Part Four: Behind the Masks

"Olivia?" Tommy called out, casting about for his pint-sized partner. The two had left Kim at the laundromat while they hit Wal-Mart to do some restocking. Kim was only too glad to let Olivia go since the laundromat was "the most boring place in the world" --cookies notwithstanding-- and Olivia had been particularly energetic today, so Tommy wasnít too surprised to discover that she had wandered off yet again.

"Over here!" came the reply.

Tommy found her down the next aisle over. He should have known . . . . The shelves were stocked with Halloween costumes, masks, make up and other spooky accouterments. Olivia was

eagerly rifling through the colorful collection of costumes.

"What do you want to be for Halloween?" He knew Olivia was excited about the pending holiday; Kim had never felt comfortable taking her out trick-or-treating (not that Tommy blamed her). Also, Oliviaís class was having a Halloween party, and there was bound to be something for the kids at the Youth Center.

"The Pink Ranger," Olivia replied; however, as she reached the end of the rack, she stepped back, folded her arms across her chest, pouted, and stomped her foot petulantly. "Darn it; they donít have one."

"Sure they do," Tommy countered. There was a whole row of rainbow-hued power suits. He recalled the first time he had seen his namesake immortalized in polyester and plastic. It had surprised him, but then, he really should have expected it. Kids always wanted to emulate their heroes; still, while it had been very flattering, it had been a little embarrassing, too. Tommy regarded the suits with a bit of puzzlement; he had always tried to keep up with Ranger news, but for the life of him, he couldnít recall which incarnation the present Ranger team was in. Letís see, after Turbo came the Space Rangers and their mega-stuff, but after that . . . . Boy, have I been out of touch!

"I donít want to be the new Pink Ranger," Olivia insisted. "I want to be the first one, like from Mommyís pictures and my birthday cake. She was the best Pink Ranger."

Tommy could not argue with that assertion; however, he knew that it was going to be practically impossible to find an original Ranger costume of any color. The original team was a good six or seven years out of date. The only option he could think of was to make one. The suit part wouldnít be too hard, but the helmet . . . .

"Weíve been talking about the Power Rangers a lot in school," Olivia rattled on, disrupting his creative process. "Mrs. Blackman brought in some old pictures and videos and stuff. And we have monster drills, too!"

"Monster drills?" That was a new on Tommy.

"Sure. Just like fire drills --so we know what to do if a monster attack happens while weíre at school. The teachers donít want any of us to get squished, so if we canít get outside or down in the basement --they had to have the basement fixed special so it doesnít fall down on our heads-- we have to get under a desk or table and try and stay by an outside wall," Olivia related.

"Thatís a very good precaution," Tommy replied. It saddened him to think that such a thing was still necessary. For all the incarnations of the Power Team, they were never truly able to hang up their helmets. They best they could hope for was an extended lull.

"Is the apartment monster-proof?" Olivia queried.

"I donít think so."

"Why not?"

"We donít get many monster attacks on the north side of the city," Tommy explained. As he recalled, most monster damage was done downtown, at the water front, or in Angel Grove park --sort of in an east/west line. For the most part, the residential areas were on the north and south ends of the city.

"Thatís good Ďcause I wouldnít want our house to get squished."

Tommy smiled as Olivia said "our house." It made him feel good to know that she considered his place as home now. He still wasnít sure about Kim, but he hoped she felt the same way. Thinking about Kim reminded him that . . . . "Come on, Princess; the clothes are probably just about done. We donít want your mom to fold them all by herself. We can talk to her about your costume, too."

"I canít wait for Halloween," Olivia bubbled as she took Tommyís hand. "You mean people really give you candy if you knock on their door and say Ďtrick-or-treatí . . . ?"

 

 

"Where are those two?" Kim fumed. She had already hung up the clothes; all that was left was sorting the socks and underwear and folding the sheets and towels. "I should have known better than to let them go off on their own." Shaking her head, she returned to searching for all of Oliviaís anklets. It was probably just as well that they hadnít hung around. Although the laundromat was unusually full for a Sunday afternoon, most of the other patrons were college students --predominately male. Olivia would be bored to tears with no one to play with, and I wouldnít be able to get anything done.

Saturday was the best day to catch the "family" crowd, and the after school hours during the week werenít too bad for that either. Monday was the usual laundry day, but Tommy had to switch off with Kurt this week, and Kim now worked on Mondays. She felt guilty about sending Tommy to do the wash by himself (and she really didnít trust him not to shrink her leotards.)

A sudden flurry of activity caught Kimís attention. The lackadaisical crowd was all aflutter --at least the men were; their attention was riveted to the front door. Kim noted that the other women were rolling their eyes and whispering amongst themselves as if this sort of thing happened regularly. As Kim glanced towards the door, she saw the reason for the menís sudden animation. In walked one of the most gorgeous women Kim had ever seen. She had to be close to six feet tall without the heels, and she was all lithe muscle and generous curves and moved with a sexy swagger that seemed natural. Perfect white teeth smiled out from dark, full lips, and sultry black eyes reduced her admirers to puddles of simmering hormones. Her skin was a lush bronze color, but her hair was a shocking shade of red.

"Muchas gracias," she cooed in a thick accent to the young man who held the door open for her. He was so enraptured by the woman as she walked past that he didnít notice the woman coming in behind her. Shaking her head, Kim hurried forward to help the basket-beleaguered woman.

"Hey, Maggie," Kim greeted.

"Hello, Kim," Maggie puffed as she juggled her awkward load. "I thought Monday was laundry day."

"And I thought you had gotten your new washer."

"Stupid tub is too small. The bedspreads wonít fit," Maggie groused, and Kim stifled a laugh. "So, did Tommy and Olivia abandon you here?"

"Actually, heís saving me from the ĎMommy, Iím boredí litany while doing some shopping," Kim explained, resuming her sorting.

"Have you nominated him for sainthood yet?" Maggie teased.

"Hello, Mrs. Donovan," the flame-haired knockout said as she passed by on her way to the change machine.

"Hello, Carmen."

"Carmen?" Kim queried once the other woman was out of earshot. "The same Carmen you warned Tommy about?"

"Uh huh. Carmen Vega." The two fell silent as Carmen sauntered past; both shook their heads at her adoring audience. "Iíve had a few conversations with her; sheís a nice young woman, really. Sheís just blessed with an overabundance of . . . sex appeal. What comes natural to her would be affectation for you or me. I mean, sheís not even trying and she has the guys falling all over her. Her problem is that she doesnít have a lot of common sense when it comes to men. She attracts all sorts but always seems to go for the wrong ones; she told me once that the nice ones bore her, and the others . . . well . . . ."

"And sheís interested in Tommy?"

"She thinks she is. Tommyís definitely not her type --way too nice."

"Then why . . . ?"

"Two reasons: first, he helped her out of a really tight spot. She was hooked up with a guy who was renting the upstairs apartment; Joe was okay when sober, but he got violent when he got drunk. Tommy didnít know that when he rented the place out . . . . Anyway, Joe and Carmen got into it one night and things turned ugly. Carmen ran to Tommy and David for help. They called the police, let Carmen stay with them a couple of nights . . . . She swears Tommy saved her life.

"The second reason is that Tommy is just about the only man in the neighborhood who hasnít followed her around, drooling all the while. Even Matt at the coffee shop --and heís old enough to be her father!"

"Heís old, not dead," Kim joked.

"Okay, Iíll give you that. Tommyís always polite to Carmen when he runs into her but otherwise tries to avoid her. Why he doesnít just tell her to get lost is beyond me."

"He probably feels responsible for something," Kim speculated; that would be just like Tommy. "Also, I bet he doesnít want to hurt her feelings."

"She probably thinks heís playing hard to get," Maggie snorted. "Itís high time Tommy stopped hiding from her and stood up to her."

Kim privately agreed, but Tommy wouldnít do something like that until he found a way to break it to her gently or she seriously backed him into a corner. She was getting a little uncomfortable with the whole subject of Tommy and Carmen and turned to a new topic. "I noticed youíve been calling him ĎTommyí instead of ĎTom;í why the change?"

Maggie shrugged. "Oliviaís birthday party, I guess. Everyone was calling him Tommy, and he seemed much more at ease with that than Tom. Besides, in addition to having Chris calling him Tommy, now I have Kelly calling him that, too. It was an battle I couldnít win. By the way, how is Kelly working out?"

Maggieís daughter had been helping Kim and Tommy with Oliviaís after school care as their babysitter. "Sheís doing just fine, and Olivia adores her," Kim reported. "Iím glad you let her take the job; we needed the help but didnít really know anyone else to trust Olivia with."

"I was a little worried at first; Kelly is just twelve. I havenít left her alone with Mike and Chris very often, but with Tommy being downstairs if there was an emergency, I figured that would be all right."

"That was our thinking, too."

"Plus, I had never seen a kid beg so hard to be allowed to take a job."

"I just hope watching Olivia doesnít interfere with her school work."

"Quite the opposite," Maggie laughed. "Her grades have never been better. Of course, sheís been told that sheíll have to stop babysitting if her grades drop."

Kim shook her head. "I wonder if sheíll still be so gung ho about all this when I fall off her pedestal and she finds out Iím only human."

"Hero worship doesnít sit well with you, eh?"

"Iím no hero."

"She could have a worse role model than someone whoís worked hard and overcome a lot of adversity to get where she is today."

Maggie picked that moment to wander off, leaving Kim gaping after her, wondering just what Maggie knew about her. However, further speculation was shoved aside as she saw Tommyís white truck pull into the parking lot. Kim gathered up a fully loaded basket and went to meet the twosome.

"So, what do you guys have to say for yourselves?" she demanded with mock sternness.

"We brought you ice cream," Olivia announced, holding out a dripping cone.

"Well . . . ."

"Itís your favorite," Tommy added with a hopeful expression on his face as he got out of the vehicle and took the basket from her.

"I suppose youíre forgiven," she muttered with feigned reluctance and a grin as she accepted their peace offering. She looked for a napkin as the melting confection dripped all over her hand. "So, what section of Wal-Mart did you get distracted in? Toys?"

"Halloween costumes," Tommy said.

"Ah, Iíd almost forgotten . . . ."

"Iím going to be the first Pink Ranger!" Olivia declared.

"The first . . . and just where are we going to find one of those?" Kim demanded, knowing full well no store was going to have one.

"I was thinking of asking Kelly," Tommy replied. "Maybe she or one of her friends has an old one. Sheíd have been about Oliviaís age when the Pterodactyl Ranger was in style."

"I see Mrs. Maggie," Olivia chirped, waving through the plate glass window.

"No time like the present," Kim sighed.

"Iíll take care of loading up. We really didnít mean to leave you to do all the work," Tommy said contritely.

"I know," she assured him with a forgiving smile. Olivia had already dashed inside, and Kim found her telling Maggie about her grand plans for Halloween. "You wouldnít by any chance have an old Pink Ranger costume that Kelly might have worn?"

"I wouldnít be surprised; she wouldnít let me get rid of any of her Power Ranger memorabilia."

Kim found it almost too much of a coincidence that Kelly idolized her both in and out of costume.

"Say, did you warn Tommy that Carmen was here?" Maggie asked suddenly.

"No . . . I didnít think . . . ." Kim turned, hoping to intercept Tommy, but it was too late.

"Thomas!"

Tommy froze in the doorway as Carmen sashayed over to him. Kim didnít know how he kept from grimacing as his erstwhile pursuer wrapped him in an effusive hug. She noticed Tommyís gaze dart her way as he went through the motions of returning the embrace, and she mouthed a silent apology.

"Hello, Carmen," he replied, disentangling himself from her arms.

"Is that any way to greet an old friend?" the vivacious woman queried with a mock pout. "It is good to see you again. You are looking good . . . very good." As she spoke, Carmen circled around him, making no attempt at being subtle in her scoping him out.

"Oh puh-lease!" Maggie groaned softly, rolling her eyes as Kim was sure Tommy wished he could. It was so hard to stifle her giggle, but she just couldnít laugh at poor Tommy.

"Youíre looking good, too, Carmen," Tommy responded politely. "What brings you back to the north side of town?"

"It was so boring where I was, and the people were not so nice," Carmen answered airily. "Certainly, there was no one as interesting as you around."

"I canít wait to see how he gets away from her this time," Maggie sniggered.

"Maggie," Kim chided. She really did feel sorry for Tommy. Even when they had been dating, he always tried to be polite when turning down the other girls who hit on him; he just didnít have it in him to hurt someone elseís feelings if he could help it. Kim was tempted to help extricate him from his predicament, but she wasnít sure she should interfere.

"Carmen, please," Tommy sighed, removing her hands from where they had wandered across his chest. "I think you and I need to have a little talk."

"Oh?" Carmen purred, her face lighting up hopefully. "About what?"

"I think you know, but this isnít the best place."

"Outside, perhaps?"

"Sure." However, instead of heading towards the door, Tommy turned to Kim. "Would you excuse me for a moment?"

"Okay," Kim stammered as she and Maggie traded astonished glances. As Carmen took Tommyís arm and headed for the exit, remarkably enough, Maggie started after them. "Maggie, what are you doing!" Kim gasped, grabbing for her elbow to hold her back. "Youíre not going to eavesdrop, are you?" Maggie didnít strike her as the sort to do that type of thing.

Maggie blushed sheepishly. "I know I shouldnít but . . . ."

"Maggie!"

"I canít help it," she said defensively. "This whole business with Tommy and Carmen has been a major conversation piece at the coffee shop ever since he first helped her out. Mattís sure Tommyís going to get nabbed sooner or later --that man is so annoying sometimes. He always seems to have the low down on anything that happens; for a change, I get to scoop Matt."

Kim wasnít sure what to do. On the one hand, Tommy wanted to speak with Carmen privately; if he was going to do what she thought he was, he wanted to do it in a way that wouldnít embarrass Carmen. However, she really was as curious as Maggie to know what was being said. Kim was hit with a sudden inspiration; it was the sort of thing she and Aisha would have done way back when. "Here," she said, thrusting a laundry basket at Maggie, who looked at the it puzzledly. "You can help me load the truck," Kim said pointedly, nodding toward the window. Carmen and Tommy were standing right by the vehicle.

"Right," Maggie agreed as understanding dawned, and she flashed Kim a conspiratorially grateful smile. The two adjusted their burdens and headed for the door.

". . . Iím not interested; I never have been," Tommy was saying as Kim and Maggie came out. Neither he nor Carmen seemed to notice the pair. "I never meant to make you believe otherwise."

"But why?" Carmen pursued in obvious surprise.

"Maggie," Kim hissed, elbowing her companion who was lingering way too long by the truck. "Come on; there are a couple more baskets," and Kim had to practically drag her back inside the laundromat. "You arenít very good at this sneaky stuff, are you?"

"Never was; too bold for my own good when I was a kid," Maggie conceded. She cast a quick glance behind her. "I canít believe it; he actually told her off!"

"Isnít that what you wanted him to do?" Kim queried with a knowing smile as she loaded up another basket with the unfold sheets and towels. Sheíd take care of them at home.

"Yes, but I never imagined that he would."

"What surprises me the most is that she doesnít seem to be too upset about it," Kim observed. "From the way you talked, I got the impression that no man has ever told her Ďno.í"

"Thatís what Matt says." Maggie chuckled softly. "Poor Matt; he was so sure Tommy would ...."

". . . try to break to the news to him gently; Matt doesnít handle disappointment too well."

Kim nearly burst out laughing as Maggie, thoroughly embarrassed at having been found out, blushed at Tommyís words.

"Iíll finish loading the truck," Tommy said as if nothing untoward had happened. "Youíve already done enough for one afternoon."

Kim caught the mischievous twinkle in his eyes; heíd been more amused by their blatant attempt at eavesdropping than anything else.

"He really knows we were listening?" Maggie gulped.

"Uh huh. Well, we werenít exactly subtle," Kim consoled her.

"Would you like to know why Thomas did what he did?" came the throaty query. The two turned to find Carmen regarding them with as much amused tolerance as Tommy had --a pose worthy of any mother.

"Can I go crawl in a hole now?" Maggie moaned under her breath.

"Another woman," Carmen continued. "All this time it has been another woman he has loved." She shook her head. "Ah, to be so loved by a man that neither time nor distance could make his heart falter."

Kim felt as if someone had just knocked the wind out of her. Carmen couldnít possibly mean her --could she? Kat was far away, too, and Tommy hadnít seen her in a long time, but . . . .

"Do not apologize," Carmen said dismissively to Maggie; Kim had completely missed Maggieís comment. "I know why you came out. Thomas is your friend, and you worry about him as if he was your son. To have such friends is good."

Kim suddenly felt Carmenís dark-eyed gaze on her. The woman regarded her thoughtfully, almost as if she was taking her measure. When the moment of scrutiny had passed, Carmen simply shook her head as if in disbelief.

"You are a very lucky woman," she said at last. "When Thomas speaks of you, his eyes smile. Such joy. Such love." Carmen walked off without another word, leaving Kim stunned and speechless.

"Sheís right, you know," Maggie added, turning her attention to her now-finished washer.

"Mommy, are you ready to go?" Olivia called out. "Tommy says the truck is all loaded."

"Yes, Sweetie, Mommy is ready," Kim confirmed, absently scooping Olivia into her arms.

"Mommy, is something wrong?"

"Iím not sure."

* * *

"Whatcha doing?" Olivia queried, quizzically regarding Tommy as she stood in the bathroom doorway.

"Shaving," Tommy answered, pausing his razor in mid-stroke. "Getting rid of those Ďpricklesí you donít like."

"Good." Uninvited, Olivia wandered into the small bathroom and made herself comfortable on the closed lid of the toilet seat. "I donít like your face all prickly."

Your mom never did either, Tommy reflected wryly.

"Whatís that white stuff on your face? It looks like frosting."

"Itís shaving cream." Tommy deposited a fingerful on the tip of Oliviaís nose, which caused her to giggle. "Doesnít your mom use something like this on her legs?"

"Oh, yeah!"

Olivia continued watching intently as Tommy finished up the last few strokes and began rinsing his face.

"So, are you already for Nanna Jan?" Tommy asked, reaching for the aftershave. Kim was at work already since she wanted to take off early. Until Kim could pick up Olivia, Tommyís mom was going to watch her "almost" granddaughter.

"I sure am --except for brushing my hair. Itís too tangly for me to do all by myself."

"Iím just about done here, Princess."

"That smells good; can I try some?" Olivia requested. Grinning, Tommy poured a little aftershave into her palm, and she slapped it on her cheeks just as Tommy had.

"So, how do I look?" Tommy queried impishly. "Am I all set for class?"

"Silly! You need your gi, not your bathrobe!" Olivia laughed, "and your hair is all messy."

"Guess I forgot a few things. Well, why donít we finish you up first."

Olivia grabbed his hand and tugged him toward her bedroom.

"So, why is your mom taking off early today?" Tommy asked as he grabbed the brush.

"I canít tell; itís top secret," Olivia announced oh-so-seriously.

Tommy had a fair idea of what was going on. Olivia had gotten very excited last night when Kim told her that his birthday was coming up.

"Can you put my hair in a fancy braid?" Olivia requested as she positioned herself between Tommyís knees as he sat on the side of the bed facing the mirrored dresser.

"Sure thing, Princess." As Tommy began detangling the girl's hair, he found himself studying their reflections, noting how uncanny their superficial resemblances were, and once again he found himself wishing that Olivia had been his child. Iíd like nothing better than for the three of us to be a real family, Princess. I want you and your mom to stay here with me always. I love your mom so much, I just wish I could tell her, but Iím afraid she would . . . .

"We were talking about grandparents in school yesterday," Olivia declared, interrupting his train of thought.

"Is that so?"

"Uh huh. Grandparents are your mommy and daddyís mommy and daddy."

"Thatís right, Princess."

"Does everybody have grandparents?"

"Yes."

"Do you have grandparents?"

"My Grandma Sarah is the only one still alive; the others all died a long time ago."

"Do I have a grandma and grandpa?"

"Of course you do. Thereís Nanna Jan and Grandpa Thomas . . . ."

"I donít mean Ďdopted grandma and grandpa; I mean real ones."

Her distinction between the two caught him by surprise. Still, he managed to answer, "Yes, you have real grandparents."

"Since we donít know who my daddy is, I guess I wonít ever know his mommy and daddy," Olivia remarked crestfallenly.

"Probably not, hon." Tommy put the finishing touches on Oliviaís braid then pulled her into a hug.

"Thatís okay. It makes me just like you," Olivia said bravely, and Tommy felt something stinging the corners of his eyes as he held her tighter. "Hey, Tommy, can I brush your hair now?"

Tommy gave a long suffering sigh as he handed over the brush. Olivia was definitely her motherís daughter; however, while she had Kimís old enthusiasm for playing with his hair, she certainly didnít have Kimís skill --as he had learned the first time Olivia "brushed" his hair.

"Are Mommyís mommy and daddy still alive?" Olivia asked, resuming their conversation.

"Yes."

"Then how come we never see them? How come Mommy never talks about them?"

Sheís done it to you again, Tommy chided himself, recalling the last heart-to-heart he had gotten conned into. With any luck, this one would be easier to get out of.

"Thatís hard to say; I know your mom really misses her parents and would like to see them again. I know she wants them to see you."

"Then why canít we?"

"Your momís parents are divorced. Grandpa Ken lives in Seattle, and Grandma Caroline lives in Paris --thatís in a whole other country."

"Wow!"

"You also have an Uncle Kenny; heís your momís brother just like David is my brother."

"Really? How come Mommy never told me? Did something bad happen like with my daddy?"

Tommy tried not to wince as the brush hit a snag --or was he really wincing at Oliviaís query? This time, there wasnít as cut-and-dried an explanation. He knew what had happened, but he didnít know why --especially, he didnít know why Kim hadnít tried getting in touch with her family after all this time, and Olivia was too smart for his own comfort. Sheíd want a reason. However, as he struggled to give the girl some kind of answer, he heard the buzz of the doorbell.

"I bet thatís Nanna Jan!" Olivia cried, tossing aside the brush and her questions --to Tommyís relief-- in her eagerness to answer the door..

Thank you, Mom!

 

 

"Iíll get the dishes," Tommy offered, taking the plates from Kim. "You look like Olivia ran you ragged today."

"You donít know the half of it," Kim sighed tiredly.

"I guess she inherited your ability to shop-til-you-drop," Tommy teased.

"Who said anything about shopping?" Kim returned nonchalantly.

Tommy could tell her innocent tone was feigned, and he did his best to hide his smile. "The park, then?" he suggested, all innocence himself.

"Uh huh . . . and I thought we liked the park as kids! We ran into one of her little friends there."

"Min?"

"No, Suzanna, I think. We wound up staying longer than I had intended, then we walked Suzanna home. What a zoo!"

"Does Suzanna have a lot of brothers and sisters?"

"Huh? Oh, no. There was a block-wide yard sale going on. That place was a mad house; I was glad we werenít driving. Walking was bad enough."

While Kim hadnít quite regained her former shopping ways, Tommy had noticed that she took quite an interest in bargain hunting at yard sales. He just barely managed to keep a smile off his face. It was time to pursue another topic. "So, what movie was that you brought home?"

"Anastasia. We found it at the yard sale," Kim answered. "The girls spotted it, and Suzanna said it was all about a girl who didnít know she was a princess, so of course Olivia wanted to see it. It was only a couple of bucks, so I figured what the heck."

"Doesnít sound like anything recent," Tommy mused. Once, he wouldnít have known a thing about kidsí movies; Olivia was broadening his animation horizons.

"It isnít. It came out on video about three years ago."

"Mommy, can we start my movie now?" Olivia requested.

"Go on; Iíll join you guys in a minute."

The dishes didnít take very long (they never did when he cooked), so Tommy only missed the first ten minuets or so.

"Whatís this about again?" Tommy queried as he flopped down on the couch.

"Sh!" Olivia shushed.

"Youíve heard the story of Anastasia, havenít you --how this woman swore she was the daughter of the last Russian Tsar and somehow survived the Revolution," Kim began. "This is based on that. Anastasia survived but got separated from her grandmother, so everyone is looking for her to collect the reward her grandmother is offering."

It was enough for him to pick up on what was going on and settle into watching the show. As Anya began singing her first number, Tommy reflected on how ironic it was that the film was about searching for families, and he wondered if Kim picked up on the significance of that.

Home. Love. Family.

There was once a time I must have had them, too.

Home. Love. Family.

I will never be complete until I find you.

Tommy glanced over at Kim, and by the suspicious glittering on her eyelashes, he knew that she had.

 

 

"Hey, are you okay?" Tommy asked as Kim returned from tucking Olivia in; Kim had been rather subdued all evening.

"Yeah," she sighed heavily and absently sank down on the couch. "Remember when you said Olivia ought to be a pro tackle? Forget that. Sheís going to be a prosecuting attorney."

"More tough questions?" he asked, fully sympathetic.

"She was asking about her grandparents."

"I wondered if she might. She interrogated me about them, too."

"What did you tell her?"

"Not much. Mom arrived and rescued me," Tommy answered with a smile. "What about you?"

"This was even harder than talking about the attack," Kim confessed. Tommy recalled that Kim had sat Olivia down for a talk the day after he had tried to answer her questions. "All I could think to tell her was that we had had a fight and hadnít spoken in a very long time. Then she wanted to know why we hadnít made up."

"It is a good question," Tommy ventured delicately.

"I know. Iíd always hoped that maybe mom would call or write or something, but she never has."

"Why havenít you called her?"

"Iíve thought about it," Kim confessed sadly. "That first year I donít know how many times I picked up the phone then put it back. As much as I wanted to, I just couldnít. I was hurt and angry and . . . ."

". . . and scared that if you reached out, sheíd hurt you all over again?" Tommy asked kindly.

Kimís answer was a very tiny, "yes."

"You had a right to feel all those things, but donít you think itís time you let it go?"

"I know I should, but . . . ." Kim let out a long breath. "Every time I think of getting in touch with her, I think of what she said, and Iím afraid that sheíll misunderstand and think that Iím asking for help and get mad all over again."

"Youíre still afraid sheíll hurt you."

Kim hung her head. "I feel like such a coward!"

Tommy put a hand on her shoulder. "Youíre not a coward; never think that."

Kim wiped her eyes and gave Tommyís hand a squeeze. After an extended silence, she tearfully asked, "What did I do wrong?"

"You didnít do anything wrong."

"Then whyíd she get so mad at me? I didnít ask to be raped or get pregnant --I wanted to try for the Pan Globals as much as she wanted me to . . . ."

"I wish I knew, Kim."

"W-when Aisha first told you what happened, how did you react?"

Tommy thought for a moment --not about his feelings; he remembered those clearly enough, but about how much he should tell her. He decided to be totally honest with her. "Remember what a mess I was after I first lost my Green Ranger Powers? Angry one minute, depressed the next? Condense the time period and multiply the intensity by about a hundred, and you might come close to the uproar I was in when Aisha told me --although, I seriously doubt that would even touch what you felt at the time.

"The first thing I went through was denial. It was awful; when Aisha started telling me the story, I could see the end coming. I remember wanting to throttle her --to shut her up somehow, as if that would have kept what happened from being true. When she finally said the words . . . I was so angry; I canít even begin to describe . . . . All I know is that if I could have gotten my hands on one of those guys at that instant, Iíd have killed him without a second thought, without a regret." Kimís eyes widened in surprise at that; even he could tell how cold his tone had become. Actually, it was rather unnerving to know that he could feel such hatred, but he meant what he said, and he could see that she saw it, too, and was a little frightened by it. "When the blackness faded, it hurt . . . oh man, Kim, I hurt so much for you; to be honest, I cried in Aishaís arms." He let out a sigh and ran his hands through his hair, gathering his composure. He hadnít realized itíd be so difficult to talk about his feelings. "There were a lot of other things, too: helplessness, guilt, failure . . . I felt responsible . . . ."

"Why? It wasnít your fault; there wasnít anything you could done."

"I know it doesnít make sense. I just felt like I had let you down . . . that I had failed to protect you. Youíd probably feel the same way if something happened to Olivia even if you knew there was nothing you could have done."

Kim considered his words. "Well, Mom certainly went through denial and anger, but do you think that she went through the other emotions, too?"

"Iíd be more surprised if she hadnít. Iím sure she blames herself to some degree; after all, sheís the one who let you stay in Angel Grove when she moved to Paris and then let you move to Florida to chase a dream. I really donít think she was angry with you, just the situation in general; I think she was just lashing out in the heat of the moment, and unfortunately, you were in the line of fire and bore the brunt of it."

"If she hadnít meant to do what she did, then why hasnít she ever tried to apologize or anything?"

"Why did you have such a hard time facing me at Aishaís wedding?" Tommy asked in return.

His query took Kim by surprise. "I-I was scared," she admitted at last. "I was so afraid that youíd hate me for hurting you the way I did, and I couldnít bear to . . . ." Comprehension suddenly dawned.

"I bet your mom is scared to reach out to you for the same reasons," Tommy said quietly.

"So, what happens now?" Kim asked plaintively.

"Kim, can you really forgive her for what she did to you, what she put you through?"

"Sheís my mother!" she insisted as if that was all the explanation needed. "Maybe she hurt me, but I still love her, and I miss her. I want Olivia to know her grandmother, and . . . ."

"Then you may have to be the one to take the risk and reach out to her first," Tommy pointed out. Kim seemed to shrink back as if frightened. "I know it isnít an easy thing to do, but if you love her and want her back in your life, you have to let her know that you still care. Offer her your hand and see if she takes it."

 

 

The following morning, Kim sat on the couch, her address book clutched tightly in her hands. She stared at the phone as if to will it to ring. Tommyís words from the previous evening echoed through her thoughts: "I know it isnít an easy thing to do . . . you have to let her know that you still care . . . ."

Just like you did.

The similarity between their situations had hit her like a bolt of lightning during the middle of the night, and she hadnít slept much afterwards. Tommy hadnít known at first why she had hurt him--only that she had, but he had still offered her and her daughter his friendship, and after he knew the truth, he hadnít turned away from her. He could have been bitter and angry; instead, he held his hand out to her . . . a hand she had been almost too scared to accept --almost. In her heart she knew that more than anything she had wanted to accept what he offered. Could it really be the same way with her mother? She wanted to believe that so badly . . . .

"How about a cup of sludge?"

Kim nearly leaped off the couch. She looked up to find Tommy standing beside her, holding out a cup of steaming coffee. "Youíre up awful early," she stammered as she accepted the mug. Taking a tentative sip, she noticed that the "sludge" was actually pretty decent this morning; he really was getting better at making coffee.

"I could say the same thing about you," he said in reply, pulling up the desk chair and joining her. "Couldnít sleep either?"

"Too much to think about."

"Like what time it is in Paris right now?"

"Maybe. Tommy, if I call . . . what do I say to her after all this time?"

Tommy shook his head. "I canít help you there, but I had an idea about how you could find out how your mom feels before you actually call her."

"Really? How?"

"Call your brother."

"Kenny? But . . . ."

"Why not? I imagine heís kept in contact with your mom. Iím sure he could tell you whatís

going on."

"I donít know, Tommy . . . ."

"Kenny never abandoned you; you never gave him --or your father-- the chance."

Kim flinched at his words; she knew Tommy hadnít meant to be so harsh . . . but he was right. She sighed. "Iím sure Mom told them."

"Kim, do you want your family back or not?" Tommy demanded suddenly.

Kim was surprised by the exasperation in his tone. In all the time sheíd been living with him, she had never heard him lose his patience with her--and she imagined she had sorely tested him more than this!

"Iím sorry," he apologized almost immediately. "Itís just that this is your family. I guess I donít understand. I mean, I donít think I could just sit back and let my family fall apart without fighting with everything I had to try and keep it together."

She understood where he was coming from now. In many ways, Tommy had always envied her her family -- as disjointed as it was. You know who you are --where you come from. She remembered how much he always wished he had a brother or a sister --and how much she wished she didnít have one whenever Kenny was being a jerk. To Tommy, a family was one of the greatest gifts in the world, and it always bothered him when other people took their families for granted. Olivia had made her appreciate that sentiment as she never had before.

Kim looked into her heart and was able to admit that she really did want to have her family back. Now, all she needed to do was find the courage to be the one to take the first step. She looked up at Tommy and managed a wan smile. "Youíre right. Itís time someone did something about getting us back together, but . . . Iím still really scared."

"Thereís nothing wrong with that. If you want me to, Iíll help any way I can."

"Youíve already done so much that I hate to ask, but . . . do you --um-- think you could dial Kennyís number for me?" She smiled sheepishly as Tommy chuckled at her request.

"What time is it in Salt Lake City?" Tommy teased as he reached for the cordless phone and plucked the address book from her hands.

Kim said nothing, biting her lip, her heart pounding as he dialed. When he handed her the receiver, her hands were shaking so much she nearly dropped the phone.

The number you have dialed is no longer in service . . . .

"Heís not there any more; the phoneís been disconnected," Kim murmured, fighting back tears of disappointment. It wasnít fair! Just when she finally got the courage to call . . . . She had always assumed that her family would be there when she was ready for them again; it was crushing to find out otherwise.

"Hey, itís been five and a half years," Tommy said consolingly. He took the phone from her and dialed another number.

"Who are you calling?"

"Your dad."

For a moment, her eyes lit up hopefully, but almost instantly she caught his crestfallen expression.

"I guess heís moved, too," Tommy announced.

"Now what?" she asked, sniffling.

"Hey, donít let it get you down," Tommy encouraged. "Weíll find them somehow."

"Will we?" she muttered doubtfully.

"Is this something you really want to do?"

She knew without a doubt that it was. "Yes."

"Then, weíll find a way," he promised.

* * *

"Say, is anybody thirsty?" Kim asked her companions. She had chaperoned Oliviaís class field trip to the public library and had made arrangements with Mrs. Yashida to bring Min home.

"Me!" Olivia piped up.

"Me, too!" Min chimed in.

"Can we have shakes?" Olivia queried.

"Why not. So, where do we want to go?"

While the girls debated the issue, Kim found herself driving Tommyís truck down a familiar street. She hadnít thought about it when she made the turn; however, before she knew it, she was pulling into the parking lot of the Youth Center.

"Whatís this place?" Olivia wondered.

"This is where Mommy used to hang out with Tommy and her other friends after school," Kim answered. In a way, she was a little surprised she hadnít brought Olivia here sooner. She had spent some of her happiest days at the gym and juice bar. Perhaps it was because of the things Tommy had told her about Ernie leaving and Lieutenant Stone taking over and how the Youth Center had lost itís popularity with the high school crowd after that. Kim couldnít imagine the place without Ernie behind the counter; he had been the heart and soul of the Youth Center.

The trio made their way inside, and Kim was overcome by a wave of nostalgia. This was where she had been with Jason and the others when Zordon chose them to be Power Rangers. This had been the place where she had first laid eyes on Tommy . . . . Her heart ached with the memories. The juice bar hardly seemed to have changed. She half expected to find Bulk and Skull lurking about. Kimís first impulse was to head for the gangís old table, but she changed her mind and steered the girls towards the counter.

"Up you go," she said, swinging first Olivia then Min onto the stools, consciously making the effort not to treat Min any differently than Olivia.

"What can I get you ladies?"

Kimís head snapped up at the sound of a familiar voice, and she nearly missed the stool as she sat down. "Ernie? Is it really you?"

"Yup, thatís me. I . . . Kim? Kimberly Hart?"

Before Kim knew it, Ernie had made his away around the counter and wrapped her in an enthusiastic hug. "Itís so good to see you!" she exclaimed, genuinely happy to see him if a trifle unnerved by the hug, but it was only a momentary flicker.

"Same here; youíre looking great. Wheníd you get back into town?"

"Only a couple of months ago. What about you? I heard you were supposed to have gone to South America with your old army buddies or something."

"I never made it past the physical --my heart," Ernie admitted ruefully. "The doctor told me to come home, take some time off and take off a few pounds. I tried taking it easy for as long as I could, but I just couldnít stay away any longer. I missed this place too much."

Kim thought Ernie looked like heíd lost some weight. "Tommy said the juice bar wasnít the same without you," she said kindly.

"Youíve seen Tommy recently? How is he? Have you heard from any of the others?" Ernie questioned eagerly.

"Mommy and I live with Tommy!" Olivia said brightly.

Ernie shot her a look of complete astonishment, and Kim wanted to melt into the cracks between the tile. She managed a brave smile as she made the introductions. "Iíd like you to meet my daughter Olivia. Sweetie, this Ernie, an old friend."

"Hello," Olivia said politely. "And this is my friend Min."

"Itís a pleasure to meet both of you," Ernie said in his typical jovial fashion. "Tell me what you girls want, and Iíll get it. Itís on the house."

"Shakes!" both girls chorused.

"Coming right up!"

As Ernie revved up the blenders, Kim tried to fight back her feelings of discomfort and embarrassment. She hoped that Ernie would let Oliviaís comment pass; even after all this time, she still wasnít sure what to say. She didnít want him to misunderstand or think badly of her. Kim had never before realized just how much Ernieís opinion meant to her.

"Okay, two strawberry-vanilla swirl shakes for you guys," Ernie announced, presenting the colorful cups to the pair, "and a special Smoothie for your mom."

"Thanks, Ernie," Kim murmured quietly as a pink glass appeared before her. She took a sip and was a little surprised to find that it had been one of her favorite flavors. "Ernie, I . . . ."

"You donít have to explain anything to me, Kim," Ernie said kindly, "but if you ever need a friend to talk to . . . ."

Kim was grateful for both his restraint and his offer. "I really appreciate it."

"Just one thing . . . are you doing okay? If you guys need anything, donít be afraid to ask."

"Youíre the best, Ernie," Kim said, choking up and her eyes getting misty. Ernie always did have a heart of gold. She remembered how he always seemed to treat the kids at the Youth Center as if they were his family. He was always helping someone out with a problem, even if it was just with a sympathetic ear and a Smoothie to drink.

Ernie favored her with a fatherly smile then went back to wiping his counter. "Iím just glad to hear you and Tommy are back together," he commented. Kim started to speak, but he rambled on without letting her get a word in. "I always thought the two of you belonged together. Man, it about killed Tommy when he got that letter, and . . . whoops. Sorry, Kim, I didnít mean to ...."

"I know," she murmured; it was her turn to offer him a forgiving smile. He meant well. Kim was spared further awkwardness by a timely interruption.

"Mommy, whereís the bathroom? Minís gotta go potty."

 

Kim returned to the counter after stopping to call Tommy and let him know where they were so he would worry when they werenít back when they had told him. Olivia and Min, however, hadnít wanted to wait to return to their shakes, so she was surprised to find that the girls werenít at their seats.

"Where did Olivia and Min get to?" she asked Ernie.

"Theyíre over there by the video games," he answered.

Kim glanced over; there was quite a crowd by the machines. She relaxed when she spotted the two among the group.

"I suppose they wonít get into too much trouble watching," she remarked. After all, the games were in clear view and just at the opposing end of the counter.

"I have to tell you your daughter is a sharp little girl," Ernie said. "She and Min remind me an awful lot of you and Trini."

Kim laughed. "Thatís what Tommy said the first time he saw them together."

"Whatís Tommy up to these days? Olivia was saying heís opened his own karate school."

"He did --about two years ago; heís really doing . . . ." Kim was interrupted by an explosion of angry, high-pitched voices.

". . . youíre so dumb!"

"Am not!"

"Everyone knows she was the lamest Ranger."

"Was not!"

"The new one is the coolest!"

"No way!"

"Turbo was . . . ."

"No, Zeo . . . ."

"Space Rangers were the best . . . ."

"What seems to be the problems, kids?" Ernie queried, jumping in to referee.

"Ernie, do you know a lot about the Power Rangers?" Olivia asked.

"Oh, about as much as anybody else, I suppose. Why?"

"Who was the best Pink Ranger?" another girl with tight pin curls demanded. She stuck her tongue out at Olivia. "She says it was the first one."

"No way!" another child burst in. "The first Rangers were okay, but my dad says they were too weak; thatís why they kept having to get new ones."

"And their Zords were stupid," another chimed in.

"And the Pink one was the weakest of all," one of the boys interjected.

"She was not!" Olivia asserted.

Kim refrained from adding her two cents. Part of her bristled at the claim that she was the weakest Ranger. Sure she was the shortest and sheíd needed help getting out of jams on occasion, but so had the other guys on the team --even Jason and Tommy. And sheíd had more training in martial arts than Kat had when she took over. It also wasnít fair to compare the different teams; the otherís powers had been from completely different sources. However, a little seed of doubt crept into her certainty. For all her skill, for all the guys had taught her and she had gleaned from having the powers for so long, it hadnít been enough that one evening. She had been as weak and small as she appeared.

"Was, too! Sheís just a girl, and everybody knows girls are weaker than boys!"

"The Yellow Ranger was a girl; what about her?" Min piped up.

"The Pink Ranger was just as strong and smart and brave as any of the boy Rangers," Olivia shot.

"Take it easy, guys!" Ernie shouted above the growing din. "Olivia has a point. All the girl Rangers had to be as strong, smart and brave as the boys, otherwise they wouldnít have been Rangers."

"I told you," Olivia claimed smugly.

"Our teacher showed us pictures of all the Rangers, and the first Pink one was smaller than all the others!" another boy added.

"My sensei taught our class that in martial arts, size doesnít matter," yet another boy informed the gathering.

"There have been, what --five or six different teams since the Rangers first showed up?" Ernie queried.

"I thought there were more. The first ones had Dinozords . . . ."

" . . . Thunderzords, then came the Ninjazords . . . ."

"Those were all the same Rangers, though," Ernie said.

"How do you know?"

"You could tell by body type and fighting style. Just like there were a couple of different Zeo Zords, but only one team of Zeo Rangers."

Well, Ernie was almost right, Kim mused. Maybe the reason that the transition between Jason, Zack, and Trini to Rocky, Adam, and Aisha wasnít as noticeable was because they all had similar training and skills. The Zeo team had kept the same five members, merely adding Jason, but the Turbo team had roster changes, and according to Tommy, most of the second generation of Turbo Rangers went on to become the Space Rangers. As far as the current team was concerned . . . .

". . . I donít know much about the current team --theyíre still too new," Ernie was saying, and Kim tried to pay more attention, "but out of all the other teams, the one I have the most respect for was the original team."

"Why?" a girl asked.

"They had the hardest job because they were the first ones to be Rangers. How did they know what to do? They had to learn as they went along; the other teams could look back to see what the first team did in certain situations to see what worked or didnít work. Maybe their powers werenít as strong as some of the later teams, but they still had to fight some pretty powerful monsters. And, they didnít know whether people would accept them or not. Maybe folks wouldnít have accepted them; maybe people would have been as scared of them as they were of the monsters."

Kim smiled; Ernie could really get into it when talking about the Rangers. She often wondered if maybe he had known more than he had let on. How many times had she and the gang scurried off unexpectedly or dashed into a secluded corner to teleport out? Now that she thought about it, the odds were against him never having caught them, but if he had, he had never given them any inkling that he had known.

"But the Rangers are the good guys."

"We really didnít know that in the beginning, but we figured it out quickly enough. A lot of people blamed the Rangers for Rita and Zedd and all the others attacking, saying if the Rangers wouldnít have been around, the bad guys would have left us alone."

"It wasnít until after Rita appeared that the Rangers did," Kim pointed out in spite of her resolve to remain silent, and Ernie nodded his confirmation.

"The other reason Iíve always respected that first team is that most of them served as Rangers longer than any of the others," Ernie continued with his topic.

Kim had to give that some thought. Ernie had a point. From Green Ranger to Red Turbo Ranger, Tommy had probably served the longest--in uniform, but he hadnít been there from the very beginning. Of the original five, Billy no doubt had the longest service record with his time behind the lines. She had never really thought of it before, but after Billy, of the original Rangers, she probably had the second longest career --most likely the longest stint of any of the female Rangers.

". . . Iím really proud of the job those guys did," Ernie said in conclusion.

"How do you know so much about the Rangers?" one of the enraptured audience members asked.

"Oh, I have my sources," Ernie murmured evasively and returned to wiping the counter as the group began breaking up.

"Did you have a favorite Ranger, Ernie?" Olivia wondered as she clambered back onto the stool next to Kim.

"Sure. I always liked the Green Ranger because he was able to change from being evil to good; he kept fighting even when his powers got weak, and Iím pretty sure he was the one who became the White Ranger."

Kim gave a start and nearly spit out her drink. The only way Ernie could have known that was if heíd known who they were! Almost as if he had read her thoughts, Ernie cast a knowing look in her direction.

"And Iíve always felt the first Pink Ranger was really special," he went on to say. "Just like you said, Olivia, she was as smart, strong, and brave as any of her teammates, and she had a heart as big as the Megazord."

Kim blushed and ducked her head, finding his words a bit unsettling, wondering if she really deserved them.

"I also know of a few times when the Pink Ranger saved all the other Rangers."

"Really?" Olivia and Min gasped, their eyes getting wide, and Kim glanced up. Ernieís best asset may have been his ability to listen, but he could also spin a pretty mean story. It would be interesting to see what his take on their exploits had been.

"There was this one time when this giant toad swallowed all the other Rangers . . . ."

 

 

"Howíd it go at the Youth Center," Tommy queried when he popped upstairs to grab a quick bite to eat on his dinner break.

"Olivia and Min can hardly wait for me to take them back," Kim responded, absently staring into the bottom of her soda glass as she sat at the kitchen table.

"Did something happen there? You look a little distracted."

"Itís nothing, really. Did you know Ernie is running the place again?"

"Really? Thatís great! When did he get back?"

"He never left; he took off for health reasons."

"Heís okay, now, isnít he?"

"Heís doing really good."

"The next time you guys go, can I tag along?"

"Sure. By the way, Tommy, Ernie knows we were the Power Rangers." Kim smiled when she saw Tommyís flabbergasted expression.

"He does? Well, I suppose it does kind of make sense; he never used to get bent out of shape when we were running off all the time --sometimes forgetting to pay for our drinks until we got back. Howíd you find out?" Tommy asked.

"Olivia and some of the other kids got into a big debate over which Power team was the best. Ernie said some things that he couldnít have known about unless he had known who we were."

"I figure Olivia defended the original team; which one did you stick up for?"

"I stayed out of it; I just couldnít bring myself to . . . ."

"Someone said something that really bothered you, huh?"

"You could say that." Tommy was waiting for her to elaborate, and she sighed. "I wonder . . . Olivia and Ernie were saying that I had to be as strong, smart, and brave as any of the rest of you, but I donít know if I ever really was. It sure doesnít seem like it."

"You were, Kim; trust me."

"Maybe when I was morphed, with the Power to protect me and all, but without it . . . ."

". . . you were every bit as strong as you were with it."

Kim just looked at him doubtfully; Tommyís gaze held hers and when he spoke again, it was with quiet sincerity.

"You were strong enough to fight your attackers and were smart enough to know when that wasnít a viable option anymore, and you were brave enough to make the sacrifice necessary to save the life of a friend and teammate --just like you did when you were a Ranger."

Tears threatened, and Kim ducked her head to hide them. "I never thought of it like that."

"Your greatest strengths have always been your heart and spirit. The Morphiní Powers didnít give you those qualities; youíve had them all along," Tommy assured her, "and theyíre still inside you; you just have to learn to believe in yourself again."

"Thanks, Tommy." She wiped at her eyes. "How come you always seem to know the right thing to say to make me feel better?"

His demeanor remained sincere. "Because I believe in you. Because I care."

* * *

"Is it time to open presents?" Olivia gushed as she hurried through the door, practically flattening Tommy in the process.

"Sheís so excited, youíd think this was her birthday," Tommy chuckled.

"She has been going nuts waiting for yours to get here," Kim confided.

The trio had just returned from dinner at Tommyís favorite Mexican restaurant. To Kimís embarrassment and Oliviaís sheer delight, Tommy had proudly worn the birthday crown she had made for him through the entire meal. Really, it looked a lot better than the silly sombrero the waitress had brought out for him to wear while the staff sang.

Before Tommy had the door closed behind him, Olivia sped down the hall and back again; she wore her own birthday crown and had retrieved Kimís old party hat.

"Itís the rules, Mommy," Olivia insisted, handing her the headwear, and Kim obliged by donning her hat. "Oh boy, Tommy, I canít wait for you to see your presents!"

"Arenít we supposed to sing ĎHappy Birthdayí and blow out the candles first?" Kim queried.

"Oh, yeah, thatís right," Olivia pouted. "Okay, Tommy, you sit down, and me and Mommy will bring the cake out."

"I thought the birthday boy was supposed to get to order everyone else around," Tommy muttered with a good-natured grin.

"You hush; weíll call you when weíre ready for you," Kim ordered as the two disappeared into the kitchen.

Tommy took his hat off for a moment and shook his hair out. He smiled wonderingly at the creation; it was quite a sight! As he had, Olivia had used a Burger King crown and decorated it with paint, glitter, pieces of paper, buttons, feathers, and other baubles; however, his favorite decoration was the big heart on the front that read "Happy Birthday, Tommy. We love you. Kim and Olivia" all done in Oliviaís handwriting.

"Okay, Tommy!" Olivia called as she emerged from the kitchen; he had barely gotten up off the couch when she grabbed his hand and started pulling him along. "Close your eyes."

"If I do that, how am I going to find the kitchen?" he protested.

"Thatís why Iím holding your hand."

Tommy complied and allowed himself to be led into the next room --not without running into a few corners in the process. He was grateful to feel Kim guiding him into a chair.

"Can I open my eyes yet?"

"All right."

He opened one a tiny bit, cautiously looked around then opened the other, a performance that had Olivia giggling. It even had Kim smiling.

"Do you like your cake?" Olivia queried eagerly.

Tommy regarded the mini inferno; why did they have to put all twenty-three candles on? The perimeter of the white-frosted cake was lined with candles, making it look like a blazing stockade fence on a snowy field. Stationed within the wax ring were six plastic figurines--six Power Rangers. Tommy wondered where they had found the toys; he hadnít seen any like that in years. Towering over them was a creature made of Legos, and in one of the corners in red and green frosting were the words "Happy Birthday."

"Mommy put the frosting on, and I put on the decorations," Olivia piped up before Tommy could say anything.

"Pretty impressive; I really like the monster."

"Thatís the Megazord!"

"If you donít blow out the candles soon, weíre liable to set off the fire alarm," Kim scolded playfully.

"Just you wait until your birthday," Tommy warned mischievously. He reached out to arm himself with sweet ammunition.

"Donít you dare," Kim snapped, slapping his hand away. "Remember the rules --no snitching frosting until the candles are blown out."

Tommy just laughed. "Do I get the song first?"

Olivia serenaded him with great enthusiasm, and Kim snapped the pictures as he extinguished the candles with one deep breath. Olivia made quite a show of coughing and fanning the smoke away.

"Did you remember to make a wish?" she asked as she began helping Kim pull the candles out.

"Of course I did."

"Whatíd you wish for?"

"I canít tell; if I did, my wish wouldnít come true." Just as Tommy tried for the frosting again, Olivia planted a creamy smear across his face.

"Gotcha first!" she giggled.

Tommy went for the second strike, only to be smeared by Kim on his blind side. Kim assumed an angelic expression, and Olivia practically fell off her chair because she was laughing so hard. Quick as a wink, Tommy managed to retaliate.

"Okay, why donít we cut the cake before this gets out of hand," Kim advised, retreating.

"Youíre no fun," Tommy pouted.

"You want to argue with a woman holding a sharp object? Go right ahead," was Kimís retorted as she returned with a cake knife.

"Itís really good cake, Tommy," Olivia declared. "Mommy let me lick the spoon when she made it. Mm!"

"Boy, Iím jealous." Kim handed him the first piece; he was a little surprised that the cake was chocolate. Neither he nor Kim were big chocolate eaters, even though she really liked hot cocoa and he had a weakness for Mrs. Bilinskyís cookies. He noticed Kimís anxious expression and realized she was waiting for him to take a bite. He didnít understand why she should be nervous about how the cake turned out; it was pretty hard to ruin a box cake --although, he had managed to do it. Still, he obliged and took a fork full. One bite was enough to tell him that it was no box cake.

"Did you make this from scratch?" he asked around his mouthful.

"Is it okay?" she asked eagerly.

"Itís wonderful! You know what this tastes like? Mrs. Bilinskyís double chocolate cookies with . . . ." He paused as something else tickled his tastebuds. ". . . raspberry?"

"It should since I asked Mrs. Bilinsky for the recipe," Kim replied with quiet pride.

"Mrs. Bilinsky parted with her prized recipe?"

"You said those were your favorite cookies; when I asked her if she could bake some for you, she told me she had a cake recipe, too, so I thought Iíd try it."

"This is awesome, Kim."

"Is it time for the presents?" Olivia interjected, bouncing in her seat.

"You can go get them, Sweetie," Kim said. As she dashed off, Kim added, "Sheís been so excited about them; I really donít know how she managed to keep them a secret."

Olivia returned a few moments later with two brightly wrapped packages.

"Which one should I open first?" Tommy wondered.

"Mommyís" Olivia declared, to Kimís obvious surprise.

Tommy regarded both gifts. One was a neat rectangle-shaped package that felt rather like a book. The other was a rather lumpy bulge with almost more tape than paper. He set that one aside.

"Howíd you know that one was from Mommy?" the girl wondered, mystified.

"Lucky guess," he replied. He glanced up at Kim as he carefully slipped his finger under the tape at one end. Her expression was an amusing mixture of hopeful anxiety and excited eagerness as she worried her lower lip between her teeth. Impishly, he prolonged her agony by taking his time with the paper.

"You are so mean," Kim hissed when she realized what he was doing.

"Hurry up, Tommy," Olivia urged.

"When you only have two presents, you have to make them last," Tommy retorted. However, the suspense finally became too much for him, and he tore the remainder of the paper off. Inside was an envelope and a binder. He looked to Kim for a clue as to which one he should look in first; she merely shrugged as if to say "itís youíre choice." Tommy opted for the envelope. Inside, he found about a dozen trading cards; as he flipped through them, his smile became an look of pure astonishment. "Magic Johnson, Kareem . . . Kim, where did you . . . how did you . . . ?"

"They should be the right ones; I made sure to have your list with me," she said.

"They are, but how . . . ." Every card in his hands was both rare and expensive; his uncle had been looking for these cards for years! There was no way Kim could have afforded even one of them. When Kim didnít offer any further information, Tommy turned his attention to the binder. More cards from various teams . . . it took Tommy a little while to realize the significance of the cards in the pages. "These are all rookie cards!"

"When we were at that block-wide yard sale, there was this woman who was selling a bunch of sports cards and things," Kim explained. "Thatís where I found all those Lakers cards. When Olivia mentioned that we were buying them for a birthday present, the woman offered me the binder. Even I recognized some of the names, so I figured those were some pretty important players."

"Didnít she know what she had? She could have sold these to Pete at the Sports Card shop and gotten quite a bit of money for them."

"I told her that, but she said she didnít care about the money; she wanted them to go to someone who was going to enjoy them as much as her son had --I think he had passed away or something."

"This is just incredible; I canít wait to show Uncle John . . . . Thank you!" Tommy hopped up from his seat and wrapped Kim in a jubilant hug. He held her tightly for several moments before he realized what he was doing and that Kimís body was stiff in his embrace. He felt like kicking himself; Kim looked a little shaken as he released her without ceremony. "Kim, Iím . . . ."

"Open mine!" Olivia insisted, interrupting his apology.

Judging from Kimís expression, Tommy thought it best not to make a big deal about the hug. "At once," he said instead as Olivia thrust her gift into his hands. "You did a good job of wrapping this." The girl just beamed with pride. He tried to use the same care he had when opening Kimís present, but that proved nigh impossible. Once he ripped away the bear-bedecked paper, he found himself as shocked as when he saw Kimís gift.

It was a White Ranger action figure with a Falcon Zord. He hadnít seen one of those in ages. They had shown up on the market right after they had gotten their Ninja powers and had sold out quickly. People clamored for more, but the manufacturer had never released a second series --to the disappointment of the customers and the delight of collectors.

"Whereíd you find this?" Tommy wondered. The toys had been both flattering and embarrassing at the time. They had been good likenesses. Tommy would never admit it to any of the others, but he had tried to get a hold of one of his namesakeís toys --sort of as a keepsake for the days when his career was over. However, he had never had any luck.

"At the same sale --different yard," Kim revealed.

"Mommy said you always liked the White Ranger, and you like falcons, so I wanted to get it for you," Olivia elaborated.

Tommy noticed that Kim was blushing. "Princess, itís wonderful," he said, sweeping her into a hug. "Thank you both for a wonderful birthday."

"Do you think that maybe sometime I could play with your White Ranger?" Olivia asked. "Yísee, Mommy found the Pink Ranger for me . . . ."

Kimís blushed deepened, and Tommy laughed. "Weíll see, Princess."

"Now, itís time for someone to go to bed," Kim announced.

"Aw . . . but Iím not tired," Olivia protested, but she went with Kim without too much of a fight.

Tommy took the opportunity to wander into the living room. He removed a wooden box from the top of the bookcase. It was one of his most cherished possessions; Sam had given it to him shortly after he and David first met. Their father had carved the box, and their mother had painted the designs on it. David had one just like it; this one had belonged to Sam, but he wanted Tommy to have it. Tommy stored in it the things he treasured most: pictures of both his biological and adoptive parents, his old communicator, a copy of the song Kim had written for him, and a Pink Ranger figurine to match the White Ranger heíd just received.

 

 

Kim sighed as she emerged from the bedroom; Olivia had finally settled down to sleep. She was beginning to think the child was never going to stop bouncing around; she had been just too excited. Olivia was so pleased that Tommy had liked their presents and the cake; truth be told, she was pretty happy about that herself. She spied Tommy laying on the couch, his party crown still perched on his head. She was glad that she had been able to return a little of the happiness that he had given to her and her daughter. Just the look in his eyes . . . .

She wandered over to the couch as if to wake him and send him to his bed as he was sprawled out on the short sofa most uncomfortably, but she paused and just looked at him as he dozed. In a way, he reminded her of Olivia when she slept. It was that same something that drew her to her daughter and made her want to touch her hair and stroke her cheek and whisper sweet, soothing words as she watched her sleep. Those moments always made Kim realize just how precious Olivia was and how much she meant to her. She felt the same thing for Tommy right now. She reached out as if to brush her fingers over his soft, silky hair, but she stopped herself. Retreating a bit, she wrapped her arms around herself as if to ward off a chill. What was she thinking? She shouldnít . . . .

Kim found herself missing the old days. Tommy used to be so affectionate --even before they were officially a couple: a soft smile, a pat on the shoulder, a hug for no reason . . . . Oh, he still did some of those things, but it wasnít the same. Things were more restrained, almost as if he was going through the motions without the feelings.

What about the hug he gave you tonight?

The emotion he had shown when he hugged her had taken her by surprise; it was as if, for a moment, he had forgotten that things werenít the way they used to be between them. Kim felt her bottom lip trembling. The embrace hadnít lasted very long; she had just started to relax into it when Tommy seemed to recover himself. It had just felt so good . . . .

"Why wonít you hold me?" Kim whispered, a tear sliding down her cheek. "Is it because Iím . . . unclean somehow that you hardly ever touch me?" Fighting back further tears, Kim fled into the kitchen.

She was so intent on her thoughts as she put away the cake and washed the dishes that she wasnít aware she was no longer alone until she felt a gentle touch on her arm. She gasped, started, and spun around to find Tommy standing close behind her. He was so near . . . she felt herself cowering back against the sink.

"T-Tommy," she stammered, trying to settle her rapidly pounding heart.

"This is why, Kim," Tommy said quietly, his smile tinged with sadness as he took a step away from her.

"Why --what?"

"Itís not that I donít want to touch or hold you," he began, and the heat flared hot in Kimís cheeks; she hadnít realized that Tommy hadnít been asleep. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep from touching you sometimes? When I see you in pain, or when you smile and youíre happy . . . but whenever I get close to you --like just now-- I can see how scared you are. Even the lightest brush makes you tense up like a bow string."

Kim wanted to deny it, but she couldnít. Even now her muscles were still tightly clenched. She hung her head as bitter tears slipped from her eyes. "Itís not fair!" she cried. "Why wonít this just go away and let me get on with my life!"

"Like with any other wound, the scar will always be with you," Tommy said gently. "It wonít ever go away, but it will fade with time. Right now, youíre going through a lot of things you havenít had to face before, and there are no more gymnasium walls to hide behind. Itís going to take a little time and effort, but you can get through this."

Kim buried her face in her hands as she continued to cry. "Itís just not fair! Iím so tired of being afraid . . . I donít want to be afraid of you! I want you to hold me and tell me everything will be all right, that this nightmare will be over someday --just like you used to."

Then, to her amazement, Tommy reached out and tilted her chin up. He looked into her tear-filled eyes and smiled reassuringly. The breath caught in her throat as she felt his arms go around her. To her sorrow, she experienced a moment of panic, and her body went rigid as she felt the embrace tighten. She was consumed with this overpowering urge to break free, and briefly she was glad her arms were trapped against her chest --a barrier between their bodies. When she realized all this, she began sobbing harder; she just could not relax into his embrace --and he knew it, too.

However, he didnít let go. He continued to hold her and let her cry. At some point, Kimís arms had relaxed; she discovered that she had Tommyís shirt clutched tightly in each fist. She became aware of Tommyís hand softly stroking her hair --she always used to love it when he did that. She felt his cheek resting against the top of her head, and under her own she felt his warmth and heard the steady, soothing beating of his heart. She remembered standing on the beach like that --for hours it seemed-- neither of them would speak as they watched the sun go down and the stars come out, and it had always made her feel so safe, so loved. Thatís all he did now, and slowly, Kimís tears and trembling began to subside. To her joy, she was able to release his shirt and slide her hands around his waist.

Kim couldnít have said how long they stood there like that, but it seemed like hours and yet not nearly long enough.

"Kim, I . . . ." Tommy began hesitantly.

Kim could feel the tension in his body now; it caused her to look up to see what was in his eyes.

"I wasnít going to say anything . . . . I donít want to make you uncomfortable or hurt you or anything like that, but I have to . . . ." He held her tighter as he seemed to seek the courage to continue, and his voice was husky and tremulous. "I love you. To be honest, in spite of everything, I never really stopped."

His words shook Kim to the core. He loved her? She wanted to say something, but she couldnít find the words as astonishment and joy bubbled within her. However, before she could even try, Tommy placed a finger on her lips.

"You donít need to say anything," he told her. "I donít want you to feel obligated to answer. I know I probably shouldnít have said anything yet. Youíre still hurting, and I donít ever want to do anything to cause you any more pain, but I had to tell you . . . . Maybe it will help you in some way to know . . . . I just hope it doesnít make things worse between us.

"I know things canít be exactly like they used to be --as much as I wish they could-- but thatís okay. You donít know how much it means to me that youíre back in my life again. If friendship is all we can have together, Iíll take it --gladly. I just donít ever want to lose you again."

Tommy released her, and all Kim could do was stare up at him in wide-eyed amazement. He smiled and kissed her softly on the brow.

"Good night, Kim."

Numbly, she sank down into a chair and watched as he disappeared into his bedroom. Finally, she found her voice as she heard the door close. "You wonít lose me; I love you. Always have. Always will."

* * *

Kim sat in the waiting room nervously twisting her purse strap in her hands. What am I doing here? she asked herself for the umpteenth time.

She should have gone to the costume shop to see if she could find something for Halloween. She hadnít thought she be off to take Olivia trick-or-treating. It turned out that she was going to be able to, and Tommy and Olivia had talked her into dressing up. Now her problem wasnít so much what was she going to be but rather what did the shop have left! However, instead of doing that, she was spending her dinner break sitting at the Carmichael Center.

Youíre here because you love Tommy.

"I love you . . . I never really stopped." His words still made her feel warm all over. It had been a rough week since Tommy had confessed his feelings to her. One minute she was floating on cloud nine, and the next sheíd be in tears and unable to even look at him. His announcement should have made her the happiest woman in Angel Grove. Instead, she felt lost and confused. She wanted to tell Tommy that she felt the same way, but for some reason she couldnít say the words.

After a great deal of soul searching, Kim realized what was wrong. She didnít feel worthy of Tommy. She felt he deserved more than she could presently give him, but at the same time, she didnít want to lose him a second time. She knew Tommy would be patient --heíd help hold her up no matter how long it took, but she didnít want to lean on him forever. She wanted things to be like they used to as much as he did, but they couldnít be until she could stand on her own. Tommy was right; she had a lot of things she needed to work out --things she couldnít face or identify without help. Gathering her courage, she had called the Womenís Crisis Center and made an appointment to talk to one of the counselors.

Kim glanced at her watch. It was starting to get late; she was going to have to leave soon to get back to the gym on time. She hadnít wanted to make the appointment in the morning because she didnít want Tommy to find out she was going, at least, not just yet. She wasnít even sure this was the right place to go; after all, it had been five years . . . but she hadnít known where else to turn. She got up and crossed the empty waiting room to the magazine rack; the receptionist had already left for the night (although she had offered to stay with Kim). Kim grabbed a magazine and had just resumed her seat when the door to the inner office opened.

"Iím glad to see youíre doing so much better, Kaitlyn," the counselor said as she ushered the girl to the outer door.

"Thanks, Mrs. Donovan; Iím glad you were able to talk with me on such short notice," the girl replied.

"Iím always available, Kaitlyn."

Donovan? Kimís head snapped up. Sure enough, it was Maggie. It took her a moment to recall that Tommy mentioned that Maggie volunteered at the Crisis Center.

"Sorry, I kept you waiting, I . . . why, hello, Kim," Maggie greeted, sounding only marginally surprised.

"Hi, Maggie," Kim essayed wanly. She wanted to die; here she had geared herself up to talk with a stranger, and it turns out to be Tommyís friend.

"If youíll pardon my saying so, I kind of thought I might find you here sooner or later."

"You did? Tommy didnít say . . . ?"

"No, Tommyís not said a word to me. I know how to read the signs," Maggie answered kindly. She glanced over at the wall clock. "Youíre on your dinner break, arenít you? How do you feel

about talking over a quick bite to eat?"

"I guess thatís okay; youíre the doctor."

"Donít worry, Kim; this wonít be as difficult as you think. Come on."

* * *

"Come on, you two!" Tommy called out as he looked at the clock on the VCR. They needed to get over to the Youth Center to get their group assignments. The program for safe trick-or-treating that they had participated in as high school students had greatly expanded; there were so many youngsters that parents had also been asked to be chaperones for the children. It had definitely evolved into a community project.

"Hi-ya!" Olivia shouted fiercely as she bounded out of her room. Maggie had found Kellyís old costume; it was in pretty good shape and hadnít needed much in the way of alterations. "How do I look?"

"Morphinominal," Tommy replied, using one of Billyís old terms. "How about me?" He had resurrected his old pirate costume --the one Kim had told him he looked so "dashing and roguish" in.

"Pretty cool. Thatís a neat earring," Olivia evaluated.

"So, whatís your mom going as?"

"I dunno. She said it was a secret; she made me leave the room so she could get dressed."

The other day, Kim had come home, announcing that she finally found a costume, but she hadnít told anyone what it was. Tommy wondered if she might go with a princess costume; she always liked those in high school. However, princesses were notorious for being weak and helpless -- victims always needing to be rescued. He didnít think thatíd be such a good idea for Kim right now. She was still feeling pretty vulnerable and didnít need to pretend to be a damsel in distress.

Tommy was pretty concerned about Kim anyway; she had been acting rather unusual since the night of his birthday. He almost regretted telling her how he felt. He had meant his words to give her something to believe in, to give her a sense of security. They seemed to have just the opposite effect; he hadnít seen her so unsettled in weeks. For a while there, things were as awkward between them as they had been after Kim had told him about the rape. However, the last couple of days hadnít been too bad; maybe Kim just needed a little time to let the shock work through her system. She had definitely been surprised at his announcement; it had probably been the last thing she had expected.

As for himself, he was glad he had finally told her. It had taken a load off his mind, but at the same time, it had created a new dilemma: waiting to see if Kim felt the same.

"Sorry, guys, I didnít mean to take so long," Kim said breathlessly. "Weíre not going to be too late, are we?"

"Hey, Ernie knows me; he probably figured weíd be . . . ."

Tommy couldnít believe his eyes. Kim was dressed as the Pink Ninja Ranger. "Whereíd you find that costume?" It was remarkably close to the original; only someone whoíd worn the actual thing would notice the minute differences in the gauntlets, tabard and insignia.

"I got lucky at the costume shop," she explained as she tied on the headband.

"You look just like the real Pink Ranger," Olivia gushed, "but how come you donít have the mask?"

"The shop didnít have it any longer."

"I always hated that mask," Tommy whispered. "I felt like I had a pillow case over my head."

"I felt like a mummy."

"You know, Ernie will probably have heart failure when he sees you in this."

"Too bad I didnít find a White Ranger outfit; that would have really made him flip," Kim added with a laugh.

Tommy found Kimís light-hearted mood encouraging. She was laughing and smiling; there was a sparkle in her eyes, and there seemed to be something different in the way she was carrying herself. "So, how does it feel to be back in uniform?" Tommy asked.

"You know, itís kind of weird . . . . I know this isnít the real thing, but I feel almost like I did when I was still on the team, like I could take on the world! It feels good --real good."

Tommy knew what she was trying to say; he gave her hand a heartfelt squeeze and didnít let go. She glanced at their joined hands briefly then smiled up at him without letting go either.

"Will you guys hurry up! I donít want to miss trick-or-treat," Olivia declared with an imperious stomp of her foot.


Part Five: Giving Thanks

Tommy took a right and headed down Airport Road; it was a shortcut to the speedway.

I wonder what Uncle John wants, he mused. Tommy was looking forward to seeing his uncle again. He hadn't visited the track since before Kim and Olivia moved in with him. He cast a quick glance at the binder sitting in the seat next to him--the one Kim had given him for his birthday. Uncle John is going to flip when he sees these!

Kim's gift wasn't the only reason Tommy was anxious to see his mom's brother-in-law; Tommy hoped that maybe his uncle needed someone to drive for him. Nothing that required a road trip --he couldn't leave the dojo-- something local. It was still something of a surprise that he had taken to racing as well as he had. He liked fast cars as much as the next guy, but he had never dreamed of racing professionally. When his uncle made his invitation, Tommy had accepted because he needed a distraction to get his mind off his problems. From there, it had evolved into a means of paying for his karate school. He had learned to love the sport--just not enough to make it a full time career.

The municipal airport was just ahead; it was a busy place in spite of all the traffic at AG International. Tommy noticed a sign along the side of the road: Angle Grove Air Charters. Wasn't that the name of Kim's Uncle Steve's business?

That got Tommy to thinking about his conversation with Kim about finding her family. He had been wanting to do something to help her get in touch with her folks even before they'd had their talk, but he hadn't been certain how she felt about it. He didn't want to do anything if she wasn't ready to face them. That she made the effort --albeit an unsuccessful one-- to call told him that it was something she really did want. However, he had absolutely no clue how to go about finding any of them.

He could have started by writing Kim's mother; she was most likely still in Paris, but that probably wasn't the best idea. After all, according to Aisha and Kim, Mrs. Dumas believed that he was the one who had gotten Kimberly pregnant. She wasn't likely to listen to him if she still felt that way, and it might destroy any chance of getting her and Kim back together. He also wasn't so sure about Mr. Hart --or more specifically, his second wife. Kim had been pretty certain that Cynthia despised her; she wouldn't be happy about having Kim in her father's life again. Kenny seemed to be the most approachable member of the family. Tommy tried to recall what Kim had told him about her uncle. He was her mother's brother (there was also a sister--Kelly's mom); surely he would still be in contact with Kenny.

It wasn't a conscious decision on his part, but Tommy turned onto the lane leading to the charter service. He still hadn't figured out what he was going to say when he pulled into the parking lot.

"May I help you?" the woman behind the counter queried.

"Is Mr. Wright in?" Tommy asked. He had spent five minutes in the car racking his brain trying to recall Mrs. Dumas' maiden name.

"He is; however, if you wish to book a charter, I can help you with that."

"No, thank you. I was wondering if I could speak to him for a moment about his niece Kimberly . . . ."

"Hold on just a moment!" the woman interrupted excitedly as she jumped up from her chair and hurried into the back office.

A short while later a man --forty-ish with wavy, caramel colored hair peppered with gray and fawn-brown eyes-- emerged from the office.

"I'm Steve Wright," the man introduced himself.

"Tommy Oliver," Tommy said as he shook the offered hand.

"Tommy . . . my niece dated a fella named Tommy."

"That's me."

"Millicent said you wanted to talk to me about Kimberly."

"Yes, I was wondering if you knew whatever happened to her," Tommy said, deciding to play it discreet until he had some idea of what Steve knew.

"I was hoping you could tell me," Steve sighed sadly. "After she went to Florida with that coach, it was as if she vanished off the face of the earth. She stopped writing, stopped calling; no one has seen or heard from her since."

"Not even her mom?"

"I think Caroline has some idea, but she refuses to talk about it. When Kenny last asked her about Kim, Caroline told him to mind his own business." Steve shook his head. "I think she's sniffed too much of Adrian's brush cleaner!"

That wasn't encouraging news. "Do you guys have any idea . . . ?" Tommy prompted.

"Not really. My guess is that Kim and Caroline got in a fight --it was bound to happen sooner or later. Kim had always done whatever Caroline asked of her, until Caroline decided to get married and move to Paris. Caroline could be so blind and stubborn sometimes; she was always saying she wanted Kim to make something of herself even if she had to take care of all the details herself."

Tommy had never realized that Mrs. Dumas had been so controlling. He wondered if Kim even realized it. She had never said that her mother was forcing her to do anything she didn't want to --except when it came to refusing the abortion. Tommy knew every parent wanted his or her child to do well in life, but he couldn't imagine planning things out for the child and not allowing the child to have any say in the matter. There had to be more going on between Mrs. Dumas and Kim than what Steve was saying, but that was neither here nor there at the moment. At least he had gotten something useful out of Kim's uncle: her mother had not told anyone else in the family about what happened. Probably too embarrassed.

"I take it you're looking for Kim," Steve remarked, interrupting Tommy's thoughts.

"Yes. I know it's been a while, but I really feel this is something I have to do," Tommy answered evasively. "I was wondering if you knew where I could find Kenny or Mr. Hart. I tried the phone numbers I had for them, but I guess they've moved."

"I'm not sure about Ken; I think he's still in Seattle, but Kenny moved to Colorado last year--to be closer to his girlfriend. He'd know where to find his father, but I doubt he knows anymore about Kim than I do."

"That's okay; I'd still like to talk to him."

"Sure." Steve pulled a laminated card out of his wallet and copied down one of the phone numbers for Tommy. "There."

"Thanks, Mr. Wright," Tommy murmured distractedly, reading over the number.

"No problem. Just one thing, if you learn anything . . . ."

"If that's what Kim wants," Tommy agreed, and he hoped Steve hadn't picked up on his slip. He glanced at his watch. "Would you mind if I borrowed your phone? I've gotta call my uncle and let him know I'm going to be late."

"Of course."

Tommy was going to be very late; he had to make a phone call to Colorado first.

* * *

"So, how was your afternoon at the race track?" Kim queried as Olivia shouldered her way past Tommy to get through the door first. Tommy had been helping his uncle break in a new car and had been spending all his free time at the track. Olivia had complained about missing him, so he decided to take her with him--giving Kim a much-appreciated day off. The two had been gone since before breakfast.

"We had a great time, didn't we, Princess?" Tommy said; though he was dirty and tired, his smile was bright and his eyes positively shone with his happiness. Kim hadn't realized how much he had enjoyed racing or that he missed it so much. "I'm gonna go get cleaned up."

"Okay, Tommy." Kim looked to Olivia to hear her opinion of the day.

"It was noisy," Olivia said once Tommy was gone. "I had to wear these funny things on my ears and over my eyes. To protect me, Tommy said."

"Was it exciting?"

"The cars were neat . . . ."

Kim sensed a "but" coming. She covered her smile as Olivia looked around--presumably to make sure Tommy wasn't around. Not finding him, she continued more softly, ". . . it was kind of boring. All Tommy did was drive 'round and 'round in circles, and there was nothing for me to play with."

"Don't worry, Sweetie; I don't understand what he sees in it either," Kim said confidentially, and Olivia smiled with relief.

"Can I watch a movie, Mommy?" Olivia requested.

"Sure, honey."

A short time later, after Olivia was thoroughly engrossed in her cartoon, Tommy emerged from the bathroom.

"How did it go today?" Kim asked when Tommy plodded into the kitchen.

"Fantastic!" he declared enthusiastically as he grabbed a soda from the 'fridge. "This new car of Uncle John's is pretty awesome. She handles like a dream! Man, all that power . . . ."

"Do you ever wish you were still racing?" Kim wondered.

"Sometimes --but only for about five minutes," he answered. "I love driving, but I never cared for Uncle John's nomadic lifestyle. I guess it reminds me of when I was growing up and Dad was transferred a lot. I definitely don't miss the road; helping out here is enough for me. So, what'd you do with your day?"

"Maggie met me for breakfast at the coffee shop and then we went to do some serious window shopping."

Actually, they had done considerably more than that. Their day to goof off had turned into one of Kim's therapy sessions. At their first meeting, both women had agreed that a doctor/ patient relationship wasn't going to work for them. Though not exactly friends, they were too close for Maggie to keep a professional distance. However, Maggie couldn't turn her away either. In the end, Maggie had offered Kim a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on whenever she felt the need, and a lot of good advice. They continued to meet casually --at the laundromat, at the market-- and they didn't always talk about Kim's problems; they covered everything from parenting to pop music. Kim realized Maggie was indeed a friend --one she could confide in and trust.

"What did you think about the infamous coffee shop?" Tommy wondered.

"It was really nice," Kim said. It was a little place not far from the laundromat, a long time fixture of the neighborhood. The quaint little restaurant didn't have a large clientele, just a loyal one. She had been very curious to see this place since Maggie had mentioned it a few weeks back, but she and Tommy couldn't seem to find the time to go. Well, Olivia had a little something to do with that.

Although it had been the first time she had ever set foot in the place, she had felt like everyone had known her and accepted her. It was as if she had really belonged. Of course, Maggie had warned her that she was probably already well known to the coffee counter gossips and had laughingly said that it was a wonder that the regulars hadn't known Kim was moving in prior to Tommy's return. The busybodies missed very little; however, they weren't a spiteful lot. They were loyal to their neighbors but were usually willing to give newcomers the benefit of the doubt. Kim had to admit that they had been colorful: Matt, the owner and Betty, the head waitress --she had taken an instant liking to them-- and they had made her feel welcome. They all had, except for Joe. By the end of breakfast, Kim had wanted to punch that loudmouthed idiot in the nose! The nerve of him suggesting that Tommy was making up now for abandoning me five years ago!

"There are some really great people in this area; it's why I like it so much," Tommy said. "Although I've only lived here a little over a year, I really feel like this place is home."

Kim had to admit to feeling that way, too.

". . . and I'm really glad you and Maggie are getting along so well," Tommy continued.

"I hadn't realized how much I missed the stuff I used to do with Trini and Aisha," she replied. "Sometimes, it's like Maggie's the older sister I always wished Kenny had been."

"By the way, do you have any plans for the seventeenth?"

The abrupt change in topic caught her off guard. "Just the usual: work that morning, spend the afternoon with Olivia, and then catch up on things around here after she goes to bed." She found his demeanor puzzling; Tommy sounded as if he was nervous about something.

"Would you like to go do something?" He ran his hand around the back of his neck and couldn't seem to maintain eye contact with her. "Just the two of us?"

Kim blinked in amazement. In the three months since she had moved in, the two of them had never done anything without Olivia. Rarely had they spent more than an hour or so without her around period. It suddenly felt as if butterflies were doing kamikaze runs in her stomach, and she stammered as she asked, "A-are you asking me out on a date?"

"Um . . . yeah. I guess I am."

For a moment, it was as if her brain had ceased to function; she felt paralyzed. Alone on a date with Tommy? She couldn't . . . could she? She hadn't been alone with a guy since the attack! However, part of her desperately wanted to say yes, but then the other voices surfaced--the voices of fear and confusion and doubt.

But this is Tommy! the voice clamoring to accept shouted above the din of indecision. This is the man you love! This is the one person in all the world you still trust.

Trust . . . she hadn't realized exactly how much she trusted Tommy until Maggie pointed it out to her: "Who was it you instinctively turned to in times of trouble? When you were in Florida and so frightened you didn't know what to do, you called Tommy. When your nightmares were too much to bear any longer, you opened yourself up to him. You even trust him with your daughter! Right now, you probably trust Tommy more than you do yourself."

If she trusted Tommy so much, then why was she so scared of going out with him? "What did you have in mind?" she asked cautiously.

"A friend of Uncle John's sent him two tickets to a charity dinner in Hollywood; however, he can't use them because he has to be in Las Vegas that weekend," Tommy explained; he retrieved his jacket and removed an envelope from his pocket. "He thought we might like to go."

Her instincts were telling her to say yes, but . . . .

"You're thinking too much, Kim," Maggie had told her during one conversation. "For once, don't think; trust your instincts."

She was just so afraid . . . .

In the past, she had always been able to use her fear in a positive fashion --to motivate her and get her over the obstacles in her way. "I'm tired of being afraid!" she had told Tommy a few short weeks ago, and she had meant it. She had cowered in the shadows for almost six years, and the one thing she had dreamed of during that time was within her grasp if she was willing to take a risk and reach for it.

Trust your instincts . . . .

Kim glanced up into Tommy's face; he looked as anxious as she felt, and she realized that he was probably just as afraid as she was. "Sure, it sounds like it might be fun," she said at last, more than a little surprised that her voice was so steady.

"Really? You'd like to? That's great!"

Tommy looked so happy . . . he was almost as giddy as a kid at Christmas, and Kim had to smile. For a moment, the two could do nothing but stare at one another with silly grins on their faces, and Kim felt almost the way she had when she was sixteen and Tommy had first asked her out. Had she been this bad then? However, practicality reared its ugly head.

"Who will watch Olivia, though? We'll be out much too late for Kelly to babysit."

"My folks," Tommy replied, demonstrating that he had thought this through. "Mom's been wanting to have Olivia for a weekend, and both she and Dad will be off."

"Don't they have plans?" Kim knew Jan and Thomas weren't the type to just stay at home when they had time together.

"I wanted to wait to say anything to them until I talked with you. I'll call them right now."

Tommy tossed the invitation onto the table en route to the phone. Kim snatched up the envelope and looked at the enclosed card and tickets. She let out a low whistle when she saw where the event was being held.

"All set," Tommy announced upon his return to the kitchen. "Mom was thrilled, and before you ask, Olivia thought the idea of having a slumber party with Nanna Jan was cool."

"Tommy, how can we go to this thing?" Kim queried. "The invitation says black tie . . . neither of us has a thing to wear, and showing up in your truck would be really . . . ."

"Between my dad and my uncle, I'll find something to wear."

"What about me? Neither your mom nor your aunt are my size."

"Maybe Tanya has something you can borrow."

"We may be the same height but hardly the same build."

"Don't worry; we'll think of something. As far as transportation goes, that's already taken care of. Uncle John said that if we decided to go, we could borrow his new Mustang."

"Ah, now I get it," Kim murmured, a teasing grin tugging at her lips.

"Get what?"

"Your real motive for asking me out. You just needed an excuse to drive a cool car!"

With a laugh, Kim dodged the dishtowel Tommy flung at her.

* * *

"Tommy, phone call!" Leslie called above the clamor of "ki-yais."

Tommy nodded to Kurt, indicating he should take over the lesson, and hurried over to the office. He wondered who it was; Leslie generally didn't interrupt a class unless it was important. Was it his mother? Kim? Kelly having a problem with Olivia . . . ?

"Who is it?" he queried.

"Ken Hart."

Kenny! Tommy bolted for his chair and released the hold button. His heart was pounding in his chest with excitement as he answered, " Tommy Oliver speaking."

"Tommy? This is Ken Hart --Kim's brother. I just got your message off my answering machine; I've been out of town on business . . . . You said you wanted to talk to me about my sister?"

Tommy had thought long and hard on what he'd say to Kim's brother and father. He wasn't certain it was his place to tell them about the rape; however, Kim was operating under the assumption that they already knew about it, and he ultimately decided to spare her the pain of having to recount her ordeal yet again.

"I do," Tommy said at last.

"Do you know where she is? No one's seen or heard from her in so long . . . ."

"She's back in Angel Grove . . . ."

"Thank God! Have you seen her? Is she all right?"

"She is --now. Ken, can you get a hold of your father?"

"Since it's about Kim, I could probably get him out of a courtroom right now."

"We don't need to do that, but I would like to set up a conference call with the two of you."

"Not a problem; I'll call Dad as soon as we're done, but why . . . ?"

"A lot of things happened to your sister while she was in Florida, and it'd be easier if I could tell you both about them at the same time."

 

"Hey, Jan, what's up?" Kim queried, checking the number in the I.D. box as she caught the phone just before the answering machine kicked in. She had thought Tommy was about, so she hadn't particularly rushed through drying off after her shower.

"Hello, Kim. Have you found a dress for Saturday yet?" Tommy's mom queried.

"No." She'd tried Tanya as Tommy suggested, but Tanya didn't have anything in black, and Kim looked awful in yellow. She had checked a couple of second hand stores, but most of what they had were old prom dresses or gaudily beaded monstrosities.

"I think I have one for you."

"Really?"

"I checked with some of my other siblings and found a niece who's your size. She had bought a little black dress for a dance then got stood up. Her exact words were, 'if you want it, you can have it! I don't want to be reminded about that stupid dance --ever!'"

"Oh, the poor thing!"

"If you're interested, I'll stop by and pick it up on my way home from work. Then you can come over some morning to try it on."

"Jan, that's wonderful! Thank you so much --for everything," Kim gushed.

"Not a problem. I'm glad to help out. I remember what it's like to have a little one and not be able to do things because you had no sitter or family to help out."

Jan wasn't kidding. This would be the first time in five years that Kim was actually going to do something without her daughter tagging along. She couldn't believe how excited she was getting about the whole affair.

"I'm working the afternoon shift on Wednesday; how about that morning?"

"That'd be perfect; see you then."

Kim's mind was already working on what to do for shoes and accessories before she put the receiver back in the cradle; it rang again almost instantly. Kim didn't recognize the number. "Hello?"

"May I speak with Tommy please?" the person on the other end requested. He sounded like an older gentleman, and Kim couldn't place the slight accent.

"He's not in at the moment, may I take a message?"

"Is this Kimberly?"

"Yes . . . ."

"It is a pleasure to speak with you. I am Sam Trueheart."

"Oh, David's father!"

"Yes, if you would, please tell Tommy that David and I happily accept his annual invitation. We're both looking forward to meeting you and your daughter."

"As we are you, Mr. Trueheart. Tommy will be thrilled with the news." However, as Kim bid Sam good-bye and hung up the phone, she realized that she had no idea what he had been talking about.

 

 

"Tommy, did you invite David and his father over for dinner or something?" Kim queried as soon as Tommy got home.

"No, why?"

"Mr. Trueheart called earlier to say that he accepted your invitation."

"He did? They're coming this year? That's awesome!" Tommy exclaimed in absolute delight.

Even more befuddled than before, Kim asked, "What are we talking about here?"

"Thanksgiving dinner."

"Thanksgiv . . . Tommy!"

"What?" he wondered, puzzled by her chiding tone.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't imagine too many Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving."

"Why not?"

"Think about it," she urged, exasperated. Tommy wasn't normally this dense. "You know the story about the first Thanksgiving --about the Indians and the Pilgrims. The European settlers may have been celebrating their survival in the new world, but the Pilgrim's survival marked the downfall of the native peoples. I can understand why some people might not want to have anything to do with a holiday that celebrated that."

"I'm of Native American descent, and I celebrate Thanksgiving," Tommy pointed out.

"You weren't raised Native American."

"Why does it have to be about Pilgrims and Indians anyway?" he wondered, perplexed by the argument. "Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks for the good things in your life; it's just a day set aside for doing that --that's all. For me, Thanksgiving has always been about family and friends and how grateful I am for all the people I care about in my life. White, Red, Black --we're all just people no matter what we believe."

"Some folks just can't look at it the way you do," Kim sighed.

"I know. David and I have discussed this many times. He respects my viewpoint and doesn't take offense when I invite him, and I respect his views and don't get bent out of shape when he says no."

However, Kim could see the years of disappointment at being turned down in Tommy's eyes. "Well, whatever their feelings, Sam and David will be there this year," she reminded him, and Tommy's expression brightened.

"I can hardly wait," he cheered. He was so excited, he reminded Kim of Olivia; all that was missing was the bouncing. "I have to call mom and tell her. She'll flip!"

"You'll have to call Sam back to let him know where and when," Kim suggested.

"I can't wait for them to meet you! Boy, will David be surprised," Tommy rambled on, seeming not to have heard her. "I'd been wanting to tell him about you and Olivia . . . ."

"You mean you haven't?" Kim sputtered.

"I keep meaning to write or call --I haven't spoken to David since he left for school this past July-- but I'll think of it at the oddest times then forget when I'm by the phone . . . . And David is just as bad as me sometimes . . . ."

"I don't understand . . . ."

"What?"

"When Sam called, he addressed me by name and said that he and David couldn't wait to meet me and my daughter. If you haven't told them, then how . . . ."

Tommy laughed at her confusion. "It can be a little spooky until you get used to it, but Sam has this way of knowing about people and things. You'll understand better when you meet him. Oh man! This is going to be the best Thanksgiving ever!"

* * *

"Tommy, this was such a great evening; I haven't had so much fun in forever!" Kim gushed as Tommy maneuvered the Mustang onto the highway. The two had spent the evening drinking, dancing, and dining with some of the most well-known people in the entertainment business. Tommy recalled how tightly Kim had clung to his arm when they first arrived at the club; they had both felt very out of place. He knew he had felt like he was staring whenever he spotted someone he recognized from the movies; however, they had managed to relax sometime during the pre-dinner reception and had wound up enjoying themselves.

He glanced over at Kim, smiling as he noticed that she was still positively glowing from the excitement of the evening. She looked magnificent! He had never seen her look so elegant. The strapless black gown (from a jilted cousin --ha! Tommy knew he didn't have any cousins Kim's size, and even if he had, none of them lived close enough for his mother just to drive over and pick up the dress) fit her perfectly; he especially liked the slit-up-to-there in the side of the skirt. His mother had loaned her some jewelry and helped her with her hair. Kim had looked as good as any of the women there, and she had carried herself with such aplomb that no one would have guessed that she had been absolutely terrified.

"I got such a kick out of people looking at us and trying to figure out if they knew us or not," Kim chatted away. The way her eyes shone made it difficult for Tommy to concentrate on the road. "How about that blonde who latched onto you?"

"Which one?" Tommy wondered; embarrassingly, there had been several who had been flirting with him--at least, that's what Kim said they were doing.

"The one who acted like she'd fried her brains when she'd fried her hair with the peroxide. 'Hey, handsome, are you anybody --important, I mean?'" Kim mimicked. Tommy had to admit it was an excellent imitation. "I couldn't believe her! I didn't think people like that really existed; she was something out of a cheesy movie."

Tommy remembered now --how could he have forgotten the way Kim proprietarily slipped her arm through his and said, "Of course he's someone important; he's my husband." He knew she had done it simply to extricate him from a very persistent woman, but the way she had said it --the love and pride in her voice-- had sounded so real that it had given him chills. "By the way, I never did thank you for the save. It was very convincing."

Kim blushed and looked away shyly. "I guess I should be glad she didn't look for a wedding ring," she fumbled. "I hope you didn't mind."

"Not at all." Into the awkward pause that followed, Tommy asked, "Who was that you were talking to before dinner?"

"For the life of me I can't remember her name --she was some sort of journalist, I think. She must have been someone pretty important because she snagged Mel Gibson as he was walking past and asked him to get us a couple more drinks. Can you believe that? I got to meet Mel Gibson, and he got me a drink!"

Tommy bit back a smile as Kim bounced with the excitement that she had refrained from displaying at the time. "What did you guys talk about? You were at it for quite a while."

"Would you believe gymnastics? She swore she'd seen me somewhere before, and when I mentioned the Pan Globals and Coach Schmidt, she was so genuinely interested . . . . Actually, it was kind of weird, but she did ask some pretty insightful questions. How about you? Who was the guy with the beard you were talking with for most of the reception?"

"Mack Davies, a stunt director."

"You guys seemed pretty friendly; how do you know a stunt director?"

"He's an old friend of Uncle John's --the one who sent him the tickets to the fund raiser. I met him once while I was still racing for my uncle; Mack had consulted him about something or another. I was just surprised that he remembered me --by name, not just 'Rush's nephew.' At the time, he had teased Uncle John about trying to steal me away to drive for his crew."

"Was he trying to recruit you again?"

"He was wondering where Uncle John was; I think he was wanting to talk to him. He's working on a new project that requires racing scenes. Mack did say he was sorry to hear I wasn't driving any more and seemed pleasantly surprised that I was into martial arts."

"Why's that?"

"Because of the film's star."

"Let me guess; Mr. Davies was there with him."

"Uh huh."

"And judging by the light in your eyes, it was someone you've always wanted to meet," Kim mused. She pondered the choices. "I'd say Bruce Lee, but he's dead."

"Very funny," he snorted as she laughed. "It was Jackie Chan."

Kim made suitably impressed noises. "I take it you got introduced. So, did you discuss martial arts with him?"

"No, he was more interested in discussing racing," Tommy replied, unable to hide his chagrin. However, Kim's tinkling laughter chased his frown away.

Eventually, the excitement of the evening caught up with Kim, and the hum of the Mustang speeding along lulled her to sleep. Tommy spared her a glance, a tender smile warming his expression. Kim was curled up in the bucket seat, her legs tucked up under her, and her head drooping to the left as if she wanted to rest it against his shoulder. However, the thing that both astonished and pleased Tommy was that her hand rested lightly on his thigh --just like she used to do on late night drives once upon a time.

* * *

. . . I don't know what other proof I can send you to make you see that Kimberly had told you the truth about what happened to her, but please believe me when I say it is the truth, and your daughter needs you. But not the way you think. She doesn't need you to raise her daughter --she's done an awesome job of that on her own. She needs you because you're her mother . . . .

Tommy read over the last paragraph he had written, chewing absently on the end of his pen. This was proving to be tougher than he thought.

"Am I doing the right thing?" he asked of Tommi Bear who was at the table finishing her breakfast --or so he'd been told. He may have been successful in reaching Kim's father, but her mother was an entirely different matter. Sighing, Tommy slipped the note back into his folder. He'd already spent an hour agonizing over what he'd written thus far, and his brain felt a little numb.

He thumbed through the other papers he had collected --his "proof." He had spent some time in the microfiche room at the university library searching through microfilm rolls of Miami newspapers from five-and-a-half years ago. Kim hadn't been kidding when she'd said that the incident had been down played to prevent negative publicity, but he had managed to find a small article hidden away among some ads. He had gone ahead and made copies of the article. He also had a copy of the last letter Kim had sent him; for some reason, he'd been unable to throw it away. At least now it'd help establish his bona fides. There was one more piece of evidence he wanted to send Mrs. Dumas: something in Kim's own words.

Tommy recalled that Kim used to keep a journal; he figured that she definitely would have recorded her feelings about the rape and her pregnancy in one, seeing as how she had had no other outlet for her emotions at the time. The problem was trying to find her old notebooks. He was still reluctant to invade Kim's privacy and search through her things, but he also didn't want to ask her outright because he didn't want to get her hopes up in case his appeal to her mother failed.

Emerging from the kitchen, he peered into the living room. Kim was out taking care of some errands, and Olivia's attention was glued to a TV show. Satisfied that he was unobserved, Tommy headed down to the girls' room.

Okay, where would Kim keep her old diaries? He eyed the nightstand speculatively; while he thought it was a likely place for her current record, he doubted her old ones would be stored there. Probably in a box in the closet.

He had to keep reminding himself that he was doing this for a good cause as he rifled through Kim's meager belongings. The boxes weren't labeled, so he was going to have to go through everything, and Tommy got caught up in examining the items in the very first carton he came to. In it were mementos of Olivia's early years. He found himself getting a little misty-eyed as he examined the clothing and photos, drawings and old toys. There was even a baby book with all the milestones meticulously recorded. He found himself wishing he could have been there to see them instead of just reading about them.

Tommy had to force himself to shake off the spell of vicariously watching Olivia grow up. If he spent too much time dawdling, he was going to get caught. He repacked the box, careful to replace the items exactly how he had taken them out and turned to the next cardboard container. However, it had proven just as distracting. In it were stored Kim's mementos of Angel Grove, the Power Rangers, and all their friends.

"Whatcha doing, Tommy?" Olivia queried, coming up behind him.

Guiltily, he set aside the scrapbook he'd been flipping through, his fingertips lingering a moment longer on the stub of a ticket from a dance --their first date. "I'm . . . looking for something," he confessed, trying to think up a plausible fib. The thing was, Olivia had a way of knowing when she was being out-and-out lied to.

"What is it? Maybe I can help," Olivia offered.

Tommy considered that. Olivia could be surprisingly close-mouthed when it came to surprises, and if she was in on the surprise, she wouldn't go telling Kim he'd been in her stuff. How often had his dad done the same thing to him when he'd been a kid? Besides, he'd always liked being in on the secret. And, if Olivia helped him, it wouldn't be like he was totally going behind Kim's back; as long as it wasn't something she had forbidden Olivia to get into . . . .

"Maybe you can," Tommy agreed, "but this is top secret. It's a surprise for your mom, so you have to promise not to tell."

"I'm very good at keeping secrets," the girl asserted.

"I know you are, Princess. What I'm needing to find is one of your mom's old notebooks that she wrote in a lot. There's some information in it that I need to help with the surprise."

"You mean her journals?"

"Exactly."

"I know where she keeps those," Olivia declared and made a beeline for the nightstand.

"Not her current one, an older one," Tommy elaborated.

"She keeps all her writing books in here," Olivia explained as she began pulling out the small, bound volumes.

"Easy does it; we don't want your mom knowing we were getting into her stuff. We have to put them back exactly like she had them." Fortunately it appeared that Kim had arranged her journals chronologically, the dates emblazoned on the covers. Tommy quickly located the one covering January and February of '96. He flipped to the day of the attack.

. . . oh God, I can't believe this really happened to me! Please let me wake up in the morning and find out this was all just some horrible nightmare . . . .

It was all there in excruciating detail --the actual attack and her struggle to deal with it alone. Here and there his skimming eyes caught references to her struggle with whether or not to tell him what happened --her fear of what he'd say or do . . . to her, to the rapists . . . . Tommy finally turned to the day Kim had found out she was pregnant, the ill-fated phone call, and the day she decided to cut him out of her life.

If reading any of this won't open Mrs. Dumas' eyes and heart, then there's no way she even has a heart to be opened! Tommy mused.

"Is that what you're looking for?" Olivia asked.

"Sure is. Let's head down to my office so I can make copies and put this back before your mom gets home," Tommy instructed. "And remember, this is a secret."

"Right."

* * *

"Thomas William, get your fingers out of there!" Jan scolded.

Thanksgiving morning, the Oliver household was filled with bustling activity, the sumptuous aroma of cooking food, and the raucous sounds of marching bands playing as the Macy's parade filled the TV screen in the living room.

"I was just trying to help . . . ." Thomas protested.

"Help --ha! Olivia is more of a help than you!" Jan snorted. "Go on; get out of here!"

As Tommy emerged from the basement with a load of folding chairs, his father passed him and winked.

"Works every time," Thomas chuckled conspiratorially.

"Dad . . . ." Tommy chided.

"I'll be in the garage if anyone needs me."

Tommy entered the kitchen in time to hear his mother confide to Kim, "He's not fooling anyone; he's been pulling this for years. I let him get away with it because he really is more of a nuisance in the kitchen than a help."

"Here are the chairs; where do you want them?" Tommy queried, stifling a smile.

"Clean them off first, then put them in the dining room --where else?" Jan directed. "I'm going to see if I can find the good table cloth Aunt Elsa gave us."

Tommy watched his mom bustle out of the kitchen, shaking his head and laughing. Then he appreciatively sniffed the air. "Mm, smells good in here. Man, I've missed this. We haven't had a big Thanksgiving dinner in years --since grandpa died. Usually, it's just the three of us."

"My last big Thanksgiving with my family was before Mom met Adrian," Kim confessed, her heavy heart audible in her voice. "Kenny was there, and Mom actually invited dad --this was before he was really serious about Cynthia. That was the last time we were all together."

Tommy gave her shoulders a squeeze, having no comforting words.

"In Florida, if Olivia and I didn't go to some restaurant, we wound up having that pressed-turkey-dormfood-stuff in the center's cafeteria," she continued.

"Well, this year, you have the real thing with all the trimmings, even if you do have to help cook it and clean up afterwards," he said with a cheery grin.

"It wouldn't be a real Thanksgiving without the clean up," Kim laughed. "Actually, I don't mind. I'm enjoying myself, and I know Olivia is really excited. I think she's been in here every five minutes wondering when it'll be 'turkey' yet or demanding I come see a balloon or float or something."

"Well, now that Dad's been officially exiled from the kitchen, we can assign him to Olivia detail," Tommy chuckled.

"Tommy, haven't you finished with those chairs yet?" Jan demanded as she returned with the table cloth. "I need you to get down the good china."

"Mommy, come see!" came Olivia's squeal of delight. Tommy and Kim traded grins and set about their appointed tasks.

 

 

"Time to turn off the parade, Olivia," Kim called as she carried a stack of plates into the dining room. "Come help me set the table."

"The parade's all done," Olivia said. "Dumb ol' football is on." She hit the power button on the remote and scampered over to Kim. "Ooh, Mommy, the table looks fancy!"

"It sure does," Kim agreed. Jan had told her that she'd been waiting for a good excuse to get "the good stuff" out. It wasn't worth the hassle for just the three of them.

"These dishes are very pretty," Olivia gushed as she held up a plate.

"Careful," Kim cautioned. It wasn't as if Jan could run out and buy replacement pieces. She had purchased the dinnerware when she had visited Tokyo on leave. Kim found the simple black and grey brush-stroke painting that curved along the bottom and side of the dishes very elegant.

Just then the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it!" Olivia chirped and sped off. Kim set the china aside, knowing Olivia probably couldn't budge the front door. To her surprise, she found the door open and Olivia gaping at the men standing on the porch.

Kim made a quick study of the pair (lest she seem rude). The shorter of the two was an older gentleman--well, older in that the hair at his temples was grey and silvery strands shot through the braids touching his shoulders. Though he leaned on a walking stick, he was solidly built and did not seem at all infirm. His sun-weathered face was set in an amicable expression, but there was something about his eyes . . . . It was as if when he looked at her, he could see into her soul. The adjectives "patient" and "wise" came to mind as she regarded him, and she knew that he had to be Sam Trueheart.

"Hello," he said, nodding in greeting, as if he knew she had been taking his measure.

His younger companion caused Kim to gasp in surprise. He was the spitting image of Tommy: tall with mahogany colored hair cascading down his shoulders in long thick locks, deep brown eyes . . . although, he was of stockier build and had more rounded features. Also, he didn't have the lush, almost feminine lashes or as full a mouth. Still, the resemblance was uncanny; there could be no doubt that David Trueheart and Tommy Oliver were kin.

"You look like Tommy!" Olivia piped up, recalling Kimberly to her duties as hostess.

"Who else would he look like?" Sam wondered.

"Olivia, why don't you go find Tommy and tell him that David and Mr. Trueheart are here," Kim suggested as she ushered the two in. "Hello, I'm Kimberly Hart."

"Tommy! Unca David is here!" Olivia shouted as she hurried from the room.

"Uncle David?" David queried, his tone laced with amusement.

Kim flushed crimson. "Sorry about that. When Thomas and Jan let Olivia call them Grandpa and Nanna, she decided that since you were Tommy's brother, you were to be 'Uncle David.'"

"I've been called worse," David chuckled. He was more reserved than Tommy but possessed the same warmth and personableness.

"I'm so happy you both could come," Kim continued, not really knowing what else to say. "I've been wanting to meet you; when Tommy told me he had a brother, I couldn't believe it."

"You couldn't have been more surprised than the two of us," David concurred.

"I guess not." In the following lull, Kim cast about in search of Tommy. "Where is he? For someone who was so excited that you we're going to be here . . . ."

As if on cue, Tommy came bounding in from the kitchen, Olivia hot on his heels.

"Sam! David!" Tommy wrapped his brother in an effusive hug. "Oh man, bro, it's good to see you. It's been too long; we've got a lot of catching up to do."

"Obviously," David remarked, glancing pointedly in Kim's direction.

"Have you guys met Kim and Olivia?" Tommy babbled on as he swept Olivia --who squealed happily-- into his arms. "Man, I'm so glad you guys came this year!"

"We had to come," Sam replied. "For as long as I've known you, Tommy, I have seen the shadows which clouded your soul. I wished to meet and thank the one who brought the light back to your spirit . . . the shining crane who taught the mighty falcon to soar once again."

Kim blinked in amazement and shot Tommy a searching look; he looked almost as flustered as she did at Sam's words, but she had the feeling that his surprise had nothing to do with the reference to their spirit animals. Sam has this way of knowing . . . . Still, Kim felt the heat in her cheeks grow.

"What's a crane, Mommy?" Olivia wondered.

"It is a very beautiful, graceful bird," Sam explained.

"If Mommy is a crane, and Tommy's a falcon, am I anything?" Olivia asked with unsettling insight.

"You, little one, are the river dancing through the desert," Sam explained patiently. "A precious spark of life in a barren wasteland. Always moving, always babbling, always going wherever curiosity takes you."

Kim smiled fondly; the description fit Olivia to a "t."

"But someday, Dancing River, you shall fly above the desert on the wings of a rare and wonderful bird --a golden eagle . . . ."

"Like Marahute in Rescuers Down Under!" Olivia cheered, enchanted by the notion.

"And you shall soar with all the beauty and grace of your mother and the strength and courage of the father-of-your-spirit," Sam concluded, and his last pronouncement shook both Kim and Tommy.

"Father of her spirit?" Tommy echoed.

"You have claimed her as your daughter as surely as your parents claim you as their son."

"I think . . . maybe . . . I should leave you guys to do your catching up," Kim murmured, thoroughly unsettled by the discussion. "Come on, Olivia; we have to finish setting the table."

"Look, Mommy; I'm an eagle," Olivia declared as she rushed about the living room, her arms spread as unfurled wings.

Kim watched as Tommy interrupted his conversation with David to capture the eagle-in-flight and spin her around, provoking peals of laughter. She sighed longingly as she saw the happiness shining in Tommy's face. She envied him his joy at being surrounded by his family, thinking about her own scattered to the winds.

"Just one more thing, Kimberly," Sam began, placing a comforting hand on her arm. His words were softly spoken so that no one else but she could hear them. "As you have brought light to Tommy's darkness, so too will he bring light to yours --if you will let him.

With a reassuring pat, he took his leave of her and joined Tommy and David. Olivia, bored, finally scampered over. Kim collected her daughter's hand and absently wandered back into the dining room.

"I like Mr. Trueheart," Olivia announced as she skipped along. "Do you think you could braid my hair just like his?"

 

 

"Ooh, it looks just like in all the pictures!" Olivia exclaimed as Thomas set the turkey on the dining room table. Her eyes were wide and her face practically glowing.

"One cannot truly appreciate the joys of life until one has viewed them in the shining eyes of a child," Sam said sagely as the adult began to take their seats.

"There's so much food here," Olivia continued to gush, turning to Kim. "I don't think we'll be able to eat all this, Mommy."

"Tommy and Thomas will put a serious dent in it," Jan laughed.

"Don't worry, Princess; we'll be eating leftovers for a month of Sundays," Tommy assured her.

"What's that?" the tot jabbered on as another dish was added to the table. She wrinkled her nose at the yellow-brown squares. "I don't think I like that."

"How would you know? You haven't even tried it," Kim said reasonably. "It's corn casserole, and Mr. Trueheart brought it."

"Really? Can I have some?"

Kim and Sam shared conspiratorial smiles.

"What's that red stuff? Jell-O?"

"Jellied cranberry sauce," Thomas explained.

"It's time to settle down, Sweetheart," Kim said even as Olivia eyed the sweet potatoes dubiously.

However, as everyone was seated, there was an awkward moment of silence. At her family's Thanksgivings, Kim's folks used to start the meal by saying Grace. With Sam and David there, she wasn't quite sure what was the proper thing to do.

"Would anyone like to say a few words?" Thomas asked at last.

Olivia's hand went up as if she was in class.

"All right, Olivia."

"You know, Mommy, we're all just like a real family here," she observed. "You're the mommy, and I'm the daughter. Tommy is like the dad . . . ."

Kim blushed as she shot Tommy a surreptitious glance. He looked startled, sheepish and pleased all at once.

". . . Gran'pa Thomas and Nana Jan are the grandpa and grandma," Olivia continued, heedless of Kim's discomfiture. "David's the uncle, and Mr. Trueheart is . . . ." She paused, momentarily stumped for a role for Sam. "Well, there can be two grandpas, can't there?"

"Sure there can, Honey," Thomas assured her.

"See!" Olivia declared brightly.

"Of course we're a real family, Olivia," Tommy said. Kim's head snapped around to look at him. He usually only addressed Olivia by name when he was being very serious. "A family is more than something you're born into. It's more than just the people you're tied to by blood; it's the people you're tied to by love. That's why everyone is here at this table today; we're all family."

"Mommy and me, too?"

"Definitely. No matter what happens --no matter how many other families you may have-- you will always be a part of this family. Your mom, too."

Kim felt her eyes brimming as she felt Tommy's hand close around hers under the table. She had no words to respond, so she simply squeezed his hand.

"Wow . . . a real family!" Olivia intoned in awe. Then, she flashed Kim her brightest smile. "In school the other day, Mrs. Blackman asked us what we were most thankful for."

"And what did you tell her?" Kim asked, her voice unsteady with her emotions.

"That I was thankful we moved to Angel Grove."

Kim pulled her daughter into a hug as her eyes scanned the gathering. Hers weren't the only ones suspiciously moist.

"You know what, Sweetie? So is Mommy."

 

 

"Oh my," Sam sighed as the meal wound down.

"Ditto," Thomas echoed. "I think dessert will have to wait."

"Everything was wonderful, Jan," David said. "If Tommy had told us what a great cook you were, we'd have accepted the invitation to dinner long ago."

"Flattery will not get you out of cleaning up," Jan responded with a knowing grin.

"I told you, bro," Tommy laughed. "You're 'family' not 'company.'"

"Can I go play now?" Olivia asked.

"I'm surprised you can even move with as much as you ate," Kim remarked.

"It was all so good," Olivia replied in her defense.

"Let's take your plate to the counter, and you may be excused," Kim agreed. Very carefully, the girl carried her plate and silverware into the kitchen.

"Tommy, are you done with this?" Kim asked, collecting plates for her trip to the kitchen.

"Oh man, I am going to have to do a few extra katas to burn all this off," he said as he vacated his chair. "Let me get those; you and Mom have done enough already."

Both Jan and Kim stared after him in amazement as he vanished into the kitchen.

"I don't know what you've done to that boy of mine, but I wish you'd do it to my husband, too," Jan chuckled, and Thomas flashed her a wounded puppy look.

"Tommy's right," David agreed, rising and collecting dishes also. "We'll take care of cleaning up."

"Does that mean I'm off the hook?" Thomas asked hopefully.

"No," Jan countered. "It's sweet of you to offer, David, but I'm not sure I trust you and Tommy alone in my kitchen."

"All done, Mommy; can I go outside now?" Olivia queried.

"Can she, Mommy?" Thomas quipped in a little girl voice that had Olivia giggling. "I have a surprise for her out in the garage.

Both turned hopeful puppy-eyes at her, and Kim stifled a smile as she looked over at Jan who nodded imperceptibly. "Oh, all right. Why don't all the 'grandparents' go, and I'll keep Tommy and David in line."

"That's okay, Kim . . . ." Jan protested.

"Come on, Jan," Thomas urged. "When was the last time you were excused from cleaning up the carnage?"

"Only a fool wastes such an opportunity, and you, Janice, are no fool," Sam added.

Shaking her head with amusement, Kim watched as Olivia took Sam by the hand and tugged him towards the front door. Gathering up an armload of dishes, she headed to the kitchen where Tommy and David were loading the dishwasher.

"You are scraping the plates off before you put them in there, aren't you?" she queried.

"Yes, Mother," Tommy muttered good-naturedly. "Don't worry; Mom trained me better than she thinks."

"I don't know about that," Kim snickered, noting the water he had gotten all over his shirt. "Here." With an impish grin, she looped the bib of Jan's frilly apron around his neck, and she laughed as Tommy eyed it dubiously.

"It suits you," David teased.

"Watch it; I'm sure Mom has another one around here just your size."

"I'm not the one making a mess with the water," David remarked. Tommy reached for the spray nozzle with mischief in his eyes.

"Thomas Oliver! See, your mom was right about not trusting you two in here alone," Kim scolded. "I'll take over the sink; you go clean the table." With hand on hip, she pointed towards the dining room for added emphasis.

"Yes, ma'am," Tommy said, saluting as he marched off.

Kim turned to the sink and found David regarding her with amusement.

"What?" she wondered, handing him a plate.

"You two remind me of Jan and Thomas," he said, and his comment so startled Kim that she nearly dropped the glass she was rinsing. "I've never seen my brother so happy or so at peace. I, too, am thankful you and your daughter moved to Angel Grove."

"Thanks, David," Kim murmured, not knowing what else to say. After all, Tommy was the one who had done her the favor, not the other way around.

"Tommy told us some of what happened," David continued hesitantly.

"I thought he might," she said quietly. She had known Tommy would have to give some explanation; however, she found she didn't mind so much since David and Sam were family.

"When my father was telling Olivia about soaring as an eagle, he made one mistake; he should have said she'll soar with the courage of her mother."

David's words left Kim speechless, and she was very relieved when Tommy shouted from the other room, "Kim, David, come see this!" She gratefully turned off the water and wiped her hands.

 

 

Tommy stood in the doorway and glanced back to see if Kim had heard him. She and David hurried out to join him. He stood back to let Kim in front so she could see.

"Mommy! Mommy! Look at me!" Olivia shouted as she madly pedaled down the sidewalk on a pint-sized bicycle with training wheels.

"Hey, that's my first bike!" Tommy realized.

"I knew your father hated to get rid of things, but . . . ." Kim began. Tommy opened the door, and the clean-up crew stepped out onto the porch.

"Look at her go," David murmured.

"A regular lil' daredevil," Tommy added.

"I don't believe it; she's never been on a bike before," Kim said quietly.

"Dad's done good this time," Tommy agreed.

Olivia's happy laughter and excited chatter filled the air. Tommy glanced down at Kim; her eyes shone as brightly as her daughter's, and the gentle smile that curved her lips made Tommy's heart flutter. It always made him feel good to see her so happy. He rested a hand on her shoulder; when she didn't flinch, he gave it a small squeeze. To his surprise and delight, Kim covered his hand with her own.

"Hm, looks like somebody's lost," David remarked, gesturing toward the street. Tommy looked up and saw a blue Buick. "It's driven past here two or three times since we've been outside.

David's words made Tommy want to get a closer look. Squinting, he tried to see if he could make out the driver. Then, his face lit up. "It's them! They made it!" he declared.

"Who?" David wondered.

Tommy ignored him; stripping off the apron and tossing it to his brother, he bounded across the front lawn.

"I guess it's a good thing we haven't put all the food away yet," he heard Kim sigh. Racing to the end of the driveway, he waved his arms, trying to flag the car down.

"You look silly," Olivia giggled.

"Are those the other guests you mentioned?" Jan queried.

"Uh huh!"

The blue sedan pulled up, and Tommy could hardly stand still long enough for the driver to turn off the engine.

"Oh man, am I so glad you could make it," Tommy said breathlessly, opening the car door and extending his hand in greeting.

"Tommy, let them get out of the car first," his mother admonished.

"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," the driver said. "Where's . . . ?"

"On the porch."

Tommy stepped back to let the man out. He tried to keep his composure as he turned to face the house, but it was impossible. He could see Kim's puzzled frown clearly, then her wide-eyed expression of astonishment and recognition. David had to help steady her as her knees buckled.

"Hello, Kim."

"Dad?"

Kenneth Hart hurried forward as Kim broke away from David. Her brother dashed around his side of the car to join them.

"Daddy!" Kim sobbed as she flung her arms around her father's neck.

"Oh my baby!"

Tommy blinked several times to clear his eyes and became aware of a tiny hand slipping into his.

"Tommy, who are those people?" Olivia asked nervously.

"That's your Grandpa Ken and Uncle Kenny."

"My real grandpa?"

"Yes. Is something wrong, Princess?" Tommy thought that Olivia would be as excited as Kim, but she looked scared, almost as if she wanted to cry.

"Does this mean I don't get to be in your family anymore?"

"Of course not! You'll always be a part of my family; I promise," he said, giving her a reassuring hug. "Now, why don't you go say hello; your mom is looking for you.

As Olivia rushed to her mother's arms, Tommy drifted over to his parents, letting the Harts have a moment of privacy. His mom offered him a hug and his dad a pat on his back. There was no need for words. Kim's happy tears said it all.

* * *

It was growing dark outside. David and Sam had left a couple of hours ago, and Kimberly had spent the better part of the day getting reacquainted with her father and brother. Tommy hadn't wanted to intrude on their reunion (although he couldn't help overhearing that Ken and Cynthia had never gotten married!), so he occupied himself with watching football and snoozing. However, now that Kim had taken a break to put Olivia down to bed in his old room, he wandered into the dining room to join Ken and Kenny at the table.

"Pumpkin pie and coffee," Jan said as she brought out a tray with the pie and the coffee pot. "Help yourselves."

"Thanks, Mom," Tommy said, dishing out the dessert.

"Thank you so much for bringing us back together," Ken said for what had to be the millionth time that day.

"I didn't do anything that Kim didn't want to do herself," Tommy demurred. "I just had the time and opportunity, that's all."

"She's lucky to have a friend like you," Kenny said.

"Too bad your mom doesn't see it like that," Tommy sighed. "I've been trying to think of a way to get in touch with her, but according to Kim, your mom thinks I got Kim pregnant and abandoned her."

"Mom would," Kenny muttered.

"She's not likely to listen to me."

"It won't be easy to convince Caroline of the truth; it'll mean making her admit she was wrong and having her face her guilt," Ken pointed out.

"Guilt?"

"For abandoning Kim and probably for urging Kim to go to Florida in the first place."

"She didn't force Kim to go, did she?" Tommy asked.

"She didn't --but only because Kim had already decided she wanted to go for herself."

"I don't understand," Tommy confessed. "I haven't understood anything about what happened between Kim and her mom. I always thought they were so close; how could she turn her back on her own daughter when she needed her the most?"

"I've always wondered that, too," Kim said softly, having returned as Tommy asked his question. She took a seat next to Tommy.

Ken sighed. "Your mom had such hopes and dreams for you, Kim. She wanted you to have every opportunity to achieve your goals no matter what they were. She didn't want you to have any regrets --like she did."

"What do you mean?" Kenny asked.

"I was a Senior in college when I met your mother," Ken began. "Caroline was a Freshman. I was headed to law school, and she was an aspiring artist. She was going to school on an art scholarship; she was quite talented."

"I never knew that," Kim murmured, and judging by the look on Kenny's face, Tommy surmised that he hadn't known either.

"Caroline always dreamed of going to Paris to study art," Ken continued. "She was always talking about it. After we got together and started talking seriously about marriage, I promised her that our honeymoon would be in Paris, which wasn't unreasonable considering we weren't getting married until Caroline was finished with school.

"However, it was right after my graduation and I had been accepted to law school that we found out Caroline was pregnant. We thought we'd been careful . . . . Caroline was a wreck. Back then, it was a much bigger deal to be pregnant out of wedlock and abortion much more scandalous. Her mother told her that she had to get married and have the baby, but getting married meant losing her scholarship. I was willing to support whatever decision Caroline made, and although we knew it would be a struggle with me being in school, we got married."

"So I wasn't a honeymoon baby like Grandma always said," Kenny joked weakly.

Tommy was beginning to see where this was headed. "Caroline lost her chance of pursing her dream to be an artist because she had gotten pregnant," Tommy surmised.

"Yes, or so she believed," Ken confirmed. "After Kenny was born, I talked her into taking some evening art classes. She was also working at that point. She couldn't handle school, work and the baby, so she gave up school. Once Kenny was in first grade and Caroline really didn't need to work anymore, she tried once again to go back to school. Then, she became pregnant with Kimberly. One of the things that she kept bringing up during our divorce were her feelings that I sabotaged her dreams to try and control her life."

"So, when I told mom I'd been raped and was pregnant . . . ."

". . . it was like what she'd been through all over again. No doubt that's why she told you to get the abortion. She didn't want you to sacrifice your dreams as she had. In a lot of ways, your dreams became her dreams, too. She wouldn't have forced you to do something you didn't want to, but she wanted to do everything she could to ensure that you had your chance. That's why she didn't object too strenuously when you told her you wanted to go to Florida to train for the Pan Globals. When your dream died, so did hers."

"That explains why she kept talking about her sacrifices and everything, but why did she say she didn't want to have anything to do with me if I didn't do what she said? And why did she insist on blaming Tommy?" Kim asked.

"I think she assumed that you'd do the same thing she did --give in to her mother."

"You mean Grandma Alice . . . ."

". . . told her that if she didn't marry me and have the baby, she would have nothing to do with her. Instead of doing what she wanted, your mother did as her mother wanted. It probably never occurred to Caroline that you wouldn't obey her because you never challenged her before.

"As for blaming Tommy . . . it was easier than accepting the horrible truth and the possibility that she had failed you by letting you go to Florida alone and not being there to protect you."

"Do you think Mom would ever want to talk to me again even though I went against her wishes?" Kim wondered forlornly.

"Yes, Sweetie, I think she would. Your mother loves you; she probably never meant to do what she did, but it'll be hard for her to get over her pride --because you didn't blindly obey her-- and her guilt for not being there when you needed her most. Parents don't like to think that they've failed their children."

 

 

Tommy and Kim stood on the porch and waved as Kim's dad and brother drove off to their motel. They were planning on being in town for the rest of the long weekend.

"Hey, are you okay?" Tommy queried, hearing her sniffle.

"I'm fine," she murmured, wiping her eyes. "I still can't believe it. My dad and my brother . . . it's been so long . . . . They even understood and didn't think I was a horrible person or . . . ." Her emotions got in the way of her words.

"I knew they wouldn't; they're your family, and they love you," Tommy said quietly. "Even your mother will come around eventually." If Kenny is successful!

"You know, I'm beginning to believe that," Kim sighed, and Tommy could hear her smile in her voice. "I want to forgive my mom, and I think it'll be a lot easier now that I understand why she acted the way she did."

"She wanted you to do what she hadn't the courage to do --be true to your dream."

"Maybe, but our situations were so very different. She had just begun to experience life when she got pregnant; she wasn't ready to settle down with a family. Maybe I wasn't exactly ready to be a mom at seventeen, but I'd also seen and done more in my life that most people could ever imagine." Kim's thoughts trailed off, and the two stood staring off into the moonlit sky.

"You've done so much for me, Tommy," Kim said at last, turning to face him. "You brought me home. You helped me find my family again . . . ."

"Hey, what are friends for?" Tommy murmured.

"I don't know how to even begin to thank you . . . ."

Quite unexpectedly, Kim stood on tiptoes and brushed her lips against Tommy's cheek. When she drew back, the two stared at each other in absolute amazement. In fact, Tommy nearly forgot to breathe. Kim had just kissed him! He couldn't believe it!

"Kim?" he gulped, his eyes wide with unspoken questions. Kim raised her eyes to him shyly, nibbling all the while on her lower lip --an old nervous habit. Tommy read uncertainty in those eyes but no fear.

Then, very gently, he took her hands. "That's all the thanks I'll ever need," he said quietly.

Without a word, Kim stepped closer, threading her arms around his waist, and, resting her cheek against his chest, hugged him. Tommy carefully wrapped his arms around her, returning the embrace, and it was with great joy that he realized that she wasn't trembling in the slightest.


Part VI - All I Want For Christmas

Tommy reached for the carved chest on the top of the bookcase. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure the girls were still occupied with getting ready, he raised the lid and unburied a small black box. Opening the case, he smiled, grateful to know the contents were still there.

You would have had this six Christmases ago if I'd have had it paid off, he mused, studying the glittering piece of jewelry thoughtfully. Why he had never taken it back, he couldn't say. Perhaps he'd been hoping against hope . . . . Maybe if you would have had this with you back then . . . .

However, there was no point in dwelling on the past. Just then, the phone rang, and Tommy tucked the box away. Soon, he promised himself.

"Tommy, can you get that?" Kim called out as the incessant ringing continued.

"Got it!" he confirmed. "Hello?"

"Tommy? It's Kenny."

"Hey man, what's up? Do you want me to get Kim?"

"Nope. I just wanted to tell you mission accomplished. Go ahead and send your letter."

Tommy had held off sending his missive to Mrs. Dumas on the advice of Kim's dad. Ken recommended that he and Kenny work on Caroline first to smooth the way for his note.

"That's awesome! How'd it go?"

"It wasn't easy. Mom was as surprised as all get out when I told her that I had found Kim, but the minute I started talking about the rape and the baby, I'm afraid she started in on that 'no good, long-haired, son-of-a-bitch of a boyfriend of hers' . . . ."

"Gee, and I used to think that she liked me," Tommy mused wryly. "How'd you change her tune?"

"I offered to fax her the hospital and police records that Dad subpoenaed. Mom got really quiet after that, so I went on to give her the details as if I didn't know she already knew about them."

"You didn't accuse her of turning her back on Kim or anything, did you?" Tommy asked anxiously; he'd been so careful not to do that in his letter, not wanting to make it any more difficult for Caroline to talk to Kim again than it already was going to be. He had even pulled Kim's journal entries from the packet.

"I didn't need to; I could almost hear her doing it to herself. You know, I almost feel sorry for Mom."

"What would you have done if she had asked for the faxes? Your dad didn't really subpoena the records --did he?" How could Ken have done that? Wouldn't he have needed Kim's signature or something?

"He sure did. One of the papers he had Kimberly sign while they were busy with the paperwork was a release form; although, I don't think she knew what it was."

Tommy remembered Kim and her father going over some financial papers --something about a small inheritance from an aunt. "Your dad isn't planning on doing anything like dredge all this up again, is he?"

"Dad would love to nail those bastards for miscarriage of justice or dereliction of duty

or something! With the descriptions Kim gave of her attackers, the police should have been able to find those creeps! It doesn't look to me like they even tried!"

Which had been Kim's perception, too. "Kenny, Kim may not want him to open the case again," Tommy pointed out worriedly.

"Dad knows he can't do anything without Kim's say so."

"Good."

"Tommy, we're ready!" Olivia sang out as she scampered down the hall.

"I'll be right there, Princess," Tommy assured her. To Kenny, he said, "I've got to run. I'll get that sent out right away. Thanks, man."

"Thank you for doing this for Kim. Good luck; you're going to need it."

Tommy hung up the phone as Kim emerged from her bedroom.

"Who was that on the phone?" Kim asked.

"A salesman," he fibbed. As they headed out the door, Tommy paused to retrieve an envelope--stamped and ready to go --from the computer desk. "Do you mind if we stop by the post office on the way to the mall?"

 

 

Since Kim's father and brother had been in town the whole of Thanksgiving weekend, the three had had to postpone their visit to Santa. Secretly, Tommy had been hoping that the mall would be less crowded since it wasn't the official opening weekend of the Christmas shopping season (and really, Christmas shopping season opened way before Thanksgiving anymore); however, his hopes had been in vain. He, Kim, and Olivia bided their time in quite a lengthy line to have a talk with ol' St. Nick.

"I don't believe this," Kim sighed.

"How long we've been standing here?" Tommy wondered.

"No, I have to go to the bathroom," she sighed.

Tommy chuckled softly. "I thought you went before we left."

"I did," Olivia piped up.

"I was so busy worrying about you that I completely forgot about me."

"You can go to the potty, Mommy; me and Tommy will stay in line," Olivia offered.

"But I don't want to miss your visit with Santa."

Now Kim really did sound like Olivia --too busy and not wanting to miss anything to take a break for the necessities of life, like the bathroom or sleep! However, Tommy did his best not to laugh out loud. "Don't worry; we've got quite a while yet. We'll probably still be right here when you get back."

With another frustrated sigh, Kim slipped under the que rope and hurried off.

"I didn't want to say anything to Mommy, but I'm kind of scared," Olivia whispered as she clutched Tommy's hand more tightly.

"Why? You've been to visit Santa before, haven't you?"

Olivia shook her head. "Mommy would try to take me, but something would always happen and we couldn't get to see him before he was gone."

Intentional or coincidental, Tommy wondered. He could understand why Kim would have been reluctant to let Olivia visit Santa; if she'd asked for something Kim couldn't have afforded . . . Kim wouldn't have wanted Olivia to be disappointed. "Surely Santa brought you presents at Christmas."

"He did. Mommy would help me send him a letter when we missed him."

"Well, you don't have to worry about meeting him, Princess; Santa is the nicest person you could ever know."

"Tommy, is Santa really real?"

"Of course he is," Tommy answered.

"But that's not the real Santa up there, is it?" Olivia pursued. "He can't be because there's a Santa here, a Santa at the other big mall . . . there are Santas all over the place; they can't all be real."

Tommy had to think fast. Other interested ears were listening besides Olivia's. "The way my father explained it to me is that the Santas you see in the stores and everywhere are Santa's deputies; even Santa needs to have a little help. He can't be everywhere at once except on one special night of the year when his magic is the strongest --Christmas Eve. Santa gives his deputies each a little of his special magic so that whatever they hear, he hears. This is also how he knows who's been naughty and nice throughout the year."

"Nice save," the woman standing directly behind Tommy remarked.

"And he has other helpers --the elves to help him make the toys," Olivia added brightly. However, her little brow furrowed in consternation. "In Kindergarten the other day, Mrs. Blackman showed us a picture of the North Pole --where Santa's castle is supposed to be, but there was nothing in the pictures. How come?"

"More of Santa's magic," Tommy asserted. "Only those people who really believe in Santa can see it and then only on Christmas Eve."

"I bet that keeps it safe from the bad people who don't like Santa," Olivia reasoned. "Do you believe in Santa, Tommy?"

"I sure do, Princess," he replied, recalling a certain Christmas from what seemed like a lifetime ago.

"But not everybody believes in Santa," she pointed out. "Jamie from my class doesn't believe in Santa; she's Jewish, and her family has something called Han--han . . . ."

"Hanukkah," Tommy supplied.

"That's it. It has something to do with lots of candles," Olivia continued.

"There are lots of people all over the world who don't believe in Santa Claus."

"Does that make them bad people, and does Santa hate them because they don't believe in him?"

"Sweetheart, Santa doesn't hate anybody," Tommy said. "Just because someone doesn't believe in Santa doesn't mean he or she is a bad person. Santa loves everyone regardless of what they believe, and he respects their beliefs --just as we all should.

"You see, Santa and Christmas, however it's celebrated, are all about goodness, kindness and love. Other people may have other beliefs, but I think it's pretty safe to say that all people believe in goodness, kindness, and love. That's what really matters, not how you celebrate those things."

To Tommy's embarrassment, several of his listeners softly applauded.

"Well said," murmured a passerby who wore a yarmulke.

"More difficult questions?" Kim asked with amusement as she returned.

"Tommy was just telling me all about Santa," Olivia responded.

"So I gathered," she murmured; she gave Tommy's had a squeeze. "You never cease to amaze me."

"So --um-- what are you going to ask Santa for?" Tommy wondered, trying to extricate himself from the more difficult topic.

"I'm not sure. Can Santa really make your wish come true?"

"If you've been a good girl . . . ."

"Have I, Mommy?"

"I think so."

". . . and it's something that you really, really want with all your heart and soul," Tommy

continued then noticed Kim's inquiring gaze. "That's what my folks always told me. Mom and Dad told me not be greedy or selfish but to ask Santa for the one thing that I wanted more than anything, and if it was the right thing for me, Santa would grant my wish."

"Does Santa ever not give you what you wish for?" Olivia asked worriedly.

"Only very rarely," Tommy answered.

"But with his magic, can't he do anything he wants?"

"He won't give you something if it's hurtful to others or yourself, and there are some things that even Santa can't change." His tone was suddenly sad.

"What didn't Santa bring you that you wanted with all your heart?" Kim wondered, picking up on

his melancholy.

"My real parents," Tommy replied. "The year I found out I was adopted --I was about Olivia's age-- I asked Santa to bring my real parents back."

"And I thought not getting an elephant had been devastating," she murmured, thinking of her own childhood Christmas disappointments.

"I was so hurt that Christmas morning . . . and my folks tried to explain, but I wouldn't listen. I was pretty disillusioned about Santa until we got a letter a few weeks later. It was addressed to me from Santa. He said he tried, but all that he was able to find out was that my real parents were dead, and that not even he could bring back someone who died."

"That was sweet of your folks," Kim whispered.

Tommy nodded and whispered in reply, "They were so good about the whole thing; instead of being hurt, they really seemed to understand." For Olivia's benefit, he continued, "At least I knew Santa had tried, and sometimes, when you make a wish, it doesn't come true for a long time --until the time is right."

"Oh?" Kim queried.

Tommy flashed her an impish grin. "The year after that I wished for a brother!"

"So, Sweetheart, do you know what you'd like Santa to bring you?" Kim asked, returning to the original questions. Olivia's turn was next.

"I sure do!" she chirped.

"Gonna enlighten us?" Tommy wondered.

"I can't. If you tell a wish, it won't come true," Olivia insisted, and then Santa's helper came over to escort her up to Santa's chair.

"Now how are we supposed to find out what she wants for Christmas," Kim sighed with exasperation.

"We could always do what my dad did with me: take her to a toy store and see what grabs her attention," Tommy suggested.

"Sh! Maybe we can overhear . . . ."

"So, Olivia, what is it you want for Christmas?" Santa queried.

"All I want for Christmas is . . . ." Olivia leaned forward and whispered her request into the Santa's ear.

Tommy would have given anything to have known what Olivia said because he had never seen anyone look as completely flabbergasted as Santa did as Olivia sat back.

"What did she ask for?" Kim hissed, also taken aback by the man's expression.

"That's all you want for Christmas?" Santa gulped, trying to regain his composure.

"Uh huh," Olivia asserted.

"That's a pretty big wish, and Santa might need a little help with it."

"Just try, Santa. Please?" Olivia flashed him her biggest, most sincere puppy-eyes.

"Very well. However, is there anything else that you'd like?"

"I don't know; a pink bike of my very own so I don't have to ride Tommy's old one all the time would be okay, but I really want the other thing more."

With that, Santa handed Olivia a candy cane and sent her on her way. Before Kim or Tommy could slip away from Olivia to ask Santa what Olivia's request had been, another child scrambled up into his lap. They were left to puzzle over the mysterious request as Olivia all but dragged them off into the mall.

"Can we go see all the pretty trees and lights now?"

* * *

"You know something, Mommy; it sure doesn't seem like it's almost Christmas," Olivia complained on a particularly dreary Sunday afternoon.

Kim was inclined to agree. Christmas was just slightly over three weeks away, and yet for some reason, it just didn't feel like the holiday was right around the corner.

"I think I know why," Kim finally realized.

"Why?"

"Look around. What's missing?"

"Christmas decorations!" Olivia exclaimed.

Between working and trying to sneak in the shopping, the trimmings had gotten lost in the shuffle. They didn't even have a tree yet.

"Right. Why don't we fancy this place up while Tommy is out helping his uncle," Kim suggested.

"Yeah!"

Kim looked around to see if she could find Tommy's decorations but couldn't seem to locate them. He had to have some somewhere; Tommy always loved Christmas time. However, even though they couldn't find his holiday baubles, she knew were theirs were. She and Olivia may not have had much, but at least they had always managed to deck out their small room for the season.

It wasn't long before Kim had popcorn popping so they could string it for garlands, and Olivia was busy cutting and pasting colorful strips of paper to make a chain.

"How about we cut some snowflakes for the front window?"

"I'm big enough to help cut them this year," Olivia asserted.

Kim retrieved a pile of paper from the printer tray and started folding. Olivia looked to be the soul of concentration as she notched the paper with none-too-sharp safety scissors.

"Mommy, will I ever get to see real snow?" she asked suddenly.

"Of course you will. How about next Saturday after Tommy and I get finished with work, we all drive up to the ski resort in the mountains, and you'll get to see lots of snow."

"Really? All right!"

 

 

Tommy's nose was filled with the aroma of fresh popcorn as he opened the door, and the sights and sounds that immediately impacted him thereafter left him all but speechless. There were paper snowflakes and stars taped to the living room window, paper chains hung about the doorway, and on the coffee table sat a tiny Christmas tree. It couldn't have been more than the top portion of an artificial tree, but it was hung with colorful, homemade ornaments. Kim, her back to the door, was winding a garland of popcorn around the branches, and as she worked, she sang:

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Everywhere you go . . . ."

He had forgotten what a beautiful singing voice she had.

"Olivia, stop eating the popcorn!" Kim chided suddenly.

Tommy felt his heart swelling with his surging emotions. He hadn't given decorating for Christmas a thought. Last year, he hadn't bothered. His heart just hadn't been into it, and it seemed pointless since he had spent the holidays with his folks. But seeing what a difference the simple touches Olivia and Kim made drove home the fact that his apartment had been very, very lonely this time last year.

"Mommy, where can I hang my sock?" Olivia queried, holding up a red and white bootie with her name emblazoned in glitter on the cuff.

"And how will Santa get in here to fill it since we don't have a chimney?" Tommy asked, announcing his presence.

"He'll come in through the window just like he did in Florida," Olivia answered, her tone telling Tommy that he was being dense.

"So, what do you think?" Kim inquired.

"You two have done an awesome job," he replied. "I should have done this sooner . . . I have a whole bunch of ornaments and things around here somewhere --stuff Mom's been saving for me for years."

"I looked but couldn't find anything."

"I think I know where they're at."

"Mommy, can I ask you something? What does Santa do if you ask for a present that won't fit under a Christmas tree?" Olivia wondered.

"He'll find some place to leave it," Kim assured her.

"Well, if you asked for something too big to put under a little tree, we'll just have to get us a tree big enough to put big presents underneath," Tommy interjected, his eyes lighting up at the thought. "Come on; grab your coats and let's go."

"Go where?" Kim asked.

"To get a Christmas tree."

"But we have a tree already," Olivia insisted.

"And it's a wonderful little tree, but I want to get a special one for our first Christmas together."

 

 

"Slow down, Tommy," Kim scolded as she struggled with her end of the plastic-bagged bundle. She was still shaking her head in amazement at Tommy's behavior. He was almost as giddy as a little kid.

"Whoa!" Tommy yelped as he momentarily lost his footing on the stairs and their burden shifted.

"Thomas Oliver, don't you dare fall on me!"

"Don't squish Mommy!" Olivia squeaked.

"Just open the door, Princess; this is heavy," Tommy grunted. None too soon they squeezed their load through the doorway and scarcely had it inside when Tommy started undoing the bindings.

"Why don't you wait until we know where we're going to put it," Kim recommended reasonably.

"How about right smack dab in the middle of the room?"

Kim merely gave him a hands-on-hips, don't-be-absurd look, which took none of the air out of Tommy's bubble of happiness.

"Okay, how about against the far wall in front of the painting?" he compromised.

"Are you sure this tree is going to fit?" Kim wondered. Tommy had spent what seemed like hours searching for what he considered the perfect tree. "It's awfully tall."

"It's not that much taller than I am, and I clear the ceiling with room to spare."

"You're not going to be propped up in a tree stand either."

"Don't worry; it'll fit." So saying, Tommy stood the tree up on its trunk --or rather tried to stand it up. Kim rolled her eyes and shook her head. Olivia giggled.

"So we need to take a little off the bottom," he conceded sheepishly.

"I'll go down to the truck and get your tool box," Kim offered, biting back her laughter.

 

 

"There," Tommy declared happily, standing back and regarding the evergreen with satisfaction. It as yet sported no trimmings, but it was standing up straight --finally.

"We are going to be picking up needles for a month of Sundays," Kim sighed, wincing as she stepped on a sharp quill. "Why a live tree? Wouldn't an artificial one have been a lot easier?"

"Just take a deep breath," he instructed, inhaling. Then, he let out a pleased sigh. "Doesn't that take you back to Christmas time when you were Olivia's age?"

Indeed it did. Kim could remember bubbling over with excitement, scarcely able to sit still while her father and brother set up the tree. She had wanted to start decorating right away! Oh, and how the smell of that pine tree would fill the house. She could remember just sitting there watching the twinkling lights and smelling that wonderful fragrance.

"A real Christmas tree," Olivia breathed in wonder, her eyes saucer-wide and bright with excitement.

Kim felt warm all over as she basked in her daughter's joyous glow. Then, she noticed that Tommy wore almost the exact same expression. "As gorgeous as it is, don't you think we should fancy it up?"

"Come on, the boxes are under my bed," Tommy said, and the three of them quickly retrieved them.

"Where did you get all these?" Kim wondered as she began unpacking the ornaments.

"My grandparents mostly," Tommy explained as he attempted to untangle the lights. "Every Christmas since I was a baby, my Grandma and Grandpa Michaels would give me an ornament for Christmas. After they died, Aunt Elsa continued the tradition."

"That's a very good idea," Kim said with a meaningful glance at Olivia who was busy ogling the star for the tree top.

"Already taken care of," Tommy assured her softly.

"Some of these are absolutely gorgeous," she murmured as she examined a delicate angel of blown glass.

"Dad would bring things home from the places he'd travel to on business trips. Grandma Sarah divided up her ornament collection a few years ago, and my folks set Dad's share aside for me. That's where the lights and a few other goodies came from. The treeskirt was one my grandmother crocheted."

"That is so neat; I wish my family had traditions and stuff like that."

"You're welcome to share mine," Tommy offered.

Kim found herself blushing, wondering if Tommy realized just what that sounded like.

 

 

After several hours of tangled strings of lights, burned out bulbs, ornaments placed here then moved there, knotted garlands, and needle pricks, the trio stood back to admire their handiwork.

"Only one thing left," Tommy declared, holding up the star.

"Who gets to do the honors?" Kim wondered.

"Can I?" Olivia asked eagerly.

"How about we all do it," Tommy suggested.

"What do you mean?" Kim queried.

"Olivia, you take the star; Kim, you pick up Olivia while I pick up you."

Kim yelped as Tommy hoisted her up, and the three nearly toppled over into the tree, but they somehow managed to get the star in place.

It was almost dark outside, and Tommy shut off all the lights in the apartment except for the tree lights.

"It's the most beautifulest Christmas tree I've seen in my whole life," Olivia murmured.

"You know what, Princess; I think you're right," Tommy agreed.

As they stood in the glow of the colored lights, he slid his arm around Kim's shoulder, and she leaned into him. She noticed that they each had a hand on one of Olivia's shoulders, and she remembered her childhood again, standing with her parents before the newly decorated tree just as she and Tommy and Olivia stood now.

* * *

Tommy groggily rolled over and looked at the clock as the clamoring of the phone pulled him out of a sound sleep: 05:30.

"Aw, man, go away!" Tommy groaned. Who in the hell would be calling at this hour of the morning? He was seriously tempted just to roll back over and bury his head under his pillow until the infernal device stopped ringing; however, the caller was being very persistent, and he was the one who had forgotten to turn on the answering machine. If he didn't get it, the noise was liable to wake up Kim and Olivia. Blearily, he plodded into the kitchen.

"Hello," he mumbled around a yawn.

"Is this Tommy Oliver?" a tremulous, accented voice on the other end queried.

Not at this hour of the morning! he thought with a surly grumble. "Speaking."

"I'm sorry . . . I know it's early there, but I just got your letter, and I simply couldn't wait any longer . . . ."

"Who is this?"

"Caroline Dumas. Kimberly's mother."

That was more sobering than a whole pot of sludge --which Tommy promptly put on to brew. Before he could say anything further, Caroline continued to ramble on anxiously.

"Did you really mean what you said in your letter --about Kimberly wanting to talk to me? Please, Tommy, you have no idea . . . . I'm sure she must have told you what happened between us. I never meant to do that to my baby! I never meant to cut her out of my life, but I was just so hurt and angry . . . when she told me, I didn't want to believe her . . . . I wanted so much for Kim, and her life was ruined just like mine was . . . I blamed her. I blamed you . . . ."

"Calm down, Mrs. Dumas," Tommy said when he could get a word in edgewise.

"I didn't want her to have to give up everything the way I did! I just didn't think . . . I didn't know she'd react like that . . . . I didn't mean to say such hurtful things! I wanted to apologize, but I didn't know how. I've wanted to talk to her for so long, but I was afraid that she hated me --and deservedly so . . . . Oh, God . . . .!"

"It's all right, Caroline; just take it easy," Tommy tried again to soothe her, feeling rather at a loss as to how to handle Kim's distraught mother. He'd been more prepared for cold fury, not repentant tears. "A lot of things got said and done in the heat of the moment that folks didn't intend to say and do. All that matters now is putting those things to rights."

"Can you ever forgive me . . . for what I said about you . . . for what I've done . . . ?"

"It isn't my place to offer you forgiveness; that's Kim's. However, I would never have sent that letter if she wasn't willing to work things out. Do you really want to talk to her and get things straightened out?"

"More than anything! Will you help me get in touch with my daughter?"

"Of course, Caroline."

"Bless you, Tommy . . . ."

"Tommy?" Olivia interrupted sleepily, tugging at the legs of his pajama bottoms.

"What are you doing up, Princess?" Tommy wondered.

"The phone woke me."

"I'm sorry, Tommy. I should have thought . . . I didn't mean to wake your daughter," Caroline apologized.

"Actually, that's Olivia," he replied, inspiration hitting.

"O-Olivia? You mean Kim's daughter?"

"Yes. Would you like to talk to her?"

"Who are you talking to, Tommy?" Olivia wondered.

"Mrs. Dumas; she an old friend of your mom's. Do you want to say 'hi?' I've gotta run down the hall a minute."

"I guess so."

"I'll be right back." Tommy handed Olivia the phone and as soon as the tot began to talk, he hurried down the hall to Kim's room.

"Kim," he called out as he entered.

"Huh? Wazzat the phone?" Kim mumbled.

"It's for you."

"Me? At this hour? Who is it?"

"They said it was important," Tommy answered evasively, trying to bite back a grin.

"Okay, I'll be right there."

Leaving Kim to get out of bed, Tommy returned to the kitchen.

"Okay, Princess, I'm back," he announced.

"Aw . . . ." Olivia pouted. "I gotta go, Mrs. Doo-ma; Tommy's here. Yeah, it was nice talking to you, too. Bye!" Olivia handed the receiver back to Tommy.

"Enjoy yourself?" Tommy queried as he took over.

"T-that was my granddaughter? She's such a bright little thing."

"She's a very special girl --just like her mother."

"I-is Kimberly there as well?"

"Uh huh, and here she is," Tommy declared as Kim ambled into the kitchen.

"Tommy, wait, I'm not sure I'm ready . . . ."

But Tommy never heard the rest of Caroline's protest as he handed the phone to an expectant, sleepy Kimberly.

"This is Kim . . . ." she began uncertainly, and Tommy hastily grabbed a chair as Kim went white and an expression of shock filled her face. She sank limply into the seat. She flashed Tommy a wild, almost frightened look, and he urged her on with a smile and a nod. "M-mom?"

"Come on, Olivia; let's give your mom some peace and quiet," Tommy suggested softly, ushering the puzzled little girl into the living room, allowing Kim to have her reunion in private.

"Why did Mommy call Mrs. Dumas 'mom?'" Olivia wondered.

"Because that's who she is."

"You mean that was my real grandma?"

"Sure thing."

"Wow!" Olivia gasped. "How come it sounds like Mommy is crying?"

"Sometimes, when grown ups are very, very happy, they cry," Tommy explained.

"That sounds silly!"

Cartoons weren't even on yet, and Olivia was much too excited to go back to sleep, so Tommy popped a video in the VCR for her. They had scarcely fast forwarded through the previews when Olivia announced, "I'm hungry; can I have some cereal?"

On his way to the kitchen, Tommy picked up the box of tissues. His back was to Olivia, but he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye; turning to look, he found the girl standing before the Christmas tree fingering this or that ornament. It'd been more than a week since they had put up the tree, but she was still fascinated with it. Tommy watched her for a few moments but didn't say anything. Kim had told Olivia not to play with the ornaments, but she wasn't hurting anything. He smiled fondly then headed on to the kitchen.

Clearing the doorway, he noticed that Kim had pulled the chair over to the table; the way she leaned against the surface gave him the impression that the piece of furniture was the only thing holding her up. She hadn't the strength to do it on her own. Tears coursed down her cheeks in tiny rivers, which she made no move to wipe away. Without a word, he set the tissues down next to her; however, before he could set about fetching Olivia's breakfast, Kim caught his hand and held him fast.

"Uh huh," she mumbled into the receiver, her voice choked with her overwhelming emotions. She gave Tommy's hand a fierce squeeze as she beamed up at him. "Yes . . . me, too. Okay, Mom . . . I'll talk to you later . . . I-I love you, too."

Almost in a daze, Kim hung up the phone.

"That was a quick call," Tommy noted softly.

"She's going to call back later when I'm more awake and we're both calmer," Kim said numbly.

"Sounds like a good idea to me," he agreed.

"Oh, Tommy, you were right! It was just like you told me," she sniffled. "Mom never meant for this to happen, and she's been just as scared to get in touch with me as I was to get in touch with her."

"So now what?"

"We still have a lot of things to discuss. We both know it's going to take some time to get everything worked out and rebuild our relationship, but . . . I have my mom back!" Kim threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "Thank you, Tommy; thank you so much. First my dad and Kenny, now this . . . ."

"Hey, all I did was send a letter; you and your mom were the ones who decided to take the risk and try to reach out to each other after all this time," he replied, returning the embrace and softly stroking her hair.

Just then Olivia wandered into the kitchen. Tommy noted her arrival and was puzzled by the look on her face. She regarded him and Kim as if she knew something they didn't.

"What's wrong, Mommy?" she asked, concerned.

"Nothing, Sweetie," Kim assured her, wiping her eyes and opening her arms to her daughter. Olivia scampered into the hug.

"Then why are you crying?"

"Because I'm happy."

"Are you and your mommy friends again?"

"Yes, honey, we are."

"Goody! Now I have another grandma!"

Kim gave Olivia a jubilant squeeze, and Tommy laughed and tousled her hair.

"Tommy, I'm still hungry," Olivia declared plaintively.

"You're always hungry," Tommy teased. "Maybe I should start calling you 'Rocky.'"

Olivia giggled and stuck her tongue out at him.

* * *

Kim could not suppress the grin that spread across her face as she wrote across Dr. Carter's bill with a triumphant flourish: PAID IN FULL. For a moment, all she could do was sit there and stare at the check and the statement; there had been times when she despaired of ever seeing this day, and she wanted to savor the moment.

Of course, it hadn't quite come by her own efforts. She had her father and Great Aunt Madelyne to thank for it. She and her father had gone 'round and 'round Thanksgiving weekend about the issue of financial assistance.

"I don't want your money! Don't you understand? This is something I need to do on my own!"

Ultimately, she had told him that if he really wanted to give her money to set up a college fund for Olivia. However, the inheritance was another matter. Her father's aunt had never married, and upon her death, she had made bequests to her nieces and nephews (Kim's father had been one of her favorites), and in some cases, great-nieces and -nephews. That was money Kim felt entitled to. It wasn't a large sum; although, it had accumulated some interest in the time her father had held it for her. Yet, it was enough to pay off Dr. Carter and a few of her other small credit cards debts and, most importantly, Tommy.

That was something she wanted so desperately to clear up: her debts with Tommy. She felt like such a hypocrite talking about not accepting her father's charity when she was still accepting Tommy's. She wouldn't really be able to feel good about herself until she could honestly say that she could stand on her own two feet. Paying off the money she owed him went a long way to getting her on the right track.

Now, if I can just afford a place for Olivia and me to live so I wouldn't have to rely on Tommy for that, too . . . .

Kim set the bills aside and reached for the classified ad section of the newspaper.

 

 

Tommy headed into the kitchen with an armload of groceries. He noticed that Kim had her bills spread out all over the table, but remarkably, he found her smiling! That had never happened before.

"What's up?" he wondered as he began putting the food away.

"Some good news," she answered, bounding up from her chair happily.

"While doing your bills?" he queried warily.

"Uh huh. Here."

"What's this?" he asked as she handed him a check. Then, she handed him the billing statement he had generated at her insistence. He noticed that it said "paid in full" in big red letters.

"Just what it says," she responded.

"But how . . . ?"

"The money Aunt Madelyne left me. I had enough to cover one large bill and several smaller ones, leaving me with my Visa and the hospital bill."

"I can't accept this, Kim," he demurred, handing the check back to her. She refused to take it.

"Why not? After all, we agreed that I would pay you back."

"When your other obligations were taken care of."

"Tommy, please. I want to pay you back," she insisted. "It's the very least I can do; rightfully, I owe you for back rent and utilities and groceries . . . ."

"Kim, you don't owe me anything for living expenses; we've been over this," Tommy sighed. "I'm not paying anything to live here; I own the building now. And as far as utilities go, I'm not using that much more electricity or water than I did before you guys lived here."

"I just don't feel right letting you take care of all this for me. I want to be able to pay my share," Kim asserted.

"I know you do, and you will, when you can. Right now, though, you have other expenses you need to take care of."

"Actually, I'm pretty close to a point where I think I can contribute, even with my last two bills," Kim announced with a bright smile.

"Oh?"

"Yeah, come see." She dragged him back over to the table. Tommy hadn't paid much attention to the newspaper, but now he saw that she had circled several ads in the classifieds. Next to the notebook with her figures were last month's utility bills. He began to feel very uneasy, a nervous lump forming in the pit of his stomach.

"I've found some apartments for rent," Kim began. "They're small, one bedroom places, but a couple are in this area so I wouldn't have to change Olivia's school. It'd be rather like living in the dorm again, but the rents are reasonable. I estimated the utility expense based on your past charges. With food and a monthly bus pass and making minimum payments on my bills, I figure that once I get Christmas paid for Olivia and I could move into a place of our own --probably around February or March. We wouldn't have a lot left over for extras or anything like that, but still . . . ."

Tommy felt like someone had kicked him in the stomach. From the start, Kim had said that she hadn't intended to stay with him indefinitely --only until she got her feet under her-- but why did it have to be so soon?

"Tommy?" Kim prompted when he didn't say anything. "Is something wrong?"

"N-no," he stammered, trying to get a grip on his emotions.

"Isn't that great?" she beamed happily.

He couldn't bear the thought of Kim and Olivia moving out, and he murmured without

conviction, "It's wonderful news." The thing was, he knew how much being able to hold her own meant to Kim. As miserable as the thought made him, he had to say, "I'm so happy and proud of you."

"I know I'd have to borrow some furniture and a few things, but . . . ." she gushed, heedless of the light that had faded from Tommy's eyes as he listened to her enthusiastic plans.

* * *

"Oh, Maggie, I just can't believe it!" Kim chirped as Maggie handed her the end of the garland to fasten over the top of the door frame.

They were part of the bevy of parents helping decorate the Youth Center for the annual holiday party for the children of Little Angel's Haven. This year, Kelly's junior high class was a sponsor, and she had asked Kim and Tommy to be chaperones along with her mother.

"After all this time, I'm finally going to be able stand on my own!" Kim continued in an elated rush.

"That's wonderful, Kim," Maggie congratulated her.

"Yeah, but I don't think Tommy thinks so," Kim remarked, glancing over to where Tommy was helping Olivia put the star on the top of the Christmas tree. Suddenly, Kim recalled Tommy and another little girl placing a star a-top the Youth Center tree; unlike that long ago Christmas, there seemed to be no happiness in Tommy now. Although he was smiling, there was a sadness about him; his smile never seemed to reach his eyes.

"I was going to ask if you had had a fight," Maggie said delicately. "The two of you have seemed so happy together since Thanksgiving . . . ."

"I don't know what it is."

"Maybe he received some bad news."

"Actually, I think I first noticed him being so gloomy right after I told him about being able to afford to my own place."

"As I said, maybe he received some bad news."

"What do you mean?" Kim wondered, not following Maggie's train of thought.

"Kim, are you really planning on moving out of Tommy's place?" Maggie asked, "because I think Tommy believes that you are. He really loves you and Olivia, and having you live with him has brought him a lot of happiness --anyone who knows him could tell you that. I think he's afraid he might lose you again if you leave."

"I guess I hadn't thought about it from his perspective."

"I think maybe the two of you need to have a little talk."

"You may be right. I'll sit him down after we finish up here. Would you hand me the sprig of mistletoe?"

 

 

Tommy cast about trying to see where Olivia had wandered off to. There were so many children underfoot . . . . He finally spied her with Min oohing and aahing over the presents under the tree. Then, he looked around for Kim. He located her over by the doorway working on decorations with Maggie. He sighed; he knew he shouldn't let Kim's announcement about wanting to move out get to him, but he couldn't help it. He didn't want her to go.

Then why don't you just tell her!

There were other things he wanted to tell her as well, but now . . . . He thought of the little black box hidden away a-top the bookcase. There was no way he could give it to her now. It'd come across as a bribe to get her to stay and not a genuine token of his love, and if she accepted it, how could he ever be certain she did so because she felt the same way or because she felt she owed it to him. No, that was going to have to wait a little longer, too.

He noticed that Maggie had wandered off, and someone had taken the step ladder Kim had been using. Presently, she was jumping up, trying to reach something in a way that made his heart ache with déjà vu. She was trying to hang the mistletoe.

"Hey, need some help?" he queried as he wandered over.

"Yes, I do," she answered, handing him the sprig.

He reached up and fastened it to the garland. "There you go."

"Thank you!" And she playfully offered him her cheek to kiss. Without Bulk and Skull to interrupt them as they had once upon a time, Tommy gave her the requisite peck, but it lacked real feeling. Kim frowned at him. "Tommy, what's wrong? You've been moping around for days," she said.

"I know. I'm sorry," he sighed.

"Is it because of what I told you about being able to move out?"

"Yes," he replied, deciding he had nothing to lose by being up-front with her. "Kim, I don't want you and Olivia to move out. These last five months have been the best five months that I can remember. I enjoy having you guys around; it'd be very lonely without you."

"Oh, Tommy . . . ." she sighed with a kind smile as she smoothed a hand up and down his arm. For a moment, she couldn't meet his imploring gaze, but when she did, it was with bright eyes and a glowing smile. "Just because I'm able to move out doesn't mean I will."

Tommy just stared at her, uncomprehending and unable to find his voice.

"Olivia and I will have to move out eventually --simply because we'll need more space as she gets bigger, but until then, as long as you'll have us, there's no real reason for us to move. Your apartment is home now, and I don't want to disrupt Olivia's sense of security if I don't have to."

"You're not moving out?" Tommy stammered.

Kim shook her head.

"Then what was all that talk about the apartment and budgets and . . . ?"

"It was important for me to know that I could move out if I wanted to, that I could make it on my own and support Olivia. I needed to know that I wasn't just depending on you. I'm staying with you because I want to, not because I have to."

"You're not moving out!" Tommy declared happily, and he pulled Kim into a fierce hug. Then, for the sheer joy of it, he lifted her into the air and spun her around.

"Tommy!" she laughed as she flew about.

"You have no idea how happy you've made me!" he insisted. "I have been going nuts ever since you started talking about leaving . . . ."

"Did you really believe you'd be rid of us just like that?" Kim smirked. "Olivia would make my life a living hell if I made her leave! However, we are going to renegotiate the terms of our living arrangement. Once the dust from Christmas settles, I want to start contributing financially."

"And I want you to pay off your other bills first," Tommy insisted, "but we can discuss this later, right now . . . ."

"Mommy! Tommy! Guess what!" Olivia chirped excitedly as she raced up to them and began tugging on their clothing.

"What is it, Princess?" Tommy asked.

"You're standing under the misty-toad," she announced.

"Mistletoe," Kim corrected.

"An' Mrs. Maggie said that the rules say that when two people stand under the misty-toad they have to kiss," she declared with a look of triumph in her expression.

Both Tommy and Kim shot Maggie inquiring gazes, and she assumed a "who me?" air of innocence then went back to decorating. The two turned their attention to each other.

"So . . . ?" Kim began, chewing on her bottom lip, a tiny, bashful grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

"You know you don't have to if you really don't want to," Tommy assured her more out of habit than anything else. Kim hadn't displayed any fear of being close to him in a while.

"But I want to," she replied, grabbing his jacket and pulling him closer. "After all, I love you."

Tommy's eyes went saucer-wide at her admission, and before he could say anything, Kim pressed her mouth to his in a lingering, emotion-laden kiss. Tommy had forgotten how soft and warm Kim's lips were and how well they seemed to mold against his own. He tightened the embrace, kissing her back with the full force of his pent-up emotions. The exchange left them both more than a little breathless when they finally parted.

"Besides," Kim continued with a mischievous grin, glancing down at Olivia, who was just beside herself with delight, "it's the rules."

* * *

"That's the last of it," Kim declared with a yawn, placing the package under the tree. She inhaled deeply, the strong pine scent filling her senses. Looking over the explosion of brightly colored paper and ribbons, Kim shook her head. "It just seems like so much . . . ."

"Those aren't all for Olivia, you know," Tommy reminded her as he put the finishing touches on the training wheels of a pint-sized pink bicycle. "There are yours, mine, my parents', your parents' . . . we really didn't go overboard."

"I can't believe my Mom's going to be here the day after Christmas," Kim murmured for the umpteenth time that day. They had received a Christmas card from her mother, and in it was a note with her flight information. She and Adrian were joining them for the holidays. "I'm going to see my mother for the first time in almost six years!"

"Hey, none of that," Tommy chided her gently, wiping a glistening teardrop from her cheek. He wrapped her in his arms, and Kim relaxed into the feeling of warmth and security that rushed through her --a feeling that was still very much brand new to her, and one that she was grateful to know.

"Thank you, Tommy. For everything. I've never seen Olivia so happy; she's going to remember this Christmas forever."

"What about you? I'd like to think that I've made you happy, too," Tommy said quietly, "because having you and Olivia here has brought me more joy than I can say."

"You have, Tommy; you have."

Tommy crossed over to her and pulled her into a gentle hug. "I love you," he murmured.

Kim rested her head against his chest. "You know, when you first told me that, I almost couldn't believe you. I didn't think I deserved your love after everything that's happened."

"Do you believe me now?"

"Yes. That night, I wanted so badly to tell you how I felt, but I didn't think I had the right--not until I knew I could say 'I love you' and know that it wasn't just out of gratitude."

"Do you have any idea how badly I wanted to hear you say that?" Tommy sighed.

"About as badly as I wanted to say it," she responded with a grin. "I love you, Tommy."

Tommy reached for her chin and gently tilted it up.

"We're not standing under the 'misty-toad,'" Kim teased quietly.

"Do we really need it?"

"No."

Their lips met, and the two were lost in a kiss that seemed to envelop them completely in the warmth of their emotions. So involved were they that they jumped when the clock struck midnight.

"Merry Christmas, Kim," Tommy murmured.

"Merry Christmas, Tommy," Kim replied, barely able to tear her lips from his. Then, Tommy released her, and she frowned puzzledly as he reached into the branches of the tree.

"I have been wanting to give you this for forever," he announced eagerly as he pulled out a small, gold foil-wrapped box and presented it to her.

With trembling fingers, Kim untied the ribbon and tore away the paper. Inside the white cardboard she found a black jeweler's box. She looked up at Tommy with brimming eyes, her heart pounding in her chest. Tommy took the box and opened it, revealing a sparkling diamond solitaire ring.

"I've always wanted to give this to you," Tommy repeated, sliding the ring out of the notch. He held her left hand, softly stroking the back. Kim shivered with the memory of the first time he had ever done that to her --the afternoon they shared their first kiss. "I fell for you the moment I laid eyes on you, and as that deepened into love, I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you. I'd like for you to spend the rest of your life with me --as my wife. Kimberly, will you marry me?"

Time seemed to stand still for Kim as she looked up into the depths of Tommy's love-filled, imploring eyes. There were still so many fears and uncertainties locked inside her that she hadn't even begun to address yet --things that would affect a relationship with Tommy. However, she now knew and truly believed that she could face them --and overcome them.

"Yes, Tommy, I will."

Kim could not believe the joy she felt swelling in her heart as Tommy, with trembling fingers, slid the engagement ring onto her finger. Happy tears spilled down her cheeks as he crushed her in a jubilant hug.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he whispered over and over, holding her as if he'd never let her go. Kim knew she'd never let him go--ever again.

When he finally released her, all she could do was stare at the glittering rock perched on her finger. "I can't believe it," she murmured.

"Me either," Tommy confessed, his relief evident. Kim placed a hand over his heart and found it pounding a mile a minute.

"So, were you more nervous about asking me to marry you or asking me out that first time?" she teased.

"I'm not sure. If my ribs still hurt when I wake up in the morning, I think proposing will be the winner."

Kim flashed him a radiant smile. "How long have you had this? Since October?"

Tommy ran his hand up under his hair and around his neck. "Actually, I've had it since before you went to Florida."

"What?"

"Well, not actually had it, more like paying on it," he confessed. "I wanted so badly to give this to you before you left, but . . . ."

"Have you any idea how badly I hoped you'd do something like that back then?" she laughed. "That Christmas, I wanted more than anything for you to propose or ask me to stay or something! I guess you were right when you told Olivia that sometimes Santa doesn't give you what you want until the time is right."

The two stood in each other's arms for a long, long time, reveling in the warmth and safety of their love.

"You know, we should probably get to bed," Kim murmured. "Olivia's liable to be up in a few hours."

"I know. It's just that I still can't believe you said yes," Tommy replied, taking Kim's left hand once again and regarding the token he had placed upon her finger. "It looks so small," he sighed. "I wanted to get you a larger one, but back then it was all I could afford. We could always take this one in and . . . ."

"No. Don't you dare!" Kim insisted. "I don't want any other ring but this one. It means more to me because you got it for me at a time when all we knew was that we loved each other; we didn't know what it meant to be hurt or frightened or lonely. We do now, and this ring--and our love--made it through those dark times, and both shine just as brightly now as they did then."

She hoped Tommy understood what she was trying to say and saw that he did.

Just then the pair heard a plaintive cry. Kim quickly disengaged herself and hurried down the hall; she paused in the doorway of her room and discovered Olivia sitting up in the big bed, not really awake. She shivered with cold. Kim groaned.

"Oh, Sweetie . . . ."

"What happened?" Tommy asked, coming up behind her.

"Someone had an accident in my bed," Kim sighed resignedly. "I guess she was so excited about Santa and everything that she forgot to go to the bathroom."

Tommy bit back a chuckle, and the two of them tended to the mess. Kim dressed Olivia in fresh panties and a nightgown while Tommy stripped the bed. He brought in the Lysol to spray down the mattress as Kim tucked the girl back into her trundle bed.

"This is just wonderful," Kim muttered as she rummaged through her drawer for her own nightwear. She grabbed the first thing she laid her hands on. She snatched up a pillow then marched out to the hall closet to grab a spare blanket. "I hope Santa doesn't mind me sleeping on the couch."

"Kim, take my bed. I'll sleep on the couch; it's not all that comfortable," Tommy offered.

"Couldn't prove it by you on Sunday afternoons," Kim said. "You're always sprawled all over the thing."

"That's to avoid all the lumps," he quipped.

"I'll be fine, Tommy."

"If you're really sure, but if you change your mind, come wake me up, and I'll trade," he said.

"Deal."

Kim popped into the bathroom to get dressed for bed and blushed when she realized just what she had grabbed to wear to bed: Tommy's pajama top. She hadn't returned it after she had borrowed it last August. Somehow, though, she found it fitting.

When she emerged all ready for bed, she found that Tommy was, too--dressed in the mates to her top. The two shared sheepish smiles. He had also fixed up the couch for her.

"Now, you're sure you don't want to trade places?" he asked again.

"Trust me; if I can't sleep, I'll be in to wake you. I don't want to be cranky for the best Christmas my daughter will ever have."

"All right. 'Night, Beautiful."

"Good night, Tommy."

 

 

Kim tossed and turned, and tossed and turned some more. Finally, she sat up and looked at the clock. It was almost two. She groaned. Tommy hadn't been kidding about the couch. Maybe I should have bought him a sofa for Christmas, she mused ruefully. As much as she hated to, she was going to have to take Tommy up on his offer. Pillow tucked up under her arm, she plodded down the hall to Tommy's room.

He had left the door open, so she wandered right in. He lay splayed out on his bed most comfortably; Kim sighed enviously.

"Okay, Tommy, your turn to have the couch," she said around a yawn. She sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to shake him awake. He didn't even budge. "Aw, come on, Tommy; this is not fair."

Kim blew a strand of hair out her face. Tommy was sound asleep. With a frustrated sigh, she flopped back on the bed, trying to figure out just how she was going to get some sleep.

 

 

A sharp jab in the ribs brought Tommy almost out of his deep sleep. His eyes flickered open, and the mocking numbers on the clock read 03:00.

"C'mon, Sweetie, quit hogging the bed; scoot over and give mommy some room," said a sleepy voice, followed by another poke in the back.

Tommy rolled over, startled into wakefulness. To his amazement, Kim lay snuggled up next to him. He had absolutely no idea how she got there, but if she wanted to share his bed instead of crashing on the lumpy couch, he had no complaints. She was pulled into a tight ball, shivering as if cold. He reached down and pulled the blanket up over both of them. Then, he lay on his side, gazing at Kim and gently stroking her hair until he lulled himself back into a contented sleep.

* * *

"Tommy! Tommy, wake up! I can't find Mommy!"

Wakefulness was not slow in returning as a thirty-some-odd-pound bundle of energy pounced on him most insistently. Tommy unburied his head and smiled up at the concerned tot. "Merry Christmas, Princess."

"Tommy, where's Mommy?" Olivia repeated.

"Easy, honey, Mommy's right . . . ."

Tommy grinned from ear to ear as Kim woke up and found herself in his bed. Her expression of surprise and confusion were priceless.

"Mommy, why are you sleeping in Tommy's bed?" Olivia wondered.

"I was sort of wondering the same thing myself," Tommy interjected teasingly.

"I came in here to boot you out onto the couch; I don't know . . . ." she began, totally flabbergasted. Then, she shrugged sheepishly. "I guess when I couldn't wake you up, I just fell asleep again."

"I don't mind," he said more softly. "I think I could get used to waking up next to you really quickly."

Kim flushed scarlet and brushed the hair out of her eyes.

"Ooh, Mommy, what a pretty ring!" Olivia gasped. She grabbed Kim's hand and pulled it towards her for a closer look. "Where'd you get it?"

"It was my Christmas present from Tommy," Kim answered with quiet pride.

"Is it what you always wanted?"

"Yes, honey, it is. Very much so."

"Can I ask you something?" Olivia continued without letting either adult get a word in edgewise. "On TV and stuff, mommies and daddies sleep together in the same bed, don't they?"

"Generally, yes," Tommy answered. He had a feeling he knew where this was headed, but he couldn't tell if Kim had a clue or not.

"Well, since you and Mommy are sleeping in your bed, does that mean you're going to be my daddy now?" she asked.

"Olivia!" Kim gasped.

"Actually, Princess, the ring means I'm going to be your daddy," Tommy said. "Last night, I asked your mom to marry me, and she said she would."

"YES!" Olivia shouted, pumping her little fists into the air and bouncing on the bed excitedly. "You were right, Tommy; Santa does bring you what you want if you really, really wanted it with all your heart and soul!"

"What do you mean?" Kim asked.

"Well, when I saw Santa, I told him that all I wanted for Christmas was for Tommy to be my daddy."

"You didn't!"

"No wondered he looked so stunned," Tommy murmured.

"And he did! Santa made Tommy my daddy!"

"I can't believe she did that," Kim groaned, burying her face in Tommy's chest.

"Well, Santa gave me the thing I really, really wanted for Christmas--for you to say yes," Tommy whispered.

"It's a good thing for you two, then, that Santa felt like leaving other presents to open, or we'd be all finished with Christmas," Kim snorted.

"You mean Santa left me other presents, too?" Olivia squealed and made a dash for the bedroom door.

"You know, I think Santa was pretty good to all of us this year," Tommy said as he sat in his bed with his arms around Kim, hugging her tightly. She beamed up at him happily, unable to find her voice. "I think this will be a Christmas we all remember for a long time." Kim reached up to cup his cheek, and he leaned down, capturing her mouth in a sweet kiss.

"Mommy! Tommy! Come see!" Olivia exclaimed, dashing back into the room.

Tommy peered up past Kim's shoulder and noticed Olivia watching them, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

"We're coming, Sweetie," Kim said as they reluctantly parted and emerged from under the covers.

"Santa brought me a pink bike!" Olivia babbled on. Then, she paused, eyeing the two critically. "Your pajamas match!"

"You know, this explains all those looks she's been giving us for the last month," Tommy said as he caught Kim's hands.

"I had the feeling she was setting us up for something," Kim added.

"Hurry up!" Olivia insisted, marching over and taking the pair by the hand, dragging them along with her. "Tommy, when can I start calling you 'Daddy?'"

The End


Rule

backHome