Disclaimer/Note: They're still Saban's, I still don't get paid. - Hey, you didn't think I was finished with this, did you?!? I can't very well leave the Rangers all at odds with each other, now can I? Inveterate romantic that I am, I have this need to resolve as many conflicts as possible. So, without further ado, I give you
Casting Stones IV - An Interlude
by Dagmar Buse
...in which I go back in time a little bit and switch focus to Tommy, telling what he experienced in the months after Jason and Kat got married. The two storylines will merge again after this.
"I hate going to these affairs!" Tommy complained to no-one in particular as he tried for the fifth time to tie his bow tie. Yanking the strips of dark red silk apart once more, he huffed impatiently and started over from the beginning.
"It's bad enough that the sponsors have so much influence at all, making me wear only certain brands of clothes or using only one kind of aftershave, but these receptions are the absolute pits!"
The bow came out crooked again and hung limply between the starched tips of his collar. Tommy closed his eyes in exasperation and prayed for patience. He needed it, fast. Inhaling deeply a couple of times, he decided more desperate measures were in order. Filling his lungs with as much air as they would hold, the up-and-coming star of the stock-car racing circuit called on his emergency backup.
"I'm right here, you don't have to shout," Rachel Oliver said mildly as she entered her son's room. "Didn't I tell you to ask if you needed any help?" Shaking her head, she deftly did her female magic to his neckwear. Within half a minute, Tommy stood before her, impeccably dressed in black tuxedo trousers, red cummerbund, blindingly white shirt and a perfectly-tied red bow. His still-long hair was caught up in a loose ponytail, held back by a chased-silver clasp David had handcrafted and given his brother for Christmas. The former Ranger smiled his thanks as he shrugged into the tailored jacket.
"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I didn't know you were so close, and ..."
"...and you thought you were still seventeen instead of almost twenty-four, and the Oliver family Mrs. Fix-it would see to it that you got dressed properly," Rachel jibed, regarding Tommy fondly. Even if she said so herself, to her motherly pride he was a remarkably handsome young man. "Go on, or you'll be late."
Tommy grinned at the sly reminder of his teen years. Becoming a professional race car driver, counting time in milliseconds rather than minutes, had done much to cure him of his terminal tardiness. Kissing his mother soundly, he clattered down the stairs and swung himself into his pride and joy, a fire-engine-red vintage Porsche convertible. Although the weather was fine for January it was too cold to leave the top down, but just handling the finely-tuned engine was bliss itself. *Kat would've loved riding in it; she'd purr almost like the car...* The young man stopped the involuntary flow of memories and scowled angrily. It had been six months since he'd last seen his ex-girlfriend, and he still couldn't get her completely out of his mind.
*This is worse than when Kim sent me that letter,* Tommy thought, disgusted with himself as he drove into the gathering twilight towards his new main sponsor's estate on the coast, about halfway to Los Angeles. *How could Kat do that to me? And Jase...?* He still had no answer, and since it hurt too much to be thinking of them, he shoved the memories back into the recesses of his mind. He'd gotten fairly proficient at it; the only time he could never escape images of his former lover and best friend was when he was in that half-trance state right before a race started. Invariably, he tried to outrun (or rather out-drive) his memories through speed and agility, things he'd learned were his greatest assets in Martial Arts, and also somewhat characteristic of his Spirit Animal ... which, perversely enough, made him more successful than ever in his chosen profession. That first victory right after Kat and Jason had gotten married had been no fluke; Tommy had won two more important races, and placed in the top five often enough during the season to establish his status as a rising force in stock car racing.
It was this which had garnered him this very lucrative sponsoring contract -- which was flattering, really, but it also entailed a number of social functions Tommy had to attend out of simple courtesy, beyond what his contract required by way of public engagements. Tonight was such an affair -- his sponsor, a sports clothing manufacturer, annually invited all of his athletes and other celebrities to a big formal party every January.
Sighing, Tommy coasted up the driveway to the vast, well-lit house and parked his car. Pocketing the keys, he made his way inside, vowing to himself he'd stay just as long as good manners dictated, and not one second longer. A quick glance showed that at least the buffet, which was being set up by a small army of white-coated waiters, looked inviting enough.
The speeches were thankfully over, but it would be a while yet before the food was ready, so Tommy collected a ginger ale and drifted through the crowd of well-dressed partygoers, feeling utterly bored. Attending formal parties like this was enough of a drag, but to have to do it alone ... Tommy sighed to himself. He knew he could've found a date -- Uncle John's secretary had something of a crush on him -- but he didn't want to encourage the young woman when nothing would ever come of it, and he just wasn't in the mood for a relationship yet. In his more morose moments, he thought he'd never love again, but rationally he knew that 'never' was a very long time. He'd felt the same after Kimberly had broken up with him, but then he'd found Kat, and ... *Yeah, and look where that has brought me!* He wrenched his thoughts back to the present. Sipping his drink, Tommy ambled out to one of the terraces; the weather was surprisingly mild for early January, and it was nicer than staying inside in an atmosphere made stuffy by central heating, smoke from various tobacco products and too many people crowded into too little space. He stood at the banister looking out into the garden, when he suddenly heard an achingly familiar voice from below.
"But I don't want to go into the garden with you, Ray!"
It was a woman who had spoken, and she sounded more than just slightly peeved.
"Sweetheart, believe me, you do -- just let me show you," a somewhat slurred male voice wheedled.
"Dream on, Ray!"
That clinched it. The tone was one Tommy had heard countless times, only usually the name added had been either Bulk or Skull, or both. The young man didn't stop to think. Grinning, he swiftly made his way down the broad stone steps to where the voices had come from. Sure enough, there they were -- a tall, lanky man whom Tommy vaguely recognized as being anchorman of a newscasting team of a minor network was crowding a petite, caramel-haired young woman against a gazebo. Her vivid pink dress shone in the light spilling down from the terrace, and her brown eyes were flashing with annoyance. She hadn't seen Tommy's silent approach yet.
"Leave me alone, Ray. I'm not going with you, and that's final!"
"But baby, I could show you such a good time," the obviously tipsy reporter insisted, reaching out with a greedy hand to a delicate shoulder. Before he could touch the smooth, tanned skin, however, a light tenor from behind him made him stop with its cool, determined tone.
"Hey - didn't you hear the lady?"
The words rose unbidden to his lips from memory, and as Tommy stepped closer and around the other man, he saw Kim's doe eyes light up with pleased recognition. It made it very easy to complete the quote.
"She said no."
Like all those years ago, Kim was biting her lower lip to hide her grin as Ray let his eyes sweep back and forth between her and this other guy's pleasant, but implacable look. He knew him to be some athlete, although he couldn't quite place him, and the lean musculature was very evident even under the well-tailored evening clothes. Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, the reporter took a step back from his pretty prey and lifted both hands in a conciliatory manner.
"I'm going, I'm going! Sheesh ...can nobody take a joke around here?" With that, Ray backed off, watching the younger, long-haired man warily. As soon as he had gained enough distance, he turned, nearly stumbling in his haste, and vanished around a corner.
"Thanks," Kim smiled, the memory of that long-ago moment at her locker vivid before her mind's eye. "You didn't even have to demonstrate any karate this time."
Tommy grinned down on her, taking her hand and kissing her lightly on the cheek. The gesture came naturally to both; while they didn't keep in close contact, they'd made peace with each other a long time ago, right after Muranthias.
"I don't think it would've ended with just a demonstration this time," he said, a belligerent gleam entering his eyes. "That guy was hitting on you a lot harder than Skull ever did."
Kimberly looked at Tommy with a slight smile as she linked her arm through his and slowly steered him back towards the house. She had left her wrap inside, and January was not the time to stay outside long at night in a low-cut cocktail dress. The two ambled along, in no hurry, as they both relived the moment of their first meeting in their minds with more than just a touch of nostalgia.
"I could've taken care of myself," Kim said finally; "then and just now." There was a hint of challenge in her voice.
"I know that now," Tommy admitted as he ushered her inside and the two started looking around for a place to sit. "Then, I had no idea how good a fighter you were. I don't think it would've changed anything, though," he added reflectively as he pulled out a chair for Kim at a small table in a quiet corner. "I still would've wanted to protect you from the goons."
"They're no longer goons," she laughed, pleased almost against her will. "Skull is a police officer, and Bulk is working construction - I've heard they're not exactly on the fast track to promotion, but good, solid and dependable."
"Would you ever have associated these adjectives with those two when we were still at school?" Tommy grinned, and just like that the two former Rangers had reestablished their old camaraderie, chatting and joking the night away. They stayed together through dinner, through the dancing, and finally Kimberly even accepted a ride home from Tommy. As they drove through the night towards Kim's hotel, they fell into a comfortable silence with each other, each reflecting on how pleasant it had been to spend time alone together -- something they hadn't done since Kim wrote that letter to Tommy. While they had covered a wide range of topics, two subjects had very conspicuously been left out -- Kat and Jason's estrangement from Tommy and their friends, and the reason why Kim had broken up with the then-Red Ranger. After the Muranthias mess, Kim had only offered a very sincere apology to Tommy and the rest of the team, but had refused to go into details. Since it was obvious that the subject was very painful for her, her friends had accepted and respected her silence. Tommy didn't know if she had ever confided in Trini or Aisha, and wasn't sure he wanted to know after all this time, but if he was honest, he had to admit that some curiosity remained. However, he was enjoying himself too much to spoil the mood; it was the first time since last summer that he hadn't thought of Kat and Jason for hours. It was a relief to be free of those memories for once.
Tommy deftly maneuvered his car into a parking space close to the hotel entrance, turned off the motor and looked at Kimberly. Her eyes shone in the neon lighting, and her face was animated and friendly as she leaned back in the car seat, just like they'd used to do when they were dating. The familiarity of the situation was at once comforting and somewhat disturbing, but it gave Tommy the courage to blurt out a question that had been hovering at the back of his mind for the last hour or so.
"Kim ... can I ask you something?"
"Of course you can - we're friends. You can ask me anything," the young woman replied. Suddenly, she began to giggle.
"What's so funny?" Tommy asked, puzzled.
"We are," Kim laughed. "First, you come up to me using exactly the same words like the first time we met, and now we're almost quoting ourselves again -- remember the first time you tried to ask me out?"
"Do I ever," Tommy groaned, laughing himself now. "I can't believe how nervous I was! At least tonight I won't have to worry about Goldilocks showing up with a troop of clayheads!"
"Are you sure about that?" his companion teased, and laughed even harder as Tommy couldn't help casting a furtive glance into the night. He blushed slightly, but joined in the easy laughter, shrugging sheepishly. Old reflexes died hard. When their merriment subsided, however, Kim looked earnestly into the chocolate-brown eyes she once had loved so much. The warmth in them was not quite as intense as it had been that long-ago spring day by the lake, but the haunted sadness lingering in the dark depths was very familiar to her -- it spoke of loss. Only now it was not the loss of Tommy's Ranger Powers, but of the woman he'd loved, and the friend he'd trusted. Without knowing how she knew, Kim suddenly was certain that Tommy had looked the same after receiving her letter and a fresh surge of guilt and shame hit her. She fought it down with the ease of long practice. Now was not the time to go into that.
Her voice was very soft and gentle as she addressed her former boyfriend.
"What was it you wanted to ask me, Tommy?"
He swallowed hard, looked away for an instant, then turned towards Kim again. Gathering his courage much as he'd done all those years ago, he plunged in, trying hard not to sound too eager.
"I was wondering ... are you, um, seeing someone?"
It was Kimberly's turn to look away briefly.
"Why do you want to know?" she stalled, her heart suddenly beating double time.
"Well ... I was thinking ... since we're both going to be on that promotional tour back East this spring, would you like to, uh, maybe have dinner with me some time?" he finished in a rush. During dinner, they'd found out that Kimberly also had a sponsoring contract with the company that had required Tommy's presence.
Kim stared at the young man beside her for a long while, striving not to let her conflicting emotions show. While they hadn't talked about Kat and Jason, she knew about what had happened, and in a first fit of pique on Tommy's behalf had roundly condemned the two. Now, after she'd had time to think, she was still angry at what they had done to their friend, but at the same time regretted her harsh words. Maybe if she ever happened to meet them face to face, they could talk more rationally about everything.
Tommy's soft, hopeful voice brought her out of her reverie with a start. She chuckled somewhat embarrassedly to cover her momentary lapse.
"I think I'd like having dinner with you, Tommy," she finally said, hoping she was making the right choice.
"Then ... you're not seeing anyone?" he asked again, unsure why it was so important all of a sudden.
"Yes ... no. Not really."
"What is it exactly, Kim?" Tommy laughed, torn whether he should feel relieved or not. "Either you are dating someone, or you're not."
Kim bit her lower lip in an old nervous gesture Tommy remembered all too well. He'd often kissed the worry away -- then -- and the memory of that briefly flared in two pairs of brown eyes. The young man fought the sudden temptation to do so again. Kim was the first to look away. Steeling herself against the sweet reminiscence, she sought refuge in her explanation.
"I'm ... I'm sort of dating Michael, the team choreographer for the floor routines. Even though I'm no longer on the active circuit, I'm still very much involved with the girls." Kim paused, and Tommy recalled that she was trying to get into the fashion business, having made an excellent start by designing the costumes for the Team USA gymnasts and selecting the team's wardrobe for the opening ceremonies at international competitions. Before he could follow that train of thought further, Kim continued.
"It's nothing serious as yet; when we're in town together, we go out sometimes, catch a movie or meet and do stuff together ... he's kissed me a few times when he brought me home, but that's all. We're not really committed to each other, or anything. Yet."
Tommy digested that for a few moments. A tiny, hidden part of him had jumped angrily at the thought of anyone else but him kissing the petite woman sitting beside him, but the greater part seemed to breathe a silent sigh of relief. *She's safe!* The thought came out of nowhere and puzzled Tommy, but he dismissed it as irrelevant. He wasn't looking for another girlfriend, all he wanted was to spend some more time with an old friend. Surely there was no harm in that, was there? With somewhat forced cheerfulness, he reissued his invitation.
"Well, if it's like that, would he have any objection if I took you out to dinner one night? Say, next Saturday?"
"He would have no reason to object, would he?" Kim challenged Tommy lightly. Neither knew if it was to protect herself or the unknown Michael from potential hurt.
"Of course not," the racer assured his old school chum. "Why should he mind two old friends like us having dinner?" It sounded, and was, perfectly harmless, wasn't it?
"No reason at all. Next Saturday, you said?"
"Yeah -- if you're still around, that is," Tommy answered, suddenly remembering Kim's travelling schedule -- and his own. He couldn't afford to drive any long distances, since he had to leave for Florida on Sunday noon at the latest, to resume training.
"I'll be in Los Angeles," the gymnast revealed. "Can you come there? I'll be choosing fabrics on Saturday morning ..."
"No problem," he readily acquiesced. Pocketing Kim's business card with her address, he escorted her into the hotel's lobby, watching with a fond smile as the young woman skipped towards the elevator much as she would've done during their school days. He climbed back into his car and drove home towards Angel Grove, his heart and mind immeasurably lighter than on the way out.
That first dinner had gone well, and once the promotional tour started, Kimberly and Tommy ran into each other often, doing interviews and public appearances together, staying at the same hotels if possible, and slowly but surely regaining their former ease with each other. They shared experiences, dreams, hopes and frustrations, finding it curiously rewarding to learn how similar their views on life in general still were. If nothing else, at least their friendship had survived the years of separation and sparse contact and was as strong as ever. After a while, Tommy even confessed to his first love how much he'd been affected by Kat and Jason's betrayal.
"It hurt as much or more as when you sent me that letter," Tommy concluded after he'd finally unburdened himself. "If it hadn't come so totally out of the blue ... but until that weekend, everything was fine. I loved Kat, and had told her so; I thought she'd loved me just as much." He shook his head in bewilderment. "I still don't get it."
The gymnast looked at her companion with compassionate eyes. After Jason had sent his original message, telling everybody in their group of friends that he was marrying Kat and why, Kim couldn't help wondering once she'd gotten past her anger on Tommy's behalf. She'd heard fragments of the tale from the other former Rangers, most notably Tanya, painting a slightly different picture, and now Tommy had confirmed it. Whether he liked it or not, he'd played a part in what had transpired; it may have been completely unintentional, but Tommy had effectively thrown Jason and Kat together. However, he was still too hurt to be able to see that. So, Kim wisely chose to say nothing that would make Tommy close up. He'd needed to get this off his chest to someone who knew everybody involved.
"I'm sorry it turned out that way for you," she murmured sincerely after a while. "You didn't deserve to be treated like that, neither by them ... or by me." That last addendum was spoken almost too softly to hear, and Kim wouldn't meet Tommy's eyes as she said it. Diverted from his unhappy musings, the race car driver looked expectantly at his pretty companion; would he finally get an explanation for the letter Kim had sent him? He waited for a few moments, but when nothing else was forthcoming, Tommy let it rest. If he'd learned anything during the time they'd dated, it was that Kim would talk to him when she was ready. Instead, he reached for her hand across the small table where they'd shared an afternoon snack. Squeezing the slim fingers gently, he smiled gratefully at his former girlfriend.
"Thanks, Kim. That means a lot, coming from you."
For an instant, it seemed as if Kimberly was going to say something else, but just then Tommy's cell phone rang, and the moment was lost. Once he had finished his call, the two realized time had gotten away from them and they hurried to catch a cab to bring them to their next appointment.
"Hel-lo, gorgeous," Tommy greeted Kimberly as she opened her hotel room door to let him in. He whistled appreciatively as he took in her appearance. Tonight, they were in Atlantic City, attending another big social event at one of the casinos, and evening attire was required. For once, Kim had chosen a pants suit instead of her usual flirty dresses, but she made the severe tuxedo cut look sexy and sophisticated nonetheless, by replacing the usual high-necked shirt with a vibrantly pink bustier top that peeked out from between the satiny lapels and showed some very nice cleavage, and wearing high-heeled sandals.
She giggled at the compliment and admiring once-over Tommy gave her.
"You don't clean up too badly yourself," she commented as she straightened his crooked bow tie with a few deft movements. "What is it about you men that you can't learn to put on your ties on your own? My dad and brother, and mom's Jean-Pierre are just the same."
"Maybe it's genetic," Tommy teased back. "Just like women can never be ready on time." He held his breath, waiting for Kim's reaction to that.
She didn't disappoint him. Doing a classic double-take, she bopped him on the arm, just like she'd done when they were still at school.
"Look who's talking," she scolded lightly. "Mr. I'm-sorry-I'm-late in person!"
"Hey, I've gotten better!" he protested, pouting.
"Yes, but only because you had to!"
"Whatever the reason, if we don't hurry up, we'll both be late for the banquet," Tommy commented, slipping an arm through Kim's. Laughingly, she conceded, and the two old friends made their way to the biggest casino on the Boardwalk. After dinner, when the presentations and the sponsors' speeches were over, there was a choice of dancing or gambling; Tommy and Kim tried both but mostly mingled, meeting other well-known athletes, their partners, reporters ... all in all, even though it was a 'command performance', it was an enjoyable evening, until Tommy excused himself for a few minutes to use the restrooms. When he came back, he didn't see Kimberly right away. Looking around the lobby, he finally spied her huddled behind a group of potted palm trees, an expression of fright and disgust on her lovely face. Frowning slightly -- *I wonder why she's looking so strange?* -- the young man went over to his date. Coming up unnoticed behind her, he curiously followed her gaze to a noisy group of extremely well-dressed people. Everyone there was wearing designer clothes, and the women were positively dripping jewellery. However, Kim's attention seemed to be focussed on an almost too-handsome blond man who clearly was the center of the group - and enjoying every minute of it.
"Kimberly?" Tommy asked gently, putting an arm around the slim shoulders. The young woman noticeably flinched, then pulled herself together with an effort.
"Let's get out of here," she begged. Her face was pale, and she wouldn't meet Tommy's eyes.
"Sure, if you want to," he agreed readily, his interest piqued. They'd done their duty to the sponsors, so there was no reason for them to stay unless they wanted to dance and/or gamble the night away, but it was obvious to someone who knew her as well as Tommy did that Kim was very agitated. As unobtrusively as possible, he guided her through the throng of laughing, talking, drinking people. Just before they stepped out into the night, Kim turned to look once more back to where they'd come from. Tommy did the same, and thus caught the man with the movie-star looks raise his champagne glass to Kim in a mock salute. She sobbed once, a sound that was part fury, part despair, and all but ran off into the night.
Stunned and utterly in the dark as to what he'd just witnessed, it took the former Ranger a few moments to gather his wits and follow his friend. Thinking it might be better if he gave Kimberly a little space to compose herself, Tommy went after her, far enough behind not to be a bother, but close enough to help if it should be necessary. Kim blindly made her way past the brightly-lit hotels to the beach, slipped off her sandals and walked down to the water's edge. Only when the soft surf was eddying around her bare feet did she stop. Her head bowed, she waited for her former boyfriend to catch up with her. Silent sobs shook her small frame. Tommy just draped an arm around the slender shoulders, waiting for her to speak. Finally, as her breath quieted, he asked the question that was foremost in his mind.
"Who was he, Kim? That poor man's Robert Redford lookalike at the casino?"
It took a long time before she could bring herself to answer.
"H-he was the guy I broke up with you for," Kim murmured hoarsely into the darkness, staring out over the Atlantic.
"I thought it might have been something like that," Tommy replied softly. "I've never seen you so spooked."
His quiet acceptance did a lot to calm Kim's jangled nerves, but she still couldn't look into the warm brown eyes. She felt too ashamed, even after all this time. Instead, she leaned back tentatively against the leanly-muscled chest, breathing a silent sigh of relief when Tommy didn't draw back. He gave her a bit more time to regain her emotional equilibrium, then pressed a friendly, undemanding kiss into the mass of caramel locks.
"Won't you tell me what happened, Kim? I don't think you've ever told anybody the whole story, and you should know I won't blame you for any of it now."
"I haven't," she admitted tremulously. "Only ... Tommy, I was so stupid, everything was ... and I know I hurt you with my letter ... I just don't want to hurt you again."
"You can never hurt me by being honest, Kim," he said. "But I really think you need to get this off your chest just this once. I promise, you'll never have to talk about it again - not unless you want to." His tone was gently persuasive, and it gave her the courage to meet his eyes at last. What she read in the brown depths was only understanding and concern for her, and it brought a fresh rush of tears to the doe eyes. Smiling tiredly, Kim heaved a weary sigh.
"Okay ... if you're sure you want to know ... but I warn you, it isn't pretty," she caved.
Tommy gave his response serious thought. Did he want to rake up old memories?
"I think I have to know, Kim. I never wanted to rush you or anything, but I admit, I am still curious. I never really knew what happened that made you fall out of love with me, and ... this has been long overdue between us, and as I see it, it's the only way for us to go forward at last."
"Oh Tommy ..." she sighed. If only he knew ... "Is there still an 'us'? Do we want to go forward?" the young woman asked plaintively, but with a glimmer of hope in her choked voice.
"Maybe. I don't know yet. But I think I'd like to find out."
"Yeah." Kimberly collected her thoughts, inexplicably heartened by this non-promise. "Let's walk a bit," she suggested, suddenly restless but smiling tentatively at her tall companion. "I'm too keyed up to just stand here. But I promise, I'll try to make you understand."
Tommy slipped off his shoes and socks as well, both tucked their footwear under a stack of sun chairs and the two former Rangers started to amble down the beach, two figures dressed almost identically in tailored black suits. Gentle wavelets were lapping at their bare feet and the moist sand crunched softly as they moved slowly through the darkness. They'd left the Boardwalk and the brightly-lit hotels far behind when Kimberly stopped at last, looked out to sea and finally began to talk.
"His name is Jackson Banks; his father is the CEO of Banks Pharmaceuticals, the main sponsor of Team USA at the Panglobals in '97," she started haltingly. "I first met him at the team's presentation, shortly after I'd moved to Florida. Jack was nice to me, and charming, but it wasn't anything special ... not then, anyway. Everything was okay until Christmas; of course I was homesick, and lonely, and missed you and the guys, but I'd expected that, so I could live with it." She paused for breath, caught up in the memory.
"We all missed you, Kim," Tommy murmured, also transported back to that time.
"I know." The gymnast smiled mistily. "After the holidays, training began in earnest; the hours got longer and harder, but I wanted to make you all proud of me, so I gritted my teeth and hung on. When you wrote and called, I never told you how alone I felt; I thought I had to be brave for both of us since you were having so much trouble with Zedd and everything." She bent and scooped up a handful of small seashells, starting to throw them out into the calm sea, making little splashes as they hit the silvery surface and sank to the ground.
"Then, Master Vile came and turned you guys into kids. Of course I wasn't directly affected, but nevertheless I sensed something was wrong. When Billy called me after he'd returned himself to his proper age, I knew, and understood why you couldn't call me, but that didn't stop me from feeling ... edgy, and nervous, and more scared than I'd ever been. It was almost as if I'd also become ten years old again." Kimberly snuck a peek at Tommy, gratified that he was all attention.
"Trini later told me she, Jason and Zack had felt the same thing." Tommy grimaced involuntarily, but didn't interrupt; he'd heard the story already from Jason - it was the reason why the former Red Ranger had terminated his stint at the Peace Conference as fast as he decently could without quitting outright. He'd sensed that he might be needed.
"I know," was all he said, though. "Zordon assumed it was because of your Grid connection."
"Yes. However, I know that none of the others felt it as strongly as I did. Maybe it was because I'd held the Powers longer, or because Florida was closer to Angel Grove than Geneva ... whatever, during those weeks I almost became a nervous wreck. It was then that I met Jackson again." Kim swallowed. This next part was going to be hard. "He saw that my practices were beginning to get affected, and tried just to cheer me up - or so I thought at the time. Even though I really wasn't in the mood, he persuaded me to go out with him; nothing major, the movies, the beach, pizza ... it was all very innocent at first. He made me laugh, and let me forget my worries for a while. I felt that, if I could have told you, you wouldn't have minded."
"I wouldn't," Tommy responded unhesitatingly. "Things were so crazy for a while, what with getting the Zeo Crystal, reversing Time again, getting used to new Powers, integrating Tanya and most of all missing Billy on the team ... I was kind of glad you seemed to be doing okay when you wrote or called. Maybe it was the easy way out, but it sure took a load off my mind at the time."
"That's what I figured," Kim murmured. "I started dating him mostly out of gratitude and loneliness at first, but he began to seriously ... well, court me, I guess. I still hadn't quite recovered from the whole upheaval, was still emotionally off-balance, and he did everything to keep me that way. Jack never intruded on my practice time, but during my off periods ... he started to pamper me outrageously. For example, I never had to wait in line for the physiotherapist; instead, Jack picked me up right after practice each night and I got a private massage and rubdown from his personal masseuse. His parents' house had everything ... Jacuzzi, Olympic-size pool, a gym ... and it was ever so much nicer than at the Training Compound. Of course I loved it. I didn't get a single flower when I'd done well at practice, I'd get a whole bouquet. We went to parties ... on his rich friends' yachts. I got to meet celebrities, even - Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, Jim Courier ... everybody famous who was in Florida, it seemed. Coach let it happen, because the press was very favorable. 'Pan-Global Hopeful meets the Jet Set,' that type of thing. It kept the team and the Training Compound in the public eye in a very glamorous way, garnering lots of positive feedback. And I, stupid little girl that I was, let it turn my head. Not only was it fantastic to become some kind of celebrity myself, but Jackson made me feel as if I was the prettiest woman on Earth, the most talented, the most important."
Kim laughed bitterly at her memories. The sound cut her companion deeply, but Tommy couldn't have uttered a word if his life depended on it. Both stood facing the sea, but neither appreciated the beauty of the moonlight reflecting off the smooth, gently rippling surface. After an endless moment, the young woman continued.
"It didn't help me that when you called or wrote, you rarely said a personal word. It was all about school, the team, your new Powers ..."
"Kim, all I wanted was to make you not feel left out," Tommy said, alarmed. "I knew how hard it must've been to give your Power Coin to someone else - I'd done it myself once, after all. I never meant to neglect our relationship!"
"I know that now," the young woman sighed. "But at the time, it seemed to me instead as if you were cutting me out of your life. It made it very easy to let Jackson kiss me one night ..."
"God, Kim, I'm sorry," he almost groaned. "Why didn't you tell me? I know I should've seen it myself, probably, but ...." he shrugged helplessly, appalled at what his unwitting insensitivity had caused.
"Does it matter now?" Kim queried. Seeing Tommy shake his head no, she returned to her story.
"We'd been to yet another party, very chic, very exclusive, and when Jack kissed me goodnight, he said that he wished he could do even more for me - if I were his girlfriend. I was so starry-eyed, so lost in living a fantasy, that I never even stopped to think. Your last letter had all been about you playing house with Kat for that school project, pretending to be married, and I so wanted that for myself but couldn't have it ... I was jealous, confused, and hurt, so I wrote that letter to you the same night."
Kim swallowed hard at the memory. "After I'd mailed it, I went a little crazy, I guess. I no longer knew what to feel - anger at having given everything up, sorry I broke up with you, relieved that now I no longer needed to wait for the mail or by the phone, furious at you for letting me go in the first place ... I was completely confused. I got moody and irritable, one moment fighting with the other girls, the next having crying jags in my room, then another being giddy like a preteen."
"Whoa. I swear, Kim I had no idea ... I mean, everything in Angel Grove was weird enough, and I missed you like crazy, but it wasn't that bad ... guess Mondo distracted us pretty thoroughly." Tommy's attempt at a feeble joke fell on deaf ears. It was as if Kim didn't even hear him.
"Throughout it all, there was Jackson, giving me a shoulder to cry on when I wanted it, bringing me silly little gifts to make me laugh, being oh-so-patient and understanding ... it was easy to let him all but take over my life. Within a few days, I'd agreed to be his girlfriend. After that, Jack started to really treat me like a princess, giving me jewellery and other expensive presents. Being together with him ... you've seen how good-looking he is, a real hunk, rich, charming ... suddenly I had everything. My gymnastics, fame, a total dreamboat of a man at my side -- it was like a dream, and I never wanted to wake up."
"Why did you?" Tommy asked subduedly. If he'd only known ... only made more of an effort ... but that was water under the bridge now. They'd both made mistakes, and had paid for them. Strangely enough, the thing he had the hardest time accepting was to hear how this Banks character had been able to spoil Kim. It cost him to realize that, even if he managed to have a long, successful racing career, he'd never have been able to give Kim the same things. The money he could reasonably expect to earn simply wasn't that much. And Kim deserved all of it, and more ... his musings were interrupted by the emotion-roughened voice of his ex-girlfriend.
"Jack slowly became more and more possessive. At first, I didn't mind; it was kind of neat to know he cared so much, or so I thought. Also, when I was with him, I couldn't think of anything but how to please him. I ... I even slept with him," she whispered tremulously. Shooting a quick glance at Tommy, Kim saw the sadness her confession chased over the angular features, and tears started to well up, but the smile he sent her way was understanding and forgiving.
"It's okay, Kim," he murmured. "It was a long time ago, and I never expected you to put your life on hold. After all, I didn't." The hot flare of jealousy shooting through him, even knowing it had been years ago, was better kept hidden, wasn't it?
"Thank you," Kimberly gulped, momentarily overcome with emotion. But her tale wasn't quite finished, and she determinedly went on. The worst was said, and Tommy seemed still willing to listen.
"I had a very rude awakening later in summer, about two months before the Games. I ... I twisted my ankle during practice one day and the doctor ordered me to take a few days of strict bed rest if I wanted to compete; Jackson seemed to understand, sent me books, flowers and things and apparently waited patiently for me to get well again. Only, I got worse. Not my ankle; that was healing nicely, but ... for some reason, I started having chills, my hands began to tremble, I had trouble sleeping ... I was worried enough that I told the doctor looking after my foot about the symptoms. He ordered a blood workup, and that's when my dream suddenly turned into a total nightmare."
"Were you sick?" Tommy asked, alarmed. Kim had seemed perfectly fine since January, but one could never know ...
"No. In a way, I wish I had been," the petite girl said bitterly. "It would've made things a lot easier to bear." She inhaled deeply, the memory of her folly stark in her mind. "I was in withdrawal."
"Withdrawal?" he repeated puzzledly, not making the connection right away. Then, realization hit. "You were drugged?"
"Yes. Nothing major, just with something to lower my inhibitions and make me more malleable, but still drugged."
"The bastard!" Tommy exploded, turning halfway back towards the casinos as if he were on the verge of running back and punish the rich young man. Kim's hand on his arm and a light shake of her head were all that held him back. Calming himself with an enormous effort of will, Tommy forced his enraged thoughts back to what Kim had told him.
"How did he do it? I can't believe you took anything knowingly," he asked, still angered on Kim's behalf. She smiled lightly, recognizing his protective instincts.
"I didn't. Jack had found a very simple way to get the stuff into me. Remember that I told you his father all but owns a pharmaceutical company? Well, Jack had studied some chemistry once; it was easy for him to get hold of some kind of LSD derivative from the research labs, mix it up with colored sugar and decorate glasses with the mess at home. You've seen the way hotels dip the rims of cocktail glasses in lemon juice, then into a bowl with sugar and let it dry? That's what Jack did. He always was scrupulous about my being underage; he never gave me alcohol, but said there was no reason for me not to enjoy non-alcoholic cocktails out of 'real' cocktail glasses. And I thought it was so cool and sophisticated!" Her self-disgust was evident in her voice. "Every time I was at his house - that was almost every day in the end -- he'd greet me with a special juice mixture. It tasted great, I loved the gesture, and that little bit of sugar crust was enough to satisfy my sweet tooth without having too many calories. I wish I'd pigged out on a pound of chocolate a day instead! God, I was such an idiot!"
Tommy shook his head. Kim was not stupid, but when she cared about someone, she gave all of herself wholeheartedly - especially her trust. All of her friends had always returned the sentiment just as fully. How terrible for her to have had that trust so abused! His blood ran cold at the thought of what might have happened to her if she hadn't injured herself. Another thing then occurred to him.
"But what about your gymnastics? Weren't you tested for drug use?"
"The routine tests wouldn't show anything, and by the time the really intensive testing for the Panglobals came up, Jackson had hoped I was so dependent on him that I wouldn't mind giving it up," Kim related. "My withdrawal symptoms were more severe than he'd estimated, though, and he hadn't counted on me spraining my ankle and getting cut off from my daily dose. As it was, I only managed to save my career by turning myself in immediately. As soon as the doctors found out what was wrong with me, I went to Coach Schmidt and told him everything. He instigated an investigation; that's how I found out what Jack had been doing to me. I was lucky; my 'confession' made the guys from the American Panglobals Committee believe me that I was a victim and not a willing participant; too, it was the kind of drug which wouldn't influence my performance, so I was let off easy with a severe reprimand. I was allowed to compete in the Games, but had to undergo drug rehab and regular testing for two years."
"Oh Kim," Tommy sighed, torn between rage and pity. "Why didn't you tell any of us? We could have helped you, been there for you!"
"I had lost everything; given up everything for what turned out to be a pipe dream," Kim whispered. "Or at least that's how I felt when it was all over. I didn't even get the satisfaction of seeing the louse go to court; his father was too important a sponsor, and I was given to understand that if I insisted on pressing charges, I'd damage the whole team. I couldn't do that to the others, so I gave in. That was part of the price I had to pay for remaining on the team. I was clean by the time the finals came around, so my medal wasn't contested. The whole affair never even made it into the papers; Jackson's father and the sports functionaries hushed it up very thoroughly. All I had left was my pride; I had gotten myself into that mess on my own, and I was determined to get out again on my own. I needed to do this by myself."
"I understand." And he did; Tommy knew that, if he'd been in Kim's shoes, he'd have felt as humiliated, as ashamed as her voice, eyes and pallor indicated she had done. While it hurt to learn that she had to cope with such a hopeless situation without her friends' - his - help, he couldn't help but admire the former Pink Ranger for her courage and determination. He told her so in no uncertain words.
"I think you really mean that," Kim said wonderingly. She hadn't dared hope for understanding, much less forgiveness. Looking into the warm brown eyes, she found both. A tiny spark of hope lit in her heart.
"You know I do," Tommy reassured her, giving her a gentle hug. Kim snuggled briefly into his chest, relishing the feeling of being held in strong, capable arms once more. She'd never had quite the same sensation with anyone else. Not with Ryan, the team colleague who had helped her forget the experience with Jackson a year or so later, certainly not with the too-handsome scoundrel, nor Michael, her current almost-boyfriend. She blushed guiltily as she remembered him. It was too dark for Tommy to see it, thank her lucky stars, but it made her step back reluctantly. There was no way she would repeat her mistake - not even when it felt so incredibly good to lean against Tommy once more. He sensed her withdrawal and released her rather unwillingly, hiding his reaction. For a while, the two looked over the smooth expanse of water, lost in their memories of what might have been before they turned away in unspoken agreement. They smiled shyly at each other as they started retracing their steps.
"I still can't understand why you didn't tell any of us when it was all over," Tommy said presently as they slowly made their way back towards the Boardwalk. "When you came back to Angel Grove right after the Games ..."
"I was too ashamed at the time," Kim remembered. "Still, I wanted to tell at least something to someone, and had decided on Jason, but when I had nearly screwed up my courage, Divatox captured us, and Muranthias happened. After what I nearly did to you and Kat under Maligore's influence ... seeing how happy the two of you were together ... I just couldn't."
There wasn't much more that could be said after that, and the erstwhile couple walked silently side by side along the shoreline until they had almost reached the first hotel.As one, both stopped and hesitantly looked at each other. Kim searched Tommy's eyes for signs of reproach, but found none. "Tommy," she murmured, not sure what to say.
"It's okay, Kim," he soothed her, gently touching her wind-blown hair. "I'm not angry at you. Maybe at the circumstances, but not at you. Not anymore, and not for a long time. If anything, I'm glad you could tell me."
"Thank you." Her voice was a whisper in the dark, but it conveyed a wealth of gratitude. There was so much more the young woman wanted - needed - to tell her former boyfriend, now that a start had been made, but she was exhausted, physically and emotionally.
"Not necessary," Tommy smiled, placing a long forefinger against her soft, quivering lips to silence any further words. He could see Kim was on the verge of tears. There was more he wanted to know, but this was neither the time nor the place. Instead, Tommy made an effort to lighten her mood. "Are you sure I can't mop the floor with Pretty Boy?" His tone made it extremely clear what he thought of the man who had used her so shabbily. "I'd love to, you know ... the guys and me have come up with some pretty creative ways of what we wanted to do to Zedd or Mondo if we should ever get our mitts on them; I'm sure I could adapt a few to that creepazoid."
The juvenile expression made Kimberly giggle tiredly. She leaned her forehead briefly against a broad shoulder.
"No thanks," she sighed. "Some part of me would love to, but I won't give him the satisfaction to know that I'm still not quite over it. Over him, yes, but not over what he did to me - to us." She looked earnestly up into warm, chocolate-brown eyes. "I'm sorry I spoiled our evening, but when I saw him so unexpectedly ..." the slender shoulders shrugged deprecatingly. "It just brought it all back."
"Understandable," came the gentle reply. "I don't like it - I really want to give that sonovabitch a piece of my mind - but I can see your point. Besides, neither one of us could use the bad press."
Both athletes grinned ruefully at each other. Having to act circumspectly in public was part of the price they had to pay for their moderate claim to fame.Together, they went up the beach, slipped their shoes back on and ambled back to their hotel. On their way through the gay crowds, their hands unconsciously found each other, but it felt natural, and right. Once they'd reached their temporary home, Tommy escorted Kim to her room. The harsh hallway lights showed him how truly hard the memories and the telling had been for her; the soft cheeks bore traces of tears that had slipped out of the slightly puffy brown eyes, and the rosy lips quivered with fatigue. Stepping inside her room for a few moments, he had to resist the impulse to sweep Kim into his arms and hold her until she'd cried herself out and fell asleep. Instead, he contented himself with tilting the piquant face up to his and placing a gentle kiss on her forehead and both cheeks.
"It'll be okay, Kim. We'll be okay," he promised, forgetting that there was another man somewhere out there who also could lay claim to the young woman's affections.
"Can we?" she asked tearfully. She hadn't meant to cry, but hadn't been able to help herself, despite her best intentions. Right now, there was no room in her weary mind for anything or anyone but Tommy.
"I think so. You've given me a lot to think about, but I'm still glad to know what really happened. I guess even after all this time, I was afraid it had been something I'd said, or done ..."
"No, Tommy! It was my fault only," Kim protested, shocked. "If I hadn't let Jack dazzle me with his money, and his looks ..."
"Kim, you said it yourself: you were only seventeen at the time, scared, lonely, confused, most likely overworked as well, I wasn't there to help you ... and the snake took advantage of that. It wasn't all your fault."
"That's no excuse; I should've been stronger," she mourned. "I was too weak, and gave you up for nothing."
"Maybe it's not an excuse, but it is a reason - one I can even understand. You hadn't given me one before, and now we can put things behind us at last."
The exhausted young woman looked at her tall companion with wide, suddenly hopeful eyes.
"Would ... would you have understood then?" she dared ask. Tommy gave her question serious thought.
"I don't know," he admitted finally. "I may have been too young then, too hurt to really listen." Unbidden, another hurtful scene flashed before his eyes - a blond young woman telling him of a mistake made, her tear-filled blue eyes asking him to listen, to understand - but he'd closed his mind and his heart, seeing only his own pain. Mentally shaking himself, Tommy refocussed on the petite brunette gazing up at him with utter trust.
"I'm willing and able to listen now, though," he said. When Kim opened her mouth, however, he shook his head and smiled.
"Not tonight, Kim. We're both tired, and I want to have a clear head when we work through this. That is ... if you want to?" he asked, suddenly uncertain if he wasn't presuming too much. Kimberly gave him a tremulous smile in return.
"I ... I think I'd like that," she whispered, feeling a long-shut window in her soul open a crack. Maybe there was hope for them, after all. They'd just need to take it slow ...
"That's great," Tommy said gently. "I'll see you at breakfast tomorrow, then?"
Both stared at each other, neither wanting to be the one to send the other away. Finally, Tommy sighed deeply and did what he felt he must.
"Good night, Kim." His smile was a bit strained around the edges, as if forced, but his warm eyes told their own story. She read it perfectly, and it enabled her to find her own smile.
"Good night, Tommy."
He reached for the doorknob, but something made him turn back one more time. Kim stood as he'd left her, eyes wide and tired, but no longer dull. Giving in to an almost irresistible impulse, Tommy cupped Kim's face between both palms. Brushing his lips tenderly over hers, he let go of the very last remnants of hurt that had lingered ever since he'd read that fateful letter. A moment later, he was gone, leaving behind a young woman who once more had stars in her eyes.
"I'll be glad when this tour is over," Kimberly moaned. They were sweltering in the summer heat of New Orleans, waiting for their transportation to yet another mall. Their sponsor was opening a new outlet in one of the better shopping districts, and she and Tommy had been roped into an autograph session. "This heat is going to kill me! Who was the idiot who scheduled us for Louisiana in July, anyway?"
"Our beloved paycheck-giver, lord of lucrative sponsoring contracts and maker of scratchy polo shirts," Tommy quipped, squirming in one such garment. He looked enviously at Kim's cotton walking shorts and matching sleeveless shirt. "Nothing and nobody else could make me wear slacks in this kind of heat otherwise!"
"Poor baby," Kim cooed sympathetically, his sally having brought a smile to her lips. Secretly she thought that the khaki pants and off-white shirt made Tommy look extremely handsome. Like or not, the casually-elegant style suited him very well and set off his tan and deep-brown hair to perfection. "Let's hope the car has a/c so we can cool off some, and it won't be that bad at the mall."
"You hope," he shot back, making a grab for her hand as their transportation arrived. "What do you want to bet the crowds will be big enough to make it hotter than hell, airconditioning or not?"
"I don't bet against the odds," Kim murmured as the car drew off the curb. "Remind me never to agree to promotional tours like this again, come December. I can't believe how sick I am of travelling all over creation, living out of a suitcase or meeting yet one more extremely boring person." Realizing what she'd said, she grinned her apology. "Present company excepted, of course. - Next time around, I'd rather make a TV commercial, or a photo shoot."
"I hear you," Tommy conceded, huffing slightly at her comment. "But meanwhile we're still stuck with it. - Listen, do you want me to make the sales pitch this time, or ...." Soon, they were lost in planning their appearance, searching for ways to vary their routine from becoming too stale.
Later that night, the two were wandering through the French Quarter, admiring the old houses with their wrought-iron decorations, and doing some serious window-shopping at the numerous small boutiques and antique stores. A sudden squall earlier had cooled the air enough to make being outside pleasant, and Kim and Tommy chose a small restaurant with a back garden, having a delicious seafood dinner. When the waitress brought the cheque, she observed the handsome couple with a sentimental smile. The long-haired young man and his petite companion didn't seem to be directly involved, but to her experienced eyes, it wouldn't take much to nudge them into that direction. An inveterate romantic, the middle-aged woman decided to do just that.
"Would you be interested in going to Le Chevalier tonight, sir? Miss?" she asked as she accepted Tommy's credit card.
"A jazz club just off Beale Street. Most folks concentrate on the big names, but I know the owner; his bands are just as good, it's not as crowded, and you'll get to hear some of the best blues and jazz in all of New Orleans." She handed over a leaflet advertising the month's program.
Kim looked at Tommy with suddenly shining eyes. While jazz was not her first choice of music, Zack's cousin Curtis had played for them often enough during their school days to make her appreciate this truly American art form. Tommy smiled indulgently, skimming the flyer quickly. He was feeling very mellow tonight, and while he'd be just as happy to amble around the sights some more - his mother's birthday was coming up, and he'd hoped Kim would help him choose a present - there was always the next stop at San Antonio, two weeks from now.
"Sounds good," he said casually, grinning at the brilliant smile bestowed on him. "Would you like to go?"
"Yes, please," Kim bubbled enthusiastically. Suddenly she felt as giddy as she'd ever felt during high school.
"Let's go, then!"
Le Chevalier turned out to be just what their waitress had promised it would be - a small, almost intimate club with a unique atmosphere that entranced the two and held them long into the night. They danced, shared a wine cooler, nibbled on Cajun delicacies and danced some more, enjoying each other's company. It was past midnight when they slowly made their way back to their hotel. Tommy had his arm draped around Kim's shoulders and she had threaded hers around his trim waist as they wandered through the now-balmy night, silently letting the evening's magic dissolve.
Once at their hotel, Tommy followed Kim into her room to unload the few bags with souvenirs she'd bought. Kim wasn't quite the compulsive shopper she had proved herself to be on their class trip to Australia, but she still loved to browse, and in most major cities she managed to find a few curios for her apartment in Florida if time allowed. The room was softly lit by a couple of lamps left on by the turndown service, and Kim deposited her handbag on the dresser. Turning towards her companion with a bright smile, she touched his arm.
"Thank you for carrying the bags for me, Tommy," she said softly. For some reason, the atmosphere was not conducive to loud voices.
"Anytime," he replied. "It's been a long time, but it's good to know I haven't forgotten how," he teased, referring to countless trips to Angel Grove's shopping district when they were still teenagers.
Kim pouted prettily.
"You only needed to say the word, and I would've gone with Aisha, or Trini."
"You did that anyway," Tommy jibed, tousling her hair playfully. Over the months, their relationship had developed to the point where such gestures once more came naturally to both. "But hey, it's okay; I knew I always could go spar with the guys or something instead, if I really minded."
"You did that, anyway," Kim tossed his words right back at her former boyfriend, laughing at his sheepish expression. "Why did you come shopping with me, if you hated it so?"
Tommy shrugged. "It was a chance of doing normal boy-girl type stuff with you. Between school, fighting Zedd and Rita and hanging out with the gang, what opportunity did we have to be together? I can't remember even one date we had that wasn't interrupted by one thing or another; can you?"
"I ... I don't know," Kim answered, frowning. "Surely there must have been one...? What about the police dance during Junior year?"
"Right before, Zedd had gotten most everybody with his love potion, remember? You were just about to throw me over for Skull."
Tommy laughed at the face she made. Caught up in the memory, he grabbed her gently around the waist and pulled her close.
"I can't tell you how glad I was when that spell wore off," he said, his voice getting husky. Kim placed her hands on the broad, cotton-clad shoulders and twinkled into the brown eyes.
"Oh, I dunno," she giggled throatily. "If I remember correctly, I danced with him after I'd apologized for unwittingly leading him on, and he was very decent about it. Actually, he's a better dancer than you were at the time, and what with wearing his dress uniform and all ... in his own goofy way, he was really kinda cute."
"Cute? Skull? Kim, I always thought you had excellent taste, but now I'm not so sure!"
"Don't be mean," she chided, laughing softly. "After all, I did see the error of my ways after the spell wore off." It almost felt like old times, the way Tommy was holding her and she was looking up into the chocolate depths of his eyes. Remembering how nice it had felt to sway in Tommy's arms to soft music, then and now, she instinctively threaded her hands around his neck, stepping closer into his embrace. Lost in the recollection of more carefree times, the young man tightened his hold on the slender woman's hips. He inhaled deeply of her floral perfume and just barely refrained from burying his face in the caramel curls piled loosely on the top of Kim's head. Her next words, though, broke something loose within both of them.
"Actually, I've always thought you were the cutest guy I'd ever met," she murmured without thinking, moistening her suddenly dry mouth with her tongue-tip. All at once, the air around them seemed electrified, and the two held their breaths as their eyes met. Giving in to an irresistible impulse, Tommy drew Kim the remaining few inches against his chest. Sensing no resistance, he slowly lowered his head to hers, never losing eye contact until those soft brown orbs fluttered shut the instant his lips touched hers.
The kiss lasted a long time; they paused occasionally for breath, but it was too heady to rediscover tastes and textures, to align bodies in familiar patterns and give in to instincts they'd been too young and too shy to explore during their former relationship. They were no longer high school sweethearts, but man and woman; it was only natural that their kisses gradually deepened and became more passionate. Kim moaned deep in her throat as Tommy claimed her mouth once again; her head was swimming, but she didn't care - nothing had felt so right, not for a long, long time. Not since she'd sat in her Florida dorm room one winter night and written a certain letter, to be exact.
As forTommy, he had shut off his feelings for so long, he could only revel in the myriad of sensations holding a woman in his arms again evoked. And not just any woman, but Kim - the girl he'd first given his heart to and had never been able to completely reclaim. Doors he'd deliberately closed and locked in his mind and heart cracked open, letting in first, tentative rays of light into darkened corners that accepted them eagerly, expanding and flowering like thirsty blooms after a warm spring rain. As he slowly sank into sensory bliss, feeling, smelling, tasting what it was like to kiss Kim - his Kim - again, he thought he heard bells ring in the distance. Smiling to himself at the fanciful thought, so unlike him, Tommy began to nibble at the corners of Kim's oh-so-soft mouth when the ringing sound came again. He frowned, but was unwilling to let go of this most delicious pursuit. When it happened a third time, he felt Kim stiffen in his arms, and reluctantly he came out of his delightful haze to stare into smoky doe eyes.
"T-the phone," Kimberly gulped, her breath coming in short, fast gasps. She looked over her shoulder, searching the room somewhat helplessly for the source of the intruding sound. A fifth ring finally sent her scurrying to the outlet on a small desk at the far wall. Tommy was tempted to ask her to just turn it off, but the mood was broken. He answered Kim's apologetic smile with his own rueful one as she picked up the receiver and tried to control his own recalcitrant breathing and racing heart.
"Yes?" Kim said into the mouthpiece, her voice still husky. "Who is ... oh, Michael!" She shot a slightly guilty look at Tommy. The young man froze as he recognized the name of the man Kim was dating. Stiffly, he made his way past her out to the small balcony, giving her privacy. For one of the few times in his life he could remember, Tommy wished for a stiff drink. *Just what the Hell were you thinking, Oliver?* he berated himself silently. *Kim's no longer your girlfriend; if that phone hadn't rung, there's every chance you'd have ended up making love to her!* He was honest enough with himself to know this to be true. A small, delicious shiver raced down his spine at the thought, much as it always had when they'd both been seventeen and he'd started to fantasize about getting intimate with his pretty girlfriend. He was mulling that over in his mind as the glass doors opened and Kim stepped out on the balcony as well. Silently, the two stood side by side, looking out over the city, oblivious to the balmy night air or the twinkling lights below. Finally, Tommy said what he felt he must.
"I'm sorry, Kim. I shouldn't have done that."
"Done what?" It hurt to hear him say it.
"Kiss you." It hurt to have to admit that.
"You weren't alone there, Tommy," she scolded him lightly. "I ... I could have said no."
"That's no excuse," he shook his head. "I had no right to kiss you like that - not when you're with someone else."
"I told you, Michael and I aren't really an item. He'll have no right to accuse me of anything. Besides, there's no need to blame yourself. After all, we didn't plan on any of this, did we? No real harm was done; it just ... happened."
The phrase triggered something in Tommy's memory. For a few moments, he couldn't place the reference, then flinched as if someone had struck him. Ignoring Kim's questioning look, Tommy chased the memory down. It had been last year, in his parents' house ... the voice saying the very same thing hoarse with strain but still charmingly accented ... the eyes looking at him tear-filled and crystal blue ... Kat, confessing to him that she'd betrayed him with his best friend.
Retreating a few steps from Kim's bewildered gaze, Tommy blindly searched behind him for the door back inside. His mind was whirling chaotically, replaying that last 'conversation' he'd had with Katherine before he'd kicked her out and mixing it with the events of the past half-hour.
"Tommy?" Kim asked, concerned, reaching out to lay a small hand on his forearm. Roughly, he shook it off; he was in no state to deal with her right now. First of all, he needed to get his roiling emotions back under control.
"I ... not now, Kim. I can't. I'm sorry, I don't want to hurt you, but ...."
"Okay," she acceded, clearly puzzled at the near-panic evident in his voice and eyes. She'd never seen Tommy quite this rattled. "We can talk tomorrow, maybe?"
He only nodded. "I ... I need to get out of here."
With that, Tommy Oliver did what he'd never done before - he ran away.
*It just happened.*
The phrase danced in his mind incessantly as he showered and slipped between the cool sheets in his dark room. It was what Kat had told him of the events between her and Jason, and he'd scoffed derisively, not understanding how something like that could come about without intent and forethought.
*It just happened.*
It had seemed so unlikely at the time, but now he had no choice but to believe - because he'd been in almost the same situation. A cosy room, mellow mood, suggestive atmosphere; a red-blooded man holding a beautiful woman in his arms ... if that phone hadn't rung, he wouldn't be here in his own room, alone, but quite possibly two floors up, making passionate love to Kimberly.
*It just happened.*
Was that really how it had been for Jason and Kat? It had always seemed so unlikely, so unbelievable. How could one lose one's head so completely that nothing else mattered but the person one was touching? If he hadn't experienced that very phenomenon a scant hour ago for himself, Tommy would still be denying the possibility. Now, he no longer could. If things had happened in any way like that for his friend and his lover, he could not justify holding on to his righteous anger. Because if Kat had been telling the truth - and she'd been right about one thing at least, she'd never lied to him -- no call or anything else had interrupted her and Jason; they'd been truly swept away by the magic of the moment - something Tommy hadn't been able to understand until now.
*This was different!* a part of him insisted. *You and Kim have a past history with each other; it was only natural that you would end up kissing her one of these days!* Another part which had been silent too long immediately replied. *So what? Jason and Kat were close friends al least; remember how glad you were when they hit it off so well together, making it unnecessary for you to choose between your best friend's company and being with your girlfriend?* Tommy had to admit that was so. *But they should have thought of me - should have remembered that Kat was my lover, and not free to get together with anybody else!*
The hurt part of him was not ready to give up on the resentment and anger he still felt. Even after over a year, Tommy refused to let go of the pain. However, the honest, just part of his mind had an answer, as well.
*Like you remembered this Michael guy right now? Kim may say that she's not really involved with him, but she is in a relationship - not free, as you are. Like Jason was. You should have thought of that.*
*They didn't,* he insisted to himself, but it came out a lot weaker than he liked. *They were my friends, and they betrayed me. Jase and Kat forgot all about me ... about how I would feel ...*
*Did you think of how Kat felt when you cancelled on her? Or if Jason ever resented you for making him take your place? What if he'd had a girlfriend of his own? Would life have been so easy and uncomplicated for you if he hadn't been willing to substitute for you? Or if Kat hadn't liked him enough, hadn't cut you enough slack to accept your excuses?*
*...no ...* He had to concede that much, at least. Blushing in the darkness despite himself, Tommy continued his inner debate. *So I put my interests above Kat's - theirs - on occasion. Okay, it was wrong, I can see that now. But I didn't do it on purpose, or to hurt them. I just didn't think.* It sounded feeble even to his own ears. *So I made a mistake. Is that a crime? I'm only Human!*
*So are they,* the voice in his mind, unheard for too long, said quietly, then went away. Tommy lay on his back in the darkness, pondering the statement - and the undeniable reality of his reawakening feelings for Kimberly - for a long, long time.
"Tommy, please - I'm serious about this," Kim pleaded with him as they waited for the limo to carry them to a TV studio in downtown Los Angeles. "I don't want our relationship to be plastered all over the tabloids tomorrow morning. And if you're not careful, Edie Jenkins will ask questions of your love life; you know what kind of a 'reporter' she is!"
"I know, Beautiful," he soothed, kissing her gently. This morning talk show interview was the last public appearance on their publicity tour, and they were both heartily glad to resume their normal lives. The constant trips back and forth all over the United States were time-consuming and exhausting. While they'd taken care that the appearances hadn't interfered much with their respective professions, they had cut deeply into much-needed private time; but that was the price they'd had to pay for the not unsubstantial financial support. Tommy could now hire better mechanics and implement the necessary technical changes on his car to keep up with his opponents, and Kim had landed a position as design assistant with their sponsor. She would move from Florida back to California to get a degree from a college on the coast, enabling her to be closer to Tommy whose team was still based at the track in Stone County.
"If necessary, I'll make something up to throw her off the trail if Edie won't let up," he promised his new/old girlfriend. Inwardly, he shook his head at how fast things had moved between them during the last month. When he'd woken after a restless night in New Orleans, he'd found a note for him by Kim that told her she'd been unexpectedly recalled home. Confused yet relieved at the reprieve, Tommy had looked forward to their next meeting with a mixture of dread and excitement. When the petite ex-gymnast walked into their hotel in San Antonio two weeks later, he felt his throat constrict almost as intensely as during that long-ago afternoon in Angel Grove Park when he'd first tried to screw up his courage to ask Kimberly out.
It had been during dinner at Riverside Walk that Kim had confessed to him that she'd broken off her relationship with the shadowy Michael.
*"I never was in love with him in the first place; not really,"* she'd said. *"Of course he was sad, but I know I didn't break his heart by calling things off. And I just couldn't go on dating him - not after the kiss we shared in New Orleans."*
*"Then ... it wasn't just me who felt it was special?"* Tommy had asked hopefully. That was the conclusion he'd come to in the two weeks since he'd seen Kim last.
*"No,"* Kim had replied, blushing. *"There always was something special between us, and I think we never quite lost it - despite everything, didn't we?"*
*Yeah,"* he'd answered, his heart soaring at the soft confession. *"These last few months ... Kim, I've started to feel alive again, and that's all due to you."*
*"Do you ... do you think we can start over?"*
*"I prefer to think of it as a new beginning,"* had been his reply. *"Based on what we had, sure, but as the people we are now, not the ones we have been."*
They had become lovers that night, and waking up the next morning with Kimberly in his arms made Tommy all but forget there had ever been someone else in his life. At odd moments, thoughts of Kat still intruded on his consciousness, but it was easier to push them away back into the recesses of his mind. He was too happy about being happy again to dwell long on past hurts, and as before, Kim started to fill the empty places in his life. In a lot of ways, it was like the time he'd lost his Powers the first time, and yet it was completely different. Most notably, they were no longer teenagers, but adults, accountable only to themselves for their actions. Both Kimberly and Tommy agreed to take it slowly in getting truly serious, though, their new intimacy notwithstanding; for now it was enough that they were in love once more, leaving thoughts of the future aside. It was because of this decision that Kim was asking Tommy to keep their rekindled relationship out of the public eye for now. It wasn't going to be easy.
"You know what I'm going to enjoy most after today?" Tommy asked conversationally as they drove towards the studio.
"No, what?" Kim asked, slipping her hand into his and enjoying the gentle squeeze she received in return.
"That I'll be able to retire my dinner jacket until the end of the year. I think I've worn it more often than any other suit I've ever owned since this whole thing started in January. When I think of the crowds last night ...!" he groaned.
"Oh come on - at least last night was for a good cause," Kim reminded him. "I almost felt like being at the Academy Awards, what with the TV crews and everything."
"There's that," he conceded. "Besides, you looked absolutely terrific."
Kim blushed with pleasure at the compliment. Last night's engagement had been a gala Charity Dinner held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in aid of programs to keep kids out of trouble. It was a cause that had always been important to Kim and Tommy, and the opportunity to mingle with lots of celebrities and do some good had been worth the notoriety. She'd taken great care to choose an exclusive, figure-hugging cocktail dress that displayed her trim physique at its best without being too revealing. She'd always had fun to dress up for Tommy, but the way his brown eyes had lit up made all the effort worthwhile.
"Thanks," was all she said, though. They arrived at the studio and while Tommy went through makeup and preparation, she sought a place in the decorations where she could observe him without being seen by anyone else. When Tommy's segment came up, the interview went pretty well, all things considered; he answered the questions his hostess was directing at him easily and with a friendly charm that made Kim's heart soar, remembering the first time they'd all been on national TV as Rangers on the Harvey Garvey Show. Even under his helmet, Tommy's charisma had been unmistakeable. Unfortunately, Edie Jenkins lived up to her past as a tabloid reporter; despite everything Tommy could do, she inevitably zeroed in on his personal life. Kim anxiously moved forward a bit, standing just out of sight behind one of the cameras. Surely Tommy would remember his promise, wouldn't he?
"Well, and what about your love life, Mr. Oliver?" the reporter asked coyly, leaning forward in her seat. "Surely a handsome young man like you, a successful race car driver, has someone to ... reward ... him after all that hard training? Or maybe even ... several someones?" Her suggestive tone just barely stopped from becoming sleazy.
Tommy thought fast. He didn't like to lie, not even to the press, but how to get out of this without doing so?
"No, never several," he laughed easily. "I tend to have a somewhat ... shaky ... memory, as my friends would tell you, and keeping several women apart and hopefully unaware of each other would strain it to the breaking point and beyond."
"But there is one woman in your life?" the woman insisted.
"I certainly have a dream girl," Tommy evaded. "If and when I'll ever get together with her ...." he shrugged eloquently, letting the sentence trail off. Let the nosy reporter draw her own conclusions! He sneaked a peek at Kim, who nodded approvingly behind the cameraman's back.
However, Edie Jenkins was not so easily thrown off.
"Will you at least give our viewers and your female fans a description of your dream girl, Thomas?" she insisted. The automatic answer springing to his mind was "petite, brown-eyed and brown hair, with the most gorgeous smile imaginable", but that would never do. He knew that Kim and he had been caught on film together at the Charity Banquet last night, and it would be too easy to link their names romantically. They didn't want that. Instead, he said the first thing that sprang to mind, smiling and winking at Kimberly as he did so.
"My dream girl is ... a long-legged, blue-eyed blonde with a sweet disposition. Someone graceful and elegant," Tommy elaborated, blithely unaware that he'd just given a perfect description of Kat. "I'd do anything for her, if she just loved me for who I am, and would accept that I'm not always easy to live with."
Tommy grinned self-deprecatingly. "Well, Edie, as you surely are aware, no man is perfect. I sometimes fly off the handle, then have a very hard time to admit I was wrong and make amends. But, doesn't everybody?" His eyes were still on Kim, who grinned at him and gave him a thumbs-up sign. Her soft brown eyes glowed at the smile he sent her way as she ducked away before the camera backed into her.
Thankfully, the show's producer signalled that the interview had come to an end, and Tommy and Kim breathed a silent sigh of relief. Within minutes, they concluded Tommy's business and ran hand in hand out of the building, giddy like kids.
"Free at last," Tommy sighed as they wandered through a small park a while later.
"Yes," Kim laughed. "You did great, we have no more obligations to the company, and I'm moving back to Angel Grove next month!"
"I can't wait," Tommy confessed, stopping in the shade of a tree to draw Kimberly into his arms. "I missed being home, missed having you close by ... "
Kim hugged her tall lover. "Me, too," she answered throatily. Her eyes closed in bliss as Tommy bent to kiss her. When she could talk again, she smiled up at him mischievously. "You can put all your free time between training and racing to good use by helping me search for an apartment, shop for furniture ..." she giggled at his rolling eyes and comical groan. However, Tommy became serious very quickly.
"Kim ... there's something I want to talk to you about," he started, blushing slightly. Curious, Kim nodded encouragingly; once again, she was irresistibly reminded of the time he'd tried to ask her out for the first time. All that was missing was the wringing of his hands.
"Well ... I was thinking ... you know I don't have a place of my own yet, but I don't think I want to continue living with my folks ... not with the way things are between us now ... I mean, I was thinking if ... if you maybe .. um ... if you and I ..." his blush intensified. She had to hide a grin. Kim knew very well what Tommy was getting at; the thought had been on her mind as well, and held considerable appeal. But there was no need to make a quick decision, was there? As Tommy continued to hem and haw, she considered her response.
"...Kimberly?" Tommy finally asked, hesitantly.
"Huh? Oh." Kim took pity on her lover. "Are you asking me if I want to live with you?"
"Yes," he replied, relieved that she understood him so well. He'd never thought about moving in with someone before, but he found himself wanting to with Kim. "I don't want to rush you or anything - I know we've agreed to take it slow, but ... I don't want to be apart from you more than absolutely necessary. I've had too much of that in the past." Implied was that it wasn't just her, but Kat as well.
Kimberly knew that one of these days Tommy would have to resolve his feelings for Kat before they could truly think of a future together. Tommy had taken the first step, but still harbored too much anger and resentment towards her and Jason. Kim didn't doubt his feelings for herself were genuine and was too happy herself in her new relationship with Tommy not to want to try to eventually heal the rift among her friends. But that could wait, at least for a while yet. Let him get used to loving again first.
"Why don't we see what kind of apartments are available once I return?" she suggested huskily, drawing Tommy down into another slow, sweet kiss full of promise.
"At least you didn't shoot me down outright," he sighed, returning her kiss. "As long as there's hope, I guess I can wait a while for you to make up your mind."
"Who knows what the future will bring?" Kim whispered. For now, it was enough that they were together again.
"Peace and happiness for all?" Tommy suggested, lightening the mood.
"I could live with that," Kim agreed laughingly. Hand in hand, the two reunited lovers made their way back. At long last, they were going home.
To be continued ....