Disclaimer: Anything PR related belongs to Saban – or 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 Peregrine – thanks for the lovely story I got a while back, and I hope you'll like the finished product. Congratulations, Dear – you'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


Perfectly Good Reasons

By

Dagmar Buse





"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 kid – a 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 wariness – what 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 again – the 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 again – only 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 unexpected 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 surprising 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."

"What?"

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 school – nothing 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 comment – her 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 remark – just 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.

"No."

"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 truth – which it was – and 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 spot – this 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 feared – just 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?"

"Huh?"

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 blushed – again. 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 follow – but 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 strangers – something that was very uncharacteristic for him and had surprised him considerably – and 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 perked up; she loved volleyball herself and hardly missed a game of any of the local teams.

Kimberly grinned at the team captain. "Admit it, Brenda – you'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."

"Wow."

"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.

"Yeah, so?"

"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.





To Be Continued ...