"I'll try," Billy winced, settling way back in the armchair. "This chair wasn't exactly built for leaning back in."
"Best we've got here, pal," said Rocky. "I'm gonna try to take your boot off, okay? This might hurt a little."
"I'll bite the bullet," Billy joked.
Rocky painstakingly removed Billy's boot, then his sock, and rolled up his friend's ski pants to about mid-calf. Billy flinched a little, but made no complaint.
"Hey, Kat, how's that ice-pack coming?" Adam called.
In reply, Katherine came in from the kitchen with a sealed plastic bag full of ice, which she then wrapped in a towel. "Here you are, Billy."
"Yell if this hurts, okay?" Rocky asked, gently placing the pack over Billy's swollen ankle.
"It's fine, really. I seriously doubt that anything's broken."
Katherine stood back away from the other three, looking absolutely miserable. "It's all my fault. Billy, I'm so sorry...."
"You didn't see me, that's all," Billy shrugged.
"It's not your fault, Kat," Adam put in. "It could have been anyone of us."
"But I should have seen him!" Katherine insisted. "I shouldn't have cut over so quickly, and...."
"And I shouldn't have been following so closely behind you," Billy finished for her. "We crossed skis. It happens. I'm just glad you didn't get hurt."
Rocky took a look around the cabin's spacious main room. "Well, so long as we're done skiing for the day, anyone mind if I get a fire going?"
"Good idea," Adam agreed, clapping his friend's shoulder. "Let's bring in some wood from the pile outside."
Rocky looked back to Billy. "We'll be right back. You sure you're okay?"
"Guys, I'm fine, really." After a pause, Billy began to laugh. "We've nearly been killed dozens of times, we've gotten kicked around by putties and Tengas and monsters more than I can count, and we've always pulled through. There's no sense in making a big deal out of a sprained ankle."
"Cool," Rocky grinned. "Don't go anywhere, now."
"I wasn't planning to," Billy called after the pair as they headed outside.
There was a silence, and then Billy looked up at Katherine. She was standing a ways off, arms crossed, giving him a stricken look. "Hey, come on," he assured her. "You didn't see me, that's all."
She knelt down beside the armchair, but continued to give Billy that same expression. "You could have been really hurt. I should have been more careful."
"It was an accident."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"Of course," Billy nodded. "In fact, I'll probably be good as new come morning. Once a Ranger, always a Ranger, patented Amazing Recuperative Abilities and all."
Katherine returned his smile as best she could. "I'll make cocoa. Would you like that?"
She gave him a little pat on the arm, then retreated from the room, still looking back guiltily. Billy lay back in his chair for a while, savoring the momentary quiet.
Soon, Adam and Rocky came back in, each with an armload of firewood. "The snow's started coming down pretty hard," Adam commented, shaking off a layer of fresh flakes.
"If this keeps up, we'll get snowed in," Rocky agreed.
"I guess if it comes to that, we can teleport out," Billy mused.
It didn't take them long at all to get a nice blaze going in the fireplace, and soon after, Katherine came back in with four mugs of cocoa. Before long, the four had shed their heavy coats and settled in a semicircle around the fireplace, with Kat and Rocky on the couch, Billy in the armchair, and Adam sitting tailor-style on the floor.
"You know," Billy remarked at length, "in the old days, it'd be right about now that our watches would beep the alarm, and Zordon would tell us about how Rita had come up with the Brain Sprain, or some other equally lame monster."
"Hey, the Machine Empire ain't no picnic either," Rocky snorted.
"True, but for a while there, especially back before you guys joined up with us, it seemed like that was all Rita did. She sat there in her Dark Dimension, keeping watch on us every moment of our lives. Then she'd come up with new little toadies to match whatever life dilemmas anyone of us might have been going through at the time. If she were still around, I'd half expect her to be looking down at us from the moon, cackling 'Ah, so poor Billy's got a sprained ankle! Now's my chance to destroy the Rangers once and for all!'"
Adam and Rocky both cracked up at Billy's near-flawless imitation of the Rangers' former adversary. "Maybe so," Adam chuckled, "but like Rocky said, the Machine Empire's not much better. Let's see... the first day I started taking instruction in boxing, they sent Punchabunch. When Tanya started pitching for the baseball team, they sent the People Pitcher... a flippin' animated pitching machine."
"So what kind of monster will they throw at us this time?" Rocky asked. "Brain Sprain sounds pretty good, but how about... Ski Bum?"
"Evilanche!" Billy offered.
"Snow Bunny!" Adam laughed.
They waited for Katherine to add in her suggestion, but when only silence followed, all three turned to look at her.
"Sorry," Katherine said, lamely. "I'm just... not up for making jokes."
Billy sighed. "Kat, you're taking this way too seriously. I promise, I'll be just fine."
"I can't help it," she cried, exasperated. "I hate seeing a friend in pain. Especially when it's my fault!"
"But it isn't your fault," Adam insisted. "Just like it wasn't your fault that time Kimberly got hurt on the balance beam."
"Stop that!" Katherine suddenly shouted, rising to her feet and glaring at Adam. "Don't talk about that! You have no right to bring that into this!"
"Whoa, Katherine, chill!" said Rocky, trying to calm her down.
"You weren't there!" Katherine went on. "You didn't know what happened! You don't know what it was like... to find her there...." she turned away, arms crossed tightly, not looking at any of them.
"Kat, please don't be upset," said Billy, gently.
She took a deep breath, and it was obvious that she was trying not to cry. "Billy, when you fell out there, and when I turned back and saw you lying there in the snow...."
She paused. "Go on," Billy prompted her.
"When the Command Center was attacked," she whispered, "and you were trying so hard to stop the place from coming down around us, and then... then that explosion, and when Alpha teleported us out, the first thing I saw when I looked up was you lying there on the ground, not moving.... Billy, I thought you were dead. I thought that last explosion had killed you, and that I could have... done something to have saved you, but...."
Adam and Rocky exchanged wide-eyed glances as she went on, but Billy sat very still, eyes closed, as though reliving the experience himself.
"When I saw you lying there in the snow, it was the same feeling. It all came back in a rush. It didn't make any sense, but I was so frightened that you were dead, and that it was my fault."
"Katherine?" Billy said to her back, slowly adjusting himself to sit up.
She looked back, and the others saw that her eyes were full of tears.
"Katherine, I don't know if I can get up by myself right now, so could you come over here for a second?"
For a moment she just blinked at him, looking more puzzled than miserable now. Finally, she crossed back over to the chair and knelt down next to it. It was here that Billy reached out and pulled her into a hug.
"Thanks for worrying about me," he whispered. "I think you worry a little too much sometimes, but thanks. You're a good friend."
"Y'know, Kat," Rocky added, "ever since I met you and I mean the real you, after you broke Rita's spell you've always been lookin' out for everyone else more than yourself."
"Always trying to heal the world, eh?" Adam smiled.
Katherine looked over at the two of them. "It's... not a bad thing, is it?"
"No, not bad," Billy answered for them. "Just be careful you don't wear yourself out. And don't forget to be good to yourself, too."
She nodded, then settled down to sit on the floor beside the chair, keeping one hand clasped with Billy's. "It feels like I have a lot to make up for," she sighed. "I did some... awful things under Rita's spell."
"The spell's gone, you know," Adam assured her. "It's not like it's coming back anytime soon, either."
"If there's anything it taught me, though," she nodded, "it's that I hate to see other people in pain. Especially my friends."
"Sure," Rocky shrugged. "I mean, we all do. Problem is, there isn't always something we can do about it."
"I... sometimes have trouble accepting that," Katherine replied, giving Rocky a pale shadow of a smile.
"Sort of like with Tommy, right?" Billy asked, quietly.
Katherine went stiff for a moment, then looked up at Billy with an expression that telegraphed that he'd better be really careful where he went with this line of thought. "What do you mean?" she asked him.
"I mean the last time we went skiing, after we heard that Kimberly had found a new boyfriend in Florida. Kat, you were... driven by this need to take Tommy's mind off things, and make him feel better. When I suggested the ski trip, you just... pounced on the idea. And then when we met that skiing champion, Heather Thompson, you did everything you could to get the two of them together. I think that outside of actual missions as Rangers, that's the most focused and goal-driven I've ever seen you."
For a moment, it seemed that she was trying to be annoyed with Billy for bringing this up, but couldn't find it in herself to do so. "I hated to see him hurting."
"That couldn't have been easy for you, trying to set him up with another girl," Rocky nodded.
She looked over at him sharply. "Why do you say that?"
All eyes went to Rocky, and for a few seconds, he could only look back at them, somewhat flustered. "Well, I mean... um... you... you kinda like Tommy, don't you, Kat?"
Again, it looked as though Katherine wanted to be irritated, but couldn't. "Is it... that obvious to you?"
Adam nodded, smiling softly. "Pretty obvious."
"You mean you all knew?" she asked them.
"I think the only one who doesn't know is Tommy," Billy replied. "Or if he does know, he certainly hasn't mentioned it to any of us."
Katherine hid her face in her hands. "Wonderful."
"Hey, I think you guys would make a great couple!" Adam insisted.
"I'm not so sure," Kat sighed.
Again there was a silence, this time broken by Billy. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"What it means," she explained, very slowly and deliberately, "is that I don't know how much I can trust my feelings. When I was... sent to you, under Rita's spell, one of my... assignments was to get between Tommy and Kimberly. To drive a wedge between them, to... lure him away from her. And at the time, I was happy to, because I wanted him for myself. I can still remember... wishing horrible things to happen to Kimberly. And then when she fell, and I found her there...."
"That wasn't your fault," Adam repeated.
"But it felt like it was. I'd wished so hard for something like that to happen, and all I could think was that if I hadn't wished for it, it might not have happened."
"Rita's magic can make you think some really awful things," Billy nodded. "Trust me, I know. But it was just the magic making you do it."
"And that's the problem," Katherine sighed. "I don't know which feelings are mine, and which are just memories from the spell. Yes, I am... attracted to Tommy, but would I be if it hadn't been for Rita's magic? For all I know, it could be her last revenge on me for betraying her, letting me think I... loved someone, only to have it all be a lie. And when Kimberly... left him, I had to try so hard to restrain myself, because all I wanted to do was hold him, and take care of him, and tell him that he'd never hurt again, because I was there, and I'd never leave him like she did...." She broke off, shaking her head miserably.
Rocky let out a low whistle. "I had no idea it was that bad."
"It's okay to be careful," Billy observed, "but if you let that get too far, you could second-guess this whole thing to death. You say your feelings might be false? Well, doesn't that also mean they might be true?"
"But if they aren't," she whispered, "I'd hurt him far worse than anyone would ever deserve." That said, Kat turned and stared into the fire. For a long time,the only sound was the crackle of the flames.
"You know something?" Adam mused. "I think I know how you feel. At least about the whole thing with Tommy and Kimberly."
"How's that?" Rocky asked him.
Adam studied his clasped hands for a moment before he answered. "Well... as long as we're telling all these personal things, I have to admit it: I had the biggest crush on Kimberly for a long time."
"You and me both, buddy," Rocky grinned, snorting with laughter.
"Yeah, but it was like you said, Kat," Adam sighed. "I remember that in the back of my mind, I always hoped that somehow things wouldn't work out for the two of them, and then she'd look over at the dashing young Asian guy dressed in black.... Man, I hated that! I hated it that I had those feelings, even buried way back in my mind. And then when her letter arrived, telling about her new guy, I was the one who ended up reading it to Tommy while he was working out on the weight bench. I felt awful. I thought it was somehow my fault, since I'd always been hoping for it in the back of my mind."
"Hey, man, that's totally natural," said Rocky, reaching down from the couch to pat his friend's shoulder. "And it wasn't just you, either. I remember thinking a lot of those same thoughts."
"I hate being jealous of anyone... or anything," Adam shrugged. "It's one of the most useless, pointless emotions in the world."
"You both had a crush on Kim?" Katherine asked, apparently not having gotten past that idea.
"Come on, who didn't?" Rocky asked, looking a mix of humored and defensive. "I think we all did at some point."
Katherine looked up at Billy. "What about you?"
He considered this for a while, letting a thoughtful look cross his features. After a while, Rocky started laughing. "Come on, you did and you know it!"
"Guilty as charged," Billy admitted. "Yeah, I did. Right from the start, actually."
Katherine looked back and forth between the others, then started laughing. "You three!" she giggled. "And even you, Billy?"
"Hey, I had other interests than making the Young Scientists' Association, you know."
"It's always the quiet ones," Adam nodded, making a failed effort to look sage and serious.
"Well, I'm good at crushes," Billy went on. "Of course, that's all it's ever really been for me. One crush after another, but never anything that lasts. Most often, it's nothing that even gets off the ground. I'm horrible with crushes. It's like I can't spend time with a girl without falling for her and screwing everything up. Sure, I had a crush on Kim, but I had one on all my female teammates. First Kim,then Trini, later on Aisha, then..." He broke off. "It's counter-productive, is what it is. I'm with you, Katherine: too many conflicting emotions, and I don't even know which ones are real anymore."
"Hey, Billy," Rocky asked, looking thoughtful. "If you don't mind me asking, have you ever had a real girlfriend before?"
Billy shook his head wryly. "I've been on a few dates, but that's about it. Never any sort of a steady girlfriend. Usually just the one date is all it takes for me to scare her away."
"Billy, you shouldn't say that!" Kat frowned, gripping his arm with her hand. "You're much better than you give yourself credit for. You just haven't found the right person, that's all. And when you do, believe me, she's going to look at you and realize how lucky she is to have someone like you."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Billy smiled, but from his expression, he had trouble believing it.
"Hey, that ain't just you either, buddy," Rocky almost laughed. "I ain't exactly had the best of luck with the ladies. No girlfriends for me either."
Adam looked over at him sharply. "What? But what about... what's-her-name, back before you moved to Angel Grove?"
"Made that up," Rocky whispered, making a careful effort to inspect his shoes.
"You made it up?!" Adam repeated. "But why?"
"Hey, with the crowd I used to run with before I moved here, that was important! It was a whole status thing! Had to be a big man in front of the other jocks, prove how cool you were, brag about your conquests." He seemed disgusted with himself even as he said it. "When I came here, I brought that whole attitude with me. I figured you were just like the guys back home. When I found out you liked me just for being me, I wished I'd never told you that whole story about the girl back home, but I didn't want to look stupid and say I'd just made it up."
"I think you know us all better than that by now," said Billy.
"Yeah, now I do. I don't need to brag in front of you guys, or try to look like the Big Man. Like I said, when I figured that out, I felt like an ego-inflated jerk."
"Jeez, we're a regular Lonely Hearts Club here tonight," Adam chuckled. "Add me to the never-had-more-than-the-occasional-date list."
"Oh, don't even start, man," Rocky cackled. "Dude, the girls love you! You're just too oblivious to notice!"
Adam's face darkened. "What?" he asked, puzzled. "What girls? Who?"
"Obviously he's never seen the trail of sighing ladies that follows him from class to class," Billy nodded to Rocky.
Adam was nothing short of baffled. "You guys are exaggerating, right?"
"No, they're not," Katherine replied, starting to giggle again. "You have your own fan club at school. People are forever asking me about you."
"What do you tell them?" Adam asked, horrified.
"The truth," she smiled. "That you're very sweet, very friendly,very intelligent, and that if they want to get your attention they'll have to be blatant, since you're also very, very bad at recognizing subtle hints."
"I am not!" Adam insisted.
"Are too," Rocky affirmed. "Get used to it, pal."
Adam continued to vigorously shake his head. "I can't believe I'd be that dense. You guys are just exaggerating."
"Go ahead and think that if you'd like, Adam," Katherine teased him.
"Yeah, it might help you sleep at night," Billy added.
Tired of being the center of attention, Adam made an effort to divert the conversation. "What about you, Kat? We all have a pretty good idea how you feel about Tommy. Was there ever anyone else for you?"
The conversation came to a screeching halt, and once again, Katherine's expression became one of suppressed sadness. "Not... exactly."
Billy, Rocky and Adam exchanged looks of concern, but neither of the three wanted to press the apparently painful issue. As it turned out, they didn't need to, as Katherine continued without their prompting. "Back home, I never had time for a social life. I was always in training, preparing for the Pan-Global Games. I'd missed qualifying for the previous Australian Olympic Diving Team, and it became an obsession to make the Pan-Global Games two years later. And then I had my accident on the high platform, and I couldn't bring myself to go near the water again."
She paused for breath, and the other three watched her, waiting for her to continue.
"It was after this that my family moved to Angel Grove. I saw it as a chance to start over, and just be a normal person. And then within three days of moving here, I... met Scott. He was charming, sweet, attentive, all the things I'd ever hoped for. The day after I met him, I went walking with him in the park, telling him all about myself, and I remember thinking how odd it was that I was opening up like that to the first boy I'd met in America."
"What happened?" Adam asked, when she paused again.
"We were alone in the park, talking, when suddenly someone appeared out of nowhere. It was Rita though I didn't know who she was then and she pointed her wand at Scott... and turned him into one of those horrible Tenga beasts. And then I was next. That was when she put her spell on me. She told me that if I didn't agree to serve her, Scott would be a Tenga forever. I didn't have a choice."
"Her magic is more potent when you agree to it willingly, even under duress," Billy nodded. "That's probably why it took you so much time and effort to finally fight it off."
"Kat, how come you never told us?" Rocky asked. "We could have tried to help him."
"That was the joke of it all," Kat frowned, bitterly. "There I was no Scott. He was a Tenga all along, changed to look like a human being. Rita sent him after me, so that she could trick me into agreeing to serve her. She wanted me, since I was new in town, and since she knew you'd welcome me and trust me right away. She couldn't change someone you already knew it might make you suspicious so she picked a newcomer. Me. And the worst of it is that she taunted me with it after the spell was done, bragging to me that she'd been so clever to trick me so well. And I was so twisted by her magic that I laughed right along with her."
"That's over now," Billy assured her, laying his hand over hers. "It doesn't change who you are now."
"I was afraid it would," she sighed, looking up at Billy. "I was afraid I'd never be able to trust again. But then I met all of you, and I knew differently. You helped me break free of her magic, and you helped me to be able to trust again."
"I'm glad we were able to help you," Billy smiled.
The fire was starting to die down, so Adam got up to pile another couple of logs on. Afterwards, he took a seat on the couch opposite Rocky. "I hate to say it," he told the others, "but I'm actually kind of glad Tommy didn't come. I don't think I could have talked about a lot of this if he'd been here. Around Tanya, maybe, but not around Tommy."
"I know what you mean," Katherine nodded. "And that has nothing to do with trust so much as... embarrassment."
"I think maybe we should just keep all this stuff between the four of us," Rocky suggested. "What do you think, Billy?"
"I agree. What Tommy doesn't know won't hurt him, in this case."
Katherine got up from the floor and seated herself on the arm of Billy's chair. "You know, you people are the best friends I've ever had."
"Hey, it's mutual," Billy smiled up at her.
"Definitely," Adam nodded.
"The best," Rocky added.
"I... have just one question, though," Katherine continued.
"What's that?" Billy asked her.
She let a wide smile creep slowly across her face. "Billy, what you were saying before, about how you've had a crush on all of your female teammates?"
"Did you... ever have a crush on me?"
Billy opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out, and he gradually began to turn a shade of deep crimson as his lips worked soundlessly, trying to form some sort of explanation.
Before anyone could say anything, however, there came the now-familiar sound of their watches, beeping out an alert. "Saved by the bell," Billy said under his breath. He brought the watch up to his face and pressed the transmit button. "Zordon, this is Billy. What's up?"
"Rangers!" came Zordon's voice through the tiny speaker. "The four of you must teleport to the Power Chamber at once. Tommy and Tanya need your help to battle the Machine Empire's newest threat: the Snow Bunny."
The four Rangers looked at each other for a brief moment, then began howling with laughter.
Zordon's voice continued, sounding somewhat surprised. "Rangers, I assure you, this is not a laughing matter."
"We'll explain later, Zordon," Billy chuckled. "Hold on, we'll be right there."
"Hey, can I call 'em, or can I call 'em?" Adam grinned.
"Ahhhh, I still think Ski Bum would've been better," Rocky joked.
"Kat, could you give me an arm up?" Billy asked, pivoting his injured foot and setting it gingerly upon the floor.
"Of course," she smiled, perhaps with a little too much humor. She stood, extended one arm, and helped him pull himself up to a standing position, though he had to lean somewhat heavily against her for support. "How is it?" she asked, as he tested his weight on both feet.
"Not bad," he nodded. "Those patented Amazing Recuperative Abilities are kicking right in."
"Good. I'd hate for you to get hurt now... I'm looking forward to continuing this conversation."
Billy gave her a look bordering on pleasant surprise. "Actually, Katherine, so am I."
"Rangers," Zordon spoke again, "I must insist that you act swiftly."
"We're on our way," Rocky reported. Then, with flashes of grey, pink, green and blue energy, the four Rangers teleported to their next mission.