"Lying in the Mud"
by rapunzl

Part 3 of 3

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.
~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii

Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
~ Leo Tolstoy

Saturday, May 23, 2003; 9:19 PM
Westgate Apartments
Cambridge, Massachusetts

He preferred the evenings these days. There was something that appealed to him in the way the darkness cloaked the impurities of life, masking everything in a shroud of gloom. The MIT campus loomed ahead, doorways illuminated in a wash of floodlights while the rest of the building melted away into the peace of the night. Only the newly erected placard before him escaped the jaws of darkness, glowing preternaturally bright in the night's shade.

In memoriam of
Dr. Anton Mercer
Scientist, Genius, Peacemaker, Philanthropist
Benevolent friend to all seekers of knowledge
1967 – 2002

He stood behind the bench erected directly before the placard, unwilling to sit but unable to turn away from those haunting words. He leaned heavily onto the back of the seat, his pain in his back flaring as he rested his elbows on the edge, his eyes compulsively tracing each letter. The raucous sound of the multiple parties ranging in the dormitory behind him faded into the night's maw, leaving him helpless and alone with no company beyond this cold, marble placard.

And his memories. He could never escape those.

It seemed wrong somehow that such a cold stone memorial be erected for such warm, caring man. Anton had possessed the rare but innate ability to see beyond a person's exterior and right into their heart. He had seen talent in a confused, lost young man, both floundering for a major and, quite literally, a direction. Tommy had stumbled into his lecture hall by sheer accident but had been too embarrassed to leave when he realized too late that he was in the wrong building, let alone the wrong classroom.

He had planted himself in his seat, worrying his stomach into a knot over missing his calculus lecture without the failsafe of Billy's tutoring afterwards. But by the end of the lecture, he was engrossed in the subject, no matter that he only understood a third of the discussion. He had thought the hall empty when he cautiously approached the six-foot scale model of a Triceratops. He couldn't help smile when he saw one particular vertebrae – the same bone that had saved them on Phaedos in another lifetime – reversed in its placement.

And so had begun the first of many friendly arguments. Mercer had recognized an innate talent in Tommy, one that he had never thought to develop or even consider searching for. Tommy had found that he was more than just a warrior, and Anton had been more to him than a teacher, more than even a mentor. Over time, they had grown to be friends. Even though there was an distinct age difference between the two, Anton had once told him that he possessed a shrewdness, a way of recognizing reality that even much older men had yet to develop. It was this odd, yet easy maturity resonating off him that made it so easy for Anton to relate to a man nearly twenty years his junior.

By the time Tommy had been welcomed into Mercer Industries' internship, Anton had already discovered the blue gem. That alone had taken years of concentrated effort by the organization; however, after Tommy had been brought onboard, the other two gems had been discovered only a few months later. And so, despite Smitty's experience and greater knowledge, Tommy had been made one of the leads on the new project.

He had been embarrassed by the attention that Anton had flooded on him. He was not used to being praised for his brains – at least, not those associated with scholastic achievements. But he had spent four covert years surrounded by ancient artifacts, and the ones most dear to him had been born of the dinosaur age. After spending so much time associated with the power coins, the dinozords, and the zeo crystal, Tommy could almost sense age radiating off primeval objects. And to be honest, it had felt like adventuring with Indiana Jones – only slightly more nerdy. Anton was a great man, but his scientific focus was in paleobotany, which had seemed ridiculously boring -

"Is this a private party, or can anyone join in?"

Tommy straightened abruptly, his fingers instinctively clenching into tight fists before he recognized the voice. Inwardly cursing himself for being so foolish as to let someone sneak up on him, regardless of their skill or friendliness, and he welcomed her with a tilt of his head. Her presence wasn't unwelcome – in fact, it was quite the opposite – but it still took a concerted effort for him to unclench his bruised fingers and wrap them around the back of the bench.

"Is that him?" Kimberly asked, motioning towards the engraving.

Tommy could only nod, not yet trusting his voice. He hadn't attended the funeral – hadn't even been invited, to be honest – but even had he been, he wouldn't have gone. Couldn't have gone. It took him nearly a week to find the strength to leave his apartment, and only then with Jason leading him every step of the way. This cold slab of marble was the closest he would get to visiting Mercer's grave; any closer would no longer be safe.

He had been cold for so long, surviving through in the icy darkness, that the gentle warmth radiating from the petite brunette standing beside him made him suppress a shiver. It had been easier over the phone to hide himself, to allow her words soothe him without actually permeating the wall. She had rattled on about inconsequential things for months, distracting him and easing his mind with the simplicity of reality - New York city life, reuniting with the former rangers, her unanticipated but completely natural career change to the world of fashion design... all of it had been just frivolous enough to keep her at an easy emotional distance. But watching her in action today, being in her presence... it was too hard. "You're missing the party, you know," he finally prodded quietly, part of him hoping she would take the hint and leave, while the rest of him desperately prayed she wouldn't.

She flashed a mildly amused look at him before turning back to the glowing marble etching. "None of us came here for the party, Tommy."

He winced. She was right, of course. Jason and David had flown across the country – and Kimberly had skipped who knew how many classes – just to be here to celebrate withhim. And where was he? Nowhere to be found. "I'm sorry, Kim," he muttered, running a nervous hand through his shorn locks once again. "I'm being a horrible host. Let's head back in." He had to force himself to turn away, to separate himself from the plaque and move towards the blaring dormitory again.

Her touch was so gentle as to barely be felt, but he stopped as though an iron clamp had pulled him to a halt. She walked around him, tilting her head up to meet his eyes directly for the first time that evening.

"Talk to me."

They were the same words he had used months earlier, a desperate plea in the night, a silent prayer to make the nightmares stop, if only for a time. The same words he had repeated almost every night since then, the same words that had kept him sane, the same words she had never dared ask herself.

Until now.

He wanted to deny her. He wanted to turn stone-faced, refuse to speak, and return to the party, seeking refuge in the loneliness of a crowd. He wanted to escape the way she could infiltrate his heart, the way she could make him speak when no one else could. He wanted to leave her standing alone, leave her with her unanswered questions, leave the past for one single night...

But he found himself being led back to the bench, following her passively and helplessly as they had done so many years ago. He slumped, exhausted, into the seat, rolling his head back to rest on the bench's top slat. He was overly conscious of her presence as she curled into the seat beside him, and the warmth of her lithe fingers as they wrapped around his bicep, both comforting and just slightly possessive. He stared into the night sky as she stared at him, taking note of the signs she hadn't seen before. The sallow, sunken cheeks in his haunted face; the dark circles underneath those lackluster orbs, speaking loudly of the sleepless nights she had helped him through... but his eyes struck her the most. His eyes, eyes to which she had once lost her heart, now stared hollowly at the world in as if he barely existed in it. He turned slightly, and as he watched her watching him, her piteous, anxious expression reflected more powerfully than any mirror.

"I'm a fool, Kimberly." He had been searching for a way to begin, and even months later, he couldn't find a way to start – but these self-depreciating words came easily. He couldn't even bear to look at her, so he turned his gaze back to the distant night sky. "Zordon," his voice cracked unintentionally, "would have been ashamed to have called me one of his Rangers." He paused, finally speaking aloud the most dark of his thoughts, and the part of him that would never be able to forgive himself for his green ranger days was perversely pleased. "This has been the first time in my life I was glad he was gone, glad he couldn't see the mess I've made-"

"Tommy!" She squeezed his arm in horror and he knew that she didn't believe; but he suddenly felt the overwhelming need to convince her. Now that he had started, he couldn't stop. He had to show her – show someone – how much he deserved this self-loathing.

"I should have seen. Four years, Kim. Four years I was a ranger. Four years I was taught by the greatest force of good in history, and I didn't learn a damned thing. I should have known." The energy, sapped out of him hours ago, returned full force, and he couldn't help but stand, a venomous fury suddenly awakening in his chest.

"I didn't recognize it for what it was. I thought I just had a source of power." He stopped abruptly, shaking his head. No. He wouldn't allow this. This was the time to be honest. Bluntly, painfully honest. Because someone had to be told. Someone, before the knowledge drove him crazy. When hell came raining down on the human race, someone had to know why... especially if he was no longer around to stand in the way of the blast.

"No. I knew. I was just too damned proud. And too damned full of myself. I was angry, Kim." He grimaced, driving the stake in deeper. His disgust was evident in the way he nearly spat the words, pacing uncontrollably before the bench, ignoring the twist of pain from his bruised ribs. "I was angry it wouldn't bond to me. Me! I was so sure that I – the longest serving ranger on Earth – would be worthy of the red gem. But nothing."

Part of him knew he wasn't talking to her anymore, and this conversation was just as much with himself than anyone else. But he still turned to her, the pain evident in his eyes. "Wasn't I good enough? All I could wonder... all I can wonder is if I am still stained by the evil I caused as the green ranger. I thought this was my chance. My chance to prove to myself that I could have a power that Zordon didn't give me... and nothing. It rejected me. Was I just a fluke? A mistake? Was the only reason Zordon even gave me a power – let me keep the green power coin – because of pity? Or because he could watch me every moment? Is that why Dimitria insisted I leave so suddenly? Because I couldn't be trusted anymore?"

"Tommy, that's not-"

"No, Kim. Not even the yellow gem would take me. It didn't even warm to the touch. Not a spark." His hands slipped into his pockets as he turned away from her, unable to face her any longer. Not for this part.

"We had found a power source. Mercer had found the blue before I joined him, and we found the yellow and red gem together. Months after we put the three together – when we really started experimenting – I wondered if he had only taken me on as a student because I had a degree from a high school in Angel Grove.

"But it didn't matter to me then. We were building such amazing things, Kim. Tyrannodrones, advanced androids built to clean up the world. Dinozords – zords, Kim! – each powered by the gem's link to the grid. They were just so powerful, Kim. We even started building raptor riders. And they weren't just robots, Kim. They were alive! Like cyborgs, only so much more. They had thoughts, feelings – they could care, love, be angered – just like a pet. But dinosaurs, Kim.

"We wanted to change the world. Fix it. Save it." He laughed, the harsh sound grating even on his own ears. "It was everything I always wanted. But I was so naïve. So stupid. I forgot everything that Zordon taught me. How many times had I seen evil drawn by the power? The Bookala crystal? The Zeo crystal? Lerigot?"

He turned back to face her, not at all surprised by the fear he saw in her eyes. That was okay. Because right now, he was scaring himself.

Months Earlier
Mercer Industries Island Compound

Tommy rolled his shoulders, unaccustomed to the stress of a day spent in front of a computer. He dreaded these long, dreary paperwork days. He knew they were necessary, even understood why, but he would much rather be out in the sun, climbing into deep trenches and seeking out the world's most unimaginable and ancient historical treasures.

As his office phone rang, he glanced at the clock and rolled his eyes in amusement. His current supervisor, Jerome, was notorious for calling him and suggesting they leave "a touch" early on Fridays. Of course, to Jerome, that meant five hours early and included several drinks at a bar near the mainland port. This weekend, however, promised to be mostly work for his other job; Andros had sent him a message a few days ago about something interesting he found during the cleanup effort on the Moon and he still had to return a few phone calls from several rangers who were more than a bit irate at not having been invited.

"Yes, sir," he chirped, waiting for Jerome's typical reply about titles only being used by kings, generals, and men with small genitalia.

"Tommy..." The voice on the other end of the line was not entirely unfamiliar, but it seemed broken and twisted somehow. Tommy stood instantly, as if the voice could somehow reach him in his small office on this remote island. "The gems. Where are the gems?"

"Anton?" he stuttered. Anton Mercer had been "missing" this time for at least two months, but his quirky disappearances had become more and more frequent over the past year. He would always return weeks later bursting with excitement over some new find, yet the rumors had flown through the company each time and more than half the employees were certain there was a certain lady love that the billionaire was courting across the world. When Tommy finally had the gumption to confront him, though, Anton had just laughed and claimed that being eccentric was the benefit of owning his own billion dollar company.

"Must keep them safe," Anton gasped over the line, and Tommy heard something delicate shatter in the background. "Oh God, no. Not you. Not now!"

A cold blade of fear penetrated his heart as the phone clattered to the ground on the other end of the line. It only took a moment for him to see the phone extension was local before he was racing through the halls of the complex, literally leaping over a prototype robot on his way to the stairs. He knew that he would be unable to stand quietly in an elevator as it slowly wound its way to the top level of the building and even the few minutes it took him to nearly fly up the stairs to Anton's personal lab felt like an eternity.

The gems.

As he flung open the stairwell door to the penthouse level, a part of Tommy couldn't help but wonder why he hadn't called security before he bolted for Anton's private laboratory. It hadn't seemed right for some reason, hadn't even occurred to him. Perhaps it was years of being the one who rushed to the rescue. Perhaps it was training borne of years of rangering that caused him to rush forward first and seek help later. Or perhaps it was that nagging feeling, the little one in the back of his head that had been bothering him even before Andros had called him to say that Serpentera was still a threat. That minute, deeply ingrained signal that meant that the police would be better off far away.

That moment when he just knew that something insanely dangerous was about to happen.

His thick soled combat boots slid on the beautifully polished floor as Tommy jerked to a complete halt. The laboratory was completely destroyed. The delicate jars and mementos from distant countries were a crumbled mess on the floor. Sensitive electronic lab equipment was crushed and his newly prized mass spectrometer was a smoking hulk of plastic and wires. Even his most prized awards had been cracked and littered on the ground.

He stood stock still, both shocked and horrified by the sight. His eyes darted around, but nothing seemed to move beyond the sparking wires and residual smoke. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he was fairly certain the smoke detectors would start blaring and scare him half to death.

"Anton?" he whispered. His voice echoed quietly in the deathly still room. He took a hesitant step forward, and the sound of glass crunching under his boot sounded overwhelmingly, unbelievably loud. Nearly as loud as his heart.

And why did his fingers suddenly feel so cold?

Some people have an innate sense, almost a natural peripheral vision. A slight pressure, the hairs of the back of their necks rising, or a tickle between their shoulder blades is all it takes for them to know - simply know - that someone is behind them. It was that instinct that saved Tommy's life that day, as he suddenly turned and stepped sideways, barely missing a brightly electrified pulse that flared from just beyond the doorway.

If he hadn't been so honestly terrified, the creature would have simply been comical. It's scaly skin seemed almost clammy and pale, yet stretched so thin against its bones that it seemed as though it would rip at any moment. Its head was crowned with spiked ridges and his paleontologist's brain couldn't help but classify it as vaguely reminiscent of an Euoplocephalus, one of the Ankylosaurs. But the similarity ended at the menacing ridge of teeth that seemed to smile deviously at him; it stood on two legs but emanated the feel of a predator just waiting to strike. Tommy's astonished brain could only think that this was some sort of horrible abomination of science.

"Welcome, Tommy." It hissed, and its voice was aged and cracked as if it were truly millions of years old. A liquid chill of revulsion slid down his spine and he unconsciously stepped backwards, the glass cracking under his boot as loud as the crunch of bone. His eyes flickered to the left to the spot where he had been standing moments before, and his fists instantly clenched as he noted the scorched scar in the flooring.

His mind seemed to speed up - or maybe the world seemed to slow down - and the room seemed to grow even a few degrees colder. It knew who he was. It had at least one power, possibly deadly. It attacked him.

And Anton had called.

"Where is Anton?" His eyes scanned the beast's bulbous golden orbs as he responded in a low, threatening growl.

It seemed to hesitate for a moment, its head cocking slightly to the side before its jaws opened slightly in a toothy, unfriendly grin. "Dr. Mercer won't be around to advise you any longer." A thick, pink tongue darted out and licked its sharpened teeth as if hungry for more and a low, cold chuckle emanated from its chest before it added, "Now, there is only Mesogog."

It was only then that he saw the torn lab coat at Mesogog's feet. The custom lab coat that had been a gift from his own team. The small, embroidered Troodon on his lapel, a small joke amongst their team as it was widely considered one of the smartest dinosaurs in history. The coat he wore each day as if to emphasize that he was just one of the team.

His racing mind seemed to stall and slow. Torn lab coat. His arms fell limply to his sides, his fingers numbly unclenching. Hungry look. His vision blurred. Anton. His entire body went cold. Teeth. His stomach churned. Anton. His knees buckled, slamming into the cold, chemically resistant flooring.


He heard the clack of Mesogog's clawed feet approach him, but the sudden grief had overwhelmed him utterly. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he had known that he had been courting danger, but... there would be no dramatic rescue today. No last minute deliverance of his mentor. No way to turn back what had already been done.

"Too simple. Dr. Mercer truly thought you would be a hindrance." It moved before his swaying, kneeling form. A cool, sharp reddish claw lifted his chin, forcing him to look the demonic creature in the eyes. "Now, boy. Where are the gems?"

Tommy blinked, the words slowly percolating through the dark fog that had enveloped his brain. The gems. It was the first thing Anton had asked for. His one request.

His last request.

Must keep them safe.

Adrenaline hammered his body as he violently rolled backwards, kicking his legs out and hammering the monstrosity in the knees. He scrambled around the corner of the lab desk and swung open the cabinet as he heard the beast stumble backwards, crashing into the small rolling table and sending it flying. Tommy roughly turned the handle and jumped up in time to barely avoid another bright red blast coming his way.

Now was normally the time when he would break the silence with some smart-mouthed line to show the enemy that he was, after all, force to be reckoned with. That he was not afraid. But today was not the day for cheery quips. Today was a day for fire.

He grasped the flimsy rubber tube atop the table in his hand and, as he flicked the long, laboratory lighter in his other, he carefully aimed. A thick stream of gas-fed fire blasted out of the tube, blossoming in the air and directly into Mesogog's snarling face. The dinosaur screeched in pain and anger and, as anticipated, the fire alarm finally began to wildly sound. Dropping the tube as the leather-clad creature flailed its arms, Tommy sped towards the hidden yet comfortable office in the rear of the lab. He swung the door quietly behind him, hoping that Mesogog was distracted enough not to notice his departure, then quickly moved towards the safe in the rear of the room.

His fingers shook as he attempted to punch in his combination and it took three attempts for him just to be able to get the sequence correct. With the tyrannodrone project wrapping up, he supposed Anton assumed the gems were in the research lab, not back in the safe; that was the only explanation he could imagine for his failure to just check the safe first. However, Anton was unaware that Jerome typically released the team early on Fridays and Tommy had locked them up for the weekend hours ago.

The small, metal case seemed to call to him and his hands trembled as he opened the case and thrust the three crystals into his khaki pockets. He slammed the lid closed and whirled around in time to feel a sold wave of pure agony shoot through his entire body. Every muscle in his body suddenly flexed and he felt his back arching uncontrollably as, once again, he crumpled to the ground. His jaw was clenched so tightly that he could barely breathe, but despite that, a guttural scream escaped his emptying lungs. Just as the world began to darken, the pain was suddenly gone. He clutched his chest and drew in deep, gasping breaths as his vision cleared.

The dinosaur's skin seemed blackened and crisp, but the beast seemed barely slowed. A thin rain from the sprinklers framed his hulking outline as the creature leaned over him and picked up the metal box. "Did you really think something so simple would stop me?" It breathed outwards in a semblance of a laugh and its claws fumbled at the box's clasp.

It wouldn't be more than a moment before the dino-creature realized that the gems were not in the box. Pumping his legs, Tommy pushed himself backwards until he had the stability of Anton's desk to lean against. He attempted to lever himself up, but his legs were still trembling at the force of the psychic blast. He had been through horrible physical and mental pain before in his tenure as a Power Ranger, but this was something about this blast that left him with no doubt that Mesogog could peel the skin off his bones if he so desired.

"The gems," he called out, drawing Mesogog's attention back to him. He needed to stall until he could get his legs back under him, and if there was one thing that would always stall an evil genius, it was a monologue. "Why do you want them?"

As predicted, the scaled head looked up, as if it had forgotten Tommy completely. "I am the epitome of genetic evolution. The strength and constitution of a dinosaur combined with the intelligence and adaptability of man. Man will eventually falter and fail, as the dinosaurs did before them. I will not." It paused, as if assessing him more closely. "Hybrids are the future of Earth. The gems will help to power my creations and transform this Earth into a veritable paradise of hybrids, like myself." It stepped closer, cocking its head. "In fact, you are not a terrible specimen for me to begin my experiments with."

He needed no further urging. He sprung up, a new surge of fear and horror lending him the strength he lacked as he rolled over the top of Anton's desk and landed on his feet, sprinting towards the door. He instinctively ducked another reddish blast of fiery energy and rushed madly towards the stairs. A loud roar, followed by the sound of shattering glass left him with no doubt that Mesogog now knew where the gems were.

"You cannot stop me, you pathetic human!" The furious scream followed him as he slid down water slicked stairs. He heard the metal door clang open behind him as he concentrated on moving as quickly and safely as possible, praying the rest of the staff had evacuated with the fire alarm. "You will never escape me!"

The furious energy he had exhibited as he spoke seemed to slowly gather around him like a halo of pure intensity. "I barely escaped with my life that night. It turns out most of the staff had already evacuated by the time I set off the fire alarm; Mesogog had somehow turned the Tyrannodrones against us. They were wild, Kim. Everything they were never supposed to be. Violent, angry, dangerous... everything we worked for had been turned on its head."

Tommy clenched his fists, almost shaking with the effort of containing the tumultuous emotions within. He turned to gaze into the sky, vaguely wondering if the intensity of his gaze could actually bore a hole into the clear night sky while he struggled to avoid the former pink ranger's eyes. Now that she knew everything, he couldn't bear to see the look of disgust, of pure disappointment that would mirror his own. Now faced with the dark reality that the truth would inevitably turn everyone away in revulsion, he understood why his subconscious had desperately fought against telling anyone of his failure. The words that he had spoken this somber evening could never be taken back. He could never be the hero again, for heroes never destroyed planets in their arrogance and ignorance. And right now, he so desperately needed to be that hero. To feel that there was some good, something worthwhile still left within him.

Instead, he focused his attention on the lifeless, cold marble stone that haunted his dreams, attempting to delay that harsh moment for at least a few seconds longer. "I haven't been able to sleep more than a few hours at a time since then. I can't go anywhere without the gems; someone has to protect them from Mesagog. If he got his hands on them..." His words were laden with exhaustion, and as he examined the sleek lines of the marble before him, he was completely unaware that his hand had automatically reached out to touch each gem in his pocket, just to be certain they were still there.

And suddenly, she was standing between him and Mercer's memorial as if purposely blocking the source of his grim memories. She had moved like a ghost, so quickly and quietly that he had barely been able to look away in time. Unwilling to even allow him that escape, she stepped forward into his line of sight. His whole body tensed at the simple nearness of her and his chest locked, unable to even breathe, the moment his eyes met hers.

Long ago, in what seemed like another lifetime, Kimberly had been lovingly christened the heart of the team of Zordon's rangers, for the depth of her heart was plain for all to see. While her open character had plagued her any time she had hoped to vary even slightly from the truth, it was that very sincerity that had helped to draw him back into the world nearly a decade earlier. For when Kimberly Hart swore there was no evil left within him, there was no doubting her candor; and when she promised she had forgiven him, he had been able to look in her dark brown eyes and truly believe her. She had somehow understood that, her own genuine forgiveness had opened up the possibility of his being able to forgive himself.

Tonight, though, she spoke no words; there existed no words that could permeate the perpetual midnight in which he drowned. Against her soft, warm eyes, however, the shining marble stone seemed even more impenetrably cold in simply gazed at him with the truth of her heart in her eyes. Understanding. Sorrow. Friendship. Trust. Grief. Love. Acceptance.

And above all, forgiveness. Unconditional, complete forgiveness.

Her arms tentatively wrapped ever so gently around his stiff form and his body turned to ice at her touch. He stood stiff as a stone, his breath freezing in his chest at the simple closeness. A voice in his head began to shriek, vehemently opposing any human contact, reminding him that he deserved nothing, he had earned a life of misery and loneliness. But Kimberly Hart's eyes never lied. She may tease, joke, and sometimes trick, but her eyes never lied. And her eyes had promised him forgiveness. Taking heed of his bruised body, her embrace gently tightened, and with it, his taut muscles began to thaw. A warmth began to pervade his being, a gentle, wonderful warmth that he had not felt since that terrible day on the island.

He was unaware how long he had reveled in the warmth of her touch, of her heart, before he finally came back to himself enough to hear Kimberly murmuring quietly. He blinked, suddenly aware that, at some point, they had returned to the bench. He drew back slightly, shaking his head and rubbing his face with a deep weariness. But as exhausted as he was, he felt surprisingly... lighter.

She stared at him for a long moment before repeating herself. "You can't keep running forever," she stated simply, compassion in her dark brown eyes.

"And I can't leave them." He spoke with the certainty of a man who has reviewed the possibilities a hundred times before. "Who would I put in that kind of danger? My parents? My neighbors? My friends?" He shook his head, answering himself before she could speak. "Today proved it. I had nearly convinced myself that, perhaps, things could be normal again, and..." The lines in his face hardened, aging him far beyond his years "He just won't let up." He shook his head again, his next words almost inaudible. "He'll never let up."

"Maybe NASADA can help?" she asked quietly, but he laughed bitterly.

"NASADA is a research facility, Kim. They are focused on expanding humanity into unknown territories, not security or defense. They don't have the equipment or the facilities to withstand the force unleashed on the island." She shivered at the harshness in his eyes. The look of despair. "I won't dump my problem onto someone else. I already lost Anton. I won't let more innocents die for my mistakes."

She bit her lower lip, a habit she had thought she had long since outgrown. Then again, she had thought she had outgrown saving the world, and yet in her first hour in Boston, she had already destroyed a misshapen monstrosity. So much for that.

He watched her as she considered the situation, delicately pulling in her lip in that endearing way he remembered. Somewhere inside, he realized that the despair was truly getting to him. That if he didn't find something soon, find some solution, find some way to escape this cycle of desperation, there wouldn't be much left of him to save. It had been remarkably liberating to finally share the truth of that day, but she seemed no more able to find a solution than him. And, in another, more horrible way, that was actually worse - to be closer to the certainty that there was really one who could help him.

Maybe it was really hopeless after all.

"What about the command center?"

He shook his head slowly, his voice hollow. "The upper levels of the command center were destroyed, and the lower levels were built for storage; they don't have the power or ability to mask a power source of this strength. The alien technology Zordon brought to Earth 10,000 years ago still surpasses anything we could hope to understand, repair, or rebuild. And sadly, my peanut brain has neither the skills nor intelligence to try to create another protective environment like that," he snorted.

"But my brain outdoes your peanut one any day of the week."

The confident, almost arrogant voice startled them both. Once again caught unawares, Tommy leapt to his feet, instinctively backing into the stone memorial. His heart pounded in his chest and his hands shook with the sudden transition from a dejected despair to the shock of the unexpected arrival. His eyes strained in the darkness to make out the approaching figure. He finally recognized the familiar figure just as the light struck her shining russet hair and arched eyebrows. Jason and David followed while exchanging flustered, nervous looks.

The world seemed to suddenly slow down as the ramifications of her comment truly came to bear. She knows. The thought began to repeat dully in his brain. She knows knows knows knows knows knows knows... As if he hadn't done enough to tarnish Zordon's memory, now he had broken one of his cardinal rules. Always keep your identity a secret. Always. She knows. Always. Always knows. His throat dry, he croaked, "How much did you hear?"

Her light laughter was almost painful for him to hear, and as she rested her elbows casually on the back slat of the bench, she mirrored his own earlier stance. "Enough to finally understand you, Tommy. Nice, sweet, caring, cute, and not a total ass. All these years and I just couldn't figure you out. I knew there was something you were hiding, but honestly, I just thought you were gay." Despite the horror all the former rangers were feeling, Jason couldn't help but suppress a snort of laughter. As Tommy fixed him with a furious glare, he had the decency to look mortified at the slip.

Before he could think of some sort of way to cover his slip, to explain that the last hour's conversation was a silly dream he had last night, Kimberly shifted on the bench to more fully face the brilliant redhead. "Do you honestly think you could build something like that?" she breathed quietly.

A stab of something deeper than fear tore into his heart. "No!" he exclaimed, unable to restrain himself. "I told you, I'm not putting anyone else in danger. Haley, you don't know what you're getting into. It's not your fight. You just don't -"

Her eyes flared and Haley straightened, moving around the bench to face Tommy full on. "Not my fight?" she repeated, a deadly venom lacing her typically lighthearted nature. The three visitors started in surprise, but Tommy had faced Haley's temper before. It was rare and nearly impossible to stoke, but there was a fire that burned in her that rivaled any power ranger's. "Last time I checked, this was my planet, too; and frankly, I'm not too fond of the whole Jurassic Park Planet plan."

David stepped beside her, hesitant to come too close to the infuriated woman, but his jaw set. "Family is family," he repeated, echoing his sentiment from that morning. "And I will not allow some misshapen dino freak to hunt you down while I silently stand by." His face darkened a shade and he shook his head resolutely. "Not this time, little brother."

This was not happening. This was worse than his darkest nightmares. Only a few hours ago, he had been literally petrified with fear at the thought of these two people being harmed by his horrific mistakes. And now, they wanted to put themselves at risk? He looked desperately to Jason and Kimberly for a dose of sanity.

Nodding slowly, Jason seemed to agree - until he clapped Tommy soundly on the shoulder. "Well, once a ranger, bro..."

"... Always a ranger," Kimberly finished with a bemused smile. She reached out and gently clasped his right hand, now hanging limply at his side.

"I... you... can't..."

None of them seemed to take any heed of his stuttered denials, and with unaccountable speed, a plan was formed. Tommy watched in a stupefied haze was they seemed to intrinsically work off each other's strengths. Jason and Andros would contact Billy; through them, Haley would be able to pick his brain to her heart's content. The initial stage was to access the substructure of the command center. They needed to bypass the remaining security measures to access the main command center's design. That would give them a solid building block to start anew.

Meanwhile, David would use the connections he had formed over the last few years as a real estate developer to begin researching a remote, secure site to build the new safehouse. Kimberly had firmly argued against Angel Grove - that was frankly too obvious in her opinion - but they wanted somewhere within a few hours drive so the gems could be rushed to the old command center in case of a breach.

He stood by, stunned into silence. Somehow, four people he loved had come together and were... he wasn't certain. Cleaning up his mess? Putting themselves in danger? Trying to protect the world from his personal disaster? The part of his heart still drowning in guilt despised himself for not speaking up and stopping this now. But... now there was something else. Something he had not realized while locked in his dark apartment all these months. Something he had failed to recognize, but when confronted with it, surrounded by it, it was something he could not deny.

They weren't covering for him; they were protecting him. They loved him. These people, these amazing, brave, caring people, were all willing to give up years of their lives for him. To put their minds, skills, and talents together to climb a mountain he could not surmount alone. He could no longer deny their devotion; it was as clear as day now. They knew what he had done, and they simply didn't care. Able to outshine the shame, he was warmed by a sense of awe. And finally, the bleak chill that had filled him since he had fought Mesagog in Anton's lab truly began to relent.

It was Jason that finally drew the reins in, dousing the conversation with a cold dose of reality. "You know, none of you can put this on your resumes."

"And who said I needed anything on my resume to get a job?" Jason's eyebrows shot up in surprise at the wicked grin upon the scientist's lips; the former pink ranger simply squeezed her tightly around the waist.

"Oh, you and I are going to get along so well," she beamed. "And I know I'm specializing in 'special occasion wear,' but I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that ranger uniforms are about as special occasion as anyone can get."

"But that's not really the problem, Jason," David interrupted, his voice quiet. "I'm honestly not sure we can finance something this big. I mean, if you consider the technology required, the fact that we'd need several acres of land to ensure security and safety, the costumes, the supplies..."

"Um, I think I can cover it." Tommy slowly withdrew a crumpled paper he had angrily shoved into his pocket earlier that day. it had been such a small note tucked under his diploma, yet it had almost made him ill. He had hated himself for having it, hated himself even more for keeping it, but now... well, perhaps someone was looking out for him after all.

He numbly handed the small ball of paper to Kimberly, who gently smoothed it out on her lap while growing ever quieter.

"What is it?"

"It's a grant from Mercer Industries. A bequeathment. There's a lot of legalese, but from what I understand, Anton willed Tommy a... ridiculous sum of money to 'continue the intrepid research they began with the same high minded ideals,' blah, blah, blah."

David frowned, leaning in. "Just how ridiculous is... oh, wow. That's ridiculous."

Tommy blinked and suddenly stopped breathing. For a fleeting moment, he seemed to be on the verge of understanding something, some critical piece information he had been missing. The something was floating just out of his reach, and he was sure that if he just stepped back and thought, he would be able to just touch it. Something about Anton, about the money, about how he could anticipate...

"So, should I draw up a design for morphers?"

Tommy visibly started, and just as quickly, the moment was gone. "What? No. What do you mean?" he blurted. Things were suddenly spiraling out of control again.

"Morphers," Jason repeated, almost offhandedly. "Yeah, we should. Bill actually has some real experience with that, and I think we should -"


Haley shrugged nonchalantly, unwilling to admit she was getting even out of her depth. Despite her confidence that she could build a command center, she was only just starting to understand how remarkably large that task could be. "Give me something to work off. I'm sure one of you former heroes has got an old morph-thingy for me to work with, right?

"Hold on, guys. Stop right there. Why are we discussing morphers?" Jason and Kimberly quickly exchanged a pleased look, and it took him a few seconds to realize why. This had been the first time in months he had actually taken control of something. Twice now today, he had stepped forward and actively participated in his own life.

The darkness was slowly lifting, it seemed.

"Little brother, I thought that was what this was all about. A safehouse. Uniforms. Morphers. Starting over." David looked at him carefully. "Isn't it?"

"No, of course not" he spat, exasperated. "It's about protecting the gems, not making rangers. We aren't Zordon, guys. I," he swallowed hard, suddenly quiet. "I am not Zordon."

Tommy caught another quick, silent exchange between the pink and red rangers before Jason squared off against his best friend. His words were slow and careful, as if gently leading him, step by step, towards a basic understanding. He honestly feared that if he took Tommy there too fast, they just might lose him again.

"Bro, think. You've got a new big bad. Even if we can protect the gems, even if you stop him from accessing that power source... do you think he'll just stop there?"

"Oh God."

He hadn't thought that far ahead. All he had known for months was run, hide, stay safe, save the gems. He hadn't stopped to wonder... to consider... Jason was right, of course. He had always been the calm, rational strategist to Tommy's instinctual reflexive moves.

Tommy slowly withdrew his left hand, now numb with dread. His trembling fingers opened to reveal three lifeless crystals. He held them out to Jason first, his unspoken words speaking volumes. It pained him to release them to someone else's care, but there was no one else he trusted more than these people.

Gently, he tipped the gems into Jason's waiting palm. No one seemed eager to hold the gems, Jason least of all. All of Zordon's rangers had believed they had left those young, wild years behind them and it was difficult to imagine reliving those days again. He held his breath and watched as... nothing happened. A small, dark part of his heart rejoiced that they had not just rejected him, but a far better man, but he quickly stomped it into silence.

Jason offered the gems to the pink ranger. Her fingers trembled and she clutched Tommy's hand tightly, but she accepted them without a word. She held them tightly, almost as if willing them to be silent, and they heeded her desire.

It was David who stretched out his hand next. The three former rangers exchanged a glance, surprised. There hadn't been two rangers in a family since the Corbett brothers on the Lost Galaxy team, and that was simply a technicality. Tommy nodded fractionally and Kimberly's small fingers released the gems to the older brother's care.

David seemed entranced by the gems, staring at them as if that would help him more easily understand his younger sibling. He seemed in wonder that something so small and delicate could so radically change a person - and a world. But the gems slept peacefully, ignoring both David's awestruck touch and, against Tommy's very verbal arguments, Haley's as well.

They quietly returned the gems to Tommy and as he closed his rough fingers around them, the taut muscles in his shoulders immediately loosened. He looked embarrassed for a moment, then shoved them back into his pocket.

"Should I call the other guys?" he asked quietly, looking to Jason to make the decision.

Kimberly shook her head. "I don't think so. You said the gems chooses, not the other way around, right? Well, Zordon always got teenagers as rangers. He told us that we were open minded enough to accept the Power's guidance. We were the ones who would inherit the planet, so we had to protect it."

He frowned, his shoulders sagging. The idea of putting this responsibility on a group of teenagers... it was incomprehensible. They were too young. Too immature. From where he stood now, he couldn't quite understand how Zordon had rationalized the decision. "Where am I going to get teenagers?" he asked helplessly.

He staggered as Jason slapped him on the back, a curiously devious expression on his face. It unsettled him in a way only a close friend could. "Well, there exists a dark breeding ground for teenagers, and I'm guessing your shiny new PhD is going to help you get there..."

The former green ranger's eyes widened in horror. He had been evil. He had killed. He had possibly started the initial stages of the world's destruction. But nothing he had done could possibly make his deserve this.

Please no.

Not high school.