feeling a little uncomfortable for posing such a question. Personal inquiries of this kind were just not done on Aquitar.
"I'm fine," Billy said automatically. Another twirl of the holographic cube. "I was just thinking about ho- Earth."
"Your friends," Cestro stated.
Billy nodded focusing on the cube so he wouldn't have to look at the Ranger.
"You could call them." Cestro suggested
"You know the Power Island cannot spare the energy for that." Billy declined swiftly.
"You COULD call them," Cestro repeated with more emphasis. "If it would make you happy. We could find a way."
Billy shook his head slowly. "I can't, Cestro. I can't ... really... I can't face them. Zordon ..." his throat tightened as angry feelings rose up. "Zordon saw me as a detriment to them all... a way of destroying them. "
Cestro was very puzzled. "How? I do not understand."
So Billy explained in a low voice about Zordon's words, feeling pleased that he could talk about it now without the hurt overwhelming him. A clinical recitation that explained the logic behind Zordon's manipulations that he had figured through for himself.
"Do you understand?" Billy asked finally. "I've let them go ... I had to, to protect them as Zordon said. They have their own lives now. It's a sad thing not to be included, but that sadness is only noticeable, only becomes a problem when that outsider tries to force their way back in."
"Billy ..." Cestro began.
"It may have happened, anyway.." Billy went on inexorably. "I was ... clinging to them once I lost the Powers. Realistically, what did I share in common interests with them? Chances are we would have drifted apart anyway."
No ... it still didn't sound convincing. The words were flat. There were some friends who weren't just a part of your life, they became a part of YOU and to let go of them would involve tearing yourself to pieces. Which of course he realised he had tried to do and probably caused himself a great deal of the pain he had suffered. Physical pain he experienced, but he found he could deal with that. Emotions ... well, emotions had always been his weak point.
Cestro was unconvinced. "If you are that convinced, then there is no reason to not contact them."
"No!" Billy responded immediately. "God, Cestro, I'm sorry I don't know about this myself," he said truthfully. "I can't explain why. Maybe because something left unsaid for too long is a like a wall that grows in secret and each moment adds another stone of silence, one after another." Billy sighed. "Do you understand? Too much time has passed ... and for whatever reason, whether I would be a danger to them, or whether I just don't have the courage to risk being a stranger to them, I can't do it."
How painful would that be? The last birthday he remembered had been with all of them and a party at Ernie's. Playful teasing and hugs. Presents serious and silly. Jason trying to teach him to dance and then heckling him from the side lines as he attempted to follow instructions with Kat.
He smiled faintly. Living in the past, Billy boy, because you have no future. A sudden burst of cramps hit him unexpectedly and he clutched at his side.
"Billy? Are you in pain?" Cestro asked, steadying him gently.
"Just... a little, Cestro." Billy managed in a controlled voice. "It's... not too bad ... nothing to worry about." His breathing hitched and stuttered, trying to find a way around that agony.
"I think you should rest," Cestro replied, looking even more concerned. They were not used to lies and concealment, but he had begun to realise that maybe things were not as fine as Billy was telling them.
"There is much to do," Billy protested.
"You will sleep now." Cestro ordered implacably, helping him. He weighed so little, it came as a surprise as he practically lifted the Human effortlessly and took him to Billy's quarters.
Billy lay down on the bed, a little surprised himself at the personal attention. He had done everything in this power to disguise his weakness and how he felt, and it was working. But maybe another Blue Ranger knew the tricks of an ex-Blue Ranger.
"Thank ... thank you, Cestro," Billy stammered and seized by an impulse, took the Aquitian's hand in his, feeling oddly emotional. "For everything."
Cestro looked surprised, then moved. "You ... thank me? After all the pain I have had to cause you?"
Billy smiled, his face pale but composed. "Yes ... you have a great deal of strength, my friend. I ask a great deal of you ... and you get nothing from it save hurt to yourself."
He remembered the words he'd seen on Cestria's report and closed his eyes a moment. "You are a credit to the Power and ... if occasionally I am not strong enough to thank you for what you do, I want you to remember this now ... for you and the others. I am truly grateful for what you have tried to do for me, even if I was so trapped in myself before that I was ... so... venomous before." He sighed.
Cestro appeared astounded. "It was not held against you, Billy. And whatever Zordon may have said in the past, I do know that he held the greatest respect and affection for you."
Billy sighed and gave a slight smile as he settled back against his pillow, putting the cube in front of his picture of them all together where it would remain, unviewed and untouched. "Things change, Cestro... and so do people."
"How is his progress?" Billy heard the whispered voice as he seemingly lay slumped over the console, stirring from a half- sleep. He assumed they were talking about the planetary defence system; they were trying to stop a final incursion of the Barox seizing Aquitar. So far they had nothing that could defend against an invasion force like that which their intelligence probes were reporting and were all desperately seeking answers before time ran out for the Rangers and Aquitar itself. Billy pushed himself along with all of them, encouraging them to ignore his illness as much as possible. Indeed, it seemed like it was an inconvenience to the Aquitians to stop and break so he could have his immersion time. At the moment however, he was too tired to move, though... just a little more rest, then he would work again.
"Not good," another voice whispered. "It's just not stabilising."
The ionic shield? Of course it wasn't, the idea was inherently impractical... When he showed them the analysis, they would all concur with his findings and abandon the whole idea.
"How much time does he have left?"
Now those were no ordinary defence discussions. His breathing stilled almost to nothing as he listened.
"Realistically, I do not know how he is still living now, but at the current rate of organic flux... 2 Aquitian months at the most." Delphine's voice sounded sorrowful.
"By the Power... I can't believe it!" Cestro's whisper protested. "Not after all this! Why do you not tell him?"
"Shush... he sleeps," the White Ranger cautioned. "Cestro, you know as well as I that we will all be lucky to survive the next attack wave. The Barox have amassed a veritable fleet to take down our base of Power. If what the Phantom Ranger reports is true, they are sending one of Dark Spectre's Planet Destroyers. We will fight... and Aquitar will die... why give him an additional burden?"
Billy's insides had frozen with shock. So. This was how you found out that you really were going to die. There was a sudden sense of precious seconds trickling away through his grasping, desperate fingers.
"You mean you need him functional just in case he can provide an answer for us... and as a reward afterwards you will tell him that he has only a couple of weeks to live?" Cestro accused, his voice sounding bitter.
There was a moment's silence. "That was uncalled for, Cestro."
"Deny it then," the Blue Ranger of Aquitar challenged.
Delphine's response was one of heavy, tormented silence. "It is my decision not to tell him," she said with finality. "For the good of Aquitar we cannot let the considerations of an individual affect our Duty."
Ah. Sacrificed to Duty again. Billy found himself curiously empty of resentment or even surprise.
"I object," Cestro replied.
"Noted." Delphine replied clinically. "But the decision stands."
Another pause as Cestro fought against his conscience. "As you command, White Ranger," he said with stiff formality. "I will see you at the next briefing."
Footsteps disappeared and Billy wondered whether to end the whole farce until he heard the soft sounds of someone crying in the room. An Aquitian crying?
But it was unmistakable. Quiet muffled sounds of sorrow, the sort he was familiar with from personal experience.
"I'm sorry..." came a barely audible whisper. "So sorry..." There was the sound of a deep breath being taken as if to calm nerves and her presence also left the room.
Billy lay there a moment longer and then let out a long sigh... and even he wasn't sure if it was relief or sorrow. Maybe both; life hurt and he wanted the pain to end, but there was a sweetness in being needed once more. And now ... he was up against a deadline, and as they all knew that was when he did his best work. Maybe now that was all he had left to give back before he could see that vow fulfilled.
Billy shook, trembling in every limb. He was so tired now. The boom of
explosions rocked the base and they had little time for him now ... Could
he blame them? Their entire world was in peril of imminent destruction.
He sat looking up at the holo he had on the wall... one he had constructed
of Earth, of his friends. It would make no difference. He may not be feeding
the Other Wolf in his mind any longer, but it was still too late to wait
for a miracle. It was a hard and painful realisation. Somehow he had hoped,
just hoped... but there was no hope left, just that knowledge overheard.
So maybe he had weeks now. The Aquitians had less as the final battle
raged around him. And maybe he had never said all the things that should
have said. Tears burned hot and bright in his eyes. So he would never
know what it was to love, so there would be many things undone. He stood
with an aching need to GIVE ... and no-one there to receive that part
of himself. Maybe that was why he had tried so hard to love Cestria, and
failed even in that.
It seemed like he had been a guest at a great party, and had spent his time looking for the one who had invited him there, to give them his most precious gift and now... it was time for him to leave, and he had to go... and that gift would never be given, never be seen. So disappear, go home in the darkness and leave no mark he had been there to start with?
Billy screwed up his eyes and pressed the heels of his palms against them, sending bursts of light across the darkness behind his closed lids.
Or leave the gift with someone else so that they might at least know he thought of them ... and it was not because he was ungrateful, but because circumstances didn't allow them to meet that he had not joined them, found them, spent his life with them.
He gave a tremulous smile. He had hurt the Aquitians enough, and the least he could do was thank them as he was leaving... yes, he had made a promise to himself about that. If he was going to fail by dying as Zordon had claimed, then he would at least try and make it worth SOMETHING.
But first, he could not go without some sort of words, so he fetched the letters he had written in the dark empty nights after he had heard his fate was sealed though he was not meant to know, letters that contained all the things he no longer had the pride or the defences to stop from pouring out of his soul. He watched himself as he typed co-ordinates light years away but so close to him he could practically close his eyes and see them ... touch the familiar furniture ... walk around their rooms like a hungry ghost. Maybe soon he would, at that. A flash of light, and his last messages were sent.
And then his decision made... Billy walked unsteadily to the Alien Shoaling ... and lay down among the recumbent Aquitians and let the telepathic weave drag his mind into its web, despite the knowledge that it would be hastening his death looming large in his thoughts.
The letter materialised on Jason's table as the ex-Ranger came in from work; he was mildly perplexed, not remembering picking it up in the morning. Then he recognised the writing and smiled genuinely with surprise.
"Billy!" He opened the letter with unseemly haste and then, as he began to read, he sat down heavily, drained of colour.
This is a final farewell to you... and everyone. I've been dying ever since I left Earth the first time and I knew it then, but Zordon perceived the knowledge as a possible danger to the team. You don't need to know the details, but I'm so tired now of fighting that going will be a relief, believe me. You don't need to worry about that.
I'm writing to say I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the anger you will feel at not knowing, I'm sorry for lying because at least part of these reasons were due to my own cowardice. It's taken me until nearly the end to face the truth that I had to blame nobody except myself for what I have gone through. It wasn't you or the others that stopped me telling before now, it was me and me alone. I'm sorry for thinking badly of all of you when you didn't deserve it, and expecting a rescue when no-one knew I needed help.
I loved you as my brother, as a friend and I don't think you could ever know how much I needed you just to be there.
If there was one thing I would regret not saying before I go is that I love you and that when it comes down to it, it is the sole purpose of this letter.
Goodbye my friend.
I love you.
And it was that last phrase more than anything that convinced Jason that the letter was serious about its content. It would take the brink of death to force Billy to say those words, to anyone.
The phone rang, startling him. Shaken, Jason picked up the phone and said "Hello..." automatically, his mind too stunned to do anything save by rote.
"Jason... I... just..." it was Kim's voice. "I ..." she burst into tears down the phone, uncontrollable with reaction.
"I know. I got one, too." Which meant they all would. Billy would have been methodical about this. Jason cleared his throat, which was unexpectedly tight and rough.
"It can't be true ... It can't ..." Kim said again, wiping her eyes on her sleeve, muffling her voice slightly on the other end of the line.
Jason wished he could believe that, but Billy's silence seemed so ... logical now. He had wondered, as had they all, why Billy hadn't at least contacted him. Adam had taken his silence as a rejection. Oh God Adam! He never mentioned Billy's name anymore because of his abandoning them... and what would this do to him?
"Jase? " Kim asked again.
"Sorry, I was just ... stunned ... and then I thought of ... Adam," Jason replied slowly.
There was a sharp hitch of breath from over the line. "And Tommy. God ... shit." The moment there was someone else to worry about, Kim found her focus.
"I'll take Adam... you take Tommy and we'll arrange to meet the others in an hour at our table in the park," Jason decided swiftly. Would they know? Bound to, Billy would not misplace a last message.
A last message. No. It couldn't be.
"Jase? I said I'll meet you there?" Kim repeated, now worried about him. They relied on Jason for a point of stability, and this might be enough to topple him, too.
"Right. Right ... in an hour, Kim." Jason muttered, not even knowing what they would do when they were all together, but his immediate instinct was to get them together.
The phone down and the letter in his hand, Jason picked up his coat and then, obeying a sudden urgency, half ran out of the house to his car and broke a few speeding rules to get to Adam and Rocky's stunt business and dojo.
He ignored the crooked shut sign, obviously hastily turned around, and ran up the stairs to where he could hear Rocky's voice raised as if trying to calm someone down and broke into a sprint as he heard a heavy thud against the wall. The door was thrown open and Rocky was propped winded against the wall as Adam paced, anger and distress radiating from his compact form.
It's not true... it's not true... It's not true...
Every pace across the floor stamped out that thought as Jason helped Rocky up.
He was ignored, or Adam couldn't hear for the sound of the thoughts whirling in his mind.
"He just... lost it. He read the letter and lost it," Rocky said, wincing as he straightened. "I can't get him to listen."
"Adam ... listen to me ... just calm down," Jason urged, stepping forward warily.
"Didn't you READ this?" Adam turned on him. "How COULD he!? How could he...!"
Anger. Child and blood relative of denial as their police instructors had taught him. He had heard something he didn't want to hear and the more it conflicted with your view of the way things ARE, the more violent the reaction. Jason stepped forward, his voice soothing. "I had something similar." It was amazing how those professional instincts kicked in.
"I can't deal with this... I can't." Adam shook his head, his eyes wild. "He left us... he abandoned all of us!" he protested, clinging desperately to the one thing that made the pain of not having his friend there bearable. That he wasn't a friend at all.
"And now we know why." Jason said in that same low voice. That guilty seed inside began to stretch out tendrils to crawl from the pit of his stomach. "If you just ..."
Adam froze in an alarming way. "No. I don't want to hear. It's easier to hate him." He said in a quiet voice, his eyes fixed on the shreds of paper on the floor.
"Adam... look, you can't ... " Jason began again.
"Just let me HATE him! " Adam snapped at the former Gold Ranger. "Let me hate him," he repeated quietly over and over as Jason finally got close enough to hold him.
The anger left him filled only by sorrow now and pain as he faced the guilt of hating his friend, wishing him ill all that time, as if somehow his thoughts had become reality and tortured the absent Billy physically.
"I hated him," he mumbled into Jason's shoulder and Rocky joined them to help. "I hated him and now he's..." he gulped down a pain so large it was like a lump burning in his throat.
"It's not fair, I know." Rocky murmured compassionately, knowing perhaps more than most how much Adam had missed his friend and how bitter he had been. "There's nothing to feel guilty about."
Adam looked up at his friends with haunted dark eyes, daring them to absolve him of this guilt with mere words and knowing that none of them would be able to rid that from him except the one person who would not be there to gift him forgiveness.
Jason looked away, wondering how much of that was a reflection from his own eyes, and said in a steady voice, "We meet the others in the park in half an hour. Let's get ready."
Billy's mind was torn and stretched inside his head as if his body could not contain it any longer as the Power in an Aquitian Shoaling flooded into him, driving deep through channels that did not exist in a Human mind, tearing out a way to link and finally participate in the intimate part of Aquitian life. The Shoaling weave was merciless and invasive on his untrained mind, as he had expected and he abandoned himself to the energy manipulations trying to mesh with his own. If he could stand daily drowning, he could stand only once submerging himself into the bright flash of minds that were the Aquitians' thoughts, swimming in unison. Into the Shoal, into the meta-mind of the Shoal, its comprehension flashing into new realms as this vastly different perception entered the gestalt, accepting the alien mind as one of its own in its desperate need.
The Shoal became an entity of its own, the intellectual exchange glittering with brilliant interchange above them, like sunlight on the surface of water. And the tiny mote that was the individual floated in the emotions and memories of all of them. It was then, with a distracted sense of energy draining from him like blood, that Billy realised they could see everything. All that he had tried to hide, all the pain he had tried to spare them and the ripples of personal horror and self-recrimination lapped over him emanating from them all. He in turn felt their genuine care and affection for him and he tumbled into confusion.
Why? The thought whispered to him. We did not know ... we did not know you suffered so. Did you not trust us?
That was a hurt you did not need to share, Billy responded dazedly. I inflicted too much on you ... too much... for you to forgive me ... Or so he had thought. That possibility, that anyone could forgive what he had done, how he had behaved, had never even occurred to him. Too late now as the Power pierced him and swept even that awareness deeper inside. Images flickered and swallowed him whole.
The Wolves were there again, fighting, one last time... swelling in his vision until they were horizon to horizon across a desolate plane, their dance of death mesmerising as their snarls became a thunder echoing ... the flash of their bright eyes flickers of lightning as they strove against each other... as he lay powerless beneath that sky in turmoil.
His emotions were larger than he was now, he realised. The two Wolves that Sam had spoken of so long ago did not listen to him in their striving ... he was a tiny voice in a howling storm, they clashed for the conflict's sake rather than any real meaning in the winning or losing.
What a waste ... all that energy directed at himself ... when so much of it could be used by those who needed it. But that would mean being totally open to it all, and facing everything he had done and not flinching from his mistakes.
A little late to worry about that now. When was a better time to come face to face with yourself than just before the end? To give up all the wisps of illusions that shrouded and cushioned the biting teeth of reality.
The courage required for that was more than anything that had gone before. He looked up and laughed. Laughed at himself reduced to this, two sides in conflict when the time for fighting was past. In the clash of conflict, words reverberated in the echo thunder.
You were never a hero.
But I tried as hard as I could.
You made terrible mistakes.
Humans make mistakes..and that is a blessing as well as a curse.
You are alone...
But I loved...
He lay there, his mental voice crying out more strongly now, with more certainty. His mind drifted back to the voice of Sam Trueheart telling his story.
"Which one wins, Grandfather?"
The one I feed.
That was the answer, but nothing left to feed either of the Wolves save himself.
Then so be it.
The tiny mote that was himself whispered into the storm with a voice that seemed to fill everywhere, even in its quiet resolution.
I need no other reason to exist save what I can give. Wolf Within, or Other Wolf - both of you belong to me and I will not deny any longer the ugly part of myself. I have been stupid, ignorant, cruel and callous... I have been things I would never admit to myself. I have been consumed by anger and let it rule me and cause hurt ... and I COULD have stopped it. Making excuses is just that excuses. Reasons there were... yes, but reasons are not ways of making unacceptable behaviour acceptable... If there is one Power I have left it is the Power of Choice, and if I must choose what part of me is the last to bid farewell to this world, it will be that part of me of which I am most proud. It will be the source of an answer that will save others, it will be a final thankyou to those I love. Come to me, Wolf Within, and feed, for yours will be MY last triumph!
The forces moved together ... and as the beckoned white wolf creature of his mind devoured what was left of himself and join totally with his spirit, there was a flash of glorious blue in his mind and he spasmed uncontrollably as that life's energy surged through his ravaged body into the Shoaling and the burst of inspiration gave them the solution to the planetary shield they sought...
In the moment of revelation, the telepathic Shoaling weave broke around the weakest link of Billy and spiralled back into the ex-Ranger's limp form in an excess of the Power.
The Shoaling scattered into individual minds once more ... time was pressing. There were but minutes before the planet destroyers would be in range. The Aquitians leapt to save their planet, moving with haste and alacrity to implement what was emblazoned so clearly in their minds now.
There was one only who briefly lingered by the solitary human. Billy felt a light brush of cool lips on his forehead and a whispered "Thank you" from the voice he had longed for so long ... but when he opened his eyes slowly, Cestria was gone. And, he thought without bitterness, by the time they returned, so would he.
The Shoaling room was empty. Billy lay there unable to move, his rasping breath echoing hollowly, a warm trickle of blood running down his cheek from his nose. His hands were so cold now and the pains seemed distant as he finally faced the end alone.
And his only wish was that someone was there. That his friends were there for that final goodbye. Tears joined the tracks of blood, warm and bright as they escaped him. Someone to wipe that final tear...
But there would be no eleventh-hour granting of the request, for the time was already past. Nothing but emptiness. He would leave alone with as much dignity as he could find in himself... but that did not stop the tears for his friends now there was no-one left to see his weakness.
"I'm sorry... so sorry..." he whispered and he felt the edge of grey steal across his vision and he lay down the burdens of his pain and loss and welcomed it in
And the room was quiet of the signs of life and there was naught save a still figure lying peacefully, his lifeless hand reaching out to some unknown place.
"We've done it! " Delphine exulted quietly. "The phase focus shield works... sheer brilliance!" She watched a moment as the invaders were unable to breach the phasic barrier that faded and flashed into existence as they tried to approach, repelling them or destroying them if they fired into it.
"Shields holding... stable," Corcus announced. "Aquitar is protected!" There were signs of great emotion among the aquatic people, rejoicing at their last-minute reprieve, touching even outside the Shoaling.
A moment of triumph that was tempered by grief as Cestria looked up with a rare tear in her eye. "But what of Billy?" she asked softly.
Cestro turned, looking stricken; the memories of exactly HOW they had got that precious knowledge touching his mind and the Aquitian Rangers ran back to the Shoaling room.
They all stood on the threshold a moment, looking at the lifeless form where they had left him, blood pooling next to his face and a peaceful expression marking him as if he was utterly relieved by something.
"By the Powers..." Delphine choked back. She had done what Cestro had accused her of doing.
Cestro bent down, reaching carefully to feel for a pulse. "He's alive... barely."
Cestria shook her head. "No... let him go," she said. "You felt ... you felt how hard it was for him... would you have been able to stand that? He deserves peace."
Delphine looked at him. "Cestro, shock him," she ordered, turning to the other Aquitian. "I saw how hard he fought... and I saw why, too. He never found what he wanted ... not even in you, Cestria. That lies elsewhere and he had the courage and the NEED in him, whether he knows it or not, to struggle this long. I'm not going to let a chance for him to achieve this go past."
Aurico turned as Cestro levelled his Blade Blaster at Billy. "Besides ... did you not feel something change in the Shoaling?" he asked. "Something happened in him that may be enough ... he opened himself up totally - a true act of bravery. Maybe it was enough."
Cestro looked determined and fired... again and again...until Delphine ordered him to stop with an appraising eye.
"Summon the medical technicians... it may have been enough," she said cryptically, her large liquid eyes seeing the minute rise and fall of the solitary Human's chest.
The first thing Jason noticed as they reached the park was Tommy. He knew it. He KNEW Tommy would decide the whole thing was his fault not that he was that far off doing the same himself, but Tommy had always had that tendency ever since they had first met under such unfortunate circumstances. He'd come so close to finishing the Rangers then that he seemed to take any hurt or danger to them very personally even now. This was possibly Jason's worst nightmare. One of the team hurt ... dying even, and him not even having the option to DO something about it. He was fighting an anger at Billy and at himself, but Tommy was most likely to have accepted that it was entirely his fault.
"...it is, Kim," he was saying. "There should have been something ... The letter said that he was ill before he went. I should have seen that ..." The dark brown eyes stared at his hands as if he could find the past in them to redo over again.
"That is not what he wrote ... he SAID that he had deliberately hidden it from us." Kim replied forcefully, and Jason took a deep breath, relieved at that.
Letting us off the hook, weren't you, Billy? But your words told me that you needed us and we weren't there. Sometimes that is a worse crime. Jason sighed.
"It was nothing any of us could possibly know about." He said it not just to Tommy, but to them all as his opening remarks.
"But he was so ... wiped out and kept disappearing ..." Rocky remembered. "Damn! I KNEW something was going on! Why didn't I just ..."
"If anyone should have known, it should have been me." Tommy said in a profoundly upset voice.
"Stop this!" Tanya cut through their self-recriminations. "You are just trying to get some sort of ... angle on this so you can fool yourself into thinking you can change this. Well, news for all of you. We can't. It's over."
There was an explosion of denials from everyone.
"See?" Tanya said softly, wiping away some moisture from her eyes with the back of her hand.
"It can't be true ... what if it were ... a trick?" Kat suggested desperately. "Something concocted by some villain or ... something. Maybe he's been a prisoner."
A flicker of hope there. Even plausible, if they stretched their minds back to the crazy situations they had been in during the time that they had been Power Rangers.
"We have to check," Jason agreed slowly. "But you have to admit, those letters looked very authentic."
Too authentic. He could HEAR the written words sounding in his mind, in Billy's voice, in his tone. It would be fantastic to believe that Kat's far-fetched scenario was real, but he knew those were Billy's words and for him to be in that sort of frame of mind they had to consider what he had said as the truth.
It was easier to turn one's back on that darkness and watch a glimmer of a star rise as hope, though. Jason sighed. None of them would be able to continue with life unless they found out for sure what had happened to their lost friend. How he had ... died.
"He could have been forced to write them," Kim replied, grasping at straws for Tommy's sake as much as anything. Unfortunately for Tommy in the full throes of Leader's guilt this mild substitution did not help. All it meant was that Billy had not been sick for two years or more, but had been a prisoner in possibly hideous conditions for the same amount of time.
"There's nothing for it but to get to the Power Chamber and demand to speak to Aquitar." Adam said in a toneless voice totally unlike his usual gentle speech.
There were nods of agreement. Tommy sighed. "Best take the route from the edge of the reservation ... call it a hike or something," he decided, all business now. "No-one will think it unusual if we don't come back that day."
They nodded, falling back into old patterns of behaviour with surprising ease.
Between them, getting to the reservation was not difficult, but it was a subdued group that prepared for the walk up into the desert behind Angel Grove. They were watched by Sam Trueheart with a grave expression of concern.
"What are you doing?" the Elder asked Tommy as he pulled on his hiking boots, every movement betraying anger to the sensitive eye.
"Hiking." Tommy answered shortly, too busy waging war on himself to spare energy to talk with Sam.
The older man paused, frowning, observing them all. "Tommy... son, I have seen burial parties with more enthusiasm than..."
He was totally unprepared for the flinch and wounded pain in the young man's eyes as he said those words and he glanced at him incredulously. As if the casual comment had been a stray arrow striking him from a clear sky.
Sam held that gaze, placing a weathered hand on his shoulder. "You have experienced loss." He stated it plainly, with utter certainty.
Tommy shook his head. "No..." He denied that vigorously. That was something that was not true. Would NEVER be true.
"You have experienced loss," Sam stated again. "Who? Unexpected and sudden enough to give you guilt for living."
"No... no there is no loss he ... Billy could be ..." Tommy began, stumbling over his own words.
"Billy. Ah." There was a knowing quality about the old shaman's voice that made Tommy alert.
"What do you know about Billy?" he asked urgently
Sam looked at him. "We spoke. Just before he left," he said finally.
"Was he... was he okay?" Tommy asked, hoping that Kat's theory was at least possible.
"No," the Elder replied. "His body and his mind were fighting many battles."
Tommy blinked. "He was ill? You are telling me he was ill and you KNEW?"
"It was not mine to tell," the shaman answered impassively.
"Did you know he was very ill?!" Tommy raised his voice, anger finding a target.
"Yes. He mentioned he was dying." Sam replied.
"Mentioned it! MENTIONED it? One of my best friends was dying and you didn't tell me!? WHY?" Tommy didn't care who heard now.
"Because he made me swear not to." Sam studied him. "Who are you angry with, Tommy? Me, Billy or yourself?"
The young man looked furious. "You could have said! HE has been alone and ... now it may be too late! If only he said, or you had, we could have done something!"
"Ah..." Sam looked profoundly saddened.
"What? What is it?" Tommy turned, his emotions a chaos of conflicting feelings.
"He wanted no actions out of guilt." Sam explained, experiencing a sorrow of his own for the young warrior he had seen. "And sadly that is what he received."
Tommy stared. How easily they had swallowed that story of him falling in love with an Aquitian! A lot less effort to think that he was happy and out of sight and mind and just leave him. Let that friendship slide because there was an obstacle in the way. Make excuses for their own inaction. Well, if there were anything wrong he would tell us ... Must be too happy and busy to talk... you know Billy; hard enough to get him to talk when he was here ...
But... he was there, wasn't he? It was only after the Zeo Crystals that that changed. Otherwise he was always with them. Friends. More than friends ... someone who had risked his life for them over and over, and they let a bit of effort get in the way of that bond. So what if Billy had tried to push them away they needn't have walked away. Had they walked away from Rocky? No.
"Is what you are doing to yourself helping at all?" Sam interrupted his spiralling train of thought.
"Wha..?" Tommy shook his head
"I said, are you doing yourself or Billy any good by all of this?" Sam asked firmly.
"I... don't know ... I ..."
"Do what you must do, young one, but strength turned inwards can destroy as well as save. " Sam sighed. "This I said to your friend and told him the tale of the two Wolves."
Tommy nodded, knowing the story well and winced from its implications. It was difficult to imagine Billy with that depth of emotion in him. He always seemed so calm and scientific about things. Of course, in retrospect, how much of that was a cover for emotions?
Oh Billy... I'm sorry ... but that fight is one that is made alone, Tommy thought to himself. I know ... I did it myself and even now I feel that in me. But I know how I wanted help and at least, though you couldn't fight my battles for me, you were always there.
Tommy sighed. "We have to know," he said finally. "One way or another, we have to know and then... we can move on. We can deal with what this has done to us. As you have often said ... it is the things left undone that eat us from the inside."
"You are learning, young Falcon." Sam sighed. "I wish the lessons were easier. Go. Find your answers in the desert. I will watch for your returning."
Tommy wondered at the traditional phrase said to those going on a long Journey, but nodded and with a fixed expression joined the others before they left in comparative silence to make a final mission to the Power Chamber.
Persuading Dimitria to send them to Aquitar was not as difficult as they had anticipated. They had decided, once Tommy had told them that it looked likely the content of the letter was real, that they needed to go there, and they were immovable in their conviction. There was no real justification for Dimitria not to send them. No pressing need to conserve Power, no enemy lurking ready to pounce. Not now.
Even so, Aquitar was a shock. Signs of a fierce conflict abounded. Debris being recovered, a City Dome being reconstructed visible out of the window of the chamber they teleported into as a constant bustle of technicians filled the corridors of the Power Island whilst the Eternal Falls thundered in a glittering cascade outside.
"God, what happened here?" Rocky asked, gazing around at the alien scenery.
"Looks like a battle," Tanya replied, stating the obvious.
Jason nodded. "Recent, too." Recent enough to be around the same time that Billy's letter was sent. Was it maybe that Billy chose to end things in some way? That would be like him. A choking sensation gripped him by the throat as a belated committee of Aquitians attended their arrival.
"Welcome to Aquitar." Delphine's soft voice greeted them as the White Ranger bowed slightly. The other Alien Rangers arranged themselves behind her almost defensively.
Jason nodded. "Thank you ... I ..." he cleared his throat. "I guess you know why we are here?" he half stated, half asked.
"Is it true?" Kim interrupted, suddenly and desperately responding to an emotion that she had been trying to hold in check. "Billy was... really sick?"
"Yes." Delphine replied, still not entirely convinced of how to handle this situation. "I think there is something you should know."
"That he's ... dead?" Adam said. "We know..." and he looked to the floor, trying not to shiver with reaction.
"He sent us ... farewell letters," Kat whispered softly. "We know that he is gone."
Cestro cleared his throat uncomfortably. "That is not the case," he said quietly. "He still lives." Then he paused and qualified that statement. "Just."
There was an excited babble. "We made it in time," Jason breathed. "He sounded so sure in the letters. Can we see him?"
"He has not regained consciousness from that which nearly killed him." Aurico interposed bluntly. "It is not sure that he will."
"Aurico!" Cestria berated him. "I am sorry."
"There's never a reason to be sorry for the truth," Tanya replied, looking closely at Adam whose expression showed his internal war. "I think ... that we need to hear what has happened. All of it."
"This was not what Billy wished. It was said by Zordon that it would endanger you as a team," Cestro pointed out, carefully avoiding the other issues.
"Well, as we are no longer Power Rangers I believe that is irrelevant." Aisha spoke up from the back. "We need to know so we understand, for all our sakes. Please... we have to see him!"
They could not deny them that at the least and the large group were escorted to the Shoaling room where Billy still lay, too fragile to be moved to the Medical Centre, so large portions of equipment had been moved to him. Though not as intrusive as Earth technology, there was still a daunting profusion of wires and tubes and equipment that momentarily obscured the wasted-looking human form.
Kim put her hand to her mouth, unable to even voice what she was feeling. It wasn't that there was anything horribly disfiguring, or hideous about Billy's appearance. In some ways it might have been easier if there were, but he looked... terrible. The sort of look that came from a long time of suffering; even the relaxation of unconsciousness could not smooth away the deeply etched lines. To the Aquitians the changes had happened over time. To his friends from Earth, their last memory of him was as fit and maybe a little tired, but healthy and full of life. There was that look, too ... Kim remembered it from when she had visited her Grandfather in the hospital just before he had died. A pale glimmer to the skin ... sort of white and silvery. "Soullight," her grandmother had called it, made, she explained, as the soul moved and rose towards the edges of the body in preparation for that final escape to freedom. However fanciful the explanation, the look was compelling and unmistakable. She shuddered. Billy really was that close, so close to leaving them and there was nothing they could do about it.
The hush that settled over them all was absolute and it was a long time before one of them spoke. "How ... did this happen?" Rocky asked quietly.
"I think you should best look over some of the information we collated during his treatment," Corcus suggested. "But it always was a long shot as to whether the treatment would kill him before it cured his condition. It seems that this was the case."
"We didn't think that he knew this ... but he joined us in the Shoaling which he knew was hazardous to even a healthy Human, to assist us in finding a solution to protecting Aquitar. Thanks to him... we did." Delphine murmured, looking at him carefully, still feeling the responsibility of that even though she had felt Billy's forgiveness through the melding of thoughts and minds. "It was our error to assume he was ignorant of how ill he was, and our motivations in keeping that from him; instead of resenting us for that he sought to choose a method of passing that would give us the answers we sought...only..."
"Only what? "Jason practically leapt on the words, sensing a hope in them that he could not see in that fragile body in front of them.
"Only he did not die. It is possible that because the Power of the Shoaling web collapsed back into him at the point where he completely opened his energy up to all of us... and he did not die ... it might have replenished the Power buffer in his body." Cestria said.
"And in English that means... what?" Rocky asked impatiently.
"It means ... if it has happened and he can hold on a little longer... he may well recover and be cured." Delphine ventured finally.
They looked at the still fragile form and then back to the Rangers of Aquitar. "If there is a way, he will find it." Kim said with assurance.
"I think you should have a more complete understanding of what has preceded these events before you make such assumptions," Corcus advised cautiously. "Truthfully, we did not understand until the Shoaling what had really happened and what he was experiencing. If Delphine had chosen to let him fade away at that point, there is none of us who would not have seen that as anything but a merciful choice."
There was immediate protest and denial from the group of ex-Rangers from Earth. Corcus held up a hand and stopped them. "And this is why you should hear the truth of things. Do not judge us or Billy harshly without knowing what has happened for if he lives, it will be an act of courage to come back to a world from which he severed all ties."
Cestro then interrupted, his tone unusually vehement. "And if you decide to stay with him, you must never leave him again. Never," he said implacably. "He could not stand it again."
Jason spoke for them all. "Of course we will stay for him... how could we not?"
If only he can find it in him to stay for us.
An awareness first, coming back into darkness, a consciousness swimming up from a deep smothering ocean, gasping at a shock of surfacing finally. Like those moments after sleeping and dreaming where the edges of states of consciousness blur and he did not know who he was, where he was, what he was doing...
He was dead, wasn't he? A sliver of memory flashing as it twisted beyond his grasp. He remembered that. He remembered that raw gaping openness and the burning fire of the Shoaling, vivid and branded on his mind, and the sensation of life draining away.
No pain. That could be a point in favour of him being dead theory. He found it difficult to actually believe there had been a time where pain had not been a constant companion to him. No pain, but a bone-deep weariness that wrapped him in a shroud of lethargy. He felt different somehow. No subconscious feeling of urgency as he plummeted towards death, just a stillness and a calm of acceptance.
He could hear ... breathing ... slow deep breathing as if he were surrounded by people. A mild amusement flickered inside. Isn't that what was meant to happen? A mind released from the body to be greeted by loved ones at the end of the tunnel of life?
Most likely these were the last moments of his life glorified by a last hallucination, product of a mind shattered into pieces by the Shoaling. But that was a remarkably lucid thought, was it not? Not to worry. Even hallucinations would be real enough as his silent introspection touched and woke his loneliness again.
Billy forced his eyes to open, the light so bright he could barely see. His mouth was so dry he could not get a sound to come out and he tilted his head with great effort, unable to see much except a warm fuzziness though the noises remained.
Another noise, the occasional rustle of paper to his right, right next to him caused him to turn his head that way. He could see someone sitting cross-legged, he could see denim fabric close enough to focus. A perfume stole across him, bringing with it a welter of memories of a female team-mate with whom he had switched bodies...
Angels in blue jeans, he thought, desperately trying to get his fingers to touch and verify this phenomenon. As if his thoughts had to travel vast and unusual distances, it was a long time until his fingers twitched and brushed against the fabric ... and then against the leg of the person there.
The rustle of paper stopped. "Billy?"
That was Kim's voice. Well then, that proved it, didn't it?
"Billy, did you just move?" There was the thump of a book on the ground as the incredulous voice moved closer to his field of vision.
He worked his mouth, drawing up a parched whispering remnant of a voice. "Kim."
"Oh God... oh God!" Kim stammered somewhat incoherently as she came closer.
He felt an arm around him and the smell of her perfume settle on him, triggering a flood of memories that left him dizzy but happy. He blinked at her, not knowing how close that familiar habit brought the petite gymnast to losing her composure completely.
"Drink this..." she coaxed, holding a glass to his lips and he swallowed obediently, marvelling at the capabilities of his own mind to produce such detail. That felt better. A wistful smile as he indulged himself staring at her. He was dimly aware that she twisted and called over her shoulder and then voices... many voices...
Tommy, Jason, Trini, Kat, and so on... all of them...
They were too here to be real... or was that too real to be here? It didn't matter. He would take this reality even in a dying dream. All of them. It was impossible, of course, but... he welcomed their hands, touching him, their voices speaking over him.
"Billy? Can you hear me, man?" Tommy's anxious face leant down over him.
"Tommy ..." Billy managed and raised his hand to lightly touch the lean face, smiling a wistful smile, an action that brought some very strange looks from the others at each other.
Maybe this was what the Aquitians had meant by him being changed, but even so...
"How are you feeling, bro?" Jason asked, also leaning over him.
"Fine," came a predictable and automatic response from Billy who seemed content just to lie there, drinking in their faces with that wistful look.
"Thank you for coming... to say goodbye," he murmured gratefully. He had asked in his heart for this. He knew they would vanish, that they were not real, but ... he'd said he would give anything for one last chance to see them and this was it.
"We're not going anywhere," Rocky said, sounding puzzled.
Again the faint smile. "I know," Billy replied cryptically and made a point of touching every single one of them as if trying to memorise their look, feel and everything with surprising intensity.
Something was wrong here. Jason couldn't put his finger on it, but even some time later Billy was still behaving in the same way despite his hopes he would come round properly. That sort of craving, hungry look laced with sorrow haunted him. He couldn't understand why, though. Billy seemed relatively with it and aware of who they were, just... not right.
Whispering to some of the others and with a silent agreement that Adam should stay with him for a moment, the group of ex-Rangers slipped out of the room to have a discussion.
"Something's wrong," Jason stated quietly as they crowded in the corridor. "I can't put my finger on it, but something is very wrong."
"I agree." Kim said, shaking her head. "It's not like Billy ... it's... freaking me out actually." She shivered slightly. That look in his eyes, she never thought she would see that sort of expression on anyone she knew. It scared her somehow.
"But what is it?" Tommy wondered, frustrated at not being able to help. "What's wrong with him?"
"You have to remember that he has been under immense pressure," Trini said quietly. "And trauma... that's bound to affect him."
And the discussion wrangled back and forth whilst inside Adam gently held on to Billy, trying to sort through his own tumultuous emotions. He had hated Billy with the same sort of depth he had given to their friendship. They had once promised, having both known the pain of loss and betrayal, that they would not abandon each other. It had been a rare opening up by two introverted individuals and in a strange way he could understand WHY Billy had not told them, but he felt personally betrayed and robbed of that way of coping. Now he was here and Billy was resting against him and he didn't know what he felt anymore.
The others had vanished. Billy knew they would eventually, he'd know that from when this strange experience had begun. All he knew now was that Adam was still here and he desperately did not want him to go anywhere. Adam stirred restlessly and he immediately said, "Please... stay... a little longer..." Just a little, before he was totally alone again.
"I'm here." Adam replied in a soft voice.
"Don't leave me," Billy's voice begged.
It was the wrong thing to say to Adam, sensitive as he was to the issue.
"You left ME, Billy." The words were out before he could stop them. "You abandoned us!"
"I know." Billy was getting more frantic. "I'm sorry ... I'm sorry ... please!" His voice cracked.
Adam tried to control that anger, but nevertheless some of the words escaped, needing to be said. "Didn't you TRUST us? Me? After all we promised? Never to let our friendship go?!"
Now there was pain. An emotional pain growing. "Please ... can't you forgive me even now I'm dead?" Billy asked, distraught. "That's all I want... and... don't go... stay a while before you have to vanish... a little longer..."
"Now you are dead? What?" Adam paused, swallowing some of the icy rage as a dawning horror came over him. He knew what the problem was. Dear God! Laying Billy down carefully again, he went as quickly as he could to speak to the others outside.
The effect on Billy was dramatic. He saw Adam disappear from his field of vision and the aloneness and fear caused him to cry out incoherently as all his fears were abruptly realised. Terrified and alone, he curled as best he could around the aching emotional void that was tightening his chest and screamed into his arms, rasping desperate cries, names in amongst the inarticulate noises.
It wasn't long before they returned, talking excitedly, but it was long enough.
"What do you mean he thinks he's dead?" Zack was asking. "How can he think that? We are all here, aren't we?... oh... shit ... Jase!"
A few long strides and he was there by the distraught ex-Ranger's body. "Billy... Billy, it's okay ... we're here... we haven't left you... it's alright..." The one-time Gold Ranger soothed automatically.
"I barely left him for a minute!" Adam exclaimed, horrified at what that absence had done. "Billy ... Billy, I'm sorry... really ...of course I forgive you! I was angry and I didn't understand," Adam said sincerely. "I should be asking YOUR forgiveness!"
That seemed to help. The weak young man calmed down a little and relaxed a bit.
"Billy ..." It was Trini's calm voice. "You're not dead. We are real," she stated firmly.
"And we are not going anywhere," Kat chipped in.
Billy uncurled enough for them to see an expression of utter confusion. "Not dead? Dying then ..."
"No ... you were stubborn enough to stay alive," Rocky said lightly. "The problem got bored waiting for you to give up and went away."
"We are real. We came to Aquitar when we got the letters," Kim said urgently. "As soon as we knew..."
"You are real?" Billy seemed to have problems grasping this fact. "Really ... here? And I am, too?"
His expression might have been laughable except for the almost incandescent hope that had leapt to his eyes. "You've come for me?"
"Yes, Billy. We would never leave you behind," Tommy promised in a thick emotional voice, wanting so much to make things right with their friend.
There was a pause as everyone wondered how Billy would react to this. Anger? Denial? Acceptance?
He took a deep breath. "I've had prompter rescues, you know," he said in a level voice and then spoiled the dry humour by essentially collapsing into Jason's arms and weeping uncontrollably as the shock hit him. He was going to live! And ... they were here!
The others looked on in mute sympathy, trying to comprehend how he could have been stretched to such a limit that he was more able to accept that he was dead and they were not real than believe he might have survived and his friends had come back to him. It did not seem that any apology would be enough, or that any action would assuage their own personal feelings of guilt and involvement in that pain.
They never left him completely alone as he recovered. Certainly at first Billy needed a lot of reassurance that he was gaining strength and this was real, but the other ex-Rangers were finding it difficult to accept that simple gratitude that they were there, and many of them noticed a tendency in Billy to evade the question of how he felt about what had happened. In the meantime, he began putting on weight again, and his physical health improved a great deal as they all assisted in helping him regain his muscle tone and his equilibrium, physical and otherwise.
But even they needed a break, particularly because they had so many issues to deal with themselves. A group discussion had yielded the possibility that if Adam was alone with him, as he had been the first time, he might just crack open a little of those defences in their team-mate. If that didn't work, they would each try one after another.
The Shoaling room had been almost converted into a dormitory area for them all with a central resting place. Adam sat sideways on a couch reading a book, legs draping over the arms resting against a pile of soft cushions as Billy came in from taking a shower after their brief exercise program. His body was still finding it hard work and he was doing a good job of hiding from himself by committing himself to having a healthy body again. Being ill for as long as he had been had at least taught him that being in good physical shape was something to be treasured.
It was quiet though with the others off on their break. He looked around, brushing back his blond hair and slipping on a comfortable shirt and trousers. Adam was still reading and that was one thing he had valued about their friendship. The ability to share a silence. Normally comfortably, but today that silence opened the door into thoughts and... memories? Truth be told, he was excruciatingly embarrassed by what had happened at his initial recovery, and he sat down, rubbing the back of his neck thoughtfully.
Wait it out, wait it out ... speak now and he'll back away... Adam was nowhere near as absorbed in his book as he pretended. There was a conscious awareness of Billy's every move though he idly turned pages. A long wait; mentally he was practically SHOUTING at Billy to spill it, but his friend was slow getting to the point of things.
"Hmmm?" Casual now, no pressure. Moments more fragile than dew on a cobweb.
"Did I make as much of an idiot of myself as I think I did?" Billy asked carefully. Of course you did! Thinking they were hallucinations? Are you kidding? They must have thought you insane!
"Are we referring to any particular idiot moment here, or can I try and pick one from the entire time we've known each other?" Adam asked, arching an eyebrow speculatively at his friend.
"You know what I am talking about," Billy said, a little wound up by the fact he was actually facing this. "Everything ... when I ... er... woke and all that." He mumbled a little.
Adam put his book down. "No, Billy," he said seriously. "It was perfectly understandable, once we realised what the problem was."
"You must have thought I was completely insane... I... thought you were hallucinations," he admitted, flushing with embarrassment. "I'd ... well, I'd seen a fair few strange things ... visions of wolves and other things, and I had felt myself ... die ..." His throat tightened a little and he coughed a bit to try and stop the emotion.
Adam looked at him. "Billy ... if there is one thing you never have to apologise for it's anything to do with your illness."
Billy hesitated. "I hurt you, didn't I?" he asked softly, looking straight into his friend's eyes.
Lie or be honest?
"Yes, Billy... you did." Adam took a deep breath.
Billy's face looked strangely relieved by that admission. He did not want lies, he did not want pity. Now he was starting to recover and feel better, he could look back and think how stupid he had been, how actions that had seemed perfectly logical and sensible at the time were fundamentally flawed.
"I asked for your forgiveness once, Adam," he said, nearly wincing at the memory of him pleading so desperately for them to stay. "I... don't remember ... getting it." True enough.
Adam was now in a quandary. His automatic response was to say, 'Of course you are forgiven, now you really ARE being an idiot,' but he knew that forgiveness which was given away so ... casually... was always doubted.
"Why did you do it, Billy? Why didn't you trust us?" he asked suddenly.
Billy inhaled sharply. "It wasn't that ... first ... first I felt alienated." He began to explain, nearly stuttering. "I discovered what was happening and ... I think I was trying to hide it from myself as much as anyone else. And then ... I guess I was angry because, no-one seemed to care." He looked down at his hands.
"But we didn't know," Adam countered.
"But you SHOULD have!" Billy flared a little. "No ... no, that's a lie. That's what I felt, not what is true. I was caught between my own need to deny it was happening, to protect myself and the team and a personal feeling of being hurt and betrayed and basically feeling sorry for myself. It was very immature of me."
Adam looked at him. "We could have helped if we had known, but you are right. We should have noticed. There's not a one of us that doesn't run that time through and mentally kick ourselves, Billy. You have to understand that."
"I didn't want you to feel guilty or sorry for me," Billy said thickly. "But ... I nearly told you all so I could just ... give up. Say goodbye and give up. I didn't want to come to Aquitar, but Zordon ..." Billy swallowed and tried again. "Zordon forbade me from endangering the team with my own personal problems ..."
"He WHAT?" Adam's anger abruptly found another target.
Billy raised a restraining hand. "I know ... I know. He said some... very painful things to me. Now I can see what he was doing, but God, Adam, being told that I would be responsible for destroying the team, hurting all of you, and that I should never have been a Power Ranger... I wasn't thinking clearly. It hurt so much that it drove me into facing the cure if only to prove him wrong."
"He shouldn't have said that!" Adam replied, feeling that peculiar clean anger that burns when a friend has suffered.
"And if he hadn't? I would have given up." Billy sighed wearily. "There were times ... and I am ashamed to say this... when the only thing keeping me alive was hate. I hated all of you. Sympathy at that point would have killed me."
Adam felt the impact of those words as if they were solid. Was there anything worse than hate from a friend? "And you had a right to," he said softly.
Billy shook his head. "No, I didn't. Believe me, I behaved terribly. You would be ashamed and disgusted with me. I know I was."
"Billy, you were in a great deal of pain and stress the Aquitians explained that to us. They understood," Adam reassured. "If anything, they felt guilt themselves for not understanding sooner... and you did exactly the same to them. Hid your true state from them."
"I know. I had hurt them enough. Too much," Billy replied heavily. "The world did not stop merely because I was dying, but I behaved as if it did. I hurt them... I hurt you all ... regardless of what Zordon said. So I let you go. All of you."
"And that was the problem," Adam interrupted vehemently. "We did not WANT you to let us go. I know I didn't! Billy, I... felt betrayed because I felt that you had abandoned us. No. No, actually because you had abandoned me. It was the only way I could cope."
Billy nodded. "I am sorry, Adam. Truly. Objectively speaking, I completely screwed up."
"I wanted a chance to be there for you, Billy." Adam replied, emotion showing through now. "That, when it comes down to it, is the only thing you need our forgiveness for... and likewise ... we need to have YOUR forgiveness for not being there when you most needed us."
"The two seem to cancel each other out. I forgave you all a long time ago. Your absence was due to my actions, not yours," Billy said in a voice wound tightly with regret.
"But like you, Billy, we need to HEAR that, to make it real. Like you need to hear this ..." Adam took a deep breath. "Billy, I was angry with you for excluding me out of your life. Now I understand why, I have been angry with myself and with you for not giving me a chance to show I care. I know enough to realise it is because I hate to feel helpless and that this has made me feel vulnerable. It hurt so much because I care about you a great deal and in truth, if I can care that much about someone ... then forgiveness is not an option, it is a necessity. I need to forgive you... and myself." He approached Billy carefully, meeting his friend's eyes with a level open gaze that he held for a long time before speaking.
"I'm sorry..." he said simply.
"Me too." Billy managed, blinking back burning moisture in his eyes
Adam looked at him and said in a ragged voice, "Do we need to say anymore, or are you ready to let us be your friends again?"
And he very carefully hugged the recovering Billy to him in a rare display of close affection and heard Billy whisper by his ear.
Adam's judgement had been correct. Together they had made sure he had talked everything through with each and every one of his friends, from Earth and from Aquitar alike. There was only one person whom he could not forgive and bring an ending to this part of his life, which silently grieved him. Zordon.
Zordon, whose words had so hurt him that he had thought their relationship destroyed two years ago when he had cruelly manipulated him to fight for life out of spite for him. Now... after everything, after working through the pain, the slow recovery, this was the last thread left loose. But there was no answer to his dilemma. Zordon was captive and in peril from Dark Spectre, this much they knew. It was nearly time to go home and he felt somehow as if he needed things ended here, on Aquitar, before he could return home for a fresh start.
I wonder if he knew I would survive? Billy thought as he stared across that same ocean once again. It was one thing to understand the motives and reasons, and quite another to actually accept them. Intellectually he understood; he rationalised things far too well for his own good. Weaving someone's actions with your own thoughts sometimes made you feel you had an answer that needed no other justification than your own conclusion. What had happened with the others had shown him that this was a very dangerous thing to do to yourself. More dangerous maybe than the physical problems he had endured. When it came down to it, it was the Other Wolf, the bitterness and anger and darkness inside him that had nearly killed him and profited him nothing. It was a mistake to think that you could only fight something out of anger, but Zordon had known he had been too immature to even begin to fight on his own behalf any other way, and had set that into motion, hoping he would learn another way in time to live.
He had, but for someone who had prided himself on being a quick study, that lesson had been learnt late.
"You would have been disappointed in me, Zordon," he said aloud to the still air, critical of himself. If I had understood then ... but if I had understood then, you wouldn't have had to do it, would you?
Not for the first time he wondered if he would ever get to say something to Zordon. He wondered a lot of things, actually. Having your life given back tended to make you see it with new eyes. His friends had seemed surprised at the changes; he was more decisive about communicating, for a start. He had made up his mind to find that special person and let nothing stop him ... and he had a few places to start looking. His mind drifted momentarily to the people waiting for him, and he smiled. He was never going to face that empty lonely feeling again, even if it took most of his courage to confront possible rejection. That was the thing about having been at the lowest point ... you couldn't get any lower. If you were ready to walk away from life, there was no reason you could not do all the things you had felt unable to do before because you had nothing to lose. Why not take the chances?
He was about to turn to leave that familiar pinnacle, when an out-of-place shimmer in the sky flickered at the edge of his vision. He turned, and his green eyes widened in awe and surprise.
Across the sky... the sky was a golden wave of boiling, furious energy, dividing the passing day and encroaching night, sweeping down on him. A tsunami of light... as if somewhere a terrible event out there in the universe had shaken the foundations of existence and produced this phenomenon as a testament to its passing.
There was no point in turning away and Billy stared as it bore down on Aquitar, racing across the ocean and sky as if eager to embrace him.
And strangely Billy found himself opening his arms as if to welcome a long-missed friend back to him as the golden wave crashed over him and through him, drowning his opened mind in the burning rightness of a sacrifice made selflessly.
Maybe because he too had been part of something that subsumed the self he reached down, in that instant to find the soul of this fire and touched for an instant that long-lost familiar presence.
Just an instant, but spirits needed no longer to join, mingle, and part again and out of all of those whose spirits Zordon touched, Billy was the one that gave the departing mage a last precious gift and sent him from him in joy. In that moment, a lifetime of many eons swept into Billy's mind and heart, questioning and seeking with a curious desperation in this one rather than transforming. The Human's shorter lifetime and bright spark of spirit tempered with painful experience blended with him, with no holding back and gave him in full measure that answer that he sought.
The word seemed to murmur in the passing of the wave and Billy turned to watch the glory of Zordon's passing, even as he realised that in that wake he had lost someone very close to him, and would never feel that touch again whilst he lived.
"Yes, Zordon," he said as much to himself as any other, unable to stop the tears of grief and not wishing to, even if he could. "All forgiven." He took a deep breath and turned away from this most recent loss to fulfil a long-delayed purpose, whether it would be with others or on his own.
Time to start living again.
Author's Note: Thanks to Dagmar as usual for her excellent beta-ing skills and Mele for her constant death threats to get this finished!