Disclaimer: Nothing new here. Saban: Six Rangers and Angel Grove, me: the rest. Which isnít much. This story was spawned by a conversation with my dear friend Mele -- you tell me if I should kiss or kill her for putting the idea into my head in the first place. Anyway, this is for her. :-)DB, Summer 1999

 

A Matter of Trust

by

Dagmar Buse



Trini was leaning against her locker, watching the usual morning rituals going on in the hallways of Angel Grove High. Kim and Tommy were making goo-goo eyes at each other, and the pretty Asian had to smile; ever since the two had become a couple, it was the same every morning ... holding hands, coy smiles, a hand run through the otherís long brown locks....

*I wish they could bring themselves to meet earlier; get in a few minutes of good-morning smooching, and be done with it!*

The Yellow Ranger grinned a bit wryly. She wasnít jealous of what Kim and Tommy shared, but there were times when she couldnít help but wish she had someone special in her life like that. A too-serious face with light brown hair, blue-green eyes and an endearing, shy smile rose before her mindís eye, but she dismissed it with a regretful sigh. Billy was far too self-effacing to ever be so demonstrative about his feelings as the tall Green Ranger, who was whispering something into his girlfriendís ear that made Kimberly giggle and blush. Not that heíd ever indicated that he might return her own budding feelings, but ...

Trini looked around once more. Zack was all but drooling over Angela, as usual, who was totally ignoring him, as usual. Where was the rest of the team? She caught Kimís eye at last.

"Kim, do you know where Jason and Billy are? If they donít hurry, theyíll be late."

It was Tommy who answered her.

"I think Billy wanted to pick Jase up with the RADbug; they said something about a project they were involved in , and materials they needed to bring..."

"Oh, I remember ... the flip chart theyíve prepared for their Political Science class. They left it at Jasonís place the other day."

Just then, the two young men in question rounded the corner of the hallway. Instead of carrying a flip chart or maps, however, Jason was leading Billy by the arm, who looked helplessly about, holding onto his metal-rimmed glasses with one hand and clutching his backpack with the other. As they drew nearer, the reason for the Blue Rangerís panicky expression became obvious. Almost the entire right side of the glasses was missing, the lens taped precariously to the rest of the frame with dark duct tape. Billy also sported a painful-looking bruise on his right cheek, a large band-aid on his right elbow, and the knees of his baggy overalls showed grass stains. Trini and Kim gasped in shock and compassion, and Zack tore himself away from Angela to join his friends.

"Billy, my main brain, what happened to you?!"

The four gathered round the Red and Blue Rangers as Jason opened both his own and Billyís lockers. He said nothing, but his dark eyes sparkled with humor and his lips were twitching at the corners. Billy blushed almost as red as Jasonís shirt as he fumbled myopically for the correct books, desperately tilting his head this way and that to prevent his damaged glasses from sliding off his nose. Jason looked over his shoulder at his old friend. His deep voice shook with suppressed laughter.

"Do you want to tell them yourself, or should I do the honors?"

Billy sighed. Resignedly, he closed his locker and leaned against it, facing his teammates. He wouldnít meet anyoneís eyes, though, as he recounted this morningís mishaps.

"It was an unfortunate sequence of events that led to my present state of disarray. You see ... I became engrossed in a new computer program last night and inadvertantly spent the night in my lab. My father for once did not check on me, so consequently I was not awakened at my usual time by my alarm."

As Billy drew a deep breath to continue, Tommy and Zack looked a question at Trini. Quite used to this, she summarized calmly and succinctly.

"He overslept."

"Quite so. In an attempt to regain some of the time lost, I tried to do several things simultaneously -- like consuming breakfast and dressing myself. The results were less than satisfactory; I lost some more time due to having to change my newly-soiled shirt. I called Jason to inform him of a change in plans due to my running late, and he arrived at my house shortly thereafter. I was still in an unseemly haste, and as I left the house, I failed to notice a toy our neighborsí offspring had left in their driveway the previous evening."

Billy squirmed in embarrassment, dreading to have to tell the next part of this morningís misadventure. He was spared by Jason, who couldnít control his laughter anymore.

"Oh man, you should have seen it! It was straight out of the Keystone Kops Ė Billy was barreling out of the house, fumbling for his keys, balancing his backpack, a sandwich, a carton of cocoa, trying to fasten his second overall strap --- he only just remembered enough to check for oncoming traffic, but as he was crossing the lawn to get to the RADbug which was parked at the curb, there was this skateboard right in the middle of the driveway ..."

The other teens had begun to laugh as well. Jasonís words painted a very vivid scene, and they all knew what would come next. Billy elected to admit it himself.

"I failed to notice the obstacle, and in my hurry I first stumbled over it, stepped onto one edge, simultaneously lost my balance, my breakfast and all coordination, and finally had my feet swept from under me. I attempted to hold on to something, but the apparatus seemingly took on a life of its own and caused my unpremeditated descent onto the lawn and pavement."

"You fell." Kimís voice was carefully neutral; for once, she didnít need Trini to translate Billyspeak.

"I ... yes."

The five teenagers broke into laughter. It was just too funny to imagine the calm, rational, sometimes too-serious team genius in this kind of situation.

Flushing a dull red in renewed embarrassment, Billy brushed in vain at the grass stains. His broken glasses nearly fell off as he bent over, and only Tommyís quick reflexes saved them from further damage. He handed them back to the Blue Ranger, who still had his teammatesí laughter ringing in his ears.

"Thank you, Tommy."

"Anytime. Man, and here I thought I was the only one who crashed into things when I was running late."

Billy looked up, surprised. Tommyís voice vibrated with suppressed laughter, but there was no malice in it. Instead, Billy found amused sympathy in the brown eyes. It gave him the courage to meet the girlsí eyes. Zack and Jason would laugh, yes, but they had seen a lot of his klutziness over the years. So had Trini and Kim, but recently it had become very important to Billy not to appear too clumsy in front of them. Especially in front of Trini.

"You ... you had a comparable experience once?"

It seemed highly unlikely; Tommy was a gifted athlete, his movements always so graceful and controlled ... but the tall young man only chuckled as he clapped Billy on the shoulder.

"Once? More like once a week ... I donít know if youíve noticed, but I, uh, am not always very punctual."

"Weíve noticed, bro."

Jasonís voice was very dry, and Tommy blushed. However, he was able to grin at his best friend as the six slowly made their way to Ms. Applebyís classroom.

"Yeah, well, anyway, when Iím running really late, I have this tendency to cut corners. Literally. You canít imagine the bruises Iíve collected over the years. Man, my mother used to say that if she had a dollar for every black eye I got only because I was too busy trying to reach warp speed while running through the house, she could retire in style!"

Under a lot of laughter and gentle teasing, the gang settled in their seats. Class began as usual, and while Billy divided his attention between his notes, participating and trying to keep his broken glasses on his nose, he reflected gratefully on his friendsí support. Jason had been all solicitousness and gratifyingly prompt in assisting him this morning, helping him gather both his scattered wits and paraphernalia. And Tommy ... he didnít know the Green Ranger very well yet, although Tommy had been on and off the team for quite a while now. Plus, they simply had not a lot in common. But his sympathy this morning, and his willingness to expose his own shortcomings made Billy reassess his impressions somewhat, realizing for the first time that there might be greater depths to the handsome martial artist than heíd let on so far.

The day passed like every other day lately, including a short putty attack in the park during lunch break. Luckily for Billy, the Power and his helmet compensated for his bad eyes while morphed, but it had been obvious from the start that this afternoon would entail a visit to his optometrist, to get a new pair of glasses. The Blue Ranger sighed. His father had told him that he needed new clothes; quite a few of his shirts were getting noticeably tight ever since heíd started working out with his friends. That, of course, meant that besides seeing his optometrist, he would have to go ... *shopping*. If there was any activity Billy detested more, he wasnít aware of it. However, logic dictated that if he had to frequent the Mall at all, it would be best to run his errands in the time it took for his new glasses to be finished. Now, if he could just find a means of transportation ...

"Um ... may I ask a favour of someone?"

The young genius approached his friends and teammates hesitantly as they met at the lockers after school.

"Sure, Billy; whatís up?" Zack grinned at the Blue Ranger. Billy so rarely asked them for anything, they were all very willing to help him out on the few occasions he did seek them out.

"My mishap this morning requires me to purchase a new pair of glasses; however, the specialist I need to see has his business establishment at the Stone County Mall ...."

"... and you canít drive, the way those frames are sliding off your nose." Zack pushed them up the blondís nose again as he nodded. "Iíd love to take you, but I have to do chores this afternoon. Sorry, Billster."

Before Billy could turn to either Jason or Tommy, Trini spoke up.

"Iíll take you." Her light voice was quiet, as usual, but it still sent a pleasurable shiver down Billyís spine.

"You would? That would be very much appreciated. Thank you, Trini."

"Hey, can I come, too?" Kim chirped next to them. Both Yellow and Blue Rangers looked at her curiously. Kim was more likely to hang out with the guys when Trini was doing something with their genius friend, but she just smiled brightly at both, interpreting their glance correctly.

"Oh come on, you know me! The Stone County Mall is awesome, and when do I get a chance to go there? I promise, I wonít get in the way!"

"Well, I guess we can give you a lift, canít we, Billy?" Trini said with her sweet smile. As always, the young scientist was helpless to resist.

"Certainly, Kimberly. Maybe you can even assist me in selecting a new pair of visual aids."

"Sure Billy," the gymnast said and both laughed, knowing that it was only meant as a joke. The person most likely to help Billy would be Trini, but Kim didnít mind; her busy mind was already filled with plans on what she would do, look at and shop for at the large shopping center, so much more elegant and exclusive than anything in Angel Grove.

* * * * *

Four oíclock saw the three teens on the freeway towards Stone Canyon. They were chatting among themselves in a carefree mood, which for once even Billy seemed to share, as Trini steered her motherís car towards the ramp. Just as the parking lot of the glass-and-chrome structure came into view, the car phone rang. Trini signalled Kim to hold the receiver to her ear as she maneuvered between the rows of parked cars, looking for a likely spot.

"Yes? Oh, hi Mom ... Iím at the Stone County Mall... no, nothing urgent .... but Mom .... what about Kim and Billy? Theyíre with me ... oh. Right. ... where? .... okay. Twenty minutes? .... Yes. Bye, Mom."

Kim heard the line shut down and slowly replaced the phone back into its holder. From the one-sided conversation, and Triniís increasingly unhappy tone, it was obvious that something had happened to spoil their afternoonís outing. A look into Triniís almond eyes confirmed that suspicion.

"Guys ... my mom needs the car for an appointment. As soon as possible. Iím terribly sorry, but Iíll have to leave right away."

"But what about us? Billy needs to get his glasses, we canít just leave with you!"

"I am certain that I will be able to find transportation of my own .." the Blue Ranger began subduedly. He had been looking forward to spending some time with both Trini and Kimberly, and the disappointment was crushing.

"Thatís no problem; my dad comes home at seven, and if thatís okay with you, I can pick you up at the main entrance," Trini explained, glad to have at least some good news for her friends.

"If your dad comes home at seven, that means weíd have to be here by half-past at the earliest," Kim calculated swiftly. "Why donít you park the car and meet us at the food court at eight? That way you donít have to hurry that much, and we have a little more time to get things done."

"Thatíd be great, Kim," Trini said gratefully. "Billy, is that okay with you?"

The young man was still struggling with his disappointment, but made a valiant effort to conceal it.

"Of course, Trini. Please donít feel as if you have to accommodate your schedule around mine ... ours," he assured the slender Asian girl after a glance at Kimberly. He wasnít sure about how he felt to be left solely in the Pink Rangerís company for the rest of the afternoon and early evening. However, he didnít have much of a choice. He needed new glasses. Sighing inwardly, he inclined his head towards the Mallís entrance.

"If I may suggest, we really should complete our various errands if we want to accomplish most of them within the time alloted. Besides, you really shouldnít procrastinate much longer; your mother is in need of her vehicle, I believe."

"Yes, Iíve got to be going. You two are sure that you donít mind?"

Kim hugged her friend briefly.

"Trini, itís not your fault. Get going -- Billy and I will be fine."

The slim girl still looked worried, but a quick glance at the dashboard clock showed her that she had to hurry, or her mother would be late for her appointment. She really had no choice but to leave her friends to their own devices.

"I have to go. Sorry, you guys." Trini watched for another moment as Kim and Billy got out of the car and went to the nearest entrance. She returned Kimís jaunty wave a bit half-heartedly, then drove off.

***

Inside the elegant mall, Kim eagerly turned to Billy who looked decidedly uncomfortable.

"Okay, where to first?"

The Blue Ranger cleared his throat, feeling terribly awkward. Telling himself he was being ridiculous, he squared his shoulders. Kim was one of his oldest friends; surely she would not mock him when he had his eyes examined?

"I think it would be most expedient if I went to see my optometrist first. It will take some time for my glasses to be finished, and I can take care of the rest of my errands in the interim."

"You mean while weíre waiting for them, right?"

"Yes." Billy blushed slightly. He knew he had a tendency to fall into overly formal speech patterns, but as long as he had Trini around, he didnít have to watch his every word to communicate with his friends. However, since the Yellow Ranger had had to leave them, it would behoove him to adapt his mode of expression to Kimberlyís level. It wasnít that he thought of Kim as stupid; her grade average told differently, but ... her use of vernacular was sometimes as incomprehensible to him as his expanded vocabulary was to her. The thought made him smile slightly as he led the way to the upper level where his eye specialist had his place of business.

"Whatís so funny?" Kim asked as she noted his smile.

"I was just thinking that at times I find it as hard to understand you, Jason or Zack, as you find it with me."

"Really?" Clearly, the thought was quite new to the perky girl. "In what way?"

"Well, for example, you have a tendency to insert the word 'like' in your speech where it really has no place. Please understand that Iím not criticizing you, it is just that it takes me a moment to .... well, filter it out, I suppose. Therefore, it may take me a few seconds to answer appropriately."

Kimberly pondered Billyís quiet statement as she skipped alongside her friend. Then, she grinned a bit ruefully.

"You know, Billy, thatís exactly what Ms. Appleby keeps telling me." She saw to her astonishment that Billy was flushing in embarrassment. "Hey, donít get all flustered; Iím used to it. And I am trying to lose the valley talk."

Now that he considered the matter, Billy had to admit that ever since theyíd taken up their Power Coins, Kim had sounded more serious. He listened to what she said further with a higher degree of interest.

"Besides, itís sort of the same thing when you get all technical on us, only backwards. Itís not that I donít know the words youíre using, itís just that Iím not used to hear them spoken. I can understand them just fine when I read a textbook." At the skeptical look Billy couldnít quite suppress, she giggled. "Well, most of them, anyway. And if I donít, I have a dictionary to look them up. But itís kinda hard to do that when Iím trying to talk to someone. Plus, I donít want to seem rude."

"I never quite looked at things in this light," Billy mumbled as he politely ushered Kim into the optometristís shop. "I will endeavor to alter my speech patterns accordingly in the future." He caught the slightly amused look Kimberly sent his way, and blushed again. He quickly reviewed what heíd just said.

"What I meant to say was, Iíll try to speak more plainly from now on."

Her beaming smile was a more than ample reward, and made the shy young man feel remarkably good about himself.

*Maybe this afternoonís outing will be educational, after all. And even if itís not, anything that serves to facilitate a better understanding between myself and my teammates can only be beneficial to all of us.* He shook his head mentally at himself. Heíd better try and think accordingly, too. As the sales assistant guided him over to the exam area, he attempted to reformulate his thoughts. *Uh ... how to rephrase this ... it will be good if I learn from Kim how to express myself more simply, because the whole team will understand me more easily, even if Trini is not around? Close enough,* he decided as he took his seat behind the eye-testing apparatus.

The actual exam was brief enough, and Billy was gratified to hear that his prescription neednít be changed. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Kim meander around the shop, trying on various frames, peering through opera glasses and playing with various styles of sunshades, giggling to herself at the more outrageous ones. She wandered back over to him, though, as the elderly optometrist sat down next to the Blue Ranger.

"Well, Billy, I have some good news. It definitely looks as if we can fit you for contact lenses soon. Iíd say to give it another six months or so, then come see me again."

"Thatís very gratifying .... uh, good to hear, Mr. Jensen," Billy answered, reminding himself of his new resolve to keep his speech more simple. "Meanwhile, though, Iím really in need of new glasses."

"Yes, I can see that," the specialist chuckled, picking up the damaged frames. "What did you do to these, drop them out of the window?"

"Not quite. I, uh, I fell while wearing them, and ..."

"Ah. Yes, that might do this kind of damage. Well, what kind of frames did you have in mind?"

"Something sturdy," Billy answered after a short reflection. Fighting Putties was putting a lot of strain on all kinds of personal equipment. "Not too expensive, though, if Iím getting contacts soon."

Kim sat down next to her friend as Mr: Jensen went to collect a sample of different frames. However, her expressive face showed her extreme disgust with the selection offered. When Billy seemed about to choose a functional pair of squarish, black-rimmed glasses, she couldnít restrain herself any longer.

"For Heavenís sake, Billy, tell me youíre not going to buy these ... these things!"

"Why not?" he asked, honestly bewildered. "The frames are durable, practical, and reasonably priced. They fit my current needs quite admir.....uh, well."

"Theyíre also ugly as all get-out! They make you look like a total nerd!"

Billy went quite still. He couldnít look at Kim when he said very softly, "I am a nerd."

The Pink Ranger rocked back as if heíd slapped her. Unable to find her voice for a moment, she just looked at her friend with stricken eyes before she rallied herself. Trying hard to keep her voice down, she reached out a gentle hand to Billy and squeezed his hand firmly, an idea suddenly taking shape in her mind.

"No, youíre not. And Iím going to prove it to you as soon as youíre finished here." Turning towards the elderly proprietor, she looked at him beseechingly. "Please, donít you have anything that looks better than these ... things?"

"I sure have," the man smiled. Getting up, he opened one of the glass display cases and took out four different frames. Holding them out for Kimís rather than Billyís inspection, he explained them to the two teens.

"These are made out of a material called 'Titanflex'. Itís a titanium-based alloy thatís been in use for high-strain glasses for some while. Theyíre a bit more expensive than regular frames, but theyíre almost indestructible, too. Look." To Kimís amazement, he took a pair and twisted it almost around itself. The thin wire-frame bent like it was made out of rubber, but when the optometrist released the frame, it snapped back into shape as if itíd never been abused like that.

"Billy, isnít that perfect? Have you seen that?" Kim bubbled with enthusiasm as she tried the trick herself with another pair. It worked for her as well, and she laughed delightedly. "Come on, try them on!"

The Blue Ranger had to admit that the frames were both attractive and lightweight, making them very pleasant to wear. He balked at the price, however.

"Kim, Mr. Jensen says I can be fitted for contact lenses in six months. It would be extremely foolish to spend so much on frames I might not be needing any more soon!" He tried to put the titanium frames away, but the elderly man stopped him.

"Son, listen. Iíve known you since you and your dad moved here, and made all of your glasses. Please believe me when I say this is not so much about the better sale Iím making; this is also about you. Billy, even with contacts youíll need glasses as backup; there are always circumstances where you wonít be able to wear the lenses. Irritated eyes, a windy day at the beach, the flu which makes your eyes swell shut ... even extreme fatigue, or simply wearing the contacts too long, may make you need your glasses. Iím not even going to mention instances where you lose a lens. These frames are expensive, yes, but theyíre also classic. They wonít go out of fashion anytime soon."

"Thatíd make them a good investment, right, Mr. Jensen?" Kim winked at the man who smiled in return.

"I ... I donít know," Billy stuttered, but he was wavering. His friend decided to use the heavy artillery in her arsenal. Lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, she leaned over to Billyís ear.

"Trini will like them much better than the black ones!"

Shooting Kim a look that said clearly he knew he was being manipulated, Billy was nevertheless unable to resist that argument. Giving in, he selected a nice pair of golden-brown wire frames that picked up the differently-colored strands of his hair. He soon found himself outside the optometristís shop once more, with a promise that his glasses would be finished before closing time. Before he could do more than cast a slightly accusing glance at Kim, she grabbed his arm and steered him over to a small icecream parlor. Ordering two milkshakes, she sat Billy down opposite herself at a small wrought-iron table and looked seriously at the Blue Ranger.

"Billy, we have to talk."

***

"We do?" Billy asked, clearly uncomfortable. He had a strong suspicion what Kimberly wanted to talk about, and it was the last thing he wanted to do. The Blue Ranger hadnít meant to let the comment about being a nerd slip, but it had gotten out before he was aware of it.

"Yes." Kim paused to gather her thoughts. Her brown eyes looked earnestly at her old friend, but he kept his own face averted. She reached out and took his hand that played absently with his straw into her small, warm ones. Givíng it a gentle squeeze, she deliberately put a smile in her voice.

"Billy, who says that youíre a nerd? Thatís not true, and you know it."

The young man shot her a disbelieving glance. Surely Kimberly couldnít be that ignorant, could she?

"Everybody does." His voice was quiet, resigned.

"Have you ever heard <me saying it? Or Trini? Or Jason, Zack and Tommy?"

"N-no..." Billy had to concede that much, at least.

"See? And I bet there are others who arenít saying it, either. What about that girl you went out with a few months ago? The one that got abducted by Madam Woe?"

"Marge," Billy supplied the name of his friend with a fleeting smile. "No, she doesnít think so, either. But then, sheís in much the same situation I find myself in."

"Both too smart for your own good, huh?"

He looked at her, surprised. He hadnít thought that the Pink Ranger could see so clearly where his problem lay. Kim noted his amazement and grinned gently at him, coloring slightly.

"Iím not all that much of an airhead and mallrat as I appear to be, you know."

It was Billyís turn to blush.

"Kimberly, Iíve never considered you to be an ... an airhead!"

"Never?" She laughed at his discomfited expression. "Billy, weíve been friends for ages. I know what I was like even last year. When I was still cheerleading ... I just got sucked into what the other girls were doing. It was easier to fit in if I tried to be just like them, and at the time, I needed the security of belonging somewhere. I actively didnít want to stick out in any way."

"Of course -- it was the period when your parents separated," Billy suddenly realized. They all had tried to help Kim as much as they could, but she hadnít really let them. Instead, she had focussed her attention almost exclusively on cheerleading, and only the fact that Jason and Zack had been on the football team had kept the association alive. It was his turn to grasp her hand reassuringly as he watched a shadow flit over Kimís expressive face. "Iím sorry, Kim. I didnít mean to bring up bad memories."

Somewhere, she found a smile for her friend.

"Itís okay. Iím getting over it, now that Mom and Dad are at least civil to each other again. Having you guys to talk to has really helped." The two shared another smile.

Taking a sip of her milkshake, Kim looked at Billy once more.

"But Billy, this isnít about me. I made it through with your help -- and by getting my Power Coin. That made such a difference in the way I felt about things, the way I saw myself ... donít you feel it, too?"

The young genius pondered the question for a moment while he too consumed a good portion of his chocolate milk.

"I ... I think so. If nothing else, accepting the responsibilities of being a Ranger has shown me that there is more to life than the inside of my lab. I think you could say my horizons are in a constant process of being broadened.But, to return to the origin of our conversation, there is still an inordinately large number of people, especially among our peers, who consider me a nerd. Or a geek, if you prefer." The derogatory terms were quoted without rancour, and somehow, that made hearing them even worse.

"I donít prefer!" Kim nearly exploded. "Billy, if the kids at school call you a geek, or a nerd, itís because thatís what you show them! Not because thatís what you are!"

"I ... I donít quite follow you," Billy said, taken aback by her vehemence.

"Youíre a nice, caring, wonderful guy whoís one of the best friends one could wish for, and you could also be really cute, if you just tried a little! Billy, youíve been wearing these overalls since you moved here. It was sort of okay in grade school; I think I remember Zack wearing a pair occasionally, but he made them look cool, while on you they just look ..."

"....geeky. You can say it, Kimberly. Iíve gotten used to it."

"But you shouldnít have," Kim said, close to tears. She wanted so much to show her friend that the image he presented to the world was not real, or at least not any longer, but she didnít know how. She sniffled slightly, causing Billy to stare in alarm. Dredging up another smile, she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Kimberly, I ..."

She didnít let him continue. Instead, she leaned forward, looking deeply into the blue-green eyes.

"Billy, do you trust me?"

"I ... yes, of course. If I didnít, our team would never be as efficient in our struggle against Rita Repulsa."

"I didnít mean me, the Pink Ranger. I meant, do you trust me, Kimberly?"

Billy sat back in his chair, suddenly at a loss for words. It was on the tip of his tongue to say yes, but something stopped him. Kimís tone of voice precluded a blithe answer; he sensed that his petite friend was very, very serious. He thought about their relationship. Kim had always been popular, even in grade school. Her prettiness and vivacity made her good to have around, and she was very friendly to everybody. She also was one of the truly nice people Billy knew. Of course heíd had a crush on her, when even he discovered girls were different from boys, but it had soon been sublimated into genuine respect and friendship. Heíd always known that Kim didnít feel any romantic interest in him, and over time the teen had had to acknowledge that Trini complemented him far better than the livelier girl in pink. But ... trust? Did he trust her?

Suddenly, a memory rose in his mind. The body-switching incident. Kim had lived in his body for a day, had experienced his life as it really was, with a loving but absent-minded father, isolation and indifference from those who would never understand his intellect and had no interest in him beyond that. But she had never breathed a word about it to any of the others; instead, once they were back in their own bodies, she had hugged him fiercely and given him a kiss on the cheek the significance of which had dawned on him only much later. Billy looked at his pink-clad friend. Suddenly very sure, his voice rang with conviction as he met her questioning eyes.

"Yes, Kim, I trust you."

The brilliant smile his small companion sent his way warmed Billy in a way he was quite unused to, and he couldnít help but smile in return. The two shared a few minutes of silence, each lost in their thoughts. Just as the Blue Ranger was about to ask what had prompted that last question, Kim beat him to the punch with another query.

"Billy, why are you still wearing overalls most of the time? I know you have jeans, and shorts. You just almost never wear them. Why?"

He was momentarily perplexed, unable to answer.

"To be honest, I never really thought about it. A lot of it is habit, I suppose. They are sturdy, comfortable, have enough room for the paraphernalia of daily life that I need close at hand ... my mother always bought them for me."

As soon as heíd said that, Billy wanted to recall his words, but it was too late. Kim had already heard.

"Oh Billy ..." she reached over again and once more took his hand in hers. The Cranstons had moved to Angel Grove shortly after Mrs. Cranstonís death, so none of the Rangers had ever met her. But theyíd all seen the large photograph of a smiling young woman with dark blonde hair and the same blue-green eyes as her son on the mantelpiece in the living room at Billyís home. Kim also knew that her friend still carried a smaller version of that picture in his wallet, wherever he went.

"You miss her still, donít you?"

Billy just nodded. He wasnít used to sharing his feelings, and even after four years, the hurt was still fresh.

Kim thought for a moment. She didnít want to hurt her friend further, but she was determined to help him fit in better. Choosing her words with greater care than usual, she made her voice as gentle as possible to take the sting out.

"Do you think that your mom would want you to wear the same clothes you did as a little boy?"

"Of course not!"

"Billy, please understand that Iím not trying to be cruel, but you donít have to honor your momís memory by still wearing the same kind of clothes she used to pick out for you." Kim winced inwardly; she hoped that her friend would be able to listen to what she meant, not to the way it had come out.

The young man was about to protest automatically, but a sudden thought made him stop.

"Y-you think thatís what Iím doing?" Such a thing had never occurred to him before. Unfortunately, judging by the sheer amount of discomfort he was experiencing, Billy suspected there was more than a kernel of truth in Kimís questions. Feeling unaccountably defensive, he tried to turn the conversation in another direction. The term "little boy" had stung far more than "geek" or "nerd" ever had. He wasnít that insecure about himself; he just wasnít!

"I fail to see what significance my choice of apparel should have on othersí opinion about myself, anyway. The preoccupation of a large number of our schoolmates with 'fashion' and what they perceive to be acceptable clothing is largely unproductive and unnecessary, and has no bearing whatsoever on the relative worth or unworth of the person wearing said clothes!"

In his agitation, the Blue Ranger forgot about his resolve to alter his speech patterns.

Kim took a moment to consider Billyís words, and what they meant.

"Basically, youíre right. It shouldnít matter what you wear, and it is unimportant, if you get down to it. But Billy, the right clothes in the right situation also form the impression you have of someone." Her friend looked unconvinced, and Kim cast about for a suitable comparison.

"Billy, what about your dad? He teaches literature at AGU, right? What kind of clothes does he wear?"

"Mostly things suitable to his profession; suits, dress shirts and ties."

"Wouldnít you say he could teach Shakespeare just as well dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt?"

"My father would never want to disrespect his position as a person of learning and respect by a less than appropriate choice of wardrobe!" The whole idea was preposterous; Billy knew that his father didnít even own a pair of jeans. Even when working in the yard, he wore old button-down shirts and even older, cast-off dress pants.

"Iím not saying that he would, but he could if he wanted to, couldnít he?" Kim was relentless.

"I ... I suppose so," Billy conceded, very much against his will. "But Kimberly, whatís the point of this line of discussion? I do not see what my choice of personal style has to do with the fact that people routinely see me as a g..."

Kim leaned across the small table and placed her hand over Billyís mouth, silencing him.

"Donít say it," she warned him with flashing brown eyes. "I wonít have you put yourself down anymore!"

She sat back again, but her eyes warned the teen that she meant every word. Drawing a deep breath, Kim tried to put her rather vague feelings into an argument that Billy could accept.

"Look, Billy, Iím not saying that itís right, or particularly mature, but the fact is that we -- you, me, Tommy, all of us -- are judged at first glance by the way we look and present ourselves. Bulk and Skull are punks, and they dress like it. Tommy and Jason are mainly athletes -- thatís how they see themselves, and thatís why theyíre wearing tank tops and sweatpants a lot. When I was still cheering, I absolutely had to have all the latest fashions, because thatís what a cheerleader did. But you know and I know that thereís more to Jase and Tommy than just being jocks, and when you get down to it, even Bulk and Skull are more than just punks."

Billy grimaced at that. Kim saw it, and grinned fleetingly.

"Iím not saying thereís an awful lot of substance within them, but they do have their moments."

"Name one," Billy challenged with a slight grin of his own.

"Well .... they took part in the last school play, for example."

"And by doing so, nearly destroyed your grandmotherís heirloom and ultimately ruined the performance by disgracing themselves most publicly."

The Pink Ranger laughed at the memory of Bulkís split pants and his outrageous boxer shorts.

"I bet that school play will be among the most memorable in the history of AGH!" she giggled. Billy couldnít help but join in her laughter.

"Iíll grant you that." After a momentís deliberation, Billy found his own memory of his nemesesí attempts at fitting in.

"Do you remember the time they adopted Norman?"

"Do I ever!"

Laughing, the two finished their shakes while recalling more antics of the Terrible Twosome. Then, Kimberly sobered once more.

"Billy, I really think if you tried to get a few clothes that look more cool than what youíre wearing right now, people would stop thinking of you as a nerd first. Instead, theyíd see a nice, cute guy who just happens to be incredibly smart!"

The young genius looked unconvinced.

"I donít know, Kimberly. I must admit, there is a lot of truth in what you said, and I think I have been just as guilty of judging people by the way they present themselves to others without bothering to look deeper, but I really donít think that I can change my appearance to the degree you just described."

The petite gymnast shook her head in exasperation. Billy might think he couldnít compare to the rest of the male Rangers, but when it came to being stubborn about something, neither Jason nor Tommy had anything on him. She told her friend so in no uncertain terms, then huffed slightly as Billy seemed to find that particular bit of opinion more flattering than anything else.

"Well, how can you know if it will or wonít work, if you donít at least give it a try?!?"

The Blue Ranger considered this, then smiled ruefully.

"You are correct, of course, but Iím afraid it would be a hopeless endeavor. My sense of fashion is woefully inadequate."

"Thatís what you have me for," Kim declared emphatically. "I may not be as clever as you are, but my style is still among the best at Angel Grove High, even if I do say so myself!"

He had to admit that Kim was right about that. She did not always dress at the cutting edge of sartorial trends, but there was a certain indefinable something about her wardrobe that was perfectly suited to her, and Billy had never seen her dressed inappropriately, no matter what the occasion -- be it a party at the Youth Center, or the Silly Games in the park. Still, he was uneasy about the whole affair.

"I appreciate your offer, Kim, I truly do, but I just donít know ..." he hedged.

"Oh, come on, Billy, whereís your sense of adventure?" Kim coaxed, sensing victory.

"I think I left it at home in Angel Grove," Billy muttered facetiously. His perky friend only laughed at him.

"We found a perfect pair of glasses for you; youíre not going to spoil the effect by combining them with your old overalls, are you? Just think of what Trini ... the others are going to say when you come to school tomorrow, looking really cool for once? Wonít that make up for your entrance this morning?"

Kim was not above a little wheedling. Although no-one in their close-knit group had ridiculed Billy, they all had heard the half-hidden sniggers from other students throughout the day. She knew it had to have hurt her gentle friend; Kim only had to think back on the day when she had had her run-in with the Samurai Fan Man and the series of small disasters that had plagued her that morning. She still cringed at the image the bathroom mirror had reflected back at her after her drenching. That Tommy, of all people, had had to see her like that ... she shuddered mentally. Thankfully, heíd been able to make her see the humor in all of it. The Pink Ranger smiled dreamily as she thought of her boyfriend. However, she wasnít here to moon over the Green Ranger, but to manage a makeover for their Blue teammate. She focussed again on Billy, wo seemed lost in thought.

"Please Billy, wonít you let me help you? I promise not to go overboard. Besides, you said you trusted me!"

That was an argument Billy couldnít deny. If he really trusted Kim -- and he knew he did -- then by implication he had to trust that she knew what she was about and that she really had his best interests at heart. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he sighed and met the pleading brown eyes.

"Very well. You may assist me in selecting my wardrobe."

Before he could say more, Kim gifted him with one of her dazzling smiles, grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet.

"Allright! One fashion makeover coming up!"

Billy held her back.

"Kim, I have no desire to become the newest member of the Cashmere Club. I have neither the funds nor the inclination to be numbered among them." The Cashmere Club was the nickname a group of students had earned who were always dressed to the nines in clothes of whatever designer was Ďhotí at the moment.

"I know that," Kim soothed. "It wouldnít really be you, anyway. All Iím going to do is tell you what looks good on you and what doesnít, okay? And maybe make a few suggestions?"

"I think I can live with that. I hope," the teen genius sighed, feeling as if heíd just offered to sell his soul to the Devil. Kim cheerfully ignored his lost-puppy expression, collected her small purse and took her friend firmly by the hand in a grip that was astonishingly firm for someone so small.

The enthusiasm in Kimís voice was unmistakeable as she half-dragged Billy towards the escalators.

"What are we waiting for, then? Letís go shopping!"

***

The next two and a half hours were among the most amazing Billy Cranston had ever experienced. Never before had he accompanied his two female friends to a shopping expedition, and had always dismissed Jasonís and Zackís groaning protests as generic male reluctance to participate in what he believed to be a primarily female pursuit. Shopping for clothes was something that needed to be done on occasion if and when oneís wardrobe had to be replenished for whatever reason, a chore much like grocery shopping, but doing it with Kimberly was proving to be an education. More than that, the introduction to an art form, Billy corrected himself as he entered yet another changing area with a number of shirts Kim had selected with a sure hand from the displays. His head was whirling with her steady commentary on colors, style and quality, but he had to admit, whatever item found her approval was something that looked amazingly attractive and usually fit him perfectly.

He slipped off his sweatshirt and put on a short-sleeved button-down shirt with two-inch wide stripes in white and medium blue. He was not at all certain about the garment, but the look of approval in Kimís eyes was unmistakeable as he modeled the shirt for her. Billy still felt slightly silly about the whole process, but Kim made even that fun. Every now and then, she slipped a truly outrageous piece into the bundle he took to the dressing cubicles, and after a while the Blue Ranger had got into the spirit of things by selecting similarly inappropriate items and offering them for inspection to his petite taskmistress with an innocent look. His most successful effort thus far had been a pair of exceedingly baggy shorts that reached past his knees and sagged in the seat. Kim had countered with a ruffled, embroidered shirt in the next shop, and both had nearly collapsed with laughter as they tried to picture a combination of both.

"Itíd serve you right if I really made you wear that awful thing," Kim wheezed as their paroxysms of laughter finally subsided.

"If you did, I would tell everybody at school that you personally selected the shirt for me," Billy grinned right back. Much to his surprise, he was enjoying himself immensely.

"You wouldnít! My whole reputation would be shot!" Kim gasped, slightly alarmed by the unaccustomed glint in the blue-green eyes.

"Wouldnít I?" Billy retorted, laughing at her horrified expression.

"Oh, you! Youíre as bad as Zack!" Kim bopped him slightly on the arm.

"Under the circumstances, I take that as a compliment," the young man smiled at his friend. "However, it is almost time for me to collect my glasses. Mr: Jensen said theyíd be finished shortly after seven."

A glance at her watch showed that it was indeed nearly time to go back to the optometristís shop.

"Okay; I think you have enough for now anyway, donít you?"

"More than that." Billy surveyed his small mountain of shopping bags with a slightly bemused expression. Not a single overall, but about a dozen shirts in various shades of blue, from tank tops (heíd never worn a tank-top in his life before!) to checkered flannels much in the style Jason and Tommy favored, with comfortable jerseys and shirts mixed in between. Shorts, stylish but well-fitting jeans ... Kim really had shown him how to combine things and create his own personal style. Billy felt confident that from now on, he would be capable of selecting his own wardrobe with an eye not only to durability and comfort, but also to general looks. And if not, he knew he could come to his pink-clad friend for further advice without feeling self-conscious about it.

Paying for the last of his purchases, the two teens made their way back to the second floor. The new glasses were ready, and as they left the specialist, Billy sighed with relief at his restored vision.

"I was really getting quite annoyed at the way my damaged frames kept sliding down all day," he confided to Kimberly who looked approvingly at him.

"I can imagine," she said, mentally comparing Billyís relaxed attitude and new air of confidence with the bedraggled, klutzy boy of the morning. She was rightly proud of this afternoonís work, even if she had not looked at a single thing for herself. For once, it didnít matter. There would be other opportunities to go browsing.

Once more, she let her gaze sweep from Billyís slightly tousled dark blond hair to his sneakered feet. He was still wearing overalls and a tee that had definitely seen better times, but she had no problem picturing him in ... the blue-and-white button-down and the khaki shorts they had bought together. Yes, heíd look cool and confident, and the new glasses gave him an intellectual air rather than the slightly bug-eyed look the old frames had sometimes produced. She frowned slightly, her eyes lingering on her friendís face. There still was something not quite right .... of course!

Casting a quick look at her watch, Kim decided there was still time for what she had in mind before they were supposed to meet Trini -- if only barely, and only if they were very lucky. But there was no harm in trying, was there? Once more, she grabbed Billyís hand in a firm grip.

"Címon, Billy, one more thing!" She dragged him along after her with surprising force.

"Kim? Where are we going? I have definitely bought all the things I need, and then some. There is not a single item I could possibly need that we .... oh no. No!"

Kim had stopped in front of an exclusive beauty salon.

***

"Come on, Billy," Kim urged, trying to budge the Blue Ranger from where he was figuratively digging his heels in. Her attention was mostly focussed on the large plate glass window, so she didnít see the mixture of horror and mulishness in her friendís expression. Finally, though, it registered that she wasnít making any progress. "Billy?"

"Kim, I appreciate what youíve done for me by helping me shop, but Iím not getting a haircut. I only had one a couple of weeks ago. And there is no chance in this lifetime, mine or yours, that Iím getting a haircut in here!"

"Thereís hardly any time for you to get a haircut," Kim said reasonably. "Besides, you can only get one here if you have an appointment. Which we donít."

"Then ... what are we doing here?" Billy asked, thoroughly bewildered as he relaxed somewhat. "I assume you do have a reason why youíve brought me to this establishment this close to closing time?"

The Pink Ranger grinned engagingly at the young man as she tugged on his arm once more. Still somewhat reluctant, Billy slowly moved after his friend in the direction of the entrance. There was a slight musical chime as the glass door swung open, and within seconds Billy found himself surrounded by rich scents and warm, muted colors, the effect of which was enhanced by soft music that swirled around them. He started to squirm inwardly, feeling very uncomfortable and out of place.

"A friend of my momís works here, and I know her quite well; I thought she could give us at least a few pointers what to do with your hair if we asked her nicely. -- Is Miss Marion in tonight?" Kim politely asked the receptionist as the elegant young woman approached the two teens.

"Certainly, Miss; if you will wait over here ..." The friendly employee indicated an elegant lounge, and Kimberly drew Billy down next to her to sit on one of the soft couches. They didnít have to wait long until an exquisitely-styled woman in her late thirties came out of one of the cubicles.

"Kimberly! What a pleasure! Have you finally decided to accept my offer?" she asked with a smile. Billy was momentarily distracted from his discomfort as he saw Kim blush slightly. She cast him a somewhat guilty glance, but answered her motherís friend calmly enough.

"Iím sorry, Ms. Evans, but I still would like to keep my hair as it is."

"What a pity. Iíd love a chance to bring out those auburn highlights you have under a certain light, and I know just the right haircut for you. Youíd make an excellent model for hair products."

The Pink Ranger shook her head, the rosy glow in her cheeks intensifying. "No, thank you. My boyfriend likes my hair long."

Ms. Evans turned her large grey eyes on Billy.

"And there is nothing that would change your mind, sir?" she asked, smiling at the befuddled teen. Slowly it dawned on Billy what the woman was implying. He blushed beet-red.

"No! I mean, Iím not ... uh ... what I meant to say is ..." he stammered, for once totally at a loss for words.

Kim took pity on Billy.

"Billyís not my boyfriend. Just a very close friend from school."

"I see," the beautician laughed. "Well, Kimberly, if youíre not here to model for me, what can I do for you? A new appointment for your mother? Elaine could have handled that."

"No, not that either. Actually, Iíve come to ask for some advice for Billy, here." She inclined her head with a smile towards her friend, who was still fighting his blushes. "You see, heís just gotten new glasses, and we sort of gave him a new look in clothes, but I think thereís really something we should do about his hair as well."

"And you were right to come to me," Marion Evans smiled again. "Youíre in luck, I have no more clients for tonight. Come on, you two."

The elegant woman ushered the Rangers into one of the small curtained-off cubicles. With a perfunctory "May I?", she ran her hands through Billyís dark blond hair, brushing it out of his forehead, back again, tilting his head this way and that. The young man wanted desperately to resist, but good manners prevented him from jerking free. His cheeks and ears burning with embarrassment, he submitted to the scrutiny, feeling nothing more like a prime slab of meat.

"I think I have it," the beautician finally announced. "You have a good, solid haircut -- Marioís, on Orchard Street in Angel Grove, right?"

"How do you know that?" Billy blurted, astounded. That was precisely the salon he and his father frequented.

"Oh, we all recognize each otherís handiwork, at least the good ones," Kimís motherís friend replied. "Mario could be really great, but I suppose his clientele is a bit conservative for him to have much of a chance to be truly creative." She looked him over critically once more.

"Kimberly is right, though -- you should be doing something with your hair. Let it grow a little bit in back, have it slightly layered, brush it back from your forehead, and most of all it needs to be lightened."

"Iím not going to dye my hair!"

Billy stepped back in alarm. The two women shared a look that said clearly, "MEN!!!", and laughed. Then, Ms. Evans patted the Blue Ranger slightly on his arm.

"Iím not saying you should. If you were an adult, you might want to consider having it professionally highlighted, but at your age, a rinse will be more than enough. Luckily, you have the kind of hair color thatís ideal for very simple treatments." She looked at the clock on the wall. "Thereís just enough time for me to show you. Come on."

Before he knew what was happening to him, Billy found himself seated before one of the gilded mirrors, a large towel draped around his shoulders and his hair being washed by a pair of very determined hands. He could barely make out Kim hovering in the background, his glasses having been whipped off by the beautician. The scalp massage was brief but pleasant, and relaxed him a bit, but Billy stiffened again in dread as a citrussy scent filled the air and a handful of cool liquid was combed through the wet strands.

"Weíll just let that set for a couple of minutes; Iíll be right back." With that, Ms. Evans disappeared through the curtain.

"Kim?" Billy queried after a moment, not daring to move from his backwards-reclining position over the movable basin.

"What is your acquaintance doing with my hair? I have no desire to make a laughingstock out of myself by appearing at school with a changed hair color."

"Relax, Billy," Kim smiled at her friend. "I know the rinse Miss Marion just used; my mother uses the same brand. It will wash out after two or three showers."

Only slightly mollified, Billy cast an accusing glance at the petite girl as he tried to find a more comfortable position.

"You promised you wouldnít try to change me into something Iím not," he said, somewhat bitterly.

"And I donít. Miss Marion is excellent at her job -- one of the best hairdressers in Stone County, or so my mom says. Sheís even won awards at national competitions. She wouldnít do anything that doesnít suit you."

Kim met the blue-green eyes with her own. She saw the slightly hurt look, and tried to suppress the pang it gave her. Her voice was very small, but her gaze never wavered as she reminded Billy of their earlier conversation.

"You said you trusted me. Please donít stop now?"

The soft plea stopped Billy as nothing else could have done. Before he could answer Kim, Ms. Evans returned, and all he could do was send his friend a reassuring smile as once more warm water sluiced over his head. His hair was rubbed briskly dry with the towel, and within moments the young genius found himself facing the large mirror once more. He still couldnít see anything, though, since his new glasses were just out of his reach, and it would be too undignified to make a grab for them. A blow-dryer was wielded with professional efficiency, and finally Ms: Evans put her paraphernalia away. She whisked the towel off his shoulders and handed Billy his glasses with a small flourish. He fumbled them on, and almost dreading what he would see, he lifted his head to sneak a peek at his reflection.

"Well?" Ms. Evans asked after a minute, when no comment was forthcoming. The Blue Ranger lifted stunned eyes to her, then turned towards Kimberly.

"K-kim?" His voice was almost a squeak, he was so surprised.

***

The young girl was busily looking at her friend, liking very much what she saw.

"Billy, youíre cute!" she exclaimed finally, bringing a deep flush to her friendís cheeks. "Just look at you! Style your hair like that every day, and wear your new clothes, and I bet the girls at school will start falling all over themselves tomorrow!"

"That is not my desire at all," Billy muttered, still stunned at his changed appearance. His formerly rather dull dark-blond hair had picked up subtle highlights, and the slightly swept-back hairstyle emphasized his eyes behind the new glasses. He looked older, more mature than a scant half-hour before, and all traces of the nerdy young boy who had greeted him in his mirror every morning had disappeared. Well, almost -- the straps of his overall didnít fit his new look at all, and suddenly Billy was overcome with a desire to get rid of the garment as fast as possible. He blushed even deeper at the thought.

"Still think youíre a nerd now?" Kim whispered beside him, smiling proudly.

Billy turned his head to look at his friend.

"No."

The single syllable was enough. Brief as his answer was, it conveyed a wealth of meaning and gratitude between the two friends, and brought a pleased expression into the sparkling brown eyes.

"Just wait Ďtil the others see you! I canít wait!" Kim gushed, pulling Billy to his feet. "You look sooo good now! A bit intellectual still, but thatís what you are, right? And most of all, you still look like our Billy!"

The young man had to admit Kim was right. Before he could answer, though, the beautician shooed them out, back into the reception area.

"Iím sorry, kids, but I have to close up. Iím glad you enjoy your new style, Billy," she added as she put her combs and brushes away into a basket with her name on it. Belatedly, the teen remembered his manners.

"Thank you very much for your efforts, Ms. Evans. What do I owe you?"

"Nothing; call it a gesture of friendship for Kimberly, here. Maybe you can persuade her to model for me, after all!" the woman smiled.

"If you promise not to cut off my hair and not to do anything really drastic to it, I will," Kim relented, feeling she owed it to her motherís friend after doing her -- and Billy -- this favor.

"Itís a deal. Iíll let you mom know when I need you, allright?"

"Okay," Kim agreed.

"Billy, to style your hair like this on your own, just brush it out of your face when blow-drying it. Marioís cut is perfect for that, but you should give serious thought to letting it grow a little. Just talk to Mario the next time you see him and tell him I said so; heíll know what to do. Oh -- something else. Here!" Ms. Evans reached into a small basket on the receptionistís table. Sorting briefly through the contents, she handed Billy a handful of sachets. "Free samples of the rinse I used on your hair. Use it once a week -- instructions are on the back -- and youíll be okay. Otherwise, itíll wash out after a few days."

"Thanks ever so much, Miss Marion," Kim said once more. Then, she let herself be guided out into the mall hallway, along with Billy. The salon door closed behind them, and Marion Evans waved at them as they slowly made their way towards the food court. They had to hurry, if they didnít want to be late for their appointment with Trini. However, as they passed one of the ground floor doors, they saw that the sky hard darkened considerably and fat raindrops were splattering onto the tarmac.

"Oh great," Kim groaned. "Now weíll all get soaked -- Trini when she comes to get us, and all three of us when we go back to the car. That doesnít look as if itís going to let up anytime soon."

"You may be right," Billy agreed as he peered out into the rapidly emptying parking lot. "However, if you donít mind getting a little wet, we might at least spare Trini a drenching." At Kimís questioning look, he pointed out the doorway. "Isnít that Mr. Kwanís car?"

"Yes, it is," Kim confirmed after taking a closer look. The mustard-yellow sedan was slowly making its way towards their entrance, the dark-haired driver obviously looking for a parking space as close as possible to their position.

"I can use this large shopping bag to hold over my head," she suggested. "Itíll cover most of me. But what about you?"

"Donít worry about me, Kimberly; Iíll be fine," Billy assured his friend. Distributing their purchases as best as possible, the two then dashed out into the downpour, chasing after Trini. The Yellow Ranger fortunately saw them in the rearview mirror, and stopped, unlocking the doors. Breathless, Billy and Kim tumbled inside, rather damp but in good spirits.

"Why didnít you wait? I have two large umbrellas in the trunk and would have brought them," Trini chided her friends gently as she put the car into gear again and headed towards the exit.

Kim exchanged a sheepish glance with Billy.

"You know, it never even occurred to me that you might have brought an umbrella," Kim giggled, slightly embarrassed at her own lack of thought. "When Billy suggested we run out and meet you, it seemed like such a good idea ..." she shrugged and smiled at Trini from the back seat. Her friendís warm dark eyes met hers in the mirror, and both girls turned to look at their Blue teammate. Billy only shrugged and wiped his wet bangs out of his forehead. He saw Kim frown, but shook his head slightly, asking her mutely not to reveal everything they had done this afternoon. The gymnast understood.

"I really like your new glasses, Billy" Trini commented as she stopped at a traffic light. "Theyíre much more attractive than your old ones -- if you donít mind my saying so."

"See? What did I tell you?" Kim crowed, inordinately pleased that her opinion was being vindicated.

"Of course I donít mind" Billy answered, a gratified blush staining his cheeks slightly red. "Kimberlyís comments were very helpful in selecting them. As well as for the rest of my purchases," he added.

"Really? I thought you were joking earlier today when you said Kim could help you shop," Trini said, more than slightly surprised. *Kim had gone shopping with Billy?!?* The Asian girl shook her head in wonder. "Did she drag you to the GAP?"

"No, not at all. Iím really not the type for designer apparel, and Kim knows that. But her selections were quite appropriate."

"If you say so," Trini said, a somewhat dubious expression on her pretty face. After all, she knew her friendís shopping habits inside and out.

Billy smiled warmly at both girls.

"And I mean it. She did as good a job of assisting me with her expertise as you would have done, had you not been called away. While I regretted the necessity, we managed just fine on our own."

"Indeed," Kim agreed, and with a wink at Billy launched into a tale of how they had tried to outdo each other with finding outrageous clothes. Soon, Trini was laughing hard at the lively tale, which Billy punctuated with dry-humored remarks that had both girls in stitches. He didnít often indulge his sense of the ridiculous like this, but just now it felt absolutely right.

***

The next morning at school, Kim was very fidgetty as she waited for the rest of the Rangers to arrive. For once, she didnít give Tommy as much of her attention as he was used to. Finally, the tall Green Ranger gently turned his girlfriendís face toward hin so that she had to meet his eyes.

"Kim, whatís the matter with you? If I didnít know better, Iíd say you were waiting for another guy."

"Actually, I am," the Pink Ranger confessed. Seeing Tommyís dumbstruck and slightly alarmed expression, she pressed a quick kiss to his cheek.

"Donít look at me like that, silly; Iím not replacing you," she teased, laughing slightly. " I just want to see what Billy looks like."

"What Billy looks like?" Tommy repeated, frowning in incomprehension. "You know that already."

"Yeah, I do, but you donít," Kim said with an enigmatic smile. She couldnít wait to see their friendsí expression at the team geniusís hopefully altered appearance. She hadnít had a chance last night to give him any more tips on how to dress, understanding that he wanted to surprise Trini most of all, but he couldnít really go wrong with any of the things theyíd bought. Kim had taken pains to make their purchases coordinated, and Billy had seemed to pay attention to her instructions. It was such a pity that his new hairstyle had been ruined by the rain, though.

The gang gathered close as each drifted in, greeting the others more or less sleepily. Finally, only the Blue Ranger was missing, and Kim fairly burst with suppressed excitement. Even Zack was motivated to comment on her behaviour.

"Whatís the matter, Kim? You seem as wound up as a kid on Christmas morning," the black teen teased his friend.

"Maybe thatís because Santa forgot her last year," Bulk commented snidely as he slammed his bulging locker door shut. He earned a braying laugh from his sidekick, and the two bullies snickered to themselves.

"Why donít you just shut up, Bulk?" Jason said calmly, but with a hint of steel in his deep voice. For an instant, it seemed as if the large boy wanted to say something else, but the look out of the Red Rangerís eyes, ably supported by an equally firm expression on Tommyís face, changed his mind.

"Yeah, well, Santa Claus doesnít exist anyway," Bulk sneered, retreating. "Itís stupid to believe in him anymore."

"Yeah, stupid," Skull echoed, then a frown crossed his somewhat goofy features. "But Bulkie, whoís bringing me my presents this year if Santa doesnít exist?"

The Rangers grinned at the pained expression that crossed the massive teenís face.

"Shut up, dimwit." Grabbing his sidekick by the collar of his jacket, Bulk swung around and the two punks vanished down the hallway.

"Can you believe those two?" Trini giggled as she looked after them.

"Yes I can," Zack said slowly, his attention suddenly diverted down the hallway to the water fountain. "After all, Iíll have to believe that."

"Huh?"

Four pairs of eyes followed his gaze, and slowly widened. Straightening from taking a drink, Billy turned towards his friends, blushing slightly as he met their amazed expressions. The young man was dressed in stylish jeans, with a blue-and-cream patterned polo shirt that made his shoulders look almost as broad as Zackís and accentuated the blue in his irises. The brown-gold wire frames of his glasses, while barely noticeable, picked up the lighter strands in his brushed-back hair. Billy felt horribly self-conscious, but a quick glance at Kimberly settled his nerves somewhat. The brilliant smile and approving nod told him heíd done well in choosing his wardrobe this morning. He hadnít been able to totally recreate the hairstyle Ms. Evans had created for him last night, but thought heíd achieved a credible imitation. In any case, the less-professional look seemed perfectly natural and was very flattering. Even his father had commented favorably on it at breakfast, much to Billyís amazement.

"Man, Billy, look at you!" the Black Ranger finally exclaimed. "I thought you just wanted to get a new pair of eyes, and here we get a totally new guy!"

"Looking cool, buddy," Jason added, a pleased grin playing around his mouth. Heíd felt for some time that he ought to do something for his friend, but had been unable to figure out what it was that disturbed him slightly about Billy. Seeing him looking calm, collected and much more mature than the day before, he swept his eyes up and down the blue-clad teen.

"Kim and Trini help you choose the duds?"

"Actually, it was just Kimberly," Billy admitted to his friends as he opened his locker. "Her assistance during yesterday's shopping expedition  has been invaluable."

The Pink Ranger blushed at the praise in the young geniusí voice.

"Aw, it was nothing. For once it was me who could help Billy, instead of the other way around."

She was referring to the study sessions Billy held with her semi-regularly.

"You done good, Kim," Zack said approvingly. "Billy, my man, youíll be the regular ladykiller from now on!"

"I doubt that a simple change of wardrobe will effect any significant changes in how the female population of Angel Grove High reacts to me," Billy protested, mildly amused at his teammateís exuberance. As if to prove him wrong, two cheerleaders passed the group of friends. Doing a veiled double-take, the shorter one whispered briefly to her friend, then turned back, skipped over to the group of friends and smiled into the startled blue-green eyes.

"Hello, Billy," the uniformed girl cooed, causing Jason, Zack and Tommy to grin behind her back.

"Uh, h-hello, Lisa," Billy stuttered, flustered. Only a few days ago, the pretty girl had passed him in the hallway pretending he didnít exist at all.

"I was wondering," Lisa said, looking up coyly at the teen from under her long lashes, "since youíre so good at Physics ... would you mind helping me study for the test next week? We are in the same class, after all."

"Um, of course. We can set a time at lunch maybe?" Billy requested, always willing to help out a classmate.

"Sure. Save a seat for me?" The cheerleader gave Billy another bright smile.

"C-certainly," the Blue Ranger agreed perplexedly.

"Until later, then," Lisa purred, and flounced away with a swirl of her short skirt. Billy stared after her, totally stunned.

"You were saying, bro?" Zack snickered, having followed the exchange with barely-controlled amusement.

Billy turned towards his friends, a dazed look on his face. He blushed as he met Triniís dark eyes. Was it his imagination, or was the expression he could read in them warmer than he was used to? His heart seemed to skip a beat, Lisaís sudden attention already forgotten. If Trini approved of the way he looked now, yesterdayís excursion would be more than worthwhile the time spent away from his lab.

"I ... I donít understand," he finally said. "The other day, Lisa ignored me as I offered her my assistance in class, and now she seeks me out on her own initiative? Why?"

"Because today everybody can see what a great guy you are," Kim said quietly. "Youíre not hiding behind your overalls and ugly glasses anymore."

"Is that really what I was doing?" Billy asked somewhat plaintively as the six made their way towards their classroom.

"I think so, Billy," Trini said, the smile plainly audible in her quiet voice and softening the mild rebuke. "And I for one am very glad that you decided to come out of your shell."

The Blue Ranger smiled back, basking in the pretty Asianís admiring look.

"Then I can only say that Kim was right yesterday."

"About what, buddy?" Tommy asked, finally understanding his girlfriendís cryptic comments from earlier.

"That trusting someone extends into all areas of life, not just into one." His suddenly serious gaze encompassed all his friends. "And since I was not quite as oblivious to all of your previous attempts to coax me out of hiding as it might have seemed, I apologize for my lack of trust. It wonít happen again."

"Thatís fantastic, Billy. If we canít trust each other, who then? What would become of the Rangers?" Jason asked in a low voice as the six friends stopped for a moment at the classroom door.

"Itís not just the Rangers," Billy corrected his friend. "Itís each of you as a person. I couldnít ask for a better group of friends than all of you. To be with, to laugh with ... and to trust."

The teens shared a delighted smile of understanding. Then, the moment evaporated as their teacher hurried round the corner. But each carried a small seed within them that would grow into a strong plant over the years, enduring and strong, and never to be destroyed. They were friends. Always.  

 

The End