things Power Ranger-related belong to Saban, who wouldn't dream of paying
me even a wooden nickel. Blast him, anyway! -- This idea came to me out
of nowhere, but was too insistent to stay buried, so here it goes .... my
first story of the New Millennium! Yay! *cough* Ahem. *cough* It was
originally sorta supposed to be ready for Valentine's Day, so be warned, it's a
straight-out romance, a mood piece if you like, with no pretense at
anything else. -- A few scenes border on the suggestive, but rest
assured, nothing happens that couldn't be shown on Prime Time TV. Let's
say it's PG-13, to be safe. Thanks to Krys and Eva for specific helpful
suggestions (which I admittedly sometimes disregarded; sorry, ladies!),
and as usual, Mele and Peregrine for overall encouragement. I'm one of those
pesky authors thriving on feedback, so if you want to comment, please do so.
By: Dagmar Buse
She was going to break up with him.
Jason could read it in the blue eyes of the woman sitting across from him in the small Italian restaurant as clearly as if she were holding up a sign. It made him sick to his stomach, filling him with a feeling of panic unlike anything he'd ever known. He couldn't lose her -- not when 'they' had only barely begun! Not like he'd lost Emily only a few months ago.
The dark-haired young man swallowed the lump always forming in his throat as he remembered that day in spring -- when the girl he'd dated since his senior year of High School had coolly informed him that she was moving back East within the week. He'd been completely taken off-guard even though Emily had casually mentioned the possibility before. Jason simply, and as it turned out, foolishly, had hoped their relationship meant more to her -- as much as it meant to him. Instead, after he'd overcome his initial shock, he had had to listen in stunned silence as she told him she actively didn't want him to follow her, or even stay in contact. Rather, the spirited blonde had said, she wanted a clean break from everything -- including her California boyfriend.
After the first paralyzing pain had worn off, Jason had been glad for one thing -- while he would have willingly gone with Emily, he'd have hated to give up his friends, his family and the dojo he managed together with Tommy and Rocky. That was the only positive thing about being dumped by her -- that, and the support his friends had offered him so unstintingly, helping him to get through the inevitable questions and self-doubts.
The person who'd helped him the most, though, was with him right now, looking anywhere but at him as she fiddled with the stem of her wineglass. Katherine. Another beautiful blue-eyed blonde who had listened and soothed, talked and shared anguished silences while he was trying to cope with his loss. Somewhere along the line, they'd started to share more than just words and confidences, offering comfort with hugs that lasted longer and longer, hands that found each other while taking walks, until finally, only a couple of weeks ago, they'd kissed for the first time.
Jason had believed everything was fine now, finding new peace through Kat's support and acceptance, and he'd cautiously begun to hope that this relationship would prove to be deeper, more meaningful than what he'd had with Emily. He'd certainly not been looking for a new romance, but kissing Kat had felt so right, so good .... even though it had been very much a spur-of-the-moment thing, not premeditated at all, he couldn't find it within him to regret having done it. But since their last date, which had been something of a disaster because he'd been particularly depressed and, despite his best intentions had once again pined for his ex-girlfriend, Kat had been strangely silent and withdrawn.
All evening, her smiles had seemed strained, she'd been quiet and subdued, and had refused to let herself be drawn out. Jason had puzzled over it, giving his all to make their dinner date memorable and pleasant, but to no avail. Kat had only picked at her food, barely nipped at her wine and would hardly look at him. Only now, when their waiter had removed their dishes, did she meet the dark eyes of the man opposite her, and that was when Jason knew.
The next instant, Kat confirmed his worst fears.
"I can't see you anymore, Jason," she whispered, her porcelain skin pale in the subdued light. "At least not like before."
"No, hear me out," she pleaded, touching his hand briefly. Her softly-accented voice was thick with emotion, and it gave Jason a perverse sense of satisfaction to see that at least for Kat, this wasn't as easy as it had apparently been for Emily.
"Jase .... I like you a lot, you're a wonderful, nice guy, and if we'd come together under different circumstances, I think I might have liked being .... more than just your friend," Kat proceeded to explain. "But, as things are .... I just can't."
It hurt to hear her say it, even though he'd steeled himself against it as best he could.
"Why not?" Jason asked hoarsely. It took every bit of control and discipline at his command to stay seated, to let Kat finish, when everything inside of him wanted to howl out his pain like a wounded dog might howl at the moon. If they'd been anywhere else, he knew he'd be pacing. Jason fought down the impulse to grab the lovely blonde and shake some sense into her, to make her take the words back and promise to stay with him. Emily had left him without a real reason; he'd be damned if he let Katherine slip from his life just like that. Never mind that this was only their fourth 'real' date, he didn't want things to end!
Kat blinked several times as if to banish tears; even though she was convinced she was doing the right thing, it was not easy to confront the hurt that had sprung up in the expressive dark eyes, aware that she had caused it. But then, she'd feared it was going to be like this -- only, her sense of self-preservation demanded she go through with it, anyway. She wasn't going to make it any harder on both of them by crying, she wasn't! Gulping down the lump in her throat, Kat reached out to lay cool, unsteady fingers on Jason's strong hands, which he'd unconsciously clenched into fists on the checquered tablecloth. Gently, she started to smooth them straight again, like she'd done so often in the past months.
"Jason .... I know you're still hurting over Emily. No, don't try to deny it," she stopped him before he could do more than open his mouth. "I don't mind listening to you vent, or helping you cope -- I'm your friend, and that's what friends do. If anything, I'm honored that you trust me enough to help, to share your feelings with me. But -- and this is why I have to call things off between us before they go any further -- you're still on the rebound. And I've been through all of this once before with Tommy, when Kim broke up with him. I mistook compassion and the desire to help a friend in pain for love, and let myself believe that there was something deeper between us than there actually was. I can't -- I won't do that again, because I'll only end up hurting myself."
"You and Tommy were together for years," Jason objected, focussing with difficulty on the immediate thing. "You don't stay with someone, through a long separation, too, if there's nothing real between the people involved!"
Katherine sighed, letting go of his hands and taking a sip of her wine to gain a few precious seconds and marshal her thoughts.
"I never said there was 'nothing' between Tommy and me; there was definitely something. Looking back, I can even say we loved each other -- only not the way we thought we did. Rita had compelled me to lure Tommy away from Kim, if I could .... which wasn't a very hard thing to do for me. After all, he's a very good-looking man, very nice, charming .... I never questioned my feelings for him until the end. And I know he was attracted to me, too, when we first met. But he was with Kim then, and I always realized that he would never have acted on that attraction on his own. If we had gotten to know each other normally, run into each other at school or wherever ...." Her voice trailed off momentarily. Then, after taking a deep breath, she added, "Who knows what might have happened if Rita hadn't interfered!"
The young woman smiled briefly as she remembered the early days of her stay in Angel Grove, how she'd met the Rangers, and lastly become friends with all of them. Of how it had been to fall in love with a man who wasn't free, then suddenly became available .... for her, it had been a dream come true, in a lot of ways. It was a pity that reality -- or maybe just life -- hadn't cooperated with her dreams in the long run.
"Anyway, Tommy and I were very lucky that our friendship stayed intact, even though we split up eventually."
That had come as a surprise to everybody, including Kat and the former Red Turbo Ranger himself. They'd stayed in close contact all the time Kat was studying ballet in London, until her return to the US. Their relationship had survived the geographical separation as well as Tommy's racing career, which had ended in an accident that only by sheerest luck had left him, after months of rehab, with no more permanent damage than a few scars; however, it had been the impetus he'd needed to say goodbye to the adrenaline rush of racing and return to his first love -- Martial Arts. Jason and Rocky had welcomed their friend with open arms, and the three erstwhile Red Rangers were working well together, hoping to save enough money to one day own the large, popular dojo they were jointly managing.
Kat had gone on to earn a teaching degree, and now split her time working at both AGH and Angel Grove Conservatory, teaching swimming at one and ballet at the other. Strangely enough, once they were living in the same town again, their mundane, quite busy lives kept Tommy and Kat more and more apart, until one day they realized that when they had time for each other they were mostly interacting as just friends -- and being very happy about it. Confused, they tried for a while to revive their romance, but the spark just wasn't there anymore, and both decided that they would prefer having a really good, close friend in the other than lose each other completely.
But the experience had left scars on Katherine's heart and soul. For the longest time, she'd believed she had found the man of her life in Tommy. To have to admit she'd lived an illusion for years had been very painful; somehow, irrationally, she felt that she had almost wasted a part of her life. Of course she hadn't, it never was a waste to care for someone, but still .... her dream was to get married and have a family one day; if it couldn't be with Tommy, then with someone else. But, even though it hadn't worked out, her time with the charismatic young man had left her a legacy of very high standards to look for in a partner.
If she was honest, Jason met all of her standards -- he possessed intelligence, humor, integrity, a strong sense of right and wrong, the courage to stand up for his convictions .... not to mention extraordinary good looks, dark hair and midnight-colored eyes that were so very expressive -- but he was also still hurting over losing his longtime girlfriend. Just like Tommy had when Kim had written him that letter.
*Been there, done that,* Kat thought somewhat bitterly while steeling herself against the pain she could see crossing the handsome face before Jason averted his eyes. He was clearly struggling for words.
"Kat .... I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have gone on so about Emily last week, but when she sent my letters back .... I was just so bummed, I -"
"I know, Jason," she interrupted him compassionately. "You don't have to apologize. I understood what you were doing, and I don't blame you for venting; as I said, we're friends, and if you can't unburden yourself to a friend, who then? But, and this is a very big but, it also showed me how much you still care about her."
"I dated her for nearly five years," he almost-snorted. The defensiveness audible in his voice irked, but he couldn't suppress it, either. "I can't just shrug all that time off like an old coat!"
"I'm not asking you to," the blonde assured him. "But please -- understand that I've lived through this once already, and I don't think I can do it again. Not if I want to keep myself from getting hurt -- again. Maybe that makes me a coward; I don't know. But I won't put my heart on the line if I can't be sure to have my feelings reciprocated." Kat's voice had died down to a whisper, and it was obvious that it pained her to say it, but at the same time her usually gentle face was very determined. She meant what she said.
"I never should have let you kiss me," she added softly.
Jason took his time to reply. When he did, he met her blue eyes openly, not even trying to hide the desperation he was beginning to feel. He couldn't honestly say if he was in love with the lovely Australian or not, but he did know that he didn't want to lose her .... that her presence in his life was maybe the only ray of light he'd seen since the day Emily had dumped him.
"But we did kiss, Kat .... and you enjoyed it, too. I know you too well -- you didn't kiss me back just to humor me, or because you felt sorry for me," Jason stated with quiet conviction, reading confirmation in her slight blush. "There is something between us .... and I don't want to lose that. Please -- won't you give it a try?"
"I don't think I can, Jason," she demurred. "I need .... more .... than 'something'. I promised myself one thing after Tommy and I broke up -- I won't enter another relationship unless I know there's .... well, love, I guess. Affection and attraction just aren't enough for me anymore."
"You're asking for guarantees that it'll last. I'm sorry, Kat, but nobody can give you that."
"I know, but I can ask for reasonable certainty."
For a moment, both ex-Rangers were silent. Then, Katherine summoned a ghost of a smile.
"Jason, please -- I don't want to lose you as my friend, and the way I see it, there's nothing more you have to give me right now."
"That's not true," he protested, but even to his own ears, it didn't ring as certain as he wanted it to. Attuned to his moods as she'd become, Kat sighed. A tiny part inside of her had hoped ...
"Can you honestly look at me and say you love me -- and mean it?" she asked finally, meeting his eyes head-on. "Because that's what I need, Jason. I won't settle for less this time."
The slow blush staining his cheeks and his downcast look gave her his answer.
"I thought not," she murmured, having waited a while for a protest that wasn't forthcoming. A heavy sadness settled over the pair, both feeling very unhappy, neither knowing what to say anymore. "I'm sorry."
Jason didn't reply, just summoned the waiter for their bill. His thoughts were in turmoil, because he knew Kat was absolutely right about his state of mind; he could even see and understand her position, but that didn't prevent panic from starting to creep into his heart. For deep within, a voice was crying out at him to do SOMETHING, anything , to not let her get away like this, to fight for what he was so afraid to lose .... the only question was, how?
Silently, the two made their way to Kat's small apartment. The weather was nice and summery-warm, even this late in the evening, so they'd walked from her house to the restaurant. Both were deep in thought -- Kat about what might have been, and Jason about how he could possibly change her mind, if at all. When they reached the apartment complex's parking lot, where Jason had left his car, she turned towards him with a tiny, brave smile.
"I'll be safe from here; you needn't walk me to the door," she said softly, hating the despondent look on Jason's face and knowing she'd put it there. But she didn't have any other choice, did she?
Jason glanced briefly at her, then his eyes went up to the night sky, where a few stars were twinkling in the darkness. His Adam's apple was bobbing as he swallowed convulsively, but he didn't speak. Kat once more felt tears gathering in her eyes; she fought them down determinedly. Crying wouldn't help. Neither would prolonging the inevitable. Gently, she touched his arm.
"Goodbye, Jason," she murmured, meaning more than just a temporary farewell. She was also saying goodbye to their relationship. That finally let her companion find his voice again.
"No!" Jason exclaimed vehemently, taking her by her shoulders and shaking her just a little. "Kat, I can't! I won't let you go just like this!"
She shook her head sadly, somehow not surprised at his reaction.
"That's not your decision alone to make, Jason," she refused. "I don't want to hurt you, but-"
"Then don't!" Before Kat could say anything else, he let her go abruptly and turned away, visibly gathering his composure. When he had, he swivelled back to face her and drew her lightly against him.
"Kat .... you know me. I'm a fighter, I don't give up easily -- not when it's something I believe in. And if I know nothing else, I believe there's more to us than just me wanting someone to make me forget Emily." He forestalled her comment. "Yes, there's that, too -- I'm not denying it, but I'm too confused right now to figure it all out. I only know I don't want to lose you."
"I'll still be your friend, Jason," Kat assured him, moved despite herself by his intensity. "Always. Just like the others, you'll always be my friend."
"That's not enough, Kat," he said quietly, handing her own words back to her. "Not anymore."
"Jason ...." she sighed exasperatedly. "I told you why I don't think this'll work ..."
"Yes – and I respect your point of view, but -"
"Then why won't you let me end this now, today, before we end up hurting each other?" she interrupted him.
"Because I can't. Won't. Kat ... you've taken me totally by surprise; can't you at least give me some time to think about this?"
"I'm not going to change my mind on this, Jason," the Australian warned him, silencing that small distant voice in her mind that whispered, Why not? What would it hurt? *My heart,* she answered herself, hardening herself against the longing and hope in the dark eyes.
"Please, Kat -- all I'm asking for is a chance," he pleaded, thinking frantically. Seemingly out of nowhere, a vague idea began to form. "You told me you have this weekend off; I can probably rearrange my schedule to match. It's only two days -- why can't you give me these two days to let me try and show you what's between us? Why I think 'us' can work?"
"It'll only drag out the end unnecessarily, Jason," she objected. "I can't think of a single thing you might say or do this weekend that you couldn't say right now -- and my answer would still be the same!"
Jason released her and took a few steps away, clearly searching for control. He swept a hand through his short dark hair, a gesture that showed Kat clearly how upset he was. Tommy had used to rub the back of his neck every time he'd been nervous, or agitated; Jason usually didn't show his state of mind like that unless he was seriously rattled. *Well,* she had to admit to herself, *he has a reason.*
A few crickets were singing in the bushes enclosing the parking lot, and the faint rush of cars passing by could be heard; otherwise, the night air was silent around them. Only the beat of their hearts seemed loud enough to be heard, but of course it wasn't. After several long, tense moments, during which neither moved or said anything, Jason looked at Kat again.
"Two days, Kat. This weekend. That's all I'm asking of you. If I can't convince you to change your mind by Sunday night, I'll accept just being friends with you." *For now,* he silently vowed to himself, not looking deeper into the reasons just WHY it was so important to him all of a sudden. Only hours ago he'd been content to drift into a pleasant relationship with the pretty blonde standing merely a few feet away, when that had been about the furthest thing from his mind after Emily had left him.
"You've never given up on the really important things without a fight, either. And I believe that this is important. Please, Kat. Give me -- give us this chance. Don't just throw everything away. If you still think that we won't work out come Sunday, I won't object to whatever limits you place on our relationship. I promise."
Jason meant every word, Kat could see that as clearly as if it had been written in neon letters against the night sky. And even though she'd promised herself when she'd decided to call it off between them that she wouldn't be swayed, that for once she'd place her own needs before those of a friend, something in Jason's eyes, in his voice, spoke to her more loudly than his intense little speech. She could feel herself starting to reconsider.
Jason read the hesitancy in her crystal eyes. Scarcely daring to hope, he embraced her lightly and gently touched her cheek, letting his fingertips trail from her temple down to her chin, the gesture almost, but not quite, a caress.
"Please, Kat. Two days, a chance .... nothing more. I promise," he repeated, his low voice a soft rumble in the darkness.
Kat closed her eyes briefly and drew in a deep, shuddering breath. She was wavering, much to her chagrin. When she looked back into the so-dark orbs, she couldn't help a slight headshake. When was she going to be immune against the puppy-dog expression all of her former male teammates seemed to have perfected without knowing it? Even Billy had used it on occasion, and none of the girls had ever been able to resist. *Probably the day I die,* she thought with a wry inner chuckle.
"This is against my better judgment, Jason," she sighed resignedly at last, but the expression of gratitude and relief lighting up his face was worth giving in to his persuasion. Almost. She braced herself against the exuberant hug she was sure was going to follow, but it never came. To Kat's surprise, all Jason permitted himself was a warm, thankful smile, a brief tightening of the grasp he still had on her waist and a new touch of his hand to her cheek.
"Thank you, Kat. You won't regret this," he murmured.
"I hope not," she said quietly, then disentangled herself. "Very well. I'll see you on Saturday, then."
"Yeah," Jason answered. For a second, it looked as if he was going to kiss her goodnight after all, but then he just took a small step backwards. Kat fought down the rush of disappointment and the sudden impulse to kiss him -- but no, now even a chaste peck on the cheek would be too much. Instead, she settled for a neutral smile.
"Goodnight, Jase," she whispered, the nickname flowing easily from her lips.
"Goodnight, Kat," he replied just as softly, then watched her go, not climbing into his car until the door to her building had safely closed behind her.
Kat prepared for bed, her mind in turmoil. Had she done the right thing, acceding to Jason's request to give him a chance? Part of her said yes, it was only fair, but another, very vocal portion of her brain told her she was being a fool -- just opening herself up for further heartache and disillusionment. Still, she'd given him her word, sort of, and just as she knew Jason would keep his promise to her, so would she keep hers to him. Slipping under the covers, she turned off the light, wondering what kind of elaborate method of persuasion Jason would likely come up with to change her mind. Not that extravangance or the spending of lots of money was going to influence her decision, but if she was honest .... she would enjoy two days of pampering and having every wish fulfilled as soon as she could voice it.
With a wistful smile that was also the tiniest bit smug, Katherine drifted off to sleep.
Across town, Jason was thinking a lot of the same thoughts as he climbed the steps to the garage apartment his parents had fixed for him for his 21st birthday. His own realm, with a lot of the comforts of almost/still living at home (although he tried not to abuse his mother's well-meant generosity), but with the opportunity to be as self-sufficient as possible. He let himself inside the sparsely but comfortably furnished room. Picking up a can of beer from the fridge, he then settled on the couch, staring into the darkness as he racked his brain for a way to show Kat that they could be good together as a couple.
He slowly sipped his drink as he thought about the evening's conversation. Jason had never stopped to examine his feelings for his former teammate too closely; sure, he'd always liked and admired Kat, and he truly and honestly appreciated all the support and help she'd given him after Emily left. Talking to his best friend was cathartic, too, but having a woman listen to his woes was subtly different -- and somehow had better suited his needs. While Tommy would and could understand his sense of inadequacy, of having failed as a man somehow, having gone through much the same thing with Kimberly, Jason had greatly valued the wordless hugs, small touches and understanding smiles Kat had gifted him with; her very femininity gave that much more credence to her conviction that it was not all his fault, that he had done what he could to sustain his relationship with his ex-girlfriend.
Jason put his feet up on the sturdy coffee table and slouched into the pillows as he pondered what he did feel for Kat. Just because she'd been a good friend was no basis to build something deeper on, she was right about that, at least. It had never been his intention to kiss her, but a walk in the park had lasted well into the sunset; the air had been rather nippy for once after two days of rain, and it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to drape an arm around his friend's shoulders as he escorted Kat home. Nor had she objected; instead, she'd snuggled into his side, slipping an arm around his waist as they walked the streets of their home town. In the beginning, Emily had liked to walk with him like this, but Kat was taller, not so petite .... the difference was startling and pleasing at the same time.
He'd brought her to her apartment door; the soft light from a lamp she'd left burning had cast a muted glow over her lovely features as she'd turned to him in the quiet hallway to bid him goodnight. The impulse came out of nowhere; Jason truly hadn't planned to kiss Kat, but her eyes had looked at him so warmly, her lips had smiled so invitingly .... it had been the most natural thing in the world to bend down the few inches separating his mouth from hers and touch her in a gentle caress.
She hadn't withdrawn, or recoiled or anything; after the first surprise had worn off, Kat had become pliant in his arms, and they had kissed for a long time, learning of each other until they'd both been slightly out of breath. And for the first time in weeks, Jason had forgotten all about Emily.
That was why it was so important for Jason not to lose Kat. He felt .... whole .... when he held her. Only, how could he convince her of that without seeming just to take? He needed to show her that he could give to her as well – and that most definitely went beyond flowers or costly presents.
His beer was long finished and the night far gone, and still Jason thought, made and discarded plans until his eyes drifted nearly shut with fatigue and he stumbled off to bed for a few hours of rest, his dreams filled with visions of a beautiful blue-eyed blonde .... whose golden locks gradually took on a more silvery hue, her person changing from a spirited imp into a gentle-eyed ballerina.
In his sleep, Jason smiled.
"I need the weekend off," Jason announced without preamble the next day when he met with Tommy and Rocky half an hour after classes were over at their dojo. It had become their habit to gather each day to discuss schedules, special events, student performances and anything that had come up, outside of the pure business/managerial meetings they held once each month.
"Oh? Anything special come up?" Tommy asked idly as he lounged at his desk. Jason grinned a bit sheepishly and shrugged.
"You could say that. Can I? Please guys, this is really important; I wouldn't put you on the spot like this on short notice if it weren't." He gazed pleadingly at his friends and colleagues.
"It's not gonna be easy, Jase," Rocky warned, looking up from his notes. He angled for a calendar, thinking out loud as he looked over their schedule. "I suppose we can split your Saturday morning classes between us, and if we can get someone else to take the peewees in the afternoon .... "
Jason already had thought of a possible solution.
"What about David?"
Two pairs of brown eyes swept towards Tommy for approval. He shrugged.
"I can ask him; usually he has no special plans on Saturdays. And he likes working with the kids on occasion. It should work."
"Thanks, guys. Um .... what about Sunday, though?" the first Red Ranger asked diffidently. "I know Rocky can't do mornings .... what about you, Tom?"
"Just this once," the long-haired young man agreed with a grin. "But you're gonna owe me, Bro!" Jason just nodded, then looked imploringly at Rocky. "My ladies' afternoon class?"
The erstwhile successor to the Red Thunder Powers shook his head.
"Sorry, Jase. Any other week, but not this Sunday. It's the anniversary of my dad's dying day, and Mama always goes a little crazy then. It's not so bad when all of us are home with her, so ...."
It was a valid reason, and Jason neither could nor would try to persuade Rocky to alter his plans just to accommodate him. All of them had gotten to know and like Sophia DeSantos in the years since she'd moved to Angel Grove; the feisty Mexican-American woman had taken all of the Rangers under her wings indiscriminately, mothering them mercilessly along with her own brood of children. It didn't matter if they had parents or not, Mama Sophia, as she insisted everybody call her, scolded and encouraged and pressured and hugged every one of Rocky's friends, male or female alike, and there had been times when every single one of them had sought her advice rather than their own mothers' .... and had been given it from a large, warm heart. To deprive her of any kind of comfort was unthinkable.
Still, Jason couldn't quite hide his disappointed slump. "Never mind, then. I'll manage somehow. Damn, I'd hoped to get both days off," he muttered, knowing that his friends wouldn't mind if he vented his frustration a bit.
"Any special reason?" Tommy asked again, wandering over with a fresh pot of coffee and filling everybody's mug.
"Actually, yes," Jason said, absently adding a dash of cream to his cup. He perched on the windowsill, facing the office and his friends, but not really seeing either of them, he was so far away mentally. "I need to convince Kat to continue dating me."
Rocky did a classic double-take while Tommy nearly let go of the carafe he still held. It clattered noisily onto the small sideboard where they kept the coffee tray and supplies, but neither young man took notice. Instead, they focussed intently on Jason.
"What?!?" Rocky sputtered at last, once he'd gotten over his shock. A quick glance had shown him that that was news to Tommy as well.
"I didn't even know you and Kat were dating," Tommy said carefully. He knew how hard his best friend had taken Emily's departure, and that Katherine had spent a lot of time helping Jason overcome his depression, but .... dating? As in, fallen-in-love-and-kiss? He didn't quite know how to react.
Jason glanced sheepishly at Tommy. "It's, um, a fairly recent thing," he confessed.
"How recent?" Rocky wanted to know, eyes alight with curiosity.
"Very. As in, two weeks," Jason mumbled, blushing slightly.
"And she wants to dump you already?!? Boy, you must've screwed up big time," Rocky said with his customary lack of tact. "What did you do, call her 'Emily' when you kissed her?"
"Of course not!" The very thought was abhorrent. Not even in his darkest moments had Jason ever mistaken the identity of his golden-haired friend.
"Rocky!" Tommy chided, but couldn't help a faint blush himself. That very thing had happened to him once or twice in the early days of his relationship with Kimberly's successor, and he knew he'd hurt Kat deeply with his absent-mindedness. He still thanked his lucky stars that she'd been able to forgive him. If Jason had done it to her again .... but no, the near-black eyes showed only righteous indignation at Rocky's not-quite-serious accusation. Besides, Jason had too much control for that.
"What did you do, then?" he asked, failing to come up with any explanation that was even remotely likely. Neither Kat nor Jason were the type to have short-term relationships; if anything at all had happened between them, it must've been pretty serious for both.
"Would you believe nothing?" Jason said with a wry grin. Tommy regarded his best friend seriously for a moment, ignoring Rocky's doubtful snort.
"Knowing you as well as I do, yes," he answered finally. "And knowing Kat, no."
"Oh, that's clear," Rocky scoffed, but Jason only shrugged helplessly, acknowledging Tommy's right to make that statement.
"No, really. I didn't do anything -- at least, not to anger her or hurt her or something of the sort."
"Then why the hell would Kat want to break up with you -- especially if it's only been such a short time since you guys have gotten close? That's not like her," Tommy wanted to know. Now that he was over his initial surprise, he found it not at all hard to wrap his mind around the concept of Jason and Kat as a couple. As a matter of fact, he was already beginning to like the idea. Both meant a lot to him, and he wished them happiness -- if they were right for each other. And knowing them as well as he did, Tommy thought they could be .... he resolved then and there to do everything in his power to help them. He sat forward, listening intently to what his best friend had to say.
Jason hesitated for a moment -- should he be talking about his problems? A part of him balked at the loss of privacy telling them about his problems would entail. But then, Rocky and Tommy were his friends; they'd listened to him before, and if he couldn't unload to them, where was he supposed to go? A single look was enough to show him that they wouldn't condemn him. With a deep sigh that seemed to come from the soles of his feet, he told them about last night's dinner and Kat's reasoning for calling things off.
"I managed to persuade Kat to give me one last chance to convince her I'm serious about her," Jason concluded. "I have two days -- this weekend. After that .... I gave her my word I wouldn't try to hold her if she really wants to end it between us."
Rcky whistled through his teeth; Jason had a monumental task before him.
"You sure got a problem, man," he commiserated with vast understatement.
"I know," Jason sighed, staring into his empty coffee mug. The three young men were silent for a few minutes, each lost in his own thoughts. Then, Tommy fixed his best friend with serious eyes.
Tommy inhaled deeply; this was going to be a very personal question, but he felt he had to ask it, anyway -- because he cared about both Jason and Kat.
"You said you want to show Kat you're serious about her," he began hesitantly. "Bro, I'm not trying to pry, but .... are you? For herself, not just because you need what she can give you? And if you are, exactly how serious is 'serious'?"
Jason took his time answering. It was something he'd wrestled with through his musings last night, and while he hadn't found a clear-cut answer yet, at least he'd found part of one. He met Tommy's concerned gaze fully.
"If you want to know if I'm in love with Kat .... I don't know. Not yet, maybe. I do know I'd like to be .... and I'm pretty sure that if she'll give me that chance, I'll get there. With her help."
"Not exactly the most romantic attitude," Rocky commented. "Most girls expect something else."
"I know. But you know how long Kat and I have been just friends; I'm not going to insult her by pretending that I suddenly woke up one morning and found myself head over heels in love with her. No, if anything, I'm .... I'm learning to care for her more deeply than before, the better I get to know her," Jason explained. Tommy shook his head.
"That's exactly what happened to me -- and Kat knows it," he said. "Look how we turned out. Can you blame her for wanting more this time?"
"No, but I'm gonna kick myself forever if I don't at least try!"
Over the next few days, Jason researched every bit of information about activities, special events and leisure facilities he could think of. He nearly ransacked the Stone County Tourist Information Office, coming away with a sackful of brochures, booklets and leaflets. Both local newspaper switchboards nearly turned down his repeated calls for news, and he'd spent hours on his free Wednesday afternoon searching the internet for things to do this coming weekend. As a result, he now knew probably more about recreational things than Mayor Carrington and her colleague from Stone Canyon combined.
The Multiplex and various other, smaller movie theaters, showing everything from foreign language films to a silent movie revival, he rejected out of hand. Some addresses might be worth looking into later, but taking Kat to the movies simply wasn't special enough.
Sports and games were equally out of the question; Kat would willingly go along with the gang, but her real interests lay with diving and swimming events, having been a serious Pan-Global hopeful herself once, and there were none scheduled right now. And while Jason was keenly interested in a lot of sports and loved watching not only pro performances but amateurs as well, this was about Kat, not him, so he put that stack of brochures and newspaper clippings away, too.
Art and crafts exhibitions and fairs might be nice and interesting to the lovely blonde, but generally bored Jason to tears; he enjoyed rambling along for an hour or two, willingly carrying packages and shopping bags, but he couldn't afford to antagonize Kat by letting her see his indifference. Another venue was discarded.
Which left two handfuls of brochures from various restaurants, clubs, theaters, concerts and the like. Some of the advertised events were out of date already, others would take place too late; from the rest, Jason removed those he detested or knew Kat couldn't stand, reducing the opportunities even further. He sighed as he surveyed the selection he was left with. Taking Kat to a fancy dinner was one possibility, but it would only take a few hours one evening at best, and he was really looking for something to do during the whole two days she'd granted him. He glanced a bit wistfully at the colorful prospectuses from places farther away; the bigger cities within reach, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, naturally offered a far greater range of activities, as did the tourist attractions in various well-known areas, but Jason seriously doubted Kat would agree to an overnight trip; a lot were simply too far away to make the trip back and forth on one day feasible, and many of them plainly were out of his budget.
"Wish I could take you on one of these, Kat," he murmured to himself, thumbing through a booklet advertising a leisurely cruise across San Francisco Bay. It didn't sound like much and certainly wasn't anything fancy, but there'd be landfalls at several interesting spots, shipboard activities, a black-tie dinner and dancing, but at $350 per person for even the simplest cabin -- and that was assuming Kat would even consent to sharing one with him in the most innocent way -- it was totally over his means. Jason was living comfortably on what he made at the dojo, had sufficient medical insurance and could afford a good car and his own apartment -- he refused to live rent-free although his folks would've been more than willing to waive the cost -- but he could not allow himself to splurge like this on pure indulgence. Not even to persuade his pretty friend to take one last chance on him.
On Friday evening, Jason still was no closer to a solution of what he was going to do to change Kat's mind; Rocky and Tommy had tried to help, but he'd rejected a lot of their suggestions out of hand. Flowers were nice, and he knew Kat loved them, but it wasn't special enough. Giving Kat jewellery was out of the question for more than one reason -- really good quality again was out of his budget, Jason most certainly didn't want to buy trash, and besides, their relationship simply hadn't developed that far yet. If he ever managed to gain her love, it would be another matter, but it was not an option now.
Just yesterday, Tommy had come across an ad for a famous ballet company who were touring California; the performance was in Los Angeles, but that wouldn't be too much of a problem. Eagerly, Jason had called the number provided during lunch break, only to find out that the event was nearly sold out .... and the few VIP packages left over were WAY too expensive. Disheartened, Jason ate a solitary dinner. What was he going to do? He simply couldn't afford a lot of things, not if he didn't want to dip into his savings and thereby possibly jeopardizing his professional future with his friends. And when he'd tried to get some advice from his mother, in very oblique terms, her remark that she'd always loved his home-made presents the most hadn't been very helpful. He doubted drawing a card or hammering together a doorstopper would impress Kat much.
However, it set him to thinking in a new direction.
Helen Scott always maintained that money wasn't the important thing in a gift, but the thought and care for the presentee that went into it. "You can't buy love," was her motto, even today, and Jason knew that a gift bought at a bargain counter was as much appreciated as a brand name item .... so long as he bought to delight somebody else, not to make himself look good.
The sports news were on, but Jason hardly heard the results. He was too busy recalling what the lovely blonde liked most .... what she had mentioned enjoying .... guessing at what her expectations might be. It helped that they had been friends for several years, and slowly, very slowly an idea began to form in his mind. It was crazy, it was not at all what he wished to do, it would most certainly totally confuse Kat .... but he was getting desperate, and it might just be unusual enough to catch her interest.
*I'll do it,* he decided at last. *I just hope I won't be making the biggest mistake of my life!*
Long after he'd gone to bed, Jason was still praying that his plan would work as he stared into the darkness, waiting for the dawn.
Kat woke up to the insistent ringing of her doorbell. Disoriented and more than half-asleep, she stumbled out of bed and to her door, pressing the release without thinking. Pushing her dishevelled hair out of her eyes, she managed to retain just enough presence of mind to peek through the spy hole before opening the door, but was thoroughly confused when it wasn't the mailman, a delivery person or the building's janitor, but Jason bounding up the stairs, a bakery carton and various shopping bags in his hands. He grinned and winked at her door as if he knew she was standing on the other side.
Yawning hugely, Kat fumbled for the keys she'd left in the lock.
"Jase? What are you doing here?" she mumbled around another yawn as she squinted through the narrow gap left by the safety chain.
"Bringing breakfast," he announced cheerfully, dark eyes sparkling even in the dim hallway. "May I come in?"
"I .... I'm not even dressed yet," Kat protested half-heartedly, slowly coming awake. The aroma of freshly-baked croissants from the box he held tantalized her nostrils.
"I promise not to look," Jason coaxed, hiding his smile. "Please, Kat? I've been up for an hour already, and I'm starving!"
Shaking herself, grumbling under her breath about friends with decidedly inhuman habits, she opened the last couple of security devices and let him in. Jason stepped into the neat apartment and watched until Kat had closed the door again, then waited politely for her to precede him into her small kitchen. He suppressed a grin as he took in her appearance – the roomy, shapeless pyjama top in inch-wide pink candystripes, her sleep-tousled hair, the pillow creases on one rosy cheek and her bare feet (he loved the bright-pink nails!) which she was alternately rubbing against her calves, to protect them from the cool tiles. He deposited his bakery box on the small kitchen table and began to unpack the other goodies he'd brought, watching Kat out of the corner of his eyes. Jason thought she looked absolutely adorable .... even when she caught sight of the time and turned towards him with a scowl.
"Jason, it's barely 8am! It's Saturday! The one day of the week I can sleep in, and .... what are you doing here, anyway? Besides buying me pastries I shouldn't be eating in the first place?" Even while she was scolding him, she opened the box, broke off a corner from the Danish on top and started to nibble at the flaky, buttery morsel. He laughed at the expression crossing her face, a funny mixture of caloric guilt and tastebud bliss as she licked the crumbs daintily off her fingertips. Kat scowled again, but after a second joined him.
Still chuckling, Jason snagged her around the waist, hauled her towards him and planted a teasing kiss on her nose, then turned Kat around and gave her a playful swat on her shapely rear.
"If you say so. Now go get showered and dressed while I make breakfast. Coffee or tea?"
Kat automatically answered "Tea" and took a couple of steps towards her bedroom, when she stopped in her tracks. Jason had never behaved exactly like this towards her; sure, they'd been friends for years, ever since his return from Europe, he'd even been to her apartment before, but despite their growing closeness recently, they had yet to achieve the kind of .... of intimate casualness he was displaying now. Or so she'd thought.
"Wait a minute. What is this all about, anyway?" It had to have to do with his intention of making her change her mind about breaking up. Try as she might, she couldn't suppress a small shiver of expectation skittering over her skin. *I wonder what he has planned .... hopefully, something nice!* She would've been less than Human if that thought hadn't exhilarated her just a little.
Suddenly serious, Jason stopped arranging the breakfast things and took the young woman by her shoulders, holding her close but not quite embracing her. His eyes looked deeply into the crystal orbs, willing her to listen, to understand.
"Kat .... you promised me this weekend, and I think I may have found a way to show you why I was so insistent about it. Having breakfast with you is just one of the things I wanted to do."
"I thought as much, but-"
He interrupted her gently, but firmly.
"Kat, I'm not going to tell you what my plans are for today and tomorrow; sorry. I give you my word it won't involve anything embarrassing or strenuous or dangerous or whatever, it doesn't require any special preparations on your part, but .... but I need you not to ask any questions about what we're doing. I want you just to go along with me. Can you give me that? Can you .... well, trust me that much?"
"Of course I can. I always trusted you, Jase," she answered sincerely. The relieved smile and grateful look warming his eyes were more than enough reward. "But .... what if I really don't like to do some of the things you've planned?" Kat asked a bit warily, not yet committing herself. Sometimes, her notions of embarrassing or dangerous didn't quite agree with Jason's -- or any of the guys', really. She needn't have worried.
"Then all you have to say is no, and we'll take it from there," Jason replied promptly and reassuringly. "I want you -- no, I want us to have fun this weekend, in all senses of the word. Nothing more, nothing less. Bringing you breakfast is only the first step."
She tilted her head and looked at her would-be boyfriend for a long minute before she let a slow, impish smile curve her lips.
"You promise not to drag me rock-climbing, skydiving, bungee-jumping or whitewater-rafting? Not to some obscure sporting event nobody has ever heard of, or make me listen to some perfectly awful local band?"
Jason laughed and lifted his right hand. "Scout's Honor!" Then, he sobered again. "If you still have questions, I'll explain everything tomorrow night, Kat. My word on it. Just let me show you ...." He abruptly closed his mouth, making it clear he wasn't going to elaborate further. By now, though, Katherine was thoroughly intrigued. This was a side of Jason she hadn't seen before, at least not quite like that. The playfulness, the mystery .... and the fresh croissants .... were nigh irresistible. With an inward shrug, knowing that she could indeed trust him, she decided to embark on the adventure he was offering her.
"In that case .... I guess I better hurry, don't I?"
Heaving a relieved sigh, wiping imaginary sweat off his brow with a melodramatic gesture that set Kat to giggling uncontrollably, Jason shooed her off.
"Yes. Go on, get outta here -- let a man make breakfast in peace!"
"Right," Kat laughed, and left the kitchen. Jason was just filling the coffeemaker at the sink, when she poked her head back through the door.
"I'll take my egg soft-boiled -- and don't burn the water!"
Jason picked up a sponge and threatened to throw it at her, his ferocious frown completely spoiled by his broad grin, and giggling to herself, the blonde scooted off towards her shower.
Her egg was done to perfection, and Kat licked her spoon clean with an expression of little-girl relish and delight that made Jason chuckle audibly. She glared at him for a second, then had to laugh, too.
"Don't say it!" she warned.
"Who, me?" he protested, with an oh-so-innocent expression Kat didn't buy for a minute. "I didn't say anything!"
"But you thought it."
"Yes, you did."
"Jason Scott, don't you try to deny it ...."
Jason couldn't help himself, he started to laugh outright.
"Deny what? Kat -- can you tell me exactly what you thought I thought? Because I think I somehow sorta lost track of this conversation ...."
The blonde dancer looked up at her companion over the rim of her teacup, blue eyes going wide as she replayed their exchange in her mind. Then she, too, broke into laughter.
"Oh no .... is it my imagination, or did we sound like a couple of grade schoolers just now?"
He winked at her as he poured the last of the coffee into his mug and refilled her tea. "Grade schoolers, or Rocky. Take your pick."
Kat giggled. "That's so mean! I thought he's your friend?"
"He is, but that doesn't mean I can't see his little quirks for what they are," Jason smiled. "Must be having all those siblings."
"Uh huh. Sure. And what's your excuse?" she teased.
"I need an excuse? For what?"
"I don't know; you tell me."
"Nooooo idea," Jason declared with vast insincerity, swiftly stacking their dishes now that they were both finished with breakfast. The two bantered and teased through cleanup and were in high spirits when they'd cleared everything away. Kat rinsed the cups and left them on a rack to dry, then turned to her companion with shining eyes.
"What now? I know I promised you not to ask any questions, but surely I'm entitled to know what your immediate plans are?"
Jason dug a small cardboard box out of one of the bags he'd brought and dropped it into Kat's palm.
"I thought .... before anything else, I'd take care of this."
Bewildered, Kat looked at the strangely-shaped metallic objects inside.
"And what exactly is 'this'?"
He grinned. "The spark plugs Tommy got for your car two weeks ago and hasn't gotten around yet to replacing. I filched them from his desk before I came here."
"Jason -" Kat started, a dubious expression on her lovely face. He interpreted it correctly.
"Hey, I may not have Tommy's way with cars, but I do know how to replace plugs. Don't worry."
She regarded him silently for a minute, then shrugged. *Why the heck not?*
"Okay. While you're at it, I might as well clear out the trunk. I still have some stuff in there from our last recital ...."
Somehow or other, Jason not only exchanged the spark plugs, but also checked and refilled oil, water and window cleaner in her car while Kat was removing lots of small débris and junk from her car. She ended up giving the interior a thorough all-over cleaning. When she crawled out of the backseat at last, having polished the windows and brushed the seats within an inch of their lives, Jason had already started on his own vehicle, which was parked right next to hers. Without comment, Kat tackled the inside of his Jeep Cherokee as well, keeping up a steady stream of mock-insults about the things she found under the seats and in out-of-the-way corners -- especially about the two big duffle bags with dirty laundry which tended to spill over if moved. Jason gave as good as he got, though, and both young people were breathless with laughter when both cars were finally spotless.
Throwing the oily rag he'd used to wipe down a few lines into a trash can, Jason surveyed the cars, then looked consideringly at Kat. She grinned back at him.
"Well," he drawled, "we might as well take our cars to 'Mr. Wash' and clean the outside as well. It'd be a shame to stop now that we're halfway done. Whaddaya think?"
"I think you're crazy, but why not?" Kat agreed, then led him back to her apartment. Jason disappeared in the bathroom with an old shirt and shorts he'd pulled out of the laundry in his car and Kat swiftly rummaged in a far corner of her closet. Five minutes later, both emerged, dressed now in rather ratty-looking shorts and t-shirts; the only difference being that Kat's clothes weren't wrinkled and somewhat smelly as well.
She scrunched her nose up cutely, plucking gingerly at a ripped-off sleeve.
"Not exactly what I'd call dressing up for a date, Mr. Scott," she teased.
Jason naughtily poked at a purple juice stain right in the middle of her belly that had never washed out.
"Why, Ms. Hillard, I'm only trying to match your impeccable fashion expertise!"
Kat swatted half-heartedly at his finger, but had to laugh. Slipping on an old pair of flip-flops, she grabbed her keys and gestured Jason towards the door.
"At least nobody can accuse us of being inappropriately dressed."
"There's a dress code for washing cars?" Jason asked innocently as he waited for her to lock the door.
"Sure. Didn't you know?" The blonde gave him a very prim, school-marmish look that had her friend laughing so hard he could hardly put the key into the ignition before they drove off towards the car-washing facility.
They returned after two hours, both still in high spirits .... and thoroughly soaked.
"I really ought to do my laundry today," she remarked, glancing at her dust-streaked shirt and the oil stains on her shorts. "We might as well throw my things in with yours and get it all done together."
"Sure, why not?" Jason replied casually, hiding his delight that she was so nicely playing along with his plans -- if unknowingly. "We can do that after lunch. -- Can I use your bathroom again to get changed?"
In answer, Kat just threw a dark purple towel at Jason, who caught it deftly and disappeared in the small bath again. She walked to her closet, stripped off her sodden shirt and shorts and put on a robe, all set to change places with him, when he came back out, dressed once more in his lightweight jeans and a near-black polo shirt. Just as Kat was about to pass him, Jason stopped her.
"Why don't I pick up some lunch while you dry your hair?" he asked with a smile. "We can eat here, if you don't mind."
"I don't, but you don't have to buy anything," Kat protested. "You already brought breakfast; I can probably whip something up for us ...."
"It's fine," he soothed. "I don't want you to exert yourself too much, but if you insist, we can think of what to do for dinner. Together," Jason grinned. "Meanwhile .... can I take your keys, please? I'll be back soon."
Sighing only half seriously, she gave in. "Okay." Shaking her head at the jaunty salute he threw her, Kat then chose a fresh t-shirt and plugged in her hair dryer. Running a hand through the limp strands framing her face, she decided she might just have time enough for a second shower, if she hurried.
Kat was fastening a barrette in her freshly-washed and dry hair when she heard Jason letting himself in. *Perfect timing!* she thought, stepping into her sandals and ambling towards the kitchen, curious as to what Jason had brought for lunch. While in the shower, she'd reflected on the strange turn her morning had taken; cleaning and washing two cars certainly had not been among the scenarios she'd envisioned. But it had been fun, she would've needed to do it soon, anyway, and thus she dismissed it from her mind.
Her heart sank a little when she saw upon entering the kitchen that Jason was unloading bags from a well-known local fast-food restaurant. Not that she was completely against fast food on occasion, but there were much healthier ways of eating, and when she was to calculate all the empty calories .... especially after the rich breakfast she'd had ....
*Don't even think about it! He meant well, I'm sure.*
To her surprise, though, what emerged from the bags and boxes were fresh salads, two dozen marinated chicken wings -- grilled, not deep-fried -- and two large bottles of carbonated water. Pleasantly surprised, Kat impulsively stopped Jason from opening the packages of salad dressing.
"Leave those; they're too fatty. I'll make some vinaigrette."
He sent an appreciative smile her way and put the wings into her microwave. Working companionably together, the two soon had the table set, with a couple of bread slices and fresh milk, leftovers from breakfast, rounding out their simple meal.
"You know, this really surprised me," Kat confessed, indicating the food as she bit into her fourth chicken wing with gusto, licking the spicy marinade delicately from her fingertips.
"It did? How?" Jason wanted to know, chasing a stubborn cherry tomato round his bowl. He finally speared it with his fork and crunched down on the small red globe with a smug grin that made Kat chuckle.
"Well .... to be honest, when I saw the wrappers, I expected .... um ...."
"Cholesterol City?" he winked when she faltered momentarily. "Now what would give you that notion?"
Kat blushed, but nodded. "Yeah; back in school, you guys always used to positively wallow in fries, and burgers, and ...."
Her broad-shouldered friend took another swallow of water before answering, then looked at her.
"Back in school, I didn't need to watch my weight, either."
She snorted incredulously.
"You? Watch your weight? Mr. Workout himself? Yeah, right!"
The laughter died in Jason's eyes, to make room for a more serious expression.
"Honest. Kat, it's true that I like my fries, with loads of ketchup, too, but I really have to watch what I'm eating. Not to the point of actually dieting, but ...."
"But why?" she queried, bewildered. "I mean, you're doing your karate every day .... and you never seem to be especially careful when we're having dinner, or something ...."
Jason leaned back in his chair, grinning a bit ruefully.
"Yeah, but every dinner date with you means an extra hour in the gym, or a longer workout, the next day." Seeing that Kat was genuinely interested, Jason went on. "Part of my staying away from too much fast food is philosophical; I'm sure you've heard Tommy's 'Your body is a temple' speech, haven't you?"
She nodded. "Of course. He doesn't drink alcohol at all, either. Which you do, though; never in excess, but you do have a drink now and then."
"That's because I don't have to contend with Tommy's Native American heritage; did you know that there's a genetic condition in Native Americans that makes them very vulnerable to alcohol and its effects? You should ask David about it one of these days; he can give you a very detailed explanation. And the operative words for me are 'now and then' and 'never to excess'. I'm not saying I've never drunk too much; I have, but one hangover was more than enough to cure me from overindulging, thank you very much." He grimaced at the memory. "But to get back to the philosophy part -- among other things, karate teaches you basically that you are what you eat. And I've always tried to follow the tenets as much as possible, without bending over backwards, though."
"Makes sense," Kat agreed. "After all, you can't very well expect your students to follow the rules and not do so yourself."
The two teachers shared a rueful look of understanding, both having had similar experiences in their respective fields.
"Yeah, well, 'Do as I say, not do as I do' has never been a favorite motto of mine," Jason said, then went on. "There's another reason for eating balanced meals, though -- one that goes even beyond the obvious health benefits."
To Kat's surprise, Jason actually blushed. Intrigued, she took a sip of her mineral waiter and waited for him to continue. After swallowing the last bite of his salad, he did so.
"If you want to know the truth, I learned the hard way in Geneva that I can't afford not to be careful about my eating habits. I've always been pretty active, even as a kid, so that it never mattered much what or how much I ate. Plus, my mom's a health nut and pretty much made sure that Dad and I always had at least fresh fruit to munch on instead of pretzels and chips. And when we became Rangers .... between all the fighting, the karate tournaments Tommy and I took part in, football and all the other stuff we did, I just didn't have to worry about calories. Then, I went to Switzerland. Almost from one day to the next, I went from leading a high-energy, extremely active life to spending most of my time in classrooms or conferences. Oh, Zack and I still worked out, but no way to the extent I was used to."
"Uh-oh." Having fought her own battles of the bulge countless times, Kat could see where this was heading. "How much did you gain?"
Jason sighed. "Nearly 25 pounds in three months," he admitted. The dancer winced in sympathy.
"Right. It took me nearly twice as long to lose all of it again, and let me tell you, it was damned hard. Then I came home .... and you know what happened then," he finished. "I've been careful ever since, and by now I know when I can indulge -- and how often."
"And exactly how much extra work you need to do to even things out in the days after," Kat sighed melodramatically, and the two dissolved into shared laughter, unspoken between them the feeling of having found yet another small piece of common ground, cementing their friendship even further. Meanwhile, the food on the table still vanished astonishingly fast, until only a pile of bones remained.
"Well, what do you say we try and work off some of the calories by doing the dishes, then laundry?" Jason then put forth and got up, starting to collect the trash into the largest paper bag.
"What dishes?" Kat wanted to know as she carried the cutlery and glasses they'd used to the sink, casting a sardonic look at the cardboard containers and paper napkins. He just winked and made a big show out of packing up the débris as neatly as possible, which he then deposited ceremoniously into the trash container Kat held open for him. She curtsied prettily; he bowed with a grand flourish; and both nearly fell over each other laughing.
"Milady, may I escort you to the laundromat?" Jason asked with yet another bow as soon as Kat had filled a basket with her wash. Still caught in the spirit of their little game, Kat just nodded regally, handed her heaped basket to the snickering young man and sailed haughtily out of her apartment, somehow managing to convey the impression of sweeping skirts and a flowing train despite her comfortable walking shorts.
They were lucky; the laundromat was fairly empty for once, and they managed to snag four washers in a row. Quickly sorting their things, the two tossed items hither and yon, giggling like children when one of Jason's t-shirts tangled mid-air with a pastel-colored towel of Kat's. Starting the machines, both then settled down to wait. After a few minutes of companionable silence, Kat spoke up.
"You know .... since you brought breakfast and lunch, why don't I go shop for dinner?" She inclined her head across the street, where a small grocery store beckoned. Kat was lucky to have this tiny shopping center with most conveniences of daily life within easy reach of her apartment.
"Kat, you don't have to-" Jason started to protest, but she stopped him with a smile and a hand on his forearm.
"I know I don't, but I want to, okay?"
Seeing the sincerity and warmth in the blue eyes, Jason gave in gracefully. "I won't say no, then; you're a fantastic cook." Kat had provided enough home-cooked food to the gang's parties for him to know. "What did you have in mind? Something I can help you with?"
Katherine looked startled for a moment; neither her Dad nor Tommy ever had offered to help around the kitchen. She quickly caught herself, though. Going mentally through her options, an impish smile lit her face as she turned back to her friend.
"Do you think you can use a sharp knife without chopping off any fingers?" she inquired.
Puffing his chest out comically, Jason nodded. "Just call me the fastest blade in the West," he boasted. "Why?"
"Well, since we both have to count calories, what do you say to a Chinese veggie stir-fry?"
"Sounds perfect," he agreed enthusiastically.
The blonde jumped energetically to her feet.
"It's settled, then. Why don't you wait for the wash to finish, and I'll go for groceries?"
Kat returned in time to help Jason transfer the laundry to the dryers, but had to dash off again for a few ingredients the store didn't carry. Thoughtfully, she'd bought a magazine for him to read while he waited, and he settled on the uncomfortable chairs with a soda, intermittently watching the big machines. The one holding their lightweight things finished before Kat returned, and Jason placed her basket on a folding table. Sorting through the pile of still-warm clothes, folding and placing them mechanically onto 'his' and 'hers' stacks, he determinedly reined in his wayward thoughts from dangerous territory, manfully ignoring certain physical twinges while he carefully separated Kat's delicate lingerie from his dress shirts.
*I'm NOT gonna imagine how she looks in these things!*
However, the thought, once conceived, wouldn't go away (augmented as it was by memories of Kat on the beach last summer, wearing a perfectly decent but nonetheless very skimpy bikini), and Jason had to struggle to keep heated color from flooding his face as he worked. As he was about halfway done with the basket, a slight commotion at the door caught his attention. Looking up, he groaned inwardly.
*Of all the laundromats in Angel Grove, of all days of the week, they HAD to come in here! Couldn't those two clowns at least have chosen another time?!?*
The 'clowns' were his old classmates Bulk and Skull, who had just entered the facility with several duffel bags filled with dirty laundry; and the disturbance had been caused by Skull, who'd nearly knocked a basket full of linen from a lady's hand. Resignedly, Jason shifted position so that his back was towards the two, hoping against hope that neither would recognize him from behind – and if they did, leave him please alone, at least until he was done handling Kat's underwear.
He had no such luck.
Jason was in the process of turning a pair of silky panties right-side out when an all-too-familiar voice came over his left shoulder.
"Well lookee here -- seems like Mr. Exercise has a more .... delicate .... side to him than we suspected. Or do you think there's some deeper meaning to this, Skull?"
The leer in Farkus Bulkmeyer's voice was unmistakeable, as was the suggestive undertone in Eugene Skullovich's braying laughter.
"Yeah, Bulkie .... but he sure wasn't wearing this stuff in gym class!"
Skull tried to pick up a lacy peach bra, but Jason managed to place a large hand on it just in time. He could do nothing about his flaming cheeks, although his voice remained admirably calm, with only the tiniest quiver, when he looked at his former classmates.
"These aren't mine, but a friend's who was simply sharing a washer load with me -- not that it's any of your business, guys."
"Yeah, yeah, that's what you say now," Bulk needled, but his small blue eyes held no malice as he walked around the folding table to face Jason. The martial artist looked searchingly at the two young men standing opposite him, big grins on their faces. It was quite obvious that they were hugely enjoying his embarrassment, but while they hadn't become really friends, the former Rangers had established a casually friendly relationship with their erstwhile nemeses.
"It's what I'll say tomorrow, too, Bulk," Jason said, feeling his blush slowly subside. He quirked a grin at Bulk and Skull, his sense of the ridiculous reasserting himself. *I KNEW something like this was gonna happen; but why THEM?!? Rocky and Tommy will bust their guts when they hear about this!* "Besides, peach isn't really my color, wouldn't you agree?" He hoped the two couldn't detect the slight tremor in his hands as he resumed sorting his laundry.
"Oh, I dunno," Bulk drawled, smirking slightly as he gave Jason an exaggeratedly thorough once-over. "I think you might look cuuuute!"
Skull nearly doubled over with hysterical laughter, and exasperatedly, Jason lobbed a balled-up pair of boxers at him. Used to this kind of treatment from his longtime friend, Skull agilely evaded the soft missile. It fluttered harmlessly to the ground. Before Jason could react, his former classmate bowed exaggeratedly and picked up the innocent garment with mincing fingers.
"There you are, sir."
"Thanks," Jason grumbled, snatching his underwear back. He couldn't help his shoulders from shaking with suppressed laughter as he tried for one of the steely looks he used to give them .... and failed miserably. *God, don't let Kat come back right now! PLEASE!*
For once, his prayers were answered; right then, two washers became available on the other side of the room and the two former bullies retreated to their own corner and settled down with comic books or just to watch their shirts spin in the big commercial washers. Quickly, Jason finished his task, stacked the separated piles of garments into their respective basket and bags, folded the other laundry rather haphazardly on top as soon as it was finished and hustled everything out to the car just in time for Kat's return. She looked somewhat askance at the three containers lined up right behind the trunk while Jason unlocked the lid.
"Finished already? If you'd waited a bit, I could've helped you sort and carry-"
She knew that not even someone as strong as Jason would've been able to take everything out at once; not so much because of the weight, but because of the sheer bulk and unwieldiness. Secretly, though, she was pleasantly surprised that she wouldn't have to go back inside the stuffy room full of hot, damp air with its conflicting smells of dirty clothes and detergents. Jason grinned reassuringly at her as he lifted first Kat's basket, then his duffle bags inside, then quickly tucked her shopping bags into secure corners.
"It's okay, Kat; I didn't mind. Besides, it was getting a bit stuffy inside," he fibbed slightly, not wanting to admit that he hadn't been entirely unaffected by handling her undies -- in more ways than just having been 'caught' at it by Bulk and Skull. "I liked it better to go outside and wait for you here."
Kat looked at her friend a bit skeptically. She could sense there was more to the situation -- there was a certain look in Jason's dark eyes that told about it -- but for the life of her, she couldn't put a finger on what it might be.
*Well, it's probably not important, anyway,* she shrugged mentally. *Everything certainly LOOKS normal enough.*
Jason opened the car door for her with an exaggeratedly grandiose flourish, and she had to giggle as she climbed in; walking around to the driver's side, he silently thanked his lucky stars that it diverted her enough so that she never noticed Bulk and Skull sauntering outside into the laundromat's parking lot. Taking the long way to the exit so he didn't have to pass by them, Jason figuratively wiped the sweat off his brow.
*Whew! That was a close one .... wouldn't want those two bozos to know I was touching Kat's lingerie!*
He never stopped to question just why it was so important to keep his lady friend's identity a secret from his classmates as he guided the car into the flowing traffic towards Kat's apartment.
Kat returned to the kitchen from putting her laundry away; she had blushed hotly even though she'd been all by herself when she had realized that Jason had been the one to sort her things so neatly into separate piles. However, the dark eyes smiled at her just as warmly as ever; there was no hint of suggestiveness or anything else in his expression, so any lingering embarrassment -- *What WERE you thinking, Hillard?!? Leaving your lingerie for a GUY to sort?* -- soon faded, and she was able to laugh and joke with Jason as always.
They shared a cup of coffee before a chance remark sent Jason for Kat's tool kit -- what little of it there was -- and he proceeded to fix a few minor things – a door hinge here, a dripping faucet there while teasing her mercilessly all the time about her ineptness wit a screwdriver and the inability of the female gender in general to deal with matters mechanical. She gave as good as she got, however, retaliating by dredging up every single culinary and fashion crime her male bachelor friends had ever committed. That, of course, led to more pithy comments from Jason, and soon the two were bickering back and forth like kindergartners while all sorts of little things got done as if by magic around the cosy apartment.
Kat honestly couldn't remember when she'd had more fun in what seemed like ages.
Somehow or other, the friends drifted back towards the kitchen when the time to start dinner came, although the blonde had offered that her companion could watch the Saturday sports broadcasts if he so wished. Jason declined.
"Nah, it's okay. If you don't mind the background noise, I can listen in on the games from the kitchen while I help you chop all that green stuff you bought?"
"Are you sure?" she asked, giving him a somewhat skeptical look that provoked a broad grin. He grabbed her and deposited yet another teasing kiss on her nose as he passed by to click on the TV in the living room.
"Yes, I am. For one thing, I'm not so hung up on watching sports that I have to spend all afternoon planted on a couch in front of the TV, and for another, I don't want to leave the work all to you if you're fixing our food. You're much better company than any sportscaster I know. Prettier, too."
"That's not saying much," Kat mock-grumbled, pushing him away, but she couldn't help a pleased blush from staining her cheeks a delicate red. Dumping a bunch of carrots on the kitchen table, she thrust a paring knife, cutting board and bowl at Jason. "Here, peel and cut these; and for your information, I did not buy only 'green stuff'!"
Exasperated, Kat straightened from taking the mushrooms out of the 'fridge and stemmed her hands on her hips.
"Jason, the only green things are the sweet peas and the onions. The carrots are orange, the bell peppers are red, the zucchini are yellow ...." her voice trailed off as she noticed his barely suppressed laughter. "What?" she asked warily.
"They're vegetables, right? Vegetables -- all of 'em -- qualify as green stuff. Just ask Tommy, or Rocky," he declared with a straight face, quite obviously proud of that bit of male logic.
Kat opened her mouth to reply, couldn't think of a single sensible thing to say and closed it again with a snap. Before she could stop herself, she snatched up a sponge from the sink and threw it at Jason, who dodged the soppy missile with ease. Her blue eyes widened as the sponge hit the wall behind him with a wet splotch and dropped to the floor.
"I can't believe I did that," she murmured incredulously, watching as drops of water slowly coursed down the kitchen wall from the area of impact to form a small puddle on the tiles. "I don't throw things. I don't!"
Jason could no longer contain himself and broke into laughter. Quickly, he got up, grabbed a dish towel and wiped off the wall and the floor. Finished, he presented Kat with her sponge on his outstretched palm.
"Promise not to throw it at me again, and you can have it back," he teased, liking her befuddlement. Kat simply looked adorable, in his not unbiased opinion.
"What if I don't?" the blonde asked after taking a moment to collect her scattered wits. Jason pretended to mull over that, then let a slow, devilish smile play around his mouth that made Kat want to slug him .... or kiss him, she wasn't at all sure which.
"In that case, I might just have to give it back to you .... like this!" Before Kat could react, he reached for her and deposited the moisture-leaking green square right inside the collar of her shirt. She squealed in mixed outrage and shock and snatched the offending thing away before it could slide down her chest, then without thinking proceeded to pummel Jason wherever she could reach.
"YUCK! You are SO mean! I hate you! Eeww!! Don't do that to me, you big lunk! Just wait until I get my hands on you!"
Which proved to be not too difficult; while Jason was by far stronger and could easily have fended Kat off, he was laughing much too hard to evade her blows .... which weren't very hard or serious, anyway. Kat couldn't maintain her indignation in the face of his mirth, and soon was laughing just as hard. She didn't resist when he finally caught her arms, immobilized her and enfolded her in a tight but comfortable embrace against his broad chest. The dancer placed her hands on his shoulders and looked into the sparkling eyes, her own equally bright as she pouted prettily.
"That wasn't nice."
Jason's eyes softened as he grinned and winked.
"No. But fun."
He laughed and hugged her closer.
"Come on, admit it -- you enjoyed it as much as I did."
"I most certainly do not enjoy having a wet sponge stuck down my shirt," Kat grumbled, but could feel her lips begin to quiver. It had been fun to tussle with Jason like that .... not that she'd ever admit it out loud. *Who knows what he might do next!* But it was sure nice to be held like this!
He tilted up her chin. "Weeellllllll .... okay. Will it help if I promise not to do it again?"
She fought harder against her desire to smile. "It would, if I believed you meant it."
Jason chuckled ruefully. "Um, yeah. Okay, I promise not to do it again today?"
Kat lost out to laughter. "Oh, all right. I guess I can trust you that far."
"You can always trust me, Kat -- no matter what," Jason said softly, suddenly very serious.
"I know," she whispered back, and on an impulse, kissed him briefly on the lips. A swift rush of warmth exploded between them, but was gone almost as soon as it appeared. Before either could say or do anything else, she gently disengaged herself from Jason's arms to turn back to the work counter.
"Come on, the 'green stuff', as you called it, won't chop itself. We have to have everything else ready before I heat up the wok. And I'm starving."
The young man didn't want the moment to end, but respected his friend's need for a little space; the look in the blue eyes, while a little confused, had also been just the tiniest bit .... tender? Hope swelled within him and enabled him to sit back down to complete his own part of the preparations with outward calm.
Jason scooped yet another spoonful of aromatic rice into the soy sauce on his plate. He proceeded to mix it with the last of the crispy, done-to-perfection vegetables and ate it with genuine relish.
"This was great," he commented after he was done. "You're a terrific cook, Kat. Thanks for doing this."
"Thanks," she smiled, pleased at the compliment. "It was no big deal, though -- I had to eat myself, after all."
"Yeah, but I would've had to go to a restaurant to get something half as good," he sincerely praised her efforts. "My mom taught me a few basics when I moved out, and I do okay with spaghetti and stuff, but I couldn't possibly have cooked something like this on my own."
"Maybe I should teach you, along with Tommy and Rocky," she giggled, amused at the sudden image of the three karate masters in aprons and wielding spoons and spatulas around her small stove. "Being able to cook is a useful skill to have -- in fact, it could almost be called a form of self-defense as well. Against the dangers of your own cooking."
Jason laughed appreciatively at her small joke and began to gather the dishes.
"Hey, we're all pretty mean hands with a can opener, our microwaves are state-of-the-art, and we read instructions on packages real well," he boasted, surreptitiously snitching a last forkful of stir-fry from the serving bowl before placing it in the sink.
"Uh huh. And that's why all three of you run home to your mothers for home cooking at least once a week."
"We do not!"
However, the half-indignant protest died when Kat just gave Jason a patently challenging look, one that clearly said 'oh yeah?', daring him to contradict her statement. He smiled sheepishly.
"Well, okay, maybe we do."
"There's no 'maybe' about it," she retorted drily but without malice as she turned on the tap to let hot water run into the sink. Jason handed her the glasses they'd used and reached for a dish towel, but Kat shook her head, taking it out of his hands.
"No, it's okay, I'll do it," she said, wanting a few minutes to herself. Kat had no explanation for this sudden desire, but knew only that she needed to retreat a little bit from the easy intimacy they'd shared. *It's almost as if we're married.* The stray thought came seemingly out of nowhere, and she dismissed it instantly. *But we're not. And I'm NOT going to date him just because he's fun to be with and helps with the kitchen chores!* However, her vague musings were disrupted by Jason's protest.
"You did most of the cooking; I don't want to leave you with all of the dishes ..."
"Jason, it's fine. We didn't use all that many, we cleaned up the kitchen while the rice was steaming, and there's hardly enough to do for one person, much less two. Why don't you go and watch the second half or quarter or whatever of whichever game is showing on TV, and I'll be with you as soon as I'm done? Even from here, it sounds as if things are really heating up."
"It just doesn't seem fair," he murmured, but she'd successfully diverted his attention towards the living room, to the sports broadcast where the LA Lakers were apparently clobbering the Utah Jazz, if the crowd's noise level was any indication.
"I don't care about fair," Kat claimed, giving him a smile and a gentle shove. "Go on already. I won't need more than half an hour, tops."
Jason smiled back, reluctantly grateful. While he'd fully expected to devote all of the weekend to winning Kat over, he'd also really wanted to watch the game .... seeing it on tape hours later just wasn't the same.
"Are you sure?" he asked nevertheless.
"Quite sure," she replied.
"Then thanks," he said, moving towards the door. However, just as he was about to pass her, he stopped and cupped her face in both hands.
"I'll make it up to you somehow," Jason promised, and closed the few inches separating his mouth from hers. He'd only meant to give her a chaste, swift kiss, but somehow .... as soon as their lips touched, things changed. Without either making a conscious decision, their kiss deepened and intensified, producing a gentle heat that had Kat melting into Jason's embrace unhesitatingly.
They were clinging to each other when lack of air finally made them separate, and Kat looked wide-eyed into Jason's glowing eyes, nearly losing herself in the dark depths. A delicate blush suffused her cheeks as she realized what had just happened; not even their first kiss only such a short time ago had made her pulse speed up quite like this, and her lips had never tingled so, either. Involuntarily, she licked them, as if trying to savor the last of his taste on them.
Jason caught his breath as the moist pink tongue-tip flickered across that soft mouth, and he bent to capture it .... but was just a fraction of a second too late. Instead, he opted for a second kiss, less intense but as tender as the first before he released the lovely young woman from his arms. Hiding his extreme reluctance to let her go, he took a step backwards, both literally and figuratively.
"I'll be waiting for you," he murmured, not caring that his deep voice was slightly hoarse, and walked out of the small kitchen into the living room before he completely lost his head.
Kat watched Jason sink onto the couch, his back towards her, the only visible part of him his dark, spiky hair. Fighting the impulse to go after him and run her hands through the short strands until he'd turn and kiss her some more, she deliberately shut down all thought. Ignoring the warm glow in her body, she attacked the few dishes with determination, needing the routine task to regain her mental and physical equilibrium.
The station was switching to commercials when Katherine left the kitchen. After changing into leggings and a soft t-shirt, her usual lounging attire, she placed a small bowl of dried fruit chips within easy reach and brought their drinks along; she'd had a leftover half bottle of chardonnay, and they'd stretched it with mineral water into a wine cooler. Jason smiled his appreciation and lifted his arm in invitation; it seemed the most natural thing for both that Kat would tuck her legs onto the couch and snuggle into his side as they got comfortable.
The sports broadcast resumed with a report from a golf tournament, but Jason offered the remote to her.
"I've seen enough; I can always get the other results out of the paper tomorrow," he said. "Is there anything you'd like to watch?"
There was indeed a program Kat had been looking forward to watching, but it was not something she'd normally do in the presence of one of her male friends. But Jason's question had sounded sincere enough .... deciding it couldn't hurt to suggest it, she nodded.
"Actually, yes. Try channel 35."
Obligingly, Jason clicked on the appropriate buttons. The station logo formed, then disappeared, a woman's voice-over announced the 'Movie Classic Of The Week' and a catchy tune started to play as the opening credits flashed onto the screen.
"'An American In Paris'? What's that?" he asked, unfamiliar with the movie's title.
"It's one of the best dance movies ever made," Kat explained. "Even though it's about 50 years old by now." When Jason still looked slightly lost, she elaborated. "Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron star, with music by Gershwin."
Some of the names rang a bell, and Jason nodded. "What's the story?"
"Kelly plays a journalist living in Paris, and he falls in love with a French girl."
"And nothing. It's basically just a showcase for the music, the dancers and the incredible choreography." She grinned at his comical look of horror. "Come on, Jase -- how often have you guys made us girls watch the latest Jackie Chan or Steven Seagal flick? Kelly's to a dancer what Chan is to a karateka."
"What, not Bruce Lee?" he asked with mock disappointment, but Kat had a ready answer along with a teasing twinkle for him.
"No, that'd be Fred Astaire. He's on next week. Want to come over and watch?"
He groaned, she giggled. "Well, turnabout's fair play. I got more than my fill on action films during High School."
"You could have said something," he groused after a moment's pause. "All those group outings we had at the Multiplex-"
"Were fun, even if Tanya and I didn't always like the films you guys chose." Jason looked vaguely mollified, so Kat elected to tease him a little. "Actually, the two of us talked to Aisha, Kim and Trini about this once, and we all agreed on one thing: of all our friends, the guy who was most fun to go to the movies with was ...." she paused dramatically, then said with perfect timing, "...Billy."
Jason was just taking a sip of his drink and nearly choked as he turned incredulous eyes on her.
"Billy?!?" he coughed.
*Gotcha!* Hugely amused, Kat patted his back until he got his breath under control again.
"Yeah. He was the only one who didn't insist on explosions, car chases, shootouts, naked ladies and whatnot, but would come watch a comedy or romance with us girls."
"Oh, chick flicks," Jason dismissed them with an airy wave, then scooted out of reach of Kat's half-hearted swat. "Stop hitting me!"
"Only if you stop being so .... so ...." she sputtered, then both broke into laughter. "I should make you go watch the foreign-language film festival with me just for this," she threatened, but relented when he promised to give at least 'An American In Paris' an honest chance and after some more good-natured teasing, the two settled down to watch the classic movie. To his surprise, Jason found that while the story as such wasn't very riveting, he could admire the discipline and even athletic prowess the solo dancers displayed during their big numbers. He'd seen Kat both practice and perform, and therefore knew how much hard work went into making the moves and leaps seem so airy and effortless. Having an expert at hand also helped to understand a few other things, and the music, while not exactly to his liking, wasn't as bad as he'd feared in the beginning.
"This next sequence is one of the best ever in movie history," Kat explained as the first strains of 'Rhapsody in Blue' filled her living room. Her sapphire eyes remained glued to the screen as Gene Kelly danced, but she started to hum along with the music and didn't protest when Jason pulled her closer to him, his cheek resting on her hair. When the dream-like scenes were over and the regular plot resumed, she gave a little sigh and reached for her drink. Slowly sipping the diluted white wine, her attention seemed to be miles away. Jason remained silent, sensing that she needed to regroup a bit and wondering about the reason. After a few moments gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
"What is it?" he asked softly when the blue eyes finally met his.
Kat debated silently with herself for nearly a full minute. Should she confide in him? It was a very personal matter that made her so pensive .... but they were friends, had been for years, and she knew she wouldn't be judged, even if he couldn't understand. She sighed again. This time, Jason heard the wistful note all too clearly. He raised a questioning eyebrow, encouraging her with a look.
"I wish I could dance like that. Or at least dance with a partner like that just once," the blonde admitted quietly.
"Why couldn't you? Is it just that there's nobody around who's as good as him?" her companion wanted to know. Kat leaned back into the sofa's backrest, giving the issue some serious thought.
"Well, Baryshnikov and Nureyev are out of the question, Travolta and Swayze don't dance anymore .... Greg Hines .... no .... They just don't measure up to the style, the flair Astaire and Kelly had," she mused.
"What about Michael Jackson?" Jason teased, naming the only sort-of dancer he knew. The look Kat gave him seemed to say 'puh-leeze!', but she answered nonetheless. Drily.
"Not exactly my style, don't you think? Seriously, for what he does he's excellent, but everybody else on stage is just backdrop for him, not a partner. These old movies though .... sure, Kelly was the star, but he would've been diminished by a less good co-star than Caron."
"You don't doubt your own competence, do you?" Jason queried, intrigued by the discussion that was far more interesting than the movie, which continued to play on the TV. Kat also seemed to have forgotten about it as she gave his question serious consideration.
"It's more than just competence or lack of a partner. It is me, though -- I'm not good enough." She stopped Jason's gallant protest with a slight headshake. "No, Jase, it's true. I'm a good enough dancer, but I don't have that certain something that's needed to be a star, or even to hold my own next to somebody who is. I've had to accept my limitations quite a while ago, and I'm fine with it; not everybody is cut out to shine."
"Why would you say that?" he asked. "I mean, you're way prettier than this Leslie Something-or-other, I've seen you do some pretty amazing things on stage, and I'm not just saying that because we're friends ...."
"That's sweet; thank you." She gifted him with a grateful smile. "But it's still true. Remember the analogy I used earlier? Between Gene Kelly and the martial arts stars? Why aren't you, or Tommy, Rocky .... or even Adam playing in the big movies? You could've tried when you had the chance."
She was referring to a bona-fide movie role Jason had been offered once. Adam had continued to work with the stunt show during college and when the opportunity arose had called on his friends to fill a few spots in a major fight sequence for a movie he'd become involved in. It had been a welcome opportunity for Rocky and Jason to earn money while they were following their dream to open a dojo together, and even now there was the occasional phone call from the stunt director Jason had worked for at the time. He usually accepted when he could; it wasn't really dangerous stunt work, just fighting in costume, and had financed his car, among a few other things.
The young man grinned at some of the memories; the movies and TV shows he'd appeared in had never been very good, just generic action flicks, but the work meant easy money, it had gotten him a SAG membership, and it was something of a thrill to find his name in the end credits on a movie or TV screen. Even if it was hidden among a bunch of other stunt people. But Kat wasn't quite finished.
"You guys are much better looking than Chuck Norris, for example, you're awesome at karate .... and yet he's a major Hollywood celebrity and you are saving up to buy a small-town dojo in a few years. Not that I'm denigrating that," she added hastily. "I think you're doing a wonderful job -- all of you."
Jason laughed. "Thanks, but while I don't mind the odd job here or there, movie work isn't for me. The real stunt jobs are WAY too dangerous; doing the staged fights is okay, even fun, but I have no burning desire to jump out of high-rise windows and so on."
To her surprise, Kat found herself releasing a breath she hadn't even been aware of holding, but she refused to examine the sense of relief she felt at his declaration. Instead, she just nodded.
"Watching Tommy's accident on TV was bad enough; if I had to think of you putting yourself deliberately into danger every day, I'd go mad."
There was no special emphasis on her words, but they gave Jason a small thrill nonetheless. *She didn't say 'you all',* he silently cheered. *Maybe she DOES care for me more than she said ....* But, he wouldn't let his hopes carry him overboard, Jason vowed to himself. Instead, he just smiled. "I promise I won't do anything really hazardous when I get called again," he offered quietly.
The two shared a look full of understanding. Then, Kat glanced back at the almost-forgotten movie where the big finale was about to start.
"Haven't you ever wondered, though?" she murmured. "I mean .... when I went to London, after winning that scholarship, I had such grandiose dreams .... only studying together with real talent brought me back to Earth and made me realize that I'd be much better off teaching than pursuing a dancing career on my own and never getting out of mediocrity."
Jason snorted lightly.
"Sure I had dreams. Who hasn't? The plans Tommy and I cooked up .... not so much about stardom and Hollywood and so on, but of winning big titles .... national, even international ones ... I'd win the forms division, he was going to sweep the competition in weapons kata, and both of us would share the sparring titles."
"Why did you stop competing, anyway?" she wondered. "I've seen the trophies and the scrapbook Ernie used to keep ... you were really great."
He stared at the ceiling, losing himself in the memories her question evoked. The deep voice sounded very far away as he recalled the lengthy process which had made him readjust his dreams to a more realistic level.
"Several reasons. For one, by the time I started High School, I had won about every regional tournament -- I had no more real competition. I was just thinking of going for the state championship when Zordon chose us to be Rangers, which kinda put an end to that real fast. I just couldn't afford to be out of town when we might be called into action anytime. Then, soon after, Tommy showed up and I was way too busy with school and fighting Rita, then Zedd ... besides, with Tommy around, competing locally became fun again. I was kinda glad, actually; going on the national circuit would have meant a lot of travelling, and I couldn't desert the team. Not even for karate."
"Kim did -- for her gymnastics," Kat said softly. Jason sent a quick glance in her direction, but the blue eyes were guileless.
"The situation was totally different; Kim wasn't team leader. I was, and when she left, Tommy and Billy were still there to carry on. Anyway, when Tommy took over I went to Geneva, and that pretty much took care of everything. I lost my state ranking, and while I kept up my training, I would've had to start pretty much at the bottom again. Then, after I lost the Gold Powers ... you know how weak I was for months. It was all I could do to function normally in day-to-day life, much less train seriously."
Kat remembered that time all too well; during their tenure as the Turbo Rangers, it had been an additional worry on top of deciding what to do with their lives after graduation. Thankfully, things had worked out fine for all of them.
"Do I ever!" she shivered slightly. "There were days .... Tommy was going absolutely nuts worrying about you. It's a wonder he didn't crash his Zord, or his car. We all were concerned about you, but he felt personally responsible ...."
Jason smiled; his best friend had admitted as much on one late-night talk after his 'retirement', and it had taken hours to convince the one-time Red Zeo Ranger that the whole affair had not been his fault, that he would naturally have asked Tommy to take up the Gold Powers if their positions had been reversed. Jason had finally managed to convince him that it had been his choice to take over from Trey, aware of the risks involved, and especially that Tommy wasn't accountable for the Maligore disaster.
"I know," was all he said to Kat, though. "I would've, too."
The blonde craned her neck to look into the dark eyes. They held a faraway expression for a moment, and she marveled anew at the bond her former boyfriend shared with Jason. They cared for each other so deeply .... and they were so very solicitous of everybody they cared for. *Cut from the same cloth,* she thought, feeling a deep sense of security wash over her. *Anyone Tommy and Jason call friend is safe forever ...*
Her musings were interrupted by a gentle peck on her forehead.
"Hey, here we are going all philosophical, and I thought you wanted to watch your movie?"
Kat glanced at the TV from her comfortable sprawl next to Jason. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron were crooning at each other, confessing their undying love, dancing along. They demonstrated some fantastic dance steps, but she'd lost interest somewhere along the line, preferring to talk. She turned back to the man holding her lightly against his side.
"I've seen the best parts; it's not as if I haven't watched the movie before .... and besides, talking to you like this is way more interesting. I didn't know you wanted to be a national champion," she picked up the conversational thread again.
Looking pleased by her admission, Jason shrugged. "Yeah, well .... things sometimes just don't turn out the way we want them to." He held his breath as he realized this could also be taken as a reference to their personal relationship, and let it out slowly and surreptitiously when Kat seemed not to notice.
"I know. That's just life. But .... don't you sometimes get the feeling that you've settled for second-best? I know I do," she confessed hesitantly.
"Mmm .... not really. Operating a school was always a thing I wanted to do -- someday, after my turn in the spotlight. 'Someday' just came sooner than I dreamed it would."
"Same here ...."
Jason gave the slim shoulders a gentle squeeze.
"Besides .... I've always counted myself lucky to have a 'second-best' to fall back on. How many people have their big dreams shattered somehow and are left with nothing?"
Kat looked startled for a second, then a pensive expression crossed the lovely face. Unconsciously, she snuggled closer to the broad chest.
"I never quite looked at it that way," she admitted. "But I guess you're right."
"I always am", he boasted, an impish grin playing around his mouth. As he'd known it would, the remark lightened the mood and brought a mock-outraged protest from Kat, ending in a tickling match that left both ex-Rangers breathless with laughter.
"Jason Scott, you're impossible!" Kat declared as she settled back on the couch at the opposite end, sipping the last of her wine cooler and stretching out her long legs. It seemed not at all strange that Jason would lift her feet onto his lap and start massaging the arches gently. She sighed with pleasure.
"Mmmm. Keep that up and I just might do anything you want me to."
"Anything?" the young man asked, giving her a comical leer that made her giggle and poke his muscular abdomen with her toes.
"Within reason," she amended and laughed at his exaggerated pout and crestfallen expression. "What did you expect? An offer to play June Cleaver?"
"Weeeelll," Jason drawled, the devilish glint back in his eyes, "I was thinking more along the lines of getting a sex slave- but I'll settle for permission to watch 'Saturday Sports Night'," he backtracked hastily, when Kat yelped in protest at his outrageous suggestion. "I wasn't serious!"
"I should hope not," Kat grumbled, giving him a glare worthy of Rita Repulsa after having one of her schemes thwarted by the Rangers. Again. But her lips were twitching with suppressed mirth as she tossed the remote control at her companion, who caught it deftly. "Go watch your silly games!"
"Yes, ma'am," Jason said meekly, switching channels.
Dan Rydell and Casey McCall were signing off when Jason clicked off the TV and sent a glance over to his lovely hostess. Kat had fallen asleep about twenty minutes ago, lying curled up against the armrest and breathing evenly, her hair spread out over a throw pillow in a silver-gold cloud. He regarded her fondly for several minutes, taking in the slightly-parted lips, the sleep-flushed cheeks and the delicate crescent shadows of her long lashes. Jason didn't dare let his eyes linger too long on her body, lest he give in to the temptation of taking liberties he wasn't entitled to, but he did notice that there were no confining undergarments under the rose-pink shirt or the clingy leggings. He swallowed hard.
*Better get out of here before I do something I'll regret!*
Leaving was the very last thing he wanted to do, but he knew it was the right thing to do. Sighing, he levered himself up while Kat slept on. Taking a step away from the comfortable couch, he stopped once more; somehow, it seemed incredibly rude to leave just like that, without wishing Kat goodnight. On the other hand, it would also be rude to wake her up ...
The young man was still pondering this dilemma when the sleeper moved; a slight frown marred Kat's smooth forehead as she tried to stretch her legs, but bumped into the armrest instead.
*This looks rather uncomfortable; Kat'll be pretty sore if she spends the whole night on the couch like this,* Jason mused. But what could he do? Suddenly, an idea struck and he grinned. *That's it!*
His 'battle plan' was ready within a few moments; Jason carried their glasses into the kitchen, switched off anything non-essential, and went into Kat's bedroom. There, he turned down her blankets. Deciding that the light from the living room would be enough for his purposes, he then wandered back to the couch and carefully lifted the sleeping Kat into his arms. While she was slender, she was not as light as petite Kimberly or willowy Trini would have been, so he staggered a little when he straightened with her cradled in his arms. The blonde moved sleepily.
"Whazzup? Jasssssn?" she mumbled indistinctly, instinctively looping an arm around his neck.
He chuckled softly as he took the first step away from the sofa.
"Ssshhh, honey, it's okay," he whispered, moving carefully across the hall into her bedroom. "I'm just carrying you to bed. Go back to sleep." He lowered her carefully onto the cool sheets, intending to tuck her in, then leave, but even more than half asleep, Kat had other ideas. Her hand tightened on his shoulder.
"Don' go," her sleepy voice begged. "Wan' you t'hol' mmm ..."
Oh, how he wished to accept that invitation! However, a last vestige of chivalry, sanity, whatever, made Jason protest.
"Kat, I can't ..." he refused, but her arms wouldn't let go.
"A min't onlll," she slurred, her blue eyes pleading through a small slit between her lashes. "Jes' until I'm sleep'n agin..."
"Katy ...." Jason whispered, feeling his good intentions melt under the onslaught of hidden dreams. To hold Kat all night .... to wake up with her in his arms ...
Helplessly, he closed his eyes. This would tax his control to the limit, but he just couldn't resist that soft voice.
"Just a minute, then," he murmured resignedly, carefully settling next to her on the firm mattress. Immediately, Kat turned towards him and curled against his chest, draping a slender leg across his thigh. He swallowed once more, telling his baser instincts sternly not to put too much emphasis on the situation.
*She's too drowsy to know what she's doing or saying. Just hold her until she's fallen asleep again, then go,* he admonished himself. But his arms closed automatically around the slender back, and he sighed as the blonde head came to rest over his heart.
"Mmmnice," Kat purred, eyes drifting shut again already. Within seconds, her breathing deepened and her whole body went slack. She was asleep.
Gradually, Jason relaxed. He decided to wait a few minutes, until he could be sure that Kat was truly out for the night, then slip out of the comfortable bed and leave her to her rest. He'd come back in the morning; there were enough leftovers from the breakfast he'd brought to serve them, and then they'd start the second day of his campaign to make her change her mind about them. Jason shifted slightly into a more comfortable position as he reviewed his plans for tomorrow; the light from the living room was not very bright in here, casting only enough light not to bump into anything. And for one indulgent, blissful minute, Jason let himself just enjoy the sensation of lying in the near-darkness, holding this special friend close like this, in perfect trust and contentment.
He pressed his lips in a gentle kiss first on the flaxen hair, then Kat's smooth brow.
"Sleep well, Katy," he murmured, closing his eyes better to savor her subtle scent. "I'll be gone in just a minute ..."
Kat awoke to a muted 'thud-thud' right under her cheek. Disoriented and only marginally awake, she tried to shift her pillow, but it wouldn't budge; instead, she became aware that her warm, cosy headrest was .... moving?
She pried her sleep-heavy eyes open, and was greeted by a broad expanse of smooth charcoal-grey cotton, which rose and fell in regular cadences right before her nose. Gradually, it seeped into her brain that this was not her pillow, but a man's chest she was cuddling against, complete with a muscular arm holding her close and their legs intimately entwined. And that it was his heartbeat she was hearing.
*But who ... oh. Jason, of course.*
A quick glance upwards confirmed that; she didn't have any serious doubts, anyway. Briefly, the native Australian wondered how she'd come to be in this position; not that it was distasteful, quite the contrary, but ....
*Don't go there, girl!*
In her mind, she could hear Aisha's voice, or maybe Tanya's, cautioning her to be careful. Kat tended to agree. This was dangerous territory -- dangerous to her peace of mind, threatening to weaken her resolve not to get involved with her handsome friend more than she already was.
*If only this didn't feel so good ....*
That thought needed to be banished right away. To Kat's chagrin, it took far more effort than she'd expected to make herself decide to put an end to this situation. Only when she asked herself how it might have come about did she have a modicum of success, and in the wake of that, she began to feel the first stirrings of consternation. How could Jason have presumed ....?
All ready to vent her rightful indignation, the blonde was brought up short when she realized that Jason was still asleep. Lifting her head carefully from its comfortable place and levering herself up onto one elbow, Kat regarded her bed partner critically, and what she saw let any angry words die on her lips before she could utter a single one of them. He looked so peaceful and content lying on her floral sheets, his undeniable masculinity a startling contrast to the very feminine surroundings, and involuntarily, the expression in the sapphire eyes softened. Kat had expected the morning shadow on Jason's face and the mussed hair, but found herself unprepared for the hint of almost .... vulnerability she could read in his relaxed features. She well knew that Jason had his soft, gentle side under his determined persona and warrior mentality, just like Tommy had, but except for those times when he'd unburdened himself to her, sharing his despair over losing Emily, he kept it well hidden from the world at large. She'd known it existed, had seen it before, but somehow, it was different in the here and now, more intimate -- and it had nothing at all to do with the fact that they were lying in bed together, in each other's arms.
Or maybe it had everything to do with it.
Wanting to get away from the seductively intimate tableau, she tried to come up with a plan, attempting to summon enough anger to mask her confused feelings. A soft, sleepy sound from Jason broke into Kat's musings, though, and she found refuge in an utterly irreverent thought that helped her regain some distance.
*At least he doesn't snore!*
The dancer next tried to extricate herself from his embrace, but succeeded only in waking her friend completely. The warm glow in the slumberous dark eyes sent a shaft of heat deep into her, but Kat deliberately ignored the sensation Jason's mumbled 'Good morning' and slow smile produced. Instead, she opted for a mock-effronted glare.
"Good morning. Care to tell me exactly what you're doing in my bed at this time of day?"
*That's much better! At least for me!*
Jason chuckled, yawning.
"Holding you?" He tightened his arm briefly around her as if to emphasize the fact. His sleep-roughened voice sent pleasant little chills down Kat's spine, which she also refused to acknowledge. Then, he sobered. "I'm sorry, Kat; I didn't mean to spend the night. I must've been more tired last night than I thought, and when you asked me to hold you after I carried you here ...." he shrugged eloquently.
That was news to Kat; or at least, she had no recollection whatsoever of making such a request.
"I did?" *When? Surely I couldn't have done that -- not without remembering!*
"Uh huh," he had the audacity to grin, fully awake now. He propped himself up on one arm, causing Kat to lose her balance so that the pale-gold head slid onto the pillow. She met his eyes, yea-close to reproaching him for .... *Nothing. Everything!* "You fell asleep on the couch and honestly, all I wanted to do was carry you to your bed -- alone! -- then leave; you can see that the light in the living room is still on."
A quick glance confirmed that he was right. She just hadn't noticed before because of the daylight streaming through her bedroom window. Unaccountably, Kat felt herself grow not exactly angry, but at least rather put upon; she knew not whether it was with herself or Jason. She didn't care; it was a far safer emotion than the insidious desire to snuggle once more against that oh-so-broad chest and go back to sleep. That feeling made her speak more sharply than she'd intended.
"That still doesn't give you the right to .... well, to sleep with me!" She blushed at her words, although she knew they were both fully dressed, and nothing really untoward had happened. Jason's shirt was still tucked into the waistband of his jeans, and her own clothes were undisturbed. She'd fallen asleep in Tommy's arms more than once while they'd been dating; most often while watching TV at his parents' house. Somehow, though, this was different.
Jason sobered at her tone.
"I know, and I said I'm sorry. I meant it, too. But Kat -- I'm not apologizing for spending the night holding you; I'm apologizing for doing it without your permission."
She frowned, not quite sure what the distinction meant. "I .... I don't understand."
He sighed, and drew her back against him, ignoring the slight stiffening in her body. Seemed he needed to bare his soul a little further than he'd intended to. But if it would soothe her ruffled sensibilities at least a bit .... *Just pray that you're not going to spook her completely,* Jason told himself silently. Surreptitiously, he swallowed.
"Kat .... this is not the first time I've wanted to hold you like this. It's been a dream of mine for quite a while. To be perfectly honest, even back in High School I've sometimes fantasized about sleeping with you." He colored slightly as he admitted that, but it was nothing compared to the sudden heat scorching Kat's cheeks. In her surprise, she even forgot to resist his gentle embrace.
"Y-you h-have?" she stammered, wide-eyed. He gave her a rueful smile.
"Sure. You're a very beautiful woman, and I'm just a man, after all." There was an electric silence between them at the quiet statement.
"W-what do you mean?" Kat asked, suddenly breathless. Her voice died in her throat as he shifted their position, leaning above her and sending a smile her way that was unlike any other.
"This," Jason murmured, and lowered his head to touch her lips with his.
The kiss lasted a very long time, or maybe not long enough; it was full of passion yet almost unbearably tender and sent the young woman's senses nearly spinning out of control. He held her but loosely, yet their bodies inevitably touched from shoulder to knees, and the proof of his words was pulsing gently against her belly. They both gave themselves up to the feelings simmering between them until Kat moaned softly deep in her throat while she clung to the strong back. When they finally parted, they were both out of breath, and very much aware of the effect this kiss had had on both of them. It was even stronger than what had passed between them so unexpectedly in the kitchen last night. Jason drew back a fraction and very gently touched first Kat's hair, then her cheek with the tips of his fingers, and brushed his mouth against hers once more before releasing the dancer.
"I think I better start the coffee," he said softly, and rolled away from her, out of the queen-sized bed. "Now, before I lose my head completely." With a last smoldering glance out of those midnight-dark eyes, a look that made Kat want impossible things, he disappeared through the open doorway, leaving the pretty blonde behind, her whole being humming with sensation.
They were quiet during breakfast, displaying a restraint that was part insecurity, part shyness and part embarrassment over what had happened – and what hadn't. Their conversation wasn't really strained, yet neither was it easy; both ex-Rangers were keenly aware that something had changed between them. It was a marked contrast to the friendly atmosphere of the day before, and they missed it.
Neither Kat nor Jason said a word.
Instead, they talked casually about inconsequential things, equally wanting to address the issue and at the same time pretend that nothing extraordinary had occurred, that they hadn't experienced a taste of passion neither had counted on. Finally, Kat decided she needed some time to herself, away from Jason -- and temptation. She didn't exactly know what she felt tempted to do, but was sure she didn't want to give in. Yet.
*Shut UP!* she told that tiny voice in the depths of her mind, the one that clamored for more of Jason's sweet, drugging kisses. *I just can't wait to find out what his big plan is, since we did nothing special yesterday. Yes. That's it. It HAS to be!* Never mind that it had been one of the most enjoyable days she could ever remember spending with anyone.
"I'd like to go to church," she announced quietly but firmly when they did the dishes together .... again. *This is getting to be a habit. A nice one.* The traitorous thought nearly caused Kat to panic, but nothing showed in her posture, except maybe a light increase of tension in her back muscles, invisible under her shirt. Blue eyes remained downcast until they finished, but Jason didn't seem to mind. Instead, he just hung his dish towel over a chair back.
"Sure. Um .... would you mind if I went with you?" he asked somewhat diffidently. The question caused Kat to look at him astonishedly.
"You want to go to church with me?!?"
Her tone was so incredulous that Jason couldn't help laughing. It served to reestablish some of the camaraderie they'd shared the day before.
"Yes, why? I'm not a complete heathen, you know," he grinned. She flushed.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply you were. It's just, I don't remember you ever going, except for high holidays."
"Oh, I go to church, all right .... when I need to. Luckily, I seldom do .... and it's always been my conviction that faith and leading a righteous life have nothing to do with how often I shake the pastor's hand on Sundays." The deep voice had grown pensive, and Kat found herself agreeing, as his words expressed her own attitude perfectly.
"Anyway, I'd really like to go with you, if you'll let me ...."
His wish seemed to be genuine; it would be churlish to say no.
"Of course you may. You just surprised me, is all," she said with a smile. "Why today, though?"
She really should have expected the answer.
"Because today, of all days, I'm going to need all the help I can get," Jason confessed oh-so-seriously, reminding her once more of the reason why they'd been spending practically the whole past twenty-four hours in each other's company. Before she could react, though, Jason became all businesslike, throwing her slightly off-balance.
"Well, why don't I go home, grab a shower and some suitable clothes and pick you up in an hour? That is enough time for you to get ready and be on time for the service?"
"Er .... yes," Kat mumbled, feeling rather overwhelmed. Before she knew it, she found herself alone in her small apartment, her head spinning as she mechanically laid out her clothes. *Going to church with Jason? Isn't that almost like proclaiming us as a couple?* The thought was slightly alarming, but it didn't overwhelm her; instead, Kat summoned whatever reason she had left. *Don't be ridiculous,* she chided herself. *You are friends. Friends can very well attend Sunday services together.* Refusing to examine her decision too closely, letting the sense of pleasant expectation she'd felt since Jason had showed up on her doorstep yesterday morning fill her instead, Kat resolutely went into the bathroom.
*Better get ready. He'll be back before I'll know it.*
The genuine admiration in Jason's eyes and voice did a lot to calm the butterflies in Kat's stomach. As she dressed, she'd been assaulted by doubts and misgivings again, but it helped that she knew she looked her best for this Sunday morning outing in a slim taupe skirt that showed off her long legs without being too short, a silk shell top patterned in taupe and palest pink, and a matching jacket that hung loosely over her shoulders. Her outfit was completed by low-heeled pumps, and her hair was held back by a flirty scarf.
"You look great," the young man murmured huskily, and Kat blushed with pleasure at the compliment.
"You don't clean up too badly yourself," she answered, automatically smoothing the edges of his shirt collar and pulling his tie straight. Indeed, Kat couldn't quite remember if Jason had ever looked that handsome before, in casual light slacks, a white shirt and dark blue linen coat. Telling herself it must be her imagination -- after all, they'd attended formal occasions together before while still at school, and his clothes weren't really anything out of the ordinary, she busied herself with brushing off a tiny speck of lint from the broad shoulders. *He's never put on clothes this formal just for ME before, though,* that insidious little voice at the back of her head commented, sounding surprised and smug. *Me like!*
"Oh, shut up," she murmured under her breath, getting flustered when Jason raised a questioning eyebrow. "I, uh, I wasn't talking to you," the young woman stammered, belatedly realizing that she was still gently patting the lapels of his jacket in an unconscious caress. She snatched her hands away. Busying herself with getting her purse and keys, Kat then put on a deliberately bright smile. "Can we go?"
Jason regarded her quizzically for a second, then smiled back. "Sure." He politely held open the door for her, and the two left, to drive in silence to Kat's parish church.
The service went fine; she found herself less distracted by her companion's presence than she'd feared. Instead, it was a rather pleasant experience to have someone to share reactions with for once. To Kat's surprise, Jason even sang rather well, if not always on key. Afterwards, they mingled for a while .... or Kat did, anyway. Her bi-fold job didn't allow her much free time to spend on social activities with her fellow parishioners, but she volunteered when she could and thus was known to a lot of the more prominent ladies, either from school or her ballet classes. All too aware of the curious, speculative glances sent their way, she simply introduced Jason as 'a long-time friend' and left it at that.
She was talking to the chairwoman of the Christmas Bazaar Committee, discussing the possibility of having a group of her ballet students perform at the annual fundraiser, when she noticed out of the corner of her eyes that Agnes Feininger, one of the congregation's greatest busybodies, had waylaid Jason and was putting him through the Third Degree. Kat groaned inwardly. *I've GOT to get him away from her!* Easier said than done, though; Mrs. Walker seemed unable to find an end to her list of questions and concerns. At long last, just as Kat was seriously considering being plain rude and simply walk off, the woman wound down and bid her good-bye.
As fast as she could without seeming overeager, the blonde made her way towards her friend and Mrs. Feininger. She slipped her hand into the crook of Jason's arm just as the plump widow pronounced in a very disapproving tone, "... all that kung fu nonsense only encourages children to bully their playmates."
Jason spared Kat a quick smile and an unobtrusive wink, then addressed his critic.
"Quite the contrary, Mrs. Feininger. Martial Arts is not at all meant to start fights, but to prevent them. The best blow is one which is never thrown in the first place. All I and my colleagues are doing is teach people to defend themselves when they are attacked by others."
"Well, yes, but the Good Book says to turn the other cheek," she huffed, unwilling to concede even a small point.
"I don't quite agree, ma'am," Jason smiled disarmingly, his dark eyes focussing intently on the middle-aged lady. "Under normal circumstances, yes, but there are certain situations where that just won't work."
"I can think of no circumstances whatsoever where violence would be justified, young man," Mrs. Feininger said coldly.
Jason regarded her seriously, weighing his next words carefully.
"Mrs. Feininger .... karate, or any other Martial Art, is not about violence. If anything, it's about the exact opposite. I started studying karate at age five, and I can honestly say that in all of my twenty years of experience, I walked away from more fights than I've joined -- and never, ever have I started one. Nor has anybody else who takes the Art seriously. Instead, I've learned discipline, respect, dedication and a whole lot of other things I'm sure you wouldn't find fault with."
The deep voice rang with quiet conviction, and Kat squeezed Jason's arm genly, her blue eyes shining with pride in him and her other Martial Artist friends, who were such fine men not only because of the sport they had chosen, but also because of who and what they were at the core of their beings, even before they became Rangers. Jason, Tommy, Rocky and Adam, Zack, even Billy ... Justin and the Turbo/Space Rangers. She opened her mouth to add her own impressions, seeing that the older woman still looked dubious, but before she could utter a single word, endorsement of Jason's little speech came from quite an unexpected source. Right behind them, a childish voice piped up.
"Tell him, Mom!"
The three turned towards the urgent stage whisper, and had to suppress a smile at the young boy, maybe seven years old with a shock of unruly red hair, who was tugging insistently on his mother's arm. Kat knew the young woman slightly through her job; she was working part-time as a school secretary, and was doing her best to support herself and her small son. Being unmarried and barely in her twenties, it was not an easy task, and young Dennis was known to be quite a handful.
"Dennis, Sensei Jason is talking to Mrs. Feininger and Miss Hillard; we can't just barge in on them. It's very impolite," Marianne Jones chided her son gently. The child blushed guiltily, but sent an imploring glance her way that would've melted a far harder heart.
"Sorry," he mumbled, sounding anything but.
Agnes Feininger nodded slightly, giving tacit permission to interrupt their conversation at Jason's inquiring glance, curious to see what this was about and what the young man would do now. The Joneses'circumstances were well-known to her, and she disapproved of Marianne's parents' rigid attitude that made them avoid both daughter and grandson -- especially when the boy clearly was very much in need of a firmer hand than young Marianne possessed.
Jason winked quickly at Marianne to show her everything was fine, but made his voice firm as he bent towards the slight carrot-top. "What is it, Dennis? I thought I'd told you not to create any more problems for your mom if you ever want to join the Young Ninja class again."
"I didn't," the child protested immediately, looking earnestly up at his instructor. "Honest!"
"And what do you call interrupting other peoples' conversation?"
"Oops," Dennis muttered, embarrassed. But to his credit he rallied quickly. He looked at each of the adults in turn. "I'm sorry I did that." This time, the apology was very sincere. "I'll try not to do it again, I promise," he added seriously.
"See that you don't," Jason admonished, hiding the twinkle in his eyes. "Because every time you behave badly, it'll make people think your mom hasn't taught you better -- that it's her fault. And you don't want that, do you?"
Wide-eyed, the child shook his head no. "They do? Really?"
"Yes," Mrs Feininger interjected. "And I for one know that your mother has very good manners herself. I'm sure she's trying to teach them to you, too."
"Yeah; Mom's always making me say please and thank you and stuff," the boy revealed artlessly. "She says I gotta be a gentleman when I'm big. Are you a gentleman, Sensei?" he asked Jason. Before Jason could formulate a reply, Kat cut in.
"Yes, he is, Dennis," she smiled at the boy. "A real gentleman." The tone of her voice and the glowing look she sent Jason along with the compliment brought a rush of color to her friend's cheeks, much to Mrs. Feininger's amusement. *Well, well, well!*
"Yes, uh, what was it you wanted to tell me, Dennis?" Jason cleared his throat awkwardly. He sure hadn't counted on any of this when he'd asked Kat if he might join her this morning! To his relief, the redhead drew everybody's attention when he started bouncing excitedly on the balls of his feet.
"I made a C plus on my math test! And I came in fourth on the spelling bee at my school," he jabbered exuberantly. "I've done ALL my homework, just like you told me, Sensei, and I weeded the garden and took out the trash every day, and made my bed. I even tidied my room! Just ask Mom!"
Marianne put a restraining hand on her son's shoulder, indicating he should keep his voice down. Then, she looked at Jason with a glowing, bashful smile. "He really has. Ever since you told him he couldn't be a Ninja unless he kept up his grades and helped around the house, he's been very, very good." The young mother gazed fondly down at her child, the love between them quite obvious. "Dennis would do anything to be allowed back into the Young Ninjas."
"Yeah. Being with the Peewees is bo-o-o-rri-i-ing!" Spoken with all the disdain only a seven-year-old could muster for preschoolers.
"Don't you remember why you were sent back to the Peewees, Dennis?" Jason asked a little sternly. "I didn't do that just to tick you off, you know." Dennis blushed and hung his head once more.
"I know -- you sent me back because I got bad grades, and because I was mouthing off at Mom," he mumbled. "But I'm much better now! Really!"
Marianne nodded. "He's truly trying his best -- in everything."
"Please, Sensei -- can't I be a Ninja again? I promise not to do anything bad again. Please???"
"It would mean such a lot to him," his mother added softly. Two pairs of hazel eyes hopefully glanced at Jason, who smiled back at the auburn-haired woman. He took his time to consider his answer carefully.
Kat suppressed a jolt of what she refused to call jealousy. She knew she could trust Jason, but Marianne Jones was a very attractive woman -- pretty rather than beautiful, and apparently very fond of her son's karate instructor. *Don't be silly,* Kat chided herself for the second time that day. *You'd be the same in her position – grateful for the help Jason is giving you. And what if she HAS a slight crush on him? He IS very attractive, after all ...* Nevertheless, despite the inner pep talk to herself, she took a step closer to Jason's side, her hand coming to rest prominently (and just a tad possessively) on his wrist. Marianne noticed and smiled slightly; she didn't blame the blonde teacher in the least. If Dennis' father had been half the man Jason Scott was .... if she had just waited for someone like him ... but she shook the thought off. Somewhere out there, she was sure, there was a man who'd look at her and her son the way Jason was looking at Katherine Hillard.
"Very well," the baritone voice recalled them to the present. "You're having another test on Thursday, haven't you, Dennis?" If possible, Jason made it his business to know these things about his young students; while he took his karate seriously and expected the same of his pupils, school ALWAYS came first.
"Uh huh. English grammar," the boy grimaced.
"Make sure you'll make at least a C on that test, keep your room tidy and help with chores, and you may join the Young Ninjas again a week from tomorrow," Jason decided. He stalled the exuberant whoop of joy he could see coming. "I'll ask your mom if you're keeping your side of the bargain -- and if you slip up again, either at school or at home, back to the Peewees you go. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Sensei!" Dennis beamed. "Thank you!"
"Don't thank me yet, sport," Jason grinned and tousled the carroty hair. "You'll have to scramble if you want to take the belt test with your buddies next month. And you know that Sensei Tom won't make allowances for anybody."
"I can do it," the boy said confidently. "I'll train extra hard .... after homework and chores," he added hastily, before his instructor could say anything more. Then, he tugged on his mother's hand. "Can we go now, Mom? I wanna tell Bobby!" His playmate was waving to him from the parking lot.
"Say good-bye to Mrs Feininger, Miss Hillard and Sensei Jason first," Marianne reminded her son of his manners. She turned grateful eyes on Jason. "Thank you so much. I can't tell you how much your talk with Dennis helped; I really appreciate it. And I'm sorry we interrupted your conversation," she apologized once more.
"It's okay, Ms. Jones," Jason replied. "You're very welcome. I'm just glad it did any good."
"More than you'll know," the single mother murmured, then took her leave, guiding her excited offspring towards her modest little car. Mrs Feininger watched them drive off, then turned back towards Jason, grudging approval in her expression.
"It seems I owe you an apology, young man", she ventured.
"None needed, Mrs Feininger," he smiled. "It's a very common misconception about Martial Arts – that all we do is fight."
"Don't forget the brick-breaking," Kat teased. It earned her a quick grin and wink, which escaped their companion, however.
"Hmph. Not much sense in that," Agnes declared. "But at least it's good for youngsters like Dennis, to keep them off the streets. But it's nothing for folks like me." The implication was, 'for a sane, rational adult like me', and Jason recognized it clearly. However, the sentiment wasn't anything new to him.
"Actually, I was just going to suggest you come over to the school, to see for yourself," he said, dark eyes twinkling. "I'm teaching a Ladies' Self-Defense class on Sunday afternoons, and I believe you just might enjoy meeting some of my students. They're a very nice group."
"Well, I .... um, I have an appointment today," the elderly woman hedged, suddenly flustered. "Besides, I, er, I don't own one of these funny pyjama suits you wear ...."
Jason hid his smile. "A gi. Actually, neither do the other ladies. A jogging suit or leggings would be just fine," he coaxed.
"I don't know," the widow frowned, torn between succumbing to Jason's undeniable charm and refusing on general principle. "I've never exercised much .... I'm not sure I'm up to the strain. I'm not as young as I used to be." The last came out almost defiantly, as if daring him to contradict. However, Jason wouldn't be baited.
"Well, you wouldn't be the youngest, ma'am," he admitted candidly, "but neither would you be the oldest participant. The lessons are less concerned with strength or speed, but more about general fitness and some handy moves in case someone should try to steal your purse." Jason could see Mrs Feininger was starting to waver. He put on his most earnest look. "Tell you what, you don't have to decide right now." He produced a business card from his wallet and handed it to the woman. "If you have the time, join us at five this afternoon, meet the other ladies, take a look at what we do. I'll give you a tour of the dojo, maybe show you the introductory video we have for parents. At the least, I hope it'll give you a better understanding of what my colleagues and I are trying to accomplish."
Agnes turned the business card over in her fingers several times, then opened her handbag with a decisive snap. Tucking the small cardboard rectangle inside, she fixed Jason sternly through her modish glasses.
"I'll think about it." She forestalled any comment with a raised hand. "Don't think I can't see that you're trying to bamboozle me, young man. It's what I'd do in your place. But, as I said, I have no time today. Next week, however .... who knows? I'll think about it," she repeated. "Now go, the two of you. You've let me keep you long enough!" A small smile twitched around her mouth as she shook hands briefly but firmly with both Kat and Jason. "Have a nice day!" In a swirl of scarves and lavender scent, she marched off, leaving a bemused couple of ex-Rangers behind.
"I think she likes you," Kat murmured to her friend as they slowly made their way to the car.
"Heaven help me," Jason grinned. "I get enough of that from my Ladies' Class. Does she have any children?"
"Two sons, both grown and living out of State, I think," Kat answered. "Why do you ask?"
"Because at least three of my students have daughters our age. Single daughters. Others have granddaughters, nieces or neighbors." He rolled his eyes.
The blonde started to laugh. "Oh no. Trying to fix you up, are they?"
"You have NO idea! If they're between eighteen and thirty, their moms or whatever offer to set up blind dates for me, swearing up and down they'd be just perfect for me. And if it isn't me, it's Tommy and/or Rocky. Never mind that we always refuse, next time an event comes up, they'll try again. And I'm starting to run out of excuses." A comical sigh followed.
"Poor baby," Kat soothed, lips quivering with mirth. "Although, it can't be worse than the attempts to set me up with various older/younger brothers, grandsons, nephews or single dads at the dance school."
"Who does that?" he queried, finding the thought very disturbing.
She giggled. "Oh, the mothers, aunts and what have you that I get to meet at the recitals. It's really quite funny sometimes."
Jason held the door for Kat as she slid gracefully into the car. Trying to appear casual, he asked, "Were you ever tempted to take any of them up on it?"
"About as much as you are with your lady students."
Kat chuckled, knowing exactly what he was feeling. After a second, he joined her, and the two drove off, towards downtown Angel Grove.
"What are we doing here?" Kat wondered as they entered a tiny shopping center. To her surprise, Jason looked rather sheepish all of a sudden.
"I, um ..." he inhaled deeply. "Katy, I know I promised you the whole weekend, but I couldn't get this afternoon completely off. Rocky needed to stay home with his mother ...." briefly, Jason supplied the explanation their former teammate had given him. "Anyway, I remember Mama Sophia saying once that she likes the pastries from the bakery here; I thought I'd take a few to her to cheer her up. If you don't mind, that is."
"Of course not! I think it's very sweet of you," Kat consented at once. "As a matter of fact, why don't we do it together? I owe Rocky's mom as much as you guys; she was always someone I could talk to when I had problems with my Mom."
Deed followed thought, and soon the two were parking the car in front of the DeSantos house. The place was teeming with relatives as usual on a Sunday, but the atmosphere was less boisterous than they were used to, silent testimony to the respect everyone bore Sophia DeSantos. Rocky's brown eyes lit up as he saw his friends entering the shady garden, and he hurried over to welcome them.
"Jason, Kat! What brings you two here?" He looked covertly for any sign of romance between the two, but to his disappointment couldn't detect anything out of the ordinary. Well, he'd get to grill Jason during their lunch break at work tomorrow.
"A treat for your mom that we happened to come across," Jason replied, holding up the bakery box. He joined Kat in greeting the lady of the house and handed over the assortment of pastries with a smile. "Enjoy, Mama Sophia -- it's time we fed you for a change instead of the other way 'round."
To his horror, Sophia DeSantos took one look into the box and promptly burst into tears. "Mama!" Rocky's eldest sister quickly enfolded her mother in an embrace and shooed them off while she tried to console the older woman. Confused, Kat and Jason followed Rocky back inside to the roomy kitchen.
"What did I do?" Jason asked anxiously. "I thought she liked the stuff from Baker's Dozen ...."
"She does," his erstwhile successor reassured his friends. "It's just, Dad used to bring her a box just like that for their anniversary each year."
"And today, being reminded of that, it upset her," Kat realized. "Rocky, we're so sorry! We never meant to make your mom even more sad."
"I know you didn't -- and Mama will, too, once she's calmed down. Thanks for thinking of it in the first place," Rocky said, pouring iced tea for them all. They drank thirstily.
"Anytime. Your mom's one of the best," Jason answered. He drained his glass and put it next to the sink. "Well, I guess we better leave then. This is for family, after all."
"You're family, too," a still tear-roughened voice declared from the back door. The three friends turned around to see Sophia standing there, dabbing a last time at her reddened eyes before drawing first Kat, then Jason into a hug. "All of my son's friends are. And I won't hear of you leaving! Basta!"
From long experience they knew that once Sophia used that expression, protest was out of the question, and within minutes, Kat and Jason found themselves seated around the huge picnic tables with several members of the DeSantos clan, nibbling on deliciously-filled taco shells, nachos with homemade salsa and various other goodies. Sophia seemed to have gotten over her sadness, and there even was a moment of general laughter when her youngest daughter tried to snitch a piece of cake from the bakery box and Sophia grabbed it away from her with a mock-outraged glare.
"Don't you dare, Consuelo Maria DeSantos! These pastries are MINE!" The small woman clutched the box possessively to her chest. "That holds for all of you! Comprende?"
A chorus of "Yes, Mama!" answered her, and the feisty woman marched off with a muttered "Hmph!" to tuck her prize into the pantry. She pretended not to notice the chuckles and relieved smiles following her. Jason and Kat took the opportunity to make good their escape. Rocky was ushering them to the front door, expressing his thanks for their thoughtfulness once more, when Sophia joined them. She hugged and kissed both her son's friends warmly.
"Muchas gracias, Katarina, Jason," she murmured. "You have given me great pleasure with your gift."
"As long as we didn't hurt you, Mama Sophia," Kat replied, returning the hug.
"Yeah -- we never meant to make you cry," Jason added. "Sorry."
Sophia smiled, a bittersweet expression in her dark eyes. "It was only that it was so unexpected, hijo, nothing more. In fact, now that the surprise has worn off, I will relive and cherish memories of my Diego every time I eat one of the cakes. And you can go stuff your hollow leg with something else!" she turned fiercely on her son, making them all laugh at the reminder of Rocky's still very healthy appetite.
"Sì, Mama," he muttered meekly, eyes alight with affection. Chuckling, Kat and Jason said their goodbyes to their hostess, who hugged them once more.
"You are good children," she told them. "Good friends. Come back whenever you want; my home is always open to you. Mi casa es su casa. Vaya con Dios!"
"Gracias, Mama Sophia," Jason answered with one of the few Spanish words he knew. Kat supplied her heartfelt thanks as well, and the two stepped out onto the sunlit pavement, waving to Rocky and his mother as they drove off, feeling their stomachs pleasantly filled with good food and their hearts from even better company.
Lingering over coffee and tea later on the roof of Jason's garage apartment, the two were enjoying the afternoon sun in companionable silence when he looked at his watch. Heaving himself to his feet with a sigh, he held out a hand to his pretty friend.
"Sorry, Kat, but my Ladies' Self-Defense class starts in 45 minutes. I really don't want to end this, but I'll have to take you home now if I'm to be at the dojo on time."
Kat took the offered appendage to lever herself out of the comfortable lounge chair. Her expression matched the regret visible in Jason's eyes.
"I know." She found that she, too didn't want their time to end, not now ... *not ever!* She shushed her inner voice automatically. She still had a few hours to make her decision; after all, the weekend wasn't over. Yet. *Who knows what Jason's plans are for tonight? Something good, I hope!*
Jason still held her hand in his much larger one. "Unless ...." he murmured thoughtfully.
"Unless what, Jase?" she asked, her pulse accelerating slightly.
He gave her a little-boy look of hope and anticipation. "Unless you'd like to come along? You mentioned you needed to practice a few steps; what if you used the small room at the back? It has a full mirror, and I'm sure I could rig a barre of sorts for you with chairs and a bo staff. That way, you wouldn't have to stay late at your studio during the week, as you planned."
Kat didn't take long to decide; it was too good an offer to pass up. Especially since it fulfilled her wishes so conveniently.
"I think I'd like that," she smiled, thrilled at the spark of pleasure Jason didn't bother to hide.
"Great! Let me just throw a change of clothes into my bag, then we'll zip by your place for yours, okay?"
"Sure." Within minutes, they found themselves back at Kat's apartment, where she quickly assembled her exercise outfit. They made it to the roomy dojo just in time to set up Kat's equipment, then both changed into gi and leotard respectively as the first of Jason's students started to arrive. The blonde grinned inwardly to herself as she listened to the middle-aged (and older!) ladies in the locker room, commenting uninhibitedly on the school's instructors' looks, especially Jason's.
*A good thing he can't hear them!* she snickered silently. *What a raunchy bunch they are!* Being no stranger to her fellow females' habits, she knew that the guys' ears would be redder than their former uniforms if they could hear some of the more than slightly ribald remarks on various portions of their physiques. Not that she didn't agree fully! *These women are worse than Aisha, Tanya, me and the others ever were!*
Everybody was properly composed, though, when Jason greeted his students and started warm-up exercises. Kat joined the group for that, catching the telling looks two septuagenarian ladies exchanged when the young man's back was turned. She nearly choked on her silent laughter and escaped quickly into the small exercise room to practice her own routine. She'd brought a tape recorder and soon lost herself in the soft music, jetés and pliés as time wore on. It was nearly an hour later and Kat was taking a much-needed break, sipping on a water bottle, when a knock sounded on the door.
"Come in," she called, still slightly out of breath. Jason's dark head poked around the corner.
"Kat? Could you please come over and help me demonstrate a few grips, please?"
Pleased that he would ask, she jumped up from the stack of mats she was sitting on. "Of course." Together, they returned to the dojo's main room.
"Ladies, may I introduce Kat Hillard?" Jason called to his students. "She's a friend from school, teaches swimming and dancing here in Angel Grove, and she's going to help me show you that you can defend yourself against a mugger." He then proceeded to explain some simple self-defense techniques, and Kat marvelled at the enthusiasm the women displayed. But from snippets of conversation, she soon realized that all of them led very active social lives despite their advanced ages and often went out alone -- and even though Angel Grove was a fairly safe town, it was not crime-free. Taking this class enabled the ladies to move around with a greater degree of freedom and confidence, and they appreciated that very much.
"But what if a would-be mugger is actually attacking us, not just trying to snatch our purses?" one of the students, Mrs Cheung, wanted to know after they'd practiced the moves for a while. "I'm not all that agile because of my bad knees, and I don't see how I can defend myself against someone who's likely much bigger and stronger than me!" She had a point; she was of Asian descent and even tinier than Kimberly had been. A twelve-year-old boy would easily outsize her. Kat grinned as an old memory surfaced. Winking at Jason, she whispered "Let me?" and smoothly took over the teacher's role.
"You don't need to be big and strong to help yourself," she explained. Wandering around a bemused but agreeable Jason, she placed a hand on his shoulder. "Let's say a mugger comes up at you like this ..." with a few murmured remarks, the two took up the position she wanted, Jason being experienced enough to see what Kat was getting at. "You see, he's trying to grab you by the arm, so you do this," she demonstrated, shifting her grip smoothly on the muscular arm reaching around her, "then put your leg here, shift your weight like that, and use his own weight and momentum against him." With a twist and a little effort, Kat flawlessly executed the move Tommy had tried to teach to Tanya and her all those years ago. Just as then, the expert Martial Artist sailed through the air and hit the mats with a most satisfying 'thud'.
"Oops, sorry," Kat said oh-so-sweetly, giving the ladies a sly wink. A few of them had gasped when Jason went flying over her hip, but they all broke into laughter at his evident surprise. Grumbling good-naturedly, he accepted her hand up.
"I thought you were going to help me, not to make me lose face in front of everybody?" he groused, but it had the desired effect -- now all of the ladies wanted to learn that seemingly effortless maneuver. However, Jason declined, promising it would be part of next week's lesson. "Something to look forward for you, Ladies! Besides, I need a few other victims - uh, helpers." He got the hoped-for laugh. Instead, he instigated a brief question-and-answer session on practical tips when going out alone. To his delight, Kat offered some very helpful insights he hadn't thought of -- like wardrobe.
"You can wear heels, but change into flats on the way from the parking lot to the event or your house," she suggested. "It's much better in case you're forced to run away from a possible attacker. You can always change back once you're safely inside."
"But it looks so tacky if I carry shoes to the Symphony in an extra bag," one of the women complained. "What will my friends say?"
"They'll say you're being sensible, Gladys," one of the others put in drily. "What would you rather be, tacky for five minutes, or dead?" That shut up the complainer quite effectively, but before she could protest the caustic remark, Kat managed to diffuse the situation with a warm chuckle.
"Well, I wouldn't have put it quite that bluntly, but Mrs. Rossino has a point," she said, giving the group a conspiratorial smile. "You may not be killed, but the possibility of serious injury is definitely there -- and is that really worth a few strange looks or snide comments?"
At this point, while his students mulled Kat's words over, Jason stepped in again. "It's what I've been trying to tell you, ladies -- nothing is worth your health, or even your lives. No money, no jewellery, no memento. When in doubt, it's far better to give up what you're carrying than risk serious damage to yourselves. Things can be replaced; people can't."
There were murmurs of approval from most of the women, and with a few parting words, Jason dismissed the class. Lively discussions were starting up on the way to the changing room, and the two former Rangers exchanged a pleased glance.
"You were great; thanks a million," Jason murmured as he began to put the dojo in order. "You really raised some good points there."
"No need to thank me; I had fun," Kat replied, giving him a hand as they moved to the other room and dismantled her makeshift barre. "You have a great bunch there."
"Yeah. Still .... it's given me an idea. Kat .... would you mind maybe giving a brief lecture or something on these things every now and then? You know, the wardrobe stuff? I never even thought of that, and it sure hit a nerve with the ladies. Of course, I'd have to clear it with Tommy and Rocky, but I'm pretty certain we could even pay you for it. And I know all our female students would appreciate the tips."
Katherine felt a pleased blush rise in her cheeks. "You won't have to pay me; I'd love to," she answered. "If you really think I could be of help ....?"
"Positive," Jason assured her. "Thanks." He snatched a quick kiss, catching her off-guard, then gave her a gentle push towards the door. "Go on, get changed. I'll finish up here, grab a shower and then .... well, we'll see about what we do with the rest of the day. Sound good?"
"Sounds perfect," Kat agreed. "If you're sure you don't need me anymore ...."
"Uh-uh. Meet you in fifteen?"
"Right." With a grateful smile, Kat collected her tape recorder, water bottle and towel and made her way to the changing area. Jason watched her walk gracefully down the hallway, a wistful smile playing around his mouth.
"I need you more than you can possibly know, Kat," he muttered to himself, aware that the time she had granted him was almost over. He glanced at the big clock over the entrance. *Only two more hours to make her change her mind about us. What if I failed?* But defeatism had never been his style; determinedly, the one-time Gold Ranger pushed the pessimistic thought away. Turning off the lights and locking doors behind him, he went to take his shower.
The golden summer day was slowly turning into evening as the couple drove to the park. They had decided to forego a formal dinner and had just bought wraps and drinks at a deli on the way. Munching on their food, they left the car behind and wandered along the familiar pathways, watching the many weekend visitors slowly packing up blankets and picnic baskets, parents calling their children away from the playground equipment and the lifeguards motioning the last swimmers back to shore.
"How often have we spent weekends here, doing all kinds of stuff, or just hanging out?" Jason mused on a sudden wave of nostalgia. "First Billy, Kim, Trini, Zack and I, later with Tommy, then all the others ...."
"I never counted," Kat answered, her own memories of those times less numerous, but just as vivid. "And how often were we interrupted by Zedd and Rita, or the Machine Empire?" she couldn't help adding, though.
"I lost count, too," he grinned, not wanting to destroy the mood of contentment that had settled between them on their walk. "I haven't seen a monster here since the last time Bulk and Skull tried wind-surfing and crashed into your air mattress." He grimaced comically. The blonde frowned at him, but only for a few seconds; then, their laughter filled the air. It had been pretty funny - in retrospect.
"You're impossible," Kat pouted half-heartedly, but didn't object when Jason took her hand and lightly kissed the back in silent apology for having joked at her expense. Hand in hand, they topped the rise overlooking the lake and carefully picked their way down the slope towards the beach. Seeing that the sun was slowly sinking towards the distant mountains, Kat realized that the weekend really was almost over. Tomorrow, another week of work and chores would start. Not that she minded too much; she enjoyed her two jobs, but she would hate losing the easy companionship and the fun she'd shared with Jason.
*I'll miss HIM,* she thought, surprised at how the idea of not doing things with this special friend hurt all of a sudden. Which reminded her of the purpose of the weekend -- Jason's plea to give him a chance to make her change her mind. Did he still want her to agree to date him after all? As far as Kat could tell, he hadn't made any effort in that direction at all. Slightly puzzled, she cast a questioning look at her handsome companion. Should she ask, or wait for him to make his move? Curiosity won out.
"By the way, when are you going to persuade me to date you? And how?" Kat queried as casually as possible. "Or have you changed your mind?"
Jason smiled. "No, not at all."
"Then -- when will you start? It's almost evening; the weekend's nearly over."
"I know," he sighed, squeezing her fingers slightly as they reached the sun-warmed sand and meandered along the shoreline. Deciding it couldn't hurt to let Kat in on some of the plans he'd considered, he voiced one regret he couldn't shake. "I so wanted to take you to Los Angeles last night; there was this European ballet company performing at the Staples Center ..."
"The Royal Copenhagen Ballet, I know," Kat said wistfully. "I've wanted to see them for ages!"
"Unfortunately, it was almost sold out, and the few tickets left were much too expensive," Jason confessed apologetically. "I'm sorry; maybe another time?"
The prospect sent a small thrill of delight through Katherine, but she deliberately squelched it. "You haven't succeeded in changing my mind yet," she hung on to her resolve not to enter into a closer relationship with Jason. Never mind that the thought had started to hurt. A lot. "Or did you make alternate plans?"
"Did you enjoy your weekend?" Jason asked, without answering Kat's question directly.
"I enjoyed it -- myself a lot," Kat replied honestly, "even though I have to admit it was .... um, different from what I expected." She gave him a teasing smile. "I hope you're not going to take this the wrong way, Jase, but I thought you'd be doing something .... oh, I don't know! Spectacular? Extravagant? Wildly romantic? You know, spoil me all day or whatever ...."
He was silent for a second or two, then cast a sideways glance at the blonde. The smile curving his mouth was rather wry.
"I thought of doing all of that; you wouldn't believe what my brain came up with, the longer I obsessed about it. From smothering you with dozens of flowers to renting a sky-writer begging you not to leave me, taking you on the most lavish trip imaginable, buying you jewellery .... unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I had to realize that I really didn't have the money to do any of this, no matter how much I wanted to. Just like those ballet tickets," he explained. Jason blushed as he did so, but met the blue eyes with painful honesty. "About the only thing I could have afforded right now and that we hadn't done before was to charter a horse-drawn carriage from Johnson's Livery Stables and take you on a moonlight ride through the park."
The thought was intriguing; it sounded like a lovely idea, and she could easily imagine herself sitting in Jason's arms, clip-clopping leisurely through the night with the stars forming a blanket of dark velvet studded with thousands of tiny diamonds above them. Regretfully banishing the romantic image, Kat gently touched his arm. "I would've liked that," she murmured, but Jason didn't seem to hear. Instead, he went on almost as if talking to himself.
"Then I thought .... is this really what I want to do with, and for you? I mean, anybody can do the big gestures; it wasn't something special, something that was about us." Jason started to pace along the lakeshore, and Kat trailed behind him, no longer touching, but staying within listening distance. "Then, just as I was about to give up, it came to me .... "
He stopped, turning towards his lovely companion.
"Kat .... I do want to give you the presents, the surprises, do the pampering if and when I can -- but more than that, I want to give you what we shared this weekend. Ordinary things. Things we can do at any time, whether we have money to spare or not. Doing chores together, having fun -- just spending time with each other."
The blonde smiled; Jason was looking at her so seriously – almost as if he were afraid he'd offended her somehow by not doing what she'd expected. Nothing could be further from the truth; as a matter of fact, now that she'd heard the reasoning behind his plans, Kat felt deeply touched. In its own special way, it conveyed far more thoughtfulness and concern about her feelings than almost anything else would've done. It was very easy to reassure Jason.
"Don't worry; I truly liked what we did .... and I want those things, too .... "
"But?" he asked quietly, sensing that her assent was not without qualification.
"But .... but everything was so .... mundane, so .... everyday type of stuff!" Kat colored slightly; put like this, it sounded so petty and even a bit whiny, but a part af her remained genuinely puzzled. Why had Jason thought that that would make her change her mind?
Kat looked confusedly into the dark eyes even while he guided her to the low wall shoring up the grassy slope from the beach and drew her down to sit beside him.
"I .... I don't understand ...."
"You just said it yourself. Every day, Kat. That's what I want from our relationship. The big things are fine in their time and place, but to me being half of a couple means mostly the little things. Stuff we can share every - single - day, without having to worry if we can afford the time, the money, or if we're shutting others out."
"I'd like that, too," she had to agree, "and I can see where it would work. Our jobs mesh well together, we do share a lot of interests and tastes .... you even made going to the laundromat fun." She grinned fleetingly, recalling his embarrassment at having to handle her underwear along with his own. Jason had confessed it during their coffee break at his place, and they'd had a good laugh about the scenario. "However --" Kat held up a cautionary hand, hating to see the sudden light being banked in Jason's eyes once more, "however, Jase, one thing -- the MAIN reason why I think we'd be better off as just friends -- still hasn't been resolved."
She drew a deep breath, then asked what she felt she had to.
"Can you honestly say you're over Emily? That you've forgotten all about her?"
Jason was silent for a long time, looking out over the lake, and as his silence continued, Kat died a little bit inside. Despite her determined words to the contrary, she had harbored a tiny little bit of hope that he just might be able to change her mind, after all. She was fighting tears when he finally shook his head.
"No," Jason admitted, "I haven't."
Kat was about to turn away, hurt to the quick, when he stayed her with a gentle hand. " I'm not going to lie to you; Emily was too much a part of my life for too long to let go soon, or easily. But Kat .... every day that I'm with you, I'm thinking a little less about her. Every day you spend with me, I forget more of how she's hurt me. I need you for that, Katherine -- to make me forget. To bring joy and light back to me, when I thought she'd taken it all away. You're doing that for me, with your gentleness, your laughter, your understanding."
The young woman was speechless; she'd never heard Jason talk like that before. And she could sense that every word he said was true. The realization eased some of the pain in her heart. But .... one thing fairly jumped out at her.
"You say you need me .... is this only about what I can give you, then? Is this just about your needs? What about mine?"
Even before she'd finished, Jason was shaking his head emphatically no.
"Of course not. Kat, I know this sounds as if I'm just talking about what I want, only I don't know how else to express myself; I'm hoping that some of the things are what you need, too. Yes, I need you, and I want you to help me -- but I also want you to be there so that I can do fun things with and for you .... helping you with stuff, teasing you a little now and then, just being with you." His voice dropped to a low, husky murmur that wrapped Kat in warmth. "I want to go on looking at you, to tell you how beautiful I think you are .... I want to hold you and protect you from all kinds of things, even though you've shown us often enough that you're strong enough to fight your own battles .... I'd love to have the right to touch you and kiss you whenever you, or I, feel like it. To fall asleep with you in my arms and get to kiss you good morning every day."
Jason stopped; he was getting carried away, and knew it. Better to stop now before he made a complete fool of himself – he'd never opened up about his deepest desires to anyone, except maybe Tommy; and even then it hadn't been so personal, so much about his emotions. If only it were enough to make Kat see ....! He reached out and took her slender hands in his much larger ones, rubbing gentle circles with his thumbs on the smooth backs.
"Kat .... every day gets a little bit easier just because you are there to share things with me like we did this weekend -- the little things. Doing laundry, watching TV, preparing a meal, visiting a friend .... everything we've done together since yesterday morning. And every day I'm getting more and more over Emily -- to the point where I now KNOW -- deep in my heart, where it counts -- that one day she'll just be a memory. And I'll have you to thank for it."
Jason drew a deep breath.
"I want you to be a part of my life when that day comes, Kat -- the day when I'll be able to look into your eyes and tell you I love you .... and mean it without reservation. And if you want me to, I'm going to go on telling it to you every day for the rest of my life," he finished. "Only, for that to happen, I need you to give me a chance to prove it can happen. I know it will .... in time. It's up to you if you feel you can wait that long."
Just as Jason had done before, so Kat now took her time to think about her answer. Unable to sit still any longer, she jumped up from the wall and walked back to the shore, staying just out of reach of the gently-lapping wavelets. He followed and stood closely behind her, not touching, but it would've taken only a tiny step .... Everything within her told her that Jason was being completely honest with her, laying his heart bare before her. And yet ....
"I think maybe I could wait," she whispered wistfully. "You're definitely a man worth waiting for. As was Tommy .... and still we separated in the end. If I could only be sure everything will work out after I've waited ...."
He sighed. "You want guarantees that we'll both wake up one morning and find out that we're in love with each other, and that it'll be the forever-after kind. Kat .... I understand your need for it, and I wish I could give you those guarantees, but that's not within my power. What I can give you is my best effort, and a promise that I'll do my utmost not to hurt you, or let you down in any way." He quirked a quick grin. "That's not to say I won't forget to do chores, or be absent-minded, or even neglect you just a little on occasion; I probably will. I'm only Human, after all. And I was trying to impress you this weekend," Jason admitted. "If not by being extravagant, then at least by being on my best behaviour, so to speak. But if I should ever be less attentive, I promise you it'll be because I can be as idiotic as the next guy; even as forgetful as Tommy on occasion -- and if you tell him I said that, I may just have to strangle you," he teased, trying for a lighter mood. Kat smiled fleetingly at the quip, but Jason wasn't finished yet. Serious once more, he looked deeply into the sapphire eyes. "I'm not perfect, by no means, and I swear I'll never do it on purpose, or to hurt you."
"I know you won't. You wouldn't be the man you are if you did," the dancer assured him. "It's .... it's just ...."
"Just what, Katy?" Jason asked, giving her name the special inflection she liked so much. It sounded like "Kah-TEE", quite different from any nickname she'd ever been called by – a sort of 'French flavor' he said he'd picked up in Geneva. Over the course of the weekend, he'd used it more and more often. Kat half-turned then, gazing briefly into the midnight eyes. The tenderness in his expression gave her the courage to voice one of her own fondest wishes, even though she couldn't look at him long. Instead, she fixed her eyes on the far shore, where a lone rowboat was slowly returning to the pier, its occupants moving in perfect tandem as they pulled the oars. Her accent was stronger than usual when she spoke, giving her voice a special poignancy that wasn't lost on her companion.
"I always hoped that one day I'd meet a man, we'd take one look at each other and we'd know we're destined to be together always."
To her relief, Jason didn't laugh, only smiled a little at her romantic whimsy. "I think all of us, girls and guys, have had a dream like that at one point. I know I had. So did Trini, Kim .... Tommy said that for the longest time, he thought he had found that with Kim. Only, life doesn't always make all things come true, does it?"
"No," Kat murmured, unaccountably sad although her mind told her Jason was right. Sometimes, though, her foolish heart would not listen.
"But isn't a love that's grown over time, that's based on shared experiences and knowledge of the other's personality, just as worthy and true than one that has its root in instant chemistry?" he mused, almost more to himself than to her. "More than anything else, when I'm with you I can hope again. Hope that one day I'll find that feeling." The dark-haired young man swallowed, his mouth dry with anxiety.
"When Emily left me like she did, she nearly killed that belief in me .... and you resurrected it. Being with you is as if all my hopes and my dreams are getting reborn." Jason paused for breath. He knew that he had to play his last card now. *Here goes nothing.* "I truly believe that's what's happening to me, Kat. And I would like very much to share that process with you, if you'll let me. Walk this path with me .... and if we're both lucky, it'll lead to .... to love. If it's meant to be."
She had no answer to that, because she knew Jason was right. But could she overcome her reluctance? Was what they already shared between them worth risking her hard-won self-confidence for something that in the end might never come to pass -- just as it had happened with Tommy? Kat didn't know, and she was afraid -- so very afraid she'd end up hurt and alone again.
"If you really feel you can't .... or if you truly don't think you can ever feel more for me than for a friend .... I'll respect your decision," Jason murmured painfully, as if reading her mind. "I hope you won't. I wish you could find it in you to take one more chance on me. Please." He wanted to do more, beg, plead, make her see his intention and honest conviction that he was headed for falling in love with this wonderful, lovely woman, but he was not going to pressure her any further. Kat had given him a chance already .... and he might have to accept that he'd blown it. His heart was beating a mile a minute as he waited for her answer. Finally, Jason couldn't stand the silence any longer. He reached out to touch her hair with fingers that shook slightly.
She turned back towards him, but didn't look at him right away. Instead, she reached up tentatively and toyed with the edges of his shirt collar, straightening them unnecessarily.
"Are you sure you'll get over Emily one of these days?"
"Yes." There was not the slightest trace of hesitation in his baritone voice. "Eventually."
She mulled it over, liking the firmness in his tone despite the somewhat vague answer.
"You really believe it'll go faster if I agree to date you?"
"Positive. Kat .... the first time I completely forgot about her in .... well, months, was the first time I kissed you. It was so totally unplanned, you know I didn't set out to .... but nothing in a very long time has felt so right as when I was holding you in my arms," Jason confessed huskily. "Didn't you feel anything? At all?" he dared ask when she didn't object to a careful caress -- just a strand of hair tucked behind her ear, but done so very tenderly ....
The Australian met her companion's eyes then with a thoughtful smile. She was still playing with his collar, but every now and then a fingertip ventured into the vee at the base of his throat, fleetingly stroking his warm skin. Jason imagined that tiny electric sparks were shooting all across his torso, even though it was a very innocent touch. She had felt plenty .... deep down, in her innermost being. When she stopped to really think about the two days just past, Kat had to admit she'd never felt this loved, or cared for. All the little looks, the understanding smiles, the casual touches or the moments of shared humor -- she hadn't imagined them, they had all been there, and had made her dare to dream ....
A tiny seedling of what she recognized as hope poked its tip through the shell she'd built around her heart -- through one of the numerous tiny cracks that had appeared during this weekend.
"I felt a lot of things when you kissed me that first time .... and maybe I'll tell you about them someday," she said enigmatically. The look in the sapphire eyes sent a small shiver down Jason's spine, and he felt his pulse quicken. *If Kat had ... and if she wanted ... surely that meant ... * Before he could comment, she went on, seemingly still lost in her own thoughts. The little hope-sprout pushed onwards, towards the light, growing stronger with every fraction of an inch it managed to squeeze through the chink in her armor. "You're right about one thing -- there are no guarantees that a relationship will last; the only thing one can reasonably expect is commitment and a willingness from both partners to work for it. Every day. Can you guarantee me at least that much, Jason?" she queried intently.
"Of course. I wouldn't ask you if I didn't."
Kat knew that Jason would keep his word, too. He simply wasn't the kind of person to promise things lightly in the first place, and once he did, he would do whatever it took to fulfill that promise. She'd come to trust him long ago for his sense of honor and absolute integrity, way back when they'd first met and been Rangers together, even if it had only been for a short time. Having to depend with your very life, and the fate of your planet, on someone tended to give you very deep insights into that person's character, and it was a bond that all of Earth's former Rangers shared with each other. Whatever happened between them on a more personal level, that was something they'd never lose.
The realization that there was indeed a strong, solid foundation between them, one that went far beyond even friendship, eased the grip fear had around her heart. Kat relaxed, feeling subconcious tension slowly flow out of her body and mind. The hope-seedling took root and unfurled wispy tendrils that cautiously penetrated into every nook and cranny, bringing along the light of renewed promises. For all the hurt she'd gone through when her relationship with Tommy fell slowly apart, it had still left her with a feeling of warmth and comfort whenever she thought of her ex-boyfriend now. They might no longer be a couple, but they hadn't lost each other completely, nor would they. Ever. That was one of the bedrock certainties in Kat's life. And with that she knew that she'd have the same thing with Jason, should their burgeoning feelings for each other not last, after all.
*And I do have feelings for him,* Kat finally admitted to herself, looking at the handsome man standing so expectantly next to her. She could see that he wanted very much to hold her, but he wouldn't coerce her -- not even with an innocent embrace. *I guess I'm at much the same level that Jason is -- not yet in love, but the potential for something much deeper is definitely there. But .... but dare I tap that potential? He's certainly someone worth loving .... but what if I get hurt again? What will that do to me? To us? He was so hurt when Emily left him; he said so himself; it's a wonder Jason's willing to open up to me at all ....*
Slowly, a new thought rose in her mind, giving her a whole new perspective on what Jason was asking. And the small hint of anxiety she could see lurking at the very back of his eyes only told her that she truly was onto something she hadn't considered before.
*He .... he'd be taking the same risks I am,* Kat realized. *Emily hurt him, and still he's willing to put his heart on the line again. For me. He has no more guarantees that I won't decide to leave him after all. And he knows it, too.*
She felt awed by that. Ever since Jason had taken on the Gold Ranger Powers, fully aware that they might be dangerous to him, had held onto them nearly at the cost of his own life until he could return them to their rightful owner, she'd admired his courage. Kat had seen firsthand how great it could be, that moment in Gasket's arena when he'd unhesitatingly joined her in demorphing, trying to save his best friend. True, this was not a test of physical bravery, but emotional dangers were just as real, could wound just as much if not more.
That day, they had both taken a chance on Tommy's feelings of friendship for them, and the gamble had paid off. Now, she had no doubts at all that Jason would always remain her friend, no matter what she decided. He'd said so, and she believed it.
The question was, did she dare take a chance on love? On Jason? On .... herself?
Did she want to?
Hope blossomed and changed into a bloom, strong and beautiful as it filled her with longing.
Kat looked at Jason then; he met her gaze openly and without hesitation as she scrutinized him from head to toe, blushing faintly as he noticed just how intently she was studying all of him. Slowly, the blue eyes wandered, starting at his short, near-black hair, swept across his broad shoulders and muscular frame and slid down his jeans-clad legs to his scuffed sneakers. Finally, Kat zeroed back in on the midnight eyes. The expression in them was serious, but warm; and the hope shining from their depths was visible even in the gathering dusk.
"Please, Kat," Jason murmured softly, hardly daring to break the stillness between them, but wanting -- no, needing to know what the lovely blonde had decided about them. "Don't give up on us yet. I need you so much .... I don't think I could bear to lose you. Not now, when we've only just started to find each other." He took a deep breath. This was it, the moment of truth -- he could feel it in the very air around them.
"Please don't leave me."
The whispered plea melted the last bit of resistance encasing Katherine's heart. She allowed a small smile to play around her lips as she took that last step across the small distance separating them; close enough so she could touch Jason's cheek, trailing her fingertips over the edges of his five-o'clock shadow. They were still standing on the lake shore, Kat's back to the water, and she could see the red-gold ball of the setting sun reflected in the dark orbs. A tiny nudge lifted his face up so that they were eye-to-eye, the small difference in their heights almost negligible. In a weird way, Kat liked that, although in her girlish fantasies she'd often dreamed about tucking her head against a strong shoulder -- the way Kimberly had been able to do with Tommy, way back when. *Face it, Katherine, you passed 5'2" after your twelfth birthday,* she silently admonished herself. *What does it matter, anyway? At least he can kiss you without either of you getting a crick in your necks!*
She instantly smothered the giggle that thought evoked. The situation was too serious for flippancy, and Jason was still waiting for her answer. Once more, Kat searched Jason's expression. What she could read there decided her. She placed both her hands firmly on his shoulders.
Kat had to clear her throat and repeat the word, it had come out so hoarse and scratchy.
"Okay," she said again, stronger now.
"Okay .... what?" Jason asked, his arms closing automatically around her slender back. "Kat ....?"
"The answer is yes, Jason. Yes, I'll take that chance." The exuberant joy lighting up the handsome face was nearly reward enough, but Kat wasn't going to make it quite that easy on her brand-new boyfriend. *God -- I didn't know how good it'd feel to say that!* she marvelled privately. However, she had to have her say first. Laughing a bit giddily, she leaned back, away from the kiss Jason was about to give her.
"On one condition."
"What? Anything," Jason promised fervently, too happy right now to care much about anything beyond the fact that he hadn't lost Kat, that she was willing to stay at his side .... in his arms, even. He tried to pull her closer and closed his eyes briefly in thanks and relief when the young woman didn't resist.
"Don't you want to know my condition first before agreeing?" Kat chuckled, feeling a bit lightheaded herself. She hadn't expected the sense of contentment and warmth that was spreading rapidly through her now that she had committed herself to this relationship. Come to think of it, it was very close to the feeling she'd had all day yesterday and today, sharing the mundane things of everyday life with Jason. "I could ask you the impossible!"
"Yes -- but you wouldn't," Jason declared with conviction. "It's not in you to take advantage of someone like that."
His praise and trust warmed her even more. The Australian threaded her arms around his neck and brought their faces close together. Breaths mingled and their lips were almost touching when she made her request.
"Promise me ...." she breathed, her silky cheek brushing the beginnings of his beard.
"Yes?" Jason shifted minutely and placed a tiny kiss at the corner of her mouth, barely able to contain himself, he was so happy. His desperate plan had actually worked! *YES!* He felt the rosy lips smile against his.
"Promise me that when you know .... on the day you're sure about your feelings .... and if they're what we hope they'll be .... you'll take me on that buggy ride?"
For a long second or two, Jason glanced deeply into the gently glowing sapphire eyes, seeing the future open before them. Letting out a breath he wasn't even aware of holding, he gave Kat what she needed -- his honesty, and his word.
"I promise." And sealed it with a kiss.
"Are we there yet?" Kat asked plaintively, shivering in the damp air as she stumbled behind Jason, clinging to his hand. It was very early spring, still three weeks before Easter, and a rainy spell during the last few days had dropped the temperatures even lower. It was hardly suitable weather to be out in the park after nightfall, and she had no idea why Jason was dragging her here.
"In a minute," he assured his lovely companion, guiding her over a small crest. Jason was barely able to suppress his excitement .... and his nervousness. How would Kat react when she saw what he'd arranged? Would she even remember? He'd wished for a more agreeable climate, and the overcast sky hadn't been in his plans, either, but he had a promise to keep -- and keep it he would. He only hoped Kat would be able to overlook the not-so-perfect parts.
"Okay, you can open your eyes now," he instructed her after a couple of hundred yards more. Kat stopped walking and slowly lifted her lids, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness around her. Another fresh gust of wind made her draw her light jacket more firmly around her body, but the smile she directed at Jason was warm .... a little mischievous, a little indulgent .... and the tiniest bit exasperated.
"I'm looking," she stated unnecessarily. "Um, what exactly am I supposed to be seeing here? In case you hadn't noticed, it's dark."
Jason kissed her lightly and enfolded his girlfriend briefly in a hug. Kat moaned a little, relishing the added warmth as his large hands rubbed her back comfortingly.
"I know. But I promised you -- and I couldn't wait any longer ...."
"Promised me what?" Kat enquired, intrigued. She cast her mind back over the last couple of weeks, but couldn't remember anything. Well, at least nothing that required she be out freezing her buns off at night in the middle of the park. Jason inhaled deeply of her scent -- shampoo, perfume and something that was purely and uniquely Kat -- as he hugged her, then took the blonde by her shoulders and turned her gently around a bit, so that she faced the playground near the parking lot. Under a street light, Kat saw a horse-drawn carriage, its door held invitingly open by the driver. She was momentarily puzzled -- why would Jason want to take a nighttime ride in an open coach? Then she read the unobtrusive logo -- "Johnson's Livery Stables" -- just above the left back wheel and gasped softly as memory suddenly connected; wide, wondering eyes turned towards the man standing next to her.
"I'm sorry about the missing moonlight," he apologized with a rueful shrug, "but you did ask specifically about the day I knew for certain, so ...."
Happy, hopeful tears began to gather in Kat's eyes, and she lifted a slightly trembling hand to his face in a cautious caress.
"It doesn't matter," she murmured. "Not if you're really, really sure .... and if this means what I hope it does ...."
Jason took Kat into his arms and pulled her close. His low voice was husky with emotion as he gave his once-battered heart completely into her keeping at last.
"It means I love you, Kat. Only you. There's no more shadow or doubt -- and if you'll let me, I'd like to spend the rest of my life proving that to you. You healed me, sweetheart. Thank you for giving the light back to me."
The tears did fall then, but Kat did nothing to conceal them. She was far too busy trying to contain the huge bubble of happiness welling up inside of her. She didn't have a lot of success. Laughing and crying at the same time, she flung herself into Jason's embrace, kissing him with tremulous lips.
"I so hoped you'd learn to," she confessed breathlessly. "Because I've fallen in love with you quite some time ago." Kat hadn't meant to, but her heart wouldn't be denied; over the past months, she'd gradually succumbed to her feelings, as she'd suspected she would right from the outset, when she'd agreed to become more closely involved with her friend. It was a risk she'd taken willingly, but with some trepidation; the former Pink Ranger silently thanked whatever forces were at work that it had paid off.
Jason returned her exuberant hug, a relieved chuckle escaping him.
"How could I not? You made it so easy for me, Katy .... I can't possibly thank you enough!"
Kat kissed him again. Before he could turn the gentle caress into something more passionate, though, she smiled at him, wiped her tear-streaked cheeks dry and took a step back.
"Yes, you can. You can start by taking me on that ride you promised me -- and explain exactly what made you realize today, of all days, that you love me."
"Gladly." Feeling giddy with relief and excitement, Jason bowed grandly. "Your carriage is waiting for you, Milady," he announced, and like two teenagers, they hurried towards the open-topped buggy hand in hand. Climbing inside, they draped a blanket the elderly driver handed them over their knees and snuggled in each other's arms as with a snort and whinny the placid horse started to trot off along the paved paths of Angel Grove Park.
"I love you, Kat," Jason whispered lovingly, before claiming the rosy mouth in a tender kiss full of promise that was returned in equal measure. "And I'll try to show you how much every day."
"I'd like that," Katherine replied,
and it didn't matter any longer that the moon was hidden behind a bank of
clouds. The stars in her crystal-blue eyes sparkled enough to brighten even the