Title: Love and Winter in Ocean Bluff

Author: Xanagar

Part: One

Rating: M

Series: Power Rangers

Genre: Romance/Drama

Pairing: Casey, Theo

Disclaimer: I do not own any part of Power Rangers. I did not gain any profit from producing this fan fiction; it was created for entertainment purposes only.

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ONE

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A sense of overwhelming accomplishment always lingered after rush hour, as if some great evil had been eliminated. The floors remained cluttered with the remains of the day, the air smelt of baked dough and tomato sauce. And outside, snow fell blissfully, completely ignorant of the antagonizing warmth that existed just past the front door. It was a Friday; seven days until Christmas.

The upcoming holiday brought with it a sense of joy, but also a sense of panic. There were gifts to buy, parties to arrange, cards to send out, and very little time to do it all in. People rushed past the Jungle Karma Pizza on their way to do their last-minute shopping, a look of apprehension on their faces. And yet, inside the restaurant, the atmosphere was one of a strange calm, as if a critical stillness had taken over, and no one dared to break it.

Theo, in particular, embraced these moments of silence. It was during these moments that he took the time to relax, to think about things - anything, really, but mainly about life in general. It was easier this way, trapped in the quietness, suddenly profoundly aware of the world around him.

"What a night." A voice called from the kitchen, tired but grateful. "What a night, indeed."

Theo reached underneath a table and began to sweep up forgotten debris: napkins, old pizza crusts, soda lids. It had been quite a night; perhaps it was the Christmas rush, but Theo had never seen so many people in one restaurant before. The gargantuan herds of shoppers and non-shoppers were enough to make him consider hiding under a table himself, amidst the clutter and garbage.

"But," the voice continued, suddenly more enthusiastic. "We did it. We did it, and that's what matters. A little rush hour never hurt anyone."

Nearby, Theo heard a faint, "That's easy for him to say."

Emerging from the kitchen, R.J. made his way to the middle of the restaurant, then allowed himself to take in his surroundings. "A little shabby, yes, but that's to be expected on nights like these. And not one complaint throughout the night, either." He turned to indicate the three employees sweeping the floors to his right. "I'm impressed once again. In fact, I think this calls for a reward."

"That could mean anything," Lily uttered skeptically as R.J. ushered himself back into the kitchen. "For all the work we've done tonight, we'd better get medals. And a trophy - a big one, with our names on it."

Theo rolled his eyes quickly, took his now full dustpan to be emptied. "That's asking for a lot," he said, dumping the flimsy thing out into the large can. "I expect it'll be something small. Knowing R.J., he'll probably come out with a free pizza, or something."

Lily sighed, joined him at the garbage can. "Let me dream. It's been a long night."

"I wouldn't mind a free pizza," a voice called from a nearby table. "I could use something to eat."

Theo and Lily both exchanged comedic looks, then went to sit at the table where Casey waited for them, sitting serenely, his hands behind his head.

"That's just your stomach talking," replied Lily. "Think big. He might give us a pay raise."

Theo smirked. "We get paid?"

"Oh, funny. But really, I hope it's something good."

As they sat down upon the soft-cushioned seats, Theo felt all of his muscles relax completely, releasing all of their stress, their tension. It seemed odd that something as simple as sitting down could make him feel this good. Every ounce of exhaustion seemed to melt away, allowing him to feel suddenly rejuvenated, healed and reenergized once again.

"Maybe he'll give us the rest of the holiday off," Casey said hopefully. "There are only a few days until Christmas, after all."

"Now that is wishful thinking," Lily added as R.J. reappeared, three small envelopes grasped between his fingers.

"Here," he said, laying them onto the table, a grin betraying his enthusiasm. "Consider it a Christmas gift from me to all of you."

Theo reached into the middle of the table and grabbed his own envelope. As he opened it, he wondered if Lily was, in fact, right, and expected to see a small stub of some sort. Instead, a large, folded-up piece of paper fell out and into his lap. He picked it up curiously, and unfolded it. His eyes skimmed around the page, and he heard R.J. say rather proudly, "Well? What do you think?"

"Well, it's not food," Casey muttered under his breath.

"You are cordially invited to a Christmas celebration," Lily began, reading aloud, "hosted by your very own R.J. at seven, this Monday night." She finished, and looked up at R.J. curiously. "You're hosting a party?"

"A Christmas party?" Casey added. Theo believed he could hear excitement in the other boys' voice. He smiled; it was just like Casey to get excited over things like this: parties and more opportunities to be together. It was the small things, Theo thought, that pleased him the most.

"Yes," R.J. said proudly, eliciting a small giggle from Lily. "I will be hosting a Christmas party this year, for all of us. But most of all, for you guys, and for all of the painstaking work you've accomplished in the midst of the holiday season."

"A reward for all of our sweat, blood and tears," Theo muttered, looking back down at his own invitation. "Nice."

Lily tucked her own invitation into her pocket. "And where is this party of yours being held?"

"Why, here, obviously." R.J. turned around, raised his arms in the air. "I can't think of any better place than right here."

The idea of a means to celebrate was certainly uplifting. Perhaps this would be an even better way to relax and forget about the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, even with the other things Theo had already obligated himself to. He had already promised that he would go with Lily to a local event being held at the concert hall, appropriately titled Christmas Rocks! Originally, he hadn't been overly keen on the idea, but there hadn't been any way to reject the invitation, and besides, Casey had agreed to go along as well, so how bad could it be? Along with that, there was the annual Christmas festival held every year, in which Lily had volunteered to be a part of the planning committee. Needless to say, there were a lot of things on Theo's mind. And yet, as he sat amongst his friends, he felt content, surrounded by warmth.

"Of course, someone will need to tell Fran. But that's what letters are for; I'll have everything organized upstairs. It'll be a perfect way to celebrate the spirit of the holidays." R.J. reached into his pocket, pulled out a small, fresh portion of mistletoe. He held it above their heads. "You guys just bring along your happy faces, alright?"

Theo looked up, eyed the green decoration with interest. It seemed awfully foreign, ornamented in the restaurant's light.

"But now," finished R.J. suddenly, "we finish closing down for the night."

He turned and strode back to the kitchen, allowing the door to swing lazily behind him. Lily and Casey began to discuss the party in detail, every so often glancing back at Theo, who nodded in agreement, unaware of what exactly was being discussed. His stomach tightened slightly as he continued to stare upward, admiring the place where the mistletoe had been.

--

Upstairs, Theo began to undress for bed. He looked outside, and could still see small traces of snow landscaping the edges of his window. The streetlamps still remained lit, casting a yellow glow across the outer streets. As he slipped into his pajamas, he thought of the party, the concert, the upcoming festival.

"Decent?"

Theo jumped; startled, he turned to face whoever had intruded upon his room. "Not really," he said. "But come in, anyway."

Casey smiled, made his way to the small bed in the corner, where he plopped down, ignoring Theo's look of protest. He looked at the other boy's pajamas, plaid, in different shades of a darker blue. "I didn't know you still had those."

"They're not that old," Theo rebutted.

"You could use some new ones."

"I don't want new ones."

Casey began to roll around indifferently on the bed, making himself comfortable. "Well then, by all means keep wearing them. I was going to buy you some new ones for Christmas, but you seem too attached to those; I can't imagine what would happen if you'd have to part."

Theo grunted and said accusingly, "At least I sleep in something."

This didn't seem to affect Casey in the slightest. He laughed, responded with, "And? It's not as indecent as you think it is. Actually, it's pretty comfortable once you get used to it."

"No thanks," said Theo. He leaned against the wall, watching the many cars go by through the window. "So, what do you think about this party R.J.'s concocted?"

Casey reached for Theo's pillow, began maneuvering it under his head. "It sounds like a good idea. You know how much I like parties."

"There's a lot to do now, though," Theo answered, scratching the back of his head. "Now we've got that party, along with the festival and the concert."

"Feeling overwhelmed?" Casey asked jokingly.

Theo quickly rejected the idea. "Of course not. I'm just saying, it's a lot. Especially with Christmas so close now. And neither of us has bought gifts yet."

"There's still time. Maybe I'll be able to get you some new pajamas after all."

"Always working for the greater good, aren't you?" Theo asked.

"It's what I do," said Casey as he sat up and began to stare out the window.

Theo watched. The other boy looked so innocent, so pure like that. "Don't you have to get to sleep as well?"

Casey shook his head, made a face similar to that of a puppy. "I don't get to sleep with you?"

"Very funny."

Theo walked over to his bed and found his rightful place underneath the covers as Casey jumped up and headed towards the door. He reached the archway, then stopped and said, "So what do you really want for Christmas?"

Theo sighed, tired. "Some peace and quiet."

"Anything else?"

Theo thought for a moment. He gripped his pillow within his hands; it smelt familiarly of the boy who had recently lounged there. "You'll be the first to know when I come up with something."

Casey reached towards the small light switch on the wall. "Deal," he said, before turning out the light.

--

Theo awoke the next morning to noise - loud noise, coming from downstairs in the main area of the restaurant. This wasn't completely abnormal; Saturdays tended to be busy days at the Jungle Karma Pizza. Theo sighed, and felt incredibly lucky that he had the day off after the previous night's hectic events. He pushed himself out of bed and dressed quickly, taking a quick glance out the window to see that it was, in fact, still snowing. Grabbing a jacket from his closet, he headed downstairs, and into the fury of voices that erupted as soon as he entered the kitchen.

R.J. was already hard at work preparing pizzas. Above him, a string hung across the wall, where small yellow papers containing orders had been attached with clothespins. Noticing Theo walk by, he said, "Got quite a crowd this morning. Breakfast pizzas are in surplus at the moment."

"Need any help?" Theo asked, silently hoping for his help to not be needed. He sighed with relief as R.J. shook his head, motioning him out of the kitchen with his free hand and exclaiming that he should enjoy his days off when he has them.

Lily and Fran were rushing back and forth among customers, taking orders and delivering them. Theo watched them and felt slightly guilty at being given a day off on a busy day such as this. Of course, there were other workers to help out, too, but he still wondered if he could perhaps do something before leaving.

"Hey, Fran?" Theo asked as the haggard-looking girl with glasses passed him. "I'm going out for the day. Is there anything I can do before I go?"

Fran looked around, acknowledged the ruckus that was her job. "Don't worry about it, really. From what I heard, you guys had it quite rough last night. Lily and I can handle this crowd."

A man at a far table asked loudly where his drink orders were, and Fran said a quick goodbye before running off to help Lily.

As soon as Theo stepped outside, the extreme cold gripped at his throat and flailed against his cheeks. Looking around, he saw the usual influx of daily shoppers, each one carrying an assortment of shopping bags and wrapped boxes. With a sharp tug of his zipper, he pulled his jacket closer against his body and tucked his hands safely inside his pockets, setting off through the begrudgingly thick snow that now lay on nearly every inch of concrete around him.

The shopping district of Ocean Bluff had been decorated remarkably in every manner of the word. From what Theo could tell, no expense had been wasted. Lights clung from every lamppost, wreaths hung on every door, and Christmas trees radiated from inside every store window. It was quite a spectacle, Theo thought, but a feast for the eyes, no less. Once, he reached one store in particular that had on display a variety of new fashions for the winter season. Quietly, he imagined Lily would appreciate things like this: clothes and such; but, there was the idea of buying Casey a gift. Casey was not the type of guy to openly declare when he wanted something, which made it insanely difficult to shop for him. In another store window, Theo noticed an advertisement for different colognes - each with its own unique aroma. One of the colognes in the advertisement, Theo knew, belonged to Casey. It was a sharper scent; it carried the smell of grass, of heavy rain and musk.

Theo continued walking past the many shops, looking in each one for ideas on what to buy as gifts. Eventually, he made his way to the western business district, where the crowds of people seemed to multiply. Momentarily, he considered heading back - then, he noticed the park entrance, covered in snow but still slightly visible. Sighing, he decided a little time to rest couldn't hurt. Every tree surrounding the park was shrouded in white; the large stone walkways that normally traversed through the collections of beautiful foliage were now barely visible underneath the large amounts of fallen snow. Theo found a bench and sat down, grateful for the moment's reprieve.

The park, for the most part, was strangely deserted. Nearby, a couple walked together, hand in hand, their faces carrying obvious smiles. Theo wasn't jealous; he'd never actually been able to see what was so incredible about partnerships. Of course, the fact that he'd never truly been in one could have contributed to such a way of thinking. But there were times, those rare occasions, when he did wonder to himself: was there really something so fantastic, so deep and meaningful about them - something, perhaps, that he was missing? He'd developed a close relationship with Lily, but he could hardly call that more than a friendship. Then there was Fran, but, again, they were nothing more than close friends. Sometimes Theo had tried to justify his lack of partnership by explaining to himself that such things were unimportant; after all, there were other things to worry about, like training, things that needed constant fine-tuning and perfecting. But, regardless, Theo could not deny that there was something oddly intriguing about the couple, their smiles, their radiant bliss.

Maybe, if he could just try to be in a serious relationship with someone, for once, could he experience what those two were experiencing, such contentment and joy? Theo continued to ponder this as he stood up, ready to move again as his legs had become rather stiff from sitting in the cold for so long. Another excruciating breeze tore his face. He closed his eyes tightly; he thought of holding hands and leaning on another shoulder, of a different kind of happiness.

A strange, intruding heat touched his ear; a low voice said, "Going somewhere?"

He didn't realize he had fallen until he'd opened his eyes again. Cold, powdery flakes rubbed against his neckline, and he felt himself being pushed down by a sudden weight. And there was a smell - a faint, familiar smell.

The weight upon him moved around, and laughed. Theo mustered the will to look up, and found his perpetrator. "You didn't need to push me over," he said.

Casey held him still, his weight doing most of the work. "I'm a master of surprise," he uttered, smirking triumphantly. "I can sneak up on anyone."

Theo tried to push the other boy off, but to no avail. He sighed heavily and lay still, hoping Casey would politely get up of his own accord. "Yes, you're a master, a genius, obviously the smarter of the two of us. Now, can I get up, please?"

The brown-headed boy shook his head. "Not yet. What have you been doing today?"

"Well," Theo began sarcastically, "believe it or not, you're not the only one with a day off." Casey said nothing, and so he continued. "I was just walking around, looking at the city."

"Is that all?" Casey did not sound convinced in the slightest.

"And I was looking in shop windows; for gift ideas and stuff-"

Theo felt himself being pushed down harder; the boy on top of him leaned forward, back to his ear, and whispered excitedly, "You're buying gifts?"

"That's normally what people do during Christmastime." There was the warm breath again, the smell that reminded Theo of mountains, of lakes. He tried to look inconspicuous, unaffected by Casey's sudden closeness. "Sorry if you missed the memo."

"That's not what I mean," Casey said, leaning closer. "If you're buying gifts, that means you're buying gifts for your friends, and if you're buying gifts for your friends," he found Theo's eyes, "that means you're buying gifts for me, too."

The sound in his friend's voice was almost naïve, with a hint of childish exclamation and excitement. Theo made to laugh again, but stopped himself. Then, he felt his stomach begin to wrap around itself again; the freezing cold around him seemed to disappear; the warmth in his ear traveled down, making its way to every inch of his body. Vaguely, he felt himself tremble.

He said, "I guess." It was the only sentence that seemed to form in his mouth.

Casey's smile broadened. He allowed his weight to slacken some. "How nice; you're thinking of me." As Theo opened his mouth to retort, Casey continued, "So I need to buy you something even better, don't I?"

The question, during any normal circumstance, would have seemed ridiculous. Yet Theo found that it made him slightly uneasy, as if something were happening, something indescribable, and he wanted to stop it, but couldn't. After a moment, he managed a small, "What?"

Clearly satisfied with the situation, Casey stood up, extended a hand to Theo, who accepted it, trying to ignore how it felt: soft, but worked with calluses. He was pulled back onto his feet; he didn't even acknowledge his own back, covered in white, or the ache that seemed to have formed in his arms. From what seemed like far away, he heard Casey say, "That's it, then. I'll just have to get you something better, something even cooler than what you're going to get me." He punched the air; he appeared ecstatic. "Consider it a challenge, Theo."

Theo barely registered. He touched his ear, then his cheek. "You're silly," he said.

Casey ignored this, continued to appear as happy as he'd ever been. "Maybe," he said, "but I don't remember you ever backing down from a challenge, am I right?"

"It's not even a challenge, really. Just a wager."

"Challenge, wager, whatever." Casey placed a hand on Theo's shoulder. "Consider it friendly competition then, if anything. A little Christmas rivalry is good for the soul." He reached down and picked up a handful of snow, and began to form it into a well-crafted ball. Tossing it into the air playfully, he added, "And besides, you've already promised to tell me when you decide what you want this year. I guess that's a little unfair though, considering that gives me an advantage. How about I tell you what I want?"

In the way Casey said this, Theo could sense something mischievous, something almost unnaturally clever, as if the other boy knew something important, and wasn't telling him. "Fine," he said, finally brushing off some stray snow from his jacket, slightly taken aback. "Go ahead, if you want."

"I want something small," Casey said, his expression softening, "but large, too. Something meaningful."

"That's pretty vague," Theo said, trying to sound nonchalant. "Care to dissect that for me?"

Casey laughed, shook his head again. "Nope," he said. "That's for you to figure out. Otherwise it wouldn't be a real challenge." Snow began to fall more heavily; the sky became blotched with dark clouds of gray. Casey turned, began to walk away. "I'll see you back at the parlor," he called, before making his way out of the park exit.

And Theo felt cold again. He made to say something, anything. His insides relaxed again, the aching in his body suddenly painfully apparent.

Close by, he heard the happy couple laugh quietly to themselves, as if mocking him, his hurtful uncertainty.

--

TBC

Owari

9/30/08