Ghost of a Rose

By: Nonni

Sept 27, 2007

 

Summary: A dangerous monster with a devious plan makes the rangers lives hell.

 

Timeframe: Sometime between Ch 34 "The Ranger Bride" and Ch 35 "2 is Company, 6 is a Team"

Spoilers: Um...if you're not familiar with the Always a Ranger stories, this will be very confusing and probably spoilerific.

Disclaimer: I don't own the Power Rangers. I don't own the AAR universe, either. I'm just playing with other people's toys. I promise to treat them nicely and put them back when I'm done.

Author's Notes: For JTrevizo - thanks for all the wonderful stories!

 

 

~*~

 

The early-morning light was just starting to strengthen into the strong, hot sun of a perfect early autumn day. "All right, everyone, well done," Tommy Oliver said at last, sounding ever-so-slightly out of breath. "Good practice, but I think that's enough for today."

The isolated clearing rang with the sound of five people heaving a collective sigh of relief, all sounding much more winded than the black-clad ranger. "Oh, thank goodness," Kira moaned, de-morphing and running one hand through her sweat-dampened blonde hair. All around her, the others de-morphed as well. Where there had been six Dino Rangers, there were now four teenagers and two adults in variously-colored workout gear.

"Yeah. I've felt less beat after a full game with extra overtime," Connor agreed, rolling his red-clad shoulders to try and release some of the aching tension there. "Of course, soccer games don't usually start at the crack of dawn, like today's practice did."

"What's with the extra-heavy workout, Doctor O?" Ethan's curiosity couldn't be suppressed, even though his legs felt like rubber and his dark face was shiny with sweat.

"Are you expecting some special attack?" Worries about what Mesogog - his *father* - might be planning contributed as much as his exhaustion to the subdued expression on Trent's face as he mopped his face with one white sleeve.

"Nah," Kimberly groaned before Tommy could answer Trent. She'd guessed what Tommy's motivations were halfway through the practice. "He's just breaking in the new pink teammate - or I should say, the old teammate." 'Old is right,' Kim thought privately to herself. 'And right now I feel every single one of my years. Now I know why Tommy was worried about his being too old for this - I sure don't remember being this tired and achy back in the day!' She gave her fiancé a look compounded equally of exasperation and understanding, leavened with a good bit of appreciation. 'How can he look so sexy after several hours of working out?' Tommy looked around at the tired faces surrounding him and suppressed a twinge of guilt. 'I did work them really hard - but better me than Mesogog or Elsa.' "Better to "break in" than get broken. We all need to be able to fight together effectively as a team," he explained. "So until you're all used to working with Kim, and she with you..."

"...we're going to ache a lot," Conner interrupted, unable to resist a joke as he got his wind back.

"...we're going to have lots of practicing to do," Tommy corrected sternly. He tapped his communicator, opening the line. "Hayley, were you able to monitor everyone's power levels through the practice?"

The red-haired genius's voice came back tinny but clear through all their communicators. "Yes, and I've got a lot of data to analyze. By and large, though, I think you guys did pretty well."

"Thanks Hayley," Trent replied, brightening at the words of praise from his boss.

"Good to know we don't entirely suck," Conner agreed with a laugh, tugging on his red t-shirt in a subconscious effort to help himself cool off.

"We don't suck at all." Kim gave the entire group a mock-scowl before tossing her head in a deliberately affected gesture. "We're rangers. Rangers never suck."

As she'd intended, everyone broke out laughing to various degrees, Kira even leaning against a convenient tree as she gave in to a fit of the giggles. "Okay, okay." Conner got his laughter under control first. "But since we don't suck, and since we're done with practice, this is one ranger who's got other things he'd like to get done before the weekend's over. Can we head out?" He looked to his teacher for confirmation, knowing that it was Doctor O's call.

Amusement sparked in the older man's dark eyes. "I wouldn't want to keep you from anything important." Tommy's dry tone sailed over Conner's head, but Ethan and Kim had a hard time keeping a straight face.

"So what are you all up to today?" Kim asked before she lost it. Although she already felt close to her younger teammates, now that she was living here full-time, she needed to continue to build on the relationships.

"You mean, besides the homework that Doctor O here inflicted on us?" Ethan rolled his eyes good-naturedly at his teacher. "I've got a few hours blocked out for an online gaming session. One of the big guilds has organized a dragon-raid, and it's been awhile since I could join up in something like that."

"You don't get enough monsters in your daily life?" Kira joked with a grin.

The blue ranger shrugged. "Hey, what can I say? It's a lot more fun when they can't actually shoot back at you. So what are you doing, Kira?"

The pretty blonde's cheeks reddened slightly, and beside her, Conner's feet did a little nervous shuffle. "Well, Conner and I were talking about catching a matinee of the environmental documentary Krista's group is sponsoring. I'm guessing you're not interested, but does anyone else want to come?" She felt a little guilty for issuing a general invitation to come along when Conner had apparently not mentioned it to anyone, but it wasn't as if Conner had asked her out specifically.

Trent sighed. "I wish I could join you, but I'm working the noon-to-five shift at the café." Focused on Kira, he missed the glare from Conner, who was not at all pleased to hear his white-clad rival's unknowing attempt to ruin his chance to spend some time alone with the pretty yellow ranger. "Unless you don't need me?" he asked his boss across the open communicator line.

"Sorry, Trent, but you're the only one I've got working that shift," Hayley's voice confirmed. "And given the amount of financial paperwork I have to finish, not to mention the ranger data, I'm really going to need you out front."

"What about you, Doctor O?" Conner asked quickly, wanting to change the focus away from Kira's activities (and his own). "Have you and Kimberly got plans?"

"You mean, besides the homework I'm coming up with for you next week?" Tommy jibed, deliberately paraphrasing Ethan's earlier statement and enjoying watching his students squirm. As fond as he was of them, he really didn't want to encourage them in asking about his personal life any more than they already did. 'Particularly when my very sexy fiancée is standing right here in sweat-dampened workout clothes.' Sure, Kim was more than ten years older than the teens, but then again, Conner, Ethan, and Trent were teenaged males. He'd been one himself, even if it did feel like unimaginable ages ago. Tommy knew exactly where their minds would go given the chance.

"And I've got a number of errands to run this afternoon at the mall," Kim added hastily, also hoping to distract the teens from speculating what else their teacher and his fiancée might be up to on the weekends.

"Oh, no, Kim, you don't want to go there today," Kira protested.

"Yeah, or at least not until late," Conner seconded, and Trent nodded vigorously.

Kim blinked. When she was a teenager, going to the mall on the weekends was definitely high on the list of things to do. 'Have things changed so much since then? God, now I really do feel old.' "Why not?"

Kira couldn't believe that anyone didn't know. "Because today's KinderKontest!"

"The what?" Kim looked totally confused, and judging from his expression, Tommy didn't understand either.

"KinderKontest," Hayley repeated. Even over the communicator, everyone could hear the horror in her voice. "You're new to town so you wouldn't know, but it's a big annual event here in Reefside. A talent show for the 10-and-under crowd sponsored by the local mall. The place will be absolutely crawling with young kids and their parents, teachers, or troupe leaders. Haven't you seen any of the flyers for it? Tom, I thought at least you would have noticed. They're everywhere - all over my café, the school, every telephone pole in town. I know I pointed them out to you."

"I forgot all about it," Tommy groaned. His eyes locked with Kim's, and it was easy to read the regret there. "I'm sorry, I would have warned you about that, but..."

"...but you didn't remember," Kim said lightly, knowing that his memory for such things was still what it had always been - absolutely awful. Still, she wasn't going to tease him about it with the younger team members there. "Oh well, I like kids. And I've got to get these errands done today."

"Good luck with that," Trent said, exchanging a look with the other three teens. All of them knew exactly what Kim would be facing, and they shared one identical thought: Better her than me!

******

The cluttered, shadowy room was unpleasantly warm and humid as always. Elsa crouched down to the floor, seething at the necessity. "You summoned me?"

A misshapen figure moved within the shadows, fixing her with a baleful, reptilian eye. "I did." The voice was slurred, sibilant, and full of power. "I have a mission for you." One clawed hand reached out and brought a plate-sized slab of stone into view. Light from one of the many banks of equipment revealed the delicate, perfect fossilized imprint of a plant; stem, leaves, a few roots, and even a single bud-like shape. "You will take this to the Reefside mall now, before it opens for today's festivities. Place it within the display case you will find waiting for it. Another generous donation of a science display from Anton Mercer." The raspy voice snarled as it pronounced the name.

"And what then?"

"I will bring it to life at the proper moment." The shape took a step closer to Elsa, and the face of Mesogog became clear in the light. He trailed one clawed finger of his other hand delicately over the fossil he held in his hand, almost caressingly. "This is a rare specimen, Elsa. Treat it with care."

Despite the inherent menace present in Mesogog at all times, Elsa sensed that the human-dinosaur hybrid was actually in a fairly good mood, for him. She dared ask a question. "What will it do, master?"

"It shall take over perhaps the only warriors truly capable of stopping the Dino Rangers."

Elsa gasped. "Who?"

Mesogog smiled hideously, pleased at Elsa's shocked reaction. "You will see. Now go and do my will."

*****

Tommy leaned against the doorframe of the small bathroom and watched his fiancée rush to style her hair. The normally light brown strands were still damp from her hasty shower and currently almost as dark as his own. "Are you sure you want to do this, Beautiful? You could go later." He still felt badly about not warning her of the big event - and he hated seeing her hurry to dress for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with guilt. He ran an appreciative eye over the light pink sundress and wedge sandals she'd chosen seemingly at random. As always, she was stunning. The dress subtly emphasized her curves, the length of the skirt showed off her slim, athletic legs, and the color of the dress brought out the amber highlights in her brown eyes.

Kim gave him a quick smile in the mirror, admiring in turn his firm body and the defined muscles that no workout gear, however loose or casual, could hide. His short hair was even spikier than usual from his earlier exertions, and he wasn't wearing his glasses, fully revealing his gorgeous dark-brown eyes. Despite the difference in hair length and age, he exuded a youthful, almost shy appeal that reminded her strongly of the boy he'd been, the one she'd fallen in love with all those years ago. She resisted the sudden temptation to toss responsibility to the wind. "Oh, no, handsome. You don't get out of taking me to dinner that easily. We've already got plans for tonight, remember?" She emphasized the last word with a teasing wink.

Giving into his impulses, Tommy moved closer to Kim and dropped a kiss on her hair. "We could leave early for our reservation and stop by on the way there. You're already taking care of so many of the details for our wedding. Maybe we should go do this together, after I've finished next week's lesson plans."

"With the zoo it's likely to be?" Kim shook her head as she turned to face him. "I appreciate the offer, but I think our best bet is if I go right away, while things should still be relatively calm. If nothing else, we really need to get the glitch in our registry straightened out today, and that only needs one of us." She reached up a hand and lightly caressed the side of his face. "You stay here, shower, and get your prep work done for your classes while I take care of the details. That way we'll both have clear consciences for our night out. I'd rather be able to enjoy ourselves tonight without any nagging worries." Her brown eyes met his, smouldering. "You know, take our time."

The heat in her eyes was instantly and equally matched by his. "Always. It's a date."

*****

Forty-five minutes later, Kim was starting to wonder if she'd made a serious mistake in her calculations. She'd had to search for almost twenty minutes before she'd been able to find a parking spot, and once she was inside the mall, she could barely see the storefronts through the sheer number of children. Some had parents in tow, but an alarming number of them appeared to be part of large groups, shepherded by only one or two adults. Several mini-stages had been set up around the mall with kid-friendly performers to entertain those not heading for the big KinderKontest stage, but the performances couldn't really be seen or heard at any distance. The massed noise of so many high-pitched voices was amplified by the high-ceilinged construction of the mall into a shrill, overwhelming cacophony. 'I like kids, but not in these numbers,' Kim thought to herself with a grimace.

Seconds later, the noise around her increased exponentially as several hundred child-voices and dozens of older voices started screaming. For a moment, Kim merely dismissed it as the start of some particularly popular act, part of whatever passed for normal in KinderKontest. Then the tone of the screams registered, and she felt her stomach clench as she recognized the sound of fear. 'Oh no, please don't let it be...' Her half-formed wish vanished as she spotted half-a-dozen Tyrano-Drones shoving through the crowds, causing a panic-stricken rush that threatened to leave dozens of children trampled. Behind them, Kim caught a brief glimpse of something large and greenish-gray. 'Probably another of Mesogog's monster creations!'

With so many people around, panicking and running everywhere, there wasn't a hope of finding a quiet corner to morph. 'And even if there were, this is a mall - security camera central. I can't risk morphing here. But I can't just do nothing!'

A glimpse of red gave her an idea just as a Tyrano-Drone came rushing up to her. She took a single, deep breath, reaching for balance, feeling her power flooding through her even in her unmorphed state. A small smile crossed her face as her brown eyes hardened with determination. 'I can do this.' She charged the drone running at her, vaulting over the surprised creature and shoving it towards the wall where she'd seen the red square with a well-placed aerial kick. The drone flailed and squealed, lashing out indiscriminately with its clawed hands - and one of those claws hooked the fire alarm lever, just as Kimberly had hoped. Gouts of ink sprayed directly in its face as the entire mall rang with the shriek of electronic buzzers. She couldn't help letting out a whoop of triumph. 'That should get people everywhere else in the mall evacuating out of here safely, before the drones can get to them. And the sound really seems to be confusing the drones. It might be enough to let everyone nearby escape, if I cause enough of a distraction, and if I can buy enough time for help to arrive.'

It wasn't even a decision; it was simply what she had to do. She risked bringing her morpher up long enough to activate the communicator and shout a quick message - "Guys! Trouble at the mall!" - before running up to a Tyrano-Drone who was about to snatch up a small red-haired girl. "Hey, buddy! Pick on someone closer to your own size!" Leaping into the air, she kicked it in the face, sending it sliding back from the child. "Hah!" Her lips curled up in a fierce grin even as she launched herself at her foes, giving the girl time to run.

*****

Tommy sprawled comfortably on his sofa, a half-dozen books open on the coffee table, his laptop balanced across his lap, and his glasses halfway down his nose as he glanced through yet another volume. Nodding once, he set the book aside with the others and returned to typing out the educational objectives for Tuesday's pop quiz. 'I don't mind writing up the quizzes, but the extra paperwork required to prove that I'm remaining within the state educational guidelines for the grade and subject matter is the worst! Sometimes it feels like it takes more time than the actual teaching...'

His communicator beeped, abruptly breaking him out of his reverie. He froze as he immediately recognized the breathless voice snapping out the brief message over a massive amount of background noise. He jerked upright, only barely avoiding dumping his laptop on the floor as he brought the silver gauntlet on his wrist up to respond. "What's happening?" His voice was sharp with concern.

A voice replied over the communicator, but it wasn't the one he was expecting to hear.

"Was that Kim? Did she say there was trouble?" Kira's voice echoed the black ranger's worry even as she exchanged a glance with Conner. The two teenagers continued to back away from the ticket line for the movie theater, heading for cover in case they needed to morph.

At his computer, Ethan logged himself out of his game session one-handed as he spoke back through his communicator. He had a sinking feeling that there would be no further games for him today. "Something about trouble at the mall, I think."

"It sounded like sirens in the background," Trent added, looking around the still-closed café for Hayley. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her poke her head out of the door to her office, her eyes widening in alarm as she saw him talking into his communicator.

Tommy was already running downstairs to the command center. He'd tried the code for Kim's communicator twice, without success. "Whatever's happening, she's not answering. We need to get over there now. If Mesogog has launched an attack there, she'll need backup." He kept his voice level and calm despite the fear that gripped him, not wanting to panic the team. 'She's going to be fine. She's a ranger now. She was a ranger for years before this. She's been in hundreds of fights before, she knows what she's doing. She'll be fine.' All of it was true, but even knowing that, his overprotective nature was kicking into overdrive.

His efforts worked for his team, but couldn't fool his long-time friend, who was now listening in with Trent. Hayley shut down the lights; the café would stay closed today. The others needed her elsewhere. "Tom, I'll make my way to the command center in case you need some technological backup." Hayley only hoped that he wouldn't have need of her emotional support as well as her technical skills.

"Thanks Hayley. The rest of you get to the mall as fast as you can; I'll meet you there." Tommy closed the connection and activated his morpher. "Dino Thunder, power up!"

*****

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Kimberly punched, flipped, and kicked her way between Tyrano-Drones. She bounced between them, a brown-haired, pink-clad whirlwind trying to buy time for others to escape. Once she thought she heard her communicator beep, but between the clamor of the fire alarm, the shouts and cries of fleeing civilians, and the crashing noises of the ongoing fight, she couldn't be sure - and she had no time to check. The fight reminded her strongly of her days battling in her relatively-unarmored ninja ranger form. Her strategy then had revolved around speed, agility, not getting hit, and not getting caught. That previous experience helped her, as did the ongoing noise and general confusion. However, she quickly realized that there were more of the drones than she'd initially thought. Every time she staggered one, more appeared to take its place. The numbers quickly added up to a total she couldn't cope with alone, much less unmorphed. She dove to avoid a clumsy swing from a Tyrano-Drone, tucking and rolling back to her feet in one smooth movement. 'No choice - I've got to retreat or I'm going to be dino-dust.' Backing up, she spotted two women struggling to shepherd a group of about twenty children into a service hall even as they were menaced by two approaching drones. 'Time to join that little field trip, I think! The service hall should lead to an exit.' Kimberly sprinted for the group and placed herself between the two women and the approaching monsters. "I'll hold off these two - get the kids through that door."

"Bless you!" the older of the two women called and immediately turned to the children. "Everyone grab hands and follow me, double-time!"

"What about you?" the second woman asked, tossing her dark hair back out of her eyes and looking ready to join the fight. "We can't just leave you here!"

Kim smiled, appreciating her bravery. "I'll be right behind you, I promise - but the kids come first. Now go!"

"You no go." The voice wasn't human, and hurt to hear with human ears. Kimberly couldn't help flinching, twisting her head and bringing her hands up towards her ears in an instinctive attempt to escape that voice. The children behind her screamed in terror. Looking up, Kim saw the greenish-gray figure she'd glimpsed earlier standing almost directly in front of her, looming ten feet tall or more. She could see now that it looked like a tall, slender plant, with sword-shaped leaves for limbs, brown root-looking protrudences for feet, and a brownish-white desiccated blossom on a long, neck-like stalk for a head. There were no eyes, no mouth, no evidence that the thing could see or hear or speak, and yet Kim and the others heard it anyway. "You no go," it repeated, an implacable, menacing hatred in every tone. "You breathe." Abruptly, a purple-black haze of pollen erupted from the leaves and blossom of the creature directly towards Kim, the two women, and the children behind her, enveloping everyone within twenty feet.

Kim staggered as the pollen cloud washed over her, burning her nose, throat, and eyes. Worse, she could feel the stuff seeping into her through every pore, rushing into her system even as a similar cloudiness started crowding into her mind. Come, a seed of thought said, attempting to root itself within her consciousness even as the haze suppressed all other thought. Follow.

'NO!' Kim's mind rejected the thought, her mental scream shrieking through her consciousness like the battle cry of an angry bird. She knew from experience what was happening to her, what the creature was trying to do. Thoughts of Tommy, her new teammates, all of what they'd been through flew scattershot through her mind. She couldn't let this happen! Acting on pure instinct, she mentally seized the seed with her full consciousness, surrounding it all the power she had, isolating it from the smothering haze. 'You will not have me! I will not let you use me!'

I will not let you go, the seed hissed.

'I will not let you go either,' Kim snarled in defiance. 'You can't control me if I control you!' Using the same courage that had led her to fling herself through the air in gymnastics, fight evil would-be conquerors as a teenager, and reach out after six years to mend the breach with the man she'd always loved, the pink ranger yanked on the seed with everything she had. An endless moment of resistance, and then she was ripping both it and herself loose...

...and she was falling, still holding the seed, plunging helplessly into an abyss...

The world around her disappeared in a flash of pink.

*****

Mesogog watched the events at the mall with deep satisfaction. Already, nearly fifty children and a few adults followed Ghost Rose's every command.

"Master...you are capturing children?" Elsa couldn't believe it.

The dinosaur turned a glowing eye towards her, amused by her confusion. "I have given it much thought. I have had entirely too much time to observe these wretched humans. And while I neither understand them nor care to do so, I have learned this much: their greatest weakness lies through their own young." Unbidden, thoughts of his human counterpart's weakness towards his adopted offspring momentarily clouded his mind, making him hiss with rage.

"But what will you do with them?" the black-clad warrior woman wanted to know. "What good are children, except as hostages?"

"Watch and learn." Reaching out to one of the consoles, Mesogog activated communications to Ghost Rose. "That's enough of them for now. They are under your control?"

It was a perfunctory question, but the answer stopped him in his tracks. "No. One resists."

"A child resists you?" Mesogog was stunned.

"One resists."

That was the only response, and Mesogog sighed. Ghost Rose was even more difficult than most of his creations to communicate with, being in essence a fossilized plant combined with a living rose and infused with his technology. Many things were beyond its understanding, the distinctions between humans - things like age or gender - amongst them. He tried again. "The one who resisted escaped?"

"No."

"The one who resists is still there?" His eyes narrowed in thought.

"Yes."

He turned to Elsa. "Join the others at the mall, and bring me back this one who has managed to resist Ghost Rose. That should not have happened. Studying this person might prove useful."

"Yes, master," Elsa replied immediately, bowing her head. The cut of her jet-black bangs echoed the arch of her skeptical eyebrows as she brought herself back upright. "But how will I know which is the resistant one?"

"I will work with Ghost Rose to try and determine that." He knew it would be difficult and time-consuming to get sufficient information from his creature, and he would not have much attention to spare from the task. Mesogog turned to another part of the laboratory, where a figure was seated halfway inside a quantity of equipment. Tubes and wires ran to most of the rest of what was exposed. "In the meantime, Zeltrax, monitor the situation closely, and if there is any sign of organized resistance or the Dino Rangers, let me know at once."

The melted, half-ruined helmet turned, and a monitor flickered to life in front of it. "Of course," the answering voice gurgled with the clash of ill-fitting pumps, even as the equipment around the cyborg hummed a little louder. "Anything I can do to help in my current condition."

*****

"She's still not answering her communicator," Conner muttered worriedly as the Dino Rangers entered the mall together.

"She might not be able to hear it in all this racket," Kira pointed out, trying to remain hopeful.

"Hayley, are you sure she's still here?" Tommy asked Hayley over the communications link, his voice laced with tension.

"Yes, her signature is still present." It was very hard to hear their resident technical genius even with her voice being broadcast directly into their helmets. "Kim should be somewhere about fifty yards in front of you. I'm sorry I can't be more precise, but there's too much metal and distortion to get a precise fix. And I'm picking up a lot of strange energy readings, which isn't helping."

The rangers hurried forward, spreading out in order to search. Aside from the alarms, the mall was eerily still; no sign of any people, or any monsters. Judging from the general rubble and abandoned belongings, however, it was obvious that some kind of attack had happened.

Ethan was the first one to spot the crumpled form of a pink-clad woman lying motionlessly near an open door. The blue ranger's throat tightened as he recognized the pale face, and his voice audibly cracked over the communicators even as he ran to her side. "Over here!"

"Kim!" The shout wasn't loud, but the sheer amount of emotion packed into the one syllable had the rest of the Dino Rangers freezing momentarily in their tracks even as their black-clad mentor sprang forward. Before Tommy could reach Ethan and Kim, an energy blast sent him staggering backwards.

"So sorry, rangers, but we were here first," Elsa drawled. Her face twisted into a mask of hate as she issued a command to the Tyrano-Drones accompanying her. "Destroy them!"

Tommy's mind whirled, torn between his need to get to the woman he loved and his awareness of the inevitability of the coming fight. The drones were already between him and Kim - but one ranger was already by her side. "Ethan, guard her!" Tommy ordered over the communications link even he, Trent, Kira, and Conner rushed towards Elsa. They quickly found themselves engaging a large number of Tyrano-drones. Uncharacteristically, Elsa hung back from the fight, looking back towards the direction from which she'd come.

Despite his worry, Ethan grinned with pride inside his helmet as he realized the extent of the trust Tommy was showing in him. "Got it covered, Doctor O." He sent the lone Tyrano-Drone approaching him flying backwards with a powerful punch.

"Master, the rangers are here!" Elsa communicated back to the lair.

"So Zeltrax has informed me." Mesogog nodded in acknowledgement of the damaged cyborg, who continued to monitor the situation. "Now, Elsa, let me demonstrate to you the power of my new warriors while Ghost Rose guides you to the resistant one." His voice dropped to a menacing rumble. "But be sure to protect Ghost Rose at all costs."

"I will," Elsa replied, somewhat bemused as children started running past her, headed directly for the rangers.

"What the heck?" Conner threw back a Tyrano-drone only to find himself under attack by three children, none of whom could have been more than eight. The children grabbed onto his legs, and one of them started trying to bite him. "Hey, knock it off!"

"Don't hurt them!" Tommy shouted, even as he was swarmed by eight small bodies. "They must be under some kind of control!"

"It's not them I'm worrying about getting hurt," Trent complained, trying to duck a blow from a Tyrano-drone even as he found himself grabbed from all directions by small, insistent hands. "Ow! Getoffame!" His white-clad figure was rapidly lost to sight.

"Guys, go up - they can't climb well," Kira advised, kicking a Tyrano-drone in the chest as part of jumping to the top of a vendor cart to avoid the five boys trying to grab her.

"There. The one who resists." Ghost Rose strode up to Elsa and indicated the doorway where the blue ranger stood guarding a prone woman in a pink dress.

"Easy pickings," Elsa sneered in satisfaction, waving forward more Tyrano-Drones. "Still, no need to get my hands dirty, I suppose... Can your kiddies take care of that other ranger, too?"

"Yes." At a waving gesture of one of Ghost Rose's many leaf-limbs, more children and two adults rushed Ethan.

"Oh, hey now, wait a sec, I don't even like kids!" Ethan yelped. He tried using his armoring power to keep the kids away from himself and Kim, but found himself being forced back by the sheer numbers. Two adult women joined the fray, shoving at his armor, trying to knock him over. "Ladies, snap out of it!"

"You were right, master, these warriors are indeed the rangers' downfall," Elsa acknowledged as she strode forward with Ghost Rose. She reached down and grabbed the woman roughly by one arm, her lip curling in disdain. "Resistant? She's just fainted. Are you sure this is the one?" she asked Ghost Rose.

"Yes."

"NO!" Tommy shouted in horror, seeing Elsa grab Kim, but unable to break away from the horde of children clinging to him without hurting them. Completely distracted by Kim's danger, he failed to dodge a Tyrano-drone's attack and was sent to his knees by the force of the impact. More children climbed over him, burying him completely.

Kira had just succeeded in knocking down the Tyrano-drone attacking her when her attention was wrenched away from her own defense by the black ranger's despairing cry. A quick glance showed her the threat to Kim, as well as the peril of all of her teammates. 'No! Not Kim! Not Doctor O! Not now, when they've got everything to look forward to!' Fury like she'd never felt before seized her, and she felt her power rise up into her throat. Kira let loose all of that power in a single, enormous Ptera-scream directed straight at the woman in black.

The consequences of her sonic scream were even more profound than usual. Tyrano-drones between Kira and Elsa fell over, knocked silly by the blast. Elsa dropped Kim's arm and clapped both hands over her ears, staggering backwards in pain, blood trickling from her nose. The tall, weedy-looking creature behind her shrieked in an unearthly voice, all its leaf-like limbs waving wildly as it buckled. And all around the mall, the children stopped what they were doing, blinked, and looked around, confused. Those that had been attacking the Dino Rangers scrambled back. Many started to cry. The two adult women who had been pummeling Ethan collapsed to their knees, groaning. Atop the cart, Kira sank into a crouch, momentarily exhausted by the massive outlay of power.

Back in his laboratory lair, Mesogog cursed furiously. He raced to open a portal even as he shouted through the communication system. "Elsa! Ghost Rose! Return here immediately with as many of the children as you can!"

"Hurts!" Ghost Rose wailed.

"Return at once!" Mesogog ordered again.

The tall plant-being straightened, its leaves thrashing less as it regained its equilibrium. The children stopped crying and turned towards it. "Yes."

"What about the woman?" Elsa asked even as she backed away, still shaken by the sonic blast. Freed from his attackers, Ethan lunged forward, standing defiantly between Elsa and Kim.

"Leave her - your priority is Ghost Rose's safety. Get back here now!"

"This isn't over, rangers," Elsa snapped even as she gratefully retreated towards the opening portal. "See you soon."

Tommy staggered to his feet as the children and Tyrano-drones who'd been pinning him retreated. Ignoring the rapid exodus, he stumbled towards Kim, who still lay more-or-less where he'd seen her last. Ethan joined him just as he knelt by his fiancée's side and reached out to take her hand in his.

"How is she, Doctor O?" Ethan asked, consumed with guilt that he hadn't done a better job of protecting her.

"She's okay, isn't she?" Trent added, running up to them.

"I didn't hurt her, did I?" Kira's voice came weakly through the communications system. Surprised, Trent and Ethan looked around and saw Conner helping the yellow ranger down from the top of a cart. She looked shaky even through the masking visor and armor of her uniform. After she reached the ground, the red ranger kept an arm around her waist for support as they moved to join the others.

"She's unconscious, and looks a bit banged up, but her pulse is steady," Tommy reassured the others, feeling some of his own panic slide away once he found the steady beat. He gently eased her upwards, supporting her while he continued to search for any sign of injury, any obvious reason for her unconscious state. "I don't see any bumps, but maybe..." His voice choked off in a gasp as Conner and Kira finally made it to them.

None of the others had to ask what had taken his breath away. With the five of them clustered around Kim, blocking off most of the light available in the mall, they could all see a faint pink glow pulsing softly around their teammate.

"What's that?" Conner blurted.

Tommy was momentarily paralyzed, hideous memories of the last time he'd supported Kimberly's unconscious, pink-glowing body racing through his mind. The wriggling pink worms of light dancing over her as her life-force was slowly but surely drained away, first by the theft of her power coin, and then by Zedd's diabolical machine...his utter helplessness as Zordon and Billy warned him that Kimberly could die...his desperate panic as he realized she'd been lured out of the command center and captured...the heart-stopping moment when he'd thought he was too late, that Zedd's power-draining machine had finished killing her before he could destroy it.

"Doctor O?" Trent touched a hand to their mentor's shoulder, frightened by his silence.

The simple touch snapped Tommy out of the replay of past horrors. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, he tenderly gathered Kimberly up into his arms as the last of the drones and children disappeared through the portal. "I don't know. We need to get her back to the command center, now."

*****

Zeltrax ignored the chaos of the returning attack group. He watched through the monitors as the black ranger picked up the woman in the pink dress and cradled her to his chest as if she were the most delicate and precious thing in the world. The rest of the rangers anxiously hovered around the pair as they all made their way out of the mall.

'So, Tommy, there is your heart,' he thought with satisfaction. 'There is your greatest weakness. I thought it was your students, the children you brought into battle, the young lives you've nurtured and so obviously care for. I had meant to strike at you through them. But I see I was mistaken; there is another, closer and more dear to you by far. Your own actions confirm it. The behavior of your students shouts it to the skies.' 'I know where your heart lies now. I will find her, destroy her - and through her, you.'

*****

Pink.

That was the overwhelming first impression. Everywhere she looked, she was surrounded by amorphous, softly-glowing pink. Glowing pink clouds that reminded her strongly of cotton candy.

"I can't say much for the décor, but at least I like the color," Kim chuckled weakly, even as she started to take stock of her surroundings. "Wait a minute - where am I? What happened?" She realized she was crouched down, almost huddled into a ball, and that her hands were cupped together, tightly clenched around something. Even as she looked at them, she heard an angry, buzzing noise, and something she held inside her hands jerked violently.

Memory rushed back, and Kimberly convulsively tightened her grip even as she rose to her feet, the skirt of her pink sundress swirling around her knees. "Oh no you don't! You're not taking me over. No mind-controlled or evil rangers today. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt and the bruises to prove it." Belatedly she realized that she had no idea what she was doing, or if it was effective. For all she knew, this could be one giant hallucination while her body wandered around under that creature's control, perhaps attacking her teammates at this very moment...

'Please, let that not be what's happening,' she thought, biting her lip. She had a very good idea what the effect of something like that would be on those she cared about. 'Conner, Kira, and Ethan - they're still trying to cope with what happened to Trent. There's no way they could deal with me suddenly going "evil" on them, too. Trent - after all he's been through recently, I can't even imagine how he'd handle it. And Tommy - oh, god!' She shut her eyes, shuddering, knowing the agony her fiancé would be going through. And then there was the danger to him on multiple levels. She knew Tommy had absolutely no sense of self-preservation when it came to her. If she was in danger, so was he, from all the memories and guilt this would stir up in his soul if nothing else.

The seed she held in her hands jumped and jerked even more violently, nearly knocking her over with the force of its movements. Her eyes snapped back open. "No. I refuse to give in. I don't believe that creature has control over my body, or of me." It was true. Deep down she knew she was still in control, even if she didn't understand what she was doing or how she was doing it. "And if sitting here in cotton-candy land and keeping a grip is what it takes to keep me from being a menace, then that's exactly what I'm going to do for as long as it takes." Her jaw tightened even as her brown eyes shone with emotion. "I'll do whatever it takes to keep you safe, handsome, and everyone else too."

*****

The air in the command center crackled with tension as Hayley ran a series of diagnostics on Kim. The pink ranger lay exactly as Tommy had placed her on the cot they'd set up in the command center. In the relatively dim lighting, the faint aura surrounding the gymnastics coach was clearly visible, brightening and fading slightly in time with each beat of her heart.

Conner, Kira, Ethan and Trent stayed together on the sofas in the corner of the room, unconsciously finding comfort in each others' close proximity even as they kept out of Hayley's way. Every so often they would glance quickly over at their mentor, who stood near Kimberly's side. His face was almost as pale as Kimberly's, and deep lines of tension creased his forehead and dragged down the corners of his mouth. Occasionally he and Hayley would exchange a few words of technical jargon, but he would always lapse back into silence. Alone of the rangers, he hadn't de-morphed upon reaching the command center, merely removing his helmet in order to better communicate and watch the monitors. None of his students had found the courage to ask him why.

'This is even worse than when Doctor O got stuck in that amber,' Kira thought sadly. 'At least then we didn't have to watch him going to pieces with worry.' Seeing the man they all depended on trying not to show any of the turmoil he was obviously feeling just made things that much worse. 'Kim has to be okay, she has to be!'

At last Hayley sighed. "As far as I can tell, Kim's physically all right. I don't have the equipment here for brain scans, but she's stable and staying that way. Her pulse and respiration are both steady if slow."

The others looked at Tommy, but he said nothing for the moment, merely smoothing Kim's hair with one hand. "Then why is she like this?" Trent asked finally, his large dark eyes subdued.

"I have some ideas about that. Come here." She summoned the rangers to the large monitor with a gesture, and typed in a brief sequence on her keyboard. The screen lit up with images from the mall. It was obviously from this morning, but there was no sign yet of the chaos to come.

"How'd you get that?" Kira wondered. "I mean, I know you were monitoring us through our helmet-cams once we got to the mall, but..."

Hayley's delicate eyebrows quirked upwards as she thought how best to answer Kira's question. "I did some freelancing contract work for the security system at the mall, and I have a standing maintenance contract with the management. It's a purely electronic system, no physical tapes, just digital storage. I have a back door into the system so I can perform maintenance checks and diagnostics without having to travel there in person." She smiled briefly, amused by the startled reaction to her mostly-truthful answer. Funny how the kids never equated her computing skills with "hacker"...and she preferred to keep it that way. "This is the digital tape from this morning - which I've removed from the system."

"Why?" Ethan wanted to know.

"Among other things, I didn't think you wanted footage of the Dino Rangers being mobbed and overpowered by a bunch of kids showing up on the six o'clock news. But there's also this."

The rangers watched as the normal-looking scene was disrupted by Tyrano-Drones appearing and people stampeding in panic. And then Kim was in frame, not really recognizable until she started fighting. But once she did, anyone who'd ever seen her in action would instantly recognize her: a small, lithe, impossibly agile woman vaulting over one drone, kicking another in the face, leaping in a back-handspring to avoid a strike from one drone and using the momentum of the move to add extra force to her two-footed kick against another... The teens' jaws dropped in awe as their new teammate essentially turned the Tyrano-Drones into her own personal jungle gym, wiping the floor with them in an amazing display of athletic flexibility and speed.

"It wouldn’t take much investigating to find a brown-haired female trained in gymnastics and to discover who she is, considering her profile as an Olympic coach," Kira said, suddenly understanding Hayley's motive in removing this bit of tape. "And people might start asking questions, especially with the appearance of the new pink ranger."

"Exactly." Hayley hadn't expected Kira to be the one to figure it out first, but Tommy was still silent, watching the monitor and gently stroking Kim's hair.

"I think she was holding back on us in practice," Conner muttered, impressed.

"Gee, ya think?" Trent snorted. "If she'd been going at us like that, we'd still be lying flat on our butts in the field."

"People usually underestimate her. She makes it easy to forget that she was a top-level athlete, plus she's got years of practice in these kinds of fights." Tommy spoke at last, his voice a little deeper and rougher than usual. His eyes never left the images of the woman he loved taking on the incredible odds and managing them quite handily, saving those who otherwise wouldn't have been able to save themselves. He was so proud of her - and so torn with rage and sorrow and fear, for he knew how her fight ended: with her lying here, unconscious, suffering from god-knew-what. 'She'd never have been in the way of danger if it weren't for me,' part of his mind whispered guiltily. 'She wouldn't have been at the mall, she wouldn't be in Reefside...' Before he could travel too far down that path, another, vaguely Kim-voiced part of his memory reminded him of Athens and the close shave she'd had with a bomb that had nothing to do with him or being a ranger. She'd never hesitated in helping others after the blast, any more than she'd hesitated in helping defend others at the mall. Helping others was just part of who Kimberly Hart was, as much a part of the woman he loved as her brown eyes. And he knew she'd kick his ass for blaming himself for this. It didn't stop the guilt entirely, but it did help.

"Yes, she's really good, but I think there's more to it; I think she was drawing on her powers." Hayley shrugged when the teens looked at her in surprise. "You all do to some degree, even when not morphed."

"That's true," Tommy confirmed, trying to hold on to his patience. He knew Hayley must have a reason for bringing this up.

Trent shifted uncomfortably. "But what does that have to do with anything?"

"Because I think she was using her powers when this happened." The monitor showed the arrival of the weird plant-like creature they'd seen at the mall. It sprayed Kim and the group she was protecting with a semi-translucent purplish-black cloud. The cloud only lasted for perhaps ten seconds before dispersing, but by the time it did, everyone who'd been engulfed in it was standing slightly slumped over, mindlessly facing the creature...everyone except for Kim. It was difficult to make out details through the inky miasma, but they could see her recoil when it hit her, and then go absolutely rigid. All at once Kim collapsed, dropping limply to the ground just before the cloud dispersed. Kira bit back a cry at the sight, and Tommy's hands knotted uncontrollably into fists.

Hayley briefly laid an apologetic hand on Tommy's arm, trying to comfort him. "Sorry, but you needed to see that in order to understand this." She switched the monitor display to show Kim lying on the cot, and then typed in another command. Kim's image was overlaid with energy patterns: the pink aura on the screen growing abruptly brighter, her entire body glowing with pink energy. The pink contrasted with a dark purple energy swirling around the pink, constantly shifting, trying to get closer to Kim's pink energy-engulfed and infused form but not able to do so.

There was a general outcry. "What is that???"

Hayley pointed at the inky streaks trying to infringe on the pink. "I was monitoring you during your battle at the mall, and I detected this same dark energy surrounding the children who were attacking you. I'm pretty certain that originates with the creature you encountered, the one who sprayed Kim and the others. It must be controlling them through that energy. But in this case, it isn't able to affect her, and...well, I'm pretty sure it's Kim's doing."

"What?" Ethan peered more closely at the monitor, then looked over at Kim, curiosity written all over his face.

"From all the evidence, she's counteracting the controlling energy with her own powers."

"How?"

Hayley gave an unhappy shrug. "I don't know for sure. My best guess is that she's put herself into some kind of trance state, accessing her powers on a deep level to keep the other energy from taking control. As long as she keeps herself infused with her powers, she can't be taken over by the other."

"Is that draining her?" Tommy asked, finally giving voice to one of the fears plaguing him since seeing the pink glow. That fear was part of the reason why he'd stayed morphed. If Kim was being drained, he'd wanted to be ready to try and find a way to loan her some of his power, as he had so many years ago. He hadn't seen any sign of a drain in the readings from the monitors, but he trusted Hayley's technical insights in this even more than his own.

"Not that I've seen, no," Hayley answered at once, puzzled by the question. She knew Tommy could read and interpret the monitor readouts as well as she could. "Like I said before, she appears stable."

"How long can she keep doing it? I mean, is she going to be able to stay like this, or is the monster's power going to make her go all zombie-evil on us at some point? You know, like Tr...Ow!" Conner winced as Kira elbowed him none-too-gently in the ribs. Catching her meaningful tilt of her head towards Trent, he blushed. "Sorry."

Trent shrugged, all too aware of what the others were thinking. "No, it's okay. You're right; we have to worry about that. She could go over at some point, even if for now she's fighting it off." His lips curved in an unhappy smile as he looked at Kim. "I wish I could have done whatever she's doing. Trust me, if I'd had a choice between going evil and taking a long nap, I'd have made Rip Van Winkle look like an insomniac."

The all-too-familiar sound of guilt in Trent's voice brought Tommy's attention fully to the white ranger. He knew exactly what the teenager was going through. "But you didn't have a choice, Trent," Tommy reassured him. "Believe me, I know; I didn't either when it happened to me. We're just incredibly lucky that Kim been able to resist whatever this thing is." 'At least so far,' he acknowledged privately in his own mind. He swallowed, feeling the thickness in his throat as he battled down his emotions. All he really wanted to do was stay at Kim's side, hold her, plead with her, do *anything* necessary to get her to open those beautiful brown eyes, look at him, and make the world right again. But he knew that the best thing he could do for her was to focus on the threat at hand. If she'd succumbed...if he'd had to fight her...bile rose in his throat at the thought. However painful it was to see her lying here, he knew she'd bought them all time and the option to fight. He wouldn't waste her gift. "Instead of having to worry about battling her, we can focus on figuring out how to beat Mesogog's latest creation and free all of its victims from its control."

"Preferably before we get creamed by a bunch of kids again." Ethan's wry expression hid the frustration he felt.

"Maybe Kira can use her scream like she did before, long enough to break the hold for good," Conner suggested wisely, then noted the uncomprehending looks everyone but Kira was giving him. "What? Didn't you guys notice?"

"Notice what? I heard her Ptera-scream, but I was buried under a pile of kids at the time." Trent's eyes went from Conner to Kira and back, wondering what he'd missed.

"Sorry, I was too busy trying to hold off those crazy ladies," Ethan admitted.

"What happened, Conner?" Tommy asked quietly, sensing this was important. The young red ranger had an as-yet largely untapped gift for battle strategies.

"When Kira used her Ptera-scream, everyone under the control of that monster snapped out of it for a few seconds. They stopped attacking you. Not to mention a whole bunch of Tyrano-Drones went flat." Conner smiled at Kira, respect in his eyes. "That was a pretty awesome scream."

The yellow ranger half-ducked her head, flattered but a little flustered by Conner's unexpected praise.

"Kira, were you aiming at the kids with your scream?" Tommy wanted to know.

Her head shot up again as she stared at Tommy in shock. "No way, Doctor O! I'd never do that! I was aiming for Elsa; she had Kim..." She broke off, amber eyes narrowing in thought as she recalled what she'd seen. "That creature - it was right behind Elsa. It pretty much got the full blast, too."

Hayley was already calling up the sequence from the command console. "Conner's right," she said, displaying the footage on the screen. "Without sound, I missed seeing it the first time - but watch." Viewed with the knowledge of Kira's Ptera-scream, the effect on the plant-creature and the people it controlled was clearly visible.

Ethan whistled. "It's definitely vulnerable to you, Kira."

"I guess so. And it doesn't look like it hurt the kids, does it?" Kira turned to Tommy, looking for reassurance.

"No - and getting them free is the most important thing," Tommy agreed.

"Particularly since we can't fight back against them." Trent pushed one hand through his disheveled dark hair. "You just know, though, they're going to try and mob us again."

"Too bad we can't just throw them into one of those baby jails," Ethan joked. "You know, those playpen-thingies. They always look like jails to me."

Conner stared at Ethan for a moment, and then his handsome face broke out into a huge grin. "Ethan, you're a genius!"

Ethan swaggered slightly, hiding his confusion. "Of course I am - but why bring that up now?"

"Don't you get it? If..." Conner abruptly broke off as an alarm shrilled at Hayley's console.

"Looks like Mesogog's creation is on the move again," Hayley reported. "The police band is reporting multiple sightings of a mob of children and monsters down by the waterfront."

"Time to go babysit," Conner quipped. "I'll explain my idea on the way there." The three teens sprinted for the entrance to their vehicle bay, then paused when Tommy did not immediately follow. "Aren't you coming, Doctor O?"

"Right behind you - I just have to clarify something with Hayley." Tommy waited until the teens were out of earshot before continuing. "Hayley, Kim might be holding her own for now, but if she loses it...you could wind up getting hurt."

Hayley stared at the torn, miserable expression on her friend's face, understanding both his fear and what it was he couldn't bring himself to ask her to do. She struggled to find something to say that might lift some of the weight off of his shoulders. "Let me get this straight. You're very carefully NOT asking me to tie up your fiancée. But you want me to do it anyway."

"Hayley!" Tommy yelped.

"Fine, consider it done," she interrupted him. "But you're paying for my psychiatrist's bill. And YOU get to explain it to Kim when she wakes up."

The friendly, deliberate absurdity brought a slight smile to Tommy's lips, although it didn't reach his eyes. He nodded, acknowledging her efforts to cheer him as much as her words. "Thanks." He turned away and bent over Kim, uncomfortable knowing that Hayley was watching him, but unable to leave without saying something of what he felt. "Stay strong, Beautiful," he murmured as quietly as he could, and pressed a tender kiss on Kim's lips. He gently cupped one side of her beautiful face with a hand that trembled slightly in spite of all his attempts to keep it steady. "I love you. I'll be back soon." Grabbing his helmet, he ran after the others, not looking back.

*****

"Bored now. Bored, bored, bored. Okay, now I'm starting to sound like some of my gymnastic students." Kim sighed, staring around at the unchanging, unrelentingly pink cloudscape. She glanced down at her clasped hands. "I don't suppose you'd consider giving up and getting the heck out my head - or wherever this is?"

The seed she held onto so tightly continued to buzz angrily, but did not move.

"Didn't think so." Kim sat down on a bit of a cloud, not really considering the impossibility of it. She'd quickly learned that none of the normal rules seemed to apply to this place. Surfaces - like the space beneath her feet or the bit of cloud she was sitting on - were solid when she needed them to be, and intangible otherwise. And surfaces made no noise. She had already tried tapping her feet against the cloud-stuff, to no audible effect. The only noise was the jarring jangling of the seed and the sound of her own voice. While she didn't normally make a habit of talking to herself, she wasn't about to just sit around listening to the seed buzz and whine. "Make a note, Kim - next time you get stuck in limbo, bring an iPod..."

The seed jumped violently in her hands, the force dragging her off of her perch and flinging her to the ground. She just barely managed to keep her hold on it, and couldn't do anything to break her fall. Kim felt bruises forming on her knees and elbows, but that wasn't what concerned her. The seed thrashed wildly within her hands, practically shrieking, and all around her, the pink seemed...different. Less fluffy. More sharp-edged. Less substantial.

"Something's happening."

*****

Reefside's small waterfront area was, on most days, a very pleasant place; lots of tiny, brightly-colored shops and stands fronting the little boardwalk area, a small marina hosting a collection of boats, several old piers hosting more shops and serving as tie-up places for larger vessels when in port, and even one industrial dock for fishermen bringing in the day's catch. Popular with both young and old alike, it was usually packed with happy, fun-seeking adults and kids.

Today, there were no happy people, just hordes of children and five very busy Dino Rangers.

"Conner, there's four more coming up fast!" Ethan yelped, struggling to hold on to the two squirming kids he was carrying towards the nearest dumpster. "They're going after Kira!"

"Like every other kid in the place," Conner panted as he zipped towards the new menace at super-speed. "I'm on it." Faster than the eye could follow, he grabbed up the encroaching children and sped them off one by one, placing each inside the jury-rigged holding area he'd improvised out of fishing nets. Unfortunately the only place to rig it was far enough away from the main action that he was the only one who had the speed to use it. So far the enspelled children hadn't figured out how to break out of it.

"Any sign of Mesogog's creation?" Trent asked, even as he unblended from his surroundings in order to grab a large boy. Like Ethan, he started looking around for a dumpster; they were proving surprisingly good for holding the kids, who couldn't seem to climb out of them. It was odd, given that under normal circumstances he was sure most of these children could have scrambled out in a manner of seconds, but those under control didn't seem to be capable of climbing. Another insight they owed to Kira and Doctor O.

"None yet, but it's got to be around someplace." Tommy stifled a grunt as he hoisted one of the few monster-controlled adults over his shoulder. The woman kicked and squirmed, showering the black ranger's helmet with blows as he carried her towards a fenced-in parking lot almost a block away. It was the only area close by that worked for holding adults. "It's obviously figured out that Kira's a threat to it. As soon as I've dropped this one off, I'm going to go invisible and scout around. It has to be watching from somewhere nearby. In the meantime, keep thinking three-dimensionally. Right now it's our best advantage against those under control."

"Something ten feet tall and green just shouldn't be this hard to find," Kira grumbled, darting away from a pair of particularly aggressive tweens. "And I am really sick of playing keep-away!" Unfortunately, with her being the target of every controlled person, she couldn't afford to slow down long enough to try and carry one of the kids to a safe holding place. The few times she'd tried, she'd been jumped, and it was only Trent and Conner's quick actions that had freed her before she could be pulled down.

"Sorry, Kira, but Doctor O's right. We can't let you fall into their hands." Conner's breathless voice was unusually serious. 'Even if you weren't our best hope against that thing, there's no way I'd let them get you!' "Just think of yourself as the striker," he added, trying to cheer her.

"Whatever that is," Kira muttered to herself, too quietly to be heard.

'Ugh, that smell!' Bad memories crowded Ethan as he finished stowing another pair of kids inside a dumpster. Back when he was small, he'd had his own run-ins with school bullies, bullies who'd amused themselves by picking on the shy, overly-bright black boy. Run-ins that had frequently involved trash and dumpsters. Doing what had essentially been done to him, even though it was for the kids' own good, made Ethan feel unbelievably dirty. "Sorry, kids," he mumbled. Forcing the memories away, he looked around for yet more children. "Hey, guys, anyone else notice something?"

"Little busy here for cryptic statements," Conner snapped as he raced off with a little girl. His muscles were burning, threatening to cramp, but he refused to slow down.

"What is it, Ethan?"

Doctor O's calm voice steadied the blue ranger. "I see a cluster of kids to the north, near the pier. And some of the kids around here are moving off in that direction."

"I see it," Trent confirmed. "Five'll get you ten that's where our monster's hiding."

"No bet." The blue ranger's chuckle echoed through the communication link.

Making his way invisibly through the mob of kids and into the area of interest, Tommy noted the much tighter quarters with concern. Things could get out of hand very quickly with less room for the rangers to avoid the controlled children. "I'm in the area now, but I haven't seen anything but kids yet." Looking back, he was alarmed to see the other rangers already entering the area. "Trent, Ethan, Conner, hold up; you're getting in too close..."

"Close," an impossible voice hissed as if in echo. More children rushed into the area, blocking the rangers in. Too late, the rangers saw Mesogog's monster edge out from behind a dock piling they never would have believed could conceal it. The featureless, decayed blossom swiveled towards the three visible rangers being pushed towards it by the mass of child bodies. Despite the lack of features, Trent, Ethan, and Conner could feel the monster's gaze...and its hatred. "You close," it said, although they could see no mouth move, no way for it to speak. "You breathe."

Tommy opened his mouth to shout a warning, but it was too late. A dark cloud flew out from Mesogog's monster, enveloping the three visible rangers, the children around them, and then it rolled over him, too. His helmet rang with the choking cries of his teammates as he struggled not to inhale, his helmet filtration unable to keep the stuff out of his nose and eyes and lungs. His skin tingled, his eyes burned, and his thoughts grew fuzzy as he fought to resist the alien intelligence shrouding his mind. Come, said a whisper of thought, reverberating within his consciousness. Follow.

*****

"Excellent. The child-warriors proved too feeble to be effective against the rangers, but my Ghost Rose prevails. That's three," Mesogog hissed, watching with satisfaction as three of the rangers were swept over by Ghost Rose's pollen. "A strange eddy in the cloud caught his attention, and his toothy, fanged grin grew wider. "Or dare I hope for four?"

*****

"Shit!" Hayley swore as alarms blared on her console and the communications link was filled with shouts. A rapid glance at the monitors showed the worst possible cause for the sudden upsurge in energy from Mesogog's monster: Conner, Ethan, and Trent were engulfed in the same purplish-black discharge that had felled Kimberly at the mall. She couldn't see Tommy, but judging from the readings, he was somewhere in there too. Only Kira's signature remained just clear of the outer edge of the cloud. "Kira, stay back!"

"I've got to help them!" Kira shouted, her anguish plain over the communicator as she watched and heard her teammates being engulfed. The yellow ranger looked around wildly, but she could see no sign of Mesogog's monster. She dodged several children who were obviously unhampered by the miasma surrounding her fellow rangers.

"Use your Ptera-scream!" Hayley couldn't understand why the girl hadn't already unleashed the powerful weapon.

"I can't see the monster anywhere! Hayley, can you pinpoint it?"

Hayley shook her head in frustration, trying in vain to block out the cries from the other rangers. She couldn't let herself think about what was happening to them. "There's too much interference. Kira, you've got to get out of there - you can't let it get you too!"

"NO! Doctor O, Ethan, Trent, Conner...answer me! C'mon guys, fight it! Tell me where it is!"

Another set of alarms went off, and Hayley hastily shut her eyes and threw up her arms as a blindingly bright flash of pink light flooded the room.

*****

Kim could feel the malicious glee reverberating throughout the seed like a dentist's drill on a live nerve. She gasped, but forced herself to maintain her grip even as it stopped buzzing and went still. The pink around her roiled and churned as she sensed the focus of the energy surrounding the seed shift, not so much losing interest in her as concentrating on new presences, ones she could somehow sense. Three were barely tangible to her, and only slightly familiar, but the fourth... The fourth was one she'd know anywhere, under any circumstances, even ones as bizarre as these. And he was in danger; they all were. The utter silence of her environment was broken by the faintest echo of desperate shouts, and one high, shrieking call that she thought she recognized from the past...

"No, damn you, NO!!!" Kim brought her clasped hands up to eye height, staring at them as if she could see the seed hidden within. Her face was etched with fierce determination, and her eyes were wild, pink glowing deeply within the brown depths. "Leave them alone - deal with me!" Drawing deeply on the pink energy within her in ways that she hadn't done since her Ninjetti days, Kim channeled her power into her hands and on the seed contained there.

PAIN! Kim's teeth dug deeply into her lower lip as pure agony coursed through her veins. Her entire body felt like it was on fire. She'd never done anything remotely like this, and somewhere deep down she knew her powers were never meant to be used in this way. But every moment of excruciation was worth the bellowing, howling protest wrung from the seed she held, worth sensing the focus of the vicious energy wrenching back towards her and away from the others. The seed twisted wildly, shrieking, seeking escape or control. She was unable to suppress a scream as more pain ravaged her. Nevertheless, she continued to lash out at the seed and the evil energy behind it with everything she had, forcing her power at it, determined to keep its attention no matter what the cost. Yellow flashed all around her, streaking through the pink clouds like the sun emerging from a cloudy day, but she didn't let it distract her. She kept drawing and focusing power until she could no longer feel the other presences, the seed between her palms, or her own pain-wracked body. Everything went numb. Everything faded away.

*****

The alien fog within Tommy's mind rippled, withdrawing slightly as he thought he heard the familiar, never-forgotten battle call of a falcon. He fought for clarity even as he had the briefest, oddest sense of another presence. One that he knew to the bottom of his soul, one associated with the second, lower-pitched bird cry that echoed faintly through his psyche. 'Kim? Kim!' A flash of light flared pinkly behind his tightly-shut eyes, and he suddenly remembered Hayley's words about Kim: "As long as she keeps herself infused with her powers, she can't be taken over by the other." He concentrated with everything he had on his own powers, imagining drawing them up through his body, surrounding himself with them like a warm blanket.

The foreign presence - 'Ghost Rose,' his mind whispered, he knew its name now - recoiled slightly, and the sounds of the world came dimly back to his ears. Over the moans from the other male rangers, he heard Kira's desperate call.

"C'mon guys, fight it! Tell me where it is!"

Tommy opened his eyes with an effort. Struggling for coherent thought through the cloudiness, he realized that Kira couldn't possibly see Ghost Rose from where she was, or from anywhere where she wouldn't be exposed to its mind-controlling pollen. Anywhere but... He forced his lungs to work, his lips and tongue to shape a few words, even as his consciousness wavered as Ghost Rose's influence pulled him under once more. "Kira! Go up!"

The yellow ranger gasped in relief as she recognized Doctor O's ragged shout. 'Go up? Go up where?' A moment later, understanding flashed through her mind. Kira morphed again into super-mode and launched herself upwards, jumping as high as she could over the area where her teammates were struggling against the cloud. She spread her arms, unfurling her wings without even thinking about it, focused entirely on finding the source of the madness. From four stories up in the air she frantically searched for the monster, trying to ignore the sight of the blue, white, and red-clad forms writhing and falling below. And then she saw it, the tall, alien figure edging slowly towards...Conner! She inhaled, arms and their attached gliding wings outflung to the widest extent. She drew the deepest breath she'd ever taken, focusing all of her feelings, all of her power, all of her force of will.

The Ptera-scream utterly dwarfed the one she'd produced at the mall. The purplish-black cloud surrounding her teammates blew away instantly, flung apart by the sonic waves. The monster buckled beneath its power, its tortured screams drowned out, inaudible through the massive wave of sound and yet somehow still felt. Kira drew out the Ptera-scream as never before, continuing to pour everything she had into it. Her diaphragm clenched, abdominal muscles trembling with the strain of supporting the massive sound as it blasted out from her core. She realized that children were falling to the ground like limp dolls, that her fellow rangers were clutching their helmets in pain even as they sank to their knees. But she couldn't stop; all that mattered was the utter destruction of the flailing, twisting monster, destroying it before it could claim her friends. Her vision started to tunnel, narrowing in and greying out at the edges, but she refused to yield.

Ghost Rose's wails grew louder, higher, nearly cresting the aural wave of Kira's Ptera-scream...and then it ripped apart, leaves and petals flying everywhere before dissolving into dust.

'Gotcha,' Kira thought in woozy triumph, letting go of the Ptera-scream at last. She tried to take a breath but choked at the sudden searing pain of her throat and lungs. The tunnel surrounding her vision became a black hole, sucking her in. Her wings and armor vanished as she plummeted the forty feet to the ground.

*****

"Damn them!" Mesagog's eyes blazed with fury as he witnessed the destruction of Ghost Rose. His clawed fingers reached out to reconfigure his creation, restructure it and grow it to enormous proportions. It wouldn't have the mind-controlling energies of its smaller form, but perhaps it could destroy at least one of those thrice-cursed rangers... His breath caught and his fingers froze as he saw the falling figure on his monitors. Could it be that Ghost Rose had already succeeded in the most important goal?

*****

Hayley squinted against the brightness, trying desperately to read her monitors through the glare. What readings she could make out frightened her more than the continued megawatt pink radiance pouring off of Kimberly. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Kim was burning through power at an incredible rate. The energy display showed the pink power actively lashing out at the purplish-black, twining around it, yanking it back and forth, even shredding it in places. Unfortunately, the monitors also showed Kim's heart rate shooting up over one hundred and eighty beats per minute and continuing to climb, her temperature skyrocketing, and her respiration growing increasingly erratic. The fit, or attack, or whatever this was had already lasted several minutes, and the readings were growing worse with each passing second.

And then there was the small matter of her levitating.

So far Kim's body was simply pressed up against the cargo net Hayley had retrieved from the back of Tommy's jeep and secured over the pink ranger as an emergency restraint. But Hayley could see that the legs of the cot were bouncing lightly against the floor, losing contact as Kim's levitation power threatened to lift up the entire rig along with her.

For once in her life, the red-haired genius had absolutely no idea what to do. She was certain, though, that Kimberly couldn't withstand this kind of strain for long. And she refused to consider losing her.

Even as she rejected the thought, a terrible shrieking noise came across the communications system. The sound physically knocked Hayley from her chair and left her huddling on the floor, hands pressed futilely over her ears. The speakers squealed with feedback as they failed to cope with the sonic overload. After what seemed like a stunned eternity, she managed to pull herself together enough to realize that she was hearing a Ptera-scream across an open communicator line. She slammed the connection closed, hoping to avoid more damage to her computer systems. Moments later the overwhelming brightness vanished as if someone had thrown a switch. There was a distinct thud as the cot settled firmly back on the ground. All the alarms went silent.

Hayley blinked, trying to clear the glare-induced tears from her eyes. Her displays showed a complete absence of the purple-black energy in the command center, and a near-total dispersal at the rangers' battle site. She sighed in relief. The rangers had evidently done it again. Mesogog's creation had been defeated.

"Kim?" she called softly, hoping that the other woman might awaken now that the threat had been eliminated.

There was no response. Kim lay perfectly still, so still that Hayley swiftly double-checked her monitors just to reassure herself that the pink ranger was still breathing. All her readings were dropping rapidly back towards normalcy. But there was no sign that Kim was regaining consciousness.

Shaking her head in worry, Hayley moved closer to free Kim from the cargo net - hopefully before Kim woke up and started asking awkward questions. The brown-haired woman was drenched in sweat, and red marks from where she'd levitated against the net showed plainly against her pale skin. Hayley paused in the act of loosening the hooks that held the bungee-cord net in place, noticing that Kim's hands were lying on her chest, tightly laced together. She was fairly certain that had NOT been the case earlier. She thought she could see the slightest flickers of pink aura around the hands from the corners of her eyes, although not when she looked at them directly. Hayley touched the hands lightly through the cargo net, surprised to feel the tension in them when Kim was otherwise completely limp. "Kim, can you hear me?"

An alarm sounded on her console again, and Hayley looked up at the displays to discover the reason. What she saw made her gasp. Kim's heart rate had continued to drop, and was now down to under fifty beats a minute. Her hands tightened convulsively on Kim's, as if by grabbing on to the smaller woman, she could somehow stabilize her. "Kim!!!"

Another alarm blared.

*****

The Ptera-scream had cleared out the smothering alien fog that tried to overwhelm him, but it had also left him near-paralyzed with pain. Now both were gone, and Tommy looked up with relief. His eyes automatically swept the area for his young teammates. "Well done, Ki-" His eyes widened in horror as his mind registered the plummeting blonde figure falling from the sky. "KIRA!" He lurched to his feet, knowing even as he did so there was no way for him to reach his student in time.

The black ranger's shout jolted the other male rangers out of their stupors. All three had more or less lost the fight against Ghost Rose's power before Kira's Ptera-scream had blasted them out of it - and nearly into the pavement. But the urgency in Tommy's voice had them scrambling to pull themselves together and find their teammate. Conner's head jerked around as he frantically searched for the yellow ranger, only barely noticing Ethan doing much the same. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Trent spring to his feet, leaping into the air. The red ranger's eyes flew upwards, and his heart stopped as he spotted Kira's limp, unarmored form headed straight for the ground. His mind shrieked in fear as he tried to use his super-speed to get to her, knowing there was no way he'd make it...

...and Kira dropped into Trent's arms as neatly as a well-thrown touchdown pass landing in the hands of a wide receiver. The white ranger cushioned her fall as best as he could, landing on his feet and absorbing the impact through his knees, hips, spine, and arms, but the impact was just too powerful. Despite his best efforts, he couldn't stay upright, winding up flat on his back on the ground. His head rang as his helmet smacked forcibly into the pavement. But he did not lose his hold on Kira, who lay sprawled limply across his chest. He sat up hastily, cradling her even as Conner appeared in a blur of super-speed. Trent could feel the red ranger's brown eyes boring into him even through both their helmets for an endless second before Conner turned his attention to Kira, crouching down and reaching out to brush back her long blonde hair from her face.

"Oh my god. Is she okay?" Ethan gasped, running over.

Kira stirred, her amber eyes opening. She looked around dazedly, registering only bits and pieces at first: Conner's hand in her hair, brushing lightly against her forehead, his red-helmeted head close to hers; Trent's strong white-clad arms supporting her against his chest; Ethan's blue helmet bobbing in and out of her line of sight; Doctor O's tense, concerned posture as he knelt down by her. Memory returned in a rush, and she smiled weakly at her teammates, glad that they were all okay.

"Kira, can you hear us? Are you all right?" The black ranger's voice was calm, soothing, but the other rangers could hear the worry behind it.

Kira opened her mouth to reply and coughed instead. She swallowed dryly and tried again. "Yeah. Gonna be hoarse for a week, though." She winced at the raspy sound, but continued to talk anyway. "You're all right?"

"Thanks to you," Conner acknowledged, and the other rangers murmured agreement. All around her, her teammates relaxed, obviously relieved.

Ethan reached over and grasped Trent's shoulder. "That was one heck of a catch."

Conner fought down a brief, irrational surge of resentment at not having been fast enough to be the one to catch the yellow ranger. The important thing was that Kira was okay, thanks to Trent. He gripped the white ranger's arm, conveying his appreciation and relief in a single gesture. "It sure was."

"Great job, Trent." Doctor O's voice was warm with approval. For a terrible moment, Tommy had thought he was about to witness one of his students gravely injured or killed, and his system still burned with unused adrenaline.

Trent was glad the others couldn't see him blushing behind his visor. For once he felt completely accepted, a valuable part of the team. He had no idea what instinct had prompted him to look up when he'd heard Doctor O shout, but he was immensely grateful for it. "Thanks. But it was just luck that I was underneath her," he demurred.

"What catch?" Kira wanted to know. A moment later her eyes widened as she finally took in her unmorphed state. 'I fell? From up there???'

"You, silly," Conner teased, tugging gently on one long, blonde curl. "Not that we're not grateful to you for saving our butts from Ghost Rose, but maybe next time you should - " He broke off as the skies darkened and the ground shook. "Uh-oh. Looks like we're not done yet."

The faint whimper of a child alerted the rangers to the fact that they had more problems than just Ghost Rose reconstituting and growing to city-smashing proportions. All around them, the formerly controlled children were starting to wake up, stirring from where they'd fallen to the ground.

"Can you morph?" Trent's whisper did not hide his concern.

"I don't know," Kira admitted, attempting to get to her feet. "I can try."

"Better hurry," Conner advised, grabbing Kira's hands and pulling her up, "because we're going to have witnesses any minute now."

Tommy and Ethan helped Trent upright. "Screen her as best as you can," Tommy ordered, stepping between Kira and potential witnesses while keeping a sharp eye on the slowly reviving children. "If this doesn't work, Kira, you're going to have to play civilian."

"Yuck!" Kira snorted her opinion of that idea as her teammates crowded around her, hiding her from view. Showing more spunk than she really felt, she stepped into position and grabbed her morpher. "Dino Thunder, power-up! Hah!" Her "Hah!" sounded more like a hacking cough, but the morphing energies swirled around her just the same. She sighed in relief as her yellow uniform formed around her, bringing with it a renewed sense of strength. "Good to go."

"Then you'd better get going," Tommy said with a touch of irony.

The teens had already turned to summon their zords, but they froze at their mentor's words. Conner wasn't the only one who didn't quite believe his ears, but he was the only one to speak up about it. "Wait, Doctor O - you're not coming with us?"

Tommy looked around at the hordes of children who were just starting to wake up, look around...start crying. He shuddered inwardly, but he was a hero. "Someone has to stay here and look after all these kids. We can't just leave them alone, particularly after what they've been through."

Ethan looked from the black ranger to the crowds of children and back in disbelief. "Yeah, but Doctor O - how are you going to manage all of them? And what about the Ghost Rose monster?"

'How will I manage them? Badly, I'm sure,' Tommy thought, inwardly answering Ethan's first question even as he outwardly answered the second. "I'm sure you can handle it with your zords - and I'll just be a communicator call away if you run into trouble." His lips turned up in a wry grimace they couldn't see as the sound of crying children grew exponentially louder. "But I'm more likely to need your help than you'll need mine. Go. Take care of Ghost Rose. And please hurry back."

*****

Hayley shot a single glance towards the monitors, verifying that the source of the new alarm was the distinctive spike of energy that accompanied a monster growing to immense size, and not something else going wrong with Kim. She had to hope that the rangers could deal with the monster, as there was nothing she could do to help with that problem. Not that she felt there was much she could do here, either; the pink ranger's condition was very unstable. Tommy's earlier worries about energy drain made more sense to Hayley now. If she had to guess, energy-drain was a big part of what Kimberly was dealing with. But what Hayley couldn't figure out was how the drain had become so severe so fast, and why Kim wasn't getting better now that the alien energy was gone. Leaving Kim's side for a moment, she went back to her console, slapping off the alarms and calling up another diagnostic on Kim. She scowled at what she saw. Kim's energies were dangerously low, but there was still an aura all around her, particularly strong around her clasped hands. Kim was still defending herself even though there was no longer any need that Hayley could detect. And that continued defense could very well destroy her.

"C'mon, Kim, don't do this to us," Hayley muttered under her breath. An idea came to mind, and although it was kind of cliché, she couldn't think of a better one...and it couldn't hurt. She spoke again, this time loudly, hoping that somehow the other woman would hear her. "Don't do this to Tom, or to the others. You have to stop, Kim. The threat is gone; you're only hurting yourself. Let go of the power. Come back to us now."

No response; no change in the readings, but Hayley kept trying.

"Don't you know how important you are? Not just to Tom, but to everyone?" Hayley bit back a laugh, afraid that it might sound bitter. "They've become a much better team because of you - and I'm not talking about you finding that pink Dino gem and joining them in the fight. Kira practically idolizes you, you know? Conner and Ethan, too. They actually listen to you, which is more than I can get them to do half the time. They're all steadier, more confident with you in their lives. You have to let go and come back. They need you." She shook her head, red curls flying until she impatiently twisted her hair into a temporary bun. "And do you have any idea how much you have helped Trent? You've accepted him without question, without reservation. God, how he needed that. I tried the best I could with him, and I like to think I've done a lot to help him, but even I can see how you've been able to help him in ways I never could just by being yourself."

Hayley stopped and scrubbed her face with both hands, debating her next words. They bubbled inside her, practically bursting with the need to gush forth, and she gave into the impulse. "Do you have any idea how jealous I've been of that? Of you? I really don't think you do. I tried to pass my feelings off as dislike for what you did to Tom all those years ago, but that wasn't it, not entirely. It hurt, hearing the team talk about you, how excited and energized they were just from meeting you on the phone that first time. They accepted you without question. I knew they started bringing their problems to you, even though you were all the way across the country. And I hated you for that." She took a deep, shuddering breath as she finally admitted it to herself. "Bad enough that you'd pocketed Tom's heart years ago, but you won the confidence and trust of the team, too, in ways that I felt that I should have. I was here. I was the one who helped create their morphers, who gave them access to their powers. But I was never their confidante the way you became without even trying.

"And then I met you face-to-face." She flattened her hands on the console to keep them still. "You were in such pain, so worried for Tom, anyone could see it. The kids were practically glued to you, worried about you, but better than they'd been just because you were here. God, I was such a bitch to you, but you just took it in stride." Her naturally fair skin burned with remembered shame. "Even with all you were feeling, you didn't lash out at me. You didn't try to hide, or deny, or explain. You just acknowledged it and then focused on what was really important - Tom. I felt about two inches tall." She swallowed, her emotions making her voice husky. "I saw it all, right then: that you loved Tom just as much as he loved you. I promised myself at that moment that not only would I get him back for you, but that I wouldn't try to come between you two, not ever again. And I haven't, but I have let my feelings of jealousy come between you and me." She bit her lip briefly, her blue-green eyes reflecting her inner pain. "I've been so stupid. I've let my own feelings of insecurity get in the way of making a great friend. I don't have many friends, Kim, but I can tell that you'd be a friend for a lifetime if I only let you in." Hayley smiled, her eyes shining with tears. "I've made a mistake, but I'm ready to be done with that now. I can't fix it on my own, though. So wake up please? For Tom, and for the kids - and for a friend?"

*****

Pink cranes flying through a golden-yellow dawn sky... Kim's eyes opened. She'd been having the oddest dream... She gasped as what she was seeing registered. "I think I'm still dreaming," she murmured weakly as she took in the completely unexpected sight of the lake in Angel Grove Park. She was sprawled on the stone outcropping overlooking the water. This had been her favorite place, her special place. The place where she'd found solace and solitude whenever her parents fought. The place where she and Tommy had first acknowledged their feelings for each other, shared their first kiss. The waters were blue, the surrounding grass was green, the sun was shining, and birds were singing somewhere in the trees. It was exactly as she remembered it from her happiest memories. With increasing bewilderment, Kim realized that she wasn't wearing the clothes she'd donned that morning. The sundress was gone, replaced by her favorite denim shorts and pink crop-top from her high school days. There were only two things that didn't fit with her memories of this time and place: the silver morphing bracelet on her wrist instead of her old watch-like communicator; and the fact that her hands were tightly clasped together. She knew why that was, even if she could no longer feel the seed she'd trapped there. She couldn't feel anything; she was completely numb.

She sat up cautiously, careful not to loosen her hands. She halfway expected everything to disappear as soon as she moved, but nothing changed except her perspective on the scenery. Her eyebrows rose in puzzlement. "Okay, this is a big improvement over cotton-candy land, but there's no way this is real."

"It depends on your point of view."

The lightly-accented voice was the last one Kim ever expected to hear, and one she would never, ever forget. Eyes wide with shock, she swiveled around, searching, and found someone sitting on the simple stone bench. Her jaw dropped open, and she fought for speech. "T-t-Trini?" she stuttered.

A familiar smile warmed the almond eyes looking back at her from beneath jet-black bangs. Trini's long hair was bound into two ponytails by lengths of bright yellow ribbon, the sunny color exactly matching her neat polo shirt and the laces in her black Keds. Kim remembered helping Trini pick out those Keds, as well as the black knee-length pencil skirt she wore. It had been one of her friend's favorite outfits.

Trini. One of her oldest and dearest friends. Her beloved friend, who had been dead these two years and more.

"Oh my God." Kim couldn't feel the tears pouring down her face. "Trini?"

"Hey Kim." Her voice was exactly as she remembered it, too, soft and full of affection.

"Am I dead?" It was the only explanation Kim could think of. "Oh, no. Please tell me I'm not dead."

Trini tilted her head to one side. "Okay. You're not dead," she said obligingly, a teasing smile gracing her delicate features.

Kim gulped, holding back a sob. "You wouldn't lie to me about that, would you?"

"Kimberly! You know me better than that," Trini scolded. "I wouldn't lie to you."

"Yeah." Kim smiled slightly, her lips trembling. "But you're dead, Trini."

"I'd still never lie to you."

"That's true." The once and present pink ranger fought for control. "What's going on, Trini? Is this real?"

Trini shrugged, one shoulder rising slightly higher than the other, exactly as it had always done. "Like I said before..."

"...'It depends on your point of view,'" Kim finished, quoting what her friend had first said. She shook her head, memories crowding over her. "You're still way deeper than I am." She stood up, walked over to where Trini perched on the bench, and sat down beside her. "I wish I could hug you," she confessed, looking down at her clasped hands with regret.

"So why don't you?" Trini asked.

"I have to keep hanging onto this seed. Well, it's not really a seed, I guess, but there was this plant-monster, and it tried to take me over, and I fought it off, only I wound up in this weird pink place, but with the monster still buzzing around in my hands, and then it went after the others, but I couldn't sit by and let that happen..." Kim's mouth snapped shut as she realized she was babbling. "And now I'm here, but I have to keep hanging on to it. I can't let it go."

"Kim." Trini laid a hand on Kim's pink-clad shoulder, but the ranger couldn't feel the touch. That hurt her almost more than the rest of it, and renewed tears coursed down her face.

"Kimberly," Trini said again, her darker brown eyes tinged with regret as she met Kim's tear-filled gaze. "You're here, but you don't belong here anymore."

"I have to stay here," Kim argued at once, ignoring the stab of pain at Trini's words. "If I don't, the others might be in danger. It's for the best. And I'm so tired. I'm scared." She realized those truths just as she said them.

"Tired? Scared? How does that matter, Kimberly? You've been tired and scared before, but that's never stopped you. And the danger - do you think that would matter to your teammates? Do you really think they'd want you to stay here?" Trini looked exasperated, the same way she'd looked a thousand times when she'd thought Kim was trying to get away with something.

"But I could be a risk to them," Kim protested weakly. "It's safer if I stay here."

"Maybe it's safer to stay here." Trini's voice was soft, filled with the wisdom beyond her years that her friend had always possessed. "But Kimberly, you know better. You know that life is risk."

'And you're not alive...' The first yellow ranger's words stung like a guilty conscience, both painful and healing. Maybe Trini was real, maybe she was just a collection of memories, or a figment of her badly overworked imagination. But she, Kimberly Ann Hart, was sitting with a chance to reach out and hug her friend, a chance she'd never thought to have again. Sobbing openly, Kimberly let go of her death-grip on her hands, turned loose of her fear, and flung her arms around her friend. "I miss you so much, Trini!" Sensation returned in a rush, and she could feel Trini's narrow shoulders, the textures of her cotton polo shirt and her long dark hair.

Strong, slender arms embraced her in turn, and Kimberly felt the gentle pressure healing something that had been left raw ever since Jason's phone call telling her about her friend's fatal car crash. "You know I'm always with you, Kimberly." Trini's voice shook with emotion.

Kim sniffed and nodded, her eyes and nose streaming. She pulled away just enough to be able to look her friend in the face. "I'm marrying Tommy at the end of September."

Trini's golden complexion was streaked with tear-tracks, but the Asian girl smiled. "It's about time."

"I wish you could be there - " All at once Trini, the park, and everything else grew dark and dim. Kim thought she heard her friend's voice one last time before everything went black.

"I'll be there, Kimberly."

*****

Judging from the communicator traffic, the zord battle against Ghost Rose was going well. The same could not be said of the situation at the waterfront.

Within five minutes, Tommy knew he was in way over his head. None of the children had any memories of what had happened to them from the time they'd fallen under Ghost Rose's spell until the moment they awoke, which meant that none of them understood where they were or how they'd gotten there. That trauma had left even the most normally self-assured tweens and teens shaky and near hysterics. The younger children were far, far worse. Try though he might, he was only marginally successful in getting even a few of the older children calmed enough to be able to help him with the others.

Within ten minutes, the black ranger was desperate for backup - and deeply worried that he hadn't heard anything from Hayley about Kim's condition. He'd expected to hear from her far before this. With all the children waking up, Kim should have awakened too... Anxiety churned his stomach into knots. His memories of fighting off Ghost Rose's effects were extremely hazy, but he thought he remembered something about Kim - a touch, a sense of her beloved presence. The longer he went without word, the more frightened he became by those memories and what they might mean. But there was no time to call the command center, no privacy to open a channel and ask all the questions he needed answers to. He could only press on, trying to comfort and organize the children while struggling against his ever-growing fear.

*****

"Worthless!" Mesogog lashed out in rage, smashing a computer readout to smithereens. "What will it take to rid me of these pesky humans?"

Elsa cowered down, hoping to remain out of sight. She'd been the recipient of the fiery edge of Mesogog's wrath before. She was very surprised, therefore, to hear Zeltrax's mechanical voice. "I have an idea about that, Master."

"Oh?" A dangerous edge glinted in Mesogog's voice. "And what might that be, Zeltrax?"

"Your idea about the emotions of these humans being their weakness inspired me," Zeltrax replied with careful flattery. "You chose to exploit their feelings for their young. But there is another, even more powerful emotion. A weapon we can use against Doctor Oliver, the strongest weapon we could ever wield to his ruin."

Despite his rage, Mesogog found himself interested by the cyborg's words. "And what would that be?"

"Love." Zeltrax ignored the scoffing noise from the shadowy part of the laboratory where Elsa hid, and the scornful look from Mesogog. "Let me explain..."

*****

"Aitchooo!" The soft sound of a dainty, high-pitched sneeze barely disturbed the quiet of the command center.

Hayley's head jerked up from the console displays as if a gunshot had gone off. She sprang towards Kim. "Kim? Kimberly?"

"Oh," Kim moaned. "Oh, oh, ugh." Her eyes slitted open, wincing against the dim light even as she felt a gentle hand grasping her own. She returned the pressure as best as she could.

Hayley flushed with relief as she saw Kim's eyes open and felt her squeeze her hand. "Oh, thank goodness! How do you feel, Kim?"

Flowers...birds...cotton candy? A lake? Scattershot memories that made no sense flashed through Kim's mind, drowned out almost immediately by a great deal of discomfort. She had a blinding headache. Every inch of her felt beaten, bruised, and disgustingly sticky. "Ooog," she said eloquently. She swallowed, feeling her parched throat stick unpleasantly, but tried again, wanting to alleviate the blatant worry she saw on Hayley's face. "No one should feel this awful without one heck of a night before," she groaned. "I haven't felt this bad since the after-graduation party at Florida State."

Much to both their surprise, Hayley giggled, a surprisingly girlish sound. Embarrassed, she turned away and reached for a bottle of greenish-gold liquid. She helped the pink ranger sit up before handing the bottle to her. "Here, drink this. It'll help. You're dehydrated."

Kim recognized the beverage instantly. "Oh, goody, original Gatorade," she joked weakly after taking several long swallows. Her headache receded somewhat, and she smiled gratefully at the red-haired woman. "Thanks, Hayley." More memories returned as the headache faded, and her eyes widened as she realized that she and Hayley were alone in the command center. "That monster - the children! What happened? Where's Tommy - where are the others? Are they okay?"

"Kira managed to blast Mesogog's monster into smithereens, which broke the hold it had on all those kids," Hayley summarized the recent events, glossing over some of the more distressing details. Kim still looked fairly weak and shaky. "Mesogog's resurrected and enlarged the monster, but Kira, Ethan, Conner and Trent have managed to keep it out of the city so far with their zords. The only real damage so far has been to the communications link to the command center. The circuit that controls communications with the command center must have been damaged by Kira's Ptera-scream. They can talk to each other, but I don't think they can hear me."

"Tommy?" Kim couldn't keep the fear out of her voice.

"At the waterfront, dealing with all the kids," Hayley hastened to reassure the pink ranger. "He's fine, although I don't think he's enjoying himself very much." She gestured towards the right-hand monitor, which showed the black ranger surrounded by a sea of sobbing, bewildered children and a few shell-shocked teens and adults.

"Oh dear." Kim stifled a nearly uncontrollable urge to laugh. It really shouldn't be funny. The children were obviously frightened and upset. She could read Tommy's tension and frustration in his body language. But to see her normally confident, calm fiancé - Mr. Greatest-Ranger-Ever - so at a loss when faced with a group of ordinary kids... Kim swung her legs over the side of the cot and carefully stood up. "I'd better go help him out."

"Whoa, Kim, are you sure?" Hayley didn't like the way Kim wobbled when she tried to stand. "You've been through a lot in the last hours..." Kim gave her a puzzled look, and Hayley blushed. "I've been really worried about you," she confessed. "Everyone has. Just - be careful, okay? We just got you back."

Kim smiled, not understanding what brought on this sudden rush of concern from the normally cool technologist, but realizing the caring and friendship behind it. "I'll be careful, I promise. And Hayley - thanks. For everything."

"You're welcome." Hayley's cheeks were still tinted red, but she felt a warm glow as she recognized an ease between them that hadn't been there before. "Now go rescue poor Tom."

Kimberly's delighted laughter echoed in the command center long after the pink ranger raced off to the rescue.

*****

"We got it, Doctor O!" Ethan's jubilant cheer echoed across Tommy's communicator.

"Another Mesogog creation bites the dust," Conner confirmed smugly.

"Good work," Tommy congratulated them, pausing for a moment in organizing and comforting children. A few police and emergency workers had arrived, but not nearly enough yet to cope with the hordes of bewildered kids. And as much as the sight of the firefighters and police uniforms reassured the children, the sight of a "real live ranger" helped even more. He knew that, even though it made him horribly uncomfortable. He stifled a sigh. "But there's no time for celebrations yet. You'd better get back here. We still have an awful lot of kids to sort out."

"We're heading your way now." Conner didn't sound enthused.

"Doctor O, has there been any word from Hayley or Kim?" Kira's voice was still extremely hoarse, but her worry was obvious.

"None." Tommy knew his terse, one-word answer did little to hide his fear from his students. "I've got to get back to it. See you when you get here." He cut the communication link before he accidentally revealed any more of his inner anguish. Sighing, he turned his attention to the sobbing, red-faced little girl who was toddling towards him. She looked scarcely more than three years old, and she raised her arms towards him in an unmistakable gesture. Tommy crouched down and picked her up, obedient to her unspoken wish. "Hey there," he soothed, patting her back gently. "It's all right now. Don't cry."

The child hiccoughed, her breath hitching as her sobs calmed. Her large, dark-brown eyes focused on his helmet as one small hand crept to her rosebud mouth. Tommy felt his own breath catch in his chest as he looked over the tiny girl now sucking her thumb. Golden-streaked brown hair...big, dark eyes with long eyelashes...cute pink overalls... He suddenly saw not just a lost child, but what a child of his and Kim's could look like, and his heart ached.

"Need a hand?"

The knotted, agonized tension he'd been under vanished. Tommy felt his entire body go limp with relief as he heard the voice he knew better than his own. Turning his head, he saw Kim standing just a few feet away, armored-up, her pink helmet canted slightly as she took in the sight of the black ranger and the little girl. "Beautiful," he breathed, all his love and worry and welcome conveyed in three small syllables. He started towards her, forgetting everything else but the need to be near her, to touch her, make sure she was real and all right.

"B'ful?" The lisped, garbled word reminded Tommy forcibly of the child he still held in his arms. The little girl looked towards Kim, and her thumb came out of her mouth as her eyes went wide. "Ooo. Pink!" she declared. "I like pink! Pretty!"

"Very pretty," Tommy agreed, and grinned as he heard Kim's embarrassed chuckle. "Are you all right?" he asked her softly as she came up next to him.

The child in Tommy's arms squirmed, reaching out towards her, and Kimberly instinctively reached over and took the girl from his arms. She nestled her in the crook of one arm while bracing most of the child's weight comfortably against her hip. "Tired, but okay," she reassured him, leaning up against him briefly. "You?"

Rangers couldn't embrace in public, of course, but Kim knew him better than anyone, knew that he needed that contact. Just feeling her body resting lightly against his sent a shudder through his frame, even as it steadied him with the tangible proof of her reality. "Better now," he admitted. "You had me really worried, Beautiful."

Kim used her free hand to squeeze Tommy's upper arm lightly in both apology and reassurance. "Which reminds me - communication with the command center is out, and my communicator seems to be on the fritz, too. Can you let the others know I'm here?"

A glimpse of bright, primary colors caught his eye, and Tommy nodded his head in that direction. "I think you can tell them yourself."

"You're pretty," the little girl spoke up suddenly, suddenly talkative in the way small children could be. She patted Kim's helmet with one hand. Ignoring the other rangers running over, she looked down at her own clothes and then back at Kim. "I like pink. Pink is the best." Her tiny face suddenly creased with a frown. "What's "beu-ful?"

'This is,' Tommy thought, looking around at his fellow rangers as they surrounded Kim, welcoming her back in an eager press of careful words and pats on the back, mutual congratulations that showed just how glad they were she was there. 'This is beautiful. And my Beautiful is back where she belongs.' It wasn't an answer he could give a child, but it was the true answer of his soul. "Beautiful means pretty," he explained, leaning over the child and briefly touching helmets with Kim.

"Oh," the child nodded, smiling in understanding. "Pink is beautiful."

Tommy couldn't agree more.

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