Actions

Work Header

Operation - Candy Cane Kisses

Work Text:

Hunter was not entirely sure how they had come to this point, and it probably didn't matter except to people like Tori and Shane and Cam who tended to have immense feelings of concern for the ramifications of any shenanigans. 

But they weren't here so it was Hunter's call, and Hunter decided it didn't matter.

There were arguments to be made on his behalf anyway, something about how he and Dustin shouldn't be left alone for extended periods of time because this was what happened and there was no way any of them should be surprised by this, but Hunter was actually quite fond of his alone time with Dustin and would like it to remain chaperone-free, so he elected not to mention any of these arguments. No need to point out the obvious.

But back to the task at hand.

They had been enjoying a lazy Tuesday at the beginning of their December break inside Ninja Ops, celebrating another successful defense of the Earth (because even if they did that shit weekly, they were never going to undervalue their hard work, seeing as it could potentially lead to their deaths) and the fact that there would be no more of that school-nonsense for at least a month. Things were looking good.

By "they", in this instance, Hunter meant himself and Dustin. Shane and Tori had each gotten sucked into their respective family shopping trips. Hunter wasn't entirely sure how Blake had managed to get tangled up in that as well (probably had something to do with snide, off-hand comments that weren't whispered as quietly as he thought they were) but whatever, at the end of the day he was stuck as Tori's personal bag-carrier, leaving Hunter to bemoan the fact he couldn't get any pictures of his brother's misery.

He would have too because, you know, ninja, but Tori had started to get that predatory gleam in her eye that said he was about two seconds from joining her shopping entourage, which caused Hunter to ever-so-wisely run for the hills.

He would like to think that had been one of his better decisions for the day.

Cam was doing… Cam things? Building something or working on zords or… nope, Hunter was pretty sure he was just tooling around with something for fun, though Cam would probably use words like "intellectual curiosity" and "advancing academia", but they all knew it was just his way of validating blowing up shit in his lab.

Because of this, Hunter and Dustin had been banished, no lab cleaning today (though this was more of a burden for Dustin, as Hunter had been intent on ignoring Cam that afternoon anyway).

Free time and boredom brought the two down to the tv room, Hunter sprawled across the couch while Dustin sat contently on the floor in front of him, concentrating on the decorating schedule he had started to ensure Ninja Ops would be appropriately festive by the time Christmas rolled around.

Like Hunter said, he wasn't sure how it had all started. One minute they were fine, Dustin focused on his notepad and Hunter trying to catch popcorn in his mouth while a stream of terribly awful Christmas movies played on the tv in front of them. They were the B-movies, at best. No, the "B" title was too kind for their unforgiving cheesiness; they were C-movies, and bad ones at that. Half-assed romantic comedies with Christmas themes shoehorned in, the typical re-hashing of a Scrooge-like character learning the errors of his/her ways (they had seen both), match-maker Santas, Christmas "Buddies" (which were just a whole bunch of dogs with horrible CGI to make it look like they were talking; couldn’t you just feel the Christmas spirit?), none of the classics that were at the very least tolerable. Nope, that was too good for whatever channel Dustin had demanded they watch.

And of course such horrible, badly-written schlock inspired some incredibly justified mocking from Hunter, who tore the shows apart with unparalleled glee.

This inevitably led to Dustin defending them, which somehow led to them discussing the appropriate ways to create a romantic setting during the holidays (even a four-year old could do better, Hunter insisted). This somehow led to each of them boasting of their cheesy, Christmas, rom-com abilities, which inevitably led to the hashings out of a modest wager, Cyber Cam playing as the neutral party and judge to see that all would be fair.

Because Hunter had points to make, and how better to do it while simultaneously winning at something?

The rules were simple; all they had to do was create a romantic situation, or multiple situations, worthy of C-grade moviedom, and earn themselves a kiss from their respective boyfriends. Whoever had the most kisses by Christmas (and probably the most romantic situations) would be victorious and gain access to remote-privileges for the following month.

Of course, there were some added conditions.

Condition number one: The boyfriends must not know.

It almost went without saying, because it wouldn't be that much of a challenge if they were aware of what was going on, but Hunter felt the need to put it down in writing anyway.

Condition number two: No mistletoe, it was far too easy.

Dustin had protested, trying to plead that mistletoe was a Christmas-romance staple, but Hunter would not budge. He knew who was dating the guy capable of creating robotic, person-seeking mistletoes and it sure as hell wasn't him.

Dustin relented after that, pouting.

Condition number three: Each romantic situation had to be completely unique from all others.

No repeats, that included repeating what the competing ranger had already done. Cyber Cam would keep them up-to-date on what had and hadn't been tried yet, to keep it fair.

This would force them to get creative. To exercise all possible romance-plans.

Condition number four: All situations had to be set up in Ninja Ops so that Cyber Cam could give a fair ruling.

It wasn't technically necessary because Cam was a creepy mofo and literally had cameras everywhere, but for their peace of mind, and since Dustin was practically there all the time anyway; they just decided to limit their activities to the Ops. Seemed fair enough.

Condition number five: No instigating the kiss in any way, shape, or form.

This included no casual suggestions of making out (for Hunter), or kissing their boyfriends elsewhere (neck, the neck was the example given, not somewhere else (also for Hunter)) to obviously indicate that kissing now would be appropriate. No, this was all on Shane and Cam.

Hunter had protested this one slightly because hey, it was kind of obvious that Dustin was way more open to spontaneous kisses than Hunter (stupid Shane stupidly respecting his space and shit), but he'd eventually caved. He would just have to work harder. Which was how he managed to get Dustin to relent on condition number six.

Originally, this condition was that only one kiss per romantic encounter added towards each ranger's total, but Hunter had insisted that if he was going to work his butt off he should at the very least reap all of the benefits from his endeavors. His plans would have to be big, he was sure, in order to send Shane the right signals, he might as well milk them for what they were worth.

The way he figured it, there was no losing in this situation. They had created a bet that literally made them be better boyfriends, and no one could complain about that. Hunter liked doing romantic stuff with Shane, and this was a nice excuse to do it. Repeatedly. And cheesily (but a badass cheesy because, well, it still was Hunter).

By the end of it, he would either get to rub in the fact that he owned all knowledge of horrible C-grade Christmas movies and got to control the remote for the following month or, more likely, he would lose and get to rub in the fact he didn't know all about horrible C-grade Christmas movie romance, which was nothing to ever be ashamed about.

Win-win-win, in his opinion. Shane would find it hysterical when it was over.

And hey, maybe when it was all said and done Hunter would be used to bringing on the romance and then he would have to keep going. You know, since it was a habit, and all that.

Maybe.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Hunter scored the first point completely by accident.

He had miscalculated some timing issues or whatever, but either way, Shane came into Ninja Ops entirely too early and stumbled upon Hunter's poor attempts at making cookies, hair powdered with flour and shirt riddled with various stains, sticky mixture of sugar cookies or honey cookies or whatever the hell he had been making stubbornly clinging to his cookie cutter.  He cured at it soundly, then cursed the world, then tried not to frown at his sorry mess in misery because it couldn't win, only to have Shane walk in on him in the middle of his calamity, taking one look at the dirtied crimson ranger before breaking into laughter.

Hunter glowered and folded his arms in reply, forgetting the cookie dough cemented to his fingers and ruining his shirt further, earning a few more chuckles from his boyfriend once this registered on the blond's face.

His efforts to bake the most charmingly sweet Christmas cookies were what won him the first point (as opposed to the cookies themselves, as Hunter had intended), so he couldn't really complain about them. He had even less to gripe about whenever Shane joined in the fray, sleeves rolled up and flour already latching onto his fingertips, guaranteeing more kisses and cheesily sweet goodness to come as they both failed spectacularly at baking.

So… not all bad.

Nope, not bad at all.

-:-:-:-:-:-

It was safe to say that Dustin was a little peeved at Hunter for breaking into his "messily-cute" territory, and even more so when he discovered the blond had been baking, which was his thing, so the brunette threw his metaphoric gloves off, immediately setting up an appropriate counterattack before Hunter could advance further into his domain.

The fact that Hunter had still managed to botch the ordeal was something the blond took great pride in, though for the yellow ranger's sake he was willing to not rub it in.

At least, not too much.

There was sniggering, oh-so much sniggering Hunter wanted to give into, because he was a strategic genius and if Dustin was going to invite all of them along for his attempts at holiday romance, then the very least he should expect was Hunter trying to throw a wrench into his plans. It sounded mean, because there was honor and respect and yeah, Hunter had both of those and an added special spot for Dustin in that barely functional part of his heart, but it had all fallen together so perfect that the universe would literally have smacked Hunter in the head and called him an idiot if he had passed on it.

He had attempted, very briefly, to explain this to the curly-haired teen standing beside him, fiercely sulking up a storm as they awaited Cyber Cam's ruling, but Dustin wasn't having it.

There might have been an incident, just a casual, run-of-the-mill episode involving certain craft supplies. Dustin had cheerfully suggested an ornament-making party (because it was so very clear that they were craft people, didn't the extreme sports boast of that?) so they could "make memories" (quoting verbatim there, Hunter would shy away from the words as though they burned him were he not in awe of Dustin's natural skill for corniness).

So there they were, sitting in the main room, making paper chains (Cam, who had given up on ornaments in preference for something that could be measured and executed exactly), weaving pipe cleaners together into little ninja-figurines (Blake, who had eyed the paints Dustin had set out briefly before putting as much distance between them and himself as possible), carefully cutting out pieces of felt and layering them into…snowmen, it looked like (Shane, who was actually putting effort into this), painting delicate patterns onto the plain globe ornaments Dustin had already gotten them (Tori, as she was the only one with skill), pretending to make shit to disguise their attempts to sneak glitter onto people (Hunter), and trying to make a cutesy mess of themselves in order to look adorable and begging to be kissed (Dustin, the dirty sneak).

Hunter could literally feel him beginning to lose as the seconds dragged on. He knew Dustin had this in the bag; this was his playing field and Hunter had accidentally stepped in it, with no hopes of ever recreating the success. By the shyly fond glances Cam kept sneaking Dustin, Hunter knew the kiss-train was about to leave the station in about t-minus ten seconds, with multiple repeats, and the only thing Hunter could do was sit back and watch.

It was horrible. It was genius, but also horrible.

Hunter frowned, carefully cupping a handful of glitter in his hands as he scoped out his next target. Blake already had glitter covering the majority of his right shoulder that had cascaded down his arm, effectively repelling Tori (which earned Hunter no thanks but whatever, if he had to suffer then he was taking someone else down with him). The aqua ranger, who actually had a clue as to where the mysterious glitter attack had originated from, eyed Hunter warily, only pausing her work to give the barest tilt of a paintbrush in his direction, somehow communicating that she was onto his shit and if he didn't want to end up with a face full of glitter, he had better step the hell off.

No one wanted a face full of glitter. No one. That shit got everywhere and it stayed for days and no one could get anywhere near you for fear of suffering the same over-sparkled fate and-

and…

Hunter liked to blame his sudden epiphany on Tori, but if he was completely honest with himself, he probably would have figured out his counter-attack to Dustin's cuteness eventually. Just, this way he got to do it before there was any kissing.

That was a plus.

He didn't put much thought into it, just did his best to school his face to bored indifference as he carefully funneled his handful of glitter back into the container. It was gold too, how appropriate. Dustin was chatting away happily beside him, "accidentally" flailing his paintbrush back so that a streak of green trailed across his cheek, causing Cam to get that enamored look in his eye that was painfully sweet, and then he would reach a hand forward to wipe it off and then Dustin would laugh bashfully at his carelessness, and the moment would be perfect, and Cam would lean in for a kiss.

That was what could have happened.

It didn't, because Hunter was a pro at adapting, but that didn't mean he would ignore the possibilities. Give Dustin credit where credit was due.

It took a few seconds for everyone to process the effects of Hunter's counterproposal to Dustin's situation, the blond moving his arm with practiced aim and flourishing the opened glitter container over the curly-haired teen, effectively covering the yellow ranger in a garish sheen of golden sparkles.

There was a moment or two of stillness while the others tried to figure out what had happened, and Hunter could easily say it was one of the best damn moments of his holiday.

The look- there was no way Hunter could do justice to explaining the look of absolute disbelief on Dustin's face; like he knew what had just happened but refused to believe it had actually occurred, because it didn't make sense, and it was beautiful. A Kodak moment, right there.

Dustin and his excessive charm could suck it.

Of course, Hunter's triumph was very short lived as the rest of the team caught on to what had occurred (or, in Cam's case, knew because he had a front row seat) and started to put on some madly disapproving faces.

Hunter just kept focused on Dustin though, popping his hands open like a flower and wiggling them, cheerily jesting, "Memories!"

Because that was why they were there right?

That earned him a laugh from Blake and a few chuckles from Shane that must have escaped despite the red ranger’s best efforts, trying to be stern because he was the leader, and out of the corner of his eye, Hunter could see Tori smiling, deciding that was simply the blond's odd way of contributing to the afternoon.

The only two that weren't pleased were Cam and Dustin, though Hunter did not have to view the tech's unhappiness for very long as Dustin immediately chased him from the room, down into the lower halls of Ninja Ops.

Their race ended with an epic explosion of glitter, Dustin's agility and aggravation beating out Hunter's head start and longer legs. The yellow ranger tackled the blond, catching him around his midriff before they tumbled to the floor in a pile of frustration and laughter, the latter adding to the frustration, which added to Dustin's frantic attempts to rub his glitter-permeated hair against Hunter's face so that he too could share the crafty sparkles love.

Later, when they were both adequately covered (though it was totally worth it, so worth it) they would state their cases to Cyber Cam and await his judgment.

"That was totally interference!" Dustin protested, waving an arm in Hunter's direction but keeping his eyes focused on the holographic projection in front of them. "I should get a free point or something."

"You invited me along," Hunter replied, dusting some glitter off the front of his shirt and watching it float down into the growing pile at his feet. "You made it too easy."

"I couldn't do it one-on-one," Dustin explained, bottom lip poking out in the beginnings of a sulk.

Hunter shrugged, the motion causing more glitter to rain down from his hair. "Then you accepted the risks."

"But-"

"Okay," Cyber Cam began, recapturing the other two's attention. "The way I see it, so long as it's a group event it is perfectly reasonable for there to be… "interference". At least, if it's within the scope of your character."

The two rangers blinked at him, confusion setting on, and eventually Hunter asked, "What, now you bust out the big words?"

"Dude, we gotta keep this legit," Cyber Cam replied, smiling cheekily. "Now, messing with one-on-one sessions would be a different story-"

"Because it would be mean," Dustin muttered, throwing a meaningful look in Hunter's direction that the blond chose to ignore.

"Uh…yeah, what he said," Cyber Cam continued. "But in this instance, I would say Hunter's in the clear."

"And he can't re-use the craft-making thing?" Hunter prompted, trying to see how far he could push his luck.

By the hologram's casual shrug, he was not disappointed. "Sure, those are the rules."

With that, the program disappeared back to…wherever he usually was, probably checking on the others.

Hunter smiled triumphantly, pulling his arms up over his head to stretch out his back, savoring his victory.

Beside him, Dustin pouted, or at least, this was what Hunter assumed, and then kicked the side of the blond's leg lightly, as if on principal. When the crimson ranger looked back at him, the other teen was frowning, arms crossed defensively over his chest as he glared down at the glitter puddling beneath their feet.

"I don't like you right now," he admitted, sounding put off.

When Hunter ruffled his hair in reply, he wasn't surprised when Dustin gave his leg another aggravated nudge.

All was fair in love and war.

And also, Ninja Storm bets.

-:-:-:-:-:-

There was tinsel, and a tree to be decorated, approached in the late hours of the night when Cam and Dustin were safely out of the picture.

It would be safe to say that they used most of the tinsel to decorate each other. Which, of course, inevitably led to other activities. Activities Dustin would most certainly not be pleased with.

As it turned out, he was more upset that Hunter had snatched up the romantic-tree-decoration situation before he could.

Hunter had jokingly replied ‘If you snooze, you lose’.

Dustin had jokingly replied by dumping a container of red glitter all over his head.

Looked like somebody was a little slow at forgiving.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Hunter managed to get roped into shopping anyway, despite his best efforts, but on the bright side he was with Shane and Shane alone, no psychotic Tori's or anal-retentive Cam's to lecture him on proper present-shopping etiquette. Bad news was that Christmas shopping was neither sexy nor romantic, and couldn't be done in the Ops, and try as he might Hunter could not figure out an overdone cliché to use as a last resort, so at the end of the day Hunter had kept quiet and followed orders, dutifully toting around Shane's bags and cracking jokes whenever the air ninja looked the most stressed.

It wasn't…horrible. At least, not as much as it could have been. Sure, the mall was loud and busy, brimming with waves upon waves of people all moving with urgency, eyes focused on lists and tallies and flyers, but it could have been worse. Years of training allowed the two ninjas to maneuver through most of the crowds with quiet ease. While there was a certain sense of pressure and stress, deadlines and tight budgets, everyone was mindful of their manners, trying to keep to themselves and follow the rules so that everyone could get out at fast as they could.

It was a weird kind of social courtesy that gave Hunter just a bit of the creeps, at least, whenever he wasn't rejection its existence entirely, but he had to admit he owed that mass of strangers some thanks for helping him and Shane finish up with their shopping in record time.

So…there was one point for humanity.

They dropped the bags off at Shane's house before retreating back to Ninja Ops, Shane making a bee-line for Hunter's bed as soon as they made it into the blond's room, collapsing face-down in a dramatic slump and bearing no degree of the grace he had been previously demonstrating.

Endearing and entertaining as hell, but still, Hunter found himself missing it. He liked seeing how Shane, who obviously had the broadest and most built physique on their team, possess so much agility, defying all preconceptions and sticking the finger to reality herself. It was fun to watch. Shane didn't seem like the kind of guy who could slink into a room without anyone knowing; he was too charismatic, so social and loud and full of life that the very idea of him hiding boggled Hunter's brain, which somehow made him that much more attractive. Like he was shouting out this obnoxious defiance without ever uttering a word.

It was sexy as hell. Made Hunter want things he knew he wasn't close to having yet.

But that was irrelevant.

"Thank God that's over," Shane sighed into his pillow, turning his face wearily to watch as Hunter made his way over to him, eyebrows raised at the red ranger's display.

Hunter smirked, taking a seat right next to Shane's side and reached out to give the other teen a few comforting pats. "Now that's the Christmas spirit."

"Quiet you," Shane murmured, batting a barely menacing finger in the blond's direction. "It's been crazy at my house, getting everything cleaned and decorated and then there's shopping and chauffeuring my little sister around to all of her…" he trailed off, head flopping back down against the pillow, weariness evident from the hectic schedule of the holidays."Sorry, it's stupid to complain."

"Eh, we're cool," Hunter replied easily, keeping his tone light. Subconsciously he began to rub small circles on the tenser parts of Shane's shoulders, moving in slow steady patterns to ease the tightness away.

His response earned him a few tired chuckles; Shane turned his head again, looking Hunter in the eye, contented smile stretching across his face. "Thank you for coming with me. I know I didn't give you much choice."

"You're welcome," Hunter answered quietly, brushing off the latter half of Shane's statement and focusing more on the red ranger's shoulders, moving his other hand to join in the fray. "If I came with you and you are still this pathetic, I would hate to see how you would have done without me."

"I probably would have punched a few sales people," Shane admitted sheepishly, half-lidded eyes still focused on Hunter until the blond hit a particularly sore spot on his back, lids closing as small moan of appreciation escaped from his throat. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you are the best."

That earned a laugh from Hunter that he didn't really think about it, mind already moving into overdrive as inspiration hit him, brilliant in its simplicity.

"Not sure how I could take that the wrong way," Hunter responded, turning around so that he was propped up on his knees and leaning over Shane's back, giving him better leverage to continue his massage.

"Ego," Shane choked out between moans. "Doesn't need to get bigger."

"I'll be sure to keep it in line then," Hunter murmured, pressing his thumbs into the tense spots right where Shane's neck met his shoulder, working out the tightness in small, methodic motions. He kept it up for a few minutes; Shane completely surrendered to the mercy of his hands while Hunter continued his work at a leisurely pace. Eventually the blond slipped one hand underneath the hem of Shane's shirt, feeling at the warm, tanned skin below. The air ninja tensed at the sudden intrusion, surprised by it, before relaxing again, and soon Hunter's other hand slipped under as well, kneading at the abused muscle.

He continued his work without complaint, going for a solid ten minutes until Shane turned over suddenly, causing Hunter to lose his balance and fall against the other teen's chest, blinking in owlish confusion while Shane let out a couple of quiet chuckles and helped him readjust, allowing him to lay against other teen's chest.

Massage over, Hunter guessed.

"You are too good to me," Shane murmured, brushing away the hair framing the side of Hunter's face, because he was particularly sappy like that, and Hunter had enough experience to know that saying anything to the contrary would lead to nothing but useless arguments (even if it was true), so he leaned into the touch instead.

"In that case," he said, devilish smirk gracing his features. "I believe some compensation is in order."

Shane smiled brightly in reply, other hand reaching to cradle the side of Hunter's face. "I think I can manage something."

And…yeah, they managed something.

-:-:-:-:-:-

The next day Dustin was still pissed that Hunter had managed to add eighteen lazy kisses to his total count, somehow managing to score points despite being involved in activities he neither planned nor particularly wanted to participate in.

Cyber Cam allowed it anyway, because Hunter was a winner.

And winners won.

-:-:-:-:-:-

When Hunter stumbled upon Dustin (and of course this was completely by chance and nothing at all to do with secret alerts he had Cyber Cam set up whenever the brunette was in the vicinity, of course) the yellow ranger was obviously in the midst of some monumental arts and crafts efforts. Not at all surprising, given his track record with the ornaments, but Hunter still paused to make a more thorough inspection of the scene, eyes narrowing as he caught sight of the bowl of Hershey's Kisses resting on the table beside the brunette.

Further analysis brought the current focus of Dustin's attention into light, a medium sized Styrofoam ball balanced carefully in his hands as the yellow ranger dabbed at it with small drops of hot glue, fixing a wrapped Hershey's kiss to any of the blank surfaces. As Hunter looked closer he could see a sort of ribbon attached to the top of…whatever Dustin was working on, dangling over the edge of his knee and draping onto the floor, shining in the florescent lights.

"No."

"What?" Hunter asked, mentally reviewing the last few seconds to see that yes, Dustin had actually spoken to him, despite keeping his attention on the craft in his hands.

"No, you may not have any candy and no, you can't have my idea."

There may have been some surprised blinking on Hunter's part, thrown by the determination in Dustin's tone, but he brushed it off and quickly moved on, trying to figure out what the yellow ranger's idea exactly was.

A few minutes later a slurry of holiday commercials attacked at the edge of Hunter's memory, slowly invading until he remembered a certain Hershey's commercial, and certain lingo he had thought at the time could not get any more painful.

"A Kissletoe?" he questioned, wincing at the pun-ful marketing campaign. "I thought we said-"

"This isn't mistletoe," Dustin replied very matter-of-factly. "I got Cyber Cam to approve it."

"You gotta admit," The program began once Hunter turned to throw a glare at the ceiling, as there was no physical representation for him to address his disdain to. "It's kind of clever."

"It's a waste of chocolate is what it is," Hunter grumbled, crossing his arms and giving Dustin's creation one last look of contempt. It continued to remain a holiday monstrosity so the crimson ranger snatched up a handful of chocolates from the bowl as emotional recompense, ignoring Dustin's efforts to bat his hand away.

If the yellow ranger was going to misuse puns, then Hunter was going to get candy.

It was only fair.

-:-:-:-:-:-

After Dustin scored point number ten with his stupid "Kissletoe", Shane and Hunter blitzed the thing, stealing it away for a late snack run and enjoying its delicacies in the comfort of Hunter's room, laughing at the melted bottoms and keeping score of who could sink the most bright foil wrappers into Hunter's trashcan. It was Shane's first delve into living on the wild side, by destroying his friend's hard work, but as he was a legitimately good guy at the core he managed to make up for it, replacing the craft with actual mistletoe to keep the tradition alive.

Sugar-high kisses were not the most lasting, generally delivered between laughter and quiet murmurs, snuck in between words on an impulse or whim, a quiet reaffirmation of their care, of their fondness, and all in all, very nice.

Yeah, it was mushy and dumb and ended too soon, but at least Hunter got some use from Dustin's "Kissletoe".

It also landed him two weeks of lab-dusting duty, but Cam was very insistent it was unrelated to any of Hunter's actions.

But Hunter was okay with that.

It had been worth it.

-:-:-:-:-:-

"God damn snow monster," Hunter grumbled, pulling his borrowed scarf back over his nose so that only his eyes were visible, glaring at the white landscape around them as the other rangers (specifically Tori, who had the good fortune of owning snow gear from a couple family ski-trips) frolicked about the ice-cold wetness.

Stupid Lothor. Stupid Lothor and his stupid, stupid-

A snowball thwacked against the back of Hunter's head, and the only reason he did not go ballistic then and there was because he knew who the guilty party was, see as all the others were firmly in his line of view. Only Shane would be brave enough to risk Hunter's wrath anyway; the blond had made it well known after he had put on sweater number three that he would tolerate no shit from any of them if they wanted him to partake in team snow-day.

There was a not-so-muffled laugh behind him, Shane's joyful tones resonating and lost in the tree trunks of their personal winter wonderland and Hunter froze, fists clenching, trying to decide a new plan of action.

He wasn't very creative. In his defense, he was encountering a level of coldness he had never had the pleasure of being acquainted with, so Hunter's sharp thinking abilities were compromised in favor of satisfaction now, and in the next instant he was off like a rocket, chasing after the quiet laughs behind him and scooping up his own handful of snow, intent on giving the red ranger a taste of his own medicine.

They ended up hurling snowballs at each other for a good twenty minutes, bouncing through the tree branches while their teammates played below them, Blake and Dustin intently focused on creating their snowman's torso and Tori experimenting with her snow-controlling capabilities, Cam monitoring her progress in thoughtful silence. Hunter wasn't really sure who had hit whom with the most snowballs; they were moving too fast to see if any of his were connecting, but he could safely say he was much colder and wetter than he would have liked to be. He had a feeling Shane just might be cheating a little, guiding the damn things with air currents because some of the shots he was managing seemed physically impossible, but Hunter wasn't one to complain about unfair advantages. The world wasn't fair; put on your big-boy pants and deal with it.

"Do you give up?" Shane chirped, eyeing the sodden crimson ranger with an expression of glee as he hung upside down from a tree limb just out of Hunter's reach. He was toying with a snowball in his hands, throwing it from side-to-side and catching it easily, eyes never moving from their focus on the thunder ranger.

Damn show off.

Hunter contemplated this, knowing that it was only stubbornness and pride that made him want to keep going despite how persistently un-snowballed his boyfriend remained. A quick status check was enough to see that with the adrenaline waning he was just cold and wet, fingers numb and usual sensation replaced with fiery pinpricks. His nose was threatening to run, gross, and the only thing he really wanted to do was go back inside where it was warm so he could regain feeling in all of his extremities.

"Yes," Hunter replied simply, unable to think of a witty retort. Stupid snow, it was his causticness' kryptonite. Hunter would be out of his mind with joy the moment the effects of the snow monster's attack finally wore off.

"What, no sarcasm?" Shane asked cheerfully, eyes bright as he spun the snowball in a complicated fashion and nicked it out of the air just before it was out of reach.

Hunter glared at him half-heartedly, readjusting his scarf back over his nose. "I left it inside, where it's dry."

He gave a long sniff after this declaration, trying in vain to prevent his nose's attempted water works. He was mildly successful, but wouldn't be for long. He needed to get back indoors.

When he looked back at Shane, the snowball was gone.  The red ranger studied him carefully, smile slipping off his face in favor of concern which- no, they didn't need that, so Hunter waved a hand at him, indicating he was okay.

"I'm fine," he said, tugging at the bottom of his outmost layer of sweaters. They ignored his attempts and refused to budge, stubborn in their own way, and he shrugged. "Just grumpy, you know."

It wasn't until he felt the branch he was on dip downwards that he noticed Shane moved, the red ranger now sitting quietly beside him, tiny smile on his face as he reached towards the loops of scarf around Hunter's neck.

"Yeah well," Shane replied quietly, pulling the knitted fabric down so he could have a full view of Hunter's face, cheeks flushed and nose red, bitten by the cold. "That's part of your charm."

The kiss that followed was chaste and sweet, communicating affection and apology all in one. When Shane pulled back he had an arm around Hunter's waist and squeezed him to his side, once, experimentally, before pulling back with a laugh.

"Holy crap you really are soaked!" he cheered, smiling through his chuckles.

Hunter to frowned in displeasure, picking at the sleeves of his borrowed clothes as they stubbornly clung to him.

"No Shane, this is simply a ploy to earn more cuddling apologies. The real Hunter is inside Ninja Ops, laughing at your foolishness."

Shane cocked his head to the side, smile stretched across his face, relief and familiarity and fondness all rolled into one, because Shane was a man of expressions loud and clear.

"It's not a bad plan," he admitted, leaning forward and rubbing his cheek against the side of Hunter's, one of the few places that remained dry. He pulled back with a knowing smirk, enjoying the newest wave of heat rising to Hunter's cheeks. "Shall we go inside to ensure its success?"

"My dear Shane," Hunter began, taking on a light and sophisticated tone, inwardly smiling at the joy the air ninja derived from it. "I thought you would never ask."

The dark-haired teen shrugged casually in return, grin still firmly in place. "My apologies, I'm a slow learner."

"Yeah well," Hunter replied, covering his smile with his drenched accessory. "That's part of your charm."

The run back to Ninja Ops was highly more enjoyable than the snowball fight, only put on hold for a brief moment when Hunter tackled Shane into a snowdrift, returning the favor his boyfriend had so graciously done for him. They ended the afternoon with laughs and casual elbows to the side, taking turns assisting each other with the removal of wet clothing (from the waist up, of course, because lady fate was a cruel dame like that) and passing snippy remarks over the steady thrum of hot water in the community showers, separated by thin sheets of metal and curtains, effectively keeping Hunter from his own temptations, satisfying him with the simple joys of now.

Yeah, he could be poetic. Shocking, he knew.

Afterwards they made cocoa for the others and collapsed in a pile on the couch, Hunter listing potential illnesses Shane could have riddled him with and the red ranger apologizing for them appropriately, fixing the blond teen's lips each time with a gratifying kiss.

So…take that Dustin.

Hunter didn't even have to be sick to reap the benefits.

And that, was victory.

-:-:-:-:-:-

There was the slightest chance that Hunter might have gotten sick anyway, though he was refusing to acknowledge it. Because if he acknowledged being sick, he would have to acknowledge that he would have to put a halt on his kissing plans, and if he put a halt on his kissing plans then Dustin would be that much closer to beating him so therefore, by very obvious logic, Hunter couldn't be sick. Mind over matter and all that.

He had toughed through harder shit before anyway; it wasn't like he couldn't just shake this off as well. He was a Power Ranger for Christ's sake, this was nothing. He was not, under any circumstances, going to surrender to a tiny case of the sniffles.

After making this decision, there might have been a chance that Hunter had passed out in the kitchen, but that wasn't a sure thing. Yeah, he could admit that the last thing he remembered was waiting for the stupid toaster oven to finish making food his stomach may or may not decide to digest, and then the next thing he knew he was in his bed, but Hunter liked to think that he had conditioned his body so well that he had simply zoned out, in a very…restful fashion, and didn't come back to his senses until after he was back in his bed, because bed's were amazing.

And clearly Shane's presence hovering by his side did nothing but support this theory, so Hunter went ahead and gave himself one of those imaginary points that made him feel like he was accomplishing something in life and decided to call it a day.

Also, he wasn't freaking sick.

So when Shane insisted that he get some rest and then finished off this declaration with a couple of stern glares that were less-cute than Hunter would have liked, the blond went ahead and followed his orders. Not because he was sick, but because he liked it when Shane was happy, and if all he had to do was sleep to make that happen then he really, really could not get a boyfriend of lower-maintenance.

Who was a winner? This guy.

Despite Hunter's status of non-sickness, he still didn't earn himself a kiss. Not that- yeah, he shouldn't have anyway, because him sleeping in a bed with Shane mother-henning like it was his goddamn job wasn't all that sexy a situation, but still, he was kind of disappointed.

But hey, he couldn't really complain that much. He got food that magically came to him and a warm bed and a cool hand running through his hair, along with quiet chatter that he couldn't really understand (lack of effort really, not because of something else) and a constant presence by his bedside.

And Hunter was okay with that. It was a fair exchange.

-:-:-:-:-:-

A few days later Hunter and Dustin would argue the validity of head-kisses in their rom-com wager, because Hunter had received at least three of those during his period of mandatory bed rest (by Cyber Cam's count because…sleep).

In the end, they came to the unanimous decision that "Person nursing sick romantic interest" was one of the most used and cheesy romantic clichés, so Hunter was given his points.

So…yeah, that had totally been on purpose.

Totally.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Shane didn't stay over at Ninja Ops too often - something about his family's constant presence in his home making the process of sneaking in and out difficult - but every once and a while, when the occasion was particularly special, he would fake a sleepover at Dustin's and join Hunter at the Ops, allowing them some very sacred alone time.

It was easier now that it was the holidays. Both of Shane's parents were still working and his sister had so many different activities that she wasn’t never home enough to care where her older brother was slipping off to. Porter was still out of town - there was some crucial meeting for his company or some other boring shit that Hunter couldn't be bothered to remember - so instead he just focused on being grateful that he could finally have his boyfriend all to himself.

He was waiting for Shane to finish up some conversation with Dustin, the two having spent a majority of the evening throwing popcorn at each other while they were assaulted yet again with the mind-numbing trash Dustin was so insistent on watching. But, whatever, fine, that gave Hunter more time to get his plan prepared.

He quickly went ran over his mental checklist again, making sure he had all the appropriate tools needed for him to carry off the perfect, sappily romantic evening of stargazing.

Extra blankets? Check.

Lantern? Check.

Shane's shoes? Check.

MP3 player with portable speaker for mood music? Check.

Hunter still wasn't entirely sure if he was going to make use of the fourth item (might be overdoing it there, just a tad) but he may or may not have "borrowed" it from Cam, so it was going to come along for the ride anyway, just in case.

"You," Hunter said, pointing in Shane's direction as soon as the darker teen rounded the corner, not bothering to look up as he repositioned the blankets in his arms. "Get over here."

"Sure," Shane replied easily, brushing off the brusqueness of Hunter's demand and saying goodnight to Dustin, missing the yellow ranger's quick, narrow-eyed inspection and making his way to Hunter's side. "What are we doing?"

"You are putting on shoes," Hunter responded vaguely, using his free hand to scoop up the lantern while still avoiding eye contact with Shane. "After that, who knows?"

There was a quiet laugh, muffled as Shane bent down to pull on his shoes, "I think you do."

"Yeah well, hurry up and you'll get to as well."

"Roger that."

They made their way outside quietly, Shane following Hunter's lead and relieving him of the lantern, content enough with what they were doing not to question it. Sometimes Hunter wondered if all this new romantic-ness was freaking Shane out, but Hunter was quick to disregard that concern. It was easier on the mind. Besides, Shane made it clear he was okay with dating him, and dating people did romantic things, so obviously everything was fine. Hunter was the only one freaking out. Minimally though, to his credit.

Shane was walking close beside him, slightly behind so he could see where Hunter was going, but still near enough to brush arms with Hunter.

The blond wanted to reach down and grab Shane's hand. That was cheesy right? Corny and cliché and no, there was not a part of him that wanted to do that ‘just because’ and disregard the benefits of the bet.  That would be stupid, and if Hunter was anything, it wasn't stupid-

Shane took care of the dilemma for him, sliding his palm against the inside of Hunter's arm and taking a firm hold of his hand, because he was Shane and that was what he did, and it was… sweet. Very nice. Hunter didn't comment on it though, kept looking forward, but if his hand just happened to give Shane's an approving squeeze back then so what, it was nobody's business but his.

Eventually they made it to Hunter's grove, this one little clearing he had spent hours searching for and considering, trying to decide if it was perfect, where they would set up, if the view would be okay. Not that Shane would ever know, because Hunter was a boss that downsized his efforts with the best of them.  He strolled over casually to the spot he had painstakingly decided on and threw his blankets down in a scattered pile.

"Here's good," he declared, crouching down on his heels to position the blankets carefully, with casual yanks, thankful that the spot had remained clear of the pinecones and other rocks he had rooted out earlier.

"Of course," Shane replied, cheerful, like he had been on board all along; glad to share in this adventure.

It was as nice as Hunter had thought it would be, because he was getting into the terrible habit of setting these high expectations and he shouldn't- he needed to stop doing that, but something about Shane just… it made him want nice things. Because Shane was a very, very nice thing and Hunter liked these little moments, these stupidly cheesy things, because sure, maybe it was painful to watch them because the blaring attribute of cliché and whatever, but when it was him, and he got to be the one experiencing it, it was incredibly nice.

A guy could get used to such happy things.

Not that Hunter would ever tell anyone.

They settled in side by side under a bundle of blankets, fighting off the evening chill as they huddled together, staring up at the stars. They spoke quietly, jabbing their free hands up at the sky and tracing imaginary lines between the brilliant, far-off glimmers. Inventing new constellations and re-naming the old, all the while neglecting to comment on their still-twined fingers, because why the hell would that ever be necessary?

Later on, when they would fall into a comfortable silence, Hunter would admit to himself that he didn't give a damn if this instance earned him no kisses.

He had gotten what he wanted.

-:-:-:-:-:-

It wasn't even Hunter's fault, when things started to go bad. Though to be fair, in this instance "bad" was relatively tame in comparison to Hunter's normal bad. And to be fair to Shane, it was pretty undeniable that Hunter had been leaving an explicit trail of breadcrumbs and hints that actually led to the "bad" occurring, but what Hunter actually meant, and was subsequently unimportant but still something he decided to note anyway, was that Shane had been the one to instigate the "romantic interaction" that led to Hunter fucking things up.

As was his way.

Though to be triply fair (which was an explanation Hunter was growing more sarcastically fond of, regarding in contempt to try and apply rules to a chaotic world that so obviously rejected them), in this particular case Hunter didn't actually screw up too terribly awful. At least, when it was all done and over Shane would only feel mildly concerned while Hunter would feel like a sleazebag, so in his book this was pretty much a resounding success.

It had all started off innocently enough; it always started off innocently enough because if it hadn't Hunter would have run for the goddamn hill before things had started, and yet it didn't, and things were fine, so Hunter had stayed where he was.

He had been in his room of Ninja Ops, carefully combing through the pages of a book Tori had lent him to pass time during his term of not-sickness, enjoying the quiet solitude. He didn't need to retreat to it much anymore; hadn't before because of Blake, but Blake had other family now, others to look out for him, so now Hunter could set aside a few moments for himself, to just… think. Or in this case, enjoy a book.

It was a freaking ridiculous book, experimental, Tori had said, but the words somehow composed these frightening images that both horrified and intrigued him, beautiful pictures of solitude and questions on how one defined themselves and the world around them. It was heavy, he guessed. Looney tunes, would be another good way to describe it. Still, it made Hunter feel like he was at least bettering himself intellectually to read it, so he didn't feel bad wasting time with it when he could be training.

So Hunter had been reading, just as calm and easy as he pleased, stretched across his bed and room dim except for the light emanating from the lamp by his bedside, adding to the ‘spooky’ effect of the book. Yeah, he got it, he was wasting his eyesight, but it was just Hunter and he wanted a dark room, so a dark room he got.

He wasn't surprised by the sudden rays of light invading his space as his door was casually pushed open, no knocks, and only managed a mildly perturbed look when Shane followed the light, shutting the door behind him with a flick of his hand and leaving them to the darkness once more. He was smiling, Hunter could tell from that brief second of brightness, a look of satisfaction that bore no ill intent, that was aimed at Hunter. Like there was a joined victory they would both enjoy. Awesome. Maybe Cam had burned off his eyebrows or something, that would be nice. Though Hunter doubted that was something Shane would appreciate nearly as much as him, probably because he had a conscience or whatever.

Must be exhausting, working around that all the time.

"You'll hurt your eyes if you keep this up," Shane greeted, tone fond regardless of the mild lecture.

Hunter shrugged, showing that he both acknowledged and completely disregarded this fact, and shuffled over to the side, allowing his boyfriend room to sit next to him.  "It's more relaxing this way," Hunter replied, reaching over to the bedside table and grabbing his bookmark. He wouldn't be able to focus on the story with Shane here anyway, not that he'd really want to. There were better… more active things to do when the red ranger was near.

"Have it your way," Shane said lightly, breezing off the conversation, causing Hunter to narrow his eyes slightly. Normally Shane would argue with him a few more good minutes just for the hell of it (because that was the stupid way they flirted, but hell, at least it happened), so the fact that he was moving on…

He had one of his arms tucked behind his back, Hunter noticed, and the smug grin from earlier was coming back full force, Shane's eyes bright with excitement and whatever other dopey words Dustin would use in this particular situation, and Hunter had about two seconds to prepare himself before Shane whipped out his prize triumphantly, holding above their heads, in an oh-so innocent fashion, a single sprig of mistletoe.

Hunter couldn't help it, he laughed. Because hey, he hadn't brought it out, and then he was eagerly throwing his arms around Shane's neck, the red ranger tossing his book off to the side with one hand and the mistletoe with the other, eagerly closing the distance between them.

It was Hunter's favorite type of make out session, the ones that where they had guaranteed privacy, where time wasn't an issue. It was only an added bonus that it added to his kissing-total with the bet.

There were hands and heat and friction, just… there, just there and they found that steady rhythm, Shane cradling the back of Hunter's head, hand tangled in his hair while the other one moved to the blond's side, steadying his waist between periodic grazes, like he was searching for a ticklish spot. He would find none, but Hunter was always fond of his stubborn attempts to try, and quickly moved, sitting up fully and throwing a leg over Shane's other side so that he was straddling his lap, taking care of that stupid distance problem and allowing Hunter more freedom to feel up his boyfriend.

Seriously, Shane's back was unfairly sexy. And his arms, and his… everything. It left Hunter too distracted, how was he supposed to prioritize and fixate on the sweet spots when Shane's damn biceps were hypnotizing? It was an injustice, that was for sure, but at least Hunter's Shane-ADD helped for building up anticipation. And Shane definitely approved by the sound of it.

Hunter ground against the other's hips, causing a shuttered moan from Shane, and eagerly moved onto the red ranger's throat, sucking at that sensitive spot between his collar bone and the base of his neck. Yeah, that was most certainly a noise of approval, Shane moving the hand on Hunter's waist around his lower back, pulling the blond closer so they could do away with that space-nonsense, it was overrated that was for sure, before making their way underneath Hunter's shirt, skimming across his back in an almost exploratory feel before settling on the slight dip in his waist, rubbing small circles as Hunter continued his work.

"Hunter-" Shane choked out, interrupted by a quick intake of air as Hunter bit down on a particularly tender spot, and then the red ranger would take no more, pulling a hand out from under Hunter's shirt so that he could grab the side of his face and redirect the blond's attention back to his lips. Which, yeah, Hunter was really cool with that, really, really-

Nipping- shit, Shane was alternating between demanding entrance into Hunter's mouth and gently probing with his tongue, showing both restraint and dominance and damn- hot, that was so goddamn hot-

Hunter opened his mouth eagerly, because French kisses, yeah, that was one of the few things in the world that wasn't overrated, didn't nearly get the credit it rightly deserved as an intimate social interaction-

Words and- words were getting harder to think of; Shane had a habit of doing that to him sometimes, and it was all good, it was but-

The damn shirt was in the way. Frustratingly taunting Hunter with its worn softness, that it got to cling to Shane while Hunter had to settled for sporadic feels and blocking his access, and he deserved his access-

The shirt had to go, so Hunter grabbed its edged and pulled it up Shane's torso, slowly, to draw out the reveal, and broke off the kiss so that he could properly appreciate his boyfriend's abs.  Yes, that was the highlight of his day, and from the corner of his eye he could see the darker teen blushing, heat coloring his already flushed cheeks appropriately red and Hunter smirked, just- reveling in it. That this was his. This was his and suck it to everyone else, he got this.

Shane finished pulling the shirt off, probably to stop Hunter's gawking (which he would proudly own up to; hell, he would make banners declaring his actions to the entire world if he could). It wasn't surprising that he quickly returned the favor right after, yanking up Hunter's shirt with less prowess, still embarrassed from the blond's earlier examination.

Hunter helped eagerly, throwing off the stupid crimson t-shirt and closing the distance between Shane and himself once more, taking well-earned satisfaction in the feeling of skin on skin, no more clothing mocking his advancements.

He wanted Shane naked. A lot. A whole hell of a lot. They hadn't gotten to that stage yet. Shirts off was as far as they had gotten. Hands and mouths and… other things, things Hunter wouldn't mention, had been explored as possibilities but never fully committed to, which was a damn shame but he hadn’t wanted to push.

Except for pushing Shane down against the bed, that was totally fair, Hunter figured. Nothing wrong with having a remarkably built, incredibly attractive male posed underneath you, shirtless and flushed and completely yours to have your way with, except-

For comfort zones, because they wouldn't get beyond this. They wouldn't get beyond this so much that Hunter sort of ached, but he couldn't- he could not go farther without Shane's approval. He wanted Shane to be the one to take things farther because then he would know they were okay, that they were safe and that was what he wanted. Because Shane was a remarkably great guy and he loved Hunter, but years and years of "you should like girls" did not simply go away because of one person. Hunter understood that. He understood he was an exception, not the rule, and as that exception it was his job to take things slow, even if he really, really didn't want to.

Even if that was essentially the basis of this bet, to be gooey and advance their relationship and-

A thought occurred to Hunter, striking him still as he peered down at Shane, breathless and flushed and sprawled underneath him, because Hunter had put him there.

Just like Hunter had initiated the clothing-removal and Hunter had heated up Shane's initial kisses and closed the distance and-

Hunter had been pushing Shane. This entire damn bet had been pushing Shane, throwing their relationship into overdrive when it barely had its first legs and urging the red ranger, consciously or not, for things to progress at a speed faster than they normally would have. Hunter hadn't shown restraint, he hadn't even been fucking thinking had he? Just, jumped straight into things and dragged Shane along.  Shane, who had worked so hard to get Hunter and was running to keep up, no complaints, because that was what Shane did. Even if he had been the instigator this time, he had started it, Hunter had still-

He hadn't done right by Shane. He hadn't. And it had taken him way too long to figure that out.

Hunter realized maybe he had allowed his mind to wander for a too long when concern began edging its way into Shane's eyes, concern that had no place there, and Hunter blinked, indicating an obvious jolt, and looked down at Shane innocently. Or, as innocently beseeching as someone like Hunter could ever manage.

"Is something-?" Shane began to ask, sentence most likely ending with "wrong?" but Hunter interrupted him quickly, keeping his tone light.

"What time is it?"

Which was… unnecessary, because Hunter could see the clock on his bedside table as well as Shane could, meaning in this case he just wanted Shane to see the time for himself to verify the existence of an engagement Hunter had every intention of making up then and there.

"Two thirteen?" Shane answered, eyebrows furrowed as he fought to think up what he could have missed, if there was a training he had forgotten.

"I have a thing," Hunter declared, shaking his head as though to say "how stupid am I?"/ "You and your dumb abs have distracted me damn it" and hopping up from the bed, scooping his t-shirt off the floor casually, making an effort to keep the small quiver out of his hands. "I promised Dustin-" he began, pausing to pull his shirt back over his head. He turned back around, making vague gestures at Shane. "Christmas stuff, you know. Sorry."

He moved forward, resting his knees against the side of the bed and bending forward to give Shane a quick kiss, hand gripping the side of the other teen's face gently, for just a second, before he completely withdrew, forcing a devilish smirk onto his face.

"We'll finish up later," he offered with a wink, picking up his borrowed book from where it had been discarded onto the floor and placing it on his nightstand, straightening up with a slow stretch. Easy, practiced movements.

"Seriously?" Shane asked, voice disbelieving of Hunter's time maintenance as opposed to his story altogether.

Hunter chose to reply with an apologetic shrug. "Just think happy thoughts," the blond replied coyly, smile becoming somewhat genuine at Shane's returned glower.

He ignored the abandoned mistletoe resting on the floor beside his foot, always taunting, and left before he could ruin the moment, while everything was still believable, allowing Shane's complaints to reverberate in his mind as he tried to figure out what the hell his next step should be. Reassessing, that was for sure, and then… well, he'd go from there.

At least he wasn't totally lying though. Hunter really needed to see Dustin, even if it hadn't been scheduled.

There were words they needed to share.

-:-:-:-:-:-

"You win, you're a winner, I surrender," Hunter declared, entering the room without so much as a hello. He knew Dustin was alone, working on… oh, he was preparing bread dough or something, probably going for a romantic dinner.  Neither of them had tried that yet.

"But-" Dustin began, eyes wide as he stared at Hunter in confusion, random patches of flour dusted across his cheeks and fingers sticky with the gooey tan mass on the counter.

"Nope," Hunter cut off his argument with a firm shake of his head. "I formally relinquish my remote-rights to you for the next month. Congratulations."

Dustin frowned, eyebrows furrowed, puzzled and beginning to worry. "But you were winning."

"Yeah well," Hunter started, looking off to the side and shoving his hands in his pockets, new wave of sour discontent bubbling in his stomach. "Now you are."

He didn't stick around to chat after that announcement, instead choosing to leave, managing to take some pride in the fact that he hadn't given the answer that had truly been on his mind.

Because no, he hadn't been.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Hunter didn't necessarily pull back after that, because he had withdrawn from Shane before and the red ranger would never stand to have it happen again, but Hunter tried his damndest not to push anymore. They still spent time together, still did those gooey, couple-y things they took great joy from both mocking and participating in, but Hunter didn't reach out anymore. He didn't start impromptu massages or spontaneous kisses or hugs or anything beyond casual touches, didn't collapse onto Shane when he was taking up the majority of the couch, tried his best not to do any more blatant ogling (which was almost pathetically difficult, because damn Shane, damn), and attempted to be more of a gentleman in general.

It… hurt, sort of, because without him taking the initiative their contacts began to dwindle into just the sweet, casual touches Shane preferred, like leaning against each other or throwing an arm around their shoulder or… not what Hunter did.

They regressed in intimacy.

Well, whatever, that was fine. Shane was happy so Hunter was happy, and if everyone was happy, there was no point in complaining.

So he wouldn't.

-:-:-:-:-:-

"What's wrong with you?" Dustin asked, descending down from the air vent (the goddamn air vent) with quietly, breaking Hunter from the half-assed meditation he had been stubbornly trying for.

Aside from the sudden tension in his hands (looked like someone had been working on their sneak skills), the blond remained still.  He made a show of popping his neck, feigning normality. "First of all, I thought Cam wanted you to stop messing with those." 'Those', being the air vents. "And second of all, I am as awesome as I normally am, so if you could not start spreading horrible misinformed rumors declaring otherwise, I would really appreciate it."

"Dude," Dustin began in a tone that said he hadn't picked up half of Hunter's speech and didn't particularly feel like doubling back to make sense of it. "You're doing that thing where you're all casual and cool and business as usual, except you're smiling a lot less so yeah, something's wrong with you, and I'm not leaving until you tell me."

"You'd better set up camp then," Hunter replied, voice terse, closing his eyes and taking a slow, steady breath to prepare for another poor attempt at medatation. "Because I'm fine."

There was a pause and then a belabored sigh from the across the room, forcing Hunter to make a conscious effort not to allow his eye to twitch, because it would, and then Dustin started talking again. "You are really, really not, Hunter."

"Two ‘really's?" Hunter asked, tone as sarcastic as he goddamn pleased. "Must be serious."

"Hunter-"

"Just leave me alone," he muttered. He had been trying for serenity, calmness, restraint. To step back and gather himself before he could do something truly stupid.

Or, stupid-er, to be fair.

"Hunter, I-" Dustin cut off, falling into an agitated silence as he attempted to storm up another approach that might work on Hunter, good luck with that. "I'm going to tell Shane about the bet."

"Don't-" Hunter cried, finally breaking out of his aloofness and jumping to his feet, studying Dustin carefully, keeping an eye on which direction the earth ninja could decide to go if he made a break for it. "Come on," he tried again, making his tone less demanding and more friendly, they were all friends here. "It was a stupid bet anyway."

For the most part Dustin chose to stare at him in concern, knowing he had hit a sore spot, and fidgeted with the hem of his t-shirt. "Yeah, but it made you sad. It did something, right? We were fine and doing good and…" He paused, trailing off as he cocked his head to the side, attacked by a sudden thought, and eyebrows furrowing further. "We were doing good right?'

"We were fine Dustin," Hunter reassured with a sigh, suddenly weary. "We weren't doing anything bad."

"Then why are you unhappy?" Dustin pressed on, earnest. "What made the bet okay for me that didn't make it okay for you?"

"Plenty of things," the blond mumbled, looking off to the side.

"Hunter-" Dustin tried again, fully prepared to continue this argument for as long as it was necessary, to pick and peck at Hunter's cracks and weaknesses until it all came tumbling out, until he had a full view of the chaotic roadmap of his mind, because that was his right. Because he was concerned for Shane and Hunter, because he was always concerned, so the crimson ranger relented, surrendering with as much dignity as he could and cutting off Dustin's response so he could at the very least regain partial control of the conversation.

"Cam's gay," where the first words out of Hunter's mouth. Which, yeah, didn't make a lot of sense so he backtracked, continuing to explain himself to keep Dustin from getting lost. "Cam is gay. That's established, absolute. He likes guys, he wants to date guys, there is no question about this."

"Obviously," Dustin replied, still looking a little baffled, but he made no further comment, allowing Hunter to continue.

The blond sighed and turned his attention to his feet, knowing his next words wouldn't be well-received. "Shane isn't gay."

"Dude-" Dustin began, but Hunter cut him off with a quick gesture, motioning that he understood Dustin's protests.

"Come on, can you honestly say you saw that coming, with Shane? That there was any kind of hint that he liked any dudes before me?"

There was a short pause where Dustin considered it, really gave it some thought.

When he eventually replied, it was with the answer Hunter had been afraid to hear. "Not really, but I'm..." He must have seen the disappointment in the crimson ranger's face because Dustin stepped forward quickly, trying to spit out words of encouragement. "Yeah but, I'm not really good with noticing things right? Besides, I didn't know you were gay."

"I'm bi," Hunter replied quietly, tired. "And you didn't notice because I didn't want you to."

"Well maybe Shane-"

"Come off it, Dustin," Hunter interrupted, trying and failing to keep the sharpness out of his tone. "We both know for Shane I'm like an exception, not the rule, and with all this…" he trailed off, shrugging his shoulders and opening his arms up vaguely, as though to indicate their wager. "These romantic things we're doing? It's like I'm pushing him into it and I shouldn't be, that isn't doing right by him. He should-" Hunter cut himself off, digging his hands through his hair in an attempt to make this sound less stupid than it was, but finding it impossible, because it was stupid. "He should want it. At his pace. I shouldn't be the one dragging him along and so what if he-" Hunter swallowed, shaking his head side to side. "If he doesn't ever want to do it. That's his call. I shouldn't pressure him into it just because I…"

He shrugged again - because Dustin liked those kinds of nonverbals, like it was some kind of surrender - and avoided looking at the other teen, unable to meet the expression of pity that would inevitably be there. "And that's about it."

He stopped, waiting for Dustin to leave or to maybe try some fruitless comfort that would make Hunter want to stab himself, marveling at how far he had managed to fall and was instead greeted by the very surprising, incredibly undetected entrance of one Shane Clarke, descending from the still-open air vent.

The first thought Hunter had upon processing this fact was, ‘Shit, they're getting smarter’ followed by conflicting waves of relief that he wouldn't have to repeat himself and distinct humiliation, clawing at his stomach ruthlessly as he had compromised himself so much in front of his boyfriend, a relationship he was supposed to be calmly taking the lead in and not freaking out about.  Or perhaps that was just what Hunter allowed himself to think so that he could go to sleep at night, but whatever, the next thing he knew Cam would be popping out from nowhere as well, lecturing Hunter on his numerous failures at emotional competence.

He was still searching the room for hidden trapdoors when the air ninja began to speak. "Is that was this was all about? How-?"

"Sort of," Hunter replied quickly, cutting the other teen off before the shame could totally consume him. "That would be what I had just talked about, but hey, now you know.  Isn't that great-?"

Shane frowned, eyebrows furrowing, probably concerned, but the blond ranger shook it off. "Hunter-"

"It's probably for the best-"

"Hunter-"

"There's no need to-"

"I told him about the bet."

Both of the red rangers paused, startled by Dustin's loud declaration. At least, Hunter was, but Shane seemed to recover from it quicker, filling in the puzzle pieces he had been missing to properly communicate with Hunter.

Awesome. Awesomeawesomeawesomeawesome , now Shane would be pissed, because they had done that scheming thing they had all promised not to do, they had even made an oath, how pitiful was that, that they needed an actual oath to keep them from collaborations on the down low-

"I thought it was sweet."

The statement took Hunter by surprise, bringing his train of thought to a jarring halt, forcing the blond to blink in stupid befuddlement, trying to figure out what Shane had meant.

Which was… very pathetic, because Shane had just told him what it meant.

Dustin had told the red ranger about the bet; the red ranger thought it was sweet. Furthermore, he didn't appear to be too angry about it, as Hunter had initially hypothesized.

Interesting.

"And while you're…" Shane trailed off, eyes narrowing in thought, contemplating the correct words before sighing and looking Hunter dead in the eye. "Hunter, you are frustrating as hell. And before you shrink back and try to-" The darker teen reached forward, grabbing onto the blond's wrists and pulling him towards his chest, as if to say "oh no you don't" because Hunter had been attempting to shrink back, in a very manly way. "Hunter," Shane began again, wrapping an arm around the crimson ranger's waist. "I appreciate what you did for me, and your concerns, but you know I'm team leader right?"

There were so many painfully sarcastic replies Hunter was dying to make, despite the obviously rhetorical nature of the question, but he managed, with great effort, to keep his mouth shut, replying with a simple nod so that Shane could continue to speak his peace.

It was clear that the other ranger acknowledged this struggle, squeezing the arm around his back briefly before speaking once more.

"Every time we go into a fight, we're dealing with a situation I have never encountered before. And it's frightening, because all of you depend on me to make the right call, but I learned, eventually, to push through that fear and commit to the best possible decision for that given situation.  I learned not to regret or lament those choices regardless of the outcome. I am set." Slowly, Shane's other arm snaked its way behind Hunter's back, pulling the thunder ranger close enough to eliminate all the distance between them.

Shane rested his forehead against Hunter's, which was one of their dopey romantic moments they allowed themselves for comfort, forcing Hunter to keep his eyes on Shane's, because there was no going back.

"I don't know if I'm gay," Shane declared, smoothing his palms against Hunter's back as the blond suddenly tensed - it was so much worse coming from him - but the dark-haired teen continued. "But I do know, without a doubt, that I love you. And while this might be new territory for me, I know what I want and I am far too committed to ever let you think you're just dragging me along. Where you go, I follow with no objections and wherever I am…" he trailed off, smiling brightly and moving one hand to cup the side of Hunter’s face, thumb brushing small patterns against his cheekbones. "You always stay with me. Because that's what relationships are. And I…" the red ranger shrugged bashfully, as if to say ‘What can you do?’.  "I wanted you to take the lead. I wanted you to be in control to make sure you were comfortable."

Which was… that was horribly stupid, because they had both been afraid of the same damn thing.  Hunter almost wished he was still in the betting-pool because this would have been a C-movie romantic comedy moment that would compare to no others, but there was still some confusion, because of the vagueness right before the think-a-like ending, and he almost didn't want to ask…

"What he essentially means is that he's ready for sex when you are," asshole Cam casually replied from his spot over by the door, lounging against Dustin and ruining their moment with no apology because he was a scrooge like that.

Hunter glared but it wasn’t totally be heartfelt because Shane was laughing, bold and outright, clutching Hunter to him. "Yeah," he chuckled, nuzzling his cheek against Hunter's face. "What he said."

"Good," Hunter muttered, feigning annoyance as Shane continued to make a nuisance of himself, fingers brushing just under the edge of Hunter's t-shirt in a clear tease. "Because what you said was confusing."

"Oh awesome," Dustin sighed, and Hunter didn't need to look at the brunette to know he was literally collapsing against Cam in relief. "I'm not the only one who thought that."

"Are they all good now?" Tori's voice called, by the sound of it, far off in the hallway, and Dustin shouted an affirmative back, leading to a resounding chorus of cheers from both the water ninja and Hunter's brother because wow, they really didn't handle one-on-one interventions well, did they?

Hunter supposed it was simply an honest attempt to keep in line with the "no collaboration" rule, but he knew better.

They were more effective as a team.

In all aspects of their life, apparently.

-:-:-:-:-:-

Hunter was not one to kiss and tell, but if certain magnificently sexy activities just happened to occur with certain chiseled-armed, towering, tan-skinned human beings that caused Hunter's heart to do that stupid flappy thing that he would never admit to it doing, then he figured there was no harm in being cheerfully obnoxious for the few days following, just for the hell of it. And also, it got on Cam's nerves, so there was an extra bonus.

He didn't even need to exchange hellos with Dustin to figure out that his friend had fallen to a similar fate, humming Christmas tunes nonstop with an animated spring in his step, only pausing to give Hunter a lively wiggle of his fingers in greeting before moving on to enjoy his land of perpetual bliss and rainbow-sparkle euphoria.

Hunter was really, really happy, so sue him. He would be entitled to some exaggerated descriptions for at least a couple of days. Those were the rules.

And Christmas was… it was still Christmas. It was still that time of year where Blake and Hunter felt the loss of their parents most, where they paid homage to their old traditions in silent collusion, but this year…

This year it was better.

They had a family and a home, a real home with warmth and memories and a sense of belonging, where they could wake up in the middle of the night and not feel like the most isolated people in the world, alone save for one brother. And sure, there was a tree and tinsel and "Kissletoes" (Dustin, in his vengeance, had taken great joy in making dozens more) and eggnog and cookies and presents (too many, in Hunter's opinion, but Tori was always fond of ignoring him), but if Hunter had to choose between that entire lot or Shane, then the choice was glaringly obvious.

It was the eggnog.

He would always choose the eggnog first.

At least, those were the only words Cam would ever hear about the subject because it made his eyebrow twitch in that special way that filled Hunter with maniacal glee, and perhaps this explanation would make it to the others as well, to the world if they asked, because Hunter knew that the one person who actually mattered in the argument already had the answer figured out, never needing the words to be said.

And if Shane just so happened to earn the nickname "Noggy", then Hunter would be just as in the dark as the red ranger was when it came to discovering its origin. And if Blake smiled a little wider and Tori smirked her almighty smirk and Dustin cheered and Cam, only slightly begrudgingly, managed a small pattering of golf claps…

Then it looked like Hunter's secret language was not as secret as he had previously assumed.

Strangely enough, he found that he didn't mind too much.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was an operational success.