Disclaimer: They're mine, aaaallll mine, and for every person who reads this, I get $10 every time they open the file. Hard copies are $25. You believe me, don't you? Yes? Great - in that case, I have a nice stretch of swamp land in Arizona I might want to sell you. :-) Seriously, though - Saban: everything, me: zilch. :-(
Note: This came into existence because I needed part of it as a background story for another fic I'm working on. The idea developed a life of its own (Thank you VERY much, Ted! I needed a new story idea about as much as a root canal! One more stunt like this, and you can look for a new author to harass! *glares* - Sorry, folks; Muse trouble.) and it was just too good to discard, so - here I am, pecking busily away at my keyboard. The story is PG-13 at most, and I hope you like ...comments are welcome, as usual. DB 2000/01

Letters
by
Dagmar Buse



Tommy to Kimberly

"...I miss you so much, Beautiful, especially now. We had this project at school last week, for Social Studies - we had to pretend how our lives would be like ten years in the future. Some of the others did stuff about health problems, some on working, or finding a job .... I wanted to do a report on how to operate a small business; that dojo Jase and I want to open together one day, remember? But no go - somebody else nabbed the idea first. Would you believe I ended up doing a study on family life? Pretending to be married, holding down a 9-to-5 job, sharing household chores ... I had Kat as my partner; she even brought that kid along whom she babysits on occasion, just to make things more realistic. The gang had a ball teasing us about it, especially Rocky and Tanya. I could've killed them! And of course, King M. got in on it, and we nearly had a disaster on our hands. But, all went well.

Man, I was tired when those 24 hours were over! Joey - that's the kid's name - was kinda cute, but you sure don't get a lot of sleep with a 14-month-old baby! Mom and Dad nearly bust a gut, watching me and Kat running all over the house, cooking, doing yard work and what have you. They moved into the attic guest room for the day, so we had a real house to 'play' with. Mom said she hasn't had so much fun in years, watching us. I guess it was sort of a payback for all the times she had to look after me; I was Joey's age when they adopted me.

You know .... I was beat when the project was over, but now, when I've had time to rest, I have to admit it was kinda fun, too. Kat was real easy to work with, and bringing the baby sure added realism. We both got an A, by the way. (AND got stuck babysitting the teacher's twins the next weekend! UGH!) But .... you know, when I was sitting down to dinner with her, or when I made like going to work, discussing 'family' stuff with her .... I so wished it was you I was doing this with! Not just this project, but for real.

Kim, I know we never really talked about this, but .... could you imagine having a family one day? With me? Not too large; I mean, the DeSantos' are a fun bunch, but I'd rather have a little more peace and quiet at home. But two, or maybe three kids? You don't have to give me an answer now, but .... could you maybe think about it? And I could ask you again in a few years, when your gymnastics are over, and I can support a family? Please, Beautiful .... ever since my folks told me I was adopted, I've known that I want my own family one day - people who belong to me by blood. I know Mom and Dad chose me as their son and love me lots, and I love them, too, but somehow it's not the same. I want people in my life who really belong to me, who love me because .... well, just because. And I'll love them right back, because they're the family that I chose to have - my wife and my children. And I can't think of anyone else with whom I'd rather have that family than you. I'd want a little girl who smiles just like you, and maybe a little boy I could teach Karate to .... Those are my dreams for ten years in the future; being married to you, and having kids with you as their mom. If you think you could share those dreams, we'll talk about that when the time is right. Okay?

I've heard from Jason the other day; seems he is getting fed up with ...."

In her dorm room in Florida, Kimberly folded Tommy's letter back into the envelope, sighing happily. The rest was news about Angel Grove and their friends which she loved to hear, naturally, but she'd pored over this particular bit so often in the two days since she received the letter, she practically knew it by heart by now.

Tommy wanted to have a family one day - with her! Her heart soared at the thought, and she knew a silly grin was playing around her mouth every time she read that sentence. He'd said he wasn't going to ask, not now, but any way she looked at it, it was almost a proposal ... wasn't it?

"Yes, Tommy," she murmured dreamily to herself, "I'd love to have a family with you one day - when we're both ready."

It was exactly the answer she was going to give her tall boyfriend when he asked her in person.

Kim put the envelope into her nightstand drawer; she wanted to find exactly the right words to say - writing "YES! YES!! YES!!!" in big, bold letters just wasn't going to cut it; this was way too important - and besides, training had been very exhausting lately. Better to take some time and get her answer right, just as maturely and well-formulated as Tommy's letter had been. It was mid-February now, just past Valentine's Day; Tommy's letter had accompanied a fold-up photo album with portraits of the Zeo team, a group shot made at the Youth Center and a wallet-sized new picture of Tommy with a very loving message on the back. It had immediately found its way into her purse, and she looked at it often, smiling longingly at the handsome face and soulful eyes that seemed to gaze directly into her heart. The petite gymnast just knew Tommy had been thinking of her when the picture had been taken; only for her did he ever wear that particular expression

*God, I miss you, Tommy,* she thought as she started making preparations for bed. *I thought I knew what I was letting myself into when I accepted Coach Schmidt's invitation; I imagined I was prepared to be a little homesick. I did not know how hard it'd be in reality!*

But, she had a visit to Angel Grove scheduled for Easter, to coincide with spring break; she hadn't told anybody yet, wanting it to be a surprise for her tall boyfriend. Grinning at herself in the bathroom mirror as she brushed her teeth, Kim pictured how Tommy's eyes would light up when he saw her strolling into the Juice Bar, and she'd bet anything that Ernie and her friends would throw her a Welcome-Home party the likes of which Angel Grove had never seen.

*It's gonna be sooo much fun!*

However, before she could finalize her plans, she would have to go through the Team physicals tomorrow. Kimberly grimaced as she slid into her bed and turned off the lights. She hated being poked and prodded by doctors, but knew that it was necessary. All athletes taking part in the Panglobal Games had to be perfectly healthy to give their best, and she hadn't given up her home, her friends, her Power Coin ... Tommy ... just to be stopped right before she realized her life-long dream of competing internationally at the highest level.

Without false modesty, Kim knew she'd make the team; she had worked hard to get where she was now, and what she lacked in competition experience, she more than made up for in talent and determination. Even if she shouldn't win a medal, the least she could do was give her all to make her family and friends proud of her. If that meant she had to endure a few hours of tests and measurements, so be it. Snuggling under her covers, the erstwhile Pink Ranger closed her eyes and soon drifted off to sleep. Her last thought, before she went under completely, was that she'd answer Tommy's letter as soon as she got a clean bill of health.


~*~

"Thank God that's over with!"

The gymnasts meeting at the Training Center's dining hall were of one mind about the events of the day. The medical exams had started early, before breakfast even, with the giving of blood samples ... and almost every other bodily secretion the doctors could lay their hands on. After a hasty meal, the teenagers and young adults had been measured, weighed, x-rayed, ultra-sounded and what-have-you until lunch. Then, just when they thought they were finished, the real fun began - testing of their overall fitness by hooking each person up to various monitoring devices and letting them exert themselves on treadmills, stationary bikes, weight machines and so on and so forth, until they were all heartily sick of the matter.

Kimberly sat down with a couple of the other gymnasts, only to pick at her dinner. The examinations had been exhaustive, intrusive, and she always felt worse than usual when she had to skip a meal. Her early-morning tests had taken so long, it hadn't been worth eating breakfast - so, Kim had gone right into lunch, and was paying the price now. Besides, she was in the middle of choreographing her floor routine; the interruption in her round of training sessions, dance class, costume fittings and plain working out was even more irritating than usual. Deciding finally to make do with a fruit yoghurt she had in her small fridge, Kim took her leave of her teammates and went back to her room. The dairy snack was spooned up half-heartedly, then the petite girl climbed into bed. Rereading Tommy's letter once more, she felt the loving words soothe and comfort her as always, and eventually she drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a future at her handsome boyfriend's side, with two little boys looking exactly like Tommy playing at her feet, and a little girl with soulful brown eyes cuddling on her daddy's lap.



~*~

"Kimberly? Phone!"

Peggy's shout broke Kim's concentration, and she hopped off the balance beam, more than slightly miffed. How the heck was she supposed to train properly, if she kept being interrupted? Mopping her face and neck with a towel, she ambled over to the small office and with a questioning look took the receiver from her teammate, who just shrugged.

"It's Coach."

Watching Peggy go back to the uneven bars, Kim held the device to her ear.

"Yes?"

Coach Schmidt's heavily accented voice was brusque, as usual, but not unfriendly.

"Kimberly, Dr. Benning tells me there are some problems with your test results. They want you to come in at four this afternoon for another blood sample."

Dr: Benning was the team physician; he'd been in charge of the physicals.

"What kind of problems?" Kim asked, not overly concerned. She felt fine, as always.

"He didn't say. Just make sure you're at the clinic at four; they'll be expecting you." The line went dead. Slightly mystified, Kim left the office and informed her choreographer that she had to cancel the afternoon session - again. The older woman was not pleased, grumbling loudly about how was she supposed to work with the athletes and get results if they were called away at all times, but dismissed the petite girl with an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

~*~

Showered and changed, Kim entered the training compound's medical facility precisely on time. Dr Benning, a man in his late forties and a former athlete himself, greeted her warmly as she was ushered into his office.

"Hello, Kimberly. How nice that Coach Schmidt could let you come right away."

"Hi. What's wrong with me?" Kim asked curiously, sinking into a chair. "I feel perfectly okay."

"And you most likely are," the doctor assured her. "It's just ... your blood work shows that there is some irregularity somewhere in your body, probably quite minor, and we'd like to find out where and what it is, so we can treat it before it develops into a problem."

That made sense, and the former Pink Ranger relaxed; despite herself, she'd been feeling a bit apprehensive at the prospect of having a health problem she wasn't aware of.

"Okay. So, what do you need to do?"

Benning smiled approvingly at the plucky girl.

"Nothing much - draw another blood sample," he grinned at her grimace, "get a urine sample ... and just to be on the safe side, I'd like to give you a pelvic exam. The organs in the lower body, especially a woman's, are very susceptible to outside influences. It might be that you've picked up a infection somewhere unknowingly that's making the results go haywire ..."

Kimberly pulled a face; she'd never had a pelvic exam before, but had heard stories from classmates who had; it didn't sound like a very pleasant experience. Besides, the thought was pretty embarrassing, to let someone else look at her there. However, Dr. Benning reassured her.

"Don't worry, Kimberly. I won't look anywhere I don't have to, and there'll be a nurse with you all the time." He got up from behind the desk. "Shall we get it over with?" He winked at her, and she couldn't help but grin back, since she'd thought precisely that.

"Yes, please."

~*~

"Have a seat, Kimberly."

It was two days later, during which the gymnasts had been kept extremely busy to make up for lost time, and Kim was astonished to see Coach Schmidt in Dr. Benning's office as well. Both men looked grave, and a slight frisson of uneasiness skittered down her spine as she sank into the offered chair.

"Is ... is there something wrong with me, after all?" she asked in a puzzled voice. "I thought you said there wasn't!"

The physician sighed.

"I'd hoped there wasn't; or if so, it would be nothing more than a yeast infection, or at worst something with your kidneys. However ..." he stopped, looking down at the files in front of him. Kim assumed they contained her test results. Benning drew a deep breath, then met her eyes squarely.

"I'm terribly sorry, Kimberly, but what we found was far more serious. There's no easy way to say it, so forgive me if I'm being blunt. We went over all of your test results several times, hoping we'd be wrong, but unfortunately, we weren't. The pap smear we took ... there's no possibility of error, I'm sad to say. Kimberly ... you have cervical cancer."

Kim never noticed that Coach Schmidt got up and took her suddenly cold hand in his, didn't hear what the older man was saying to her. She just sat in her chair, looking very small and alone, staring at Dr. Benning as she felt the blood drain from her face and went numb all over.

~*~

*I have cancer.*

The thought beat in her mind like a litany - or maybe it was a death bell; by now, Kimberly neither knew nor cared. She'd been a total wreck ever since she'd left Dr. Benning's office yesterday, trying to deny what the man had told her, but being unable to. The test results, as he'd said, were unmistakeable. She had a malignant tumor in the uterus - undetected so far because there had been no reason to suspect anything until anomalies showed up during the physicals. Fresh tears slid down her cheeks as she trudged towards the sink to pour herself a glass of water - the only thing she could keep down ever since she'd learned the truth about her condition.

*How can I have cancer? Until recently, I was a Power Ranger! I'm only seventeen years old!*

But deep in her heart, she knew that disease - any kind of disease - didn't ask for a birth certificate when it chose to strike, or care about the victim's identity. Kim sniffled, but her tears continued to flow. Dimly, she wondered how she could have any tears left at all. It seemed that she'd done nothing but cry, ever since she'd come home from the clinic.

*I don't want to die ...*

That was the one silver lining in this whole mess. Dr. Benning had explained to her that thankfully, they'd detected the tumor in its earliest stages. If she decided on an operation right away - well, after the PanGlobals; she was here to train, after all, and major surgery would take about two months out of her training schedule, and she couldn't afford that, not if she wanted to compete - she had every chance of making a full recovery, without chemotherapy or radiation, or before metastases could spread into other parts of her body. Kim swallowed a despairing moan as she sank back on her bed; her pillow was soaked with the tears she'd shed, but she felt too exhausted to do anything about it. Turning the soft cushion over, she pressed her face into the crumpled linen. Something lumpy was lodged at the small of her back; fumbling for the object, she pulled up the fluffy white bear Tommy had given her when she'd woken in hospital after her fall off the balance beam, back home in Angel Grove.

"Tommy," the girl sighed longingly. Her mother was away in France and couldn't come right now; a frantic phone call to her the night before had assured Kimberly that Mrs DePuys would be there for the surgery, however. This was not a time when Kim wanted to be alone - she needed the comfort and security of being with people she loved, and who loved her.

*I'm not going to tell the others, though,* the unhappy young woman decided as she slowly regained a measure of calm. *Not before the operation, anyway. There's nothing they can do to help me, and it'd only distract them from their jobs. They have enough trouble with these robot guys already; I don't need to add to their problems.*

But telling Tommy was another matter. Kim just knew that her boyfriend would be there for her, giving her all the support she could possibly need.

*We've been through so much together - loss of our Powers, being attacked by Rita, Zedd and who-knows-what else, faced danger together ... we came so close to dying when we searched for Ninjor's Temple, and at other times ... next to my parents, Tommy's the ONE person who I know will never leave me. We love each other too much for ANYTHING to drive us apart.*

That thought, for the first time since she'd heard the devastating news, stopped Kimberly's tears and brought a wobbly smile to her face. Still sniffling, she sat up on her bed and took the picture of Tommy that rested on her nightstand in her hand. Tracing his strong, smiling features with a slender fingertip, Kim cleared her throat.

"I love you so much, Tommy - and I wish I could tell you how much it means to me to know I can call you and tell you everything ... just like you tell me everything that's on your mind and in your heart," she whispered hoarsely. Kim wiped her wet cheeks with the back of her hand, but it was ineffectual. Opening her drawer, she fumbled for a pack of tissues. After blowing her nose and drying her eyes, she took out Tommy's last letter once more. Kim settled back against her pillows and began to read; his loving words would surely bring her comfort, especially now when she needed it most.

As she re-read every affectionate sentence, Kim made a mental note not only to call Tommy at the earliest opportunity, but also to reply to his letter in the morning. She smiled at some of the things he told her; mostly Ranger stuff couched in very general terms, and she vowed to get an in-depth account as soon as possible. The first page was turned, and her heart began to beat a little faster; she was getting to her favorite part of the letter, the one that always made her go all warm and fuzzy inside.

*" ... ever since my folks told me I was adopted, I've known that I want my own family one day - people who belong to me by blood.(...) And I can't think of anyone else with whom I'd rather have that family than you. (...) Those are my dreams for ten years in the future; being married to you, and having kids with you as their mom...."*

"Oh God," Kim whispered, turning deathly pale as her hands suddenly lost the power to hold on to the closely-written sheets. They fluttered unheeded onto her blanket. "Tommy, no ...!"

The reality of her situation suddenly crashed over her head, threatening to drown her. Fresh tears started to flow unheeded as Kimberly had to face a devastating truth.

She had early-stages cervical cancer. In order to prevent the disease from spreading, she'd have to have an operation - a hysterectomy. The surgery would remove her womb, saving her life, but forever barring her from having children of her own - EVER. Children whom Tommy wanted to have with her. And once the deed was done, she wouldn't be able to give them to him, thereby smashing his fondest dreams for his - their - future.

As the painful truth began to sink into her consciousness, Kim started to sob, deep, heart-wrenching sounds which no-one was around to hear while her own world, so perfect only days ago, shattered into fragments too small and numerous to count.

~*~

Days passed during which Kim moved like a zombie. She talked to Dr. Benning again, remembering vague tales about women in her condition being miraculously cured by having a baby, but he only shook his head, telling her truthfully that these cases were bordering on the fantastic if they were true at all. The physician was sorry to see what little life was left drain from her dulled brown eyes, but in good conscience he couldn't hold out false hopes to the devastated girl.

"Kimberly ... I have to tell you that the likelihood is far greater that a pregnancy now will speed along the cancer rather than make it go away," he said gently. "Besides, you're not yet eighteen years old; how will you and your boyfriend even support a child - especially if you should get sicker? And ..." he put a hand on her arm and waited until she would look at him, "If worse comes to worst, would you want your Tommy being left behind with a baby to raise alone?"

"You mean when I die," she rasped, beyond tears by now.

"Not when, if," Benning corrected her firmly. "And we'll do everything we can to prevent that from happening. But, yes."

"I ... no. No, I couldn't do that to him," she whispered.

"Talk to your boyfriend, Kimberly. If he really loves you, he'll understand. You have much to offer a man; far more than your ability to bear children. And if he doesn't, maybe he's not the right man for you, after all." Privately, the doctor had his doubts about that anyway; in his experience, High School romances seldom lasted, but he couldn't tell that to the young woman sitting so forlornly in his office. She had enough to bear right now.

Numbly, Kim walked back to her room. Benning meant well, but he didn't know - couldn't know about the deep bonds she and Tommy shared. Their love went far beyond a teenage romance. But, what was she going to do? Sighing, she lay on her bed, forcing her tired mind to think through her options as the Florida sun sank below the horizon and the early February dusk began to cast her room into gloom.

*I can refuse to have the hysterectomy. But chances are very high that the cancer will continue to grow, making me ever sicker, and I'll die. Sooner rather than later.*

The former Pink Ranger was not afraid of death as such; she'd had to come to terms with her own mortality soon after she first accepted her Power Coin. But it was one thing to die defending your planet, or maybe in an accident, when things were out of her control. It was quite another to succumb to a disease ... for which she was not responsible, true, but since there was a cure available, it'd be like giving in without a fight. And Kimberly Hart had never given up on anything without doing her utmost to beat the odds.

*I ... I don't want to die,* the young woman realized painfully. *At least, not like this. And ... and not now. I'm not done living. Not yet.*

For some unknown reason, she felt almost ashamed to admit that, but it also cleared her mind for other things.

*So I'm going to have the operation. Mom will come here; I won't be alone. But I won't tell the others. Not Trini, not Aisha - none of them. And the guys - forget it. I don't want their pity, or that they'll think I'm only half a woman,* she resolved.

*But ... but what about Tommy?*

Kimberly moaned into the darkness surrounding her and curled up into a ball of pure misery. No matter what, she was going to hurt her charismatic boyfriend deeply. Her decision to have the operation by necessity destroyed all of Tommy's hopes and aspirations of ever having a family of his own - never mind the fact that he would suffer right along with her. And hurting Tommy was the very last thing she wanted to do - ever.

*Do I have to tell him?*

The unhappy girl dismissed the question as soon as it popped into her mind; while it was terribly tempting, she knew that it wouldn't only be an unforgivable lie by omission, it would also be completely unfair and dishonest.

"If I tell him, he'll leave me ..." she hiccuped, but Kim knew deep down that Tommy wouldn't do that; not for something as serious as this, something she had no control over and what wasn't her fault. Tommy would stand by her through thick and thin ... because that was the way he was, because his sense of honor wouldn't let him desert her, and most of all because he loved her. But, if he stayed with her, he'd have to give up his own dreams ... and that was not what Kim wanted. She loved him too much to do that to him.

The dilemma seemed insoluble; no matter what she decided to do, Tommy would be the one to suffer from her decision. For herself, Kimberly certainly regretted that she'd never have children, but it was something she hadn't yet given serious thought to. She was only seventeen, after all; even though she'd dreamed of having a family one day, it was all part of a still very nebulous future. Probably her loss would hit her more deeply at one point, Kim knew, but that was the least of her problems. Right now, she was far more concerned with how Tommy would take the news.

*He'll be soo sad ... and disappointed ... and unhappy ...*

But they'd have each other to help them, the optimistic part of her reminded her. As long as they had each other, they could live through anything. Couldn't they?

Kim wanted to say 'yes' with conviction, but a niggling voice at the back of her mind wouldn't be silenced.

*What if he stops loving you when he has to give up so much? Not right away, no, but what about five years from now? Ten? When you're both ready to have a family, and you CAN'T? Will he still love you -then-?*(/P>

"Of course he will; Tommy loves me," the petite girl murmured, but even to her own ears it sounded weak. What if he wouldn't? What if he came to resent her one day for being ... barren? God, the word hurt! Tommy was a wonderful person, the best, but he also was only Human. And to see their love wither away would be worse than anything.

"I'll die if he leaves me," she whispered, tears gathering anew in her burning eyes. "It'll kill me as surely as the cancer will if I don't do anything about it ..."

*You can't do anything about the cancer,* the insidious voice in her mind stated. *But you CAN do something to prevent him from leaving you.*

"What?" Kim asked the empty room. "I'd do anything to avoid that."

*Anything?*

"Yes," she answered herself, sobbing again. "It would hurt too much if he did!"

For an endless minute, the voice remained silent. Then, it spoke up again.

*Then YOU leave HIM.*

"WHAT?!?"

*Break up with Tommy. Tell him you don't love him like that. Pretend that you don't want to have children with him. That way, you won't have to tell him the truth; you'll be spared his pity, and while it'll hurt him now, it leaves the way open for him to find someone else, to make his dreams come true with another woman. Someone who can give him the family you can't.*

Kimberly moaned again as a wave of despair washed through her. She hated the thought of breaking up with him passionately, but what the voice told her made a terrible, twisted kind of sense. Hurt Tommy a little - okay, a lot - now, but spare him an even bigger pain in the future. If she loved him as much as she said she did, surely she could do this? For Tommy? Leave him so that he could find happiness with someone else? The thought was physically painful, but once conceived it wouldn't go away. Instead, images swirled through her exhausted mind, alternating between impossible dreams of a miracle cure for her, Tommy's pain and disappointment when he had to give up his dreams for her sake, the misery and despair he'd surely feel if she did die despite everything, and a vision of a happy, content man surrounded by children who looked just like him.

~*~

Throughout the longest night of her life, Kimberly wrestled with herself, torn between her wants and dreams and with what she became increasingly convinced she had to do, but as the first rays of dawn began to lighten the morning sky, she wearily unfurled herself from her rumpled bed, stood up and looked out her window. It faced west, towards California ... her home, and the man she loved more than anything else. Enough, in any case, to place his happiness over her own needs.

"Good-bye, Tommy," the young woman whispered, then turned away from the window and sank down at her desk. Beyond tears now, she methodically took her stationery out of a drawer, readied an envelope and picked up a pen. Her eyes were dry and her hand was steady as she started to write a letter that would change two lives forever. As she wove a plausible tale of lies about finding someone else, to cast the man she loved out of her life so that he'd be happy, her heart was slowly breaking into a million pieces.

~~***~~

Jason to Tommy

"... Bro, I know you're not really ready to face this, but I thought it better to warn you - Kim is coming home for a visit this summer, right about graduation time. I'll try to keep her away as much as I can, do stuff with her ... but there may be times when that won't be possible.

You can deny it all you want, Tommy, but I know you - Kim hurt you with the way she broke up with you, and you're not over it - over her - yet. And before you ask, no, I don't really know what happened, either. She hasn't told anyone, as far as I know - at least not anybody I can ask. Trini and Zack are as much in the dark as me.

You're probably not going to like what I'm going to say next, but I'll tell you anyway: You have Kat now. She's a great girl, pretty, smart, nice ... a really classy lady. Don't throw away what you've found with her; she deserves better than that, and if you want some advice, talk to her. I know that's not easy for you, but as your friend it's the best thing I can say to you - be as open about your feelings for her, for Kim, about this whole mess as you can. It's the only honorable way. And maybe it'll help you get your head straight, too. It's only going to be worse if you don't; what if you run into Kim suddenly and do or say something you're going to regret? And knowing Kat, she'll want to help you as much as she can - she's one of the most understanding and forgiving people I know. Okay, end of lecture. -

I won't be graduating with the rest of you guys; I'm still missing a few credits, so my folks enrolled me in a private school to make up for what I missed in Europe and while I was recovering from you-know-what. But I'll be back in Angel Grove in time for Prom, and return for good for the fall semester ..."

There was more to Jason's letter, but the passage he'd just read for maybe the dozenth time was what stuck with him most and what caused him the most headache. Tommy slumped down wearily as he put his best friend's message back into his mail folder; he'd answer it tonight.

*So Kim's coming back.*

The thought was terrifying, and at the same time just a little bit exhilarating. It had been months since he'd received that letter from Kimberly; he should be over it by now, but every time he remembered the words, a fresh spurt of pain seemed to squeeze his heart for just a moment. The memories came less frequently now, didn't bother him as much anymore once he'd started dating Kat, but Tommy was not at all sure if he already was up to seeing his former girlfriend again. Her letter had hurt him too much for that - especially since he'd poured out his hopes and dreams to her in his own messages not too long before. That she could dismiss his almost-proposal so casually was maybe the worst of all; he'd expected better of the one-time Pink Ranger.

Once again, Tommy was tempted to pick up the phone, call Coach Schmidt's compound and demand an answer from his former girlfriend in person. Better yet, he wished Zordon hadn't placed such stringent restrictions on the use of the Power Chamber's teleportation system. The first nights after he'd received Kimberly's letter, he'd had to hide his communicator in his desk when he was off-duty, else he disregarded every rule and whizzed down to Florida, to get the truth from Kim in person.

But, he never did. He'd made a promise and would keep it, even if it killed him inside. And he wasn't at all sure if he wanted to hear from Kim's own lips that they were through.

So, Tommy got over it. Over Kim. Somewhat. Somehow. Because he had no choice ... at least not if he wanted to keep his sanity intact.

Having Billy and Kat's support helped. So did being kept extremely busy by Mondo and his goons. Jason returning home unexpectedly from Switzerland had been a Godsend, and not just because he was available to take on the Gold Power from Trey for a while. His closest friend had helped Tommy to work through his anguish and confusion much more than any of the others could have done - because he'd been there from the beginning of his relationship with the petite girl. So had Billy, but while Tommy had become good friends with the team genius over time, their connection had never been as close or intense as the one he'd always shared with Jason. Only with the first Red Ranger could Tommy let go of all the anguish Kim's breakup had caused him. Only with Jason could Tommy let himself truly mourn for what he'd lost. Only with his best friend could he let himself cry.

~*~

But Jason had had to leave again, to recover from nearly losing his life due to the Gold Powers' alien nature. Tommy shuddered at the thought; he honestly didn't know if he could've handled it if Jason had suffered permanent damage because of something he, Tommy, had done. If it hadn't been for his brainstorm, Jason would never have accepted ... no. Of course he would have - he'd have found a way to help. Somehow. Deep down, Tommy knew that the first leader of Earth's Rangers had been destined to don the Gold Ranger's uniform, if only briefly. Besides, everything had turned out well ... Jason lived, and was healthy again. So was Billy, although on an alien planet half a galaxy away. His loss would've been almost as bad.

The long-haired young man sighed. His mother's brother had called and invited him to the race track, and if he didn't get his butt in gear, he'd be late - a habit he'd only recently managed to break and had no intention to fall back into. Gathering his keys, Tommy went downstairs, left a note for his folks and climbed into his 4 X 4. Concentrating on the road, he drove away, taking his troubled thoughts along.

*Kim's coming back. Right. I'll deal with it ... somehow. Because I must.*

~*~

Events conspired against Tommy to ever reply to Jason's letter, or even heed his friend's sensible advice. He never got around to telling the rest of the team about the first Pink Ranger's return, or have a long talk with his Australian girlfriend, so the sight of Kim in Divatox's clutches came as a shock to all of them.

"Kimberly," he'd breathed, stunned by the rush of conflicting emotions flooding his system. Joy warred with hurt, delight with pain, and recognizing his best friend captive right next to her didn't help much, either. But there was no time to dwell on his personal problems; much more immediate matters were pressing in on all of them. Lerigot giving himself up to Divatox, the threat hanging over their planet and more if Divatox should indeed manage to free the Flame of Destruction ... losing Rocky (if only temporarily) in the middle of a crisis of this magnitude, having to take on new Powers yet again ... it was numbing them all.

Silently, Tommy just gave thanks that at least this time, colors weren't being shifted around.

Adjusting to having a twelve-year-old on the team was hard on all of them, although he and Adam, the only 'veterans' left by now, agreed that so far, Justin was turning out to be an unusual but competent replacement for Rocky. Which didn't help the fact that Tommy was more than commonly distracted during their trip to the Nemesis Triangle.

Then came the next shock. Seeing Jason and Kim suspended over the lava pit had been bad, but it hadn't shaken Tommy's conviction that they, as a team, could save their friends. When the chain broke and both former Rangers plummeted to what they'd thought was certain death had been paralyzing ... but not more than seeing them miraculously restored ... and turned evil.

Tommy had hardly been able to get past his total devastation. Seeing Kimberly and Jason, the two people who had always stood by him, no matter what, attacking him and the Rangers was ... he didn't even have words to describe how that had made him feel. If he'd felt anything at all except utter shock. No wonder the Red Ranger had nearly lost the fight ... he just couldn't bring himself to hurt his best friend and the girl he'd loved with all his heart - until she'd broken it with a letter just as spring came around the corner.

*Thank you, Lerigot,* Tommy sent his silent thanks through space to Liaria, where the diminutive wizard lived. *If your magic hadn't saved Kim ... and Jason ... I dunno if I could have gone on.* He had his doubts.

But, even though it had hurt to see Kim again, captured, evil, more than slightly battered by her experience at the Space Pirate's hands, Tommy hadn't been so caught up in his own problems that he couldn't see what his reactions were doing to Katherine.

She hid her hurt well during the Muranthias crisis, when he'd so obviously been concerned about Kim instead of her, calling out her name even before Jason's, his inability to come to her, Kat's, aid, but she'd said nothing, instead doing her job as the Pink Ranger as competently as ever and not betraying by a single look or remark how it must have pained her to see her boyfriend so concerned about another woman.

*She is too nice, has too much class to say anything, or to let Kim see how much she must resent her reappearance,* the young man thought miserably. *Sometimes I wonder what she sees in me, why she even bothers. I'm certainly not being fair to her. Kat gives so much ... and all I can do is moon over Kimberly, comparing Kat to her when I KNOW I mustn't do that. They ARE different persons, after all.*

Tommy was uncomfortably aware that he couldn't postpone a long conversation with Kat much longer. He was reasonably certain that his Australian girlfriend wouldn't begrudge him to be concerned about their friends, but his reaction to the first Pink Ranger had been way out of proportion, and he'd better resolve his feelings, fast.

So, as a result, he was absent-minded and distracted as he prepared for the Karate tournament alongside Adam and Jason, all three dressing in matching gis while the crowd in the packed gym was buzzing excitedly. Tommy was yanked abruptly out of his thoughts and flinched visibly as a large hand came to rest on his shoulder.

"You okay, Bro?" Jason asked, his dark eyes worried and warm with honest concern. A far cry from the malevolent red glare lighting them so very recently on Muranthias, Tommy couldn't help remembering.

"Yeah, sure," Tommy mumbled, but before either young man could say more, their coach called them into the arena. The match was a fast and furious one; their opponents skilled and very, very good. But the three friends had not only superb individual skills to call on, they also knew how to function as a team, shifting attacks seamlessly and with utter trust that the others would be there at a glance. They won, to the crowd's roar of delight and the jubilation of their friends and families. When Jason lifted the giant cheque for all to see, guaranteeing the funds for the Little Angels' Home for the next three months, happy pandemonium broke loose. Justin was already clambering up into the ring, and Kat was there at ringside, too, her crystal blue eyes shining with pride and joy as she reached up to her boyfriend. Tommy accepted her embrace spontaneously and with a broad smile, never noticing the petite brown-haired girl standing a little on the outside of their jubilant group.

Kimberly watched Tommy hug Kat with a sad smile, determinedly swallowing her tears. While it hurt more than she had known it would to see him with another woman, it confirmed her conviction that she'd done the right thing. They made a wonderful couple, and she would have to be blind to miss the obvious caring and affection the Pink and Red Turbo Rangers shared. *Did it have to happen so soon, though?* But the timing didn't matter; she wouldn't let it. Tommy's happiness was all that counted. Sighing softly to herself, Kim pasted a bright expression to her face and took a step forward to join her friends. After all, there was a victory party to attend.

*Never mind that I just lost everything.. Even hope.*

~~***~~

Trini to Jason

"... Jason, I don't know what's wrong with Kimberly, but something's not right. I've had a chance to meet her when the PanGlobal Winners' Promo Tour stopped in Geneva last month, and I thought I'd see her just as ... as bubbly and vivacious as ever. After all, medaling in two disciplines is quite an accomplishment, and you know how Kim always sparkled when she's done well in a competition. And if winning both a PanGlobal Bronze and Gold isn't doing well, I don't know what is.

Don't get me wrong, Kim tried. She clearly wanted me to think that everything is fine, but it just ... isn't. It's all pretend somehow, from her excitement over the medals to her joy at seeing me. I'm sure nobody else noticed, but Jase, I've been friends with Kim since second grade; I just know her far too well to accept things at face value. It's as if something has sucked the joy right out of her, as if she's just going through the motions of living. Remember how Tommy was the first time he lost his Powers? How hopeless he looked when he thought we weren't paying attention? That's what I see in Kim these days.

I so want to help her, but how can I, when she won't talk to me? Jason, I'm going to Paris over Christmas and will stay with Kim's family; if you have any idea at all, please tell me so I can help her; it hurts to see her like this..."

Jason sighed as he read Trini's letter; while he never got the chance to grill Kim about the break-up with Tommy during their ill-fated diving excursion - and she'd vanished so fast after the victory party that nobody had had the opportunity to sit her down for a serious talk - he had a pretty good idea what might be the cause for the change in their friend.

"The letter she wrote Tommy," he murmured to himself, sitting down at his desk and getting out his books to start on his homework assignment. "Man, I wish I'd been here when she wrote it." He didn't know if he could have done anything to make matters right for his friends, but couldn't shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe ... however, that particular ship had long left the harbor, and there was no way Jason was able to change now what had happened at the time.

By now, Tommy refused to talk about the break-up at all - that in itself being a sign that deep down, it still ate at him. The Red Ranger hadn't wanted to burden his best friend with his personal problems during their brief stint as Zeo Rangers, or so he'd claimed; truthfully, they had hardly had time to catch their breaths with all the other things that were going on around them. Graduation and geographical distance right after he'd lost the Gold Powers had also played a part in delaying things, and now, nearly a year later, the right moment to get to the bottom of everything had come and gone several times over - and had been missed every time.

*Maybe I should've FORCED Tommy to talk,* Jason mused, his mind on anything but the essay he was supposed to write. A fool could see that all was not well about his friend's emotional state, his relationship with Kat notwithstanding. Come to think of it, that wasn't going too well, either. Logically, Kim's quiet withdrawal should have strengthened the budding romance, but Jason had been shocked to see how rocky things had become during his stay at summer school. Instead of growing closer, Tommy and Kat seemed to be imperceptibly drawing apart - something that wasn't helped by the fact that Tommy still carried a picture of Kim in his wallet. Tucked away at the back, yes, but it was still there ... and Kat knew it. The former Gold Ranger couldn't blame the lovely Australian for feeling hurt; who wouldn't be, under the circumstances? Yet outwardly, they acted as if nothing was wrong, as if they were deeply in love, even going so far as making tentative plans for the future.

*Thankfully, they're not really serious. Yet.*

All of them were finding it hard to adjust to civilian life again after months and years of living on the edge day in and day out; the gang were taking each day as it came, easing back into normalcy by degrees and for once letting the future take care of itself. The only ones who had made the transition relatively smoothly were Adam and Tanya. Their chosen careers meshed well, and for once shy Adam had not hesitated to reach out for what he wanted - Tanya was wearing his ring, they shared an apartment and the two planned on getting married as soon as they were finished with their education.

Sighing, Jason leaned back, his books forgotten. This whole situation was such a mess ... he cared for both Kimberly and Tommy, he had a lot of admiration for Kat as well, but how could he help any of them if they wouldn't tell him - or anybody, for that matter - what was on their minds?

"I can't do this alone," Jason finally decided. Trini was right, something had gone terribly wrong somewhere, and it just wasn't in any of the Rangers' natures to withhold support from a friend if they could help it. If she could even sense it from a distance ... Ergo, it was up to all of them to at least try to get to the root of the problem. *Problems, plural.* Quickly, Jason rummaged for his calendar and checked the time. If he hurried, he just might catch Adam and Tanya still at home; Adam knew Kim and Tommy, Tanya was Kat's best friend ... maybe together they could find a way out of this whole mess. Sparing only a fleeting thought for his unfinished assignment, Jason jumped up and grabbed his car keys.

*Homework can wait; this can't!*

~*~

"I'm sorry, Jason - I don't think I can help," Tanya said, folding Trini's letter and handing it back to him. "I only met Kimberly that one time right after Muranthias, and while we got along well enough, those few days were hardly enough toget to know her. Besides, I wouldn't know what she was like before."

"A lot more lively than this summer," Adam contributed, handing Jason a drink he'd fetched from the kitchen. The slim Asian sank onto the couch next to Tanya, sporting a pensive frown. "I hadn't thought about it before - after all, we were kinda distracted at the time, remember? - but Trini's right. It's as if Kim has lost that ... that spark she always seemed to have."

"That's the impression I had, too, when I invited her to go scuba diving," Jason murmured gloomily, sipping his soda. "Only, the way things turned out, it wasn't really cut out to make her confide in anybody, was it?"

"What happened to you both wasn't your fault, Jason," Tanya said immediately, leaning forward and laying a comforting hand on his knee. "It was Divatox, and Maligore's. You couldn't have known that she'd pick that weekend to try and invade Earth." Adam nodded in assent, smiling reassuringly at his former teammate.

"Tanya's right, man. Besides, if it hadn't been you, she'd have tried to feed Bulk and Skull to Maligore. Can you imagine them claiming to be his children?"

"He'd have disowned them right away and spit them out even faster than Kim and you," Tanya snorted, unable to suppress the acerbic comment. "Instead of world domination, all they'd have given him would've been one giant case of indigestion!"

Startled, the two young men looked at the erstwhile Yellow Ranger, who met their dark eyes defiantly. "Well, they would!" Then, the silliness of the idea struck all three, and they broke into laughter, dispelling the somber mood Jason had brought.

After a minute or so, Jason sobered again. He picked up Trini's letter and put it back into his wallet, sighing deeply. "That still doesn't help me with what to do about the whole Tommy/Kim/Kat mess, though," he muttered. Debating silently with himself for a bit, he then decided that it couldn't hurt to share some impressions. He knew that neither Adam nor Tanya would carry their conversation further than this room. Still, his voice was hesitant as he voiced his vague concerns for the first time.

"Guys ... please don't take this wrong, I don't want to make trouble for anybody, but ... is it just me, or are things between Tommy and Kat not quite the way they used to be, before you guys got the Turbo Powers? Or even should be?"

His remark was met by a thoughtful silence as Tanya shared a glance with Adam, who shrugged, then smiled a bit wryly. "No, it's not just you," he admitted finally. "As a matter of fact, Tanya said something to me along those lines not very long ago."

The dark-skinned girl lifted a cautionary hand. "Mind, Kat hasn't said anything to me; actually, the one time I asked about how things stood between her and Tommy, she was positively gushing about how wonderful everything was. It's more in the things she doesn't say that make me think not everything's as rosy as they both want us to believe."

"Like what?" Jason asked, intrigued. Tanya's remark expressed quite neatly what he'd felt whenever Tommy mentioned his girlfriend in his presence. The right words were all there, but they seemed to lack a certain depth, or conviction lately.

The ex-Yellow Ranger frowned slightly, trying to pinpoint what was so difficult to define.

"I don't really know," she mused, remembering conversations she'd had with her best friend. "It's hard to describe ... it's almost as if Kat was trying not only to convince me, but most of all herself that everything's just fine between her and Tommy."

"Like she was just going through the motions? Saying and doing what she thinks she should feel, not what she does feel?"

"That's maybe a bit harsh, but yeah."

"But why?" Jason exclaimed frustratedly, jumping up and starting to pace. "I thought that Tommy had put Kim behind him, that he'd come to terms with things. Why else would he have asked Kat out in the first place? From what you told me, Adam, he was almost as bashful about it as when he was in the beginning with Kimberly ..." He could still vividly recall Zack's chortling report. Of course, losing the Green Ranger Powers before he even got up the courage to ask her for a date had overshadowed a lot of things, but it had all worked out so well then ...

Adam shrugged helplessly.

"I really don't know," he admitted. "They certainly seemed happy enough to me, the last time I've seen them together."

Tanya made a small, involuntary noise, and found both young men looking at her curiously. Jason resumed his seat, waiting for her to continue. Blushing, she squirmed a little, but realized she'd have to talk if they wanted to find a way to help their friends.

"Well," she said slowly, "I don't know if you ever noticed, Adam, but Kat has had a huge crush on Tommy ever since she met him. Aisha mentioned something like that when she told me about all of you guys, and I could see for myself that it was true once I came to Angel Grove."

"She had?" Adam was clearly surprised.

"Oh yes. Only, Tommy was still with Kim, and Kat never wanted to come between them, or so she told me - especially not after everything Kim had done for her after she'd shaken off Rita's spell. But when that letter came ... she might as well have been wearing a neon sign."

"Really?"

"Yes, really," Tanya confirmed, just the tiniest bit exasperated. Didn't the guys have eyes to see? "Don't tell me you never noticed that Kat was wearing a necklace and even a sweater with Tommy's Zeo symbol! Or that she was always mooning over him when she thought nobody was looking? Heck, she even set up that romantic dinner with whatshername, that snowboarding champ, to help him get over Kimberly!"

"Oh boy," Jason muttered. "She must really have had it bad. And knowing how dense Tommy can be at times ..."

"Exactly."

The former Green Turbo Ranger leaned back, a puzzled frown on his face as he mulled over his fiancée's words, trying to remember those days. He could call up a few vague impressions, but they'd all been too busy fighting the Machine Empire, coping with a new set of Powers, losing Billy ... not to mention that his own attention had been far more concentrated on Tanya than any other girl before or since.

"I don't get it," he finally sighed. "If Kat was so much after Tommy, why would she now be losing interest? Or he in her? That is what you're both saying, right?"

"It certainly seems that way," Tanya admitted somewhat reluctantly after sharing a confirming glance with their visitor.

"Beats me," Jason shrugged next. "When I came back, Tommy already seemed to have only eyes for her." He emptied his glass, then looked thoughtful. "Although ... at the time, I kinda thought it was awfully fast for Tommy to date another girl."

"Could it be that it was more defiance than anything else for him?" Tanya ventured after a brief silence. "You know, sort of to show everybody that he was over Kim, that he could find someone new when she had, too ..."

"Possible," Jason conceded. "If he thought he needed to salvage his pride ... or save face ... whatever."

"But what about Kat?" Adam queried. "Even if she was head over heels for Tommy, wouldn't she have noticed somehow that he wasn't really in love with her?" This whole discussion made him vaguely uncomfortable; not only because he was talking about his friends behind their backs, but also because this kind of introspection was very foreign to him - despite his customary sensitivity.

"Not if she'd convinced herself that he was Mr. Right - that it was more than just a crush," Tanya thought out loud.

"And not if Tommy was playing possum - hiding from his problems and unresolved issues instead of facing them. Man, I thought we'd taught him to get over that tendency of his!" The first Red Ranger shook his head. "When I think back on how hard it was to get him to talk out his guilt over his stint as the Evil Green Ranger ... I'd honestly believed he'd learned his lesson!"

"Apparently not." Her dry remark made Adam and Jason chuckle involuntarily, and Tanya spun the thought out further. "In any case, looks as if both Tommy and Kat are trying to live an illusion, and now, when they're apart so much - she studying in London, he on the racing circuit - it's beginning to fall apart bit by bit."

"They're still fighting for their relationship," Jason reminded them, feeling as if his talk with his friends had given him at least some insight into what was going on with his best friend. "I can't help but wonder, though - is that a good thing? And what can we do about Kim? From what Trini said in her letter, she's not as happy as she wants us to believe, either."

"I don't know," Adam and Tanya chorused, grinning briefly. "Whatever it is, we'll have to let them find out for themselves. All three of them." The dark-skinned young woman was adamant in her conviction.

"Yeah. And be there for them when the brown stuff hits the fan," Adam added.

"Eeeeewww!!! That's gross!"

"True, though." Jason snickered at Tanya's disgusted expression and heaved himself to his feet again. Getting serious once more, he took his leave. "Thanks for letting me come and talk, guys," he thanked the couple earnestly. "At least I know that I'm not totally out of line with what I thought I've seen."

"You're not. And thanks for taking us in your confidence," Tanya replied, hugging her friend warmly as they escorted Jason to the door. "It's just a shame we can't help more."

*But they DID help,* Jason mused as he drove home. *Just having someone to talk things over with always does. If only Kat, Kim and Tommy realized that! Well ... I just hope they know who to come to when they're ready!*

Feeling at least a little relieved, he turned his mind reluctantly back towards his homework assignment, postponing giving Trini a reply until another day.

~~***~~

Kat to Tommy

"...I've just returned from my vacation trip to the Continent. We were nine people, from all over Europe (well, except me, of course), and everybody played tourist guide to the rest. So, within three weeks, we got to see places that were both touristy and things only a native can show you properly. We took a ferry to Calais, went all the way south through France to the Côte d'Azure, then drove along the coast to Monaco and Italy. All the while I kept thinking how much you'd have loved driving along the Corniche ...those winding curves are a challenge for every driver! And the view over the Mediterranean is just awesome! Anyway, from there we went North again, through Switzerland into Austria, then on to Germany, a quick visit across the border into Denmark, then back to Calais via the Netherlands and Belgium. It was so much fun, but also terribly confusing ... a good thing we always had at least one person along who spoke the local language! Oh, I've got to tell you what happened in Bellinzona ... that's in Switzerland, but the Italian-speaking part. Anyway, Luigi, who's from Sicily, was trying to show us the absolutely right way of how a Sicilian pizza is prepared, dragged us to this perfectly awful little place, and ..."

Tommy smiled as he read the really quite humorous account of how misunderstandings occurred just because of differences in dialect, and quickly scanned the rest of Kat's letter. He had been on the circuit for nearly six weeks, and only now come back to Angel Grove. His parents would only forward his business mail, keeping personal messages for his increasingly infrequent visits home; maybe not the best way to handle things, but the only way Tommy could think of without having to hire some kind of secretary. And despite his growing popularity on the stock car circuit, he still wanted to keep his private life just that - private. *Good thing the gang all know and accept that.*

However, it made communication with his girlfriend problematic at times, especially when Kat took off from London to somewhere else, like this trip. Not that he begrudged her the relaxation or the fun, but deep down he would have preferred to know where she was at any given time; no doubt a legacy of the time when his family had moved around so much before settling in this California town that had become his home.

The truth of the matter was, Tommy Oliver wanted roots. Needed them in a way he hadn't known he did until he'd found a home with his friends in Angel Grove. And while his own current lifestyle and choice of profession was by necessity rather nomadic, he also knew that it was only temporary, not meant to be permanent.

He searched for and found the snippets where Kat told him she'd missed him, that she had wished to share things with him, and it was gratifying to know that she felt that way, but Tommy still felt curiously unsettled by her message.

*Something's missing.*

The thought came out of nowhere, and impatiently Tommy shook it off. Kat's letter was perfectly fine; she was thinking of him, she hoped to see him maybe for Christmas, she even signed it with "Love you, Kat." What more did he want? It was probably just his exhaustion from a long three-day drive halfway across the country on top of a particularly grueling race beset by technical problems which only through sheer luck had resulted in yet another third place. Tommy Oliver had yet to win his first title, but he was coming up in the rankings, slowly but surely. Soon, he'd cross the finish line ahead of all others, he felt confident about it. All he needed was just a little more patience.

"Easier said than done, though," he murmured ruefully to himself. Whatever; for now he had a month of well-deserved vacation time coming, and he intended to make the most of it - from enjoying his mother's cooking to sleeping in his own bed every night to reconnecting with all of his friends still living in or close to Angel Grove. Energetically, Tommy bounded down the stairs from his old room; he'd already sampled his favorite dishes and slept as much as he could during the past two days. Now it was time to meet the gang.

~*~

"Tommy, I got a letter from Kat the other day," Tanya called from the kitchen where she was helping Sarah, Rocky's girlfriend, to transfer the chili they'd cooked into serving bowls, grating cheese and cutting up long sticks of French bread. "It's in my purse; you can read it if you like."

"Maybe later, thanks," Tommy replied, grinning thankfully at his friend. He truly appreciated Tanya's generosity in sharing parts of Kat's missives with him; often he learned little things about her day-to-day life she didn't tell him about for various reasons. Or she'd mention to Tanya when he was inadvertently neglecting her due to a busy schedule, or upsetting her somehow, rather than complain to him directly. It gave him a chance to make amends without being too blatant about it. But right now, even news of his girlfriend could wait; his stomach was growling loudly, and the savory smells wafting from the kitchen made his mouth water. Yelling to Adam and Jason, who were out in the Parks' driveway shooting hoops, to get their butts in gear and come inside, he relieved Rocky of glasses and drinks, deftly opening bottles as the friends gathered around the large kitchen table to share their monthly reunion dinner. Whoever was in town attended unfailingly, bringing Significant Others was optional, and none of them would have missed it for the world.

The meal was a noisy affair, sprinkled with much laughter and good-natured teasing as they talked about their various jobs, ranging from Sarah's florist shop to Tommy's racing, and yet during a lull later on Tommy managed to find a quiet corner in which to read Tanya's letter from Kat. Unfolding the pale pink stationery, wondering briefly why Tanya had given him the whole letter this time instead of just reading excerpts to him like she usually did, he quickly scanned the chatty message. It became apparent very soon why there had been no need to edit for privacy.

Kat told about her studies, her trip to the Continent, the things she'd seen ... that she'd missed showing things to Tommy ... and not much else. Frowning, Tommy read the letter a second time. Nothing new here; none of the small hints and subtle remarks concerning him or their relationship he'd come to expect from Kat. But before he could take yet another, closer look, he was distracted by something Rocky said, then forgot about it until he was back home later that night, already in bed and staring into the darkness while he waited to fall asleep.

*What's wrong with me? Why do I think that there's something weird about Kat's letter to me? She told me the same things she wrote to Tanya.* Tommy's thoughts were running in circles on this; even after re-reading his own letter, he just couldn't put a finger on what he found so unsettling about it.

*Kat sounded happy and carefree, as if she was enjoying herself. I ... I don't begrudge her that, do I?* he asked himself, but after a minute of soul-searching had to admit that he honestly didn't. If he felt anything at all, it was regret that they couldn't share a lot of things due to their separation, but after all, there was no reason why they couldn't do so later, once Kat came home again, was there? No, his unease had to have another reason.

Rolling onto his back, Tommy lay in his darkened room, thinking hard. He mentally compared his and Tanya's letters bit by bit, and came to the conclusion that they were nearly identical in most details. Suddenly, his eyes flew open.

"That's it!" he exclaimed, remembering at the last instant to keep his voice down in order not to wake his parents. Reaching over to his nightstand, he switched on his lamp and dug out Kat's letter once more. Re-reading the friendly words, he realized that his sudden insight was quite correct - his girlfriend had written what basically was a neutral report that could've been directed at anybody; there was nothing - well, very little, anyway - that made it special for someone who was supposed to be her Significant Other. Looking over her letter, Tommy searched for the small things he'd been used to reading ... the intimate references, for want of a better word. Yes, Kat said she missed him, yes, she wished he was with her, but ... she'd told Tanya much the same things. In almost the same words.

*Man, why didn't I see it before?* he ruminated, now fully awake. *Kat's letter to me ... it was a letter to a FRIEND, nothing more. Not what you send someone you're in love with.*

Slowly, he tucked the letter into his drawer again and switched off the nightlight. As he lay back against his pillow and his eyes gradually got used to the darkness again, the young man mentally tasted the situation, not sure whether he liked the flavor.

*Could it be that in the two years she's been in England Kat has found someone else, like Kim did? And she's afraid to tell me? Or...* without anything concrete to go on, Tommy squelched his suspicions before they could fully form. Maybe Kat wasn't really aware of what she'd written; in any case, he was too tired right now to think this through. He'd be better off sleeping over it, then maybe talk the matter over with Jason or Tanya before he took any action. Sighing, he drew up his blanket and tucked a hand under his neck as he waited for sleep to claim him. Not an easy task with his thoughts chasing each other's tails like playful puppies.

Somehow or other, though, Tommy was convinced he'd hit the right explanation, and for a second experienced a dull pain ... which faded into a distant ache almost immediately. He wondered briefly why that should be so; weren't Kat and he just as much in love as he'd ever been with Kimberly? However, realizing that Kim didn't share his feelings, had found someone else, had been a sharp agony that had numbed him inside and out for days. Wrapping his mind around the idea that whatever he'd shared with her successor might be changing into something less intense was somehow far easier and much less painful, making Tommy wonder if he just was getting used to losing the girls he loved, or ... he drifted off into a surprisingly deep sleep while still wrestling with the problem.

~*~

"Have you asked Kat about any of this? If she's started to feel differently about you?"

Tommy gave Jason a guilty glance and shrugged.

"Not yet. I ... what if she has? I don't think I really want to know, y'know ..."

Jason shot his best friend a thoroughly exasperated look. Really, for all his leadership abilities and intelligence, sometimes Tommy could be incredibly dense. Especially when it concerned his personal life. Well, not this time. Jason had not been there to talk some sense into Tommy the last time his girlfriend sent him a message that made him uneasy (to put it mildly), but he was here now, and by God, he'd do his utmost to save this relationship - if there still was something to be saved. Deep down, Jason was beginning to have strong doubts, but kept them to himself. First, there were options to explore. *Time for some home truths, Bro!*

"You wanna make the same mistake you made with Kim? Because you are, y'know."

"I am? How?" Try as he might, Tommy couldn't keep the defensiveness out of his voice.

"You're playing ostrich again. From what Adam and Rocky told me, you never even called Kim once when she broke up with you, just accepted her letter at face value. Did it ever occur to you that there might've been more to the situation than met the eye? That it was totally unlike Kim to send you a 'Dear John' letter?"

Tommy stared holes in the carpet under his feet as he squirmed mentally and physically on Jason's futon couch. He'd come over to vent a little with his friend, to gripe about the impersonal-ness of Kat's last letter, not to have his love life analyzed - or so he'd thought.

*Doesn't look likely, though,* he mused, surprised at finding himself much less reluctant to do so than he'd thought. *Jase has that bulldog look about him; he'll not let me off the hook until we've hashed this through.* Realizing Jason was still waiting for him to answer, he shrugged.

"Not at the time, no," he mumbled, feeling the pain of that moment anew. "It ... it just hurt too much to think ..."

"I understand, Bro," Jason said immediately, with an understanding smile and a brief touch to Tommy's shoulder. His own relationship with Emily hadn't lasted, but at least they'd been able to part without any major fireworks. Still, it hadn't been easy - the spirited blonde wasn't someone to forget easily. However, this was about Tommy, not the current lack of romance in his own life. If nothing else, Tommy was asking for help this time, not pretending he could handle everything on his own.

"But later?" Jason prodded relentlessly. "Why didn't you call her later?"

"When did I have time?" Tommy protested, stung. "You know what things were like then - finding David, Billy gone half the time, Trey, you coming back and nearly dying because of the Gold Powers I made you take -"

"You didn't make me take anything, and you know it," Jason interrupted. "Stop trying to change the subject, man!"

"Yeah, well, things were pretty crazy all around," Tommy sighed, lost in his memories for a moment. "And when I started dating Kat, I thought, what's the use? Kim didn't want me anymore, so why rake everything up again? Besides, it'd have hurt Kat."

The broad-shouldered young man huffed impatiently. "You give Kat too little credit. Tom, she knew how much Kimberly had meant to you, how much you were hurting. If you'd asked her, she would've understood that you needed to talk to Kim, that you needed some kind of closure."

"Again, when did I have the time? Getting used to our new Powers, learning how Divatox operated, dealing with Dimitria and her infernal questions wasn't exactly a walk in the park, you know. Never mind having to replace Rocky with Justin and the little fact that racing is a different kind of day job than being in school!"

"Okay, but if you really wanted to, you could've made the time before Kim returned to Florida. Kat wouldn't have minded missing a date if it had eased your mind. As a matter of fact, she was waiting for you to do just that after Muranthias."

"How do you know that?"

Trying to overlook the guilty expression coloring Tommy's tanned cheeks, Jason rolled his eyes.

"Because she told me, blockhead. In case you haven't noticed, Kat and I got along quite well, even outside Rangering. After all, we always had you to bitch about," Jason grinned.

"Oh."

"Yeah, oh. So, are you gonna talk to her or not?"

"She won't be home until Christmas, if then," Tommy hedged, but his best friend had a solution even for that. Summoning all the patience he could muster, Jason shot down any objection Tommy might have found before he could even think of them.

"Tommy, you're on vacation right now and don't have any races scheduled for the next two months. I'm sure if you asked him, your uncle would give you time off to deal with this. You won enough in your last four races to afford a plane ticket to London, especially since it's off-season and prices are down. Kat is back at school in London and not going anywhere. You even still have your passport from that school trip to Australia - if you haven't let it lapse." Tommy shook his head 'no' rather bemusedly, and Jason grinned; he knew John Rush would have made sure of that, just in case his team ever went to compete abroad. "Did I miss any reason why you can't go see her right now?" he challenged with a twinkle in his dark eyes.

"You know you haven't," Tommy grumbled, but a small grin was twitching the corners of his mouth. "You really think I should do it?"

"Yes, I do," Jason assured his best friend. "Tommy, you know you'll have to do it eventually, or you'll make both Kat and yourself miserable. Better to be sure than drawing things out unnecessarily, don't you agree?"

The long-haired young man sighed deeply, then slowly sat up. He conceded reluctantly, "I guess you're right."

"I always am," Jason deadpanned, relieved that this had gone fairly well, all things considered.

"Yeah, right. Not!" Tommy snorted, throwing a stuffed red dragon toy at Jason, who defended himself laughingly. "Okay, I'll call Uncle John next week and ask for time off..."

"Oh no, you don't. Next week you'll have come up with a dozen excuses why you can't, or shouldn't fly to London, after all. I know you too well, Bro. You're going to call your uncle now while I'm going to look for a flight," Jason told him in a voice that brooked no argument, sitting down at his desk and booting up his computer. "Go on, make your call so I can go online!"

Jason was right, there really was no reason for procrastinating. That didn't mean he had to like it, though. Shooting Jason a dirty look, Tommy sighed and reached for the phone. "You can be an absolute pain in the ass sometimes, you know that?"

"Yes. Now call!"

Turning his back on Jason's smug grin, muttering dire threats about meddlesome friends under his breath, Tommy began to dial.

~~***~~

Tommy to Kat

"*** Coming on British Airways Flight 2571***Los Angeles into Heathrow***Arrival Time Friday, 10.33am***"

It was a shame she didn't have email; communicating with her friends would be much easier through the internet, but she just couldn't afford a computer right now. Until that changed, other, more traditional means would have to be enough. Kat checked Tommy's telegram once again for the flight number as she exited the Underground station at Heathrow Airport, then stuck it back into her purse and made her way to one of the display screens to check on the arrival gates. Tommy's flight wasn't yet in, so she took her time strolling through the busy hallways, window-shopping a little, picking up a magazine and a cup of tea on the way. She was lucky; there was a row of seats in line-of-sight of the customs exit, and she claimed one of the plastic chairs to wait the remaining time.

While she was sipping her tea and leafing through her magazine, Kat thought back to Tommy's terse phone call at the beginning of the week. Her boyfriend hadn't given any specific reason for his surprise visit, just asked if she was free and dashed off a telegram with his flight information right afterwards. While the blonde dancer was honestly delighted that Tommy was coming, she couldn't shake the feeling that something was up; why else would he go to the trouble of flying halfway around the world to visit her?

*It must be pretty serious, or Tommy would have talked on the phone about whatever's bothering him; after all, transatlantic calls may cost an arm and a leg, but NOT as much as a plane ticket!*

Well, whatever it was, she'd know soon enough, Kat mused as the PA system blared to life, announcing Tommy's flight. She wandered by the nearest trash bin, dumped her paper cup and then took up a position right at the barrier outside customs, where Tommy couldn't possibly miss her. Ten minutes later, the metal gate opened for the first time, and while Tommy wasn't the first to make it through, Kat caught a glimpse of the tall young man as he opened his single carry-on bag for a customs official. She fidgetted impatiently, excitement lending a very attractive flush to her porcelain skin, and had to suppress a schoolgirl-like squeal of joy when Tommy finally walked through the sliding doors, juggling luggage, passport and ticket as he looked around for her.

"Tommy!"

The brown eyes lit up and a pleased smile warmed Kat's heart as Tommy heard and saw her. Hurrying around the barrier, he let his bag drop and caught Kat in a crushing hug, burying his face in her golden locks as he held her close. Her magazine fell unheeded to the floor, but neither cared; they were too happy to see each other again.

"God, I missed you," Tommy murmured when he could bring himself to let go a little at last, drawing back slightly to look into the sparkling blue eyes so close to his own.

"Me, too," Kat answered, smiling brilliantly, and kissed him, giggling giddily at the surprised look crossing his face. A less friendly observer might even say that Tommy looked somewhat scandalized about this public display of affection. While they certainly had shared more passionate kisses than this rather chaste peck on the lips, they'd rarely done so when not alone, and for a nanosecond Kat felt an upsurge of an old, old resentment - *He never had any reservations about kissing Kim when anybody could see them!* - but it was gone almost as soon as it had come. Kimberly was Tommy's past, she was his present; had been that for nearly three years. So what was there for her to worry about? Kat steered Tommy towards the Underground entrance, determinedly ignoring the tiny little voice at the back of her mind which asked quietly, but are you his future?

The two talked quietly on the hour-long ride from Heathrow into London, catching up on their lives and their friends. There seemed to be an undercurrent of tension between them now that the first rush of excitement at seeing each other again was over, but a crowded public transport car was hardly the place to have a serious conversation; besides, Tommy was vainly trying to smother his yawns when they got up to change lines.

"Sorry," he mumbled, smiling sheepishly after yet another jaw-cracker he'd failed to hide while Kat was guiding him through the maze of tunnels towards the southbound platforms of something called "District Line". Kat smiled back and took his hand, dragging him along towards a row of very steep escalators.

"It's okay, Tommy, don't worry. I know how bad jet lag can be."

"Is that what it is? *yawn* Man, I can't seem to stop!"

She gave him a fondly exasperated look over her shoulder as they rode down to a lower level.

"Have you slept at all on the plane, Tommy?"

"Er ... no," he admitted. "They showed this really cool movie after dinner I've wanted to see for ages, I was kinda excited about all of this - my first time outside the US - seeing you again, and besides ..." he stopped, blushing slightly. Tired as he was, he forgot completely about his Australian adventure; in any case, at the time the Rangers had been too distracted by Rita and Zedd's wedding shenanigans to bother much about long flights, being on foreign soil or anything else.

"Besides what?" Kat prodded gently, having a pretty good idea what else had kept Tommy from sleeping.

"Well ... I had an aisle seat, near the pantry, and the flight attendants kept bumping into me," he complained. "Or made me drink gallons of ice water, or asked me if I wanted to buy stuff, or eat something, or ... whatever. Every time I managed to drop off, somebody jostled my elbow and woke me up again!" His voice sounded rather petulant and offended, as if the flight personnel had been on a personal vendetta against him, and Kat was very thankful that their train whooshed to the platform right then and she could hide her slight smirk. *Poor Tommy! Welcome to the joys of transatlantic flights!*

Against the rattles and groans of the train, she quietly assured him, "That's pretty much the norm; the same thing happens to me every time I fly back home, or return to London. And there's really no wonder you're tired; haven't you done the math yet? It's past noon here now; that makes it 4am in California!"

Tommy checked his watch, then forced his increasingly sluggish brain to function once more. "Oh right, there's an eight-hour time difference, isn't there?" He yawned again.

"Exactly. So what do you say we'll go to my place, you can lie down for a couple of hours, then we'll do a little sightseeing so you can stretch your muscles, have an early dinner and leave everything else until tomorrow? I cleared my weekend practices, so we won't have to worry about a thing except what to do."

"Sounds perfect," Tommy said, squeezing Kat's hand gratefully. Now that he was with her, seeing her genuine delight about his visit, he began asking himself if his sometimes overactive imagination hadn't been playing tricks on him. Maybe Kat had been too busy or otherwise distracted when she'd sent him that last letter, or he was reading a meaning (or lack of it) into things that simply didn't exist, or ... he realized his thoughts were running in circles again. Well, 'running' was being very generous; 'crawling' was much closer to the truth. *Kat's right, I need to get some sleep,* Tommy decided, not at all dismayed at being able to postpone a potentially unpleasant discussion. *I'll think about it tomorrow.*

Unaware that he was doing a very creditable imitation of Scarlett O'Hara, he followed Kat out the Underground station onto a busy London street, walking as briskly as he could towards her small apartment.

~*~

Tommy awoke in his shoebox of a guest room on Saturday morning, feeling reasonably rested after about eight hours of sleep. He lay on the folding cot, his hands folded behind his head and stared at the ceiling; he'd thought that the silly glow-in-the-dark stars Kat's absent roommate had stuck there would keep him awake, but his nap the previous afternoon had hardly banished his fatigue, and after a very good Chinese buffet dinner at a nearby eatery he'd had no trouble falling asleep at all. However, his stomach informed him in no uncertain terms that it was high time to send some food its way or else slit his throat and be done with it, so muttering sleepily to himself Tommy padded into the bathroom for a pit stop, then followed his nose into the kitchen.

"Coffee," he mumbled to the room at large, still barely conscious. The glass pot filled with dark liquid beckoned him from the counter and he made a beeline towards it, only to be brought up short when there was no convenient cabinet holding mugs above it, like in his mother's kitchen back home. Tommy shook himself briefly like a wet dog, making an effort to pry his eyes open. "Uuungh."

From her perch on a kitchen chair, Kat watched her boyfriend with scarcely-concealed amusement. She'd heard the other male Rangers tell stories about Tommy's need for a caffeine fix first thing in the morning, but had had no chance to observe it first-hand, until now. It certainly proved to be ... educational. Her grin broadened as he groped for words, wakefulness and/or kitchen utensils and could find neither, but she took pity on him when the sleepy brown eyes finally met hers, looking adorably lost.

"Here," she offered him a large cup, then unceremoniously steered him towards a chair. "Sit, and I'll pour; you're liable to flood the kitchen otherwise."

"Mrp."

Kat couldn't hold back her laughter any longer. Filling Tommy's mug with steaming hot coffee, she added some to her own cup, then sipped slowly while he dived into the dark brew. Gradually, as the caffeine kicked in, his eyes cleared and he smiled sleepily at her, signalling his thanks with a look of pure gratitude.

"Morning," he yawned. "Um. Sorry. Thanks." He drained his cup, then reached for the coffee pot again. Pouring a second helping, he finally focussed on the blonde. "You're a lifesaver," he sighed, indicating the coffee. "How'd you know ..."

Kat grinned and winked.

"Rocky," she divulged. "And Jason. Adam. Billy. Everybody, really, who's ever had the, er, privilege of your scintillating company first thing in the morning. Before your first swallow."

"Yeah, well, they're not all that sociable either," Tommy grumbled, vowing to inflict mayhem on his traitorous friends first chance he got. "You should have seen Billy; he needs at least two chocolate-glazed cream-filled donuts each morning before he's halfway coherent. And Rocky always goes for the salsa first."

"Eew! Billy's sugar rush is bad enough, but salsa? Who in their right minds eats salsa for breakfast?"

Tommy chuckled. "Nobody ever said Rocky is in his right mind. Especially not about food." He dodged the Cheerio Kat lobbed at his head with a playful scowl, having had lots of practice with his friends. Who were far more likely to dump the whole box over his head. "Hey, don't throw things at me!"

"I won't, if you don't start being nice," she pouted, but the twinkle in her blue eyes betrayed her merriment. "If that's how you talk about your guy friends, I wonder what you're telling them about me!"

The smile Tommy gave her was part devilish, part loving, and very sexy; as always, it made Kat's heartbeat stumble just a little bit. He reached over and drew her hand to his lips. Kissing her fingertips lightly, he raised an eyebrow and pursed his mouth speculatively before answering. "That you look very lovely right out of bed."

She blushed, and withdrew her hand, pleased yet flustered. "Oh, you ...!" To cover her sudden confusion - while she knew Tommy had been sincere, there had been an undertone to the slightly suggestive compliment she couldn't quite identify - Kat jumped up and moved purposefully towards the refrigerator. "Okay, so what do you want for breakfast? I'll cook today, to honor the occasion of your visit," she teased him. "Then, we're going to do some serious sightseeing. I can't wait to show you all my favorite places!"

The young man groaned comically. "Well, in that case, I'd better fuel up for the day, hadn't I? How about a traditional, full English breakfast?"

*Ouch.*Kat winced inwardly. She could manage the toast and bacon, the eggs, grilled mushrooms, bangers and tomatoes, but the porridge was quite another matter. Oh well, she'd offered; maybe she'd get lucky this once. Meanwhile, she would start off easy; maybe Tommy would be too full by the time she got around to preparing the gooey concoction. "Here, you can start with this," she declared, handing him the box of Cheerios, a bottle of milk and a bowl. *After all, he hasn't got hollow legs like Rocky ... I hope!*

~*~

Saturday afternoon found the two ex-Rangers strolling hand in hand through Hyde Park, towards the Serpentine. Kat had bought some birdseed and was soon surrounded by a small flock of multicolored ducks, scrambling for the treat she was liberally distributing. Tommy had retreated to a nearby bench, enjoying the late-fall sunshine and resting his aching feet while watching her, an indulgent smile on his face. He reflected briefly how the long flight yesterday had made him long for some exercise, but the pavement pounding Kat had subjected him to on their day-long sightseeing tour made him realize that he was more out of shape than he'd thought he'd be. Racing required fitness as well, but a different kind of exercise than his karate or being a Ranger demanded.

*Man, this was as bad as end-of-season sales at the mall with Kim,* he groused inwardly, then felt as if he'd been doused with a bucketful of cold water as he was abruptly reminded why he'd come all the way to talk with Kat. All day long, while he'd truly enjoyed playing tourist, he'd been looking for hints in Kat's behaviour that might have given him a clue if her feelings towards him had changed, but there had been nothing ... nothing at all. Kat had smiled and laughed and flirted with him, hugged him freely and responded willingly to whatever affectionate displays he was willing to share in public. And yet - and yet Tommy couldn't shake the feeling that there was something ... not wrong, exactly, but ... off, somehow. He sighed softly; seemed as if there was no other choice than bring it out into the open. He rose from his comfortable slouch, ready to call Kat away from the ducks, when she sat down next to him, her rosy lips still smiling at the last hungry waterfowl demanding more with an indignant 'quack', but her eyes searched his face with a slightly puzzled expression.

"What's wrong, Tommy?"

Irrationally, now that the opportunity he'd waited for was there, Tommy found himself hedging.

"Nothing's wrong," he protested automatically.

"Then why did you come here? This is so out of the blue ..."

"Can't I just visit you when I have the chance?"

"Of course, it's just ... I've been here for two years, and you've never visited me before."

"I didn't exactly swim in money," he answered, a touch defensively. "Not that I do now, but at least I've won enough purses recently to be able to afford this." His gesture indicated that he meant both time and funds.

Kat considered this; her own semi-regular flights to the US were only possible because her father, due to his job which required a lot of travelling, accumulated plenty of frequent flyer miles to help cover expenses. Without that, and her student discount, she would be relegated to the once-a-year flight home her scholarship entailed. She nodded in understanding. "Okay. But why now, all of a sudden? You knew I was coming home for Christmas; that's only 10 weeks from now. What's so important that you couldn't wait that long?"

A million possible answers flitted through Tommy's brain, in addition to the ten million he'd come up with ever since he'd gotten Kat's last letter ... and none seemed quite correct. He opened and closed his mouth a few times while he was still sifting and discarding possible ways of expressing himself, but in the end he just blurted out what he'd asked Jason: "Why did you write the same letter to both Tanya and me?"

Whatever she had expected, it certainly wasn't this.

"I did ... what?!?"

Drawing a deep breath, trying to marshal his thoughts into some semblance of coherency, Tommy started to explain.

"... so, when I started to compare the two messages, they seemed to be almost identical; I mean, your letter to me was nice as always, it was fun to read, but ..." he shrugged helplessly, unable to put into words what had disturbed him so. Kat regarded him quizzically.

"I didn't know Tanya gave you my letters to read," she said slowly, the hurt at her best friend's apparent betrayal visible on her smooth features. "They weren't meant for you; I had thought better of her."

Horrified, Tommy realized what Kat must be thinking. He reached for her hand and hastened to reassure her.

"No ... no, honey, it wasn't like that! Tanya never showed me anything really confidential - you know she'd never betray your trust like that! But you know that all of us share news about the whole gang whenever someone gets a letter, don't you?"

Kat summoned a wobbly smile. "I ... I guess. Wasn't it Rocky who said it's a great way to save on postage?" she joked feebly, still not sure whether to be furious or not.

"Yeah - write one, tell all," Tommy confirmed, giving her fingers a gentle, reassuring squeeze. "Anyway, what Tanya did do sometimes was tell me things that you said were bothering you - like that time right after I went on the road with Uncle John the first time and didn't stop talking about hanging out in bars with the crew all the time. You were worried that I might be tempted to start drinking or something, but didn't want to nag me, in case I might feel smothered. Remember?"

Actually, it had more been a fear of losing him to some pit-stop groupie, but Kat let it ride. She gulped down a sniffle. "Y-yes."

"Well, Tanya hinted at your fears, read me the relevant passage, and let me tell you, it made me look at what I was doing much harder. I decided you were right to be concerned, so I was careful not to get too involved; I still hung out with the guys, but I never took them up on their invitations to go to ... uh, other places." Tommy blushed, remembering some of these 'places' quite clearly from the tales the mechanics would tell the next morning. 'Cathouse' had been a very mild term for more than a few.

"So that's why you started giving me a travelogue of the Southwestern US?" Kat wondered, secretly relieved that her words had had an effect, even if she'd never have wanted Tommy to know about her insecurities.

He grinned sheepishly. "Yeah. Actually, after a while it became fun to try and find out stuff about the places we went; much more fun, anyway, than hanging out in bars watching the crew get smashed."

"Oh. Good." If that kind of thing really was all Tanya had told Tommy from her letters, maybe she didn't need to feel betrayed, after all. She'd still have to quiz her friend about it - she had told only her for a reason instead of going directly to Tommy - but it certainly seemed as if Tanya had acted in both their best interests. Kat pushed the tiny bit of remaining hurt to the back of her mind as Tommy continued.

"Right. I like to think that I would've made that decision on my own eventually, but hearing it from you - even second-hand, through Tanya - made me see it much sooner." He paused for a moment. "But Kat, some of the things you told her ... why didn't you tell me yourself? You must know I'd do nothing to make you worry."

She leaned back against the bench seat, thinking. What had been her motive?

"Tommy ... I didn't tell you because I was afraid you'd think I'd be meddling in your affairs," she explained slowly. "It would've been different if we'd been together, like at school, but from this distance ... you're an adult, making your own decisions. I couldn't just butt in just because I was worried about your lifestyle. I'm not your mother, after all. But I needed to talk about it with someone, and Tanya knew you ... I guess I'm not really mad at her for telling you after all." Kat smiled fleetingly as she saw the truth in that. Deep down, she had wanted Tommy to know she cared enough to comment, and being the good friend she was, Tanya had seen that and acted. Still, that didn't explain Tommy's puzzling question.

"But to get back to your remark - what do you mean, I sent you the same letters?" Kat tried to remember what she'd written to her friends about a month ago. She'd mailed both messages right after her vacation, telling both Tanya and Tommy about her trip ...

Tommy inhaled deeply of the crisp autumn air; the sun was disappearing behind the trees, and a chill crept into the light breeze. How to voice his thoughts without offending his girlfriend? Well, if he wanted answers, he just had to try.

"Kat ... except for some personal things, asking about our families and stuff like that, both your messages to me and Tanya could've been carbon copies, almost. I'm not saying that they were, or that they were really impersonal, but ..." He shook his head, still groping for the right words to express his vague feelings. "I guess what I'm trying to say is, you might've said you wished I was there to share your adventures, but I didn't get the feeling that it was me specifically you missed. Just ... someone," he fumbled.

Kat looked at him, her expression a curious mixture of puzzlement, honest incomprehension and just a hint of ... panic? "I ... I don't understand," she confessed.

Tommy looked at her with a wry grin curving his lips. "Neither did I, at first. I was really glad to get your letter, you're a great correspondent, but something seemed off to me, only I couldn't put a finger on what it might be. Took me quite a while to figure it out, and I had to read Tanya's letter to do so. Kat, honey ... you said in your letter that you missed me. Just what was it you missed, do you know?"

She stared into the warm brown eyes, reading only a desire to know and no accusation in the dark depths. It enabled her to gather her thoughts sufficiently to attempt an answer.

"Well ... I saw so many great things ... I so often wanted you there with me. Telling you about it, even showing you pictures, is just not the same as experiencing it with a close friend."

"Exactly," he murmured, a fleeting expression of pain shadowing his gaze.

"Huh?"

"A close friend. Not necessarily me - your boyfriend," he clarified, then sighed. "I guess I was expecting more of a ... a love letter, if you will," Tommy said then, blushing slightly at admitting to such a romantic wish.

Kat started, surprised. "But I did tell you I love you! I know I did!"

"Yes - in your signature. Like you always do. But Kat ... why didn't you just once tell me you missed having my arms around you, or dreamed of standing somewhere kissing me? That's what Ki-" he bit off the word, but it was already too late. The flash of hurt in the blue eyes cut Tommy to the quick. "God, Kat, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to ..."

"Didn't mean to - what, Tommy?" Kat interrupted him, swallowing the sudden onrush of tears. "Compare me with Kim? You've done that hundreds of times since we started dating, whether you meant to or not," she rasped.

To his credit, he squirmed with embarrassment, but had a defense ready. "Well, she's the only girl beside you I've ever exchanged letters with, love letters or otherwise. I'd think it's only natural I make comparisons!"

She could hardly argue with that, and turned away, gazing blindly out across the lake where the last ducks were heading towards their shelter as the sky grew increasingly darker. A gust of wind rustled the leaves in the nearby trees and she shivered, both from the October chill and her own tumultous emotions.

"I ... you're right, I'm sorry," Kat said dully, staring at her feet. This was an old sensation, one she'd thought she'd overcome a long time ago. *It's probably inevitable with any guy who's been in a serious relationship before,* she mused, but as in the beginning, it was small comfort now. *I knew going in that Kim meant the world to Tommy until she broke up with him; it's hardly his fault that I never had a real boyfriend until we got together.*

Hating the thought that he might have caused her pain, Tommy laid a gentle hand on Kat's shoulder, stroking his thumb up and down the nape of her neck until she managed to look sideways at him.

"It's me who should apologize, Kat," he murmured. "Believe me, I never wanted to hurt you. Not now, nor in the past. I may have compared what you and I share with what I had with Kim once in a while, but I've never wished that you were her."

"Not even once?" she whispered, finally voicing one of her greatest fears. Tommy seemed sincere enough, and she desperately wanted to believe him, but ...

He took his time answering, and while it stung a little that he didn't deny it outright, they both sensed that they had to be absolutely honest with each other now or they'd damage whatever was between them beyond repair. At last, he met her anxious eyes with a steady gaze of his own.

"Maybe a few times right at the beginning, right after she left and then broke up with me, but not since we got together," he assured her. "Kat ... Kimberly was my friend first, just like you. Yes, I fell like a ton of bricks when I met her, but you caught my eye right away as well. Only, I wasn't free then ... but never mind." Both smiled at the memory, at how young they had been even though it had only been about four years ago, and at 21 they were hardly 'old'. "It was the same when Jason left for Geneva; I got along great with Rocky, he was a more than capable replacement as the Red Ranger and became a good friend, too, someone I'm glad to know, but I needed time not to miss Jason so much. And no matter what I feel for Rocky, Jase will always be my Bro - my best friend. Just as Kim will always be the girl I first fell in love with. That doesn't mean that what I feel for you is less, it's just a little bit different. Can you understand that?"

She considered his words carefully. "I guess. It's like one can only have a first time once, isn't it?"

"That's right. Kim and Jase were my 'first times' where strong feelings towards someone other than my folks are concerned; because of that, they'll always be special to me. And you're special, too. Very special," he smiled, leaned over and kissed her gently. Comforted, Kat responded, snuggling into his chest a little, but a small kernel of uneasiness remained. After a while, they released each other again, momentarily calmed, and became aware that Hyde Park was nearly deserted by now; only a few people were still walking their dogs in the gathering darkness. By mutual agreement, the two started back towards Marble Arch station, to catch a train back to Kat's home. They were walking hand in hand, a thoughtful but somehow comfortable silence between them. When they had reached the park's gate, Kat stopped and looked up into Tommy's eyes.

"Tommy ... for what it's worth, I didn't mean to make you feel neglected or unappreciated when I wrote my letter; if it really was impersonal somehow, it wasn't done on purpose."

"I know that. You wouldn't be you if it had been intentional," he replied sincerely. "But I had to know."

"Know what?"

Tommy colored almost as red as his former uniform.

"If ... if you maybe hadn't found someone else, too, and were just trying to let me down gently," he confessed.

Teetering briefly between outrage that he could even think such a thing and reluctant understanding how he could, given his experience with Kim, Kat just shook her head.

"There's no one else. No other guy, I mean."

"Okay."

"Just like that? You believe me?" she wondered. Tommy met her surprised look openly.

"Of course. I trust you." But his eyes held a mute question. *I trusted Kim, too. She still broke my heart. Will you?*

Kat chose to ignore it. Instead, she adopted a slightly forced cheerfulness she didn't really feel. "That's good. Um, shall we pick up dinner on the way home? I don't feel like eating out."

Relieved, Tommy agreed. "Fine by me. You wore me out today with all this walking," he joked.

"Yeah, right." Both had to grin, and for the moment, everything was all right again between them.

They bought their tickets and boarded the Underground in silence, not speaking until they neared Kat's apartment. They passed a pizza chain outlet and bought takeout; while they waited for their order to be filled, Kat knew she had to ask one more question.

"Are you sure this is not about Kimberly after all? You never had a chance to really talk to her since she sent you that letter, had you?"

"No, it's not. Well ... at least not really," Tommy amended. "Yeah, I'll have to ask her one of these days, if only to find true closure, but more why she didn't at least call me to break up with me. It was so unlike her to do it by mail."

"Uh huh. We all wondered about that," Kat agreed, mulling this over. She trusted that Tommy wouldn't lie to her, that he was sincere in his answer, but at the back of her mind that annoying little voice piped up again, asking whether she was so sure that Tommy wasn't lying to himself. Or if she was.

For that, she had no answer.

~*~

The two former Rangers spent a quiet but enjoyable evening eating their pizza and meeting a couple of Kat's friends from the Royal Academy who dropped by unexpectedly, but once she was safely in bed, Kat couldn't help but think back on their conversation this afternoon. Tommy had brought her letter along, the creases showing that it had been read and pored over many times, and on rereading it from a more critical perspective, Kat had to admit that Tommy had a right to wonder about her feelings. While her words were certainly friendly and personal, they lacked a certain intimacy - something which should have been natural between two halves of a couple. If she was totally honest with herself, Kat had to concede that except for her signature and a few endearments strewn in here and there, she might have sent the letter just as it was to Rocky, or Adam or any other of her friends. Or even her cousin back in Australia.

"I wish you were here ... pity you can't see this ... we'll have to do this together some day ..."

She sighed and deposited the letter back on her nightstand. She'd return it to Tommy in the morning. Her room was only dimly lit, but Kat didn't see the posters of famous dancers or great ballet companies she'd hung on the walls. Instead, she searched her memories of the time when she'd written that letter. Had she missed Tommy?

*Yes,* she decided after a long while. Yes, she regretted not having been able to share the grandiose sights with him, to have stood in awe before some of History's greatest monuments without him by her side, having experienced so much fun and laughter in a group that didn't include her boyfriend. *He doesn't begrudge me that,* she knew. Tommy just wasn't that petty, and besides, given their different places of residence, it was unavoidable. But with a pang in her heart Kat realized that she hadn't missed not being in his arms while looking across all of Paris, that most romantic of cities, from the steps of the Sacré Coeur Cathedral; that she hadn't wished to glide along the canals of Venice in a gondola, being serenaded while losing herself in his eyes.

"But I do love him," she said out loud into the nightly stillness. "I do!"

As if in answer, she faintly heard a loud snore from the guest room right across the hall, and the creaking mattress of the cot as Tommy shifted in his sleep, and she burst out giggling. "So much for that declaration," she muttered to herself. Sighing, she decided that it was far too late for any major decisions, she turned off her nightlight and snuggled into her blanket. It took a long while for her thoughts to settle down - after all, Tommy had given her much to think about - but eventually she fell asleep, dreaming of their shared past ... but not their future.

~*~

The next morning, Tommy and Kat met for a companionable breakfast. The weather had changed during the night; it was overcast and rather chilly, so Kat suggested they visit a few museums which London had in abundance. Tommy looked rather dubious.

"Museums? I really don't know, Kat ..." he hesitated. There were still things he wanted to talk about, and he really wasn't the artsy or brainy type. She just grinned at him.

"Don't worry, you'll love what I have in mind," she reassured him. "Come on, lazybones. I'll promise I won't drag you to look at old pictures or modern art."

"Oh, okay; I guess a little culture couldn't hurt." Tommy still wasn't convinced, but went along with his girlfriend more or less willingly. Their first stop was right on the river Thames, next to the Royal Opera House - a fairly modern building that housed the Museum of the Moving Image. Tommy's skepticism melted when the first of a group of actors employed by the museum stopped them and gave a very entertaining, brief lecture on the first slide shows, complete with period costume and turn-of-the-century showmanship. Three fun-filled hours later, they emerged and made their way back to the city.

"Well? Did I promise too much?" Kat asked with a slight smirk.

"No, it was great," Tommy admitted, giving her a mock scowl. "Okay, I give in, you were right. I loved it. So, where to next?"

"Piccadilly. The Rock Circus."

He grinned. "Is this where I make like Skull and ask how rocks can do trapeze acts? Or be clowns?"

Kat giggled. "No, silly. This is where you take me to lunch first."

"I can do that. I think," Tommy teased, and the two ran down the steps to the nearest Underground station, laughing.

~*~

"Man, I'm beat," Tommy groaned when the day was over and they'd returned once more to Kat's apartment. He flopped down on the couch, closed his eyes and stretched out his long legs, resting his aching feet. They'd spent the whole afternoon wandering from one attraction to the other, not only treating themselves to a history of rock music from Elvis to Michael Jackson, but sitting through three consecutive simulator 'rides' - from giant roller coasters to a Space Shuttle flight, then proceeded to a virtual reality game where they shot at other visitors with futuristic 'ray guns' while navigating a maze of sorts, and finishing with a fun tour through the Guinness World Records Exhibition. "I haven't been on my feet so much since we trekked through the Desert of Despair to find Ninjor's Temple!"

Kat sat down gracefully in a recliner next to him, carrying two mugs of tea and a plateful of cookies. She put them within easy reach on the coffee table. Her own feet hurt a little, too, but her dancer's training made it far less painful; she was used to the kind of exercise that required her to stand and walk a lot.

"You're getting soft, Tommy," she goaded him a little. "Small wonder, sitting around in your comfy car all day."

He opened one eye and gave her a sardonic look. "Comfy, huh? Not any stock car I've ever seen, I'll have you know!"

"But at least you're sitting."

"Well, yeah. Getting blisters on my butt instead, driving my practice laps," he sighed as both lapsed into silence again. While he loved to race, the lure of the constant adrenaline rush was slowly but surely losing its appeal. Three years on the road, always near the top but never quite reaching it ... When this season was over and his contract was up for renewal, maybe he should give serious thought to contacting Jason and see whether he was still interested in making the dream they once had into reality - operating a dojo together. *I've certainly earned enough money for a down payment,* Tommy thought while he nibbled on a piece of almond shortbread. *If Jase's father can put us in touch with a good contractor ...Jase gets his business degree ... maybe Rocky will want to join us, too ... yes, sounds like a plan ...* He lost himself in pleasant daydreams for a few minutes, until a movement next to him drew his attention towards his girlfriend. With a start, Tommy realized that his nice little fantasy about his future had contained his brother, most of his friends ... but that Kat had played no significant part in it.

*Whoa. How is that possible? I love her - so why don't I see her in my dream? I used to ...*

Tommy tried to remember one of his early fantasies about Kat and himself; it had involved Christmas, his small grandson asking for Ranger stories, an older grandson being the current Red Ranger - and Kat as the stereotypical granny, complete with grey hair worn in a bun and glasses. He was surprised how much of an effort it took. Glancing surreptitiously at Kat, who sat curled up in her armchair next to him, legs tucked up while she stared dreamily out the window, he thought about her, their relationship and about how he thought for the longest time that Kat would be the one he'd share his life with.

*You used to think that about Kim, too.*

The young man impatiently dismissed the thought. Kim had dumped him years ago, and while he sometimes still wondered why, and why in a letter instead of in person, the sharp pain he used to feel had long since faded into a faint, almost forgotten ache that he only noticed occasionally - when coming across old pictures of Kimberly and him together, or when he was reminiscing with his friends about their days as Rangers. Tommy knew that he hadn't fallen in love with Kat at first sight; instead, his feelings for her had grown gradually, over time, had been born out of her genuine concern and caring for him, and his honest attraction and gratitude for her. But surely that didn't make them any less real? Tommy didn't think so. Why, then, had he stopped dreaming of growing old with Katherine? And when? He truly couldn't say, but knew in some place that it was true.

A sudden feeling of panic made him sit up as his hereto comfortable world was rocked to its foundations by this realization. The movement alerted Kat, who turned towards him with a gentle smile.

"What?"

When Tommy didn't answer right away, just stared at her with wide eyes, she sat up as well. "Tommy?" Her soft voice was full of concern, the blue eyes warm and encouraging. As they'd always been for him. Wanting to drown once more in the crystal depths, as he'd used to, Tommy blurted out the first question that sprang to his mind.

"Kat ... if I asked you to marry me, would you say yes?"

Kat was literally flabbergasted. The very last thing she had expected was to get an offer of marriage from Tommy, however roundabout it had come out. Even a year ago, she would have been beside herself with joy, sobbing her acceptance in a rush of delight. Now ... now she was hard-pressed not to give a swift refusal. *I'm not ready for this! Not now, when I have so many plans - when my life and career are just taking off! Damn you, Tommy - why are you doing this to me?!?* Taken utterly by surprise, she took her time unfolding her legs and sitting down in a more decorous position, mentally scrambling for an answer. Next, she took a sip of her cooling tea, reached for a cookie, then reconsidered and lay the treat back on the plate. She wasn't really hungry, anyway, and her appetite seemed to have taken a flying dive out the window.

Tommy's voice, sounding strangely urgent, made her realize she had stalled too long.

"Kat?"

With a sigh, she met his anxious brown eyes.

"I ... well, yes, certainly, just ... just not now," she said slowly, feeling her way through the unexpected minefield their conversation had become. "Why? Are you proposing?"

Her heartbeat sped up at the thought, but not with joy as she'd always thought it would. It wasn't dread, though ... not quite, anyway.

Tommy looked away.

"Yes. No. I ... I don't know," he murmured after a long pause. Her lack of enthusiasm hadn't gone unnoticed. Kat felt a tearing sensation in her heart for an instant, like someone ripping a sheet off along a perforated line, but almost right away it faded again, leaving her with the feeling of a straight, if slightly jagged edge within her heart that smarted, but didn't truly wound. She tested that edge, and found it sharp but clean, much to her surprise. *Is it really so unexpected?* she thought. *Or have I been waiting for this all along?* The silence between the pair grew, became heavy. Just before it changed to oppressive, Kat found her voice again.

"You don't know if you're asking me to marry you ... or you don't know if you want to marry me at all?"

There, it was said. Both flinched a little, but somehow, speaking it out loud enabled both to finally look at each other again.

"I think I don't know that either," Tommy confessed in a near-whisper, his cheeks flaming crimson. This was not the way he'd imagined his first proposal would be going. If it was a proposal. "Kat ... why wouldn't you want to get married? I mean, we sorta talked about it ..."

"Yes - two years ago, when I left for London," she replied, remembering their leavetaking the night before her departure. "But Tommy ... I'm still not done with my studies; if I got married now, I'd have to abandon everything I worked so hard for all this time. My scholarship would be cancelled ... Then, after I graduate, I may have a chance at a dance contract here with the Royal Ballet ..." she trailed off, taking in the look in the brown eyes. They showed hurt, which she had expected, but also something else - something that just might be ... relief?

"It would be a dream come true for me," Kat said quietly.

He digested that for a minute, then got up and started to pace in the confines of her living room, needing to expend at least some of the nervous energy gripping him.

"But what about our dream? You and me, creating a family? The one we built together?"

Tommy's question hung between them, neither wishing to be the one to shatter that particular dream, yet knowing that it had come to that - that, or give up a chance at realizing their individual, more immediate ambitions. Which for Tommy wasn't having a family, either, he suddenly knew, but to figure out what to do with his life now that he had all but decided to kiss his racing career good-bye.

Katherine sighed and smiled, her expression both sad and wistful. Then, she took her courage into both hands. One of them had to say it; it might as well be her.

"It ... it would have to be postponed. Tommy, I'm just not ready yet; I still have things to do, things to accomplish. I have to ... to LIVE!" She, too, got up and walked to him, laying a slender hand on his chest in silent entreaty. "And if you're honest with yourself, so have you," she added softly.

The long-haired young man covered Kat's hand with his own, twining their fingers together. Thoughtfully, he caressed her ring finger, the digit where he'd once thought he'd place a diamond as bright as the blue eyes he was looking into. They were pleading for understanding.

"You're right," Tommy finally admitted subduedly. "But still ..." He couldn't quite let go, not yet.

Kat gently disengaged her hand from his and touched his cheek, apologizing mutely for the pain she knew her words had caused. The pair gazed at each other silently for long minutes, joined by that cautious caress until they found enough composure to take a backwards step, both literally and figuratively. Together, they moved towards the couch and sank down next to each other, their eyes still holding the other's. Neither knew what to say. Again, it was Kat who broke the impasse at last.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"Don't be. If you're not ready, I'll have to accept that - and I do. I wouldn't want you to give up what's so important to you. Even if it means I have to step back." Unbidden, the similarity to another time occurred to him - when Kimberly decided she had to leave Angel Grove, the Rangers ... leave him to follow her dream of gymnastic gold. It prompted him to make a last-ditch effort to turn events around, saying words he had denied himself then in order not to make the woman he loved choose between him and her life's goal.

"I love you."

Kat had to fight her tears at the gentle declaration.

"I know. I love you, too. But Tommy ... are you still in love with me?"

The question caught him by surprise; wasn't it two sides of the same coin? But a moment's reflection showed him that it wasn't like that; that loving someone and being in love with the same person could mean completely different things. Tommy thought back on his relationship with the lovely blonde - his first sight of her at the Youth Center, delightfully helpless (or so he thought). Her strength in overcoming Rita's spell, her courage to battle her own fears in order to help Kim get past her trauma after her training accident. Kat's support after he got Kim's letter. The way she slowly healed his broken heart through standing by him, by giving him whatever he needed - understanding, love, the first taste of passion. The memories warmed him, as always, and for an instant, everything within him rebelled at letting go.

However, other memories intruded - ones that featured a petite brunette who had once captured his heart with the sparkle in her doe-brown eyes, with her smile and her easy acceptance of the insecure new kid in school. Kimberly, who had forgiven him so easily after Jason had freed him from Rita's influence, who had lived with him through his darkest hours as he lost the Green Ranger Powers not once, but twice, never wavering in her affection. They had laughed and fought, cried and made up together, sharing life and danger until their lives had seemed interwoven on all levels. She had been the boy's first love, but even now, after all the pain and betrayal of what had bound them together, Tommy knew that she would have become the man's final passion ... were it not for that many times-damned letter.

Chagrined, Tommy at last admitted to himself that some part of him still loved Kimberly ... and probably always would. That didn't make his love for Katherine less real ... but the feelings she engendered were not tinged with the same undercurrent of passion, her smile did not make his heart race like Kim's had done ... and her kisses didn't make his blood heat with the same intensity as hers had, right from the start.

Was what he felt for Kat enough for a lifetime?

*Possibly.*

Would his love for Kim have stood the test of time?

*Yes.*

Defeated by his own integrity, Tommy forced himself to meet the deep blue pools that were his companion's eyes.

"I'd like to be," he whispered at last, sadness evident in his emotion-roughened voice.

"But you're not," Kat answered just as softly, not making it a question. She could read the truth in the slump of Tommy's shoulders, the pain in his expression that mirrored her own.

"I ... no. I used to be, in the beginning, but ..."

"But things change. So do people. And feelings."

"Yes."

The two stared at each other for what felt like ages, then Tommy reached out blindly and Kat surged forward, into his waiting arms. They clung to each other fiercely, hanging on to what used to be between them one last time, but as the moment passed, so did the emotion that had made them embrace. Tommy drew back slightly and lifted the lovely face up so he could look into the sapphire eyes. A few tear tracks marred Kat's smooth cheeks, but the rosy lips smiled tremulously at him.

"Does that mean it's over?" he had to ask, regret in his voice.

"I think so," Kat gulped. "I ... I still love you, but ..."

"Yeah. But." Tommy found a wry grin and wiped away a lone tear that was in danger of spilling over from his girlfriend's - no, his ex-girlfriend's, he corrected himself - eyes. "You'll always have a place in my heart," he promised sincerely. "No matter what."

"Same here."

There was nothing more that needed to be said, so the two bade each other an early goodnight, retiring to their separate beds with mixed feelings, both staying awake long into the night to bid farewell to what might have been.

~*~

The next morning, Kat excused herself from her classes for once, wanting ... no, needing to see Tommy off at the airport. There had been some awkwardness at first, as they tried to adjust to the change in their relationship, but they had been friends too long, had been through too much together for it to linger long. And while they were quiet and a little subdued on the long train ride to Heathrow Airport, they were able to talk with increasing confidence and freedom as the morning passed.

His single piece of luggage checked in, boarding pass in hand, Tommy invited Kat to a farewell cup of tea at one of the better airport restaurants. They sat across from each other at a table covered in white linen, holding hands next to the delicate china cups as they waited for the flight to Los Angeles to be announced. Both were very much aware that the next time they saw each other, everything would be different. They'd no longer be a couple, but just ... friends.

"Will we still be friends?" Kat asked, expressing the thought that was in both their minds. Tommy's answer was swift and sure.

"Of course we will. Nothing can ever change that."

"Good. I'd have hated to have lost you completely," she confessed. "Last night, I was afraid ..."

"Me, too," Tommy agreed, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. "We may not be in love any longer, but we still love each other. Just ... differently. Don't we?"

"Yes."

And then Tommy's flight was announced, so the two former Rangers gathered their belongings and made their way to the International Departures gate. At the barrier, beyond which Kat couldn't follow, they stopped. Tears threatened to fall once more, but Kat determinedly fought them down. Despite everything, it hurt to let Tommy go, not just back to Angel Grove, but out of her life.

*It's better this way. At least I'm not losing him completely. And who knows, in a few years, when we're both ready and haven't met someone else ...*

Taking comfort from that sliver of hope, she managed to smile at him. "Take care," she whispered.

"I will," he promised, letting his regret and sadness show in his eyes as he told her silently what he had no words to express. "You, too."

"Word of honor," Kat replied. "Will ... will you still write to me?"

"If you'll do the same."

"Of course."

"Good."

Speech failed them as they looked at each other, alone in a crowd of travellers surging around them. Then, with a muffled curse, Tommy reached out and drew Kat into his arms one final time. Their lips met in a last parting kiss, and she melted into it willingly, responding freely to what they had to give each other. Which was ... not enough.

Eventually, they had to breathe again, but neither could regret the exchange. Kat's eyes glittered with unshed tears, and Tommy's voice was husky as he spoke.

"I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you, too."

Suddenly their time was up, the last boarders rushed past them, and he had to go. A lingering caress along her cheek, a last hug that was almost desperate, a tender look, and Tommy was gone, disappearing through a glass door while Kat stood and watched him leave.

"Good-bye, Tommy," she whispered at his retreating back. She stayed at the gate until the ground crew closed the check-in stall, then turned slowly and made her way out of the airport. Kat didn't look back, didn't even spare a glance for the slowly ascending silver plane visible through her train's window as she travelled back to London. One chapter of her life was over; it was time to start a new one.


To Be Continued ...