All  standard disclaimers in part one.

Casting Stones Part Three

By: Dagmar Buse

"Jason, are you finished with that bookcase yet?" Kat called over the soft sound of her favorite CD. She had washed the last of the good stemware and was carefully arranging it in a glass cabinet the senior Scotts had given them when they'd moved in. She stepped back and admired the way the autumn sun caught the facets in the sparkling crystal; they'd been right to move the cabinet from beside the door next to the stereo.


There still was no answer. After two days of moving furniture, unpacking and storing, both Kat and Jason were heartily sick of the whole affair, especially since Kat could not pull her full weight with lifting and moving heavy things. Their parents had helped as much as possible, but the distribution of their belongings had to be done by themselves for greatest ease. Now only their books needed to be unpacked; the last two crates sat stacked against the wall, waiting for Jason to finish reassembling the large bookcase he'd had at his bachelor lodgings. It was supposed to go between the two windows overlooking a small lawn with benches and flowerbeds; while it wasn't the more lavish view of the park Kat had enjoyed from her old apartment, it was still pleasant. The mountains made a nice backdrop in the far distance, too. Kat was waiting with a bottle of lemon-scented polish to rub down the shelves once more -- after nearly three months of being stored in pieces in the Scotts' garage, a simple washing just wasn't going to be enough.

Kat closed the glass doors of the cabinet and stretched a bit; her back complained more than usual about her activities today. Well, she had been rather busy; maybe later tonight she could take a nice, relaxing bath and persuade Jason to give her another backrub; she always slept better after receiving one.

Thinking of that brought her mind back to her errant husband; what was taking him so long? If he needed a hand, he would've called; Jason wasn't so macho as to insist on doing things alone that needed another pair of hands.

Kat wandered into the small hallway and made her way to the empty room where the nursery was supposed to go; there was no need to furnish it quite yet, and they used it as extra space to work in until everything else was in its proper place. The only thing already finished were the white wa lls with their hand-stencilled border of animals reaching from the floor to about waist-height -- perfect for a small child to look at. Jason had grinned in delight when Kat had worked a red T-Rex among the bunnies, cats and horsies; there was a black mastodon among the cows and both a red and a green dragon were cavorting among the flying ducks and geese. All the animals representing the Ranger teams -- from Dino through Thunder up to Ninja -- could be found, as well as the six Zeo symbols if one knew what to look for. It had taken her the better part of the last two weekends, but the effect was charming and unusual.

As she pushed the door open, Kat felt the baby shift within her, and as always she paused and had to smile. Ever since that first time the day before yesterday, she had been filled with a quiet serenity that was a welcome change from the unease of the weeks before. And Jason seemingly couldn't keep his hands off her; he tried to touch the growing bulge of her stomach every chance he got, waiting for movement inside. Now, however, Kat saw him crouching among several planks of blond wood, only two already fitted together properly. Jason absently smoothed his hand over another board, the plastic container with screws and nails lying on its side before him, the contents spilled. He didn't look up at her entrance; actually, he didn't seem to notice her presence at all.

"Jason?" she asked once more, stepping into the airy but empty room. They needed to go looking for baby furniture soon, if they wanted it delivered right after the new year, she thought absently. "Didn't you hear me?"


Jason looked up with a start, then blushed slightly as he saw Kat only a few feet away from him. He bent immediately back to the boards he was assembling, fumbling for the screwdriver and another screw, but not before Kat had seen the sad shadows haunting his eyes. Slowly, she crossed the remaining distance and sank to her knees as gracefully as she could with her swelling stomach. She stilled his suddenly unsteady hands with one of her own.

"What is it?" They'd grown closer ever since that moment when they'd experienced the first movements of their child together, no longer trying to maintain a certain distance.

"Nothing," Jason mumbled, not meeting his wife's eyes, but not terribly surprised when Kat snorted lightly.

"Yeah, right. What's bothering you?" Kat asked outright, in a no-nonsense, don't-give-me-that tone. For all her soft-spokenness, there was nothing meek about Katherine Hillard Scott, and sometimes she managed to catch even her family and friends by surprise when she let her backbone show. He smiled sheepishly.

"Nothing's bothering me, exactly," he said after a moment's pause. "It's just ... I was trying to sort the boards in the proper order when I accidentally tipped the can with the screws," Jason admitted, pointing to the spilled bits of metal. "The same thing happened when I first bought the bookcase; Tommy and Rocky were helping me set it up, and we were just sort of horsing around when one of us -- I don't even remember who it was, exactly -- kicked over the box they'd come in, and they scattered all over the place. The three of us had one devil of a time collecting them all, especially on the patterened carpet I had ..." the deep voice trailed off, and Kat had to swallow, hard.

It was precisely the sort of easy camaraderie with their friends that was missing from their lives now, and she knew exactly why Jason had become lost in his memories. And what had brought the misery into his expression. Tentatively, she reached out once more, touching her husband's shoulder in a brief gesture meant to comfort.

"I understand," was all she could say, though. She missed Tanya dreadfully as well, but normally it was Jason who consoled her and helped her over the rough spots. He tried to shield her from his own sense of loss at their friends' withdrawal as much as possible, so it was easy for her to forget most of the time that she wasn't the only one suffering from their isolation. This was just as hard on Jason as it was on her.

The two shared a tentative smile. Their relationship still was somewhat strained, and fragile despite their friendship, and even after nearly two months of marriage it wasn't easy to cope with their altered circumstances. Then, Kat visibly collected herself. Better to change the subject before they got completely maudlin on each other.

"I'm finished with the cabinet. Everything else has been unpacked, washed and stowed except for those two crates of books, and we need this thing for that."

"Give me half an hour, and I"ll have it ready for you," Jason promised, scooping up the spilled screws and nuts and reaching for his screwdriver once more. Deliberately, he closed his mind to memories of his friends and the fun they'd shared once, in what now seemed like another lifetime. He cast a glance at Kat and her slightly exhausted expression. "Why don't you make us some tea, or fix cold drinks, get out some of the cookies I know Mom left for us and put your feet up? You look like you could need the rest," he suggested quietly as he expertly joined a second board to the frame structure.

For a moment, Kat was tempted to accept, then she noted that Jason's eyes were shadowed with more than memories; he'd worked hard these last few days, and even his great strength was beginning to wane. Their fathers had helped as much as they could, but a lot of the sheer bulk of physical work had fallen to Jason ... or he'd taken it on himself. No matter; it was enough for the young woman to reach for the next shelf, lifting it in position to be fastened.

"Why don't I give you a hand with this, and we'll take that break together?" she retorted, grinning slightly at the surprised look Jason gave her.

"I don't want you to overtax yourself ..." he began, but Kat mock-glared him into silence.

"I'm pregnant, not decrepit. These boards aren't made out of stone, you know; I'm still carrying grocery bags which are heavier than these. But if you insist, you can sort in all the books by yourself once we're done. Alphabetically and according to size."

Jason groaned in pretend horror, but gave in gracefully enough. Truth be told, he enjoyed having Kat around and doing things  together with her; the light banter they exchanged while reassembling the bookcase was far better than getting lost in his memories of shared work with his best friend again. Besides, he'd be done more quickly with another pair of hands.

"That's it," he declared some time later, rattling the completed bookcase slightly to test its stability. "Thanks for your help, kitten; I think I would've needed it anyway." Kat curtsied slightly, a satisfied smile playing around her lips. All that remained to be done now was to polish the light wood, sort in the books, hang the last few pictures and their apartment would be finished. But, she was more than ready for a break. Together, the young couple made their way to the living room where she sank onto the couch with a satisfied groan.

"Give me a minute, and I'll put on the tea," she murmured, rolling her shoulders to work a few of the kinks out.

Before Jason could answer, the doorbell rang. He exchanged a puzzled glance with Kat. It was Sunday afternoon; hardly anyone knew they'd moved, and their folks had left shortly after lunch. Who could that be? Shrugging, Jason went to answer the door while Kat enjoyed a few more moments of her comfortable sprawl before she heaved herself to her feet again. She quickly looked around critically. Except for the two book crates near the far wall, the room was fit for company. Besides, they'd only just moved in. So what if not everything was perfectly placed?

She heard the hallway door open, muffled voices say something, then Jason ushered their visitors inside. His face was expressionless as he announced their presence.

" Look who's come, Kat."

The blonde stiffened slightly as she recognized the man and woman entering the room.

"Trini; Zack."

"In the flesh," the young Asian woman smiled. She handed Katherine a prettily-wrapped parcel. "For your new home; may you never run out of these while living here."

Puzzled, Kat accepted the present. Jason only shrugged at her questioning glance, then helped Trini out of her coat. While her husband hung it up in the hallway closet and disappeared in the kitchen to put on the tea kettle, the Australian motioned their unexpected guests to sit. They exchanged idle chitchat for some time -- mostly 'how have you been/what were you up to' kind of information. Kat had never been all that close to the first Yellow and Black Rangers, although they'd met before; Trini and Zack had always been more Jason's friends than hers, while she and Tommy had tended to hang out more with the Zeo/Turbo team members.

The tea kettle whistled, and Jason excused himself to vanish into the kitchen. The sudden silence between Kat and their visitors threatened to become awkward, and to cover it, Kat reached for the present Trini had given her and undid the bright bow. Just as Jason returned with a tray of mugs, steaming teapot, lemon juice, sugar and cream, she lifted a cotton-cloth bag with a drawstring out of the box. There was a strip sewn on with the word "Bread" embroidered in antique script, and as she opened the drawstring, Kat found a fresh loaf of home-baked bread inside. Thoroughly mystified, she next picked up a packet of salt crystals, together with a pepper-and-salt mill set. The last item was a pretty picture frame that held exactly $3.82 -- two each of crisp new one-dollar notes, shin y 50-cent coins, quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. Trini had arranged the money so that both faces were shown against a background of dark blue.

"It's a custom a delegate from Austria explained to me at the Peace Conference," Trini explained. "It\rquote s a very old tradition in the Germanic countries, and represents the essentials a household needed in the old times."

"Of course," Kat realized, a delighted smile spreading over her face. "Money, food and a little bit of both luxury and preservation, symbolized by the salt. It's lovely, Trini -- thank you very much."

"We didn't know what else you might need for your household, so Trini remembered this custom," Zack grinned. "It seemed ... fitting."

"It's a great thought," Jason agreed. "But, how did you know we'd already moved, and ... what brings you here? I'd written both of you months ago!" He hadn't meant to be so blunt, but the question just slipped out; he'd puzzled often enough about his old friends' silence. Kim's terse note conveying her disapproval hadn't been unexpected, given her attitude towards Tommy, but he'd hoped Trini and Zack would at least acknowledge his message.

"I've been back East all summer," Zack apologized. "I got your letter just as I was about to leave, and didn't want to say something in haste we all would regret later."

"And I wanted to talk to Zack before I saw you," the petite Asian added quietly. While there was no apparent censure in her voice, the implied hesitancy was enough to make all four young people fall silent. Kat once more felt a rush of tears come on, but determinedly fought it down. A quick glance at her husband showed her that Jason had gone pale under his tan, and that he was bracing himself as if preparing for a blow. He didn't need her falling apart on him.

"You two messed up big time," Zack said finally, coming directly to the point. Before either Jason or Kat could react, he held up a hand to forestall any comment. "Trini and I talked this over, and we're more or less of the same opinion. I'm only going to mention this once ... and please, listen to what we're going to say before you answer, okay?" The dark-skinned man had seldom sounded so serious. Drawing a deep breath, he continued.

"The way you told it in your letter, Jase, the two of you never meant to do anything to hurt Tommy or anyone else. Well, for the record, I -- we -- believe you. You're just not the kind of person to deliberately do something like that to anybody." He met both Jason and Ka's eyes unflinchingly.

"That goes for you, too, Katherine," Trini added with a slight smile. "While we haven't known each other that well or that long, I've always had the impression of you that you're a decent, caring person. Besides, I doubt Kim would have selected you as her successor or Zordon have approved you if it were different."

Despite the situation, Kat found herself blushing lightly with pleasure at the compliment. However, Zack wasn't finished with what he wanted to say.

"So the two of you made a mistake. Okay. We all have, every now and then, and we probably will again. That's part of being Human. Sure, not all of them reach quite the proportion of yours," he grinned slightly to take some of the sting away, "but that's no reason for me -- Trini and me -- to stop being friends with you."

"Being friends means that we stand by each other, even if someone does something wrong," Trini continued. "So, while we can't pretend to understand what went wrong, Zack and I think that since it happened at all and can't be undone, all we can do now is pick up the pieces and go on from here. Together -- as friends, as always. If you want us to, that is."

"Want you to?" Jason managed to say, almost choked up with relief.  "Guys, if you only knew what this means to us ...!"

" I ... oh God, I ..." Kat lost it then after all. Her tears spilled over and she turned away, sniffling, only to find herself gathered in a friendly hug by Trini, who pressed a tissue into her hand. This was so much more than they had anticipated after the long silence from Jason's oldest friends, that it was almost too much to bear.

"I can imagine," Trini said in her calm manner, her understanding look both enveloping Kat and Jason. "Has anyone of the gang been there for you at all?"

"Tanya was here a couple of weeks ago," Kat gulped, groping for composure. "She says she still wants to be my friend, but since Adam is pretty upset with us, she can't go completely against his wishes. Rocky ...."

"Rocky's on Tommy's side, and so is Kimberly," Jason added somberly. "Billy's been out of the loop since he went to Aquitar and the Power Chamber's been destroyed, and contact with Aisha is so rare, she might as well have gone to another planet, too. It's not her fault, really, but ... we don't even know if she's received Kat's message yet."

The two visitors nodded in comprehension. While everybody regretted the absence of their friends, it was nothing they could change. Sometimes, life just turned out that way.

"About as we expected," Zack said after exchanging a glance with Trini. "Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, the subject of what happened is now  closed."

"Right," Trini agreed. "We have to look forward, not back. What's done is done, and I hope that eventually everything will resolve itself so that we can all live with each other again."

"I hope so, too," Kat said fervently, summoning a grateful smile for the two former Rangers. She felt Jason reach for her hand and she laced her fingers with his, finding comfort in the familiar contact. The four sat silently for a while, sipping their tea and lost in their respective thoughts. At last, Zack bounced up in his characteristic manner and punched Jason lightly in the shoulder.

"Well, now that that's out of the way, is there anything we can help you with? We may no longer live in Angel Grove, but as long as we're here, you might as well make the most of it."

Grateful for the change in subject, Jason grinned at his old friend as he got up too and dragged him towards the hallway.

"Since you're here, you can help me carry a bookcase from the nursery to over there," he said, pointing. "I could use some more muscle."

"So the only thing you need me for is my brawn, huh?" Zack teased, but followed Jason out of the room willingly enough. The two women smiled at the banter floating back to them, interspersed with some creative cursing as the two young men maneuvered the large, unwieldy piece of furniture into place. Trini gave Kat a hand in rubbing down the shelves, and the four of them soon were engaged in unpacking and sorting the books. What would have taken Jason and Kat the bulk of the afternoon and early evening on their own was now completed within a couple of hours. Afterwards, they even hung up the pictures that had been left for a later day, thus sparing Kat a lot of time standing on her feet or climbing up a ladder -- not a good idea in her condition.

As the sun had set behind the mountains and the living room was bathed in soft lamplight, the four friends ordered takeout and relaxed in the congenial atmosphere. After removing the dishes to the kitchen, Trini looked approvingly around the apartment as she reentered the living room. Kat had chosen mostly earth tones to decorate; the off-white walls, pine and rattan furniture and the light-grey carpet were livened up by muted blues of curtains and lampshades. Throw pillows in a soft vanilla yellow brought a splash of sunshiny color to the decor, and toned down the French Provincial floral pattern of Kat's old couch and armchairs. The rust color of Jason's comfortable lounge chair was picked up by terracotta pots and a few other accessories, and the whole atmosphere was a pleasing blend of Jason's more rugged pine furniture and Kat's feminine knickknacks, suiting both quite well.

"I really like what you've done here," the first Yellow Ranger commented. "It's lovely; all it needs now are some plants."

"They're still at my folks'," Kat replied, pleased. "We'll get them next week."

"Good," Zack agreed with a mischievous grin. "We were afraid to come into the color clash to end all color clashes -- bright red and pink, accented by black and gold."

"Oh God, no!" Kat shuddered. The vision was too horrible to contemplate for long.

"You know, I've often wondered what would've happened if we'd been wearing different colors that day when Zordon first picked us," Trini mused. "I know I've worn yellow before, but never to the exclusion of almost all other colors."

"Uh huh," Jason nodded. "After we'd been given our Ranger Powers, I"ve found myself almost unable to wear anything  but red. I felt totally uncomfortable if didn't have at least one piece of red clothing on me somewhere -- even if it was just underwear. It drove my mom completely nuts -- she either had to constantly wash my shirts and stuff, or she was wondering why I suddenly started buying a lot of red duds."

"You mean, it was like a compulsion?" Kat wondered."I never really noticed since I've always worn lots of pink ever since I was a little girl; becoming the Pink Ranger seemed to be perfectly natural."

"Just think, you might have been the Purple Ranger, Zack," Trini giggled. "If you'd been wearing that tie-dye shirt you had the day Rita escaped ...!"

Jason groaned.

"Don't remind me! If we'd been on the sports field instead of the Youth Center, we guys could all have been wearing our soccer jerseys -- bright yellow and purple!"

"Or the football uniforms -- blue and silver," Zack snickered. "Well, at least Billy would still have been the Blue Ranger; did he ever wear anything but those terrible overalls in those days?"

The four lost themselves in reflections about possible different color schemes for the Rangers for a while, then ranging from one conversational topic to the next and generally having a good time until it was time for Zack and Trini to leave. They were both staying with their families for the night, but intended to leave very early to return to their homes in San Diego and Berkeley, respectively. Kat and Jason watched them go with mingled feelings of delight and relief.

"Seems like we have at least some friends left," Jason remarked as he helped Kat clear the glasses and leftover snacks from the living room.

"At least you have," she commented a bit sadly. Jason stopped what he was doing and took Kat in his arms. Tilting her face up to his, he kissed her on the tip of her nose and smiled encouragingly.

"They're perfectly willing to be your friends as well, if you let them, Kat," he reassured his wife.

"I know. It's just ... I can't help but wish that my teammates could've been as accepting as Trini and Zack," she whispered, unable to stop a lone tear from rolling down her cheek. Jason brushed the liquid diamond drop away with his thumb and hugged her close. Burying his face in the silvery locks, he offered what comfort he could.

"At least it's a beginning, kitten," Jason murmured huskily. "First Tanya, now Trini and Zack ... maybe in time, we'll get our friends back."

"I miss them," Kat sighed as she leaned against Jason's solid chest. The long day with its surprise ending had sapped her strength."All of them."

"So do I, but we can't give up hope. Not now."

Both knew that Tommy's name hovered unspoken between them, but in silent agreement they didn't mention it. The peace they'd found with each other this weekend was still too new, too fragile to cope with a third presence in their relationship.

"Is there? Hope, I mean?" Kat asked wistfully as she followed Jason into their bedroom.

"There's always hope. We're Power Rangers -- or were, in any case. With the Rangers, anything's possible. We just have to believe."

"If you can, then I can too," the young woman smiled bravely. Jason returned the sentiment by pulling Kat into his arms once they were under the covers. Holding her close, he soothingly stroked her back until he felt the slim body relax in sleep next to him, but despite his earlier words it was a long time until he was able to follow suit.


Kat carefully wove her way through the throngs of last-minute Christmas shoppers. It was mid-morning on Christmas Eve, and she wouldn't have braved the crowds at the Mall if she hadn't had a phone call just this morning that the last of her presents for Jason had been finished in time after all. Since she'd custom-ordered the black belt to be embroidered with Jason's name, she decided it was worth the effort and had slowly wandered to th e sporting goods store to collect it. Despite taking her time -- Jason was having a Christmas celebration for the youngest kids at his dojo, complete with Santa Claus, cookies and hot drinks and wouldn't be home before mid-afternoon -- she was getting tired; it was no fun being nearly seven months pregnant and having to work full-time, both at the ballet school and at home. Her feet were swollen and ached, comfortable shoes notwithstanding, and her belly always seemed to get in the way whenever she turned. But now she was finished; the narrow strip of black silk was stowed at the bottom of her large purse, already packed and decorated in red rice paper.

Kat slowly walked towards the escalators. She'd also purchased a few delicacies for Christmas Day breakfast; while the Scotts had invited them and Kat's parents for a traditional American Christmas dinner, the younger couple wanted to start the day somewhat specially for themselves as well. After all, with a baby on the way, they couldn't a fford to go out to dinner very often even though they were both working. Said baby made its presence known with a stronger than usual kick, catching Kat by surprise. Wincing a little, she became aware that she'd been on her feet longer than she'd thought she would be; some of the lines at the various counters had been rather long.

The mother-to-be checked her watch. *There's time yet; Jason won't be back for a while, so it won't matter if I have a hot chocolate before I head back home .* There was a small café right across the floor, and Kat saw that a few kids were just about to vacate a table. *Perfect! Now if I can only make it there before someone else comes ...* With a little more haste than her condition properly allowed, Kat carefully but determinedly pushed her way through the shopping crowds, intent only on reaching the small table. That was how she managed to overlook the middle-aged woman backing out of a bakery, still talking to the clerk holding the door open for her. The two inadvertantly collided; the older woman nearly let her carton of cake drop and Kat just barely managed not to stumble, catching herself on the stranger's arm.

"I'm terribly sorry, I didn't mean to ..." --- "Oh my goodness, are you all right? Have you ..."

Both women started to apologize simultaneously, and both broke off whatever they were going to say as soon as they got a good look at the other. Kat felt the blood drain from her cheeks in an inexorable rush as she straightened and balanced herself. Swallowing hard, she forced a name past her suddenly constricted throat.

"Mrs. Oliver."

It used to have been "Rachel", but Kat wasn't brave enough to address Tommy's mother so familiarly. Not anymore.


The older woman's normally cheerful voice was devoid of emotion, but the look she swept up and down Kat's form, lingering longest on her by-now rather prominent belly, was speaking volumes -- none of them friendly or even charitable. Had she been able, Kat would've sunk into a hole in the ground. She had always enjoyed a warm camaraderie with Tommy's mother, often meeting her for plain companionship even when Tommy wasn't around, but had lost all contact with her right after the breakup. Small wonder, really, considering how much Rachel Oliver loved and cared for her adopted son. It was that which made the usually friendly hazel eyes icy and full of contempt, an expression that sent cold shivers down Kat's spine.

"Is the child hurt in any way?"

The child; not 'are you okay' or anything even remotely personal. Well, she didn't deserve it anyway, Kat thought, nearly overwhelmed with a fresh surge of guilt and shame -- emotions that had slowly faded into the backg round now that she and Jason were beginning to grow closer as they were getting closer to the birth of their baby.

"N-no, I'm fine," Kat stammered, her pallor making way for a blush that was painful in its intensity. She didn't know where to look, but something compelled her to continue meeting those cold, angry eyes.

"Well. In that case, good-bye. Merry Christmas."

"M-merry C-christmas," Kat whispered, flinching at the harshly-spoken holiday wish that sounded more like a condemnation to her ears than anything else. Blue eyes watched the retreating back until they became blurry with tears. The young woman stood motionless in the sea of shoppers, silvery rivulets streaming down her cheeks unnoticed, until a concerned young voice released her from her paralysis.

"Ma'am?" A hand touched her arm, shaking her carefully.


"Are you okay, ma'am?" A teenager stood before her, gazing at her with a mixture of curiosity and concern. "Can I help you with anything? Do you need to sit down?"

Kat mentally shook herself and dredged up a ghost of a smile. Stepping back from the helpful girl, she searched for and finally found her voice.

"No, but thank you. I'm all right."

"Are you sure, ma'am? Should I walk you to your car? Or maybe call a taxi?"

"That's unnecessary. Thank you," Kat reiterated. Before the helpful teen could say another word, she turned away and blindly walked towards the escalators, forgetting about her hot drink and retaining just enough presence of mind to watch her steps. Afterwards she couldn't say how she managed to get out of the mall, find her car and drive safely home without causing an accident, but somehow she did it. Letting herself into the apartment, she dropped her bags next to the door and trudged into the living room where she collapsed bonelessly on the couch. The sobs came then, wracking her body as all her pain and remorse that she had believed she'd overcome in recent weeks overwhelmed her again.

Tommy's mother ... a friend, despite the difference in their ages ... but no more. Kat shuddered. She would never have believed that someone as outgoing as Rachel could have expressed so much contempt and dislike with just a look and less than a dozen words. She felt like the lowest scum. The only times Kat could remember ever experiencing a similar rush of guilt was right after she'd shaken off Rita's spell ... and while confessing to Tommy she was carrying Jason's child.

*Jason! Oh my God ... he can't see me like this! He' s been looking forward to Christmas so much  ...*

Suddenly frantic, Kat checked the time. Her husband would be home within the hour; as fast as possible, she pushed her roiling emotions to the back of her mind and proceeded to hide the evidence of her crying jag along with the small rectangular box she'd so proudly collected only a few short hours ago. When Jason came home, full of Christmas cheer and showed off the poster the youngest kids had painted for his office, Kat was able to comment appropriately, hiding under a mask of forced gaiety. For once, Jason was less perceptive than usual, not picking up on her tension and strained mood. Although that was precisely the effect Kat had hoped to achieve, irrationally it made her edgy and irritable. She hid that as well, and the two spent a quiet evening watching old Christmas specials on TV while they wrapped the presents they'd bought for their families.

At long last, it was time to call it a night. Kat's facial muscles hurt from forcing a smile, but as she lay in the darkness listening to Jason's even breaths as he slept peacefully beside her, the tears came again as she involuntarily recalled Rachel's look. Not even Tanya's phonecall earlier, Trini's funny Christmas card or the fact that Aisha had finally been heard from, cautiously pledging her support to Kat, had been able to make her forget; if anything, they had brought back the feelings of isolation and resentment she'd thought she'd learned to overcome. Sighing, the blonde crept out of bed and back into the living room. Fetching a blanket from the hallway closet, Kat curled up miserably on the couch, staring unseeingly at the gaily-decorated Christmas tree with its twinkling white lights as the night crawled towards morning at a snail's pace.


"Merry Christmas, kitten!"

Kat moaned as she burrowed deeper into her blankets; she'd sat up until the first rays of dawn had appeared over the mountains, and only the cold had driven her back to bed. Her eyes were swollen from the tears she'd shed intermittently throughout the night, and gritty with fatigue.

"Wake up, sleepyhead; Santa Claus was here and left a present or two for us!"

The insanely cheerful voice of her oblivious husband instantly set Kat's teeth on edge. She didn't  care if Santa, the eight reindeer and all his elves did a striptease right on their coffee table, she wanted -- needed -- more sleep before she could face the world! What time was it, anyway?

"Go 'way," she muttered as she tried to draw her blanket over her head in an attempt to block out the morning light. However, Jason wouldn't let her; instead, he sat down next to her and lifted the fluffy covers to plant a teasing kiss on her cheek. Kat frowned; she wasn't in the mood for this -- couldn't he see?

Apparently not; the insensitive clod had the audacity to yank the warm cocoon open and pull her into his arms. It was all Kat could do not to groan in annoyance. Laughing, Jason ruffled her long hair into an even bigger state of disarray. *I HATE that! I really do!*

" Jason...!" she growled warningly, trying to pry her sleep-heavy eyelids open.

"Come on, kitten, don't be such a grouch! It's Christmas, and I have a surprise for you. Please?"

Kat stifled another moan as she saw Jason's hopeful expression. The dark eyes were alight with anticipation, and despite her lingering misery, Kat couldn't quite bring herself to spoil his mood. Inhaling deeply to tamp down on her irritation, she summoned a smile for his benefit.

"Okay, okay, I'm coming. Just give me a second to wake up completely, will you?"

"Sure. Take your time; I'll wait for you by the tree, okay?"

"Hmm." Kat shivered in the morning coolness. It had taken her some time to get used to an unheated bedroom; in deference to her, Jason compromised by leaving the window closed at least in winter, but it was still a far cry from the snug warm bedroom of her single days. Her momentary good cheer evaporated again as she rummaged in her closet for a warm bathrobe. Pulling the pink garment over her flannel nightgown, Kat tightened the belt, stepped into her slippers and drew a brush perfunctorily through her mussed-up hair. Looking into the dresser mirror, she grimaced at the sight greeting her. Face pale, eyes red and puffy, a large belly poking out as if she'd swallowed a medicine ball ... truly a beautiful thing to behold first thing in the morning. *Yeah, right.*  Kat had never felt so much like a scrooge before.

"Christmas. Bah humbug," the young woman grumped. Tired and irritated as the memories of her nightly vigil came back, she impatiently turned away from her reflection. Casting a last, longing look at her bed, she slowly padded across the sand-colored carpet towards the living room. As Kat opened the door, her senses were assailed by several things at o nce. The tantalizing aroma of freshly-brewed coffee, pine, eggs and toast teased her nose as the cheery sounds of Christmas carols from the stereo reached her ears. Out of the corner of her eyes Kat noticed the sparkle and glitter of the red-and-gold baubles on the Christmas tree, and in the small dining nook, Jason stood, waiting for her with a broad smile as he gestured grandly towards the festively decorated table set for two.

"Merry Christmas, Kat."

Momentarily speechless, Kat stared at the place settings. Jason had gone all out -- a white tablecloth *My best damask! What has he done with it?* gathered up at the corners with two-inch-wide red bows *They' re crooked! Doesn't he know how to tie a proper bow?*, lots of fresh pine boughs, cones, small red apples, nuts and gold glitter scattered over the tabletop, and the flames of three fat, squat red candles reflected merrily from the sparkling crystal of her best wine glasses, which were filled with orange juice. White china and silver flatware were set off by green napkins, and Jason had arranged toast, butter, jam, honey, a jug of milk and four kinds of cereal within easy reach on a small side table he'd moved from beside the couch. It, too, was covered with ....

"My grandmother's lace cloth! Jason, are you out of your mind? That's a family heirloom!"

Kat quickly strode towards the side table. The delicate fabric would have pooled on the floor, since it was intended for a much larger table, but Jason had caught the excess length with another wide red bow and tied it around the center pedestal.

"Oh God, the cherry jam has dripped! I need to soak it right away before the stains settle ..!"

The young woman was about to remove all items to the floor when Jason caught her hands. Some of the joy had left his eyes as he gently admonished her.

"Kat .... kitten, can't it at least wait until after breakfast? The eggs and toast will get cold, and the coffee .."

"You know I don't eat scrambled eggs; they have way too much cholesterol." Kat cast a brief glance at the dish as she impatiently freed her hands. "They're swimming in fat, too; what did you do, use half the bottle of oil?" Jason recoiled slightly, taken aback by surprise, her uncharacteristic vehemence and her indifference to his efforts. Kat didn't notice; she was too intent on rescuing her precious tablecloth. Undeterred, she knelt and untied the satin ribbon, throwing it indifferently aside. Shoving the breakfast paraphernalia at Jason, who was hard-pressed to deposit them wherever he could, Kat inspected the delicate white material. Finding nothing but the dime-size red spot, she breathed a sigh of relief and awkwardly got up again.

"I think I can get it out," she announced, relieved, but Jason didn't react. Curious, Kat looked at him. He was still holding the last cereal box which had found no place on the now-crowded breakfast table. The lovingly if ineptly arranged decorations had had to be shoved aside helter-skelter as he had to find room for the things she'd thrust into his hands. She felt a momentary twinge of guilt, but dismissed it almost immediately. Kat yawned delicately. *I wonder -- if I have just a piece of toast, can I get back to bed?*


"Yeah," he sighed. Dredging up a smile that didn't reach his eyes, he held out a hand. "Why don't you take a seat, and I'll get the coffee?"

Another surge of unreasoning resentment rose in Kat, and she was unable to stop it. It made her reply sharper than necessary.

"You know I can't drink coffee. It's bad for the baby. So's this," she added as she discovered a French goat milk cheese among the other foodstuffs. Jason had recommended she try it as she went to London, and she"d developed a taste for the delicacy . Unfortunately, it was made out of raw, unpasteurized milk, and her doctor had warned her about that."And meringues? Jason, I can't have stuff made out of egg whites right now! You  know that!"

Her voice rose slightly, and Kat was aware of her growing hysteria; she knew she was handling this all wrong, knew that she should appreciate all the trouble Jason had gone to to surprise and pamper her, but she couldn't seem to help herself. Defiantly, she stood beside the dining table, refusing the seat her husband was offering.

"I'm sorry, I didn't think," Jason replied, his voice tight and controlled. He'd gotten up early this Christmas morning, leaving his wife sleeping quietly, and had arranged everything as best he knew how. That Kat had not spared a single thought for his efforts ... smarted. All she seemed to care about was that stupid tablecloth! So it had a stain -- what was the big deal? If necessary, they could take it to the cleaners ... "The coffee's decaf, by the way. I know at least that much."

"I don't like decaf; no matter what brand I buy, it always tastes bland and .... fake, somehow," Kat muttered in a surly voice, trying to control herself. Absently, her hands played with the evergreens and pine cones scattered on the table. As she shifted her weight, the sleeve of her terry robe brushed against one of the crystal goblets filled with juice. It wobbled slightly, and as she tried to catch it, she toppled it over completely. The delicate glass shattered on impact with the white plate, and bright yellow orange juice splattered all over the table. Kat let out a dismayed yelp.

"Oh no!" She jumped back involuntarily, bumping into the side table. It fell to the ground with a resounding crash, and as Kat instinctively reached out to save her lace cloth, it caught on a corner and tore with a rasping sound that seemed to fill the sudden silence left by the muted 'click' as the CD player turned itself off that very moment. Horrified, Kat stared at the now-ruined lace, at Jason, at the mess on the table and promptly burst into tears.

Sighing wearily, Jason drew her away from the small chaos and pressed her face into his shoulder. He held her as Kat cried noisily, like a little girl. He said nothing, just waited for her sobs to quiet down, as he surveyed the sorry remnants of what was supposed to be a cheerful Christmas brunch. All that time and effort wasted ... he'd gotten the idea from a woman's magazine one of his students had left at the dojo, and while he'd had no intention to buy the expensive decorations pictured in the layout, Jason had tried to duplicate it as best he could with what they had and a little ingenuity. Surprisingly, he'd had a lot of fun planning the small feast, buying the ribbons and napkins, setting the table ... and Kat hadn't even really looked at it. Now it was too late; everything was ruined. Jason swallowed a bitter laugh and a snide remark. Today was Christmas, their first as a married couple; he wanted to salvage as much of the holiday atmosphere as he could. He became aware that Kat was mumbling something through her tears, but it was muffled by his sweatshirt. He drew back slightly.


Kat sobbed again, and sniffled inelegantly; despite his disappointment and slight resentment at Kat's indifference towards his efforts, Jason had to grin at the watery sound. He gently lifted her tear-blotched face from his shoulder and tried to look into the stormy blue eyes. He had little success.

"I ... this morning is so horrible; I slept hardly at all last night, I'm cold, tired, I want some eggs and meringue and goat cheese, and real coffee, and I can't have any of it because of the stupid baby, and last year was so wonderful ... Tommy took me to brunch at the Marriott, it was so elegant and sophisticated ... all white and silver and pink, and waiters to serve us, and champagne and a smoked fish platter and a fresh fruit buffet, and all sorts of pastry, and ..."

Kat rambled on, caught up in her memories and in the effort of controllling her tears, and didn't even notice that Jason had stiffened next to her. Only as his powerful arms fell a way from her body and he took a step away from her did her rush of words die down.

" ...and every table had silver candlesticks and flower arrangements, and Tommy didn't let me get my own food at all, but was a perfect gentleman and served me all morning and .... Jason?" With her sleeve, Kat wiped ineffectually at her drying cheeks. "What's wrong?"

The handsome face had turned deathly white. Only Jason's dark eyes seemed to burn like coals as he looked at his wife with a mixture of pain and fury. The deep voice shook with suppressed emotion as he let his own frustrations show for once.

"Maybe you should have waited for Tommy, then," Jason rasped hoarsely. "If he was such a gentleman, why did he always call me to take you out? Why didn't you refuse to go out with me? If you'd done that, you wouldn't have to deal with such primitive things as homemade decorations, or me, or most of all our 'stupid baby'!"

He turned away, breathing deeply to regain control of his temper. He could deal with anything thrown at him, but Kat had  no right to say something like that about their unborn child! Jason felt a deep wave of love and protectiveness well up within him at the thought of the little being they had created. Even though it was still safely ensconced in Kat's womb, he loved feeling it shift and kick under his hands through the smooth skin of his wife's belly. Once again, he vowed to himself that he'd do everything in his power to see that their child --  his child -- would get all he had to give, and then some. But right now, he needed something for himself -- time ... and distance. He had to get out before he said something to Kat that couldn't be undone later. *For the baby,* Jason reminded himself as he faced Kat again, feeling his anger return full force. For once unmoved by her stricken expression, his eyes were as cold as his voice.

"I'm not Tommy. I'll never be Tommy. Maybe it's time you got that into your skull. I'm the man who married you, the father of the child you carry, even if you choose to forget that half the time. Stop whining for the past, stop comparing me to him, and most of all, stop behaving like a spoiled brat! Merry Christmas!"

Jason didn't wait for an answer. Deliberately ignoring Kat's shock at his outburst, he stormed past her, grabbed his jacket and keys, and slammed the door behind him. While it had felt ... good ... to rip loose for once, he'd already said more than he wanted to, and it was better he left before they damaged their relationship -- what there was of it -- beyond repair. Throwing himself into his car, he jammed the keys into the ignition and drove off.


Kat stared after the retreating broad back stunned into speechlessness. Only the 'bang' of the front door as it fell hard into the lock released her from her momentary paralysis. Stumbling over to the kitchen window, she watched mutely as Jason tore out of the parking lot with squealing tires, her eyes burning with a fresh rush of tears. She fought them down, however. Crying would serve nothing and nobody.

A movement within her body reminded her that she'd been on her feet quite a bit, and wearily she made her way over to the couch, sinking into the soft upholstery. Absently, Kat drew up her legs and draped the blanket left there from her nightly sojourn over herself to ward off a pervading chill that had nothing to do with the room temperature, but came from right inside her.

*What have I done? Why did I have to hurt him like this?*

She had no answer, not even for herself. Subconsciously, she'd known all the time that she was behaving badly, but Kat hadn't been able to stop herself. Some deeply-buried core of resentment -- that little nagging voice that clung so stubbornly to her feelings for her ex-boyfriend -- had broken free for once, no doubt coaxed forth by her chance run-in with Rachel Oliver yesterday, and ruined what could and should have been a cheery, peaceful morning.

*God, I hope nothing happens to Jason! The way he was driving ...*

Kat refused to follow that train of thought. Instead, she let her mind go completely blank, staring unseeingly at the slender real tree with its lovely decorations, a mixture of his'n'hers, old and new, which they'd had so much fun putting up two weeks ago. Slowly, she calmed down, managing to relegate images of Christmases past spent with Tommy and his family to the back of her mind where they belonged. Instead, Kat was assailed by impressions of the hurt and disappointment she'd been too blind to see in Jason's eyes. More tears threatened, but she refused to give in to the urge to cry. She'd done more than enough crying during the night and this morning already.

The blonde huddled miserably on the couch for a long, long time until she could persuade her weary body to move. Dragging herself into the bathroom, she showered listlessly and dreesed in a pair of warm leggings, sweat socks and long, oversize sweatshirt. The appliqué on the front drew a small, fleeting smile from her; Jason had found it so funny he'd given it to her for Thanksgiving. Four-inch high white letters on a pink background read "BABY" across her chest, and directly below was a bright blue arrow pointing directly downwards to her swollen stomach. Tying her hair in a loose ponytail, Kat trudged back into the living room. She had a mess to clear up.

Nibbling on a dry piece of toast and sipping at the second glass of orange juice -- more out of a sense of necessity than appetite -- Kat gathered up the cereal boxes and carried them into the kitchen. As she put them away and hunted for a tray to load with the breakfast things, Kat suddenly saw a magazine tucked behind her small collection of cookbooks. She pulled it out.

*'Home And Garden' ? I never bought that!*  Puzzled, Kat thumbed through the pages. She couldn't imagine Jason reading, much less buying the periodical, but then suddenly a festive picture layout caught her eye. She took a closer look.

*So this is where he got the idea,* the expectant mother realized as she compared the lavishly decorated table in the article's illustration with what she remembered her own dining table had looked like earlier. The changes were rather obvious, but on the whole Kat had to admit her husband hadn t done too bad a job. It made her feel even worse. *He went to so much trouble, and I ruined it for him. Nice going, Hillard!* Well, it couldn't be undone; Kat could only hope Jason would accept her sincere apologies when he came back. Or whenever; she really couldn't blame him if he decided to stay out all day. Kat sighed deeply. How she was going to explain that to their folks, she had no idea. Leaving the magazine on the kitchen counter, she picked up the tray she'd come for. There was still work to do.

All the foodstuffs had been removed to the kitchen and either been disposed of or stored away in fridge and/or cupboards when Kat turned to the rest. She was just about to stack the dishes onto the tray, when she noticed a few differences in the two place settings. Where at Jason's place was a set of their everyday serviceable plain white china, at hers she found plate, cup and saucer of a much more delicate make. Kat picked up the elegantly shaped cup with suddenly trembling hands. Turning the fragile vessel over, she didn't really need to see the manufacturer's mark to verify that it was indeed something she'd admired in a shop window a while ago. She knew that the set had to have cost well over $50; it was most likely part of Jason's Christmas gift to her. She moaned quietly to herself. *What else was I too blind to notice?*

Kat had no answer as she carefully set the china aside and cleared the rest of the débris. Finished, she then sat down on the couch again and got out her sewing kit. She was still trying to painstakingly repair the tear in the antique lace cloth when she heard the front door open.

*Jason. God, please let him forgive me!*

It had been over three hours since he'd stormed out of the apartment; Jason let himself in and drew a deep breath. He'd driven aimlessly around for a while, until he'd ended up on the dunes outside of town. There was one spot overlooking the rocky shore below that had always been one of his favorite spots to think, and it was there that he'd sat for hours, letting the endless crash and swell of the surf below calm his troubled mind. Still his step was somewhat hesitant as he reentered the living room; a quick glance around showed him that Kat was curled up in her favorite corner with some sort of needlework, and that she'd already removed all traces of their ill-fated breakfast. Only the china set he'd bought with the intention of collecting a full service by and by was still on the dining table.

The silence between the two young people was almost deafening, both looking at each other with too-serious eyes. Kat's sapphire pools were still red-rimmed, and her pale lips were quivering with the need  not to cry, but Jason resisted the impulse to just take her in his arms. Not like that; not this time.

Kat regarded Jason somewhat warily, trying to gauge his reaction. The expressive dark eyes for once were unreadable, but at least they no longer were cold and furious. But the pain she'd caused him however unintentionally was still visible in the tight set of his shoulders, the defensive posture as he leaned against the wall and the sharp lines around his mouth. From somewhere came an impulse to hurry over and smooth them away with a gentle kiss, but Kat lost it before she fully realised it had been there at all. Instead, she cleared her throat and said what she knew she must.

"I'm truly sorry. I was feeling out of sorts, and I took it out on you. You didn't -- don't -- deserve that."

The accented voice was very soft and small, but Jason could still hear an echo of the same pain he'd felt. His own voice was rough and a bit unsteady as he forced out a single question.

"Why, Kat? That's all I want to know -- why?"

She briefly produced a wry smile.

"Why was I out of sorts, or why was I such a bitch?"

Jason snorted lightly, feeling his spirit lift a fraction.

"Both, actually, if you don't mind." He slowly pushed away from the wall and made his way over to his armchair. Sitting down, he faced his wife. Ear nestly, he searched the blue eyes. They were shadowed, but met his own unflinchingly. The direct gaze let him find his own ghost of a smile. "And 'bitch'  is ... perhaps a bit much. Could we compromise on ...'shrew', maybe?"

"You're being very generous -- charitable even," Kat sighed, leaning back wearily. She carefully laid her needlework aside; she wanted no distraction right now. Briefly she wished that Jason would hold her, that she could confess from the security of his embrace, but knew it was not the right time to ask. *Maybe later*, she hoped fervently. Closing her eyes for a long moment to gather her thoughts, she once more made herself meet her husband's sad look.

"I ... I think it started yesterday, when I literally bumped into Rachel at the Mall," she began. At Jason's silent question, she clarified. "Tommy's mom. She didn't really say anything to me, but oh Jase, the look she gave me ... I felt like a complete cad. Not that I didn't deserve it, but ...." Kat's voice trailed off as she had to swallow hard. It still hurt to remember. A furtive glance at Jason showed that his eyes had softened some at her disclosure. It gave her the courage to continue, to tell him about the thoughts and feelings that had kept her awake most of the night.

" ...I know it's no excuse for the way I acted earlier, but when you woke me up this morning, I ...." the lightly-accented voice drifted off, slightly hoarse with talking so much and re-lived anguish. Kat bit her lip as she lifted her eyes to meet Jason's once more. He shook his head in exasperation.

" Kat, when will you learn to trust me? I can understand what you were feeling, and I see that I caught you at a really bad moment this morning, but why didn't you just tell me? Do you think I'm so insensitive that I wouldn't have understood? Couldn't you just have said, 'thank you, but please let me sleep some more, I had a bad night'? Or told me about running into Mrs. Oliver yesterday? I know what you're going through ... because I'm having a lot of the same feelings myself. I  want to help you, but how can I do that if you won't let me?"

Jason's deep voice shook slightly with the intensity of his feelings. He was so right, and and every pain-filled word hit Kat like a blow -- even though they weren't said harshly.

"I ... I don't know," she choked out, fighting for composure. "There are times when I want to come to you, but then I think I can't tell you because you' re going through the same things, because I don' t want to bother you with my problems as well ..." Tears threatened anew, but Kat fought them down; she didn't want Jason to think that she was angling for sympathy. Not now.

"Oh Kat," her husband sighed, shook his head and lifted himself out of the armchair. Sitting down next to her, he took her cold hands in his, warming them with his own. "How is our marriage going to work if we can't confide in each other?" At her surprised look, he smiled a bit sheepishly. "There were times when  I wanted to talk to  you, about how much I miss having our friends around, but didn't for much the same reason you just gave me. And here I thought we decided we're in this together ..."

"W-we are, Jase," Kat whispered, her mood lifting slightly as she recognized the renewed warmth in his voice. Hesitantly, she freed one of her hands and lightly touched his cheek, a rare gesture of intimacy coming from her. A single teardrop escaped as Jason brushed his lips against her fingertips with a tiny smile. "I'm really, truly sorry. About the way I acted, about not trusting you enough -- you were right about that -- and most of all for the way I talked about our baby. It's  not stupid; I'm just sick and tired of being  pregnant -- of feeling fat, and clumsy, and all the other things. I  never should have said that."

"No, you shouldn't,' Jason agreed gravely, but with a twinkle in his eyes. "And I shouldn't have run off like that, leaving you to deal with all the mess."

"I ... I didn't mind; oh Jason, you went to so much trouble with the table, and I didn't even really look at it before I ruined everything," she mourned. "And I never even thanked you for the china set, too; it's so lovely! You really shouldn' t have -- it's way too expensive!"

"Hey, at least it was something I knew you liked," he answered. "It has a long availability guarantee, so I won't have to think about buying stuff for you anytime soon --I'll just keep on collecting plates, and bowls, and cups, and ..."

The gentle teasing brought a slight giggle from Kat, and the two looked at each other, suddenly a bit shy now that the emotional storm was apparently past. Then, Jason reached out to her with another sigh that seemed to come from the soles of his feet. "C'mere, kitten."

Kat snuggled into the safety of his embrace, feeling the last of the tension slowly drain from her body as Jason soothingly stroked her back. "I'm sorry," she mumbled once more. The steady heartbeat she could feel under her cheek gave her the courage to look at him imploringly.

"Can you forgive me? Please?"

"Of course," Jason murmured back, kissing her forehead. He drew her more firmly in his arms, and they sat like that for a long time, lost in the closeness and renewed warmth. At one point, Kat couldn't help herself; shifting so that her body aligned itself more closely to Jason's solid frame, she impulsively gave voice to her thoughts.

"When you hold me like this, I always feel so safe, and ... cared for," she whispered; it had been on the tip of her tongue to say "loved", but Jason had never spoken the words to her, and they' d agreed they didn' t, so it was better to use the simpler,  safer expression, wasn't it? "And then you have to let me go again, and all the doubts and fears and regrets come back ..."

"I know what you mean, but much as I might like to, it would be rather impractical if I went around hugging you like this all day," he rumbled, a hint of laughter back in his voice. This sort of confidence, of sharing, was exactly what he'd hoped for, what had been missing between them. As if on cue, before either could say anything else, Jason's stomach made its displeasure at being empty known with a fairly loud growl. Both started, Kat horrified at her negligence of Jason's needs, and he with a blush and sheepish smile. He shrugged apologetically. "Sorry."

Kat shook her head as she disentangled herself from Jason's arms and heaved herself off the couch.

"Jason, you .... I ..." words failed her. Suddenly, the lingering rest of tension in the atmosphere dissolved in a shared gust of laughter. The two embraced once more and Jason kissed his wife teasingly on the tip of her nose.

"Go and feed me, woman, or I won't give you the rest of your presents," he mock-threatened.

"Oh? Then I suppose you don't want to know what I have bought for  you?" Kat shot back, feeling almost giddy with relief that this crisis was past. She laughed at the little-boy sparkle that suddenly lit the dark eyes. "Let me get you something to eat, and then we'll trade off. Sound like a plan?"

"The best I've heard all day," Jason agreed. He held the kitchen door open for her. Just as she was about to pass, he stopped her by cupping her cheek once more and kissing her lightly. "Merry Christmas, kitten."

Kat closed her eyes briefly, thankful that the warmth and affection were back in Jason's voice, and slightly ashamed as she realized she had yet to wish him the same. Well, better late than never. Her sapphire eyes shone as she looked back at her husband.

"Merry Christmas, Jason."


Katherine was peacefully sorting a stack of tiny garments into the top dresser drawer in the now-finished nursery. The furniture had been a Christmas gift from both their parents, and the light wood made a pleasing contrast to the white walls and the bright colors of the mural she'd stencilled last fall. She'd picked up the color scheme in the curtains and other knickknacks; it was rather different from the more common pastels usually found in baby paraphernalia, but it had seemed ... fitting, somehow, to choose something ... bold ... for the first baby born to two of Earth's former Rangers. A nostalgic smile played around Kat's mouth as she recalled those wonderful, scary, exhilarating days. But she didn't linger long on the memories; for the last few weeks, ever since she'd gone on maternity leave, her thoughts had turned more and more to the future instead of the past. She was due any day now; February had come and gone, and the first hints of spring were already in the air. The time of new life ... Katherine had to smile at her suddenly poetic mood. She closed the drawer and bent over the crib, smoothing the coverlet one last time and setting the red dinosaur she'd bought for Jason the night their baby was conceived into a corner. It wasn't exactly a baby's toy, but she wanted it there.

One last thing remained to be done -- she needed to cover the crib with a light sheet to keep off dust until its tiny occupant would settle in there. Kat ambled over to the linen closet in the bedroom. She seemed to be moving in slow motion all day, but somehow that was all right. As she stretched on her toes to reach the top shelf, she suddenly felt a sharp pain shoot from the small of her back into her womb.


Instinctively, she looked at the nearest clock. 10.13 am -- Jason was at the dojo, teaching, but she knew she could reach him instantly if something should go wrong. She shook her head; the pain was gone now, but the timing was certainly right -- she was only two days from her estimated due date -- so it wasn't impossible that the baby would announce its readiness to come into the world. Her heart began to beat a little faster. Well, she'd just have to wait and see.

At a quarter to one, the phone rang at the Red Thunder Dojo. Jason picked up on the third ring. "Hello."

*"Jason? It's me, Kat. Can you come home?"*

Jason felt an icy hand clench around his heart. Kat's voice sounded normal enough, but ...

"Sure, kitten. Are ... are you okay?"

A tinkle of soft laughter came through the receiver.

*"Yes, I am. But I think you'd better get here if you want to drive me to the hospital."*

For almost a full minute, he couldn't speak as the import of Kat's words sank in. She seemed to understand what was going through his mind and didn't rush him, only her voice got even softer as she answered his stammered question.


*"Yes, Jase. I think I'm in labor."*

"I'll be there as soon as I can," he promised hoarsely, already grabbing for his car keys and signalling to his assistant.

*"Drive safely, you hear? Our baby will need a dad."*

Oh good God, he was going to be a father! Maybe even today! A totally different kind of fear than any he'd ever known enveloped Jason for a moment. He'd faced off with monsters and aliens, been in mortal danger more times than he could count during his two stints as a Ranger, and yet he'd  never been as afraid as in this very instant. Then, his reason reasserted itself. He needed to bring Kat into a doctor's care -- all else could wait.

"I promise, Kat. I'm on my way now."

Even so, it was almost half past one as Jason opened the door to their apartment. He didn't know what he was supposed to expect, but certainly not his wife sitting comfortably on the couch, her legs stretched out before her, calmly munching an apple and watching a sitcom.

"We can go," Jason announced breathlessly, flinging his gym bag carelessly into a corner. Before he could do something ridiculously chivalrous, like carrying her to the car, Kat stopped him with a smile and a hand on his arm.

"Yes --  after you've showered and changed into proper clothes. Your gi is  not the right wardrobe for hanging around a hospital all day."

"But ... but you said the baby's coming!" *How can she be so calm?*

Kat grinned; she couldn't help herself, while Jason  tried to project an aura of confidence, she'd never seen him so quietly frazzled. He, the epitome of being always so calm and controlled!

"Relax, Jase," she laughed softly. "My contractions are still nine minutes apart, and my water hasn't broken yet. Remember Lamaze class? There's lots of time."

He drew a deep, centering breath. Kat was right, of course; besides, it wouldn't do to panic. However, as he reluctantly made his way to the bathroom, he admonished her to call out as soon as there should be a change in her well-being.

"I will, worrywart," Kat reassured him. "Now go take take that shower; the sooner you're finished, the sooner you can take me to the hospital."

"Yes, ma\rquote am!" Jason threw a snappy salute, making his wife giggle, and did as he was told. Deliberately, he tried to quiet his still-racing heart; he had a suspicion the excitement wasn't over for him yet.

"Are you sure this is good for you?" Jason asked Kat for the fourth or fifth time as they exited the elevator on the hospital's top floor again.

"Yes, Jason, I'm sure," the blonde explained patiently, moving slowly towards the staircase, Jason hovering at her elbow. "Walking down stairs is an old, natural way to speed labor along; as long as I'm still mobile, it's a lot better than any medication I could take."

"But what if your water breaks while we're on the stairs?"

"Jason, we're in a  hospital," Kat sighed. "If it should happen, there are dozens of trained nurses and doctors around every corner who can help me. Don't worry so much."  *And incidentally stop driving me crazy,* she thought with a private little smirk. *Men!*

He had the grace to blush. Leading her carefully across the landing to the next staircase, he grinned sheepishly.

"I can't help myself," he admitted. "I  know what you're doing is okay, and I'm glad you've decided on natural childbirth, but I still have this urge to protect you at any cost."

"That's sweet," Kat murmured, then stopped suddenly, gripped the banister with both hands and drew in a sharp, hissing breath. Panting the way she'd been taught, she rode out the contraction until she could move again. "How long?"

Jason checked his watch."Not quite four minutes this time."

"They're not getting much closer, are they?" Kat commented, then suddenly let out a startled yelp. " Eew, no!"

"What?" Jason asked, concernedly noting the way her pallor from the contraction made way for a rosy blush. Why was Kat standing so funny all of a sudden? She was looking down past her belly to the floor, where a big puddle of some clear liquid suddenly had formed. Realization dawned.

"Tell me that isn't what I think it is," he groaned comically.

"'Fraid so," Kat admitted. With sudden impishness, she lightly punched his shoulder as he cautiously guided her to the doors leading from the staircase onto a ward. "This is all your fault!"

"Huh?" Busily looking out for a nurse, orderly or doctor, Jason at first didn't understand. Then, he did a double-take. "How is it my fault your water broke on the stairs?"

"You just had to go and say it, hadn't you?" the young woman groused, but with a smile in her voice. She didn't get an answer as Jason managed to snag a passing intern and explained the situation. Within moments, Kat found herself in a wheelchair and whisked away to the maternity ward, Jason right at her side.

The contractions were very close together now and Kat winced with the pain, clamping her fingers around Jason's hand. When she finally was able to relax, she lifted tired blue eyes to her husband's concerned face. He gently patted the sweat from her brow and smiled reassuringly, telling her without words that he was there for her.

"I want this over with," Kat moaned as another contraction hit almost directly after the last.

"I can imagine," Jason murmured soothingly. He'd never felt so helpless in his life, but wild horses couldn't have dragged him away. "I just wish there was something I could do to make this easier for you."

"You can't," the young woman sighed, but smiled through her exhaustion.

"Kat?" Jason's voice was uncharacteristically hesitant. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course," she replied, puzzled. Ever since the fiasco at Christmas, they'd grown closer, opening up more as the birth of their child drew nearer. "What is it?"

"This is going to sound real stupid," Jason began, blushing. It also maybe wasn't the best time, but talking seemed to distract Kat a little from her ordeal. "Please don't get me wrong, I can see this" he indicated the delivery room and her heaving, swollen belly, "is very hard for you, but ..."

"But what, Jase?"

"Does it ... hurt a lot?"

For a second, Kat stared at her husband incredulously. Before she could answer, though, she had to concentrate on a new wave of pain. Breathing it away as she'd been taught, she had time to consider the question and the pain from someone's perspective who would never have to go through this experience -- who, in fact, couldn't, simply by the laws of biology.

" ...yes," she finally admitted, "it does. But it's not the 'body-ripping-in-two' kind of pain you read about or see in the movies. At least not for me -- I don't know how others might experience it, though. Knowing that I  can get medication if I want it helps. And ... also the fact that the pain has a ... a purpose, I guess. I know this will be over eventually, and when it is, our baby will be born. Something I hope will be soon! Aaah!!!" A small cry escaped her. Before Jason could react, a nurse-midwife looked in on them. Quickly examining Kat, she gave the young couple a cheerful smile.

"Seems someone is getting rather anxious to make an appearance. -- Are you going to stay?" she asked Jason as she busily arranged all necessary things within easy reach and summoned a doctor.

The young man exchanged a glance with his wife.

"I'd like to be there, if you don't mind," he murmured softly. This was Kat's decision alone.

"Please stay," she whispered back as the contractions moved closer and closer together. Once more, she reached for a warm hand to hold on to, and then suddenly things began to move really fast. Jason moved behind Kat to brace her as they' d rehearsed in their Lamaze class, and doctor and nurse efficiently worked together like the team they were. Through it all, dark eyes held blue until a thin wail filled the room.

"It's a boy! Congratulations!"

Tears filled Kat's eyes as she fell back into Jason's supporting arms, exhausted but happy. At the same time, she started to laugh exuberantly. "A boy, Jason! We have a son!"

He kissed her gently, moved beyond words by what he'd just witnessed. His own eyes were suspiciously moist, but neither cared at this moment. Then, the midwife stepped close, handing them a squirming, sheet-wrapped bundle.

"Twenty-one-and-a-half inches, and eight pounds, four-and-a-half ounces. What a sturdy little fellow!"

Kat's arms opened automatically to hold her child for the first time. Never had anything felt so  right, and she lost herself in marvelling at the tiny hands and memorizing the small red face with its dark brows and the wispy strands of dark hair. Jason's hand seemed impossibly large as he smoothed a finger down the oh-so- soft cheek, laughing delightedly as the newborn instinctively turned into the caress, as if rooting for nourishment. Kat sobbed once, but the silvery streaks pouring down her cheeks were signs of happiness. She lifted her mouth to Jason's kiss without hesitation.

"Thank you, kitten," he whispered huskily, too overcome with emotion for anything else. No further words were necessary.

At last, the nurse came back, reluctantly but determinedly breaking up the moment. She didn't like to do it; parents deserved this first time with their infants, but the newest resident of Angel Grove needed to be put in his own bed. Competently, she lifted the baby boy out of Kat's hold, dressed him quickly and efficiently in a tiny blue romper and tucked him in. A blue tag decorated with a teddy bear was affixed to the top of the bassinett.

"What's this young man's name?" she asked the new parents. A plastic bracelet with "Baby Scott" and his statistics had already been fastened around a tiny wrist.

Kat and Jason looked at each other. They'd talked about various possibilities, but hadn't exactly made the final choice.

"Robert;" Kat said finally, a bit tentatively. "Robert, after my father."

"A nice name," the nurse agreed. "Little Bobby here ...."

"No!" Jason protested immediately. "Not Bobby!" For some reason, he didn't like this particular diminutive.

"But how can we avoid that?" Kat asked, somewhat disappointedly. That was one of the reasons they hadn't been able to agree on a name. "I'd  really like to keep the name; I have no brothers, and Robert is a tradition in my family; every generation has one, and since he's the first ..."

Jason shrugged helplessly; their second choice had been John, after his own father, but he would've liked to do Kat the favor. Before he could comment, the nurse grinned at both of them.

"Well, why not make it Robin instead of Robert? It's the same root, after all, and can only be shortened to Rob, or maybe Robbie ...."

"Robin Scott?" Jason pronounced the name with a somewhat dubious expression, as if tasting it. "Hmm ... Robin .. I think I could get to like that. What about you, kitten?"

Kat gave the suggestion a moment's thought. "That could work. I think Dad will like the compromise, too."

"Then Robin it is," Jason decided after exchanging a glance with Kat.

"You'll need a second name, though,"  the nurse reminded them as she wrote "Robin Scott" on the blue tag. "Robin's not gender-specific."

Before Kat could react, Jason covered her hand with his. Looking deeply into his wife's sapphire eyes, he named the name that had been his secret wish to give his firstborn son all along, but hadn't dared suggest. Silently asking for her understanding, his deep voice was rough with suppressed emotion as he spoke.


Kat drew in a surprised breath. The name had crossed her mind once or twice, but she hadn't wanted to hurt Jason by reminding him of their estranged friend -- her ex-boyfriend and lover, his  brother in spirit. That he would suggest it of his own accord ... Jason interpreted her momentary hesitation correctly, and gave her the reason for his request.

"Tommy and I once promised each other to name our sons, if we ever had any, after each other. I doubt he will, now, but I'd at least like to keep my promise .... if you don't mind, that is."

"Mind? Oh Jason, of course not!" Kat said, fresh tears rolling down her cheeks. "Thank you."

He didn't need to ask what she was thanking him for. As one, the new parents turned towards their peacefully sleeping son.

"Robin Thomas Scott. Welcome in our life," Jason whispered."May you find a friend like Tommy one day ... and keep him better than your mom and dad."

To be continued ...