Whatever the cause, the sunshine had gone out of his life the day he had received that letter. It was as if all the joy had been sucked out of everything he did. In spite of it all, he really did still love Kim. He supposed he should be angry with her or hate her; if it hadn't been for his duties as a Ranger... he had often wondered how he had carried on without half his soul.
_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 fear--fear for the beaten young woman in the other room--and 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 over--without 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."
Tommy had never heard of the hotel before, and when he pulled into the parking lot, he had to do a double take. The place wasn't exactly a dive, but not far from it.
_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 bag--Kim'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 shirt--white 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 door--a 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.
Tommy soon found himself rolling across the floor of the Power Chamber. When he skidded to a stop, he found himself at the base of Dimetria's column.
"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._
"Tommy, where have you been!" John exclaimed as Tommy pulled up along side the trailer. "When they cut in with the news broadcast about the fire at Kim's hotel... was it those silver things looking for her?"
"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 out--and 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.
"Wh-where am I?" Kim groaned. Blurry faces swam before her eyes. Every breath made fire explode in her chest; every movement caused her muscles to scream in pain.
"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 sobs--great 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.
Kim was awake. Just like that. Long gone were the days of lazing about in the bed and slowly getting used to the idea that she wasn't asleep any longer. It was as if someone had flipped a switch. As always, the first thing she was aware of was the pain. Sometimes it was the dull ache of old injuries; other times, it was the sharp fire of new ones. Today's was in the latter category, and as always, she pushed the pain to the back of her mind. Next, she took in her surroundings--again, a habit she had to develop. She never knew if she'd wake up in the same place she fell asleep. She had been in a bed... a nice soft one (so much nicer than a hotel's!); however, that wasn't where she was at the moment. She was laying on something hard and soft, warm, and moving! She felt something pinning her arms, but it didn't feel like a restraint.
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 life--her 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 eaten--period? 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 chest--hearing him call her by his pet name for her--nearly 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 warm--almost 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.
"Would you care for anymore?"
"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."
When the hair dryer was finally silent, John knocked on the bathroom door. "Tommy? You going to come out of there sometime today? I thought you were going shopping."
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 her--large 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 guy--especially Tommy--notice 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.