Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. The Power Ranger characters belong to Saban (used without permission), but Olivia is all mine. While thereís no adult content, the topic of rape is discussed, so be warned if you find this objectionable. August 1998

The story takes place five years after the infamous letter.

All I Want for Christmas
by Cheryl Roberts
Part 1: A July Wedding

"Are you sure there isnít anything I can help with?" Tommy queried as Adam and Rocky put the finishing touches on their tuxedos. When Rocky found out that Tommy was going to be at the wedding, he insisted on picking him up: Donít want you showing up late. Tommy sighed to himself. A lot had changed in the years since they had graduated from high school. Racing for his uncle and owning his own dojo had gone a long way to correcting his old habit of being late; besides, he wouldnít have missed Aishaís wedding for the world.

Tommy had been immensely startled to receive the invitation. He hadnít even known she was back in the States. According to Adam, Aisha had come back to Angel Grove to go to school and had met Stephen in her Animal Sciences class. After their wedding, the two were going to return to Kenya. Adam and Rocky had been asked to be ushers, and Tanya was one of the bridesmaids. Somehow, Tommy had always thought that Adam and Tanya would have been the first of their group to get married --once he and Kim had been taken out of the running.

I wonder if Kimís going to be here? The question startled him somewhat; he hadnít thought of Kim in quite some time, and he was surprised that the old ache was still there. Tommy supposed he could ask the guys; however, he didnít have the nerve.

"Positive," Adam assured him.

"When are the other guests due to arrive?"

"Not for an hour, at least," Rocky replied.

"What am I going to do around here for an hour?" Tommy sighed.

"Hang out in the garden, I guess," Rocky offered.

"We need to go check in with Stephen," Adam said.

"Go ahead, Iíll find something to occupy myself."

Tommy wandered back out to the vestibule. The ceremony was being held out in the gardens behind the church. He fingered his shirt collar. What was Aisha thinking? Itís too blasted hot to be sitting outside in pants and a sports coat. I mean, itís July! However, she was used to the heat of the African savanna; this probably wasnít anything compared to that.

"Come on, sweetheart."

Tommy turned upon hearing Aishaís voice and bit back a smile. She had emerged from the ladiesí dressing room wearing a bright yellow bathrobe, slippers, and her white veil. She had a tot in tow --a petite girl with long, chestnut colored hair, wide brown eyes, and the sweetest little smile; she appeared to be of Hispanic descent. She couldnít have been more than five or so. She gazed up at Aisha with the most earnest expression.

"Am I in trouble, Auntie ĎIsha?"

"Of course not, honey.

"Why did Mommy send me away?"

"She didnít. I just thought it might be a good idea if we could find someone to play with you," Aisha explained patiently. Youíre just so excited and have so many questions that your mommy canít keep track of you and help me get dressed, too. Plus she has to get dressed, too."

"Iím sorry."

"Hey, I understand. Itís all right. Iím just going to see if Rocky or Adam can keep an eye on you for a little while --just Ďtil we get things a little more settled in there. Okay?"

"Do I know Rocky or Adam? Mommy says Iím not supposed to talk to strange men."

Canít think of anyone stranger than Rocky, Tommy laughed to himself, although, he knew he wasnít being very fair.

"Rocky and Adam are okay; theyíre two of my best friends. Your mommy knows them, too. Say, I bet youíve seen their pictures."

"If Mommy said itís okay, then I guess so."

"Is this the latest in bridal fashions?" Tommy quipped as the two stepped out into the vestibule.

"Wha . . . Tommy? Oh my God!" With a delighted squeal, Aisha threw her arms around her old friend. Tommy kissed her on the cheek. "Iíd forgotten that you were going to be here."

"I wouldnít have missed it."

"What are you doing here so early? The invitation said noon."

"Rocky wanted to make sure I wasnít late." Aisha just laughed and rolled her eyes. "I couldnít help over hearing that you have a Ďsmallí problem. Could I be of service, since I have nothing else to do?"

"What a great idea! You are a lifesaver." Aisha turned to her diminutive companion. Tommy noted that the girl shyly ducked behind Aisha, but she continued to gaze up at him with wide eyes. He offered her his warmest smile.

"Hi, Iím Tommy." She shrank back from his extended hand and looked up to Aisha questioningly.

"Itís okay, sweetheart. Tommy is an old friend, too."

"Just like Rocky and Adam? Have I seen his picture?"

"Iím sure you have."

Tommy didnít know what to make of Aishaís smile.

"Why donít I leave you two to get better acquainted. Thanks again, Tommy. Iíll send someone for her when weíre ready."

"Donít worry about it. I can keep an eye on her until the ceremony is over if youíd like."

"Thatíd be great! I gotta get going. You be good for Tommy, okay?í

" ĎKay, Auntie ĎIsha."

Aisha scurried off to finish getting dressed, leaving the two to introduce themselves.

"By the way, I didnít catch your name," Tommy began. He had always been pretty good with kids; working with the kids at the dojo was a joy and had taught him a lot.

"Itís Tommi, too!" the girl exclaimed. "Tommi Olivia, but mommy always calls me Olivia."

"Itís a pleasure to meet you, Olivia." As he shook her hand, the girl smiled. "So what should we do for the next hour?"

"I donít know. Iíve never been to a wedding before," Olivia answered, scuffing the toe of her right shoe into the floor. "Auntie ĎIsha said that if Unca Stephen hadnít promised his little sister she could be the flower girl, she would have asked me. Iím kinda glad she didnít. I donít know what flower girls do."

"They have very important jobs. Theyíre the very first ones to walk down the aisle," Tommy replied.

"Really?"

"Yes. And they carry flowers. Sometimes they even get to sprinkle flower petals along the way."

"Do you think maybe someday Iíll get to be a flower girl? They get to wear really fancy dresses, donít they?" Olivia gushed, her face positively glowing. ĎIsha showed me Carlaís dress. It was so beautiful --with lots of lace and everything!" Then, her expression fell. "Iíve never worn a really fancy dress before."

"Well, I think the one you have on is very pretty."

"Really?" Hope lit the girlís round eyes. She spun around, showing off her dress. "It isnít new or anything. It used to be plain, but mommy bought some lace and ribbons and things and made it look fancy."

Tommy had the feeling that that might have been the case. He could tell by the scuffed shoes and the way the dress was a bit worn and fit slightly large. It was something else he had learned from observing his students: knowing the signs of a family trying to scrape by. It helped to know that sort of thing when it came time to collect for the lessons. On several occasions, Tommy had extended the payment period for one of his students when he saw the signs. The parents were always grateful, and he was glad he could do so with causing anyone any embarrassment.

"I especially like this little pink rosebud," Tommy said, lightly tapping the ribbon rose in the center of the collar.

"I like it, too."

"What say we head outside? Weíve got lots of time to kill, and I believe thereís a swing out there."

"I love swings!" Olivia chirped, practically bouncing in place. Then her face became serious again. "But I canít mess up my dress."

"Weíll be very careful. After you, Princess," Tommy announced, getting the door for her. With a giggle, Olivia dashed outside.

***

"Higher!" Olivia demanded gleefully, feet and hair flying as she swung back to Tommy.

"I canít. This swing isnít made to go that high," Tommy replied. After all, it was only a porch swing. Besides, he was starting to work up a sweat. He was having quite a time keeping up with Olivia; she was a regular little dynamo, and her chatter was constant. She was a bright girl--and very perceptive. Still, her company made the hour fly by quickly, and Tommy noticed that other guests were beginning to arrive.

"Hey, Princess, I think you and I had better get cleaned up," Tommy said as he pulled the swing to a stop.

"Oh, okay," she agreed grudgingly. She hopped off the swing and brushed at her dress and hair as Tommy slipped his jacket back on. She pouted when the strands of hair wouldnít stay where she patted them down. "My hairís all wild!"

"I believe I can fix that."

"You know how to braid hair?"

"Of course I do. My hair is almost as long as yours, you know."

"Really?"

Tommy turned to show off his ponytail.

"I didnít know boys could have long hair."

"Sure they can. Okay, so what kind of braid do you want? Regular or fancy?"

"A fancy one!"

"Letís go sit on the steps and see what I can do."

It had been a while since he had done anyone elseís hair . . . not since Kim left. She was forever asking him to help her with her hair --not that she really needed it. She had been the one to teach him the different types of braids and things. He had never minded. Actually, he had really missed sharing that with her; it had been something special between the two of them. Kat had never asked and he had never offered.

Olivia made a valiant effort to sit still as Tommy pulled out the remains of her existing braid and set to work. His fingers seemed to remember how to twist the hair around. As he was working, the pastorís wife passed by several times as she hustled in and out of the parsonage to put the finishing touches on the wedding preparations.

"You are so good with her," she murmured in passing on one of her numerous trips.

"Thanks."

"You really have a lovely daughter."

"But . . . ." However, she was gone before Tommy could correct her.

"Why did that lady call me your daughter?" Olivia wondered.

"I donít know. Maybe she thinks we look alike." Tommy could see it. Their hair was almost the same color, Oliviaís being a little lighter and a bit more red. They had the same dark eyes and thick lashes. However, Oliviaís features were a little sharper, her face more heart shaped.

"But youíre not my daddy; I donít have a daddy," Olivia continued.

For a moment, Tommy was too stunned to say anything. He had just assumed that Oliviaís father had been unable to attend the wedding. When he glanced down, he noticed that the girlís expression was sad. Maybe her father had died or her parents were divorced or something. His heart went out to the little girl. It was funny, but in the short time that he had known Olivia, she had wrapped herself around his heart. He hadnít had someone get so close so quickly since the first time he laid eyes on Kim.

"Iím sorry," Tommy murmured, offering her a hug. No wonder her mother was fixing up second hand clothing for her; it must be pretty difficult being a single parent.

Single parents made him think of Maggie Donovan; her son Chris was one of his best students. The family lived in his neighborhood; heíd see her or the kids at the laundromat or at the supermarket. A single mom with three kids . . . he didnít know how she did it. Knowing her made him appreciate the difficulties better, and any woman who could raise a child by herself deserved his respect.

"Itís okay," Olivia sighed, "but sometimes I wish I had a daddy."

Tommy could relate, somewhat. He knew what it was like to wonder about a parent. As a kid, he had often wondered what his birth parents had been like, and he had always counted himself grateful that his parents had adopted him after his real folks had died.

"I asked my mommy about my daddy once," Olivia prattled on, "but she told me she didnít know who my daddy was."

The childís second bombshell blew Tommy away. How could she not know who the father was? The obvious thing that came to mind was that Olivia was adopted, but from what little he knew of adoption practices, it was highly unlikely that a single parent would have been allowed to adopt a child. Unless Oliviaís mother had been married at the time the adoption was put through and then something happened . . . . Well, a woman didnít necessarily have to be married to want a family. Hadnít Laura Wells gone to a sperm bank --at least, that was the scuttlebutt around the coffee shop. Really, it could be any number of reasons. A one night stand? Maybe Oliviaís mom just didnít want her daughter knowing her father. From the few conversations heíd had with Maggie, she often wished her boys didnít know their father --something having to do with drugs, if he remembered correctly.

Thinking of Maggie brought to mind another possibility, one Tommy might not ever have considered had it not touched a little close to home: rape. He had a student, Sarah . . . Maggie volunteered at the Rape Crisis Center, and she had brought the girl (she might have been sixteen) to his school thinking the classes would help her rebuild her self-confidence. He shook his head, remembering the skittish, frightened girl. She had barely begun the class when she left; Maggie later told him that she had found out she was pregnant and had to make a decision.

Tommy never knew what happened to her, but he would never forget her either. Could something like that have happened to Oliviaís mother? If so, the woman had Tommyís utmost respect. It couldnít have been easy to decide against an abortion. No one would have held it against her. But to carry the baby to term and then decide not to put her up for adoption . . . . Of course, the reason for Oliviaís statement was probably something less traumatic. Heíd never been one to jump to conclusions; it wouldnít do for him to start now.

"There," Tommy said at last. "I think that does it."

"Do I look pretty?" Olivia asked.

"You are the most beautiful little girl here, and I am so lucky that I get to sit next to you," Tommy answered. Olivia smiled shyly.

"There you are!" Rocky called out as he hurried over.

"Hey, Rocky." Tommy noted that Olivia drew back warily.

"Aisha told me to see where youíd gotten to. Whoís your date?" Rocky teased.

"This is Olivia. Olivia, this is Rocky."

"The one Auntie ĎIsha told me about?"

"Yes."

"Aisha wants to get things started. Iím supposed to seat you close to her parents."

"Weíre ready, arenít we?"

"Yep!"

Tommy held Oliviaís hand as they followed Rocky to the aisle carpet. However, before they started up the white walkway, he bent over one of the flower arrangements.

"Tommy!" Olivia scolded as he pulled a rosebud out of the spray.

"I donít think Aisha will mind. Besides, a pretty girl deserves to have a pretty flower," he said, handing her the pale pink bud.

"For me? Really?"

"This way youíll almost be like a flower girl."

Olivia stood as tall as she could as she accompanied Tommy to their seats.

"A little young, donít you think?" Rocky hissed.

"Youíre just jealous because Iím with the best looking girl here," Tommy hissed back.

"You have all the luck. Catch you after the ceremony."

Once maybe, but that was a long time ago, Tommy sighed. Aloud he said, "Just donít leave without me."

Olivia could hardly sit still in her chair. She fidgeted about, looking this way and that. Tommy had to stifle a laugh as she nearly jumped out of her shoes as the music began.

"Is it time to start?" she whispered to Tommy.

"I think so."

The two turned to see the curly-haired flower girl standing frozen at the foot of the aisle. Tommy guessed she was at least a year older than Olivia.

"Why doesnít she move? My mommy canít have her turn if Carla doesnít go," Olivia said impatiently.

Someone finally prompted the frightened child, and she haltingly started up the walk, her little basket clutched tightly in her fists. There were three bridesmaids in all, each escorted by a groomsmen. Olivia oohed and aahed as she saw the women in their breezy, sunshine yellow dresses and the men in their smart tuxes.

"They all look so fancy," she murmured.

Tommy didnít recognized either of the first pair to make their way down the aisle, but Tanya and her escort were next. He caught a glimpse of Adam as Tanya swept past him. As bad as he was in high school, Tommy mused, noting the love-struck look in Adamís eyes. Had he been that bad when he and Kim were together? He tried to ignore the old ache in his heart; heíd tormented himself enough over what could have been. This was Aishaís day, and he wanted to be happy for her.

"There she is!" Olivia squeaked excitedly, clutching Tommyís arm. "Thereís my mommy! Isnít she the most beautifulest of all the bridesmaids?"

Tommy smiled at Oliviaís obvious pride in her mother. It was all he could do to keep her from jumping up and running to meet her mom. Then, Tommy looked up to see for himself, and he felt as if he had been kicked in the stomach. Walking down the aisle as the maid of honor was Kim! He hadnít seen her in five and a half years . . . since their last Christmas together. Tommyís throat went dry; she looked as beautiful as he remembered--even more so. Her caramel colored hair was pinned up in a soft twist--flowers and babyís breath the only ornaments she wore. Her doe brown eyes seemed to shine, and her smile took Tommyís breath away. She looked positively radiant, and she seemed to brighten as she caught sight of Olivia.

"Thatís your mommy?" Tommy gulped out numbly.

"Uh huh. Hi, mommy!" Olivia called out, but softly, waving energetically.

Kim grinned and looked away --God, he remembered how she always used to do that! Then, Tommy felt Kimís eyes meet his. The smile faded, replaced by complete astonishment. However, she quickly recovered herself and finished her walk, but Tommy noticed that she still looked shaken.

Tommy never even saw Aisha make her way down the aisle. He never heard the ministerís words or the exchange of vows; his whole attention was riveted on Kimberly. From time to time, Tommy noticed Kim nervously glancing his way. Then, heíd see her eyes fall on her daughter, and he couldnít help but smile at the love that shone therein. Her eyes used to shine so for him, once upon a time. Tommy regarded the little girl by his side thoughtfully as one question burned through his mind: Oh man, Kim, what happened?

* * *

Aisha Karan Campbell-Stone, why didnít you tell me!

Kimís hands trembled as she clutched her bouquet, waiting to follow the newlyweds from the altar. The whole wedding had passed by in a blur; she hadnít been able to concentrate on a thing once her eyes met Tommyís.

Why didnít you tell me he was here!

Kim snuck a sideways glance at her daughter and her former boyfriend as she swept past. God, it hurt to see him again. He looked more gorgeous than she remembered. She had to fight the tears. Seeing Tommy again had done more than just startle her; it had brought back all the old memories --good and bad. Her chest and throat felt tight, and she felt a cold lump in her stomach. She had always wondered how sheíd react if she ever saw Tommy again; she had prayed that she never would. After what happened . . . she couldnít bear for him to know the truth.

Olivia waved at her again, and she couldnít keep from smiling --even as she couldnít fight back the tears. They could be tears of happiness for all anyone could tell. Only she knew that they werenít. She had kept her eye on Tommy and Olivia all throughout the ceremony. She couldnít believe how well they seemed to get along. She had caught them smiling and whispering and laughing, and Olivia even seemed to mind him. Kim was astounded; she had never seen her daughter take to someone she had just met so well --especially a man. It killed Kim to know that her daughter had picked up on her own reticence. Try fear. Youíd think after five years it wouldnít be so bad . . . However, Kim knew that Tommy had always been great with children. And maybe Olivia can see what I saw in him the first time I met him. She had looked into those soft brown eyes and saw the gentlest, kindest, most caring soul she had ever known. And I sent him away.

Kim took her place in the receiving line, a false smile plastered on her face as she shook hands with the throng of relatives, friends, and other well-wishers.

"Aisha," she hissed menacingly under her breath. "Why didnít you tell me about Tommy!"

"It completely slipped my mind that he was going to be here, and then we got so busy with the dresses and stuff . . . ." Aisha whispered back as she disengaged from a hug.

"I thought you said you were going to leave Olivia with Adam and Rocky. How could you let Tommy . . . ."

"I was, but Tommy was there, and he offered to look after her. Whatís the big deal? If there was anyone you trusted with Olivia, I would have thought itíd be Tommy."

Kim knew Aisha was right; she couldnít think of anyone she trusted more than Tommy. She had trusted him with her life when they were Rangers, and even more importantly, she had trusted him with her heart. But then, she lost the ability to trust anyone . . .

"I . . . I didnít want Tommy to know . . . ." she mumbled.

"I didnít tell him who she was. If he knows, he learned it from Olivia." Aisha turned to face her. "Kim, youíre going to have to face him sooner or later. Youíve been talking about coming home to Angel Grove ever since Olivia was born; Angel Grove isnít all that big. You were bound to run into him eventually. Besides, you owe him an explanation. The guys told me how bad he took it when he got your letter; he deserved better than that."

"I know," Kim choked out softly. "I just couldnít tell him the truth. I was too afraid to; after the way my mom took it . . . I couldnít have handled it if heíd abandoned me, too."

"So you abandoned him first. Tommy wouldnít have done that. He loved you so much; I canít believe that would have changed the way he felt."

"It changed the way my mother felt," Kim said bitterly. Then, Kim composed herself as 30 lbs. of pure energy came charging at her.

"Mommy!" Olivia cried gleefully, flinging her arms around Kimís legs.

"Hey, sweetheart," Kim said, stooping down to hug and kiss her daughter. In spite of everything she had endured, she never regretted for an instant keeping her child.

"Oh, mommy, you look so beautiful!"

"Thank you. So what did you think of the wedding?"

"Well, I was kinda bored, but I still had fun. Hey, whereís Tommy . . . Tommy, come say hi to my mommy!" Olivia dashed off to retrieve her companion.

Kim braced herself as her daughter tugged Tommy towards her. She wasnít ready yet. She couldnít bear to see . . . sheíd look into those eyes of his and sheíd know. She wasnít sure she could face the hurt and anger that he must feel for what she had done to him.

Then, he was standing before her. Kim could only stare; her voice seemed to have taken a coffee break. She felt ridiculous; she hadnít been this nervous the first time she had ever spoken to him! Kimís eyes took in every detail. In spite of herself, his eyes seemed to draw her in, and to her astonishment, she saw no anger or pain. There was sadness, loneliness, and a faint ember of the affection he once had for her. Suddenly, she wondered what he saw in hers.

"Mommy, this is Tommy," Olivia bubbled.

"Hello, Kim," Tommy said, his voice husky. The warmth of his voice washed over Kim like a warm wave.

"Hey, Tommy."

Just take it easy, she told herself. Thereís no way he can know the truth . . . .Olivia doesnít even know. He probably thinks Iím happily married --with a family-- and my husband couldnít make it to the wedding.

"You know my mommy?" Olivia queried, tugging at Tommyís trouser leg.

"Weíre old friends from school," Tommy answered. He took Kimís hands and leaned forward to give her a gentle peck on the cheek.

His touch on her hands was light; he wasnít even standing that close, and the kiss . . . it wasnít any big deal. He had greeted Tanya the same way: a display of affection for an old friend. Yet, Kimís trembling shot off the charts. She couldnít stop shaking, and the urge to pull away--to run--was crushingly strong. Only the desire not to cause a scene at Aishaís wedding kept her from fleeing. To her embarrassment, Tommy seemed to pick up on her distress. He eyed her wonderingly as he released her hands and took a step back, giving her more room.

Kim couldnít seem to catch her breath.

"Mommy, are you okay?"

"Iím . . . fine, honey," Kim lied, forcing a smile for her daughter. Olivia could be such a worrywart; sometimes it seemed the child spent more time worrying about the mother than the other way around.

"Youíre looking great, Kim; itís good to see you again."

"Y-you to, Tommy." Kim was grateful he was willing to pretend that nothing was amiss --for the moment, but she could tell he wanted to ask.

"And you have a wonderful daughter; sheís very much like you."

Kim blushed. "Thank you. And thanks for keeping an eye on her this morning."

"Itís been a pleasure."

"Look at the flower Tommy gave me!" Olivia beamed, proudly holding up her pink rose.

"Itís very beautiful, and that was very nice of Tommy." Kim could feel the tears threatening.

"Okay, folks! We have pictures to take!" Stephen called out as the last of the guests left the receiving area.

"This is quite a production," Tommy remarked.

"Aisha had wanted a small wedding, but Stephenís mom was really wanting a big to-do," Kim explained as they started to drift back out to the gazebo. "His parents offered to pay for it all, so they took them up on the offer."

"Mommy, Iím hungry," Olivia complained.

"Itís going to be a little while yet, Sweetie," Kim sighed apologetically. "Iím not sure how long the pictures will take, and then thereís something going on at the Stoneís house . . . ."

"Hey, I can take Olivia and get her some lunch it youíd like," Tommy offered.

"Tommy, thatís really sweet, but I wouldnít want to impose . . . ."

"Itís not like I have anything else going on until the reception," he pointed out. "Iím sure you have a lot of things to do yet with Aisha and the wedding. I really wouldnít mind."

Kim bit her lip uncertainly. She was tempted to take him up on his offer. They did have a lot to do, and she really wouldnít be able to keep an eye on Olivia as sheíd like. However, she had never left Olivia alone with anyone else for more than a half an hour at the most. This morning had been the first time.

"Whatís keeping you, girl?" Aisha called out.

"Iíll be there in a minute!"

Kim looked from Tommy to her daughter; actually, she felt a little guilty even considering his proposal. Still, she hadnít seen Aisha in a while and hadnít been able to spend much time with her this weekend. And it had been so long since she had done a thing without Olivia . . . she didnít know if she could anymore. Kim sighed. Really, she was being a little foolish; she knew she could trust her daughter to Tommyís care. "Would you like to go with Tommy to get some lunch?"

"Yes!" Olivia cheered.

In a way, Kim felt a little hurt that her daughter was so eager to go. "Then I guess itís okay."

"Donít worry about a thing, Kim; weíll be fine," Tommy assured her. "What time would you like me to bring her back? Although, I can keep an eye on her until the reception, if youíd like. Iím sure you could use the time."

"Tommy, no. I couldnít ask . . . ."

"Youíre not asking; Iím offering," he reminded her with a teasing smile.

"I donít know; Oliviaís never spent much time without me around."

"If youíd rather I not . . . ."

"No . . . itís just that . . . ."

"Tell you what, Olivia and I will get some lunch and maybe go by the park or something; the minute she wants to come back, we will. Otherwise, weíll see you at the reception. Sound fair enough?"

"Please, Mommy?" Olivia entreated. She was bouncing up and down with excitement, and Kim couldnít resist her hopeful expression.

"All right. You behave for Tommy."

"I promise."

"Kim . . . !" Aisha called again.

"All right! Can I have a hug?" Kim knelt down and was promptly tackled by her delighted child.

"Iím glad you know Tommy, mommy," Olivia confided in hushed tones. "Heís really nice, and I really like him."

Kim struggled to keep her emotions in check.

So do I, Sweetie, so do I.

She stood in the gateway and watched as Tommy and Olivia walked off. They paused to talk to Rocky for a moment, then the three headed out to the parking lot. With a heavy heart, Kim turned to rejoin the rest of the wedding party. She quietly took a seat behind Aisha and Tanya as they waited for the photographer to finish up with Stephenís family.

" . . . no way," Aisha gasped to something Tanya had told her. "The way sheíd been after him, Iíd have thought theyíd have been married with their own kids by now."

Tanya shook her head. "It didnít last. They both realized there was nothing there pretty early on in the relationship. They stayed together just so no one else would know. When Kat left for London, that was it. Adam says Tommy hasnít dated anyone since."

Kim blinked her eyes in surprise. Not to hear that Tommy and Kat had dated--she had always assumed thatís what happened. It was that Tommy wasnít seeing anyone and hadnít for quite a while. Why? He should have had no problem finding someone else.

"Because of Kim?" Aisha asked.

"Heís never said, but we think so."

"Because of me --what?" Kim piped up.

"That heís never dated. Face it, girl. The man is obviously still in love with you," Aisha snorted.

"Thatís impossible," Kim said in a choked whisper.

"Is it?" Tanya wondered. "Even I could tell there was still something there when I saw him with you in the receiving line, and the way he was with Olivia . . . ."

Kim didnít want to believe it. Tommy couldnít still be in love with her, could he? She knew that she still loved him, but there was no way that they could ever be together again.

"Speaking of the munchkin, where is she?" Aisha interrupted.

"She was hungry, so Tommy offered to take her to lunch," Kim said.

"And you let her go?" Aisha gasped. Kim scowled at her teasing grin.

"Please, Aisha . . . ." Kim sighed; she wasnít in the mood.

"Kim, you have to talk to him," Tanya advised. Kim hadnít known Tanya for very long, just since Aisha had been planning her wedding, but she had clicked with this former Yellow Ranger as easily as she had with Aisha.

"I know . . . I just donít know how."

* * *

"Thanks, Rocky," Tommy said as he helped Olivia out of Rockyís jeep.

"No problem. Now Iíd better get back before Aisha skins me alive for running off during the pictures. You two have fun, and Iíll see you at dinner," Rocky answered.

"Bye!" Olivia called brightly, waving as Rocky pulled away from the curb. "I like him. Heís funny."

"Yeah, Rockyís a great guy. He has lots of brothers and sisters," Tommy replied. Rocky had dropped him off at his parentís house so he could pick up his truck.

"I wish I had a brother or sister," Olivia sighed wistfully. "Sometimes itís lonely with just me and Mommy. She has to teach and stuff and canít play with me. And the other girls at the gym are all older than me, and they donít want to play either. Well, maybe they would if Coach Schmidt would let them."

"Kim teaches at Coach Schmidtís training facility?" Tommy reiterated.

"Uh huh. We live there, too."

"Up you go, Princess," Tommy said, swinging Olivia into the front seat. For a moment, he thought about borrowing his motherís car. After all, he really shouldnít have her in the front seat, but a quick glance showed that his mom wasnít home yet.

As he fastened Olivia in, Tommy mulled over her information. She and Kim were living in the training centerís dormitory? Tommy recalled Kim writing to him about it when she first got down to Florida. She had thought about getting an apartment but thought sheíd get to know her other teammates better if she stayed in the gymís housing. Why wouldnít she have moved into an apartment when the baby came along?

He was trying to piece together what might have happened to Kim. Olivia was going to be five in September --as she had proudly announced when he had been swinging her-- that meant Kim had gotten pregnant the January before she sent him the letter. She had probably missed the games then, too. Tommy hadnít been able to bring himself to watch the Pan Globals, but he had paid attention to the news reports. Since Kim was never mentioned, he had assumed that she hadnít medaled. The scenario could very well have been that Kim had met someone in Florida and gotten pregnant --which would have explained why she had broken up with him. It was plausible, but . . . .

"So, where do you want to go? McDonaldís?" Tommy queried, sliding into his seat. His speculations could wait; a hungry, almost-five-year-old could not.

"McDonaldís? Really?" Olivia gasped, reacting as if heíd said heíd seen Santa Claus or something.

"Sure."

"But itís not even my birthday."

"You only go to McDonaldís on your birthday?"

"Uh huh. Itís something very special."

Kim always was really conscious about eating healthy, Tommy reminded himself. Just because they didnít go to McDonaldís very often didnít mean anything. Still, he had a feeling . . . living in a dorm, second hand clothes . . . but Kim couldnít have been too badly off if she could afford the trip to come home. Things could be tight without being desperate. Maybe they just had to cut back here and there to save for the trip.

"Well, isnít today a special occasion?" Tommy asked, trying to cover his surprise.

"I guess so."

"Then McDonaldís it is."

 

 

Tommy sat back against the cool wall exhaustedly as Olivia clambered into the maze of pipes in the play land. How could Kim keep up with her? The only reason he had gotten out of playing in the plastic jungle was because he was too big to fit! And the chatter . . . ! He thought he dealt with kids just fine, but he had never had to deal with them in such a concentrated form. He was grateful for the peace and quiet. He had a lot to think about.

In a way, he felt a little guilty. He knew quite a bit more about Kimís present situation, thanks to her daughterís volubility. He hadnít needed to ask a single question. He was sure Kim wouldnít have wanted him to know much of it. Olivia hadnít told him anything major, but all the little things added up to a very bleak picture --although, one couldnít have told it from watching Olivia. It was the only life she knew, so she didnít know she was missing anything. Tommy was proud of the job Kim had done with raising her child. Olivia was happy, healthy . . . but what had been the toll on Kim?

"Tommy . . . ." a plaintive cry interrupted him. He looked up to see Olivia standing before him with great big crocodile tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Whatís wrong? Did you get hurt?" he asked. Kim would kill him if anything happened to her little girl!

"No," Olivia sniffled. "This boy in the tubes . . . he was squishing this little white thing, and it broke and . . . ." She didnít even need to finish. There was ketchup all over the front of her dress. What was that kid doing with a ketchup packet in the playroom anyway!

"My beautiful dress is all ruined!"

"No it isnít. Letís get some napkins and see if we can get you cleaned up," Tommy consoled her.

"Is Mommy going to be mad?"

"No, honey. It wasnít your fault. Besides, weíll get this wiped up, and sheíll never even know anything happened." However, the condiment proved more difficult to clean up than Tommy anticipated. His wiping only seemed to make matters worse; he had forgotten how hard it was to get a ketchup stain out. Tommy sat back with a huff and brushed a stray strand of hair out of his face. "Okay . . . ."

Olivia was still sniffling and on the verge of tears again. "What are we going to do?"

"Weíre going to go talk to an expert on ketchup stains," Tommy decided.

"Whoís that?"

"My mother."

 

 

Fortunately for Tommy, his motherís car was in the driveway when he pulled up. He led Olivia around to the back door.

"Hey, mom," he called out.

"Tommy? What are you doing here?" Janice Oliver queried as she shut the refrigerator door. Her hazel eyes widened as she noticed the tot he had in tow. "I thought you were at Aishaís wedding?"

"There are a couple hours between the ceremony and dinner," Tommy explained.

"Whoís your little friend?"

"Mom, Iíd like you to meet Olivia Hart." Tommy saw the expression of disbelief and noted the question in his motherís eyes. He nodded in confirmation. His mother looked like she wanted to take a seat. He couldnít blame her. If he hadnít been sitting down when he found out . . . . "Olivia, this is my mom, Janice Oliver."

"H-hello," Olivia mumbled.

"Itís nice to meet you. What brings the two of you here?"

"We were at McDonaldís and had a little accident with a ketchup packet," Tommy explained.

"I didnít have the accident; that boy squirted me!" Olivia snapped in defense of herself. Tommy hid his smile; Olivia sounded so much like her mother.

"Anyway, we have to get the ketchup out before I take her back to Kim."

"Letís head upstairs and see what we can do," Jan said. "It isnít dry clean only, is it?"

"I donít think so."

"Mommy has washed this lots of times," Olivia supplied.

"Good, then we can soak it in the sink with some Woolite. Tommy, go get a t-shirt from my dresser; the poor thing would be hopelessly lost in one of your old ones."

"Tommy, whereís the bathroom?" Olivia asked suddenly. "I gotta go potty."

"Itís upstairs. Iíll show you," he said, thankful that issue hadnít come up at McDonaldís as well.

"You get the shirt, Iíll show our guest to the bathroom then help her out of her dress," Jan spoke up, and the trio headed for the stairs.

Tommy dug around in his motherís drawer until he located what he imagined was the smallest t-shirt she owned. When he turned, he wasnít surprised to find his mother standing in the doorway.

"Thatís Kimberlyís little girl?" Jan queried.

"Yes. Kimís Aishaís maid of honor, and Olivia was kind of underfoot so I offered to keep an eye on her."

"Beautiful child. If I didnít know any better, Iíd say she was yours."

"I know. The ministerís wife told me I had a lovely daughter."

"He must have looked an awful lot like you," Jan murmured.

"He?"

"Kimís husband. Oliviaís father. The man she left you for."

Perhaps it was merely wishful thinking, but Tommy felt sure that there hadnít been another man. At the very least, there wasnít now. When he held Kimís hand, he hadnít felt a wedding ring. He knew what his mother was trying to do; she was trying to remind him of what happened so he wouldnít get hurt again. He couldnít blame her for wanting him to be cautious; his rekindled interest was hardly disguised, and he had hurt for so long the first time. However, before he could address her statement, Olivia emerged from the bathroom wearing nothing but her panties. Her beaming face was smeared with red streaks.

"I didnít need any help to get undressed!" she declared proudly. Tommy and his mother exchanged amused smiles.

* * *

"Where are they?" Kim wondered, anxiously glancing towards the door.

"Will you chill out," Aisha instructed exasperatedly. "Thereís plenty of time before dinner yet. I think youíd have been better off if youíd have kept Olivia with you. You havenít been able to relax for a moment since she left with Tommy."

"Iím sorry. Itís just that . . . ."

"I know. Youíve never been away from her this long before," Aisha sighed. "You shouldnít worry so much; I bet Olivia had the time of her life this afternoon."

It was Kimís turn to sigh. "Iím sure she did."

Aisha just shook her head. "Would it make you feel any better if I put Olivia at the head table with you? I have her at the table with my parents and Tommy, but if youíd rather I didnít, thereís still time . . . ."

"Thereís no reason to rearrange things. Iím just being silly."

"Just talk to him, Kim. You arenít going to be able to enjoy yourself tonight until you do."

Kim wished it was that easy.

"Come on," Aisha harumphed, noting Kimís hesitant expression. "Letís see if we can find you something to do to keep your mind occupied."

Kimís appointed task was to light all the candles in the centerpieces --a job requiring little more than just a modicum of her attention, so her thoughts were still free to wander. She knew she was being overly sensitive, but she couldnít help but be worried about what Tommy thought about Olivia, her situation . . . . Tommy wouldnít interrogate Olivia, but Kim knew her daughter. When Olivia warmed up to someone, she could talk his ear off. She wouldnít think anything of telling Tommy about herself; she wouldnít know that what was just everyday living for her would seem so . . . pathetic to someone else, and Kim couldnít bear the thought that Tommy thought badly about her . . . .

She felt tears gathering in her eyes and brushed them away angrily. Let him think what he wanted! She had done the best she could. Her daughter was happy, healthy --so what if they didnít have a lot of things. She had a job; she wasnít on welfare. She couldnít help it if she had no insurance and the medical bills were taking every cent she had or that she was having to live on her credit card to get by. Lots of people had those problems. Surely Tommy could understand that.

. . . he could if you told him, Kim chided herself, but she wasnít sure if she could deal with Tommyís pity, or worse, his condemnation--his justified Ďit serves you right.í

You know Tommy wouldnít do that to you; heís not that sort of person. At least, he hadnít been when they were young and in love. There was no telling what five years had done to him.

Kim tossed aside the lighter and fled to the restroom. For five years, she had been a rock. She had been abandoned to bring her daughter into the world alone, to raise her alone, and she had to be strong for them both. Now, one look at Tommy, and she felt like that scared seventeen year old all over again.

 

 

Tommy and Olivia arrived at the hall amid a crush of other guests.

"I canít see mommy," Olivia piped up as she jumped about, trying to catch a glimpse through the much taller bodies.

"Will this help?" Tommy queried, picking the child up. Olivia squealed with delight. He also scanned the room for Kim but saw no sign of her.

"There you two are," Aisha greeted them cheerfully. "You guys look like old buds."

"I got to go to McDonaldís, Auntie ĎIsha. See my toy!" Olivia declared proudly.

"Thatís real nice, honey."

"Whereís Kim?" Tommy wondered.

"Little girlís room," Aisha answered. "You and Olivia are at the table with my folks, Adam, and Rocky. You donít mind the company a little longer, do you?"

"Not at all."

Tommy exchanged greetings with Stephen then went in search of the table. He spied Rocky waving and wandered over.

". . . you guys should have seen the hologram Billy sent," Tanya was saying as she stood behind Adamís chair. "It was almost like he was there."

"Iím just glad Aisha was able to get an invitation to him," Adam remarked.

"Howíd she manage that?" Rocky wondered.

"It wasnít easy. Thereís been so many changes in the team since we left," Tanya continued. "Itís a shame he wasnít able to make it, though. She was really hoping . . . whoops, gotta go, Sweetie; Iíll catch you later when the dancing starts." Slipping Adam a peck on the cheek, Tanya scurried off with a quick "hi, Tommy," in passing.

"So when are the two of you getting hitched?" Rocky asked Adam, elbowing him knowingly, to Adamís obvious discomfort."

"Hey, Rocky! I see youíre still all in one piece; I guess Aisha didnít kill you for running off," Tommy jibed as he arrived at the table and pulled out the chair for Olivia.

"And I see youíre still hanging out with younger women," Rocky retorted. "Cradle robber."

"At least I have a date."

Rocky looked wounded, Olivia looked puzzled, and Adam had to stifle a snicker at that.

"Whereís Kim?" Adam queried.

"Powder Room."

"So, Squirt, was Tommy a boring date?" Rocky teased.

"DeSantos . . . ." Tommy began warningly.

"Hey, Iím still trying to figure out what the girls see in you."

"We had lots of fun!" Olivia bubbled, then she gave another excited chirp. "Thereís Mommy!"

"Go for it, Princess," Tommy said, noticing that the girl was practically bouncing out of her chair. "She looks like she missed you." Olivia took off like a shot. The men watched as mother and daughter shared hugs; Kim swept the tot into her arms and listened with a tender, indulgent smile to the animated chatter.

"Olivia sure is something," Adam murmured.

Tommy tore his gaze away from the two women. "She sure is," he agreed, his tone wistful.

"We had no idea Kim had a kid," Rocky remarked. "When we met Olivia at the rehearsal dinner, I about passed out. At first, I thought that she might have been . . . ."

"I know, but she isnít mine," Tommy interrupted. He and Kim had never taken that step in their relationship.

"Do you know what happened? Was it the guy in the letter?" Adam asked.

"I really donít know."

"Kim hasnít said anything yet?" Rocky questioned.

"No."

"I think Aisha knows," Adam began, but he fell silent as Kim returned Olivia to the table.

"How are you doing?" Tommy queried, having risen without thinking. He rested a hand on Kimís shoulder. She looked worn out, and he couldnít help but notice that her muscles were tight beneath his hand. "Long afternoon?"

"A little. I really appreciate all your help this afternoon, Tommy. Sorry about the trouble with the ketchup; thank your mom for me."

"It was no big deal; Iím glad we were able to get it cleaned up. Someone was quite upset about it." Tommy favored Olivia with a smile.

"This is my favorite, bestest dress," she asserted.

"I know, Princess." When Tommy turned his attention back to Kim, he noticed that she looked extremely ill at ease.

"Youíve had Olivia all day; if youíd like to have some time to yourself --you know, to enjoy the party . . . ."

"Kim, I havenít enjoyed myself so much in ages," Tommy assured here. "Olivia will be fine at dinner --Iím more worried about Rocky being a nuisance than her.

"Hey!" Rocky objected.

Olivia giggled, and Kim even managed a small grin.

"You do whatever you need to, and donít worry about a thing." As Kim transferred Olivia to Tommyís arms, he squeezed her hand gently and murmured under her breath. "You know there isnít anything I wouldnít do for you."

"Even after all this time?" Kim whispered back, disbelieving. From the way she blushed, Tommy had the impression she hadnít meant to say the words aloud.

"Yes."

"I donít know . . . thanks, Tommy," she muttered, flustered. With that, she hurried away, leaving her friends looking after her in wonderment.

"Why does Mommy look so sad?" Olivia asked.

"I wish I knew, Princess."

* * *

Kim picked at her dinner, her stomach too tightly knotted up for her to eat. She spent the entire meal either watching Tommy and her daughter or trying to avoid their eyes. At the moment, Olivia was giving Rocky the devil about something, and Tommy was politely listening to one of Stephenís innumerable aunts. Whatever the woman had said had caught Tommy off guard; however, when he tried to respond, she simply dismissed him with a wave and continued chattering away. All Tommy could do was shrug and try not to look bored. Idly, Kim wondered what the comment had been. A moment later, she didnít have to wonder. Here came Stephenís aunt, preceded by a miasma of floral cologne that could have been emitted from the riot of flowers on her dress.

"Honey, I just had to tell you what an adorable little girl you have," Aunt so-n-so gushed.

"Thank you."

"You are so lucky," she continued, "your husband is so good with her. Wish mine had been like that."

Kim felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach. She cast a panicked glance Tommyís way. How could he have told her that . . . ? Then, she calmed herself. Tommy hadnít been able to get a word in edgewise; he had probably been trying to tell her that he wasnít Oliviaís father when she bowled him over with her prattle.

It was an honest mistake; Tommy really was great with Olivia, and as for the uncanny resemblance . . . . Kim had noticed that the day Olivia was born. When the nurse first put her daughter into her arms, she had marveled at the dark hair and thick lashes, and when her baby opened her eyes . . . . They were the same deep pools of brown that she had lost herself in when she first met Tommy. "Oh, Tommy," she had sighed as those soul-windows drew her in, and in that moment, she knew she couldnít give her child up. Later, she had tried to tell herself that the coincidental resemblance was nothing more than wishful thinking, but it had been the reason she had named her daughter after Tommy.

Yes, he could have been Oliviaís father . . . he should have been Oliviaís father. She had had such hopes and dreams. After high school, there would have been college, and then she and Tommy would have gotten married. Even after gymnastics entered the equation, she had always envisioned a future with Tommy. If things had worked out, this might have been her wedding, and Olivia would have followed a year later. Instead, all her dreams had come crashing to an end.

"Are you finished with this?"

"Huh? Oh, yes. Thank you," Kim murmured as the woman took her plate. They were clearing the tables already? Kim glanced at Tommy and Olivia again. She had put it off as long as she could, but she didnít think Tommyís questions --the answers she owed him-- would wait much longer.

 

 

Tommy watched as Kim and Olivia spun around the dance floor. He smiled as he noticed the joy in Kimís face. It was the first time all evening she looked like she was enjoying herself. He felt badly that his presence was making Kim so nervous. He wanted to let her go and not press her for answers, but for five years he had wondered what had gone wrong. He needed to know; maybe thatís why he had been unable to put things behind him.

A ballad came on. Throughout the early sets, Kim had been monopolized by the wedding party, and he entertained Olivia with his less-than-graceful efforts. Then, once the more up tempo songs started, Olivia occupied her mother completely.

"Rocky, do me a favor."

"Sure."

"Dance with Olivia so I can dance with Kim."

"No problemo," Rocky agreed readily. As he abandoned the table to collect his new partner, he patted Tommy on the shoulder. "Good luck."

"Thanks."

Kimís back was to him as he headed onto the dance floor, her attention completely focused on Rocky as he spun Olivia away.

"May I have this dance?" Tommy queried, tapping her on the shoulder. Kim jumped.

"Oh. Um, sure. I guess," she stammered.

For a moment --when Tommy took her hand in his-- he felt her tremble and glimpsed what he would have sworn was fear in her eyes, though she locked it down quickly, covering her anxiety with a false smile. In those few seconds, Tommy could see his student Sarah again. He recalled the first time he had tried to correct her arm position on a block --that had been before Maggie confided her story in him, and he had been careful thereafter in how he approached her. Her eyes held that same wild, terrified look as Kimberlyís . . . .

No, please, not that . . . !

Tommy danced with Kim as he would have if she had been a stranger and not the woman he had loved since the minute he laid eyes on her. He kept his grip light and left plenty of distance between their bodies. Giving her her space didnít seem to lessen her trembling. His heart ached with the realization that whatever had happened to her was still causing her pain. Seeing Kimís pale, frightened face, Tommy knew he couldnít ask his questions. As much as he longed to know, he couldnít bring himself to hurt her any more.

"Kim, are you feeling all right? You look a little pale; would you like to sit down for a bit?" Tommy asked, trying to find a way to help her out without embarrassing her.

"I think maybe Iíd better," Kim murmured. It pained Tommy to hear the faint note of relief and gratitude in her voice.

Tommy guided her through the swaying dancers to his table. "Would you like some water?" he offered.

"Actually, if youíll excuse me, I think I needed to go . . . ."

Tommy nodded his understanding and watched as Kim headed for the restroom. He stared after her for a moment longer, then, collecting his drink, set out in search of a couple of somebodies. Finally finding where Tanya and Adam were melded together on the dance floor, he tapped Tanya on the shoulder.

"Sorry to interrupt, but Kim said she wasnít feeling well and took off for the restroom. Would

you mind checking on her for me?"

"Sure, Tommy."

After Tanya departed, Tommy turned to Adam. "You said Aisha knows what happened to Kim? Where is she?"

 

 

Tommy located Aisha talking with some relatives.

"Say, I havenít gotten to dance with the blushing bride yet; would you excuse us for a moment," Tommy said as he steered Aisha away.

"Whatís gotten into you?" she sputtered.

"What happened to Kim?" he demanded, suddenly serious.

Aisha sighed, lowering her eyes, unable to bear the intensity of his gaze.

"Talk to me," he insisted.

"Kim will kill me if I tell you," she demurred.

"And Iíll kill you if you donít," he snapped. Aishaís eyes went wide upon hearing his vehemence. Tommy immediately regretted his sharp words. "Iím sorry, Aisha. Itís just that I need to know the truth. Was it something I did? Did it have to do with Olivia? Iíve already figured a few things out, but I have to know what it is that has Kim so terrified. I still love her; Aisha --I never stopped. Please?"

"She never stopped loving you either; why do you think she named her daughter after you?" Aisha murmured softly, wincing as Tommy released the hold he had on her arms.

"She did?" Tommy gulped, surprised beyond measure.

"Didnít you get it? Tommi Olivia --where else would she have gotten that?" Seeing the emotions naked in Tommyís face decided her. "Why donít we head outside where we can hear ourselves talk."

"Like I said, Kim never fell out of love with you," Aisha began as she and Tommy took seats on the stone benches just outside the doors. Absently, she twisted her wedding band around her finger. "The letter was bogus; it was just at the time, she was so scared and confused --she didnít know what else to do.

"It happened right after her visit at Christmas that year. She had just gotten back to Florida. Coach canceled Saturday morningís practice, so a bunch of the girls decided to catch a movie. Iíve been to visit Kim at the training center; itís not in a really good neighborhood. The girls didnít want to walk by themselves, so they asked some of the guys from the menís team to go with them.

"After the movie, everyone else wanted to go out for something to eat, but Kim wasnít feeling up to it--jet lag. The others didnít want her walking back alone, so Jim volunteered to go with her." Here, Aisha paused and looked up into Tommyís expectant face. "Oh God, Tommy, sheíd have been better off alone . . . none of this would have happened if Jim hadnít been there to slow her down . . . ." Then, she mastered her runaway emotions.

"They were attacked by a bunch of punks. They fought . . . you know what a scrappy fighter Kim is, and after being a Ranger . . . those punks had nothing on putties or tengas. She kicked their butts but good! She could have gotten away; she almost had. She had broken away from the two who attacked her and had started running, but then she remembered Jim. When she turned to look for him . . . .

"The scumbags had gotten him; Jim was unconscious, and one of them had a knife to his throat. T-they told her if she didnít do what they wanted . . . ." Tears stopped Aishaís words and she fell into Tommyís arms.

She didnít need to say it; Tommy knew. They raped her --they forced her to let them do it to her. Blackest anger flooded through Tommyís body; his fists clenched and unclenched, and he trembled with the urge to smash something.

"She had no choice," Aisha rasped.

"I know." He held her tighter as fury gave was to grief --a sorrow deeper than anything he had ever known before. He mourned for what that sacrifice had cost Kim. It was a long while before either of them could speak again. Finally, Aisha wiped her eyes and continued.

"For a while, Kim thought the attack was the end of it --well, except for the nightmares. Then, in February, they had the team physicals. Thatís when she found out she was pregnant. Kim was beside herself. She didnít know what to think or do. All her teammates and coaches were telling her to get an abortion, not to give up her chance at a medal for a baby she didnít want and couldnít possibly take care of. They told her the baby wasnít worth ruining her life over. However, Kim wasnít so sure; this was a baby --a living being, a part of herself. As a Ranger she had always fought to save lives, not take them. Needing advice, she called her mother.

"I really donít know what all happened, but Mrs. Hart just went nuts. She wouldnít even listen to Kim --she was convinced you had gotten Kim pregnant and left her high and dry," Aisha said wryly.

Tommy could understand that. What mother wants to find out that her daughter had been raped?

"Mrs. Hart told Kim that she had to have an abortion. She told her that if she chose to keep the baby not to bother asking for any help because she wanted no part of it. Then, she told Kim not to call her again until she came to her senses. That was the last time Kim talked to her mother."

"Geez, Aisha, how could Mrs. Hart do that to Kim? How could she turn her back on her daughter when she needed her most?"

"I couldnít believe it either," Aisha sighed. "Kim and her mom were more like best friends than mother and daughter."

"Kim must have been devastated; the one person in the world she counted on being there for her abandons her . . . ." A light seemed to come on in Tommyís mind. "I bet she felt that if her mom could turn on her so would the rest of us."

"Thatís why she didnít tell any of us, and why she broke up with you. It would have killed her if weíd rejected her, too. That, and I think she was really too embarrassed to say anything."

"Why? It wasnít her fault, and she was doing what she thought was the right thing; I would have stood by her --we all would have."

"I know, but Kim couldnít believe that any longer," Aisha said sadly.

"If Kim wasnít talking, howíd you find all this out?" Tommy asked suddenly.

"By accident. Dad was flying into Miami for business, and I conned him into letting me tag along so I could drive up to see Kim. I just showed up on her doorstep; she was about 7 months at the time. Oh, Tommy, you should have seen her! Little, tiny Kimberly with this huge, round belly --it was so cute! Even then, Kim didnít want to tell me, but I out-stubborned her."

"Howíd she wind up living and working at the training center? Iíd have thought Coach Schmidt would have asked her to leave," Tommy pursued.

"I think Coach had a soft spot for Kim. She was all set to leave --bags packed and everything. He knew she had no place to go, so he offered her room and board if sheíd help out in the gym. That eventually evolved into a position as coaching assistant; it was considered part time --she couldnít be a full coach until she got her USGF certification."

"If itís anything like the martial arts certification, that costs a pretty penny," Tommy mused.

"Definitely --money Kim didnít have to spare. Once Olivia was born, she had the doctor and hospital to pay since she had no insurance, and she refused to go on Welfare. I guess her mom really ragged on her about that. It took her nearly two years, but she finally got them paid off.

"After that, she started saving to come home. More than anything, she wanted to get Olivia out of the gym and away from the area. She hoped to save up enough money for them to move to Angel Grove, and she wanted to be settled here before Olivia started kindergarten. However, last November, Olivia got sick --reoccurring ear infections. The doctor said she needed tubes. Since Kim didnít have insurance, the doctor wanted half his fee up front before he operated. Kim wiped out her savings and reluctantly borrowed some from me, but she paid the doctor, and everything was set.

"There were . . . complications. After the operation, Olivia developed some sort of infection --she nearly died. She was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. To the doctorís surprise and Kimís relief, she made a full recovery."

"But the bills piled up again," Tommy concluded, and Aisha nodded.

"She called to tell me that she couldnít be in the wedding; she just couldnít afford it. Kim was so depressed . . . she had so hoped to come out here and find a place . . . . You know what my wedding present from Stephen was? Kimís dress and her and Oliviaís plane tickets. I just had to get her out here somehow!"

"I wish she wouldnít have shut me out," Tommy murmured. "I donít know what I would have done, but I wouldnít have let her face all this by herself."

"She needs help, Tommy, but I donít think she knows how to ask for it anymore. Olivia starts school next year, and Kim is just so afraid that if she canít support Olivia, someone will take her away from her, and sheís all Kim has left . . . ."

Tommy wanted to do something --desperately. What could he do? If he could, heíd pay off Kimís bills, but he didnít have the resources. His earnings from racing had all gone into buying and refurbishing the dojo. The school was only in its second year. He had barely broke even last year, but he was making a respectable profit now. If he had access to the trust fund his aunt had set up for him . . . but he couldnít touch it for another three years. Besides, from the sounds of it, he doubted Kimberly would accept the money. There had to be a way to help; he just had to find it, and fast.

"Hereís where youíve gotten to," Aishaís mother called out as she popped her head out of the doorway.

"Whatís up?" Aisha asked.

"Tanya has been looking all over for you."

"Iíll go see what she wants."

Tommy and Aisha collected themselves and headed inside. They found Tanya at the table with Rocky and Adam; Kim was there, too, with Olivia drifting off to sleep in her lap.

"Iím going to take Kim and Olivia back to my place; itís past somebodyís bedtime," Tanya explained. Then, more softly, she added, "Kimís had about all she can take."

"Good idea," Aisha whispered back.

"Here, let me get Olivia for you," Tommy offered. Kim was too worn out to object. As they followed Tanya out of the hall and to her car, Tommy finally came up with an idea.

"Olivia was telling me that you guys are flying out tomorrow night," he ventured.

"At six," Kim responded without enthusiasm.

"If youíd like, I can take you to the airport."

"Thanks, but Tanya and Adam already said they would."

"Oh. Well, could I come, too, and see you off?"

"I guess so."

"Actually, I was kind of hoping to spend a little more time with you and Olivia before you leave --that is, if you feel up to it," he pressed on. "What about a trip to the park? I sort of promised Olivia Iíd take her today, but we didnít get to because of the ketchup fiasco. Iíd sure hate to break a promise."

"Can we, Mommy?" Olivia piped up, rousing herself at Tommyís words.

Tommy felt a twinge of guilt for using Olivia against Kim like this, but he had to find some way to see her tomorrow.

"Well . . . ." Kim sighed. Tommy knew she wouldnít be able to resist those imploring, puppy-dog eyes. "I suppose a trip to the park would be okay. For a little while. What time did you have in mind?"

"I can pick you guys up around eleven."

"Okay."

"Iíll see you two tomorrow, then."

" Gínight, Tommy," Olivia said with a yawn.

"Good night, Princess. Good night, Kim."

Tommy stood back and watched as Tanyaís car pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared from sight. Then, he realized he should get going, too. After all, he only had thirteen hours to come up with a plan to help Kim.

* * *

"Look out below!"

"Tommy, what . . . oh, no! Donít!"

With shrieks of laughter, Kim and Olivia dove out of the way as Tommy came plowing down the slide. They werenít fast enough, and he flattened them both.

"Get off!" Olivia sputtered.

"I thought you were supposed to catch me."

"Youíre too big!"

"You didnít say that when I was pushing you on the swings."

"I wanna swing again. Race ya!" With that, Olivia sprang to her feet, and with an excited squeal, ran towards the swing set.

"Hey, no fair having a head start!" Tommy protested as he gave chase, leaving Kim to pick herself up out of the sand. She merely shook her head and smiled as she watched the two. Things didnít seem as bleak as they had been yesterday. She had really overreacted; she just hadnít been prepared to see Tommy again. Tanya had set her down this morning and talked to her. Kim had wanted to die when Tanya told her that Aisha had told Tommy everything, but then Tanya pointed out that even though Tommy knew the truth, he had still invited Kim and Olivia to the park--that in spite of everything, Tommy was still her friend. Kim knew that Tanya was right; she just hadnít wanted to believe . . . she hadnít wanted to take the risk. If anyone deserved to be angry with her, it was Tommy. That he could still accept her . . . .

Kim wiped her eyes. Knowing that Tommy had been told --and that he didnít despise her-- took a great weight off her shoulders. She was still a little nervous being around him. She was afraid to let herself open up to him completely, and she knew they would have to talk eventually. Even so, it seemed like Tommy wanted to be friends. She hoped so. Watching the two people she loved most in all the world play together made her long for old dreams, but she knew things could never be the way they had been between them. However, just to have Tommyís friendship again would be more than she had let herself hope for in a long time.

"Stop it! Stop it!"

Kim glanced up as Tommy shouted. The pair had abandoned the swings; Olivia was sitting on Tommyís stomach, tickling him. While Kim knew he was slightly ticklish, she also knew he was putting on a heck of a performance to Oliviaís delight. Kim made her way over to where the wrestling match was taking place.

"Uncle! Time out!" Tommy called out with a laugh. "I give up; I surrender!" However, Olivia was having none of it, pressing her advantage mercilessly.

"Ease up, honey; I think Tommy needs to catch his breath," Kim chided gently.

"Thank you," Tommy panted as he was finally able to sit up.

"Can we go on the merry-go-round again?" Olivia asked. Then, her face fell.

"Whatís wrong?" Kim wondered.

"Other kids are playing on it," she pouted.

"So? Theyíll let you play, too," Tommy said.

"I donít know . . . ." Olivia murmured, feeling suddenly shy. "I donít know them aní theyíre bigger than me . . . ."

"How are you going to make new friends if you donít go up and say hi?" Tommy asked. "Come on, letís see if theyíll let you play."

"Maybe we shouldnít," Kim began, a sheltering caution rising to the fore, and silently she berated herself. When she had been a kid, making new friends never bothered her. She had always felt sorry for those who didnít feel like they could join in, and she had always gone out of her way to welcome them. She had been so open, so trusting . . . it hurt to be reminded that that part of her had been crippled. She didnít want her daughter to be like that --mistrustful, hesitant, scared of new people and experiences-- but yet she didnít want her daughter to be hurt by trusting too much.

"Donít worry; itíll be fine. I know a couple of the girls. Candace is in my beginnerís class, and Sylvieís brother just got his yellow belt. Sylvieís about Oliviaís age. Tell you what, why donít I go introduce you," Tommy said.

Nervously, Olivia slipped her hand into Tommyís and allowed him to lead her to the merry-go-round. Kim took a seat on a nearby bench and felt a grin quirking at the corners of her mouth as she watched the little girls. She shook her head in amazement as she observed some of the star struck gazes the girls were giving Tommy; his charm was not lost on them. It wouldnít surprise Kim if some of the teenagers took an interest in the little girlsí play just so that they could be around when Tommy came to collect Olivia. For her daughterís part, after an initial moment of hesitancy, she allowed herself to be pulled into the group, and before Tommy made it half way back to the bench, she was joining right in the fun. That was good to see. She had been so afraid that Olivia had been too isolated to relate to other kids.

"Man, I feel like Iíve spent the day sparring with students," Tommy gasped as he flopped down next to Kim. She noticed that he left quite a bit of space between them. In her mind, that stretch of green seat became a gulf of five years.

"This has been so wonderful of you. Sheís going to remember this weekend forever," Kim replied. She flashed him a smile, then shyly looked away. Tommy sat forward, staring intently at his clasped hands. For several minutes, neither of them spoke. Then, Tommy cleared his throat.

"Kim, I . . . I know what happened," he began awkwardly.

"I know. Tanya told me Aisha talked to you."

"Donít be mad at her."

"Iím not. Actually, Iím kind of glad she did. Iím sorry about the way I acted yesterday; I just wasnít ready . . . ."

"Itís all right. I think I can understand how you must have felt. Itís not an easy thing to talk about."

That was an understatement. "I guess you still have some questions, though," she said, her mouth suddenly dry.

"A few," Tommy admitted, "but thereís something I wanted to say first."

"Whatís that?" Kim went rigid as if to ward off a blow.

"I just wanted you to know how proud I am of you."

Of all the things Kim had ever imagined Tommy saying to her, that had not been one of them.

"Youíre proud of me?" she gulped.

He fixed her with a look, his eyes so serious, and she could see something beaming in his face as he looked at her.

"Yes. To save a teammateís life, you sacrificed your body. To be true to yourself and preserve another life, you sacrificed everything you held dear --your family, friends, hopes and dreams. That couldnít have been easy; not many people could have. Youíve endured more tragedy than anyone should ever have to, and youíve survived. No, youíve done more than survived; youíve triumphed."

Kim wouldnít exactly call her life that!

"I know you donít believe me, but you have triumphed. Just look at your daughter. Money and possessions arenít the measure of success, she is. Sheís a wonderful child, and youíre responsible for that --you alone."

Kimberly felt her eyes misting up. She didnít know what to say, but Tommyís words were the most beautiful she had heard in a long, long time.

"Thank you," she stammered at last.

"I only wish I would have had the chance to say this to you sooner. I know you were scared and all, Kim; I only wish youíd have been able to tell me at the time. Iíd have given anything to have been able to help you," Tommy murmured anguishedly.

It was hard to hold the tears back as she heard his pain --which she had expected, but not like this. He was supposed to be hurt because she had broken his heart, not because he hadnít been allowed to help her.

"There were times when I wanted to tell you," Kim confessed awkwardly. "You donít know how often I wished I couldíve taken that letter back or called you and told you what happened. I can remember dreaming youíd find a way to make it all better." She gave a rueful chuckle. "There was one . . . when I told you I was pregnant and how it happened, you said it didnít matter, and you told everyone that I was pregnant with your baby. We got married, you gave up your powers, found a job, and we all lived happily ever after."

"I would have, you know," Tommy said quietly. "I loved you more than anything; I would have taken care of you and the baby."

"I know you would have, too. And that scared me as much as the thought of losing you."

"I donít understand."

"As much as I desperately wanted your help, I knew that if I turned to you, it would have destroyed all your hopes and dreams as well. I just couldnít ask you to take responsibility for something that wasnít your fault. The rape had destroyed my life; I couldnít let it destroy yours, too. It wouldnít have been right . . . although, I didnít come to that realization until after Olivia was born. Until then, it was just the fear of you rejecting me that made me stay silent."

"Iím sorry," Tommy sighed, unable to say anything else.

"I know. Me, too."

The heavy moment was suddenly broken as the two heard an excited squeal, and they looked up to see Olivia playing tag with the other girls.

"In your letter," Tommy began after a lengthy pause, "you said weíd always be friends. If that offer still stands, I accept."

Kim glanced over to see that Tommy had reached out a hand into the emptiness between them --reached into the gulf that was five years deep. As her eyes briefly met his, she saw his hopeful expression. Timidly, she reached out and grasped his hand, bridging the gap as well. She couldnít believe how much she was shaking as his fingers closed around hers to give a gentle squeeze. She surprised herself by returning the pressure with much more intensity. She was frightened and excited all at once, and in a way, she felt much like she did when she asked Tommy to the youth center that first time. Once again, she had taken a risk and let him in.

It was several minutes before Kim realized that she was sitting there just holding Tommyís hand --no, clinging to it was more like it. Self-consciously, she released it. Although he tried to hide it, Tommy was trying to shake some feeling back into his hand.

"Sorry," she murmured.

"Itís okay; any time you need to, my hand is there for you to crush," he teased gently, and Kim had to smile.

She tried to sit back and just enjoy Tommyís company while she watched Olivia play, but she felt a pressure behind her eyes that she hadnít noticed while they had been talking. She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Headache?" Tommy queried solicitously.

"A little one."

"Could it be a hunger headache? Itís well past noon."

Now that he mentioned it, she was feeling rather empty. Normally, she ate whenever Olivia complained about being hungry, but at the moment, her daughter was too busy having a good time to notice. "We probably should get back to Tanyaís . . . ."

"I was kind of hoping that you guys might do lunch with me," Tommy said, trying not to sound disappointed, but Kim caught it anyway.

"I wanted Olivia to eat at Ďhomeí today; I canít take her out much, and sheís been out for meals Friday and yesterday . . . ."

"If you wouldnít mind, we could have lunch at my place," he offered. "The cupboards are pretty bare, but I do make a mean pb and j sandwich."

"Peanut butter and jelly? You?"

Tommy shrugged. "According to Rocky, peanut butter is the staple of the bachelorís diet."

Kim simply snorted.

"Hey, everything I know about bachelor living I learned from Rocky."

"I can only imagine the horror . . . ." she groaned playfully.

"He must be doing something right; heís made it on his own a lot longer than I have. What do you say? My place is right by my school, and Iíve been wanting you to see the dojo."

Tanya had told her that Tommy had finally set up his own martial arts school; it was one of the things she knew he had always dreamed of doing. She could see it in his eyes even now: the dojo was his pride and joy.

"Iíd love to see it, and peanut butter and jelly isnít such a bad lunch. The only thing is will it be enough to pry Olivia away from the party?"

"Letís find out."

 

 

"Well, here it is," Tommy announced, unable to keep the pride out of his voice as they stood before the brownstone in the north side neighborhood. Emblazoned on the window were the words White Falcon Martial Arts.

"You didnít go for red or green?" Kim asked, referencing his other power allegiances.

"I was always closest to the falcon," he answered. "It was more a part of me than the others, you know?"

"I know."

He knew that she did. It was also a part of his heritage, but he hadnít shared that with her yet. His spirit animal was also his totem. With a flourish, Tommy unlocked the door and ushered his guests in.

"Look, Mommy, just like the gym!" Olivia declared as she raced past the two adults to enter first. "Mats and everything."

"This place was pretty run down when I bought it," Tommy explained as he showed Kim around. "Apparently, the studio had been through several owners, and the last hadnít really cared. From what the neighbors told me, he just let things go to pot, which drove away the students --sort of a vicious circle. It took quite a bit to get this place up and running."

"And get the students back," Kim remarked insightfully.

"Itís been tough. That first year, I wasnít sure I could make this fly. Keeping the doors open took everything I had; as much as I wanted to be on my own and all, I wound up living with my folks. It was so hard to accept their help at first. I mean, Iíd been on my own pretty much while I was racing for Uncle John, but it was the only way I could make a go of it." He hadnít planned on mentioning his hardships to Kim; they were inconsequential when compared to hers, but he hoped sheíd pick up on his underlying message. "It turned out to be the best thing I could have done; I couldnít have made this place work without their help."

"Youíve done a marvelous job, Tommy. Iím so happy for you; I know how much you enjoyed teaching, and now to have a place of your own . . . . I was pretty surprised when Tanya told me and Aisha that youíd been a race car driver. I knew you liked to tinker occasionally, but I always thought martial arts was your real love."

"It is. At graduation, I think I was just needing a change, and I have to admit, driving the Turbo Zords was pretty awesome, then came Uncle Johnís offer to drive for him. However, after a while I realized that I missed my workouts and the kids. I stayed with the team until I saved up enough to buy my own place, and the rest is history," he concluded. "Now Iím a business owner, a sensei, and a landlord."

"Landlord?"

"Uh huh. There are three apartments in this building: one downstairs and two upstairs. The bottom and top apartments are rented out, and I live in the one right above the dojo. Come on, and weíll get those sandwiches I promised you."

Tommy led the two upstairs, and as he fitted his key into the lock, he began to question whether this was such a good idea. Kim looked a little apprehensive, and he knew thoughts of her own living quarters had to be going through her mind. His place wasnít fancy or anything like that, but it wasnít a room in a ladiesí dormitory. However, she needed to see it, to know that he had the space if his idea was to work.

"Welcome to my humble abode," he said subduedly as he ushered the two in with a wave. The livingroom occupied the entire front half of the apartment, which occupied the whole of the second floor. It was divided into an office area and living area. He didnít have much in the way of furniture or decorations --some pictures, a few of his trophies and awards, and a few knick-knacks that were an eclectic mixture of Oriental and Native American. Though spartan, the place still had a homey feel to it

"Wow," Olivia murmured. "You live all by yourself? You donít have to live with your mommy and daddy?"

"Nope, thereís just me," Tommy answered. "My brother David lived with me for a while, but then he went off to grad school . . . ."

"Brother?" Kim queried, stunned.

"You mean Tanya didnít tell you about my older brother?"

"Older . . . ? I thought you were adopted."

"Itís a really long story involving broken arrow heads, falcons, and a quest for a certain crystal, but I discovered that my natural parents had had another child. Davidís really cool; he lives on the reservation just outside of Angel Grove. Heís into martial arts, too; sometimes he helps out here. He likes to paint, too."

"What a pretty picture!" Olivia gushed as if on cue. She stood gawking at the painting hanging on the wall opposite the door. It was a soaring falcon with mountains and the sunset in the background.

"David did that," Tommy said.

"Itís beautiful," Kim murmured.

Tommy smiled. He had always rather liked the way the falcon blended into the pinks of the sunset.

"Why donít you guys have a seat, and Iíll get lunch. You can turn on the TV, but I doubt thereís much on but baseball--I think I get the Disney Channel, but Iím not sure. You can see what I have in the way of movies, but theyíre mostly martial arts flicks."

"We donít watch much TV," Kim confessed softly, and Tommy wasnít sure how to respond.

"Do you have any toys?" Olivia piped up, saving him from an awkward moment.

"Probably not," Kim began.

"Actually, I believe I have a certain box of Legos from Nanna Janís house. Check the cabinet in the bottom of the bookcase," Tommy recommended.

"Nanna Jan?" Kim asked wonderingly.

Tommy shrugged self-consciously. "It was Momís idea. Olivia had to call her something, and Mom wasnít too keen about Mrs. Oliver. It sounded too formal, I guess."

"Oh."

Just then, Olivia let out an excited chirp as she discovered the box of building blocks.

"Tommy, will you help me make a castle just like yesterday?" she queried.

"Canít right now, Princess; I have to make lunch."

"Will you help me, Mommy?"

"Iíll try, but I suspect Tommyís much better at this than I am . . . ."

Seeing that his guests were occupied, Tommy headed for the kitchen. He paused in the hallway and snuck a peek back at mother and daughter. Kim seemed a little more at ease. He winced as Olivia upended the Legos; heíd have to be careful when they picked them up, otherwise heíd be stepping on the little bits for weeks!

As he puttered around his kitchen, Tommy wondered just how to present his idea to Kim. He knew she was likely to refuse; how could he make her see that it was an ideal solution to her problem?

"Tommy? Whereís the bathroom?" Kim queried, popping her head in the doorway.

"End of the hall and on the right," he answered. He hoped sheíd feel comfortable enough to take a look at the rest of the apartment --especially the vacant room right across from the bathroom. Perhaps if Kim wasnít willing to indulge her curiosity, Olivia would. In that, Tommy wasnít disappointed.

"Itís soup!" Tommy called as he set the sandwiches and milk on the table.

Olivia came bounding into the kitchen with a questions just bursting to get out. "How come you have nothing in that one room and a bunch of stuff in the other?"

"The bunch of stuff is my room, and the other one was Davidís. I just havenít had anything to put in it." That wasnít quite true; heíd moved the weight bench out only this morning.

"Itís lots bigger than our room at the gym," the tot continued on heedlessly. Tommy caught Kimís embarrassed flinch and pretended not to notice.

"These are sandwiches," Olivia pouted. "I thought you said it was soup."

 

 

After lunch and a mishap with the milk was cleaned up, Tommy convinced Olivia to go play in the living room. He wanted to talk to Kim alone.

"Itís a good thing I didnít suggest eating in the living room," he murmured as he rinsed the dish rag out.

"Sorry, but those things happen when youíve got an excited child at the table."

"Donít worry about it; itís not like she dumped the glass over on purpose, and the tile will dry." Tommy rejoined Kim at the table. For a while, neither spoke. Finally, Tommy screwed up his courage. "Kim, Aisha told me about your mom, too. What happened there? I just canít believe sheíd do that to you."

Tommy could see that heíd touched on a very painful subject and almost regretted bringing it up.

"I donít understand it either," Kim responded at last with a heavy sigh. "I expected her to be upset, but not like that. Some of the things she said, the names she called me --Iíd never known her to be so unreasonable or say such hurtful and hateful things, and she and Dad got pretty nasty sometimes during their divorce!" She paused a moment to wipe at her eyes. Tommy got up and brought the roll of paper towels over to the table. "You know, she was convinced you got me pregnant."

"Thatís what Aisha said."

"Then she went on and on about money," Kim continued. "All the money she had put into my training. All the sacrifices she had made for me to chase this dream. It was like it didnít matter that my pregnancy was messing up my dreams; she was more upset that it was messing up hers or something. She was just so cold and selfish. She made it sound like this was all my fault, that Iíd gotten pregnant to spite her.

"She told me I had to get an abortion. I couldnít believe it. Mom had never advocated abortion as the answer; she always told me that the baby shouldnít be punished for the parentís mistakes. When I called her, I had already decided I would carry the baby to term; I wasnít sure about whether Iíd keep it or put it up for adoption, but I knew that I was going to have the child. I was just looking for some support and reassurance. She wouldnít listen to a thing I was saying. She didnít care how I felt --only how this impacted her.

"I knew the ultimatum was coming; I could see it a mile off. I just couldnít believe it. I wasnít going to ask her to raise my baby; I just wanted her to be there for me." Kim completely broke down at this point, and Tommy reached across the table to hold her hand and waited for the tears to pass.

"She made me chose between her and my baby, Tommy," Kim said at last. "There wasnít any other choice --just like that night . . . . My baby needed me more than I needed my mother."

"What about your father? Or Kenny? Wouldnít they have helped?" Tommy wondered.

"Maybe. I donít know. I couldnít bring myself to call them. I mean, my own mother refused to help me . . . . I guess I could have tried Kenny, but then that would have put him in the middle between me and Mom. As for Dad . . . ." Kim just shook her head. "It would have caused trouble between him and Cindy."

"Cindy?"

"The woman he was engaged to --heís probably married her by now. Cindy never liked the fact that Dad had to pay support for me. She made no secret of the fact that she resented me; heck, I donít know how many times Iíd heard her say that she couldnít wait for me to get out of high school so Dad wouldnít have to keep paying for his mistakes. For some reason she thought that the reason they hadnít gotten married was because of Dadís support payments."

"Forgive me for saying so, but I hope your dad wised up and dumped her," Tommy muttered. Kim smiled wanly, sharing the sentiment. "I canít imagine having to go through what you did without help from anyone. I mean, my folks didnít do all that much when I was having troubles, but still . . . !"

"I did have some help from Coach."

"Thank God for that. Do you know why he took you in like that?"

"Heís never said; however, I was determined not to be a charity case for long."

"Aisha told me youíve worked your way up to coaching assistant. Youíve done an amazing job, Kim." He was happy to see her pleased blush. "However, youíre still having a few problems--the medical bills."

Kimís face clouded over momentarily. Then, the gloom was replaced by a look of fierce determination. "The only thing that matters is that Olivia pulled through. Iíd rather be in debt for the rest of my life than to have lost her."

"I agree totally with you. The other thing Aisha told me is that youíve been wanting to come back to Angel Grove."

"I do. A gym is no place to raise a child --even though most of the girls there are just children themselves. I want Olivia to know thereís more to life out there, but I donít trust the neighborhood. Thereís too much violence in the schools --thatís all I see in the local papers, even in the elementary schools! I canít even take her to the park for fear of invading some gangís turf."

While Kim didnít specifically say it, Tommy knew other bad memories played a part in her decision, too.

"And youíve used up everything youíd saved for the move to cover the bills," he pressed on, getting to what he wanted to say. "Kim, I think I can help you out, if youíll let me."

"I appreciate the offer, Tommy, but I canít take your money . . . ."

"That wasnít what I was suggesting." Kimís puckered brow and frown made him smile. "What if you could come back to Angel Grove without worrying about room and board?"

"What do you mean?"

"Iíd like you and Olivia to come live here."

"With you? Tommy, we couldnít!"

"Why not? I have plenty of space. Itís a nice neighborhood. I already know that having a roommate isnít going to affect my bills all that much. You guys could have the spare bedroom; you could come and go as you please --find a job, concentrate on paying off your bills, I could help out with watching Olivia . . . . It could work."

"I donít know, Tommy . . . ." Kim objected but less strenuously than before.

"Itís a way for you to do what youíve wanted for so long: to come home. I realize that the thought may be a little overwhelming. You donít have to give me an answer now; just promise me youíll give it some consideration. Okay?"

"I . . . ." Kim stammered; however, she was spared from having to say anything by Oliviaís appearance.

"Come look at what I built, mommy!"

* * *

"United Flight 879 to Miami now boarding at gate C4."

"You guys take it easy," Adam said as he gave Kim a hug.

"Just remember to let me know when the wedding is," Kim shot back, and Adam blushed. She turned then to Tanya. "Thanks for everything."

"Any time, Kim. Remember, call whenever you need a friend," Tanya advised.

"I will."

Kim then turned to Tommy who was receiving a fierce, tearful hug from Olivia.

"Iím gonna miss you, Tommy."

"Same here, Princess."

"You wonít forget me?"

"Of course not. Who could forget you? Iím not the best correspondent, but Iíll make sure I drop you and your mommy a line. You better get going, Squirt." He set the tot down and turned to face Kim.

Her mind was still in a whirl over the bombshell he had dropped on her earlier. She still didnít know what to make of it. She knew he wanted to help, but to have them live with him . . . !

"Hey, you okay?" Tommy asked softly.

"Yeah, I just have a lot to think about, you know?" she murmured.

"I know." Tommy took her hands in his. "This offer has no expiration date; you can take me up on it any time and can stay as long as youíd like. Just remember, I meant what I said about the terms. If you do come, I wonít take any money towards household expenses. You take care of Olivia first and then your bills. Once those are taken care of . . . well, weíll see."

"I wonít lie to you, Tommy; itís a tempting offer. I just donít know if I can accept it."

"Just think it over. Thatís all I ask."

"All right." Kim tried to pull away, but Tommy held her hands fast. He had a faraway look in his eyes. "Tommy?"

"Iím sorry. For a moment . . . ."

"What?" she wondered as she noticed his blush.

"Itís just that the last time I said good-bye to you in this airport, it almost turned out to be forever. I donít want that to happen again."

"Neither do I." Giving him a tearful smile, she squeezed his hands.

"Then letís not say good-bye," he said huskily.

With a lump in her throat, Kim caught Oliviaís hand and headed for the ramp.


Part 2 - August: a time of new beginnings

"There, I think that's the last of it," Tommy said as he placed another box in the back of his pickup. Actually, there was surprisingly little in the way of boxes. Kim and Olivia didn't seem to own much more than their clothes. Tommy felt a lump in his throat.

As he secured the box and closed the tailgate, Tommy wondered what had prompted Kim's impassioned phone call less than a week ago. It had been one o'clock; he'd been sound asleep when the phone rang. Although barely coherent, the sound of Kim's voice had snapped him to instant wakefulness: "Tommy, if the offer still stands, I want to come home!" It had sounded as if she had been crying, but Kim hadn't elaborated, and he hadn't wanted to press her. After spending the morning making arrangements with his assistants Leslie and Kurt to cover classes for him, he was on the road to Florida by lunchtime.

"It is really good of you to do this for Kimberly," Coach Schmidt said. "Olivia needs to know there is more to this world than the walls of the gymnasium. At times, it seemed that Kim's home here was more of a refuge--a place where she could hide from all that had happened to her, and yet I would have thought that living here would have been a constant reminder . . . ."

While Tommy couldn't begin to imagine the full extent of Kim's trauma, he knew enough to realize that there'd be no way she'd ever be able to forget. Every time she saw Olivia's face she'd be reminded.

"However, I know she has been wanting to go home for some time now," Coach continued.

"I've been wondering why you let Kim stay," Tommy said as he leaned back against the side of the truck bed, waiting for Kim and Olivia to finish saying their good-byes. "You didn't have to do that."

"When I was a young man, I knew a girl who experienced a similar trouble as Kimberly," Gunthar explained, his expression distant. "She had nowhere else to go, no one else to turn to. She would not have made it but for the kindness of an elderly neighbor. It is something I have never forgotten. In her memory, I extended the same kindness to Kimberly, and while she accepted my hospitality, she also made herself quite useful to the center. She can relate to the gymnasts in ways none of the other coaches can. I wish I could have done more, but without her license ...."

Just then, Kimberly and Olivia headed down the steps towards them.

"I guess that's it," Kim said quietly.

To Tommy, she looked pale and scared, and Olivia seemed to be on the verge of tears.

"What's the matter, Princess?" Tommy wondered, scooping the tot into his arms.

"I don't want to move," she whimpered. "I don't want to live in a strange place. I want to stay at home."

They were feelings Tommy understood all too well, having moved around more than his fair share as a kid.

"I know, Sweetheart, but you're not going to some place strange. You'll be living in my home; you don't have to be afraid there. You'll see. Pretty soon, it'll feel like your home, too," he assured her. As he gave Olivia a hug, Tommy looked to Kim and Coach Schmidt. No one else had come out to see them off. The gymnasts all had practice to attend to.

"Coach, I just wanted to thank you for everything you've done for us," Kim murmured, trying not to get weepy. Tommy could tell she was failing in her efforts and Coach looked a little misty himself.

"I did but little. You more than earned all that you had here," Gunthar informed her. "I wish you and your daughter well." Then, he handed her a folder of papers. "I have written letters of recommendation, and do not hesitate to call if you need anything else. You are a wonderful coach; the sport needs more like you. I hope you shall continue working with the girls."

"I'll do my best," Kim replied.

"Promise me that at the first opportunity you will get your license."

"I'll have to if I want to coach."

In the heavy silence that followed, Tommy said, "We'd better hit the road. We've got a long drive ahead of us."

Gunthar offered Kim a handshake, then headed back to the gym. The trio watched him go; he waved once then disappeared inside. Kim stared after him for a long while. Tommy placed a hand on her shoulder, which seemed to snap her out of her reverie. She took her daughter from his arms and hugged her tightly. Then, she set Olivia into the truck.

"I'm still scared, Mommy," Olivia sniffled.

"I know, Honey; me too," Kim murmured.

"Why?" Tommy asked as he helped fasten Olivia in. "I thought going home to Angel Grove is something you always wanted."

"It is. It's just that . . . well . . . they say you can't go back."

"You're not going back; you're moving ahead at last." Tommy flashed her a confident smile, which she tried to return.

Tommy noticed that as he pulled out of the training center's parking lot onto Main Street neither mother nor daughter looked back.

* * *

Tommy padded into the kitchen, barely awake. He didn't even consider himself a real human being in the morning until he had his first cup of coffee. Fortunately, he could operate the coffee maker in his sleep. At the moment, even the shower was beyond his capabilities.

What time is it anyway? he wondered as he blearily peered at the clock. Five? What the hell am I doing up? Some tiny portion of his sleep-fogged brain realized that he was still on their travel schedule. He had never been so happy to pull into the parking lot; it had been a long three days (not including the time it took to drive to Florida!). Man, if I never have to get in that truck again, it'll be too soon!

With a yawn, Tommy wished the coffee maker would hurry up.

 

 

Kim yawned as she ambled out of her room. Her first morning at Tommy's . . . for a moment, she hadn't known where she was when she'd woken up. She glanced back into the room and smiled warmly; Olivia was sound asleep in the trundle bed. She was glad her daughter was still asleep. The last few days had been pretty momentous, and they had arrived in Angel Grove pretty late last night. Kim had half expected to find Olivia in bed with her.

As she shuffled down the hallway, Kim wondered how Tommy had gotten a hold of the furniture so quickly. She had only called a week ago, and he said he'd left that same day. She noted in passing that Tommy's door was closed. No doubt he was still asleep. The warmth stayed in her expression, and for a change, the anxiety that fluttered in her stomach had less to do with fear than excitement. It was hard to believe she was here--home in Angel Grove and with Tommy. Well, not quite the way that either of them had ever imagined, but . . . .

Poor Tommy, she mused, making her way to the kitchen. He had driven nearly the entire way, and after their late arrival, he had unloaded the truck and helped her start unpacking. Then, Olivia had been a handful and refused to go down to sleep . . . he must be exhausted.

Kim was normally an early riser, but it was rare that she woke before her five-year-old "alarm." Since she had the apartment to herself, she figured the least she could do was get breakfast started. Of course, it had been forever since she had actually cooked--she and Olivia always ate at the cafeteria in the dorm. Well, it can't be any worse than Tommy's . . . unless he had taken cooking lessons in the last five years.

However, when Kim hit the kitchen doorway, she stopped dead. A hand flew to her mouth. There was Tommy sleepily leaning against the counter. Kim had never seen him quite like this before: dressed in nothing but a pair of well worn boxers, unshaven, hair in a knotted mess and sticking up every which-a-way, eyes barely opened . . . . It was an . . . educational sight. Kim fought hard to stifle a giggle.

"Huh?" Tommy muttered, having heard Kim's gasp. He spied Kim in the doorway doing her best not to laugh. Self-consciously, he ran his hand through his hair in a vain effort to tame it.

Kim wasn't exactly at her best either: wildly tangled morning-hair, make-up less, rumpled oversized tee . . . still, she looked better than he did --especially the way her eyes shone with her mirth.

"Good morning," she murmured, biting back a giggle.

"It will be soon," he harumphed as he meaningfully eyed the coffee maker.

"So --um-- this is the real you, huh?"

"You were bound to discover the Mr. Hyde under my Dr. Jekyll sooner or later."

"Definitely not a morning person."

Tommy sort of grunted, and this time, Kim really did laugh.

"Wanna cup?" he asked around a yawn, trying to hide his embarrassment.

"Sure."

Kim took a seat as Tommy found a second mug and poured the brew out. He joined her at the table. She took a sip and started coughing.

"You okay?" Tommy asked.

"Y-you actually drink this stuff?" Kim sputtered.

"It tastes fine to me," he replied. He took another sip. "Well, it might be a little strong. Sorry."

"Don't be. I'm just not much of a coffee drinker," Kim apologized hastily, catching a glimmer of his wounded puppy look. She really didn't want to hurt his feelings. After all, he was doing her an enormous favor by letting her and Olivia live with him. The least she could do was drink his coffee --even if it had the consistency of motor oil.

"Well, we can mess around with it and see if we can find a mix we can both drink," Tommy offered, the caffeine kicking in at last, making him a bit more reasonable.

"Tommy, I don't want to disrupt your life too much," Kim demurred.

"Changing the way I make coffee isn't disrupting my life. Mom's been after me to tone down the sludge for forever. She refuses to drink it when she and Dad come over."

Before Kim could reply, the two heard a plaintive "Mommy!"

Kim sighed. "I had really hoped she'd sleep in today!" As Kim rose from her chair to see to her daughter, Tommy got up also. Kim eyed him questioningly.

"I'm gonna hit the shower," he said. "Don't want to scare the poor kid half to death."

 

The hot water finished what the coffee started, and Tommy felt a little more able to deal with the reality of having two new roommates.

At least Kim didn't running screaming when she saw me!

This was going to take some getting used to. He didn't mind having a roommate again; he and David had gotten along just fine. His brother had moved out to attend graduate school. Tommy was pretty sure he could handle a female roommate --he just wasn't sure he could handle it being Kim. He was going to be hyper-conscious about his lifestyle--and his feelings . . . . Then, there was Olivia to consider. He didn't think he did anything about the house that wouldn't be acceptable for a five-year-old to be exposed to, but then, what did he know about five-year-olds?

There were still quite a few details he and Kim needed to iron out in their living arrangements. Tommy lathered up his hair as he tried to recall which ones had already been discussed; however, his thoughts were interrupted by a frantic pounding on the bathroom door.

What the . . . ?

"Mommy?"

Olivia? Couldn't Kim get her back to sleep? "I think she's in the kitchen, Princess!" Tommy hollered out.

"But I gotta go potty NOW!"

What do you expect with only one bathroom and a kid? Tommy peered out from behind the shower curtain --suddenly very grateful that it wasn't one of those glass doors. He saw that he hadn't locked the door.

"You can come in, hon!"

As Tommy recalled from the few times he'd stayed over at the De Santos household, such had been standard operating procedure. When Rocky first got his own place, he said the thing that he enjoyed most was privacy in the bathroom!

"I'll hurry, Tommy," Olivia assured him.

The girl didn't sound at all phased about having to share the bathroom, but then she was used to the community facilities on her floor in the dormitory.

I'm going to have to remember not to lock the door when I'm in the shower --in case of an emergency. So much for privacy and long showers . . . !

 

 

She wants pancakes, Kim sighed as she hunted about Tommy's cabinets in search of pancake mix. She had tried everything --including laying down with her-- to get Olivia to go back to bed. She was just too excited to sleep, and she was hungry.

Looks like Tommy hasn't been shopping in awhile. She wasn't sure what his routine was, but there was no doubt his unscheduled trip had messed it up. Thus far, all she managed to find were the basics: flour, sugar, eggs . . . . At least he owns a cookbook.

Collecting a bowl, measuring spoons and cups, and a large mixing spoon, Kim paused to call down the hallway, "Olivia? How's it coming, sweetie?" She had left Olivia to dress herself so that she could get started on the pancakes, which hadn't sat well with her daughter until Kim recommended surprising Tommy. The notion completely enchanted the tot.

She thinks the world of him, Kim mused. In a way, it was a little unsettling; she'd never seen Olivia warm up to anyone the way she did Tommy. However, in spite of her own fears and misgivings, Kim knew that she felt the same way.

Noticing that she hadn't received an answer, Kim poked her head out into the hallway. About that time, she heard Tommy's shout and some familiar sobs. Both came from the bathroom.

"Olivia? Tommy?" Kim hurried down and tried the door; it wasn't locked, but she couldn't open it. What was Olivia doing in there while Tommy was in the shower?

"Easy does it, Princess; I didn't mean to scare you," Kim heard Tommy say. Her daughter's cries sounded loudly from the other side of the door.

"What's going on?" Kim demanded, pounding on the door.

"Hang on, Kim," Tommy called back. "It's okay; you didn't do anything wrong. I didn't even know that would happen. Come on, now, sshh . . . ."

"Tommy . . . !"

"That's it, hon; step away from the door. Your mommy's out there, and she doesn't want you to get hit when she opens the door . . . ."

Kim finally got the door open and found Olivia standing about an arm's length from a crouching Tommy. The girl was sniffling and quivering, her tears ebbing, and Tommy . . . . Kim felt the breath catch in her throat. If the sight of his first-thing-in-the-morning self had been educational, the sight of him in the bathroom . . . . He was dripping wet, hair plastered to his shoulders and water beading on his tanned skin. He clutched a towel about his waist, but it gapped open on one side revealing a very long line of leg --all the way to the curve of his . . . . Kim gave herself a mental shake as Olivia dashed to her side, wrapped her arms around her so tightly she nearly fell over, and buried her face in the side of Kim's legs.

"What happened?" Kim queried, trying to keep her voice steadier than she felt at the moment. Why seeing Tommy in nothing but a towel should so unsettle her was beyond her grasp at the moment.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to . . . ." Olivia whimpered. Kim looked to Tommy for an explanation. He was standing now, and she was finding it difficult to keep her eyes above shoulder level --a fact she found more than a little disturbing.

"Olivia needed to use the facilities, and since I was still in the shower, I figured it'd be okay --she sounded pretty desperate. I just didn't think to tell her not to flush . . . ."

"Oh no," Kim murmured, wincing sympathetically as she buried her face in her hands to hide her amusement. "Were you badly burned?"

"No, more surprised than anything else. It scared her when I yelled, though." Tommy ran his hand through his wet locks the way he always did when he was embarrassed.

Kim sighed and shook her head. "Next time, honey, try to wait until Tommy's out of the bathroom."

"I tried, but I couldn't," Olivia protested.

"It's no big deal. Three people, one bathroom . . . it was bound to happen sooner or later," Tommy said. He flashed Olivia a smile. "Am I forgiven for upsetting you?" The girl nodded. "May I have a hug?"

Olivia detached herself from Kim's leg to grant his request. "You're all wet!" she complained.

"Why don't we let Tommy finish his shower and get you dressed," Kim suggested, finding it unusually warm in the small bathroom.

 

 

Tommy finished his shower and decided that before he shaved he'd better get his robe; Kim had seemed rather agitated at finding him in a towel. He checked the hall to see if it was clear before stepping out. Just as he did, he heard crying coming from the room across from the bathroom.

"Get over here!" Kim commanded exasperatedly.

"But it hurts!" Olivia protested.

Tommy couldn't believe that Kim would punish Olivia for the bathroom incident, but even if she was, it wasn't his place to interfere. He had promised that he wouldn't. Still, he couldn't help but be concerned, and he paused by the bedroom door, which was slightly ajar.

"I know it hurts, but you've got a lot of knots."

"Stop pulling!"

"Tommi Olivia, unless you want me to get your hair all chopped off . . . ." Kim threatened, and it was a tone Tommy well remembered. It was exactly the same one she used on him whenever she had been angry or frustrated with him.

"I like my hair long."

"Then stand still and let me brush it."

Tommy smiled to himself and left mother and daughter to (what he would come to know as) their morning battle.

* * *

"Here we are," Tommy announced, interrupting Olivia's lively --if somewhat off-key-- song as he pulled the truck into the parking lot.

"Where's here?" Olivia asked excitedly, pressing her nose to the window to peer out at the building in the strip mall.

Tommy and Kim traded grins at the child's eagerness. Angel Grove was so new and she had gotten out at the training center so seldom that even a trip to the market was a great adventure.

"This is the laundromat."

"What's that?"

"A place where you go to wash clothes."

"Like the laundry room back in the dorm," Kim elaborated.

"Oh." Olivia sat back and pouted. It was plain that she didn't think much of visiting the laundry room. However, the mercurial mood passed. "How come you don't have a laundry room at your apartment?"

"That's just the way it came," Tommy answered. As they climbed out of the front seat, he shot Kim a long-suffering look. "Do the questions ever stop?"

"They haven't yet."

Tommy shook his head; how had Kim managed to put up with the endless barrage for so long? He collected the laundry baskets from the truck bed, and Kim grabbled the duffel bag. They had been on the road for his usual laundry day, and Kim's decision to come home was so spur of the moment that she hadn't had time to wash things before packing to leave.

"I'll get the door!" Olivia chirped and darted off.

"Olivia! This is a parking lot; don't go running off like that!" Kim scolded as she gave chase, and Tommy bit back a laugh. The three of them looked and sounded very much like any other family that frequented the laundromat. While he knew that they weren't quite a family, the thought filled Tommy with an unusual warmth.

"Tommy?" Kim queried, noting the soft smile he wore.

"Just a thought," he murmured, uncertain if he could --or should-- explain it to her.

As Tommy walked in the door, he nearly fell over Olivia who stood perfectly still --eyes saucer-wide and mouth agape.

"What's the matter, Princess?" he queried as he managed to dance around her without upending the baskets.

"This doesn't look like the laundry room," Olivia replied in a hushed whisper.

"There you are, Thomas. We missed you on Monday," a matronly woman, whose grey hair was piled atop her head in a nebulous bun, greeted Tommy.

He returned her toothy smile. "Hello, Mrs. Bilinsky."

"Oh, who is this little sweetie?" the elderly woman cooed, smiling down at Olivia.

"I'd like you to meet my new neighbors Olivia Hart and her mother Kimberly," he introduced. Tommy caught Kim's raised eyebrows and mouthed, I'll explain in a minute.

"Welcome!" Mrs. Bilinsky said with abundant enthusiasm. "So nice to have new neighbors. Would you like a cookie, Sweetie? Mama Bilinsky has some in the back."

Olivia's eyes lit up at the thought, but before answering, she looked to Kim for permission.

"What kind do you have today?" Tommy wondered.

"My double chocolate with raspberry swirls."

"Oh man! I wish I was young enough to rate a cookie," Tommy said with a mock pout. To Kim, he explained, " Mrs. Bilinsky always bakes cookies for the kids."

"Can I, Mommy?" Olivia asked eagerly.

Noting Kim's indecision, Tommy nodded his encouragement.

"I suppose it's all right," Kim agreed, still rather dubious.

"Hey, Princess, do you think you can snitch one for me?" Tommy asked in a stage whisper. "Chocolate raspberry is my favorite."

"Shame on you, Thomas," Mrs. Bilinsky scolded as she led Olivia off.

"The Bilinskys have owned this laundromat for forever," Tommy related as he set a basket down on a washer. When he realized that it was full of little tiny dresses, he passed it over to Kim and took the duffel bag from her instead. "Mrs. Bilinsky has been a widow for ten years, and all her children live far away. She loves to bake, so she's the neighborhood cookie supplier. Everyone around here thinks the world of her --except the Girl Scouts during cookie time."

"I didn't mean to imply that I didn't trust her or anything . . . ." Kim began defensively, turning the last of Olivia's socks right side out as she loaded the washer.

"I know. She's a stranger to you and Olivia, and you want Olivia to be cautious about accepting things from strangers. If I hadn't known Mrs. Bilinsky so well, I wouldn't have butted in."

"It'll take some getting used to living in a neighborhood where you can actually trust your neighbors," Kim sighed. With the first washer loaded, she started on the second one. She closed her eyes and frowned when she realized Tommy was not separating his clothes at all, merely dumping everything into a washer until it was full. "With all those red t-shirts, it's a wonder all your underwear isn't pink," she snorted.

"Huh? Oh, well . . . usually I sort stuff down," he mumbled. His mind really wasn't on the laundry at the moment.

"By the way, what did you mean by 'neighbors?'"

Tommy shrugged sheepishly. "Mrs. Bilinsky can be a little old fashioned --you know?"

Kim glanced to the table at the back of the facility where Olivia was chattering away, and the widow was seemingly hanging on her every word. "I don't think you'll have to worry about awkward explanations," she said with a laugh. "No doubt Olivia has explained the whole thing to her already. Your taking us in is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her."

"Oh, I forgot about that," he murmured.

"Tommy, you're not . . . ." Kim began hesitantly.

". . . not what?"

"Embarrassed to have us living with you, are you?"

"Of course not!" Tommy assured her. "I just didn't think you'd care for one of Mrs. Bilinsky's lectures. Man, I thought my mom could deliver a tongue-lashing! You don't want to be on the receiving end of one of Mrs. Bilinsky's."

"What did she chew you out for?"

Tommy blushed faintly. "It was back when I first opened the school. I came in to take care of some towels, rags, and things for the school, and apparently someone had already told Mrs. Bilinsky about me. Only, she mistook martial for marital, and she thought I was teaching kids all sorts of 'improper behaviors.'"

Kim burst out laughing. "Oh, Tommy . . . !"

"Poor Mrs. Bilinsky was so embarrassed when Maggie finally set her straight about me that she kept me in cookies for nearly two months," he concluded with a chuckle. Tommy felt a tug on his shirt and looked down to see Olivia beaming up at him and holding out a cookie.

"Mrs. Bi-lin-sky said to give you this," Olivia reported, taking care to say the name just right.

"Looks like you've done good," Kim murmured with amusement.

"Mommy, you gotta come see!" Olivia insisted, pulling on Kim's arm. "If you look through the little windows, you can see the clothes go 'round-an'-round. In the big ones you can even see the bubbles!"

"The laundry room wasn't nearly so exciting," Kim sighed as she allowed herself to be dragged off to witness this latest wonder.

While Kim was distracted, Tommy did a quick redistribution of his laundry then went in search of a seat. However, as he turned, the door to the laundromat flew open, and two figures burst inside.

"Give that back, Slimeball!"

"Gotta catch me first, Karate-Geek!"

The boys continued their rough housing, unaware of Tommy's presence --that is, until they ran into him.

"You're lucky I'm not Mrs. Bilinsky," Tommy chided glibly. "Hello, Chris. Alex."

"Oh man, Chris," the redhead designated 'Slimeball' groaned. "Busted by your sensei."

"Tommy! When'd you get back?" the sandy-haired 'Karate-Geek' queried.

"A few days ago. Shouldn't you two be helping your mother, Chris, instead of tearing through here like a pair of maniacs?" Tommy inquired as he hurried over to get the door for the basket-laden woman who followed the boys. Tommy took one of the baskets from her. "Need a hand, Maggie?"

"I thought that's why I brought the boys," Maggie Donovan muttered, grateful for the assistance. She brushed a shock of brown hair well streaked with grey out of her eyes. "I should have sent Alex home."

"Sorry, mom," Chris murmured. "Me an' Alex will get the rest."

"That's Alex and I," Maggie corrected; however, both boys had already darted out the door to fetch the next load. "I'm not sure which I'm looking forward to more: having my washing machine repaired or school starting." She pulled up to a washer next to Tommy's. "So, how was your trip, Tom? Chris didn't tell me you were back."

"I'll resume teaching on Tuesday. We're still trying to get things settled."

Maggie raised an inquiring eyebrow as she headed for the change machine. She nodded at Kim in passing.

"That kid," Kim sighed exasperatedly as she leaned against Tommy's washer. "She thinks it'd be neat to go for a ride in one of the dryers."

"I see you conned Mrs. Bilinsky out of a cookie," Tommy observed. Kim frowned as if to say, "how'd you guess?" Tommy started to reach out to brush the chocolate stain from her upper lip --a gesture both innocent and intimate-- but he stopped himself. "Smudge marks," he said instead. Kim hurriedly wiped her face.

"The kids will be glad to have you back at the school, Tom," Maggie said, resuming the conversation as she returned to start unloading her clothes. "Leslie and Kurt just don't relate to them the way you do."

"It'll be good to be back," Tommy assured her. Turning to Kim, he said, "I'd like you to meet Maggie Donovan. Maggie, this is Kim Hart."

The two women shook hands, each eyeing the other with interest.

"Nice to meet you," Kim said.

"Hart . . . Kim Hart . . . the name sounds familiar." Tommy noted that Kim had gone pale. Maggie's frown of concentration swiftly turned into a smile. "I'll remember eventually. Anyway, it's good to meet you, too; I . . . Chris, where's the basket with your sister's clothes?"

"I dunno," the boy called back, shrugging.

"Did you get all the stuff out of the trunk?"

"You didn't unlock it."

"I really can't wait to have my washer back," Maggie muttered as she left to retrieve the rest of her wash.

"You know," Kim began as she checked on her load of clothes. "I'm not used to people calling you Tom."

"It took me a while to get used to it, too," Tommy admitted. "Everyone has always called me Tommy --even when I raced for my uncle." He shrugged. "Mostly, it's my students' parents who call me Tom, and Mrs. Bilinsky is the only one who calls me Thomas."

"I take it Maggie has a child in one of your classes."

"Yes --Chris, the blond terror. He's the youngest of her three kids."

"You seem to know her fairly well."

"Maggie was one of the first people I met when I opened the school." Tommy wondered about Kim's comment; she couldn't possibly be jealous, could she?

"It's just weird," Kim sighed. "We've always had the same friends, and now you're friends with a whole bunch of people I don't know."

"Not really. As far as people I hang out with, there's Kurt and Leslie --my assistants, and my brother. I see Rocky and Adam every now and again, and Jason when he's on leave."

"Jason's in the Army?" Kim gasped.

"Navy, actually. Maggie sort of falls somewhere between acquaintance and friend. I think you'll like her."

"Oh?"

"She's very easy to talk to. She has a way of putting you at ease. She's the counselor at the Junior High. She used to teach English, I think."

"I don't think I remember her," Kim remarked, trying to recall her teachers.

"I'm not sure how long she's been there; she moved to Angel Grove right after her divorce."

"A single mom with three kids," Kim murmured sympathetically. "There are days when I can barely manage one!"

"She also volunteers at the Carmichael Center," Tommy continued. He wondered if Kim remembered that Carmichael used to be called the Women's Crisis Center --a haven for women escaping domestic violence, teen runaways, and rape survivors. However, Kim did not react to the name.

"By the way," Maggie called out as she hauled in another large sack of clothes. "Matt tells me Carmen is back in the neighborhood."

Tommy cringed.

"Who's Carmen?" Kim wondered, obviously amused by his reaction.

"The ex-girlfriend of a former tenant that David and I helped out of a tight spot," Tommy answered tersely. Carmen Vega was enough to make him regret being a Good Samaritan. He sighed. He had really hoped she had moved on to bigger places and better things. "What color should I be on the look out for this time?"

"Color?" Kim queried.

"Her hair. Never has the same color whenever you see her."

"Fire engine red," Maggie supplied helpfully.

Tommy sighed again. He could tell Kim was curious, but before she could pursue the matter, a squeal from Olivia distracted her.

"Excuse me a moment," she said hastily as she hurried off to see what her daughter had gotten into.

"Ah, I remember those days," Maggie said with a laugh. She had that look about her, and Tommy waited for the inevitable. "Another damsel in distress? Mrs. Bilinsky told me you offered your spare bedroom to Kim and her daughter."

"News sure travels fast," he muttered. "Kim's not a damsel in distress; she's one of the strongest people I know." Tommy's voice trailed off. He was uncomfortable with the image of Kim as a helpless female.

"Even strong people need help occasionally," Maggie said kindly.

"She's an old friend from high school . . . ."

"One who meant a great deal to you --and still does, eh?"

"Yeah."

* * *

"Olivia, please! Give it a rest; mommy has a headache," Kim snapped as her daughter launched into the umpteenth chorus of a song of her own making. She stomped into the kitchen in search of some relief. Doesn't he have any Tylenol in this place! She fumed as she slammed the cabinet doors after each successive failure. In the living room, the racket continued. "Olivia, that's enough!"

Kim hated feeling like this: achy, irritable, impatient . . . and she hated having nothing to do. She was used to being busy from the time she woke up until she went to bed. It was so frustrating being unable to find a job . . . . She felt utterly miserable, so of course her daughter would pick today to be clingy, whiny, and temperamental.

"Mommy, you promised to take me to the park," Olivia complained.

"It's raining outside; I've told you that a dozen times already."

"I'm bored."

Kim winced. She loathed those two words.

"Isn't there anything on TV?"

"No, and I've played with all my toys."

Which were admittedly few. "What about your crayons?"

"I don't want to color!"

"Then use your imagination."

"If we were at the gym, I'd have something to do," Olivia pouted. "I wish we never moved to this boring place!"

"Don't even go there," Kim warned, her tone strident, bordering on furious. "You were just as bored at the training center. We're not going back there, so you'll just have to deal with it."

"You don't love me anymore . . . ."

"You have until the count of five to get your little behind on your bed," Kim snapped, her threadbare patience stretched to the limit. "One . . . two . . . ."

Olivia beat a hasty retreat, and Kim let out a long, slow breath, grateful that the counting still worked. As she headed back to the bathroom for another look for the Tylenol, she could hear Olivia sniffling in the bedroom. So much for round one.

 

 

Round two commenced a few hours later. Kim felt infinitely worse than she had. If the headache wasn't wretched enough, now she had cramps. She had laid down for what was supposed to have been five minutes but wound up being almost an hour. It hadn't done anything to improve her mood.

The first thing Kim noticed was that it was entirely too quiet. A glance at the clock showed that it was too early for Tommy to be home, so what was Olivia up to? Kim was generally a light sleeper, so if any thing had happened, she would have heard the noise and woken up. Not liking the silence, and braced for a discovery she just knew she wasn't going to like, Kim headed out to the living room.

There sat Olivia amid a pile of books, trading cards, photos, and binders, contentedly thumbing through a photo album. Then Kim spied a shelf that had fallen out of the bookcase. She shut her eyes and counted to ten before speaking. "What happened here?"

The tot gave a startled squeak. "You scared me, Mommy."

"Olivia . . . ."

"I didn't mean to, Mommy," she began, getting weepy. "Tommy said it was all right for me to look at his picture books . . . ."

"I'm sure he didn't say you could pull the pictures out."

"Some weren't in the book."

"What happened to the shelf?"

"I don't want to tell you."

Which was Olivia's favorite phrase when she knew she had done something she shouldn't have. Kim gritted her teeth, trying to remain calm. "What have I told you about getting into Tommy's things?"

"I didn't! He said I could . . . ."

"He said you could throw his card collection all over the floor . . . ?"

"They fell when the shelf fell, Mommy."

"I don't care. They aren't yours to mess with. I want this picked up before Tommy gets home."

"Will you help me, Mommy?"

"What's the rule?"

"Whoever makes the mess picks it up," Olivia muttered. "But it's so big! I can't do it all by myself!" Then, the tears began to fall.

"Tommi Olivia, you are almost five years old . . . ." Kim whirled and marched back to the bedroom for another countdown. She was yea-close to spanking Olivia . . . .

"Hey, Princess, what's wrong?" she heard Tommy cheerfully query as he walked in. "Hey, don't cry. You didn't break anything; that shelf falls out all the time. See? The shelf slides right back in, and I'll help you pick this stuff up . . . ."

"Thomas James, don't you dare!" Kim threatened, storming back out to the living room. "Olivia has to learn how to pick up after herself." Tommy's look of complete astonishment was just too much for Kim to handle, and she fled to her room to have a good --if ridiculously useless-- cry.

 

 

A short while later, after the flood waters had subsided, Kim heard a knock at her door.

"Hey, are you okay?" Tommy asked.

"No. Go away," Kim answered curtly. She didn't think she could handle his solicitude after she had just behaved worse than her own child. Tommy, however, hadn't taken no for an answer.

"Olivia says you aren't feeling well," he continued. "You should have said something earlier; I would have taken her downstairs with me."

"Did she pick everything up?" Kim asked, evading the issue.

"Everything but the trading cards. Those I wanted to take care of. They used to be Uncle John's; he gave them to me as a sort of 'retirement' present when I left his team."

"If you don't want Olivia getting into them, you'll have to put them up higher or something."

"Olivia didn't get into them on purpose. She knows those are off limits. When the shelf fell, so did they. That's all."

Kim felt bad enough as it was; Tommy didn't need to make it worse by being so damn reasonable.

"Tell you what. I only have one class left. I'll take Olivia with me, and then she can go with me on a supply run. That'll give you a couple of hours to yourself. All right?"

Why did he have to be so nice when she was being so bitchy? She felt herself getting weepy again.

"That's fine. Thanks, Tommy."

"You just take it easy and get some rest," he said soothingly. "Is there anything I can get for you?"

"Industrial strength Midol," she muttered sarcastically. "Failing that, some Tylenol would be nice. You're all out."

"Sorry. It's on my list of things to pick up. I'll do a quick look around and see if there's anything else we need."

Kim just rolled over and buried her face in the pillow.

 

 

Tommy was as good as his word; he and Olivia had already been gone a good two hours; however, Kimberly had been unable to rest. She always felt horrible after fighting with her daughter. After all, Olivia was all she had. She knew she wouldn't be able to relax until she was able to hug her and tell her that she loved her. Since rest was out of the question and she was already in a crappy mood, Kim pulled out her bills, figuring they couldn't depress her anymore than she already was.

However, after only a few minutes, Kim shoved the papers away from her and buried her face in her hands, fighting tears. Everything is such a mess! Doctor bills, the credit cards . . . . Coach Schmidt had generously given her her full check for August before she left; she had stretched it as far as it could go, but it just wasn't enough. It was never enough to allow her to get ahead. Kim's eyes fell on a sheaf of papers that seemed to mock her: her application for her coaching license. How was she ever going to be able to get the damn thing? There was never enough left over to put towards the fee . . . .

A key in the door snapped Kim out of her moment of despair. She got up as Tommy entered, Olivia all but asleep in his arms.

"It's way past somebody's bedtime," Tommy murmured.

"I'll take her," Kim said, holding her arms out for her child.

"Here you go, Princess."

Tommy transferred Olivia to Kim, and Kim quickly wrapped her daughter in a tight hug.

"Mommy, are you all better now?" Olivia asked sleepily.

"Yes, Sweetie, I feel better. Thank you."

"I'm sorry I was so bad . . . ."

". . . and I'm sorry I was so impatient. Think we can do better tomorrow?"

"Uh huh. Is it too late for me to have a story?"

"Of course not."

"Can Tommi Bear pick the story this time?"

"Yes, Tommi Bear can pick the story . . . ."

Once Olivia was fast asleep and Kim was more in control of herself, she ventured out to the kitchen. Tommy was still putting the groceries away. Kim started cleaning up her paperwork.

"You guys never go to bed angry, huh," Tommy remarked.

"We try not to. When all you have is each other, you can't afford to stay angry," Kim sighed. "I just wish I wouldn't lose patience with her like that."

"We all have days like that. Olivia understands better than you think. She explained it to me while we were at the store."

"Sometimes I wonder just which one of us is the more mature," Kim murmured wryly, brushing at her watering eyes.

"Still feeling miserable?"

"Yeah. Did you remember the Tylenol?" she sighed.

"Sure did. I also picked up this. I couldn't find industrial strength, so I hope regular will do."

Kim barely had time to look up as Tommy tossed her a small box. Kim's eyes went wide when she saw the label. "You bought me Midol?" She felt herself blushing.

"You said you wanted some," he replied with a shrug. "You also looked a little low in the supply department, so . . . ." He tossed her a pink box, and the heat really flared in Kim's cheeks.

"Oh God," she moaned. She couldn't believe it; he had picked up a box of tampons! He had even gotten the right brand. "You mean you really . . . how could you . . . weren't you embarrassed to be buying . . . ?"

"What's the bid deal? Mom was forever sending Dad to the store for stuff like that."

"That's different. They're married!"

"Well, when Dad wasn't around, she'd send me. It's not like this was the first time I've ever bought feminine hygiene products. Who do you think keeps the emergency supplies stocked in the restroom downstairs?" Tommy asked with a shrug. "My female students would probably die of embarrassment if they knew it was me and not Leslie stocking the dispenser. Besides, it helped this time around that I had Olivia with me."

Kim was too flabbergasted and embarrassed to say anything further.

"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to embarrass you," Tommy said softly, picking up on her discomfort. "I know I probably shouldn't have been going through the things on your shelf in the bathroom . . . it's just force of habit. When David lived here, I always had to go through the shelves, otherwise we'd completely run out of stuff. He'd never tell me when he used something up."

"No, Tommy, it's all right; I just . . . . Thank you," Kim fumbled.

"No problem. Say, do you feel up to a cup of cocoa? I remembered to pick some up," he offered.

"S-sure. Just let me go take something for this headache," Kim mumbled and made a hasty retreat to the bathroom.

 

 

By the time Kim returned to the kitchen, the groceries were all put away, and two cups of steaming cocoa sat on the table. Tommy was at the computer in the living room checking his e-mail, so Kim sat down and grabbed a cup. Her papers were still all over the place, and she eyed the pile bleakly. In spite of the Midol, she was still feeling weepy.

"Did I do the right thing?" she murmured, staring absently into the chocolate depths of her mug.

"What do you mean?" Tommy queried as he joined her.

"Picking up and leaving like that. I mean, I should have at least attempted to line up a job here first or something before giving up my old one."

'Don't get discouraged, Kim; it's only been a week. Something will come along."

"But I can't just take the first thing that comes along! I know what I need to make; at the bare minimum, I need to bring home what I made at the gym --and that's without daycare expenses. If I got a job at McDonald's or a store at the mall, I'd barely make enough to cover the child care...."

"I told you I'd help out with watching Olivia," Tommy interjected. "After all, I'm the boss. I can have her at the school if I want to."

"I don't want her living in a gym! It's one of the reasons I wanted to get out of the training center. I want her to be with kids her own age. I want her to go outside and play . . . ."

"Okay, so fast food and retail are out. There are plenty of other jobs . . . ."

"I don't have any secretarial or technical skills or a college education. I barely have my G.E.D!" Realizing how that must sound to Tommy made Kim blush. She hadn't even been able to finish with the tutor. Maybe he hadn't gone to college either, but at least he earned his high school diploma properly. When Tommy made no comment, Kim went on, "The only thing I'm qualified to do is teach gymnastics."

"So? Isn't there a major gymnastics center in Angel Grove?"

"You're thinking of Olga's," Kim sighed. "I went there for a while but quit. I couldn't handle working for Hitler's sister."

"What about the smaller schools or something in Stone Canyon?"

"Teaching gymnastics isn't as easy as it once was. It used to be that anyone who was a successful athlete in the sport could coach, but now there's testing, and you have to have a license."

"Wouldn't your time with Coach Schmidt be like an apprenticeship and take the place of the exams?"

"Yes, but there's still the license fee." Kim stared bleakly at the application form. "Money I don't have to spare right now."

"May I?" Tommy queried, indicating the paper in front of her.

"Why not," she sighed as she passed the form to him. As he scanned the bottom line, Tommy let out a low whistle.

"About as bad as my certification costs," he sympathized.

"Coach really bent the rules by keeping me on, but no one else will want to take the chance." Kim took a sip of her cocoa and found it already cold. "Maybe . . . maybe I should have stayed and not let . . . ." She couldn't finish the thought.

"Why did you decide to leave when you did?" Tommy asked softly. "You sounded pretty upset when you called; what happened?"

Kim didn't want to respond, but she knew Tommy deserved an honest answer. After everything he had already done, the least she could do was give him that. However, her voice didn't seem to want to work. Her hands tightened around her cup, and she couldn't look at him at all. "I-I was scared," she admitted when she could finally speak. Then, her self-ire flared. That sounded so stupid . . . so pathetic . . . even if it was the truth, and when she spoke again, her tone was bitter. "I didn't come because I wanted to; I came because I had to. I had to get out of there. I . . . ran away." Not once had she looked at him. Tommy said nothing for a long while, and the silence was starting to make her uneasy.

"What were you running away from? What scared you?" he asked gently, and Kim could find no trace of condemnation in his words.

"Earlier that day when we were coming back from town, Olivia and I passed by the park, and I saw . . . I saw . . . ." Her nerve failed her; she just couldn't . . . .

She didn't have to. "Was it one of the guys who attacked you?"

Kim wanted to curl up in a tight ball and hide. "I'm not real sure, but I think so. I all but ran back to the gym, dragging poor Olivia along behind me. By the time I reached the room, I was hysterical. I couldn't stop shaking or crying . . . . All I could think of was that we weren't safe anymore --I wasn't safe anymore. I didn't know what else to do, so I called." Kim felt so ashamed of herself; she felt as if she had lied to Tommy somehow --abused his offer of friendship. She had been afraid that if he knew the truth, he wouldn't have let them come; even now she feared that he might ask her to leave . . . .

"Does being here --in Angel Grove-- make you feel safer?" Tommy asked after a lengthy pause.

She risked a glance up at him. There was nothing in his expression but kindness and understanding. "Y-yes," she confessed.

"Then the reason why you came doesn't matter, and it was definitely the right thing for you to do," he assured her. "But you'd feel better if things were a little more financially secure, eh?"

"Things have never been financially secure, but I'd feel better if I at least had a job," she agreed. She flashed him a timid but grateful smile.

"Then let's see what we can do to get you that job." Tommy abandoned his seat and headed into the living room again, the USGF form still in his hands.

"What are you . . . ?" she began, following him. Tommy pulled up a seat on his computer and called up his bookkeeping program. Kim didn't feel right reading over his shoulder, so she went to sit down on the couch. She watched Tommy consider the figures on the screen, then he typed something up and turned on the printer.

"What are you doing?" she asked at last.

"Is this application filled out?" Tommy asked in return.

"Yes . . . ."

"Where's Coach's letter?"

"On the table . . . ."

Kim scrambled up to follow him back to the kitchen. This time, she did glance at the screen and noted the check form in the printer. "Tommy, no! You're not . . . I can't take your money for this."

"Sure you can," he answered, folding the form and letter and slipping them into the envelope provided. "We agreed that you wouldn't take any money from me unless it was absolutely necessary for Olivia. I believe this falls into that clause."

"How do you figure?"

"You can't cover Olivia's expenses without a job, and you can't get a job you're qualified for without this license, so . . . ."

"Tommy . . . ." Kim murmured helplessly, not sure whether to argue the point or thank him.

"Kim, it's not going to break me or make me short for this month."

"What about next month?"

"Next month either. I wouldn't have offered if I couldn't swing it."

"I will pay it back," she assured him.

"I know you will; I'm not worried about that. You all but wrote that in blood when we hashed out the details of our arrangement," he replied with a laugh. "If it'll make you feel any better, I'll set up a billing file for you. However, there is no rush. I want you to take care of your other obligations first; I don't charge eighteen percent interest."

"Thanks, Tommy," Kim murmured gratefully. Her diffident smile faltered as Tommy grabbed his truck keys. "Where are you going?"

"To mail this now."

"Why? I'll mail it in the morning."

"Will you? Or will you reconsider half way to the post office?"

Kim wanted to deny it, but she wasn't sure she could. She hung her head, unable to meet

Tommy's inquiring gaze.

"I'll be back in ten minutes," was all he said.

* * *

"Tommy, wake up! Please wake up, Tommy!"

Consciousness slowly returned, and Tommy opened his eyes to find Olivia, her beloved Tommi Bear clutched to her chest, perched atop his stomach and bouncing on him insistently.

"Wazzup, Princess?" he yawned. He glanced over at the clock; it was 3 a.m.; what was the girl doing up at this hour? At first, he thought it might have been a prank or something, but as his vision cleared, it became obvious that Olivia was worried about something.

"It's Mommy, Tommy," Olivia murmured. "She's having The Dream again, only this time I can't wake her up!"

Tommy scooped Olivia into his arms and bounded out of bed. He could hear the capital letters in Olivia's voice as she referred to the dream. Her face was so pale and she looked so scared that Tommy knew that whatever it was, it wasn't something pleasant. The two hurried down the hall to the bedroom the Hart women shared.

Kim had been rather disturbed when she had gone to bed four hours ago. The two of them had been watching the evening news. It was pretty much the typical fare: national events, sports, weather, Power Rangers and the latest monster attack . . . however, there was one local story that had unsettled Kim. There had been a report about a woman who had been attacked in a southside mall parking lot. The man had tried to rape her, but the fortuitous arrival of a mall security van frightened the would-be rapist off. Kim had gone pale upon hearing that; she seemed to withdraw into herself, and as she excused herself to go to bed, her parting comment had been, "Nowhere is safe, is it? Not even Angel Grove."

Tommy paused in the doorway, setting Olivia down. From the way Olivia was reacting, he fully expected to find Kim thrashing around, screaming and moaning. She wasn't. She was making sounds, but they were through clenched teeth. Her body was as rigid as a board, and she lay absolutely still, her whole attitude was like . . . . Like she's being held down. Tommy felt sick as he realized what The Dream was about: the rape. Olivia hurried forward and scrambled onto Kim's bed.

"Mommy, wake up!" she implored piteously, futilely trying to shake her mother awake.

"Sit back, honey, and let me try," Tommy recommended, finally coming forward. "Does your mommy have this dream a lot?"

"Uh huh. Most times I can wake her up before she gets really bad, but I couldn't . . . . Make it stop, Tommy!" Olivia begged, tears coming to her eyes.

"Don't cry, Sweetie. It'll be okay," Tommy promised, giving the frightened child a reassuring hug. As bad as the nightmare was for Kimberly, how much worse was it for Olivia who couldn't possibly understand what was going on?

" . . . please . . . no more . . . no more . . . ." Kim pleaded in a strained voice.

"Come on, Beautiful; snap out of it," Tommy began, shaking her firmly by the shoulder. The only thing to happen was that Kim's distress seemed to grow.

" . . . NO! . . . d-don't . . . not that . . . no . . . .!" She began to move --began to fight, her body bucking forward and her arms flailing about.

"I don't like this part," Olivia whimpered, hugging her bear more tightly.

"Kim . . . ." Tommy commanded more firmly, catching her hands to try and keep her from hurting herself. The restraint only seemed to make Kim more desperate, and she fought harder.

"Stop it, Mommy!" Olivia shouted, utterly panicked.

"Kim, that's enough! Wake up. It's just a dream," Tommy insisted, giving her a good shake. He was beginning to think he was going to have to slap her.

"Mommy, please . . . !"

Suddenly, Kim's eyes snapped open, and she lurched forward with a gasp. Tommy wasn't sure if she was awake or not; the look in her eyes was wildly terrified. Then, her vision seemed to clear.

"T-Tommy?" she stammered, leaning into his embrace as the tears began streaming down her cheeks. However, she suddenly pulled away from him, looking as frightened as her daughter. Her eyes never left him, her wild-eyed gaze unsettling him.

"You were having a nightmare," Tommy explained gently. She was trembling so much; he ached with wanting to pull her into his arms to comfort her.

"Mommy, why wouldn't you wake up?" Olivia sniffled, inching forward uncertainly.

"I don't . . . ." She looked lost.

"Don't cry, Mommy; it's okay now," the girl crooned. Bear in tow, she scrambled onto Kim's pillows. "Here, Mommy, you can have Tommi Bear; she'll make it all better," Olivia offered, pressing her toy into Kim's hands, then she threw her tiny arms around Kim's quaking shoulders.

"Oh, Baby . . . !" Kim gulped and wrapped her arms around her daughter, trying to stifle her tears as she soothed the little girl.

Tommy wisely sat back and didn't interfere. Still, he hurt for Kim as he watched her ease Olivia's fears while trying to master her own. He kept his silent vigil, waiting until Kim had petted and rocked her daughter back to sleep. He made no move until it was obvious that Olivia was out and Kim had no strength to even move.

"Here, let me," he whispered as he reached to take the tot from Kim's tired arms. Numbly, she surrendered her daughter to him, and Tommy tucked Olivia back into her own bed. By the time he had Olivia settled in, Kim had made a retreat of sorts, scuttling back until she was pressed against the headboard, her knees pulled up to her chest, and staring straight ahead blankly. She clung to Olivia's teddy as if her life depended on it. She wouldn't be lulled back to sleep so easily.

"Come with me," he instructed, reaching out for her hand. Her face had gone grey all of a sudden, and he was sure that didn't bode well. She cowered back warily. "I'm just going to help you over to the bathroom, all right? Tommi Bear can come, too; I'm sure Olivia won't mind." Tentatively, she extended her hand and allowed Tommy to help her up.

Zombie-like, Kim followed him across the hall; he guided her to the toilet and had her sit down. Next, he put a cool wet cloth on the back of her neck; she looked as if she would faint. She still hadn't said a word, and her quivering hadn't subsided. When he place a hand on her shoulder, he noticed that her nightgown was drenched with sweat.

"Kim, I'm going to get you a clean nightgown; will you be okay by yourself for a couple of minutes?" She looked up at him vacantly and nodded.

Tommy dashed across the hall, but he didn't know where Kim kept her nightwear, nor did he feel comfortable rummaging through her things. He didn't want to give her any reason to feel violated again. Instead, he hurried to his room and grabbed something out of his drawer- -the top half of the only "proper" pair of pajamas he owned (which he hadn't worn in forever). By the time he returned to the bathroom, Kim was on the floor and bent over the stool. Tommy knelt beside her and pulled her hair out of the way while she finished heaving.

Kim finally sat back, hugging her knees to her.

"Why don't you put this on, and I'll go get you something to drink," Tommy instructed. Kim merely nodded, but it was with a little more vigor than before. He found that encouraging. He gave her hand a squeeze and shut the door behind him as he headed for the kitchen.

Is it always this bad? he wondered as he tried to make up his mind what to get for her. Sludge/coffee was out, and with an unsettled stomach so was milk. He opted for Sprite. Right now, he was very scared for her. He didn't know what to do or say . . . . He didn't know if he was doing Kim any good or if he was just making things worse by being there. All he could go by was the overwhelming feeling that she shouldn't be alone right now. She had faced this nightmare by herself far too many times.

When Tommy returned to the bathroom, Kim wasn't there. He peeked into her room; she wasn't there either. He backtracked to the living room and found her huddled in the corner of the couch. A sad smile tugged at his lips. Wearing his pajama top that hung huge on her tiny frame and clutching the teddy bear . . . . He remembered winning that bear for her at a carnival shortly after they started dating. The bow, now faded, had been pink and green; she had laughingly called it Tommy-bear because of the large dark eyes. She said it was her favorite because it was the first thing he had ever given her. When he had seen Olivia with it, Kim explained that she had given Olivia the bear so that she'd always have a special friend; the tot had thought it was so cool that her mommy's teddy bear had the same name as her. Now, Kim sat hugging the bear to her . . . she looked so small and waif-like . . . . It would have been a precious sight had Kim not looked so broken, vulnerable, and desperately afraid.

"How are you doing?" he queried as he sat on the ground before her. He handed her the glass, but her hands were shaking so badly she nearly dropped it. He helped steady the cup so she wouldn't spill the soda on herself.

"G-getting better," she stammered. "Thanks." She refused to look at him.

"Is it always like this?" he ventured cautiously. Again, he had this sense that he needed to keep Kim talking.

"At first, but not for a while."

"Because of the news report?"

"Maybe. A-after it first happened, I had to stop watching the news . . . ."

She had opened up for a moment, but Tommy could feel her retreating. "Kim, don't!" he urged. She flinched at his sharp command. "Talk to me. Please," he implored. She was on the verge of fleeing into herself; he couldn't let that happen. "You've never really told anyone what happened that night, have you? Sure, you told the police the details, but you've never talked about what it was like for you --how you felt . . . . You've never gotten any help, have you?"

"N-no . . . ."

"Will you tell me?"

Kim's eyes went wide, and she recoiled slightly. Tommy felt like swearing, but he kept his voice soft and soothing. "Are you afraid to tell me?"

She bit her lower lip and offered him a tiny nod.

"Why? I already know what happened. What are you afraid of?"

"I don't know," she whispered tearfully.

He gave her an encouraging smile. "Kim, you have to confide in someone; you can't just lock everything up inside . . . . Remember what you told me when I first lost my Green Ranger Powers? You told me not to hold everything inside; the pain would keep growing and would gnaw at me until nothing was left . . . that the hole in my soul would never heal until I took the thorn out. You asked me to give you my pain so that you could make it go away."

Tommy could see that she did remember; he knew he'd never forget. It was the first time he had ever opened up and truly let Kim into his heart, creating a bond of love and friendship that he felt would withstand any test.

"Kim, you shut me out and wouldn't let me help you before; let me help now. Give me your pain so I can make it go away." Tommy knew that it was naive to think that he could really make things better just by having her talk to him about what happened, but if she would open up to him, perhaps he could help her find the strength to reach out to someone else who could.

"I don't want to . . . I don't want to remember," Kim mumbled, suddenly defiant.

"I think you do, Kim. I think that's why you're still having the nightmares after all this time."

"Don't make me go through this again," she pleaded. Her desperate tone was almost enough to make Tommy give in.

"If you don't, the dreams won't go away."

"If--if I tell you, you'll . . . you'll leave me, too," she choked out, and Tommy understood her reluctance. It was an echo of the fear that had caused her to send him that letter five years ago.

"Like your mom did," he said softly. She nodded. Tommy knelt up and clasped his hands around hers, gazing up at her with what he hoped was his most open, most guile-less expression. "Kim, I give you my word of honor, there is nothing that you can tell me that would make me leave you. I'll be here for you --I promise."

He saw her panic and her indecision. As much as he wanted to, he wouldn't press her anymore. He waited. All at once, her shoulders sagged, and she looked exhausted. It was as if she was tired of fighting and had surrendered.

"A-all right," she agreed in a timid voice.

Tommy let out a sigh of relief.

"It'll be okay," he promised and waited for her to begin. However, Kim seemed at a loss as if she didn't know where to begin. "You had gone out with your teammates to see a movie, and you and one of the guys were walking home afterward . . . ." he prompted.

"That was Jim; he was from a small town in Ohio. Great on the highbar. My age . . . the youngest guy on the team," Kim began in a monotone, her dull gaze focused on a point across the room from Tommy. "Spent most of his life in the gym."

Pretty sheltered, Tommy realized.

"It seemed safe enough to walk. There were two of us. The street was well lighted, and Jim looks really strong. It was pretty quiet --no one on the street, and then out of nowhere the four of them popped up.

"There were gangs of every nationality in the area, but these guys were Hispanic --Puerto Rican, I guess. One had on a tank top, and I could see some strange marking --kind of like a brand or something. Two were about your height but not as muscular; they looked alike --maybe brothers. The skinny one couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen. The third was so dark he was almost black --literally, and the fourth . . . ."

Kim's breath caught in her throat, and she closed her eyes as a shudder of fear and revulsion raced through her.

". . . the fourth was shorter than the others but was as solidly built as Jason. He's the one with the mark on his shoulder, and he had a scar on his left cheek. His eyes were black and cold --so very, very cold . . . . He was the leader.

"I didn't even think --just reacted, automatically dropping into a defensive stance. I knew I wasn't a Ranger anymore, but Zordon always said the Power would protect us, and you guys taught me how to fight. I felt pretty sure I could handle them as long as Jim could . . . but he wasn't one of you guys. He was strong but he had no idea how to fight. I told him to run for help, thinking maybe at least one of the guys would follow him. He stayed. Tried to be a hero, I guess."

Kim paused to take a sip of her Sprite, trying to collect herself. Tommy forced himself to be patient.

"While I was fighting, I remember thinking that you'd be proud of me," Kim murmured after a while. "I beat the two who were trying to take me, and I broke and ran . . . . Then, the leader called after me . . . .

"Go ahead and run, chica, but aren't you forgetting something?"

"I stopped. He and one of the others had Jim. He was out cold, and they had a knife against his throat . . . .

"Go on, but for every step you take, the knife goes in deeper."

"He was bluffing; he had to be! I took a step back, and the knife bit into Jim's neck. I could see the blood oozing from the cut. He was serious. I stood there trying to think. There was no one around . . . and even though we'd made a lot of noise while we were fighting, no one had come to see what was going on. We were alone. All alone. I c-couldn't think . . . I knew I wasn't fast enough without my powers to get to Jim before the knife cut him more."

Tommy pictured the scene with unnerving clarity: Kim facing the four thugs, frantically trying to come up with something, trying to master her fear without letting the others know that she was afraid. Her hands at her sides, clenching and unclenching. He could hear her voice --her tone flat, betraying nothing . . . .

"What do you want?"

"Cooperate, chica, and we let him live. Maybe you, too."

"They didn't even drag me into that alley; I walked on my own," she continued after a lengthy pause. "I had to play along. I figured if I was patient, someone would come along or one of the guys would give me an opening or Jim would wake up . . . but none of that happened. 'Shorty' kept the knife on Jim at all times."

Kim massaged her arms as if trying to ward off a chill.

"Now what?"

"Now, we have some fun . . . ."

"T-they made me take off my shirt," Kim stammered, her tears starting again, and Tommy could see the flush in her cheeks and hear the shame in her tone. "They never touched me. I had to take off my shirt and my bra . . . m-my panties . . . all they did was watch --leering at me . . . ." She closed her eyes, salty rivers trickling down her cheeks. Tommy clenched his fists; he almost couldn't listen to this, couldn't bear seeing Kim's humiliation afresh. He wished he'd never asked this of her, but in spite of how difficult it was to speak of it, Kim continued with her story.

"I-I stood there in nothing but my skirt while they talked . . . in Spanish. I couldn't understand them. Then Shorty turned Jim over to the tall one and the dark one. H-he bent me over the trash cans and lifted my skirt . . . his hands were on my . . . my . . . ."

Tommy's heart was in his throat, and he fought back the rising tide of bile.

"Be a good girl or your friend gets a new smile."

"Then, he stopped and had the skinny one --the kid-- come over. He wanted him to go first --I guess 'cause it was his first time or something. They traded places . . . I was still over the cans. I was glad. I wouldn't have to see . . . I closed my eyes and braced myself . . . . Shorty stopped The Kid again. When he looked at me, I wanted to throw up. H-he told The Kid to turn me over . . . ."

"I want you to look at your lover."

"Shorty took over holding Jim hostage, and Tall and Dark came over to hold me down. Tall held my head and smiled at me . . . 'be good for mi hermano.' The Kid was down between my legs . . . . I would have sworn he looked nervous, but I guess I was imagining things. H-he bunched my skirt up . . . spread m-my legs . . . oh, God . . . he . . . he . . . !"

Kim drew into a tight ball, going unnaturally still and quiet. Tommy realized that that's what she must have done at the time. She couldn't fight, so she retreated from the horror by hiding within herself. It was too much for him. He couldn't just sit there and let Kim crawl back into her lonely shell. He scrambled onto the couch and pulled her unyielding body into his arms.

"No, Kim, don't go away. Cry. Scream. Let it all out now like you couldn't then."

There was a moment of utter quiet, then came the sobs and the pounding of fists against his chest and the flood of bitter, anguished questions.

"Why?" Kim raged hoarsely. "Why me? What did I do to deserve that? H-he said the Power would always protect us, but it didn't! Zordon lied! He lied to me!

"I wanted to fight, but I couldn't! I had to let him do that to me . . . oh, God, it hurt! It was like Goldar stabbing me over and over . . . I could feel the blood . . . .

Tommy held her more firmly as she sobbed and gasped for air. Violent tremors shook her whole body as she grieved for all she had lost that night.

"I tried not to feel anything. I made myself go cold inside . . . found a place to hide in my mind," she continued with a hiccup. "They could have my body, but I'd be damned if I was going to give them anything else --not my tears, not my fears, my screams or anything! When Dark's turn was over, he said it was like fucking a corpse. I remember thinking, three down, one to go. They hadn't gotten anything from me but an orgasm that they could've enjoyed more if they'd have jerked off. Then, it was Shorty's turn."

Suddenly, Kim went still. It was so abrupt that it took Tommy by surprise. He glanced down to see what was in Kim's face. She was sheet white; if he thought she had looked scared before . . . the terror naked in her eyes now was enough to unnerve him.

"I'll show you guys how to make her scream like a woman should."

"H-he didn't just take me," she whispered numbly. "He started touching me again . . . all over . . . none of the others had . . . . Oh, God, he was making me . . . feel things . . . .

"I panicked. Jim didn't matter anymore. Shorty couldn't . . . I wouldn't let him do that to me! I started struggling . . . I begged him not to . . . . He just laughed. He tried kissing me --a French kiss-- and I lost it. When his tongue was in my mouth, I bit it --hard."

A smile slowly spread across Kim's face, but it was cold and hard, sending chills shooting up Tommy's spine --a death's head smile. "That made him mad. He hit me. Hard. He kept hitting me . . . I was never so happy to be hit in my whole life . . . ."

"Stupid bitch, what are you smiling for?"

"Things started getting fuzzy then. There was blood in my mouth; the last thing I clearly remember was spitting it at him before he threw me across the trashcans. After that . . . nothing until I woke up in the E.R."

Tommy struggled to keep his emotions under control. He felt anger rising in him --a darkness he hadn't known since his evil Green Ranger days. He knew that if he had known about the attack at the time, the only way Zordon --or anyone else-- could have kept him from hunting the bastards down and ripping their hearts out would have been to kill him.

"I hope the cops caught those . . . ." Tommy rumbled darkly, but was interrupted by Kim's harsh laugh.

"I doubt the cops ever looked for them," she spat.

"What?"

"God, Tommy, it was like something you'd see in the movies!" Kim's tears flowed afresh. "The police didn't seem to give a damn. They didn't believe us. They thought I was a prostitute! If Coach hadn't called the station and reported us missing . . . .

"After I was released from the hospital, Jim and I were called to the Prosecutor's Office; Coach went with us. We wanted to know what had been done . . . what would be done to catch those guys . . . . The prosecutor told us it was very unlikely that the guys would be caught. I thought my descriptions of the them had been pretty good, but the prosecutor said that those descriptions could have fit any number of kids in the area, and in spite of them being in a gang it was highly unlikely that any of them had records. They would investigate, but . . . I could tell that nothing was going to happen. Jim had been beaten; I had been raped, and you know what the prosecutor was most worried about? Bad press! The only reason he had called us in was because he was worried about what we'd tell the media. With all the Olympic class athletes training in the area and the Games coming up, they didn't want it getting out that two gymnasts had been assaulted!"

Tommy held her tighter, desperately wishing there was something more he could do.

For the first time since waking up, Kim looked directly at him. "Now do you understand?" she asked bleakly. "Now do you see why I was so afraid to tell you --why I was afraid that you and the others would turn your backs on me, too?"

"Yes."

"Zordon . . . the police . . . my mother . . . even Jim let me down!"

"Jim? How did he . . . ?"

"After the attack, he wouldn't look at me or talk to me . . . . He was so cold . . . it was like I no longer existed. For a while, I thought he blamed me for what happened to him. I just couldn't handle it. I sacrificed everything to keep him alive --everything! He never even said thank you.

"I tried not to be angry. Stuff like this didn't happen where he was from. The attack wasn't his fault, and it wasn't his fault he wasn't a fighter like I was. I could see him being scared; I mean, he almost got his throat slit. I tried to be patient and understand --even after I found out about the baby and lost my mother. I guess after I knew I couldn't compete anymore, I put all my medal hopes on him. I thought, maybe, if he could make the team and have a shot at a medal that I wouldn't feel so bad. That it wouldn't have been for nothing --you know?"

Tommy knew what was coming. He didn't need to see her brimming eyes or quivering lip.

"Jim didn't even go to the trials. He withdrew --never even tried. He just packed up and went home. I couldn't believe it. I did it all for nothing . . . nothing!"

Kim's rage and bitterness overwhelmed her again, and all Tommy could do was hold her until she cried herself out. She sobbed for a long, long time.

Dawn's first light was peeking through the curtains when Kim finally exhausted herself and fell asleep. Only then did Tommy allow himself to vent his emotions until he, too, fell into an exhausted, uneasy sleep.


Part 3 - Back To School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We're getting along all right."

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

"Well, I pretty much grew up here."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim had to smile at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Her who?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was just pure chance, Kim wanted to say.

"Can I have your autograph?" Kelly gushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's so cool!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

to Stone Canyon."

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

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

"I will. Thank you."

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

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

"We'll see you around, Kim."

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

"But I'm not five yet."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She looks sadder than me," Olivia whispered.

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

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

"It looks that way."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Min."

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

"No, we just moved here."

"Oh, me, too."

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

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

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

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

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

"No ya can't!"

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

"Make me!" the boy challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She'll always be your baby."

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

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

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

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

"Your mother?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thanks."

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why does everyone laugh?"

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

"How old are you, Lucy?"

"Eight.

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

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

"No."

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

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

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

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

"I learned to have confidence in myself."

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

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

"I guess so."

"What about your friends?"

"They say they do?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then how could she tell this girl that there was?

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

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

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

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

"Do what?"

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

 

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

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

Lucy looked up at Kim in panic.

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

"I'll try," Lucy gulped.

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

"Thanks, Kim."

"Anytime, hon."

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

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

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

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

"Excuse me."

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

About that time, Tommy wandered over.

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

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

"No."

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

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

Kim looked to Tommy, who shrugged.

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

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

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

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

"Thanks, Mommy!"

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

"I will, Mommy; I promise."

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

 

 

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

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

"I forgot for a while."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Huh?"

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

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

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

"That's great, but why?"

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

"Are you going to do it?"

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dearest Tommy,

By the time you receive this, the ballet company will have opened the

new season. I'm really looking forward to this year; we'll be traveling

to Moscow and quite possibly America . . . .

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

She's really beautiful!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kat sure has changed," Kim murmured diffidently.

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

"What's wrong?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Realized what?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Anything."

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes . . . ."

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

"I think so," she confessed reluctantly.

"What's wrong?"

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

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

"Yeah, but . . . ."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

"It's possible."

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

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

"No, we just drawed them today."

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

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

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

"It'd be neat!"

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

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

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

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

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

"Looks like it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I see Mommy, Tommy!" Olivia declared.

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

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

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

Tommy surveyed the sea of hands that went up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tom," Maggie prompted.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, guys!" Kim said brightly.

"Where have you been?" Olivia demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What did Julia have to say about that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She did."

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

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

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

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

"Really?"

"Uh huh."

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

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

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

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

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

"No."

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

"You did?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Any time, Princess."

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

"I told her a long time ago."

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

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

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

"What?"

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

"That's nice."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How come you always answer my questions?"

"Why shouldn't I?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes."

"What is it, Tommy?"

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

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

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

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

"Being raped hurts very much."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Huh?" Olivia sniffled.

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

"No!"

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

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

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

"How could anyone make you do that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Will Mommy come in when she gets home?"

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

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

"Sure, hon. What is it?"

"You won't tell Mommy?"

"Not unless you say I can."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sure."

* * *

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

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

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

"Did you get the cake?"

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

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

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

"Did you remember to leave them your key?"

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

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

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

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

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

"I guess you're right."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She dragged you in with her?"

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

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

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

"Five!" she declared.

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

"Tommeeeeee . . . !"

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

"Tom-my . . . !"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Um . . . Santa Claus?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What is it?" Olivia asked eagerly.

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

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

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

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

"Sure did, just for you."

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

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

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

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

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

"You guys can share mine," Olivia offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Order forty-two!"

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

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

"What is it?"

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

"And that is . . . ?"

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Right!" Olivia scurried off to obey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, Mommy . . . !"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hurry up!" Olivia insisted anxiously.

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

"Really? What is it?"

"Tommy . . . ." Kim chided.

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

"Ooh, sparkly paper!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's a locket," Kim realized.

"What's a locket?" Olivia wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

"For another picture," Kim said.

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

He and Kim traded startled glances and sheepish grins.

"If you'd like," Kim agreed.

"Do you have a picture I can have?"

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

"I wanna new one."

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

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

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

"I prefer pumpernickel."

"What's pump-er-nickel?"

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

"Can I take one?" Olivia asked eagerly.

"Of what?"

"You an' Tommy."

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

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

Tommy eyed Kim questioningly; she shrugged and moved closer.

"Closer, Mommy."

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

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

"I guess so."

"That's better! Smile!"

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

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

 

 

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

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

"More presents? Really?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go for it, Princess."

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

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

"Sorry . . . ."

"SURPRISE!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I feel ridiculous," Adam complained.

"You look cute," Tanya assured him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Aw, man . . . ."

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

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

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

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

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

"Happy Birthday to you . . . ."

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

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

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

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

"Close your eyes."

"Make a wish."

"Blow out the candles!"

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

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

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

"Rocky!" Kim protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tommy?"

"Yes, Olivia?"

"Gotcha!"

"She faked ya out," Rocky crowed.

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

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

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

Rule

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