Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Yet another monster had been defeated, but as the Wind and Thunder Power Ranger Team descended the stairs of Ninja Ops, the mood was less than jubilant for two of its members.
Cam turned from his computer screen and swiveled around in his chair to face the Rangers, but his brows furrowed at the sound of Hunter's angry voice.
"You know, you really could be a little more appreciative," the Crimson Ranger snapped at the back of the Red Ranger who had just pushed past him. "I saved your butt out there."
Shane whirled around. "First of all, Burgundy, I didn't need your help, I had everything under control," he retorted sharply. "Second of all, you didn't 'save my butt'; you actually got in my way."
Dustin, Tori and Blake skirted around the two squabblers and walked into the command center. Blake caught Cam's gaze and rolled his eyes dramatically. Cam almost grinned.
"Oh really?" Hunter's eyes narrowed as he glared at Shane. The two Rangers were facing each other at the bottom of the stairs, noses only inches apart. "Well, then I guess next time I'll just leave you alone when I see four kelzaks trying to chop you into bite-size pieces again."
Hunter was towering over Shane, but the intimidating downward stare wasn't working on the Wind ninja. "If it does more harm than good again, then, yeah, maybe you should."
For a moment, the two young men simply stared, throwing daggers at each other with their eyes before Hunter turned and, with a disdainful snort, left Shane standing by the stairs.
But the Red Ranger apparently wasn't finished with him yet. "And what was that stunt with your Tsunami Cycle anyways?" he yelled after him. "You nearly took my head off! Were you trying to kill me or what?"
Hunter waved his hand dismissively. "Oh, come on. So I was a little too close when I jumped over your head with it. It happens, get over it. Besides, there were about half a dozen kelzaks behind you that I took care of with one shot while I was in the air, in case you hadn't noticed."
Shane waved his finger at the blond man. "Not before I had to scramble to get out of the way of your wheel. Dude, my grandma could have made a better jump than that!"
Next to Cam, Blake suddenly grimaced. 'Oh no, please don't go there!' he mentally screamed at Shane and took a step forward, but it was already too late.
Hunter stiffened noticeably. "Oh no, you did not just criticize the way I ride my bike!"
His voice dropped several nuances, and he was suddenly strangely calm when he approached Shane again. "So you think you can do better?"
Shane knew a challenge when he heard one and his expression turned smug. "Why don't you compare the number of times you crashed your Tsunami Cycle with the number of times I crashed mine and draw your own conclusion from that?"
Damn! Hunter knew his crash record was always the topic of many jokes around Ninja Ops, but Shane dragging this up in front of everyone right now just got the Thunder ninja's blood boiling. The next words were out of his mouth before he ever really thought about them. "At least I'm not a mediocre skateboard poser who was one step away from being expelled from the Academy." Hunter took another step closer to Shane, lowering his voice to a growl. "You want to know what I think? I think when Lothor attacked the schools…that was the best thing that ever happened to you."
That remark stung, and a grim feeling of satisfaction stole over Hunter when he saw the hurt in Shane's eyes. The Red Ranger glared at him for a long moment, then hissed in a dangerously low voice, "Tomorrow after school, the skating ramp on the south end of the Boardwalk, just you and me. First the ramp, then the track. We'll settle this once and for all." Then he turned and stalked off.
Hunter looked after him smugly, but flinched when his brother's voice suddenly sounded from right behind him. "Don't you think that was kinda out of line, bro?"
"He started it," the Crimson Ranger snapped defensively.
Blake appeared at his right side. "Maybe, but you still shouldn't have let it come to that."
Hunter made no reply, only let out a long, heavy breath and stomped off towards the direction of their room. Blake wasn't even trying to hold him back. Hunter knew he had gone too far, but from lifelong experience Blake knew that that long sigh was as close to a concession as he would get out of his big brother.
He quickly glanced around the suddenly silent room. His fellow Rangers were all looking at each other with looks of bewilderment on their faces that must have mirrored his own.
They were all used to Shane and Hunter occasionally bickering - and certainly always competing - with each other, but it had never before taken such a nasty twist.
Just as the door to the Bradleys' room slammed shut, Blake heard Cam's voice close to his ear. "They've gone too far this time, Blake," the samurai said quietly, but the way he stood with his arms crossed tightly across his chest contradicted his calm exterior.
The Navy Ranger nodded his head towards the closed door. "He's your boyfriend. You talk to him," he murmured, even though Dustin and Tori were out of earshot on the other side of the room.
Cam gave him a contemplative look. The two Thunder Rangers had been living at Ninja Ops for about three months now and during that time Cam and Hunter had gotten to know each other quite a bit better – mainly in the practice room after dark. But that didn't lull Cam into the false confidence of thinking that he already had enough influence over the Crimson Ranger to talk him out of this nonsense he had just silently agreed to.
Cam shook his head. "You're his brother. I think you have better chances of getting through to him," he replied and turned towards the stairs where Shane had disappeared. "I'll go talk to Shane in the meantime."
With a dismayed look on his face, Blake turned on his heels and went after his brother.
The air in Ninja Ops' guest room was so thick with agitation it was almost tangible.
Hunter stood in the middle of the room, chest heaving, fists clenching and unclenching, and Blake knew that his brother would normally be been pacing furiously right now if the room hadn't been so small.
Before he could even open his mouth, Hunter was already waving his finger into the younger Bradley's face. "Don't even try it, Blake. I'm not apologizing." The Crimson Ranger's eyes blazed. "I'm so tired of his superior attitude! Oh, and if he calls me 'Burgundy' one more time, I'll get me a fake ID, go to the next liquor store, get the biggest bottle of that red wine stuff I can find and dump it over his head!"
Blake refrained from trying to get a mental visual of that threat and caught his brother's wagging index finger instead. "Bro, let it go! That's exactly what he's trying to achieve – to get you all riled up. Don't let him succeed." Blake's eyes narrowed. "And if you're even considering going to that skate ramp tomorrow…"
But Hunter never let him finish. He just pulled his finger free, let out a frustrated "Argh!" and threw himself on his bed with his back to Blake.
Seeing the futility in trying to change his brother's mind, the Navy Ranger made a face and shook his head sadly. "Guess he already has succeeded," he mumbled and turned to leave. But just before he pushed open the door, he heard Hunter turn on his bed.
"Blake," the older Thunder Ranger's voice was more sedate now. "I can't back out now. I would lose too much face."
"And what about the face you'll lose at the skating ramp?" Blake said exasperatedly, facing his big brother again. When Hunter didn't reply, he let out a heavy sigh.
"Look, we all know how this is going to end. He'll wipe the floor with you on the skate ramp, then you'll turn around and demolish him at the motocross track. And in the end, what's gonna be the outcome? A draw. With nothing resolved."
Hunter was staring at the ceiling. "You think I don't know that? But what was I supposed to do, huh? Let him just keep up all this name-calling and animosity?" Hunter re-established eye contact with Blake. "He's supposed to be the leader of this team, but he sure as hell doesn't act like one most of the time; at least not when it comes to me."
Blake left his spot at the door to slump down on the bed next to his brother.
Touchy subject. The question of leadership had been a sore spot between Shane and Hunter from the beginning, but it certainly wouldn't be answered by the two of them trying their best to humiliate each other tomorrow. Sighing internally, Blake made one more attempt. "I see your point, bro, but bottom line is that you can't skateboard!"
Hunter glanced at the alarm clock on their desk. "Well, it's almost three o'clock now; that gives me about twenty-two hours to practice."
Blake stared at him incredulously. "You're kidding right?" He shook his head. "Bro, even if you had twenty-two days, it wouldn't be enough."
Hunter just shrugged, trying to look nonchalantly. The two Thunder ninjas looked at each other for a long moment, and Blake sighed at the stubborn look in his brother's eyes. He wasn't getting though to him. Hunter wasn't letting him.
With another sad shake of his head, Blake rose and left the room.
At one-fifteen, Shane finally heard the telltale sounds of an approaching motorcycle. From his vantage point at the top of the incline of the Boardwalk's skating ramp he had a good view over the avenue that ran parallel to the beach, and he spotted Hunter's bike right away. The Thunder ninja veered off the main road and cut across the wide, grassy area that separated the Boardwalk from the street.
Shane was already striding towards him as he parked his bike next to some small palm trees. "You're late," he said without preamble.
"Class went over a little, so what?" Hunter pulled off his helmet, casting Shane a hostile glance. "I'm here, ain't I?"
Yeah, didn't really think you'd show up at all, Shane thought as he turned and wordlessly stalked off, back towards the skating ramp, Hunter following right behind him.
Once there, Shane picked up the second skateboard he had brought along and hurled it towards Hunter. The Crimson Ranger caught it with an easy, fluid motion. Grimly, Hunter noted that Shane had dressed for the occasion, wearing his favorite red, hooded sweatshirt with the words 'SHUT UP AND SKATE' printed in large, grey letters across his chest. Smart-ass!
The Wind ninja wasted no time on niceties. "Let's do this," he barked and slapped his safety helmet onto his head.
Many miles above the earth, a massive black spaceship, built to resemble a huge asteroid, floated lazily in the vacuum of space. On the bridge of said vessel stood the object of the very reason for the Power Rangers' existence: Lothor – evil space ninja and sworn archenemy of the Wind and Thunder Rangers.
He was flanked by his generals Zurgane and Choobo as he peered intently at the bridge's screen, where the scenes between the dark-skinned Wind ninja and the blond Thunder ninja played out on the skating ramp far below them. Ever since the computer's Ranger Alert had sounded, they had been watching the hostility between them with unconcealed amusement. Lothor couldn't remember the names of those pesky teens, but names really didn't matter when it came to his newest evil plan. And as long as there was at least one of the Thunder Rangers present…Cam's evil uncle turned to Zurgane. "General, we are setting our latest plan in motion right now. You know the details. Get me those two and take them to the secret lair. And don't let them morph!"
The black robot bowed. "Yes, sir!" He took a few steps, before he turned back towards his master. "Sir, if I may ask… is 'you know who' at full efficiency yet?"
Lothor glowered at him. "I will make sure that 'you know who' will be at his peak when he meets his two new chew toys. Now go!"
The space robot bowed again and scurried out the door.
Lothor turned to Choobo. "This is going to be so much fun. Two Rangers, unmorphed - all that's missing is the proverbial silver platter."
The green general bobbed his head enthusiastically, and soon evil laughter filled the spaceship's control room.
"Very soon I'll have my very own gladiator games," Lothor guffawed and gleefully rubbed his hands together. "I love it!"
Hunter winced inwardly as he watched Shane execute a perfect airborne backward flip.
The Red Ranger came down smoothly and rolled to a stop an inch before Hunter's sneakers.
"I don't think that needs any comment," Shane remarked complacently and regarded the blond man with his most patronizing look. "Your turn."
Hunter did his best not to let his despondency show as he threw Shane a dark glare of his own, picked up the second board and turned to make his way towards the ramp's incline.
He hadn't taken three steps before the swarm of kelzaks appeared out of thin air with their customary 'blink-of-an-eye' swiftness. Hunter and Shane suddenly found themselves surrounded on all sides by at least a dozen of them.
"Crap!" Hunter mumbled, startled.
"Figures," he heard Shane's voice behind him. "I'm on a roll here, and they show up."
The Wind and Thunder ninjas automatically assumed defensive stances back to back, instinctively covering each other.
Suddenly a black figure stepped around the half-pipe. "Sorry to spoil your fun, Rangers," Zurgane said, drawing his swords. "But Lothor is requesting your immediate presence."
"I think we're gonna have to decline that invitation," Shane snapped.
"This is no invitation," the alien robot replied and raised one of his swords.
"CHARGE!" he yelled to his drones.
"Ready?" Shane called over his shoulder.
"Ready!" Hunter cried.
"NINJA STORM…" "THUNDER STORM…"
They never made it to the "RANGERFORM" part before the wave of black and red bodies crashed into them.
The two ninjas went down, but managed to kick enough kelzaks off them to scramble back to their feet. Their opportunity for morphing was shot, however, as Zurgane's goons just kept on coming.
Shane ripped off his helmet and threw it at the faceplate of the closest kelzak. The drone went down with a shriek. At the same time, Hunter picked Shane's skateboard off the ground and swung it in a wide arch, sending four more kelzaks flying. He raised his wrist to send out a distress signal to Cam, but before he could, three kelzaks tackled him simultaneously. Hunter reared up, trying to shake off the helmeted figures that clung to his arms and effectively prevented him from reaching his morpher.
His efforts got him only a vicious punch in the stomach. Hunter doubled over and gasped for breath. The very instant he did, a cylindrical object appeared an inch from his face, held by the black-gloved hand of another kelzak. Before Hunter could turn his head, a misty gas sprayed out of the cylinder, hitting him squarely in the face. He coughed, but could already feel its effects. The contours of the kelzak's helmeted visage became blurred, then shadowy, then…blackness.
Blake looked at his wrist watch while he crossed the high school's parking lot, hurrying towards his motorcycle. Shane and Hunter had both gotten out an hour ago, and he was sure that by now they were already 'battling' it out on the skate ramp.
Blake sighed. After the fruitless conversation with his brother yesterday, he had run into Cam in the control room. The samurai had had just about as much luck trying to convince Shane to call off this ridiculous challenge as he had. They reluctantly agreed that there was really nothing they could do about it now. The damage was done.
So Blake had decided to swing by the Boardwalk after school and clandestinely observe the whole thing. He didn't mean to spy on them, he just wanted to make sure that there wouldn't be any serious injuries – apart from bruised egos that was. Those would definitely get hurt. Blake had no doubt about that.
'But who knows,' he thought as he kicked his bike into gear, 'maybe something might just come out of this.' But almost immediately he shook his head at himself. 'Yeah, right, Bradley. Keep dreaming!'
He swung out of the parking lot and into the street, heading towards the beach. All the while he made a mental inventory of the first-aid kit he had in his backpack.
Just in case.
The south end of the Boardwalk was pretty much deserted. No wonder, it was Tuesday afternoon, overcast and windy. Not very appealing 'hang-out' weather for most people.
Blake parked his bike behind a large souvenir stand, a good distance from the skate ramp, so as to not alert them to his presence; he knew Hunter would pick up the sound of his bike. Walking the last few yards, he suddenly had a feeling of uneasiness creep upon him, a dark sense of foreboding he couldn't seem to shake. Frowning, he picked up his pace and rounded the cluster of palm trees where the skateboarding ramp was located just a few feet behind. Initially, Blake had intended to hide behind the broad trunks, but now he stepped around them without a second thought.
The ramp was deserted.
For a moment Blake relaxed, figuring they had already moved on to the dirt bike track, but then he spotted Hunter's bike parked next to another cluster of palmettos. He jogged towards the motorcycle, and his frown intensified when he realized that the bike was unlocked.
Hunter was meticulous about security; he had spent a pretty penny on an ultra-hard, stainless steel chain and padlock, and wrapping it around his wheel was normally the first thing he did. His brother's crimson helmet was hanging off the handle bar, equally unsecured. Hunter had a chain for that, too.
Without hesitation, Blake unzipped the bike's saddle bag. One look revealed that the chains were inside, together with his brother's school books.
That did it. Something was wrong.
The younger Bradley's head shot up, eyes darting in all directions. The sense of uneasiness was increasing rapidly. Then, over by the left incline of the skate ramp, he spotted an oblong object that looked disquietly familiar. He was crouched down next to Shane's skateboard an instant later.
'Maybe, just maybe, Hunter would leave his bike unlocked for some reason, but there was no way Shane would just have his board lying around like that.'
By now Blake was worried enough to throw Cam's rule about using their morphers in public out the window and raised the device to his mouth. "Blake to Hunter."
"Blake to Shane."
The skating ramp had been built less than five feet from the beach, and now, as Blake once again let his eyes roam over the immediate area, he spotted another ominous sight.
Footsteps in the sand. Dozens of them.
Blake was not a tracker, but he could distinguish between boot prints and sneaker prints and what he was looking at right now were most definitely boot prints.
Hunter and Shane were not skating in boots.
Blake raised his morpher once again. "Blake to Cam."
"Cam. What's up, Blake?" came the answer an instant later.
"You better come down to the skating ramp by the Boardwalk right away. We have a problem."
"Yup, definitely boot prints. And not ninja training boots, either," Cam said while crouched down, peering at the tracks in the sand. Blake cursed under his breath. He had been hoping Hunter and Shane might have, for some far-out reason, changed into their training gear and maybe slugged it out between them on the beach.
Ok, really far out, there.
Cam raised his head and locked eyes with Blake. "You said you tried to hail them?"
"Yeah, but no luck," Blake's face was tight with worry. "Tried it several times."
He sighed and finally voiced his suspicion. "You think this is Lothor's doing?"
Cam shrugged noncommittally, dug into his pocket and brought out his communicator while he scrambled to his feet. "Cam to CyberCam."
"'s goin' on, dude? Cam's holographic twin answered.
"I need you to try to lock on to Hunter and Shane's morpher signatures, let me know their locations."
"Awright, gimme a sec."
Blake and Cam waited tensely, and a moment later CyberCam's voice resounded again. "Dude, that's weird. I can't get a signal from either of them. They won't even show up on the screen."
Cam clenched his jaw. Not good, not good at all. This definitely smelled of Lothor.
He met Blake's eyes again, saw the anxiety there and knew it was showing on his face as well. "We need to get back to Ops. Regroup, figure things out from there."
Blake nodded curtly. He retrieved his key ring from his pocket, separated a single key from it and handed it to Cam. "Take Hunter's bike, ok? He wouldn't want us to leave it here. I'll get Shane's board and meet you at Ops."
It felt strange, really strange, to ride Hunter's motorcycle, to wear his helmet, and as Cam raced down the road that led out of town and into the mountains he had a hard time keeping his focus on the street. Confusion, worry, no - downright fear - for the safety of Hunter and Shane had his attention slipping every few moments.
'What the hell happened at the beach? Where are you, Hunter?'
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Cold. It was the first sensation that flooded into his mind as consciousness returned. Before he could even open his eyes, a shiver ran through Hunter's entire body. His eyelids seemed to weigh a ton, but he finally managed to get them open.
He sat up carefully and blinked at the murky darkness. Thankfully, the aftereffects of the gas weren't much more than a slight dizziness. Shapes slowly started to come into focus as he surveyed his surroundings. Those shapes turned out to be stone walls, and with a start Hunter realized that he was slumped on the dirt floor of a roughly circular room about twenty feet in diameter. Actually it couldn't really be called a room, as the domed stone ceiling seemed to be at least forty feet above him, whereas the rock walls that surrounded him were only about twenty-five feet high – leaving a wide gap between the top of the walls and the ceiling. It seemed more like a large cubicle of some kind to Hunter.
Bare light bulbs were hanging from the ceiling from exposed cables, but the little bit of illumination they provided didn't help much.
A few feet off to his right, a huge steel door was set into the wall. Hunter squinted his eyes for a better look; it seemed to be of the sliding kind, and he could see no handles or opening mechanisms of any type.
So much for getting out that way. Hunter let his eyes roam around the area some more, but there wasn't anything in the room with him. And neither was anybody.
Shane! Hunter was on his feet before he even realized it. His eyes once again darted in all directions, but the Wind ninja wasn't here.
Dozens of questions were assaulting Hunter's mind, but he settled on trying to answer the most pressing one first, namely Shane's whereabouts. Feeling slightly silly, but unable to think of anything else to do, the older Bradley stood in the middle of the small room, took a deep breath and yelled out the name of his team mate at the top of his voice.
On the other side of one of the stone walls, in a cubicle identical to Hunter's, a black-haired head snapped up. Shane shot to his feet. "Hunter!" he called back, relief flooding though him. Ever since he had come to a few minutes ago, he had been trying to contact Hunter as well, both via morpher and by simply calling out to him, but with no luck. The morpher didn't seem to be working at all; that worried him.
"Yeah!" came the reply from the other side of the wall, sounding equally glad. "Are you okay, man?"
"I'm all right. Got knocked out by some sort of gas. You?"
"In one piece." Hunter scowled. "They used the gas on me, too. Any idea where we are?"
Shane shook his head, but of course Hunter couldn't see that. "No, but everything in here feels real enough, so we're not in one of his illusions or alternate universes."
They both knew who Shane was referring to.
"Where exactly are you?" asked Hunter's voice.
In reply, Shane picked up a small rock and hurled it over the stone wall from which he guessed Hunter's voice was coming. It turned out to be the right guess.
"Ok, gotcha," the Thunder ninja called. Both young men turned towards the wall that separated them.
"You see any way to get over this?" Hunter wanted to know, for he had already deduced from the fact that if Shane was still in the cubicle next to his, the Red Ranger hadn't been able to find a way out yet, either.
Shane's voice sounded frustrated. "No, this wall's pretty smooth."
Hunter's eyes traveled up and down the barrier. "Same over here, but keep looking. We need to get together…"
Suddenly, out of the periphery of his vision, he saw a flash of light a few feet away from him. He whirled around – and found himself face to face with Lothor himself.
The evil space ninja grinned at him from behind his mask. "So, traitorous Thunder Ranger, we meet again." He took a step forward and sneered, "Long time no see."
Hunter immediately assumed attack stance. "I could go for much longer," he growled, trying to calm his racing heart. He drew back his fist, ready for a punch.
"Oh, please," Lothor sighed exaggeratedly and flicked his wrist. From his leather glove surged a mighty power beam that lifted Hunter off his feet and flung him backwards a few yards. With a yelp he landed spread-eagled in the dirt and Lothor was looming over him immediately. "And that was just a tap."
"What do you want? Why are we here?" Hunter growled as he sat up, a hand clutched to his burning chest. "And where are we?"
Lothor held up his hand. "One question at a time," he remarked, condescension dripping from his voice. Then he turned, waving his hands in a circular motion. "You should be flattered at what I have created here just for you. Your very own arena."
The evil ninja turned his gaze back towards Hunter. "Actually, I really wanted to get both you and your brother, but for now the other one will do just fine." He inclined his head towards the stone wall where Shane was stuck on the other side.
Hunter's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?"
"Don't play dumb," Lothor snapped. "I still have a bone to pick with you and your brother for defecting and joining up with THEM!"
Hunter held his gaze without flinching. "Joining THEM was the best thing we've ever done," he snarled up into the evil ninja's masked face.
Lothor barked a humorless laugh. "When you see what I have in store for you, I'm sure that this attitude of yours will change quickly." He looked down onto the blond man. "After my newest creation is finished with you, your brother will be next."
Hunter still had no idea what Lothor was talking about, but at those words fear shot through his chest, although not for himself. He scrambled to his feet. "If you lay a finger on Blake…"
But Lothor had already turned and extended his hand. Another flash of light appeared next to him; a teleportation portal. "Farewell. I'll be watching your demise from my ship," he hissed with an evil smile. And before Hunter could reach him, he was gone.
Hunter stood in the middle of the room, fists clenched at his sides, trying to control his breathing – and his fear for Blake – when the voice from the other side of the wall finally registered.
"Was that who I think it was?"
"Sure was. Did you hear everything?"
"Just about. What do you think he meant by 'having in store for you'?"
Hunter looked towards the huge steel door. "I don't know, but I have a feeling I'll find out real soon."
As if on cue, a metallic groan came from the direction of the door and the huge steel rectangle shook and started to move.
On the other side of the wall, Shane was getting more and more tense. Lothor was clearly up to no good and this could turn extremely dangerous very soon. His fingers ran over the smooth wall with renewed vigor. He had to get to Hunter somehow. Whatever Lothor was planning to throw at him, they needed to face it together. Strength in numbers.
Their earlier hostility was forgotten in light of the impending danger from Lothor.
Suddenly there was a metallic noise from the other side, and a moment later Shane heard a blood-curling, utterly inhuman growl that made the hair stand up at the back of his neck. His head shot up and his blood ran cold.
Hunter vaguely heard his name being called, but he was too busy staring in open-mouthed horror at what had just emerged from the open door.
The beast looked like the result of a mating between the monster Luke Skywalker had fought in the dungeon of Jabba the Hutt's palace and the creature from "Aliens".
It was at least three times Hunter's size and looked infinite times more vicious and evil.
Malignancy seemed to radiate from it, filling the air of the arena, and Hunter instinctively knew that this was not one of Lothor's normal, goofy monsters; this was a predator, conscienceless and deadly.
The monster took a few steps forward, and the steel door swished shut behind it with a clank. Despite the murky lighting Hunter got a good enough look at it to make his stomach turn to a clump of ice.
The best comparison that came into Hunter's mind was 'butt-ugly, miniature T-Rex'.
Its dark complexion was glistening, as if coated with a slimy oil, and the overhead lights reflected off its razor-sharp spikes, talons and fangs in dozens of places. Its tail, equally studded with spikes, flicked left and right as the beast raised its head and let out another monstrous roar that instantly dried up Hunter mouth.
With the roar came a fetid stench bad enough to make him gag; it was a mixture of sulphur, sewage, and evil. The beast lashed out aimlessly with its long, powerful arms, striking the wall next to it. The entire stone structure shook precariously, and Hunter's eyes went wide at the display of force behind that seemingly casual swipe. The massive head moved from side to side, searching, but for now the shadows of the murky darkness of the arena helped to conceal Hunter's position.
'Hand-to-hand combat wouldn't even tickle that thing,' the Thunder ninja thought as his head whipped around, desperately searching for a weapon of any kind; a rock, a jagged piece of stone, anything, but there was nothing in the arena with him.
'Lothor made sure of that,' he thought grimly and took a few steps backwards until he bumped into the rock wall. Nowhere else to go, nowhere to hide.
"High time to morph," he mumbled to himself and stuck out his hand.
"Thunder Storm, Ranger Form!"
Nothing happened. Hunter stared at his morpher unbelievingly. Oh no, don't, not right now! He repeated the call – with the same results. What the heck?
Another growl made him look up from his dead morpher to see that the creature's head had turned, its beady red eyes now focused straight on him. The only thing his attempt to morph had achieved was that the monster was now aware of his exact location.
'I'm in so much trouble,' was the only thing that came into his mind. He pressed himself closer to the wall in a futile effort to fuse with it.
He was backed into a corner with a non-functioning morpher, no weapons of any kind and no place to run.
"Shane!" he yelled on top of his lungs. "I could really use some help over here!"
Then the dino-monster charged.
Hunter leapt into the air, did a forward flip, and avoided the monster's talons by a hairbreadth. He landed behind the creature, only to duck immediately as the spiked tail crashed into the wall inches above his head. A shower of dust and debris rained down on him. He threw himself forward once again, evading another swipe from those monstrous claws. The creature let out a frustrated screech, and Hunter's chest constricted at that sound. He couldn't avoid the beast indefinitely; the arena was just too small for that.
And the monster knew that as it geared up for another charge.
The moment Shane heard the distressed call from the other side of the wall, he had to fight down the panic creeping up in his gut. He doubled his desperate efforts to scale the wall, clawing at the smooth stone, but there simply weren't enough hand or footholds for leverage. Dismayed, he looked up, knowing that even he couldn't make a twenty-five foot leap. He tried it anyways - and fell about ten feet short.
"Fly," he thought. "Only way across." That meant the Battelizer.
Shane stepped away from the wall and extended his arm. "Ninja Storm, Ranger Form!"
The morpher never even twitched.
"Oh god, no!" he moaned, panic surging through him with full force. He had been hoping that the earlier problems with his morpher would turn out to be only a glitch in communications. Now he knew it was much worse. Cursing under his breath, he tried again and was rewarded with the same results. Damnit, but the thing didn't look broken!
Whatever was attacking Hunter on the opposite side of the wall shrieked again, and the beastly noise was like a dagger in Shane's heart. "Hunter, can you morph?" he yelled.
"NO!" came the desperate reply, and despite the damp cold of the place, Shane started to sweat. He closed his eyes, breathing. " Think!" he urged himself, raking his hands through his hair. A sudden spur of anger made him kick the wall – and left him feeling stupid almost immediately afterwards. He glared at the hated stone structure.
"If I could only blow a hole into you," he mumbled, and suddenly his eyes went wide.
Maybe not blow through it, but…Again his eyes went upwards, this time to judge whether this crazy idea that just came into his head would have even a tiny chance of success. He came to the conclusion that it had to work; there was simply no other alternative.
Shane breathed, calming his body, clearing his mind. Inhale… exhale…When his heartbeat had slowed, he put his right fist into his open left palm and concentrated. His mind expanded, focused, summoning his element, and his element responded. He felt the familiar mental connection, then a rush as the power of air surged through him and manifested itself around him. The wind was beginning to tug at his clothes and hair, but Shane kept his eyes closed as he increased the power of the gust, then changed its direction until he stood right in the middle of a powerful up-current. By now the noise of the wind had turned into a howl, and slowly, Shane's body was pulled upwards. He felt the loss of contact with the ground, but did not crack open his eyes, entirely absorbed in the task of controlling his element. Ascending was a slow process, but at least he was going in the right direction. A quiet feeling of triumph went through him as he gained altitude. He had tried this several times before during training in the woods, but had never made it farther than a few feet up before the force of the whirlwind once again managed to unbalance him. The result had always been a face full of dirt and aching ribs as he came crashing down.
Now he kept his body rigid, desperately trying to balance out the powerful winds spinning all around him by keeping himself in the eye of the vortex. For the moment it worked, and he rose steadily, inching towards the top of the wall.
Whoosh! Hunter could feel the air rush by his ear as he dodged the beast's claws again.
Too close. There was no way he could keep this up much longer. The creature was closing in on him, clearly agitated now, and Hunter was rapidly running out of space. His eyes were roaming desperately over the monster in search for a weak point, and as the abomination raised its arms for another downward blow, Hunter discharged a lightening bolt right into its exposed chest. The creature barely stumbled; the bolt had done next to no damage to the thick scales of its breastplate. Hunter stared crestfallen at the thin plume of smoke that curled from the monster's uninjured chest. This can't be happening!
Hunter had an urge to try the morpher again, but dismissed that idea almost as soon as it popped into his head. Something was jamming the morpher, and he was certain that it was Lothor-engineered. Hunter gritted his teeth at the thought of the evil ninja watching this entire spectacle right now from the safety of his bridge. In his mind he could just hear the gleeful laughter drifting through that ugly space contraption of his.
Roaring furiously, the dino-monster raised its paws once again. As if in slow-motion, Hunter watched the light reflect off the razor-sharp weapons as he felt the last seconds of his life tick by. Faces suddenly flashed before his eyes…Blake grinning, Cam smiling…
Hunter drew in a sharp breath and steeled himself for the pain of the death blow.
Suddenly there was movement above him, a flash of red on top of the wall, then a familiar voice. "HEY, FREAK!"
The creature's head whipped around at the sound, then shrieked in anger at the impact of Shane's sneakers from a double-legged flying kick. The Wind ninja bounced off the beast's head, landed smoothly on the hard-packed dirt floor a few feet away from Hunter and threw him a quick glance. "You all right?"
"Yeah," Hunter replied, never taking his eyes off the beast, but mentally breathing a sigh of relief at his team mate's last-second intervention. "Meet 'Butt-ugly T-Rex'."
"Not interested in meeting him. How do we beat him?"
Hunter shook his head grimly. "Haven't figured that part out yet. How do you beat something like that without weapons?"
The creature lashed out at them with a howl of blackest rage, and the two Rangers scrambled, ducking and leaping out of the way of the deadly talons.
This time, however, Hunter wasn't quick enough, and the beast's claws raked along his upper arm. White-hot pain flared up from the injured limb, and Hunter screamed involuntarily. He stumbled, clasping his hand over the wound and felt the warm slickness of blood seeping from the deep gash.
The monster glared at him with murderous intent, its blood-red eyes glowing like hot coals, and suddenly, even through the thick cloud of pain, Hunter saw the weak spot!
It was so obvious; he couldn't believe that he hadn't thought of it much earlier.
He gritted his teeth and, ignoring the searing agony from his arm, raised both hands, took a precious second to aim and discharged two lightening bolts towards the creature's head.
They hit dead on, one bolt for each eye, and with a deafening screech of pain, the monster reared up, pawing at its eyes.
"Gotcha," Hunter growled. His arm was throbbing unmercifully, and with a grimace he clutched his bloody hand over it again.
He never knew whether his attention slipped from the pain of his injury or the momentary indulgence of glee from the successful hit, but he never saw the tail coming. He heard Shane yell something, but it was swallowed by the creature's enraged howls, and before he could react, the tail swept him off his feet. The next instant he was airborne, the stone wall coming towards him at the speed of light.
The impact was brutal. Hunter slammed into the wall with such force that he actually heard the sound of his ribs breaking like stalks of celery. Every ounce of air was knocked out of his lungs so that he had no breath left to even let out a cry of pain. He instinctively jerked his head back, but not far enough, and his temple connected with solid stone before he rebounded and dropped onto the ground.
The last thing he heard was the telltale metallic screeching of the metal door before unconsciousness claimed him once again, for the second time in as many hours.
The sounds of Blake's boots resounded off the walls of Ninja Ops as the Navy Ranger tried to walk a pattern into the floor right behind Cam's computer console with his frantic pacing. Cam tried to shut out the insistent stomping while he hit keys on his keyboard in rapid and seemingly random sequence.
Behind Blake, Dustin and Tori sat on top of the low command table, shoulders slumped, faces dismal; they had arrived a few minutes ago after Cam had hailed them and told them about the incident at the skate ramp.
Blake lifted his head to see Tori put an arm around the Yellow Ranger, whose face had lost most of its golden tan. Dustin was worried to death about his best friend, and Blake could see Tori's mouth moving, mumbling words of encouragement. Judging from the miserable look on Dustin's face, though, it wasn't working.
Cam swiveled around in his chair, facing the dejected little group. "I have reprogrammed the computer to scan for Hunter and Shane's morpher signatures on all possible frequencies, but I've also set the scanning range for as broad as possible, so that process will take a while." The samurai's voice was clear and in control, but Blake could see the worry lines etched into Cam's face.
"How long?" he said tightly, chewing on his lower lip.
"A few hours at least."
Blake ran his hands through his hair with a frustrated expression. "But what do we do in the meantime?"
"There's nothing we can do, Blake." The green Ranger's voice had assumed a tone of finality, but Blake still shook his head vigorously. "No, there has to be something we can do. I can't just sit here…"
"Look, we are all exhausted. Let's try to get some rest, ok?" Cam's gaze was intent, willing Blake to take his advice.
From the table came Tori's voice. "We are staying here, too, so we can be ready when the scans reveal something."
It was not lost on Blake that she had said when instead of if, and Blake loved her all the more for her faith.
"Good idea." Cam nodded.
Ninja Ops' guest room, where the Bradleys had been staying for the past few months, suddenly felt stark and cold. Blake flung himself onto Hunter's bed and let his eyes roam around the small room. His brother's things were everywhere: shirts draped over a chair, his favorite pair of sneakers, the crimson Converses, thrown into a corner; even his scent was still in the pillow under Blake's head. All this obvious evidence of his brother's presence made his disappearance even more surreal, and Blake's throat constricted as a fresh wave of anguish and worry washed over him.
Hunter, wherever you are, just hang in there! We'll find you, bro. Somehow.
Blake's heart clenched like a fist around that nugget of hope. At first he didn't think he would even be able to close his eyes, but once he had stretched out on the bed, the strain from the events of the past few hours caught up with him quickly, and Blake drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
The voice seems to come from inside his head. No, not one voice. Two voices, speaking in perfect unison. So familiar…
He opens his eyes, finds that the bed, the room, Ninja Ops, is gone. Startled, he scrambles to a sitting position, looks around. Hard-packed dirt on the ground, stone walls on either side of him. Murky darkness all around him, yet somehow he sees, somehow he knows he is in a tunnel. He shakes his head to clear it. A dream. Has to be a dream.
He rises, puts a hand on the stone wall. Cold, hard, and disturbingly real.
The voices again. He turns his head sharply, and his body follows the sounds entirely of its own volition. He cannot see where he is going, but instinctively he knows it's the right way. He is strangely calm and that surprises him, given the unreality of the situation. While he walks he tries to place the voices, but recognition hovers just out of reach. They are warm, soothing, almost mesmerizing. He senses no danger, neither from the voices nor from the dark surroundings. After a few more steps, a silvery light appears, small and faint, but growing larger as he gets closer. He doesn't know how, buthe knows it's the end of the tunnel. His destination.
He takes a few more steps,…and walks into a chamber. As soon as he enters, he knows exactly where he is. He had been here before, less than a year ago, under circumstances he doesn't care to remember right now. His eyes settle on the small stone altar, now devoid of the Gem of Souls it had held for so long before Lothor destroyed it.
But what am I doing inside the Sacred Mountain of Lost Ninjas?
The soft, silvery light seems to originate from behind the altar and when he looks at it, it suddenly starts to change, to grow and pulsate. He takes an involuntary step backwards, but cannot wrest his eyes away. A feeling of déjà vu is flooding through him, and he stands rooted to the spot as something begins to take shape within the light. A form, then two, distorted at first, then quickly becoming clearer. No, it can't be!
Wide-eyed, he suddenly finds himself face to face with the two people he had never expected to see again. Not since the last time he was here. Not really people, though…
"Mom, Dad…?" His voice shakes, barely louder than a croak, but his adoptive parents look down on him silently. Floating within the sphere of light, encapsulated in its ghostly luminescence, they hover motionless, and he is suddenly overcome with the urge to throw himself forward and into their comforting arms. But that would mean crashing into the stone wall behind them; they were only spirits, after all. Killed so many years ago…
He feels their gazes so intently, it's almost painful. His parents look exactly the way he remembers them from his first and last visit to this chamber. His mother's eyes are full of love for him, but she frowns, deep lines of worry in her beautiful face. And in his father's as well. He knows why they worry; he worries about him, too.
"Son, you know why we have called you to us," his father says, his ghostly voice echoing through the chamber.
He has so many questions for them, but the worry for Hunter overshadows all, and he nods. "Do you know where he is?" he asks.
"Lothor is holding them here, inside the Sacred Mountain of Lost Ninjas," his mother answers him, and he suppresses a shudder at the feelings her sweet voice rouse in him.
She fixes him with an unblinking gaze. "Blake, when Lothor destroyed the Gem of Souls, he also destroyed the mountain's most effective defense against the infiltrations of evil. Not long after that, Lothor was back. And he brought with him monsters from all parts of the galaxy. For months he experimented with breeding the ultimate evil. A few weeks ago he finally succeeded."
As he listens, the feeling of foreboding grows bigger and stronger within him, and he swallows heavily. "What is happening here?" But he is afraid he already knows.
His father chimes in. "There are ancient training arenas right in the center of the mountain, where ninjas have been training for generations. Lothor had been using these arenas to raise his abomination, and several days ago he deemed it ready to use it to set his ultimate plan in motion; to destroy all the Rangers."
"Lothor knows he cannot defeat you as a team, so his plan is to capture you all separately and set his creature loose upon you individually once he has brought you here," his mother finishes the gloomy explanation.
He feels dizzy all of a sudden, but manages to stay upright. "Hunter and Shane…"
"You must hurry, Blake," his father says urgently. "This creature is of such pure evil that words fail to describe it. When Lothor unleashes this beast, I'm afraid that neither Hunter nor his friend will stand a chance against it."
"And we are powerless to intervene," his mother adds. "It's up to you to rescue your brother."
"But how do I find them in there?" he cries.
"Once you have come to the Sacred Mountain of Lost Ninjas, we will guide you. But hurry! Time is running out…"
The light starts to dim, the voices become faint, and he wants to scream at them to stay, to tell him more, but suddenly he finds himself in utter darkness, alone, and desperately afraid.
Just a dream?...
With this word still on his lips, Blake jerked awake, blinking rapidly.
Ninja Ops, something soft beneath him – Hunter's bed. Blake sat up shakily. His heart was hammering so fast it felt like it was powered by a steam engine, and he ran a trembling hand across his face. That dream…so real!
In his mind he heard the voice of his mother once again. 'Time is running out...'
Her words were like a jolt of electricity and Blake shot from the bed, out of the room and into Ninja Ops' control room, where, heedless of his own advice to rest, Cam was still firmly perched in front of his computer console.
The samurai frowned when he saw the Navy Ranger bolt towards him. Blake came to a stop an inch in front of Cam's chair, urgency written all over his features. "Cam, the mountain, they're in the mountain, there's not much time…"
"Whoa, Blake, slow down," Cam held up his hand, watching the flustered Thunder ninja intently. "What are you trying to say?"
Blake took a deep breath, trying to arrange his thoughts, which were still spinning wildly, into a coherent report. "I just had this dream…I was inside the Sacred Mountain of Lost Ninjas, and suddenly my parents were there…" Cam noticed the pained expression that briefly flickered across Blake's face. "They told me that Lothor is holding Hunter and Shane there, because he is planning on using them as sort of test subjects for his newest monster…" Blake fixed Cam with a pleading gaze to believe him. "Cam, it was so real, more like a vision than a dream. This was no random message. I'm sure they are there!"
If this sounded crazy to Cam, the samurai didn't let it show. He simply nodded and wordlessly turned back towards his computer terminal, typing a few commands to call up the computer's search results. "According to this, the computer has already searched that area and found nothing."
Blake was not deterred. "But the dream…They have to be there!"
Cam looked thoughtful for a moment until his eyes suddenly widened. "Unless we've been scanning for the wrong thing all along," he mumbled and began to type with renewed urgency. Moments later, the Sacred Mountain again re-appeared on the screen.
"Let's see if this works," the technician said and pressed the big red button on the keyboard. After only a few seconds, two spots appeared on the screen; one bright red, the other dark red.
"Yes!" Cam pumped his fist in triumph, and Blake's face lit up like a Christmas tree.
"I don't know what you did, but that's them, right?" he cried.
The Green Ranger nodded and pointed towards the display. "Yes, and you were right; they are right in the center of the mountain."
Blake was already turning. "Let's go!"
But Cam held him back, his eyes glued to the screen. "Wait, there's a problem."
The Thunder ninja's brows furrowed. "What? What is it?"
Cam turned back to the terminal and hit a few more keys. "The reason why the computer didn't detect them during the first scan was because I have used their morpher's energy frequencies." The samurai gesticulated towards the screen where the outlines of the mountain were now bathed in a bluish hue. "But there seems to be some sort of dampening field surrounding the entire mountain. It wasn't until I switched the scans to match their bio-signatures instead when the computer finally came up with something."
Cam gazed at Blake. "That indicates that this dampening field is interfering with their morpher's energy connections to the main computer."
The Navy Ranger regarded Cam with a puzzled expression. "Meaning…?"
"Meaning that they cannot communicate with us, and whatever is inside the mountain, -because I'm pretty sure they are not alone in there, - they are facing it without their Ranger powers." The samurai looked worried.
"Even more reason to get them out fast," Blake said resolutely.
"Agreed, but first I have to make some modifications to our own morphers, otherwise there's no guarantee that the same thing won't happen to us once we're inside." Cam was already punching commands into his keyboard while he spoke.
"Can't you just short-circuit the dampening field?" Blake asked, but Cam shook his head.
"Just tried that, but it seems to be controlled from Lothor's ship, and that's out of reach for me."
Although he was itching to rush out, the Navy Ranger saw the logic in the samurai's reasoning. "So…how long for those modifications?" he sighed.
"I'm already on it. Shouldn't be long." Cam could almost feel the anxiety emanating from the younger Bradley, and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"Blake, I can't wait to get him back, either," he said quietly. The Navy Ranger was still the only one who knew about the relationship that had been developing between Hunter and Cam since the two Thunder Rangers had moved into Ninja Ops a few months ago.
"And Shane, too, of course," the Green Ranger added quickly.
Blake nodded, but the dismayed look on his face stayed. "I can't stand this waiting," he mumbled.
"I know. Me, neither." Cam was hitting keys on his keyboard in lightening-quick succession. "Why don't you get the Winds; by the time you all get back here, we should be ready to head out."
"All right." Grateful to have something to do, the Navy Ranger streaked out of Ninja Ops and into the forest where Dustin and Tori were working off their nervous energies by sparring with each other.
All three were back only a minute later, but Cam was ready. Blake had brought them up to date on the events, and it took Cam only a moment to re-program everyone's morphers. They streaked out of Ninja Ops and arrived at the foot of the Sacred Mountain of Lost Ninjas only a few heartbeats later.
Pain can be classified into several categories: dull and throbbing, sharp and piercing, white-hot and burning.
Hunter felt them all the moment he regained consciousness, and he let out an agonized groan. Shane's voice was beside him at once. "Don't move, Hunter. You got clocked pretty bad and I don't wanna risk any more damage until we know what shape you're in."
Hunter opened his eyes to see three Shanes hovering above him. It took a moment for the three heads to fuse back into one while his vision cleared.
"The monster…?" Hunter croaked.
"Gone," Shane said. "Right after that freak tried to grind you into the wall, the door suddenly slid open, and the thing went straight for it. Bumped its head a few times before it made it through, too. Guess you got it pretty good."
A throbbing pain in his arm distracted Hunter for a moment. He turned his head to see that, while he had been out of it, Shane had ripped up the long sleeve of his crimson
T-shirt and wrapped the strips tightly around the wound. It had stopped the blood flow, but the makeshift bandage was still slowly staining with red of a different kind.
Hunter frowned at Shane. "Let me get this straight…the door opened, the monster was blinded... and you didn't take this chance to get outta here?"
"Wasn't like I could move you," Shane replied simply and held up his hand. "How many fingers do you see?"
Hunter ignored the digits. "Shane, that was probably your only chance to escape. Why…"
"But I didn't, dude," Shane interrupted him. "So shut up about this and tell me how many fingers you see? I need to be sure you don't have a concussion."
"Not like you actually know how to check for signs of concussions," Hunter remarked, a trace of his old sarcasm in his voice.
"Hey, I've seen George Clooney do this on ER just last week, so how hard can it be?" Shane countered, deadpan.
But Hunter kept pressing the issue. "You could have gone for help, maybe the morphers would have worked outside of these cubicles…"
"Hunter!" Shane's sharp tone actually startled Hunter into silence. The Wind ninja's gaze was intense as he glared down onto the Crimson Ranger. "I have a rule; I don't leave friends behind."
Hunter was so surprised by this simple statement that he could do little else but blink.
"Remember that time when Lothor had me on his ship?" Shane asked solemnly.
Hunter did remember, of course. It had been another one of Lothor's evil schemes: to get his hands on one of the Ranger's morphers to exploit its technology, he had stolen Shane's morpher – with Shane still attached to it. (see footnote below)
"You guys came for me and got me out of there," the Red Ranger continued. "You didn't just give up on me. And I know that Cam and the others won't just give up on us, either. But in the meantime, until they find us, I will not be trying to find a way out of here without you." He waved off Hunter's attempt at a response. "Stop arguing, dude. This discussion is finished." He looked down onto his injured team member with a mischievous grin. "And, yes, I can say that, you know. I am the leader."
Hunter's only reply was a snort, but strangely enough, the Crimson Ranger did not make any further attempts at arguing. Shane took that as encouragement to pick up where they had left off a minute ago. "Now! How many fingers?"
"Fifteen," Hunter mumbled.
"Not funny. How many?"
Hunter made an attempt at eye-rolling. "Two."
Satisfied with that answer, Shane reached out to help Hunter into a sitting position, but the Thunder ninja's torso had barely moved when he let out a sharp cry and froze.
"My ribs…" Hunter lay back heavily, grimacing with pain.
Cursing under his breath, Shane carefully peeled up Hunter's shirt only to gasp at the sight revealed. Even with the bad overhead lighting, the large purplish bruises covering most of the Thunder ninja's left side were plainly visible. And they did look damn painful.
Keeping his face neutral, he looked at Hunter, noticing for the first time just how pale the blond man was. "How deep a breath can you take?"
Hunter tried, and the intake of air before his face once again contorted in pain was way too shallow for Shane's likening.
"How bad is it?" Hunter asked hoarsely. The Crimson Ranger was flat on his back on the dirt ground, therefore unable to properly view the damage himself – and Shane was glad about that. It gave him the chance to prevaricate the truth a bit.
"You'll live, but, man, your torso's gonna look like a Picasso painting by tomorrow," he said in a weak attempt at humor.
"That bad, huh?" Hunter grimaced. "Hopefully I'll still be around tomorrow to admire it."
"Stop talking like that. Of course you will be." Shane tried his best to sound annoyed instead of worried. He knew next to nothing about first aid, but even he could figure out from the Thunder ninja's obvious pain and immobility that at least a few of Hunter's ribs were fractured. He also knew about the danger of one of those ribs puncturing a lung or other essential organs.
Bottom line was that it was too risky to move Hunter. But when that thing comes back…
As if he had read his mind, Hunter suddenly spoke up. "I'm just being realistic, dude. Lothor's not finished with us yet." The Crimson Ranger shook his head weakly. "My bolt wasn't at a hundred percent. I don't think I did any serious damage; probably just stunned and temporarily blinded that thing." He fixed Shane with a dark look. "As soon as it's recovered, he'll send it back; you know that."
Shane nodded his head at that, a wordless consent to his own apprehension.
"And we are in no shape to fight it. I'm hurt, we can't morph, the rest of the team doesn't know where we are…heck, we don't even know where we are."
"They'll find us. Cam will figure out a way." Shane insisted, trying his best to refute Hunter's gloom. "And at least you bought us some time."
The Red Ranger sat back on his heels. "But you are right; that freak will be back. So we have to come up with some sort of plan for when it does."
For a long moment the two Rangers looked at each other, each hoping the other would have at least a halfway feasible idea. Finally Shane sighed. "I guess the first thing we have to focus on is getting you back on your feet."
"I don't see how." Hunter cast Shane a glance that said he had seen through the Wind ninja's earlier attenuation of his injury. "Shane, I've had broken ribs before, so I know how it feels, and obviously I'm not going anywhere anytime soon."
"Well, let's see how we can fix it, then," Shane said, reaching out to pull Hunter's shirt up again.
"Fix it? How in the world are you gonna try and fix this?" Hunter asked puzzled and Shane shot him a slightly incredulous look. "Ninja healing powers, of course. What did you think?" Then he smirked suddenly. "Don't tell me they didn't teach you guys 'Regeneration 101' at the Thunder Academy."
"Well, yeah, they did, but only on ourselves," the blond man replied as he watched Shane rub his palms together slowly and deliberately before he carefully placed them over the bruises on Hunter's torso. He deduced the Wind ninja's actions correctly. "I didn't know there was a way to actually apply them to someone else."
"I didn't either, but after we became Rangers, Sensei taught us the meditative techniques to release our healing energy and transfer it into others," Shane replied and smiled slightly. "I guess the 'Power Ranger' package comes with some privileged knowledge."
He pointed towards Hunter's left arm. "Why don't you get on this, while I start on your work of art down here."
And while Hunter clumsily unwound the bloody bandage from the gash, the Wind ninja closed his eyes and bowed his head, concentrating. His body turned completely still, hands hovering over the battered area, and after a few moments Hunter became aware of a tingling sensation spreading across his bruised skin. Warmth seemed to radiate from Shane's hands directly into his body, soothing his aching ribcage. A healing lethargy came over Hunter as Shane's regenerative energy worked on fusing the fractured ribs back together. But the process was slow, and soon it was getting harder for him to stay awake and to focus on his own healing powers which he was applying to his arm.
He couldn't afford to fall asleep now. Blinking rapidly to shake off the fatigue, Hunter's eyes settled on Shane's face. The Red Ranger was frowning, eyes hooded, entirely absorbed in his task. Hunter hoped he wasn't breaking the Wind's concentration, but there were some things that had to be said, and they had to be addressed right now, before it might be too late. "Shane?"
"Sorry about that comment I made yesterday. You know, about Lothor and the schools…" Hunter's voice was quiet, almost subdued.
Now Shane cast him a quick glance. "'s all right, man."
"No, it isn't. I shouldn't have gone off like that. I was mad, and when that happens, I sometimes don't realize when I cross the line. I also didn't mean to belittle your leadership or your fighting skills," Hunter said sincerely, trying to catch Shane's eye. "You have to understand…up until a few months ago it's been just Blake and me, and he's the little brother, so I have always done most of the decision-making. It's a 'big brother' thing, you see?" When the Crimson Ranger realized he was babbling, he sighed. "I guess even after these past few months, I'm still not used to there being more than just Blake and me. We've always looked out for each other, because no one else ever did."
"Well, I've got news for you," Shane replied. "That changed when you became part of the team. Here we all look out for each other." He stopped his ministration for a moment and locked eyes with Hunter. "But I understand. I am a younger brother myself, remember? Besides, I was at fault here, too. I mean, we both said some stuff we shouldn't have said, and I provoked you with that stupid name-calling. So if we're at the apologizing part right now, you need to accept mine, too." The look on Shane's face was sincere, and after a moment, Hunter nodded. "So we're cool for now? Ready to resume our normal hostilities again?" he asked half-jokingly, and Shane chuckled. "Maybe tomorrow. Right now we've got to get you back in shape, so that there will be someone for me to argue with." He was about to turn his attention back to the interrupted task when Hunter spoke again. "Well, I just wanted to let you know that I won't contest you as the team leader anymore." The Thunder ninja's demeanor was solemn now in emphasis of his words, and a guilty kind of relief flooded through Shane. The message behind Hunter's words was that there were going to be no more escalations from now on.
Time to bury the hatchet, make aments, let bygones be bygones and all that.
The Red Wind Ranger regarded Hunter for a moment, then resolutely stuck out his hand to the blond man, and with a look of relief on his own face, the Crimson Thunder Ranger grasped the offered hand in a tight grip. The two young men shook on their newfound understanding before Shane once again lowered his palms over Hunter's side, resuming his treatment. Hunter placed his right hand back over the wound on his arm, continuing his own healing process.
They worked in comfortable silence for a while until Hunter spoke up again. "Shane, can I ask something of you?"
"Sure," Shane replied without looking up from his hands.
The Thunder ninja took as deep a breath as his ribs would let him before he continued. "If I don't make it out of here, there's something you have to do for me, man."
Shane was just about to argue the 'not making it' part again, but thought better of it. He waited silently for Hunter to continue.
"Tell Blake I love him, ok?"
The finality of these words hit Shane like a fist in the gut. He nodded wordlessly, but Hunter wasn't finished yet. Yet the Crimson Ranger hesitated, as if he had to make up his mind about something. Finally he said quietly, "And tell Cam the same thing."
Shane's eyebrows arched in surprise. Cam?
The Red Ranger felt that this needed some more clarification. "Love him like a brother, you mean?"
Hunter hesitated again, but when he spoke, his voice was firm. "No."
Shane was silent for a moment, eyebrows still raised. Then comprehension sank in. "Oh."
Hunter's voice was at once defensive. "Yeah, Shane, Cam and me. And if you have a problem with that,…too bad."
Much to his surprise, Shane actually started to laugh quietly. "No, dude, I don't, so no worries. I'm just surprised, that's all." The Red Ranger's eyes took on a faraway look for a moment, and Hunter's eyes narrowed in puzzlement. Was there something about Shane he didn't know? But before he had a chance to dwell on that thought, Shane's face was neutral again as he turned his gaze upon the Thunder ninja once more. "It's just that…remember that race you and Blake had a few weeks ago? The one where we all came along to watch? You were flirting your head off with the girls at the finish line, for crying out loud!"
A snort of laughter was coming from Hunter. "True, but it didn't mean anything. That was just for feeding the ego, man."
Shane looked down, shaking his head, but still smirking. "That cute blonde, she even gave you her number, and I saw you take it."
"Yeah, but I never called her."
Shane just looked at him, and Hunter rolled his eyes again. "Hey, until Cam is ready to go public about us, I have a reputation to uphold, you know."
Shane rubbed the bridge of his nose, suddenly looking a bit abashed. "So how long have you two..."
"A while," Hunter replied vaguely.
"But why does Cam want to keep it under wraps? It's kinda unlike him to be overly worried about what the rest of the team would think."
Hunter shrugged. "It's mostly because of Sensei. Cam doesn't know how he will react to us being together."
Shane nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, that would be a pretty valid reason."
The Wind ninja knew his teacher to be a wise man, patient and tolerant, but just how tolerant would he be in regards to his only son's choice of partner? There was really no way to anticipate any particular reaction, so Shane didn't even try to speculate. Instead, he went for a different kind of reassurance. "Well, you don't have to worry about me slipping up, because, contrary to popular belief, I actually do know when to keep my mouth shut," he grinned, and the Thunder Ranger relaxed visibly, returning the smile.
"And about your messages…" Shane continued, "I don't expect to have to deliver them anyways, because we will make it out of here." Shane wished he sounded more confident than he felt, and Hunter simply nodded, looking as unconvinced as he was himself.
After a moment of awkward silence, they resumed their work on Hunter's hurt body.
Huge, gray clouds were rolling in fast overhead, so swollen with rain that they looked ready to burst at any moment. Faint thunder could be heard in the distance, but other than that, the forest was eerily silent. No breeze ruffled the leaves on the trees, no unseen birds were chirping in their branches. It was too quiet. Evil was lurking. They could all feel it.
Dustin's head was moving in all directions, his eyes scanning the area, the mountain, the trees all around them.
"Don't see any sentries," he finally said. "I think the coast's clear."
Blake looked up, sniffing the air. "Let's get inside," he said, nodding towards the narrow, inconspicuous entrance to the Sacred Mountain just ahead of them. "Looks like the heavens are gonna open up at any minute."
"Let's morph first," Cam suggested. "I don't know if we'll be able to once we're inside."
The four Rangers positioned themselves.
"Ready?" It felt strange having Cam calling the morph.
They drew their swords and started towards the cave entrance. It was damp and dark inside, and they had to open their visors in order to make out anything in the murky tunnel ahead of them.
"Anyone thought of bringing flashlights?" Tori asked.
Her three team mates mumbled some unintelligible negations as they stumbled along the narrow, rock-strewn path. Blake was in the lead, squinting into the darkness ahead of him. Two steps into the cave he had already recognized it to be the tunnel from his dream, and thus he would have known the way even in perfect blackness. And if real life continued like the dream, then there should be…
There! The silvery light that materialized just a few feet ahead of them was faint at first, but increasing its slightly phosphoric luminescence even as he watched. A thin gasp from behind him told him that the others had seen it, too.
Blake took a deep breath, preparing himself for the sight, even though he knew exactly what was coming next. 'All right, show yourselves,' he thought, heart pounding.
And they did. Exactly as they had in the dream, shimmering within their ghostly bubble, their faces as tight as they had been less than an hour ago.
Blake had thought he was ready for them, but seeing them so close again, this time in real life, suddenly had an even more profound effect on him. The Thunderstaff in his hand started to shake, and he took it in a two-handed grip to hide the tremors. Afraid that Cam, Dustin, and especially Tori, might notice his unsteady state, he resolutely moved forward, towards the apparitions. The others followed closely behind.
His parents greeted them with solemn demeanors, and wasted no time on formalities.
"We must hurry," his mother said urgently. "The beast has already struck once, and the Evil One is readying it for another attack."
Cam appeared at Blake's left side. "Are they all right?" he heard the samurai ask.
The spirits hesitated for a brief moment before Blake's father pointed further down the tunnel. "Follow us," he said gravelly and turned abruptly, floating into the murky darkness. Blake locked eyes with his mother, trying to read the unspoken answer in her eyes, but she also turned, following the shimmering form of her husband.
With a lump in his throat the size of a golf ball, Blake hurried after them.
The door. The damn door was opening again! The blond and the black head whipped around simultaneously, eyes darting towards the already moving steel.
Shane shot to his feet. Too soon. Hunter's healing process had been going pretty smoothly, but they needed at least another hour until the Thunder ninja would be in anything resembling fighting condition again. The two young men cast each other an uneasy glance as they waited tensely for whatever would be emerging from the darkness of the door's threshold. 'Maybe it' not the freak. Please don't let it be the freak,' Shane prayed silently.
It was. The stench that wafted into the arena left no room for doubt even before the head of the monster re-appeared, complete with radiant eyes that, incredibly, held no trace of blindness or scarring when they immediately focused on the two ninjas.
True to his training, Shane automatically went into defensive stance, but for the first time, he felt foolish about it as he looked up at the formidable wall of evil that came towards him.
"That's either Freakosaurus' brother, or I guess Lothor's healing powers are stronger than ours," he heard Hunter's weak voice and when he dared to cast him a quick glance he saw the Thunder Ranger propped up on his good arm, readying himself to somehow scramble to his feet. His body coiled with tension, Shane turned his attention back to the advancing creature and hissed through clenched teeth, "Stay down, but be ready. Watch the door, and the minute that thing's got its back to you, you somehow make your way over there.
"I'll be right behind you, don't worry," he added, but for once there was no argument coming from the ground below him. Shane slowly backed away from Hunter, moving towards the middle of the room, his eyes never leaving the monster. The creature let out an earsplitting roar, and Shane swallowed heavily. 'No way to beat this thing…the only weapon I have is literally a whole lot of hot air!'
Incredibly, at this very moment, the voice of his English teacher suddenly sounded in his head, quoting a line of verse from yesterday's lesson. T. S. Elliott. Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
'How fitting,' Shane thought grimly, 'but I'm gonna try to evade it like hell anyways.'
The monster took his first swipe at him, but Shane leapt over the deadly arm and landed a few feet further towards the far side of the wall, guiding the creature away from Hunter. Space was already getting tight again in the small arena, and against his will, Shane could feel the fear creeping into his body. He was unable to stop it.
But then his English teacher's voice was replaced with another one; this one more familiar, and calm. To be victorious in battle, one must first master one's emotions. Anger is hard to control, but fear is by far the hardest. It had been one of Sensei's earliest lessons to his students, trying to convey the message that it was only human to be afraid during battle.
Looking into the hideous visage of the monstrosity looming over him, Shane seriously doubted that he would have the chance to practice his emotional restraints ever again.
Another deafening screech from the dino-monster, accompanied by the same nauseating breath, but although the pounding hammer of Shane's heart refused to adhere to Sensei's wise words, the Red Ranger stood his ground.
Empty yourself of all emotions, for if you are emotional, you are unbalanced, therefore unfocused. In battle, it is never the unfocused one who will emerge victorious. And to hope for your opponent to be more unfocused than you is a weak, and usually unsuccessful, strategy. Yeah. Great. Thanks, Sensei! Damn.
Out of the corner of his eye, Shane saw that Hunter was in the process of slowly, - too slowly, - pulling himself to his feet. The Thunder ninja leaned heavily against the wall with pain etched into his face and an arm clutched over his injured side before he took some wobbly steps towards the still open door.
He didn't get far. From an unseen speaker system overhead, a booming voice suddenly filled the arena. "Where do you think you're going, Thunder Ranger? Trying to skip out on our little party here?" Lothor clucked his tongue. "Such bad manners!"
The dino-monster had been about to make a grab for Shane, but froze at the sound of the voice and dull-wittedly looked around for its master. Shane took that opportunity to scurry out of the corner it had backed him into.
The Red Ranger had enough – more than enough. "Lothor, you coward!" he yelled into the shadowy gloom of the arena, "You want a fight, get down here yourself and fight like a man. I'll take you on, Ranger powers or no!"
Roaring laughter came back over the intercom. "You foolish boy! Of course I could finish you myself, but watching my creation do it is so much more fun," Lothor's voice was full of sneer.
"You spineless snake!" Shane cried, his clenched fists shaking with suppressed fury.
Lothor's voice turned to a snarl. "Let me assure you, Ranger, that this creature has more than enough spine for both of you."
"Maybe for two, but how about six?" came a sudden cry from the doorway behind the creature.
Navy, green, yellow and blue colors spilled into the arena, and Lothor's abomination suddenly found itself attacked from three sides with Ninja swords, Thunderstaff and Samurai saber.
With a whoop of joy, Shane bounded out of the way of the fight and towards Hunter. The two ninjas exchanged relieved, goofy grins while their team mates kept the beast at bay, clearing the way towards the door.
"NO, not fair!" Lothor's voice had suddenly changed from gleeful to frantic.
"Fair? Of all people, he talks about unfair." Dustin remarked dryly, all the while ceaselessly slashing at the beast with his sword. It didn't seem to do much damage to the creature, but at least it kept it cornered.
"Let's get out of here," Cam yelled over the furious howls of the monster. "We've got what we came here for."
Suddenly, Blake was at Hunter's side, his visor up. "Bro, you okay?" he asked worriedly his eyes taking in his brother's bloodied arm and hunched posture.
Hunter mock-frowned at him. "What took you guys so long?"
Blake's face split into a grin as he draped Hunter's uninjured arm over his shoulder. "Yeah, you're gonna be all right." With that he tightened his grip around him and streaked out of the room.
"You are not getting away that easily, Rangers!" Lothor's voice screeched over the intercom. "I will see to that!" But his angry rants echoed through an empty arena, for the six figures had already streaked through the huge steel door.
A moment later, the still raging dino-monster started to shimmer, then disappeared.
(from above) see 'Betrayal'
Outside, the heavens had indeed opened up, greeting them with cascades of water once they emerged from the mountain. A saturated twilight had descended upon the forest, but there was still enough light left to do some necessary damage assessment. Blake gently eased Hunter to the wet ground beneath an enormous pine tree, but still the older Bradley grimaced in pain. "Remind me to remind you that streaking with fractured ribs is a bad idea," he said through clenched teeth. Blake was about to grace him with a smart-ass answer when all of a sudden the air a few feet ahead of them crackled and erupted in a bright flash of light. An instant later, Lothor's abomination stood in their midst in all its monstrous glory, shrieking furiously.
"Yeah, I didn't think that Lothor would just let us up and leave," a familiar voice next to Hunter remarked almost casually and the Thunder ninja turned his head to see Cam crouched by his side. They exchanged a quick look and for an instant Hunter had the urge to reach up and touch his boyfriend's cheek, but the raging creature was already advancing on Dustin and Tori, claws raised and fangs bared.
TLC would have to wait until later.
"Guess we're in for round two," the Green Ranger said.
"Or round three, four and five," Hunter's expression was tight. "This thing's tougher than it looks."
"So are we." Blake clasped Hunter's shoulder. "Time to send this sucker back into extinction." The Navy Ranger gave his brother a look that unmistakably said 'don't even think about moving' before his visor clicked shut and he was off in a dark blue blur.
Cam, strangely enough, was still crouched next to Hunter. He had expected the samurai to leap up and join the fight, but he seemed reluctant to leave Hunter's side.
With his helmet off, the downpour had plastered his black hair onto his scalp and was running in rivulets over his face and neck, but he didn't even seem to notice. "Shane, your morpher should be working now," the Green Ranger yelled over the noise of the monster and the torrents of rain. "Try it!"
"With pleasure. I have a score to settle with that thing," Shane barked from a few feet away, raised his wrist and transformed into the Red Wind Ranger.
"Oh, it's so on now!" he cried, drew his sword and charged the beast with a battle cry worthy of a true ninja warrior.
Hunter leaned heavily against the trunk, his good hand pressed to his side, looking up at Cam. "Go, I'll be ok," he mumbled. Cam held his gaze for a moment, aware of how frustrated Hunter was to be incapacitated and unable to help.
"I'll make sure to whack him a couple of times for you," Cam cracked a smile and started to rise, but Hunter caught his wrist and gave him a strained grin. "Have I ever told you that you look damn sexy in that outfit?" he winked.
Cam shook his head with a mixture of amusement and incredulity on his face. "Only you would say something like that right now."
The Thunder ninja shrugged casually, still grinning. "Gotta love me."
"Who says I don't?" Cam replied without missing a beat, touched his morpher and the next instant his head was covered by his green Ranger helmet. He shot to his feet and sped off, joining the rest of the team in their attack of the dino-monster.
Hunter was left propped up against the tree trunk, staring after his boyfriend, the grin replaced with an incredulous look on his face.
Five Power Rangers against one monster, and the battle was not going the way they wanted it to.
The creature seemed impervious to their attacks. Its scales, its natural body armor, were simply too thick, and the Ranger's swords were not doing nearly enough damage as was necessary. That, combined with the monster's white-hot rage, quickly tipped the scale to favor the abomination despite the uneven odds.
Dustin went down after a vicious blow sent him sprawling into a large puddle of muddy water. Tori followed the same example not long after as she was thrown backwards at least twenty feet with a single swipe from the beast's tail. Thankfully, the Ranger suits deflected the worst of the damage, but they were still being pounded mercilessly. Blake and Cam worked hard on distracting the monster while Shane was helping his two teammates back up.
"Time to pull out the heavy artillery," the Red Ranger exclaimed, whipping out his Hawk Blaster. Tori and Dustin produced Dolphin Fin and Lion Hammer, and they quickly combined their weapons with long-practiced efficiency.
The blast from the Storm Striker finally showed some effect - the creature was knocked to the ground for the first time. Smoke was curling upwards at the impact site even through the heavy rain, yet before it could clear, their spirits plummeted at the sight of the creature re-emerging though the grey curtain. The Rangers were dumbfounded.
"You've got to be kidding!"
Incredibly, the dino-monster was coming towards them again, weakened, but ready for more, not to mention at the peak of its rage. When it let out its earsplitting shriek this time, every tree seemed to vibrate with its echo. It hurled itself forward, plowing into Shane and Dustin like a wrecking ball and sending them flying once more.
All the while, a thoroughly soaked Hunter was forced to watch the battle from the sidelines. His fists dug into the ground, raking up clumps of wet earth as helpless rage built up inside him at the sight of his friends being thrashed about by this freak. Hurt or not, he couldn't just sit here and watch this! And that's when an idea suddenly came to him.
'One blast wasn't enough, but two simultaneously…' Hunter wiped the rain out of his face, then clutched at a low branch of the pine tree, pulling himself up to his feet determinedly. His ribs were screaming in protest, but he clenched his teeth against the pain and raised his wrist. His morpher arm was also his injured arm, so he decided to skip the usual theatrics and just pressed the button, transforming unceremoniously. The Crimson Ranger suit helped to steady him somewhat, and he lurched forward, towards Blake and Cam, who had regrouped a few feet away with their backs to him, seemingly as transfixed by the creature's display of invincibility as the Winds were.
Blake, however, sensed his approach and turned. "Bro, what are you doing?" he scolded. "You can't fight!"
In response, Hunter pulled out his Crimson Blaster. "I don't intend to fight, but I do intend to pull the trigger."
Blake's helmeted head turned towards Cam, expecting the samurai to back him up with some sharp words, but oddly enough, the Green Ranger stayed silent.
Hunter was getting impatient. "Blake, I want that shot."
The Navy Ranger could feel his brother's intense gaze even from behind his darkened visor, could sense the need to even the score between him and Lothor's creature. Cam must have sensed this, too; that's why he hadn't retorted against Hunter's actions.
"All right." Blake knelt and held the Navy Antler up for assembly. "But if this doesn't work, you're back under that tree while we whip out the Zords on that freak, you hear?"
From a few yards away, on the opposite side of the creature, Shane watched the Thunder brothers combine their weapons, and correctly interpreted their intentions. He nudged Dustin and Tori. "I think I know what they're up to. Come on, let's put them together again." A moment later, the Rangers were in position on either side of their opponent, weapons aimed and poised.
Hunter felt a grim satisfaction at the fact that he was pulling the trigger, and he was pretty sure that Shane felt the same way right now. The Thunder Canon's energy discharge was in perfect synchrony with that of the Storm Striker, and both blasts hit the creature simultaneously, instantly engulfing it in a wall of flames.
Unfortunately, he had no opportunity to enjoy his victory since the Thunder Canon's recoil, normally faint enough not to bother the Crimson Ranger, now went straight up his injured arm and into his chest, spreading downwards like liquid fire. It was promptly followed by a wave of nausea. Hunter staggered and would have fallen if Cam hadn't caught him. The Green Ranger eased him to the ground, half-covering him with his body at the exact time the dino-monster exploded, showering them all with its revolting, foul-smelling debris. Thankfully, the heavy rains quickly rinsed them of the worst of it.
Dustin leapt into the air, whooping. "All right! We came, we saw, we kicked its butt!" he cheered, and the others broke into relieved laughter.
Blake and Cam were helping Hunter back on his feet, and Cam kept his arm firmly around his boyfriend's waist, looking up into the still falling rain. "Let's get you home. Broken ribs are bad enough; no need to add pneumonia to that."
Hunter nodded stiffly, threw a last look over his shoulder at the still smoldering remains of the ex-monster, and held on to Cam for the streak out of the forest.
When the six sopping wet figures entered Ninja Ops, Sensei was already waiting for them.
Cam disappeared into the back of the room, re-emerging a moment later with a stack of towels, which he handed out to the dripping team, and a first aid kit.
"Shane, Hunter, it is good to have you back." The guinea pig's eyes took in Hunter's stooped form while the Rangers were spilling into the control room. "Hunter, do you require hospitalization?" But the Crimson Ranger merely shook his head, accepted the towel and the aspirin bottle from Cam with a nod and slumped down onto one of the cushions strewn around the command table. "I'll be all right, Sensei. Shane and I have already started the healing process."
Sensei inclined his head. "Very well. Why don't you get some rest, and we will talk when you have recovered."
The guinea pig waited until the team had toweled themselves off, then his eyes fixed on the Red Ranger. "Shane, may I speak with you, please?" he said in his most authoritative teacher's voice, and without waiting for an answer he somersaulted towards the far side of the room. Shane, knowing what was coming, swallowed heavily, hung his head and trotted after his teacher.
The tongue-lashing lasted for a while, and Cam took that opportunity to tightly bandage Hunter's torso and arm. During the entire time Hunter was trying to catch his eye, but Cam kept his gaze firmly on his task, an unreadable expression on his face. The only time he looked up was to frown into Hunter's face after examining the wicked-looking slash on his arm. The Asian man's eyes looked almost guarded now, a fair change from his smile and warm gaze in the forest. Not to mention his words…
With the rest of the team so close by, it was not possible for Hunter to straight out ask Cam what was bothering him, so he made a mental note to address whatever issues were occupying Cam's mind later.
When Shane re-joined his teammates a few minutes later, he seemed to have shrunk a few inches. "I…I think I'm gonna go home now," he said meekly and made a show of yawning for emphasis. "I'm dead on my feet."
The others played along, nodding empathetically, for they had all, at one point in time, been at the receiving end of one or more of Sensei's 'speeches' before.
Dustin briefly wondered whether it was a ten or twenty-mile penalty run his friend had to complete tomorrow when they all returned to Ninja Ops. He clapped Shane on the back. "You want some company, dude?"
Shane looked into the Earth ninja's eyes for just a moment too long before he casually replied, "Yeah, sure, you can crash on the couch."
The two Wind ninjas turned to go, but stopped at the sound of Hunter's voice. "Shane."
Shane turned to watch Hunter rise and slowly make his way towards him. The blue eyes regarded him intensely, then the Thunder ninja held out his hand. "Thanks, man."
Shane took the offered hand, and the two Rangers embraced quickly in a one-armed hug, slapping each other's backs.
"Anytime, bro." With a last grin, Shane grabbed Dustin and headed up the stairs.
Blake appeared at Hunter's side, grinning up at him. "Glad to see you've settled your differences, but next time could you maybe just…talk about it?" the Navy Ranger said half-jokingly. "That way we can just skip that whole 'fight the huge, tough, alien dino-monster' part."
Hunter grinned back softly. "I don't think there's gonna be a next time." He draped his arm around his little brother, leaning on him, and together they walked towards their room. When they passed the kitchenette, his eyes locked with Cam, who was busy preparing dinner. The samurai smiled - weakly, yet at least it was a smile, and the Crimson Ranger returned it gladly. But despite the smile Hunter still sensed the lingering tension in Cam.
They definitely had to talk, but right now all Hunter wanted to do was sleep.
Inside the guest room, Blake eased Hunter onto the mattress.
"It's good to have you back, man." Blake leaned against the closed door, regarding his brother for a moment. "For a while I thought I might have lost you there."
Hunter looked up. "No chance. I couldn't leave you here all alone. You wouldn't know how to tie your shoes without me, dude," he grinned weakly.
Blake grinned back and lifted his boot. "Don't need to know. It's all Velcro." But then the younger Bradley's expression turned somber. "I'm still damn glad you're ok."
"You haven't told me yet how you guys ever found us." Hunter said, settling into a more comfortable position on the bed, back leaning against the wall. Blake plopped down onto the mattress, mirroring his brother's position. "It's kind of a bizarre story…" he began.
For the next twenty minutes, Blake recounted the details of the Ranger's rescue operation. When he choked up at the part of their parents' appearance, Hunter automatically put a comforting hand on his brother's shoulder. "Hey, you gonna be all right?"
Blake nodded wordlessly, trying to compose himself. Hunter looked at his little brother intently, while trying to hide his own bafflement; up until now he had not known about this particular element of the story. It was unfortunate that he hadn't been able to share their parents' encounter with Blake; or maybe fortunate, judging from the emotional state it had left Blake in. Hunter put his arm around the younger man's shoulder and said softly, "At least we know they're there, watching over us." It was a pathetic attempt at comfort, he knew that, but it was all he had to offer.
It seemed enough for Blake. "Yeah, if it hadn't been for them, we might not have found you in time," the Navy Ranger said, and suddenly Hunter could see his brother's eyes brimming with tears. Embarrassed, Blake broke out of their half-embrace, turning his head, but Hunter promptly reached out for him again. "It's okay, bro. Just let it out."
"I'm not a crybaby!"
"I know that." Hunter pulled his brother back towards him. "C'mere."
Deflated, Blake buried his face into Hunter's shoulder. "It was so hard seeing them, I mean…it broke open some old scars, you know…" Even though muffled by Hunter's shirt, the misery in Blake's voice was audible, and the older Bradley patted his brother's hair. "I know, bro. I miss them, too."
For a long moment they sat immobile, Blake crying silent tears into Hunter's shoulder. Against his will, he felt hot tears shooting into his own eyes, but he stoically blinked them away, tightening his grip around Blake instead.
After a while, Blake spoke again. "There was a moment when I'd pictured you there next to them…"
"What? As the third spirit? Now that would be a classic Star Wars moment," Hunter teased, trying to lighten the mood, and, oddly enough, it worked. Blake chuckled and raised his head, wiping his eyes. "Yeah. Hunter Kenobi. Only dressed in leather."
Hunter patted his head one more time, stitching his trademark crooked smile onto his face. "Well, I'm here now, and I don't know about you, but I'm pretty wiped out."
"Me, too. Tough day." Blake yawned.
To say the least. "Come on," Hunter said, leaning back and pulling Blake down with him. "Let's get some sleep, man."
"Dude, I'm not sleeping in the same bed with you," Blake protested half-heartedly, but Hunter looked at him wearily. "Look, I know we're not kids anymore, but I could use the company tonight, bro."
Blake had to admit that he could use it, too, and he put his head down onto the second pillow with a sigh and closed his eyes.
"Love you, little brother," he heard Hunter say. "G'night."
"I love you, too, bro, but if you ever scare me like that again, you're in for a thorough butt-whooping, even if you're the older one." Blake mumbled, sleep already creeping up on him.
Hunter's only response was a snort and a garbled exclamation that sounded something like 'sure, whatever'. Blake grinned, then let sleep pull him into oblivion.
Cam carefully pushed open the door to the Bradley's room after knocking twice had yielded no results. "Hunter?"
The Thunder Ranger in question was visible only as a lone, unmoving lump on the bed, wrapped up in his crimson comforter. Blake had left for school hours ago and Cam had given him an apology slip for Hunter's teacher, complete with forged signature, effectively keeping Hunter out of school for a few days.
In the faint light of the bedside lamp, Cam regarded his slumbering boyfriend for a moment. Sleep had softened his features, had all but eradicated the 'tough guy' look he always wore when awake. Cam wanted to reach out and tuck the stray strands of blond hair that hung over his eye back into place, and more than that; he wanted to cradle Hunter in his arms, kiss him senseless and tell him how happy he was to have him back safe and sound. But he also wanted to slap him upside the head and yell at him, chastise him for having endangered himself and Shane solely because of something as stupid and senseless as their childish need to outshine each other.
'But I don't have to bother with that,' Cam thought with a faint smirk, 'before the day is over, Dad will have read him the riot act for sure. Not for the abduction, of course, but for letting their rivalry distract them enough to become easy targets for the enemy.'
There had been a real possibility that Hunter could have died yesterday. The thought had hit him dead on yesterday, after he saw the horrible gash the creature left in Hunter's arm. The sight had scared the crap out of Cam.
Now it also fueled his anger. He knew it was an irrational reaction, but that didn't help him shake it; he was only human after all. So instead of waking Hunter with a kiss, he merely bent forward and grasped his shoulder to shake him awake. Hunter was apparently sleeping more soundly than Cam had anticipated, for it took a while until the Crimson Ranger's eyes finally fluttered open.
"Oh, hey," he muttered sleepily. "Good morning."
"Good afternoon, you mean," Cam replied, straightening his back. "How're you feeling?"
Hunter seemed to consider this for a moment before he replied, "Okay, I guess." He sat up carefully, patted his side and rotated his arm stiffly. "Doesn't hurt any worse than yesterday." Suddenly, Cam's remark struck him and he looked up. "Afternoon?"
"It's almost one o'clock," Cam said. "I was going to ask you if you wanted some lunch."
Hunter's eyes lit up. "Are you kidding? I'm starving. What're we having?"
Cam almost smiled. "Same thing you would have had for dinner yesterday, if you hadn't slept through it. Ravioli, compliments of Chef Boyardee."
Last night he had knocked on the Bradley's room to call them to dinner, and, after receiving no answer, had entered to find the two brothers curled up with each other, sleeping soundly. The sight was so poignant that, if Cam had had a camera at that moment, he would have taken a picture.
Now Hunter awkwardly rose from the bed, grimacing. Apparently his ribs were still hurting him. Concern briefly overshadowed Cam's irritation and he reached out for Hunter's arm, helping him up.
"Here, let me see." The samurai reached for the Thunder ninja's T-shirt, and Hunter obediently raised his arms, grinning mischievously. Cam threw him a warning glare as he slowly pulled the shirt up to just above his chest. "Don't even think about it."
"Hey, can't blame me for thinking it…normally you can't get my shirt off me fast enough."
Cam didn't go for the bait. "That's under…different circumstances," he replied stone-faced and examined the tight bandages he had placed around the injured ribcage yesterday. They were still firmly in place; no need to re-wrap them. Cam nodded, satisfied. "It was a good thing that Shane started regenerating you yesterday; otherwise you'd be in the hospital right now. Your ribs should be fully healed in a few days."
"Thanks." Hunter adjusted his shirt, then reached out, intending to pull Cam into an embrace, but the samurai drew back. Hunter threw him a puzzled look. "Cam, what's wrong?" he demanded.
"Nothing." Cam was good at guarding his feelings, but by now Hunter knew him well enough to recognize the small signs that contradicted this statement; the distance in his voice, the way stood with his arms defensively crossed before him, the cool look in his eyes...
"Like hell. You should see your face." Hunter was insistent. "Something's bothering you, has been bothering you since yesterday, and you might as well spill it, because I'm just gonna bug you to death about it until you tell me."
"I don't want to talk about it, Hunter," Cam said tightly, broke eye contact and turned, intending to walk towards the door, but a strong hand curled around his arm, holding him back. Hunter's sapphire eyes bore into him. "You are mad at me, aren't you?"
Cam whirled around, facing him again, eyes blazing now. "Hunter, you were…what? maybe two minutes away from dying yesterday. And so was Shane. Do you even realize that?"
So Hunter's initial assessment had been correct; Cam was most definitely ticked off at him, and with good reason. "Well, we didn't, okay? And it's not like I asked Lothor to snatch us," the blond man retorted weakly.
"Oh, yeah, and that's supposed to justify it all, now?" Cam snubbed. "Look, I believe in everyone's inalienable right to be stupid every now and then, but when it involves endangering your own or somebody else's life, then yes, I think that's definitely a valid reason for being pissed at you."
Hunter flinched. Cam's sharp tone cut deeper than the monster's claw had. Not to mention the glare the samurai was directing his way. If that look had come from anyone else Hunter would already have gone into his defensive act by now, complete with the patented downward stare and intimidating posture, but this was Cam.
Besides, yesterday's mess had been a direct result from one of those defensive acts.
So instead, Hunter took one step closer to Cam, searching his face – and saw something beneath the anger in those almond eyes he hadn't expected.
"You were worried," Hunter stated simply, but Cam heard the subtle tinge of surprise hidden in the calm tone.
"Worried to death about you, you idiot," he snapped. It came out harsher than intended, but Hunter only smiled. "I'm glad to know that."
"What? That you're an idiot?"
The Thunder Ranger's face turned serious. "That you care enough to worry like that."
At that, something in Cam's face changed. Hunter couldn't quite put his finger on what it was, but something…His thought process was cut off abruptly when Cam suddenly moved, fast and smooth. Before he could react, Cam was in his face and in his personal space, and Hunter found himself on the receiving end of a crushing embrace.
The samurai's right arm was tight around Hunter's waist and dangerously close to his rib cage, but unless Cam squeezed hard enough to actually crack one of his ribs again, Hunter had no intention of moving. This was too good to move, - but it was also very un-Camlike behavior. Not that Hunter was complaining…
Cam didn't say a word, just held on to him. Hunter closed his eyes and clung back, listening to the wordless message Cam's touch conveyed. 'Yeah, I was worried that I would never see you again, either, Cam. And, yeah, I love you, too.'
He wished he could say it out loud, but instead he decided to say something else. Turning his head slightly, he murmured in Cam's ear, "Let me make it up to you, okay?"
Cam took a step back, breaking their embrace. "And how, pray tell, do you plan on doing that?" he asked.
Hunter decided to conveniently miss the mocking tone. "Well, how about I take you out? To dinner."
Cam just looked at him, an unreadable expression on his face, and after a moment Hunter sighed. "Come on, Cam, I'm really trying here. I can't change what happened, so all I can do is try to make amends now." The Crimson Ranger looked at him under lowered lashes, and the sight made Cam grin. "I don't know…" he drawled, "This will take a real restaurant. The kind that actually has plates and silverware."
Hunter rolled his eyes in mock exasperation. "Fine, whatever." Suddenly, his finger shot up. "But no white tablecloths; I draw the line at tablecloths. And no suits! I don't even own a suit."
That got a laugh out of Cam. "Don't worry, I won't push the boundaries of your endurance of civilized society. We can try out that new Olive Garden that just opened up in town."
Now it was Hunter's turn to grin and draw Cam into his arms. The samurai held fast to him. This time it was a gentle embrace, intended to comfort but also to reassure them both that, despite everything that happened yesterday, they were still going strong. Hunter let out a barely audible sigh and rested his head against Cam's. Only after they had both thoroughly satisfied their need for comfort did they finally part again, but only barely to arm's length. The Crimson Ranger looked into almond eyes. "So it's a date?"
Cam held his gaze. "All right, if you're up to it."
Hunter nodded. "How about tonight?"
And with a start Cam realized that this would be their first official date that couldn't also be excused as 'hanging out'. He also found that this didn't bother him at all; he actually looked forward to it. Now if only the preceding circumstances would have been better…
He grinned at the Thunder ninja. "I can probably squeeze you into my schedule tonight."
Seeing that smirk on his boyfriend's face, Hunter simply couldn't resist. He tightened his arms around Cam's waist, just enough to press their bodies together even closer. "So, Doctor Watanabe, when do you proclaim me fit enough for 'practice' again?" He made it a point to slur the word suggestively, combining it with his lopsided grin, and judging from the color that now crept into Cam's face, the implication was not lost on him.
"Tomorrow," Cam managed to say without sounding too hoarse. "Tomorrow for sure."
"Good. Can't wait." Hunter's mouth was moving towards Cam.
"And I'll be sticking close to you, to make sure you don't…overexert yourself." Cam's head moved forward to meet him.
"I would like that," the Crimson Ranger mumbled with a smile in his voice before his lips captured Cam's in a lingering kiss that was long overdue. Cam's lips parted in invitation, and Hunter's tongue slipped inside.
Having something like this to look forward to was definitely a very good incentive for quick healing.
A huge hug to Camille, my incredibly talented beta, for her eagle eye on all the mistakes I've made, and for her invaluable input and suggestions on the story line of this, as well as all of my other Power Ranger fics.
They're much better because of you, Cmar. Thank you very much!