Title: The Merriest of Christmases

Summary: Every year, during the week before Christmas the Rangers all get together to celebrate the holidays with each other. For seven years this has been their tradition, and for just as long Tommy and Kimberly have had a little tradition of their own. Unfortunately, this year brings confliction to their tradition, making them both wonder if the path they're going on is the right one.

A/N 1: Subtle nod to one of my other stories in the first scene. Brownie points if you can catch it.

A/N 2: This is probably going to be the last time you guys hear from me for a long while. Writing loses its pleasure when you're doing it for a bunch of people where the majority don't even care enough to leave some basic feedback. Essentially I'm tired of busting my ass to write for you guys and getting 5 or 6 reviews per chapter. The amount of work I put in just isn't worth the end result.

Timeline: Takes place the year after Dino Thunder

Rating: M (a teen version to this story is being posted as well)

Chapter: 5/5

Original Posting Date: December 25, 2008


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Tahoe City, CA

5:45 pm

All throughout the first floor living room the group was spread out watching television; everyone except for Rocky, that is. The former Red and Blue Ranger presently had a whirlwind of organized chaos going on in the kitchen as he went about preparing their final dinner together on the trip. The other members of the group had all offered to help him cook the meal, only to have Rocky decline like he had done each and every year for the last seven, and now eight. Cooking for his friends and family, seeing their smiles when they bit into a particularly tasty dish; more than even the martial arts, that was Rocky's greatest pleasure.

Sharing one of the couches with Kimberly, Katherine and Jason, Tommy kept his arm around Kimberly's shoulders and his eyes on the flat screen television where the Cleveland Cavaliers were currently running the floor in a fast break against the Chicago Bulls. His mind, though? Well, that was somewhere else entirely.

It was almost unfathomable for him to think that their trip would actually be ending come tomorrow morning, everyone going back to their regular lives spread out across the country. Even in his head it sounded somewhat clichéd, but it really did seem like it had only just been yesterday when Kimberly had startled him from his almost-nap in his car in front of the Reno/Tahoe Airport.

So much had happened in those seven days, things he never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined himself doing: snowboarding while stripping, singing karaoke with the guys, falling in love with the same girl all over again. He smiled subtly when he thought of how far he and Kimberly had come over the last week, going from a casual and secret fling with no strings attached to publicly teetering on the edge of so much more. Loving her the way that he did, he could only hope that she decided the future she wanted included him for more than just a week each year.

When a few of his friends started to roar, Tommy was snapped from his thoughts and rapidly blinked his mind clear just in time to see Cavalier's forward LeBron James running up the court while a highlight of the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree dunk he had just executed started to play on the screen.

"Dude, did you see that?" asked Jason, reaching behind Katherine and Kimberly to smack Tommy on the shoulder.

"Huh?" asked Tommy, looking across the couch to Jason. "Oh, the dunk? Yeah, man. Crazy."

Looking at his friend, Jason just shook his head and chuckled, taking a drink from his Heineken bottle. For as long as they'd known each other he barely even needed to see the look on Tommy's face to know exactly what the former White Ranger was thinking about; the petite brunette on his left.

For her part Kimberly wasn't ignorant of the way Tommy had been staring intently at the television, wearing a look that was far too contemplative for a sporting event, especially one that he cared very little about. She, too, knew what he was thinking, but it wasn't like they could just have the conversation now and she wasn't about to ditch their friends on their final night together. Plus, deep down she still didn't feel like that conversation was one that she was ready to have right now.

Her fear of hurting Tommy again was what had prevented her from ever wanting to pursue something more in the past, and now it was doing the exact same thing. For as long as she could remember Kimberly had always attacked her fears with a take-no-prisoners attitude; except when it came to Tommy. He was her one weakness, the one man she wanted and needed in her life above any other, but no matter how hard she tried she just couldn't shake the fear of hurting Tommy like she had in high school a second time.

"Hey, Rocko!" yelled Adam from the recliner where Tanya sat with him, curled up against his side. "What time is dinner gonna be ready, bro?"

"When I put it on the table!" Rocky shouted back, earning a few laughs from his friends. "Perfection takes time, Adam. That's why I was born—"

"…two weeks later then you were supposed to be!" the group interjected, having heard this explanation from Rocky—who stared back at them, almost dumbfounded—more times than any of them cared to count.

"We know, Rocko. We know," said Kimberly, shaking her head.

With a roll of his eyes, Rocky scoffed. "Keep going like this, guys, and you'll all be lucky if dinner doesn't come to the front door in a box," he muttered jokingly, turning his back on his friends as he returned to his cooking.

Sharing silent looks with the others that conveyed his simple message, Tommy winked and began mouthing a countdown from three. At zero, he nodded once and the group all chorused, "We love you, Rocky!"

"Yeah, yeah," Rocky grumbled, waving them off dismissively. "You guys only say that when you're hungry."

Zack chuckled. "Look on the bright side, man; that's better than never hearing it at all!" he returned, getting laughs from his friends but only when he got smacked on the arm by Angela with a warning point of her finger for his efforts.

"Yeah, that's true. Man, I'm glad I don't know what it feels like to be you," Rocky countered, laughing as he started checking the food that was nearly done. A large honey ham, two different pies, a pan of cornbread stuffing and two dozen homemade rolls rested in the oven, while pots and pans of various other side dishes occupied all six of the kitchen's stovetop burners. "Alright, guys. Dinner's gonna be ready in about ten minutes. Someone might want to set the table and all that unless you guys plan on going caveman style tonight."

"I'll do it," Kimberly volunteered, Rocky nodding as he stirred a pot of simmering brown gravy.

"I'll help," Tommy added quickly. Rising to his feet, he smiled down at Kimberly and offered her a pair of helping hands. Taking his hands, Kimberly nodded and allowed Tommy to pull her up, both of them heading to the kitchen with ignorance to the grinning looks their friends all shared behind their backs.

Ten minutes later, just as Tommy and Kimberly were finishing setting the table and right when he had said it would be, Rocky was calling everyone to the dining room. For nearly two hours they ate and drank, corking and emptying four bottles of wine as they feasted like royalty on ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots in a brown sugar glaze, green beans coated in a parmesan-garlic butter, French onion soup, Caesar salad with homemade dressing and rolls hot and fresh from the oven.

By the time they'd finished devouring Rocky's pie—apple and blueberry with the same vanilla bean ice cream he made fresh in his restaurant—the others at the table were finding that moving more than a few inches at a time was quite the struggle.

Taking his last bite of apple pie Tommy set his fork down on his plate and leaned back in his chair with a sigh, his hands resting on his stomach. "Man, I don't even want to think about how long I'm going to have to hit the gym to burn this all off."

"Yeah, but it's oh so worth it," Kimberly laughed, shaking her head. "I just feel bad for whoever's got to do the dishes."

Across from her, Zack rested his elbows on the table and his chin atop his hands as he looked to Kimberly and smiled. "You know, it's funny you should mention that, Kim. Seeing as how you and Tommy skipped out on dinner the other night, I was the one who took your place on dish duty with Aisha. And since tonight would have been my usual night, why don't you look at Adam and say hello to your new dish washing partner."

Kimberly opened her mouth for a reply but faltered, knowing she had very little room to wiggle her way out of this one. Still, having do to the dishes on a ridiculously full stomach was a small price to have to pay in exchange for what she knew would always be one of the most amazing and memorable nights of her entire life.

"Fine," Kimberly muttered, turning to Adam. "Let's get these done so we can do presents."

Adam nodded and with that they were up and on their feet, clearing away the plates and silverware from dessert and carrying them into the kitchen where the dinner dishes were already waiting for them. Unfortunately, such a big production meant there was at least twice the work in comparison to a typical meal. What usually took no more than ten or fifteen minutes turned into a near forty-minute effort made exponentially harder by the fact that they had to hand wash most of the pots and pans Rocky had used to cook since they didn't fit in the dishwasher with everything else taking up so much space.

It was nearly nine o'clock when the kitchen was finally clean, and by then the others had all moved to the front room opposite the foyer where they sat in various positions around a ten foot tall, fully decorated Christmas tree with a dozen wrapped presents beneath it. Every year the guys went into the woods on the first day of the trip to chop down a tree, but the process of decorating it was one that everybody engaged in with each of them bringing a few of their own ornaments from home.

Following Adam into the room, Kimberly found Tommy sitting in a chair next to the tree and started walking towards him. "You gonna be a gentleman and let me have the chair?" she asked with a smile.

Laughing, Tommy shook his head. "You're more than welcome to share it with me, though," he replied, winking as he patted his leg.

Kimberly rolled her eyes playfully but took her seat on Tommy's lap nonetheless, his hand slinking around her waist and pulling her in close to him. With her arm around his shoulders, she smiled contentedly as she looked around at all of her friends. "So who's going to be the one to start us off this year?"

Seated in front of the tree with Aisha in between his legs and his back against the chair that Adam and Tanya currently shared, Rocky took it upon himself to reach under the tree and randomly pull out a present. "Looks like," he started, inspecting the nametag, "Billy. Here you go, buddy."

Billy smiled and murmured his thanks as he took the package from Rocky and unwrapped a miniature version of the Space Shuttle Discovery, a vessel he'd played a large role in the creation of. "Most excellent," the original Blue Ranger exclaimed, holding up the box for his friends to see. "My thanks to whomever drew my name this year."

"Alright," said Rocky, reaching under the tree for another gift. "This one goes to…Tanya."

Wrapped in Adam's arms, Tanya smiled her appreciation as Rocky held the package behind his head for her to take. Seated across from them, Kimberly could tell by the way Tommy watched the former Yellow Ranger like a hawk while she opened her gift that he had been the one to draw Tanya's name for the exchange.

Pulling the wrapping paper away, Tanya furrowed her brow slightly when she looked down at the unmarked wooden box in her hands. Upon opening the box, however, her eyes gleamed in surprise. "Oh wow; these are incredible," she murmured, her hand covering her mouth. "I haven't seen anything like this in years."

"What is it?" asked Tommy casually, Kimberly suppressing the urge to smile.

"Oh, it's a couple different pieces of beaded jewelry. They look African, probably done by a tribe somewhere in Ghana by the look of it," Tanya replied, handing the box off to Rocky who briefly checked out the beaded necklace with a matching bracelet and earrings before passing it down the line. "If those actually came from Africa they're really rare. Seriously, whoever got me this year; thank you so much."

"Ya done good, Handsome," Kimberly whispered into Tommy's ear as she gave his shoulder a squeeze, Tommy remaining subtle with a simple and unnoticed nod.

"Okay, next up is," Rocky started, dipping his hand beneath the tree once more. Retrieving a present, he held it up and smiled. "Me."

Almost giddily he began ripping off the wrapping paper, raising a curious eyebrow at the white box marked Messermeister with a picture of a chef's knife on it. "Holy crap, it's got my name on it," he muttered, carefully withdrawing the eight inch blade. Sure enough, engraved in flowing red cursive on the handle were the words Chef DeSantos, then again in much smaller black letters at the bottom of the blade's thickest point. "This is so damn cool! Thanks to whoever," he continued, passing the knife off with the utmost care, unable to see the look of approval that Aisha sent Angela's way.

On and on they went like that, opening presents from one another until only two packages remained beneath the tree; well, technically one since the other was too big to fit under the tree. Oddly enough, those final two gifts were tagged for Tommy and Kimberly and were complete opposites in both size and shape. Where Kimberly's was small, no more than eight inches tall and four inches wide, Tommy's present was as big and bulky as a 1980's television.

"You can go ahead, Beautiful," Tommy murmured, gently rubbing the small of her back.

Giving Tommy a smile, Kimberly nodded and reached out to take the present that Rocky was currently extending to her. Something about the size and feel of the gift in her hands made her think it could have been fragile so she handled it with the utmost care as her fingertips slowly peeled the wrapping paper away.

"Oh wow; this is amazing," Kimberly murmured, shaking her head in disbelief at the tiny object resting in her lap. It appeared to be an ornament, presumably handcrafted considering the incredibly precise details of the figurine and its accessories that made it look strikingly similar to Kimberly. Dressed in a pink and white leotard she was in the midst of a back handspring atop a green base, three gold medals around her neck as she stared at the face of the helmet she'd worn as the Pink Ranger. "I…I honestly don't know what to say. I can't even begin to imagine how much work went into making this. Seriously, whoever did this, thank you so much."

Eyeing Jason across the room, Tommy smiled and nodded discreetly when his old friend tilted his head ever so subtly in Katherine's direction. It made a part of Tommy's heart warm to know that he, Jason, Katherine and Kimberly had all managed to remain such close friends despite all of the shakeups that had occurred in their relationships over the years.

"Okay, I'm not even going to try and hand this one off to you," Rocky laughed, looking from the present to Tommy with a shake of his head while simultaneously pointing to the gift. "Just get your ass up and open it over there."

Rolling his eyes, Tommy chuckled slightly as he regretfully pried himself away from Kimberly, setting her back down in the chair before crossing the room to where his present rested. Sure enough, when he tore the wrapping paper away he was left staring right at the oversized box of a Sony plasma television.

"Why do I get the feeling I'm going to open this only to find another box with ten more inside of it?" asked Tommy, eleven sets of eyes simultaneously turning to Rocky.

"What?" said Rocky, holding up his hands defensively. "That was last year, guys. Plus, I wouldn't do that to anyone except Adam just because I know how much it always pisses him off when I do."

The others just laughed knowingly as Tommy dipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out his key ring, using one of his keys to split the strip of duct tape keeping the box closed. Even though Tommy didn't know who had his name and Rocky had denied any shenanigans, he was almost disappointed when he looked inside the box and didn't find a smaller one. Nonetheless, that slightest hint of disappointment disappeared completely as soon as he saw what rested at the bottom of the box.

"Oh man," Tommy muttered, his eyes wide as he reached in carefully and extracted a framed painting nearly five feet wide and three feet tall. The painting had him at a severe loss for words; it was a near perfect replica of the picture he'd shown Kimberly with he and his dog Maggie, only now his five Ranger helmets surrounded them on the lawn. Wearing a contemplative expression, he handed the picture off to Rocky as he turned to look at Kimberly whose lips were spread in an impish grin. "Did you do this?"

Kimberly shook her head. "Nope," she answered, slowly pulling the photograph from her pocket and holding it up for him to see. "I just stole it from your wallet when you were asleep and gave it to the person who did."

Laughing, Tommy ran his hand through his hair as he looked around at his friends. "That is honestly one of the coolest things that I have ever seen. It's just…wow.I can't thank whichever one of you did this enough."

Everyone looked around, waiting to see if anyone was going to slip and reveal that it had been them, but the eleven faces of his friends all remained completely neutral. No one was going to tell him anything now, but he was almost certain that he could pry it from Kimberly once they were alone since she obviously knew who'd done it. That and the fact that he could now bribe her with the knowledge that Katherine had been the one to make her ornament.

"So what now?" asked Zack, Angela tucked in comfortably against his side.

Katherine smiled. "Now we clean up all this wrapping paper and put everything away, get in our comfy clothes, make some popcorn and watch A Christmas Story."

"Finally!" Rocky exclaimed, clapping for his victory five days too late.

And with that the group started to disperse, most of them going to their bedrooms with their gifts in hand while Adam, Katherine and Zack all carried armfuls of wrapping paper to the waste basket beneath the kitchen sink before heading off to join their significant others.

Following Kimberly into their bedroom Tommy smiled sadly when he saw all of their bags resting in the far corner, everything except that which they absolutely needed for the morning and what they were currently wearing already packed and ready to go. It was finality at its finest, surpassed only by the deflated feeling he got in the pit of his stomach every year upon the owner's Friday morning arrival to collect the keys.

"I can't believe that we're actually leaving tomorrow," Tommy murmured, shaking his head as he laid his painting down on the bed. "It really doesn't feel like we've been here for a whole week already."

Smiling, Kimberly nodded her agreement as she set her ornament down atop the oak dresser and opened the drawer where her pajamas lay next to tomorrow's outfit, those and the flip-flops near the door the only things she hadn't already packed. "Time really does fly when you're having fun," she shrugged, removing her jeans. "It seems like yesterday when you were picking me up at the airport.

Tommy laughed. "I was thinking the exact same thing earlier," he replied, Kimberly grinning as she pulled on her White Ranger pajama bottoms. Walking over to the dresser to retrieve his own pajama pants he used his hip to nudge Kimberly. "So, are you going to tell me who made my painting the easy way or am I going to have to tickle it out of you?"

Kimberly narrowed her eyes at him. "Neither," she answered. "I'm not telling you, and if you tickle me I'm still not telling you, plus you won't get any tonight. I think it's a fairly easy choice, don't you?"

With a quiet chuckle Tommy slowly shook his head. "Well what if I tell you who made your ornament?" he asked, a slight hint of hopefulness in his voice.

He hadn't planned on having to use his trump card so early on, but Kimberly wasn't leaving him with any other options. Judging from the thoughtful look that she wore, however, it seemed that his doing so had been worth it. "How do you know who made mine?" she questioned.

"If I told you it would give it away. Sorry," said Tommy, smiling at her as he shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "But I'm more than willing to tell you who made yours if you'll tell me who made mine."

Scoffing, Kimberly glared hard at Tommy as she folded her arms across her chest, engaging him in a brief stare down. "Fine," she muttered in defeated concession. "You tell me first and then I'll tell you."

Shaking his head, Tommy laughed. "Yeah, it doesn't work that way," he replied. "You're the type who will let me tell you, then walk away without telling me and think it's funny. My conscience won't let me do that. All you'd have to do is give me your puppy dog eyes to make me break and you know it."

Laughing knowingly, Kimberly sighed. "Fine, it was Trini. She had a bunch of extra time at home on the days we went snowboarding and wasn't sure what to get you. She mentioned wanting to do some kind of painting that incorporated your passion for the Rangers and that's when I suggested the picture with Maggie. There, now you tell me who made my ornament."

As she'd been giving her explanation Tommy had changed into his pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt, all the while studying her facial features carefully. For as long as he could remember Kimberly's upper lip would twitch ever so slightly whenever she tried to lie. It was practically unrecognizable to most, but ever since they'd rekindled their friendship following the events on Murianthis he'd been able to read her in ways that were hovering on being inhuman.

"Katherine," he told her, knowing that she hadn't been lying to him.

"Really?" asked Kimberly in surprise, Tommy nodding. "Wow. I honestly didn't think Kat liked me enough to do something like that."

"What do you mean?" Tommy questioned, furrowing his brow.

Kimberly shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I just kind of always thought that she only put up with me because of you."

Tommy grinned. "What gave you that impression?"

Again Kimberly shrugged, this time with a sigh. "Nothing, really. Honestly, it was probably more my own thinking then anything she did 'cause Kat has never been anything but warm to me. I guess in my mind I couldn't understand how she'd want to be my friend with all of the history that you and I have."

Laughing, Tommy shook his head. "Well, if you want the truth Kat really didn't like you for awhile. Even when she and I were together she knew that I still had feelings for you. The first couple of weeks after Murianthis were the worst."

"Why's that?" asked Kimberly with a curious expression.

"Because of the way I tried to free you from Maligore's control. When we still had the Zeo powers, Prince Gasket captured me and turned me into his personal warrior," Tommy explained, Kimberly nodding even though she'd heard this story before. Or at least she thought she'd heard it. What came next was a part of the story Tommy had never told her. "The other Zeo Rangers came to Gasket's arena to try and free me from his spell, but I wouldn't listen. It took Kat powering down and seeing the love she had for me in her eyes to break the spell. When I took my helmet off on Murianthis, it was me hoping the love in my eyes would have been enough to free you from Maligore."

Clearly taken aback, Kimberly moved to the edge of the bed and sat. "Wow," she murmured, the surprise etched on her face. "I mean, I'd kind of always figured that was why you took your helmet off, but I had no idea about Kat. Why did you always tell me that it was Jason who broke Gasket's hold on you?"

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Tommy shrugged his shoulders awkwardly. "I guess it's because for a long time I've always felt guilty about the situation between Kat and I so I've tried to avoid talking about it. It's really a terrible feeling to know how deeply another person cares about you while knowing you'll never feel as strongly, and part of me feels like I took advantage of that by staying with Kat when I couldn't give her the same love she gave me. She really is a sweet girl and I couldn't be happier for her now that she finally has someone to give her the love that she deserves."

Smiling, Kimberly nodded. "That's understandable," she replied, pausing briefly. "So what made Kat stop disliking me?"

Tommy laughed. "A couple months after we broke up she came to my place to pick up some of the things she'd left behind. We talked about pretty much everything and agreed that we still wanted to be friends; we'd been through too much not to be. You managed to come up in the conversation and I think she finally realized that the way she felt about me was the way I felt about you at the time. We kind of bonded over the fact that we both wanted people we weren't meant to be with. After that was when I think she finally decided that she was going to really make an effort to be your friend."

Grinning, Kimberly shook her head. "How is it that you find a way to stay friends with all your ex-girlfriends when most couples go their separate ways after breakups?"

"Not all my ex-girlfriends, Kim. Just the two who mattered enough to remain a part of my life," Tommy corrected, smiling at the way Kimberly expression noticeably perked up when he had said that.

Unfortunately for Tommy, he wasn't all that good at hiding his emotions either. Kimberly could practically see the urge written all over his face, the desire to take the conversation in a different direction starting to bubble over. With her elbows resting on her legs she let out a deep sigh.

"You want to talk about us, don't you?" she asked softly, looking deeply into his eyes.

Faltering for just the briefest of moments, Tommy swallowed hard and nodded. "You promised that we'd talk before the trip was over, and even though we're still staying together for a few more days, this trip still officially ends tomorrow morning. We don't have to have some full blown conversation about what's going to happen six months from now, there's just a few things I really want to talk to you about before we go to my parent's."

"Like what?" Kimberly questioned, deciding that now was as good a time as any even though she still wasn't entirely sure if this was a discussion that she was ready to have or not. Deep down, though, a big part of her already felt like she knew what the answer would be to the one question she expected Tommy to ask.

Knowing that this was the conversation he'd been waiting for made Tommy smile. "Like—" he started, only to be cut off when the sound of someone pounding on the bedroom door filled their room. "Yo, let's go!" Rocky yelled. "Everyone's downstairs waiting for you! We're starting the movie in two minutes whether you guys are down there or not!"

Tommy rolled his eyes in disbelief. "God dammit," he muttered under his breath, moving his eyes from the door to Kimberly. "I guess we're going to have to talk later, huh?"

Kimberly shrugged. "It's not like we've never seen the movie before. If you really want to we can stay up here and talk then go downstairs when we're done."

Though he appreciated her offer, Tommy knew that it was half-hearted at best. Their annual viewing of A Christmas Story on the last night of the trip was a tradition and tradition, along with a slew of other invaluable life lessons, was something that all of the Rangers had come to appreciate through their time served regardless of how long their tenure had been.

"Come on," Tommy replied, beckoning her towards him with a wave of his hand. "We'll talk later."

Smiling appreciatively, Kimberly rose to her feet and immediately sought Tommy's embrace. "Before we pull out of that driveway tomorrow morning, I promise you that we will have our talk," she murmured.

Making sure that his face gave no hints to his disappointment Tommy just nodded his understanding, maintaining his contemplative silence as he took Kimberly's hand and started towards the bedroom door.


The next morning…

It was nearly ten o'clock and Tommy and Kimberly had yet to have the talk that she'd promised him the night before. After the movie they'd stayed downstairs for a little while longer, the result being that Kimberly fell asleep in his arms. Tommy had carried her to bed and gone to sleep disappointed, but with the morning still a possibility only to have her absent from bed when he'd woken up half an hour ago.

Standing alone in the shower as a steady stream of hot water washed down on him from above, Tommy couldn't help but to wonder why she was avoiding this conversation so steadfastly. It seemed like every time he wanted to talk to her she found a way to wiggle out of it and part of him was starting to get frustrated because of that. Tommy was always upfront; he expected the truth because he never shied away from giving it. Deep down he would have rather had Kimberly tell him she didn't want their relationship to go beyond their week each year then to have her continuously avoid talking about it like it seemed she was doing.

"Did I do something wrong?" he thought to himself, looking back on the last week they'd shared together. Over the past seven-plus days the only thing he could think of that might have made Kimberly mad were his antics on the mountain the first time that they'd gone snowboarding. Even then, though, he knew that something so minute wouldn't be enough to make her run like he believed her to be doing. "I feel like I've done everything that I could to make her see how much I really love her. She says she loves you too, but what if it's just not enough?"

Tommy sighed, shaking those thoughts away as he squeezed a dollop of shampoo into the palm of his hand and started running it through his hair. Until he heard Kimberly say to his face that she didn't want a relationship he had to try and remain hopeful. He knew that he'd been winning her over little by little; now he just had to hope a little bit more, hope that the short time they'd spent together had been enough.

Some thirty minutes later he was walking downstairs with his backpack on and his duffel bag draped across his shoulder, the painting from Trini wrapped and tucked safely under his arm. He found everyone's bags in the room near the foyer, smiling sadly when he saw that the tree had already been undecorated and removed from the room. Musing that Kimberly must have taken his ornaments down and packed them in one of her bags, he set his things down near hers and then headed to the kitchen in search of the others.

"Nice of you to join us, Sunshine," Jason laughed, alone in the kitchen as he leaned against the counter while picking at a bowl of Cheerio's.

Chuckling, Tommy shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "Yeah, well, better late than never, bro," he replied, opening the refrigerator and reaching inside for a bottle of water. "Where's everyone else at?"

"Living room," Jason answered in between bites of cereal, tilting his head to the right.

Side-stepping a few paces, Tommy peered around the corner and into the living room where he found the others sitting around talking with the television playing quietly in the background. His eyes met Kimberly's almost instantly and she smiled his way, but before he could see her beckoning him to join them he'd already returned his attention to Jason. If she wanted to avoid him then he was going to do the exact same thing, regardless of how childish that sounded when he actually thought about it.

"So you guys already took the tree down, huh?" asked Tommy, searching for anything to keep him in the kitchen.

Jason nodded. "It's down at the curb like every other year," he answered with a laugh. "And yes, before you ask, Kim took care of all your stuff."

"Cool," said Tommy casually, almost dismissively. "So what's the plan for you guys? When's everybody leaving?"

Jason smiled. "I'm glad you asked. I actually wanted to talk to you about that," he replied, Tommy rolling his eyes because a preface like that usually meant Jason was going to ask him to do something. "Do you think you and Kim could stay behind for like an extra half hour or so, just until he comes to pick up the keys? He's supposed to be here by eleven-thirty, but a van's coming at eleven to take Adam, Tanya, Billy and Trini to the airport in Sacramento, plus Kat and I have to take Rocky, 'Sha, Zack and Angela to the one in Reno before turning around and going back to Los Angeles."

Tommy seemed to debate this for only the briefest of moments before shrugging. "Yeah, I don't see why not. We don't really have to be at my parent's at any specific time."

"Sweet, bro; thanks. Everyone's keys but yours and Kim's are already hanging on the rack by the door," said Jason, Tommy nodding as the pair bumped fists.

Unfortunately for Tommy his old friend chose that moment to push himself away from the counter and start heading towards the living room. Not wanting it to seem like he was avoiding all of his friends, he was left with little choice but to follow him. Luckily, Kimberly was on a couch that was already fully occupied with Rocky and Aisha on one end and Katherine on the other side.

"Oh, here you go, Tommy. Have a seat," said Katherine, smiling politely as she rose to her feet and crossed the room to where Jason was standing while unknowingly making her ex-boyfriend wince inwardly.

"Oh, um, thanks," Tommy muttered as he and Katherine crossed paths on his way to the couch. Settling into the seat next to Kimberly, he briefly looked her way but remained silent.

Turning to look at him and seeing the distance in his eyes, Kimberly furrowed her brow. "You're not even going to say good morning?" she asked, quietly so as not to cause a scene.

"Good morning," Tommy muttered nonchalantly, reaching behind her to get Rocky's attention via a tap on the shoulder. "What time's your flight leaving, man?"

Kimberly just stared up at Tommy in disbelief, unable to believe that he was just ignoring her like this for no apparent reason. Alas, she knew that now was not exactly the most appropriate of times to discuss it and so she tucked it away with a mental reminder to bring it up once they were alone.

As it turned out, her wait for them to be alone was not a very long one at all. It wasn't more than ten minutes later when they heard the a vehicle outside, the sound of its honking horn flooding the house.

"I believe that is for us," said Billy, looking around at the people he would be sharing a van to the Reno/Tahoe Airport with.

Gazing down at his watch, Jason nodded. "We should probably get going too, then."

There was a clear sense of sadness between them as everyone rose to their feet to say their goodbyes to their parting friends. Tears were shed amongst nearly everyone in the group, especially for those like Tommy who had understood the significance of this particular vacation before it had even started.

Shortly thereafter the taxi van and Jason's Suburban were pulling away from the house, everyone waving to Tommy and Kimberly who stood side by side in between jambs of the front door, close but not touching while returning the waves with bright smiles. As soon as the two vehicles had disappeared, however, those smiles did the exact same thing.

"What the Hell is your problem?" asked Kimberly angrily, whirling around to face Tommy as she kicked the door shut.

Scoffing, Tommy rolled his eyes. "My problem?" he questioned with a bitter laugh. "I don't have a problem, Kim. Oh, except for the one where you seem to be avoiding me like the goddamn Black fucking Plague!"

Standing with her hands on her hips, Kimberly shook her head and gave chase when Tommy turned around and started back towards the living room. "Me avoiding you?" she replied incredulously. "If I recall correctly you're the one who's been ignoring me since the moment you came downstairs!"

"That's because you made it pretty damn obvious that you didn't want to talk to me, Kim!" Tommy fired back, his fists clenched at his sides as she stared back at him with a confused expression. "Oh, don't give me that look; first you fall asleep after the movie and then you're already gone when I wake up this morning. I'd say you've made it perfectly clear that you don't want to have the talk you promised we'd have."

Kimberly stared back at Tommy in disbelief. "You're a real piece of work, you know that?" she countered, shaking her head. "I'm sorry I got tired and fell asleep at one-thirty in the fucking morning like most normal people would! But don't blame me because your ass didn't wake up until almost ten o'clock! I was awake, dressed, packed and ready to talk at eight-thirty, but you were still sucking in the goddamn walls!"

Tommy narrowed his eyes. He knew he couldn't blame her for falling asleep, but if the part about her being awake at eight-thirty was true then he didn't have a leg to stand on. Considering that her upper lip had remained firm the whole time, he knew that the only person he could blame now was himself.

"Why didn't you wake me up?" he asked in a much more calm and rational tone of voice.

Kimberly sighed. "Because, Tommy, I shouldn't have had to. I figured having our talk wasn't as important to you as you made it sound if you couldn't get out of bed until two hours before we were supposed to leave."

"Two and a half," Tommy murmured with a quiet chuckle. Eyeing Kimberly carefully, seeing her roll her eyes, his shoulders sagged in defeat. "I, uh, I guess I should apologize for acting like an ass for no reason, huh?"

Folding her arms across her chest, Kimberly nodded. "That would be a good place to start."

Wearing a soft smile, Tommy ran his hand through his hair somewhat nervously as he took a seat on the couch and raised his eyes to meet hers. "I'm sorry, Kim; honestly," he murmured. "I just…it scares me so much to know that I'm putting you on a plane in three days with no idea when I'm going to see you again. Before I could just look forward to next year's trip, but I'm not so sure if there's even going to be a trip at all next year."

Kimberly raised a curious eyebrow at that. "What are you talking about?"

"This was probably the last time that we're all going to be together like that, Kim. By this time next year Billy and Trini are going to have a ninth month-old baby. Jason and Kat are talking about starting a family as well, and who knows what the others are planning," he answered, shaking his head with a sigh. "Everyone's starting to move on to the next chapter of their lives: settling down, getting married, having kids; I'm not saying that I want those things right away, but it'd be nice to have something to look forward to."

"You're right," Kimberly murmured, almost in disbelief. "I never even thought of it like that, but you're right. Once people start having kids this trip is going to be pretty much impossible. Either that or not everyone's going to come anymore. No decent parent wants to bring their kids around a bunch of drinking and partying."

Swallowing the unwanted lump in his throat, Tommy nodded his agreement as he attempted to take their conversation in a different direction. "Do you forgive me for acting like an ass?"

Smiling, Kimberly nodded as she moved to sit next to him. Wrapping her arms around his, she laid her head against his shoulder and looked up at him. "I'm ready to talk now if you still want to," she said in a near whisper.

Tommy smiled softly, pecking a kiss to the side of her head. "Talk about putting a guy on the spot," he murmured, sharing a brief and quiet chuckle with Kimberly. Summoning all the emotional strength he could muster, he slowly reached out and took her hands. "Before I say anything, I just want you to know that I've thought long and hard about this, okay?"

"Okay," said Kimberly, nodding.

"Okay," he replied, swallowing hard once more. "When you moved to Florida I think we were both too young and emotionally immature and the circumstances made it almost impossible for a long-distance relationship to work. But we've also both grown up an awful lot since we broke up; we've come a long way and I really feel like we can make it work this time around if we just put in the effort and try. I love you, Kim; more than I've ever loved anyone, and I know that I'm willing to try as hard as I possibly can if you are too"

Slowly, Kimberly started to adjust her body until she was seated as close to Tommy as possible, his arm around her shoulders while hers encircled his midsection tightly, her head resting against his chest. "What happens if we try and don't work out again?" she murmured, her greatest fear slowly coming to light. "We managed to patch our friendship up once, but a second time? Part of me would almost rather not try then run the risk of possibly ruining our friendship somewhere down the line."

Tommy eyes narrowed as he looked hard at Kimberly, surprise etched all across his face. "I can't believe I just heard those words come out of your mouth," he muttered in reply, shaking his head. "The Kimberly I know would never not try something just because she was afraid, even if it meant the possibility of failing which, to be honest, I don't think is going to happen when it comes to us."

Kimberly sighed. "What makes you so sure of that, Tommy?"

"Just look at our friends, Kim, how everyone but Zack has found their endgame in another Ranger. Do you know why that is?" asked Tommy, Kimberly shaking her head. "It's because for a relationship to really work both people have to be honest. One of the main reasons that Zack and Angela have stayed together is because we'd known her since high school and all agreed that our pasts were a secret we felt she could keep. Aside from you and Kat, every relationship I have ever been in has failed; usually for a bunch of different reasons, but one always remained the same, and it was because I couldn't let an outsider in on who I really was as a person, that piece of my past that's so much a part of I am. No relationship can work when you're keeping a secret like that."

Taking a breath, Tommy paused for just the briefest of moments before continuing.

"And when I say look at our friends, I mean really look at our friends. Again, aside from Zack and Angela none of them really showed any interest in who they're with now when we were in high school and even for a few years after that. I guess you could make a case for Billy, but Trini really didn't start to care for him beyond a friend until after he'd come back from Aquitar in 2000. The point I'm trying to make is that we've all tried many times to find someone outside our circle, but our pasts will always prevent us from finding real happiness with someone who we can't share that history with."

Kimberly just smiled up at him. It was a nice speech, perhaps a bit on the unnecessarily long side, but it didn't really have the effect she assumed Tommy had hoped it would. "So you're saying the reason we should try again is because we used to be Rangers and can only date Rangers because of that?"

"No," said Tommy, shaking his head. "I think we should try again because we love each other. The fact that we were both Rangers is just one of the reasons I really feel like we would work out if we tried, along with a host of other things."

Gazing deeply into Tommy's eyes, Kimberly let out a sigh. "And if we try and don't work, what happens then? Your friendship means as much to me as your heart, Tommy, and I know you feel the same way. It sucks when we aren't friends and I don't want to lose you as a friend just because we didn't work out."

Smiling, Tommy reached out and gently tilted her chin up. "I don't want to lose you as a friend either, Beautiful. A strong enough friendship can withstand just about anything, though, and I honestly feel like the friendship you and I have is pretty damn strong. But like I said, I'm not planning on us not working; and if for some reason we try and don't work, then at least we can still say that we gave it a shot. As long as we're honest with each other, I don't see us ever not being friends. And I would rather try and fail then live the rest of my life wondering what would have happened or what could have been."

Never taking her eyes away from his Kimberly smiled as she slowly started to crawl her way onto his lap, her arms slinking around his neck. "So, Mr. Oliver, you really think we can make it, huh?" she questioned softly.

"Nope," said Tommy, smiling as he shook his head. "I know we can."

"You know we're going to have to do things differently this time around, right?" asked Kimberly, Tommy nodding while his hands slowly made their way to her slim waist. "No more forgetting to call each other or anything like that, and if there's a problem then we need to be up front with one another about it. Being five-thousand miles apart is going to be hard, at least until we get some things figured out, but I want to try and I feel like I'm ready to."

At that moment Tommy's oh-so-bright smile would have been powerful enough to illuminate even the darkest of rooms. Hearing her say the words, knowing that after seven years they were finally going to be more than just a fling, made him feel overjoyed in ways that simple words could not adequately describe. It was like everything—all the failed relationships and heartache, the miserable days and even lonelier nights—had all been worth it just to reach this one moment he'd waited so very long for.

"What was it that finally convinced you?" asked Tommy. It was a question that he just had to know the answer to.

The smile on Kimberly's face as she looked down at Tommy was just as big as his. "You," she murmured, kissing him softly. "All this time the only thing that had been holding me back was my fear of myself, wondering how I would ever be able to live with myself if I somehow hurt you like I had before. But then I realized that if anyone should have been afraid of me it was you, and that you wouldn't have wanted more if you were. I figured if you weren't afraid then I didn't need to be either."

"You have no idea how happy it makes me to hear you say that," Tommy replied in a near whisper. With closed eyes he kissed her passionately, their mouths clashing rapidly as his hands started to slowly explore her body. "One more time before we leave?"

"Do you even have to ask?" Kimberly questioned, grinning down at him as she began a slow grind on his lap. Taking Tommy's face in her hands, she kissed him hard and full as he pulled her sweatshirt up to her shoulders. She tore her lips away from his for but a moment, just long enough for him to remove her sweatshirt completely. Already she could feel his cock straining against his sweats. "Mmm," she murmured, kissing him as she started to remove his sweatshirt. "I think someone's excited."

Helping her pull off his sweatshirt, Tommy tossed it further down the couch and shook his head. "That's the understatement of the century," he countered as his fingers went to the button of her jeans. Popping the button free, he slowly pulled down the zipper and then pushed her back a bit. "Stand up."

Nodding, Kimberly rose to her feet as Tommy pushed himself to the edge of the couch and wrapped an index finger through the belt loop nearest her left hip and another through the loop above the right half of her ass. Pulling them tightly, he looked up at her and smiled moments before she felt her pants slide effortlessly down her legs in one quick motion, leaving her standing there in a pink g-string.

"Neat trick," Kimberly murmured. Tommy shot her a quick wink as she kicked off her flip flops and stepped out of her pants, brushing them away with the side of her foot. "Now it's my turn," she continued, smiling as she took hold removed Tommy's sandals and took hold of the ankles of his sweats. "Lift your ass."

Using his hands to support himself, Tommy raised his ass off of the couch while Kimberly's grasp on his sweats kept his legs supported. It took him a moment to realize what was coming next, but by that point it was already too late so he did the only thing he could do; brace himself for the inevitable fall. It came seconds later when Kimberly yanked his pants away, losing control of his legs and thus forcing them to swing back against the couch, their impact causing him to lose all control and drop back to the cushion beneath him.

"See, I've got tricks too," said Kimberly, smiling proudly at Tommy as she slipped her panties down and slithered her way back towards him.

"Painful tricks, Kim," Tommy replied with a chuckle, tracing slow kisses across her neck and collar bone while ignoring the stinging sensation in his legs.

With her hands grasping his shoulders from behind, Kimberly dragged her lips to Tommy's left ear and began nibbling on it. "A little pain never hurt anyone, Handsome," she countered seductively. Reaching back she took hold of his hard cock and started pumping his length as she whispered in his ear, "You need to go commando more often; much easier access."

"Says the girl who wore panties," Tommy groaned, simultaneous pleasure coursing through his body from her attention to his ear and cock. His hands found their way around her waist once more, working up and down her back as she continued stroking him with a sinfully wicked expression on her face. "God dammit, Kim, I want you so bad right now."

"Well then let's do something about that," Kimberly replied, bringing her lips to his as she positioned herself over his cock. Slowly lowering her body down, a quiet moan escaped her as inch by inch his length began to fill her completely. Biting her lip with her hands braced on his chest, she smiled and started to ride him methodically. "Oh, fuck, that feels good."

Tommy grinned as he leaned back against the couch, content to let Kimberly do most of the work for now. "You do realize what this is, right?"

"What's that?" questioned Kimberly, squeezing her eyes shut tightly as her pace began to quicken gradually.

"The first time we've ever made love as a couple," Tommy answered with a smile, pushing himself forward to capture her lips in a passionate French kiss before she could reply. While his lips were kept occupied he moved his hands to her breasts, Kimberly moaning softly from the sensation of his thumbs ghosting across her nipples.

Only when the need to breathe became too much did Kimberly tear her lips away, looking down at Tommy with a pleasured smile as she continued to ride him rhythmically. "So does that mean I get to call you things like sweetheart and love muffin in public now that we're a couple?"

"You can call me anything you want if you keep doing that," Tommy answered, sharing a brief look with Kimberly that said he was doing talking, Holding her tightly around the waist he took control and began to drive his cock deep inside her with powerful strokes, Kimberly whimpering as wrapped her arms around his neck and held on with everything she had.

"Fuck me, Tommy," Kimberly panted, kissing him hard. "Ohgodfuckme!"

"Tell me you love me," Tommy demanded, causing Kimberly to moan when he began nibbling ever so gently on her left nipple.

Moving her hands to the back of the couch, Kimberly grasped it with all her might as she bit down hard on her bottom lip. "I love you, Tommy," she whispered on the wingtips of a kiss. "I've always loved you. Now make me cum for you."

"With pleasure," Tommy murmured, his hands slowly moving down her body.

As soon as Kimberly felt his thumb graze over her clit she knew that it was only a matter of moments before she succumbed. "So close, Tommy. God, I'm so close. Just a little bit more," she whimpered, slamming back her hips to meet each and every one of his deep thrusts. "I want you to cum with me."

"Almost there," Tommy panted, driving his entire length inside her with every ounce of strength that his body could muster.

Everything suddenly came crashing down just moments later in the simultaneous throes of two very loud and powerful orgasms. They held onto each other tightly, their bodies heaving as they slowly started to descend from nirvana when bad luck decided that it was time to intervene. It couldn't have been more than ten seconds after Tommy had finished when they heard the front door being pushed open.

"Hello!" the owned called out, stepping into the house as Tommy and Kimberly shared a momentary look of panic.

Words needn't be spoken; they'd barely had time to register what was happening before they were scrambling like crazy people, pulling themselves apart from each other as they dashed to find their clothes and dress before he found them. The last thing either of them wanted was to be caught in such a compromising position by someone they'd known for so many years.

Unfortunately, in her rush to find her outer garments Kimberly had forgotten all about the pink panties resting haphazardly on the couch's arm rest. They were fortunate that Tommy had noticed them out of the corner of his eye, stuffing them into his pocket just as the owner entered the living room.

"Ernie!" said Tommy and Kimberly in unison, moving to greet the man who had played such a large role in the Rangers' development from the young men and women they were into the adults they had become today.

"Hey, hey!" Ernie exclaimed, smiling as he shook Tommy's hand and gave Kimberly a warm hug. Aesthetically he'd changed quite a bit over the years—he wore his hair shorter, ditched the Hawaiian shirts in favor of a more business casual attire due to his ownership of two successful restaurants in Angel Grove and Las Vegas, and he had trimmed well over two hundred and fifty pounds—but inside he was still the same warm hearted man who'd always been there to give them sound advice and a place to hang out with more free food and smoothies than any of them cared to count. "So how was it? Did you guys have fun?"

Looking down at Kimberly, Tommy smiled as he turned his attention to Ernie. "It was a blast as always," he answered with a nod. "Everything's been cleaned up and all the keys are hanging on the rack by the door. I know we say it every year, but thanks again for letting us use the house."

"Hey, no problem. Anything for you guys," Ernie replied, clasping each of their shoulders with the same big grin they could so visibly remember seeing every day back in high school. "So where are you heading now? Back home, I assume."

Kimberly shook her head. "We're actually going back to Angel Grove to spend Christmas with Tommy's family," she answered as Tommy retrieved his cell phone from his pocket to check the time.

"Yeah," Tommy interjected, nodding. "And seeing as how we have an eight hour drive ahead of us we should probably be getting going."

Smiling, Ernie nodded. "Of course. Come on, I'll walk you out."

Five minutes later Tommy and Kimberly were sitting side by side in Tommy's SUV, their things all loaded in the trunk as they prepared to depart. He'd just turned his key in the ignition when he felt his cell phone vibrating against his leg. Rolling his eyes, he pulled out the device and checked the caller ID screen.

"It's my mom," said Tommy, Kimberly nodding as he answered the call. "Hey, Mom…yeah, yeah, we're leaving right now…of course she's with me…okay, okay, hold on a sec," he laughed, extending the phone to Kimberly. "She wants to talk to you."

Kimberly just smiled and took the phone, bringing it to her ear as Tommy started to back down the driveway. And then, with one last look at the house, they were gone.



Six months later…

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Miami, FL

12:30 pm

To say that the last month-plus had been stressful for Kimberly Hart would have been an incredibly vast understatement. She'd flown back and forth to New York three times in as many weeks to visit her goddaughter, Michelle Alexandra Cranston, and her parents. Her gymnastics academy was flourishing more so than ever before, but increased enrollment also dictated an increased work load for her and her staff. Not that she minded the extra work; more time at the school meant less time thinking about the man she loved more than anything and the five-thousand miles that separated them.

She'd thought about selling her school for awhile, moving back to California and starting over, but she just couldn't bring herself to sell; not when the academy had only recently started to get recognized after all the time and effort she had put into it over the years. Alas, it seemed to be a recurring trend in her life that everything would have been so much simpler if not for Tommy.

That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though. Her life may have been a lot less complicated without Tommy, but deep down she knew that she would never be as happy with another man as she was with him.

Over the last six or so months their combined efforts to keep their relationship going had increased exponentially in comparison to where they had been the last time they'd tried being together long distance back in high school. Nightly phone calls were a near regular occurrence now, and they exchanged emails constantly throughout the day. Tommy had even flown down during his spring break from school at the beginning of April to spend the week with her and Kimberly had done the same to be by his side when he accepted the school district's Teacher of the Year Award back in February.

As far as long distance relationships went, theirs was going as great as could be expected. Or at least it had been until Sunday evening when Kimberly had tried to call Tommy. She called both his home and cell phones, forced to leave a message when he hadn't answered either. He hadn't called her back that night, or the next day or the day after that, nor had he responded to the half dozen emails she'd sent over the last three days trying to figure out what was going on with him.

It wasn't like Tommy at all to go this long without contacting her and the fact that she didn't know what was happening—if he'd found someone else and was trying to avoid her or, God forbid, something bad had happened to him—only added more unwanted stress to her already hectic life. She wasn't as concerned with the former as she was with the latter; she just wanted to hear his voice, needed to hear it to know that he way okay.

Walking through a crowd of people down the streets of downtown Miami in a pair of black athletic pants and a light-pink tank top, she couldn't help but to let her thoughts drift to Tommy once more. He was on her mind constantly, the only thing she'd been able to think about recently as evidenced by the bruise on her the upper-inside of her left arm. She'd been going over a simple maneuver on the balance beam for one of her beginner classes, one she could have done in her sleep when she had lost focus and slipped.

Looking at the bruise, Kimberly knew how lucky she was that it had only been her arm to slam into the beam instead of her head. Unfortunately, it was pretty hard for her to care about her own well being when Tommy's was so prevalent in her mind. Letting out a sigh she tried her best to push those thoughts away as she entered a small, family owned restaurant on the corner of one of the biggest intersections in the downtown area.

"Hey, Kim. How are you?" asked the hostess, a seventeen year-old girl who happened to be the owner's daughter and a student at Kimberly's gymnastics school.

Kimberly forced herself to smile. "I'm good, Liz," she lied, not really seeing the need to dump her personal problems on one of her students. "Just stopped by to grab a quick bite on my lunch break. How are you?"

"I'm fine; just working," said Liz with a laugh, smiling as she retrieved a menu from underneath the desk she stood behind. "Just follow me and I'll take you to your table."

Nodding her understanding, Kimberly followed the young woman in silence and took her seat at a table in the back corner of the room, smiling her thanks when Liz handed her the menu and departed. Flipping it open she started to look through her choices. The restaurant served typical diner fare: burgers, sandwiches, salads and the like.

On most occasions she wouldn't have even needed the menu; she couldn't even remember the last time she'd ordered something besides a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich on rye with a side salad, but right now "the usual" just didn't sound good. As she would soon find out, though, neither did anything else on the menu. The truth was that, despite the fact she could hear her stomach growling, eating was about the furthest thing possible from her mind.

When a cup of chicken noodle soup and a few packets of saltine crackers came to her table fifteen minutes later she knew that she had ordered it—along with the diet Coke sitting in front of her—but could barely remember doing so. It was like her body was on auto-pilot, just going through the motions of living and it was all because of Tommy.

"I just need to know that you're okay, baby," she whispered to herself, staring down into the bowl of golden liquid.

By the time the check came her soup was cold and practically untouched, the soda glass still full and now watery. Knowing that her school was the only where Tommy and his well being wouldn't be a constant invasion of her thoughts, she pulled a few bills from her pocket and set a ten on the table as she moved to leave. She'd barely taken five steps towards the door when she heard someone call out to her from behind, Kimberly turning around to see her waitress standing next to her table.

"I think you left this by mistake, Kim," said Jessica, the hostess's older sister and a student of Kimberly's as well, holding up the ten dollar bill her teacher had left behind.

Smiling, Kimberly shook her head. "I know I didn't really eat the soup, Jess, but I still want to pay for it."

Jessica laughed as she walked towards Kimberly and placed the money in her teacher's hand. "Someone else already paid for it."

Kimberly furrowed her brow, looking at her student with a confused expression. "What?" she questioned, Jessica nodding. "Who?"

The twenty-one year-old woman shrugged. "I don't know; some guy I've never seen before. When he handed me the money I asked if he wanted me to get you, but he said no. Something about not wanting to leave Maggie outside by herself for very long."

At that very moment absolute shock and disbelief filled Kimberly's eyes completely, her mouth hanging wide open. "D-did you just say M-Maggie?" she asked hesitantly as Jessica nodded.

Before Jessica could say anything, however, Kimberly was already running towards the door, but she froze as soon as she reached the glass barrier. Looking out on the sidewalk she stared at the corner light-post for just the briefest of moments before bursting through the door with all her might.

Leaning against the side of the large steel beam, his hand tightly grasping a white dog leash, from the corner of his eye Tommy was somehow able to notice Kimberly running towards him just in time to catch her in mid-air as she threw herself at him. Holding onto each other fiercely, Kimberly started to feel tears brimming in her eyes, part of her unable to believe that he was actually standing there.

Tommy was all smiles as he gently set Kimberly back down onto her feet. "Hey, you," he murmured, looking down at her with nothing but love in his eyes as he used his free hand to wipe a stray tear away from her cheek.

"Tommy, I—" Kimberly started, words escaping her as she shook her head slowly. "What are you doing here?"

The former leader of the Power Rangers chuckled, his smile never wavering. "Well, I figured that it would probably be a good idea to get to know the city I'm going to be teaching in come next semester."

"What?" Kimberly exclaimed, her mouth agape once more as everything started to click. "You mean…"

Tommy nodded. "There was an opening in the science department at Miami Southridge High a couple months back. I applied and had my interview over spring break, but I didn't want to say anything to you because I didn't want you getting your hopes up until I knew for sure if I was going to be getting the job or not. Needless to say, they called last month and now here I am."

"Is that why you weren't answering your phone or email?" asked Kimberly, noticing the leashed Golden Retriever for the first time. "Is this Maggie?"

Again, Tommy nodded. "Yep, she's usually not this calm around strangers though so she must really like you."

"Sounds like her owner," Kimberly retorted, winking at Tommy as they shared a laugh.

"You can pet her if you want to. She really digs it if you scratch behind her ears," said Tommy, Kimberly smiling as she dropped down in front of the dog. "And to answer your other question, yes; that's why I wasn't answering your calls or emails. I've been driving since Sunday and I just got into town last night. I would have called and told you, but I could barely keep my eyes open and I figured you'd appreciate the surprise."

"I still can't believe you're actually here," Kimberly murmured, beaming up at him as she played with Maggie. "Where are you staying?"

Tommy shrugged. "The Four Seasons for now. I'm just keeping my things in storage until I find something permanent. Well, most of them, anyway. I left a lot of the secret stuff with Hayley back in Reefside."

Kimberly's next move came without even the slightest bit of hesitation. Slowly rising up to her feet, she looked into Tommy's eyes with an expression that conveyed nothing short of the utmost seriousness. "Stay with me," was her whispered request as she reached out to take his free hand. "I've got plenty of space in my house."

"What, you mean like permanently?" Tommy questioned, caught off guard.

Smiling from ear to ear, Kimberly nodded. "I mean, only if you want to, of course," she replied.

Giving her hand a gentle squeeze, Tommy smiled brightly as he pulled her in close to him. "I would love nothing more than to do that, Beautiful," he murmured, tenderly pressing a kiss to Kimberly's forehead.

Standing on her tiptoes, Kimberly kissed him with all the love and passion she'd been building up inside since the last time they had seen each other two months prior. "Come on," she told Tommy, using her hold on his hand to tug his arm lightly as she started drifting back in the direction she had originally come from.

"Where are we going?" asked Tommy, one hand holding Kimberly's and the other grasping Maggie's leash as they walked side by side up the street.

"Back to my school so I can get my car," Kimberly answered, resting the side of her head against Tommy's arm.

"And after that?" Tommy questioned, looking down at her with a grin.

Smiling wickedly, Kimberly shrugged her shoulders noncommittally. "Let's just say that I wouldn't be making any important plans for the next few days if I was you."

Tommy just nodded his head and laughed as they began heading towards her school, knowing that they had more than two months of being apart to make up for. Walking hand-in hand, Kimberly looked up at Tommy and gave him a smile that said everything to him that her words could not. She was beyond elated, and though there was no way to predict exactly what the future had in store for them, that sense of complication that had plagued her life for so long just seemed to disappear into nothingness. It was, in a word…