Pawns

Epilogue


Two Weeks Later…

"…and Lord Zedd was gone," Katherine concluded. She took a deep breath, forcing her body to relax after she had helped relay the stressful, terrifying tale of their last, and most important, victory over evil. With tense fingers, she lifted her mug from where it rested on the coffee table, and sipped her mint tea.

"Jesus Christmas," one of her guests murmured. He ran his fingers through ear-length braids, rubbing his scalp to help his mind recover from the information overload. "So, that's it then. Zedd's… dead? Not comic book dead or anything… but dead dead?"

"It's conclusive, Zack," Adam answered, grinning at his predecessor's overwhelmed expression. "Zordon told us that when a powerful sorcerer dies, all the power he mastered during his lifetime is released in a widespread energy wave. He could feel it pass through the galaxy, as would any magic-sensitive beings just about anywhere in the Milky Way. The release of that energy proves Zedd's gone… for good."

The first Black Power Ranger was hardly comforted by the news. "Then it's only a matter of time before someone else comes in Zedd's place. I mean, first it was Rita, then Zedd, then the Machines. And sometime long ago, baddies like Ivan Ooze and Maligore dropped by. Earth's like a magnet for interstellar Loony Tunes!"

"Nah, it's not like that," Justin said. "Zedd was killed by the Power Rangers of Earth, and the news will spread through the grapevine, if it hasn't already. Zedd didn't leave anyone behind to avenge him either; he always dumped allies who were no longer useful. The only ones likely to try and fight us would be Goldar and Scorpina, to restore their honor since they were both humiliated in that last fight, but they're serving life sentences. This interstellar police guy Blue Centurion picked them up last week."

The pretty Asian in yellow frowned thoughtfully. "But what about Zedd's empire?" she posed, "Surely some high-ranking official will try to avenge his emperor, and win the throne?"

Adam shook his head. "Actually, Trini, even though Zedd tried to marry Kim, he was still legally bound to Rita. Since he never named an official Heir, and he died childless, she's the undisputed Empress of his holdings. After sitting in a space dumpster for ten thousand years, and then losing for another year, I think she learned her lesson."

Zack whistled. "Zedd and Rita got married? Jeez, talk about a dysfunctional family!"

The former Black Ninjetti nodded his agreement. "Zordon's confident that villains everywhere will avoid Earth like a plague, since Zedd, Ooze, Maligore, and the Machine monarchy all died here."

Adam rubbed his bare arm, unaccustomed to the absence of the band that had always materialized when he jerked his wrist. "And if something new comes up, Zordon and Alpha are still on the watch. They'll know the instant a threat enters the solar system, and the Turbo Powers are on standby." He exhaled. "We finally did it, guys. We finally won."

Tanya's full lips quirked. "Despite how… how hard that last fight was, we really lucked out. At full power, Lord Zedd could've batted away the Turbo Cannon's blast with half a thought; but when we finally faced him he was running on half-power, and had expended most of his remaining strength fighting Kim. Whatever that last blast of hers was, it nearly killed him."

Trini's face was crestfallen, slim fingers absently playing with the ebony braid lying on her shoulder. "Too bad it didn't."

The first Yellow Ranger sighed deeply, leaning against the soft cushion of the Hillard family's couch. She stared into the warm amber waves of her own tea. "If she had killed him, then she'd be here, with us."

The girl next to her wrapped one dark brown arm around her thin shoulders, lending a squeeze of support. Trini looked up at Aisha's wide, confident smile. "Don't count her out yet, Girl," the erstwhile Yellow Ninjetti advised, "Kim has been through a hell of a lot in her lifetime. She's a fighter… she'll make it through this."

"Eah," Rocky spoke around a mouthful of brownie, "Shl bfie."

Justin's eyebrow quirked at his "big brother." "Huh?"

"'Yeah, she'll be fine,'" Adam translated with a grin.

"I'm still rather perplexed," another guest pointed out. His green eyes were narrow with rare confusion, fingers rubbing his chin in contemplation. "How did Kimberly survive? From what I gather, she was already at the point of collapse when Lord Zedd released a tight beam of energy directly through her chest. It sounded like he aimed for her heart, and from the amount of blood you described, it appears he hit his target."

The young genius grimaced, realizing his overly-analytical mind had been depersonalizing the event… as if the victim wasn't one of the dearest friends he could ever hope to have.

"I… of course I'm thrilled to know she did survive," he hastily amended.

"It's okay, Billy," Adam said, waving his hand, "Actually, we all thought she was dead. It was really impossible to tell she'd survived the blast: Zedd seemed pretty confident he'd killed her, and with our armor on, we couldn't detect her faint pulse and shallow breathing. It was Jason who realized she was hanging on by a thread."

Katherine cast a furtive glance at her watch. The original Red Ranger had promised to attend the informal get together, but as yet hadn't arrived. "Jason was in the Turbo Chamber during the fight," she narrated. "He and Alpha diligently scanned the moon, waiting for the opportunity to see what was going on, and lend whatever support they could. Zedd never got the chance to refortify his magical shield, but all the power pulsing between him and Kimberly created far too much interference for the sensors or teleporter to cut through. The Turbo Chamber couldn't detect anything until after the backlash faded from Kimberly's last attack."

"It's a good thing they teleported her out when they did," Justin pointed out. "They managed to snag her while we were forming the Turbo RAM Cannon. She might not have survived the discharge of so much power just a few feet away from her. And she definitely wouldn't have made it once Zedd died. The instant his energy was released into the cosmos, the spell holding an artificial atmosphere around the palace was broken. She would've suffocated."

He tossed a chunk of brownie into his mouth, and followed it with a long swallow of milk. "She got really lucky," he affirmed, nodding for emphasis. "Either Zedd couldn't muster a big enough blast, or he just didn't know enough human anatomy to know where to aim. The beam edged to the side of her spine and veered right instead of left, where the heart is. It passed between the lung and the major vein, slicing open the vein and burning the lung. She lost a lot of blood, but nothing was damaged beyond repair. It took a few hours, but Alpha managed to mend all the major injuries without invasive surgery."

Zack frowned his confusion. "But if Alpha already fixed her up, why'd you guys bring her to the hospital? It's been all over the news: the Turbo Rangers delivering the comatose gymnast to Angel Grove Memorial, issuing a statement that she'd been kidnapped by the invading aliens for an as-yet undetermined reason." He scratched his head again. "What's up with all that?"

"Kim's 'disappearance' was big news two months ago," Adam pointed out. "It was the first high-profile incident with Rita, Zedd, or the Machines that wasn't resolved in a day or two. The media went wild over the loss of a local celebrity. We all thought it made sense to give a somewhat conclusive answer. Kim had been kidnapped by Lord Zedd as part of some scheme, but the Rangers saved her. It's better than saying she was lost in the woods for seven weeks. Plus, if she does wake up with any… trauma… we have a feasible explanation." Adam sucked on the inside of his mouth. "It took us a few days before we finally decided what to tell the world. The bad part is the media frenzy that's going to follow Kim around when she wakes up."

Rocky folded his arms. "But why did you guys bring her to the hospital anyway? Wouldn't Zordon be in a better position to break her out of that coma? Who knows how long it'll take her to wake up on her own?"

"It's never that simple, Rock," Justin spoke, with uncanny insight for someone his age. "Even with her injuries healed, the human brain is still a mystery to even advanced science. Zordon refused to try any therapies to force her to consciousness. She's in a deep coma, and he can't tell if it's a result from the Flame of Destruction, from the fight itself, or even some kind of psychosomatic thing. All he could do was make sure she was physically stabilized, and deliver her to the hospital for further observation. He said she'd wake up on her own, when she's physically and psychologically ready. And when she does, he'll do everything in his power to help her recover… emotionally."

Silence hung between the friends as the weight of the last Blue Ranger's words fell upon them. They all firmly held the hope that their friend would eventually awaken, but what would she wake up as?

Billy cast a surprised glance at the youngest Power Ranger. "You have an excellent grasp of anatomy and medical science, Justin," he commented.

The boy beamed at the compliment. Coming from the legendary genius of the first Blue Ranger, it was an extraordinary honor. "I really like science," Justin informed him, "I actually put together an operational cardiovascular system for the science fair in fourth grade, all on my own! Got first prize, too!"

Trini smiled warmly, the first genuine smile she had been able to muster since she and Zack had arrived in Angel Grove from Geneva two days earlier. "I suppose genius always lies beneath the Blue helmet."

That comment earned immediate, nearly hysterical laughter from Tanya, Adam, Kat, Rocky, and Justin. Trini traded puzzled glances with her former teammates and first successor.

"What?" Aisha wondered, frowning.

Tanya was the first to recover her breath. "Who do you think was the Blue Ranger between Billy and Justin?"

The uninformed quartet shrugged.

When Rocky raised his hand, the laughter burst anew.

Katherine managed to suppress her refreshing amusement when her phone rang. She took a few breaths to recover herself before answering. "Hillard residence."

The laughter slowly tapered off as eight past holders of the Power watched Katherine's expression move from surprised to utterly excited. "You're kidding!" she squealed.

Kat nodded to more sounds coming from the phone, as if the caller could see her brow furrow thoughtfully. "Really?" she murmured, disappointed. "When will they let us in?"

She sighed at whatever answer she received. "Regardless, I'm sure Tommy's thrilled."

The next few words turned her expression of mild displeasure to thunderous outrage. "I guess I can't really blame Mrs. Hart," she commented, though her harsh tone suggested otherwise. "Nobody ever told her what really happened. Still, that's cold; especially considering how much time Tommy spent in that hospital before she arrived from Paris." She huffed away the rest of her anger, modulating her voice. "Why don't you stop by? Everyone's here... except Tommy, of course."

A whisper of a smile cracked the glower on her face. "Yes, I made brownies."

A few more words, and then she nodded. "See you soon, Jason. G'bye."

She laid the phone in its cradle, turning toward the inquisitive, excited stares of her friends.

"Well?" Zack demanded, "What's the scoop?"

The recent Pink Ranger smiled widely. "Kimberly's awake!"

The group of close knit friends erupted into loud applause, as the last distressing weight on all their chests was finally relieved.

"Told ya she'd make it!" Aisha affirmed.

"Let's go!" Zack cheered, jumping off his seat. The others were quick to follow his dynamic lead.

Katherine raised her hand. "We can't yet. Now only immediate family members are allowed to see her. Jason said the Harts are particularly concerned about security, since the media will be camped outside the hospital as soon as they realize she's awake. This is, after all, the first confirmed extraterrestrial kidnapping, and since Kim's something of a celebrity, the entire world is intrigued by this story."

The teens all fell back into their seats, frustration crumbling their excited smiles.

oooOOOooo

She remembered dying.

She didn't feel the unbearable pain she thought would accompany the blow that would finally end her life. Compared to the feeling of the Flame surging past all safe limits, which she likened to her insides knotting and slowly liquefying, the tight beam ripping through her chest felt like something less than a bee sting.

Still, she gasped, more from the sight of the blood spurting from the open hole than the actual feeling. Then, listlessness overwhelmed her, making her eyelids too heavy to keep open.

She remembered falling forward, an oddly pleasing numbness smothering all the pain she'd felt the past few hours.

Then, sudden warmth enveloped her, tightening around her in a secure embrace, making her almost wish she could feel it better.

The warmth quickly disappeared, yet she couldn't tell whether it was the numbness setting in fully, or the warmth actually leaving her.

The last thing she remembered was radiant white light, so intense it flashed through her eyelids, and smothered all her senses. And then, nothing.

She had assumed that was the famous "light" that one enters to continue into the next plane of existence. So when her eyes finally opened, slowly dawning horror overwhelmed her lethargy. "Mom?" she rasped, "You're dead too…"

Caroline Dumas' eyes were swimming in tears. Months of worry and helplessness etched new, persistent lines around the wide, watery brown eyes. Her typically stylish, currently auburn coiffeur was tied in a practical, unremarkable bun, doing nothing to conceal the stubborn gray sprouting from her hairline like crab grass.

Kimberly stared at her mother, only half-recognizing her.

"Oh baby," she sobbed, clasping Kim's thin hand with all her might, "You came back to us!"

Kim blinked her confusion, barely feeling the flurry of kisses that suddenly smothered her forehead and cheeks.

Then, through her periphery vision, Kim watched a dark haired man hover over Caroline's shoulder, his glassy gray eyes also lined with worry.

"Daddy," Kim murmured.

His lip quirked as he laid an insistent hand on Caroline's arm. "Maybe you could give her room to breathe, Carrie."

The former Mrs. Hart nodded in rare acquiescence, leaning back and easing her death grip. This gave room for Roger Hart to lean down, and plant a single, lingering kiss on his only daughter's forehead.

"Nobody's dead, Princess," he told her gently. Kim saw the caution hovering in his emotive gaze, the barely contained fear stiffen his features. "You're okay. The doctors have run every test from A to Z, and you're fit as a fiddle."

"Mr. Hart, Mrs. Dumas," the doctor spoke, suddenly appearing in the room, "I hate to interrupt your reunion, but I need to ask her a few questions."

"Can't it wait?" Caroline nearly begged.

The doctor shook his head insistently. "I'm sorry, but we can't be sure how long Kimberly will remain conscious. If we are to do anything more to help her, we must know what actually happened to her."

Kim felt her mother shiver through their interlaced fingers. Clearly, the sensitive woman hadn't yet prepared herself to learn what possible horrors may have permanently scarred her daughter during the weeks of her disappearance. Or, maybe she had prepared herself… as much as any mother possibly could.

Kim warily watched the doctor approach from the opposite side of the bed. He was a tall man with a genuinely warm grin, and dark eyes that seemed eager to offer whatever comfort possible.

"I'm Jacob Henderson, and my team and I have been taking care of you these passed ten days." His grin widened into a smile, revealing white teeth that contrasted sharply with his dark skin. "You can call me Jake, okay?"

Despite his warmth, Kim felt herself squirm. "Okay."

"Just relax, Miss," he urged, pulling a pen from the pocket of his white coat, "This isn't an interrogation. I just want to check your memory."

Kim nodded, though his words did little to ease her building tension.

"First, please tell me your full name and date of birth."

"Kimberly Anne Hart. February 14, 1979."

He nodded. "And who are the people to your right?"

She smirked. "My parents: Roger Stephen Hart, and Caroline Joan Dumas."

He jotted something on his clipboard. "Excellent. Where are you now?"

She glanced out the window, peering at the buildings in her line of view. "Angel Grove Memorial Hospital. East wing, overlooking Redwood Boulevard."

Jake blinked in surprise. "How'd you know that?"

She sighed quietly. "I had a similar view the last time I was here; last summer. I fell off a balance beam during practice."

"Yes you did," he noted, tapping her medical file. He then covered up his nametag. "One final question: who am I?"

"Jake Henderson."

His smile widened. "Well Kim, your long and short term memory seem okay, and so is your visual recognition. That's very good."

He then took hold of a nearby stool, dragging it to the edge of her bed. He sat down, bringing his empathetic face closer to hers. "Now, here comes the hard part, Kim. I need you to really be strong, okay?"

"…Okay."

"Do you know what happened to you?"

She blinked, absently chewing on her tongue as she considered the question. It took her moment to realize… she did.

She remembered everything; every horrifying, sickening, embarrassing, humiliating detail. She remembered falling into Maligore's pit. Nearly killing Kat and Tommy. Joining Divatox's crew. Nearly killing Tommy again. Agreeing to marry Lord Zedd, the Emperor of Evil himself. Nearly killing Tommy again.

She remembered reading the letter that started it all. She remembered prompting the fight that ended it all.

But most of all, she remembered the feelings. The suspicion, the heartbreak, the vindictiveness, the guilt… and then all the intense, consuming hatred the Flame ignited within her.

She shivered with a sudden chill. She remembered everything she'd wanted to forget forever. And now, without the Flame burning her soul, she felt everything she'd been running away from since Muiranthias.

The anger, jealousy, and humiliation all came back like a wave crashing against the shore; but what eclipsed them all was the excruciating assault of guilt and regret.

Why couldn't I have forgotten it??

The answer was absurdly simple. She didn't deserve the freedom, the innocence that would come with ignorance. True, she had been a victim, but she had also been an aggressor. The feelings the Flame fed upon were not imposed upon her: they were hers, festering in her heart, buried deeply on behalf of the Pan-Global Games but never actually resolved. She could have rejected the terrible, dark influence of the Flame of Destruction, if not on her own than certainly with Lerigot's offered aid.

She tried to swallow back the bile that crept up her throat, but she wasn't able.

Caroline, adeptly interpreting the signs after caring for childhood stomach virus after stomach virus, promptly produced the metal container on hand for such an emergency. She held it beneath her daughter, brushing her dry, brittle hair back out of harm's way and whispering soft, comforting words.

She didn't even notice her own tears, trickling down her cheeks in response to her daughter's obviously traumatic experience.

When there was no more substance in her stomach to resurface, Kim's throat convulsed with dry heaves. The nurse had arrived almost magically, producing a towel and glass of water, and taking away the container.

Eventually, her violent reaction subsided. Doe eyes and wan face were soaked with tears, and her skin was flushed heavily.

She snatched the offered towel, burying her face in its cottony warmth.

Caroline and Roger were quick to respond, the former continuing to whisper gentle reassurances, while the latter rubbed her back slowly.

Jake watched the family for a few moments, a sad, weary frown on his face as he took further notes.

"Can we do this later, Doctor Henderson?" Roger snarled, far more insistent than he had intended.

"Of course," he decided, rising from the stool. "I'll leave you alone."

Kim's father watched the physician leave, and then turned his attention back to his little princess, who sobbed miserably into the towel.

She felt her parents' trembling hands, trying to soothe away emotional anguish with physical caresses. She heard their voices, choked with emotion, as they promised her the relief and security they honestly couldn't assure.

She couldn't take it anymore.

"Mom, Daddy," she murmured, her voice muffled by the towel, "C…can I… can I have a second?"

Caroline opened her mouth to protest, but Roger gestured her into silence. "Sure, Princess; your mom and I will go get some coffee. We're right outside if you need us, okay?"

She lifted her heavy head, offering her parents a feeble smile. Once they left, she leaned heavily into the pillow beneath her, staring blankly at the ceiling through glassy eyes.

A sudden, slightly muted six-tone signal made her jump upright.

Puzzled, she turned to the source of the sound. Her eyes were drawn to a far table, covered in bouquets and gifts from dozens of concerned people.

Easing onto shaky legs, Kim crossed the room, and finally found the source of the noise.

She sniffled, tears once again overwhelming their boundaries.

In the back, nearly covered in the more lavish presents of family, friends, and even the eager media, sat a small, unassuming white teddy bear. And it was wearing her pink and silver communicator.

Mesmerized, Kimberly lifted the bear by the scruff of its neck. As she suspected, a quarter-sized coffee stain marked its back, from the time she had gracelessly tripped over her sneakers and splashed the staining fluid all over her bed. Also, its head was tipped to one side, thanks to countless nights clinging to the bear with all her might, giving his neck a permanent tilt to accommodate her chin properly.

She nearly choked on a guttural sob. "Oh, Tommy…"

He had given her the bear as a token of his affection the last time she lay injured in this very hospital. And somehow, despite all the hate that poisoned her heart, he had enough love for her to actually travel to Florida, find the bear she had buried in her closet after the breakup, and deliver it to her sickbed yet again.

The tone repeated, urging Kimberly to strap the device to her wrist and activate it. She hesitated for a moment before finding her voice. "This is Kim."

After a brief pause, Zordon's fatherly, relieved voice streamed through the speaker. "WELCOME BACK, KIMBERLY."

oooOOOooo

Two Days Later…

"Do you think they'll let us in?" Zack wondered, fumbling to tuck in his shirt and appear a little more presentable.

Billy's natural inquisitiveness urged him to examine the harrowing lobby of Angel Grove's largest hospital. "Negative."

Trini frowned. "But why? She's not critically injured; Zordon healed all her physical wounds. And it's been two days since she regained consciousness!"

"That's why," he indicated, pointing out the large window.

The other teens stared out into the street, noticing for the first time the encamped army of news-hounds, several of whom were practically harassing hospital security officers that requested they keep their distance.

"Jerks," Zack groused, "I can't believe they'd be so pushy!"

Jason's expression was stone. "We'll still find a way to see her."

They continued waiting, every ten minutes checking with the obstinate receptionist for over an hour. Every time, she insisted that they wouldn't be able to visit the patient, as the policy was strictly immediate family only.

However, little did she know Jason Scott never took 'no' for an answer.

"We'll get in eventually," he determined, sitting straight-backed with his arms crossed, "You'll see."

After another twenty minutes of waiting, the automatic doors swung open to allow a man walking at a brisk pace to enter. He held his hand near his head, batting away the microphones and tape recorders shoved into his face.

"Look, my daughter has been through a very traumatic experience," he declared, just as he entered the foyer, "She is in no condition to offer a statement, and all I will say is that she's alive, awake, and remembers herself. That… and we're overjoyed to have her back."

He turned away from the reporters, who were unable to actually enter the hospital. As soon as the video cameras were off him, his grim expression collapsed into a thunderous glower.

"Mr. Hart?"

Roger looked up, blinking in surprise at the cluster of teens sitting only a few feet from him.

He smiled eagerly. "Trini! Jason, Billy, Zack! Great to see you!"

Kim's father shook the hands of the three boys, and briefly embraced his daughter's best friend. "I thought you had moved away."

"We did," Billy affirmed, "but when we learned what happened to Kimberly, we returned to Angel Grove expediently."

The older man smiled his appreciation. "I always knew she had the very best friends on the planet."

"Maybe you could help us out, Sir," Jason added, "We've been waiting to see Kim for over an hour, but we've been told only immediate relatives are allowed into her room."

"That's for security purposes more than anything else," Roger informed them, "Let me see what I can do."

oooOOOooo

She couldn't stop crying.

It had been two days since she'd regained consciousness. Two days since the oddly comforting void of a coma had been replaced with reality. Two days since she discovered, thanks to Zordon, that everything was okay.

The Rangers had all survived. Lord Zedd had been destroyed. Earth was finally free from alien invaders.

Yet she couldn't stop weeping. The tears were endless, flowing silently in her reverie, streaming amidst choked sobs during her nightmares. Some times they overwhelmed her, reducing her to a gagging, helpless little girl struggling to breathe. Other times they simply dripped, so gently she hardly noticed them.

Zordon had explained his hypothesis. The Flame had blocked her ability to cry, as it handicapped her remorse. So she made up for over a month of horrible deeds, her conscience burning her for every tear she made others weep. It was fitting for her to cry for the pain she inflicted; the anguish she caused her family, and the dilemma she placed her friends in.

She cried a month's worth of tears in forty-eight hours.

Understandably, the medical staff was more than disturbed by her endless tears. Both her feverish, breathless moaning and her silent, detached sobbing were an utter mystery to human science. So every few hours, some doctor or nurse came in, asking questions about whatever aches and pains she might feel. And far too often, the psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress came to see her for tea and a few questions.

Even though the sessions were meant to help her, they only made her weary and frustrated. That, coupled with the house arrest she suffered in the hospital, put her on edge. Thankfully, Zordon checked on her regularly, giving her updates on the research he had performed on the Flame of Destruction… that apparently abandoned her some point after her last, desperate attack.

Either it abandoned her, or it had gone dormant. There was no way to tell for sure; but there was no sense in concerning herself about possibilities when she had very real problems with which to contend.

Her brief exchanges with Zordon had been the highlight of the past two days. She had grown tired of the piteous gazes of her relatives, or the suspicious glances she'd sometimes receive from nurses or doctors. A true professional could probably tell she was lying about her lack of memories; fortunately, Zordon was able to give her the advice she needed to make her story sound plausible.

And so she sat, propped up against the raised back of the bed, Tommy's bear nestled in her arms, tears streaking her pale cheeks. Outside, she could see the pristine blue sky, spotted with a few clouds and flocks of birds. On the streets, groups of pedestrians flowed along the sidewalks, framing cars that streaked down the wide road.

Life had gone on, just as always, during her absence. Could she really just reinsert herself into normalcy, and live her life unaffected by the past few weeks? After becoming the Flame of Destruction, could she be truly human again?

A knock at the door drew her attention. "Come in," she called, not looking away from the bright summer day outside.

Her oldest friend stepped into the room. Despite the colorful flowers that overflowed every flat surface, and the bright sun flooding the entire area, there was a congested, somber air that just had to be chased away. "Hey Kim, look what I brought!"

Kimberly glanced up at Jason's voice, misty eyes widening when three familiar, much-missed faces peeped through the cracked open door.

"Hey, Kim!"

"Salutations!"

"Hi, Sis."

Kim's excited squeal escaped as a sob as her closest friends enveloped her in a tight, fervent group hug.

"Oh gosh, guys," Kim murmured, "it's so great to see you! What are you doing here?"

Trini sat on the bed beside her friend. "Are you kidding? We've been worried sick since we found out what happened."

"Yeah," Zack added, "Bad news travels fast, and the disappearance of one of America's Pan-Global champions gets all the way to the land of pocketknives and fancy watches."

"And even a little further," Billy added with a meek grin.

Kim swallowed a wave of fear before it was released as a shaky gasp. "H…how much do you guys… know?"

"Everything I know," Jason confirmed, "There are no secrets among this group."

She nodded, suddenly dejected.

"What's with the long face, Kim?" Zack demanded, nudging her arm, "You think we're holding a grudge?"

"W…well, not a grudge," she stammered quietly, "but… something. I mean, guys… I almost married Lord Zedd. I tried my best to kill the Turbo Rangers."

Billy grimaced. "There is a vast array of malevolent forces in the universe, that may influence even the most benign of hearts. The Aquitian Rangers accumulated numerous accounts of such enchantments, hexes, malicious spirits, and the like. While they all differ, there is one constant: the will of the victim is warped. Not in all cases broken or completely beleaguered, but effected. Therefore, while your hands may have committed atrocities, your heart and mind didn't."

She stared at her friend. Once 'geeky' and unsure, his experiences helped forge a truly brilliant, persuasive mind. Still, despite the characteristic logic in Billy's words, her heart weighed heavily. "You… just don't get it," she grumbled, "I wasn't some mindless zombie. I know the Flame… changed me; but I let it." Shame dulled her voice to a mere whisper. "I embraced the power of the Flame."

Jason sat at the foot of her bed, nodding grimly. "I understand that." His expression was open, clearly pained. "I was under the Flame's power, for a while. I don't know what it had been like for you after Maligore's death, but even with his will guiding me, the Flame made me thirst for vengeance by twisting an old wound, and blowing it way out of proportion."

He took a deep breath, searching for the right words. "You've got to remember the Flame is a force of destruction… of tearing down rather than building up, harming rather than healing. Before Muiranthias, you were hurting. The Flame twisted that, so you wanted make those who hurt you feel what you felt. It made you angry, destroying feelings like love, remorse, or compassion." He paused, giving her a moment to let his insight sink in. "You say you 'embraced' the Flame, but you were already under its power. You were already corrupted; your conscience had been muted. You weren't yourself when you chose Hate over Pain… and that would be a hard decision to make for anyone, even in their right mind."

She blinked back a violent burst of tears. "Divatox forced me into the pit, but Lerigot would've freed me, if I had let him. So even if I'm not responsible for what I did after I fell, every single drop of blood I spilled after Lerigot offered me release is my fault."

Her emotions began to choke her again, draining her of all strength. She leaned back against the yielding mattress, staring at the blank white ceiling above her. "And after Maligore died, there was nothing imposing on me. I kept on holding the Flame, using it as a means to my own ends."

"And look what you did with it, Kim," Jason insisted. "Yes, you hurt people. You let the nature of the Flame guide you down a destructive path. But, you also learned to exert your own will, and tame a chaotic, evil power. You stopped yourself from killing Tommy, and even turned your wrath against Zedd."

Kim waved dismissively. "Zedd screwed me up. I just ended up transferring my hatred from Tommy to Zedd. It's no big deal."

"You accomplished far more than merely transference," Billy determined, "From the account the Turbo Rangers provided, you put a great deal of effort into protecting them from Lord Zedd's rage. You were willing to place even greater risk upon yourself, by refusing their aid and facing Zedd alone."

"You found a way to care for them, Kim," Trini summarized, "And at the same time, you used the Flame to knock Zedd for a loop. You managed to use the Flame on your terms. That's unbelievable!"

Almond eyes watched her best friend's expression. The self-hatred in that swimming doe-brown stare was suffocating. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the first Pink Ranger simply couldn't see herself as anything but a heartless monster. For the moment, at least.

Sighing, Trini leaned her own head against the pillow, resting Kim's brow against her chin like a mother consoling a scared child. "Kim, we're not here to convince you that you're guiltless. Nobody but yourself knows what truly went on in here…" she tapped Kim's temple, "..and here," she concluded, indicating Kim's heart.

"We're not judges," Zack continued. His tone, for a change, was utterly serious. "So, we won't pretend to be. We're your friends. We're not here to place blame, or to take it away. We're the ones who stand by you no matter what goes down."

Kim lifted her bloodshot eyes. She studied Trini's serene grin. Billy's shining eyes. Zack's effusive smile. Jason's hopeful, encouraging gaze.

They were all so genuine. They truly harbored no condemnation, or even distrust. They honestly loved her… just as much as they did before the nightmare began.

Very slowly, a small smile graced her lips. "Thanks," she breathed.

The visiting ex-Rangers exchanged triumphant smiles.

"Listen, Kim, we gotta hit it," Zack said, nodding to the door, "We're breaking the rules as it is, so we better not push our luck if we want to sneak in and see you again."

Kim sniffled, but managed to smile regardless. "Thanks for stopping by, guys. You just don't know how much I've missed you all."

"We'll see you again soon," Trini assured her, "but in the meantime, here's something to keep you company."

She slipped her hand into her purse, and pulled out a rectangular object.

Kim pursed her lips, overwhelmed, when she saw the framed photograph. It was a picture of the original six, clustered around one of Ernie's tables, all smiling widely at the camera.

Her fingers absently traced the frame as she remembered that afternoon. Tommy had been scheduled to return from a retreat to his uncle's cabin that weekend, only to be brought home early to become the White Ranger and fortify the team against Lord Zedd's Scarlet Sentinel.

It was less than a week after the Emperor of Evil had first determined to make her his queen. It was just hours after Tommy reappeared out of the blue, racing into action for the first time as her White Knight.

It was a celebration of a team of trusted allies, and truest friends, made whole again after months of tribulation.

It was perfect.

Kim laughed through her tears... embarrassed by all the emotion a simple five-by-seven had invoked in the depths of her soul.

Yet, it was more than a mere photograph. It was an inspiration. It helped remind her of past challenges; and while they didn't quite measure up to this latest trial, they did help set the foundational strength she would build upon as she put her life back together. It also reminded her that, no matter how many miles, or even light years, separated them, they would always be there for each other.

She had lost sight of that somewhere along the way.

"Guys," she murmured, "you're the best."

They each hugged her individually, offering her the silent reassurance that if her own strength should ever fail her, they would gladly offer theirs.

She released a long, shaky breath after she'd gotten the chance to thank them all, and then glanced again at the picture. This time, her gaze lingered on the one whose forgiveness mattered the most. The one whose return they had celebrated that sunny afternoon.

She turned to the small bear, now moist with her tears. The one that had come to her first. The one that never left her, and had fought for her with all the might in his body and willpower in his soul… and beyond.

The one that was missing.

She turned to Jason, his brother in everything but blood. "How's Tommy?" she wondered. "Why isn't he…?"

She swallowed her words, noticing her friends' enthusiastic smiles fade just a little. "Oh," she murmured, clearly reaching a conclusion.

He has every right to avoid me. He needs time, I'm sure. Time to figure out what… what happened between us. And… and what will happen. If anything…

Still, she couldn't contain a tiny, wistful sigh.

"He wanted to be here," Trini assured her hastily.

"He was here, actually," Jason revealed. "He dropped in the day after the Turbos brought you in."

Her gaze fell back to her treasured stuffed bear, the very sight of it warming her just a little. "I understand," she insisted.

Years of experience helped the veteran Rangers recognize a false smile. She was bravely doing her best to keep her disappointment, and fear, from showing.

"As a matter of fact, his election to keep his distance is a direct attempt to keep the peace," Billy contributed. "When your mother arrived from Paris, and discovered that he had resolved to stay here until you had regained consciousness, she stipulated that he abscond posthaste."

The former Pink Ranger stared blankly at her friend, feeling like her vocabulary instantly degraded to her former high school freshman level.

Billy blushed. "I'm sorry; I had resorted back to my more formal speech patterns after a few weeks on Aquitar. Their instant translators work less efficiently with colloquialisms, and other than the Aquitian Rangers and Cestria, none speak English." He cleared his throat, "What I meant to say is, your mother demanded that he leave the premises."

"She didn't want him anywhere near you," Jason added, with characteristic frankness.

Kimberly winced at the less than welcome news. "I never told her how Tommy and I had… parted ways. I never told her how much it hurt me; but she must've figured it out."

The former Mrs. Hart could easily sense that her only daughter had been nursing a broken heart. After all, with two marriages that ended sourly, and enough failed relationships to inspire a soap opera, she was the expert.

"S'okay," Kim murmured. "Really. I mean… I don't think I can… face him, just yet."

Her eyes screwed shut, arms squeezing the white bear for all it was worth.

oooOOOooo

Three Weeks Later…

He sank into the firm cushion of the large leather sofa. His back was practically swallowed by the pillows, letting him tuck his chin to see the television screen.

Jeff Rush's cabin may have been Spartan in its décor, with hardwood floors, no photographs on the mantel of the fireplace, and no paintings propped upon the wall panels… but that didn't mean it didn't have a luxury or two.

One such luxury was a wide-screen television, with digital cable.

Not that Tommy had a particular need for such equipment. As usual, his trip north to the secluded woods was his escape from reality. Escape from concerned relatives, well-meaning but invasive friends, and even her.

He had every intention of sitting in that hospital waiting room until she opened her eyes. He was the one who carried her - chest cushioning her head, heart throbbing beside her temple - as the Turbo Rangers made their shocking statement to the world. He'd chewed his lip beneath his helmet as he handed her to the doctors... trying his damnedest not to show the tension in his body, or give any other hint to the world of the simple fact that the Red Turbo Ranger, celebrated hero and leader of the Power Rangers, was merely human after all.

Thankfully, Zordon allowed a measure of flexibility in the use of Ranger equipment for "personal gain." Once it had been confirmed that there were no evil forces in the solar system, the priority of the entire team had shifted: to Kimberly's wellbeing. That meant Zordon gave his children the green light to use the teleporter, scanner, and even interstellar communicator to assemble the individuals and create the circumstances that would optimize their chance of bringing Kim back to herself.

The morning after Kimberly's 'deliverance,' Tommy was the first to arrive at the hospital, her stuffed bear in tow. Yet despite his dedication to be there for her, he couldn't deny the terror that quickened his blood.

He knew she would wake up. He refused to believe otherwise; that the two of them could so narrowly escape death time and again, that she could survive a fatal energy blast, just to linger in a perpetual coma.

He was afraid for her. For what her life would be like, once she recovered enough of her senses to realize what had happened to her. Her deeds would haunt her, either in sleep or when awake. The guilt would never go away completely, as Tommy himself could attest. A mere week of service to Rita, under the spell of the Sword of Darkness, forever marked him. No matter how much time passed, how many lives he saved afterward, or how many times his friends insisted he wasn't at fault, he couldn't simply forget. He could put it behind him; and he had, when he faced his dark side made flesh by Rita's magic... but he couldn't undo what he had done.

And he could never forget the feeling of being Evil.

Kimberly never should have experienced that! Yes, she'd been enchanted once or twice, but she'd never been exposed to a heart of Evil, polluted and darkened by arcane magic that never should've come into existence. She never should have had to look into a mirror, and see her flaming, hate-filled eyes.

The girl he had known… the girl that had stolen his heart… had been guileless, compassionate, and genuine. She fought against Evil for years, but she never could truly fathom what Evil was… how dark, treacherous, spiteful, and cancerous it could become. She fought, not to redeem herself, prove herself, or even to punish Evil… but out of love for her friends, her family, and her planet.

The girl he had known didn't exist any more. She had been reshaped by her experiences, during the heated competition of the Pan Globals, the months of heartache after Zedd made his critical opening move, and then the month of existing as the physical embodiment of the Flame of Destruction.

She was no longer the girl he fell in love with; but he knew, without a doubt, that he loved her still. The connection they had shared was so much more than a teenage romance; it was enduring, it was forgiving, it was patient.

And it was unselfish.

He knew he loved her, but he didn't know what she would feel after she awoke. He was confident some feelings lingered, but he knew they would also cause her pain. After all, it was her love for him that gave the Flame of Destruction an opening; to stab her heart open and tempt her with freedom from the pain she suffered because her feelings persisted after his apparent betrayal.

He had been resolved to do anything in his power to help her heal. And when Caroline Dumas had arrived at the hospital, calmly demanding he make himself scarce, he didn't put up a fight.

"Look, Tommy, I know you want to help her. I understand that. But I'm sure you realize that, given what happened between you, it's just not appropriate for you to be here. You really hurt her. And I won't let you waltz into her life and reopen that wound; now, when she's the most vulnerable."

The former Mrs. Hart pulled no punches, especially not when it came to her daughter's ex-boyfriend.

Tommy knew Mrs. Hart was misinformed about what really happened, but she still had a point. He did hurt her. He didn't mean to; but he did cause her anguish by never attempting to speak to her after he'd received the false letter.

He refused to see her until he was certain she was ready for it. Until then, he would keep his distance. The trip to his uncle's cabin was a bit extreme… but he needed to get away, anyway.

He flipped the television stations, only paying the barest attention to the flashing images, when one program caught his eye, and his breath.

He blinked repeatedly, disbelieving his own eyes.

"…idea why you were kidnapped?"

Kimberly smiled mischievously. "I'll tell you one thing, Harvey, I've heard all the possibilities. Let's see… so far I was kidnapped in order to participate in an intergalactic tournament of athletes, to be brainwashed to assassinate the President, to lure the Power Rangers into some cataclysmic fight, and this one is my favorite… the whole alien thing was a sham, and I was really kidnapped by a foreign government to cripple the U.S. gymnastics team."

She rolled her eyes, laughing.

Harvey Garvey, the over-animated local talk show guru, laughed with her. "You must've missed the latest hypothesis: some speculate that you were kidnapped to be the evil alien's bride!"

Tommy's eyes widened, staring in unabashed horror at Kim's face. Incredibly, she didn't even flinch. "If that's the case," she said with a wink, "he's got great taste!"

The audience, as well as the host, joined the vivacious young woman in a round of laughter. And even Tommy, despite the stupefaction that literally froze him in place, found a small smile.

She was… okay. Or so it seemed…

"Seriously, though, I'm fine," she affirmed, once the laughter had waned. "I still don't remember what happened to me, and that's probably for my own good. But I do want to take this opportunity to thank the Power Rangers for rescuing me. God only knows how much time and effort they put into finding me, and I really appreciate it."

Then, she turned from her host directly to the camera. Tommy felt a tingle down his spine, as if they were sharing a secret, meaningful gaze. She lifted her hand, wiggling her fingers in a brief wave. "I can't thank you enough, Power Rangers. You'll always be my heroes."

The applause drowned out the affirmation Harvey added. It eclipsed a small, embarrassed giggle from Kimberly, though her eyes did shine at the enthusiasm with which the crowd reflected her feelings.

It also managed to smother a hesitant knock at the cabin's front door.

"So, Kimberly," Harvey continued, leaning closer to her across his table, "What are you planning to do next? Rumors are flying all over the trades about a movie career in your immediate future. Any truth to them?"

She released that melodic, girlish giggle, tucking her shortened caramel hair behind her ears. "I read in the Post last week that George Lucas is considering me for a Jedi cameo in the next Star Wars film. So if he happens to be in the viewing audience, I do have some acting experience! High school plays and even sporting goods commercials. My resume is ready upon request."

Her levity in the face of trauma was remarkable. She smiled, she laughed… she even joked! Her eyes glimmered with cheer and excitement, charming everyone in the audience, and even Harvey himself.

It was then that the knock returned, more insistent.

Tommy snapped out of his trance, frowning in confusion. I didn't order a pizza… not like there's a delivery place within twenty miles of here. His dark gaze slid from Kimberly's smiling face to his watch. It's almost midnight. I guess Uncle Jeff forgot his key?

"But if my imminent stardom doesn't pan out, I think I'll take it easy. The Pan Globals are behind me, and I've accomplished all I set out to do with gymnastics. Now, I plan to go to college, and do what every other teenager does… figure out what to do with my life."

The knocking began again, winning an impatient glower from Tommy. Damn, Jeff is the only person I know without a VCR! I don't want to miss this…

Jumping off the sofa, Tommy hurried through the spacious cabin and threw open the bolt. "It's open, Jeff!" he called, already on his way back to the television… and to Kim.

"Does this mean I can come in?"

Tommy froze so abruptly it almost seemed as if he'd smashed into an invisible wall. He pivoted, eyes wide as he stared at her.

She stood in the doorway, her black blouse and dark jeans blending into the obscurity of the forest night. Her skin and soft brown eyes seemed to glow in contrast, and her hair, now cropped just beyond her chin, shimmered in the faint light.

His comical display earned a hesitant, though earnest grin.

Suddenly feeling quite foolish, Tommy's hand flew to the back of his head. "Uh… sorry about that," he murmured, "I thought you were my uncle."

Her smile stretched, so inviting it made him want to pull her into an embrace. He resisted the urge, and dropped his gaze.

"You wouldn't believe how often I hear that."

He stared back at her, puzzled.

She shrugged. "Just trying to take a lesson from Jason and Zack; laugh a little more. It's really therapeutic."

Tommy nodded, finally finding a harmless conversation topic to ease the awkwardness between them. "So, what's everyone up to?"

"They're all still in Angel Grove," Kim revealed, taking a slow step into the cabin. "Jason's doing great; I think he's leaning toward a local college now that he's seeing Emily. The next round of the peace talks don't begin until September, so Trini and Zack are sticking around for a few more weeks. Billy's starting to miss Cestria, but I know he's glad to be home again. We're invited to the wedding, by the way. It's scheduled for some time in January."

Tommy bobbed his head again, watching her slowly pick at the pale pink polish on her fingernails. It had always been a sure sign of discomfort. "Have a seat, Kim," he invited, gesturing to the den, "Can I get you anything?"

She smiled gratefully. "Some water would be wonderful."

He hurried in the opposite direction, leaving her to wander to the den without an escort. She folded her arms tightly, rubbing away goose bumps as she absently watched a soda commercial.

She giggled faintly when the advertisement ended, returning to the program on air.

Tommy walked in an instant later, holding out a glass of ice water.

"So now I see what had your rapt attention," Kim noted, taking the glass.

Tommy grinned guiltily. "Yeah… well, I was surprised to see you on TV," he admitted. Oddly agitated, he leaned against the wall rather than sit. "You did really well, you know."

"Thanks."

That unusual, weighty silence fell once again. Kim took refuge with a long sip of water, while Tommy wandered to the television to shut it off.

"So…" Tommy murmured, trying to fill the disquieting void with some sort of conversation, "how'd you get up here? It's a two hour drive from Angel Grove."

It was Kim's turn to smile bashfully. "Zordon's gotten lenient with the teleporter recently." She bit her lip, and sat on the soft couch. "Gosh, I'm sorry I just appeared on your doorstep like this… especially so late," she hastily stammered. "I had to wait until my mother was asleep. She's been such a mother hen since…" Her breath caught, face twitching with the effort to maintain some sort of smile. She was unsuccessful. "..well, since."

Tommy lifted his eyes, watching her with his concerned gaze. "How're you holding up?"

She ran her thumb along the edge of her glass. "Better," she said honestly, "Much better. When I woke up I… was in bad shape." She lifted her left arm, indicating her pink and silver communicator. "Zordon and Alpha, they helped me out. Zordon contacted me every day since I came out of that coma. They've been working nonstop to understand the properties of the Flame, and help me figure out what I am now." A wry smile touched her lip. "The evil of the Flame is very different from Rita's spell on you, or even the spell Zedd used to make us hate each other."

"During the presidential campaign," Tommy reminisced, a wistful gleam in his eye. "We had the most ridiculous fights! I even drew moustaches on your posters…"

Kimberly found no amusement in the memory. "Yeah. Zedd's been trying to force a wedge between us for years," she murmured, her voice painfully soft. "This time, he succeeded."

They both fell into a persistent, grave silence.

She set the glass on the coffee table, genuinely fearful of shattering it with her tense grip. "Tommy," she spoke, her voice resolute, "if there's one thing I've learned from all this, it's that I have to be honest with myself. Brutally honest. None of this would've happened if I had been better able to face my feelings, and deal with them."

She stared at her hands, almost surprised to see her fingers wringing nervously. "Instead, I buried everything, avoided any form of resolution, and let my fears and hurt eat me up from the inside."

Tommy winced at her admission. "Kim, this isn't your fault-"

"Please, let me finish," she insisted. She took a shaky breath, struggling against the odd sensation that her tongue had gone numb, making it impossible to speak without stammering.

"There's... absolutely no excuse for what I did; what I allowed myself to become. I didn't hear from you, and I immediately jumped to the conclusion that you were seeing someone else. It was the first real test of our long-distance relationship, and I failed miserably. I guess I… I didn't respect you enough to know better."

The tears streaked down her flushed cheeks, painting a silvery line on her skin. Still, despite the powerful urge to simply swallow this heart-wrenching honesty and retreat from the sickening shame, she fought to finish. "Tommy, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry that I didn't have more faith in you. Sorry that I believed what we had together could be thrown away so easily. I'm sorry I didn't… trust you."

She pulled herself from the couch, her growing distress making it impossible to sit still. "You've always been with me; standing by my side, lending a hand when I needed one. You always had my best interests at heart… you even encouraged me to go to Florida… leave the Power Rangers to follow my dreams. And even after that, you didn't let the distance come between us. You made time for me, and you made me feel special."

She sniffed, frustratedly wiping away the tears. She couldn't bring herself to look at him.

After a lengthy silence, Tommy finally found the presence of mind to speak. "I forgive you, Kim. For everything that happened... everything you felt, tried to do, or actually did. But you have to understand that we... we both messed up. In order to work, Zedd's scheme depended on both of our insecurities. I... I forgive you for doubting me. But, I need you to forgive me; for being such a coward."

Her head lifted, swollen eyes frowning in confusion at his request.

"I'm the one that got the letter," he reminded her, "and I fell for it. It hurt so much, reading that you loved someone else on paper, I was terrified of hearing you actually say it. So... so I..." He clenched his teeth, struggling against his own shame. "I didn't call you. I didn't visit you. I didn't do anything that could have unearthed the truth. I wanted to demand an explanation, but I was too much of a coward to actually hear your voice tell me you didn't love me any more... or worse, that you never really had." He sucked in a breath, and released it in a long, weary sigh. "I failed you, Kim."

She sniffled again, but she did manage to find a smile. "We... failed each other," she resolved. She then moved toward him, timid fingers to grazing his tear-stained cheek. "I forgive you... for all the choices you made."

He stared into her eyes, slightly puzzled by her choice of words. She must have seen his confusion, and pulled her hand away before he could say a word.

"I'm s...sorry," she murmured, dropping her eyes again. Tommy watched, perplexed, as she retreated from him, and finished the remaining water in one long sip.

There's something else bothering her, he realized, a grim shadow darkening his mood. Something else standing between us...

But if there was one thing he learned from his ordeal, it was never to just let her walk away without understanding why.

"Kim, what is it?" he insisted.

It seemed as if every drop of composure she had managed to maintain flowed out of her. She chewed her thumbnail, her agitation so great she actually turned her back to her ex-boyfriend to help her recover her speech.

Tommy was hurt by her inability to look at him, but chose not to say or do anything. Yet his insides twisted with panic as he considered what she could possibly have to reveal that would force her to turn away.

Oh God... she's dying! Or... she's having Zedd's child. He grimaced disgustedly at the notion.

"I," she resumed, her voice disturbingly weak, "I think I..." She cleared her throat, her scowl hidden from Tommy's view. "I mean, after everything that happened, I'm positive that..." She exhaled slowly. "I need you, Tommy."

Tommy startled. Despite himself, a fierce joy erupted in his heart, her words reassuring him that he still truly mattered to her.

But why was she so disturbed by her feelings? Did she still doubt him... doubt that he could provide the support and comfort she needed?

"I'm sorry," she repeated, "but I'm convinced that I've got a long way to go to... to deal with what happened to me. And I need my friends... especially you... to remind me of who I was before the Flame, before Zedd's tricks, and...!"

She choked on her words, taking a moment to recover her breath. She released a long, forlorn sigh, and slowly turned around. Her eyes were closed, but at least she faced him. "I know you're with Kat," she said without heat, "and I won't get in the way, I swear… but… I really need you in my li-"

She was silenced as Tommy caught her lips with his. Her eyes flew open in astonishment, staring quizzically at him until the soft, enveloping warmth of his touch made all conscious thought melt away.

Kim matched his kiss with equal passion, each conveying to the other the desperate longing that had burdened their hearts for so long.

Finally, when the thirst for oxygen was too strong to ignore, they parted. They both breathed shallowly, warm puffs of air tickling the other's lips as they gazed into each other's eyes.

Kim forced herself to blink, breaking the spell of his joyous gaze and shaking off the dizziness that lingered from his kiss. "But... " she stammered, "but Kat...!"

He responded with a warm, slightly amused grin. "Kat and I aren't together. We actually broke up that day Goldar and Scorpina kidnapped me."

Kimberly stared at him, her expression unreadable as he continued. "We had to be honest with ourselves, and each other." His fingers traced up her spine, gliding slowly through her soft hair. "I had to face the fact that I couldn't… replace you. Ever."

She closed her eyes before more tears could escape, reveling in the warmth of his arms, reassuring voice, and unconditional, unwavering love.

At a loss for words, she leaned closer to him, burying her face against his chest. His heart beat quickly against her forehead, proving to her how anxious he had been... how concerned her anguish made him.

And then... she finally knew for certain that she could always depend on him. Had he held any sort of resentment for the past few months, there wouldn't have been any hope of recovery. The guilt would have eaten her alive, for she never could have healed knowing she'd cost the man she loved any enduring pain.

Now, she could heal. Together, they could both heal.


The End

Phew... this was much longer than I had intended... over twice as long as the original version I wrote a few years back! Did you know this topped out at 216 pages, single-spaced? In the immortal words of Charlie Brown, "Good grief!"

I really hope you enjoyed all the drama, action, and angst I crammed into "Pawns." I also hope I didn't scare you too much with Chapter Seventeen's ending :)

Thanks to everyone who took a few moments to review this monster. I really appreciate your ongoing comments, support, advice, and even corrections. Just so you know, I hadn't decided whether or not Kimberly would survive the final confrontation until a few weeks ago, so your reviews definitely made a difference.

I can't specifically mention everyone, but I would like to send out a few special thanks. Shawn, your incredible reviews alone would've inspired me enough to finish this bad-boy. Grace, you've been supporting me since the beginning, and I really appreciate your picture. I hope you're not too hurt I killed Zedd, but he got the best death I've ever written. Harry, I'm really glad you put your two-cents in. Gosh, Judge DP... isn't "heartless fiend" a little harsh:) And all you rabid Kim/Tommy fans (and you all know who you are...), I hope I stuffed enough sap in there for ya!

Take care, and I'll see you next time!