Continuing Tales

All I Want for Christmas

A Power Rangers Story
by Cheryl Reynolds

Part 3 of 7

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All I Want for Christmas

"Kim, you can't go to a job interview --even at a gym-- in a leotard and sweats. You need to get yourself a suit."

"Ooh, I hate it when he's right," Kim muttered as she glanced through the skirts and blazers. She had received word that the USGF had received her application and were processing it. It didn't mean she'd be granted the license, but Tommy told her to think positively.

"How can they not give it to you? Two of the girls you worked with earned Pan Global medals, and with Coach Schmidt's recommendation . . . . Didn't you say he was the biggest name in gymnastics since Bela What's-his-name?"

Kim shook her head, smiling wryly. Tommy had changed so much over the years. She remembered the days when he was racked with doubt and guilt over what Rita had done and made him do . . . how insecure he had been in spite of his martial arts abilities. Back then, she had been the one brimming with confidence for them both. Now, their roles were reversed.

She had to admit that Tommy was doing a pretty good job of buoying her spirits. Ever since the night he had gotten her to open up . . . . She hadn't meant to tell him everything; however, once the words started coming, she just couldn't stop them as if her pain, anger, and bitterness couldn't be contained any longer.

She had been terribly afraid of how Tommy would react. After all, her mom couldn't deal with the truth, and the bond between mother and child was supposed to be one nothing could break. Tommy had far less reason to stand by her, considering what she had done to him. Yet, he had been there for her. He had even held her, although she couldn't imagine that he'd ever want to again, knowing that she was . . . well, tainted. At the time, part of her couldn't stand the thought of him touching her, but part of her was glad that he hadn't let go. When she woke up the following morning, she half expected to find herself in some shelter or out on the street. She'd never been so happy to see the as-yet-unfamiliar ceiling in Tommy's spare bedroom. All that day, she and Tommy had been uneasy --sort of walking on eggshells around each other-- but they had gotten through the awkwardness. To be honest, Kim was grateful to have everything out in the open at last. It was as if she had been hiding something from Tommy --that she'd been lying to him-- and she couldn't stand the thought of lying to Tommy anymore.

The question is, where do we go from here? she mused as she pulled a skirt from the rack. Black --too severe, and navy just didn't do much for her. She spied a charcoal grey pinstripe on the mannequin; that looked promising. She supposed she could see what they had in the way of suits, but those were pretty expensive, and Tommy was footing the bill --which rankled her. She had always managed on her own before; so her credit card was maxed out --it wasn't the first time that had happened. She and Olivia generally did without until she could pay some of it off. But now she was in a situation where putting things off couldn't be done: school fees.

In Florida, Olivia had another year before starting Kindergarten; but in Angel Grove, she just made the birthday deadline. Tuition, a doctor's visit to make sure her immunization records were up to date, school clothes, supplies . . . . Kim just couldn't let Tommy pay for everything, although he had offered, so she had taken a job at McDonald's --the morning crew. That was the most feasible with Tommy's school hours, and she'd be home in time to take Olivia to school. She couldn't believe how ridiculously pleased she had felt when she received her first meager check and was able to put it towards the September tuition payment.

Separates are fine, Kim told herself, and a lot more reasonable than a suit. Besides, who would know the difference? It wasn't as if she were applying for a job as a secretary to the president of Merchant's National Bank. As she looked the grey skirt over again, she found she really liked it. Now, if they only had it in her size . . . .

As Kim located the proper size and went about selecting a blouse, her thoughts turned back to her questions. Where did she and Tommy go from here? Where did she want them to go? She knew she couldn't depend on Tommy indefinitely; she'd been on her own too long to let him take care of her like that. Olivia was her responsibility and no one else's --as her mother had so forcefully pointed out. You didn't think I could handle the responsibility, well, guess what, Mom. My daughter and I have done just fine on our own, thank you very much, she reflected tightly. Yet, she had to confess that it was nice to have a little back up . . . nice not to have to be strong all the time.

Still, she was very much confused by Tommy. Why had he done all this? Was it merely out of the goodness of his heart --being a knight on a white horse again? Surely, he'd have done as much for Jason or any of the others. Or could it possibly be that he still cared? She couldn't see how. She had lied to him --hurt him; she'd had another man's baby . . . . She wasn't the Kimberly he had loved once upon a time, but she still loved him --she had never stopped. She wanted to reach out to him as she once did, but she was afraid to. What if he thought her feelings stemmed from gratitude for what he'd done for her and Olivia? She didn't think she could bear to be hurt --betrayed-- again, especially by Tommy. If she wanted to be totally honest with herself, she had to wonder if she loved Tommy for who he was now or the young man he used to be. She couldn't say for certain, but she did know that she loved him enough to know that she couldn't love him the way he'd like her to --the way she used to. The risk was too great.

Blinking back gathering tears, Kim tried to focus on the blouses. The white ones really didn't appeal; they all looked so . . . practical. Which, she supposed, was exactly what was wanted for a job interview. However, her attention wandered over to a rack of pastel colored blouses. She found one in pink with an attractive lace collar and cuffs and immediately fell in love with it. There was even one left in her size . . . .

No. I'm not shopping for pleasure --this is business! she scolded herself. With a sigh, she put it back.

"That would look darling on you," someone said, startling Kim. She looked around for a sales clerk but instead saw a familiar looking woman with blue eyes and brown hair cut in a short wedge. The woman's smile was warm and friendly. "Hello, Kim."

"Maggie, right?" Kim said, finally placing the woman Tommy had introduced her to at the laundromat.

"That's me. How are you and the little one settling in?"

"We're getting along all right."

"Pretty big adjustment, huh. I remember when I first moved to Angel Grove."

"Well, I pretty much grew up here."

"That's right; Tom said you went to school with him," Maggie continued. Kim was a little surprised by her statement. When had Tommy gotten a chance to talk to Maggie about her? Surely not at the laundromat; there hadn't been an opportunity for a prolonged conversation.

"By the way, how's Tom adjusting to having two new roommates?"

Kim wasn't sure how to answer; she wasn't sure if she should. She didn't really know Maggie, and it wasn't any of the other woman's business. Yet, Tommy had called her friend and obviously trusted her.

"I'm sorry," Maggie apologized quickly. "That's between you and Tom. I tend to forget that he's not one of my students that needs looking after. It's just that Chris really looks up to him --sort of an older brother figure . . . ."

"I can see that," Kim agreed, disturbed to be so relieved that Maggie's interest was mostly maternal. "He's handling things better than I expected. If it had been me alone, it would have been a big enough adjustment, but with Olivia, too . . . ."

"If you don't mind my asking, how is she adjusting to him? The impression I got from Tom was that she's never really had a father figure in her life before."

Amazingly, Kim didn't find the question all that intrusive. She had this sense that in some ways, she and Maggie were kindred spirits. "There was Coach, but I think he really intimidated her. Olivia absolutely adores Tommy."

"You sound surprised. Tom is great with children."

Tommy was right about one thing, Kim found it very easy to talk to Maggie. "I know; it's just that . . . ." She struggled to find the right words. ". . . well, she's never warmed up to another adult like this --male or female. She's always been rather shy around them."

Maggie nodded. "Kids have a way of knowing. My daughter Kelly was like that. She couldn't stand most men --her father included-- but my brother whom she rarely saw, she just adored him."

Kim smiled, grateful to find someone who understood. While she tried to formulate a reply, her attention drifted back to the blouse. It was just the right shade of pink, too: not too pale but not fuchsia either. She ran her finger under the edge of the collar and sighed wistfully.

"It really is a pretty blouse," Maggie agreed, to Kim's embarrassment at having let her attention wander. "I love frilly things, but they don't love me. I look ridiculous in lace, and pink doesn't flatter me at all."

"I see you in dark colors --rusts, forest greens, plums," Kim murmured. She tore her gaze from the garment. "However, this isn't exactly the sort of thing for a job interview."

"I don't know. I think it's perfect. The suit says 'I mean business' and the blouse says, 'but I'm a woman, too. Deal with it.'"

Kim had to smile at that.

"I thought you already had a job; wasn't that you in the drive through the other morning at the McDonald's on Tenth Street?"

"Yes," Kim admitted sheepishly. "It's only temporary --something to cover expenses until I can find something more permanent."

"I'm glad to hear it. You're too bright to waste away in a burger joint, but the job market is rather tight right now. What are you looking to get into?"

Before Kim could answer, the two were interrupted by a high-pitched squeal --the kind only an excited pre-teen girl was capable of making. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed twelve-year-old was standing there gaping at the pair in utter disbelief.

"Kelly," Maggie admonished. "What are you gawking at?"

"Mom, it's her!" Kelly gulped in an awed whisper.

"Her who?"

"You mean you don't know? That's Kimberly Hart!"

Kim's eyebrows climbed. Maggie's daughter was acting like she was somebody famous.

"I know who she is. Tom introduced me to her a couple of weeks ago."

"Don't you get it, Mom? She's the one who was discovered by that famous coach and went to train with him in Florida! She's the reason lots of girls got into gymnastics," Kelly explained breathlessly.

Kim couldn't believe it. Kelly looked up to her? But she hadn't done anything . . . she hadn't won a medal . . . she hadn't even made it to the trials! Yet Kelly was acting as if she was some kind of hero --something she hadn't felt like since leaving the Rangers.

"I remember now," Maggie declared. "You created quite a stir by being invited to train with such a renowned coach."

That was just pure chance, Kim wanted to say.

"Can I have your autograph?" Kelly gushed.

"S-sure . . . I guess so," Kim fumbled.

"Great . . . oh! I gotta find a piece of paper!" With that, Kelly bounded off.

"I'm really sorry about this, Kim," Maggie sighed. "I hope she hasn't embarrassed you too much."

"Not really, but I don't understand. I'm nobody important," Kim demurred.

"You were the Cinderella of the gymnastics scene: unknown gymnast with nothing but talent going for her discovered by world famous coach . . . . It's the sort of thing all little girls dream of--whatever the interest. The local teachers and coaches really hyped it: the see-what- hard-work-will-get-you angle."

"Yeah, but the clock struck twelve, and the magic went away," Kim said with a heavy sigh.

"A lot of folks wondered what happened when you didn't make the team," Maggie put forth delicately.

Kim knew that people who had known her were bound to wonder, but she wasn't quite prepared for a total stranger to ask. For several uncomfortable moments, Kim couldn't find her voice.

"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to pry," Maggie said at last.

"It's all right; I just don't . . . ." As Kim floundered for an explanation, she could see Maggie doing the math. It didn't take a genius to figure out that if she had a five-year-old daughter, she would have had to have been pregnant at the time of the trials.

"Oh," was Maggie's only comment. Further awkwardness was spared by Kelly's return. It appeared as if she had raided the trash by one of the cash registers. Kim rummaged through her purse for a pen.

"Omigosh, I just can't believe it!" Kelly bubbled, and Kim heard echoes of herself in the girl's tone. "Betsy and Jessica are never going to believe this!"

"There you go, Kelly," Kim said, returning the scrap of paper.

"What brings you back to Angel Grove?" Kelly wondered. "I remember reading an interview with Coach Schmidt where he said that his best gymnast had to withdraw from the trials due to an unexpected medical condition; that was you, wasn't it?"

Kim wasn't sure how to respond. She never recalled Coach making any statement about her withdrawing from the competition.

". . . and last year, before the Nationals, I remember one of the sportscasters saying that you were helping train Linda Garrett --our best hope at the next Olympics," Maggie's daughter rattled on; Kim found her better informed about the doings of the sport than she ever was. "Have you come home to coach girls here?"

"If you'd let the poor woman get a word in edgewise, you might get an answer," Maggie muttered sarcastically; her comment seemed to have gotten through because the girl blushed sheepishly.

"That's all right," Kim said. Actually, she was grateful to Kelly; she had helped her explain away a very difficult situation. "Yes, I'm hoping to find a coaching position here . . . ."

"That's so cool!"

"Although, I think I might like to work with younger girls --the beginners-- rather than would-be Olympians. Not every girl has the desire or talent to be a world-class athlete, and so much is lost when coaches focus only on those who do."

"We could definitely use someone like that," Maggie agreed. "Most of the gymnastic schools around here are looking for the next Mary Lou or Shannon Miller."

"Miss Julie isn't," Kelly interjected. "She's my teacher, and she's great. She really cares about the girls --and not just because they can do flips and stuff. She just bought out Olga's school ...."

"Hitler's little sister isn't coaching anymore?" Kim queried, greatly surprised.

"You didn't like her either, I take it," Maggie noted with amusement.

"She's why I didn't continue with a gym, just with the teams at school," Kim explained. "There weren't too many choices back when I was first taking lessons. It was either her place or driving

to Stone Canyon."

"Olga got a chance to work at one of the major training centers back east," Kelly said. "She took a bunch of her staff with her. Miss Julie bought her out and is trying to merge the two schools."

"Which hasn't been easy; both places had very different philosophies," Maggie added. "It wouldn't hurt to look into it."

"I will. Thank you."

"Now, I think we've pestered Kim long enough," Maggie decided. "Your brothers are probably wondering where we've gotten to, and we still haven't found Michael's shoes . . . . Last minute school shopping, don't you love it?"

"Aw, Mom . . . ." Kelly pouted.

"We'll see you around, Kim."

"Sure, Maggie. It was good seeing you again. Nice meeting you, Kelly."

"Bye! Oh man, Betsy and Jess are going to die . . . !"

Kim watched the pair leave and shook her head in disbelief. However, it had been a very useful conversation. Then, she turned back to the rack. Without a second thought, she picked up the lacy pink blouse.

Didn't Tommy say she was a guidance counselor at the school? She'd know stuff about going to job interviews --wouldn't she?

Kim placed her purchases on the counter and somewhat guiltily handed the clerk Tommy's Sears card.

Olivia was scared; Kim could feel it in the tiny girl's grasp as Olivia, Tommy and herself approached Northside Elementary. They had taken a tour of the school and grounds when they had registered, so the place wasn't completely unfamiliar, and it didn't resemble a prison with barred windows and visible police patrols to control the violence as the school near the gym had. Still, Kim couldn't blame her daughter; she was scared for her. Olivia had never been around other children much --had never attended daycare or preschool . . . . Kim had tried to make certain that Olivia had learned her letters and numbers; she could recognize and write her own name. She recalled how the athletes complained whenever they had down time to watch television in the lounge only to find it usurped by Olivia as she drank in all that the Sesame Street crew had to offer.

"Do I have to go, Mommy?" Olivia queried anxiously, warily eyeing the screaming throngs of kids playing on their lunch breaks. She was enrolled in the afternoon session, which worked all right with Kim and Tommy's present work schedules. It remained to be seen what would happen if Kim got a coaching job.

When, not if, Kim reminded herself to think positively. She looked down into Olivia's worried eyes as her daughter tugged on her braids. "Yes, Sweetie, all five year olds have to go to Kindergarten."

"But I'm not five yet."

Kim wanted to laugh; that was just the opposite of Olivia's usual assertion, "but I'm almost five already!"

"You'll do just fine, Princess," Tommy assured Olivia. He had decided to open the studio a little later than usual so he could be there to see Olivia off on her first day; he had seemed so pleased to have been asked to come along. Kim hadn't considered not inviting him; Olivia had wanted him there so badly. Plus, there was the more practical matter in that he was on the list of people able to pick Olivia up from school. He'd have to know where to meet her and so forth.

As they arrived at the Kindergarten classroom, they found it a hive of activity: boisterous children running about, parents bidding tearful children good-bye . . . .

"Here's your cubby," Kim pointed out, recalling what they'd been shown during the orientation meeting. As more of the parents filed out, she noticed that the children had separated themselves into two groups: the noisy ones who seemed to know each other already and the quiet ones who had probably never been away from home before. She wondered if that was the group Olivia would gravitate towards.

"Poor little thing," she heard Tommy murmur, and she glanced over to see who had caught his attention. A little Asian girl with wide black eyes and straight, blue-black hair was sitting all alone at a table in the corner. For some reason, even the shyer children were pointing at her, whispering, and laughing.

"I wonder what's up," Kim remarked, her heart going out to the tot.

"She looks sadder than me," Olivia whispered.

"She probably doesn't know anyone here either," Tommy surmised.

"She doesn't have any friends?" was Olivia's concerned query.

"It looks that way."

"Do you think, maybe, it'd be okay if I said, 'hi' to her?"

"I think that would be very nice of you," Kim agreed, a smile of pride tugging at her lips as she watched Olivia make a beeline for the table.

"We should probably get going," Tommy said softly.

"Just a minute. I just want to see . . . ." Kim noted that as Olivia drew closer to the table, she became a little more cautious.

"Um . . . hi," Olivia ventured uncertainly.

"Hello," the girl replied with equal hesitation. She seemed surprised that Olivia was speaking to her.

"My name's Olivia. What's yours?"


"How come you're all by yourself? Don't you know anyone?"

"No, we just moved here."

"Oh, me, too."

"Hey!" a little boy with wild-looking blond hair interrupted the pair. He tried to pull Olivia away. "You don't want to play with her," he sneered.

"Why not?" Olivia demanded, sounding very put out. Kim had to do her best not to laugh out loud.

"What are you, stupid or something? Didn'tcha see her legs? She can't even walk!"

Olivia peered under the table; from where she stood, Kim glimpsed the metal braces on the girl's leg. She had to resist the urge to slap that boy silly. She noted that even Tommy looked upset with him.

"I can so walk!" Min protested, then she seemed to back down. "I was sick for a long time; I'm just not strong enough to walk without them yet."

"No ya can't!"

"Quit being dumb and go away," Olivia declared imperiously, glaring at the little boy. "You leave my friend alone . . . ."

"Make me!" the boy challenged.

"Robert . . . ." the teacher called out, and the boy scurried off.

"Do you mean that?" Min queried. "Am I really your friend?"

"Sure . . . ." Olivia took a seat, and the two embarked on an animated conversation.

"Kim . . . ." Tommy prompted a second time, gently nudging her towards the door. Still, Kim only had eyes for the scene at the far table. "Class is going to be starting. Olivia will be fine."

"I know," Kim sighed, sniffling, and Tommy handed her a Kleenex. She paused in the doorway for one last look, dabbing at her tearing eyes. She noticed that the teacher sat Robert down at the table with Olivia and Min. Olivia glared at him coldly, and he sat as far away from the duo as possible.

"If I was Robert, I'd watch myself," Tommy said with a laugh. "You know, in a way, seeing Olivia and Min together makes me think of you and Trini and what you must have been like at this age."

"Trini and I didn't meet until we were in third grade," Kim replied. "Oh God, Tommy, she's not a baby anymore, is she?"

"She'll always be your baby."

"She didn't even say good-bye . . . ." and Kim completely gave up on trying to maintain her composure. After going through several more Kleenex --with which Tommy was conveniently and amply supplied-- she finally settled down. "I feel ridiculous! I'm making a bigger fuss than some of the kids."

"You're not the first mom to lose it on the first day of school, nor will you be the last," Tommy teased gently, handing over yet another tissue.

"How'd you know I'd need these?" Kim wondered as she blew her nose.

"Mom forewarned me," Tommy revealed. "She told me that she was a blubbering idiot my first day of Kindergarten."

"Your mother?"

"Hard to imagine, huh? So I figured if the tough-as-iron drill sergeant was reduced to tears, an ol' softie like you wouldn't stand a chance."

"Oh, you . . . ." she scolded playfully.

"Anyway, you need to settle down before your mascara starts running. You don't want to look like a total wreck on your job hunt this afternoon."

"I'm a nervous wreck just thinking about it," Kim gulped.

"Don't be. You'll knock their socks off," Tommy assured her. Kim gave him a guarded "we'll see" smile. "Are you sure you don't want the truck?"

"Yes. I'm not insured to drive it. Besides, you may wind up having to pick up Olivia." As much as Kim wanted to be there when the day was done --as much as she wanted to hear every breathless detail about the day as soon as her daughter was out of school and in her arms again-- she had to allow for the possibility that she might get tied up somewhere.

"I know how much you want to be there; you will if you can," Tommy reminded her. "I'll be here when school lets out; if you're not, we'll wait for a while before heading back to the studio."

"Thanks for helping out, Tommy," Kim said appreciatively. "I know this is really messing up your schedule . . . ."

"It's my pleasure. Thanks for letting me be here today; the first day of school is pretty special after all." He flashed her a smile, which she timidly returned. "You'd better get going now. Good luck."


For a moment, it seemed as if Tommy was going to give her a kiss on the cheek for luck, and it left Kim feeling cold inside when he didn't.

Kim glanced at her watch as she gathered herself for her last visit of the afternoon. It was much later than she had anticipated; school was long over. She was a little envious that Tommy would have already been regaled with the events of the day and she was relegated to the second telling--after the excitement had faded. Oh well, it was par for the course. Thus far, her afternoon had been a total bust. The smaller schools weren't hiring --they wouldn't even look at her résumé. She had missed her bus --twice-- and put more miles on her pumps than she had ever intended. Footsore and heartsore, she made her way to the Angel Grove Gymnastics Center --Julia Martinelli, owner.

A powerful sense of déjà vu washed over her as she stepped into the vestibule. She could remember being eight years old and starting classes here for the first time. She'd been so excited, so full of hopes and impossible dreams . . . . She could scarcely stand still, and she certainly hadn't caught the cold, serious atmosphere that had filled Madame Olga's gymnasium. She only became aware of that months later when her beloved acrobatics had ceased to be fun and had become work.

What struck Kim the most once the memories subsided was the tension in the air, but it had nothing to do with the fear/respect for the iron-fisted mistress who had formerly governed the gym. It was a sense of uncertainty, of great upheaval. It was late enough in the afternoon that the serious gymnasts --those who had dreams of competing at the national and world level-- were hard at work. Although, Kim also saw a group of what would be considered more casual students --ones who only came for lessons once or twice a week.

Kelly said things were in transition here, Kim reminded herself as she made her way to the front office.

"May I help you?" the receptionist, a plump, fifty-ish woman with a silvery braid coiled about her head, queried as she entered. The plate on the desk read Darlene.

"I was wondering if you were accepting applications for employment."

Her question caught the woman by surprise. "You want to apply for a job?"

"Yes, I coached in Florida and recently moved back to Angel Grove," Kim elaborated. "I realize no ad appeared in the paper, but I hoped to fill out an application and leave my résumé." She tried to hide her anxiety as the receptionist considered her words. She tried to draw hope from the fact that she hadn't said "no" yet.

"I suppose it couldn't hurt," Darlene decided. "With all the craziness going on around here, there's no telling what we'll wind up needing."

"Thank you," Kim said, doing her best to keep her relief from being obvious. She took a seat and quickly filled out the form. After a nervous glance at her résumé and cover letter, she handed all the papers to the secretary.

"I can't promise you anything . . . ." Darlene cautioned.

"I know. A chance is all I can ask for. Thank you." Kim shook the offered hand and was about to leave when she paused in the doorway. "The only restrooms are the ones in the locker room, correct?" she asked.

"Yes. Were you a student here?" Darlene wondered.

"About twelve years ago." As Kim made her way towards the rear of the facility, she passed a tall, slender woman with a Mediterranean complexion and features who was headed towards the office.

"Who was that? Mother of a prospective student?" the woman asked the receptionist.

"Would you believe a prospective coach?" Darlene handed her employer the paperwork.

"Kimberly Hart?" Julia Martinelli frowned. "Why do I know that name . . . ?"

It looks as if they haven't painted this place since I left here, Kim mused as she pushed the locker room door open; somehow she had expected more physical changes to go along with the ideological ones.

". . . I wish I had taken Diane up on her offer to go to L.A. with her. I'm certainly not going to get anywhere staying here," Kim heard someone complain.

"At least it's not as bad as it used to be," a second woman pointed out. "We have more freedom and creativity . . . no more regimented 'Iron Block' stuff."

Neither woman had noticed Kim's entry. She caught a glimpse of the pair; they couldn't have been much older than she was. They sounded like full time coaches, but they were most likely Kinesiology or Sports Rec majors from AGU interning with the gym or unable to find employment after graduation. She remembered a few assistants in that category during Olga's regime: young women who had competed at the high school and collegiate levels but who had no clue what the world of gymnastics was really like. But for Coach Schmidt, she might have been just like them.

"It's not that," the first one, a brunette, countered. "It's having to deal with the babies --the amateurs."

"The ones who are into gymnastics because they're the hot thing at the moment or because their mothers want them to learn coordination . . . ." her redheaded companion said.

". . . and the dance schools won't touch them. Like that clod Hunzinger. God, can you picture her in pink tights and a tutu? I think an elephant in toe shoes would be more graceful."

"Come on; we'd better get out there," the red head interjected, looking at her watch.

"I want to work with some serious athletes . . . girls with talent, who are going some place, not someone who can barely walk and talk at the same time," the brunette continued grousing.

"It's not so bad. What do you have your class on today?"

"Beam . . . oh Lord! I just realized . . . . If that kid starts blubbering when she can't even stand on the damn thing, so help me . . . ."

The girls left without ever noticing Kim. The whole episode left a bad taste in her mouth. If these were the sort of coaches she'd be working with . . . . She didn't know if she could handle them. Too much like Curtis, she reflected; she had butted heads with him often while at Coach Schmidt's facility. Technically, he was superb; however, he was more interested in riding an athlete's coattails to glory. He didn't know how to treat the young women like human beings instead of cartwheeling cogs in a machine, and he had no patience for those who couldn't grasp his instructions on the first run through.

Kim could understand their frustration --with the girls, with their situation-- but there was no need to be so cruel. She had known her fair share of difficulties with her athletes, but she never aired them in the locker room . . . the one place an athlete was sure to overhear . . . . As if on cue, Kim heard a stifled sob from one of the stalls. Shaking her head in anger at the callousness of the instructors and in pity for the girl, she walked over to the door and knocked on it lightly.

"You can come out now; they're gone," she said in her friendliest tone. She heard the girl sniffling and snuffling, trying to compose herself. Slowly, the door opened and out stepped a girl that Kim judged to be ten or so. She was a little on the hefty side, but that was mostly still "baby fat." She had a large frame, and if she shot up a couple of inches, she'd have carried her weight just fine. Her dusty blonde hair was cropped harshly; her freckled cheeks were blotchy, and her red-rimmed eyes were a sort of washed-out blue. Kim said nothing as she wet a paper towel and handed it to the youngster.

"Are you all right?" she queried kindly. The girl snuffled and nodded. Kim fished a Kleenex out of her purse. "What's your name?"

"Lucy H-hunzinger," she stammered, her gaze fixed firmly on her feet.

Kim had suspected as much. "I'm Kim. Would you like to sit down and talk about it?"

"What's to talk about? I always knew Katie laughed at me behind my back --like the other kids do-- I just never heard her before."

"Why does everyone laugh?"

"'Cause I'm fat and clumsy, and I can't do anything right."

"How old are you, Lucy?"


Kim did her best to hide her surprise; Lucy really was big for her age. She tried to think of the best way to approach the girl. However, she remembered how little comfort her mother's reassurances had given her at Lucy's age.

"Kid's never change," Kim sighed to herself. What would she say to Olivia in this situation? "Do all the kids laugh --even your friends? Your family?"


"I know it seems important to fit in with everyone else, but the truth is, you can't always do that no matter how much you may want to. You have to be strong enough to ignore everybody else and concentrate on those people who really matter: your family, your friends, and yourself."

"Easy for you to say," Lucy muttered bitterly. "I bet you were never teased."

"Let's see . . . midget, shrimp, string bean, klutz, air head, crybaby . . . . You want to be small and thin? I wanted to be tall and blonde," Kim confessed. "However, I figured out that wasn't going to happen, so I had two choices: I could be miserable or I could accept who I was and make the most of it. It was easier to be miserable but not much fun."

"How'd you do it --make the most of being short and stuff?" Lucy wondered.

"I learned to have confidence in myself."

Lucy's face fell. "I knew you were going to say that."

"Gaining confidence in yourself is the hardest thing in the world," Kim agreed. Regaining it after you lost it is even harder! What could she possibly say to this girl? "Does your family believe in you?"

"I guess so."

"What about your friends?"

"They say they do?"

"But you don't believe them, do you? Do you think they're lying to you? Why would they do that?"

"Because they don't want to hurt my feelings."

"Would they really let you do something stupid just to spare your feelings? You know, it's just possible that they see something in you that you can't; you have to look inside and see if you can find it for yourself."

Kim smiled encouragingly at Lucy, who looked up at her with such hope in her eyes as if she really wanted to believe her words. Kim was suddenly struck by how much Lucy reminded her of herself.

Listen to yourself, an inner voice chided. How can you sit here and tell this child to trust her family and friends when you refused to listen to yours? Your self-confidence was all but destroyed, and you shut out the people who believed in you. You refused to listen to them or trust them. You still don't believe that they can see anything good in you . . . .

I want to believe . . . . Kim protested, trying to convince herself. Then why couldn't she let herself trust Tommy? Why couldn't she look inside and see what it was that he saw in her? I'm afraid there's nothing to see.

Then how could she tell this girl that there was?

"Kim?" Lucy prompted. Kim gave herself a mental shake and pulled her attention back to the matter at hand.

"Others may see something in you, but all their beliefs won't do a bit of good if you don't believe in yourself," Kim continued, as much for Lucy's benefit as her own. "That's the hard part --learning to believe in yourself. It'll take a lot of work, but you can do it."

"I want to believe what they say . . . ." Lucy ventured hesitantly.

"But you won't believe it until you have proof," Kim finished for her. "So, I guess the thing we have to do here is prove to yourself that you can do it."

"Do what?"

"Well, how about crossing that balance beam? I'm sure if you looked deep inside, you could find the confidence you need to take that first small step," Kim said as she hopped up off the bench.

Ten minutes later, the door creaked open, and a girl with cocoa-colored skin and corn rowed hair popped her head in.

"Lucy, you'd better get your butt out here quick! It's almost your turn, and Katie isn't in a real good mood," she reported.

Lucy looked up at Kim in panic.

"Hey, you can do it. I know you can. You know you can. Just think of it as a walk in the park to your favorite song, and you'll be across that beam in no time. You'll see," Kim assured her.

"I'll try," Lucy gulped.

"That's all anyone can ask of you."

"Thanks, Kim."

"Anytime, hon."

Kim smiled as Lucy hurried out; she was really tempted to watch, but she had put off her reason for visiting the locker room long enough.

She emerged a short while later, and had apparently just missed Lucy's turn. Judging from the girl's beaming face and the high fives she was giving her friend, Kim figured she must have done all right.

So, do you think you can take your own advice? Can you look inside and see what Tommy sees in you? Can you take those first small steps towards what you want?

Kim sighed. It all came back to that: what did she want.

"Excuse me."

Kim turned to find a striking woman with deep brown eyes and hair and a wide smile approaching her.

"Ms. Hart? I'm Julia Martinelli. Darlene gave me your application; if you have a few moments, I'd like to discuss it with you."

" . . . again! And one . . . two . . . three . . . ."

Kim quietly opened the door and slipped into the dojo. She didn't want to disturb Tommy's class as she made her way to the office in the rear where she figured Olivia would be. However, she spotted her daughter in the back of Tommy's class dutifully working on getting the punches correct. Kim smiled at the intent expression on Olivia's face and decided to have a seat with the other parents waiting for their children. It wasn't long before Tommy called a break.

"Mommy!" Olivia cried, racing toward her at top speed.

"Hi, Sweetie," Kim said, meeting the embrace head on and smothering her daughter in a hug. "I'm sorry I missed being there after school."

"I know; it's okay. Did you find a job?"

About that time, Tommy wandered over.

"How'd it go?" he queried. "It was getting kind of late; I was getting worried. Did you have any luck?"

"Well, I didn't exactly get a job, but something good happened," she replied. "I'll explain it when you come up for dinner. Right now, I want to hear all about somebody's first day of school. Ready to come upstairs and help me make dinner?"


"No?" The statement both startled and hurt Kim. Olivia always wanted to do things with her.

"I wanna stay for the rest of class," Olivia announced. "I wanna learn karate. It's fun, and I'm doing real good. Can I stay? Please?"

Kim looked to Tommy, who shrugged.

"It's okay with me, if you have no objections. She's not in the way, and she's been working on the moves since my beginners class earlier. She's catching on very quickly."

"You don't have any homework, do you?" Kim asked helplessly. She couldn't ever remember having homework in Kindergarten, but it was always a possibility.

"No, but I made this really neat picture for you! It's in my backpack," Olivia reported.

"Well, if Tommy says it's okay, I suppose it's all right," Kim agreed, seeing Olivia's earnest desire shining in her eyes.

"Thanks, Mommy!"

"You be a good girl and remember that in class here, Tommy's your sensei --a teacher just like Mrs. Blackman."

"I will, Mommy; I promise."

"I guess I'll see you two at the dinner break," Kim said with a heavy sigh. She took her leave as Tommy called the class back to order.

". . . and Bobby spilled the paint all over and had to take a time out and the rest of us had to go outside while Mrs. Blackman's helper --I can't remember his name-- cleaned it up . . . ." Olivia jabbered. Her dinner was still untouched, but Kim didn't care. All that mattered were her daughter's shining eyes, bright cheeks, laughter and excited chatter. Kim couldn't really tell that the events had happened over three hours ago and that this was the second telling.

"She left that part out earlier," Tommy noted.

"I forgot for a while."

"It's sounds like you had a pretty big first day of school," Kim observed.

"I was scared at first, but then it wasn't so bad. I'm glad you sent me to Kindergarten. I can't wait to see Min again tomorrow!"

"So, when do we get to hear your news?" Tommy queried.

"Tell us about your new job!" Olivia chimed in.

"Like I said, I didn't find a job yet, just a possibility," Kim began, and she skimmed through the details of the afternoon all the way through her encounter with Lucy.

"So what happened in your meeting with Ms. Martinelli?" Tommy prompted.

"She told me that she really wasn't looking for another instructor because enrollments were down, but she asked if I'd be willing to help her out with a presentation."


"According to Julia, next week is Activities Week at Northside Elementary, and various organizations are doing demonstrations to show the kids what's out there for them --part of a program to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. I'd have thought that you'd be doing one --trying to get kids into martial arts."

"I am; only, there are several schools participating in the demonstrations. Ours is Monday."

"The gymnastics center is doing its demo next Wednesday, and Julia asked if I'd be willing to address the students."

"That's great, but why?"

"Remember I told you about meeting Maggie and Kelly at Sears the other day? I think it has something to do with that --the fact that I'm apparently still well known in Angel Grove gymnastics. Julia seems to think that it might help generate some interest in the sport again if the kids could hear from someone who had had a shot at something as big as the Pan Globals."

"Are you going to do it?"

"I told her I'd think about it."

"I think you should," Tommy commented. "You were always so good with the girls at the Youth Center, and you were always real enthusiastic about the sport. Anyone could tell that you loved it."

"You know, I think I will," Kim decided. "I keep thinking about Lucy's face this afternoon when she finally got across that beam. She was so excited . . . so proud of herself, and I felt so good inside knowing that I had helped her if only a little bit."

"Maybe by talking to these kids, you can help others out, too."

"Maybe," Kim echoed, smiling. "I'm going to call Julia right now . . . ." As she hurried to the phone, her words to Lucy came back to her: "You'll never know until you take that first small step . . . ."

"Nothing," Kim murmured as she checked the mailbox; the nice thing about an empty mailbox was that there were no bills. She had enough of them as it was. As she headed upstairs, she thought over the things she had to do that afternoon: laundry, take something out of the freezer for dinner, pick Olivia up from school . . . .

Upon entering the apartment, she realized that the shower was running. What's Tommy doing home? He's never home when I get back from taking Olivia to school, she mused. Then she recalled that he had the demo at Northside that afternoon; he had gone down to the studio before she had left so he could take care of some paperwork. He had also said something about working out.

It suddenly struck Kim that this was the first time that she and Tommy had ever been truly alone in his apartment. If they were by themselves it was usually because Olivia was in bed. The thought made her a little nervous. She had never really been alone with a guy since it happened. She had always been careful not to find herself in that situation, but now . . . .

Get a hold of yourself! You're being ridiculous. Tommy probably figured you'd head straight for the laundromat. He wouldn't do anything . . . he's always such a gentleman. Nothing is going to happen, Kim assured herself as she made her way to the kitchen to get herself something to drink; however, she paused as she opened the refrigerator. I wonder if he uses his bathrobe when I'm not around.

Almost as soon as she completed the thought, she felt herself blushing. What was the matter with her! That was none of her business. Although it had been weeks ago, she hadn't been able to rid her mind of the image of Tommy in nothing but a towel on that first morning. The whole thing was very unsettling but not because she found Tommy barely dressed distressing. Rather, she was intrigued and . . . well, kind of excited by it. That's what she found most disturbing. She hadn't thought of a guy like that in ages --she couldn't let herself think of a guy as a man. The only way she had been able to function around the men at the gym after the rape was to think of them in terms of family: father-figures, uncles, cousins . . . men who were safe. She even tried to do that with Tommy by calling him her brother in the letter she had sent.

It surprised her that she could still think of a man like that, but then, Tommy had always been able to affect her in ways no one else could. In a lot of ways, she was pleased to discover that she still found him attractive, but it also frightened and saddened her. What was the point? Tommy couldn't possibly see her as anything other than a friend, and resurrecting old dreams and desires would only make her miserable in the long run.

Sighing, Kim took her drink over to the kitchen table and sat down. She discovered that Tommy had brought the mail up already. She glanced through the envelopes.

Tommy's . . . Tommy's . . . mine . . . .

Once they were sorted, she found she had three bills and a letter from Florida. Curious, she tore it open; it was from Sarah, one of the older gymnasts --asking after her and Olivia, telling her how everyone was doing . . . . Kim felt her eyes growing moist. She hadn't realized that anyone other than Coach would miss her. She always rather liked Sarah.

As she started opening the bills, Kim noticed that she had knocked something on the floor. Picking it up, she saw that it was a letter Tommy had opened and halfway tucked back into the envelope. The first couple of lines caught her eye:

Dearest Tommy,

By the time you receive this, the ballet company will have opened the
new season. I'm really looking forward to this year; we'll be traveling
to Moscow and quite possibly America . . . .

Kim immediately knew who it was from: Kat. She hadn't realized that Kat and Tommy were writing to each other; Aisha and Tanya had said that their relationship hadn't lasted, that they'd broken up when Kat had left for London. Kim set the letter down. She didn't want to pry; however, there was something else sticking out of the envelope: a photograph. Numbly, Kim pulled it out. The back read: Me, Michael and Jamie at Kensington Gardens. Turning it over, Kim's heart sank. She had always thought that Kat had been pretty; now she was absolutely stunning. She had lost weight, changed her make-up and hair . . . . Kim hardly recognized her; if it hadn't been for the jewel-like blue eyes and the smile . . . .

She's really beautiful!

It wasn't difficult to picture her flowing across the stage with ethereal grace . . . poise . . . sophistication . . . . In Kat's eyes Kim saw the spark of laughter and happiness of a carefree young woman, not the haunted, shadowed pools that looked back at her in the mirror every morning.

Kim put the picture back where she had found it. If Kat and Tommy broke up, why is she sending him letters addressed to "Dearest Tommy?" It was none of her business if Tommy and Kat were merely pen pals or still romantically involved; however, she couldn't help but feel envious of Kat. She had a life Kim once dreamed of having. As for Tommy, why shouldn't he have a girlfriend who was pretty, smart, and unburdened with the responsibility of a child --one whose soul wasn't scarred, someone who wasn't afraid of her own shadow . . . .

"Kim!" Tommy yelped, and Kim looked up to find him standing in the kitchen doorway wearing nothing but his bath towel. He ran his hand up through his wet hair, and Kim tried not to stare as the water trickled down the well-defined muscles of his chest. For a moment, neither said a word, and Kim could feel the fierce blush that scorched her cheeks.

"Sorry, but my robe's in the wash . . . from the mess at breakfast yesterday," Tommy murmured.

"Oh." He'd been drenched when Olivia sent the container of orange juice skittering across the table. Suddenly, Kim felt a flash of anger at herself. Tommy didn't need to apologize to her; after all, this was his apartment! He shouldn't have to make excuses to her.

"I was just getting another cup of coffee," he continued.

Get a grip, girl! Tommy probably feels awkward enough as it is; stop staring and say something!

"Um . . . nice towel," she ventured timidly, and she wanted to smack herself for saying something so lame.

Tommy cocked a curious eyebrow at her; she shrugged and offered him a shy grin, still blushing. She wished he'd say something; his silence was unnerving.

"Do you think so?" he queried in a familiar teasing tone.

"You wear it well," she responded, trying to be as noncommittal as possible, but she couldn't help it that the corners of her mouth curved into a smile.

Tommy's eyes twinkled with mischief as he fully entered the kitchen. He strutted back and forth for all the world like a runway model. "Think I should give up karate and get into modeling bathwear?"

That provoked a giggle. "I wouldn't give up your day job just yet," she teased, and he favored her with a mock pout. The playful banter had come so easily to them; for a moment, it had seemed like old times. However, Tommy's next words brought reality surging back.

"Did you see the mail?" he asked as he reached for the coffeepot.

"Uh huh." Thinking of Kat's letter robbed Kim of her momentary good feeling.

"There's a letter from Kat you might like to see," he said.

"Oh?" She hoped she sounded nonchalant. "I didn't realize Kat kept in touch with anyone other than Tanya."

"I get letters every now and then," Tommy answered off-handedly. He gave her a lopsided grin. "I'm still not a very good correspondent. She says the ballet company will be in the States this season. She hasn't been back here since she left." Tommy leaned over Kim's shoulder, reaching for the letter. Kim drew in a sharp breath as her senses swam with his sudden nearness and the scent of his aftershave.

"She sent a picture," Tommy went on, heedless of Kim's reaction, as he pulled out the photo. "The other girl is Jamie, Kat's roommate, and Michael is Jamie's brother."

"Kat sure has changed," Kim murmured diffidently.

"Yeah, she sure has," was Tommy's distant answer, and Kim wondered at his tone.

"What's wrong?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. Sometimes I wonder . . . ah, it's nothing."

" . . . what it would be like if you hadn't broken up with Kat?" Kim asked before she even thought of what she was saying. She braced herself for the words she knew would destroy what was left of her soul.

"How can you break up with someone you were never really with?" Tommy posited.

Kim tried not to look as astonished as she felt. "I-I don't understand," she stammered.

"I just didn't feel for Kat what she felt for me," he confessed. "It took me a while to admit it to myself --and even longer to tell her. I didn't want to hurt her; fortunately, she understood." Tommy gestured to the letter. "It looks like letting Kat go was the best thing I could have done for her. What I was wondering was why she still writes."

"Because she's your friend," Kim answered, gently touching his arm; there was a hint of sadness in his voice.

"Yeah, but we don't have much in common anymore. She's gone to college . . . traveled the world . . . and what have I done?"

"You've driven a race car all over the country. You've opened your own karate school," Kim pointed out.

"Do you realize that of all us former Rangers, you and I are the only ones who haven't gone to college? Even Rocky has taken classes at AGU part time. Jason wanted to open his own school, but his folks wanted him to go to college so badly . . . . Now, he's in the Navy to help pay for school. Adam and Tanya, Zack, Trini . . . we've all grown apart . . . ."

"I never realized . . . ." Kim began.

"Realized what?"

"That you're so dissatisfied. You just seemed so happy with what you're doing."

Tommy considered her words. "I am happy; I'm doing something I've always wanted to do, and I love working with the kids . . . ."

"Then I don't understand what's wrong."

"I guess I just didn't want things to change between us. You --all of you guys-- were the best thing to ever happen to me. You guys are like family . . . ."

"Tommy, just because our lives have changed and we've gone our separate ways doesn't mean we're not friends. We're still family. We'll always be there for each other . . . ." Then, Kim realized what she just said. She felt her throat close up.

"You're right," Tommy responded quietly. Kim's eyes flickered to his face and caught his gentle, knowing smile. "I guess sometimes we get so wrapped up in things that we forget that." There was no reprisal in his tone, only a soft reminder.

"Can I ask you something?" Kim queried suddenly.


"When we were younger, what did you always wish for? What did you want out of life?"

Tommy gave her question serious consideration. "I always thought I wanted to go to college. I certainly never dreamed I'd pull a stint as a professional race car driver!" he admitted with a laugh. Then, his demeanor sobered. "I wanted my own martial arts school, and I always figured I'd get married and have a family I could really call my own."

His words brought to mind the time he had told her about being adopted. He had talked about how he never really felt like he belonged, not so much with his folks --they couldn't have loved him more if they had been his biological parents-- but with the other relatives. There was just no connection, nothing he could really cling to. And she had told him about her parents' divorce; in a lot of ways they had both felt as if they'd been cast adrift.

"Do you still want those things now?" she asked.

"Well, I have the school, and I found a brother I never knew I had. I can always go to college later if I still want to. As far as the rest, yeah, I'd still like to get married and have a family. What about you? You always wanted to be a teacher, didn't you?"

"Yes . . . ."

"And you'd once said you wanted marriage and a family, too. Do you still want those things for yourself?"

"I think so," she confessed reluctantly.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know. It's just that . . . I kind of doubt that stuff will ever happen."

"Why? It's no big deal to wait a few years before starting college . . . ."

"Yeah, but . . . ."

"And I'm sure you'd have no problem finding . . . ."

Kim cut him off with a harsh chuckle. In a moment of rare openness and honesty, she said, "I doubt any man would want me."

"Why not?" Tommy asked as if he found the idea absurd.

"Well, just look at me! My life's a mess. I'm a total wreck . . . ."

"I don't think so," Tommy said quietly. "I think you're every bit as beautiful as when we were in school together."

"Yeah, right," Kim grumbled. She glanced at the picture of Kat and fought to hold back her tears. She couldn't look at Tommy. However, he knelt beside her and tilted her chin up.

"Kim, you don't need to be tall and blonde to be beautiful," Tommy said with soft sincerity. "You were always beautiful to me and not just because you had a great body and a pretty face. What made you so attractive was that spark inside you --the joy you took in everything you did, in simply being alive-- and you shared that joy with everyone. That's what drew me to you as much as anything else about you: the warmth of your welcoming smile. It chased away the cold fear and uncertainty of being the new kid at school.

"You may not believe it, but what happened to you didn't completely destroy the joy and warmth within you. It's still there; I've seen it when you're with Olivia. The way your eyes shine with love, pride and happiness when you look at her . . . that's how they used to shine, and they will again someday."

Kim desperately wanted to believe his words. "Sometimes," she began softly, "I wish things could be the way they used to be. I think I'd give just about anything to go back and tell Coach Schmidt 'no' like I nearly did, but then I think of Olivia, and I realize that if I did change the past it would mean losing her. Oh Tommy, as much as I think I want to undo everything, I know I wouldn't because I can't bear to picture life without my daughter!"

"You don't have to. You can't change the past, but you can still have all the things you had before and have Olivia, too. It's just going to take time, patience and perseverance. You've already made a start by not hiding behind the walls of the training center and coming home and by letting a friend back into your life to help. Just don't give up trying, and you'll do it. I know it!"

Kim felt a tear slip down her cheek. Tommy was saying almost the same thing as she had said to Lucy. "You really believe I can?" she ventured.

"Yes. You were always the most determined person I had ever known. When you set your mind on doing something, you went after it and didn't let anything stop you. That's something else the rape didn't take from you. You could have given up and crawled inside yourself and never come out again, but you didn't. As bad as things got for you, you were determined to hang in there for your daughter and for yourself. Kim, once you find your strength and courage again, you'll get back all those things you ever wanted for yourself: a career, a husband and family . . . ."

A life with you, she almost said, but in spite of Tommy's pep talk, she knew she couldn't tell him that. It was hard enough to admit to herself that that was something she still wanted. Instead, she said, "For now, though, I think I'd settle for having my old family back."

"You really miss your mom, huh," Tommy noted, and Kim nodded.

"I wish she could see Olivia; I think she'd be so proud of her."

"I know she would be. Maybe enough time has passed for the old hurt and anger to have faded."

"Maybe, but I'm afraid that if I try to reach out to her, she'll push me away again."

"Kim, if this is something you really want, you're going to have to take the risk and try. You and your mom will get back together one of these days; just don't give up hope."

"I won't. I thought I had lost that once, but I seem to have found it again."

"That's my girl," Tommy said, and Kim managed a brave smile as he gave her shoulder a light squeeze. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I need to stop making puddles on the kitchen floor and finish getting dressed."

Kim watched as he exited the kitchen, grateful for his words of encouragement. And as she watched him, she allowed herself another moment of self-honesty. He really does look good in that towel.

"Tommy, how come you're picking me up?" Olivia queried as Tommy arrived at her classroom. She dashed forward and tackled him about the knees in an enthusiastic hug. "Where's Mommy?"

"Your mom is giving a presentation today, remember?" Tommy replied, trying to keep from being knocked over. Olivia was a regular little powerhouse when excited.

"Oh, yeah." Olivia put her hand in his and practically dragged him out of the room and down the hallway. "Does this mean I get to practice karate with your class today?"

"We'll see. I'm supposed to do some belt tests today," he answered.

"Min was telling me that when she gets stronger, she's going to take karate. Do you think she'll got to your school?"

"It's possible."

"I hope so! I'd like to take karate with her. She's my best friend," Olivia bubbled. She came to an abrupt halt in front of a floor-to-ceiling bulletin board. "See, there's my picture!" she noted proudly, pointing to a scene of a trio of stick people in the midst of a riot of green swirls. All had long brown hair, but two were in skirts. Tommy felt a grin twitching at the corners of his mouth. "That's you, me, and Mommy in the park. I even spelled my own name --just like Mommy taught me."

"That's wonderful, Princess. Has your mommy seen this yet?"

"No, we just drawed them today."

"We'd better get a move on," Tommy informed Olivia as he scooped her up and deposited her on his shoulders --much to her delight. "You know how crabby Kurt gets when I'm late."

"Do you think I could take karate classes with you all the time?" Olivia wondered.

"That's up to your mom. Would you like to?"

"It'd be neat!"

Tommy already knew he'd enjoy having Olivia in class. She was the sort of student he loved teaching: bright, willing to learn and willing to work hard.

As the two made their way down the hallway, they passed by the gymnasium, which was unusually full for after school hours, and not just with kids. There was a surprising number of parents in attendance.

"So that's where everybody went," Olivia said. "What are they doing there? Mrs. Blackman asked me if I was supposed to go to the gym or stay in the classroom."

Tommy paused in the doorway and peeked in, noting the mats on the floor around the podium and a low practice beam. At the moment, no one was at the microphone, but several girls and a couple of boys were doing their warm up stretches. Tommy didn't see any sign of Kim, but he noticed a dark haired woman talking with Mr. Carter, the school principal.

"Is this Mommy's pre-sen-tation?" Olivia queried.

"Looks like it."

Just then, Mr. Carter approached the microphone to get the demonstration underway. "Today for Activities Week, we'll get a closer look at the sport of gymnastics. Here to show you what it's all about is Julia Martinelli and her students from the Angel Grove Gymnastics Center." Polite applause followed.

"I don't see Mommy," Olivia pouted.

"Sh, Princess. She's here somewhere; maybe she's in the locker room," Tommy hypothesized.

"Oh, look! There's Mrs. Maggie!" Olivia chirped. Sure enough, Tommy followed the line of Olivia's arm and spotted Maggie sitting on the very end of the first row of bleachers. For some reason, Olivia had trouble remembering Donovan, so she improvised on Maggie's name. Without really thinking, he wandered over to where she was sitting.

"Hi, Mrs. Maggie," Olivia said softly.

"Oh, hello Olivia, Tom," she greeted. "I'd ask what you two were doing here, but it's pretty obvious."

"I was about to ask you the same thing," Tommy commented. His eyes strayed to the center of the gym where the dark-haired woman had taken over center stage.

"I had to take off early to bring Kelly out here; she's one of the girls Julia asked to help out," Maggie explained.

"My Mommy's gonna help, too," Olivia announced proudly.

"I know, Sweetheart," Maggie replied. She smiled wryly at Tommy. "It was all Kelly could talk about for the last week!"

"I can imagine." Kim had told him about Kelly's case of near-hero worship. "I hope Kim won't be too nervous." She had been a veritable basketcase all morning.

"I see Mommy, Tommy!" Olivia declared.

Tommy looked up to see Kim standing in the doorway of the locker room. She was wearing the Team USA warm-ups she had worn when she'd been on the sidelines with the girls at the Pan Globals. She seemed perfectly composed; only one who knew her well could tell that she was nervous.

". . . now, I'd like to introduce our special guest . . . ." Julia continued, and Kim stepped out of the shadows. Tommy found himself wishing he could have given her a hug for luck before she went out. ". . . Kimberly Hart!" A rousing round of applause filled the room as Kim took the microphone.

"Thank you," she began. "It's nice to be back in Angel Grove, and it's nice to be here today. Why don't we start with some common misconceptions about gymnastics. How many of you think gymnastics are just for girls?"

Tommy surveyed the sea of hands that went up.

"Gymnastics are for anyone: girls, guys . . . they do have a men's gymnastics team in the Olympics, you know. How many of you guys think the guys who do gymnastics are sissies?" A ripple of laughter floated through the crowd. "Don't ever let them hear you say that! The outfits may look a little silly, but these guys are serious athletes and tremendously strong. I've seen male gymnasts with bigger biceps than some baseball or basketball players. "How many of you think only cheerleaders can do gymnastics?"

There were more hands up for that question than Kim's first one.

"Wrong again. Lots of people can do gymnastics who aren't cheerleaders. Other athletes like martial artists use them. My friend Rocky can do a full split that'd make any female gymnast jealous . . . ."

Tommy felt himself resisting the urge to cross his legs. He never could figure out how Rocky could do that; it hurt just thinking about it!

". . . and my friend Billy --he wasn't an athlete. He was a brain --a genius in fact. He took gymnastics when he was little to help with his coordination, and he could do some pretty amazing flips and handsprings into his Senior year in high school."

Tommy had always wondered how much of Billy's abilities had been his and how much had been from the power coins. He had had some pretty awesome moves even after he had given up being an active Ranger. Tommy could also see that talking about Rocky and Billy --her friends-- was helping Kim relax. She was really warming up to the crowd.

". . . and gymnastics aren't necessarily about doing a pike in a layout position with a half twist or whatever. They can be as simple as doing a somersault properly . . . ."

Tommy felt himself smiling with pride for Kim; she was doing so well. He hoped she'd be taking part in the demonstration and not just addressing the audience.

"Tom," Maggie prompted.

"Yeah?" he queried absently, his attention focused on Kim.

"I realize Kim is an engaging speaker, but don't you have a class to get to?"

"Huh? Oh . . . um . . . yeah, I do." Embarrassed by Maggie's knowing grin without even really knowing why, Tommy tried to cover by glancing at his watch. "Oh man!" he groaned; he was going to be really late. "Come on, Olivia. We'd better get going. We'll see you later, Maggie." He cast a final look out at the center of the floor.

"Don't worry, Tommy; Mommy will tell us all about it when she gets home," Olivia consoled him as she trotted along after him.

Tommy was starting to get worried. The demonstration was supposed to have been over at four o'clock; allowing for questions afterwards, tearing down and even helping return the equipment to the gymnastics center, she should have been home about 5:30 at the latest. It was after six, and he wasn't the only one getting concerned. Olivia was starting to get fussy.

"I'm hungry, Tommy," Olivia complained during the break.

"I know, but I don't think we have any leftovers for dinner. How about I order us a pizza?"

"I want Mommy, Tommy; where is she?"

"She probably had a lot of things to take care of after the demonstration."

"We've been doing karate for a long time; I'm tired. Can I sit down for a while?"

She'd been working right along with every class since they got to the studio. "Of course, Princess."

Class resumed, but Tommy couldn't keep his mind on what he was doing. He was just beginning to think he was going to have to get in his truck and go looking for Kim when he heard Olivia's joyful cry of, "Mommy!" He nodded for Kurt to take over.

"Hey, guys!" Kim said brightly.

"Where have you been?" Olivia demanded.

"We were starting to get worried," Tommy added.

"I'm sorry. A lot of things happened this afternoon. I saw you guys in the gym for a little while; what did you think?"

"You were doing great when we left," Tommy said.

"The whole thing was fantastic! We even had volunteers from the audience come out and try a few things . . . . It was a lot of fun," Kim gushed.

"What was the hold up? Autograph seekers?" he teased.

"Some, but mostly parents wanting to talk to me and to Julia."

Tommy could tell by her ear-to-ear grin that something momentous had happened. "So, what did they have to say?" Whatever it was, she was wanting to relate it in her own way; he didn't want to spoil anything, so he did his best to be patient.

"Mainly that they were impressed. A lot of them asked if I was going to be teaching at the gymnastics center."

"What did Julia have to say about that?"

"Well, we talked afterwards, and . . . oh, Tommy! The day I get my license is the day I start my job!"

"All right!" Tommy cheered, and he threw his arms around her in a congratulatory hug --a move that took them both by surprise. There was an awkward moment when he released her, but it passed quickly. "That's wonderful, Kim!"

"I can't believe it," Kim murmured, her face aglow; she could hardly keep still. "I finally have a full-time job doing something I love."

"See, what did I tell you? I knew you could do it," Tommy said quietly, thrilling in the fact that she was so genuinely happy. It did him a world of good to see that smile --to know that she still could.

"I knew it, too, Mommy," Olivia piped up.

"Thank you both for believing in me," Kim added shyly, and Tommy had to resist the urge to pull her into his arms again.

"Now that you have a job, Mommy, can we go get something to eat?" Olivia insisted, to the merriment of both adults.

"Okay, Princess, what story would you like tonight?" Tommy queried as Olivia finished brushing her teeth. He was putting Olivia to bed because it was Kim's first day at work, and she wouldn't be home until 8:30 or 9:00. Fortunately it coincided with his night off from teaching. They were going to have to sit down and work something out; most likely a babysitter was going to be needed.

"I don't want a story; I want my mommy," Olivia muttered as Tommy tucked her into her bed.

Tommy smiled sympathetically. He knew it had to be hard on Olivia that Kim wasn't there to see her to bed like usual. A lot of things would be changing with Kim's new job, and it would take Olivia awhile to adjust. However, he felt there was more to Olivia's present mood than that. She had been unusually subdued all afternoon --ever since he had picked her up from school.

"What's wrong, Olivia?" Tommy queried as he sat down on the edge of the trundle bed.

"I don't want to tell you," she replied glumly. Tommy had already figured out the significance of that phrase.

"What happened at school today?" he probed further. When Olivia tried to turn her back on him, Tommy plucked her out from under the covers and sat her on his lap. "Something bad happened, didn't it?"

Olivia looked up at him as if amazed that he had figured it out, but she didn't answer.

"Won't you tell me? You know, sometimes it helps makes things better to tell someone else --your mom, me, a friend . . . ."

"Did Mommy used to talk to you when bad things happened?" Olivia wondered.

"Yes, when were in school together, we used to tell each other things all the time. I went through some pretty bad things back then, and your mom helped me get through them."

"How come she didn't tell no one when the things that made her have The Dream happened?"

Her query shook Tommy, making him wonder just how much Olivia knew of what happened to Kim.

"I don't know, Princess. I only know that I wish she would have continued to trust me, and then maybe she wouldn't have had The Dream so much," Tommy sighed.

"Did she tell you about it after she had it last?"

"She did."

"I guess you must have made her feel better or something because she hasn't had it again. She always used to have it lots of times before it went away," Olivia remarked thoughtfully. "Can you make me feel better, too?"

"I don't know, but I'll try."

"Well . . . okay. We were talking about Mommies and Daddies in class today. All the kids were telling about theirs . . . did you know that some kids have Mommies and Daddies that don't live together, and they see them only sometimes?"

"Your mom's parents were like that," Tommy replied.


"Uh huh."

"Wow." Olivia paused to digest that bit of information. "When it was my turn, I told them all about Mommy; then Mrs. Blackman asked me about my daddy. I was scared at first 'cause everyone else had said something about their daddies, but Mommy always told me to tell the truth, so I told Mrs. Blackman that I didn't know who my daddy was." She hung her head, trying to hide her tears. "I was the only one who didn't have a daddy! Then Robby started teasing me . . . why don't I know who my daddy is?" she asked plaintively.

Tommy hugged Olivia tighter as he struggled to think of what to tell her. Although, he knew something of what she was feeling. He recalled his own words to his parents the day he learned that he'd been adopted: Who are my mom and dad? Why aren't I with them? Why did they send me away? It was little comfort knowing that his parents had died and he'd been sent to an orphanage; for a long time he wondered what his biological parents had been like. He'd probably still be wondering if he hadn't met David.

"Can I tell you a secret?" Tommy asked. Olivia sniffled and nodded her head. "I don't know who my real mom and dad are either."

"Yes, you do --Nanna Jan and Grandpa Tom . . . ."

"Have you ever heard the word 'adopted?'"


"It means that someone takes a child into his family to raise him as if he was his own child," Tommy began, trying to remember how his folks had explained it to him. "I was adopted by Nanna Jan and Grandpa Tom because my real mom and dad had died when I was a baby. I never knew who they were and neither did Nanna Jan and Grandpa Tom. I needed a new mom and dad, and they wanted a son, so they adopted me and made me their son. For a long, long time --just like you-- I never knew who my real parents were, and I always wondered."

"You did?"

"Yes. It's a very lonely and scary feeling. It makes you feel different from the other kids." Olivia nodded vigorously. "What you have to remember is maybe you don't know your daddy, but you have your mommy . . . just like I have Nanna Jan and Grandpa Tom, and your mommy loves you. That's the important thing, and now you have me and Nanna Jan and Grandpa Tom, too. We all love you and think you're very special, and it doesn't matter to us that you don't know who your daddy is." Privately, Tommy hoped she'd never find out what sort of man her father really was. "So, don't you let anything the kids at school say hurt you."

"But Robby said that he bet Mommy knew who my daddy was! He said that Mommy was 'shamed to tell me about my daddy and that my daddy was a bad man or something . . . ."

"Robby . . . isn't he the one who was picking on Min on the first day of school because of her leg braces?" Tommy interjected quickly, wanting to steer Olivia clear of Robby's speculations; they hit too close to home for Tommy's liking.

"Yes. He's so dumb!" Olivia asserted with an indignant snort.

"Then why listen to him?" Olivia seemed to give his recommendation serious consideration, and Tommy silently let out a sigh of relief.

"Thank you, Tommy," Olivia said at last, giving him a hug.

"Any time, Princess."

"Tommy, does Mommy know you're 'dopted?"

"I told her a long time ago."

"Good, 'cause I was afraid I might tell her on accident, and I didn't want you to be mad."

"I don't mind if you tell your mom about the things we talk about." Tommy shifted Olivia off his lap and tucked her back into bed. "Now, you'd better get to sleep. It's way past your bed time, and I don't want your mom to be mad at me for letting you stay up late."

"Okay," Olivia agreed with a yawn. "Do you know what?"


"Min's mommy dropped her off at school today, and guess what! She has a really big, round tummy. Min told me that's because she has a baby inside her; Min's going to be a big sister!"

"That's nice."

"Mrs. Ya-shi . . . oh, I forget all the parts! Min told me to put my hand on her mommy's tummy, and I felt something bump my hand! Min's mommy said that it was the baby kicking inside her!"

Tommy said nothing but smiled at the wonder that filled Olivia's expression.

"Do babies really grown inside the mommy?" Olivia queried. "Min said that mommies and daddies make the baby together and put them inside the mommy until it gets big enough to come out. Did I grow inside my mommy's tummy?"

Mom, is this your way of getting back at me for all the awkward questions I asked you as a kid? Tommy silently queried. He was amazed at Olivia's grasp of the concept. While he couldn't remember how old he was when he learned where babies came from, he was fairly certain it hadn't been in Kindergarten. This was something Kim should be handling, but Olivia was looking at him expectantly.

"Yes, Princess, that's what happens, and you grew inside your mom just like Min's little brother or sister is growing inside her mom."

"But if a daddy has to help, then how come Mommy doesn't know mine?"

Kim, where are you when I need you? Tommy pleaded silently. However, Olivia gave Tommy a moment's reprieve by proceeding to her next query.

"How come you always answer my questions?"

"Why shouldn't I?"

"Mommy always says I'm too little to know and that she'll tell me when I'm a little older."

"Nanna Jan always said that if I was old enough to ask the question, then I was old enough to hear the answer." A philosophy that often put his parents in awkward positions, but they never shied away from answering him.

"Can I ask you something else? What does 'raped' mean?"

Tommy was thunderstruck --too astonished to speak for a moment. When he found his voice again, he fumbled helplessly, "Where did you hear that word?"

"At the gym in Florida. Some of the girls were talking and said that Mommy was raped. When I asked Mommy, she wouldn't say, but her face got white and she looked like she wanted to cry. It scared me, Tommy. It's something bad, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. Very bad," Tommy agreed.

"And it happened to Mommy? Is that what gave her The Dream?"


"What is it, Tommy?"

"Olivia, I really think that . . . ."

"Please, Tommy . . . ." Olivia pleaded, on the verge of frightened tears.

Looking into the girl's eyes decided Tommy. It would be cruel to leave her with partial knowledge and vague fears. He took a deep breath. "You know how Min said mommies and daddies do things to make babies? Well, raped is when someone does that same thing to you when you don't want him to."

"D-does it hurt?" Olivia asked in the barest whisper, her eyes wide.

"Being raped hurts very much."

"Tommy, is that what my daddy did to my mommy? Did he hurt her and put a baby inside her when she didn't want him to?"

Tommy didn't want to answer. He couldn't. However, he couldn't keep the knowledge from showing in his guilty expression.

"He did! Robby was right! My daddy is a bad man!" Olivia sobbed, bursting into hysterical tears.

Now what? Tommy moaned silently as he scooped the tot into his arms once again. He was not handling this well at all; instead of helping Olivia, he had only managed to make a bigger mess of things.

"I don't want my daddy to be a bad man!"

What could he possibly say to make things better? Haven't you said enough? He should have left well enough alone, but he couldn't just abandon Olivia to the bitter truth --he couldn't leave her without some glimmer of hope.

"Yes, your daddy did a bad thing," Tommy began carefully, "but just because he did a bad thing one time doesn't necessarily mean he was a bad man. Maybe he had no choice."

"Huh?" Olivia sniffled.

Tommy took a deep breath. How to convince her of something he didn't believe himself? Then, he had an idea. "Olivia, do you think I'm a bad man?"


"Even though I did some bad things a long time ago --including hurting your mom?"

"You hurt my mommy?" Olivia gasped, incredulous.

Tommy nodded; he never thought he'd ever be thankful for his experience as the evil Green Ranger. "I didn't want to, Princess, but someone did bad things to me that made me hurt your mom and all my best friends."

"How could anyone make you do that?"

"Has your mom ever told you about Rita Repulsa and the original Power Rangers?"

"Uh huh. I always liked the Pink Ranger!"

"I always liked her, too," Tommy agreed, smiling secretively. "I don't know why, but for some reason, Rita decided to put a spell on me, and it made me do all sorts of bad things. When the spell was broken, I was very, very sorry for all those things that I did. Your mom and my friends stood by me and forgave me once they found out why I did all those things.

"The thing with your daddy is that we don't know anything about him. We don't know why he did the bad thing he did. Maybe he was just a good person who had been forced to do a bad thing like I was, and maybe, like me, he's very sorry for what he did."

"Then maybe my daddy is really a nice person --just like you," Olivia said hopefully.

Tommy felt like such a hypocrite. Here he was building up Olivia's confidence in her father while he was thinking that had he still been the evil Green Ranger, he'd have found a fitting torture for Olivia's dad for what he did to Kim. "My Grandma Sarah always said that the only things that could come from bad things were bad things, so maybe your daddy isn't really bad because you're a very good girl," he replied.

"Thank you, Tommy," Olivia murmured, gratefully hugging him.

"Any time, Princess. Now, you need to get to sleep; after all, you have school tomorrow."

"Will Mommy come in when she gets home?"

"Of course. I'll make sure she does."

As Tommy tucked her in and kissed her on the forehead, Olivia sleepily asked, "Tommy, can I tell you a secret?"

"Sure, hon. What is it?"

"You won't tell Mommy?"

"Not unless you say I can."

"I wish you were my daddy," she whispered in his ear.

Tommy had no response to that; he was surprised to find that he was having a hard time keeping his emotions under control. He settled for continuing to stroke Olivia's hair as her eyelids got heavier and heavier. So do I, Princess, so do I.

Finally, Olivia surrendered to sleep, and Tommy left her side. As he turned toward the door, he spied Kim. He couldn't read the expression on her face; was she angry with him for discussing her ordeal with her daughter? "How long . . . ?" he began, a blush stinging his cheeks.

"Since Olivia asked her question," Kim replied neutrally.

"I'm sorry, Kim," he apologized awkwardly. "I didn't mean to overstep my bounds, but she was so upset that I couldn't just put her off . . . ."

"I know. Part of me is a little upset, but mostly I'm relieved," she confessed. "She's asked me before . . . . I've never been able to tell her; I've never known how . . . ." She shrugged helplessly. "You handled that really well. Thank you."

Tommy breathed a sigh of relief in the silence that followed.

"That last part --about her dad . . . ." Kim fumbled uncertainly, ". . . it was almost enough to make me want to believe . . . ."

"I didn't know what else to . . . would it hurt to let her have her illusions?" Tommy asked, still trying to justify the explanation to himself. "I suppose it could be possible; I mean, you believed in me when I'd given you no reason to."

"I had a reason," Kim said quietly. "The first time I met you . . . the first time I really looked into your eyes, I knew that you were a good man."

Tommy's eyes widened at Kim's confession, but he tried to keep his expression neutral. Something about her demeanor struck him as being very vulnerable --almost like she was trying to reach out to him. He didn't want to do anything to frighten her off.

"I-I need to check on Olivia," she mumbled suddenly. "After all, you promised her . . . ."

"Sure, Kim. When you're done, would you feel up to some cocoa and telling me how your first day of work went?"


"Sorry I'm late," Tommy said, slightly out of breath as he slid into the booth. He had to practically shout to be heard over the din of screaming children and clanging machines. They had taken Olivia out to Discovery Zone for her birthday.

"Now, where have I heard that before?" Kim teased with a grin.

"Hey!" Tommy protested in his defense. "I've gotten better about that. This time, it wasn't my fault."

"Did you get the cake?"

"That's why it wasn't my fault. The cake wasn't ready."

"Not ready . . . ? Tommy, how could it not be ready? What are we going to . . . ?"

"All taken care of," Tommy assured her. "Mom got off work late, so my folks hadn't left yet. They'll pick up the cake on their way over."

"Did you remember to leave them your key?"

"Mom has a spare. Will you relax? Everything's going to be just fine; this'll be a birthday Olivia remembers for a long, long time."

"I hope so. I've never been able to do much for her before."

Tommy recalled Olivia's comment about McDonald's and birthdays and smiled sympathetically.

"I guess I'm as excited about all this as she is," Kim confessed with a sheepish grin. The grin faded into a frown. "Do you think we should have invited some of the kids in her class?"

"We went over that. Olivia really doesn't know most of her classmates yet, and as for Min, I don't think she'd have been able to play in the tubes and things. This year is just for family; we have to save something for next year." It was only after Tommy had spoken that he realized how proprietary his words must have sounded; however, Kim merely smiled, relaxing somewhat.

"I guess you're right."

"I'm glad you were able to take the whole day off to be with her. That was nice of Julia."

"I told her on my first day that I had to have today off. There was no way I wasn't going to spend the day with her," Kim asserted.

"By the way, where is the birthday girl?"

Kim nodded her head in the direction of the maze of interconnected tunnels. "Happily clambering around in there." As the two glanced over, Olivia came happily shrieking down the slide.

"They need to issue parents ear protectors like they do at the track," Tommy grimaced.

"And knee pads," Kim winced. "You're lucky you're too big to fit in those tubes."

"She dragged you in with her?"

"Only until she latched onto a playmate. Thank goodness!"

"Tommy!" Olivia cheered as she raced back to the table, practically tripping over her own feet in her eagerness to greet him.

"Happy birthday, Princess," Tommy called out. "So, how old are you?"

"Five!" she declared.

"That's funny, you don't look a day over four and a half."

"Tommeeeeee . . . !"

"She's been taking lessons from you," Tommy jibed, smirking at Kim. "She almost has it down perfectly."

"Tom-my . . . !"

"What have you and your mom been up to all day?"

"Everything!" Olivia gushed as she wriggled onto his lap.

"No fair having fun while I was at work," he pouted and Olivia stuck her tongue out at him.

"Olivia, that's not nice," Kim chided, but she went unheeded as Tommy retaliated in like fashion.

"So, what did you do first?" Tommy prompted.

"We went to the park, and guess who was there!"

"Um . . . Santa Claus?"

"No, silly! It was Min. She told me she was hoping I'd be there today --'cause sometimes I'm not-- she had a birthday present for me."

"That was very nice of her. How'd she know?"

"Because of the cupcakes and singing 'Happy Birthday' at school yesterday," Olivia explained with exaggerated patience. "You were right, Mommy; Tommy does forget things a lot."

Tommy flashed Kim a wounded look, and she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud. "I didn't forget; I was only fooling around."

"Oh. Okay. Anyway, Min gave me this pretty bracelet; she made it all by herself." Olivia thrust her arm out, displaying the collection of colorful beads about her wrist.

"That's very pretty; Min did a good job. That reminds me; I have something for you."

"What is it?" Olivia asked eagerly.

"Close your eyes," Tommy instructed as he reached for the plastic sack he'd brought in with him. He removed his glittering surprise. "Okay, you can open them."

"Ooohh," Olivia gasped, her eyes as wide as saucers and her face glowing with delight.

"You can't be a proper birthday princess without a birthday crown," Tommy explained as he set the glitter-and-plastic-jewel covered ornament on her head. Tommy was glad Kim had taken Olivia out for the day; he hadn't had time to decorate the paper crown he'd brought home from Burger King until that afternoon.

"Did you make this all by yourself?" Olivia queried, awestruck.

"Sure did, just for you."

"Thank you, Tommy!" She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him as tightly as she could, and it made every bauble that wouldn't stay put and every tube of glitter he had spilled worth it.

"If I'm the birthday princess, then Mommy is the birthday queen," Olivia decided, then she frowned. "But how can you be a queen, Mommy, without a crown?"

"That's okay, sweetheart; I don't need a crown," Kim demurred.

"Actually," Tommy began with a mischievous grin, reaching into his sack for a second time, "you do. According to the Oliver Rules of Birthday Etiquette --as set down by Grandpa Oliver-- everyone at a birthday party is required to wear a party hat." Kim rolled her eyes, and Olivia clapped gleefully in anticipation; however, his impish smile faded as he came up empty. "Darn. I think I left our hats at home."

"Thank you for the Oliver memory," Kim responded dramatically, raising her eyes heavenward.

"You guys can share mine," Olivia offered.

"That's very nice, but I don't think it'd fit me or Tommy," Kim said.

"We'll just have to wait until we get home," Tommy assured her.

"All right. Can I go play some more, Mommy?"

"I suppose, but just until they call our number." As Olivia made to scamper off, Kim plucked the crown from her head. "You don't want to ruin this, do you?" she queried in the face of Olivia's pout.

"I wondered if you guys went ahead and ordered," Tommy remarked.

"I hope you're up for cheese pizza," Kim warned.

"That's my favorite," Olivia piped up.

"If that's what the birthday girl wants, then that's what the birthday girl gets." Although, he would have preferred one with the works!

"Another 'Oliver Birthday Rule?'" Kim queried.

"You bet. Grandpa Oliver had lots of them."

"Which Grandpa Oliver?" Kim's tone was laced with skepticism.

"My grandpa --dad's dad," Tommy clarified since his father had told Olivia it was okay to call him grandpa.

"What other 'rules' are we going to run into tonight?"

"Oh, there are all kinds," Tommy said. "Grandpa loved parties; he was a kid at heart, and birthdays were always a big deal to him. He and Grandma went all out for us kids when it came to birthday parties."

"Order forty-two!"

"That's our number," Kim said, ready to get up.

"I'll get it." However, as Tommy headed for the counter, he stopped, frowning.

"What is it?"

"I just hope Mom remembers Grandma Sarah's 'addendum to the frosting' rule."

"And that is . . . ?"

" 'No fingers in the frosting until the candles have been blown out.' Dad's notorious for snitching a finger full whenever he can."

"Tommy, will you come play with me in the balls?" Olivia queried as she finished the last of her Pepsi.

"I think Tommy may be a little too big for that," Kim objected.

"But other daddies fit," Olivia pointed out; in fact one father was just scrambling out of the sea of plastic balls.

"Why not," Tommy agreed and began kicking off his shoes. He was somewhat surprised that Kim hadn't tried to point out that he wasn't Olivia's daddy.

"Your grandfather obviously wasn't the only Oliver who was a kid at heart," Kim murmured with a shy grin. "So what Oliver rule covers wallowing in the ball pit?"

" 'It is permissible, in fact encouraged, for adults to behave as if they were the same age as the birthday girl,'" Tommy retorted readily. Kim just shook her head. "Care to join us?"

"I'll take a rain check. Besides, someone has to make sure the crown jewels aren't stolen."

"You don't know what you're missing." Tommy eyed the ball pit appraisingly. "All right, Princess, I need you to scout ahead and make sure the coast is clear."

"Right!" Olivia scurried off to obey.

"What are you going to do?" Kim queried.

"You'll see," he answered with an impish wink. Just then, Olivia flashed him a thumbs up. "Ready or not, here I come!" With long, quick strides, Tommy "rushed" at the pit entrance and dove in. A gleeful Olivia was sloshed around by the tidal wave of displaced plastic balls. It wasn't exactly the smartest thing he had ever done; the pit was shallower than he anticipated. Before he recovered from the rough slide, Olivia pounced on him.

"That was fun! Do it again!" she urged. In response, Tommy reached for her sides. Laughing and shrieking, she scrambled off him.

"The Ball Pit Monster is coming to tickle you!" he rumbled ominously, crawling after her. She fled in mock terror; when Tommy got within arms reach, Olivia beaned him with a ball. "Hey!" he protested, trying to shield himself from a second missile. Just as he was ready to move in for a retaliatory strike, he was blinded by a flash of light.

"Do you have any idea how silly you look?"

Blinking furiously to clear his eyes, Tommy looked up through the strands of his flyaway hair to see Kim standing on the other side of the mesh barrier holding her disposable camera. Her words were gently teasing, and her eyes were soft and warm. For a moment, she looked like the girl he had fallen in love with that day at the lockers.

Before Tommy could respond to Kim's playful inquiry, Olivia heaved another ball at him. He dropped, dodging the projectile, and it sailed out of the pit and clipped Kim.

"I think you're supposed to keep the balls inside . . . oh!"

When Kim tossed the ball back in, Tommy caught her arm and yanked her inside. She crashed pell mell into the pit and landed hard atop him.


Her exclamation had been an excited chirp of surprise; his was one of pain.

"Serves you right," Kim laughed. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Another of my not-so-bright moves, eh?" he asked with a rueful grin.

"Yea, Mommy!" Olivia cheered as she launched herself at Kim's back. In trying to avoid the tackle, Kim wound up flattening Tommy again. She was splayed out across him so that they were practically nose tip to nose tip. There was a moment of awkward silence as the pair stared deeply into each other's eyes. Five years ago, Tommy would simply have leaned forward and kissed her. Today, he was almost afraid to move for fear of upsetting Kim.

"Come and get me!" Olivia commanded as she slid off Kim's back. Slowly, the two adults disentangled themselves.

"You okay?" Tommy asked, but he wasn't sure if he meant physically or psychologically. Kim looked a little nervous, so he decided to make light of the whole episode. "Instead of signing her up for karate, maybe she should play football instead. She could be the starting tackle at Angel Grove." Kim laughed, to Tommy's relief.

"Before I was so rudely interrupted," Kim began teasingly, "I came over here to tell you guys that it's getting late. We should be going . . . ."

"No, Mommy . . . !"

". . . if we want to have cake and presents tonight," she concluded.

"Can we go now?" Olivia asked eagerly and made a beeline for the slit doorway. More carefully, Tommy and Kim helped each other out.

"I hope your folks don't go overboard on the presents," Kim murmured as she watched Olivia put on her shoes in an excited flurry.

"Don't worry. I told Mom that you didn't want to overwhelm Olivia. She'll be able to keep Dad in line."

"I just don't want her to get spoiled . . . ."

"One birthday with lots of presents isn't going to spoil her," Tommy assured her. "Besides, according to Grandpa Oliver, it's a grandparent's sworn duty to spoil the grandkids."

"Hurry up!" Olivia insisted anxiously.

"Take it easy, Princess. Before we go, there's something else I want to give to you," Tommy said.

"Really? What is it?"

"Tommy . . . ." Kim chided.

She knew about the box of Legos he had bought, but he hadn't told Kim about his other little surprise. "It's just a little thing," he assured her. He collected his plastic bag and pulled out a small box.

"Ooh, sparkly paper!"

Tommy could tell by the look Kim shot him that she had some notion as to what sort of gift it was.

"Can I open it now, Mommy? Please . . . ?"

"We wouldn't want to disappoint Tommy," Kim acquiesced with feigned resignation, her smile belying her tone --to Tommy's relief.

Olivia eagerly ripped into the paper and pulled off the lid of the small, rectangular box.

"Oh, Mommy, look . . . !" she oohed, pulling the delicate necklace out of the box. Hanging from the golden links was a horizontal oval medallion. Olivia's name decorated the facing in flowery script, and set in the dot of the first "I" was a simulated birthstone.

"Tommy, you shouldn't have," Kim gasped. "It's very . . . ."

"It has been my limited experience that pretty girls like pretty jewelry," Tommy replied, pleased that his gift had been so well received by both parties.

"I've never had a pretty necklace before," Olivia murmured in awe.

"It's not just a necklace. Look." Tommy ran his thumbnail along the bottom of the oval.

"It's a locket," Kim realized.

"What's a locket?" Olivia wondered.

"A necklace you can put pictures in," Tommy explained. "See?" Opening it all the way, Tommy revealed there was a photograph already inside.

"It's you, Mommy," Olivia declared, proudly flashing the photo at Kim.

"Where'd you get this?" Kim asked, puzzled. It wasn't a recent photo.

"Oh, it's one I've had for a while," Tommy said evasively. Actually, it was his favorite picture of Kim taken shortly after they first started dating. He wondered if Kim recognized it. "I took it down to the office supply store and had a color copy made."

"What's the empty space for?" Olivia queried.

"For another picture," Kim said.

"Can I put Tommy's picture in it?"

He and Kim traded startled glances and sheepish grins.

"If you'd like," Kim agreed.

"Do you have a picture I can have?"

"I . . . have some old ones . . . ." Kim admitted awkwardly. Tommy was pleased to learn that she had kept her old pictures.

"I wanna new one."

"I haven't had my picture taken in a while," Tommy confessed in the face of Olivia's expectant gaze.

"I took one while you were in the ball pit," Kim offered, smiling mischievously, "but I'm sure you'd rather have a nice one if she's going to show it off to all her Kindergarten buddies."

"Smile and say 'fuzzy pickles!'" Olivia instructed.

"I prefer pumpernickel."

"What's pump-er-nickel?"

"There we go," Kim announced, following the flash.

"Can I take one?" Olivia asked eagerly.

"Of what?"

"You an' Tommy."

"I'm game if you are," Tommy agreed. Almost shyly, Kim slid into the booth next to him, leaving a comfortable distance between the two of them.

"Closer," Olivia insisted. "Tommy doesn't fit in the little box all the way."

Tommy eyed Kim questioningly; she shrugged and moved closer.

"Closer, Mommy."

"What do you want me to do? Sit on his lap?"

"I have a suggestion. Would you mind?" he asked softly, indicating that he wanted to put his arm around her shoulder.

"I guess so."

"That's better! Smile!"

"I hope she gets us both in the picture and not just the tops of our heads," Kim said ruefully.

As the flash went off, Tommy made a mental note to get doubles of this particular roll of film.

"This has been my best birthday ever!" Olivia gushed. For the umpteenth time since Tommy had fastened the locket around her neck, she beamed down at it in wonder.

"You haven't even had cake or opened your other presents yet," Kim interjected.

"More presents? Really?"

"One from your mom and one from me," Tommy said as he opened the door to the stairwell, allowing the ladies to step inside.

"That makes two from you," Olivia pointed out.

"So it does . . . hey, race ya! First one upstairs gets the birthday crown!" Tommy challenged. Laughing, Olivia bolted up the stairs, cutting Tommy off. "No fair!" He gave chase up the two flights of stairs, leaving Kim, who was shaking her head at them, behind.

"I win!" Olivia declared breathlessly as she scrambled up the last steps and tagged the door.

"It's a good thing, too," Kim observed as she overtook the pair. "The crown wouldn't fit Tommy."

"I have my own hat anyway," Tommy defended himself.

"Can I unlock the bottom lock?" Olivia requested.

"Go for it, Princess."

It took a few tries, but she finally succeeded in getting the bolt unfastened and pushing the door open.

"It's dark, Tommy; you forgot to leave the light on," Olivia scolded.

"Sorry . . . ."


Olivia let out a shriek as the lights came up revealing a living room bedecked with streamers and balloons and filled with people: Tommy's parents, Rocky, Adam and Tanya, Maggie and Kelly.

"Tommy . . . ." Kim hissed in his ear. "I said a small party."

"It was Dad's idea," Tommy hissed back. "He said it wasn't much of a party with only five people."

"Let's get this party started!" Thomas Oliver declared. "Anybody have a lighter so we can light the candles?"

"Thomas, don't tell me you forgot to bring one," Jan huffed.

"Light one of the candles at the stove," Tanya suggested.

"If Tommy has a gas stove, that is," Rocky piped up.

"Can I take the hat off yet?" Adam grumbled.

"No," Rocky insisted. "Don't you know anything about birthday parties? You have to wear your hat until the guest of honor takes hers off. Geez!"

"I feel ridiculous," Adam complained.

"You look cute," Tanya assured him.

"Hey, Kim, lookin' good!" Rocky called out as Tommy plopped a festive hat on her head.

"Thanks for coming you guys," Tommy interjected into the easy banter he had missed so much.

"Rocky wouldn't have missed a chance for free food and to act like a five year old again," Tanya snorted, and Rocky pretended to have been shot through the heart by her barb. Olivia laughed at his exaggerated pantomime.

"Thomas William, what did I tell you about keeping your fingers out of the frosting . . . ?" Jan called from the kitchen.

"Uh oh, Dad --busted!" Tommy snickered.

"Ms. Hart, are you okay?" Kelly queried, and Tommy turned his attention to where Kim had sunk into a chair. She appeared to be more overwhelmed than Olivia. Briefly he wondered if the chaos was a bit much for her.

"I'm fine, Kelly," Kim assured her. "It was really nice of you and your mom to come."

"No problem. We were glad to," Kelly chirped.

"Actually, Kelly pretty much invited herself, and Tom was too nice to tell her no," Maggie said. "We ran into him when he ordered the cake, and Kelly volunteered us."

"Hey, the more the merrier," Tommy piped up.

"How are you and Olivia getting along these days?" Tanya queried, joining Kim on the couch.

"Things have been really good, especially since I found a job . . . ."

"No, no, no! Not that way . . . . Sheez, Adam . . . ."

"Hey!" Thomas shouted to be heard above the lively commotion. "Everyone to the table before these candles and the cake melt."

"Come on, Princess," Tommy said, scooping Olivia up, and in one fluid motion, he transferred her to his shoulders.

"Hey, Olivia, can I help you blow out the candles?" Rocky queried.

"No, silly, you'll mess up my wish if you do."

"Aw, man . . . ."

"Oh, wow!" Olivia gasped when she saw that her cake was decorated with the figure of the original Pink Ranger. "Mommy, look! My favorite!"

"I see, honey," Kim said, trying not to blush. Rocky elbowed her knowingly.

"I guess I done good, huh," Tommy said with a broad grin.

"You've done very good," Kim softly replied, favoring him with a rare, unguarded smile.

"Oops, almost forgot!" Thomas yelped, scampering over to the corner where he'd set up the video camera on the tripod. "Okay," he instructed as he hit the record button. Kelly started the singing.

"Happy Birthday to you . . . ."

"You know, I don't have any video tape of Olivia," Kim whispered.

"Really? I know you didn't have a camera, but surely someone at the gym must have caught her on tape," Tommy ventured.

"If they had, they never said anything to me."

" . . . Olivia. Happy Birthday . . . to . . . you . . . !"

"Close your eyes."

"Make a wish."

"Blow out the candles!"

"You don't need to tell me," Olivia murmured as she drew in a deep breath.

"All right!" Kelly cheered as the five candles went out with one blow.

"What a set of lungs! Just like her mom," Rocky chortled.

"Rocky!" Kim protested.

"I . . . hey!" Olivia squealed as Thomas landed a fingerful of frosting on the tip of her nose. She wiped it off and tried to retaliate, but Thomas got her again.

"All right! Frosting fight," Rocky cheered. "I thought my family was the only one that did that."

"Nope," Tommy answered and smeared a white streak across Rocky's cheek.

"Hey!" Rocky reached for some of the creamy ammunition. "Who knew our uptight, oh-so-fearless former leader knows how to party!"

"Someone put some food in his mouth and shut him up," Tanya shot playfully, and Adam obligingly nailed him with a glop of frosting.

"Now you've got it, " Rocky encouraged, taking a taste of the confection as he cleaned it off his face. "Not bad."


"Yes, Olivia?"


"She faked ya out," Rocky crowed.

"Come on, guys; knock it off or there won't be any left to eat," Kim admonished.

"Don't be a party pooper," Tommy chided and deposited a dollop on the end of her nose, which gave Olivia a giggle fit. "You look so cute!"

"Just remember that when you're cleaning up the mess," Kim retorted with a smirk as she got him back.

All I Want for Christmas

A Power Rangers Story
by Cheryl Reynolds

Part 3 of 7

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