december Disclaimer- Saban owns the Rangers, I do not. We ALL know the drill by now... This fanfic is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for occasional mature themes. Nothing explicit, folks, I promise! Well, welcome to number 34 in the Personality Conflicts series! Scary, ain't it? Here I am, fourteen months late, presenting the Christmas of '98! Please note, this is a character-driven fic. Lots and lots of sweetness, no fight scenes. Don't worry, the next one should make up for it! Thanks to Matt Slater for the use of Color Withdrawal.

Once Upon a December

December 20, 1998

'Twas the week before Christmas,
And so, all in all,
There WERE safer places
To be than the mall.

"Sweet stars above!" Zhane was astounded at the noise and press that filled the normally serene Angel Grove Mall. Beside him, Carlos Vargas grinned.

"Welcome to the last week before Christmas!" the Black Astro Ranger announced, sweeping a hand at the chaos below him. "Here you have everybody who was too lazy, too busy, or too forgetful to do their shopping early. Now they have to fight it out with each other for breathing space."

"Which category are we in?" Zhane wanted to know, as the two of them fought their way through the press.

"Too chicken," Carlos admitted. "I want to buy Ashley something special for Christmas, but I'm kind of afraid of getting her something she won't like. Which is why you're here. You're such the ladies' man, I figured you might be able to give me some advice."

Zhane ducked as a rather long package sliced through the air where his head had been. "Carlos, those weren't human ladies," the Silver Astro Ranger reminded him. "The last group of HUMAN ladies I ran into just wanted autographs."

Shaking his head, Carlos grinned. "Andros still said you were the one for the job."

"Oh, he did, did he?" Zhane muttered. "I'll have to find some way to repay him for his kindness. Carlos? How exactly do you 'short-sheet' a bed?"

The other boy laughed. "You've been listening to TJ and Rocky complain again, haven't you? Come on, we're almost there."

Grabbing his friend's hand, Carlos made a dash for the jewelry store that sat on the edge of the plaza. Once in the doors, the two Rangers breathed a sigh of relief as the hubbub faded behind them.

"Jewelry?" Zhane asked, looking at the case nearest him. "Jewelry is always good. What exactly are you going for?"

"Something that won't break my bank account," Carlos replied, also looking at the case. "Geez, some of this stuff costs more than my car!"

Zhane shot him a look. "Carlos, your car came from a junkyard. According to Ashley, you paid fifty bucks for it."

"Okay, my car, plus improvements," the other boy replied, undeterred. Obviously overhearing, the clerk made her way over to the two young men.

"Can I help you?" she asked, smiling brightly. "We do have a selection of less expensive jewelry over here, if you'd like to look at it." She led the two over to a second cabinet, which sparkled just as brightly as any other in the store.

"Most of these are semi-precious stones," she explained. "Amber, lapis, tiger-eye, that sort of thing. Personally, I think they're just as attractive as some of the showier crystals. Were you looking for anything in particular?"

Carlos sighed. "A present for my girlfriend," he replied. "Other than that, I'm stuck."

The clerk nodded, brown eyes sympathetic. "First piece of jewelry between you two? That's always a problem. How long have you been together?"

"About a year, really."

"Well, then, you wouldn't want a ring. Earrings are too small, and unless you get the expensive ones, they're no different from something she'd buy for herself. Does she wear pins?"

Carlos shook his head. "Not very often. Maybe a necklace?"

"Yeah, I think that'd be your best bet. We have some lovely ones over here."

"That one." Zhane suddenly entered the conversation, pointing to one necklace in particular. It was a carved heart, wrapped in a web of silver filigree. The heart itself was half gold and half blue, with shimmering bands that ran through the stones.

"The gold stone is tiger-eye, and the blue is hawks-eye," the clerk informed them. "They're pretty much the same type of stone, only the color separates them." Removing the piece from the cabinet, she handed it to Carlos.

Up close, he could see that the heart was two pieces, carved so intricately that they interlocked in the center, gold and blue merging in one. _Just like Ash's Power,_ he realized. Yellow Astro Ranger, Blue Ninjetti... A quick glance at Zhane told him that this was what the other had been thinking when he pointed the piece out. Carlos smiled.

"How much is it?"

"Well, you're in luck. That piece isn't made of very precious materials, and it's been here a while. It's down to twenty dollars today."

"I'll take it!" The sale was quickly finalized, the gift wrapped, and Carlos and Zhane were on their way to escape the mall.

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December 21

I'll be home for Christmas.
You can plan on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree.
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love-light gleams.
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
-- "I'll be Home for Christmas," Author Unknown.

"Dear God!" Chelsea Oliver sank down onto the couch. "Tommy, can you tell if somebody put a spell on our mother, or is it just the holidays?"

The leader of the Zeo Rangers chuckled, but made no move to rise from his easy chair. "Be glad you were at COLLEGE for most of the holiday season. You didn't have to help me and Dad put up the tree."

"Oh, God, I can only imagine." The siblings lay still on their respective pieces of furniture, trying to recover from the activity.

Finally, Tommy spoke. "Is it me, or is she worse than usual this year?"

Chelsea groaned, throwing an arm over her eyes. "It's not you," she replied, getting comfortable. "WE'RE hosting the family Christmas this year, remember?"

"Oh yeah." Tommy was silent for a moment. "Tell me why again?"

"One," Sarah Oliver said from the doorway, "it was me or Aunt Ruth. Do you REALLY want to spend Christmas in New Jersey? Two, I didn't want to take you away from Angel Grove during the holiday season. You KNOW something would have gone horribly wrong, and I can just see myself excusing you when you jump up during Christmas dinner to go battle an animated plum pudding, or something like that. And three, after hearing about Rocky's experience, I figured all of you would want to spend this Christmas together."

Tommy blinked. "Oh." Then, after a moment, "Thanks, Mom."

"You can thank me by helping me with the cookies. Come on, up! You've been vegetating long enough!"

Grumbling, Tommy levered himself out of the chair. "Where's a monster alarm when you need one?" Chelsea stuck her tongue out at him as he passed.

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"Cassie, I thought Christmas was a religious holiday." Even after half a year on Earth, Andros still had some problems with various aspects of Earth culture. Currently, Cassie was trying to explain the varying types of Christmas celebrations to him, and not having a great deal of luck.

The Pink Astro Ranger sighed. "It can be. In fact, that's how it started out, as the central holiday for the Christian Religion. But over the centuries, it's gotten combined with a lot of other holidays." She shrugged.

"Some people celebrate it as purely commercial, a time to give gifts. For some, it's a deeply spiritual time. I've always thought of it as a time to celebrate peace and togetherness. You have to admit, for Rangers, that IS something to celebrate."

He laughed. "I'll definitely admit to that. You know, we had something similar, back on KO-35. Shalidan, a winter solstice celebration, of home and family. We'd give gifts and laugh, and be glad that we'd made it through another winter, together. Some of my best memories come from that time. Once I started my Guardian training, it was really the only time I ever came home."

For a long moment, he was quiet, then he smiled slightly. "And now I have a family again, and I really am home."

Cassie took his hand, and the two of them sat in her backyard, comfortably silent.

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December 22

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.
--Francis P. Church, Editorial Page, New York Sun, 1897

"We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Haaaapy-- Neeew-- YEEAR!"

There was some rustling as the caroling group flipped through their pages. With everyone home for the holidays this year, the more musically inclined Rangers had formed a group to participate in the Salvation Army's Carols for Cash in the town square. Much to their private amusement, the teens were gathered in front of the statue that had been raised to the original six Power Rangers, years ago.

There were enough carolers this year that the group actually divided into four parts. The soprano section contained Kat, Cassie, Rosa, and Teddy Oliver, much to his embarrassment. At thirteen, his voice had not yet broken, although it wavered occasionally. Meanwhile, Kim, Tanya, Aisha, Ashley, and Lillian carried the alto part, the majority of the harmony. Zack, Rocky, and Tommy were tenors, Rocky's addition to the group coming after Rosa had "innocently" mentioned her brother's singing ability to his friends. And lastly, TJ, Skull, and Chris took the baritone parts, though it had taken severe threats by Ashley to get the former Silver Astro Ranger to participate.

A nudge from the Yellow Astro Ranger reminded Chris that it was his turn. Part of Ashley's threats had been exactly what would occur if he did NOT sing a solo. His old friend, Chris mused semi-sourly, was determined to bring him out of his shell, kicking and screaming if necessary. Taking a deep breath and stepping out in front of the group, the former Ranger launched into song.

"Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel/ and ransom captive Israel/ who mourns in lonely exile here/ until the son of God appear./ Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel/ is come to thee, oh Israel."

As the low, mournful notes of the carol drifted through the square, a crowd started to draw near, strangely hushed by the music. Chris, however, didn't notice-- he had his eyes tightly shut. Leaning closer to Ashley, TJ whispered under the notes, "I didn't know he could sing."

Ashley smiled slightly. "Not many people do. He had to take Chorus in middle school, though, same as everybody, so I've heard him. Why do you think I worked so hard to get him down here?"

As the last mellow note faded from the crisp air, Chris opened his eyes, and noticed the silent crowd around him. Cheeks flaming, he turned to rejoin the other Rangers-- and found himself the object of a standing ovation. Eyes down, he quickly re-inserted himself into the group.

"Told you," Ashley whispered. He grinned a little. Yeah, she had.

"Okay, next carol!" Kim declared. There was a short rustling of pages, then...

"Ding, dong, merrily on high! The Christmas bells are ringing!"

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The ringing of a doorbell brought Fred Kelman's attention up out of the book on his lap. The moment he'd been dreading for almost three weeks now had arrived-- his relatives were here.

"I'll get it!" George Kelman called, headed for the door. Fred made a face. Most of his relatives were all right. He loved his family dearly, even if he didn't see his mom's side as much anymore. This Christmas would be spent with the Kelman side of the family, and Fred wasn't looking forward to it. Specifically, he wasn't looking forward to his Aunt Lucinda, who always treated him like he was five, and her son, his cousin Dexter. Dexter was a year older than Fred, and a lot bigger. In addition, the older boy still considered it his bound duty to make Fred's life miserable.

"Lucinda!" George Kelman's voice held just a hint of resignation. "Glad to see you made it safely. Come on in. Robert, good to see you. It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Since last Christmas, mate," was Robert's reply. He and Lucinda, like most of the Kelman clan, still lived in and around Melbourne, and their accents were even thicker than George's. Fred, however, had been born in Angel Grove. Sometimes he wondered if that wasn't part of the communication gap between himself and Dexter.

"Whatcha reading, shrimp?" Dexter asked as he shoved his way towards the couch. "Dr. Seuss? Or maybe Nancy Drew?"

Looking up at his cousin, Fred was suddenly struck by how small and insignificant the other boy seemed. Even last Christmas, Dexter had seemed like the shadow of death. Now, however, all Fred saw was a spoiled bully, and not even a particularly dangerous one, to boot.

Makes sense, the young Ranger realized. Last Christmas, the worst thing you'd ever seen was Maligore. And he might have been bad, but he was just one problem, and you had the entire Ranger force behind you. Now, after Scorpina, Malyce and Jealysy, and Ivan Ooze, not to mention Shadowborg and all the chaos THAT mess brought with it, Dexter's about as threatening as a warm bath.

Unhappy with Fred's silence and the lack of intimidation the other boy was showing, Dexter reached out and shoved his cousin. "Hey, Stumpy! I asked what you were reading, baby."

"Yes, Freddy, what ARE you reading," Lucinda cooed, making her way over to the couch. Behind her, both George and Robert rolled their eyes.

"Has she remembered yet that Fred's fifteen, not five?" George asked his brother.

Robert snorted. "That would mean SHE'D have to accept that she's pushing fifty, George. Not bloody likely."

Finding himself the center of attention, Fred grinned. "It's Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars," he replied, holding up the book. "My friend Tommy lent it to me. It's pretty interesting."

Lucinda blinked. "I- um, would suppose," she managed.

"Caesar?" Robert asked, raising an eyebrow in his brother's direction. George shrugged.

"He's developed a thing for military strategy over the past year or so," the younger man replied. "I don't know why." Although I'm beginning to think I can hazard a guess.

"Military strategy, eh?" Robert mused, moving towards the couch. "Ay, Freddy! Ever read Churchill?"

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December 23

"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." -- How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss

"Is this seat taken?" Justin Stewart asked. Tasha Young looked up to see her teammate standing beside her, holding a paper cup full of punch in each hand.

"No, go right ahead," the Yellow Turbo Ranger replied, indicating the seat next to her. Around them floated the noises and soft music of the annual Holiday party thrown by the staff of the Little Angels' Haven shelter.

"This is nice," Justin commented, looking around the rec room. Cookies, punch, and various diversions were set up, giving the kids a chance to interact. Some of them would be scattered to various relatives over the next two days, while others would remain at the shelter, with no one coming to claim them.

Tasha was in the latter category, and had been since her arrival at the shelter. Justin, on the other hand... Tasha scrutinized her blue teammate, attempting to read the set of his shoulders. Finally, she gave up and simply asked outright.

"Is he coming?"

Justin didn't even try to misunderstand; he knew it would be fruitless. "No. He's got a big project, and just can't get away. He promised to call on the 25th, though."

"I don't believe it. Well, yeah, I do. Tell me something, Justin, how did a smart kid like you get fathered by a guy that dumb?"

He laughed. "It's not so bad, Tasha. At least this way, I can spend most of the holidays with all of you."

"You know most of the others won't have time for us, what with their own families coming in," she felt compelled to point out.

"So it'll just be you and me for the next two days. I can live with that." He flashed her a grin. "Can you?"

"Always."

Suddenly Justin leaped to his feet. "I just remembered something... Be right back!" He dashed out of the room, heading for the front stairs.

Ten minutes later, he was back, carrying a yellow-wrapped package sporting a blue bow. As he reached the table, he handed it to her.

"Here. I know it's a little early, but I figured better to give it to you now, and not risk forgetting."

Tasha took the package, unwrapping it carefully. Inside, she found a set of lock picks, nestled in a black imitation leather case. As she looked up at her friend, Tasha's mouth formed an "O" of surprise.

"Jamie helped me get them," he explained. "I didn't ask where she found them. I figured they might come in handy, and then you wouldn't have to resort to safety pins and baling wire all the time."

"They're great, Justin," she told him sincerely. "Thanks. And as a matter of fact, I have something for you." Reaching into her shirt pocket, she pulled out two pieces of cardboard, handing them to him.

Justin's eyes went wide. "Two tickets to the Consumer Electronics Show? Tasha, how did you get these? They're not available to the public!"

"I've got connections," the girl assured him. "I figured you could grab Billy and head over to Anaheim. Sound good?"

"Sounds great," he replied, smiling broadly. "Thanks, Tasha."

"Hey, what are friends for?" Raising her punch, she toasted him. "Merry Christmas, Egghead."

He returned the toast. "Merry Christmas, Tash."

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The annual Youth Center Holiday party was in full swing, the building full of warmth and light and music. The music was provided by several local musicians, including Tanya on vocals and Skull on the keyboard. From behind the counter, Ernie Townsend watched the partygoers with interest. The crowd at the Youth Center was never dull.

Over in one corner, the buffet table sat laden with every type of holiday food imaginable. There was a sizable crowd around it as well. Ernie smiled as he caught sight of a number of uniformed police officers in the line, obviously coming off patrol shifts.

And speaking of cops... The portly bartender's gaze moved over to another corner of the room, where a crowd of adoring young children surrounded the Blue Senturion. Most of Angel Grove had ceased to see anything strange about the robotic officer, but the young children were still fascinated, both by him and his stories. Beside the Senturion, his partner, Daystar Hunter, and her boyfriend, Parker O'Neil, were cuddling at a table, occasionally tossing comments into Blue Senturion's narrative.

As always, Ernie almost unconsciously sought out the Rangers and support staff that were attending the party. Most of them had paired up on the dance floor, including Kim and Skull, the latter taking a break from his instrument. Noticing Rosa De Santos and Franklin Park in the crowd, Ernie chuckled to himself. Now there was a cute couple. And what was this? Lita Kino was dancing with Michael Lee. Now that was interesting.

Somehow, by dint of blackmail or extreme pleading, Skull had managed to convince Bulk to play Santa, and the heavy boy was currently hearing the wish lists of a number of Angel Grove's youngest citizens. Beside him, Carlos Vargas and TJ Carter were dressed in elf suits, much to the delight of the female attendees. Ernie figured he'd have to wipe up the drool in that corner before the night ended.

Andros and Zhane were seated at a table with Ashley Thompson, but Andros was definitely not involved in their conversation. Instead, he was staring fixedly at Cassie Chan, who was deeply involved with the song she was singing. Ernie currently had a bet going with Tommy as to how long it would take the other Astro Rangers just to lock the two of them in a closet until they came to their senses.

Mistletoe was decorating numerous places in the room, and many of the sprigs were being put to good use. Billy and Justin were timing Chelsea and Trey of Triforia, although it was doubtful that the pair was aware of this. And in the hallway coming back from the bathroom, Chris Sterling had just stepped unwittingly under another sprig. A motion in the crowd caught Ernie's eye. Turning, he saw someone in a tight green and red sweater heading for the former Astro Ranger with a determined sparkle in her eye. NOT Ashley, then. Ernie's eyebrows rose. This could be interesting.

Chris barely had time to register Jade's breathy "Merry Christmas," before being pulled into a kiss that rivaled any other going on in the place. When the two broke apart, the Neji Ranger was smiling broadly, while her victim was obviously confused. Then Jade melted into the crowd once more.

TJ, torn between amusement and concern, came up beside his friend. "You okay?" the Blue Astro Ranger asked quietly.

"I think I'm in love," Chris replied, a huge, goofy grin on his face.

"Hey, Ernie?" A voice behind him made the bartender turn. At the bar stood Jason, Tommy, Fred, and Andros, all four smiling. In Jason's hands was a small, wrapped package.

Four Red Rangers, Ernie mused. Official business.

"Yeah, guys what can I do for you?" he asked.

Jason leaned against the bar. "Well, you've been a big help to us over the years, you know, excuses, moral support."

Tommy nodded. "Yeah. I don't think any of us could have gotten along without you."

"So we got to talking, and we decided that we should give you something to show how much you've meant to us," Fred continued.

"And frankly, I think it's long overdue," finished Andros.

Ernie blinked in confusion as he took the package Jason handed him. Carefully, he unwrapped it to find a small white box, of the type that usually holds wristwatches. Opening the box, he found a communicator, the band filled in with rainbow colors.

"I... don't know what to say," Ernie finally managed. Lifting it out of the box, he clipped the band around his wrist. "Thanks, guys, for trusting me this much."

Jason shook his head. "No, Ernie. Thank YOU."

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December 24

Joy rises in me, like a summer's morn.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, A Christmas Carol. viii.

"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by."

The mellow voice of Nat King Cole washed through the living room, as Billy sat on the couch, staring at the tree. The medium-sized Douglas Fir stood proudly at one end of the room, sparkling in the light from the windows. As with every year, Billy had helped his father hang the ornaments, ornaments that had accumulated their own memories and associations over the years.

Billy's attention was on one particular crystal angel, but his mind was nowhere near the present. Instead, he was lost in memories of a Christmas Eve very long ago.

Eight-year-old Billy Cranston clasped his hands behind his back, trying to control his impatience. It was Christmas Eve, and every year, the family put a new ornament on the tree, chosen by a different member of the family each time. This year was his turn, and he desperately wanted to see his mother's face when she opened the box. Finally, his mother finished with whatever she was cooking and made her way into the living room.

"Okay, Billy, I'm ready now," Julia Cranston informed her son, smiling gently. "Hank! It's time for the ornament hanging!"

"Be out in a second!" Hank Cranston replied. "I just have to save!"

A few seconds later, Billy's father emerged from the den. "Got a good ornament for us, Billy?"

"Uh-uh," the boy nodded, handing his mother the package. It had been wrapped up in silvery-blue paper. While the wrapping job was not very neat, it was obvious that Billy had put a great deal of effort into it.

Gently, Julia peeled the paper off the box, then gingerly opened it. She gave a faint gasp, then very delicately withdrew a crystal angel from the package. "It's beautiful, Billy," she said earnestly, one finger caressing the angel's long hair.

The little boy gave his mother a brilliant smile. "She reminds me of you, Mommy."

"You always were my angel, Mom," Billy said softly, staring at the tree. "Sometimes I think you were my guardian angel. I don't know how else I made it through adolescence. You must have been watching out for me."

"I've often felt that way myself," Hank Cranston said softly, from the living-room door. "It's never been easy, but... sometimes I feel as if she's with me." Picking his way through the living room, the man made his way to the couch, sinking down beside his son.

Billy shrugged. "I wouldn't be surprised, Dad. If there's one thing I've learned over the past couple years, it's that there are things in this world we can't hope to understand."

"I guess that we just have to take a few things on faith," his father replied. "Which reminds me-- It's time for the ornament hanging, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it is," Billy grinned. "And as I recall, it was your turn this year... so what have you got?"

Hank simply returned his son's grin, handing him a box. "Open it and find out."

Billy did as instructed, and was surprised to see a plastic figure of the Blue Morphin Ranger, in battle stance, holding his Power Lance. When he looked up at his father, his eyes reflected his shock.

"I can't think of a better symbol for how proud I am of you," Hank said softly. "And how grateful I am that this year, you finally felt ready to tell me. You've grown up so much-- I love you, Billy."

"I love you too, Dad." The ornament was temporarily forgotten as father and son shared a hug.

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The skies above Angel Grove are rarely overcast. Even in the depths of winter, the cloud cover is thin and patchy, allowing an unparalleled view of the sky. Sitting on the roof outside his bedroom window, Jason Scott stared up at the rapidly darkening sky.

The night was warm, with a hint of a breeze blowing off the desert to the east. Faintly, Jason could smell the holiday season blowing around him, odors rarely found outside of a Californian Christmas. Somewhere down the block, a pinon pine wafted its scent to him on the gentle wind. He could smell Christmas dinner cooking in the kitchen and cookies being baked somewhere down the street. Beyond those immediate odors hovered the faint scents of the dry desert air and the cold winds to come.

This was Christmas for him, Jason reflected. Laughter, warmth, and love standing against the darkness and cold, not only of the winter, but also of the horrors and danger that he faced on a regular basis. Since becoming a Ranger, Christmas had become even more important to him as a celebration of all the things he fought to protect. And every year since that fateful day, his family had grown a little larger, a little stronger, their light shining a little brighter against the night. But now... Now they were facing a darkness so strong, it might swamp everything ranged against it.

"Room for one more?" a quiet voice broke into Jason's thoughts. Turning, he saw Michael Lee pulling himself out of the window.

"Sure thing," Jason replied, scooting over slightly. "Make yourself at home."

Michael did so, settling himself down next to his son. "Penny for your thoughts?"

"No sale," shot back Jason dryly. Michael chuckled.

"All right, then, we'll do this the hard way. Why are you sitting on the roof staring at absolutely nothing when your parents and I are inside talking, cooking, and shouting at the football game? It's not me, is it? You didn't seem to have a problem last Christmas... of course, we were preoccupied for a lot of that time."

Jason smiled slightly. "No, Michael, it's not you. I'm glad to have you here-- you're family. And trust me, after six years of Rangering, I'm not one of those people who gets upset if they can't classify family in little boxes."

"Then what's wrong? And don't try and blow me off, either. You're not acting like yourself, even I can see that. Something's bothering you, kid. Don't deny it."

"Okay, okay." The Red Morphin Warrior paused a moment to collect his thoughts. "About three months ago, we got a visitor from the future. The Blue Senturion, you know, who just joined the police force? He's not really from space, he's from the year 2004. Anyway, he came back in time to warn us that as things stood, our world would end May 25, 1999."

"Shit." Michael let out a low whistle.

"Yeah, that about sums it up. The Shadow Empire, this army of living darkness, is supposed to rise up and conquer our planet on that day. Most of Earth's population is slaughtered... and so are most of her defenders."

Michael shot his son a sharp look. "You?"

"Yeah, I'm slated to die pretty quickly, during the first wave of the attack." Jason shrugged. "We're making plans, contingencies, and all sorts of preparations, but the Blue Senturion's arrival has already altered the timeline. Nobody knows what the future holds anymore, so we're flying blind again. And we're all real aware that we're running on borrowed time."

"You haven't told John or your mother any of this." It was not a question.

Jason snorted. "Mom would freak! We're keeping it mainly among ourselves right now. Detective Park knows, because we might need his help, and because Blue Senturion needed a job. Lita knows, because Rocky wound up transported forward into that blasted timeline, and he needed some serious therapy. Tommy's parents know, though I'm not sure how they found out. Other than that... what good would it do to tell anybody else?"

"Point taken," Michael acceded. "You have to have faith, though, Jason. Prepare for the worst, cross your fingers and pray."

"Yeah. And hopefully forget about it, for a little while." Jason smiled. "Come on. From the smell, dinner's almost ready. Let's go wash up."

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"Rocky! Arribba! Vamanos!" Maria De Santos yelled up the stairs.

"Just a sec!" her second oldest replied. "Alex and I are discussing his tie!"

Folding his arms across his chest, Pedro De Santos let out a chuckle. "You know, Rocky, generally you're supposed to show up at Midnight Mass at midnight!"

The Blue Zeo Ranger came to the door of his youngest brother's room, glaring down the stairs at his older brother. "Do you really want to be seen in church with Alex wearing a Day-Glo orange tie?"

Maria shook her head. "Rocky, put the red one on him and let's get moving." She raised her voice. "And that goes for the rest of you as well!"

"I can't believe you're making me wear this," Rosa De Santos muttered, dragging the twins out of the kitchen once again. "My reputation is going to be shot! I'm going to appear in church in a PINK DRESS!"

"I am not letting you wear pants to Christmas Eve Mass, young lady," her mother replied. "Nor do I want you passing out due to Color Withdrawal in the middle of the service. Therefore you will wear the pink dress, and you will not complain about it, all right?"

Juan snickered. "The unexpected pitfalls of Power Rangering." He winced as his older sister punched him in the shoulder.

Rosa rolled her eyes. It was strange, having her entire family know about her powers. Luckily, all of the younger children understood the need to keep it a secret from the rest of the world, even Alex. Actually, Alex probably understood better than Miguel and Emilia. The twins just thought it was a great lark. In some ways, her youngest brother was more mature than his older siblings.

Just then, the doorbell rang. Lindsey, who was closest, managed to extricate herself from the crowd in the hallway to answer it.

On the front doorstep, Nina Vargas blinked at the chaos inside. "Is this a bad time?" she asked hesitantly. Lindsey grinned.

"Nah, come on in, Mrs. Vargas. Hi Javier, Dr. Vargas, Carlos." The girl's gaze rested on the Black Astro Ranger for a moment. Clad in all black, Carlos made a very attractive sight. Too bad he was taken.

"Thanks for letting us carpool," Carlos said. "My car's not big enough for all of us and the van's in the shop."

"It's not a problem," Maria assured them, picking her way through the swarm of children. "I'm used to traveling in bulk. ROCKY! Vengan aqui, AHORA!"

"Si, Mama!" The young man came down the stairs, tie in one hand, younger brother slung over the other shoulder. "I'll put it on him in the car," he explained. "Ready to go?"

Carlos snickered as the group headed for the De Santos family "tank." "Having fun, man?"

"Dude, it's like trying to dress a Piranhatron! You get 'em by one fin, and bam, they're slipping out the other side!" Laughing, the two Rangers climbed into the van.

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Across the city of Angel Grove, bells were tolling the hour of twelve. Christmas Eve was passing into Christmas Day, and much of the city was asleep or celebrating the sacred aspects of the holiday. Most of the streets were empty and silent, but not everywhere. Some businesses were open all night, Christmas Day like any other. And some places were open tonight specifically because of the holiday. Places like "Old as the Hills."

Ignatz Hill had lived most of his life in Angel Grove, other than a short stint in Maine for college. He'd seen things that would have most people checking themselves into rubber rooms, and he liked to feel that he had a bit of understanding that most people didn't. Tonight, that hunch had led him to keep his antique store open a little bit later than usual.

When the door swung open a few minutes after midnight, Ignatz was less than surprised. Every holiday had its last-minute shoppers, Christmas most of all. Rising slowly from his chair, he made his way to the counter, facing his customer.

"Can I help you?" he asked, sizing up the newcomer. Fully seven feet tall, the man was cloaked in a long, black trenchcoat, with a matching fedora pulled low over his face. From the way the coat strained oddly in the shoulders, Ignatz doubted that the piece of clothing had been cut with the current occupant in mind.

"I'm looking for a gift for someone. A very special someone," the customer replied. His voice was low and husky, with an odd resonance. It sounded more like it came from a synthesizer, rather than a set of vocal cords.

"Well, a very special someone deserves a very special gift. What have ya got in mind?"

The mysterious figure hesitated. "I'm... not really sure. I've never bought anyone a present before."

"Ah, then this is indeed a special selection. Let me see what I can come up with. Male or female?"

"Female. A very beautiful female."

"Tell me about her, and I'll see what matches up."

The stranger sighed. "She seems delicate, but she's really very strong. Graceful, like a dancer... or a warrior. She can be fierce, or gentle..." He snorted. "I sound like a love-struck teenager."

Ignatz chuckled, although it came out as more of a huff. "Ain't nothing wrong with that, boy. Teenagers know a lot of things about love that we tend to forget when we're older." His eyes lit up. "Ah, here we go." Reaching up to a shelf, he brought down a statue and placed it on the counter.

It was made of clear, solid glass, polished smooth. It almost seemed as if water had been frozen in mid-spurt, to hang in the air for all eternity. When examined closely, the sweeping lines resolved into a dancer, arms thrown above her head, hair trailing down her back.

The customer caught his breath. "Yes... it's perfect. How much?"

"Thirty dollars," the older man replied. "That's a couple pounds of glass there."

"I'll take it." Reaching into his pocket, the buyer brought out a perfect clear emerald, the size of a fingernail, without flaws. Ignatz sucked in his breath.

"That's... I don't know how much that is, but you got some serious change coming!" the old man managed.

The other waved a hand dismissively, and Ignatz noted that what he had thought were gloves were in fact the hands themselves, composed of some black crystalline material. "Keep it. Beauty such as this is rare."

"So're perfect emeralds."

Halfway out the door, the stranger stopped. "Where I come from, they're as common as grains of sand." Then the door swung shut, and he was gone.

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December 25

At Christmas, children would like something that would separate the men from the toys
--Art Moger

Halfway into the living room, Jamie Zedden stopped dead, whistling quietly. Though she was a little old to believe in Santa Claus, her father still tended to bring out most of the presents Christmas Eve, after she'd gone to bed. He said it was "more impressive that way."

She had to admit, the piles of presents that surrounded the tree were pretty breathtaking. Her pile was easily identified, even from a distance, since the paper was all different shades of purple. Sinking into a cross-legged position beside her pile, she watched as the rest of her family came in.

After so many years of being alone, having her father back was pure heaven. The Purple Zeo Ranger watched with an indulgent grin as her parents sank onto the couch, cuddling a little as they did so. Last to enter the room was Finster. The housekeeper rolled his eyes at his employers, pulling his plaid bathrobe a little tighter around him.

"So, who's first?" Jamie inquired.

"Finster, why don't you go?" Larry suggested, obviously loath to release his wife just yet.

The older man shrugged, picking up the first package. The label identified it as being from Jamie, and he opened it with appropriate wariness. She had inherited her father's sense of humor, which could be dangerous at times.

Staring at the box that the wrapping paper had concealed, Finster's mouth quirked. "Creepy Crawlers Monster Maker," he announced, holding the box up for all to see. Larry snickered, and Leslie put a hand over her mouth.

"Thank you very much," the housekeeper chuckled, placing the box aside. "It will give me some ammunition the next time you decide to start a prank war."

Jamie's grin widened. "Take your best shot, Finster." The former Arrellian, transformed into an Earth human now that he had left Rita's service, had quickly become part of the family. He very much enjoyed cooking and cleaning for the Zedden household, not to mention patching Jamie up after some of her more... interesting adventures. The two of them often found themselves embroiled in "gotcha" contests, vying to see who could come up with the ultimate practical joke.

"You can be sure I will," the older man replied. "Thank you."

"No problem. Merry Christmas."

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"I don't think I understand the concept of football," Trey remarked, as the living room erupted into clamor again. The majority of the Oliver clan had taken over the living room, parked themselves in front of the TV, and were absorbed in the Christmas Day bowl game. The noise had driven David, Trey, and the Oliver children, all non-football fans, out into the kitchen.

Chelsea chuckled. "You're not alone, Trey. I've never been that fond of it, except when Tommy was AGH's starting quarterback. I had to go watch that year."

Tommy snorted. "Heck, I'M not that fond of it. I don't mind getting pummeled, but at least martial artists pull their hits. I played one year, mainly because all the others were into it. After Jason and Zack left, I decided that it wasn't worth the trouble."

"If you're gonna get hit, there should at least be a point to it," Teddy Oliver agreed, looking up from his comic book. Leaning over, David examined the youngest Oliver's reading material.

"What're you reading, Ted?" he asked curiously. "'Turbo Heroes, huh? I didn't know they had a comic book now."

"Yeah. It's pretty good, actually. Not as good as some of the fanfics, but they put some actual effort into the art and writing."

Tommy rolled his eyes. "Be glad you're not staying the night, Trey. He'll grab as many people as he can to watch that show with him. Trying to make converts, I think."

"Hey," Teddy protested, "if people would just give the show a chance, they'd see it wasn't nearly as bad as they think!"

"Teddy, we're talking about a program which once based a story line around a rampaging Twinkie."

"I seem to remember you getting your behind handed to you by a giant Ho-Ho once," David threw in.

"That's different!"

While the boys bickered, Trey turned to grin at his girlfriend. "I want to thank you for inviting me to spend Christmas with you. Although I think I've been getting some odd looks from your family members."

Chelsea dismissed that with a wave. "Ah, they're just surprised that I'm actually dating somebody. None of them were around last year, and I've been kinda short in the boyfriend department. Right now most of 'em are trying to figure out if you're masochistic, or just not scared of me."

"I just can't help myself," Trey replied smoothly. "Your blinding beauty overwhelmed my sheer terror at your phenomenal fighting abilities."

Leaning in to reward his flattery with a kiss, Chelsea realized that her arguing brothers hadn't been heard from in the last minute or so. Looking up, she found all three watching in amusement.

"Oh, hey, don't mind us," Tommy said innocently.

"Yeah," David seconded. "Just go on with what you were doing."

Teddy was bouncing, a huge grin on his face. "It looked SOOO interesting."

"You are all dead," Chelsea replied, then leaned over and gave her boyfriend a huge kiss, accompanied by various noises from her brothers.

"Seriously, Trey," Tommy continued, once the kiss had ended, "we're glad to have you here. After all, you're family."

The Triforian smiled. "Thanks, guys."

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"Bless us, O Lord, and this food we are about to receive in your bounty, and thank you for providing us the company to eat it with," TJ intoned. "Amen." As the other occupants of the table echoed him, the Blue Astro Ranger regarded his dinner companions with interest.

Andros and Zhane seemed a bit confused by the concept of saying grace. Which wasn't surprising, seeing as KO-35 didn't have any concept of religion beyond the near-universal belief in The Power. Zhane, at least, was writing it off as yet another strange thing humans did, and was already digging into the mashed potatoes. Andros, on the other hand, would probably quiz TJ about it later.

Cassie, meanwhile, was trying to explain the various foods to the two Kerovans, pointing out dishes she thought they might like. TJ felt a slight stab of regret as he watched his teammate explain the concept of Christmas turkey. Cassie's parents were at yet another party-- a party on Christmas Day, of all things. It wasn't that TJ didn't like having her here, it was just that he wished it wasn't necessary. Cassie deserved to be with her family on Christmas.

Catching TJ's eye, Cassie flashed him a quick smile. "I know what you're thinking," she murmured, "and you're wrong. I AM with family tonight, Teej. And I wouldn't trade it for the world." Nodding, TJ accepted that.

Last, of course, was his uncle. Roy Carter had taken the knowledge that his nephew was a Power Ranger with remarkable equanimity. He also had had little problem adjusting to the life-style of an "involved" parent. Stay-overs, injuries, and late-night strategy sessions had long since ceased to faze the man. Being an Angel Grove paramedic, he saw stranger things every day. So when TJ had asked to host three other Rangers for Christmas dinner, Roy hadn't even blinked. Rangers were family, and his uncle understood that.

Family. TJ sighed soundlessly. He missed the rest of his family, up in Oregon, but there was simply no way he could get up there for the holidays. Money was tight, and his parents were having troubles providing for four children this season. Besides, the Rangers were on near-constant alert during this holiday, and he didn't want to deal with the complications that would arise if a call came in while he was home. Still, he missed his family.

"Are you gonna eat that?" Zhane's question broke into TJ's reverie, and the Blue Ranger quickly snapped to attention, only to see Zhane's fork hovering over his cranberry relish.

"Yes, you walking stomach," TJ replied, knocking Zhane's hand away. "This is MY dinner. Get your own."

"He already ate his own," Andros explained dryly. "And some of mine, and Cassie's, and your uncle's."

Cassie snickered. "And TJ, you are in NO position to call anybody a walking stomach."

An evil grin crossed Roy's face. "Hey, if you think TJ is bad, you should meet my brother. When our Mom cooked Christmas dinner, she used to have to cook two turkeys!"

"And Grandma always pointed you and Dad out as the two turkeys she was going to cook," TJ replied, grinning at the fond memory. He heard his teammates snickering, but he didn't care. He may not have been spending the holiday with his parents and siblings, but he certainly didn't lack for family tonight.

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It was a good thing the Park family believed in large family rooms, Adam mused. After Christmas dinner, he and Franklin had been assigned to the dishes, a task which had been quickly carried out, though not without a short bubble war. Now he was snuggled onto the family room couch, watching as his family milled around him.

His grandfathers were trading stories of various adventures, as they did every year. His parents were attempting to referee, although his mother's expression said that the current story was one she hadn't heard before. Adam grinned. Kim Soon, his mother's father, had been trained in several Korean martial arts, while James Park, his paternal grandfather, was a retired Marine colonel. Both men had been involved in numerous high-risk missions when they were younger, and they never lost an opportunity to compare toughness.

Meanwhile, Franklin was absorbed in his new copy of Final Fantasy VII, for the Playstation. Adam grinned to himself. His little brother always had harbored a love of fantasy games. To one side of Franklin sat Rick Winslow and Steven Park, Trevor's partner and younger brother respectively. Rick had the strategy guide, Steve had the maps, and the two of them were advising Franklin on the best course of action.

Setting the map book where Franklin could see it, Steve got to his feet and stretched. "I am too old to sit on the floor for any length of time," he announced.

"Old?" Trevor looked up from his conversation, a wicked grin on his face. "You're only forty- two, Steve. It's just all those movies taking their toll."

"Hey, can I help it if the public can't get enough of Steven Park, movie icon?" The actor struck a ridiculous pose, only to be struck by a pillow lobbed by his older brother.

Trevor shook his head. "You're popular because the directors can't find another martial arts star crazy enough to do the things you do."

Adam snickered. His uncle's career in martial arts films was quite lucrative, and Steven was, in fact, a star. No one he knew had yet connected Adam's name to that of his famous uncle, something for which he was grateful. He still had problems handling regular attention at this point.

"Crazy?" Steve made a hurt face. "Says the man who lives in a town where health insurance is the next big investment. Seriously, Trevor, you live on the edge a lot more than I do."

"Besides," James put in, "this town's enough to drive anyone out of their minds. Killer lawn furniture, flying cars, giant robots-- Why don't you move somewhere saner?"

Trevor smiled. Though he directed his answer to his father, his eyes slid to his two sons. "Oh... I have my reasons, Dad."

Adam grinned. That pretty much said it all.

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December 31

"Look not mournfully into the Past. It comes not back again. Wisely improve the Present. It is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy Future, without fear, and a manly heart."
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The Youth Center was once again full of people and decorated to the nines. Music was playing, refreshments were everywhere, and the inhabitants of Angel Grove were partying like there was no tomorrow. This seemed to be becoming a habit.

From his position behind the bar, Ernie was indulging in his favorite pastime of Ranger-watching. Before he was officially in on the secret, it had been the only way to figure out just what was going on in the world of the Rangers. Even now, there were often times they didn't tell him everything.

That seemed to be the case tonight. Though the young defenders of Earth were partying just as much as anyone else, there were certain differences to their behavior. They tended to cluster in little groups, generally within the usual team breakdowns. And their stances were strangely wary, not so much expecting attack as... waiting for a storm to roll in. Despite the festive atmosphere, there was a reflective edge to the laughter. Frankly, it was beginning to give him the creeps.

The temperature was always warm in Angel Grove, even in the winter, so a good amount of the partygoers were out in the outdoor café area. Laden with a tray full of food and drinks, Skull wove expertly through the crowd to where Kimberly, Zack, and Aisha were occupying one of the tables.

"'Scuse me, pardon me, coming through." Managing to make it through the crowd without spilling his burden, the White Morphin Warrior quickly distributed the refreshments and sat down himself.

"Quite a party, huh?" Aisha took a sip of her soda, looking around. "Ernie sure goes all out for things like this."

Zack chuckled. "Tell me about it. You weren't here for some of the biggest ones, though. Man, I remember our freshman year, Ernie had this HUGE party to celebrate the Green Ranger coming over to the side of good."

"God. We were fourteen," Kim recalled. "Had no idea what we doing most of the time. Rita sent out a monster, and we tried like hell to stop it before it killed us off."

"And all the time, the populace was treating you like angels come to earth or something," added Skull. "We had no idea who you were... most of us didn't care."

Aisha propped her chin in her hand. "I watched the whole Green Ranger thing on the news. Nobody was quite sure what to make of it over there, but it was scary. Suddenly what had seemed like a big laugh was getting really scary."

Sighing, Zack nodded. "I thought we were going to die, I really did. I had never been so scared in my entire life, but we had to keep going."

"Baptism of fire," Kimberly said. "The first big adventure, where you stare death in the face and keep going."

There was silence for a moment, all four thinking of the battle to come. Then Zack looked up.

"Hey, it's almost midnight! The Angel Grove tower's gonna countdown, so let's go see if we can get a good view."

The four Rangers made their way through the gathering crowd to where their friends were gathered at the edge of the Rampoon River. Somehow the team had managed to secure a space right along the railing.

"I'll say this for hanging out with you guys," Chris Sterling announced, "I always get the best seats! How do you do that, anyway?"

"Nobody's gonna argue with a gang of twenty-eight people," Ashley explained.

Andros pointed at the lights of Angel Grove Tower. "I think it's starting."

A loud roar went up from the massed crowd as they began to count down in unison.

"FIVE!"

"FOUR!"

"THREE!"

"TWO!"

"ONE!"

"HAPPY NEW YEAR!" Across the Rampoon River, fireworks sailed into the air, painting the sky with light. Fred, perched on the railing of the plaza, let out a whoop and pumped his fist in the air.

Slipping her arm around her husband's waist, Kimberly smiled up at the beautiful lights playing across the sky. The future might be shadowy, but for now, things seemed quite bright.

End-
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now
-- "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," Author Unknown