Disclaimer: Anything PR related belongs to Saban – or whoever bought the rights; if I'd had the money, I would've bought 'em myself, then I could make YOU guys pay ME for playing with them!
Note: Inspiration struck my Muse, who hit me with a new story idea. Now I may have to clobber HIM … anyway, the inspiration in question came from an episode of "7th Heaven" (yes, I watch the show. So?) and a desire to write a story about how the first five Rangers met.
Note II: This is a belated birthday surprise for dear friend Peregrine – thanks for the lovely story I got a while back, and I hope you'll like the finished product. Congratulations, Dear – you're now entering the best 10 years in a woman's life … the ones between 29 and 30! Enjoy it anyway, everybody, and if you do, mind telling me? Pretty please? DB, 2001/2002

Perfectly Good Reasons

By: Dagmar Buse

"Good morning. Sit!"

Mr Jenkins, Vice Principal of Angel Grove Junior High, looked somewhat distastefully at the five students shuffling into their seats before him. It was just past 9 am, way too early to be working on a weekend. School had started only two months ago, and already he had five delinquents to deal with. If it only had been regular detention … but no, he had to give up his free Saturday mornings for over a month, and just because these five miscreants disobeyed the rules of their new school! He harumphed audibly, and took out a folder to look at names and the reasons why these kids (who admittedly didn't look like your typical run-of-the-mill rulebreakers; but looks could be deceiving, couldn't they?) had been ordered to be here.

What he read made his eyes widen in disbelief.

"A nice bunch you are," he almost-sneered at the five preteens squirming uncomfortably in their seats under his scrutiny. "If this is the way your futures are going to be, all I can say is, I'll be glad to see you go. As in, kicked out of this school eventually. And that can't be fast enough, as far as I'm concerned!"

He turned disdainful eyes on the burly boy sitting to the far right.

"Jason Scott. Six weeks of Saturday remedial classes for fighting and physically threatening a classmate. Only 12, and a bully already."

Jason flushed a dull red, almost matching his polo shirt. He hadn't bullied anyone, but nobody would listen to his explanation. Well, at least his parents believed him, so there wasn't too much fuss about getting detention, even if they hadn't been pleased. He stared at the desktop rather than meet Mr. Jenkins' eyes.

"Zachary Taylor. Possession and display of an edged weapon on school grounds. Well, what can you expect from someone like you?" Jenkins grimaced nastily, and the short, dark-skinned boy clenched his fists at the thinly-veiled racial slur. But he kept his mouth shut, knowing that any protest would only make things worse. Besides, he hadn't had a knife knife, just … he was distracted by the teacher addressing a petite girl in a flowery pink dress sitting next to him.

"Kimberly Hart. Here for provocative manner of dress and indecent exposure. A slut in the making, it seems."

Kimberly was nearly in tears. She wasn't slutty, no way, but how was she to know that there was a stupid rule at the school that girls under 13 weren't allowed to wear makeup? At all? Nobody had told her, and her mom hadn't said anything when she'd driven her to school … as for 'indecent exposure', that had been an accident, but nobody had believed her … she snuck a peek at the slender Asian girl on her left. She looked kinda nice; what might be her crime?

She found out.

"Trini Kwan. Consuming and distributing drugs. Well, well, well. If there is anything more despicable, I don't know what is."

Trini closed her eyes in mortification, still feeling the shame of that particular accusation. Her parents had been infuriated, but all their protests hadn't done any good; the rule she'd broken was really sort of silly, but it existed, and she had broken it, however unwittingly. The family had decided that the only way to save face was for her to accept the unjust punishment quietly, and so here she was.

Lastly, Jenkins turned his disgusted face towards the last kid – a slight, bespectacled blond boy who was looking extremely uncomfortable, and tried unobtrusively to scoot his chair away from his companions.

"William Cranston. Prolonged absences without justification. School's been in session only for two months, and you skipped class for three weeks already. Hardly the attitude we're expecting from our students. How you'll ever amount to anything, I don't know."

Billy squirmed embarrassedly, wanting to tell the hateful man pacing in front of the seats that it hadn't been his fault, that his father had simply forgotten to phone in or to send the school a notification, but lacked the courage. Further, any lessons he had missed he'd long ago made up for; he had no problems at all following in class, but every attempt to get out of these punishment sessions had failed.

"I'm sorry, Mr Cranston, but the rules are for everybody. Your son missed three weeks of lessons, and so he HAS to take remedial classes. No exceptions whatsoever. And besides, his social skills are bad enough already; it wouldn't be good for his standing in class if we gave him special treatment. He definitely needs to lose the arrogant attitude towards lesser-gifted students he's been displaying, too."

The Principal's words had made a certain amount of sense, but that didn't mean it made it any easier for Billy to forego his Saturday mornings. And what's more, it wasn't his problem that his classmates were mostly intellectually challenged. Wasn't it?

*WHY didn't Dad enroll me in that special school for graduates of the Baby Genius program?* The rebellious thought wasn't a new one for Billy, and he had yet to get a satisfactory answer from his parent. He didn't WANT to socialize with kids who shared none of his interests, nor was he at all keen to explore their hobbies to any degree. *Sports. Games. Nothing but … fluff. Bah!*

His attention, and that of his fellow detainees, was directed towards the blackboard, where the Vice Principal was scribbling this morning's tasks, not caring whether his negligent scrawl was legible for the five youngsters or not.

"You must complete this by 12.30. There will be a half-hour break after 90 minutes. No talking."

With that, he sank into the desk chair and unfolded the morning paper. The five children looked resignedly at each other, then shrugged, rolled their eyes or sighed according to temperament, and opened their books. Soon, only the scratching of pencils on paper could be heard in the sunny classroom.



At precisely 10.30am, Jenkins dismissed the kids to an enclosed courtyard with a couple of bench seats and tables. The five stood around indecisively, not having brought any lunch, and too uncomfortable about the situation to make friends. Finally Zack, who was fairly bursting with curiosity despite some wariness – what if the others really were such badasses as Jenkins had made them out to be? – pounced on Kimberly as the easiest mark. Without preamble, he blurted out what was on his 12-year-old boy's mind.

"What exactly did you do, strip in class?"

Tears welled up in the large brown eyes, caused partly by anger and partly by humiliation.

"No, of COURSE not!"

The small girl turned away to hide her face from the boy. *He's so nasty! I'll never be able to like him! Ever!*

Help came from an unexpected quarter. A quiet voice spoke up.

"That is a highly improbable scenario; if she had embarked on such a course of action, surely someone in authority would have intervened to prevent any untoward exposure of objectionable body parts."

Four pairs of incredulous eyes swivelled towards Billy, who shrank back into himself. Why, oh WHY couldn't he have kept his mouth shut? Now it would start again – the taunts about his extensive vocabulary, the ridicule over getting enmeshed in matters that didn't concern him … the other two boys, according to Mr. Jenkins, were in detention because they had displayed violent behaviour. They surely would exact retribution on him for daring to interfere and 'showing off' his superior intellect. Billy cringed, waiting for the blow. Whether it would be verbal or physical, he neither knew nor cared.

It never happened. Cautiously, Billy peered at the other kids. All of them stood slightly slack-jawed, until Zack found his voice again – only to utter a confused "Huh?"

Jason shook his head as if to clear his ears. "Say what?" he asked slowly.

Kimberly just stared. "Do you always talk like that?" she blurted. "'Cause if you do, I'm gonna have to, like, carry a dictionary around to understand you!"

Trini fought to hide a tiny smile. This was surprising in a boy her own age, but hardly something completely new to her. Her father had told her once how long it had taken him to cure his brother Howard of that particular habit.

"He said that … Kimberly, is it? … couldn't have done anything like that because a teacher would've stopped her before she got too far."

"Oh. Of course," Jason nodded, relieved at having that cleared up.

Kim beamed suddenly, her embarrassment forgotten at the unexpected support. "Yeah, exactly!"

"Then why didn't you say so in the first place?" Zack demanded to know of Billy.

"But I did," Billy protested automatically, forgetting his shyness in the suddenly lightened atmosphere. "Trini just re-formulated my commentary in the vernacular."


This time, Trini actually chuckled as she looked at a thoroughly confounded Kimberly. "He means, I used smaller words."

"Precisely," Billy muttered, giving her a grateful glance. It wasn't often he encountered someone, adult or contemporary, who could follow his verbalizations with such apparent ease.

"Okay," Zack interrupted, getting back on track. "So what did you do that they nailed you for 'indecent exposure'?" He mimicked Mr. Jenkins' tone to perfection, but somehow coming from him it was funny rather than hurtful.

Kimberly looked very indignant. "I wore makeup to school – nothing major, just a light lipstick and some mascara. I didn't know there was a stupid rule against that!"

"It's in the leaflet our parents got when we registered," Trini supplied.

"Really? Geeze … I must've missed that," Kim grumbled, angry at herself now. "I was so busy checking the cheerleading requirements …"

"Ah, forget it," Jason advised, not interested in what he thought of as 'girlie stuff'. "That's minor. What about the indecency thing, though?"

The doe-brown eyes fired up again. "That was sooooo unfair! It happened in the restroom, during recess, when the bell rang for class. I was a little late leaving and in a hurry, so I didn't see Lillian Jacobs come in just when I was running out the door." Kim jumped off the bench in her agitation. "She's such a stuck-up old bi-" she caught herself just in time, "-ddy," she finished a bit lamely. Two of the boys grinned, knowing perfectly well what she had almost let slip. Trini seemed to be hiding a smile, and Billy looked faintly scandalized.

"She's also school president," he murmured.

"Yeah, well, okay maybe, but that's no reason to get all huffy with me when she spilled her water bottle all over my new blouse! She was just mad at me for getting on the gymnastics team instead of her friend Betty. Is it my fault that klutz can't do a simple handstand without needing two people to hold her up? Lillian should've looked where she was going as much as I!"

The other four had to admit the justice of that.

"So your blouse got all wet …?" Trini prompted, sensing where this was heading.

"Yeah," the petite girl sighed. "It was white, very fine cotton, I wasn't wearing a bra, and …" her blush and the boys' imagination provided the rest. They snickered, but to her surprise Kimberly didn't mind. Much.

"I was already late after Lillian got through chewing me out. I hadn't brought a jacket, and naturally old Mrs Ginelli caught me just as a few varsity jerks were wolf-whistling after me," she concluded her tale in a rush. "She wouldn't believe me that it was an accident, Lillian was still too mad at me to back me up, and you know how Mrs Ginelli is. So here I am."

"Man, tough luck," Jason commiserated. "But I don't see what the fuss was all about, anyway. After all, you're hardly Dolly Parton," he said with a boy's frankness and typical lack of tact.

Kim flushed; he'd hit one of her sorest spots with that comment – her marked lack of development in the chest area. She was about to light angrily into him, but a look into his open dark eyes convinced her that there was no malice behind the remark – just an observation of fact like she had gotten from her own brother, a lofty High School freshman. Her anger fled before it fully materialized. Still, she couldn't help a wistful sigh.


"Who's Dolly Parton?" Billy wondered, unfamiliar with the name.

Zack grinned. "A country singer and actress. Blonde, big hair, short like Kim here, but man, is she stacked!" He shaped an exaggerated hourglass figure in the air, then he cupped his hands about a foot away from his chest. Even a relative innocent like Billy couldn't mistake the meaning of the gesture.

"Oh!" A slow flush crept up his cheeks.

Trini, perfectly in tune with Kim's feelings, patted her hand consolingly, and was rewarded with a small smile. Both girls however glared at Zack when he attempted his own brand of comfort.

"Hey, if you looked like her, you'd have to worry about toppling over one day," he opined. "I mean, how DOES she stay upright, anyway?"

Jason noticed the daggers the two lithe girls looked at the dark-skinned boy. It made him think twice about attempting to cross either of them, ever. Hastily, he intervened before Zack dug himself an even deeper hole.

"Um, I don't think you wanna know, bud," he cautioned, warning the other with a tiny jerk of his head towards Trini and Kimberly. Zack was nothing if not quick on the uptake.

"Right, sorry," he backtracked hastily. "Forget I ever said anything!"

"Hmph," Kim snorted, but somehow a potentially embarrassing situation had become rather funny in the sharing. She could feel that her fellow detainees accepted her explanation as the truth – which it was – and didn't think badly about her despite the Vice Principal's remarks. She smiled, to show that Zack was forgiven. "It's cool," she dismissed his apology.

There was a brief silence, but every trace of the awkwardness and wariness prevalent at the beginning of the break had vanished. When the five youngsters realized that, one by one broke out into a somewhat goofy yet rather relieved grin. It occurred not only to Kimberly that maybe, just maybe, the others had similar stories to tell about how they'd landed in Saturday detention. Their mirth gradually changed to curiosity.

Kim, having already told her tale, felt it was her right to ask the next person. Just as she gathered her courage to address Trini, Mr. Jenkins called the kids back into the classroom. With some regret, they obeyed.



During the week that followed the five children didn't congregate, although they were now aware of each other. There was still some reticence in all of them, but they did share nods in class, and even a shy 'hello' every now and then when they happened to pass each other in the hallways. The next Saturday, they met again in detention and fell to the tasks Mr. Jenkins set them with a will, all of them secretly looking forward to the break.

At last it came, and they were once more shepherded towards the small courtyard. This time, Kim, Trini and Jason had brought snacks; seeing that the other two hadn't, they generously offered to share. Sandwiches and cookies were easily split, and drinks were passed around. However, the two apples supplied by the girls stumped them momentarily.

"Blast. If I had my pocket knife, we could cut them up, but after what happened to me I don't dare to bring it," Zack groused, eyeing the juicy fruit hungrily.

"Oh? Is that why you got detention? Having a pocket knife?" Kim wondered, thereby determining that it would be his turn to tell his story next.

"No, I knew better than that," Zack sighed. "Pocket knives were clearly forbidden in the rules. I just had no idea they also meant table knives," he mumbled.

"Table knives? Why would you bring a table knife to school?"

Zack squirmed a little as he ate his portion of the shared sandwich, thankful that his blush wasn't really visible against his dark skin.

"Well … my mom's always getting down on me and my sibs about table manners, y'know? Especially about not using our fingers for everything." To his satisfaction, he saw the others nod sympathetically; it seemed as if it wasn't as unusual a thing as he'd feared. "Anyway, Mom was busy on the phone that day and told me to pack my own lunch. There was this piece of leftover cold chicken in the fridge that looked good, so I put it in my lunch box and took my flatware along. I was just trying to eat when one of the teachers passed me and threw a hissy fit about me bringing a 'weapon' to school. Man, that knife would barely have cut a steak! I couldn't have hurt anyone with it if I'd tried," he ended, his expressive face clearly showing his opinion of his mishap. "Which I wouldn't have done anyway."

The children had to smile. "Yeah," Jason grinned, clapping the shorter boy on his back. Although he couldn't have expressed it, being too young yet to analyse his feelings, he was glad that the impression he'd formed of Zack last week was on the spot – this was not a bad kid, as Mr. Jenkins' words had implied. And neither was Kimberly.

Billy had listened with a puzzled frown. He hesitated for a moment, but as nobody else commented on Zack's story, listening instead to an account of the public outcry the teacher in question had raised, he decided to speak up after all. *Besides, they didn't object to me voicing my opinion last week …*

"I don't understand," he said, blushing shyly as the other four's attention focussed on him. "Why would you want to consume your school lunch with eating implements at all?"

His companions took a second to translate what he'd said into words they were more familiar with. Then Kim lightly whapped him on the arm. "Duh. He was trying to use the manners his Mom insists on," she told the bespectacled blond.

Billy flinched at the blow, but it hadn't really hurt, and her voice, while saying 'don't be stupid' was still kindly. He gazed earnestly into her brown eyes, but found no derision there as he'd feared – just some exasperation that somehow managed to still be friendly. Encouraged, he turned towards Zack.

"May I ask you a question?" he asked politely.

"Sure," Zack shrugged.

"What portion of fried poultry did you wish to ingest?"


Trini hid a smile at Zack's predictable reaction. "What piece of chicken did you bring?"

"Oh. Why didn't you say so? A drumstick, with the thigh part still on it. Why?"

Billy cleared his throat. "Because in that case, you didn't need to use a knife and fork at all. You could have spared yourself the indignity of being brought up against a violation of rules, the public commotion, and you needn't be obliged to spend your time in Saturday morning detention," he finished in a rush.

Zack did his best to follow all that, then stared. "Howzzat?"

The smaller boy gave a tiny shrug. "Cold chicken, especially if eaten outdoors, is exempt from the conventional table manners. It is perfectly acceptable socially to use one's digits instead."

"It is? I didn't know that," Kim exclaimed.

"Yes," Billy confirmed. "I found it in a book on proper etiquette once."

"Wow," Jason commented, wondering why on Earth someone would be looking into an etiquette book at all. Something in his eyes must've given his thoughts away, because Billy blushed – again. But instead of shrinking back, he bravely gave an explanation for this unusual thing.

"My father once made me accompany him to a social function at his workplace. I had no desire to disgrace him or myself by a possible lack of manners, so I went to the library and looked it up. It was quite helpful to me."

"Cool," Zack said. "You gotta show me that book one day; maybe if I can show her chapter and verse on table manners, my Mom will ease up on us then," he grinned.

"Gladly," Billy smiled back, quite pleased that his explanation hadn't met with any form of ridicule. In his experience, not many of his contemporaries were so forebearing when confronted with his idiosyncracies of behaviour.

"I don't get it," Jason interjected. "Why didn't you ask your Mom about how to behave? That's what I usually do." He was surprised at the sudden withdrawal in the blond. It wasn't anything overt, it just felt as if shutters the size of the Enterprise's bulkheads had come down around Billy.

Billy took a few moments to find his voice. When he did, it was bleak and soft.

"My mother passed away two years ago," he whispered, looking at his sneakered feet. He tried to brace himself against the embarrassed silence he was sure would follow – but as it turned out, that wasn't necessary at all. Instead of the awkwardness and false pity he'd expected, he got a gruff but sincere apology from Jason.

"I didn't know. I'm sorry, buddy."

The dark eyes shone with compassion, and a large hand came to rest briefly on his shoulder. Strangely, Billy received more comfort from that fleeting touch than many a longer speech and effusive hugs from neighbors and relatives had ever given him.

"It's okay," he murmured. "It's been a while …"

"But it still hurts, doesn't it?" Trini said astutely, not quite daring yet to give Billy the hug he so clearly needed. Instead, she settled for a warm smile and reached briefly for his hand, giving it a squeeze.

"My grandfather died last year," Kimberly supplied, with a smile just as warm. "I miss him, too."

"Yeah, man. Sorry about your mom," Zack chimed in. Billy was, quite frankly, flabbergasted. Here he was, having just revealed his greatest sorrow to virtual strangers – something that was very uncharacteristic for him and had surprised him considerably – and he didn't feel vulnerable or embarrassed, but actually comforted by their simple acceptance and understanding.

*This is a most unexpected development. I shall have to pursue this further.*

However, this was not the time and place. Clearing his throat, he turned his attention back towards the fruit which had caused the recent revelations.

"Thank you," he murmured, not wanting to leave the others' compassion unacknowledged. "But this still leaves us with a conundrum about how to partition this apple."

The five youngsters looked at the apple, which seemed to be taunting them with its promise of juiciness and taste.

"Let me try something," Kim said suddenly. Briefly inspecting her nails to see if they were clean, she then picked up the fruit. Running her thumbnail in a line from top to bottom and up again, she carved a thin wedge into the peel. "I've seen my uncle do this once," she mused. "Now if one of you guys could try and break the apple in half …"

Without a word, Jason took the apple from her. Using his strength cautiously, he made a twisting motion, and with a crunch the fruit split down the middle. "Hey, it worked!"

"Great!" Quickly, Kim traced a few more lines, and soon the children were munching happily on apple wedges, sharing equally until they were recalled into class.


On Monday, Trini found herself last in line out of the classroom; as a consequence, all the tables in the lunch area were filled with chattering students. Resigning herself to the discomfort of eating lunch standing up, she wended her way to the door, when she was hailed by a familiar voice.

"Trini! Over here!"

Glancing around, she spied Kimberly waving to her from three tables over. Hesitantly, she made her way to her, and was surprised when the tiny brunette scooted across the bench seat to make room for her.

"You can sit with us," she offered with a shy smile. Trini stood transfixed for a moment, and Kim blushed. "That is, if you'd like to," she faltered under the Asian's scrutiny.

Trini recalled herself. Politeness and pleasure would not let her decline this unexpected but most welcome offer.

"Thank you." With a smile of her own, she slid into the seat next to Kim. The other girls at the table, cheerleaders all by their uniforms, greeted her nicely enough, and resumed their conversation. Trini started to eat her sandwich, but soon found herself engrossed in the surprisingly astute observations the girls made about the school's teams. Dark-haired Brenda especially seemed taken with the volleyball team and was trying to persuade the others to attend the games, as well. Trini's ears pricked up; she loved volleyball herself and hardly missed a game of any of the local teams.

Kimberly grinned at the team captain. "Admit it, Brenda – you'd like nothing more than play yourself!"

"I would, if we could get enough players," the other conceded grumblingly. "But I really don't know where to look for them."

Before she could stop herself, Trini spoke up.

"I like to play volleyball," she said softly. To her surprise, Brenda beamed at her with interest.

"You do? That's great! Know anybody else who does?"

"Maybe … there's Alice Kruger and Jenny Smith," she ventured shyly. "They're in my Physics class …"

"COOL! " Brenda's enthusiasm was unfaked. "If the three of you want to, we'd have enough to make up a team. Why don't you drop by after cheering practice this week so we can talk it out?"

"I'd like that …"

"Great! Good job, Kim," the cheerleading captain commented, collected her books and got up. "Well, gotta run. See you on Wednesday, Trini!" With a swirl of her navy skirt, she went off, taking her friends with her. Trini was left rather dazedly alone with Kimberly, who grinned at her with a twinkle in her brown eyes.

"Well, that was fast! But that's Brenda for you," she smiled. "I hope you don't mind that she sort of shanghaied you like that."

"No, quite the contrary; I'm glad I got to talk to her," Trini said. "I really would love to play, but didn't know how to approach anyone about it. Thank you for introducing me to her."

Kim shrugged. "No sweat. It's not exactly what I had in mind when I asked you over, but that's okay. As long as you weren't bored, like, out of your skull," she worried.

"Not at all. I enjoyed myself." With only a tiny hesitation, Trini felt she had to ask. "Why did you call me over?"

To her surprise, the petite girl blushed. "I, um … I was kinda wondering if you'd like to study with me for that History test next week," she mumbled. "It's more fun to do with someone else … and everybody else is going to the mall instead," she confessed in a rush. "I'd love to go, too, but my Mom is gonna kill me if I don't at least get a C on that test … and you sound as if you know what the class is all about. Not that I want to use you, or anything …" Kim floundered, unaccountably embarrassed and at a loss for the right words. She was going about this all wrong!

Trini hid a smile, not offended at all. Somehow, the way Kim said it, the invitation didn't feel as if it was made out of pity or because she was treated as a poor substitute for someone more congenial.

"It's okay, Kimberly, I understand," she answered, and was rewarded with a relieved smile.

"So, you're coming?" Kim asked hopefully. "If we try, maybe we can make the mall afterwards!"

Trini let her smile blossom. "We'll see," she said noncommittally. "First we have to study!" The girls confirmed their study appointment just in time before their lunch break was over. Watching Kim skip off to her next class, Trini chuckled to herself. She could see it was going to be an interesting afternoon with her somewhat mercurial new friend. *And maybe I can persuade Mom that I really need a new sweatshirt … so that I have a legitimate reason to hit the mall with Kim …*

Lost in a pleasant reverie, she left the dining area and made her way to English class.


Friday afternoon saw Jason running through the park on his way to the jungle gym. He'd poured over his homework long enough, and as his Saturday mornings were taken up by detention, he thought he could get a good workout in before it got too dark. He worked the various structures until he was out of breath, then took a few minutes to cool down. When his breathing had regulated once more, he started to go through the kata his sensei had shown him earlier in the week. Soon, Jason was engrossed in the fluid combination of punches and kicks, aiming them at an imaginary partner.

"Hey, that looks awesome!" a familiar voice broke his concentration.

Finishing the move he'd started, Jason turned slowly around, to meet the admiring look in Zack's eyes.

"Thanks. I just hope I'm not messing it up," he panted. This kata was WAY more intense than any he'd tried before!

"I wouldn't know," Zack grinned. "What are you doing, anyway? Some kind of kung fu?"

"Karate," Jason corrected him, used to the confusion. What with that silly old David Carradine TV series and everything, it was hardly surprising that a non-practitioner would have no idea about the differences between the various martial arts styles. "It's Japanese. Kung Fu is Chinese."

"Whatever. Have you been doing it long?" The question was curious.

"Seven years. Since I was five," Jason said proudly. "I got my junior Black Belt when I was ten."


"Yeah, well, I couldn't get tested for a real Black Belt until I turned twelve," he said, his indignation at this quite noticeable in his voice. "But I'm up for the test in December!"

"Think you're gonna make it?" Zack wanted to know, clearly impressed. He'd heard about Black Belts; weren't they supposed to be some kind of super fighters?

"Yes." The deepening voice radiated confidence.

"Cool. I wish I could do that."

"Why don't you come to practice?" the bigger boy suggested on impulse. "My dojo is accepting new students right now, and we could walk together … my folks always drive me, they don't like to let me go on my own, and there's nobody else who lives in my neighborhood. You do live on Orchard Street, right?" Jason thought he'd caught a glimpse of Zack the other day while riding his bike to the grocery store for his mom.

"Yeah. How'd you know?"

"I saw you," Jason grinned. By now, the two boys were sitting companionably together on the swings, workout forgotten as they talked. "It's on the way to the market." Zack looked at him somewhat strangely, so he added, "What? Did you think I'm syping on you?"

"Er, no. I just was kinda wondering …" Zack's voice trailed off. He hadn't had a lot of experience with non-African-American kids, as Angel Grove's Black population wasn't very large. So far, he'd experienced very little real prejudice, but Mr. Jenkins wasn't alone in his condescending attitude.

"Why would you want to hang out with me, anyway?" he blurted. The other gave him an astonished look.

"Why wouldn't I?" Jason asked reasonably, not comprehending.

Zack squirmed uncomfortably. He hadn't meant to bring up the issue, but now that he had …

"Zack? What's wrong, man? Don't you want to go to karate practice with me? If you don't, that's okay; we can find something else to do. If you'd like, that is." Now Jason was starting to feel weird, too.

Mortified, Zack closed his eyes. Young as he was, he could recognize the honest confusion in the other boy's voice, and knew he owed him the same kind of openness in return. But how was he going to do that without offending Jason?

"You're white," he finally muttered, feeling strangely ashamed even as he did.

"Yeah, so?"

"And I'm not." It cost him to say it.

Comprehension finally dawned. Exasperated, Jason shook his head. His parents had taught him well how little outward differences like that mattered.

"What's that got to do with anything?" he wanted to know. "You have a problem with that?"

To his surprise, Zack found the tables neatly turned on him with that question.

"No. I just thought you might have," he admitted. "Some folks do, y'know."

Jason punched him lightly on the arm. It hurt a little, but Zack could tell he hadn't meant it to. "Well, I don't," he declared firmly, dismissing the idea as ridiculous by his tone and the open look in his dark eyes. "So, you wanna come or not?"

Deciding to take a chance on Jason and his offer of easy companionship, Zack hesitated but a moment.

"What the heck. Why not? Assuming my parents allow it," he said lightly. "They don't really believe in fighting." He hopped off the swing; it was getting dark, and if he wanted to have any chance at all at getting permission, he better not be late for dinner.

"Karate is not about fighting," Jason told him earnestly, quoting his sensei. "It's about self-defense, though …" Launching into a lecture about the tenets of Martial Arts, Jason followed Zack through the park towards their neighborhood. The two boys parted company at the grocery store.

"See you tomorrow at school, I guess," Jason grimaced comically. He still didn't relish the thought of four more weeks of lost Saturday mornings.

"Yeah." With a jaunty wave, Zack moonwalked towards his home, feeling better than he had in a long time. If he was lucky, this might just turn out to be the beginning of friendship.


This time, it was English grammar that the five kids had to sweat over, and not a few sighs could be heard in the classroom as they waited for Mr. Jenkins to call the break. Once more, they filed out into 'their' courtyard, and after some swapping and sharing of foodstuffs, settled in to hear the next one's story.

"Drugs, Trini?" Jason queried curiously.

The pretty Asian groaned.

"Not really. Well, if you want to get literal about it, yeah, sort of, but …"

"Either you had drugs on you or you didn't," Zack piped up. "What was it?"

Trini scowled at him half-seriously.

"About the same thing as your 'weapon'," she told him, still feeling cross about the whole affair. It was so unfair! "I was taking some ginseng pellets, and when Sylvia Abrams asked if they helped, I offered some to her, too. And she had to go and tell the school nurse."

"Help with what?" Kim wanted to know.

Trini gave her a look that spoke volumes. Turning slightly away so the boys wouldn't see, she placed a hand over her lower abdomen and mouthed the word "period" at the other girl.

"Oh." Kimberly nodded knowingly, but couldn't help a blush from forming – which naturally aroused the boys' curiosity.

"Yeah, help with what?" Zack asked, dancing around the two girls in an attempt to look at both of their faces at once. They kept facing away from him, and the ensuing antics were pretty amusing to watch until Jason, with a bemused headshake, collared the shorter boy with an admonition to cut it out already and let Trini get on with her story. Grinning unrepentantly, Zack plopped down in his seat, the expression on his mobile face one of exaggerated anticipation that made the girls giggle and forget their embarrassment.

Meanwhile, Billy stared at the far wall, lost in thought as he processed the information. Thinking out loud, he started to enumerate facts.

"Ginseng is a herbal remedy often used in Chinese medicine; it's most commonly used to treat gastric and digestive disorders caused by nervous tension, like loss of appetite. It also is used as a very mild stimulant." He directed an earnest look at the pretty Asian girl. "As you said, technically it is a drug. Just not of the type that is commonly referred to by that name."

"Yeah," Trini mumbled. "I don't usually take it, just every now and then …"

"Whatever for?" Jason wondered. "I mean, why would you need that stuff in the first place? You're not sick or anything, are you?"

Zack picked up on the 'nervous tension' part, blurting out something he'd heard on TV. "Or hysterical?" He wasn't quite fast enough to dodge Kimberly, who bopped him on the arm.

"Don't be such a dork!"

For a second, Billy felt appalled at this display of what his brain instinctively called VIOLENCE in big, red warning letters, but he realized almost immediately that Kim's action wasn't meant to hurt Zack in any way. It was just a means of getting his attention and meting out a light punishment simultaneously. To judge by Zack's sheepish grin and subsequent settling down, a very effective one, too, and Billy filed that information away for future reference.

Exasperatedly, Trini blew a strand of hair out of her face as she addressed both boys. "No, of course I'm not. If you have to know, once a month my stomach all cramps up so I can hardly swallow a bite – and I get faint if I don't eat. The ginseng is to help me get over that."

"Why only once a month?" Jason asked, obviously completely at sea.

The girls rolled their eyes. Seeing that Trini was too embarrassed to explain, Kimberly huffed at her fellow students.

"Sheesh. Don't you know anything? She was having her period! I feel kinda down all the time, too, and don't like to eat much either when I have mine. And those cramps are NOT fun, let me tell you!"

"Oh." Comprehension dawned on all three boys' faces, and they sported blushes to match – which gave the girls no small amount of satisfaction. It hadn't been easy to reveal a rather personal thing, given that due to their tender age they were still very sensitive about their changing bodies, but the guys had insisted on knowing, so …

*Serves them right!* was written clearly in their eyes as they watched Jason, Zack and Billy squirm.

"Um, okay," Jason muttered. "But couldn't the nurse have given you meds? I know a few girls on the track team who always go see her when they, uh …" he felt the color rise even higher in his cheeks.

"Yeah; she can give you Midol," Kimberly added. "That's allowed."

Trini grimaced. "I know. Only – you know about these leaflets in the package, telling you about possible side effects? I get them. Each and every one of them. I tried, and it's just no good." She sighed, looking rather forlorn. Giving in to impulse, Kim hugged her new friend.

"That's such a total bummer," she commiserated, and was rewarded with a bright smile.

Zack was looking puzzled.

"I don't get it, though," he wondered. "Didn't your folks explain when you got detention for that? I mean, it's not as if you didn't have a good reason not to go to the nurse."

"Yes, but it was no use," the slender girl explained. "They told us that regulations were for everybody, and they couldn't make any exceptions, especially not over something as serious as drugs."

"Quite understandable," Billy put forth. "Besides, I think it may also have been a consideration that ginseng, as well as other herbal remedies often distributed in alternative medicine, is not generally a part of Western treatment methods. Even if their efficacy is a well-documented fact." He looked at the others, half-proud that he remembered this and half afraid that he would be scoffed at. He needn't have worried.

"Exactly," Trini nodded. "My parents do go to a regular doctor all the time, but they prefer to get simple stuff like that from an apothecary shop in Chinatown. They often have less side effects, too."

Jason suddenly grinned. "Am I the only one to think 'Kwai Chang Caine' here?" he asked no one in particular. Zack chuckled and snapped his fingers as he made the connection.

"Oh yeah. 'Your path lies elsewhere, grasshopper'. Cool moves, though!"

Kimberly stared at the two snickering boys. "What are you two talking about?" she demanded to know, seeing that Billy was as bewildered as she and that Trini was torn between amusement and exasperation.

"A TV series," Trini explained with a withering look at Jason, who had the grace to duck, then shrug apologetically. "It's called 'Kung Fu: The Legend Continues', and one of the main characters is an apothecary – plus an accomplished martial artist. He's always mixing up remedies for others. Actually, it's one of the few things on TV where Asians are portrayed positively, and some effort is going into explaining the philosophies …"

"Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it," Jason hastily amended, not wanting Trini to think that he was making fun of her heritage. "It's just, the image kind of jumped at me when you said where you get your medicine." He offered Trini his hand in silent apology. "No offense?"

Hesitating only for a second, she accepted and the two children shook hands. "It's okay," Trini smiled back, liking his frank gaze. "None taken." The other three also relaxed from a potentially tense situation they hadn't been aware of, glad that this hadn't evolved into a serious misunderstanding. They felt outcast enough as it was, since a few of their classmates wouldn't stop teasing them about being in detention, and tended to bring up the reasons for the punishment at every opportunity. It was beginning to create a bond even during regular school hours, drawing the five closer the better they got to know each other.

The burly boy ran his fingers through his short wavy hair. "But say … speaking of Caine … I don't wanna sound like a clichι or anything, but do you know anything about kung fu?"

"Because I'm Asian, you mean?" Trini had to laugh at his sheepish nod. "As a matter of fact, I do. I've started taking lessons when I entered school. Why?"

He brightened visibly. "Because I'm studying karate," he said. "How would you feel about getting together some time and compare styles?" Jason colored slightly; he'd never asked a girl to share any kind of non-school-related activity before, and hadn't stopped to think how his innocent proposal might be received. To his relief (and Zack's barely hidden amusement), Trini didn't seem to think that it was an unusual request.

"I'd like that," she replied, still smiling. "When and where did you have in mind?"

Just then, the youngsters were recalled into the classroom and they filed out of the courtyard one after another while Trini and Jason quickly made arrangements to meet in the park the next day, listened to closely by an obviously very much interested Zack. Kimberly and Billy just shrugged indulgently and trailed after them, each wondering about the attraction martial arts seemed to have for their companions.


On Monday morning, Kimberly met up with Trini at the lockers.

"Hi. Did you guys have a good workout or whatever yesterday?" she inquired, feeling mildly curious and a bit sorry that she hadn't given in to the temptation to show up as well, even if only to watch them do whatever they had been doing. Her own Sunday afternoon had been rather boring, despite lounging on the patio all day with a new issue of Teen magazine to read. Which up until now had been her favorite weekend entertainment.

"Oh yes! Jason's quite good at karate; he has both power and speed, and his reflexes are pretty awesome," Trini almost gushed. "We sparred some, and I really enjoyed that. Plus, I think he'll make a great teacher one day; he showed Zack a few moves, and he explained things rather well. I think Zack's going to start studying at Jason's dojo this week."

"Wow. Sounds like you guys had fun," Kim commented a bit enviously, wishing more than ever she had joined the others. *Next time they meet, I'm NOT gonna stay home!* she resolved mentally. *At least it would've been more interesting to watch them than those silly old musicals with my Mom …*

"Definitely. We're meeting again tomorrow, after school. Um, would you like to come with?" Trini offered a bit shyly, knowing that Kim had very little interest in sports outside of her gymnastics, but feeling strangely reluctant to exclude her from further activities with the others. "Maybe Billy will want to come, too."

The petite brunette beamed. "You're reading my mind," she exclaimed happily. "If my folks don't object, sure; I'd love to! Billy and I can sit and criticize you guys," she added with an impish twinkle in her brown eyes.

Trini giggled, feeling suddenly very good. "You two don't know enough about martial arts to criticize anyone," she complained good-naturedly as the two girls wandered off together to Biology class. Kim gave her a wide-eyed innocent stare.

"But that's what's going to make it fun," she declared with a perfectly straight face. "What good is it to nag somebody about something you have a clue about?"

Laughing, Trini opened the classroom door, letting Kim enter before her.

"And that is logical how?"

The shorter girl looked back over her shoulder and winked, enjoying the banter with her new friend.

"Hey, I'm a cheerleader. We're supposed to be, like, cute and cool, not logical!"

"Right," Trini snorted, hugely amused. She was preparing a suitable reply to Kim's outrageous remark, but was cut short by the teacher's arrival. Smiling at each other, the girls sought their chairs, knowing that they would continue during break – and very much looking forward to it.


"I really fail to see the merits of watching others participate in physical exercise," Billy muttered, not looking at Kimberly as the two sat on the still-warm grass in Angel Grove Park, waiting for Trini, Zack and Jason to finish their warm-up exercises. He really had more important things to do, like waiting for his new computer to be delivered so he could set it up, but the invitation to join the others had been so unexpected – and such a rare occurrence – that he hadn't stopped to think before accepting. Now here he was, trapped in an activity he usually disdained, just because a few other kids, chance acquaintances really, with whom he had nothing in common but the fact that they all were in detention together, had chosen to offer him inclusion in their leisure time.

To Billy's surprise, the thought sent a feeling of warmth through him. *Nobody's ever offered that to me before,* he slowly realized. *I must be needing companionship with my contemporaries more than I was aware of. Hmm. Maybe the Principal did have a point after all in her assessment of my situation…* He was distracted by a little nudge from Kimberly.

"Look, they're starting!"

Sitting up straight, Billy focussed his attention obligingly on the three others. Jason demonstrated a series of moves, explaining things to Zack and Trini as he went along. It looked smooth and quite complicated to the bespectacled blond, making him painfully aware of his own deficiencies in coordination. Not surprisingly, Trini copied Jason's exercise with little effort due to her own martial arts background, but even the neophyte Zack was able to follow the instruction with only a few minor mistakes.

"I could never do that," Billy murmured without thinking, for once wishing he had better motor control. The tiny girl sitting beside him gave him a startled look as she detected the note of envy in his quiet voice.

"Sure you could," she shrugged. "Whyever not? Even I could learn that. If I wanted to, that is. Which I don't."

"You're already an accomplished gymnast," the slight boy protested. "You are used to physical exercise. Whereas I have little to no interest in sports, and less ability …"

"But why?" Kim was curious now; she forgot all about watching the others and turned towards Billy. "I mean … don't you brainy types believe in 'a healthy mind in a healthy body'? My gymnastics coach is always going on about that," she explained artlessly. "I think she just wants us to, like, not get bad grades or something. 'Cause if we do, we lose our place on the team."

"Um … well, yes, in theory your instructor is right," Billy hemmed and hawed, having heard that very same admonition from his father on occasion. When he remembered, his parent had often expressed a wish that Billy would spend less time over his experiments and be more sociable, despite his pride in his son's accomplishments. "However, it is not exactly easy to schedule time better spent in intellectual pursuits with more physical endeavors …"

"That's a cop-out, and you should know better," Kimberly exclaimed, warming to the subject. "How can you do your stuff when you get sick because you haven't exercised enough? And you will get sick eventually if you never get out and sit at your desk all day, or read, or do experiments or whatever!"

Uncomfortably aware that she was right, but unwilling to concede as much to someone he considered his intellectual inferior, Billy went on the defensive.

"What would you know about these things, anyway?" he challenged her.

Kim blushed at his unconsciously condescending tone. But she wouldn't back down, not for anybody! Not even someone so much smarter than she was. Defiantly, she met Billy's eyes. "Because my mom's a physical therapist working for a big company." She named a well-known Angel Grove corporation. "She has a lot of clients who get headaches and bad backs and stuff just because they're in the office all the time and don't work out. She knows about these things, and so do I – because she told me." Her voice quite clearly said 'So there!'.

Billy felt himself flushing. He obviously had insulted Kimberly somehow, and that made him quite uncomfortable. How to rectify the situation? A memory from their conversations during their Saturday morning breaks surfaced.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you," he offered a tentative apology – not something he was used to doing much. "I didn't know." Which was another unusual thing for him to admit; usually he found that he was knowing too much.

Kimberly looked at him hard for a few seconds, then smiled. It had been the right thing to say, and Billy felt an unaccustomed sense of accomplishment that he'd acted correctly for once in interacting with kids his own age.

"It's okay," she dismissed the matter. "Don't you do sports at all?"

"I do participate in Phys.Ed.," Billy replied with a small grimace, recalling some of the less sterling moments he'd had in that class. "It's required."

"Yeah, but what about stuff for fun? Like games, or swimming … don't you ever got to the lake to just mess around in summer?"

"Not customarily, no …"

"Well, we'll have to see about that, then," Kimberly said decisively, totally ignoring the slight boy's instinctive gesture of denial. "You do know how to swim?"

Her peremptory tone, so much like a person's in authority, got an immediate answer from Billy.

"Yes. My parents insisted I learn, for safety reasons."

"Good. I'm sure the guys and Trini do, too, so we can all go to the indoor pool on Friday; there's going to be water games with slides and stuff. It's gonna be major fun with all of us!"

Before he could protest, she scampered off towards the others who greeted her plans enthusiastically, and willy-nilly Billy found himself included once more, scarcely knowing how that had come to be.

*I KNEW associating with my fellow detainees would divert my attention from my lab work!*

However, for some reason that once-alien concept suddenly seemed not a bad idea at all.


"Hey Billy!"

Zack greeted the blond boy cheerfully as he caught up with him on the steps to the schoolhouse on Saturday morning.

"Good morning, Zack," was the much more subdued reply, but the shy smile accompanying it was genuine and unforced.

"Another wasted Saturday morning," the dark-skinned youngster babbled as they traversed the hallway to the lockers near the detention classroom. "Man, this isn't doing much for me at all. I think I could stand it better if we at least learned something new, but all ol' Jenkins is doing is recap stuff we've done before. You must be bored out of your skull," he winked at Billy, who was fiddling with his locker. The other glanced at him.

"I must admit that I find the exercises we are being set also somewhat less than intellectually stimulating," Billy replied cautiously, not wanting to be overheard by the Vice Principal and possibly getting into even more trouble. "I could most likely accomplish more if I were to work on my own at home." Which was exactly what had placed him in detention in the first place, he neglected to say.

"Well, I for one still don't get what's so important about all that history stuff, recap or not, " came Kimberly's disgusted voice from behind the two boys, startling them.

"Eek! Don't DO that!" Zack exclaimed in mock horror, pressing his hand melodramatically to his chest and pretending to stagger back with 'shock'. "You're gonna give me a heart attack!" Billy, who would've loved to be able to say something similar – his heart rate had risen significantly with the unexpectedness of Kimberly's appearance – involuntarily chuckled at his antics, which were ignored by the petite girl.

"I mean, who wants to know about guilds and stuff in some medieval European place, anyway? Today is going to be like such a total drag!" She barely caught her locker door from slamming against the wall; Jason had got a severe reprimand for doing just that the previous week.

Billy looked at her earnestly. "But the guilds were instrumental for a lot of the things still important in the modern-day workplace," he explained. "They established a functional apprentice system, exerted quality control, made sure the customers weren't cheated out of their money's worth …"

"Like unions, you mean?" Jason and Trini joined the other three in front of the still-locked classroom door as they waited for the teacher.

"Not precisely. Unions were founded in the late 19th century to mainly defend workers' rights vis-ΰ-vis the employers, to prevent exploitation of the labor force, among other things. But a lot of the guilds' principles are still valid and are applied in a lot of ways, if one knows what to look for."

"Why don't they teach that to us, then?" Kim wanted to know. "All we ever get to learn is dates and names!"

"Because it's easier on the teachers, I suppose," Trini mused as the group of five wandered down the hallway. "After all, evaluations and extrapolations like Billy mentioned can't be as easily tested as numbers anyone can learn by heart."

Elated that his fellow students seemed so interested in what he had to say, Billy very much wanted to continue the discussion, but was prevented from doing so by the arrival of Mr. Jenkins, who herded his charges into the classroom with nary a word of greeting, and proceeded to set them exactly the type of lesson Kimberly had feared. The five children exchanged resigned smiles, careful not to let the ill-tempered man see their amusement, and took out their books, studying more or less half-heartedly until the time for break arrived.

On this morning, they were left inside the classroom while the Vice Principal took off for the teacher's lounge; the weather for once was just too cold to spend time outside. The youngsters made the best out of the situation by gathering around Jason's table near the window, where they at least had the opportunity to look at something beside the blackboard. As they all unpacked their snacks and prepared to eat, Trini noticed that Billy was rubbing his eyes behind his glasses, squinting against the watery fall sunshine.

"Billy? Are you okay?" she asked concernedly, noticing for the first time how red his eyes were once he lowered his hands.

He grinned at her rather bashfully.

"Yes, thank you," he replied. "I am just experiencing slight discomfort from all the chlorinated water irritating my eyes yesterday."

"Oh man, you should've said something," Jason exclaimed. "If you had, we could've gotten out of the water sooner!" While his eyes weren't especially sensitive, he frequented the public pool often enough to know what Billy was going through. "My mom's always getting on my case for staying in the water too long. When I do, I get the same rabbit eyes you have now." The dark eyes twinkled as he poked his tongue in his cheek.

"I do not have 'rabbit eyes'," Billy protested, but was drowned out by Kim and Zack's appreciative giggles at the comparison.

"Sure you do, my main brain," Zack chortled. "Look into a mirror lately?" Billy had to admit he hadn't.

Kimberly obligingly produced a small compact mirror, and held it up for the boy to look into. "See? All red," she commented, chasing the remark with a stern but well-meant admonition. "Don't rub; you're only making it worse!"

"Yes ma'am," Billy mumbled automatically as he adjusted his glasses, then stopped short, chagrined with himself. Who did this cheerleader think she was, ordering him around like that? She was making a laughing-stock out of him! But a quick glance at the other three showed that quite obviously, they didn't regard it as such; on the contrary, their expressions reflected only concern for him … and respect for the tiny girl.

"Hey, next time we go to the pool, you can have my goggles," Jason offered. "They'll protect your eyes at least a little bit from the chlorine."

"Good idea, Jase," Zack concurred. "I left mine in my bag yesterday; I could've lent them to you easy."

"Just remember to bring them next time," Trini added while Kimberly only nodded, tucking away her mirror again. Neither noticed Billy's rather baffled expression.

"N-next time?" he finally eeped. "You … you're planning to include me into more outings like yesterday's?!?" Only good manners and a barely-acknowledged wish to spend more time with kids his own age who were friendly, not mocking him, had made him accept the invitation in the first place. Billy had not really expected to enjoy the group's activities, being unused to the unstructured nature of aquatic pursuits he had been introduced to. However, once he'd gotten accustomed to all the splashing, yelling, good-natured dunking and energetic games, he'd lost his inhibitions and participated as best he could. He had returned home pleasantly exhausted, determined to cherish the memory of what he believed was a one-time experience. After all, he hadn't been able to contribute much, neither in skill nor in ideas …

"Sure," Jason said easily, dispelling Billy's notion of having been just an adjunct to the group – someone who got to tag along just because he happened to be there and politeness demanded he be included. "It was fun. Wasn't it?" He looked around, searching for and finding instant approval.

Trini finally caught up to at least a little bit of what the shy boy must be feeling.

"Billy, you did have fun at the pool, right?" she asked, suddenly anxious. "We can always find something else to do if you didn't … can't we?" Her almond eyes silently begged the others to agree.

"The more the merrier," Zack intoned casually while Jason and Kim just nodded. "In water, on land and in the air!" He gestured grandly, making the others laugh – even Billy.

"I don't see how we could manage any aerial exercises without incurring the wrath of our parents," he mused, "but if you really want me to take part in your activities despite my lack of physical prowess, I would be amenable to further joint pursuits."

"Huh?" Kim looked beseechingly at Trini. "What was that?"

The slender girl smiled apologetically at Billy, but had her translation ready. "He says, if we don't mind that he's not as athletic as Jason and Zack," – tactfully ignoring the fact that Billy was worse than the girls, even – "he'd love to come with us the next time."

"Oh. Okay. Great!" Seeing how taken aback Billy was by her artless comment, Kim grinned at the blond. "When you're along, I have at least someone to talk to when these jocks get all sweaty and whatnot."

*Not exactly the most glowing endorsement, but a start,* Billy thought to himself, nodding his agreement. *At least Kimberly does not make fun of me like the rest of the cheerleaders.*


Suddenly, Zack yelped. "Man, look at the time! Break's almost over, and we haven't heard our weekly confession yet. Who's left, anyway?"

"Jason and Billy," Kimberly supplied, her brown eyes alighting with curiosity.

"Right! Fighting and bullying, or playing hooky. So who's going to tell all?" the irrepressible youngster asked, looking from one boy to the other. Both Jason and Billy flushed at the reminder of why they had ended up in detention. But the other three had already explained; it was only fair that they should do so as well.

Resignedly, Billy sighed. "I think that it might be easier if I went first, seeing as there isn't much time left." Questioning grey-green eyes behind slightly smudged glasses met Jason's dark gaze. The burly boy nodded curtly, partly relieved that he could hold back for at least another week, and partly wanting to just get it over with.

"Sure. Go ahead," he muttered, garnering a strange look from Billy and a frown from Trini. He stared at his scuffed sneakers, right now not caring at all what they thought of him. The accusation still smarted; he was not a bully!

Shrugging, Billy gathered his thoughts. What concern of his was Jason's strange mood? He deliberately ignored the mental discomfort his indifference caused him. With a deep breath, he launched into his tale.

"I wasn't deliberately skipping class, as the teachers insisted on seeing it. It's just … I had contracted a cold which kept me at home for a week. Unfortunately, my father forgot to inform the school of that fact, then he had to leave rather abruptly on a business trip. He even neglected to make arrangements for someone to look after our house. So I decided to take it upon myself to see that we weren't burgled, that my pet was cared for and that no other mishap occurred. I had enough provisions at my disposal, I cleaned, I discovered how to work the washer so that my physical well-being was seen to … I even dedicated three hours a day to my school work, so I would not fall behind. As a matter of fact, I believe that studying on my own was more beneficial to me than attending class would have been."

He managed to tell all of that in one breathless rush, to which his fellow students listened with growing amazement. Jason whistled; he couldn't imagine how any parent could be so indifferent towards their only child, but was too well-bred to say anything. Kimberly's mouth hung open with surprise and Trini looked rather thoughtful, nodding slowly to herself as if some things sudenly were beginning to make sense to her. It was left to Zack to express their collective astonishment.

"And your dad never noticed? What is he, the original absent-minded professor?" he blurted. Billy just shrugged. His father had always been like that; it was the way things were in the Cranston house. If his mother were still alive … but she wasn't, and father and son were coping as best they could.

Trini shushed the black boy with a slight nudge, and instead asked a more sensitive question.

"Could you do that? Study all on your own, I mean; I tried reading ahead in some books, but there were too many things that didn't make sense without having someone explain," she wondered.

"Yeah," Kimberly added. "It'd take someone really smart to understand the math problems …"

"Or the science stuff," Jason commented. "I can hardly follow everything in class myself, and I know I'm not stupid."

Billy looked at them. "I graduated from the Accelerated Baby Genius Program before I even entered grade school," he said simply. No boasting, no special declaration, just a plain statement of fact.

"Wow." Zack summed their thoughts up very nicely with his awed exclamation.

Before the children could go deeper into the topic, however, Mr: Jenkins returned and they had to scramble back into their seats, to sit through the rest of the morning's lesson. Afterwards, they went off to their respective homes, Kim and Trini quickly making plans to meet at the mall in the afternoon.


At four o'clock on that same Saturday, Jason and Zack finished their run in the park and were lounging near the playground, too keyed up to sit still for long and yet at a loss for something interesting to do.

"You wanna work out?" Jason suggested half-heartedly, for once not really in the mood for his beloved karate. Zack shook his head.

"Nah. The run was enough."

"Then what can we do? We can't go to my place; mom's having friends over for tea."

"And my dad's not feeling well; he told me to get lost for a while so he can take a nap in peace," the shorter boy sighed.

"We could go look for the girls …"

The suggestion garnered him an 'Are you KIDDING?!?' look, and Jason shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry."

"You should be," Zack grumbled. "The mall's fun enough, but with those two? Not in this lifetime!" he declared dramatically, making Jason laugh.

"Right. So, what are we gonna do, then? I don't have to be home until seven; that's not for three hours."

"Give the guy an A in math!" Suddenly, Zack sat up straight. "That's it!"

"That's what?"



Energetically, Zack jumped up and grabbed Jason's arm, pulling him onto the path. "Let's get over to Billy's place and see if he has any good stuff we can play with or something!"

"Hey, cool idea!"

"I know. It's mine, after all," Zack boasted.

"Yeah, right. Like that is a guarantee." The two grinned at each other, then exchanged high fives. "Let's go!"

Walking briskly, the boys marched off towards the park exit. Just before they hit the sidewalk leading back into town, Jason grinned bemusedly at his companion. "Uh, Zack?"


"Do you even know where Billy lives?"


Fifteen minutes later, after having consulted the directory at a public phone for the right address, they walked up to the one-storey house in a quiet street that actually wasn't all that far away from their own neighborhood. They couldn't see any activity inside or out, but that was only a minor setback. Determinedly, Jason rang the doorbell. He pumped his fist when after a few seconds, steps could be heard approaching. The front door opened, and the boy found himself face-to-face with a slight man not much taller than himself, with thinning sandy hair, glasses dangling from his hand.

"Yes?" he addressed the boys distractedly. "What can I do for you?"

"Hello, Mr. Cranston. I'm Jason Scott, and that's Zack Taylor," Jason politely introduced themselves. "We're, uh, friends of Billy, from school, and we were wondering if he has time …" This was stretching the truth a bit, he knew, but he doubted that 'we're in detention together with your son' would get them anywhere near Billy.

"Time to do what?" the quiet gentleman asked, clearly puzzled. His attention was obviously more on the sheaf of papers he held than on the boys. Jason and Zack exchanged bemused glances. Their parents never asked questions like that!

"Uh, to play?" Zack ventured after a pause. The notion seemed to confound Billy's dad rather a lot, but he rose to the occasion … eventually.

"Of course. Why don't you come in, I'll see whether he's available," the man murmured and wandered off, leaving the children standing in the shady hallway. Just before he disappeared in a room at the far end, he visibly recollected himself, backtracked and turned a corner. They could hear him knock on a door and softly call out his son's name.

The black boy looked at his companion. "Huh. Guess there won't be cookies and milk around here," he commented quietly, referring to his own mother's habit of feeding his friends first, make small talk later.

Jason snorted softly. "Nah. And now I see why Billy got to be left on his own for three weeks … can you imagine my mom being like that?"

Zack suppressed a giggle. He'd already met Mrs. Scott, who was all brisk efficiency and cheerful spirit – just the way a mom should be. Like his own was, too. The boys exchanged a grin of perfect understanding; they might chafe sometimes at their mothers' fussing, but knew they'd miss them terribly if they had to get by without them.

As Billy had to do.

The thought occurred to both at almost the same instant, and sobered them enough to wait for Mr. Cranston with reasonable patience.


Billy glanced up from his computer manual, startled as he heard the cautious knock on his door.

"Yes?" he called out, wondering what his father – it couldn't possibly be anyone else; to the best of his knowledge, they were alone in the house, and neither was expecting visitors – wanted of him. His irritation at the interruption turned into burning curiosity, however, when his parent informed him that company had arrived for him, Billy.

"Really? Who is it?" the slight boy asked, jumping up from his chair and opening the door fully. His father gave him a sheepish smile.

"I, er, I don't think I quite caught their names, but the bigger one said they're friends of yours from school."

*Meaning Dad forgot the names already,* Billy concluded privately. *As he habitually does.* Any bitterness at that had long disappeared; the half-orphaned child had had to accept his father's limitations early on. It was just the way things were.

"I see."

"So you're home to them, son?" the older Cranston queried, feeling an odd kind of relief despite the uneasy sensation that this should not be such an extraordinary event.

"I guess," Billy decided, too curious now to be overly cautious. He was reasonably sure that the kids bullying him at recess wouldn't come to his house – which posed another question: he hadn't given his address to anybody; who had sought him out, how, and why? Taking a deep breath, he stepped out of his room into the hallway. When he recognized his visitors, his jaw dropped with astonishment.

"Jason, Zack!" He hurried forward. "What's wrong? And how did you know where to find me?"

"Hey, Billy," Jason greeted him, blushing slightly now that he was face-to-face with the boy. "Uh, nothing's wrong; Zack and I were just hanging out in the park and were wondering if you'd like to, well, do stuff with us." He desperately wished that Zack would help him out here, but the usually effervescent boy seemed struck mute all of a sudden. "And we got your address from the phone book; there's only one Cranston living in the area, so we took a chance on it being you."

Billy hesitated, barely noticing that his father retreated back into his study with a murmured farewell. "Oh. Okay." A really good piece of deductive reasoning, he had to admit. "Did you have anything specific in mind?"

"Not really. Why?"

Now it was Billy's turn to color up. Even someone as socially inept as he knew that he was about to commit a serious gaffe. But his innate honesty wouldn't let him prevaricate.

"I, um, I was busy studying the operating instructions for my new computer," he stammered, "I only got it this week, and …" Here, he was interrupted by a suddenly excited Zack.

"You have your own computer? Way cool! What model? My cousin in St. Louis got an Atari 2000 for his birthday, and it's awesome for playing games!"

"Uh, no games," Billy said apologetically. "I opted for a 486; it's faster, has greater memory capacity and is generally more suited to writing programs than other types …"

"You write your own programs? Wow," Jason commented, awed. He didn't know much about computers per se, just enough to vaguely want one of his own, one of these days. If he ever managed to save up enough money. But he was very willing to be introduced to one. "Can you show us?"

Perplexed, Billy looked at them. He'd never once considered that two athletes like Jason and Zack would show the least bit of interest in one of his favorite pastimes. But as they seemed genuinely eager, he wasn't about to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. With a pleased blush and shy smile, he invited them into his sanctum. "Sure. Come have a look."

Once inside the well-lit room (which was MUCH neater than either Jason or Zack's could ever hope to be), the two boys looked around curiously. Knowing better than to touch things not their own without permission, they took a quick visual circuit, noting the scientific literature, technical journals and whatnot arranged carefully on several bookshelves. There was also a microscope, several models of engine parts and other things speaking of an inqusitive mind.

"You're really into science and stuff, right?" Jason asked, running a finger down the creased back of Volume 3 of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

"I … yes. I like to exercise my mind," his host admitted modestly, not finding any trace of censure in the already-deepening voice.

"Duh," the dark-haired youngster grinned at him. "I see that. Isn't there anything you do just for fun, though?"

Billy gulped, but there was no malice in Jason's observation – nor in Zack's corresponding chuckle. It enabled him to reply with some aplomb.

"But science IS fun!"

He had to laugh at their dubious expressions. "No, really. It is just a matter of choosing the right venue. Come, let me show you," he invited, reaching for the microscope and putting it on his desk. "Have you ever looked at a drop of water? Or at a single hair?" Neither boy had, so Billy quickly and efficiently set up the simple experiment. Dashing outside momentarily to the kitchen, he commandeered a willing Zack to help him carry in two chairs, then reached for his own head. Plucking out a single hair, he directed his visitors to do the same, then placed all three filaments under the lens. Adjusting the focus with a deft move, he then let each boy have a turn, finding delight in their good-natured interest that soon changed to true enthusiasm as they came up with ever more objects to study.

In good time, the three boys even got around to trying out Billy's computer setup, with Zack and Jason appropriately awed at what the blond youngster could do with the machine. Up until then, they had viewed a PC as either a fancy typewriter or a too-expensive games console; having other things demonstrated by someone who really knew what he was doing was an eye-opening experience for them.

"This is too cool," Jason exclaimed after Billy 'drew' up a chart they had to do for History class with a few keystrokes. "Man, I wish I could do that!"

"Yeah, me too," Zack agreed. "Of course, I'd have to have a computer in the first place …"

Billy looked at his companions. *Should I?* Hesitantly, he cleared his throat.

"I … I could teach you, if you'd like," he offered shyly. At their surprised looks, he blushed. "Just so y-you already knew h-how to operate a PC in case you obtain one at a f-future date," he stammered.

"Would you? That'd be great. Because I've heard that Angel Grove High will get a computer room, and once we're there …"

"Yeah," Zack interrupted Jason. "That way, we'd already know how to do stuff. Slammin' idea, Billy!" He thumped the startled boy on his back with unfeigned enthusiasm.

"Oomph!" Billy had to cough.

"Oops. Sorry," Zack grinned.

"Hey, I've got an idea!" Jason's dark eyes lit up. "In exchange for Billy teaching us about computers, why don't we give him some coaching in sports?"


Billy looked alarmed. Two talented athletes like Jason and Zack coaching him, the quintessential klutz? "That … uh … that's really not necessary," he hedged. "Really – I do appreciate the offer, but …"

Jason draped a muscular arm around the slight shoulders and waited until the apprehensive grey-green eyes met his. "Hey, are you afraid we're gonna run you to death, or something?" he asked, with more astuteness than Billy had given him credit for. Mutely, he nodded, embarrassed about his own temerity. But Jason just laughed, in a friendly fashion. "Don't worry, buddy. My sensei has taught us how to build someone's strength up; I won't hurt you."

"And you're gonna need the practice, Billy," Zack interjected. "Haven't you heard that come spring, team sports will be compulsory for everybody?"

"No," Billy groaned, dismayed. "Really?"

"Yep. Football, basketball, volleyball … the least Jase and I can do is teach you the basics – rules, and stuff."

Resignedly, Billy gazed at his grinning yet unapologetic visitors. "In that case, I accept. Thank you," he sighed.

"A fate worse than death awaits you," Zack intoned, in an exaggerated fashion.

"Right," Jason nodded, stifling his giggles with an effort. "The terror of the training field."

"Gloom and doom in the afternoon!"

"Martyrs of P.E. class!"

Billy had to laugh at their antics. "I can just picture a sign over the gym door," he supplied. "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here!"

"Sounds like Coach Rodriguez, allright," Zack said drily. "He can be the drillmaster from Hell."

"Actually, that quote referred to Dante's Inferno," Billy couldn't help but correct. "Purgatory. The outer court of Hell, if you will."

"But it's indoors!"

From there on in, their conversation devolved into increasing silliness, until Jason caught sight of Billy's alarm clock.

"Oh man! It's five to seven already, and even if I run, it'll take me ten minutes at LEAST to get home! I gotta go, or I'll be grounded until Christmas!"

"Me, too!"

Quickly, the boys said their goodbyes. As Billy escorted his guests to the front door, Mr. Cranston reappeared from his study. Jason and Zack exchanged a glance, then the taller boy asked politely if he might make a phone call. "We didn't watch the time, and my folks will worry if I'm late; I'll get into less trouble if I at least tell them where I am and why I'll be a bit late," he said candidly. Zack's hopeful look expressed much the same thing.

With a fleeting smile, Mr. Cranston picked up a key ring. He'd heard the laughter from Billy's room and despite his customary absentmindedness, couldn't help but notice the animated expression on his only son's face.

"Why don't I drive you home instead? That way, you'll only be late by a couple of minutes; I believe that is considered an acceptable margin by most parents?" he suggested gently, and was rewarded with two brilliant smiles.

"That'd be fantastic; thank you, sir," both boys chorused. As they climbed into the modest sedan, they waved to Billy. "See you at school on Monday," Jason called.

"We had a great time," Zack added, and then the car backed out of the driveway, leaving a bemused but happy boy behind. He set his room back in order and started dinner preparations. When his father returned and reported that both Jason and Zack had made it home without undue delay, he looked up with shining eyes.

"Thanks, Dad," he said simply, the words conveying a world of meaning not even the lonely widower could miss. He ruffled Billy's hair fondly as he turned to open a can of soup and directed Billy to set out sandwich makings.

"You're welcome, son. They're nice boys," was his only comment, though. Henry Cranston had to smile when Billy's stomach growled loudly. "And the next time your friends come over … we'll have to make sure there's a supply of cookies and milk on hand, don't you think?"

"Yes, please."

With a contented sigh, Billy took the flatware from the drawer. It wouldn't be the home-baked snack his mother used to make and which he still remembered, but it was a start – maybe he and his father could have a more normal life, after all, even though she was irrevocably gone.

*Who knew being sent to dentention would turn out to bring beneficial results for me, after all?*



"Hey, are those the earrings you bought Saturday?" Kimberly asked brightly as she met Trini at school on Tuesday. "They look way cool!"

"Thank you," the slim Asian girl smiled, pleased. She briefly touched the small golden tiger head clipped to her left earlobe. "And I see you were right; that scarf does go perfectly with your shirt."

"It's also the exact shade of that nail polish I told you about," Kim chattered. "Pity I can't wear it at school. Yet," she glowered, remembering what had sent her into detention. But she brightened up again almost immediately; if she hadn't, she most likely would never have met Trini, who was so much fun to be with. Both girls had discovered that they liked to shop, but as they were quite different types, the rivalry about clothes and accessories Kim usually found herself in with her fellow cheerleaders was absent … and in contrast to them, Trini was someone she could be serious with if they both felt like it. Plus, she had taken an interest in Kim's hobbies, too, instead of being completely self-centered. *Like half the squad!* The thought seemed almost treacherous to Kimberly, who had worked hard to make cheerleader, but to her surprise it was true nonetheless. Vaguely uncomfortable about having her previous conceptions questioned, she took refuge behind her mallrat persona.

"Can we do it again soon?" To emphasize her apparent eagerness, she bounced on her feet.

"What, go to the mall? Kim, I like being there as much as anyone, but my allowance just won't last if I buy too much …"

The petite brunette airily waved the objection aside. "Who said anything about buying? We can just browse for stuff, try out the makeup counters, get free perfume samples … you know."

Trini considered that for a moment. She'd never gone to the mall just to hang out before, thinking it rather shallow and pretty pointless – what was the sense in wandering through shops for hours if one didn't have money to spend? – but Saturday had been fun, Kim was good to be around, and they'd discovered that for all their differences, they shared a lot of the same values. So why was she hesitating?

"I'd like that," Trini finally said, her smile as radiant as Kimberly's expression. Before the girls could make more plans, though, Trini was called away by Brenda, who had a problem with scheduling the volleyball players.

"Go on, I'll wait for you," Kim shooed her new friend off. With a grateful look, Trini moved down the hallway to confer with Brenda. Left to herself, Kimberly opened her locker and readied her books for the next class. Just as she picked up a brush to run through her already glossy hair, she suddenly found herself nearly pinned to the wall by two long arms.

"Look who we have here," a wheedling voice stage-whispered in her ear. "My favorite cheerleader!"

Barely suppressing a disgusted groan, Kimberly turned around with some effort.

"Brad," she sighed. "What do you want now?" The boy had been pestering her for a date almost from her first day in Junior High, and just wouldn't take no for an answer. Oh well, she'd just keep on sending him away until he got the message.

The tall, goodlooking 8th-grader smiled down on her, trying for a lost-puppy expression. It didn't work too well, and Kim had to hide a tiny grin. If Brad only knew how silly he looked! "How about you and me hitting the movies tomorrow night?" he wheedled. Kimberly rolled her eyes. She'd turned him down at least half a dozen times already.

"Brad, first of all it's a school night; I'm not allowed to go out then. And I've told you my mom won't let me date yet …" *And I certainly wouldn't want to date YOU in the first place!* she thought privately. It seemed as if it would take yet another steady stream of 'NO!s' to get rid of Brad. Again.

"Then I'll just have to come by your house and convince your mom to let you date me," the blond started, but found himself unexpectedly interrupted by a deep voice.

"What's going on here?"

Brad looked over his shoulder, irritated at the interruption, and met the dark eyes of a younger boy. Usually he'd have shrugged off the intrusion, but the cold expression on the tanned face was such that he took a second look. The other was shorter than he, but his shoulders were already broad, the arms muscular, and the whole stocky frame radiated a strength to be reckoned with.

"That guy harassing you, Kim?" Jason asked curtly, taking a step closer. He only saw a bigger boy looming over the tiny girl, and all his protective instincts rushed to the fore. Without thinking, he intervened, not caring a whit about possible danger or consequences. Someone he considered a friend was in trouble; he had to do something! He balled his fists.

"Hi, Jase. No, he …" But Kim didn't get a chance to explain. With mounting astonishment, she watched as her classmate challenged the older student.

"Listen, you jerk, Kim's my friend, and if you don't stop hassling her, you'll be sorry," Jason hissed, his eyes sparking a warning, his whole stance just one step short of threatening. "Leave her alone NOW!"

Brad wasn't quite foolish, or brave, enough to get into a fight at school. No girl, no matter how pretty, was worth getting detention for. And besides, this guy might be younger than him, but he looked as if he meant business … and knew how to go about it.

"Okay, okay, I'm going," he muttered. "Keep your pants on, man!" The fourteen-year-old backed off, releasing a rather bemused Kimberly.

Jason scowled at the retreating boy until he'd disappeared around a corner, then turned towards Kim with a smile, all traces of menace gone from his bearing as if a switch had been thrown. "That'll teach him," he cheerfully announced. "If that creep gives you any more trouble, Kim, just tell me, and I'll take care of him for you. Okay?"

"Sure," Kim mumbled, nonplussed, then watched Jason saunter off to his next class, clearly very pleased with himself. She shook her head in wonder. How different he'd been from the friendly, easygoing boy she'd gotten to know over the past few weeks! And while it gave her a small, pleasant thrill that Jason would be ready to fight for her, she was also mildly annoyed at his interference. What, did he believe her to be so weak or stupid that she couldn't take care of herself? If he did, Jason Scott had another think coming for sure! Her train of thought was interrupted by Trini, who had watched the whole scene from afar.

"What was that all about?" Trini wondered as she rejoined Kimberly. "Jason looked as if he was going to deck that guy!"

Deciding it wasn't worth obsessing about, Kim shrugged. "Oh, nothing, really. I guess Jason just had an attack of big brother-hood. He seemed to think I couldn't handle Brad by myself. As if!"

Trini grinned. "Was he getting all protective on you? He did the same with me yesterday, when someone from the baseball team nearly ran me over in the parking lot. He actually made the guy apologize to me!"

Kim groaned comically. "I tell you, if he starts checking out my dates – if I ever get to have one, that is – he's gonna get in BIG trouble! Having one older brother at home is WAY more than enough; I don't need another one at school!" Trini had to smile. She might have no brothers herself, but her cousin Michael was just the same whenever he visited. A delicate eyebrow arched.

"I suppose he means well …"

"Yeah. Maybe. Okay. But the day I can't get rid of a pest like Brad alone hasn't come yet. I don't need Jason to do that for me, and if he tries it again, I'll … I'll deck him!"

"Can I help?" Trini blurted. She'd felt much the same about the boy's attempt to be helpful the day before.

The girls shared a look of perfect understanding, then had to giggle at the mental image of petite Kimberly and slender Trini taking on the burly, solidly-built Jason who was every bit as strong as he looked. Still laughing, they skipped off to their next class. Kim looked sideways at Trini, her doe eyes gleaming impishly.

"You think Jason's ticklish, maybe?"


During the week, Zack, Trini, Kim, Jason and Billy met at lunch whenever they could; it was as if the impending end of their detention period was drawing them together somehow. If at all possible, they went to school together, left school in pairs or as a group and made frequent phonecalls to each others' houses. Just as if they'd been friends for ages already, instead of only having known each other for little over a month. None of them questioned the phenomenon; despite their relatively short acquaintance, they had found congenial spirits in each other, and while they didn't think of it consciously, all of them privately resolved not to let the association end once the weekend was over.

In fact, the five children already were making plans about meeting after school the next week – Zack and Jason to practise karate together, now that Zack had enrolled in Jason's dojo, Kim and Trini to watch a matinee … Billy and Trini made a study appointment, and the whole group resolved to go look for their Halloween costumes together. After all, the holiday was only ten days away.

Throughout all these preparations, Jason's overprotectiveness was never mentioned by the girls, and soon forgotten. Which was hardly surprising, given the fact that by unspoken agreement they had never talked about the reasons why they'd been sent to detention outside of their Saturday breakfast breaks. It was as if the children didn't want to mar their growing friendship with unpleasant reminders of how wary they'd all been of each other in the beginning. This way, it was easier to pretend that they'd have gravitated towards each other regardless of the ugly suspicions each had held – and now were very eager to forget.


On Friday, Jason was just leaving the gym when he came upon a scene that made him go cold all over. Right at the door leading to the Chem lab was Billy, being cornered by two boys who literally towered over the slight blond; he was clutching his books to his chest in a veritable death grip, and the greenish eyes looked harried behind the metal-framed glasses. Flinging his gym bag away from him, Jason ran towards the small group.

Two big, strong hands landed on a shoulder each in a firm grip. The two students, both unknown to Jason, found themselves jerked unceremoniously away from Billy.

"Stop that!" Jason shouted, his sudden anger mounting as he thought he saw an expression of relief cross Billy's flushed face. "You leave Billy here alone, or else!"

The fatter of the duo tried to sneer. "Or else what?" But his wavering voice betrayed his fear as he took in the fury in the dark eyes.

Jason shook both boys once, not caring that the lanky dark-haired one winced as his fingers tightened on the bony arm. "Or else you'll have to deal with me," he threatened. NOBODY messed with his friends!

"Oh yeah? What are you gonna do, beat me up?"

Jason's eyes narrowed. "Do you really want to find out?" he rumbled, thrusting his face into the other's. The fat boy gulped, his blue eyes widening warily.

"Er … "

The lanky one was trembling by now, but couldn't get away, his arm still caught in that vise-like grip. He was sure there'd be bruises the next day. But he didn't dare complain; who knew what this guy would do if he did?

Contemptuously, Jason released both his opponents. "I didn't think so. Go away, before I get really mad," he ordered them, watching with satisfaction as the two beat a hasty retreat. He turned towards Billy, who only now was starting to relax. "You okay?"

"Yes, thank you," Billy murmured automatically. Violence of any kind disturbed him deeply, and while the situation had been diffused without anything really happening, the potential for escalation had been there. He knew he hadn't been in any real danger, though; despite his steadfast refusals Eugene and Farkas often attempted to make him let them copy his homework, but they weren't truly going to harm him. They humiliated him sometimes, yes, or ridiculed him, but they weren't quite mean enough to take their harassment beyond a certain point.

However, he'd seen a side of Jason he hadn't been aware of before, and he didn't quite know how to deal with it. While Billy found himself surprised and somewhat grateful that Jason would intercede on his behalf at all, it wasn't exactly nice to be considered so helpless that he needed the assistance. But it was not worth arguing with Jason about, so Billy held his peace, walking away determined never to provoke Jason's wrath if he could avoid it. He had a feeling it would not be pleasant to see the bigger boy lose his generally even temper.


"Billy, what's wrong?" Trini asked concernedly as the five children were sharing snacks for the last time. Everybody had taken pains to bring something special, in honor of the occasion. "You've hardly said a word except for 'pass the juice'."

The blond grinned shyly at her. "Nothing's wrong per se," he answered quietly. "I was just pondering how different today is from our first break six weeks ago."

"Yeah, we were pretty suspicious of each other, weren't we?" Kimberly concurred. "I mean, I sure was … when ol' Jenkins was reading out all the reasons why we ended up here … you guys seemed like really bad news!"

"He made it sound like we were all dee-lin-quents," Zack nodded, pronouncing the big word carefully and getting amused laughter from the others at his accompanying grimace.

"Right. And instead, we found out we weren't so bad, after all," Kim chipped in again. "To be honest, I was kinda scared of you, Zack, when he told us you'd brought a weapon to school."

"Aww. And it was just an itty-bitty table knife," the irrepressible boy snickered.

Billy smiled, feeling more at ease in this circle than he could remember ever being. "I must say I was pleasantly disappointed, though," he murmured. "You have to admit, it did sound very incriminating."

"Oh yes," Trini shuddered. "To think I was practically labelled a junkie when all I'd done was give a classmate a perfectly harmless herbal remedy for cramps …"

"Factually speaking, though, we did do the things we were charged with," Billy mused. "However, nobody bothered to ask for reasons, and the way the facts were presented to us made us all appear in the worst possible light."

"Uh huh. But Trini wasn't dealing drugs, I wasn't being a thug, you weren't really skipping class, and Kim's not a slut," Zack enumerated. "And Jason wasn't – hey, Jase, YOU haven't told us yet what really happened," he exclaimed, turning to the burly boy who was quietly munching on Mrs Taylor's brownies. "You weren't really beating up on someone, were you?"

Jason looked up from his carton of vanilla milk, courtesy of Billy. "Of course not!" he exclaimed indignantly. "How can you even think that?"

"I don't – that's why I wanna know what really happened," his new friend said earnestly.

"We all do, Jason," Trini agreed, laying a slender hand briefly on his muscular arm, while Kimberly just nodded, her mouth full of cinnamon waffle, supplied by Mrs Kwan.

"It is only logical to assume that the reason for you having been sent into Remedial Classes was an equal form of misrepresentation as it was with the rest of us," Billy added. "Especially as you haven't exhibited any overly aggressive or menacing behavior towards any of us." Briefly, the slight boy flashed back to yesterday's encounter with the two fellow students who had been bothering him, but despite his show of temper, Jason hadn't actually been violent, and his intentions had been impeccable – motivated only by the desire to assist someone he perceived as weaker and in need of help. With an inward shrug, Billy dismissed the memory.

Having swallowed her food, Kim cast Billy a somewhat dubious look, not sure she'd understood him right. Taking a chance, she then looked fully at Jason.

"Come on, Jase," she cajoled. "We've all shared our stories except you. Tell us why Jenkins called you a bully? Please?"

"Here's your chance to set the record straight, man," Zack entreated. "Give!"

"Fair's fair," Trini murmured.

Taking a deep breath to control the indignation he still felt at the memory of the incident, Jason nodded. The others were right, he owed them to be as open as they had been about their transgressions. That didn't mean he had to like it, but … it probably hadn't been all that easy for them, either, he saw with sudden insight, remembering Kimberly's tear-filled eyes or Trini's obvious embarrassment.

"Okay," he sighed. "If you guys insist …"

"We do," Zack said rather pompously, making everybody laugh. Sporting a rueful grin, Jason sat back and launched into his tale.


"It all started when some idiot from 8th grade was harassing that Stuart kid after school – you've seen him, maybe? Even smaller than Billy here, dark hair, really dorky glasses that are held together by duct tape?"

"I know him," Billy murmured as the others nodded more or less confidently. Stuart was the type who always seemed to blend into the woodworks – partly by nature, and partly by choice, so it was no wonder hardly anybody could recall what he looked like. "His IQ is almost on a par with mine." Which was nice for Billy, appreciated by the teachers, but not really a recommendation, as far as most other students were concerned.

Jason smiled fleetingly. "I might've known." He sent a teasing wink towards Billy, who just shrugged sheepishly. He knew Jason wasn't putting him down with that remark; it was just one of those things most kids did, as Billy was coming to learn. It was actually a rather pleasant experience. *A more ... 'normal' type of reaction,* the child genius reflected. *And 'normal' can be ... nice.*

"Anyway, Stu was kind of cowering in that corner near the Chem lab, that bigger guy was poking him with his foot – hard, too! – and saying nasty things to him. You know, calling him names – nerd, four-eyes, geek, loser, that kind of thing. AND he was hassling him to hand over some homework Stuart was supposed to have done for him, or else." Jason paused to take a sip of his milk. "I gotta hand it to the kid, he held on to his notebook rather well, but he looked so totally scared and helpless, I just couldn't stand by and do nothing."

That declaration was met with nods from the other four and softly murmured consent; none of them liked it when weaker people were being bullied by older or stronger students, and knowing Jason as they did, it simply wasn't in his nature not to interfere in a situation like this.

"So you told the older kid off?" Kim asked, picturing a scene much as had happened when Jason sent Brad the Jerk packing with only a few words and plenty of attitude.

"Uh, not exactly," Jason admitted, blushing a little. "I, uh, I sort of yanked him off Stuart."

"I saw that," Trini suddenly remembered. Her almond eyes widened. "You pulled him away so hard that he careened into the opposite wall and gashed his head!"

Jason's cheeks were flaming now. "Yeah, well, maybe I should've been a little more careful … "

"A little? If he hurt himself?!?" Zack exclaimed.

"It was just a scrape, nothing serious," Jason muttered, feeling ashamed at his loss of control. He should have known better ... his sensei had told him often enough that he ought to learn better how to control his natural strength. But that was so hard, especially when an injustice of any kind really got him going!

"Maybe. But you were also yelling at him," Billy supplied softly. "Your choice of words was perhaps not quite as derogatory as what Stuart had had to listen to from that older boy, but it was … rather colorful and hardly complimentary," he added. "Then you proceeded to scold Stuart for his lack of courage and unwillingness to stand up to anyone who'd try and take advantage of him. If I remember correctly, you were quite harsh towards him, too."

"Fat lot of good that did," Jason muttered rebelliously, feeling once again a sense of outrage at the unfairness displayed by one, and the weakness shown by the other. WHY did some people need to try to prove their 'superiority' only over those who couldn't fight back? And why didn't they at least try and resist? His twelve-year-old mind just couldn't grasp the fact that not everybody was blessed with the same robust build, self-confidence and sense of self-worth as he was. That was why Jason took it upon himself to defend those who needed a champion – or when he thought they did.

Suddenly, the things Billy had said clicked in his mind. He looked at the smaller boy with narrowed eyes. "How do you know all that, anyway?"

It was Billy's turn to blush. He wasn't proud of what he had to confess now, but … hopefully, the others wouldn't hold it against him too much. "I was behind the door inside the Chem lab, waiting for him to go away so I could leave myself without incurring the same treatment." The blond snuck a peek at Zack and the girls. To his relief, Kim smiled understandingly, Trini patted his hand and Zack pursed his lips consideringly before nodding. Encouraged, he went on. "Thus I witnessed the whole scene, at least aurally."

"Huh?" Zack whispered to Trini, not quite able to follow Billy's extended vocabulary. The slender Asian girl whispered back.

"He could hear them but didn't see anything."

"Oh. Okay." Zack retuned his attention to the others.

"Then why didn't you come forward and tell that to the Principal when she accused me of fighting?" Jason wanted to know. "Just because that big jerk was whining like a baby that I'd hurt him … he should've thought of that before he started hassling Stu!"

"Why didn't Stuart tell what happened?" Zack suddenly said. "I mean, you were acting for him, kinda."

"I dunno," Jason shrugged, trying not to let his hurt and indignation at that apparent defection show.

"Maybe he was scared," Trini suggested after a moment's thought. "I think if he lets himself bullied by bigger kids like that, it only follows that he'd be afraid of Principal Munro, too, doesn't it?"

"Oh yeah," Kimberly shuddered delicately. "That old battleaxe even scares my Dad!"

There were some half-guilty titters at her remark from everybody; Mrs Munro was a tall, homely, raw-boned woman who habitually dressed all in black and spoke in a loud, staccato voice, giving a very credible impression of a permanently displeased drill sergeant.

"Okay, I can accept that," Jason grudgingly admitted. "She is kinda scary. But, she only punished me for fighting! At the very least, that other guy should've gotten detention, too! He started it, after all!"

"Didn't you tell her how it was?" Kim asked curiously. "I mean, isn't the Principal supposed to be neutral, or something? Like, she has to listen to everybody's side of the story?"

"I did explain. You think I'm stupid, or something?" Jason glared at the petite brunette, who shrugged. It had been a legitimate question, and Kim knew it. "She still said that I was most to blame," Jason muttered resentfully. Some of the things Mrs Munro had said to him while writing the note for his parents still smarted – especially as Mr Jenkins repeated them at every opportunity. "Just because that idiot scraped his head – he wasn't even bleeding much – and because I'd been telling both the guys off. Okay, so I shouldn't have yanked him so hard, but HE was bullying Stuart first! I was only trying to help; that doesn't make me a bully!"

The boy's dark eyes sought confirmation from his companions, as it had been given to each one before him, but to his great surprise he found only hesitation and very cautious agreement.

"I'm not a bully," he repeated, but it came out much less forcefully than Jason had intended. When no answer was immediately forthcoming, he looked at each of his fellow students. Billy's grey-green eyes were averted as the smaller boy toyed with a drinking straw. Kimberly was biting her lower lip, doe eyes just a little wary, and Zack was staring at him with a strange look. Only Trini met Jason's gaze frankly, but even she couldn't quite summon a smile.

Jason swallowed hard. They couldn't really believe that of him, could they? It was incredible how important his friends' acceptance and support had become – in only six short weeks. If they decided that he was the only one of their little group who truly deserved to be in detention … it hardly bore thinking about.

"Guys …?" he ventured hesitantly. "Do you believe I'm a bully?"

*PLEASE let them say no! Just one of them at least!*

"Kim? Trini?" The low voice pleaded for reassurance, and generously, Trini tried to give what support she could in all honesty. She touched his arm gently, as was her habit.

"Well, I believe you didn't mean to be, anyway."

Before Jason could protest the qualification, Kim chimed in.

"Yeah – and I believe you when you say you only wanted to help Stuart." The 'but' was clearly audible in her voice, though, and Jason felt the blood slowly drain from his face, leaving him pale under his usually healthy tan.

"I did," he rasped. "Honestly! Bullying someone – especially someone weaker than me – is BAD! That's what my parents always told me, and what my sensei has taught me, too!"

"And I for one believe that you mean that," Billy said slowly. His eyes met Jason's. Gathering his courage, he expressed what he'd felt the previous day, when Jason had come to his aid, in a situation much like the one that had landed Jason in remedial classes. "However, your methods need serious reevaluation, I think. If you continue in the manner you've shown towards Stuart and his harasser … and incidentally also yesterday, when I was in a similar predicament, you appear to be a bully, even if your intent is quite the opposite."

To Jason's horror, both Kim and Zack nodded their agreement at Billy's pronouncement. Blanching nearly white, the boy was torn between righteous indignation and an uncomfortable feeling that his friends maybe – just maybe – were right, he opened his mouth to answer, but was prevented from doing so by the Vice Principal's appearance, who recalled the five children to the very last part of their Saturday morning confinement.

Quickly gathering their lunch dιbris, the three boys and two girls filed out silently after their teacher, returning to the classroom, where Jason was conspicuously quiet during the rest of the lesson. As soon as they were dismissed with a stern admonition not to show up in detention again anytime soon, he grabbed his bag and ran out, not waiting for anyone.

Subduedly, the other four followed him more slowly, each lost in their own thoughts.



The swings at the playground in Angel Grove Park were undulating gently as Kim pushed herself half-heartedly against the churned-up sand and stared out towards the lake; she didn't really know why she'd come here this windy afternoon, but staying comfortably at home by herself just hadn't felt right. A hollow feeling was lodged in the pit of her stomach; that had started when Jason had run off after the last detention session this morning, his face still pale and his eyes … Kim really didn't want to remember the look in his eyes. She was too young to understand the mixture of shame, regret, insecurity, disappointment and fear visible in them, and how badly those emotions fit the boy she'd come to know as confident, strong, friendly and very protective. Sometimes overly so, yes, but that didn't matter now. The girl only had a vague sense of having failed her new friend somehow, and it was that most of all which had brought her to the jungle gym, waiting for she knew not what.

"You couldn't stay home by yourself either, right?" said a voice from behind her. Kimberly let out a startled squeak and nearly fell off the swing as she whirled around and looked into Zack's unusually somber face.

"Zack! Don't do that!" she exclaimed, but couldn't quite summon sufficient indignation to make it sound properly outraged. "You scared me half to death," she added with false drama in an attempt to make light of the situation. Zack only grimaced.



Both children stared at each other for a moment, then wandered off towards a bench in silent accord. Sitting down next to each other, they sighed moodily while Zack scuffed his sneakers on the ground. Before either could start a conversation about anything, they were hailed from a short distance away.

"Hey, Kim! Zack," Trini's soft voice called out. The two looked up and saw the slender girl come towards them, a pensive-looking Billy in tow.

"Hey, guys," Kim and Zack chorused, and made room on their bench for the others to join them. They did so, and now it was four preteens lined up in a row, looking for all the world like birds on a telephone wire as they huddled into their jackets. The silence among them grew heavier and heavier the longer they sat there, waiting for one of them to make a start. To everybody's surprise, it was shy Billy who spoke up first.

"Am I correct in assuming that all of us feel badly about Jason?" he murmured, not raising his eyes from the ground.

"I know I do," Trini admitted in a near whisper. "What he did to get detention really wasn't any worse than what any of us did …"

"Yeah. Not once we knew the reasons behind it, anyway," Zack contributed. Kimberly nodded.

"And now he's probably mad at us for not seeing that sooner – like we managed for our stories."

"I'm pretty certain we could have made Jason see if break hadn't been over just then." Trini shook her head regretfully, setting her raven tresses swinging gently. "Or if he'd stayed behind just a little afterwards …"

"Would you have stayed in his place?" Zack asked no-one in particular. The guilty blushes on everybody's faces were answer enough. "Thought so."

"The question now is, can we make amends in any way, and if so, when?" Billy said, ever practical.

"We can't just ignore the fact that our reaction seems to have hurt Jason. Quite understandably so. And that is making me feel very uncomfortable."

"You're not the only one," Kim murmured. "Or we wouldn't have come here in the first place."

"Yeah," the dark-skinned boy sighed. He drew a deep breath. "So, are we gonna go look for Jason, or do we wait until Monday morning?"

The children pondered this for a couple of minutes. Trini glanced up first, her almond eyes determined.

"Let's go look him up," she suggested. "I can't imagine how Jason must be feeling now, believing that we think he's a bully, and we should really tell him that it's not so right away." She wasn't normally the type to go looking for confrontations of any kind, but this was the right thing to do, she was sure of that much, and Trini didn't want anyone to suffer needlessly if there was something she could do about it.

Kimberly smiled wryly. "Right. Besides, if you guys are as miserable about this as I am, the sooner I can make that feeling go away, the better." It felt decidely good to know at last what was bugging her, and more so that she wasn't alone in this.

"Put like that, it sounds incredibly selfish," the Asian whispered. "But yeah."

The boys seemed equally relieved and ashamed that someone had put their state of mind – which was identical to the girls' – into words. The four slowly got up from their perch, standing in a loose circle as they all waited unconsciously for someone to take the initiative and just go. It occurred not just to one of them that, if Jason had been among them, they'd already be on their way. Realizing that it fell to one of them in Jason's absence, Zack finally squared his shoulders.

"Let's go then."

The grateful looks he received for making that decision bolstered his courage, and he felt some of his customary good humor return.

"I say let's start at his house, and if he's not there, I think I know of a few places where we might look."

The others agreed, and the four youngsters trooped off, towards the Scott residence.

They were in luck; through a gap in the fence they could see Jason in the yard, bouncing a basketball desultorily at a hoop attached to the back of the garage.

"Now remember, we're not going to fight with Jason; we'll deal with this in a mature and sensible manner," Trini reminded all of them one last time before she pressed the door bell. The others nodded solemnly, composing their faces into serious but hopefully friendly expressions as they lined up in front of the door.

Mrs. Scott was surprised to see them, but didn't ask any questions; she just led them through the house to the back door. Calling her son's attention to his visitors, she then retired into the kitchen, hoping that the children might manage to get Jason out of the doldrums he'd been in ever since he'd come home from school that morning.


Jason didn't turn around as he heard the back door open and his mother ushered someone – no, several someones – into the yard. He'd heard his classmates' voices on the other side of the fence, and he had absolutely no desire to talk to any of them. Not after the way they had treated him at school this morning. If he was being honest, it was mostly injured pride that made him throw his ball even harder – missing the hoop by a mile, almost – but he was still feeling too hurt by what he perceived was unfounded criticism.

*Can't they see I was only trying to help? So I overreacted with Stuart and that other guy. Big deal. That still doesn't mean I'm a bully.*

What smarted most was that he hadn't found the same willingness to see his side of the story like the others had gotten; it seemed to the twelve-year-old that everybody thought he'd been in the wrong. First the teachers, now his friends … no. If the others sided with the Principal, they were no friends of his. Jason swallowed the lump at the back of his throat and fought the temptation to rub at his burning eyes. He was not going to cry like a baby … even if a part of him wanted to curl up in the darkest corner of his room and just bawl.

Stubbornly, he trudged after the ball which had bounced off the garage wall and rolled onto the lawn. To his chagrin, it came to a stop right at Trini's feet, who bent and picked up the orange-and-black sphere before he could do more than reach for it. She held it out to him with a shy smile.

"Hey, Jason," she murmured in her soft voice. The others echoed the greeting nervously.

The boy grunted something unintelligible, snatched the ball from her hands and turned his back on them again. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mother standing at the window, watching them and shaking her head in silent disapproval. Jason knew she'd read him the riot act but good later if he didn't mind his manners, so he nodded briefly.

"Hey," he muttered ungraciously. "What do you want?"

Somewhat taken aback by his lack of civility, the four children stared at him for a few moments, then Zack took the plunge.

"We wanna talk," he announced without preamble. Jason just scowled.

"What about? You said everything this morning already," he grumped. "Or rather, you didn't. You made it pretty obvious that you think I was the one who belonged in detention. Not like you guys, who were oh-so-innocent." There was an ugly sneer on his features that almost made the youngsters quail, but with a burst of insight fuelled in part by what she refused to call her guilty conscience, Kimberly recognized it for what it was. Attitude, pure and simple, with a hefty dose of bravado.

*Well, Jason can just take his 'tude and, like, shove it!*

"Stop it!" she exclaimed, grasping at a muscular arm. She gave Jason a shake – or tried to, anyway; she was too petite and he too strong for her grip to have any effect. However, that did not deter the fiery girl. "Jason Scott, you know that we hardly had time to really talk, because break was over and ol' Jenkins was waiting for us. Nobody said that we didn't believe you, so you can just stop being such a butthead and listen," she scolded vehemently. "And if you hadn't run off after school like a scared bunny rabbit, we needn't have come here!" Kim stood toe-to-toe with Jason, glaring up into his face as if daring him to contradict her.

She needn't have worried. Jason was so startled by her outburst that his mouth was slightly agape, and the basketball dropped from his hands again. With an effort, he collected his wits, latching on to what seemed like the ultimate insult.

"I was NOT scared," he protested.

"Yes, you were," Kim said, smugly triumphant at having gotten a rise out of him.

"Was not!"

"Were, too!"


"Were, too!" With every word, Kim advanced one step forward, and without thinking, Jason took the same step backwards, across the well-kept lawn towards a small ornamental pond. Billy and Trini, who were watching the confrontation, exchanged alarmed looks – if Kim wasn't careful, she'd add insult to injury if Jason should stumble into the water. But neither one seemed to pay any attention at all to where they were headed.

It was a strange scenario – tiny Kimberly almost chasing the burly Jason into the water basin with pointed stabs of her small forefinger at his broad chest, and the usually confident boy retreating from her with an expression on his face that was no longer sullen but rather baffled, as if he didn't quite know how he'd landed in such a situation, all the while protesting her accusation of having been scared in a way that would've sounded childish in a kindergartner.

Jason would've dearly loved to fight back somehow, it would have been so very easy, but three things stopped him from doing so – a) Kim was smaller and weaker than him, and he'd never use his strength like that, b) Kim was a friend, and Jason just did not hurt his friends, and c) Kim was a girl. Not that that made any difference in the grand scheme of things; learning karate had taught Jason that gender didn't really matter – sensei Patricia at his dojo being a case in point – but his mom would have his hide if he ever hit a girl. If nothing else, good manners stopped Jason as effectively as anything. So, the only course open to him was to retreat before the petite girl, and try to stop her verbally.

*Easier said than done – I wish I could think of something – ANYTHING! – to say to make her take it back!*

"Was not!"

"Were too! Too, too, too!"

Jason stumbled, getting perilously close to the pond's edge. Only one more step, and he'd fall in.

It proved too much for Zack. His sense of the ridiculous got the better of him, and he started to snicker. Catching Trini's eyes, he winked merrily at her, and suddenly she began to giggle as the comical aspect became obvious to her, too. "Oh my," she gasped, nudging Billy. The blond looked faintly disturbed and scandalized – they hadn't come here to quarrel with Jason, after all, and he had no idea how Kimberly could act like that towards their comrade when they'd intended to comfort him, but a look into Zack and Trini's faces made him reassess the situation. His lips began to twitch as well.

"A truly mature and reasoned exchange of opinion," he said drily. "I thought Kimberly was the one who insisted on not fighting with Jason."

Trini chuckled. "She's not fighting with him. She's … having an argument."

"Oh. Does Jason know that?" Billy asked, straight-faced.

Grinning broadly, Zack pretended to mull that over. "Hmm. I wouldn't bet on it. Besides, if that's 'not fighting', I'd hate to see Kim when she does!"

The three glanced at Jason and Kimberly, who were looking decidedly sheepish, and sported nearly identical blushes. Their expressions tipped the scales from wary uncertainty to humor. Trini, Zack and Billy broke into laughter, which proved too infectious for the others. Kim was the first who couldn't keep a giggle from escaping, and when she just grabbed Jason's hand and pulled him unceremoniously over to join the group, making him stumble in the process, he couldn't maintain his hostility anymore, either. He was perhaps slightly less mirthful than his friends, but he did laugh, and that was enough for the moment.

"Oh man, Jase, you should've seen yourself when Kim was chasing you towards the pond," Zack wheezed, sending the others into fresh paroxysms of laughter. "That was too funny!"

Jason mock-glared at the tiny girl. "She was NOT chasing me," he grumbled. "I was just … er … getting out of her way."

"It looked like being chased to me," Trini commented innocently. "Didn't it, Billy?"

The blond pretended to consider the question seriously, but the sparkle in the greenish eyes behind his glasses betrayed him. "If it wasn't, Jason gave a very good impression of being chased. And Kimberly's technique seemed quite flawless to me, too."

Kim curtsied grandiosely. "Thank you, sir," she said, her voice positively dripping honey – then spoiled the effect by sticking her tongue out at Jason, who retaliated in kind. Zack, watching the exchange avidly, nodded sagely at the other two.

"Just the way Kim wanted to handle this – mature and sensible. Riiiight."

Which garnered him a raspberry from the gymnast, and general silliness followed for several minutes – which proved to be a perfect way to dispel the last bit of tension among the five youngsters. They only stopped when Mrs. Scott called them inside, to a most welcome snack of hot chocolate and peanut butter cookies. She smiled to herself as she served the children seated around her kitchen table, glad that the sullen look had vanished from her son's eyes, and that he was talking and laughing again. Jason hadn't said a word why he'd come home from school angry and upset, and the blonde woman hadn't wanted to pry just yet. Now it seemed she wouldn't have to; whatever had gone wrong seemed to have resolved itself quite nicely now that Jason's new friends were here. Shaking her head, wondering if she would ever fully understand the workings of her preteen son's mind, Liz Scott tactfully retired to the living room, leaving the children free to chat about whatever they wanted to.



"Will you let us explain about this morning, Jason?"

He looked across the table at Trini, his dark eyes growing momentarily distant again, but then he sighed resignedly. "Yeah, I guess."

She smiled her thanks. Silence settled over the table as each child collected their thoughts, making the shift from friendly banter to a more serious topic. For a minute, nobody seemed to know how or where to begin, but then Jason took the proverbial bull by the horns himself.

"Do … do you guys really think I'm a bully?" he asked hesitantly, more subdued than they'd ever seen him. "'Cause I don't mean to be … and I, uh, I'd hate to think that I'm the only one who needed to be in detention …" His voice trailed off as Jason searched his friends' faces for signs of accusation. He found none.

The four kids exchanged looks, then Kim determinedly faced their host.

"I know you're not a bully," she declared stoutly, grinning briefly at the relief crossing Jason's face. "I also know you wouldn't want to harm anyone. But Jase … that's how you can seem to someone who doesn't know you."

There were murmurs of agreement. Puzzled, Jason stared at Kim.

"What do you mean?" he asked, honestly confused. Exasperated, Kim shook her head.

"I didn't see what happened with you and Stuart and that other kid, but … take that scene in the hallway on Tuesday morning, when you kinda threatened Brad," she said.

"That jerk was hassling you," Jason protested. "I was only trying to help! And I didn't really threaten him, either!"

"I know," she huffed, blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes. "But Brad didn't. The way you looked at him, the way you just stood there was enough."


Trini spoke up. "Yes. I saw what happened, and really, Jason … you may not have meant to, but it looked as if you were going to attack him any second, if he just said one wrong word …"

"In any case, it was enough to send Brad packing. Which I could've done all by myself, anyway." Kim's voice was firm and offered no compromise. Still, Jason tried to justify his action.

"Kim, he was bigger and older than you …"

"Yeah, and I've been handling him alone ever since school started," she grumbled, a trace of annoyance at Jason's obtuseness in her tone. "Brad's just a big jerk, nothing else. He's just not the type to really force someone. I know that, and he knows I know. He just doesn't give up easily."

"But …"

"No but," Kimberly stated firmly. "To be honest, Jase, it kinda bugged me that you interfered. I'm not some damsel in distress, I already have a big brother who's butting in way too often in my life, and I don't want another one at school, too."

The boy blushed. "I … I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," he mumbled. "It's just, when I saw him crowding you … I thought you might need help. And I always try to help my friends."

"Like you did with me and that guy in the parking lot," Trini nodded. "I appreciate the thought, Jason, but I could've done without the forced apology, just because he bumped into me. It was an accident, nothing more. The whole thing just wasn't worth getting all worked up about." While she spoke gently, she also managed to convey how serious she was.

"Are you saying I made it worse?" Jason gulped after a pause, truly appalled. That had been the very last thing on his mind! "I honestly didn't mean to …"

"I know," the raven-haired girl said. "That's why I didn't make a fuss." Her smile took the sting out of her words, but it was enough to make Jason hang his head guiltily.

"I dislike adding to your discomfort, Jason," Billy said next. "But Kimberly's statement applies to the situation you found me in yesterday, too. Farkas and Eugene are irritating in the extreme, and I admit that they are physically overwhelming and that I'm not truly at ease whenever they decide to waylay me, but they are not really mean-spirited. They would not have harmed me."

"Maybe not," Jason replied, "but what about jerking you around, making fun of you and stuff? I've heard that they've stuffed a kid into a trash can once, or put slime bombs on a girl's chair …"

"Granted. But that falls more under the category of silly pranks rather than grievous bodily harm."

Jason looked at his slight companion disbelievingly. "Don't tell me you like being treated like dirt by those two clowns!"

"No," Billy admitted. "It is extremely irritating, and sometimes even humiliating. I wish they would stop doing things like that, to me or to others." He held up a hand before Jason could say a word. "Your motive for interfering the way you did was certainly admirable, and I'd have been grateful if I had been in serious dire straits, but I wasn't, and I, too, would prefer to handle things on my own as long as I can."

The broad shoulders slumped. "Sorry."

Trini patted his hand. "Apology accepted. Right, guys?"

"Yeah," Kim and Zack chorused, and Billy nodded.

"Does it make you feel better, Jason, if I promised to ask for your help if and when I truly need it?" Billy suggested diffidently after a minute. Now that the air had been cleared and he'd had time to evaluate what had happened, the thought of having a protector of sorts, a 'big brother', seemed unexpectedly attractive. Not that he ever intended to avail himself of Jason's services, but one never knew … Billy wasn't entirely unaware of the dangers in being physically weak, and he had a natural sense of self-preservation, after all.

"Yeah, it does," Jason replied slowly. "I'd hate knowing that you – or anyone else – are in trouble somehow and I couldn't help."

"Then you have my word," Billy said simply.

"Mine, too," Kim added. "I'm not exactly looking for a knight in shining armor or stuff, but if I ever need one …"

"Jason would be perfect for the role," Zack interrupted, grinning infectiously. "I can just see him, charging ahead full-tilt on his bike, bo staff at the ready as he whaps the jerks and dweebs in passing."

The image the dark-skinned boy painted was funny, and all five children laughed even as Jason blushed again. It hit a little too close to home, and he vowed to himself that in the future, he'd take the time to really assess a situation before he rushed in to help. And if what his friends said was true, maybe he didn't need to actually interfere. Jason sighed deeply.

"Okay then. I promise not to butt in unless asked or in an emergency, and you guys promise to yell if you need my help. Agreed?"

"Yeah. – Yes. – Sure. – Positive," came the chorus of voices, and Jason found a genuine smile, feeling suddenly lighter than he had all day. He bounced off his chair and reached for the pitcher of chocolate milk, offering refills.

"Now that that's out of the way, is there anything else we need to talk about?" he asked just a touch facetiously. "I mean, just so there are no more skeletons in anyone's closet …"

The five looked at each other, then Zack piped up.

"Speaking of skeletons, Billy, can you help me paint one on my ghost costume for Halloween?" The holiday was only four days away.

"Certainly," Billy agreed readily. "I have a picture in an encyclopedia that we can use as a template."

"If Zack's a ghost, what are you going as?" Kim asked curiously. Her own fairy outfit was complete, only the glitter paint on her wings needed to dry a little. And she knew Trini had chosen a lovely length of fabric she intended to wear as a sari. Jason answered first.

"Spiderman", he announced proudly. "My mom found this really cool costume in a second-hand store. What about you, Billy?

The blond squirmed a little; he wasn't in the habit of thinking about fancy dress events, but had been persuaded to go trick-or-treating with his new friends for once. He just hoped his choice of costume wouldn't get laughed at.

"I was thinking of donning an alchemist's robe," he stammered shyly. He noticed a few uncomprehending looks, and explained. "Alchemists were the medieval forebears of today's scientists, even though a great percentage of their work and experiments was based on myth and legend alongside more empirical methods. As was the custom of the period, they wore special clothing both to protect themselves and to denote their profession …"

"But what do they look like?" Kimberly interrupted him with a tiny smile. Billy smiled back, accepting the implied gentle rebuke with good grace.

"A floor-length dark robe accompanied with a tall conical hat, both adorned with alchemical symbols and signs of the zodiac," he explained.

It took a few seconds to construct the mental image, then Zack snorted half exasperatedly, half amused. "Alchemist, my foot. That's a sorceror's costume. Why didn't you say so?"

Billy blinked at him, the picture of innocence. "I believe I just did."

"Yeah, right!"

The following good-natured squabble lasted until it was time for Jason's friends to leave. He ushered them to the door and as they filed out, he stopped them one last time.

"Thanks for coming, guys."

There was no need to explain what exactly he was thanking them for – acceptance, a willingness to listen, and most of all caring enough about him to go that extra mile, to come seek him out even when he'd thought he never wanted to see them again.

"Don't run away the next time," Trini admonished him with her sweet smile.

"Yeah – we don't usually make house calls," Zack quipped.

"I won't, promise."

"Good. See you in school on Monday," Kim called, and the four trooped off, leaving a happy Jason behind. As he wandered off to his room, he found to his surprise that now that he had friends in class who liked him even if he managed to step out of line, school somehow had become something to look forward to.



Six Months Later

"Billy, over here!"

Jason's shout drew the attention of Mr. Cranston as he handed a packet of sausages to Liz Scott. He watched with a smile as his son deftly sent a bright orange frisbee whizzing off to his friend, who jumped, caught it and passed the disk on to Trini. The game had been going on for half an hour now, the other fathers playing just as enthusiastically as their offspring, while the mothers took care of preparing the food and guarding the barbecue, so that the burgers sizzling on the grid wouldn't turn into lumps of charcoal. There were a few wistful glances towards the players from Liz Scott, but as the other women had begged off, claiming they couldn't keep up with a bunch of overenergetic kids (which included their equally enthusiastic husbands), she reluctantly stayed at the picnic tables. Oh well, there would be other times. Her musings were interrupted by Billy's father.

"I can't thank you enough for doing this," Henry Cranston said softly. "Ever since my wife died, I haven't known how to make Billy's birthday into the fun occasion he deserves to have."

"They do have fun, don't they?" Liz smiled, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear as she helped Marsha Taylor put out paper plates and napkins. "But it was all the kids' idea; they planned the menu, did the shopping … all we did was prepare the food. For which you'll be paying, by the way." She winked at the slight man, whose usually somber eyes twinkled back at her. "Besides, every boy needs to have a party when he turns 13."

"And doing the barbecue here in the park certainly beats having this horde trampling my flower beds," Janice Kwan added, her almond eyes sparkling.

"No cleanup at home afterwards, either," Melissa Hart smiled, opening plastic containers with potato salad and brownies.

"No kidding! The last time the gang was over at our place, I thought World War III had happened. My basement will never be the same," Marsha grinned. It was obvious that she didn't mind at all.

"Still … it is truly amazing how much Billy has changed ever since he became friends with your children. Funding a party for fourteen seems a very small price to pay in exchange – literally," Henry murmured. "When I think of how subdued he was last year … and now this!" He gestured towards his flushed, happy son, who was engaged in a good-natured tug-of-war over the frisbee with Kimberly. His dark-blond hair was tousled, his overalls grass-stained, and his eyes shone brightly behind his glasses. Clearly, Billy was a very happy child right now, even if the petite brunette was scampering off laughingly with her prize held high, all three boys in hot pursuit.

Gratefully, Henry Cranston accepted the cup of coffee Melissa poured him from a thermos jug. Sipping slowly, he met the women's eyes one after the other.

"Ladies … I'm not one to make a lot of words, but just this once let me express my appreciation of what your children have done for my son," he said a bit formally. "And not only them, but all of you; when I think of the way you've so generously accepted him into your homes …" he had to swallow once, clearly embarrassed by how emotional he was feeling. Then he smiled a bit wryly."I must admit, when I learned the reasons why all of the kids had been sent into Remedial Classes, I was very much concerned; theirs seemed so much worse than Billy's relatively minor transgression."

"No kidding," Marsha answered, distinctly echoing exuberant Zack's tone. "But as the kids found out, it wasn't as bad as it sounded after all."

"Indeed. And Billy has benefitted so much … given his mental capabilities, it will always be nearly impossible for him to find an intellectual equal, but he has learned that life is much more than burying one's nose in a book, or sitting in front of a computer monitor." It was a simple statement of fact, not bragging, and was accepted as such by the women. Billy's intelligence was a given that everybody had come to take more or less for granted. "Your children have taught him that, and I'm truly grateful. He still spends a lot of time with his experiments, or studying, but now he also goes out to play, to just have fun … and thank you again, by the way, for allowing Kimberly to introduce him to her gymnastics coach," Mr. Cranston told Mrs. Hart. "His coordination is much better already."

"You're very welcome," Melissa replied. "According to Coach, Billy is really quite talented – if he'd started earlier and had more interest in the sport, she thinks he could even have competed."

Henry laughed softly. "That's good to know, but I doubt Billy would ever have wanted that. He's always been more interested in competing on other, more cerebral grounds – not physically, anyway. However, mens sana in corpore sano now has gained true meaning for him." At the women's questioning look, he translated. "A sound mind in a sound body. And through being around your children, he now has both. Thank you."

Liz Scott sat down next to the slight man, topping off his coffee cup while keeping a practiced eye both on the barbecue and the frisbee game. Not that she didn't trust Jason's father, but … he had passed on his energetic nature to his son, and both sometimes had trouble controlling their strength. With Jeff, maturity had brought reticence, and Jason … Jason was learning, most of all through his new friends, who managed to let him know with just a look or a small joke when he needed to hold back.

"You're welcome, but if we're saying thanks, I need to get in line myself," she said. "The benefits of our children's friendship … it hasn't been all one-sided," the blonde woman added. "If Billy has learned how to play, then Jason has learned how to study. Not that he was a bad student before, his grades were always acceptable to us, but those regular study sessions with Trini and Billy are really starting to pay off. At the very least, he's learning diligence from them."

Janice snorted, a tiny, ladylike sound. "I think the fact that I won't let Trini go outside before she's finished her assignments has something to do with it, too."

"That, and Kim's challenge that the boys couldn't possibly turn in homework as neat and well-presented as she does," Marsha Taylor grinned. "Of course they had to prove her wrong!"

"I wondered what that was about," Liz smiled. "The boys couldn't let themselves be shown up by a girl, or did they want to impress her?"

"Probably both," Janice said drily. "They're getting to that age. And Trini is behind Kim every step of the way. I'm really glad those two have found each other – Trini couldn't decide what she'd rather be, a tomboy, or a little lady. With Kim she can talk fashion and boys, she has Billy to keep her on her toes at school, and Jason to share martial arts with. And as for Zack," she turned towards Marsha, "he's showing her that to have fun, one doesn't need great preparations. I'm afraid she was getting a bit too serious about her environmental concerns."

"It's a good thing that Zack is learning how to focus on some things instead of trying to be a jack-of-all-trades," Mrs. Taylor put in her two cents' worth. "Learning karate with Jason takes care of his excess energy, he's getting more patient with his little cousins … and ever since the girls persuaded him to perform a few magic tricks at the Christmas party in the Senior Citizen's Home, his interest in showbiz things has found a harmless outlet that is MUCH better for him than try to show off on his skateboard or breakdancing with some 'homies'. Besides, it's good for him to experience first-hand that there are indeed people out there for whom prejudice is just a word."

"I hear you," Mrs Scott murmured. "Jason is finally getting to the point in his karate where competing isn't everything – by introducing Zack to the sport and practising with him, even crosstraining with Trini, he's becoming more interested in teaching. And by teaching, he learns. Which is all to the good, as far as I'm concerned."

"I must admit, I was a bit worried when my Kimberly started hanging out with the boys," Melissa Hart blushed slightly. Her hands folded around her coffee cup before she could bring herself to meet the eyes of the parents in question. "I won't let her date yet, not as a couple anyway, and ever since she made the cheerleading squad, sometimes all she could talk about was which boy was cute, what made her look best … but Jason, Zack and Billy won't play those games with her. To them, she's just a person first, a girl later. And they don't exactly treat her like a baby sister, either, like her brother does."

"No, they let her boss them around," Liz laughed. "You should see her with Jason sometimes; big and strong as he is, when Kim gets a bee in her bonnet about something he's done, or what she thinks he should do, he doesn't stand a chance!"

"Really? Whenever they're at our house, all three are perfect gentlemen towards Trini and Kimberly … even if they tease them awfully at times." Melissa had to suppress a smile herself. "But the point I was trying to make … my daughter is learning that not every good-looking boy is there for her personal amusement, that having brains doesn't mean a person is not worth knowing, and that 'being popular' is not the be-all and end-all of her school days. I'm very glad she can be friends with nice, normal boys first before romance enters the picture."

There were agreeing nods all around, as the four mothers sat with Billy's father, each contemplating what had been shared just now. Mutual benefits indeed.

"I'd say the same holds true for our sons as well," Henry said hesitantly, feeling his way through a potential minefield he really hadn't wanted to see for several years yet. "I mean, the boys learn that it is possible to be friends with a girl or two without behaving like bantam cocks in the henhouse … that not every girl is … well … a lust object," he stammered, blushing painfully. "If you know what I'm getting at …"

"We do," Liz consoled him. "I've already noticed Jason ogling pictures of actresses or singers here or there – which is perfectly natural for a boy his age. The less clothes they're wearing, the better. But it does him a world of good to have Kim and Trini burst one or two of his bubbles when they point out all the little tricks the ladies in question are using to look the way they do on the photo shoots. Too bad that he gets his illusions shattered so thoroughly," Liz added with a patently false pious expression, making the others chuckle with the kind of fiendish delight only parents of very young teenagers are able to share.


The laughter drew the attention of the frisbee players who spontaneously decided they were getting too hungry to play any longer, and soon a noisy group of nine parents and five children was gathered around the picnic area, doling out food and soft drinks while the birthday boy divided his attention between his heaped plate and the presents his friends had chosen for him. A paperback science fiction novel from Jason, a personally-recorded tape with music Billy had professed to like from Zack, a book with science puzzles from Trini, and a set of pens, rulers, erasers and other writing paraphernalia for his experiments from Kimberly. Not a single gift was very expensive, but had been chosen with care and with regard to his special interests  -- which made them more special to him than even the elaborate bicycle his father had bought him so he could keep up with his friends.

There was much laughter as the families got to know each other – not only whenever their children dropped by at the respective houses, but also the adults among themselves. To their delighted surprise, they found that even they shared interests and many thought that it might be well worthwhile to cultivate these new relationships, for any number of reasons. Some of those were maybe a tad selfish … Mike Hart was sure he wasn't the only one who thought that Jeff Scott's construction business might give him an in with various workmen he might need someday, or followed Marsha Taylor's train of thought that Janice Kwan, manager of a homeopathic store, might be useful to know in case someone got sick. However, that counted little in the face of their children's obvious enjoyment.

"This was my best birthday ever," Billy beamed with shining eyes as even the generous amounts of food prepared by his friends' mothers began to dwindle. "I am extremely grateful for the efforts everyone present has extended, from procuring and preparing nourishment to assisting in entertaining my associates and myself!"

There was a brief moment of silence. Eight of the adults were trying to puzzle their way through the boy's statement, Henry Cranston was at a loss of how to make his son's words understandable without embarrassing him too much, when the children neatly solved the dilemma.

"Billy!" Zack groaned exaggeratedly. "English, man!"

"Yeah, you promised," Kim added, bopping him on the arm with a flickering gesture. "Sheesh!"

Jason laughed at Billy's chagrined expression. "Good thing you have your personal translator around," he jibed good-naturedly. "Trini?"

The slender Asian girl shook her head at Billy, who ducked. But his smile echoed hers as he apologized easily. "Sorry. I forgot."

Rolling her eyes heavenward, Trini ignored Kim's giggle as she reformulated. "He says thanks for the food and for playing with us."

"Oh. I knew that," Bob Taylor said with a straight face, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses.

"Sure you did," George Kwan muttered. "Just like you could catch that frisbee before it landed in the trees." He grinned. "Good thing Jeff here can climb so well!"

"Yeah," Mike laughed. "All I could think of was calling the fire department!"

"You wouldn't have!" Melissa gasped, and when her husband looked only marginally guilty as he nodded, she started scolding him and everybody else – only to find that nobody took her seriously. She pretended to be insulted, which was thoroughly spoiled as she surreptitiously placed a large brownie on her husband's plate. At long last the whole argument ended in general laughter, to which the five children listened with barely-concealed amusement. Feeling smugly superior, they took their sodas to a separate table, leaving the adults to their conversation as they talked about their plans for the weekend, the next week, spring, summer …


When the April sun was setting over the lake, everybody helped gather their trash and the supplies, packing and foil-wrapping as best they could while sorting out which items would go back to what household. Talk somehow had meandered back to the circumstances under which the five children had first met, and while he was loading utensils and plastic containers into a large carrybox, Bob Taylor winked at the youngsters as they handed him his belongings.

"Well, kids … have you ever thought about which particular crime somebody has to commit to be admitted into your little misfit convention?" He waggled his eyebrows comically. The five blushed; they were able to laugh about things now, but it was still a pretty sore point for all of them. Pretending not to notice, Bob started to enumerate.

"Here's my little thug," he cuffed Zack lightly on the shoulder, who scowled at his father, "helping the junkie stack tupperware." He grinned at Trini, who faked a smile. She still hated the expression, but knew Zack's father didn't mean any harm, so she kept silent. "The slacker is counting forks," an ironic bow towards Billy, who had to fight the temptation to stick out his tongue. "And the bully is carrying trash produced by-"

"Bob!" He was interrupted sharply by Marsha. "Watch it!" She'd seen the rebellious look enter Kim's eyes, Jason didn't seem too happy about the epithet, either, and she didn't want the day's good mood to end on a discordant note.

Bob acknowledged her warning with a quick smile and nod. "I was going to say our junior Gypsy Rose Lee," he bowed to the petite girl, who pouted, but didn't comment. One storm successfully averted! However, none of the children answered right away. Jeff Scott took pity on Bob at last, seeing that the other man was starting to feel a tad hot around the collar.

"It's a legitimate question," he remarked casually, telling Jason with a look to keep his temper under control. The boy obeyed with a hidden grimace. "We know you kids are not at all like you appeared at first." Jeff soothed the obviously ruffled feathers with a wink and a grin of his own. "But just for the sake of argument … let's say there was another kid who wanted to be friends with all of you, and to be that, he or she had to do something apparently bad, like you did … what would it be? I mean, among the five of you, you already have covered most major schoolyard crimes," he laughed.

He succeeded in lightening the atmosphere. Smooth teenaged foreheads wrinkled in thought while the cleanup progressed. Trini was the first to venture an opinion.

"The only thing I can think of that none of us was accused of is stealing," she mused, "and I doubt I'd want to be friends with someone who took something that doesn't belong to them – whether intentionally or not."

"Yeah," Kimberly chimed in. "And being really rude isn't exactly right, either – because that's, like, something what people don't just do for a lark, is it?"

"No. It has to be something more serious," Billy agreed. "What else is there, though?"

Jason suddenly grinned. Taking pains to be out of reach of his father's hands, he barely suppressed a wicked chuckle. "Oh, I dunno. There's still a couple things left we didn't do …"

"Like what?" Zack challenged him, his dark eyes beginning to dance as well as an idea occurred to him. *Kim is so easy to tease!*

Jason shrugged with pretend nonchalance. "Well, trying to kill us is one – and the other would be to go for world domination," he amended hastily, as Liz glared a warning at him. "Really, Mom – how likely is that going to happen?" the boy demanded to know. "About as much as Trini trying to deal drugs!"

"Hmph. Maybe. But watch it, young man," Mrs Scott accepted the dubious humor with a scowl. "That's not very funny."

"But this is," irrepressible Zack announced with his most angelic expression. The others glanced at him curiously. They already were quite familiar with that look, and it usually meant one of them was in for a major tease. Zack skilfully drew out the suspense by pretending to hesitate. Finally, Billy caved in and posed the question he knew Zack was waiting for.

"What is?"

The dark-skinned boy polished his nails on his tee-shirt. "Oh, nothing much," he drawled, winking at Jason. "I was just thinking … if it's a guy, his unforgivable sin could be that … he'd try dating Kimberly!"

There was an outraged squeal from the petite gymnast as the others broke into startled laughter. Knowing what was good for him, Zack dashed off at high speed, Kimberly chasing after him.


"As it turned out, I did all three," Tommy sighed comically as the Gold Ranger finished his tale. Rocky, Kat, Tanya and Adam regarded Jason and Billy with wide incredulous eyes.

"Hey, we loved you anyway," Jason elbowed his best friend. "Besides, you weren't responsible for the first two things; Rita made you do it."

"But at least technically it fulfilled the perquisite for Tommy to join our 'misfit convention', as Zack's father called it," Billy commented. He deemed it better not to dwell on Tommy's recently terminated relationship with the first Pink Ranger; that wound was still too fresh.

"You're kidding," Rocky finally gasped. "Detention? YOU?!?"

The two senior members of the Rangers shared a wry smile. They'd known Tanya's innocent question would elicit this response.

"At least we weren't always the 'goody-two-shoes squad' Bulk and Skull thought we were," Jason said lightly. In retrospect, the sheer incongruity was pretty funny. They'd all come such a long way since then … even the bumbling duo had grown beyond their Junior High personas.

"I'll say," Kat chuckled. "But still … who'd have thought it?" She found the idea of her friends once having been labeled as delinquents highly amusing – especially as nobody who knew Jason, Billy or Kimberly nowadays would EVER think of them as other than the very embodiment of what was good and proper. "The Power Rangers in Remedial Classes!"

"The mind boggles," Adam muttered, causing everybody to snicker.

"It explains a lot, though," Tanya shook her head in wonder. "I mean, you guys are all so different … on the surface, you seem to have absolutely nothing in common, and I couldn't help wondering how you got to be friends before Zordon picked you to be Rangers."

"Well, it certainly took some time," Jason admitted. "What I've given you was just the Reader's Digest version. But at least it got us together and laid the groundworks."

"And a very solid foundation it turned out to be, too," Billy agreed. "And I for one am glad it happened – even if you all scared me half to death at first." He could admit as much now, six years after the fact. And he had his friends to thank for giving him the self-confidence to do so.

Adam laughed suddenly. Leaning back in his chair, he looked at each of his friends in turn.

"I was just thinking … how do the rest of us fit in, then? The delinquency stuff, I mean. Just look at us ... Kat's easy – same reasons as Tommy," he enumerated. "Aisha could get awfully bossy – remember when she was elected the school's fire captain?" Rocky groaned dramatically while Billy and Tommy laughed. Another story to share, with Jason, Kat and Tanya this time.

"Rocky used to be a prankster," Adam said next, dodging his longtime friend's swat with a skill born of much practice. The Blue Ranger mock-growled.

"Which leaves Tanya and you. And we'll find something to qualify you two," he threatened amidst much laughter. Every single suggestion Rocky made was shot down, however, frustrating him no end. He was only marginally satisfied when the group accepted Tanya's choice of Shawn as her first boyfriend as sufficient reason. It seemed impossible, however, to find anything that would include Adam under the category of 'reformed character'. The Green Ranger grinned smugly.

"I'm the original good guy," he gloated. "No skeletons in my closet!"

"Yeah, right. Not! I'll find something – eventually," Rocky promised, ignoring the good-natured jibes the others directed at him. "Even if it takes me until graduation!"

Just then, seven communicators chimed almost in unison. Chairs were pushed back, and the teens left the Youth Center to find a safe place to teleport to the Power Chamber – duty called, and waited for no-one. However, just as beams of multicoloured light shot skywards, Rocky's slightly desperate voice could be heard as he addressed Adam one last time before dematerialising completely.

"You look lousy in green. Does that count?"

The End.