"Lying in the Mud"
Part 1 of 3
Prior reading: Although this is a sequel to "One Phone Call," it can also be read as a standalone piece.
Rating: T for violent situations and mild language
Disclaimer: None of the Power Rangers or related characters belong to me (despite my best attempts to stage a coup against Disney and/or Saban). I make no profit off this little endeavor besides my own enjoyment... and hopefully, yours.
Summary: Pre-DT, sequel to "One Phone Call." After the devastating events on Mercer's island, Tommy attends his graduation ceremony still mourning the loss of his mentor, yet finds that he may not be alone after all. Set in the Canon timeline.
Author's Notes: Dedicated to all those out there who have suffered from others' stupid mistakes.
And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn't have to anymore.
~ Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year
A life without friends means death without company.
~ Basque Native American proverb, borrowed from Craig Johnson's Longmire novels
Saturday, May 23, 2003; 3:28 PM
Hunching over in a desperate attempt to hide from the crowd, Tommy Oliver dug the offending device out of his pocket and pointedly ignored the annoyed glances he was drawing at the unwelcome interruption. His bright red Nokia cell phone was only a few days old but had already succeeded in driving him to distraction on more than one occasion. He had vehemently opposed the purchase for reasons he couldn't explain to the sales representative. It was the feeling of being on call at every moment of the day that put him on edge, reminding him of the more unpleasant aspects of his high school days. The red case – the only color in stock, he had been told – didn't help, either. And frankly, he wasn't sure he could handle any more stress at this point. But his parents had done more than insist, and after the traumatic experience he had put them through when the island exploded, he didn't have the heart to argue.
The weeks after the explosion felt like a blur. He doubted he would have been able to unearth himself from the overwhelming tides of self-doubt and remorse without Jason literally breaking down the door to his dank apartment less than twelve hours after their short phone call. It was Jason's strength, the unconditional love of his parents, and one invariably supportive voice over the telephone that had finally given him the will to return to Boston to face the consequences of the island disaster.
Reminded of the need to move on, he finally looked down and scrolled through the menus to the vibrate setting, squinting at the tiny display. Yet another unwanted yet mandated purchase, but now he actually regretted forgetting his new reading glasses in the car. A sign of age, his mother had teased him, regardless of the doctor's pronouncement that he had spent far too long focusing on tiny particles in the dirt.
"Are you still pouting?" the text message read.
Even as he raised his bloodshot eyes to rake across the nameless crowd, his phone vibrated in his hand for a second time as the droning sounds of yet another monotonous speech flowed over him.
"I know you. Stop pouting."
He was furiously punching in a response, muttering curses about his thick fingers and the horribly tiny buttons before he realized that he was not so subtly distracting a number of people around him. "wheer rr you" was the best his meager skills could manage.
"Not there. But you know I'm right."
He could almost hear her gentle laughter, even though she was certainly more than two hundred fifty miles away. "srew u," he responded peevishly then purposefully snapped his phone shut with a too audible click.
Less than a minute later, it was buzzing again.
It was nearly impossible for him to hold onto frustration when it came to Kimberly, though. She had been the light to his darkness over these past few months. She had spent nearly every night on the phone with him, talking him to sleep with the melodious sound of her voice, soothing his troubled soul with her laughter and random stories of Kim-craziness. Jason, on the other hand, had been his his solid, silent immovable rock, but he had never voiced an opinion except to say that, when Tommy was ready, he would listen. His unquestioning acceptance was like a soothing balm. Yet, while Tommy and Jason were brothers in all but blood, his relationship with Kimberly had been... different.
Jason stood beside him, but Kimberly pushed. When Jason comforted, Kimberly teased. Jason would spend hours with him in companionable silence and Kimberly would mockingly complain that she was never going to revive her love life if she was always on the phone with him. Tommy was aware that, immediately after the disaster, their differing styles had deeply concerned Jason. He had overheard Jason's end of a phone call where he had urged Kimberly to be more gentle with Tommy's broken soul. That, across the country, she could not see the depths of despair to which Tommy had sunk. But Kimberly had simply urged him to trust her.
After all, hadn't she mended his broken wings once before?
In a time that felt like eons ago, she had seen him through some of the darkest moments of his life, and even after he finally confessed the full measure of the darkness he feared lingered inside him, she had accepted and loved him with a genuine openness that was all her own. And had been shocked to find that, after she had done the same, he had loved her all the more. Her later rejection of him had stung, but they had discovered that nothing could truly break the underlying closeness they had once shared. His phone call to her on the day he had escaped the island had been borne of a deep-seated instinct to return to that comfort and they had renewed a lost friendship within minutes. Only those who once loved as deeply as they had could understand. They could understand how she instinctively knew how to push him forward without making him lose his footing. How to ease his mind away from his darkest thoughts without allowing the overriding guilt to overwhelm him. And while he desperately needed Jason's firm support, he needed to be reminded - sometimes forcibly - that there was love and laughter and life outside the walls he had erected. That the world had not stopped turning and that, when he was ready, they would be waiting.
But as much as he appreciated her constant communication, right now, Tommy seriously considered burying his phone in the grass, planting one of the legs of the uncomfortable lawn chair over it and pressing down with all his might. He was getting glared at by several of the people nearby, all of whom were at least attempting to pay attention to – oh, it's a woman up there now?
"Dammit, Kimberly," he cursed softly, flipping the phone open and immediately shut. That should keep it quiet for at least -
Polite applause for the speaker surrounded him, by sheer chance muffling his inappropriate and extremely frustrated exclamation. A concerned set of green eyes tried to catch his gaze from several rows up, but Tommy was already punching the – dear God! – the six messages he had received in the ten minutes he had spent furiously concentrating on ignoring the hateful machine.
"Don't worry – be happy!"
"Stop ignoring me."
"I love you."
"Like a brother! haha!"
"Seriously. You know he's watching. Smile. For him."
It wasn't fair, he decided as he fought down the lump forming in his throat. He stared at the sea of black surrounding him, silently listening to the last of the speakers, and all he could think was of how unfair it was. He should be here, standing beside him. The man who had rescued him from uncertainty and given him a new future, a new life – and he was gone. And all he had left was the dreaded weight of responsibility dragging him down, making him realize with increasing certainty that he would pay for his failure every day for the rest of his life.
His breath caught as he obediently rose with the rest of the crowd, bowing his head as the solemnity, the sheer importance of the moment struck each person present.
"PhD candidates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Class of 2003. You may now move your tassels from the right to the left, signifying your matriculation. Congratulations!"
Saturday, May 23, 2003; 3:52 PM
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Graduation Reception, Kresge Oval
Surrounded by joy, by laughter and enthusiasm, Tommy Oliver was perched on the edge of a cheap, white plastic folding chair, his elbows resting on his knees as he gazed sullenly at the rejoicing crowd of graduates. Here he was, in the midst of joyous celebration, and not a single smile had passed his lips all afternoon. He and his classmates had received their doctoral hoods a few hours earlier, but it had brought him no pleasure. Even as his callused fingers slipped along the length of the four-foot symbol of his achievement, it simply felt wrong.
He didn't deserve this.
He stood suddenly, half a mind to return the damned thing and his diploma to boot, when a large hand tousled his recently shorn locks. "Cheer up, son. All that studying, all that work – it's all over."
"Congratulations, dear." A set of slender arms snaked around his toned waist, squeezing him tightly while he automatically fixed his hair. His mother's grey-green eyes stared up at her son with no less love than if he had been born of her own womb. Her hair had delicately grayed over the years since his high school graduation – yet another graduation he hadn't wanted to attend – but this time, his parents had firmly insisted. "We are so proud of you, Doctor Oliver."
Tommy's shoulders slumped as he forced a halfhearted smile to his lips. He may have wanted to give up this honor, but for his parents... they had suffered enough because of his decisions, his life. He could give them this. "I'm sorry, mom, dad. It's just not the same, you know?" He shrugged, sighing deeply. "He should have been here for this."
Mr. Oliver nodded with understanding even as he took his wife's talented, nurse's hands into his own. Both Tommy and his father had taken a trip to the optometrist together and now his father winked at him behind the glass of his new reading glasses. "I know it's hard to celebrate without your best friend here, but Jason promised he would make it just as soon as he could."
Tommy began shaking his head almost as soon as his father began talking. He knew that his father was just trying to keep the situation light, but he couldn't even bear that much. Not today. "Not Jase, dad. I know he's doing his best. I... I meant Anton."
"Wherever he is, little brother, I am sure he's watching over you."
Tommy turned quickly, his eyebrows lifting in surprise even as he recognized his brother's voice. The two boys may have been separated for nearly sixteen years, but even so, their mannerisms, kindness, devotion to their world, and until recently, even their hairstyles had been almost identical. The two men embraced and the elder Olivers felt a measure of hope that their son would begin to see the bright side of this beautiful day.
"What are you doing here?" he asked incredulously, frankly shocked that his brother had traveled so far from the reservation. He had become more reluctant to leave ever since his adoptive father, Sam True of Heart, had passed away two years earlier. As the tribe's wisest shaman, the loss had been felt throughout the reservation, by all tribes.
David Trueheart smiled, and even through his own haze of grief, Tommy could see the way the recent years has aged his brother from the perky, eager young man he had been in high school to the man he was now. "Family is family, Tommy," he chided lightly, as if that was the only explanation needed. And, it actually was. Both of them had grown feeling that hole in their hearts, knowing that there may be no one out there they could call family by blood, and both had been healed by finding each other and joining those arrowheads. "And my father would tell you that he was certain the Old Ones would allow Anton to return for a day such as this."
"Yeah," Tommy agreed morosely. "It's not the same, though. I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for -
"Me!" A pair of arms wrapped around his shoulders, head ducking behind his line of vision, likely to avoid his annoyed glare.
In one smooth, practiced movement, Tommy twisted to the side, grabbing the tall, red-haired woman about her waist and easily flinging her over his shoulder. "Rub it in, Hales," he groaned, ignoring her indignant cries as she struggled, ineffectively attempting to kick him.
Mussing with Tommy's hair had always been an effective countermeasure to one of her best friend's grapples and today was no exception. "That'll show me to rescue David from a mind-numbingly boring lecture by Professor Wet-Behind-the-Ears," she groused, even as she dropped gracefully to the ground. Tommy rolled his eyes but wasn't willing to correct Haley's less than affectionate nickname for Dr. Mercer's replacement.
David's bemused laughter joined hers and he explained. "Professor Renault must have thought I was you. He clearly can't tell the difference between the handsome one and the smart one," he chuckled, knocking Tommy in the shoulder with a fist. "He kept asking me about some research thing and..." David's voice trailed off as Tommy's face paled, images of rampaging tyrannodrones, bright, hot explosions, and burning, acrid smoke filling his mind.
"It's so nice to see you again," Haley greeted the Olivers, effectively distracting them from their son's darker musings. "I wasn't even sure that the school would let Tommy graduate this spring."
Mr. Oliver nodded. "It seems that the data that Dr. Mercer transmitted before the... well, it was enough for the school to consider his doctoral thesis complete."
"Lucky for you," Haley grinned, slipping a casual arm around his waist. "You'd probably be here until you were eighty without me and the Mercer internship."
Tommy managed a halfhearted smile at his own expense, his attention wandering as Haley regaled his parents with embarrassing stories. The school had, in fact, been remarkably willing to work with him. After being prematurely declared dead in the blast, it had taken almost two weeks to sort out of the paperwork and reinstate his identity, not only with local officials and the social security office, but with the school's administration. The PhD internship with Mercer Industries had been a special arrangement with the visiting professor; it allowed him to graduate with both a bachelor's and doctoral degree in fewer years than he ever would have imagined. And apparently, Dr. Mercer had also been shockingly thorough in his evaluations of Tommy's work because between that and the need for a final thesis defense, Tommy had been only a few steps away from graduation.
But none of these pleasant surprises had any effect on Tommy's new sullen demeanor. He had pointedly refused to defend his thesis for two months, almost missing the deadline to graduate. Something inside him had protested against it, feeling like he was benefitting from such a great loss to the world. Mercer was dead. Another mentor lost and gone, and Tommy left alone to pick up the pieces. Smitty was dead. Granted, they had never been the best of friends – more like viciously unfriendly rivals – but knowing that Smitty would never be able to...
He wished Jason was here. Jase was one of the few people who could beat the gloom out of him, if even for a few minutes.
Tommy blinked, suddenly brought back into reality. "Huh?"
Haley rolled her eyes, not unused to Tommy's recent bouts into brooding silence. "There's a party later in the Physics department, but that isn't until tonight."
"Party?" Tommy repeated blandly.
"Yes, boy. Party. Music. Dancing. Drinking. Smiling." Haley slipped her arm through his, patting his elbow almost maternally. "Don't worry, Mr. Oliver, Mrs. Oliver. I'll make sure he has some fun tonight."
"And until then, we'll take you kids out to eat," Mr. Oliver stated. "That's the least I can do after flying all the way out to this little town. Where's a nice place around here?"
Haley grinned. "Tavern in the Square," she declared without hesitation. "It's in Central Square, within walking distance. Just follow me. And on the way, I'll tell you why it's Tommy's Most Favorite Place to eat in Cambridge," she added conspiratorially, ignoring Tommy's silent, desperate glances. The last thing his parents needed to hear was how their son had been literally crowned Tuesday Night Pub Quiz champion... of power ranger lore.
He really, truly wished Jason was here.