Disclaimer: Saban owns them, and I don't. This fanfic rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence, language, and sexual situations. Nothing graphic, though. This story is not related to any of my other stories, and is set after "Passing the Torch."
It was a lovely evening in the mountains near Angel Grove. In a room in a nice motel, Tommy Oliver sat, contemplating a bottle of whiskey. He was not, by nature, a heavy drinker, or actually a drinker at all. However, tonight he needed it desperately, to take the edge off some of his pain.
"Three years," he muttered, staring at the amber liquid. "Three damn years." That's how long it had been since the day he had returned as the White Ranger, the day that Kimberly Hart had first said "I love you," to him. They'd been dating for four months before that, but that was the first time "I love you," had ever passed either of their lips. He had felt like he was walking on air. How could he have known that a year and a half later, she would break up with him, not even in person, but by letter? He hadn't seen her again until his first adventure as a Turbo Ranger, when Divatox had tried to feed her and Jason to a volcanic monster named Maligore. He had wanted to talk to her then, but she had fended him off by pretending to be with Jason. It hadn't been hard to tell she was only pretending. The look on Jason's face when she slid an arm around his waist had said it all. Tommy had pretended to be fooled, however. That was what Kim wanted, and he always gave her what she wanted.
In the past, Tommy would not have considered getting drunk. He could not have afforded the down time, with Rita, or Zedd, or the Machine Empire, or Divatox always ready to pounce. So he had drowned his sorrows in his Ranger duties, using the Power to dull the pain. But it was gone now, too. He'd given it to TJ, whom he knew would make an excellent Red Ranger. It was gone, and all he had left was the bottle.
His decision arrived at, Tommy reached out and picked up the whiskey. It wasn't as if he had to drive in the morning, after all. He'd just won a race for his uncle's team, which was why they had all bunked down at this little mountain motel for the night. He'd be on the team bus in the morning, the perfect place to deal with his hangover. However, before he could pour himself the first shot, a knock sounded on his door.
With a muffled curse, Tommy recapped the bottle, heading for the door. "Yeah?" he asked brusquely as he opened it. Then his jaw dropped at the sight outside.
"Can I come in, Tommy?" asked Caroline Jacobs. The young woman, about his own age, was one of the best mechanics on his uncle's team. Tommy was used to seeing her in coveralls, oil smeared on her face, with her hair back in a simple ponytail. Now, however, she was wearing figure-hugging jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt that did nothing to disguise her well-proportioned body. Her chestnut hair hung loose over her shoulders, shining in the light outside his room.
"Yeah, sure," he stammered, moving aside. She entered with a smile, and Tommy found himself wondering why she had come. As her eyes fell on the bottle on the table, she raised an eyebrow, turning to him.
"Planning on a celebration- or a bender?" she asked wryly. Tommy hung his head.
"It's a bad day for me, Caroline. Was there something you wanted?"
Her smile grew wider. "You could say that." Crossing to where he stood, she slid her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately. Almost instantly, Tommy responded, kissing back. It had been so long since anyone had kissed him like that. Kimberly was gone, and his relationship with Kat had never been on those terms. Suddenly, though, Tommy realized what he was doing and pulled away.
"Caroline, I'm sorry. I really like you, but I don't feel that way about you," he told her, still reluctant to let go.
"I know, Tommy," she replied, startling him. "I don't feel that way about you, either. I'm so lonely, though. I want someone to hold me tonight, to make me forget, just for a while, that I'm alone. You need someone too. I can tell."
Tommy's eyes widened as what she was suggesting sank in. "Caroline, we can't-"
"Why not? Who'll care? I need you, Tommy. I came here because I knew you would be gentle and caring, even if you didn't love me. Please, I need you, and I think you need me too. Besides, it's better than getting drunk."
He opened his mouth to say something else, then stopped. Slowly, a wistful, one-sided smile crossed his face. Releasing her, he walked over to the door of his room and locked it. Walking back to her, he studied her face for a long time, then finally kissed her.
* * *
Bright sunlight filtering through his window brought Tommy back to consciousness. _Oh man, what a dream,_ he thought, sitting up slowly. Looking around the room, however, he realized that there were definitely two sets of clothing in the pile on the floor, and he wasn't wearing the shorts he normally slept in. _I guess it wasn't a dream after all,_ he thought, bemused. Flopping back down on his pillow, his mind roamed back over last night. It had been his first experience with sex, and he had to admit that Caroline had been an excellent teacher. He had certainly enjoyed himself, and she hadn't seemed to have any complaints, either. _At least we were careful,_ he sighed.
"Good morning," Caroline smiled, coming out of the bathroom in a towel. "Hope you don't mind my borrowing this."
"Not at all," he replied, trying to clear the last of the morning fog out of his brain. "Look, about last night," he began.
"I'm sorry," she sighed, gathering up her clothes. "I shouldn't have used you like that. It's just- I was so lonely."
"Believe it or not, I understand," he told her warmly. "It's just- I don't love you, Caroline."
"I know. Let's think of last night as- just something between friends, okay?"
She went into the bathroom to get dressed while he pulled on a pair of shorts. "Tommy, who's Kimberly?" she called. He froze.
"Why do you ask?"
"Well, last night, when you were half-asleep, you said, 'I love you, Kimberly.' I thought you were single."
"I am," he sighed.
"Oh. She break up with you?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry about calling you Kim."
"Hey, you were half-asleep. It happens." Coming out of the bathroom fully dressed, she kissed him on the cheek and left. "Remember, we're on the road in an hour."
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Tommy was sitting on a huge rock above one of the deepest, most beautiful canyons he had ever seen. As he sat there and let the wind blow over him, he thought about what had happened.
_Guess I've hit rock bottom,_ he thought, not without amusement. _I had a one-night stand last night. Oh well, I suppose it's better than a hangover._ Looking out, he saw birds soaring over the gorge, and his mind flashed back to the day they had received their Ninjetti Powers from Dulcea.
"Tommy, you are the Falcon, winged lord of the skies," she had said, and he had felt like it, as if with only a little thought, he could fly. Funny how attached he'd been to Falconzord and Zeo Zord V. He'd always thought of flying zords as Kim's department, but when he was up in the air, it was as if he were truly free for the first time in his life. Standing, he closed his eyes and spread his arms, trying to imagine himself soaring with the birds out there.
I hope you were not thinking of jumping, fledgling, a warm voice said.
"No, I was just wishing I could fly," Tommy responded absently. Then the oddness of the voice and words hit him. "Fledgling?" he asked, turning slowly. His breath caught in his throat as he saw a huge bird, all the colors of flame, looking at him with intelligent black eyes.
Certainly, the bird responded, and now Tommy realized that the words were only in his mind. What else do you call the child of a Falcon?
"You're a Phoenix," he whispered, awestruck.
Indeed I am, as are you, child, if you wish to be.
"What? I don't understand."
You have the spirit of a Phoenix, Tommy. So many times, you have risen from the ashes of your defeats to soar again. Now, you have left your old life behind. If you wish, in your new one, you can still defend the weak and protect the helpless.
"How? I gave up my Powers as a Ranger."
And every time you have lost your powers, what have you done? Gained new ones. I can offer you these.
Tommy cocked his head. "No offense, but people like Zedd and Rita have tried this on me one too many times. What do you get out of the deal?"
The Phoenix chuckled. Wise boy. My story starts with the beginning of everything, as most stories do. When the universe began, all things were in balance. Dark and light, joy and sorrow, birth and death, all as it should be. I was the principle of life incarnate, fire and joy and birth. My balance was the Dragon, the spirit of darkness and sorrow and death. He was not evil, for these things must be, to preserve the balance, and evil is only the tilting of the scales. However, as the millennia went by, the Dragon wanted more. He sought to tilt the balance in his direction and plunge everything into eternal darkness and sorrow. However, he could not do so all on his own. We are forbidden to act for ourselves in the world of men. Instead, he sent his power into a human being, and used him to tilt the scales towards darkness. To stop him, I chose a human avatar as well, and the battle was joined. Our avatars have fought each other throughout the ages, and now the time has come for us to choose again. You are a powerful warrior for light and life, Tommy, and I have chosen you to become my avatar, if you accept my offer.
Tommy thought about this. "What are these powers, exactly?"
You will be able to take on a different form, of course, which will heighten your strength and durability, much as your Ranger powers did. Also, you will gain the power to heal, for as a Phoenix, you have some command of life-force. All I ask in return is that you defend the world from evil, just as you have always done.
"All right," Tommy said finally. "I'll do it. What do I have to do?"
Follow me to the Aerie, the Phoenix replied, waving one wing. A portal of fire opened up before Tommy, who swallowed.
"But what about my uncle? If I'm not ready to go in-" he checked his watch, "half an hour, he'll be worried about me!"
Do not worry, young one. You will not be gone that long.
Shrugging, Tommy stepped through the portal. The sensation was unlike anything he had ever experienced. It was not the nauseating sensation of being transported by Zedd and Rita, nor was it the tingling feeling of the communicator's teleport function. Instead, it was as if his whole being was composed of fire, and was burning through the sky. Shaking his head, he looked around himself. "Whoa."
He was in a great circular room, all of flame-colored stone. On the wall were windows all around, each of which looked out on a different place. Behind Tommy was one showing the area he had just left, and another one looked out on the youth center, of all places. "Hey, isn't that the juice bar? What's that doing there?"
The Phoenix chuckled. Have you never wondered why all those who bear the power are drawn there? It is situated on a major ley line nexus, and that is where the windows go. But you were worried about your uncle, and we do not have much time. Come. Spreading its enormous wings, the Phoenix led Tommy over to the only door in the room. The door opened before them, and although Tommy would have sworn that the Phoenix was too large to fit through it, it passed without a problem. They headed down a long hallway, this one lined with windows as well. But while the first set looked out on specific places, these looked out upon people.
"Who are these people?" Tommy asked, curiously. "Hey, that's Rocky!" he realized, watching a young man in a blue gi leading a karate class.
Indeed. These are all people who are potentially avatars for the powers of the Phoenix. Your friend is an incarnation of light and life himself, and has certainly pulled himself up from defeat once or twice in his life.
"No kidding," Tommy agreed, remembering all of the things that Zedd, Rita, and Mondo had done to Rocky over the years. Plus, of course, he had lost his father at age nine and lost his Ranger powers over something as ridiculous as a fall from a sparring ring. "So why me and not him?"
It was a hard decision, but in the end, it was because he is happy without the powers. You are not. You still miss being a Ranger, even though this time, you gave it up willingly. I would not interrupt his life, but you welcomed the intrusion. I'm not sure he would have. Now, don't forget your schedule, the bird told him teasingly. It flew off again, and Tommy followed after, shaking his head. Now that he thought about it, the Phoenix itself reminded him an awful lot of Rocky, always full of joy and always willing to spread it to others.
Finally, at the end of the hall, they came to another door. Going through it, Tommy gasped as he saw, sitting in a golden stand, an orb, much like Chinese yin-yang symbol, except that it was green and white, and the spots were two gold coins with the symbols of the Tiger and the Dragon on them. Flying across the room, the Phoenix perched on the orb, which instantly burst into flames.
Thomas Tyler Oliver, you have been Green, and you have been White, darkness and light. Only when you embrace both sides of yourself can you truly hold these powers. Look within. Are you two, or are you one?
Tommy closed his eyes and thought. For the first time in his life, he felt no division between the Green and White Rangers. _They were both me,_ he thought, with a feeling like waking up from a dream. "I am one," he responded aloud.
Do you swear to uphold the code of the Phoenix, to protect light and life, and do battle with evil wherever you find it? To use your powers only for good?
Then you are now and forevermore the avatar of the Phoenix! A beam of red light shot out of the orb, striking Tommy directly in the chest. He suddenly felt as if his veins had been filled with a warm, painless fire. His eyes shot open, and for a second, flames flickered in their depths. Then it was over.
"Whoa. That was intense."
I have no promises for you to swear other than the code you have just agreed to uphold, the Phoenix told him. Your identity and battle tactics are entirely up to you. I have faith in your discretion. Now, it is time for you to return to your world. Good luck, young Phoenix, and may the Flame protect you on your way!
* * *
A few weeks later, Tommy walked into the Angel Grove Youth Center with a huge smile on his face. He waved to the Rangers, who were sitting in a corner, and instantly headed for the mats. There, sparring with a larger man in a black gi, was David Trueheart, Tommy's brother. Tommy watched in amusement as David was dumped on his rear by his opponent. Rising, David shook his head.
"All right, Chuck. That's enough for today. I'd like to stop while I don't have any broken bones." Chuck nodded, and the two men bowed to each other. As David turned back to where his bag was, he caught sight of his brother and stopped. "Tommy? You're back? I thought you were going to be gone another few weeks."
"We did better on the racing circuit than we thought, so my uncle called off some of the smaller races. Can we go somewhere private? There's something I want to talk to you about."
David shrugged. "Sure. I'll get changed, and then we can head out to my favorite place. It's out in the desert. You'll love it."
* * *
Twenty minutes later, they were heading out into the desert under a blue and cloudless sky. From atop a bluff, another figure watched their progress with eyes like ice. As they passed, the figure raised a hand to the heavens, laughing coldly. Above him, the sky began to cloud over and the rain poured down.
In David's Jeep, Tommy suddenly stiffened. "David, pull over," he said urgently.
"Pull over, now!" The fear in Tommy's voice convinced him, and David started to pull the car over to the side of the road. Before he made it, however, a bolt of electricity shot from the sky, striking the Jeep dead on.
"Tommy!" David cried, wrestling with the wheel. "I'm out of control! The electrical systems are out, nothing works!" As David tried fervently to regain control, the Jeep hit a slick patch and slid off the road. Hitting an embankment, it caromed off the side and slid back towards the other edge of the road, where it tumbled over. Rolling over and over, it fell the ten feet to the desert floor, and came to rest on its side. Then all was still.
* * *
"Oh, what hit me?" Tommy wondered, coming slowly awake. "Oh yeah, the accident! David!" Quickly, he released himself from his seat belt, which had quite likely saved his life. Then he turned to his brother and unbuckled him. "I'm probably not supposed to move you," he grunted as he lifted the unconscious David, "but I smell gasoline leaking, and I do not want to get blown up!"
Once he had David, he climbed out of the wreckage of the Jeep, dragging his brother with him. Moving David a safe distance from the car, Tommy began examining his brother. One side of David's forehead was covered in blood where he had hit it against the side of the Jeep, and he had numerous cuts from flying glass. Tommy couldn't find any obvious broken bones, but he had no way of knowing if David had internal injuries or not.
Suddenly, the Phoenix's voice whispered in his mind, Also, you will gain the power to heal, for as a Phoenix, you have some command of life-force. Placing his hands on his brother's chest, Tommy concentrated, feeling the fire within him rise and flow into his brother, healing all his wounds.
Slowly swimming back to consciousness, David opened his eyes to an incredible sight. Tommy, in what appeared to be some sort of meditative trance, was flickering with traces of fire playing about him. As quickly as it started, the fire died away and Tommy opened his eyes.
"How are you feeling?" he asked David with a smile.
"Fine. You fixed me up," David replied, looking at his brother with concern.
"Oh good." With that, Tommy's eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out.
* * *
Tommy awoke on a hard rocky floor. Sitting up, he saw that he was inside a cave, and David was trying to start a fire. "Oh, good, you're up," David smiled as he saw Tommy. "Got any matches?"
"Better," Tommy grinned, pointing at the heap of wood. A small ball of flame leapt from his finger and ignited the pile. David's jaw dropped.
"How did you do that? For that matter, how did you heal me? And what happened to the car? That was not natural."
Tommy raised his hands to slow the flow of questions. "Whoa, one thing at a time, Dave. It started a couple weeks ago, on the anniversary of the first time Kim and I admitted our feelings for each other." Quickly, Tommy related the events of his evening up in the mountains, skipping over his encounter with Caroline. That was something his brother just did not need to know about. "So there's an evil Dragon avatar out there. He has the power of lightning, and probably did that to the car. If he's active, he's going to go after what's dearest to me." Tommy suddenly paled, leaping to his feet. "Holy shit!" I've got to get to Florida!"
David rose as well, chuckling. "She's still what's dearest to you, huh?"
"Dave, I'd die for her." The two of them headed out into the open desert.
"Can you teleport there?" David asked. Tommy grinned at him.
"Better. Stand back." When David was a safe distance from him, Tommy raised his hands into the air. Flames suddenly burst out at his feet and raced up his body, covering him in a sheet of flame. Then the flames died away, and Tommy was revealed.
He looked decidedly different. He was now dressed in an orange Spandex bodysuit similar to what he had worn as a Ranger. The gloves, belt, and boots were bright yellow, and there was a stylized flame on the chest. An orange headband rested on his forehead, and most impressive of all, from his back grew two huge flame-colored wings, like those of a phoenix. "What do you think?" he asked.
David swallowed and pointed to Tommy's feet. Tommy looked down and gasped in surprise. Where his feet rested, the sand and dirt of the desert floor had fused into glass from the heat of his transformation.
"I've got to go, Dave," Tommy said. "Will you be all right here?"
"Yeah. I'll just walk back to the reservation and tell my dad that I cracked up the car in a sudden freak storm. He'll understand. He always does."
Tommy nodded. Then, with a leap, he spread his wings and took off. In a matter of seconds, he was nothing but a bright orange streak speeding across the sky.
* * *
Tommy was really enjoying the sensation of flight. Beneath him, the ground rolled past as he shot through the sky with the speed of a burning meteor. All too soon, however, he saw the coast of Florida beneath him. Slowing down, he homed in on the small town near Miami where Gunther Schmit had set up his compound. It was late afternoon here, and most places were deserted. Touching down in an empty courtyard, Tommy shimmered back to his normal form and headed for the main gym, thanking his lucky stars that he had memorized all of Kim's letters describing the compound to him.
He drew a few odd looks from some of the gymnasts as he entered the main practice area, but he barely noticed. His attention was all drawn to Kim, as she practiced on the balance beam. She was completely absorbed in her routine, not even noticing as he crossed the floor to stand by her station. With an impressive back flip, she dismounted from the beam and stuck her landing perfectly.
Kimberly was drawn out of the trance state she entered when she practiced by the sound of applause. She turned to see who was behind her, and her jaw dropped as she recognized Tommy. "Tommy? What are you doing here?" she asked incredulously.
"I just- flew out to see you," he grinned. "Kim, we need to talk."
She sighed. "Tommy, we've been over this. We don't have anything to talk about." She turned to head for the showers, and was startled when Tommy grabbed her arm in an incredibly tight grip.
"Kimberly, this has nothing to do with that," he said seriously. "This is a matter of the utmost importance to your safety. Kim, do you trust me?"
She looked at him for a long time, then nodded. "I've always trusted you, Tommy. That was never really the problem."
"Then trust me now. Meet me out in the courtyard when you're done with your shower."
When she nodded, he released her. As she scurried for the showers, he watched her go with sorrowful eyes, then turned and headed for the courtyard, ignoring the male gymnasts who were glaring at him.
* * *
"Okay, I'm here," Kimberly sighed, plopping down next to Tommy on the bench he was sitting on. "Talk."
"It's a long story, and I don't have time to tell it now. Did you keep in touch with Adam or Kat?"
"Adam. I heard about the transfer of powers," she replied. Carefully, she examined Tommy for signs of the strain that his previous power loss had always put him under. All she saw, however, was a sort of grim determination that she thought had more to do with his present mission. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. I missed being a Ranger, but now I have something else." Quickly, he told her about the Phoenix and what it had said. "The Dragon is supposed to go after what I hold most dear in the world, and that's you, Kimberly," he said earnestly.
"Tommy, don't start that again," she sighed. "It's over between us, you know that." Leaping to her feet, she turned her back on him. "Why can't you just accept it?"
Tommy stood up as well, turning her to face him roughly. "Oh, I've accepted it. I know you don't love me anymore, and I've learned to live with it. But one thing I can't do, Kimberly Hart, is stop loving you! I always have, and I always will, until the day I die, or maybe beyond that! And in this instance, the fact that you don't love me anymore makes no difference! There is someone out there who will stop at nothing to hurt or maybe even kill you, just because it will cause me pain! It's like Zedd and Rita, only ten times worse! What does it take to get through to you?" He stopped, suddenly aware that he had been shaking her by the shoulders. She stared up at him with frightened eyes, and he turned away.
"I'm sorry. I guess I'm almost as bad as all the things I fight against, huh? Please, Kimberly. I know you don't love me, but I can't just turn it off. I'm worried about you, and I know you're in danger. Please, just come with me for a while. It's Labor Day weekend, and didn't you say the coach gave these three days off?"
She sighed. "Yes, he did. Where are we going?"
He smiled at her wryly. "The Phoenix Aerie, the one place in the Multiverse the Dragon cannot go. You'll be safe there, and I promise, I'll have this wrapped up before Tuesday."
"Deal. Take me there." As Tommy reached out for her hands, an unearthly shriek split the air, and a huge dragon appeared in the sky. Looking down at them, its eyes flamed once, and a bolt of lightning shot out, striking Tommy and knocking him away from Kim. Then the Dragon swooped down and picked up Kimberly in its talons, soaring up into the sky. Tommy, recovering his breath, reached up towards her.
"Kimberly!" he called. Before he could do anything else, however, the Dragon disappeared, taking Kim with it. All Tommy could do was stare after her helplessly, still calling her name. "KIM!"
* * *
Kimberly picked herself up off the flagstone floor where the Dragon had dropped, her, dusting herself off. They were in a room constructed entirely of green stone, and Kim was uncomfortably aware of the presence of the large double bed in one corner. Turning towards the creature that had brought her there, she was astounded to see its form flickering with a green electricity. It shrank, becoming more and more human, coalescing into a form Kimberly knew only too well.
"Skull?" she asked, incredulous. Eugene Skullovitch had been a lot of things over the years, but she couldn't imagine an evil spirit picking him to go up against Tommy in a fight to the death. Then he looked up at her, and her breath caught in her throat. His face was cold, a small sneer on his lips. There was no trace of the goofy punk who had always pestered her for a date, or the amiable, slightly buffoonish cop he had become before she left. Something about him reminded her of Tommy when he had been Rita's evil Green Ranger; dark and dangerous, but somehow attractive.
"Yes, and no," he chuckled, stepping closer. Even his walk had changed. Before, it had been sort of jaunty, nonchalant. Now, it was slow and smooth, with a sort of liquid grace to it. With a start, Kimberly suddenly realized that his eyes were now green.
"Who are you?" she asked, taking a step back. "You're not Skull."
"Your friend has loaned me his body, so that I can enter the world of men," the Dragon responded. "In return, he gets what he's always wanted. You."
Kimberly took another step back. "Stay away from me," she threatened. The Dragon merely chuckled.
"Don't worry, Kimberly, I won't lay a hand on you- at least not yet. Right now, you're nothing more than bait," he said coldly. His voice reminded Kimberly of wet silk sliding across stone. "I intend to lure your knight in shining feathers out to do battle with me, and blow him out of the sky. After that, I'll turn the body back over to Skull, and let him deal with you."
Kimberly shuddered. Suddenly, the Dragon's eyes flickered from green to blue for an instant, then back again. "I'll leave you alone for a while. Enjoy your incarceration." Turning, he left, laughing as he went.
* * *
"How do I find her?" Tommy begged. He had returned to the Aerie after Kim's disappearance to ask for help from the Phoenix.
I cannot help you, Tommy, the Phoenix sighed. In the Dragon's realm, I am powerless. You will need a walker of worlds to help you reach her. Fortunately, you now possess that power yourself.
Indeed. To find her, you must concentrate. Focus all your being upon where you wish to go.
Tommy did as he was told, closing his eyes. Suddenly, he felt a hot wind spring up, and he opened his eyes to find a gate of fire in front of him. Taking a deep breath, he looked at the Phoenix. "Well, here goes nothing!" Screwing up his courage, he stepped through the gate.
* * *
Kimberly was sitting on the bed in her cell when the door began to swing open. Immediately, she was up and in a defensive stance. The door swung farther open, revealing Skull with his hands in the universal "I'm harmless" position.
"Kim, I'm not here to hurt you, I promise. I just- need to talk."
Kimberly scrutinized him, relaxing slightly as she realized that his eyes were the same clear blue they had always been. "Okay, talk."
"Please don't be mad at me, Kimberly. I didn't want this to happen. This thing, it's inside me, and I didn't want it there. Bulk and I were goofing around in the park when a lightning storm started brewing, and this green cloud came up. It surrounded me, and suddenly, I wasn't in control of my body anymore! I'll admit, I don't think it would be able to use me if I hadn't wanted you, and more than occasionally wanted Tommy out of the picture, but not like this! I never wanted this!"
"So why are you here, Skull?" she asked, not unkindly.
Skull took a hesitant step towards her, then another. "To apologize, I guess, and to tell you I'm on your side, for all the good it'll do, and maybe, just maybe, have my dreams answered." He took another step towards her, and she did not back away. "I- you're not with Tommy anymore, right? I thought- that if it was over between you, that maybe I-" his voice died again. "I love you, Kimberly Hart. I will never hurt you, I promise. And I was wondering- maybe you could love me back?" Reaching out to her, he drew her close and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. Kim was surprised at how good it felt. In Skull's arms, she felt safe, cared for, loved- but she didn't feel love in return. Gently, she pushed him away.
"Skull, I'm sorry," she sighed. She started to say more, but he stopped her with a finger over her lips.
"Don't. I know, maybe more than you do," he said, an odd look coming into his eyes. "You still love Tommy, but you don't want to admit it, even to yourself. Why? Why would you want to shut yourself of from something like that? Even I could see how good it was between you. What frightens you? Didn't you trust him to be around Kat?"
"I always trusted him," she sighed, sagging into him. Briefly, the image of leaning on Eugene Skullovitch for comfort made her giggle, but it quickly seemed more and more logical. She could feel how much he cared for her, in the way he held her, in the way he listened. At a time like this, she desperately needed a friend, and Skull was an excellent candidate, despite their history.
"I always trusted him," she repeated. "But it wasn't fair to him. There were so many beautiful women, and I couldn't stand the thought of him tied to me, not free to do what he wanted. So- I let him go. He's better off without me."
Skull chuckled. "You really don't understand, do you?" he asked, turning her head so that he could stare into her eyes. "Tommy doesn't even see those other women, even after you broke up with him. You are the only woman he has ever loved, will ever love, and he would die for you. Before he started going out with Kat, while Bulk and I were still cops, I was on late patrol out at the lake by myself, and I had to stop him from walking into it. He was so sure he couldn't go on without you. It was the end of my shift anyway, and I was heading home, so I took him with me, and we wound up in my garage talking about you until two in the morning. I learned more about Tommy that night than I had in three years of knowing him. It took away a lot of the resentment, which might explain why the Dragon's hold over me isn't as strong as it could be. The point is, though, that Tommy loves you, and always will. Even if you set him free, he will love you until the end of time."
Kimberly looked at him for a long moment, then burst into tears in his arms. "I hurt him so badly," she sobbed. "I don't know if I can ever make it right."
"All you can do is try, Kim," he told her softly, resignation in his voice. Suddenly, he winced, doubling over.
"Skull, are you all right?" she asked, concerned.
"I sense the presence of the Phoenix here," he whispered, green flashing in the blue of his eyes. "The Dragon's waking up. I have to get out of here, Kim. I'll leave the door open for you." With that, Skull turned and dashed out the door. Kimberly waited until he was gone, then left as well.
* * *
"Kimberly!" Tommy called, not caring who else might hear him. The Dragon had no doubt sensed his intrusion the minute he arrived, so there was no point in being stealthy. He just wanted to find Kim and get her out of there before he had to do battle with the Dragon. _As long as she's safe,_ he thought, _it doesn't matter so much what happens to me. Just let her be all right._
"I'm afraid Kim's unavailable right now," a voice drawled behind him. "I hope you'll let me entertain you instead."
Tommy's long years of battle experience took over, and instead of turning to see who was behind him, he ducked, rolling away from where he stood. That sent a sharp pain shooting through the wings on his back, but he ignored it. As it turned out, this saved him from a fatal electric shock, as a bolt of lightning arced through the air where he had been not ten seconds before. Rolling farther, he came upright, facing his attacker- and stopped dead. "Skull?" he asked incredulously.
"Not exactly," the Dragon chuckled. "But it really doesn't matter. Both of us have more than enough reason to want you destroyed, Tommy. You might as well give up now. And don't worry; when you're gone, Kim will be well taken care of."
"You bastard," he growled. "You'll never lay a hand on her!" In his hands, fire coalesced into a gleaming steel katana with an orange hilt. With a yawn, the Dragon followed suit. With a snap of his fingers, lightning began to play around his hand, forming into a gleaming, wickedly sharp broadsword.
"End of the line, Tommy," the Dragon snarled, throwing himself to the attack. The fight was fast and furious, and Tommy discovered that Skull was actually very good with a sword. However, the Dragon's hate and anger were nothing compared to the strength Tommy's concern for Kim gave him, and slowly but surely, he gained the upper hand, finally knocking the Dragon back into a stone pillar.
"Tommy!" Kimberly cried, running out of the shadows to throw her arms around his waist. "You're all right! I was so worried!"
"It's all right, Kim," he told her quietly. "It's all right."
"Don't hurt him," she pleaded, throwing a glance at the Dragon, who was attempting to rise. "It's not Skull's fault. He let me out."
"I'll do what I can," Tommy replied, his eyes never leaving his fallen adversary.
Slowly, with a great effort, the Dragon levered himself to his feet. "So be it. If you choose to share his fate, I will destroy you both!" he snarled, raising his hands. Lightning began to play around them, and Tommy shoved Kimberly behind him, trying to shield her from the devastating blast that would come.
"NO!" A loud cry split the air, and Tommy watched in amazement as the Dragon was surrounded by an aura of green light. "I won't let you hurt her!" Skull gritted out. "I'll fry us both first!"
"You fool!" the Dragon laughed. "You have no choice!" Despite the spirit's boasting, however, the lightning never left Skull's hands.
Slowly, Tommy crossed the floor to where Skull struggled with the spirit occupying his body. "Skull," he said quietly, "let me help you."
Skull looked up at Tommy, his eyes a crazy mix of green and blue. "Please," he gasped. He was obviously weakening, and sweat dripped off him in a river.
"Take my hand," Tommy replied, reaching out. Skull hesitated. "Come on, Skull, you've got to trust me. Take my hand."
"I've always- trusted you," Skull managed, extending his hand. Kimberly, watching them, saw their palms touch and the world was swallowed in a flash of white light.
* * *
"Oh, man," Kimberly groaned, sitting up. "Where are we?" Looking around herself, she realized that she was lying on the ground in what appeared to be the desert outside Angel Grove. Near her lay Skull and Tommy, both in civilian clothes. She watched anxiously as they began to move.
Tommy sat up first, rubbing his head. "Oh, that hurt," he moaned. "Kim? Kimberly!"
"I'm fine, Tommy," she hastened to assure him. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. How about Skull?"
"I feel like I've been run over by a truck," Skull grumbled, sitting up as well. "Man! What happened?"
Tommy chuckled. "Well, you wanted the Dragon out of your body, and were fighting it pretty effectively. When I added a jolt of Phoenix energy, it was enough to knock the Dragon loose."
"But- if the Dragon's gone," Skull asked, "why can I still do this?" Raising his hand, he sent a small bolt of electricity arcing between his index finger and the ground.
I believe I can answer that, a voice responded. The three teens whirled to see the Phoenix perched on a nearby rock. You see, when the Dragon merged with you, it gave your body the powers of a Dragon avatar. When it was displaced, the powers remained. They are yours now, to do with as you see fit.
Skull thought about this for a long moment. Then he turned to Tommy with a grin. "Need a partner? You have to admit, this hero business is a lot less fun solo."
Tommy grinned back. "You're on!"
This is a historic occasion. For the first time, the powers of Dragon and Phoenix are working together to preserve what must be. This battle has raged for untold eons, but the forces of Good have finally won.
"We won?" Tommy asked, astounded.
For now. Evil will arise again, of course, as it always does. But the battle with the Dragon is finally over. Cocking its head in that peculiarly avian way, the Phoenix turned to regard Kimberly. You are very lucky, young Crane, to be loved so well by two such as these. Take care that you do not throw it away lightly.
Kimberly nodded. "I know." Turning back to the two of them, she looked at the ground. "Tommy, I have something I need to say."
He sighed. "Don't bother, Kim. I understand. If you say it's over, then I won't argue. I know that you don't love me anymore."
"But I do, Tommy. I was just afraid that I was keeping you from being happy. I thought setting you free was the best thing for you. Falcons need to be free," she said quietly.
"I was free. But I don't want to be free without you," he replied. Then his face fell. "But- you won't want to be with me."
"A while ago- the third anniversary of my return to Angel Grove- I was really depressed. Caroline, one of my uncle's mechanics, came to my motel room, and-" he couldn't finish. He didn't have to. With a cry, Kimberly turned and ran. Tommy made no move to follow her, just stared at his feet.
"Are you both idiots?" Skull cried. "Good grief. You stay here and get over your guilt complex. I'll go after Kim." With that, he set off in the direction Kim had gone.
* * *
He found her curled up by a rock, sobbing. "Hey, Kim," he said quietly. Looking up, she suddenly threw herself into his arms. He was almost knocked over by the force of her charge, but he managed to catch her and steady them both.
"I knew it," she sobbed. "He found someone else. She's probably a tall, leggy blonde with a pneumatic figure!"
"Actually," Skull chuckled, "I've seen her. She's tall, all right, but other than that, she looks a heck of a lot like you." Kim looked up at him in astonishment. "No kidding. She's got chestnut hair, brown eyes, and her features are a lot like yours. Besides, it looks to me like there isn't much of a relationship there."
"But- they slept together!"
"Kim, Tommy is a healthy nineteen year-old boy whose girlfriend dumped him rather cruelly and wouldn't even tell him why." Skull grimaced at the wince that evoked from Kim, but he had to say it. "Now, a woman who looks a heck of a lot like said girlfriend, whom he would die for, by the way, comes to his motel room with an offer, right when he's feeling lowest. Are you trying to tell me that you can't understand why he didn't tell her to take a hike?"
"But- he slept with her," Kim repeated, a little less hurt in her tone.
"Yeah, he did. But Kimberly, you dumped him. He was free. It's not as if he was going out with you at the time. Besides, I'd say one indiscretion in a year and a half is hardly a pattern. Face it, Kim, he loves you, and that's why he's done everything he's done. Are you going to throw all of that away?"
She looked at him for a long moment, then threw her arms around him. "I'm so glad I have a friend like you, Skull."
"Yeah," he sighed, holding her. "I'm glad we're friends, too."
* * *
When Skull and Kimberly returned, they found Tommy sitting on a rock, staring at the sky. Skull nudged her gently. "Go on," he whispered.
"Skull, why are you working so hard to get us back together?" Kim asked suddenly.
He chuckled. "Kim, I want you to be happy, and I know that if you think you're going to be happy without Tommy, you're just fooling yourself. I've seen the way you light up when he walks into a room, heard the way you say his name, and I know. I also know that he feels the same way about you. Take it from someone who knows the condition."
She smiled. "You'll find someone for you someday, Skull, and in the meantime, I'm really glad to have you as a friend." That said, she left him and walked over to Tommy. Skull watched them talk for a while, then headed up a nearby rise to watch the sunset. As the stars came out above him, he made a wish, just as he always did. Before, he'd always wished for Kim to come to him. Now, however, all he wanted was for her to be happy with Tommy.
Below him, he could hear Tommy and Kim laughing about something, and realized that they were coming up the hill. Without a word, the two of them plopped down next to him and they all three watched the sky until the last of the light was gone.