Kim said little as the two headed towards the east side of the city. Tommy wondered if she was going to say anything at all; however she finally spoke up when he drove past the Wal-Mart.
"Why can't we stop there? I can get everything I need and...."
"Going to Wal-Mart is not what I call real shopping," he replied, recalling something she had once told him. "Come on, Kim; this is supposed to be fun."
"I don't think I know how to have fun anymore," was her soft answer.
"Then I'll teach you."
"Tommy... I don't feel comfortable in crowds. What if the Mercytes show up again? They don't care who's around when they attack. Innocent people could be hurt...."
"Kim, just for oneday--just for today--I don't want you to worry about the Mercytes, all right? I'll keep my eyes peeled and stuff. Today, all I want you to do is enjoy yourself."
"I...." the protest died on Kim's lips when she saw Tommy's puppy dog expression. She had no defense against it. "I'll try."
"Good. Just let me take care of everything."
"I've gotten used to being self sufficient." Silence returned until Tommy pulled into the East Angel Mall. "This morning, Tommy, you wanted to ask me something--when I assumed that it was about the letter. What was it?"
"When all this started, why didn't you come to me for help?" Tommy asked; the answer to that question hadn't been found in the hastily scrawled words. Although he understood why she had done what she did, it still hurt that she hadn't turned to him when she really needed help. "I would have stood by you; I wouldn't have let you face these assassins all by yourself. And neither would Zordon and the others. You could have come to us for help..."
"No, I couldn't have," she said quietly. "Whoever is after me knows all about the Rangers...who we are, who our families are. While things were still in the threat stage, I was warned not to say anything to the Rangers otherwise their families would be...."
"Oh," Tommy whispered, fully comprehending at last that Kim really hadn't had a choice but to face her ordeal alone. He would have done the same thing. "Oh man, Kim; you have no idea how I wish I could have been there for you."
"There was nothing you could have done."
"But I can be there for you now."
"I can't let you, Tommy."
"I'm standing by you, Kim; I'll see this through to the end with you."
"There's a good chance that I won't survive."
"That doesn't matter. If they take you out; they'll have to take me out with you."
"I'm serious. I tried living without you once; I won't do it again. Don't make me do it again," Tommy pleaded. The sincerity of his words caught both young people by surprise, but they were the truth that Tommy knew in his heart. "Let me help."
Kim wanted to refuse. She had sacrificed so much to keep Tommy alive; yet the thought of having him fighting by her side filled her with a hope that she thought she had lost. "You really want to see this through with me.?"
"All right, I--I accept."
Tommy reached up to brush away the diamond-like teardrops from her cheek. When the truck was safely parked, he leaned over and kissed her.
"Okay, no more sad faces. It's time to shop."
"You sound like I used to," Kim said, managing a grin. Tommy reached out for her hand; when she took it, he gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Tommy knew exactly where he wanted to go; Nordstroms' was one of Kim's favorite stores. Many was the time he thought she'd melt the plastic in this place. However, when Kim realized where they were headed, she balked. Tommy held up a hand to silence her protests.
"This is where I want to take you to shop," he insisted. Then, as an afterthought, he added, "It's also the only store I'm real familiar with."
Kim threw her arms around him. "After what I put you through, I don't deserve this."
"After what you've been through, you definitely deserve this. Come on; where to first? Lingerie?"
She cock an eyebrow at him.
"Considering you left your unmentionables drying out in the bathroom, I thought you might like to...." Tommy began delicately. Kim blushed. She hadn't realized he had noticed.
The various ladies' departments occupied nearly the entire first floor of the store. With surprising ease, Tommy directed Kim to lingerie section; he had surprised himself by remembering the layout so well.
Tommy watched Kim as she made her selections: very plain, very sensible. Occasionally, he'd catch her glance over at the more feminine looking panties and bras, but she'd turn away with a wistful sigh. He knew what she was doing.
"Kim, you don't have to be so practical. You're not going to be living out of a backpack any longer. If you want something fancy, go ahead."
Kim flushed scarlet. She hadn't realized she had been so obvious. She was used to shopping for practicality and durability. She had had to limit herself to what she needed; her wants had ceased to be a consideration. Instead of replying to that, she countered with, "I can't believe you're standing here trying to help me pick out underwear. You used to wander over all over the place until I finished in this department."
Tommy simply shrugged. "The only time I'm letting you out of my sight is when you go into the fitting room."
"Speaking of which, I'd better go see if these fit," Kim said hastily. She wasn't sure what to make of Tommy's behavior. It was both discomfiting and heartening.
"You gonna model em for me?" Tommy teased, grinning broadly.
"Oh you..." Kim muttered, playfully swatting his arm. For a moment, it felt like old times.
While Kim was in the fitting room, Tommy wandered back over to the items that had caught her eye. He was pretty taken with the lavender set himself; as he recalled, Kim had looked pretty good in the shade when he saw her in it during the Muranthias mess. He glanced over at the dressing room, and the corner of his mouth twisted into a grin. If Kim wouldn't pick out some not-so-practical items for herself, he'd do it for her. He just had to figure out what size.
"May I help you?" the salesclerk asked.
"Actually, yes," he replied, hitting upon a plan. "You see, my girlfriend lost everything in a fire and...."
A short time later, the sales clerk returned with the empty packages; however, Kim was right behind her, looking rather annoyed.
"Why did you have to tell her that cockamamie story?" Kim hissed. "I have never been so embarrassed...."
"You couldn't try on anything else without underwear on, and I didn't want the clerk thinking you were shoplifting," Tommy explained reasonably as he took the other packages from her, adding them to the ones on the counter.
Kim let out a slow breath, knowing Tommy was right. "Don't you need a nightgown, too?" he queried innocently. Kim hadn't really thought about that; she had gotten used to sleeping in her clothes. "And what about a robe or something?" Tommy continued.
"We don't have to get everything at once," Kim reminded him.
"Let's just see what they have," he suggested, and once Kim reluctantly wandered off, Tommy turned to the clerk. "I'd like to get her that lavendar set, and could you--um--help me and maybe pick out a couple of other colors?"
"Certainly, sir, and I take it they young lady is not to know?"
"Yeah, something like that." Flashing the clerk a grateful smile, Tommy hurried off to join Kim in sleepwear.
Hosiery was next, and Tommy made no objection to sensible white socks. In the shoe department, Kim wouldn't look at anything other than tennis shoes. Then came sportswear. Kim settled on the jeans readily enough, but she refused to look at the skirts or jumpers. Tommy managed to talk her into a couple of pairs of shorts, though. Plain t-shirts and a couple of button downs were all Kim would consider in tops, but Tommy snuck in a lacy midriff and a sassy pink top with spaghetti straps. He couldn't help the knowing grin he wore, and he was sure Kim was wondering why he was enjoying himself so much.
"I think that should do it," Kim sighed as she collected the bags from the clerk.
"Are you sure?"
"It's more than I've owned since Florida."
"You haven't even looked at the dresses yet," Tommy pointed out. "Wouldn't you like to take a peek?"
"I don't need a dress...."
"I didn't ask if you needed one. Come on, what would it hurt to look?" He was bound and determined that Kimberly was not leaving the store with out something that was pretty, feminine, and utterly not necessary. Something to make her feel special.
"You know, Kim; you don't always have to dress up. You'd look spectacular in anything you wore," he had said once upon a time.
"I like dressing up; it makes me feel special... especially when I dress up for you."
"Tommy Oliver, you are really acting weird," Kim muttered, but she was easily persuaded to wander over to the dress department. There were t-shirt dresses and lightweight floral prints that reminded Tommy of some of the dresses Kim used to have. He noticed that a rose colored tank dress with laces in the back caught Kim's eye.
"Try it on," he urged; to forestall her protest, he added, "You used to spend forever trying stuff on without buying it. While you're welcome to keep my tee, I'm sure you'd like to have something that fits a little better."
Kim bit her lip, glancing from the dress to Tommy. It really was tempting. "It isn't that expensive, and it's even on sale," he continued, pulling out her old justifications for many of her purchases.
"Well..." she caved in.
"And if you're going to try on one, you might as well try two," he suggested, indicating the other dress she was eyeing.
She smiled up at him gratefully then scampered off. Tommy just shook his head. _And she used to have such fun shopping._ It made him angry to see Kim like this... on guard every minute, jumping at every little noise or flicker of shadow, unable to let herself go and enjoy something so simple as shopping... however, it wouldn't do for Kim to see his anger. It was as if their roles had reversed. He had always been the brooding one, the warrior/loner who needed to be drawn out, and she had been the optimistic one, the one who could bring light to his shadows. It was his turn to be Kim's light.
Tommy realized that Kim was taking an awfully long time; thinking that she might be fussing in front of the mirrors, he wandered back towards the fitting rooms. He found Kim by the mirrors all right, but she wasn't wearing either of the dresses she was supposed to try on. She was holding up a party dress and checking out her reflection. He smiled indulgently. Kim was more interested in frilly things than she was letting on. She finally caught him staring at her; with a guilty flush, she set the other gown aside. Without a word, she took the other dresses into the dressing room.
While Kim was occupied, he wandered over to see what it was that had caused Kim to smile so dreamily at her reflection. The thigh high dress was lavendar with a sheer violet lace overlay--a high tank neckline with an open back crisscrossed with thin straps, princess seamed, and the flared skirt had a fluted hem. _Ha! I bet Kim never realized I paid that much attention whenever she and Aisha were going on about clothes class!_ It was a very elegant dress, and Tommy thought Kim would look absolutely wonderful in it.
"What do you think?" Kim queried, emerging from the fitting room in the rose print. She found Tommy studying the purple dress that had caught her eye. He looked up and smiled brightly.
"I thought you looked great in my shirt, but wow!"
"Should I try the other one?"
"Sure, but would you also mind trying this one on?" he asked, holding out the party dress. Seeing her reluctance, he added, "Indulge me, okay?"
"I've been indulging you all morning."
"Please? I'd really like to see you in this."
"All right," Kim agreed. She just wish Tommy wouldn't tempt her so; the dress was gorgeous, but she had no need of a party dress right now. Still, she really did want to see how it looked on.
As Kim vanished into the back rooms, Tommy drifted over to the display window, noticing that one of the mannequins was outfitted in the same dress with all the appropriate accessories from a silver hair clip, rhinestone jewelry, shimmering lavendar hose, to silver sandals. Kim would definitely look spectacular in the outfit. He wandered back over to the counter as Kim stepped out of the dressing rooms.
"That dress was made for you," Tommy murmured as she spun around, causing the lacy overlay to fan out delicately. Kim seemed not to hear him as she examined her reflection. Absently, she pulled her hair up from the nape of her neck and piled it up on top of her head.
"What about a silver hair clip," Tommy suggested as he slipped up behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders. He found their reflections rather startling; there was something in them that he had never noticed before. They were only eighteen, but the couple that looked back at him in the mirror seemed so much older. The emotions in their faces were so much deeper than anything a teenager would know. Their reflection reminded Tommy of his parents... the way they would stand together, sometimes touching, sometimes not, but always together and so in love it was obvious to anyone who looked at them--even after twenty-some-odd years of marriage. It was the sort of thing he had always wanted for himself in a relationship. Once, he had thought that's what he had with Kimberly, but he had never seen it before... until now. Impulsively, Tommy softly kissed the side of her neck.
The distant, dreamy gaze left Kim's eyes. "Tommy, no. It's too expensive, and I have no place to wear something like this."
"They do have victory dinners after the races, you know."
"Tommy, please. I... I just can't...." He could see that she had fallen in love with the dress; it hurt for her to say no to it, but there was no way she could justify it to herself.
"All right... for now, but once we get this business of your's settled, we're coming back here to get it," he informed her.
Once Kim went to get changed (after a final, wishful glance in the mirror), Tommy turned to the sales clerk. "Do you think you can find me the same items that the mannequin has on--including the shoes in a size 7?"
Kim would kill him, but he didn't care. It was just the thing she needed.
"I don't remember there being this many bags," Kim noted as she and Tommy carted the packages out to the truck. "I didn't think I bought all that much."
Tommy just shrugged and said nothing.
"I really do appreciate this, Tommy," Kim sighed. "I just wish it wasn't necessary."
"I wish you'd let me do more for you." He opened Kim's door for her; she gave him a puzzled look as she slid into her seat.
"Are we heading back to the track?" she queried. "Nope, at least not for a while. I figured we'd grab some lunch then take care of a few other things."
"Lunch? I've already eaten more today than usual."
"I know." He shuddered at the somber reminder. "I know it'll take some getting used to, but you're not on the run any longer. You've got to start taking better care of yourself," Tommy chided gently.
"And if I don't, you will?"
Tommy was being excessively protective, and although it rankled somewhat, Kim loved him dearly for it. "So, where are we headed for lunch?"
"Trust me. You'll enjoy it."
Since Tommy wasn't going to be more forthcoming, Kim settled back to enjoy the ride.
_Where in the world is he taking me?_ Kim wondered as she struggled to keep her eyes open. The beating she had taken the other day and the shopping trip had taken more out of her than she cared to admit. Wherever it was Tommy was headed sure had to be special if he was willing to drive clear across the city when he was hungry. She did a double take when he finally pulled into a parking lot.
"The Juice Bar?"she queried.
"Sure, why not?"
"Aren't we a little old to be hanging out here these days?" As she recalled, one rarely saw high school grads at the Youth Center.
"I haven't been back here since before graduation. Besides, when we're done here, I want to swing by my house and check on the place," Tommy said.
"You sound like your folks aren't around."
"They're not. Since I'm racing with Uncle John, they decided to do Europe this summer. The last I heard from them, they were in Italy."
Kim's face clouded at the mention of Europe. Tommy caught the shadow. "You haven't talked to your mother since you fled the gym, have you?"
Kim shook her head and bit back a tear. "They were lucky to survive they Mercytes' attack; I'd only be endangering them further if I tried calling. I found out the hard way with the training center that those sleazebuckets are monitoring phone lines and stuff for folks I'm likely to call. I haven't talked to my mom, dad, or brother in almost a year."
"I bet your mom is going absolutely nuts," Tommy murmured sympathetically.
"She probably thinks I'm dead; after the attack on the gym...."
Tommy simply wrapped his arm around her and held her for a moment. "We'll get your life back, Kim. I promise."
She essayed a wan smile at his bravado as she let him usher her inside. Just like the other day, the strangeness of the Juice Bar out weighed the familiarity of the surroundings. It wasn't "home" any longer. No more Jason and Tommy teaching kids karate on the mats. No more gymnastics on the equipment. Ernie's round, smiling face wasn't behind the bar, and the gang wasn't at their usual table. Tommy guided her over to "their" table unerringly.
"I think this belongs to the new Rangers now," Kim whispered as he pulled out a chair for her.
"But they're not here, so anyone can sit here," he whispered back with a wink. "You feel up to a salad?"
"A small one," Kim compromised, "and a glass of water."
"Shall I see what the Smoothie flavor of the week is?" Tommy was trying so hard that Kim didn't have the heart to fight him, so she simply nodded.
While she waited for Tommy to return with their food, Kim surveyed the activity in the Youth Center. It was surprisingly quiet for the middle of the day. Then, a group of little boys and girls in crisp white gis wandered in; their sensei arrived shortly thereafter. Kim smiled as she recalled Tommy leading his students through the warm-ups and stretches.
"Whatcha thinking about, Beautiful?" Tommy asked as he set her plate in front of her.
"I was remembering how much you always enjoyed teaching. Actually, I was really surprised when Justin told me that you were racing full time for your uncle and hadn't taught in a while. I always assumed that you'd open your own school like Rocky did." She studied his expression thoughtfully and realized that he hadn't said one word about getting in any practice, and he had always been meticulous about working on his katas. He never skipped practice for anything. She had the sense that he hadn't worn a gi since the tournament for the shelter. "You've given up martial arts, haven't you? Why? You loved them."
"My heart just wasn't in it anymore," Tommy answered with a heartfelt sigh. "Every time I taught a class here, I'd look out across the juice bar and see what was missing...."
"Or do you mean 'who'?" Kim asked softly.
"Things were never the same for me after you left...even before I got that bogus letter. It hurt not being able to see your shining eyes watching me from across the room or being there to cheer me on at a demonstration, but I got by at first because I knew we were still together. After your letter, though... the things that once brought me joy didn't anymore--like being a Ranger. I was so proud of being a Ranger, but after you left... it was just a duty, something to immerse myself in to hide from the pain. After our first run in with Divatox, Rangering only served to remind of you... I guess I took my uncle's offer to drive for him because I needed something else to keep my mind off how empty I was feeling."
It killed Kim to know that she had caused him so much pain; she found herself hurting for him and all the things he had lost because of her. "I never wanted to hurt you like that, but it was the only way I could keep you safe."
"Hey, don't...." Tommy said quickly, as she looked away, blinking back guilty tears.
"I'm sorry, Tommy."
"I know you are, and I know you had no choice. Hey, we've lost enough time as it is; let's not waste anymore with tears." The last thing he wanted was for Kim to feel guilty over what happened.
"D-do you think you'll ever go back to teaching?" Kim wondered as she wiped her eyes and fought for control. She hadn't lost it like this in months.
"Someday," he answered but sounded none too sure.
"Why? You sound... disappointed."
"I was wondering if maybe you might consider taking on a student."
It was Tommy's turn to be astonished into speechlessness. "Y-you never asked me to teach you before... I thought you weren't interested...."
"With my gymnastics, I never had the time to devote to the martial arts like the rest of you," she explained. "Even though I never asked you to teach me doesn't mean I didn't learn anything from you. I've been lucky so far; I've been able to stay alive using my gymnastics, the smattering of karate and things I picked up from you guys, and stuff I've learned on the street. My luck isn't going to last forever. I could use some proper training... I think I've found a reason to keep on fighting." And she took Tommy's hand.
Tommy pulled into his driveway and glanced over at Kim, who had been uncommonly quiet. A tender smile tugged at his lips when he realized she was sleeping. It wasn't an easy sleep, though. Tension marred her expression; he wanted to kick himself for discussing her lessons. He had just been so excited about the fact that she wanted him to teach her... and this was supposed to have been a day when she wasn't to worry about survival. He hated to wake her; she still had to be pretty wiped out, but the car was no place to sleep, and even though she was resting, she wasn't relaxed. Tommy had a good idea how to remedy that.
"Hey, Beautiful, we're here," he said, touching her arm gently. Kim snapped awake and slapped his hand aside as if he had thrown a blow. "Ow!" he rubbed his wrist gingerly.
"Oh God, Tommy, I'm sorry...."
"It's my fault; I should have known better. Well, it tells me you have excellent reflexes," he joked.
"I'd rather have normal reflexes," she said glumly, grasping futilely at the fading images of her dream of a life that should have been instead of the nightmare she was presently living.
"It'll be all right, Kim," Tommy murmured, pulling her into a hug. It was impossible not to notice how rigid her body was. "You have got to relax or these muscles of yours are going to snap, and I think I know just what you need."
The two entered the Oliver house, and Kimberly could instantly tell that it hadn't been occupied for months. She always liked being at Tommy's place; it always seemed so alive with warmth, happiness, and love, and that same caring had been extended to her once upon a time. It had helped filled the void when her mother had first started dating Adrian seriously and later when she married him. Kim found herself wishing Jan and Thomas were around, but it was probably better that they weren't.
"I'm afraid there's not much in the place at the moment, but help yourself to whatever's here. I gotta run upstairs and check something," Tommy said and quickly bounded up the steps. Kim wandered aimlessly about the familiar living room. Since she and Tommy had started dating, this had become almost a second home to her. She glanced at the pictures on the mantle piece--faces as familiar as her own family's. There were a few new ones: a couple of more recent pictures of Tommy--one from his first race, one of Tommy and another man who looked frighteningly like him...._That must be David, the brother Jason told me about_, she mused. Tommy hadn't said anything about his brother yet; she'd have to ask him about that. She'd like to meet him _... maybe later, when this nightmare is over._ Kim almost laughed out loud; she had said "when" not "if"; that was a first! Then, she spied a photo that had been shuffled around to the back; it had once occupied a more prominent position on the shelf. One of her and Tommy at the Spring Formal--the last dance they had attended before she left. It made her heartache to see how young she looked--how young both of them looked--and how happy they seemed. Was it possible to be that happy again? Kim found herself hoping so.
Tommy headed through his parents' bedroom to the master bath. Whistling to himself, he turned on the water in the large sunken tub then went rooting around his mother's collection of bubble baths and bath oils. _A nice, long soak in a hot tub,_ Tommy mused. His mom said it was the most sinfully indulgent luxury she could think of. Considering that the extra-large tub and redecorated bathroom had been her Christmas present a while back, there had to be something to her opinion. He seriously doubted Kim had had the time to do more than grab an occasional quick shower.
Steam rose from the rapidly rising water as Tommy read over the various labels He finally settled on a lilac scented oil and poured some in. Next, he added a generous portion of bubble bath, creating frothy suds. He smiled to himself, thinking how surprised Kim would be. He hoped she liked it. Once the tub was set, he looked about, scanning for anything else that might help the mood a little.
_Soft music and candlelight. _
As he figured, his folks had a CD player available, but no candles. He'd have to save that for next time. He perused the collection of discs, looking for something soft and relaxing, and found a case that was well scuffed--indicating that it was one that had been often used by his parents. It was some light jazz; he didn't know if Kim would like it or not, but it seemed to fit the mood he wanted to create.
_And dad thinks I never paid attention whenever he was pampering mom,_ Tommy mused, grinning as he slipped the disc in. Most guys learned how to play ball or fix cars with their fathers. Not Tommy. He had his uncle John to thank for his interest in the martial arts and racing. His dad wasn't a sportsman; he was an incurable romantic. He definitely knew how to treat a lady right--judging by how much his mother loved the attention his dad lavished on her. Tommy only hoped he could do half so well.
Satisfied that everything was perfect, he went down to fetch Kim.
Kim set the photograph back in its place, and her eyes wandered back to Tommy's senior portrait. _Such a difference,_ she thought. There was only six months between the two pictures, and at a casual glance, he didn't look any different. But upon looking closer inspection, one could see that he seemed so much older and mature in the portrait. He was smiling that same heart-melting smile, but the picture didn't capture the warmth. _That's because it isn't there. His smile never reached his eyes... those beautiful, expressive eyes_. She had always loved how she could look into his eyes and know exactly what Tommy was feeling; the emptiness in his eyes in the photo was chilling. She would give anything to bring that warmth back.
Suddenly, she felt Tommy's presence. Turning, she found him standing on the stairs watching her silently. A wistful smile tugged at his lips, and she was pleased to see that it glowed in his eyes as well. A bubble happiness swelled within her; the warmth was there again.
"What is it, Beautiful?" Tommy wondered, taken aback by the light that beamed in her face.
"Nothing," she murmured. Maybe coming back was not such a mistake after all.
Tommy let her have her happy little secret for the moment. "I need you to come upstairs with me; there's something I want you to see."
"Sure." She accepted the hand he held out to her.
"You have to close your eyes."
"It's a surprise."
"I'm not sure I can handle anymore surprises today," Kim said warily as Tommy caught her other hand.
"Just trust me."
"With my life," she whispered as she closed her eyes. She looked so cute standing there that Tommy couldn't resist the urge to slip her a quick kiss. Then, he lead her up the stairs.
"Okay, you can open em now," Tommy directed. He stepped behind Kim so she could see what awaited.
"What's all this?" Kim wondered. She had heard the music and smelled the lilacs before he ever lead her through the doorway.
"A bath to soak your cares away, milady," Tommy claimed with a sweeping bow. The tub indeed looked tempting. Kim chewed on her lower lip; a bath would feel so wonderful....
"The towels are right over..." Tommy paused upon finding the towel shelf empty. Then he remembered that they were all still downstairs from the last time he had done the laundry after his folks had left. "Tell you what, I'll go down and bring up some warm towels while you settle in. Then, I'll leave you to soak in peace."
"You are spoiling me rotten, you know that?" Kim said as she enveloped Tommy in a hug. His fingers gently lifted her chin so he could look her in the eyes. "I always wanted to. I hope I do it right."
"You're off to an incredible start. Thank you." Tommy kissed her on the tip of her nose and reluctantly backed his way out of the bathroom. Then, he hustled downstairs.