Author's Note: Major UST here, though not what those dirty minds out there may be thinking... warning, Tommy-Kim non-relationshippers move out! Then again, that warning probably should go on ALL my stories, huh?

See disclaimer in Ranger 1/2: Japanese Hearts.

The sequel to Rangers 1/2-- and yes, there's still another one after this, still in the works, called "Love, Always".

When Sayoko's Away: Soaring High
by: Ranko

Tommy knew who it was as soon as he heard the knock on the door.

It wasn't any psychic sense, oh no. The knowledge didn't come of that uncanny sixth sense that they seemed to share, the one that let ideas and concerns pass between them without any need for speech. Nope. This time, it was plain common sense.

:Even though you don't use _that_ much..: Ryu couldn't resist adding.

[Oh, shut up!] Tommy snarled at the second voice in his head. [It's _your_ fault all this happened!]

After all, it only stood to reason that the determined woman who'd been wearing a hole in his answering machine's recording tape would eventually tire of his 'I'm not answering the phone!' game and come seeking him at his home.

[I'm glad Dad's on a business trip,] Tommy sighed. [I don't think I'd be able to bear living in her house after what happened...]

He shivered as the scene came back to him. Kim grabbing Ryoko. Ryoko screaming... Kim trying to roll out of the way... Ryoko stabbing downwards...

True to his beliefs, he'd woken up at least once a night, sweating, to the piercing mind-noise of her scream.

"Tommy, I know you're in there!" came a musical voice through the door.

:It's Kim,: Ryu supplied.

[I _know_ that, you idiot!] Tommy snapped. [What do you want me to do about it?]

:You're going to have to face her eventually, you know that, don't you?:

[I can't,] Tommy thought, tortured by indecision. [I can't face her...]

:Do you want to go through another bloody two weeks without seeing her face?: Ryu wheedled. :She knew even _before_ you told her... women are like that. That's always been their way: the way of the heart.:

[Very poetic.]

:Let her in, dammit, Tommy... you want to see her... you haven't talked to her since...:

[Since _it_ happened, you fool. Please, Ryu, don't make me do this!]

:I wouldn't if you didn't already want to,: Ryu sighed. :Tommy, I can't change anything, you know that. I can't really do anything, besides fight. You've been taking hot showers every day since _it_ happened! I haven't been out in weeks! What makes you think I could do anything, rooted in your body and mind?]

[Ryu, I don't know what to do! What to say!]

Ryu shook a mental head. :Let her in, Tommy. You need to talk. I'm not normally serious, but this time I am. If you don't know what to say... well, say what you feel, then take it from there.:

Too late. Tommy heard the tumblers click loudly in the lock of the front door as he headed for the door to his bedroom.

[I didn't know she could pick locks!]

:Sayo may have talked her through it. Part of her training in her school is lockpicking. The Femme Fatale school is an assassins' guild, if you think about it. So I don't.:

[I could really get to hate that fiancée of yours, Ryu.]

:Don't forget, she's _your_ fiancée, too!:

[I thought we talked about this already. She's _not_ my fiancée, she's _yours_.]

:We share the same body, you fool--:

Tommy heard the lock on his bedroom door click.

It swung open, and Kim leaned casually across the doorframe, holding up a hairpin. "Hi. Remember me?" she began, sweetly, as she inserted it back into her long, loose hair.

Tommy's heart thumped loud enough that it echoed into his ears. Her words reverbrated in equal measure, that husky, feminine voice that had featured in so many of his dreams-- and not all of them nightmares.

He blinked once, twice, to clear his vision, and wished that his heart wouldn't pound quite so loud. She'd hear it, and know for sure--

:She already knows. You told her, remember?: Ryu reminded him, with distinct tones of approval. :And no, you don't look as much like an owl as you think you do. Your eyes don't become _that_ big when you stare... though she's certainly pretty enough...:

A pair of sweet, large eyes looked right back, coolly, framed by coppery hair that glittered in the flourescent lights of the hallway.

:Say something witty, wise guy!:

"Hey, aren't you that cute little brunette who's been following me around?"

:Not _that_, you idiot!:

Thankfully, she didn't take it badly. Kim just smiled calmly at him, and gave as good as she took. "Au contraire, Charlie Brown. _I_ am the cute little brunette who has been calling you every hour, on the hour, for the past two weeks."

"Oh," Tommy murmured knowingly, "_That_ one."

One elegant eyebrow went up, and for a second, Tommy couldn't tell whether she wanted to hug him or slug him.

Instead, she did neither. She gestured at the TV playing silently beside his bed. "Who's winning?"

"Um... Bulls, last I checked."

She flowed into the room, and plopped stomach-down on his bed, chin propped up on her hands.

"Sure, come on in," Tommy commented ironically.

Kim turned and made him the subject of her intense gaze. "Tommy, if I waited for you to invite me in, Michael Jordan would already be into his _second_ comeback."

:Doncha hate it when she's right?:

[Shut up, Ryu.]

[He looks like $#!^, Sayo.] Kim thought, easily replacing the hairpin into the wealth of glowing hair crowning her head.

:Well, good for him,: Sayoko replied ruthlessly. :_You_ shouldn't be the only one losing half your sanity and about a week's worth of sleep. After all, it _is_ his fault we're in this mess...:

[It's not _Tommy's_ fault, it's yours and Ryu's, Sayo.] Kim replied. [Think about it, if you two hadn't come along, Tommy and I would still be friends,would have an entirely typical Angel Grove life-- well, as far as that goes-- and wouldn't have to avoid rainshowers in the presence of friends other than Rocky, Aisha, Adam and Billy.]

[Still,] she added with wry amusement, [You can't say that he doesn't look good--]

He was standing, obviously about to go to the door, but having some internal struggle that had prevented it.

Tommy was dressed in tight-- for once-- blue jeans, and a white, open vest. It made him look even older-- more mature -- than his ordinary sleeveless shirt and loose karate pants. She always felt it was special, something private and personal, when she saw him in outfits like this. It was an intimate little part of his persona-- one that she'd only seen once in the time when he was living with her, and only glimpsed before, when they hadn't been 'on being seen together' terms. He didn't share it with just _anybody_.

Of course, the fact that he filled out a pair of tight jeans rather nicely undoubtedly had something to do with it.

Even though his hazel eyes were bleary with lost sleep, his long hair looked like it knew a brush only by reputation, and his slim jaw held the gentle darkness of the beginnings of a beard, the man before her had the power to turn heads. Even hers.

Add that sexy outfit, and made a person that made _anyone's_ head turn.

Always hers.

[It's not fair,] Tommy thought, miserably, as he turned to close and lock the door. [It's just not damned fair.]

Why should the sight of her affect him like the warm sun after an Arctic one-month night? Despite the vehemence with which he'd been avoiding this particular confrontation for weeks, it took every inch and iota of willpower he possessed to keep from staring at her dumbly, with a huge, silly smile on his face.

He hadn't _known_ for sure that she'd be coming over, today. How _could_ he have known? But he'd still pulled the most masculine, most impressive-- even Tommy knew that-- casual outfit he had out of the closet and donned it that morning.

God, she looked good. Clear eyed, pink cheeked from the cold, her cap of russet hair attractively mussed atop her head.

Way too good for the sake of his sanity.

The really maddening thing was that she didn't even need to make some special effort to twist his insides in knots. She wasn't all dolled up, cosmetics an inch thick, perfume hanging like miasma in a cloud around her. Well, that probably would have disgusted him as much as if she'd been Kat in disguise. But the facts were, she looked good without even trying.

He turned to look at her again, hungry as always for another glimpse of her. She didn't note his silent study. Instead, she was glancing around his darkened room, as if trying to gage by its appearance his state of mind. While doing so, she absent-mindedly unzipped her jacket. He saw that beneath her open ski jacket-- rose and white, of course-- she was dressed in standard-issue Kimberly weekend casual: jeans, a soft-looking pink cardigan with white pearl buttons and a pair of low pink boots.

Nothing particularly provocative. Nothing intentionally seductive. It was just normal Kim-wear, something no-one else would be able to wear-- or would think of wearing-- but somehow, Kim managed to pull it off, and make it look good. It was nothing special...

And yet, all she had to do was stand in the same room

with him, and he had to struggle to remember his own name.

Trying to think of something to say was out of the question entirely.

It hadn't been so bad before _the incident_, as both Ryu and Tommy referred to it as. Before Ryoko had emerged from his water-filled shell to screw up their lives. Before he had elicited a confession Tommy wished he and his female friend could both forget. Until he had said the words, he could pretend it wasn't real; his feelings for her were just smoke and rainbows. In some perverse way, it had seemed to his wildly rationalizing mind that as long as he was the only one who knew about them, he wouldn't have to deal with them. He could tamp them down, secret them away like some crazy old relative in an attic. Content himself with Kim's friendship, and nothing more.

But now-- damn Ryoko!-- those feelings were out in the open. There was no way he'd be able to hide any longer. He couldn't take back what had happened.

What was worse was that the physical, emotional yearnings he had felt for Kim for some time, the need to hold her in his arms, bury his face in that sweet, sweet hair, to kiss away her tears and touch his lips to her mouth, had taken on a life of their own.

In the weeks since they'd returned, after Ryoko had died, he'd found himself reaching out to hold her, as if the fevered dreams-- sometimes frightening, sometimes not-- might have some basis in reality once the daylight dawned.

:You can do more than wish, Tommy,: Ryu encouraged gently. :You could have gone to her, and talked to her.:

[No, Ryu. I've got more than a passing acquaintance with what's 'reality' and what's not. That's why I don't wake up embracing her. I can't face the alternative...]

"Tommy? Are you alright?"

With a sudden start, he realized he'd been staring, unseeing, at the wooden panels next to his bare feet.

"Hm? Oh, yeah, I'm fine..."

He looked up, just in time to see her wince as she tried to shrug off her soft, pink sport jacket. Tommy crossed over, silently, to where she sat in front of the silent, flickering television and helped her remove the parka.

"Where's your sling?" Tommy queried, gruffly, from just over her left shoulder.

"The sling was retired over a week ago, Tommy," Kim said shortly, rotating her shoulder and wincing gingerly at the twinge of pain it elicited. "Which you would know if you'd bothered to return my calls, or stop by the house!"

:Kim, that was harsh,: Sayoko scolded. :And not altogether necessary.:

Kimberly realized that she was right as Tommy flinched, walking away from her once more to hang her jacket up on a doorpeg. He had no defense.

[She's right, man. Absolutely, positively right. I've been an @$$, haven't I?]

:You haven't seen her since... since that uncomfortable car ride home. School doesn't count, you just ignore her.:

[I called her every day when she was sick...]

:Oh, yeah,: Ryu replied, sarcastically. :Short, perfunctory little check-ins to see if she was still alive and breathing, and recovering from that knife-wound. And once you knew for certain she'd make a full recovery, wham! You decided that even those little after-school meetings were tempting fate.:

[I needed a vacation from my karate, after that,] Tommy pleaded, in his own defense.

:Oh, yes. That sudden urge to take a break from teaching karate classes has absolutely nothing to do with that woman who practices on the balancing beam and the floor mats right beside your karate, right? So you sat home after school, every day for a week, and thought of nothing but her.:

Still, calling on some inner reserve he hadn't known he possessed, he hadn't talked to Kimberly Hart. Hadn't called her. The only time he'd seen her was in school, and they didn't sit in adjourning seats. He could feel her eyes on him-- but well, he couldn't prevent that.

Tommy had spent an entire week without talking to her. Cold turkey. With the exception of his younger years-- the 'eew, girls' stage-- that was the longest time he'd ever spent without talking to her.

When Ed Oliver had told his son to stop being with that 'girl', Tommy had listened. But things hadn't changed that much. Instead of tapping on her window when he wanted to talk, he just talked with her in the Youth Center instead. Nothing so trivial as a father's word could break a friendship forged over years.

[This must be what heroin addicts feel like when they're denied their fix,] he had thought in one of his more self-pitying moments.

It wasn't that he hadn't wanted to speak to her. Oh, no, far from it. After only a few days, his fingers had nearly itched their way through his skin in their desire to pick up the telephone, just to hear her voice. Like he'd done when she was in the hospital. But he couldn't do that anymore. Couldn't do the courtesy call, how-are-you-oh-that's- good-well-take-care-bye-now business. He had wanted to _talk_ to her. Really talk. To hear her laugh. To listen to the way her clever mind could take an idea of his and turn it on its ear without him even being able to muster offense.

Well, the fact that he missed that just _proved_ how much he wanted to talk to her.

But to do all that, he'd have to have a real, honest conversation with his best friend and pretend-fiancée.

:Oh, see, there, she was even willing to pretend that she was going to marry you to get you out of a fix! And you, you ungrateful louse, don't even _call_ her for two _weeks_, 'cause you're _scared_ of what she might say?: Ryu taunted harshly.

To have an honest conversation, they'd have to talk about _it_. They'd have to discuss what Kim had learned in the warehouses of Angel Grove.

And there was no way he could face that.

"Tommy, I'm sorry," she sighed. "That was harsh. It's just... I mean, what were you thinking? Were you hoping that if you ignored me long enough, I'd just disappear?"

He licked his lips and closed his eyes for an instant, wondering why the mere mention of such an occurrence, losing his best friend to circumstance or someone else, still had the power to terrify him. He thought he'd outgrown that.

:There are things that you never outgrow, Tommy,: Ryu whispered softly in the back of his mind. :Worrying about someone you love is one of the ones that you _shouldn't_ outgrow.:

Waiting until he could trust his voice, Tommy turned from the door, with its forest-green doorpegs, to look at her.

"No. No, I'd never hope for that."

The words were spoken in that same soft, gruff tone that he'd used when she'd been in the hospital, so many years back; the first time she'd seen him after his mother had left home. She'd had to have her appendix out, and the nurse and doctors were much amused at the spectacle of a fourteen-year-old boy running around, trying to find out which room his friend was in. She still had the graceful swan made of crystal that he'd given her on that occasion.

Even then, in that time of cracking voices and long, unwieldy legs, Tommy had been a man.

Memories that both pleased and pained tusseled their way to the surface of her young mind. Tempting tears. She ignored them as best she could, cursing the shadows of the onrushing night. She couldn't see his eyes.

[You're right, Sayo,] she thought with genuine regret. [I hurt him, saying that.]

:Remember what he went through, Kim. What if it had been _you_ in his place, holding that gun? What would you have done?:

[I... I...]

:An apology will only make things worse... he has his pride.:

"I'm glad," she whispered, finally, hoping desperately that it would be enough.

It may have been... she thought she detected a softening in his half-hidden eyes.

[It's strange, Sayo. It's so strange.]

:What is?:

[It's one of the memories you've never seen, Sayoko... I used to have a major crush on Tommy. You know the stage, having a crush on any male in sight? But the thing is, I knew it was just a crush. I knew I'd outgrow it.]

Sayoko snorted, expressing her feelings without words.

[All those secrets I shared with him, all those little smiles and conversations... all the time we spent together... and I never thought that I'd hear those words coming from him. Those three little words.]

:Did you want to hear them?:

[Sayo... I... I don't know.]

Kimberly wanted to go to him. To smooth the plain guilt from his features, the anger, the regret that had flashed across his face in a million different ways when he'd seen her flinch. [But do I have the permission?] She didn't know Tommy in this mood. [If I go to him... give him a hug... he might reject the comfort as pity. I wouldn't want pity... I don't think he does, either...]

Kim sighed. [I knew this would be difficult. I just didn't know _how_ difficult.]

Oh, boy, this was going to be hard...

Neither moved. It was a stalemate as solid as the one Ryoko had set up, with his knife to Kim's neck, and Tommy's gun pointed unerringly at his head. Tommy continued to watch her, his hazel gaze wary and watchful, his posture-- as normal-- perfect and utterly alert.

[Does he _have_ to stand in a position that shows his chest off so well?]

There was something about him, though. His normal, gentle receptiveness was still there... just somewhat hidden.

[Dammit!] Kim realized. [He's waiting for me to take the lead!]

And perhaps, perhaps he would follow. With the proper coaxing... perhaps.

[OK,] she thought, amusedly. [Since he's not going to make it easy for me, I suppose turnabout's fair play...]

She rolled off the bed, towards the little Lava-Lamp that served as his night table's centerpiece. With a click, she flicked it on.

A warm, green glow filled the room as green light radiated from the lamp. It didn't banish the shadows... but it didn't heighten them, either.

Without a word, she rolled the other way over the bed, and shut up the announcer in mid-silent-sentence by turning off the TV.

Then she pinned Tommy across the wall with her gaze. "This is it," the Look said. "We are going to talk. Even if it takes all night. And there is no way in Hell I am leaving until we're done."

Tommy's lips twisted ever so slightly, the closest thing she'd seen to a smile since she'd walked into his room. Oh, he knew that Look. He'd seen it when he'd had a crush-- was it centuries ago?-- on one of Kim's female friends, and that girl had rejected him. He'd seen it when he'd shut himself in his room, eight or nine years ago, after not getting first place in a karate tournament because he'd been careless. He knew the futility of opposing it.

He gave in, shaking his head with honest exasperation, and sat down lightly beside her on the bed, cross-legged. "Just make yourself at home, Kim. It's not as if I was watching, anyway..."

"Tommy, darlin', I figured that out when I saw you staring at the floor," Kim informed him with wry amusement.

He shrugged, dipping his head to acknowledge the validity of the statement, his eyes reflecting gentle amusement at her boldness. That amusement flowed over to her, smoothly, and she had to smile at him, her lips curving into their famous little arch, her brown eyes even warmer than usual.

[Tell him,] Sayoko whispered gently. [Tell him. It's the only way.]

The words which had been threatening to pour out of her mouth since she'd seen him there, standing so forlornly near the doorway, slipped unerringly from her lips.

"I missed you."

It was no trick of the clear green light. A blush tinted his cheeks, and he tilted his head, his hair black in the light. The soft locks tumbled over his face as he hid from her view. "I missed you, too," he admitted softly, his voice sounding as if it had just been thrown into disrepair.

:Don't worry, Tommy. Your voice doesn't matter... it's what you say that does...:

"You know, the Youth Center hasn't been the same without you there," Kim began slowly, her tone deliberately light. She didn't want him to realize quite how much his words pleased her... "Everyone's noticed it. In fact, you should probably know you're currently the hot topic throughout the class."

"Some things never change," he murmured dryly, his eyebrows raised mockingly, one long, barefoot leg tucked beneath him as he sat on his own bedcover beside her. His head lifted, hair falling away from his features. She could see him clearer, now...

"Oh, not for the usual stuff," she assured him, the smallest measure of mischief twinkling in her eyes. "It's the vacation, Tommy. A week away from your karate and your teaching that wasn't prompted by medical necessity. Geez, I didn't think Ernie would ever recover, when he was told about it. Rumor has it that smelling salts were called for."

"I had the time coming," he answered, just a bit defensively.

"I'm sure you did," she agreed mildly, glad to have her buddy talking to her again in a way he hadn't since that fateful day in the back areas of Angel Grove. "I can't remember a day when you've stopped karate for... years! But to take it willingly, without threats from Jason-- or me... Well, you have to expect that people will wonder why."

He shrugged, his gaze drifting away from hers again.

"Tommy, if you don't keep your eyes on me, I'm going to have Sayo sit on you," Kim threatened, finally grinning.

[Oh, yeah, _that'll_ really be a problem,] Tommy nearly shook his head with exasperation.

:It would,: Ryu replied dryly. :Sayo may not be heavy-- but she's a hundred and thirty pounds of absolutely solid muscle. She'd flatten you as surely as if King Kong pounded you. Take it from me, I know from experience.:

"Tommy... call me paranoid, but I get the feeling you might be avoiding me," Kim pressed.

Tommy kept his eyes on her, this time. Just... not on her eyes. "What gave you that idea?" he queried.

"Oh, I don't know... just that your locker's right next to mine, and I haven't seen you there since Ryoko-- left... you don't sit that far away from me, but you haven't so much as _looked_ at me since then... oh, yeah, and you don't show up at the Youth Center after school... hmm, don't return any of my calls... that enough?"

"Just the little things," Tommy agreed, drolly. "Kim--"

"What's the matter, Tommy?" she teased softly, leaning towards him in an effort to breach his dauntingly thick wall of reserve and doubt. She didn't see him gulp and make an obvious effort to stop looking down her cleavage. "You scared of me?"

At first, she thought he might not answer. His hesitation was obvious. In the end, he just looked at her with a mixture of fondness and chagrin, tugging lightly at her hair before speaking. "Kim, you terrify me."

The hushed confession stunned her. She had meant the remark playfully, hoping only to keep alive the short volley of easy banter a few moments longer. Just a few seconds. The revelation that the man she trusted most in the world might for some reason fear her or her reaction to him rendered her temporarily speechless. For his part, Tommy tore his gaze away from her astounded countenance, already regretting his words and the so-obvious vulnerability they revealed.

Kim reached for a brush on the night-table behind her, and moved behind him. Gently, gently, she started working the tangles out of his hair. He sighed, leaning back into her competent hands.

There was no way in Hell Kimberly Hart was going to let him regret anything.

"Why do I scare you, Tommy?" she asked, whispering against the silken murmur of the hairbrush. "What have I done to frighten you?"

He shook his head, and Kim could almost see the self-depracating smile that would inevitably flirt with those familiar, handsome features. "You know the truth."

"Tommy, you've lied all of once in your life. In your own way, you not only _look_ for the truth, you promote it. Why should the truth frighten you?" she challenged gently.

:Nice choice of words, girl.: Sayo congratulated. :_Very_ nice.:

He rubbed the back of one hand over tired eyes, and turned to face her a little, struggling to come up with the words that would make her understand. "I dunno, Kim... It's different, y'know, when the spotlight falls on you..."

She nodded slowly. He was right. Up to that point, the onus had fallen on him. He had been the one whose emotions had been put on display, whose secrets had been stolen, whose pretenses had been revealed as nothing more substantial than paper and colored lights. Galahad, the Prince of Cups, whose emotions were bared and open to the world. She, on the other hand, had found herself in the enviable position of Nimue, the Princess of Pentacles. Her mystery intact. Her will unknowable, yet she herself all-knowing.

She hadn't wanted it to be that way. If it had been up to her, they would have hashed the whole thing out on the floor of that blood-stained warehouse. But Tommy-- her strong, intelligent, aggravating, terribly private partner-- had ducked her best efforts. And unwittingly given her the power to shatter his world.

She could imagine that there were some women who might _like_ holding that kind of power over a man. One tall, leggy Australian-- [Kim, that's not fair!]-- sprung instantly to mind. But Kim wasn't like that, and just couldn't do things like that. Credit her long association with Tommy and his sense of honor, or perhaps the well-meaning parade of nuns that had gone through her elementary school religion life. But whatever had sired it, her own innate sense of fair play kicked in instantly. Alone, Tommy had shared the indignity long enough. It was time for the uneven bars to be leveled.

"How would you feel about sharing the spotlight, Tommy?"

He turned to face her completely, hair wafting in arranged, combed softness around his head. His head cocked at her, eyes radiating confusion. "What do you mean?"

She smiled, treading carefully, her own reticence-- that didn't emerge often-- not making it any easier for her than it had been for him. "Aren't you curious, Tommy? Just the tiniest bit... I mean, c'mon, through all of this you've never _once_ asked me how I feel."

"It helps that I haven't talked to you for the past two weeks," Tommy answered dryly.

"You're avoiding the question," she pointed out unerringly.

His lips tightened into a partial smile, partial grimace. "Kim-- you don't have to do this. I don't want you to say something that you don't mean... and that I _know_ you'll regret..."

He didn't want her to think she was obliged to say something to make him feel better. Pity would kill him as surely as hatred would have. They would never even have been having this conversation were it not for the intervention of a madman with a knife.

:One who just happens to be the brother of the person living in your head. Oh, God, Tommy, I'm so sorry...:

Tommy ignored him.

There must be a hundred reasons--or more-- why their feelings for each other were better left unexplored. If she did indeed love him, where did that leave them? How could they go on the way they had? There were no guarantees that Ed Oliver-- as perfidious a man as his son was open and honest-- would call off the arranged marriage. Tommy didn't see how they could be both lovers and friends. And no matter how attractive a proposition the former was, he didn't think he could face his life without the latter.

And if she didn't love him... well, he grimly hoped that in that event, the sharp fragments of his broken heart might somehow pierce something vital and put him out of his misery.

"I know I don't have to," she whispered at his wide eyes, her own shining brightly enough to overwhelm, it seemed, the gentle light filling the room. Those eyes... that seemed to catch every little flaw, every little foible... and forgive him for them all the same. "But what if I want to, Tommy? What if I want to say the words?"

Though his eyes were filling up with traitorous tears, Tommy dared not blink, so afraid was he that he'd miss the moment he'd been hoping for-- and dreading-- seemingly even before Ryu and Sayoko had come into their heads and made a place in their hearts.

"Don't you want to hear me to say 'I love you', Tommy?"

The question was so typically Kim-- sweet, innocent, gentle and simple-- that for a brief second, a tear welled up and trickled down his cheek. "Only as much as I want my next breath," he admitted, "or the sun to rise in the morning..."

It wasn't until the words had emerged that he figured out what he had said.

:Nice one, Tommy,: Ryu approved. But Tommy wasn't listening, so intent was he on Kimberly Hart.

She nodded, her eyes fixed on his-- how had she managed to entrap his gaze?-- and opened her mouth to give him the gift he'd unwittingly given her.

"... but I don't think it would be wise," Tommy added, quickly.


His finger was almost touching her mouth, her eyes looking up pleadingly at him. Her parted lips gave off warm vapor, dampening his fingertips with her breath.

She took his hand between her little ones, and brought it down to her lap. She moved closer, until she was sitting beside him. Then she started stroking his hand, and his wrist, gently.

:Uh-oh... keep a grip on yourself, Tommy-boy... I'd be willing to bet that she doesn't even know what she's doing to you.:

[I'm _trying_,] he gritted out through clenched mind-teeth, [but _God_, Jesus and Mary, it's hard...]

Oh, yes, very hard. They were both sitting on the bed. It would be so easy to take her in his arms, lowering her to the soft mattress--

[Nope. No, no, and _no_,] he tried to convince the rapid thumping of his heart.

"Let me tell you what happened in the Youth Center today, Tommy," Kim's voice was soft and low, a story-telling lilt to her tone. "Did you know that Adam reads tarot cards?"

"Mmm?" he managed to get out through a mouth that felt gummed up.

"Mmm-hmm." Kim agreed, nodding. "He read them for everyone-- then he got to me. Do you know how to read tarot cards, Tommy?"

Tommy shrugged, not trusting his voice to betray him quite yet. With her hands on his, running their little dance up his fingers... nope, not quite.

"Well, anyway, he read the cards for me. You know what they were, Tommy? The problem was The Lovers. The card that means secure emotional relationships, that's what Adam said. According to him, it was that it had once been there, but had been dissolved by something that had happened... the House of God. He said that the problem was that we needed to get those bonds back... because they'd been destroyed by drastic change. And that the best I could hope for, at the rate I was going, was loss... regret at parting, or something that could have been beautiful."

Tommy looked at her, drew his other hand back to smooth away, instinctively, the band of feathered hair hanging over her nose. He couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes, though... Adam's reading had hit closer to home than he'd known.

"There's more... that's just the basic past. He told me what my deepest, most powerful hope was, my strongest wish. Do you know what that was, Tommy? Yes, it was happiness. But not the way we know it. It was happiness, as in emotional stability, kindness, hope fulfilled."

"And you know what, Tommy? He's right. And I hoped he'd be right when I read the eventual, most possible outcome of the situation-- provided I changed it."

"What was that, Kim?" Tommy's voice was just the lightest of breaths.

"What was the outcome?" Kim smiled, openly and sweetly, at Tommy. "Oh, you should know that. Romance, Tommy. The modifying factor was Love."

Tommy choked. Either Adam had rigged those cards-- and no-one else had known... _could_ have known... about his feelings-- or there was something strange going on here...

"Tommy," her face was so close to his... all he would have to do was reach out, move an inch closer, and he'd be able to kiss her... "Tommy, you can stop me from saying it, but you can't stop me from loving you..."

His hand clutched painfully hard around hers as his heart squeezed in equal measure. His face was a mixture of open joy, sweet love... and sadness. "Kim... that's the last thing I want to do..."

She firmly resisted the urge to shake him by his shoulders. With his powerful muscles, it wouldn't do any good: she wouldn't be able to budge him an inch. She let go of his hand with frustration, and Tommy sighed an almost-unheard breath of relief. "Then why are you fighting it? Why are you fighting _me_?"

:Yes, Tommy, please explain,: Ryu began acidly. :I don't understand you at _all_...:

Tommy perched on the edge of the bed, his elbows resting on his thighs and his head in his hands. "Because... because if I let this happen... if _we_ let this happen... everything we had before would have to go..."

"What are you talking about?"

He turned his head to look at her, and she was stunned to see the raw anguish pooled in those bottomless eyes. "Us, Kim... just being friends, hanging out. You've been my buddy for years... what would happen if we became more, and I lost my best friend and gained a lover? Oh, sure, it's a nice thought," he went on hastily, as Kim's expression clouded over. "But I don't think I could live without that friendship, that 'you can tell me anything' mentality."

As quickly as the clouds had come on the horizon of Kimberly's face, they disappeared. And Kim started to smile.

"Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. No-one's ever told you that the best couples were friends before anything else?"


"You're not changing anything. You can still tell me anything, and I can-- I _do_," Kim added, "--trust you with my life, what more my secrets? We're just adding something new to this, Tommy. I wouldn't be here, if I thought that we couldn't be friends... and more. No-one, and nothing, can ever take that away from us."

"Kim... there's more--"

"Tommy, answer me this," she interrupted, crawling over to sit very close to him, sharing her exhilarating warmth, as if physical proximity alone would be enough to reach him. "What you said, what you told me... that wasn't a revelation for you, in that instant, was it?"

Tommy looked away. "I thought so, at first... then I thought back to all the little things... no, I guess it wasn't. I suppose I've known how I felt about you for a long time, now. I just... didn't want to admit it."

"Ah, Tommy, we're the same that way," Kim admitted. "I guess I didn't want to think... didn't want to believe that I would be attracted to my best friend... I didn't even think that I might fall in love with you, you know, Tommy? I didn't even think about it. It would never happen... and so I had no problems about getting close to you. Never thought you might betray me, 'cause I knew you wouldn't. And it ended up, you didn't. This," she touched her palm to her chest gently, and smiled at him to soften the blow, the smile he eagerly waited for like a child waits for Christmas morning, "This betrayed me."

"Kim... Kimmie, I don't want to lose you," Tommy protested, the old nickname bubbling easily to his lips.

She threw her head back and laughed, loose hair tumbling down into the small of her back.

When Kim had let loose her mirth, and looked back at him, his eyes must have asked unspoken questions, as they did so often. "Tommy, you can't lose me. Never."

"How's that?"

"Sayoko says-- and I'm inclined to believe her-- that love and life both find a way, and you can never soar too high on your own wings."

"What? I... I don't understand..."

"Love and life both find a way, Tommy. You can't keep us from living, any more than you can keep us from loving. There will always be a little loophole, a cavern, a chamber... and it will slip out, and be free."

"That I understand that... but..."

She shushed him, touching her fingertips to his lips. "I've just found wings that I didn't know I had, Tommy. And I'm going to fly as high as I can with them. Will you join me?"

"I... what?"

Somehow, his brain processes weren't going as quickly as they ordinarily did. The strange expression on his face reflected that, glowing softly in the light.

"Are you so convinced that our being together will only hurt us in the end?" she asked softly, her thumb brushing lightly along his upper arm, her face wandering closer to his.

"I'll admit, the thought has crossed my mind," he replied dryly, turning his face towards her, so near suddenly that their noses were in danger of rubbing. He found he liked having her so close to him, and realized he had an almost overwhelming urge to play Eskimo.

"Why?" she whispered softly, her breath caressing his lips. "Why won't you let me near you, Tommy? You've already let me into your home, let me touch your mind... why won't you let me into your heart?"

He gazed into her eyes, so close to his. "Kim, you know my dad. He's going to forget... he's not going to call off my engagement to whoever that other girl is. And I'm honor-bound to marry her, you _know_ that. I can't-- I won't-- break a promise. It would be going against everything that I've learned as a martial artist. If that happens... they'll take me away from you, Kim."

"Maybe," she informed him, huskily. "But they can't have this. They can't take our love, Tommy. No matter if they separate us, no matter how cliché it sounds, they can't take that away from us."

:She's right, Tommy. Take it from an avowed man whose brother-- and half his friends-- tried to steak his iinazuke. She still loves me, no matter how little I deserve it, and God, I love her, too. She died so we could be together, Tommy. D'you think Kim would do any less?:

[But _you_ weren't betrothed to anyone else!]

Ryu laughed, more a feeling than any sound. :Yes I was...:

Tommy's head snapped up. "What?!" he asked aloud.

Kim blinked at him several times. "Ryu said something surprising?"

"Hell, yeah!" Tommy exclaimed, "He had more than one fiancée!"

Kim nodded. The fact did not surprise her, not a bit. "Yes, I know. All of them were arranged by his father, either before he was born or when he was a baby."

:And one of his own stupidity,: Sayoko added dryly. :He defeated a girl from a specific tribe. If an outsider woman defeats one of them, that woman is hunted down for life. If an outsider _man_ defeats one of them... well, the man has to marry the girl he defeated.:

Kim giggled, and Tommy smiled at her amusement. She was beautiful when she laughed, and it was infectuous, even if Tommy had no idea what she was laughing about. "So why didn't Ryu just lose? I mean, then nothing would have happened and he wouldn't have become betrothed to that warrior girl," Kim asked, crossing her legs and looking pointedly at Tommy.

:Because I didn't know about that rule, and I _still_ hate losing. Especially to a girl. Besides, it was an accident. I don't fight girls. Period.:

"According to him, it was an accident. He doesn't fight girls at all," Tommy translated.

Kim got a 'listening' expression on her face... then a grin flickered briefly across her features.


"Sayoko says that he just uses that as an excuse, because she whips his butt every time..."

Tommy smiled back, returning Ryu's message. "And Ryu says 'remember the first time we met, girl', and kinda smirks. Do I really want to know?" he querously-- falsely-- asked the air.

Kim's lips curved in a mischeivous smile. "Doesn't matter, I'll tell you anyway. It's not what you think, Tommy... it's just that Ryu was in _girl_ form when he met Sayoko!"

Tommy's chin dropped, and his eyes opened wide. "And his dad had the nerve to say that he-- _she_-- was going to marry Sayoko?"

Kimberly laughed when she heard Sayoko's reply. "Well, actually, Ryu's dad was a panda at the time, so 'e couldn't say much. But anyway, Sayoko was glad that her new houseguest was a girl, because she needed a sparring partner and a new friend, not a fiancée. Well, anyway, they sparred... and Ryu royally kicked Sayo's butt."

"I thought--"

"He _doesn't_ fight girls," Kim interrupted hastily. "He did nothing but defend-- and she couldn't lay a finger on 'im. He was just too fast for her. She wore herself out while all he did was dodge and block."

"So what happened?"

"Um..." Kim giggled, "Well, after that, being all sweaty from chasing his-- her?-- dad through the streets, Ryu decided to take a nice, hot shower."

Tommy's grin grew wider. "Don't tell me, Sayoko walked in?"

:Walked in, looked, walked out, shut the door... and then screamed fit to wake the devil,: Ryu informed him wryly. :And so our relationship began on a _wonderful_ foot, no?:

They chuckled together.

"You know how I knew?" Tommy queried.


"Ryu told you guys that story-- a simple version of it-- while he was sparring with Rocky in the Youth Center.

:She's right, though, Tommy. You have wings, but you'll never learn to fly until you use them... take it from someone who's been soaring for centuries.:

[I can't, Ryu... I can't hurt her like that when the time comes and I _may_ have to get married to someone who's probably as unwilling as I am.]

:'May' being the key word.:

"Tommy... look, if it makes you feel any better, I'll go have a talk with your dad. I mean, c'mon, the guy's _got_ to have a heart _somewhere_..."

Tommy looked up. "Oh yeah? If he does, then it sure don't show!" His normally gentle face was hard with repressed anger.

:That's not fair, Tommy. Your father cares about you. You're his son, after all...:

[Yes, of course, a little extension, what he always wanted to be and couldn't. That's why he wants me to get married to someone I don't even know-- and neither does _he_!]

An irrefutable fact.

"I... I'd better go," Kim murmured, looking out the window at the cold, long shadows. It's late, and my mom'll be wondering where I am."

Tommy nodded, smiling-- albeit wanly-- at her. "Yeah... see ya tomorrow?"

She didn't leave, and rather looked at him out of the corners of her eyes. Soft eyelashes were silhouetted by green light, lending the hazel tinge to her eyes that his had naturally.

"What?" Tommy asked, curiously. She looked so... what was that? Was she _frightened_? _Kim_? Nah, couldn't be... could it? But her sweet eyes were dark, as if heated from within.

"I have to ask you something, Tommy. A favor."

His throat suddenly felt like the Sahara Desert at noon in mid-summer; all his saliva disappeared in a quick flash. And who the Hell had turned up the thermostat?

Her lips curved invitingly, dipping into a perfect bow, the little smile-creases at the corners of her mouth dimpling her cheeks. "Can I kiss you, Tommy? No accident, this time?"

He gulped, parched throat contracting so that he was deprived of oxygen for one precious second. [If that blood roars any louder through my head, I won't be able to hear her anymore...]

"Sure, Kimmy... never let it be said that I'd deny you a favor..."

She smiled up at him mischeivously. "Thank you, Tommy. And I promise, it won't hurt a bit."

Kimberly stood up from her seat beside him, and with a quick motion, sat on his lap, arms gliding to hang loosely along his shoulders.

She felt him tense awkwardly, drawing away from her as if he would run--

But Tommy would never run if he could stand and fight, defending what he believed to be good.

This was no different.

His hands slid to meet around her waist as she tilted her head upwards to kiss him, fingers tracing shivery little trails on the back of his neck, under his waves of soft, chestnut hair.

One of his hands slid up to caress the delicate line of her chin and cheek, flicking gently at shell-pink ears, the other remained perched on her hip just as she was perched on his lap.

Ever so slowly, savoring each timeless second, she tilted her head upwards to kiss him, and he bent his downwards to receive it.

Their lips met, and for once, Sayoko and Ryu were quiet, silenced by feelings, so long pressed and hidden, rushing to the surface. Desire, wistfulness, a general feeling of 'we-should-have-done-this-sooner...'

And love, of course, as hot and melting as fire-- and just as wanted. Suddenly, the night around them seemed so cold...

How long did their mouths remain joined, eyes shuttering closed like blinders, no-one was keeping track. Not even the insistent ringing of the doorbell shot into their reverie where no-one else existed.

Tommy realized, after a prolongued time, that he should probably go answer the door. But he had just rediscovered his best friend in a very different way... and realized that together, they were so very, very good at this...

They ran out of air and parted, gasping for precious oxygen.

"There..." Kim exclaimed, when she could finally speak again. "Did that hurt?"

Tommy smiled, pulling her closer to him. "I don't know," he replied, voice deep and smoky. "Maybe you should try it again and find out..."

Kim laughed, throwing her head backwards and he dipped down teasingly and left a kiss on her throat, his lips feeling the vibration of her voice.

"Well, dear boy, I guess you decided to come back-- and to bring this pretty girl with you, too..." came a drawl from the door.

Tommy and Kim froze, and came to new realizations of their position. Kim was sitting in Tommy's lap, his arms around her waist, and he was kissing her throat. It was late at night.

It couldn't possibly look good, _especially_ not to a protective parent's eyes...

Tommy stood up, gently sliding Kim to her feet on the floor. "Hello, Dad," his voice was so cold that Kim could almost imagine icicles forming on the doorway above Ed Oliver's head. "Kimberly is my fiancée, and I think she has every right to be here."

Edward Oliver blanched, sweatdrops appearing on his forehead. He'd completely forgotten that his teenage son had gone out and gotten himself engaged... [Tommy's going to meet his new fiancée tomorrow! Oh, $#!^, it's either he kills me or the girl's mother kills me...] "Ah, yes, of course, boy... but unless she's planning to stay the night-- not that I have any objections about that, of course-- perhaps she should go home. It's dark out..."

"Yes, maybe I should go, Tommy," Kimberly agreed, smiling an entirely artificial vapid smile. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

Tommy nodded, bending down to place a gentle kiss on her lips, her arms rising to encircle his neck. Both were hard-pressed to hide giggles as they noticed Edward Oliver's discomfited expression.

They parted after only a few seconds, and Tommy took Kim's hand. "C'mon, I'll take you home," he offered.

Kim giggled, acting completely airheaded. "I'd like that..."

They strolled out the door, acting as lovey-dovey as they possibly could, like a natural couple.

They kept the dismay and laughter from showing on their faces until they rounded the corner.

They walked in silent communion until they reached Kim's doorway. The lights were out-- but the car of Kimberly's mother was in the driveway.

"Kim, he forgot about our so-called-engagement. I know it. He's my father, it's written all over his face."

"I know, Tommy," Kim whispered, embracing him closely. "I don't even know him-- but I could see the guilt in his eyes..."

He looked down into her eyes, tortured and pained. "I... I... Kimmy, I can't do this..."

She reached out and caressed his cheek, always smooth of stubble. Kimberly smiled. "Remember, Tommy... you can never fly too high if you soar on your own wings."

:She got that straight from Sayo,: Ryu pointed out tersely.

He snatched her hand and pressed it to his lips. "That doesn't help me, though, Kim..."

She chuckled. "But it does... why don't you tell the girl that you don't want to marry her, but don't have a choice?"

Tommy looked taken aback. "I would-- but I really doubt she has a choice, either, Kimmy."

:If it's an arranged marriage, Kim, then she didn't have a choice and is probably just as unwilling to marry Tommy as he is to marry her.: Sayoko informed Kimberly unhappily.

Kimberly's eyes turned sad-- wistful. "You know that I'd do something, if I could... but I'm glad you're doing what's right."

"Even if it means we can't be together?"

She chucked his chin gently. "We'll always be together," her eyes turned mischievous, "even if it means I have to sneak into your house."

:And she would, too,: Ryu agreed.

Tommy chuckled, and kissed her, long and passionately.

It was almost like good-bye.

:Invite him in, Kim,: Sayoko whispered into her mind's ears. :Invite him in. It may be your last chance...:

They parted for air again, and Kim breathed gently against his cheek, "Tommy... come on inside... stay here tonight."

:Go for it, Tommy... you deserve one chance to act on your love...: Ryu urged.

He shivered in her arms. "Kim... I can't. I'm sorry..." he drew away from her, eyes shining in the moonlight. "I..."

She smiled, wryly and sadly. "I knew you'd say that. Typical Tommy. Good luck, then... this isn't goodbye..."

He smiled back. "This isn't goodbye," he concurred. "Good luck to you, too... I love you... Ryu says 'I love you' to Sayo, too."

"I love you, too, and Sayo says the same to Ryu," Kim agreed, before turning and going into her house with a blown kiss.

Tommy managed to make it halfway home before the tears started trickling down his face.

"So, boy..." Edward Oliver was obviously nervous, but that was nothing new. The fat, oily little man that was his father was always nervous, anyway. "What have you been doing?"

"Cut the c__p, Dad. You forgot to call off my engagement to that other girl, didn't you," Tommy sighed. He was too sad to be angry, too tired to snap.

:Aren't we all...: Ryu murmured.

"Eh.. well... sort of. I made that arrangement before you were born, with her father, and her mother agrees to it! Boy, you must understand, it's a matter of _honor_!" Tommy's father tried desperately. If there was anything Tommy would do anything for, it was honor--

"I know," Tommy looked defeated, slumped, no sign of his normal pride. He still carried himself like a prince-- but now, it was as if the prince had been denied his life and kingdom. "That's why I'm letting you get away with it."

Ed's head snapped up. That was the _last_ thing he'd expected his proud, handsome son to say.

And it made him feel even guiltier...

"But what about your fiancée?"

Tommy looked away. "I talked to her. She understands."

Then he glanced back at his father, his hazel eyes holding a bright spark of anger in them. "Be glad that Kim is as forgiving as she is-- and as understanding. Many girls would have been furious at you simply for arranging the marriage."

:Like Sayo was...: Ryu added.

Now Edward Oliver was on a royal guilt-trip. "Tommy... I've never told you this, but I thank you. And I am sorry, I know you love your fiancée."

Then he hesitated. "I... Tommy, you're meeting your _new_ fiancée tomorrow."

Tommy looked tired, lay down on his bed, and threw his arm over his eyes. "Then I'm going to sleep," he sighed. "Good night, Dad."

Ed Oliver looked down. No matter how much he could envy his child, this perfect, golden son, he had to pity him. "If it's any comfort, Tommy," he murmured, "I'm sure she'll appreciate you... you would be a much better husband than me, after all..."

In the second before he left the room, he heard Tommy's reply. It came as a mingling combination of whisper and sob.

"That's no comfort at all..."

"Cynthia, are you sure your daughter is ready to meet her fiancée?" Edward Oliver asked, worry crossing his face. "Have you even told her that you arranged her marriage?"

A middle-aged woman with long brown hair--dyed-- that tossed thinly over her shoulders pressed her lips together. Her face was lined with many years of stress, and her eyes old and tired. "It's about time she settled down with a steady fiancée, and gave up all this running around with various boys," she explained, a smirk flirting across her lips. "No, I haven't told her."

"What do you mean, running around with various boys. She's not a lightskirt, is she?"

Cynthia laughed, a genuine laugh that brightened her face and old eyes even as the sunshine brought light to the park glade. "My daughter? A lightskirt? No, I should hope I raised her better than that. But she has many friends who are boys-- and I don't think that's right. She should stick to her own gender until she gets married, Edward, don't you think?"

Edward grinned, and clapped Cynthia on the shoulder. "A woman after my own heart."

Then he frowned. "There is a slight problem, though, Cynthia. My son has a... fiancée."

Cynthia cocked her head at Ed, the wind tousling her hair. "Well, of course he does. My daughter."

"No, I mean _another_ fiancée. She could be a little bit of a problem. Her name's... Katherine, or Kristina, or something like that."

"Katherine?" Cynthia tapped her lips thoughtfully. "Hm, since my daughter hasn't told me anything about getting married, it can't be her... a pity, it would make it so much easier on them."

"A pity," Ed agreed. "Ah, here's Tommy."

Tommy strode towards the pair, looking around. Cynthia's eyebrows raised considerably as she eyed Tommy's long, graceful waves of hair, handsome face, sparity of movement and muscled, lithe body. "You have a very handsome son, Ed. I think my dear daughter will like him a lot. Martial artist?"

"Thank you, yes," Ed nodded his thanks. "Where's your daughter?"

"Hmm, yes, where _is_ she?" Cynthia looked around.

Tommy's father held up a black bandanna. "Here, Tommy, let me tie this over your eyes."

Tommy's eyebrows went up. "Why?"

"Do you want it to be a surprise, or see her coming?"

Tommy closed his eyes and allowed his father to tie the black cloth, so that he couldn't see anything. He felt himself being led to a bench, and told to sit.

"I'm going to go blindfold my daughter," Cynthia sighed. "I can see her, over there..."

Ed watched Cynthia sway over to the daughter that Edward Oliver had never met, blindfolding her with another black bandanna, and leading her to Tommy.

"Wait a minute--" Ed exclaimed. He smiled, a real, genuine, happy smile with none of his normal oiliness. "Hmm, interesting. You have a very pretty daughter, Cynthia. I know that my son will like her."

"My thanks, let's hope your son thinks the same," Cynthia cautioned, irony heavy in her tone. She took her daughter's slim, white hands and sat her down next to Tommy.

"Dear, you're about to meet your fiancée," Cynthia whispered, clapping a hand over her daughter's mouth to prevent any of the protests that she knew would emerge. "Don't say anything, you might scare him off... he's very handsome, and his father tells me he's very gentle, and a martial artist. You'll be happy with him. It's about time you settled down and stopped running around with all those boys."

The girl knew better than to struggle-- or say anthing. She reached out blindly-- and her hands touched a muscled, hard chest clothed in a cotton sleeveless. She felt him tense as her fingers unexpectedly rested on his shirt. She stiffened, suddenly-- and reached up and touched long, soft hair with just the slightest hint of wave in it. "Tommy?!" she gasped, yanking off the cloth covering her eyes.

Tommy tore off his bandanna, his eyes wide. "What the--"

"I'm assuming that you like your new fiancée, Tommy?" Ed grinned.

Tommy shook his head, disbelieving, standing up. "I don't believe you actually found someone I _know_ to be my betrothed, Dad... I don't know how you did it."

Cynthia smiled. "So, daughter, what do you think?"

"Mom... I don't know whether to kiss you or kill you," came the honest reply.

"Well, why would you kill me?" the middle-aged woman pointed out. "He's handsome, no?"


"And he's a friend of yours..."


"And he's a sweet, gentle martial artist, I've heard you call him such more than once... and he's intelligent, I remember you calling him that, too..."

"Yes... but _Mom_, you got me _engaged_ without _telling_ me!"

Cynthia shrugged.

"You know each other," Ed pointed out, "but maybe we should just introduce you, for formality's sake..."

"This is my son, Thomas Oliver," Edward smiled at his son. "His nickname's Tommy."

The girl nodded, smiling. "Pleased to meet you, Tommy." Her eyes glinted with soft mischief.

"And this is my daughter… Kimberly Katherine Hart."

Tommy reached down, grinning like an utter idiot, and took the girl's petite hands into his own. "Hello, I'm very pleased to meet you, Ms. Hart... would you marry me?"

Kimberly giggled, and jumped on him in a fierce embrace. "Yes!" she whispered happily. "A hundred-- a thousand times-- yes!"

Cynthia smiled, pleased and surprised, and whispered in a not-quite-inaudible voice, "I hoped they would get along, but I didn't dare think they'd get along _that_ well..."

Skull showed up the next day in school.

Tommy and Kim jumped away from him, Tommy's hand sliding to the contracting staff in its sheath across his forearm and under his flannel, Kim reaching for the spray-can of Mace in her purse--

He grinned disarmingly at them both, his eyes pained-- but not guilty. A gentle bow to Kimberly, a nod for Tommy... and no hostility at all.

Very strange, especially when it came from Skull.

:What the-- oh, no... Ryoko can't _possibly_ be alive, not after that shot... we _saw_ him die!: Ryu growled in frustration and fear.

[Oh, yeah? Tell that to Skull!] Tommy snapped back. These last few days had been tense. Yesterday, the feared waiting had been especially bad...

[But how was I to know that Dad had me fixed up with _Kim_?] He looked over at his fiancée, who was chatting happily with Aisha about prom dresses. [She looks great, you know.]

Ryu sighed. :You've only said that about sixteen-hundred times in the past two hours, Tommy...:

[But it's true!]

:Now you see, of course, why I can write poems about Sayoko's hair? It's all a matter of perspective.:

[I'm not even gonna comment about that,] Tommy muttered. [I'm just not gonna comment.]

:You wouldn’t dare…:

"Tommy… should we go talk to him?" Kim whispered, tiptoeing to cup her hand around his ear.

"I dunno, Kim… isn’t that dangerous, though?"

Her brown eyes met his. :Is it?: they whispered, soft and hazel like a pool of melted taffy. "We’ve gotta know, Tommy… I think we should."

"Your choice, beautiful," he whispered in return.

She smiled and blushed, and he tilted her chin up to dance a kiss along her lips.

They heard Aisha giggling, and Rocky groaning, "PDA alert! PDA alert!" but frankly, in the midst of their kiss, they didn’t really care.

And they could almost hear Adam blushing, and Billy shaking his head with a smile.

"What’s PDA?" Tommy murmured throatily against Kim’s lips, his sweet breath the gentlest brush, like a trailing of cotton.

:I was wondering exactly the same,: Ryu agreed.

"Public Display of Affection," she grinned. "You think we should give them another display?"

"Well, we could always catch up with Skull later…"

Thankfully, their friends were spared another display of nauseating sweetness by the ringing of the bell.

Tommy’s and Kimberly’s new closeness had not gone unnoticed by the other students. All over the school, there were various speculations about how this new development in their relationship had come about.

After all, _everyone_ knew they were best friends—Tommy had, more than once, fended off Kimberly’s unwanted suitors. In many ways, they were closer than lovers _could_ be: the gentle touches, open defense of the other, defiance of parental wishes to be together, whispered words of comfort rather than love, no secrets hidden, made them more than ‘just’ friends.

And now, they were openly more.

After all, ‘friends’ didn’t start kissing passionately in the middle of the hallway.

Many were the envious looks thrown at Kimberly by the girls in the class—but Kim was as well-liked as Skull was despised, and everyone agreed that she deserved Tommy as much as any other girl.

"I’d think it was funny if we weren’t perfectly serious about being together, Tommy," Kim murmured quietly.

"I know," came the soft reply. "Did you know that they’re running a bet on how we came to be together? Three people say that I seduced you, six say that you seduced me, eighteen say that it has something to do with ‘the warehouse fiasco’…"

"They’re probably the most correct," Kim conceded.

"And a whole lot of people say it’s because we practically grew up together, and that I’m a handsome man, you’re a beautiful woman, and it was only a matter of time before we started to notice these things."

"Let me rephrase that. _They’re_ closest."

"Oh, I don’t know about that… if it hadn’t been for ‘the warehouse fiasco’, I’d never have found out—and neither would you."

"Yes, we would have."

"How’s that?"

"Our parents."

"Oh. Right. I forget about them… well, looks like Dad did right by me _this_ time…"

"But what are the chances that he’d get you engaged to a) someone you knew, b) someone you’ve been best friends with all your life, and c) someone you love?"

"Why ask?"

They giggled, and kissed again. Ernie rolled his eyes, and turned to Adam. "Is it just me, or did something happen between those two over the weekend? I don’t think I’ve seen so much PDA since the last wedding I went to…"

Kim and Tommy cornered Skull in the Youth Center, after school. Tommy snatched him up by the collar, eyes burning with anger. "O.K, spit it out, Skull—"

Kim put a pacifying hand on the taut muscles of his arm, gleaming faintly in the bright lights. "Tommy. Cool it. He hasn’t done anything—yet."

[Actually, yes he has. Ryoko’s soul wouldn’t have been able to take his body if Skull hadn’t wanted what Ryoko offered: your body and heart, and Tommy’s death,] Sayoko murmured.

:Let’s hope Ryu doesn’t tell that to Tommy.: Kim answered grimly.

Evidently, Sayoko’s handsome fiancee had the sense to shut up. Tommy lowered Skull—none too gently—to the floor. "O.K. Start talking," Kim commanded. "We saw Ryoko die—but you’re still alive! What’s up?"

Skull looked down at her with his dark eyes, gentle in catching her own gaze. "Ryoko knocked me out."

"He _what_?"

"He bashed me on the head with a shield of power. I blacked out—but I could still kind of ‘realize’ what was going on. But when he was killed, I was still out of it—so his body faded, and mine appeared back home." He looked up at Tommy, and his eyes were somewhat glad. "I guess… I’m happy, I guess, that she ended up with you. I think I can respect you, now… she deserves someone like you."

Tommy blinked. "Why?" he asked baldly. "I was never anything but nasty to you."

"’Cause you did what you did, Tommy. I’d have just run, and never stop running. You not only didn’t run—you stood there, you talked to him, and you shot him. I’d never have had that kind of courage," Skull took a deep breath. "I’ve hated you a long time, Tommy. You were all that stood between me and Kim—and for no obvious reason. You would back me off, push me away from her—you wonder why I thought she was your girlfriend, at first? You were handsome, popular, graceful like a cat. But… now I guess I’ve seen that you’re more than a stereotype. I’ve seen you inside. And you’re more than just some jock, some teacher’s pet—you’re a true friend, a hero, a warrior. And… I can’t hate you anymore. Kim deserves the kind of love that you can give—and I never could."

He held out a hand.

Tommy stared down at it, then reached out and clasped it. "I’m not asking for us to be best buddies… but hey, friends couldn’t hurt?" he suggested, tentatively.

Skull grinned. "Couldn’t ask for more."

"I’m just curious, though…" Tommy grinned back, slightly. "How much have you heard about how Kim and I got together?"

He reached out and held Kim gently against his chest.

"A bunch she seduced you, fewer you seduced her, a few you’ve been going out in secret for years, but only made it public now… lots o’ stuff. You guys are the local gossip."

Tommy looked down, and Kim looked up. "Yeah," they sighed. "We figured."

Kim looked at Skull again. "You want to know the truth, though?"

He looked at her, oddly. "I think I know the truth, Kim. Just because I wasn’t awake doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware…"

"No. The reason why we show this publicly."


She smiled, mysteriously. "We’re getting married, in about a year."

Skull’s eyes bugged out of his head. "So soon?"

Tommy grinned. "Wanna know why?"

"True love?"

"Well… partly."

Kim looked at Tommy, and Tommy looked back at Kim. "Not quite," Kim began slowly.

They spoke simultaneously. "Arranged marriage by our parents."

For a few seconds, everyone’s ears were ringing, as Skull roared, "WHAT?!"

A year later…

Kim tumbled into bed, disregarding her elegant wedding dress of lace and chiffon as she crushed it under her weight."Ohhh," she groaned. "I swear, if _one_ more person tells me that I look lovely, and why are we getting married so young, I will personally wreak havoc on their face."

Tommy smiled, slightly, and shrugged off his dark jacket. "No worries, Kimmy," he reassured. "I think we’re the only ones in the house, right now. If someone says it _tomorrow_… well, then you know that something’s up. Besides, be happy. We graduated a few days ago, we’re starting college, and we’ve got the house to ourselves for tonight."

"That was really nice of your dad," Kim commented, sitting up. "Not like him."

Tommy smirked. "Actually, yes it is. I saw him leaving the reception with your mom."

Kimberly made a huge grimace. "You’re kidding."

"I only wish."

"Wonderful. My mother is going out with my husband’s father."

She paused, and turned to him. "Husband. Husband. I like that. Husband."

Tommy smiled, and swept her up into his arms, literally picking her up off the bed, as she wrapped her arms around his neck and nuzzled into his chest. "So do I. I think I like being your husband, beautiful."

She sighed, happily, rubbing her cheek against firm muscles under the soft, satiny tuxedo-shirt. "And I think I’m going to enjoy being your wife."

His look turned very pensive, as he stared at her. "What did you say?"

"I said that I think I’m going to enjoy being your wife," she repeated, looking up at him.

There was a stunned silence, for a second.

:I said that the day before I was supposed to marry Ryu, Kim,: Sayoko informed her, gently. :Talk about coincidences, huh?:

Kim raised her head to Tommy’s, to speak, but he shook his head, shushing her. Both cocked their ears, to hear soft voices…

"I don’t hear any moans. You think they’ve gotten around to it, yet?" a tiny version of Ed Oliver’s voice asked in a harsh whisper.

<Dad.> Tommy mouthed, looking annoyed. Kim agreed, nodding silently, veil flying around her head in a tangle with long, bobby-pinned hair.

"Probably… I know that I was bouncing around five minutes after I got home from the reception… but they’re probably just trying to be quiet," a quiet feminine voice replied.

Kim’s lips thinned. <Mom.> she mouthed back. <Put me down, would you?>

Tommy nodded, setting her down on sandalled feet. She grinned, tiptoed to drop a gentle kiss on his lips, and grabbed a pillow, marching for the door. She stopped on the cold floor right in front of where the doorknob was, and pressed her ear against the wall.

Then she started to moan. "Mmm… yes, Tommy… ah… mmm… Oh, yes…"

Tommy’s cheeks flushed an embarrassed crimson. "What are you _doing_?" he hissed, voice just a strain of air.

<Play along,> she mouthed, grinning furiously.

Tommy shrugged, cocking an eyebrow, and picked up a pillow, heading for the door. He stood beside her, asking for instructions with his expressive hazel eyes.

Still smiling hugely, she tiptoed to whisper her idea into his ear. "Start making noises. They’ll think we’re doing the deed, and when they peek in—toss open the door, and wham!"

:I like the way she thinks,: Ryu quipped, happily.

[So do I,] Tommy agreed. "Sounds great to me, dear," he answered, smiling.

<It’s your turn…>

To his surprise, the noises came easily to his lips. "Oh… oh, God, Kim… Uh…"

Kim winked, shell ear pressed to the door. Tommy strained his hearing, and picked up the thread.

"There! I can hear them…"

"About time, too—I don’t remember _ever_ being that virtuous!" Cynthia groused, her voice thin and reedy with age and strain.

"Wanna check?"

"You think we should?"

"Mmm… oh, yes, Tommy… like that… yes, yes… yes…" Kim gasped, loudly, laughing within. She obviously found this highly amusing.

:Hmm, she’s awfully good at making those noises, isn’t she?: Ryu grinned.

[Oh, shut up,] Tommy answered—but had to smile, himself. "Mmm… just there… oh… oh… oh, Kimmy…" he groaned, melodramatically clapping a hand to his heart. Kim giggled, and quickly smothered it.

"You think they’ll notice?" Ed queried voice trembling.


[Couldn’t agree more,] Kim replied to Sayoko’s acerbic comment.

"I think they’ll be too busy to notice, unless we walked in and jumped on the bed."

"Yeah." Ed agreed, reluctantly.

The doorknob turned, and Tommy readied his pillow. Kim backed away from the wall, holding her pillow in hand.

Kim held up a finger. <One…>

Tommy nodded, and stretched the shoulder whose arm cradled the puffy pillow delicately… <Two…>

The door slipped open a crack.


Tommy grabbed the door and threw it wide open, and both Kimberly and Tommy let loose their respective pillows, with all the strength in young bodies filled with adrenaline.


:Oh, that was good…: Ryu finally calmed down when both Tommy and Kim had finally gotten off the floor from spasms of laughter. :I’ve never seen anyone look so surprised!:

"Did you see the look on your dad’s face when that pillow hit him, smack right there?" Kim crowed, tossing her veil to the bed.

"You should have seen your mom!" Tommy cheered, jubilantly. "Oh, man, I think we’ve gotten ‘em back, don’t you?"

"Not nearly enough," she countered. "But hey, it’s a start!"

Kim jumped into his arms, and he swung her around, she squealing happily as her wedding dress flew up and outwards, and he laughing with exhilarated joy.

When Tommy set her down, she slowly started to pull off her wedding gown, but couldn’t quite reach the zipper at the back.

"Grrr…" she growled, trying to reach the recalcitrant pullcord. "Tommy, could you get that?"

Tommy was just staring at her, frozen in place. His eyes were huge with amazement and recalcitrance, both.


"Uh…" he ended up stammering, "Kimmy, what are you doing?"

She bit her lip to keep from laughing. "Tommy, love, we’re married now, remember?"

He had to smile, gently, at her, a soft expression of love that sent her heart to a golden puddle. "How could I forget?"

"We share the same room—and you’re going to see me in my birthday suit eventually, you know, so it may as well be now," she explained frankly, beaming at him demurely.

"Um," he answered articulately, looking very innocent all of a sudden.

"Oh, Tommy," she sighed, gently, walking towards him. As she reached him, his arms automatically encircled her slim, slight body. "You realize, of course, that neither of us has ever done this before?"


"And that I’m as scared as you are?"

"No. I hadn’t realized that," he admitted.

She leaned against his chest, wrapping her arms automatically around his slim waist, and he held her weight against his body easily, swaying. She could feel the gentle, rapid fluttering of his heart against his breastbone, hear his soft breathing against the top of her head, practically taste his apprehension and exhilarating warmth.

She felt his fingers find the white zipper within the frilly, fluffy concoction, and draw it down her back with a soft burr.

"Thank you," she murmured into his chest.

"You’re welcome," he whispered, a mere breath fluttering the hair on her head. "I love you, you know."

"I know," came the soft reply. "I think I’ve always known."

They tumbled into bed together, smothering each other with kisses, warmth, and love. This time, the soft moans and plaintive cries were real—and there were none to witness them but those whose soft keens of pleasure sounded inside their heads…

Tommy sighed with exhaustion, holding a slightly-sweaty Kimberly with all the gentleness he could muster. "Whew."

She poked him in his bare side, making him jump practically off the bed, and her laugh. "I never knew you were _that_ ticklish, sweetheart," she whispered. "And is ‘whew’ all you can say?"

:I think ‘wow’ would probably be more appropriate, don’t you think?: Ryu suggested, sounding _way_ too sprightly for Tommy’s taste.

"Yeah," Tommy agreed to both of them, aloud, and kissed Kimberly very, very gently on the forehead. "Wow."

"That’s the word I was looking for," Kim answered, hugging him to her. "Oh, Tommy… damn, I love you so much."

"You know," he teased, chucking her gently under the chin, "’I love you’ is something not normally preceded by ‘damn’…"

"You’ve been around Billy too long, love," Kim countered, smiling delightfully. Her hair spread over the pillow in a sweaty tangle of glowing curls, and Tommy’s hung around his face in a mass of straight, chestnut locks."And you know what I meant."

"You’re right," he agreed, this time kissing her on the lips and letting her tongue slip into his mouth. "I do know what you meant."

He sat up, and crossed his legs. "But there’s something I’d like to know about you, love. No secrets between husband and wife—"

"No secrets between best friends," Kim agreed, quietly smiling, her eyes soft and glowing. "What is it you want to know?"

"You remember that day when… when we first kissed?"

Her eyes grew golden, and marvellously soft. Her cheeks still rode with a flush of pink, her chest heaved gently, her skin smooth like pearl under his fingers—just as he remembered her being that day.

Except then, they’d been no more than friends.

And yet, that day was when the seed had been planted that perhaps, maybe, they might be more.

"How can I forget?" she answered, quietly, tilting her head up proudly as she sat, modest in her covering with the white blanket.

"Well… you wouldn’t tell me what dis… dis… what was it? Ah! Right. Dysmenorrhoea. You wouldn’t tell me what dysmenorrhoea was."

Kim stared at him, expression amazed and cheeks turning crimson with a furious blush. "You remember that—oh, Tommy, there are some things that not even husband and wife are meant to share…"

"Please, Kimmy?" he begged. "If you have a disease… and there’s any way I can help… please, sweetheart, beautiful…"

"All… all right," she answered, resignedly. "You _really_ want to know what dysmenorrhoea is? It’s fairly common, only happens to women, and it happens at regular intervals. And it hurts. Figured it out, yet?"

He looked puzzled, and annoyingly innocent. "No."

"It’s PMS," she sighed, looking him in the eye, cheeks crimson.

Sayoko, Kim and Ryu cracked up laughing at the expression on Tommy’s face.

A pair of beady, black eyes watched the mirth inside the room, and smiled happily. [That went very well,] the little skunk resting in the tree outside Tommy’s window sighed, contentedly. [I couldn’t have wished a better fate for two better people.]

It skittered down the tree trunk, white stripe flashing in the moonlight, and disappeared down the path.

Until it meandered through a doorway, squeaked at a housekeeper good-naturedly—the housekeeper greeted it back—and jumped into a wonderful tub of hot water.

A tall, oldish man with a white streak running through his hair emerged from the tub, smiling. "Ah, you know, Anna, we couldn’t have done better, sending those two to Jusenkyou, telling Tommy about Kim’s dysmenorrhoea… I can’t be happier for them."

Anna the housekeeper smiled, baring pointed teeth. Her eyes were the green of a firework flame, and her hair was vixen-red. Her long, bushy fox tail twitched from a hole in her skirt as she shook her head, good-naturedly. "Neither can I, Doctor Relosa… neither can I."

The end, and that's the end of Rangers