Disclaimer: Anything PR related belongs to Sabanor whoever
bought the rights; if I'd had the money, I would've bought 'em myself,
then I could make YOU guys pay ME for playing with them!
Note: Inspiration struck my Muse, who hit me with a new story idea. Now I may have to clobber HIM ... anyway, the inspiration in question came from an episode of "7th Heaven" (yes, I watch the show. So?) and a desire to write a story about how the first five Rangers met.
Note II: This is a belated birthday surprise for dear friend Peregrinethanks for the lovely story I got a while back, and I hope you'll like the finished product. Congratulations, Dearyou're now entering the best 10 years in a woman's life ... the ones between 29 and 30! Enjoy it anyway, everybody, and if you do, mind telling me? Pretty please? DB, 2001/2002
"Good morning. Sit!"
Mr Jenkins, Vice Principal of Angel Grove Junior High, looked somewhat distastefully at the five students shuffling into their seats before him. It was just past 9 am, way too early to be working on a weekend. School had started only two months ago, and already he had five delinquents to deal with. If it only had been regular detention ... but no, he had to give up his free Saturday mornings for over a month, and just because these five miscreants disobeyed the rules of their new school! He harumphed audibly, and took out a folder to look at names and the reasons why these kids (who admittedly didn't look like your typical run-of-the-mill rulebreakers; but looks could be deceiving, couldn't they?) had been ordered to be here.
What he read made his eyes widen in disbelief.
"A nice bunch you are," he almost-sneered at the five preteens squirming uncomfortably in their seats under his scrutiny. "If this is the way your futures are going to be, all I can say is, I'll be glad to see you go. As in, kicked out of this school eventually. And that can't be fast enough, as far as I'm concerned!"
He turned disdainful eyes on the burly boy sitting to the far right.
"Jason Scott. Six weeks of Saturday remedial classes for fighting and physically threatening a classmate. Only 12, and a bully already."
Jason flushed a dull red, almost matching his polo shirt. He hadn't bullied anyone, but nobody would listen to his explanation. Well, at least his parents believed him, so there wasn't too much fuss about getting detention, even if they hadn't been pleased. He stared at the desktop rather than meet Mr. Jenkins' eyes.
"Zachary Taylor. Possession and display of an edged weapon on school grounds. Well, what can you expect from someone like you?" Jenkins grimaced nastily, and the short, dark-skinned boy clenched his fists at the thinly-veiled racial slur. But he kept his mouth shut, knowing that any protest would only make things worse. Besides, he hadn't had a knife knife, just ... he was distracted by the teacher addressing a petite girl in a flowery pink dress sitting next to him.
"Kimberly Hart. Here for provocative manner of dress and indecent exposure. A slut in the making, it seems."
Kimberly was nearly in tears. She wasn't slutty, no way, but how was she to know that there was a stupid rule at the school that girls under 13 weren't allowed to wear makeup? At all? Nobody had told her, and her mom hadn't said anything when she'd driven her to school ... as for 'indecent exposure', that had been an accident, but nobody had believed her ... she snuck a peek at the slender Asian girl on her left. She looked kinda nice; what might be her crime?
She found out.
"Trini Kwan. Consuming and distributing drugs. Well, well, well. If there is anything more despicable, I don't know what is."
Trini closed her eyes in mortification, still feeling the shame of that particular accusation. Her parents had been infuriated, but all their protests hadn't done any good; the rule she'd broken was really sort of silly, but it existed, and she had broken it, however unwittingly. The family had decided that the only way to save face was for her to accept the unjust punishment quietly, and so here she was.
Lastly, Jenkins turned his disgusted face towards the last kida slight, bespectacled blond boy who was looking extremely uncomfortable, and tried unobtrusively to scoot his chair away from his companions.
"William Cranston. Prolonged absences without justification. School's been in session only for two months, and you skipped class for three weeks already. Hardly the attitude we're expecting from our students. How you'll ever amount to anything, I don't know."
Billy squirmed embarrassedly, wanting to tell the hateful man pacing in front of the seats that it hadn't been his fault, that his father had simply forgotten to phone in or to send the school a notification, but lacked the courage. Further, any lessons he had missed he'd long ago made up for; he had no problems at all following in class, but every attempt to get out of these punishment sessions had failed.
"I'm sorry, Mr Cranston, but the rules are for everybody. Your son missed three weeks of lessons, and so he HAS to take remedial classes. No exceptions whatsoever. And besides, his social skills are bad enough already; it wouldn't be good for his standing in class if we gave him special treatment. He definitely needs to lose the arrogant attitude towards lesser-gifted students he's been displaying, too."
The Principal's words had made a certain amount of sense, but that didn't mean it made it any easier for Billy to forego his Saturday mornings. And what's more, it wasn't his problem that his classmates were mostly intellectually challenged. Wasn't it?
WHY didn't Dad enroll me in that special school for graduates of the Baby Genius program? The rebellious thought wasn't a new one for Billy, and he had yet to get a satisfactory answer from his parent. He didn't WANT to socialize with kids who shared none of his interests, nor was he at all keen to explore their hobbies to any degree. Sports. Games. Nothing but ... fluff. Bah!
His attention, and that of his fellow detainees, was directed towards the blackboard, where the Vice Principal was scribbling this morning's tasks, not caring whether his negligent scrawl was legible for the five youngsters or not.
"You must complete this by 12.30. There will be a half-hour break after 90 minutes. No talking."
With that, he sank into the desk chair and unfolded the morning paper. The five children looked resignedly at each other, then shrugged, rolled their eyes or sighed according to temperament, and opened their books. Soon, only the scratching of pencils on paper could be heard in the sunny classroom.
At precisely 10.30am, Jenkins dismissed the kids to an enclosed courtyard with a couple of bench seats and tables. The five stood around indecisively, not having brought any lunch, and too uncomfortable about the situation to make friends. Finally Zack, who was fairly bursting with curiosity despite some warinesswhat if the others really were such badasses as Jenkins had made them out to be?pounced on Kimberly as the easiest mark. Without preamble, he blurted out what was on his 12-year-old boy's mind.
"What exactly did you do, strip in class?"
Tears welled up in the large brown eyes, caused partly by anger and partly by humiliation.
"No, of COURSE not!"
The small girl turned away to hide her face from the boy. He's so nasty! I'll never be able to like him! Ever!
Help came from an unexpected quarter. A quiet voice spoke up.
"That is a highly improbable scenario; if she had embarked on such a course of action, surely someone in authority would have intervened to prevent any untoward exposure of objectionable body parts."
Four pairs of incredulous eyes swivelled towards Billy, who shrank back into himself. Why, oh WHY couldn't he have kept his mouth shut? Now it would start againthe taunts about his extensive vocabulary, the ridicule over getting enmeshed in matters that didn't concern him ... the other two boys, according to Mr. Jenkins, were in detention because they had displayed violent behaviour. They surely would exact retribution on him for daring to interfere and 'showing off' his superior intellect. Billy cringed, waiting for the blow. Whether it would be verbal or physical, he neither knew nor cared.
It never happened. Cautiously, Billy peered at the other kids. All of them stood slightly slack-jawed, until Zack found his voice againonly to utter a confused "Huh?"
Jason shook his head as if to clear his ears. "Say what?" he asked slowly.
Kimberly just stared. "Do you always talk like that?" she blurted. "'Cause if you do, I'm gonna have to, like, carry a dictionary around to understand you!"
Trini fought to hide a tiny smile. This was surprising in a boy her own age, but hardly something completely new to her. Her father had told her once how long it had taken him to cure his brother Howard of that particular habit.
"He said that ... Kimberly, is it? ... couldn't have done anything like that because a teacher would've stopped her before she got too far."
"Oh. Of course," Jason nodded, relieved at having that cleared up.
Kim beamed suddenly, her embarrassment forgotten at the unexpected support. "Yeah, exactly!"
"Then why didn't you say so in the first place?" Zack demanded to know of Billy.
"But I did," Billy protested automatically, forgetting his shyness in the suddenly lightened atmosphere. "Trini just re-formulated my commentary in the vernacular."
This time, Trini actually chuckled as she looked at a thoroughly confounded Kimberly. "He means, I used smaller words."
"Precisely," Billy muttered, giving her a grateful glance. It wasn't often he encountered someone, adult or contemporary, who could follow his verbalizations with such apparent ease.
"Okay," Zack interrupted, getting back on track. "So what did you do that they nailed you for 'indecent exposure'?" He mimicked Mr. Jenkins' tone to perfection, but somehow coming from him it was funny rather than hurtful.
Kimberly looked very indignant. "I wore makeup to schoolnothing major, just a light lipstick and some mascara. I didn't know there was a stupid rule against that!"
"It's in the leaflet our parents got when we registered," Trini supplied.
"Really? Geeze ... I must've missed that," Kim grumbled, angry at herself now. "I was so busy checking the cheerleading requirements ..."
"Ah, forget it," Jason advised, not interested in what he thought of as 'girlie stuff'. "That's minor. What about the indecency thing, though?"
The doe-brown eyes fired up again. "That was sooooo unfair! It happened in the restroom, during recess, when the bell rang for class. I was a little late leaving and in a hurry, so I didn't see Lillian Jacobs come in just when I was running out the door." Kim jumped off the bench in her agitation. "She's such a stuck-up old bi-" she caught herself just in time, "-ddy," she finished a bit lamely. Two of the boys grinned, knowing perfectly well what she had almost let slip. Trini seemed to be hiding a smile, and Billy looked faintly scandalized.
"She's also school president," he murmured.
"Yeah, well, okay maybe, but that's no reason to get all huffy with me when she spilled her water bottle all over my new blouse! She was just mad at me for getting on the gymnastics team instead of her friend Betty. Is it my fault that klutz can't do a simple handstand without needing two people to hold her up? Lillian should've looked where she was going as much as I!"
The other four had to admit the justice of that.
"So your blouse got all wet ...?" Trini prompted, sensing where this was heading.
"Yeah," the petite girl sighed. "It was white, very fine cotton, I wasn't wearing a bra, and ..." her blush and the boys' imagination provided the rest. They snickered, but to her surprise Kimberly didn't mind. Much.
"I was already late after Lillian got through chewing me out. I hadn't brought a jacket, and naturally old Mrs Ginelli caught me just as a few varsity jerks were wolf-whistling after me," she concluded her tale in a rush. "She wouldn't believe me that it was an accident, Lillian was still too mad at me to back me up, and you know how Mrs Ginelli is. So here I am."
"Man, tough luck," Jason commiserated. "But I don't see what the fuss was all about, anyway. After all, you're hardly Dolly Parton," he said with a boy's frankness and typical lack of tact.
Kim flushed; he'd hit one of her sorest spots with that commenther marked lack of development in the chest area. She was about to light angrily into him, but a look into his open dark eyes convinced her that there was no malice behind the remarkjust an observation of fact like she had gotten from her own brother, a lofty High School freshman. Her anger fled before it fully materialized. Still, she couldn't help a wistful sigh.
"Who's Dolly Parton?" Billy wondered, unfamiliar with the name.
Zack grinned. "A country singer and actress. Blonde, big hair, short like Kim here, but man, is she stacked!" He shaped an exaggerated hourglass figure in the air, then he cupped his hands about a foot away from his chest. Even a relative innocent like Billy couldn't mistake the meaning of the gesture.
"Oh!" A slow flush crept up his cheeks.
Trini, perfectly in tune with Kim's feelings, patted her hand consolingly, and was rewarded with a small smile. Both girls however glared at Zack when he attempted his own brand of comfort.
"Hey, if you looked like her, you'd have to worry about toppling over one day," he opined. "I mean, how DOES she stay upright, anyway?"
Jason noticed the daggers the two lithe girls looked at the dark-skinned boy. It made him think twice about attempting to cross either of them, ever. Hastily, he intervened before Zack dug himself an even deeper hole.
"Um, I don't think you wanna know, bud," he cautioned, warning the other with a tiny jerk of his head towards Trini and Kimberly. Zack was nothing if not quick on the uptake.
"Right, sorry," he backtracked hastily. "Forget I ever said anything!"
"Hmph," Kim snorted, but somehow a potentially embarrassing situation had become rather funny in the sharing. She could feel that her fellow detainees accepted her explanation as the truthwhich it wasand didn't think badly about her despite the Vice Principal's remarks. She smiled, to show that Zack was forgiven. "It's cool," she dismissed his apology.
There was a brief silence, but every trace of the awkwardness and wariness prevalent at the beginning of the break had vanished. When the five youngsters realized that, one by one broke out into a somewhat goofy yet rather relieved grin. It occurred not only to Kimberly that maybe, just maybe, the others had similar stories to tell about how they'd landed in Saturday detention. Their mirth gradually changed to curiosity.
Kim, having already told her tale, felt it was her right to ask the next person. Just as she gathered her courage to address Trini, Mr. Jenkins called the kids back into the classroom. With some regret, they obeyed.
During the week that followed the five children didn't congregate, although they were now aware of each other. There was still some reticence in all of them, but they did share nods in class, and even a shy 'hello' every now and then when they happened to pass each other in the hallways. The next Saturday, they met again in detention and fell to the tasks Mr. Jenkins set them with a will, all of them secretly looking forward to the break.
At last it came, and they were once more shepherded towards the small courtyard. This time, Kim, Trini and Jason had brought snacks; seeing that the other two hadn't, they generously offered to share. Sandwiches and cookies were easily split, and drinks were passed around. However, the two apples supplied by the girls stumped them momentarily.
"Blast. If I had my pocket knife, we could cut them up, but after what happened to me I don't dare to bring it," Zack groused, eyeing the juicy fruit hungrily.
"Oh? Is that why you got detention? Having a pocket knife?" Kim wondered, thereby determining that it would be his turn to tell his story next.
"No, I knew better than that," Zack sighed. "Pocket knives were clearly forbidden in the rules. I just had no idea they also meant table knives," he mumbled.
"Table knives? Why would you bring a table knife to school?"
Zack squirmed a little as he ate his portion of the shared sandwich, thankful that his blush wasn't really visible against his dark skin.
"Well ... my mom's always getting down on me and my sibs about table manners, y'know? Especially about not using our fingers for everything." To his satisfaction, he saw the others nod sympathetically; it seemed as if it wasn't as unusual a thing as he'd feared. "Anyway, Mom was busy on the phone that day and told me to pack my own lunch. There was this piece of leftover cold chicken in the fridge that looked good, so I put it in my lunch box and took my flatware along. I was just trying to eat when one of the teachers passed me and threw a hissy fit about me bringing a 'weapon' to school. Man, that knife would barely have cut a steak! I couldn't have hurt anyone with it if I'd tried," he ended, his expressive face clearly showing his opinion of his mishap. "Which I wouldn't have done anyway."
The children had to smile. "Yeah," Jason grinned, clapping the shorter boy on his back. Although he couldn't have expressed it, being too young yet to analyse his feelings, he was glad that the impression he'd formed of Zack last week was on the spotthis was not a bad kid, as Mr. Jenkins' words had implied. And neither was Kimberly.
Billy had listened with a puzzled frown. He hesitated for a moment, but as nobody else commented on Zack's story, listening instead to an account of the public outcry the teacher in question had raised, he decided to speak up after all. Besides, they didn't object to me voicing my opinion last week ...
"I don't understand," he said, blushing shyly as the other four's attention focussed on him. "Why would you want to consume your school lunch with eating implements at all?"
His companions took a second to translate what he'd said into words they were more familiar with. Then Kim lightly whapped him on the arm. "Duh. He was trying to use the manners his Mom insists on," she told the bespectacled blond.
Billy flinched at the blow, but it hadn't really hurt, and her voice, while saying 'don't be stupid' was still kindly. He gazed earnestly into her brown eyes, but found no derision there as he'd fearedjust some exasperation that somehow managed to still be friendly. Encouraged, he turned towards Zack.
"May I ask you a question?" he asked politely.
"Sure," Zack shrugged.
"What portion of fried poultry did you wish to ingest?"
Trini hid a smile at Zack's predictable reaction. "What piece of chicken did you bring?"
"Oh. Why didn't you say so? A drumstick, with the thigh part still on it. Why?"
Billy cleared his throat. "Because in that case, you didn't need to use a knife and fork at all. You could have spared yourself the indignity of being brought up against a violation of rules, the public commotion, and you needn't be obliged to spend your time in Saturday morning detention," he finished in a rush.
Zack did his best to follow all that, then stared. "Howzzat?"
The smaller boy gave a tiny shrug. "Cold chicken, especially if eaten outdoors, is exempt from the conventional table manners. It is perfectly acceptable socially to use one's digits instead."
"It is? I didn't know that," Kim exclaimed.
"Yes," Billy confirmed. "I found it in a book on proper etiquette once."
"Wow," Jason commented, wondering why on Earth someone would be looking into an etiquette book at all. Something in his eyes must've given his thoughts away, because Billy blushedagain. But instead of shrinking back, he bravely gave an explanation for this unusual thing.
"My father once made me accompany him to a social function at his workplace. I had no desire to disgrace him or myself by a possible lack of manners, so I went to the library and looked it up. It was quite helpful to me."
"Cool," Zack said. "You gotta show me that book one day; maybe if I can show her chapter and verse on table manners, my Mom will ease up on us then," he grinned.
"Gladly," Billy smiled back, quite pleased that his explanation hadn't met with any form of ridicule. In his experience, not many of his contemporaries were so forebearing when confronted with his idiosyncracies of behaviour.
"I don't get it," Jason interjected. "Why didn't you ask your Mom about how to behave? That's what I usually do." He was surprised at the sudden withdrawal in the blond. It wasn't anything overt, it just felt as if shutters the size of the Enterprise's bulkheads had come down around Billy.
Billy took a few moments to find his voice. When he did, it was bleak and soft.
"My mother passed away two years ago," he whispered, looking at his sneakered feet. He tried to brace himself against the embarrassed silence he was sure would followbut as it turned out, that wasn't necessary at all. Instead of the awkwardness and false pity he'd expected, he got a gruff but sincere apology from Jason.
"I didn't know. I'm sorry, buddy."
The dark eyes shone with compassion, and a large hand came to rest briefly on his shoulder. Strangely, Billy received more comfort from that fleeting touch than many a longer speech and effusive hugs from neighbors and relatives had ever given him.
"It's okay," he murmured. "It's been a while ..."
"But it still hurts, doesn't it?" Trini said astutely, not quite daring yet to give Billy the hug he so clearly needed. Instead, she settled for a warm smile and reached briefly for his hand, giving it a squeeze.
"My grandfather died last year," Kimberly supplied, with a smile just as warm. "I miss him, too."
"Yeah, man. Sorry about your mom," Zack chimed in. Billy was, quite frankly, flabbergasted. Here he was, having just revealed his greatest sorrow to virtual strangerssomething that was very uncharacteristic for him and had surprised him considerablyand he didn't feel vulnerable or embarrassed, but actually comforted by their simple acceptance and understanding.
This is a most unexpected development. I shall have to pursue this further.
However, this was not the time and place. Clearing his throat, he turned his attention back towards the fruit which had caused the recent revelations.
"Thank you," he murmured, not wanting to leave the others' compassion unacknowledged. "But this still leaves us with a conundrum about how to partition this apple."
The five youngsters looked at the apple, which seemed to be taunting them with its promise of juiciness and taste.
"Let me try something," Kim said suddenly. Briefly inspecting her nails to see if they were clean, she then picked up the fruit. Running her thumbnail in a line from top to bottom and up again, she carved a thin wedge into the peel. "I've seen my uncle do this once," she mused. "Now if one of you guys could try and break the apple in half ..."
Without a word, Jason took the apple from her. Using his strength cautiously, he made a twisting motion, and with a crunch the fruit split down the middle. "Hey, it worked!"
"Great!" Quickly, Kim traced a few more lines, and soon the children were munching happily on apple wedges, sharing equally until they were recalled into class.
On Monday, Trini found herself last in line out of the classroom; as a consequence, all the tables in the lunch area were filled with chattering students. Resigning herself to the discomfort of eating lunch standing up, she wended her way to the door, when she was hailed by a familiar voice.
"Trini! Over here!"
Glancing around, she spied Kimberly waving to her from three tables over. Hesitantly, she made her way to her, and was surprised when the tiny brunette scooted across the bench seat to make room for her.
"You can sit with us," she offered with a shy smile. Trini stood transfixed for a moment, and Kim blushed. "That is, if you'd like to," she faltered under the Asian's scrutiny.
Trini recalled herself. Politeness and pleasure would not let her decline this unexpected but most welcome offer.
"Thank you." With a smile of her own, she slid into the seat next to Kim. The other girls at the table, cheerleaders all by their uniforms, greeted her nicely enough, and resumed their conversation. Trini started to eat her sandwich, but soon found herself engrossed in the surprisingly astute observations the girls made about the school's teams. Dark-haired Brenda especially seemed taken with the volleyball team and was trying to persuade the others to attend the games, as well. Trini's ears pricked up; she loved volleyball herself and hardly missed a game of any of the local teams.
Kimberly grinned at the team captain. "Admit it, Brendayou'd like nothing more than play yourself!"
"I would, if we could get enough players," the other conceded grumblingly. "But I really don't know where to look for them."
Before she could stop herself, Trini spoke up.
"I like to play volleyball," she said softly. To her surprise, Brenda beamed at her with interest.
"You do? That's great! Know anybody else who does?"
"Maybe ... there's Alice Kruger and Jenny Smith," she ventured shyly. "They're in my Physics class ..."
"COOL!" Brenda's enthusiasm was unfaked. "If the three of you want to, we'd have enough to make up a team. Why don't you drop by after cheering practice this week so we can talk it out?"
"I'd like that ..."
"Great! Good job, Kim," the cheerleading captain commented, collected her books and got up. "Well, gotta run. See you on Wednesday, Trini!" With a swirl of her navy skirt, she went off, taking her friends with her. Trini was left rather dazedly alone with Kimberly, who grinned at her with a twinkle in her brown eyes.
"Well, that was fast! But that's Brenda for you," she smiled. "I hope you don't mind that she sort of shanghaied you like that."
"No, quite the contrary; I'm glad I got to talk to her," Trini said. "I really would love to play, but didn't know how to approach anyone about it. Thank you for introducing me to her."
Kim shrugged. "No sweat. It's not exactly what I had in mind when I asked you over, but that's okay. As long as you weren't bored, like, out of your skull," she worried.
"Not at all. I enjoyed myself." With only a tiny hesitation, Trini felt she had to ask. "Why did you call me over?"
To her surprise, the petite girl blushed. "I, um ... I was kinda wondering if you'd like to study with me for that History test next week," she mumbled. "It's more fun to do with someone else ... and everybody else is going to the mall instead," she confessed in a rush. "I'd love to go, too, but my Mom is gonna kill me if I don't at least get a C on that test ... and you sound as if you know what the class is all about. Not that I want to use you, or anything ..." Kim floundered, unaccountably embarrassed and at a loss for the right words. She was going about this all wrong!
Trini hid a smile, not offended at all. Somehow, the way Kim said it, the invitation didn't feel as if it was made out of pity or because she was treated as a poor substitute for someone more congenial.
"It's okay, Kimberly, I understand," she answered, and was rewarded with a relieved smile.
"So, you're coming?" Kim asked hopefully. "If we try, maybe we can make the mall afterwards!"
Trini let her smile blossom. "We'll see," she said noncommittally. "First we have to study!" The girls confirmed their study appointment just in time before their lunch break was over. Watching Kim skip off to her next class, Trini chuckled to herself. She could see it was going to be an interesting afternoon with her somewhat mercurial new friend. And maybe I can persuade Mom that I really need a new sweatshirt ... so that I have a legitimate reason to hit the mall with Kim ...
Lost in a pleasant reverie, she left the dining area and made her way to English class.
Friday afternoon saw Jason running through the park on his way to the jungle gym. He'd poured over his homework long enough, and as his Saturday mornings were taken up by detention, he thought he could get a good workout in before it got too dark. He worked the various structures until he was out of breath, then took a few minutes to cool down. When his breathing had regulated once more, he started to go through the kata his sensei had shown him earlier in the week. Soon, Jason was engrossed in the fluid combination of punches and kicks, aiming them at an imaginary partner.
"Hey, that looks awesome!" a familiar voice broke his concentration.
Finishing the move he'd started, Jason turned slowly around, to meet the admiring look in Zack's eyes.
"Thanks. I just hope I'm not messing it up," he panted. This kata was WAY more intense than any he'd tried before!
"I wouldn't know," Zack grinned. "What are you doing, anyway? Some kind of kung fu?"
"Karate," Jason corrected him, used to the confusion. What with that silly old David Carradine TV series and everything, it was hardly surprising that a non-practitioner would have no idea about the differences between the various martial arts styles. "It's Japanese. Kung Fu is Chinese."
"Whatever. Have you been doing it long?" The question was curious.
"Seven years. Since I was five," Jason said proudly. "I got my junior Black Belt when I was ten."
"Yeah, well, I couldn't get tested for a real Black Belt until I turned twelve," he said, his indignation at this quite noticeable in his voice. "But I'm up for the test in December!"
"Think you're gonna make it?" Zack wanted to know, clearly impressed. He'd heard about Black Belts; weren't they supposed to be some kind of super fighters?
"Yes." The deepening voice radiated confidence.
"Cool. I wish I could do that."
"Why don't you come to practice?" the bigger boy suggested on impulse. "My dojo is accepting new students right now, and we could walk together ... my folks always drive me, they don't like to let me go on my own, and there's nobody else who lives in my neighborhood. You do live on Orchard Street, right?" Jason thought he'd caught a glimpse of Zack the other day while riding his bike to the grocery store for his mom.
"Yeah. How'd you know?"
"I saw you," Jason grinned. By now, the two boys were sitting companionably together on the swings, workout forgotten as they talked. "It's on the way to the market." Zack looked at him somewhat strangely, so he added, "What? Did you think I'm syping on you?"
"Er, no. I just was kinda wondering ..." Zack's voice trailed off. He hadn't had a lot of experience with non-African-American kids, as Angel Grove's Black population wasn't very large. So far, he'd experienced very little real prejudice, but Mr. Jenkins wasn't alone in his condescending attitude.
"Why would you want to hang out with me, anyway?" he blurted. The other gave him an astonished look.
"Why wouldn't I?" Jason asked reasonably, not comprehending.
Zack squirmed uncomfortably. He hadn't meant to bring up the issue, but now that he had ...
"Zack? What's wrong, man? Don't you want to go to karate practice with me? If you don't, that's okay; we can find something else to do. If you'd like, that is." Now Jason was starting to feel weird, too.
Mortified, Zack closed his eyes. Young as he was, he could recognize the honest confusion in the other boy's voice, and knew he owed him the same kind of openness in return. But how was he going to do that without offending Jason?
"You're white," he finally muttered, feeling strangely ashamed even as he did.
"And I'm not." It cost him to say it.
Comprehension finally dawned. Exasperated, Jason shook his head. His parents had taught him well how little outward differences like that mattered.
"What's that got to do with anything?" he wanted to know. "You have a problem with that?"
To his surprise, Zack found the tables neatly turned on him with that question.
"No. I just thought you might have," he admitted. "Some folks do, y'know."
Jason punched him lightly on the arm. It hurt a little, but Zack could tell he hadn't meant it to. "Well, I don't," he declared firmly, dismissing the idea as ridiculous by his tone and the open look in his dark eyes. "So, you wanna come or not?"
Deciding to take a chance on Jason and his offer of easy companionship, Zack hesitated but a moment.
"What the heck. Why not? Assuming my parents allow it," he said lightly. "They don't really believe in fighting." He hopped off the swing; it was getting dark, and if he wanted to have any chance at all at getting permission, he better not be late for dinner.
"Karate is not about fighting," Jason told him earnestly, quoting his sensei. "It's about self-defense, though ..." Launching into a lecture about the tenets of Martial Arts, Jason followed Zack through the park towards their neighborhood. The two boys parted company at the grocery store.
"See you tomorrow at school, I guess," Jason grimaced comically. He still didn't relish the thought of four more weeks of lost Saturday mornings.
"Yeah." With a jaunty wave, Zack moonwalked towards his home, feeling better than he had in a long time. If he was lucky, this might just turn out to be the beginning of friendship.
This time, it was English grammar that the five kids had to sweat over, and not a few sighs could be heard in the classroom as they waited for Mr. Jenkins to call the break. Once more, they filed out into 'their' courtyard, and after some swapping and sharing of foodstuffs, settled in to hear the next one's story.
"Drugs, Trini?" Jason queried curiously.
The pretty Asian groaned.
"Not really. Well, if you want to get literal about it, yeah, sort of, but ..."
"Either you had drugs on you or you didn't," Zack piped up. "What was it?"
Trini scowled at him half-seriously.
"About the same thing as your 'weapon'," she told him, still feeling cross about the whole affair. It was so unfair! "I was taking some ginseng pellets, and when Sylvia Abrams asked if they helped, I offered some to her, too. And she had to go and tell the school nurse."
"Help with what?" Kim wanted to know.
Trini gave her a look that spoke volumes. Turning slightly away so the boys wouldn't see, she placed a hand over her lower abdomen and mouthed the word "period" at the other girl.
"Oh." Kimberly nodded knowingly, but couldn't help a blush from formingwhich naturally aroused the boys' curiosity.
"Yeah, help with what?" Zack asked, dancing around the two girls in an attempt to look at both of their faces at once. They kept facing away from him, and the ensuing antics were pretty amusing to watch until Jason, with a bemused headshake, collared the shorter boy with an admonition to cut it out already and let Trini get on with her story. Grinning unrepentantly, Zack plopped down in his seat, the expression on his mobile face one of exaggerated anticipation that made the girls giggle and forget their embarrassment.
Meanwhile, Billy stared at the far wall, lost in thought as he processed the information. Thinking out loud, he started to enumerate facts.
"Ginseng is a herbal remedy often used in Chinese medicine; it's most commonly used to treat gastric and digestive disorders caused by nervous tension, like loss of appetite. It also is used as a very mild stimulant." He directed an earnest look at the pretty Asian girl. "As you said, technically it is a drug. Just not of the type that is commonly referred to by that name."
"Yeah," Trini mumbled. "I don't usually take it, just every now and then ..."
"Whatever for?" Jason wondered. "I mean, why would you need that stuff in the first place? You're not sick or anything, are you?"
Zack picked up on the 'nervous tension' part, blurting out something he'd heard on TV. "Or hysterical?" He wasn't quite fast enough to dodge Kimberly, who bopped him on the arm.
"Don't be such a dork!"
For a second, Billy felt appalled at this display of what his brain instinctively called VIOLENCE in big, red warning letters, but he realized almost immediately that Kim's action wasn't meant to hurt Zack in any way. It was just a means of getting his attention and meting out a light punishment simultaneously. To judge by Zack's sheepish grin and subsequent settling down, a very effective one, too, and Billy filed that information away for future reference.
Exasperatedly, Trini blew a strand of hair out of her face as she addressed both boys. "No, of course I'm not. If you have to know, once a month my stomach all cramps up so I can hardly swallow a biteand I get faint if I don't eat. The ginseng is to help me get over that."
"Why only once a month?" Jason asked, obviously completely at sea.
The girls rolled their eyes. Seeing that Trini was too embarrassed to explain, Kimberly huffed at her fellow students.
"Sheesh. Don't you know anything? She was having her period! I feel kinda down all the time, too, and don't like to eat much either when I have mine. And those cramps are NOT fun, let me tell you!"
"Oh." Comprehension dawned on all three boys' faces, and they sported blushes to matchwhich gave the girls no small amount of satisfaction. It hadn't been easy to reveal a rather personal thing, given that due to their tender age they were still very sensitive about their changing bodies, but the guys had insisted on knowing, so ...
Serves them right! was written clearly in their eyes as they watched Jason, Zack and Billy squirm.
"Um, okay," Jason muttered. "But couldn't the nurse have given you meds? I know a few girls on the track team who always go see her when they, uh ..." he felt the color rise even higher in his cheeks.
"Yeah; she can give you Midol," Kimberly added. "That's allowed."
Trini grimaced. "I know. Onlyyou know about these leaflets in the package, telling you about possible side effects? I get them. Each and every one of them. I tried, and it's just no good." She sighed, looking rather forlorn. Giving in to impulse, Kim hugged her new friend.
"That's such a total bummer," she commiserated, and was rewarded with a bright smile.
Zack was looking puzzled.
"I don't get it, though," he wondered. "Didn't your folks explain when you got detention for that? I mean, it's not as if you didn't have a good reason not to go to the nurse."
"Yes, but it was no use," the slender girl explained. "They told us that regulations were for everybody, and they couldn't make any exceptions, especially not over something as serious as drugs."
"Quite understandable," Billy put forth. "Besides, I think it may also have been a consideration that ginseng, as well as other herbal remedies often distributed in alternative medicine, is not generally a part of Western treatment methods. Even if their efficacy is a well-documented fact." He looked at the others, half-proud that he remembered this and half afraid that he would be scoffed at. He needn't have worried.
"Exactly," Trini nodded. "My parents do go to a regular doctor all the time, but they prefer to get simple stuff like that from an apothecary shop in Chinatown. They often have less side effects, too."
Jason suddenly grinned. "Am I the only one to think 'Kwai Chang Caine' here?" he asked no one in particular. Zack chuckled and snapped his fingers as he made the connection.
"Oh yeah. 'Your path lies elsewhere, grasshopper'. Cool moves, though!"
Kimberly stared at the two snickering boys. "What are you two talking about?" she demanded to know, seeing that Billy was as bewildered as she and that Trini was torn between amusement and exasperation.
"A TV series," Trini explained with a withering look at Jason, who had the grace to duck, then shrug apologetically. "It's called 'Kung Fu: The Legend Continues', and one of the main characters is an apothecaryplus an accomplished martial artist. He's always mixing up remedies for others. Actually, it's one of the few things on TV where Asians are portrayed positively, and some effort is going into explaining the philosophies ..."
"Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it," Jason hastily amended, not wanting Trini to think that he was making fun of her heritage. "It's just, the image kind of jumped at me when you said where you get your medicine." He offered Trini his hand in silent apology. "No offense?"
Hesitating only for a second, she accepted and the two children shook hands. "It's okay," Trini smiled back, liking his frank gaze. "None taken." The other three also relaxed from a potentially tense situation they hadn't been aware of, glad that this hadn't evolved into a serious misunderstanding. They felt outcast enough as it was, since a few of their classmates wouldn't stop teasing them about being in detention, and tended to bring up the reasons for the punishment at every opportunity. It was beginning to create a bond even during regular school hours, drawing the five closer the better they got to know each other.
The burly boy ran his fingers through his short wavy hair. "But say ... speaking of Caine ... I don't wanna sound like a cliché or anything, but do you know anything about kung fu?"
"Because I'm Asian, you mean?" Trini had to laugh at his sheepish nod. "As a matter of fact, I do. I've started taking lessons when I entered school. Why?"
He brightened visibly. "Because I'm studying karate," he said. "How would you feel about getting together some time and compare styles?" Jason colored slightly; he'd never asked a girl to share any kind of non-school-related activity before, and hadn't stopped to think how his innocent proposal might be received. To his relief (and Zack's barely hidden amusement), Trini didn't seem to think that it was an unusual request.
"I'd like that," she replied, still smiling. "When and where did you have in mind?"
Just then, the youngsters were recalled into the classroom and they filed out of the courtyard one after another while Trini and Jason quickly made arrangements to meet in the park the next day, listened to closely by an obviously very much interested Zack. Kimberly and Billy just shrugged indulgently and trailed after them, each wondering about the attraction martial arts seemed to have for their companions.
On Monday morning, Kimberly met up with Trini at the lockers.
"Hi. Did you guys have a good workout or whatever yesterday?" she inquired, feeling mildly curious and a bit sorry that she hadn't given in to the temptation to show up as well, even if only to watch them do whatever they had been doing. Her own Sunday afternoon had been rather boring, despite lounging on the patio all day with a new issue of Teen magazine to read. Which up until now had been her favorite weekend entertainment.
"Oh yes! Jason's quite good at karate; he has both power and speed, and his reflexes are pretty awesome," Trini almost gushed. "We sparred some, and I really enjoyed that. Plus, I think he'll make a great teacher one day; he showed Zack a few moves, and he explained things rather well. I think Zack's going to start studying at Jason's dojo this week."
"Wow. Sounds like you guys had fun," Kim commented a bit enviously, wishing more than ever she had joined the others. Next time they meet, I'm NOT gonna stay home! she resolved mentally. At least it would've been more interesting to watch them than those silly old musicals with my Mom ...
"Definitely. We're meeting again tomorrow, after school. Um, would you like to come with?" Trini offered a bit shyly, knowing that Kim had very little interest in sports outside of her gymnastics, but feeling strangely reluctant to exclude her from further activities with the others. "Maybe Billy will want to come, too."
The petite brunette beamed. "You're reading my mind," she exclaimed happily. "If my folks don't object, sure; I'd love to! Billy and I can sit and criticize you guys," she added with an impish twinkle in her brown eyes.
Trini giggled, feeling suddenly very good. "You two don't know enough about martial arts to criticize anyone," she complained good-naturedly as the two girls wandered off together to Biology class. Kim gave her a wide-eyed innocent stare.
"But that's what's going to make it fun," she declared with a perfectly straight face. "What good is it to nag somebody about something you have a clue about?"
Laughing, Trini opened the classroom door, letting Kim enter before her.
"And that is logical how?"
The shorter girl looked back over her shoulder and winked, enjoying the banter with her new friend.
"Hey, I'm a cheerleader. We're supposed to be, like, cute and cool, not logical!"
"Right," Trini snorted, hugely amused. She was preparing a suitable reply to Kim's outrageous remark, but was cut short by the teacher's arrival. Smiling at each other, the girls sought their chairs, knowing that they would continue during breakand very much looking forward to it.
"I really fail to see the merits of watching others participate in physical exercise," Billy muttered, not looking at Kimberly as the two sat on the still-warm grass in Angel Grove Park, waiting for Trini, Zack and Jason to finish their warm-up exercises. He really had more important things to do, like waiting for his new computer to be delivered so he could set it up, but the invitation to join the others had been so unexpectedand such a rare occurrencethat he hadn't stopped to think before accepting. Now here he was, trapped in an activity he usually disdained, just because a few other kids, chance acquaintances really, with whom he had nothing in common but the fact that they all were in detention together, had chosen to offer him inclusion in their leisure time.
To Billy's surprise, the thought sent a feeling of warmth through him. Nobody's ever offered that to me before, he slowly realized. I must be needing companionship with my contemporaries more than I was aware of. Hmm. Maybe the Principal did have a point after all in her assessment of my situation... He was distracted by a little nudge from Kimberly.
"Look, they're starting!"
Sitting up straight, Billy focussed his attention obligingly on the three others. Jason demonstrated a series of moves, explaining things to Zack and Trini as he went along. It looked smooth and quite complicated to the bespectacled blond, making him painfully aware of his own deficiencies in coordination. Not surprisingly, Trini copied Jason's exercise with little effort due to her own martial arts background, but even the neophyte Zack was able to follow the instruction with only a few minor mistakes.
"I could never do that," Billy murmured without thinking, for once wishing he had better motor control. The tiny girl sitting beside him gave him a startled look as she detected the note of envy in his quiet voice.
"Sure you could," she shrugged. "Whyever not? Even I could learn that. If I wanted to, that is. Which I don't."
"You're already an accomplished gymnast," the slight boy protested. "You are used to physical exercise. Whereas I have little to no interest in sports, and less ability ..."
"But why?" Kim was curious now; she forgot all about watching the others and turned towards Billy. "I mean ... don't you brainy types believe in 'a healthy mind in a healthy body'? My gymnastics coach is always going on about that," she explained artlessly. "I think she just wants us to, like, not get bad grades or something. 'Cause if we do, we lose our place on the team."
"Um ... well, yes, in theory your instructor is right," Billy hemmed and hawed, having heard that very same admonition from his father on occasion. When he remembered, his parent had often expressed a wish that Billy would spend less time over his experiments and be more sociable, despite his pride in his son's accomplishments. "However, it is not exactly easy to schedule time better spent in intellectual pursuits with more physical endeavors ..."
"That's a cop-out, and you should know better," Kimberly exclaimed, warming to the subject. "How can you do your stuff when you get sick because you haven't exercised enough? And you will get sick eventually if you never get out and sit at your desk all day, or read, or do experiments or whatever!"
Uncomfortably aware that she was right, but unwilling to concede as much to someone he considered his intellectual inferior, Billy went on the defensive.
"What would you know about these things, anyway?" he challenged her.
Kim blushed at his unconsciously condescending tone. But she wouldn't back down, not for anybody! Not even someone so much smarter than she was. Defiantly, she met Billy's eyes. "Because my mom's a physical therapist working for a big company." She named a well-known Angel Grove corporation. "She has a lot of clients who get headaches and bad backs and stuff just because they're in the office all the time and don't work out. She knows about these things, and so do Ibecause she told me." Her voice quite clearly said 'So there!'.
Billy felt himself flushing. He obviously had insulted Kimberly somehow, and that made him quite uncomfortable. How to rectify the situation? A memory from their conversations during their Saturday morning breaks surfaced.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you," he offered a tentative apologynot something he was used to doing much. "I didn't know." Which was another unusual thing for him to admit; usually he found that he was knowing too much.
Kimberly looked at him hard for a few seconds, then smiled. It had been the right thing to say, and Billy felt an unaccustomed sense of accomplishment that he'd acted correctly for once in interacting with kids his own age.
"It's okay," she dismissed the matter. "Don't you do sports at all?"
"I do participate in Phys.Ed.," Billy replied with a small grimace, recalling some of the less sterling moments he'd had in that class. "It's required."
"Yeah, but what about stuff for fun? Like games, or swimming ... don't you ever got to the lake to just mess around in summer?"
"Not customarily, no ..."
"Well, we'll have to see about that, then," Kimberly said decisively, totally ignoring the slight boy's instinctive gesture of denial. "You do know how to swim?"
Her peremptory tone, so much like a person's in authority, got an immediate answer from Billy.
"Yes. My parents insisted I learn, for safety reasons."
"Good. I'm sure the guys and Trini do, too, so we can all go to the indoor pool on Friday; there's going to be water games with slides and stuff. It's gonna be major fun with all of us!"
Before he could protest, she scampered off towards the others who greeted her plans enthusiastically, and willy-nilly Billy found himself included once more, scarcely knowing how that had come to be.
I KNEW associating with my fellow detainees would divert my attention from my lab work!
However, for some reason that once-alien concept suddenly seemed not a bad idea at all.
Zack greeted the blond boy cheerfully as he caught up with him on the steps to the schoolhouse on Saturday morning.
"Good morning, Zack," was the much more subdued reply, but the shy smile accompanying it was genuine and unforced.
"Another wasted Saturday morning," the dark-skinned youngster babbled as they traversed the hallway to the lockers near the detention classroom. "Man, this isn't doing much for me at all. I think I could stand it better if we at least learned something new, but all ol' Jenkins is doing is recap stuff we've done before. You must be bored out of your skull," he winked at Billy, who was fiddling with his locker. The other glanced at him.
"I must admit that I find the exercises we are being set also somewhat less than intellectually stimulating," Billy replied cautiously, not wanting to be overheard by the Vice Principal and possibly getting into even more trouble. "I could most likely accomplish more if I were to work on my own at home." Which was exactly what had placed him in detention in the first place, he neglected to say.
"Well, I for one still don't get what's so important about all that history stuff, recap or not, " came Kimberly's disgusted voice from behind the two boys, startling them.
"Eek! Don't DO that!" Zack exclaimed in mock horror, pressing his hand melodramatically to his chest and pretending to stagger back with 'shock'. "You're gonna give me a heart attack!" Billy, who would've loved to be able to say something similarhis heart rate had risen significantly with the unexpectedness of Kimberly's appearanceinvoluntarily chuckled at his antics, which were ignored by the petite girl.
"I mean, who wants to know about guilds and stuff in some medieval European place, anyway? Today is going to be like such a total drag!" She barely caught her locker door from slamming against the wall; Jason had got a severe reprimand for doing just that the previous week.
Billy looked at her earnestly. "But the guilds were instrumental for a lot of the things still important in the modern-day workplace," he explained. "They established a functional apprentice system, exerted quality control, made sure the customers weren't cheated out of their money's worth ..."
"Like unions, you mean?" Jason and Trini joined the other three in front of the still-locked classroom door as they waited for the teacher.
"Not precisely. Unions were founded in the late 19th century to mainly defend workers' rights vis-à-vis the employers, to prevent exploitation of the labor force, among other things. But a lot of the guilds' principles are still valid and are applied in a lot of ways, if one knows what to look for."
"Why don't they teach that to us, then?" Kim wanted to know. "All we ever get to learn is dates and names!"
"Because it's easier on the teachers, I suppose," Trini mused as the group of five wandered down the hallway. "After all, evaluations and extrapolations like Billy mentioned can't be as easily tested as numbers anyone can learn by heart."
Elated that his fellow students seemed so interested in what he had to say, Billy very much wanted to continue the discussion, but was prevented from doing so by the arrival of Mr. Jenkins, who herded his charges into the classroom with nary a word of greeting, and proceeded to set them exactly the type of lesson Kimberly had feared. The five children exchanged resigned smiles, careful not to let the ill-tempered man see their amusement, and took out their books, studying more or less half-heartedly until the time for break arrived.
On this morning, they were left inside the classroom while the Vice Principal took off for the teacher's lounge; the weather for once was just too cold to spend time outside. The youngsters made the best out of the situation by gathering around Jason's table near the window, where they at least had the opportunity to look at something beside the blackboard. As they all unpacked their snacks and prepared to eat, Trini noticed that Billy was rubbing his eyes behind his glasses, squinting against the watery fall sunshine.
"Billy? Are you okay?" she asked concernedly, noticing for the first time how red his eyes were once he lowered his hands.
He grinned at her rather bashfully.
"Yes, thank you," he replied. "I am just experiencing slight discomfort from all the chlorinated water irritating my eyes yesterday."
"Oh man, you should've said something," Jason exclaimed. "If you had, we could've gotten out of the water sooner!" While his eyes weren't especially sensitive, he frequented the public pool often enough to know what Billy was going through. "My mom's always getting on my case for staying in the water too long. When I do, I get the same rabbit eyes you have now." The dark eyes twinkled as he poked his tongue in his cheek.
"I do not have 'rabbit eyes'," Billy protested, but was drowned out by Kim and Zack's appreciative giggles at the comparison.
"Sure you do, my main brain," Zack chortled. "Look into a mirror lately?" Billy had to admit he hadn't.
Kimberly obligingly produced a small compact mirror, and held it up for the boy to look into. "See? All red," she commented, chasing the remark with a stern but well-meant admonition. "Don't rub; you're only making it worse!"
"Yes ma'am," Billy mumbled automatically as he adjusted his glasses, then stopped short, chagrined with himself. Who did this cheerleader think she was, ordering him around like that? She was making a laughing-stock out of him! But a quick glance at the other three showed that quite obviously, they didn't regard it as such; on the contrary, their expressions reflected only concern for him ... and respect for the tiny girl.
"Hey, next time we go to the pool, you can have my goggles," Jason offered. "They'll protect your eyes at least a little bit from the chlorine."
"Good idea, Jase," Zack concurred. "I left mine in my bag yesterday; I could've lent them to you easy."
"Just remember to bring them next time," Trini added while Kimberly only nodded, tucking away her mirror again. Neither noticed Billy's rather baffled expression.
"N-next time?" he finally eeped. "You ... you're planning to include me into more outings like yesterday's?!?" Only good manners and a barely-acknowledged wish to spend more time with kids his own age who were friendly, not mocking him, had made him accept the invitation in the first place. Billy had not really expected to enjoy the group's activities, being unused to the unstructured nature of aquatic pursuits he had been introduced to. However, once he'd gotten accustomed to all the splashing, yelling, good-natured dunking and energetic games, he'd lost his inhibitions and participated as best he could. He had returned home pleasantly exhausted, determined to cherish the memory of what he believed was a one-time experience. After all, he hadn't been able to contribute much, neither in skill nor in ideas ...
"Sure," Jason said easily, dispelling Billy's notion of having been just an adjunct to the groupsomeone who got to tag along just because he happened to be there and politeness demanded he be included. "It was fun. Wasn't it?" He looked around, searching for and finding instant approval.
Trini finally caught up to at least a little bit of what the shy boy must be feeling.
"Billy, you did have fun at the pool, right?" she asked, suddenly anxious. "We can always find something else to do if you didn't ... can't we?" Her almond eyes silently begged the others to agree.
"The more the merrier," Zack intoned casually while Jason and Kim just nodded. "In water, on land and in the air!" He gestured grandly, making the others laugheven Billy.
"I don't see how we could manage any aerial exercises without incurring the wrath of our parents," he mused, "but if you really want me to take part in your activities despite my lack of physical prowess, I would be amenable to further joint pursuits."
"Huh?" Kim looked beseechingly at Trini. "What was that?"
The slender girl smiled apologetically at Billy, but had her translation ready. "He says, if we don't mind that he's not as athletic as Jason and Zack,"tactfully ignoring the fact that Billy was worse than the girls, even"he'd love to come with us the next time."
"Oh. Okay. Great!" Seeing how taken aback Billy was by her artless comment, Kim grinned at the blond. "When you're along, I have at least someone to talk to when these jocks get all sweaty and whatnot."
Not exactly the most glowing endorsement, but a start, Billy thought to himself, nodding his agreement. At least Kimberly does not make fun of me like the rest of the cheerleaders.
Suddenly, Zack yelped. "Man, look at the time! Break's almost over, and we haven't heard our weekly confession yet. Who's left, anyway?"
"Jason and Billy," Kimberly supplied, her brown eyes alighting with curiosity.
"Right! Fighting and bullying, or playing hooky. So who's going to tell all?" the irrepressible youngster asked, looking from one boy to the other. Both Jason and Billy flushed at the reminder of why they had ended up in detention. But the other three had already explained; it was only fair that they should do so as well.
Resignedly, Billy sighed. "I think that it might be easier if I went first, seeing as there isn't much time left." Questioning grey-green eyes behind slightly smudged glasses met Jason's dark gaze. The burly boy nodded curtly, partly relieved that he could hold back for at least another week, and partly wanting to just get it over with.
"Sure. Go ahead," he muttered, garnering a strange look from Billy and a frown from Trini. He stared at his scuffed sneakers, right now not caring at all what they thought of him. The accusation still smarted; he was not a bully!
Shrugging, Billy gathered his thoughts. What concern of his was Jason's strange mood? He deliberately ignored the mental discomfort his indifference caused him. With a deep breath, he launched into his tale.
"I wasn't deliberately skipping class, as the teachers insisted on seeing it. It's just ... I had contracted a cold which kept me at home for a week. Unfortunately, my father forgot to inform the school of that fact, then he had to leave rather abruptly on a business trip. He even neglected to make arrangements for someone to look after our house. So I decided to take it upon myself to see that we weren't burgled, that my pet was cared for and that no other mishap occurred. I had enough provisions at my disposal, I cleaned, I discovered how to work the washer so that my physical well-being was seen to ... I even dedicated three hours a day to my school work, so I would not fall behind. As a matter of fact, I believe that studying on my own was more beneficial to me than attending class would have been."
He managed to tell all of that in one breathless rush, to which his fellow students listened with growing amazement. Jason whistled; he couldn't imagine how any parent could be so indifferent towards their only child, but was too well-bred to say anything. Kimberly's mouth hung open with surprise and Trini looked rather thoughtful, nodding slowly to herself as if some things sudenly were beginning to make sense to her. It was left to Zack to express their collective astonishment.
"And your dad never noticed? What is he, the original absent-minded professor?" he blurted. Billy just shrugged. His father had always been like that; it was the way things were in the Cranston house. If his mother were still alive ... but she wasn't, and father and son were coping as best they could.
Trini shushed the black boy with a slight nudge, and instead asked a more sensitive question.
"Could you do that? Study all on your own, I mean; I tried reading ahead in some books, but there were too many things that didn't make sense without having someone explain," she wondered.
"Yeah," Kimberly added. "It'd take someone really smart to understand the math problems ..."
"Or the science stuff," Jason commented. "I can hardly follow everything in class myself, and I know I'm not stupid."
Billy looked at them. "I graduated from the Accelerated Baby Genius Program before I even entered grade school," he said simply. No boasting, no special declaration, just a plain statement of fact.
"Wow." Zack summed their thoughts up very nicely with his awed exclamation.
Before the children could go deeper into the topic, however, Mr: Jenkins returned and they had to scramble back into their seats, to sit through the rest of the morning's lesson. Afterwards, they went off to their respective homes, Kim and Trini quickly making plans to meet at the mall in the afternoon.
At four o'clock on that same Saturday, Jason and Zack finished their run in the park and were lounging near the playground, too keyed up to sit still for long and yet at a loss for something interesting to do.
"You wanna work out?" Jason suggested half-heartedly, for once not really in the mood for his beloved karate. Zack shook his head.
"Nah. The run was enough."
"Then what can we do? We can't go to my place; mom's having friends over for tea."
"And my dad's not feeling well; he told me to get lost for a while so he can take a nap in peace," the shorter boy sighed.
"We could go look for the girls ..."
The suggestion garnered him an 'Are you KIDDING?!?' look, and Jason shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry."
"You should be," Zack grumbled. "The mall's fun enough, but with those two? Not in this lifetime!" he declared dramatically, making Jason laugh.
"Right. So, what are we gonna do, then? I don't have to be home until seven; that's not for three hours."
"Give the guy an A in math!" Suddenly, Zack sat up straight. "That's it!"
Energetically, Zack jumped up and grabbed Jason's arm, pulling him onto the path. "Let's get over to Billy's place and see if he has any good stuff we can play with or something!"
"Hey, cool idea!"
"I know. It's mine, after all," Zack boasted.
"Yeah, right. Like that is a guarantee." The two grinned at each other, then exchanged high fives. "Let's go!"
Walking briskly, the boys marched off towards the park exit. Just before they hit the sidewalk leading back into town, Jason grinned bemusedly at his companion. "Uh, Zack?"
"Do you even know where Billy lives?"
Fifteen minutes later, after having consulted the directory at a public phone for the right address, they walked up to the one-storey house in a quiet street that actually wasn't all that far away from their own neighborhood. They couldn't see any activity inside or out, but that was only a minor setback. Determinedly, Jason rang the doorbell. He pumped his fist when after a few seconds, steps could be heard approaching. The front door opened, and the boy found himself face-to-face with a slight man not much taller than himself, with thinning sandy hair, glasses dangling from his hand.
"Yes?" he addressed the boys distractedly. "What can I do for you?"
"Hello, Mr. Cranston. I'm Jason Scott, and that's Zack Taylor," Jason politely introduced themselves. "We're, uh, friends of Billy, from school, and we were wondering if he has time ..." This was stretching the truth a bit, he knew, but he doubted that 'we're in detention together with your son' would get them anywhere near Billy.
"Time to do what?" the quiet gentleman asked, clearly puzzled. His attention was obviously more on the sheaf of papers he held than on the boys. Jason and Zack exchanged bemused glances. Their parents never asked questions like that!
"Uh, to play?" Zack ventured after a pause. The notion seemed to confound Billy's dad rather a lot, but he rose to the occasion ... eventually.
"Of course. Why don't you come in, I'll see whether he's available," the man murmured and wandered off, leaving the children standing in the shady hallway. Just before he disappeared in a room at the far end, he visibly recollected himself, backtracked and turned a corner. They could hear him knock on a door and softly call out his son's name.
The black boy looked at his companion. "Huh. Guess there won't be cookies and milk around here," he commented quietly, referring to his own mother's habit of feeding his friends first, make small talk later.
Jason snorted softly. "Nah. And now I see why Billy got to be left on his own for three weeks ... can you imagine my mom being like that?"
Zack suppressed a giggle. He'd already met Mrs. Scott, who was all brisk efficiency and cheerful spiritjust the way a mom should be. Like his own was, too. The boys exchanged a grin of perfect understanding; they might chafe sometimes at their mothers' fussing, but knew they'd miss them terribly if they had to get by without them.
As Billy had to do.
The thought occurred to both at almost the same instant, and sobered them enough to wait for Mr. Cranston with reasonable patience.
Billy glanced up from his computer manual, startled as he heard the cautious knock on his door.
"Yes?" he called out, wondering what his fatherit couldn't possibly be anyone else; to the best of his knowledge, they were alone in the house, and neither was expecting visitorswanted of him. His irritation at the interruption turned into burning curiosity, however, when his parent informed him that company had arrived for him, Billy.
"Really? Who is it?" the slight boy asked, jumping up from his chair and opening the door fully. His father gave him a sheepish smile.
"I, er, I don't think I quite caught their names, but the bigger one said they're friends of yours from school."
Meaning Dad forgot the names already, Billy concluded privately. As he habitually does. Any bitterness at that had long disappeared; the half-orphaned child had had to accept his father's limitations early on. It was just the way things were.
"So you're home to them, son?" the older Cranston queried, feeling an odd kind of relief despite the uneasy sensation that this should not be such an extraordinary event.
"I guess," Billy decided, too curious now to be overly cautious. He was reasonably sure that the kids bullying him at recess wouldn't come to his housewhich posed another question: he hadn't given his address to anybody; who had sought him out, how, and why? Taking a deep breath, he stepped out of his room into the hallway. When he recognized his visitors, his jaw dropped with astonishment.
"Jason, Zack!" He hurried forward. "What's wrong? And how did you know where to find me?"
"Hey, Billy," Jason greeted him, blushing slightly now that he was face-to-face with the boy. "Uh, nothing's wrong; Zack and I were just hanging out in the park and were wondering if you'd like to, well, do stuff with us." He desperately wished that Zack would help him out here, but the usually effervescent boy seemed struck mute all of a sudden. "And we got your address from the phone book; there's only one Cranston living in the area, so we took a chance on it being you."
Billy hesitated, barely noticing that his father retreated back into his study with a murmured farewell. "Oh. Okay." A really good piece of deductive reasoning, he had to admit. "Did you have anything specific in mind?"
"Not really. Why?"
Now it was Billy's turn to color up. Even someone as socially inept as he knew that he was about to commit a serious gaffe. But his innate honesty wouldn't let him prevaricate.
"I, um, I was busy studying the operating instructions for my new computer," he stammered, "I only got it this week, and ..." Here, he was interrupted by a suddenly excited Zack.
"You have your own computer? Way cool! What model? My cousin in St. Louis got an Atari 2000 for his birthday, and it's awesome for playing games!"
"Uh, no games," Billy said apologetically. "I opted for a 486; it's faster, has greater memory capacity and is generally more suited to writing programs than other types ..."
"You write your own programs? Wow," Jason commented, awed. He didn't know much about computers per se, just enough to vaguely want one of his own, one of these days. If he ever managed to save up enough money. But he was very willing to be introduced to one. "Can you show us?"
Perplexed, Billy looked at them. He'd never once considered that two athletes like Jason and Zack would show the least bit of interest in one of his favorite pastimes. But as they seemed genuinely eager, he wasn't about to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. With a pleased blush and shy smile, he invited them into his sanctum. "Sure. Come have a look."
Once inside the well-lit room (which was MUCH neater than either Jason or Zack's could ever hope to be), the two boys looked around curiously. Knowing better than to touch things not their own without permission, they took a quick visual circuit, noting the scientific literature, technical journals and whatnot arranged carefully on several bookshelves. There was also a microscope, several models of engine parts and other things speaking of an inqusitive mind.
"You're really into science and stuff, right?" Jason asked, running a finger down the creased back of Volume 3 of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
"I ... yes. I like to exercise my mind," his host admitted modestly, not finding any trace of censure in the already-deepening voice.
"Duh," the dark-haired youngster grinned at him. "I see that. Isn't there anything you do just for fun, though?"
Billy gulped, but there was no malice in Jason's observationnor in Zack's corresponding chuckle. It enabled him to reply with some aplomb.
"But science IS fun!"
He had to laugh at their dubious expressions. "No, really. It is just a matter of choosing the right venue. Come, let me show you," he invited, reaching for the microscope and putting it on his desk. "Have you ever looked at a drop of water? Or at a single hair?" Neither boy had, so Billy quickly and efficiently set up the simple experiment. Dashing outside momentarily to the kitchen, he commandeered a willing Zack to help him carry in two chairs, then reached for his own head. Plucking out a single hair, he directed his visitors to do the same, then placed all three filaments under the lens. Adjusting the focus with a deft move, he then let each boy have a turn, finding delight in their good-natured interest that soon changed to true enthusiasm as they came up with ever more objects to study.
In good time, the three boys even got around to trying out Billy's computer setup, with Zack and Jason appropriately awed at what the blond youngster could do with the machine. Up until then, they had viewed a PC as either a fancy typewriter or a too-expensive games console; having other things demonstrated by someone who really knew what he was doing was an eye-opening experience for them.
"This is too cool," Jason exclaimed after Billy 'drew' up a chart they had to do for History class with a few keystrokes. "Man, I wish I could do that!"
"Yeah, me too," Zack agreed. "Of course, I'd have to have a computer in the first place ..."
Billy looked at his companions. Should I? Hesitantly, he cleared his throat.
"I ... I could teach you, if you'd like," he offered shyly. At their surprised looks, he blushed. "Just so y-you already knew h-how to operate a PC in case you obtain one at a f-future date," he stammered.
"Would you? That'd be great. Because I've heard that Angel Grove High will get a computer room, and once we're there ..."
"Yeah," Zack interrupted Jason. "That way, we'd already know how to do stuff. Slammin' idea, Billy!" He thumped the startled boy on his back with unfeigned enthusiasm.
"Oomph!" Billy had to cough.
"Oops. Sorry," Zack grinned.
"Hey, I've got an idea!" Jason's dark eyes lit up. "In exchange for Billy teaching us about computers, why don't we give him some coaching in sports?"
Billy looked alarmed. Two talented athletes like Jason and Zack coaching him, the quintessential klutz? "That ... uh ... that's really not necessary," he hedged. "ReallyI do appreciate the offer, but ..."
Jason draped a muscular arm around the slight shoulders and waited until the apprehensive grey-green eyes met his. "Hey, are you afraid we're gonna run you to death, or something?" he asked, with more astuteness than Billy had given him credit for. Mutely, he nodded, embarrassed about his own temerity. But Jason just laughed, in a friendly fashion. "Don't worry, buddy. My sensei has taught us how to build someone's strength up; I won't hurt you."
"And you're gonna need the practice, Billy," Zack interjected. "Haven't you heard that come spring, team sports will be compulsory for everybody?"
"No," Billy groaned, dismayed. "Really?"
"Yep. Football, basketball, volleyball ... the least Jase and I can do is teach you the basicsrules, and stuff."
Resignedly, Billy gazed at his grinning yet unapologetic visitors. "In that case, I accept. Thank you," he sighed.
"A fate worse than death awaits you," Zack intoned, in an exaggerated fashion.
"Right," Jason nodded, stifling his giggles with an effort. "The terror of the training field."
"Gloom and doom in the afternoon!"
"Martyrs of P.E. class!"
Billy had to laugh at their antics. "I can just picture a sign over the gym door," he supplied. "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here!"
"Sounds like Coach Rodriguez, allright," Zack said drily. "He can be the drillmaster from Hell."
"Actually, that quote referred to Dante's Inferno," Billy couldn't help but correct. "Purgatory. The outer court of Hell, if you will."
"But it's indoors!"
From there on in, their conversation devolved into increasing silliness, until Jason caught sight of Billy's alarm clock.
"Oh man! It's five to seven already, and even if I run, it'll take me ten minutes at LEAST to get home! I gotta go, or I'll be grounded until Christmas!"
Quickly, the boys said their goodbyes. As Billy escorted his guests to the front door, Mr. Cranston reappeared from his study. Jason and Zack exchanged a glance, then the taller boy asked politely if he might make a phone call. "We didn't watch the time, and my folks will worry if I'm late; I'll get into less trouble if I at least tell them where I am and why I'll be a bit late," he said candidly. Zack's hopeful look expressed much the same thing.
With a fleeting smile, Mr. Cranston picked up a key ring. He'd heard the laughter from Billy's room and despite his customary absentmindedness, couldn't help but notice the animated expression on his only son's face.
"Why don't I drive you home instead? That way, you'll only be late by a couple of minutes; I believe that is considered an acceptable margin by most parents?" he suggested gently, and was rewarded with two brilliant smiles.
"That'd be fantastic; thank you, sir," both boys chorused. As they climbed into the modest sedan, they waved to Billy. "See you at school on Monday," Jason called.
"We had a great time," Zack added, and then the car backed out of the driveway, leaving a bemused but happy boy behind. He set his room back in order and started dinner preparations. When his father returned and reported that both Jason and Zack had made it home without undue delay, he looked up with shining eyes.
"Thanks, Dad," he said simply, the words conveying a world of meaning not even the lonely widower could miss. He ruffled Billy's hair fondly as he turned to open a can of soup and directed Billy to set out sandwich makings.
"You're welcome, son. They're nice boys," was his only comment, though. Henry Cranston had to smile when Billy's stomach growled loudly. "And the next time your friends come over ... we'll have to make sure there's a supply of cookies and milk on hand, don't you think?"
With a contented sigh, Billy took the flatware from the drawer. It wouldn't be the home-baked snack his mother used to make and which he still remembered, but it was a startmaybe he and his father could have a more normal life, after all, even though she was irrevocably gone.
Who knew being sent to dentention would turn out to bring beneficial results for me, after all?
Part 1 | 2