"Hour of Separation"
by rapunzl

Story Type: Canon
Timeline: Early S2, somewhere between "The Mutiny" and "Green No More"
Rating: T
Disclaimer: None of the Power Rangers or related characters belong to me. I make no profit off this little endeavor besides my own enjoyment... and hopefully, yours.
Challenge Direction: (from the Perfect Chemistry board; see my profile for a shameless plug) Tommy is hurt badly (but not too badly - not "near death" badly) in battle and Kim comes to his rescue/aide. (The show always had Kim getting rescued, I'd like to see the tables turned.) The story can be 'the battle' OR the battle can be part of a larger story –your choice-. The main concept of this challenge is a sweet, touching scene between the two of them either right after he's injured or later while he's recuperating. I want mush people!!!
Author's Note: I originally started writing this fic ages ago as an answer to Challenge Two, but it took on a life of its own... so, months later, I again apologize if this doesn't actually fulfill the requirements Cathy set out. Finally, this is a little lighter and less angsty than I'm used to writing (she did request fluff!), so here goes nothing!
Another Author's Note: Once again, my deepest and most devoted gratitude to all the writers at Perfect Chemistry, who have inspired and motivated me more than I could ever say. And my love always to my quartet of the closest friends a girl could have – Angel17712, Kim/Pink-Green-White-4ever, Shawn30 and Syuuri.

-----

"Oh how she rocks
In Keds and tube socks
But she doesn't know who I am
And she doesn't give a damn about me

Cause I'm just a teenage dirtbag baby..."
~ Wheatus, "Teenage Dirtbag"

"Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of its separation."
~ Kahlil Gibran

-----

Eugene Skullovich was tired.

He also had a crick in his neck, a massive headache, a blister on his right toe, and his teeth were aching... but mostly, he was tired.

Of course, he had been hanging upside down from a tree in Angel Grove Park for over an hour. And Skull hated being upside down.

Bulk had spent all of today's lunch period counting the number of times the Power Rangers had fought a monster in the park, and it had outweighed just about everywhere else in the city. At least, he had been pretty sure it had. It was also conveniently close to the school, allowing them to spend the day there without wasting too much money on bus fare. At this point, though, Skull couldn't quite remember why Bulk had insisted he spend the time upside down in this tree, especially considering how hard he had argued against it... but what Bulky says, goes. He wouldn't even listen to Skull's explanation about how one time he had been stuck upside down in the jungle gym for so long that he had gotten sick and ended up puking on a nun, and ever since then he had had issues with being upside down... and nuns, for that matter. He was convinced nuns had a network of communication, because none of them ever looked at him the same way after that. But according to Bulk, he had always been the brains of their outfit; Skull, he had explained patiently, was best at plan implementation. Skull often wondered if "implementation" was a really big word for "doing all the hard work."

Skull sighed, rocking back and forth on the tree branch, his arms hanging limply by his head. He had been humming Chopin's "Nocturne No. 20 in C# Minor" for the last fifteen minutes, his fingers wiggling in time with the music and matching the piano strokes, but even that was starting to grow tiresome. It would start getting dark in an hour or so, and his mother would kill him if he forgot to pick up milk on his way home again. After all, macaroni and cheese without milk always came out a little... powdery, to be honest. In a feat of agility that surprised even himself, Skull leaned back and quickly flipped up, his hands grabbing the branch on either side of his knees. He had just swung his legs down when a massive explosion rocked the park. Barely keeping his grip on the rough wood, he heard an indistinct yell from beyond the line of trees across from his perch as his feet scrambled for purchase. A moment later, there was a blinding flash of brilliant pink light that lit up the tree line like an exploding star.

Although he had done some foolish things in his eventful life, Skull was no fool. There was only one explanation - the Pink Power Ranger had just appeared. He scrambled down the tree, grasping at the disposable camera tucked securely into his jeans pocket. Bulk would never forgive him if he missed this opportunity. Ignoring the sudden bout of nausea that swept over him as he pulled himself up onto his rubbery legs, Skull began to stagger quickly towards the scene. The sounds of combat grew louder in the long minutes it took him to slip in between the trees separating him from the battle, the frantic voices becoming gradually clearer.

"No! Your powers won't last against him! This is just what Zedd wants!" A female voice. Must be the Pink Ranger. Skull smiled; he had always liked the Pink Ranger most of all, despite Bulk's insinuation that she was too girly to be a real Ranger. Skull had secretly disagreed; he thought that just made her much braver than the rest, a petite woman with the courage to face down monsters twice her size.

"And if the others don't get here soon, you won't be around to find out!" a masculine voice replied, and like at the charity motor marathon, Skull heard a note of something oddly familiar. "The others are taking too long to get here!" Skull frowned, hesitating as he crouched behind a tree. He hadn't seen a -

A blinding flash of green and a call to the Ranger's Dragonzord, and Skull was certain that the green ranger had just morphed.

His heart plummeted.

Bulky was going to kill him.

The Green Ranger had been there. Waiting. Unmorphed. And Skull had just sat there, daydreaming about the Pink Ranger.

The battle all but forgotten, Skull paced back and forth behind the copse of trees and repeatedly pounded the heel of his hand into his forehead. Dumb, dumb, dumb! What was he going to do? He briefly considered telling Bulk that they had already morphed by the time he had arrived, but Bulky could always see through his lies so easily. It was like that time -

"No!!" The Pink Ranger's panicked shriek was followed by a dazzling series of explosions, each one more dramatic and frightening than the last. Skull dropped to the ground, flinging an arm protectively over his head as he heard debris flying towards him. In a burst of inspiration, he held up the other and hoped for the best, swinging it wildly into the air and frantically clicking the camera's button. The tree trunk above him shattered with the impact of something large and splinters of wood rained down on his exposed back. Not for the first time, Skull began to reconsider one of Bulk's plans. Maybe hanging out near a Ranger battle wasn't the most intelligent idea after all.

The creature unexpectedly laughed, a low, deep growl that made Skull's blood run cold. For as long as he lived, the sound of it never left his memory: the dark, mirthless cackle of a soulless beast. The Pink Ranger, enraged, called out for her weapon and the air rang out with the singing cry of her magical bow. The monster bellowed in pain and Skull dropped the camera, throwing his other arm over his head yet knowing that would never protect him. The ensuing silence was striking in comparison, almost as if the entire world was holding its breath in anticipation of what would happen next. Skull felt his lungs burning fiercely and experienced a moment of panic where he was certain that the monster had let loose some sort of toxic gas... before he realized that he had actually stopped breathing and released the trapped air with a quiet moan. He hunched closer into himself as he heard a set of approaching feet, desperately aware of how exposed he really was.

"No, no, please no..." He heard the distinctly feminine plea just on the other side of the bush he was hiding behind. Unable to ignore his own curiosity, Skull moved quietly to his knees only to freeze in wonder.

The Pink Ranger was kneeling on the ground, her Power Bow lying forgotten beside her. He was close enough that, if he had reached out, he could have swept his finger along the soot covering her delicately engraved helmet. Her head was bent, and Skull leaned in a little closer to see what had caught her attention. She was gently cradling a man to her chest, his head lolling lifelessly in the crook of her left elbow. Her skillful fingers swept through his long, curly hair, almost lovingly brushing out the dirt and leaves tangled amidst the dark strands. His left arm hung awkwardly from her embrace, the twist of his elbow an obvious sign of fracture. She ran the tips of her fingers along his cheek in a sweet caress, but a harsh gasp escaped her lips when a smear of blood followed the trail her fingers left. She moaned softly and began whispering to the still form. "Come on," she urged desperately. "Please be okay. Wake up. Please wake up, please."

"Tommy?"

The name had slipped from between his lips before he could stop himself. And yet, even when the Pink Ranger's head jerked up in surprise, her right wrist hovering only inches away from the mouthpiece of her helmet, he couldn't stop staring. There was Tommy Oliver, pale and unconscious – cradled in the Pink Ranger's arms.

For one blessed moment, it all became clear. Everything he had wondered made a kind of fantastic, terrible sense. All of the months he had watched the Rangers on television, all the days he had spent imagining he could be one of them, all the hours he had spent with Bulk trying to unearth their identities, and in that spectacular moment, he understood.

But when she spoke, that shining moment of clarity slipped away in his awe, leaving him staring blankly at her petite form as his mind clutched desperately to recover his flash of insight. "Sk... what are you doing here?" She instinctively drew the injured boy closer to her, as if trying to protect him from Skull's very presence. Almost as if trying to hide him.

But that was silly. Why would the Pink Ranger want to hide Tommy Oliver from him?

"I know him," Skull answered dumbly, still trying to comprehend the fact that he was having a conversation with an actual Power Ranger. "That's Tommy Oliver. I go to school with him."

The Pink Ranger seemed to consider this for a moment before she nodded, almost to herself. "He was caught in the crossfire," she explained haltingly. "He must have been nearby, and I didn't..." Her voice suddenly choked. "I couldn't stop..."

Skull nodded and moved around the bush, holding out his arms to take the boy's body from her. "I'll get him some help. You go help the Green Ranger. It sounded like he wasn't going to be able to take this guy alone."

She stared at him a moment, then her helmet moved as if she were able to see the battleground through the thick copse of trees. "He... the Green Ranger had to leave," she finally admitted.

Grimacing, Skull nodded again, taking another step closer. "His powers are failing," he agreed. Her helmet turned sharply back to him and he felt his face reddening. "Sorry. I kind of overheard."

"You can't-" she started, panic lacing the edges of her voice.

"I won't tell."

She agreed with a tentative nod and motioned for him to follow her. She easily but ever so gently hefted the boy's bulk in her arms, and led him to the trees' edge, reluctantly considering giving up her charge to the oddly clad boy. He must have been quite a sight, he realized. Black jeans, scuffed combat boots, beaten leather jacket, and a red beret cocked carelessly on his head. It was no wonder she didn't have any confidence in him. He looked more the part of a truant than a trustworthy high school student. He pulled the beret off, twisting it between his fingers skittishly as he watched her lay the boy down, resting him gently against the trunk of a nearby tree. "Don't worry," he reassured her, shooting her a nervous grin. "I won't screw this up. I promise."

He couldn't see the expression behind the dark visor of her helmet, but she uttered something between a laugh and a sob. "I know you won't." She reached out suddenly, clasping his forearm securely in her small hand and their eyes locked. "Thank you," she whispered, the overwhelming gratitude in her voice staggering him.

She stood abruptly and was suddenly the picture of composure, the pink and white bow magically appearing in her confident grip. "Take him straight up the path. You should be able to find someone driving by." Skull shot her a questioning look as he realized that the path she had indicated took them far closer to the battleground than he would have liked. "Don't worry," she added, cold iron lacing her voice. "I'll keep it busy." And she sprinted undaunted back into the clearing.

She was magnificent.

Skull was only peripherally aware of his mouth hanging agape as he watched her charge the colossal creature, her size frighteningly diminutive against the monster's bulk. But even so, she never hesitated for even a moment, instead flipping effortlessly into the air. Her agility defied the creature's attempts to stop her - defied gravity itself - as she twisted in mid leap and her lithe figure disappeared against the bright globe of the sun. The universe itself seemed to cease its forward tumble through time, and even the monster looked carefully around as if unable to understand where the ranger had disappeared to.

And suddenly her wrath fell upon him, an avenging angel armored in pink spandex swooping down from the heavens to rid the Earth of this unnatural evil. Her bow sang out and three fiery bolts rained down upon the beast. It shrieked in agony as the ranger landed beside it, but she turned her attention in Skull's direction.

"Now!" she cried, then turned back to face the rising, furious monster. Her bow flashed out faster than he could follow, defensively blocking each of the monster's strikes before Skull had even seen the attack coming. He stood a moment longer, utterly mesmerized by her fiery beauty, before he realized just what her command had meant. This was his chance - take Tommy and run.

He stooped quickly and slid his arms through the unconscious boy's, lacing his fingers across the breadth of his chest. Bracing himself, Skull pulled up and back with all the strength that was in him, and despite the fact that Tommy was surprisingly heavier than he had expected, he managed to drag the pallid boy several feet until he stopped short, horror etching his features. His eyes were fixed on the lower half of Tommy's left arm as it lazily rolled off his chest to hang limply at his side... twisting his arm at an impossible angle.

Skull fought the urge to drop the boy, to retch violently into the protective cover of the trees. This was too much to ask. His eyes were morbidly drawn back to the sickening sight, his mind reeling with the knowledge that the boy's arm had been broken so severely that only the thin layers of skin and muscle were keeping the limb together. He almost did drop him then. Almost did just run, find a safe spot to hide, and forget he had ever seen such a horrific sight.

Skull knew he wasn't much to look at. He had never had much in the intelligence department. His common sense was often lacking, as was his sense of humor. And he had spent far too many years of his life following Bulky blindly around and beating on those weaker than him.

But heaven help him if he broke a promise he made to the Pink Ranger. And he had promised. He had stood before the pink ranger herself and sworn that he would protect Tommy Oliver, despite his personal reservations about Kimberly's muscle-bound boyfriend. He had promised that he wouldn't screw this up.

And so Skull tightened his grip, purposefully averting his eyes as the end of the arm swung with the movement. Tommy moaned insensibly as he was dragged along, his eyelids flickering slightly but never opening. He pulled with all the strength he had, moving them further and further away from danger while focusing his attention on the furious display of power the Pink Ranger was unleashing on the creature. He had no doubt that with or without the other rangers, she would succeed in destroying this monster, in saving the citizens of Angel Grove once again.

She was the Power. She was the Firebird.

She was a hero.

-----

Three Hours Later

Kimberly dashed through the bleakly white hospital corridors, barely aware that the rest of the team was following close at her heels. Goldar and an unusual number of putties had managed to hold up the other rangers for almost fifteen full minutes before Jason had been able to answer Zordon's appeal to back up the lone pink ranger. By the time they had teleported to her location, though, they had been stunned silent - Kimberly had ferociously torn through Zedd's latest creation, essentially destroying the monster before they had even arrived.

She had nearly reached the door to Tommy's room before a gentle hand clasped firmly onto her shoulder. Fingers clenched tightly into rigid fists, the pink ranger whirled around, eager to unleash her fury on anyone who dared come between her and her objective.

"Hello, dear," a haggard looking woman whispered, pulling Kimberly into a tight embrace as she smiled tiredly at the other teens. "Thank you all so much for coming so quickly." Grace Oliver was normally a vibrant and beautiful woman, but the stress of the past few hours had faded her brilliant sapphire eyes to a lifelessly dull blue.

"How is he?" Kimberly blurted, pulling away slightly. She had grown close to Tommy's mother, having spent countless hours at the Oliver's house during and after her parents' divorce, but even the fondness she felt for this woman couldn't keep her from rushing to Tommy's side for long.

Ms. Oliver smiled wanly. "He's going to be fine. Just a pulled muscle in his arm and a mild concussion. Bless Eugene's heart, but he made it sound like Tommy's arm had been broken clean in half. I'm just coming back from calling John – he was about ready to jump on a plane and fly back this evening, but I told him that he would see Tommy at home tomorrow."

Kimberly grimaced, exchanging a dark glance with her best friend. She had seen the extent of Tommy's injuries first hand – Skull hadn't been exaggerating in the least. It was only the support of the dwindling Power remaining in his green coin that had helped him heal by the time the doctors had seen to him. Trini slipped a comforting arm around her waist, still smiling serenely for Mrs. Oliver's benefit.

"Skull called me at home once he could," Kimberly agreed in voice that sounded almost normal to her ears and sticking steadfastly to the story they had concocted at the command center. "I was starting to get worried when Tommy didn't show up to help me with my History homework."

"Is Tommy sufficiently cognizant to tolerate additional stimulation at present?"

Mrs. Oliver laughed. "Of course, Billy; I was just going back into his room. The nurses warned me not to have too many people in his room at one time, but two or three of you are more than welcome to join me," she offered, beaming delightedly at their eagerness to see her son.

"Actually, Mrs. Oliver, I was wondering if you had eaten yet." Jason asked, suspiciously solicitous. "It's probably going to be a long night, and you should take this opportunity to grab something to eat, especially since Mr. Oliver won't be around until tomorrow. We'll stay with Tommy in the meantime."

Mrs. Oliver saw neatly through Jason's ruse, following his gaze to the petite gymnast who was nearly bouncing on the balls of her feet in her eagerness to see her "almost" boyfriend. She had considered Jason a second son since shortly after their move to Angel Grove and had no hesitation trusting him as one now - offering him a stealthy wink, she affected a touched expression, pecked him on the cheek, and turned to retreat to the hospital's cafeteria.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" Trini smiled, pushing Kimberly towards the door. Gratitude shining in her eyes, Kimberly readjusted her backpack and slipped inside the door. The yellow ranger grinned, fondly slipping an arm around Jason's bicep. "Remind me to watch you more closely – you're sneakier than I thought."

----

Tommy shifted slightly in the uncomfortable hospital bed, vaguely aware that the door to his room had opened and shut for the second time in the last few minutes. "Hey mom," he muttered drowsily, struggling for the energy to open his eyes. It was just so much easier to ignore the incessant pounding in his head with his eyes closed...

"Oh, Tommy."

The heartbreaking moan brought him abruptly to full consciousness, his eyes springing open instantly. A dreamlike vision stood radiantly before him, her backpack sliding noiselessly to the ground as she stared open mouthed at him. Her long caramel locks, neatly pinned back this morning in school, had fallen erratically around her shoulders; her dress was rumpled and torn at the hem; even her sneakers were muddied and had come undone with the haste that she had rushed to his side. She very possibly looked the most disheveled he had seen her since the day the Samurai Fan Man had attacked.

And yet, the fact that he was seeing her at all - perfectly whole after he had been unable to defend her - she had never looked so beautiful to him.

"Kim?" he croaked, the soft monitor beside his bed beeping out the rapid flutter of his heart for all the world to hear. "Are you okay? I'm-" His sentence ended in a sudden whoosh of air as Kimberly flung herself into his arms, burying her face into his chest.

Suppressing a wince at the sudden pressure on his injured arm, he nonetheless drew her in closer, loosing himself as he reveled in the unexpected contact. Granted, they had already kissed (twice), and held hands between classes (starting this past week), but they had rarely indulged in such an intimate embrace outside of sparring and actual battles.

"I was so worried about you," she sniffled, face still buried in his chest. Only then did Tommy realize that his shirt had been steadily growing damper over the captivating few minutes that she had been clutching him.

"Are you crying?" he whispered, horrified.

She shook her head, surreptitiously scrubbing her cheeks clean on his shirt before pulling away, streaks of dirt marring her cheeks where she had rubbed her tears away. "I should call Zordon. He's been worried about contacting you with your mom around," she explained, suddenly far too interested in the simple device on her wrist.

"Kim, I-"

She tapped her communicator, bringing her wrist to her mouth automatically. "Zordon, I've got Tommy right here." She held out her wrist, offering it to him without actually meeting his gaze.

"Zordon?" Tommy stared at Kim uneasily, unable to read her expression through the cascade of hair around her face.

[Ay yi yi yi yi, Tommy, it's good to hear from you.]

Tommy couldn't suppress a grin at the robot's exuberance. "It's good to hear from you, too, Alpha."

[Congratulations on your recovery, Tommy,] came the more subdued response from his mentor, and Tommy's grin abruptly dropped away as he instinctively braced for the lecture. [How do you feel?]

Tommy shrugged, grimacing at the sharp movement in his shoulder. "Almost perfect, thanks to the Power's healing," he replied lightly, ignoring the sharp look Kimberly shot him. "I'll be stuck wearing the brace for the next few days - for my mother's sake - but I'll probably be back to normal in the morning."

[That is excellent news,] Zordon agreed, and then hesitated. [However, I feel I should address your actions earlier today. I must remind you to bear in mind the recent limitations of your power coin and the dire consequences that you face were the Power to fail you.]

He considered his response for such a long time that Kimberly was unable to resist the urge to turn her head, her eyes instinctively locking with his own. His expression was deadly serious as he finally answered, his words directed towards Zordon but his dark brown eyes never leaving her face. "Zordon, you gave me the responsibility to decide when I should enter a battle. I knew what I was doing. And I knew what the consequences could be."

Kimberly flinched, her features growing tight with emotion even as Zordon wished his ranger well and ended the communication. His fingers closed lightly around her wrist, his thumb gently ghosting over the exposed section of her wrist. "Kim? Are you okay?"

She jerked her hand back suddenly, as if burned by his touch. "I'm fine. I should go." She wouldn't even look at him as she spoke, nervously pulling at her dress as if he would actually believe that she was so engrossed in how she looked that she didn't care about the conversation. "They will only let us in a few at a time, and Jason really wants to check on you."

"Kim. Kim, please wait," he begged, suddenly overwhelmed by utter confusion and concern. Had he said something wrong? Had she been hurt? He pulled back his covers to follow her, but a wave of dizziness and nausea staggered him. "Kim?"

"I'm fine," she repeated, but the tears shining in her eyes told him otherwise. "I just have to go."

She had pushed open the door and rushed out the room before he could speak another word.

-----

Fifteen Minutes Later

Trini pushed the door open, unable to suppress the smile that erupted at the sight before her. Zack had planted himself beside Tommy, going so far as to push the injured boy to the other side of the bed as he played with the controls, spouting something about just trying to make sure that the green ranger wouldn't get seasick riding in the ocean-based Dragonzord. He was also playing a lukewarm game of keep away with Jason, who had been playfully trying to rescue the bed control from him. Even Billy was laughing, although he was also shaking his head in halfhearted disapproval. But it was the way that all three constantly shot surreptitious glances at Tommy, gauging his reaction to their games to make sure that they weren't taking their horseplay too far, that truly touched her. They were wild and crazy sometimes, but they were good boys. Great boys, in fact.

Billy joined her by the door, trying again to shush the three raucous boys - an attempt which was pointedly ignored. "Were you able to properly converse with Kimberly?" Trini nodded, and the boys suddenly quieted, their attention raptly focused on her.

"How is she?" Tommy asked, and she wondered if she had ever seen him more insecure since his first days after Rita's spell had been broken. The fear in his eyes nearly broke her heart.

"She's..." She hesitated, shifting on her feet. "She's just a little upset with what happened, I guess." That wasn't exactly it and they all knew it, but she wasn't willing to betray her friend's confidence so easily. Kimberly really needed to talk to Tommy herself, but she had made it clear that she wasn't ready for that quite yet.

Tommy jerked, stung. Before she could try to remedy the situation, though, Mrs. Oliver stepped into the room, holding a warm cup of coffee between her hands. She raised an eyebrow as she saw how the boys had thrown themselves across the hospital bed, then merely rolled her eyes. "Do I even want to know?"

Jason grinned sheepishly, pulling himself off Zack's legs and quickly standing up. "Not really, Mrs. Oliver."

"Do you kids need some more time, or-"

"No, mom. I'm pretty tired." The sullen, dull look in his eyes was enough for his mother, and she instantly began to usher the teens out of the room.

"Trini?"

She walked slowly over to his bed, trying desperately to come up with a better explanation - one that wouldn't reveal too much in front of his mother - but he didn't ask for one. "Could you take Kim her bag? She left it here."

Trini stared at him for a long moment, taking in the exhaustion lining his young face, the pain etched in the way he held his jaw tight. But worse was the disappointment, the hurt, the defeat in his eyes, and it wasn't hard to determine the cause. She finally shook her head, strands of her long dark hair wisping across her tranquil features. "I've got some errands I promised my mom I would run," she fibbed easily. "Maybe you could drop it by her house after you get out tomorrow?" She offered him a sly wink, then left the room, surprisingly pleased with herself. The red ranger wasn't the only one who could be sneaky.

-----

Two Days Later

Tommy stood on the sidewalk, hesitating exactly twenty five steps away from the white Victorian style house. He had already counted the number of royal blue trimmed windows (eight), the bushes lining the front of the house (six), and even calculated the number of bricks lining the short walkway to the front door (one hundred and thirty five). Billy had once told him that mathematics relaxed him when he was stressed, but it didn't seem to be doing Tommy any good.

This wasn't the first time he had stood anxiously outside the Hart's home wondering whether or not he had the courage to knock on the door, nor did he think it would be the last. At least, he desperately hoped that it wouldn't be the last. Tommy had been absent from school yesterday - mostly due to his mother's overprotective fussing - and Kimberly had been absent today, making it impossible for him to return her backpack between classes. And Trini and Jason had banded together and outright refused to do his "dirty work" for him. So here he had stood for the last twenty minutes, gently rocking her treasured pink backpack in one hand as he stared at the house, trying to find the courage to knock.

"Are you going to stand out here all day, or are you going to come on in?"

Tommy's head jerked to the side, his cheeks flushing bright red with embarrassment. He must have been so lost in thought he hadn't even noticed Mr. Hart's sleek black Mustang pulling into their driveway. He nodded slowly, mortified that he had been caught in such a ridiculous position, but Mr. Hart only motioned to follow him in with a jerk of his head.

"Luckily for you, I'm meeting Carol to go over next month's visitation schedule, or you'd still be hanging around on the sidewalk," Mr. Hart teased, reaching for the spare key still hidden in a notch under the front steps. "I've got a trip to New York coming up and -" He straightened, then gave Tommy a long look. "How are you feeling, son?" he asked while unlocking the front door. "I hear you had a pretty close call the other day."

Tommy shrugged, doing his best to downplay the incident but remembering to favor his left arm, pinned tightly against his chest. "Almost back to normal, sir. Mom wants me to keep the sling on for another few days, but I feel fine without it."

"Rule number one, Tommy boy. Always listen to the women in your life." Mr. Hart winked, then grimaced slightly. "Trust me - otherwise, you'll live to regret it." He motioned him towards the stairs, already picking up the remote control and flipping on the television. "You know where her room is, right? Last door on the left?"

Tommy swallowed, his eyes widening. Mrs. Hart had never allowed him into Kim's room before - heck, she hadn't even allowed him to use the bathroom upstairs in case he "wandered" too far down the hallway. He looked to Mr. Hart for confirmation, but the man was already lost in the recap of the previous evening's Bulls game.

Today's history lesson flashed into his mind and he suddenly had nothing but compassion for that British nobleman walking his final steps to the gallows, for walking up the stairs to Kimberly's room felt much the same. He wasn't sure what to expect from her - anger? more tears? worry? He wasn't even sure why she hadn't been in school today, but her father didn't seem too concerned about her being contagious.

And once again, Tommy Oliver was standing in front of another closed door. A raucous stream of music filtered through to the other side of the door, something loud and heavy and very unlike his Ki... the Kimberly he knew. A faint aroma of vanilla, strawberries, and something unidentifiable but unmistakably Kim wafted past him, and he couldn't help but smile. And yet, he was still too frightened out of his wits to even consider knocking.

It was no use hoping for another intervention, especially if it was by Kimberly's mother this time. It felt just like the afternoon that the other rangers had taken him to the Command Center for the first time; he knew he had done something wrong, but it was something he had no control over. He knew he was going to be punished, maybe even forced to return the magical coin - a coin which had continued to bring him both joy and heartache over the last few months - but Zordon had taken pity on him. He could only hope that Kim would be so charitable. Drawing in a deep breath, he gathered his courage, raised his right fist, and knocked.

"Go away."

Tommy winced at the harshness in her voice. He had really blown it this time. "Kim?" he started hesitantly, his voice faltering. "It's me. Can I...?"

The music suddenly shut off and he heard the sound of drawers and closets slamming. Either there was someone else in there or Kim was cleaning up very quickly. The thought of a messy Kim - socks and underwear hanging around the room - almost made him grin... and squirm.

The door suddenly burst open, and there she was, hair hastily pinned up and wearing a short babydoll dress thrown over a pair of pink tights... with a bright, sunny smile. Tommy couldn't help but step back, surprised. This was the girl that didn't come into school today? She looked fine. In fact, she looked more than fine - she looked happy.

"Uhhh... I brought you your backpack." His mind was rapidly emptying as he handed her the schoolbag. Of all the things he had expected to see when she opened the door, a cheerful smile was not one of them. She raised her eyebrows as if to say, Yeah, that was obvious. "Ummm... can I talk to you?"

Kim shifted, her gaze quickly dancing over the bright white sling on his left arm. "Actually, I was on my way to see Trini. Let's catch up later, okay?"

Tommy's shoulders sagged, disappointed. She was avoiding him... just like she had avoided his phone calls yesterday evening. "It'll only take a minute," he urged.

The brightness seemed to leave her face for a moment, then forcibly reappeared. "You know you aren't allowed up here," she began warningly, and Tommy flinched at the way she was searching for an excuse to get rid of him.

"Yeah. Your dad said it was okay."

Her expression faltered again, then fell. She stepped back, opening the door a tiny bit wider. "Fine."

It was like entering a world made just for Kim. What little of the walls that he could see had been painted a light pink, but most of it had been covered with bookcases, posters, pictures, and more awards and medals than he had ever earned in his martial arts training. Stuffed animals reined supreme in Kim's world; they covered almost every flat, rumpled, or lumpy surface that existed. Teddy bears seemed to be the predominant culprit - the monarch was certainly the three foot tall white bear in the far corner of her room - but she seemed to be an equal opportunity animal lover, as bunnies, penguins, frogs, and even a green and purple dragon covered her flowered comforter. He smiled bashfully when he realized that Kim had been staring at him, half amused, for at least a minute.

"It's very... pink." It was the best he could come up with on short notice.

"Well, duh."

They grinned together, wordlessly sharing the nervous excitement that came with the novelty of his presence in her room before Kim's smile abruptly faded and she turned away.

"Kim, I-"

"Tommy-"

They smiled awkwardly before Kimberly started again. "I... I have to say hi to my dad." She bolted from the room before he could say another word. Defeated for the moment, he slumped into the chair to the left of her bed and examined the organized disaster that was her desk.

The surface was strewn haphazardly with papers, colored pencils, and books, but his attention was riveted by the images that covered the back wall. Hundreds of photographs overlapped each other, ranging from baby pictures of their friends (Billy was the first he spotted, already erecting a DNA strand with Lego's at age three) to shots of the six of them playing basketball just last week. He was shocked by how predominately he was featured in the pictures, considering the short time he had known the group. Touched, he could feel his nervousness slipping away; no matter how angry she might be at him, this was proof that she cared. A small smile played across his lips as he leaned forward to detach a particularly sweet photograph of himself and the pink ranger, but his slinged arm bumped a small stack on the corner of her desk, sending it toppling to the ground. Grimacing at his clumsiness, he shot a quick glance at the hallway - no sign of Kim - before falling quickly to his knees and gathering the handful of photos. Most of them were just indiscriminate shots of the sky, treetops glinting brightly against the sun's rays. But one in particular - a perfect image of him tumbling painfully through the air, the aura of green power still fragmenting around him - made him gasp harshly.

"I don't think this is going to work."

Tommy blinked and stumbled to his feet, still gripping the horrifying shot in his trembling hand. She refused to look at him, though, her gaze focused on the floor as she swung her legs slowly off the side of her bed. "This?" he asked, bewildered, the harsh image still fresh in his mind.

"This," she agreed softly. "Us. This thing we've got."

The world, this perfectly balanced, beautifully pink Kim-world, suddenly collapsed around him. It was over. He could feel his features twisting in pain and he struggled vainly to keep composure, but it was a halfhearted attempt. All along, he had known somehow that it was too good to be true, too good to last. She was too good for him, too sweet, too perfect at everything she did, too caring, too gentle... just too wonderful for a boy like him. A boy who barely deserved the parents he had been given, a boy who had been pushed away over and over by foster families, orphanages... by his own blood. He could barely hear her continue talking over the rushing blood in his ears.

"I just think that... with both of us being rangers... it's too... I need something... someone... more... well, normal."

"Are you mad at me?" He hated how broken his voice sounded to his own ears. It was no wonder she didn't want him - she had been angry that he hadn't been man enough to protect her, and now he wasn't even man enough to accept the breakup.

"No. Yes!" She stood up, frustrated, unable to sit still. She pushed aside the pink curtains and looked out at her backyard. "No. I'm not-"

"Because I tried, Kim." He was being pathetic, but he couldn't help himself, couldn't help the tremor in his voice or the way that the words came thick, like there was an ocean of water between them. He took a hesitant step towards her and the photographs cascaded to the floor, long forgotten. "I really did. I tried to be quicker, I tried to be stronger, I just-"

She suddenly whirled on him, her eyes ablaze. "Dove right in and tried to kill yourself!"

Tommy flinched, recoiling and stumbling backwards into her desk. He had always been intimidated by Kimberly - her social status in the school was supreme, her ability to communicate with others with such ease far surpassed his bare ability to keep from stumbling over his words, her artistic talents outstripped everyone he had ever met - but never physically. Not until today. "W-what?" he finally stuttered.

"I promised!" she screamed, her fists clenching tightly at her sides. There was an undefinable rage in her eyes, and though he tried desperately to grasp the cause, the sudden turn of the conversation made no sense to him at all. "When you first lost your powers, I promised I'd always be there. Then you went and stupidly promised the same! And you almost died trying to be there!" She suddenly burst into tears, her arms wrapping feebly around her waist. Her knees seemed to give way and she sat on the edge of the bed with a tiny thump, tears rolling helplessly down her cheeks.

Tommy knew he wasn't the best at reading people - that had always been Kimberly's talent - but, even as his heart broke to see her in pain, it all started to make sense. Not considering her flawed and confused Kim-logic, she was just scared. He stepped forward, kneeling at her feet, and his right arm reached up to brush her tears away. "Kim," he whispered, but she quickly slapped his hand away.

"What if you had died? Did you stop to think how that would make me feel? How that would make us all feel?"

He shook his head reassuringly. "Kim. I wouldn't have-"

"You don't know that!" she shrieked, scooting backwards, distancing herself from him again. She was nearly hysterical and he just didn't know how to fix this. "Geez, Tommy, if you can't appreciate how dangerous this is... how close we all come to dying every day we go out there... how important life is, then this," she waved her arms around, encompassing the two of them, the room, the world, "This isn't going to work!"

Suddenly, the panic, the terror, the fear, even the guilt, it was all gone. Tommy stood slowly, his eyes narrowing as he gazed at the pink ranger. She was trembling, both terrified and furious at the possible loss of him... and all he could feel was cold.

"Don't understand?" he repeated, his voice dangerously quiet. "I don't understand? You think I don't understand how important life is?" He rushed her, grabbing her arm as her mouth opened slightly to interrupt. "Have you already forgotten that I almost killed all of you? That the Dragonzord destroyed buildings? That my rampage through the city ended up killing four people? That I nearly stabbed... that I almost... Jase..." His voice caught and he struggled to fight back hot tears of shame that, even months later, threatened to overcome him.

"There is no one that understands that better than me, Kim." He relaxed his grip, the fury already having washed away. "But if the choice is me or them... me or you guys... I'd choose you any day of the week." His bloodshot eyes met hers without regret. "I'd always choose you."

Suddenly she was kissing him. Her lithe arms had slipped up his chest and entwined themselves around his neck before he could even react. Supple lips pressed firmly against his own and his free hand automatically drew her closer, pressing against the small of her back. He marveled at the feel of the soft cotton of her dress beneath his fingers, the tight muscles below. Her mouth opened slightly and he suppressed a moan, instinctively lifting her up and pressing her more firmly against himself. The heady scent of her was utterly intoxicating. He could taste the sweet raspberry lip gloss she preferred, feel the hot tears on his cheeks, and he didn't know - didn't care - whose they were. They were hungry for each other, needing each other like they had never admitted before, needing to know that they were there, they were both alive.

Minutes later, after they had finally pulled apart, he stared into her beautiful brown eyes, nearly losing himself in their passionate depths. But in them, he saw the same fear and uncertainty he felt in his own.

"You really scared me." She spoke so quietly, he wouldn't have heard her if he hadn't seen her lips move. His shoulders slumped and he pulled her against his chest, holding her as tightly as he dared but privately grateful for his slinged arm between them.

"I'm so sorry, Kim. I'm so sorry."

----

Carol Hart hovered uncertainly outside her daughter's room for a moment, then firmly pressed her ear to the door. She had heard her daughter yelling indistinctly when she came home and was horrified to hear that her idiot ex-husband had let that long-haired boy into her daughter's room. The poor girl had been sick and upset all day and then he let the boy who caused the mess right into her room? Who knows what awful things...

"I'm so sorry, Kim. I'm so sorry."

Her daughter's muted sobs followed and Carol's hand fell away from the knob. She had worried that Kimmy was upset over the boy's injury - Carol herself couldn't understand what the big deal was - but it looked like the issue was resolving itself. She supposed she'd give them a few more minutes, if only to be sure that Kimmy would be settled enough to return to school the next day, then she would break them up before things got too heated up there.

No use letting that boy get too comfortable in her little girl's room, after all.

----

It felt like only a moment later when they finally pulled apart, but the tear tracks on their faces had already dried. He watched as Kimberly delicately blew her nose, wondering just how she managed to make even the simplest things look so strikingly feminine. When she finally looked at him again, he offered her a cautious smile. "So... you don't hate me?"

She smiled, her eyes red, puffy, and still the most beautiful thing in the world. "Not if you really don't have a death wish."

Tommy grinned stupidly, sweet relief coursing through him. "Not if all my days end like this!"

The musical sound of her laughter relaxed him further, but there was still one more thing. "So... we're okay?" She cocked her head to the side, pausing as she twisted her hair into a loose ponytail. "I mean... this." He mimicked her move, waving his arm between them. "Us. You're... not still going to leave me, are you?" He had meant the question to be light, just a confirmation of what he already knew, but the soft expression in her eyes made it clear that his fear of being left behind again, rejected, unwanted, had been transparent. She approached him, her movements once again relaxed, and slipped her nimble gymnast's fingers around his own.

"No. Not as long as you promise not to leave me." He saw his own fear mirrored in her face, and only then did he realize just how alike they were. She was tiny, graceful, and so good with people; he had always been tall for his age, clumsy in everything but the martial arts, and almost always the loner - but they both had been scarred, abandoned by those they loved.

He raised her fingers and kissed each tip, remaining serious even as she giggled with surprise. His eyes locked with hers, brown to brown, and he spoke with pure conviction.

"Never."

-----

The Next Afternoon

His name was on everyone's lips. Students had been going out of their way to sit near him in class, wave hello in the hallways, and even offer to buy his lunch in the cafeteria. The teachers didn't seem to be immune, either; they granted him extensions on assignments and leeway on pop quizzes. He was the boy who had come face to face with an actual Power Ranger – everyone wanted to hear about one of the few one on one encounters with the city's mysterious guardians.

And once again, Eugene Skullovich was ignored.

Everyone had conveniently forgotten that it was he that had rescued the school's new favorite student, Tommy-I'm-Too-Perfect-Oliver. They had simply glossed over the fact that it was he who had conversed directly with the Pink Ranger. There was even a rumor going around that Skull had exaggerated Tommy's injuries just to get attention, that the martial artists had simply been knocked unconscious. After all, he was just Skull - Bulk's oddly dressed, somewhat annoying sidekick.

He slammed his locker shut, oddly pleased by the crash as it echoed through the emptying hallway. Seventh period was about to start – only one more miserable class before he could escape to the relative seclusion of his home. And if he worked it just right, then maybe he could avoid Bulk and his nearly incessant tirade berating Skull for losing the camera in the park, despite his insistence that someone must have stolen it, since he had scoured the park for hours trying to find it; for failing to take pictures of the rangers, regardless of the danger he had been in; for missing out on one of the most important opportunities...

"Hey Skull! Wait up a sec!"

Her cheery call was like a dazzling beam of light in his otherwise gloomy day. He couldn't help the grin that sprang to his lips as he heard Kimberly's voice. He simply couldn't help it – there was just something about Kimberly Hart that just made you smile. He turned, tucking his English book under his arm, and his smile abruptly faded into a scowl.

She was with Mr. Perfect. Heck, she was even carrying his book bag, much to his obvious chagrin. Of course – she hadn't been a moment without him all day.

Tommy shrugged with his good shoulder as they approached, flashing him an apologetic smile. "Sorry. We've been trying to catch up to you all day."

Skull shrugged, the gloom settling even deeper. We. Stupid Tommy-attached-to-Kimberly-Oliver. "Yeah. I gotta get to class. I'm going to be-"

And there was the late bell.

Perfect. Just perfect.

Kimberly shrugged, handing him the green backpack and grinning impishly. "You're not late. You're helping me help Tommy."

The long-haired object of his frustration rolled his brown eyes resignedly as Kimberly swung her own backpack around her shoulder and unzipped the main compartment. "Look, Skull-" Tommy started hesitantly.

"Oh, I have something for you," Kimberly interrupted, unconsciously worrying her lower lip as she pulled out a paper lunch sack and handed it to him. "Sorry," she apologized, with a cute grimace. "I just figured it was yours."

With cautious trepidation, Skull unfolded the paper bag. It took him several long seconds staring into the bag to realize that the pile of broken black and yellow plastic had once resembled a disposable camera. His disposable camera. If he had any hope of redeeming himself in Bulk's eyes, it had just been buried in the disposable camera cemetery. In fact, Skull reasoned, he was probably the one who stepped on it in his eagerness to talk to the Pink Ranger.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

He was so busy criticizing himself that he missed the guilty look on Kimberly's face as he identified "his" broken camera. And the fact that Tommy had been talking for quite a while now.

"... and so, I wanted to thank you. What you did out there... you saved my life. I can't..."

There was a moment where he was certain that Kimberly's eyes widened and she shot her almost-boyfriend a furious glare, but the instant faded almost immediately. "What Tommy means to say is that you got him out of a bad situation. I mean, he could have been hurt really badly if you hadn't been there. You did something not a lot of people out there would do. You stuck your neck out there when you didn't have to, and... well, you were very brave. So thank you."

And then she kissed him.

It was just a peck on the cheek, but he was utterly entranced by how she had to stand on her toes to do it... and... well, all of a sudden, the day seemed so much brighter.

"Come on. I think I'll walk you boys to class," she teased mischievously, then slipped an arm through each of theirs, linking the three in a sort of human chain. He looked tentatively up at Tommy, fearing the jealousy and fury he would see in the taller boy's eyes. But all he saw was understanding, and a matching, helpless sort of devotion.

Perhaps tomorrow they would argue and harass; tomorrow they would separate and return to their opposite sides of the social world. But today, right now... everything was all right by the both of them.