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somewhere in the stratosphere

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somewhere in the stratosphere

tell my mother
tell my father
i've done the best i can

-- shinedown, second chance

.

On the day his father dies, Aiden Romero gets on a train with a backpack and a map and cries until light breaks outside the windows.

When it pulls into a stop, he shoulders the bag carrying his entire life’s belongings, and walks out into the misty grey morning of Blue Bay Harbor. The conductor looks at him strangely, but lets him pass. Summer Cove and Blue Bay Harbor are close enough that he could be visiting family.

He’s not, of course. He has no family left. He doesn’t even know why he got on this train, except for maybe a hazy memory of childhood and his father sketching him a picture of a school hidden in the mountains and telling him, If you ever get lost, go to the harbor and find the waterfall.

He’s ten years old and all he can see every time he closes his eyes is his father vanishing in a spark of colors and leaving only the monsters behind. He walks and he walks until he finds the waterfall and then he sits down by the river bank and falls into a sleep so terrifying, he can’t remember coming out of it.

.

He’s shaking when he wakes up. His hair sticks to his forehead, his hands clenching around anything they can find, the blankets crumpling beneath him. It takes him too long to realize he has no idea where he is.

A ninja must always be aware of his surroundings, his father would chide. Aiden looks around and sees a woman standing over him, her face drawn in lines of worry and confusion.

“Hey, how are you?” she asks softly. Her accent has that Northern California lilt to it, so much like his mother’s. She has long, long blonde hair and blue eyes and she reaches over to adjust his blankets so he’s not cold.

“Where am I?”

“Blue Bay Harbor,” she tells him. Aiden knows that already, and his mind ping-pongs to another, more important subject—his backpack and the ninja steel he’d stored in it. He swivels his head and finds it next to him on the bed, looking no worse for the wear.

He looks around. “Is this… is this the Wind Ninja Academy?” he asks tentatively.

The woman sighs. “Oh, good, you know what this is. We worried you’d just collapsed in front of the waterfall randomly.”

Aiden blinks at her. “We?”

She smiles and waves a hand behind her. “My name is Tori. I’m one of the teachers at the academy. My friends are actually the ones who found you, they were teaching a class outside.” She pauses and studies him closely. “Are you okay? You were completely unconscious when we found you.”

“I’m—” Aiden presses a hand to the side of his head, suddenly pounding with a headache. “I’m okay,” he lies valiantly. “I just—my dad said I should go here, if anything… if anything happened to him. And…”

Tori kneels down by his bedside. “Did something happen to him?” she asks carefully.

Aiden squeezes his eyes shut and nods. “There was a monster… he’s gone now. And my brother… I’m all alone.”

“You’re not alone,” says Tori immediately, and reaches for his hands so they stop shaking. “You’re never alone. You’re a ninja.”

.

“You don’t have to go to classes right away,” says Cam, speed-typing away on a tablet as he sets Aiden up in one of the spare rooms in their staff apartments. “Since your dad trained you, you might even be a little ahead of your age group here.”

Dustin nudges him sharply. “Dude, be sensitive!”

Aiden manages a small smile. “It’s okay. I want to go to class.” Normalcy seems like a faraway dream, but he’d watched the other ninja students sparring and training out on the grounds earlier. It reminded him of being with Brody, out in their backyard, running drills and practicing to be real ninjas one day.

Cam looks at him with a critical eye, then says, “If you’re sure, we can start next week. Intermediate group in the kids’ program, yeah?”

He punches something in on his tablet. Aiden sits down on his new bed, decorated with bright red blankets, his feet dangling off the edge. He thinks about his old bedroom, the chipped wood, the posters he’d had to leave behind. Thinks of Brody sneaking into his room late at night because he had a nightmare and wanted his big brother there to protect him.

Something gets caught in his throat when he tries to say, “Yeah, that’s cool, thanks.”

Dustin is at his side in an instant, squeezing his shoulder gently. “Hey, little buddy, it’s okay if you wanna cry. You’ve been through a lot.”

Aiden shakes his head and swipes tears off his cheeks. “I’m fine.”

Cam looks unconvinced. “Do you… want to play video games? Or something? We have a great console down in the base…”

“Yeah, come on,” Dustin encourages. “It’ll totally take your mind off everything. We have this great system with surround-sound and high-def graphics and everything. It’s awesome.”

Aiden looks up at him and says slowly, “Yeah. That sounds fun.”

.

“So, he’s just living with you guys?” Hunter asks in what he probably thinks is a whisper. “Do we have a system for that?”

Aiden looks up from playing video games with Dustin—a daily occurrence now that he’s attending classes regularly, and Dustin likes to unwind after school, and unironically likes PG-rated games that they’ll let Aiden play—to see Shane and Hunter both watching the two of them.

“Not really a system, but it wouldn’t be the first time we had an orphaned ninja kid come here,” Shane says with a shrug. “We’re ninjas. Shit—sorry, stuff happens.”

“They know I’ve heard curse words before, right?” Aiden asks Dustin in a stage whisper. Dustin grins and shoots his video game character dead. “Hey!”

“Sorry, little dude, you gotta keep up,” says Dustin. “That’s three for me. Wanna go again?”

“No.” Aiden drops the controller and gets to his feet. “Are there other ninja kids living here?” he ask the other two.

Shane shakes his head. “Not at the moment. But we get a lot of strays, people just passing through who need a place to stay. Being a ninja doesn’t pay very well. And we are the premier academy for ninja arts.”

Hunter scoffs. “As if. Thunder Ninja Academy is way cooler and way more secret. You should come check us out, Aiden.”

Aiden bounces on his feet. “Really? Dad always said the Thunder ninjas were more dangerous because they drew their power from storms instead of the natural elements.”

“They’re about as dangerous as the shallow end of a kiddie pool,” Shane grumbles.

Hunter nudges him. “We use some natural elements, too,” he promises. “Hey, my brother is coming back in town this weekend. I’ll come by and bring you over so you can meet him, yeah?”

“Your brother?”

Hunter pats his head, a little awkwardly, because he’s so tall he has to slouch to even talk to Aiden. “Oh, yeah. He’s a famous motocross racer. You’re gonna love him.”

.

Blake, as it turns out, is excellent about letting Aiden check out his super-awesome dirt bike and waving off Hunter’s concerns when he asks if he can ride it.

“He’s ten,” Hunter warns. “Tori will have your—she’ll be really mad if something happens to him.”

“I’m a professional,” says Blake, clapping his brother on the shoulder. “Nothing will happen to him.”

Riding a dirt bike—even on the back of it, behind Blake—is exhilarating. The countryside rushes past him and he’s reminded, abruptly, as he sits there with his arms around Blake and tears stinging his eyes from the pressure, of their little house back in Summer Cove, with the wooden shed and the endless expanse of backyard that stretched out into the forest—

“Hey, are you all right?” Blake asks as he pulls to a stop. He seems to have Tori’s senses for knowing when Aiden is about to cry. “If it’s too fast for you, we can slow down.”

Aiden shakes his head. “That’s not it.”

Blake swings himself off the bike after parking it and kneels down on the ground, looking up at Aiden. “You miss home, huh?”

He nods, not trusting his voice any more.

“I get that,” Blake says with a smile of sympathy. “Bet Hunter didn’t tell you this—he’s so bad about opening up to people, it’s ridiculous—but he and I were orphaned too. Except unlike you we got put on a really bad path.”

Aiden stares at him, eyes wide. “How bad?”

“Pretty bad. We were brainwashed into being evil for a bit there. Well,” Blake pauses, tilting his head. “I guess I shouldn’t say brainwashed. We were lied to and manipulated. And then we went to go see our parents’ ghosts and they set us right but… it was a long process. It’s not something you just get over.”

“How did you see their ghosts?” Aiden asks.

“Oh, they didn’t tell you? There’s this super secret cave that’s kind of like… a burial ground? For ninjas of the academies. Not all of them, but a lot of them.” Blake pulls back to study him. “Maybe your dad is there.”

.

His dad isn’t there. Shane and Blake take him the next weekend, and he walks around the stones and the walls for several minutes before accepting that he’s not.

“It’s because he’s not dead,” Aiden says quietly, placing his hand against the wall and listening to the gentle vibrations beneath. “He’s just gone. The Ninja Nexus Prism did something—it saved him. I know it did.”

He doesn’t have to see Shane and Blake exchange glances to know they doubt it. To their credit, neither of them says anything.

“Maybe you’re right,” Shane says diplomatically. “Your dad was a great ninja. I’m sure if the Prism could save him, it did. Was your mom a ninja?”

“I don’t know,” says Aiden, frowning. “She died just after Brody was born. I was too little… Dad never really talked about her.”

“Let’s try something,” Blake says, coming around to stand next to Aiden. “Put out your hand. Yeah, just like in those Earth training exercises with Dustin. Can you feel the cave? All the spirits underneath it?”

Aiden stares at his outstretched hands and tries to get in tune with the ground, as Dustin would say. It’s a little difficult—Tori says it’s because he hadn’t been trained in a specific element to begin with, so he only knows the basics of each—but he starts to feel the Earth shifting, rocks lightly rolling beneath his feet, right when Blake puts out a hand too.

“Just focus. Last time we had some help,” Blake says with a rueful smile over his head at Shane. “But this should work. I know you didn’t really know your mother, but just think about your family. Think about your house and where it was. Think about home.”

Aiden thinks. He thinks about the fireplace in their living room and the photographs on their walls and Brody cheering as he completed a training run. He thinks about his father giving him his first sword and their favorite oak tree that they always loved to climb. He thinks about Summer Cove stretching out in the distance, with the bay to one side and the forest to the other.

He thinks and he remembers and then the dust of the Earth is rising to meet his hand and there’s a great rumbling sound from deep within—

“Mom?” he breathes as the figure wreathed in white light steps out of the walls and towards him. “Is that you?”

She’s beautiful, even though he can barely see her through the light. She has long curly hair and the same nose as Brody and a warm smile on her lips. He realizes, belatedly, that he doesn’t even know her name, Dad had never mentioned…

“Oh, Aiden,” she says, and he notices she’s wearing ninja garb as well. “I’m so proud of you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there.”

He blinks back tears. “Where are you?”

“I’m at peace,” she tells him. “This is just a place where ninjas can call upon the spirits of their ancestors to visit them. I love you so much, Aiden.”

He doesn’t know if Blake or Shane can see this, can’t even see them or anything beyond his mother anymore. “Is Dad with you?”

“No.” There’s a small, secret smile on her face now. “I trust that wherever he is, he’s watching over you. Both of you. And he’ll come back as soon as he can.”

“Both of us?” Aiden blinks. “You mean… Brody is okay?”

She looks shadowed for a moment. “You will find him again one day. Remember, you two are brothers and family always finds each other.”

“I’ll bring him here,” Aiden promises, choking back a sob. “I’ll bring him here to meet you.”

“I love you,” she repeats, and slides a hand over his cheek. He can’t feel anything but a light brushing of the wind. “You are so brave, Aiden.”

“Wait,” he says as her form starts to disappear. “Did you go to the Wind Ninja Academy?”

“Your father went to the Wind Ninja Academy,” she says, her voice hiding a laugh. “I went to the Thunder Ninja Academy.”

She presses a hand to his head, delicate and gone with a breeze, but the imprint of it remains on him. Aiden blinks back his tears as his mother’s spirit fades away and he’s left staring at the cave wall and wishing she were real.

.

“Your mother was a thunder ninja?” Tori laughs as she slides the plate of a hamburger and mashed potatoes over the table to him. “You know, wind and thunder ninjas don’t really mix.”

Aiden takes a bite of the hamburger, specially delivered from her surf store’s café to the academy. “Aren’t you dating Blake?”

“I like to think we’re a special case,” she says with a shrug. “But I guess it’s nice to know that there can be a future for us ninjas… so much of our lives are wrapped up in training and fighting and mastering the elements.”

She looks distant in that way all of them get when they’re thinking about their time as rangers, so Aiden switches the subject. “Did you find my dad in the database? Was he a good student?”

“Oh, yeah, Cam dug up his files. He was really good at mechanics and science, actually.” Tori reaches into her purse and pulls out a red folder full of papers. “He was kind of like you, good at all the elements but not a master at any of them. I guess he preferred the science-y stuff like Cam does.”

“But Cam’s a samurai,” Aiden says through a mouthful of mashed potatoes. Tori frowns at him and he swallows before continuing. “I thought that’s why he didn’t master just one element.”

“Samurai and ninjas aren’t as different as they like to pretend they are,” Tori laughs. “Come on, finish up your food and I can take you water skiing out on the lake later.”

Aiden pauses. “Wait… with actual skis?”

“Of course not,” she says breezily. “It’s much more fun without skis.”

.

He likes hanging out with Cam in what he’s dubbed the computer room, because Cam doesn’t care much for entertaining him, but he’ll let Aiden just sit around and watch him and maybe play with his iPad if he behaves himself and doesn’t watch ‘grown-up’ videos.

“I’m almost a teenager,” Aiden protests.

“Almost is not the same thing as being a teenager,” Cam says sternly, but he hands over the iPad anyway. “When I was your age we didn’t even have these.”

“These only came out last year,” Aiden points out.

“Exactly.”

Aiden grins and goes to open up one of Cam’s very few game apps when another page catches his eye, a page filled with lists and descriptions of…

“Dane Romero?” he asks, more to himself than to Cam, pressing on the page without pausing to think about it. “This is Dad’s file?”

Cam doesn’t say anything, and if Aiden had looked up, he’s sure he would see him watching him closely, but all his attention is caught by the list of facts—grades and test scores and teacher’s comments—about his father, all laid out in black and white.

“He was a good student,” Cam says finally, after letting Aiden scroll through in silence for a few minutes. “Definitely better than some of the ones we have now. And he was great at science.”

Aiden makes a noise that he’s heard this, but truthfully, it barely registers in his mind. “He… did you know him?”

Cam shakes his head. “No, he was older than me by quite a few years, sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Aiden frowns, annoyed at the stab of pain. Of course, if Cam had known him, he would have said something in the two years Aiden’s been at the Ninja Academy. Of course he knows his dad graduated long before Cam. “Can I… is there somewhere I could keep these notes?”

Cam smiles and pats him on the shoulder. “I already sent for them to be printed out and sent to your room. Should be there tonight.”

He should have known, with Cam’s way of expressing that he cares and worries, that he didn’t even have to ask. Aiden smiles up at him and forgets for a minute just how much he misses his father.

.

He nearly walks into the room before he notices Shane and Dustin are doing their whisper-talking which means they’re discussing something serious. Sometimes it’s about a student who’s nearly failing, so Aiden tucks himself into the corner to listen.

“Are we just, like, raising him at this point?” Dustin is asking. “Not that I’m complaining, I love the little guy, but it’s been a few years, and no relatives have shown up…”

“Well, we can’t turn him out onto the streets,” Shane points out. “And we’re not raising him. We’re only, like, ten years older than him. We’re like his cool older cousins that took him in.”

“Whatever, man,” says Dustin with a laugh. “But won’t he want to go back to Summer Cove eventually? Remember there was that whole thing with the ninja stee—” 

Aiden peeks around the corner. Shane has a hand up to stop Dustin from speaking and is looking directly at him.

“You have something to contribute to the conversation, Aiden?” he asks in his stern teacher voice, but there’s a hint of a smile beneath it, so Aiden knows he’s not really in trouble.

“Well…” Aiden hesitates as he steps out of the shadows. “I did wanna go back to Summer Cove. But I understand… if you can’t take me. I can go by myself.”

“What do you wanna do there?” Dustin asks, coming over to loop an arm around his shoulders.

“I have to hide the ninja steel,” says Aiden. “And… I wanna see home. Maybe… maybe Brody’s come back.”

Shane and Dustin trade looks, and then Shane nods. “All right, how about next weekend?”

“Really?” Aiden lights up. He knows the Ninja Storm rangers rarely deny him a chance to connect with his past, but Summer Cove is a good distance from Blue Bay Harbor, and he knows they also worry about how safe it is, since it had been attacked by the monsters that took his brother just a few years ago.

He worries, too. But he figures as long as he has Shane and Dustin and the others there, he’ll be okay.

.

Brody isn’t there, so after he hides the ninja steel away in the trophy room, Aiden goes back out to his old house and sits in the fields they had once trained in, underneath a tree that he had carved up with their names. It still reads: AIDEN. BRODY. The letters are faded, but the sun brings them out, light against the brown of the trunk.

“Hey, Brody,” he says quietly, looking up at the sky as if his brother might hear him out there somewhere. “Sorry I can’t be at home when you come back. I’m okay, though. Better than okay.”

He glances across the field to where Shane, Dustin, and Tori are standing, lingering at the edge of the house, not wanting to disturb him and talking in hushed voices. He always knows when they’re talking about him, but he usually finds he doesn’t mind.

“I live at the Wind Ninja Academy now. I go by another name out there, just in case… well, if you ever come back, you might find me as Levi Weston.” Aiden laughs a little and plucks a stalk of the tall green grass out with his fingers. “Just to keep my identity safe, y’know. We don’t know who might be out there looking for the ninja steel.”

He pauses, thinking of his fellow students, the friends he’s tentatively made even though they only know him as Levi and not as Aiden. It’s hard to think of himself as Levi, but he’s getting better at it, slowly.

“I kept it safe, and I know you’ll be able to find it when you come back.” Aiden stops, lips twisting, somberness settling down upon him. “And you will come back. Mom said you would, and she wouldn’t lie… she wouldn’t lie.”

His little brother’s face swims in his mind, bright-eyed and always ready to go on adventure. He hopes Brody is doing okay out there, wherever he is, if he’s managed to escape the monsters or not.

“She wouldn’t lie,” he repeats, more firmly. “And she said she loved us and she said… when you get back, I’ll take you to her. And when you get back, we’ll find Dad, too. No matter where he’s trapped. I’m okay, but I miss you… I miss all of you.”

He thinks about his mother, dead before he could really remember her, and his father, gone in the ultimate sacrifice for his sons and for the world, and his brother, stolen away by the monsters that haunt his dreams.

Aiden blinks away the tears and looks back over at Shane and Dustin and Tori. The three of them make a stark contrast to the brown wood of his house and the pale sky beyond them, all their figures tall and silhouetted in the sun. Shane in red and Dustin in yellow and Tori in blue.

He wonders if he’ll ever be a power ranger the way that they are. Fearless and brave and so willing to save the world. The way his father had been, when he’d morphed into a power ranger that day. He wonders if Brody will be, too.

“I think…” Aiden glances down at the grass, at his hands around it. “I think the Prism chose us for a reason. I know we’ll see each other again. Be careful out there, Brody.”

It’s a large, scary world, but as Aiden gets up to walk back over to Shane and Dustin and Tori, it feels a little less scary when he’s standing there with them.