Disclaimer: Once again, these characters are not mine. They
belong to Saban. This was solely done as a not-for-profit venture. I was
merely expanding the characters' horizons for my own, selfish pleasure.
They are returned none-the-worse for wear yet we, as readers, are left
knowing them slightly better. Hope you enjoy it. Remember, I'm always
interested in feedback. Feel free to comment.
Note: This story contains some slight violence for those who need to know.
The fresh mountain air was laden with wonderful smells. Billy Cranston breathed deep of the gathering scents. It was so different from Angel Grove where the ever-rebuilding city overwhelmed the air with pollution and fumes in its futile attempt to keep ahead of the constant damage wrought by the frequent, rampaging monsters. His friends had never noticed the difference lingering in the air but Billy could. It was just little things really, certain smells that assaulted his senses while the others were oblivious. He would grimace and bear it silently unable to understand why no one else was affected. He didn't know how or when it started but it was something he observed from time to time. He just chalked it up to being more aware of things than the others.
He was coming to stay with his Aunt and Uncle for a while at their mountain resort. His father had all but insisted he needed a break from his studies and from Angel Grove. It had been months since the Zeo Crystal incident and life had returned to normal, especially for Billy. He was no longer a Power Ranger, just a normal teenager.
Of course, that didn't mean the stress level was down. As a matter of fact, it had intensified in some ways he hadn't counted on. It must have been obvious. His father had evidently noticed something in his son that had prompted this sudden insistence for a "vacation."
Billy shrugged, the white henley shifting on his lean shoulders. Zordon himself had gone along with the idea while Alpha had been perfectly willing to take over control of the Command Center from Billy for a few weeks. His friends had even nudged him to take the trip.
Zordon had promised to contact him if something major came up. For a split second, Billy actually wished that nothing would. He took it as a good sign. He trusted they could cope for a while. Alpha and Zordon had managed just fine without him before and for two weeks, they could do so again. He needed a break from everything... and everyone.
They all treated him like he was made of glass or something, giving him worried glances every time they morphed or celebrated a victory. It just made it worse. If they would only just act as if he had made the right decision, a good decision, it wouldn't be so bad. But they didn't. Hell, if everyone kept that up, he might actually come to really regret his actions.
He hadn't realized that there was such a sense of isolation within the Command Center. Sure Alpha and Zordon were there, but Zordon spent much of his time scanning for disaster not only on earth but in other corners of the universe as well. Often, his tube remained empty. And Alpha had his own work to do. He relinquished control over the vital machines to Billy, mainly because the little android couldn't handle the stress, but that didn't mean there wasn't plenty of other equipment that needed to be maintained. And so Billy was alone much of the time amidst the blinking lights and the shadowy alcoves.
In the beginning, Billy hadn't minded. It was nice, almost a sanctuary like his lab at home, but gradually it had begun to affect him in small ways. He felt disconnected from the group, almost a fifth wheel at times. He grew more uncomfortable around them as they continued to feel a little strange around him. Maybe because he couldn't converse with them about the battles in the same way he had done in the past. Now his world was full of printouts, computations and experiments. They didn't quite stand up to a spin kick or firing the Zeo Blaster. Everyone seemed afraid of hurting his feelings. And the worst thing was the more they tried not to, the more agonizing it was to Billy.
Billy bristled for a moment, reliving such scenes. Did they all think he had lost his mind when he gave his power away to Tanya? Didn't they realize it was for the best? He was dealing with it just fine. Why couldn't they? He was better off in the Command Center. It was where his intellect could be best utilized. In the past, how many times did he have to leave the team during a pivotal battle in order to create a device to defeat the monster of the day? It was just better this way. Better for the team, better for the world. Better for him. He didn't miss being a Ranger! He didn't!
He drew in a shuddering, calming breath and slowly released it, easing his near white fingers from their death grip upon the steering wheel. He leaned back in the jeep's seat, rubbing tired eyes, a soft ghost of a smile attempting to flit across his features.
He was at ease with his decision. That much was true. It was just the rest of his body that was slow to catch on. Whenever Tommy shouted, "It's morphin' time," Billy reached for his now absent morpher. And when his hand closed on empty space, logic would kick in and he'd admonish himself for being slow-witted. But that wasn't the worst part. The truth was he did long for the flow of power to rush into his body one last time, he craved it like an irresistible hunger. But then he'd shake himself out of the stupor for it was only a foolish dream. There was none forthcoming.
For a time he had thought he was addicted to the power or something. The mere thought of it consumed him constantly for weeks afterwards. Finally, on a fluke, Trini had called. Amazingly, she had always known when he needed to talk to someone. He voiced his concern (though it took fifteen minutes for Trini to pry it out of him) and she quickly belayed his fears. It was normal, she said. Jason, Zack and herself had all gone through it, though it was probably worse for Billy since he was still immersed into the sights and sounds that made up being a Ranger. Time would heal all things, she had told him. It always did.
Billy had flinched at that. No, not all things, he mused. He still missed her. He sighed deeply wishing for the thousandth time that he could tell her the truth about his feelings for her. It seemed he accumulated regrets like someone collected baseball cards. I really need a better hobby, he thought wryly, bringing his attention back to the winding, mountain road. His relatives' cabin was just coming into view.
Maybe he did need a vacation. Just a chance to be Billy again with no fate of the world hanging in the balance. No monumental decisions to be made at the possible cost of his teammates' lives. Nothing. Just whether he wanted apple pie or cherry for dessert. Aunt Meg made wonderful confectioneries. That was definitely something to look forward to.
He pushed away all the business he wanted to forget as he drove up to the cabin and his Aunt came rushing out. She had probably been watching by the window all day waiting for him. Uncle Benton came out a minute or two behind. She could barely wait for Billy to get out of the jeep before she enveloped him in a huge hug.
"Billy Cranston! There you are! Look at you! You've grown! Benton look at him." She turned to her husband.
"I'm looking," Benton said coming up to the car. "Welcome Billy." He shook Billy's hand firmly. "It's good to see you again." He then opened the hatch and lifted the boy's luggage out.
"Thanks Uncle Benton. I can get those."
Uncle Benton nodded towards his wife. "Not unless you can pry yourself out of her arms." He laughed. "Just go with her and let her enjoy your company. She's been about to bust all day."
Billy smiled. "Okay. Thanks." He turned back to his beaming aunt.
"I've got pies just coming out of the oven. Do you like apple or cherry?" she asked.
Billy's smile deepened as they walked up to the house. This was exactly what he needed. The little voice had kept telling him to come and now he was glad he had listened to it.
Billy was sprawled out on his bed on the second floor. He hadn't eaten that much since... man, he couldn't remember the last time he had blitzed like that. He might even have beaten Rocky's record. He sighed in contentment. It was near midnight but Billy was still wide awake.
The window was open allowing the cool mountain air to encompass the room. It smelled sweet and clean, better even than it had on the trip up. No diesel and gasoline fumes or rotting Big Macs along the sides of the road, just pure air. Billy relished it. It was still sweltering hot down in Angel Grove and the air conditioned buildings hid most of the residents.
Billy had never liked the outdoors much when he was a kid, but over the last two years he had developed a fondness for it. Not quite a love, but a definite appreciation. He didn't know where it came from. Maybe it was all that involvement in Kim and Trini's conservation efforts way back when.
He smiled at the thought of Trini. She would have enjoyed coming out here with him. He wished he had called her and offered her the opportunity just on the insane chance she might have accepted. But then logic demanded he realize that there was no way she'd fly across the ocean just to visit with him.
He sighed heavily and turned over on his side, pulling the light comforter up closer about him against the sudden chill. He stared out the window into the silverish moonlight. The sounds of the insects and frogs screamed into the night but Billy found it strangely comforting. The swollen blue moon blazed into his room making it almost as bright as day. He closed his eyes against it futilely. He wasn't going to fall asleep and he knew it. It was a strange bed and thoughts of Trini were not conducive to a peaceful slumber in the least.
He tossed his body to the other side of the small bed and threw the cover completely over his head to try and block out the moonlight. He tried to silently recite the periodic table in the hopes of dulling his mind to a point where he could relax. Counting sheep never produced the same results. A half hour later, it had almost worked.
Until he heard the howl.
His eyes snapped open, listening as his body tensed and his limbs flooded with a fervent flush. But it was silent again except for the night's usual chorus. His ears strained for the slightest hint of what he had heard but there was nothing. Was it his imagination?
Fifteen minutes later he relaxed again. Whatever it was it was long gone by now. The warm glow he had first felt had faded leaving him colder than before. He curled up tighter and ordered himself to sleep.
As his eyes slipped shut he heard it again, drifting low and mournful across the mountain side. Billy bolted upright in the bed. It was a wolf's howl. He'd know it anywhere. He leaped from the bed and stood at the window. The last remnant of the howl was just dissipating. Taking into the account the mountain echoes and triangulating the various places for the sound to bounce off brought Billy's eyes to a location just up the mountain to his left. He leaned out searching the darkness, his heart drilling in his chest.
This time he waited and again the wolf's cry came. It bore its way into Billy's very soul. It was crying, a horrible devastating sound. Something wasn't right. He could feel it. He had heard his own spirit wolf's howl when it was hurt and damaged. It was identical.
He dressed quickly into jeans, a thick cream sweater and heavy hiking boots. He climbed out the window. He didn't have time to search through the house for a key to undo the deadbolt on the front door. He descended his aunt's flower trellis and was thankful that it held his weight though he didn't think about that until after he was down on the ground.
The woods were dark, but still Billy somehow was able to keep his footing over the wrinkled bodies of the logs and through the grasping arms of the criss-crossing branches. He picked his way unerringly, obsessed only with the thought of finding the throat from which the sorrowful voice was leaking into the night.
Even after the howl had faded back into the raucous speech of the forest, Billy still followed a direction preset by instinct. He couldn't say what guided his way, only that he trusted it implicitly. He moved as if in a trance, giving in unconsciously to the part of him that begged to follow, a part who had never voiced a demand until now. So he allowed the indiscretion, like granting a seemingly weighty wish to a small child.
Suddenly he head an unnatural sound to these woods. The clanking of metal amidst the sound of growling. With his breath caught in his chest, Billy approached carefully. The trees thinned slightly and he was able to see the moonlight glint off the harsh metal cage that was partially hidden by brush. Within its confines was a beautiful wolf, silver with black highlights surrounding slanted, amber eyes which swiftly swung to cover his advance.
Billy froze, captured instantly by the piercing gaze of the wolf. They reached even deeper into his soul than the voice. Unaware of the passage of time, Billy finally broke the connection and took a hesitant step forward.
The wolf immediately dropped into a crouch, its lips curling back into a snarl. Its reaction startled Billy. He had thought, well he had thought the wolf was his familiar of sorts, that there would be an instant bond between them. Disappointment quickly crept in. The Ninjetti force was truly gone.
The wolf shifted back in the cage trying to get away from Billy so he put away his heartache and slowly walked towards it, softly speaking in low tones. "It's alright. I won't hurt you. I only want to help."
The wolf was unconvinced. It lunged forward, snapping with deadly earnestness. Despite the sturdiness of the metal bars, Billy flinched. It took a moment before he reached out again with a tentative hand towards the locking mechanism, the wolf's steady growl building in the background. Billy made sure he was away from the door of the cage and removed the bolt. The door swung open and Billy held his breath. But the wolf, definitely female, did not move.
"It's okay," he coaxed. "You're free. Go."
Then without warning, the wolf leapt from the cage. Billy involuntarily stepped back in surprise but then smiled as he watched the wolf beeline for the trees. A burst of joy enveloped him, satisfaction for a good deed. He was glad he had come out here tonight. It had felt right.
To his shock, he noticed the wolf had stopped and was watching him intently. She was no longer snarling or aggressive in any way. Billy smiled at her, careful not to move. Instead he spoke in his usual quiet voice. "Go home lady. Go to your family, your pack. They'll be worried about you."
The wolf's glowing amber eyes locked with Billy's frosted blue ones and for a split second the young man felt awash with imagery and sensations he could not identify but yet seemed achingly familiar. He staggered under their force. Upon their easement he lifted a trembling hand to his reeling head. When he finally straightened, the sensations and the wolf were gone. He drew in a shaky breath unable to explain what had just happened. A pang of disappointment struck him that the wolf was gone. He had never seen a wild wolf before and she was magnificent, so lithe and full of life.
He shook his head and turned back to the trail home when he stopped, his eye catching something strange and unnatural on the forest floor. He lifted a broken branch and tapped the ground before him. The loud metal snap startled him as the branch was wrenched from his hand. A steel bear trap snapped the heavy wood in two.
Shock settled upon him at the closeness of his own foot being in the trap's grip. Then anger began to seep in, a cold harsh burn at the men who had laid these sickening death traps. He began systematically sweeping the entire area. Two hours later he had sprung five additional traps, each one more cruel and horrifying than the last.
Wiping the sweat from his face despite the coolness of the night, Billy checked the skyline. It would be dawn soon. He had to head back. He took a last look around him, satisfied of his work. Even though he was exhausted, he felt renewed in spirit. A contented smile crept into his features as he slowly walked off the mountain.
If he had but turned around he would have been witness to the twelve pairs of luminous eyes intently watching his departure.
Aunt Meg watched her nephew sleeping peacefully in the hammock beneath the distant twin oaks, her face etched with maternal worry. "He's certainly sleeping a lot, Benton."
Benton glanced at his wife and smiled. "It's the fresh mountain air."
"He looks flushed. Maybe he has a fever."
"Leave the boy be, Meg. He's here to get some rest. Let him rest."
She sighed in frustration. "I'll just go over and check on him. I won't disturb him."
Benton shook his head. There was no stopping her when she was like this. At times like these he realized just how much she missed her own children. They had all grown up long ago and left, rarely coming to visit. Meg truly missed being a mother.
The hushed voices roused Billy even though he was some distance away from his Aunt and Uncle. He kept his eyes closed and listened in on their conversation, still half asleep. Eventually he heard his Aunt's stealthy approach. He could tell she was looking at him. He opened his eyes and regarded her.
"Billy, you're awake!" She was at once overjoyed and guilty. Billy sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the hammock. His Aunt immediately sat beside him. "Billy, are you feeling well?"
He smiled genuinely. "Yes, Aunt Meg. I'm fine. Just tired." He looked suddenly guilty himself. "I sort of... went out last night. For a walk in the woods."
He watched her expression change from concern to shock. "Billy! It's dangerous in the woods at night. What if you had gotten lost or had fallen?"
He shrugged. "I didn't go far, Aunt Meg, and it's been years since I was that clumsy."
She laughed as she remembered the youth in his awkward stage. She patted his leg affectionately.
"You have so grown up, Billy. Handsome and strong, not to mention wise." She didn't finish what she was going to say. She had been about to tell him how proud his mother would be of his maturation, but Meg knew that mentioning her sister to Billy was unnecessary and most likely disturbing. Billy had put the grief of his mother's death behind him though Meg knew all too well that it was only on the outside. Deep within the young man, it resonated loudly. She saw so much of June within him, it was a comfort to have him with them. But where Meg was outgoing her younger sister had been introverted and isolated. Billy had those same tendencies.
June had always shown that same questioning thirst but had never really shared the passion with anyone until her son had come along. They had been inseparable which became a problem later when Billy needed to socialize more with his peers. He suddenly lacked the proper skills. Of course, the boy had changed within the last few years. For the better, Meg thought. But he looked like he was bearing a heavy weight upon his shoulders that few should carry at his age.
She squeezed his knee maternally and leaned closer to share his secret. "So tell me, what adventure did you have last night that kept you from getting a good night's sleep?"
Billy chuckled at his Aunt's enthusiasm. He debated whether he should tell her the truth but then opted quickly to include her. He had been dying to tell someone. His Aunt was a little like his mother, adventuresome and inquiring. She would never deny nor try to dispirit a healthy curiosity. "I heard a wolf howling. It sounded like it was hurt."
His Aunt's eyes widened but remained silent through the rest of Billy's discourse. Upon its completion she shook her head and then hugged him. "I'm so glad you're alright. Trapped wolves can be unpredictable." She frowned. "I didn't know poachers had returned to the mountain."
"What do you think we should do about them?" he asked when his Aunt released him.
She thought for a moment then stood grasping his hand. "Let's go inside and call the Rangers."
For a moment, Billy did a double take believing she meant the Power Rangers. Then he burst out into authentic laughter.
His Aunt paused and looked back at him in puzzlement. "Billy, our local Forest Rangers are nothing to laugh about."
Billy waved his hand at her, controlling his outburst but still grinning. "No, I'm sorry. I was thinking of something else." He moved ahead of her and pulled her along to the house. "By all means, let's call the Rangers."
Six nights later Billy slept soundly. He felt a peace he hadn't known in months. The last few days had been filled with affection and a wonderful sense of the past, memories of his childhood he had all but forgotten. His sleep remained deep and peaceful.
At least until he heard the howl which echoed in the absolute silence of the night. He dragged himself out of sleep and opened his eyes, blinking slightly. Was it a dream? He sat upright and looked towards the window where the moonlight still streamed. It came again, loud and pleading. It was closer than before. He rose quickly and peered out into the night but there was a stillness throughout the woods, an unnatural silence that wasn't there before. He wasted no time debating about what he should do. He dressed in thermals with jeans and a heavy flannel, ivory shirt, following his route from the week before.
Only a hundred feet or so distant from the house, a silver form darted out in front of him and stopped. Billy came up short as the wolf stared at him. He immediately recognized it as the wolf he'd released. They stood staring at each other. Billy afraid to move, afraid of frightening her away, but the wolf merely watched Billy intently for a moment then turned moving fluidly up the slope. Billy just watched her disappearing form. In seconds she was gone as if she had never been. A small gentle smile stretched across his face. Maybe she only wanted to thank him.
He started back down the mountain feeling the best he had in months when suddenly the pale, ghostly form of the wolf appeared again before him. Billy pulled up short in surprise, sliding a little on the loose shale.
She stared at him with her amber eyes, their intensity stripping him clean of good sense. He took a step unconsciously towards her. She leapt forward just out of reach and ran past him back up the slope. Billy cursed his impatience and spun to track her movements, expecting her to fade away into the night forever. But to his amazement, she didn't. She stopped again only a few feet distant and watched him from above.
His eyes narrowed at her puzzling behavior. He took a step backward and was scolded with an impatient bark. He almost laughed in surprise. He knew annoyance when he heard it. He placed an experimental foot forward and she jogged off a few paces.
Now he understood. She wanted him to follow her. He complied, sheer disbelief plastered on his face. He kept pace with her or rather she kept pace with him, staying just a few feet ahead of him always as she took him deeper into the forest than before.
As a precaution, Billy began marking the trail so as not to get lost on his way back. He didn't think relying on the she-wolf was a safe bet at this time. Sure she seemed intelligent but that might not mean she would be courteous enough to escort him back home. That might be asking just a bit much, Billy thought wryly. For a split second, his rational mind kicked in and inquired whether this was such a good idea but one look at the wolf's beautiful flowing form and he knew he could not turn back. Not yet.
Thirty minutes later, Billy and the wolf emerged into a small clearing. Immediately Billy could sense something was wrong. He watched as the wolf darted quickly to the left and disappeared into some thick bushes. He followed cautiously. When he pulled the branches aside, however, he came face to face with a snarling mass of teeth and jet black fur.
Billy fell backward, sprawling onto the ground, a shout erupting from his lips but his ears again picked up the sounds of metal within the pristine woods. A sinking feeling crept into his stomach. The she-wolf came out of the bush to stand over Billy. She barked once and then crouched, whining a low piteous sound. He could see glowing eyes within the darkness of the bush.
Billy stood slowly, the two sets of eyes following his every movement. He approached the second wolf from behind going around the other side of the bush. The she-wolf went with him, her body brushing up against Billy's leg briefly as she rushed to the other wolf's side. He smiled but then it faded away. He saw why she had brought him. The other wolf was a huge, black male. It lay exhausted on the ground; its left rear leg caught within the cruel and sharp jaws of a steel poacher's trap, exactly like the ones he had found the other night. Only the miraculous presence of a sturdy, fallen branch had saved the leg from being broken and the artery severed.
Billy moved more warily this time. The she-wolf was licking and nuzzling the male. Billy quickly surmised that he was her mate. He had heard of wolves' intense devotion to their closely knit families. It was amazing to witness it first hand. If she could keep him busy, Billy might have a chance of freeing the leg. He approached slowly. The male wolf watched him suspiciously around the overate attention of his mate.
Billy began his quiet, even voice, talking about nothing in particular. He just prayed that whatever magic he had worked the night before would help him out now.
As soon as he reached for the trap though the wolf lunged but Billy was prepared, flinging his body away from the wolf's snapping jaw. The motion brought a sharp shriek of agony from the beast and it collapsed back, its mate whining fearfully.
"You're supposed to be distracting him, you know," Billy said chidingly to her, easing himself up onto his elbows. She turned her amber eyes on him. The forlorn moan which flowed out of her made Billy ache inside. "Okay, okay. We'll try again. Just keep him busy, alright?"
The she-wolf cocked her head, listening and Billy laughed quietly. He crept up close again and the she-wolf continued her ministrations on her mate.
Billy realized he would have to be quick. The male wasn't going to put up with much. Billy had to pry open the trap as quickly as he could so the wolf could pull his leg out. His mind screamed at him that this was the stupidest thing he had ever done. He should get help. But he also logically knew that there was no time. The wolf would either die or chew his own leg off in an attempt to free himself. Billy could see the tell-tale sign of that already. Another part of him, deep inside, kept telling Billy that there was nothing to fear. The wolf would never hurt him.
That realization stayed his hand. He was not Ninjetti anymore. Any pact he had with the Wolf Clan was long gone. He eased himself back and soon he had talked himself out of doing anything but calling for help. He raised hooded eyes and found himself staring directly into sloped, amber ones. The she-wolf was inches from him.
Suddenly, Billy found himself drawn into the twin golden pools and his world slipped away. He again felt the perceptions that had touched him briefly that first night, his senses heightened to a level he hadn't felt in months. He heard everything, saw everything, felt everything the she-wolf experienced. It matched the Ninjetti force! He was Ninjetti again! The power coursed through him enveloping him with new blood and new strength. A gasp escaped his thin lips, his breath a strangled cry.
Then she blinked and Billy woke up. Unconscious tears were flowing down his slack face. He reached up with a trembling hand and touched his wet cheek. She cocked her head again and then went back to her mate.
Billy rubbed his hand over his face roughly, desperately trying to regain his composure. He let his hand drop away slowly. Eventually, he looked down at the trap again and this time conviction swelled within him. The power was still there, he could feel it, just slightly out of reach. He had to try. She had searched him out and asked for his help. He couldn't turn away now.
He reached out and grabbed the jaws of the metal trap and pushed down. The metal groaned and the huge male wolf howled in pain, his suffering so intense that he lunged frantically at Billy who could not now move out of his reach. Billy felt the tearing teeth of the wolf as it snapped out in terror and in pain but then the she-wolf was there, standing between them keeping the frenzied anger of her mate from the boy. Billy's muscles screamed in agony at the effort to hold open the trap. The jaws of metal slowly eased apart and then suddenly the wolf instinctfully jerked his battered leg free.
Billy let go and flung himself away from both the trap and the wolves. Its snap resounded horribly in the eerie silence of the woods. Billy cradled his torn arm and rolled away from them. The she-wolf followed her limping mate into the woods and disappeared.
"You're welcome," Billy hissed as he eased himself shakily to his feet. He stared where they had disappeared. Not even the white coat of the female could be seen in the inky darkness. He drew in an exhausted breath. It was then and only then he heard the footstep behind him and then the voice.
"Do you know how much money we just lost because of you, kid?"
Billy spun around and immediately found his arms grabbed by two burly men. Two others walked slowly up to him. "What you're doing is illegal," Billy countered hatefully. The pain in his arm was excruciating. The brute on his left was twisting it back behind him. He could feel the blood from his arm dripping down to his fingers.
"Is it now? We didn't know that, did we Caleb?"
"No we didn't Liam," a dark, tall man said sarcastically, the last one to arrive. "What's your name, boy?" he asked menacingly and instinctfully Billy tagged him as the leader.
Billy said nothing but watched his attackers. The man who had first spoken was a heavy set, bearded man with squinty eyes. When Billy didn't answer, Liam cuffed Billy smartly across the jaw.
"When an adult speaks to you, you better answer," he told Billy with an ugly grin. The two brutes holding Billy laughed.
Billy spat out some blood while pinpoints of light danced in front of him. The man hits hard, he thought. He couldn't take many blows like that. Billy looked up at Liam whose arm was rising again. "Billy," he finally answered.
Caleb nodded approvingly. "Well Billy, I'm afraid we're in a bit of a pickle. You see it seems we're aware that poaching is illegal and we really don't care. But what we do care about is the fact that someone destroyed our traps last week. They're completely ruined. Over $2000 dollars worth of equipment. Would you know anything about that?"
Billy swallowed the fear that was rippling up inside him. These men were dangerous but he couldn't reach his communicator to signal for help. He knew what was coming and he braced himself. Liam's huge fist slammed into his face again. This time Billy's legs went out from under him. If it wasn't for the two men holding him up he would have fallen to the ground.
Liam lifted Billy's head up by his hair. "Caleb asked if you were the one who messed with our equipment the other night. You gonna answer him?"
This time Billy nodded. "Yes. It was me." He doubted that lying to them was going to get Billy out of this mess. They were angry and they were going to take their frustration out on someone. Billy just wanted to be sure that the wolves got far enough away. The male was bleeding enough for them to track him easily. Billy had to buy some time. Liam released his hold and Billy's head slumped forward.
"Good." Caleb walked over and looked at Billy. "There was wolf hair in the cage. We had a wolf in the damn cage last week and you let it out, didn't you? Just like you loosed that one over there." His head jerked over to the bush where the cold, bloodied, yet empty trap lay.
Billy nodded again. The slight movement caused agony to sweep through his head and neck. He licked his lips and tasted only blood.
"Damn you boy! That's over $4000 dollars lost because of you!"
Billy couldn't help the small smile that creased over his busted lip. He was glad of what he had done. These men were cruel and inhuman. He felt a sense of pride in foiling their plans. Though it looked like it might have cost him his own life. If only he could reach his communicator. "Sorry," he mumbled. "A sudden sense of decency came over me."
Liam's hand went up again but Caleb waved his brother away. "You've got either a great deal of guts Billy-boy or you are the stupidest kid in town." He walked around and looked at Billy's arm. The brute released it and Billy grunted in pain. Caleb looked at the torn skin. "Looks like your friends didn't appreciate your help."
"He didn't mean it, you see," Billy said softly, his head still down. "When you're in pain you just sort of strike out at anyone. Regardless of what intentions they have."
Caleb's eyes narrowed dimly recognizing the veiled threat.... Billy's head rose slowly, his gaze directed at Caleb. Billy's blood dripped off his chin onto the plush carpet of leaves beneath him. Out of his peripheral vision, Billy saw Liam's hand go up to strike. Billy cocked his head at Caleb and then lifted his right leg and slammed his foot into the last man holding him. The man's knee cracked as Billy's boot took it out right below the kneecap. Billy quickly raised his left wounded arm to block Liam's blow. The impact on Billy's arm brought a cry of agony from him but he kept going. Then he swung his now freed right arm into a stiff armed blow to Liam's neck. The heavy set man dropped like a stone.
Billy felt Caleb's harsh hand on his neck. He spun and landed a kick into the exposed man's stomach. Caleb fell to his hands and knees, sucking in tortured gulps of air. Billy quickly backflipped away from Liam and the last of the brutes still standing. But that was a mistake. His head spun from the inertia and the minute he landed he swayed. He heard rather than saw the two men coming for him.
"You're gonna pay for that, brat!" Liam's voice was laced with fury.
Billy tried to back up but quickly realized that he wasn't going to get
away. He was reaching for his communicator when suddenly the woods erupted
around him. Multiple wolves leapt out of the darkness and landed on Liam
and the other men. They screamed in terror, their arms flinging out wildly
to ward off the attack. Strong jaws clamped down quickly on them, bearing
the men to the ground. The others were quickly surrounded.
"No!" Billy screamed. He didn't want the wolves to kill them.
Suddenly the silver she-wolf was there beside him. She barked once and the wolves stayed their killing strokes but continued to bare their long dagger-like canines, sending waves of nightmarish terror into the stricken men. The four men clamored to their feet and backed away from the snarling beasts. Caleb stared in horror at the young man standing quietly amongst the ferocious wolves seemingly unafraid.
Billy gazed unblinkingly at him. "Go away Caleb," he told him. "Don't trap in these woods again. I won't stop them next time. Do you understand me?"
Caleb nodded once in shock and then turned and ran, his brothers hot on his heels.
Billy started to laugh, relief draining the adrenaline away from him completely. He looked down at the silver lupine beside him. Her silver form lost focus, then focused again. Billy shook his head to clear it but it didn't help. The she-wolf just stared at him. Her form dissipated one final time and Billy collapsed soundlessly to the forest floor.
The wolves all scattered except for her. She nudged Billy's still form and barked. When there was no response she came to his face and started licking him, washing the blood which streaked across his chin and neck. The other wolves milled about, curiously sniffing him.
Finally, the she-wolf lay down beside Billy, a paw resting on his outstretched right arm, her head on his slowly rising and falling chest. The other wolves melted into the woods but five stayed with the she-wolf and her new charge.
Billy dreamed. The woods around him were dark and silent. So silent that it became unbearable. "Hello?" he screamed. "Is anyone there?"
No answer. He kept thinking there was something just outside his field of vision. He could feel it out there hunting him. It terrified him. Without his powers he was an easy target and with that thought he suddenly couldn't clamp down on his fear any longer. He started to run. He slipped numerous times, each time his body jarring painfully. Each fall brought cuts and scratches that burned. By the fourth time he was gasping with agony. Then suddenly he saw her. The she-wolf was standing in front of him. He tried to stand but couldn't.
She padded slowly over to him, brushing up against his aching body, and abruptly there was no pain. No wounds. Nothing. Just a warm and peaceful feeling. Then he heard her voice.
"Stay with me, princeling."
"What?" he murmured in shock. Her lips did not move but he could hear her.
"I don't give you permission to leave yet." Her voice was soft and gentle, very reminiscent of his own.
Billy was confused. Was she the Ninjetti wolf spirit? "Did Dulcea send for you?"
She laughed. "No. You did."
"Wh... I don't understand." He reached out and touched her silken hair. It was like touching Trini's long strands.
"It's all right, my cub. You don't need to understand right now."
A sound of a branch breaking behind him brought Billy to a crouch, spinning to face the danger. But nothing was there. They had to escape, to get away. The fear screamed at him. "I have to get out of here."
"There is nothing there for you to fear, William."
"But they'll come back." He stood, his eyes searching the darkness futilely.
"William!" she said sternly forcing his gaze back towards her. Only his mother had ever called him William. "The danger is past for now. There is nothing to fear. You are not alone anymore."
"I'm not alone?" he repeated hesitatingly.
"No." He could hear the humor in her voice. "You're a part of the pack as you have always been."
"No. I'm not a Ninjetti anymore. I lost the power... and the right to be a part of the pack."
"The loss of the coins doesn't mean you're no longer a member of the pack. That is something you will carry with you forever. If only you would believe it."
"I want to believe. But I don't feel like I'm a part of anything anymore." His tone was bitter.
"You must have faith William. Without that you are truly alone." She walked away from him and he quickly followed her. "Your whole future lies before you. This is but an instant in time's grand scheme. There is so much left for you to do. Do not think so little of yourself that your quest has ended."
"Wait! What's your name?"
She glanced up at him. "You may call me Serene."
Such was the sense of peace which washed over him that the tension fled his body and he relaxed. "Thank you, Serene."
They walked side by side only the two of them in the empty forest. When suddenly within seconds, he was surrounded by the rest of the pack which flowed from out of the darkness to embrace him as brother. He felt their presence both physically and spiritually. He was home.
Billy dragged himself out from the warm bed of oblivion. He drew in a deep breath and stared with large unfocused eyes up into the distant smear of trees and sky. He still felt the pull of the dream beckoning him back to a numbing kind of tranquility. He fought it off. He could feel a slight pressure on his chest and he saw a blurry shape no more than six inches away but he could not make it out. He reached out with his hand and encountered soft silken fur. He closed his eyes again in relief.
"Serene," he murmured. She whined under his touch stretching her nose closer to his face to lick him.
Billy smiled. "Thank you." It was then that his vision cleared and he saw the other five wolves all standing around him. He froze, not wishing to startle them. He held his breath while Serene jumped up and the rest of the wolves flocked to her.
His head ached monstrously as Billy eased himself up on his elbow but had to stop while the intense pounding abated. His vision threatened to cave in once again but he fought it off. He moved slowly still wary of the reactions of his guests.
Billy remembered bits of the dream and even though he accepted the fact that it was just a dream, he smiled at the she-wolf. She was Serene in both namesake and manner. She glided over to him, bumping him gently with her body while the other wolves waited patiently a few yards away, their eyes darting occasional into the woods. She obviously wanted him up. He rose carefully. Every muscle and bone screamed in pain. He winced and wondered how he was going to get off the mountain. Then he remembered his communicator. He lifted his wrist and a shock ran through him. It was gone.
"Damn," he cursed looking down at the ground. He couldn't see it. It must have come off during the scuffle with Liam. He exhaled shakily. He wasn't in too good of shape. Just the act of bending back down to the ground nearly made him pass out again. He held onto a nearby tree for support.
He noticed the rest of the wolves slipping into the woods. Serene still stood with him, her eyes querying his actions. It was then that Billy heard the distant sound of running water. It was a mountain stream, full of ice cold water. It would help ease the headache drilling into his brain making it difficult for him to think. He moved off towards it following the same path as the wolves. Serene walked beside him, her head bobbing occasionally under Billy's limp hand.
After a few minutes of walking, Billy found the stream and fell rather ungracefully to his knees. He lay face down in the rushing ice water and hissed as it poured over his aching head. The pain intensified for a moment and then subtly it began to subside. Serene walked around Billy, puzzled by his behavior, and then abruptly darted off into the woods.
Billy pulled his head out of the water, the pounding within still loud and oppressive but the sharp pain had been dulled. His left arm was still in the stream. He had forgotten about it. Actually, he couldn't even feel it. He gently began to pull the blood-soaked cloth away. The water had washed some of the fresh blood off, but the remainder had dried. It was difficult to pull the cloth aside. Billy could feel a distant pain begin but he continued anyway. He had to know just how bad it was. The wound was jagged and the flesh torn but it didn't look too deep. He pulled at the sleeve and the material ripped until he had torn it off completely. He stuck the arm back into the water and washed it the best he could. He then used the sleeve to bandage his arm. It would have to do for now.
He finally took a look around and realized he was alone. A pang of disappointment stabbed at him. He shook his head at his lack of faith. He wasn't alone. He could still feel their presence like a soft blue flame. They were still there peering at him from the safety of the woods. He leaned his back against the sturdiness of a nearby tree and relaxed for a moment allowing his battered body to rest, his eyes drifting closed. He heard a sound behind him and felt the familiar presence of Serene as she began to lick his arm.
"I don't think that's very sanitary, but I appreciate the gesture."
She bounded in front of him and started sniffing his boots, tugging at the laces. He laughed as they became untied. "Stop that. What is with you?" He reached to retie his shoes, pushing at her playfully. She jumped aside and darted back in snagging a bit of his shirt in her teeth. She pulled.
Billy hadn't quite reckoned with her strength. She nearly pulled him off the tree. "Hey!" he shouted, his body crying out in protest. "Please just leave me alone for a minute. I need to rest."
Billy's head snapped up at the voice. Serene was staring at him intently with those hypnotic eyes but he didn't hear anything more. Then she barked at him commandingly, wanting him moving again. He drew in a deep breath and slowly began to stand upright, still holding on to the trunk of the tree.
"All right. I'm coming." He waved a hand out. "Lead on MacDuff." She loped off through the woods. Billy realized with a start that it was almost dawn. He had lost a bit of time while he was out. He cursed low. Aunt Meg was going to be upset. She didn't need this from him. If he had his communicator he could at least call the Command Center and relay word back to his Aunt and Uncle. With a quick sense of dread, he realized that he was lost. He didn't remember where he had stumbled from as he made for the stream. His head had hurt so badly that everything was a blur. Not to mention that the woods were still fairly dark. He'd never find his way around on his own. So for now he had no choice but to follow the wolf.
Maybe he wasn't going insane and the she-wolf would help him out of here. He had to hope. He knew a few landmarks in this area. Hopefully they would lead him past one he recognized and he could make his way back home. In the meantime, he acknowledged who was in command of the situation. He pushed himself off the tree and followed her sleek form. It was then he noticed that they had an escort for on either side of him could be seen the dim shapes of the other five wolves. He wasn't alone anymore, that was for certain.
It was a full hour later that Billy finally could go no further. He sank again to his knees. Serene came quickly up to him, licking and then tugging on his clothes. He put his hand on her.
"I can't Serene. I'm too tired."
She sat back on her haunches and regarded him. She took a deep breath and then began to howl. It was answered by voices in the distance, an intricate language that Billy wished he could understand. Billy quickly covered his ears as the sound restarted the ache in his head. "Please, no more," he begged her. She stopped abruptly and with one final lick she bounded off.
Billy crawled over and leaned back against a damp boulder and closed his eyes. "At least she didn't insist that I go with her." He was about to drift off to sleep and he caught himself. That was too dangerous. He suspected that Liam had given him a concussion. He wasn't sure of the severity of it but he knew that falling asleep was not a good thing. But he didn't know how he was going to stop himself though. He was exhausted. It took all of his strength just to keep his eyes open.
Suddenly the answer presented itself as the woods erupted in a plethora of lupines. They came from everywhere, Serene leading the way. Fifteen or twenty of them. Mostly full grown but a third of them were cubs. Billy straightened in surprise but didn't stand. He doubted he could have anyway.
Billy actually became nervous. What the hell was going on? This was all way too surreal for him. Perhaps he never really regained consciousness. Maybe his body was still up where he had first passed out continuing his dream of Serene. But it felt real, smelled real. Billy slumped. He just didn't care anymore. He'd play along. No problem. Just let him rest for a bit that's all he was asking for.
He would have drifted off but suddenly three cubs propelled themselves at him. He caught one of them but the other two landed laboriously on him, expelling his breath in a whoosh of air. Two of the puppies began licking him in a frenzy while their sibling began chewing on his boots and clothes. In seconds, his shoes were untied again. "Easy fellows."
They were so full of energy and life that it became infectious. Billy's exhaustion melted away. Wolves had such a natural inclination to play. Once they found out he could scratch their most elusive of itches they practically begged for his attention. Billy complied enjoying their affection. There was one youngster with familiar, piercing, golden eyes that sprawled over Billy's legs offering his stomach for a deep scratch. The older wolves formed a ring around the quartet, watching the interaction with suspicion and genuine curiosity.
Then there was a harsh deep bark and Billy looked up to see Serene flanked by two huge males in front of him. The cubs immediately slunk away. Serene playfully nipped at the one with gold eyes who eagerly returned the gesture before running after his siblings.
Billy regarded them almost as if they weren't quite real. "Is this where you eat me?" he said almost giddy with exhaustion. "Just wait till I'm asleep. I'll never even notice." He head dipped back against the cool rock.
Billy heard Serene's sharp bark of a command which brought him back to "reality" once more. He lifted his head and regarded Serene and her entourage. He studied each of them in turn, making a willful effort to remain conscious. Or at least he thought he did. Billy tried not to let the humor of the situation overwhelm him. He knew it was his injuries causing the light headedness.
"I'm sorry Serene." Billy shifted and sat up a little straighter. She turned to the wolf to her left, a huge dusty grey who seemed very old. The wolf turned his eyes on Billy and approached him, walking gingerly around the prone boy. Billy knew better than to reach out to him. The wolf's eyes never left Billy's as he bent his head to sniff his hand. There was a low rumble deep in the chest of the huge male more like a weighty breath than a growl. Seemingly satisfied, he turned and walked away.
The other wolf, the largest of them all, Billy knew. It was Serene's mate. The leg looked a bit better, and at least the wolf was putting his weight on it, a good sign it wasn't broken. Billy instinctfully nodded his head in acknowledgement. The male approached cautiously and came right over Billy's legs to stare him full in the face. Only inches away from the powerful jaws that Billy had felt once already, Billy's bravado threatened to fade away.
Then the black male nudged his head under Billy's chin. Stunned, Billy slowly brought his hand up and stroked his beautiful fur. The huge beast sighed. Serene gave a joyous bark and almost as if that were the signal, the rest of the pack converged on Billy. In seconds he was covered. It was almost as if each of them had to touch him just once. Billy was overwhelmed. He felt the same way about them. Tears sprang unbidden and he buried his face in the fur of those closest to him. He had never experienced such unabashed affection before and it had been a long time since he felt such a sense of family. Serene had called him "her cub." Perhaps that was the explanation for these bizarre events. He had read of whole wolf packs rejoicing in the arrival of new cubs. Maybe they saw him as a long lost son returned home to the fold. He didn't care really. He was just content for the first time in a long while.
Then as suddenly as it happened, it was over. Most of the pack drifted away to go about their usual business. Billy was not surprised to find the young cub with the golden eyes squirming back on his lap. He laughed and stroked the sleek spot between his ears. He noticed Serene nearby watching the exchange. She sneezed once and then wandered off in search of her mate.
Billy closed his eyes and drifted into a light sleep, shivering slightly against the dampness. He relished the warmth emanating from the small form of the cub whose constant shifting kept him from falling completely into a deep slumber and for that he was grateful.
Billy was walking through the woods again. This time he didn't feel the fear that had nearly overpowered him before. He wasn't surprised to find Serene waiting for him up ahead.
"Hello Serene." He glanced around and recognized the same dreamscape from their previous encounter. There was a low lying fog blanketing the ground. "I guess I can only talk to you while I'm asleep."
"In a way." She rose and walked off into the trees. Billy followed, her quiet voice drifting back to him. "Your Ninjetti powers are at their strongest whilst you sleep."
"But I don't understand how that could be. I gave up my powers. I have no coin, no crystal. There's nothing that links me to the grid anymore."
Serene laughed gently. "The Ninjetti force is not linked to a material object. It is linked to the soul. Your soul, William."
Billy searched inside him but found nothing but doubts and fear. "I can't feel it." The despair in his voice was unmistakable.
"It is there," she insisted softly. "You merely deny yourself access to it. Humans spend so much time believing in the material world that they distance themselves from the spiritual plane." There was disappointment evident in her tone. Her pace increased.
"Tell me how to access it, Serene. I want to learn." He rushed to catch up to her fleeting form, his breath coming rapidly from the exertion.
"Only when you want it for the right reasons."
Billy slid to a halt, disbelief plastered to his face. He watched her silvery shape dissipate into the mist. "But I...." He stopped, frantically analyzing his jumbled emotions. Why did he want the power again? Was it just to conform once more? To be one of the group?
He sank down onto the plush forest floor, a sudden flush of weakness overcoming him. He wanted to help fight evil once again. But wasn't that what he was doing? Just in a different way. Why wasn't it enough? What was it that he truly wanted? Dismay and confusion filled his heart and he settled his head into his hands. Finally the truth tumbled from his lips. "I want to feel whole again."
Billy felt the warm touch of Serene against his cheek. He reached out and embraced her, burying his damp cheeks into her fur.
"You will be whole again, young cub," she spoke quietly in his ear. "I promise you. You gave up your Zeo crystal because the destruction of the power coins was a terrible loss. You were always a true Ninjetti and when you thought the Ninjetti force was gone, it seemed no other power could take its place. This I know William. But without that power you felt alone and thereby you cut yourself off from your pack, your friends. But believe me when I say that no one has abandoned you. Especially not us."
Billy's eyes fluttered open and he took a deep breath, clutching to the remnants of the dream that had offered him hope. Amazingly enough, a number of the wolves lay curled around him. No wonder he didn't feel cold any longer. There were four or five groups of wolves within the clearing. Billy's was only one of them. He lay there relishing their shared body warmth. He felt a little better. The pain in his head had reduced to a dull ache and he didn't feel nearly as nauseous as before.
He brought his hand to caress the small cub still sprawled across him. It was with the same careless abandon that his younger nieces and nephews could so effectively demonstrate when they slept. He smiled and smoothed over the wild hair that stood up in a disarray across the pup's spine. He got the distinct impression the young cub's name was Midas.
Serene's head lifted up from Billy's leg and watched the young man. She rose and stretched, her long forelegs sliding out in front of her. She yawned and walked away.
Billy finally noticed her and smiled. She had not left him the entire time he was asleep. He eased Midas off his legs and carefully stood. His muscles ached in protest and he had to sit on the boulder for a moment before he could stand unaided. What he wouldn't give for some time on the Morphin Grid right about now. He extracted himself from the rest of the pack and then followed Serene into the woods.
He found her at the stream. She glanced up at his approach and then continued drinking. Billy knelt beside her and cupped the cold water in his hand to drink. It was cool and refreshing. He had forgotten how good pure water could be.
The sun was almost to its zenith and the warm rays streaked to the ground. He looked at his reflection in the stream and took better stock of himself. The right side of his face was a molted purple starting near a large knot at his temple. His jaw ached to move. He checked the wound on his arm. It was stiff and more painful than a few hours ago but there was no sign of infection for which he was grateful. But he needed medical attention soon.
"I have to go Serene." She turned to look at him, her amber eyes full and round. "I don't suppose you know the way out of here."
She cocked her head questioningly and Billy laughed. "It's all right. I'll just back track." He reached out to cup her soft cheek in his hand. "Thank you for everything, whether I imagined it or not. I understand now what you mean. I'm not alone. I never was." She gave a low whine and pushed harder against him. "I swear the poaching will stop and all the traps will be removed. You'll never have to fear the woods again."
Serene licked his hand and moved closer to him. He hugged her again not wanting to say goodbye to his new family but knowing that he had to. If he didn't get home soon his aunt would have every local Forest Ranger out looking for him. And the sooner he got home to some first aid, the sooner he could return to visit with the pack before his trip here in the mountains was at an end. He laid his forehead against hers for a moment. "Goodbye, Serene, and thank you," he whispered. "For everything." He stood slowly and began bearing upstream hoping to find the spot where he had rested the night before. Maybe then he could find his way back to the clearing and his communicator.
Serene watched the human as he strode into the woods. Noticing the presence of her mate beside her, she turned loving eyes to him. He too watched the young man disappear into the woods with a worried expression. Serene nudged him and groaned softly. The huge male gave a heavy sigh and then a low bark, licking his mate's muzzle. Seconds later, she jogged upstream. Neither of them saw another pale form dart into the woods. Midas was already hot on Billy's trail.
Billy picked a few berries along the way, ones he knew were safe to eat. It rewarded him with a little energy. He was going to need it. He had a long hike off the mountain if he couldn't find his communicator. He prayed it was just hidden under some of the leaves in the clearing. He took his time not wanting to exert himself beyond his diminished endurance.
A glimpse of grey startled him as Midas careened into Billy knocking his legs out from under him. Just barely catching himself he fell to one knee but still Billy laughed at the cub's wild antics. "What are you doing here?" He shoved the cub gently. "Go home."
Midas merely rolled over and started nipping at his jeans, his forelegs pushing against Billy's knee. Billy turned the sleek muzzle aside. "Pest," he accused him.
Billy rose and continued walking. Midas leapt up to follow him. Billy stopped and regarded him sternly. "You're not coming with me, Midas."
Midas gave a mock growl and bounded around Billy just out of reach. Billy looked for the rest of the pack but quickly realized the cub had come on his own accord. He knew he wasn't going to be rid of the cub that easily. It might be best if he just continued on. Maybe Midas would get bored and go home eventually. Besides Billy really didn't mind the company. In fact, he relished it.
Billy shook his head at his energetic companion. "Come on. Maybe you can help me find my communicator. Just stick close in case there are any more traps about." Billy grabbed a long stick and began tapping the ground in front of him.
Midas, pleased at Billy's new toy, grabbed hold of the stick's end and began tugging. Exasperated, Billy pulled back though swiftly realized he was outclassed. Still holding onto the stick, Billy just began walking. Midas fell into step with him, proudly carrying his end of the stick. "Well, at least this way I can keep you out of trouble," Billy murmured.
The two trudged deeper into the woods following the stream. An half hour later Billy stopped, recognizing the area. It was here where he had paused by the stream to ease his aching head. He regarded Midas. "Now comes the tough part, finding the clearing. I don't suppose you could point me in the general direction?"
Midas just continued to chew on the stick. There wasn't much left of it. Billy raised his eyebrow at the wolf then chuckled, moving off to examine the ground around the stream's bank. The bright sunshine revealed footprints that led up the slope. Rising, he followed his tracks praying the ground remained soft. Midas glanced up at Billy's departure. He grabbed what was left of the branch and trotted after him.
Billy expected it to take longer to find but in fact, he found the small clearing surprisingly quickly. It wasn't so much that his tracks were clearly visible but some preset instinct led him once again to the location he desired. It reminded him of when he had found his way to Serene that first night. A soft voice leading him to her. He could tell there was something different within him but he couldn't place a finger on what it was. It was like a warmth and strength that seeped into his veins like a distant memory reborn.
The clearing looked the same as he had left it last night. Last night, he mused. It seemed like eons ago. He knelt to the forest floor where he had passed out, carefully searching through the leaves but found nothing. Midas came sniffing around in front of him, disturbing the area even further. Billy noted the blood, his blood dotting the ground. Midas whined abruptly. Billy rubbed Midas, drawing a deep steadying breath. "It's alright boy."
He stood and moved carefully over to where he had fought Caleb and his deliverance-like family. The ground was torn up more here but Billy still could not find his communicator. It had vanished. Maybe Alpha had teleported it back to the Command Center. But how would the Rangers have known he was in trouble so soon? With his jeep still at his Aunt's house, he doubted she would have called Angel Grove. So how did they know?
An uneasy feeling crept in. He looked around quickly as the hair rose off the nape of his neck. Midas had frozen, his own fur spiked along his spine. Billy absently reached down to quiet the cub as he began growling. A faint sound of shifting wet leaves brought Billy's head snapping around.
Caleb appeared on Billy's right. In his hands he held a rifle and Billy's communicator. "Are you looking for this?"
Billy straightened slowly, anger and fear vying for control on his face.
When Billy didn't answer, Caleb continued. "I figured you'd return for this. Your expensive watch! At first I thought I'd sell it to cover some of our losses but you know what? I wanted revenge instead." Caleb grinned twistedly, the rifle barrel coming to bear on Billy. "And look, you even brought me a present. That cub will do nicely. I can sell him."
Billy reacted at that stepping protectively between Caleb and Midas. "No!"
Caleb laughed. "You don't have a choice Billy." He spat out his name. "There's no one around. You're on your own out here." He pointed to the left side of the clearing. "There's a metal cage over there. Put him in it."
Billy shook his head. "No way."
Suddenly, Midas bolted racing for the trees, away from the man who emanated evil. He fully expected Billy to follow him.
But Billy didn't. He watched in detachment as Caleb cursed, bringing the gun around to track the fleeing cub. Billy felt a sudden surge of power enflame his blood. He leapt at Caleb, covering the distance easily as he somersaulted, landing beside the startled poacher. Billy's hand reached out and shoved the rifle barrel aside just as the sharp crack of the shot sounded.
The tree to Midas' right exploded, showering the cub's thick coat with sawdust and splinters and then the cub was gone, vanishing into the woods. Caleb's fury erupted at losing his precious treasure once more.
"Damn you, kid!" He swung the rifle into Billy's arm, knocking him aside and to the ground. Billy fell hard, the impact of the rifle on his injured arm brought a white lancing agony through him. He struggled through the pain, realizing that he had lost the upper hand of the battle. It didn't matter though. Midas was safe. The cold iron of Caleb's rifle stabbed him in the chest.
"I don't know who the hell you are but I'm sick and tired of your meddling! Call him back or I'll kill you right here!"
Billy's eyes focused on Caleb. "I won't do that."
Caleb leaned into the rifle and the pressure made Billy wince. "You're all alone out here, wolf boy. No one is gonna hear your scream for help. Give me what I want." The sudden smile that appeared on the young man's face did more to freak Caleb out than the mysterious appearance of the wolves the other night. Why wasn't this kid afraid? Was he too stupid to realize that he was going to die?
The blue flame that had flared moments before rose again in Billy. The minute Caleb told him he was alone, Billy knew he wasn't. There was someone out there. The rush of warmth continued to course through him. There was no pain, no cold. Only a raw power whose signature Billy recognized as a long lost friend.
"I'm not alone," he whispered. Caleb's eyes widened in fear, the rifle trembling in his hands. He jerked his head around glancing about the ominous woods. He knew what the boy meant.
He swung back to Billy. "I'll kill some of them! I swear it! They might get me eventually but I'll take some of these devils with me! Call them off!"
A low howl moaned through the trees. Caleb spun about and fired wildly. Billy wasted no time in kicking Caleb's feet out from under him. Caleb went down, the rifle sliding a few inches away.
The rush of silver on Caleb's other side was not a surprise to Billy. He had recognized Serene's presence long before he heard her beautiful voice. She clamped down on Caleb's outstretched arm seconds before he could reacquire his weapon.
He screamed in pain and in terror. "Get it off!!"
Billy reached down and picked up Caleb's rifle. The minute he had the weapon, Serene let go and came to stand beside Billy. Caleb held onto his bleeding arm, sliding away from the wolf.
Billy motioned Caleb up. "I'm taking you off the mountain and handing you over to the authorities."
Caleb stared with pure hatred at the boy. "You'll never make it. You're bleeding as bad as I am." Billy didn't even look at his wound. He still felt nothing. Caleb continued. "It's just you and me and that wolf. You won't make it far and there's no one around for miles." He grinned wickedly. "I'll win and I'll make you pay."
Suddenly, Billy felt something else. The sensation of an incoming teleportation. Like the magical appearance of a rainbow, the Power Rangers arrived beside him. Billy exhaled wearily at his friends' arrival, relief flooding him.
Kat let out a small gasp at Billy's bedraggled state.
"You okay man?" Adam asked stepping up beside him.
Billy grinned. "I'm fine. Now." He turned to the prone poacher. "You see, I'm not alone, Caleb. I've never been alone. I've got people to rely on. What do you have?"
Caleb's wide eyes never left the Power Rangers. He had heard of the legendary team of superheroes. He sobbed in defeat. There was no way to get out of this with them involved.
The sound of crashing brush revealed two out-of-breath Forest Rangers trudging up to the ever growing group. The one in the lead skidded to a halt at the strange sight before him. "Uh, we heard a shot."
Billy handed the rifle over to them. "This man and some others, which I'll be more than happy to identify, have been poaching wolves in these woods. And this man, Caleb, just tried to kill me."
The stunned forest rangers accepted the rifle and their prisoner. Finally the senior Ranger, Arthur Kent, regarded Caleb with a smile. "Caleb MacAvoy. Well, well, well. This is our lucky day. You and your brothers have been very busy but I think this little escapade will finally put a stop to your poaching days for a long time."
He grabbed Caleb by the shoulder and pushed him to the other waiting Forest Ranger eagerly holding up handcuffs. Then he turned to the others. "You're Billy Cranston, I gather." Billy nodded. "Your aunt is very worried about you."
"I figured that," Billy replied sheepishly.
Ranger Kent grinned. "But Meg will be ecstatic to hear you're okay and that you bagged the most wanted poachers in this region to boot. Well done."
"I had a little help."
Ranger Kent immediately thought Billy referred to the Power Rangers. "Of course. Glad you folks were around. We'll take it from here." He regarded Billy again. "Looks like you could use some first aid. Why don't you come with us."
Billy shook his head to the amazement of all Rangers present. "Not just yet. I have some things to take care of first. The Power Rangers will see me home."
The Forest Ranger nodded but was a little hesitant until Tommy spoke up. "It's all right, we'll make sure he gets to his Aunt's house and receives proper medical care."
Ranger Kent shrugged and helped his partner move their prisoner down off the mountain. As soon as they were gone, the Rangers demorphed.
Adam voiced the questions burning in everyone's mind. "What's up, Billy? What happened?"
Rocky glanced down at Serene. "Is this your Aunt's dog?"
Billy bit back the laugh that threatened to slip. "Uh, no. It's a wolf."
Rocky's hand halted in mid air as he was reaching to pet Serene. "A wolf?" Serene watched the young man dressed all in blue curiously.
Billy grinned mysteriously. "I think you guys better brace yourselves."
Suddenly, without another warning, the entire wolf pack surged from the trees amidst the startled gasps of the Rangers. They converged on the small group of humans.
Billy was utterly calm, kneeling to greet Midas who literally flung himself into Billy's outstretched arms, a squirming mass of fur and legs. He had heard them come up soon after Serene's arrival.
"My God, Billy!" Tommy cried as they encircled the astonished group. "What is this?"
Billy shrugged as the pack swarmed about them, easily accepting the Rangers as friends of Billy's. They ran about joyously, barking greetings at the confused Rangers.
"Just think of them as an extended family," he tried to explain while two of the wolves were busily chewing on Katherine's sneakers. She desperately tried to hide behind Tommy, her frightened squeaks eliciting a smile from the team's leader.
"I guess I should have warned you. They have this thing for shoelaces," Billy informed her.
Adam was almost completely buried under a mound of fur, his loud laughter belaying any fears the rest had for his safety. "This is incredible Billy! How did it happen?"
"A reward for a good deed, I guess. I rescued Serene and her mate here from some of the poacher's traps."
Tommy reached down to pet one of the inquisitive wolves. "Alpha scanned the entire woods and located a bunch of traps. He teleported all of them to the Command Center."
Billy turned with a joyous gaze to Serene who still stood beside him. "The woods are safe again, Serene. Just like I promised."
Tanya came over and stood over Billy. She looked Billy over critically. "We need to get you back Billy. That arm needs attention."
Billy smiled as he noticed Serene's mate limping into view. "Actually there is someone else who needs some first aid too."
It was early the next morning and Billy relaxed on his Aunt's front porch. His arm was freshly bandaged and his other various scratches cleaned. His Aunt hovered protectively around him with a pitcher of lemonade and homemade white chocolate macadamia cookies. The other Rangers had stayed the night and were sprawled about the grounds as well. Aunt Meg made them feel more than welcome.
Ranger Kent was there also though he was a bit perplexed. "Tell me again why I need this stuff." He gestured to the bag of medical supplies on the ground beside his truck.
Billy opened his eyes and looked at the Ranger. "Because one of the wolves was injured by the poachers."
"Yeah but why are we waiting here? I've got a tranquilizer gun in the truck. All we have to do is track him down and we can administer first aid out in the woods."
Billy stood up from the rocking chair and stepped off the porch. His eyes looking towards the distant treeline as if he could see something the rest could not. "But that's unnecessary when they're perfectly willing to come to you."
Serene's family magically appeared on the edge of Meg's property. Shades of silver, grey and black against the deep green of the forest behind them. Midas and his sisters were with Serene as was her mate. The huge black male was still unsure about this but Serene seemed to be perfectly content so he followed her.
Aunt Meg came to stand beside Billy. "They're beautiful Billy." He had told her of his adventure but she still found it hard to believe. And yet here was the proof. It was amazing.
Midas bounded across the field to Billy, leaping up playfully. "Aunt Meg, this is Midas. I have a feeling you might be having him as a regular visitor. Would you mind?"
Aunt Meg giggled as Midas sprawled dramatically on his back across her feet for a scratch which she was perfectly willing to oblige. "Not in the least. They are all welcome here, Billy." Midas' siblings started playing with Rocky and Adam in a fine game of tug of war. There was no question who would win. Serene and her mate approached Billy.
Ranger Kent backed away fearfully towards the truck. "Uh kid, that male is huge. Are you sure about this?"
"Very," Billy replied. "Give me the supplies and some instructions and I'll take care of the rest."
Kent agreed and showed Billy how to administer the antibiotic to Serene's mate. There was little point in bandaging the leg but Billy did clean it properly. It looked better and better every day. The huge male tolerated Billy's ministrations but his eyes never left the nervous Ranger who stood a few feet away.
"There, it's done." Billy straightened and brushed his hand down the huge wolf's slick back who tore his gaze from the Forest Ranger long enough to nudge his huge head under Billy's chin. "You're welcome," Billy said. In a softer voice which only the two wolves could hear, "It's I who should be thanking you. Thank you for... completing me."
A sudden chorus of howls drifted from out of the forest, the wild songs of untamed nature and Billy knew that the entire pack was here. Their lovely expressive voices offering reassurance and a sense of belonging. Tears welled in his eyes. He would never be alone again.