A head peaked over the edge of the crib, looking down at the bundle inside. The bundle squirmed a little and let out a strange squeak as it caught sight of the intruder.
“Hi, baby.” The boy looking into the crib whispered. He grinned when the baby let out another squeak and a toothless grin. Chubby arms flailed in the air, almost as if he was asking to be picked up. The boy reached down and let his brother grab a hold his hand. He jumped as he heard yelling outside the door.
“I am not having this discussion with you!”
“Yes, we are! This is all I hear from you!”
“From me! That’s rich, you freak! And now our oldest son is one too! I am not allowing you to corrupt my baby, as well!”
The baby bunched up his face and the boy panic. “Shh… shh…” He picked up a stuffed shark from the bedside table and held it out to his brother. Arms snatched at it immediately, as the little one was distracted from the yelling.
“Shut up! You’re going to wake up Casey!”
The voices drifted away. Tears filled the boy’s eyes as he watched his brother play with the shark. His parents were always going at it like that. But at least he wasn’t alone anymore. “It’s alright, Casey. I’ll take care of you. I’m your brother.” Casey watched him intensely, as if he understood what his brother was saying.
Robert James Finn turned as he heard his mother’s voice calling for him. He smiled back at Casey for a moment before calling, “Coming Mom!”
Casey jerked back as the headphones were jerked off of his head. He blinked up from his algebra homework to see the housekeeper, Sharon, dangling them from her hands. “Hi...?” Trailing off, the fourteen year old caught sight of someone hovering in the doorway of the study. It was the newest maid his mother had insisted on hiring. Her name was something like… Kayla or Kandy or maybe it was Krista… Yeah, that was it.
“You have a visitor.” Sharon slid the CD player from his grasp and flipped it off.
“Hey!” He sent her an affronted look which faded to shock as what she said sank in. The truth was that he rarely got visitors at home, especially when his mother was gone.
Sharon didn’t so much as blink, having gotten used to Casey in the year and a half she’d worked there. “He’s been waiting for you downstairs for twenty minutes. Kristin,” She gestured to the maid, “has been trying to get your attention for a while.”
He eyed the maid in the doorway, who looked wide-eyed and ready to bolt. Considering Kristin (he’d been close) had met his mother, that wasn’t really a surprise. Casey filed the name away in case he’d need it and dumped his algebra book off his lap. “Any idea who it is?” He pulled his glasses off and set them on the table, rubbing his eyes. There were times he wished he could just suck it up and get contacts.
She nodded, “I’ve seen this young man here before, but I never caught his name.”
Frowning, Casey tried to think of who it could possibly be. Surely not one of his mother’s boyfriends. “Was he looking for mother?”
“No, he was asking for you.” Sharon gained a look of distaste. “He’s dressed like a vagrant. Grunge I believe is the word.”
That narrowed down the list considerably and each was just unlikely as the next. He frowned and followed Sharon out of the room. Kristin followed behind them, strangely resembling a frightened bunny, and Casey was caught between wanting to comfort her and rolling his eyes. He was never good at this kind of thing.
By the time they reached the stairs, Sharon took pity on the poor girl. “Kristin, why don’t you go down to the kitchen? I’m sure we can handle things here.”
Kristin shot the housekeeper a grateful look and nodded demurely to Casey before scrambling down the stairs.
Sharon caught the concerned look Casey was sending after the girl. “Don’t worry about her.” They continued down the stairs. “She’s a nice girl and very good at her job. She’s just a little… skittish.”
He nodded and followed her into the sun room. Casey froze in the door way as he caught sight of the man. The man was standing by a window, staring out into the garden. “RJ!” He grinned.
Casey found himself enveloped by a surprising strong set of arms as he laughed. “What are you doing here?” He asked the seventeen year old as he pulled back.
“Can’t I come and see my favorite brother?” RJ grinned down his baby brother.
“I’m your only brother.” Came the automatic response. Casey fell back onto a couch with a flop.
RJ joined him a little more gracefully. He’d really missed his brother. Ever since their parents had split up neither RJ or his father had really had that much of a chance to spend time with Casey. They’d managed to visit maybe two or three times a year, but things tended to be strained with their mother around. Lately though, RJ had been able to visit more since he’d received his mastery from the Pai Zhuq not too long ago. “Nice outfit.” He commented.
Casey looked down at the navy pants, white dress shirt and lessened tie with a grimace. “School uniform. You are so lucky you’re home schooled.” He looked over his older brother and grinned. “You’re one to talk. You look like a… vagrant!” He repeated Sharon’s words from earlier. Speaking of Sharon…Casey glanced up to realize Sharon had left, probably to go pry the new maid out from hiding behind the fridge or something.
“A vagrant? I do not.” RJ frowned for a moment before gazing down at his own clothes. His pants had certainly seen better days and his shoes were scuffed up, but his gray shirt was clean if somewhat wrinkled. He gave a groan. Casey was right. He did look like a like one.
He heard a strangled noise and RJ glanced up to find Casey unsuccessfully trying to cover a snicker. Casey choked back another snicker and managed to reply, “You look like a hobo.”
RJ merely replied by sticking his tongue out at his brother, which just sent Casey into another fit of laughs.
Back in the kitchen, Sharon smiled as laughter echoed from the sun room.
Letting out a long breath, RJ gave the green recliner one final shove. As it came to rest, he collapsed listlessly down onto it with a groan of appreciation. This was exactly what he needed after a long day of moving in. The loft was still sparsely decorating and what furniture he did have was second hand at best but he was happy to have a den of his own. A silly grin crossed his face as he flipped the single television on. Again, it was second hand and the picture tended to get fuzzy as the channels rose but it was his.
The channel ended up on the news and RJ was just reaching for a blanket when a piercing ring echoed through the loft. He gave a groan, momentarily letting the thought of just ignoring it wash over him. With his luck though, it would end up being the downstairs contractor or someone important. RJ pulled himself off the chair and headed for the stairs to the kitchen, cursing the fact that he hadn’t thought to bring it with him.
He snatched the phone up, giving a quick ‘hello?’ as he sat down on the beat up barstool. It gave an unsteady creak but held.
There was a throat clearing on the other end of the phone and an unfamiliar voice came on the line. “Is this Robert James Finn?”
A frown crossed his face at his full name. “Yes it is.”
“We regret to inform you that…”
RJ was suddenly very happy he’d sat down.
Casey couldn’t breathe. It felt like he was drowning, not able to do anything more than nod in thanks at the empty apologies. He couldn’t bring himself, trust himself, to reply, knowing he had the tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Grief encompassed the room, weeping and bemoaning for someone he wasn’t even sure if half of them knew. He nodded once again as a second cousin patted him awkwardly on the shoulder and told them he was sorry for the loss.
Even though all the wailing and mourning, it wasn’t like he couldn’t hear the whispers. He was sixteen, not stupid. Among this all, in the middle of a funeral home, gossip of his mother’s dead raged on. They ranged all the way from the humorous to the outrageous to hitting way to close to their mark.
“Who is that cutie?”
He glanced over to see that it was one of those giggling pre-teens that Monroe had told him was his cousin something removed. Following their eyes, Casey froze in shock. There, standing by the entrance, was none other than RJ himself. His brother was decked out in an uncomfortable looking suit, searching the crowd. When his eyes landed on Casey, he seemed relieved and started to head toward him.
“Robbie? Little Robbie Finn?”
A pained look crossed RJ’s face as he was intercepted by Aunt Margret. She seemed overjoyed to see the man, something that wasn’t reproached.
It didn’t help that she was drunk.
She latched herself onto him and began to weep loudly, attracting attention. Aunt Margret began mumbling something about knee high and babies.
For the first time in a while in what seemed like forever, he let out a small smile. The panicked ‘help me’ look his brother sent his way only made the smile widen. He looked on with pity and gave him a shrug. Aunt Margret had done the same to him when she’d first arrived. He contented himself to watch with vague amusement.
Seeing that he wouldn’t receive any help from his brother, it took RJ several minutes to extract himself from the woman, an aunt he barely remembered. He looked up in time to see Casey disappearing through a door on the other side of the parlor. RJ made it through the door after him, but couldn’t see him anywhere. He headed down the hall, pausing when muffled voices came through one of the doors.
RJ knew that it wasn’t any of his business and he really should have gone after his brother, but a recognized name made him stop dead. Approaching the door, he pushed it open slightly to find something the vaguely resembled a kitchen.
“…Casey! What am I supposed to do with the boy?”
“What about his father?”
“Oh, please. No one’s been able to find the man. I heard that no one’s seen him for the past few years! And now I’m stuck with the kid!”
“What did Monroe say?”
“That damn lawyer? Just that the only way I could get out of it was if the kid’s dad showed up. A ‘closer relative’ was what he said. How was I supposed to know those papers Isabella had me sign would toss the kid on me?!”
A large man came into RJ’s view and he let the door slide a little farther closed. At the same time, a voice whispered from behind you. “You really shouldn’t being doing that.” He jerked around. Standing behind him was none other than Casey.
And from the dull look on Casey’s face, he’d heard every word that’d been said.
“Casey…” He startled, unsure of what to say. To want to comfort his brother, but not knowing how. In the end, he let his instincts take over and wrapped his arms around his brother. Casey stood stiffly in the embrace for a few moments before burying his face into his brother’s shoulder. He frowned and glared at the door, as if he could decimate the man on the other side.
RJ needed to find the man called Monroe.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
RJ sent the lawyer and exasperated look. “Of course I am. Otherwise I wouldn’t have came you.”
Eric Monroe merely shook his head. “I think you need to really think about this--.”
“Can I do this or not?”
The lawyer nodded, “Yes, of course you can. But you would become responsible for a sixteen year old teenager.” He didn’t understand this. What nineteen year old man would intentionally be responsible to a kid?
“He’s my brother. There’s nothing to think about.”
“Alright, then we just need you to sign a couple of papers and you can take him home.” After passing RJ the paperwork to look over, Monroe hit the intercom button and called the secretary. “You can send him in.”
“Yes, sir.” Came the dutiful reply.
RJ caught sight of the door open, but didn’t look up from the papers.
“RJ?” The voice was incredulous.
He looked up to see Casey, himself, staring at him.
“Sit down, Casey.” Monroe’s voice took on an authoritive tone that Casey immediately reacted to.
Casey slid into the chair beside his brother. To say he was confused would be an understatement. He’d been told that this meeting was over who would have custody of him but that didn’t explain what RJ was doing here. From what he’d heard, Uncle Marty was supposed end up with him.
“Alright Casey, here’s how it is. RJ has come to me and asked for custody for you. Do you have a problem with this?”
“What?” Casey blinked in shock. “You…” He looked at his brother before looking back at his late mother’s lawyer. “Huh?”
RJ frowned at the bewildered look on his baby brother’s face. It was as if he couldn’t believe someone would actually want to take him in. A feeling of panic came over him at the thought that maybe Casey didn’t want this. “You don’t have a problem with this, do you Case?”
“Huh?” Casey shook his head. “Um, no… but… are you sure?” He directed the question at his brother.
“Completely.” Self-assurance and confidence laced the elder brother’s voice, as if there was never a doubt in his mind. Which there wasn’t.
“Then… sure.” There was still an unsure look on Casey’s face. It was as if he expected RJ would change his mind at any moment.
For a moment RJ wondered what the hell their mother, or whoever, had done to his baby brother. “So what do I have to do?”
The lawyer handed him the last of the paper work, which took a several minutes to fill out. Finally, Monroe glanced over it with a nod. “Everything seems to be in order. Unless you have any more questions, there’s nothing left.” He seemed to dismiss them with a glance, not even waiting for their answer.
RJ rose but the other stayed glued to his seat, biting his lip as if he wanted to say something. He just shook his head and placed his hand on Casey’s shoulder. Casey jumped a bit at the touch but seemed to become a little more relaxed.
“Come on Casey. Let’s go home.”
Suddenly, Casey could breathe again.
Casey was looking at him like he’d grown two heads.
The look that was sent RJ’s way was nothing short of incredulous. “Why do you keep looking at me like that?”
RJ barely held back a snicker as he realized that Casey was, in fact, pouting.
“It’s just school, Case.” RJ replied as he glanced once again at the paperwork sitting on the island.
“But it’s… I’ve… Public school?”
Casey had only had his schedule for ten minutes before he was left completely alone. He mentally cursed the teacher who’d left him.
Blinking at the sea of people trudging through the hall, the noise level seemed to rise even higher, making it surprising that anyone could be heard. “Ugh.” Glancing back down at the paper, he reread the room number.
Which sucked because none of the rooms were numbered, much less lettered. He took one last look at the paper before deciding something.
Casey was completely and hopelessly lost.
“Do you need any help?”
His eyes Jerked up and he saw his savior standing there. It was a brunette about his age. Her arms were loaded down with books and he realized she was giving him a weird look. Oh, he hadn’t answered her. “Hmm? Yeah, help.” Casey showed her the paper. “I have no clue where I’m supposed to be.”
She shifted the books slightly to take a better look, squinting. The books tilted precariously and he was momentarily afraid that they would crash down. The girl stood back up before that could happen. “Oh, um… right down there.” She pointed toward a door he’d already passed six times.
It was identical to the rest of them.
Casey sent her a look of relief, hoping she wasn’t lying. “Thanks. I’m Casey Hunter.” He held out his hand.
She reached forward and shook it, once again shifting the books. “Fran. It’s nice to meet you.”
“I think we should go cut down a tree!”
Casey looked up from the book Fran had lent him to see RJ leaning against the kitchen’s island. He eyed the man speculatively. “Are you drunk?”
“What? No!” RJ seemed genuinely startled by the suggestion.
The book was tossed aside. “Really? Then you’ve just decided you wanted to become a lumberjack and go cut down a tree?”
“And bring it indoors.” His brother added as he pushed Casey’s feet off of the couch and flopped down beside him.
“You’re not helping your case here.” Casey shook his head.
RJ gave a long suffering sigh. “It’s a Christmas tree, Casey. Haven’t you ever gone to cut one down before?”
“Nope. I’d wake up one morning and there’d be one there, decorated.”
“You’ve never even decorated one?” The way RJ said it was almost as if such a thought was blasphemy.
“Honestly, I’ve always thought a Christmas tree was the action of a drunk person. Go outside, cut down a tree, drag it inside and then string up random objects on it?”
There was a moment of silence where his brother leaned back thoughtfully.
“So… you don’t want to go out and get one?”
Casey shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
The next day, Casey was seriously wondering what had possessed him to agree to this madness.
It had to be at least twenty degrees outside at this god-forsaken tree farm RJ had drug him to. He pulled the coat his brother had him bring tighter around him, watching as RJ circled the seventeenth tree for the fourth time.
Too tall, too short, too wide, too thin… Casey had no idea what his brother was talking about. They all looked the same to him. Snow crunched under his feet as he walked closer, the noise grating on his nerves. Like the three hour drive hadn’t been enough.
But this seemed important to RJ so he forced a smile to his face and hoped that it didn’t look too much like a grimace.
RJ seemed extremely proud of himself as he strung up the last of the many strings of lights on the tree. Casey watched with amusement, sorting through yet another bag of ornaments that his brother had bought. (Seriously, who really needed fourteen bags full of ornaments?)
The tree, after an intense struggle with the stand, kinda tilted to the side and was covered with several multi-colored strings of lights.
“Done.” RJ called out to him, gleefully. The nineteen year old bounced over the outlet on the wall and plugged it in.
Casey did have to admit, as it lit up, that the large tree his brother had put so much work into was actually kinda… pretty. He was impressed.
That was all he had time to think before there was a loud pop and every light in the loft went out, including the tree, plunging them into complete darkness.
There was a moment of total silence before, “Damn it.”
This time Casey couldn’t hold back the laughter.
When things started getting replaced with better quality items in the loft, Casey wasn’t all that worried. In all honesty, it would have probably been expected. JKP had been getting more business in the past few weeks so replacing a couple of barely-there couches and some seen-better-days chairs didn’t seem like that big of a thing. RJ started had hauling a in a few more TV that looked like garage sale rejects and that green recliner hadn’t moved an inch so Casey barely realized anything was going on.
However, when his brother had begun bringing home more and more expensive equipment Casey started to get a little concerned. He knew that the pizza parlor was doing better, but not that much better. This was his brother, though, so he pushed this out of his mind.
It was Fran, though, that voiced this unease. “Did you guys win the lottery or something and I miss it?”
Casey looked up from his chemistry book to the girl. “No. Why?” The two were smack dab in the middle of the loft, various notes and books spread out. They had already been studying for about an hour and a half for the upcoming exam and Casey had to admit he was bored.
She reached up and adjusted her new glasses nervously. RJ had commented about how the two seemed to look like twins now before a look of fear crossed his face at the thought of two Caseys. “Well, it’s just… um… I don’t mean to pry… it’s just… a lot of this stuff is really expensive.” She gestured to some of the newer equipment his brother had just brought in.
“Really?” He looked over some of the stuff, not seeing anything really special about any of it.
“Yeah.” Fran tossed her notebook aside. “Some of this stuff is really high-end. I didn’t know you guys were doing so much business.”
Casey frowned. “We’re not.” He bit his bottom lip as he tried to determine where this sudden influx of money could have possible come from. “I don’t know where he could have gotten the money.”
“Maybe he’s really a hitman!”
“What?” That comment was so completely left field that Casey literally felt himself jerk in surprise. He sent Fran a look that clearly said that he thought she was delusional. “RJ brings in some expensive things and all of a sudden you think that he’s a hitman?” A snort escaped him. “I swear I’ll eat my math binder if RJ has ever even thrown a punch at someone!”
Fran rolled her eyes at him. “Well, think about it! It makes sense! Remember a few weeks ago, right before Christmas break when RJ had to leave for a week? Did he even ever tell you where he went?”
“Well, no. But--.”
“Come on, Casey. How much do you really know about your brother? He could be some sort of Kung Fu master!” Fran dropped her voice conspiratorially and leaned forward, as if she was afraid there was someone else in the empty loft other than the two of them.
Casey forced a laugh. “Yeah, a Kung Fu master and a hitman! That’s really funny!” He shook his head, paling slightly as a vague since of panic working though him as her words permeated his brain.
The money did seem to appear after he returned from his trip. And RJ refused to tell him where it was he went. Casey had just shrugged it off as being some sort of weird RJ thing. Did he really have so much blind faith in his brother if he had just ignored something like this? If Fran was right… No. There was no way.
The two turned toward the voice. RJ was leaning against the guardrail by the kitchen, watching them with amusement.
How much exactly had he heard?
Fran paled and Casey forced a swallow, his mouth suddenly dry.
“You two hungry?”
“Actually, I should go.” She grabbed started grabbing at her papers and books, clumsy in her hast. Apparently, the thought of RJ being a hitman had been a cool idea when the man wasn’t there and now that he was… Well, she really didn’t want to be here. A hand grabbed her elbow as she got up and she jumped. Fran relaxed a fraction as she realized it was only Casey.
“Come on, Fran. Stay for dinner.” Casey looked up her with pleading eyes, asking her not to abandon him now when she had just planted this idea in his head. “Please?”
She looked down at him, at his genuine panic. Her face softened and for a minute it looked as though she was going to cave.
“Yeah, Fran. You’re more than welcome.”
RJ’s words startled Fran back to reality and she pulled herself out Casey’s grasp. A couple more of her things were snatched up as Fran shook her head adamantly. She sent Casey an apologetic look and shot up the stairs, murmuring something that sounded like a goodbye to RJ, refusing to make eye contact with him.
A confused look crossed RJ’s face.
“Was it something I said?”
It started with a sneeze and ended with a completely freaked out RJ.
In all honesty, even the sneezing and stuffy nose had RJ worried. Casey never got sick. Never. Even if he had, Casey had always stayed suspiciously healthy. Now with Casey bedridden with a temperature of 102, his big brother had entered full blown panic mode.
He had first attempted to drag Casey to the emergency room. But the moment Casey had heard doctor he had freaked out and refused to leave the bedroom. The teen hated hospitals. RJ needed back up.
So when Fran entered the loft that morning, his first reaction was relief. Maybe she’d be able to talk some sense into his brother.
Whatever problem she had with him was pushed aside for the moment. Her worry for Casey seemed to override it. However, when she saw Casey most of Fran’s worry dissipated. She merely muttered something about pain in the ass brothers and told RJ that Casey would be okay.
She headed off for school, with some minor instructions and a promised to bring Casey his homework, seeming to derive some amusement from RJ panicking.
RJ sighed and headed back for Casey’s bedroom. His brother was huddled up under his red and black comforter, shivering. “Casey?” He called out worriedly as he approached the bed.
A head popped out and stared at him for a moment. Eventually Casey blinked and gave another shiver. “C-c-cold.”
Glancing around the room, RJ snatched a blanket from the desk chair and tossed it over him. This seemed to pacify his little brother for a moment only to curl up with a groan the next second.
He bit his bottom lip as he watched his brother. Maybe Fran was wrong. Maybe he should force his brother up to the doctor. He reached out and brushed a piece of Casey’s hair from his face. The movement appeared to calm him down and Casey leaned into the touch. The bed dipped down as he perched on the edge of it. RJ let out a hiss as he pressed his hand to his brother’s forehead. “Damn, you’re hot.”
All he got in reply was another groan.
“I’ll get you some aspirin. That should help.” Just as he was getting up, a hand shot up and wrapped around his wrist.
RJ looked down to see Casey peering up at him. “Casey…” His brother tugged on his arm, pulling him back down on the bed.
“Stay. Don’t wanna be alone.”
Those words made the decision for him. “Alright, just till to get to sleep.” He stretched out beside his brother, on top of the covers. In reply, Casey curled up against him. RJ slid his arm around his brother’s neck, smiling slightly. He remembered Casey used to do the same thing when he was little and scared by a storm or something. He would jump into RJ’s bed, cuddling up against him.
Casey slid closer to his brother.
“Still cold?” RJ could feel his little brother shake his head against him.
“Not cold. Not anymore.”
There was a yawn that he found himself echoing.
“Not alone anymore.”
RJ’s could feel his heart break at those words. “No, you’re not.” He pressed his lips to his brother’s forehead. “Never again.”
“We need to talk.”
An eighteen year old Casey frowned at his brother, looking up from the news report that was coming from the pizza parlor’s TV. Power Rangers in Ocean Bluff. Who would have thought?
He turned his attention to RJ. The man in question was still in his cooking garb. Flour sat in his hair and streaked down his face. Casey had the sudden thought that maybe RJ had finally lost a fight with one of his pizzas. Probably a meat lovers.
“… they will be staying with us.”
Apparently RJ had been talking to him. Casey blinked. “Huh?”
RJ rolled his eyes. “You haven’t heard a word I said, have you?”
“That’s not true.” Casey defended, leaning back in his chair. It tipped precariously on his back to legs but didn’t fall. “You said that we needed to talk.”
His brother sighed and Casey frowned again as he saw the weary, tired look on his face. It was strange to see and very un-RJ like.
“I guess I should start at the beginning.” RJ took a seat across from him at the table.
“RJ.” The younger began softly, concerned. “Is everything okay?”
“No-- I mean, yes. No. I mean… I don’t know.”
“You don’t know if everything’s okay?” Casey gave a sigh, dropping his chair back on four legs. “What’s wrong?”
RJ buried his face in his hands, rubbing his face. A frown appeared when his hands came back covered in flour. “Okay, so what would you say if I told you that me being home schooled wasn’t entirely true?”
As RJ continued with his story Casey just sat there in shock and disbelief. Only one thought came to the front of his mind through the cluttered thoughts and questions.
Fran hadn’t been as far off as they thought.
“Okay, okay, so let’s see if I understand this. You’re some sort of Kung Fu/Wolf master?”
“And the people who showed up this morning are-- were students at the same school you went to.”
“And now they’re power rangers.”
“And now they are living with us.”
“Okay. You do realize that we only have one bathroom, right?”
“Alright then.” Casey took a deep breath and rubbed his face.
RJ sent him an unsure look, biting his bottom lip. “So, what do you think?”
“Honestly?” The youngest replied. “I’m still processing.” He was startled to realize his hands were shaking. This was fixed by gripping on to the edge of the table.
“Casey--.” His brother started.
“Look,” He cut him off, getting up. “Just give me some space, okay? I need some time to process.” He made a move to pass by his brother and head for the stairs.
Hurt crossed RJ’s face. He reached out, as if to stop him. But when his baby brother shifted out of his reach the hand dropped. RJ’s expression became shuttered.
Casey glanced away, wanting nothing more than to reach out for his brother. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Call him a coward but he forced himself up the stairs. By the time he had gotten to the top of the loft he had almost convinced himself that he could deal with this. All he needed was some sleep and all of this would be so much easier to understand.
This was still RJ. And Power Rangers had been around practically forever.
But he froze at the top of the stairs, staring down at the three new people who had invaded his home. They were dressed in primary colors and sparring.
At that moment he realized something.
Casey couldn’t handle this.
It was knocking that disturbed her.
Fran pulled a couch pillow over her head. Still in knocking persisted. For a moment she weighed the options of answering.
On one hand, she’d have to get up. And it probably wasn’t anyone except her neighbor, Mrs. MacFarlene, wanting her to babysit that demonic dog again. The woman just didn’t seem to realize that Fran had better things to do than deal with that hellhound. Then again, getting visitors was a rare occurrence. Ever since she’d moved from her parent’s house, Fran had little in the way of visitors. There were very few people who would just come by. Most would call first, so it was probably either her parents or Mrs. MacFarlene.
She decided against answering.
The knocking continued, if not becoming more insistent.
Growling, she rolled off the couch, remote and blanket falling to her feet. If it was Mrs. MacFarlene she was going to tell that woman what she could do with that dog.
Flinging the door open, Fran stopped dead, anger dissipating in an instant.
There stood Casey, hand in mid-knock and a duffle bag flung over his shoulder.
Still, she stood there, gaping.
“Hey, Fran. Um… can I crash here for a few days?”
When Casey hadn’t returned by the next morning RJ was in a panic. It wasn’t like his brother to do this. To just take off and not call or leave a note or anything. And with the new presence of Dai Shi out there, he was scared about what could happen to Casey.
The new cubs just watched him warily, never stopping in sparring, not sure if this was normal or not. RJ fretted as Fran’s voicemail picked up for the fifth time. This, however, was somewhat of a normal occurrence. She regularly forgot to charge up her phone and it tended to be dead more times than not.
So when footsteps could be heard bounding up the steps to the loft, RJ turned around hopefully. However the figure at the top of the stair was not his brother. Standing at the top of the stairs was an irritated woman. She sent RJ a look of annoyance and placed her hand on her hips.
From the mats, the three cubs took defensive positions at this intruder. She took her eyes of the wolf master and sent them a questioning look.
“Who are you?!” Demanded Jarrod, the newly christened red ranger.
She gave a snort. “I could ask you the same question. However, I got more important things to do than that.” But Fran shook her head and turned back to RJ. “You wanna explain to me why I got Casey crashed out in my spare bedroom?”
Pounding on the door woke Casey from his deep slumber
He rolled over and buried his face deeper into the pillow. The knocking didn’t stop. Groaning, he rolled over, only to go crashing to the floor with a noise of surprise and a tangle of legs and covers. “Ow…” Blinking, he glanced around.
This wasn’t his room.
Memories of the night before came back. He flipped back down on the floor, regretting it when he head banged against the floor boards. There was another bang and he realized that this one wasn’t caused by him. A weird muffled yipping sound followed.
Casey got to his feet and headed for the living room, trying to find the source. It was coming from the other side of the door. He frowned, debating on whether to answer it.
The voice was muffled but definitely female. Sighing he reached for the door and flung it open. One the other side of the door was a small, gray haired woman holding what seemed to be a large bundle of yarn. The white yarn began to squirm and Casey realized that it was, in fact, a dog. Beady black eyes glared up at him, giving a warning yelp.
“Who are you?! Where’s Fran?!” The woman had a glare to match the animals.
Casey gave some serious thought to just slamming the door and going back to that twin bed.
“Casey.” He replied, leaning against the door frame and giving a yawn. “Don’t know where Fran went.”
“You her boyfriend?”
She took in his disheveled state with a disgusted look. “You’d sleep with her but won’t call her your girlfriend?”
“Just using her like that. Fran deserves better than you. Now my grandson, he’s someone good for her. Nate understands how to treat a girl--.”
“Woah! Woah.” Casey cut her off. “What are you going on about? I slept in the spare room.”
She snorted. “Yeah, right. Men like you--.”
“Fran’s my sister.”
That shut her up. “Oh.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He made a move to shut the door, only to have the woman stop the door mid-way. “What?” His voice was snappish but he really didn’t care.
“I’m leaving for the day.”
She held out the dog. “Fran’s supposed to watch Alfred.”
Casey assumed that Alfred was dog. He grabbed quickly as the wiggling, growling dog was pushed into his grasp. The dog in his arm took a snap at him and Casey yelped at it caught the sleeve of his shirt. By the time he looked up the woman was gone.
“So I guess I’m stuck with you.”
In reply, the dog took another snap at him, growling.
Somehow he knew he was going to regret answering that door.
Fran was even more frustrated by the time she returned home. All she had managed to get from RJ was some vague answers and a plea to get Casey to come home. But no real answers came forth. She had met RJ’s new employees (like she really believed that) and they seemed nice enough (well, Lily and Theo anyways).
She opened the door and stopped dead. It looked like a tornado hit. The couch was over turned as well as the coffee table. Books littered the floor and there seemed to be a dent into the wall next to the tv.
Blinking, she turned her attention toward the kitchen. She heard yelping and an unsteady creak.
Oh, no. Mrs. MacFarlene couldn’t have. She wouldn’t have.
Fran didn’t know what she was thinking, of course she would.
She entered the kitchen and burst out laughing.
“It’s not funny, Fran. This dog is possessed!” Casey glared at her from atop the kitchen table.
The laughing didn’t stop, but she managed a few words out between the giggles. “Poor—poor Casey. Taken down by a- a- three pound poodle.”
“Get it away.” That came out as a whine.
Fran kept giggling as she shoved the dog away with her foot. Casey slid down to the floor only to return to the table as the dog jumped over her foot and went after him again.
“Your brother’s worried about you.”
“You went and saw him?” He blinked up at her.
“Yes. You didn’t even leave a note, Casey. He was freaking out.”
“I know. I was going to call him but your neighbor dropped this hellhound off.” As if to reply, Alfred made jump for him on the table. Casey replied by scrambling back a little.
“Casey, you know I love you, you’re like my brother and I don’t care if you stay here but you gotta go home.” She finally grabbed the dog and tossed him through the kitchen door, shutting the door.
He hopped off the table. “I know I do. It’s just--.”
“You do know I’m going to be stuck with this dog for a few days, right?” Fran replied, cutting him off.
“I’ll get my stuff.”
She nodded. “I thought so.”
Casey headed toward the door, freezing when he heard scratching. “So… how am I supposed to get out?”
Casey entered the back way to the loft, limping. He really didn’t want to go through JKP and deal with anyone just yet. Dumping the bag to the floor, he reminded himself to get it later.
He immediately found himself wrapped in a pair of arms as he was pulled into an impromptu hug. Casey returned the hug as he realized who had latched himself to him. There was a familiar smell of spice and longish brown hair in his face. His brother. “Hey RJ.”
“You scared me to death.” RJ pulled back and looked him over, as if he expected Casey to be wounded or something.
“I know. I’m sorry.” Casey replied. “I should have called or something. But when I got to Fran’s I just sort of crashed.”
“Just don’t do it again.” His brother ruffled his hair. “So are you okay? You know, with everything?”
He grinned. “Course. I’m good, RJ. However, I could definitely use a shower then I think I’m going to take a nap.” Casey grinned at his brother once again before heading off to his room.
“Casey, are you limping?” RJ’s voice called after him.
Turning, Casey grimaced. “I really don’t want to talk about it. Just promise me something.”
“That you’ll never, ever, get poodle.”
Things tended to fall into a routine after a while. Monster attacks became more regular and JKP got more popular. Casey was more than thrilled when RJ decided to hire Fran to help out. Three new employees who tended to disappear at a moment’s notice wasn’t as much help as one might have thought.
Fran had been over the moon about the decision, of course. It wasn’t that she hadn’t helped out at JKP before but now she was actually on payroll.
And Casey saw a side of his brother that he had never seen before. RJ had been one of the most non-confrontational people he had ever known. But when he had first seen his brother spar with Lily, Theo, and Jarrod (and successfully kicked their asses) Casey couldn’t help but wonder what else he didn’t know about RJ.
RJ had tried to explain it to him. He had prattled on about animal spirits and wolves and some super-secret ninja academy. Casey just nodded and pretended that he knew what the hell his brother was going on about.
But as much as things changed, many things still stayed the same. Casey grinned as he watched his brother talk with a couple of customers, saying something that had them laughing. Shaking his head, he went back to cleaning the counter. Just as he was reaching to straighten out a group of menus something sharp poked him in the side. A yelp escaped him and he swung around to find an amused looking Fran standing beside him. “Hi?”
She just grinned at him, slipping one of the obnoxiously orange aprons over her head. “We still on for tonight?”
“Bad Chinese food and even worse b-list movies?” He looked down at her through his glasses. It was their standing Wednesday night date, though since the arrival of the rangers it had taken place at Fran’s apartment. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Good.” Fran reached up and tugged at the hair showing below his hat before waving to RJ as he was making his way over to the two and disappearing through the doors to the kitchen.
RJ raised an eyebrow at his brother as the door swung shut. Fran still seemed weary of him most of the time. He would have been worried that the girl knew, or at least suspected, something. But if he thought about it, Fran had been uncomfortable around him before Dai Shi was released.
Casey just shook his head and shrugged. RJ was the one who insisted on not filling Fran in. So Casey was stuck letting his friend have the delusions of hitmen and thinking that RJ was apparently training the three newcomers in the trade. Fran was going to kill him when she learned the truth (and he had no doubt she would). His brother sighed and headed back to the kitchen.
Turning attention back to the counter, he never really noticed the girl approach him. It wasn’t until he heard a clear of a throat that he even looked up. Standing there before him was a girl about his age with long dark hair and startling brown eyes. It was only when she blushed that he realized he was staring. “Can I help you?”
She averted his eyes by looking at the brown wrapped package in her hands. “I’m looking for…” Her eyes narrowed as she tried to make out the writing, “…Lily?”
“She isn’t here,” he said, apologetically. The yellow ranger had left on errands earlier that morning, probably to expand her severely limited wardrobe.
“Um, I was supposed to drop something off to her,” she muttered as she lifted the package, shifting uncomfortably. “I guess I can come back later.”
“I don’t know when she’ll be back,” he informed her. The woman proceeded to look panicked. “But I can give it to her if you want,” Casey offered, grinning as relief soaked into her frame.
“Would you?” She finally made eye contact with him, send him a grateful look.
“Sure thing.” Casey reached out and took the package from her before sliding it behind the counter. “I’m Casey.”
The girl blushed again, but smiled. “Gabby. Gabby Phant.”
It was just over a month after the rangers moved in that Fran decided to stage her impromptu intervention. That was how Casey found himself cornered in the pizza parlor’s kitchen, clutching a package of vegan pepperoni to his chest and staring at the woman like she was crazy. Which, he decided, she probably was.
“Don’t think that I haven’t seen what’s been going on, Casey. I’m not stupid. You all act like I’m blind but I’m not. I can’t believe you!”
He felt a brief feeling of panic curling in his stomach that dissipated as she continued.
“I can’t believe you let him bully you around that way.”
The panic disappeared completely only be replaced with annoyance and confusion. “What are you going on about now?”
She shot him a glare. “Jarrod. I’ve seen the way that he treats you when RJ’s not around.” Fran stepped even closer to him and Casey found himself pressing back enough that the industrial fridge was beginning to cut into his back. “Look,” she continued,” I don’t particularly care what kind of badass killer he may be, but you have a backbone. Show it! Stand up for yourself!”
There really wasn’t a lot that Casey could say to that. He was torn between being affronted by the accusation of cowardice and the desire to run to his room and pretend this conversation never happened.
Fran apparently took his silence as an admission because her voice softened. “Come on, Casey. You don’t really think RJ would let him hurt you, do you?” She blinked as a thought struck her. “Wait, it’s not RJ you’re scared of, is it? Is that why you’ve been staying with me so much?”
Casey jerked back, slamming his head against the fridge, and gave her an incredulous look. “What?! No! God no! Just… no!” His vehement words seemed to appease her slightly but she still seemed unsure.
“Then why don’t you go tell RJ? He’ll stop Jarrod.”
“Look, Fran.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and tugged at her hat. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time before I came to live with RJ. If it gets too bad I will deal with it.” Casey gave her a grin but she didn’t look completely convinced.
For some reason Fran wasn’t quite as reassured by that than she thought she should.
The day that came where he had to deal with it came sooner than he expected. Casey didn’t know what came over him. Even years of living with RJ’s pacifistic tendencies and his own desire not to make waves had a limit.
And when Jarrod tried to evict him from his own room, he snapped.
There was yelling and angry noises until he was afraid someone working down stairs would hear him and Jarrod just continued standing there with a self-righteous look on his face. Casey wanted nothing more that to wipe it off his face so he did. With one angry move he turned around and punched Jarrod right in the face.
He went down almost pathetically easy, especially for a power ranger. Jarrod’s hand immediately went to his nose and Casey was shocked to see blood appearing from between his fingers. The hand came away it was covered with the red liquid.
“Oh my god.”
Casey turned around in time to see a yellow blur pass by her and then Lily was kneeling beside the red ranger, asking what was happening.
It seemed like Jarrod was going to say something but instead he just shook his head and stared at him with something that looked similar to respect in his eyes.
“What is going on?”
This time it was RJ; Casey didn’t need to turn around t tell that. All of a sudden he didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want to see the disappointment in his brother’s eyes when he knew what his little brother had done. Lily’s next words confirmed it.
“I think his nose is broken.”
Casey spun around and left.
This was becoming a regular occurrence, Fran thought as she tossed her keys on the counter and she watched the figure huddled on the couch. It wasn’t that she didn’t want Casey there. No, as a matter of fact, she enjoyed have the man around, making her life just that much less boring. What caused her some concern was the dark green half empty glass bottle that was sitting innocently on the coffee table; one that she knew for a fact was full when she last saw it.
There was a protesting noise when she came over and took it away, sighing. “What’s happened now?”
It was quiet, except for the rustling of boxes as she moved them a side in the cabinet and shoved the bottle to the back. Just as she was sure that an answer wasn’t going to come, she heard the muffled voice. “It’s nothing.”
Fran turned to see Casey rubbing his face, staring at the now empty spot on the table. Blinking, she did a double take when she caught sight of his hands. “Shit, Casey!”
She was by his side in a moment, pulling his hands away from his face. The alcohol must have made him more docile since they moved away easily, only giving a hiss as her thumb brushed across his bruised knuckles. “Casey?”
The concern in her voice had him blinking, confused. “What?”
His befuddled expression seemed sincere and she wasn’t sure if that or his hands worried her more. It looked as though he really didn’t know what was wrong, which, in any other instance, might have been endearing but right now all it did was annoy her. “This!” She lifted up his hand for him to see, causing realization to bloom across his face.
“Oh,” Casey muttered, something resembling guilt appearing in his eyes, “that.” He gave a shrug and carefully extracted his hand from her grip, wincing slightly. “Jarrod has a hard head.”
“Jarrod?” Fran shook her head. “Casey, when I said to stand up for yourself, this isn’t what I meant.”
He just blinked, staring at his hand as if seeing it for the first time. “I hit him.” A frown flittered across his face as he made a fist with the hurt hand before slowly unfurling it. Confusion littered his features. “I. hit. him,” Casey said it slowly, testing out each word.
She just sighed and pulled him to his feet. “Come on, I think I have a first aid kit in the bathroom.”
Getting him up and moving was easy enough, making her wonder just what else she could get him to do drunk like this, but it was getting him to walk in a straight line that seemed to be the problem. He stumbled and flailed around a bit, almost smacking into his head into the wall in more than one occasion.
“I’m Batman,” he announced, after they managed to make it to the bathroom and he had started contemplating at his own reflection in the mirror and she had begun digging around in the linen closet.
That caused Fran to snort, jerking her head up and smacking it into a shelf. The look she gave him was nothing short of incredulous. “You’re Batman.”
“Yes,” he defended. Then he blinked and frowned, shuffling his feet. “Well, no. But I could be. I have money. Lots of money.”
“I’m sure you do.” Giving him a passing pat on the check, she sat the white box on the sink. The latch on it didn’t want to move and she gave it a couple of bangs before it popped open with an angry ‘snikt’.
He gave a huff and crossed his arms, only to have her yank them apart with the strict instructions to wash his hands. There was a long suffering sigh before he did as she said. “I do! Well,” he paused, using the moment to dry off his hands, “it used to be mom’s money but I got it all when I graduated. There’s a lot. So I could be Batman if I wanted.”
It was all she could do not to laugh. “I think Ocean Bluff has enough spandex clad superheroes.” He looked as though he was going to say something but stopped himself. Fran waited but he stayed silent. “Plus, RJ would kill you if you tried.”
“…Batman’s suit is made of rubber.”
She couldn’t stop the snort that escaped her this time. “RJ would still kill you.”
There really wasn’t a lot he could say in response to that. He just settled for a pout as she wrapped up his hand and proceeded to usher him into the spare room.
“I think I broke Jarrod’s nose,” Casey called back to her as he fell back onto the bed.
A grin crossed her face as she rolled her eyes and flipped off the bedroom light. “Well, that’s because you’re Batman.”
He was already asleep.
There wasn’t a lot that RJ was afraid of. This, however, was one of them. Running a hand through his hair, he paced the kitchen floor. The loft was almost completely empty, Lily having taken Jarrod to the emergency room a while ago and Theo watching the parlor downstairs.
“I’m a bad influence on Casey.”
“You are not,” Fran replied from her stool at the kitchen counter, where she had been since arriving with the announcement that Casey was fine.
“He hit Jarrod!”
A snort escaped her, apparently not perturbed by the news in the least. “Hell, I was one step away from doing it myself! You know how he was treating Casey!”
That caused RJ to freeze for a moment before spinning around to face her. “What are you talking about?”
“You really didn’t see it?” The dark expression that crossed his face answered the question better than any words could. She shook her head, unbelieving. “Casey said you didn’t know but I really didn’t believe it. God, RJ, everyone saw it.”
A harsh breath escaped him as he reached out to grab the edge of the counter. His fingers were white where they gripped it and she wouldn’t have been surprised if they left permanent indentions in the marble. “Why didn’t Casey say anything?”
She sighed. “You know Casey. He doesn’t like letting anyone else solve his problems.” There was a humorless laugh in reply. “Look, Casey feels horrible about losing his temper the way he did. Trust me. A bad influence is the last thing you are.”
“You don’t know--,” he cut himself off, with a deep breath and a shake of his head.
“You’re right I don’t know. Because no one will tell me!” She slid off the stool and stepped up beside him. “I’m not stupid. I know there’s something going on here.” RJ started to say something, deny her words maybe, but she cut him off. “Frankly, I don’t care.”
He seemed a little taken aback by that.
“RJ, you love your brother. He knows that; we all know that. Don’t worry about him. Casey’s resilient. He’ll be fine.” She reached out and tentatively placed her hand on his shoulder.
If he was uncomfortable with the touch, he didn’t show it. “But that’s the thing. This is his home. He shouldn’t have to be forced to defend himself like that here.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. There was something dark in them when they were opened again-- protective, almost violent. “And he won’t have to. I’ll make sure of that.”
The words were unsettling at best, pretty much affirming any suspicions she had about him. But she pushed them aside, not really caring for once. He was just trying to protect his brother. Plus, she didn’t think he would actually hurt Jarrod. Not too badly, anyways. Fran smiled at him, wavering only a little, before she pulled him in for a hug.
He stiffened at the touch, before relaxing slightly and tentatively hugging her back.
“Am I interrupting something?”
The two jumped apart, almost as if burned. A gray haired man was standing by the railing at the stairs to the parlor, expression shifting between amusement and irritation.
RJ blinked, shook his head, and blinked again. “Dad?”