Disclaimers and stuff: These aren't my characters, except for the ones I made up, and I don't have permission to use them. The songs were used sans permission, too (I'll credit them at the end, though). As for a rating... nothing worse than you can see on primetime TV. This takes place post-Turbo, during the summer after the changing of the guard (so to speak). C.R. December 1997
Not any longer.
For a mid-summer afternoon, the place was strangely quiet. Few kids were around. There was no music. No one was teaching a class, and behind the bar was a new face.
_I shouldn't have tried to come back. This isn't home anymore._ The watcher's eyes swept over the Youth Center, settling on one table in particularpositioned right in front of the bar near the steps. That table held many fond memories, but it was presently occupied by unfamiliar faces. Four teens: an African American boy in red, a girl of Asian descent in pink, a Caucasian female in yellow, and a Hispanic boy in green... four very different people yet obviously friends. They reminded the watcher of another group of friends many years ago. She scrutinized the quartet carefullyvery much like the teens she had once known. The disparity in races yet a sense of oneness... even the colors could be coincidental, but the bonding of that group was no accident. A glimpse at each wrist revealed the telltale band.
_Your legacy lives on, Billy, wherever you are._ They looked so young, so innocent still. _They're probably only two years younger than me at the most._ A lot could happen in two years. It hadn't been all that long ago that she had been so innocent and carefree; it seemed like a lifetime. No, she shouldn't have tried to come back. The memories were too painful.
"TJ? Yo, earth to TJ!" Cassie called out, waving her hand in front of her team mate's face.
"Huh? Oh, sorry, Cassie," he apologized.
"You went spacey on us right in the middle of your sentence," Ashley added.
"That woman over at the door...." TJ began.
"The one in the boots and leather jacket, carrying the helmet?" Carlos queried, being the only other one able to see the door without turning around. That didn't stop the other two members of the quartet from craning around to get a look.
"Isn't she a little old to be in here?" Ashley wondered.
"She doesn't look that old," Cassie countered, "maybe like eighteen or nineteen?"
"A little overdressed, isn't she? I mean jeans and leather jacket in the middle of summer?" Ashley continued.
"What about her?" Carlos queried.
"Just a strange feeling... she was staring at us pretty intently for a while," TJ continued. "It was almost as if she knew who we were."
"That's weird," Cassie murmured, taking his meaning.
"Hey guys!" bright-eyed Justin, the youngest member of the group, called out as he joined his friends. He noticed their furtive glances and muted conversation. "What's up?"
Carlos jerked a thumb towards the figure hovering nervously by the doorway. "Wondering what the little lady is doing here."
Justin glanced where the Green Ranger pointed, and his already wide eyes grew even bigger. "Omigosh!" he gasped.
"Do you know her?" Cassie wondered, seeing recognition flicker across his features. "That's Kim!"
Kimberly Hart was about to take her leave when she heard her name called. She cringed, backing deeper into the shadows. She shouldn't have been so careless...then, she saw who had spoken. She smiled as she recognized the mop top and telltale blue clothes. She had met Justin the last time she had come through Angel Grove. She had tried to do then what she wanted to do now, but she had run into Jason, and once he started talking about his problems she knew she couldn't burden him with hers. Then, Divatox entered the picture. At least the tin cans had stayed away for the duration of that mess; however, they returned almost as soon as the dust from Muranthias had settled, and she had been forced to flee once again.
"Kimberly!" Justin bubbled happily.
"Hey, short stuff." It wasn't often she could say that to anyone. She ruffled his hair affectionately. She still wasn't sure about a twelve year old holding the powergenius or notbut she trusted Zordon's judgement.
"What brings you here?" he queried.
"Oh, just stopping by for a little visit," she answered evasively. She glanced knowingly at the table. "I take it there have been some roster changes."
"After everyone graduated, Dimetria wanted the Rangers to pick their replacements."
"Oh, you don't know? Zordon and Alpha went home; Dimetria is the new mentor for the Rangers. I thought one of the others would have written you."
"I've... been out of touch for a while. Would you know where the others are?"
"Let's see, Kat won a scholarship to study ballet in London, Tanya is out east; she got a recording contract! Adam is on location in Australia for the summer; he's a stuntman on some big budget picturehe couldn't tell us what it was, though. Rocky has his school; I don't know where Jason has gotten to...."
"What about Tommy?" Kim asked quietly.
"Oh, he's still around, I think. He's been racing for his uncle John... has been since before graduation. I think he's getting ready to drive in the Canyon Classic."
"Driving a race car? Somehow, I figured he'd have gone into the dojo business with Rocky or Jason," Kim mused, her heart fluttering at the mention of her former boyfriend.
"Tommy hasn't done much with martial arts since the tournament," Justin answered, referring to the competition that had provided the money to save the shelter.
Kim noticed that he was studying her intently. It made her feel exposed and skittish. "Kim, is something wrong? I thought you were supposed to be on the Pan Global team. Aren't the games going on now?"
She should have realized that the young Blue Ranger would be as perceptive as the original. "Things... didn't quite work out."
"Are you in some kind of trouble?" Justin asked.
"You're better off not knowing," Kim sighed.
"You're one of us, Kim; we can help," Justin insisted.
"Not this time, Justin." Kim glanced up and noticed that Justin's team mates had vacated their table and were heading towards them. "Look, I have to go. It isn't safe for me to stay." She readjusted her backpack and slipped her helmet on. "Promise me one thing; if anyone comes looking for me, you never saw me. Got it?"
"Just trust me. You keep those rookies in line, okay?"
"Sure, Kim," Justin gulped.
"Is there a problem?" TJ queried, placing a protective hand on Justin's shoulder.
"No," Kim replied. She glanced down at Justin once last time, then at the others. "May the power protect you." In the stunned silence that followed her words, she slipped out the door.
"Who did you say that was?" Carlos mumbled.
"Kimberly Hart, the original Pink Ranger."
"Tommy, I don't quite know how to tell you this..." A phone call from London... Kat telling him that she had met someone at the ballet academy. Unlike the poor soul in the song, Tommy genuinely was happy for Kat. The news wasn't unexpected; in fact, he had been hoping that she might find someone else who could treat her as well as she deserved. He certainly hadn't been able to give her much of a relationship.
_If you can call it that_, he mused bitterly. They had tried to make a go of it after his break-up with Kim, but it had never worked. It was all his fault; if only he had been able to let go... but he hadn't been. Kat tried, bless her. It just hadn't been enough to make him forget.
_Maybe if I hadn't seen her... if Divatox hadn't kidnaped her..._ Who was he kidding? Even if he hadn't seen Kim again, he still wouldn't have been able to forget her.
_I wish I could have talked to her... gotten some answers..._ In the wake of the business on Muranthias, there hadn't been time for talking, and the ninja tournament was scarcely over when he noticed Kim slipping away. She never showed up at the victory celebration at the Youth Center; it was as if she had just disappeared. Tommy had thought about getting a hold of her in Florida, but there hadn't been time. Divatox had kept them on their toes... Zordon left... graduation had been right around the corner, then came his uncle's offer to race.
Tommy sighed, pushing his thoughts aside. Time enough to nurse old wounds later; the time trials for the Canyon Classic were in four days. It was a major race, and his uncle thought he was finally ready for one.
Although he turned his mind to racing, it did nothing to fill the hole in his heart.
John Rush hit the stopwatch and frowned as he looked at the time. "Bad?" Eddie, his crew chief, queried.
"He didn't even do this badly the first time behind the wheel," John muttered. "His time is way off, and he's all over the track in those turns."
"Why don't you call him in," Eddie suggested, "see what's bugging the boy. And while you're at it, I'll take a look at that left front wheel he was complaining about yesterday."
"Good idea," John agreed and slipped the radio headset back on.
_What am I doing here?_ Kim wondered from her perch high in the bleachers overlooking the old AG Speedway. It was only used for practices, demolition derbies and monster truck rallies these days; all the important races were held at the Angel Canyon Raceway, located between Angel Grove and Stone Canyon. Kim didn't know much about the sport, and she hadn't thought Tommy had either. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, the coldness coming from within.
She felt a lump in her throat as she watched the race car pull into pit row and the driver climb out of the window. From this distance, all she could make out was his white helmet and red jumpsuit; still, she would know Tommy anywhere. She saw him hang his head as his uncle talked to him. It made her heart ache.
_You knew it was going to be like thisseeing him again. You knew it was going to hurt._
It had hurt like hell seeing him a few months ago; she had wanted to talk to him so badlyto tell him the truth, but she couldn't.
_You gave him up to save his life, so what are you doing? Putting him in danger just by being here._
Still, she hadn't been able to resist the impulse to see him one last time. To know that he was alive and well... that her sacrifice hadn't been in vain....
_When did this nightmare begin? When I went to Florida, or before I ever left Angel Grove?_
She had been in Florida for a few months when she received the first lettera warning that dire things would happen to all those she knew and loved if she didn't stay away. She hadn't paid it any mind... just a bad joke. The second letter came right before Christmas, promising terrible things would befall her family. Again, she dismissed it. There was no third warningjust an anonymous note with her dad's name on it. Twenty-four hours later, he and her stepmom had been in a car accident-a hit and run that had nearly killed them.
Coincidence, she tried to tell herself, but she was nervous now. The next letter had Kenny's name on it, and twenty-four hours later, her brother's apartment had been torched; he barely escaped with his life. Another warning came; it told her not to go to the police or inform her friendsthe Rangers. Trini's name had been on the bottom of that note. The following day she read of the bombing in Geneva at the university where the peace delegates were housed.
Whoever was sending her the notes was serious. She had begun to suspect someone was watching her. More than once she had glimpsed strange shadows as she went from the gym to her apartment. She knew that either her mom or Tommy would be next. There was nothing she could do about her mother, but she could protect Tommy. If her pursuer thought she no longer loved himthat he meant nothing to hermaybe he would leave him alone. She got rid of nearly everything he had given her and sent him a letter saying she had found someone else. It killed her to do that, but it was the only way she could think of. No note with Tommy's name on it ever arrived, but one with her mother's had.
After that, Kim saw the first of the silver plated sleazoids. Standing close to seven feet tall, heavily armored and armed with high tech weaponry, he looked like one of Zedd and Rita's monsters. He wasn't. He was far more deadly and was casing the gymnasium. Kim knew then that she had to leave; she couldn't endanger the lives of the other girls and coaches. She made her plans carefully and secretivelyor so she thought. She had slowly wiped out her savings account. She purchased a motorcycle for a fast getaway. Her backpack was loaded with necessities in case she needed to leave at a moment's notice. It had proven necessary sooner than she would have liked. Her watcher and his tin can buddies attacked the gym one afternoon. Kim slipped out under the cover of chaos and made her escape. She had been running ever sincefor over a year. It didn't matter where she went, they always found her.
These days, she no longer recognized herself when she looked in the mirror. Gone was the perky teen with hopes of gymnastic gold and the love of the most wonderful man in the world. In her place was a woman who had endured a lot of hard living in the name of survival. That woman was tired now. What was the point? Survival just wasn't enough of a reason any longer. There was no joy in her life, nothing to look forward to but another day on the roada meal and a safe place to sleep if she was lucky. She was tired of running. Tired of being afraid. She didn't know why those thugs were after her or who sent them. It didn't matter anymore. When next they came, she'd face them instead of fleeing. They might take her at last, but not without a fight. That was why she had come home. She had wanted to say good-bye to her friends.
_Good-bye, Tommy. You'll probably never even know I'm gone. I just wish there was someway to tell you the truth... to tell you how much I love you and miss you...._
Kim felt herself getting choked up, but she shoved those emotions down to the bottom of her soul lest they overwhelm her. She pulled her helmet back on and made her way towards the exit. First, she'd head back to her hotel room and maybe catch a quick nap; she had ridden all night to make Angel Grove ahead of her pursuers. Since there was no one else to see, she'd hit the road again. Better not to be around innocent by-standers when the attack came; the sleazebuckets didn't particularly care who got hurt in the crossfire.
Suddenly, she felt the hackles on her neck rise. The metal bleachers began vibrating, and Kim heard the hum of a teleporation beam. They had found her again. _Not here! Not now! Not with Tommy down there!_
"Target has been located; proceed as directed...." the soulless voice intoned as the first of the hunters materialized. Kim sprinted towards the aisle; she had to lead the goons out of the stands... away from Tommy.
"I'm sorry, Uncle John," Tommy apologized as he saw the disappointment in his uncle's face. "My mind's just not on driving today."
"That phone call you got this morning?" John queried.
"Look, I know it's hard to put your personal problems aside, but if you want to qualify for the Canyon Classic, you've got to get your head together."
_If you only knew how good I've gotten at pushing my personal problems aside; I've been doing it for a very long time_, Tommy reflected. "I know," he said aloud.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
He had been bottling things up inside for so long, Tommy wasn't sure he could discuss it anyone. While he deciding whether to take his uncle up on his offer or not, he saw his Aunt Jess and her friend Muriel emerging from the trailer. The family pretty much stayed at the track right before a major race; Jess when everywhere with John, and while Muriel worked with Tommy's mom at the hospital, she spent a lot of time at the track because her husband was a member of the pit crew.
"Not having a good morning?" Jess asked.
"You could say that," John answered, slipping an arm around her shoulders.
"Don't worry, Tommy; it'll pass," Jess said cheerfully as she mussed her nephew's hair.
"I suppose," he said glumly.
The air was suddenly filled with the screech of tearing metal. "Good Lord, what are those things!" Muriel gasped. All eyes turned to the stands to see a tiny figure in leather jacket and helmet leap nimbly over the aisle railing with four men in wicked looking armor in hot pursuit. A beam of energy shot out of the lead pursuer's arm-mounted gun, blowing away a large portion of the bleachers ahead of his quarry. The fugitive tried to leap across the blob of fused metal but mistimed the jump and went tumbling down the concrete stairs.
"I don't know what's going on, but that guy needs help," Tommy said grimly, old battle instincts kicking in.
"Tommy, no!" his uncle shouted, but Tommy was already racing across the track.
Kim somersaulted down the stairs until she could get her feet under her. She felt a twinge in her ankle as she came up running, but there was no time to worry about that. She narrowly dodged another shot.
_They're herding me away from the exits, dammit!_ She was going to have to try a new tactic if she was to get out of there. Kim charged towards the lamp post and used her momentum to swing around. She caught her closest pursuer in the chest, knocking him aside. Then, she started back up the stands, running up the seats instead of the steps. _They won't be expecting that!_ Maybe she had come home to die, but not yet... not here where Tommy could see... The hunter bringing up the rear lashed out, a steel jacketed forearm smashing into her back, sending her sprawling across the metal seats. Fire flared in her chest. _Not my ribs again!_
The pain was inconsequential; she had to keep moving even though it was hard to draw a breath. There was a way to take her assailants out but, she'd do it only as a last resort. Killing monsters was one thing, but killing men... Pedro had taught her to be a crack shot, and she had discovered that the only thing that could dent that armor was the sleazoids' own weapons. Still, in spite of everything she had endured, she had not become a killer. Kim rolled out of the path of another blast and bobbled to her feet.
"Scanners indicate approaching humanoid life forms...." one of the hunters intoned.
_No!_ Kim shrieked silently. Her pulse quickened, and her blood ran cold as she heard a familiar "ki-yai!"
It had been months since Tommy last fought as a Ranger; his skills had atrophied. His timing was off as he met the first of the armored thugs with a flying kick, and he no longer had the Power augmenting his strength. Yet, the longer he punched and blocked, the more things came back to him, and what he lacked in strength he compensated for in speed and maneuverability. However, he quickly realized that he was outmatched. Even the robot cogs weren't as solid as the armor these guys wore; they were brushing him off like a pesky fly. They weren't pulling their punches, either, as a glancing blow had his head spinning. Perhaps he couldn't take them out, but he could buy their quarry enough time to escape.
_Damn it, Tommy; why'd you have to try and be a hero?_ Kim lamented, recovering from her latest dive to the pavement. The thug she had sent sprawling had recovered and had Tommy pinned from behind. He struggled fiercely, but there was no way he could break the sleazebucket's grip. The team leader leveled his weapon at Tommy's chest.
"All who interfere with the primary directive are to be eliminated."
Kim couldn't have said where the burst of energy came from, but it couldn't have arrived at a better time. She launched herself forward and lunged at the leader, knocking him aside. His blast went wide, clipping the man who restrained Tommy.
"Nyah, nyah, can't catch me, ya bucket of bolts!" Kim taunted as she let her momentum carry her forward. However, in her haste to save Tommy, she had lost track of the other two assassins. A blast came in from her blind side; the metal beneath her erupted, sending her flying.
"Oh no you don't," Tommy growled, kicking at the recovering hunter at his feet. He sent the goon sprawling, his gun flying from his hand. While Tommy's attention was diverted, the other two armored soldiers came forward, grabbing his arms and effectively restraining him with no small amount of pain. Their leader stood before Tommy once again, and Tommy glared at him blackly.
"Scanners identify the subject as Thomas Oliver, age eighteen... instructions indicate that he is not to be terminated. He is to be used to draw out the target."
Kim was slow getting up; her eyes wouldn't clear. Her jacket still smoked from being singed, and in spite of the cushioning protection of her helmet, her head was still ringing. As she climbed to her hands and knees, she noticed three people running towards the stands. That's all she needed: more innocent by-standers.
"Let me go... ugh!"
Kim whipped around. The sleazebuckets had Tommy again, one having just delivered a vicious blow to his solar plexus. Tommy went limp in their grasp. She didn't know why he hadn't been shot yet, but she wasn't about to wait to find out. She crawled towards the tin-plated thug Tommy had taken out; he must have damaged the armor's power pack with his kick, otherwise the killer would have been back on his feet already. Fortunately for Kim, his gun was well out of reachhis, but not hers.
"You heard him; let him go!" she rasped, leveling the gun at the trio who held Tommy. Although she was shaking on the inside, the gun never wavered.
"Throw down your weapon and surrender, and the subject will be released." Actions, however, belied the cold words as the leader raised its forearm mounted blasternot at her but at Tommy.
Kim didn't even blink. She simply pulled the trigger.
Tommy's eyes went wide as the assassin holding him at gun point suddenly had no head. It had been completely vaporized. He felt the heat of the lethal beams as they shot past his cheeks, taking out his other captors. The three bodies fell to the bleachers. In a flash of light, they were gone. On his knees and numb with shock, Tommy raised his head to regard the person he had been trying to help; now he could tell that it was a female. She slowly lowered the gun; he could see that she was shaking.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
He still didn't have enough air to speak, so he simply nodded. Then, he caught a flash of silver... movement behind her. His body stiffened as he tried to call out a warning. Apparently, she had caught it, too, for she whirled around and fired, taking out the fourth would-be killer. It dissolved in a burst of light like its companions. The woman quickly tossed the gun aside; it, too, vanished.
"II'm sorry," the woman stammered, and she turned and fled.
Kim wanted to be sick. She had known what would happen if she went for the head; she had seen it once, but it had been the only way to keep them from killing Tommy. They wouldn't have let him go; she knew better. Clutching her bruised ribs, Kim staggered towards the entranceway. She had to get out of there; when the sleazebuckets returned, there would be more of them.
"Not so fast, miss."
Kim recognized Tommy's uncle as he stepped in front of her. "Please, II've got to get out of here," she insisted, trying to push past him.
"You're in no shape to go anywhere."
"You don't understand... they'll be back... if you help me, you'll be in danger."
"It's too late for that, I'm afraid."
"We'll take care of her, John. Go help Tommy," Jess directed as she and Muriel caught up with her husband.
"Tommy? Is he okay?" Kim asked anxiously.
The two women traded puzzled glances. "I think they only knocked the wind out of him," Muriel answered.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this! He wasn't supposed to get hurt... that's why I let him go... so he wouldn't...."
Kim suddenly went limp in Muriel's arms. "Let's lay her down and get this jacket and helmet off of her," she directed.
The two women were struggling with Kim's outerwear as John helped Tommy over. "Tommy?" Jess queried. Her sister would never forgive her if something happened to her son.
"I'll be okay... need to catch my breath," he gasped. He eyed the prone young woman, noticing that the black covering on her helmet was chipping away, revealing flashes of pink and white underneath. Her jacket reminded him an awful lot of the bomber jacket he owned.
"What did you think you were doing?" John demanded. "You could have been killed!"
"She needed help," Tommy replied. He couldn't even begin to explain it to his uncle that he'd been closer to dying than this. "Who is she?"
"Okay, we'll just ease her helmet off...." Jess murmured as she worked the protective gear off, freeing a caramel colored braid.
It was fortunate for Tommy that his uncle was still supporting him, otherwise he would have toppled over in shock. Even so, it felt as if he had been kicked in the stomach as he gazed on the thin, pale face. He could only manage one word.
"You're going to wear a hole in my carpet," John teased him gently.
"I can't help it," Tommy sighed, running a hand up under his hair and around his neck.
"Your little girl was pretty beat up; she needs a hospital not a track nurse."
"I know that. Why didn't you call for an ambulance?"
"And run the risk of those silver plated goons going after her in the hospital? She seemed to think that they'd find her no matter where she was." John regarded his nephew for a moment. "Tommy, I know you've been keeping something from us... something important."
Tommy's blood suddenly ran cold. "What do you mean?"
"Your sudden departures at all hours of the day or night haven't exactly gone unnoticed, and your excuses were pretty thin. You never could lie convincingly. Your folks never pressured you about it, but they knew something was up, and they always had this feeling that if you could have told them about it, you would have."
For a moment, Tommy thought of giving his uncle the answer he deserved, but old habits died hard. "It... doesn't matter any more, Uncle John. That part of my life is over now."
"Is it?" John asked pointedly, and Tommy understood what he was getting at. Those creeps chasing Kim were an awful lot like some of the things they had fought as Power Rangers, but they were colder somehow, more lethal. And the way Kim had taken them out was just as cold and lethal. Tommy desperately wanted answers; however, the only person who could give them to him was out cold in his aunt and uncle's bedroom.
_Pretty deep thoughts for someone who's going to be nineteen in a few months,_ he mused. It was the truth, though; he had never felt whole after that day, and Kat, well... she could never replace Kim. Sometimes her presence only served to remind him of what he had lost.
At the moment, however, Tommy felt no anger. He felt fearfear for the beaten young woman in the other roomand the desire to protect her at all costs.
"How's your patient?" John queried.
Tommy spun around. He hadn't heard his aunt emerge from the bedroom. "She sleeping pretty deeply," Jess reported, shaking her head. "Poor thing, I wonder when was the last time she had a decent night's rest. Or when she last had a decent meal. Her ribs are so prominent... no wonder they bruised so easily. She's seen some hard living of late."
"With those things chasing after her, I shouldn't wonder," John sighed. Tommy still had yet to find his voice.
"Muriel says that there's evidence of other injuries that have healed overwithout benefit of a doctor's care," Jess continued. "Tommy, do you know what's going on? It's obvious Kim's in trouble, and she's deathly afraid that we're going to get hurt if we help her."
"I wish I knew, Aunt Jess; I haven't heard from her since she broke up with me," Tommy confessed.
His aunt patted his arm reassuringly. "Let her sleep for now; she needs it. There'll be time enough for questions later."
"We'd just better be prepared in case trouble shows up," John added.
"Here, Tommy." Jessica tossed him a key ring with a single key. "There's nothing you can do here but wait, and I know how much you love waiting."
"What's this?" Tommy queried.
"The key to Kim's hotel room. It fell out of her pocket when we slipped her jeans off. Go get her bags. It probably won't be safe for her to go back there."
_Kim, what has happened to you!_
He found her room facing an interior hallway, and Tommy couldn't shake the feeling that she had chosen it for security purposes. Upon entering the small, spartan room, he was surprised to find only one bagKim's old backpack. He probably shouldn't have, but he felt compelled to go through the contents. They were pitifully few: a brush, toothbrush, travel sized toiletries (he had the uncomfortable feeling they had been gleaned from hotels like this one), a pitifully small roll of money, jeans, shorts, a couple of t-shirts, a sweatshirt, some underwear... things that could be easily stuffed into the bag in a hurry. And it looked like they had been so stuffed pretty recently.
_How long have you been on the run from these things, Kim?_ Then, he found something else in the bottom of the bag; it was the only item that was neatly folded. He nearly dropped it when he pulled it out into the light. A flannel shirtwhite and green checked... one of his. Tommy closed his eyes, remembering the day he had given it to her as if it was yesterday instead of nearly four years ago...
"Here, Kim," Tommy said, pulling his shirt off and placing it over her tiny shoulders.
"Thanks. It wasn't supposed to be this cold," she replied, snuggling into the warm, soft fabric. She inhaled deeply, then giggled. "It smells like you."
"Well, I have been wearing it all day," he replied sheepishly. "I don't mind. I like the way you smell."
She had tried to give it back at the end of the afternoon, but he had told her to keep it. The first time she had worn it around the others, she had blushed as red as Jason's uniform when Zack teased her about it.
_Why would she have kept it if she didn't care for me any more?_ Tommy noticed a lump inside the shirt, and pulled out a well worn book with a broken lock. A diary? He opened the front cover, and the writing therein shook him almost as much as seeing his old shirt: To the finder of this book. If anything happens to me, please send this book to Tommy Oliver....
Why would she want her diary sent to him? However, before Tommy could pursue the thought, he heard noises outside Kim's doora suspiciously familiar creaking noise. Diary and shirt in hand, he dove under the sagging bed. Scarcely had the bedspread settled back in place when the door flew inward in a shower of splinters. Tommy glimpsed four pairs of metal-shod feet from the safety of his hiding place.
"Scanners register one human life form," a flat, almost robotic sounding voice intoned.
_Okay, they aren't human,_ Tommy mused. A lump formed in his throat. They knew he was there and no doubt knew exactly where he was hiding. What he wouldn't give to have his old communicator/teleporter back!
"If it is not the intended target, then it does not concern us." Another of the would-be assassins remarked; his voice rang with the tone of command. "Proceed with elimination directive."
Tommy almost breathed a sigh of relief, then he heard a chilling whoosh and smelled smoke. _Shit, they've torched the room!_
Tommy remained hidden for a few more seconds, wanting to make sure that the hunters were gone. When he rolled out from under the bed, he found the room totally engulfed in flames; window and door were both blocked.
_Let's hope this jumpsuit is as flameproof as Uncle John says it is,_ Tommy gulped, gathering himself to make a dash towards the flaming doorway. However, before he could move, he vanished in a flash of red tinged white light.
"Oh man, Dimetria, if you weren't in that tube, I'd kiss you!" Tommy gushed.
"I am pleased to see you, too, Tommy," the native of Inquirus remarked, wryly amused. "It is not often that one encounters the Mercytes and lives to tell of it."
"Mercytes? You mean those sleazebuckets in the pointy armor?"
"Who or what are they?"
"Mercytes are android assassins, outlawed in most portions of the universe. They are the deadliest hunters known to civilized beings. Like Alpha, they are fully sentient once activated and do not stop until their programed target is eliminated. Very much like a hydra, if you strike one down, another arises to take its place."
"Programed target... they're after Kimberly, but why?"
"That is unknown. It was by merest chance that Alpha detected their presence; the Mercyte are well cloaked from most technology. The scanners registered an anomalous energy signature... the briefest flash...."
"I bet when Kim fried those tin cans... in the seconds before they disintegrated," Tommy realized. "Dimetria, what can I do? Those things have been chasing Kim for who knows how long...."
"It is a credit to her resourcefulness and intelligence that she is still alive."
"Is there anything you can do to stop them? I know Kim and I aren't Rangers any longer, but...."
"I will consult with the Blue Senturion; perhaps he has had some experience in dealing with the Mercyte. To my knowledge, there is only one way to stop a Mercyte: change its programing at the source."
"You mean, find out who wants Kim dead and get him/her/or it to tell the things to leave her alone? We don't even know where to begin looking," Tommy sighed defeatedly.
"Perhaps her diary will provide us with some clues," Dimetria suggested. "I sure hope so. I'd better get back to the track... back to Kim."
"I will return you to your vehicle."
Dimetria regarded the monitor as she watched the former Ranger slide into his truck. _Finding who wishes your friend dead will be more difficult than you know. The Mercyte you are dealing with are more sophisticated than anything I have ever encountered. Somebody in the future wishes Kimberly Hart eliminated in the past._
"Yes, it was the Mercytes."
"That's what they're called."
"How did you...?" John began, but he saw the look in Tommy's eye as he ushered him into the trailer. He knew Tommy wanted to tell him but for some reason could not. Well, if his nephew couldn't tell him, then maybe it was time he took a guess. "The Power Rangers?" John was rewarded by the flash of alarm, surprise, and relief in Tommy's eyes. Somehow, it made perfect sense that his nephew had been one of the teen superheroes. "This sounds like something that'd be up their alley. What's that?" he asked, indicating the book and the shirt.
"All that's left of Kim's stuff," Tommy replied. That his uncle had figured out he was a Ranger had startled him, but he was immensely relieved to have it outand that he wasn't going to pry. In truth, he knew he needed to tell them with the danger Kimberly was in.
"Is the book important?"
Tommy clutched the small volume as if his life depended on it. "It's Kim's diary." The reason Tommy had been so late in returning was because he had pulled off to the side of the road to skim through it. He hated violating Kim's privacy like that, but he just had to know...the words he read had already etched themselves on his heart and soul.
...I couldn't bear it if anything happened to Tommy, so I did the only thing I could do. I sent him that God-awful letter telling him I had found someone else. I had to otherwise he would have demanded an explanation... I couldn't run the risk of having him coming down here looking for me. I know Tommy; if I said I was happy with someone else, he wouldn't cause trouble. He'd want me to be happy. It killed me to do that, but I had to make whoever was hurting my family and friends believe that I truly didn't love Tommy any more...when I loved him more than anything else in the whole world....
"The things have been after Kim almost since she left Angel Grove," Tommy explained. "They've gone after everyone close to Kim... they even found Caroline and Adrian in Paris. That's why she sent me that letter, Uncle John. She was trying to protect me."
There was more... lots more, and all of it difficult to read. After the attacks in Paris, Kim realized that she was being stalked. The gym wasn't safe any longer. He read how she had planned her escape and how she very nearly hadn't made it. She had been on the run for almost a year, living like a fugitive and trying to stay alive and one step ahead of her relentless pursuers. Gone was the perky, optimistic teenager; in her place was a woman hardened by the fight for survival, and Tommy wasn't the only one who mourned her loss:
This isn't living; I'm tired of running, tired of being afraid. They've taken away everything that has ever given my life meaning. I want this to end. The next time an attack comes, I'm not going to flee. Maybe I should have tried fighting back a long time ago. Maybe then this nightmare would have been over by now... yeah, right. Who am I kidding; I'd already be dead.
I know I shouldn't go back, but I can't help it. If I'm gonna die when I finally make my last stand against the sleazoids, I want to be able to see my friends one last time. To say goodbye, even if they can't hear my words. I just wish I could tell Tommy... more than anything, I wish that. I hope this diary survives me; then he'll know....
Tommy shuddered at the thought that Kim had come home to die. _Not if I can help it!_
"Jess, she's starting to wake up," Muriel called from the bedroom. Tommy bounced up from the couch as his aunt emerged from the kitchen.
"Maybe you should wait out here," Jess suggested gently as she passed through. Tommy ignored her and wandered down the hall after her.
"Safe, Kimberly," Jess said.
"Nowhere's safe for me anymore. I gotta go, before they come back...." Kim tried to scramble out of bed, but a firm hand pushed her back, and she didn't have the strength to fight. "Who are you?"
"Don't tell me you've forgotten. Jessica Rush, remember?"
"Tommy's aunt... Omigod, Tommy! Those sleazoids... is he okay?"
"Sh, settle down. Your sharpshooting saved him."
"... never killed 'em before... always ran... but I had to...." Tears choked her, and she tried to hide them.
"We know, Kim." Jess glanced back at the doorway and noticed Tommy standing there; he looked on the verge of tears himself.
"Please, I've got to go; you're in danger as long as I'm here."
"We understand the risks, Kimberly. We're here to help you. Besides, you have nowhere to run to."
"I need to get my things... get out of town...."
"The hotel was torched by your pursuers; there's nothing left for you to get."
"No! Was anyone hurt?" That was her worst fear: that innocents would be harmed.
"Everyone made it out, according to the news reports," Muriel supplied helpfully.
"But I'm afraid you lost everything... your room was the one where the fire started," Jess explained. "I sent Tommy to get your things, but I don't think he...." Muriel tapped her shoulder. When Jess looked, she saw that Muriel was holding a book and a flannel shirt and that Tommy had retreated to the shadows again. "Actually, he managed to salvage two things."
"My diary," Kim murmured numbly as she accepted the book. Then, she glimpsed the other item Jess held out to her. With quivering hands, she took the garment from Tommy's aunt and clutched it to her chest. "Thank God, oh thank God!" Tears streamed down her cheeks; then came the sobsgreat body racking sobs. Kim buried her face in Tommy's shirt as all the unshed tears from the last year came pouring out in unstoppable torrents.
It was too much for Tommy. He rushed over to Kim's side and pulled her into
his arms. He held her as if he would never let her go.
She opened her eyes... she rarely did that first any more. If she had been taken, she didn't want her captors to know she was awake; it would give her a slight edge. At the moment, she didn't feel as if she was in danger. In fact, she felt safer than she had in a long, long while. Under her cheek was a bright red t-shirt, and the chest underneath it rose and fell with even breaths. She was in someone's lap, an arm cradling her protectively. She felt a chin resting against her head; it was a familiar feeling... one she hadn't enjoyed in ages.
Her body went taut. What was she doing? Every moment she stayed, she was putting Tommy in greater danger. That's why she had let him go... She had to go... she should go... but Kim couldn't move. She didn't want to move. It just felt so good. She closed her eyes again and buried her face in the tear-dampened shirt clutched to her bosom. It was her most cherished possession, the only thing she had kept of Tommy's when she cut him out of her lifeher heart. The thought that she had nearly lost it had been devastating. Last night she hadn't realized it, but now she could detect the faint traces of smoke about the fabric. The fire... Tommy could have been killed!
Then, she became aware of other scents: the tang of Tommy's sweat, the spice of his aftershave, and the delectable aroma of pancakes and bacon. How long had it been since she had eaten breakfast? Hell, when was the last time she had eatenperiod? Well over twenty-four hours for certain.
"You can stop pretending to be asleep, Beautiful."
Hearing Tommy's soft, warm voice rumbling up from his chesthearing him call her by his pet name for hernearly brought Kim to tears again. It hurt so much being without him. She shouldn't let her guard down. She knew Tommy had gotten together with Kat; even being in London, Kim couldn't imagine that Kat would let him go. Tommy shifted, tilting her chin up. His smile threatened to break her heart.
"How'd you know I was awake?" she murmured. "Your stomach gave you away. Hungry?"
Kim hated to admit it, but her empty belly emitted an ignomious growl. She blushed. "Come on, Aunt Jess is a great cook."
"I shouldn't, Tommy... I can't stay... you're in danger..."
"I thought you were tired of running... tired of being the warrior... of being alone," Kim blinked, surprised.
Tommy reached over and tapped the cover of the journal resting on the bed beside them. "I know I shouldn't have looked, but...." he confessed sheepishly.
"You know about everything?" she asked in a tiny voice. "Everything."
It had been months since she had felt the urge to cry, and here she was on the brink again in less than twenty-four hours. And his tone... it was almost enough to make her dare to hope... She looked up into his face. She could see that he had questions. "What is it?"
"We can talk about this later..." Tommy offered, not wanting to press her.
"The one thing I've learned is not to put something off . There might not be a later," she said bleakly. "Will you tell me, or should I guess? Is it about the letter?"
Kim could not hide her surprise; she would have thought that would have been the foremost question in his mind. Tommy chuckled a bit at her expression. "You explained that in your journal," Tommy reminded her, "and even if you hadn't, after seeing you last night, I would have had to been as dense as Bulk not to have figured out that you still cared."
Kim racked her brain, trying to remember what she had said and done last night, but things were just so hazy. "How...?"
"I know because of this," Tommy murmured, plucking at his old shirt. "You didn't really care about getting the diary back, but this... your face lit up with such relief when you saw it, and the way you cried into it, I could tell it still meant something to you... that I still meant something to you."
"It was my last link to you," Kim whispered, unconsciously nuzzling her cheek against the soft fabric, "the only one I could allow myself." Then, she recovered herself. "I suppose, though, that it doesn't really matter... " It hurt so much to have him know, knowing that his heart was no longer hers. She wished he hadn't read that damned book; he wasn't meant to see it until after she was gone...
"...but it does, Kim," Tommy insisted. His expression brightened, becoming soft and warmalmost tender. "It matters because I still love you."
Again, all Kim could do was gape at him in amazement. However, when she found her voice, she sputtered, "but what about Kat? I thought you and she were...."
Tommy should have realized that Kim would think that after that business with Divatox; she couldn't possibly know that that's what showed him where his heart truly lie. If only she hadn't disappeared after the match....
"... not for some time," he replied, and they hadn't been a couple in the true sense of the word since they had received their Turbo powers. They had just been too stubborn to let go.
Kim didn't know what to say. True, she had prayed for a chance to explain to Tommy, to tell him how she still felt, but she never dreamed that he would still feel the same way about her. It was almost too good to be true.
As if sensing Kim's skepticism, Tommy tilted her chin up and smiled lovingly into her eyes. "Believe it, Beautiful. I love you." Then, his lips descended upon hers.
Time seemed to stand still for Kimberly as Tommy's lips molded against hers in a kiss that was as familiar as the flannel shirt she clutched and as brand new as the day. The old affection was there, but there was something deeper, stronger. It was an offering of himself; all she had to do was accept it. Kim knew she shouldn't, not while there was still such danger, but she felt herself responding anyway, taking what he offered and giving up herself in return. Tommy just as eagerly accepted.
"Tommy, what just happened?" she squeaked out when the need for air won out over the exchange of emotion.
"We've each regained the missing part of our souls," he replied, cradling her close.
"Tommy, I don't know if I can...." she began, pulling away. The hurt in his eyes was like a knife in her chest. "It's not that I don't love you... I do, more than life itself! It's just that I'm not the girl you fell in love with anymore. I've changed... I've had to in order to stay alive...."
"I don't call what you've been doing living: merely survival. I read your words. You're more warrior now than woman, but I also think that there's still a woman underneath the warrior. A warrior wouldn't have cried over a simple shirt. The Kimberly Hart I fell in love with is still inside you somewhere. We just have to find her, that's all."
Kimberly's long hidden emotions threatened to burst forth once again; however, the feeling-laden moment was disrupted by an undignified growling.
"Why don't we try and look for her after breakfast," Tommy teased just as his own belly announced its thoughts on being empty.
For the first time since her nightmare began, Kim laughed. She had thought for the longest time that she would never laugh again.
Kim slipped off Tommy's lap, stretched out, and realized something was missing. "Um... where are my jeans?" she queried sheepishly.
"Over the chair," Tommy answer with a grin. The woman was still there, all right; after all, a warrior wouldn't have blushed at having been caught in nothing but panties and a t-shirt.
"No thanks, Mrs. Rush," Kim demurred, setting her fork down. Breakfast had been heavenly; she hadn't eat so much or so well in forever.
"Please, call me Jess."
"Thanks, Jess." Kim glanced over at Tommy who had been staring at her on and off throughout the meal. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing. For a while there, it looked like you could give Rocky a run for his money," Tommy chuckled, recalling their friend's notorious appetite. He immediately regretted his words when he saw Kim's crestfallen expression. How could he have forgotten that there had been times when it had been days between meals for her. He reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. "I'm sorry."
"You ready to head to the track? Your practice times yesterday were off pace considerably," John interjected into the awkward silence.
"Actually, I was wondering if I might have today off."
"Tommy, we leave for the Canyon Classic in two days."
"I know. I wanted to take Kim shopping," Tommy said. Kim nearly spit out her mouthful of orange juice. "You want to take me shopping?"
"I remember how much you loved shopping," Tommy pointed out. "But you hate shopping!"
"I used to go with you all the time."
"That's because you were too nice to tell me how much you loathed it."
"How'd you find out?"
"Rocky and Adam told me. Why do you think I stopped asking you to go?"
"You lost everything you had yesterday; you need to get a few things," Tommy insisted. He wanted to take Kim because he knew that she needed to do something fun to take her mind off her troubles, and shopping was something she had always enjoyed. Also, he wanted to take her because he wanted to spend every moment that he could with her. He cast an entreating look at his uncle. "Please?"
"Tommy's right, Kim does need to replace what she lost," Jess added, "and with those things after her, it would be better if she didn't go alone."
John gave Jess a look that seemed to say that he didn't need any further prompting. "Of course. You have today, but I need you on the track tomorrow if you're going to drive in this race."
The door opened and Tommy popped his head out. John noticed that his nephew's normally wavy locks had been painstakingly straightened.
"What made you decided to tame those wild curls, or do I even need to ask?" he asked, much to his nephew's discomfiture.
"Kim always liked my hair straight," Tommy replied sheepishly. He opened the door wider and grabbed for his shirt. John noticed that his hair wasn't the only thing Tommy had taken pains with. He hadn't seen the boy dress so in ages: boots, black jeans without all the extra room, and a white shirt.
"I take it Kim prefers you in white, too." Tommy just shrugged. "I'm not here just to give you a hard time about your wardrobe. Here." He handed Tommy a credit card. To Tommy's puzzled frown, he answered, "this one's on me."
"I can't...." Tommy demurred. He and Kim had already argued about his paying for her things. Although he had irrefutable logic on his side ... how would you pay for anything anyway? Everything you had went up in smoke.... Kim hadn't wanted to accept his charity; still, she had no other choice.
"And just how were you planning on paying for this shopping spree? Dipping into your savings?"
His uncle had hit it.
"No way, young man. You are not to touch that money. It's for college or for starting up your own school or for your wedding... but not for taking your girlfriend shopping."
"Kim almost wouldn't let me pay for her things, she won't let you...."
"How is she going to know?"
Looking at the card, Tommy saw his name on it, right underneath the business logo. "If I have to, I'll rat on you to Aunt Elsa," John threatened good-naturedly.
Tommy flinched. Aunt Elsa was the one who set up the account for him in the first place; he knew he'd have to justify any withdrawal with herlarge or small.
John knew that he had won. "If you must, call it a loan. I'll take out of your first large purse, okay? Get Kim what she needs and maybe some things that she doesn't."
"I planned to," Tommy admitted. "She's been on the run for so long, I don't think she remembers what it's like to just go out and have fun. I know I can't undo a year's worth of hard living in just one day, but I can try...."
"Tommy? You about ready?" Kim called.
Tommy stepped around his uncle and found Kim standing in the hallway. She was dressed in one of his red t-shirts; it hung loosely on her petite frame, and she had it cinched about her waist with one of his aunt's scarves. She had borrowed a pair of Muriel's sandals, and even they were slightly too large for her. Tommy raised a curious eyebrow when he realized that she wasn't wearing a bra. Then, he remembered the wet lingerie hanging over the towel rack. Unless Kim had borrowed something from his aunt (who was hardly her size), she had nothing on underneath the shirt. Although he understood the necessity of the situation, he found the thought strangely unsettling, but he couldn't say why.
"You look great," Tommy said appreciatively. "That shirt looks a helluva lot better on you than it ever did on me."
"Thanks," Kim murmured self-consciously. It was the closest thing to a dress she had worn in ages, and she had all but forgotten how nice it felt to have a guyespecially Tommynotice her. She surveyed his ensemble (especially how well the jeans fit) with equal appreciation.
"You two better get going," John urged as he made his exit. He shook his head and almost muttered "young love," but knew that this was more than puppy love. Kim and Tommy had passed through that a long time ago. Maybe his shot about the wedding wasn't that far off the mark.
"Why can't we stop there? I can get everything I need and...."
"Going to Wal-Mart is not what I call real shopping," he replied, recalling something she had once told him. "Come on, Kim; this is supposed to be fun."
"I don't think I know how to have fun anymore," was her soft answer. "Then I'll teach you."
"Tommy... I don't feel comfortable in crowds. What if the Mercytes show up again? They don't care who's around when they attack. Innocent people could be hurt...."
"Kim, just for one dayjust for todayI don't want you to worry about the Mercytes, all right? I'll keep my eyes peeled and stuff. Today, all I want you to do is enjoy yourself."
"I...." the protest died on Kim's lips when she saw Tommy's puppy dog expression. She had no defense against it. "I'll try."
"Good. Just let me take care of everything."
"I've gotten used to being self sufficient." Silence returned until Tommy pulled into the East Angel Mall. "This morning, Tommy, you wanted to ask me somethingwhen I assumed that it was about the letter. What was it?"
"When all this started, why didn't you come to me for help?" Tommy asked; the answer to that question hadn't been found in the hastily scrawled words. Although he understood why she had done what she did, it still hurt that she hadn't turned to him when she really needed help. "I would have stood by you; I wouldn't have let you face these assassins all by yourself. And neither would Zordon and the others. You could have come to us for help..."
"No, I couldn't have," she said quietly. "Whoever is after me knows all about the Rangers...who we are, who our families are. While things were still in the threat stage, I was warned not to say anything to the Rangers otherwise their families would be...."
"Oh," Tommy whispered, fully comprehending at last that Kim really hadn't had a choice but to face her ordeal alone. He would have done the same thing. "Oh man, Kim; you have no idea how I wish I could have been there for you."
"There was nothing you could have done."
"But I can be there for you now."
"I can't let you, Tommy."
"I'm standing by you, Kim; I'll see this through to the end with you."
"There's a good chance that I won't survive."
"That doesn't matter. If they take you out; they'll have to take me out with you."
"I'm serious. I tried living without you once; I won't do it again. Don't make me do it again," Tommy pleaded. The sincerity of his words caught both young people by surprise, but they were the truth that Tommy knew in his heart. "Let me help."
Kim wanted to refuse. She had sacrificed so much to keep Tommy alive; yet the thought of having him fighting by her side filled her with a hope that she thought she had lost. "You really want to see this through with me.?"
"All right, II accept."
Tommy reached up to brush away the diamond-like teardrops from her cheek. When the truck was safely parked, he leaned over and kissed her.
"Okay, no more sad faces. It's time to shop."
"You sound like I used to," Kim said, managing a grin. Tommy reached out for her hand; when she took it, he gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"This is where I want to take you to shop," he insisted. Then, as an afterthought, he added, "It's also the only store I'm real familiar with."
Kim threw her arms around him. "After what I put you through, I don't deserve this."
"After what you've been through, you definitely deserve this. Come on; where to first? Lingerie?"
She cock an eyebrow at him.
"Considering you left your unmentionables drying out in the bathroom, I thought you might like to...." Tommy began delicately. Kim blushed. She hadn't realized he had noticed.
The various ladies' departments occupied nearly the entire first floor of the store. With surprising ease, Tommy directed Kim to lingerie section; he had surprised himself by remembering the layout so well.
Tommy watched Kim as she made her selections: very plain, very sensible. Occasionally, he'd catch her glance over at the more feminine looking panties and bras, but she'd turn away with a wistful sigh. He knew what she was doing.
"Kim, you don't have to be so practical. You're not going to be living out of a backpack any longer. If you want something fancy, go ahead."
Kim flushed scarlet. She hadn't realized she had been so obvious. She was used to shopping for practicality and durability. She had had to limit herself to what she needed; her wants had ceased to be a consideration. Instead of replying to that, she countered with, "I can't believe you're standing here trying to help me pick out underwear. You used to wander over all over the place until I finished in this department."
Tommy simply shrugged. "The only time I'm letting you out of my sight is when you go into the fitting room."
"Speaking of which, I'd better go see if these fit," Kim said hastily. She wasn't sure what to make of Tommy's behavior. It was both discomfiting and heartening.
"You gonna model em for me?" Tommy teased, grinning broadly.
"Oh you..." Kim muttered, playfully swatting his arm. For a moment, it felt like old times.
While Kim was in the fitting room, Tommy wandered back over to the items that had caught her eye. He was pretty taken with the lavender set himself; as he recalled, Kim had looked pretty good in the shade when he saw her in it during the Muranthias mess. He glanced over at the dressing room, and the corner of his mouth twisted into a grin. If Kim wouldn't pick out some not-so-practical items for herself, he'd do it for her. He just had to figure out what size.
"May I help you?" the salesclerk asked.
"Actually, yes," he replied, hitting upon a plan. "You see, my girlfriend lost everything in a fire and...."
A short time later, the sales clerk returned with the empty packages; however, Kim was right behind her, looking rather annoyed.
"Why did you have to tell her that cockamamie story?" Kim hissed. "I have never been so embarrassed...."
"You couldn't try on anything else without underwear on, and I didn't want the clerk thinking you were shoplifting," Tommy explained reasonably as he took the other packages from her, adding them to the ones on the counter.
Kim let out a slow breath, knowing Tommy was right. "Don't you need a nightgown, too?" he queried innocently. Kim hadn't really thought about that; she had gotten used to sleeping in her clothes. "And what about a robe or something?" Tommy continued.
"We don't have to get everything at once," Kim reminded him.
"Let's just see what they have," he suggested, and once Kim reluctantly wandered off, Tommy turned to the clerk. "I'd like to get her that lavendar set, and could youumhelp me and maybe pick out a couple of other colors?"
"Certainly, sir, and I take it they young lady is not to know?"
"Yeah, something like that." Flashing the clerk a grateful smile, Tommy hurried off to join Kim in sleepwear.
"I think that should do it," Kim sighed as she collected the bags from the clerk.
"Are you sure?"
"It's more than I've owned since Florida."
"You haven't even looked at the dresses yet," Tommy pointed out. "Wouldn't you like to take a peek?"
"I don't need a dress...."
"I didn't ask if you needed one. Come on, what would it hurt to look?" He was bound and determined that Kimberly was not leaving the store with out something that was pretty, feminine, and utterly not necessary. Something to make her feel special.
"You know, Kim; you don't always have to dress up. You'd look spectacular in anything you wore," he had said once upon a time.
"I like dressing up; it makes me feel special... especially when I dress up for you."
"Tommy Oliver, you are really acting weird," Kim muttered, but she was easily persuaded to wander over to the dress department. There were t-shirt dresses and lightweight floral prints that reminded Tommy of some of the dresses Kim used to have. He noticed that a rose colored tank dress with laces in the back caught Kim's eye.
"Try it on," he urged; to forestall her protest, he added, "You used to spend forever trying stuff on without buying it. While you're welcome to keep my tee, I'm sure you'd like to have something that fits a little better."
Kim bit her lip, glancing from the dress to Tommy. It really was tempting. "It isn't that expensive, and it's even on sale," he continued, pulling out her old justifications for many of her purchases.
"Well..." she caved in.
"And if you're going to try on one, you might as well try two," he suggested, indicating the other dress she was eyeing.
She smiled up at him gratefully then scampered off. Tommy just shook his head. _And she used to have such fun shopping._ It made him angry to see Kim like this... on guard every minute, jumping at every little noise or flicker of shadow, unable to let herself go and enjoy something so simple as shopping... however, it wouldn't do for Kim to see his anger. It was as if their roles had reversed. He had always been the brooding one, the warrior/loner who needed to be drawn out, and she had been the optimistic one, the one who could bring light to his shadows. It was his turn to be Kim's light.
Tommy realized that Kim was taking an awfully long time; thinking that she might be fussing in front of the mirrors, he wandered back towards the fitting rooms. He found Kim by the mirrors all right, but she wasn't wearing either of the dresses she was supposed to try on. She was holding up a party dress and checking out her reflection. He smiled indulgently. Kim was more interested in frilly things than she was letting on. She finally caught him staring at her; with a guilty flush, she set the other gown aside. Without a word, she took the other dresses into the dressing room.
While Kim was occupied, he wandered over to see what it was that had caused Kim to smile so dreamily at her reflection. The thigh high dress was lavendar with a sheer violet lace overlaya high tank neckline with an open back crisscrossed with thin straps, princess seamed, and the flared skirt had a fluted hem. _Ha! I bet Kim never realized I paid that much attention whenever she and Aisha were going on about clothes class!_ It was a very elegant dress, and Tommy thought Kim would look absolutely wonderful in it.
"What do you think?" Kim queried, emerging from the fitting room in the rose print. She found Tommy studying the purple dress that had caught her eye. He looked up and smiled brightly.
"I thought you looked great in my shirt, but wow!"
"Should I try the other one?"
"Sure, but would you also mind trying this one on?" he asked, holding out the party dress. Seeing her reluctance, he added, "Indulge me, okay?"
"I've been indulging you all morning."
"Please? I'd really like to see you in this."
"All right," Kim agreed. She just wish Tommy wouldn't tempt her so; the dress was gorgeous, but she had no need of a party dress right now. Still, she really did want to see how it looked on.
As Kim vanished into the back rooms, Tommy drifted over to the display window, noticing that one of the mannequins was outfitted in the same dress with all the appropriate accessories from a silver hair clip, rhinestone jewelry, shimmering lavendar hose, to silver sandals. Kim would definitely look spectacular in the outfit. He wandered back over to the counter as Kim stepped out of the dressing rooms.
"That dress was made for you," Tommy murmured as she spun around, causing the lacy overlay to fan out delicately. Kim seemed not to hear him as she examined her reflection. Absently, she pulled her hair up from the nape of her neck and piled it up on top of her head.
"What about a silver hair clip," Tommy suggested as he slipped up behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders. He found their reflections rather startling; there was something in them that he had never noticed before. They were only eighteen, but the couple that looked back at him in the mirror seemed so much older. The emotions in their faces were so much deeper than anything a teenager would know. Their reflection reminded Tommy of his parents... the way they would stand together, sometimes touching, sometimes not, but always together and so in love it was obvious to anyone who looked at themeven after twenty-some-odd years of marriage. It was the sort of thing he had always wanted for himself in a relationship. Once, he had thought that's what he had with Kimberly, but he had never seen it before... until now. Impulsively, Tommy softly kissed the side of her neck.
The distant, dreamy gaze left Kim's eyes. "Tommy, no. It's too expensive, and I have no place to wear something like this."
"They do have victory dinners after the races, you know."
"Tommy, please. I... I just can't...." He could see that she had fallen in love with the dress; it hurt for her to say no to it, but there was no way she could justify it to herself.
"All right... for now, but once we get this business of your's settled, we're coming back here to get it," he informed her.
Once Kim went to get changed (after a final, wishful glance in the mirror), Tommy turned to the sales clerk. "Do you think you can find me the same items that the mannequin has onincluding the shoes in a size 7?"
Kim would kill him, but he didn't care. It was just the thing she needed.
"I don't remember there being this many bags," Kim noted as she and Tommy carted the packages out to the truck. "I didn't think I bought all that much."
Tommy just shrugged and said nothing.
"I really do appreciate this, Tommy," Kim sighed. "I just wish it wasn't necessary."
"I wish you'd let me do more for you." He opened Kim's door for her; she gave him a puzzled look as she slid into her seat.
"Are we heading back to the track?" she queried. "Nope, at least not for a while. I figured we'd grab some lunch then take care of a few other things."
"Lunch? I've already eaten more today than usual."
"I know." He shuddered at the somber reminder. "I know it'll take some getting used to, but you're not on the run any longer. You've got to start taking better care of yourself," Tommy chided gently.
"And if I don't, you will?"
Tommy was being excessively protective, and although it rankled somewhat, Kim loved him dearly for it. "So, where are we headed for lunch?"
"Trust me. You'll enjoy it."
Since Tommy wasn't going to be more forthcoming, Kim settled back to enjoy the ride.
"The Juice Bar?" she queried.
"Sure, why not?"
"Aren't we a little old to be hanging out here these days?" As she recalled, one rarely saw high school grads at the Youth Center.
"I haven't been back here since before graduation. Besides, when we're done here, I want to swing by my house and check on the place," Tommy said.
"You sound like your folks aren't around."
"They're not. Since I'm racing with Uncle John, they decided to do Europe this summer. The last I heard from them, they were in Italy."
Kim's face clouded at the mention of Europe. Tommy caught the shadow. "You haven't talked to your mother since you fled the gym, have you?"
Kim shook her head and bit back a tear. "They were lucky to survive they Mercytes' attack; I'd only be endangering them further if I tried calling. I found out the hard way with the training center that those sleazebuckets are monitoring phone lines and stuff for folks I'm likely to call. I haven't talked to my mom, dad, or brother in almost a year."
"I bet your mom is going absolutely nuts," Tommy murmured sympathetically.
"She probably thinks I'm dead; after the attack on the gym...."
Tommy simply wrapped his arm around her and held her for a moment. "We'll get your life back, Kim. I promise."
She essayed a wan smile at his bravado as she let him usher her inside. Just like the other day, the strangeness of the Juice Bar out weighed the familiarity of the surroundings. It wasn't "home" any longer. No more Jason and Tommy teaching kids karate on the mats. No more gymnastics on the equipment. Ernie's round, smiling face wasn't behind the bar, and the gang wasn't at their usual table. Tommy guided her over to "their" table unerringly.
"I think this belongs to the new Rangers now," Kim whispered as he pulled out a chair for her.
"But they're not here, so anyone can sit here," he whispered back with a wink. "You feel up to a salad?"
"A small one," Kim compromised, "and a glass of water."
"Shall I see what the Smoothie flavor of the week is?" Tommy was trying so hard that Kim didn't have the heart to fight him, so she simply nodded.
While she waited for Tommy to return with their food, Kim surveyed the activity in the Youth Center. It was surprisingly quiet for the middle of the day. Then, a group of little boys and girls in crisp white gis wandered in; their sensei arrived shortly thereafter. Kim smiled as she recalled Tommy leading his students through the warm-ups and stretches.
"Whatcha thinking about, Beautiful?" Tommy asked as he set her plate in front of her.
"I was remembering how much you always enjoyed teaching. Actually, I was really surprised when Justin told me that you were racing full time for your uncle and hadn't taught in a while. I always assumed that you'd open your own school like Rocky did." She studied his expression thoughtfully and realized that he hadn't said one word about getting in any practice, and he had always been meticulous about working on his katas. He never skipped practice for anything. She had the sense that he hadn't worn a gi since the tournament for the shelter. "You've given up martial arts, haven't you? Why? You loved them."
"My heart just wasn't in it anymore," Tommy answered with a heartfelt sigh. "Every time I taught a class here, I'd look out across the juice bar and see what was missing...."
"Or do you mean 'who'?" Kim asked softly.
"Things were never the same for me after you left...even before I got that bogus letter. It hurt not being able to see your shining eyes watching me from across the room or being there to cheer me on at a demonstration, but I got by at first because I knew we were still together. After your letter, though... the things that once brought me joy didn't anymorelike being a Ranger. I was so proud of being a Ranger, but after you left... it was just a duty, something to immerse myself in to hide from the pain. After our first run in with Divatox, Rangering only served to remind of you... I guess I took my uncle's offer to drive for him because I needed something else to keep my mind off how empty I was feeling."
It killed Kim to know that she had caused him so much pain; she found herself hurting for him and all the things he had lost because of her. "I never wanted to hurt you like that, but it was the only way I could keep you safe."
"Hey, don't...." Tommy said quickly, as she looked away, blinking back guilty tears.
"I'm sorry, Tommy."
"I know you are, and I know you had no choice. Hey, we've lost enough time as it is; let's not waste anymore with tears." The last thing he wanted was for Kim to feel guilty over what happened.
"D-do you think you'll ever go back to teaching?" Kim wondered as she wiped her eyes and fought for control. She hadn't lost it like this in months.
"Someday," he answered but sounded none too sure.
"Why? You sound... disappointed."
"I was wondering if maybe you might consider taking on a student."
It was Tommy's turn to be astonished into speechlessness. "Y-you never asked me to teach you before... I thought you weren't interested...."
"With my gymnastics, I never had the time to devote to the martial arts like the rest of you," she explained. "Even though I never asked you to teach me doesn't mean I didn't learn anything from you. I've been lucky so far; I've been able to stay alive using my gymnastics, the smattering of karate and things I picked up from you guys, and stuff I've learned on the street. My luck isn't going to last forever. I could use some proper training... I think I've found a reason to keep on fighting." And she took Tommy's hand.
"Hey, Beautiful, we're here," he said, touching her arm gently. Kim snapped awake and slapped his hand aside as if he had thrown a blow. "Ow!" he rubbed his wrist gingerly.
"Oh God, Tommy, I'm sorry...."
"It's my fault; I should have known better. Well, it tells me you have excellent reflexes," he joked.
"I'd rather have normal reflexes," she said glumly, grasping futilely at the fading images of her dream of a life that should have been instead of the nightmare she was presently living.
"It'll be all right, Kim," Tommy murmured, pulling her into a hug. It was impossible not to notice how rigid her body was. "You have got to relax or these muscles of yours are going to snap, and I think I know just what you need."
The two entered the Oliver house, and Kimberly could instantly tell that it hadn't been occupied for months. She always liked being at Tommy's place; it always seemed so alive with warmth, happiness, and love, and that same caring had been extended to her once upon a time. It had helped filled the void when her mother had first started dating Adrian seriously and later when she married him. Kim found herself wishing Jan and Thomas were around, but it was probably better that they weren't.
"I'm afraid there's not much in the place at the moment, but help yourself to whatever's here. I gotta run upstairs and check something," Tommy said and quickly bounded up the steps. Kim wandered aimlessly about the familiar living room. Since she and Tommy had started dating, this had become almost a second home to her. She glanced at the pictures on the mantle piecefaces as familiar as her own family's. There were a few new ones: a couple of more recent pictures of Tommyone from his first race, one of Tommy and another man who looked frighteningly like him...._That must be David, the brother Jason told me about_, she mused. Tommy hadn't said anything about his brother yet; she'd have to ask him about that. She'd like to meet him _... maybe later, when this nightmare is over._ Kim almost laughed out loud; she had said "when" not "if"; that was a first! Then, she spied a photo that had been shuffled around to the back; it had once occupied a more prominent position on the shelf. One of her and Tommy at the Spring Formalthe last dance they had attended before she left. It made her heartache to see how young she lookedhow young both of them lookedand how happy they seemed. Was it possible to be that happy again? Kim found herself hoping so.
Steam rose from the rapidly rising water as Tommy read over the various labels He finally settled on a lilac scented oil and poured some in. Next, he added a generous portion of bubble bath, creating frothy suds. He smiled to himself, thinking how surprised Kim would be. He hoped she liked it. Once the tub was set, he looked about, scanning for anything else that might help the mood a little.
_Soft music and candlelight. _
As he figured, his folks had a CD player available, but no candles. He'd have to save that for next time. He perused the collection of discs, looking for something soft and relaxing, and found a case that was well scuffedindicating that it was one that had been often used by his parents. It was some light jazz; he didn't know if Kim would like it or not, but it seemed to fit the mood he wanted to create.
_And dad thinks I never paid attention whenever he was pampering mom,_ Tommy mused, grinning as he slipped the disc in. Most guys learned how to play ball or fix cars with their fathers. Not Tommy. He had his uncle John to thank for his interest in the martial arts and racing. His dad wasn't a sportsman; he was an incurable romantic. He definitely knew how to treat a lady rightjudging by how much his mother loved the attention his dad lavished on her. Tommy only hoped he could do half so well.
Satisfied that everything was perfect, he went down to fetch Kim.
Suddenly, she felt Tommy's presence. Turning, she found him standing on the stairs watching her silently. A wistful smile tugged at his lips, and she was pleased to see that it glowed in his eyes as well. A bubble happiness swelled within her; the warmth was there again.
"What is it, Beautiful?" Tommy wondered, taken aback by the light that beamed in her face.
"Nothing," she murmured. Maybe coming back was not such a mistake after all. Tommy let her have her happy little secret for the moment. "I need you to come upstairs with me; there's something I want you to see."
"Sure." She accepted the hand he held out to her. "You have to close your eyes."
"It's a surprise."
"I'm not sure I can handle anymore surprises today," Kim said warily as Tommy caught her other hand.
"Just trust me."
"With my life," she whispered as she closed her eyes. She looked so cute standing there that Tommy couldn't resist the urge to slip her a quick kiss. Then, he lead her up the stairs.
"What's all this?" Kim wondered. She had heard the music and smelled the lilacs before he ever lead her through the doorway.
"A bath to soak your cares away, milady," Tommy claimed with a sweeping bow. The tub indeed looked tempting. Kim chewed on her lower lip; a bath would feel so wonderful....
"The towels are right over..." Tommy paused upon finding the towel shelf empty. Then he remembered that they were all still downstairs from the last time he had done the laundry after his folks had left. "Tell you what, I'll go down and bring up some warm towels while you settle in. Then, I'll leave you to soak in peace."
"You are spoiling me rotten, you know that?" Kim said as she enveloped Tommy in a hug. His fingers gently lifted her chin so he could look her in the eyes. "I always wanted to. I hope I do it right."
"You're off to an incredible start. Thank you." Tommy kissed her on the tip of her nose and reluctantly backed his way out of the bathroom. Then, he hustled downstairs.
In the basement, he pulled several large towels from the laundry basket and tossed them in the dryer. _Just a few minutes to warm them up...._ nothing felt like getting out of the tub and wrapping up in a warmed towel. Next, he headed to the kitchen. Searching the refrigerator, he found nothing cold to drink except wine, and he wasn't sure if Kim liked it or not. He didn't particularly care for it. In the pantry, he found an unopened bottle of sparkling white grape juice. That wouldn't do, eitherat least, not until it was well chilled. Then, he glimpsed the box of instant hot chocolate. His mom was fond of drinking hot chocolate all year round, and she had introduced Kim to her favorite flavor: chocolate raspberry royale.
By the time Tommy had the chocolate ready, the towels were done. He collected Kim's treats and wandered upstairs.
"Special delivery!" he called as he tapped on the bathroom door. He heard a sleepy "Mmm!" and smiled. He pushed the door open. "Towels and a beverage for...."
The words stuck in his throat as he spotted Kim amid the profusion of bubbles. She had piled her hair on top of her head and leaned her head back against the side of the tub, a smile of pure bliss lighting her face. It was something in the line of her body that caught his eye... perhaps the trickle of water that caressed her neck and slipped down to the swell of her breasts which gently rounded over the crest of the concealing froth. Tommy had never seen Kim like this beforeso vulnerable, so inviting. It was all he could do to keep from wading into the tub with her and taking her into his arms.
Tommy tried to shake off the powerful grip of his feelings. He had drooled over Kim before; he had seen her in clothes that covered less than the soap suds, but this was different. This was more than mere teenage lust; it was a yearning deeper than anything he had ever known. The sight of Kim's fragility and desirability stirred more than just his hormones; it stirred his heart as well.
"Are you okay?" Kim queried softly, and Tommy realized he was staring.
"Sorry, it's just that you look so..." he murmured huskily. With a blush he tried to master himself. "Here are the towel and a little treat for you."
Taking the mug, Kim took a sip. "You're mom's hot chocolate!"
"She won't mind sharing," He assured her. Tommy knew he should leave; if he stayed he was liable to do something he'd regret, yet he couldn't shake the spell Kim had over him.
"Was there something else you wanted?" Kim questioned gently, favoring him with a smile that threatened to rob him of all control.
"I was wondering..." For a moment, his mind went blank. Then, he thought of something else that she might like. "... would you like me to wash your hair?"
Tommy loved having his hair washed. It was the reason he was willing to pay the prices in regular salons. He enjoyed the feel of someone running fingers through his hair and massaging his scalp. He didn't know how many times he had nearly fallen asleep while the beautician washed his hair because he was so relaxed.
"Yyou really want to?"
"If you'd like me to."
Kim pulled out the hairclip in answer.
Tommy collected the shampoo and the decorative pitcher off the vanity and knelt down on the tiles behind Kim. He could have used the spray attachment, but he preferred to leisurely douse her hair with pitchers full of water. Kim didn't seem to mind; she let out a contented sigh as the water cascaded over her. Slowly, he massaged the pearly liquid into Kim's caramel colored locks.
Kim melted back against the side of the tub and nearly slid under the water in a state of perfect relaxation. Tommy's fingers felt so incredible as they massaged her scalp and combed through her tresses. Tommy played with her hair, piling it on top of her head, twisting it into shapes like a little kid would. She nearly giggled. She never imagined Tommy ever doing anything like this! She leaned forward as his rubdown wandered to the back of her neck. That felt good, too. Her neck was really sensitive... she wondered if he remembered. His hands felt so good... and then she realized that they were shaking. Why? What was there for him to be nervous about? After all, he was only washing her hair... however, she also recognized the intimacy of their situation: her naked in the tub, having the whole house to themselves, old desires surfacing... she had seen the look in his eyes as he stood there with the towels. It was a lot stronger than anything she ever remembered seeing in him before.
Tommy had to stop. He had to regain control of himself. It was just so tempting to let his hands slip lower and lower down Kim's body. He had never done anything like this before; he couldn't believe how erotic giving Kim a bath was turning out to be. However, this wasn't the time to give in to his desires. Kim had placed herself in his hands... she had put her trust in him. He couldn't abuse it. There would be a time to explore his feelings, but this wasn't it. It wasn't until he took the pitcher up once again that Tommy realized his hands were trembling. He hoped Kim hadn't noticed; he wasn't sure he could explain it to her. Getting a hold of himself, Tommy started rinsing her hair out.
"How was that?" he asked, the scent of lilacs filling his senses as he leaned close to her.
Kim shivered as his breath exploded hotly against her neck. "That was absolutely yummy," she purred.
"Good. It was supposed to be," Tommy answered, pleased that she had enjoyed it so much. "Now, I'll leave you alone."
"Tommy, why are you doing this?" Kim wondered, twisting around to look up at him. "Because you deserve it." He placed a finger across her lips to silence her protest. "When you're done, don't get dressed right away. Just wrap up in a towel and meet me in my folks' room."
"Lots more, Beautiful. Lots more."
"No problem, but why does it have to be so early? You're gonna owe me big time for this!"
"You name the favor; this means a lot to me...." Tommy heard movement behind the bathroom door. "Look, I gotta go. I'll see you in the morning." He hung up the phone just as Kim opened the door. As he had requested, she was wrapped in one of the huge bath towels, and she seemed to be glowing. "How do you feel?" he queried.
"Like an overcooked prune!" Kim laughed. Standing on tiptoe, she pecked him on the cheek. "It was wonderful. Thanks so much for doing all this."
"And I've only just begun," he declared with bravado. "If you will take a seat on the edge of the bed, we'll get on to the next little treat." He took her hand and guided her over to the queen-sized bed with its downy comforters. He unwrapped the towel on her head and spread it out over her shoulders. Next, he took up her hairbrush. He smiled at Kim's wide-eyed expression as he slipped around behind her on the bed and ran the brush through the wet tangles. He loved playing with Kim's hair, especially when it was dryit was so soft and silky. Kim moaned her appreciation as the plastic teeth worked through her damp locks. Her response made Tommy feel good... he liked knowing he could make her feel good.
The longer he brushed, the more slumped Kim's shoulders became, almost as if she couldn't keep herself upright. Even after the last of the snarls was gone, Tommy continued playing with her hair until he felt Kimberly's head dropping forward and bobbing back.
"Lay down," he instructed, moving off the bed.
"Now what?" Kim wondered drowsily as she lay back where she sat.
"You'll see. Scoot up and roll over."
"Do you want me to sit up and beg, too?" she quipped. Tommy popped her with one of the pillows then pulled it out the sham and tucked it under her head. Once she was settled, he began kneading her shoulders. "You're going to give me a shoulder rub?"
"For a change. What do I owe you, like a thousand of them or so?"
"Something like that, but who's counting," Kim answered around a yawn. To Tommy's immense surprise, she tugged at the towel, pulling it loose, and folded it down to her waist. "Make it a full blown backrub, and we'll call it even."
"You got it, Beautiful."
Tommy alternated between deep, penetrating strokes and lighter caresses. In short order, his fingers had worked their magic on Kim's taut muscles, and he was rewarded to feel her tension ease. Once that happened, he abandoned the harder rub in favor of the softer, gentler strokes. He worked on Kim's back, letting his mind drift through memories of happier days. He had never felt closer to Kimberly than he did right at this moment. It was with some surprise that he discovered Kim was sound asleep. However, although he continued caressing her shoulders and back, his fingers occasionally wandering into her hair; he wanted nothing more than to simply sit with her as she slept. Reluctantly, he forced himself to stop. There were things he needed to do. Grabbing a quilt from the rack, Tommy tucked it around her.
"Sleep well, Kim," he whispered, placing a kiss on her brow. With a heavy sigh, Tommy went off in search of his father's spare cellular phone and his old communicator. He had a phone call to make.
Chapter 1 | 2